This story begins in Nebraska. Possibly even Pittsburgh. It starts when I was still in the closet, secretly looking at porn of men with other men, wishing both that this desire could go away, while also magically being allowed to be one of them. To this latter wish, and from all the insecurities I felt about myself, the men I liked to look at were capital-M Men: broad shoulders, beards, hairy chests, deep voices. I liked my men the way Americans liked their cars: big and stupid.
The biggest of these men was like a drug, a rush of endorphins every time I came across him. His name was Mack. Well: his “name” “was” Mack, and his vids (held on his website, macksf.com) usually involved slenderer and less hairy men worshipping parts of his body over the course of 45 minutes. Often he would selfishly fuck them, using them for his pleasure, which of course gave them their pleasures. Once he let a younger guy fuck him, and I found him to be an uninspired bottom.
Mack was a dom, was the thing, and when I put myself into the fantasy his videos created, I didn’t imagine myself submitting to him, so much as standing next to him. Being the kind of man that he’d consider a peer, a teammate, a brother. I imagined somehow getting access as much to Mack’s esteem as to his body.
Mack was a map to a land I never felt I could travel to, much less be a citizen of. Then I came out. Then, in 2013, we moved to San Francisco.
We knew only a few people when N & I moved here, and most of them were other gay men. San Francisco still has the highest per-capita gay population in the country, after all. I remember a night in our first couple months here, out at drinks or dinner with another gay couple who’d been living in SF for three years, and N & I pelted them with questions about what we could expect, where the best X was, and so on.
“Do you guys ever see any celebrities walking around?” I asked. “Or is it not that big of a city?”
They looked at each other, and one of them shrugged and said, “Porn stars, mostly. Half the studios are here and the rest of down in L.A.”
Makes sense, I thought. Gay men don’t just live here, they work here.
“Oh and Danny Glover,” the other guy said. “He lives in the neighborhood. I’ve seen him at the gym a couple times.”
Months passed. We settled in to the city. I found a barber at a shop on Market Street, down where the Castro starts to blend into the Upper Mission/Mid-Market area. When I had first visited San Francisco, on a campus interview, I went on an afternoon pilgrimage to the Castro, and I noted with excitement all the barber shops. My choices in getting a haircut all my life had been Aromatic Salon For Ladies, or Barbershop With Loud Sports On TV. The barbershop I chose had pics of all its barbers on its website, and many of them had the capital-M Manly look I’d for years given total value to.
One sunny afternoon, I’d just left the barbershop with a crisp haircut, and I walked up Market to the bus stop. At the intersection, I had to wait to get the walk sign, and Market being what it is, with three different streets crossing at each intersection, the cars on the street in front of me were stopped, too. The car right in front had its windows down, and the first thing I noticed in that entire busy visual field was the weight and thickness of the driver’s beard.
He looked like Mack. And then I saw the license plate: MACKSF. (He was always very good at branding.) It was him, in the flesh. He was real. I felt the same sudden transport as when I see in the living world any celebrity I only know from screens, but this one felt different. Usually it’s a mild dissonance of 2-D becoming 3-D. That afternoon, that dissonance was matched with a kind of harmony. I had, on some small but real level, “made it.” So Mack didn’t even notice me looking at him from the corner. Maybe he wasn’t about to welcome me into his friendship. But what Mack had always represented—untroubled living with one’s homosexuality—was, it seemed, now mine. If I wanted it.
It lasted seconds, that feeling, then the light changed and he drove off. I watched him go, noting the MACKSF plate on the back of his car. N always wondered at how I notice license plates of cars and not the model of the car itself, so I checked to see what kind of car he was driving. It was not big and stupid, I noticed, but a brick red Hyundai Sonata.
Follow up to yesterday’s post, because things I was asserting about safety in certain sectors of Flyover Country haven’t sit well with me. I mean, I don’t think I have it right. What I said was that Texas (which I’m going to continue to include in Flyover Country only because I get to imagine how indignant it would make Texans) wants the non-Texanness of you to get the fuck out of there, and the Deep South will be very polite and hospitable to you without actually liking or even respecting you if they don’t know your people or where they hail from, but the Plains are a place of nice people, and their famous “Minnesota Nice” is real.
