Category Archives: Illusion

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Style: Why 42 Is the New 24

I should be too old for this album.

But I was in the car, on my way to Ballard some time in October, and I heard this song on its tin-can-line to my soul, the lo-fi production exactly the right timbre for the low-grade discontent creeping around in my life, just like this bass line lurks around the corners of this song.  And the repetitive, somewhat abrasive synth riff was the bright light in the middle, shaking me out of that driver’s spell, and asking me to listen and to care. And some boy-man was singing, with that kind of resignation 400 yards away from actually feeling bad,  “Maud / now you’re gone / now you’re gah ah ah ah ah ah ah ahn.”

The song was “Maud Gone,” a play on Yeats’s fierce Maud Gonne, the band (really just a singer) was Car Seat Headrest, and the album, I would find, was Teens of Style.

Teens of Style.  Teens.

It might be classic to say “I’m too old for this,” but this is my first mid-life crisis.  So, it’s new for me to say it.

Will Toledo, of Car Seat Headrest, is actually 23.  Will Toledo is a year out of college.  Will Toledo was just signed by Matador Records, the label of Pavement and Modest Mouse—bands actually my own age.  Will Toledo sings lyrics like this:  “I can’t talk to my folks” and “I want to kick my dad in the shins.”

My dad is dead.  I’ve been out of college 22 years, almost as long as Will Toledo’s been alive.  I find those lyrics painfully young.  But too old or not, I love this album.  I love it.  And I think it’s because it helps me see why 42 is the new 24.

Here’s why:  the sub-heading of Collin Brennan’s article “Why Car Seat Headrest is the Indie Hero We’ve Been Waiting For” is this:

Check.  Check, check, and check.

Isn’t that basically the description of a midlife crisis?  This is the final essay in my triptych on the three albums mirroring my year last year (for parts I and II, see Angel Olsen and Other Lives), and I have two things to tell you about loneliness.  Ok. Three.

Heavy Boots on My Throat / I Need Something Soon

“Something Soon” is a song about the anxiety of not knowing what you want next, but knowing that something needs to happen.  I’ve been in that place for about, oh, two or three years.  Perhaps that’s why I write about the past so much.  In the face of anxieties about my career (the dean wanted to cut my position three weeks ago.  It’s safe.  For now), the possibilities I’m letting go of (marriage, children, home ownership), and the patterns I’m coming to accept (what if it really IS just me forever?  What if I always AM going to be this lazy?), I find it immensely comforting to take what’s already happened and mine it for the insight and intimacy I have difficulty accessing as of late. Or, as Will Toledo puts it, “I was referring to the present in past tense / It was the only way that I could survive it.”  THAT’S a GREAT LINE.

The other lyrics are a list of Wants and Needs:

I want to break something important
I want to kick my dad in the shins

[ . . . .]
I want to close my head in the car door
I want to sing this song like I’m dying

Heavy boots on my throat I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
I can’t talk to my folks I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
All of my fingers are froze I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
Only one change of clothes I need
I need something soon
I need something soon
My head is my head is my head is

Oh, but the heavy boots are so different now, at 42.  It’s not so much the pressure from others but your own boots on your own throat.  It’s not that, at 24, you aren’t hard on yourself, but, from what I remember, you have that sense that somehow, you’ll be shown the right way, if only you can find the right something.

But that’s it’s own problem:  I have so many right somethings.  They crowd each other and jockey for space; they whisper unkind things about each other from opposite corners in my head.  In one of my favorite moments in “Something Soon,” Will Toledo talks over himself:

I want to talk like Raymond Carver
(an advertisement cries out)
I want to turn down the goddamn TV
(“He should have gone to Jared’s”)

I tell myself I’m not lazy—I did plenty of worthy things this week.  (“Yes, but you also binge-watched The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries for four hours and drove to yoga, instead of walking.”)  I like how honest I am as a teacher. (“But your evaluations are always split—you need to change somehow.”  “But how?” “If you stopped being so lazy, you’d figure it out.  This is why your job is insecure.”)

Ok, so maybe it’s not so much that there are so many “right things” but rather that there are a lot of opposing tendencies within me:  to accept myself fairly completely while also being, like Will Toledo, “painfully aware of [my] place in the world.”


There’s a Full Moon Every Night / It’s Just Not Always Bright

As I say at the beginning of this essay, I heard “Maud Gone,” my favorite song on Teens of Style, in the autumn.  Autumn is the best teaching quarter, any teacher will tell you:  you are convinced you’re going to be better, the students come back, convinced they’re going to be better.  I had great classes.  Professionally, things seemed good.  But I was about 500 yards away from my heart, which is why I love the tinny detachment and simultaneous hopefulness of this song.

It accepts that maybe something is gone (Maud, in this case), but it has enough distance to wonder “when did our heart stop beating?”  It also wonders how to get a grip on the heavy boots from before—in my case, the sense that a fulfilling career isn’t in bed with you at night, which can turn any reflection into a more existential problem:

When I’m in bed
I’m dead
No one to check my pulse
And so instead
My head
Begs not to be so full
and when I fall
which part of me writes the dream
and which part falls
who’s running the machine?

But it also suggests maybe you need to try something different:

I know there’s a full moon every night
it’s just not always bright
but it’s been so long since I saw the light
maybe I haven’t been looking at the sky

So I did.  I looked at the sky, forgetting something Will Toledo says in another song:  “I hadn’t looked at the sun for so long / I’d forgotten how much it hurts to.” I had an affair—a dark, intense, raw release from my head into my body.  He was so different from me that, at first, I found myself quivering, overly sensitive to his criticisms, which seemed strangely almost like compliments. Everything he liked about me also seemed to be something that drove him crazy:  “You’ve got this bubble around you,” he told me once, “that’s almost . . . fairy-like?  And usually, my instinct with that is to try to poke holes in it.  But I can’t find any holes with you.  I guess that’s who you really are.”

