the problem of deservingness

It’s sunny in Vancouver.

That statement deserves its own paragraph. It’s sunny in Vancouver, and over the past few days I’ve been the recipient of much kindness: comments and notes and messages from friends that arrive without warning and make me wonder what I’ve done to deserve them. I’m crediting the sun.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of deservingness. In class, my students and I discuss the ongoing conversation about student entitlement. We talk about the difference between deservingness and entitlement. What does the university owe you? I ask them. Who deserves high marks? They have lots of smart things to say about degree inflation, their immigrant parents’ expectations, the value of a number on a piece of paper.

But I also think about deservingness as it relates to love and love stories.

“You deserve to be happy,” my dad said to me once, when I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure if I should stay in my relationship.

“No I do not,” I snapped back.

What I was trying and failing to say was not that I thought I should be unhappy, but that I didn’t think deservingness was part of the equation when it came to love.

My friend Lisa’s award-winning essay about grief, living and dying, and happiness articulates a lot of the feelings I’ve had about deservingness but struggled to articulate. She talks about her father’s death, the addition of tumors, the subtraction of life. “Things are always being added, taken away,” she says.

And this is just it: Life gives us what we get. Regardless of what we deserve. Continue reading

Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

Last Friday night I saw the Bon Iver show at Deer Lake Park. It was my first warm summer evening in Vancouver, and I was feeling simultaneously happy and sad in that wistful way one inevitably feels as the sun sets over a lake and the sound of a nine-man band—including two full drum kits!—echoes through the leafy branches. The experience has gotten me thinking about the things that move us.

Take this, for example:

When Justin Vernon’s voice cracks as he sings “Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” it just nails me. Shirt to skin to sternum to aorta. Over the past five days, I’ve probably listened to “Skinny Love” twenty or thirty times. Because I want to understand something about the aesthetics of love, something about how a song or a poem or a love story can make us feel, and something about the legitimacy of that feeling.

I’ve always thought that the difference between love (of the regular affectionate variety) and romance (the more spectacular, dreamy kind), was an aesthetic difference. My most romantic memories seem to be predicated on the beauty of a particular moment: The empty pebble beach, the gleaming Aegean Sea, and the limestone cliffs. The setting is so aggressively beautiful that if you visit it with the man you love, it is not possible to care who did or did not wash that morning’s dishes. That’s romance: He is the landscape. So are you.

What is both powerful and problematic about love songs is that they make us feel like we’re the ones on the beach, when in actuality we’re living another person’s romantic moment vicariously. Love songs annihilate any suspicions we may have that our feelings don’t matter, that they are only atoms organized into neurons that shoot chemicals across our brains. Continue reading

prom night in America

The prom is, in a way, the quintessential teenage love story. It’s mythology is larger, by far, than the event itself, thanks to the attendant rituals–which are, it seems, becoming increasingly elaborate–and countless teen movies whose plots pivot on that one night when everyone finally seems to get what they deserve. Prom is prom not for what it is–a bunch of overdressed, overeager teenagers–but because of what we want it to be. Even in my parents’ love story the prom figures in as a crucial plot point.

“I think the prom is very serious also. It’s an American ritual, it’s a rite of passage, and it’s very much a part of this country.” –Mary Ellen Mark

My own first prom was with Dave–Dave who was number 33 on the football team, who played guitar in an actual band, who, some people said, was still in love with his ex-girlfriend even though everyone suspected she’d ditched Dave for Meghan. I remember standing at my locker one day after seventh period when Dave–this guy I hardly knew but totally adored–walked up and asked me to prom. Just like that. Like Samantha in Sixteen Candles, I thought. Occasionally he’d call me after dinner and I’d sit on my bedroom floor listening as he practiced the guitar solo from “Stairway to Heaven” and trying to think of something interesting to say when the song was over. I never admitted that I didn’t know if  I’d ever even heard “Stairway to Heaven” (I was a devoted Beatles fan–but Zeppelin was, at the time, way too rock-and-roll for me).

On prom day, I left school early to have my hair done. It was, I think, the only time my dad—by then principal at a neighboring high school—let me miss class without being debilitated by illness. Donna coaxed my stick-straight hair into wavy curls with the aid of about a half a can of hairspray. Afterwards, I locked my keys in the car and spent two hours in the Wal-Mart parking lot in the neighboring town. I wore a cream colored dress with silver embroidery and while I stood around waiting for Dave to pick me up, my dad told me I looked really pretty. If he was a teenage boy, he said, he’d be cooking up ways to try and steal a kiss.

