How I Spent My Spring Break

In the Richmond airport, I watched an old, bald, overweight man who open-mouth chewed his gum heave himself up from his chair, waddle over to a man standing by the check-in counter, and give him a thumbs up, one he pressed-forward twice, and then, once he’d made eye contact, point up to the red MAGA hat the other guy was wearing.

The guy in the red MAGA hat was also wearing a black hoodie that said NRA on the back and NRA over the left breast. By the time I got on the plane I found this man sitting in the front row of first class, and while waiting to board I surreptitiously snapped a pic of him with my phone. In my head, I composed a Tweet, or maybe an Instagram caption. Glad to be leaving Richmond, I thought. Or maybe just, Richmond, Virginia. I got to my seat. I had Neal to text, and another friend who was updating me on his happenstance stay at the United Club at SFO, where I’d eventually land. I didn’t get a chance to post the pic before the door closed and we started taxiing.

I know you can still use your data plan after the door closes. I know it’s not a barrier.

My routine on flights now is, as we start taxiing toward the runway, to stop whatever music or movie that’s playing in my ears and close my eyes and clasp my hands together and pray to Jesus. What I do is I imagine I’m in the old library in the town I grew up in, the one that was in a two-room building, with old cracked tiles around the fireplaces and a damp, musty smell I’ll never forget. Jesus—a nerd among his peers, a kid who ditched his folks in the big city and spent all his time in the temple just to argue with the older nerds there—sits over by the microfiche machines, and I picture myself walking around the corner and finding him. He stands and says my name. I say, “Hi Jesus,” and we hug, and we stand there holding each other. Then I ask him, in so many words, to watch over everyone on the plane and get us to our destination safely. Jesus says, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” and I feel less anxious about the possibility of dying.

Probably somewhere in prayer did it hit me that I didn’t have to hate the men I saw at the gate, even if I felt that I did. And I didn’t have to post the pic. I could post it, and I could spend the next day or do reopening Instagram to see the likes rack up, all 35 of them maybe, reminding myself I’m not alone in what those men made me feel: anger, despair, and a portion of fear. I’m afraid that, as those of us who’ve had power, privileges, and rights kept from us, punishingly, for so long continue to speak up and demand equal treatment, men like those men are not going to share without a fight.

A fight, specifically, with guns. Like, this week, in Christchurch.

I could post, I could get my likes, and then what? I tried, holding on to Jesus, to think about what kind of love it would show. Love for my friends, surely? But even if sharing hate for our shared enemies is a form of love it didn’t seem to be a sort of love that would feel good. Jesus reminded me that I should try to love those men, and I tried to imagine what that would feel like.

It’s the part of Jesus I have the hardest time with: what do I gain from loving men who hate me, other than that Christian brand of smug righteousness that turns me off from being a Christian?

I was flying home from visiting my parents, and I was reminded of my dad, who displays at times a poor imagination for the lives of people unlike him. Which is to say he holds everyone—regardless of their background, upbringing, or social standing—to the same standards he holds himself to. We disagree often about poverty, its causes and effects.

We feel differently about people in poverty but probably exhibit similar forms of condescension. I feel unqualified to decide that a person’s homelessness or poverty is Their Fault. But mostly I walk around feeling that the poor should be Pitied and Helped. I feel a largesse when I buy the Street Sheet, say, or hand over change. I’ve been lucky and you haven’t been, so let me share a little tiny bit of it.

But not too much, of course.

But back to the NRA/MAGA guy, and his fan. I know that pity isn’t love, but the closest thing to love I could muster to feel for them was a pity at how stupid they’ve been allowed to become. Who neglected you so much for so long that you’ve lived this long on the planet and come to believe the stupid things you do? And why aren’t they the ones you’re mad at?

#MAGA people on Twitter like to say that liberalism is a mental disorder, but I’ve yet to meet an intelligent person who believes that the president has done good things for the country. And even though it feels good for a little while, amid this time of so much perpetual stress and fear, to hate-post to my friends, or for them, for the shared likes, I no longer feel it’s any kind of creative act.