He was driven, fierce, strong, dark, masculine, and hot as fucking hell.  He’s a Scorpio.  Does that help?  It helped me—to know exactly why this bad moon was so difficult but also why it kept a-risin.’  We radiated intensity.  Once, in February, we were buried in each other at the corner table of Tini Bigg’s.  The waitress came over and mentioned she remembered us . . . from November.  “Probably because we couldn’t stop groping each other, which makes it hard to take  a drink order,” he muttered in my ear, as she walked away, and our hands moved towards each other under the table.

But Scorpio was not my boyfriend, which is where the tinny detachment comes in.  He was a lover, and he was not mine.  But he eclipsed all others and I could see no other moons, full and bright or otherwise.  And I would watch him walk out the door, always going back to his other world.  And when he was gone, I would wonder whether it was worth it.  But I also had to think again about how much partner I needed, how much intensity itself could be enough, what my real boundaries were.  He forced me to look again at my heart, and he made it beat.  Hard.  In short, he denied me the bridge:

Sweetheart please love me too long
My heart’s too strong
Love me too long
Sweetheart please let me hold on
To these old songs
I’ve loved too long

And whether you’re 24 or 42, you need to know when to learn new songs.  There is such a thing as holding on just because you’re used to something being there:  old songs, old ideas about what you want, old patterns, old ghosts.  Like the moon.

You Have No Right to be Depressed / You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough to Like it

I read this morning that whereas the Baby Boomer midlife crisis was about rejecting convention, the Mad Men life they thought they should want, the Generation Xer’s midlife crisis is about agoraphobia:  instead of shrinking opportunities, there are still so many.  And because I haven’t taken up some of the traditional ones (marriage-baby-house-dog), I can see why some might think I am the author of my own crisis, the author now of so many narratives of loneliness and loss.  After the Angel Olsen essay, an acquaintance who has never lived alone in her adult life told me “it sounds like you just really need to learn how to love yourself.”

I want her to listen to Millennial Will Toledo’s new song, “Fill in the Blank.”  You know what he’s so tired of, he tells us?  “Fill in the blank.”  You know what kind of answer he gets when he says this?  “You have no right to be depressed / you haven’t tried hard enough to like it.”  Will Toledo finds that answer, as do I, irritating.  But he tries to engage with that cliche and acknowledges that, yes, he may not have “seen enough of this world yet / But it hurts, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts.”  I want to quote Brennan at length here because Will Toledo and I both get what you’re saying about taking ownership over your own life and want you to know that we mean it, too, when we are ambivalent about that ownership:

Lots of folks would take one look at Toledo and be quick to write him off as a hipster. The songs don’t always help his case in this regard, stuffed as they are with irony and wry cynicism. But anyone who sits down with Car Seat Headrest for a while comes to find that one of the band’s dominant traits is earnestness. Even the ideas that seem silly on the surface (ahem, “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales”) end up as rousing, tear-jerking anthems that tug on all the right heartstrings.

This is perhaps the most important — and least talked about — aspect of great rock music: the sentimentality that flirts with cheesiness, the absolute conviction that a song can change the world, or at least somebody’s world, for even just a little while. Teens of Denial, on its surface, is the product of a prototypical millennial mindset. “You have no right to be depressed/ You haven’t tried hard enough to like it,” Toledo sings on opener “Fill in the Blank”, a song whose lyrics practically overflow with snark. But undermining those lyrics is a rock beat that straight-up grooves and a squealing guitar melody that wants to be heard over an arena’s loudspeakers.

I love myself plenty.  I’m just trying to answer the ultimate Talking Heads question (“Well, how did I get here?”), without the beautiful house, the beautiful wife, and sometimes, without those markers, it’s even harder to understand what kind of life you’re authoring.  I mostly think this IS my beautiful life.

So, thank you, Will Toledo, for reminding me that wondering aloud about these questions is ok: “I think part of being an artist is remaining vulnerable to human opinion,” he reflects. “You always want to hide away the immaturity with yourself, and I guess for me this is a way of refusing myself that luxury.”

This is me refusing myself that luxury.  2015 was about confrontations and some self-indulgent immaturity and some new maturity and listening to Car Seat Headrest sigh and mumble and scream “you guys got mad skillz / I just got mad.”  And it was boring and peaceful and angry and productive and weird and dark and, sometimes, really, really FUN.  Just like Teens of Style.

Car Seat Headrest’s new album comes out in two days:  Teens of Denial.  I don’t think either Will Toledo or I are in denial about anything.

Valentine’s Day Writing Challenge–Day 3: PJ Harvey and the Cosmos

The song
PJ Harvey’s “One Line”

The Memory
The night before I started my move to Missouri, the Final Ryan and I went to Golden Gardens beach. I did not know my move would be temporary, that I would not be able to stand being away from this city, much less this magical beach, which is scattered liberally with the glass hearts of others for the weeks after Valentine’s Day. He had already broken my own glass heart once that summer when he told me he wasn’t physically attracted to me and then, mysteriously, continued to want to be with me for the rest of my time. More mysteriously, although perhaps not, given my own fragile state, I let him.

We split a bottle of prosecco and an iPod, and in one of his more boyfriend-y moments, he put his sweatshirt on me, since the night was cool. We could hear another couple making out nearby us, and we couldn’t stop giggling. Then we were silent for a long time with the stars, and this song came on: “Do you remember the first kiss / stars shooting across the sky?”

