What Will Happen to Chelsea Manning?

UPDATE: President Barack Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, which is now set to expire on May 17. The decision wasn’t a total surprise, as a White House spokesman had contrasted Manning’s situation with Edward Snowden, noting that Manning already has gone through the U.S. legal system and acknowledged her crimes. In all, Obama granted commutation of sentence to 209 individuals and pardons to 64 individuals.

President Barack Obama has less than a week left to make at least some small amends for his administration’s war on government whistleblowers. And right now, across the broad spectrum of social media, members of the public and the media are specifically requesting that Chelsea Manning be granted presidential clemency. This renewed attention — which sprang from Twitter in the form of various hashtags including #FreeChelseaNow and #HugsFor Chelsea, as well as via myriad op-eds penned by the likes of Colonel Morris D.Davis, journalist and lawyer Glenn Greenwald, and Chelsea Manning herself — all has to do with the fact that Obama’s tenure in office will come to a close in three days — possibly taking it with the former Army intelligence analyst’s chances of freedom if he doesn’t act now. Manning was arrested in 2010 for leaking U.S. diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks. Two years later, she plead guilty to 10 of the 22 charges against her, some of which included violations of Articles 92 and 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and of the Espionage Act. On Aug. 21, 2013, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison — the longest sentence ever imposed for disclosing government secrets.

At the time, Chelsea was known as Bradley Manning. On August 22, 2013 — the day after her sentencing — Manning’s then-attorney David Coombs issued a press release announcing that his client identifies as female, and asked that she be referred to by her new name of Chelsea and with feminine pronouns. Now at stake is the very real possibility that Manning may not be able to live as “the person she was born to be” — a turn of phrase she herself emphasized in a Nov. 18, 2016 public plea to President Barack Obama.

I reached out to Manning’s ACLU attorney, Chase Strangio, for his thoughts on what Manning’s life might be like should President Obama leave the former U.S. intelligence analyst’s fate to the whims of a Trump administration.

“She has already been through long periods of solitary confinement, been denied medically necessary care prescribed by her military doctors, and attempted suicide twice in the past six months,” Strangio told me. “Her access to treatment may be further jeopardized by the incoming administration and I fear for her well-being should any federal policies on access to health care for transgender people be revoked or changed.”

Strangio has good cause to be concerned. Though Manning was granted gender confirmation surgery in September 2016 as part of the U.S. military’s broader policy change that allows transgender servicemembers to serve openly and to receive coverage of their medical care, these protocols could potentially soon be overturned under President Donald Trump. In October, the president-elect vowed to review the military’s new policy on transgender service-members, calling it “a dangerous act of political correctness.” Furthermore, the man Trump nominated to be his national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, alluded to the policy during his speech at the Republican National Convention last July, suggesting that it was “distracting the troops from their mission.”

“It would be a devastating blow to her if nothing happens at this point and she is left looking again at decades in prison —under possibly worse conditions.”

And, as Strangio mentioned, Manning has previously made two suicide attempts. After she first tried to end her life last July, the military responded by bringing additional charges against her for “resisting the force cell move team,” even though, as Strangio has claimed on numerous occasions to the media since, she was unconscious at the time. An Army board then decided to throw her into solitary confinement for her suicide attempt before she was able to appeal those charges — a response Strangio considered “demoralizing” and told the AP as much. He added that solitary confinement was an “assault on her health and humanity.” Indeed, once isolated Manning attempted suicide a second time. (I reached out to The United States Disciplinary Barracks for comment but the facility did not respond.)

There has been a slight glimmer of hope for Manning in recent weeks. On Jan. 11, NBC News reported that she is indeed on President Obama’s “short list” for sentence commutation after a petition with more than 100,000 signatures met the threshold for a White House response within 60 days. The American Civil Liberties Union and gay-rights groups have likewise been lobbying for a reprieve, citing Manning’s need for better medical care for gender dysphoria, a condition that includes severe distress or anxiety for some transgender individuals. While news of the “short list” elicited some excitement and hope from both the public and the media, the president has yet to officially make that a reality.

Now, as Strangio tells it, “Chelsea is taking everything in stride, but of course is nervous and it is impossible for her not to feel hopeful hearing the recent reports from the White House and DOJ officials. It would be a devastating blow to her if nothing happens at this point and she is left looking again at decades in prison — under possibly worse conditions.”

Several others have taken up Manning’s cause in the meantime, including whistleblower and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who agreed to be extradited from Ecuador to the United States to face possible espionage charges if POTUS pardons Manning.


Former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden, too, has reached out to Obama’s administration on Manning’s behalf. Snowden, who has been in Russia since 2013, when he leaked classified information from the NSA revealing illegal U.S. mass surveillance, called on POTUS to grant Chelsea Manning clemency — even over himself. The particulars of Snowden’s case, however, are quite notably different than those of Manning’s. For one, Snowden is not in prison; two, his identity as a human being is not at immediate risk.


As was the case with the petition prompting the White House’s response, anyone interested in voicing their concerns about Manning’s fate can make a difference. To offer your help, call 202-353-1555 (DOJ comment line) and follow this simple script:

“Hi, I’m [NAME] from [STATE] and I’d like Chelsea Manning’s sentence to be commuted to time served.”

bustle photo.PNG

Image: Wikicommons/Abby Higgs


What Weekly Magazine -

photo by philippe leroyer

1.) Ada is beautiful from any angle. The proof is in her OkCupid photos. My favorite: an aerial-view headshot, half of her face is obstructed by the edge of the photograph. A soft gaze. Smooth features. Her lips are pressed together. Is she being coy? Expressing apathy? Her eyes say, “Keep guessing.” There’s another photograph I like: Ada is sitting, leaning forward, laughing. Her long, dark hair is in a bun. Her lips shine, freshly-glossed. Her teeth are straight. I imagine she’s giggling at a joke I’ve just made. The one about the primary difference between blondes and airplanes. You know, not everybody’s been on an airplane.

