"[mb] Tinnitus" by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/


The first time was in the fifth grade, where I sat in the back of the room, with a large window behind me. One late-winter day, I heard a shrill whistling. Startled, I made a dramatic jump to the window. While not outgoing, I liked getting attention, and I got it, causing a stir in the class. Irritated by the disruption, the teacher asked, “What are you doing?” followed by a glare more stinging than the words. I said, “I heard something.” Not impressed, she said, “Sit down.” While my behavior was inappropriate for a phonics lesson (or whatever the subject was), the teacher’s harsh tone surprised me. I wasn’t playing a game. I did hear something, though I couldn’t prove it. Through the metal-framed window, I saw only the faded, winter grass sprinkled with gravel and dirt next to the building and a swing set in the distance, with no hint of the origin of the noise that interrupted our humdrum instruction. I sat down, chastened by the glaring adult and embarrassed by the giggling kids. So went my earliest acquaintance with tinnitus.

Tinnitus, “a ringing or similar sensation of sound in the ears” without an external stimulus, is most often associated with age-related hearing loss, afflicting up to a third of adults over sixty-five. Although not everyone who is hearing impaired has tinnitus, everyone with tinnitus has a hearing deficit, sometimes minor but sometimes significant. Incessant ringing due to genetics, obstruction, or damage to the fragile inner ear can bring on fatigue, sleep deprivation, memory loss. The resulting stress and anxiety can induce, in some sufferers, psychological problems, including depression.

I no longer have a silent moment. When an audible activity has my attention—street bustle, people talking, running water—I don’t notice the tinnitus, but when it’s otherwise quiet—the moments before falling asleep, reading a book, sitting at a stoplight—I’m aware of a droning sensation. It may be a muted but rapid, cicada-like humming, though occasionally it will take on a piercing timbre like worn-out brakes. There are moments when I’m not sure of the source of what I’m perceiving: Am I listening to actual cicadas on a summer evening, or is it an illusion? Either way, the constant, internal hubbub is always present.

When in my fifties, an audiologist told me exposure to loud machinery in my youth caused my tinnitus. As a teenager, I drove a tractor each spring and summer for seven or eight years plowing, mowing pasture and hay. The old tractor’s worn-out muffler did little to stifle the engine’s thunderous eruptions. Some days I’d sit on it for an hour or so, some days for eight to ten hours. There were times, too, when other machinery—a hammer mill for grinding grain and a hay baler—engulfed me in a clamor.

Since seeing the audiologist, I notice my hearing has declined: I may have trouble determining what someone is saying if on the phone or if the other person has a quiet or piping voice. And while the steady humming in my ears still doesn’t irritate me, the intermittent shrillness I experience does. I’m troubled by the possibility that someday the shrillness won’t end. Fifteen years after the first exam, I had a second one with an ear, nose, and throat specialist who said the primary cause of the tinnitus came from hearing loss, though he didn’t deny the impact of loud noise. When he learned my mother was nearly deaf in her last years, he told me I inherited my problem from her.


My mom was in good health until a few months before her death, in all but one aspect. Her inability to discern what people were saying progressed from an inconsequential annoyance to an acute infirmity during the final two decades of her life. From when she was around seventy-five, I often had to speak up and repeat myself. She would become embarrassed when she failed to comprehend what someone said to her but compensated by learning to read lips, at which she became adept though not flawless. She refused to acknowledge her limitation. One night, while I drove her and my dad home from our house, she asked, from the back seat, how my daughters were doing. However, she couldn’t see my lips and didn’t register what I said. She asked again, and I answered in a raised voice. After her third request, I was shouting, not only sounding but feeling angry. I couldn’t control my wrath. I resented her unwillingness to accept her condition. She didn’t catch what I was saying, but she knew I was yelling. I saw her hurt frown in the rearview mirror and detected an aggrieved tone in her mumbled words, acting as if she understood me. Abashed, I kept my eyes on the road.

About six months before he died, my father went to a nursing home, and my mom moved to an apartment complex for senior citizens. In some respects, it reminded me of a cruise ship, with social events, daily activities, and wine with afternoon snacks in the common area, yet, because of Mom’s poor hearing, she couldn’t follow conversations, thwarting her penchant for mingling. There was also a well-appointed dining room with wait-staff, and despite sitting at a table with other residents, she ate dinner in silence, isolated by her disability. My wife and I would see her every week, making small talk for ten or fifteen minutes—we talked while she pretended to listen— before taking her to church, and my sister would drop by on a different day. Mom seemed to get pleasure out of these visits, but they amounted to just two or three hours a week. The rest of the time, she was alone, reading the closed captions on a cable news channel.

