On the News #52essays2017 no. 20

These days my phone sends me only two kinds of news alerts — reports of mass shootings and reports of new allegations of sexual harassment or assault. (We know a good deal about the effects of media conglomeration on the quality and quantity of news reporting. It would be interesting to study the effects of smart phone news alerts on people’s awareness of current events, but that’s another topic for another hour.) I find these both distressing, of course, but primarily they make me very, very tired.

That The Onion has been able to recycle the same story about mass shootings for years now is a marker of the kind of outrage most of my friends feel about this country’s inability to address the problem of gun violence. I know many fine people who are hard at work on this problem, and I wish them luck but have little faith in the possibility of any change. Any form of restriction on gun ownership or gun type will never fly on the right; stop and frisk (which my former prosecutor friend assures me is an extremely effective tactic for preventing gun violence) will never fly on the left. I am unaware of a third path, unless there is a fundamental shift in human nature. I have not encountered anything new on the subject (see again that recycled Onion story) and think it unlikely that I will, and I am very tired of reading the same things over and over again.

A friend in college once said that I was unshockable, and this may be true, as so far the repeated news alerts about yet another man groping a woman or a girl (or raping her, or masturbating in front of her, or making any sort of unwanted sexual advances) have left me perhaps a little more deflated each time, but not shocked. I am instead very tired — tired of having to read the details of an incident which, if it has not happened to me, has undoubtedly happened to someone I know — and even more tired of reading men’s responses to it.

I do not particularly wish to congratulate or thank men for their apologies, or for their writing about realizing the error of their ways, or for admitting their wrongdoing and pledging to do better, or their musings on what it means to be a man, or their exhortations to other men, or their admissions of the times they participated in locker room talk, or whatever else it is they are posting about in these times (for truthfully, I have stopped reading). No apology is likely to be sufficient to either the woman who was harassed or assaulted, or to those of us who have been similarly harassed or assaulted. I did not think I would ever find myself quoting my driver’s ed teacher, but I am tempted to yell “Don’t be sorry; just don’t do it!” each time I run across another apology.

I don’t mean that the apologies are insincere or that they should not be made — I merely mean that they should not be made with the expectation of absolution or congratulations or even acknowledgment. I am tired and I do not wish to spend my limited energy thanking men for their honesty or congratulating them for their self-awareness or otherwise performing what they now call emotional labor on their behalf.

I think a lot about how I am raising a white son and whether it is possible to do so and create a decent human being in this society.

I think a lot about how the worst sexual assault is never likely to show up as a news alert on my phone, because it happens within families and cannot be spoken of for fear of reprisal or of upsetting the delicate net that holds us together.

I think a lot about how we have heard — or are listening to and reporting on — primarily to the accounts of white women, and whether I would see as many news alerts and social media posts and apologies if the reports were made by women of color, who surely experience such things at an equal if not greater rate.

I think a great deal about the abuse perpetrated upon bisexual and transgender youth and how improbable it is that their stories will ever become mainstream news alerts or popular hashtags.

I think about these things, but I have not had much to say, because, as I have said, I am very tired, and that is why I have not commented on your musings or liked your posts or engaged in your discussions. It is not that I am giving up: I will continue to fight against poverty, hunger, injustice, and oppression, against “hypocrisy, porcous pomposity, greed, lust, vulgarity, cruelty, trickery, sham, and all possible nitwittery.” But I will do so largely outside the echo chamber of news alerts and hashtags and social media posts.

I hope that anyone reading this can find a way to do the same.

An Introduction to Roxane Gay

Each year my library hosts the presentation of the Paul Engle Prize and I write an introduction to the prizewinner. This year’s event is this Thursday, October 12 and we’ll be honoring Alexander Chee. In the meantime, here’s last year’s introduction.

Roxane Gay is a woman who survived girlhood. That’s true of many of us—more than half of us were girls; many girls are survivors. But few of us go on to write about those two things—girlhood and survival—and the tensions between them, and fewer still do so with the grace, wit, and punch of Roxane Gay.

