This Story Sucks: What I Learned Teaching LGBTQ Studies

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On my classroom’s back wall, cartoon unicorns distinguish gender from sex and sexuality. Lil Nas X muses on the success of “Old Town Road:” “wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”

Above a pink triangle, the words I see you. Below it: & I love you.

When I tell men on Grindr that I teach LGBTQ Studies, they either express surprise that my high school offers it, play up a fetish (“I wish you’d been my teacher”), or assume I work at a fancy private school.

In fact, I teach (English, mostly) in one of the poorest public school districts in Massachusetts. I can trace the elective’s origin back to our teachers union. In 2017, the bargaining team strategized about how best to pull the conservative district left. Clear-eyed about our leverage, we chose not to lay a bunch of thorny demands out on the table. Instead, we pruned them. We proposed committees. Years later, the labor-management committee focused on diversity and equity successfully added LGBTQ Studies to the high school’s curriculum.

The inaugural class was small, only a dozen or so students, nearly all of them self-identifying with some letter in the acronym. We started with a bar riot (Stonewall, 1969) and ended with a nightclub massacre (Pulse, 2016). As the semester went on, I loved to see which figures and flash points in queer history resonated with my students.

Curly-haired and lewd, Jason wasn’t easily impressed. But when we listened to Sylvia Rivera recount her story of Stonewall in the documentary Out Rage ’69, he said, surprised by her coarse vernacular, “She sounds like us.” I smiled. “You mean you sound like her.”

One of the lesbians in class fell in love with Audre Lorde. Struck by the excerpt we read of “The Uses of Anger,” Michaela asked her mom to buy her a collection of Lorde’s poetry. She then sped through Zami and Sister Outsider.

After cheering on Damon and Angel in the first episode of Ryan Murphy’s Pose, students went home and binged the series.

And they got chills reading James Merrill’s concrete poem “Christmas Tree,” written at the end of his life before he died of AIDS complications. “Yo, I’m so dumb,” Jaliyah said to us, stunned that anyone could write a poem about a tree that was also a poem about a man, about how they both die, both become “needles and bone” in the end.

That’s a generous montage, though. If I’m honest, I often worried I was getting more out of the class than my students were.

Maybe I should blame the generational gap. There was only one half-out kid in my millennial high school. I spent close to a decade in the closet—from eighth grade (2004), when the word gay began to torment me, until my senior year of college (2013), when I finally came out. In between, I kept my distance from queer people, let alone queer history and culture. I slept with a gay man before I made friends with one. Now out as an adult, I still had a lot to learn, and I was hungry to learn it.

As I connected historical events to one another across time and teased out the movement’s tensions between assimilation and liberation, I reaffirmed my own present-tense identity, politics, and community. Excavating stories of a radical past—from the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries to ACT UP—clarified an inheritance of queer resistance, an orientation toward solidarity, direct action, and supporting those with the least to lose in our fight to win the world we all deserve.

I wanted this for my students, too. I wanted the class to whistle and pop, for every student to walk away from it on fire for the movement. It was a big ask. Unlike the guys I try to impress online, my Gen Z students mostly took the class for granted.

Some students failed the class. One slept through it. In their defense, the course was far from perfect. It was only my first attempt, after all.

It didn’t help that we started before 8 a.m. Students would show up late with Dunkin’ and pay closer attention to their iced coffees than to the YA novels they’d each chosen for independent reading. (Meredith Russo’s If I Was Your Girl stands out as one exception, a page-turner about a trans girl starting at a new school.)

Our classroom also invited gossip about their queer relationships in ways that most did not, a distraction I could hardly begrudge them. Trista mooned over her girlfriend. Lana, a potty-mouthed trans girl, serialized her entanglement with a pair of brothers. They whispered, they shrieked, they slapped each other’s twiggy arms in disbelief.

One particularly memorable Monday, Jason told us his boyfriend had cheated on him over the weekend. He was steamed. As we tried to read from Adrienne Rich’s admittedly dense “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” that morning, he wrote in the margin, “This story sucks.” (To Jason’s credit, that more or less perfectly distills Rich’s argument about heterosexuality.)

In the end, I got over myself. I came to feel grateful for my students’ chill—even a little jealous. Is it too naïve to suggest we’ve come at least that far?

Still, I’m glossing. A majority of my students shared stories of childhood trauma, of brutal secrets and countless slights. It’s gotten better—but only to a point, and considerably more so for some than for others. No amount of glitter can cover up the unabated violence against queer and trans people, particularly of color. My students, for example, voted to raise money for the Trevor Project in order to address the persistently disproportionate rates of LGBTQ suicide and homelessness. I know they’d be horrified by the wave of anti-trans bills currently crashing down on state legislatures.

I just wish you could’ve seen them: unapologetic, unbowed, and—like all teenagers in class—easily off-task and gloriously bored.

I didn’t scold them, then. I chose not to play the role of elder (I’m 29, but age is elastic with teenagers, especially with gay boys like Jason, who thought I was ancient) intent on making the next generation feel painfully indebted for the basic dignity and rights they enjoy. They shouldn’t have to live stuck in a past when we existed only in the shadows, locked away in our closets.

What I did was write them a letter. As we said our goodbyes at the end of the semester, I encouraged them to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of queer and trans ancestors who hid, who loved, who threw bricks, who were murdered, who tore up dance floors, who lost families and chose new ones.

That to choose a family is to want to make them proud.

The message landed, I think—at least somewhat, at least for some of them. I know because I asked them to write me back.

In her letter, Michaela called our class her “home.” Many of them did. “This is like family,” she wrote. She also quoted Audre Lorde, whose work she now reads most mornings to motivate herself out of bed: “Your silence will not protect you.” Michaela promised to always speak up.

Lana, however, was brief. She ripped a page out of her notebook and scribbled across it, “Your the gayest teacher ive ever had and thats great for you.” A bubble hovered above the i, fit to burst.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Elegy of the Walker

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By the conclusion of Mildred Lissette Norman’s 2,200 mile hike on the Appalachian Trail in 1952—the steep snow-covered peaks of New Hampshire’s White Mountains; the autumnal cacophony of Massachusetts’ brown, orange, and red Berkshires; the verdant greens of New York’s Adirondacks and Pennsylvania’s Alleghanies; the misty roll of Virginia’s Blue Ridge; the lushness of North Carolina and Georgia’s Great Smoky Mountains—she would wear down the soles of her blue Sperry Topsiders into a hatchwork of rubber threads, the rough canvas of the shoes ripping apart at the seams. “There were hills and valleys, lots of hills and valleys, in that growing up period,” Norman would recall, becoming the first woman to hike the trail in its entirety. The Topsiders were lost to friction, but along with 28 additional pairs of shoes over the next three decades, she would also gain a new name—Peace Pilgrim. The former secretary would (legally) rechristen herself after a mystical experience somewhere in New England, convinced that she would “remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace.”


Peace Pilgrim’s mission began at the Rose Bowl Parade in 1953, gathering signatures on a petition to end the Korean War. From Pasadena she trekked over the Sierra Nevada, the hardscrabble southwest, the expansive Midwestern prairies, the roll of the Appalachians and into the concrete forest of New York City. She gained spectators, acolytes, and detractors; there was fascination with this 46-year-old woman, wearing a simple blue tunic emblazoned in white capital letters with “Walking Coast to Coast for Peace,” her greying hair kept up in a bun and her pockets containing only a collapsible toothbrush, a comb, and a ballpoint pen. By the time she died in 1981, she had traversed the United States seven times. “After I had walked almost all night,” she recalled in one of the interviews posthumously collected into Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words, “I came out into a clearing where the moonlight was shining down… That night I experienced the complete willingness, without any reservations, to give my life to something beyond myself.” It was the same inclination that compelled Abraham to walk into Canaan, penitents to trace Spain’s Camino de Santiago, or of the whirling Mevlevi dervishes traipsing through the Afghan bush. It was an inclination toward God.

Something about the plodding of one foot after another, the syncopation mimicking the regularity of our heartbeat, the single-minded determination to get from point A to point B (wherever those mythic locations are going to be) gives walking the particular enchantments that only the most universal of human activities can have. Whether a stroll, jog, hike, run, saunter, plod, trek, march, parade, patrol, ramble, constitutional, wander, perambulation, or just plain walk, the universal action of moving left foot-right foot-left foot-right foot marks humanity indelibly, so common that it seemingly warrants little comment if you’re not a podiatrist. But when it comes to the subject, there are as many narratives as there are individual routes, for as Robert Macfarlane writes in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, “a walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” Loathe we should be to let such an ostensibly basic act pass without some consideration.

Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking that “Like eating or breathing, [walking] can be invested with wildly different cultural meanings, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.” Walking is leisure and punishment, introspection and exploration, supplication and meditation, even composition. As a tool for getting lost, both literally and figuratively, of fully inhabiting our being, walking can empty out our selfhood. A mechanism for transmuting a noun into a verb, or transforming the walker into the walking. When a person has pushed themselves so that their heart pumps like a piston, that they feel the sour burn of blisters, the chaffing of denim, so that breathing’s rapidity is the only focus, then there is something akin to pure consciousness (or possibly I’m just fat). And of course, all that you can simply observe with that consciousness, unhampered by screen, so that walking is “powerful and fundamental,” as Cheryl Strayed writes in her bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail: an account of how Strayed hiked thousands of miles following the death of her mother, and learning “what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets… It seemed to me it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild.”     

Maybe that sense of being has always attended locomotion, ever since a family of Australopithecus pressed their calloused heals into the cooling volcanic ash of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania some 3.7 million years ago. Discovered in 1976 by Mary Leaky, the preserved footprints were the earliest example of hominoid bipedalism. Two adults and a child, the traces suggested parents strolling with a toddler, as if they were Adam and Eve with either Cain or Abel. Olduvai’s footprints are smaller than those of a modern human, but they lack the divergent toe of other primates, and they indicate that whoever left them moved from the heel of their feet to the ball, like most of us do. Crucially, there were no knuckle impressions left, so they didn’t move in the manner that chimpanzees and gorillas do. “Mary’s footprint trail was graphically clear,” explains Virginia Morell in Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, “the early hominoids stood tall and walked as easily on two legs as any Homo sapiens today… it was apparently this upright stance, rather than enlarged crania, that first separated these creatures from other primates.”

The adults were a little under five-feet tall and under 100 pounds, covered in downy brown fur with slopping brow and overbit jaw, with the face of an ape but the uncanny eyes of a human, the upright walking itself transforming them into the latter. Walking preceded words, the ambulation perhaps necessitating the speaking. Australopithecus remained among the pleasant green plains of east Africa, but by the evolution of anatomically modern humans in the area that is now Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, and walking became the engine by which people disseminated through the world. Meandering was humanity’s insurance, as Nicholas Wade writes in Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, that as little as 50,000 years ago and the “ancestral human population, the first to possess the power of fully articulate modern speech, may have numbered only 5,000 people, confined to a homeland in northeast Africa.” In such small numbers, and in such a circumscribed area, humanity was prisoner to circumstance, where an errant volcano, draught, or epidemic could have easily consigned us to oblivion. Walking as far as we could was our salvation.

Humans would walk out of Africa into Asia and perhaps by combination of simple boat and swimming down the Indonesian coast into Australia, across the Bering Strait and into North America, and over the Panamanian isthmus and into South America, with distant islands like Madagascar, New Zealand, and Iceland waiting for sailing technology to ferry people to their shores millennia after we left the shade of the Serengeti’s bulbous baobab trees. We think of our ancestors as living in a small world, but there’s was an expansive realm, all the more so since it wasn’t espied through a screen. Partner to burrowing meerkats peaking over the dry scrub of the Kalahari, nesting barn owls overlooking the crusting, moss-covered bark of the ancient Ciminian Forest, the curious giant softshell tortoises of the Yangtze River. To walk is to be partner to the natural world, it is to fully inhabit being an embodied self. Choosing to be a pedestrian today is to reject the diabolic speed of both automobile and computer. Macfarlane writes in The Wild Places that nature is “invaluable to us precisely because… [it is] uncompromisingly different… you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share.” Sojourn into a world so foreign was the birthright of the first humans, and it still is today, if you choose it. 

All continents, albeit mostly separated by unsettlingly vast oceans, are in some form or another connected by thin strips of land here or there, something to the advantage of Scottish Victorian explorer Sir George Thompson who walked from Canada to Western Europe, via Siberia. More recently there was the English explorer George Meegan who from 1977 to 1983 endeavored to walk from Patagonia to the northern tip of North America, which involved inching up South America’s Pacific coast, crossing the Darien Gap into Central America, circling the Gulf Coast and walking up the Atlantic shore, following the Canadian border, and then walking from the Yukon into Alaska. Meegan’s expedition covered 19,019 miles, the longest recorded uninterrupted walk. Effected by the nervous propulsion that possibly compelled that first generation to leave home, Meegan explains in The Longest Walk: The Record of our World’s First Crossing of the Entire Americas that “once the idea seemed to be a real possibility, once I thought I could do it, I had to do it.” Along the way Meegan wore out 12 pairs of hiking boots, got stabbed once, and met peanut-farmin’ Jimmy Carter at his Georgian homestead.

