What Compassionate Hedonism Looks Like

The other night, a friend and I were heading to a happy hour hangout at one of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco—a detail I open with because this post is trying to understand some things about gluttony, restraint, money, pleasure, and virtue. We were equally wary and excited. ‘For the record, I’m dressed like I’m about to go mow the lawn,’ I texted her beforehand, and she said, ‘For what they charge they should give us clothes to eat in.’

They did not give us such clothes, but nor did they seem to sneer at my raglan T advertising a vintage jockstrap company. We ordered cocktails and talked of hedonism, my friend telling a story of someone at a writers conference who announced, amid a group discussion about bars and favorite drinks, that she felt ‘Othered’ as a person in sobriety. My friend wondered about the rise, lately, in sobriety / restraint / asceticism pleasures in the U.S. A related question: how much of the war against smoking cigarettes in the last few decades has been about public health, and how much about another victory for puritanism—defined loosely as the belief that the purpose of having a body is to keep it ‘clean’ and ‘holy’?

I imagine all of us have our own answers to that question. I’ve got a number of friends and former students who are sober, and I have every reason to believe they’re happier. I’m not any kind of authority on the reasons behind that form of doing without, but I am curious about some things that I’m here to try to work out. Namely:

  • What was the exact nature of the conflict between those people at the writers conference?
  • At what point do your habits, behaviors, and commitments become an identity you hold up alongside or against others?
  • In making heroes out of hedonists, in siding every time to the pursuit of pleasure and excess over restraint, am I indicating something of my overall values, or is it just because pleasure is easy and I can’t handle difficult feelings?

More nights than not, I drink more than the doctor-recommended 3oz of spirits. Am I drinking too much, or am I allowing myself a pleasure for its own sake? That seems to be the basis of hedonism, an ethos that seeks to maximize pleasure in its isolated form, meaning that the pleasures we get from donating our time or money to a cause we believe in, or the mild euphoria I feel after swimming a mile first thing in the morning—these are not the pleasures of the hedonist. These are ancillary pleasures.

Sometimes I feel this is the point of life: to ever increase one’s ongoing pleasure without causing increased pain in others. But pleasure has a cost. Booze at a certain amount does things to my digestive system I pay for later. All drugs and consumable vices carve themselves on the body in some fashion, and so we have the motto of temperancers everywhere: All Things In Moderation.

Temperance and moderation have its own pleasures, I imagine. But don’t feel. That is, when I provide myself temperate pleasures—when I say no to a(nother) vicious thing I enjoy—that pleasure is tinged with Good Boy status. I feel like I’m in school hoping for the gold star on my ditto. What I still, in my 40s, have not yet found a way to do is undertake and enjoy temperate pleasures for myself, and not for the approval of some (ghostly, but pressing) judge.

Hedonistic pleasures likewise carry a naughtiness to them. Oh this is really gonna piss my parents off.

*

Let me change gears here.

Sex Addicts Anonymous has this phrase they use: Keep working your circles. It refers to the central understanding of sobriety in SAA. Sex is part of being alive, and so abstinence can’t look the way it does in AA, say. Much of the early work a new SAA initiate goes through with their sponsor involves sorting their sex practices and behaviors into two circles: the Inner Circle, which holds all the things they did that brought them to SAA, all the stuff they feel bad about after; and the Outer Circle, which holds all the sex stuff that makes them feel good.

This is a psychosis, and here’s why: Everyone’s circles in SAA are different. Hiring sex workers can be in one person’s inner circle, because it’s what brought them to SAA, while it’s in another person’s outer circle, because they feel ‘addicted’ to masturbating alone to porn, and hiring sex workers is a great way to engage their sexuality with another person. Sex with sex workers, then, is neither good nor bad, it’s something in SAA that causes some of its members shame.

