Portrait of Bullwhip

Portrait of Bullwhip


It began with Indiana Jones. Or maybe it began with Fannin Mart. Who can tell? They seem intertwined in my memory—coupling to produce an almost lifelong attraction to and fascination with the bullwhip.

At Fannin, there was one lying on the shelf near where we often sat. Fannin was an old country store-styled restaurant, one that was both a real country store and a parody at the same time. My parents took me there as a boy after church, always a tricky prospect. The question was whether or not we would beat the Baptists. We were Episcopalians and got out of church at approximately 11:45 each Sunday, only an hour and fifteen minutes after we’d begun. But since Fannin was all the way on the other side of the reservoir, we weren’t always assured we would beat the Baptists, who started earlier and ended later. If we didn’t, there would be a line out the door—kids kicking gravel, men with distended, Polo-shirted bellies, everyone sweating standing still. One thing Baptists do is eat.

Inside was wood paneling, bad wall paper, the scratch of ladder back chairs on the concrete floor, and bountiful displays of country knick-knackery. Decorative tin plates, cast iron skillets, little painted porcelain figurines, delicate water colors of horse heads, etc. In the back was the kitchen, a hot muggy mess of a corner. The tables were covered in the iconic red and white gingham vinyl table cloths, which seemed always to feel greasy even after a fresh wiping. They served iced tea in mason jars, and they had the good ice, ice cubes that were actual tiny, crunchable cubes, the ice that you could only otherwise get, at that time, at Danver’s. (I will resist the temptation to memorialize the tea itself; even I have limits.)

The best part of the meal was the waitresses, the most beautiful women I had ever seen. They were actually girls, probably just in high school, tall and pony-tailed and tan in T-shirts and cutoffs, dish rags draping out of their rear pockets. They had wonderful country accents and were unfailingly polite. I must have been nine, ten when we made these trips. They seemed, as they came out of the dank armpit of the kitchen, like emissaries of a southern pastoral heaven, debs in bloom, unwilted in the heat.

Behind our table on the shelf with the other knick-knacks sat the bullwhip, coiled and waiting. I remember being obsessed with it, wanting to find it, see it, touch it, play with it, sit close so I could inspect it. Like so much else at the restaurant the object seemed intentionally iconic.



I first began thinking about my own bullwhip one day last spring. I don’t know what brought it to mind but it was located right where I thought: in the large wooden toy box that acts as a coffee table in my room in my parents’ house in Jackson, Miss. This is not my childhood room. That room vanished several houses ago. The only kids who have slept in this house are my own. But a portion of my toys still remain, hidden and remembered only by me.

The bin smelled generally of leather. The whip lay inside, coiled between an old rag football, an Aerobie, a real football, a scarred and abused soccer ball (a nice Lotto one), and various mitts and gloves. On the bin’s surface was a birthmark-like stain of battery acid from a science project. I tucked the whip into my bag without my wife noticing. When we got back to our house in Memphis, I snuck it onto a high shelf in my closet. Mostly I was afraid of my four-year-old daughter discovering it. How would I explain what it is, what it’s for, and why I have felt compelled to bring it back to Memphis with me? Strange how when married one’s closet becomes the site of true privacy, of objects preserved and hidden.

In hindsight I see that I began thinking about bullwhips when I lost my job as an English professor. Well, I didn’t lose it. That makes the job sound like a cell phone. They actually gave it to someone else. I was a visiting professor, which is a cross between being a pinch hitter and cup of yogurt—present for a strictly defined purpose and already going bad. I won’t go into the whole campus novel here, but suffice it to say my final semester was slowly evaporating before my eyes, my applications to other jobs were caught in distant unseen dams, and I was facing a long hot summer of job hunting while my wife sweated through her second pregnancy. It was simply the most stressful period of my life. But when I wasn’t applying for jobs, or exhausting everyone around me with my career drama, or just walking around performing my sympathy for myself, I often thought how I once could pop a mean bullwhip. I started to wonder if I still could.



