Welcome to the Eastern Condor

The Eastern Condor is a project I envisioned as a multidisciplinary approach to examining the idea of place.

The project is born out of my life growing up and living in old mill towns: the hopelessness and revitalization of industrial America.

It is a collection of my thoughts in the form of fiction, travel writing, essays, and notes. Other topics may be discussed if they are on my mind, but my focus is on the following questions:

How does our physical location, affect our relationships, psyche, livelihood, mood, and sense of community? How can our communities make better choices regarding the use of space and public resources?

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.

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.

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

Fiction: A Double Date

Carrey is alone in her bedroom. “I want something I’ve felt before but can’t feel now” she wrote this on a post-it note and stuck it to her computer monitor. It’s warm for February. So warm she had to open a window and take off her sweater. So warm that moths or beetles or whatever they are have flown in from outside. Her cat is staring at them flying around the bedroom light with a hungry look in his eyes. His head twitches as they move, his pupils get bigger and bigger.

Earlier that day Carrey was in her therapist’s office. The receptionist spoke too quietly. Carrey had to ask her to repeat every thing she said and it made her feel a little crazy. “I feel like I’m always off somewhere,” she says in her appointment. “What kind of person am I that basic interaction is so awkward for me,” she asks. “Am I just not paying enough attention?” When she talks for too long, she’s gets scared of the way her therapist clicks her pen. She’s got something bad on her mind, Carrey thinks. “Tell me what you’re struggling with,” the woman says. Carrey doesn’t know what to say.

Carrey looks at the sticky note again. She wrote it last night right after she turned off one of her favorite albums. She tried to remember what she was thinking. It felt like it came from somewhere in her mind she couldn’t reach right now.

Carrey was up late picking an outfit for her double date tomorrow. That was something she talked about with her therapist: she took forever to pick an outfit. She needed the significance of her appearance to be obvious. It needed to do most of the work expressing how she felt about what she was doing.

The date was with her boyfriend and his friend who happened to be dating a girl Carrey went to high school with. She just found out who the girl was today. She didn’t really remember her. She remembered the name, someone who had been in a few classes with Carrey, maybe they hung out in the same group a few times, went to a party together. She couldn’t pick her out of a crowd, but she probably signed her yearbook with something like “have a great time at college!”

Carrey wondered what her boyfriend was going to think of the girl. She was pretty, right? And she was probably normal too. She could probably remember someone’s name five minutes after being introduced to them. She probably didn’t write things down on post-it notes that she didn’t understand. She probably didn’t cry at commercials on Food Network.

The next night, Carrey and Ethan arrived early at the King street bar. Ethan decided to wear a down vest over his long sleeve shirt, as well as a teal baseball cap. Carrey wore a black skirt and a gray sweater. “We’re really early,” Ethan pointed out when they found a parking space. Carrey shrugged, “it’s hard to find a table once karaoke starts.” The other couple wasn’t there yet. Ethan and Carrey found table near the stage and ordered drinks.

` They finished their drinks, and a couple more rounds before the other couple showed up. A few people had sung already, but the night hadn’t really started. Carrey examined the other couple. The guy hugged Ethan and introduced the girl. Carrey smiled at them both. She was prettier than Carrey remembered. Maybe she didn’t wear makeup in high school or something. She was wearing a dress too. Carrey never wore dresses. She suddenly felt self conscious. She looked a lot like another boy. She imagined a stranger looking over at their table and seeing three dudes with one pretty girl. Ethan’s friend was giving her a weird look. She didn’t know him too well. Ethan was always over at his place playing video games, but she hadn’t met him that many times.

They ordered some more drinks. Some drunk girl went up on stage and sang “Love is a Battlefield.” She was doing well until the second verse when she forgot the words and started to look like she was going to cry.

The other couple went up next. The girl sort of dragged the guy up. They sang a duet that Carrey didn’t know. The guy got really into it, doing these cheesy hand gestures and putting on a Frank Sinatra voice. During the girl’s parts he made serious faces and added in harmonies. When they came back to the table, he had a huge smile on his face. “You should go guys,” he told Carrey and Ethan, “sing something dancey.”

Ethan shook his head. His friend shoved him a little bit “come on. It’s funny!” Ethan didn’t say anything, but he shook his head again and got busy checking his phone.

