Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 6: Jamie Etheridge, Oysterless Bay


Eleven miles across, averaging 10 feet deep, the bay looks nothing like the blue mirror my mom grew up admiring. Muddy, silt-thick water from the five rivers delta converges at its mouth, America’s own Amazon. On the western shore, Mobile office buildings compete with the reflection of lights from fishing boats floating across the broad expanse of water. My mother remembers neither its flow nor flood, but seafood banquets cooked by her father. Her favorite: oysters raw or stewed or fried. Oysters tonged from the bay’s shallows just for her. I wonder, would she love oysters so much if she hadn’t grown up on a bay teeming with them?

The bay is a story sad and brackish: Native civilizations dating back thousands of years erased by first Spanish, then French explorers. Their oyster middens dismantled, their cultures destroyed. The last slave ship, the Clotilde, scuttled to the slimy bottom to avoid prosecution just before the Civil War. Mobile Bay drowns its bloody history in the murk. But eventually, all stories return to the light, divers retrieve what can never be forgotten. My grandfather – young and wild – would cook Momma shrimp and crawfish, grouper and redfin but it was the oysters she loved. Raw, on the half shell, pearly meat glistening, doused with lemon juice and served with saltine crackers and spicy cocktail sauce. 

In the 1950s, when my mom was a girl, Mobile Bay’s oyster harvest averaged a million pounds of meat a year. That’s just the meat: thick, juicy flesh. Not the bivalve shells. Not the millions of pounds of calcium carbonate, magnesium, sodium and bits of copper iron. These were abandoned on the edges of canneries where children as young as nine shucked oysters for pennies all day or later dredged for highway construction. 

My mom grew up, married and moved away, coming home every few years, another new baby in tow. By the early 2000s, the oyster harvest had plummeted to a few thousand pounds a year; the reefs destroyed by the dredging schemes, disastrous oil spills and decades of overharvesting. The canneries shuttered and disappeared and fishing fleets shifted to shrimping in the Gulf. Pretty soon Mobile Bay oysters were a bedtime story no one remembered, only a handful of restaurants even sold oysters on the half shell anymore. 

When she had seven children and then her husband died, my mom packed up and came home. By then, oysters in the bay, now foul and poisoned, were mostly gone. Oysters are natural filtration systems, you see, and with millions removed, the beds destroyed, there remained no natural defense against upriver agricultural runoff, sewage, pollution and bacteria growth. No one understood what they had lost until it was long gone. 

My mother never speaks of bereavement: Dead husband and seven pairs of eyes turned to her—a woman who hadn’t worked in 18 years and didn’t know how she would feed her children. I imagine her, down by the bay where she eventually found a low-wage secretarial job, watching a film of oil rainbow across its surface. Did she contemplate the barren bottom devoid of the wild oysters she once loved? Did she wonder what life she might build now for herself and her children?

In recent years, environmentalists, scientists and residents of the bay’s littoral have come together to restore the oysters. In Bayou La Batre, Dauphin Island and Murder Point, farmers hang wire cages packed with seedling oysters from docks. Washed by the briny water, these babes in arms are the region’s best chance at reviving the once-flourishing commercial oyster aquaculture. But farmed oysters are sterile. They will never rewild the bay. 

Rewilding requires a different kind of courage. A belief in a future we agree to safeguard. I am no scientist nor fisherwoman but if I could, I would gather hundreds of oyster seedlings in my arms, fill the basket of my shirtfront to overflowing. Then I’d wade out into the shallows of the bay and plant the future, oyster a reef of possibility, and restore my mother’s sullied hope. 


I am drawn to Blair Braverman’s essay "Useless Bay" by the sparse yet lush prose juxtaposed against the precise imagery of the bay and the people and marine life that once populated it. 

Mobile Bay served as an important backdrop in my mom’s childhood and a place that I’ve always loved so the Braverman essay spoke to me on myriad levels. 

Climate change and the environmental changes that have impacted Useless Bay are global in scope and though not, perhaps, the exact same litany of issues that have destroyed the oyster reefs in Mobile Bay, there are parallels that resonate with me both because of climate change and human behavior. 

I wanted to cover this essay but also layer in this issue of Mobile Bay’s decimated oyster reefs - and the human behavior that caused their destruction. Bringing this into focus in as many ways as possible feels to me urgently important. 

I also appreciate the deeper metaphor at work, the life we give to the world around us, to the sea and to the earth, is given back to us. 


