Money! Death! Death! Money! I’m excited to be writing a column over at The Billfold about everyone’s two most favorite subjects of conversation. First up, a really long chat with Sarah Wambold, an Austin, Texas-based writer and funeral director who’s working to start her own funeral home (or, rather, a mixed-use gallery-space-type-thing that would also be licensed for funerals). If that strikes you as something that is either cheap or easy to do, you are very wrong.
I’ll admit that my main reason for wanting to do this column—to get more cool with my own mortality, basically—is pretty selfish. But when it comes to something this universal, maybe “selfish” isn’t really a thing. It’s true, what we say about death and taxes. They’re both very stupidly certain. It’s a mess, but we’re all in it together. So whatever scrap of wisdom one of us might have pulled out of the tangle seems worth holding up for everyone else to take a look at. Maybe it’s not what you need. Or maybe it’s just the thing.
Anyway, I hope these conversations can be a starting point for many more. If you know someone who might be a good subject for a future installment, or if you think you are that someone, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
“That was the thing about all this: it was a brain thing, and I loved my brain and the way it had been going about its business so gamely for more than half a century. Let’s say you have something wrong with your liver or heart. Terrible news. But if you’re lucky, if you get another one and take the right medication you’ll be back to your old self again. But with the brain, the one you were born with either works or it goes wrong and you start sliding away from yourself. Even if a better, cleverer brain – a brainier brain – had been available for transplant I wouldn’t have traded in the addled one I had. And although the problem, we’d quickly discovered, wasn’t in my eyes, that’s where it had manifested itself, and I loved my eyes too, especially here in southern California where half the reason for living, possibly all of it, was to see and be seen.”—London Review of Books | Geoff Dyer, “Diary”
“I wondered why Carcosa seemed so distinctly eerie, and found out it’s because they shot it at the ruins of the 19th-century Confederate base Fort Macomb. The past is embedded in the present, as if they were occurring simultaneously, and there’s nothing like a dilapidated Civil War–era site to remind us that America is so not different from any other fallen civilization whose relics and scars have been dusted over by the mist of time. You could not create a spookier Southern faux-Minoan labyrinth than one that actually exists.”—Grantland | Molly Lambert, “Feel Let Down by the ‘True Detective’ Finale? Start Asking the Right Questions”
“Many years ago, reading “Harriet the Spy” for what was probably the ninth or tenth time, I realized that both novels contain meaningful scenes in which the protagonist dresses up as a foodstuff. (This may sound silly, but bear with me.) About halfway through her story, Harriet is cast, much to her chagrin, as an onion in her school’s Christmas extravaganza. At the end of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout is conscripted to play the part of a ham in a Maycomb Halloween celebration. The distaste that Harriet and Scout have for these roles can be read as evidence not only of their discomfort with the idea of the traditionally feminine—soft shapes without hard edges—but also with the idea that existing in the world often requires the assumption of costumes, the displaying an inauthentic self, and even lying. But each comes to learn that subterfuge and dishonesty are occasionally useful, even necessary. About three-quarters of the way into “Mockingbird,” Scout and Dill meet Dolphus Raymond, a white male who lives with a black woman. Raymond, who is always seen sipping from something in a brown paper bag, explains that he only pretends to be a drunk so that the residents of the town will tolerate, if not fully accept, his unorthodox relationship. “It ain’t honest but it’s mighty helpful to folks,” Raymond tells the children. “Secretly, Miss Finch, I’m not much of a drinker, but you see they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to live.””—The New Yorker | Anna Holmes, “Harriet M. Welsch, Scout Finch, and How to Be a Good Bad American Girl”
“Parents have no idea what the children are up to in their bedrooms: They are reading the same paragraphs over and over in a stupor of violent bloodshed. Their legs are limp with horror. They are reading the same paragraphs over and over, dizzy with gratification as the young lovers find each other in the French fort, as the boy avenges his father, as the sound of muskets in the woods signals the end of the siege. They could not move if the house caught fire. They hate the actual world. The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or escape back home to any concentration—fanciful, mental, or physical—where you can lose your self at last.”—Annie Dillard, An American Childhood
Snow in the South happens in the night every three or so years, maybe once out of every five times it’s called for and rarely ever lives up to the panic its forecast usually inspires. Grocery stores are sacked for milk and bread and eggs as if doing so will appease some vengeful god, and usually it seems to work. We wake up, there’s white stuff on the ground, by noon the sun is out and it’s 45 degrees and the next day we’re shedding our sweaters at noon again. Of course a lot of idiocy transpires in the meantime because SNOW IS MAGIC especially when you’re never sure when it’s coming again. But until it’s on the ground there is a very real feeling it will not ever be on the ground.
