Monday, January 17, 2022

Cheryl Graham, I ♥ the 80s

We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we decided to make it a regular (if occasional) feature. So expect more cover essays in 2022 and beyond. And if you've got a cover essay or an idea for a cover essay, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). —Editors

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I ♥ the 80s

A cover of Leonard Michaels's "In the Fifties."


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In the eighties I played in a band. I was the only girl. I was frequently troubled by the Reagan presidency, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation and, as Prince put it, “a big disease with a little name.” 

When Reagan denounced Russia on a hot mic and said “we begin bombing in five minutes,” I became afraid to sleep alone.

I attended gigs by local bands, out-of-town bands, and national touring bands. I sometimes camped out to buy tickets. Staying up all night was not a problem for me.

I wrote bad songs.

I went to school—The University of Arizona—much of the time.

I read music magazines the way people suck candy.

Personal relationships were more important to me than anything else.

I was enthralled by an older woman. She was 21 and married to an even older man. We drank vodka and lay on the floor of her living room in the dark and listened to David Bowie sing “Cat People.” Instead of putting out fire with gasoline, we sang Vaseline, and rolled over laughing. I don’t remember the first time we kissed, I only remember the feeling of wanting to.

I had personal relationships with sorority girls, photographers, high school kids, alcoholics, non-specialized acid casualties, and numerous poets.

With three other students I lived in a rented bungalow south of campus. One roommate kept a St. Bernard and sold drugs. The St. Bernard bit me in the back, and its owner said he would euthanize it. He moved out so I never knew if he really did.

I knew a professor of Art History who created erotic performance art in which she read feminist theory in various states of undress.

In the eighties there were always parties. Before we went to the parties, we’d stop by my friend Lisa’s ex-boyfriend’s house for Quaaludes. The pills were still legal and Rick James referenced them in “Super Freak.” After I started sleeping with Lisa, the ex-boyfriend would call me on the phone and talk for a long time. After she broke up with me, I’d call him on the phone and talk for a long time. 

I took classes in drawing and English. I took classes in linguistics, women’s studies, and modern art. I studied painting and French and wrote songs about French paintings. 

Inside the Controversy album was a poster of Prince standing in the shower wearing only a g-string and a gold chain around his hips. I hung the poster in my bathroom. When he played in Phoenix, I rode to the concert with a friend in the back seat of another friend's car, mixing gin and tonics. The friend drove eighty-five miles an hour and drafted behind a semi so closely the trucker couldn’t see our car. We had a little cutting board in back for the limes.

My band practiced in a dusty garage and listened to Joy Division, the Gun Club, and the Fall. We wore secondhand paisley shirts and penny loafers with no socks. I took Black Beauties every day for a week, then slept for two days after that.

I had asymmetrical hair.

I walked into a pink stucco house one afternoon and met a woman named Liz. She had just come back from Europe, and for that reason would only drink Heineken. We hiked up Sabino Canyon and cooled the beer cans in the creek. When we moved in together, I hung the Prince poster in the bathroom. 

Eventually I got in a different band with different boys and took a semester off to go on tour. I didn’t withdraw from classes, I just stopped going to them. I got F’s in everything except Painting. On the road we listened to the Human Hands, Zoviet France and The Violent Femmes. We slept on the wooden floor of a loft in San Francisco that had been occupied by a man who hanged himself. 

Ian Curtis had also hanged himself and I thought, somehow, the two suicides were connected.

I protested the escalation of the Cold War. I marched to Take Back the Night. I thought Mondale could win.

I heard the Smiths for the first time in a dorm room at UC San Diego, where my band played to ten people at the Ché Café. When I came home from touring, Liz told me she hadn’t slept with our mutual friend yet, but she wanted to. I moved out one afternoon while she was at work.

I got a job at the daily newspaper and was fired two weeks later for being “too artistic.” 

I went to work in a coffeehouse. At night we listened to Gene Loves Jezebel and flirted with all the people coming in after the bars had closed. I worked with a boy from Arkansas named Jeffrey who wore those deep V-neck sweaters from the Gap with no shirt underneath. He shaved his chest and dyed his hair red. He moved to San Francisco and not too long after that, somebody saw him in a porn magazine.

I used to think that someday I would write a film version of my stupid life in the eighties.

I dropped LSD for the first time with a customer from the coffeehouse. Somebody said the guy had so many library fines that the University wouldn’t grant him his diploma. So he just bought one cup of coffee and sat in the corner all day and tried to make friends with the lesbians. 