2.) She’s picky. After having thoroughly read through her OkCupid profile, my first message to Ada is this: You’re a librarian and a burlesque dancer? How are you single? She doesn’t respond. Internally, I defend her silence: Well, that was a stupid question. So I follow my inquiry up with an observation. I write: Well, that was a stupid question. Sorry. She writes back: I’m picky. At the end of her two-word response, a little winking emoticon.

3.) Ada and I are messaging each other every day. Multiple times a day. We ask each other questions: What are you reading? What’s your favorite font? What do you miss most about your hometown? It’s interrogative momentum. Ada misses watching thunderstorms rise over Lake Michigan. Remember her answers, I think. It’s important that you listen and remember this time.

4.) I send Ada a message: I should be honest and tell you I’m in early sobriety. She is neither alarmed nor is she perturbed. In fact, she congratulates me on being clean and sober. Then she informs me that she’s never touched drugs or alcohol; that several members of her family are addicts who, growing up, subjected her to frightening, inebriated debacles. I write back: You’re kidding. You’ve seriously never tried drugs or alcohol? She responds with an exclamatory one-word reply: No! A few moments pass. I’m sure I’ve offended her with my disbelief. I’m about to write her again to see if she’s mad when, suddenly, a new message: What’s your opinion of the Oxford Comma? At the end of her question, a little winking emoticon.

5.) We finally meet up. The first thing I notice: her lips. They’re pressed together in a smile. Her eyes say, “Hello.”

6.) Ada considers a lot of things in her life to be “brilliant”: I’m working on a new dance number and it’s going to be brilliant and I put together this great costume and it’s going to look brilliant. She also likes to brag about the various things at which she excels: vegan cooking, playing computer games, and organizing friends’ homes, to name a few. I message her: Well, I used to be good at taking pills and drinking a lot. She doesn’t respond. So I write again: And I’m learning to cook. Sort of. I’m learning to have an interest in cooking, at least. Maybe I’ll make you vegan cupcakes. She writes back to tell me that vegan cooking is not hard; it’s best to start with the simple dishes first.

7.) Ada is bragging to me about how fast she can read. I write back: Well, I make decent quesadillas. She tells me she cooked several dishes for a potluck earlier and everyone loved her food; in fact, they couldn’t get enough of it. I congratulate her and type: I have a completely flawless driving record. Every time Ada boasts, I respond by pointing out something exceptional about myself. This is not typical of me.

8.) Ada scrunches up her nose to keep her glasses from sliding down. We’re on our second “date.” She’s taken a train up to see me and another friend of hers here in town. All week, I’ve been reintroducing myself to manners: opening doors for people, smiling, giving up my seat for little old ladies on the bus. I even went on a “practice date” with a friend who, once the bill arrived, reminded me to say, “Please, please, let me get this.” I‘m taking Ada to a restaurant known for its brilliant vegan food. I open the front door for her and, as she walks through, she scrunches up her nose. Then we sit down. She looks over a menu and scrunches up her nose. I can hardly stand it. This makes me want to kiss her. Right when her lips get pouty and twisted. But I don’t do it. Not at the restaurant, I think. Wait until later. At the train station. Right now, make sure she orders first.

9.) At the train station, Ada hugs me goodbye. She scrunches up her nose. I want to kiss her. Right when her lips get pouty and twisted. But I don’t.

10.) Ada walks off into the train station. I screech out of the parking lot, hoping she doesn’t hear my dramatic departure. I’m so mad at myself. This is typical of me. When I get home, I run upstairs, flip open my laptop, and type: I wanted to kiss you tonight but I didn’t. This all so new to me, now that I’m sober. I hope this doesn’t make you uncomfortable.

11.) Ada isn’t sure how she feels about my forfeited kissing endeavor. That’s what she says, at least. But she adds that her reaction to a kiss from me would probably not have been a negative one. Then: winking emoticon.

12.) Now, Ada is my muse.

13.) Ada is going to be busy at work. She’s just giving me a heads up in case I don’t hear from her for a while. Her hectic schedule hasn’t interfered with our correspondences before, so, in all likelihood, it won’t now. I send her a message: What have you got to brag about today? I add a winking emoticon. She doesn’t respond. An hour later, I write: Are you there? Hello? Another winking emoticon. Three hours later: Hey, did I upset you? Have I done something wrong? Nothing. Five hours. Where are you? I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings somehow. Seven hours. I wish you would tell me what I’ve done wrong. Nine hours. Ada finally writes back: I told you I’m busy at work. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but I typically don’t respond well to non-stop, badgering emails like this.

I am standing outside of the rehab facility I visit once a week. I look around, panicked. Is this what I’m really like?

14.) Ada and I make plans to see a movie but, because I’m so humiliated by the badgering email debacle, I back out a few days beforehand. I tell her I shouldn’t be spending money on the train ride. I tell her I’m still too early in sobriety to be dating. All of this is true, but I’m also afraid to be near her. What if she scrunches up her nose and it makes me want to kiss her and, when I try, she says no? And what if I can’t stop myself from trying to kiss her until she gets angry and shouts, “By the way, I don’t respond well to sexual harassment!”

