interview, visual art

Continuity with Emily Tat

  Continuity I , 2017

Continuity I, 2017

Artist and illustrator Emily Tat moved to New York with her partner this past fall. Her style incorporates ink drawing and watercolor, sometimes tracing her figures in water and allowing the ink to seep into the damp paper. Ralph Steadman is an easy comparison, and one that she invites. “It’s such a compliment because he is fucking amazing. He uses protractors to make these very straight lines and protractors to draw the eyes. But all around the figures is just ink everywhere.”

Her current style is a recent development in her artistic career. “I used to do photorealistic oil paintings. When I was doing my degree in my final painting course, I had a very specific style, and I felt that I had to stick to it. I got criticized very badly by the professors. So I decided to go another way and began making video art, but I never felt quite into what I was doing. Shortly after I started dating my partner, Guido, we were in his dorm room, he was playing music and I felt like drawing. He only had this calligraphy pen that I still use. It forced me to draw loosely in a way that I never had to before. My favorite thing about drawing this way is that I feel that I can be very abstract and mess around with overlapping colors and spilling ink. I also like it to be very clean, with lots of negative space around what I’m drawing. I never sketch things out, so sometimes I run into the edge of pages.”

  Guido , 2015

Guido, 2015

Portraiture is an incredibly important aspect of Emily’s oeuvre, and she strives to capture her sitter’s essence while keeping the form minimal and legible. “I think it’s important to get the form of something, and to keep its structure. At the same time I like to add these weird, abstract elements to it. I do it a lot with feet and hands, and to exaggerate limbs and fingers. It’s important to capture the structure of someone’s face. I was doing a commission for this couple, and they said they really felt that I captured both of them and their connection to each other. That is the depth that is important for me to capture in a drawing… What I’m driving for is for them to see the portrait and say ‘that’s me!’ I get frustrated with myself very quickly. If I feel that I haven’t captured someone it, then it really upsets me.”

  Galentines Day , 2018

Galentines Day, 2018

What captivates Emily most when portraying subjects are sharp and angular features, but capturing these characteristics is not her main goal. The ritual and process of portraiture is what attracts her to that type of work. “When I first started doing this kind of work, a lot of people asked to pose for me. It’s just really nice when someone wants that moment. If you think about it, unless you’re in a relationship with someone how often do you get to look at someone’s face? You forget things like what color someone’s eyes are or the shape of their nose. You only get to know that when you look at someone’s face over time. So it’s really nice to have that 3 or 4-hour period where I can take a friend, or someone I don’t even know at all, and really look at them. It can make someone very vulnerable if they are posing naked. People often do it when they want a bit of validation or a little moment for themselves. I think people often don’t get enough attention, and so it’s really nice to have the opportunity to give people that recognition.”

“Since I’ve moved here I’ve had some ups and downs, but I feel as if I am having resurgence” Emily said. She started making single-line drawings, creating still lifes and portraits without lifting her pen from the paper. “I really love it because everything that is in my head can just spill out onto the page. It’s very reflective of the medium that I use as well, because ink is very quick and you have to make decisions immediately.” Her subjects have also become more personal since starting these single-line drawings. Emily showed me a drawing of her and her friend Julia and a drawing of a jar of nutmeg. “[Julia] is just one of my most special friends in the whole entire world. Ever since we met, we have had this incredible friendship that’s never faltered. I don’t have that many friendships like that. Doing a portrait in this way is really reflective of how I feel about her. I enjoyed making single-line drawings of things that comforted me, since I had just moved here. Even though things are different and weird in this country, these drawings remind me of the things in my life that are continuous. It goes beyond relationships between me and other people. There are ones of certain foods that are special to me, because my homesickness manifests itself often through food. Guido and I have this jar of whole nutmeg in our kitchen. Back in London he kept banging on about how he wanted whole nutmeg in the kitchen and he couldn’t find it anywhere, so I found some for him we I went to the south of France. It’s this continuity from our kitchen in London to our kitchen here that mirrors the continuity of our relationship.”

  Nutmeg , 2017

Nutmeg, 2017


You can see more work by Emily Tat on her website.

interview

Getting Seen and Feeling Good with Joshua Byron

“I write a lot about what it means to go viral,” Joshua Byron told me somewhere in the middle of our conversation. The question of internet virality – or as Joshua also puts it, the question of being seen – is something I’d been wrestling with personally for months when it came to this very publication. Just as we decided to produce one final issue of Things Created By People, we got an email from Joshua with a pitch for their latest film project, Idle Cosmopolitan. It was a lucky accident.

Idle Cosmopolitan, which was recently re-released by glo worm, stars Joshua as a relationship writer who enters an alternate dimension. Relationships, romance, and their intersection with trans identity lay at the center of Joshua’s work, whether it’s one of their many video projects, their non-binary dating columns, Neurotic Dope and Trans Monogamist, or their book, NB Carrie Bradshaw.

Joshua is often at the center of their own work in a way that is incredibly intimate. It’s easy to believe that the Joshua you are seeing on-screen or in words is the Joshua Byron you’ll get in real life. But Joshua is a self-described “very intentional person.” While I am consistently amazed at how raw their work is, it is also thought out, curated, intentional. If you’re seeing a part of Joshua Byron, it is because they wanted you to see it. What does it mean to be seen? To seek out being seen, to then not be seen? These questions run through the core of Joshua’s work, and our conversation.


This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Joshua Byron: I think Idle Cosmopolitan came out of this desire to meld the sensibilities that I was exploring. I’d seen a lot of Sex and the City, but I also came out of this very experimental background. I really wanted to combine what I was interested in and the themes I was thinking through, which are usually very immediate, and usually presented in very autobiographical narratives, with something a little bit more abstract, and more like Haruki Murakami.

I think a lot of it came out of a desire to think through sex and love in a way that was more than one-note. It’s an experimental, semi-autobiographical narrative about not getting married at 21. That’s what the press release said. It’s sort of like how life devolves into these endless forks in the road. In this case, it’s about a relationship advice writer who keeps going left instead of right and gets dragged along by no force of their own. And not even just led by outside forces, but just ends up going into a queer world, which is sort of an alternate dimension.

Adam Cecil: I think the other way I saw it described on your website was “a ghost story about the queer world.”

Joshua: Yeah, that’s the easier way to blurb it. It’s a ghost story, it’s about an alternate dimension, and it’s about death, in a light-hearted way.

Adam: You were telling me that your book NB Carrie Bradshaw is not a diary. And it’s definitely not structured at all like that. But the quality of the writing is very much so ripped from the pages of a diary. How do you keep that quality when you’re curating and condensing and editing?

Joshua: I think it’s a very careful distinction, and it’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. Okay, so, vulnerability. How is it different in terms of art, right? Because we always think this artist is giving themselves to us. It’s sort of a strange metaphor that we have when somebody’s being open. But I really don’t think it’s true because they’re giving us an object, and that’s it. I think vulnerability is much more reciprocal, it’s much more unfiltered. But an object, you can’t ask it a question. You can’t get more out of it than there is.

For me, it’s much harder to labor on an object that feels vulnerable, but you’re not giving your whole self. You’re not dumping a diary on somebody. A book, while vulnerable, is not the same. I can give you something, and you can see me, but I can’t see you. And I can still hold back.

Adam: But for somebody who’s reading it, they’re playing around with your vulnerability without you there. To me, that’s terrifying.

Joshua: Right. There were a few things that I took out from the book that I was like, “That’s too vulnerable for this context, I don’t want this here.” But there’s nothing in there now that I would think, “Oh, I hope somebody doesn’t read this.” Different people have said, “Wow, I would never have said that.” But this is just the work that I do, the work that I do requires it. This is the tool, this is the medium. Some people work in shapes and colors, and I’m thinking through vulnerability.

Adam: You’ve created a lot of video work under the guise a vlog. Thinking about your work being diary-ish, I’m wondering how you conceptualize the vlog as a medium or art form.

Joshua: My college thesis was on vlogs.

Adam: Oh, perfect.

Joshua: But I am not good at vlogging. Part of what I discovered through thinking through vlogs is that it’s meant for a certain kind of person, it is meant for a certain type of experience. And it’s not an experience I’m good at giving.

But what’s equally important about vlogs is that they’re diaries. They’re not political. They are easily disseminated. There is an emphasis on production quality, and on the attraction and intimacy that is maybe sexual with the person who’s speaking. And maybe they have an accent. That’s another big part of the vlogger. It helps. It doesn’t hurt.

Oh, and usually they have a vague side-project that they try and launch eventually. That sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. The vlog is not the means to an end. It’s always a vehicle for a person or a brand.

My vlogs were more of a means to an end. It was just like, “Here’s the vlog. Here’s what it is.” And I don’t fit a lot of those qualities! But I wanted to see what it was like. Also, I was more interested in using vlogs as a collage space. I was really into Jonas Mekas at the time, when he was doing his video a day project, which I thought was much more engaging than the typical vlog culture.

Of course, there’s also the whole trans vlog community, which has its own collectivity. But it also has that sort of self-destructive, like, certain people are privileged more, certain trans bloggers get more views, etc. So it’s a more contested space that still has all the things about the internet that are controversial. One of the things I discovered, which I don’t think is that surprising, is that white vloggers are getting the most views. It’s also usually the ones who look like they can pass the most, or who have the most inspirational story while looking good doing it. Which is kind of wild!

