The Road to Santa Fe

I have seen my dad about once a year since he moved out of Massachusetts approximately five years ago. One day this spring, he called me up and asked if I wanted to fly down to Texas and go on a road trip with him to Santa Fe. I said yes, of course. The following story is a collection of my thoughts about Texas and New Mexico.

I’m at the register at Whole Foods with my father. He’s paying $100 for food and wine for our week long stay in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The young woman behind the counter looks like so many people here do: an earthy shade of brown from either heritage or heliocentric lifestyle, warm eyes, relaxed smile. She’s talking about the celebrities who come through town on a semi regular basis. “Adam Sandler…” I interrupt with a hand wave, “Oh, Adam Sandlers are a dime a dozen. You can’t leave the house without running into Adam Sandler back in Massachusetts.” She goes on as if I hadn’t said anything, “The pretty one from Friends—Jennifer Aniston—Terry Crew (sic), oh and that woman who was Wednesday on the Addams Family.”

“Oh, Christina Ricci comes here?” My dad, suddenly interested. Big Christina Ricci fan, apparently. This cashier is in no rush to move us along; the line is getting longer. “Oh yeah, she owns a place down here.”

Outside the store, it’s a cool enough day for summer in Santa Fe. Maybe 80 degrees. Breezy. Despite the favorable weather, my dad begins to sweat immediately upon leaving the air conditioned store and doesn’t seem comfortable again until we have been in the car for a few minutes. His ancient GPS causes some trouble, which adds to his anxiety. But soon we get back on the road. It’s late afternoon. We were at a taco cooking class all morning. I was the only person in their mid-twenties in the class. Some were possibly teenagers, possibly college aged, but most people were well into their sixties. Weirdly, the former group were about a decade younger than me, while the latter group were a decade older than my dad. This left me wondering whether people who go to cooking classes just have kids later in life, or whether the young people were the grandchildren of the old ones. The al pastor tacos, described as “Santa Fe spicy” were good, but about as mild as anything at Chipotle. “This ain’t the Connecticut school of Cooking” laughs the instructor as we blend up some esoteric collection of local peppers. He’s right, I think—only for the fact that you can get some gut-wrenchingly spicy tacos in Hartford.

The preceding Sunday, we drove twelve hours through Texas to our Airbnb in the canyons in Tesuque, outside Santa Fe. My dad’s Dallas apartment is two blocks from Dealey Plaza. When we left town, we drove over two X’s painted on the pavement where our thirty-fifth president was shot to death in 1963. We stopped for lunch at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, a palace built to celebrate Texas Beef. We were seated in the main dining room by a brace-faced tweenage cowgirl in high waisted jeans and a bolo tie. Our waiter was wearing a denim shirt tucked into jeans with a white cowboy hat. He stopped by our table to check that “everything was okay” roughly twenty times during our half hour meal. And that wasn’t because the joint was dead either. Every table in the place was packed. It was late afternoon, well past peak lunchtime, but the place was packed nonetheless. Cowboys, truckers, old men with faces like baked clay, asian businessmen crowd into communal tables for the big steaks, ample sides, and southern hospitality.

Under a particularly large set of antlers on the front wall of the banquet hall (almost every square inch of the Big Texan is covered in either pelts or hunting trophies) sits a raised dais with six chairs. This table is set aside for this eatery’s signature attraction: here, diners are invited to take an hour to eat a seventy-two ounce steak with sides. If they can, the meal is free. If not, it costs a fairly reasonable $72.00. Nobody is sitting there now, but the waiter tells us they’ve served about fifty thousand of the steaks since the restaurant opened. He goes on to tell us that only six hundred (my dad remembers him saying six thousand) people have completed the challenge. Some back-of-napkin math shows that the seventy-two ounce steak challenge has grossed the Big Texan over $3.5 (or possibly $3.1 if my dad is right) million in revenue since they opened in 1960. There are worse businesses to be in up here in Amarillo. And this is a county where you can still drill a hole in the desert and pump out barrels of crude oil.

After Big Texan we drove down the road to Cadillac Ranch, a patch of dust off Interstate 40 with ten 1950’s Cadillacs stuck hood first in the clay. The whole place is littered with empty spray paint cans. It’s become kind of a ritual for visitors to spray paint something on one of the cars. These aren’t typical tagger kids; it’s mostly middle aged men and French tourists. The paint is so thick that the windows are almost painted shut.

From there we are straight off to Albuquerque where we are meeting one of my dad’s coworkers for what we are assured is an Authentic New Mexican Dinner. Rice, pinto beans, enchiladas, and salsa. The salsa is a big deal down here, I learn. There’s red, or green, or both combined together in what is called “Christmas,” for obvious reasons. I am not sure if these choices divide consumers into definitive camps as do other purchasing decisions such as Camel vs. Marlboro cigarettes or Fender vs. Gibson guitars. You are either a Camel guy or a Marlboro guy, after all. Unless your pack is empty and you’ve had a few beers. While it’s not clear to me that Santa Fe salsas are so tribal, the choice seems important nonetheless. It seems to depend on what mood the consumer wants the meal to have. It’s very important what mood the meal has, or so I am told. My dad’s coworker, who I will call Julia, goes out of her way to request that her tortilla be made with blue corn because “It’s just more special!” Most of the others agree. A pitcher of margaritas is ordered to share, and several baskets of sweet breads with honey called sopapillas.

This is technically a work dinner. Notwithstanding the presence of Julia’s extended family (husband, in-laws, two children) and myself, Julia’s firm is happy to pick up the tab after she and my father have a brief discussion regarding the timeframe in which a certain pdf will be emailed.

After the pdf problem is resolved, the subject of conversation turns to Texas. Earlier in the day, my dad tells everyone, I may have made a non-so-oblique observation that nobody would notice or care if the whole state burned to the ground. This elicited a couple chuckles (most of these people are from California). “I mean have you noticed how proud they are of their gas stations?” I ask, “I’ve seen billboards bragging how many pumps a certain gas station has. The awnings are all a hundred feet in the air and the signs two hundred. They are temples. Back home we are ashamed of our gas stations. They are grungy and out of the way. A gas station is like the neighborhood liquor store. You don’t want to be seen there too much, you get worried if the guy working there starts to know your name. Going to get gas is like you need to give someone a ride and your car is full of McDonald’s bags and unpaid parking tickets and half empty Coors cans. You just try to push it all away before anyone sees it, you know? But they totally own it here. It’s not shameful. In Texas, it’s just on display; they love it. They want it as big and clean as it can be. And across from a Motel 6 and a Whataburger or whatever. The whole state is just a shrine to the chain store, to the biggest billboard, the biggest road sign. That’s what you are losing if it burns to the ground, or if Mexico takes it back. A bunch of very nice gas stations.

“Everyone says, “well Austin is nice,” and yeah, Austin is alright. But Austin is like the present your abusive boyfriend gives you after he threatens to kill you because you bought the wrong brand of soup.”

My west coast elite dinner partners seem to appreciate my rant. Of course, who expects them to stand up for these fly over states if they aren’t getting a margarita out of it. I wonder whether New Mexico qualifies as a fly over state. I guess I can’t remember ever flying over it, though I’m sure someone has.

Conversation moves on to movies the “kids” are not allowed to see. Those kids are apparently Julia’s children: the two young people sitting at the end of the table. It strikes me as strange that they are not allowed to watch Fargo or The Shining, when they are, right this minute, sipping glow stick green glasses of Jose Cuervo Silver margaritas out at dinner with their mom. “It’s more laid back out here” my dad said earlier that day when we drove by an Indian Casino and gun range offering pistol rentals and the chance to “Shoot Full Auto!” I guess I get what he meant. Some cars just have paper license plates out here. A few don’t have any plates at all.

“Tuesday we are doing a glass blowing class” my dad has his mouth turned up in an ironical smile, he emphasizes glass blowing like we are going to make Chihulys or something. Then the punchline, “we’re making paperweights.” He finds this incredibly funny. “I can’t imagine how making a paper weight will require any blowing at all. I guess you don’t leave with it either. It has to cool overnight. They probably have a whole room in the back full of paperweights and they just hand you one of those and tell you good job.”