This guy exists. You know he does and I know he does. Here’s proof:

He doesn’t deserve your pity, and I don’t imagine he wants it. Scared, stupid men are dangerous, but they are still scared and stupid. I may not yet know how to love these scared, stupid men, but I’m learning how not to be afraid of them, and why not to hate them.

On Failing as a Writing Teacher

I.

I once taught John McPhee’s Oranges to graduate students in a class I called Canon Nonfiction. The idea was to teach myself a ton of books I hadn’t ever read, and also (I hoped) to talk critically about the canon and who got to make it. For each book we read, students had to write 1-page double-spaced response papers, because I didn’t want to read anything longer, and because I found (and continue to find) it a more useful exercise to ask students to make a smart, thoughtful argument in under 300 words than it is to ask them to fill 3 to 5 pages with ideas.

If you haven’t read Oranges, some of the book follows McPhee’s travels in Florida to understand the orange juice industry. He’s vocal throughout about his desire to drink pure orange juice, not from concentrate—this in the mid-1960s, when frozen concentrated orange juice was a somewhat new technology that had so taken over sales in the U.S. that it turned out, in one of the book’s ironies, to be everywhere in Florida, too, even with all those fresh oranges around.

One student (that I remember) hated the book. They took issue in their response with McPhee’s disdain for concentrate. The student had grown up in poverty real enough to make frozen orange juice the only juice their family could afford, and argued that McPhee’s language and attitude toward this style of orange juice betrayed his classism and ignorance, and thus rendered the book a failure.

I think this is what we’re now calling Cancel Culture.

I read their response, and I was very irritated. They had found one small aspect of McPhee’s narrator-self that they disagreed with and refused to engage with anything the book was up to craftwise. This was the basis of my comments on the response paper. I may have even written, in so many words, “In the future, I’d like to see you engage more in a book’s aims or formal design.”

After that, they stopped contributing to our discussions in class. At the end of the term they eviscerated me in their comments: “Dave seems to have old fashioned ideas about nonfiction. Maybe he should stop teaching and get out of the way of the rest of us.”

II.

Recently, I taught a class I titled Nonfiction Theory & Technique. My thinking is that if you’re going to take seminar-style readings courses in creative writing, you only need two of them: History Of Genre and Techniques Of Genre. You need a “What’s come before me?” class and a “How might I go about putting my stuff together?” class. This was the latter.

I taught Didion’s “The White Album” (the essay), which covers what for her is the end of the 1960s and the winds of paranoia and semantic disconnect that blew through it. One section takes Didion to Oakland, where her portrait of Huey Newton shows him to be a soundbyte-spitting robot, given the words from a group of handlers to keep the brand alive.

More than one of the students hated the essay, chiefly for this portrait. It was irresponsible for a white writer to dismiss Newton’s importance to black liberation in this way, to render him as substanceless, all message. Was the word “racist” used? I can’t remember, but in one way or another the point was made that it was racist for Didion to take of Newton what she wanted, and it reeked of enormous privilege for her to insist that her feelings about her end of her 1960s had something to say about The 1960s.

I felt frustrated, finding myself in this conversation. I felt the frustration of other students. I said this, as a way to redirect the discussion, “None of us in this room are going to live Joan Didion’s life and develop a mindset or habits of life that she did. We don’t have the ability to become or avoid becoming her, so what can we learn about writing by talking about her as a person?”

It was a similar message to the Oranges student: Can we please just talk about form and technique?

III.

Here’s where I’ll tell you that, in both of the above situations, the critical students were from marginalized communities—one student in a community I count myself among, the others not. Also: the straight, white folks in both classes didn’t, from what I could tell, share in these criticisms of the straight, white writers at hand.

And here’s where I’ll spell out my failures, if they aren’t already apparent.

In your head right now, or your heart, you might find some counterarguments. Here’s one: Contemporary politics surrounding the affordability of orange juice are too removed in time from the world McPhee is writing about to bear in any way on the text’s construction. Or you might ask what Didion, writing many years after every story about Huey Newton had already been told and retold, was supposed to write that could be worth reading? Or you might argue that if we can’t separate the artist from the art, then MFA Programs need to develop students’ characters as much as they work to develop their technique, and who among us is trained to do that?