On the day we took acid, we rode the elevator to the top of the Science building and found an open door to the roof. There was a monsoon sky and I saw God in the clouds. God was Aretha Franklin and she had two backup singers. Somewhere I read that when they made the video for “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” Aretha wouldn’t talk to Annie Lennox because she thought she was gay.

I hated that song.

Eventually I had friends in New York, Cambridge, Seattle, Portland, & Los Angeles.

I had a coworker, Patrick, who was an astonishingly attractive man from New England. He had slate blue eyes and a patrician jawline, and the cultivated stubble of a Ralph Lauren ad. If he told you to go fuck yourself, you’d think he paid you a compliment. When I had to open the shop in the mornings, he’d get there early and do all the work and meet me at the door with a cup of tea. We’d listen to Kate Bush in the calm early light and wait for the morning rush. When Kate sang “Wuthering Heights,” a customer would invariably come to the counter to inform us the record was on the wrong speed. I loved watching Patrick tell them it was supposed to sound like that, then roll his eyes at me as the philistine walked away.

After he got sick, Patrick moved back to Boston and wrote me type-written postcards. When I got the news he had died, I was lying in bed waiting for a pizza delivery. The eighties ended that night.


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Cheryl Graham lives in Iowa City. She writes about music for PopMatters, and has been published in the New York Times, Sierra Magazine, Pigeon Pages, and the March Xness series. 





Thursday, January 13, 2022

Sean Lovelace's Classic Essay, "Total T-Rex"

We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we decided to make it a regular (if occasional) feature. So expect more cover essays in 2022 and beyond. And if you've got a cover essay or an idea for a cover essay, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). —Editors

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Total T-Rex


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“Seeing a chicken egg bears the same relation to seeing a dinosaur egg as kissing a man does to marrying him.”


A gigantic polypropylene Tyrannosaurus rex in Bowling Green, Kentucky, on March 20, 2015 (Bebe Barefoot / Stringer / Getty)


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2022

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Ever since it was first published in 2019, readers—including this one—have thrilled to “Total T-rex,” Sean Lovelace’s masterpiece of literary nonfiction, which describes his family’s quest to witness a gigantic polypropylene Tyrannosaurus rex in rural Kentucky. It first appeared in Lovelace’s landmark collection, Teaching a Stick to Fart, and was recently republished in The Abundance, a new anthology of his work. The Atlantic is pleased to offer the essay in full, here, until the end of the pandemic. —Ross Andersen


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It had been like dying, that eating in the Bowling Green, Kentucky Pizza Hut. It had been like the death of someone, maybe the cockroaches that littered the floor like cockroaches, maybe the cigarette butts, maybe the tremulous saliva-like sheen of grease on the table my two kids enjoyed as it made for excellent lubrication for the sliding of salt and pepper shakers off onto the cracked tile floor. Someone was whimpering, perhaps the waitress. Her mouth looked like a hole you fall into while sleeping. No, it was my wife. She was looking at her iPhone and whimpering over a video of a bunch of hummingbirds at a birdbath. It was a pretty moving video. After an hour the pizza arrived, cold and simultaneously burnt and then the bill showed up like a whispered curse on a greasy plastic bill-holder tray that someone (or thing) had chewed upon, and I drank 7 diet Cokes (I was trying to stop drinking and the professional golfer, John Daly, has said if you consume diet Cokes all day long you can stop drinking…) and it had been like dying. Dinosaur World we had traveled here to see sat and belched in our minds like a smoldering meteorite crater nine miles away down highway 65. 


This article is adapted from Lovelace’s recent book.


I lay in bed. My wife, Gary, was reading an article on her phone beside me. I lay in bed and looked at the painting on the hotel room wall. It was a print of a lifelike and eudemonic painting of a smiling clown’s head, made out of bocce balls and items from a kitchen drawer. I lay in bed and contemplated how I used to be really good at bocce, even playing semi-pro for several years on the Minestrone Circuit out of Northern Boston (bocce is an Italian game). It was a simple honest living. A bocce ball held in hand has a comforting heft. It is like holding a Zippo lighter or a river stone or a mashed bag of cannabis gummies you might have hidden from your family in an internal compartment (you cut with a pocketknife) in your shaving kit next to possibly some Dexedrine—it just feels right. Two years have passed since the gigantic polypropylene Tyrannosaurus rex of which I write. During those years I have forgotten, I assume, a great many things I wanted to remember—but I have not forgotten that clown painting or its lunatic setting in the highway motel or the way crushed and snorted Dexedrine will cake up in your sinuses like desiccated drywall. The clown's head was a bald bocce ball, but I already mentioned that. His hair was bunches of tangled phone chargers. Inset in his white clown makeup, and in his bocce ball skull, were his small and laughing human eyes. The clown’s glance was like the glance of Rembrandt or Hannah Montana: lively, knowing, deep, and loving. His eyebrows were rubber bands. Each of his ears was a miniature stapler. His thin, joyful lips were credit card receipts. The clown print was framed by either cheap aluminum or the abyss. 