15.) I deactivate my OkCupid profile. I want to message Ada: You see, I’m brilliant at pretending I don’t care. I even get involved with someone else. Every once in a while, Ada and I message each other: How’s your day? What’s new? Interrogative courtesy.

16.) I miss Ada. I should tell her that, I think. But I don’t.

17.) It’s like I am on one shore of a lake, Ada is on the other. When I finally decide I really want to paddle across this time, it’s too late. She messages to tell me she’s met someone; it’s very serious. I am standing outside of rehab again. I’m panicked. I cry a little and start calling my friends, telling them I need their help. I’m in pain, I say. I’m being imperative. This is not typical of me. My sponsor says that it’s progress.

18.) I know that Ada misses watching thunderstorms rise over Lake Michigan.

I Know This Song

It’s hard to conjure Indiana sensations in a Baltimore row house surrounded by seagulls. But that’s exactly what I’m trying to do right now. I’m struggling to muster up the feeling of morning at my parents’ house, sneaking outside for a cigarette to the sparrows singing in disgust—“No smoking, no smoking!”—before climbing on my bike, taking off for downtown.

Most mornings in my hometown of Richmond, Indiana, the air reeked of wet pet chow from the Purina plant in town. But on some mornings, the Richmond Baking Company would beat Purina in a grand olfactory showdown, winning back the hearts of citizens citywide with whiffs of fresh cookies, if only for a few hours.

I’m thinking about Richmond this morning because I miss it—the creaky boards of my parents’ front porch, the hills around their house—brown in fall, green in spring; hills that kill and thrill crazy kids in their crap cars year-round. Most people don’t imagine Indiana as land laden with slopes and knolls. But Richmond’s niche, midway between Kentucky and Michigan, edging up to Ohio, is where the smooth scape stops and hill country begins.

I’ve had a few friends here “on the East Coast”—who were born and raised here “on the East Coast”—proffer up comical, inaccurate impressions of what Indiana folk must be like—we have gravel-mouth drawls, own dirt-stained work bibs, have a penchant for constant corn. True, Indiana is corn country; between every tiny town sits a metropolis of cornstalks. But for many Indiana folks, corn is just as much for trade as it is for taste.

I’m missing Richmond and I’m not sure why. I don’t want to be there this instant. I want to be there twenty years ago. That’s what I keep thinking about—Richmond twenty years ago. When the tiny town with its hills and its creaky porches and its pet chow plant was all I knew.

I was fourteen then. The age of abhorrence. My hormonal disdain knew no bounds—teachers could fuck off, parents could fuck off, homework could fuck off; German class and biology class and pre-SAT prep classes—they could all fuck off too. School was for kids who gave fucks and, well, I didn’t much.

One thing I especially despised at that age was the unoriginality of my hometown’s name. Seems like a strange and particular thing to hate, but it was something over which I obsessed and made note of often. Mid-argument, no matter the real issue at hand, I’d throw in an attack on my hometown’s moniker: “Everything sucks here because we’re in a Richmond. There’s a Richmond in every state. All the teenagers in every Richmond probably hate the dumbass town they live in because it’s a Richmond. Essentially, Richmond, Indiana is like John Doe, Indiana. And guess what? John Doe is fuckin’ boring.”


It was a twisted, immature logic, especially when I tried to use it to explain away the bad grades on my report card. It’s not my fault, it’s this town’s name’s fault—was not much of an argument. I see that now, but back then it made perfect sense to me. For all I cared, Richmond, Indiana could take its commonplace name and fuck off.

You may be wondering why I’m missing Richmond right now, given that I apparently hated it so much. And you may be particularly curious as to why I’m longing for a time in my life during which I hated (the name of) my hometown the most.

I think this longing is more for a sense of resourcefulness I once had than it is, say, arbitrary or simply age-related. I miss how inventive I was twenty years ago in Richmond Fuckin’ Indiana—when I was fourteen, bored, really into discovering good music, and, as of yet, not completely suicidal. Because if you wanted exposure to good music in Richmond—not just for the benefit of listening, but also for the benefit of knowing—then you had to be creative to get it. Even back then I understood the difference between someone saying “I know this song” and someone else saying “I know this song” and that the difference was most discernible in the focus of that person’s eyes. I really wanted the glazed glance of the person who knew her music. Sure, there was MTV, but even back then it was changing its direction. And the music wasn’t necessarily that great anyway. Just the same videos on repeat: Soundgarden’s ‘Black Hole Sun’ video with melting doll faces; Lisa Loeb in her cat-eye glasses looking like how some of my friends do now, beg-singing for someone to stay; and Ace of Base’s horrible synth-pop song ‘All That She Wants’—a tune that got stuck so easily in your that all that you wanted was another handgun.

No, if you were a fourteen-year-old in Richmond, Indiana and you wanted exposure to decent music, then you probably rode your bike to one of two places: Side 1 Music or Earlham College. The former was a record store; the latter a safe haven for many local teens, because smack-dab in the middle of their otherwise nondescript John-Doe-ish Midwestern town was a liberal arts college of national repute. Ani Difranco played there in the early nineties, as did Phish and Dar Williams. Sure, these names might provoke scoffs or shrugs or laughter now, but they didn’t so much back then. There were a host of other little-to-lesser known bands—bands that would later make it big—that played in rinky-dink Richmond, Indiana in their early days. And for this the local teens were actually quite lucky and grateful.


