I took a course in electromagnetism when I was a sophomore in college—I turned out not to have much aptitude for physics but it was required. I often think about a little throwaway moment from the first day of class, in which the professor described electromagnetic force as being the one we’re most aware of interacting with. That, in fact, due to electromagnetism, we were all actually hovering a tiny distance above the atoms in our chairs. For years, that image would pop into my head unbidden: the infinitesimal but real space between our fingertips and the object our our desire, separating us, insulating us, sequestering us forever, an uncrossable gap.
I’m given to a touch of melodrama, I suppose.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about language, perhaps because I’ve been reading Sofia Samatar’s novel A Stranger in Olondria. About the profound weirdness of sitting alone in a quiet room, my mind full of sounds and images thought up and preserved by someone in a completely different place and time. But even beyond the written word, I’m thinking about how, by making noises with your mouth, you can induce a brain state in me such that we are both essentially thinking the same thing. We are, for a moment, in sync. I’m thinking that I don’t know whether there is a soul or if what I am is a series of electrical patterns running from one neuron to the next, but that either way, language allows you to literally change me. And even though none of these ideas are particularly novel, or really even any deeper than what I might have rambled about while getting high after reading Kant for the first time as an undergraduate, there’s something comforting about the idea that our minds can touch, even if the particles of our bodies might not.
I have the feeling that the preceding paragraphs are ones that my future self is going to find insufferable and embarrassing, in much the same way that reading posts from the beginning of my blog make me want to set myself on fire. But it’s been a hell of a year, demoralizing and alienating, and perhaps I might be forgiven for grasping at any little thing that helps me feel connected to the rest of humanity.
Has it really been so bad? I mean, it has insofar as I can’t remember ever being so worried about the future, but there’s been so much to be thankful for as well. So many evenings spent reading to my kids, so many afternoons spent in engaging conversation with friends new or old, so many times I held my wife’s hand, even if neither of us said anything. The most insidious thing about 2017 is how it has convinced me to forget all of that and focus on the loneliness.
There’s so much to be angry about, but I’m not great at being angry. When I was younger I could nurse rage and resentment for days, weeks maybe, but I can’t sustain it anymore. And somehow I still believe—perhaps naively—that there’s a way out of all of this, and that art and stories and empathy and connection can help get us there. I don’t mean to say that hugging my kids or reading a good book or taking time for introspection over a cup of tea is going to save our democracy or end racism or keep capitalism from crushing us all. I mean that one way or another what will carry me through, what will last, what will always matter are the ways that I’ve been close to someone else.
Is there something that has made you feel less alone recently? I’d love to hear about it, if you’re willing to share.
My son has a pet crayfish. Which, I suppose, is another way of saying that I have a pet crayfish. This isn't something I was expecting to ever say. But then, my experience of parenthood can more or less be summed up by the fact that I have an actual list of "Things I Never Thought I'd Say."
Red—that is the crayfish's name, and also its color, more or less—came to live with us in May, having previously been part of my son's third-grade unit on life science. He (my son assures me that Red is male) spends most of his time lying around on his side, a disconcerting habit in an animal that lacks eyelids, making it look like he is constantly dying or already dead. When I see him doing that, I tap on the side of his aquarium, my finger making a dull, ringing thump on the plastic, and Red immediately rights himself and either brandishes his tiny pincers at me or scurries into the little flowerpot we've provided him for "privacy." These are Red's three general states of being: depressive malaise, ridiculous bravado, and hiding in darkness. Which, when I put it that way actually makes the smelly little creature kind of relatable.