In the last few years of her life, my mother made sporadic comments, when we were alone, about the other occupants of the residence. For no apparent reason, she would say most, or all, the women living there were men. Incredulous, when she first said it, I thought I misunderstood her. I asked (in a loud voice), “What are you talking about?” She repeated, “I know they don’t look like it, but they’re men dressed as women.” Her resolute expression conveyed she wasn’t kidding or being ironic. I made a mild protest during several subsequent reiterations of this tale but eventually dropped it. I knew arguing with her would be a wasted effort.

I later found out that while aberrant, her behavior wasn’t rare. People who have hearing problems are more likely to hold beliefs that defy proof, to be delusional. For instance, some see peril in non-threatening surroundings, believing others are denigrating them or, as with my mom, trying to fool them. Stress is a leading trigger, with isolated individuals being the most vulnerable. Deliria of this sort runs in families.


I grew up and lived most of my life convinced that my mother and I were not alike, and in some ways, opposites. She was religious, and I’m not. She was precise in her language—saying she’s going to “lie down” to rest, while I, not a stickler for correctness, say “lay down.” In some situations, her speech struck me as pretentious, causing me to cringe: I recall a stranded motorist, waiting at our house for someone to get her stalled car running, asked my mom if she was from England. Yet, realizing my hearing has diminished brings to mind various of my traits that mirror hers.

My mom was vain about her looks and wouldn’t admit it. To hide the gray strands of middle age, she dyed her hair black, changing the shade to a mature bronze as she grew older. I, too, am preoccupied with my appearance. I used to dislike my thick, hard-to-comb, curly hair, but with age, my hairline has receded, the curls are gone, and I have a bald spot. Trying to hide it, I carefully brush my hair back to make it appear thicker than it is.

And Mom always looked young—a handyman painting our house one summer guessed she was twenty-five when she was forty. She never told her age (misleading the handyman to think he’d made an accurate guess) until her grandchildren began entering high school. But even at ninety, she was elated when a doctor, taken aback when told how old she was, exclaimed, “I don’t believe it.” As for me, I like to think I look half a decade younger than I am. On several occasions, an old (older than me) lady in a nursing home has told me I’m “fine-looking.” I make an effort to appear unmoved, but such compliments are secret thrills.

We shared another kind of self-centeredness. For eight years, my mother had to look after my partially paralyzed father. They were in an assisted living facility where staff did tasks such as dressing and bathing him. Still, Mom had to keep a constant eye on my dad and aided him with less demanding undertakings, such as eating. Even with the help, she resented having the extra responsibility and sometimes moaned that she couldn’t keep caring for him. I could see she felt sorry for herself, becoming more vocal about her travails as his condition worsened.

For as long as I can recall, I’ve fixated on evidence of my insignificance. After my sister was born, I was no longer the center of my parents’ attention, which led to frequent tiffs and a sense I was a victim of unfair treatment. I desired to be among the most favored, such as being someone’s best friend or the top choice when choosing sides for schoolyard games. But I was no one’s boon companion and a middle-of-the-pack pick for competitive contests. As an adult, I was the outsider, the guy who ate lunch at his desk, not understanding the cliquish jokes or in on the latest gossip. Though my circumstances have been different than my mother’s, I often feel sorry for myself.


About six weeks before she died, the place where Mom lived contacted me. They told me there were several incidents in which she was making nonsensical statements and appeared disoriented. Two days later, she fell in her apartment, and the staff had to call an ambulance to transport her to the emergency department. By my arrival, a doctor had seen and admitted her to the hospital. When an aide was taking her in a wheelchair to a room, I heard my mom tell her, in a weak voice and pointing at me, “He’s my son. He’s my favorite.” I was embarrassed and confused; from my viewpoint, she held us all in the same regard. So, I don’t know if she meant what she said, was humoring me, or her mind was slipping away. And I can’t say with certainty my hearing wasn’t playing tricks on me.

I didn’t realize until the doctor’s exam revealed my mother had an advanced case of shingles that she had been suffering from severe pain for a couple of weeks, overlapping the period her troubling figments had escalated. Despite the pain, she didn’t tell anyone. Initially, her silence mystified me, but I now see she didn’t want to worry us or be a burden.

Some people adapt to the noise, and tinnitus doesn’t rattle them. So far, I’m in this category, but tinnitus is associated with hearing loss, and as mine worsens, I’m concerned other problems will emerge. I worry about latching onto fanciful beliefs and becoming emotionally agitated.

The cicada-like hissing and teakettle whistling never stop. I relive memories of my mother stepping out of reality, and I wonder if there is a connection between my tinnitus and her delusions. As I grow older, I envision the discomfort I may face one day. Chronic or infrequent, mild or acute, the images vary, but they are simplistic reveries. I’m painting a picture of my situation with a drab backdrop in which shadows are absent, without nuance. Fearing I’ll become delusional as my mother did, I overlook her example of selflessness in considering her family’s feelings. Her fantasies didn’t vitiate her humility and kindness. My musings about my future mental stability have missed the point: I’ll have the capability to deal with what happens to me until I don’t. Ingrained habits and character will determine how I grapple with a fate I can’t foresee.

