Here’s a new post on my Medium site. It’s political. Read or avoid at your discretion.
Here’s a new post on my Medium site. It’s political. Read or avoid at your discretion.
We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.
I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.
I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.
Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.
Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. 
When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.
I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted. Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.
And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do, for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.
DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.
For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.
On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.
So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.
“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.
The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.
I know what it means to hurt.
But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.
I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:
“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”
Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?
This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.
What the hell am I supposed to do about that?
And now, on a different note…
I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.
For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.
It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.
Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.
Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.
I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?
The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.
At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.
Then the entrees arrived.
Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.
That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.
But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.
The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.
The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.
I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.
So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.
What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.
Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.
Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.
Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.
Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?
Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.
“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.
“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.
“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”
She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.
“You want to-go box?” she asked.
No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.
At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.
“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.
I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.
This is a manager?
And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.
But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.
Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.
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 I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.
 This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
 These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.
 Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?
 A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.
 I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.
[NOTE: this is being posted only hours after the announcement that Elmore Leonard had died. It’s a dark day for writers everywhere. God bless him, his family, and his legions of fans.]
A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
#15. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a confession to make: this is the only book on my list that I haven’t actually read. I’ve read the rest of them several times, but I have never even opened this one. So why is it here?
Put simply, I love David Foster Wallace’s work. When he killed himself a few years back, one of American literature’s lights went out. He had a real command of the language, a knack for making dull-on-the-surface subjects interesting, a vivid imagination. He was a writer’s writer.
Some people call Infinite Jest his masterpiece. Others call it a doorstop, inaccessible, too postmodern for its (or your) own good. Based on the rest of his work, I know I’ve got to read it someday, but things keep getting in the way—work, obligations, life in general, other works whose very page counts aren’t as daunting. Keeping it on my bookshelf, always and forever, is the only way I’ll have a chance.
If you have tackled Infinite Jest, please feel free to comment here.
Other texts that would work well: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Pale King; Consider the Lobster.
#14. The Stand by Stephen King.
King is often dismissed as a hack who churns out genre dreck with the regularity of good bowel movements. I won’t argue that every book or story in his oeuvre meets the standards of great literature; a few are poor (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fun story undone by a deus ex machina ending), some are too self-derivative (From a Buick 8, too close to the stronger Christine), and some are done well up to a certain point before going off the rails (Black House comes to mind).
But most of his works are, at worst, excellent page-turners, and many transcend the pop-culture, genre-fiction ghetto (not that I believe in those things anyway). There’s a reason some critics have crowned him the 20th century’s Edgar Allen Poe. The Stand, another doorstop tome, is his masterwork. It’s also one of the best apocalypse texts you’ll ever experience.
For those who don’t know the basics: thanks to a government experiment gone awry and lax security at a military base, the United States—and, soon enough, the world—is caught in the grip of a modern-day plague, a superflu colloquially known as Captain Trips. The disease is airborne and easily spread through contact with another infected person. Soon, almost everyone in the world is dead, and the global population’s suffering is shown in horrific detail through the eyes of characters who will survive. Once the dying stops, those who remain must determine how to live in a new, mostly empty world where, as one realizes, all the old toys (cars, camping gear, nuclear missiles) are lying around, just waiting to be picked up.
The survivors converge on two locations. Through visions of an old woman, the good, noble people seem drawn to Denver by way of Kansas. Those with a greater sense of self-interest and the plain old assholes gather in Las Vegas, where a supernatural being of increasing power plots the destruction of the Denver society.
Who goes where? How will the two factions re-create society? What happens when the two groups become aware of each other? And how will each individual choose to meet his or her fate?
A novel as grounded in human free will and individual strife as in cosmic questions of fate and good vs. evil, The Stand is King at his best. Above, I’ve linked to the “uncut” version, which should include all the sections that King originally had to cut due to his publisher’s financial concerns (when art finds itself at the mercy of the bean-counters, we’re all in trouble). Feel free to read the abridged version if you wish, but the longer one is richer, denser, more gripping.
Even if you’re a literary snob, make your own stand and buy this book.
Other texts that would work well: pretty much anything from the mid-1990s or earlier. The Shining comes to mind, as does Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, or the various short story collections, though if you like horror fiction, start with pretty much anything he’s done. For good latter-day works, Desperation comes to mind, but you should also read the Dark Tower series at some point. Under the Dome is worth your time, too.
Of all the American Modernist poets, Stevens is the one I keep coming back to. His cool clinician’s voice often belies the passionate intensity of his imagery. The dense, fecund ideas in his work never cease to engage my intellect and my imagination.
Start with his oft-anthologized works—“Anecdote of the Jar”; “The Snow Man”; “Peter Quince at the Clavier”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and more. You’ll find rich ground for exploring and understanding how poetry works, what literary Modernism means, and how the two intersect with very human, often mundane concerns. In fact, his work often takes the mundane and makes it seem strange, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.”
Move on to his Modernist smackdowns of institutions like religion in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Sunday Morning.” He delivers a pretty good manifesto in “Of Modern Poetry.” And he produces what I have often described as my favorite poem in the language, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
I’ve touched only on some of his most famous works, but his collected poems will take you wider and deeper than this. If you’re looking for light verse or easily found meanings, stay the hell away from Stevens. If you’re in the mood to be challenged and intrigued, pick up his collected works today.
Other texts that would work well: rather than send you to Stevens’ individual books, I’d suggest you broaden your reading of the Modernist era. Pick up a collection or three from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound if you’re in an elitist mood. Read William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost if you want seemingly simple but deceptively deep text. Try Marianne Moore if you are in a mood somewhere in between. You could also try H.D. if you’re of a mind.
#12. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.
One of the best contemporary writers, Sherman Alexie is a treat for readers of all ages. His YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a hoot for adults, too. His novels and short story collections are consistently high-quality. He deals with very serious postcolonial issues, but don’t think his works are all doom and gloom. While some of his work is deadly serious, he often uses humor as a way of dealing with trauma—his people’s, his own, his characters’.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven follows that pattern. Some stories are bleak, even apocalyptic. Others are side-splittingly funny. Some of the best ones are a mixture of both, as in the hilarious and heart-breaking “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The stories in this book are interlinked. You’ll meet characters who struggle with reservation life—their love of community, their hatred of the poverty and alcoholism, their struggle to reconcile their conflicting emotions. You’ll be thrust facedown into that poverty, into those shattered lives, into the Res itself, a kind of refuge from the white world that is also a very effective, soul-deadening prison. You’ll see yourself reflected in the characters, both Native and white Americans, and you’ll feel both empathy and shame.
If you are only open to very traditional forms of storytelling, writers like
Alexie might freak you out (as any postmodernist might, for that matter). But if you are interested in the strivings, the triumphs, and the failures of humanity and our nation, you need to seek this man out. Come with an open mind. Leave with a better soul.
Other texts that would work well: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Reservation Blues; The Business of Fancy-Dancing; Ten Little Indians; and pretty much anything else he’s written, including the film Smoke Signals, the adaptation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
#11. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Another collection of linked stories (or a novel-in-stories) by another Native American author, Love Medicine is only one of several excellent works by Louise Erdrich. Less humorous than Alexie’s but just as insightful and devastating, this work follows the intersecting lives of two Native American families over the course of several decades. As the families fight, intermingle, intermarry, and fight some more, the reader is treated to the burgeoning of a great American voice.
Here, as in Alexie’s work, you will meet Native American characters at war with mainstream society, with their families, with themselves. You will find alcoholism, domestic abuse, jailbreaks, and one honest-to-God tribal battle in a factory that makes cheap plastic replicas of Native American artifacts like spears, bows and arrows, and headdresses. You will also find the sheer strength and beauty of the human spirit as it refuses to be shattered in the crucible of modernity.
What happens when you attempt an ancient love ritual but substitute mass-produced ingredients for the real thing? What happens to a love triangle when all three people are old? What happens when the love is so hot it burns down a house?
Husbands and wives struggle to understand their children, and vice versa. Old loves are rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. The white world constantly threatens to intrude, even though we seldom see it on the page. And always, always, always the families plod onward, eking out an existence on land they do not always even own. The shimmering power of their endurance is a joy to behold. Read this book today.
Other texts that would work well: A Plague of Doves; Tracks; The Round House; The Painted Dove; The Bingo Palace.
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A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
#20. Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin.
One of the best works by a great 20th-century author, Going to Meet the Man is a collection of short stories that examine, among other issues, the ways that racism scars both the oppressed and the oppressors. Baldwin deals with issues that mainstream America has worked hard to sweep under the rug—not just racism, but also sexism, classism, and homophobia—and, like the best art, he drags those issues back into the light. Art can be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, and it often needs to be something else. Baldwin is not afraid to take his work to those places.
