love is the opposite of hygiene. weekly-ish essays on crying in public and other stuff like that.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018 

long distance

Thomas is on his way to the airport and I’m staying here. In Paris it’s raining and the hotel room is a box with a white bed in it, slung below windows between the backs of other buildings. The rain makes the city the idea of the city, all water-stained ivory buildings with their long grand windows and balconies blinking down damp avenues. In New York it’s going to snow and I’m hoping Thomas’ flight will be delayed because I am essentially selfish and want him here longer and don’t want to have to think about him flying into snow, about landing conditions and the freezing body of water bounding the airport at JFK. 

But mostly I want him here longer because his being here drags out vacation, extends the part of life that isn’t real. Vacation is the way the buildings here are lit up in the brief bright part of the long afternoon; vacation is thinking how beautiful a city is without digging down to think about how it got that way. Even in new buildings here you see Haussmann’s echoes, as though everyone is the ancestor of the same violence. The maintenance of beauty is, in general, always a function of violence. Vacation is a short time when you get to think about beauty without thinking about violence.

You meet those people all the time who say they’re traveling to find the real place, whichever esoteric destination is currently the trendy place people go in order to prove to everyone who follows their instagram that they aren’t a tourist. These people are seeking the gritty and ugly and undisguised, authenticity, the place that locals keep for themselves, what life feels like in the true rhythms beyond the holidays. 

I am extremely suspicious of anyone who says this stuff. If you wanted authenticity, you wouldn't take a vacation. If you wanted reality, you would stay home and do your taxes, check your credit score, call people to whom you’ve done slight, avoidant wrongs and have difficult conversations with them about whether you might be able to regain their trust, click open a new browser tab late at night and, because the thought isn’t letting you sleep, look up what your options would be if you had to put your parents in assisted living, price out your savings budget for eventual tragedies and then sit there silent through the blue-screen hour of the night staring into the middle distance, up against the reckoning with how selfish you are willing to be, with what you think you might do if your mom started forgetting your name. You would let your mind wander over to predictive math about whether you or your partner is most likely to die first. You can do all of these things at home. No secret fight club in a basement in Slovenia or house party in a neighborhood the Styles section hasn’t written about yet will ever be a fraction as authentic an experience as counting out change at the bodega on your own block, hungover and bored with the routine of yourself on a Sunday morning. The only reason to travel is escapism; that’s the the only thrill it offers. The only desire expressed by going elsewhere is to escape these dull-heart rate concerns, these mute and ceaseless daily terrors. Travel is the hope to experience the world as obliterative, the clean and unladen opposite of the self. Most travel is vacation. Vacation offers unquestioned beauty, so pure you could drink it out of your two hands. 

A long distance relationship is a vacation, too. When Thomas and I first were dating, the weekends he visited and the weeks I went to Atlanta to see him were unmarked time, free spaces; nothing counted and everything was allowed. I ate things I know make me sick and didn’t email anyone. To some degree all romance is escapism, is a vacation. It’s using someone else to block out the light, substituting the obligations of your schedule for the minutiae of their presence. People warn you about turning a long distance relationship into a short distance one and then into cohabitation, that the expectations of long-distance won’t be able to the reality of actually seeing the person each morning, nothing special, the opposite of vacation. I haven’t found this to be wholly true - up close and continuously present, individuals are stranger and more fascinating, more likely to give up secrets and show their soft underbellies, more willing to let down their guard and surprise you. 

But I also have never resolved the fact that as love continues we see the absolutely mundane, the unspectacular, the quotidian details of a person, that they to some unavoidable degree cease to be a vacation and become a schedule. A hotel room is a hotel room because it is blank and contains nothing of oneself; the reason my own home can never feel like a hotel is not because I can’t make it clean enough or don’t own high enough thread count sheets. It’s because my own home, no matter how clean, contains reminders of things I’ve done and forgotten to do, receipts and holiday cards and dishes in the sink, items bought in bulk that I bought myself, stains and dents and traces of my own body in this space over and over again before now, making meaning by repeated action, doing things that can’t be taken back. Building a life is the process of accumulating permanent things, of making choices from which we have no escape, of repeating the same patterns until they come to define us. We do this mostly in a few same repeated spaces and those spaces gather consequence like a smell. Travel allows the pretense that we could be rewritten, that there are no actions that can’t be taken back and nothing that can’t be shrugged out of like a jacket.

A while ago I wrote this essay about living alone as a woman. The point was, mostly, that living alone is a luxury. Rather than something we blessedly escape when we get into a serious relationship, loneliness is something we give up. I love living with Thomas, but not living alone is a sacrifice I have made for the purpose of being with him. It’s one I have found worth it, but a sacrifice nonetheless. The thing is that there’s no way to stop the process once it starts; I can stay here by myself while he flies home, but being alone is not so simple as being in a room by myself. His presence still paints the edges of everything brighter and makes the air softer outside, and his absence still dulls the light and makes it more tempting to stay inside and do nothing. This is also a sacrifice, a bargain we make when we love someone. We allow them to leech some of the unfiltered joy out of experiences we otherwise could have had without imagining them there with us. We allow them to crowd into our experience even in absence, we give up the hoarded space of loneliness, the self-sufficiency of not wanting more than exactly what is present.

Thomas is on a plane now (I didn’t get my wish, it wasn’t delayed). His good face at the door at the end of every afternoon is like vacation. It briefly shuts out the ticking off of schedules and the accounting of clutter and errands. At the end of every day this summer, we met up on the steps of the big museum near us, and sat with our legs folded up and drank iced coffee and ate bodega popsicles and watched the cabs go by until the view of the long flat avenue lit up into hazy purple dusk. I felt like a tourist in the best way, seeing beauty without seeing its violence, loving the city along its surface, without obligation. We walked home and our same life closed up around us. This dullness without him, the inability to access the self-contained energy of being alone, is worth it, but the trade is a material one, with weight and regret and substance.