Meegan’s route was that of the first Americans, albeit accomplished in reverse. The most recent large landmass to be settled, those earliest walkers observed a verdant expanse, for as Craig Childs describes the Paleolithic continent in Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America, the land east of the Bering Strait was a “mosaic of rivers and grasslands… horizons continuing on as if constantly giving birth to themselves—mammoths, Pleistocene horses, and giant bears strung out as far as the eye could see. It must have seemed as if there was no end, the generosity of this planet unimaginable.” A venerable (and dangerous) tradition to see America as an unspoiled Paradise, but it’s not without its justifications, and one that I’ve been tempted to embrace during my own errands into the wilderness. Raised not far from Pittsburgh’s Frick Park, a 644-acre preserve set within the eastern edge of the city, a bramble of moss-covered rocky creeks and surprisingly steep ravines, a constructed forest primeval meant to look as it did when the Iroquois lived there, and I too could convince myself that I was a settler upon the frontier. Like all sojourns into the woods, I found that my strolls in Frick Park couldn’t help but have a bit of the mythic about them, especially at dusk.

One day when I was a freshman, a friend and I took a stack of cheap, pocket-sized, rough orange-covered New Testaments which the Gideons, who were standing the requisite constitutionally mandated distance from our high school, had been assiduously handing out as part of an ill-considered attempt to convert our fellow students. In a pique of adolescent blasphemy, we went to a Frick Park path, and walked through the cooling October forest as twilight fell, ripping the cheap pages from the bibles and letting them fall like crisp leaves to the woods’ floor, or maybe inadvertently as a trail of Eden’s apple seeds. No such thing as blasphemy unless you already ascent to the numinous, and as our heretical stroll turned God on his head, a different pilgrim had once roamed woods like these. During the Second Great Awakening when revivals of strange fervency and singular belief burnt down the Appalachian edge, a pious adherent of the mystical Swedenborgian faith named John Chapman was celebrated for traipsing through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Briefly a resident of the settlement of Grant’s Hill in what is today downtown Pittsburgh, about several miles west of Frick Park, and Chapman’s mission was to spread the gospel of the New Church, along with the planting of orchards. Posterity remembers him as Johnny Appleseed.

Folk memory has Johnny
Appleseed fixed in a particular (and peculiar way): the bearded frontiersmen,
wearing a rough brown burlap coffee sack, a copper pot on his head, and a
trundled bag over his shoulder as the barefoot yeoman plants apples across the
wide expanse of the West. I’d wager there is a strong possibility you thought
he was as apocryphal as John Henry or Paul Bunyan, but Chapman was definitely
real; a Protestant St. Francis of whom it was said that he walked with a tamed wolf
and that due to his creaturely benevolence even the mosquitoes would spare him
their sting. Extreme walkers become aspects of nature, their souls as if the
migratory birds that trace lines over the earth’s curvature. Johnny Appleseed’s
walking was a declaration of common ownership over the enormity of this land. Sometime
in the 1840s, Chapman found himself listening to the outdoor sermonizing of a fire-and-brimstone
Methodist preacher in Mansfield, Ohio. “Where is the primitive Christian, clad
in coarse raiment, walking barefoot to Jerusalem?” the minister implored
the crowd, judging them for their materialism, frivolity, and immorality.
Finally, a heretofore silent Johnny Appleseed, grown tired of the uncharitable
harangue, ascended the speaker’s platform and hiked one grime-covered,
bunion-encrusted, and blistered black foot underneath the preacher’s nose.
“Here’s your primitive Christian,” he supposedly declared. Even
Johnny Appleseed’s gospel was of walking.

“John Chapman’s appearance at the minister’s stump,” writes William Kerrigan in Johnny Appleseed and the American Orchard: A Cultural History, made the horticulturalist a “walking manifestation of a rejection of materialism.” Not just figuratively a walking embodiment of such spirituality, but literally a walking incarnation of it. The regularity of putting one foot after the other has the rhythm of the fingering of rosary beads or the turning of prayer wheels; both intimately physical and yet paradoxically a means of transcending our bodies. “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned,” writes Solnit, “as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord.” Hence walking as religious devotion, from the Australian aborigine on a walkabout amidst the burnt ochre Outback, to the murmuring pilgrim tracing the labyrinth underneath the stone flying buttresses of Chartres Cathedral, and the Hadji walking over hot sands towards Mecca, or the Orthodox Jew graced with the gift of deliberateness as she walks to shul on Shabbat. Contemplative, meditative, and restorative, religiously speaking walking can also be penitential. In 2009 the Irish Augustinian Fr. Michael Mernagh walked from Cork to Dublin on a pilgrimage of atonement that he single-handedly took in penitence for the Church’s shameful silence regarding child sexual abuse. Not just a pilgrimage, but a protest, with Fr. Mernagh saying of the rot infecting the Church that the “more I have walked the more I feel it is widespread beyond our comprehension.” Atonement is uncomfortable, painful even. As pleasant as a leisurely stroll can be, a penitential hike should strain the lungs, burn the muscles. If penitence isn’t freely taken, however, then it’s no longer penitence. Especially if there’s no reason for contrition, then it’s something else—punishment. Or torture.

“The drop outs began,” recalled Lt. Col. William E. Dyess. “It seemed that a great many of the prisoners reached the end of their endurance at about the same time. They went down by twos and threes. Usually, they made an effort to rise. I never can forget their groans and strangled breathing as they tried to get up. Some succeeded.” Many didn’t. A Texas Air Force officer with movie-star good looks, Dyess had been fighting with the 21st Pursuit Squadron in the Philippines when the Japanese Imperial Army invaded in 1942. Along with some 80,000 fellow American and Filipino troops, he would be marched the 70 miles from Marviales to Camp O’Donnell. Denied food and water, forced to walk in the scorching heat of the jungle sun, with temperatures that went well over 100 degrees, it’s estimated that possibly 26,000 prisoners—a third of those captured—perished in that scorching April of 1942.

Bayonet and heat, bullet and sun, all goaded the men to put one foot in front of the other until many of them couldn’t any more. Transferred from the maggot and filth infested Camp O’Donnell, where malaria and dengue fever took even more Filipinos and Americans, Dyess was able to escape and make it back to American lines. While convalescing in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Dyess narrated his account—the first eyewitness American testimony to the Bataan Death March—to Chicago Tribune writer Charles Leavelle. Prohibited from release by the military, Leavelle would finally see the publication of Bataan Death March: A Survivor’s Account in 1944. Dyess never read it; he died a year before. His P-38G-10-LO Lightning lost an engine during takeoff at a Glendale, Calif., airport, and rather than risk civilian casualties by abandoning the plane, Dyess crashed it into a vacant lot, so that his life would be taken by flying rather than by walking.

Walking can remind us that we’re alive, so that it’s all the more obscene when such a human act is turned against us, when the pleasure of exertion turns into the horror of exhaustion, the gentle burn in muscles transformed into spasms, breathing mutated into sputtering. Bataan’s nightmare, among several, was that it was walking that couldn’t stop, wasn’t’ allowed to stop. “It is the intense pain that destroys a person’s self and world,” writes philosopher Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, “a destruction experienced spatially as either the contraction of the universe down to the immediate vicinity of the body or as the body swelling to fill the entire universe.” Torture reminds us that we’re reducible to bodies; it particularizes and universalizes our pain. With some irony, walking does something similar, with the exertion of moving legs and swinging arms, our wide-ranging mobility announcing us as citizens of the universe. Hence the hellish irony of Bataan, or the 2,200 miles from Georgia to Oklahoma that more than 100,000 Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw were forced to walk by the U.S. federal government between 1830 and 1850, the January 1945 40-mile march of 56,000 Auschwitz prisoners to the Loslau train station in sub-zero temperatures, or the 2.5 million residents of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, forced to evacuate into the surrounding countryside by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. These walks are as hell, prisoners followed by guards with guns and German shepherds, over the hard, dark ground.

Harriet Tubman’s walks were also in the winter, feet trying to gain uncertain purchase upon frozen bramble, stumbling over cold ground and slick, snow covered brown leaves, and she too was pursued by men with rifles and dogs. She covered similar distances as those who were forced to march, but Tubman was headed to another destination, and that has made all the difference. Crossing the Mason-Dixon line in 1849, Tubman recalled that “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in Heaven.” But she wasn’t in Heaven, she was in Pennsylvania. For Tubman, and for the seventy enslaved people whom she liberated on thirteen daring missions back into Maryland, walking was arduous, walking was frightening, walking was dangerous, but more than anything walking was the price of freedom.

Tubman would rightly
come to be known as the Moses of her people (another prodigious walker),
descending into the antebellum South like Christ harrowing Hell. The network of
safe-houses and sympathetic abolitionists who shepherded the enslaved out of
Maryland, and Virginia, and North Carolina into Pennsylvania, and New England
and Canada, who quartered the enslaved in cold, dusty, cracked root cellars and
hidden passageways, used multiple means of transportation. People hid in the
backs of wagons underneath moldering produce, they availed themselves of
steamships and sometimes the Underground Railroad was a literal railroad. One
enterprising man named Henry Box Brown even mailed himself from Richmond to
Philadelphia, the same year Tubman arrived in the Quaker City. But if the
Underground Railroad was anything, it was mostly a process of putting one foot
before the other on the long walk to the north.

              Familiar with the ebbs and flows of the
brackish Chesapeake as it lapped upon the western shores of Dorchester County,
Tubman was able to interpret mossy rocks and trees to orient herself, navigating
by the Big Dipper and Polaris. Her preferred time of travel was naturally at
night, and winter was the best season to abscond back, deploying the silence
and cold of the season as camouflage. Dorchester is only a scant 150 miles from
Philadelphia, but those even further south – South Carolina, Georgia, even
Mississippi – would also walk to freedom. Eric Foner explains in Gateway to
Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, that “Even
those who initially escaped by other means ended up having to walk significant
distances.” Those nights on the Underground Railroad must have been
terrifying. Hearing the resounding barks of Cuban hounds straining at slave
catchers’ leashes, the metallic taste of fear sitting in mouths, bile rising up
in throats. Yet what portals of momentary grace and beauty were there, those
intimations of the sought-after freedom? To see the graceful free passage of a
red-tailed hawk over the Green Ridge, the bramble thickets along the
cacophonous Great Falls of the cloudy Potomac, the luminescence of a blue moon
reflected on a patch of thick ice in the Ohio River?

            During that same decade, and the French dictator Napoleon III was, through ambitious city planning, inventing an entirely new category of walker – the peripatetic urban wanderer. Only a few months after Tubman arrived in Philadelphia, and four thousand miles across the ocean, something new in the annals of human experience would open at Paris’ Au Con de la Rue – a department store. For centuries, walking was simply a means of getting from one place to another; from home to the market, from market to the church. With something, like the department store, or the glass covered merchant streets known as arcades, people were enticed not just to walk somewhere, but rather to walk everywhere. Such were the beginnings of the category of perambulator known as the flâneur, a word that is untranslatable, but carries connotations of wandering, idling, loafing, sauntering.

Being a flâneur means simply walking without purpose other than to observe; of strolling down Le Havre Boulevard and eyeing the window displays of fashions weaved in cashmere and mohair at Printemps, of espying the bakeries of Montmartre laying out macarons and Pain au chocalait; of passing the diners in outdoor brasseries of the Left Bank eating coq au vin. Before the public planner Georges-Eugène Hausmann’s radical Second Empire reforms, Paris was a crowded, fetid, confusing and disorganized assemblage of crooked and narrow cobblestoned streets and dilapidated half-timbered houses. Afterwards it became a metropolis of wide, magnificent boulevards, parks, squares, and museums. Most distinctively, there were the astounding 56,573 gas lamps that had been assembled by 1870, lit by a legion of allumeurs at dusk, so that people could walk at night. If Hausmann – and Napoleon III – were responsible for the arrival of the flâneur, then it was because the city finally had things worth seeing. For the privileged flâneur, to walk wasn’t the means to acquire freedom – to walk was freedom. 

“For the perfect flâneur,” writes poet Charles Baudelaire in 1863, “it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite… we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness.” Every great city’s pedestrian-minded public thoroughfares—the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and Cromwell Road; Fifth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard—is the rightful territory for the universal flâneur. Writers like Baudelaire compared the idyl of city walking to that other 19th-century innovation of photography; the flâneur existed inside a living daguerreotype, as if they had entered the hazy atmosphere of an impressionist painting, the gas lamps illuminating the drizzly fog of a Parisian evening. For the 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who analyzed that activity in his uncompleted magnum opus The Arcades Project, the flâneur was the living symbol of modernity, writing that the “crowd was the veil from behind which the familiar city as phantasmagoria beckoned to the flaneur.”

I often played the role of flaneur for the two years my wife and I lived in Manhattan in a bit of much-coveted rent-controlled bliss. When your estate is 200 square feet, there’s not much choice but to be a flâneur, and so we occupied ourselves with night strolls through the electric city, becoming familiar with the breathing and perspiring of the metropolis. Each avenue has its espirit de place: stately residential York, commercial First and Second with their banks and storefronts, imperial Madison with its regal countenance, Park with its aura of old money, barely reformed Lexington with its intimations of past seediness. In the city at night, we availed ourselves of looking at the intricate pyrotechnic window displays of Barneys and Bloomingdales, of the bohemian leisure of the Strand’s displays in front of Central Park, of the linoleum cavern underneath the 59th Street Bridge, and of course Grand Central Station, the United States’ least disappointing public space.

