By: Tessa Torgeson
People warned me about the dramatic moments—the first clear-eyed New Year’s Eve without the clink of champagne glasses, the cold sting of the first breakup without the blanket of painkillers, the edginess of delivering the first work presentation without a Xanax pill melting under my tongue. I listened to their advice about handling these situations and even signed up for an app that sent me daily inspirational messages written in loopy cursive inside pastel text boxes—the kind of quotes universal enough to be posted by Catholic grandma or my astrology loving, goddess worshipping friend.
I was prepared for disaster, but nobody warned me about how to handle peaceful moments in real time. What a brutal deception.
The peaceful moment started in the kitchen of my new apartment. It was nothing special: a garden-level two-bedroom in a fourplex in Fargo, North Dakota, shared with my roommate Connor. But after months of bouncing between friends’ guest rooms and couches, I was excited to have a place to call my own again. While unpacking my kitchen stuff, I noticed a glimmer of sunlight dance across a spoon, the simple bowing curve of the spoon’s handle leading to its smooth bowl flattened against the countertop.
It was then the spoon felt like a scalpel.
I flung the spoon at the wall. The noise jolted my cat Luna awake from her perch on the windowsill. Then I ripped the silverware drawer out of its tracks and turned it upside down, separating the spoons from the forks and knives. I threw spoons by the fistful into the garbage can, savoring the satisfying clangs of metal against metal. I found the dissonance soothing rather than grating, a soundtrack to my anger. Then I poured cat litter into the garbage to cover any trace of a metallic shine.
When that wasn’t enough, I ripped apart boxes looking for the spoons from my estranged grandma. I didn’t care that they were embossed with flower patterns and made of real silver. They needed to go too. I poured cat litter on top of them, then dragged them out to the dumpster, as though burying them and having them hauled off to a landfill would make me forget the pain they represented. If only it were that simple.
A few hours later, Conner knocked on my bedroom door with a bowl full of Captain Crunch in his hands. “Yo, I’m trying to eat this cereal, why don’t we have any spoons? They still packed or what?”
“I don’t know, dude.” I stared at the beige carpet, wondering if it was a mistake to live with someone nine years my junior.
“It’s no big deal. I’ll run to Wally World and get some for us later. This place looks awesome—we should have a party soon or something?”
I was so lost in thought that I forgot to reply. He asked, “You alright?”
“Yeah, just tired from moving.” At first, I couldn’t believe that spoons were the thing that set me off.
The internet was set ablaze when NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover captured a spoonlike image on Mars’s sandy surface on August 30, 2015. Conspiracy theory YouTube channels analyzed this “floating spoon,” insisting this proved there was indeed life on Mars. One commenter raved: “This thing is probably left over from a lost civilization.”
Compelling, fascinating, and baffling, my favorite video was titled: “Weird! Spoon-Shaped Object Hovering on Mars’ Surface! What is it?!” The video featured a spaghetti-thin spoonlike object floating on Mars’s rocky surface and a different, larger spoon that appears connected to the rocks. As channels and discussion threads popped up everywhere, I felt a renewed obsession with the mysteries of outer space. The channel called secureteam10 boasts: “We are your source for reporting the best in new UFO sighting news, info on the government coverup, and the strange activity happening on and off the planet.”
I’ve been friends with enough conspiracy theorists to guess they’d probably say something like this in between bong hits with UFO plumes of smoke swirling in the air: “Those fucking Deep State shills at NASA are trying to cover up governmental wrongdoings” and “The Illuminati are probably out there on Mars now too, man.”
NASA brought us back to Earth, later elaborating that the floating spoon-shaped object was actually a ventifact, which is a rock shaped by wind and sand. Ventifacts can also be found on Earth in places like Silver Lake in California’s Mojave Desert.
At 7000 pounds, the Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture located in the sculpture garden of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota is half the weight of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or fully grown elephant. It’s a giant spoon, the handle measuring 360 feet, which is equivalent to the length of the end zone of a football field. With a giant red cherry perched on its tip, this sculpture is arguably the most famous, iconic spoon in the world. Erected in 1985, Spoonbridge and Cherry embodies the whimsical, eye-pleasing aesthetic of Instagram art long before the app even existed.
When I was growing up, I remember Mary Poppins singing: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, in a most delightful way.” I remember watching my dad turn spoons into airplanes to make baby food seem palatable for my little sister. We even played the classic card game called Spoons that was like matching meets musical chairs.
That was back when spoons were objects of innocence, not terror. As Edwidge Danticat writes: “…we instinctively trust the banality and predictability of daily life. Until something larger shatters our world.”
