Year in Review: 2015

A Shanghai sunset. Image via Wikimedia.

Pollution

For the past few years, people living in China’s major cities have been able to track local air pollution from their phones. It began in 2008, when the US Embassy started tweeting data from its rooftop air-quality monitor. Then came the third-party apps, including the popular China Air Quality Index, which uses the Embassy’s data. (As of a 2014 ban, the app now sources information from other local stations run by the Chinese government). These services focus on measuring “PM2.5,” particulate matter up to 2.5 micrometers in size. PM2.5 are the particles of air pollution considered to be most harmful to humans, because “they are small enough to directly enter the lungs and even the blood stream,” according to the Embassy’s website.

Such measurements have enabled us to gauge our quality of life on any given day. @Beijingair updates hourly, as do the apps. An air quality index (AQI) measurement of 0 to 50 is “Good”; 51 to 100 is “Moderate,” 101 to 150 is “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” 151 to 200 is “Unhealthy,” 201 to 300 is “Very Unhealthy,” and 301 to 500 is “Hazardous.” Over 500 is anybody’s guess. In November, China’s air pollution problem felt like it was reaching new heights. November 8 was an especially bad day for the northeastern city of Shenyang, which recorded an AQI of 1,157. The World Health Organization believes that an AQI of twenty-five is healthy. It was now undeniable that China’s growing economic status was contributing to diseases like lung cancer, respiratory problems especially for children and the elderly, and still-unknown illnesses for adults.

In 2011, I began experiencing strange and unaccountable symptoms—chest pains, a general bloatedness, all-day fatigue. My doctor told me he couldn’t find anything physically wrong, but he did recommend a blog (his own) about how to survive bad air pollution. On it he had detailed which masks filtered out PM2.5 and what kinds of home air filters actually worked for small particles, which remain inside your lungs forever. Life then became a tripartite existence of masks when going out, air filters when at home, finger on the AQI app every hour. The only way to go on, it seemed—and still seems—was to have the best time possible whenever the AQI crept down to 50 or below. This could be the result of a natural wind-related occurrence, or of the government manipulating the weather by instructing polluters to cool their heels for a day, shutting down factories and construction sites or restricting the number of cars on the road. There was a glorious day when AQI was down to under 20, lower than in parts of London, and my husband and I went to Beihai Park. This was one of the fabricated blue-sky days; officially it was the “Commemoration of the Seventieth Anniversary of Victory of Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Antifascist War.” On days like this, the blueness of the skies reduces me to tears. This capacity to appreciate nature is a new personality quirk I’ve developed since moving to China. So, too, have I learned to pause when I hear the leaves rustle, signaling the sound of wind coming from the west.

 

I’ve taken to running five to ten kilometers around the Forbidden City when the air is good—under 200—first during the summer months and gradually, to appreciate the trees that line the moat, three to four days a week in the snow and sleet. Just as blue skies have an outsized meaning here, running and eating and going to the park seem to have more meaning in China than they do in the rest of the world. Clean air threatens to join other tantalizing and out-of-reach things—freedom of speech, an uncensored internet. I write this as news breaks that bottled Canadian air has sold out to the public in China, mere days after its release. It sounds absurd, but believe me when I say I understand it.

—Alice Xin Liu


Music

The death of Ornette Coleman left me despondent in a way few other public passings have. To me he was always the 20th-century musician, the figure whose confident, deliberate, sometimes frustrating trajectory seemed the most alive to what music could be and do. Every solo felt like an unprecedented utterance, as if he were discovering, one note or phrase to the next, what his instrument and his tradition could do, what constraints could be sloughed off, what unheard melody alchemically conjured.

On his plastic alto sax he was the most speechlike performer in the history of jazz. He could wail, growl, cry. As he pushed further ahead, he also called back the bluesy moans, the Dixieland squawp, that the music was ever in danger of losing. Valerie Wilmer characterized his style as having a “happy urgency,” which is just about right: Ornette was an ecstatic performer but also an anxious one, his search tireless and sometimes outlandishly wrong. For every three or four deep-delved triumphs such as “Free Jazz” there was plonk like “Skies of America,” his turgid notated work for orchestra. But these were the failures of a genius, driven constantly to test the musicality of his ideas. Not many recognized masters would submit themselves as Ornette did to the trials of learning new instruments. Even if his forays into sawing on the violin or blaring a cornet weren’t unalloyed successes, they were always true to the restlessness of the man himself. His laurels were uncrumpled.

