A monthly note from our editors with some thoughts on theory, dilemma, and the next big thing.
Past Letters Entries
Nightmares of Another Life
The Downward Spiral
To The Swamp
Make It Through
Too Close to Call
Letters by Tyler Reinhard
Being a Blight
I've always been somewhat unaware of what gross means, precisely. Granted, I've been accused on many occasions throughout my life of being just that, for one reason or another. Despite my curiosity, early obliviousness, and ultimate malice with regard to the notion, I've somehow managed to spend a great deal of my life dedicated to picking the idea apart. Piece by piece. What does it mean to be reviled? Can one enjoy evil and still be empathetic and tender toward others? Is it possible to be repulsed by anything, or is there a special quality or substance to a thing that makes it truly disgusting?
At some point during my early adolescence, I started recording people and their reactions in my mind. Call it consciousness sparking into being in my head, or body, or wherever ... or call it something else. Whatever it is in us that keeps track of how one should relate to others, and how others might feel about what we do, say, and imply.
I must have been six or seven when I first heard someone say it was disgusting to be gay. A neighborhood boy who, rather earnestly, couldn’t understand why I could not follow his simple linguistics: gay equals gross or dumb. My puzzled look when he failed to convince me what was so gay about playing in the compost bin our family maintained in the backyard must have frustrated him, because he returned with a stern three words: “it just is.”
I knew what that word really meant. I had recently moved from a large west coast city, where we had lived adjacent to a gay couple. One of the two men had been my friend, he had been kind to me whenever he saw me playing in the yard. He had helped me down from the cherry blossom tree when I saw him and playfully shouted "Hey Andy, I’m stuck!" And I noticed when his body and face and gleeful gate changed somehow, into something sadder. His life partner had been fighting AIDS, and had just died. Andy and his partner weren’t the only gay people I had known by then - but that first familiar relationship was all I needed to be completely confused when the neighborhood boy told me for the umpteenth time: that’s so gay!
I remember that moment in my driveway like a photograph. Me, on one side, standing in my 1990s bright neon cool lizard shorts with stinking soil and leaves clumped in my hand, and on the other, the boy who lived around the block who liked country music and trucks and basketball. A boy who would become my best friend, frequent bully, and my introduction to the normal world. A parallel universe I would from then on have to pretend to belong to in order to fit in at least enough to have friends, and play.
Gross — and all of the insensitive, inaccurate synonyms used in its place at the time — was a word my childhood friends would select to describe a world that seemed more-or-less pretty normal to me. “Hippie food” was gross, cross-dressing was gross, people of the same gender being sweet with one another was gross, gender ambiguity was gross, period blood was gross, even bodies themselves could be gross. I made my face play along with the words and the sentiments as best I could without participating, thinking all the while that either my family and all our weird drop-out hippie freak friends were evil and disgusting monsters or the rest of the world was just full of fools.
By the time I was ready to stop caring which it was, I was beginning to go through puberty. I was forced to make a decision: either meticulously maintain My Changing Body according to the standards of the time, or hide. I chose the latter. I wore the same stinky black clothes every day. An oversized black pullover sweater I had shot with a .22 at summer camp. A pair of black gloves with the fingers cut out. Whatever was big enough to hide me. I twisted my hair into dreadlocks, and receded into myself, hoping somehow I could still come alive with friends gentle enough to be seen with me.
And so began a life of constantly trying on the gross for size, and leaving the charade of normalcy that governed the fools I thought I saw in it. From there into a frame of mind which sought to disgust and dismiss that world of hair gel, Abercrombie & Fitch, and whatever it was (college, employment, marriage, death) my peers were so deliberately preparing for.
Ultimately Failed Experiments
At first, gross was digging through the dormitory garbage bins after the college season was over. Digging through the mess of used tampons and condoms, plastic totes of unwanted dirty dishes, grocery bags of cat litter, textbooks soggy with bleach, and so many assorted disposable single-use household items broken and discarded. Not soon after, I was fully acclimated to residential waste. My bookbag was full of half-eaten party-sized bags of pretzels, a pint-sized mason jar with all of the last swallows of liquor I had poured together, ironic VHS tapes, and things I was certain I could sell or turn into art. Still knee-deep in that scrambled pile of three hundred dorms worth of debris, I remember thinking eww, what is that smell, is that scented fabric softener?
That last day of Sophomore year in high school, when Isaac and I met before school in full Rocky Horror regalia to tighten each other’s corsets and lace each other’s boots and blot our shoddy daubs of dollar store makeup. I’m not sure now whether we had both been too proud to back out of a dare, or if we were making some kind of statement. Maybe an open letter to our classmates that there were things much weirder than 98 Degrees and Nickleback and the movie American Pie? On the news, weirdos like us were walking into schools doing far worse. Nevertheless, the dean of students found us quickly and responded in kind. “How could we be so ... so ... inappropriate!!” he raged, and dragged us out by the arm. He was disgusted and disappointed. We didn’t say it out loud at the time, but that’s all we really wanted to accomplish.
