Wisdoms from Jenny Slate

Last week I went to the Castro Theatre for the first time since before the before to catch a tribute to Jenny Slate, as part of the SF Film Festival, which included a conversation with Slate before and after a screening of her new movie, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

You likely recall the viral video. In making a feature-length version (which took 7 years), Slate and collaborator Dean Fleischer-Camp found a narrative where Marcel’s community of shells has been lost and he’s alone with his grandmother, Nana Connie.[1] And in talking about how they made a funny 3-minute video into a funny 90-minute film, Slate made it clear that the work they did was very serious. ‘I mean, it’s funny,’ she assured us, ‘but the only way that could work is if we stayed very serious to the characters’ lives.’

This is Del Closean Truth in Comedy improv 101, I know, but it bears repeating, and reminds me of a moment in a TV special on the AFI’s Top 100 Films of all time, where Dustin Hoffman talks about why he wanted to be in Tootsie, and in doing his best to talk about wanting to honor and get to know interesting women, he chokes up and says, ‘That was never a comedy for me.’

And then reminded me also of this line from an interview with the writer Elizabeth McCracken:

I can’t say that I have any religious belief, but to the extent to which I believe there is redemption in the world of sadness, it is through black humor. In the worst moments of my life, there is always a joke to be made, and that’s a deep comfort to me. It’s not putting off sad feelings; it’s part of sad things.

I share her faith. I really want you to go see this movie, so I’ll say little about it that’ll spoil the magic. But there’s a moment halfway through where Nana Connie is trying to get Marcel to say yes to what he’s been saying no to. ‘But what if everything changes?’ he asks, in tears. ‘Again?’

‘It will,’ Nana Connie says.

And Marcel sighs an exact sigh I’ve made dozens of times in my life, times when I don’t want to have to do it, even though I know I should. Most of my life the only status quo I’ve claimed to like is this one, but in my 40s I’m suddenly aware how quickly I’ll act (or refuse to) just to uphold whatever status quo I’ve achieved in this part of my life.

It’s a confusion of comfort for happiness, this habit. It privileges equilibrium over thriving. That I was moved to tears in a scene where two shells with googly eyes stop-motion waddled next to each other on a windowsill is just one reason why you should go see the movie.

Afterward, somebody in the audience asked Slate how she’s able to be so vulnerable in her work, and allow me to paraphrase her response:

I don’t feel vulnerable when I’m working. And I say this as someone who feels vulnerable all the time as a person just living my life in the world. But when I’m working I’m guided by something else. It’s like those cooking shows where the chefs have an enormous pantry full of everything and I’m like, Why don’t you just cook oatmeal? Like, how are you not so overwhelmed? And for me that’s creating: there’s always so much you can do or make, so for me it’s about appetite. It’s asking, what makes me feel hungry as a maker and what can I make that will satisfy that hunger?

Slate said she’s looking for projects that let her do more than the outlandish characters she’s made gems out of so far in her career. Her metaphor here was a panther on a leash. I want for her something like what comic actors Bob Odenkirk and Bryan Cranston got from the Gilliganverse. And I want for me some of the same, if on a slightly smaller scale.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Voiced, perfectly, by Isabella Rossellini.

I ‘didn’t say gay’ when I came out to my parents: Some thoughts after Florida on calling queers by their name

You better believe I practiced the speech, to be delivered in their hotel room on their first visit to me in Nebraska, four months after I came out to myself. It started like this: ‘I wanted to tell you guys that [pause for a sec] I came out to BJ last spring.’ BJ was my oldest friend, my ‘brother from another mother’ as our mothers had often put it. So there was a familiar friend amid what I assumed would be, for them, overall bad news.

But also there was the past action, the fact (L. facere: ‘a thing done’). I made sure to deliver them the fact of what I’d done in lieu of the fact of what I am. ‘I’m gay’ sounded in my newbie ears like an explosion, a slap in the face with the hand of my difference, which would highlight what might feel like a sudden departure from the family mold.

Mine is a history of acting not for or from myself, so much as acting to minimize others’ disapproval I imagine being always at the ready. When I told my parents, ‘I came out last spring,’ that was for them.

What I needed to say, for me, was something like, ‘I’ve always been gay. I’m only now strong enough to say it.’

*

The Parental Rights in Education bill Florida’s governor signed into law yesterday has a number of provisions to uphold ‘the fundamental right of parents to make decisions regarding the upbringing and control of their children,’ but the big one is this: ‘Classroom instruction … on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3.’

A recent Politico poll showed that 51 percent of Americans are in favor of this bill, or at least of what it prohibits.[1] The rest of us have nicknamed this the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, because, I imagine, we’ve read George Orwell and know the work it takes to cut through the lies of political language. You score many points in the game of amassing political power when you affirm ‘parental rights’—witness the racist SF school board recall and Terry McAuliffe losing the Virginia governor race after stating what sounds to me a basic truth of how education works to develop a child into a free-thinking adult: ‘I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.’

52 percent of Virginia voters believed that parents should have ‘a lot’ of influence over how school teach children. I can’t find stats on what percentage of parents talk to their children about sexualities and gender identities, but it’s safe to assume the number is scary low. And ‘scary’ meaning dangerous: ask anyone working with sex education, pregnancy/STI prevention, queer/trans youth etc., and they will all agree that talking less about sex and sexuality creates more suicide, more unwanted pregnancy, more date rape.