George Floyd’s murderer is from Minnesota, I seem to have forgotten. And Michael Stipe and Kate Pierson are from the Deep South.
Whenever I want to assert a thing about a people or a place, I should remember that I’m in dangerous rhetorical territory, particularly as a person who has vocally stood as an exception to whatever nonsense others were peddling about his current home state. So whatever is leading me to feel unsafe in other parts of the country reveals things about me, not those parts of the country.
In other words, I need to write, alas, about history.
History was my worst subject in school, and I’ve never really cared for it or bought into its dictum about being doomed to repeat it, so I’ll keep this quick. The history I have in the Plains is long and all those memories are (chiefly) fond ones. I continue to have people I love and miss who live here. This isn’t (as) true in other parts of Flyover Country, or F-150 Country, or the Bible Belt.[*] I feel about the Plains the way I can tell a number of the grad students I taught in Alabama feel about the Deep South, a place I endured for three years until I could get out, and a place they had four of the most fulfilling years of their lives in.
With the right friends and family in the right places, you can feel safe and home everywhere. Even Boston, a city I’ve many times called the Angriest City In The World, which has plenty of its own Texas-style Get The Fuck Out Of Here vibes, but it’s also where my old college friend Jay lives (well, he lives in Quincy).
Boston has a big history of rebellion, given all that tea they spilled. Texas too, Jesus. I know so little of history, but I know that the Six Flags of those amusement parks refer to the 6 nations that have owned/stolen Texas throughout its history: Spain, Mexico, France, Texas Itself, the U.S., and the Confederate States of America. And the Deep South still claims its failed rebellion as its heritage. It remains important to them that they once tried and failed to hold onto a way of life that needed to enslave Africans to survive.
The Plains, on the other hand, was an empty land of bounty when the people my friends and family here claim cultural/ancestral connections to first showed up. The Missouri Compromise instilled slavery in one part of the Plains, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act spilled it outside of Missouri, but when people think about the Civil War we’re not looking at Flyover Country. What rebellions seemed to be waged here involved populist, pro-agrarian, William Jennings Bryan-style demands for fair labor and wages. (Right? I don’t know my history, I only know what I picked up after 7 years of living here, which is that it’s an exaggeration to call Plains voters “fiscally liberal, socially conservative” but like only a little.)
Every time I’m in Sioux Falls, I make sure at the HyVee to grab all the free magazines off the rack in the store’s vestibule: etc. for her and Sioux Falls Woman and The 605 and the rest of them. These are glossy monthlies printed here in what they call “the Sioux Empire”—i.e., the city of Sioux Falls and its suburbs. Print media is thriving here. And in the articles I read in those magazines about the history of this place, they always begin the story with the first settlers, which I don’t need to tell you means the first white settlers.
The Plains, like all of the U.S., are a site of Native American genocide. It’s probably going to take a while for South Dakota to see what’s psychically and historically wrong with the phrase “the Sioux Empire”, because if people don’t turn to denial and willful silence when confronted with their shame, they turn to anger. Neither emotion is good for growth. I recognize how it must read to have essentially a Plains Tourist like myself tell people whose people go back generations here to grow up, but maybe one way to end this post is to admit that it’s advice I need to take, too. We all do.
As much as people want to make the Civil War our country’s greatest conflict, a better one (well, “better” is a poor word here but you get what I mean) is our centuries-long genocide of Native peoples and theft of their land, “better” because it happened everywhere, it’s likely still happening, and in happening everywhere it can unite us as a country. The Native genocide isn’t a red/blue state conflict. It’s not contained in Flyover Country. San Francisco, where I live, was stolen from the Ramaytush speaking people, one of eight nations now referred to as Ohlone.
The South Dakotans I know grew up with Native Americans as neighbors, as a lived and seen reality. (How they treated or considered Native folks varies depending on who you talk to.) In Virginia, Native Americans were something out of history. Here they make history, like in the blocking of the Keystone XL Pipeline. If, as a Plains Tourist, I can have a dream for a state I only visit once or twice a year, it’s that South Dakota lead the nation in first acknowledging the tragedy of Native genocide and then working to restore Native lands and equitable treatment.
