On Radical Love and How to Be Alone

January 9, 2019 § 10 Comments

aloneby Zach Shultz

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, something within me exploded. One minute I was cooking dinner, and the next I was hunched over the couch and dialing my psychiatrist to explain through unintelligible sobs, “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown.”

Despite countless therapy sessions to help cope with the pain of estrangement from my parents—whose unrelenting homophobia over the years has strained our relationship beyond repair—whenever the holidays approach a familiar feeling of unshakeable loneliness creeps up. There is no shortage of seasonal triggers: Christmas music on loop in every store; the aroma of freshly cut pine wafting in the wind from trees languishing on sidewalks like forgotten kids at daycare; the persistent questions from well-intentioned coworkers, such as “What are your plans?” followed by disingenuous invitations to tag along in their Hallmark family moment.

I had reason to hope things might be different this year. After three years of dating a semi-closeted man, he invited me to his family’s gathering for the first time. We would finally be together as a couple, openly, and I’d never spend the holidays alone again—or so I thought. On Thanksgiving Day, however, my ex called to let me know it was too much for him; he “needed space” and told me to “do my own thing.” Breathless from the gut punch of news, I chased down a Klonopin with a glass of wine, waited for the wave of numbness to wash over me, and sent a resolute text in reply. “Goodbye.”

zach shutlzWeeks later, still reeling in the post-breakup melancholia, I told myself: Enough. Instead of rushing home to mope after work, I schlepped down to Brooklyn for a monthly reading series in a charming bookstore underneath the Manhattan Bridge. I had come to hear Garrard Conley share an excerpt from his conversion therapy memoir but stayed for the surprise delight of Lane Moore reading “Happy Holidays to Everyone But You, You Lonely Weirdo,” from her collection of essays How To Be Alone: If You Want To, and Even If You Don’t

In a creative nonfiction course I once took, the teacher told us that the goal of good writing should be to make the reader “tingle with recognition.” If that’s the case, How To Be Alone is like watching the most stimulating ASMR video on YouTube. When Moore writes, “It takes, in no uncertain terms, bravery to admit to yourself, but especially out loud to other people, that your family is not safe, did not do enough, and are not people you want in your life,” a powerful sensation trickled from the back of my hippocampus down my spine.

Moore possesses an uncanny ability to shift seamlessly from bits of self-effacing humor— “Even when I was ten, I was easily forty in trauma years”—to heart wrenching prose that exposes the painful depths of desire, the desire to belong, to be held, to be loved. “I’ve spent so many of my relationships being terrified the person I love will hurt me,” she writes of meeting someone new, “worrying if I love more, or feel more, and what that means if it’s true.” This worry of wanting “too much” is traced throughout her life, from the betrayal of a best friend in high school to a series of failed romances in adulthood.

Like Moore, if I’ve gleaned any lesson from my traumas, past and present, it’s that the people you love most in your life will inevitably disappoint you. That seems like a shitty takeaway, a fact of life we shouldn’t be forced to accept. And yet, Moore lands on something more unexpected and transcendental in the end of How To Be Alone: radical love for yourself and others. “So be the idiot who cares too much,” she urges. “Because someone will remember you forever. In the way that I remember everyone who has ever been kind to me.”

After the reading, with a newly purchased copy of her book in hand, I went up and said, “I wasn’t expecting to hear any of the things you just read out loud tonight, but I’m so glad I did. That’s me!” She was open and generous, chatting with me for a few minutes about how difficult it is for those who don’t come from a broken home to understand what it’s like. She signed my book in messy, elongated lettering, the kind you might find on a note passed to your friend in middle school. “I’m so glad you don’t talk to your dumb family,” she wrote.

“That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me!” I beamed, and we both laughed in that knowing, self-deprecating way that only true orphan souls would understand. And for the first time in a very long time I felt happy, if even for a brief moment, and a little less alone.

Zach Shultz is a law school administrator in New York City and freelance writer and blogger. He has previously contributed to the Huffington Post, INTO Magazine, and the Gay and Lesbian Review, and has essays forthcoming in The Rumpus and Entropy Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @zach_shultz.

