Category Archives: Vol 1 Issue 1

The Room Without Windows

By Ly Chheng

1

     Prior to Tenkuu’s birth, the most famous fortune teller in all of Kanagawa prefecture told Tenkuu’s mother that Tenkuu would die an early death. Shiho, unconvinced, sought a second opinion, then a third, a fourth, and a fifth. It was unanimous, however, for all five men had bet against her unborn child. None gave an exact date or age, but all came to the same conclusion independently.
     After the fifth fortune teller predicted the child would die prematurely, Shiho returned home, went to her bedroom, turned off the lights, and cried with her knees on the floor and her face in her hands. With care, she muffled her moans and whimpers; her firstborn child, Koji, slept in the next room. Her tears seeped through the cracks between her fingers, flowed over her skin, and fell on the floor. She counted to one hundred and decided never to cry for the child ever again. She wiped her hands and face with a dry embroidered cloth and fixed her makeup. She then placed her long straight black hair back into a tight bun.
     Shiho told no one what the fortune tellers had told her, not even the women in her close circle of friends, who had been like a second family to her since she’d lost her husband, Toshiro, to tuberculosis. Toshiro had been a doctor in Yamato and one of the most generous and kind-hearted men Shiho had ever known. Toshiro’s death had come as a surprise to everyone in their neighborhood. He contracted the disease from a patient, a young child from a neighboring village who could not afford to pay the physicians in his own town. Toshiro had learned of the child from his friend Shinobu, a fisherman who lived next door to the child. Toshiro’s kind heart reached out to the child and in the process Toshiro contracted the disease himself. The day Toshiro learned of his disease was the day Shiho learned she was with child.
     Although Toshiro lived three months, seven days, and four hours after being diagnosed, Shiho spent that time apart from him. Toshiro said he would rather die alone, never seeing her again than risk infecting her.
     
     From Tenkuu’s birth, his mother avoided looking him in the eyes. While some mothers whispered sweet words into their children’s ears, Tenkuu’s mother said nothing. She changed his diapers, held him to her chest when he cried, fed him when he was hungry, but did no more than what was necessary to keep him alive and clean. She refused to smell his smell, and when he reached for her hand, she withdrew it.
     As Tenkuu grew older and learned of the world, it was natural to him for his older bother Koji to receive the majority of their mother’s love. Koji was the first born, the first in line, and naturally the first recipient of all forms of love. Tenkuu loved his brother and mother, but accepted early on in life that not everyone came in the world with an equal claim to love.
     It wasn’t until the first day of school when Tenkuu was five that he learned that a mother’s affections were not always parceled out unevenly among her children.
     “My mother loves me more than she loves watching the sun dance on plum trees,” said one third-born child.
     “My mother loves me more than she loves the ocean’s waves at her feet on warm summer mornings,” said a fourth-born child.
     Tenkuu listened to the children and searched for words to describe his mother, but none came to mind. After he returned home from school, he didn’t tell his mother about his discovery, but instead, went into his room, sat down on his knees, and slowly tried to forget what he had learned.
     That night, before bed, as Tenkuu and Koji washed up, Tenkuu stared at Koji through the mirror which hung in front of both of them. Tenkuu’s eyes fumbled over his brother’s reflection, searching for a noticeable mark which made Koji’s reflection different from his own. They were both slim with dark black hair, thin eyes, and tiny noses shaped like the curve of a flattened grape. Aside from the difference in height – Koji was taller by about an inch – Tenkuu noticed nothing obviously dissimilar.
     “Was mother happy when I was born?” asked Tenkuu.
     Koji turned to Tenkuu. Their eyes touched. “Of course,” said Koji.
     “Are you sure?”
     “Yes,” said Koji.
     “Can you remember how she looked?” asked Tenkuu.
     “No. I was only two years old then.”
     “So, you can’t be sure she was happy.”
     “No. But she must have been happy. I can imagine it in my mind. Can’t you?”
     Tenkuu did not reply. He wanted to share his brother’s belief, but could not. He decided to ask his mother.
     After finishing in the bathroom, Tenkuu walked over to his mother’s bedroom and knocked on her door. “Who is it?” she asked.
     “Tenkuu.”
     There was silence.
     “Are you okay?”
     “Yes, I am okay,” he said. “May I ask you a question?”
     Tenkuu heard footsteps. The door opened and his mother looked down at him with wary eyes. A long red silk robe covered her slim, white body, and her hair was tied back in a tight circular bun, fastened together with a piece of white silk. Tenkuu thought she looked beautiful.
     “It’s late, Tenkuu,” she whispered.
     Tenkuu did not move. It was only then that he noticed his mother’s eyes never met his own.
     “How did you feel when I was born?” he asked.
     The curves and folds of expression on her face became as flat and mysterious as a white sheet of paper.
     “Go to bed, Tenkuu.”
     Tenkuu stared at her. She still did not look him in the eyes. He looked at her and hoped she would open up like a flower and envelope him, but instead she stood still.
     “Mother?”
     “Yes, Tenkuu?”
     He moved to the place on the floor where her eyes fell. She softly shifted her eyes away.
     “I was very relieved when you were born,” she said.
     Tenkuu let the words sink it.
     “It’s time for bed now,” she said then quietly closed the door to her room. After a few seconds, Tenkuu left the hallway and went into his bedroom.