Of course there was also Indiana Jones. By 1984 (age seven), the first two movies had formed a solid portion of my worldview. Perhaps it’s also relevant to confess that I didn’t realize the time period the Indiana Jones movies depicted was not the present day until the third Last Crusade installment in 1989. I would like to blame this on my youth. However, I must admit that misreadings of various cultural objects is a personal trend, e.g., I didn’t realize until college that Raising Arizona was intended to be funny. Certainly I thought it was funny, and a great movie, one that I had re-watched compulsively while growing up as a siblingless child with basic cable. So much culture came at me with little to no predigestion. My friends, who all had older brothers, had serious musical opinions. Or affectations. There was Pink Floyd. There was Rush. There were Talmudic debates regarding the Roth-Hagar Transition. I picked up some influences simply by proxy. But there was no one around, so to speak, to tell me that Tears for Fears were not genuinely a great band, or that middle school boys probably shouldn’t walk around singing Alannah Myles’s “Black Velvet,” or to keep one’s recent George Michael acquisition on the down low.

What this means in terms of Indiana Jones was that I was unaware that Spielberg was performing any kind of parody of the swashbuckling serials of old. To me it was a fully sincere adventure movie. The leather jacket, the fedora, the bullwhip, the constant wearing of khaki—none of these struck me as affectations or bits of cartoonish exaggeration. They merely struck me as a resourceful means of approaching existence, especially an existence that might dump you into a sarcophagus of cobras. The bullwhip just seemed like a logical accessory. I also loved the shoulder bag, not quite a purse, but not as scholastic as a backpack, and certainly not a briefcase, but a bag that could swing around easily to carry a golden skull.

I also now wonder if Indiana Jones also bred in me a fascination with the professor figure, that is, my desire to be a professor. Because—I always forget this—that’s who he is. When not out gallivanting across the world—when not holding office hours—Jones is an archeology professor, and they tweed Harrison Ford up magnificently, give him glasses and an actual briefcase. The classroom is the frame that surrounds all of his adventures.



I got the whip for Christmas. I do not remember the precise year. It was during that stretch of Christmases where I was asking for defiantly boyish presents, no longer toys but not yet adolescent tools. Somewhere between the Hot Wheels and the stereo system, there was the bullwhip, and one year a bow and arrow, and one year a hunting knife. It’s like I was training to become the Unabomber.

We held these Christmas gatherings at my grandparents’ house. My grandfather, for most of his life, had been a farmer. What could have he thought, watching me unwrap a bullwhip one year? That now the tools he had used at work had somehow become children’s toys? It was almost like I was unwittingly making fun of him and of the past generally. It reminds me of my daughter’s own toys, the farm animals and rural props, and the focus in some of her books on farm life, and part of me—the un-fun, cynical part of me (larger than predicted)—wants to stop her playing and say: life is not like this. You will probably only visit farms for fun, like visiting a museum. Unless there is some catastrophe of our fortunes, global or otherwise, you will never have to tend to animals in a big red barn. Unless, by some inverted consequence of privilege, you do it on your own as a kind of primitivistic rebellion. (Go ahead and grow dreads while you’re at it, drop out of school, co-habitate with some Bon Iver lookalike and trounce on all the hard work your mother and I did, you overeducated ingrate!) It’s as if the premise of the books and toys lag behind by 40 years, or that we are nostalgic for an older way of life via these children’s toys—a land before wireless internet, non-enemy combatants, and quantitative easing. But there I was playing with a bullwhip, which is definitely not a toy. But culturally it had at that point become something that could be a toy, the way the manual typewriter is now something that can be piece of decoration. What was once a tool, what was once utilitarian, comes back to life as a zombie prop.

In fact, this might push us toward a theory of decoration: things that are no longer useful. And it reminds me of our new baby, now safely born and 11 months old, and the charm that babies exhibit by playing with objects that are not toys—Tupperware, power cords, remote controls, plastic grocery bags. They don’t yet recognize the toy divide.