You can’t pass a bill that aims to hurt more children—queer or otherwise—but you can very easily pass a bill that gives parents more power, because people love power. (The Parental Rights in Education bill even lets parents sue schools, with state-refunded attorney’s fees, when they feel taboo topics have been addressed.)

To be clearer: Florida’s bait-and-switch has been to tell parents they deserve more control over their own children, and that schools are trying to take that control away from them. In whipping up this frenzy, they’ve found another way to long-term fuck up the lives of queers and trans folks they fear getting political power.

Three things I knew when I was in 2nd grade: (1) what my dick was for, other than peeing, (2) what I wanted to do with the dicks and butts of other boys, (3) 1 and 2 were disgusting and I should hate myself for them and keep it all a deep, deep secret. This is what parental control over my education got me. No teacher ever said ‘gay’ in all the health/sex ed classes I took.

I survived, but barely. If you want to talk about the longterm damage of never being told my sexuality was okay, buy my forthcoming memoir (please).

*

Some counterarguments, to keep thinking about this. Florida hasn’t prevented sexuality or gender being taught, just being taught ‘in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate’. Setting aside the obvious problem that no queers or trans folk are being given the power to define ‘age appropriate’, it seems we have in this country a fundamental unwillingness to accept that children are sexualized at birth. Gov. DeSantis expressed this as clearly as anyone after he signed the bill: ‘As the parent of three kids that are age 5 and under, thank you for letting me and my wife be able to send our kids to kindergarten without them being sexualized.’

No school has ever ‘sexualized’ a kid. It’s not how sex works. It’s not how normative sexual development in children works. Like most heteros, DeSantis hears ‘sexuality’ and thinks about intercourse, because he’s another undereducated American. Nobody working in comprehensive sexuality education mentions sex practices to kindergartners. Instead, younger children (the Netherlands starts sexuality education at age 4, and fewer Dutch teens regret their age at first intercourse than do U.S. teens) talk about crushes, and they learn about bodies and difference, and they learn about boundaries and good-touch/bad-touch distinctions.

When I think about this, I go right to regret and ager. I think about all the years of needless pain I put myself and others through because of what I had been taught—directly and indirectly—about what I was. There is never an instance in which less education is the answer. America needs more education—on everything, including sex, which fewer U.S. students get now than they did in the early 2000s. (Abstinence-only education is not education, it’s lies.)

*

Another use for the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ nickname is how it connects this bill to Russia’s 2013 bill ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, which forbids—anywhere in the country, not just in schools—talking or acting in any way that might argue that homosexuality is normal. Neal and I were very much aware of this bill when we visited St. Petersburg in 2019, as foreigners who broke the law (by, say, our holding hands in public) could be arrested and detained for up to 15 days.

More and more it seems the GOP’s dream is to enact a future as authoritarian and ‘tough’ as Russia’s. Their hate is relentless. The laws they pass—against race education, against medicine for trans kids, against women’s autonomy over their own bodies—are fascist by simple definition: they lie about a culture in decline, point to an Other as the cause of that decline, and promote authoritarian rule as the solution.

We have little reason to believe the work of radically restoring justice will take less time than the long history of white men[2] in power denying equal treatment under the law to others. It’ll be a long, slow, difficult struggle to upend the structures we older folks grew up inside and felt that we survived without much stress. I get it, straight parents: you didn’t need anybody telling you about sex when you were 7. This isn’t because sex isn’t a part of a 7-year-old’s imagination. It’s because every day, in everything you saw and heard, your sexuality was already being told to you, in positive terms. Every day you got this message: You are normal. You are okay.

It often seems like silence is neutral, that nothing good or bad is being said. But children fill any silence with whatever they have at hand—usually it’s other children, who’ve heard in silences the untruths of other children, on and on like a dangerous game of Telephone. All I know from my own experience is that lack of affirmation didn’t feel that different from being called a faggot, and worrying about what the other boys saw in me, and what I’d somehow become.

Imagine every day learning the opposite of what straight and cisgender kids learn. You are wrong. You are not okay. You are a problem. When you’re mad about change, or about losing some form of control—or when faced with a poll or ballot—try to put yourself in that mindset before you find your voice, the voice you’ve always been allowed to have.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. ABC News found that 62 percent of Americans opposed measures that would prohibit sex education in elementary school, and it’s worth pointing out that this isn’t exactly what Florida has banned. You can teach sex and gender in 4th grade, just not 3rd.
  2. And women. A woman wrote Russia’s anti-gay bill, after all. As Hilton Als put it in a recent Instagram post on Ginni Thomas, ‘I’ve sat across from some version of this woman my entire professional life. And had to pretend I didn’t feel her rage at my being in the room. She hasn’t always been white. But she has always believed in one source of power: His. And I don’t mean Jesus.’

Notes Toward an Essay I’ll Try To Sell

Last weekend, I was in Williamsburg with my 3/4ths of my family watching lots of basketball, having tagged along with Jenny on her annual March Madness trip. It was suggested by Jenny and Dad that I write an essay about watching basketball with my family. I thought it, initially, a lousy idea. (I’ve got a book to write, for starters.) And then, inevitably, I got ideas.

Along with the necessary essay ideas was the idea that an essay on watching March Madness with my family would be easy to ‘pitch’ to magazines as timely content next March. (I’m not banging this out before the championship games next week.)