Gay embraces the very things many of us were taught to reject as too girly. Whether she’s writing about the influence of Sweet Valley High or explaining her love of pink, Gay tackles girlhood and its accoutrements head on—not to fight them or deny them but to acknowledge that they are a part of us, that popular culture, as much as anything, has made us who we are.

But Roxane Gay is more than a celebrant of sugar and spice: she is also someone who knows their dark side. She knows, as she puts it in the title of one essay, both the illusion of safety and the safety of illusion, and she is not afraid to break up those illusions and bring us face to face with the things we would rather not see: the lack of characters of color on television. The casual violence toward women we hear all around us. The actual violence perpetrated on women’s bodies and on black bodies.

Girlhood plus survival: from these things, and from her life as the daughter of Haitian immigrants, a professor, a Scrabble player, and more, Roxane Gay has made herself into a writer of breathtaking fiction and thought-provoking essays. Reading her work is like getting a tour of contemporary culture from your smartest friend, the one who seems to have been everywhere and seen everything and who has come back to put it all together for you.

Gay is the author of a collection of stories, Ayiti; a novel, An Untamed State; an essay collection called Bad Feminist; innumerable essays both online and in print; and a Twitter feed that will have you laughing, cheering, and up in arms. Her memoir Hunger is forthcoming this year, and she will be writing Marvel’s World of Wakanda comic along with poet Yona Harvey. She teaches at Purdue University, where she is an associate professor of English.

“Don’t bother coming back to my world,” the narrator of An Untamed State says to her future husband in an argument. It’s a challenge and a dare, one he ends up accepting, and one you should, too. Once you have stepped into Roxane Gay’s world, you will see things you have never seen, and you will be wiser and better for it.

Each year the Paul Engle Award Committee works with artists at M.C. Ginsberg, who design the one-of-a-kind prize. This year, designers Brigitta Stoner and Ji Young Yoon found inspiration in Roxane Gay’s writing. In an artist’s statement about the piece, they write that their efforts “were combined to create a representation of the thoughts in a woman’s mind. We ask ourselves many questions every day, and often there are conflicts between society and the many internal thoughts and feelings females experience daily.” The piece, as with all past Engle Prizes, includes a small charm in the shape of Iowa, with a diamond representing Iowa City.

It is with great pleasure that we now present it to Roxane Gay—woman, survivor, writer, and winner of this year’s Paul Engle Prize.

On Wilderness #52essays2017 no. 19

When my great hero Edward Abbey lived with his family in Hoboken, NJ, he wrote that “we had all the wilderness we needed.” I think he was lying. Notably, he did not remain in Hoboken, NJ (nor with that wife and family — I think she was wife number two, but with five of them I get confused — he’s not my hero in all aspects of his life) but rather went back out west and settled in Utah and Arizona, disappearing often into the desert and coming back to town to write and teach.

I live in Iowa and I have nowhere near the wilderness I need. I can’t track down the source, but I once read that Iowa has less uncultivated land than any other state in the country, and I believe it’s true: everything here that isn’t a city got turned into farmland, most of it now firmly in the hands of Big Agriculture and Monsanto. Much of the country here is very pretty, but it’s not wild.

I have days (and this is clearly one of them) where I think leaving the West was the worst decision I ever made. When I first heard of Meeteetse, Wyoming, I was sitting in a library in Franklin Park, Illinois scrolling through librarian job ads. I looked up Meeteetse on Google maps and saw it there, a tiny speck of a town just miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, and I was sold. It didn’t matter that I was only halfway through library school: I was going to apply for that job. I was going to escape the smog and the traffic. I was going to ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze and the moon until I lost my senses, and that’s what I did.

I used to lie on my back at night and gaze up at the stars — on a clear night — and most of the nights are clear in the high desert — you could see the Milky Way from my yard. On weekends I’d pack up and head out for the National Forest. Drive thirty minutes, hike a few miles, and then you were in the Washakie Wilderness, 704,274 acres touching three counties where no motorized vehicles were allowed and you could hike for hours or days without seeing another human being. I’d see moose back in there, and bear tracks, and sometimes I’d feel bad for even the impressions my hiking boots made in the land, feeling I should leave it untrammeled for the creatures whose home it was.

