January 8th: On Manchester Orchestra and The Front Bottoms’ “Allentown”
On November 11th, 2016, I drove three and a half hours to see The Front Bottoms and Modern Baseball open for Brand New in Allentown, PA. Three days before, the world as I’d known it had ended. Route 476 was packed, but quiet. The fields to either side of the highway were tractor-churned absences. The sky was a uniform, depthless white.
At the beginning of “Allentown,” a joint single released in 2015 by the bands The Front Bottoms and Manchester Orchestra, Andy Hull sings, “I am on a journey to discover what it’s like, / to be free of all my demons, / to be free of all my demons.” The words drift above melancholic synth, shimmering percussion that waits to kick in until the last “demons” has died. I had not heard the song until only recently, and, at the time of this concert, I wasn’t to become a fan of Manchester Orchestra for another year. Driving north, though, blasting riff-driven sadness as the light left the day, I glimpsed the truth behind these opening lines. The world had changed, and I was changing in the wake of this change.
By the time I arrived in Allentown, I was late, it was late, and the sky was black. The city, despite being the third-largest in Pennsylvania, felt small. It feels like a cliché to evoke tropes of the Rust Belt, but Allentown struck me as abandoned in the wake of our Now, left to search out various tech-centered substitutes around which to take a new shape. The climb to the PPL Center took me perhaps five minutes, the line another five. I found my sister sitting alone. We hugged, and then I asked her if she was okay, and she said she wasn’t, not really. And then we listened to The Front Bottoms play.
What am I trying to say? I have said little about the song “Allentown.” There is little to say. There is everything to say. It’s a sad, quiet song, fitting more into Manchester Orchestra’s catalogue than The Front Bottoms’ oeuvre. Andy Hull repeats the line “I am on a journey” six times. The song speaks of the emptiness of a “late-eighties biker bar,” the “drugs from all our parents / stuck inside our veins.” It’s a song about the precariousness of an after, the longing to begin again. Brian Sella, the Front Bottoms’ singer, contributes accompanying vocals, taking the lead only for sections of the chorus. This, to me, feels appropriate. Sella and Hull are separated by only two years (Sella is 32; Hull is 34), but Hull feels at least a decade older. Hull is married; Hull has a kid. Sella remains on his journey. As he sings on the lead track of In Sickness & In Flames, The Front Bottoms’ most recent album: “everyone blooms in their own time.” Everyone arrives. It just takes time, and hurt, and work. And then more time.
“Allentown” is a song about hope. Recalling the concert I attended in the wake of Trump’s election, writing this piece in the lead-up to Biden’s taking office, my feeling is of hope. My sister and I were together; we hugged. We listened to music we loved. I screamed my heart out to Brand New, whose lead singer would reveal himself irredeemable two years later. I drove a Honda CRV that would be totaled not six months later. My demons are fewer, but the ones that remain are vicious, duplicitous, persistent. I’m never going to be free, but I’m beginning to figure out what it might be like.
January 9th: On Nightcrawler
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January 10th: On Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives
I forget who once wrote that the best novels taught you how to read them. Probably a writer who wrote novels in the running for designation as the best. Joyce, Tolstoy, Proust, Woolf. Pynchon, DeLillo. I have only read four of the six authors I’ve just mentioned, and only one work from each of these writers. I doubt I will read more. There is an overlap between novels I love and novels I am proud to have read, but it is slim. Gravity’s Rainbow sits on a shelf, undusted save for a brief, envious yearly perusal. Lord of the Rings, on the other hand, lies well-thumbed. (I love Lord of the Rings, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a title one namedrops while applying to MFAs. [Or at least not intentionally. Yours truly may or may not have done just this.])
Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives is a novel I’m proud to have read. I began Bolaño’s opus toward the end of last year, and only finished it today. It follows the rise and fall of a fictional group of Latin American writers known as the visceral realists. Specifically, it tracks Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (Bolaño’s alter ego) as they search for Cesárea Tinajero, the poet considered the founder of visceral realism. The first and final parts of the novel are narrated by Juan García Madero, a recent seventeen-year-old convert of visceral realism and an admirer of Lima and Belano. The middle two-thirds of the book are narrated by a chorus of over twenty distinct voices, and span twenty years of Lima’s and Belano’s search.