The night my parents moved in together, my dad came home to find my mom gone; after a frantic search he eventually found her at a bus station, and talked her back home. They are open about their relationship and the difficulties of it, and have turned almost every other story into something funny, an anecdote you can tell at parties. They have never succeeded at making that story funny when they tell it. I understand it, though. So much of love is agreeing to be constantly seen, to be present again and again, to let another person’s failings matter as much as one’s own do. In the face of all that I understand the impulse to disappear.

Other people are from beginning to end a massive inconvenience. That’s what we agree to, from answering a DM, to going on a date, to moving in with someone, to getting married, we are saying, I agree to be inconvenienced by you. I agree to let you make things partial and absent and lacking, to carve out spaces where you fit and leave them empty when you go, to make it matter whether or not I come home, to give up the times when I step out of a party to text you, the times when I stay where the wifi is until I know your plane has landed. 

I have hated flying since I have been with Thomas, because it matters now if the plane crashes, it matters if something goes wrong. Last year when I was on the same flight Thomas is on right now, flying home alone to an airport where he was waiting, the person in the seat next to me had marked his place in the book he was reading with a note that said holding you tight. I love you. Airplanes knock us, chemically, into a higher emotional gear. It is easier to cry on a plane, easier to feel things. One’s blood pressure literally rises. But also the structure of air travel, which is entirely beginnings and endings, ratchets up emotion. It’s our coming-home gratitude for one another, that white-knuckled long prayer just let the plane land safely so I can touch you again. Agreeing to live up against someone and yet still love them is agreeing to live with an airplane heart, constantly aware of the possibility of loss, alert with hope and worry, unable to disappear into the hotel room comforts of low stakes, anonymity, and convenience. 

On the flight here, Thomas held my hand when I was scared of turbulence and his heartbeat caught up to mine, our pulses against each other, the joints of fingers and edges of palms lining up, the seams of us promising we were still here together, humming in time. Holding you tight. I love you.

Monday, January 8, 2018 

failure (new Griefbacon no. 1)

hi everybody. welcome to the new version of griefbacon. As I mentioned on tinyletter last night, you’re now receiving this letter through substack, a subscription newsletter service that’s also providing griefbacon with its own home on the internet (most of the archives of the tinyletter are here, if you want to read through those). This letter is free to everybody who subscribed to the tinyletter (hi everyone!) but starting Thursday with the first subscriber letter, the letters will only go to people who’ve subscribed. If you subscribe, you’ll get a new letter Thursday, and then one every Tuesday going forward. You can subscribe for $5/month or $50/year, here (or simply by clicking the “Subscribe” button at the top or bottom of this email). (If $5/month is truly prohibitive but you still want to subscribe, email me and we’ll work something out.) 

I started this newsletter a little over two years ago on a weird, jealous whim late at night in a room at the Holiday Inn in New Hampshire. I was there because I was working with a high school student on their college admissions essays, back when tutoring high school students through the college admissions process was still my job. It was the last few days of October and way up here north of the city, fall had erupted like ad for sweaters and someone else’s family. Out the window were trees like fire on display in a jar, and across the parking lot was a road a few turns off the interstate and a mall with a sprawling liquor store and a bad chinese takeout place. It felt like home - not like it was my home, or that I was at home there, as neither was true, but that this was what home was, somehow, supposed to feel like. The place seemed to say that if I could work back correctly, unraveling all my wrong choices one by one, I would arrive at a childhood resembling the one of the student I was tutoring, stepping out of a warm car into cold air and ordering takeout to bring home through a whorl of bright leaves to a large house whose lights shone slick against cooing autumn darkness. 

The hotel room was cheap and anonymous but in the way where sometimes cheap anonymity is the only thing that feels like being able to sleep, the white paper-textured sheets and recessed lighting of a day with no emails, like a sunday when no one expects you anywhere. I was teaching writing all day but not writing myself, and on twitter so many people I knew were starting tinyletters, sending small paragraphs of heart-rending, un-pitch-able prose, family stories and recipes and album recommendations and lowkey erotica in little forward-marching scrolls of text that I’d read curled around my phone late at night while I couldn’t sleep. I was jealous of my students and I was jealous of everyone starting tinyletters and of everyone publishing essays, and of the world going on one bright achievement after another all around me. I wrote some paragraphs quickly, without looking, like muttering under my breath, told myself I didn’t have to edit it because no one would read it anyway, and hit send.

Personal essays, especially on a college application, are a relatively freeze-dried paint-by-numbers science. Warhol once did a series of Dance Diagram paintings that are exactly what they sound like - a copied dance diagram, numbered and labeled feet, shaded and not shaded, arrows from one step to the next - and also, arguably, a read on Jackson Pollock. All Warhol was ever really doing was shitposting, but as usual the burn itself is a better analysis than any breathless thing I could say about Pollock. Both simply point out where the body has been, tracing the path of footprints across a floor. Distill art down to its essence and that’s all it is: A record of a body in space, of where an individual is at a particular moment, a trace like a signature or a bloodstain that says I was here, I put my body here and then here and then here again. We are all printing onto the landscape; we are all photocopying our asses on the office copy machine late at night. 

Most of the prompts for college application essays ask for some version of a coming of age story. They ask about the transition from childhood to adulthood, or an event that defined the student’s life. Everything on these applications, from the long essay, to the shorter essay prompts that ask about why this school or where you grew up or what your major will be, is touched in triumphal optimism, marked by a sense of reaching upward, of grasping, a nigh-on religious belief in potential. Here you are, on the edge of the high diving board where your life begins, straining out into the whole sky. 