When I was a kid, a few years younger than my son is now, we lived in a cabin in Bixby Canyon, maybe a mile or so in along the canyon floor from where the creek ran under the famous bridge that causes so many traffic problems now, lines of parked cars a quarter mile in each direction as the tourists jockey for a spot to take the same exact photograph as the people they're elbowing out of the way, hundreds of them every day. There weren't so many of them back then, but either way we had our own little bridge as well, though ours was just a little wooden foot bridge and not a historic concrete arch. The creek ran through our front yard, and in the shadows cast by that little foot bridge, under the rocks, there were rainbow trout and crayfish, though we called them crawdads. We would pass the time, sometimes, by tearing up slices of American cheese, rolling the bits into balls and dropping them over the side of the bridge to feed the trout and the crawdads. The first time I saw my mother's boyfriend doing that, I thought he was throwing pebbles at them. I tossed in a big rock, which made a satisfying splash before it crushed one of the crawdads. I got a spanking for that.
We lived in that cabin about a year, from one winter to the next. I learned a lot of things that year. I learned which spots in the creek the crawdads liked to lurk in, and how if I dipped a blade of long grass in front of them, they'd grab it and wouldn't let go even after I pulled them out of the water. I learned what crawdads taste like when my mother's boyfriend decided to take us to a different part of the creek and showed us how to catch a whole bucketful, how they turn bright red when you boil them, how to tear the tails off and suck the meat out. I learned that sometimes my mom's boyfriend would be interested and affectionate with us, and sometimes he would be sullen or angry, but I never quite learned what would make the difference, or how to anticipate his moods. I eventually learned that I wasn't responsible for his moods, but not that year.
I asked my son the other day if he loved Red. He thought about it for a second, then cocked his head and said "No, but I'll still be sad when he dies." It seems like this is our main interaction with Red apart from feeding him and changing his water once a week—that is, waiting for him to die. Crayfish can live several years according to what we looked up online, but what we heard from teachers and other kids' parents was that they usually only last a few weeks after the kids take them home, and, indeed, Red has already outlived the rest of his third-grade science class cohort. It seems a little strange to me, sometimes, that the boy is so attached to this creature that gives so little back, but this is what he's like. He cares. I think sometimes that he's better than I am, and that's a good feeling.
Thoughts After a Weekend Full of Art
On Sunday afternoon I wandered away from my tour group and sat by myself at a picnic table in front of the San Diego Museum of Art, and ate a wrap I’d bought from a cart and finished reading A Pale View of Hills. Most likely if I had asked some of the other people with me if I could join them, or if they’d like to join me, they’d have said yes, and I felt that perhaps I ought to have done that, but it was nice to have the time to myself.
Every year I look forward to the Medium Festival of Photography, four glorious days of art and discussion and camaraderie, my favorite event in this or really any town. Beforehand, I count down the days, and afterwards I am filled with longing for the kind of connection I’ve just had, the experience of finally being among my people. It’s wonderful and it’s exhausting.
I’m at my best, I think, when I’m able to celebrate my peers. This friend has a solo museum exhibition, that friend has an amazing new book, this one just had a great interaction with a reviewer, that one sold both of his prints within half an hour of the show opening, and I’m thrilled. My friends’ successes make me feel like a part of something bigger than myself, like things are actually right with the world, and I wonder why I can’t feel that way about my own successes, why I feel embarrassed when someone asks to see my work, why I feel the need to apologize when, afterwards, they thank me and pay me a compliment. Why do I feel the need to make myself small? Why is it hard for me to admit that I’m proud of my own work?
It’s the strangest thing in the world to exult and shrink in the same moment.
Of course it’s not about the work, it’s always just me. In truth, I’m past feeling insecure about my photographs. I know what I’m trying to do with my images and my books, and why, and I believe that I have done what I set out to do, and done it well. Honestly, I think I’m good at what I do, and I don’t much care if people don’t like the work. It’s not the rejection that hurts, it’s the acceptance.
If it sounds like the weekend has been difficult for me and not like it was a joyful, inspiring, glorious experience, it’s because I’m doing a poor job of describing it, obsessing about details instead of filling in the whole scene. I got to spend four days swimming in art, filling my lungs with it, dancing with it until I collapsed in exhaustion only to begin again the next morning. I made new friends and reconnected with old ones, I had some amazing conversations, and received so much kindness from people who don’t owe me anything. If I am unable to simply bask in such warmth, it is a shortcoming of mine, not of the place or people with whom I spent the time.
