I went as Minnie Mouse and other Halloween confessions

“How was your Halloween weekend?” one of my students asked yesterday. I replied that it was great, and then he asked if I wore a costume, and what it was. The answer was simple but, somehow unprepared for such a question, I turned bright red, stammered that I bought a pair of ears at the dollar store across the street, and then I quickly changed the subject.

I have always worn my embarrassment publicly in the form of immediately and fully flushed cheeks (and ears and neck and chest). In middle school, my classmates made a game of trying to make me go red. Adulthood has, thankfully, made these occurrences less common, but it still happens in front of a classroom at least once a semester. It’s unpredictable and awful—and I have learned, in the eight years I’ve been teaching, that the best thing to do is to just keep talking.

I woke up this morning and saw my mouse ears hanging on the radiator and wondered what it was about the phrase, “I was Minnie Mouse” that seemed so impossible to confess to a classroom of eighteen year olds.

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the handsomest, saddest Halloween dog.

The truth about my weekend is that I spent a significant portion of it thinking and talking about the space between loving someone and being in love with someone, and how, exactly, one can traverse that space. And one of those conversations took place in a bar very late at night while totally intoxicated and wearing Minnie Mouse ears. And maybe it was that—maybe it was the disjunction between chugging PBR by the Skytrain station on Saturday night and assigning a research paper on Monday afternoon.

Maybe, in that moment, naming the costume felt equivalent to confessing the whole thing: how happy I was all weekend and how strange it is to sit in an almost-empty bar and say to the person across from you, “I totally love you but I am a little bit terrified at the prospect of being in love with you.”

I have written before about the limits of the language of love. Our love vocabulary isn’t quite adequate for discussing all the ways we can be deeply invested in one another, but for the sake of this conversation, let’s call loving someone ‘friendship,’ and being in love with someone ‘romance.’

As far as I can tell, you can get to a romantic relationship either way—you can love someone first and then fall in love with them, moving from friendship to romance. Or you can do what I think most people do, which is to pursue someone as a romantic partner first and hope a friendship develops. But you have to have both, I think–friendship and romance–to create something durable. Continue reading

What does it mean to be the one not chosen?

Last week I devoured all three of Lea Thau’s “Love Hurts” episodes in a single afternoon. Thau hosts the Strangers podcast, which I’d never heard of until a couple friends recommended it. Read this description and tell me you’re not curious:

Producer Lea Thau investigates why she’s single. She goes back to guys who didn’t want to date her in recent years and asks them why. From ages 15 to 38 Lea was never single, but since her fiancé left her while she was pregnant, finding love again has been hard these last few years. Is she too old? Is she too broken from that last big heartbreak? Is she too much this or not enough that? While looking for answers, the man she is dating disappears. This is the first installment in a series.

A fourth episode is due out tomorrow and I can’t wait. The series is, hands down, the most honest and straight-forward thing I’ve heard or read about online dating in particular and modern love in general. (Better, I’d add, than the Modern Love column, which I sometimes like but often find suffers from its 1500-1700 word limitation.)

I want to call Thau ballsy, but my feminist inclinations suggest I ought to find a better adjective. But that’s how these episodes feel: vulnerable and exposed—and that’s the biological reality of balls, isn’t it? Thau confronts romantic love—and, more specifically, romantic rejection—without worrying too much about justifying her own dating experience as a legitimate subject for discussion: I know that going back to guys who’ve turned me down, asking them, ‘Why not me?’ can seem so arrogant and whiny and self-involved and potentially aggressive, like, ‘How dare you not want to date me?’ but I hope it doesn’t come off that way.

I think of all the people I might ask that question, and all the people who might ask that question of me, and I can feel the sweat from my palms dampening my keyboard as I type.

The one thing Thau does that I’ve always avoided (on this platform at least) is talk about her experiences with dating as they’re happening. You could argue that it’s difficult to get much perspective that way, and the classically-trained essayist in me values perspective above all, but maybe there’s something to be said for reflecting on the dating process in real time. She perfectly captures the neurotic swing from sanity to anxiety that seems a requisite part of dating:

You feel joy…. You remember that before you met this guy, you’d finally come to a place where life felt really good, where you could let go of this idea that you had to meet someone now, and actually felt that your life was pretty awesome. Not just as a cover up like before but in a more genuine way. Finally. And you think, maybe there’s a way back there before too long, even if the first guy you kind of opened up to disappeared. Then two days go by and you think, “He still hasn’t fucking been in touch? Even just to wrap things up? He doesn’t even feel like he owes me that?”

