Something borrowed

The other day I walked through the rain to my local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where I would get a card to make this move official. Until you have a library card you can pretend you’re off the grid, but my gypsy days are over because I borrowed a spy film and a copy of Chess for Dummies. But the walk, the rain. The Bed-Stuy streets were basically deserted, so I felt the presence of the approaching man from a block away. Wondered if I should play it coy, keep my eyes lowered until the last second, then say something affable about the lousy weather. Was my neighbor also formulating a plan for our intersection? Maybe he would compliment the bright colors of my umbrella. I’d have to be conversationally flexible in case he had his own agenda. Most likely we’d exchange a few universal words about spring. (Me, privately, to spring: For fuck’s sake, spring!) We’d walk away from each others’ faces feeling either worse or better about ourselves.

Sharing the world with other people is draining. Not draining: the puddles on the sidewalk that the man was fording with his shopping trolley. They were deep and wide and barely navigable by human persons of our sort. As we closed in on each other, I noted that the man’s cart was filled to the brim with folded laundry. But the top of his laundry duffel was loose, open, getting drizzled with rain. I nodded mutely at the man with what I thought was an exemplary amount of neighborly affect. He nodded back, and at that moment a dozen bundles of paired socks dove out of his shopping trolley like lemurs, then became absorbed by the puddles I described earlier as build-up to this lemur analogy (perhaps the most overextended analogy of all time, yet still applicable to at least two thirds of my enterprises).

At first the man didn’t notice that he was dribbling socks behind him like a trail of breadcrumbs that would return him to the laundromat. (Sometimes it’s fun to really commit to making certain things like other things.)

“Sir!” I said. “Your socks!” The man stopped short and turned toward the wake of his shopping trolley with dread that bordered on existential.

“Oh noooo,” he said, surveying the carnage with hands crumpling in slo-mo to his face. “It’s a dreeeaaam.”

When he said it was a dream, I was immediately transported into a storyline where the soiled socks and the cold rain and the library books I coveted and my soggy shoes and my wet hair and Brooklyn-at-large and the seasons distorted beyond recognition were all part of a dream, his dream. The man’s dream made sense of the past ten months, when I wrote a book, got divorced, said goodbye to my Virginia family, moved back to the city, stared through countless windows at countless grey skies, ran back and forth across bridges, shivered, blew clandestine snot rockets, held babies, listened to a million songs, burned to write, wrote little of worth, made my peace with obscurity, washed the stink out of my clothes, neglected most films, most books, most people, lay facedown on the hardwood floor long enough to make my roommates uncomfortable, thought about whales, thought about the sex lives of teenagers, explored bad and worse habits, drank green tea to counteract aforementioned habits, made a profession of having feelings, contemplated dropping out of my profession the second I had something tangible to offer it, discovered rap music, fell in love with Dunkin Donuts, mourned my grandmother (forever), mourned my dad (forever), did a lot of dishes (when you do the dishes, do the dishes, says the Buddha), gave too much leeway to men, briefly inhabited the Pleasure Dome, and then was asked to leave.

Don’t you see, my bloods, that it’s all been a part of this laundry man’s dream? A dream, not a nightmare. Let’s not cast our judgment upon a stranger’s subconscious. His long winter created this fantasy world. Our sleep world where the rain can’t get in. If life is but a dream, my own modest butt is square in the middle. Together we made the dream, a function of this beastly climate. We wear the dream, launder the dream, in an infinite wash cycle until we die clean. Or maybe dirty. The dream tumbles out. Who died? It’s a dream yo the deaths don’t count. Who loves or is ditched for other lovers or feels hurt and want. It’s a dream. It’s a dream and then there are libraries to give expression to it. It’s a dream, it’s a borrowed book, and then it is pure, dry, dry as a desert, dry as sleep.

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Cooking with Butter

“Who are the real writers?” asks the author of Cooking with Butter (unpublished 2012, 2013). What are they cooking with? What superior foods lubricate their baking dishes and frying pans? How do they manage to flavor without butter, my accent ingredient?