There are people who have the inspirational journey video, where they show pre-hormone, post-hormone videos. A lot of people feel comfortable doing that, and the people who feel comfortable doing those videos are not wrong for doing it. If that’s how they feel good about their journey, that’s totally valid. But I think for people who don’t transition, or who don’t have the money to transition, or who feel really volatile about pre-hormone or pre-coming-out pictures, those are not the kind of videos they’re going to put up. But those are the videos that the average viewer wants to see, because it’s spectacle. The kind of videos that get privileged are the spectacles, which have this tie to sex.

Adam: Let me back up a little. Thinking about what makes you a bad vlogger – you list out these qualities that go into a vlog as a medium. How did you tackle it knowing that you don’t fit these qualities and knowing that what you’re doing is not what everyone else is doing?

Joshua: I was really interested in the idea that it was a way to keep working. It was a great way to be like, “Okay, this doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be great.” But it’s a great to keep cutting those artistic teeth.

Some were much more interesting and engaging than others. There’s this one where I’m just walking around my living room, and I’m just yelling at things. And then it’s cutting between pictures that I drew. Then there are a few clips of the outside. I think part of it was that I was thinking about domestic and non-domestic spaces, and how are we authentic in different spaces, and how does that change when you collage them together.

I was super into Steve Roggenbuck at the time, so I was thinking through things like who gets to be viral, and what is viral. I wasn’t viral for a number of reasons. But I think that became less important as I was experimenting with collage, and experimenting with, like, “This vlog feels good, this vlog doesn’t, and why is that?” If you’re going to adhere to the rubric, then what makes a good vlog?

Adam: When you started, did you want to go viral?

Joshua: I don’t know if I wanted to go viral. But the goal wasn’t to just have them sit there on YouTube and not do anything. Which is kind of what they became. I did it for six, seven months, and then I realized that it was not how I liked to work.

Adam: If you had gone viral or achieved some level of superficial success, do you think that would’ve changed the way you thought about it or approached it?

Joshua: I think I would’ve done it a lot longer, but I would’ve had to do it for a year or two before anything like that could’ve happened, so that’s already a huge block. I’m also not traditionally attractive, and I don’t mean that as a slight, just you know, in traditional beauty politics. So, it’s hard for me to imagine what that would have been like. It would have felt radical, and not in a political way, but it just would’ve felt like a very big change.

Adam: Do you feel like any kind of work that goes through social media, whether it’s YouTube or something else, is just inherently unsuccessful if it doesn’t achieve some sort of virality?

Joshua: No, no, I don’t think that’s true. But I also don’t think failure is a bad thing! I think failing at one sense of success isn’t the worst thing in the world.

I think people are heralding social media as sort of a democratizer – everyone could have success. But I think it’s actually just the same replication of publishing and media theory that we’ve always seen. Maybe more people have access, and there are great things, revolutions and scary things like that, but there’s still a level of capitalism. Lighting is money! I think that a big thing that Instagram has is that the right lighting is money. That’s a big of part of it – to either have the money to have great lights in your house, or to go to a space that has good lighting, which poor places don’t.

So, I think I’m a little cynical about how social media works.

But I don’t think it’s always bad. I think it has definitely given us things that allow more people to have platforms. Who’s getting that platform and how they’re allowed to use it, I think is a question that has kept coming up in my own work.

I think a lot about the practice of how I’m disseminating my work, and in NB Carrie Bradshaw, I write a lot about what it means to go viral. What does it mean to be visible? How is that connected to identity politics? How is it connected to emotional vulnerability? What does it mean if somebody wants to be seen, and then their Instagram only gets five likes? I think there’s something interesting there.

People may say, “Well, that’s dumb, they shouldn’t care.” But it’s a lot easier to say that than it is to feel that. I think being visible is one of the big human questions that we all want. How do we show up and get seen by other people in a way that feels good? I think social media can kind of twist that question into “How do we get seen?” Not, “How do we get seen and it feels good,” just, “How do we get seen?”


“I don’t think of social media as a medium that I use,” Joshua told me. “We’re accelerating, and my work is not fast-paced.” I admire this quality in Joshua’s work – in a world that is constantly moving forward, it can be nice to sit down and watch a video about a person walking around their living room and yelling at things. But it’s also the fact that the very thing that Joshua is working with – vulnerability – requires us to slow down. It’s not a recipe for massive viewer numbers on the internet, but as Joshua says, there’s more to their work than just being seen. “What does it mean to be seen, and what does it mean to have fun? Can that be the same thing?” Joshua asked themselves at the end of our conversation. “I think it can. It’s a less tangible but more inviting idea of success.”


Find more of Joshua’s work on their website.

fiction

Volcano

36,000 feet up in turbulent air and I’m in an altered state. I follow the no-drinking-12-hours-before-a-flight rule, there are no illegal drugs in my system, but I’m still about to make headlines if I don’t get my prescription ones ASAP.

Okay. I take a deep breath. Where did you leave it? I ask myself, trying to incorporate the step-by-step thought mentality my one-time therapist Paul instructed before prescribing these bad boys. They have to be in my bag. I wouldn’t have forgotten something as important as relief.

And as I clutch the underside of my jump seat I remember where they are. Back at the hotel in Bali. In someone else’s room.

No wait, the one in LA. We had a layover. Room service knocked on the door and I had put it on the dresser. And I knew the plastic advertisement for couples massages was blocking it from view so I told myself do not forget, but that post-coital grilled cheese was all I ever wanted. And at 2 AM, drowsy with sleep and cheese I snuck back to my room, terrified my co-worker Susan might open up the door to hers.

And now, here we are. In-flight service delayed because of choppy air. My Xanax miles away from me by the minute, because I’m enclosed in a metal tube being flung through the air as if it were cast by Zeus himself, my life in the hands of Bob and Frank in the cockpit: men who I’ve seen sprint to the closest bathroom as street kabobs made their introductory stomach groan, men I’ve seen faint at the sight of a bloody bike accident in Ho Chi Man City. And they are pioneering the sky.

Flight school and common sense taught me that turbulence, even the vertical kind like this, doesn’t bring down planes. Paul taught me that it’s better to let your body ride the chaotic air out, let it shake how the air wants to shake you, pull you back and forth and swing you like a rag doll. But right now that’s only making me feel more out of control, so I look out at the passengers and try to take in their calm. Someone tries to stumble to the bathroom, despite the seat belt sign. Kids are glued to the back-seat screens, enjoying the ride. People flip through political bios and buzz books they bought at the terminal. I feel Frank speed up the plane, and in seconds we are gliding again. I unclench my hands, my eyes sweeping the plane as if stumbling upon a whole new world of safety. Susan looks at me with that concerned mother look she’s so good at. Someone turns on the “flight attendant” call button. 

“Excuse me,” he says, and slips past me as he exits the bathroom. His eyes casually meet mine, like any noncommittal interaction of a stranger, but then his hand brushes my shoulder, and he gives the tiniest little squeeze. I watch him as he takes his business class seat, buckles his seatbelt, and opens the Financial Times to where he left off. His wedding ring is a silver Claddagh band.

The first time he boarded a flight that I worked, Susan told me his name was Mr. Byrne. Leaning over to pour his coffee, I had said, “Good morning, Mr. Byrne,” in an attempt to impress Susan and the rest of my superiors. Mr. Byrne – salt and pepper hair, well dressed Upper East Sider – looked at me like he didn’t think I could speak. It’s amazing what saying a name can do to somebody.

Every three weeks, when he makes the flight to Bangkok to oversee the high-rise development his company is building, I start his service with a black coffee and a biscuit. He doesn’t take the complimentary mimosa, and I have to tell new flight attendants not to bother pouring him one. He dips the biscuit in his coffee in between page turns of his newspaper. It takes him over an hour to finish it.

Mr. Byrne and I are on the same flight schedule. I go to Thailand every three weeks, stay for a few days eating street food and lazing on a beach, then fly home to start the next round of domestic flights. He’s there to build the next tower of Babel. We both stay in the city for roughly the same period of time, but it’s never occurred to me to strike up anything with him outside of work. We’re an aisle-way flirtation, which for some reason feels safer to act out than an actual affair in a country 7000 miles away from home.

On one of those flights from LA back to New York, as I walked the aisles collecting trash, a man in 11A told me he was thinking about pitching a show on flight attendants. “I’d love to have an interview sometime,” he grinned at me as he tossed his empty coconut water ($5.65 at the Terminal’s health food stall “Green Light”), into my awaiting trash bag. His suede Converse tapped the floor.

“You know where to find me,” I said, deadpan with a smile, like a puppet on strings. By this time, I was more selective with passenger interactions. Two hours later he had made his way to the back of the plane, where I was perched on a chair and about to dive in to an US Weekly leftover from the flight before.

“Is now a good time?”

I kept my feet up on the jump seat across from me so that he wouldn’t sit down. That was when I wasn’t such a wimp in the sky, when I could relax my body. He asked me why I became a flight attendant, what were perks of the job, mining my life for material to make him rich. His voice got low as he asked, “So what about the relationships?”

“I’ve made a lot of friends,” I answered.