I chime in that “I saw this bit on YouTube a few days ago where the host of this show goes to Italy to truffle hunt and the dogs find, like, five truffles within the first minute and, I think it was Conan, Conan turns to the camera and says “they obviously just buried these five minutes before we got here,” same kind of deal.”

My dad nods solemnly. “You are paying for the experience. Nobody would go if you never found truffles, and I’m sure real truffle hunters spend hours without finding anything.”

“It’s a fine line between the authentic and the fake experience. And you know, it’s a line we choose to walk when we step outside our house, or outside the state, or whatever. When you put your life in someone else’s hands and tell them to show you an experience. And we’re headed right to that line tomorrow at 10:00 AM,” Julia’s son is loving this part, “I don’t know whether we are seeking it out, or just accepting it, or whether we just usually ignore it.” It reminds me of this meal, but I don’t say that. The drinks are real enough, the food is real enough, the check gets paid and someone gets a bill for a work meal and stamps it approved. The line between business dinner and relationship building is blurry. Some things just work better if nobody asks too many questions.

We leave the restaurant to drive to our rental house outside Santa Fe, about ninety minutes up the highway. It’s in a small town called Tesuque, population less than one thousand. It’s a wealthy area with houses built high on hilltops to avoid flooding during the rainy season. It’s surrounded on three sides by much poorer towns, pueblos, and Indian reservations. The contrast is noticeable driving up the highway. Some time during dinner, my dad told this story about how the last time he was in Santa Fe he bought a pair of buffalo cowboy boots at a western wear store. He only wore them once, on the trip home. At the airport a woman supposedly gave him a ton of shit for wearing the skin of an “endangered animal.” “Remember that story about the buffalo?” he asks twenty minutes into the ride. “I made the whole thing up. What do you think about that?”
He thinks this is incredibly funny as well. My dad is very old school. The other day he gave me this big speech about how collaboration is overrated. He reads books on how to make good decisions. He once told me he got rejected for a job because his personality test showed that he was too honest. Now he’s laughing about bullshitting someone about some trivial pair of fictitious buffalo cowboy boots. “I guess the point is to tell a good story, right?” I ask.

“Exactly! We both get what we want. It’s about building a relationship. That’s the whole point of this.” Building a real relationship on fake cowboy boot stories and fake business dinners, which will lead to real contracts and real work being performed.

“It’s like there’s reality, and there’s the truth. Something can not actually happen in reality, but still have value as “truth” in a sense. The story is fake, but the message you are sending about yourself is real.”

This sets him off about a book he’s reading about the midcentury New Yorker magazine. Back in the day, according to my second hand information, the New Yorker employed a few very talented storytellers who wrote amazing profiles of the characters they ran into at the city docks and fish markets and places like that. It later turned out many of these stories were embellished, and some were entirely fictitious. “But they made people feel real feelings, and they reflected reality in a way. In some ways they were more real than the reality of going out to the docks and interviewing real fishermen.”

We got to the house close to midnight and crashed for the night. We had been on the road for over twelve hours at that point. The rest of the trip is essentially what I wanted. Father/son time for a couple of black sheep. We drove up to Taos on the scenic route through a couple Indian reservations and small villages. We got matching T-Shirts with skeletons playing guitars on them. I’m reminded that a casino is moving in half an hour south of me back home and it makes me sad. Casinos never move to the rich areas; the patrons at the casino aren’t millionaires having extravagant parties. They are the working poor, or the elderly on Social Security smoking endless one hundred millimeter cigarettes down to the filter, or the white collar guys on their bachelor parties whose friends couldn’t think of anything better to do.You can tell me I’m wrong when a casino moves into Winchester or Concord, or when Foxwoods institutes a dress code. “Massachusetts used to be a temple on the hill,” my dad says, tapping the kitchen table for emphasis.

I think of everything I know about New Mexico: Oppenheimer watching the Trinity test, a rift to another dimension opening above Skinwalker Ranch, Hunter S. Thompson firing a revolver off into the desert air, Christina Ricci buying salmon burgers at Whole Foods, UFO crashes at Roswell, roadkill Jackalopes, the two sets of laws governing tribal and non-tribal jurisdictions. I love the desert, I miss home. I love my dad, but it feels like we are growing apart. New Mexico is the first post-modern state. They brought us into the nuclear age and are therefore responsible for all the uncertainty that comes with the threat of immediate annihilation.

On our last night in Santa Fe. My dad takes me to the opera. The production is a twenty-first century piece, written in English, about Robert Oppenheimer and the first nuclear test at Trinity. The opera is called Doctor Atomic and while the older gentleman next to me explains that it premiered in San Francisco, I can not think of a better venue than here in Santa Fe, just a few miles from Los Alamos Labs. It’s the end of the monsoon season. Halfway through the first act, the sky absolutely tears open and unleashes rain like I have never seen. The opera house is open on three sides, more or less, and it’s on top of a hill with a good view. Massive lightning bolts are visible in the distance in all directions. The rain blows in through the west opening and forces about a third of the orchestra section our of their seats and into the isles. As a twenty foot reflective metal ball is raised on a scaffold on stage, meant to represent “the Gadget” (the nuclear device), the singers’ voices are nearly drowned out by the apocalyptic thunder.

I imagine the guitar playing skeletons on my souvenir Taos t-shirt coming to life and playing along with the orchestra as they dance down to the underworld. I imagine a white rose blooming on a bleached horse’s skull. The stage lights go out, the theater lights come on, intermission begins. Interns come on stage with mops. In twenty-five minutes the second act will start. The bomb, the gadget, is approaching its teleological purpose. Some gadgets are built to destroy, some merely destroy because of some accidental feature of their nature. The men on stage, the nuclear scientists, are of the latter sort. Men, through noble intention or selfish desire, through myopia or genius, create the weapons of other mens’ destruction. The following morning, at breakfast, my dad shares some advice with me. “Too many people get married for the wrong reasons. They get married out of embarrassment. And people get divorced out of pride.” Then he adds, seemingly for no reason at all, “You know what I do every morning, Ben? I open YouTube on my phone and put on a Beach Boys playlist.”

.

Fiction: Waldo

Easy now. Pace the hundred and twenty three step perimeter. Say fifteen Hail Mary’s, check the beet plants. Beets—the perfect energy source, grown with the light of the sun, run down a fifteen foot cable to power miniature grow lights. Ambient energy, captured, refined, percolated, and repatriated as blood red nutrients. Waldo’s hamster died last night. He could see where this was going. The creature was less of a vermin—in fact, she was his only friend—than it was a canary in the mine, a harbinger of Waldo’s goose being shuffled gingerly into the oven.

How many days, how many months had it been? Shortwave radio lost reception almost at once, even the old Russian number station Waldo used to fall asleep to. The slavic woman’s voice, the last voice of the fairer sex, four, twenty-nine, eighty-six, silence. Transmission ended: world fucked. World fucked, beets, Mary-Lou the hamster, stacks and stacks of water bottles, piss filters, ambient collection tanks, soil, MRE’s, a small incinerator for absolute emergencies, shortwave radio, stacks of books, stacks of legal pads and pencils. One hundred and twenty three paces of a full grown human male.

Out of yellow legal paper, match sticks, the cardboard from a seeding planter, Waldo constructs a casket for little Mary-Lou. Hunched at his small desk, jeweler’s magnifier in one hand, paintbrush in the other, delicately embossing her name and a portrait of the America Flag, fifty-two stars individually drawn and colored white. The box fit just in the palm of his hand, but it was perfect. The design was similar to a puzzle box: one panel needed to be depressed with just the right pressure to allow the end to spring open and accept the little hamster body.