Here’s one of my failures: I, too, had counterarguments, and I used my position as Teacher to correct my students’ thinking. Is how I thought of it. Unequipped, or unprepared, to participate in the discussion of these texts, I policed them as out of bounds and steered us back in bounds.

In other words, I shut students down. This was a failure.

It’s not that students are always right. Students are often wrong. Students often assert that the thing about the 2nd person is that it creates a feeling a closeness to the story, even though no one has ever said that the 1st person or the 3rd person makes us feel too distant from the action when we read it. (As though I would’ve identified more as a child with the character of Alice if “You” had fallen down the rabbit hole.)

I’m equipped, though, to have discussions about the effects of POV choices, and more importantly I’m comfortable asking students questions to get them thinking aloud together about POV choices to talk out something of their effects.

I’m not comfortable talking about class or race. Every time I walk into a classroom I know I’m outnumbered and I used to think if I showed any weakness or ignorance I would lose students all together.

Or make them rebel. That was my other failure, thinking that the only way I could help students learn was through the dissemination (I used the word mindfully) of my expertise.

IV.

This post is already too long, but I should mention here that it was originally titled “Adapt or Die” until I heard the neo-liberal techy Darwinism behind it.

In the face of student criticisms about representation, I could decide I Am Right And They Are Wrong, or I could decide This Isn’t Craft And Cannot Help Us Glean Lessons On Writing From This Text. And both of these would be deadly (bear with me) choices to make.

As much as I was able to dismiss my first student’s indictment against me in their evaluation, as good a laugh I got out of it in conversations for years after, it hurts now because I can see how they were right. If I can’t adapt and make room in the classroom for conversations about writing (and representation, and race) that I’m not immediately prepared to sound authoritative in, I’m going to stand in my students’ way. I’ll become not just bad at my job, but useless.

Again, it’s not that students are always right and we now have to just follow their lead on everything. It’s that a student’s rightness or wrongness in this way have very little use in the art classroom. The only wrong thing is not making art. The only wrong thing is not being given room to speak your voice, because I’m not training debaters or (god help me) politicians. I’m training artists, and an artist without a voice is like a dancer without rhythm.

What I should’ve done is ask these students to talk more about representation. I should’ve asked what we expect from an author, and what we can know about that person through the text, and what we learn elsewhere, and what our responsibilities are, then, as artists. I should’ve asked what aspects of their own (author) selves they disclose in their writing, and what they keep in mind when they construct narrators tasked with presenting this self to an imagined reader.

There are all kinds of ways to turn an unexpected comment into a conversation everyone can enter into. I’ve since learned to do this, and so I’m still alive, so to speak.

I’m reminded of something I read once about Wolfgang Tillman’s teacher (which I hope to get to again in a future post): the only reason, he argued, to make art is to put in the world the art you’re not seeing elsewhere, to fill a vacancy, one that makes you mad, with your singular vision.

If I believe that, and I think I increasingly do, how can it help a young writer to tell them, in so many words, that their visions, their stories, their opinions, their views are wrong or misguided or not worth discussion? It’s a deadly way to teach people, because, unless they thrive through a contrarian Fuck You spirit, it runs the risk of killing off a budding artist’s budding.

The Music that Plays in My Mind All the Time

Once, back in Nebraska, I asked my friend Mathias what it was about death metal that he liked so much. I found death metal fascinating as an idea but dull to listen to. It took him a few seconds to think of a response, and his answer astounded me:

“That’s the sound I hear in my head all the time,” he said. “So it’s almost soothing.”

Was he kidding? Possibly yes, probably no, but either way I took it to heart. Left in solitude, and quietude, our brains play a soundtrack of noise and feedback from our lives and the thoughts that careen around in there. Everyone’s soundtrack might be as original as their fingerprint.

And I’ve taken it to heart when I’ve come to understand some of the music I find myself drawn to, and soothed by. If Mathias hears blastbeats and deathgrowls, what I hear is a lot of quickly busy machinations. Or like imagine the nonsynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees—if that’s what bees are doing while they make honey, is chew stuff? 