“Aw come on,” He teased. “You know what I mean.”

His eyes encouraged me, like a therapist asking me to dig deeper into my inner psyche. I wondered if he noticed the run up my stockings. Another pair I’d have to throw out as soon as we landed. Deeper to the good stuff, the dirt he could polish into diamonds, stamp his name on. I was his story whore for fifteen minutes, before – thankfully – we hit some chop and he was forced, under aviation law, to comply with my insistence that he get back to his seat.

Sometimes I feel like a very underpaid call girl specializing in ultra-specific fetishes.

I love how you tell me to put my seat forward and buckle my seatbelt.

Look how you pour that Folgers coffee into a Styrofoam cup. (Replace with “Starbucks” and “cheap porcelain” for First Class.)

Yes babe, I would like a sanitized pair of headsets.

Then there’s Frank.

“Well honey,” a lady with a shapeless sweater and still-wet hair said to me as Frank walked past her towards the cockpit. “You’re lucky if that’s who you get to report to every day.” 

Frank isn’t a bad guy for cheating on his wife. He’s a bad guy for cheating on his wife with me. It’s such a cliché, the flight attendant and pilot tryst. Sometimes chatty passengers will ask us if there are ever any inter-crew affairs, as if our lives played out like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy and they had the right to know what happens. “They could make a reality show about you guys,” one woman said, her fingers peeling back a page in US Weekly. “Maybe you can pitch it when you land,” I said and handed her a bloody Mary. It was the first flight of the day to Los Angeles, back when I used to do that route. “Go for vacation, come back a millionaire,” she laughed. Then she got serious: “But first I’m trying my luck at Price is Right.”

We land. I breathe. Susan and I roll our luggage through the airport and past the personnel we see every week. “Until our next voyage,” Susan says at the sign indicating left for Air Train and right for Ground Transportation, which she says every time we part ways.

“Until then,” I reply dutifully, and turn to follow the sign for the Air Train. Susan turns to follow the signs to the curb, where her husband will be waiting to pick her up for their twentieth anniversary.

But I feel a hand grab my shoulder and turn around, expecting Susan to be there, holding up something I had dropped. It’s not. It’s Frank. And as soon as I see him, he drops his hand, like I’m a hot stove he accidentally touched.

“Do you want a ride?”

Forty-five minutes later we’re having sex in my one-bedroom apartment, the air thick with humidity, the sheets a twisted mound at the foot of the bed, like the woven basket of a snake whisperer, a cobra coiled up inside. He finishes first, but he keeps going until I’m satisfied too. He’s thoughtful like that, so it’s not all a cliché, I guess.

I curl up next to him, fitting into the crook of his arm. I feel exhausted, too many feelings for one body, too many time zones crossed in such a short amount of time. Sometimes I wonder if we were meant to travel this quickly. Humans adapt, like every other species. Frank strokes my shoulder with his left arm, his right removing the condom, now sagging with excretions. It looks sad and spent. He tosses it in the trashcan in the corner, not quite making it, so that the condom hangs over the edge, a dribble of semen leaking out down the can. “Whoops,” Frank says, and gets up to throw it away. “You have a paper towel?”

“In the kitchen,” I say, and he walks naked through the tiny apartment. It’s always after the sex, moments like this, that I feel we are truly intimate. Comfortable with me seeing his body, sculpted but with the hint of a dad gut, the soft tummy of a man who has been married for years. This is also a man who runs half marathons, so his wife’s cooking must really be worth it. I try to imagine if I could be that woman, cooking dinner for Frank and the kids, switching off picking up his fifth grader from soccer practice while the other one has flights to London or LA. Adjusting our weeks for longer routes to Bangkok and Singapore, telling the kids that Dad will be home on Sunday, only three more days. Commitment, while wondering if there was some trashy stewardess, bored and desperate, looking to make trouble.

Frank comes back inside with the towel, wipes the streak of goo on my trashcan with a quick swipe, and then falls back onto the bed. He gives me a shy grin. “I’ve been waiting for this since the LA layover.”

I smile back at him. “Do you have the Xanax I left in your room?”

“What Xanax?”

“The Xanax that I take for anxiety.”

“Oh, I didn’t know you were on that.” He looks at me, like he’s reevaluating something. “You know, some studies say exercise is the best cure for anxiety.”

“Noted.” I sit up in bed. “What time are you supposed to be home?” The grin collapses on Frank’s face. He looks up at the ceiling. “By dinner, I told her,” he says. “Guess that’s pretty soon.” He sits up and reaches down to collect his Calvin Kleins from off the floor.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I don’t want you to leave.”

“You’re not making me upset.” He tugs his shirt over his head.

“Don’t go yet.” Pants found underneath the bed. Right leg in.

“You’re right, though. It’s getting late.” Left leg in.

“I didn’t say that.”

“We’ve had a good week together. I gotta get home now.” Belt buckled.

He kisses me on the forehead. “See you in LA.” He smiles down at me, and I feel exposed being the only one of us who is naked. But I smile back, reaching across the bed to grab my stewardess blouse. He doesn’t wait for me to see him out, just says a soft “Bye” and lets himself out of the apartment. I hear the door close, hear the extra pull of the handle you have to do in order for it to stay in the doorframe. His footsteps silencing as he walks further down the hall towards the stairs.

I like Frank, I decide. I get up to make something to eat, but there isn’t anything in the fridge to constitute a meal. Even when he acts like he knows better than me, I can’t help but like him, because he feels safe.

It’s only after he leaves, and I’m alone, do I feel guilty about our affair. Another woman works hard to keep him fed, and I can’t even do that, so why should I get what’s hers? I dig up my back up bottle of Xanax and throw it into my suitcase – perpetually semi-packed – so as not to forget for the weekend.

I used to love to fly. I even wanted to be a pilot. Until I found myself carrying an extra life and turns out my body couldn’t do it. How could I be responsible carrying 200 more?

And anyway, serving passengers Coke and prepackaged sandwiches didn’t seem like such a poor second, given all the flying time and low-cost vacations.

I was pretty young when I started training. I was thinking a lot about the world, like you do at that time, about how I would take a year off after I got up the flight attendant ranks, using my airline status to travel the world on a budget and make real change. Don’t ask me what the details of making “real change” were. Building wells and teaching English? It was unformed and unfair to the people who really did need specific, calculated help – but it was how I felt. And for a while I was having fun: flying around and saying I would make a change after this last Mai Tai.

When that one plane attack happened, the one where the plane disappeared and everyone assumed dead, I became a nervous wreck. I knew two of the flight attendants on board. Had heard their voices 42 hours before in the airport lounge.

Now, panic attacks in the bathroom just after take-off were routine. I couldn’t calm my nerves with alcohol without the risk of losing my job, and the job was the only thing that I had. But it was a job that was inciting a mental collapse. I had dreams that my coworker would open the emergency exit door (despite the 8 pounds of pressure preventing a mortal from doing so) and parachute out of our plane mid-flight as a ballsy send off to our airline over insurance cuts. I felt like I was about to be sucked out of the plane and flung into the sky. I was a speck of dirt on a cruel god’s finger. I could feel the aircraft revolting, like it was ready to belch me out. We were going so fast, and we weren’t meant to go so fast.

I could quit, but then what? Couldn’t be a pilot. Couldn’t be a flight attendant. Was it possible to keep moving down in the ranks? Too fragile to do anything but just stay still?

That night after Frank leaves I take a walk to a nearby Thai restaurant. I order the Pra-Ram curry and eat at the counter that looks out onto the street. I feel grateful to be planted on stable ground, and I press my feet hard against the footrest. I think about the calm I get from a little pill, the artifice of sedation. Then I walk back home, belly full.

Across from my apartment is a young family with a toddler, his crib pushed up against the gated window. He stands up on his bare feet and stares down at the side yard between the buildings, slapping his hands against the mesh of the window screen, making it rattle as he yells out to the alleyway four floors down, “Bye! Bye! BYE! BYEE!” Like a faulty alarm declaring an imagined emergency, shooting anxiety down your spine before you remember its defect, the boy yells out to no one. He never sounds upset; he’s not calling for mama or food. His intentions are hauntingly unclear. With limbs long like a preschooler, he’s too big for his crib. I’m not even sure what language he speaks, if he’s really saying, “bye” as in “goodbye,” or another word, or just a sound. Whoever his parents are, they seem content to plop him in front of the window and let him wake up the neighbors.

I have the urge to open my window and raise my voice, calm but commanding: “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to strap your child in. It’s a safety hazard to have him out of his seat.” But on the ground, aviation law has no jurisdiction. I don’t even have the smidgen of authority begrudged to me by airline passengers more concerned with holding out their used tissues for me to pick up as I walk by.

On the Big Island in Hawaii, an active volcano casts its shadow over a valley of prehistoric rock. Once, on a layover, I took the two-hour drive to the national park that surrounds it, hiked as far as I was allowed to safely go, and watched this mountain with the rest of the tourists, like we were waiting for it to breathe. It was one of the oldest places in the world, the guidebook said, and if it decided to spew again, we could be dead in minutes. I shuddered to think how insignificant I was. The volcano could hiccup and I would be dead – and was there a place beyond this, older than the volcano and the rock? Somewhere timeless for me to go and still be me? Hope started its slow drip out of me, and panic replaced it.