If my dad had asked later why Dave stopped calling, I would’ve only been able to say that we had a nice time that night; that Dave didn’t really like to dance but was happy to sit with me in a rocking chair on the front porch of the old southern inn; that when he realized he forgot our tickets and had to run back home during dinner, his best friend’s date turned to me and said “I can tell you really like him,” and my face burned red. But I was grateful that my dad didn’t ask, that I didn’t have to say that no, he never kissed me, never even tried, that I was actually nothing like the girls he’d had crushes on high school.

This, I think, is the nature of prom, the unavoidable consequence of an event that is so laden with expectation. One is always left with the same questions I ask my students as they write their final papers: so what? who cares? It easy to be disappointed by prom, or to be cynical about the hype, the lavish spending (which, according to USA Today, is an average of $1078 per student), and the school-sanctioned homophobia. But I recently discovered this photo/video project by Mary Ellen Mark and her husband Martin Bell and I’m charmed by how seriously they treat their subject, how the kids are so self-conscious and yet so unaware of how they must be perceived by anyone other than their peers. I like how, in making a book and movie about prom, they’re actually telling a story about race and class, sex and sexuality, and that gap between who we are and who we hope others will perceive us to be. Mark’s photos capture what I didn’t understand when I was sixteen–how visible that gap is, how, perhaps, it is never more apparent than it is on prom night in America.

holding hands at eighty: first comes love, then comes marriage…then comes death?

Two summers ago, on a hot, sunny Saturday, I’d been shopping for wedding gowns with my friend Liz. We’d found ourselves in a strip of East Vancouver stores which all seemed to be owned by middle-aged women, several with a special taste for beige satin roses or iridescent, pearl-studded butterflies. We were beginning to doubt our ability to find something simple and light and appropriate for a Mexican beach.

As we stepped out into the bright afternoon, an elderly couple walked by, hand in hand.

“So, when you see older couples, do you think of you and J?” Liz prompted.

Since I’d asked her, rather drunkenly on New Year’s Eve, if she’d still be my friend if J and I split up, she’d been trying, in the most patient and neutral way, to help me solve the puzzle of my relationship.

“No,” I’d said, honestly. But then I’d backtracked, “Well, kind of. I don’t think to myself, ‘J is the one person for me in the whole world. I could never be happy with anyone else.’ But I feel like he’s mine. I can’t really imagine being with anyone else. You know what I mean?”

Liz smiled with her mouth but frowned with her eyes. She did not know what I meant. But how could she? She was planning a wedding with someone that, as far as I could tell, she’d never really been mad at. Someone it seemed she had absolutely no doubt that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.

The doubtlessness of people like that always got to me. Mostly because I’d never experienced it. When you find the one, you just know, people sometimes said. But this seemed false somehow, almost anti-intellectual, as if they were all arguing that atoms didn’t exist because we couldn’t see them. You’ll know he’s the one if you can imagine yourselves together at eighty. 

But how many other things had I ever been that certain about in my life, I wondered. After a sweaty day of rock climbing, I’m not the one who dives into the icy lake to get the shock over with. I know it’s easier that way, but, no, I wade in, ankles first, knees second, splashing my thighs, waiting, reserving the option of retreating to shore before I am fully immersed.

When it came to relationships, everyone had a barometer, I decided, an indicator of potential for life-long success. Did it matter that I didn’t think of J when I saw a happy elderly couple? As long as he came into our bedroom before work, stuffing the covers underneath me and saying, “Wake up, my little breakfast burrito,” how could I imagine loving another person? Even if I couldn’t see us together at eighty, I couldn’t bear the thought of waking up alone tomorrow.

My friend Duffy, who is privately (he has not even confessed this to me–too much is at stake) this blog’s biggest fan, sent me a link to an article in the New York Times on the necessary interdependence of romantic love and death. Briefly, the main argument is this: Continue reading

some thoughts on the essay, the lifespan of facts, and street photography

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the ongoing debate about truth, genre, and the writer’s responsibilities to the reader, at the center of which is self-declared essayist John D’Agata. Well, the debate rages on. I particularly appreciate Dinty Moore’s lucid comments about D’Agata’s rather manipulative approach to what is, in the end, a really valuable conversation about nonfiction writing.

