RIGHT NOW, forever
october

“Accommodation,” in ophthalmology, is the word for the movement your eye makes to keep focus on an object as its distance changes, approaching or receding in time and space. For ten days my eyes could not accommodate, as the doctor said, and so the world passed before me in a half blur: my classmates, the bins of dwindling eggplant at the market, and the homecoming parade, with its college marching bands and representatives from each campus club and the floats advertising the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, the local high school, and Scheel’s, where, having never seen a gun in person before, I once went on a date to see one. If that sentence was unwieldy, that’s exactly what it felt like, a long succession of images on which I could not focus; I could not choose to follow just one.

In the meantime, I graded papers. In the meantime, I went to my medical acting gig and let doctors-in-training palpate the lower right quadrant of my abdomen until I started to wonder if I really did have the appendicitis I was supposed to pretend I had. In the meantime, I cleaned my house and painted my nails, because the limited confines of my apartment made it easier for my eyes to focus while I was there. In the meantime, I didn’t go to the bar, I didn’t see very many friends, and I went to bed early.

In this time I decided I would write not about anything having to do with myself but instead about people who died before I was born or who never existed. I’ve had these obsessions––Russian obsessions––for a decade now. I always secretly preferred biography to memoir; I wanted to understand the fixation of their authors almost as much as, sometimes more than, I wanted to understand the subject. The author’s absence was the presence I most cared about. That and the prosaic, in the secondary sense: Pushkin’s packing list, the contents of Anna’s little purse, Sophia Tolstaya’s small, domestic resentments of her famous husband.

When you live in a place long enough, and for me three years nearly always qualifies as “long enough,” you are grateful in new ways: that the market goes til late October (though you once lived in a place where it was year round), that it’s mid-month and the leaves are still turning, not just falling, that you still don’t quite need a real coat (though there are places where you never need coats), that at a party where there seems to be no one you haven’t met you might accidentally encounter a Russianist and have a long talk, pressed in the corner, of things you have generally sequestered to the small parcels of your life you get to spend elsewhere.

I’ve noticed lately that certain corners of this city smell to me like Russia, for instance when it’s cold and you catch the tail end of someone’s wafting cigarette smoke, or when the cement in the stairwell of certain buildings has a dampness to it. As with everything I write here, there’s no moment where it all comes together; these are symptoms of the obsessions, or or of the feeling, or of the failure to focus, but never the object itself, and I think of Hilton Als saying of love, but it could be of meaning too, that it’s “complicated, if it even exists.”

I like and find California disconcerting, the seediness I expect of big cities feels present but harder to locate, hidden behind something confusing that I am too middle-of-the-country now to translate. A feeling I sometimes get with people I encounter there is that I wouldn’t be especially surprised to learn, years later, that they had committed some kind of senseless violent crime––it’s not that I believe this will happen, just that it could and that if it did I would think, “Makes sense.” I had not been on a plane in fourteen months until last week, the longest period of my life I’ve spent on the ground.

My seatmate on the first flight gave me his headphones to watch the first ten minutes of a movie he thought I had to see (he was right), he took my email because he wanted to connect me with a friend of his (he did), “connect” being a word I haven’t heard in this sense in a long time, and which I once would have found scheming but instead found charming: to connect seems altruistic, and even to scheme is better than to schmooze. In Iowa, the shuttle drivers invited me to sit in the front, chatted with me in that Midwestern way that is neither probing nor surface level. People often interpret this as a facade of politeness to conceal a lack of true curiosity. I don’t think this is exactly true, but I also don’t mind a lack of curiosity, having been around too much curiosity for too long now, those rigorous investigations of the least important things in the world, and I am happy to instead talk about where the best fishing spots along the Iowa River might be. I enjoy the limited interactions of liminal space, of travel, of being the person that it is expected I be, charming and kind within clear parameters, until I leave the cab or the restaurant or get off the plane.