In the Deep South and Texas I feel like an outsider to their conflicts of two centuries ago. In the Plains I remember I’m another American, thriving from the spoils of genocide. If you’re curious which Indigenous people the land you live on belongs to, you can find that info at native-land.ca.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Once, in grad school, I asked my officemate where the Bible Belt was exactly, because nobody had ever depicted it on a map for me. Was it the strip that runs north from Texas to North Dakota, or did it go laterally along the South? I felt it had to be the former, because a belt (I’m a very literal person) bisects a body right around the middle. But which middle? “Well, it actually starts just east of Seattle and goes along the Canada border, then it sweeps down at the Dakotas, runs all the way to Texas, and then goes over to Florida and Georgia, and sweeps right up to Maine.” It was a good joke for 2007 and probably a better joke in 2021.↵
I heard recently that the best-selling car in the U.S. now is the Ford F-150, but Edmunds tells me this has been true since Reagan took office. To me a truck is another car, which makes me not a great citizen of Flyover Country, where N and I landed yesterday for our annual Fourth of July trip. We come after a year that South Dakota has earned a lot of national headlines, owing mostly to its Governor, whose political ambitions, like so many GOPers’, are aided by others’ spinning her general ignorance and distrust of public institutions as (a) strength and (b) freedom.
The latest iteration of this is her attempt to launch fireworks in a National Park (one stolen from the Lakota Sioux) during a pandemic and what’s forecasted to be the worst wildfire season in years. As good as those fireworks feel and as good as it looks on camera, it’s an all-around bad idea that could have damaging consequences. It’s, yes, a bummer, but one way I’ve come to understand maturity (political and otherwise) is that you need to accept the inevitable preventative bummers.
The way N & I accepted it when we couldn’t fly out here for Christmas in 2020, so it’s been almost a year since we were here, and it’s been two years since we were here for his aunt’s big shindig at her lake house in Minnesota canceled last year because we’re all mature adults, and I’m so happy to be here. I’ve been in and around this part of Flyover Country, which I prefer to call the Plains, for nearly 20 years, having moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2003. N was born in South Dakota and lived there all his life until he moved to Lincoln in 1993. If I’m allowed to call his family my family, I have dozens of friends and family in the Plains. I feel equally at home here as I do in San Francisco or Virginia.
There are many zones of Flyover Country, many states where the F-150 sells better than any other car. I don’t feel comfortable in Texas. Ever since I and a friend of mine drove through the state in 2001, pulled over near the border by highway cop who wouldn’t let us leave until he found the nonexistent drugs he knew were in our car with VA plates, literally sneering at us the whole time like a caricature of a Texan, I mostly look forward to leaving Texas when I’m in Texas. It’s a state that works overtime to psychically push you the fuck out of there. And I don’t feel comfortable in the Deep South, which if you know me you know I don’t need to get into again.
To say nothing of what those places think of homosexuals.
Now: the Plains for sure has a mixed scorecard when it comes to queers. Brandon Teena was raped and killed in Nebraska. Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming (the High Plains). But Iowa granted gays the right to marry six years before the rest of the U.S. did. Plus: I came out in the Plains. That I felt safer doing it here than in Pittsburgh or Virginia has, admittedly, less to to do with the land and the culture than the fact that I knew nobody when I came out here, but still: I feel safe here. I feel safe and at ease in the Plains.
On second thought, maybe the land had something to do with it after all. When it comes to U.S. Promised Lands, there’s the West Coast, and the sun setting over the Pacific, and that feeling you get when you stand on a California beach and watch the sun set that the rest of the country is at your back, and it’s like you’ve moved beyond them, and you’ve put them behind you, and in doing so there’s a kind of release that I can tell you personally feels like a burden that’s been removed from your shoulders. It happens very quickly. Let me tell you that you can live 35 years of your life away from the West Coast, with 18 of those years in the go-go-go anxiety of Eastern Seaboard sub/urban speediness, and two weeks after you move to California you feel like you’ve woken from a bad dream.
Oh, life can also be like this.