I will brag: I was a fairly good whipper as a boy. Is that the correct way to describe one’s bullwhip prowess? I was a good “popper”? I was decent at what I call the bandana pop, the rather generic roll-up-and-pop-it-right-in-front pop. I think of this pop as the standard pop a cartoon character would perform in front of a lion, so mundane that it almost didn’t matter if you couldn’t do it effectively. (My personal theory was that the reason I couldn’t do it reliably was because my whip was too long and heavy.)

If memory serves, my whip was thirteen feet long, including the cracker on the end. It was a fine whip. My parents looked all around to find one and they ended up buying it at a country goods store right near Fannin Mart. What always distinguished it was the intricate braiding of leather on the hilt and the way that the whip’s exterior was woven around a piece of rope, which itself was attached to other smaller pieces of rope. Eventually the whip leather loses this core of rope and just braids around the hollowness of itself. As a kid I was shocked to discover that a whip was really just this leather skin. My friend from up the street, Jason, who was older, more sophisticated, and more dangerous—with a single mother and facial scar to prove it—had several bullwhips and none of his had the same internal-rope/decorative-hilt integrity that mine had. He had a yard full of Hondas and my parents had bought me a single Mercedes. I would have been embarrassed had I been able to get over my pride.

As a consequence, the whip had heft. And how often is weight some kind of marker of quality? Isn’t the same kind of hidden density the key quality for guns, cars, guitars, beers? Lightness is so often a mirage for faked nutrition, unappealing alloys. Hence, my inability to pop the whip in front of me. But there was another front pop that I could pull off fairly reasonably often, and that was the swirl and pop. In this move, I would swirl the whip around my head and then snap it when it was some ten feet in front of me. I could effectuate this pop not exactly every time but almost on command. And this was an altogether more interesting move to make with the bullwhip. It had an Indiana Jones glamour to it. And it was functional, taking advantage of the whip’s actual length. You could, like, attack shit that was far away from you, whereas the standard bandana pop was just theater.

But the pop I was best at was the backward swirl and pop. I’m not sure why I excelled at this move, but I could do it almost every time. Again I would swing the whip overhead but instead of popping it in front of me, I would do it behind me. And not only was I more consistent with this pop, it was loud. The crack had real aggression to it, so distinct and authoritative that I often frightened myself. Of course I could never quite determine what exactly I was doing to make this backward pop much better than my front pop, which I in part blame on the fact that it was happening behind me. Admittedly, I would on occasion snap it up into the back of my head.



One year before losing my teaching job, I attended a conference. It was one of those college-writer-teacher-related conferences that you have time to attend only if you are a college English teacher. I told my best conference friend that I was already worrying about the coming year, the looming job market storm, the prospect of losing this life.

“Well whatever you do,” he said, “don’t get your wife pregnant.”

He had no way of knowing that I was in fact at that time trying to get my wife pregnant, juggling timelines, both gestational and academic.



My grandfather was the real whip singer. I only saw him whip once, the Christmas I received it. After unwrapping our presents we all ambled out to his driveway, surely the longest, flattest driveway in the world. My grandfather was a big man, not just tall, but big bellied, and he hiked his pants up so that his belt line hit him in the middle of the gut, his chest swallowed into his drawers. This makes him sound goofy but he was emphatically not goofy. He’d been a sharecropper, then a farmer, then a restaurateur, then a Justice of the Peace. His bare forearms were permanently tanned and, in my memory, hairless. He was, basically, Zeus in a hat.

My grandfather took my bullwhip, at that point still stinking like new leather, and walked out into the driveway and proceeded to helicopter it over his head. Before we could get dutifully lined up at the rear bumpers of his and my grandmother’s twin Oldsmobiles, he let out the most powerful thunderous crack I had ever heard.

When I was little, I was an expert at thunderstorm panic. My parents had developed a game where in the middle of the night, if they heard a loud clap of thunder, they would look at each other and count to three. By then I would be at their door frame, wanting to be let in their bed. What’s strange is that I remember that panicked sprinting. I remember the thunder, being awakened by the volume, and sprinting for cover, for the parental cave. To my parents’ credit, they always took me in. As a father of a daughter I now wait for the same moment to happen. I wake to thunder, and I count to myself and look to the door to see my daughter, face framed by bangs, standing there in fear. But in four and a half years, she’s never appeared. Instead, I am pawed at by our dog, who whines and whiffles pathetically at the slightest dip in barometric pressure. I do not let her in the bed.