Some clips, by way of example:

I know 2 people who know of Operation Re-Information, a trio that formed and disbanded during the years I lived in Pittsburgh. This album will forever live in my top 5 of all time, and I don’t have anyone else to share my love for it with, and if you listen to the record all the way through it’s probably clear why: it’s not for everyone. But I hear it like a warm bath.

This is one of my favorite guitar solos ever, and it is to guitar solos what Devo’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is to the Stones’ version: stunted, desexed, neurotic. Do these adjectives reveal my heart to you?

This is perfect music. This is what all classical music should be up to. It’s so busy. It doesn’t stop. It’s hard to write about how this busybusyness stirs emotion in my heart, but it has something to do with the way minimalism (which we’re not at all working with here) works a thing over and over and over to build a foundation for the shift that comes eventually. Bill Callahan does this very well. When you hear one chord for long enough, over and over, the presence of a second chord can floor you, if timed right. It’s like a surprise and a gift but also a cannon or like a beanbag shot at you from riot police. There’s a spatial way you’ve been suddenly pulled from a dark corridor into a room full of light that wins my gratitude every time.

This one’s my favorite. I don’t listen to Sufjan Stevens much these days, usually wanting something less soft and more with an edge, but I’ll always be grateful for these 38 seconds where there’s so much going on for me to hear. Sometimes I like to tune into the clarinets that toot on 3-and-1-and-2, 3-and-1-and-2, and sometimes I like to hear the acoustic guitar whose bass note pattern steadies of 2-beat rhythm amid this 3 cadence.

Those 38 seconds are the music that’s playing in my head at any given moment. If you’re talking to me, that’s the soundtrack I’m tuning out so I can have a conversation.

I Appreciate Activist Language But It’s Not For Me

I.

Without activists, we could live in a world where the sex I have would throw me in jail, and where nazis would be granted carte blanche in all our public spaces. Trust activists. Trust antifascists. They are the heart of any democracy.

But they don’t speak my language.

I think this post is about some feelings I’ve had lately when I’ve tweeted, which is about the only way I speak up in a room anymore. 

Activist language orients the listener toward an issue, and makes direct, sincere claims about how the listener ought to feel or act regarding that issue.

For instance, this recent tweet someone in my feed retweeted:

You know what’s hard? Losing a loved one to cancer. You know what’s not hard? Not watching football anymore. Not supporting teams & businesses that support a racist, misogynistic president. Not teaching fiction written by problematic white men.

That language operates on one level. It’s sparse, which I’m using in opposition to “dense”, in that the language asserts its literal meaning. It’s denotative language. It is by needs unnuanced. [*] Activist language cannot abide nuance, because nuance deals with subtle differences in meaning, and subtlety works against the aim of activist language, which is to be heard and understood.

I find activist language is very easy to tune out: either its message is one I’ve heard enough to’ve come to accept and agree with it, or it asserts a claim too brief and certain for me to engage in.

Black lives matter. Yes, always, forever they do, so let’s start punishing the cops who keep killing unarmed black people.

God hates fags. Oh like you know.

 

II.

Here’s my least favorite example of activist language at work:

It’s from this Buzzfeed listicle, where a bunch of writers Buzzfeed knows deliver clear messages to the publishing industry run by an employee base that was, as of 2014, 89 percent white.

This is a problem. If we want our literature to capture the contemporary world, if we want that art to grow, staffing the infrastructure behind its dissemination with such a vast white majority stands in the way of that art’s becoming.

But “Read less straight white men” is stupid advice. It asserts that it would be better to read Ann Coulter or Dinesh D’Souza or Milo Yianopolous[†] over Matthew Desmond, whose Evicted has been heralded as one of the best books written about poverty and institutional racism in the last decade.

Pointing this out is to insist on nuance in an encounter uninterested, as I’ve said, in nuance. It asks people to use reason to make choices, not passion. Calls for nuance in an activist encounter are seen as attempts to silence the activist. They are seen as trying to argue against the issue.

I get it, though I disagree. I can also work to tear down the patriarchy and want more diverse workforces in publishing houses while saying that a sign that says “Read less straight white men” is simply (and doubly, given the grammar) stupid.