Photo at the top of the page: “[mb] Tinnitus” by Merrick Brown is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Election 2020: A Lyric Essay


Jim Crow Ash

A black reverend represents Georgia and for white fucks, this is yet another loss for the Confederacy. After all, the senator’s surname features the root word “war.” The whitelash was as predictable as Brady’s MAGA cap. In the wake of the Grand Antebellum Party’s collapse, a young white man harvested Asian blood and old white men shackled a black woman during a democracy eradication ritual.

After the Asian Spa Massacre, the topic of gun control was resurrected in time for Easter. I think we need to look at this issue anew since America already stores half of the planet’s firearms. It’s high time for crow hunting. For every voter suppression legislation you support, expect a tattoo with an American bullet wound beneath your white abdomen. I will then swallow medication which produces blue urine to complete human bomb pops. Luckily, Republicans don’t consider white coxcombs inciting a riot to be an impeachable offense.

After I published my lyric essay about the 2016 election, I worried that the anger would not age well. In retrospect, the tone wasn’t fucking angry enough. After Donald Trump lost in humiliating fashion in 2020, his supporters stormed the capitol puppeteering the confederate flag in perceived triumph. While the television news anchors looked on with fresh horror, I saw it as an Omaha Incident Reboot. Nearly a century earlier, a reformist became mayor of that city, threatening to soften white supremacy. White men stormed their city government and nearly lynched him. He never returned to politics. A black man did not survive the incident. Not a single criminal served any prison time. The fact that this happened again after a black man ascended to the senate is not a goddamn coincidence. Political scientist Robert A. Pape said, “You see a common pattern in the Capitol Insurrectionists. They are mainly middle-class to upper-middle-class whites who are worried that, as social changes occur around them, they will see a decline in their status in the future.”

Donald Trump later ass-dialed Fox News and claimed the insurrectionists were hugging and kissing law enforcement. While the corporate news pundits roundhouse kicked this tomato can with a NEWS DESK FACT CHECK, they missed the larger point. Whenever white supremacy is threatened, it feels like lawlessness to many white Americans and therefore these New Balanced terrorists were temporarily replacing ineffective police. As a classroom reward for his pupils, Trump workshopped klavern fan fiction.

For conservatives, democracy has malfunctioned. The only places where the party finds consistent success is in the exarchates late capitalism has pounded into ivory powder. Therefore, it should not be shocking that their voters lust to incinerate elections into ash, so wrinkled Uncle Sam salts them as the urn’s top layer.

Rolling Stone Age

 I have a subscription to Rolling Stone. I never asked for it or paid for it. It comes to my parents’ home in the Finger Lakes. It appeared in the mailbox while I housesat in July 2020. My brother, who was born with a heart defect, was once again in the hospital. He survived another surgery, to the tune of a million dollars. Since he has a preexisting condition, Republicans would have him pay every fucking dime of it.

I guess I’m the age where I receive this magazine now? Which means I’m halfway toward Readers Digest populating my restroom. While leafing through my free issue, it looked much different than when I’d sneak glances at my local Borders. Back then, album reviews of legacy acts read more like press releases than criticism. Anything new or interesting (IDM was the premiere underground genre of the era) received minimal attention.

That month’s issue featured an essay by Andy Kroll where he writes, “The contest between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is not a choice between competing policy agendas or rival ideologies. It’s a choice between reality and anti-reality.”

In an election retrospective, Peter Slevin of the New Yorker said this about campaigning in Iowa: “A central lesson is that facts matter little when […] pivotal groups of voters stick to what they think they know.”

What these two observations have in common is that most Americans are dumb as fuck and the media is too cowardly to admit it. American Exceptionalism DNA can be found splattered across the murder scenes of most political coverage. News outlets address white voters as royalty and only the court jesters of The Daily Show are authorized by corporate sponsors to treat them with the derision they require.

My political takes as a young adult were thermal vomit. Luckily, MySpace did millennials a solid and pressure-washed them into the digital void. However, I’m always open to being wrong and challenge myself to read a hundred books per year. I usually fall short of this goal, especially with grading and real-life nonsense interfering, but it pushes me to read more than I normally would, and as a result, I become a better writer, teacher, and thinker. It appears that Rolling Stone also has improved beyond abject boomer worship, so I won’t discontinue my free subscription.

Rushing to Death

 If you’ve spent any time in the American hinterlands, you have come into contact with The Rush Limbaugh Show. While most young people think of terrestrial radio the way you think about the fax machine or phonograph, conservative talk radio fills our vast rural emptiness. If you’ve never heard his show, it’s ad-sponsored demotic execration for anyone who fails to perform routine maintenance on our cultural hierarchy. An easy Google search yields all the liquid shit this fucker splashed from his khaki asshole.