I didn’t go see Ladybird because I am tired of thinking of this as a meaningful experience. I don’t mean tired figuratively. I mean that from the age of 18 to the age of 32 I threw my energy again and again at the idea that this one moment in life, this singular pivot, contained a universe of human experience, a key to the grandeur and smallness and redemption of who we are and how we live with one another in the world. I lived up against the idea that the move out of high school into college, in all its stepping out into nothing, free of cages, fat with youth, full of the ground-floor certainties of the singular self, was some apex experience, some deeply human thing, the living embodiment of the welling in the chest at the end of a movie, the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” floating valedictory across the first bright green day of summer. 

In truth, few people attend college at all, and even fewer attend the kind of college that requires a triumphant and heavy-worded admissions essay, as much as novels and television and movies that take up coming of age stories love to use this as a plot device. It is a form pointed toward an utterly myopic experience, one that excludes far more than it includes. But more than that, human existence does not proceed along the lines of hopeful narrative. Perhaps saturation with these essays is the reason I mostly can’t stand personal writing about achievements, writing whose arc bends toward the light, whose narrator is also the hero, whose good deeds are rewarded. The whole college application is a murderously hopeful document, and hope is the most mercenary emotion, the struck-match trick of salespeople and con artists and politicians, leaving the door unlocked at night, risking everything in a game to which no one told us the rules.

There’s a prompt among the other essay prompts - or at least there was, I haven’t tutored the application in over a year so it might not be there anymore - that asks students to write about a time they experienced failure. Almost no one writes this essay successfully. The prompt is gesturing toward a good essay or even a great one, but it’s asking an unfair high-wire act, to at once promote yourself and show your soft underbelly, to draw a map to where the bodies are buried that’s also a picture of your own face. 

This is perhaps too much to ask of a student simply trying to execute a required task, but this ugliness is where personal writing is useful, if it ever is useful. Autobiography justifies itself in our failures. These are different from our traumas. The idea of writing - or making any kind of art, or simply relating as people - from failure is not at all the same as the (luckily largely outmoded) form of the essay in which spilling one’s guts gains supposed value simply through the volume and vividness of guts spilled. Traumas, in point of fact, are often part of triumphant narratives - eventually we overcome the worst things that happen to us because we have to, because we have no choice but to continue day by day. In the face of trauma, even getting up in the morning is a story about triumph, a salesperson’s tag line about hope. Failures are the things that happen in the margins, outside of the stories, at the edges of the day, in the constant pauses from one word to the next, the connective tissues that underline our lives. They are what the traumas leave behind in the wake of our triumphs against them. Failures are slowness, misunderstanding, muddled readings, the hours in the middle of the night when we can’t sleep but can’t get anything else done either. These moments don’t make good stories because they don’t proceed forward clearly, they go in circles, they stay indoors, they lie down again on the couch to sleep. 

Which is why this thing is called Griefbacon. The term is a popular - and therefore probably at least imperfect, if not wholly incorrect - translation of the German word kummerspeck, which means “the weight gained due to grief,” or something like that. I love this word because it stinks of a humiliating accuracy. Grief, a serious, high-minded emotion; bacon, a stupid, greasy, embarrassing food. Most profound emotional experiences are something like farting in church. They don’t lend themselves to triumphant writing, to polished edges. Grief is the way the house smells like food and sweat when you haven’t gone outside for three days, the sour edges of the sheets when you can’t get out of bed, the braying, heavy-bodied wants that emerge at the bottom floor of the night desperate and undressed, the self that refuses to be staged for a photo, that refuses to aspire upward to a neat concluding paragraph. 

There’s a weird sort of swagger to full-throated loss and abject failure. If there was often a neediness, a pleading, to every first draft essay that focused on the upward progression from one achievement to the next, there’s something almost proud, something nearly stylish, about giving up and letting ourselves go, offering the stories we know will impress no one, digging back to ourselves out from under the mound of resume and job title and family dinner table anecdote. What is stupid and embarrassing, small and weak and boring about us is all that is good about us. Failure is the dance diagram, the noisy splatters of paint that become a canvas, the real record of ourselves, where we’ve been and how we got to where we are, the things we tell each other late at night, after everyone else has gone to sleep, after everyone else at the party has gone home.

anyway, hi again. thanks for following over here to the new version of this newsletter. once again, to get future letters, you’ll need to subscribe here (or at Subscribe button right below this), and those will go out this Thursday, and then weekly every Tuesday. I hope to see you there. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017 