I’ve made several good friends through online dating, but Thau’s experience is closer to what has been, for me, the reality of dating. You feel a strong connection with someone and then he disappears. Or you disappear. I have backed out of dates under the flimsiest of excuses. And I have learned the hard way that you must assume—no matter how explicitly someone declares their interest in you—that that person is actively dating other people, unless they’ve clearly said otherwise. It takes practice to learn to be kind and accountable in this process. But learning how to date with integrity has little to do with actually finding someone to love. (And more to do, perhaps, with finding your niche of furries or Pastafarians or Stevie Wonder Truthers.)

So then what about my dating life right now?  Continue reading

The fine art of the wedding speech (or how to be less of a jackass)

I know. No one should begin a blog post on the topic of vulnerability with “Last weekend, in a yoga class…” But I’ve been trying to practice the fine art of not giving a shit this summer so I’m going to do it, even though I know you might stop reading right here.

So, last weekend I was in a yoga class, and the room was set up so the instructor was in the middle and the rows of mats on either side faced the center of the room. What this meant in practice was that once the room filled up, my mat was very close to my neighbors’ mats. And when we were in cobra pose—bellies down, backs arched, gazing forward—my face was just a couple feet from someone else’s face. I cannot imagine who thought arranging the room this way was a good idea. Apparently everyone else in the class was a Sunday morning regular and perfectly content to updog right into someone’s post-coffee breath.

I like yoga because, like all writers, I spend a lot of time in my head and yoga forces me to remember that I have a body. I like it because it’s good exercise, but it doesn’t have the existential demands of, say, rock climbing. (While doing yoga, for example, I never wonder if I might break my ankles). But I like it much less when the spritely instructor asks us to come into a deep lunge, raise our arms high in the air, and make eye contact with someone across the room. And then, if we want, to “turn up the corners of our mouths.” Here one is forced to either smile gamely at some sweat-soaked stranger across the way or to actively avoid their serene faces and out yourself as the one very uncool, very un-Lululemon-ed member of the group.

I harbor certain useful illusions about myself as an open person. I write about my life for public consumption. I am lazy about closing the bedroom curtains. If you asked me to tell you a secret, I’d have a hard time coming up with something my friends didn’t all already know. Once I was on a date and I mentioned that sometimes, when I can’t sleep, I lie in bed and say the prayer I said every night growing up: Now I lay me down to sleep…. “It’s not that I think someone is listening,” I said. “But I find the words soothing.” “Wow,” he said, “That’s a pretty revealing thing to say on a second date.” This had not occurred to me–given the context of the conversation, it seemed relevant to share. Conversations like this inflate my sense of my own openness.

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the bride- and groom-to-be

Lately, however, I seem to be bumping up against the boundaries of my openness. This experience has taken various forms, but the most prominent one is my utter terror at giving a speech at my sister’s wedding. My sister is getting married! In two-and-a-half weeks! And I am so happy for her. I think this is the right thing for her right now. I think her boyfriend is the right guy (or, to be technical, because I staunchly oppose the soul mate myth, I think he is a right guy; I think he is great and they are great together).

When people ask me if she and I are close, I always tell them that she is my favorite person in the world. She is. It’s no exaggeration. I’ve even thought about mentioning this in my speech. But the idea of articulating even this minor anecdote in front of a room full of the most important people in her life makes me want to cry-slash-puke. It’s hard to explain my anxiety to people. They say, “But you’re a writer.” Or, “But you talk in front of groups of people for a living.” Yes, but I don’t regularly stand in front of my students and verbalize my deepest, most sincere joys and anxieties (while wearing a floor-length tulle gown, no less).

I am the oldest and my sisterly protectiveness seems to take the form of deep empathy. When she cries, I cry. I’ve done this my whole life. When she’s happy, I experience her happiness as if it is my own. I tell my sister I love her almost every day, but a wedding speech demands this love be articulated in a very specific format. It is essentially an invitation to publicly declare to the people you love the most that you find their happiness so overwhelmingly good that you can hardly stand it. This is a version of openness I am struggling to grasp.

For me, the gap between writing these things and stating them is expansive–expanding. I am pretty good at one and petrified by the other.

