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Remember the Hippopotamus: A Brief Interview with a Former Vegas Resident, Eric Leake

– interviewed by Blake Sanz

[Note: Blake Sanz is interviewing all writing program faculty. Prior to each interview, Blake asks his colleague to select one of 25 items from a list of artifacts and talk about how they'd use it in teaching. –ed.]

From the list, Eric Leake chose Schadenfreude.

The past few years, Eric Leake and his friends have started a tradition: they travel to the hometown of a Superbowl team and watch the game at a local bar. It's a small window onto Eric's way of having fun, and an unlikely example of how his area of interest—the rhetoric of empathy—sometimes gets manifest outside the office. In New Orleans? Root for the Saints. In Green Bay? Root for the Packers. Aside from this, and aside being an excuse to get together, it's created a more exciting way of watching the game than in a betting town like his home, Las Vegas (no word yet on if he's headed to New York or Boston this weekend).

And so, yes: he's from Las Vegas. And yes, he knows that some might think this is curious. But for Eric, it just means he's got something to talk about. "I like Vegas. I like talking about it culturally and aesthetically and all of that, but I don't want to be known as The Vegas Guy. I don't want people to associate me with it because I don't feel representative of the city, and I don't want the city to be representative of me. But in the long run, I'm glad to be from a place that has some sort of cultural currency because it does make it easy to talk to people."

And for those occasions, he's got a pocketful of insights. When asked about higher education in Vegas, he says that "it's a town where someone can come out of high school and have no college education and be making $80,000 a year as a food server or a valet or something. So the view that having an education allows some sort of material prosperity—which is true in aggregate—doesn't hold up there. For people there to pursue a degree, it's not just because they want a way to make money." And when pressed on the essence of the place, he calls on the memory of an old professor's opinion. "He argued for it in the sense of directness. Like, a lot of things in life are a gamble, but at least in Vegas, the odds are posted and you know what the rules are." He's not sure he buys that argument, but he likes the metaphor.

Still, it makes sense that he wouldn't want his identity constricted that way. After all, there's a good bit more than Vegas that's shaped his life. Through a Peace Corps stint in the Republic of Georgia, a series of jobs as a journalist for newspapers in three states, and a Rhet-Comp tour of academia at UNLV and the University of Louisville, Eric's found himself in a number of circumstances that go well beyond his early days of working poolside at a casino.

For our interview, I met him at City O City, a café in Capitol Hill he's found since arriving in Denver last summer. We sat down at the bar for happy hour and took some time to catch up. I hadn't seen him since October. Since then, the number of months he's lived here has doubled, and I'm interested to hear how he's come to think of his new home in that time.

"I've been really happy with Denver. It's the biggest city I've ever lived in. And coming from Vegas, which isn't known for its strong community institutions, I've been pleased with that. So, the Botanic Gardens, the museums, the movie culture here. That's been really enjoyable and impressive." He's also looking to involve himself in the kinds of communities he'd become a part of in other places. "In Louisville, I spent time volunteering with the refugee community and teaching English. I haven't done that here yet, but I'd like to. Louisville also had a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth"—a local grassroots political action campaign—"so I'd like to get involved with that sort of organization, and I know they have things like that here, too." Plus, he's found one of my favorite Denver events: the Museum of Contemporary Art's Mixed Taste Lectures, in which experts lecture back-to-back on disparate topics. "I hope I can check that out soon," he says. "This coming week, the topics are Nietzsche and puppies."

The List

I brought up The List and asked if he's curious about what'll be said about of any of the artifacts he didn't choose. Immediately, he mentioned the Bible—in particular, the Book of Job. Having just experienced a death in my family and given that book's explanation for suffering, I told him I'd recently re-read it. We re-hashed the excerpt where God tells Job he's so tiny that he can't understand suffering. "I feel like that's the only way God could answer that, you know?" he says.

And then he offers a take on Job I'd never thought of, one that's emblematic of Eric's insight and humor, his curiosity. He tells me about how G.K. Chesterton saw it. "Chesterton's argument," Eric recalls, "was that God's questions to Job weren't just like, 'You can't comprehend me,' but also like, 'You think you've got it bad? I screwed up everything. Look at the hippopotamus. This creature is crazy. Try to explain that to me.' Or, 'Look at the crocodile: no explanation. That's just how the world is.' I mean, I don't know if I agree with that interpretation, but I do find it kind of fun. Like, God just denying his responsibility altogether: 'Look, I just put things in motion. I don't know what happens after that.' Because, the hippo does have it pretty bad, you know? He can't walk very well, he's kind of ornery...."

We turned, then, to his choice: schadenfreude—taking pleasure at another's pain. His interest in that concept makes sense, given his prior work with empathy. "As soon as I started thinking about it, I was like, 'Oh, this is why that's interesting.'" In particular, he's attracted to how it focuses on a sociality of emotions. "I'd be interested in creating an assignment that allows students to embrace those sorts of contradictions and explore subject positions—and even attempt to write within different subject positions."

He provided the example of a YouTube video of Bill Gates getting hit in the face with a pie. "If I were to use that in a classroom," Eric says, "I'd have students look at the comments, too. Some people are like, 'Well, he gives a lot to charity—this is terrible they did that to him.' Others are like, 'He's got a lot of money, he's kind of a megalomaniac, he deserves it. Ha, ha, that's really funny.' It's cool to see how it's not just about how [schadenfreude] happens, but to see the social positions of the observer and the subject. And then, how that's re-interpreted." In a related exercise he outlined, students would imagine themselves first as someone getting pleasure out of someone else's pain, and then as the one whose pain gives others pleasure. Then, they'd reflect on what would guide their feelings in those positions. "I find that face-to-face juxtaposition of emotions to be really interesting," he says.

This sort of thinking coincides with his ongoing dissertation on empathy. Down the line, he's also interested in other studies of affect and emotion, including nostalgia. "So, how is [nostalgia] connected to place—not a place that exists anymore, but an idea of a place." I think, then, of You Can't Go Home Again, and it's easy to see how Eric's interest in nostalgia grows out of his work with empathy. As he puts it, "If I want to feel what it's like to be in your shoes, I first have to take you out of them." Along those lines, we discuss stories—like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Anthony Doerr's Memory Wall—in which notions of memory and longing for home are central. It's easy to see I've found a subject he's passionate about. "I find it an interesting affective experience to be longing for some place that not only doesn't exist, but can only exist as an abstraction because you can't go back to whatever that nostalgic place is. I find it both intellectually fun and emotionally resonant."

He tells me, then, about a radio program in which scientists were asked about memory. "This researcher mentioned how every time you remember something, you're only remembering the prior remembrance of that event. It's a Xerox effect. So, then, the highest fidelity memory you could have is the one you've never remembered. And every time you go back to the memory, you lose some of the fidelity. You re-make the memory every time you remember it, which is odd. It's not how people think of memory, but it is fascinating."

By now, I've told the story of Eric's hippopotamus line at least five times. As I began writing this profile, I knew I'd use that as a window onto his personality. And look back: I have. Even now, I'm remembering the moment and laughing. But next, I play back the digital recording of the interview. I notice I interrupt him at the moment he's making the joke. He never says anything about a hippo being ornery. Already, I've remade that memory (because it fits my writing; because it suits my sense of him). Ahem. Well. And so, from the distance of a profile writer empathizing with his subject reading about this, I imagine Eric nodding his head in understanding—and maybe, too, laughing at my mistake.