January 22nd: On the iPhone’s Reminders app
In seventeen years of schooling, I never once earned below an A. Make no mistake: this is anything but a brag. Now, as a teacher, I can write with confidence that a high grade is more a testament of one’s ability to play the game than of mastery. I did well in school not because I was intelligent, but because I was obedient. I followed the rules.
Apple’s Reminders app, in theory, does exactly what its title intends for it to do. I have, in the past, used it in this way: to make sure that I did not forget to submit an assignment; to text my mother a question about Aetna’s out-of-network coverage; to tell myself: GO TO BED. TOMORROW = BIG DAY. Reminders prevent us from forgetting. A reminder is a signpost, a signal to one to stay on the straight and narrow, to pay Atlantic City Electric their monthly sum, to make it to the end of another day.
Until only recently, though, I scorned agendas. In seventeen years of assignments and deadlines and tests, I never once forgot a date. And I think this speaks to the manner in which our minds (or at least mine) assign meaning. It is one thing to do what a culture and tradition and fiscal responsibility tell you to do. It is quite another to do what you know is the best thing for you. In seventeen years, I never once needed a reminder to turn in an assignment, to study for a test whose subject matter I would soon forget. What I did need—and what I do need, now—is a reminder that I am enough. That I am kind. After I finish writing these words, I will check off these to-do’s. Not because I’ve accomplished them, but because they are true. Because they have been, and always will be, true. We are enough. We are—or can be—kind. In writing this, I’m reminding you of this. I’m reminding you to remind yourself of this. You’ll meet that deadline. You’ll pay that bill. And you’ll be gentle to yourself as you do these things. Not because you have to, but because you should. We have one life upon this ball of stone and smoke and love and hate. And Apple’s Reminders app—or Android’s counterpart—can help you live it to the best of your ability, given you do not use this app as it was intended to be used.
January 23rd: On Watching Villanova Basketball
On a June day in 2006 I removed the first several layers of skin from the soles of my feet. What I had done (this was the sort of thing, at eleven years old, that I often did) was simulate a two-on-two game between the four Villanova players whose names I knew: Allen Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, and Kyle Lowry. When I began, it was cloudy, and the blacktop beneath my feet was bearably warm. For two hours I crossed up no one, elevated my four-foot-six frame above only empty air, fouled myself, made and missed free throws. By the time I had finished, the cloud cover had burned away, and the asphalt scalded. I went to bed that night with the bottoms of my feet pulsing with warmth, fragrant with aloe. I woke up the next day with blisters the size of Boy Scout patches, and limped my way through the last two weeks of school.
2006 was the year I fell in love with Villanova basketball. My dad’s friend worked for Comcast; two or three times a year, he’d snag for us otherwise unobtainable courtside seats. From below the level of the court, I’d watch as giants not even ten years older than me performed acts of impossible power and grace. I remember watching Kevin Durant, then a freshman at Texas, lose to Kyle Lowry, a sophomore at Villanova. I remember my dad turning and telling me that both players would one day dominate in the NBA. Here were two of the greats before they were great. My reaction, in the moment, was to applaud, cheer, join the student section in singing the same songs I’d sing eight years later. In the aftermath of these games, though, my awe would sour into envy; soon after, this envy would ferment into ambition. It wasn’t enough to witness greatness—I wanted to share it. Or, to be more accurate: to start working toward greatness. To begin becoming the me I hoped to one day be.
This, I think, is the appeal of college. Not attending it (and all the boozing and bruising this act connotes), but the idea of it. For the first time, college allows one to advance a thesis as to their future self, to collect the evidence of their past, assess their present wants—and then predict. There is the boy at the side of his father, laughing. There is the boy sitting alone on the bed of his freshman dorm and watching Villanova beat Georgetown and marinating in self-pity and wondering just what the fuck he’s doing wrong. There is the boy climbing a lamppost in the aftermath of Villanova’s 2016 championship, hugging the warming globe atop it to his chest, shouting his triumph at the night. College, if nothing else, represents a chance to take part in—whether ourselves or by proxy—the struggle of becoming.