It makes me so embarrassed for the person holding that sign, but like god bless her for not being embarrassed to hold that sign. Every activist is brave for speaking up in a room. I know it’s not easy.

 

III.

You might chalk all this up to a lack of conviction or sincerity on my part, and you might be on to something. It’s not that I don’t stand for anything, or that the positions I stand for are safe and privileged. Abortion should be both legal and free. Decriminalize public sex. Abolish Megan’s Law. I stand for all kinds of politically unsavory things that I believe in my heart would make this a better world.

But I’m uneasy just saying it. Or maybe what I am is too easily bored? Because to me the most salient feature of activist language is its humorlessness.

Funny things seem easy to dismiss. The Oscars does it every year to comedies. The court jester is the biggest fool in the palace. Funny people assert that we don’t take them seriously—and we used to heed them, before we collectively lost our confidence in reporters and news media and turned to the Jon Stewarts of the world to tell us the truth.

But as every comedian knows, it’s difficult to assume a defensive stance amid humorousness. Good comedians can call you, or your mother, terribly hurtful things—stupid, fat, ugly, tiny-dicked, etc.—and get you to enjoy the fun of it.

Their language is multi-level language. It speaks, and any number of messages are getting across. This, I think, is what makes it my language. I can’t tune it out. Nor does it ignite me into a quick counterargument. I’m unsettled, nondefensive, and sometimes in that place some new understanding slithers through.

 

IV.

Some people call this “laughtivism” but I could use a 10-year moratorium on portmanteaus. My favorite example is Veep, which is as smart about politics and D.C. as anything I read in the news, and gets also to be very funny. My favorite more explicit example of what I’m getting at is this guy:

Matt Buck is smart enough to know that for some hateful people it’s delightful to be hated, but for people filled with seriousness and passion it feels like shit to be laughed at. It’s deflating. It’s like reports of the president fuming when women play his male cabinet members on TV.

Note: about 35 seconds in, the person filming, I think, offers some narration: “And this is what stupid looks like.” It’s activist language, and it makes me so angry. It does its one-level thing and clomps on the toes of Buck’s far more nuanced takedown.

That narration operates in the reverse direction of what I’m calling for. Like I said, we need activists to make a democracy function. And so we need their language. What I’m taking as my role, maybe, or just how I want to live my life and participate in this democracy, is to follow two steps:

  1. Hear activist language. Look into the messages it’s telling me.
  2. Make something new with it. Form it into art that sneaks the message into the minds of whatever audience I might be lucky to get, the way I’ve heard pet owners slip heartworm pills into their dogs’ canned food.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For starters, you don’t know the nature of the relationship I may have with the person I’ve lost to cancer, or the agony we both felt living with their painful cancer for so long, nor do you know the nature of my relationship to my loved one who may make their living and pay our bills from working on televised football games. The world is vast and sometimes hard to imagine but it’s crucial that we do that work of imagining. What has been easy for you is not always easy for everyone, and they’re not bad people for their different difficulties.
  2. I refuse to check the spelling of his name.

On Abandoning A Book

I never used to do it, owing probably to something instilled in my PhD program: there’s always something to learn from this book you might not enjoy. But in the last year I’ve abandoned 4 books:

  • How to Grow Up, by Michelle Tea
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, by Andrea Lawlor
  • A Brief History of 7 Killings, by Marlon James
  • My Struggle, Book 6, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

The Tea book was, it gradually dawned on me, not written for a 40yo man with a job as a tenured professor. (Michelle Tea fans are now laughing at me, which laughter I accept.) The Lawlor book, about a shapeshifting queer kid living in Iowa City, was remarkable and did some incredible things with gender performance and story structure, but it was also about 80 percent “hanging out at bars” and I couldn’t get engaged in the book as anything other than a remarkable tour de force.

Same with the James novel. It won the Booker Prize, it was a queer writer, everyone who I told I was reading it raved about the book. It is a wonder of voice and character and point of view, a marvel, jaw-dropping at times in how well done it is, and though I gave it 200 pages, waiting for the story to kick into a forward momentum, it never did, or didn’t enough for this reader, and I set it aside.