That’s the strange thing about wilderness: people don’t really belong there. Humankind’s dominion over nature is so complete that it’s antithetical to our sense of ourselves to say there are places where we should not go, or visit only briefly, places that belong to bears and birds and wolves and lodgepole pines. And of course a lot of people don’t think that, often especially people who live near those places, who resent that people in New York and California have more say over what happens to the land they live by than they do.

People say the West begins at the 100th meridian, or where the rainfall drops to less than ten inches a year. I say it begins where there’s more federal land than there is private property. And it’s there that I face the great paradox of the wilderness: it was saved by people who’d never set foot in it and probably won’t. The people who voted for the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act mostly don’t come from places where there is wilderness or endangered species — there aren’t enough people in most of those places to provide for more than one or two House votes per state, and many of those votes, like many of the people they represent, resent federal wilderness protections. Somehow people convinced those men (and they were mostly men) to save land they’d likely never seen. I am forever grateful to them.

I started this essay by quoting Ed Abbey. I read Abbey long before I ever had a child or before the full brunt of what it means to be female, and especially a mother, came to bear down on me. I have a harder time with Abbey and many of my other heroes (Charles Bowden comes to mind, as does Jack Kerouac) now because their adventures were largely possible because they skipped out on the duties of parenthood, and they are celebrated for it in a way no woman ever would be.

A year or so ago I was trying to do an interview with the author of a wonderful book about Ed Abbey, but I abandoned it because I couldn’t make it stick together. I couldn’t get over my own resentment of someone who was still free to “crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus” until “traces of blood “ began to mark his trail. I don’t get to do that anymore, and it will be many years before I can again. All that is fodder for a very different essay, but I wanted to acknowledge it here as part of the thing I want and can’t have, due not only to geography but also to fate. In the meantime, I keep my topo maps on the top shelf, waiting for the day when it will be time to get them down again.

On Springsteen #52essays2017 no. 18

During the worst of my anxiety this spring, I had a panic attack at every red light. There are seven stoplights between my house and my work, and one of them I go through twice due to daycare dropoff, so there were sixteen times a day when I might start to hyperventilate in my car and wonder if I was going to hit the gas and ram into the car in front of me. The only way I could get through was to count the seconds of each stoplight. I learned that the longest one was a minute; most were only 30 or 45 seconds. Knowing how long I had to stay there made it bearable.

After I got out of the hospital I no longer had that panic at stoplights, but I still had panic in the car, and the only thing that got me through was listening to “Thunder Road” on repeat. As a friend of mine said, there are worse coping mechanisms. In a future essay I’ll talk about why that in particular is such a brilliant song, but for now I want to talk about Springsteen more generally, because his music has helped me out so much in the past few months.

I moved from “Thunder Road” on repeat to Born to Run in its entirety, and then to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and, of late, Tunnel of Love.

I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen when I was a kid, because all I knew about him was that Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA,” and, like Reagan, I hadn’t actually listened to the lyrics of that song. So I was a Springsteen late bloomer, coming to him only in graduate school, acquiring albums as they showed up at the public library or as I found them as cassettes at Goodwill.

In the summer of 2002, my friend Meg, dead now these five years, spent a month on the psych ward, where I’d visit her every day and bring her coffee (in those years the psych ward wouldn’t serve you caffeinated coffee from the cafeteria, though they’d let you buy Coke and Mountain Dew at 8 pm, but people could bring it in for you). One day she got a pass and we went out to a movie — Minority Report, I think. I had a tape in my car that was Darkness on the Edge of Town on one side and Born in the USA on the other. “This is the all Springsteen all the time car,” I said to her, and she approved, though the Boss himself once gave her a Heineken backstage when she was fourteen, which isn’t the sort of thing a recovering addict normally approves of.