2

     On the morning of Tenkuu’s sixth birthday, which fell on a Sunday, his mother gave him a notebook with a simple black cover. Tenkuu opened it and counted a hundred white unlined pages inside. After thanking her, Tenkuu thumbed through the empty notebook. He looked for an inscription, but found none, so he picked up a pen and wrote, “To Tenkuu, with love” and signed his mother’s name.
     On the morning of Koji’s seventh birthday, which fell on a Saturday, Tenkuu heard his mother tiptoe into Koji’s room. Tenkuu heard her soft voice. After several minutes, he heard the door to the apartment open and shut.
      Tenkuu walked into the living room and found Miss Tanaka, the oldest woman in the building and also the oldest person Tenkuu knew, sitting on their couch.
     “Good morning, Tenkuu,” said Miss Tanaka. “Your mother took Koji to the circus for his birthday. She asked me to look after you”.
     Miss Tanaka was a widow and did not have children of her own, but was fond of the children who lived in the building.
     “I’ve never been to the circus before,” said Tenkuu.
     Miss Tanaka walked over to Tenkuu and placed a hand on his head. The texture of her hand reminded him of thin paper used to wrap presents. She then took out the largest book Tenkuu had ever seen. “Do you like stories, Tenkuu?” she asked.
     He looked up at Miss Tanaka, not sure how to answer. “What kind of stories?”
     She flipped through the book and showed Tenkuu all the stories inside.
     “Pick one,” she said. “And I’ll read it to you.”
     Tenkuu flipped through the book and picked one about a man who lived in the mountains waiting for the arrival of his lost family. As Miss Tanaka read it to him, he thought of what a circus would be like.
     After silence filled the apartment that night, Tenkuu crawled out of bed and tiptoed into Koji’s room. He sat down beside his bed and whispered to him, “Why does mother love you and not me?” He could smell the circus on Koji, a mixture of butter and elephant dung.
     “She does love you,” said Koji.
     “Do you really believe so?”
     His brother was silent.
     “Yes,” said Koji.
     Tenkuu stood up and grabbed his brother’s hand. Palm to palm, Tenkuu hoped that what Koji had inside of him, the invisible quality that attracted their mother’s love, would transfer to him through that touch.
     Tenkuu heard footsteps in the hall. He ran quickly for his brother’s closet and hid inside.
     The door to the room opened and his mother tip-toed in. She sat down next to Koji on the bed. She then leaned in close and kissed him on the forehead. The soft sound of her lips touching Koji’s skin echoed in Tenkuu’s ears. He realized he didn’t know what a kiss from his mother felt like.
     The next night, after Tenkuu was done washing up next to Koji in the bathroom, he turned to Koji and poked him. “Do you want to play a game tonight?” asked Tenkuu.
     “What kind of game?”
      “Let’s switch beds tonight and pretend to be each other,” said Tenkuu. “If we pretend hard enough, Koji, maybe we can dream each other’s dreams.”
     Koji agreed.
     Tenkuu and Koji put their toothbrushes away and walked towards their bedrooms. Whereas Tenkuu usually turned right and Koji turned left, tonight they traded paths.
     Tenkuu crawled into Koji’s bed and imagined being at the circus and having his mother come in to kiss him on the forehead every night.
     After all the lights were turned off and the apartment was still, Tenkuu heard footsteps in the hallway. He shut his eyes and pretended to be asleep. The door opened. The footsteps were light and careful. The room smelled of jasmine. Tenkuu felt a weight sink into the bed beside him. Like a dream, he wondered if sleep had already seized him. Her soft lips touched the skin above his eyebrow, and her arms wrapped around him. He was lifted from the bed. His own arms came to life and enveloped her. Her skin was warm and her breath smelled sweet, like the flowers she tended to on the windowsill. Tenkuu knew it wasn’t a dream. A cloud of dust on the brink of being something whole, Tenkuu began to feel solid. Her soft arms molded him, and her breath of flowers breathed life into him.     
     “I love you,” she whispered. The words pealed away the cold exterior she had always shown to him and the smell and sound of her breath entered through his nose and ears.
     Before he realized his lips were moving, he heard himself say, “I love you, too.” His arms tightened their grip. The silk of her robe felt like the surface of a rose petal.
     Her arms released their grip on him and he began to fall back down to the bed. Her body transformed from soft to stiff. He had not taken his arms away yet.
     “Tenkuu, why are you in Koji’s bed?” she asked. Something ruptured. Tenkuu was silent. He let go of her.
     “Where is Koji?” she asked.
     He tried to find her eyes in the darkness, but could not.
     “He is in my bed.”
     “Why?”
     “He is me tonight.”
     Shiho then stood up quietly and left the room. The room was still.
     Tenkuu crawled out of the bed and went into Koji’s closet to lie on the floor.     
     The next morning, before the sun had risen, Tenkuu opened the door of the closet and entered his mother’s room. It was dark, but the blue morning light from the clouds and sun peaked in through the curtains. She slept on one side of the bed, leaving the other side completely empty; she faced the window. Tenkuu walked over to her. Her eyes were open. She did not look away. Staring into her eyes, Tenkuu bent down and sat with his legs tucked underneath him.
     Shiho was silent. Her eyes did not move and neither did she. Tenkuu felt the touch of her eyes in the pit of his stomach.
     And then they vanished. She shut her eyes, but she didn’t turn away.
     “Please don’t do that,” said Tenkuu.
     “I’m sorry, Tenkuu. The sun is hurting my eyes.”
     Tenkuu turned around and saw the sun had risen. He turned back to his mother, her eyes still closed. His hand rose up from his side, almost against his will, and rested softly on his mother’s cheek.
     He felt something quiver beneath his palm. Her eyes remained closed and Tenkuu stared at her. Under his hand, he felt the warmth that he had always sensed walking by her in the hallway or sitting across from her at the dinner table. It belonged to him now. He had it in his palm. Seconds turned into hours and hours turned in days. Then, she slipped her hand underneath his. For a moment her hand covered her cheek and his hand covered hers. She delicately lifted her hand, thereby removing his. Tenkuu felt amputated, as though beyond his hand there’d been a limb which now was severed. Shiho delicately turned over in her bed.
     Tenkuu rose from his sitting position and left the room, closing the door softly behind him.
     When Tenkuu returned to his room, he took all the memories he had of his mother and tucked them away in a place only he could ever have access to. He wrapped up all the love he felt for her and crushed it into a tiny ball and hid it away.
     For the next eleven years, Tenkuu and his mother would speak less than a sentence to each other.

