STANLEY TUCCI IS A TOP

Hello friends--

I gutted my closet this weekend. I took out all of the old sweaters and casual shirts with birds and boats on them. I took down the coats with holes in the sleeves. I threw away the floral shirts with wide collars. I marveled that I had ever been the kind of optimistic person who thought I might one day be skinny enough to wear these clothes, or okay enough with my body looking like a bell jar when squeezed into ungiving wool. I think facing one’s closet can be depressing because it’s full of all those dropped aspirations. Lives you once had and lives that totally failed to materialize. It’s a palimpsest of the past, present, and the future. A closet tells you all the ways you’ve let yourself down.

I initially only meant to make a little bit of space for my new fleeces and corduroy trousers. But I saw this one boxy plaid button-down that had hung in my closet in Alabama, and then Madison, and now Iowa City. It had followed me like a really ingrained bad habit. I took it down and said, You know what, you’re out of here. Then came its twin, a shirt identical to the first except in white. Then came the flannels I’d bought last year but which never fit right. Down came the coats with the weird button, sweaters that smelled dusty and made creaky sounds when stretched, sweaters I had accidentally shrunk last year, more bad prints. I had bought all of these clothes in a giddy rush. Thinking, oh this will look great, this will be great, but here they’d hung unused and unneeded, taking up space, reminding me of my neglect.

I piled them into a large garbage bag and left the bag in the middle of my kitchen. I couldn’t take them out to the trash because it rained all weekend. It cleared on Monday, but I had things to do. I meant to do it today, but I have a headache. As you can see, I love to make excuses, to find reasons to delay taking an irrevocable action. I’ll do it. I’ll let you know how it goes. Lift it over my shoulder and lug it out to the barrels on the side of the house. A little like disposing of a body.

The fleeces look great though, all hung up and ready for when the weather breaks and sweater weather begins in earnest. I’m going to buy a couple of flannels to go with the fleece vest. I have quite a lot of sweaters, actually, but I do need to replace my lambswool one. I’m thinking of getting a green sweater. It’s rare to find clothes in my size in actual color. After a certain size, color disappears. Fit disappears. We’re doomed to billowy, boxy whites and blacks. It’s hard to find something austere, something beautiful, something in a good, solid color, something with fight, light, energy. That’s why I buy two of everything I find that I like. That’s why I wear my clothes to death, because they feel charged with something powerful. Finding an article of clothing that feels good on my body is like stumbling upon Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead--a reordering of the fundamental forces of the universe. A mundane miracle. 

Anyway, I am pleased about my fall staples. I’ll get some flannels. An Oxford or two. Maybe get some hard-soled shoes. Thick socks. My specific aesthetic goal is dress like a graduate student whose French professor invites them to stay with her husband in Connecticut after a horrifying break up with a faculty member, and when you arrive at her home, you find out that her husband is funny and gentle and left-handed and well-dressed. And then, she has to leave for a couple of days to do city things, but she’ll be back soon, and oh no, you are suddenly alone with him. In my mind, her husband is played by Stanley Tucci.

Stanley Tucci definitely belongs to that strain of East Coast distant but loving father figure who sometimes drinks a little too much and is beset at night by the common worries of living in a materialist capitalist society. He definitely seems like the kind of man who makes jokes over a dinner that he cooks with his wife, and you sit at their table marveling at how beautiful and wealthy their family is, but also, there’s a moment during the dinner where he winks at you and you wonder what that’s about, and later, you see him sitting by the pool in shorts and no shirt, but the pool is heated because it’s like, late October in Connecticut, so it’s cool, but not frigid yet, and he says something sweet and sad about it almost being the last swim of the season and you kind of laugh and repeat that word back to him season, and he kind of frowns, but then he laughs too, and says I get it, I get it, where I’m from, there are no seasons, and you say, No, yeah, like, I didn’t mean it that way, and he says, You did, but that’s okay, and he slides into the water and does the backstroke and you kind of admire his body but then find yourself admiring it so you look away, and he asks you to hand him a towel even though it’s right there and well within reach, but you do it, and he holds on to it, and you hold on to it, and there’s like, a towel between you, and he says Thanks and you can kind of smell the Brandy from dinner, and you say, Okay, and you go to pull away, but he tugs on the towel, and suddenly, wow, you are in proximity and you say something dumb like, You’re warm, and he just kind of smirks at you as he wraps the towel around his hsoulders and says, Heated pool. And when he leaves, you think about how he said that Heated pool, and you think about it all night, and you’re just lying there on their scratchy guest sheets, Heated pool, heated pool, heated pool, and the next morning, his wife leaves to go back to the city, and she says, Have fun, behave! and she says that she’ll be back in a couple of days, and he seems genuinely sad that she’s leaving, and this both makes you like him more and hate him at the same time, and she says to you, and this gives you chills, Look after him. He’s hopeless. And you say, Sure thing, and you hope that she doesn’t see right through you but of course she does because she’s the smartest person you know and you really shouldn’t be doing this, and it feels like a betrayal since she invited you to her house to stay after the really bad break up with so and so, whose name you can’t even bring yourself to think, and you repay her by looking at her husband in his quite too small swimming trunks in the middle of the night, and you hug her, and there are tears in your eyes, and she thinks you’re just grateful, but what you’re really crying about is how you desperately you hope you don’t make a horrible mistake even though you know you will because it’s inevitable, like the turn of the seasons, and when she lets you go, she wipes your tears and says, Hang in there. It’ll get easier.