A Review of Sam Chiarelli’s Dig: A Personal Prehistoric Journey

December 14, 2018 § Leave a comment

digcoverby Aurora D. Bonner

My mother was the one who screamed when the tyrannosaur rex devoured the sniveling lawyer from Jurassic Park, but my brother and I, eight and eleven, just watched on in big-eyed wonder. By 1993, my brother was already obsessed, but after the film, I, too, became unknowingly affected by dinophilia, which Sam Chiarelli describes, in his new memoir, Dig: A Personal Prehistoric Journey, as “a delightful condition that affects millions of children.” He writes:

Many, if not most, adolescents around the world contract [dinophilia]. Dinosaur fandom attracts people of any age, gender, or socioeconomic background. A dinosaurian passion is just as likely to take root in France or Japan as it is in Morocco or Argentina, making it one of the world’s most international and multicultural infatuations. The condition can be contracted anywhere: museums, cinemas, classrooms, libraries, or in my case, a video rental store in 1989.

In Dig, Chiarelli explores the personal, social, and scientific aspects of dinophilia—the three stages of dinosaur obsession—while journeying to an archeological dinosaur dig in Colorado. Chiarelli travels to some of the most noteworthy places to discuss dinos with top researchers and childhood heroes, while uncovering dinophilia in some of the most unlikely places—a family-run start-up business, a Best Western hotel, an artist’s studio. From the quirky to down-to-earth, the exuberant to stoic, all encounters add an entertaining search for the root of dino-madness.

Chiarelli sprinkles his story with honest reflection and difficult questions that make him a very endearing and amusing narrator. For instance, when Chiarelli interviews Mark Norell from the American Museum of Natural History, and Paul Sereno from the University of Chicago, he confides in the reader that while “he manage(s) to keep the fanboy tendencies to a socially acceptable level,” he is crushed to find out his childhood heroes are not fellow dinophiles:

Are they silently pitying me? Or is this some kind of warning against falling too much in love with something? Especially an infatuation with old bones turned to stone. I can’t help but feel like an overgrown child, helplessly dependent on the dinosauria. But travel and adventure can’t be the only alluring aspects about studying dinosaurs for a living. Maybe professional paleontologists are like musicians who must discuss a single chart-topping song for the rest of their lives. Maybe these multifaceted people just want to escape a life where they can only talk about dinosaurs. I’m starting to think these acts of miniature rebellion keep them from descending into dinophilia. But then, I may be blinded by my irrational affection.

Chiarelli uses interviews and personal reflection to get at the heart of dinophilia, and through this process unearths a greater human truth about wonder and curiosity. Our interests and obsessions, the bloom of interest that keeps us questioning, keeps us longing for more, does not always stem from something concrete. Instead, Chiarelli argues, our interests and obsessions stem from imagination and wonder:

In the same way books are preferable to movies, dinosaurs enchant us because they force us to fill in the blanks. Each of us reconstructs the extinct leviathans within our minds and forges a personal relationship with our psychological creations. Our visions of dinosaurs are as unique as fingerprints, each of them a product of our own knowledge and experiences. Dinosaurs exist at the vertices where fear and fascination meet. They belong to our planet but not to our time. For human beings, whose lives are so rooted in the passage of minutes and hours, the Mesozoic marauders make us grasp for a world that has vanished forever.

Though my brother went on to survive Stage 2 dinophilia, my condition never persisted past Stage 1. Instead, the movie Jurassic Park introduced me to the book The Lost World, and a new-to-me genre of books, science fiction, that sucked me so far in, I rarely came out.

Reading Dig filled me with deep nostalgia for that feeling—the pure, unbridled wonder that blossoms from imagination and creativity. Part memoir, part travelogue, and all fan-lore, Dig encourages readers to explore and embrace their curiosities, and to face their most ingrained fears. Chiarelli proves that you don’t need to be a paleontologist to be a dinosaur fan, and that you are never too old to chase a dream.

