January 29th: On Voicemail Samples in Songs
“Hey, Danny,” begins the song “You Are the Answer to My Security Question,” by the band Cloud District. “I called to wish you a happy birthday. Happy seventeenth birthday. I hope you have a great day. Um, yeah! Alright. Bye!” In the context of the song, the girl who speaks these words does not receive a name. All that is clear is that she, whoever she is, is gone; her voice is blurry with distance and delay, her words a recorded recording from another’s phone. From clues contained within the lyrics, it soon becomes clear that she is an ex from a long-distance relationship, that things fell apart. Things almost always fall apart; they fall apart until they do not, and then they fall apart again. I sing this song; I am biking against the wind; I sing this unnamed girl’s words; beneath me, my bike’s spokes hum; the wind rips my words away; I sing these words again. It will never not astound me, the awkwardness that might be turned into art. “You Are the Answer to My Security Question” makes one weep. Even if you have never had your heart broken. Even if you can only imagine.
Emo music has a long tradition of turning voicemails into art. Music as a whole has a long history of accomplishing this improbable feat. The reasons for this are varied, I think. But the biggest, I think, is this: sampled voicemails are doubly missed. In the moment, the present at which the call was placed, they were missed; now, however many years later, they are missed again. The tragedy is twofold: things ended, we are led to believe, because of a moment of disconnect. Now, that disconnect is permanent. Drake is replaying his own voicemails, crooning about a woman who used to call him on his cellphone. In The Front Bottoms’ “Swimming Pool,” the first song that comes to mind when I think of this phenomenon, a man ends a voicemail, “I’m breaking up with you. Done. Bye.” Old wounds, long cold, are prodded with a hot poker. And we are left to marinate in their repurposed blood. Pathos is difficult to manufacture, even for masters of the genre. Recorded hurt makes the creation of this emotion easy.
My favorite instance of a voicemail in a song is in Modern Baseball’s “Hours Outside in the Snow.” There is little content to the message itself: a girl says, “Hey, I’m not here. So leave me a message, and I’ll call you back, alright? Thanks.” Then the answering machine’s automated playback plays: At the tone, please record your message. And then the song ends. And in this moment, everything that is powerful about the sampled voicemail is distilled to its most potent essence: the message is meaningful only insofar as it was a relationship’s last. The recording is nothing. It is also everything. On YouTube, “Hours Outside in the Snow” has 360,000 listens; on Spotify it has more. People don’t listen solely for the voicemail—they listen for the music around it—but they listen also for the voicemail. For the assurance that being hurt means something. That pain is beautiful. That, even if it never goes away, its enduring can be art. That you might turn it into art, given it comes to that. God willing, you will think, listening to your song, whatever song this is, end: may it never come to that.
May it never come to that.
January 30th: On Cooking Substitutes
I didn’t have two cans of red beans, so I swapped half this required amount for kidney beans. I likewise lacked a fresh bell pepper (green), so I made do with a bag of frozen, pre-cut chunks (also green, but also yellow and red). Olive oil did the called-for vegetable oil one better; andouille sausage was a no-go (my sister is a vegetarian, and I try my best), but soy chorizo served admirably. We ate red beans and rice. It was delicious, and then it was not yet gone; we packaged the leftovers in a pair of Tupperware prisms. And then we perused Hulu.
This is what stability looks like. I think this is what I’m trying to say. This is what it looks like to have enough.
To substitute one ingredient for another is a small act. At the same time, it is a testament to centuries of progress. Civilizations, in order to be classified (sociologically, historically) as such, must meet a number of requirements: they must be sufficiently technologically advanced; they must possess a stable food supply; they must boast a “highly developed culture,” whatever that means. Without an abundance, one may not choose between options; in the absence of plenty, one must be satisfied with enough. On my last trip to Acme, I passed at least thirty combined brands and varieties of mustard. More than anything else, sights such as this one remind me I am living in the twenty-first century. There is no need for spicy Dijon save for boredom and the fact that we can. The existence of choice denies necessity. To be able to adapt on the fly, swap in ingredients at a moment’s notice—this is what it means to be safe.
After I had scrubbed the pot and placed the appropriate dishes in the dishwasher and after whatever episode of Broad City we’d put on after dinner had ended, I smoothed a blanket over my legs, and then I wrote this. Not for profit; not out of need. But because I could. Because I imagine these pieces not as a necessary part of my formation as a writer, but as another ingredient I can swap in as I see fit. I have that choice. I am not fighting for my life, but for more and better reasons to stay alive. I am fortunate enough to know the difference. I am fortunate enough to have a choice.