If you haven’t been keeping up, what you need to know is this. John D’Agata (lyric essay writer) and Jim Fingal (fact checker) recently published a book which contains their lengthy and heated exchange about an essay by D’Agata which was published in The Believer. The book quickly reveals D’Agata’s willingness to change the facts on what appears to be an otherwise-journalistic essay about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas. The two men debate the merits of the facts in the face of larger aesthetic choices, with Fingal representing a relentless (and at times extreme) commitment to factuality and D’Agata interested primarily in aesthetics (the rhythm of a sentence is better, for example, when it says there were 34 strip clubs in Vegas, despite the fact that there were actually only 31).

Now, it turns out that even the e-mail exchange was a kind of exaggerated performance piece, with the each man playing his respective role in an attempt to make the conversation less “nerdy,” more “dramatic,” and ultimately, more publishable.

Because I cannot resist, I decided to chime in on this debate in the comments section of Dinty’s blog post and ended up writing a relatively-long response. So I thought I’d post it here as well, for anyone who might be interested in the larger conversation about fiction and nonfiction, essay writing, facts, truth, and the writer’s obligations to his or her readers. If you are a true nonfiction nerd, and interested in more discussion, check out the many other comments in response to Dinty’s post.

Here, for what it’s worth, are my thoughts on the matter:

Etymologically speaking, “essay” once meant “to try” and also “to weigh” or “to test.” And one of the things I love about the personal essay is that it incorporates those historical definitions into its contemporary form. But “essay” as we use it today is a noun that contains the verb. And this noun also contains specific ideas about truth, which can’t be arbitrarily dismissed.

Continue reading

the head and the heart: a valentine to the brain

One of the best things about writing (publicly) about love–and I think I’ve said this before–is that people send me love stories. They send me articles and images and videos, and I have not yet gotten tired of receiving them.

On Valentine’s Day in particular love stories abound, and they run the gamut from saccharine to sad; some are so full of the right kind of sweetness that my eyes go glassy on the bus ride home from work, and others are more like the middle-aged couple beside me at the bar tonight who dedicated their dinner hour to some heavy hand-holding. Later, I was unsettled to find them standing beside my bicycle and making out in that slow-yet-aggressive way that includes certain unconscionable suction noises that neither my loud jokes nor my flashing LEDs could modify.

For most of today, I was content to read the love stories, the one about the nun and the monk, the letter from a wife to her husband’s student, the photo essay of marriages that survived half a century, even the dog and the box of chocolates. But on my bus ride home, tear-ducts prickling as I listened to yet another love story (what is it with tears and transit?), it occurred to me that one who keeps a blog about love stories–and receives them via e-mail and reads them in between classes–ought to post a Valentine, even if at the eleventh hour. So here it is, friends, the most lovely of love stories I saw, read, or heard today (collected both on and off the bus). It includes lots of beeping, whirring and mechanical noises, but no suctioning, I promise.

This is ostensibly a story about science (though the science itself seems a bit shaky, even by the researcher’s own admission). What really got me, however, was not the data gathered from the subjects, but the participants’ post-experiment radiance, their astonishment at their own capacity for love. After just five minutes spent meditating on a loved one in an fMRI machine, even those most infatuated seem to surprise themselves, as if the machine stuffed the love into their brains rather than measuring what was already there. By internet standards, it’s not a short video–about fifteen minutes long–so wait until you’re settled on the couch (or bus seat, as the case may be) with a bottle of beer and a dog at your ankles and a few minutes to yourself. It’s worth the watch, even if–especially if–you haven’t spent your day doing any heavy hand-holding.

some sloppy and unrelated thoughts on love and writing

Today it took three presses of the sleep button combined with Roscoe’s cold nose on my shoulder to motivate myself to throw off the duvet and put my bare feet on the floor. I was forty minutes late to my regular Friday morning writing session, and even after employing  “the Klonsky method”–my friend Dave swears by a precise combination of caffeine and sugar (the mocha) to kick-start the brain–I still couldn’t direct my thoughts enough to put together a proper blog post. So I’ve given up. I’ve accepted that my mind, like most of downtown Vancouver, is going to be occupied by low-altitude haze today.