Jamie Etheridge is CNF editorial assistant for CRAFT. She won the 2022 Fractured Lit Anthology II Prize, judged by Deesha Philyaw, for her flash fiction, "Ways of Karst." She was also a finalist for the Kenyon Review Developmental Editing Fellowship 2021 for CNF. Her writing can be found in Anti-Heroin Chic, Bending Genres, Essay Daily, Identity Theory, JMWW Journal, Reckon Review, X-R-A-Y Lit, and other publications. She tweets at LeScribbler. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 5: Patrick Madden, f-Words: An Attempt at an Essay on Style (feat. Brian Doyle)

f-Words: An Attempt at an Essay on Style (feat. Brian Doyle)

Patrick Madden


Years ago, when he was visiting BYU, Brian Doyle offered me what I think was meant as a compliment, saying that one potential downside of my teaching could be that scores of younger writers might notice and emulate only the superficial qualities of my essays, the easily identifiable traits (such as jump cuts from one topic to another seemingly unrelated one) without perceiving or achieving the deeper connectedness or the surprise of the buildup to a kind of epiphanic wholeness, the shock that what seemed like rambling has instead been a tightly controlled weaving, which readers apprehend viscerally if not explicitly. The comment landed well, felt good coming, as it did, from a writer I deeply admired and hoped to emulate, but I think it also began for me (or at least coincided with) a period of self doubt, or perhaps a dissatisfaction with my self, or my style. I began to grow tired of what I often did, not without effort, but naturally and habitually. I wanted to learn something new, as a challenge or an adventure.

Here might be a good place to pause and mention that this essay could strike some readers as self-indulgent, even self-congratulatory. I would fain reveal that I do not feel these ways about myself, and while I have a vague grasp of rhetoric that might otherwise lead me to dampen these qualities in my writing, I have, in this moment, as the kids say nowadays, no fucks left to give.

There, in that most recent paragraph, we have three f-words that might illuminate the inner battle I mentioned in the first paragraph. The first is fain, an archaic word that I know primarily or perhaps solely from Charles Lamb’s essay “New Year’s Eve,” wherein the author states that he would “fain lay [his] ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel” [of time, it’s understood]. Except I’d been understanding fain to mean something like “like to” or even “pretend to,” but in the older sense, which I feel in the Spanish pretender, which gives off a vibe that whatever you’re trying to do, it’s doomed to fail. Maybe I was equating fain with fail, in fact, though shifting its part of speech. But (I’m continuing my “except”) that’s not what fain means. Instead, it’s “gladly,” derived from an Old Germanic root meaning “rejoice.” What do you know. (Let the pretentious adverb, which I misunderstood when I wrote it, stand there, under my hand, to all posterity, as Louise Imogen Guiney might say.)

Following closely after fain we find feel, which I do, often, though I filter this or strain it so that what lands in my writing can sometimes seem devoid of it, of feeling, that is. I’m sorry about this. Lo siento.

The last f-word is the f-word, a word I’ve never committed to print, as far as I can recall. I am, I fear, too restrained by the culture’s taboos, but I quite like the sense imparted by the phrase I’ve invoked here, and I feel that it accurately describes my current mood. And anyway, it’s just the latest of several vague words stripped of any correspondence to things in favor of a kind of all-purposey emphatic functionality (see “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” etc.). What, exactly, one gives or doesn’t give or refuses to give is beside the point.

But back to Lamb a moment: I admit to feeling a little disappointed that my context-gathered definition is “wrong,” because I feel that it works quite a bit better than “gladly.” “I would try but fail to lay my ineffectual finger upon the spoke of the great wheel” aligns with the fatalism elsewhere apparent (resplendent, even) in the essay. Or, better still: “I would lay my finger upon the spoke of the great wheel of time, but I’d fail to make any difference.” Maybe I’m commuting “ineffectual” over the whole event. Maybe Lamb intended something like this from the adjective but couldn’t find a place for it except on “finger.” Maybe everything I feel here is contained in the subjunctive “would” coupled with the metaphorical philosophical wheel.

Maybe you’re wondering where I’m going with all this.

I have titled my essay “f-words” in feeble homage to Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who begins her own essay of this title wishing she might call her work “The Essay as Form” (a well-known treatise by Theodor Adorno) or A Room of One’s Own (which likely needs no tag, but, for the sake of some, Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking lecture/ essayella). Her piece is subtitled “An essay on the essay,” and this is where we diverge slightly, except that all essays are essays on the essay, including this one. There is no more self-referential form. And I do understand that “An attempt at an essay” is redundant, or self-distancing like one of those infinite parallel mirrors images or Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma album cover.

