In Which Our Throat Goes Dry From The Effort Of Amusement
Friday, April 25, 2014 at 11:47AM
Alex in THE FUTURE, lucy morris, rachel kushner

Some Recent Notes


In Iowa this was the winter of Beyonce and hashtags, which is to say it was no different from winter anywhere else. “We’ll never hear this album and not think of this time,” someone said, and it seemed true, certain tracks inextricable from solitary hood-up walks home as early dusk bore down, others forever linked to an afternoon when we convened at Olivia’s for a specific but forgotten reason and accidentally stayed all night. It seemed too cold to walk home, on that and many other days, although our houses were all less than a block away and it wasn’t like the temperature would stop dropping as midnight turned to one to two. This was also the winter I began experiencing intermittent but uncontrollable hysterical laughter, and flopped on the couch with my friends, my abs ached and my throat went dry from the effort of my amusement.  

My shopping lists from the coldest months show these consistent repetitions: 2 lbs. cabbage, 8 cloves garlic, tomato puree, 2 oz. dried porcinis, potatoes, sweet potatoes, garbonzo beans (15 oz. x 2), 6 large red onions, butter, bananas, a pomelo? (check price), spinach (check expir. date). I didn’t buy limes until the first day of April; $4.69/lb. but I needed to believe in summer after a winter when it seemed to not climb above zero for days on end, not above freezing for weeks. Still, I managed okay: I sealed off my windows, until my view of the outside world was filtered through layers of  rippling plastic, and my spirits were good enough to formulate a joke about a sext for a polar winter such as this one: “I’m not wearing any long underwear.”

Selected notes from recent months:

• “Trusting yourself is another form of work.”

• “A book is its only explanation.”

• “Teachers should only ask questions they don’t know the answers to.”

• “A restless essay.”

• “An essay that’s mired in grad school.”

• “Insists on its own obscurity.”

• “Defying meaning is a one-trick pony.”

• “Secrecy and privacy are chosen forms of isolation.”

There’s a bit — of my own invention — about how Iowa has made me the woman I was always meant to be. When I do it over the phone to friends who knew me before, I describe my clogs, my fleece, and the lengthy mid-morning constitutional I take around my neighborhood daily. I say the music I listen to is mostly the kind my parents did, that I always have spare light-bulbs, laundry quarters, and a variety of shelf-stable grains on hand now, that I make a point of “listening to my body” — although in practice this has mostly meant making other people listen to me talking about it, a daily enumeration of muscles and joints that feel better or worse, an assessment of my appetite and what specific cravings might indicate, a declaration that I require more sleep, a lap swim, or additional protein. But for all my self-mockery, the eye-rolling dismissal of the-self-as-project, living alone for the first time — which is to say, standing at the center of my own life for once — has basically been a religious experience in the extent that it’s transformed me. Which has much less to do with what I keep in my cupboards or put in my body than I tend to make it sound.

Another note was something a professor said, and the context is not recorded, but I underlined it for emphasis: “One doesn’t want to cannibalize one’s own past too much.” I had done that for a long time, been a slave to the how-it-happened of life, and of my life, but now I thought I was mostly done with that. People sometimes used to ask me if it wasn’t hard to record my own recent past so closely, which I see now was not a question but actually a warning. And maybe it was because I could never satisfactorily answer it as the former that I also could not heed it as the latter.

A document on my desktop, entitled “Some Recent Theories”:

• A theory on people whose intelligence is predicated on proper nouns and not original thought

• A theory that women who are more critical of men as a group have more successful relationships with men individually

• A theory that we all have one friend who embodies the part of ourselves we will never permit ourselves to be—someone louder or stranger or more aggressive, someone bolder or more measured or maybe just diplomatic.

Not so much a theory as a hobby I’ve invented for myself: speculative gossip. To imagine aloud the life of someone you know only a little, the home routines you’re not privy to, their private interactions. You don’t want to be mean about it, just imaginative. You want the person you’re talking with to build the image with you, aid and abet it.

The two kinds of trivia I am bound to remember are the ages people were when they made works of art, and achievements people have had while incarcerated.

• Bruce Springsteen wrote “Thunder Road” when he was twenty-four

• Stevie Nicks wrote “Landslide” when she was twenty-seven

• James Baldwin wrote “Notes of a Native Son” when he was thirty-one

• Shyne signed a $3.1 million record deal from prison

• Vybz Kartel recorded a sixty-one song album on his smart phone while in jail

• The governor of a minor region where I once lived in Russia was convicted of corruption and then re-elected while incarcerated. 

On the subject of cannibalizing one’s own past, this is a note I made at twenty-two after a conversation with a friend: “It’s like reentering a party after a long sober conversation outside. How do you continue on after that?” We were referring to the possibility of people we’d loved going on to love other people, which seemed an incomprehensible concept at that time. Drinking “margaritas the size of our faces,” which I noted was what we were doing at the time of this conversation, on what I remember was a weeknight at that, is now the more incomprehensible concept of the two.

Other notes from the couple years following that:

• “That patience and tact you have is a real gift.”

• “During the interactive classes, much of the burden to keep discussion going was placed on the students.”

• “You should read some Tolstoy, both for the marriage stuff and party planning tips (bears).”

• “A quiet campaign of avoidance.”

• “Nostalgie de la boue! Just learned this term.”

• “The explanation of secrecy as an illusory form of control makes so much sense.”

• “You didn’t tell me there was an aquarium.”