From the opening familial drama “The Rockpile” to the religion-meets-secularism-meets-race-meets-sex story “The Outing,” from the oft-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” to the absolutely devastating and horrifying title story (one that always freaks out my students), this collection is essential, not just to your bookshelf but to America.
Other texts that would work well: Go Tell It on the Mountain.
#19. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.
Lorrie Moore may be the best writer that most people don’t seem to have heard of, and Birds of America is one of the best short story collections most people don’t seem to own. Combining wit with a sharp eye for detail, Moore creates works of great beauty, hilarity, deep sadness. Plus, she’s got some of the most interesting titles out there.
In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” she examines the everyday tragedy of the badly sick child with keen insight. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” looks at how important pets can be in our lives and the different ways that people grieve—even people who, ostensibly, should feel both happy and lucky. “Real Estate” takes the reader into a life that has gone horribly wrong in many ways. The stories are full of death, language so sharp it may cut you, pathos, emotional distance. If you have never experienced this collection, do yourself a favor and buy it today.
Other texts that would work well: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
18. Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
Whenever I want to feel transcendental, I read either Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my experience, Emerson is a bit too esoteric for modern readers outside academia; sometimes he’s too esoteric for me, and I read/write/teach literature for a living. Thoreau is more accessible and just as eloquent.
For those who don’t know the “plot” of this nonfiction work—back in the mid-19th century, Thoreau decided to put aside most material things and squat near Walden Pond, a body of water close by Lynn, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, Thoreau lived there in solitude, welcoming the occasional visitor and walking about the pond and township whenever the desire arose. He lived as simply as possible, relied mostly on himself, and pondered the nature of society even as he removed himself from it. In Thoreau’s own words:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
What Thoreau discovered—about society, about humanity, about nature, about himself—is worth your time. Is progress really progress? Thoreau thinks not, and he articulates this idea in ways that would later find echoes in literary/popular cultural figures such as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” he says. “It rides upon us.”
Structured through specific chapters that deal with the work’s major ideas, Walden is part early environmentalism, part spiritual journey, part philosophical treatise, part memoir, and fully worthy of its place on my ideal bookshelf.
Other texts that would work well: I’d seek out his various essays and poems—perhaps start with Collected Essays and Poems, which contains “Resistance to Civil Government” (sometimes called “Civil Disobedience”) and other important works like “Slavery in Massachusetts”—or, lacking that, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.
17. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.
I love poetry, but I’m only putting a few works on this list because I’m mainly a fiction guy. No ideal bookshelf of mine could ever be complete, though, without Walt Whitman’s masterpiece. Often credited, rightly or wrongly, with inventing what many call “free verse” (T.S. Eliot’s claim that it doesn’t exist notwithstanding), Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as being just as organic as the sprouts after which it was named, and he often let the poems grow, often trimmed them, let some of them die and planted seeds of others.
From the simple missions statement found in “One’s Self I Sing” to the complex, multifaceted “Song of Myself”; from the passionate, some say shocking, sensuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” to the melancholy of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; from the national spirit of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to the deeply personal yet universal “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman’s work spans the universe, the body, the soul. It erases borders between traditional dichotomies. It feeds the soul in ways that resemble the effects of holy texts. Indeed, one of my old professors used to say that when she wanted to be uplifted, she read one of two texts: the Bible or Leaves of Grass.
If you have never read Whitman, it takes some getting used to—the long lines that often seem to (but don’t really) meander, the catalogues, the odd spellings, the repetition. But Whitman is worth the effort. Pick up the book today; he stops somewhere waiting for you.
Other texts that would work well: try one of the collected prose volumes. Concentrate on Specimen Days. If you’re not in the mood for prose, support the works of another great 19th-century poet—Emily Dickinson or the in-my-opinion-underrated-as-a-poet Stephen Crane.
16. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Huck Finn is often wrongly dismissed as a children’s book. If you dismiss it as such, you’re making a mistake (and probably thinking of Tom Sawyer). Twain’s masterpiece is about a child, but the themes and ideas are very much adult-oriented.
Huck Finn is also often dismissed as a racist text. Critics who call it racist are right to a certain extent, though not because of the use of the “n-word.” That onerous word does appear far too much for comfort, but that’s part of Twain’s point. Twain was a Realist who, by definition, believed that literature ought to record life as it is, not as it should be. Southern white people used that word constantly. So do Twain’s characters. The novel’s (unintentional) racism lies in Twain’s failure to create realistic black characters rather than caricatures.
Still, when your young white protagonist chooses to go to hell rather than turn in his enslaved friend; when he makes the conscious decision to help Jim escape in spite of everything society has tried to make him believe; when he recognizes that those on top of the social ladder rest at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, we might recognize the book as a flawed but genuine attempt to critique racism, not perpetuate it.
“It’s enough to make a body ashamed of the human race,” Huck says in reference to how two white conmen trick rural rubes out of their cash. “He had a dream, and it shot him,” Huck says about Tom Sawyer’s misguided Romanticism. And when Huck decides to “light out for the Territories” rather than stay in a corrupt society, Twain reveals his own beliefs about what he once called the “damned human race.”
Huck Finn is often hilarious. It is often thought-provoking. It is often touching. But to the discerning reader, it is never anything but one of the finest pieces of literary art ever produced. If your school system bans the book, move, because you’re surrounded by idiots. Read this imperfect critique of American racism, this adventure story, this comedy, this living novel and join the conversation about a truly American text. Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that all 20th century literature comes from Huck Finn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does cast one of the long shadows in which we writers labor and create.
Other texts that would work well: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Life on the Mississippi.
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With the recent release of World War Z and the upcoming season four of The Walking Dead, zombies in pop culture are harder to kill than the (ahem) real thing. So are “best of” lists. Even Rolling Stone made a “ten best zombie movies” list, so what follows is hardly original in conception or content. Still, some of you asked for it, so here it is—my list of the ten zombie films you have to see before you reanimate and try to eat your kids. Feel free to disagree, kvetch, and counter-argue. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget approximately six hundred movies that should be on this list.
First, a few rules: believe it or not, I haven’t seen every single zombie film ever made. I will therefore decline to cheat and put anything on this list that I haven’t experienced first-hand (sorry, Fido and Plague of the Zombies; I’ll get to you one of these days).
Second, I won’t list any movies that are what I like to call “zombie-adjacent”—films in which the hordes often act like zombies but are not, in fact, reanimated corpses. That forces me to leave out several movies I really dig and would still recommend that you see before you shuffle off this mortal coil, come back as a zombie, and spend all your time, uh, shuffling around this mortal coil.
Such movies include 28 Days Later and its good-but-inferior sequel, 28 Weeks Later; Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s excellent modern-day grindhouse flick; and the Evil Dead films. I have seen Raimi’s trilogy on some zombie lists, though I’m not sure why. Sure, a couple of corpses come back and make trouble, but mostly, it’s about spirits and what they do with live bodies.
Other films that are worth watching but have no place on this list: George A. Romero’s The Crazies and the 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant, two more zombie-adjacent flicks; and Drew Goddard’s fine meta work The Cabin in the Woods, which features zombies but also a couple dozen other supernatural baddies.
Third, I can’t in good conscience write about anything I saw years ago but was too drunk or exhausted to remember. Thus, at least one staple of zombie top ten lists, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, doesn’t make the cut, through no fault of its own.
You could easily argue that Return of the Living Dead should be on here, given that it is generally credited for introducing zombies that hunger for brains, not flesh (a stereotype that does not hold in most canonical texts) and, according to some critics, the concept of fast-moving, even intelligent zombies. It’s fun in its own way, but it deviates so strongly from the visions of people like George A. Romero that I would only be putting it on the list because of its difference. I’d still advise you to watch it at least once, and if you’re a fan, feel free to substitute it for either #9 or #10 below.