When Limbaugh broadcasted his lung cancer diagnosis in February 2020, I fully expected him to recover. Not because he is a particularly strong man, but because even cancer cells were mortified to cohabitate with his voice. His quarantine beard made him resemble a frothing hound mesmerized by scrapyard carcasses. Ta-Nehisi Coates describes him as the “bard of white decline.”

Donald J. Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award is to recognize Americans who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” A pill-popping dropout seems to not measure up to these qualifications, but how many wealthy white men are legitimately qualified for the work that they do? The nine richest Americans are all white men. They all founded companies with the amazing innovation of exploiting other humans for profit. Every single president except one has been a white man and they all supported racial imperialism. Is it shocking that Rush Limbaugh became so wealthy? Most white men are not rich, but that doesn’t stop them from assuming that this indigenous massacre of a nation could help them become panjandrums. It’s the immigrants or trans athletes or trans immigrant athletes who prevent them from achieving their boring dream of a sports car and a luxury fortress with an electronic fence.

The last few episodes of Rush’s shows were a public wake for Donald Trump’s failed campaign. For months this shitheel claimed that this was going to be just like 2016, where election experts will be proven to be incorrect, while his righteous audience will once again vanquish the unholy dragon of moderate liberalism. For Rush’s audience, who avoid eye contact with black text, the results were bewildering.

One caller in particular sobbed through his sentence fragments. “Trump…and you are all we have left…Rush. […] We were in Washington on Saturday…me and my thirty-three-year-old adult son…we saw more people than we’ve ever seen in our lifetime! Ever! […] I am not a revolutionary. Rush, but I would die for my president.”

Like any prospective suicide bomber, this geezer is a sinister mark. His life clearly signifies little to himself and therefore craves a purposeful death to produce spiritual meaning. Instead of realizing that capitalism has reduced his human worth to nothing, he looks to richer white men’s approval for validation.

Frank Bruni decided to use his platform of The New York Times to tut-tut anyone celebrating Limbaugh’s death. With his headmaster’s tone, he expressed his disappointment with all of us: “crudeness only perpetuates a kind of discourse that tracks too closely with Twitter: all spleen, no soul […] it doesn’t leave us the room for reasoned and reasonable debate on which a healthy democracy thrives.”

So according to the source of liberal boomers, American democracy depends on the left being cordial while the right deifies attack-dog rhetoricians. Fuck that and fuck you, Bruni. I know that opining for The Times means maintaining a tone that won’t disturb morning tea in Maine, but I’m hamstrung by an unshakable moral core. I fully encourage the desecration of Rush’s grave by advocating for equality so his soul may never find peace.

Tik Tok Motherfucker

In June 2020, Trump chose Tulsa, OK, to kick off his reelection campaign. Despite the fact that a global pandemic made any mass gathering a public health risk, the American president wasn’t going to make a silly thing like human suffering stop him from throwing a goddamn party.

This rally was hyped to be the television counterpunch to a badly damaged campaign. How can these poll numbers be accurate when so many people love Donald Trump? This was going to be real America. Not that fucking fake coastal snowflake shit. Let Trump’s revenge tour commence!

Only no one showed up. I’ve seen madrigal choirs in upstate malls attract bigger crowds. Even the die-hards who braved the virus appeared despondent. Campaign manager Brad Parscale had been hyping his “Death Star” of an operation, apparently without watching the third act of any Star Wars feature film.  

Unbeknownst to the Trump team, Tik Tok teens requested tickets they had no intention of using. The man who trolled his way to the White House got beat at his own game. While I’m fully supportive of any platform that angers politicians, I cannot in good faith actually recommend this particular application. Tik Tok exposes the brutal truth that most people struggle to express themselves. The same dance routines, the same audio clips, and the same lazy observations replicate infinitely across the cloud. I know this is the slushiest of takes, but there’s something dispiriting about endless people reveling in unoriginality. John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper’s, once described the Internet as “[not] much more than a gigantic Xerox machine.” I despise when anti-labor dragurs are right.

Jia Tolentino writes in the New Yorker that “I found it both freeing and disturbing to spend time on a platform that didn’t ask me to pretend that I was on the Internet for a good reason.” A rapper told Pitchfork that when composing songs for the application, to make sure “it doesn’t sound professional. The masses can relate to it because they can feel like they can do it too, almost.”  

Like most drugs, Tik Tok’s main purpose is a controlled burning of unused time when you suffer from too much of it. A professional-sounding song would depress you because it’s a reminder that other people experience time passionately. In this way, it makes sense why Tik Tok users delivered a body blow to the Trump campaign. They have intimate knowledge about pissing life away.

Show of Wonder

Some of the best television journalism of the past twenty years was done by children on Wonder Showzen. It was a short-lived series produced during the George W. Bush presidency and was the grotesque version of Sesame Street. These curious tykes would ask adults to comment on accepted cultural perceptions, only to expose the blank minds responsible for the world’s most powerful economy.