Despite gentrification, rising inequity, and now the pandemic, New York still amazingly functions according to what the geographer Edward Soja describes in Thirdspace as being a place where “everything comes together… subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable.” Yet Manhattan is perhaps more a nature preserve for the flâneur, as various economic and social forces over the past few decades have conspired to make our species extinct. The automobile would seem to be a natural predator for the type, and yet even in the deepest environs of the pedestrian unfriendly suburbs the (now largely closed) American shopping mall fulfilled much the same function as Baudelaire’s arcades. To stroll, to see, to be seen. A new threat has emerged in the form of Amazon, which portends to end the brick-and-mortar establishment, the coronavirus perhaps the final death of the flâneur. If that type of walker was birthed by the industrial revolution, then it now appears late capitalism is his demise, undone by our new tyrant Jeff Bezos.

The rights of the flâneur were never equally distributed, with scant mention of the flâneur needing to be hyperaware of his surroundings, of needing to carry keys in his fist, or having to arm himself with mace. While it’s not an entirely unknown word, flâneuse is a much rarer term, and it’s clear that the independence and assumed safety that pedestrian exploration implies is more often than not configured as masculine. Women have, of course, been just as prodigious in mapping the urban space with their feet as have men, with Lauren Elkin joking in Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London that many accounts assume that a “penis were a requisite walking appendage, like a cane.” She provides necessary corrective to the male-heavy history of the flaneur, while also acknowledging that the risks are different for women. Describing the anonymity that such walking requires, Elkin writes that “We would love to be invisible the way a man is. We’re not the ones to make ourselves visible… it’s the gaze of the flaneur that makes the woman who would join his ranks too visible to slip by unnoticed.”

As a means of addressing this inequity that denies more than half the world’s population safe passage through public spaces, the activist movement Take Back the Night held its first march in Philadelphia, after the 1975 murder of microbiologist Susan Alexander Speeth as she was walking home. Take Back the Night used one of the most venerable of protest strategies—the march—as a means of expressing solidarity, security, defiance, and rage. Andrea Dworkin stated the issue succinctly in her treatise “The Night and Danger,” explaining that “Women are often told to be extra careful and take precautions when going out at night… So when women struggle for freedom, we must start at the beginning by fighting for freedom of movement… We must recognize that freedom of movement is a precondition for everything else.” Often beginning with a candlelight vigil, participants do exactly that which they’re so often prevented from doing—walking freely at night. So often paeons to walking that are penned by men wax rhapsodic about the freedom of the flaneur, but forget how gendered the simple act of walking is. Dworkin’s point is that women never forget it.

Few visuals are quite as powerful as seeing thousands of women and men moving with intentionality through a public space, hoisting placards and signs, chanting slogans, and reminding the powers that be what mass mobilization looks like. There is a debate to be had about the efficacy of protest. But at their absolute most charged, a protest seems like it can change the world; thousands of feet walking as one, every marcher a small cell in a mighty Leviathan. In that uncharacteristically warm February of 2003, I joined the 5,000 activists who marched through the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Oakland against the impending war in Iraq. There were the old hippies wearing t-shirts against the Vietnam War, the slightly drugged out looking college-aged Nader voters, Muslim women in vermillion hijabs and men in olive keffiyeh, the Catholic Workers, and the Jews for Palestine, the slightly menacing balaclava wearing anarchists, and of course your well-meaning liberals such as myself.

We marched past Carnegie-Mellon’s frat row, young Republicans jeering us with cans of Milwaukee’s Best, through the brutalist concrete caverns of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, and under the watchful golem that was the towering gothic Cathedral of Learning, up to the Fifth Avenue headquarters of CMU’s Software Engineering Institute, a soulless mirrored cube reflecting the granite gargoyles blackened by decades of steel mill exhaust who were watchfully positioned on St. Paul’s Cathedral across the street. Supposedly both the SEI and the adjacent RAND Institute had DoD contracts, developing software that would be used for drone strikes and smart bombs. With righteous (and accurately placed) indignation, the incensed crowd chanted, and we felt as a singular being. On that same day, in 650 cities around the world, 11 million others marched, history’s largest global protest. It felt as if by walking we’d stop the invasion. Reader, we did not stop the invasion.      

Despite those failures, the experience is indicative of how walking alters consciousness. Not just in a political sense, but in a personal one as well (though those things are not easily extricated). There is a methodology for examining how walking alters our subjectivity, a discipline with the lofty and vaguely threatening name of “psychogeography.” Theorist Guy Debord saw the practice as a means of reenchanting space and place, developing a concept called dérive, which translates from the French as “drifting,” whereby participants “drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there,” as he is quoted in the Situationist International Anthology. Sort of a hyper-attenuated version of being the flaneur, psychogeographers perceived familiar streets, squares, and cities from an entirely different perspective. Other psychogeographical activities included tracing out words by the route a walker takes through the city, or mapping smells and sounds. The whole thing has an anarchic sensibility about it, but with the whimsy of the Dadaists, while just as enthused with praxis as with theory.

For example, in his travelogue Psychogeography the Anglo-American novelist Will Self journeys from JFK to Manhattan while on foot. Sneakers crunching over refuse alongside the Van Wyck, the metropolitan detritus that exists in those scrubby brown patches that populate the null-voids that exist between somewhere and somewhere else. Nothing can really compare to entering New York on foot, as Self did. It’s fundamentally different from arriving in a cab driving underneath the iconic steel girders of the Manhattan Bridge, or being ferried into the Parthenon that is Grand Central, or even disembarking from a Peter Pan Bus in the grody cavern of Port Authority. Walking is a “means of dissolving the mechanized matrix which compresses the space-time continuum” Self writes, with the walker acting as “an insurgent against the contemporary world, an ambulatory time traveler.” For the psychogeographers, how we move is how we think, so that if we wish to change the later, we must first alter the former.

So it would seem. Writing in the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau remarked in The Confessions that “I can only meditate when I’m walking… my mind only works with my legs.” In his autobiography Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche injuncted, “Sit as little as possible; do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement…. All prejudices emanate from the bowels.” Meanwhile, his contemporary Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “I have walked myself into my best thoughts.” Most celebrated of the walking philosophers, Immanuel Kant, had daily constitutionals across Konigsberg’s bridges that merchants set their watches by him. Wallace Stevens famously used to write his poems as he stomped off across the antiseptic landscape of Hartford, Conn. He walked as scansion, his wingtips pounding out iambs and trochees with the wisdom that understands verse is as much of the body as it is of the mind, so that “Perhaps/The truth depends on a walk.” Walking is a type of consciousness, a type of thinking. Walking is a variety of reading, the landscape unspooling as the most shining of verse, so that every green leaf framed against a church’s gothic tower in a dying steel town, both glowing with an inner light out of the luminescence of the golden hour, is the most perfect of poems, only to be seen by she who gives it the time to be considered.

Image Credit: SnappyGoat

Writing, Still Writing

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A good friend of mine begins writing fiction again, after 25 years of not. And if anyone should be writing, she should be. She’s a friend I’ve kept close since college, and her work has always been so good, deeply emotional, grounded in settings of poverty and despair, but always with some hope glimmering around the corner.

I’m excited for her and ask about it the next time I see her: didn’t she say she was revising? And submitting to literary journals? She says yes, but these are stories she wrote more than 20 years ago. She feels like an imposter, she says, even though it’s her work, work she never had the courage to submit in the past. She recently received a very encouraging letter from a top literary magazine, but it ended up depressing her. Why bother now, after all these years? And will success now mean anything about new work she might create? She’s not sure that work from grad school, from her 20s, should count, because it’s not her current work.

Knowing how good her stories are, I’m inclined to say that they’ll get published and that she should be satisfied when that happens, even if they aren’t her most recent work. They should be read, because they’re worthy. It seems like hoarding to hold onto beautiful work that was meant to be shared.

And so what if they’re not new? So what if she never writes another good thing? I think she will, now that she’s back at it. And yet, it feels like another question is lurking here. Something about quality and how to measure it.

I find myself irritated and over the course of few days the ruminating begins to feel like an existential crisis. I’ve been writing fiction, and occasionally submitting, for those same 20-plus years. Sometimes I get something published, but mostly I’m just writing because it’s all I know to do with what free time I have, limited by the kids and the job. I could use an encouraging letter from a lit mag right about now. I wish I’d gotten more than a dozen or so in the last 20 years, but that’s my success rate. That’s about it.

If my friend thinks she’s a fool to bother, I muse, a fool to come close but not immediately hit the mark with this new effort, what about those of us who have been doing this same thing year after year for 30 years? Sure, I’ve had some hits or two, even a published short story collection, but that was a long time ago, and the novel drafts are still being revised. By my friend’s proposed math, I must be an exponential failure.

You hear it all the time in fiction classes: publishing is rare, publishing something that gains critical attention is even more rare, and don’t expect it to pay your bills, even it does get published. So with all these warnings, why is there also this idea that if you’re not publishing right at this moment, then you must not be any good? Do we judge people who keep at a sport they love? We know they won’t make the majors. But we don’t assume they’ll quit playing once they’re past their prime, nor do we assume they’re terrible players. So why with writing would we think there’s something wrong with trying for minor successes?

Of course writing is different than sports. Aging players can’t keep going to scouting events, into their 50s, to see if they’ll be tapped for potential greatness. They can’t take an impressive play from their 20s and show it to a talent scout for evaluation today. For writers, those lit magazines are like talent scouts. And if my friend is successful, she may want to maintain fresh momentum, and that may prove as difficult as she fears. In the face of all her measurement I can see how it might get depressing.

In the same friends’ circle, those of us who continue to write sometimes bring our work to each other for feedback. Another lapsed writer is in the group, also talented, but unremorsefully uninterested in writing. Her quitting writing doesn’t change the fact that she’s a great reader (or a great writer, either, despite her choice). We’re always eager to hear her critiques.

But a few years back, she started asking during these discussions, “What is your objective for this piece?”

I flinched the first time I heard it. I’ve worked corporate jobs for a long time, and this sounded like something in a war-room discussion about a product we were about to launch, one that had millions of dollars and years of R&D and market research behind it. My little short story had no such advantages. It just had this writer, and whatever I could do with the feedback my readers would provide.

My friend had a follow-up question to fill the bemused silence. “I mean, do you want to get it published, or is it something you just want to share with your kids someday, or …”

My ego was tweaked. Was she saying that the work would never be good enough for publication? Or that she would only provide rigorous commentary if I was willing to be more aggressive with my edits? And if I wanted it to be good, really good—if I wanted it to be published in The New Yorker and chosen for a Best American volume (which every writer wants, whether it makes sense or not) —then would she opt to bow out gracefully from this critique, like a lawyer who knows an unwinnable case when she sees one? Maybe she thought I’d need a professional editor, or a different story. Or I’d need to be a different author.

Or, on the other hand, if I set my sights lower—like if I just want my family to one day know that I sometimes tried my hand at writing—does that leave me free to revise one time and be satisfied with any old shlock? That doesn’t seem very kind to my family.

Dear friend: I want it to be beautiful. I want to work at it until it’s as good as it can be.

Or, more truthfully, I want it to set me free. By which I mean, I want it to sing for some reader, for many readers, so much so that the stories and novel drafts buried in the many corners of this house can be resurrected, that the undiscovered work of my 20s, 30s, and 40s will be found, and that I can feel satisfied that the world has finally caught up with my brilliance. Yes, that’s it. I want the world to show me that it gets me, and yes, I admit I want the world, I want more than my family. I want the world finally to let me be free in my expression.

I wish that I had said that to her.

But that would have exposed the dreamer. And the dreamer is vulnerable.

It’s true that I have more chance of my writing setting me free than if, with the same high hopes, I took up a pastime like knitting. There’s some reality to the dream. But even if my writing has better odds than knitting, the odds are still very, very low that I’ll achieve the kind success we hear and dream about with writing. And so, I have to also be okay with the dream not being realized.

The writing life, at least for me, is not like other avocations that can be measured in terms of sustainability or certified “new” material (my first friend), nor by the writer’s plan for the writing, a plan we can compare against later when evaluating the success of the piece (my second friend).

I tell myself it’s a hobby, sure, the one that works for me. I tell myself I’d rather have one story out there, one published story (and I already have a few of those) that moves a few minds, than a sweater I knitted, tucked away in my niece’s drawer, attracting moths. That’s it: my preference is that one story in a forgotten journal is better than one sweater in a drawer. (Nothing against knitting.)

Maybe the point is that we writers should appreciate writing for the very way it keeps us trying, keeps us dreaming. There’s no moment in writing, I hope, when it should become clear to the fool that she’s wasting her time.

I keep missing, I keep trying. It hasn’t set me free yet, but I still believe in it.

There’s a beauty to that. After all these years.

Image Credit: Flickr/Jonathan Kim

A Form of Mourning

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My friend Elizabeth Leo died unexpectedly two years ago. She was only 34 when she fell from a bridge that connected the campus Lutheran church to its parsonage, a crumbling four-story building where she was living for free. The church held a memorial the following August. There, over small plates of raw vegetables, with photographs of Elizabeth arranged on a table behind us, I talked to Natalie Homer, a mutual friend, about Elizabeth’s poetry. Elizabeth had published very little of it during her life. But her poems needed readers—we both felt that. They deserved to circulate.

Natalie and I spent the next several months editing her poems for publication and the next year arranging for publication. That process will culminate this spring in a chapbook, Bloodroot and Goldenrod.

We met in person and over the phone. Natalie had Elizabeth’s master’s thesis, 53 poems all told, and a folder with another 20 miscellaneous poems in it, all of them undated. We read the poems aloud and talked about each one, what we liked and didn’t. Often we marveled. Sometimes we complained: why this epigraph? why that final, hanging line? I loved these conversations. They were slow with lots of silence. We savored the lines. We grieved.