A picture of a young Stanley Tucci circulated the internet a couple of weeks ago, the one where he’s in denim and a white shirt, and his arms look like they could crack boulders. He’s wearing some blasé expression that isn’t not self-satisfaction. To say that he is hot in this picture is to almost miss the point. Yes, Stanley Tucci is hot. Yes. He is attractive. But there’s something more, too. A kind of solidity that goes beyond mere hot and I would sleep with you. It’s not even just sex appeal. There’s something about Stanley Tucci that makes you want to totally disrupt your life and risk it all, at a moment’s notice. Like, you just want him to take you into his arms and tell you all the ways that you’ve disappointed him. Like, you want him to throw you against a wall and say, You’re going to make it up to me, aren’t you? Maybe that’s just me. Anyway. Stanley Tucci is great.

I hope sweater weather reaches you soon, wherever you are. I hope your week goes well. See you Thursday.

b

BILLY CRUDUP IS HOT NOW? WOW

Hello friends--

I saw After the Wedding last night, and while I am not sure it is a good movie, I enjoyed it a lot. I’m putting it in the pile of “research” for my Rich People Novel. The film itself is such a perplexing, rambling slideshow that I found it difficult to figure out if I was supposed to laugh or feel sad or feel nothing at all in moments of high emotion. There was also an incredible inconsistency in the way it was shot. Sometimes in a standard, realist way. Other times, there was such a saturated light  draped over the scenes that it resembled less a movie than a Cialis commercial. Weird, sweeping shots. Odd deployment of flashbacks. And, at times, it was so heavy-handed that you almost wanted to laugh just to give yourself a little breathing room. It’s a film about a woman who fled the materialistic West for India who is forced to return when the orphanage she runs is offered a windfall by a mysterious benefactor. The film is full of secrets that are not secrets, and anyone who pays even a little bit of attention through the first ten or fifteen minutes knows exactly how it will end and why.

Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams were great though. The way they squared off across tables and fired statistics and data at one another, countering cold, brutal fact with piercing emotional clarity was really something to see. This film was a remake of another film, except that one starring men, and this one starring women. You could tell that the director had something he wanted to say about women and work, the sacrifices they must make, etc. The problem was not the messages themselves, which could make for a really robust and interesting dilemma. The problem was that the director/screenwriter does not...believe in subtlety. Or at least, he believes in the wrong kind of subtlety. In a series of truly bizarre scenes, characters confront one another, but the most important parts of these conversations get erased via transitions. Characters get up and leave. Characters stop talking. It’s emotionally dishonest and manipulative, frankly, and more than that, it’s kind of cowardly. I can understand how it looks like subtlety and deference to the difficulty of saying what needs to be said and our inarticulateness in the face of real emotional and intractable moral quandaries, but that wasn’t this. This was just bad scene making.