Continue reading

A few things about finishing a book draft

I did it. I finished a draft of a book on July 11, two Fridays ago and about ten days after my deadline.

I sent the draft to my friend, and skilled deadline enforcer, Erin at 4:23 p.m. (her words were, “I won’t even look at it after the fifteenth. So don’t bother.”), just in time to run, literally, to my appointment at the chiropractor. And then I came home and had a small celebratory beer and went to a baseball game.

At the game, I wondered if maybe I had arrived at one of those whole-life happiness apexes. I imagine you only get a few—if you are lucky—and most of the time you don’t notice you arrived at one until you have crested and are sinking back down to the grit of daily-ness. Finishing the draft, however uneven and full of holes it may be, felt like the most exciting thing I’ve done. I posted a note about it on Facebook and when I looked back at it while standing in line for the bathroom, I almost teared up from all the comments. (One should try not to cry in line for the bathroom at a baseball stadium on a Friday night. People get uncomfortable.)

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I remember sitting around a table with friends two New Year’s Eves ago, having lemon cake and champagne before heading out. We all had big plans for 2013: people were getting married and finishing school and starting a new business. I said I would finish a book that year. The prospect seemed both unimaginable and inevitable; after three years, I had to finish it. But I only finished two thirds of a draft before getting mired in an awkward structure and an impulse to be very kind to everyone I was writing about. Instead of finishing, I bought a last minute flight to Texas where I could play Trivial Pursuit with very old friends and not think at all about writing.

So I sat in the stands at the baseball game, drinking overpriced beer on an empty stomach on the hottest day of summer so far, thinking, this could be it: the happiness apex. Because surely the part between completing a draft and getting (or not getting) a book published is fraught with demoralizing experiences. Not just the obvious rejections from agents or editors, but also the moment when you look over what you’ve completed and realize how far it still is from the shimmering, beautiful thing that you’ve spent so many years picturing. (I have not yet looked.) But I had baseball and beer, and later frozen yogurt and blueberries on the back porch while gossiping about the neighbors. I was happy. But then it has been well established that is remarkably easy to feel happy on a July night in the company of fresh blueberries and a handsome man.

What I have discovered in the days since completing the draft is that not only do I miss the daily writing—the stress of it and the purposefulness of it and the enormity of it—but that my thoughts still return to the book’s central questions. It doesn’t feel much like finishing. When I was writing about and researching love everyday, it was always on my mind, whatever I was doing—but mostly in a fairly-detached, fairly-rational way. I even found myself giving people advice about love, which feels pretty fraudulent since I don’t exactly have an impeccable history of good choices, but I know a whole lot about what others have discovered. And 2014 is the year of faking it, so maybe I am in the habit of fraud.

I suspect that anyone who has ever written a book (or a half-way thoughtful and somewhat honest book) has discovered that the entire proposition relies on fraudulence. I’ve also found that reading and writing so much about love has left me pretty cynical about the process, and distrustful of my own intuition (thanks to even the most basic knowledge of neurochemistry) and yet, nonetheless, weirdly hopeful. In other words, I have just enough knowledge to paralyze myself. I am too aware of all that can go wrong.

Continue reading

AWP 2014: Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction

A guest blog post on Brevity:

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

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A lot of folks are talking about feminism right now, especially in writing and publishing. And a lot of folks are talking about creative nonfiction, the wayward fourth genre that’s finally asserting itself in classrooms and literary journals. But we aren’t talking much about the intersection of feminism and creative nonfiction. And we ought to be.

Sarah Lenz’s AWP panel on ‘Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction’ featured five women who have spent a lot of time thinking about the feminist issues unique to nonfiction writing: Lenz, Marcia Aldrich, Kristen Iversen, Sonja Livingston, and Mary Kay McBrayer. Rather than report on each panelists’ talk, let’s just dive in to the most urgent and interesting ideas.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of de facto feminism:

“I’m a de facto feminist,” Lenz said, opening the panel. “I write from a woman’s perspective because I can’t escape my own identity.” Regardless of their initial motivation or agenda, all…

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The truth be known, the truth be told, my heart was always fairly cold…

(No photo today, so for your listening pleasure a song–and inspiration for the title)

The phone rang on a Saturday afternoon. I was still sweaty from mowing the lawn. My best friend Kim was calling from her car, someone must’ve had a cell phone. It was the nineties and we were in high school and cell phones were still novel in that Zack Morris kind of way. “Someone wants to talk to you,” she said. I heard shuffling and then a guy’s voice on the line. It was Zane and he wanted to know if I would be into seeing a movie, maybe next weekend.