When I think of watching Villanova basketball, I think of the closeness it formed between my dad and me, the closeness it helps us to now maintain. But I also think of the yearning I felt, watching Durant and Lowry strive. My dad is fond of saying that the most basic human ambition is to feel important, for one’s acts and thoughts to have meaning. What I have found, especially of late, is that the most basic human desire is not to feel meaningful, but to feel as if meaning is a possibility. That the pain is worth it, that the long hours spent in study or practice are toward an end. By the time I arrived home on that June day in 2006, the skin had peeled from the soles of my feet. The flesh there was raw and pink, smarting as my cells rebuilt what had been lost. I relished the pain.
January 24th: On Invincibility Frames
In video games, invincibility frames (frames in which the player’s avatar avoids all damage) occur for a number of reasons: when a player is climbing a ladder; when a player is locked into an animation; when a player is opening a chest, or a gate, or a door. But i-frames (Internet shorthand for invincibility frames; also denoted as iFrames, or iframes) occur most frequently when the player dodges an enemy’s attack. This itself can manifest in a number of ways: in Dark Souls or one of its sequels or copycats, the player’s character rolls, thereby ducking attacks; in games like Hades or Hollow Knight, players dash or sidestep, passing through animations like a graphical ghost. Invincibility frames represent those moments at which, with the press of a button, a player becomes briefly infinite, a flash of untouchable light, a caesura in the midst of hitpoint-deducting sounds.
I am writing about i-frames for three reasons. The first: I am tired; the time is late; the day is Sunday; I lack the time and energy required for a longer piece. The second: I am playing Hades right now, whose dash has invincibility frames to spare (not that I’m complaining). But the last reason, the best of my reasons, is this: invincibility frames do not solely belong to video games. Their effect, remember, is to allow one to pass through damage unscathed—but not by hanging back, by obeying one’s fear. Invincibility frames enable a player to close the distance between them and their combatants, deal damage, dodge or roll to safety. Uncertain players put distance between themselves and their threat(s); confident players put trust in invincibility frames, and plunge.
For the most part, both in video games and IRL, I am happy to steer clear of risk. As are most of us, I think. But I am grateful too for those things that allow me to forget for a moment my mortality. Which is to say: I am grateful for video games, for writing, for reading. And, more generally, for art. Science is a more reliable medicine, yes. But it has yet to, even for a moment, disregard death. This distinction belong to another class of processes, a different set of codes and routines.
January 25th: On Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere
In the world of literature, there are works from the canon: Shakespeare, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby. Then there are works from the cannon: books that bombard our bookstores for such a stretch of years and with such a lack of regard for its fellows on the shelf that we are left no choice but to read them. Here, I am thinking of books like Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. And while some of these books deserve every bit of their ubiquity—Tartt’s The Goldfinch is, for lack of a longer review, breathtaking—more do not. Two years after its publication, the enduring popularity of Where the Crawdads Sing (well-plotted, poorly-written) continues to dismay me. Harper Lee’s unexpected To Kill a Mockingbird sequel leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth, both for reasons internal and external to the text. Contemporary fiction can be brilliant; it can also sell millions. Few manage to do both.
Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere comes close to doing just this. When it first appeared in 2017, I don’t remember it colonizing shelves like Where the Crawdads Sing or Go Set a Watchman, instead appearing in neat stacks near the front of Barnes & Noble, then disappearing a number of weeks later. Its critical reception was likewise lukewarm; reviewers took the stance of taking no stance at all, deeming the book “well-crafted,” a “meditation [on motherhood, on childbirth].” Little Fires Everywhere is a novel about things—race, class, privilege (as Ng puts it herself). The problem when it was first published was that the literary elite didn’t care, or at least not enough to nominate it for any major awards. The novel did appeal to a profitable number of people, and it did speak about the Issues of Today. There are reasons an Emmy-nominated miniseries adaptation exists on HBO, just as there are reasons my mother’s best friend lent the book to her—and why, through the Transitive Property of Book-Lending, it ended up in my hands. There are reasons why I finished the novel in an afternoon-long, two-hundred page rush. But there are also reasons why, after finishing writing this piece, I will think of the book little, and only as an example of how impossible it is to write a flawless novel.