That said, I loved the clothes. Isabel (Michelle Williams) throwing her shoes off to pound down the stairs of Theresa (Moore) literal glass and chrome tower was stellar. The meaty slap of her feet. The gorgeous dark blouse she wore with the high-waisted but voluminous slacks. The hard tack tack tack of her shoe soles on the hardwood of Theresa’s Westchester-y compound. Theresa’s gorgeous goldenrod stunner at her daughter’s wedding. Isabel’s red shawl wrapped a variety of ways. That beautiful wool suit worn by the douchey husband of Theresa’s daughter. Billy Crudup plays Theresa’s husband, and he appears in a series of chore coats that made me groan in the theater. Chambray. Denim. A light linen blend. And his jeans, god. Billy Crudup’s recent pivot to middle-aged dad who wears glasses is a vibe

Let’s dwell here for a moment. The first scene we see with him is when he’s at a gallery space sampling lightning for his show. He is a sculptor. But those first shots. First him in profile. Then him turning, slowly, looking, studying. Close-up to his face, which has gone suddenly architectural, weathered, and moody. His hair pulled back, that fantastic front of his forehead, furrowed slightly in thought. He is intent. He is focused, thinking. Suddenly, the phone rings. It’s his daughter. He goes soft, is encouraging, gentle with her. It’s her big weekend. She’s nervous. He gets home. You see him swaggering into the bathroom where Julianne Moore is submerged in soap bubbles. There is an easy, gentle calm about him. He rubs her feet. Then climbs into the tub, fully clothed, an antic gesture, and something that has been tense goes away. I don’t know, friends. I never found him hot before? I never found him that attractive. But between this film and Where’d You Go Bernadette? I think I might be having a moment of being incredibly into Billy Crudup? Maybe it’s the flannel. Maybe it’s the chore coats. Maybe it’s the gentleness of his hands when he’s working on his art. Maybe it’s the vulnerability he displays in this role—not so much impervious caretaker as gentle, sensitive, permeable human? I don’t know. But I am into it. It’s all very confusing.

I also loved the trappings of wealth. The artbooks stacked tastefully on end tables. The tall, wide windows. The very expensive porch furniture. All of the beautiful glasses and decanters. The beautiful countertops in their huge bathrooms. The fountain pens. There’s a way that wealth in films tends to translate into sterile ultra-modern, showy, chrome-based wealth. All skinny suits and $500 haircuts. Wealth of the new day. Gatsby wealth. But I think what I find most appealing is secretive wealth. The kind of wealth that almost gets by you, wealth that whispers in the background, keeping everything going, and it’s only when you stop to think, wait, this house is enormous, how on Earth did you afford this? Wealth that strikes like a bad thought on the edge of sleep, sudden and undeniable. 

I think that’s why I read Anthology and Kinfolk, and what drew me to Vogue and Vanity Fair when I was younger. I was always interested not so much in wealth so much as the trappings, the lived-in-ness of it all. I mean, I don’t want to be rich exactly so much as I want material comfort and to live in a cabin far away from everyone. But even that has been co-opted by the wealthy. The idea of retreating from the world is such a privileged notion, and yet, if I were to describe the way I grew up: away from the world is pretty high up on the list. And we were not wealthy. But enclave has certainly become a synonym for wealth. Isolation one of the operating means of wealth, its ability to self-aggregate and segregate like hydrophobic materials in water. But yet, I love beautiful clothes and beautiful things. I love polished floors and reclaimed wood and tall windows and great decks and good views. I love material comfort. 

For me, all a movie has to do is gesture toward the vague notion of quiet family money, and I will absolutely watch it to the very end. A little cinematography and a beloved cardigan, and I’m set. Although, interestingly, this film had a lot of wealth porn, which I loved, but it seemed weirdly determined to make a statement about wealth. And it was always in these desperate, apologetic scenes and dialogue, a hasty, aren’t they monsters? energy about the place that made the film kind of crack apart for me. As much as the film insists upon this moral dichotomy between those who have and those who don’t, I still found myself laughing a little at the way the film treated those porn orphans? They come up only to remind us what Isabel misses about being back in India. We do not really dwell in the material of their lives. It all feels very superficial and manipulative. So, in a way, this film itself is a perfect example of the kind of thing it’s trying to indict, and had it just, I don’t know, not tried to indict the culture in which it is embedded, it probably would have made a rather convincing moral case about wealth and the disparities of the global economy. 

I guess it makes me wonder about a certain strain of criticism running through American fiction these days. Almost anyone who’s been in a workshop recently, has probably heard some iteration of it: Where do they get their money? How can they afford this? I don’t want to read about middle class problems? God, this white people money shit. Okay, but I found myself wondering, could a poor person do this? And on. What irritates me is not that we are finally talking about class and wealth in terms of art (because it’s about time). Rather, what irritates me is that suddenly everyone is an economist? Suddenly, everyone wants to trot out an economic critique of a story without any real understanding of economics? Or class? It’s a bunch of mewling cats, honestly. And it’s not just in workshops. You see it in response to novels and short fiction published, too. This kind of facile, virtue-signaling discourse around wealth in fiction like it’s somehow new to write and think about rich people. I don’t know.