The fundamental contrast in Ornette’s persona was between his retiring, undemonstrative manner and his utter confidence in charting a future for improvised music. His album titles were pompous and sublime: Something Else!!!!, The Shape of Jazz to Come, This is Our Music. But as both a performer and a person, he seemed to want to shed the egocentricity that attended the great soloist, the deep arrogance of figures like Miles Davis. It’s not surprising that Ornette rubbed Miles the wrong way. “Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he plays,” Miles said. “If you’re talking psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside.”

I think Ornette’s difference made him an upsetting figure to established jazz musicians. The gender politics of the jazz scene seem to have made him uncomfortable, and he was a cultural outsider in more ways than one. He arrived in New York with long hair, a vegetarian. On the cover of The Shape of Jazz to Come, his rapier-thin frame, his shirt-collar tucked into his sweater, and his beatific gaze were far from the muscular “cool” projected by most musicians. Feeling so uncomfortable with the scene’s strictures on exuding a rugged heterosexuality, Ornette once made serious inquiries with his doctor about self-castration. The requisite masculinity of jazz performers was something he wanted no part of. Something about Ornette’s expressive, self-interrupting, probing style and his desire to forge a truly collective form of music—with each instrument having an equal role, rather than being divided into soloists and accompaniment—derives from his own uncompromised nature.

Ornette was somehow everywhere in the days leading up to his death. A photo of Ornette at his eighty-fifth birthday party receiving Cecil Taylor made the rounds of the internet in March. Just weeks before Ornette died, I found myself in conversation about free jazz with an amateur trumpeter on my block, who remembered hearing Ornette on the radio in 1959. “I heard it and couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” he told me. “It was like he was playing the wrong notes. I heard them, and thought ‘He’s not playing it right! He’s not playing it right!’” He wasn’t, and he absolutely was.

—Nikil Saval


Gender

The new newsiness of gender nonconformity in America took everybody—even those of us with active Tumblrs and activist lives—by surprise. Gay marriage was legalized across the US on July 26, but was eclipsed in many memories by the announcement some months earlier of Caitlyn Jenner’s spectacular, universally witnessed transition.

Caitlyn Jenner was once proclaimed an “all-American hero.” In her old body, Jenner advertised Wheaties and fought the Soviets in battles of physical strength. Her old body was America’s. Several extremely beautiful trans women have become mainstream-famous in the US in recent years—Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Lea T, Andreja Pejic—but nobody we already owned.

Jenner distributed herself as a syllabus to the public classroom when she took the Vanity Fair cover, and her reality television show taught its own plot as a morality lesson for the cisgender masses. It was very beautiful and very frightening. But it was frightening, too, for those who already knew. Everybody’s moms are cool with trans women now, having been taught common core values. They know that their trans children can be beautiful, and rich. “Live your truth,” moms say, now.

Is it better to hold only professionally beautiful women as our trans icons than to have none at all? Is it better to discuss the marginalized via critiques of one rich white trans celebrity than to never speak of the marginalized at all? Is it better to feel one’s private pain recast as a 2015 news-media trend than to have gone to the grave without it ever spoken?

—Jo Livingstone

 

Watching an entire season of a TV show in two days is a pretty solid indication of depression, and in 2015, I did it two times: once, in October, with the first season of Transparent, and then again in December, with the second.

Transparent debuted on Amazon’s video streaming service last year, but it was only with the release of the second season last month that the show became the sort of thing that many of us are required to like. Posters appeared on every subway platform showing the show’s central family, the Pfeffermans, sitting around a table heaped with pastrami sandwiches. Ariel Levy wrote a glowing profile of the show’s creator Jill Soloway in the New Yorker, in which Soloway weirdly described her directing style as being like a vagina, “discerning-receiving.” More broadly, the show—about a newly out transgender woman and her three adult children—has been seen as part of a broader shift in the LGBT-rights narrative, away from the rights of cisgender queer people (a struggle that seems to have reached a climax in the popular imagination with the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide this June) and toward transgender rights and acceptance.