What to do with the wheel and the cage lined with sawdust? Perhaps it could be repurposed as some sort of recreation device? For now it was draped in black, the color of mourning, and red white and blue book covers (the best Waldo could do on short notice). Laying in state, Mary-Lou was the image of peace and dignity. Waldo found himself shedding the first tear of his unfortunate exile. A crowd has gathered. A few dozen Benjamin Franklins, some Ulysses Grants and a few sallow Andrew Jacksons. All the best men, the other heroes, come to pay respect to a fallen patriot.

Waldo’s eulogy was short. Nobody ever said he was particularly good with words. He thanked Mary-Lou for the time she had here on Earth and in this place specifically, and he released her soul to God’s grace. He pressed play on the Allman Bros cassette he had cued up for the moment. Mary-Lou’s favorite song. He could tell because she always ran faster when he put this tape on. She went into the puzzle box and Waldo carried her across to the small incinerator. The door closed, the gas flame lit up and lifted Mary-Lou’s earthly corpus to the heavens above. Rest in peace little one, Waldo said, feeling another few tears coming up.

Mary-Lou, in one of those coincidences life throws in the laps of superstitious people like Waldo McCarthy, shared a name with Waldo’s elementary school neighbor and first crush, Mary Wilkerson.

In the school yard one day, some time in the spring of fourth grade, Waldo put some thumbtacks (the silver ones with the flat round backs) point up in the dirt. The idea came to him earlier in the day after a particularly infuriating episode. Waldo, speed walking to biology, found himself followed by a maddening click click like a pebble falling down a flight of hardwood stairs. The culprit was found by a helpful someone who suggested, uh, maybe Waldo had a tack in his shoe. Embarrassed, Waldo claimed he knew that, stupid, and snuck off to the bathroom to take the villain out. This proved harder than anticipated, his mother having clipped his nails just the night before.

The idea grew from there. Place tacks upright in the dirt in the schoolyard, then five, maybe six if luck had it, clueless chumps would find themselves locked into unwilling partnership with their new silver tappers.

Things did not go as smoothly as planned as Mary Wilkerson ran by in her summer flats. Compared to Waldo’s chunky department store sneakers, her inscrutably feminine ballet shoes were an easy target to pierce and Waldo soon found himself explaining why exactly it was that Mary needed a round of tetanus shots to an unimpressed assembly of parents, teachers, administrators, and legal counsels.

For Mary Wilkerson’s part, she began to take more seriously her mother’s warnings, between puffs of a Newport cigarette, that young men should not be trusted with sharp objects, or indeed, with almost anything. This event also spurred her to, several weeks later, sneak up on an otherwise occupied Waldo McCarthy and dump a handful of dirt and thumbtacks down the back of his t-shirt, an event which, in turn, caused Waldo to remember his own mother’s warning that nobody holds a grudge like a woman scorned. The word “scorned” meaning, young Waldo guessed, something along the lines of “stabbed in the foot with a thumb tack.”

Use your head, one exasperated instructor told him at the end of the meeting. And Waldo listened. He made plans, and contingency plans, and backup contingency plans. Some things, however, can’t be planned through before they happen. Such was Mary-Lou’s death. Waldo could not have planned, for instance, for the sudden auditory apparentness of the beet water dripping through recycling tubes. Without the hamster wheel and scuttling feet to listen to, the small shelter was suddenly much noisier. Waldo did not plan on what to do with Mary Lou’s ashes. He considered scattering them in the potting soil, but something about the idea that he would be consuming them in a few weeks’ time was unsettling. For now they remained inside the incinerator.

For Heaven’s sake, Waldo thought. So much work to do.

The Mess Over There

**I wrote this a few days before the UK, US, and French joint operation targeting chemical weapons facilities in Damascus. Right now, these strikes do not seem to have inflicted civilian casualties, for which I am grateful. It is unclear whether the targets were of any value to the Syrian regime, and indeed whether the attack will do anything to prevent future chemical attacks. I stand by the premise of this article: if the US or any other country can do something to stop the Syrian use of chemical weapons, they should.**

 

What is there to do about Syria? The civil proxy war in this tiny Biblical nation—sharing a border with America’s closest Middle Eastern ally, Israel, as well as NATO ally Turkey and still semi-occupied Iraq—may well be remembered as the defining event of the early 21st century. By this I do not mean to predict that the civil war currently raging in the country will grow to worldwide proportions, as some fear, nor do I mean to minimize other events from this century (the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the Iraq War, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, North Korea’s successful nuclear program, the rise of China etc). What I mean is this: while there were important events in the ten years between 2001 and the start of the Syrian Civil War in Spring of 2011, seven years ago, no single event has revealed more about the shape of the world at the start of this new century than Syria has. The world’s only superpower grapples with its conflicting beliefs in human rights, and its unwillingness to become entangled in another mid-east conflict. A large group of previously silent isolationists are ascendant. All the major players in the region lay their cards on the table. Iran, Turkey, Russia, Iraq and Israel choose to champion different players in the conflict in pursuit of their own goals. There’s open resistance to the post-cold war idea that America’s hegemony is unquestionable. Russian troops are being killed by US airstrikes—something which did not even happen at the height of the cold war. Meanwhile, the refugees fleeing Syria are prompting a resurgence of the nationalistic European rightwing. Whatever possible conclusion becomes actuality, whether it be a broader war, a silent American retreat and return to autocratic normalcy, or something else entirely, future historians will consider the period between 2011 and 2020 a key timeframe for understanding 21st century world power dynamics.

For America, the September 11th attacks were met with the same response as was the Lockerbie bombing years earlier: immediate and through retaliation. The country was shocked, a lot changed in the cultural, in government, yes. But it was essentially a moment of reaffirmation: the devastating attack did not demoralize America, it invigorated its resolve. The same can be said about the Iraq war, at least at the start. The idea of removing Saddam Hussein dated back to Bush I. It was carried on through the Clinton administration who bombed and starved the Iraqi people to no avail. The Bush II invasion was not iconoclastic in any sense. Nor was the policy behind it new or unique to Iraq. Since the end of the Second World War, America has—to varying degrees—stood behind the idea state sovereignty is not a license to practice ethnic cleansing, war crimes, etc. Yes, sometimes we have been impotent to do anything about it (see the horrors of the North Korean slave state), and sometimes we have given it a pass—in retrospect wrongly given it a pass—when it benefitted the realpolitik agenda of America’s global Cold War (see Operation Condor). But, the idea persists. Critics claim that America has no moral right to criticize human rights abuses in other countries. America is not perfect, but compared to the other forces acting in Syria (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah, Turkey, and Israel), America comes off looking better than most. If the standard for action is moral perfection, the action will be taken by those who are morally despicable instead of those who are merely morally decent.

When I predict that the Syrian Civl War will define the rest of the century, what I mean is that the world’s response will forebear the moral landscape of this century like World War Two did for the 20th century. If the regime of tiny, morale-weary, non-nuclear Syria can use chemical weapons on its own women and children with no response from America or “the West,” then the moral landscape of the world has fundamentally shifted. Before the nineteen forties, the attitude in the US was that other countries’ affairs were their affairs. That changed when millions of our soldiers were dragged into a war most people hadn’t wanted before the Japanese attack on Hawaii. These men encountered all the normal chaos of war they trained for, but they also encountered something new: the mechanized, scientific, culling of millions and millions of people in specially designed camps in China, Germany, and Poland. The systematic extermination of human beings, live vivisections, scientific murder. After the war, the world powers together decided to hang the perpetrators. After that, the excesses of Stalinism were the basis for America’s entire foreign policy; the purges, the gulags, the censorship; these were—often overzealously—held up as the very antithesis of America values and, therefore, a justification to act as we wished to make sure no new country had to live through these horrors.