If my twenties were a process of coming to terms with and accepting a comforting sense of mediocrity, then perhaps my thirties have been the process of letting that go. My forties aren’t too far off. It’ll be interesting to see how they go.
I realized the other day that most of my favorite TinyLetters are written by people much younger than me. There’s a feeling of incipience and urgency that I enjoy reading but struggle to find in my own narrative lately.
There’s a way in which middle age—and if I’m being honest with myself, that’s where I should rightly place myself these days—seems to resemble the heat death of the universe. That is to say, one hypothetical fate of the universe is to reach an eternal steady state in which entropy is maximized and nothing happens anymore, and each moment is indistinguishable from the one just before or just after. This is how life feels sometimes once you’ve moved past your youth. Being young has a built-in sense of direction, of growth, of motion. You feel you are building toward something, even if you don’t know what that something is—at least, that is how I felt. But eventually you settle into a routine, and your life becomes what it is. From day to day, week to week, year to year, nothing much happens to distinguish the current moment from any other.
This isn’t true, of course. It just feels true, probably due to a short attention span. Mind you, this has always been true, but lately, reminders of this untruth have tended to smack me in the face.
My 20th high school reunion was a few weeks ago, and I had a surprisingly good time. For most of my life I’ve had a lot of social anxiety and the prospect of having to make small talk always makes me squirm, but the combination of having hosted an interview podcast for nearly two years, and the realization that I was legitimately interested in hearing people’s stories made the night quite enjoyable. Now, I had expected to hear a lot about what my classmates had been up to for the past two decades—and that did, indeed, happen—but what I wasn’t prepared for was hearing so many recollections about myself. Especially ones I had forgotten.
I wrote about this a couple of years ago for my blog, how people can have such different memories of an event, and how the meaning of those memories shape our lives. It’s jarring, to say the least, to realize that the story you tell about yourself is incomplete. I tend to see my adolescent self as fundamentally self-absorbed, usually well-meaning but sometimes petty or cruel—which is to say: a teenager—and generally unremarkable. That so many people not only remembered me, but remembered specific kindnesses I’d shown them or specific times I’d helped them or done right by them, it shook me. Not just because the edges around the holes in my memory have the same texture as the edges of my existence, but because it forces me to reevaluate the things I want to believe about myself now.
One of the most freeing realizations I’ve had in my life was how comfortable mediocrity is. This epiphany came after failing the first exam I took in college, which was shocking but also felt a bit like flying—to this day, I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder or longer than the day I got my score back on that test. Excellence has its comforts, too, but it comes with responsibility. Mediocrity places no demands. And if unimportance takes the shine off of my achievements, it also takes the sting out of the harm I’ve caused. You have to matter to someone in order to hurt them.
After the party I drove a friend back to his hotel room, and on the way he told me stories about how good a friend I’d been to him, back in the day. I wanted to argue with him, to tell him that I was nothing special, then or now. I wanted to insist, and by insisting, to take away something from his story, something which he treasures. What would I take from anyone to keep myself comfortable, to avoid the responsibility of living up to being something? I kept my insistence to myself, and sat and listened to his stories, and gave him a hug before we parted.
This isn’t ending where it began, which I suppose is appropriate. I’m learning. At least, I’m trying.
This Is It
At about 4:30 this morning, my son wandered into my bedroom and told me that he'd had a bad dream. He said that he had been running away from Voldemort, that Voldemort had been killing everybody around him and he had to get away, and then he woke up. I let him lie down between me and my wife, and within a few seconds he was asleep again.
An hour and a half later, my alarm went off. I rolled over and picked up my phone from where it lay on my nightstand, to be greeted by a whole night's worth of push notifications from different news services. Each new message told a story worse than the last—first a warning about an active shooter, then two dead, then twenty, then fifty. I put the phone down, turned and reached down to where my son lay, still warm and unaware. I put my hand on his back and he stirred. "Time to get up, buddy," I said. He stretched and sat up. I didn't tell him what I'd just read, nor his sisters. I don't think I will. That they don't have to be burdened with such horror is a privilege, of course.