I kid you not. We saw a shooting star. And Ryan, who was not as in love with me as I was with him, gasped, grabbed my arm and kissed me.

I called him the “Final” Ryan even at the time, not only because I’d dated too many Ryans in a row but because I knew, even if I didn’t want to know, that while I might see him again after I moved, this was really the end. I also knew he was syndecoche for all of Seattle. What I still don’t know is what I was for him.

Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: Day One

(A repost from a new project–see “These Arms Were Mine” in previous posts for a full version of the story.)

Valentine’s Day Week Writing Challenge: every day, I’ll give you a love song and a memory. If you have a memory associated with this song, please write a comment.

Day One
The Song
: “These Arms of Mine” by Otis Redding.

The Memory: I was a camp counselor at musical theater camp, and I’d been carrying on a destructive and illicit affair with a camper since I was a camper myself. I think I was 19 and he was 16 or something bad like that. I was trying to break away from this kryptonite-like attraction and had mostly successfully pushed him away that week. But at the camp dance, he walked up to me during this song and simply took me in his arms to dance. There was no divide for 3 minutes. The physical spell was so powerful that we both forgot about all the bewildered eyes upon us and sank into that song in a way I’ve never danced again.

You Remind Me of the Babe: Labyrinths, Tegan and Sara, and Going Nowhere With Love

“That is what I HATE about American Buddhism,” my friend Sonora says. “Everyone thinks they’re detaching to GET something, instead of just BEING.” It’s true—we even need to make NOT getting, not going, a kind of getting and going. It’s “growth,” it’s “moving towards enlightenment.” My favorite Buddhist saying reflects the futility of trying to make meaning of one’s own growth in the moment it is happening: “Oh, my friend, going in circles—you may enjoy going. But not in circles.”

So the saying . . .goes.

As much as I hate the name “Tegan,” smacking as it does of made-up sorority girl names, there is one Tegan and Sara song I think of, with terrible regularity: “Where Does the Good Go?” Its chorus refuses Buddhist detachment and demands an account of feelings remaindered like unpopular books: “Where does the good go?” While other clever lines clarify the singers’ losses, what sticks out is simply the repetition of this refrain, always calmly, as if it were not a desperate statement.

I often pass, while on my way to work, a church with a bulletin board that periodically invites you to walk its labyrinth, an invitation to meditate while walking, meeting obstacles as they come.

Is that labyrinth, too, supposed to “go” somewhere? Or are you just supposed to know, with each false turn, each dead end, that God is waiting in the center? Or is he/it walking with you, “Footprints” style?

I make no claims to believing in any guiding force, but I don’t mean it as a theological (or anti-theological statement) when I say I’m coming to think of Love as a labyrinth with neither Minotaur nor Goblet of Fire in the middle. (And, frankly, if you’ll recall, the Goblet of Fire itself was actually no prize but a trick, a monstrous, deadly trick of a port key.) When the obstacles aren’t glaringly obvious—red flags of ivy and of thorn (he has no career! he has no hope!), they seem to grow up in front of you, almost of their own accord, Harry Potter-style, with no purpose but to block your way. “Try again,” they whisper, and so you turn around, try to remember which routes you’ve tried and which you still have left.

Is this growth, this retreading of old ground? Is this blog, with its obsessive reconfigurations of the past, the story-boarding of my life with an ever longer soundtrack, a discography of singular moments of intimacy and B-sides of my heartbreaks . . . is it growth? Or are these several loving walks down Memory Lane ending, again and again, with the same sign at the end: Trail ends here. Turn around.

Where does the good go? The literary soul in me feebly makes the case for Roethke’s claim that “we learn by going where we have to go.” But that, too, turns all that desire, the deep pleasure in a former loved one’s face, the feeling of their hand in the dark, into a roadmap going somewhere—turns all that glorious love into mere accumulation, the shadows of some greater “There.”

In a movie from my childhood, Labyrinth, David Bowie plays the Goblin King and talk-sings a little ditty with some now-forgotten creature:

Bowie: You remind me of the babe
Creature: What babe?
Bowie: Babe with the power.
Creature: What power?

In that labyrinth, the search is for the thing you think you didn’t love until it was taken away from you. In this one, this writing of my own emotional maze, its hedges taller every turn, I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’m searching for, too—as if, somehow, by revisiting myself as the babe with or without power, I could find out where the good goes.

Interlude: Ordain Me Now

This post is actually a mini-essay I discovered on my hard drive today. I must have written it in 2002 or 2003, years on my mind right now, as I reconnect with people from that time. What strikes me now is my distance from intimacy in it, the doubt in myself that clearly inspired this. I don’t feel like that anymore.

For many prophets and gurus, their calling comes to them in dreams, a voice across space and time, a light that fills them so suddenly and fully that others respond and follow. For others, it is the conviction in charisma, a sense of self that goes beyond self. When my best friends Erin and Blaine called me one month and asked me to perform their marriage, I took the calling literally and went to the website of the Progressive Universal Life Church. Whereas Satan sat Jesus on a pinnacle and promised him death or power, I was presented with similar but much easier options: Cancel or Ordain me now. I chose the latter.

You can ordain yourself for free with the Universal Life Church, but for $19.95 to the Progressive Universal Life Church, you get a certificate and a wallet-sized card, which my friend promptly laminated for me. The laminated card is important; it is what I pull out to remind me of my duty when times get hard or when someone questions my credibility; and, in a pinch, I can stick it through the collar of a black button-up shirt to double as a priest’s dog collar.

It took me seven years to finish my doctorate in Victorian literature. In five minutes, I was the Reverend Bryn Gribben. In fact, I am the Reverend Doctor Bryn Gribben. Like Martin Luther King. “I can be like Martin Luther King!” I told myself. And it’s not the doctorate that will do that. It’s the “Reverend.”