Aurora D. Bonner has an MFA from Wilkes University and writes reviews for Colorado Review. She has published work in Assay: Journal of Nonfiction Studies and Under the Gum Tree, and she won first place in creative nonfiction at the 2016 Pennsylvania Writers Conference.


A Review of Jabari Asim’s We Can’t Breathe

December 4, 2018 § 1 Comment

book coverby Katharine Coldiron

We all have that friend. You know the one. He says he doesn’t understand what people are so upset about, that slavery’s been abolished for like 150 years, that everyone’s got the same rights and opportunities in this country as long as they work hard and behave properly. That all lives matter. If you’ve ever yearned for a single book to stuff in this person’s mouth in the hope that they might absorb some truth, We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival is the one.

The author, Jabari Asim, has long experience as an editor and writer (for the Washington Post as well as The Crisis), and his research skills are top-notch. This book is extraordinarily well-informed and written in a mode just short of scholarly. It winds patiently between Asim’s life experiences as a black man from a middle-class background and the life experiences of black people across American history, whether well-known (Ida B. Wells, Barack Obama) or obscure (slaves, soldiers). It embeds single great lines, like “what could be more American than pretending truths were self-evident when they seldom were?” and “instead of going high [as Michelle Obama instructed], we should be going everywhere,” in detailed, persuasive essays that must be read attentively.

It’s a disservice to Asim’s supple rhetoric to say that one essay is about racial representation in children’s books (“The Seer and the Seen”) and another is about black fatherhood (“Color Him Father”), when all the essays in We Can’t Breathe are about so many things. Blackness, obviously, is the rebar inside each one, but each essay is only loosely organized around a particular subtopic. This is a compliment. The relaxed intentions of each essay allow Asim to draw in evidence and argument from multiple discourses instead of sticking to one area or another. In a lesser writer’s hands, the essays would meander, but Asim is not a lesser writer.

His breakout of the differences between white and black art in “The Thing Itself” is especially skilled, ruminating as it does on art by both black and white artists about important figures from black history. Asim’s conclusions are measured and thorough. On Dana Schutz, the white artist who painted Open Casket (about Emmett Till), he writes “I believe it’s possible to defend Schutz’s project without underestimating the larger problem of institutional racism that keeps artists of color out of major museums and exhibitions.” In this same essay, he denounces William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner as the product of a “usurper” while taking an I’m-not-sure approach to Kenneth Goldsmith’s disastrous Michael Brown performance. This kind of particularization is hard to come by in an intellectual culture that cherishes pugnacious rhetoric, and as a posture, it’s absolutely necessary for meaningful criticism.

We Can’t Breathe is in some ways a pleasure to read—in its intellectual rigor and personal honesty, as well as its wonderful sentences—and in other ways excruciating. As a white person, I feel implicated (and rightly so) by Asim’s patient explanations of American white supremacy both past and present. Asim exposes, without artifice or excuse, the systems that have historically oppressed and continue to oppress people of color. It’s painful to read, but it’s a powerful tonic against anyone to whom those systems are invisible or unproblematic. He asks important questions of “Lukewarmers,” white political moderates who are unperturbed about the prevalence of supremacist attitudes. “To what extent do white silence and active-but-illicit racism come between people of color and equality? To what extent do they impede our children’s opportunity to embrace the American promise?” Earlier, in a different essay, “Is voting for a racist itself a racist act? Can one commit a racist act and not be a racist? Until we delve into that riddle, no real conversation can take place between those who voted for the forty-fifth president and those who did not.”

Even though American politics has taken bizarre new shapes just in the past two years, or about as long as it takes to bring a book into print, these essays are perfectly relevant to our current moment. Part of the reason for this is Asim’s own point that the black struggle, depressingly, hasn’t changed much in a couple of centuries. But another aspect is Asim’s precise understanding of how history moves, how it leads us to where we are now. As he writes in “The Elements of Strut,”

Sometimes, I picture in my mind a crimson thread originating in Africa, unspooling alongside a young boy stumbling and choking as his coffle yanks him toward the sea. The thread extends apparently without end, through the bloody spill of centuries and across fruited plains and fetid plantations, trailing the double-time stomp of a black Union soldier and continuing to unspool beside the swollen ankles of a church matron marching her way from Selma to Montgomery. I could see the thread snaking along Pennsylvania Avenue during Barack and Michelle Obama’s stately walk to the White House. It’s a spirit-lifting fantasy of black endurance and triumph, a useful antidote for the Weary Blues. 