At any rate, I need to bang something out quickly before I lose the memories, because if there’s any talent I have it’s for forgetting—a stellar trait for a writer of nonfiction. So here are dashed, first-word-best-word notes and sketches toward a someday essay.

*

A field goal in basketball is any basket made during play. A regular jump shot is a field goal. A layup is a field goal. A ‘3-pointer’ is a field goal. A dunk is a field goal. A free throw is not a field goal, but a free throw. Despite encompassing the same overall action and result as a field goal’s ‘shot’, and despite them calling the clock ticking away the seconds in which a player has to make a shot a ‘shot clock’, when a player is fouled and given the chance to make a shot (or two, as we’ll see), basketball calls what they do a ‘throw’.

It used to be that the arc outside which any field goal would score 3 points would touch the top of the key (an otherwise functionless semicircle that extends from the free-throw line) at a tangent, but now there’s a couple feet between the top of the key and the 3-point line, given I guess, how drugs and conditioning have changed the bodies of athletes in the last howevermany years since I last watched a basketball game, and how relatively easier it soon became to sink a 3-point shot.

There’s now also this other semicircle under the net which echoes the key’s, and it marks a zone where a defensive player can stand in advance of an offensive player rushing to the net, and if the defensive player gets within the semicircle before the offensive player does, then it’s the offensive player’s foul when he runs into the body of the defensive player. (I could have that one wrong. My family did their best to explain and I’m for god’s sake not looking it up.)

My sister, along with the legion of male and female basketball commentators, likes to call sunk 3-point shots ‘buckets’. Nobody in the world of basketball refers to the hoop’s net anymore in such terms as ‘swish’ or ‘nothing but net’ both of which reigned when I first start playing both actual basketball and NBA Jam on SNES.

After a team is fouled 7 times by the other team, they get what’s called a ‘bonus’, which means that whenever their players get fouled going forward, they are given 2 free throws to make. Without a bonus, a team’s fouled player is given a ‘1 and 1’ free throw, where if they miss the first one, the ball is in free play. The exception is when a player is fouled while taking a shot. Regardless of any bonuses (double bonuses are a thing, marked on the screen as ‘bonus+’, but there’s no telling what that means), such a fouled player always gets 2 shots.

*

I learned all this and more over three days of watching NCAA basketball with my dad and sister. It’s an annual trip Jenny makes down for the start of March Madness, and when I heard she was going again this year I decided to fly out and join her, as I was on spring break and had been trying to put in a visit with my parents. They retired twenty years ago to a new-at-the-time housing development in the outskirts of Williamsburg, Virginia, home of the famous colonialist cosplay tourist trap and the nation’s second oldest university, the College of William & Mary—not, this year, part of the NCAA tournament. The drive down I-95 was swift and eventless, dogwoods in bloom, the sun blazing, the skies a clear Tarheel blue.

Jenny would be unhappy with that comparison. She’s been an unwavering Duke basketball fan since I’ve been unpube’d, having falling in love in her formative years with Christian Laettner, a Duke forward whose biggest talent was making last-second game-winning shots, or ‘buckets’ as Jenny calls them now. Laettner is one of the most hated basketball players of all time (there’s even a documentary: I Hate Christian Laettner), but the people filling out this poll had clearly never been 15-year-old girls watching this blue-eyed fox win a lot at their favorite sport. Jenny’s love for him is matched maybe by her love for her husband, Adam, but definitely by her love for coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose surname I don’t have to look up how to spell, because Jenny taught me it years ago under the category of Must Know Info. One more story about this: after our first dog died, our older sister, Shani, brought a new one home, and it soon threw up on Jenny’s bedroom floor. Furious, she insisted that she get to rename the dog as penance, and that’s how Duke became even the family dog.

Watching Duke with Dad in the NCAA tournament was always a serious, high-stakes event for Jenny, but this year was Krzyzewski’s farewell season. That I was coming along on this visit was welcomed (we siblings always like a buffer while visiting our parents), but Jenny made it clear that we would be watching a lot of basketball.

‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘That’s what we do at Mom and Dad’s anyway: relax in front of the TV.’

I thought I understood what I was in for. But by the time we left Sunday morning, I had watched more basketball in three days than I’d seen in my entire life. I’d always known about March Madness the way I knew about Mercury in retrograde: it was sometimes going on, and many people I didn’t know well cared deeply about it. I don’t care about basketball, but I care deeply about my family. I told myself, booking my flight, that I would do this for them. Or with them? I often confuse the difference. I am the youngest member of my family, and I live on a different side of the continent than they do.

*

Jenny and I pulled into our parents’ driveway just seconds before Dad came home from his job at a golf course—he works part-time preparing carts for foursomes as a way to get (a) free golf and (b) out of the house. The knee of his khaki pants was stained rust red. ‘What happened?’ Jenny asked, pointing, and he waved it away. Just tripped over a curb while he wasn’t watching where he was going. Just banged his knee a little. He thought he may have bruised his ribs, but it was, he assured us, No Big Deal. Dad is 74. Jenny and I suggested he get himself checked out at the ER, and he just asked if we needed any help with our bags. Dad doesn’t fear or avoid doctors—he’s had every kind of skin cancer, he’s conscientious about his health more than ever now that he’s aging—but he wasn’t about to let a little fall get in the way of this weekend with his kids. I couldn’t help but admire him in his red polo and khakis; Dad’s cheeks had sallowed over the years, but he was still, at his age, a sturdy dude. His squeeze hugging us hello was solid, all-business.

