“Here’s how it breaks down,” the stranger began to explain on the pool deck one summer afternoon. “Attraction for women comes down to these basic criteria: search for power, overcoming ambivalence, violating prohibition, longing and anticipation. It’s the same formula for every romance novel and best embodied by ‘Mr. Darcy’ in Jane Austin’s most acclaimed novel of science fiction. What’s ‘Sex In the City’ except science fiction? Really, what’s sex for a woman beyond the conversation she’s having with her friends after to contextualize it? She’s already doing it while you’re fucking her, right? Am I right? Of course she does. She requires that little detachment the whole time. Not to say that a guy’s bent is any better. Essentially women just enter into the equation as our masturbatory prop. As Zizek pointed out, Freud’s grossly misinterpreted. It’s not that sex is behind everything. It’s why sex itself isn’t enough while you’re doing it. Why do we have to be thinking about something while we’re having sex? Hey. Are you even listening to this?”

*    *    *

The day before I’d met a girl in the pool who stood out immediately. She was alone strolling waist-deep in the water glaring suspiciously at her feet. I guessed she was Filipino. I got in the water and said hello and asked what she was doing. It turned out she was 32 and had never been underwater before. After I’d promised not to in anyway assist her or even encourage her during the process, for nearly an hour we stood in the shallow end, the water just above her ribcage, while she tried to lower herself down and touch one knee on the pool bottom. Then she finally did and put her whole head under for a split second and I was underwater with my eyes open watching the expression on her face.



The day before that I’d been skipping rope for half an hour in a little courtyard, beside and just under the Burrard Street Bridge. I went inside for a sip of water when I heard a thump back outside. Two fat, middle-aged men ran waddling past me down a hallway screaming into walkie-talkies about an emergency. They were screaming in emergency euphemisms. As I followed them outside and saw the direction they were running, I could see 30 feet off a pair of shoes connected to a pair of pants connected to a jacket lying on the concrete of a bike path next to a narrow 10 foot splash of some kind. Several bike riders pulled up and instantly turned away. The two fat men got to the scene of the suicide and held their arms out fiercely pleading with onlookers to give them some space as the emergency crews had been called and were on the way.

Somebody came up behind me and put their hand on my shoulder and when I turned around to look at them they had tears in their eyes.

“My god! Did you see it?” they asked.


“Oh, thank god. Thank god you didn’t have to witness that.”

“He jumped… onto the… bike path?” I asked.

“It just makes you that much more thankful about what you have, doesn’t it?”


“I just mean, it really makes you appreciate what you have.”

“It does?”

We could hear the sirens behind us. Before I could get out of there two more people approached me and repeated the same sentiments as the first person and I was more noxious and confused explaining that part to my wife when I came back to our apartment than telling anything about the man who’d jumped.

An hour later I went to a cafe and this song came on:

I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up
in his arms and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself, “Is that all there is to a fire?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to a circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears.
And a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And so I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle.
I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over,
I said to myself, “is that all there is to a circus?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

Then I fell in love, head over heels in love, with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love.
Then one day he went away and I thought I’d die, but I didn’t,
and when I didn’t I said to myself, “is that all there is to love?”

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing

I know what you must be saying to yourselves,
if that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?
Oh, no, not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment,
for I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath, I’ll be saying to myself

Is that all there is, is that all there is
If that’s all there is my friends, then let’s keep dancing
Let’s break out the booze and have a ball
If that’s all there is

*    *    *

“Are you even listening to me?” the stranger asked at the pool.

“Yeah, I am. It’s a lot to deal with.”

“That’s why Zizek is so interested in the films of David Lynch. Every Lynch film is always concerned with the same central issue behind human beings. He’s always asking whether it’s reality or our fantasies that destroy us.”

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Brin-Jonathan Butler's work has appeared in ESPN.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Classical, The Rumpus, Salon.com, and The New York Times. Brin has also written, directed, and produced a forthcoming documentary called, "Split Decision" (splitdecisionfilm.com) examining Cuba and the United States through the lens of elite Cuban boxers faced with the decision to remain despite the lure of millions, or chase the American Dream from a smuggler's boat. The documentary has been featured on Maxboxing.com, Newsday, and The Boxing Channel. "When We Were Kings" Oscar winning director Leon Gast has called Butler's film, "Something very special and worth the wait." Please follow him on twitter @brinicio

20 responses to “Is That All There Is?”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    It’s always a great day when I see you here, Brin.


