My Word Processor Suggests Changing selfie to selfless, and Other Existential Crises

Lafayette square protest

by Andrew Rihn



“How’d you like to disappear?” Paul Sorvino asks Al Pacino in the 1980 flick Cruising.

Pacino looks like Paul Reiser, and Sorvino a little like the dad in The Wonder Years. These are not the roles they’re known for, not how we remember them. This is how they disappear before our eyes.



I was perhaps seven or eight, and on vacation at a beach in New Jersey. A boy was looking at a horseshoe crab stuck on its back. And I walked over to have a look, too. Because that’s what boys do, I suppose: share in the grotesque. The horseshoe crab was bleeding; it’s blood was blue. Had the boy hit it with a rock, I wondered? When I asked him, he replied in French. We looked into each others’ eyes, able to see but not to understand. Standing so close, yet linguistically so far away. In our bathing suits, we were nearly nude. Our bodies smooth and similar. I remember being profoundly confused. I remember wondering why anyone from somewhere as exotic as France would vacation in New Jersey. I remember wondering what it would be like to be the only person speaking a “foreign” language. I remember fleeting terror.



In the second season of Mad Men, Peggy has a flashback. She is laying in a hospital bed, and she sees her boss, Don Draper, sitting beside her. She asks, “Is that you? Are you really there.”

He answers in the affirmative, but can we really be sure? Do we need to be? It doesn’t matter. The two characters talk for a moment about what Peggy is doing in the hospital. Don advises her to not look back, to move forward.

“This never happened,” he says. “It will shock you how much it never happened.”



The first time I ejaculated was with a boy named David. His father owned several acres of wooded land, and had built a relatively isolated guest house where we would sometimes “camp out” on the weekends. That is to say, we slept in sleeping bags on the floor of his unfinished guest house. This was the summer between fourth and fifth grade. We had been experimenting before, playing with each other’s penises, our newfound erections like recently unfolded maps. His was thinner than mine, which I liked. I liked that it was similar, but different. That we could all be the same because we would all be different. I would put it in my mouth, lick his still hairless balls, sucking awkwardly on his pre-teen cock. Although we knew what we were doing, we didn’t really know what we were doing.

One night, after we had exhausted ourselves building and sustaining a bonfire, we curled into our sleeping bags inside his father’s guest house. We couldn’t sleep, and began playing with ourselves, masturbating. We talked aloud our fantasies; we named names: classmates, celebrities, his older sister. Soon I climbed into his sleeping bag, pressing our warm bodies together. We rubbed our penises together, and for the first time, I felt the weight and tension of another body as we pushed our hips together, thrusting. Although we didn’t have any kind of penetrative sex, that tension and weight was enough to bring me to climax, legs intertwined and pelvises grinding. The ejaculation was intensely pleasurable, but also unexpected, scary even. I was torn in two directions: my body was pleased but my mind was scared. I was a little unsure of what had really happened.

Within a few moments, I realized that some of my cum had gotten onto David. The contact seemed to break our spell of experimentation, and he retreated into quiet disgust. A boundary had been crossed, and not forgiven. We went to sleep without speaking that night.

We remained friends for a few years after that night. I never saw his penis again. During our sophomore year of high school, he called to tell me his girlfriend gave him his first blowjob. His first, of course, only if you didn’t count me. His first legitimate blowjob, something that could be talked about, bragged over. In that instant, I felt as though our experimentation and intimacy ceased to exist for him anymore. It was a past written in a language no longer understood. Sometimes after a vivid dream, I try to write down the details so I won’t forget. My bedroom is dark, and my head is still in the dream. More often than not, when I review my notes in the morning, with coffee and sunshine, I cannot read what I wrote. The dream is illegible.



I tell my writing students to look at the papers they finished, to the texts they have just written. I want them to see that although they have finished writing, they are not done writing. I want them to make contact with this contradiction: to see it, feel it, work it. To embrace contradiction and make it their own. What they have finished is a draft, I tell them. One version of the story. I tell them that in the days and weeks ahead of us, we will revise these drafts, revisit these stories they have written, seeking to expand and deepen and improve these papers. They groan. They do not look forward to looking ahead.