January 31st: On Ben Loory’s Tales of Falling and Flying
“Mystery (The Third Man)” was the first Ben Loory story I read. It begins, as most Ben Loory stories do, about a thousand words into the tale, or at least a thousand words into the tale as another storyteller would tell it, which is to say: at the moment things get good. The story appeared in Wigleaf, near the end of 2018. It begins, “There were three men in the boat when it suddenly capsized, and the three men fell toward the bottom of the sea.”
The end of 2018 brought with it—sucked into it, after it, whirlpool-like—the ends of a number of other things. In October, I had moved back out of my parents’ place and into a townhouse after over a year of reestablished cohabitation. Thanksgiving came and went; at long last, my first marking period as a high school math teacher was over. And then it was December, and I stopped pretending things were anything different than what they were. I ended my days a stuttering, red-faced wreck; I traded the clothes and the trappings of a future I did not want for a hoodie and gym shorts at 2:15 on the dot, and then I ran. Five, seven miles. Even in the winter. And then I went to Starbucks, where I graded and lesson-planned and did not write (or at least not well) until the store closed. Then I went home. Ate, drank, slept: alone. And then I did it all again.
It was on one of these over-caffeinated, ill-lit days that I went to Wigleaf and first read Loory. (Wigleaf published, and still publishes, what I believe are the finest tiny tales on the Internet.) The story was about ambition, and redemption, and hope, and it harmonized with the me I then was in a way few things then did. I read it again, and then I sent it to the few English major friends I’d kept in touch with since graduating, the lone fellow writer I’d met at work. You HAVE to read this, I wrote. Waiting for them to respond, I read all the other Loory that Google would allow: “The Sword,” in FUSION; “The Shield,” in Fictionaut; “The TV,” in The New Yorker. Each was a paradox of surprise and inevitability, levity and despair. Each made its fabulist lineage clear; each also stoked in me a breathtaking envy by way of its originality. On that night, I remember, it was snowing; at some point, this snow turned to rain. Whereupon I thought: now what? Cats, stones, hamsters. PlayStation 4’s, a hail of training wheels. No, none of those, not quite. But Ben Loory would know.
Other reviewers who are both wiser and better writers than me have called Loory a contemporary Aesop, a reinvented Kafka. Perhaps, and perhaps. I think a better description of his tales is that they are less like these earlier works than they are like our memories of them. We do not remember the totality of K’s interior monologue as he works his way closer to The Castle’s eponymous castle, just the peaks of this paranoia, the moments in which it compels him to flail. The first thing that comes to mind when we think of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is not the moralizing original, but the adaptations thereof: the tortoise terminally wizened, the hare quivering with cocky energy. Loory’s talent lies in picking out these dramatic(izable) moments, identifying the thematic thrust that makes them tick, and then stringing them together, one micro arc after another, keeping the reader hooked until the quick and sometimes bitter (more often, not) end. It is one thing to tell you that Tales of Falling and Flying is full of stories in which men swallow rocks, in which frogs and birds become friends, in which squids fall in love with suns, in which James K. Polk cultivates bonsai trees. It is another to say that Ben Loory knows exactly how to draw the meaning(s) of these tales to the surface. Moreover: that he knows the shortest, most gemstone-clotted route there.
I am reading Ben Loory again at the beginning of 2021 for the same reason I’m reading Kelly Link again, and Karen Russell again, and George Saunders again. These are writers who write about the things that bring me pain—grief, addiction, isolation, cruelty, despair—but in ways that bring me joy. I know what I want to write about—if 2018 (and 2019, and especially 2020) taught me anything, it was this—and I am beginning to figure out how. Grief can bring joy. Isolation can feel warm. No one can imagine nothing. In seven months, after four long years of figuring things out, I’m starting my MFA. And I’m going in less with Tolstoy in mind than with the writers I’m revisiting right now.
Make it matter, the work you choose to do. By God, though—do as Loory does, and get to the point. And by God, man—have fun.
February 1st: On Habits
Habits—like rules, but unlike promises; like hearts, but unlike bones—were made to be broken. The clock ticks past midnight as I write this. Tomorrow (today) is a new day. I have finished Annie Dillard’s The Abundance. I have turned on the porch light in order to better see the falling snow.