You can tell when something transcendent is about to happen, sometimes, when the ground on which you stand starts shaking. Sometimes, this is an earthquake; sometimes, it’s the clouds parting. For me, the year I became a minister had been a hard year—all those years in graduate school, if nothing else, make you tired of living for the future. But, like most major religions, they also convince you that in the sweet by and by, there’s manna in the desert. I needed that manna. I’d experienced the ever-humbling double whammy of being terribly in love and of being in my fifth year of teaching. The nearly unbearable sensation of being loved unconditionally holds within it the sneaking certainty that there has to be a hidden condition somewhere. Teaching creates the nearly unbearable realization that, at some point, especially if you’re an English teacher, you are a martyr to budgets and students who view education as a faulty product they want to return before they even open the box. Morever, you’re convinced that this martyrdom is both good and inevitable. How Jewish is that?

And while some say true love and a true vocation are the solid ground on which to plant your feet and find yourself, I was finding my love of teaching and my love of being taught pushing across each other like the plates of some kind of psychic continental drift . . . with the result more like Marx rather than Hallmark: “all that is solid melts into air.”

So when Erin and Blaine asked me to marry them, I felt like I’d been lifted from my sinking ground to a different plane, a better one. Only old friends, who remember you when you were cocksure of your own uniqueness in college, could or would ask you, their last single friend, to perform their marriage, give you credit for knowledge about things you haven’t done. And that means you need to figure out how to be special again.

Combatting egotism is a hard and necessary battle, it seems, for any chosen one. “My God, my God,” wails Jesus, “Why have you forsaken ME?” This, to the god who has it second in the Ten Commandments that “thou shalt not have other gods before me,” who kills nations for what we’d now consider healthily multicultural elementary school displays of mixed idols. When I was 20, one of my male friends insisted I was a goddess. Granted, we were drunk, and he was also insisting he could tell this because he was of “the darkness,” but when my friend Suzanne asked me to baptize her baby because I was the “most spiritual, secular friend she had,” I thought about what it might mean to be a secular priestess without being completely ridiculous about it.

In earlier times, I could have been a contemplative nun, shut away to roam cloisters where doubt was a secret as long as your vow of silence lasted. I could have been St. Theresa of Avila, a contemplative who voiced her criticisms of the Church , paving the way for “contemplative” as I now understand it: as a state in which you analyze it until you can’t stand it anymore and you insist that something must change. But just because I understand my contemplative nature in that way doesn’t mean anything changes, and my doubt never returns me more fully to any god. It just stays full.

The Progressive Universal Life Church insists that its only tenant is that you accept everyone’s chosen path as valid and useful for them. This is the part I have trouble with. I’ve tried to get around it by focusing on the semantic: if someone actually “chose” their path, then I might be able to roll with it. This immediately exempts anyone who’s merely continued along the religious pathway of their culture or family from my ministry, as well as born-again lunatics who insist they were touched by the spirit and couldn’t help but join the Lord. Those kind of sneak attacks don’t count as choice in MY Progressive Universal Life Church.

Years later, I still can’t explain the oddness, the fullness of choice I felt as I clicked on “Ordain me now.” I felt like I’d made a real decision, a decision with weight. I would try, I said to myself—despite the doubt I felt in my abilities, both intellectual and emotional. And I felt special—that suddenly, I had made ground materialize from the air, that somehow, when I said “by the power invested in me by the Progressive Universal Life Church,” it would stick. Or at least, I’d always have the card.

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation Challenge: I Will Always Love the False Image I Had of You

Day 5 of The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook Meditation challenge finds us with “John’s Spinach-Orange Salad.” The authoress meets John, an art history grad student, at a laundromat, where she astutely surmises that he is, in fact, a grad student because he’s doing laundry—with a stack of papers to grade and a six pack of beer—on a Saturday night. (Once you’re actually done with graduate school, you are just home on a Saturday night, listening to “The Swing Years and Beyond” or watching your 90th hour of Game of Thrones. With a bottle of wine.) He does something truly amazing—he asks her over for dinner the NEXT NIGHT, which leads her to believe he is going to be awesome. And I will say this for graduate school: because you have so much to do, so incredibly, terribly, so much to do, you never ONCE say, to a person in whom you have any romantic interest, “I’ll call you later.” You will jump at the chance to stop working on your dissertation, particularly if it means real human contact. (Again, once out of grad school, your connection to the real world seems to contract and you will, instead, watch two days of Game of Thrones—sense a pattern?—before remembering you met a cute girl on the bus. Oh yes–by “you”? I mean “dudes.”)

Anyway, she goes to John’s house and is somewhat startled that this seemingly classy art history graduate student has plastered his walls with pictures of scantily-clad women—not “vintage” pin-ups but, like, Victoria’s Secret “angels.” (Oh, Coventry Patmore—is this what you had in mind with “The Angel in the House”?) Worse, each image has a thought bubble, attesting to John’s sexual prowess, making requests more suitable to a bad OK Cupid creeper than a seemingly suave art history student. But, as with Rhett of “Rhett’s Quesadilla Things,” the narrator stays for dinner, and John takes her picture . . . before they have a “nasty fight about the validity of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, and [she throws] a glass of wine in his face.”

The best part is that, four pages later, she gives us a recipe for “Josh’s Spinach-Strawberry Salad.” Josh was—you guessed it—John’s twin brother.