“I want to get another drink,” he mumbled, “want one Carrey?” He got up.

“Yeah,” she said. “Whatever looks good.” The other couple were laughing about something across the table. The date looks like it’s going well, Carrey thought.

The girl turned and looked at her, “you should sing something Carrey. You were in choir in school right?”

“For a couple weeks,” Carrey replied. She felt her face turn red.

She went up to the stage anyway. The guy running the show was telling some jokes about his life in the 1970’s, but he stopped when he saw Carrey walking over. “Looks like we’ve got another superstar, what track do you want dear?”

She hadn’t thought about this yet. She said the first one that came to her, ”You’re so Vain, please.” She couldn’t remember who sang it but he didn’t ask, thank God. The man got behind his computer and found the track. It started and Carrey waited for the lyrics to appear on the screen. Back at her table, she could see Ethan had come back with a fresh drink for her. He was saying something to his friend and laughing. The first line of the song came up and she started to sing. Ethan looked up and made eye contact with her for a second. She thought he looked confused.

Carrey listened to herself signing. Being up here on stage wasn’t like singing in the shower at home. It really wasn’t like singing at all. She felt like she was standing next to herself watching herself perform. The voice she heard was strange and alien. It was too deep for starters, and more than a little off key. Her throat was seizing up; she felt like she had to swallow but there was no time between lines to do it.

The audience clapped, she went back to the table and Ethan’s friend high-fiver her. Ethan smiled and told her she was great, and the girl agreed. She felt like she was going to throw up. She picked up the drink Ethan got her and took a big sip. Alright, she thought, I’m here. I’m back. 



Ethan drove her home of course. His car smelled like cigarettes and there were often bags of books or papers or trash stuffed in the back seat, but the passenger side seat was always clean enough for her to get comfortable. At first he forgot to turn his headlights on and Carrey was surprised at how fast everything was coming up to the car. When he realized, he swore and turned them on. Carrey could suddenly see a hundred yards down the road. The world seemed to slow down.

“What was up with you tonight?” Ethan asked.

“What do you mean?” Carrey replied. “I had fun.”

“Are you mad I didn’t sing with you? I didn’t feel like getting up on stage tonight. You sounded really good though. But you didn’t have to sing if you didn’t want to.”

“I liked it. It’s different seeing everyone from up there. But I just, I guess it was weird being on someone else’s first date. Do you ever feel weird around new couples?”

Ethan thought about it for a second. “Yeah, I guess so.”



Ethan dropped her off right at her building’s front door. She stumbled to the stairs and ran up them quicker than she needed to. She liked the feeling of her legs moving in a blur. The door was unlocked for some reason. She usually locks it. Oh well, she thought, everything looks like it’s in its place inside. The dishes are still there in the sink. Carrey laughed out loud; why wouldn’t they be in the sink? It’s not like a serial killer would do her dishes.

When they started dating, Ethan used to stay parked outside until he saw the light of her apartment come on. Tonight, he drove off as soon as he let her out on the curb. When Carrey was a kid, she saw a TV report about a girl who went missing right outside her house after being dropped off by the school bus. The girl was Carrey’s age then: maybe seven or eight. Her bicycle was found behind some bushes a few days later which was strange because she didn’t have time to ride it anywhere before she went missing. A police man on TV said he thought someone moved it to make it look like she went out on her own after she got home.

Carrey wasn’t supposed to be watching TV after dinner. Her mom had found her crying with the report on. She remembered asking what the girl did wrong, and whether she would disappear too if she was a bad girl. “Of course not honey.” her mom told her, “the angels are here to keep you safe.”

“Even when I’m alone?””

“You are never alone, Care. Even when you are walking by yourself, there’s an angel there looking out for you. They won’t let you get hurt.”

But sometimes she felt so alone. When her mom died, Carrey felt really alone for the first time. The loneliness went deeper than feeling like nobody liked her or understood her. It felt like there was nobody else on the planet. She felt alone as a human being. She never really got over it.

She put he kettle on. It took forever to heat up on this stove. Everything in her apartment was a little bit broken. The fridge hummed so loud on hot days that she couldn’t fall asleep, the windows whistled with cold air in winter forcing her to sleep in her clothes. Only half the burner worked. The water boiled eventually. Carrey stood next to the stove the entire time. She was paranoid that she would forget the kettle was on one day and wake up to the smell of smoke and find herself trapped. She imagined the firemen finding the melted metal of the kettle dripping down to the floor and tracing the fire from there to the curtains or the trashcan.