I used to play “Tougher Than the Rest” for my grandmother and tell her it was the most romantic song I’d ever heard. “Well,” she said, “it certainly says I have flaws and you might too.” I think she was still a fan of the songs of her youth, which were a little realistic, to my mind, but we all prefer the music of our youth.

At my tenth high school reunion someone handed my friend Tim a stack of quarters and told him to pick music from the jukebox. “Come with me,” he said, and we started flipping through the albums. I was going to vote for “No Surrender” when we got to Born in the USA (“We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”), but he said “I suppose we have to play “Glory Days.” We agreed we had to, even though it was so corny. Thirteen years later I find it less corny, perhaps because I am now a single mother like the one in the song, and my social life consists of a beer now and then after my kid is in bed.

I used to think there was something wrong with loving things that so many other people loved, but I’ve gotten past that as I’ve gotten older, and thus I feel free to love Springsteen with abandon. I’ve listened to “Promised Land” while driving through the Utah desert and argued about the lyrics to “Racing in the Streets” with someone from Pennsylvania/New Jersey. I’ve come to understand that Reagan was as wrong about Springsteen as he was about everything else. I’ve used the phrase brilliant disguise in an essay and made someone think it was mine (I ‘fessed up). I’ve listened to the more recent albums and loved them, too, which is a rarity — most artists don’t have that much staying power.

I measure my love for my son against Janey’s love for hers. I measure the men I meet against the narrator of “Tougher Than the Rest.” I measure patriotism against “Born in the USA” and defiance against “No Surrender.” Whenever I drive fast I hope that the two lanes can take me anywhere, and I’m ready to take that long walk, even if the ride ain’t free.

Swimming #52essays2017 no. 17

When I was a child the locker rooms at the outdoor pool in my town were open to the air so that, we imagined, the occasional balloonist or low flying plane looking down could see us all changing in and out of our swimsuits. I was five or seven or nine and didn’t care or know to care, and neither did the old hippie ladies who walked around stark naked with sagging breasts and mounds of pubic hair. This was the early 80s, so they weren’t very old hippie ladies; they just seemed old to me, and certainly they were older than the teenagers who shrieked and wore bikinis and never seemed to get in the water.

I did not learn to swim until I was seven, at a camp in Maine far away from Iowa, in a cold clear sand bottomed lake, so my early experiences of the pool were just of splashing around in the shallow end. You’d go and put your clothes in a wire basket with a number on it, and they’d give you a pin with the same number that you’d pin to your swimsuit and use to retrieve your belongings when you were done swimming. The walls of the locker rooms were painted cement blocks, and the shower area was just a big communal square.

Later in my childhood the place was remodeled, and they put on a roof, and actual lockers, and some private stalls, but I’m grateful for that early experience of the open air and of seeing everyone’s bodies and knowing from an early age that swimming was not just a pleasure for the fit and thin.

These days I swim laps at the rec center in the city where I work, across the street from the junior high I would have gone to had I lived here in junior high, where one of my high school classmates now teaches. I swam many laps there while I was pregnant, as the water was the only place I felt good. Around seven or eight months the nurse midwives told me to go do handstands in the pool to flip my baby, who was breech. I’ve never known if handstands in the pool actually does anything to flip a baby or if it’s just something you tell pregnant women to do so they can feel they are doing something. At any rate, I’d waddle in my maternity suit under the panicked eye of the teenage lifeguard, who clearly thought I might be about to give birth at any moment. I’d get in the water and feel better again, immediately lithe and strong and all the things I didn’t feel on land. I’d swim down to the shallow end, do a few handstands, swim back, and repeat the whole exercise.

Junior high students all have to complete a swimming PE unit, and they walk across the street and huddle in the locker room, equally self-conscious about their own young bodies and somewhat frightened at the bodies of the rest of us in the locker room, where most of the other women are even older than I am. I used to be self-conscious around them, too, till I thought about the old hippie ladies of my youth and decided I was going to be one of them, too.