Is it wrong to obsess about the cookbooks of other authors? What makes them so great? Maybe it’s better to stir fry with sunflower oil. Or with bacon fat. But aren’t we all driving for the same result, the same sensual pleasure? Do we even need multiple flavors in the kitchen? Our cakes will crumble like the Tower of Babel. Eventually all tastes congeal into the same sordid substance. We rarely die with a book in our hands or food on our lips.

Do I honestly think that I can churn out butter like no one before me? Is it inherently selfish to want people to handle my recipes? To desire cravenly that my dishes find a wider audience? Does my cookbook by definition make me an egomaniac? Should I just execute these recipes for my own consumption instead of writing them down and sharing them with the world? Does butter need to be at-large? Should I skip the writing process altogether and just eat this dairy product in its purest form, congealed, with a spoon, from a bowl, in the dark? After all, recipes are always one remove from real food. My cookbook is not butter. You cannot eat it. The only nourishment it may provide is in culinary translation.

I should blog more frequently about butter. I should use social media to hype this essential ingredient. I’m going to start tweeting about my recipes. They’re edible, which means they should be publicized. Butter deserves a full-time hustler. Everyone needs to see how I put food together. Everyone needs to know the taste in my mouth.

Strike that. Sadly, no one is living or dying by my pompous butter recipes. Plus, what if my readers try them out and the butter malfunctions, like the fat operates differently in their personal skillets? And then I’d have to deal with the shame, the remainders.

Oh butter, maybe it’s better we pretend you don’t exist in my refrigerator. I cannot cook you so you’re righteous and savory with every meal. Only sometimes in the dead of night, or when I’m driving alone for long stretches, becoming one with my laden arteries, do I feel that I’m doing something right in the kitchen.

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Dropping the f-bomb in labor & delivery

If you are in the midst of having a baby, I am perhaps not the *best* person to accompany you into labor & delivery, but I am also not the *worst*. For instance, some people are psychotic. Some people have Ebola. When you invite me into your labor & delivery room, you can expect my behavior to be generally innocuous. I might panic and press the nurse’s call button when you stand to stretch your legs. I might be a little too interested in the snacks meant to keep your strength up. And I might keep gravitating toward your birthing jacuzzi because I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. But I am also super invested in making your birthing experience a beautiful one.

Even though the labor & delivery security band on my wrist entitles me to “free drinks” in the cafeteria upstairs, I will not start thinking of the hospital as an exclusive nightclub where “anything goes” because I have an “all-access pass.” I will not keep flashing my wristband to family members in the maternity ward lobby who are not in possession of wristbands, for I would hate for them to feel self conscious about not making the cut. I will not start thinking of the nurses as “bouncers”  who “know me.” When asked how things are going beyond the security doors, I will not insinuate that there are mysteries occurring in labor & delivery that those without wristbands could never understand, and I will not compare my birthing room privileges to being backstage at a Jay-Z concert, drinking champagne with Beyonce and Blue Ivy while everyone else is getting their flasks confiscated in the cheap seats, because childbirth is a miracle and the miracle is not how cool I am all of a sudden.

I will not swear more than 50 times in front of your newborn. I will not blog about your private parts. (Even though no one reads this blog so it might be kind of liberating to have your vagina on here.)

But I will worship the ground you walk on for a long time to come. And I will wear my all-access wristband until the nurses turn on me and insist on cutting it off. They’ll take these precautions before I get carried away with love and try to steal your baby. At this point the bouncers know me all too well.

Welcome to the world, little nephew. I hope you dig crazy aunts. xo

 

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Let’s talk more science, okay

Because I went to art school, I understand how science works. When I’m zipping around Brooklyn trying to find a communal apartment so I can regress to my twenties and I walk into a duplex where a potential roommate is cooking up some body wax on the stove top because he’s about to strip off all his chest hair in order to make more money go-go dancing, I immediately recognize the chemical processes involved. And I make hypotheses.