Inside, Mom showed us the brackets she’d printed out for us. Jenny had texted about this weeks earlier:

Dad and I fill out brackets every year and compare our selections. Would you be interested in joining in?
Sure. Do you put up money or just for fun?
Yay. We do it for fun. Especially when you pick the underdog and dad didn't. Adam always wins though and he cares the least 🤷‍♀️

In the contest of caring the least, I was not about to be bested. I should love a bracket. I mean, I love a spreadsheet. Systematic orderings of information or entities thrum something essential in me, like what a bow makes a violin string do. I took a pen and stared at this bracket of 68 teams. Why wasn’t it 64? The tournament had a ‘first four’ round of also-rans playing each other for the chance to be among the 64. Fine, okay. I looked at all the matchups. Texas Tech vs. Montana St. Michigan St. vs. Davidson. Illinois vs. Chattanooga. I tried to imagine the people for whom these names signified anything. Chattanooga has my whole life been only a choo-choo and a town in Tennessee I periodically read It’s Cool There Actually! articles about.

Basketball hadn’t even started and I was faced, once again, with the sports problem: how to get emotionally involved in a game played between strangers you have no affinities with? Hell for me is being stuck in a cab where the driver is listening to sports talk radio dudes argue about yesterday’s Tampa Bay v. Arizona game. Stuck in situations where sports is the subject, I’d try to pretend what I was hearing wasn’t news about teams but news about the animal kingdom—Should the jaguars blow it all up this offseason?—but it could never last.

I reminded myself that getting emotionally involved was caring, and for March Madness not caring was the key to victory. I looked at the seed numbers, and I aimed for upsets, and I bracketed my way to a Final Four I felt happy about: Connecticut losing to Purdue and Providence losing to Tennessee, the tournament’s ultimate victor.

‘No Duke?’ Jenny said when I announced my picks.

I told her I’d be sad about their inevitable upset and she admitted she hadn’t picked San Francisco, the school I teach at, to win even its first game. Neither had Dad. Mom, an indoorsy sort who sang in the choir growing up, never does a bracket, making her the smartest of us all.

*

When, in college, I learned how to watch sports on TV, it was football we watched, and that set the pace for me. Other sports felt like they were doing televised sports wrong. Baseball was mostly shots of clear skies and men standing. Ditto golf. Hockey was unwatchable because I couldn’t follow the puck, and in soccer they never scored. Soccer is this for 3 hours:

The problem with basketball—I’d announced a dozen times in my life, with who knows what authority I mustered up—is that they score too often. Look, another basket. Now it’s time for the other team to dribble it to the other side of the court and … yep another basket.

The games started Thursday afternoon, but Thursday afternoon, Jenny and I were keeping what’s for us a brisk pace in the Williamsburg Antique Mall—her other planned activity this weekend. An antique mall is a place where I activate. In any antique mall I’m with my eyes the way every dog is with its nose out a speeding car window: look at this, look at that, look at this, look at this, look at that. I found a nude lady mannequin wearing only a boy’s Cub Scout neckerchief and a photorealist pencil drawing of Johnny Depp with Fabio’s haircut. I found a yearbook/photo annual of a place called Kamp Kill Kare, and a painting of a bottle of Redskins Cabernet, with the old racist team mascot on the label. I was lingering in the junkier booths far longer than Jenny could, and I asked if we needed to get back. Hadn’t the games started already?

‘It’s fine,’ Jenny said. ‘It’s just the first half.’

Which is how I came to feel vindicated about my dismissal of the entire sport. At this level, the teams were all good enough to score a lot, and sure enough when we got back and Jenny turned on the Michigan-Colorado St. game it was 5 minutes into the second half and the score was 30-31. The rest of the game felt less like a nailbiter than gaming with a cheat code: you could apparently just skip right to the good levels that mattered.

I picked Colorado St, to win, and they didn’t. Then the next day, Colorado St. was supposed to play and lose to Tennessee, who in reality lost to Michigan. But that’s about bracket results and narrative and hope and feeling, and I think I have more to say about the experience of watching games, esp with Jenny and Dad in the room.

I need to acknowledge the knotting tension I felt in my gut during the final minutes of game play, because it’s clear that this is 9/10ths of the thrill of watching basketball. It’s a sensation that imprinted early on Jenny, for sure, watching her blue-eyed boyfriend sink a last-second shot to finish Duke’s 1992 tournament game against Kentucky at 104-103:

You can’t see it, but Reston, Virginia’s own Grant Hill has thrown Laettner that ball from the entire other end of the court. I get how this is thrilling. I get how there’s something … artful? maddening? stupid? ineffable, I think, and thus artful, in the way Laettner dribbles the ball once, with under 2 seconds left, before shooting, but it’s possible that the dribble was necessary for rule reasons?

I also felt driven to clap, quietly and to myself, whenever ‘my team’ sank a shot. Not every time. But I think what I was responding to was the actuality of a sunk basket amid so much fouling. They foul a lot in the NCAA. They’ll be driving to the net and inevitably someone on the defense will do something unseeable and occult that makes the whistle blow. And all the action has to stop. Plus I learned that intentional fouling is a strategy when you’re down and it’s in the final seconds of the game, because you get to stop the clock (reward) with the hopes that the fouled player will miss one or both of his free throws (risk) and thus return the ball to your possession.