How do you make a selection from the relatively few extant poems of someone who can provide no explanation, offer no defense, and express no preference? What criteria do you use? By what standard do you decide which poems deserve to be published and so survive beyond the poet’s short life? Bloodroot and Goldenrod is the posthumous collection of a poet still in the early phase of her career. Do you simply choose the “best” ones? What if a “bad” poem has a “good” moment in it or even just a characteristic one? What if it tells an important part of the story? But what story?

Elizabeth’s book contains frightening hints of her own death, suggestions, even, of suicide. In one poem, she writes, “The breeze has cut out, or the sun has quit.” At the end of another: “And most of this, it’s all temporary./The slip of a fingernail beneath thin plastic—I could make it look like I was never here at all.” Immediately after news of her death broke, people began to speculate. On Facebook, there was talk of violence: assault, murder. For several days the police would not rule out homicide. The rumors of violence were finally dispelled when the police department released a statement saying that they believed her death to have been due to an accidental fall. They sketched a scene in which Elizabeth had gone out onto the bridge to smoke and fallen the 12 to 15 feet to the sidewalk, where she died from a traumatic head injury. So there it was: an accident. It made more sense than a random assault. Those of us who knew her, though, wondered about suicide.

In what condition had she ventured out of her apartment? With what purpose? Where exactly had she been standing when she fell? It was early May. The semester had ended. It would have been quiet, some traffic, the Mon River lumbering through town just down the hill. A big, mute moon. Did she say goodbye to it? Or was she frantic and inward and alone? Had she looked one last time through her favorite books, The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert, Czeslaw Milosz’s Collected Poems, Watership Down, The Outsiders, their pages marked up with pencil and stiff from cigarette smoke? And her cat, Jonas, had it watched? What even happened?

There are no answers to these questions. At least not ones for us to know. What happened and how and why: all that has been written down in the book of days in an illegible script. I don’t want to guess how or why Elizabeth died. Better to grieve for a friend and fellow poet who died way too young. She felt that she was at the end of something, and she was, in a way: recently divorced, apparently fired from her job at the university. She could not see a way forward. But her life’s work—her poetry—was just beginning.

Elizabeth’s poems are all heavy blooms and hidden centers, insistent but unmannered repetitions. They circle obsessively around an unnamed absence. Loss gives them their urgency, their dark humor, and their beauty. They risk beauty. I love that about them. They do not suppress their desire to sing, full- throated and purple-stained, to quote Keats (who hovers in the background of so many of these poems).
Adiantum

There was a magic cupboard and inside Adiantum danced.
Little girls could fall in sideways leaning too far
to sniff a heavy aster in the dark.
A heavy bloom in the dark.

A heavy bloom in the dark.
Flower as a cardinal destroyer, wrecker of hearts.
In life Elizabeth was shy and kind, critical, generous, full of secret reserves and keen judgments. Her knowledge of plants was encyclopedic. She knew their names but also how they looked and felt and what they needed to grow. She had a talent for helping things grow and flourish in the garden and in the classroom. The first two speakers at her memorial service were former students. Elizabeth worked as an adjunct instructor, a precarious job with low pay and little stability. She supplemented her meager wages from the university with part-time work at a garden store. When I knew her she lived in the country, in a dumpy, poorly lit apartment that she could not afford with her cat, her books, her many plants, and not much else, a few large, hard plastic cups that we drank wine out of, a bowl to hold candy when visitors came over.

She was wracked with doubt. She loved poetry. I hope that love comes across in the collection. And the rage, too, which simmers just beneath the surface—“Jack, we say. Jack, Jack, we sing. Jack: shrapnel edge of our last can”—and the wonder—“the tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile”—and the loss, everywhere that intimacy with loss. “Blue rose,” she writes in one poem, “layered petals on petals./Blue Lizzy. Someone once had a name for me like that.”

As Natalie and I read and discussed the poems, I kept wanting to ask Elizabeth why she had made the decisions she had, good and bad. To encourage her, to convince her, finally, that she was immensely talented and that her poetry deserved to evolve, become more and less itself over the years. The poems in this collection have within them such a big future, so many possible roads. We wanted that future to be present in the collection. To account not only for the poet she was but the poet she might have become. In moments I see her move beyond the influence of her mentors, move in the direction not of what a poem should be but what, in her hands, it is. I see her authority emerge. These are small moments, small and painful, because to see all that—in a turn of phrase or a stanza break—is to feel the loss very acutely.
“…We seek belief
in shoveling soil, in blisters.
And we find it there. There. There is no trouble
and the garden is lucky in the sun,
brothers. Running waters unfurl the ferns.
Let’s follow, together, the moonflower
tonight, when it blooms a silver trumpet…”
There. There. There, one right after the other. It’s like your foot got caught in a rut, or your shirt snagged on a branch. It’s stubborn, awkward, unmusical, and new. It disrupts the subtle iambic rhythm that had been established in the previous lines and that returns in the subsequent lines, when the music picks back up, and the poem shifts in an instant from the insistent, nearly inarticulate “there. There. There”—the language of someone just learning to speak—to the expertly rendered “Running waters unfurl the ferns.” The meter returns in the form of trochees, an anapest, and an iamb. The vowels sing: brothers, waters, unfurl, ferns, ferns becoming follow, follow becoming (moon)flower.

Or here, two lines from another poem:
November is good for quick dark and closing.
I’d like done with it. This or that or anything.
The plainness of that second line, made up as it is of pronouns—I, it, this, that, anything—the latter three of which lack any meaningful antecedent, contains such expressive force when set against all the beautiful names that run through the collection: adiantum, artemesia, trillium, “wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum.” This or that or anything. It has the effect of distortion in a pop song. I hear a fury buried in there and also a future, in which she is willing to push language all the way to collapse.

Her poems find an uneasy balance between blank verse and ordinary speech, what Robert Frost called the “strained relation” between these two contrasting musics. The sonnet—its size and compression—is the deeply etched blueprint under every poem in the collection.
Cricket Season

Mums and leg-fiddles on the air.
It is the season of astringents, of turning into
or turning away. The crickets sound quick
in the low weeds by the woods, but up here
on the porch boards they are huge, gun-gray
in the lamplight, are dead-slow, silent and heavy
as threat. Those away in the grass, they call
next, next, next: a tearing paper song.
Then, the startling luck-black of them beneath a begonia’s leaf
sings a deaf song, soon, soon.
The locust leaves are already yellow
and I am already sick of their falling.
I push my glasses on top of my head.
I let the world go blurry and still.
And so it was the sonnet, those sessions of sweet silent thought, that we felt should shape the collection, its characteristic movement inward and outward. Bloodroot and Goldenrod tells the story not of a life exactly but a consciousness, if the distinction makes sense. The story of a self walking and kneeling, breaking and mending. Of someone living close to the earth and its objects, in the garden “knuckle-drag[ging] through [her] mistakes,” digging dirt out of her nails with a paring knife “in the kitchen, under the kitchen lights.” Someone “low as a beast and holding.” In these poems we find Elizabeth on the porch or in the yard or at her desk, naming, remembering, musing, and then returning again to the world. That movement, the drift of consciousness, is hard to achieve on the page and harder to make compelling to a reader. Elizabeth does.
If You Are Worried, It’s Only Tomorrow; If You Are Scared, It’s Only the Dark

My Scilla, dear, as blue and low as the best sky—
              as Trillium blooms a green drake
              —nothing hatches broken, no bark breaks.
Wax flowers, toad lilies, soft star Verbascum
              fall down your throat lightly: a collar.
              A collar, lightly falling down your throat.
The tuning fork balances the monarch on the mobile.
There’s no word for our Liriope bed. Stay comes close.
The wall paint peels lovely and pink.
The sun sets upon negotiation only,
and I can forgive anything.
I knew Elizabeth mostly as a poet. I would have liked to have known her better. She left behind images and metaphors, the music of her lines and stanzas. And more than that. She left for us her desire to turn experience into something else, something more, something lasting, into wisdom, beauty, and form. To sing.

How Ramona Quimby Made Me Brave

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1.
We didn’t know he was dead when we entered the room, but it didn’t take long to confirm it.

November 6, 1991.

I was a curly-headed kindergartner who figured his grandfather would live forever. I figured wrong.

Standing in the doorway of my grandparents’ bedroom that day, I watched as the paramedic’s hands hovered above my grandfather’s chest like a bee afraid to land. At last, he found his mark: smashing his hands into my grandfather’s heart in an act that looked more deadly than lifesaving.

Until that moment, death had seemed a hypothetical—something that could happen, but that didn’t necessarily have to happen. As long as you ate your veggies and buckled your seatbelt, you’d be blessed with eternal life.

My grandfather’s death ran contrary to that thinking.

In my first existential murmuring, I wondered: Why bother with broccoli if we’re all going to die anyway?

I didn’t voice this sentiment, because I didn’t voice much of anything back then. I was a relatively quiet child to begin with, though I became abnormally quiet after my first brush with death. Some days I struggled to work up the courage even to say hello to my teacher, or my bus driver, or my friends. Parrots held longer conversations than I did.

My reluctance to talk never seemed like a problem until it suddenly was one; my elementary school informed my parents that I wouldn’t be graduating from kindergarten to first grade alongside my peers. Instead, my silence reserved me a spot in a yearlong purgatory called “Reading Readiness,”—a loosely defined “catch-all” class for those of us not yet emotionally or academically ready to continue on.

I didn’t mind. After all, it was there, on a carpet square in Ms. Pfleiger’s classroom, where I was first introduced to a character named Ramona Quimby.

She and I became fast friends, though we were an odd couple: she the outspoken, unruly, and nonexistent one, while I was quiet, well-behaved, and cripplingly aware of my own mortality.

Over the next few years, Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books became my sacred texts. I turned to them in times of trouble, leaving the crumbly roads of the real world in favor of the smooth sidewalks of Ramona Quimby’s Klickitat Street.

Ah, Klickitat Street! The name alone sounded like sanctuary. Cleary once said she’d selected the name because it captured “the sound of knitting needles.” But to those of us from out of town, it was more than that: it was a sun-dappled, tree-lined, living monument to childhood. A landscape run amok with milkmen and paper routes and little red wagons.

The greatest tragedy that ever occurred on Klickitat Street was the passing of the Quimby’s cat, who died of natural causes. It was the kind of loss I could get behind. One that required but a moment of silence.

2.
When Beverly Clearly died on March 25 at the age of 104, my first thought was: how on earth was she still alive?

It seemed somehow incomprehensible that a woman born during the Wilson Administration had only just left us. I credited Cleary’s longevity to vegetable eating and regular seatbelt use. She lived as long as 13 8-year-old Ramona’s combined; a breathtakingly long life, during which she sold more than 91 million copies of her books.

That’s a lot of Ramona Quimby, whose spunky outspokenness paved the way for generations of young readers to live ferociously. More pluck than poise, Ramona Quimby entered the room like a Mardi Gras parade, trumpeting trouble wherever she went. But it was never real trouble, merely the misadventures of a young person trying to crack wide her world. Her life was the laboratory through which kids like me could run our own experiments. What are the consequences of cracking an egg over your head? Or locking a dog in a bathroom? Or doodling in a library book? Ramona had answers for all of the above.

Yet Ramona Quimby endures not because of what she did, but for what she felt while doing it. Beverly Cleary, who was 8 years old in 1924, somehow never forgot the anxieties of that age. She tapped into that turmoil, encouraging Ramona to take the road that didn’t always lead directly to happily-ever-after. The more one read, the more one realized that it wasn’t all smooth sidewalks on Klickitat Street.

One night when I was 7 or so, I stayed up late reading Ramona the Brave. Ramona was up late, too, anxious about her father’s late return from a night of bowling. Book in hand, I turned the pages as fast as I could, desperate to give her a little relief. That night Ramona said her prayers, “then repeated them,” Cleary wrote, “in case God was not listening the first time.”

I couldn’t speak for God, but I was sure listening, and I called out to poor Ramona trapped on the page.

“Your dad’s going to be fine,” I promised. “In books like yours, dads always are.”

Pages later, Ramona heard the rumble of her father’s car, followed by the squeak of the door, then the sound of the thermostat turning.

Upon finding his daughter still awake, Mr. Quimby sternly (but not too sternly) told Ramona to go to sleep. Which she did, now that she could.

For me, Ramona’s greatest act of bravery was that she wasn’t afraid to be scared: a lesson I myself was only beginning to learn.

“What’d I tell you, Ramona?” I whispered. “Didn’t I tell you he’d be back?”

Smiling, I placed the book on my bedside table and flicked off the light.

For too long, my heart had felt too small to bear the loss of the man who wouldn’t be coming back.

But my heart was bigger now. And I was bigger now.

And with every word, the weight lifted.

Marvelous Mutable Marvell

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Twelve years to the day after King Charles I ascended the scaffold at Whitehall to become the first European sovereign decapitated by his subjects, and his son had the remains of Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector during England’s republican decade and the man whom as much as any other was responsible for the regicide, exhumed from his tomb in Westminster Abby so that the favor could be returned. Interregnum signified dreary theocracy, when the theaters were closed, Christmas abolished, and even weekend sports banned. By contrast, Charles promised sensuality, a decadent rejection of austere radicalism. But if there was one area of overlap, it would be in issues of rapprochement, for though pardons were issued to the opposition rank-and-file, Charles still ordered the execution of 31 signers of his father’s judgement, remembered by the subject of this essay as that moment when the king had “bowed his comely head/Down as upon a bed.” Even the dead would not be spared punishment, for in January of 1661 Cromwell was pulled from his grave, flesh still clinging to bone, languid hair still hanging from grey scalp, and the Royalists would hang him from a gibbet at Tyburn.