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“Each of his ears was a miniature stapler.”

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To put ourselves in the path of the gigantic polypropylene Tyrannosaurus rex, that day we had navigated five hours inland from the Muncie, Indiana coast, where we lived. Like Roethke, “I take my driving slow.” When we tried to cross the Lewis and Clark Bridge over the Ohio River, a pedestrian had blocked the pass with his turd brown rusted pickup truck.

Traffic backed up. A skinny man with no shirt and huge ears was trying to duct tape some kind of plastic (garbage or grocery?) bag over his license plate. We waited as cars halted into a jam and idled emphysemic, the whole time the man busily awork on his task. He seemed intense; a man who stalks his calling like a Blue Heron or a Zen monk. Once the man reentered his truck and rattled across and traffic loosened, I understood. The bridge had robotic cameras perched all over its beams like Orwellian crows. This was one of the new toll bridges, with zero human contact, just a bill ($4.22 per axle) arriving in your mail and not even a thanks for passing by. Did I consider the man demented to stop in the middle of a highway, hold up hundreds of cars, and hide his license plate? At first, yes. Later, as I ruminated and my lungs hushed in awe, no. He was a hero. We drove over the Ohio River and descended several feet into central Louisville and its mythical racetrack, Churchill Downs, where I once happily lost $114 and my pants. (I was on a three-day bender during a writing conference). As we shed altitude, the city disappeared; our ears popped; the trees appeared, and I rolled down my window. Above the trees were spirals of birds flying backwards and honking in a strange metallic trilling. Have you ever heard migrating Sandhill Cranes? They sound like Martians and are weird as fuck. I listened to the birds innocently, like a fool, like a raptured diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out, rapturedly. 


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“They sound like Martians and are weird as fuck.”

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The motel lobby was like every motel lobby off a Kentucky highway that has ever existed. The skinny manager had long hair and enormous breasts, just like Clara from the Bolaño short stories. I had an urge to live with her. She said our room didn’t have a TV but there was one in a box—she gestured to an enormous, crumpled cardboard box that said SONY—right over there if we wanted to carry it upstairs ourselves. The box was darkly stained, as if oil had leaked down one side. I have lower back pain and a popcorn knee. At the dim far end of the room, their backs toward us, sat six bald old men in their shirtsleeves, around a loud television showing America’s Got Talent. There was a neatly dressed kid on the screen, either eating or riding (I couldn’t tell which) a bicycle, but somehow suspended in the air above Simon Cowell and the other two judges. One of the judges appeared to be asleep. “Do it again!” cried Simon on television, “Do it again!”

Stranger at unknown motel, unknown location, on July 4 2008 (Julio Jones / Stringer / Getty)


Now the alarm was set for 6. Like Roethke said, “Sleep or roses?” Dinosaur World didn’t open until 10, but Gary would want to do something complicated to her hair, the kids would desire breakfast (I never eat anything but diet Coke and Dexedrine until lunch) and I wanted time to complete the New York Times crossword puzzle and then 50 pushups and flex in the mirror with my shirt off. I lay awake remembering an article I had read on my phone while using the bathroom, in National Geographic. The article was about a South American tribe of cannibals.


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“’Do it again!’”

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The article read in part: “The cannibals dance around the explorers. The cannibals light the fire. The cannibals have their faces painted in three colors. The cannibals prefer the heart and brain, disdaining the tender flesh of the thighs and the leftover intestines. The cannibals consume those parts of the body they believe will instill in them the virtues they admire in their victims. The cannibals partake of their ritual banquet without pleasure or mercy. The cannibals don the explorers’ clothes. The cannibals, once in London, deliver scholarly lectures on cannibals.”

Early the next morning we checked out. We would drive out of town, find Dinosaur World, locate the gigantic polypropylene Tyrannosaurus rex, and then drive back over the river and home to Muncie. How familiar things are here; how adept we are; how sumptuously and professionally we check out! I had forgotten the clown’s smiling head and the motel lobby as if they had never existed. Gary put the car in gear and off we went on another of our many adventures! (Just in the last year, we’d taken the kids to a corn maze in Illinois and later to Corpus Christie, Texas, to lay a rose at the grave of Latin American crossover phenomenon, Selena.)

It was dawn when we found highway 65 and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of clouds in the sky. One of the clouds looked like a silver gravy bowl and a beechwood warming stand from the era of Louis XV; the other one looked like Facebook. 