Like Blaine Fabin, my journey west originally found a comfortable end in the Plains, and of course the first thing I noticed here were the endless skies. I’d never seen the end of a city before, but not a month after I moved to Lincoln I stood in a parking lot in the Haymarket distract, near the railroad, and saw nothing beyond those tracks but open fields, an orange sun setting over them. The city just stopped right over there, with nothing in anybody’s way. I can’t capture the warm awe I felt in my chest, but seeing this had a profound effect on me. A year later, I was a homosexual. Just like that, kind of.
Our connecting flight from Vegas landed in Omaha yesterday around 6pm. It was partly cloudy and only in the 80s, a relief. (A line I used to open a short story in my collection gives you the general idea of the weather in Flyover Country: I live in a place that gets all the temperatures, 0 to 100.) By the time N & I got our luggage it was raining harder than I’ve ever seen it rain. Noisy, heavy, percussive. The wind blew it laterally at us even though we were under a 10-foot-wide awning. N’s mom was picking us up and taking us to Trader Joe’s to stock up before we drove up to South Dakota, which Trader Joe’s hasn’t discovered yet. Trader Joe’s was 16 minutes from the airport (!!!) and halfway there the rain stopped, and halfway past that the sun was out and the roads were all dry.
The Bay Area has microclimates and the Plains have microstorms.
To drive from Omaha to Sioux Falls, all you do is cross the Missouri River on 680 and get on I-29 North and stay there. The Plains is a place where an 8-hour drive to another city is only, as my mother-in-law called it in conversation last night, “a good day” and not, as I’ve always seen it, a form of masochism. Sioux Falls is 2.5 hours from Omaha. We’d need gas somewhere on the way, so N proposed we stop in Missouri Valley, Iowa. (They’ve got a good travel stop close to the interstate.) I took this photo in the men’s room, where I pissed without a mask on, and it might perfectly encapsulate everything I love about the Plains:
Oh, right: I’d been the only person wearing a mask in Trader Joe’s, including the staff, and it wasn’t until we were done with checkout that I wondered why I was masked up. I’m vaccinated. The CDC tells me I no longer need to do this. Also, I’m susceptible to peer pressure, and everyone I saw when I turned down another aisle had the same look on their face when they saw me, like what I imagine my face looks like when I see someone’s dyed their dog’s hair some pastel color. Who is that for, really?
For 14 months, my answer to that question went something in my head like: Me, but also all of us? I wore a mask to prevent myself from inhaling the exhaled virus of people who didn’t know they were exhaling SARS-CoV-2, and I wore a mask to take my part in the public, shared work of destigmatizing mask-wearing in specific and illness in general.
Nebraska had, for a time, a mask mandate. South Dakota never did. (Another bit of ignorance that got accepted here as strength and freedom.) The only people I saw wearing masks yesterday were a trio of Latinx women at De Leon’s Restaurant and the one guy who helped us at the Apple Store (a guy from Watertown, S.D.). I respected these people’s choices, and even admired them, the way I admire it when someone speaks in public about a certain kind of sex act they like. I like seeing people who seem to know themselves.
The trick of being an adult is working out this conflict—am I knowing myself or asserting myself in willful ignorance? Have I found and am now exercising my beliefs, or am I repeating beliefs I’ve been given? I’d originally written “The trick of being in the Plains” there, but all this is true everywhere. What made me want to site this in the Plains, originally? There’s a feel I get here that the vast distance from any U.S.-cultural center (if you don’t count Minneapolis, then Chicago—which many people also wouldn’t count—is 600 miles away) has led to a Left Alone mentality here. That is: folks feel left alone with their own thoughts and to their own devices.
This spirit is real. People in the Plains, where the closest services are often very far away and the weather is severe enough to make getting there not always easy, can do more kinds of things than people I’ve met around the country. They’re like the opposite of a software engineer. And “Minnesota Nice” is also real, which might explain the comfort I feel. In Texas I’ve felt unveiled hate. In the Deep South we felt aggressive politeness that veiled their hate or disinterest. In New York City I’ve felt aggressive rudeness that’s actually an odd form of niceness. Here, likely because I’m another white person, people are mostly just nice. As a person well versed in veilings and dodges and ironized layerings, I feel very safe and comfortable in their absence.
