Everybody makes a big deal about fall, holding onto the last thing that isn’t death: the dying. Autumn’s last hurrah, desperation in shades of orange and ochre. Wet leaves stuck to the sidewalk, cooking in their own sweet mold. That very flavor, captured and canned and spread into a sandy crust, another thing I don’t care for, pumpkin pie. Its wet clay texture, flecks of brown spice dissolving into the loam. Waiting for the oven to eliminate the turkey’s salmonella. The dread of a Sunday evening. No thank you. Give me Monday morning, give me the death itself, give me the decision, give me winter. Give me the certainty of two wool socks, give me the long-term commitment of my down parka. Give me some months without change, let me alternate only between hood-up and hood-down, give me slow molecules, clean air, give me the bright double of sunshine on snow; give me the street at night, weighted with the dark, disturbed only by the traces of glitter falling from the sky.
“I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.”
Happy Birthday Joan Didion.
Baby’s First Big Ten Football Game. Third Generation Hawkeye. Three degrees below zero.
Everybody knows Debbie Downer, but have you met Global Jodie? I have. I met her the other night when I was on the phone with my father. “There is never a nice day in Iowa,” I said. “It’s one-hundred-percent inhospitable all of the time.” “Right,” said my father, humoring me. “I’ve got to get off the phone, I’ve got a pot roast on the stove.” He put my mother on the phone. She had a question about leggings. “Is it OK to wear them with a long blouse or not?” ”All pants have stretch now,” I said. “It’s the obesity epidemic. It’s the Lycraization of America! You can’t even buy real jeans anymore.”
Suddenly I was overcome with the memory of a poorly planned camping trip I’d been on in high school. “We don’t need to set up the tent,” we’d agreed. “We can just lay here on the ground and go to sleep.” All night long, a mosquito sang shrill, bloodthirsty dirges in my ear. I recognized that mosquito in myself. It was Global Jodie.
Global Jodie has a hard time telling the difference between what is one event and what is the whole world. Global Jodie takes it personally. Global Jodie knows that people driving cars are all eating hamburgers and ignoring stop signs, and that if she did not wave aggressively at them, they would not only not slow down for the stop sign but not stop at all. They would run her down and leave her splattered corpse all over College Street. Wouldn’t that teach them to pay attention, these young people and their reckless driving and their house parties, football games, and other forms of mindless self-indulgence, but then, everyone is having a better time than Global Jodie is. Global Jodie is at home updating her computer and stoking her inner fire, Global Jodie is making a phone call to a customer service representative, Global Jodie is on hold and the hold music is a choral requiem interrupted at all the climaxes by radio static.
Once you meet Global Jodie, you’ll see her everywhere. She’s on the street corner, handing out a petition. She’s all over Facebook. She loves to stay in my apartment when the heat isn’t working; she will probably come with me to the airport this weekend. But now that I recognize her, hide as she might behind her enormous prescription sunglasses, I think I can probably buy her an overpriced cup of black sludge from the sticky and inefficiently run coffee stand and leave her at the gate.
50. Why Robert McKee Is Wrong About Casablanca
One day, some friends and I snuck in to see the tail end of Robert McKee’s seminar. Robert McKee is the author of Story, a sort of bible for screenwriters, and thousands of people pay lots of money to take his class. We arrived as he was talking about Casablanca, which is the grand finale of the seminar.
McKee says that what’s so beautiful about Casablanca is Rick’s great love for the Ingrid Bergman character. At the end, Rick chooses not to be with her, and McKee talks about this as the greatest illustration of the depth of Rick’s love for her: it is so strong that it will live forever in Rick’s heart, despite the tremendous physical distance that has separated them for years, and despite the fact that he now may never see her again.
I think Robert McKee might be a very bad husband. This seems like the most destructively romantic understanding of love. The idea that love is something magical, almost supernatural, in your heart, that has nothing to do with the day-to-day encounters with a real person—that understanding of love has probably created more unhappiness and ruined more marriages than just about anything.