But also there are real scientists out there doing awesome experiments like “What Would Happen if We Created a Mouse Utopia?” and “Maybe Lead Poisoning Is Responsible for Juvenile Delinquency Let’s Check That Out,” so I discard all my own research (“Do I Have Heartburn? Is This What Heartburn Feels Like?”) and just concentrate on supplementing their findings.

1) The mouse utopia/dystopia. Move a colony of mice into a “heaven” of your own manufacture and watch them breed until they refuse to breed further because they’re so depressed by overpopulation. Watch them have total meltdowns because they can’t find meaningful social roles. Watch them join OkCupid. Watch them fill scores of composition books with their jaded musings. Watch them wither and die. Watch me preside over their ornate burial services because mice are so funny and cute.

2) The lead poisoning hypothesis. Take inner-city living conditions that are already miserable and unforgiving and add neurological toxins. Watch how your children turn out. Watch how they’re hobbled by poverty, prejudice, and coordinates before they even have a chance to sample Earth’s full range of venom. Watch how they turn to a life of crime because the lead has deteriorated the myelin in their brains. Watch me chug this Big Gulp full of vintage gasoline because both of these theories are so discouraging.

On the surface the two studies have little in common–one is about mice and one is about crime–but popular science drives readers to make grandiose conclusions about the demise of humanity so we can feel smarter when we’re mingling by the cheese table at parties. Both studies want to prove (confirmation bias) that there are good reasons we’re falling apart. There are too many mice in the cage! There are too many toxic fumes in the baby’s crib! I am secretly a dolphin! Root vegetables cause blindness! Hirsute go-go dancers make twice as many tips! [It is frustrating when I can't be serious for five goddamn minutes. My fellow scientists are trying to get me moved to another laboratory.]

And the lead poisoning article is somewhat problematic, as you might imagine. It’s just too elegant and its conclusions too costly to taxpayers. But who would dare question the study on rodent/human malaise, wherein:

Lone females retreated to isolated nesting boxes on penthouse levels. Other males, a group Calhoun termed “the beautiful ones,” never sought sex and never fought—they just ate, slept, and groomed, wrapped in narcissistic introspection.

And who, for that matter, would dare stop me from building my own rat castle, where the walls are painted in Pb(CH2CH3)4 compounds and I’ve isolated for variables such as some rats having a bigger “babe quotient” than other rats? And what about if I put a pea under every rat mattress and then the experiment was also a fairy tale? And what if we are all going to die alone and dystopic anyway so ultimately this study proves nothing? And what about that time I got kind of drunk and tried to do science? What about that? I can’t wait to replicate these results tomorrow night and the next. Sleep well, rat kingdom. Don’t eat my face.

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“What Am I Thinking of?

My little brother recently came home from eight months in Australia with a new game. It’s called “What Am I Thinking of?” and it seems poised on the brink of bridging the tragic divide between human skulls. With this game you can finally penetrate the consciousness of your fellow man. It’s the most exhilarating science I’ve seen in years. The game goes like this:

Player 1: What am I thinking of?

Player 2: Seahorses.

Player 1: No, Roman columns.

Player 2: Shit.

Normally I hate games, but I had fun with this one because it was so easy to sabotage. “What Am I Thinking of?” is the sort of game that breaks down when you can’t trust your partner to tell you honestly what he’s thinking of. It also thrives on creativity and randomness, which is why the following exchanges were so enjoyable:

Me: What am I thinking of? (eating bacon)

Brother: Genghis Khan.

Me: No, bacon.

&

Me: What am I thinking of? (holding my brother’s face in my hands)

Brother: All Quiet on the Western Front.

Me: No, your face.

Brother: You suck at this game.

Keep in mind that we played “What am I thinking of?” en famille on Christmas morning, so what I was actually thinking was “I am so goddamn lonely” and “My entire life is an exercise in shame and futility.” But joke’s on them because I’m also a cheater!

My brother says the closest he’s ever come to winning this game is when he guessed “London” when his friend was thinking “Dublin.” Evidently some sort of Jungian collective unconscious was in play here. Or the boys were simultaneously reading a map of the United Kingdom. In any case I’m encouraged that two people can read each other’s minds even to this dyslexic degree. They were trying to know each other, and it’s the effort—not the science—that counts.

