When the Internet is Good

I can’t imagine what it must be like not to feel unusual every waking day, and whether or not I ought to believe such people exist, I do. Maybe they’re not online. Or maybe they make online unbearable. The Internet is good when the loneliest person who feels like a freak clicks somewhere and reads someone else also lamenting the same lonely freakishness.

For years I’ve convinced myself that I’m the only person on the planet who, when writing by hand, leaps ahead a letter or two before they’re supposed to. I’ll start on “the” and go “t” and then “e” and then stop, rewrite an “h” over the “e”, and then go do the “e” again. I do this on the board when I write on the board in classes, and I know my students notice and I always pretend I’m not freaking the fuck out.

I do this when I speak, too, in that my thought comes to me faster than my mouth can form it, and so I rarely enunciate. My brain moves too fast. What an arrogant problem to decide I have! And yet: what else is the Internet for than googling one’s shameful arrogant problems?

Last night I found this forum discussion: Does Your Brain Go Faster Than Your Mouth/Hands? That I found it on a discussion board for people on the autism spectrum is something I’m continuing to ignore. Here’s what I was made to feel less lonely and freakish by:

I can’t sort out my writing though – I’m constantly thinking way ahead of myself when I’m writing, and sometimes I find that because I’ve been thinking about a particular word I’m going to write a bit later, I’ve actually half-written one word and merged it with the word I was thinking about. My handwriting is a terrible mess.

My handwriting is a terrible mess. I think of all of these things—my clumsy leaping ahead while writing, the general mess of my penmanship, my froggy voice that fails every time to be clear and project—as failings. They are ways I disappoint and come up short.

Whether or not this is a good way to see my behaviors, the Internet, when it’s good, shows me that other people struggle with the same problems. Solidarity. Solidarity gives me objectivity. These aren’t necessarily failings if successful people manage them. Now: what do I want to do about these features, if anything?

It struck me that one useful project might be to start writing into or about the things that make me feel alone and freakish, because I have to believe from all the evidence shown that I’m going to reach someone like me, and maybe we in our distance can help each other out.

Incidentally, on looking around for voice specialists (yes, it gets this bad sometimes that I’m willing to pay another expert to fix me in this other way), I came across what speech pathologists call the “Rainbow Passage” which from what I can tell comes from an old voice articulation textbook from the 1960s. I’m becoming obsessed with it:

When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow. The rainbow is a division of white light into many beautiful colors. These take the shape of a long round arch, with its path high above, and its two ends apparently beyond the horizon. There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People look but no one ever finds it. When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

My Year of Queer Reading: Recommenced

Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.

While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:

  • Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
  • Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
  • Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
  • Less – Andrew Sean Greer
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
  • Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos

I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.

My Year of Queer Reading: Wayne Koestenbaum’s Humiliation

It’s unconscionable that it’s taken me so long to discover Wayne Koestenbaum’s essays: he’s writing in the precise mix of intellectual, critical, and personal that I aim for. A role model. I read his My 1980’s and Other Essays, a kind of omnibus of recent shorter pieces, earlier in the month, and it made me hungry for something longform. Humiliation is a booklength essay on that topic in the shape of 11 fugues.

It’s the sort of book I hope this book I’m writing might turn out like.

Here are just two of the things I loved (of so much in the book worth loving, like Koestenbaum’s writing on shame and the body and the queer body and porn and desire). One is what he calls “the Jim Crow Gaze”:

The eyes of a white person, a white supremacist, a bigot, living in a state of apartheid, looking at a black person (please remember that “white” and “black” aren’t eternally fixed terms): this intolerant gaze contains coldness, deadness, nonrecognition. This gaze doesn’t see a person; it sees a scab, an offense, a spot of absence.

It’s a useful term for a look I’ve seen on faces my whole life. A face we see every day on the president. A look I imagine I’ve worn more than once.

The other thing is the entirety of page 171, from the book’s final fugue, listing humiliations from Koestenbaum’s past:

23.
I gave two of my poetry books, warmly inscribed, to a major poet. A few years later, my proteg? told me that she’d found those very copies, with their embarrassingly effusive inscriptions, at a used-book store.

24.
At an academic conference, a student stood up, during the question-and-answer period, and accused me of assigning only white writers in a seminar he’d taken with me. Some audience members, appreciating the student’s bravery, applauded.

25.
After the panel ended, a colleague?whom I considered culturally conservative?came up to hug me. I told him not to hug me right now; I didn’t want my revolutionary accusers to see me collaborating with privileged humanists.

26.
The next day, I called up this colleague and asked him out to lunch. At first he refused. He said, “You shunned me.” The next day, at the cafe, he told me about a lifetime of being shunned.

27.
Later, this colleague died of AIDS. I didn’t visit him in the hospital.

This litany of humiliations piled on each other makes me feel terrible. I feel Koestenbaum’s humiliation not just for having been an unsavory person, but for recounting these humiliations on the page. (This feeling of mine he expects and accounts for and speaks to throughout the book.) It’s so brave, which is a word I’ve tended to hate applying to essays.

Lately, I’ve been auto-sending a tweet each morning asking for suggestions of Twitter accounts that intentionally embarrass themselves or don’t try to appear likable or admirable or aggrieved. None have come in. Unsurprisingly, the only suggestions I do get are of parody accounts, or folks tweeting as some kind of funny character.