With that said, I have some assorted thoughts:

Number one, I got a nice e-mail from the folks at Folio last week, and I thought I’d pass it along to interested writers. Folio is a literary journal published at my alma mater, American University. Last year, in addition to poetry and fiction, they started publishing nonfiction, including a short essay I wrote called “On Love and Naming”. Now they’re looking for more nonfiction, so if you’re interested, submit. The staff is fantastic: supportive and easy to work with. They’re also running their first-ever fiction contest this year. So if you’re a fiction writer, enter! If you’re interested in reading, rather than writing, subscribe! It’s a steal.

In other–totally unrelated–news, I stumbled across an intriguing concept today: The Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is a touring exhibition of donated items: artifacts that remained after romantic love ended, what the curators call “the ruins of relationship.” From their website:

Whatever the motivation for donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony.  Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.  In the words of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theater.”

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book The Marriage Plot which quotes extensively from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. And now that Barthes’s book is on my radar it seems to be popping up everywhere. The idea of love–and particularly the breaking of a relationship–as something that contains an element of theater makes sense to me. One item from the online exhibition is an old Nokia cell phone with the caption, “He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.”

In my first year composition classes, I ask my students to write an analysis of an artifact somehow related to their education. The students who really invest in the assignment inevitably return good results: what the red engineer’s jackets suggest about the role of gender in the engineering faculty, how the ads the university uses to attract new students sell a lifestyle rather than an education, the conflicting messages student dining facilities convey about health and eating. I suspect my students would be pretty terrible at writing about artifacts related to love–they are a smart but often sentimental lot–but I love the idea of performing a similar analysis of love’s artifacts.

My favorite artifact from the online exhibition is a Slovenian bread bowl. The jilted lover writes,

You wanted me to bake bread. Because a woman kneading dough is so erotic, isn’t she? You probably thought I’d work up such a sweat that it would drip from my breasts directly into the bowl.

Continue reading

reading the missed connections

Last week I stumbled across a series of illustrations inspired by craigslist Missed Connections:

They’re by artist Sophie Blackwell, and all are selected from the New York City craigslist. I love how her prints capture the near-universal experience of unrequited love and secret crushes, but also our uniquely contemporary ability to broadcast those affections to a larger audience. It’s the adult equivalent of the middle school trick where you tell a friend to ask your crush’s best friend if he also has a crush on you. If no news comes back, you’ve saved yourself the embarrassment of rejection, but, hey, at least you gave it a shot.

When I worked as a barista at a popular coffeeshop in Washington, DC, I sometimes read the Missed Connections. My coworkers (who were an admittedly attractive and charming group) were frequent subjects of unspoken affection. But that was years ago, and in the intervening time, I’d kind of forgotten about that corner of craigslist. So I opened the Vancouver page to see what kind of stories I might find there.

Blackwell’s world is fully of mostly-young, mostly-white people who read Bukowski on the subway and have funky, furry hats and cool tattoos. Their affections are quirky and intelligent, and they write with the dreamy tone of the truly smitten. Their desires are wholesome and decidedly un-creepy. They want to buy someone a drink or say “thanks for smiling at me” or express a public regret for not saying hi. But a search of Vancouver’s missed connections turns up a more complex, slightly darker world. Continue reading

another kind of love story: sex and writing

When I was twenty-two I attended a writing workshop with Percival Everett, who asked us to write a sex scene. It would take longer than we thought, he warned, so we were all to head back to our rooms and get started. The next day in workshop we would read them aloud.

I spent that entire afternoon holed up in a white-tiled, airconditioned dorm room in the flattest part of Texas, staring blankly at my computer and willing my fingers to type something. Every sentence I found myself fighting off weird analogies and echoes of bodice-ripping romance novels.

Everett bellowed his deep, echo-y laugh whenever someone’s writing amused him, and I made it my goal to make him laugh. If I could make him laugh, I reasoned, the class might not notice how my face had turned beet red because I was reading a sex scene. That I wrote. Which meant I knew something about sex (which was better, I guessed, than knowing nothing). But I was twenty-two and from a rigorously-puritanical part of the world, where people didn’t talk about sex in private much less in public. I was also the youngest, whitest, most apparently-vanilla person in an otherwise diverse group. If I’d been able to hide how much I felt out of my league before the assignment, I was sure it’d become apparent quite quickly after.

