One wall of our bedroom, the wall closest to my sleeping body, is mostly window, and it’s got just slats to block the light, not drapes. Here’s my view when I wake up most mornings:
I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but if I’m woken—by the need to piss, by a 7am robocall, by the early summer dawn—it can be a struggle to return. I might swallow and feel the passage in my inner ear clear out and open up, or my eyelid, if I open it for too long, will soften and decalcify, and I know it’s the beginning of the end. I know that falling back to sleep shouldn’t be a struggle, but my mind thinks it can accomplish most of what it wants through will and brute intellecting. When I’m woken before I’m ready to, I think Oh no and then I think No no, we’re going to take care of this and before I know it my mind is calculating awake minutes and worrying whether they’re too many in number and I’m the awakest I’ve been.
I sleep with a mask so that I can sleep in, because otherwise I’ll wake with the light. This isn’t bad in these dark and late mornings—though last night Neal and I went to bed at 2 after watching a third bad Christmas movie—but in summer it’s vital. I don’t fall asleep with the mask on. I don’t like it on my face. But at some point in the night as I turn over in bed I see it’s still dark in the room and I grab it off my nightstand, sliding it over my eyes, readying to fight the sun to get a full 7 hours.
This leads me to the moment I’m trying to write about. My mask is wide and dense. The light can’t creep in around its edges. Every morning there’s a point when my mind signals it’s time to get up, when its thoughts are no longer dreamy and imagey and associative but now conscious and about the day ahead. With the mask on, I don’t know if there’s light in the room yet. I don’t know what time it is. So I have to make a decision: do I pry up the mask a little to gauge the light in the room?
There are mornings when my mind sends the get-up signal, and when I do I see it’s 6am. The room is fully dark. Neal is deeply asleep next to me. And I panic: what am I going to do now? And the panic solidifies it: I’m not going back to sleep.
Every time I reach for the mask, to pry it up and check the morning light, I am filled with Election-Day levels of dread and hope. Please let it be light out. I should say that I’m fortunate. More times than not I peer around the mask and it’s light out, and what does that mean for me? It means I’ve had enough sleep, probably. It means I don’t have to struggle to try to fall back asleep, hating my stupid brain and my broken body for failing to do their jobs. It means I don’t have to lie there in the darkness, with nothing to occupy my thoughts, the room around 62°. Outside the bed feels cold and mean, which helps make our bed such a joy. My favorite part of the day is rolling leftward after lights out and holding Neal close, the warmth of him. I love our sheets and our down comforters. We each sleep with our own, Scandinavianly, with no top sheet. Every chilly pre-dawn, my body can be very comfortable in my discomfiting wakefulness, which only makes it harder to do what’s hard to do every morning, and particularly those mornings I’m stuck awake before I have any reason to be: get out of bed.
I’ve had only one dream in 2020 where I caught myself in the outside world without a mask on my face. I don’t remember where I was, a farmer’s market seems the best choice, someplace outside and commercial, but I remember the burning feelings of panic and shame. Otherwise, my dreams have been set in a world different from this one, where masks aren’t needed. I can be reckless there without feeling shitty about it.
The hard thing about virtue is that we no longer seem to be rewarded for any of it. I’ve done everything right every day and this is what my life has become? All the same, I try to remain brave and patient and kind and fair to others the way I shave or put on clean underwear and a pair of pants with a belt. Who is this for?
The key tenet of esteem-building is that it’s always foremost for yourself. “Ask yourself if these negative beliefs about yourself are true. Would you say them to a friend? If you wouldn’t say them to someone else, don’t say them to yourself.” I’d never break a promise to my friend, but it’s easy to have a second martini after having told myself not to have a first. When I start to fill the shaker once again with ice, the feeling I have is forgiveness. Let’s not be so hard on ourselves, say the I I’m trying to be and the I I am. Another hard thing: when I say that, am I being kind to myself, or is it self-betrayal?
Anyway I feel full of virtue these days, and it’s a dumb feeling.
One night, not long ago, I got the idea for a short story:
Title: Why Are You Hitting Yourself? (or Why I Am Hitting Myself)
It’s a story about a depressed person who drinks too much and who’s found not cutting as a means of coping but trying to punch himself in the face. Get really technical and specific about it: right hand versus left hand, the resulting look of bruising and such, the pains that linger physical and emotional. He’s like a connoisseur of it.
The good feeling comes from the pain maybe, but that’s only the tiniest surface of it. There’s the idea of someone hitting him as just punishment. It feels good to be hit by somebody, hit hard, right in the face, where it will show and hurt. Like: it’s the pleasure of being recognized as a shitty horrible person who needs to be corrected by the world, and punished for being so bad at being a person, so the punch in the face is a public service. It’s like chiropractic. “This isn’t going to make you any better but maybe the hurt of it will stop you from getting worse. You should feel good for knowing that it’s right to submit to this pain and hitting in your ugly wrong face.”