I remember thinking several things at once: Zane was asking me on a date; Zane was asking me on a date in a car full of kids who had better things to do than mow the lawn; my parents were not going to like me going on a date with Zane.

At sixteen, I did not go on dates. I had dates—to homecoming or prom, usually a friend’s boyfriend’s friend, someone to have photos made with. But going on dates required asking. And I was equally terrified of showing someone I liked him, and of being liked by someone I wasn’t into. Needless to say, no one asked.

Zane and I had nothing in common. He smoked cigarettes and rode BMX and had recently run away from home for a month. (Where had he gone, I remember wondering. Where could anyone run to in rural Virginia?) But I liked his silhouette in low-slung jeans and a tank top—the outfit he wore pretty much daily. I liked how his hair hung in his eyes. It seemed like effortlessness was a lifestyle choice he made when he woke up each morning. He wouldn’t try. Trying was not for him.

I had always tried at everything. Not trying seemed exotic, like the idea of running away, like Zane himself.

I said that, yeah, I had next Saturday afternoon free and sure, I’d be into going to movie. He asked if I could drive—this would become a pattern in our brief relationship—and I said it’d be no big deal to come pick him up. I played it very cool. Then he handed the phone back to Kim. “Hey,” she said, also playing it cool but I could hear the grin in her voice. In response, I squealed. It just emerged from my mouth like pent up bird. High-pitched and squawky. She laughed. “Um…everyone just heard that.” I was mortified.

Someone I liked liked me enough to ask me to the movies. It was okay to be happy about that. But I had just squealed in front of a group of kids who spent their weekend smoking weed in an old Ford Bronco while I was at home helping my parents with the yard work.

Recalling this moment, writing it all out, still makes me cringe. Like I can feel my organs drawing inward, my lungs shrinking into my ribcage. The word “shame” is etymologically related to an ancient Greek verb meaning “to cover.” I can feel that impulse for self-protection now as I imagine you, reader, imagining me in my grass-stained tennis shoes and damp, oversized t-shirt squealing in an upstairs bedroom decorated with Foo Fighters posters and pompoms. Gross. I feel gross.

Continue reading

I’m willing to lie about how we met

A few weeks ago I was having a beer with a guy named Scott. It was a date—a first date—with a photographer I’d met online. I like to think I’ve gotten good at this online dating thing*, or at least proficient, but Scott was a pro.

Shortly after we sat down on a charming–if potentially rat-infested (the folks at the dive bar insisted on calling them mice)–patio, another couple walked out. The guy looked at Scott, paused, looked back and said, “Hey, I know you.”

Scott gave me an awkward smile.

“Aren’t you the guy who ran after me the other day when I dropped a fifty dollar bill on the sidewalk?”

Scott looked embarrassed and shrugged.

“Yes. It’s totally you,” the guy said. He looked at me. “Can you believe this guy? Who does that? Returns a fifty-freaking-dollar bill.”

“Pretty amazing,” I said.

“Hey man, let me buy you a drink,” the guy said. Scott laughed politely and said no thanks and the other guy made his way to his seat.

Scott smiled at me for a moment, then said, “That’s my buddy. I ran into him outside before you got here. I wanted him to do a bit about me saving a kitten but he thought you might not buy that one.”

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We had a long talk that night. When he heard I was writing about love stories, he had a lot of questions. Mostly, he wanted to understand the function of love stories. He agreed that they probably don’t make us better at loving each other, and, while they might transmit certain values, they don’t, as some researchers have suggested, seem to make us better people.

“Well, they probably offer us a lot of vicarious pleasure,” I offered.

“Yeah, but they must do something constructive,” he insisted.

“It’s obvious to me that we really need them—not just other people’s stories, but our own,” I said. I mentioned the common phenomenon of online dating profiles containing some iteration of the phrase “I’m willing to lie about where we met.” Continue reading

Sea otters and other preoccupations of the storytelling animal

A few years ago I spent five weeks at the Banff Centre for the Arts. I was sitting in the small on-campus cafe one day when I noticed a man and woman leaning in close across a table. Their temples were touching for the entire time I sat eating my sandwich. And I was struck by how deeply connected they seemed, so oblivious to sandwich-eating voyeurs.