Last week was the fifteen year anniversary of the day I moved to New York. I meant to write something about that, but a couple weeks earlier, I read Chris Adrian’s “The Great Night," and it just absolutely put me on the floor. “The Great Night” is set in San Francisco and it is impossible to overstate how much it got me in my feelings about that city. So anyway, here’s a letter about San Francisco. The Great Night is very good, please read it, please go buy it right now, please read it instead of this letter if you have to only do one for some reason.
I grew up just outside San Francisco, in an archipelago of beautiful towns set in mountains around the bay, a place where dusk comes in as slow as a movie and the nighttime air is kind the entire year. It was a place absolutely convinced that beauty is both sufficient and sustainable. My parents had moved there when I was a very young kid, leaving New York for a job offer and for the view of the water from a deck in Sausalito on a single day that had convinced them to uproot their lives. I planned to leave as soon as I was old enough to plan things; my whole fantasy of my future took place elsewhere.
Things get into our foundations and take root when we aren’t careful with them; all proximities turn into intimacies if you let them go unchecked long enough. While I talked about how much I wanted to leave, some part of me was memorizing street signs and printing for safekeeping the image of how the bright orange bridge throws itself cleanly over the water, the geometry of hills and boats and sunlight, quietly filing away the assumption that San Francisco was a place I could eventually come back to and know as an adult, that I might, one day, after making a life for myself elsewhere, finally understand why Tony Kushner set Angels in America’s vision of heaven in this grey, wrong-angled place that I drove into with my mom on weekends.
But of course, the version of San Francisco that Kushner wrote about doesn’t exist anymore, and neither does the one I grew up next door to. I thought eventually the things that were stubbornly unreachable when I lived just outside the city as a child would unwind and soften, and show their hinges, offer the doorframe spaces where the light gets through. I was young enough and coddled enough when I left to still believe that we get everything back, that simply once having had something is a guarantee of being able to return it, that nothing disappears when we turn our backs.
I can't talk about what happened just before I left because I am in my thirties now and still don’t know the details, but all you really need to know is that the place where we'd lived wounded my family badly enough that they never went back. I had a relatively uneventful childhood that ended abruptly when something went very very suddenly wrong and a lot of things came crashing down at once; they were things that had to do with money, because every disaster does, in one elemental way or another. I grew up living in a big house just outside the city and then for a few months before I went to college we didn’t really live anywhere at all.
It is just as big a loss to never forgive something as to have something refuse to forgive you, and at times the two things seem indistinguishable. San Francisco turned from the promise of a childhood outside reality, in which I was often unsatisfied because I did not know enough to be grateful, to the hard limits of the world and its unjust bargains. I do not have enough money to know or to love the place I grew up intending to keep with me, the place I would come back to if I came back the way people are supposed to come back their childhood homes, the bedrooms and driveways in which they were first young. The place of lushly decrepit parks and sunlight that filters the wrong way through leaves, a city whose resting places I could never find, whose stillness eluded me, disappeared by the time I was old enough to navigate it, and taught me that in the end beauty always has a price tag on it, even if it stays hidden for a while, even if it makes its sales pitch for free, and breaks your heart with it.
I still know all the names of places there, in the way that living somewhere becomes its own language, so that the street names and park names, the place markers, the things on maps, becomes stories rather than directions, placeholders for feelings and memories, rather than simply the way to get from here to there. After that one big crisis, I burrowed into its geography, its salt-weathered myths, its disappearing places, loss coloring in between the lines, so I noticed the heft and warp of the things I had always passed smoothly over before. The map became a body, with all the pain and consequences of a body, with all a body’s limits and grossness, fallibility and miracles, all its potential to ladder to a life full of nexts and promises. I’d spent so much time trying to get out and away, backwards to the east coast, on to the cut-cloth rest of my life, past this seam where the zipper stuck, but just before I left, the place was lit up electric, shot through with the gratitude that loss engenders.
Thomas and I went back two years ago for a wedding; we complained about it ceaselessly until the moment we got off the plane and were swallowed up by sunlight that was familiar in an expansive, stunning way I could not possibly explain to him, like the feeling after crying for a long time and then taking a shower, like waking up to the revelation of my own stupid skin, still here and whole and keeping all my blood inside one more morning. I hadn’t been back in years, but when my phone died I refused to use Thomas’ or stop and buy a charger and made him let me navigate us from the airport to our hotel in Sausalito by memory. And I did it, and it felt like the closest thing I will in this lifetime experience to time travel, talking us through the right place to change lanes, the right time to ease from the highway onto city roads. I still knew how to find the city’s arteries, which streets went which way and which lane of the freeway would take us over the bridge. The Rainbow Tunnel still had a rainbow on it and the many-laned convergence that ran under the Presidio was still chalky gray and overhung with dinosaur green and still made me feel like coming back from the beach at the end of the day or coming home from a school field trip. When we got to Sausalito it was very quiet and the buildings were so small that I felt like I had grown into something fantastical, striding down the street come home like a victorious monster, dragging the spoils of war, which was really just my suitcase, which was over-packed and messy, and revealed I hadn’t turned into any kind of fancy grown up after all.
The truth, the thing that I don’t want to admit, is that what broke my heart was not the difference but the sameness. I talk a lot about how the way I lost San Francisco coincided exactly with the invasion of the techlords, and how the place where I grew up is inaccessible not just because both I and my parents moved across the country and I have no reason to visit it but because it quite simply doesn’t exist anymore. All this is true, and yet at the same time, steering that car back through the small roads stuck amongst the redwoods and the fog and the casual billion-dollar views, what hurt most was how all of it was the same, how many coffee shops and parking lots were still there, how things smelled the same and the streets still went in the same direction and all the markers that taught me to drive once were still there, pointing the way to the empty center I still wanted to call home. I wanted the place to no longer exist, to have vanished off the face of the earth in any recognizable form, so that I did not have to confront the echo of how I had once loved it without even knowing I loved it, the way we love things when we are young enough to assume that because we love something, it will always be available to us. It was all still here, it just wasn’t for me, and maybe it never had been. This loss was about money, just like everything is, but it was also about the way that a life is built out of choices, and choices close down the other avenues of possible experience. I had built a life for myself, consciously or unconsciously, sometimes more by panic than by consideration, but I had built one, and it did not include this patrician, heart-familiar place where the fog rolled in in the same way it always had. Things remain, but the sacrifices they ask have weight and substance. California costs more than it used to, but the price is as figurative as it is literal.
As we drove back to the airport with the old radio station blaring and I put my feet up on the dashboard and across the Bay Bridge the hills beyond Oakland looked like bedsheets and like broccoli, I said that I wanted us to come back more, and I meant it, but I am also not surprised a few years later when we haven’t. I love this place, but not nearly enough to change my life for it, and that’s often how we lose things, how we shed things from our lives, what comes up against the limits of what we are willing to sacrifice, of how much we are willing to change.
It is so horrifically complicated to love a thing. It’s bad enough when the thing is a person, capable of at least potentially returning your love, capable of fighting back when you yell at it about its limitations, of dragging in notions of fairness and kindness to remind you that to love does not undo boundaries or inabilities. At least a person can get angry at you; at least a person can say that they fucked up, and then fall asleep next to you anyway. But most of the stuff we love isn’t actually people, although sometimes we try to make things easier by tying those things to people; we try to locate our love of a place, a color, a memory, a time in our lives, in a particular person so that we can follow it around and put our body against it and make it talk about its needs and give us a key to its house. Loving a place is extraordinarily stupid. A place exists to not love you back, and a place is fundamentally disloyal, utterly unbound to the moment in time in which it mattered to you.
I left San Francisco in 2002 in the middle the night, the way you sneak out of an apartment after a one night stand, the way you leave a party after everyone falls asleep and the host is in the kitchen cleaning up and won’t notice you closing the door. I drove home from a weird, bad night with the person I was dating, which I tried to cast in my mind as romantic and which in hindsight clearly wasn’t at all. I took the long way over the Bay Bridge just before the sun was rising, catching the light one last time at that moment when the sky and the water around the bridge are exactly the same color. I drove across the Oakland border and rounded the long arm of an empty freeway, taking the hill too fast, as the sun started to come up, and parked a car I would never drive again, and blearily packed to go to the airport for an early flight. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that doing things at the absolute last minute is a signal trait of the overly sentimental; the need to finish packing, to get in the car, overwrites what is otherwise an unmanageable surfeit of feeling. What am I meant to do with all of this time, with this place that will transform, that will paint over the map and pave over the secret doorways I made in it? Fifteen years ago today, I got on a plane to New York, and now when people ask, I tell them I’m from Manhattan.

