I work at a bookstore. I try to stay as far away from the kids’ section as possible. Not because I have anything against children’s books, but because it is an organizational nightmare. Despite my efforts, I often have to shelve there. I found a book written in the 1950s, maybe, by some curmudgeon. I can’t remember the title. It praised the boredom of childhood. Boredom, the argument went, is the impetus for all that is creative and independent in children. Unsupervised kids find a way. On some level, my parents concurred. Their parenting style boils down to what my mother terms “loving neglect.”
I don’t disagree with the premise. Staring at the wall and milling around empty cul-de-sacs looking for something to do was instructive. It prepared me to be a writer, a dubious profession that entails a disproportionate loafing/writing ratio. And it taught me how to notice. My childhood was not overscheduled like many of my friends’ lives. I didn’t have a crisis of parental absence in college.
Yet the drawbacks are clear. My mother grew up in Detroit where neighborhoods were cohesive social units, even if they were fraught. My father grew up in Georgia where the same was true even if neighbors and schoolmates lived farther away. Some of this was true for me. We lived two doors down from Washington Park, something I’m grateful for. My childhood best friend, Evan, lived behind me. I was not isolated, is what I mean. There were block parties.
Still. American suburbia is a disconnected space. There was never a sense that we did indeed live in a community. Suburbia is also non-evental. I believe these things are related. In her essay, “The Importance of Being Iceland,” Eileen Myles writes, “Really, if you travel here outside the interesting American cities and ignore all the natural beauty of our country you’ll see that America is rapidly becoming this place which is nothing…” There is, I confess, little natural beauty to acknowledge or ignore in suburban Illinois. There is a quality of sameness. In Zizek’s Welcome to the Desert of the Real, a collection of essays about 9/11 and its aftermath, he draws an interesting parallel between Cuba and the post-industrial West, of which, I would argue, American suburbia is the symbol par excellence. While, in Cuba, time seems unmoved because they repair and rebuild what they already have, time also seems unmoved in the post-industrial west because of the obsessive process of making everything anew. “In Cuba, revolutionary mobilization conceals social stasis; in the developed West, frantic social activity conceals the basic sameness of global capitalism, the absence of the Event…” Anyone who came of age in the sweet-spot of post-Glass-Steagal repeal and pre-2008 financial meltdown can easily recognize this. Safety and peace in America are defined solely as an absence of threat and an absence of conflict, respectively. Suburbia was meant to be the safest and most peaceful place in the world. In such an anesthetized and antiseptic milieu, what did it mean for things to happen?
Safety and peace in America are defined solely as an absence of threat and an absence of conflict, respectively. Suburbia was meant to be the safest and most peaceful place in the world. This concealed much more than a “sameness of global capitalism.” In such an anesthetized and antiseptic milieu, what did it mean for things to happen? I’ll spend more time developing the problems of “eventalism,” concealment, and disconnection in suburbia, or “The Suburban Question,” as I call it. I plan on giving it its own series as I do more research. The question, for now, is small. And maybe, at first, silly. What does any of this have to do with Mirah’s album you think it’s like this, but really it’s like this?
Alain Badiou defines an Event as something that arrives almost ex nihilo. It so changes the coordinates of reality that it forces a binary decision: yes or no. I find this messianic quality compelling–I’m Catholic–but I do not find it sufficient. I would argue there are events that do not feel like events in this way. If you’ve ever seen or read No Country for Old Men, there’s a moment where Anton Chigurh confronts Carson Wells who has been sent to kill him (these characters are played by Javier Bardem and Woody Harrelson, respectively). He asks him a simple but difficult question:
Chigurh leaned back. He studied Wells. Tell me something, he said.
If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
I’m talking about your life. In which now everything can be seen at once.
We make choices that don’t feel like choices at the time. There’s just what’s at hand. This creates a “rule,” a path. Once time passes, when almost “everything can be seen at once,” you can see how it has borne out for you. These can be small things. For me, Mirah’s you think it’s like this, but really it’s like this is one of those small shifts that bloomed into part of how I learned about love and intimacy. Here’s how that happened.
Summers yawned into a humid expanse of boredom. Every now and again someone had a cookout or something like that. A friend, Sarah B., lived a few blocks away. I was around twelve when her family had a barbecue. These were always socially awkward in the way that mass gatherings of friends, family, and the coterie of strangers belonging to each always are. Sarah had a cousin, whose name I can’t remember. She had a Hellenic nose and curly hair. She was a couple years older. Once we met, there was the instant attraction beholden to adolescents who have no idea how attraction works. There’s just fevered, aimless interest. And conversation. She and I both loved music. I remember sequestering ourselves away from the other kids in Sarah’s basement. I likely said many embarrassing things about my passion for Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins. Before I had to go home she gave me a burnt CD with two albums on it, two of her favorites. The first was Pedro the Lion’s It’s Hard to Find a Friend. I was not ready for it and thought it was boring. Actually, I still think it’s boring but I have more appreciation for it now. The second was Mirah’s you think it’s like this…
I loved it then as I love it now. I’d never heard anything like it. It’s difficult to remember how surprising it was to be turned onto to new things then. The internet was still in its nascency. I don’t know if K Records even had a website at that time. Likely it did, but I hadn’t the information to track it down. All I knew was that a woman named Mirah put out a beautiful little record that sounded unlike anything I’d heard before. I didn’t even have a tracklisting. I did a lot of walking around all the dead streets of my town with that CD in my walkman. Sprinklers tossed fanned hands of water onto plush lawns. It sounded like a gentle secret.