On to the list…
This movie, which many viewers still find creepy, features an interesting performance from Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, long before he torpedoed his career with drugs and starring roles in Ed Wood movies. One of the taglines: “See them dug from the grave and put to work as slaves to murder!” Set in Haiti, the film locates zombies in exotic locales inhabited by dark-skinned people, which allows for the continuing comfort of the first-world viewer. It also both contributes to and reflects the early 20th century’s problematic racial attitudes in ways that later zombie films engage more directly and complexly. Madge Bellamy’s very white protagonist, Madeline, is reduced to a zombie slave on a Haitian plantation, providing an interesting wrinkle to any allegorical readings of race. Some critics believe that the movie can be read as an anti-imperialist text; they suggest that the characters’ attitudes toward Madeline, the nature of zombification, and the plantation itself mirror Western colonial attitudes. All that is well and good. But this movie is on my list mainly because it is widely considered the first zombie film, and if you’re going to delve into the canon, you might as well start with cinema’s version of Patient Zero. You might love it or find it cheesy, badly acted, and horribly dated, but you should experience it for yourself before the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
Purists may well cry foul here and accuse me of breaking rule #2. They may well be right, and if you think so, feel free to strike this one out and replace it with what you feel is my most egregious omission. I, however, am giving [REC] a pass that I did not give films like 28 Days Later for a couple of reasons: a) the antagonists act like zombies, including through their stubborn refusal to die from anything but a head shot, and b) the film itself leaves their exact condition ambiguous. While the movie pretty much tells us that their illness seems to be viral, such that it can pass from animals to humans, many zombie outbreaks in cinema are similarly sourced. [REC] suggests, near the end, a possible non-zombie cause of the outbreak, and it is often unclear whether the victims are truly reanimated or if their zombie-like condition is merely the last stage of some illness. Enough ambiguity exists for me to include this film here.
And, as horror films go, it’s a doozy. A Spanish movie, it may well test your ocular and cognitive abilities while you watch the action and read the dialogue simultaneously. The plot centers on a young female reporter and her cameraman, Pablo, as they cover a local fire company’s night shift. When the company answers an emergency call about an ill woman who won’t come out of her apartment, the reporter and cameraman tag along, only to find themselves quarantined inside the building as the occupants and would-be rescuers are transformed into vicious creatures that rip into human flesh.
The film is probably best known for its cinematographic conceit. We see the entire film from Pablo the cameraman’s perspective; his handheld camera is the only camera used, which immerses the viewer in the characters’ experience. We only see what Pablo films; we only hear what he can pick up on his camera microphone. It’s unsettling and scary, perhaps even more so than The Blair Witch Project.
The acting here is much better than you’ll see in White Zombie or the Romero movies, which you have to grade on a sliding scale. You can’t expect Academy Award-winning performances when you’re working with an unknown cast and a 73-cent budget. [REC] has more to work with, but it’s still a horror film, so don’t expect to discover the next Olivier or Brando.
One of the movie’s taglines— “Whatever You Witness….. Never Stop Recording”—might well be the basic direction for any reality TV cameraman. [REC] was remade in America as Quarantine, a nearly shot-for-shot remake. But I would seek out the original and watch it first. Tell Netflix I sent you.
Some zombiephiles feel very strongly that this movie is the second-best Romero entry in the canon. Here, it appears at #8 mainly because I’ve seen it less than the others and don’t feel comfortable placing it higher.
In Day of the Dead, the apocalypse has already happened. The plot focuses on the few survivors holed up in a military bunker. The scientists there conduct gruesome experiments on the zombies as the survivors try, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the realities and tensions of their lives. The scientists are convinced that the dead can be reconditioned, and much of the film is spent exploring zombie physiology and psychology. In fact, much of the fanboy love for the movie stems from the explanations for why zombies eat human flesh and so forth.
That’s all well and good, but you’ll also be treated to some old-fashioned zombie attacks. Come for the blood and guts; stay for the course on zombie motivation.
Elsewhere I have already expressed my admiration for this movie’s pulse-pounding action sequences, for how it represents an evolution in zombie methodology (the swarming behaviors that mimic certain animals, the idea that zombies can tell the difference between a good meal and a bad one), the way the production managed to snag a prestigious director and star (Brad frickin’ Pitt!!!). I have also articulated my problems with the film’s character development and its over-dependence on CGI. Plus, there’s this issue, to quote Kalene Westmoreland: “a lot of these problems wouldn’t have happened if they just had a can of WD-40.” Seriously, they spend five minutes talking about how the creatures are attracted to sound, and then they take the world’s squeakiest collection of bicycles to the plane? Every door in the WHO facility has to creak like it belongs in a haunted house?
Here, though, the positives truly outweigh the negatives. World War Z lives up to its title; it takes a global view of the zombie apocalypse, demonstrating that these filmmakers truly understand the scale implied in the term. Philadelphia collapses. Israel is overrun. And after all that international carnage, the climax is surprisingly intimate and intense, providing both a break from and a logical extension of the larger issues.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet and you’re a fan of zombies, action movies, apocalypse narratives, or Brad Pitt, get thee to your local theater. If you have seen it, spread the word.
World War Z had an Oscar nominee in Brad Pitt. Zombieland has four: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Murray, who plays himself in a hilarious small role. The other major star, Emma Stone, is a Screen Actors Guild award winner and one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors. Therefore, if you’re looking for A-list acting and recognizable faces, you can’t find a better zombie flick than this.
The premise: zombies have taken over the world (or, at least, America). Our young protagonist, Columbus (so named because that’s where he wants to go), decides to see if his parents are still alive, so he takes to the road, where he encounters the eccentric, zombie-hating, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee (Harrelson); the beguiling Wichita (Stone); and young-but-not-helpless Little Rock (Breslin). Columbus has survived because of his “rules,” which could double as a meta lesson on what every dumb character in horror films never does: limber up before you enter any unknown territory, in case you have to run. Work on your cardio. Always “double-tap” seemingly dead zombies. Always look in the back seat, etc. Echoing Randy’s rules for surviving a horror film as seen in the first Scream, these rules are winking, self-referential, and absolutely true.
Characterization here runs deeper than in most of the genre’s entries. We know backstories. We understand motivations. Even though the characters sometimes seem to come from central casting—the sensitive but competent geek, the snarling tough guy with a secretly soft heart, the love interest who might be a femme fatale—they transcend their stock origins and become living, breathing, wisecracking people you will care about.
Zombieland is more funny than scary, although parts of the film do provide genuinely frightening scenes, especially near the end. This is not a criticism. The often lighthearted tone provides a nice counterpoint to the highly serious, doom-and-gloominess of most zombie films. Plus, Zombieland features an awesome soundtrack: Metallica! The Black Keys!
Fun, often funny, and sometimes gory, Zombieland deserves its place in anyone’s top ten. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to have a lot of fun.
We enter the top five with what is, by far, Snyder’s best film to date. Though fanboys and -girls say that Romero’s zombie classic did not need to be remade, I really like this movie. Sure, it lacks the social consciousness of the original. Romero’s Dawn was set in a mall to critique our out-of-control consumer culture, while this film seems to appropriate the setting merely because it’s logically safer than the other options. But you know what? That’s fine with me. I still have the original when I want to think. This movie, by contrast, is an exercise in inertia, in pure kineticism.
The cast doesn’t quite equal Zombieland or World War Z in terms of A-list prestige, but the actors are all game. Ving Rhames plays, well, pretty much every Ving Rhames character you’ve ever seen. Sarah Polley provides a strong performance as our protagonist, and Ty Burrell kills as the absolute polar opposite of his Modern Family character. Throw in Jake Weber as an unlikely hero, Mekhi Phifer as a troubled family man, and excellent character actor Michael Kelly as the meanest mall cop you’ve ever seen.
You like gore? This film’s got it. Watch out for chainsaws, dude. You want fast zombies? There ain’t no shufflin’ goin’ on here. You want zombie mob scenes, gallows humor, strong uses of lighting? Check, check, and check. Plus, the worst newborn since Rosemary’s baby (well, not counting Trainspotting)!
Bottom line: this film isn’t high art, but it’s good. When it starts out with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” you hope the rest of the movie will live up to it. It does. Stick around for the super-bleak ending over the credits.
Not the one that started it all, but it sure seems like it. The first Romero zombie flick, it came with this tagline, among others: “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” There’s some truth to that.
If you’ve never seen the film, well, it pretty much establishes the tropes for every other zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Outbreak of the dead rising and eating the living, with scientists providing, at best, a working theory as to what started it? Yep. A core group of characters thrown together by chance? Got it. Internal strife over how to handle the situation? Check. Our heroes finding themselves trapped and surrounded by the dead? Uh huh. Zombie infestation of the supposedly safe zone? Right. And if you think it took more contemporary texts like Snyder’s movie or The Walking Dead to trot out the zombified children, you’re wrong.
NotLD starts out in a cemetery, with Barbra and her dickish brother Johnny visiting graves. When Barbra feels creeped out, Johnny says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Little does he know they’re real, and they’re coming to get him, too. When Johnny buys it five minutes into the film, you aren’t sorry, but you’ve got to feel sorry for Judith O’Dea, the actress playing Barbra, because she has to spend the rest of the movie playing either catatonic or whiny. Throw in the bickering couple Harry and Helen Cooper and the more likeable but also more forgettable young couple Tom and Judy, and you may actually find yourself rooting for the zombies.