* * *


The parking lot was 501 feet long. Stunty arborvitaes lined its border, an evergreen tree very similar to the ones we planted back home to block the persistent western winds. One sultry day last August Gary had mentioned we should cut down two of the arborvitaes for a better view of an old barn in the distance and I replied, “Every one of those trees most likely contains a bird nest in its hidden core. How many nests in this world will we obliterate to see the barns? How many, Gary?” Gary gave me a look she often gives me: quizzical distaste. “I have no idea what you are talking about,” she said and took a long draw on her bottled water. “God save our life!” I spat back. Later that evening I beat her in trivia (I haven’t lost any form of trivia in eighteen years) and then we made awkward love and slept. 

East of us rose the gift shop and three ticket kiosks painted a garish blue and yellow. (I found out later these are the state colors of Kentucky.) We tightened our scarves and looked around. Then we paid ($15.75 adults, $12.75 kids) an expansive woman named Debra Leroy to get our tickets. Leroy had a sweater with a purple stegosaurus on it in glitter and crazy pink and gray hair that made me envious and reminded me of an accident I’d witnessed once as a child wherein a hot air balloon snagged on some overhead wires while descending and tumbled into a water treatment facility. Leroy said her people live over in the hollars near Clinton County and her mom was hit by an Amazon delivery truck and her dad had colon problems and her brother joined a cult and her sister just lost her job in the coalmines and all three of her kids were serving in the Coast Guard clear over in Virginia and where did we come from anyway? Indiana! Lord. Leroy said have fun. Leroy said avoid the Porta John by the velociraptors. Leroy said the best spot for shade was under the pregnant triceratops. Some people kiss under its butt! Leroy caught my eye and winked. Leroy said take a picture. I thought, I would like to learn, or remember, how to live.


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“Some people kiss under its butt!”

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Now the sun was up. Tendrils. More people were parking in the lot and clamoring nearby. All of us rugged individualists were wearing khaki cargo shorts and New Balances. It looked as though we had all gathered in a Jurassic world to pray for the planet on its last day. It looked as though we had all crawled out of spaceships and were preparing to assault the gift shop. It looked as though we were about to sacrifice virgins, make rain, eat cake, bang a gong, sauté kale, pound sand, throw dice, swim a length, cut a rug, return the ring. There was no place out of the wind. 



Arborvitaes in rural Indiana, on January 7 2019 (Don Dove / Stringer / Getty)


My kids did what they always do in a gift shop: ignored the stuffed brontosaurs toys, fossilized shark teeth, fake dirt, Dinosaur World lint removers, etcetera, etcetera, and bought some candy. Gary got a tie-dye (she loves anything tie-dye) DINO WORLD T-shirt. I purchased four 20 oz bottles of diet Coke and slipped two each in the front pockets of my shorts. 

I went to the bathroom with my shaving kit I had stuffed into my fanny pack. Then I bought another diet Coke and we stepped out back of the gift shop, onto the picnic grounds, where several fellow explorers milled about smoking cigarettes and eating popsicles in the shape of a Dilophosaurus. Wind. Deep blue body of sky. Clouds. Gossamer. And a hawk screamed overhead, and I flinched and pointed at the ground and shouted, “Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel! Weasel!” People froze. People stared. It was not a weasel; it was a brown Miller Lite beer bottle at the base of a garbage can. “Sorry,” I mumbled. And then, behind a small security roping, I saw the egg. The egg. So. 


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“So.”

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I had seen a chicken egg in 1984. A chicken egg is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a dinosaur egg. Seeing a chicken egg bears the same relation to seeing a dinosaur egg as kissing a man does to marrying him, or as flying in an airplane does to falling out of an airplane. Although the one experience precedes the other, it in no way prepares you for it. A sign read OVIRAPTORID EGGS DO NOT TOUCH. My kids immediately climbed over the roping and vandalized the eggs. Holy shit! 

“Get them! Gary!!!!!!!!!” 