3

     The summer after Koji’s first year of college and Tenkuu’s sixth year away at boarding school, Tenkuu returned home to find that Koji had met a girl named Midori. She was from Nagano and shared Koji’s interests in art, literature and foreign films.
     Koji, excited to have Tenkuu home, invited him along whenever he spent time with Midori. The three of them spent many afternoons in the summer months together taking walks in the park, telling stories, and eating in tea houses.
     One day, while Koji was away, Midori showed up at the house and invited Tenkuu to the park alone. Tenkuu was confused, but accepted the invitation.
     As time went on, Midori and Tenkuu found themselves alone more and more. A special form of gravity had formed between the two of them. Tenkuu would tell Midori where he would be at certain times without inviting her and then secretly hope she would be there. And she always was. One day, Tenkuu asked Midori why they were not spending time with Koji.
     Midori bit her lower lip. A look of distress washed over her face. She said she did not know. Tenkuu didn’t understand why she wanted to be alone with him. It was Koji that she wanted.
     “I like Koji, but you and I fit together more easily,” said Midori.
     “What do you mean?”
     “Maybe it’s the way your eyes look when you read a book or the way you hide your smile when people look directly at you or the way you talk about characters in a book like they are friends who live around the corner.”
     “What about Koji?” asked Tenkuu.
     “Koji is good, but I cannot help how I feel, I’m sorry.”
     Tenkuu felt flattered that someone preferred him to Koji. He did not want to be dishonest, however. Koji was the person he loved most in the world, and who he could honestly say loved him in return. Tenkuu told Midori that he could not betray his brother. She said she understood.
     After that Midori became less available to see either Koji or Tenkuu. This concerned Koji immensely. He did not understand why Midori would suddenly stop wanting to see him. Koji asked Tenkuu if he could go speak to her for him. Tenkuu told him he did not feel comfortable going to talk to Midori, but Koji insisted and finally Tenkuu obliged.
     Midori was staying with an aunt in Kanagawa. The apartment was within walking distance. Midori lived on the fourteenth floor. When Tenkuu knocked on Midori’s door, he could not help feeling that he had already betrayed his brother. She opened the door and they both smiled. Before he knew what was happening, she grabbed his hand and they were headed toward the elevator.
     They ascended to the top of the building. When the elevator doors opened, Midori tugged on Tenkuu’s hand, took him up a flight of stairs, and introduced him to the view of the world from the top of the building. The sun was just setting. The light blanketed the streets and buildings in an impressionistic mixture of burning yellow, simmering orange, and chaotic red. The buildings sparkled and the cars glowed like fire ants in the streets. He placed a palm on Midori’s cheek and felt a warmth he had not felt in eleven years.
     That night, Tenkuu returned home feeling guilty. He found Koji in his room and told him everything. Koji was stunned at first but thanked his brother for his honesty. Tenkuu sensed, however, that Koji could not shake off the slight traces of betrayal entirely. As his relationship with Midori blossomed, he felt his connection with Koji wither. But Tenkuu was so enthralled by the thought of another human finding something in him that he allowed it.
     At the end of the summer, Tenkuu did not return to his boarding school in Tokyo. Instead, he moved back in with his mother and Koji. After six months back home, Tenkuu decided to introduce Midori to his mother. He had told Midori about his mother, but felt it was time they met. A part of him secretly hoped that maybe Midori could somehow convince his mother of what he himself could not convince her of for seventeen years: that there was something inside of him that could be loved.
     The night before Midori was to meet his mother, Tenkuu knocked on his mother’s bedroom door. She asked who it was and he said, “Tenkuu”. It was more than he had said to her in the past six months.
     There was silence on the other side. He heard tiny footsteps and then the door opened. His mother had many gray hairs now, but still had a youthful face. She did not smile, but simply looked at him.
     “Are you okay?” she asked.
     “Yes, I am fine.”
     She nodded.
     “I just wanted to tell you that I’m bringing someone over tomorrow and I wanted you to meet her.”
     “A girl?” she asked.
     “Yes.”
     His mother’s face was emotionless. She nodded and Tenkuu headed back to his room.
     