I’m just thinking a lot about wealth and the responses to wealth in terms of art and what are the limits to what art can do re: a critique of economic disparities and entrenched social injustices. But then all this thinking gets in the way of the breezy city novel about rich people I wanted to write. And then I just feel sad. It’s all a work in progress.

But definitely go see After the Wedding, if for no other reason than the clothes and the beautiful houses and the gorgeous shots of Michelle Williams in twilight, telling a man to get the hell away from her.

ALSO: I have a new short story up at Guernica today. It’s called “Anne of Cleves.” Hope you enjoy.

b

WHY DO SHOES DROP ANYWAY?

Hello friends--

First, I guess, some business-adjacent things: For Lit Hub, I wrote an essay about doctors and masculinity, fear, and trauma. And then, Roxane Gay wrote this incredibly generous and smart review of Real Life over on Good Reads. I also had to pull out of Brooklyn Book Festival because I lost my debit card and the replacement won’t be here in time to travel, so welcome to my chaotic life.

The novel doesn’t come out for another five-ish months, which feels at the same time like an eternity and also like it’s happening tomorrow. People have been asking me what it feels like to be this close to publication, to have people reading the book and making their own minds about it, etc. I don’t really know how to answer that question because I don’t know how to feel, really. I think for a really long time, I survived my life by not expecting anything to happen, and when things did happen for me, I just pretended that they didn’t because they just as easily might be taken away. What does it feel like? It feels like desperately trying to start a fire and then rushing to snuff it out the minute it sparks to life. That’s what it feels like.

I think I just always expect the other shoe to drop so there’s no use in getting excited about things. I think I also always suspect other people of deception and platitude. At bottom, I think survivors are cynical. How else to make sense of the changeful nature of the world, how easily it all dissolves and slips away. I lived in two worlds simultaneously, two worlds that were mutually exclusive and which seemed to refute the existence of the other. There was my life at home and my life at school. My life as a victim of sexualized violence and my life as the kid who got the blue ribbon in jump rope at field day. I have always been adept at compartmentalization. Anyway, when good things happen to me, I just store them in a small, dark corner of my mind like so many unopened Christmas presents because it always seems like what’s the point when there could be snakes or scorpions hiding in them. People say, You must be so excited! And what I feel in that particular moment is the icy sting of their passive aggressive exclamation point, like my behavior is being corrected by way of a frigid spritz from a spray bottle. It’s not excitement exactly. It’s not.

What I feel in the greatest degree is a fear that I have become a person who experiences happiness at positive outcomes. It feels like some essential and necessary instinct has gone soft or faded entirely. I’m afraid that the minute I let my guard down and believe in a positive outcome, all of the consequences that have been waiting will rush in and fall upon me at once. All that back pay for fortune. 

Which I know is not a healthy way to live, but it is a coping mechanism by which I have stayed alive. So, there you have it. Survival strategies make negotiating safety difficult because I never feel quite safe. I am safe now. I have been safe for years. And yet, and yet, and yet.

But I also feel great gratitude for the people who have read my work over the years and have supported it. I feel fortunate that people seem to enjoy this weird habit of mine. It means the world to me. I’m trying to be better about letting myself feel it, to take it in. What a ridiculously lucky thing to be able to sit down and share my thoughts with people and have them share back. After a lifetime of feeling lonely and strange and unwanted, it’s almost too much to bear. Like seeing the ocean for the first time. All that water.

I am trying and failing to work on another novel. It’s probably still too soon after finishing a manuscript to be trying to do another. But I really want to try, while I still have some time, before the pub cycle consumes my every waking thought. But it’s been so hard. I  feel like I have no idea what I am doing, which of course is natural and normal. But this feels punitive. Like I’m locked out of my own mind. I feel like I must have abused it in somehow to have earned this kind of cold shoulder. I mean, there’s nothing up there. And I know what you will say: lie fallow, give it time, etc. etc. I mean, yes, obviously. But also, oh no. Writing is the thing that makes me happiest. For me, it’s not an act of self-invention so much as it is an act of self-erasure. When I’m writing, I’m not in myself. I’m not me. I exist outside of my body, my life. I miss living inside of a larger story. I miss being consumed by writing. Right now, it’s derailed me into not even being able to read. It’s just a bad situation all-around, and I am approaching toxic levels of misery. But those are the breaks, I guess. I’m not happy unless I have a project, and I just feel like there’s no real shape to my life. I mean, I find that I can’t even listen to Fleet Foxes, which is a real sign of dark times. 