Eventually Cromwell’s head would be placed on a pike in front of Westminster Hall where it would molder for the next two decades. Such is the mutability of things. Through this orgy of revenge, a revolutionary who’d previously served as Latin Secretary (tasked with translating diplomatic missives) slinked out of London. Already a celebrated poet, he’d been appointed by Cromwell because of his polemical pamphlets. After the blanket pardon he emerged from hiding, but still Charles had him arrested, perhaps smarting when in 1649 the author had described Royalists as a “credulous and hapless herd, begott’n to servility, and inchanted with these popular institutes of Tyranny.” By any accounting John Milton’s living body should have been treated much the same as Cromwell’s dead one, for he was arrested, imprisoned, and no doubt fully expected himself to be flayed and hung up at Tyburn. But he would avoid punishment (and go on to write Paradise Lost). Milton’s rescue can be attributed to another poet a decade his junior.  

Once a keen supporter of Cromwell, but now the new government completely trusted this younger poet and his word was enough to keep Milton from the scaffold. Before the regicide he’d been a royalist, during Interregnum a republican, and upon Restoration a royalist again, all of which earned him the sobriquet of “The Chameleon.” That perhaps impugns him too much, for if Andrew Marvell understood anything it was fickle mutability, how in a mercurial reality all that can be steadfast is merely the present. A man loyal not to regimes but to friends. He was born on this day 400 years ago, he is among the greatest poets, and the relative silence that accompanies his quadricentenary speaks to his major theme: our eventual oblivion. “Thy beauty shall no more be found,” Marvell’s narrator warns in his most famous poem, and it might as well be prophecy for his own work.    

“His grave needs neither rose nor rue nor laurel; there is no imaginary justice to be done; we may think about him… for our own benefit, not his,” writes T.S. Eliot in his seminal essay “Andrew Marvell,” published on this day a century ago in the Times Literary Supplement. Just as John Donne had been known primarily for his sermons, so too was Marvell remembered chiefly as a politician (he was elected as an MP prior to Restoration, a position he stayed in through his death), until Eliot encouraged critics to take a second look at his verse. By Eliot’s recommendation, Marvell was now understood as one of the greatest poets of the century, perhaps only lesser than his friend Milton. Jonathan Bate writes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Andrew Marvell: The Complete Poems that his “small body of highly wrought work constitutes English poetry’s most concentrated imaginative investigation of the conflicting demands of the active and the contemplative life, the self and society, the force of desire and the pressure of morality, the detached mind and the body embedded in its environment.” Perhaps Marvell deserves a little bit of rose or rue or laurel. Yet his quadricentennial passes without much of a mention, though presumably some other writers will (hopefully) consider his legacy today. A quick Google search shows that several academic societies are providing (virtual) commemoration, including a joint colloquium hosted by St. Andrews, and appropriately enough a Marvell website maintained by  the University of Hull in his northern English hometown (which features this insightful essay by Stewart Mottram about Marvell and COVID-19). Yet by comparison to other recent literary anniversaries—for Milton, Mary Shelly, Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, of course, William Shakespeare—there has largely been quiet about Marvell, even though Eliot once said regarding his poetry that a “whole civilization resides in these lines.”

Marvell published only a handful of lyrics in his own life, and while he authored examples of virtually every popular genre of the time, from ode to panegyric, country house poem to satire (though not epic), he stretched their bounds, made them unclassifiable and slightly strange. Having written across three major periods of 17th-century English literary history—during the Caroline reign, the Commonwealth, and then Restoration—he awkwardly fits within both of the two dominant traditions of that age, metaphysical and Cavalier poetry. “Was he classic or romantic, metaphysical or Augustan, Cavalier or Puritan… republican or royalist?” asks Elisabeth Story Donno in the introduction to Andrew Marvell: The Critical Heritage, and indeed such ambiguity threads through his verse and especially his life. This Hull-born son of a stern Calvinist minister who after dalliances on the continent possibly converted to Catholicism (tarred on return as now being an “Italo-Machiavellian”), who served kings and republicans, and who seamlessly switched political and religious allegiances.


The great themes of Marvell’s biography and his poetry are mutability and transitoriness; his verse is marked by the deep sense that as it once was, it no longer is; and as it is, it no longer shall be. “Underlying these themes is the knowledge that in love or action time can’t be arrested or permanence achieved,” writes Michael Schmidt in Lives of the Poets. “A sanctioned social order can be ended with an ax, love is finite, we grow old.” With an almost Taoist sense of the impermanence of life, Marvell casts off opinions and positions with ease, and even his own place within the literary firmament is bound to change and alter. “But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” as Marvell astutely notes. A poet who has “no settled opinions, except the fundamental ones,” writes Schmidt, though his “political readjustments in times of turmoil have not told against him. There is something honest seeming about everything he does, and running through his actions a constant thread of humane concern.” Steadfast though we all wish we could be, Marvell is the poet of Heraclitus’s stream, always reminding us that this too shall pass. “Even his name is slippery,” writes Bates, “In other surviving documents it is as variously spelt as… Marvell, Mervill, Mervile, Marvel, Mervail. We are not sure how to pronounce it.” A convenient metaphor.

However Marvell pronounced his name, it’s his immaculate words and the enchanted ways that he arranged them that are cause for us to return to him today, a poet for whom his “charms are as real as they are hard to define,” as Schmidt writes. Marvell has no great drama in his oeuvre, no Hamlet or King Lear, he penned no epics, no Paradise Lost. Donne, one of his great influences, was more innovative, and George Herbert provided a more unified body of work. And yet in about six or so poems—”The Garden,” “Upon Appleton House,” “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” the sequence known as the Mower poems, “Bermudas,” and of course “To His Coy Mistress”—are among the most perfect in the language, all written around 1650, when the poet acted as tutor to the daughter of Lord General Thomas Fairfax, commander of the New Model Army before Cromwell. Schmidt argues that “Most of his poems are in one way or another ‘flawed’… [the] tetrameter couplets he favored prove wearying… Some of the conceits are absurd. Many of the poems… fail to establish a consistent perspective… Other poems are static: an idea is stated and reiterated in various terms but not developed… There are thematic inconsistencies.” Yet despite Schmidt’s criticism of Marvell, he can’t help but conclude that “because of some spell he casts, he is a poet whose faults we not only forgive but relish.”

It’s because of Marvell’s overweening honesty when it comes
to those faults, themselves a function of the world in flux, which is to say a
reality where perfection must always be deferred. In “The Garden,”
one of the great pastoral poems, he describes “The mind, that ocean where
each kind/Does straight its own resemblance find;/Yet it creates, transcending these,
/For other worlds, and other seas;/Annihilating all that’s made.”  His “Upon Appleton House,” which
takes part in the common if retroactively odd convention of the country-house
poem wherein the terrain of a wealthy estate is described, contrasts the artifice
of the garden with its claim to naturalism; in “An Horatian Ode Upon
Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” he gives skeptical praise to the Lord
Protector (back from a genocidal campaign across the sea), where the “forward
youth that would appear/Must now forsake his Muses dear,/Nor in the shadows
sing/His numbers languishing.” Mutability defined not just Marvell’s
politics but his poetry; steadfastly Christian (of some denomination or
another) he gives due deference to the eternal, but the affairs of men are
fickle, and time’s arrow moves in only one direction.

History’s unforgiving erraticism is sometimes more apparent, and Marvell lived during the most chaotic of English centuries. When the Commonwealth that Marvell served collapsed, and Charles II came back from his exile in 1660, it was to triumphant fanfare in a London that was exhausted after years of stern Puritan dictatorship. Crowds thronged the streets wearing sprigs of oak leaves to welcome the young King Charles and the spring of Restoration. In the coronation portrait by John Michael Wright, the 30-year-old king is made to appear the exact opposite of priggish Cromwell; he is bedecked in ribbons and lace, tight white hose and cascading violet velvet, his curly chestnut wig long in the French style (as he would have picked up in the Sun King’s Court at Versailles) with a thin brunette mustache above a wry smile, a royal scepter in one hand and an orb in the other. If Cromwell was a Puritan hymn, then Charles was a baroque sonata by Henry Purcell. Marvell learned the melodies of both. His contemporary biographer Nigel Smith notes in Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon that the poet “made a virtue and indeed a highly creative resource of being other men’s (and women’s) mirrors.” What is espied in a mirror, it must be said, depends on what you put in front of it. Mirrors are ever-changing things. Such is mutability.  

There must be a few caveats when I argue that Marvell’s fame has diminished. Firstly, to any of my fellow scholars of the Renaissance (now more aridly known as “early modernists”) who are reading, of course I know that you still study and teach Marvell, of course I know that articles, dissertations, presentations, and monographs are still produced on him, of course I know that all of us are familiar with his most celebrated poems. It would be a disingenuous argument to claim that I’m “rediscovering” a poet who remains firmly canonical, at least among my small tribe. Secondly, to any conservatives reading, I’m not suggesting that Marvell has been eclipsed because he’s been “cancelled,” or anything similarly silly, though honestly there would probably be ample reason to do so even if that were a thing (and as perfect a poem as it is, “An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” is problematic in the least), but bluntly his stock isn’t high enough to warrant being a target in that way. Thirdly, and most broadly, I’m not claiming that his presence is absent from our imagination, far from it. If anything, Marvell flits about as a half-remembered reference, a few turns of phrase that lodge in the brain from distant memories of undergraduate British literature survey courses, or a dappling of lines that end up misattributed to some other author (I’ve seen both “Times winged chariot” and “green thought in a green shade” identified with Shakespeare). Modern authors as varied as Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, Ursula K. Le Guinn, William S. Burroughs, Terry Pratchet, Philip Roth, Virginia Woolf, Archibald MacLeish, Primo Levi, and Arthur C. Clark either quote, reference, allude toward, or directly write about Marvell. Even Stephen King quotes from “To His Coy Mistress” in Pet Sematary. Regardless, on this muted birthday, ask yourself how many people you know are aware of Marvell, among a handful of the greatest poets writing during the greatest period of English poetry?

“Thus, though we cannot make our Sun/Stand still, yet we will make him run.” So concludes Marvell’s greatest accomplishment, “To His Coy Mistress.” Like an aesthetic syllogism, the poem piles an abundance of gorgeous imagery in rapid succession to make an argument about how the present must be seized, for immortality is an impossibility. Of course, the conceit of the poem isn’t novel; during the Renaissance it was downright cliché. Carpe diem poetry—you may remember the term from the Peter Weir film Dead Poets Society—goes back to Latin classics by poets like Catullus and Lucretius. A representative example would be Marvell’s contemporary, the Cavalier poet Robert Herrick, and his lyric “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May.” These poems commonly made an erotic argument, the imagined reader a woman whom the narrator is attempting to seduce into bed with an argument about the finite nature of life. Donne’s obvious precursor “To His Mistress Going to Bed (Elegy 19)” is perhaps the most brilliant example of the form. Bate emphasizes that such a “motif is typical of the Cavalier poets… Marvell, however, takes the familiar Cavalier genre and transposes it to a realm beyond ideology.” When reading Donne, the “poems are written in the very voice of a man in bed with a real woman,” as Bates writes, most likely his beloved wife, Anne, for whom he had no compunctions about blatantly stating his sexual yearning. Marvell, by contrast, “never fleshes out his imaginary mistress,” and the result is that “He is not really interested in either the girl or the Cavalier pose; for him, it is experience itself that we must seize with energy, not one particular lifestyle.” The mistress to whom Marvell is trying to woo is his own soul, and the purpose is to consciously live in a present, for that’s all that there is.

“Had we but World enough, and Time,” Marvell begins, “This coyness Lady were no crime.” Ostensibly an argument against chastity, his reasoning holds not just for sex (though the declaration of “My vegetable Love should grow” a few lines later certainly implies that it’s not not about coitus). Eroticism marks the first half of the lyric, explicitly tied to this theme of time’s fleetingness, while imagining the contrary. “A hundred years should go to praise/Thine Eyes, and on thy Forehead Gaze. /Two hundred to adore each breast:/But thirty thousand to the rest. /An Age at least to every part, /And the last Age should show your heart.” Marvell is working within the blazon tradition, whereby the physical attributes of a beloved are individually celebrated, yet Bates is correct that the hypothetical woman to whom the lyric is a cipher more than a person—for nothing actually is described, merely enumerated. For that matter, the time frames listed—100 years, 30,000, an ambiguous “Age”—all seem random, but as a comment on eternity, there’s a wisdom in understanding that there’s no difference between a second or an epoch. He similarly reduces and expands space, calling upon venerable exoticized images to give sense of the enormity of the world (and by consequence how small individual realities actually are). “To walk, and pass our long Loves Day. /Thou by the Indian Ganges side… I would/Love you ten year before the Flood:/And you should if you please refuse/Till the Conversion of the Jews.” Marvell’s language (orientalist though it may be) is playful; it calls to mind the aesthetic sensuality of Romantics like William Taylor Coleridge, where he imagines the mistress picking rubies off the ground. But the playfulness is interrupted by the darker tone of the second half of the poem.