Here was my grandfather in front of me—this catcher of fish, this puller of Radio Flyer wagon, this producer of epically dense spit—there he was making thunder. It had the physical intestinal violence of sudden real unamplified volume happening right in front your face without any warning or preparation, like gunfire or plane propeller noise or the thrum of a tractor’s motor. The energy of the universe, summoned and flung in your face so quick it hurt.



What is a bullwhip for now? Of course, if one is going to think aloud about whips, one has to acknowledge that a current usage is for sex, as a bondage device. I feel about whips in bondage sort of the way I feel about tattoos: I’m not personally into them but it’s obvious that many people are, and if that type of pain, or more precisely, that kind of presentation of pain, works for them, then whatever gets you through the night. But I do think that it pushes the whip into an absurd extreme. Here the whip is pushed past being a comic book-like weapon or a child’s kitschy toy toward a version of its original rural use but now as a tool for arousal, a different kind of labor. And no doubt part of the thrill must be the equation between the whipper and whippee—farmer and mule. And though my interest in bullwhips is, for the most part, not Mapplethorpian, one could see that of the many things Mapplethorpe is making fun of in his bullwhip self-portrait, this is one of them.



Simultaneous with my reignited interest in whips, I noticed bullwhips in a pick-up truck at work. I have taken a job as a technical writer, a small gear in a big machine, and there’s a great deal of car surveillance to be done walking in every morning. In one of the lots there often sits a blue pick-up truck, old style, with a bed full of construction-related stuff, sporting in its cab what must be a gun rack. And on this rack are several coiled ropes and at least two bullwhips. I haven’t done a thorough enough scoping out of the truck to determine just what this guy is up to in his off hours, but the presence of the whips and ropes gave me pause. Just when I thought my ruminations on bullwhips were more of my own self-generated brain fog—I live in a Seattle of the mind—here was someone else with whips. Perhaps he goes out whipping on the weekend? Perhaps he engages in some kind of lassoing competition or actual herd-related activity? Perhaps he just rides horses? There is a nice older lady in HR who lives far out of town with horses, and the way she talked about them at some lax point during my all-day orientation had the unequivocal, nearly religious calm and awe that my cube-neighbor has when he discusses video games, a kind of peace one wants to envy if it didn’t seem so sacred. I of course wonder how well the guy who drives that truck can pop his whip.



What on earth could a professor of archeology need with a bullwhip? As a tool, the bullwhip is two-faced. It’s both a symbol of intimidation and an actual weapon, both thunder and lightning. What for my grandfather was a tool for livestock was for Indiana Jones an accoutrement, a tool transmogrified via the circus, into a symbol of adventure. In terms of 20th-century history, my grandfather and Indiana Jones were cracking whips at about the same time. But where my grandfather (in real life) used the force of the whip, Indiana Jones (in a mid-80s movie) used the theater of the whip. The bullwhip repeats itself.