It used to be that when I walked in the door to my tiny apartment here after time away, I’d think of the first time I walked in: it was August, it was hot in a town whose sidewalks went mostly unshaded by trees, and I wanted to go home. Now when I walk in––I noticed this when I came back––I can’t help but think of the last time I’ll walk out. There are people who can consistently exist in the moment of where they are, but I have not found a way to do that that isn’t by obliteration––by working or writing or having so much fun the past has no room to bear down, the future no place to assert itself. This is just my psychology and although there are many things I have tried to change about myself––during these last couple years it started to seem more pressing, or maybe I just finally had the time––this is not one of them. The acuity for what’s passed and the anxiety of what hasn’t yet happened is the most me thing about me, which isn’t to say this isn’t a common trait, just that it is also my dominant one.

Yesterday we drove to the Amish colony that is now mostly a tourist attraction, had a big German meal and a beer on a creek and bought cream horns to take home. The light was perfect, the leaves began to turn while I was gone, Iowa is still green but with the beginnings of yellow and orange, and the corn is almost ready to harvest. Despite the persistent problem of the door, it is hard in these moments to imagine that I will ever not have the life I have now, a funny feeling, suspicious and rare.

I have never looked for utopia on a map. Of course, I believe in human advancement. I believe in medicine, in astrophysics, in washing machines. But my compass takes its cardinal point from tragedy. If I respond to the metaphor of spring, I nevertheless learned, years ago, from my Mexican parents, from my Irish nuns, to count on winter. The point of Eden for me, for us, is not approach but expulsion.
Richard Rodriguez, “Late Victorians”

This summer, when the streets were still quiet and the coffee shops empty, before the sea of school colors on football game Saturdays and the resurfaced problems of living somewhere where there seems to be no privacy at all, I was working on a theory about loneliness. It went something like this: that loneliness is either, like boredom, a failure of imagination or else just as normal as winters when you’re always a little bit hungry or summers when you’re always a little bit low on funds. The theory was that seeing people make a preoccupation out of avoiding loneliness at whatever cost, because it’s seen as something unusual or wrong or taboo, was at best frustrating, at worst demoralizing. I was not lonely this summer––I would never say that I have been, though, except maybe occasionally in the company of others––which made this both an interesting, useful, and absurd time to be thinking about this. Or maybe not, because another theory I had was about a failure to interrogate the things that make us happy as much as the things that make us sad.

I also worked on a theory about the word “heartbreak,” the way that this designation so often goes unquestioned, like you’re supposed to understand that because of whatever configuration of people, that because you used to share a bed or had a lot of conversations at one time, this is all that needs to be said. I worked on a theory about mistaking time spent for intimacy or sincerity for seriousness or maybe it was just the opposite. I worked on these and other theories––lying in bed at night, during late night talks on the marble benches outside my house, or while holding painful plank pose until I couldn’t anymore––because I thought that if I could present my ideas to others coherently, maybe I would feel less alone in them, since ideas are probably the only capacity in which I ever feel alone. But mostly what I have found, on both sides of the equation, is that it almost never works that way. I also worked on these theories because I had a lot of time, which is a preposterous problem, a summer problem, in a way an Iowa problem.

Now it’s that peculiar time of year when the weather has not caught up to the reality of it, to the sunny, humid hours I’m supposed to send doing specific things at specific times in specific, usually windowless places. I’m the kind of person who is sometimes called “self-motivated,” a description I’ve never really understood the exact meaning of, although if it is about an inner propulsion motivated by a kind of terror of being unoccupied, I guess it makes sense, but in any case, summer was a time to spend with no motivations except ones of my own devising, and so the external directives of fall always take me by surprise: it is, I think, a good thing that this was probably my last first week of school forever.