Photo credit, Gary 


From all the picnic grounds came screams. A piece of blue beside the Dippin’ Dots was detaching. Security guard!? My heart kicked up like two artic terns tumbling in a mating ritual. Tremors. My mouth went Moroccan sand. My brain a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. A body rushed! It was an abrupt blue body out of nowhere; it was a barreling SWAT team; it was a squad of fallen angels! It was lava dragons! It was almost over my children, the eggs! That is why there were screams. No. I smelled charred meat on the wind. Primeval fire. At once this smoke of acidic (dill?) relish slid over the air like a lid. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was now the scent of bread, not relish, on the air and on the land and in the sky. A tiny ring of laughter. Parenting is hard. The holding of my hands where my children belonged. There was no sound. The eyes watered, the arteries drained, the lungs galloped. There was no world but cave. My hands were clay. My mind was going out; my eyes were receding the way manatees recede to the rim of seas. We were the world’s bad parents rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the prehistoric crust, while the Earth rolled down. Thoughts were light-years distant, forgetful of almost everything. We had, it seems, loved our children and loved our lives, but could no longer remember the way of them. We got the generations wrong. I missed my own century. I missed nachos and electricity and Netflix and driving the kids to school. In the back of my head was a Frisbee of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, or maybe a pacifier or a vape pen. I smelled mustard. There were stars. It was all over. 


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“I missed nachos…”

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“Are you okay?” a voice said. I was on my back, with Debra Leroy standing over me, blocking the sun like an archipelago. Her perfume smelled of rotting fruit. 

“Um, yeh,” I said, rising up to my elbows. Spin, spin slowing. My mouth felt like an athletic sock. “I’m fine.” I stood up and brushed myself off and grinned stupidly.

“Alrighty then,” Leroy said, and handed me a hot dog. “This one is on the house. People always forget to eat before they come out here, excited and all. You’re not the first I seen faint right out.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled. Leroy just shrugged and waddled off to the gift shop. The hotdog was moist and toasty. 

Gary walked up and said, “Well, they pulled the T-rex. Guy over there told me kids and drunk tourists kept climbing it and falling off. Some kid broke his back. He said they had a big crane in here and yanked it out two years ago. Also said I had a nice ass.”

“Pulled it?” I said through a mouthful. It was a very good hotdog. 

Gary said, “The lawyers. They pulled it. Fucking lawyers…” She shook her head. ‘This is why we can’t have nice things.”


* * *


It is now that the temptation is strongest to flee these regions. We have seen enough; let’s go. Why stain our hands with condiments any more than we have to? But two years have passed; the price of gas and toilet paper and diet Coke has risen. Seeing my own blood swallowed by that dinosaur egg was like seeing a mushroom cloud. The heart sneezed. The individual heart is as small as one goose in a flock of migrating geese—if you happen to notice a flock of migrating geese. The event obliterated itself. Yet I return to the same picnic tables and pick through the smeared ketchup again.

We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to eat. I do not know how we returned to the Pizza Hut. Like Roethke, “I fog the spatula.” Gradually I seemed more or less alive, and already forgetful. It was the day of a dinosaur egg in central Kentucky, and an educational adventure for everyone. It was now almost evening. The sky was dusky; there was an odor of breadsticks out of the north. We ate our fill and then more than our fill, as is our way. I was on my third slice of deep dish and eleventh diet Coke. The kids chewed on candy. Gary had spaghetti. We paid. Oh, we paid. We found our car; we paused to watch a kid repeatedly slamming a shopping cart into the brick wall of Pizza Hut, bam, bam, bam; the kid was giggling and was either very dumb or a contented genius. We pulled away, joined the highway traffic, and drove for home. 


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This post is excerpted from Lovelace’s book The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New. Copyright © 2021 by Sean Lovelace. Published by arrangement with Echo, an imprint of HappyGilmore Publishers.



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Sean Lovelace lives in Indiana, where he chairs the English Department at Ball State University but is best known for his pioneering work on the theoretical intersections of the natural world and nachos.  



Saturday, January 1, 2022

The 2021 Christmas Octave: MARTHA STRAWBRIDGE, An Incompleteness Theorem

       






We had so many great cover essays for this year's Advent Calendar that we're extending it this time around to include the Octave of Christmas (Christmas Day through New Year's Day). We'll also continue publishing cover essays into the next year, so if you've got an idea, pitch us (email Will or Ander, or ping us on twitter). Happy Holidays! —Will and Ander

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AN INCOMPLETENESS THEOREM


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Proof: 
If I do not accept any axioms as truth, then this proof cannot exist.
If this proof cannot exist, then it cannot serve as a prayer. 
If this proof is not a prayer, then I am not praying as I write. 
If I am not praying right now, then you must not need my prayers. 

Last summer, I moved back to my childhood home in Colorado, and trained myself not to pray for you. I spent my time writing on the futon in my brother’s bedroom, surrounded by his outgrown toys, his old Simpsons poster, and the M.C. Escher art books he used to collect. Instead of praying, I wrote in the past tense about things that had not happened yet. I wrote in the second person because I liked the “you” that kept me company while you could not. My brother kept me company, too. Sometimes, we sat on his futon together and drank beers. 