During lunch I went to Home Depot to search for a cracker. The cracker is a little rope extension tied to the end of the leather. This is the actual part of the whip that does the popping.  They had sisal rope, nylon rope, manila rope, cotton rope, cotton and nylon rope, nylon and polypropylene rope, rope to thread through carabineers, rope for some reason called cordage, coated rope, uncoated rope, rope that was so small it had to be redeemed as “twine,” and rope so big it just sat spooled above my head so that one had to call an associate. Since I only had half an hour of corporately dispensed time for lunch, I had 23 minutes left before I was technically tardy. I stood there for the majority of my 23 minutes holding the manila, the sisal, and a beautiful stretch of pink and white braided nylon. Each package of rope was the shortest I could find—50 feet. Under the best scenario I was going to end up with approximately 48 feet of unused rope coiled up in my garage. Part of my consideration, fleetingly, was how I might use this excess rope. But of course I couldn’t think of any alternate scenarios. The only time I ever tied anything down was at Christmas when we bought our tree. And then I just used the nylon cord they had available when you checked out. (This was at Lowe’s, which I vastly prefer over Home Depot, for socio-economic-cum-aspirational purposes I won’t go into here.) For some pansy inclination I was leaning toward getting the pink, but that was totally unlike what I had had on the whip before. I had read online—to my chagrin I did some googling about bullwhips—that a cracker could basically be anything. So it wasn’t the material so much as the look of it. The original cracker on my bullwhip was, I’d like to think, a material and texture that my grandfather would have appreciated, something he might have actually used in his own time of whip maintenance. The manila was really ridiculously too big. But was I really going to buy a pink cracker for my bullwhip? This always happens in Home Depot. I am presented with a perfectly reasonable choice, seemingly easy, and yet because I am terrible at everything that can be done with things one buys at Home Depot, I am petrified for an indeterminate amount of time. I put the manila away. It’s between the pink and the brown, the shiny and the rough. Come now, really? Okay, fine. I put the pink one away. The sisal wins. As I begin to leave I see another sisal, this one much thinner, almost twine but not quite. Perhaps the sisal I’ve chosen is simply too thick, the equivalent of attaching a manatee to the end of my bullwhip. Surely I have been wrong and the best thing to do is to get as small a cracker as possible . . . But no, now this sisal looks awfully thin . . .

All this is going through my head as I walk up to the register, scan the sisal rope (the thicker one, $6.10 with tax), bag my purchase, retrieve my receipt and amble out to the car. I keep thinking of Plan Bs, yanking the legs out from under my choices even as I’ve made them.



On another visit home, my mother wanted us to go through some family photos. As my grandparents and their siblings have passed away, my mother has become the recipient of family keepsakes, which take the form mostly of family photo albums and dishes. She has several complete sets of very nice, if a little old-fashioned, china; she sometimes jokes that the one who dies with the most dishes wins. Her collection of photos had also become a powerful river of several family currents, which included many photos I’d never seen. We all sat on the bed in the guest room, sifting through them.

What surprised me more than anything were two snapshots of my grandparents when they were not just young but beautiful, my grandmother with shoulder length wavy hair, glancing up at my grandfather in the snapshot—it looks like it’s taken in a photo booth—with the unmistakable glimmer of youth and love, while my grandfather stares straight into the camera, wearing a suit and tie and a fedora cocked ever so slightly, his face thin and handsome behind his potato nose, a swaggering glare in his eyes.

There is another picture, just him by himself looking to the side. You can see him full on in his suit, tie, fedora. He looks almost like a dandy in the picture. Perhaps this is simply the association I have for old black and white photographs of men wearing suits and hats. I think of the covers of Saul Bellow novels, the Penguin editions with their sea green spines and archival photographs of Chicago street scenes. Those men moving through the frame on their way to work strike me as the epitome of professional male diligence. My grandfather looks like a transplant from that tight grid of urbanity. I have never envisioned him like this, but now, underneath the layering gel of time and these photographs, I can see that his wardrobe as an old man was merely the aged and larger and only slightly updated version of the same. He looks put together, polished, the adventurer back in the city, Indy out for an evening.



When I finally get my whip out of my closet in Memphis, I am amazed at how short it appears. When I uncoil it, handle it, let it prance around my feet—it’s frighteningly snake like—it seems hopelessly abbreviated and insubstantial. It doesn’t seem like a toy, my original fear. It seems like a real bullwhip, an adult whip, so to speak. It just seems too short to do any real harm.

And it’s actually got a cracker already on it. How is this possible? Did I even look at the whip when I brought it home? It looks terrible, frayed and knotted, woven by a psychopath, but it does actually exist and it probably already works, so I have officially wasted seven dollars and who knows how many hours brooding over the exact material and thickness of my new replacement cracker.

