Last weekend I flew to Portland and took a bus to Corvallis, Oregon, where three friends of mine live. One is Clay, who grew up across the street from me and who I’ve known all my life. I wanted, as the pandemic was loosening its grip on my life, to be with old friends and just spend time with them, and Clay was the oldest who’s the closest, so I flew up there when his quarter was done (he and Elaine, his wife, are math professors at Oregon State) to see him and Elaine and their son, Jack.
We went to a restaurant and a winery and a park, and we ate dinners on their back patio. It was the exact great vacation I needed.
My last day in Corvallis—which is a town in the western, central part of the Willamette Valley, one of the more verdant and fecund parts of the country, which was, Clay told me, and then highway signs confirmed, the end of the Oregon Trail, and so, for some, at a certain point in the violent history of this country, a promised land—I spent with my other two friends in town: Justin St. Germain and Elena Passarello, who teach nonfiction at OSU. They’ve got a podcast called I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, and on Saturday they let me sit down with them and talk about, among other things, essays about sex.
You can stream the episode here:
Those folks do a good job making a nervous man like me feel relaxed and welcome, though if you listen to the audio you’ll see I can’t help my run some of my words together, in a kind of almost giddy panic. What’s scary about being interviewed is that you can’t compose your thoughts, and you sure as hell can’t revise them, and though I understand this is the thrill of the live-recorded podcast it’s hell for a nervous man like me.
Luckily, I have this blog, which Elena and Justin were kind enough to plug. So I’m going to use it to revise or elaborate an idea I brought up around 41:30, where I talk about my usually feeling turned off or more shut out from most sex writing. The people who have this gift about not being ashamed, or those who assert that readers are sex goddesses, etc. I’m talking about a narrative I’ve read a lot, one that tells the story of overcoming sex shame, which almost always leaves out the middle.
Here’s the middle: “Slowly, eventually, through trial and error and progress and regression, I found a way to understand, and then let go of, the shame I have about sex.”
Is it because the middle is boring? Or is it not much of a story? Perhaps writers who write about being empowered by sex and their bodies, or who write about sex the way they write about walking into a room, all have the same middle: they just one day decided to stop shaming themselves, and there was nobody around to make them doubt that decision, and thus there’s no real dramatic weight to their middle. Or, as I surmise unfairly (and with no amount of insight on her life) about Maggie Nelson, that they were magically raised never to feel ashamed of their bodies or their sex.
A more informed surmising might be this: my favorite writers about sex have spent enough time held close by queer communities that any shame they may have had has long seeped out of them, light a bulb that gets dimmer and dimmer until you forget it was ever really on. And how do you write the experience of something unnoticed running in the background?
I’m reminded of a thing I see on social media a lot (I’ve written about this before), where people get a lot of likes when they give an unhelpful but important-sounding life tip, like this tweet I once screenshotted:
Many versions of that tweet are out there, and the most liked one has 23.1K retweets. People fucking love shit like this, and I’m calling it shit deliberately, because how, motherfucker? How do you propose people go about learning this wisdom you claim to just have?
It’s the teacher in me, perhaps, the educator Elena points to in the podcast. I get largely angry when knowledge is asserted to the uninitiated without any form of instruction or help, and so much sex writing asserts more than it instructs, or if it instructs it begins from what still to me seems like an intermediate/advanced position.
Examples, as usual, are failing me. But anyway: big sincere thanks to Justin and Elena for having me on their great podcast.