Little Fires Everywhere does the thing all competent fiction does, and begins with a fire. The Richardsons’ house is ablaze. Every Richardson but one linger outside, watching it burn. Mia and Pearl Warren, the mother-daughter duo on which the other half of the story focuses, are gone. The rest of the novel’s three hundred pages explore the events that started this fire. Quickly, the novel’s thesis makes itself clear: motherhood (and childhood, to a lesser extent) is terribly, tragically complicated. Elena, the matriarch of the Richardson clan, battles constantly with Izzy, the younger of her two daughters and the firebrand (pun intended; spoiler; sorry) of the clan. Her relationship with Lexi, the family’s oldest, is superficially better, but fraught enough that Lexi hides an abortion, choosing instead to confide in Mia. Pearl, meanwhile, strays from Mia, entering into a romance with Trip, the older of the Richardson boys (and in doing so breaking the heart of Moody, his appropriately-named younger brother). Into this mess enter a custody case between an immigrant waitress and the upper-class family that raised her abandoned daughter; it is at this point that everything else in the novel, pun very much intended, goes up in flames.
While the above plot is executed with economy, and while the relationships among this cast of characters ring true, and while Ng writes it all with a well-trained (if perhaps overly MFA-ified) ear, I find the novel to be less than the sum of these parts. There is much to be admired about a story’s characters all being rendered round, and thus sympathetic. It takes a hard-earned sensitivity to write a piece of fiction that does what all great pieces of fiction do, and ask (and not answer) a question. But it also takes iterations upon iterations, workshop after workshop, and Little Fires Everywhere shows every bit of this workshopping, for better and for worse. Reading it—especially as I neared the end—I could imagine the novel’s earlier drafts, the likely criticisms thereof; the angles Ng, in these earlier drafts, had neglected to consider. The effect of this expanding, paradoxically, is to confine. Every avenue has been explored; every character has been polished and rounded to the extent that all their hard edges have been smoothed away, leaving me nothing to which to cling, no one for whom to root.
There is much to admire about a literary laboratory: every piece in chemical, clinical order; hot plates glowing with algorithmically delineated heat. As for me, though, I find myself more interested in novels like The Savage Detectives: factories that have exploded, or are exploding: divine, terminal bursts of language; searing lashes of sublimated skeleton; a structure no more, its necessary components never again in their proper order: landing wherever they might land, in whatever form they have at last taken on, given they land at all.
January 26th: On Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
As I write this, I am around 5,000 words away from finishing the first draft of a novel about a twenty-six-year-old who kills himself, then wills the house in which he did it to his four oldest friends. As I write this, I am paging through Hanif Abdurraqib’s essays, looking for a quote to jump out at me. There are good options, and there are great options, and then, on page 77 of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, there is this: “So many of us begin tortured and end tortured, with only brief bursts of light in between, and I’d rather have average art and survival than miracles that come at the cost of someone’s life.” I have spoken often with those I love about why I write. One either laughs at the nothingness that is on its way or one leans into it, and I spend too much of my day making jokes to have the time or energy left to manufacture laughter on the page. But Abdurraqib’s essays, especially in combination with the events of this last year, have me rethinking my tendency toward tragedy. Great Novels ask (and often attempt to answer) Big Questions, but there also lies value in asking small ones. Or even asking no question at all. Saying, “Huh.” And then writing about an amphibious telemarketer, or an Andalusian mountain goat with a predilection for Parcheeze. Or finally sitting down and watching the end of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. Or putting my earbuds in, and closing my eyes, and lying down, and listening to a sextet of journalists chat happily of video games until I fall asleep.
The thing I think I like the most about Abdurraqib’s writing is that he makes me want to call him Hanif. If he wants to, he can place his erudition on full display, blending traditional musical theory with street slang while narrating Chance’s artistic evolution, digging into both the fundamentals and technicalities of basketball while bringing to life Iverson’s now-famous double-crossover of Jordan. But he can also tap into the humanity that is at the core of all good nonfiction writing, and which in criticism is all too rare. In an essay about The Wonder Years, the band that defined more than any other my adolescence, he summarizes their signature trio of early-twenty-tweens albums in a sentence: “All of them say, ‘I’m sad like you are, and I can’t promise to fix this, but we’re going to be here together.’” In a piece about a different trio of genre-defining albums, he says of Future’s incredible two-year run: “All of us can only outrun silence for so long before we have no option but to face it.” He discusses the death of his mother, the deaths of too many friends. He talks about his experience as a Muslim in the wake of 911. He talks of relationships, past and present. He taps into pain, but also the joy he has fought so desperately to earn.