Me: What am I thinking of? (porn porn Roy Orbison porn dogs champagne)

You: How dark and inaccessible you are.

Me: Congratulations, you win. Game over.

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Snowflake tech support

Last night my sister’s husband and I stared at a stack of white paper, trying to figure out how to turn it into snowflakes. I had folded one sheet into squares, and my very handy brother-in-law was probably a minute away from making an origami buffalo. Fortunately his mother called. In June she’d retired from a long career as an elementary schoolteacher, and on a day when elementary schools were on everyone’s mind, she’d wanted to hear her son’s voice. “Mom, I’ve got a question for you….” And so began fifteen minutes of snowflake tech support.

First off, paper snowflakes are made from circles, and not squares or triangles, which would have been my next guess. Second, they’re a pain in the ass, and the children who succeed in making attractive ones in these weeks leading up to Christmas have my boundless respect. Third, don’t eat from a gift barrel of popcorn while you’re making these snowflakes because orange fingerprints devalue the product. Fourth, find something that you’re good at, like tracing circles around a greasy bowl, and then let someone else, like maybe your brother-in-law, do the creative scissor-work.

No two snowflakes are the same, right? In last night’s case, that’s not because they were all so beautiful, but because they were all butchered in their own unique fashion. The project reminded me of the holiday season three years ago, when my siblings and their future spouses took turns chopping wood for my mom’s fireplace, one of my dad’s old jobs. (My job, of course, was and remains sitting quietly and staying well-hydrated amidst a flurry of manual labor.) And forget about snowflakes for a second: when you chop firewood, when you really hack into it, the logs are never severed in the same way. Each one splits down a different axis and forms a new carnival of splinters. It’s both random and devastatingly specific how things fall apart.

I guess it’s okay to have metaphors for things like grief and loss. But pictures and stories are also a method of being passive, which is a personal characteristic I’m ashamed of, especially when the world is in such dire need of action. When you see a fire, and it’s devouring paper and wood alike, it’s hard to think that anything you say or do is going to alter the course of the flames. You keep trying to create beauty that might be redemptive somehow, but your scissors are dull and there are three delicious kinds of popcorn in the barrel and screw snowflakes anyway because they don’t burn as long as all the dead trees.

I would’ve liked to have left the arts and crafts meditation to the little kids tonight, but I sort of know what they would say. “Keep cutting until there’s almost nothing left. Cut on all sides. Cut everywhere, until you can barely see the paper, until the snowflake is a window. When I grow up I’m going to change the world.”

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This whole question of sincerity

As if sincerity is something that needs to be defended. Life is hard and sad and wonderful people die all the time. This is why we must make jokes. Like yesterday I cut open my knuckle trying to stab some ice loose with a corkscrew, and then I bled all over the baby I was playing with. The baby was laughing, and then he was soaked in my blood, and I had to go fetch a cold sponge in order to deal with the stains. And that is something we do all the time by accident—bleed on the babies—but you can either feel bad about it forever or resume singing little songs and burying your face in the baby’s warm, ticklish skin. In the back of your mind, you know that the game now smells like a slaughterhouse, but the jokes are dear. The jokes are good.

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Shitty things happening in Virginia and other internet broadcasts

Internet Hate/Love

The Village Voice foresees social media platforms that won’t invade user privacy:

But as the business press and slavering investors look on eagerly at Zuckerberg’s coronation, many believe that the seeds of Facebook’s downfall have already been sown. The company might have brought people together like never before, but exploitation is woven inextricably into its DNA. Facebook makes its money by commercializing personal information, watching its users, analyzing their behavior, and selling what it learns.

. . .

“I like to compare Facebook to communication in preschool,” [Sam] Boyer says. “The Facebook wall is an incredibly unsophisticated social space. People just spew stuff out. In adult social situations, we read cues, we create norms, we create rules that are there for the purpose of creating conversations that move us forward. That’s what we want to build.”