I am not pro-war. I think that Iraq was bungled as badly as a conflict that lopsided can be bungled. There are many criticisms I could lay against Bush II and those others involved with the decade long misadventure: the shortsightedness of purging the Iraqi army of Baathists (who would, now unemployed but with families to feed, bring their experience to al-Qaeda and ISIS), backing an ineffective and corrupt Prime Minister, ignoring the sectarian nature of Iraqi society, downplaying diplomatic resolutions, falsely claiming Iraq had nuclear weapons, falsely linking Saddam to 9/11, etc, I will never criticize the idea that Saddam should in an ideal world, have been brought to some sort of justice. We should never have accepted him as a legitimate leader, prolific torturer that he was, mastermind of an ethnic cleaning that he was, war criminal that he was. Perhaps we should have removed him after we liberated Kuwait from Iraqi troops, as some wanted to do. Perhaps we should have exerted more diplomatic pressure to remove him in the years leading up to 2003, perhaps we should have used military force, but just been smarter about it. I do not know. We must accept there are things about the world which we can’t change, sometimes because any attempt to change things would cause circumstances to become worse. However, we cannot go back to thinking that those things are none of our business, regardless if we can do anything about it. Crimes against humanity are called that because they are not just crimes against the individual victims, but against the whole of human civilization. Dictators and warlords may get away with crimes because they are powerful, but they should never get away with crimes simply because the global community is apathetic. The first eventuality I can live with, the second I cannot.

I do not know what “regime change” in Syria would look like. I don’t know if it would be as easy as it was in Iraq, or whether Russia is serious when it says it would fight American troops to keep the Syrian despot in power. If Vladimir Putin believed America had the stomach for another war, I do not believe Russia would have gone all in on Syria. Perhaps, then, just the appearance of moral fortitude would have been enough, in a different world, to wrap the conflict up years ago. Perhaps if the Syrian regime believed there would be serious consequences for gassing civilians, torturing prisoners and dissidents, using live ammunition on peaceful demonstrators, or dropping barrel bombs on apartment buildings, they would not have done these things. It is possible, likely even, that a US attack on Syria would have disastrous consequences. Maybe Syria would become a failed state like Libya, or a terrorist breeding ground like Iraq. Discounting the fact that it is functionally already both of those things, we must weigh the consequences of attacking against those of standing by and watching. Those consequences might be harder to trace back to the source, but they are just as important to evaluate. What will the world look like if we collectively give up on human rights? On justice? If we give tacit permission to dictators to act as they please as long as they leave us alone, the 21st century might look a lot more like the first half of the 20th when the world chose to ignore the Ottoman genocide of Armenians than it will like the second half, when international criminal courts were created to punish perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

For Republican Presidents, Collusion is a Grand Old Tradition

Since at least late 2016, the FBI—and later the office of special counsel Robert Mueller—has been investigating potential collusion between members of Donald Trump’s campaign and agents of the Russian government or the Russian Intelligence Service, GRU. The investigation centers around allegations that Russia coordinated with the campaign to release damaging information on Trump opponents, provided the campaign with funds or material assistance, and spread targeted propaganda to discourage voter turnout. It is illegal under US law to accept campaign contributions from a foreign government, or indeed any foreign individual. It would also be illegal to receive or profit from stolen data, as some allege campaign officials did with thousands of DNC emails stolen by Russian GRU agents, or to launder Russian money to conceal its origin from election officials or tax authorities. Whether or not the investigators find that Trump campaign staff violated any law, or whether they were just the lucky recipients of an uncoordinated and separate Russian effort to undermine Hillary Clinton, the inquiry points to a disturbing trend. The apparent eagerness of the Trump campaign to accept foreign help recalls two earlier instances of collusion from two other Republican Presidents: Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It seems a fitting time, then, for a brief retrospective of collusions past.

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was, perhaps, the most exasperating, capricious, opportunistic, volatile man to hold the presidency. Seen in his time as an efficient technocrat, a pragmatist, a master politician, if lacking in charisma, he has become known to historians through his secret recordings and the notes of his advisors as a raging anti-semite, a reactionary of the highest order, a weasel, and a hopeless drunk who had to be restrained by his secretaries, on several occasions, from making inebriated nuclear escalations to the cold war.

His paranoia and ambition eventually led to his downfall in the Watergate scandal. The president was implicated in the burglary and bugging of his political rival, George McGovern and the subsequent payments of hush money to the arrested “janitors” who carried out the break-in. He was also caught on his own tapes consulting with his lawyer on the best way to obstruct the investigation into the presidency. The case is rank with irony. Nixon installed tape recorders in the oval office so as to blackmail and intimidate those he met with. He did not anticipate them being use against him. Furthermore, the crime itself relatively minor compares to other crimes committed under Nixon’s watch, and indeed was unnecessary. At the time of the break in, Nixon has a massive lead in the polls and would have won in a landslide with or without dirt on McGovern.

That was Richard Nixon. He was not the savvy operator many thought, indeed he was more a creature of neurosis: loathe to sit back and enjoy a sure win, he had a compulsion to use every available means to destroy his opponent. Nixon’s pre-presidential career is an array of humiliations. Despite being a former representative, senator, and vice president, he lost the 1960 presidential election to relatively young and inexperienced John Kennedy. Almost immediately, he lost the California gubernatorial election—already a step down from national politics—to another democrat, a chagrined Nixon later griped that the media wouldn’t “have Nixon to kick around anymore”. For a career politician like Nixon, plagued as he was by paranoia, a sense of failure, and a chronic deficiency of morals, the general election against Hubert Humphrey was a must-win. Nixon was handed every advantage: a retiring democratic incumbent, an unpopular and deadly war in Vietnam, a divided democratic party which had lost its base of support with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and a southern democratic defector named George McGovern running a spoiler campaign. But, Nixon needed a sure thing.

Nixon was paranoid that President Johnson’s peace conference in Paris was a ploy to boost the democratic candidate. He utilized a Chinese-American socialite and lobbyist named Anna Chennault to create a secret back channel with the South Vietnamese ambassador to the United States ahead of the 1968 peace talks in Paris. The message was unambiguous: pull out of the peace talks, and Nixon will get you a better deal when we are elected. The South Vietnamese did pull out of the talks, making Johnson and, by extension, Humphrey look weak. The war became the democratic albatross and Nixon achieved a massive electoral college victory at the polls. Unfortunately for everyone besides Nixon himself, he was unable to deliver a better deal for Vietnam. Instead he expanded the war illegally into neighboring Laos and Cambodia, intensified the use of indiscriminate carpet bombing, chemical warfare, and support for death squads and free fire zones. The war would go on for the US for at least four years, and for South Vietnam for another seven, culminating with the fall of Saigon and the defeat of the South Vietnamese forces.

This backchannel, contemporaneously captured by FBI wiretaps of South Vietnamese officials, and called “treason” by Lyndon Johnson, captures the spirit of what we talk about when we talk about collusion. True collusion has to meet the following four criteria:

1. A group of Americans asks for something from a foreign power, that

2. Will hurt the overall interests of the United States (otherwise it is just diplomacy)

3. Yet will benefit the small group of Americans

4. In exchange for favors or a quid pro quo

In Nixon’s case, what is asked for is withdrawal from the peace talks, which did hurt the US interests (getting out of the war, ending casualties, etc) yet did benefit Nixon and company by making their opponent look weak, and they did offer a quid pro quo, though it was never actually delivered.

America’s actions in Indochina, especially those during Nixon’s tenure, severely damaged America’s reputation. Millions were killed, the environmental holocaust caused by the millions of gallons of chemical defoliants dropped on the jungle persists to this day, as do the birth defects and disabilities. More tonnes of high explosive bombs were dropped on Indochina than were used by all sides in World War Two. This is the disgrace of collusion; we must be able to trust our politicians to work for those they represent, not for themselves, and not for a foreign power. Nixon, in his conceited ambition, represented only himself, not the electorate tired of a prolonged war, and certainly not the Vietnamese civilians being roasted alive by napalm bombs or shot in the back from snipers on American helicopter gun ships.