I’ve written before about my high school obsession with Henry Rollins. In Broken Summers, his book chronicling the Black Flag rehash tour in support of the West Memphis Three, he talks about listening to Rites of Spring in the tour van. It rocketed him back in time. Black Flag had broken up or was about to break up, and he was back in town to visit Ian MacKaye. That’s when he first saw Rites, first heard the record. I remember reading that and wondering what that snap backward in time might feel like. I didn’t understand the accretion of life because I was a teenager. It never dawned on me that Rollins likely didn’t know how important Rites of Spring would prove to be. Nor did he know what it would mean to him later on, to listen to the album on a tour bus at age forty. It didn’t feel like an Event, but then there it was: the tether when followed backward leads to a shift in the coordinates of one’s life.
Last summer, I got screwed over by a landlord. I was couch-to-couch for most of it. I spent a month in a cabin just off the upper reaches of the Old Santa Fe Trail, where Americans made their first inroads into the Navajo and Pueblo land they would soon plunder more thoroughly than the Spanish. My friend Maya was renting the place. At night, I would read and write while she sprawled on the couch and drew. Or we’d sit out on the porch and chain smoke. Neither of us was doing very well. She had a playlist that had all the best cut’s from you think it’s like this… on it. And there it was: Snap.
I shot back to Sarah B.’s darkened basement, where I would, in the years after that barbecue, have the majority of my earliest sexual experiences in junior high. I shot back to putting,”Murphy Bed,” on a mix for Katie, my first love, in our senior year of high school. And how I hitched a ride to see her row for Northeastern at the Head of the Charles only to be dumped in her dorm room the day after. My knees went. I shot back to Christmas break my sophomore year of college when my then-girlfriend Mo and I would scrape together enough cash to coax homeless men into buying us booze. Then drinking to Mirah songs, among others, at her mom’s place. We would hang out her bedroom window to smoke with our jackets on.
Mo and I met in a creative writing class on the American short story in the fall of my sophomore year. She was a freshman. There was a long prolonged kind of courtship that involved drinking, chain smoking, and reading stories aloud to each other. Because I’d gone to St. Ignatius, which while I was there had a more Great Books oriented curriculum, I knew nothing about contemporary lit. I didn’t even know how to find authors I liked. College changed this for me. But so did Mo. Through her, I found writers and stories that changed me: Gary Lutz, Amy Hempel, Denis Johnson, and, most importantly, Raymond Carver. I can still remember when she started reading me Carver stories and poems. She had de facto moved into my dorm room. We passed a bottle back and forth.
She was one of the first people to tell me I should and could be a writer. She was one of the best editors I’ve ever had. Her blue eyes were unrelenting in their wounded intensity. She had a profound addiction to opiates and to alcohol and she taught me how to drink. It worked until it didn’t. Mo was also the person through whom I found the twelve-step program that saved my life.
A month after I moved out of the cabin with Maya, I was staying with a friend out on Agua Fria. I got a message on facebook from a college friend. Mo had died. Elisa didn’t know how yet and wanted me to know. I’d spent the past few years checking the obits every few months for her name. One summer, when she and I had broken it off, she had chased a bottle of sleeping pills with a liter of vodka. When she woke up in the hospital, she was so angry she had lived that she tried to storm out. The doctors had no idea how she’d survived. The fall after that we got back together. She would pull me close in the night and ask, over and over, “Why am I still alive?” I don’t know what I said. After a while, we’d broken off contact with each other because that seemed like the best option.
I flew out to Chicago for the memorial. The first thing her boyfriend said to me was, “I’ve always worried this would be how we’d meet.” He told me how she had OD’d on heroin for the third or fourth time in thirty-six hours. She was in his bathtub. He found her. She spent the next week on life support. I could smell Lake Michigan’s freshwater churn. I squeezed his shoulder in the shade of the tree outside where the memorial venue. Did we both weep?
All of these things happen at once when I listen to this record now. Sarah’s cousin, the basement where after school we’d play strip poker with our friends and fumble around with each other’s bodies; Katie biting my lip so hard it bled and colored red my bottom teeth and how lucky I felt to wake up next to her on the twin-sized beds of our respective dorms; Mo’s feline hands and how angry and vengeful she could get on your behalf had you ever been slighted, and then attending the memorial and seeing friends of hers we’d drank and done drugs with.
Someone had handed me a CD and I took it. It has been in the background of my life for almost twenty years. Joyce’s character Stephen Daedelus famously says, “Non serviam,” or “I will not serve.” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes, “Only by means of a no may a book such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerge into being. And only by means of a no may a book like Ulysses reach its famous conclusion: ‘and yes I said yes I will Yes.'” I have said acquiesced or refused without realizing it. I have felt safe and not. I have thought it was like this, but really it was like that. Who among us can say where the rules on which we have unwittingly decided will lead us? Who can say which is more lovely: the blossoming fever of spring, or the naked honesty of stripped branches in winter?
So long, see you tomorrow.