     Tenkuu picked up Midori at noon. His mother prepared rice and seaweed. Koji went for a walk.
     When Tenkuu and Midori arrived, Tenkuu’s mother greeted Midori with a smile. Midori bowed and complimented Tenkuu’s mother on the broach she was wearing. All three sat down in the living room, which was a small neat little room with just a couch, two chairs, a coffee table, and a rug underneath.
     Tenkuu sat on the couch next to Midori and his mother sat in one of the chairs. His mother poured tea and smiled politely at Midori.
     “How did you two meet?” asked Tenkuu’s mother.
     Midori looked to Tenkuu and smiled. “Koji introduced us. I met Koji in a class and we started spending time together and he brought Tenkuu along with him.”
     “Oh, you met Koji first.”
     Shiho began to look around the room, as though she were expecting Koji to appear. She looked back at Tenkuu and Midori. Shiho couldn’t help but feel weighed down by the sight of the two of them. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t ignore the weight. Something built up inside of her stomach.
     “We are still very young, but Midori and I are very serious. We do not think that marriage is unlikely,” said Tenkuu.
     With those words, Shiho felt something grab hold of her. She felt such pity for the girl sitting before her and then she felt an enormous wave of guilt wash over her. She thought of Toshiro and being unable to see him for the last six months of his life, knowing he would die. It was too cruel.
     “Who are you staying with, here?” asked Shiho.
     “I’m staying with my aunt, Nanako Shiota,” said Midori.
     Shiho smiled graciously. They spoke for a few more minutes and then Midori excused herself and said she had to return home for dinner with her aunt.
     Tenkuu and Midori left, closing the door to the apartment behind them. Shiho headed to her bedroom, sat down at her desk, took out two sheets of paper and pen and began writing a letter. It was addressed to Nanako Shiota.
     The next day Tenkuu went to knock on Midori’s door and her aunt answered. Her aunt told him that Midori had left. She had decided to return to Tokyo to continue her studies.
     “Did she leave a letter for me?” asked Tenkuu.
     “No,” said her aunt. Her eyes, Tenkuu noticed. They avoided his eyes.
     Tenkuu allowed her to shut the door and then quickly ran home.
     Once inside the house, he screamed for his mother. The house was silent. The living room was empty and Koji was nowhere to be heard or seen. The flowers rested in the windowsill and light shone in. Tenkuu screamed once again. He felt dizzy. The floor beneath him dissolved. He placed a hand on a wall to steady himself.
     Tenkuu found her in the bedroom sitting on her bed. She did not react to his shouts. The room shook. He stared into the back of her head, at the garden of gray hairs. He clenched a hand, but then his knees gave beneath him. The words he had trapped in his mouth weighed him down; his knees buckled. In an attempt to hurl a fist at the back of her head, he collapsed down at her feet. Tears sprouted at the corners of his eyes. He extended a hand to her feet and came within inches of touching them. She remained seated on her bed, eyes dead, staring at the wall.
     “Why do you hate me?” Tenkuu screamed. “Why do you turn your eyes away? Why do you not touch me? Why? Why? Why?” His fists pounded the floor. The floor shook with the weight of his fists. The wood seemed to splinter. “Tell me!”
     “I don’t hate you,” said his mother. Her voice was steady and calm.
     “You lie!” said Tenkuu. “We’ve lived in this house together for eighteen years and we walk through each other like ghosts!”     
     Shiho remained still.
     “What did you say to Midori’s aunt?” yelled Tenkuu. “Tell me!”
     Shiho clasped her hands together. “I told her that loving you would lead to a lifetime of sorrow.”
     Tenkuu’s eyes could not see his mother any longer for the water in his eyes distorted his vision.
     “You are nothing to me now, like I have been nothing to you,” said Tenkuu.
     Shiho’s eyes closed and she felt something inside of her calcify. Paralyzed, she did not move.
     Tenkuu turned away and walked out of the room.
     That night Tenkuu went into his brother’s room and sat down beside his bed. “She is inhuman, Koji. Her existence is unnatural.”
     Koji had never heard Tenkuu speak of their mother in that way. It angered him. He did not want Tenkuu to defile their mother. “You are crazy,” said Koji.
     Tenkuu felt something inside of him shrivel up. He thought of when he and Koji pressed their palms together all those years ago.
     “I am not crazy,” said Tenkuu.
     Silence.
     “Go to bed,” said Koji. “You cannot be me tonight.”
     Tenkuu walked out of the room and quietly whispered goodbye to his brother.

4

     The next morning Tenkuu was not in his bed. All of his belongings were in their proper place, nothing was missing. The bed did not appear to be slept in. His mother, Shiho Watanabe, did not realize he was not in the house until late into the evening. Koji Watanabe suggested that they go look for him, but his mother said it was unnecessary. And the two of them left it at that. Although Koji wondered about his brother, he, even to his own surprise, felt it was the natural course of events. The next day Tenkuu’s room was cleaned out. All of his belongings were sold. It was unnecessary to get rid of his pictures because no pictures were ever taken of him.
     The room Tenkuu slept in – the one room in the house without windows – was left empty for the rest of the time they lived in the house.

     Koji Watanabe died of natural causes in his bed at the age of eighty-five. His mother was by his side as well as his wife Yoko, two sons, Akio and Toshiro, and daughter, Yukiko. Before his death, Koji thought of his brother Tenkuu, but did not speak of him to anyone. At Koji’s funeral, Shiho wept profusely.
     Shiho outlived Koji by twenty years, living to be one hundred and seven years old. From the day of his disappearance to the day prior to her death, which amounted to approximately eighty-nine years, she never uttered the name Tenkuu.
     On the day prior to her death, which was a Sunday, a man came to visit her in her home. Her granddaughter Yukiko was taking care of her at the time. Yukiko let the man in and showed him to Shiho’s room. When the man entered the room, he removed his hat to reveal an old leathered face. His eyes were black and glassy, full of a quality that filled the room with light. He sat down on Shiho’s bed. Shiho could feel his weight. The man said nothing, but simply sat and looked into Shiho’s eyes.