I’ve been spinning my wheels, catching my interest on small accidental (or at least subconscious) details in my own sentences, and I’ve gotten so tangled in the weeds that I feel like the best next move is simply to stop and declare that my occasion for writing this brief and personally limited essay on style was a recent exchange I had with Dinty Moore, editor of Brevity, about the title of an old Brian Doyle essay published there.

A student essay I was reading had reminded me of it, so I went to reread and then recommend it, but found that instead of “A Child Is Not a Furniture,” the title I remembered confidently, the essay was now (perhaps always?) titled, more “correctly,” “A Child Is Not Furniture.”

I felt faint at that missing determiner. Could I have misremembered? Could the journal be wrong? Why had I never noticed this before?

Upon reading the essay, which recounts and recreates a conversation with a woman on the bus in Chicago at three AM, I discovered the phrase I’d remembered, intact, in Doyle’s interlocutor’s words. She is talking about discussions with her husband over whether or not to have children. She says (of him), “He measures and calculates. He arranges things just so. But you cannot arrange a child just so. A child is not a furniture.” While the saying is cast in the voice of the woman on the bus, it is exactly the kind of phrase Doyle would notice and highlight, and thus it feels like his style. After all, writing is only arrangement of preexisting words, and in general, when Brian Doyle quotes other people, he tends to inflect their voices with a little bit of his own. Or his own voice is the result of absorbing so many other interesting voices. Either way, this is one instance of that.

Given that Brian died five years back, I took it upon myself to write an email to Dinty, asking whether the title might have been accidentally changed. Then, while waiting for his reply, I found the essay in Doyle’s book Grace Notes, where its title includes the “a.” Then, inspired, I searched out an archived version of the webpage from back when and confirmed that it had indeed originally been titled “A Child Is Not a Furniture.” Meanwhile, Dinty responded, agreeing with my revision/reversion, and assured me that he’d fix the error.

This is a small thing, perhaps as small as it gets (while other single-letter words night occupy less space or use less ink than the humble lowercase a, I would argue that given its function in a sentence, its position in the alphabet, and even its variable pronunciations (long vowel or schwa), the indefinite article is the least noticeable of words and the most takenforgranted). But see how sharply its presence inflects the essay’s title and, by extension, the essay. When I hear it, I both understand the phrase’s meaning and wonder about its everslight variation from expected usage. Perhaps, I wonder extratextually, the speaker was translating from Spanish or another language where “furniture” is not an abstraction but is cast as a quantifiable noun. Un niƱo no es un mueble, indeed.

This would be example enough, but a very similar thing has happened once before, so I’ll tell you about that, too. I was reading Doyle’s “From the Editor” in the journal Phoebe when I noticed this sentence (amidst the sprawling hypothetical responses that an editor wishes he could send in response to an unsolicited submission):

A piece like yours, we are sometimes tempted to write, is not elevating or edifying to the reader, but merely performance, or comment, or confession, or rant, or the product of insomnia or inebriation or incoherence, or lecture, or sermon, or humility, or browbeating, or elusive goop, and is the very reason why so much of what is sold culturally as art is nothing at all like art.

Did you catch the misplaced word in the list? I did. There’s no way Brian would have written “humility” in the context surrounding it. I was certain that he’d meant, or a copyeditor had changed, “homily” in that position. I wrote to the editors (this happened at a time when Brian had just undergone brain surgery and was incapacitated, so we could not ask him directly) to argue my case. I had, I explained, read many of, perhaps most of, Brian’s published essays, and I’d absorbed his cadences and phrasings, and thus knew that he’d often rail against sermon and homily (a simple Google search confirmed this), but he’d never rail against humility.

Within a week I got an email back from editor Robbie Maakestad, who agreed with my logic and forthwith made the change.

I mean, great. Congratulations, Pat. You did it! Twice! You noticed something no one else had noticed or could possibly care about. Here’s your Pedant Certificate.

But maybe there’s something to be said for knowing someone by his voice. (After my first public reading, a friend commented, pleasingly, “You sounded like you.” After my first [anonymous] external tenure review, when I ran into her at a conference, the new associate professor commented, “I recognized your voice in the letter.”) Maybe noticing the smallest things corresponds with the kind of prayerful attentiveness that Brian was always encouraging.

There are the generalities of style: the long, sinuous sentences that challenge and surprise with their ordering and nesting of information. The short, clipped ones. The fragments. The preponderance of elemental or ornamental words. There’s also the understanding that whatever your style, it is not a thing you’ve invented; it’s a thing you’ve inherited, largely, overwhelmingly, without knowing it, or at least without knowing its intricacies. What’s important, it seems to me, is to strive for humility and to challenge yourself beyond your current defaults. When you get tired of yourself, experiment with something new. Take in influences consciously and voraciously, make new attempts, play, see what feels natural, what sticks, what becomes your own.