Some questions included “Is America #1?” A white male office worker answered in the affirmative. That is when the elementary school student came back with an unblocked uppercut: he asked the office worker, “Why?” The response comprised of monochromatic logical dead ends usually reserved for hostage videos. In another segment, a child asked FiDi workers “Who did you exploit today?” Almost all of answers included “I don’t think I did.” What this revealed is that buried within the subconscious of the financial sector is the knowledge that the guidelines are grossly unfair. Three years after this segment aired, the world economy crashed due to Wall Street malfeasance.

Before each episode, a warning screen appeared in all caps stating, “WONDER SHOWZEN CONTAINS OFFENSIVE, DESPICABLE CONTENT THAT IS TOO CONTROVERSIAL AND TOO AWESOME FOR ACTUAL CHILDREN. THE STARK, UGLY, PROFOUND TRUTHS WONDER SHOWZEN EXPOSES MAY BE SOUL CRUSHING TO THE WEAK OF SPIRIT.” What this show revealed, however, is that the actual children are the majority of American adults, who possess fairy-tale renditions of their own people and history. The minors involved in the production had a better sense of the carnival economics that power Old Glory.

In 2017, the creators of Wonder Showzen gave an interview about its legacy. John Lee said, “There’s so much shit that’s just never said on TV, everybody’s cooperating in this one game and one agreed upon thing.” Vernon Chatman added “I never associated anger or frustration with the truth we were ‘telling.’ I always thought that it [w]as more gleeful than angry.” This is why Wonder Showzen is art and social media threads are not. Anger is a powerful fuel when refined, but in its raw form, just sloshes in ugly barrels to be bought and sold by tech companies. In 2020, Lee said “Injustice and inequality never change. That’s the tragedy of Wonder Showzen.

Just Asking Questions

If bloody cleats acupunctured Tucker Carlson in a campfire, would he curse himself as he leathered from white to red to smoke? Would conservatives venerate the second amendment as comrades flooded their homes during his primetime slot? Hypnotized by White Power Hour, would they notice the lead trickle of AR-15s tickling their spines? If you blast several quislings at once, does it cause hell to traffic jam? Is this non-literal commentary? Did they have a gun? Did they have drugs in the house? What were they wearing?

Life Hacks

Every spring semester while I’m grading, I revisit the three volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. My fascination with the film began with its initial release and my appreciation for it has only grown over the subsequent decades. There were several computer-related thrillers released at the time, but Hackers by far is the best. It tells the tale of a teenage hacker played by Johnny Lee Miller who moves from Seattle to Manhattan for his senior year of high school. He befriends multicultural hacker adolescents and they become ensnared in a reprocessed Hollywood plot in which covetous corporate employees pilfer money from digital accounts. I even watched an original 35mm print at a pre-pandemic screening at Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn.

The movie was criticized at the time for its fantastical representation of the primitive Internet. Hackers would not seem very powerful if their modems disconnected by repeated phone calls from relatives. However, its resistance to accurately representing nineties Internet is what gives it staying power. The characters’ fascination with technology can be used to represent any niche hobby that alienates teenagers from their peers. As someone who attended a bland upstate school where everyone had the same basic interests, the idea that you could go to a downstate school and find fellow misfits amazed me more than the ability to penetrate international banks with MacOS 7.5. My advanced classes consisted of privileged students obsessed with exam scores as opposed to cultural awareness.

The soundtrack is wonderful. It consists of all the big electronica acts of the era, including Prodigy, Underworld, and Orbital. What makes me return to these early techno groups is the craftsmanship. Peter Kruder said that “each step took a million years.” Today anyone with a passing interest in ProTools can fuck around and share to TikTok for instant listening. At the genre’s genesis, finding an audience was difficult. Compact discs were also expensive, and you’d need adventurous record shoppers to make money beyond the urban core.

Rob Birch of the Stereo MCs describes early electronica as “rebel music.” Laurence Mason, who plays “Lord Nikon” in the film, said, “all this music had a primitive element to them, a universality [that] speaks to everyone.” Iain Softley, the film’s director, said that film executives requested grunge music because “Nobody in America listens to techno.” The suits desired a downstate film catered to upstate sensibilities.

Grading is easily the worst part of my profession. It’s also the impetus to avoid many social media applications. If I am employed to read amateur writing, then why would I perform that labor pro bono publico? The Hackers soundtrack, however, helps remind me of being their coeval and figuring things out. Each essay assignment is an opportunity for young adults to critique culture, character, or an image. Building an enlightened electorate requires assistance with elevating American prose. To encourage the development of rebel music.

Rhymes with Orange

After four years of WWE Hall of Famer Donald Trump, there was not a single fictional character more refreshing in professional wrestling than Orange Cassidy. Similar to Ryan Gosling’s character in Drive, Cassidy is a droll recluse in a chaotic world. In a television genre where the cocaine rants of Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan are considered foundational texts, Orange Cassidy loiters on camera while quasi-comatose. 