“But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near:/And yonder all before us lie/Desarts of vast Eternity.” The theology of “To His Coy Mistress” is ambiguous; are these deserts of vast eternity the same as the immortality of Christian heaven, or does it imply extinction? Certainly, the conflation of death with a desert seems to deny any continuation. It evokes the trepidation of the French Catholic philosopher and Marvell’s contemporary Blaise Pascal, who in his Pensées trembled before the “short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing.” Evocatively gothic language follows: Marvell conjures the beloved’s moldering corpse in “thy marble Vault,” where “Worms shall try/That long preserv’d Virginity: And your quaint Honour turn to dust,” a particularly grotesque image of the phallic vermin amidst a decomposing body, especially as “quaint” was a contemporary pun for  genitalia. “The Grave’s a fine and private place, /But none I think do there embrace.” In the final third of the poem, Marvell embraces almost mystical rhetoric. “Let us roll all our Strength, and all/Our sweetness, up into one Ball:/And tear our Pleasures with rough strife, /Thorough the iron gates of Life.” This couple melding together is obviously a sexual image, but he’s also describing a singularity, a monad, a type of null point that exists beyond space and time. If there is one clear message in “To His Coy Mistress,” it’s that this too shall pass, that time will obliterate everyone and everything. But paradoxically, eternity is the opposite of immortality; for if eternity is what we desire, then it’s in the moment. Traditional Carpe diem demands that we live life fully for one day we’ll die; Marvell doesn’t disagree with that, but his command is that to truly live life fully is to understand that it’s the present that exists eternally, that we always only live in this present right now, so we must ask ourselves what the significance of this brief second is. What’s mere fame to that?

Marvell’s star has faded not because he wasn’t a great poet, not because he deserves to be forgotten, not because he’s been replaced by other writers or because of any conscious diminishment of his stature. His fame has ebbed because that’s what happens to people as time moves forward. The arguments about what deserves to be read, taught, and remembered often overlooks the fact that forgetting is a function of what it means to be human. What makes “To His Coy Mistress” sublime is that there is a time-bomb hidden with it, the poet’s continuing obsolescence firmly confirming the mutability of our stature, of our very lives. Marvell’s own dwindling fame is a beautiful aesthetic pronouncement, a living demonstration of time’s winged chariot, and the buzzing of the wings of oblivion forever heard as a distant hum. After his death in 1678, he was ensconced within seemingly ageless marble, and set within the catacombs of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, a gothic stone church at the center of London, though true to its name it was at the edge of the city when Marvell was alive. Ever as fortune’s wheel turns, the neighborhood is now bathed in perennial neon light—theaters with their marquees signs and the ever-present glow of electronic billboards. Red double-decker busses and black hackney-carriages dart past the church were Marvell slumbers, unconscious through empire, through Industrial Revolution, through the explosions of the blitz. 

“But a Tombstone can neither contain his character, nor is Marble necessary to transmit it to posterity,” reads his epitaph, “it is engraved in the minds of this generation, and will be always legible in his inimitable writings, nevertheless.” Probably not. For one day, there will less seminars about Marvell, and then no more; less anthologizing, and then the printings will stop; less interest, except in the minds of antiquarians, and then they too shall forget. One day, even Shakespeare shall largely be forgotten as well. The writing on Marvell’s tomb will become illegible, victim to erosion and entropy, and even the banks of the Thames will burst to swallow the city. When he is forgotten, paradoxically maybe especially when he is, Marvell teaches us something about what is transient and what is fleeting. Time marches forward in only one direction, and though it may erase memory it can never annihilate that which has happened. Regardless of heaven, Marvell lived, and as for all of us, that’s good enough. His verse still dwells in eternity, whether we utter his name or not, for what is rendered unto us who are mortal is the ever-living life within the blessed paradise of a second, which is forever present.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.

For the Relief of Unbearable Bookstores

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I’ve reached the point in life where my relationship with bookstores is—how to put this?—well, it’s complicated. I love the idea of bookstores. I smile when I see their bright windows on a block. I talk about a new bookshop like normal people talk about newborns. And after the global pandemic loosens its grip on New York, I know one of the first things I’ll do is visit a bookstore in my neighborhood. In my imagination, this means spending a long lazy afternoon browsing shelves and flipping the pages of dozens of new books. There’s just one problem: I long ago ceased to enjoy bookstores. Even before the pandemic, I couldn’t spend more than a few minutes inside one without wanting to leave; no, without wanting to flee, shoulders hunched, like a child caught trespassing.
I once burned for bookstores. And not just because I thought the right books made me look smart, either. This was a love affair that began before I knew pretension. The very first bookstore that I loved as a boy was a mall bookstore. Its name, Abbey Road Books, made no sense to me because it was located on Gull Road, not Abbey Road. The mall would be gone long before I got the Beatles reference.
Abbey Road Books was not large but it was big enough for a guileless boy: a rack near the cash register held comic books. A half dozen long rows running front to back offered popular paperbacks and—I assume—serious literary fiction. I never really looked. I was too busy with the Garfield collections, the Dragonriders of Pern fantasies or the sci-fi pulp. This was where I found my first favorite novel, Laura J. Mixon’s Astro Pilots, a YA book about a teenager whose revenge on a bully is complicated by the temporal effect of traveling at light speed. Pure nerd bliss.
Years of browsing and buying books freely has produced what you would expect: my home is a book orphanage, and the unread books are almost as numerous as the read ones. Based on a recent roll call, a quarter of the books on the shelves are critically praised titles I have not yet read. Let the Great World Spin. White Teeth. The Wings of the Dove.
In the pre-pandemic era, there were six book shops within the lunchtime walking radius of my office near Union Square. The Strand, Alabaster Books, Three Lives, McNally Jackson, Housingworks, and Barnes & Noble. All of the shops except Alabaster (which was smaller than a studio apartment) had display tables at the store entrance. The intention of a bookstore display table is noble; the effect is, for me, pernicious. From the get go, I am reminded of how many unread books exist and how many new unread books are added to that list daily. All the tables and all the books take on an undifferentiated, daunting sheen. You can judge a book by its cover but what you’re judging is sometimes hard to say. To Keep the Sun Alive? House of Stone? Great book covers, lovely fonts, and crackerjack titles; how do you pick between them? The blurb on every other book promises it is “Like nothing you’ve read before.” Or “More knife than novel.” I want to read the work of this “rising star of Arab fiction,” but I also want to read a dozen others, and in the end, overwhelmed by choice, I choose to flee.
Pablo Neruda once wrote that the smell of barber shops made him sob. The smell of fresh book bindings makes me feel like a phony. I am overwhelmed by all the books I have not read, won’t read. How is it that I was ever able to bear this feeling? Why can’t I stand in front of the French Literature section, picking up and putting down books as insouciantly as the scruffy dude with the man bun and the serious face? What has gone wrong in me? Sometimes, at Three Lives, I worried the friendly clerk truing up novels in stacks near the door would stop me one day and say, gently, “I see you here often, dear; is there something specific you need?”
The global Covid pandemic put an abrupt end to this ongoing bookstore angst, for a time. Overnight, bookstores became more theoretical than real. I shifted to curbside pick up for drinks and dinners, and I pivoted to ordering books over the phone from local stores. The first time that I picked up a book purchase curbside was in the Early Covid Era, and I doused all the brand new books with rubbing alcohol before I stowed them in the trunk for a three-day quarantine. Just to be safe. By summer, I was less anxious about touching books; at a pick-up window for a bookstore in Connecticut, I waited while inside a bookstore employee searched for the title I wanted among all the books in their cells. One day, I thought, one day we’ll all be able to go inside again. Won’t that be something?
I want to believe that everything will be different when we turn life back on. I want to believe a year apart from bookstores has changed me. I want to believe I have re-learned how to be casual, how to relax, how to bathe in the bliss of booksellers. I want to believe. But here’s the truth: rather than rewire me for patience, a year at home has probably made me even less able to downshift and enjoy a bookstore properly. I spend more hours than ever each day digging into the larder of my smartphone for the fatty byproducts of the Internet. Social distancing for months has increased the hours spent as a parent mediating fights, insisting on chores, refereeing screen time. Given my jumpy, angsty, barely-nuanced attention span, does anyone really think I’m capable of slipping with ease into the heady trance that is necessary to enjoy an afternoon among books?
Yet, I am too old to change. I know what is coming, in the summer of our post-Covid dreams, when masks are passé and stores no longer post occupancy limits. I will return to bookstores. I won’t be able to resist giving them another chance. And another. And another. But I’m pretty sure where all this will end up. I’ll be back on the sidewalk again within minutes.
The unforgivable sin of bookstores is this: so many of the books that they offer are physical reminders of passing time. Here are the Kazuo Ishiguros I read while in my fresh-faced 20s. Here are the Joan Didions of my 30s. Here are the Tracy Kidders I discovered after my kids were born. A visit to any kind of bookstore will eventually make me jealous for the younger version of me, the person who was unshaped, unaccountable, unknown. Both the books that I have read and not read all remind me that what I am is not what I was; and they point out to me that for all the work of living that I have done, there remains an impossible amount of work that I have not and cannot do. I cannot change course and pursue a life of ornithology. I am no longer a penniless apprentice writing his first novel. I cannot sell everything and live on an arctic freighter. I cannot be what I am not, and by definition what I am not remains so much larger than what I am.
But there is hope. There has to be. Sometimes, a bookstore visit can still be just right. In the last weeks before the pandemic closed all the bookstores in Manhattan, I stopped by Book Culture, a book shop that was once known—in my apprentice writer heyday—as Labyrinth Books, an unapologetically highbrow bookshop. Here is the headline of a Times review lauding the shop shortly after it opened in 1997: “No Krantz, Koontz or coffee bars.” I was here often as a graduate student trying to write a novel in the vein of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. The tin soldier rows of books were like a barracks of like-minded zealots. This was where I jealously flipped through debut short story collections like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and swore I could do better. (Reader: I could not.)
On this visit half a lifetime later, I flipped through a book I recently saw lionized on Twitter. Nice. One more novel I should be reading, but wasn’t. I almost left right then, but then I saw Draft No. 4, a John McPhee book on writing, and I decided, well, let me look inside that one. I scanned the first page. My insides went calm. I was like a parched man cutting open a spindly cactus and finding watery relief. I skipped to the back, read more words that struck me as perfect, and true: “It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky,” McPhee writes, “when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away.” I closed the book, realizing that I would buy it, damn the torpedoes and all the unread books waiting at home.
I brought the McPhee book to the register. A girl with dirty blond hair and a tired, guarded look was handling sales.
“Are you a member of our book club?”
“I’m sure that I was once,” I said. There was no way for her to hear the ironic undertone.
She asked for my first and last name. I told her. She typed, furrowed her brow. “Nope,” she said. “You want to join? It’s quick.”
Of course, I had been forgotten. Emptiness began to swell inside. Then, a thought: “Did you put a space,” I said, “between Van and Dyke?”
She sighed, hit the delete key lightly, then enter, and her eyes brightened. “There you are,” she said, as if she had just learned I was her cousin twice removed. They knew me. I was one of the remembered ones. I still belonged. This made me so happy that now, in retrospect, it makes me sad.
Bonus Link:
A History of Love (of Bookstores)
Image Credit: Piqsels.

No Apologies: On Writing About My Mother’s Life

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My mother asked me to order her a cocktail—“nothing too sweet.” It was June 2019 and we were eating dinner in a restaurant by ourselves. Since the birth of my son, two years earlier, we had rarely been alone together. I was nervous and ordered her a drink at random. She took a sip and cringed.

“I need your permission for something,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

“I want to write a book about your life.”

She took a second sip of her sugary cocktail. “I do think you had an interesting childhood.”

“Not my life,” I said. “Yours.”

My pitch: the next time I went home to Portland, she and I would take a road trip. We would drive through the deserts of eastern Oregon to Rexburg, Idaho, down to Salt Lake City, and farther south to Provo, Utah. My mother’s past would be our roadmap. At each campsite, cabin, or motel she would tell me about her life before she became a mother. I knew the highlights already. As a high schooler she had lived alone in a trailer park off McLoughlin Boulevard outside Portland. At 18, she had a job counting wild horses on Steens Mountain for the Bureau of Land Management, and a boyfriend 10 years older. She was engaged three times before her 21st birthday. She was married in the temple in Salt Lake City—but her first husband turned on her when he found her packet of birth control pills. After leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my mother moved back to Portland and met my dad. She remembers thinking, I’m twenty-two now. If I don’t get it together…something bad is going to happen to me. For years afterward, Relief Society sisters would knock on our door. “When are you coming back to church?” And my mother’s answer was always, “Never.”

Maybe other women have more tumultuous, unsettling, or revealing stories about the Mormon Church or the American West. My mother interests me not because she is exceptional—though she may be—but because she is mine. And also not mine. Prying into the details of her life feels both natural and threatening. When I asked if I could write a book about her, I hoped she would say no as much as I hoped she would say yes. That night, in the restaurant, she said that I could.

I wanted to render her young adulthood in novelistic detail. As a novelist, blurring the boundary between memoir and fiction would make the form less daunting. I planned to fill in the background of my mother’s memories, conjuring phone calls that probably happened, songs that likely came on the radio. Interspersed would be reflections from her daughter: dispatches from the 1990s, early aughts, and present day. These sections would give the reader some relief from the saturated palette and shaggy texture of the late ’70s—and would offer a glimpse of who my mother became once the debris of her youth had settled, once motherhood was the role by which she was most often defined.

To complete the portrait, I would include transcripts of our conversations. I wanted to interview my mother beneath the jagged mountain ranges of her past, because those had been my mountains too. She first began to tell me about her life when I was about 13. On long weekends, we would drive to Central Oregon or the southern coast. We would camp or stay in cheap motel rooms whose balconies, at high tide, dangled over the Pacific. She told me how alone she had felt as a young woman, neglected by her own parents. How she cycled through men and clung to Mormonism—in spite of her sins—because she was desperate for unconditional love. How she sometimes endangered herself and manipulated other people to get what she wanted.