I don't believe in magic. It has nevertheless been years since the last time a nightmare sent my son seeking comfort and reassurance from me or his mother in the middle of the night. That the image which so terrified him was of crowds of people running while a dark figure indiscriminately snuffed out lives all around him is... Well, it's the kind of thing that makes me wonder about coincidences.
The thing that hurts the most about a day like today, like any of these days with which we have all become so unfortunately familiar, is the certain knowledge that the world is like this because that's how people want it to be. Oh, sure, they may profess shock or grief on a day like this one, but still nothing happens, nothing changes. Not when a man stormed into an elementary school and killed twenty children. Not when an avowed racist looking to start a race war entered a church and killed nine people. Not when a police officer shot and killed an unarmed 12-year-old on camera.
Is it just guns? No, of course not. White supremacists march openly through the town square and the President makes excuses while well-meaning onlookers wrap themselves in the First Amendment and "tut tut" about campus protests. Houston, Florida, and now Puerto Rico—not to mention all of those other Caribbean islands—are demolished by successive hurricanes, but of course millions of Americans still believe that climate change is a hoax, including the head of the EPA. Closer to my home, a local Congressman is calling for war with North Korea. And city officials twiddled their thumbs for months while a hepatitis outbreak ballooned and claimed lives, only bothering to take action when the deaths made national news. (Meanwhile, of course, the amount of affordable, or even available, housing continues to fall in the area, jagged rocks are still under most of our overpasses, and now the city is clearing the streets without giving the homeless anywhere to go.) Nothing changes.
Let's not pretend that this isn't who we are. This is it. We have the money and the means to make life better, to protect those who need protecting, to save the planet. We know what we need to do, if not to solve our problems then at least to improve them. But we don't, because in our hearts we don't want to. Because whether it's guns or oil or property values or white supremacy, no price is too high to keep things comfortable for those who aren't already suffering. Because having to admit that solutions are available would mean admitting that we're part of the problem. The greatest source of harm in this world isn't greed, it's the inability to tolerate any amount of emotional discomfort.
After my kids left for school this morning, feeling heavy and sliding toward despair at the morning's news, I headed into the bathroom to get cleaned up for work. I noticed a small shape on the wall, about waist level to my three-year-old, a tiny red star no larger than two grains of rice stuck together. And for a brief moment, things didn't seem so bad. There is, as always, yet innocence and beauty and simple joy in the world. No joy is ever quite so pure as that of a toddler with a sticker, and how seductive that feeling is when all is wrong with the world. How I'd love to stay there in that space. Who wouldn't? But that would be giving up, just as surely as would despairing.
I don't have any answers. I never have. I don't know how to make people care. At least, not enough to make them take an honest look in the mirror and change. Do I even care enough? I don't know. I just know that I'm sad and angry and tired as hell.
I close so many letters or lists or threads by saying "I wish you peace." And I do. And I want to say that now. But the truth is that there will be no peace unless we make it, and we can't do that without struggle, without discomfort. I keep thinking that people will get there eventually. I hope we do. Me, too.
We had your birthday party this past weekend, but today is your birthday. Your party was pretty great, though. You were tired by the end of the day, after all of the dancing and playing and hollering and hugging, but when you went to bed you said you'd had a great day. I'm glad.
You've had another big year. Kindergarten was a breeze for you, and your teacher constantly talked about how smart and hard-working you are. Now you're in first grade and I know you're going to do just as well. You had your first dance recital over the summer, too, and you were one of the best ones from your class. You take things seriously and always do your best, but you also know how to have fun and relax, too, whether that's curling up on a chair in the living room with an iPad and your favorite YouTube channel, or whether it's having your friends over for a play date. (You had your first sleepover this year, too, and that was great fun.)
I'm always proud of you for how much you care about doing things well and doing the right thing. Mostly, though, I'm happy to get to spend time with you, either reading with you or, lately, watching So You Think You Can Dance together. You're a really great kid, and I'm lucky to be your dad.