“Something bothering you?” Frank sat down across from me with a plate of the Hawaii hotel’s Japanese breakfast.

“Nothing’s bothering me,” I said, smiling nervously. He was still just my boss who I’d occasionally get a little drunk with on long enough layovers.

“You’ve been quiet since yesterday. Hope I didn’t say something stupid and offend you. I can be an ass sometimes.” He grinned at me and took a sip of his miso soup, holding the cup with both hands. “I love that I can drink soup in the morning here,” he said. He licked his lips. “So nothing’s wrong?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Okay. Don’t say I didn’t ask.”

“I always liked to fancy myself as hard to read. Guess I was wrong.” I gave him a smile as weak as the tea in my hands. He looked almost relieved.

“Maybe I’m finally learning a thing or two about women, now with two daughters and a wife.” He looked down into his soup after he said it, dipped his spoon into the miso and sipped it, still not meeting my eyes. He was soft now, and this was my in.

“Do you ever get scared, flying a plane filled with people?”

“Was it that bumpy coming over here? You’ve seen worse than that.”

“No, the flight was fine. I guess I’m asking what made you become a pilot.”

“I learned in the military. After I got out, I could have gone back to school, gotten a desk job. But I just wanted to fly.”

“I chickened out of being a pilot,” I said.

“That’s too bad.”

That night Frank and I had sex for the first time. He made me feel less scared of the world, because he wasn’t scared. But that only lasted in the minutes I was with him, feeling safe against his warm body, knowing he kept me alive every day that we flew together. Looking back, I wondered if he liked that I was afraid.

The anxiety didn’t stop once we started seeing each other, but it was abated when we were together. Even when I was on flights that he piloted, I could not stop thinking that still I was giving up control to another human being – someone maybe with experience in the sky, but still a human who can make mistakes, cheat on his wife, have high blood pressure. But knowing he was flying home to a wife and kids, that he wanted to make it out alive too, that helped. Sort of.

“Hey girl.” It’s Susan on the phone. “I have the biggest favor to ask you.”

“Shoot,” I say. I’m in the middle of writing my to-do list for the week. It’s a new thing I started, to give myself a sense of accomplishment. So far, I’ve managed to buy a basil plant and keep it alive for three days.

“Basically, could you cover tomorrow’s shift for me? I asked for the week off, but management screwed up and scheduled me anyway, and it’s my son’s graduation. I just need someone to switch.”

“It’s totally fine, Sue. I got you covered.”

“Thanks. It’s just an overnight to Hawaii, lickity-split. I can cover the next Chicago run if you want. It’s fucking freezing over there.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Frank and I fly to Hawaii. I’m thinking about the volcano, wondering if this time it will erupt and engulf me in sediment for archeologists thousands of years from now to dig up, preserved in a look of terror. I take deep breaths and remind myself that this is very unlikely.

But not totally impossible.

I’m shaky when I give two teenage girls their sodas as turbulence starts up. Frank requests seatbelts, but my co-attendant Joe says Frank tells him we’re fine to continue in-flight service. “Thank you,” one of the teenage girls says happily, genuinely, as I hand her the can of Sprite. She looks me in the eyes. I smile back and say, “You’re welcome.” I decide I like her.

This time the hotel we’re staying at is closer to the highway than the water. The downstairs bar and restaurant is largely tiki themed, and every drink is served either out of a pineapple or a coconut. It seems like a waste.

I’m sipping on a piña colada when Frank arrives downstairs and sits down next to me. Then I see Joe in the lobby and wave him over.

“I invited Joe.”

“Oh,” Frank says, obviously not pleased.

“Well if you want to be alone then you can take me on a trip where we’re not working.” I lightly punch him on the arm to suggest I’m kidding. Frank sort of shrugs and smiles. Joe sits down with us.

“You guys check out the pool yet?”

“I did some laps after the flight,” I say. “It’s pretty big for an airport hotel.”

Back at JFK, I catch Frank before he heads to the cabs.

“Mind if we split one?” I ask.

“I’m not going to Brooklyn,” he says.

I pause. “Are you mad about the lobby? What I said?”

“No, I just have to go home.”

On the curb I realize I need to go home, too.

At home I’m watching TV I’ve already seen, and something’s making me antsy. Even though I’m tired, sitting here in bed is not satisfying.

“Byeee!” Oh God.

“Byeeeee!”

I turn around to look out the window.

“BYEEEE!”

There’s a hole in the window screen next to the boy’s crib now, just above the rail. He waves his hand out the hole. I see him put a foot on top of the rail of the crib. He leans on the screen as he tries to climb over the rail onto the inside ledge. I shoot up out of bed.

Despite being too big for the crib he still lacks the body strength to crawl over it. His leg falls back onto his bedding, and immediately he tries again.

I watch him again lift his foot up towards the railing and attempt to climb, glee in his eyes and still shouting, “BYE!” into the abyss between apartment buildings.

“HEY!” I shout back. “GET OFF OF THERE!”

His bright eyes snap to me, and he mimics my tone of voice back to me in nonsense speak. “WAH WAH NAH NAH NAH!”

“You’re going to get hurt!”

He looks at me and laughs, his hand grabbing at air. I run outside, scrambling through the bric-a-brac between our apartment buildings to look four stories up at the boy. 

“Get. Back. Inside!” I yell. “Helloooo! Your son is trying to jump out the goddamn window!” I scream as loud as I can, but even then I’m not loud enough. I can see his toes peeking out of the hole in the screen as he once again tries to fling himself out of the crib.

“Get back inside!” I yell.

“BYEEE!”

Then an angry voice trumpets from his window. His foot disappears. A woman peeks her head out instead, retreats when she sees me. Her hand slams his window shut. And just like that, the danger is gone.

Two minutes later I ring the door for the manager’s apartment.

“Yes?” A crackly voice over the intercom says.

“I would like to speak with you about one of your tenants.”

More crackling. Maybe he sighs. But the front door buzzes and I push it open.

The manager’s door is already propped open. An old man stands there with a newspaper, eyeing me. Music from a radio drifts from his apartment like the smoke of a candle.

“What is it?” He asks, not impolitely.

“I live in the building next door. Fourth floor. Three windows down. The tenants in the apartment directly across from mine have a child who wants to climb out of his window.”

When I say the situation out loud, something clicks. Whatever is wrong with this kid, he’s only doing it because he’s curious about the world. I’m curious about the world too, I remember, like I’m sifting through sand and petrified rocks, and finding the hint of some treasure underneath. That’s really where this all started.

“Can you at least fix the window for them?” I ask.

The manager nods and walks up the stairs. “I’ll check on them now,” he says. He seems genuinely alarmed that a kid could be in danger in his building.

Frank calls me the next morning to say he was sorry he left JFK like that. “You’re sweet,” I tell him. I can hear him panting. He’s probably calling me out in the yard, coming back from a run before stepping into the living room of his four-bedroom house.

I’m not allowed to go in there, not even my voice. “I’ll let you go,” I say.

“When we go back to Thailand,” he tells me, “let’s go to the beach.”

“Sure,” I say. “Maybe the whole crew can go.”

“They have some pretty nice private beaches,” he says.

“Could be a nice team retreat.”

“Yeah, or –” I hear a dog barking. “Harvey, no!” He addresses me again. “I thought a getaway would be romantic. I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“I like you, Frank,” I tell him, and I realize I’ve never verbalized any sort of positive feeling to him before. “Because I think you’re good. I think you should be good and stay with your wife, and call it quits with me.”

“You don’t want to see each other anymore?”

I look out my window to the building next to mine, where the hole in the window is now covered by cardboard. I almost cave and tell him never mind, I’m being stupid, let’s go to the Thai beach. But I want to see how far I can go.

“No,” I say. “I don’t like being a secret. It feels gross.”

“You know you’re important to me.”

“But the thing is, it seems like you want to stay married.”

There’s silence on the other end.

“Yes,” he says.

“Then it’s settled. I’ll see you at JFK.”

Mr. Byrne is on the Bangkok flight.

“How’s everything today, Mr. Byrne?” I ask.

He fidgets with his wedding ring. “Stocks are down, but that’s the game we play. And you, love?”

He reaches to touch my arm, but I pull away and look him in the eyes. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

“No, no thank you.” The smile is gone from his face, but he’s nonplussed as he turns back to his Financial Times. There’s probably a younger concierge at his Bangkok hotel. 

We take off, dinosaur bones propelling us into the air. I’m not sure if I’d want my bones to be used to fly an airplane. It would have to be an interesting flight, some transatlantic journey that unites families or lovers, lets someone start a new life and forget their old one. I would be okay with my remaining physical presence on earth being used for that. But by the time my bones are prime for fuel harvesting, we’ll be traveling via air waves or light speed or kelp, or we won’t be traveling at all, everything dust.


Sophie Nau is a writer, baker, and native Angeleno. You can find her most recent project, a series of interviews exploring memory through food, at www.secondsofapples.com

essay

What I Read in 2017

Winter

It was our first New Year’s Eve without my father. I dipped strawberries in melted chocolate and watched my mother stir rice pudding. The family was coming over to our house. Despite the brutal absence, we were supposed to be celebrating. My brother, George, got engaged. I have big life news as well, I told everyone. I am quitting my job.