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Editorial Statement

Two hundred million years ago, tectonic conflict forced portions of the Pacific sea floor crust to the surface. Tacked on to present-day Utah and Arizona like a geological afterthought, California has never quite fit in. While states to the East were embroiled in wars of independence and slavery, California was oblivious, independent—free.

It is no accident that the event that populated California (and led to its inclusion as the 31st state) was delivered of an ancient, geological ordination. Millions of years ago, the confluence of water and molten magmas in the Sierra Nevada dissolved stable minerals into large veins of quartz, iron, copper and zinc sulfides—and gold. The California Gold Rush is too often associated with the underpinnings of American greed, or the Death of Industry, or else quite apocalyptically as the Conception of Modern Ills; too often do we ignore its hopeful, egalitarian esprit. The Forty-Niners redeem by an impeccable logic. If there is poverty, find wealth. If there is no wealth to be found, then by all means: Go West, Young Man!

But today, California’s logic is confused. There is a moral logic of the innocent and of the corrupt, an economic logic of the poor and of the affluent, and a temporal logic of the established and the establishing. There is another logic altogether of the north and of the south, and of the urban and the suburban. Californians are keen adherents of techno-liberalism, but also preach euphoromoralism— and as we well know, the two cannot be wholly reconciled. Inconsistency and accidental unconformity have become definitive.

It is no secret that California’s geology takes away as it gives. In 1906, near Daly City, CA (and again in 1989, at Loma Prieta Peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains), we witnessed the massive rupture of the San Andreas Fault. Thousands died in fires that swept San Francisco, turning Golden Gate Park into a refugee encampment; the Cypress Street Viaduct collapsed, crushing dozens of cars; the 1989 World Series was postponed for ten days; even the brilliant minds of Stanford University were twice forced to pause, grab hold of the nearest table, and consider. The geological faults that cleave the state of California are far more powerful—and potentially destructive—than the fault lines which divide us humans above-ground. Amidst our modern confusions, perhaps we can latch onto this instability. It reminds us of the limits of intellectualism, of politics, of culture and wealth and creativity. Above all, it reminds us of the limits of ourselves: of the fragile, quivering geology that governs each of our own little worlds. This is a commendable logic: it is something we should know.

— Nick Hoy & the editors of Leland

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Draw (1)

young leland

– George Xander Morris

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Filed under Artwork, Vol 1 Issue 1

When the Going Gets Tough

By Gabriel Winant

In the world of politics, masculinity has gone rabid. Machista strongmen flex their muscles on a world stage that increasingly resembles L.A.’s Muscle Beach. While Putin consolidates power in the name of order, Ahmadinejad rattles his scimitar at the corrupt West, Nigerian men threaten to stone to death Nigerian women, Orthodox Jews are infuriated over a gay pride march in Jerusalem and American states can’t preserve the nuclear family fast enough. Everyone is suddenly spoiling for a fight.

Americans think they know what makes a man. The ideal male is actually a pretty recognizable character, and he’s a lot like Johnny Cash. He’s patriotic, unpretentious and blunt, tough and unafraid to fight, and strong-headed and self-reliant. If wronged, he’ll exact revenge; if he commits a misdeed, he will be redeemed. There is another American man who shares these characteristics with the country singer—or at least wants us to think that he does.

Consider George W. Bush in the rubble of the World Trade Center, bullhorn in hand, warning that the world would hear from America. At our most vulnerable, we turned to this incarnation of American manhood, incubated on the ranch in Texas, to land on an aircraft carrier to reassure us that the foe is awed into submission, and that we are safe. Bush pulled off this butch stunt to accolades of his virility from the pundit class. Chris Matthews of “Hardball” heaped praise on the size of the bulge in his pants—his “manly characteristic,” as talk-radio host G. Gordon Liddy described it. Columnist Peggy Noonan proclaimed Bush the resurrected John Wayne. Meanwhile, People Magazine anointed septuagenarian Donald Rumsfeld one of its sexiest men of the year. And all of this seems somehow vaguely unsurprising; our leaders are supposed to be warriors and cowboys.

There is a distinctly American mythology of the up-by-the-bootstraps hero and the brave cowboy taming new worlds. In our mental geography, it seems a Western tale, springing from somewhere around Texas. While there are different versions of this story with different characters—the vengeful and righteous white-hat cowboy, the young man gone west on Horatio Alger’s advice, who makes his own way and grows up with the country—they are all masculine, even macho. The gendered nature lends this narrative tremendous rhetorical power in the face of threats to American security. Modern candidates for president—chiefly Republicans—have largely succeeded in playing to these gender-based caricatures; they are more decisive, rough-and-tumble, and virile. They have portrayed their opponents as unwilling or unable to deal with American foes because they are too much brain and too little brawn, because they are hand-wringing, and generally effeminate. National campaigns, fought on television, transform into Western movies; the presidential aspirant who knows best how to ward off the Indians gets the keys to the White House.

The birth of the modern conservative movement, appropriately enough, can be traced to the cowboy country of the American Southwest with the 1964 presidential campaign of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Goldwater retired from the Air Force as a Major General; in the Senate and as a presidential candidate he was a voice shouting in the desert for a confrontational conservatism, against the New Deal and for using nuclear weapons against Vietnam. His cowboy code contrasted very neatly with the perceived communist military threat. Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in San Francisco was a call to arms against communism, and it shows early telltale signs of individualist machismo: “This nation, whose creative people have enhanced this entire span of history, should again thrive upon the greatness of all those things which we—we as individual citizens—can and should do.” Goldwater painted a picture of the polity as a macrocosm of the stateless old West, in which those who succeed are those who get by on their own.