But let me stop right here. Really, I’m not being fair to Richmond. Though it wasn’t much of a big deal at the end of the twentieth century, the small city had, at one point in the twenties, been home to Gennett Records, a company that not only recorded the likes of Hoagy Carmichael, Louis Armstraong, and Gene Autry, it actually pressed their records too. So there was musicality—original musicality and musical history—in Richmond at one point. And there were residual fans of that golden era, my grandmother being one, who kept its memory alive. But I didn’t appreciate all this at fourteen. In fact, I fear that, had someone told me all this about Gennett Records at the time, I might’ve said Gennett Records could fuck off.

But back to the Indiana sensations of which I’ve been trying to conjure up. I actually miss the smell of pet chow in the morning. It seemed at its strongest during summer months. And I long for how it felt to get up on those stinky summer mornings, knowing I was going to devote my entire day to either attaining a particular album or hanging out at Earlham College, where there was food, an endlessly-abandoned indoor pool hall, and the audiocassettes of college kids blasting bands like Sebadoh or Skankin’ Pickle or Sonic Youth. This morning-time anticipation invoked strange, almost synesthetic associations. In order to ride my bike anywhere, the weather had to be nice, so the smell of pet chow or the occasional fresh-from-the-oven sugar cookie made my calf muscles ache. I’d listen to a tape from Side 1 music—Frente or Mazzy Star or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, something I’d purchased by way of a three-hour bike journey—and the music would make me think of the color gray. Because that’s all I’d seen for miles and miles en route to retrieve said tape, uphill and downhill toward the record store—gray pavement, gray gravel, sometimes a gray overcast sky.

And corn. Lots of music made me think of corn.

I didn’t have a job at fourteen; therefore I didn’t have much money. Sometimes being resourceful meant having to “borrow forever.” I couldn’t borrow from Side 1 Music, but I could from the Earlham College radio studio, which was located in the same building as the abandoned pool hall. Like the abandoned pool hall, the studio seemed perpetually unmonitored, perhaps because the music selection there consisted of albums most teenagers wouldn’t consider worth stealing—Leonard Bernstein’s Mozart or Debussy’s Claire de Lune or Walter Ostanek’s Grammy-award-winning polka compilation “Accordioningly Yours.” Still, there were several albums in one corner of the room that were stacked in conspicuous disarray. I could see right through the ol’ carefully-disheveled-Jenga-tower-of-CDs trick; such staged carelessness didn’t fool me. These were the albums played by students late at night, the albums I needed to know. Though I managed to transport all of two CDs from this stack—each during a separate trip to Earlham—all the way back to my bedroom, I cherished these albums even more for their embezzled classification in my growing library; they were Magnapop’s ‘Hot Boxing’ and The Lemonheads’ ‘It’s a Shame About Ray.’


My visits to Side 1 Music were made with more focus; I’d go with enough stashed or filched cash to actually buy something. I also went to ogle the musicians who worked there, one of whom—Norm Kirby—was lead singer in the band Kites Above Mercury. He was a few years older than I, which meant approaching him was something I did sparingly, out of fear of saying something dumb.

Norm had the quintessential rockstar’s mouth, comparable to Steven Tyler’s and Mick Jagger’s. It was safe to say, in the most unironic way possible, that his mouth was indeed purdy. He also had the quintessential rock star physique, comparable to Iggy Pop’s or Perry Farrell’s. The words “pretty” or “purdy” didn’t apply to him here. In fact, when I’d go see Kites perform, the first word that came to mind the moment Norm removed his shirt was “irritable.” Norm looked irritable on stage, which, I suppose, was his intent. He agitated the crowd; looked like he wanted to struggle right out of his skin and couldn’t. And since we couldn’t struggle out of our skins any better, we stared and screamed and wriggled around on Norm’s behalf. Sometimes Kites Above Mercury shows felt transcendental like that. We were all devoted to helping irritable Norm out of his small-town Richmond skin, to following his mighty lips to stardom.

If it is indeed a lost sense of resourcefulness I’m missing this morning, one that I associate with my younger days in Indiana, then there must be a reason for it. I suppose it may have to do with the twenty years that followed, most of which were spent battling addiction. I only emerged from that haze two years ago, without one single attachment to place or sound. I discovered new music. Then I forgot it. I moved around, smoking a hundred cigarettes on a few dozen different porches. Not once did I wake up and want to make a special journey to procure new music. I stopped stealing CDs and started stealing money. Then I started selling CDs.

But it’s possible to regain sensations, or so I’ve been told. And I think this is true. Because when I listen to music—Frente or Sonic Youth or Sebadoh, whatever from twenty years ago—I feel those old leg cramps flarin’ up again, just a little, like phantom cramps. And no matter where I go, I know the fuckin’ pavement is gray.


“I Know This Song” first appeared on Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

Six Hours and a CAT Scan


I used to be more athletic. A lot more athletic. But I spent a few years treating my body in a fashion similar to curing an octopus — bashing it against a wall. Strange to call such an act of brutality “curing.” In fact, at the age of 21, during a particularly rough indoor coed soccer match, I was bashed against a wall. Head first. My skin split open just below the hairline, exposing my skull, which turned out not be white, but more the color of a pink seashell or old porcelain. Everyone crowded over me as I lay there looking up, blinking, their voices like passing cars in a tunnel, their mouths twisted or completely covered by a cupped hand. Six hours, one CAT scan and nine stitches later, I was released from Ball Memorial Hospital with nary a pamphlet on how to care for a traumatic head wound. That night, I went straight to bed, falling into a deep, dreamless sleep. The next morning, I hopped on my bicycle and rode to geology lab, the layers of gauze conveniently keeping the hair out of my eyes as I pedaled along.