I am not a fast or particularly good swimmer. I do a lap of crawl and then a lap of breast stroke and then back to crawl, and most of the time when I swim crawl I don’t bother to kick. I’m not sure, therefore, how much exercise I actually get from swimming, but I think of it less as exercise and more as a meditation. It forces me to regulate my breathing, in and out in time with my arms and legs, and it forces me over the same ground again and again. I don’t wear my glasses when I swim, so all I can make out is the giant black line marking the lane of the pool, and even that is fuzzy and far away. The sounds around me fade away and I’m just a machine that swims back and forth and breathes. I don’t worry that the swimmers around me are faster (they usually are) or that the life guards are fitter (they always are). I just swim.

The pool where I swim now is also used for high school swim meets, and there’s a giant board with the record holders for each stroke and length, or however they divide up the races at swim meets. Until just a summer ago, two of those spots were held by a guy I went to grade school with and am friends with on Facebook now, and it always pleased me to see that his record still stood twenty years later. Last summer, though, his name came down, replaced by a new one. I was there the day a guy was painting over the sign. When I got out of the water I went over to him and said, “Hey, I knew the guy who’s name your painting over.” “Huh,” he said, not caring, because this was just his summer job, and he didn’t want to talk to middle aged women who’d just gotten out of swimming pools.

Now I know none of the names on the board, but I go back again and again, making my own sort of record, knowing that I am proud of my body as it swims, and no one can take that away from me.

Malcolm #52essays2017 no. 16

I often feel awkward, if not outright apologetic, as a white woman who gave her very white son the middle name of Malcolm after Malcolm X.

I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a follower of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I am a big fan of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program (and for God’s sake, if you’re not familiar with it, stop reading this and go read it now), and I often fantasize about what a Malcolm X-Black Panther alliance could have done, had Malcolm not been assassinated.

My reasons for choosing Malcolm as a middle name go back a long way. They go back to my mother telling me when I was twelve that Malcolm went to Mecca and saw all races getting along and wanted to make that happen everywhere. They go back to hearing Alex Haley speak when I was in high school. They go back to first hearing the Phil Ochs song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which starts “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers / Tears rolled down my spine / And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy / As though I’d lost a father of mine / But Malcolm X got what was coming / He got what he asked for this time / So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” They go back to wishing Malcolm were alive every time an unarmed black man is shot by the police. But most of all they go back to this line from a speech of Malcolm’s I read in graduate school:

We didn’t want anybody telling us about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and note hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.

I underlined that passage long before I knew I’d have a son. I underline that passage back when I did hate a lot of where I came from. I still hate some of it, still hate that I had ancestors who were slave owners (even if one of them set his slave free). I still hate that I had ancestors who profited from the labor of enslaved people, even if only directly — because really, if you bought cotton in the United States during the era of slavery, you profited from slave labor. (And really, if you bought it afterward, during the era of sharecropping, you shouldn’t feel that much better about yourself).

Malcolm X gave this speech in Detroit just after his home was bombed. I cannot imagine what that is like — to have your home with your wife and four young children bombed — but I know it is a daily reality for many people.

I can’t pretend to understand the lived experience of African Americans. And I can’t claim not to feel slightly uncomfortable claiming one of their martyrs as one of my heroes.

But he is one of my heroes, and those lines from that speech that I underlined so long ago came back to me when I was pregnant. I didn’t plan to become pregnant, and my son was born out of wedlock in a relationship that many didn’t think well of. But that line came back to me — “You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself.” I didn’t want my son to hate himself, and so I didn’t want him to hate his origin, and so I gave him the middle name of Malcolm, the man who taught me that.

We all of us have small, personal stories that run alongside the larger historical ones. Sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they cross pollinate. Sometimes you start out admiring someone for the work he did and end up loving him for one small line. Sometimes you want to support a movement and end up selfishly supporting only yourself.

I get very odd looks from white people when I tell them that I gave my son the middle name Malcolm after Malcolm X. I don’t know what kinds of looks I get from people of color because I live in Iowa, a state where 2% of the population is black and something like 26% of the prison population is black. I visit a prison every two weeks, but even the people I see there are mostly white, because I work with the inmates with the highest level of privilege, and most of them are white, and if you don’t think there’s something wrong with that, I don’t think I want to know you.