AA has the chemical process of addiction to base its work around. SAA has the emotional process of shame. If shame marks the boundary between the sex you feel good about and bad about, your troubled relationship to sex will not be improved by stuffing that shame into a closet. Sorting your circles accepts that shame is an augur, a useful tool. Let me accept and trust my shame to better have the sex I want, says the temperate SAAer.

But why not accept the sex you want to have to better understand shame and its effects?

When I asked that question and saw in its answer a far deeper understanding and acceptance of myself, I left SAA.

*

Another way of relating the above to the topic at hand: What does it take for someone to put every sex practice under the sun in their outer circle? (That’s the good one, confusingly; let’s just move on from the fact that SAA makes one’s ‘Inner Circle’ a thing to be avoided, bucking all idiom trends.) What happens to your identity after you dissolve the boundary, vis-a-vis your vice, between yes and no, have and have-not?

I said earlier that the point of life seemed to be increasing pleasure without increasing pain, and yes I see in that balancing act sneaky temperance waving at me, but I’m noting here the pain and harm side of all this. What makes hedonists chiefly gross figures in our myths? I’m thinking here of Des Esseintes, or Midas, or even Hedonismbot:

It’s likely a failure of my imagination this morning, forgetting some hedonists of humble means, but the key factor seems to be money. As I said before, hedonism costs—and more than the health and well-being of the hedonist’s hungover body. Vices aren’t free, and so the lesson we teach over and over again is that hedonism will lead to corruption as absolutely as absolute power. Decadence. Human trafficking. Hunting ‘the most dangerous game’.

A more everyday example is the city I live in. San Francisco—at least in terms of climate and landscapes, but also in terms of employment levels and social services—is a pleasureful place to live. For some. Creating and maintaining that pleasure requires a workforce too underpaid to afford to live among it, especially since San Francisco opted in on becoming a bedroom community for tech workers employed elsewhere. So when you go out to eat, there’s always the question of what has it cost the person who made your food for you to eat it at this price you’re willing to pay?

Which is why I was happy to pay the high prices at Che Fico, which recently added a 10% service charge to every dine-in check—paid in addition to, not in lieu of, the standard tip. Tips get distributed among the whole kitchen staff. Line cooks there reportedly make $72,000 a year.

Maybe there’s a thing called Compassionate Hedonism that continues to seek as its core ethos the increase of pleasure, but does so in a way that understands the sources of that pleasure and simultaneously minimizes any ancillary pain or harm. In this formulation, we can bring hedonism in among the other virtues, which—if you believe Montaigne—are found only through some form of pain:

[V]irtue presupposes difficulty and opposition, and cannot be exercised without a struggle. That is doubtless why we can call God good, mighty, bountiful, and just, but we cannot call him virtuous: his works are his properties and cost him no struggle.

from ‘On Cruelty’

So maybe hedonism is just another way we chase after holiness.

On Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl

I’m late to this book. I was early to it, having picked it up in 2018 (in the original printing!), but I couldn’t finish. The novel, as I wrote in a blog post on abandoning books, was ‘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.’

I don’t know what I was thinking.

Andrea Lawlor’s novel—about a boy named Paul who can transform his body’s size, shape, and even sex organs—is the queer narrative I’ve been looking for for ages. I want to try to figure out what changed, within me as a queer and/or a reader, that made me so grateful to be reading a book I had very little patience with 4 years ago. I always knew I would return to it (the reviews alone, from friends and the literati, suggested it was better than I was seeing), but I figured I’d do so as a bit of homework, housekeeping. Okay, I read it and I get why everyone loves it.

Instead, I’ve now read it and I need everyone to understand why it’s great.

*

‘Paul was never very good at having friends. If he liked someone enough to get to know them, he’d want to suck their cocks or even just make out after weeks of prolonged staring. That might be his favorite.’