We Can’t Breathe is, itself, a useful antidote—for the complacency and ignorance of white Americans. It stands next to Howard Zinn’s work as a supplement to an educational system that teaches the textbooks of the victors. I can imagine thrusting it at any number of well-meaning but inadequately informed acquaintances when they use the phrases “not that bad,” or “post-racial era,” or “who’s Ida B. Wells?” It’s all right here, Asim assures us. Everything we turn away from, he turns back to us, patiently, intelligently. Relentlessly.

Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, LARB, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She lives in California and at kcoldiron.com, and tweets @ferrifrigida.

A Review of Erica Trabold’s Five Plots

November 16, 2018 § Leave a comment

41pmwD1-uVL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_by Cameron Shenassa

“I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious…” begins the first essay in Erica Trabold’s Five Plots. She is standing in a cave in New Mexico. The cave is dark, and its depths announce an intention for the book. We are going to look into the unknown, to adventure somewhere foreign. What comes as a surprise in this tightly affective collection is that Trabold’s mystery is derived not from forays into unknown places, but from going into a wholly familiar one—her childhood in Nebraska. Whether looking at herself, her family and friends, or the landscape of the Midwest, Trabold uses these essays to ask how we can reconcile familiarity with a place with the mysterious and destabilizing feelings of being far from home, even when we are in it.

Perhaps this is the struggle for all of those who write about the middle of the country: how to render the strangeness of a place we think we know. Just the term “heartland” likely conjures a certain image for many of us, before devolving into the shorthand vocabulary often employed by those who would seek to point to its shortcomings: flat, wide, white, big sky, Republican, etc. Lately that vocabulary of monotony has become laced with tragedy, and we could well add decline, addiction, and others to the list to round out a simplistic modern view of the center of our country. Though these words are an indication of our own complacency, a conviction that “the heartland” can only be the setting for two kinds of stories: one of decay, the other an impossibly retro vision of small town life, pandered to by politicians and desired for the nostalgia it affords us.

Trabold doesn’t exactly push against these assumptions, though she does situate herself as an objective viewer in this terrain. Her life has taken her away from Nebraska, rendering her a complicated stranger upon her return, and though she doesn’t play into the obvious tropes, there is still tragedy, both personal and of the land. One essay focuses on the destructive means of digging used to shape the housing developments where she has come of age. In another essay, a friend’s mother is found dead of suicide at her house in the country. Add to these stories a feeling, one that tinges all the pages of the book, that the author’s absence has alienated her from the Nebraska of her home and childhood. As Trabold writes in one essay: “To the prairie, we are always returning, as if from exile.” It’s this sensation that unites all the pieces in the book. Underneath the daringly staccato forms, one can recognize a familiar story: that of returning home to find it different from when you left.

It’s fitting that many pages of the collection are devoted to chronicling the settling of the area surrounding the Platte River, as Trabold moves from paragraph to paragraph with a current that flows, meanders, seeking meaning through the arrangement of its segments. Trabold relies on implication-through-juxtaposition as an essential tool to create tension and release, and to join disparate narratives together. Though at times, I wondered if this tendency to imply rather than explain didn’t muddy the waters a bit. Particularly in the center essay, “Borrow Pits,” I found a promise of narrative gush reduced to a swirling eddy. I couldn’t figure out how the pieces worked together, or if they had a destination in mind.

Contrast that piece with the brilliantly structured “A List of Concerns,” in which a return trip to Nebraska to reconnect with old friends serves as occasion for a handful of narrative streams to come together, tributaries to each other, with great propulsive effect. Trabold is at her most intimate in this piece, engaging most directly with feelings of betrayal, aware of the lens through which she sees her Nebraska people now, and grappling with it before landing the essay in a deeply unsettling place.