[Look. As far as I remember, Rachel Blau DuPlessis didn’t stick with the f-words thing religiously either. There was no structuring element built from it. So forgive me if I seem to have left it behind (some word of it may still be found off in a corner). I mean, I have. But also I haven’t.]

One more story: On the day I learned that Brian Doyle had begun hospice care—perhaps this was also the day he began hospice, I no longer remember if I ever knew—on that day, I went to see my daughter’s middle school dance recital. For the sentence you just read, I have channeled, at first subconsciously and then consciously, a sentence from a poem by Mark Halliday in which I feature as a character, the antagonist even, having conked Halliday on the head during a game of basketball. Halliday delays/resets several times where I’ve done so only once:

On the day that my lifespan matched my mother’s lifespan,
on the day when I had come to live as long as my mother had lived—
she died in 1975, of cancer, three days after her 52nd birthday—
on the day when I had lived as many days as she got to live
(though for her there were hundreds and hundreds of days of
miserable pain, which has not at all been my fate)—
on that day
I went to the gym to play basketball with some friends.

This is the sort of thing I do quite a bit: crib consciously from writers I admire, whose voice has imprinted itself upon my subconscious. Once, when writing about my infant son’s skull operation, I took from Brian’s phrasing about his son’s heart operation:

When have I been filled with grace? One time above all others, when my son was under ether.
One time above all others I felt the great divide between theory and practice, was closest and the situation heaviest: when my son was under knife and morphine and screaming ceaselessly.

I admitted the theft, still in time for a possible revision, but Brian gave his blessing, so I kept it. And I’ve borrowed knowingly other times as well, with things like skimping on punctuation to establish exigency, or shifting suddenly into the present tense to cast a moment into relief against the background. And then there was that one odd time when Brian attempted to write like me (at my invitation, for an essay subverting the simplistic view we sometimes default to about “originality”) but, in my view, couldn’t quite pull it off, or maybe didn’t care to. Readers familiar with his style will recognize him by his voice in this uncredited passage in the middle of my essay:

But to return, sidelong, diligently, like a small child who was going to check out that cool bird’s nest in the backyard but got distracted by how hard it is to hop on one foot for more than, say, eight hops, to plagiarism and the essay. One might well say, as certainly someone has, perhaps in another language, that the essay is by nature a magpie, a confluence of all the influences on its author; even Montaigne, for example, was soaked in Plutarch and the Bible and other literary glories of antiquity, and no force on earth can utterly erase the music and cadence of writers from the sponge-like crania of subsequent writers; the most honest essayists among us admit with admirable honesty that we all have, as Robert Louis Stevenson says, “played the sedulous ape” to writers we admired or admire. All that we can hope for as essayists, it seems to me, is to have learned something of rhythm and pace and sentence-carpentry from our predecessors, while gently leaving their particular styles behind like a teenager tiptoes away from the college of his or her parents; although I will here confess, in public, right on the page, right here at the end of this sentence, that there are some writers I cannot read while writing, because their music is so alluring it begins to dilute my own.

And readers who’ve been paying attention to this attempt at an essay will note that Doyle’s topic fits neatly with our considerations here. Not only have I played the sedulous ape to him, but he has to others, and they to their forebears, so that we realize the folly in claiming any kind of ownership, in the traditional, uncomplicated sense, of a style. And it’s worth noting that sedulous does not mean “copycatty” as I’d assumed from context, but “dedicated and diligent,” as in consciously attending to the writing styles of others in order to own our influences, beyond the inevitable osmotic assimilations.

So. What happened at that dance recital? As I waited impatiently for my daughter’s troupe to take the stage, I recalled, at first subconsciously and then consciously, Brian’s similar experience of seeing a “forgettable” amateur play, not wanting to be there, noting one particularly “execrable song” and its singer’s “groaning tractor” voice, and yet, by force of will perhaps, finding beauty and even joy in the imperfect attempts of the performers. From what I knew of Brian, this reversal would have been expected. That he’d “roar with delight” at the young man who sang so gratingly but also with “deep humming joy.” That he’d perceive the dreck made art, be willing and able to appreciate it. Of that singer he said,

He had made something wonderful of nothing but dreaming and labor and passion, something that probably not even he knew he could make with such eerie skill—and that is where I wish to begin talking about creativity, for dreaming and labor and passion are its ingredients, and wonder is both its engine and its product.