The masculine, individualist ethos translated clearly for Goldwater into a readiness to project military power with a steady hand. He praised the Eisenhower administration for its forceful custody of national security: “And I needn’t remind you that it was the strength and the believable will of the Eisenhower years that kept the peace by using our strength, by using it in the Formosa Strait, and in Lebanon, and by showing it courageously at all times.” Goldwater eagerly contrasted these decisive actions with what he saw as a cowardly Kennedy-Johnson administration: “During four futile years the Administration which we shall replace has distorted and lost that faith. It has talked and talked and talked and talked the words of freedom but it has failed and failed and failed in the works of freedom. “ How recognizably macho this insult is—that an inadequate opponent is all hat and no cattle. Early attempts to redefine military competence as synonymous with Sun Belt swagger—“believable will”—were underway.

American politics pivoted during the 1960s and 1970s; the Republican Party began building a majority, its ranks swollen by millions of former Democrats who had watched their traditional political home become the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Nixon’s two successful campaigns for the presidency in 1968 and 1972 capitalized on a Democratic Party unsure of its own position. The Republicans portrayed themselves as the appropriately masculine steady hand to conduct the Vietnam War and wage the Cold War. Nixon studiedly communicated in his 1968 acceptance speech just how much his life was a story of a plucky American man:

I see another child tonight. He hears the train go by at night and he dreams of far away places where he’d like to go. It seems like an impossible dream. But he is helped on his journey through life. A father who had to go to work before he finished the sixth grade, sacrificed everything he had so that his sons could go to college. A gentle, Quaker mother, with a passionate concern for peace, quietly wept when he went to war but she understood why he had to go. A great teacher, a remarkable football coach, an inspirational minister encouraged him on his way. A courageous wife and loyal children stood by him in victory and also defeat . . . And tonight he stands before you—nominated for President of the United States of America.

Nixon eagerly conveyed (in sentencefragments; complete sentences seem to be a mark of softness) that he had lived a life in which the people around him were all-American archetypes, filling their traditional gender roles. His father worked hard, his mother was “gentle” and “wept,” his football coach and minister were influential, his wife was loyal, and he had risen on pure Western grit to the top, where he swore, “We will never stain the honor of the United States of America.” This kind of macho belligerence, evocative of the Marine Corps hymn, “First to fight for right and freedom / And to keep our honor clean,” was particularly effective in the face of a Democratic Party shredding itself over the Vietnam War.

The Democratic nominees of 1968 and 1972—Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern—led a fractious party that did not seem tough enough to run itself, much less a war. In 1968, as Humphrey was handed the nomination, the party imploded on national television as thousands of anti-war protesters flooded its convention in Chicago. The police met them with a shockingly brutal response, later described as a “police riot.” As the police rained down blows, the protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” It turned out that America was watching, but it was rooting for Chicago’s blue-collar police force against the hippies, with their unshaven women and longhaired men. The tear gas left Humphrey weeping in his hotel room that overlooked the protest. Onstage at the convention, liberal Connecticut Senator Abraham Ribicoff accused Chicago Mayor Daley of “Gestapo tactics”; on tape, Richard Daley can be seen shouting, “Fucking kike,” upward at Ribicoff’s podium. The party emerged from the convention devastated by the fight over its identity; Humphrey hobbled out of Chicago the pyrrhic victor.

Left and right alike loathed Humphrey as the spineless creature of Lyndon Johnson, given the nomination without fairly competing for it. Under pressure from Johnson, Humphrey had avoided a compromise with the anti-war elements of the Democratic Party, and by large margins, respondents in Gallup polls indicated that they did not believe he would change from Johnson’s now unpopular strategy in Vietnam. Perceived as a hostage to the man who made him Vice President, Humphrey was hardly the stuff of Western heroism.

McGovern did not have it any easier. In fact, McGovern was more explicitly antiwar than Humphrey had been; if Humphrey was seen as the creature of Lyndon Johnson, McGovern was seen as that of the hippie Left, whose members did not abide by traditional gender roles and opposed military intervention.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff asserts that, at least when it comes to politics, we think in metaphors that arise from our understanding of the family:

What links strict-father family-based morality to politics is a common metaphor shared by conservatives and liberals alike—the Nation-as- Family metaphor, in which the nation is seen as a family, the government as a parent, and the citizens as children. This metaphor turns family-based morality into political morality.

If we accept this analysis, then the famous refrain of McGovern’s acceptance speech— “Come home, America”—sounds incredibly maternal. He seems to have done Nixon’s work for him by choosing this particular rhetorical backdrop, rather than claiming the battle-front as his stage. Where Nixon had spoken of protecting national honor, McGovern spoke of healing national wounds. Rather than bursting with pride and courage like Nixon’s, McGovern’s “heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam.” The Democrats emerged from the Nixon era humiliated by the landslide defeat of their nominee, who’d been caricatured as the candidate of surrender in Vietnam, leading his army of indeterminately-gendered supporters; the Richard Daleys of the country were now Republicans.

Shift to 1980: Jimmy Carter ran for re-election amidst two crises—one in Iran, one in the American economy—that exposed his inability to control events. The conditions were perfect for Ronald Reagan, a man intimately familiar with American male archetypes from his career in show business. His filmography includes dozens of roles as cowpokes, football coaches, and soldiers in titles like “Death Valley Days,” “The Lawless Have Laws,” and “No Gun Behind His Badge.” The dominant trope of Reagan’s campaign was opposition to what he saw as the intrusive nature of the federal government, a variation on old Western distrust of the power of the state.