The whip has also got a strange white residue in certain parts. The leather looks moldy, or like it’s been chalked with the corpses of aphids in the braids of the leather. Is it a type of leather rot? Or is it an actual leather-eating spore of some kind? It rubs off on my hand easily, which sends me to the sink to do my best Howard Hughes. There is no way I am googling that. Also, the narrow end of the whip seems tired, thinned with age, close to rotting. The base of the whip still has a slightly virile spring to it, but the hollowed thin tail of the whip is sad. It’s like the whip is a metaphor for a life, thick and vigorous on one end, a slackening braid covered in white gunk at the other.



Turns out that tying a piece of rope to the end of a bullwhip, in order to create a cracker, is much more difficult than I’d thought. I had envisioned an intricate braid, a foot of rope doubled upon itself, and using a knot with an actual name. But I forgot to look up a fancy named knot before starting, and the sisal rope turned out to be too bulky to braid. So I ended up moving out to the front porch, because I was shedding sisal all over the dining room. Certainly no one is ever going to fault me for the beauty of my knot tying. When I finished, I twiddled it around my feet. I was tempted to try it out but I knew no neighbor would particularly dig me cracking a whip at 9 p.m. But with my first still provisional swoop of the whip, I tagged myself in the leg with the cracker, which didn’t exactly hurt but definitely got my attention. So I coiled that sucker right up and brought it inside.



When I talk to the lady from the school some number of nights later, I do it behind our house, in the driveway. It’s 9 p.m. again, and I am calling her back just to get it over with, to cauterize the wound. I have been contacted by a private high school about coming to teach for their English department. It’s been a year since I stopped being an English professor. I had applied to the school back then, and only now do they have an opening. They need someone for ninth grade. In our first interview, I talk for an hour on the phone. A few weeks later I go out to the school in the middle of a thunderstorm to talk in person. The school is over 100 years old, located on a pond, grandly expensive, and, from all available opinion, a wonderful place. This is the closest I have come to actually scoring a job like my old college teaching job, the closest semblance to a professor I can manage. After a great deal of anxiety and where-is-my-life-going existential monologue sessions—which I won’t go into here—I decide I don’t want to do it. The day before I am supposed to go out there for my final interview, with teaching presentation, I bail. I email them to completely flake out. I don’t receive any response until that evening at about 8:15, when my contact there calls me. I know it’s her so I don’t answer. It takes me 45 minutes to generate the courage to call her back. Because our house is tiny and because the ground floor is basically one large room and because the children are asleep upstairs and because I am terrified of anyone listening in to my phone conversations and because this whole episode is basically one large exercise in shame, I go outside to talk.

My grandfather, I remind myself, contained multitudes. He was a man of many professions.

The lady from the school is actually very nice and understanding. There are many reasons I’ve manufactured in order to state convincingly that I do not want to pursue this job, and she actually seems to buy one of them. I do realize as I’m talking that by flaking out like this—so memorable!—I am killing the small chance of teaching anyone again, of participating in the theater of the classroom, with its disinterested authority figure, its uninterested students, its fine accumulating layers of chalk dust or heady plumes of dry erase ink, its layers of generational passion and boredom palpable in the atmosphere. How much of my life I have spent in classrooms is difficult to calculate.



But why the whip? And why now? Perhaps I am grasping onto strange artifacts from childhood? I do seem to be going through a phase. Having a four year old in the house makes one think in phases.

In addition to the reemergence of the bullwhip, I bought a pair of grey Adidas sneakers, just like the ones I wore in high school. I started listening—inexplicably, with great shame—to Rush again. I bought a new briefcase, leather and twill and seriously expensive. I started slowly refreshing my wardrobe, slowly annihilating my professor-casual style with better shoes, better shirts, the occasional jacket. I began reading—I can’t believe I’m admitting this—men’s style blogs. I split into two directions at once, my pubescent self and some distant professional version of myself (no doubt a version that the pubescent self would have loathed). My wife now regards me with constant suspicion.

It sounds so definitive: to have, or have not, a career. It’s so close to the word “careen.” In reality everything is much more provisional than words allow. It’s not like I was some comet searing myself through academia. I was a visiting professor, a little vampire, sucking helplessly on the tenured living. I was a departmental barnacle, visible only during annual dry-dock cleanings. And it wasn’t like I had become jobless, a very real, very statistically large prospect, as NPR kept reminding me. I got a job with benefits. I remain demographically blessed. I go around telling people that I’m now just technically a writer. Get it? No one ever laughs. But it’s not like I’m ungrateful. I am not ungrateful. I am not ungrateful. I am not ungrateful.