hi friends. happy september 1st. I have couple new essays up here and here. here's another thing I wrote about california, which is maybe one of my favorite things I've ever published on the internet. as ever, you can support/tip this tinyletter here and, as ever, you don't have to. on monday, I'll probably send the letter I intended to write for this anniversary, which is more or less about new york and why a person might choose to stay there for fifteen years

Thursday, August 3, 2017 


Buddy is a great word. One of its primary forms it is a vicious “bless your heart” burn, a jovially cruel backslap. It is the natural father of the newer and endlessly cruel appellative “my dude.” "Buddy" is that asshole in line in front of you, that guy who won’t go back to his own conversation, my dude who thinks he needs to explain your own joke to you.
However, when applied to an animal, buddy is the tenderest word in this language. Calling an animal "buddy" means that I would give up my entire life to keep them safe. Years ago, I once heard one half of a couple call the other “buddy,” and my heart banged out of my chest and went scrambling across the floor like a small, spooked bird looking for shelter. I was in a relationship at the time and I nearly broke up with him right there because I knew we would never call each other buddy. It was a fully cohesive shorthand limited to only two people, one slow clicking minute together piled on the next and piled and piled again, love as triumph of continued proximity. "Buddy" is often non-sexual and non-romantic, but it makes the knowledge of another person outside of these supposedly privileged relationships just as big, just as important, just as precious and as hard-won as any romantic nickname.
What I am saying is that you should go read this essay that Patti Smith wrote about Sam Shepard after he passed away earlier this week. The piece is titled “My Buddy,” and it is an extraordinarily simple expression of a truly big love, a love as large as the dome of the sky out in the part of the country where nobody lives anywhere for miles. It's a love that feels like getting out of the car in this empty landscape and laying your body down against the warm pavement on the silent highway, and watching the bleached-out stars appear overhead in the daytime. Smith and Shepard were a couple, briefly, in New York in the 1970s. They tore through a wildfire affair like the relentless kick-in in one of Smith’s own songs. But for far, far longer after that they were friends. After their romance was long over, their names still went together. They were still famous for knowing and loving one another, still part of the other’s story. Smith’s essay lets us into this love, two buddies, silently growing old together with all their memories easy between them. 
The year before last I saw Patti play Horses from start to finish at a festival in London. Before the set began, she stood on stage wearing dark glasses and looked out across the assembled bodies crowding the park. “Don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not wearing these glasses because I’m trying to be cool. They’re prescription, but that means I can see really well, and I can see that there are some really cute guysback there.” I thought that maybe no one had ever managed to be as alive as she was. Then she played “Gloria,” and ripped out all our hearts. I was standing next to a group who might have been some of the guys she was talking about, jovial fratty types much younger than me. “Who’s this old lady?” one of them asked one of the others. By the end of the title track on Horses, they were openly weeping, screaming and jumping up and down.
My first few years in New York, I walked around with Horses screaming in my headphones. It made me feel like I had blood in my mouth; it made me feel like I could tear someone apart. It made me feel ten feet tall. I was sometimes embarrassed to listen to it in public, but I always did, and on winter days it kept off the cold better than any down-stuffed coat. Listening to Patti Smith was a means by which I found my way into the city; her vision of New York, imposed over the real place, gave me a foothold and persuaded me I could stay here, that I could try to make a life that felt like the way she said I'm gonna be so big at the end of “Piss Factory,” hungry, capacious, without limit.
I basically think that all art is escapism, and I question any art that isn’t or doesn’t want to be an escape. Escapism sounds irresponsible, burying one’s head in the sand. But what I mean by escapism is an enlargement of experience, a hope of a better world. Art at its best teaches us that there is something beyond our own meager experience, some option other than the limited and repetitive events of our own lives, some possible future other than the one dictated by our circumstance. It pulls us out of learned choreography and lock-step patterns. It tells us that the world is larger than ourselves. Reading Sam Shepard as a teen, and listening to Smith as a young adult, I was looking for art that put blood into the world, that would urge me to usefully endanger myself. Their language gave a shape to my desire to go away from the soft edges, to find the things that hurt, to live like a giant against the landscape.
I was a weird kid, like everybody who was ever a kid. I spent a lot of time isolated and had trouble delineating myself in terms of the people around me. It was very, very hard for me to see other people as people, and for a long time everything that happened out loud felt like a second language. It took me well into my twenties to learn how to just sit down with someone, how to listen, how to dull the panic that the presence of another human engendered. The first time I caught any awareness of my own capacity for desire, not even sex but just the body’s impulse toward it, was overwhelming and uncontrollable, like the deafening noise of putting one’s head underwater in a strong current. Even then it was clear that what was good about this great animal genius of our bodies’ ability to respond to other bodies was the fact that it felt like a disaster, the pure thrill of scene in the movie where the alien ship destroys the city. It was going and standing in the middle of a burning room. I wasn’t ready to face the part of myself that wanted to go and stand in the middle of burning rooms, so I confined it to fictional worlds and secondhand stories, accumulating unshared and unspeakable material.
This is how I ended up a suburban teenager who obsessively read everything Sam Shepard had ever written, who knew all of the words and the stage directions in Fool for Love and Cowboy Mouth from memory. In everything I read I was looking for a way back to myself through the opposite of myself. I wanted to know that things between people could be large and loud and impolite and bloody. Shepard’s vision of love, of America, of family, of how we accumulate wrongs and unspoken things, about the ways people fester and calcify and the nail-scratching-at-the-door attempts we make to evade those calcifications, was one of the texts with which I built my idea of a future adulthood, awful and huge-hearted, swaggeringly compassionate. I read his plays over and over again, the language threading through my skin, becoming part of the foundations, settling into my understandings of the things people made and did together.