I used to worry that if I didn’t like an award-winning book, or a book that the majority of my friends liked, there was something wrong with me. I asked myself if, by not finishing these books, if I was, at worst, racist or sexist or transphobic, or, at best, just stubborn about engaging with novels about people from different backgrounds than me.

Then I picked up the Knausgaard, having read gleefully through the first 5 volumes. That’s 2500 pages of reading time I devoted. Again: gleefully. I won’t get into why I loved the books so much, because the point here is that I couldn’t bear Volume 6, which deals mostly with the publication of the book’s first volume. I gave it 200 pages again, and once Karl Ove and his friend start talking about fascism and Hitler, I flipped forward and saw this was going to go on for a while, and I put it away.

Once, this would have been anathema to me. If I got 100 pages into a novel, I couldn’t bear not to finish it, just because of all the labor I’d put in. The idea of not completing this 6-volume novel now feels like a relief. Oh. I don’t have to read this if I don’t enjoy it. As much as I love books about ideas, I realized what I couldn’t bear this time was forcing myself to listen to two middle-aged men talk about Nazis.

Am I trying to get at a feeling I have that I know myself better than I used to? Surely I now find myself saying things like “That book wasn’t for me” more than “That’s not a good book,” which I used to say a lot. I no longer have the confidence to say what is and isn’t a good book, but I have more confidence to say what I like in a book, or what I need or am looking for.

It’s a kind of growing up.

What I’m reading now is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it is perfect. It’s a perfect novel that strangely has very little forward momentum, but what holds me close is this voice of her misanthropic protagonist, full of hope but bereft of motivation. She’s strong with desire and full of hatred toward, and sickness about, her body. I don’t know why she’s exactly what I need right now, I just know that she is. I’m so glad for this book’s landing in my life.

Some Additional Audacity: The Wide Album

Last week, my longtime friend Beage texted into a chain we have with our other longtime friend Farrell the question: “White Album: disc #1 or disc #2? Go!” Farrell and I, and Beage, being still, especially around each other, the adolescents we were when we three became friends, immediately went on the attack, arguing our choices.

In short: Beage said 2 (less consistent, better hits) and Farrell and I said 1, and we argued a lot about Paul, and we agreed “Honey Pie” is a garbage song, and were split on “Yer Blues”, which I submit is maybe worse than “Honey Pie” but blah blah blah.

Sometimes I’m glad I don’t have to sit through hourslong debates about these pop music minutiae anymore, but often times I miss them.

“Oh well probably now we each have to make The White Album #1.5” I texted, and it was on.

You may recall I’m into this now, this resequencing of records from my youth, and so I happily got to work. The rules were similar to recutting R.E.M., with a few variations:

  • I couldn’t make a record longer than either disc (47 and 48 mins, according to my iTunes)
  • For elegance’s sake I couldn’t open or close with any opener or closer from either disc, nor could I sort any track in the same spot it has on the original
  • Because both discs have at least 2 songs each by John, Paul, and George, I had to have 2 songs by each, including Paul (I was originally planning on putting none, because I think very little of Paul McCartney)
  • Because both discs have 1 Ringo song I needed 1 Ringo song, which was easy, because “Don’t Pass Me By” is one of the Beatles’ greatest hits

Unlike Out of Time and Automatic, there are very few unlistenable songs on these records, and the hardest part was cutting out half of them. Also, a number of songs bleed together, making them unsequenceable without their counterparts. “Dear Prudence”, for instance, starts with plane noise from “Back in the USSR”, so it was out. 

My process was to find the one song I wanted to open with, to set a mood, to be funny, to imagine a far different record than those guys did, using all their old materials.

I chose “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”

From there, I tried to find the best track to follow it. And then the best track to follow that one. I wanted to make as cohesive a cut as the original, just half the length. So I went on and on until I got to “Don’t Pass Me By”, which was always going to be my closer.