The lesson for today: I called in my neighbors, Natalie and Andy, on this one. Natalie, who self-reports as unsentimental and “not the type to nickname,” asserts that the moral is “Some people take themselves too seriously”—by which she means the authoress. “He was being ironic,” says Nat (who is nicknamed, and often, herself). “He’s basically doing the equivalent of ‘That’s what she said.’ He was ahead of the curve.” Andy agreed. When I hedged, they asked me if I would have thrown my glass of wine in his face, and I said, “When I was in early grad school? Yes.” I once had a “nasty fight” with an ex-boyfriend, Colin (I’ll provide a link when I post my music essay about him later), when I realized in his 300+ CD collection, he had one—ONE—CD by a woman. Misogyny!! Worse than misogyny because unintentional!! Blind to his own tendency to oppress!! Patriarchal secret agent!

I probably wouldn’t throw my glass of wine in anyone’s face now, but that’s probably because I wouldn’t stay for dinner. The last time I even came close was when I found out the guy I was seeing was a Republican. (I was having a dry spell, and I was so unhappy I didn’t even let myself suspect it, preferring, instead, to just keep making out and letting him make me dinner. It was a dark time.)

I think there might be two lessons here: one specific, one general. The specific lesson might be that some “clever” men of a certain age don’t decorate for themselves—they decorate for other men. Or men don’t think anyone will ever come over to their apartments. Or they don’t think the women they invite over can read. Or see.

The general lesson might be that everyone in whom you are interested will manifest at least one deeply revealing, if seeming contradiction. With John, it was that a dedication to art history doesn’t make one classy.

This week, I went out for drinks with a 24 year-old friend; we made friends with the handsome bartender, who was 34 and seemed really thoughtful and complex. He gave Katie his number. I felt somewhat hurt and, then, incredibly, sheepishly aware of my egotism. I was hurt because I thought someone that thoughtful was clearly capable of being attracted to a 40 year-old woman—namely, me. I went first for the satisfying interpretation (actually articulated for me by another male friend, lest this post read as unjust in its male representation): men would rather try for the woman 10 years younger than the woman closer to their age because it is easier. BUT—thank you, Natalie and Andy—maybe I am missing the more obvious, less complicated point here. Katie is totally beautiful and smart and fun, and I date younger men all the time. Maybe he just thought she was prettier, and I am a big hypocrite, despite my fancy-free approach to what-is-appropriate-in-dating.

As you drive down Olive Way, in Capitol Hill, you will pass a mural on the side of one building. It’s a mural I’ve loved since Colin-who-listened-to-no-women’s-music and I lived two blocks away. A woman stands with one arm raised, holding up a wreath of real, rusty nails; across her chest is a Miss America-style banner that reads, “I will always love the false image I had of you.” Was the bartender less complex than I thought he was? Or am I?

Capitol Hill Mural

The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook: A Meditation Challenge

The Literature Review
(Warning: This post gets fairly academic–some days, what I teach consumes me. Note how I can’t resist starting to do proper MLA citation and everything, after awhile. I’ll write about cats or something tomorrow.)

If there’s one thing this blog represents truly about me, it’s my need to turn everything, ANYthing, into a map towards meaning. This is, perhaps, ironic, today, as I finished teaching Byron’s Manfred, in which the protagonist disdains all orderly pursuit of meaning and states “I know not what I ask, nor what I seek: I feel but what thou art–and what I am.” However, he also states, “I would not make, but find a desolation.” If my life, at times, lacks meaning, it will not be without some effort to practice, at least, the Paterian–to discern, as best I can, the bread crumbs between my mind and the universe . . . even as I drop the crumbs myself.

But I digress.

Welcome to Yet Another One Week Thought Experiment. Needing focus and inspiration, I will turn, each day this week, to a story/recipe from The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook by Thisbe Nissen and Erin Ergenbright at random and try to take lesson from that story/recipe. (Note: This cookbook contains stories and recipes from ex-boyfriends, not recipes for how to cook them.) In doing so, I take a page (this pun is funnier by the end of this sentence) from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, in which Gabriel Betteredge practices a kind of bibliomancy, turning at random to a page in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe when in doubt. The implication here is that any text can readily replace the Bible–and in that sense, I bring together both Manfred and Pater, who both believed that we are, ourselves, the location of all meaning. Right? Can’t go wrong. Later in the day, I will post what experiences seemed to resonate most with the call.

Day One: David Goldberg’s Flourless Chocolate Cake
Apparently, he was a complex and contradictory man. The authors describe him as “an Earth First-er who smoked Menthols.” Appropriately, I think Passover is this week.

Morning: My guess at the lesson: Easter / Passover season requires us to accept contradictions, expect the unlikely. Today, I will try to be even more open to experiencing opposites neutrally.

Evening: Did I mention I just taught Manfred ? If the Romantics are interested in shattering habit, Manfred, as one student aptly put it, shatters the habits of the Romantics. If, for Percy Bysshe Shelley, “the great secret of morals is Love, or an outgoing of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful that exists in thought, action, or person, not our own,” Byron’s Manfred, knowing not what he seeks, predictably, then, finds only himself, becomes, in essence, his own sublime:

The face of the earth hath madden’d me, and I
take refuge in her mysteries, and pierce
to the abodes of those who govern her–
but they can nothing aid me. I have sought
from them what they could not bestow, and now
I search no further.(2.2.39-43)

It’s not the beautiful, exactly, but Manfred’s triumph is that he controls the terms of his own dying, the glory of his own limits. As spirits command him to “Prostrate thyself, and thy condemned clay, / Child of the Earth! or dread the worst” (2.4.33-35), Manfred replies, “I know it; and yet ye see I kneel not” (2.4.35-36).