It’s not a silent plea for sympathy, it’s a plea to be regarded in not-proud-of-this disgust.
When I read over these notes the following morning, I emailed my therapist to see whether we could schedule an emergency appointment. She was off for the next two weeks, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to get through those weeks on my own. She saw me first thing Monday morning and urged me to get out of our apartment every day. The only thing I had to do out there was look at something new or different. She asked me what I would do if I could do anything right now, if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.
“Swim laps,” I said. It hit me quickly. My greatest dream right now would be to be given the keys to the gym on campus, where there’s an olympic-size pool, and sit on the edge and pull on my goggles and take a deep breath and launch myself into the water. As soon as the vividness of that image hit me, I felt the weight of its absence and that made me feel worse.
She pointed out I can’t swim right now, but I can exercise. I can walk through the park. Golden Gate Park: it’s right across the street from our building. I have a path I like to take. It shows me a lot of things I can’t see inside, some of it even beautiful. I hate that my life’s been reduced to this, a diet of gruel for a sick man.
The general feeling I have these days is displacement. The I I am, or that I’ve been, is somebody I can see way over yonder, my eyesight failing a little, his contours blurring. (Forget the I I’m trying to be, he’s out of the picture—or perhaps one of the gifts of depression is that it finally unites these two frenemies into the same target.) Every morning is a reminder that I’ve woken into this unwelcome world again, that I’m not dreaming. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed and walk through the park, but I know I have to, for now. It’s another dumb thing I’m made to do, but it’s working.
This is a series of posts looking for enjoyment and pleasures in a time when both are in short supply. The first one was about music. The second one was about books.
1. Lodge 49 Full disclosure: this show was created by a guy I’m friendly with. A friend? We hung out at a writers’ conference and text maybe once a year. We’re friendsly. So while I’ve always been eager to support Jim’s pilot he was trying to sell, I didn’t necessarily have to like it, much less love it as much as I do to now want to come on here and write about how it’s one of the most important series I’ve seen a while.
Lodge 49 ran for two seasons on AMC and is now bingeable on Hulu. It’s about another Pollyanna: Dud, a surfer in Long Beach trying to recenter his life after his father dies, who wanders into Lodge 49 of the Order of the Lynx—something like the Lions or the Masons or what have you, but women and people of color are also allowed in.
That aspect of the show shouldn’t be undersold. Watching Lodge 49, I was repeatedly reminded of something Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants, about the total absence of what she calls “human faces” on TV. Instead we get Hollywood Faces, and I’m sensitive about the effects on us humans of watching so many unhuman faces perform at us what they consider the everyday drama of being human. Instead, look at these people:
Those are the stars of the show. That’s the main cast. Here’s maybe the secondary cast, “led” by Liz, the sister of Dud, also grieving her father’s death:
Lodge 49 shows us, without fanfare or self-righteousness, what kind of TV stories we can tell when we start assuming diversity as a fact of the U.S. present, and understand that while racism is real, not every POC narrative is about identity struggles. Here’s something Lodge 49 cast member Vik Sahay posted on social media about it:
Again, this isn’t “race blind” casting, it’s casting with an eye on the realities of the time and place the show is set in: Long Beach, CA in the 21st century—another thing I don’t want to undersell. TV does a much better job of this than movies, but how many shows do you love that are on the air right now are about real people living in the here and now? I don’t want to disparage sci-fi or fantasy or historical dramas, but more and more I feel that Hollywood (or all of us, in the art we choose to consume) has outsourced the task of telling stories about our collective present to the news.
I understand how, say, Lovecraft Country or The Crown are about back then but are really about right now, the way all sci-fi is So Totally About Right Now If You Look At It Right. What happens here is that art becomes partially an act of translation toward commentary. We watch the story we’re given with an eye on what aspect of our present is being satirized or critiqued.
What we don’t do is watch people live lives that could be happening right down the road from us. Any potential curiosity or imagination about our present is squelched in another exercise of receiving an opinion of it. And I for one feel there’s a dearth these days of us imagining others’ lives alongside or even into our own.
Lodge 49 gives so much to its viewers, and it seems to have given a lot to its cast. Maybe it was engineered to give character actors depths that other gigs don’t give them—look especially at the very funny David Pasquesi in pretty much every scene they put him in. Liz, played by the really good Sonya Cassidy, was probably my favorite character, someone we just never get to see on TV—an unambitious woman who is mostly fine with her choices and often perhaps because of that the wisest person in the room.
I haven’t even touched on the alchemy. I’m so glad AMC gave Lodge 49 a chance, if even only for two seasons. It’s streaming in its entirety on Hulu—which if you’ve decided you don’t need because you have Netflix I can tell you that Hulu has better shows: The Great, What We Do in the Shadows, Rick & Morty, The Golden Girls, The Joy of Painting, Bob’s Burgers. Go get Hulu, and then go binge Lodge 49. No need to thank me.