Obviously, I was never a “star athlete.” But I was certainly a memorable one. The first varsity soccer game of my senior year, I started as left flank against Fort Wayne-Snyder. Twelve minutes into the match, I collided with a girl of beastly proportions. She was not fat, but made of solid muscle and probably granite. I lost consciousness, woke up a minute or so later from the shortest dream I’ve ever had in my life: a watermelon, a close-up of an ant, closer, closer until all sixty-nine of his eyeballs blinked and blinked and blinked and then — “Oy!” —  the face of Graham, my British soccer coach, above me, his unshaven round chin wagging. “Oy!” he shouted again, “Wake up, Abs! You’ve had the consensus knocked out of ya’!”

My first conscious thought was, That’s not the right word, Graham. That doesn’t make sense. 

Six hours, a CAT scan, and two — ok, maybe three, Loritabs later — I was home, settling into bed.

So, I’ve never been much of an athlete. I didn’t win medals or ribbons; I got “participation certificates.” While this bothered me as a young child, surrounded by so many friends with athletic abilities far more impressive than my own, I don’t harbor any self-hatred for each softball I let fly past me in the strike zone, each faulty chip-kick that landed the soccer ball in the bleachers or in the back of someone’s truck; I don’t keep a running mental tally of each and every one of my athletic failures or mishaps.

This is mostly because, for some reason, I honestly don’t remember them.

player of the year







The Red Pudding

Red and pink pudding strewn across the asphalt on what is now a Jackson Pollack-ified Baltimore street. It is night time and the rat skitters past an orange alley cat snapping peevishly at its own haunch. A train lays on its horn a half-mile away, thirty yards away, a few feet away, close enough now to hear the clacking of its gears over and over and over again: Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore. The tranquil rat turns away from the train to run down the edge of an alley. He is the terrorizing athlete of the night; his resting heart rate is incredulous — 300 beats per minute, faster than the sound his tiny gnarled talons make on asphalt. He is a shadow sprinter, clambering away. The train is still with us, clacking. Now, the rat’s long gone, his talons clicking. I’m on the stoop outside my house, cracking my knuckles, deliberating with myself: Is that pudding? Or are those the remains of a squashed rat? Does red pudding exist? Pink pudding? Surely, rats aren’t pure liquid inside. That must be pudding. Or abstract street art. 


(Illustration by Brett Affrunti)

An Expanding List of Observations I Make in my Waking Life

1.)    Lately, bus rides feel eerily similar to the short, drifty trips I make each night between waking life and sleep. The lighting is the same flashy colors – the burnt-red-blood-purple of the back of my eyelids pierced, occasionally, by sun slants and shifting shapes. At a stop sign, a man outside the window is a man then a dog then a shadow.

2.)    I’m improving my meditation practices, sure; five quiet minutes at the end of my waking day feels less like the life span of an elephant than it used to. Still, I find myself stuck between a strained, feigned holistic lifestyle, attempting to appeal to true practitioners of such mindful ways, and an urge to throw my shoes out the window.

3.)    Some days, I can drift down the aisle of a crowded bus unnoticed; I can throw my shoes out the window without blame. I am invisible.

4.)    Thích Nhất Hạnh said, “If you love someone, the greatest gift you can give them is your presence.”

5.)    This makes being invisible no good.





(One of my personal favorites)



by Wislawa Szymborska, Recipient of The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1996

I prefer movies.
I prefer cats.
I prefer the oaks along the Warta.
I prefer Dickens to Dostoyevsky.
I prefer myself liking people
to myself loving mankind.
I prefer keeping a needle and thread on hand, just in case.
I prefer the color green.
I prefer not to maintain
that reason is to blame for everything.
I prefer exceptions.
I prefer to leave early.
I prefer talking to doctors about something else.
I prefer the old fine-lined illustrations.
I prefer the absurdity of writing poems
to the absurdity of not writing poems.
I prefer, where love’s concerned, nonspecific anniversaries
that can be celebrated every day.
I prefer moralists
who promise me nothing.
I prefer cunning kindness to the over-trustful kind.
I prefer the earth in civvies.
I prefer conquered to conquering countries.
I prefer having some reservations.
I prefer the hell of chaos to the hell of order.
I prefer Grimms’ fairy tales to the newspapers’ front pages.
I prefer leaves without flowers to flowers without leaves.
I prefer dogs with uncropped tails.
I prefer light eyes, since mine are dark.
I prefer desk drawers.
I prefer many things that I haven’t mentioned here
to many things I’ve also left unsaid.
I prefer zeroes on the loose
to those lined up behind a cipher.
I prefer the time of insects to the time of stars.
I prefer to knock on wood.
I prefer not to ask how much longer and when.
I prefer keeping in mind even the possibility
that existence has its own reason for being.

Steak, Peas, Potatoes, Ritalin

From Urbanite Baltimore’s 2009 “Emerging Writers” issue:


                  Brandi shoved herself through the rip tide of students in the corridor, extending a jazz hand toward me. I glanced away, pretending not to notice her sprawled fingers in my face. “Oh my God,” she said as she squeezed her large frame between me and a trophy case, “I just got my algebra test back from Mr. S. He’s so copious.

I didn’t know what “copious” meant so I shrugged, yanked on a strand of hair.

“What’s wrong, Abby? Didn’t you take your medicine today?” Brandi bowed to meet my hair-curtained eyes. Her breath reeked of Doritos. Her teeth were orange. She was a foul cheese-breathing dragon.