So it’s foul after foul after foul. And then it’s shot after shot after shot. A lot of soccer-style passing from one player to another (thank god for the ticking clock that forces teams to make a shot). But sometimes, in the twisting-eels scrum of players around the paint, someone slips out to the 3-point line and the guy with the ball sees this and sneakily flings the ball out to him, and when he takes the shot with a tall man flying at his face, it’s exactly like that moment in drag ball culture when the beat drops and you watch the queen collapse herself in a dip:

When that moment moves your team back up into the lead, it’s extremely satisfying. It feels almost like justice. It feels like when you hear someone’s in remission, or when Antonin Scalia died.

*

One makes sounds when watching sports. Mine, as mentioned, is a little pat-pat flat-palmed clapclapclap to myself. Jenny’s is mostly saying ‘Oh!’ in anxiousness and ‘Buckets!’ in glee. Dad—and this has been true for as long as I’ve known the man—never expresses glee at a team performing well, the idea being I guess that scoring or preventing scores is just the job description that nobody needs praised for. But he is vocal with his upset. Aw, jeez, COME ON! is a standard construction. You assholes! is another, with an emphasis on ass that really brings out the flat vowels of his southern Maryland upbringing. He’s got a peeve for what he calls ‘street ball’ or ‘playground ball’, which I gathered was when players took their own paths or aggression tactics instead of, like, running a play. Is that what they call it in basketball, running a play? After so many years of watching football, I still can’t keep all the different positions straight, but I can follow a play, I can see how the setup along the line of scrimmage has forecasted a running play or a passing play, I can eye the guys getting open.

Basketball is messier, likely because faster. (There’s nothing fast about football. ‘Rushing yards’ is a funny euphemism.) When I noticed a defense strategy, it was Zone defense. God this is boring. I’m utterly bored writing about the mechanics of basketball. The point here is that Dad would see something (I hoped it wasn’t race) in the ‘style’, maybe, of the play that would anger him. And it would often anger the coaches on the sidelines, too, especially when a foul resulted, or a missed shot. At one point during Friday evening’s Duke game (which we had to sacrifice Jeopardy! to watch), they put a closeup on Krzyzewski after his team made a foul, and even though he wasn’t anywhere near a mic you could see his big angry mouth shout HANDS GO UP! HANDS GO UP! And then he put both hands in the air, like at gunpoint.

I have anger issues, perhaps, in that I rarely see the utility of having that feeling. Anger feels so physically unpleasant it’s been almost a survival tactic to not let myself get angry, which often, I’ve realized after all this therapy, has involved shutting down to even the possibility of an emotion. Don’t get too invested, Dave. Dad rarely, if ever, shouted at us growing up. He was not a simmering kettle waiting always to explode, but an empty kettle sitting helpfully on the back burner. (I identify with this so much I titled my second book If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There.) In sport, he ‘lets himself go’ maybe. He’s vocally expressive with anger and frustration. Jenny too, to a smaller degree. Whereas this was me over on the sofa all weekend whenever ‘my team’ lost:

*

I should love a bracket, but if I learned anything last weekend (other than the regulation facts above), it’s that forming a bracket carries a very real destructive force on actually enjoying basketball. If there’s a rule I try always to follow, it’s Bill Callahan’s[1] ‘Root for the underdog / no matter who they are.’ Which is one reason why ‘Blue Lives Matter’ schmendriks suck and are anti-American (to say nothing of the dogwhistling racism in their claim): The Police Do Not Need Championing. They have the full support of the State. It’s like scorning your fellow countrymen laughing at the newly clothed emperor. If ‘Reminding teacher she forgot to assign homework’ was people, they’d be Blue Lives Matter folks.

Likely I could have done the smart thing and chosen every lower-seeded team to win, and thus I’d get to root for the underdog each time. But underdogs aren’t always so clearly forecasted. In the narrative of a game, things like ‘heart’ or ‘hustle’ start to appear, and it makes you want to root for that team to come through all the adversity they’ve had (sometimes, I saw, by what was pointed out to me as blind referees). However, if they win, then there goes your whole Midwest bracket. So here’s this little guy, literally, in comparison to the guys on the other team, playing like a phenom, and you have to clapclapclap when he misses his death-dropping threes.

It sucks, the way any gambling does when attached to a game. What filling out ‘my bracket’ did was demand disassociation from the players. They were not people I cared about, or felt I was living vicariously through. They were people I needed to deliver me my desired outcome.

*

I need more actual memories and fewer arguments nobody will care about, and so we return to my talent of forgetting.

Jenny and I spent an hour at the golf course Dad works at, hitting bags of balls at the driving range as hard and as high as we could—as with gambling, needing to do something fun (i.e., hit a golf ball very hard and very high) with some kind of scored accuracy also ruins every game. I wore a Syracusely orange performance polo Dad let me borrow, and then let me have to take home. ‘I don’t really need a golf shirt,’ I tried, at first. ‘Well you never know,’ he said, really wanting to give it to me, and thus forcing my hand. ‘Well, you know, it’s not really my style.’ I mean, look:

His face tried not to fall but fall it did. Another dashed hope. The compromise was that I would keep it in the closet of ‘my’ bedroom at their house, so that I wouldn’t have to worry about packing golfcourse clothes whenever I came to visit.