We are all familiar with the question: “Do you want to be the big spoon or the little spoon?” It’s a question of intimacy: to be the holder or the held?
After years of cycling through relationships and adapting to the various cuddle patterns and preferences of various partners, I invited a roller derby girl to my small-town Pride festival an hour from Minneapolis. There was something like electricity between us. Also, I had been single for over a year, so I thought I was ready for intimacy again. When we got back to my apartment after the Pride dance, she asked me the familiar question, one that I used to find comforting. “Big spoon or little spoon?”
“Little spoon,” I said. We fell asleep in a perfect parenthesis of bodies. An hour later, I went to the bathroom and hoped this signaled the end of spooning because I felt stifled, claustrophobic trying to sleep with her body wrapped so tightly around me.
But when I came back, she was sitting up in bed. I took a sip of water and squirmed back into bed. “I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“No, you were quiet. I just missed your warmth,” she said, wrapping her arms around me. I wanted to tell her that she didn’t know me long enough to miss me. Even though I badly wanted to be held together, cradled even, her arms weren’t strong enough to hold together all of my brokenness.
Imagine it’s Christmas Eve of 1968. You’re crammed into Apollo 8, bumping elbows with two other astronauts in a shuttle with an interior the same size as a Chevy Silverado pickup. Instead of devouring savory ham and buttery mashed potatoes on grandma’s special china, you’re choking down turkey chunks, gravy, and dehydrated peaches in thermostabilized cans.
You’re flung into orbit, floating in the infinite, dark vastness of space that Buzz Aldrin called “magnificent desolation.” Your body is memorizing the architecture of weightlessness, your spine is rubbery.
According to NASA, this is what it was like for Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, who were asked to deliver a heartwarming holiday dispatch to the American public: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
Because the astronauts were so disgusted by the dehydrated foods, they struggled with malnutrition and anorexia. NASA scientifically redesigned and restructured eating procedures for Apollo flights 9 through 14. Enter “spoon bowls.”
Spoon bowls look simple at first glance, resembling a plastic sandwich baggie with a tube at the end. Astronauts ate out of them with a regular kitchen spoon. Yet, spoon bowls were an engineering and logistical challenge, both costly and complicated. Spoon bowls gambled with the possibility of contaminating the delicately calibrated environment in the shuttle and were also difficult to use without the familiar pull of gravity. NASA engineers decided these were worthy sacrifices because spoons represented normalcy and evoked the comforts of home.
The Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture has 1457 reviews on Trip Advisor, boasting an impressive 4.5-star rating. One of the few one-star reviewers complains: “What am I missing? Was it supposed to mean something?”
This is debatable. Its creators Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen were well known for making massive public sculptures of common objects and food products, such as Chicago’s Batcolumn, a 101-foot tall baseball bat standing on its end—odes to the everyday. In their artist’s statement for Spoonbridge and Cherry, Oldenburg and van Bruggen write: “Its silver color and edges suggested ice-skating, a popular activity during Minneapolis’ several months of winter. The raised bowl of the spoon, in its large scale, suggested the bow of a ship.” The fountain and cherry in the piece was van Bruggen’s idea to “energize” the spoon, which Oldenburg conceptualized. Oldenburg had been doodling spoons ever since 1962, when he was inspired by a spoon resting on a piece of fake chocolate.
I, too, was inspired by the sight of a spoon resting on a table. How does a simple object become transformed to a haunting one?
For years, spoons evoked the ritual of heroin for me. Soup spoons are the heroin user’s preferred cookers because of their bendable handles and ability to be flattened. This is how the ritual started: I tore a swath of cotton off the end of a q-tip and threw it on the spoon as a filter. Then, I grabbed the hypodermic syringe out of the silverware drawer or the glove box, pressing its fang-like tip into the cotton to suck the muck into the barrel of the syringe. Every time I saw a spoon, I heard the crackle of a lighter and sizzle of black tar heroin cooking. I smelled the vinegary tang of that sweet poison filling the air.
The conspiracy theory channel secureteam10 said it initially resisted reporting on the floating spoon image, because “the whole object on Mars thing had been played out.” Plus, because of frequent 100-mile-per-hour winds, Mars’s terrain is characteristically unruly and unpredictable. Unusual shapes are the rule, not the exception.
Despite these hesitations, secureteam10 insisted this spoon was “plain as day” and served as proof of life on Mars. A few days after the spoon on Mars image went viral, NASA refuted the claim in a Facebook statement: “There is no spoon.”