Family members congratulated my brother while raising their eyebrows at me. They didn’t hide their distaste when they told me I needed to reassess my life choices. They told me to wait until I found a new job first—to not be totally broke. I told them I was already broke. I told them my last Uber driver disclosed his salary to me. It was unprompted, and I wished I didn’t hear it because when I told him my salary in the same trusting nature, he asked me if my wage was even legal. On the bright side, I said, my free time will be spent searching for a husband full time. They are traditionalists who couldn’t believe I was not married with children already.

Around the same time, I was reading Zoey Leigh Peterson’s Next Year For Sure, which offered a dual perspective into a progressive relationship. Kathryn and Chris were dating for nearly a decade when Chris began to have feelings for another woman, Emily. The first chapter began with Chris admitting his crush to Emily.

This confession was not out of the ordinary for them. They had an open and honest relationship, divulging all their stories and secrets to each other. The news of Chris’ crush sent Kathryn into a flurry of wild emotions that she hid with nonchalance. Despite her instinct to shut down the idea, she encouraged Chris to date Emily. Their stable relationship of finishing each other’s sentences and nightly, weekly, and yearly routines unraveled. They knew everything about each other, including memories from before they got together. One night, Chris told Emily a new detail to the story Kathryn had heard hundreds of times; this simple act of Emily tapping into unfamiliar territory of Chris’ astonished and confused Kathryn.

I felt equally betrayed reading that. How could Chris do that to Kathryn? What was so special about Emily that he couldn’t just appreciate her as a friend? What was Kathryn thinking supporting Chris’ decision to date her and another girl at once when it made her uncomfortable? I started to reflect on all the relationships in my life, all the people who have come and gone. I didn’t know what made a person irreplaceable. I didn’t know how to trust anyone to stick around. Chris was happy with and faithful to Kathryn for a long time before he met Emily at a laundromat. A simple interaction and his feelings changed, a momentary thrill that he wanted to chase.

My dad was the person who made me happy when I was sad without trying, without knowing I was sad. Just seeing him would brighten my day. I hadn’t met anyone who’s absence I would care more about than my father’s. I didn’t give people the chance, but I saw no point.

So, I did not search for a husband in my free time, as promised. I instead focused on getting a new job. By the end of the season, I accepted and began a new marketing gig.

 

Spring

I was crying very often. And not because of my grief, but because of my job. The learning curve was rough and I was consumed by work. I went into the office early, left late, then went to sleep and dreamt about work. No matter how focused I was, my role was still challenging.

To make matters worse, I had no friends. My only companions were my boss and the Spotify Discover Weekly playlists. One day I forgot my headphones at home. Around noon, the group of people around me all began coordinating lunch plans, during which I sat with my eyes glued to the computer screen, pretending I couldn’t hear them making plans without me.

It felt bizarre spending eight hours a day being surrounded by people in an open floor plan, but feeling utterly alone. I didn’t even have a cubicle to blame. In Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress, Patty Hearst’s life before being kidnapped by the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army) appeared fulfilled. She was engaged to and living with her math tutor, Steve Weed, who was six years her senior. It was a banal relationship she thought might be more exciting by moving in together and getting engaged. This was not the case. Toobin wrote:

Patricia cooked and cleaned; Steve did neither. They did everything, including have sex, on his schedule, not hers. Patricia made the beds or left them unmade, as she did on February 4. Their evening together on that occasion was typical. Dinner was chicken soup with tuna fish sandwiches, followed by Mission: Impossible on television, then schoolwork in silence on the downstairs sofa. Bathrobe and slippers had become her home uniform. At nineteen, this was her life? On the eve of her kidnapping, Patricia later acknowledged, she was "mildly suicidal."

I, too, felt shackled to a routine I did not want for myself: wake up, work, go home, work, sleep, and repeat. There was a lot to do and a lot more to learn. I no longer felt the rush of an idea for a new passion project in my spare time. It took me twice as long to read books. I stopped making plans on weeknights because I didn’t want to commit to anything that might force me to leave the office before my work was finished. On nights that I left the office early, I would stop by a neighboring bookstore and browse the shelves or listen to a guest speaker, feeling too tired to be inspired. Patty was trapped in an engagement; I was trapped in Outlook.

At 25, this was my life?

I pretended that not being invited to a lunch out with coworkers was what hurt, but really, I was feeling isolated from the people most important to me, my friends and family, and it wasn’t because of my headphones.

Summer

The weather was beautiful, and I was again reminded of the ugliness in this season. I braced myself for the one year anniversary of my father's death: July 14. He passed away on a Thursday; this year, it fell on a Friday. I stayed home from work and my family visited his grave together. The next day, we had a mass at church for him. I was sitting at the altar, reminded of everything I lost, when I saw four friends walk inside. They stood in the back, not understanding the Arabic prayers or Coptic writing. I joined them, and couldn’t help laughing at the sight of them. They traveled an hour out of their way, back and forth. I felt inappropriate for laughing, until I stood with my mom and watched her have the same reaction to her friend, a stranger to our religion, entering mass to stand by her side.

The following week, George, my mom, and I traveled to Egypt. I was too busy to pack my bags because of work, so my mom did. My suitcase was vibrant. It’s time to for a change, she told me. No more black clothing. I obeyed, but not without guiltily pointing out the hypocrisy in her black clothing. It’s different, she told me calmly.

It was our first time back in years. My father and I were supposed to visit Egypt the year before; our trip was scheduled for a month after his passing. Being there without my dad felt wrong. Egypt was his home. When my grandparents moved the family to America, my father was the only one left behind. He refused to leave, instead choosing to crash with his aunt and cousin. It took two years for them to finally force him onto a plane to the States. After he moved, he went back to Egypt every year, sometimes twice a year.

He always said he wanted to retire in Egypt by the Red Sea. I loved Egypt, too. I spent almost every summer of my life in Egypt, always beginning the fall school year much chunkier because of my many helpings of its delicious, high-caloric food. The loud streets of Cairo echoed my father’s presence in every corner. I associated everything, from the dusty air to the sun’s enveloping blaze, with him. Egypt was still his home.

In Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, the character Bernadette barely left her home. She found solace in it, despite its incomplete renovation. When her daughter asked to go on a family trip to Antarctica as a reward for good grades, Bernadette hesitantly agreed. She had (what I would diagnose as) mild agoraphobia. In an effort to prepare, she contacted her virtual assistant for the strongest medicine for seasickness (“stronger than Dramamine”), among other excessive requests. The highlighted theatrics behind her anxiety makes it easy for readers to gloss over the sacrificial nature of Bernadette. She felt true conflict in leaving her comfort zone, and although she plots ways to back out of the trip, she ultimately planned to go on the trip for her daughter.

Our trip to Egypt was difficult for me, but for my mother it was a repeating stab to the heart. She was surrounded by her entire family in her home country. She should have been happy, but she couldn’t fully be. She never spoke too much about her feelings. She would cry a little some days. Other times, she’d talk about my father to elicit reminiscence from people. Most of the time, she seemed to enjoy the moments without mentioning him.

One night, we were sitting outside, the only noise the sound of the can of OFF! being passed around. To no one in particular, maybe to the sky, she said, I miss him.

I remembered in that moment something that keeps me up at night. My mom had been living outside of her comfort zone for a year. I didn't want to wonder if that would ever change.

Fall

Now it was time for my oldest brother, Joe, to make an announcement: he was moving. To Cyprus. In two weeks. He’d quit his job and was moving back home for the two weeks in between. I stayed with him and enjoyed the short time I got to live under the same roof with my brothers, possibly for the last time ever. Growing up in a tight-knit family (my cousins lived right next door for most of my life), no one took this news lightly. The idea of me moving a train ride away from New Jersey was already a world away in their minds. Moving across the globe to a foreign country no one had ever visited was staggering.

This return to our childhoods felt very ordinary, otherwise. My brothers and I fell into our old routines of racing to use the bathroom in the morning and spending far too long trying to agree on a movie to watch. Before I knew it, I was waking up to hug and kiss my brother goodbye and safe travels. I kept pestering him for a return date, foolishly asking if he’d try to come back for Christmas. Christmas was a month away, and although it made no sense for him to return in that time, I could not comprehend celebrating the holiday without him.

It was beginning to be the holiday season, and I was glum. There was a time in my life when this time of the year was my favorite. I loved shopping for my family and friends, excited by a holiday that promoted gift giving.

This year, I asked my family if we could skip the gifts and tree. All I saw in Christmas trees was the mess that would be left to clean in January. George was insistent on a tree. My mother compromised by setting a miniature tree in the family room.

While everyone around me expressed gratitude for all they had, I felt burdened by all I’d lost. My favorite thing about life--my family--had dwindled from five to three. My boisterous tight-knit extended family that I saw multiple times a month rarely got together anymore.

I read André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name next to my dog by my family’s fireplace. A comforting surrounding for a heart-wrenching story. It took place in Italy, sometime in the 1980s, and was written from the perspective of 17-year-old Elio. Elio was attracted to his family’s summer guest, Oliver, and experienced a full body and mental torment as he idolized Oliver from across the backyard. He compared the feeling to fire: “Not a fire of passion, not a ravaging fire, but something paralyzing, like the fire of cluster bombs that suck up the oxygen around them and leave you panting because you’ve been kicked in the gut and a vacuum has ripped up every living lung issue and dried your mouth, and you hope nobody speaks, because you can’t talk, and you pray no one asks you to move, because your heart is clogged and beats so fast it would sooner spit out shards of glass than let anything else flow through its narrowed chambers.”