The old West came to Washington with Ronald Reagan, who rode into town to save the day from an impotent administration, warning the nation, “The administration which has brought us to this state is seeking your endorsement for four more years of weakness, indecision, mediocrity and incompetence.” Carter’s inadequate mettle yielded military shame, according to Reagan: “We are given weakness when we need strength; vacillation when the times demand firmness.” The elements of the gendered critique are here so clear that one is tempted to wonder what Freud would have made of Reagan’s language; the opposition lacks “resolve,” shows “weakness,” and “vacillates” when “times demand firmness.”

The difference between Reagan and Goldwater, of course, is that Reagan won in a landslide. The important distinction seems to be that while Goldwater was all cowboy tough talk, Reagan also employed the kind of sunny can-do Western rhetoric that seemed to echo the Nixon campaign. Take, for example, his 1984 acceptance speech: “America is coming back and is more confident than ever about the future.” Reagan had a consistent scrappiness, sunnier than Goldwater’s dark fury; he was both confrontational and optimistic at once.

During the 1980s, a large gender gap in voting patterns emerged that is still present today. Men followed Reagan to the new countrified Republican Party. Polls show that men are more likely to be supportive of the use of violence, and opposed to communal —that is, non-individualist— measures: for example, 45% of men and 30% of women believe that the government should provide fewer services, 61% of men and 37% of women support allowing bombers to strike populated areas, and 28% of men but a full 48% of women support a ban on handguns. Once the gendered rhetoric became more sophisticated and complete, as it was in Reagan’s campaigns, this difference in opinion was tapped into more deeply; the gender gap materialized.

Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, more or less attempted to reproduce Reagan’s rhetorical strategy in his 1988 RNC speech. Bush established both his plainspoken cowboy and self-made man credentials in the same story:

We moved to west Texas 40 years ago. The war was over, and we wanted to get out and make it on our own. Those were exciting days. Lived in a little shotgun house, one room for the three of us. Worked in the oil business, started my own. In time we had six children. Moved from the shotgun to a duplex apartment to a house. Lived the dream—high school football on Friday night, Little League, neighborhood barbecue.

Bush projects an image as a forthright Westerner who has no truck with fancy language or personal pronouns. He said as much moments later: “I may not be the most eloquent, but I learned early that eloquence won’t draw oil from the ground.” Bush, of course, was not a roughneck from the oil fields, but the Yale-educated millionaire son of a U. S. senator.

In the tradition of his ideological predecessors, Bush’s projection of masculinity extended to foreign policy. Once again, indecision and weakness seemed to plague those who, rather than being plainspoken or Western, seemed to represent the views of the over-sophisticated Eastern elite: “Strength and clarity lead to peace—weakness and ambivalence lead to war. Weakness and ambivalence lead to war. Weakness tempts aggressors. Strength stops them. I will not allow this country to be made weak again.” And like Reagan and Nixon, George H.W. Bush did not face an opponent who was particularly conscious of the gender image he put forward.

Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, was a Republican’s dream come true; he steadfastly refused to engage in bluster or braggadocio. Dukakis declared in his convention speech, “This election isn’t about ideology. It’s about competence.” He was, inadvertently but painstakingly, laying the foundation for the eventual attack on him as a soulless technocrat, unwilling to fight for anything. In the second presidential debate, journalist Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” Dukakis’ infamous response was painfully cold and clinical: “I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” With no mention of the hypothetical rape and murder of his wife, Dukakis then moved on to discuss a “hemispheric summit” on the drug war. Dukakis appeared unable to be the nation’s protective father-figure, defending what is dear, and punishing those who threaten it.

To make up for the masculinity gap, Dukakis infamously rode around in an M-1 tank, apparently hoping to perform a kind of reverse-engineering of the Republican strategy; if he could not seem macho enough to appear interested in national security, perhaps he could seem interested enough in national security to appear macho. He ended up looking so awkward that the Bush campaign used the image in its own attack ad. It was what political scientists call an “uncertainty ad”—it devastatingly suggested that Dukakis did not have a steady enough hand to lead America militarily, as evinced by how ridiculous he looked in military getup.

Having triumphed over the champion of the tame Eastern boutique, George H. W. Bush found himself presiding over an event that would damage his own party’s electoral strength: the end of the Cold War. With national security temporarily removed from the political discourse (hence Clinton campaign manager James Carville’s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid!”), Democrats—or at least Clinton— found themselves able to win elections while ignoring the machismo contest.

George W. Bush brought back the old macho rhetoric in 2000, by showing up on his ranch whenever possible, flamboyantly clearing brush and using hay and guns as props. Like Reagan and his father, he grasped for the entire Western macho myth: he is a self-made cowboy who operates his own ranch—a true individualist. Fortunately for Bush, Clinton himself had already recast his party in a way that made it vulnerable to Bush’s attack from the West.

That Bush was able to win an election in which his opponent was believed to have every advantage speaks to the profound power of cultural difference in American politics. The combination of Clinton’s constant, pandering reach for the political center and the Lewinsky scandal had cast a pall over the Democratic Party. Democrats seemed too slick, too refined and ready to parse the meaning of the most basic language (most infamously, Clinton’s “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is”). This was the party that represented those qualities most resented about the university, the cosmopolitan, the essentially blue-state: disrespect for sexual and gender tradition, overintellectuality, and artificiality. Bush was able to portray Gore—notorious not as a suave dissembler, but as an insufferably boring straight arrow—as dishonestly grandiloquent and thus a cultural alien, not an American man. The plainspoken cowboy stepped in just in time to save the country.