When in the ring, Cassidy plays off audience expectations. Traditionally, when a wrestler lands a stiff strike, the audience responds with “OHHH” like a Greek chorus. Knowing this, Cassidy attacks with the slightest of touches, with the crowd getting louder and louder with each successive kick becoming lazier and more lethargic.

Professional wrestling, like any dramatic art, features moments of comedy to make the serious beats hit slightly harder. Orange Cassidy takes the opposite approach—the majority of his act is comedy, and therefore his serious moments are emotional explosions. Despite having a roster loaded with main event stars from across the globe, Orange Cassidy is the most popular combatant in All Elite Wrestling.

In an era where even the president floods social media with outrage, Cassidy appears perpetually hungover and withdrawn. In an uncustomary moment of reality, Cassidy described his character as “a wrestler who doesn’t want to wrestle. Whatever he can do just to get by is what he’s going to do.” This is what makes him such a radical character in American culture—ambitious sociopaths are lauded for their planetary exploitation by a complicit media infrastructure operated by other ambitious sociopaths. Orange Cassidy’s motivation is to bypass conflict altogether. His hometown? “Wherever.” Weight? “Whatever.” In a nation where the digits in your zip code and bathroom scale dominate cultural perceptions, Cassidy reminds the audience that America’s image obsession is a fucking joke.

Yub Nub!

Despite his best attempts at fascism, one of which got him impeached, Donald Trump lost the election. Joe Biden was not my choice to represent Democrats but the backbone of the party, black voters, selected him over the other candidates. To show just how despised Trump is with most of America, Delaware centrist Joe Biden received more votes than anyone in history.

I was pressure washing my new home when my neighbor signaled for me to remove my headphones. Joe Biden won the election! I killed the engine and heard a symphony of car horns and screams. My phone was overwhelmed with messages from family. I told my sister that I was playing “Yub Nub” from Return of the Jedi. Her husband was streaming it as well.

Return of the Jedi has always been my favorite movie from the series because aside from coke-fueled Carrie Fisher, it tells the most complete story. In the first act, Luke Skywalker overthrows the crime family responsible for his home planet’s outlaw culture. Luke then discovers the tragedy of his father’s young adulthood from his mentor’s ghost. Finally, he passes the moral test that his father failed and completes the prophecy of Anakin balancing the force. When Luke returns to celebrate with his friends, the autochthonous Ewoks perform a science fiction slave hymn which translates to “Hooray, Freedom!”

Late in the song, Luke sees the force ghosts of Yoda, Obi Wan, and his father. Although Luke was originally too old to become a jedi, he stumbled across the finish line thanks to the galaxy’s leftist coalition. Decatur, GA, had recently adopted open container laws due to the pandemic, and so later that afternoon my girlfriend and I wanted to celebrate. Like most American cities, there was jubilation in the streets. Parents, children, and young adults all reveled with music, desserts, and social-distanced dance. Georgia was turning blue. Parscale’s Death Star had been reduced to a white firework. Although pot-holed roads were ahead on every issue, at least we were getting towed out of the ditch. Hooray. Freedom.


Photo at the top of the page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ElectoralCollege2020.svg

Where Meaning Lives

Disregard the drooling mouths, the incoherent babbles, the lack of fine motor skills: babies are geniuses. At birth, babies can discern every speech sound found in every language. They may not produce much more than dirty diapers, but they absorb the sound profiles of languages like sommeliers sampling pinot grigios. Send a Japanese baby to Britain, and she’ll distinguish red from led. Drop a Brazilian baby in southern Africa with the Ju|’hoansi, and he’ll crack the code of their consonantal clicks. An American baby can decipher that meaning lives in the tones of Thai. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for American men, and when I decided to move to Thailand in 2011, I soon realized that my linguistic genius had been discharged decades ago alongside a spate of soiled diapers.

Even beyond my non-baby status, I was hesitant to uproot my life in Atlanta. Moving abroad, I left behind family, friends, and my first full-time job to join Andrea, my fiancée, now wife. She had accepted a Fulbright scholarship to teach English at a rural secondary school near Ubon Ratchathani, a city close to the Thai borders with Laos and Cambodia. I’d traveled to Thailand once before, in 2009, then too because Andrea—more adventurous and ambitious than I am—had made plans to go. She’d been volunteering at an elder home in the countryside for six weeks before I arrived, at which point we began a two-week tour of the kingdom. For me, the highlights of that trip were overshadowed by my first night, the worst of my life.