Artist Dominic Esposito said that his brother was prescribed OxyContin for pain, then struggled with heroin addiction for fourteen years. In an interview, Esposito said, “My mom would call me in a panic…screaming she found another burnt spoon. This is a story thousands of families go through. He’s lucky to be alive. The spoon has always been an albatross for my family. It’s kind of an emotional symbol, a dark symbol for me.”
Esposito constructed a steel sculpture of a bent spoon with black heroin residue in its bowl to coincide with gallery owner Fernando Luis Alverez’s summer show: “Opioid: Express Yourself.” The show featured a screen print of a giant white capsule juxtaposed against a bright red background and medicine cabinet shaped like a tombstone. When Alvarez saw Esposito’s giant heroin spoon, he decided they should “gift it” to pharmaceutical companies to demand accountability for their role in the opioid overdose crisis.
It boils down to this: people see shapes on Mars because they want to see shapes on Mars. There’s a name for this phenomenon of perceiving specific, meaningful images in random patterns: pareidolia. Our minds trick us into arranging randomness into shapes or pictures that confirm our biases. Rorschach inkblot test. Jesus toast. Cloud patterns.
Seeing the spoon was first a ripple that turned into a wave turned into a swell so huge that it dragged me under. Back then I would do anything to get heroin, to feel that tsunami of warmth and oblivion again. That’s the real reason I got rid of my spoons, then later my q-tips and belts.
On June 22, 2018, Esposito and Alvarez drove a trailer emblazoned with a skull from Boston to Stamford, Connecticut filled with the 800-pound, 10.5-foot metal sculpture. They plunked it right in front of the main entrance of Purdue Pharma headquarters, a perfect social media photo opportunity. The duo was clearly not going for subtlety in accusing Purdue of being “architects of the epidemic.”
Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the opioid painkiller OxyContin, has been blamed by many for shady sales and marketing practices, downplaying the addictive nature of opiates in order to promote sales, incentivizing pharmaceutical reps with bonuses for sales, and for kindling the opioid overdose crisis.
After an hour of attempted negotiations, Purdue Pharma called the police, who issued Alvarez a ticket for “obstructing free passage” because the sculpture interfered with foot traffic leading to the building. The police commander told Alvarez, “Your giant spoon has to go.” Alvarez refused and was subsequently briefly arrested for a charge of “interfering with police.”
President Trump’s 2016 campaign had a strong focus on ending the opioid overdose crisis. I was skeptical and scoffed when I read into his plan. Rather than increasing access to substance abuse treatment, medications, and to the opiate overdose reversal drug Naloxone, the Trump administration has focused on building a wall at the US-Mexico border under the guise of preventing smuggling of heroin and fentanyl and using the death penalty for drug traffickers and dealers. While big pharma CEOs walk free.
Last I heard, Esposito’s spoon was in an impound lot in Stamford. I fantasized about renting a trailer of my own, then leaving the spoon in front of Trump Tower.
Long before the spoon debate, people claimed to have seen rats, a woman, a crab, a bowl, and even a jelly donut just chilling on Mars’s surface. Perhaps the most famous instance of pareidolia on Mars was in 1976, when Viking 1 captured a rock formation that resembled a head, its shadows making it appear like it had eyes, nose, and a mouth. “Face on Mars” then became the stuff of both legend and lore until subsequent higher resolution images refuted this speculation.
Once again, NASA brought us back to earth, explaining that the picture was “the Martian equivalent of a butte or mesa—landforms common around the American West.”
As if reading the skeptics’ minds, secureteam10 reassures us that, no, the floating spoon is not a pareidolia. I have watched the video now more times than I care to admit because I want so badly to believe in something as strongly as secureteam10 does, even if it’s just a spoon on Mars.
A year after I threw out the spoons, I marched to the silverware aisle at a big-box store where I filled my blue basket with a new set of spoons. After a year clean, I was ready to be a normal dignified human who had proper place settings for a dinner party, even though I had never once hosted something so adult, so normal.
A few days later, I went to a thrift store and admired their spoon collection. Spiky grapefruit spoons. Big soup spoons. Itty bitty baby spoons. Collectible spoons from places like Mount Rushmore, Hershey, Pennsylvania, the Space Needle, Golden Gate Bridge, the Alamo, Mall of America, Branson, Missouri, and Medora, North Dakota. After I got home and washed the spoons, I licked one, felt the smoothness on my tongue. I thought about how one seemingly ordinary thing could be so many things at once—how a spoon could be transformed from a thing of terror and despair to a thing of wonder and whimsy.
Tessa Torgeson is a social worker and writer living in Denver. Her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Star Tribune, Brevity Blog, and The Fix, among others. She still has plans to start a spoon collection and finish her book.