At least this is how it was where I grew up in Tennessee and in Atlanta where I live now, where yesterday hundreds of kids and teachers got trapped in schools and thousands of motorists got stuck on roads and interstates as an otherwise seemingly routine snowstorm (yes, snowstorm! it was a storm and it was snow and we call this a snowstorm) dropped down over the city. Of course to those on the outside, especially to the northeast region of the outside, this is just laughable dogpatch weaksauce (snowshaming, it’s real!). And to many inside the ice-crust bubble there is a lot of (mostly warranted, I think) anger about insufficient infrastructure and transportation policy and government-directed preparedness, etcetc. But there’s a particular psychological element here that, while I don’t think it should bear responsibility for how all this went down, is worth considering anyway, as a factor.
Even yesterday when the first flakes were coming down (before they landed, half-melted, then immediately froze again) I was like, “Yeah, OK, this is happening, but it’s not really happening, nothing is going to be happening.” (If you, like me, are a certain kind of snow-appreciating person in the South there is a real element of heart-guarding in all this—the disappointment from unwarranted snow excitement buildup can be stupidly crushing!) I left work early but mostly because I was psyched about picking up some sandwiches and working from home the rest of the afternoon, and I was worried only because I know how people down here get when there is white stuff in the air, even just a little. I was more worried about how people would react to the nonevent than I was about the possibility of the nonevent actually being an event.
A week or two ago, one Sunday night when “snow” was “vaguely” in the “forecast” for Monday, I was out at Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market, looking for a can of chickpeas, and the canned food aisle had been totally decimated; when I heard other customers muttering about the weather being on the way, I got a little panicked and grabbed a few cartons of soup, just in case. This time I did nothing—fool me once, etc. If I’d been even slightly less eye-rolly yesterday, I might still be out in my car somewhere. Many people still are. What a mess. Stay safe, everybody. Except you snowshamers—I hope each of you bust your coccyx on black ice in front of a large crowd of people who you were desperately hoping to impress, and then they all just laugh at you and leave you there weeping.
“"The world has signed a pact with the devil; it had to. The terms are clear: if you want to live, you have to die; you cannot have mountains and creeks without space, and space is a beauty married to a blind man. The blind man is Freedom, or Time, and he does not go anywhere without his great dog Death. The world came into being with the signing of the contract. This is what we know. The rest is gravy." I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times. The only thing I could swear to is that the writing here leaves something to be desired. "What’s going on here?" is one of the author’s refrains. "The creator loves pizzazz," she answers herself.”—New York Times | Eudora Welty reviews Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) // Underrated: critics flatly admitting their utter bemusement.
“To my mind, a story’s ending ought to acknowledge the ever-moving quality of life; that is, I want it to engage change rather than finality. Your final word and the void following it on the page are as close as you’ll get to conclusion. The best endings to stories have a sense of hovering in space and time; even a dark ending can be uplifting, exhilarating, as long as it seems to hover in space and time — because then it reflects life to us as it is: unresolved, eternally unresolvable.”—Work in Progress | Nelly Reifler, “Endings That Hover”
“If I belong anywhere, it probably isn’t in publishing. But, then, I keep forgetting that this sense of dissatisfaction explains why work is called “work.” Like the teenager I was and in some ways still am, I grouse about and make fun of what I have to do and the people who tell me I have to do it, even when those people are me.”—Vulture | Daniel Menaker, “A Look at the Book Business From the Inside”
Vitamins. Memory foam. Air purifiers. Snuggie. Leggings. House shoes. Wool socks. Sports bras.
Crater Lake. Redwoods. A rickety houseboat in Charleston harbor. Glow-in-the-dark cemetery crosses on a hillside in middle Tennessee. Asheville gay bar karaoke. Flannery O’Connor’s Hotpoint refrigerator. Blood Mountain the night of the day after Thanksgiving, two bear cubs crossing the road.