The main character, Ben, is extraordinary, considering the time period’s attitudes. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is our protagonist, and when the ever-angry Harry Cooper gets out of line, Ben slaps him around until he shuts up. Ben also acts as Barbra’s caretaker, and, when Harry finally goes too far, Ben’s method of dealing with him is both shocking and inevitable.
Why is all this so unusual? Because Ben is the only black member of an otherwise lily-white cast. Many critics, including one of my grad-school colleagues, have written about NotLD as an allegory for American racial attitudes in the Civil Rights era, and the characters’ different generational attitudes toward a strong black man seem to support such readings, as do the searing images of pale-white zombies mobbing Ben throughout the film. The ending’s indelible imagery will disturb you, and this, I think, is part of what Romero intends.
Add in to all the social commentary a lot of good zombie action (Romero, of course, only uses the shuffling kind) and some unintentional humor (see the sheriff’s hysterical line, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re….all messed up”) and you’ve got a film that has fascinated generations of viewers. Much like most of the movies on this list, you shouldn’t expect stellar acting or writing, but this one transcends its limitations. See it now, if you never have.
Two words: zombie Nazis. That should be all you need to know about this Norwegian film.
A group of friends takes a vacation to a remote cabin. The one who was planning to ski cross-country through the mountains, alone and at night, never arrives, but soon, a mysterious stranger appears, warning our core group of a local legend about cursed soldiers and missing Nazi treasure. You can imagine what happens next.
Much like Scream, Dead Snow is postmodern in its metatextual references. One of our main characters is a film buff, who immediately recognizes the threat for what it is and warns the others not to get bitten. To say that the plan doesn’t work out very well is an understatement.
Unlike a lot of zombie texts, this one often sets the action in the daylight. In fact, the snowy landscape lends a near-blinding sheen to the gore, so that you see nearly every spatter of blood and almost every flesh wound in detail. As plan after plan fails, as the most competent characters succumb, as you view one of the grossest and most hilarious gags involving a crotch in cinematic history, you’ll laugh and grimace in disgust, sometimes simultaneously. In tone, it’s closer to Cabin in the Woods than Night of the Living Dead; you can decide for yourself if that’s good. Just watch the movie. Like now.
This one is Romero’s best, and it’s possibly the most loved and respected film in the canon. Starring one of Romero’s trademark cast of stars you’ve never heard of, featuring B-level acting and lines that run the gamut from good to dripping with cheese, utilizing the most absurd and nonsensical use of a blood pressure machine ever, Dawn of the Dead has nevertheless transcended its genre roots.
Like the remake, it’s set in a shopping mall. Unlike the remake, the mall here is infested with zombies, who shuffle by the locked doors of the shops our heroes inhabit. The monsters here look not all that different from your typical suburban consumer, and these images likely resonate now more than ever, given how we all do the “cell phone zombie shuffle,” staring at our handheld screens as we walk into fountains and trip over potted plants. This critique of consumerism foreshadowed the “more is more,” “greed is good” decade to come.
Beyond all the scholarly hooey, though, stands a really good genre movie, one with all the usual trappings plus the addition of a bloodthirsty biker gang that may be more dangerous than the zombies. If Snyder’s film is an exercise in pure forward motion, this one is more contemplative, but as a movie that extends what a zombie movie can be and do, it’s more important.
Dawn of the Dead isn’t as flashy or ironic or bloody as some movies on this list, but you absolutely must see it before you reanimate. And always, always, always pick a good time to check your blood pressure.
I may well catch some flak for putting this movie on top of my list. I don’t care. Shaun of the Dead does so many things at once that it may well be the only movie here qualifying for high-art status.
Is the movie a parody of zombie flicks? Yes, but like the best parodies, it completely understands its source material. Wright and his co-writer, star Simon Pegg, referred to the movie as a “rom-zom-com”—a romantic zombie comedy. It’s all that and more. It’s uproarious, often at zombies’ expense, and yet it is at times a gory, genuinely frightening, tension-saturated zombie movie. It’s a romantic comedy; the only thing more important to Shaun (Pegg) than surviving the apocalypse is repairing his relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). It is poignant; witness the scenes near the end with Shaun’s mother, his stepdad Phillip (Bill Nighy (!!!)), or his best friend Ed (Nick Frost).
Shaun of the Dead is, in other words, several films in one, all of them excellent. It brought Pegg (most recently seen as Scotty in Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Frost a cult following. It led to further collaborations between the stars and Wright in the underrated Hot Fuzz. (Pegg and Frost would write and star in Greg Mottola’s Paul in 2011, while Wright would direct the energetic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World without his stars. Wright is now at work on Marvel’s Ant-Man movie, of all things.)
If you are among those who have never watched this movie, run—don’t walk—to your computer and Netflix it right now, or buy it and watch it tonight. I highly doubt you will regret it.
So there it is, folks, for better or worse: my top ten zombie films of all time. Feel free to post replies or email me with comments, complaints, or praise. And remember—they’re coming to get you, so there may never be a better time for a movie marathon. Stay up late and scare yourself silly. Live a little before your spouse gnaws your arm off.
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In his obtuse, frustrating, beautiful poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Life is very long.” That idea goes against what most of us have heard—that life is short, that we must make the most of every day, that every passing second leads us that much closer to dying. I’ve always wondered which is true. Does life stretch out and out and out, or does it flash by like a film montage where pages fly from a calendar, floating off-screen and disappearing forever, moving us toward the action that matters, the conflict that advances the story?
In my forty-second year, I have decided that the answer is both.
Some days, even weeks, of my life creep by on their bellies like snakes that have lain too long in the sun. Time seems interminable—the in-class activity that shuffles along until it ends in a whimper, the grading session that drags on and on and on, the dinner where the waiter pops by every twenty minutes to make sure we haven’t died of thirst while he took his smoke break.
But other times are different. They don’t creep or shuffle or drag. They zip past you like the purse snatcher that steals your valuables without ever breaking stride, so that you don’t even realize what is missing until the thief has turned the corner and disappeared forever.
These moments fly.
The hell of it is that these latter times aren’t bad, at least not all of them, maybe not even most of them. Often, the moments we would love to cherish are the very ones that we cannot hold onto. They disappear in the space of a breath, leaving us gasping in their wake.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, not because I’m forty-two, which isn’t that old. No, I’ve been pondering the passage of time because my children are growing up. One, in fact, is no longer a child in any sense of the word, and another stands on the cusp of adulthood. My youngest is thirteen. And as they grow up and perhaps have children of their own, I have been thinking, even more than usual, about what kind of father I’ve been. What kind of man I am. What kind of people they’ll be, and how much I influenced their evolution, for better or worse.
Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I have never been good at sharing my feelings. The only-sparsely-revised, not-all-that-carefully-edited nonfiction on this blog represents more confession than I’ve ever made to most of the people I’ve met in my entire life. I am trying to be honest here, because if you are going to write any kind of non-fiction, you have to be honest to the point of brutality, of rawness. The audience will recognize your bullshit. They will crucify you for it. So you try to be true, even when it hurts, even when it angers those closest to you, and you pray that the art (if there is art) in what you say will eventually salve those wounds.
So I come here again, as I usually do, to open up a part of myself that I have never been able to express, except, perhaps, in some oblique fashion through my fiction. I come to speak from the heart, directly and honestly. I come to speak about my kids.
More specifically, I want to talk about my oldest daughter, Shauna. I want to say things about all my kids, of course, but I cannot say everything, even if I wrote nothing else for the rest of my life. And I cannot speak about all of them at once, because the very facts of their being overwhelm me. Thinking about them is like standing on a ship’s deck in the middle of the ocean, nothing but expanse and majesty all the way to the horizon. I have to take them one at a time, one piece at a time, and if I do this occasionally throughout the course of my life, perhaps they will know me better than they would have otherwise. Perhaps they will not be sorry that it was their fate to spring from me and the better parts of myself.
So. One at a time, whenever I can muster the courage and, hopefully, the words. Starting here, with the first about Shauna, others to come in the future, given world enough and time.
But really, what can I say about her that would be sufficient? Saying something in an honest, hopefully new way is part and parcel of the writer’s job, but sometimes language seems insufficient in and of itself; to truly know the thing about which one writes (or reads), one must experience.
We named her Shauna, but we might have named her other things. My first reason for living. My North Star that guided me through the darkest part of my life. My friend. My daughter. String bean, lovely woman.
I would like to start here by telling you that the person she is, the woman she’s grown to be, staggers me. At twenty-four, she is a better person than I have ever been. She has always been better, right from the start. And in being nothing more than herself, she has made me better.