I read Humiliation, especially its final fugue, and trying to imagine it as a series of tweets I find myself dumb. My mind blank. To be a whole person online feels almost anatomically impossible, righteousness inhering to that experience as grammar does to a sentence. These days I’m seeing any such denial or avoidance of my embarrassments and private humiliating miseries to be a kind of self-treason.

My Year of Queer Reading: Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions

A new favorite. I didn’t know that all my life I’d been looking for a fable about queers loving and working together as they prepare to destroy the patriarchy. Or “the men” in Mitchell’s parlance:

The first revolutions destroyed the great cultures of the women. Once the men triumphed, all that was other from them was considered inferior and therefore worthy only of abuse and contempt and extinction. Stories told of these times are of heroic action and terrifying defeat and silent waiting. Stories told of these times make the faggots and their friends weep.

The second revolutions made many of the people less poor and a small group of men without color very rich. With craftiness and wit the faggots and their friends are able to live in this time, some in comfort and some in defiance. The men remain enchanted by plunder and destruction. The men are deceived easily and so the faggots and their friends have nearly enough to eat and more than enough time to think about what it means to be alive as the third revolutions are beginning.

It’s a short book. Over the course of it, the faggots and their friends help each other stay alive and sane in Ramrod, a place run by the men. These friends include the women, the [drag] queens, the [radical] fairies, the faggatinas and the dykelets. Even the “queer men” who dress and walk among the men, “using all the tricks their fathers taught them” and at night go out and cruise the faggots.

One of the beautiful things about this book, which is full of beauty and wisdom and even pretty line drawings, is how generous it is with its spirit. It is easy as an out and proud faggot to hate on the closeted “queer men” in this book. I’ve done it myself: big vocal public anger at Larry Craig types who work to protect and maintain straight power, and then try to also reap the joys of queer sex.

You don’t get to have both unless everyone gets to have both. You pricks should be locked up for life.

Mitchell, as I’ve said, is more generous. Here’s how he ends the page on the queer men:

It’s the most beautiful book I’ve read about solidarity.

That it’s a book everyone should read doesn’t, probably, go without saying. Maybe isn’t readily apparent. If I’m making it seem like this book (from 1977 and out of print, but any easy googling will turn up a PDF) isn’t for you straight friends of us faggots, if I’m making it seem like something niche, or a relic, know that this book gave me the clearest lesson on what the patriarchy is, at heart, and not just why but how to fight it.

I’ll leave you with one more bit to inspire you, one I’m planning to hang over my desk at work:

My Year of Queer Reading: Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up

Abandoned halfway through. This book is Not For Me. I think I failed to take its title literally enough: this is a how-to book for folks between their quarter- and mid-life crises. If All Advice Is Autobiographical, this book is a memoir, but one directed at a You I couldn’t quite step into:

Breakups make me feel old and haggard, all used up. Getting a new hairdo or a shot of Botox lifts me out of dumps. Even a mani-pedi and an eyebrow wax remind me to take care of myself?an outward manifestation of all the inner self-care breakups require of you, and a continuation of the declaration of self-love that you made when you dumped that fool. Oh, wait?the fool dumped you? As we say in 12-step, rejection is God’s protection! The Universe is looking out for you by taking away someone who was bringing you down. Give thanks by getting a facial.

What makes this Not For Me has little to do with gender (I like mani-pedis and restorative skincare treatments). It’s got a little more, perhaps, to do with age, but mostly it has to do with my looking for wisdom these days beyond 12-step bromides and This Worked For Me So It’ll Totally Work For You advice. But here’s where I’m trying to take this post: I can recall a time when I would’ve finished this book and set it aside a satisfied customer. Tea’s book’s being Not For Me is all about me, not her book.

Reading it brought me back to my first term teaching at USF. I had a student who wrote flash essays in this Tea-ish/How-To vein, specifically about how the reader might go about self-treating their depression without needing drugs or therapy. Self-care tips. Streetwise, This Worked For Me anecdotes. Assumptions that the reader’s life/background/belief system were in line with the author’s.

I was a shrewd, ungenerous reader of this work, aiming in my feedback to bring it all around to what I knew as Classic, Universal Essay Form: lengthen and enrich the structures, deploy more psychic distance between the narrator- and character-selves, etc. I wrote honest marginalia about how the You being spoken to was not me and was presuming things about me I couldn’t agree with.

The student protested: maybe I was reading it wrong, or unfamiliar with the style.

I counter-protested: how else can I help you but by reading this as I am, and gearing my feedback/revisions toward The General Reader?

Reading Tea, I saw at last an example of how I was wrong. If pushed in that classroom to describe The General Reader, I imagine I’d describe a man with a background and reading history closely aligned to my own. It is clear on every page of Tea’s book that whatever her notion of The General Reader might be, it’s not a 40-year-old professor who stays mostly at home and distrusts even the slightest interest in fashion and material objects.

The General Reader doesn’t exist. Not universally. It’s something I always try to keep in mind in the classroom: how is this work asking to be read? What do I know of the writing process (not The Essay Form) that can help this student see their work more deeply and develop it to the end.

I don’t know what I would do if handed Tea’s book in a workshop, but I know I wouldn’t do or say anything without listening to her first about what the work is, to her, and where she wants to go with it.