I do not believe she told me these things to extract my own confessions—and if she did, it didn’t work. As much as I loved our talks, I concealed my own reckless streak, my tendency to date older boys, and even my ambivalence about the evangelical Christianity in which she and my dad had raised me. Still, it comforted me to learn about the mistakes my mother had made. It was a relief to know that she had been flawed, and it was a relief to know that the narrative of her adolescence was stitched into her adulthood. I didn’t want the years I was living through to mean everything, but I often worried they would eventually mean nothing. By revealing to me the weight of her girlhood, my mother acknowledged the weight of mine, while—artfully, generously—allowing me my privacy.

In her 40s, it would have been easy for my mother to let her teenage daughter view her in shades of bland maternity. And it would be easy for me, now, to let my mother calcify in my mind as “Grandma Ellen,” smiling at my son over FaceTime. I could let her life story fade into half-remembered family folklore. More than ever, though, I want to understand my mother—not as my origin, not as my background—but as a woman who happens to have children, one of whom happens to be me. I want to create an impression of her that’s uncorrupted by shame (she made me), or criticism (she made me), or sentimentality (she made me). To be uninterested in the ways my mother made me a better or worse person than I might have otherwise been is a gift. One that she gave me. Because, yes, mothers can be bad. Mothers have the ability to harm their children, and some do. But in general, I think we are still too hard on moms, too quick—in our therapy sessions and tweets and memoirs—to retroactively judge their performances. My mother was good, and imperfect, and good because she was imperfect.

Almost all of my friends have children. Sometimes we confess our darkest mothering moments: hands tightening around small shoulders; ferocious screams that send the dog into hiding. “Grow up,” I once yelled at my three-year-old—as if he was doing anything else. My friends and I talk about the “rage hangover” that descends as the heart regulates itself, the remainder of the day passing in the nausea of self-loathing and regret. We text each other because we need to hear I’ve done that and It’s okay. Surely, my mom, who had three children, felt herself flicker between mother and monster. She has also witnessed my own meltdowns, spreading her hand across my back as I hold my son and sob. I don’t believe my mother and I owe each other apologies or forgiveness. All I really want is to know her and to let her know me.

In 2019, the project seemed clear: take a road trip, write a book. But that summer, when my mother gave me permission to write about her life, we did not take a road trip. I was living in Richmond, Va., parenting a two-year-old without childcare, and finishing a draft of what would be my fourth novel—a story about professional basketball and celebrity, as far removed from my life as anything I’d ever written. By the time I was ready to begin a new book from scratch, it was September 2020. Travel was no longer an option. And so, having not seen my mother in eight months, I began interviewing her over Zoom. As of March 2021, an entire year since I last saw her, we are still at it. The interviews are hard to schedule. She works until five or six p.m. Pacific Time; I go to bed around 10 Eastern. Our calls last an hour, sometimes two, and take twice as long to transcribe the next day. Watching the recordings, I am struck by the ease of our conversation, our constant laughter, the way we smooth our hair in sync. Talking to my mother, I sound like I am talking to a close friend.

Sometimes I avoid the manuscript for weeks. The document, minimized on my laptop screen, fills me with dread. For one thing, failure feels inevitable. Maybe I can only ever see my mother as accurately as I can see myself: not at all. It crushes me to imagine her as a young woman for whom no one on earth was watching out. Finally, I don’t enjoy dwelling on the unfathomable fact that I haven’t seen my mother in a year. If, at any previous point in my life, you asked what events might lead to such a long separation, I would have known only that it was something very bad.

At the end of each interview, we veer from the 1970s into the present. In September, the air in Portland was choked with smoke, unbreathable. My mother, a nurse manager, arrived at work one morning to find the hallway crowded with incubated preemies, transferred from evacuated hospitals. That just about did me in, she said. As the months went on, she told me about sitting through emergency staff meetings to prepare for a second surge of COVID-19 cases. The ICU at full capacity. Crying in her office. Wanting to retire; the math not working out. I never meant to write a timely book. I had envisioned a nostalgia-fueled memoir about re-immersing myself in the landscape of the west, inhaling as much alpine air as my lungs could handle. Instead, as I write, I wonder if I’ll see those places again. A book that was supposed to be about coming home is instead about severance. My nostalgia has never felt more useless.

I am halfway through a first draft. On bad days, I long for the comforts of fiction: the anonymity, the deniability. When I write a novel, I only have to worry about depicting a character whose humanity is convincing. With this memoir, I worry that I am writing a book about my mother in which my mother won’t recognize herself. What if my literary reenactment of her past feels gauche, like a Renaissance fair? What if I’ve gotten it all wrong? On good days, I think this might be a project for which writing fiction has prepared me: to look at the woman who gave birth to me—from whom I have no prayer of hiding—and to know her at least as well as she knows me. If nothing else, the book has bought me time with my mom. Impossible time. Through those decades before I was born, and through 12 months of a pandemic, and years from now, when she is gone.

Image Credit: Piqsels.

Natural Orders: On Hilary Leichter’s ‘Temporary’

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1.
Every new crisis leads to its own movements, whether it drives people to leave careers they thought would last their whole lives, forces them to abandon one city or country for another, or lines them up against the figures responsible for their pain. An economic downturn plays through a script of collapse in its own peculiar fashion. Nobody knows at the start of a crisis just how bad it will get, but everybody knows the poor will suffer and the rich will find shelter, somehow. I remember, when I saw The New York Times ask the graduating class of 2009 if the 2008 recession had ruined our lives up to that point, wondering how many readers, like me, had gone through a series of flashbacks, after which they answered, simply and finally: “Of course it did! Thank you for asking!”

Back then—of course—there were no jobs, but what really made everyone miserable was the surfeit of fake jobs, gigs that extracted your labor for the promise of “experience,” or less. I remember, in 2010, getting paid $10 an hour to write a newsletter, full-time, until my boss revealed there wasn’t enough money to keep paying me. Could I work 12 hours a week, he asked? I did, making less than $100 a week once you factored in taxes, after which I got hired at a travel company to run their social media “on contract,” which meant working full-time with no sick days, vacation time, or benefits. I worked there until the company shut down my branch a year later. After that, I got interviewed at a publishing company for a job as an editorial assistant, a very prestigious position that involved, I was told, working 12 hours a day—all to be near a prestigious Boomer editor—for a salary of $26,000 a year. (I did not get the job, as it happens.) Over time, what I learned is that jobs don’t grant you security, that our economy itself is built on a series of lies. Your work ethic barely factors in—if anything, it can make you more vulnerable. What matters is whether a rich person thinks you can help. If you’re lucky, you’ll save enough money to survive when they inevitably change their mind.

It’s pretty common for people my age to nurse this sort of cynicism. Raw numerical evidence bears this out. Last year, a Deloitte study found that Americans under 40 hold dim views of corporate motivation, with around two-thirds agreeing that profit is the only real motivator in business. It was also revealed, in this study, that half of younger Americans plan to quit their jobs in the next two years, with low compensation cited as the primary driver. A similar percentage expected to grow poorer than they were at the time in the future. And several years before this, in 2014, a Pew Research study found that Millennials had by far the lowest levels of social trust among the generations, with a measly 19 percent believing “most people can be trusted.” Altogether, these numbers depict a bleak portrait of our age, when a vast majority of young adults feel that success is out of reach.

Naturally, these views coincide with a broader shift to the left. By now there are too many studies to count that reveal that younger Americans are much more progressive than their elders. And while there are lots of ways to interpret or contextualize this fact, I’ve found it helpful to think of this shift in terms of modern regime theory. First developed in the early ‘90s by the scholar Stephen Skowronek, regime theory parcels American history into a number of multi-decade eras, defined by their overarching structures of thought, reaction, and belief. In short, a regime is not a particular administration but instead a set of ideas that govern the country’s elites. What Skowronek called the New Deal regime, for example, governed American life from the ‘30s through the ‘70s, imbuing legitimacy and authority to Keynesian economics. Ever since the Reagan era, we’ve been living through a right-wing regime, in which a supermajority of those with power in this country have believed and acted upon a notably different set of ideas. These ideas and assumptions have driven our leaders, including Democratic ones, to cut public spending, privatize basic goods, and metastasize the carceral state, among other things. Many leftwing inclinations of younger people can be seen as a reaction to this drift. How can anyone, the thinking goes, support things continuing as they have?

Part of what makes this theory attractive is that it has an element of hope. It suggests, after all, that a better regime is poised to overthrow the one we’re living through, and that this period of collapse will lead to a period of renewal. It also provides a diagnosis of the mindset that’s caused our current rot. For more on that mindset, I’ve found immense value in The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, whose articles from the early days of the Trump presidency helped frame our current movement in Skowronekian terms. The book places Trump and his movement in a centuries-old right-wing framework, one that ties stupidity and hatred into a broader ideology. The conservative, in Robin’s formulation, is a feudalist for a democratic age, a person who wants to hold a vaunted place in a rigid and brutal social hierarchy. The cruelty of someone like Trump fits neatly with this hypothesis—by relentlessly demonizing vulnerable groups, Trump reenforces the hierarchy. Here’s how Robin describes the ur-conservative:
The conservative does not defend the Old regime: he speaks on behalf of old regimes – in the family, the factory, the field. There, ordinary men, and sometimes women, get to play the part of little lords and ladies, supervising their underlings as if they all belong to a feudal estate. Long before Huey Long cried, “Every man a king,” a more ambiguous species of democrat spoke virtually the same words, though to different effect: the promise of democracy is to govern another human being as completely as a monarch governs his subjects. The task of conservatism becomes clear: surround these old regimes with fences and gates, protect them from meddlesome intruders like the state or a social movement, and descant on mobility and innovation, freedom and the future. (191)
To put this another way, the conservative wants the freedom to dominate the people in this own life, even if it means being dominated by those higher up on the social hierarchy. Inevitably, this stands in direct opposition to democracy, as the conservative sees equality itself as a threat to his ideal arrangement. He wants, at base, a land of private fiefdoms, where those with power maintain their positions through violence, coercion, and penury. Inequality isn’t a side effect—it’s one of the chief aims of his movement.

Characterizing the right in this way helps illuminate a number of things. In part, it explains why the GOP is hellbent on repealing taxes, no matter how disastrous its short- or long-term effects. It explains why a small group of tech companies have monopolized everyday life. It explains why, for decades, parental wealth and pedigree have grown more important in finding success, why the costs of higher education have risen into the stratosphere. It explains why so many people blame poverty on character and not circumstance. It explains why Blackstone founder Stephen Schwartzman once declared, infamously, that raising taxes on private equity firms is akin to the Nazis invading Poland. It explains why millions of people feel that our healthcare system is working precisely as intended when it forces immiserating debt on people for the crime of being sick. It explains why “greed is good” was a signifying phrase of the ‘80s. It explains why many rich people interpret the slightest criticism as a form of “punishing success.” It explains why the right is so focused on punishing society’s most vulnerable. And—as younger Americans overwhelmingly align themselves in opposition to these forces—it explains why the left has grown fiercer in its attacks on concentrated power.

Inevitably, these changes have shown up in the fiction of the past 10 years. By now enough books have come out to form a post-Recession canon. Arguably the most prescient of these is Severance, the 2018 novel by Ling Ma, which has gotten more attention in recent months not only for its eerily accurate portrait of a modern pandemic but also for its portrayal of a numbing, dead-end career. Daniel Torday’s 2015 novel Boomer1 takes Millennial resentment to a violent extreme, depicting a nascent movement of terrorists who attack wealthy Boomers. The Beautiful Bureaucrat, a 2015 novel by Helen Phillips, follows a young woman employed at a shadowy bureaucracy, giving us a comical play-by-play as she keeps getting evicted from apartments. And Halle Butler’s The New Me, a harrowing novel that cuts extraordinarily close to the bone for  somebody with my employment history, is a tale of a destitute, 30-something temp worker, a woman whose opportunities have dried up. All of these novels—in addition to being meticulously crafted and observed—are clear-eyed glimpses of our new, unbearable economy.

Last year, another book took its place within that canon, partly by dealing explicitly with the hardening of social hierarchy. Paradoxically, it’s a fabulist work, entirely whimsical and weird. Yet it provides commentary on the present day that has the weight of the very best parables. For readers who see the outlines of an emerging feudal society in the cruelties of recent years, Temporary by Hilary Leichter is a necessary read.

2.
In brief, the plot of Temporary is this: a young woman works through a series of fantastical, short-lived jobs, none of which give her a clear path to long-term stability. In her world, pirates and witches are employers with their own staffs and jargon, and people known as temporaries are given the status of permanent temp workers at birth. Our protagonist, who goes unnamed, is attempting to gain her “steadiness,” a euphemistic term for having a stable career. The fundamental question hanging over the plot is: will she attain it in her lifetime? This is a poignant question for her, because her mother, a temp worker herself, died without gaining her steadiness, and she raised her daughter to know exactly what it means to be a temporary.

“We work,” she tells her daughter, repeatedly, “but then we leave.” From this, a number of rules follow. It’s a bad idea to make friends at work, because you may have to say goodbye to them—forever—at any time, for any reason. It’s also a bad idea to ask your manager for a raise, or for anything, really, because doing so will likely get you fired. After all, the role of the temp is to do the work without complaint and leave—why should any of them hope to earn money or respect? It’s also the case that you can ask, sometimes, what you need to do to gain your steadiness, aware that nobody will give you the real answer, thanks to a kind of noblesse oblige. You’ll get your steadiness when a wealthy person decides you should have it, and that’s that. Everything you’re striving for depends on their caprice.