You left because you had to. Actually, I was the one that left. That’s how I ended up back home, alone. 

When Daisy Pitkin wrote “An Algorithm” about the time her brother spent deployed in Afghanistan, she included, as axioms, pencil rubbings he did of objects on his military base, such as the sole of his combat boot. “But this, of course is not a boot,” she writes of the rubbing. “It’s an image of a boot, a series of thin marks where a pencil came close to the sole of your boot. I think it’s the closeness of this that makes me feel alone in a way I did not expect.” 

Last summer, to combat my loneliness, I revisited one of our shared interests. I read part of a book on Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, the part about the lineage, in formal mathematics, from axiom to theorem to proof: “The axiomatic method consists of accepting without proof certain propositions as axioms or postulates…and then deriving from the axioms all other propositions of the system as theorems” (Nagel and Newman). For example, the equidistance postulate, a necessary foundation of Euclidean geometry, states, but doesn’t prove, that parallel lines are everywhere equidistant. The same could be said about railroad tracks, which we assume will never bend inward or intersect—excluding any trick of perspective. 

But the notion that the theorem is the progeny of the axiom can be misleading. It doesn’t capture how we really think when we’re trying to learn about a system. Often, the proofs are what come first, when we initially intuit a logical string of if-thens that lead us to some new realm of factual truth. The theorems come next, once we’ve found a way to name what we’ve discovered. The axioms come last, if ever. After all, we might perpetually question what counts as logical. 

I didn’t receive any pencil rubbings from you that summer while you lived in the sober house in Chicago. And I didn’t receive any letters from the place where you went to treatment for several hours each day. But at night when I would listen to your voice over the phone as you described which one of the twelve steps you had focused on that day, all I could think about was the distance between your voice and you, between the image and the object it’s traced upon, between the “foundation” of a system and its “superstructure” (Nagel and Newman), and I felt similarly alone. 

In mathematics, it is standard to accept axioms as being true without any proof of their validity. But even then, certain axioms and postulates have been proven false or contradicted after their conception. For this reason, many axioms have yet to be agreed upon. Instead, we pray that they are true. We pray the parallel lines will never intersect, and yet sometimes they do. I prayed for a way to stop praying for you, for a way to be certain you would get better, and yet sometimes I still dipped my forehead into my cupped hands and whispered your name. My axioms sometimes failed me. 

I’m trying to learn to be more trusting, but there will always remain some inconsistencies in my faith. It’s one thing to accept an axiom without any proof. It’s another to accept a proof without any axioms. 

Incompleteness Theorem: For any formal effectively generated theory T including basic arithmetical truths and also certain truths about formal provability, T includes a statement of its own consistency if and only if T is inconsistent. (Gödel) 




Axiom:

“Fig 2. Two line segments in [one plane] are two segments of great circles in [another plane], and these, if extended, indeed intersect, thus contradicting the parallel postulate.”—Nagel and Newman, Gödel’s Proof, 1958

Axiom:

“Step 2: [We] came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. 

“To clergymen, doctors, friends, and families, the alcoholic who means well and tries hard is a heartbreaking riddle. To most A.A.’s, he is not. There are too many of us who have been just like him, and have found the riddle’s answer. This answer has to do with the quality of faith…This has been our blind spot.” —Bill W., the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, writing in the past tense about something that you have yet to accomplish, if ever.

Proof: 

  • If I find my way to the end of this proof, then I will have proven a theorem, even if I don’t know how to name it.
  • If I prove this theorem, if I prove all my theorems, then I might, like Pitkin, be able to string my results across an essay.
  • Then the proofs themselves will become the story I tell myself.
  • If I am able to write this story, then I too, might be able to write you are alive, and then, you will come home whole. 
  • And if you will come home whole, then you will come home sober, finally. 
You said, “The first step was easy. I already knew my life had become unmanageable.” It was the second step that tripped you up, the act of accepting that there exists a higher power that could return you to sanity. You told me that when you confided in a friend at the sober house about your inability to accept the possibility of a higher power, they suggested you simply pray to everything that is Not You. I imagined you kneeling at the foot of your bed, asking for sanity from the liminal space that separated you from the rest of the world. Your imprint. 

This method would, given the distance between us, involve praying to me as well.

The incompleteness theorem necessitates the existence of a higher power, I’m sorry, a higher order logic. That is, to prove the consistency of one system, one must introduce another system with stronger semantics and more sweeping quantifiers. But the consistency of this new system must then also be proven. These orders of logic build upon themselves infinitely, each layer projecting onto the layer below it. Like the sphere onto the disk onto the line. 