It is not easy to write criticism, to convey decades of insight in a way that is at once engaging and illuminating. But it is—to quote Birdman, an Oscar-winner too often maligned—safe. Or at least safer than art, at least good art, which requires one to bear their whole heart to the world, aortic ugliness and all. By tapping into vulnerability as Abdurraqib does, he does the almost impossible, and turns art criticism into art itself. Impersonal reviews, no matter how deft, have never impelled me out of my artistic comfort zone. I know (more or less) who I am; I know (more or less) what I like. But Abdurraqib has me listening to Carly Rae Jepson, improbably open to the idea that there might be something in her sung joy I’ve missed. He has me alternating between Chance and Future, attempting once more to gain access to hip hop’s ubiquitous mysteries. He has me watching—I am deadly serious—the NBA. More than anything else, though, Abdurraqib—Hanif—has changed the way I write essays. I’m doing my best to do what he does, and leave my soul on the page.
January 27th: On Canned Soup
A child begins becoming an adult not when they grow hair in surprising places, or have their heart broken for the first time. No: adulthood begins at the exact moment one realizes that nothing is stopping them from feeding themselves. There is a stack of sliced American in the crisper, half a loaf of Sara Lee Honey Wheat on the shelf above, and the toaster oven, given a stepstool and a stretch, is within reach. I am only half-joking as I write this. Psychologists might beg to differ, but I think many biologists would agree. Semi-self-sufficiency kicks off a life.
I do not remember much about making soup. About heating up soup. I remember the whine of the electric can opener, the grating shriek it would issue when the magnet did not completely catch. I remember preferring Progresso to Campbell. I remember the thrill of the moment the clammy mess began to boil. I remember scouring the pot with a sponge in the aftermath. Setting it to dry with a shiver of pride, but also of fear. It is a terrifying thing to realize one might carry on, were the worst to occur.
Tonight—why else would I be writing about soup?—I made soup. There was little else in the house to eat, and I lacked the will to make anything else. It would have been easy to imagine myself in a post-apocalypse of a gentler persuasion, except the Internet continued to exist, and my heart continued to beat, and the lights remained on, and I persisted in my perseveration about various matters less pressing than death. Soup is a symbol of defeat—yes. But it is also a gesture of defiance. To reduce joy to mere caloric intake is to say this: I will go on. When the people I love ask how I am, I tell them I am getting better. And I am.
(The soup was salty and hot and good, and I finished it in a matter of minutes.)
But there is also this: sometimes, out of no ill will, my students ask me what it’s like. Being an adult, they mean. And I do not tell them this: don’t.
January 28th: On Oxytocin
Oxytocin, I have read, is the love hormone. It is also the hormone responsible for empathy, and trust. I was motivated to Google this after listening to a podcast yesterday in which a psychologist detailed as much. I was rapt: trust, love. Of course they were biochemically related. It only made sense. The woman went on: oxytocin was the hormone responsible for love, and it was the hormone responsible for trust, and State Farm stood for both. State Farm was to be trusted; State Farm existed to protect the people and places and things we loved. Son of a bitch, I thought, experiencing a tingle of betrayal at the snuck-in ad, at the trust State Farm had instilled in me and then so deftly abused. Son of a bitch.
Today I went for a walk with my sister on a path alongside the Atlantic. For an hour, we paraphrased “This Be the Verse,” by Philip Larkin. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” Yes, and yes. To grow up alongside parents who love you is to accept that their love, to a greater or lesser extent, will fuck you up. When I was a child, my mother’s anger manifested as silence, my father’s frustration as self-isolation. I loved and love them both more than I can say. But I have also learned to extrapolate unhappiness from two acts that do not necessarily correlate with it. Silence can mean busy-ness; isolation can equal space.
I think the great obstacle to love in the 21st century is the trust we lack in trust. To fall in love is to believe another, to believe in another, despite all other evidence the world presents. In the age of the Internet, in the age of distance that is not, it is too easy to act upon doubt. Our bodies have evolved over millennia to allow us to survive. It is for this reason trust, for many of us, is so rare. It is for the same reason love is even more rare, and why oxytocin is reticent, at best.
To which I say: when the hypothalamus activates, when oxytocin floods the bloodstream via the pituitary gland—and it will; it must—trust it. Despite all else.