Is there a more self-vindictive aspect to the interest in the whip? As I’ve been thinking about the whip, preparing to pop it, I’ve thought: whatever you do, don’t pop your own ear off. Don’t hurt yourself with your natural clumsiness. But in this warning to myself, is there not also a grain of a wish to hurt myself? Last year, as various lines of probability converged—loss of job, loss of health insurance, birth of second child after medically tense pregnancy, fraught blind grasping for new employment, etc.—did I not feel just a little bit like I deserved to be whipped, that I deserved the whip to bite back, for bringing up this convergence of events upon myself, upon my family?



I came home last week at lunch to give the whip a try. I had finally gotten everything ready, and it had finally stopped raining, and I threw my half-hour-lunch-hour apprehension to the wind. I grabbed the whip and let it loose in the garage, let it slither around my feet, and then I took it out into the carport. Just the night before I had paced this small rectangle of concrete while on the phone, telling that exceedingly nice lady that I couldn’t be a teacher any more.

I first tried the front pop. I couldn’t get it to do anything, which was no surprise really. So I decided to do the other pop, the one where I swirled the whip overhead and popped it at a distance. (I should say that I did no instructional reading about whip popping prior to this. I was relying entirely on somatic memory.) I swirled it around and around, creating my own little hurricane of rotation, and I couldn’t get anything, no kind of cracking traction. I could only get the popper to make its little spitting noise, a sort of pre-pop sound of insufficient torque.

Then I tried the backward pop. It was even worse. I couldn’t hear anything, and it seemed baffling that I used to be able to pop the whip behind myself fairly effortlessly. I lassoed the air for a few minutes, until my shoulder tendons had awakened into self-consciousness. I hadn’t used my body in this way in as many years as that bullwhip sat in my toy chest back home. Starting to sweat, starting to feel self-conscious—surely the neighbors were peering at me through their blinds—I gave up and went inside. I made a sandwich.

I tried to be optimistic, tried to think of how this project hadn’t been a waste of my time. Perhaps, I thought, I will get good at popping the bullwhip. Perhaps it will become a hobby. A few days later, after a cursory bit of googling, I found way more about recreational whip cracking than I ever thought possible. Perhaps this is the stress-relieving hobby that I need. I imagined taking it to work, stowing it in my car, and doing some recreational popping in the parking garage during lunch. I imagined that the whip’s pop inside that spiral reverb chamber would be truly awesome. Perhaps there is life in this whip yet, I thought. Perhaps this time, in this job, at this point in my life, I can make the whip speak.



Months pass. I have since stowed the whip in my garage. I see it every time I pull in after work. I have not tried to flex the whip again. I feel only slightly bad about this—most acutely when I come home for lunch and walk right past it on my way toward the fridge. But I could tell it wasn’t going to work. Post-30, one begins to feel these things, patterns of muscle that won’t realign, reserves of discipline that won’t accrue, aptitudes that cannot be re-grafted. I might have had it earlier in life, but not anymore.

The more I learn about whipping online, the more I see how it’s a modern subculture, like knitting, or rugby. But I don’t have the energy for a subcultural hobby, another adventure in a bottle. I don’t have the energy to pursue that version of myself. For me the activity has become too symbolically overdetermined to actually do it. It makes me feel like I’m grasping for some activity—any activity—more heroic than what I am actually supposed to be doing.

And what am I supposed to be doing? The truth is that I am not a bullwhip artist. I’m not a farmer with a plow. I’m not a kid with a toy. I’m not an archeologist with a skull in the jungle, not a lion tamer, not a BDSM enthusiast. I’m no Mapplethorpe. I’m not even a professor. What am I? I think about it on my way back to work.


About the Author

Barrett Hathcock is the author of The Portable Son, a collection of stories. He does not teach, and he does not live in Brooklyn.