I think a lot about racial justice and the ways in which I’m not doing enough to achieve it. My son’s middle name reminds me of a lot of things, from my idiosyncratic personal reasons for choosing it to the larger societal struggles it stands for. But most of all it reminds me that I have to try harder.

Fears #52essays2017 no. 15

I’m afraid of listening to new podcasts, even when they come highly recommended. Sometimes I’m even afraid of listening to new episodes of podcasts I love, and so I listen to old ones instead. I’m afraid of the pieces of paper on my desk, and I’m afraid of sorting or organizing them because I might lose one and thus forget the book I’m supposed to order for someone or the phone call I’m supposed to make. Sometimes the piles just sit there for months and months, and then I’m afraid of them because they’ve been there so long and everyone will think I’m crazy if I bring them up now. Of course I am crazy. I have a hospital record to prove it.

I’m afraid during thunderstorms and wish someone would hold me, but I’m not afraid of tornadoes. I’m often terrified to drive but I’m not afraid of flying. I’m not afraid of public speaking but I’m afraid to call my friends.

I’m afraid of making plans for my son because he so often doesn’t like them, and how do I explain to another parent that my kid refuses to play with their kid all of a sudden when they played together so well last week? I’m also afraid of being alone with my child because I don’t know what to do to keep him occupied. I am 41 years old and my brain doesn’t occupy the space of a five year old’s mind very well.

Most of these fears are a daily presence. They form the basis of my self talk and shape my waking hours. When I take enough medication, I’m still afraid but the fears don’t bother me as much, sort of the way they say morphine doesn’t ease the pain; it just makes you not care about it.

It’s hard, because I am, for instance, afraid of feeding my child because there are so few foods he eats and they aren’t consistent, and it’s not feasible to take him out for a stripey grilled cheese sandwich at Panera for every meal. Once I made him a grilled cheese sandwich at home and he rejected it because it didn’t have stripes. Then I found a grill so I could make a striped grilled cheese sandwich and he rejected it because it was only supposed to have stripes on one side. Today he said he’d eat one with no stripes and he did and I nearly died of shock.

I would give almost anything not to be so afraid. My right foot? Maybe. I could limp along on crutches if I weren’t so afraid. But trades don’t work like that. I can’t give up a body part to be rid of part of my mind.

What worries me most is that my son has inherited this trait from me. At night we lie in bed and he asks me questions about all of his fears. He walks in behind me when we go places so he can hide behind my back. He is anxious, but he can’t tell me that, so he throws things and screams and hits. I do my best to help him with early interventions, but I worry he will end up just like me, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

When I was in graduate school my friend said if she could just get migraines like Joan Didion’s migraines then she’d be okay. She could write essays about them. I used to read The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem again and again so I could read about how she’d call her husband to ask for the time because she never remembered to pack a watch, about how afraid she was to ask the assistant district attorney anything and thus relied on observations to tell her stories. If I could have fears like Joan Didion’s fears, I could make them into art.

But in my experience ailments are not art; they are impediments to it. Mental illness may have an association with creativity, but it’s hell to live through for the sake of creativity.

I write about my fears from a position of privilege. I won’t lose my job as a result, and if I lose friends, well, I am not sure they were my friends to begin with. I am likewise lucky in my family, who have not disinherited me yet, for all that I sometimes write about things they might wish I wouldn’t.

The wind is blowing outside my house right now and it’s cold and wet outside, and I’m afraid of another long day indoors tomorrow. I’m afraid that I won’t remember ever what it’s like to be happy or remember any of the things I used to like to do. Right now I’m afraid of even the simplest of matters: I’m afraid to cook an egg because it seems too complicated. I bought peach yogurt in addition to my usual raspberry and lemon and I’m afraid to try it. I’m afraid when I look at the books on my shelves because I know I read most of them at one time but I can’t remember when I had the energy and attention to do such things.

I am afraid, in other words, of living, but life still goes on.