The two spent their afternoons together and came together in a triumphant, intense bond. Their passion lasted what felt like seconds, but was actually a few weeks, before Oliver had to return back to the States.

When Oliver visited a few months later, he was engaged to someone else. Years passed. Oliver got married, had kids. Elio was successful in an unspecified field; he got involved with people he identified as “those after Oliver.” Their few reunions were outwardly platonic and mostly reminiscent. Their actions were restricted, but Elio’s, and I’d like to believe Oliver’s, feelings of longing from so long ago were unchanged.

The notion that feelings live on, with the capacity to bring back a few weeks of one summer, scared me. It was years later and Elio still subconsciously craved Oliver’s touch. He would never fully get over him. Time didn’t actually heal all.

A few months after my dad passed away, a friend told me he wished I could go back to normal, to the old Nat he loved. I should have been mad at him, but instead I felt awful. I felt awful because it occurred to me that I would never be the same, that I lost the person I once was. Until this, I experienced nothing substantial to be sad about. Sure, I found things: bad grades, boys, the movie My Dog Skip. Never anything tangible. An old coworker once told me I didn’t walk, I skipped. It was true. I was free of pain.

I’ll never have that freedom back. I identify as someone who’s lost a parent. Suddenly. So, so sadly. And that’s a narrative that I’m not sure I’ll ever escape.

I expect more pain will come. Like Elio and Oliver, I will experience a full life, find love elsewhere, etc. But these feelings of grief will always be there. My father was my best friend, and if mourning him is the consequence of loving him, then my heart will forever dress in black.

me.jpg

Natalia is an editor of Things Created By People. Find more of her work on her website.

essay

Making Peace (and Finding My Own) with the De-Intensification of Britney Spears

Throughout the years generally agreed upon as her “prime,” one way in which Britney Spears remained such a thrilling performer was dancing ahead of the beat. This accomplished two things, really. It presented Britney as prepared and unstoppable, the choreography engrained in her body and spirit to the point that performing it was effortless. She was insatiable, relentlessly seeking the thrill of the next move. But the more you watch Britney perform at this speed, the more you realize there’s something deeper being going on here. Take the dance break in “Me Against The Music” as performed on Saturday Night Live. The effect makes Britney look like she is flying through space and time, while her dancers remain firmly grounded in Studio 8H, Eastern Standard. They are joining her on that stage because the public has years of visual training instructing them that a couple layers of humans do, in fact, belong behind our star.

But they also, purposefully or not, act to highlight just how capable Britney is of doing the whole thing on her own. Being in front of her dancers, too, means Britney’s satisfied facial expressions can only be linked to her knowing she’s killing it; she cannot see the full picture they’ve created as a team. It’s striking she never once makes eye contact with any of them – even when she turns around, so do they. This lack of human connection with those mere inches from her is a theme in Britney’s work as a performer. Perhaps its for the best; when she does attempt to engage with her dancers directly, she ends their lives with the movement of her hips, finds herself more interested in her cameras than her grinding partner, or, is blindfolded. The most intimately engaged I’ve seen Britney with a dance partner was when she dance-battled herself.

As a queer person whose formative years took place squarely within the Bible Belt, I too know a little bit about dance-battling myself in the mirror. I have a feeling most queer people do, actually; evidence suggests I am far from the first or last gay kid to privately turn themselves into a star, and exist within that fantasy world throughout each lackluster day, the fantasy becoming its clearest and most vivid whilst completely alone. That’s what I find most miraculous about those videos of young queer kids slaying their favorite pop routines; they accidentally reveal the grueling rehearsal schedules within the secret, private lives of the child performers. How much time do you think Robert E. Jeffrey spent in front of his mirror to get Madonna’s “Vogue” down pat? And as a fellow student of the material, I can personally vouch for Brendan Jordan that Gaga’s “A-R-T-P-O-P” hand choreo is no small feat to master.


The tour in which Britney dance-battled herself was the Dream Within a Dream Tour, and it is over the course of this two-year outing she and Justin Timberlake famously uncoupled. This is to say the tour started off dark and just got darker. By the second leg, she had replaced a cute, expository introduction to the battle song (“Who is this chick? I think she wants to battle me. Huh? Whew!”) for something pointedly anti-male (“This is a song for ALL my girls”), indicating a harsh shift in perspective: no matter the girl, and no matter the boy, the girl’s gonna get screwed. While on the surface, this seems to be Britney dealing with young straight love gone awry, I always took it to mean much more. This proclamation felt more anti-humankind than just merely boys. One thing that astounded me about the Dream Within a Dream Tour was its through line of superhero independence. On top of dance-battling her evil twin, Britney is kidnapped (honestly, an exhausting amount of times), endures a thunderstorm, and plays a girl trapped in a music box, never to find her true love (during her three most overtly romantic songs). In fact, Britney never once achieves romantic satisfaction – even when the mood shifts in favor of passion, it’s her dancers getting it on, Britney watching longingly. By the time Britney finishes the show, one can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief – not just because it’s an exhausting technical feat, but because it’s a miracle whatever character Britney is playing survived this whole plight on her own (her dancers certainly never helped; they were too busy kidnapping her). Whether she had to break through a large net, bungee off the edge of a flying cliff, or endure a loneliness her narrator – Jon Voight, by the way – makes a point to describe as both insufferable and eternal – Britney always escaped to safety, and she did it, each time, without any help. It was a 90-minute concept performance about the ineptitude of anyone else to make you happy – or, really do anything but annoy or traumatize you. The New York Times review of the show was titled “Exchanging Her Halo for a Cloak of Darkness.” So, listen, I swear – I wasn’t alone on this one, you guys.

But so what if I was? That’s kind of the idea Britney was throwing into the ether in 2002 – being alone was not the end of the world; in fact, it was noble. It made you invincible – faster than those behind you, hyper-alert, firing off on all cylinders, blasting toward the ultimate destination of career dominance. This was a conclusion I had been forced to come up with on my own, as someone who did not see himself in any romantic relationships I’d been exposed to, both in my personal life and through pop culture. But now, I had a mascot for it – and she was the most famous human in the world. If our country’s most beloved icon didn’t need anyone, neither did I. This is convenient for a queer kid who certainly wouldn’t have anyone for a while – and at the time, thought maybe ever. “One day I will be as powerful as the most insane images the outer limits of my imagination can conjure. If anyone has a problem with me, it simply won’t matter in a few years, because I will be universally adored – a type of adoration more important than any type of personal or, ew, …intimate one.” Sixteen years later, I find myself wondering if those feelings have served their purpose, and are supposed to go away.

When Britney danced ahead of the song’s beat for a small measurement of time akin to that of her ex-boyfriend’s wardrobe malfunction, the results were thrilling. When she let herself get even faster, though, it could deliver the opposite effect: our Queen was ready to wrap this sucker up, and get backstage to a warm bowl of cheese grits. She didn’t care that no matter how fast she rushed through her marks, there’s only so much wiggle room with which a show largely set to a track can bend. It was as if, for ninety minutes, she was trapped in structure she was faster than, better than, and, ultimately, over.


Regardless of her motivations for dancing at warp-speed, Britney spent years setting a precedent. Which is one of the many reasons why her 2007 VMA performance was so confounding; lagging just wasn’t Britney’s thing and here she was. This performance acted as a catalyst to a near-decade-long process of a fan re-standardization of our expectations for Britney’s live shows. While her music remained truly exciting, tours supporting the new goods were met with confusion online. YouTube clips from the Circus and Femme Fatale tours became message board deliberations between two groups. In one corner, you had the upset fans wishing Britney would come out and slay one more time for old time’s sake. In the other, understanding fans citing a variety of reasons she couldn’t – or didn’t have to, given what she’d already given us.

I was always a member of the former camp. Even as things started looking positive for Britney, with a stable Vegas residency that allowed her more time with her children and created a structure within which she could seemingly retrieve a good chunk of the pep in her step, I wasn’t seeing it. When the opposing camp would bring up that perhaps – just perhaps – Britney was happier now – with a stable home life, less grueling schedule, and easier performance style leaning harder on “fun” than “culture-shifting,” my brain could not compute an equation that rendered a lack of gravitas and a disinterest in striving toward mass public adoration – with happiness. Britney is a god and she should be performing like her god counterparts, not becoming a niche act for the nostalgic. For many years, I allowed myself no joy in the de-intensification of Britney Spears. It was my pop cultural torture chamber, watching someone I loved so much trade in owning the cultural zeitgeist with every shake of her pelvis or soda endorsement - for something nearing closer, day by day, to personal fulfillment. Even as her other fans celebrated her new personal successes – and tried as they may to invite me on board their ship – I saw no benefits in the trade-off and pouted at the dock.