Paul Polydoris is full of doubts about who he is and who he should be, who he should be with, what he should be doing with his life, etc.. He’s a very classic post-teen except when it comes to sex, about which he has few if any doubts. Paul is ‘good at sex’ in ways that have nothing to do with prowess or maneuvers in bed, and everything to do with knowing himself and what he likes or wants to try and not feeling ashamed about it. Here’s a passage from when Paul takes the titular form of Polly at Michfest:

Paul was naturally curious about girls; he didn’t know how to find a boyfriend; and sex was sex, he thought. Later, other gay men would find this remarkable; they would make their endless fish jokes, or confess proudly their inability to get hard with some cheerleader. Paul didn’t understand that. What was sex but newness? And sensation and conquest and intrigue and desire and romance and fantasy, and specific people sometimes, sure, but not always. Having sex with Heather Federson had been hotter than sucking off the fourth guy he’d ever gone down on. Not as hot as the first three, the newness there trumping their less-appealing qualities. Fucking Heather Federson had been scary and dangerous and even humiliating, and he’d felt brave to do it and protective of her and scared of her and all of that was fun, right? […] She didn’t love him either, and wouldn’t. She was proving something on him too. Boys were harder, easier, more dangerous, and mostly Paul just wanted them more, but something was better than nothing, when it came to sex, and always, always he was curious.

Note the line ‘other gay men’—one of Paul’s many gifts is his ability to stay himself (a gay man) even when he’s fucking his girlfriend with his girl genitals. In Paul, the bounty of queerness multiplies and shifts as his body does, or his whimful desires do. He’s a total hero to me in this way—not in that I wish I could also have female genitals to explore lesbian sex with, but because Paul doesn’t let any categorical identity dictate his choices and desires.[1]

I can’t tell you how good it feels to read a novel about a queer character who just likes sex, and in liking sex acknowledges the reality of HIV (this story is set in 1993, by the way), but for whom sex doesn’t become a question of identity, destiny, or self-worth. It feels revolutionary, but maybe I’ve just been reading the wrong novels lately….

*

Another of Paul’s gifts is having grown up in thickly queer circles, which has given him sharply hewn opinions on art and aesthetics. Before I get to some examples, and why I love that the novel makes room for them, I want to first point out how remarkable this is. There are plenty of novels about gay men—going all the way back to Giovanni’s Room at least—that stick their protagonists in relative isolation. These novels tend to be tragedies, and even humorless ones,[2] which I’ve always found strange given how funny gay people are. When you yourself are a queer kid in isolation—no queer friends, no clubs at your school, etc.—these novels seem to affirm the lies you can’t help tell yourself (well, you’ve picked them up from the air around you): your difference is going to be painful, and likely leave you loveless, if you don’t commit suicide by the end of your short narrative.

Here are some representative passages I marked:

[Paul] crossed the street and used all the change in his pockets to buy two Boston cremes. He leaned on the counter, eating his donuts out of the bag. Paul liked any food that exploded into his mouth: grapes, Freshen-Up gum, soup dumplings. There was something pleasing, something orderly, about swallowing a mess.

[Paul’s friend] Jane was alternately drawn to and horrified by Darwinism, and often found herself attributing phenomena to the unseeable (hormones, pheromones) despite her strict identification as a social constructionist. This was one of her sore places. Was biology destiny, in fact? That might really fuck up not only her identity but her dissertation.

He ostentatiously returned [Patti Smith’s] Radio Ethiopia to the rack…. He made it to the shop on time, took the key from Madge, the owner, who was off to scout rural Salvation Armies. Paul settled into the big leather chair to think, because no one bought expensive snap shirts before noon.
Patti Smith—why was she such a genius? The cover of Horses was tacked to the shop wall. He tried to imagine the day Mapplethorpe took that picture, what Patti Smith had been thinking. He wished he had a cigarette. He thought about the smell of piss baking on the August streets of the East Village. he imagined drinking Patti Smith’s piss, then Robert Mapplethorpe’s. Then Jean Genet’s. Then River Phoenix’s.