Ronald Reagan

What is there to say about Ronald Reagan that hasn’t already been shouted from the pulpits and panel shows of the nation until our collective throats ran dry? If Watergate and the proliferation of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories turned public opinion against the idea of beneficent government, it was Reagan who delivered the coup de grace. In isolation, Richard Nixon’s policy of lies could be seen as a disgusting aberration. In reality, the only difference between Richard Nixon and every republican who followed him was this: Richard Nixon lacked any kind of charm, even the superficial kind that was Reagan’s bread and butter. Nixon personified moral bankruptcy and it showed in his sweaty forehead and permanent scowl. Reagan betrayed the same hypocrisy, the same wild disregard for human dignity, the same ambition, yet he hid it behind a paternalistic smile and an appeal to the very same unease Nixon fermented. It was not that we had chosen bad leaders, he told us, it was that no government can be good. He groomed us to accept his barbaric and hypocritical foreign policy, and tricked us into rejoicing as the regulatory apparatus and the welfare state was rolled back. No more would we be victimized by big government, only big corporations. No more War on Poverty, hello War on Drugs.

But what’s at issue now, for the discussion of collusion, is not the general skullduggery and immoral guile of Mr. Reagan, but rather one singular event. An episode of American history so rife with hypocrisy that it seems almost like a satire. It’s the time the evangelical savior, who ran against Jimmy Carter’s weakness on Iran and favored moral absolutism and the death cult of Christianity over practical diplomacy and common sense when he dubbed the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” and exploded our deficits to bankrupt them in a monetary game of chicken, decided to subvert Congress and sell anti tank missiles to the Ayatollahs of Iran to finance death squads in Central America who were fighting to overthrow a democratically elected government.

This would seem like a bizarre conspiracy theory—one of dozens that have sprung up around the Reagan/Bush administration—were it not backed up by thousands of pages of senate testimony, indictments, and journalistic investigation. The scheme is as follows: the US agreed to sell Iran, through Israeli intermediaries, thousands of TOW missiles in exchange for Iran’s help freeing American prisoners in Lebanon. The missiles were destined for use in the Iran-Iraq war, one of the ugliest confrontations of the twentieth century. Iran relied on child conscripts and human wave attacks reminiscent of the Eastern Front of World War One, while an increasingly bogged down Iraqi force used chemical weapons and practiced ethnic cleansing. Iraq, a secular dictatorship unnerved by the theocratic revolution in Iran, turned to the US for help in the war after Iran repulsed Saddam’s initial invasion and struck back into Iraqi territory. The US provided Iraq with intelligence, weapons components, and monetary and material aid to drive out the Iranians. So, though obliquely and covertly, the US was siding with Iraq in the conflict. Indeed, Iran was subjected to an arms embargo while Iraq was removed from a list of state sponsors of terrorism. Why then did Reagan’s administration secretly sell Iran thousands of missiles?

Part of the reason, as previously mentioned, was to secure the release of American hostages in Lebanon. However, the plan would not have been green-lit if this was the only reason. The United States—unlike many of its European counterparts—has a longstanding policy not to negotiate with terrorists. No, the reason the arms sale was allowed was to secure funding for a pet project of Reagan’s CIA: the overthrow of the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. After many years of covert action American in Latin America, Congress decided to reign in the CIA with a bill banning funding of terrorist groups known as “Contras”. This culminated in 1984, when the socialist president won two thirds of the vote in Nicaragua in a free and fair election, and the Congressionally allocated funding for the Contras expired, legally requiring Reagan to end the covert support for the group responsible for: an assassination program aimed at the legitimate government of Nicaragua, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors, death squads, a civil war claiming upwards of thirty thousand lives, and a spillover into neighboring Honduras.

Reagan’s administration, chagrined at Congressional oversight and dead set on victory over “communist” forces within America’s supposed sphere of influence (the entire New World), ignored the mandate to cease assistance to the Contra terrorists, and instead sought funding from elsewhere. Along with murky allegations that the CIA raised funds by selling or trafficking Contra cocaine, most of this funding came from theocratic Iran. The collusion cycle looked like this: Reagan asked for a favor from Iran, untraceable cash, against the interests of the United States, in order to fund his pet project in South America (doubly against the interests of the United States, by the way) in exchange for violating the international weapons embargo against Iran and selling them missiles.

Collusion, Generally

The crimes contained under the heading of “Collusion” are of a special sort. They are not just crimes against the laws of the United States, in Reagan’s case, or crimes of war, in Nixon’s case, they are crimes against the idea of a representative government. The people need to trust their leaders to work in the people’s best interests, not their own. When a democratic leader colludes with a foreign power, he does so not in order to conduct diplomacy to further the goals of the country, but rather for selfish gain, to essentially trick his constituents into believing something that is not true. Nixon’s collusion tricked voters into believing the war was inevitable, allowing it to continue for years. Reagan tricked voters into believing there was a real anti-communist rebellion happening in Latin America, instead of a shambolic war-for-hire mercenary operation against a popular government that would crumble without US tax dollars. This furthered his political career by portraying the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire with its tentacles in every country, fought at every step by noble resistance. The truth would be revealed only five years later when the Soviet Union collapsed, bankrupt and powerless, the resistances in so many countries revealed as the state-sponsored terroristic madmen that they were.

If it is revealed that Mr. Trump colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election, the public can have no faith in him. He would have shown that to him, a political victory is more important than the interests of a fair democratic election. Whatever he exchanged for the assistance, whether it be money, influence, promises kept or unkept, the cost will be borne by the citizens of the country he was given charge of. Whatever crimes Russia committed in 2016, the American people are the victims and Mr. Trump the beneficiary. At least Mr. Trump can take comfort in the fact that he will not be alone. Apologists will be quick to spring to his defense, as they have with Nixon (China! EPA!) and Reagan (Berlin Wall! Taxes!), telling us, no doubt all about how his actions were excusable because of his results. Assuming, always and once more, the big conservative lie that we cannot have it both ways. That all politicians are dirty so it’s better to have an effective dirtbag.

Sources and Further Reading:

Guide to Iran Contra Scandal

More Contemporaneous Reporting

Walsh, Lawrence E: Firewall

Hitchens, Christopher: The Trial of Henry Kissinger

Chomsky, Noam: Pirates and Emperors, Old and New

More New Information on ’68 Peace Talks

An Up-to-date List of Events Surrounding Trump Investigation

After the Funeral

After the funeral, a few guys in black suits with white gloves on came in through some secret door somewhere and wheeled the coffins out. One of them, the boss probably, took the blue and yellow hockey jerseys, numbers 11 and 16, which had been draped over the coffins, and handed them to Mr. Warner. He’s holding them sort of like a clothesline, draped over his arm held out a few inches from his body. Like he wants the wind to dry them out.

I’m one of the last in the room. A lot of people went outside after Mr. Warner thanked them for coming. I was still standing over the guest book with a pen in my hand, reading some of the memories other people shared. A lot of them were BS from kids that used to bully me and Brian in middle school and just ignored us now. I guess it’s easy for someone like that to just jot any old thing down, like it’s a yearbook: have a good summer!

I saw Jackie Arrentini come in a while ago and I ducked behind some old guys who must have been Mr Warner’s friends. She left pretty quick, but I found out she wasn’t actually gone, she was just standing outside the front door talking to some other kids from school. Last time Jackie Arrentini saw me she made me cry in front of Andrew Weissman and his little brother. Then she told everyone I had a crush on Andrew and he didn’t talk to me for two months. I wish she could stop turning up.

I stuck my head out of the room and looked down the hall at the exit. Yep, she was still out there. And nobody left to hide behind and sneak out. I look around and Mr. Warner is gone. His friends are gone too, it’s just me. I scribbled down the only thing I could think of in their book, just that I miss them both and some other stuff like that. Being alone with just their school photos and a table of flowers is giving me the creeps. I went out in the hallway and braced for Arrentini. Maybe there’s another way out? Instead of going straight out the front door, I went left. There were a few more rooms like the one I was just in and then a ninety degree turn in the hallway, and there hanging from the ceiling right at the bend there was a red and white glowing exit sign with an arrow pointing left. I can go out the back, grab my bike and be out of here before Jackie even sees anything. What the hell.