The September 11 attacks put national security squarely back onto the center of the national stage, and with it, the rhetoric of masculinity in politics. In the 2004 election season, the Bush campaign let blaze the guns of the culture war: red state against blue, rural against urban, Southwestern against Northeastern, plainspoken against evasive, ordinary against elite. Perhaps the governing dichotomy of the campaign, though, was that of the steady hand and the limp wrist. Bush made explicit the claims about himself that his predecessors tended to express with their life stories or merely by their style: “You know what I believe and where I stand. You may have noticed I have a few flaws, too. People sometimes have to correct my English … Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called ‘walking.’ Now and then I come across as a little too blunt.” The amount of confrontational language in Bush’s RNC speech is extraordinary. He ends eleven paragraphs of his speech with some kind of challenge. He warns three separate times, “Nothing will hold us back.” The other challenges he issues are “This will not happen on my watch,” “We are not turning back,” “I will never relent in defending America—whatever it takes,” “And we will prevail,” “I will defend America every time,” “America will not forget,” “Freedom is on the march,” and “Our tested and confident nation can achieve anything.” This is the cocky, swaggering Bush we know so well, who challenged Iraqi insurgents to “Bring them on,” and fell back on a cowboy formula when dealing with September 11: “I want justice. There’s an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’” Here, the line from cowboy swagger to military competence barely needs to be drawn; for Bush, they are synonymous. His bluntness and his capacity as commanderin- chief are the same characteristic.

John Kerry hardly knew what hit him. Kerry had hedged his bets on the war in Iraq; he seemed to hope to be just left enough to win the Democratic nomination, while still right enough to be what he considered electable in November. It was this incoherent approach that led Kerry to utter his infamous flip-flop, for which Bush did not hesitate to excoriate him in his acceptance speech: “When asked to explain his vote, the Senator said, ‘I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it.’ Then he said he was ‘proud’ of that vote. Then, when pressed, he said it was a ‘complicated’ matter. There is nothing complicated about supporting our troops in combat.” One would be hardpressed to find a more perfect contrast to Bush’s macho black-and-white style than Kerry’s insistence on shades of gray.

Vice President Dick Cheney was eager to point out in his RNC speech just how effeminate Kerry’s nuance was: “Even in this post-9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn’t appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a ‘more sensitive war on terror’—(laughter) —as though al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side.” This baldly gendered attack is in keeping with some of the worst tendencies of the Bush campaign, whose operatives coordinated their campaign with the drive to ban gay marriage and preserve the “traditional family,” and nicknamed Democratic candidate John Edwards “the Breck girl,” after a famous shampoo spokeswoman. The message resonates at an almost subconscious level: the candidate who cares too much about his hair is not man enough to care enough about killing the enemy. Bush rode to triumph in an election in which the electorate was wracked by anxiety—particularly, though not exclusively, about terrorism—that provided an ideal backdrop for a resolute Westerner and brought out the contrast between him and the effeminacies his campaign was eager to point out.

Bush’s swagger and strut are the most recent manifestations of a strategy ever more present in our politics. As the decades since Goldwater have passed, Republican nominees—all but one from the Sun Belt—have relied increasingly on Western individualist bravado. One might have expected that, like other strategies of rhetorical symbolism used in presidential politics—racial appeals, for example—the kind of language used to communicate the masculinity of these candidates would have grown more subtle and refined with time. Instead, the reverse has happened; while Goldwater merely talked like a cowboy, Bush now feels comfortable referring explicitly and frequently to the old West.

Perhaps this vanishing Republican subtlety is a function of increased uncertainty in general; the world of 2004 is fraught with an array of new and potentially frightening ideological, cultural, political, and economic forces that were not present in 1964. While cowboy rhetoric obviously cannot explain every political development, a certain late twentieth-century erosion of barriers—literal barriers as well as the figurative ones of gender, race, class, and countless others—may have left us hungry for a more authoritarian, macho brand of leadership. One worries that modernity itself is provoking male fury, that threatened masculinity and reactionary politics go together. Thousands of years of male hegemony are suddenly being pushed back, piece by piece. Perhaps all of manhood now finds itself assaulted by a differentseeming world. Cultures rise in arms as offensive images and ideas flood in, or jobs pour out, and men the world over begin to feel newly and strangely powerless. This may be the same uncertainty—a crisis of masculinity, even—that has helped to create the strong-man politics perfectly embodied by George W. Bush.

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Draw (5)

– George Xander Morris

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No Chronologer

We’d leapt, then—joined a risk. We thought this winter
could act a clean edge to nick
our sass and lax. (Sequestered, we sharpen our angles
on one another.) Haul of
boxes, maps, spit-shine & crease—but scratching already
at the door of it a small blizzard
that we ignored, growing. We have ourselves for warmth
and some lamps for reading. Fluid drawn,
transferred, dispersed. Organic heat of the drink taken neat: You
were in the kitchen when the first
flake clung to the pane. The alchemy of electric doesn’t lie:
at the center of each is the germ, fleck
of glass. You know it’s a poor conductor. Even calm in the drift
each falling knows its keen
shard of window punched-through, or of a mirror dropped
at night, and the waiting after.

— Lauren Caldwell

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Dilution

I have pictures of me at the water
pictures of me in a pose that I admire.
At the corners of my mirror
stand pictures of me by the water.
— Payam Cherchian

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