If I’d written this last week, I would have spoken of Keats, whose ability to hold together discordant elements, irreconcilable opposites, leaves him wrapped in his own mystical ambivalence: “Was it a vision or a waking dream?” But it’s this week, and Byron reminds me that

the mind which is immortal makes itself
requital for its good or evil thoughts–
is its own origin of ill and end–
and its own place and time [ . . . ]
I have not been thy dupe, nor am I thy prey–
But was my own destroyer, and will be
my own hereafter. (3.4.129-140)

So much for embracing opposites neutrally. This is basically a more empowering version of “we all die in our own arms, anyway,” modified to “HELL YEAH, I’m going to die in my own arms.” This is starting to seem like some kind of bizarre Byronian pep talk for the single girl I am. Come, spirits!

I suppose another way in which to interpret this chocolate cake recipe is to consider why the description of someone as “complex and contradictory” moves us so quickly from a Zen-like balance of Life as containing Whitmanian multitudes to contemplating the exhilarating, self-willed death of a protagonist who both deeply repents that his love has destroyed the woman he loves and repents not at all the incest committed. But that interpretation would lead us right back to the same conclusion: met neutrally or fervently, on either end of the Zen-to-Byron pole, we meet a new puzzle, a new sense of what cannot be fully understood, of the sublime, of so much meaning and so little that we don’t create fully, all by ourselves.

These Arms Were Mine: First Love is a Slow Dance that Goes On Forever

First love looks like so many things. For my niece, right now, it looks like a tall, silent guy being forced to make Smores and endure the incessant, quick-paced, ludicrous banter / badgering of her mother and aunt with him. For my sister, it looked like a 19 year-old girl driving across the state of Kansas every weekend to see the guy she started dating the summer before her first year of college, the guy she would become engaged to at the end of that year. I don’t know if I really saw my first love as my first love until years passed, and I realized he is still the one I think of, when I think of young love.

For one thing, he was too young for me. At an age when half a year develops the brain substantially, he was four years younger, though I wouldn’t know that at first. We met at musical theatre camp (true story), and he followed me around a lot. New to kissing, I was not averse to doing more of it, even if I wasn’t sure about this kid who liked to talk about horror movies and was definitely in charge of finding out how to get marijuana from the college-age stage hands. After that first week of making out behind the sets, he only called me once, and that pattern continued: once a year. Because, like some fabled creature reborn under magical conditions, or a plant that blooms only when two blue moons follow each other, this attraction renewed itself every year. For 6 years. We made out behind sets, found unused rooms with broken pianos in the fine arts center, until I graduated from high school–and then I was a counselor, attending the college where the camp was held, which meant I knew more unused rooms, more places dark and intimate. Old enough to question everything, I accepted, without question, that while everything else was up for intellectual grabs, this was fate. Even if he never wrote me, never called me, I was going to suffer and wait it out. Until he was . . . old enough?

Real relationships in college came and went.  Once, I hurt a friend who’d come to love me, after a week of camp counseling with me.  At the camp dance, after a week of me trying to push down my feelings, push the love away, “These Arms of Mine” came on, and the boy walked across the room, took my hand, and pulled me into a slow dance.  The other campers, the counselors, looked on confused, disturbed.  I suppose.  I was so deep inside that moment that the edges beyond our locked eyes are barely there.  Afterwards, my friend sat with me outside the campers’ dorms, my young love somewhere inside, and we stared at the moon, unable to look at each other.  “You NEVER look at me the way you look at that kid,” he spat.  I looked on at the moon, wishing it could speak.

Its highest point was followed, quickly, by its lowest point, when he sat me down with the fact that there was no future for this strange, passionate thing that seemed like fate, or maybe love. And so, I set myself to the task of undoing my naive beliefs about love and fate and, for awhile, the meaning of life. It took a few years.

We finally did reconnect, after 11 years, and while we still aren’t actively close, I find his presence in my life adds a depth and richness akin to that of a childhood friend, a cherished family member who lives far away. He’s still never made me a CD or tape, never writes me a letter, and the only picture I have of him is the double another counselor gave me of him with another girl.

That is why this song, a slow dance I can still feel 22 years later, holds a weight in my heart so heavy that if my heart was an ocean, which I sometimes believe it is, this love would be anchored to its very floor. It’s the only thing I feel like I really have from him. He even goes by a different name these days, but he, too, has said when he hears this song come on in a bar, he is lost in that moment with me, once again that boy I know now I really loved.

Jingle Bells: An Elegy

It starts because we both think my unpredictability has become predictable. He finds it hilarious. I look up in the middle of reading to do it, stop stirring risotto or petting the cat and turn to him. “Hey, Eli,” I say, “Name that tune.” Without breaking eye contact, I begin to tap on his arm. Dat dat daaaa dat dat daaaa da dat da da daaa. “Jingle bells!” he says, breaking into a smile. It is always “Jingle Bells.”

Once a year, over our three and a half year relationship, it will be the first act of the Nutcracker Suite. But usually it is “Jingle Bells.” And it becomes one of our favorite things about each other: this game that pretends to offer surprise, that requires close attention to the message being tapped, like Morse code, onto the other’s body, when, in actuality, we know it is a ritual communicating our certainty of each other, a sly wink to the other in the face of the unknown. “I know where this is going, but I will pretend I don’t,” his eyes smile at mine. “And when it goes there, we will have gone there together.”

I decide it will be our first dance at our wedding.

I imagine his delight as I announce, in a beautiful, creamy dress, a glass of champagne in my hand, that I have chosen a very special song for this first dance, and the song begins—Bing Crosby’s version, or maybe that of Sammy Davis, Jr. He laughs as I prance towards him, and we join hands. We swirl in a big circle, enclosed inside arms and an inside joke.

But there is no wedding because I’ve been playing the wrong game. That’s not what love is–there should be no games, I know. Except that there are, and it is a game in and of itself to pretend there aren’t.