Happy birthday, my girl. I love you.
Soundtrack: "Wildrunners (With Oohs)" by Hugo Hans. Licensed from Marmoset Music.
(Briefly) Empty Nest
When he was a puppy, our dog slept beside our bed, just within reach of my fingertips if I let my arm hang down from under the blankets. Then, when our son was born, the dog moved into his room and helped keep bad dreams away while the boy slept. But ever since our first daughter was born, and now, still, with three kids in the house, he sleeps in the hallway, the better to keep watch over the entire family each night.
This week the kids—all three of them—are hundreds of miles away, visiting their grandparents. The dog is still sleeping in the hallway, though. Perhaps he wonders where they are. Perhaps he feels some stress over not being able to protect them. Some day none of them will live here anymore, but, already almost eleven years old, it's unlikely that the dog will live long enough to see even the first of them go.
This is a melancholy thought, but it's not at all out of character for me.
With the kids away and me being out of the office, I've had few responsibilities for the past week. Notwithstanding the relentless march of terrible news, this should be a time for me to enjoy myself. And it has—J and I have eaten at interesting restaurants, seen some good movies, visited art exhibitions, and even spent one afternoon wine-tasting. Both of us have also spent time working on personal projects. In a lot of ways it's been glorious.
Over and over, though, I keep thinking about how hard it's going to hit me when the kids finally move out for real. How this is, in fact, the goal of parenting: to prepare your children to go out into the world and leave you behind. How brief the time is that you get to have them close. How some day they will all be too big for me to lift and hold in my arms, and how I most likely won't even notice the last time I do so.
While they've been gone, J and I dismantled our youngest's crib and took it and the rocking chair out of her room, and replaced them with a real bed. The crib went to J's sister's house, where in a few months it will belong to our newest nephew, after he's born. The rocker very nearly went to Goodwill, but at the last minute J changed her mind, realizing that she couldn't part with it yet. I'm nearly always sentimentally attached to objects, but J almost never is. There's something powerful, though, that both of us feel about the fact that we no longer have babies in the house. For nine years we've been comforting our children in that chair, reading to them, singing to them, lulling them to sleep. It's a lot to move on from. We'll get there, but not just yet.
A couple of days ago I went into my son's empty room, lay down on the bed, and just stared at the ceiling for a while. He has two Pokémon posters taped up there, and a paper Christmas tree from 2012, a few splashes of color against an otherwise plain, white background. His room still had the slightly musty, slightly sweet smell of boy, and I wondered how long it would take for it to completely fade. It struck me how strange and melodramatic and possibly creepy I was being, but it was still another minute or two before I got up.
The kids will be home tomorrow, bringing with them all the joys and aggravations that kids do. I can't wait.
As I write this letter, you are asleep, having spent the day running and playing and having lots of fun. Earlier this evening, you and I sat next to each other when we went to a restaurant for dinner, and just before the food came you climbed into my lap—completely unprompted—and let me give you a hug and a kiss. It was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one—most of the time when I ask if I can give you a hug or kiss you say no. But, honestly, this is one of the things I love about you, that you have a sense of your personal boundaries and that you are independent and strong-willed.
You've had a big year. This was the year of your first dance recital, the year you discovered CookieSwirlC, the year you learned the words to every song from the soundtracks to Moana and Steven Universe, and the year you started potty training. You always have a ton of energy in everything you do, and you've been proud of your accomplishments, and for good reason! In the fall you'll be starting pre-school, and you're looking forward to it already. You're smart, funny, and very strong, and I know you're going to do great.
Happy birthday, Mary. I love you, my big girl!
Soundtrack: "It's Well (Instrumental)" by Bekah Shae. Licensed from Audiosocket.
As I write this, you are asleep. I think you probably would be surprised at how quickly you fell asleep, given how excited you were when you got into bed, but it's true: you were out in just a few minutes. But, truth be told, I'm excited, too.