All of which can make it difficult to admit that the show isn’t very good. Its comedy relies heavily on the narcissism and immaturity of Maura’s children—Sarah, a mother of two, Jason, a music producer, and the perpetually unemployed Ali, who is thinking about going to grad school. The siblings’ various broken promises and failed love affairs map a little too closely onto the trope of the childish adult, as seen in shows like Girls, Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, and 30 Rock, not to mention every Judd Apatow movie. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, Maura’s children are formulaically selfish: Ali asks Maura for money, and tries to talk her unwilling girlfriend—played by that ubiquitous woman from Sleater-Kinney—into an open relationship; Josh sires a series of unintended pregnancies, and schemes to sell the family house. All of this felt a little too much like something I’d seen before, and the plots’ resolutions were marked with the sort of practiced ambiguity that feels less like emotional honesty and more like a submission to a freshman fiction workshop. After all, one of the most consistently true things about belonging to a troubled family is that people’s selfishness will rarely take the form of a cliché. More often, the unhappiness of unhappy families is novel, creative, and capable of surprising you.

But what frustrated me most about Transparent is that the show’s queer characters don’t get to do much besides be queer. Maura’s daughters flit in and out of lesbianism, and seem preoccupied with whether they’re gay or not. Maura herself embraces transgender clichés with an enthusiasm that seems blind and unselective (undiscerning-receiving?), without regard to her age or stature. It seems feasible, for instance, that Maura would want to participate in her LGBT center’s transgender talent show; less so that a 68-year-old would choose to sing, of all things, Gotye’s 2011 single “Somebody that I Used to Know.” This is not to say Transparent isn’t enjoyable for the lighthearted comedy that it is. But it is not the grand advance for LGBT rights that some of its devotees claim it to be.

The real problem might be that our discourse surrounding the politics of popular culture is now one that equates visibility with representation, representation with justice. The mainstream LGBT movement’s shift toward transgender activism has yielded many victories for visibility-as-such. 2015 was the year that activist Janet Mock became a host on MSNBC and the transgender teenager Jazz Jennings got her own reality television show. Caitlyn Jenner, the erstwhile patriarch of the Kardashian family, came out as trans and posed for Annie Leibovitz in a gleaming bustier. She got her own reality show, too. On the more highbrow end of the cultural spectrum, the centerpiece of the New Museum’s 2015 triennial was a 3D portrait of the trans artist Juliana Huxtable. In the piece, by Frank Benson, Huxtable’s skin is neon blue and she is reclining in the nude. The result of all this is that the average American is much more likely to have some exposure to transgender issues at the end of 2015 than they were at the start of it.

It’s not that these advances toward increased transgender visibility aren’t valuable; they are. But the rhetoric praising them has participated in a sort of magical thinking, the kind that posits that if we merely see more transgendered people, we will be more likely to treat them fairly, less likely to harm or oppress them. It’s a difficult proposition, given how often the push for visibility has meant that transgender lives are recast as entertainment. But even at its best and most optimistic, this thinking can be dangerous; it can encourage complacency. For all the magazine covers, thirty transgender people were murdered in hate crimes in the US in 2015. It’s a problem that visibility alone will not solve. At any rate, I look forward to watching less television in 2016.

—Moira Donegan

 

Florida, either mired in swampland or held tenuously above sea level by porous limestone, is an unforgiving state, steadfast in its hostility to human life. We receive due reminders in the form of nightmarish sinkholes that swallow the bedrooms of sleeping people and the lacquer of sweat that is December business as usual. We fork over crazy amounts of money at the height of summer to stave off the oppressive, damp heat. There are more deaths by lightning strikes here than in the rest of the states combined.

The state’s ecological personality refracts through its people in strange, cruel ways, often noticed by non-Floridians. Our extremity is hashtag worthy; our horrors are not as surprising in context. (Most Florida papers now have blogs devoted to Weird Florida news.) In 2008, popular vote amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman; in the first week of 2015, weeks before the Supreme Court decision, the two counties that make up the very tip of Florida called the 2008 ban unconstitutional and began issuing licenses for all. Fourteen county court houses stopped officiating marriages altogether to avoid illegally discriminating. Pasco, a county adjacent to the one I grew up in, admitted to doing so because its court employees were uncomfortable with the prospect.

In March, a bill that issued fines and jail time to people who used a bathroom that did not match their sex at birth floated through two House committees. Advocates claimed it was for public safety; LGBTQ activists pointed out the danger it would create for trans men and women. The bill died in March with the end of the legislative session, but so did the Competitive Workforce Act, which would have added gay, lesbian, and transgender to the list of things you could not be discriminated for in the workplace.