She is a child of divorce—of two parents who became parents too young, who got married too quickly, who bulled their way into adulthood as if some Matador were waving a red flag that attracted them when it should have signaled a warning. I lived with her for the first several years of her life, before her mother and I finally did what we should have done in the first place and got away from each other. After that, every parting was a little tragedy marked by tears and sighs and regrets. Because of the divorce’s timing, I never got to take her to school or pick her up. I seldom got to help her with her homework. I never hosted a sleepover or helped her build a school project. I did not teach her to drive. I did not get to embarrass her in front of her boyfriends. Now that she is grown, with a life and job of her own, I get to see her roughly once a year. In so many ways, our story is about pain and missed opportunities, about how the little aggravations that typical fathers and daughters experience were lost to us. When I think of all that we missed and are still missing, I can barely lift my head.
And yet. And yet . . .
For many years, until she matured enough within herself and in her social relationships to let go of her father’s hand and fly on her own, we maintained a ritual on the night before I had to take her home. As that last day progressed, she would grow quieter and quieter, and nothing I could do or say would draw her out of that silence. Eventually we would go to bed, and I would lie there, dreading morning’s arrival, until I would hear it coming from her room—tiny little sniffles, choked-back sobs, the sounds of someone in pain, of someone who wants to keep that pain to herself. Of someone who did not want to bother anybody.
I would always get up and go to her room, and there, for minutes or hours, we would talk—about why she had to live so far away, about why I couldn’t just get a job where she lived, about why she couldn’t come see me more often, about how she didn’t want to go home. Not, I always hoped, because she did not want to see her mother, but because she knew we would miss each other.
During these conversations, I would never allow myself to weep. It was her time to hurt and my job to salve it in whatever way I could. It was not about me, would never be about me. I had no right to share my tears with her because, knowing her as I did, I knew that she would push aside her own pain and try to stop mine. To weep would have been selfish and egotistical and wrong. Our children should not have to bear our burdens. They should not have to fix us.
One day, though, in the middle of our end-of-visit ritual, I said to Shauna, “I’m really, really sorry you’re so upset.”
She looked at me for a long time, her eyes filled with tears, before she said anything. Then, finally, she asked, “Do you ever get upset?”
This question poleaxed me. I had never considered that my calm-on-the-surface demeanor might have been suggesting that I was perfectly okay with her leaving. That I would go back to bed and fall right to sleep as soon as she let me off the hook for the night. That she might not realize that I lived every single day of my life in fear that I was failing her in ways both fleeting and fundamental. That she might one day wake up to the fact that, in spite of all his efforts, her father was not a good man and might never be one, and that for evidence she need look no further than how I had failed to remain an everyday presence in her life.
Of course, I could no more tell her all that than I could burst into tears and ask her to comfort me. All I could do, all I had the right to do, was pull her close and hug her as hard as I could without cracking her ribs. All I could do was kiss the top of her head and say, “Of course I get upset, every time. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you.”
I suppose that if I could say only one thing to her that would sum up her place in my life, it would be the same thing I would also say to my wife and my other two children, and yet it would be just as true for each of them. “All that matters is you.”
I don’t mean that nothing else matters, of course. I cherish my art and glow with pride every time something is published, every time someone tells me something touched them or made them laugh or think or curse my name. I want my work as a writer, a teacher, and a human being to survive me and matter to the world. I want to make the world a better place, not a worse one. I want to give my family the best life I can possibly give them, and if I can’t give them what I want, then I want to be able to say, honestly, that I tried hard to do it. These things matter more than I can say.
But these things are tied inextricably to my love for and duty toward my family. It is a Gordian knot that I have no interest in untying. In this case, being bound is the greatest kind of freedom. And before I knew Kalene, before Brendan and Maya existed, Shauna taught me that. She was my first graduate program in being a better man.
I cannot possibly tell you about everything we did and what it all meant and what it all taught me. But I can tell you some things.
* * *
I remember when her mother announced to me that we were likely going to be parents. It was the summer before our senior year in high school. We had broken up, as we often did, and this time, I was determined to make it stick. Even then, the relationship was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and I had finally had enough. I was out, and I was determined to stay out. I had taken back my class ring, that great high school symbol of commitment, and wore it myself for the first time since buying it. I had even gone out on a date with an ex-girlfriend with whom I still had a connection, and I felt pretty sure we were going to get back together and live a long, happy life together.
Then Shauna’s mother-to-be showed up at my house and knocked on the door to my room. I opened it, saw her standing there, scowled. I had nothing to say to her and felt no interest in hearing what she had to say.
“I’m late,” she said.
“Here,” I said, giving her my class ring back.
We were married a few weeks later, and we spent every day together until the moment when I left, heartsick and wrecked and wondering if I were doing the right thing.
I don’t regret marrying her. We were miserable and at each other’s throats day and night and poor and stupid, but at times, we were also happy and in love and rich in ways that most of our classmates would take years to discover. Mainly, I don’t regret it because it gave me years with Shauna that I would not have had otherwise—feeding her, changing her diapers, watching the same videos a million times until the VHS tapes broke. It was all as glorious as a sunrise over the sea.
* * *
I remember the trip home from a high school football game—Malvern? Pine Bluff?—where we had gone to watch my former teammates play. I had loved the games and hated the practices, so it was no great loss for me or the team when I had to go to work and miss playing in my senior year. Still, whenever we were both off on Friday, Christie and I would go to the games, where I would cheer on my friends and part of me would wonder what might have been.
I was driving through the dark, the road unspooling in front of me, Christie in the passenger seat and asleep for all I knew. I was thinking about what I might have done on that long pass that just missed the receiver’s outstretched hands; in my head, I would have caught it, though in my heart, I knew I probably would not have been fast enough either. I was watching the road and daydreaming and listening to some hard-rock song on our car stereo when Christie reached over, turned down the volume, and said, “I just felt the baby kick.”
Something turned over in the deep pit of me. Some creature that had been sleeping in the darkness and dreaming in its own primordial way. It woke up and whimpered and crawled away from the crack of light that had suddenly appeared.
Never taking my eyes from the road, I reached my right hand over and Christie took it, placed it low on her stomach, pressed it harder than I would have advised. The car had grown silent; it seemed that even the regular thrum of the tires, the whistle of the wind as it blew past us, faded, until all that I could hear was my own heartbeat.
Then I felt it—a tiny, almost imperceptible tap against my palm. Like placing your hand on a taut tent wall and feeling someone brush against the other side. Just a millisecond, just once, but undeniable, and very, very real.
And light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t until that creature in the deep pit of me screamed and vanished that I realized it was my own ignorance, my own sense that, even though we had gotten married and had begun compiling cribs and plastic bottles and onesies, we could not possibly be parents. I had known Shauna was real, but I had not believed it on some vital level until I felt that tap, the touch of a person who was not yet a person but who one day might be anybody.
Five miles or so down the road, I felt my face hurt and realized that I had been smiling for a long time. And for perhaps the first time in my young life, I was truly happy. Terrified and incompetent and ignorant, yes, but happy.
* * *
I remember her birth, the moment she was pushed out into the world, screaming and purple and covered in goo.
“Why is she purple?” I asked, alarmed.
“She’s cold,” said the doctor. “Where she’s been, it’s nearly 99 degrees.”
“Want to see me weigh her?” asked a nurse. I walked over to the scale with her. She eased Shauna onto it and waited for the readout. The numbers appeared; the nurse looked at me. “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”
“How the hell should I know? It’s your scale.”
By this time, the doctor was pulling out the afterbirth while Christie grimaced and grunted. When he got it out, it looked like something you might see on the side of the road in the deep South, a creature that dozens of tires had squished beyond all recognition. I mentioned that I had once seen something like it on Nightmare on Elm Street. Nobody laughed.
A few minutes later, still clad in the disposable gown they had pinned on me, I walked into the waiting room and presented Shauna to her grandparents. She was wrapped in a blanket and looking about curiously, acclimating herself to her new world. Everyone ooohed and aaaaahed and grinned and slapped me on the back and passed her around like they were playing Hot Potato.
Later that night, as Christie slept in her hospital bed and Shauna dozed in her bassinet beside me, I took in the silence, the sheer peacefulness of that room compared to the chaos of the birth, and wondered, not for the first time, if I were remotely qualified to be in charge of this little person who would look to me for everything.
* * *
I remember one night, a few months later when I had been at home alone with Shauna. It was time to pick up Christie from work, so I loaded Shauna into the carrier-thing that also doubled as a car seat. I strapped it down and got in the car and backed out of the driveway. About halfway to Andy’s Restaurant, where Christie was working at the time, I held the steering wheel with my left hand and stretched my right hand into the back seat. I touched Shauna’s tiny little bird hand and she jerked it away.