When we stopped for dinner that night at the only street cart in sight, I should have followed Andrea’s lead and scooted a couple cubes of what looked like maroon tofu to the edge of my plate where they could only spectate as I shoveled the lukewarm green curry into my mouth. But I wanted to say yes to everything. Meanwhile, having spent the previous weeks living with a host family who spoke as little English as she spoke Thai, Andrea was hungry to share her experience, and she wanted me to dive into the culture mouth first. So, along with the maroon tofu—which we learned years later was congealed pig’s blood—that day, at Andrea’s behest, I also tried durian. A spiky rugby ball of a fruit, the durian’s doughy inner flesh smelled, felt, and tasted to me like a two-month-old mango left to spoil in a dumpster full of skunks. To Andrea, it was delicious. Love at first bite.

We made it back to our hotel before this conglomeration of partially digested, foreign food tethered me to the bathroom inside our room. Over the next eight hours, my digestive tract revealed the contents of its character like clowns spilling out of a clown car—front and back seats simultaneously. The food poisoning stopped me from stomaching sips of water, much less the antibiotic antidote. The blessing in all this was how Thai bathrooms are designed. The showerhead hides behind neither glass nor curtain; enter a Thai bathroom and you’ve essentially stepped into an oversized shower with a toilet in one corner and a sink in the other, the entire floor slanted toward a drain (the entire floor—thank you sweet Jesus—designed to get wet).

A sleepless night behind us, we left early for the nearest hospital, hopping on the back of an enclosed pick-up truck—a common form of public transport called a สองแถว (translation: “two row,” on account of the bench seats facing each other inside). Andrea wisely brought her Thai phrasebook along. (In a month and a half of language immersion, her mastery of the language had yet to include vocabulary for “vomiting” or “diarrhea” or “nonstop all night.”) En route to the hospital, as Andrea flipped through the book’s pages, one phrase stood out: “Is the needle clean?” She planned to ask—interjecting before any injecting. But it was while staff pulled her away to complete paperwork that my nurse pulled out a needle. The mystery injection spurred my recovery. And, two years later, the memory of that hospital visit spurred something else: if we were going to spend a year abroad, we were going to learn the language.


Within a baby’s first year, her perceptive superpowers fade. A twelve-month-old raised in Tokyo won’t hear any difference between red and led. A one-year-old raised in Rio has closed the door on the Ju|’hoansi’s clicks. That’s not to say these abilities disappear completely, but they have to be relearned. A 2018 study of more than half a million people indicates that kids as old as ten can start learning English as a second language, master it throughout their late teens, and speak without an accent. Still, much as my exposure to Thai came far too late for its tones to come naturally, I created my first Thai alphabet flashcards at twenty-three—thirteen years late to the speak-without-an-accent party.

With its forty-four consonants and fifteen vowels, the Thai alphabet is long but phonetic. Unlike in English, where we can spell the vowel that sounds like the letter “E” at least ten different ways (be, bee, bean, fiend, quay, people, amoeba, receive, lovely, alley), in Thai, if you know how a word is spelled, you can probably pronounce it. They also don’t put spaces between their words, a feature that reflects the way humans speak: Abarrageofwordsblurringtogetherwithoutpause.

In the weeks before my departure, my best friend stopped by and flipped through the flashcards stacked on the kitchen table. He balked at how similar some of the letters looked, pointing out one pair: ม and น, the Thai equivalents of m and n. On a piece of scrap paper, I scribbled the letters h and n, spotlighting the subtle difference between the two. Learning Thai, like learning any language, was all about training your eyes and ears to notice the differences that matter, the ones that hold meaning.

Imagine a language’s bank of speech sounds as a palette of colors. Perhaps the k sound—known linguistically as the voiceless velar stop—is a cool cerulean. Let’s say the ow vowel sound (as in “Ow, I stubbed my toe”) is hot pink. Throw the colors of the English palette onto a canvas in the right sequence and you can sound out Shakespeare in abstract art. A brushstroke of cerulean on the left, one of hot pink to the right and you’ve composed a cow.

The palettes of English and Thai aren’t that different. Just swap out a few consonantal colors and throw in an extra vowel. But Thais don’t rely on colors alone to paint their world with meaning. There are, of course, the tones—five of them: low, mid, high, rising, and falling. And vowel length can further change the meaning of a word. Thais can take that abstract portrayal of cow and turn down the contrast, emphasizing the low tones and voilà: เขา, a gender-neutral pronoun translating to both “he” and “she.” They can tweak the contrast again to produce เข้า, meaning “to enter.” Next, they might add another dab of hot pink, lengthening the ow stroke to capture one of their most beloved words, ข้าว, meaning “rice.” One last tonal change gets them ขาว, “white,” and they’ve finally exhausted the possibilities for interpreting what in English still looks like the same abstract cow. No flashcards could train me to perceive such subtleties. I needed to be there.