Friends. Friends with dogs. Friends of friends becoming friends. Friends having babies. Friends that are babies.
Also I met a clammer named Dave, spent some time in Dayton, Tenn., talked to a bunch of young country music people and thought about hunger, literal and figurative, but you’ll have to wait for 2014 for all that.
HIDDEN BONUS TRACK: What I Didn’t Write, 2013
I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but late last year I decided that I would have written a book by the end of 2013. Or, a “manuscript” I guess is what you call it, a thing that wants to be a book but doesn’t yet exist in its intended form. The plan was to write one piece a month for twelve months and by the end of the next December a book would sit in place of what had once been nothing but vague rectangular yearning. As 2013 rolled in I was very pleased with myself for coming up with this. This undertaking I had dreamed my whole literate life of undertaking suddenly seemed so easy! Which should have been my first indication that things would not go as planned.
In June, when I finally felt as if I had finished what-would-be-the-book’s first piece, the goal still seemed attainable, the timeline just… compressed? But not discouragingly so! Here now in December, I somehow don’t feel all that bad about what now has only a few hours to not be a complete failed promise. At first I thought the problem was that a year was not enough time to write a book, and then I wondered if a year was too much time to write a book—maybe I had allotted myself too many minutes to potentially be diverted into some other non-book-writing activity? Maybe if I’d had less time I would have used it more wisely? Maybe, or maybe the answer is that this thing needs to happen on its own timeline, which will only reveal itself to me once I’m at the far end of it.
Not that the plan was a complete bust. I did write some part of what might one day become something, or maybe it won’t, but mostly what happened this year was I learned a number of boring but, ugh, apparently much-needed lessons about patience, pacing, rejection, drafting, revising, breathing, edit-taking, expectation-management, jealousy-management, and most importantly the various means by which to adjust Word and Google Docs windows to just about but not entirely block out the entire rest of the connected world. (Bless you, Freedom.) I learned a lot, but apparently not enough to not carry the goal over into 2014. I figure I can squeeze at least a year or two more out of it before it ascends to the level of neutered perma-resolution, a la “floss more.” We’ll see!
HEY, BUT ALSO
To anyone who read anything I wrote this year, or anything I wrote any other year, I would like to say a big sloppily earnest and sincere thank you. When I stop and think about it too hard or too long it starts to seem very strange that I would expect anyone to give up any amount of their precious finite life to sit and move their eyes over words on a screen or a page that I in turn spent possibly too much of my own precious finite life arranging and rearranging, and rearranging and rearranging. Very often this strikes me as possibly insane behavior, even when things are going very well. It can be easier to imagine writing into a deep black void, because that at least is a bottomless receptacle with no to-do list, no partner or children or parents or friends to spend time with and tend to, no job to do or dogs to walk or self to feed and take care of. I am never going to waste that void’s time. The void has time to spare. But I am always in danger of wasting yours. And the goal is to not do that. The goal is to make that time better, or at least not worse. I hope I have. At the very least, I’m very grateful to have been given a chance.
Last month, I spent two days shadowing a local veterinarian for a story. I don’t have any pets of my own and when I was a kid my mom always took care of our dogs’ vet visits, so even though Going To The Vet is a totally normal thing most people do, it was all totally new and foreign to me. One thing I learned about veterinarians is that they spend a not inconsiderable amount of time with their fingers up various animals’ anuses. I had never seen a dog or cat’s glands expressed before but now I have seen many. Many many many. You have perhaps never lived until you have looked into the eyes of an unsuspecting beagle as it gets its funky butthole squoze. And I don’t know if this is standard operating procedure, but this particular veterinarian, after she has done her rubber-gloved thing, reaches for a squirt bottle of store-brand Listerine. It helps clean up The Area and, via inevitable licking, freshens the animal’s breath. Brilliant! It was only a few days later that I realized the potential complications in my own personal life. Joe and I were getting ready for work one morning—me in the bedroom, him in the bathroom—when I was hit with a distinctly astringent waft that nearly brought me to my knees. I steadied myself and peeped into the bathroom, where Joe was re-shelving his bottle of store-brand Listerine, grimacing and swishing away. How many times will my freshly mouthwashed husband have to kiss me before I no longer associate the smell of his gingivitis-free gums with sad doggy eyes and sad doggy butts? I’ll keep you posted.