Love is what happens between people living their lives together, becoming close through contact and actual partnership, and it’s what survives through difficulties and imperfections. An idealized, imagined, faraway person in your heart—that’s not love. That’s a daydream. People often mistake that daydream for love, so either they’re disappointed when love doesn’t measure up to that daydream, or they try to protect that daydream from being sullied by real life.
A man like Rick—a man who chooses to be alone for his whole life out of love for a woman he chooses not to be with—isn’t a man who knows anything about love.
Every thirty or so years, that one with the ring around its head is back in the spot it was when you were born. Try to picture it as it might look in space, rust colored and cream curdled and swirling, bigger across than nine earths. Don’t picture it as a styrofoam ball, crushed and punctured by a soccer cleat in the backseat of your parents’ car; drooping from a wire hanger, attached with dental floss. This is the opposite of that. This is supposed to be bigger than you are, this is supposed to make you bigger. Or nothing. But I am into it: I am trying to be better, not just older. Last night I walked home in the dark and looked up at all the stars and thought: one day I should see a real night sky, and for the first time realized that in my mind, even the Milky Way could stand improving—if only I could moisturize every hangnail, vacuum every last corn chip crumb from my carpet, escape all sources of light pollution—then my life could really begin. But we’re talking about metallic hydrogen, crystalized ammonia, wind speeds of over a thousand miles per hour, he’s coming and he’s bringing his 150 moons and moonlets with him. I’m going to stay right here and use my imagination for something better than wishing myself away.
I met a woman in Berkeley who smelled like pine trees and optimism. It was essence of vetiver, she told me. The smell Proust hates, I said. Sometimes it is not the best idea to bring up Proust at an art gallery opening. Likely the person has not read Proust and will feel bad; just as likely they will have finished the entirety of the series and then I will feel bad. She also had a great pair of wooden sandals on. The walls of the gallery were covered in baskets made out of dried tubes of seaweed.
Vetiver is the smell that reminds the narrator Marcel of dragging himself to bed at night, daily devastation to be separated from his beloved mother. Something about incense burning in his darkened bedroom, something about not wanting to be taken from reality by sleep.
Last week the co-op was featuring a new organic deodorant for sale. I am always aware when our co-op has anything new for sale. Vetiver and Spice, it was called. I opened the bottle surreptitiously and breathed deep. It smelled like pine trees and old wood floors and opening the oven to see if the pie is done. I put it back on the shelf because it cost nine dollars. I picked it up again. I put it back. I, too am trying to be more in touch with reality, or at least the reality of my desires, or actually I am just trying to be more impulsive. I picked it up again.
The label on this particular deodorant revealed that it is manufactured in Cambridge, NY. If I wrote a book about my own childhood memories, Cambridge would be my very own Combray—the former home of my aunt Sheila, the location of most of our Christmases, a wedding, and a funeral. The house where I tasted my first glass of wine, where I learned to use ammonia to clean the windows, where I rested on the oriental rug from sunburn. It was a sign. I had to buy it. Vetiver and Spice and Olivia Dunn. I could unify my whole personal history into my present identity with this significant deodorant.
Nine dollars plus tax and one blistering skin rash later, I’m back to my old unscented Liquid Rock roller ball. When I write my memoirs I will associate vetiver only with seaweed baskets and the feeling of two sore armpits. And when I am old maybe I will get over the idea that buying things is any kind of real action towards the solidification of an identity, that longing for something past or future is any way to be in touch with reality at all. Until then I have a nice rose petal and lavender perfume.
Me, this afternoon!
Every fall, Prairie Lights hosts a reading series in conjunction with the UI’s International Writing Program. Here’s this fall’s schedule. The readings are Sundays from 4-5 pm. Please consult the IWP’s calendar for any scheduling changes.
9/1 1 Dmitry Golynko
2 Lili Mendoza
W Olivia Dunn (NF)
And now I am the proud owner of ten, dark purple plastic objects, mine and mine alone, customized, not including the hour-long experience of becoming this chemical princess: drills and buffing cubes and small hot chambers of bright purple light under which I baked into permanency. Now I understand Time. Now that my plain beige secrets are hidden can I finally become Myself.
Explaining what kind of writing I do when someone asks about nonfiction