I don’t mean to sound sharp, although I also don’t really mind if I do: I will say that outside last night, the sky turned its Iowa early fall nighttime blue, although it’s really an anywhere early fall nighttime blue, this is just where I am and what I can see, and I walked with the relief of the end of a long but not necessarily fruitful day through the buzzing twilight to meet a friend for a drink. I’m not used to looking up while I walk again, to there being any company moving through these streets. The bar is always brighter than I remember and a lot louder, which is just as well, because some nights you need to scream a little over the music at the people you love. The main way I’ve always known to love is to fight––I don’t have imaginary conversations in my head, I have arguments; I’ve rarely learned a thing in relation to other people, only in opposition––and so a strained, urgent voice feels more like intimacy to me than anything else. The things I say quietly or tenderly never seem as believable, not to me, not to the people listening, at least if they know me well, which is maybe why the ones I get along with best are also part-time letter writers, people who generally although not always type things out to figure them out.

"Every so often you will go nuts. All of a sudden the cornfields get you."
I moved to Iowa two years ago today, which means it’s also my two year anniversary of living alone, in honor of which I changed three lightbulbs this morning. It’s been two years of brisk walks up the hill of Dodge Street late at night after whiskeys at George’s, so I had three or five of those this week, and two years of what Helen and I refer to as “porch sits,” even though that porch swing ceased to be ours on August 1st, when Helen moved to the house next door. This year I stopped taking naps and started swimming and––believe it or not––I went on a date to shoot rifles and convictions about gun control aside, it was, I think, the best date I’ve been on. Mostly, though, the last seven hundred and thirty days have been spent in the ongoing and ultimately perhaps futile process of “figuring things out” and also reading and writing, a preposterous life for sure, lucky and dismal, and even though it’s not over, I already know I’d do it all again if I could. I’m thinking about what Hannah says about being sincere, even though it feels a little silly and profoundly un-grad school to be grateful for your circumstances in this way, even though it feels counter to my whole cynical constitution, even though everything I say here is true.

"Every so often you will go nuts. All of a sudden the cornfields get you."

I moved to Iowa two years ago today, which means it’s also my two year anniversary of living alone, in honor of which I changed three lightbulbs this morning. It’s been two years of brisk walks up the hill of Dodge Street late at night after whiskeys at George’s, so I had three or five of those this week, and two years of what Helen and I refer to as “porch sits,” even though that porch swing ceased to be ours on August 1st, when Helen moved to the house next door. This year I stopped taking naps and started swimming and––believe it or not––I went on a date to shoot rifles and convictions about gun control aside, it was, I think, the best date I’ve been on. Mostly, though, the last seven hundred and thirty days have been spent in the ongoing and ultimately perhaps futile process of “figuring things out” and also reading and writing, a preposterous life for sure, lucky and dismal, and even though it’s not over, I already know I’d do it all again if I could. I’m thinking about what Hannah says about being sincere, even though it feels a little silly and profoundly un-grad school to be grateful for your circumstances in this way, even though it feels counter to my whole cynical constitution, even though everything I say here is true.

When the water
boils I get
a cup of tea.
Accidentally I
read all the
works of Proust.
It was summer
I was there
so was he. I
write because
I would like
to be used for
years after
my death. Not
only my body
will be compost
but the thoughts
I left during
my life.
from “Peanut Butter” by Eileen Myles
There are three physical things about Catherine that I miss during the long stretches I now have to go without seeing her: the amused way she stares at you while she pulls out her tangled hair and discards it on the floor, the creepy way she makes intensive eye contact while chugging an entire vessel of water, and the way she blows her nose that somehow involves her entire face. How well do you have to know someone––that you’re not sleeping with––to have a list of the physical things you miss about them? I don’t think I could make a list like that for half the people I have slept with, but then again I didn’t know any of them as long as I’ve known Catherine. Or maybe it’s not how long you’ve known a person but specifically the fact of intimacy that isn’t accompanied by sex that makes you more observant of them––the intense sense of noticing is the platonic equivalent of physical intimacy.