You've said many times over the past few months that this year has been hard for you. It's been hard for me as well, as it has for many people, but even though I wish we were all in a better situation, it makes me so proud to know that you care so deeply about doing the right thing, helping other people, fairness, kindness. I tell you this all the time, but it's true: I'm proud that I get to be your dad, and I'm happy to know you.
Every year, every week, it gets more and more fun to be your dad. Last weekend we started playing co-op video games for the first time, and that was great. And our reading time is always one of my favorite parts of the day. So far this year we've read The Lord of the Rings and two more Harry Potter books, and I love how enthusiastic you are about these stories.
Today is your day, buddy. I hope it's a great one. Happy birthday!
Soundtrack: "Hooked (Instrumental)" by Hotbloods. Used with permission.
About six weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I found out that an old teacher of mine was dying. It was cancer, multiple myeloma, and in the final stages.
I saw his obituary today as I was getting ready to leave the house for work. He died last week.
It feels, on some level, wrong to talk about my own feelings in this moment, a moment in which the loss must surely belong more to my late teacher’s family and close friends. And yet, though I haven’t had the chance to see or speak to this man in almost twenty years, I can’t help but think of myself, my life, my past, and how my world feels smaller today.
He was my English teacher for three years in high school. More than any other single person, he is the one who taught me how to write. By the end of my senior year, he had us writing two essays a day, all in a fifty-minute class period. He gave us a strict set of structures and rules for composition, but also told us how and when and why to break those rules. In his class, I learned not just how to string words and sentences together, but I learned to have confidence in approaching the task of writing, to believe that this was something I could do, and do well.
More than that, he was the first person outside of my immediate family who I can recall showing interest in my writing, who encouraged me to find my voice, to write things that mattered to me. When I was fifteen, he submitted one of my essays to the local newspaper—a small paper serving a town of just a few thousand, but still my first publication. I never managed to get my hands on a copy of that issue, but I still have the original, typewritten essay tucked away in a drawer.
Now that I think of it, though, I wonder about those mementos I keep, the old writing, photographs, ticket stubs, posters. I’ve kept them in folders, stashed in closets, some over twenty years now. I seldom even think about them, let alone look at them, and though I usually enjoy the feeling I experience when I do take them out and let the memories wash over me, for the most part they’re kept safely hidden away. But safe from what? Two decades on, and the pages are still holding up fairly well, but eventually the paper will begin to turn yellow and brittle, and fade like all things must.
Reading my teacher’s obituary, I noted that he was 75 years old when he died. I would have sworn when I was in his class that he must have been close to that age at the time, but in truth he was only 52 when I first met him—not much older than some of my friends and coworkers now. And, of course, by now many classes will have passed through my old school never having known him. When I look at the faculty list today, I only recognize a few names, teachers who were young when I graduated and are now looking gray, like the old-timers they are. Of course. The essays sitting in my file drawer only remain the same because they’re not alive and never were. We all get older, myself no less, and as time takes us in and out of spaces, others come to fill the vacuum left behind us. I imagine the conversations taking place in the halls between classes now, and the faces, the words, even the buildings are different, but something essential remains the same.
As I think of my teacher, I’m grateful for many things. What I learned, of course, and the times he made me laugh. Most recently, though, I’m grateful for this: finding out in the way I did, on the day I did, I had the opportunity, the time, to say goodbye. It’s not something I take lightly—I have lost a lot of people in a lot of ways, and most often it has happened suddenly. And though the grief has been no less when I’ve been prepared than when I’ve been surprised, there is a measure of peace granted by the knowledge that I didn’t miss my chance to let my teacher know how much he has meant to me, how much knowing him has mattered in my life. It would be, I think, an amazing thing to truly know the lives we’ve influenced, the ways in which the world is better for our having been in it, and though we may or may not get to see this for ourselves, it’s something we can do for others. It’s not so hard to say, simply, “Thank you, you mattered to me.” And what a world it would be if we all did it a bit more often.
Thank you, as always, for your time. For whatever it’s worth, I appreciate it. And I appreciate you.