I called it The Wide Album. Here’s how it ended up:

  1. Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?
  2. Savoy Truffle
  3. Birthday
  4. Happiness Is a Warm Gun
  5. Long, Long, Long
  6. Wild Honey Pie
  7. Helter Skelter
  8. Cry Baby Cry
  9. Back in the U.S.S.R.
  10. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
  11. Blackbird
  12. Mother Nature’s Son
  13. Glass Onion
  14. Sexy Sadie
  15. Julia
  16. The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
  17. Don’t Pass Me By
Look, I’m as surprised as you are by all the Paul in there, but here I am, learning things about myself. My only rule downfall was slotting “Blackbird” at track 11, because it’s track 11 on the original.
 
Want to hear how good a job I did? I made this into a Spotify playlist, if you use Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/38kAUowQhSGcbW0qZGOu5p

My Law Library Rival

Most mornings I write in the Law Library on campus, because it’s quieter than the central library and I mean here’s the view: 

Go ahead and click on it. I get there right at 8am, when the library opens, because that’s also when Mass begins at St. Ignatius church across the street, which is always the signal that it’s time to stop my praying and leave, because it’s hard to pray over the sound of the service. 

I’ve been doing this for years, but not consistently. I like the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor, because again the view out the window and also what I face is a wall, so I don’t get distracted by the other students filing in to study.

And everything was perfect until my Law Library Rival showed up last term.

My Law Library Rival used to have Kenny G’s haircut, but over the holiday break he shaved it all off. He used to wear a suit and tie, but I haven’t seen him in anything but casual pants and a track jacket in a long time. Most mornings he shows up right at 8am, the first person through the door (whereas I, once Mass begins and I make it across the street and over to the library get in around 8:02), and heads where?

Directly to the far back table in the southeast corner of the third floor.

I originally said “he heads to my table,” but I know I don’t own it. I know it’s the library’s table.

But here’s the thing: He sits with his back to the wall, facing the room, and he doesn’t even raise the blinds.

This post is me taking my case to the court of public opinion, as we’re in a Law Library, after all. I understand that the Law Library is foremost for law students. There are restrictions about who is allowed in (faculty get in anywhere), and during Bar Exam Study, the entire third floor is reserved for law students only, and I dutifully write for those weeks at the far back table in the southeast corner of the second floor, where the view’s all right.

Exhibit B or whatever: my Law Library Rival stays for an hour, hour-and-a-half tops, whereas I’m there for 2 or 3 hours at a stretch. So he doesn’t even need the table for as long as I do!

And I just need to reiterate that he doesn’t raise the blinds next to the table and as far as I can tell—staring at him, as I do when he gets the table, from two tables north of the far back table in the southeast corner, where the view is mostly blocked by trees—he never even glances at the window.

Sitting at the FBTISCOTF, if you will, and not looking out the window is like housesitting for Jim Belushi with the security cameras off and not once peeking through his underwear drawer. It’s like, What are you even doing there?

I submit that I deserve the FBTISCOTF more than my Law Library Rival does, even though by doing so I understand that I deem the work I do here (like this blog post, which I’m writing while gazing out the window on a gloriously sunny day) as more important than his work.

His work of trying to become another lawyer.

Members of the jury, I ask you not to take into account that I’m a 40-year-old man in a turf war with an innocent kid nearly half my age. And do not take into account the fact that my university provides me with An Office I’d Rather Not Write In because when I get there It’s Just Like Too Much, With All My Work Stuff Around, You Know?

And do not take into account the 2 or sometimes 3 days a week I don’t even write on campus, or that fact that if my sabbatical gets approved for next year I won’t be writing in the Law Library at all.

Forget all of this and decide the suit in my favor and tell my Law Library Rival that he doesn’t need to sit at the FBTISCOTF and therefore ought never to, and make him stop shooting me smug looks when he gets the table before me, and grumpy looks when he does not, and I will promise to stop doing the same.

Thank you. 

The Return of Very Good Paragraphs

To celebrate the return of this steady feature (well, as steady as anything is here), I’ve got two from the 10 Dec 2018 issue of The New Yorker, which is as far as I’m caught up.