“When life gave Ephron lemons, in other words, she made a giant vat of really good vodka-spiked lemonade and invited all of her friends and her friends’ friends over to share it, and gossip, and play charades. Whereas when life gave Joan Didion lemons, she stared at them for several months, and then crafted a haunting bit of prose about the lemon and orange groves that were razed and paved over to make Hollywood, in all of its sooty wretchedness—which is precisely what this mixed-up world does to everything that’s fresh and young and full of promise.”—Bookforum | Heather Havrilesky, “Slouching Toward Neck Trouble”
Hello! Here are some reading event things I would like to tell you about.
This Friday, December 6, my good buddy Austin L. Ray is appearing at True Story! at Kavarna in Decatur at 8 PM. Other folks are also appearing but I don’t know them so I can’t vouch but, duh, this night is always fun and you will have fun if you come to it.
And then next Wednesday, December 11, I’m battling at Write Club Atlanta at the Highland Ballroom at 9 PM. My topic is “REAL” (narwhals may be involved). I’ve picked The Wren’s Nest’s KIPP Scribes as my honoree, should I emerge victorious. Many other good folks will be duking it out as well. There is… well, I almost said “there is a gong” but I don’t know if that’s actually true anywhere outside my own brain, but hopefully!
If you find yourself in Atlanta on either or both nights, you’d do well to stop by. Better than this grumpy lil doc, for sure.
“This anxious double consciousness—it’s not me/it will be me—may be part of the price we pay for living with, and around, machines. Whenever we enter a moving vehicle, for example, or a plane, haven’t we always, already, in our minds, crashed and become corpses? Even before receiving our salty pretzels we see ourselves screaming and praying, falling through the sky, incinerated. And if we’re in that Warholian moment, everything else is false advertising. That’s another ongoing attraction of Warhol: whenever it’s strongly implied that we are going to live forever (almost every ad, TV show, and magazine—in-flight or otherwise—does this) we can think of Andy (who used the commercial language of these mediums) and know, deep in our naked selves, that it isn’t true.”—The New York Review of Books | Zadie Smith, “Man vs. Corpse”
“I guess there are lots of ways to get married. Some people marry someone they hardly know – which can work out, too. When you marry your best friend of many years, there should be another name for it. But the thing that surprised me about getting married was the way it altered time. And also the way it added a tenderness that was somehow completely new. To paraphrase the great Willie Nelson: “Ninety percent of the people in the world end up with the wrong person. And that’s what makes the jukebox spin.” Lou’s jukebox spun for love and many other things, too – beauty, pain, history, courage, mystery.”—Laurie Anderson’s Farewell to Lou Reed
Shoe review! These arrived at my house yesterday in a giant DSW.com bubble mailer that declared “HIGHLY ADDICTIVE CONTENTS INSIDE” which disgruntled me because for some wacky reason I thought I could perform the simple act of purchasing a much-thought-about pair of boots without being implicated in some garish stereotype of late-capitalist femininity. Perhaps because of this I was uncertain about the shoes last night, but after this morning’s walk/train-commute to work the verdict is THUMBS UP. The soles are hard in a pleasing way, the inside bits are not rubby, the eyes make a distant plasticky rattling sound so when I am walking it sounds like there is a kitten playing with a jingle-bell toy just off in the next room somewhere. I remain appalled by the idea of wearing them in the manner suggested here, but I guess it’s nice to know that’s an option. Overall they are the ideal combination of Cool 1995 (Angela Chase) and My 1995 (Laura Ingalls Wilder). My Little So Called Life On The Prairie. I approve of these shoes.
