some holiday procrastination reading

I’ve finished marking 98 final papers, and 96 final exams. If you’re thinking that doesn’t add up, you’re right. I have two exams left. They’re sitting on the coffee table right in front of me as I type. Waiting. Reading them is exactly what I should be doing right now. But I’ve been honing my procrastination techniques over the past few weeks and I’m getting pretty good. So I thought I’d share some of my favorite non-exam reading of late, the short-and-sweet things (the love-story-ish things, to be consistent) that I’ve enjoyed between stacks of papers. My philosophy is, if you must procrastinate (and sometimes I must, for everyone’s benefit), procrastinate well.

a view of procrastination from my house

a view of procrastination from my house.

So, some reading for you all.

1-I’ll open with the best, which is Kent Shaw’s “How to Fall in Love for Real” from the most recent issue of Brevity. It opens:

At twenty-two, I fell in love with the sales clerk who helped me pick out clothes at the mall. I was in love with my best friend’s wife. I was in love with everything. The sales clerk’s name was Cricket. She was six months pregnant.

It’s beautiful, especially his declarative sentences. It makes me grateful to no longer be twenty-two. If you haven’t read Brevity, and you are disciplined enough to do some short-form procrastinating, it’s fantastic. And each micro-essay is under 750 words.

2-This New York Times wedding piece reads like a parody of New York Times Weddings, but it is 100% sincere. It’s a perfect artifact of the unironic hilarity possible within the genre of public love narrative. And I love it more than I could love any piece of satire. For example, there is a real woman, the bride’s sister in fact, named Elisabeth van Lawick van Pabst-Koch. And Ms. van Lawick van Pabst-Koch describes her sister as the kind of person who just “loves to travel and will hop on a plane to Bahrain or wherever just to visit somebody.” Bahrain! You know, for a visit! I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that the piece involves a sabre, millinery, a dog named Sir William Sugarplum, and a trip to the Waffle House. Read it.

3-Because I’ve been a little down on Vancouver of late, here’s a pretty great thing my city did: public mistletoe. After a trip to Paris a couple years ago, I can certify that Vancouver can handle a little more PDA. Hilariously, someone posted this link in the comments. So safety-first, guys.

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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.

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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

“Your Story is Not New”: On attending a memoir retreat

“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.

“—is that they exist?” she finished.

“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”

Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”

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the view of Icicle Creek from Sleeping Lady Resort

The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”

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Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it. Continue reading

On sleeping with people

Nathan was the first boy I ever slept with—and I mean that in the most literal sense: for a few hours we slept side by side in a king-sized hotel bed. I was in ninth grade, he was a year older, and we were on a school trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee—a town of airbrushed t-shirts and kettle corn and laser tag, the kind of place where, at fourteen, you could run around safely and the world might seem open to you for the first time.

Some kids were hanging out in his room and Nathan had to be up early the next day, so he knocked on our door and asked if he could stay. I said yes, thrilled. I remember the next few moments like a scene from a movie: He neatly folded down the blanket, leaving the top sheet in place. He told me he would sleep on the sheet and I should sleep under it. Then he pulled off his shoes and climbed into bed, still in his jeans and t-shirt. I shrugged, as if whether he slept in our room or his, above or below the sheet, were minor details to me, as if I already knew what it was like to lie so close to a boy with my eyes closed.

I didn’t have a crush on Nathan, at least not before he knocked on our door. And any lingering attachment I might’ve felt after quickly reverted to friendship. The real thrill of that night was in the domestic intimacy of the moment, the way it was both taboo and comforting to lie there beside him. Even now as a card-carrying adult, I still love that—the warm mass of another body under the covers, a companion in the ordinarily solitary act of coming to consciousness.

sleeping

Growing up, friends were only allowed to stay over on school nights if their parents were away. These sleepovers seemed special, better than the Friday night pajama parties, as if it was the most extraordinary thing to go about picking out clothes and eating cereal and catching the bus—all in the company of a friend. The mundane rituals of morning were somehow transformed by the presence of an outsider.

I’ve always wondered why “to sleep with someone” is a euphemism for sex, when so often sex has little to do with sleep and sleeping is very unsexy.

One night when J and I had just met, he called and said, “You should come over.” Continue reading