2. The Criterion Channel Neal got me this for my birthday back in May, and I spent much of the summer watching every Mike Leigh movie. My favorite of his used to be Career Girls but now it’s without question Happy Go Lucky—a movie committed to how an unending sense of humor forms you into a serious and compassionate person (and how the lack thereof can do the opposite). Watching them all within a couple months, screen up close to my nose on my laptop, helped me see the quirks and beauty of his cinematographer, Dick Pope’s, careful framing. E.g.:
Now I’m watching every Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie in order. I’m sure I must have been told how queer Fassbinder was, but I must not have paid attention. Queers in every movie, and they’re not all getting beat up or killed—some are even our heroes! I’m bored, chiefly, by ’69–’71 avant-garde Fassbinder. Warum läuft Herr R amok? has a juvenile, Solondzian understanding of violence that I’ve read Fassbinder gets smarter at later in life. Whity is a racist mess, but I did like the gorgeous pastiche of The Niklashausen Journey (some of these I had to find elsewhere; The Criterion Channel has most but not all Fassbinders). My fave so far has been Katzelmacher, where all the disaffected touches seem to smartly condemn the youths embracing them, in their xenophobia against the title role.
Plus Fassbinder can get it:
At any rate, coming up are the mid-70s Sirkian domestic dramas: Petra von Kant and Maria Braun and all them. By my count there are 31 movies to watch, the last of which is Querelle, Fassbinder’s adaptation of Jean Genet. I’m looking at it off in the distance as like a champagne bottle at the finish line.
This is a series of posts looking for enjoyment and pleasures in a time when both are in short supply. The first one was about music.
Yesterday was hard. The blunt fact of Neal’s and my living situation hit us again, as it does, despite our attempts not to think about it—viz. we are a couple in our 40s living in a cramped 500sqft 1-bedroom at the whims and mercy of our landlords who, while mostly okay, would like nothing more than to get us out of this rent-controlled unit we’ve been in for 7 years so they could start making even more money. To move into something larger, we’ll have to either leave the city and spend money on a commute, or pay around $3,500 a month, and given that Neal was among the people his company laid off this summer for COVID reasons, it doesn’t look like that’s happening soon.
So the prominent feeling of the home we’ve been mostly trapped inside since March is that we’re trapped.
I spent my whole childhood and adolescence dreaming of living in a big city. People continually tell me, a tenured MFA Program director in a big city, that I have a dream job. Yesterday felt like every dream is a nightmare if you see past all its bullshit.
But wait, I promised Pollyannaism, and what does this have to do with books?
Back when we could wander libraries, I wandered past this beauty on the reference shelf of the Mechanics’ Institute. Ages ago, when I was in gradschool, I read the advice that a good way for a writer to expand their vocabulary is to find a pocket dictionary and underline those words you know but never use, because habit or other motivations never bring it to mind when you need it. I did this years ago but never took the time to make a list of such words, which is the only thing that makes this practice useful.
For the MacKay book, the job was more “underline those words that aren’t at least worse than the common words we now use instead of what like Chaucer or Spenser were writing”.
These are the lost beauties I love:
afeared – struck with fear (contra the French afrayer)
aftermath – the pasture after the grass has been mowed, a second mowing
alder – genitive plural of all; superlative prefix (Alder-Father = father of all)
inwit – conscience (opposed to “outwit”: knowledge, info)
kexy – juiceless, dry
lowlyhood / -ness – humility
lugsome – heavy, difficult to drag along
mammer – to hesitate or doubt
plackless – moneyless
rindle – to sparkle like running water; a mountain stream
ro(a)ky – hazy, misty, nebulous, not clear (from French for hoarse, thick)
samely – monotonous, unvaried
snipsy – sarcastic, cutting
squintard – a person who squints
thoughty – meditative, pensive
tifty – quarrelsome
trantles – articles of little value, toys, petty articles of furniture (cf. “flaunts”) twisty contentious, ill-humored, capricious
wofare – sorrow, misfortune (the opposite of welfare)
wordridden – to be a slave to words without understanding their meaning; to be overawed by words rather than an argument
yonderly – shy, timid, retiring
youthy – having the false appearance of being youthful (cf. childish v. childlike)
There are a lot of words in this language for “quarrelsome”, which reminds me of fruit bats, who it turns out spend most of their squeaking hours complaining. But what I mostly took away from the book is that Charles MacKay[*] has a fundamentalist insistence on the Anglo-Saxon that would make even James Joyce roll his eyes.
That said, it takes a certain type to love at first sight “samely” over “monotonous”. “Monotonous” has suddenly become such a stupid word, all those dumb O’s, that stupid silent U. Call me wordridden, but “samely” is … I dunno it just feels honester.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
Mackay? There’s not a single spot in the book where this name isn’t printed in all-caps so who knows?↵