As recently as August of 2016, Britney seemed to be sticking to a life of independence akin to the dystopian single-girl vision from Dream Within a Dream. Appearing on Carpool Karaoke with James Cordon, Britney was asked “What are you looking for in a guy?” She responds curtly, “I think I might not ever go to men again. I may never do the men thing anymore, or get married, I’m just done with men.” A shocked Cordon gets her to backtrack a bit – but not by much. “I might French kiss someone,” she admits, but then, as if catching herself straying from a hard-fought resolution, doubles back down, “But I’m not going to marry anyone, no. I don’t believe in marriage anymore.” Britney’s romantic receptors were still firmly in the OFF position, but something new was beginning: she was developing an interest in connecting with others – any interested parties, really - more intimately. Britney’s world had been shrouded in secrecy for years; then, all of the sudden, her Instagram became an intense – yet playful and funny – vision board of her psyche. The idea that personal fulfillment could be valuable - not in spite of its seeming lack of relevance to a consumer, but because of it – became an idea her Instagram account presented with gusto. It has inspired a weekly podcast, Britney’s Gram, where comedians Barbara and Tess analyze Brit’s posts with the scrutiny of Justin Timberlake watching his ex kiss Madonna. Showing off personal growth for Britney as a person first and foremost – any gains in her career falling to the wayside – became an interesting development when I could see it first-hand. I was here for it. Furthermore, the idea that an interest in self-care – as opposed to an obsession with career-excellence – could lead to new creative discoveries and possibilities is not something I’d even considered until seeing Britney take up painting. Or watched her pull out two non-singles from five albums ago during her big career retrospective at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards, simply because she wanted to. Or seen her – live vocals and all – cover a 1991 Bonnie Rait song on her Vegas stage, because she’d just learned – in 2017 – that people thought she lip-synced. These decisions are simply too random not to be her own, and in the same way that they lost all their sense(s), they also became as thrilling to watch as dancing ahead of the beat. And at the end of the day, perhaps the most intriguing new idea I’m processing from 2018ney is that all this self-care and opening oneself up to new possibilities – could, whether you like it or not, bring someone special into your life. It might even do so quickly – for instance, less than two years after you told James Cordon on national TV you were done with special someones. (To be fair, I guess it is possible Britney and her boyfriend are only French kissing…)

Growing up queer and closeted, you spent a lot of time alone – but you also spend a lot of time testing the boundaries of opening up to others, and being subsequently disappointed by your decision to do so. Sometimes, loved ones abandon you at an age so young you don’t realize what even happened until much later. You get used to this and you take care of yourself. Until it becomes exhausting, and you join a large club of young souls who’ve given up. Intimate human relationships based on truth and openness seem so impossible that the hope of them happening one day cannot build up the muscle to take on the facts of their impossibility. Your relationship with your family and friends is actually not your own, but that of them and your invented self – someone shy on personal details, obsessed with personal accomplishments, and uninterested in romantic possibilities. And they like this person, and this person is a performance you’ve perfected to the point you’re flying through space and time effortlessly when you embody them, so it feels fine to let it go on as long as need be. But what does it look like when you realize you have been trapped in structure you are faster than, better than, and, ultimately, over? And then: how do you break out of it, and let someone – a special someone – in?


Recently I found myself asking my friends what the point of a romantic relationship was. This type of provocation is not new between me and my straight buddies – I spent many a closeted teenage year insisting they were lesser than I for craving companionship, proving they were but half a human whereas I was (obviously) whole. But this recent conversation felt different; I was genuinely curious as to their answer. I had lost track of what the allure was in the first place, and was confounded anyone even tried when they could have those hours shared with another – nervous first dates, attending partners’ shows, “enjoying” lazy Sunday mornings watching Netflix in bed – back to themselves. When my friends helped me understand that relationships were more about self-nourishment in-the-now than any grand scheme for the world or one’s success in it – their answer felt useless. What’s the point of nourishing the self, if the self is but a temporary endurance test spiraling toward a future dream? A dream that might take everything in you to get even a tenth of? A dream that can’t afford distractions; one that can’t afford being thrown off by anybody? Besides, past attempts at intimacy have only left you knocked down.

But what I think I can gather from watching Britney living right now in 2018 is that sometimes it may be worth trying again. To connect with others; to reckon with how that is bettering yourself. And perhaps that “distraction” – that relationship with someone special – is not a distraction at all. But rather, a little dream within your dream. Especially if your head is on a little straighter than the first time you gave it a go. 

Besides, maybe this instinct to break free from loneliness is always there. There’s a reason both little Robert and Brendan gave the world a glimpse of their private mirror routines when cameras were rolling, and they finally had a chance to shine. There’s a reason I performed my routines in front of my bedroom window for my bully who lived a couple houses down. Would he be so moved by my performance he’d stop making fun of me? Probably not. Would he be so allured by sick (Darrin’s) dance grooves that he might fall in love with me, securing my first boyfriend/bully hybrid?… I knew I wouldn’t know if I didn’t try! You see, there’s a lot of greatness to be shared in these elaborate worlds a queer brain weaves since childhood. And in the words of the Queen – on her most recent album, in fact – “Nobody should be alone if they don’t have to be.”


Michael Doshier is a New York based writer, musician, and performer. As a writer, he's contributed to The Talkhouse, Things Created By People, and Viacom's Logo Movie House. As a musician, he's traveled internationally as Johnny Darlin, performing multimedia cabarets with his keytar, most recently at the 2018 Prague Fringe Festival. He co-hosts the weekly podcast Queers on Queens, and his next EP "Way With Words" is due out Summer 2018. Catch his performance of "Songs About Boys" at the Queerly Festival in New York City this June 23rd and 26th

essay

Wonders

I.

Two different people played me “Fall of the Star High School Running Back” a few hours apart. I like to believe it was a plot—they were in that conspiratorial pre-hook-up phase—but it wasn’t. They plugged their phones into the shitty radio in my Grams’ old car, their words haunting one another’s as they told me you’re gonna love this

I did not. I thought it was needlessly twee. But I trusted them both, and when a week later I packed up my dorm room and started driving west, I decided to give All Hail West Texas a genuine try. 

Over the course of that week, I had graduated college with a diploma with the wrong name on it. I’d passed for the first time. I’d driven away from a rebound who had been his own sort of driving away from a partner. I was alone with my body for the first time since I was teenager. My trunk was full of alcohol swabs and needles that made me shake to think about. And here was John Darnielle, telling me to hail satan, that the pirate’s life was for me, that I was the one thing in the universe god didn’t have his eyes on. 

I laughed. I whooped. I didn’t cry, but I thought about it. And then he sang: And I want to go home, but I am home. 

I did not dissociate, but I did leave my body. It felt like the fight club I’d been in the year I started coming out, the night where I told a much stronger friend who’d been holding back that he could hold back a little less and he immediately knocked the wind out of me. As I slumped against the fridge in the dorm lounge, trying to reassure him that I was fine even though I couldn’t get any words out, I felt the place where the pain was and I felt my lungs and I felt the rest of my body and I felt his hands and his breath as he tried to help me up and I heard myself laughing and I could feel that I meant it but it all felt invented somehow. My homes were gone.

II.

He’d been straight and I’d been out our whole relationship. We grew into the cognitive dissonance kind of beautifully. He was shitty about it for a few months—something I’d never put up with now, but I was twenty and afraid and ashamed—and I’m glad I stuck it out, because once I really explained it to him, he got on board. He even got me a binder for Valentine’s Day. 

He told me he was scared he wouldn’t be attracted to me when I looked and smelled and sounded different. He told me he was scared that I would turn into a different person. I never wanted to be monogamous but agreed to it because it was a hard line for him, and now I wondered if it was a bad idea to try to be present with my body while it felt like a shared thing. We never acknowledged my plans to start T as a factor in our break up; we went right from planning our wedding to being unable to compromise on where we’d move after graduation. 

We saw each other twice after the break up. The first time I was two and a half months on T. He had come back east to visit his other friends at my college right before we graduated. The first thing he said to me: “You look different. You sound different.”I held him while he cried about I don’t remember what on the steps of an academic building after dark. 

The second time was a month after that in the home in LA that he built with a Craigslist roommate and not with me. It took both of us to walk the last of his shit from my car to his room, books and blankets and men’s clothes I’d used for practice. Instead of trading mixes like we used to we spoke vaguely of songs we knew the other would never try out. I tried to explain “The Mess Inside”without saying anything about him, or about us, or about how I’d tried to scream sing it in my car every single day since the first time I heard it but I didn’t know how to make my new voice scream or sing so I got scared and whispered. He loved concept albums, so I told him about All Hail West Texas, but all I could talk about was how the sound quality was only okay and the song titles were pretentious and it was mostly acoustic guitar, all things he hated. 

My car broke later that day, stranding me in California for a few extra hours. I texted him that I would like to see him again, but this time to fight or fuck or do something, anything, that approached acknowledging what I thought we had meant to each other. He declined.

III.

I first heard Against Me! on Thanksgiving. My friend didn’t want to go to their parents’ house, so I got up early to visit them before going to see my own straight family. They’d just moved to New York and they were tremendously broke and tremendously depressed. We smoked cigarettes on their stoop and took off our pants and got under their quilt and decided to try out Transgender Dysphoria Blues. I remember holding hands and how at that moment in time, they were one of the only people allowed to touch me; I remember feeling their fingernails inside my skin; I remember how tightly we squeezed when Laura Jane Grace said that she should have been a mother, she should have been a wife, she should have been gone from here years ago she should be living a different life and how it still wasn’t tight enough. 