“Huh,” I said. Against all reason, it hurt my feelings. I wondered if it meant something, knowing in my head that it was probably a reflex or evidence that she had not yet learned to control her body, any of which would have been perfectly natural. But in my heart, a voice whispered, She knows about you. She knows you are not a good person. She wants nothing to do with you, which just proves how smart she is.
All of this happened in perhaps two seconds. And then, before I could pull my hand back and grasp the steering wheel and start feeling really sorry for myself, that tiny bird hand settled on mine and wrapped itself around my index finger. And in that moment, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew two sizes.
I drove all the way to Andy’s like that, my right arm cranked painfully backward and twisted and stretched. I smiled through the pain and the numbness and kept on driving, and Shauna did not let go.
* * *
I remember watching the same videos hundreds of times, everything from Disney classics to Scruffy to stop-motion California Raisin shows. I had them all memorized. So did Shauna. She never just sat in front of the television for hours at a time, and we never used the television as a de facto babysitter. But when she wanted to watch, she would sit there attentively while those same dogs did and said the same things they had always done and said. It never seemed to get old.
I can no longer quote those movies and shows verbatim. I don’t even really remember the plot. But just hearing the word “scruffy” sends my mind down those same roads, and I wind up back in that mobile home, sitting on that couch and watching Shauna watch TV. In times like those, that trailer was a sanctuary, a garden where the sun always shined and things grew in rich black soil.
* * *
But like most places, there was nothing intrinsically good or bad about our first home. Its nature depended on the people in it and what they did for, or to, each other. I also remember the fights, the screaming matches that often devolved into physical confrontations.
Just as when Christie and I were dating, our marriage was a study in extremes. We were giddy and joyous and thrilled at life’s possibilities. We were hateful and violent and heartsick. I loved her desperately and wanted her to love me back, but she never did, at least not like I loved her. At times, she seemed to value me; at times, she would speak and act with nothing but contempt, as if I were a bug that she wouldn’t bother scraping off her shoe. I never knew which Christie I was going to get, and I didn’t understand the one that seemed to hate me, and so, once I learned to lash out, I let that part of me take over when I felt hurt or threatened or useless or stupid, which was most of the time.
When our arguments became physical, they threatened to rip that trailer in half. We were like a storm that blew in out of a cloudless sky, tearing sturdy buildings off their foundations and scattering trash for miles around.
Every time this happened with Shauna in the house, she would do something unexpected while we were raging about her. She might fold the basket full of clean laundry that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. She might pick up the clutter in her room. She might grab a rag and dust. Whenever I would see her trying to impose order on the chaos surrounding her, my heart would break, and I would try to stop the argument, shut down the swirling negative emotions filling the house like acrid smoke. Sometimes it even worked. But it never fixed the underlying problems.
One day, in the middle of a huge fight in our kitchen/dining area, I happened to look down. Shauna was hiding under the table, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She was crying and rocking back and forth. And in that moment, something broke inside me. What spilled from that break were pain and guilt and the sudden, dawning realization that my marriage would never last. I knew that Christie and I were too different, in our goals and our worldviews and our values. I knew that as long as we lived together, the fights would never stop, and that every single day would bring about the possibility that Shauna would wind up under that table, sobbing and wishing that her Mom and Dad would just love each other.
I stayed a couple more months and tried to fix things, but eventually, I did what I had always known I would have to do. I packed my things and moved out. I initiated divorce proceedings that would drag on for several months as we all wept and wailed and fought and tried to patch it all back together and eventually moved on.
It was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving that trailer and the woman I still loved and the daughter I adored. I was afraid and depressed and so very, very angry, none of which would change over the next two years of my life. I was entering the darkest period I have ever been through, but I had to do it. I could no longer abide the sight of that sweet girl hiding under a table, the knowledge that I bore half the responsibility for putting her there. I was changing things in the only way left to me. But every night, for months and months and months, my heart would break all over again, and I hated the world for letting things come to this. I hated it, but even more, I hated myself.
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember when Christie’s mother informed me that Christie was getting remarried and moving to Pine Bluff. Until that time, I had seen Shauna whenever I wanted, which meant any time that I was not in class or at work or trying desperately to get some sleep. Now, the original custody agreement would be enforced—visitation every other weekend and alternate holidays.
The prospect of not seeing my daughter daily finished shattering what was left of my heart. In fact, it nearly killed me.
I got this news with only a couple days’ notice. I was supposed to work that night. I had an American Novel test the next day. I knew that I would not keep either commitment. Not when my world had just been turned upside down again.
I picked up Shauna and brought her to my parents’ house. I found her something to do. Then I went back to my parents’ room, closed the door, and grabbed their phone. I called my workplace and got an assistant manager.
“This is Brett. I’m supposed to work tonight, but I….I…” And then I burst into tears.
I couldn’t stop. The pain and confusion poured out of me in deep, throaty sobs. The manager listened quietly, and when I finally calmed down a bit, he said, “What is it?”
“It’s my daughter,” I whimpered. “She’s moving away, and I…”
“Don’t worry about coming in,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Take care of her. Let us know when you can come back.”
This small act of generosity—of taking me at my word, of putting my obvious breakdown ahead of whatever inconvenience the store might feel at my absence—nearly sent me into hysterics again. But I managed to swallow it. I thanked him and hung up.
Now for the test. I tried to look up my professor’s phone number, but it wasn’t listed. So I checked the number of another professor, one I had taken classes with several times. She was friends with the American Novel professor. I was in good standing with both of them; I was honored to know that they considered me one of their best students. I was hoping that Professor #2 would give me Professor #1’s number.
I dialed Professor #2 and waited as it rang. I took deep, slow breaths, determined to calm myself this time, to handle things better. I didn’t want to look like a fool, and I wanted to make the best case possible for myself.
“Hello?” said Professor #2.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s Brett Riley. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I….”
That was as far as I made it before it all ripped out of me again. I burst into sobs that were just as deep, just as uncontrollable, just as wrenching as those that came before. It took me at least a couple of minutes to calm down.
“What’s wrong?” said Professor #2, and I was grateful for the concern that I could hear in her voice.
“It’s my daughter,” I said. “My ex-wife is moving away, and I’ve only got two days, but see, I’ve got this test in Professor #1’s class….”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Professor #2. “I’ll talk to Professor #1. She’ll let you make up the test.”
I thanked her about a hundred times and hung up, feeling a bit better because at least I could spend those two days with Shauna without worrying about all the other things in my life. Not until I became a teacher myself did I really understand what Professor #s 1 and 2 did for me. It wasn’t just being generous enough to give a make-up exam to a student with a real-life problem. It was how they worked together. Professor #2 had made a promise about how Professor #1 would handle a situation in class. Professor #1 lived up to that promise, even though she hadn’t made it herself and would have had every right to be angry with me and Professor #2. I have worked with several professors—little martinets who run their fiefdoms with iron fists, regardless of circumstance—who would not have been so generous. Who might have failed me for seeking aid from a colleague. Who would have resented the colleague for speaking out of turn. But somehow, Professor #2 had conveyed the depth and sincerity of my sorrow. Professor #1 honored both me and her friend. To both of them, I have ever been grateful.
When I came out of that bedroom, I had dried my eyes and blown my nose. I would not cry in front of Shauna until she was in her 20s. But when she asked me if I ever got upset when she had to leave, I thought back to those first departings, the ones that knocked my world off its axis and left me a blubbering mess in front of my co-workers and my teachers, and I think, “Yes. From the very beginning of all this. But that was not your cross to bear. It was always mine, and mine alone.”
* * *
I remember leaving work once a week and driving an hour and a half to Pine Bluff. I would pick Shauna up from her new apartment and take her somewhere—a restaurant, a movie, a mall, some combination—just to get some extra time. I would have to drive back home, crash for a few hours, and get up early the next day for work or school.
One mid-week visit found us at the mall’s arcade, playing all those carnival games that spit out tickets based on your score. We managed to cobble together enough tickets to purchase the kinds of crummy prizes those places stock, garbled and hastily-constructed bits of plastic and rubber that would either survive a tactical nuclear strike or break within two days.
After she picked out the prizes she wanted, we had a few tickets left over, just enough to get a plastic Sheriff’s badge, gold-ish and hard as a rock, a clip-on job. You could barely read the writing on the front. It was the very definition of a throwaway toy. It was not, strictly speaking, a toy at all. It was tacky decoration, the kind of thing only a little kid would be drawn to.