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The (great) thing about the Banff Center is that most folks go to escape the work of everyday life. Free from cooking or cleaning or even making your own bed, you have to put a bit more effort into finding distractions. Surrounded by other writers and dancers and visual artists, and bears and cougars and imposing, craggy mountains, it’s easy to feel inspired, or, at the very least, to forget about regular life for a while. And it’s rare that artists have romantic partners in tow. I went to Banff to write, but also to spend some time away from my relationship to see if I might get some perspective on it.

When I saw those two leaning over the table that afternoon, I counted the things my own relationship was lacking: teamwork, an ability to tune out the world, a genuine sense of pleasure in each other’s company. That was love, I thought wistfully, and it was so obvious that those two had what I was missing.

But it wasn’t love. As I walked out of the cafe, I saw that they were leaning over a flip phone where a third, tinny voice was cranking out of the tiny speaker. For weeks I’d spent several hours a day reading love stories, writing them, theorizing about why they had such a hold on me–on everyone. And now I’d arrived at a weird place: I was the man with a hammer seeing a world full of nails.

The other day I was talking to a friend about sea otters. “Sea otters are good topic for your blog,” he said, “because they hold hands while they sleep.” He said everyone loves this fact (They do–Google it!), but they don’t know much about the function behind it. And who can blame them? Sea otters are playful and dextrous in this way which is soul-crushingly cute. They have one-million hairs per square inch. Mothers carry their babies on their stomachs. They hold hands!

Sea otters do pretty much everything at sea. They eat and mate and nurse and sleep in the deep blue Pacific, and they hold hands, sometimes in pairs and sometimes in large groups called rafts (!), so they won’t drift apart. Continue reading

The Next Big Thing: what I’m working on

One whole month ago—honestly, we’re probably closing in on six weeks at this point—my friend (and talented novelist and poet) Lisa Pasold tagged me in the literary-blog-chain-letter called “The Next Big Thing.” The premise is simple: a bunch of writers all answer the same questions about their most recent project. Though I don’t go in for many internet trends, I thought it might be a good exercise to take a big-picture look at this project, so I happily agreed to do it.

But I didn’t do it. I don’t know why exactly, but every time I looked over the questions, I felt myself wither under their expectant gaze. They wanted answers. I wasn’t sure I had any, especially after reading the articulate musings of my colleagues around the web. I wanted to read all of their books. But I’d spent the previous two weeks feeling slightly nauseous every time I opened my own project—how (or better yet why) would I convince someone to read something that was making my own stomach turn? So, in the grand tradition of writers everywhere, I postponed.

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A retreating glacier. Wait for it…it’s relevant.

Then last week something unexpected happened: a bunch of strangers started reading this blog. When I began blogging a year and a half ago, my only goal was to establish a small but public home for the book I’ve been working on. The surprising side-effect of keeping a blog was that my friends and colleagues began asking me about my writing. Their interest and curiosity was motivating, reminding me that the very solitary act of writing also has some community-minded goals. I write to understand something about the world, but also to connect with readers—both friends and strangers.

Until last Monday, most of my readers were friends, and, when I got an e-mail from WordPress saying they were “Fresh-Pressing” my blog post and that I should “get ready to welcome some new readers,” I didn’t take it too seriously. (When it comes to internet-ing, I tend to know only what I need to to get by.) So I was pretty shocked to discover, when I logged on a few hours later, that hundreds of people had visited my blog, and they were reading and commenting and subscribing. (!) It’s a bit strange and a lot exciting to see your audience quadruple over just a few hours. And while I’m with it enough to know that, in the wide world of blogging, these numbers are actually quite modest, I’m f-ing thrilled. I am.

The comments are thoughtful and kind. And the interest seems genuine. Isn’t the internet supposed to be more hostile and embittered than this? Reading the comments, I sometimes find I don’t always know how to respond in a way that seems genuine rather than hollow. I don’t know how to convey warmth I feel toward a stranger who is represented only by a few pixels and a few words. But I’ll say it again here. Thank you, good friends and total strangers, for making my writing world just a little bit bigger. If there was ever a time to buck up and answer a few questions, this is probably it. So here goes: Continue reading