• “It seemed like each encounter fueled the next, it seemed like everything was working...”

But then there are the notes of a realer life, running mileages recorded, subway directions copied down, hours worked, appointments noted, addresses to write on envelopes when I got to the post office. 

People sometimes link youth and its attendant mistakes to a sense of invincibility, but if there was a guiding principle of my own early twenties, it was much more a sense of inevitability. Of course I would end up staying for another drink, or sleep with the person who presented themselves to me, or spend some idiotic sum of money on nothing. Prolonged, public decision-making may have been something of a recreation among my friends — that weighing of options among people who still thought options would always be limitless—but I mostly remember a feeling of being carried along by the events around me, the decision made before I was even aware that there was one to make. I used to retrospectively classify my actions as either good ideas or bad ones, the wild oversimplification of someone with an aversion to nuance — or of someone too lazy to do the real work of figuring out what she wanted, or maybe just busy with other things.

• An essay I can appreciate, in its entirety:

“I thought his carelessness was charming.” – Lia Purpura, “A Novel in Two Parts.” 

The lens through which I tended to view my life made it so that I never noticed when I found myself in unusual situations; I wasn’t really out of my mind so much as I was out of my body, looking down on myself with a peculiar tunnel vision. I worked briefly as a transcriptionist for a cult, and I was foreman of a jury, and for a phase I dated only people I had met years before, never anyone totally new, and none of this seemed odd or impressive, although it did sometimes seem foolish. Although I am in too many ways unchanged, I am more self-conscious, more tentative, which means I go home after a few drinks, think things through more carefully, and generally find myself residing in the realm of the pleasantly ordinary—dinners cooked with friends, regular routines, plenty of sleep.

“Find” is a construction I always favored; it frees you from complicity in your own life.

Some notes I took at a recent Q&A with Rachel Kushner:

• “The day is a continuous opportunity of chances not to fail.”

• “Too much comfort for me is distracting.”

• “Writing doesn’t have to be hermetically sealed off from the world/ravages of history.”

• “An arena of potential compromises.”

• “I don’t want a tube into my imagination of the world.”

“You’re scared,” one of my friends said tenderly, with the incisiveness of someone who knows you well, sees you change at the gym, texts you each morning to tell you the weather before you can even check it yourself. And she was right, of course, but whenever someone says this to me, which isn’t altogether infrequently, I want to reply, why are you not scared?

Notes from a recent lecture by Laurie Anderson, entitled “Some of My New Projects”:

“Choking on their own goodness.”

“It’s hard to make a lobby sound bigger.”

“Looks at audience and sees dogs — Yo Yo Ma, too!”

“An invocation to whales.”

“What do animals sing?”

“When you love something you can be too careful.”

“Mother’s maiden name becomes so obscure it’s a secret question.”

“Engineering our own lives.”

“Every time you tell it you forget it more.”

Emily and I have taken to telling each other bedtime stories over the phone. I tell her, like it’s a fairytale, about how the first time we got together we ended up sitting in a park so that she could make a conference call for work. And I was so blown away by her poise, I tell her now from bed, phone pressed between cheek and pillow, the way that a single person could be both outrageously, energetically interesting and exceedingly professional, and I knew we would be friends forever. Although this one happens to be true, bedtime stories don’t actually have to be — the point is you believe them because if you didn’t you could never fall asleep.

Some amendments to the above:

• Invincibility and inevitability both stem, probably, from a mix of anxiety and arrogance.

• Regret gets too close to complicity for most Americans to handle, but I do at least wish that I had taken more time with the beginnings of things, instead of taking too much time with the ends. Although in writing, of course, just the opposite mistake is what’s common.

• When I say I stop after a few drinks now, that’s not quite unilaterally true. I stayed out until four on Saturday and was ruined until Tuesday; I felt injured by a friend who had done nothing at all, skipped an event I would have enjoyed because going out and smiling at everyone seemed like a burden, and on my walk home one afternoon I unexpectedly began to cry.

I never liked people — writers — who always had pen and paper handy, as if they could never turn off their absurd instinct to record, as if the commodification of experience was a job they could never bring themselves to clock out of. Now I take notes all the time, but I couldn’t say why exactly, except that maybe after you become conscious of how you see the world — not from outside yourself, telescopically, but from painfully within — the intent will always be to analyze it. My favorite notes are from physical therapy, not just the number of reps of each exercise I’m supposed to do, but my PT’s advice, which I like to record verbatim. “If you think you’re going to get hurt, you will,” he says, and he’s talking about my patellofemoral injury, but it could be anything. “You don’t deserve to feel pain,” he says, and he is talking about the ankle I kept trying to jog on for six months after I sprained it, but also, I have chosen to believe, not just about that.

A list of the things I was grateful for when I came home at four in the morning the other day:

• That it was easy to get a cab, because bars had long closed

• That because it had rained earlier in the evening, and the grass had that particular wet scent to it, the comforting mustiness of my building’s interior was especially strong

• Classical music was blasting in the lobby, as it always is

• The hallway was poorly lit in its predictable way

• My bed was comfortable

• I could lie down in the middle of it and spread out my limbs without impediment.

The weather forecast today for zip code 52240, where I live, was a high of sixty-one with — I’m quoting directly here — “abundant sunshine.”

Lucy Morris is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer and translator living in Iowa. She last wrote in these pages about . She tumbls here.

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Dances With Something: Part One/Part Two

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