    I love the way you tie these things together. Your take is always spot on. You notice everything that needs to be noticed, you explain in just the right way. You always give exactly the right details. I read your pieces and it’s like I’m watching a movie, complete with perfect dialogue.

    The take on sex had me laughing in a kind of uncomfortable way. Women as essentially a masturbatory prop.. That’s something to think on.

    Is that all there is, indeed.
    I’m glad you always find something to make us feel like there is something more.

  2. Richard Cox says:

    I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the details of the scenes, the way you rendered them so vividly and realistically. Short vignettes that add up to something more.

    It’s annoying when people dumb platitudes like that about the guy who jumped. I loved your responses, your quiet irony.

    Those song lyrics are great. That sort of sums up all my philosophical musings. Is this it? Really?

    Because it really seems like someone is having a laugh.

  3. dwoz says:

    You have a most excellent sense of cadence, pace, tension and closure.

    It’s methodical.

    Like you’re replaying a Kasparov game, and even though I know how it goes, you STILL checkmate.

  4. This is the sort of post I usually prefer. Real experiences, told without ornament. No grand conclusions. Confusion. A stab at understanding. Dialog that points out how far away we are from anything but convenience and convenient theories.

    I made a short film (video) in college using that Peggy Lee song as the soundtrack. If it weren’t currently de-oxidizing in a box somewhere, it would probably be an excellent companion piece to this post.

    • Brin Friesen says:

      I’d love to have a chance to see that film, Sean. What do you make of the song? What made you want to make a film with it?

      • Oh, man, me too. I actually bought a VCR off eBay about 5 mos. ago with the idea I would digitize all those old half-inch videotapes, but I still haven’t got the thing out of the box. I think it’s partly that I’m scared what I’m going to find.

        I think I was sitting in some dorm while someone played a random mix tape that seemed sort of campy, and then Peggy Lee came on and people weren’t paying attention and I was just like, wow, that song is a HAMMER. Those lyrics. Brutal. Sum it up, it’s beautiful or it’s not, either way giving no quarter. I thought right there “I am using that thing.”

  5. JM Blaine says:

    you always punch me in the kidneys.
    I read your stuff very carefully
    each line
    because you describe things
    in ways that I am really trying to learn
    how to do.

    The way you paint that picture of the girl
    in the water
    & the EMS crew – man I have a hard time with that.
    So thanks for showing me the way.
    On another note
    when I was a junior existentialist
    of about 12 or so
    my pastor played me this song
    & we talked about the lyrics for an hour
    & talked about the same thing.
    He said something like:
    “Ah, we’re all messed up
    because we have eternity in our hearts
    yet are trapped here in time.”
    Never forgot that.

    • Brin Friesen says:

      Eternity in our hearts, trapped here in time. That’s a swell, prickly one to toss out there.

      I think it’s the most creepy song I ever heard sung by one of the most haunting voices in music. I mean fuck: losing everything, greatest show on earth, falling in love, suicide in 4 verses. And she offers a pretty sound solution to the dilemma.

      Appreciate your words.

  6. Erika Rae says:

    What was her expression, Brin? Never mind, don’t answer that. I think I like not knowing for sure. I think I’m sort of obsessed with this thought, actually. It’s a haunting (non) image in haunting post. It’s the metaphor. The whole of what you’re getting at in that one image. No, don’t tell me.

  7. Simon Smithson says:

    “She was alone strolling waist-deep in the water glaring suspiciously at her feet.”

    With this line, I could just see her, as I usually can, when you write something, Brin.

    I wonder sometimes if people say these things because they’ve seen them in the movies; maybe that’s why people get weird about sex. They know that the thing to do is react in a certain way, because Brad Pitt or George Clooney or Mickey Rooney did it once. And if that reaction isn’t provoked naturally, then suddenly, they have to talk out why.

    • Brin says:

      Well, following along with the clown in the piece, Zizek says what makes film so perverse as an art form is not that they tell you *what* to desire, they tell you HOW to desire.

  8. Mel says:

    nice writing!

  9. Boris says:

    Haunting story.

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