First up is this bit from the Joy Williams story, “Chaunt” [1]:

When Jane Click still read, she preferred the language of displacement and estrangement that prepared a path to revelation over language that simply refreshed and enlarged upon what she already knew. But if you asked her what was the very last book that she had read—that one that had ultimately led her to the conclusion that books wanted only to expose and destroy you, tear your heart out and leave it in the dust, like the soul of a murdered and soon forgotten little animal—she wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Next is this ¶ from Louis Menand’s piece on literary hoaxes, the part of the piece that most made me want to write one:

Does this all mean it’s a game? Yes, in a sense. Literature is a game with language, and hoaxing alerts us to the fact that the rules are not written down anywhere—in the same way that someone who goes barefoot to a wedding alerts us to the fact that there are actually no regulations governing these things. Those acts draw our attention to the thinness of the social fabric by tearing a little piece of it. Literary hoaxes appeal to critics and theorists because they expose the fragility of the norms of reading.

Here’s maybe the place to point out that, amid a Twitter discussion this weekend on which Hogwarts house I was a member of, I chose Slytherin.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Shameful, this might be the first Joy Williams story I’ve read. And of course it was incredible, the best story I’ve read in months. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Outtake From a Work in Progress

I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:

Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.


These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.


Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself.
When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.


What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.


Those suspicions come down to two related arguments:
1. You can’t possibly dance well.
2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.


When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.


When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.

Shame Spirals and How I Get Out of Them

There’s lots I feel ashamed of, maybe half of it sex and sexuality-related. I thought stepping out of the closet would mean stepping away from shame, but no. No no. That’s not how shame works.

For me, shame is a chorus of voices in my head that tell me I’m a bad person for what I just thought or wanted. Sometimes it’s for something I did, but usually it’s just for what I’ve imagined. The chorus is full of pristine, confident people with genius IQs and spotless records when it comes to their sexuality and moral behavior.

If you are a person I’ve met and spoken to face-to-face, odds are I’ve convinced myself you’re another one of these perfect choristers. Rationally, I know it’s not true. I know you’re not perfect, but I don’t yet truly believe that you’re not.

That’s how good shame is at making me stupid about the world.

Now: I’ve felt shame enough to know I shouldn’t feel it so much, and so when I do, I join the chorus of voices and tell myself I’m a bad person for being ashamed of myself. I feel ashamed of my shame. It’s a perfect trap, and I say “trap” because when I get in this shame spiral it’s very hard to do anything other than sit and hate myself for hating myself.

I didn’t use to have a way out, but one day, outside of a shame spiral, I came up with one I’m going to share with you, just in case you’re not a perfect person and might feel shame, too.

Step One: Say this out loud: “It’s okay that I’m feeling ashamed.”
Shame itself isn’t a bad thing. If I forget your birthday for the third year in a row, or make plans and then flake on you more than once, feeling ashamed can help me look more closely at what’s going on with me, what my commitments are, how I want to live my life, etc. (Some folks might quibble here that what I’d be feeling is guilt, not shame—because it’s about what I’ve done, not what I am—but after 2 years of thinking it over I can report back that discerning the differences between shame and guilt won’t help you conquer either.)

Step Two: Say this out loud: “I should be proud that I’m even capable of feelings.”
Optional if you’re a person who readily and easily feels your feelings, and has always at your fingertips the right name to put to those feelings. This is not me. So I like to congratulate myself when I do a good job in this regard.

Step Three: Acknowledge that you’re standing in a hall of mirrors and seeing only distortions of yourself.
This is the one that took a lot of time and work to realize. (Dr. Heisler, I salute you!) I used to think that a shame spiral felt like being in a dark hole, but you can’t see anything in a dark hole, whereas in a shame spiral I can see only myself, or rather, I can see only the parts of myself I’m unhappy about at the moment. Also: I can only see myself. There’s nothing else I’m capable of at the moment. It’s Narcissus in the classic scene, except he’s loathing the image that’s looking back. Once I saw that narcissistic image of myself staring at myself, I felt less shame and more disgust and annoyance, which are also strong emotions, leading me to…

Step Four: Smash the fuck out of those mirrors and find someone to ask questions to or otherwise engage your head and heart in.
Other people are a gift I keep forgetting the world got me last Christmas.