The answer is obviously to be patient with myself, kind, generous, forgiving. The answer is obviously that things come when they will come, and that if that means, it comes in the middle of the spring in the middle of pub season, then okay, that’s what it has to be. The answer is obviously that there are no answers. Even with ourselves, we’re just casting lots, guessing at what works best and when and how, and when our guesses only make things worse, we guess still more, guessing and checking until something clicks into place. It’s fine. 

I hope that you are doing okay. I hope that your day and week go well. I hope that whatever thing you’re wrestling with finally decides to give you a little elbow room. I hope whatever you need finds its way to you. I hope you find yourself at ease. I hope that you are able to find peace within that ease. I hope that the waiting is the worst of it.

b

BIRKS ARE FOR THOREAU BROS

Hello friends--

For no reason in particular, it’s been a bad few days. My mood has been bad, I should say. The days themselves have been neutral though the weather has been foul. It’s the sort of mood that sets in just as the summer is ending and the semester is beginning, when everything hurries to lock into place as if to make up for the summer spent at dissolute ends. Suddenly, I feel like I’m running late for things I cannot even remember. Threat from every corner, stress in response to the formless sense of anticipatory neglect. I should be somewhere. I should be doing something. I have that anxious, stretched-out feeling. A feeling of so much to do, but what is it?

Anyway, I’m trying to pull out of it. To make myself feel better, I went to Active Endeavors, a sporting apparel store here in Iowa City. You might think it an odd destination for me as I am not sporty except for tennis in the fall and sometimes in the warmer part of the spring. But Active Endeavors is really more like an outlet store for the large outdoor brands: Fjällräven, The North Face, Patagonia, Marmot, Toad & Co., Camelbak, Hydro Flask, Leki, etc. The logo outside is a large green and white rendering of mountains, and it looks like an 80s decal from a shitty infomercial. It has the weird, cardbox-y cheapness of a local store that you know almost before you enter will be dim and playing country music. I grew up on Wal-Mart and chain stores, the day-glo brightness of corporate oversight. There’s something about a store run out of a back office that feels eerily like a cave to me, some kind of animal desperation in the air. But Active Endeavors is smart.

Entering the store, you do indeed find the dim interior one expects, but they’ve put their apparel up front. It’s all soft fleeces and cool, dry shell jackets. There are shirts in marbled, muted fabrics with crisp, minimalist logos on the breast. Often, these logos make use of animals or landmarks (mountains, rivers, waterfalls) or equipment (oars, a campfire). You find them on caps, backpacks, water bottles. What I find eerie browsing the clothing on the racks is how well coordinated they are, even across brands, as if there had been some agreement that everyone would put out collections starring muted burgundy, faded slate, deep navy, and moss green. Or, I guess it’s more accurate to say that these colors are the core vocabulary of outdoors brands. The color of dying embers, the color of deep, impassable waters, the color of the earth underfoot. They churn out variations, but never stray too far from this constitutive vocabulary of color and tone. There’s very little play in a sporting apparel store. Everything feels like an outdoor Lutheran meeting, which is to say that it feels like dating a guy who’s really into Thoreau. 

I find great peace here. Running my hand across the flannels, admiring how soft they are, how warm, admiring also the unintentional humor of it all.  While there’s very little play in an athletic apparel store, there’s plenty to laugh at because what becomes clear to anyone who spends more than ten minutes in one is that the reason it all feels so solemn is because the articles of clothing take themselves quite seriously. And how could they not. These aren’t just clothes. These are clothes with a function. Clothes meant to keep you alive in extreme conditions--in rain, in blizzard, in flood, in wind, in earthquake, in avalanche, in being perilously suspended in thin air, in being pinned to a rock in the desert. These are clothes and implements designed not just with look in mind but with utility. Holding on to their sleeves, you feel the stiff edges of the tags that advertise on slippery laminate rectangles promises of their capacity to save you. Features: various meshes, cords, cables, layers, microfiber, insulation, flexibility, plastene, spandex, stretch, stiffen, dig, claw, rake.