The novel is elliptical, and sprawling, and unfocused, and digressive, and transgressive, and inarguably great, and took me almost four hundred pages to get into. The last two hundred and fifty went by over the course of the last two days. I’m ill-equipped to describe what makes it great, but I will offer two pieces of writerly wisdom I have taken away. The first: voice is an engine as powerful as or more powerful than plot. For poets who wish to be novelists and worry about act length and reversals and A stories and B stories: worry not. (I know this means little. It means little to me. Still!) Second: orbits both depend upon and exert an irresistible gravity. Time and space in The Savage Detectives travel in a nonlinear, recursive fashion. For four hundred pages we share the same space as the novel’s sprawling cast of characters. We sense the oncoming end—Part I drops us in a car shared by Madero, Lima, Belano, and a sex-worker named Lupe, hurtling toward the Sonoran Desert, pursued by a pimp named Alberto—but unable, at least not yet, to bear witness. Part II takes its violent, lustful time. Visceral realism is over, Madero is forgotten, Lima and Belano lost—but we do not yet know why. What Bolaño shows us instead is how. Again, and again, and again. He holds off the reveal until Part III, and in doing so holds the reader’s attention and breath. And I don’t know how he does it, and I don’t think I ever will, and I don’t think I want to. His is a braver, more brutal art. His is a tightrope dance while naked and on fire and drunk. His laughter dies at the bottom of a bottomless pit. He asks us to await its nonexistent echo, and we do.
As for me, I am content to lurk on the edge of this pit, and to tell stories of characters who do the same. Who sometimes, out of either curiosity or ennui, toe this edge. Who often fall.
January 11th: On Brownies
On at least one night of every fortnight from the age of four to fourteen, this is how you’d find me: in the kitchen of my childhood home, hovering, smelling my father’s brownies as they bake. I’d like to say he had a recipe he’d perfected, that this post will end with a testament to his confectionary prowess, but he didn’t. They were Duncan Hines, milk or dark, with walnuts or without. They were and remain the best brownies I’ve ever eaten, and I will take this claim to the grave.
There is something irrevocably heartbreaking about a child thinking the miracles performed by their parents are unique. Because the actions of a parent doing their best to love their child are miracles—yes. But they are often also the most unexceptional acts in the world. They are a father transforming a small red box into chewy, fudgy joy. They are a mother trying her hardest to persuade you to spend more than twenty minutes trying on Levi’s in Kohl’s. They are two adults taking a break from the daily task of sustaining to bear witness to yet another K’Nex creation from their persistent, intelligent, lonely son. And so too in time the half-baked novels he’d scrawl into Mead composition notebooks. And a much longer time later the much shorter poems and stories and essays that would appear online.
This is not to say that my parents are not miracles in the more traditional sense of the word. My father survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teenager; my mother has been a type 1 diabetic for most of my life. They are still together, and healthy, and active in my sisters’ and my lives. They work harder—both individually and as a team—than anyone I’ve ever known. I love them. A lot. More than they know. And I don’t tell them this enough.
January 12th: On Trivia Nights
Tuesday is trivia night. To take such a thing for granted is to believe in better decisions from people worse than you or me. Tuesday is trivia night. My best friends and I are in a dive bar in the middle of the Pine Barrens. We are drinking Yuenglings and eating Buffalo tails and laughing at our ignorance. The bar is called One More, and this name makes sense. I am teaching in the morning; Pat is slated for a morning shift at Wawa. This is a year ago. This last year of ours has yet to come. We agree to one more. Over the front entrance of One More, a life-size Jersey Devil welcomes patrons and watches them go. Pat and Eric and Colin. Brooks and Tom and Joey. Martin and Kevin. We are losing, but we are together. We are us.
I have been to trivia nights without my oldest and best friends. Plenty in college, when my roommates’ and my team names (“I Just Kant,” “Gentlemen United”) were at once attempts at demonstrating our intelligence and just how insanely fucking together in our loneliness we were. I have competed alongside my sister and my father—nights when the aim was not to remember, but to preserve the moment for future remembrance. ZZ Top, my father would recall, smiling, then jot down the answer in his tidy pen. 1978. The Oakland A’s. A pure sort of happiness hides in knowing exactly what to do or say, how exactly to feel in any given moment. I prefer trivia with Pat and Tom, Eric and Joey, but I recall other trivia nights I have attended with an ache in my chest.