I remember outfits worn (gold tights, red jacket, meeting at Union Square) and songs listened to (at the coffee shop in our college town, the playlist for the seven nights she spent with me in the hospital when I was sick) and I remember very particular things she said, and text messages from phones long lost or defunct. I remember stories from her childhood (what she wore for Halloween one year, her freshman year boyfriend), although I didn’t know her then, and I think sometimes that I remember her past better than my own. The more I commodify my own past, parcel it into chapters and give it away, the more it means to be privy to someone else’s life like this, a private one, in a way my most important one. Incidentally, ours has been the one relationship I’ve had the most trouble writing about, the only one I haven’t really put up for public consumption. 

People seem surprised when I tell them that being with my best friend feels like being in love, even though it’s distinctly different––platonic––but how insufficient a word that can seem when our conversations can become deeply intimate without prelude, or when we wake up with the similar sighs to greet the world, one of the many habits––those oofs and ahs––that you acquire from the person who has been present for your entire adulthood, your entire becoming. Catherine is the person who taught me to make a roux, to cut my bangs, to interrogate every decision and desire in a way that is productive but not neurotic––and though I’ve met many people who can do the former two, I have met very few who do the latter, and who understand that a life left uninterrogated is not one I want to live. She promised years ago, before it seemed like I’d even move to Iowa, that if I did she would come visit, and how miraculous it is that she did, but also somehow not surprising at all.

There are three physical things about Catherine that I miss during the long stretches I now have to go without seeing her: the amused way she stares at you while she pulls out her tangled hair and discards it on the floor, the creepy way she makes intensive eye contact while chugging an entire vessel of water, and the way she blows her nose that somehow involves her entire face. How well do you have to know someone––that you’re not sleeping with––to have a list of the physical things you miss about them? I don’t think I could make a list like that for half the people I have slept with, but then again I didn’t know any of them as long as I’ve known Catherine. Or maybe it’s not how long you’ve known a person but specifically the fact of intimacy that isn’t accompanied by sex that makes you more observant of them––the intense sense of noticing is the platonic equivalent of physical intimacy.

I remember outfits worn (gold tights, red jacket, meeting at Union Square) and songs listened to (at the coffee shop in our college town, the playlist for the seven nights she spent with me in the hospital when I was sick) and I remember very particular things she said, and text messages from phones long lost or defunct. I remember stories from her childhood (what she wore for Halloween one year, her freshman year boyfriend), although I didn’t know her then, and I think sometimes that I remember her past better than my own. The more I commodify my own past, parcel it into chapters and give it away, the more it means to be privy to someone else’s life like this, a private one, in a way my most important one. Incidentally, ours has been the one relationship I’ve had the most trouble writing about, the only one I haven’t really put up for public consumption.

People seem surprised when I tell them that being with my best friend feels like being in love, even though it’s distinctly different––platonic––but how insufficient a word that can seem when our conversations can become deeply intimate without prelude, or when we wake up with the similar sighs to greet the world, one of the many habits––those oofs and ahs––that you acquire from the person who has been present for your entire adulthood, your entire becoming. Catherine is the person who taught me to make a roux, to cut my bangs, to interrogate every decision and desire in a way that is productive but not neurotic––and though I’ve met many people who can do the former two, I have met very few who do the latter, and who understand that a life left uninterrogated is not one I want to live. She promised years ago, before it seemed like I’d even move to Iowa, that if I did she would come visit, and how miraculous it is that she did, but also somehow not surprising at all.

Tags: this is a blog about female friendship most of all
Tags: politics the morning news
themorningnews:

A Marxist upbringing, graduating into a recession, and a lineage of missed opportunities make a brutal combination.
"Thoroughly Modern Marxism" by Lucy Morris

themorningnews:

A Marxist upbringing, graduating into a recession, and a lineage of missed opportunities make a brutal combination.

"Thoroughly Modern Marxism" by Lucy Morris



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