Omnivore urges us to “Think of the Internet,” especially its corrosive effect on our sex lives:

In offering her rules [for how to manage a romantic relationship], “Rose” was introducing a theme that would emerge time and time again as I spoke to other students who also told me that using Facebook could lead to a break-up. Several students said that they had deactivated their Facebook accounts either to preserve their romantic relationships or to make future relationships possible. . . . [T]hey believed that Facebook transformed them into anxious, jealous, and monitoring selves that they did not want to be. After disconnecting from Facebook, they felt they shed these unwanted selves. Facebook was constantly providing information about their identity and others’ identity that they believed should be a basis for relationships, and yet was too vague to determine the actions which should accompany this information.

The New York Times encourages my solitary confinement. You are always welcome in my apartment, just not in a physical sense. I am not accepting corporeal visitors (nor cats) at this time.

New communications technologies make living alone a social experience, so being home alone does not feel involuntary or like solitary confinement. The person alone at home can digitally navigate through a world of people, information and ideas. Internet use does not seem to cut people off from real friendships and connections.

Speaking of hermitic caves, this is probably my next career move:

. . . I invented a simple scientific protocol. I put a team at the entrance of the cave. I decided I would call them when I woke up, when I ate, and just before I went to sleep. My team didn’t have the right to call me, so that I wouldn’t have any idea what time it was on the outside. Without knowing it, I had created the field of human chronobiology.

Non-scandals and Society

W magazine covers Swedish nannies and America’s most expensive mansion in “Revenge of the Billion Dollar Divorcee”:

“I’m the most insecure person you could ever run into in your entire life,” [Suzanne Saperstein] says, taking a sip of white wine. “When I’m watching a football game and the players get into a huddle, I think they’re talking about me. They’re saying, ‘Oh, God. Did you see that dress? That hair?’”

Gawker tries and fails to make a scandal, unless the scandal is how frumpy we William & Mary girls can be on school days. From the comments section:

A few years back Sam Kashner wrote an article about his exploits with half the W&M student body. His book was such hilarious bullshit and the details didn’t make sense to anyone who’s ever even been there. He claimed that there were scantily dressed young coeds hanging around campus trying to seduce him everywhere he went; most W&M students wear leggings/skinny jeans, baggy sweatshirts, and fake Uggs during winter and shorts, baggy t-shirts, and flip-flops in the summer. For some bizarre reason they all have Middleton hair or attempt Middleton hair but otherwise you’d never see a group of people who gave less of a fuck about appearences.

Books and Authors

Amazon’s new imprint is the bete noire of the publishing world:

Established authors, for the most part, do fine selling through online bookstores. It’s new authors who lose out if browsing in bookstores becomes a thing of the past. Advances for unproven and non-bestselling authors have already plummeted, by all accounts. Literary diversity is at risk.

Six creative writing teachers defend their calling:

In law school, students analyze past cases, construct arguments, and write opinions, so that eventually they can do these things well enough to practice law. Could they do this outside of law school? Yes, but law school facilitates the process, and the law professor offers guiding thoughts along the way. Writing instruction is no different. The goal is to offer the occasional guiding thought or idea, the craft lesson, a few instructive models, and the occasional critical nudge, while all the time encouraging the student to practice writing, practice revising, and practice, practice, practice as a means to improvement. It works.

Simone de Beauvoir gets naked.

Ben Marcus gets interviewed:

Up until this book, I wrote in a very, very laborious way. Maybe 100, 200 words a day, not that I ever counted. I was interested in the sentence as a work of art, as a piece of sculpture, as something that was a kind of technology to open up huge feelings in people. I still love and believe in that as a pursuit. Some of my favorite writers do that.

But I think maybe I felt disgusted with all of my own limitations and wanted to try to outsmart them, or sneak around the kinds of things I had been doing to exhaustion and to boredom. So, one of the big things I could change without changing anything — meaning an adjustment I could make that would not necessarily impact my actual aesthetic in anyway — was to write quickly and not necessarily give a shit if I wrote really functional, almost deliberately bland, language. Like, “Denny got up out of his chair and left the room,” or, “He got a cup out of the cupboard.” These were the kinds of things that in the past I would just fucking agonize over.