The other rooms, parlors—is that what the rooms are called? Or is that the whole building? The other parlors were all empty, just one funeral today I guess. Down the hall to the left, past some closed doors, and to the left again to a bigger hallway, split down the middle by a row of kind of tacky white plaster columns. Like at the Lincoln Memorial.

The exit was right at the end of the hall. But—shit. One of those morticians was holding the door open. Before he caught sight of me, a teenage kid without even a pair of good shoes on, definitely not kosher to be be back here, I ducked behind one of those pillars. There was a black car pulled up outside the door. On the right hand wall I could see a bunch of glass display cases now, full of photos it looked like, along with some newspapers and other printed pages framed up. I checked back around the other side of the column. The guy is still there, just holding the door. It looks heavy too, big brass handle, thick frosted glass panel in the middle. Some noises. Another door opens, on the left side of the hallway. Two more guys push and pull out one of the coffins and carefully maneuver it through the door. The door guy lets the door whoosh shut and I see their silhouettes through the frosted glass moving around the hearse. A trunk slams and the shadow of the car moves up a few feet; another moves up to its place.

The door opens and the morticians come back in. One of them laughs quietly and slaps another on the back, they are making a new guy holds the door this time as the other two go back for the second coffin. They bring it out into the hallway, but the angle is wrong or something so they have to realign it to the door. They are pushing and pulling it sort of like someone trying to turn around their car in a tight alley. I hear another car door slam outside and some footsteps and a woman comes running in. The guy on the door lets go of it and it whooshes shut, he looks like he isn’t sure what to do. The woman—the woman is Mrs. Warner. I remember she ran out of the room when her husband started tearing up thanking everyone for coming, like he was cutting his Christmas party short or something. Alright, the kids have to be off to bed, so thanks for coming, enjoy your holiday. She started this whispered conversation with one of the two guys pushing the casket. She grabbed him by the shoulder and her voice broke. Alright, alright I can hear him say, trying to calm her down a little. He tells the other guy something, the young guy. Maybe a few years older than me, looks like he could be the door guy’s son.

This poor kid is bright red. He looks between the two morticians, and at Mrs. Warner like he isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do. One of them nods and he reaches down and unhooks some latches on the casket. My head stuck out the side of the pillar, frozen with my eyes locked on that box. Together the kid and the other guy pull open half the lid. Inside the form of Brian or Luke. It strikes me now that maybe nobody knows which one is which. He’s wearing a suit, hands folded across his chest. The hands are swollen, blue. His face as well. Where his eyes were it looks like gauze or bandages wrapped around his head. His hair is messy and thin, the lower half of his face is distorted. Everything is pulled forward from the neck, probably from where the rope held him up. His skin is the texture of fresh cut halibut, but dark, almost purple.

Everyone’s eyes are locked on the boy, everyone except the door attendant, who is staring into space, bored looking, waiting for a cue to do something. Mrs. Warner has stopped crying. She reaches out one hand; the kid tries to stop her, but is himself stopped by the older man. She reaches out one hand and takes the hand of her son, my friend. I imagine how cold it must feel. Then in an instant, I almost miss the movement, she is down there on top of him. She’s kissing his face and neck, stroking his hair, crying again. Nobody tries to stop her, but the spell is broken and we all look away from the body. I can hear her wet sobs and the kisses hitting cold flesh. In the silence of the empty building, there isn’t much else to hear.

I walk out the front door several minutes later. I snuck away when they started moving the casket outside again. The parade, the motorcade is starting. Everyone in line has the little flags on their hoods and they all follow the two hearses. Mrs. and Mr. Warner must be in the first car behind the second hearse, bringing the boys to their resting place. Jackie is gone, thank God, I think if I saw her I would have pushed her over and ruined her nice dress.

American Carnage

Any attempt to distill a single drop of substance from Donald Trump is an exercise of wasted effort, self-sabotaging generosity, and wishful projection. Our forty-fifth president is nothing but a movie screen. Draped in an ill-fitting suite, tailored, yes, but tailored to conceal instead of to accentuate the man’s form, eyes, beady and bloodshot, scan his audience. Backed by a tall leather chair at the head of a boardroom table, TV cameras recording and producers standing off stage right, he plays the powerful CEO, reading his lines or ad libbing a Markov chain of buzzwords, he praises or maligns his “apprentices,” who, circled around the table, play act as apostles.

In front of a crowd of hand-written sign holding “economically disadvantaged” forgotten men and women, he is a demagogue. With vitriolic sloganeering and calls to violence, he acts out the charade of a strong man. On the phone with donors or foreign leaders, he says “don’t worry, it’s all an act”. That is the one truth you will get: the demand to take him seriously not literally. This is a man who built a successful empire based on nothing but his own personality. His businesses are generally failures, bankrupt, bought out by more competent magnates, or profitable only by skirting the law. His one success is his ability to convince, beyond all reason, that his name and image have value beyond his demonstrated abilities. The silhouette that emerges, backlit, from backstage at the Republican National Convention, or from the dressing room on the set of a reality show, smoke machines adding a sense of drama, that silhouette is the Donald Trump whose name rests in gold serif fonts on buildings and steak packages. The Donald Trump we create in our minds. The real Donald Trump is rarely seen, mostly he is found in bed with a cheeseburger in one hand and the TV remote in the other. Ever a con man, over and over he convinces his audience to buy into his charisma, his charm, and his empty promises. Bankers line up to give him loans, donors write him campaign checks, voters pull the lever feeling like it is the first time a politician understood them. In reality, they are voting for a mirror that reflects their own worst instincts, the parts of themselves the world told them to hide.

America bought a timeshare for ten times their yearly salary and now we are spending our two week vacation telling everyone what a good deal we got. Is it just the unwillingness to admit to being fooled? Or does the con man’s smile create in us a genuine desire to be robbed? Perhaps there is something in the brazenness of the con, the sheer balls it takes to lie to someone’s face, millions of our faces, that arouses a feeling of, if not quite respect, something close.

Trump’s administration is game of Jenga. Pieces of American tradition–rule of law, decorum, soft power, international relations–are being pulled out one by one while our leader brags about how his tower gets higher by the day. “Look at the rising profits, the stock market, the fear foreign leaders display, look at our ability to unilaterally impose tariffs, bomb whomever we want”. The con can only last so long, however, before the tower collapses under its own weight. On that day we will have a choice to make: we can pick up the pieces and rebuild, learning a lesson and making it so the mistake will not be repeated, or we can choose to leave the pile on the floor and tell ourselves that it never fell at all, that America is still great, world be damned.

Unsolvable: A Summer of Real Life Mysteries

I am sitting on a hand-me-down chair on the porch of my first apartment drinking a cheap beer. It’s hot as hell. A couple years later, I read in Haruki Murakami’s memoir that out of the places he’s lived, he found the heat and humidity of Massachusetts in summer the most oppressive. Living in Amherst, my college town, in the summer of 2015, I felt about the same. The air inside my apartment became too thick to breathe around noon and stayed that way until dusk. Unlike in other parts of the country, the old homes in New England don’t typically have central air conditioning. When I would step outside to escape the humidity, any exposed skin would burn, in an instant, into a lattice pattern that mirrored the latticed enclosure of the porch. At night every piece of clothing would stick to my skin as I tried to fall asleep. Every morning I would wake up dehydrated in a pool of sweat. I would coast my bike down the hill near my house over and over to pretend the air had woken up from its summer sleep and uncoiled itself, maybe thinned enough to breathe.

I graduated college that May. My lease was good for a few more months. I was living with this guy who graduated the same year as me. I woke up at 5:30 every day to go to work, he stayed up all night. We didn’t see each other a lot. In the summer, I went to bed when there was still some light left in the sky.