In Gainesville, where I live, a young transgendered woman wrote a letter to the editor about her experience as a trans girl in high school and explained the injustices of an enforced gender binary. An accompanying photo showed her in her prom dress, noting she was part of her school’s Homecoming Court. The letter’s first comment read: “Contrary to Sun reporters and pro-gay articles, most people I meet everyday on my travels to Texas and Gainesville don’t care and are very much opposed to this dangerous lifestyle. We have the freedom to reject and denounce this practice that for most is absurdly out of place.”

Meanwhile Florida’s sea levels rose, flooding the streets of Miami Beach with saltwater. The sinkhole that in 2013 sucked a man into the depths of Tampa, never to be found, opened up once again. People are gearing up for the state’s second Python Challenge, an effort to encourage residents to help curb the huge numbers of pythons that have infested the Everglades.

A few weeks ago I sat swatting mosquitoes with my friends in a nearby park, sprawled across a blanket, welcoming the end of the semester and the year with cheap champagne. We watched as two men in tuxedos posed for a photographer. They bent their heads close, latticing their fingers. As they walked away, back to the reception, we cried out congratulations. One of us drove up the volume on the speakers, playing “Kiss Me—” the sappy, jangly one. They strode over; we jumped up. We took turns giving hugs, leading a wild jumping dance. They took swigs of our cheap champagne, and we were really laughing out there, where nobody was thinking about the government, or statewide cruelty, or sinkholes.

—Samantha Schuyler


Very British Problems

In May, an election: the coalition government of Tories and Liberal Democrats was—unexpectedly at the time; inevitably, in hindsight—replaced by a Conservative majority. We moved smoothly to the right. Unlike in 2010, when students raged against the introduction of tuition fees, no one marched as the Tories began to dismantle the last vestiges of the welfare state.

A knowing smugness descended, a form of ancestor worship the writer Owen Hatherley has diagnosed as “austerity nostalgia.” We once again began to think of ourselves as an “island nation.” We “punched above our weight” on the “international stage.” We were “all in this together.” We reveled in our island-ness. We reveled in our island’s raininess. We read and laughed along with the “Very British Problems” Twitter feed.

After Ed Miliband resigned as leader of the opposition there was a left-wing surge led by the unlikeliest candidate for Labour leader: Jeremy Corbyn, a political firebrand and serial Labour rebel. Corbyn—at first an outside candidate nominated by colleagues who had no intention of voting for him as leader, in order to “get a proper debate going”—won the election. Immediately the Blairites went on the attack. Corbyn was weak, they said, he looked crumpled and disheveled. He wore silly hats. He couldn’t lead. It would all be over by Christmas.

After Corbyn won, we rejoined the Labour party in throngs, and immediately wondered if we had done the right thing. John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, read from Mao’s Little Red Book at the dispatch box in the House of Commons and was roundly mocked.

Some light relief! A disgruntled Tory donor, Lord Ashcroft, angry that he had not been given a role in the coalition government despite donating millions to the party, claimed that Prime Minister David Cameron had once had sex with a dead pig’s head. Or, at least, that he had once waggled his flaccid penis in the face of one at a party during his student days. How we laughed! Cameron denied the claims, but he didn’t sue Ashcroft.

In September, a group of anarchist antigentrifiers marched through the East End. They threw paint at the windows of the Cereal Killer Café in East London, a café which serves only cereal. The protesters claimed the café was a symbol of gentrification; the bearded café owners said they were just another small local business, giving work to local strivers. We laughed at the protesters, who were exposed in the press as sociology lecturers and the children of millionaires. We laughed at the café owners. We continued not to visit the Cereal Killer Café.

Katie Hopkins, a professional provocateur, called Syrian refugees “cockroaches” in the Sun. We booed and denounced her. We wept over photographs of dead babies washed up on Europe’s beaches. We vowed to take in some refugees in our own homes. Meanwhile, Cameron threatened to leave Europe to take control of our borders. Merkel has gone mad! We don’t want so many refugees as Germany has.

In November, Parliament debated sending planes to bomb Syria, in solidarity with the French after the Paris shootings. Fiery speeches were made in the chamber. Rhetoric was celebrated in the newspapers. Corbyn urged nonintervention. Parliament voted to send a few planes to drop several bombs on Syria. We punched above our weight! A difficult decision reasonably made!

Instantly, the BBC became a jingoistic propaganda machine: reporters counted the sixteen planes out of a Cyprus air base, explained how bombs could be dropped on “our enemies” with absolute precision, counted sixteen planes back in.