In pedagogy, the zone of proximal development refers to the ideal level of difficulty of a given task in order to facilitate the learner’s maximal growth. Educational texts will describe this zone in these and even more siloed terms. But I find the concept—not too hard, not too easy, just right—useful for understanding other areas of my life. Like you, I am not at my happiest when hopelessly struggling. Neither, though, am I at my happiest when I am relaxed. My favorite video games pit me against fairly-designed monstrosities I die to again and again before learning their patterns and emerging triumphant. My favorite novels bend but do not break writing’s rules. My favorite trivia nights don’t consist of forty questions about early 2000s emo and horror films of the last thirty years and literature; if they did, my team would always win. And where’s the fun in that?
Neither, though, are the questions of the best trivia nights impossible. They are just unknown enough to intrigue, to leave the possibility of victory alive but in doubt. The categories consist of ubiquities like cartoons, amphibians. Sports. And the same can be said for the competitors present for such a night. I sit alongside my oldest friends, and we are home—but both we and our home have changed. The questions facing us are neither impossible nor simple. The woman behind the bar is no longer Trish. The foursome at the pool table are no longer dudes we graduated with. In eight months I will be attending grad school in another state. Brooks is down in Charleston, Martin in Tennessee. But we are still ourselves, and we know what the others know. And we might not win—we rarely do—but we know just enough to have a shot.
I have been struggling for a year now. We have all been struggling for a year. I haven’t attended a trivia night with my oldest friends in over a year. I miss them very much. I look forward more than I can say to struggling alongside them again.
January 13th: On Tuna Salad
Texture, to me, is everything. A green-yellow banana beats its brown-spotted cousin every time. Fries are something, but burn them a bit and they become everything. In college, I fell in love only once, and it was with Main’s dining hall’s tuna salad. Yes. Of all things. Perfectly salty, slightly sweet. Squares of onion and celery collaborating to create the ideal crunch. Perfection.
My sophomore year, I ate it on wraps, the sun-dried tomato kind, with sweet potato fries on the side. My junior year, I transferred the tuna salad into wheat wraps, then atop far leafier salads. This was the same time I began finding other foods whose textures were their defining attributes, and which offered little else. Baby carrots, mostly. Celery. I ran a marathon my senior year, my first. I am five-foot-seven. Male. I ended the year around 130 pounds. A year after graduating, I was down to 119. I never crossed over into diagnosable anorexia. This doesn’t mean I was healthy. I was too healthy, I mean. Which is to say: I wasn’t even close. I weighed myself nearly ten times a day. I was as miserable as I’d ever been.
Once—this night shames me, still—an ex-girlfriend of mine threw me a surprise party for my twenty-first. I wasn’t surprised. I ate little of the food she provided. Buffalo wings and chips and brownies and other food I pretended not to love. I fell asleep before midnight. I rose early. I cleaned up the mess alone. I went for a run in the predawn chill.
I still eat tuna salad. I still love tuna salad. But I love it for different reasons. Or for the same reasons I originally loved it. The texture. The saltiness, the umami. I ate it yesterday in a hoagie from Wawa. I ate it with salt and vinegar chips. I did not eat dessert. I am not yet back up to 130 pounds. But I am close.
January 14th: On Walking in the Woods
Today I went for a walk in the woods. I went for a walk in the woods because my brain felt what I imagine a teabag feels like after repeated steepings (I have reached Stage 9.7 of Quarantine™, wherein I make multiple cups of tea with one bag, wringing increasingly watery yields from the same finely shredded leaves until I am drinking nothing more than faintly aromatic water). For the first part of my walk, I listened to the album The Sunset Tree by the band The Mountain Goats. On the cover of The Sunset Tree, a setting sun peeks from behind the base of a lopsided, leafless oak. The most well-known song off the album is probably “This Year,” whose upbeat, death-defying chorus goes, “I am going to make it through this year / if it kills me.” It’s a fantastic song, but on this walk it’s its followup, “Dilaudid,” that I loop. The opening line of this tune, whose repeated strings vibrate with a nervous, paralyzing energy that’s impossible to shake, goes, “The reception’s gotten fuzzy, / the balance has shifted.” It’s a short song, barely more than two minutes long. The moment it ends, I play it again. And again.