Among the many shelves of muted, minimalist clothing, one spots brilliant bolts of color: blue, yellow, steely gray, red, a hot pink. The Hydro Flasks perch like birds in the ramble, invisible until you spot the first one and then there they all are, falling out of the blind. You become aware that someone has planned this. Arranged everything so that it looks functional, like those tables one sometimes stumbles across on Instagram, tutorials showing you how to pack, how to live. Or, else, showing you arrangements of how your life could be and might be if you dared to change. Also seductively colored, hiding as if they were shy of their color but proud of it: the $300 packs meant to hold all of your items for camping and living, made of durable fabric with an industrial but environmentally consciousness machine somewhere in the third world. 

Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos of people who argue about whether or not The North Face has betrayed its founders’ vision of conservation and preservation; these tan, beautiful white people with semi-okay teeth and shaggy hair urge people to try Marmot instead, try Patagonia instead. Suddenly, not merely enough to ensure survival of one human in conditions nonconducive to human survival but also, somehow, the planet too. Wrap the world in a Patagonia jacket and hope for the best, I guess. These people are not mere people but adventurers. People with a mission. With a cause. They have dreadlocks and I wonder, why, in a way that is both ironic and sincere.

Another thing I have been watching lately, the number of people in Birkenstocks. It’s like I closed my eyes, and now suddenly, everyone is wearing them just like how in the winter, everyone will be wearing the same tan Timberland boots. Tall, shaggy blond men. Fit athletes walking with the staggered gait of the injured. Young women in yoga pants carrying bags slung across thier shoulders, laughing at the street corner. Tall, short. Black guys in short shorts that they will soon trade for skinny denim. All these people, laughing as they go, crying as they go, talking about drama from last night, how Taylor was totally fucking in the wrong and how Heather like, won’t call me back but why, bro, she’s so into me, and like, why does Mike think I’m not smart, I’m totally smart, I took calculus in tenth grade, like? How do they know which jackets to buy, which shoes? How do they know how to dress themselves? Is there a signal? Is there a catalog? Or is it like the brands with their three-color vocabulary? It’s baked in, perhaps. Ingrained. Or else, imitation, biomimicry, an improvised solution to a question that some of us don’t even hear being asked. Amazing what we can do.

I went into the store because I was finally going to buy some Birkenstocks. I meant to back in the summer, when I was helped by a tall blond man with eyes so blue they seemed unnatural and terrifying. He had one of those perfectly symmetrical faces and hair that was delicate and fine, but a little long and combed back. He had very pale skin, and I could see his blue veins in his arms when he rotated the shoe around and inspected it for the size. He was near-sighted but embarrassed to hold the shoe closer to his face. I could tell as I am also near-sighted. He was wearing a vest. It was cool that day. I was also wearing a vest. We were dressed alike. He told me they didn’t have the color I wanted. He would order it. I would return for it. He was also wearing Birkenstocks--gray, I think. As I left, I tweeted about him being my husband, met in a department store. He was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at me, no doubt waiting for anyone to walk through the door. The other thing about a sporting apparel store is that they are not merely self-serious but also deeply competitive. The clerks sweep their grid looking for unattended customers, waiting for them to cross the invisible lines that mark up the territory. As I passed into this guy’s territory, he was at my elbow almost immediately. Need anything? I said No, and he backed off. But I could feel his eyes on me the whole time. Waiting. It felt like cruising. When both parties silently know that there is an exchange to be made. He circled the rack of shoes as I looked, and I felt him pass closer and closer until, finally, I was ready for him. His vest was a little too short. He had on a white shirt, and had the stiff upper carriage of a lifelong athlete who has shifted into recreational weight training. His little squint was endearing because it told me something about him that he had wanted to hide, and I think there must always been something endearing in the way people accidentally give themselves away. His ankle bones were red, as if chapped.

On this day, he was not here. On this day, I was helped by a shorter, squatter man who looked like he had wrestled in high school but had been outclassed in college. There’s something in the body of a wrestler that gives it away. You know almost immediately when you look at one. Or I do. I knew a lot of wrestlers in high school. They were sleepy and anxious. One of them was in my anatomy class. We dissected large rats and sheep brains together in 11th grade. He was really gifted, could perfectly separate membranes. His hands were swift and nimble. He said he used it to get guys to give when they needed a little help. Sometimes, he showed me a weird thing he could do with his shoulder. I remember he had an insulin pump. I remember a school project once, where he brought in food that his mom had made. They were from Sicily, originally, he said, his mom’s family. He had a very English last name, but he identified as Italian. Last year, he moved to Pensacola, which I found out via Facebook. I hadn’t thought of him in years. Suddenly, there he was. With blond dreadlocks, which was not surprising but still, I thought, Oh, ew, why. He played in a reggae band. A few days ago, he died. 