This was the stuff that I think originally made me put the book away. Nothing was happening. Paul didn’t want anything specific, and there was then no clear obstacle to get in the way of that pursuit. Etc. Etc. But lately I’ve been looking for queer narratives that are queer in form and not just in the characters involved—which, when they perpetuate ancient narratives about queer sex as tragic or disease-bringing, or even worse, when they mirror Austen-style love & marriage plots but with gays!, makes me think of the inevitable season of The Bachelor that’s the exact same show but just with men.[3]

I think I’m done with queer representation inside hetero forms. Lawlor’s consistent trust in association, digression, and tangents (best illustrated in the Patti Smith passage above), delivers a narrative as fluid and shifting as Paul’s body. The engine that drives whatever plot is here involves moods and ideas, and in this way it reminded me of maybe the queerest novel I’ve ever read: Huysmans’s À Rebours.

If you’re looking for a good story in the classic sense of plot and pacing and resolution, PTTFOAMG will disappoint you—as it did the me I was in 2018. But if what you want in a novel is to transport you into a body and a mind you can live inside for a while, and read their world through that perspective, this novel is for you. It’s for everyone. I’m so glad I returned to it.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I know I’m not getting very deeply into the explorations and arguments about gender this novel pursues, mostly because it’s not exactly my beat and others have already written more smartly about this than I could. But here I do want to point you toward a really smart essay Lawlor has in Mutha on becoming a parent and seeking a new term for themselves.
  2. I’m thinking here of Lie with Me, A Little Life, most of Garth Greenwell, likely other renowned novels I as a gay man do not need any more of (but which I’m also not sure I’m the intended audience for, which is a post for another time.)
  3. Oh wait, Logo already did this, alas.

7 [something] Subjects for Clickworthy Newsletters

I publish a fortnightly newsletter called Shenny, if you haven’t heard. In the last couple of months, subscribers have asked me why I don’t use Substack or Medium or any of the other sites out there that essentially do everything for you. The short answer: control issues. I like having everything I do—email, blog, newsletters, etc.—integrated into the same domain. (I could much more easily use Gmail to run email on my domain, but I don’t, to give you an extent of the neurosis.)

At any rate, I use WordPress to run the back-end of this site (or, more specifically, my site designer and friend Beth Sullivan used WordPress when she built it), and through minimal research found the Newsletter Plugin to build Shenny with. It took a few weeks of working through all the settings to get them just right—integrating the mail functions with my domain’s SMTP servers, modifying the DNS record, and tweaking the CSS to match the look (Beth helped a ton)—but I think it was worth it, because I get to maintain control.

If I were to score The Newsletter Plugin on its documentation I’d give them a B, or a B- on my frustrated days. The information seems to all be there, just not easy to navigate to. The other day, I saw a little lightbulb icon next to the window where you’re supposed to enter the newsletter email’s subject. Get Ideas it read. My subjects are set by default: ‘Shenny: [Random Thing I Recall About One Of My Sisters]’, but I was curious and clicked on it.

Here’s what I got:

What I love about these suggestions is how they assume you’ve got the content but have failed to figure out how to pitch it, that you’ve just written a killer newsletter about the secrets of certain famous people—like the Arquettes, say, or the Branch Davidians—and need help making sure your subscribers click. I doubly love just accepting these lines as actual word-for-word newsletter subjects. ’10 Ways to Simplify Your Something’ has a nice frank honesty to it, because does it really matter what? We all have a something we could simplify, just give us the ways.

However, who am I to second-guess the people who do newsletter marketing for a living? So I thought I’d try out some of these templates. Maybe I’ll generate some quality content for a future Shenny.

  • 10 Lies [a Minnesotan] Likes to Tell
  • How safe is your [hermit crab] from [being assaulted]?
  • Don’t do These 10 Things When [Chewing]
  • Get Rid of [A Broken Leg] Once and Forever
  • 10 Warning Signs That [Jesus Died For Your Sins]
  • How to End [An Unwanted Pregnancy]
  • 10 [Bedwetting] Mistakes That Make You Look Dumb

Newslettering is harder than I make it look.