“The year I was a freshman cheerleader I was reading 1984. I was fourteen years old then and failing algebra and the fact that I was failing it worried me as I would worry now if the Mafia were after me, or if I had shot somebody and the police were coming to get me. But I did not have an awful lot of time to brood about this. It was basketball season then, and there was a game nearly every night. In Mississippi the schools are far apart, and sometimes we would have to drive two hundred miles to get to Panola Academy, Sharkey-Issaquena, funny how those old names come back to me; we’d leave sometimes before school was out, not get home till twelve or one in the morning. I was not an energetic teenager, and this was hard on me. Too much exposure to the high-decibel world of teen sports—shrieking buzzers, roaring stomping mob, thunderous feet of players charging up the court—kept me in a kind of perpetual stunned condition; the tin-roof echo of rural gymnasiums rang through all my silences, and frequently at night I woke in a panic because I thought a player was crashing through my bedroom window or a basketball was flying at me, about to knock my teeth out.”—Donna Tartt, “Team Spirit” (via)
Elliott Smith died ten years ago Monday. This fact means a lot of different things to a lot of different people; for me, it means that it has also been just about ten years since the first time I published a piece of “music writing,” which is not something I used to put quotes around but now increasingly feel the need to do. I had been writing about music and pushing it out into the world through LiveJournal entries and self-made webpages for years and years before October 2003, but there was something about a byline, even just in a tiny liberal arts college’s tiny weekly student newspaper, that changed how I thought about myself—as a writer, as a person. It would not be entirely accurate to say that I was an Elliott Smith fan at the time of his death; I was more familiar with his general belovedness than any of his albums. That week I went to one of my first newspaper staff meetings and when the Arts & Entertainment editor asked if anyone had story ideas I chirped something about Elliott Smith having died and that possibly meriting some kind of tribute. The idea wasn’t to write the story myself, because I didn’t think I deserved to write it myself; it had more to do, probably, with seeming cool (and useful, and smart) to the rest of the staff, these people who I thought were so cool—they were all upperclassmen and knew their way around campus and had long-standing in-jokes and knew how to put together a newspaper, all of these things I was desperate to fathom and have as parts of my own self. I figured they already knew that Elliott Smith had died and that one or more of them had a wrenching, heartfelt ode set to run—but (not that I would have recognized or copped to this at the time) I just wanted them to know that I knew, too. Shockingly, they did not know, not one of them. And so I found myself in the position of having to explain not only that this person had died, but who he was to begin with. I left the meeting with the assignment. What I wound up writing was maybe an ode, at most half heartfelt and probably only wrenching because I had no idea what I was doing but was trying so hard to know. The newspaper was print-only then so it’s not online now, and even though it’s probably sitting in an accordion folder at my house or my parents’ house I haven’t yet felt brave or stupid enough to go dig it out. Having said that, now I guess I have to. Anyway, I am feeling pretty great about not lobbying harder to digitize the newspaper once I crawled my way up to editor a few years later.
It’s not entirely a coincidence that this week, ten years after all that, I sent some emails to a couple friends and a couple editors telling them that I think I am going to take a break from “music writing” for a while. This is not the result of some fit of pique; I’ve been thinking about it for months now. And with all the stuff coming up about the tenth anniversary of Elliott Smith’s death, I was thinking about him and where I was then, and that first “real” thing I wrote, which now seems to have happened on the far side of a vast gulf. Music writing hasn’t been the core of what I “do” for years—not since I was at Paste, really, and even then it was not all I did—but for some time it was the main thing and the thing that, if anyone knew of me, they probably knew me for that. I have been described as “a music writer” more than any other kind of writer, and for some time I thought of myself primarily as one, even when I was writing (as I still do) about many other sorts of things. In part I never felt like shrugging off the title even when it seemed misapplied because it was something I had wanted for so long and for so long never thought I would actually be able to claim.
“I’m not saying that the writer’s voice is always the highest standard; only that a lot of writers who are fine stylists and whose work I love wouldn’t make it past a contemporary copy editor armed with the Chicago Manual, including some of the greatest writers and stylists of the 19th and 20th century. It’s not as if we’re the French, with the Academy, striving to keep the language pure—fine to correct honest mistakes, but quite apart from questions of punctuation and grammar—of using punctuation and grammar for cadence—English is such a powerful and widely spoken language precisely because it’s so flexible, and capacious: a catchall hybrid that absorbs and incorporates everything it comes into contact with. Lexical variety, eccentric constructions and punctuation, variant spellings, archaisms, the ability to pile clause on clause, the effortless incorporation of words from other languages: flexibility, and inclusiveness, is what makes English great; and diversity is what keeps it healthy and growing, exuberantly regenerating itself with rich new forms and usages. Shakespearean words, foreign words, slang and dialect and made-up phrases from kids on the street corner: English has room for them all. And writers—not just literary writers, but popular writers as well—breathe air into English and keep it lively by making it their own, not by adhering to some style manual that gets handed out to college Freshmen in a composition class.”—Donna Tartt