Jenny and I had fun together hitting golf balls, and after the first ten or so, she said, ‘I can’t believe Dad isn’t here to watch us.’ And I agreed. He’d set us up with free bags of balls and showed us where we’d be able to hit, and then went off to be social with the coworkers he already sees 3x a week. Maybe he needed a break from us, and we both agreed there was something nice about not having Dad tell us what he thought was wrong with our swings every time the ball sped feebly off the tee and dribbled twenty yards on the ground. ‘See, Dave, you brought your head up again’ etc etc. We didn’t miss it, but we both missed his praise. Or we missed getting to show off for him.

It was possible, I realized not for the first time, that Jenny has Daddy Issues, too. For much of my life, it seemed impossible. Dad was an athlete in school, playing all the sports, like Danny Zucko does over a week in Grease but with Dad it was for his entire time at school. Jenny did the same. Her years were set to a sport schedule: fall field hockey, winter basketball, spring softball. Dad bought us a basketball hoop when we were starting teen years, and these are memories I can bring in later, so long-ago-encoded with enough psychic scars I have little risk of forgetting them.

*

Sometimes the questions I’d ask the room during a game (never sure which of Jenny or Dad would know the answer) would have no ready answer, like when I asked what a Bonus was and what it meant. Jenny had to go on her phone for that one. I asked about everything, asked for clarification on all the rules and things I was seeing on the screen. I told myself without giving it much thought that I really needed to know why, if Jenny and Dad had said that any foul made during a shot attempt would grant the fouled player 2 free throws, they just gave the fouled shot-taker a 1-and-1 free throw.

There’s an easy and obvious pleasure I take in learning new things, even (some might say especially) when the new things have no apparent practical use. And I especially love to learn new things quickly, because it’s another of my talents. (It’s likely part and parcel with the forgetting talent: let’s make more room in here, please.) And I felt the strength or at least change in legibility by Saturday afternoon, knowing what to look for, what to expect. Specifics and details, EVER USEFUL!, fail me at the moment. I knew to look in the corner of the screen to see whether the leading team had possession of the ball at the next um…whatever they call it when the players hit a stalemate on whose hands are more firmly on the ball after a rebound. I knew to say things like, ‘Given that it’s a 2-possession game at this point he better feel bad about making such a stupid foul.’

In other words, I found myself doing something I’ve done at anxious times in my life: work overtime to fit in. Here’s how I put it in an essay I wrote years ago: ‘How did it feel to spend life learning sports metaphors the way one hopes to learn the language of his captors? What happens when the misfit’s unfit even for Misfit Island?’ My family was not just part of the heterosexual world I wanted also to be a part of, they defined it. That world sprang from their collective forehead, and much of that world involved loving sports, a thing I tried to care about but never really could.

What I cared about was the heteros in my life. My family. My football-loving guy friends. My default move, in trying to be close to people I care about, is to ask them questions about what they care about. In this, I become impressed, and I mean this less as an attention value and more as almost a physical action: I direct them in their answering to impress themselves upon me, and I willingly receive the impression. Asking questions is always easier than saying something, even if it often leaves me unsatisfied. This is a thing psychoanalytic scholar Léon Wurmser put into a new context for me when I read his book on shame:

The two basic modes [of interacting with your environment] could be called attentional and communicative, and the corresponding social modalities could be described as ‘being impressed,’ with its modifications of being attentive, curious, exploring, and fascinated, and as ‘expressing oneself,’ with its modifications of impressing, influencing, and fascinating others. Sexual scopophilia [i.e. voyeurism] and exhibitionism would be narrower versions of these more broadly conceived partial drives.

If I’d had the strength last weekend to express what I wanted—i.e., that it was sickening to me how poorer schools are than they used to be, how gleefully conservative US policies have gutted their budgets, and how students and faculty bear the brunt, and yet here’s college sports, this 100% useless vestige that has nothing to do with educating anybody, which gets all the money and attention—it would fall on deaf ears. Or angered ears, leaving Dad and Jenny not to accept my position on the matter as mine, but arguing with all the old shit about the value of athletics. (It helps raise money for schools! It gives young athletes an education for when their sports careers are over!) And we’d be at an impasse—not Not A Family Anymore, I’ve come to understand, and not Now A Family With A Conflict (because lord knows there’s plenty among us), but A Family In A Mood Of Goodwill That’s Now Been Soured A Little By The Fact Of This Difference In Our Ranks. This feeling would, as it always had, get compounded by the fact that I’m the youngest member of my family, and I would feel once again humored, at best, by the older heteros, but definitely not listened to. Likely outright dismissed. (Probably this is why I love teaching: I get to express things I believe to people who seem always to want to hear them.)

So I play along, and I impress the people I care about with my thoughtful questions. I elicit them to share their love and expertise. And I share so little of my own. Again, deaf ears, but then again as I said the idea for this essay was Jenny’s. Or maybe Dad’s? Memory doesn’t serve, but I recall both family athletes endorsed the idea.

And immediately I saw two essays in front of me, the wanted and the unwanted. The wanted essay would tell the story of the weekend, using basketball and March Madness as an objective correlative to evoke feelings of love and affection, and how here was this thing that could bring us three together, and let me learn something new. The unwanted essay would express how tired I am of this.