Four months later we’d borrowed my college roommate’s boyfriend’s car and driven to Long Island because that was the nearest place we could get tickets to see Against Me!. By the time Grace came out for the encore, I’d fallen in love with the crowd, in love with the band, in love with my friend, in love with myself. She was alone on stage, and she told us that she was going to do a song by John Darnielle. I tried to suspend myself in the moment before getting invested—the Mountain Goats have so many songs, and I knew so few then—but I am energetic and hopeful and I’ve yet to find a way to stop myself from going all in at a moment’s notice. Then she said that she was going to play “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.”

I gripped my friend’s arm too tightly or I didn’t touch them, I can’t remember. I was with them and I was alone and both were more true than they had ever been before. When it was over, they whispered into my ear, factual: “Something just happened to you.” Then they disappeared into the mosh pit. 

In the car on the way home, my ears rang with the quiet and the darkness of the suburbs. It took longer than usual for it to feel like it was time, and when it did, I tried to tell them. “That song was all that I listened to on my road trip after college. I wasn’t passing at the beginning of the trip and I was at the end and I learned that song the first day I was alone on the highway and I...” They listened well. It didn’t feel bad that I couldn’t explain it.

IV.

I have friends now who didn’t know me before my medical transition. I wish that they did. I want everyone to know all of me all at once. New friends may not be able to know my old voice or my chest without scars or what it’s like to think of me first by my birth name, but I can try to fold them into the history of my body. So it’s one of these friends who I asked to design my “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” tattoo (just two tiny horns, which is stupidly obvious and perfect and something I would never have thought of by myself). I got the tattoo alone. I spent a lot of time in the suspended state of knowing that the artist was wrong about what he thought my body was. 

Next week, the tattoo designer and I are going to see the Mountain Goats’ Goths tour. I will be getting to her place many hours before the show so that we can go full goth, lipstick and nail polish and a corset she’s going to lend me. I don’t think anyone else will be dressed up, but I hope it makes people glad to see that we are. It will make us glad to see ourselves.

Sometimes I get transported so powerfully by music that I am in multiple places at once. Not split between them, but fully in each of them, and each of them fully encompassing me. I wonder, next week, where I will be, and what that will feel like. Will I feel trapped or free in my car? Will the ex’s apartment feel like a flaming scar or a blink? Will I be able to explain any of this to my friend if I can just hold her hand tight enough? With my scars and her corset and our music playing all around, will I still want to go home? 


Jamie Beckenstein is a community worker, oral historian, tarot reader, and writer based out of Queens, New York. You can learn more about their work at transembassy.com and more about them at jamiebeckenstein.com.

Letter from the Editor, Final Issue

This is the final issue of Things Created By People.

When we began this zine, we had no idea how long it would last or where it would go. We had some big ideas – paying people! events! – but, at the end of the day, these things did not happen, and seemed unlikely to happen, and without a clear goal, the project eventually fizzled. This is the natural lifecycle of such projects, I think. Publications need to grow, evolve, or die, and I would rather greet death than let a project die sad and alone under the porch.

In this case, we’re greeting death with more than just a quick message letting you know that, hey, yeah, we’re going to stop publishing. Instead, we’re going back to our old issue format for one final collection of art, featuring both old and new friends, writing, interviews, drawings, and Britney Spears.

It was truly a joy to be able to publish this zine. We helped put out some incredible work – from the worst date you could ever imagine to the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted, from Hannah Höch to Dolly Parton, from the streets of New York to the beaches of Portugal. There’s a lot of cool shit in our archives, and you’ve never explored them, you should take the time to look around. You might find your new favorite artist.

Huge thanks to Natalia Lehaf, Chloe Isacke, and Thomas Baldwin, who made this the magazine that it is. While this publication may be ending, we all hope to be back with new projects and collaborations in the near future.

As I wrote in my last editor’s letter, over a year ago now, “we have been privileged to publish some amazing writing, and showcase new work by musicians and visual artists and filmmakers, that have left me irrevocably changed as a person.”

This remains as true as ever.

Yours,
Adam Cecil
Managing Editor

article, audio

Meet Tristan Carter-Jones

For many artists on their singular path, often there comes a breaking point. They can continue down the river they’re on, or jump ship and pursue something new. A bit rarer, though, and entirely more enthralling to watch, is the artist that pivots what they’ve been working on into something grander, building upon their strengths and weaknesses and veering right into new territory.

Meet Tristan Carter-Jones.

Emerging on the scene as a rock-soul singer with bedroom-pop sensibilities, Tristan released The Jones EP in November 2014. Boasting the sound of FKA Twigs and Brittany Howards’ lovechild, Carter-Jones was headed down the path of a Brooklyn solo act, hand-picking producers with whom to work. “The Jones EP was kind of fucking dark,” Tristan laughs, “The songs demanded a strange sort of isolation – the sort of spiral that happens when you spend too much time alone in your head.”

This assessment holds water. In the video to Jones EP centerpiece “Bare to Beat,” Tristan loops videos of her own performance of the song, just as she loops her vocals in the most glorious ‘round you’ve heard since counting to three before jumping in on “Row Row Row Your Boat” in Sunday School. From the strikingly personal songwriting to the production credits, she was an artist fully in control of the journey she intended you to go on – a selfish (but rightfully and intriguingly so) representation of the intricacies of her lovelorn psyche. “I was the kid in class who did every part of the group project because I didn’t trust people. I tend to have a very specific vision, and want things exactly as I want them.”

Which is why her 2016 re-emergence – as front woman to an otherwise all-male, all straight, all-white rock band Dakota Jones – couldn’t be more surprising. If you can’t take my word for it, consider that prominent indie blog Obscure Sound wasted no time making their critical imprint on this moment. “The multi-vocal layering [exemplifies] this group’s impressive grasp on both garage-rock and contemporary blues-rock,” they wrote the day of the release. And there it is – the sound we grew to love in 2014, yet pivoted into the world of rock.

“Working with Tim, Scott, and Steve has helped me let go of my obsessiveness,” Tristan explains when I bring up the newfound requirements of fronting a band – namely, working with other people. “They’ve helped me learn that collaboration is actually a lot more fun. It’s the most important part to me now. The most beautiful things come out of that place where I let go and someone else steps in.”

At this point, I’m skeptical of just how much Tristan’s enjoying letting loose of the reigns, but the fact that it’s happening is indisputable. The collaborative nature of Pt. 1 (out now on Bandcamp and Soundcloud) is evident in the first 20 seconds. Gone are the freeform improvisational meditations on family and addiction from The Jones EP (“Different Things”) and the epic pop soundscapes big enough to overwhelm your senses with masterful grandiosity (“Bare to Beat”). Each song on Pt. 1 is as tightly structured and classically produced as The Jones EP highlight (and closer) “Busy Puts.” The players alongside Tristan – Tim Greene, Scott Kramp, and Steve Ross – mix with her voice effortlessly – each piece essential, yet not a single sound extra. It sounds immediately classic. It’s where it’s supposed to be, and a listener can’t help but feel they are too when listening to it. Whereas you can feel the curtains of The Jones EP closing over the windows in the room she’s making it, Pt. 1 sounds like they recorded near a Central Park playground, on a sunny day in the middle of Spring. 

Despite the new sound, Tristan (who still writes each song) insists she’s exploring similar grounds of heartbreak. When asked about the EP’s visceral cover image – a set of white hands choking her – she explains: “Being in love was all I ever wanted. Then I got it and it terrified me to no end. At first I couldn’t eat or sleep and I literally felt a tightening in my chest that was constant. The choking imagery made too much sense to me. White hands around my throat.”

The newfound knowledge on this aspect of life seems to have given Carter-Jones a new source of power. Perhaps the power of setting free a broken heart just to get it broken again, this time wiser and ready for the fight. The power of accepting oneself a little bit more fully at 25 than at 23. “I’m a queer black woman in full control of the music, lyrically, and fronting three straight white men, which is only hilarious to me when I think about it.” She continues, acknowledging the coolness in this, “This is just some of the regular shit that women think about! I’m not special because I’m thinking about BDSM and fucking women. I just don’t think we get the pleasure of hearing these things from a woman’s mouth as often as we should.” She laughs, and suddenly I’m much less skeptical that she’s enjoying this collaborative ride.

Dakota Jones performed their New York debut at The Delancey on October 12th. The show was met with an ecstatic crowd and a confident debut from the band, including tight playing and Tristan’s assured vocals. One of the best aspects of a band is that each member has something at stake. I can’t help wonder if the newfound lightness in spirit and tightness in composition derives from working with individuals who feel excited, and perhaps even lucky, to be the ones providing glorious and classic soundscapes to her glorious voice and classic songwriting.

“I’m a bit gentler with myself now. On my thoughts and on my heart. I’m deeply grateful for the perspective I have now. And for the hope I have now, and for the want to be here that I have now. I never thought I’d be so fucking hopeful. I’m thankful for the patience and great love of the people around me.” She pauses, as if all is finally calm before adding, “And I’m still thankful for my strange-ass mind!”