There are games of strategy, which I attempted to avoid, the more it became clear that he really didn’t want to get married—the kind that drive you to read articles titled things like “How to Get Him to Move In with You” or “How to Tell If He’s Never Going to Be Ready.”

There are board games, structured as the weeks you spend together: pick up your piece and go to the farmers’ market; buy a half-flat of raspberries for half-price (bonus points). Proceed to Monday, Tuesday, your weekly viewing of “How I Met Your Mother” (watched late because of band practice). Thursday—Standing Date with Friends (overdid the drinking again! Lose one turn).

There are games of chance (“We’re at the P.I.–join us for a drink, if you’re on your way home!”) and team challenges and individual foot races. There are mind games, but these are be benevolent, recast as “relationship discussions,” in which I sit on the couch beside you, the cat sleeping behind our heads, and love you as you try to come up with something, anything, to explain why you are not ready to want this life you have built with me. I turn this game on myself: this is not about me, this love is worth more than your pride, Bryn, not everyone is as quick with words as you are.

There are rules of engagement, but the engagement never happens. He tells me that at some point, he felt like we stopped being on the same team. I look at our life for the evidence of this: his anticipation that I will want the flour back on my side of the counter as we cook, my ability to pick which restaurant we should go to during Restaurant Week by the lack of nuts on the menu, the sand squirrel he made me on Ruby Beach, the book I bought him this Christmas on how to draw a chicken. Even when I think of the couch discussions, I think of holding his hand and thinking, “This is what love is.”

There were different teams? When had the game changed? What was the game changer, when marriage, maybe a baby, seemed only like extensions of the game we were playing together, the one I called “We’re So Lucky”?

Our relationship did not “move forward,” but the movements I miss now are these: the whirling in the kitchen, as I grabbed him for “Surprise Dance,” the intuitive rearrangement of limbs as one person turns on their side in sleep, the tapping of my fingers to a tune that will not be guessed, a tune tapped, now, on air.

Message in a Bottle: Meaning / Mistake

There’s an essay called “Metaphor as Mistake” by semiotician and novelist Walker Percy in which he explores the cognitive phenomenon of mishearing a phrase and why that mistake strikes us with sudden emotional potency. For example, says Percy, there was the time when,  as a child, he heard an African American man describe a bird as a “blue dollar hawk.” The child was fascinated, believing he apprehended something ineffable about the bird in the name, something evocative, true, specific to him somehow, as an encounter with the divine might be.  I know this moment, I think, as I read.  It’s an experience similar to what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “instress”: the moment in which one apprehends what he calls the “inscape” of another being, its innermost self in all its transcendent glory. It is a spiritual moment, Hopkins says, and we only achieve it when our own nature goes out to meet another, a godly namaste, an encounter with pure and perfect knowledge. It is a moment in which love for the world both mirrors and creates love of ourselves.  I am a big believer, if not in God, in this.

But then Percy, the child, is told the bird is, in fact, a “blue darter hawk.”  Rather than a moment of deep recognition, there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, the  older man’s dialect slurring the second word into something more mysterious than it really is. Thus, argues Percy, the potency dissipates immediately upon the correction of the error.  But, for one moment, the child feels the “truth” of a phrase as if he has bypassed language.  And for the moment in which we all make such mistakes, we do:  we generate the phrase mostly in our own heads. Metaphor is mistake, both true and untrue—science and poetry, an attempt to assert authority over mystery, to make it closer to something we understand.


In college, my junior year, I fell in love with the first of what would be many Ryans to come. It was an uneasy and unofficial relationship:   I wasn’t Mennonite or German, both of which were important to him, and he wasn’t very free, which was important to me. But loving him was my first experience with grown-up love, the kind in which you listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change each other’s minds, and respect differences instead of pushing them away.  There was, with him, a truthfulness and an attempt to connect deeply that set a healthy precedent for me, one I still honor every time I set myself aside and hear what someone else is trying to say.

But look. See how I go back and forth, even now, the trial of rewriting rejections into peaceable histories? I’ve made the man a metaphor, when there was so much neither of us could hear at that young age.


The truth: We had always known each other but had never spent much time together.  I was a hippie at the corner table, in a broomstick skirt and an over-sized feminist tee shirt; he participated in chapel and wore his shirts tucked in.  But then we drove from Kansas to Ohio, spent a weekend together, part of a large group at a wedding.  We’d talked more on the drive there than we ever had in three years; there were jokes exchanged and looks. We coordinated our turns driving home so that we were together in the front seat for four hours, talking, listening, asking the questions you only ask in college, when any thoughtful answer might really reshape what you yourself might think. I call it “dangerous listening” to this day.


And this is where the mistake, or love, begins.

The VW bus breaks down—is it surprising this is the kind of vehicle? Or that it breaks down?  We talk all night in a 76 truck stop in Troy, Illinois, share stale but free apple pie, snuck to us by Lorna, the waitress, who feels sorry for us or notices how our two heads lean in closer, while everyone else tries to sleep. We talk about God, of course, as you do in college and the dark, which means we also speak of love and art and books that sound pretentious now (The Stranger, The Fountainhead)  but, at the time, are not. They never are, at that time, that age.

Back on the road, we wordlessly seek out the darkness of the backseat, let others take their driving turns.  I curl into him; he lets me.  I feel the body of this man under my cheek, hear his heart beating so quickly, think I know it now.  “Blue dollar hawk,” the child hears.  I turn my head up to face him, notice how sweetly our lips will fit together. “I can’t,” he whispers.  Blue darter. I lower my face, pretend to be asleep, keep my cheek against his heart, despite its still-rapid beating.