I don’t tire of my family. I needed them, I could feel it, after so much time apart. What I tire of is that hustle I got at above, the impressing hustle. At some point early on, I learned it wasn’t enough to let people have the things they cared about, I felt I had to visibly care about those things too in order to trick them, it’s almost felt like, into caring about me.

Where, though, is the boundary between impressing others and being in conversation with them? Taking your turn to talk about you, and then your turn to ask about the other? I’m not sure yet, but it wasn’t long after the wanted/unwanted binary hit me that I saw (as I soon do with most binaries I initially get hung up on) the way out was through, or with. The right essay would be both wanted and unwanted, just as the time I spent watching basketball with my family was.

I like, to return to Wurmser’s formulation, to peep on dudes as much as I like to show off to them, and as I’m risking making these notes hit 5,000 words I’ll wrap up with the recollection that I used to only want to peep. I used to fear showing anything of mine off, especially my body and its desires.

What changed? I came out. I grew up. I had sex. I did therapy. Basketball is for Dad and Jenny, but writing an essay about basketball? That’s all mine.

*

Oh, here’s my bracket for those interested:

My 2022 March Madness bracket



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not the coach.

Stories Aren’t Special: On Story Chauvinism

Everybody loves stories, they’re one of the first things we fall in love with as children, stories and toys, but when we imbue story and storytelling with some biohuman essence beyond its aesthetic pleasures (or edifying ones), we fall into a mindset I’m calling story chauvinism.

Muriel Rukeyser’s ‘The universe is made of stories, not of atoms’ captures it fully, the mindset’s I think therefore I am. Any brief perusal through storytelling circles—creative writing handbooks, MFA program literature, viralgoing pullquotes from author interviews, ‘The Moth’-style event posters, etc.—will soon present a belief, if not a certainty, that the game we play of putting events in consequential order is a practice humans literally can’t live without.

For instance, behold Elizabeth Koch, co-founder of the resoundingly successful publishing hub Catapult, writing on its website: ‘[Prehistoric] humans did not become the revolutionary beings we now consider ourselves to be until we began to share what we know. Swap stories. Consistently. Stories that mattered. It’s our humble point of view that every creative act, every scientific development, every technological disruption is the result of some brand of storytelling collaboration. We say with equal humility that everything in existence, past present and future, is in constant storytelling interaction with everything that came before. […] We don’t celebrate stories because they’re easy. We celebrate stories because that’s the best way we know to celebrate life’ (her italics).

I’ve been thinking a lot about where this mindset comes from, and the faith that it proselytizes with this kind of language, and I’ve been thinking about this as someone who might be called an essay chauvinist. (Swap ‘story’ for ‘essay’ in the above quotes and I nod along without worry.) Who are we and what are we needing when we give story the power of water, air, heartbeat?

*

One thing we might be is children all over again, in that story’s origins lie in myth, fable, parable. In the dawns of civilizations, stories carried customs from one generation to the next and instructed the young on Who We Are—and thus, Who We Are Not / Who The Other Is. That’s the function of a myth. Old stories are as nationalist as anthems. I’m risking an ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny fallacy here (then again so are story chauvinists, ’cause like I wasn’t the one who brought up the dawn of civilization), but loving story returns us to the early years, receiving stories directly from tellers wanting to help us understand the world. We remember those years and project them back to the infancy of our species and believe we humans cannot be ourselves without story.

I’ve found it helpful as a writer to see story less as a genre and more as a mode, or a method for drawing meaning from the world. (By ‘method’ I mean the process of finding causes and effects, and seeing resolutions to conflicts that produce lessons or ‘takeaways’.) Now: story is a method but not the method through which we understand the world, and it’s story chauvinism’s insistence to the contrary that’s driving me to write this post. It’s a cute if obvious point to make that story chauvinism is itself a story we tell about stories, one of many.

In this way, story replicates itself. Everyone has a story to tell, which leads me to appropriate a common story chauvinist dictum: stories are like assholes—everybody’s got one. Story chauvinists celebrate this plenty but lament the plenty of opinions, and I want to try to understand what makes the latter so less attractive in the public’s eye, and despite the dictum I don’t think it has anything to do with supply. If story is a record of what you’ve done and opinion is a record of what you’ve come to believe, people don’t have more opinions than stories (I’d argue they have fewer), but story moves an audience more than opinion does.

What I mean has something to do with story’s ability to transport the listener. In being led through a string of events, we avatar ourselves inside the actor and come through it together—in less time and with less risk. Story packages the whole of trial and travail and delivers its reward without the audience having to do the work. In many ways opinions—or, to use a less hated term, ‘ideas’ or ‘knowledge’—are the prize one wins from story’s contest, and prizes don’t share well. They feel precious to us. We show them off without affecting our audience too much.

Fine. This may be more clearly true of ‘bad’ or ‘pointless’ opinions, and it’s good to remember that stories can be bad and pointless, too; there are far more bad and pointless stories in the universe than atomic, life-celebrating ones. What interests me in the original formulation, ‘Opinions are like assholes’ is the low status granted the former through the presumed lowest status of the latter. For story chauvinists, the asshole is a locus not of creative pleasures but sodomitical ones (or it’s void of any pleasure at all, save voiding).