I found an English teaching gig like Andrea’s, before catching my trans-Pacific flight. While she lived on site at her school about seven miles south of Ubon, I volunteered at an elementary school about thirty miles north, leading English lessons alongside Thai teachers. I was the pronunciation expert and brought an element of immersion to each classroom, while the Thai teachers served as interpreters and legitimate figures of authority. The school’s classrooms resembled those of my childhood in Atlanta with three exceptions: no carpeting, no air-conditioning, no shoes inside—teachers included. Outside each room, a bevy of amber and suede Chuck Taylor knockoffs indicated class was in session. Depending on the students, the shoes would lie in a neat row or a chaotic cluster. Andrea recalls that the same pattern held at her school, and the younger classes full of boys tended to leave “more wild piles.” 

After two months on the job, Christmas was rolling around and became the subject of a lesson I won’t forget. Though murals of Kris Kringle himself adorned several of the white cinderblock walls along the Foreign Language Department hallway, my students only understood his character on a cursory level—as I understood Thai. On this particular day, I can’t recall whether a tidy ribbon of shoes or a jumbled heap lined the wall outside the doorway—a class of mostly girls or boys. Given what transpired, I don’t know that I would have preferred one over the other. The Thai teacher and I encouraged the students to share what they knew about Christmas, Santa Claus, and the winter season. And so, in fits and starts, a room full of about twenty Buddhist middle school students whispered the words that popped into their heads. Everything was going as planned, predictably and without note, until from the back left of the room, one student mumbled หิมะ, the Thai word for “snow.” I recognized the word from my vocabulary book but had never heard it spoken. Excited, I repeated it at a much higher volume for the whole class to hear. Or at least I thought I did. The Thai teacher went wide-eyed; the classroom fell silent. The picture I had drawn with my words wasn’t an abstract expression evoking a wintery scene with thick banks of fresh powder. I’d used the right colors but the wrong tones. And I’d stretched the vowels out too long, turning the word “snow” into two different words. The second: the verb “to come.” The first: a slang term for “vagina.”


Between Christmas of 2011 and Christmas 2012, Andrea and I made fewer gaffes and more connections within our communities, and after a visit home for the holiday, we opted to return to Thailand for six more months. We spent this time working for a nonprofit in a different part of the country. And while we’d both resigned from our posts as teachers back in Ubon, we remained students of the language: our vocabularies swelled to more than a thousand words. When traveling through Bangkok, where the locals spoke more English and the foreigners less Thai, we would compete to see who could more frequently convince shop owners and food vendors to utter the phrase พูดไทยชัด: “You speak Thai clearly.” Andrea would win.

Looking back, one of the greatest joys of learning Thai came through exposure to foreign compound words, which offered new ways of seeing the objects and actions of life. The image of any simple word is arbitrary, an abstraction of color cast in shadows and highlights. But more intentional meaning lives in the compounds, those pairs of words juxtaposed, colliding in collage. Translated into Thai compound words, some simple English takes a literal turn. “Sock,” for example, becomes “foot bag.” “Fridge” becomes “cold cabinet.” But other words win their beauty not through playful precision but through rich metaphor. “Excited” becomes “to get up and dance.” “To understand” becomes “to enter the heart.”

Studying Thai was like discovering Cubism after spending decades as students of the Impressionists. Like mimes in their invisible boxes, we felt out the boundaries that enclose Thai civility and fence out taboo. We learned that if the subject of an expression is implied, it’s omitted—left to live in the negative space. And, in the common phrases and idioms spoken all around us, we caught authentic glimpses of Thai culture. But perhaps most importantly, familiarity with this new form yielded familiarity with those who produce it: Thais both young and old—these artists who fluently flick their paint onto canvas, wielding foreign tongues, vocal cords, and breath. By playing around with the Thai palette, we met them halfway. We swam in the sounds that color their kingdom. We perceived how light filters through their linguistic lens. Mutual respect blossomed between teacher and student.

After we moved back to Atlanta for good, Andrea and I located a Buddhist temple that offered Sunday morning Thai lessons. Outside of a small, wood-paneled room, an assortment of shoes indicated class was in session. We’d set up a folding table and two folding chairs and join our classmates—among them, a Laotian-American mother and son, a couple hexagenerians with plans to live out their retirement sipping coconuts on Thai beaches, and a half-Thai preschooler accompanied by her American father. Hoping to retain what we’d learned of the language, Andrea and I attended these classes for more than a year. And for the hour we spent there each week, our patient Thai teacher transported us right back to her home country, and the language’s familiar sounds rekindled the fresh perspectives we’d gained. From the start, we were too old for her language to come naturally, too entrenched in our own style of speech. But our age allowed us to delight in the differences in a way babies and teenagers cannot.

On any given Saturday, we may have woken up excited for the weekend’s events. Put on some socks. Grabbed breakfast from the fridge. But on Sundays, we got up and danced. Donned pairs of foot bags. And rummaged through the cold cabinet. A year and a half was too short to achieve fluency—I was conversational at best, with a thick American accent. But I believe I came to understand Thai. The language had entered my heart.