These are the moments when Trabold is most compelling, when she fulfills the promise of mystery, destabilizing the reader in the process. In this tale with tight prose and twisting, highly juxtapositional storytelling, I too was jettisoned into unfamiliar territory, in an unrecognizable place, alone in the heartland, looking around, rediscovering.

Cameron Shenassa is a writer and instructional designer from Chicago. His stories, essays, and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Hobart, PANK, and other places. He is a dual citizen of the US and Luxembourg.

A Review of Kelly J. Beard’s An Imperfect Rapture

November 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

51rykLZrG1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_by Margaret L. Whitford

“My mother saw demons,” begins Kelly J. Beard’s stunning debut memoir. Though I feared the narrator would show me the cruelty and violence of her parents’ chosen faith, she does so with such a commitment to understanding the sources of her family’s suffering that I had to follow her narrative.

Religious fundamentalism and poverty, the latter made worse by the former, fracture the narrator’s family into unrecoverable pieces. Only her parents appear unscathed by the “steel belt” of their faith. They remain devoted to each other, their intimate and loving relationship a stark contrast to the isolation of their children.

“Over the years, I’ve wondered,” Beard writes, “why it seems other families endure similar or greater deprivations without siblings turning rivalrous or mean…. I wonder what particular ingredient combined to make our compound combustible. Our father’s complicated anger? Our mother’s changeable heart? Or that one singularly unstable ingredient: their hard faith?”

Beard examines all three influences from the perspective of a sensitive and perceptive child and that of an adult looking back, the two voices essential to memoir. Some of the most beautiful passages arise when both of these narrators co-exist. “It was the last time I remember our family laughing together. We were headed into mean years none of us could see. Still, when Dad turned the car around, we all looked back, staring at the road behind us as though our laughter were a tangible presence lingering there, dark swifts in twilight, darting and diving before vanishing into the distance.”

A quiet grief, evident in this passage, infuses much of An Imperfect Rapture. Regret, I am starting to believe, is an emotion with which all memoirists struggle, a tendency to engage in if only thinking in our examinations of the past. My regrets are not the same as Beard’s, but I recognize the feeling.

Organized in three parts, the memoir follows a loose chronology that begins with the narrator as a small child and concludes with her graduation from college. The third section, aptly titled, “Taking Leave,” focuses on the ways in which the narrator pursues distance as a strategy for self-realization. She recognizes that her survival depends on leaving, in both a psychic and physical sense, the literal and figurative desert of her childhood. She studies first in France, and then, following graduation, departs for the Pacific Northwest, a place where no one knows her and where she might “fathom” her own heart.

I also looked to travel overseas as a means to claim something separate from my family, starting with study in France. And, like Beard, I came to understand that the distance I needed to achieve was more complicated than mere geography.

Beard’s journey is primarily a spiritual one in search of her own inner voice, a whisper more powerful than the bellowing of the God of her youth, “an omnipotent schizophrenic,” whose “moments of grace were stitched into years of grief.” And yet, the narrator recognizes and cherishes these rare instances of grace—in the survival of a beloved dog, in the time to pursue the wrong questions until the right ones emerge. Rather than accept the punishing dualism of religious fundamentalism, whose lingering influence she acknowledges, she nurtures a more complex and healing faith.

In a book rich with vivid description, one image stands out for me—a small wooden table the narrator’s father gives her. He’d crafted the piece when he was twelve years old, the first thing he’d ever made. Proud of his accomplishment, he gave the table to his father, whose only response was to put his cigarette out on the wood’s smooth surface, leaving a permanent scar. The narrator keeps the table in the passenger seat as she departs for the Pacific Northwest. “It comforted me to feel the wood’s grain in its scalloped legs, to stroke its smooth surface, to whorl my finger around a scar he could never buff away,” Beard tells us.

Some wounds leave marks. The key to living with grace, it seems to me, is to balance recognition of the scars with an appreciation of the beauty that remains.

Margaret L. Whitford is a writer focused on personal essay and memoir. Her essays have appeared in Under the Gum Tree, The Fourth River, Brevity, and elsewhere.