Was this the life her dad imagined her having when he worked weekends and nights to pay for her to take piano lessons? Carrey couldn’t even play Chopsticks. If tonight was any indication, she couldn’t even sing. The tea was ready. She poured herself a big mug and took it with her into the bedroom. She pulled off her bra and changed into shorts. The bed was the same as it had been in the morning: a mess of layers in all different states. She was a restless sleeper and would frequently push all but one sheet off the bed along with all the pillows. The blanket would become her pillow.

The silence in the house felt like a colony of tiny insects crawling over Carrey’s skin. The idea of music or a podcast was revolting. The idea of someone else’s voice in her head. I wonder what Connor and Jamie are doing right now, Carrey thought. She imagined where they lived. She imagined them taking an elevator up to their apartment and holding hands as they looked out over the city. She looked out her own window at the brick wall of a Chinese laundromat. She could see steam coming out of a vent which meant someone was in there working late.

“I want something I’ve felt before but can’t feel now.” The note on her computer was still there. Carrey tried to remember when she wrote it. She must have been drunk. She was drunk a lot these days. It wasn’t doing a lot for her though. She would write a lot when she was drunk, but most of it was crap. When she read over it, it seemed like someone else must have written it. Like that note. What did she mean? What state was she in when she wrote it? She couldn’t remember. What was the feeling?

Flicker, her black cat, came out from somewhere. He liked to stay under the bed for most of the day. When Carrey first brought him home, she opened his carrier and off he went. She couldn’t find him for a bit before she noticed the open window. Carrey panicked. She lived on the fourth floor. Even a cat would be seriously injured jumping out of there. But as she searched the apartment over and over she became more and more convinced that that is exactly what happened. The shelter was going to check in next week and she was going to have to tell them Flicker had run away, or worse. She slammed the window shut and reopened it, wondering if the cat was out on the fire escape. She didn’t want to lock him out. She thought again and shut it. Maybe he was inside after all. She was paralyzed with anxiety. She collapsed on the bed and cried. Everything came up at once. Her parents, her ex boyfriend, Flicker. She was face down in a pillow that was getting wetter and wetter. Then she felt the small furry weight on her back and knew that Flicker, at least, was okay. She lay there dry sobbing for another hour before she could find him a bowl of food and a dish of water.

She learned that he loved to hide. His favorite place was under the bed, but he would hide in the closet as well as the pantry and underneath the couch. Sometimes he would hide under the covers of the bed only to leap out and into a different room when she sat down to read.

Carrey invited him up to the bed and he accepted. He fit right in between her arm and her body. He curled up and began to purr, asking to be petted.

Travel: Lima

I’m laying in the bottom bunk in a dark dorm room at a hippie hostel in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru. Some seafood I ate yesterday was a little off and I’ve been laid up in bed since then. I skipped breakfast this morning, and only made it out of bed to eat a light lunch. A piece of fruit or something. Everyone else in the room, maybe six or seven people, slept in until two in the afternoon and then left. It’s was either almost midnight now, or maybe it’s already early tomorrow morning, and they haven’t come back yet.

I’m listening to a podcast about unsolved murders. Luckily this series has a back catalogue, and I’ve been working my way through. I’m a little pissed at myself for being sick and stuck in bed listening to my iPod when I’m in a foreign country. This might be the only time I come here.

The door to the room opens and I can hear a couple people come in. They are whispering and muffling their laughter. I have the lights off because I want to sleep. I can’t tell if they know I’m there or not. They don’t turn the lights on so I figure they know someone’s here. They go across the room to the bunk in the far right corner. I’m in the far left. They go quiet like they are going to sleep.