I bought the Birkenstocks offered to me by this short, friendly blond man who talked too loudly for the quiet store, but was solicitous. He seemed to not really know what he was doing. The first man was really good. He helped me divine my size. The right tension between big enough and small enough. You have to grow into a Birkenstock. It has to relax around you. So you have to buy a shoe that you know one day you’ll have to cinch up. You have to account for widening. This guy smoothed his hair back off his head. His arms had that kind of softness that seems like it used to be firm. He had glossy brown eyes. His vowels were watery and wide. Midwestern to the core. Where had he learned to ape his surfer aesthetic. He was wearing a vest. It wasn’t cool that day. It was far too hot.

The good news was that the Birkenstocks were on sale. I got the gray ones. They were hard the last few days. Like a new pet. Testing me. But they’ve begun to give just a little. I feel them settling in. Last weekend, I went to a party. A workshop party, a list-serv party. People were surprised to see me because I do not typically go to parties. I’ve been a ghost in Iowa City. There but not there. Anyway, I went out back behind this tiny house where some people had made a fire in the ground and were sitting around, talking. I was on the edge of them, couldn’t get close. It was the sort of scene you see sometimes in these late summer nights, a scene like one I wrote into my novel because I myself had experienced them when I lived in Madison. A night when you sit around in the casual ease of too much time and too much anticipation for the semester to begin and you burn wood but what you’re really burning is your old self. Or maybe that’s just me. Whenever I see a fire, I like to put things into it, and I imagine I am placing a part of myself I want to get rid of into the heart of the blaze. I used to burn things with my grandpa in the winter. He’d pry open the wood burning stove to put more logs in, and I’d throw paper into it. I’d write people’s names on it and throw them right in there and watch them turn gray and then to nothing before he put logs in.

In Alabama, in the country, we burn our trash in barrels. Everything goes in, all the trash. Sometimes, the men do it for warmth while they drink cheap vodka that rots their insides. Sometimes, it’s the only way to get warm outside and they have no desire to go inside. Sometimes when I think about campfires as this cultural signal of recreation, of good times, of affluence, of freedom for the constraints of life, I think about those barrels in Alabama. And how sometimes, the men would pick up raccoon skulls and toss them in, and up would shoot a strip of orange stars, curling into the night like a wish nobody could hear. 

I think of Birkenstocks as perfect autumn shoes. You put on some thick-ish socks and you slide and clomp around in the crisp air like a new person. People see your Birks and they think they know something about you. It tells them something. It lets them know that you are tuned to the signal pulsing through the air, the one that lets all of the people with good lives and good homes know what they should wear and what they should do. At the campfire, I stood there moving my mouth and talking, but secretly thinking I do not belong here. I should leave. Wanting to leave. 

It’s been a bad couple of days. But I am getting better. How are you?

b

WEIRDLY EARNEST

Hello friends--

Yesterday, I taught my first proper creative writing class on the sentence. It went well, I think. The students were engaged and present. I had wondered if they would be interested or willing to discuss the political dimension of the language we use and how it undergirds things like what is considered professional, acceptable for public discourse, or respectable. I had also wondered if I was qualified to broach such a topic. But to my surprise, they went there all on their own, and we dug down into the weird, invisible rules that govern how one emails a professor and how you know you’ve trespassed with friends when they suddenly start punctuating their sentences. Apparently, there are a lot of teachers who have very strong feelings about how their students address them. Some teachers won’t even respond to emails that don’t open with a formal address. 