At the end of the year, more light relief. Donald Trump said he’d ban Muslims from entering America. Trump said Katie Hopkins was sensible! We booed Trump. We laughed at his name (in British English, a synonym for “fart”). We signed online petitions banning Trump from Britain.

December was unseasonably warm. We wore T-shirts in the rain as we collected our Christmas trees.

—Jon Day


Capitalism

When the Federal Reserve raised interest rates in December for the first time since the onset of the financial crisis, the feeling around the decision was one of somber, even funereal, inevitability. It was hard not to think of the mayor of Amity, assured of the water’s safety, reluctantly leading his citizens back down to the beach. Incidentally, Jaws was released in 1975, the last year that real wages rose. We all know the water isn’t safe, but an economy organized like Amity’s has no choice but to act like it is.

To raise the rate of interest is to shift the distribution of surplus value (understood as combined nonwage incomes) in favor of interest at the expense of profit. Imagine you have $1 million. You can put it under your bed, in which case it will depreciate at the rate of inflation, assuming it exists. You can lend it out, and receive interest at the rate determined, mutatis mutandis, by the Fed. Or you can invest it and receive whatever the rate of profit is in whatever sector, assuming you can realize it.

Banks frequently don’t have immediate access to the amounts of money they lend out to finance profit-making investments. Instead, they borrow money from other banks at very low rates. When we say the Fed “cuts rates” what we really mean is that it influences the rates that banks charge each other for these loans. If this rate is higher, banks won’t lend as easily, because their own borrowing costs are higher. If it’s lower, banks will lend much more easily, which means more investments will be financed. By keeping the interest rate low, the Fed increases the kinds of things it makes sense to invest in. This is supposed to stimulate capital investment by making it cheap to finance. A chart of the federal funds rate since 1954—compliments of Wikipedia—shows how exceptional the recent situation has been:

Untitled

The problem is that these investments never materialized. Federal, state and local governments were captured or hamstrung by ideology into cutting spending precisely when investment had never been cheaper. The private sector was no more enthusiastic. “From 2009 through September of this year, United States companies issuing such bonds spent a mere 2 percent of the proceeds of those bonds on capital expenditures,” the New York Times reported in December. Nobody could imagine a way to realize any of the profits that new capital expenditures would generate. The demand simply didn’t exist. Since there was no longer any faith in the resurrection of a growing rate of profit, corporations held onto their cash, or spent it on leveraged buyouts or stock buybacks. Inflation was one half of one percent in 2015.

To raise rates under such circumstances is to admit a certain kind of defeat. It’s not that raising rates is morally bad, but to do so when investment has not been capitalized is to confess that it might not be capitalized—and when your entire political economy is organized around the holy inevitability of capital investment, this is a remarkable confession. What does capitalism mean when the rate of profit can’t beat the lowest interest rate in history? Money has never been so cheap for so long, and people still can’t think of capital worth investing in. 2015 was the year we moved on anyway.

—Stephen Squibb


Exercise

In November of 2014, for no good reason at all, I joined a very nice gym. I had always assumed that the people who go to the gym were the kind of people hell-bent on making a moral virtue of their fitness, and the thought of being alone in an agitated swarm of neoprene and Lululemon was loathsome and anxiety-making. The creepy neoliberal bent of the fitness industry has been well-documented. Exercise, the logic goes, and you’ll work better and fuck harder, and the first day of my trial week did little to complicate this idea. As I walked up to the gym for the first time, I paused by an ad pasted in the display window. The ad depicted a full-body photo shot of a young man and a slightly older woman in formal wear, each holding an infant twin, both looking bemused and slightly concerned. They’d done the woman’s make-up so she looked older, but still hot: she had hooded eyes, bobbed, highlighted hair, and her skin was either contoured to look ageless, not young, or she had Botox. Her male counterpart was tattooed, buff, and had a Berlin-teen haircut. The idea was that, because this woman had been working out, she was hot and bold enough—confidence is key!—to lure this guy in, and, by the sheer force of their fucking, they’d confounded the laws of physics and produced not one, but two, children.