Skip to those last summer days as a teenager by the Mississippi River, just outside of town. It was a park where the locals and outcasts could relax, and drink, and watch the water go by. Kong was sitting there at the picnic table, alone, with a half-rack of Black Label in his lap. The park was otherwise empty and the sun was just beginning to turn the sky tangerine. At the time, I think Kong was homeless and camping nearby, although he also could have been living on someone’s back porch, as these things had been incidental variables for him and seemingly subject to his mysterious schedule. He drunkly greeted me through bent glasses and engine grease streaked stubble with his silent, welcoming nod. “Working on anything these days?” I asked. He was a talented handyman and someone who I could talk to about my construction job or my bicycle. Though I think that he sensed I was also asking a leading question about his financial situation. I worried privately about him and many of my other friends like him, many of whom were homeless or heavy alcoholics or both. The breeze was so cool, and I sidled into the picnic table beside him. "Work is for the winter," he stated with some finality like a father might, and cracked a beer with one finger and offered it to me. I looked down sheepishly at the table to see a beaten-up paperback copy of Poets of Medieval Russia or something like that placed face-down to his page and then I looked out over our city across river as the nighthawks began to chirp. He made a good point.
Flash to when they were boiling plants, mostly weeds, that they had pulled from the landscaping at the University of Cincinnati behind a table of zines about herbal abortions and How to Make an Atlatl and boosted copies of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and the Peterson wild edible series of field guides. A rumor was circulating that they had brought a trash bag with a roadkill turkey into the library. A somewhat controversial gesture undoubtedly made toward the mostly vegan attendees of the anarchist conference that was the occasion for all of us being there. As we plucked the thing in the atrium, a crowd gathered as if this were some kind of action or disruption and there I was with my hands in it too. I would spend the next six months falling into and out of love with the people beside me.
Together our long conversations spun wildly out of our control. We articulated a discourse of gross. Our rhetoric, while more than slightly embarrassing to me now, imagined a means of attacking civilization through one’s own internalization of its structure of thought. To rewild as it were, but not merely by learning to live off the land and survive in the wilderness, but also to become ravenous. To purge all notions of sensitivity to material realities, to disassociate from decency and domesticity and anything that might make us prefer the sterility of the civilized world to the dirt, or the woods, or the swamp, or the riot. We debated whether or not we were friends or a pack, and whether or not we could or should ever trust each other.
Their station wagon barely ran, but it was loaded down with about five or six people’s worth of stolen camping gear, ethnographic texts from the early 1900s, dumpstered juice and chocolate and cakes, and ... wild items ... bones, seeds, shaped stones, cordage fronds, wooden slabs burned out in the middle into bowls for soups and teas. The rig was so overloaded, I was certain the one side’s wheels would lift slightly off the pavement with every strong bend in the road. In the back, someone had a black trash bag full of raccoon skin that had been rotting in the heat of the car, freshly peeled from a family that had died crossing the road several hundred miles back.
We all had grown accustomed to the stench, whose sweet bruise-y sharp cheddar smell was thick and pungent and in our clothes and hair. In the putrid air of the car, and the cloud of it which no doubt followed us everywhere, nevertheless we could distinguish a whiff of oily wild carrot seeds or fresh yarrow or dried mugwort in it without a glance or a second thought. When an officer pulled the car over for driving nearly double the highway’s speed limit, I imagine he was confused by the several state’s of dirt coating the outside of the vehicle, or the eight or nine "we support our troops" magnetic ribbons which had been stolen from people who meant a certain thing by it for use as disguise or irony or perhaps something more sinister. When he tapped on the glass and one of us rolled down the window he was hit by a gale of reeking, warm decay, and wiped his eyes. Another of us poked their head out of the rear window, and asked rather earnestly what the laws of Ohio permitted regarding the taking of dead animals off the side of the road. The officer skipped whatever formalities he had prepared and told us to “just get the Hell out of Ohio.”
Flash to pulling off the broken highway in the same state, in southern Ohio where it might as well be the deep south, where the air is swampy and full of insects and trees grow out of abandoned churches and rusty gas station pumps still flip numbers over. Pulling off into a ghostly trailer home community, where we weaved quietly with our lights off through people’s yards, searching for wherever it ended and the forest began. The top of the hill, where we stopped, was flat in a clearing of trees. It was quiet, and we unpacked our supplies. Someone took one of the raccoon skins into their lap and began scraping its insides with a spoon to remove all of the unwanted and fleshy dermal layers. Others collected small branches and hopefully a dry piece of soft wood duff which could be used to start carry the fire. I brushed a nine volt battery against a wad of steel wool and it glowed red. Around the fire, we debated the subtleties of Derrick Jensen’s hypothesis: that he could speak to animals and whether or not that speech was language, as in symbolic thought in the sense that John Zerzan meant it. Jensen had not yet sided with the transphobic second-wave feminists and Maoists so then we thought of him in part as one of our thinkers. We took turns interrogating as to whether or not we could ever speak to a child either, were any of us to give birth to one, without incidentally passing on to it the legacy terror of civilization.
A bright pair of headlights appeared on the opposite side of the holler, atop an adjacent hill. It sounded like some sort of monster truck, revving its engine like a beast. The headlights strobed signals to us, or our fire, and we were petrified. Without further warning, it tore down the side of the hill directly at us, branches and leaves flying to either side to create a road that had not been there. And then, once at the bottom, came up the hill still toward us. We were silent, scared. We looked back at the trailers behind us some long distance away and felt mostly alone and vulnerable. Halfway up our hill the truck came to a sudden stop, whistling that familiar circular-saw sound that could only mean that a tire was stuck, spinning in the mud or between some roots. A door slammed and was followed by cursing and then the voice shouted up the hill at us that he was stuck and needed a push. Several of us sauntered down the hill without shoes and found him at his truck. His head was shaven closely and he was muscley and white. A combination which, were you to generalize, gave good reason to fear given the locale and hour and was fit with a pair of banded sunglasses no doubt placed there earlier in the day.
“I need a push!” he managed to understate through the brambles as he high-stepped over the vines and back into the cab of his truck. It was clear from that brief glimpse of him that he had been drinking. Drinking enough to have barreled down a wooded hillside with the intention of making it up the next without a road or even room to turn around. For all we knew, we were squatting in his backyard and we looked at each other from a distance, each with the knives that we had quickly dropped into our pockets moments earlier before we agreed to help him.
His truck was idling beside our camp for a moment and the bright beams of light blinded us. He stepped out with a case of beer or bottle of hard alcohol or something and asked us whether or not we party, as if what had happened moments before was worthy of neither pause nor explanation. He took a drink and offered obliquely that he had just gotten in a fight with his woman, again, words he used with disgust, words which he chose to intone as if to say a physical fight and because she wouldn’t listen. He was wasted and aggressive and treated us like trespassers (which we were) as if he could decide we should leave if he wanted to, as if he might if we didn’t humor him. We said nothing to that, and after that as little as we could manage without being outright hostile. After all, this was precisely the person we had imagined we would have to fight one day — the rural, bigoted white man who would no doubt be the most likely kind of enemy to survive the catastrophic collapse of civilization we had imagined in vivid detail so, so many times.
He remained at our camp for what seemed like hours, and even after he left (which he eventually did without conflict) we felt uneasy and unresolved. The pitch black southern Ohio night emerged as our fire dissolved into coals, and the shadows seemed to move all around us. I remember thinking to myself that even this fear and discomfort, even the disgust I felt towards him was something we would have to free ourselves from if we would ever be able to strike fear in others like him merely by being in the way he had to us.
By the time dawn broke, it was already hellishly hot. As I climbed out of my sleeping bag, a half burnt doll’s head lay inches from my own. My focus widened, and garbage was strung up in the trees, twisting in the wind, and I thought for a split second that we had been worked over in the night. I spun around and saw an Oldsmobile without wheels or a trunk or windows, and a burned couch, and balls of foil and the skeleton of a boxspring and melted plastic containers. The ground was black and glistening with broken glass and I realized then that we were at the edge of the trailer home community’s garbage burning field. I picked up a stack of CDs and began flicking them at the car like Frisbees. Some were already awake, stirring tea. Another approaches me with their fist wrapped around a pair of birds legs. A red-winged blackbird, dead. They unfolded a Leatherman and broke its ribcage and took out its heart and cut it into pieces. We each reached for a piece and ate it together. A peeled grape is what it tasted like, soft and like iron and blood.
Now I’m waking up in that collective house, which had been nice enough to host us, to realize it was a Christian anarchist collective. The beards, the weird haircuts, the soft voices, the Abortion is Murder letters which spanned the far wall of the living room in black paint all suddenly were legible in the light. One of us burst out with a loud “... what the ... fuck!?” We snuck out through back as quietly as we could without leaving a note.
I'm in a kitchen in Olympia and we're boiling raccoon fat, as an experiment. We separate the tallow and glycerin into separate shot glasses and later use the tallow to cook fiddleheads and the raccoon's meat. Weeks later my roommate pours the congealed glycerin down the sink, no doubt preparing to practice with his band. The kitchen sink clogs for some time, and years later he recounts this story to me over roasted lamb lollipops and parsnip puree and I say oh yeah and we laugh.
Flash to him pushing the door open at that Starbucks just outside of Denver. The bravado of his march impressed me given the hundreds of dollars in scammed gift cards someone had just negotiated nearby. The customers all turn and hush. He knelt down to fit his arm through a small swinging door that said trash, and fished it around until he produced an empty Styrofoam cup. Another of us walked in with a paper bag full of sandwiches that had just been pulled from the dumpster of a nearby Panera Bread. They handed one to each of us and left the remainder on the table as if to welcome the rest of the patrons to help themselves. We unwrapped ours and ate them in the cool Starbucks air conditioning. I looked up at the duct and felt the breeze and felt wild. The room was still silent when he approached the counter. The cashier looked nervous. He pulled out a pouch made from a dead animal and shook it and removed two coins and set them on the counter with the empty cup. “One refill please,” he said.
Skip to that night in Bowling Green. We were there for that conference. It must have been a decade ago. We slept in that 24-hour laundromat but not before someone tore all the pages out of the bible and stuffed them into the one public toilet. We rolled under the bench seats in our sleeping bags, and hooked up under the fluorescent buzz. Others were on the roof. Whoever did that Bible thing was manic, or something, pacing and pacing while we touched each other facing the gum under the booth's seats. In the morning an old man, presumably the owner, kicked me in the back. ”Time's up,” he said.
One of us came out with a Diva Cup full of their blood. The branches rattled like we were deep in the woods, but the glowing light cast by kitchen windows illuminated nearby suburban backyards. The backyards did not belong to us, or anyone we knew, we were just there ... somewhere nearby. Eating armloads of discarded bakery items – whole cakes! — from that special Kroger on the other side of town. You could have taken your dog for a walk down our trail and missed us and the pile of debris we lived in together that summer. They poured a little blood out onto each of our hands and we played in it and rubbed our faces with it and then someone took the first a sip.
He told me a story about a time this class from New York had visited the “land project” while he was there and they all gathered around him to ask what he was wildcrafting and he rolled his eyes and took it out of the coals and popped it into his mouth and then extended his tongue and showed them that it was a teeny tiny possum fetus that was about the size and shape of a peanut in the shell and then he chewed. On the phone, he sounded like he was bragging, as if to indicate that he had reached the next feral state. That he was so post-gross he could make ironic jokes that could horrify an entire classroom of the liberal “recuperators” who were just now beginning to appear in our circles. I barely believed the story, but I wanted to. I remembered that the nastiest thing I had eaten so far were those maggots we scooped from a bloated snapping turtle and cooked in the bottom of an empty can of spaghetti sauce and felt a little disappointed in myself.
If anything of my ventures into the rabid unbecoming of the early-millenium anarchoprimitivist anti-civilization movement taught me, it‘s that embedded in our social order is the delineation of Good an Evil, which each together produce the depraved. That at whichever time and place one happens to find themselves in, certain refusals of the acceptable and appropriate can feel like liberation, despite their roots in the very order of things as they are. The experience of sinking into the depth of filth and decay is still with me, and helps me see my compromises with the world for what they are: choices, conditions, an armistice I’ve struck with the sufficiently groomed and gracious civilized society simply in order to survive.
Whatever depraved desires or transgressions we strike, somewhere beneath is a sovereign will to live. It's how we explore our own relationship to a power and authority that lies far outside of our control. How we find agency in that powerlessness. Maybe our self-desctructive misadventures and indulgences are, in their own way, how we make peace with the ultimately hopeless realization most of us come to at the end of our childhoods: that portions of what makes us who we are must be suppressed in order to make a way through this massive, invulnerable system of apparatuses which stamp out (or rather stamp us into) life.
What is depraved changes with time and the wickedness the word implies is just a temporary relationship. We change with time too, which should give us respite in moments of existential crisis, a kind of consolation for the passing of our past selves and new appreciation for who we are now, and what delights us about knowing the vulnerability in the power these unfathomable socializations truly hold over us.
This is The Depravity Issue, where we bathe in blood, gorge ourselves on Quesalupas, and cosplay our way into the campaign rally. We'll peek under acceptability and reach up for its undoing, spit on The Traditional Family and whip the End Of Family, and having things done to us. We'll suppose that bashing back is more debaucherous than the crops and gags we make together ever could be. We'll wink at Disney World, the pigs, the rats, our Brothers and Sisters, and our trolls. Buckle up, kids! Oh, and by the way, what are you doing after the revolution, or orgy, or whatever?