Pitkin writes about the residential house in Rheydt, Germany where the artist Gregor Scheinder lived during the 1980s. “He spent his time multiplying the structure of the house within itself: wall in front of wall, ceiling below ceiling, floor on floor, room in room.” She then goes on to contemplate the original structure: “…I wonder if any part of him wishes to burn it down. Maybe not the entire house, but one layer of it—the eighth wall, but not the ninth, not the tenth. Going back in time to take away or implant events that cannot be undone.” If I could undo certain events but not others, I imagine it would be easier for me to trust. But everything in this world has cause and significance.

This is my theory: I am the one who is at risk of Infinite Regress. It’s true that at any moment, you could walk out from the treatment center and down the block to the Binny’s for some Wild Turkey, and this relapse would count as a regression. But I worry more for myself. I worry I’m always going to need proof—proof that you will be safe, proof that you will stay sober, proof of a higher power to restore me to sanity—even when I know that some true facts are necessarily unprovable.

There exists a family video of me traversing the depths of our home before we added the foundation. I remember the hole that was dug into the earth, then filled with layer upon layer of concrete and bright wiring and copper pipes and more concrete. I was crudely digging up clods of dirt with a shovel taller than me. Trying to reach the bottom of something bottomless. 

Infinite Regress: One of three parts to a theory that purports the impossibility to prove any truth logically or mathematically. An Infinite Regress arises if the truth of proposition P1 requires the support of proposition P2, the truth of proposition P2 requires the support of proposition P3,…, and the truth of proposition Pn-1 requires the support of proposition Pn and n approaches infinity. (Albert)



Axiom:

[Screenshot of Pete Edward’s 3D Model of M.C. Escher's 1945 “Three Spheres I” woodcut]

“‘Three Spheres’ is a working drawing in which [Escher] meticulously experiments how to convey a sphere on flat paper. Of course, it is still a piece of paper, but all those meticulously drawn lines make us believe that we are in fact looking at three spheres. While the top one is easy to see, the second, middle sphere is a disk which in Escher’s words is:

“‘folded in two halves: a vertical piece and a horizontal piece, on top of which the top sphere rests. But the disk can also be depicted like a round table top, at the bottom of the print, without a fold.’” —Micky Piller, former curator at Escher in Het Paleis, “The Illusion of a Dragon”


Axiom:

“The Hungarian mathematician Johann Bolyai (1802-1860)… spent much of a lifetime in a futile attempt to prove [the equidistance postulate]. [His father], however, knew all too well the difficulties…and wrote this strong warning to his son: 

“‘You must not attempt to approach the parallels. I know this way to its very end. I have traversed this bottomless night, which extinguished all light and joy in my life… leave the science of parallels alone.’” —William Dunham, Journey through Genius, 1990


Proof
  • If I approach the parallels in this proof, then I will learn it is impossible to prove that parallel lines are everywhere equidistant.
  • If I accept this impossibility, then I will have reached the limits of my logic, where I must choose between contradicting myself or accepting a new axiom. 
  • If I am forced to choose between inconsistency and incompleteness, I will have to accept the latter; that is, I will have to accept that I can’t know everything. 
  • If I accept that I can’t know everything, I will have to operate on a degree of faith.

Traveling east between Pitkin and her brother involves traversing seven countries, an ocean, and a sea…There are more than twelve thousand miles. The summer I spent alone, the distance between us was considerably smaller. Traveling west towards Colorado from downtown Chicago where I said goodbye to you, I passed through two Midwest states on i-80 and over one major river (Mississippi), but through no oceans, seas, or mountain ranges. I used to make this trip by train.

What else can be proven about this distance? What else can be proven about the distance between parallel lines, except that they eventually meet at the horizon?

When you came to stay with me in my childhood home at the end of the summer, I was careful not to ask you too much. Excusing myself of the fear of having to know by telling myself that you wouldn’t want to say. I didn’t want to know if or when you had faltered in your belief that you would get better. And I didn’t want to reveal how little I wanted to know. We laid in bed together and stared at each other in silence. I made invisible maps of the distance between you and me, between you and Not You. 

I had been warned that there were risks entailed in remaining in a romantic relationship with someone who had recently become sober. There was a chance, I was told, that the person in recovery (you) would outgrow the people of their past. 

Which would, given the time that’s elapsed between us, involve outgrowing me as well. 

But there was also a chance, I hoped, of us recognizing our mirror images in each other, of growing even closer than we used to be. We were both at turning points, after all, both learning to fight off the temptation to regress. The law of excluded middle ensures that one and only one of these two possibilities will occur, lest we reach a contradiction.