Eventually I realized my problem: I was trying to write a love scene, not a sex scene. Once I took love out of the equation, writing about sex became a lot more do-able, and even fun.

I am thinking about this now because I spent the weekend trying to write a description of a man’s body. Not a sex scene, but a kind of inventory of another person. I wanted to articulate the physical-ness of him, the topography of his skin, the way you can love someone simply for how they exist in space. But it was a disaster. Saccharine and flowery and utterly un-subtle.

I’m a firm believer in attempting to eff the ineffable. After all, that’s why we created metaphor. But some things, like sex and love and the body, will always be kind of elusive. My friend Lee posted this video on facebook. I haven’t seen the entire movie, but I was charmed by this clip–a fairly SFW sex scene–and inspired to keep eff-ing:

the body snatchers

When I was twelve or thirteen, we got cable TV for the first time. Our house was up on a hill, bordered on three sides by cow or tobacco fields. When we first moved in, it was far enough from the road that the cable company wouldn’t foot the bill of putting in an underground connection. And my parents were not willing to pay the cost of installing cable, much less a satellite dish.

But then another family built a house beside ours and I guess that was enough to change the cable company’s mind. There was money to be made. So we got cable and, along with it, HBO. We didn’t pay for HBO, but we got it somehow. And in 1994 having HBO was a major middle-school status symbol, so I watched it all the time, if for no other reason than to be able to say at the lunch table, “So I was watching HBO yesterday, but then my dad made me go outside to see if the groundhog he shot from the upstairs window was dead or not.” (This is something my dad did actually try to make my sister and me do. But only once, because he hadn’t yet learned that such a request would make his adolescent daughters burst into panicked tears.)

For six months I watched the same movies over and over and the one I remember the best was the 1993 movie Body Snatchers. It was scary enough that I wouldn’t watch it right before bed, but on a Saturday afternoon, I’d put down whatever book I was reading and tune right in. I didn’t know then that the movie was based on a book, or perhaps more accurately, that the movie was a remake of two other movies (1956, 1978) that were based on a book by Jack Finney. In this particular version, the main character is a teenager, Marti, who begins to discover that everyone on the military base where she lives with her family is slowly being possessed by a race of pod people. This is most horrifyingly conveyed when Marti’s step-brother sees his mother’s body disintegrate as her pod-replacement steps from the bedroom closet. I vividly remember her naked body: half in shadow, half in light, beautiful but no longer human.

I haven’t exactly forgotten this movie, but I also haven’t given it much thought in intervening years. That is until I read a great article about the original Finney novel on NPR yesterday. And, to get back around to this idea of love stories, it got me thinking about love. Maureen Corrigan writes:

Like so many other great genre writers […] Finney had a knack for unearthing shallowly buried psychological anxieties. People we love can change, Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells us, and sometimes that change is terrifying.

I think she nails it here. It’s terrifying to see someone you love become cold, unrecognizable, without affect. Maybe it’s the product of dementia or illness or alcoholism, but, as Corrigan goes on to point out, it also happens in love. People who bring us unbearable joy can, without warning or explanation, become distant and strange. They look like the people we have always known, but they are not. They are doubles, aliens, immune to our heartache and petty human desire.

I remember once saying to my mother as she was putting her make up on, “You and Dad would never get divorced.” It was a statement hiding a question. “I don’t know,” she’d said, casually applying mascara. “Sometimes people fall out of love.” I think I argued with her that day. Sure people could fall out of love, but she and my father weren’t those people. They wouldn’t. But we are all those people.

I like writing and reading nonfiction because, when it’s done well, there’s a sense of intimacy with another living person. There’s an authenticity, a pliable realness, that fiction can’t quite touch. But I love fiction for it’s ability to reach under our skin and tweak a nerve, giving rise to a response that we can’t–or haven’t yet–put into words. I think in love, this pod person embodies our deepest fears. We invest ourselves in someone while not knowing, or being able to control, whether the person we love will always be the version of themselves that we fell in love with. Or if they might simply decide one day we are not what they wanted after all. And sometimes it’s this risk that makes love seem like it might not be worth the trouble.