“It’s not even lunch time,” I replied, “but judging from the smell of your breath, I’m guessing you couldn’t wait to eat.”

The aftertaste of old watermelon gum lingered in my mouth. Brandi’s face two inches away made me nauseous. I gagged. The flat flavor of long-chewed gum and the Doritos smell was a gross concoction; it reminded me of the disgusting way my dad mixed potatoes with peas and gravy and steak onto one forkload. I couldn’t fathom that some people considered mixing food scrumptious. You’d never catch me forking a wad of gum and a Dorito chip into my watering mouth, “ooh”ing and “aah”ing at the flavor, exalting on behalf of my delighted taste buds.

I pleaded for her to back up.

Brandi ignored me and waved sheets of stapled paper in my face. “Can you believe I got a C minus on the algebra test?” Her jazz hands were in full effect. She was preaching to the ceiling tiles. “And, unlike you, I don’t even take medicine to concentrate!”

A few students turned around and giggled. I could’ve sworn one girl pointed in the general direction of my brain. I growled.

“I did worse,” I said, “because I hate math, Brandi. Medication has nothing to do with it.” I toyed with the padlock that hung heavily from my belt loop. I thought it looked cool — like I not only owned my locker, I wore my locker. A foot away, inside my locker, were papers chest-high with red Ds and D minuses scrawled urgently upon them. I hadn’t flunked anything yet. And I didn’t care if my fellow students rummaged through my accessible locker because the bad grades were all they’d find. And gum wrappers.

“It does matter, Abby. Math is one of your learning disabilities.”

Brandi knew this because we went to the same psychiatrist. Apparently, we had appointments back to back. More than twice I’d seen her waddling up Dr. Darr’s porch, talking to herself, rehearsing some soliloquy I imagined to be about algebra and potato chips as I hightailed my way to my mom’s car. One afternoon, she followed me into a bathroom at school. She asked why I was seeing Dr. Darr. Over my streaming urine, I’d shouted, “Because I have Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder!” After exiting the bathroom stall, I asked her why she went to see Dr. Darr, thinking that, maybe, we were having a “moment”, a nice girl-to-girl chat about psychiatry. At the sink, she leaned over my shoulder, caught my frightened gaze in the mirror and whispered, “Why, that’s none of your business, Abby.”

Brandi and I didn’t get along, but we loved to disagree. For example, in English class I’d raise my hand to answer a question, saying something like: “Well, I think so-and-so should have done blah blah blah,” and, suddenly inspired, Brandi’s big ol’ jazz hand would shoot into the air like a missile, ready to fire off zinging retorts. She’d say, “Well, I think, so-and-so couldn’t have done blah blah blah.” Then we’d level glares, acknowledging the battle between us. What Brandi found particularly threatening about me, I don’t know. But I figured Brandi said tomato and I said to-mah-to. Brandi probably forked her tomatoes with steak and potatoes and Doritos.

In the corridor, I looked Brandi up and down. Her hands were sprawled at her hips; her big brown eyes bounced beneath her thick glasses. When she rummaged in her backpack for a candy bar, I felt sorry for her. But only for a moment.

“Brandi,” I said, calmly. “Please shut up about my medication.”

Before she could snap back at me, I jumped into the tidal wave of students, the din of slamming lockers, and, flicking my bangs back, I walked off.

Brandi’s fascination with my learning disabilities and my A.D.H.D. wasn’t an uncommon experience for me. Sunny Hill Middle School was an “academy” for the “gifted and talented”. I figured I met a quota. One mentally challenged student per thirty geniuses. It made perfect sense. And most of the students knew about my A.D.H.D. because word spread fast. After I’d told Brandi, the other students knew within a week. In order to be recognized as an actual school, Sunny Hill had to enroll a certain amount of students. There were about sixty of us in all. I was in the seventh grade. That meant there were, I think, about four or five other mentally challenged kids. Or three. Or nine.

My brother, Zach, was admitted to Sunny Hill before me. He was a year younger and had a knack for mechanical things, science and math. I’d attended the sixth grade in a public middle school where I stole Jolly Ranchers from a nearby gas station and called my English teacher, Mr. Woo, a bitch. My parents wanted me to get into Sunny Hill. At first, I was gung-ho for it. The idea of being in a school for gifted and talented kids appealed to me. I knew some of the other students; one was even my best friend, Meredith. So I sat down one night and, in six hours, made my entire application portfolio. It worked. I was admitted. But, once there, I felt awkward and frequently embarrassed. Everybody was so smart. One student traveled to Europe to play the violin with a touring orchestra. Another student, in the seventh grade, attended a high school geometry class each day. Meredith, whom I’d known since the age of five, surprised me the most. I knew she was super smart, but I’d never seen her in action. At Sunny Hill, she was the brainiest of all. She excelled in everything. She excelled in excelling.

Of course, I’d gotten another D minus on the algebra test. But I wasn’t about to reveal that to Brandi. She’d love the news too much. I took my marked-up exam from my back pocket and shoved it in my locker.

Algebra class was the worst for me because we were encouraged to learn at our own pace. I usually sat under my desk with earphones on, staring blankly at a textbook, sometimes scribbling down nonsensical symbols that eventually turned into little anarchy and peace signs. Mr. S. wasn’t keen on my seating preference but, hey, we were a bunch of quirky gifted kids. Why not? I day dreamed about throwing my calculator through a window and shouting, “Down with the regime!”