Not coincidentally, caprice is also why temporaries most often get fired. No matter your innocence, your boss can blame you for any little thing that goes wrong, or you could simply be the victim of one of their transient bad moods. Even if they like you, bosses can go bankrupt or get arrested, or they could come to the conclusion one day that they don’t like working anymore. The only person with no choice in the matter is you, the unfortunate temporary, who needs your boss to speak well of you so your agency can find you new jobs. This locks the temp into endless cycles of sucking up to their superiors, trapping them in a hierarchy in which their bosses are glorified nobles, the temporaries are serfs in nicer clothes, and the best the temporaries can hope for an act of mercy, as in a fairy tale.

Not all the jobs the narrator holds are patently absurd, but most are, and it’s a testament to this novel how eerily her struggles echo real-world conditions. On a pirate ship, the narrator ends up being forced to walk the plank, not because she did anything wrong but because, instead, the woman she’s replacing decided to return a month early. A rich man dies and wills the narrator to carry his ashes in a necklace, all so he can continue to be a “man about town.” In her role as apprentice to a murderer, the narrator takes pride in evil work, an Arendtian dynamic familiar to anyone who’s worked for bad people. Her jobs are impossible creations, in other words, but her struggles are real, and mundane.

While she gets exploited, of course, she also gets treacly advice. Her contact at the temp agency tells her, falsely, that she’s in “high demand,” and that her care in filling out time sheets means she’s “bound” for the steadiness. The phrase “just doing my job” appears, as it does in real life, so often it becomes hypnotic, and means (depending on context) some combination of “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry,” and “I’m being forced to do this unconscionable thing.” When her murderous boss “goes public,” he says, the narrator will surely get rich, and he might be able to give her a raise when crime spikes in “the busy season.” The act of handing out pamphlets is called “disseminating information.” And when the narrator, meeting an old friend, learns that her friend has not only gained her steadiness but has done so well for herself that she can afford to hire a woman to clean her house, the old friend says, defending herself: “We need to treat ourselves kindly!”

There’s another hypnotic phrase that appears throughout the book. In the prologue, we get a short abstract for the story that follows, alongside a hodgepodge of objects, conditions, jobs. And this: “What happened exactly, specifically, in detail, While You Were Out.” The narrator hears this phrase as a child, tucked into her mother’s bedtime stories, often as part of a laundry list of items in an unnamed office. (Later on, the narrator informs us that she makes sure to write things down so that she can tell her mother, now dead, what happened while she was out.) A passage near the end of the book gives a prophecy of the last temp in history, who is also (conveniently) the last person on Earth. Why does this Last Temp record what’s happening? “It’s the least I can do while you are out.” No matter what happens in the world around her, the temp is a kind of placeholder, dutifully recording the calls and emails and notifications intended for their superiors, who (of course) remain superior to the temp eternally, long after their deaths. “While you are out” is a qualifier, a phrase that reduces the temp’s work to something irreducibly less-than. a substitute for a person with real and lasting power. Even as the world ends, the temp answers calls that she knows are never meant for her.

To be a temp, in other words, is to be an interim human being. It means having almost no rights and begging for scraps to survive. It means hearing, from comfortable superiors, that the world is reasonable and fair, that all you have to do to earn your grace is work hard, always work hard. It means understanding that you can’t have a full identity, not even when it comes to basic things. (As is customary, temps don’t have their own birthdays—instead, they adopt them from people they’re required to fill in for.) Temps don’t have stable housing, they can barely hold on to their possessions, and they can’t depend on anyone in their lives, for anything, as they all discover. Their one hope lies in being rescued.

In true medieval fashion, the hierarchy that rules this world stretches all the way to gods. The gods created the First Temporary so they could take a break. This woman, this Eve of the Temporaries, is told what her role entails, that she was created not to ask for more but to be grateful, hard-working. Obedient.

She lived in the space between who she was and whom she was meant to replace.

3.
For a couple of months in 2009, I was a temp myself, though my agency managed to place me in two full-time positions, total. (Each one lasted a week.) Eventually, I got an unpaid, part-time internship at a fledgling literary agency, which ended abruptly four months in when the agency shut down its office. I moved on to the newsletter job, and then from there to the travel company, where I hoped to settle in for a while, build up “experience.” A year later, I was back to applying to 10 jobs a day. A month or so into this, I got an interview at a “content producer,” a murky place with a legal theme.

Inside their office, 50 or so people typed furiously at bare, spotless desks. There were no personal items in sight, no pictures of family, no coffee mugs. Everybody seemed to be wearing nice clothes and they all looked supremely unhappy. My interviewer, in contrast, worked comfortably in a sunlit office.

Without looking over at me, she went through a checklist of anodyne questions, asking me about my past jobs and what I hoped to achieve. At some point, she got to what mattered. This role, she told me, required writing 10 pieces a day, all of which had to be fact-checked and had to run at least 1,500 words. These were summaries of on-the-books laws, and writers had to be their own fact-checkers. They paid $11 an hour. Did I think I had what it takes?

With embarrassing slowness, I did the math. That’s 15,000 words a day.

“No,” I answered. I hadn’t planned this. I’d never sabotaged an interview. But sitting in that office, I saw immediately that I couldn’t do what she wanted. I’m not that fast a writer. I knew I’d be fired within a week if I accepted the job.

Puzzled, my interviewer stared at me. I don’t think she’d ever heard that answer. Nevertheless, she knew what to say. “Everyone else here is doing it.”

Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and Good Riddance

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Rise of the Slathering Pit Bull

Back in the 1990s, while working as a newspaper columnist in North Carolina, I spent countless hours driving back roads on my way to interview the criminal, the colorful, the obscure and the merely famous. My chariot on those trips through the Piedmont tobacco fields and pine thickets was the paper’s staff car, a bare bones Chevy with no air conditioning and an AM radio that got spotty reception. Which is how I got introduced to that slathering pit bull of right-wing talk radio named Rush Limbaugh.

You’ve seen one tobacco patch, you’ve seen them all. So on those scorching afternoon drives I came to relish the bombardment that began issuing from the dashboard speaker every weekday at noon on the dot, then kept roaring nonstop for three hours — the whining, hectoring, insulting, chortling, blistering, coarse, cruel and often very funny voice of Rush Limbaugh. A typical show would open with a riff from The Pretenders, which made no sense and which surely set Chrissie Hynde spinning in her leather pants. And then: “Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain. This is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of American Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair, because I have talent on loan from God!”

What the fuck was this? Listening to Limbaugh’s show was like driving past a ghastly car wreck: I was powerless to turn away. He spent three hours every day ridiculing and belittling targets that included feminists (“feminazis”), gays, immigrants, AIDS victims, poor people, environmentalists (“tree-hugging wackos”), all government programs (except the military), and anyone who could be tarred with the label of liberal. “Feminism,” he said, “was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” I had worked in radio in Savannah and Nashville, and as I listened to this river of bile, I kept asking myself, How does he get away with saying this stuff?

Most astonishing of all were the listeners who called in to the show, people who dubbed themselves “dittoheads” because they were proud of the fact that they agreed with every word that came out of Limbaugh’s mouth. It’s obvious they were rigorously screened because they never challenged the host and only rarely engaged in a back-and-forth conversation. They were calling in for one purpose: to fawn.

Too Funny!

By then, Limbaugh, who died Feb. 17 at 70, was on his way to becoming a media phenomenon with an audience estimated at 15 million. He parlayed his megaphone into a career that carried him far beyond the AM dial — to television, the bestseller lists, fabulous wealth, a seaside mansion in Palm Beach and, inevitably, Republican kingmaker. After Limbaugh helped engineer the Republican Revolution in the 1990s, a freshman from Indiana named Mike Pence said, “I’m in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.” Though no one knew it at the time, the poison Limbaugh was injecting into our national politics would eventually help land Pence in the White House alongside an improbable one-hit wonder named Donald Trump. Trump repaid the favor by bestowing the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Limbaugh the day after he revealed  that he had terminal lung cancer.

Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. If he accomplished nothing else in his outlandish lifetime, Limbaugh revealed the bankruptcy, hypocrisy, and outright cruelty burning  in the heart of every right-wing moralist. For such people, it’s not enough to believe that abortion is morally wrong; they must see to it that no one can get a legal abortion. Anyone who dares to disagree is open to merciless attack, with mockery as a preferred weapon. In a precursor to a bit of Trumpian shtick, Limbaugh once quivered spasmodically to mimic the actor Michael J. Fox, a card-carrying liberal who had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Anyone who has watched someone die of this horrific affliction knows just how hilarious that bit was. Limbaugh also mocked gay men dying of AIDS during the regular “AIDS Update” segment of his show, playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Too funny!

Doctor Shopping and Pill Popping

In his bestselling book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, the comedian Al Franken pointed out that Limbaugh viciously ridiculed poor people and anyone who takes government handouts — while glossing over the fact that, by his own admission, he once accepted unemployment benefits and spent his jobless time sitting on the sofa gorging on junk food and moping, too lazy to get off his widening ass to mow his own lawn.

Now comes the best part. Limbaugh was an ardent trooper in America’s culture wars and its misguided and unwinnable war on drugs. As he said on his show in 1995: “There’s nothing good about drug use. We know it. It destroys individuals. It destroys families… And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs… And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up.” In 2003, the news broke that Limbaugh had bought hundreds of prescription pain pills a month after “doctor shopping” – a crime punishable by five years in prison – but he avoided jail time by agreeing to pay for the police investigation and go into rehab. Big, fat, white, male, right-wing moralists don’t go to prison; they go into rehab.

Off With Their Heads!

Limbaugh didn’t just go into rehab. He also went to the top of the bestseller lists with two books whose titles, respectively, capture the self-righteousness and smugness that drive the right-wing moralist. The books were The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So. When I heard that Limbaugh had died, I remembered the abrasive tone of those books — and I remembered an encounter with another right-wing moralist who made it to the bestseller lists.

This also happened in North Carolina, during an earlier stint at the same newspaper. One day one of the editorial writers invited me to a local beer joint to meet a man who, my colleague assured me, was an intellectual giant on his way to greatness. The man’s name was Bill Bennett, and at that time, the late 1970s, he was the director of the National Humanities Center in nearby Research Triangle Park. As the three of us drank longneck beers and listened to the country music pouring out of the jukebox — I can still hear Jim Ed Brown singing “Pop a top again, I think I’ll have another round…” — Bennett made a point of letting me know that he had degrees from Williams College and Harvard Law School and that he had served as assistant to John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University who resisted faculty efforts to unionize and decried the “homosexual militancy” of gay students. Then, as a Moe Bandy tune came on the jukebox, Bennett gazed out at the rush hour traffic and wistfully remarked, “I miss places like this.” And I thought: You fucking phony egghead Brahmin. Give up the salt-of-the-earth act already.

My first impression of Bennett was validated years later, after he had achieved the predicted greatness – if your idea of greatness is running the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education under President Ronald Reagan and then serving as the get-tough drug czar under President George H.W. Bush. Bennett, a devout Catholic, bemoaned “the death of outrage” when people failed to foam at the mouth sufficiently over President Bill Clinton’s moral failings. Like Limbaugh, Bennett was a gung-ho foot soldier in both the culture wars and the war on drugs. On Larry King Live, Bennett proclaimed that a listener’s suggestion that drug dealers should be beheaded was “morally plausible.” This is the right-wing moralist in full plumage: Off with the heads of people who disagree with me or fail to live up to my high standards! In 1993 Bennett published The Book of Virtues, a compendium of bromides about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, honesty, etc., etc., in which he showed off his vast erudition by quoting Big Thinkers from Aristotle to St. Augustine, Aesop, George Washington, Hilaire Belloc, Kierkegaard and James Baldwin (!).

The book sold well and was adapted into a cartoon series for television called “Adventures From the Book of Virtues.” Small problem. The series was broadcast on PBS, and Bennett, like all good conservative Republicans, is opposed to federal funding for PBS or anything else that has to do with the arts. Robert Mapplethorpe, anyone? The moral of this story is that even right-wing moralists are allowed to swallow their objections when presented with an opportunity to burnish their brand in prime time. “It’s not that I think PBS is bad,” Bennett said at the time, by way of justifying his moral somersault. “It’s the risk of having government involved that I object to.” That’s not even halfway up the mountain to the high moral ground.

Now comes the best part. After publishing this blueprint for virtuous living and co-founding a group called Empower America that opposed the expansion of casino gambling, Bennett, according to an expose in The Washington Monthly, had lost $8 million gambling in those twin citadels of virtue, Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Oops. The right-wing moralist’s defense for this disconnect between word and deed? Bennett was raking in $50,000 per speaking engagement, he was rich, and he could afford to blow a few million on his gambling addiction. “I don’t play the ‘milk money,’” Bennett said after the story broke. “I don’t put my family at risk, and I don’t owe anyone anything.” His wife Elayne stood by her man: “We are financially solvent. Our bills are paid.”

The nastiness, phoniness, and brazen hypocrisy of right-wing moralists like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett should do much more than remind us that such men walk on feet made of clay. Their failings — and the hypocrisy they tried but failed to mask — should remind us of the true moral of this story. It is this: Anyone who tries to tell you how to live, regardless of his political stripes, is trying to make you less free. Such people are to be distrusted and avoided. When you see them coming, run for your life. Goodbye, Rush Limbaugh, and good riddance.

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