Here is a species of peace: the sky in January. High and clear. Azure. (Only skies might be accurately called azure.) Blades of light born and then broken by the maternal metaphor that is a tree. The path is littered with leaves that do not crunch underfoot. A damp December has sedimented them into a springy mat beneath the soles of my boots. I walk slowly, taking in the silence. The air smells of woodsmoke and cold. In a meadow whose gold-brown luster fills my throat, I pass three dudes who I estimate are my age and who probably underestimate my age by a good ten years. One wears a beanie. One has a beard. With them are two dogs, one named Cooper, one who is a pit bull and whose name I miss. Both launch themselves at me the moment I am in sight. I stand my ground, smiling. I have time to think this thought: were these dogs to wish me dead, I would be dead. Now imagine a wolf. A bear. But they only circle me, sniffing at my legs. The dude with the beanie calls to Cooper. The dude with the beard tells me they don’t bite. I tell them neither do I. They laugh, and so do I. We go our separate ways.
Here is a joke I have stolen from Twitter: “If I ever find a body on a trail, here is what I am going to say: fucking finally.”
The best and the worst thing that can happen to a person on a walk in the woods is to go missing. I have listened to stories about people who have drunk their own urine, consumed their own flesh. I have listened to a man take a wrong turn and be gone. A hiker in Utah in the 1990s once showed up months later, emaciated beyond recognition, with no recollection of his whereabouts over the time he’d been gone. (There is a podcast called Chilluminati—specifically, an episode named “Missing 411”—in case you would like more details about the lives and deaths of these people.) But I have also read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. I know what it is to want to forget. My first kiss took place on a walk in the woods. It was quiet, and nice, and her lips were dry. This whole time, I remember thinking. That easy. More recently—another walk, different woods—a different girl listened to me go off on a tangent about allowing myself to be struck by a Beamer or Benz in the hopes of having my college debt paid off. There are moments when humor is not enough, when nihilism is my only self-defense. For a moment, she was silent. She said, “Okay. Bye!” And promptly pretended to disappear into the woods, leaving me alone, my only company an unfamiliar ache in my chest. (She was the one to recommend Chilluminati to me. We still listen to it, and talk about it, albeit from miles away. I bought her merch for Christmas. This is one of the ways we have managed to stay together through a time when we must remain apart.)
A girl I went to college with once told me I had “resting sad face.” I agreed. If you have spoken with me—whether online or IRL—for even five minutes, you should not be surprised by this fact. In college, I did most of my reading sitting beneath trees. Even in the winter. It should likewise fail to surprise you that I was a member of an academic fraternity. My senior year, my peers voted me “Most Likely to Engage in Philosophical Conversation.” In retrospect, I think this was a kind way of saying I tended toward the bleak.
Here is a thing I found on a walk through the same woods I walked through today: a fox. A dead fox. It was dead. I approached it slowly, uncertain if it was dead. It was dead. The sun set its fur aflame. Its intestines spilled out across the path in dusty, dirt-brown infinity symbols. I considered taking a picture of it with my phone, but stopped myself, worried at what such a photo might say about me. The thanatophilia of a killer is matched only by a poet. I looked back, once, to make sure I was right, that it indeed was dead. It was dead.
Here is a fact: nowhere on Earth has yet to be mapped. Here is another fact: to this day, explorers continue to die while trying to find the Amazon’s lost city of Z. Here is another fact: when I was ten, the woods behind my best friend’s house were infinite. Here are a trio of facts: the development he lived in was named Eaglesmere; our most popular pastime was Manhunt; to a man, we were found.
After The Sunset Tree’s last song finishes, I take out my headphones, pocket my phone. The album’s last song is “Pale Green Things,” in which Darnielle meditates on grief and want and death. I take my time on my way back to the parking lot. Distance and silence are a recipe for uncertainty. “411” is shorthand for “information.” Missing 411 means radio silence. Signals unreturned. For one who excels at being alone, I am desperately afraid to be alone. By the time I arrive back at my Focus, the peace I have worked so quietly to recapture has once more vanished. A greybeard in a dun Wrangler jacket calls out to me. I do not recognize him. There’s an equal (albeit small) chance of his being a serial killer or a homeless man or a devotee of Thoreau. He repeats himself: “It ain’t raining, man!” It is only then that I remember where I am. The azure of the sky. The quiet. The breaking of the light. I smile. I tell him I agree.