I remember wondering why Shauna wanted it, what appeal it possibly could have held. She took it and clipped it to her shirt, where it hung like a dead man from a tree, weighty and shifting with every movement, threatening to drag the neck of her shirt halfway down her torso.
Nothing about her outfit or bearing connoted “Sheriff.” She was not dressed in western garb. She was obviously not wearing a county sheriff’s uniform. She might as well have been wearing a football helmet or a pair of boxing gloves.
There was something about the incongruity of the badge—her wanting it, her wearing it unselfconsciously—that struck me as such a little kid thing to do that I found myself misty-eyed, a lump in my throat. It was the sweetest thing I had seen in months.
I still think about that day, that badge, her wearing it while holding the rest of the loot we had won. It still chokes me up. Meaningless to anyone else, probably forgotten by her. Yet it has stayed with me in ways that other, seemingly more memorable events have not.
From little moments like this, we piece together our lives.
I remember how once, when I was taking her home from a weekend visit, Shauna asked me to stay the night. “You can stay at our house,” she said. “I bet Mom won’t mind.”
“Yes, she would,” I said. “She would definitely mind.”
I left that night after another bout of tears. Our visits during those years were always punctuated by Shauna’s tears and my sleeplessness, my nightmares. I don’t care what Shakespeare said. When it comes to your kids, there’s nothing sweet about the sorrow of parting. Nothing sweet at all.
* * *
I remember moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin my doctoral program. I had to do it. I am a writer, but I am also an educator, and you cannot work in the college/university system without a terminal degree, not if you value decent pay and the possibility of job security and benefits. I had to go, for myself and for my family. And so the every-other-weekend-and-alternate-holiday visits became six-weeks-in-the-summer-and-alternate-holidays-and-sometimes-spring-break visits. Even less time than before.
Thus, the end-of-visit anguish intensified, for both of us. We had great times during the visit. It always seemed like we had never been apart. We still knew each other as well as ever; we still loved each other just as fiercely.
But the time. Always the time, and never enough of it.
The night before her leaving was always like a little funeral, not for us or our relationship but for every missed day, missed conversation, missed opportunity to share our lives.
We have survived so many little deaths.
* * *
I remember living in Baton Rouge and hearing her ask tearfully if we could at least arrange it so that we could see each other more.
“Six weeks just isn’t very long,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “As soon as I can save up the money for the court costs and get things settled enough to impress a judge. We can absolutely do that.”
“Okay,” she said.
It never happened. By the time I saved that money and settled my life, everything had changed. Now she had friends, boys, a social life, activities—the things that every healthy, well-adjusted kid has, the things that no decent person can begrudge them.
“Six weeks is an awfully long time,” she said when she told me that she wanted to cut those six weeks down to two. The two would eventually become none, and then she was grown, and working, and dating seriously.
Time flies, and all your good intentions fly with it. When it all goes, you are left with empty rooms, the silence that always descends in the wake of loss. People call it Empty Nest Syndrome, and it is no less painful when that nest has only been occupied part-time. It is natural and good; it is progression, evolution, maturation. It is the very essence of the word “bittersweet.”
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember Shauna’s high-school graduation. I watched her walk across that stage and take her diploma, and I felt as proud as any parent ever does. I felt relief, because she had not only survived all the mines that her mother and I had dug for her; she had thrived. She was moving on to an adult life full of possibility. She could be or do anything. And whatever she might do, I no longer had a say in it. More bitterness, more sweetness—that moment when your child moves past you into a world truly their own. Visitation dependent not only on desire and convenience but also work schedules and vacations.
Graduation is beautiful and agonizing and scary and part of the natural order. It is like the moment when the baby birds finally jump out of the nest, exhilarated and flapping their wings as hard as they can, hoping to catch the right updraft before they splatter on the ground. Meanwhile, the older birds sit in that nest, suddenly alone, time stretching before them all the way to the horizon. They want to scoop up those children and usher them safely back to the fold, knowing all the time that they cannot, must not. That they would not be allowed.
* * *
I remember Shauna’s surprise visit on my birthday. I had not seen her in a year. I walked into Kalene’s office one Friday afternoon, tired and grumpy and ready to go home. Shauna was sitting in a chair, smiling.
I was thunderstruck. I said the only thing I could think of: “Holy shit!”
It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I remember once, when she was a little girl, she drew a picture for me and presented it to me on my birthday. I can’t even remember what it was. All I know is that it was hand-drawn and colored and said, “To Daddy.”
“It’s all I have to give,” she said.
“It’s all I want,” I replied, hugging her. “I can’t imagine getting anything better.”
What do you do for someone who has so often given you all she has to give? When you have so often failed to give her what she asked for, what she needed? How do you sleep at night? What do you dream about? What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
I suppose that the only answer is that you try again. That, even when you can barely stand to look at your own reflection, you stand up and walk. You write her on Facebook. You text her. You invite her to your new home and let her know that she always has a place there, that she never has to ask. You remind her that if she needs something and it is within your power to give it, you will, for this is your duty and your privilege.
And when you screw it all up, you pray that she has one more ounce of forgiveness in her heart.
Do I ever get upset? Oh, yes. God, yes.
But I don’t dwell on those things. I dwell on the blessings I’ve been given—to know her, to be whatever kind of father I’ve been, to spend time with her, to influence her in ways that are, hopefully, more positive than negative. I look at the woman she’s become and hope that her goodness is partially because of me, not just in spite of me. I thank God for her presence in my life—a presence that saved me in very tangible ways.
And then I move onto the next task that will take me through the next minute, and the next hour, and the next day, until she gets off the plane and everything is like it should be again, for just a little while.
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Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”
Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.
I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.
I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.
My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.
But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.
A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.
Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.
More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.
I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.
Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.
Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.
Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.
I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.
Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.
Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”
Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.
Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”
By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.
Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.
I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.
Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”
“Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.
Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.
I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.
And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.
So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.
I never saw him again.
The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.
Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”
At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.
When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.
What kind of person was I?
Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.
And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?
No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.
As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.
But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.
But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.
Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
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If You Ask Me
Nirvana’s Nevermind as Cultural Bomb
I suppose every generation has at least one do-you-remember-where-you-were-when-it-happened event. Some are Earth-, or at least nation-, shattering: the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first shots over the walls of Fort Sumter, the Nazi invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, the launching of Sputnik, the moon landing, Watergate, the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.
Some are moments when world leaders die unexpectedly, changing our lives in less cataclysmic but still important ways—Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Diana.
Still others mark a change or absence in the art and culture that we experience every day. Take the realm of music for an example and you could pick several names from the last forty years: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Lennon, Presley, Wallace, Shakur, Jackson. And if you made such a list, you would be remiss if you failed to include Kurt Cobain.
Other people have written about Cobain. I don’t suppose my story is much different than theirs. It might go something like this.
“And lo, the 1980s came to pass, and in this time the land lay enshrouded in the shadow of a dark and evil force, an entity that ensured the unequal distribution of power and wealth and a return to the personal politics of a bygone era, and that force was named Reaganomics.
“And the popular music of this era would uncritically reflect the thirst for material goods and economic excess for its own sake. The artists of the day would often symbolize the conspicuous consumption that prevailed throughout the land. And in the fullness of time this music would be called Hair Metal.
“And many Hair metal bands would garnish their stages with enormous set pieces, models, blow-up figures, and laser lights, and they would dress in tight leather and spandex and multiple bandanas and thick make-up and whole cases of hairspray, and in their lyrics they would register their desire for never-ending parties and limitless sex and the unfettered flow of drugs and alcohol.
“When these bands first appeared, they heralded the expansion of music into new and interesting directions, and their charming fin-de-siecle attitudes super-charged the youth of the land. But as the wealthy hoarded more and more of the land’s resources and the poor became more desperate and those in the middle disappeared, the land’s taste for Hair Metal transmogrified into a yearning for something new—something angrier than New Wave and more accessible than Punk.
“And in the latter part of the decade, those who yearned discovered bands such as the Melvins, and later, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mother Love Bone, and Dinosaur Jr. And new bands formed under the influences of these forbears, and their names included Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With regular rotation on MTV, these bands grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. And perhaps their success is best epitomized in Nirvana’s second studio album, the 1991 release Nevermind.”
I’ve got much love for 80s Hair Metal and the other bands mentioned above. But when Nirvana released Nevermind, few people were probably aware that the band had actually detonated a cultural bomb, one that would change the musical landscape and the youth of America. Nevermind is nothing short of a watershed moment in musical history, and now that we are twenty years past its release (!!!), I feel that I must consider it and its place in my life.