I’ve been thinking about death in a new way in Peru. I went into this old Church for a couple dollars. There were a lot of people in the pews, pilgrims or locals or just tourists like me, I don’t know. They were mostly kneeling towards the altar and praying. This was a big place. One of the biggest churches I’ve been in. I don’t believe in God, but I enjoy going into churches. This one was special. Sometimes churches feel esoteric or aloof like they are meant for people who only think of higher things. Some, especially in America, are completely unadorned and all the action comes from the congregation itself. Not much point going in there during the off hours. This one felt different from ones I’ve been in before. There was a small room underneath the altar where every bishop of Lima since the 1700’s was entombed. They each had a stone plaque with a name and time of service. There were even some open graves waiting for the next guy and the guy after him. After you left that room and crossed a stone hallway decorated with indigenously styled Catholic icons, there was a two or three foot doorway into a catacomb. They had excavated most of the graves in there, and covered them with glass so you couldn’t steal souvenirs. Down a claustrophobic path and through an even smaller door was a fifty foot pit dug straight down into the earth. At the bottom I could see a single femur sitting on a pile of dirt. I got the impression that some time in the past this entire pit had been filled with human remains.


I was struck by the closeness of worship and death. 

In the national gallery, I saw traditional death masks, conquistador icons of angels holding trumpets and muskets, Jesus Christ with the skin tone and facial features of an indigenous Peruvian, and a pre-Columbian urn depicting an orgy of the living and the dead. A boxy brunette woman throws her head back in anger or pleasure as she grasps at an aroused skeleton.


Sex is, in a way, a means of escaping death. We are the shadows our dead ancestors still cast on this Earth. 

These scenes have been going through my head all day. I find it meaningful, therefore, that as I listen to the story of a young woman who was kidnapped and murdered through my earbuds, I come to realize the couple who tried so hard to be quiet coming into the room have been discreetly fucking the entire time they’ve been in here.


I wondered whose bone this was, or if it even mattered. Maybe it was left by mistake. 

At some point they finish. It’s hard to tell when. Then the rest of them come in. These people in my room all seem to know each other, or else they just made friends really quickly. A couple are French, a couple some type of American. Some Australians too. Lima is different from the cities in Argentina I’ve spent the last month in. People come here for different reasons I guess. Surfing, partying. The people in this hostel are younger and whiter than the ones I stayed  with in Argentina. One of them is rolling on ecstasy. She takes a pill case out from her backpack on the bed next to mine and shows it to one of her friends. Her voice has this breathy quality to it that makes her sound far away.

“I’m fucking hungry,” one of the French girls says. She either turned on a lamp, or some of the overhead lights, because it’s light enough to see now. She and one of the guys leave to eat some leftovers in the hostel fridge. The group splits and reforms in different ways for the rest of the night. One of them gets mad when she finds a used condom in her shoe, they scream obscenities in French and English, eat more food, change clothes and finally leave. I don’t know when these people sleep. I’m not mad, I would have slept through all this if I wasn’t sick. As it is, it’s a new experience. I feel like I’m hidden inside one of the props on some stage somewhere.

The next day I force myself to get out of bed at noon. I wonder if anyone has even noticed that I’ve been laying in my bed for the last two days. If they noticed, I wonder what they think. I wish I could read their minds. Getting a glimpse into the life of another is the strangest feeling. What are the bars like that they all go out to at night? What do they order there? Pisco sours? Cusqueno? Bud Light or Heineken?

I missed breakfast but luckily there’s still coffee. That’s about all I feel like anyway. They use this thick sweet cream here instead of milk or half and half, so the coffee is close to a full meal.

I go out for a short walk to see the central square for the last time. My stomach is still killing me. But, it feels good to be outside and part of the world again. The last couple days felt like a fever dream.


A white angel loads his musket

Whole blocks of this city are indoor markets selling the same souvenirs to tourists. Alpaca sweaters, coca infused liquor, pottery, toy llamas. On a quiet morning you can walk through one of these markets and someone will jump out of every stall to offer you something. Everyone wants you to look at what they’ve got, everyone calls you amigo and waves you over.

The most famous museum in Lima used to be the Gold Museum. It was full of all these ancient artifacts made out of Incan Gold. A few years ago, historians discovered they were nearly all forgeries. If there were ever such artifacts, they were long gone. Maybe they got melted down and sent back to Spain, or maybe they never existed at all. The museum is still there, in a corner of the city there’s no other reason to visit. Now it’s a museum about Incan forgeries.