A habit is a practice. It is also a dress worn by a nun.
What is better, I ask: to quit, and then come back? Or to never give up at all?
February 2nd: On Annie Dillard’s The Abundance
I am one who is easily astonished by things—the toes of a cat, a hollow at the heart of a tired sycamore—and I am not astonished by the mortality rate of beginning runners. Here is the mother who has borne worse pain than I can imagine: she wears cornflower Under Armour tights and a Puma pullover and she is in agony, her face a ruby-red rictus. Here is an improbability of muscle and jawline, his hands on his hips, gasping at the sky. Here is a girl who looks like she has promise: her shorts are matte gray, of a type that comes in packs of two or three; her shirt is a Phillies tee, standard cotton, its red faded to pink. Briefly, I imagine shouting out to her—yes! That’s it! Keep it up!—but the probable aftermath of such an act dissuades me. Besides, the music from her headphones is too loud: leaking Nicki Minaj, tinnily intruding pop.
People do not want to run. It is a struggle to begin to run. It is a struggle for the same reason it is a struggle to begin to see, or to write, or to launch any project worth doing: to do so is to acknowledge less the possibility of grace than the difficulty of attaining such a thing. “I think,” Annie Dillard writes, “that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Except trying is hard, and so, to cope with the strain of striving, we distract ourselves: we tweet and blast pop and binge (on Netflix, on booze, on Hulu, on weed, on Amazon Prime, on porn) and do our best to forget. The idea of running appeals, less so the act itself.
I run for the same reason I read, and I read for the same reason I write: because it is an escape that does not end in my feeling empty. I drink as much as the next person. I eat too much for dinner, then play Hades long past the hour at which I should have gone to bed. But running and writing and reading are better distractions. They are escapes with an end in mind. Their flights are not away, but to the center of the impossibility that is this this. When I run, when I read, when I write, I am doing my best to chase whatever’s at the heart of this this.
Annie Dillard has this to say about seeing: as with most things (like running, like writing, like reading), there are two types. There is that of the active observer: she who would see the sky and seek “to climb up the blank blue dome as a man would storm the inside of a circus tent, wildly, dangling, and, with a steel knife, claw a rent in the top to peep out, even at the risk of a fall.” But there is also the kind of seeing that “involves a letting go.” Beholding the world as an “unscrupulous observer,” “transfixed and emptied.” When Annie Dillard is seeing at her best (and therefore also writing at her best; everything a writer writes about, whether it’s about writing or not, is at least a little bit about writing), she is at her most open, tuned to the music of the spheres like an inverted dowsing rod. It is in this “flesh-flake” state that she holds up Catholic churchgoers in the twentieth century to the doomed seekers of the Northwest Passage and finds in the latter a truer pursuit of God. It is here that she genuflects to a “small frog, with wide, dull eyes,” only to witness its hollowing via the enzymes of a giant water bug: “a monstrous and terrifying thing.” It is in this state that she gapes slack-jawed at an eclipse, listening from far away as her brain “slam[s] shut.”
I tried to write about The Abundance last night. I sat cross-legged on a sofa and watched the snow fall, unable to find something new to say. Dulled by exhaustion and ennui, I slept. Today I ran through a nature preserve off the Atlantic, at the end of the island that is Cape May. I ran without headphones, in a beanie and gloves, the hoodie of a college I did not attend. I began the run searching for something to say. There is a singular loudness to the silence of falling snow. This is nothing that has not already been written by writers better than me. There are birds in the winter, but their scavenging is furtive, and resists observation. My footsteps crunched machine-crushed clamshells. The woods were not as gray and skeletal as the world’s fiction would have you believe. Dark green ivy, bright clusters of holly berries. Nothing new, nothing new. But I felt I was close.
My core warmed; my extremities froze. I thought about paradoxical undressing, a phenomenon wherein a person about to succumb to hypothermia removed their clothes, seeking relief from an imagined fever (read Dillard for a more compelling depiction of this). To my left lay a swamp, deadfall-broken glass, still and black, unmoved by the drifting flakes. To my right stretched a field. Switchgrass drooped, heads heavy with seed. Insects hibernated, naked save for their carapaces. The world is at its wildest in the winter, when nothing has yet been lost. I ducked into the dunes, seeking the sea.