Instead, imagine the anus as a desired erogenous zone each of us shares, across genders, and something special happens: Opinions are like assholes! Everybody’s got one!

I have a flimsy argument about how there’s nothing more heteronormative than a story (I’ve made the argument elsewhere), but whenever I get into it I find myself soon in dark wood. My point in this section is to show that story chauvinism teaches what it’s learned, or what it’s decided on: stories have a value over other forms of sharing knowledge, and other forms of art. This is true only if you’ve decided you want it to be. Why, for instance, is the universe made not of atoms, but of songs? of poems? of dramas?

*

Note the way Koch above conflates sharing what we know (indistinguishable in our minds from what we think we know [i.e. what we don’t actually know]) with telling stories. Is that what we’re doing? If you want to share what you know, you better not tell me a story, dressing up what you know in a string of causal events.

Here’s something I know (or think I do) that I want to share: we have a tendency to make story more than what it is, and regardless of what this reveals about us, in doing so we belittle or shut down the potential power of other forms of understanding the world.

How do I tell you that story?

Indeed: that this knowledge is untransferable through story leads us often to belittle the very quality or utility of the knowledge. (Opinions are like assholes.) I don’t have a ready example. I might be in another dark wood, but tied to the transportive quality of story I got at above, our resistance to listening like bedtime toddlers to each others’ ideas may have something to do with our sovereignty, and the difficulty we have in transporting ourselves within the mind of an opinion-sharer.

Essay tends to shatter the ego as much as story works to keep it intact, by forming an avatar-ego out of an other person (whom we call the protagonist). Essay’s omnipresent ‘I’ reminds me often of the scene in 30 Rock where Jenna is hanging with a lot of other D-list narcissists (Mankind, Knob Kardashian, etc.), and she keeps saying me. ‘You’re using that word wrong,’ Mankind says, knowing certainly that me refers always and only to him.

It’s been a struggle as a longtime opinion-haver and -writer (and even -editor, back at my college newspaper) to learn how to design a thought process in a way that evokes, for readers, not an argument or confrontation or speech, but an experience (even, yes, a transportive one) more along the lines of Lane Kauffman’s point about the essay, which is a form that seeks ‘not merely to transmit the essayist’s thoughts but to convey the feeling of their movement and thereby to induce an experience of thought in the reader.’

If a story is like a little adventure you go on, an essay is more like a dream. Or a delirium. So much art lies behind creating that essay delirium, and so many essays transport me as viscerally as any good story does. Here I am once again fighting for the underdog.

*

Underdog? Hasty Wikipedia-ing teaches me that the origin of language in humans is an unsettled matter, but it’s far easier to see those origins as something other than telling each other stories. (Noting that Koch’s claim above is not that we began speaking with story, but that only when we turned language to story did we become post-prehistoric, which like good luck proving.) Risking again a recapitulation fallacy, likely the earliest spoken words were some variation on yes/okay/like and no/stop/dislike, which make us, in a sense, protohuman op-ed writers.[1]

The world’s oldest joke, dating to Sumer around 1900 BCE, is ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.’ Another essay. Another desire to take what we believe we know and share it artfully with another. And if you want to argue that all jokes are essays, I invite you to consider the causal/fictive transport lying at the heart of the world’s 2nd oldest joke: ‘How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.’

So you know, we’ve been around since the dawn of civilization, too.

*

Back when I was an unwitting story chauvinist, I read Didion’s ultra famous line, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ as an affirmation of what I thought I knew. Yes, stories are life. It wasn’t until I read more Didion (and more everyone, I needed a while to get better at reading), that I started to understand what this opening to ‘The White Album’ is really saying, and I found it best articulated in Michael Silverblatt’s interview with The Believer:

[Didion] has a mind that aggressively finds the flaws in an argument and the places where you’re trying to burnish your weakness with pretty words. And her attitude is ‘Everybody’s lying and life is the story we’re telling ourselves in order to stay alive. And an artist sees through the story. Sees through the fakeness of the story to the very bare and difficult impossibilities of the coping mechanism functioning in a true situation of devastation.’

Stories help us fit the world and our lives into patterns that may very well be the basis of our undoing, or so says this writer who lived 25 years in denial of his sexuality because To Be Gay created too great a conflict in the story I’d been working to fit myself in.

Here’s how I wrote about this last week in my book-in-progress, in a section about the Oedipus complex and other origin myths: ‘If I learned anything from my young heterosexualization it was how to isolate any difference—one of these things is not like the other—and connect it to a reason why. Hetero thinking also taught me to see myself at the end of a story, the result of a series of conscious/unconscious plot points. It’s such a romantic and in-built notion of selfhood that the alternative—in which we might not be in a story, but an essay; we might not be a character, but a fact—reads like death. What else to do in the face of such a hard truth than do what unresolved Oedipus did? I blinded my eyes.’

When I hear about story, I think about what that story is blinding us to. Every story told tells another story the teller isn’t telling, and may not even be aware of. I see mostly danger in putting that at the center of my creative or reflective practice, which is ultimately why story chauvinism bothers me so much. It’s not just about rooting for the underdog (no matter who they are). Story does indeed bind us, but not together so much as to itself.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I can’t find the source, but recently N shared a story he found where ethologists believed they’d decoded batsong, and turns out it’s like 99% kvetching over space and comfort, which returns us to sovereignty, and the swift ability of essay to shatter it.