A few weeks after graduation, he moved out of state. Before he left, he invited me to a going away party at his friends’ townhouse. When I showed up, a stranger opened the door and asked who I was. I told him, and he pulled me me inside. The first floor main room was packed with people, it was dark, there was barely any furniture except a beer-pong table and a small television. I didn’t know anybody. There was a disco ball, one of those electric spinning ones that projects big dots of color on the walls, and music playing from speakers somewhere. My roommate saw me, he had a lite beer in a red solo cup in his hand—the first time I saw him drink anything but water—“nobody thought you would show up!”

I left the party with a slight buzz, early and a little upset. The bus was packed on the ride back into town. Everyone was shouting—getting ready for a night out I guess. It was still pretty early. The bus driver told us he would call the cops unless we all calmed down. Someone kept pulling the stop request cord and not getting off, forcing the bus to make every stop. I went right to bed and slept well enough that I didn’t hear it when my roommate came home.

I had nothing to do at work the next day. Summer was a dead time. A day is good if sales pay to keep the lights on. Work in the summer in a college town is an extended period of training for the first week in September when fifty thousand kids and parents descend on the town, clogging the roads back all the way to the highway and demanding coffee and snacks and notebooks and bumper stickers. I felt a little off. What was it that day? Not enough sleep, a little hangover, not enough coffee, too much coffee? That’s when I first listened to Serial.

I had one earbud in my ear, the cord running down my sleeve so nobody could see. The narrator brought me to Baltimore, the last year of the old century. It was like I was a teenager again, trying to solve a high-school murder mystery. A girl turned up dead, her ex was arrested for it. But as the story unfolded, I got more and more fascinated by the little details. Zeno paradoxically claimed that an arrow, once fired from a bow, can never reach a distant target because first it must pass through infinite spacial points in finite time. Indeed, as more and more details emerged in the case, each one begging for a satisfactory answer, it became harder and harder to see them all added up into a perfect conclusion.

I spent the next week listening and then re-listening to the podcast. I found forums and discussion boards online where I could see original documents, interviews that weren’t included in the podcast, and fan theories and opinions. I found that I was less interested in the biggest question—whether the boyfriend was guilty—than I was with nailing down every detail. If you take out the murder, it’s a classic teen movie. Gossip easily becomes fact, reputation is everything, everybody’s personal life is everyone else’s business, and everything is garnished with a dash of forbidden love and a healthy dose of pot smoke. Somewhere in the mess is one universal truth, waiting to be uncovered. But there are also countless small moments of truth revealed through lies or misrepresentations. The beauty of documentary storytelling is that truth is not just presented as a statement of facts, but as a series of stories that the audience can interpret for itself; stories that may be untrue but which might reveal crucial information nonetheless. Whenever someone tells their story, you learn from listening to it. You learn what that person chose to emphasize, and to downplay, and to lie about. I dig as deep as I can into the archive of interviews and witness statements, looking for clues and explanations of the inconsistent stories I was hearing.

Researching Serial I found posts directing me to other podcasts about mysterious events. Some were other crimes, disappearances, weird artifacts, mysterious lights in the sky, aliens, conspiracies. A grab bag of stuff to keep you up at night. AM radio moved to the iTunes store. On some shows, the hosts just act as storytellers: they will go over the details of a case and stop there. In others, the hosts play detective and actually try to solve the mysteries or, at least, spitball theories. I prefer shows that fall into the second category. There is something thrilling about an unsolved mystery. A good unsolved mystery needs to have two qualities: first, it must have enough detail to generate multiple reasonable hypotheses about what happened, but, second, it must lack the one key piece of information that would point to any one hypothesis over another. In other words, multiple people need to be able to use the facts that do exist to construct narratives for what happened, but there can’t be any objective way to rank these narratives in terms of probability. Endless debates arise because the evidence points different people in a variety of directions depending on their personal psychologies.

A real unsolved mystery like this is my favorite type of case. There is nothing like the feeling of riding the waves of different theories out to sea, feeling completely on board with the evidence and the reasoning, then riding another wave back to land as holes are picked in the first theory. Then of course, riding another wave back out…. But an uncontrived mystery is rare. For instance, I don’t get any enjoyment out of so-called “conspiracy theories”. A conspiracy theory is usually a narrative that makes internal sense, but lacks any external reason for someone to believe it. It’s an ad hoc hypothesis. Conspiracy theories do not make up facts—a point which conspiracy theorists will gloat over, asking over and over “which one of my facts is wrong?” or inviting you to “learn the facts”—rather, they push for an unbalanced interpretation of the facts where more weight is given to, say, a coincidence or a slip of the tongue, than is given to physical evidence or expert testimony.

This type of contrived mystery is created out of fear. Their solutions are an attempt to prove that somebody somewhere is in charge, someone who is responsible for wonton death and misery, even if that person is a malevolent alien human hybrid wearing a Queen Elizabeth skin suit. Because of this desire, conspiracy theorists start to see design in randomness. Instead of certain events being unrelated tragedies or accidents, they are viewed as planned steps in someone’s scheme. Everything happens from the top down, not from the bottom up. The alternative is acknowledging that even the brightest among us—and conspiracy theorists are often very bright—have not been able to create a completely safe and stable world.

When I started getting deep into unsolved mysteries—listening to up to three or four hours a day of podcasts, reading books and magazine articles, posting in forums—I was after something different. I loved the chaos of the mysteries. There was something magical for me in seeing hundreds of people argue over an unexplained event from decades earlier. On my couch late at night, snuggling up with my cat, I would drink a glass of wine or cup after cup of herbal tea and try to solve the case of the week. I got frightened sometimes. I started checking that the doors were locked before I went to bed.

There’s been this shadow over me for a long time. It’s something that might come from Victorian England, from Sherlock Holmes and his derivative characters, or maybe it comes from history class: the enlightenment era in France, revolutionary America, Voltaire. It’s this feeling that everything can be solved. Magical thinking is absurd and outdated. Empirical analysis allows us to understand truth: scientific truth, yes, but also moral and practical truths. In the context of my obsession with mystery, this created a small paradox. Some events seem so unexplainable and random, yet the cultural history of success in empiricism tells me that nothing is truly unexplainable. In a more personal context, this worldview creates a sort of anxiety for me. If rational analysis can be turned on practical matters, it should be fairly easy to determine what the best course of action is for yourself for any given decision. Yet so often it seems impossible to decide. Of course, the fact that truth can be discovered through empirical study does not imply that I, or even anybody, has an unlimited ability to reason. Sometimes we lack the ability to access all the facts, sometimes we fall victim to cognitive biases we aren’t even aware of enough to address. The reason unsolved mysteries both frightened and excited me was the same: they showed the limit of empirical analysis. I became obsessed with finding a truly unsolvable mystery. I was addicted to the rush of coming up with theories and searching thorough clues, sure. But I also wanted something outside myself to assure me that, for some questions at least, I could forgive myself for not being able to find an answer.

Later that summer, I found myself sitting in a friend’s front seat parked next to a small pond in northern Vermont. It was dark, the stars were out. There was a small town a few miles away, its light pollution a dirty circle on the horizon. But directly above us, through a stained moonroof, was pure oily black. The milky way was visible splashed across the darkness like a glitter bomb. We sat reclined, music in surround sound playing from four car speakers via an aux cable and from an iPod classic resting in the center console, waiting for an appropriate time to open the doors and walk through humming mosquitos to the house across the pond. Conversations are like movies: the dark ones telegraph their hand from the start, dipping a jocular toe into gallows humor or the macabre. “Have you ever seen a dead body?” my friend asked in a pause between songs.

I told him I had: earlier that year.

Some families have a tradition of hosting a gathering in a room with the deceased loved one. For many, this involves staying up all night and consuming absurd amounts of booze. Others host more reserved events with a photo of the deceased and maybe some bouquets of flowers. But there is something fake about seeing a dead body like that. To really see a dead body it has to be unplanned. In the body’s natural habitat. It’s like if I ask if you’ve seen a lion and you say “Yeah at the Brooklyn Zoo.” Not the same.