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The Cliffs of Miraflores

Last, there’s a long promenade along the cliffs. You can run or bike or just walk past the parks and scenic overlooks of the Pacific ocean. If the sun is out it’s quite beautiful. Instead of seagulls or pigeons, flocks of green parrots sit in the trees and in the grass. They squawk at you and beg for scraps. What strikes me about the promenade is the enormous nets draped over the cliff faces to stop rocks from falling into the sea. Some day the nets won’t cut it anymore and pieces of Lima will start to break off. Rock by rock the city will disappear.

Fiction: The Breakdown

Toni’s car broke down about a quarter mile back. There was a sign that read “Gas Station Ten Miles” so she started walking. The sun was just starting to set. It was September still, so it wasn’t too cold yet. Toni was thankful for that.

A blue Chevrolet pickup drove by, the first vehicle she’d seen in while. Ahead, its brake lights lit up and the driver pulled over to the shoulder. “Hey there!” comes a man’s voice from the driver’s side. She sees his head leaning out the window. “You need a ride?” he asks. She’s still a way away and can’t make out his face. She sees he has a cap on, and a blue coat just like his truck.

Toni speeds up a little bit and comes up on the pickup. She can see the man now. He’s younger than she thought. The kind of guy you would see in line at the store and smile at if the line was moving slow. The bed of his truck is full of sandbags. “That your car a ways back?” the man asks. Toni said it was. “Dangerous to be out here alone at night,” he says. Toni agrees. He offers her a ride to the Mobil station. Toni gets in the passenger side. She has to push some magazines off the seat, but apart from that the cab is spotless. He has a coffee cup in the cupholder and the coffee is still fresh. The steam from it rises to the cab’s ceiling and then rolls along in all directions until it disappears.

“I’m Glenn”, the man says, holding out his hand.


He starts the truck and pulls off the shoulder. She can see the bags under his eyes now. He looks barely thirty, yet his hair is visibly thinning underneath the baseball cap.

“What brings you out here?” he asks.

Toni tells him she was out at one of the farms back a bit. She saw an ad for a babysitter wanted on weekends for a family with five kids. The parents needed someone around while they went into the city to sell at the farmers’ market. It was a drive, but work’s hard to find for someone Toni’s age, she tells him. And she has a new baby sister coming as well, so money’s tight.

The man nods. “That’d be the Johnson farm?” he asks. “They got five kids.”

Toni tells him yes, it is the Johnson’s.

“I deliver feed over there on Mondays,” he continues. Toni nods.

“Nice folks.”

He falls silent for a minute.

“They tell you about the horse they had?”

“I saw some pigs running around. And a dog. They didn’t mention any horse.”

“Well, a couple years back they bought the Clappers’ spare draft horse,” he explained “I hauled the thing over there myself in a big trailer. Horse was taller an’ any I’d seen, and strong too. Good workhorse. Willful though. When I’d come round on Mondays, bringing the grain and hay and pellets for the animals, Mrs. Johnson would tell me all the trouble they’d been having with the big thing. He’d break tethers, or scare the pigs, and one time he got on the other side of this little creek they got out there on the property and wouldn’t come back over for anything. Like he realized he was scared of water.

When winter came, they would keep him in their barn. Only he would push open the bar holding the door closed and wander around outdoors. Would have died of cold many times over if Mister Johnson didn’t always notice and lead him back in. They started to keep a truck parked outside the barn door after that so he couldn’t open it. They kept the truck parked there and Mister Johnson would go in this small door in the back that was too small for the horse to fit through.” He paused and corrected himself, “Well, it wasn’t really a small door, but that horse was real big.

Well, one morning the family heard some strange noises coming from over at the barn. That horse had pulled down a rope from the loft and the rope had dragged a bale of hay down with it. Of course, he had spent the whole night chewing on that hay. This was some hay that I hauled over as part of a big load a few months ago. It was good hay, I check all my hay myself. Thing is, they left it up there and it must have got wet, because it was covered in mold and everything. That stupid horse ate near to the whole bale.”

Glenn looked over to Toni, his eyes searching her face for a reaction. She looked away. “Poor thing,” she said under her breath, loud enough she was sure Glenn heard.