Math is what started all the trouble in the first place. I knew something strange was happening to me when I was younger, say, eight or nine, and the multiplication, the division, the page-long equations about trains and their destinations at so many miles an hour started to confuse me. I would concentrate on verbs. If a train departed at fifty miles an hour from Tucson and another train took off at thirty-six miles an hour from a station in Long Island, where will they meet? I would think funny thoughts like departed means starting slow and eventually working up to a steady pace. Taking off means putting your lead foot on the acceleration pedal making like a jet to wherever it is you’re headed. The verbs and the numbers together confused me. I would think funny thoughts like fifty miles minus thirty-six miles at nine o’clock equals a Boeing Jet defecting a train’s slow departure due to the conductor’s pestering athlete’s foot. Math never made any sense to me. And when I started to learn algebra, mixing math with English, the variables x and y not spelling a damned thing, made my least favorite subject unbearable. The only word I knew with x and y in it was “exactly”. Math didn’t mix with English just like potatoes didn’t mix with gravy and peas and steak onto one fork, or tomatoes and Doritos whenever Brandi was involved, because it was disgusting. Insane.

Dr. Darr had persistently reminded me having A.D.H.D. was nothing to be ashamed or frightened of. She told me to think of having the disorder like riding a bike downhill at a high speed with broken brakes. I thought Dr. Darr was nuts because that’s something to be frightened of. She had presented this example to my mother as well. My mom had jotted the words on a little notepad: attention, deficit, bike, hill, brakes, broken. Sometimes, just to be funny, I ran through the kitchen on an invisible bike screaming, “My brakes are busted, Mom!”

Brandi was always there when I took Ritalin at school. I never found out why – perhaps she was taking psychotropics or prescribed weight-loss pills – but when I was summoned into the nurse’s office before lunch, there she sat, her wide eyes fixating on me, following my every movement as I gently sat the little round tablet on my tongue, took a hearty drink of lukewarm water, gulped emphatically, crushed the Dixie cup and sent it flying in a practiced arc toward the trash can.

It never failed, Brandi would smile when I turned to her afterward, smacking my lips in satiation: “Aaah.”

I was supposed to take Ritalin three times a day: before breakfast, before lunch, and before dinner. Sometimes I’d go and spit a half-dissolved tablet in a toilet or into my hand, gagging it out like it was toxic Tylenol. Sometimes I swallowed the tablet. Once I fed a tablet to my dog, Sadie, but nothing cool happened; she didn’t start reciting the periodic table of elements. Only in school, before an audience of Brandi and the nurse, did I regularly take my medication.

I learned how to cope with my thought processes before I’d started taking Ritalin.  I learned that it might take me longer to figure out some formula than it did other students, but I’d get there eventually. Ritalin didn’t quicken my pace, it just made me focus on one distinct aspect of a problem. If a train departed at fifty miles an hour from Tucson and another train took off at thirty-six miles an hour from a station in Long Island, where will they meet? On Ritalin, I’d think Tucson, Long Island. Tucson. Long Island.  Train. Thirty-six miles. Train. Thirty-six miles. Train. Fifty miles. Train. Fifty miles.  Wait, class is over? But I was so close!

Taking Ritalin before dinnertime was the worst. Once the medicine kicked in I couldn’t help but focus on my dad’s eating habits. At dinnertime on Ritalin, it was peas, gravy. Peas. Gravy. Steak. Potatoes. Steak. Potatoes. Dad’s mouth open wide. Dad chewing, his squirrel cheeks bloated with peas, gravy, steak, potatoes. Dad swallowing, his Adam’s apple pushing the concoction further down his esophagus. Dad smiling as his fork scraped the plate in search of more peas, more gravy, more steak. Dr. Darr warned my mom that loss of appetite was a common side- effect of Ritalin. So when I didn’t eat much at dinnertime, she didn’t pester me about it. She had no idea it was all my dad’s fault.

I shut my locker and ran outside to my bus. I waved “hi” to the other kids as I walked on. A handful sat doing their homework, their textbooks propped on the back of the seat in front of them. Couples held hands and chatted quietly. I took my usual spot near the back and leaned against the window. A moment later, Brandi sat down next to me. I didn’t look at her. She didn’t look at me. We sat humming to ourselves until the bus revved its engine and took off.


The Curious Case of the Floating Cowboy Hat

“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.” 

-Albert Camus

I know this sensation: a propulsion within my rib cage, impelled by dissentient emotions — mostly anger and joy. The anger brought on by thoughts like gathering bacteria; at first, one solitary thought — “I’m not doing anything worthwhile right now” — made bigger by disparaging conjunctions — “I’m not doing anything worthwhile right now because I’ve nothing to offer to the world by writing or sketching or singing or, for fuck’s sake, talking” — until that one little annoying thought is suddenly an archipelago of sickening notions, a “Choose-Your-Own-Pathetic-Adventure”, if you will: “I’m not doing anything worthwhile right now because [A. I’ve nothing to offer the world by writing or sketching or singing or, for fuck’s sake, talking; or B. Even if I try to do something worthwhile right now, I’ll royally fuck it up.

If you choose A, go to the bathroom and stare at your forlorn face for 6 minutes. If you choose B, continue your hapless, pitiful dwelling.]

But, mind you, this sensation, this propulsion, is also impelled by joy. Joy brought on by small victories — “I paid my cell phone bill on time for the 15th month in a row!”