Cowboy Mouth, the semi-autobiographical performed text he and Smith created about, or out of the material of, their relationship, is, like so much of the art I love, a very long subtweet. It feels like something we should not quite be watching, that we may be the literal audience but we aren’t the intended one, that we are secondary to what these two people are trying to say to each other. That relationship was an unknown place, somewhere to fling myself beyond the limits of my own experience. What I loved about it was that it was inaccessible. It was for them; it wasn't for me. As I guess it did for a lot of people, Sam and Patti’s relationship symbolized to me the possibility that love might not have to cancel out cool. These two people had found each other, just the way any two people might find each other, like any other small and unimportant couple, seeing each other on the street, following each other home. And at the same time, nothing like it, a glimpse of love as enacted by some unreachable alien species.
We like power couples because we want some proof that love will make us large rather than small, apparent rather than invisible. For many of us, in our parents’ relationships, in our own relationships, in a million bleakly comic cultural depictions, we’ve seen how love dwindles to the size of a soft couch in a room where the blinds are closed. Love makes it unnecessary to declare oneself to the world, and therefore makes it easy for the world to pass one by. If this is the mercy of love, its refusal of ambition, then it is also its terror, that burrowing into another person is a way to be forgotten. To pledge forever with someone reminds us how close we are to the end of the story, how little time we have left, that all that really stands between us and the void is a brief half-conscious nap, and we might as well spend it curled up with our head on the chest of someone who smells good and feels like home.
Through the celebrity couple, or the power couple, love instead becomes an exponential equation, each person increased by the power of the other. It becomes an underline rather than a highlight. It’s not that Shepard and Smith – old friends and former lovers and collaborators, high-billing characters in the great collective dream of New York in the black and white photograph 1970s, that time that exists most vividly in the minds of a bunch of people who weren't there – represented the past. It’s that they seemed like the past’s continuance into the future, its ability dwell in reality rather than in myth and HBO retellings. They were colossuses, but better than that, they were just two aging, softening people who called each other “buddy,” who who carried enough between them that they could sit silent, buoyed by a worn-smooth vocabulary. To spend that long loving someone else is to have invented the world together. Their friendship seems even more unlikely than their romance. It hints that the feeling you get when an old friend calls you “buddy” might carry you all way across your life.
I’d always imagined growing old not with a spouse but with the people I used to fuck. This kind of friendship was for as long as I can remember my favorite way of imagining old love. I imagined friendships, in particular those where the friendship had started with romance or sex or both, as the thing that would still be there at the end of the line, in the long sunset of our incapacitated bodies. My fantasy about almost everyone I have ever had any kind of relationship with has rarely been one of lifelong romance, marriage, or homemaking. Instead it has been one of friendship, that we would break past romance, and somehow still know each other. If sex or romance was an ocean, long friendship was the unknown land one reached on its other side. This sort of enduring, post-sex, post-romance friendship defeats the idea that sex or love is the be-all or end-all of human knowledge. A long friendship drains these more obvious ways of knowing of their power, allowing them to be just one more type of experience, just one more phase of changing love. Romance says we will always be in the storm; old love friendship says we might eventually sail through it and survive, that the things we accumulate might make us better rather than tearing us down, that we do not have to be mysteries to one another in order to love one another.
Last night I stayed up late trying to find a particular paragraph somewhere in all the long emails that I used to send with one of my best friends. I never found the paragraph, but I ended up reading back through years of our correspondence. In these emails, we relentlessly mythologize each other. One running joke, which we clearly do not think of as a joke at all, is the idea that one day we will be famous, and someone will read these emails because they are studying our lives. We frame ourselves, all the stupid little dumb and dirty and dishonest and hopeful and nerdy and totally banal little events of our lives, in terms of what these future scholars will think when they read what we're writing, far in the future, in a well-known published volume.
Very few of us will ever be famous, and even fewer of us will ever be so well-known that our personal correspondence becomes widely read. But fame is a word we use to talk about our desire for permanence. It's the way that old-love friendship makes us feel larger than ourselves, and how one way to love someone is to become their archive. It's a love that argues against our smallness in the universe, against our basic factual insignificance. Patti and Sam’s long friendship means so much to a bunch of strangers because they carried around each other's past, proof of one another in the world, their presence in the same place a form of time travel.
Drawing a line from the blood and teeth and steel boots of Cowboy Mouth to the quiet tenderness of "My Buddy" is perfectly simple, and yet overwhelms me with some feeling so large I can barely stand, like a soft and all-encompassing punch to the gut. These people made each other enormous, the size of cities, and at the same time they allowed each other to be small, a love that could feel endless because it was unimportant, just friendship. It made me want to love the people in my life in a way that might make us all feel famous, constantly eulogized and wholly known, our specificity lit up like a skyline, our old ugly loves splashed onto billboards and high school syllabi. In our ridiculous emails, my old buddy and I were hoping we might be what Sam and Patti really are, a model for the next people looking for how to do this, how to live gigantic, and how to sit silent together in all the soft archive of that gigantic living.