The first time I saw a real life dead body was in San Francisco. I was on the public bus, not a cable car, standing facing my seated partner. The black women standing next to me saw it first. They started whispering about something and pointing out the window. We slowed to walking pace and I could see a stopped bus next to us. Almost under the front tires was a young man supine on the pavement. “Oh he dead,” one of the women whispered, louder and more excited. Yes in fact, his head was clearly cracked wide open and surrounded by blood. There wasn’t a cop car or an ambulance around. It was calm, mundane. An accident that went unnoticed by half the other passengers, though they were mere feet away. My partner’s back was turned and she missed the whole scene. We kept up our conversation like nothing was happening. The bus sped up again after we passed the scene, back on schedule. The women went back to their conversation. My partner and I got sushi for lunch.

Death makes more sense when it’s part of a story. Serial, in its purest form, is the producer’s search for a perfect explanation of a death. She generates different explanatory narratives and compares them for us to judge. Each one is a chain of events that tries to perfectly explain the death. Some are more elegant, some more far fetched, but they all presume to make sense of a tragedy. Up close, death can feel more meaningless and random. Sometimes there is no obvious explanation for why something happens. This is especially true in the case of unsolved cases. After all, mysteries are mysteries in the first place because there is no perfect explanation readily presented. The only thing we can be sure of for a mystery is that whatever happened, it was something improbable. In the case of Serial, the mystery angle seemed contrived and non-mysterious. The prosecution’s theory appeared eminently likely. Another theory could be true, but there was not enough wiggle room in the facts for me to fulfill my criteria for an interesting unsolved mystery.

I started looking around for a new obsession when I found a book called True Crime Addict by James Renner. Maura Murray was a name I heard a few times listening to podcasts or browsing the forums. She was a UMass student who, in the winter of 2004, disappeared after crashing her car on a snowy New Hampshire road near the Kancamagus Highway. The case didn’t stand out, and I wouldn’t have remembered it at all if I didn’t have connections to the place she lived and the place she disappeared. I started attending UMass seven years after Maura disappeared; I lived in the same part of campus. We both worked on campus, we parked in the same parking lot. When I read the description of her final week, I matched the names of stores, dorms, parts of town, and restaurants to memories from my time at UMass. Liquor store. Burger place. Driving ten minutes off campus to find an ATM without a fee….

I Imagine her driving up a winding snow-covered road in New Hampshire, with no cell service, past houses with no electric hookups, people drinking well water. It’s the kind of place where you go to get away, for a while or for ever, sure. Maybe she just disappeared on purpose. There’s a sort of antiquated amusement park near there with a mountain man mascot who chases you in a steam powered train car; they have dancing bears and trapeze acts. There’s a summer camp for hasidic jews nearby and black hat wearing young men with the traditional sidelocks can be seen in groups observing the contortionists or eating cotton candy made in a large spinning kettle. There used to be a libertarian convention where you could buy handguns with gold shavings, or bacon proudly advertised as “not FDA approved.” I can’t imagine the locals lining up to call the cops on every weird character they encounter.

Driving to a campground I was staying at in 2014, I nearly got in an accident on those roads. A family of moose came out of nowhere around a bend on a single lane highway. There was no time to brake. Incredibly, I managed to steer the car between them and almost immediately pulled over feeling like I was going to throw up. I looked at my phone. No bars of course, not up this far north. Your best chance up here is being passed by a lonely state trooper. The catalogue of hypotheticals is invisible except in circumstances like this, when it becomes impossible to ignore. I imagine this is how Maura felt.

Despite my familiarity with Maura’s college life, and my own near death experience just miles from the site of her disappearance, the case didn’t immediately draw me in. She was a college kid who crashed her car and probably wandered off and died of exposure in the New England winter. That changed when I was reintroduced to the case via James Renner’s book. Maura’s case is special because it contains a mystery within a mystery. Nobody knows why she was up in New Hampshire that night. The reason why might depend on what your opinion about her disappearance is. To some, the fact that she was up there without telling anyone is evidence that she wanted to start a new life. To some it’s evidence she was suicidal. To some it’s evidence that she had a secret relationship with an unknown guy. And to some, like Maura’s father, it’s a red herring. After all, she clearly did not intend to crash her car, so her plans might not matter. Whatever they were, they went awry and something unplanned happened to her. Maybe she was kidnapped by a stranger or died of exposure. The case is half an investigation into Maura’s life before the crash, an attempt to understand her thoughts and feelings leading up to the drive to New Hampshire, and half an investigation of her time following the crash including dog searches, interviews with witnesses, and arguments over the weirdest clue of all: a rag that was found stuffed into the tailpipe of her broken down Saturn sedan.

Online, leads pointed every which way. Some people were quick to fixate on a police coverup, arguing that there is no other explanation for how someone could vanish in a five minute window between crashing and police arriving on the scene, especially while multiple witnesses were watching the whole thing from their houses and their passing cars. Some, including James Renner, decided to dredge up every secret they could from the Murray family history. They found out about Maura’s sister’s drug problem, exaggerated her father’s odd behavior, documented her ex-boyfriend’s abuse allegations. This was all supposed to be evidence of… something sinister. It could be evidence that Maura was scared of her life and decided to run away, or maybe one of these weird characters lured her to NH and killed her. In Serial, the victim’s family was off limits; amateur investigators’ motives are good: either they want an innocent man freed or a guilty man punished. In Maura’s case, nobody knows what they want and everybody is fair game: victim, family, police. The only way to solve the mystery, the justification goes, is to find as much information as possible. Only then can a story be constructed to explain what happened. It looks an awful lot like mudslinging as entertainment.
I disagreed with this approach. Without some impetus to believe one theory over another, any details uncovered are just white noise. Such details about Maura’s life might be irrelevant and only obscure the case, or important details could be ignored because they are just items in a list next to some bits of hearsay. The difficulty with Maura’s case is not a lack of detail, it’s a lack of direct evidence. The arguments online go back and forth unresolved. There is evidence for any hypothesis, even the most absurd. But there is always more evidence pointing a different direction. This forces people to back themselves further and further into one position: discounting contrary evidence and playing up supporting evidence.

Participating in the discussion felt voyeuristic, and firmly supporting any hypothesis felt dishonest. Sometimes I would make posts pointing out omissions or flaws in someone else’s theory, but it felt like a useless addition to the cyclical argument. The case is not solvable with the evidence we currently have. It’s one of those cases where police are waiting for a confession, or a body, or some other chance discovery.

Until then, it’s exactly what I thought I wanted: an unsolvable mystery. A mystery where we know the four or five possible solutions, but have no means of choosing between them. This was a bittersweet realization about a month into my research on Maura Murray. I wanted an unsolvable case that everyone could agree was going nowhere. I wanted a consensus on the limit of investigation. Instead, I got an unsolvable case where everyone was sure they had solved it. Everyone except for me. Well, I admit I find myself dragged back into the case whenever some new detail turns up. I don’t know what the lesson is.

I came away impressed with the Sisyphean effort of the online community. The sole accomplishment of all those hours of investigation has been to keep the cycle of speculation churning for fourteen years. We don’t know any more now than we did in 2004. Yet, despite that, there is a living fervor that any day now the case will be solved by some minor discovery. I am not so optimistic. Instead, I believe that something major will need to happen to solve the case. Then, the evidence we already have will fall into place. Until then, Maura is just missing.

One day, later in the summer, I got off the porch and got into my car. The same car that I maneuvered between moose on the Kancamagus a year earlier. I backed out of my driveway and drove past UMass, slowing down as I passed Maura’s dorm. I pulled out onto Route 116 and drove to the Goodwill where she used the ATM the day she disappeared. I passed the pub she had dinner at on her last night. I passed the liquor store where she bought the box of wine that was found spilled inside her abandoned car. I drove up Route 9 towards the highway on-ramp she would have taken to drive north. I imagined getting on the highway myself and following her path. Her trip took a couple hours longer than it should have. Maybe she stopped somewhere? If I recreated her drive, would I get an urge to stop somewhere? If I drove past her crash site and kept going, would I eventually get to Maura’s destination?

I shook off the urge to turn onto the highway and drove on