“When Mister Johnson went over to investigate and he found that horse in a state of fright he had never seen before. It was like there was a ghost in that barn. The poor thing was swinging his head around nearly in a circle, his eyes bulging out of his head. As soon as Mister Johnson opened that little door the horse made a break for it, charging at that door full speed. He was too big of course, but it didn’t stop him. He had such a fear in him. He knocked Mr. Johnson right over and broke both of his front legs right there trying to force his way out. There was snow on the ground and there that poor animal was, thrashing around half in and half out of the barn, head in the snow, eyes still bulging out of his head, legs broken to pieces, blood starting to pool.

Poor Mister Johnson was in a state as well, I’ll tell you. Here was his only horse, sick to death on bad hay and injured as well. And he wasn’t in great shape himself either. He fell on his arm and twisted it pretty bad. Mrs. Johnson heard the commotion and was calling down from the house to see if everything was okay. When she headed down there and saw her husband nursing his arm and the draft horse flailing around in its own blood, she went into a panic. She was running back and forth between the house and the barn trying to help Mister Johnson put his arm right, asking him who she should call, asking to drive him to the hospital.”

Glenn chuckled and fell silent for a moment. “Picture that scene, won’t you. Imagine your father or your brother is screaming outside and you come out to see what that woman saw.”

“Was he alright?” Toni asked.

“They managed to pop his arm back in somehow, but he wasn’t able to use it very well for a few weeks after.

Lucky thing is, because it snowed, I was coming over the farm to plow and put down salt and sand on the driveway. I pulled up and saw the scene. Mrs. Johnson was in hysterics, Mister Johnson was crying in pain, and there was the horse bloody all over by now. I stood back a bit and looked in that animal’s eyes and I saw nothing but fear. I had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing there, no sadness, no want, nothing except fear. The thing would have been running on its own shattered legs if it hadn’t been wedged right in that door. It was trying even as it was. The creature would have run through a forest of barbed wire if it meant getting away from whatever it felt in that barn.

I went around back of the barn and found the shotgun in Mister Johnson’s truck and put the big creature out of its misery. Can’t fix broken legs on an old horse. Not if you want it to do work again anyway. We were all three quiet for a minute after that. Then I put the salt down and finished plowing a little bit, I moved Mister Johnson’s truck and opened the big barn door. I saw the hay lying strewn about, and the back end of the horse. I tied a chain to its back legs and put the other end on my trailer hitch, and we dragged him out the big door. The thing wasn’t even stuck, as far as I could tell. If he had tried to back up, he could of. He was only stuck as long as he was pushing forwards through that little door.”

Toni sat looking straight ahead as he talked, watching the lines on the road get eaten up by the pickup’s hood. There on the right was the Mobil station. Glenn slowed the truck and turned into the parking lot. There were no other cars there, but the light was on inside the station, and she thought she could see a man’s shape through a window.

“Well, thank you for the company miss”, Glenn says, “I hope you have a safe journey.” Toni turned to look at him one last time. Maybe he is older than she thought, after all, Toni thinks to herself. She sees a scar across his upper chest, in the opening of his plaid shirt. “And say hi to Mister Johnson for me if you see him again”

Without saying a word, she opens the door and steps out onto the concrete. The man reaches over and pulls her door closed. He turns away from her and starts the truck, slowly easing it back out onto the road.

Voting: A Better Alternative to First Past the Post?

This is part one in an ongoing series on voting in America. This article focuses on First past the Post voting; later articles will focus on gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, the electoral college, and voter participation. Stay tuned. 

In some countries, most notably the United States, Canada, the UK, elected representatives are chosen in a winner take all voting process called “First past the Post” (FPTP). When ballots are counted for a given race, the candidate at the end of the night with the most ballots in their box wins. This is a simple enough idea, but in recent years many constituencies have been pushing for a reformation. Most notably, the current Labour party of Canada ran on a platform of voting reform which swept them to victory in 2015. What are the problems with FPTP, and is there really a more fair way of holding elections?

Elections in the US are weird. Presidential elections are not won based on number of votes, but rather on winning individual states’ electoral votes. This system should not be confused with First past the Post; indeed, the Electoral College tends to favor candidates who receive fewer votes but who are broadly popular in less populous states. Elections are run by the individual states. While the winner of the presidential race might not be the candidate with the most overall votes country wide, he has to get the most votes in enough states to capture the majority of electoral votes.

To see FPTP in action, let’s examine the famous results of the presidential race in Florida in the 2000 election cycle including the top four candidates.