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.

Plains Spoken

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.

Split-Level Houses

Maybe you’ve been watching Mare of Easttown like Neal and I have these last few weeks, and probably you’ve heard that what makes the prestige crime drama so compelling is the accents. Kate Winslet says /wooder/ in the pilot, etc. etc.

Well, we finished the show last night, after its great finale, and what I loved the most about the show was Mare’s house. Here’s the exterior:

It’s a split-level; half of the bottom floor is underground, and the top floor is like 4 feet above the grass. This is the kind of house I grew up in. For 18 years I knew only this kind of home as a home, and everything I learned about the world out there came from TV and movies, and that’s what I want to write about today. In all those 18 years I basically never saw another on-screen split-level house, even though pretty much everyone I knew who didn’t live in a townhome lived in one.

So I never got to see my home as a Real American Home.

Much of this is pragmatic: good luck filming inside a split-level house. As soon as you walk in you can only go up or down. Here’s Mare’s foyer:

Now: that’s a fairly huge split-level foyer. Ours was maybe half that, no fancy windows on either side of the door. (Neal’s mom’s old house had this big a foyer; the realtors who sold it called it an Executive Split-Level.) Given that so many scenes in homes take place at the door—welcoming home a long-lost relative, receiving a package that kicks the plot into motion—what you need is a home with the kind of foyer that branches out around the floor. Like this:

Look at all the places The Simpsons can go once they close the door! They can go to the formal living room, they can go to the dining room, they can go upstairs, they can go back to the coat closet, they can go over to the chest of drawers where they’re storing who knows what!

These were the kinds of houses they made in Reston, or Great Falls, or even the newer homes across Herndon Parkway from us, the ones that were all brick on the outside and had big high church-like windows over the front doors.

I know the Simpsons are far from rich, but where I grew up theirs was the kind of house wealthy people lived in. So when I watched Mare of Easttown, though it’s set hours from where I grew up, I felt like I was home again, living among the kind of people I knew growing up, and that we also had stories worth telling.

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Mare’s house is gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. Look at the laid brick walkway, above, and the black paved drive. Look at this kitchen that stems from the living room at the top of the steps:

We don’t really see it in the show, but that back door seems to go to a mudroom kinda thing that dollars for donuts was added on to the house years after it was built, which somewhere back there I just know has a back door that opens to a tiny painted wood deck, the paint long peeled and flaking, with warped-nail wooden steps leading down to the backyard surrounded by a chainlink fence. I love the built-in cabinet by the fridge, and all the undercounter lighting. And I love how it’s got, from certain seats at the eat-in table, a direct view of the front door:

My guess is that when Mare’s house was built, that kitchen was two rooms separated by walls: a kitchen and a dining room. Maybe you could access the kitchen from the top of the stairs, but it’s also possible you had to walk through the living room, over into the dining room in the back corner of the top floor, and then into the kitchen—like with the split-level in Fairfax my pal BJ lived in for a few years after college. And also the split-level he grew up in in Herndon, a house that was like a second home to me. That house, the house on Maleady Drive, was special in that the formal living room was on a kind of half level halfway up the stairs, with the top of the landing leading you to the dining room and kitchen.

I don’t know what else to say. Are they even making split-level homes anymore? A cursory search online says yes, but they’re big and fancy. Was our house big and fancy when my parents bought it, as new construction, in 1976? Unlikely. For a number of years there were six of us living in there. Here’s what it looks like:

There used to be a crabapple tree there to the left of the driveway. The garage was added after I was born. There’s no way to get into the house from there but to walk out and down that walkway, which I don’t remember being at an oblique angle. There’s no way we wouldn’t have cut right across the lawn.