Shitty Things Happening in Virginia

Our legislature has some notably alarming ideas about women’s health. After a thorough reading of the Virginia Code, Waldo Jaquith points out that under the new personhood law, “Fetuses may be put to work on the family farm, perform domestic work, or volunteer for the rescue squad.” (§ 40.1-79.01) If only to keep these fetuses from stealing our jobs, you can sign a petition here.

Lastly, the trial of former University of Virginia lacrosse player George Huguely is about to enter its third week. A few blocks uphill from my apartment, stricken families gather together in a courthouse while impersonal satellites beam updates to the rest of the nation. My mother learned how to use Twitter so she could follow the daily courtroom feeds. I also find that it’s difficult not to be voyeuristic during this trial, especially since my little sister and two of my brothers played lacrosse in college. But of course all this outside interest accomplishes nothing. No matter what the jury’s verdict, the ultimate case remains: this afternoon an adored young woman is to be found not at home with her family or hanging out with her new boyfriend or goofing off on the playing field, but rather on a Wikipedia page entitled ‘”Murder of Yeardley Love.” And George Huguely, whose name will always be associated with his dead lover’s, will have to live with that. And both sets of parents will continue to bear the weight of the tragedy.

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You may or may not know me from the JumboTron

Tonight my face was featured on the JumboTron. Why I was in the vicinity of a JumboTron is incidental; for the purposes of this story, just imagine that I have one in my bedroom.

Seeing my image up there was exhilarating in a way that terrifies me now. To my knowledge, my face has never before been 10 feet wide, but I think this is the scale I’ve been trying to effect on Facebook lately. As I’ve plundered the site this past month, looking for ways to appease my loneliness, I’ve slowly gathered that it’s not other people I’m so desperately seeking, but a proper presentation of myself. I’m longing for what? A self who makes sense in the context of all these other selves doing busywork outside my apartment. If I could only get it right here, in these well-trafficked places, then I could sit solidly in my chair and be someone calm and important. Tonight, as I primped in the bathroom mirror, I told my mom, “I finally figured out how to make my hair do. It didn’t do before, but now it does.” I feel that my internet persona strikes the same shallow register as my enhanced body of hair. At this point I’m just fluffing random parts and spraying product in all directions, hoping for some degree of positive attention.

Darren Hoyt recently wrote a blog post about anxiety and the internet, inspired by an N+1 piece published last November. As I grapple in Virginia with my book’s many empty pages, I think about bullshit websites and my presence on them. When you dance from place to place, you’re not forced to uncover meaning in your surroundings. When you tangle with identity only here and there, you can’t authentically untangle yourself (I know, First World Problems, fuck it). I realize that I’ll never write a good novel with one foot still in Facebook, but I rationalize that the constant distraction of web browsing is productive insofar as it makes me hate myself better, which I am told is good fodder for fiction. Ha ha, totally kidding.

I’m going to try to bring this all together now. Wine is not my friend this evening and Pandora has confused me with one of his other lovers, a pretentious electronica DJ.

Hours after my face darkened the JumboTron, I expected to be recognized by strangers in the street. “It’s really me! The one with the giant head!” But peoples’ reactions were surprisingly muted. Therefore I came home to Facebook, which I knew contained my biography in a comforting, manageable, place-holding format, where my life will stay put until I’m brave enough to venture off screens both small and jumbo, and put something right and real on paper.

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Links: In sickness and in health

“Now That Books Mean Nothing”: 31-year-old author Nell Boeschenstein reflects on literature and her double mastectomy

NPR interview with Louis C.K.: “You find yourself in front of a room of wounded veterans, and they just want to have fun. They want to see you go crazy. So every time I did these shows, I would start polite, and then I would maybe test the waters with one something dirty, and they would go crazy. And I’m looking at a bunch of guys who want relief, who want to laugh.”

Cannibalistic polar bear

Paris Review interview with Gary Lutz

Lizard playing video games

“How I Became a Best-Selling Author”

Christopher Hitchens on suffering: “So far, I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate.”

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