I often feel as if my college graduation was the commencement of my waiting. To live, to die. More often the latter. To want to write when one is only twenty-five is a strange thing. One’s best work lies ahead—it must—but the sand is still ticking along the riverbed (again, see Dillard), toward the ocean, becoming sediment, growing soft, and it will not stop, and it will not stop.
The Atlantic was wild with waves. Foam-shot slate. A celebration of itself. I bent against the wind. I gave up on the particulars (the taste of salt; the paired prints of a vanished other and their vanished dog) in favor of whatever might arise. I opened. For all my keenness, I am a being of unfiltered biology, automatic yearning, little else. Tilting my face away from the wind, I spotted a stunted beach plum. Into this tree someone had carved a heart; below this, either the same person or someone else had attached a wooden skull. An emptied fifth of Jameson capped a leafless branch, dully glinting. Next to it hung a sixteen-ounce of Cape May Brewer’s “Ties the Room Together,” gently dented. I did not genuflect at this altar, but I did remove a glove, tap my thumb to my iPhone’s screen, numbly photograph what I’d found. Then I ran on.
February 3rd: On Frosted Windshields
Every Christmas for the last four years my grandmother has purchased for me a miniature windshield scraper whose handle is swallowed by a mitt. The acrylic blade (clear on odd years, opaque on even) cuts waxy, uneven tracks across my Focus’s glass. If I have thought ahead, the process takes less than a minute. If I have not—if my car, upon my finding it, sits quiet, cold—then it takes much longer. The mitt is pile-lined, and hemmed with fleece. Its shell is of a water-resistant, synthetic material whose name I do not know. Properly gloved, one’s hand is liable to sweat. The process is painless, except for when snow sneaks into the cuff, at which point the resulting sting swallows all else.
This is not to say an icebound vehicle finds me doing anything but groaning and shivering and cursing God. Nor do I wish to graft a metaphor to the act. In writing these words (meaning these words, yes, but also the words of the thirty-three days that preceded today), I aim only to notice more than I now do, to be here in the same way Annie Dillard is here. There is little joy in a car reluctant to start. But there lies much joy in everything else, given one is warm enough to pause for a moment and look. There is a scimitar of moon poised over the peak of my townhouse. The German woman who lives down the street is walking her Scottish terrier. My cats are gathered at the kitchen window, looking out. In a moment I will depart, receive payment for a job I am leaving, feed them for a number of upcoming weeks. For now, though, I linger. This is a moment denied to my father, who starts his car with the press of a button. This is a moment denied to my roommate, who does the same. The air is cold, but it is also, I realize, spectacularly clear.
An addendum: as I was finishing this piece, my roommate confessed to me that he had left his keys in the house this morning. That he had run a mile and a half back from Wawa at seven AM. He did not speak of stars, or of clarity, or of an epiphany, but I smiled nonetheless. There are different sorts of grace.
February 4th: On G2 Pens (0.7 mm)
There must exist pens that are better. I am sure there are. I am also sure I do not care. I think if I found a sharp enough nib and pierced the right vein I could kill or resurrect God, contingent upon my mood. I have never been one who journals, or jots down my thoughts about this world. I think and say too much already, and what I do have to say does not hold a candle to the reflections of LaMott, say, or Dillard, or Gaiman. If it is worth remembering, I will remember it. I will.
I rarely write longhand. Only in the mornings. Never at night. But when I do, I use G2s. (Insert GIF of that Dos Equis dude here.) Its slashes are jagged, night-colored rips. I exhaust only one or two a month. When one begins to run out, I despair, and use less ink than otherwise. Idea: the egg doesn’t break. Inside: the yolk is gold. I do not know what this means. I know only that I wrote it, and that it therefore does, or once did.
In middle school, or high school, whenever it was that I was still required to pen essays by hand, I did this thing where I would write a kick-ass essay to kick off the year. I did so neatly. After which I would write worse, and with decreasing legibility. My teacher, however, would assume the quality remained the same, and so I would continue to receive A’s. It was an elegant sort of ruse, and evidenced a juvenile cunning I sorely miss.
My usage of G2s, I think, represents a similar attempt to game the system. My first thought of the day often scintillates. I pen it patiently, pressing hard on the page, my handwriting confident, my curves clean. My second thought, on the other hand, is scarcely worth mentioning. And I am embarrassed by both the quality and quantity of the thoughts that come after.
At the end of the day, though, when I look back over what I have written—it is easy to convince myself of the worth of my work. This is what writing looks like: I have written. This is what I do: I write.