Or by funny memories, like the following:

When I was four, I was on a children’s television show, “The Uncle Al Show”, that ran on a public network channel in the Indiana/Ohio/Kentucky tri-state area. Little kids would gather around Uncle Al on a set that resembled a barnyard — dangerously precarious cardboard cutouts of cows, pigs, red barns strewn about, a talking puppet rooster, and a child-sized carousel that stood like some misplaced prop for a different TV show. Uncle Al would play his accordion and sing enthusiastic songs to the kids. The day on which my brother and I were set to appear, my mom had dressed me in red overalls, a bright yellow shirt, and an oversized cowboy hat. She’d also lied and told the show’s producers that both my brother and I were celebrating our birthdays — “Yes, both of their birthdays! On the same day! That being today! Imagine that!” — though, judging by our difference in size, we were obviously not twins, and judging by my mom’s hands cupped tight across both of our mouths, we had no say in the matter regardless. This little fib afforded my brother and I the opportunity to ride on that rickety carousel and tell the cameraman how old we were. I was four fingers old. My little brother was somewhere between one and three fingers old; he couldn’t decide. When the show actually aired, I was, for the most part, not visible in the group scenes. I played the part of The Cowboy Hat That Occasionally Floated Across The Bottom of the Screen. At one point, mid-sing-along, Cowboy Hat darts furiously out of sight. This is because I’d noticed my shoe was untied and had decided to run, panicked, to my mother in the studio audience, shouting, “Mom! My shoelace! My shoelace!”

This memory makes me laugh, long enough to wash the dishes or clean my room.

Because I so often divulge these inner-workings of my mind, I fear that members of my vast readership (that was an intentional over-statement) might think me crazy. A nutjob, if you will. And if I sit and agonize over that concern long enough, the propulsion in my ribcage will intensify and — uh oh — I’ll be haunted once again by those damn conjunctions. I’ll go from “I reveal so much that I bet people think I’m absolutely bonkers” to “I reveal so much that I bet people think I’m absolutely bonkers and I’ll never be able to host a decent house party with so many people wary of my weird conduct” to “I reveal so much that I bet people think I’m absolutely bonkers and I’ll never be able to host a decent house party with so many people wary of my weird conduct which means, dammit, I’ll never be able to put my new-ish Crockpot to proper use!”

I know this metaphor very well: I am a duck gliding upon the calm waters of a pond. At least, that’s what you typically see. But by writing all of this, I’m allowing you to see my webbed feet paddling furiously below the water’s surface.

Because I know that sensation too.

uncle al show

An Expanding List of Words I Hesitate to Utter

1.) Miracle. It’s too strong. Too immaculate. Reminiscent of zealous preachers in ivory pulpits, their bald heads shining, sweaty, as they bless the approaching parishioners who saunter through the pews like walking dead. “You are healed, my child! It’s a miracle! You are a miracle of God!”

No, that word doesn’t jive with me. When someone tells me I’m a miracle, I cringe. Hyperbole! I call shenanigans!

But maybe my discomfort derives from a general feeling of unworthiness. I don’t have the proverbial balls to consider myself a goddamn miracle. That could be it.

2.) I’m a writer. The other day, a friend made this observation via email: “You’re a WRITER.” And, indeed, she’d capitalized the end of her statement. It was the first time I’d really ever let that label settle. I play the guitar but I’ve never called myself a musician. I like to sketch but I’ve never considered myself an artist. But it’s true, I’m a writer. My name is Abby Higgs and I’m a writer.

3.) Chuck Klosterman is brilliant. Damn that man. I wanted so much to find fault in his words enough to artfully discredit his snarky narrative style. But I can’t. I’m just jealous of the bastard. And truthfully? His honest, neurotic declarations about loneliness and love are relieving: “And it’s not ‘clever lonely’ (like Morrissey) or ‘interesting lonely’ (like Radiohead), it’s ‘lonely, lonely’ like the way it feels when you’re being hugged by someone and it somehow makes you sadder.” Also, “…I have never understood the concept of infatuation. It has always been my understanding that being ‘infatuated’ with someone means you think you are in love, but you’re actually not; infatuation is (supposedly) just a foolish, fleeting feeling. But if being ‘in love’ is an abstract notion, and it’s not tangible, and there is no way to physically prove it to anyone else… well, how is being in love any different than having an infatuation? They’re both human constructions. If you think you’re in love with someone and you feel like you’re in love with someone, then you obviously are; thinking and feeling is the sum total of what love is. Why do we feel an obligation to certify emotions with some kind of retrospective, self-imposed authenticity?”

Here, here, Klosterman.

(We also kinda look alike.)

4.) Hello, motherI’m reluctant to call my biological mother. She’s had several TIAs over the past few years; her speech is affected, she forgets words and names, the context of conversations. I can’t remember the last time we spoke. Funny thing is, I’ve often thought to myself, It’s a miracle she’s still alive.

I need to call her. She could be lonely, lonely.

5.) I have to put my sobriety first. Call me selfless. Call me altruistic. I’d rather not think about me. At all. By helping you, paying attention to you, worrying more about you, I’m actively avoiding an issue that terrifies the shit out of me: me. But I’ve got to put my sobriety first. I have to remember and say these words often, as cringeworthy as they are (I mean, who wants to live according to such a stigmatic mantra?) But I know that if I don’t, if I “go back out”, then all bets are off – no urban garden, no weekend excursion to New York to attend a Chuck Klosterman reading, no trips to the Rodin Museum or the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; there will be no rebuilding from scratch the life I’ve always wanted, on which I’ve been working mightily for you, for me, for us. You won’t get to see any of it. I’ll set all my tools down. In fact, you and I? We won’t ever meet.