Over and over, in the next few months, moments are sensed by me, rebuffed by him:  gazes dropped, then resumed, held, dropped again.  Sometimes, he comes down to have tea and talk about books.  I give up, go out of town, go out with someone else. When I come back, he comes to my dorm room that very night, lifts my face.  How sweetly our lips fit together in that first kiss three months after the refusal in the van.

Unlooked for, unsensed by me, these moments come with increasing frequency as his graduation looms.  We disappear to sit on rooftops after leaving the bars with friends, talking still, listening still.  He learns how bright the moonlight can be upon my pillow.  His heart still beats so quickly, and he laughs one night, lying his head upon my chest.  “Your heart’s beating so quickly,” he says, and I kiss his head.  The moon hangs like a blue dollar in the sky.

On graduation day, somebody takes a picture in which it is clear my heart is breaking:   his arm around me and both of mine around him, his head straight ahead and mine on his shoulder.  He is smiling; I am, too, but in that way that means I am about to cry. I wear his blue and yellow flannel, given to me just the night before.  It is 80 degrees, and I will not take this shirt off for weeks.  One minute before, I meet his mother for the only time, my arms full of irises after moving myself out of the dorms all day. I am sweaty and hot, stained with the ink of all those irises.  She puts her arms around me, hugs me close.  “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says.

Blue dollar?  Blue darter?  What has she heard?  What did he say?


The day he drives away from college, we make out for most of the day.  Our faces look again like they did in the picture two days before, but this time he can see my tears.  He is going to see a Mennonite girl with whom he thinks he might be more compatible.  He isn’t, it turns out, he tells me in a phone call, laughing, later that summer.  He promises to write,  though he promises me nothing about our own compatibility.

He writes me, it’s true, the first email I will ever receive, but mostly he writes me letters. Letters—no one raised on email can ever know the adequacy of letters from the man with whom you are still in love, no matter what they say, as long as they do not say “no.”  I am so young, too young to hear that word lurking in every line.  Still sharing, still talking.  Blue dollar, blue dollar.  How sweetly our lips press now the back of each envelope, I imagine.

Pressed on the back of the first is the phrase “Message in a Bottle.”

The Police song, of course?  What is he saying?  I am listening, as I always have. I’ve heard the Police and liked them, but now I immerse myself in a more intentional Police phase, listening so I can find its meaning for this man. I listen as anyone listens to music they believe to be a portal to the mind they love, as if the song is a secret written in many keys and one key will let me in for good, prove that we speak in code, bypass the language to the meaning, recognize the god in me as the god in you.  In him.

In the song, Sting is sending out an SOS to the world. He sounds urgent. He must be answered. I am listening. I sing along: “I should have known it right from the staaaaaaaaaart.” I sing, knowing what this song, now, really means. And what it really means, inside my head, is this: “I need your love, I need to talk to you because talking to you is love.”  And my heart beats faster again, singing it back:  “he needs me now, he knows it now at last.”

The phone rings, and though this is before caller id, I know it’s him. “Did you catch the reference on the back of the envelope?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, my head on his chest in the recesses of my mind, his head on my pillow in the blue dollar moon.  “The Police song.” “No,” he says, “The Bertolt Brecht story, ‘Message in a Bottle.'”  Blue darter.


That bottle, then.  The German one instead of the sexy one. The bottle, I think, confused, then, less like me, more like those things so dear to him:  German, contemplation rather than urgency, a kiss that can wait three months to happen, even though I am looking up in the dark right from the start.  I have been wrong; I cannot read his very mind; his heart still beats, but now it is too far across the continent for me to understand him.

But I look up the story again, and in its first lines, I hear myself, and him, and understand at last to whom I have been listening: “I am twenty-four years old. People say that is an age strongly inclined to melancholy. All the same I don’t think my melancholy is a reflection of my age. My story is as follows. At the age of twenty I got to know a young man in whose vicinity I felt lighter.”  And this young man, who lightens with his presence even in the dark of night, he too abandons the woman.  Perhaps it is for someone more compatible, but the reader never knows.  For he too gives her a letter, asks that she open it after three years. She waits and opens it, finds, in the end, a blank piece of paper. And the final words of Brecht’s story are pure Walker Percy, the muddled intersection between meaning and mistake, between metaphors which clarify and metaphors that simply make clear that only mystery remains:

As you know, there is such a thing as magic ink, which is legible for a specific period and then disappears; surely anything worth writing down ought to be written with such ink. I would also just like to add that about a year ago — that is, roughly two years after giving me the letter which is only a blank piece of paper — my beloved disappeared completely from my sight, presumably for ever. After waiting patiently for three years for a message which was less and less meant for me, I can only say that I always thought that love was outside any lover’s control, and that it was the lover’s business and nobody else’s.

In later calls, he will tell me about his new girlfriend and how important our time together had been to help him engage with her more openly, to appreciate her difference:  “I really was in love with you last year, and without that, I don’t know that I would have been as open to her.” At the time, it made me angry to find that he had come to think of  loving me as preparation for loving someone else, and the blue dollar moon had been replaced by the real name of blue darter hawk.  Sometimes, I was angry that those letters, those messages, were not an SOS, calling for my help, my love, a recognition of my inscape.

But as I look at us in that photograph, his steady gaze, my own eyes just about to fill, I know there was less mistake and more metaphor—that more and more, I see the messages he sent me, even before he left, were never really meant for me. They were to a young man trying to learn about himself, in a language only he really spoke, talking and writing to discover the self he wanted to become.  How could we listen well when we did not know yet what we most wanted to say?  More and more, then, that means that any messages I got from him were messages, somehow, I wrote for myself.


Here is the other bottle, the one in which I put my love for a time: