It was a 90 degree July day and the AC just purred along. Glaciers were melting while the coffee shop itself shivered. I liked the shirt I was wearing for warmth—purple, thin wale corduroy, button up—though I had liked it more earlier in the day. Earlier, the shirt was plain, unlike my LET’S GET DRUNK AND BE SOMEBODY tee, which was an unexpected gift and which I only wore in the dark. And then I considered the tags on this one. In cursive, Tommy Bahama® appeared on the collar and on a hem. The tag said COTTON, TENCEL®, LYOCELL, MADE IN CHINA.
I mention all this not to say anything about Chinese manufacturing practices or advances in thread technology, but to suggest that even when we think we are wearing zero words, we are actually wearing quite a few. We’re clothed in them. Look around you. I mean, counting shirt tags, nutritional information, National Weather Service Alerts, BUCKS and DOES signs and signs of all kinds, shelved and open books, blogs on millions of screens, newspapers, lit mags, warning leaflets dropped from the sky, jokes, black coffee receipts, ‘thank you’s and ‘good bye’s and ‘don’t shoot’s, all those people singing to "Tangled up in Blue" and all those people praying too and love notes in beach sand and—counting all of those words, there are a lot.
And there is also my coffee mug. On it, a girl in a yellow dress and yellow socks and white sandals tilts a yellow umbrella to white rain. Nevermind the scandal of wearing socks in sandals. The girl has yellow pigtails. She’s pouring salt on dry words: WHEN IT RAINS IT POURS®.
If words were water molecules, our shirts would be dripping and our attics and libraries and farms, all the silos of grain and silos of missiles, would be underwater. In fact, it’s not so unusual to speak of words in hydrological terms. There are torrents and rivers and oceans and waves and, of course, floods of words. And while overflows can be destructive, they also contribute to the natural cycle of things. So I don’t know, is all this language part of a verbal Karmic wheel, or are we just drowning ourselves?
The caveman said, “Ow.”
Lao Tzu said, “Tao.”
The Native American said, “How.”
We shouted, “Dow!”
And I sipped my coffee and asked Google how many words there were in the world. My computer made a rodent noise and refused, so I narrowed my search, got more specific, in a general way. As of August 5, 2010, there were estimated to be 129,864,880 different “books” in the world and each “book” may have had millions of copies, and even more excerpts reprinted, and even more commentaries and theses and reviews written about them, etc.
It was too much. I winnowed further. I asked, “How many essays are there in the world?”
Of about 199,000,000 results, Google’s first, which appeared just above, “How Many Students Are There At Hogwarts?” was, “How Many Wild Animals Are There?”
It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected, but, since, in my mind, an essay ought not limit itself to the center of the bull’s eye, it seemed an apt reply. Turns out there are a lot of animals, especially if you count nematodes. A nematode is basically a worm, earth, tape, ring, etc. There are about 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 nematodes living on the planet. I considered this. Then I considered the 42,038,633 living breathing asses in the world.
I’ve been the Essays Editor of Wag’s Revue for about a year, and have been on the staff for about three. I’m still learning. My tastes are fungible. But I can tell you that at Wag’s Revue we appreciate the fact that an essay is a weird bit of writing. It’s a bunch of words with volition. We say that an essay tries. We say that it wants things, wants to go places, wants to think about things, but, at least at the outset, it doesn’t know what. That’s one of the things, along with the facts and criticism and scenes and jokes, that we love about an essay. We hitch a lift like a nematode, live off your nutrients for a bit, are forever changed, and then get deposited in a latrine a thousand miles away. Generally, we hope it’s a sanitary latrine. But so, my co-Essays Editor, Sam, he says he likes “unobvious” essays, by which I think he means essays that are not obviously unobvious, for what was once unexpected quickly becomes rote.
Still, it’s not easy to be unexpected. How, as a writer, can you will yourself to surprise yourself?
Even or especially in my day to day—the stuff essays are begun with—I usually don’t end up someplace unexpected. I leave the house in the morning and end up back at the house in the evening. And if I’m at a loss and I say I’m going to go wander around, as in the trope-y transmutation of the essay into life, it usually means I’m going to take a nap.
It’s what all essayists say, isn’t it?
We’re essaying, we say, We’re just wandering around.
I say Bullshit is what we ought to be saying. Why? Because we’re napping. I know. I too love a good rest and I’ve read the slush—god bless it, with its rare and wonderful surprises.
So, as long as I’m awake, jacked full of amphetamine, really, focused, dialed and zero-ed in, I should also at least be honest. My shirt’s not purple. It’s maroon. I said it was purple because Wag’s Revue is purple. Purple, unless it’s purple prose, is almost never expected. When Wag’s Revue began, five years ago, we didn’t expect to be paying our contributors either, which we now do, with hundred dollar bills. This is important to us. And so is providing all of our content for free. It’s hard enough to find something good to read, and then you have to pay for it?
Recently, I was trying to read this article, in Science:
Brazillian [sic?] uncontacted Indians: Science 11 July 2014:Vol. 345 no. 6193 pp. 125-126DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6193.125Uncontacted tribe in Brazil emerges from isolationHeather PringleLast week, Brazilian officials announced that an isolated Amazonian tribe took a momentous and potentially tragic step. Emerging from dense rainforest along the Upper Envira River in the state of Acre, Brazil, the group willingly approached a team of Brazilian government scientists on 29 June and made peaceful contact with the outside world. Officials suspect that the tribe fled illegal logging and drug trafficking in their traditional homelands in Peru. The meeting was Brazil's first official contact with an isolated Amazonian tribe in 20 years. Anthropologists remain deeply concerned about the tribe's future as it encounters novel diseases and resource-hungry outsiders. Many previous contacts have ended in tragedy, as diseases such as influenza and whooping cough ravaged tribes.
There was probably only a page more, but I could get no further without purchasing the article, for “one day,” for $20.
I would like to tell you more about these people and how they are coping with the flu, but I cannot. I expect they are napping and hydrating, as I do when I come down with something, but I can’t be sure. Only some things are known. A few days before the full tribe “made contact,” mostly naked men and boys had been seen snatching food and clothing from a nearby village. Then they came forward and showed evidence of having been shot at with guns, probably by the narco traffickers or timber thieves. Drip bags and IVs and needles were administered to the people who were facile with bows and arrows. The people with the stethoscopes and cameras and notebooks did strange things with these instruments and though they looked similar, and smiled similarly, they were paler, clumsier, seemed greedy for something these recently contacted people had. What was that thing? What were the scientists expecting? And what did these people expect to find when they walked out of the trees?
The Buddha always maintained he knew what to expect.
He expected nothing.
He said that desire was suffering and that abandoning expectations would lead to the elimination of suffering. He did not expect purple and when he experienced it he did not suffer.
It’s ridiculous, but every time I go to the river, I expect to catch 22 fish. I never have. Often, I don’t catch anything. I suffer. Three mule deer stepped across the current upriver from me. Except for the liquid river sounds, I heard nothing. Then a beaver swam over my floating line, and I felt its heavy body pull and I thought I’d hooked it. It slapped its tail and dove and I didn’t see it again, though the evidence of its presence was everywhere, wordlessly, in chewed cottonwood stumps and felled trunks. I followed my footprints up the muddy trail and up the sandy road, lost them in the hour’s past crossing of cattle, and continued following them all the way back to my truck, which was right where I’d left it.
So what now? Where to?
Coal Creek Uptown, the coffee shop I was shivering in, was SEEKING ARTISTS. Nancy was this month’s Artist of the Month.
On the wall in front of me was what Nancy called, “the visual manifestation of what it means to live life to the fullest.” It was a watercolor. In her artist statement, she says she is “most influenced by the events or individuals closest to me.” In the watercolor, an assortment of trout, what looked like Rainbows and Browns, inhabit the air, circling a bright blue lake.
Me and a high school kid—I don’t know his name—we were both looking at the art.
The Marine Corps recruiter wasn’t.
He wore Marine dress, looked good, spoke to the father and son across from him. “This isn’t recruitment talk, now,” he said.
The kid looked down from the watercolor, gazed steadily at the Corps personified. In a month, he’ll be a high school senior. He was wearing glasses, jeans, a grey striped golf shirt, the only obvious word, on his shoes, was Nike: the Greek goddess of victory.
The kid said he hated to fly. He said that. He was very serious.
He did not have any tattoos, piercings, or intentional scars.
“No belly button rings?”
“Kidding.” The recruiter was a joker, engendering trust by way of humor.
The kid once ran a red light, paid a one hundred dollar fine.
“He’s always wanted to be a Marine,” the father said. “I’ve tried to talk him out of it.”
The kid did not know who his counselor was at school.
Trick joints? Medications?
“A light dose for ADHD,” the father said. “But he’s off it now.”
“Dad,” the kid said, “I had those kidney stones for two days a couple weeks ago.”
What’s this? The recruiter raised his eyebrows.
“All the salt in the buffalo wings.” The kid was joking now. He played sports. In his eyes there were no astigmatisms, no glaucoma.
“You’re great. You’re easy. I like you guys,” the recruiter said. “A lot of recruiters will promise jobs, but that’s a really bad recruiter. I can’t promise you anything until you take the MEPS. The written part is an 8 section test: paragraph comprehension, wiring, mechanical, a whole bunch of random stuff. Science. Word problems. We pay for the whole weekend. We drive you down to Denver. You take the written test. We buy you dinner, a room at the Sheridan. You go to sleep. At 430, you wake up, get on the shuttle to visit the Doctor for your underwear check. You do the crab and duck walk. If you were a woman, we’d do a pregnancy test. You piss in a cup. We’ll talk to you about your beliefs and evaluate you psychologically, try to catch a contradiction in your paperwork. Just be truthful about everything. You’ll be in Boot Camp a couple months after you graduate high school.”
“What kind of score do I need to be a sniper?”
“There is no score for sniper.”
“Kid’s a crack shot,” the dad said. “At 475 yards, with a .270, he shot an antelope right between the eyes. Blew its head off.” He paused, and then, “We’d like to hunt more, but I am so busy working.”
The coffee shop’s noise level increased. I missed things.
“I’m not going to give you any recruiter talk here,” the recruiter said, a heavy colorful binder in front of him, “but if you’re smart and you have heart and you work hard, you can do it. First, you’ll go to infantry. You’ll have to shoot perfect at 200, 300, 500 yards. Every infantry will send tryouts to sniper school. If you pass that, you’ll train as a Pick for a year and a half. You’ll essentially be a Hawk’s bitch. There are 500 Hawks in all the Marine Corps. A Hawk is fully trained and equipped. You’ll carry all his heavy gear, take care of everything except the trigger pull. You’ll learn camouflage. You’ll be able to engage a man with your M40 at 1000 yards and with the M82, you might engage a target over a mile away. United States snipers are the longest and most professionally trained snipers in the world. That is not a professional opinion. That is a fact.”
I had to leave. I got up and left. I felt jittery and nematodal and happy, having gorged myself on those three souls for the past half hour. I walked the usual way home, read the usual names on the usual political yard signs, got home at the usual hour and read the usual in Harper’s or The New Yorker, I forget which.
I’d say that a Sniper is not an essayist, at least not in the sense that his bullet does anything he doesn’t expect.
On the other hand, it’s likely that from the prospective of his target, the sniper is the composer of an essay, for who expects a bullet in the brain?
That said, this isn’t recruiter talk when I say that at Wag’s Revue, we read submissions for each deadline eagerly, hoping to find at least one titled, “Why I Can’t Stand Adam Gopnik and Why it Matters.” Or “Why it Doesn’t.”
We haven’t found one yet.
Matthew Clark is the Essays Editor at Wag's Revue. He lives in Laramie, Wyoming and is writing a book of essays and profiles about men in America - a lion hunter, a ufologist, a lobsterman, Ron, a cemetery worker. His writing has recently appeared in The Indiana Review, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, and The Antioch Review.