Law of Excluded Middle: Of two contradictory propositions, one must be true, the other false: P ∨ ¬ P. (Aristotle)


Axiom:

Fig 3. The two figures have the same abstract structure though in appearance they are markedly different. (a) is so related to (b) that points of the former correspond to lines of the latter, while lines of the former correspond to points of the latter. In effect (b) is a map…(or is the “mirror image” of)…(a).—Nagel and Newman

Axiom: 

“What makes the images impressive is the use of movement and perspective, the possibility of sky charts. The point where two railroad tracks come together is the point where they vanish, one new thought that leaves our sight.” —T. Fleischmann, Syzygy, Beauty: An Essay, 2012

Proof:
  • If I am enamored by the tools of mathematical proof, then I am beholden to the extremes of logical quantifiers. 
  • If I am bound to these quantifiers, then I am inescapably aware of each “for every” and “there exists” statement that could undo the foundations of our mutual trust. 
  • (As in, for every year that we remain together after this summer, there exist 356 days on which you might relapse, on which I’ll stop trusting you, on which you’ll stop trusting me to trust you.)
  • And if I am aware that our foundations are in a perpetual state of potentially going to ruins, then I could imagine myself refusing to build any lasting theorems upon them. 
  • If there are no more theorems, then there are no more proofs, and no prayers. 

or (proof as prayer)
  • If I am enamored by the tools of mathematical proof, then I am enamored enough to believe that these tools are capable of withstanding my bastardization of them. 
  • If I can trust myself to bastardize the proof, then I am willing to trust my bastardization of the axiom, too. 
  • (As in, I can call the symbols meaningless and the truth will persist, I can destroy the image but not the object, I can distrust the blueprint but the foundation will remain intact.)
  • And if I can accept my incomplete trust in the axioms, then I can accept that each proof is proof as prayer. 
“An Algorithm” ends with two divergent proofs. Either Pitkin can find no way back to her brother, who is enamored by the tools of war, or else his body is still somehow separate…from the war itself, thus furnishing a promise of his eventual return. The law of excluded middle ensures that one and only one of these two possibilities will occur, but it offers no prediction one way or the other. It is up to whoever creates the system to assert these truths that are not provable. 

I never fully understood Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, nor is it something, I am realizing, I ever really want to fully understand. The original proof is infamously challenging to decipher, riddled with arcane logical symbols that render it incoherent to amateurs. If I plan to keep my understanding this limited, I can continue to extravagantly misuse the incompleteness theorem whenever I reach an impasse in my faith. 

But I know this much: that after he proved the incompleteness theorem in 1931, Kurt Gödel became intoxicated with, or tortured by, the idea that there existed truths beyond the scope of his life. He quaked at the possibility that the intricate network of human minds and relationships were extinguished after death. “That would be approximately as if someone laid the foundation for a house with much effort and expenditure of money, then let everything go to ruin again,” he wrote in a letter to his mother in 1961. 

After that summer, we moved back in together. Our foundations haven’t gone to ruins, but I do write about them sometimes, and therein find that I do not truly know what counts as logical. I’ve started to think that maybe every essay, at least every essay of mine, is an incomplete theorem, every story dependent on a string of proofs—the proof by the second person, the proof of the past tense—that are built upon loose earth.

Predicate Calculus: An axiomatic form of predicate logic in which formulas contain variables which can be quantified. Two common quantifiers are the existential ∃ (“there exists”) and universal ∀ (“for all”) quantifiers. (Boole)

Axiom: 

“[Gödel] also makes the interesting observation that “it was to be expected” that his incompleteness proof “would be made useful for religion sooner or later, for that is doubtlessly supportable in a certain sense”—suggesting that Gödel himself was more open to embracing philosophical ramifications of his theorem than have been his fellow logicians and philosophers, who are almost uniformly critical of such endeavors (though admittedly often with good reason, given the extravagant misuse of Gödel’s proof in popular culture in recent years.)

“In one sense, to be sure, his religious and philosophical views are marked by [Gödel’s] paranoid, or at least naïve, reasoning…in which he applies rigorously logical inference to a dubious premise, namely that everything that happens in the world has cause and significance.” —Stephen Budiansky, Ever Your Kurt: The Intimate Family Letters of Kurt Gödel, Translated by Marilya Veteto Reese, 2021

Axiom:

[blueprint of my childhood home]

It is not a guarantee that there exists a higher power who will proofread all my unprovable proofs. But if I mean well and try hard, does it matter that I am occasionally inconsistent? This is, at times, a heartbreaking riddle. 




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Martha Strawbridge is a writer living in Iowa City, where she is a rhetoric instructor and MFA candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. [twitter]