The writer Jesse Lee Kercheval, originally from the Deep South but making her career chiefly in Wisconsin, once told me that the main difference in the two places is in how they complain. In the Deep South, expressions of heat, say, are always lyric and associative. There’s a poetry to the Deep South’s “It’s hotter than a June bride in a feather bed” or whatever. The magnitude of your feeling is directly proportionate to the artfulness (however stale over time) of your speech. Whereas in the Midwest, people use simple repetition. “It’s hot. Real hot.”
I can admire the Deep South for Kercheval’s reasons, but it’s still not the place for me. The Plains also aren’t, probably, “the place for me,” but I know that voice she was talking about, that plainspokenness, and I’ve got almost 2 weeks to hear it, and I hope you reading this have as much of a lovely Fourth of July weekend as I’m about to have here.
Last weekend I flew to Portland and took a bus to Corvallis, Oregon, where three friends of mine live. One is Clay, who grew up across the street from me and who I’ve known all my life. I wanted, as the pandemic was loosening its grip on my life, to be with old friends and just spend time with them, and Clay was the oldest who’s the closest, so I flew up there when his quarter was done (he and Elaine, his wife, are math professors at Oregon State) to see him and Elaine and their son, Jack.
We went to a restaurant and a winery and a park, and we ate dinners on their back patio. It was the exact great vacation I needed.
My last day in Corvallis—which is a town in the western, central part of the Willamette Valley, one of the more verdant and fecund parts of the country, which was, Clay told me, and then highway signs confirmed, the end of the Oregon Trail, and so, for some, at a certain point in the violent history of this country, a promised land—I spent with my other two friends in town: Justin St. Germain and Elena Passarello, who teach nonfiction at OSU. They’ve got a podcast called I’ll Find Myself When I’m Dead, and on Saturday they let me sit down with them and talk about, among other things, essays about sex.
You can stream the episode here:
Those folks do a good job making a nervous man like me feel relaxed and welcome, though if you listen to the audio you’ll see I can’t help my run some of my words together, in a kind of almost giddy panic. What’s scary about being interviewed is that you can’t compose your thoughts, and you sure as hell can’t revise them, and though I understand this is the thrill of the live-recorded podcast it’s hell for a nervous man like me.
Luckily, I have this blog, which Elena and Justin were kind enough to plug. So I’m going to use it to revise or elaborate an idea I brought up around 41:30, where I talk about my usually feeling turned off or more shut out from most sex writing. The people who have this gift about not being ashamed, or those who assert that readers are sex goddesses, etc. I’m talking about a narrative I’ve read a lot, one that tells the story of overcoming sex shame, which almost always leaves out the middle.
Here’s the middle: “Slowly, eventually, through trial and error and progress and regression, I found a way to understand, and then let go of, the shame I have about sex.”
Is it because the middle is boring? Or is it not much of a story? Perhaps writers who write about being empowered by sex and their bodies, or who write about sex the way they write about walking into a room, all have the same middle: they just one day decided to stop shaming themselves, and there was nobody around to make them doubt that decision, and thus there’s no real dramatic weight to their middle. Or, as I surmise unfairly (and with no amount of insight on her life) about Maggie Nelson, that they were magically raised never to feel ashamed of their bodies or their sex.
A more informed surmising might be this: my favorite writers about sex have spent enough time held close by queer communities that any shame they may have had has long seeped out of them, light a bulb that gets dimmer and dimmer until you forget it was ever really on. And how do you write the experience of something unnoticed running in the background?
I’m reminded of a thing I see on social media a lot (I’ve written about this before), where people get a lot of likes when they give an unhelpful but important-sounding life tip, like this tweet I once screenshotted:
Many versions of that tweet are out there, and the most liked one has 23.1K retweets. People fucking love shit like this, and I’m calling it shit deliberately, because how, motherfucker? How do you propose people go about learning this wisdom you claim to just have?
It’s the teacher in me, perhaps, the educator Elena points to in the podcast. I get largely angry when knowledge is asserted to the uninitiated without any form of instruction or help, and so much sex writing asserts more than it instructs, or if it instructs it begins from what still to me seems like an intermediate/advanced position.
Examples, as usual, are failing me. But anyway: big sincere thanks to Justin and Elena for having me on their great podcast.