hi, friends. you really should read that patti smith essay if you haven't yet. you can, as always, support or tip this tinyletter here, or through my venmo if we're venmo buddies already. as always, it's equally ok to not do that. before all this happened I was planning to write something about Lana, and Lorde, and girl music for girls, and I might still do that next week. xo

Wednesday, June 28, 2017 


The summer after college I went to a party and met a dude who told me that recently he’d gone to Greece and, while staying on a remote island, noticed that there was a part of town where the buildings didn’t have windows on one side. The windowless sides of the buildings all faced a big hole in the ground, one of those dug-out blank spaces that appear in cities when something is midway through construction. But what distinguished this one was that no buildings looked at it; every wall purposely turned its face away. One night he got drunk and while walking home, he felt himself inexplicably drawn to the hole in the ground, the place from which all the buildings had closed themselves off. He stood at the edge, swaying in the breeze of his own nauseous body and felt an overwhelming urge to throw himself into the hole. He stood there transfixed, unable to pull himself away. Finally one of his friends called his name and it snapped him out of his reverie and he went home to sleep. He went back again the next night - the pull was stronger, he wanted to throw himself into the hole and could not possibly have explained why. The next day someone told him that the island was supposed to be where the sirens of old mythology had once lived, where their bones were buried. A few hours later, he decided to cut his stay short, and left.
This dude told me this story about the sirens to try to get me to sleep with him and I didn’t sleep with him and I’ve been using his story to explain my own sexuality to people ever since. I would say that this must suck for him except of course he has no idea that this is the case - how many of us have people like that, who have gone off into the world carrying puzzle pieces and anecdotes we thoughtlessly handed them, who have constructed themselves from our off-hand comments, from conversations over a few hours, our lives spinning at the vectors of brief and unsustainable interactions. Most of the people to whom you are truly important, on whom you truly had any real influence or impact, are people you don’t care about and whom you won't ever see again.
In the summer of 2012 I lived on Prospect Park West, down at the end of it where it stops being so rich, where the private front yards disappear and the grass gives up to sidewalk and the garbage cans lean visible smells against each other. I ruined my whole life that summer and no summer ever felt more like a summer than that one did. It still sings in echoes each time the weather comes back around, now, each year a reminder, each summer a cover song. I showed up at his house late at night, up the three floors of sweating green carpet in the hall, my tongue racing my heart up through my throat. Almost every night we stayed out until the page breaks at the edges of the day where the weather gets bearable, the places where the morning hoards the breezes and good responsible people aren’t yet awake. Every other week I took the green and gray bus out to the Hamptons to stay with a family whose kids I was tutoring; out there I borrowed a bike and rode around at the end of the day until it got dark, peering into other people’s summers, watching the green lawns turn blue, trying to get up close enough against lives utterly unlike my own that they might consume me, break me down into raw material, to the honest building blocks of rock-bottom self. I sat out in the backyard late at night after everyone had gone to bed, on the phone with this person who had set his life on fire for me, dreaming a future we could never have together. It’s been almost five years now since we spoke, my skin shedding and remaking itself, loading furniture and boxes of books into cars and driving over bridges and carefully composing text messages and paying bills and editing the document of a self until nothing remains of the original, until we are entirely new, unknown to one another, written out of consequence.
I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more beautiful than I did that summer in that sick love, in cut off shorts and long legs and sloppy little t shirts, unafraid of my own skin and so terrified of everything else that nothing could matter, living in a strange undressed room where the floors left splinters under my fingers, and how my roommates must have hated me and how I didn’t care, measuring out my value against how someone was willing to undo himself for me. All I cared about was the way doing that something wrong with someone else feels more like being truly alone with them than it ever does any other time. We all want to be secret, a secret country with a secret map, we all want the miracle of discovering that some random stranger walking around out in the streets and going to work and coming home and checking their phone has our key codes, can turn all the locks. We want to be made to feel at once unknowable and known. Mostly our bodies are boring, bounded, factual and finite, just bodies, moving from place to place, powering up and shutting down. And yet these meat sacks contain our capacity for the unspeakable, the infinite, the promise of greater wonder that arrives in the moment when we are not comprehensible to ourselves. The humidity comes around another year and reminds me that I have never yet wound this up with the desire for a good and whole existence, that I have never managed to weave this cleanly into the ongoing story. What happens when the way you want is about abasement but then you decide to pull your life into coherency, to turn and live in the light? What things do you leave behind that could only root and bloom in darkness?
I started having sex for the first time - in the way that mattered, in the way that changed the relative shape and weight of all the objects in the world with which I came in contact – the summer after high school. That summer I drove a hybrid car that had a high-tech touchscreen dashboard in place of a simple speedometer and gas gauge and one day, as a joke, the person I was dating reset all its readouts to the metric system while I wasn’t looking. I perpetually found myself going slower than every other car on the highway, while the numbers in front of me said I was going 90/hour. It took me days to realize what was happening because it simply made sense to me that my understanding of the world had turned so illogical, that this first drowning experience of desire had moved me so far out of step with the ordinary world where people drove cars and went to jobs and had conversations, that of course I could no longer gauge or control the speed of my car.
Summer is the time for this stuff, the people like opium dens, the sirens for whom we throw ourselves off the ship against the sharp rocks, down into the abyss below the place where the walls don’t have windows. It's a time for sweat and secrets, a time to admit nothing and get no work done. It’s a difficult time for ambition, for squaring oneself with the world, for pulling oneself up from one rung to the next, for the coherent self of calendars and events, titles and certainties. It’s a time when clothes aren’t quite clothes and time isn’t quite time. For a long string of summers I lived my life at the ceaseless pitch of a perpetual unsustainable crisis. I had a very horrible time and a very good time. Now that I don’t live that way anymore, summer never quite feels right. I can never quite make the facts of it, the weight and the swamp, line up their edges to fit. I cant match a life of maintaining boundaries and cooking dinner up to what it feels like when I step outside onto the stoop and the humidity wraps bony, greedy hands around my skin, presses me back together into myself, the air insisting that I admit my body to the world.