“For the basic-writing student,” according to Mina Shaughnessy, “academic writing is a trap, not a way of saying something to someone.”

Later that day, I sit in the writing center with one of my students. She knows she is supposed to revise her essay, but doesn’t feel that she can. She asks me point blank, How can I add anything when I done already told you everything?

But we never really tell anyone everything, do we? It’s a wonder that we say anything at all.



(“We always lose,” Yul Bryner reminds us in The Magnificent Seven, fifty years before Halberstam made queer failure cool.)



I tap letters on my keyboard. Sometimes I tap the wrong ones. Just now, I wrote “leeters” instead of “letters.” My software (Open Office) alerted me to what it interpreted as a mistake; a red squiggle appeared below the word in question. This is helpful; this is also discipline. The red squiggle is a reminder to follow the rules, to not experiment or deviate too much from what is expected. “Letters” is acceptable; “leeters” is not. Often when I am writing academic texts, I note the words I find acceptable that my word processor does not: transgender, for instance, receives a red squiggle. So does heteronormativity. And intersex. Polyamory. Genderqueer. Liberatory. These words are marked in my text, while all the rest go unmarked. This attention to what deviates causes us to revisit what is marked; in this sense such words are remarkable.

When I perform spell check on my text, it offers suggestions for words I may have meant. My word processor suggests changing selfie to selfless. Is this an erasure, I wonder? A false piety? In Western thought, selfless is typically applied to actions – selfless acts of kindness or giving. But I’ve always preferred the Buddhist connotations of selfless, in which the obliteration of self is a path to consciousness. I don’t meditate anymore, but I obliterate the self through running, drinking, fucking, even writing. Like Foucault, no doubt, I am not the only one who does these things in order to have no face.


“We cannot say, “’Oh, there is the exact point where serotonin has accelerated the tutor’s heartbeat or the chemical dopamine has brought a smile to the tutee’s face.’ But the chemistry is there when a student brushes my hand while making a correction or maintains eye contact a little longer than necessary or offers a nod of understanding.”

—Deb Atwood, “Chemistry and the Writing Tutor”



It’s the Fall of 2005. I am twenty-five and in D.C. for an anti-war protest. In Lafeyette Square, groups of anarchists are gathering. They’re dressed in black, their faces covered. Anonymous, undifferentiated. They move in small packs called affinity groups. As they linger, the police begin to gather as well. Once the police have gained sufficient numbers, they approach the anarchists. They tell them to take their masks off, leave Lafeyette Park, disperse. The anarchists don’t respond. They do not remove their masks. They do not move their bodies. The police take a step or two closer; they draw tighter the circle they have created around six or seven anonymous anarchists. The police repeat their orders. The anarchists appear defiant; the police look tense. People take notice, holding digital cameras out, filming the encounter. A few of us move closer to the police, ready to jump in against the cops if things turn violent. The police repeat themselves: they tighten their circle, make their demands. They add an ultimatum and a count of three.

The anarchists do not move. The police count to three. Everyone is tense but no one wants to spring into action. Just as the police begin to move in towards them, the anarchists cheer and leap, removing their masks joyously. They jump into one another’s arms, embracing, hugging, kissing one another. Their faces are human, fleshy, and alive. They kiss everyone in their affinity group, laughing, loving. Everyone kisses everyone else, no one plays favorites. Boys, girls, sex, gender, doesn’t matter. In front of this loving performance, the police look out of place, all Freudian nightsticks and body armor. Embarrassed, they leave the park.



“and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence.”

— Audre Lorde


Andrew Rihn lives in Canton, OH. He is the author of several chapbooks of poetry as well as several academic articles. His interests include embodied literacies, cheap beer, and Gore Vidal. He currently works at a small bakery.

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