In spite of my concerns, I went to the gym almost every day in 2015. Initially, this was because it was winter, my apartment didn’t really have hot water, and the showers there did. After a while, though, I adopted the rhythms and habits of other women at the gym. For instance, there’s an almost prescribed hush in the locker room during morning hours. Women shuffle around with towels wrapped across their chests, massaging moisturizer into their shoulders and humming along to “Tom’s Diner” as it plays over the speaker system. They lend each other hair ties and quietly gripe about their hamstrings. They are unconcerned about their pregnancy scars and their regrettable tattoos, and they knick themselves shaving. Of course, gyms wants gym-goers to make friends who could be talked into going dutch on a training session, or patronizing the inanely expensive smoothie bar. But it’s difficult to share your life in New York if you don’t also talk about your work, and participating in these small moments and minor rituals feels something like a reprieve.

— Emma Janaskie


Hallucinogens

On December 31, 2014, about an hour outside of Portland, Maine, I fished an oyster out of the Atlantic Ocean, bashed it open with a stone, and scraped the flesh off the shell with my teeth. Once inside the house, I internet searched, “Can you die . . . .” The lobster bisque at the Portland airport was fine. The donkeys that live in the farms off Hillsboro Road in Hillsborough, North Carolina, are worth walking four miles from Carrboro to see. One of them nuzzled Ainsley’s belly—she was seven months pregnant. The wormwood I bought from a warlock in Durham gave me fucked up dreams.

Jeff drove me back to Philadelphia, where we discovered a Cambodian monastery behind a landfill. The monks kept to themselves in the living quarters while the workers building the eating-house stood drinking Coors Lights, warming their hands over a fire in a barrel. Bison, an ex-monk who lives in the temple, showed us the bookshelf of silver urns that he sleeps under, full of cremated remains. “I’m a bone-collector!” he shouted, laughing maniacally. There was a polished and gilded elephant tusk on the altar.

Three weeks later, after she’d handled some art at the Armory Show, my friend’s boss gave her a miniature brick of coconut weed butter that was so potent, I started hallucinating at LaGuardia. They told me that I would have to spend the night in Dallas and it was probably true because when I got there, Texas-sized snowflakes swarmed the gargantuan windows. I spent the night on the floor of Terminal A and the next seven months making a big drawing of the airport. The most popular entertainment in Riverside, California that Friday was “midget wrestling” at the old-timey theater downtown.

A local incoherent accosted us at a Brooklyn-style pizzeria in Joshua Tree, wanting to discuss Free Pussy Riot. He gave us his card; his company was called Eye of the Metaphor. Ainsley, now nine months pregnant, spent the night in her tent with painful Braxton-Hicks contractions while Dina and I took naked pictures under the full moon. They’re very tasteful—they look like Trapper-Keeper covers.

I took a train to a cloud of bees swirling free over a desolate intersection in downtown LA. In defiance of the extreme drought, a sputtering hose, left to its own devices, watered a sidewalk in Brentwood. I went to Brooklyn again in order to act like a demon in my friend’s installation, riding around on people’s backs and making them make out with one another. After spending five hours in a dark box, I felt insane.

Dina flew back to her hometown of Engels, Russia. My dad picked me up from Philadelphia and drove me back to my hometown of Glenview, IL. It turns out that the girl who was murdered on my street was killed by the same serial killer who later killed Ashton Kutcher’s lover. The killer had lived on the next block; out of a concern for my safety, I started sleeping on the floor a lot. Meanwhile, it had come to my attention that a square of Lindt chocolate has been lying on the windowsill of my childhood bedroom for an estimated five years. What began as a desperate crush on a five-legged ant—would I ever see her again?—evolved into an obsession with the colony that lived in the wall behind my desk. In June, my grandmother and I stood marveling as the ants carried the corpses of their fallen sisters halfway up the window then flung their mangled bodies down out of their mouths. Soundtrack: “Masters of the Shakuhachi.” When I returned in August, the piece of chocolate had mysteriously disappeared, but when I returned again in November, it had mysteriously reappeared.

The following discoveries were made by water: On the banks of the Schuylkill River, bats swoop, feasting on fireflies. In White Creek, DE, I learned how to shoot light out of my hands. The nude beach in Gunnison, NJ is not relaxing, but it is psychedelic. “Devil’s Hole,” a small waterfall behind a grocery store in northern New Jersey, has a used tampon in it, while a herd of mystico alpacas graze the perimeter of Higbee Beach. Marsh witches rove the overgrown highways of Beverly Shores, Indiana, nourishing all manner of wildlife with saltine crackers. Even pelicans live in New Jersey. At Walden Pond, Massachusetts, Ainsley proffered definitive evidence that four-month-old Ruth loved to swim, Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

—Bela Shayevich

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