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Under the First past the Post system, George Bush, the winner of the most votes was declared winner of the State of Florida.

Critics of FPTP say that this result does not correctly represent the will of the people. One reason is vote splitting. In the example above, “conservative” candidates (Bush and Buchanan) represent 49.14% of the total votes, while “liberal” candidates (Gore and Nader) represent 50.48%. This implies that the state of Florida would prefer a liberal candidate overall, but because the liberal vote was split more than the conservative vote, a conservative won.

This leads to the second problem many people see with FPTP: it encourages tactical voting. It is likely that many voters would actually prefer Nader or Buchanan to Bush or Gore, but because those candidates were expected to receive a low vote share, many voters decided to vote for one of the two candidates who were likely to win.

There are certainly other critiques of First past the Post, but for now, I am only going to discuss these two issues. The question for today is, are vote splitting and tactical voting easily solvable problems like some anti-FPTP activists claim, or would any solution create a bigger problem?

Vote Splitting

Vote splitting comes in two forms. First, as in the Florida example, there are so called “spoiler candidates,” people who eek out just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar (enough) candidate. Second, there are cases where two or more viable parties compete for the same pool of voters allowing a third party, while less popular than the first two combined, to win because their vote is not split. An imperfect example can be seen in the 2006 Canadian federal elections where the conservative party, led by Stephen Harper, won control of parliament  by winning roughly 40% of seat races compared with 60% split between three center-left or left wing parties. Based on these results, one would expect Canada to have a left leaning government, but instead a conservative government was formed due to vote splitting.

To maintain clarity and continuity, I won’t be discussing election results on a country wide scale due to differing systems of governance (parliamentary vs federalist, etc), but rather on a race-specific basis. So, to illustrate vote splitting, imagine the Canadian result is played out in a single race. Candidate A receives 40%; B, 30%; C and D 15% each. B, C, and D are from different parties, but all are much more ideologically similar than any of them are to A. The spoiler situation will be as follows: A receives 49%; B, 48%; and C 3%. Again, B and C are of different parties but much more ideologically similar than either are to A.

The first way to solve this problem that has been proposed is a mandate that some candidate get 50% of the vote to win. One way to do this is call a runoff election between the top two candidates if nobody gets above 50% the first time. This would solve the spoiler candidate issue; the spoiler (Candidate C) would be eliminated and a new election would happen between A and B. Presumably B would win C’s voters, or at least they would stay home, and win a majority of votes.

This would also deal with the Contrived Canadian example I laid out above. C and D would be eliminated and their voters would presumably go to B. In these contrived cases, the result we would expect occurs. However, this system also delivers some strange results under different circumstances. If candidate B was, although ideologically similar to C and D, considered by everyone outside his 30% base of support to be eccentric and unfit for office, the results of the runoff might be that A would get 70% and B would get 30%. It might be that C or D would have won a runoff against A because they are better compromise candidates than B. In other words, if B’s voters would be fine with either C or D, but C and D’s voters would not be fine with B, maybe C or D should be chosen for the runoff instead of B.

Maybe a system of ranked choice could solve this problem. In the situation above, I can imagine ranked voting played out like this: A is ranked first by 40%, third by 30% and fourth by 30%. B is ranked first by 30% and fourth by 70%. C is ranked first by 16%, second by 60%, third by 25%. D is ranked first by 14%, second by 40%, third by 45%. In this case, it looks like the runoff should be between A and C, the consensus choice. Or maybe even between C and D, the only two candidates who over 50% consider to be either first or second. If we assign points to ranking, (let’s say three points for a first place choice, two for second, and one for third) and 100 voters, the point values look like this for the race:

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 12.08.20 PM

Indeed, on that scale, the runoff should be between C and D. That is a weird result though, because it totally excludes A, the candidate who differs most. Intuitively, it seems like the runoff should offer a more significant choice. And also intuitively, it seems like the runoff should not be between the candidates who were fewest people’s first choice.