In the summer New York falls apart, admits its seams, its ghosts, its basic enormous unfeasibility. The cracks show; this is a place that doesn’t actually work, a place that is better in theory than in practice. It’s happening with the subways now; each week the disasters get worse, moving from inconvenience to real danger. Someone at a party once told me they’d been one of the people stuck in the subway in the 1977 blackout and what they remembered most vividly was how sweat condensed and eventually dripped off of the metal poles overheard like some hellish slow rainstorm. Summer is when we learn who we are when everything falls apart, when life resists being lived in a decent, efficient, organized way, when the lie that living in a city is a dignified or defensible choice begins to visibly break down. Our bodies are summer cities, too, poorly planned and badly maintained, at once aggressively proud of themselves and neglectfully unloved, subject to electrical failures, driven by irresponsibility and propaganda. This is why summer is about sex; because in summer we are always so much closer to a pile of rubble, so much less able to claim coherency. The longing with which the siren’s song guts us is the desire to find out what happens when we fall apart, what’s left when our body is an unlivable city, with the power shut off and the trains crashed in the station, with all the air conditioners in the world unable to save us.
If you live in a city long enough, especially if you start out there when you’re young and stupid and throwing yourself at every choice like the canvas was large enough that no amount of paint could ruin it, then eventually every street corner becomes a place where you made out with someone, a place where you hailed a cab, a place where you didn’t want to go home. I went out to Brooklyn, to the old neighborhood, for a friend’s event, and at Atlantic and Flatbush every emotion I’d ever felt rushed at me in a neat line. I talk about watching friends get older, about watching the city get richer and slicker and more dishonest, but that day I felt like I was what had gentrified, and not the world around me. When I was growing up, my parents told me stories of themselves and their bad old days because they couldn’t stand the potentials that they had left in their own past, because they couldn’t quite live with the fact that the story had continued to close up its choices one by one, making the path clearer and narrower around them. Perhaps none of us can live with this, perhaps no one ever really gets over the tragedy of progress, perhaps none of us quite forgive ourselves for getting better.
Every summer I did something grandly and wetly stupid with someone new, chasing people I thought I loved through stoops of buildings and in the passenger seat of cars, in the heaven of an air-conditioned room or in the long crosswalks by the big subway station where the light counts out the time left and you could stand in the middle of Atlantic Avenue and kiss with six lanes of cars all speeding toward you, a glittering constellation of potential death, waiting for the last moment to break apart and run toward the curb. Every summer I went looking for that same windowless room, for the thing in the soundless call coming up from in the abyss, for some humid sense of drowning. I did this until one summer my bad choices stuck and stayed and built a city on themselves - now people say look at what you found, look at this love you found in the world, and I want to tell them that I feel like a gambling addict who just happened to roll a lucky hand and turn in all her chips at the right moment, who walked away from the table and invested her winnings. Even the person I love in such a ceaselessly public way now, all the way up here in the light, started as the kind of choice you make in summer, when the light and the warm air stay out late and argue against rules and laws and calendars, when all clothes seem fictional, when everything is almost a hotel room. Four years later we stand half-dressed in the tiny windowless kitchen in the apartment we share, the room where the air conditioning can’t reach, and here our bodies are real to one another, the sticky heat refusing both myth and romance, language and explanation, I love you as dirty fingers, as a collection of smells. I love you as the horrorshow of your body, its grotesque promises, its worst unchosen loyalties, the way the heat makes me nauseous, and the hope of drowning that sings up out of the bottom of the abyss.

hi, friends. sorry it's been so long since the last one of these; I'm trying to be better about it. If you want to read more of my writing, I have new pieces up herehereherehere, and here. Be warned a couple of those are about getting married. As ever, if you want to donate to/support/tip this tinyletter, you can do so here. 

love is the opposite of hygiene. weekly-ish essays on crying in public and other stuff like that.