Nirvana formed in 1987, and in 1989, when I graduated high school and saw the birth of my daughter Shauna, they released their first album Bleach on the famous grunge label Sub Pop. I was aware of this album and liked it quite a lot. As many critics pointed out, Nirvana’s sound emulated the Pixies’ in many ways, especially the LOUD-quiet-LOUD structure of their songs. For influences, you could certainly do much worse, right? And I remember really liking songs like “About a Girl,” the simplified growl of “School” (“Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck. / No recess!”), the metal-like anger of “Blew,” the speed-metal-ish “Negative Creep.”
But with Nevermind, I went from being aware of Nirvana to being obsessed with them. The album sounded like a mélange of many things I’d heard before, but at the same time, it sounded completely new. It was angry in a way that you could only find in the punkiest punk or the speediest metal; it was sardonic; it was sincere and heart-wrenching; it was critical. I listened to each song and felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the album.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song for which they are probably most famous, is the borderline-incoherent scream of a new generation. Songs like “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are” demonstrate Nirvana’s range—the one hard and heavy, the other like something The Police could have recorded. “Breed” could be a punk song. “Lithium” and “Drain You” rock like metal, though neither shares the typical subject matter of the most prominent hair bands. “Polly” is, quite frankly, one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard. And the dirge-like “Something in the Way” is simply, completely different than anything else on the album. The repeated lyrics are both haunting and mystifying: “Underneath the bridge / My tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped / Have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass / And the drippings from my ceiling / It’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings / Something in the way, mmm…”
As a band, Nirvana also looked different. We had already moved from bands like the Beatles, who first came to us in button-down shirts and ties, to long-haired, leather-clad, hirsute rockers to the 80s-era spandex and make-up. Nirvana, by contrast, looked as if they had just fallen out of bed at a college dorm. They wore faded jeans and t-shirts and cardigan sweaters. On stage, they leaped around as if they had just come from the mosh pit themselves, or else they stood still; they had no elaborate set pieces or enormous scaffolding that spanned the arenas or massive fireworks displays. If they tended to destroy their instruments a la the Who and countless other bands before them, they could not always be counted on to do so safely or in a way that seemed practiced; witness bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his bass into the air, only to have it land on his own head.
In their televised performances they seemed to exude a barely-controlled anger perhaps restrained only by a distaste for excess. They could rip your spine out with their crunching chords or soothe your aching eardrums with an almost-melodic detour into a song like “Something….” Their music seemed to have been made by people who knew what had happened to America in the 80s—the false siren call of “family values” that marginalized alternative family paradigms and modes of being; the “prosperity” that stopped at the very top and trickled down to the rest of us not at all, in spite of the political rhetoric at the time; the belief in American exceptionalism that still hamstrings us today. Nirvana’s music seemed to rise up from the middle-class-to-poor spirit that had been trampled on. Starting off as a marginal voice from a marginal movement, it took center stage with Nevermind and reminded us that music could be more than what it had become.
I will always love my Hair Metal bands, both the fun ones like Poison (yep, I’m not ashamed of that) and the more serious ones like Dio. But I can honestly say that Nirvana reminded me of what rock music could be, beginning with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s death was every bit as important and traumatic to me as John Lennon’s. Cobain might not have reached Lennon’s level as a songwriter, but as a voice crying out in the wilderness of our lives, Cobain has no superior.
In this, the twentieth year since that watershed moment, I salute Nevermind all over again, and its three creators, whose collaboration was, like Cobain himself, gone too soon.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies
If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.” According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.
Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.
Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.
The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.
All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.
Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.
I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.
Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.
My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.
Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.
Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.
Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.
I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.
None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.
I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.
Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.
Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.
When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.
What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?
Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“Whose Hands Are These?”
A few months back, Kalene and I were watching an episode of Strange Addictions. The subject of that week’s program was a young woman addicted to tanning. She went to several different tanning beds every day, divvying up her visits to avoid the safety limitations that each individual salon imposed. Then she would go home and lay out by the pool, her only sunblock a bottle of baby oil. This woman didn’t have a tan; she fairly glowed orange, rating about an eight on the John Boehner-Hulk Hogan scale. You could have used her for a nightlight.
At one point in the show, she visited a dermatologist, who, of course, told her that she had been playing Russian Roulette with her life, given the increasing prevalence of skin cancer. He also took one of her hands and pointed out all the wrinkles, the spots, the dryness. The woman called them “old people hands,” though of course the presence of that condition did not deter her. When she found that she had no major skin issues at that point in her life, she took it for a sign that she was making sound decisions and that she could rub the results in her concerned friends’ and family’s noses.
The fact that she would probably look like a piece of beef jerky by the time she was thirty-five apparently did nothing to persuade her, and neither did the fact that, you know, she might develop major health problems in the future. I suppose that most smokers in their late teens to early twenties probably don’t have emphysema yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re making healthy decisions.
You just can’t tell some people anything.
For me, though, that image of her hands stuck out the most. They were as deep brown/orange as the rest of her; fittingly enough, her nails looked like five alabaster tombstones sticking out of rich newly-dug earth. Deep wrinkles covered her finger joints. You could see the beginnings the splotches people call liver spots or age spots. And she herself used that phrase “old people hands.” Of course, I looked down at my own hands at that moment, and I found that, while my skin tone remains at the polar opposite of orange, the rest of the symptoms presented just fine. The wrinkles at the joints. The increasingly-large freckles. The out-and-out splotches that I had heretofore only noticed on retirees.
I had old people hands.
None of this has to do with my own current tanning habits, which rate somewhere just above Dracula’s. I don’t burst into flame on contact with sunlight, but it’s pretty close. My pale skin reddens after less than half an hour of sunlight, even after I use SPF 85. It turns boiled-lobster red if I stay out longer than that. I have been known to stay out for a few hours with insufficient sunblock and spend the next days in agony, my blistered skin feeling as if a million needles were being jabbed into it ceaselessly, my shoulders and upper back covered in water blisters. Most of that happened when I was a kid, before anyone knew the potential effects of sunburns, and only three or four times at that.
But even now, against Kalene’s advice and the recommendation of dermatologists everywhere, I don’t moisturize every day, and I don’t wear sunblock on my way to work or the grocery store. I haven’t refused to do so out of some entitled sense of my own immortality or sheer stubbornness. I just don’t remember. And as a result, my currently forty-year-old hands look forty years old.
But it’s not just my hands. My face has changed, too. I now know the definition of “crow’s feet,” a fact that dismays me more than I can explain. I have a deep wrinkle across the bridge of my nose right between my eyes and another one a half-inch or so down, evidence of how much time I apparently spend scowling and angry. Even when I open my eyes as wide as I can and shove the skin back with my fingers, I can still see the depths of those wrinkles. I’m afraid that by the time I’m eighty I’ll look like a bulldog—a very pale, almost translucent bulldog.
See, here’s the thing: I couldn’t tan even if I wanted to. I learned that the hard way when I was younger. I never really cared what anybody else thought of me, but for some reason, I wanted a tan, probably so that I could wear shorts in the summer without having to fight every self-styled wit with a pocketful of “fish-belly” jokes. So I would lay out in the back yard, at the public pool, down at the river when my friends and I drove out for a day of swimming. I fondly remember the look on my father’s face when he came home for lunch one summer day, looked out his back patio door, and saw nothing but a ladder and a few pairs of dangling legs. My friends and I had decided to sunbathe on the roof. And once, I ruined a perfectly good fishing trip with my father as I struggled to maneuver around in the boat so that I could “tan” equally on both sides.
Oh, I used sunblock—SPF 2.75 or something like that. But as early as my mid-teens, I learned that the pain of even a mild sunburn did not seem worth the pathetic results I achieved. I never tanned; I just got a bit less white. If the Twilight films had existed back then, they could have plucked me off the street and sent me out as Vampire Henchman #4 without any makeup.
These days, I don’t even care. When I go to the beach or the pool, I spray or slather on the sunblock until I am encased in a solid layer on which bugs lose their lives. Throw a Frisbee at me and it just might stick fast. I have read too much and experienced too much of the scary effects of tanning, only one of which is the premature aging of your skin.
Nevertheless, whenever I look in the mirror, I can still see aging’s effects in every wrinkle, every freckle that has morphed into something the size of a penny, every liver spot that has had the temerity to show up so far before its time. And though I am perfectly comfortable with aging gracefully—no plans for any plastic surgery for me—I just don’t understand why someone so young would take so many chances with their appearance, their health, their very life now that we know everything we know.
I mean, if I could say one thing to that woman on Strange Addictions, I guess it would be this: if my hands look their age, you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when nobody really knew about the dangers of second-hand smoke, or ultraviolet radiation, or letting your kids climb all over the inside of a moving vehicle, or eating deep-fried everything.
What’s your excuse?
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