Another way to do ranked voting is to eliminate the last place finisher and distribute their second place votes to the other candidates. How would this play out? D Gets eliminated and his 14% of voters get their votes distributes to their second choice. Everybody’s second choice was either C or D, so it follows that all D’s voters preferred C as their second choice. Now the numbers are as follows: A: 40%, B and C 30% each. Presumably, in a large election B and C would not actually tie, so one probably has a slight edge. If B is eliminated next, his votes go to C and C wins. If C is eliminated, her votes go to A and A wins. So, the widely unpopular B who has a strong base of support (a populist candidate) can’t win. This seems right. But, the winner will either be the one candidate most different from the majority opinion (A) or someone who was only 15% of people’s first choice. I will discuss these results after dealing with tactical voting.

Tactical Voting

Tactical voting is the strategy of voting for someone other than your ideal candidate in order to avoid a candidate you really dislike from winning. Let’s say there are three candidates: A, a left wing populist; B, a middle of the road establishment type; and C, a fiscal conservative. They are polling at 40%, 40%, and 20% respectively. If your main priority in voting is lowering the deficit, you should be in C’s camp. However, if A were to win it would be your nightmare. She would raise spending for all these new programs and blow up the deficit. So, seeing as A and B are so close in the polls, you decide to vote for B who isn’t really that bad.

This violates the idea that the candidate you vote for should be your favorite candidate. Ranked voting or a runoff system would deal with this issue. Nobody would get over 50% to start, and then C’s voters would all go to B, allowing him to win with 60%. C’s voters would still vote for their preference first. However, these systems still have issues with tactical voting in different circumstances.

In a system where the top two candidates have a runoff election (a system used in France as well as some US jurisdictions), voters who favor an unpopular candidate with a small base have an incentive to vote tactically. Let’s say there are three candidates in the first round of elections: A, who is a right wing populist; B, who is a conservative moderate; and C, a moderate liberal. They are polling at 35%, 25%, and 40%. A’s voters know their guy will never win a one-on-one election against the moderate liberal candidate, so they might decide to vote for B in round one so as to have a chance that someone they share some beliefs with will win the general.

Tactical voting occurs in ranked systems as well. In the above scenario, if ranked voting is used, B will be eliminated because he has the fewest first choice votes. His voters’ second choice is the moderate liberal who will then win. In this case, some of A’s voters might put B as their first choice so that A is eliminated first and B wins the election. In fact, this seems like the right result from this election. 60% of voters lean conservative, so it would make sense for a moderate conservative to win. Tactical voting seems to be the only way of producing that result here.

A Silver Bullet? 

Changing voting systems would solve at least one problem entirely: the “spoiler candidate” who earns just enough votes to deny a victory to an ideologically similar candidate. The Nader scenario would be solved by either ranked voting or a runoff. However, beyond that,it gets murkier. Some problems would be solved, but new ones would be created. Alternative systems produce winners who are less controversial. Ranking favors candidates who can build a coalition of voters who don’t particularly dislike them over candidates who have a devoted following. This can be seen as either a bug or a feature. Some of America’s most popular presidents today were incredibly divisive in their times. Abraham Lincoln and FDR come to mind. Would a compromise candidate have been preferable with the Civil War looming on the horizon?

Advocates for ending First past the Post often only look at half the picture, as do advocates for keeping it. Every system will sometimes deliver a result that seems wrong to someone. Our own beliefs about who should win are tied up in our beliefs about what criteria we should use to measure victory. Those who want big change might think FPTP is ideal because it allows a vocal minority of 35% to surge to victory. Those who want consensus and moderation might prefer ranking or a runoff system. There are good arguments for and against every voting system: if we are to change it, it should not just be because our guy lost in the current system. It should be because we have determined that the system is no longer in line with our values.

Sources and further reading:









“Why Flip a Coin” by H.W. Lewis

Bonus: The idea that there is no perfect voting system actually has some mathematical validity. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem says that no system can simultaneously fulfill all the criteria we want from a voting system if there are three or more candidates up for vote. There are a few caveats, of course, but they are too technical for me to go into here. But there is one interesting idea that gets brought up in response to Arrow that I want to mention. That is “cardinal voting.” Basically in a cardinal system, your ballot lists all the candidates who are running and asks you to check off all the ones you approve of. The one with the most check marks wins. If we decide we want the ideal consensus candidate, this would be a good way of running elections. It gives you the right answer 100% of the time if that’s what you’re looking for. Of course, it might be a boring bureaucrat, or even someone nobody’s ever heard of.