In some ways, it was frightfully familiar. I grew up in Alabama, and hierarchies of power were all around me. They ran through every part of life, ordering interactions with the precision of a feudal French court. I remember moving to the Midwest as a graduate student and being told by my instructors to refer to them by first name.  I’d respond with Dr. So and So, and Yes, ma’am, or Yes, sir. It embarrassed them, but they also found it amusing, as though my rigid politeness were a party trick. I acclimated, but it took me a year to stop calling my thesis advisor by Dr. So and So. It does feel like a trespass to refer to instructors by their first names. It feels like I’m saying that you and I are equals even though we exist in a relationship with a power differential. I think there’s also a part of me that is always ready to lapse into the role of the junior party in any exchange. Which is all to say that it was strange to find myself at the head of the classroom, leading the conversation, with a bunch of students looking at me as an authority figure.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can be a good teacher. I want my students to feel comfortable. I want them to feel as though they can ask me for help or seek accommodations. I don’t want to be punitive. I don’t want to be the “Hello, my fellow youths” teacher either. I don’t want to be naive about the way authority works. What I’m trying to say is that it’s very difficult and will take work and vigilance. And I’m learning how to do that. 

I think it’s easy for authority figures to act in a casual, breezy way with people over whom they have authority. When you have the power, every interaction isn’t necessarily a high-wire act. I think a lot of the casual charisma that men wield in social situations is really just power. It’s always up to the person with power to decide how and when to deploy it. It’s up to the person with power whether or not they will enforce or relax formality. The person with power sets the tone. As long as there is power in a relationship, someone will always have more of it. Power by its very nature is rooted in disparity between parties. 

It reminds me of this story I’ve told the internet, I’m sure. In college, I was friends with this guy, Balog. He was from Belgium, but his family was Hungarian. He spoke like seven languages, which is not that strange if you are from Belgium, which is kind of like the middle child of Europe. Balog was tall and had a real temper problem. We’d play table tennis, and when he missed a shot, he’d slap his thigh with the paddle and curse in Hungarian in a voice so loud it shook the cafeteria. Anyway, Balog was one of many athletes who frequented our table tennis table, and I became friends with them because they all spoke French, and they’d coax me into speaking French with them. All was great. Except one day, I spotted Balog in the computer lab and stopped to say hi. He was watching soccer and was slouched low in a chair, and I could tell he was in a bad mood, but I liked him, and we usually got along well, so when we started talking, I used the casual tu form with him, and he turned his head very slowly to look me directly in the eye. His lip curled a little, and he leaned toward me, and corrected me, vous. It felt like he’d slid something hard and blunt between my ribs while staring in my eyes the whole time, and it was horribly embarrassing because what do you even do when someone radically retracts intimacy in such a loud and obvious way. It was a relationship in which he possessed the power, and I had forgotten that somehow, and he quickly reminded me that that was not the case. Later, he found me at the table, and he plopped down beside me on the shitty couches and nudged me with his elbow, and just like that, we were friends again. He was a mercurial guy. He’s doing very well now.

According to the weather service, a warm front pushed through which first sucked in some cold air and then a bunch of warm air. The result was that Monday was balmy and gray. So wet you could almost drink the air. But the day only got warmer as it went on, not cooler, and at night, the temperature was in the high 70s. The rain came first. Hard, driving. Then the thunder and lightning. The wind was a surprise. For a moment, I thought the tornado watch had turned into something much more severe, but instead it was this really powerful wind. One of those strange, wild Iowa winds. I thought it would blow my windows in. It got in and around the AC unit in the window and knocked cups from my counter. I peered through the window, and it had twisted limbs from trees and sent rain in waves running backward in the street and up the hill. Then it was gone, like it had tired itself out. 

It’s going to be hot for several days before breaking in about two weeks. Then we’ll be on our way to proper fall. But this is Iowa, so who knows what any of this actually means. At this point, it feels like I’ll be hot until I die, like it will never again be 50 degrees, and I’ll have to go on sweating and suffering until it all ends with the sun exploding. Is this how the dinosaurs felt? Is this extinction? Just constantly foul weather until your whole species ceases to exist? Amazing.

A few small updates, I guess. Galleys of Real Life appear to have made their way into the world. Or the slightly larger than my bedroom world. Pics have been popping up on social media, which makes me happy and also terrified because oh no, people are reading what I wrote, oh no. I have an essay about doctors and fear and masculinity coming out this week sometime. I’ll say when. And I think I have a short story coming out in a few weeks. Keep an eye out for my weird little scribbles. The issue of American Short Fiction with my story is out there in the wild. Grab a copy! There are some really great stories in it.

I’ll be at Brooklyn Book Festival, moderating a cool panel. Say hi if you’re there. I’ll also be at Wisconsin Book Festival in October. So say hi there too. Catch me before I’m gone, like a weird Iowa wind.

b

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