A Review of Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s

October 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

512facvEFXL._SX364_BO1,204,203,200_By Peter Amos

Mike Faloon’s The Other Night at Quinn’s isn’t really about music, and I prefer it that way.

I moved to New York when I was twenty-two and recall two formative experiences.

  • Barreling over the Manhattan Bridge on a D-train – squished in a seat facing the rear, knees tucked against a man in a trench coat – reading Amiri Baraka’s “Coltrane at Birdland” (… to hear a man destroy it, completely, like Sodom, with just the first few notes from his horn).
  • Sitting in a folding chair with pinballs whistling and tilting in my ears me while Ben Monder, guitar in hand, cracked open Pandora’s box with a mallet from behind a wide semi-circle of cables and stomp boxes.

I learned in rapid succession that words are musical and that music can defy categorization. Faloon knows this too. My music history teacher passed along the often-quoted quip that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. She meant that writing about music can’t capture its essence. My high school art teacher used to say that you can’t paint the sun – “It’s just too hot!” He meant that we’re reduced to painting its impact: shadows, blood orange, and fuchsia as it dips behind clouds.

Faloon understands that music is far too hot for painting. He writes about the experience of watching it rather than the music itself. A series of quirky essays represent his introduction to free jazz by way of a Monday night music series at Quinn’s – a local bar in Beacon, New York. He knows he can’t describe the music he’s hearing but doesn’t discover quite how to write about it until later. He assembles descriptions of the town of Beacon, the walk from the car to Quinn’s, the scenes around him, the musicians, the music itself. Injected throughout are brief digressions: events from his life, memories, musings, associations. As he returns to Quinn’s, the memories grow more fluid, the associations more free, until he hits his stride.

He describes, midway through his year of music, a performance by Peter Evans and Sam Pluta:

“Witnessing Evans shove so many ideas through his mouthpiece is like watching traffic funnel into the Holland Tunnel. But those cars crawl, mark their journeys a few feet at a time. Evans has six – or eight or twelve – lanes of ideas barreling ahead, accelerators stomped to floorboards, yet somehow converging.”

This becomes Faloon’s defining conception of the music. The digressions become shorter (a single sentence or word), the references yet more obscure. He stitches together a hodgepodge of impressions, metaphors, juxtapositions, punk bands, movies, comics from radical zines. Faloon articulates the confusion of sitting in a room and experiencing something outlandish. He doesn’t stare into its burning eye, but paints around it, pirouettes and arabesques between the rebar and colonnades.

When music defies comprehension, I’m often surprised by how my brain files it. Ben Monder: drunk hipsters playing pinball. Mary Halvorsen: accidentally missing my first shift at a new job. Ari Hoenig: a friend trying to order a glass of milk at Smalls. Julian Lage: this many people in this space cannot be legal. Ambrose Akinmusire: snow.

Whether the first sip of coffee as Charlie Parker crackles from the speaker or the drive to New York to see heroes play in anonymous Brooklyn basements, music is a thing we do. Musicians have trouble admitting this. See live music and support local art because artists deserve it, music is powerful, you like music and might like this music too. I’ve never been convinced of any of that (though artists do deserve it). We should see live music and support local art because it’s a remarkable experience. Peek inside the mind of another, witness something truly wild or avant garde, watch cheeks bellow and air flow and feel the force of the action immediately. Faloon captures that value.

I leave each chapter with no concept of what the music sounded like, but a clear picture of what it meant to one listener. His attention flits from the ambience, to the loud party in the back, the cymbal hanging dangerously from the drum set, the sax player’s face, the pretentious conversation beside him, self-consciousness, euphoria, his to-do list for work. A sunset is no less sublime for being something other than the sun itself; the swirl and tumble of refracted light, more beautiful than a great, white hot ball. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but Faloon is graceful and there’s nothing at all wrong with dancing.

Peter Amos is a native of rural Virginia. The son of an English teacher and a librarian, he studied music in college and moved to New York City where he works, performs, explores, and writes about it. His work is listed on his site: The Imagined Thing.


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