So in the midst of my silent caviling and kvetching, my wishing myself away as I watched others' children while awaiting my own, I thought What Would Brian Do?, and I knew, and so I did that. I shifted my perspective in such a way that I was enabled to sit calmly in my seat and gladly enjoy, truly enjoy, the hard-thumping electronica, the asynchronous jerky movements, the mistakes and the moments of harmony. And not in an ironic way. I became present for the dances. With the back of my mind trying to reckon with the inevitable and imminent loss of my dear friend, I borrowed his strength and found beauty where I’d been unable to perceive it before.


Patrick Madden, author of Disparates (2020), Sublime Physick (2016), and Quotidiana (2010), teaches at Brigham Young University and curates the online anthology of classical essays www.quotidiana.org.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 4, Paul Crenshaw covering Steve Edwards


The Last

Paul Crenshaw


Sometime in early October we lose the last caterpillar. Lose isn’t the right word, but we can’t find any more, which is a different kind of loss, so we keep looking, as if we’re always oscillating between have and had, always wanting the first and wishing for the second. 
     Outside, it’s a time of cool mornings. Mist smoking from the surface of the river I drive across on my way to work. Deer moving in the late woods. Afternoons like exhalations, when the wind is constant in the branches of the trees and dead leaves go scuttling along the sidewalks in the same wind. The swallows gather in the live oaks; they take short flights, measuring the distance they have to travel, or warming their wings for the trip.
     All summer Jenn and I have been raising butterflies. We find the caterpillars among the milkweed and put them in cages to protect them. We watch them form chrysalis. We watch them eclose into butterflies, and on warm summer afternoons we release them and watch them spiral skyward. All summer Jenn has been keeping records. All summer she has spent bent over her butterfly cage, making notes about males and females, about days found and days released.
     What she doesn’t record is the last. She can’t mark which is the last caterpillar because we won’t know which will be the last until long after they’re all gone. If we’ll find one more hanging around like the last leaf on some December tree. One more to gather and protect until it’s time to release.   
     It’s fine weather this fall, but fall brings about a change in me. I suspect it does in you, too, else so many poets are wrong about what the seasons represent. In the afternoons I’ve been walking our small garden. For months our milkweed has been thick with caterpillars, and now there are none. The leaves are mostly gone from the trees. The flowers in the garden are dying, and we are left looking for what is no longer there.
     In the bare garden, waiting for the first hint of coming winter in the wind while I look for one last caterpillar, I am reminded of Steve Edwards’s essay “The Last Cricket.” It’s a short, beautiful essay about loss: how easily it is to lose track of things we love. But in the loss is a gaining—Edwards remembers being a boy. Baseball games, an oiled leather glove. He writes:

It’s easy to think so fancifully when the crickets are going gangbusters. A time of abundance props up the fiction that you’ll always have enough. In September the sun shines on trees full of apples. The first stars of frost on the lawn feel as far off as real stars, wintergreen and blinking. In September, the crickets deliver to me every lost dream of childhood. From the depths of my love and loneliness, the boy I once was emerges again to lie awake all night listening. His insomniac mind conjures impressions from a late ballgame: the smell of cut grass in the outfield around him, the oil darkening the mitt he absently jabs a fist into while waiting for a pitch, the coolness oozing from the deep woods beyond the parking lot. That boy’s parents are young and strong, and time hasn’t grayed their hair and carved lines into their faces. That boy’s grandparents smile and blink and breathe. To have him back, if only for a moment, is a restoration of innocence, the melancholy of which sings to me. I want to rise to the last cricket’s call and inhabit a quiet empty enough to contain my every contradiction.

     Like Edwards, I grew up listening to crickets. Catching fireflies on summer nights that now seem so far away they might have happened to another person. Lying in my bedroom with moonlight pooled on the floor thinking of the kind of man I might turn out to be, not knowing then that all life is looking back, trying to remember the last fireflies on a timeless summer night or lying awake in a room wondering what the future might be like.   
     But the boy I once was is long gone, replaced by a man who, more and more, sees endings everywhere. Fall seems more final than it ever did before. I’m at that age. When my father calls we talk of his friends—men I’ve known all my life—and their health: Floyd goes into surgery Monday. Phil had a heart attack last month. David’s cancer came back but he won’t go to the doctor—he’s not doing another round of chemo, he says. My father is diabetic and walks 3 miles each morning. We talk more and more of death in these Covid days, and though neither of us ever acknowledge each phone call might be the last time we talk, we do linger a bit near the end, prolonging the conversation. “Oh, I meant to ask you. . .” he might say, just for a few more minutes. 
     Which brings me back to caterpillars, and crickets. In his essay Edwards can’t remember when he heard the last one. It is an essay not so much about endings as about missing them. Realizing a thing is over only after it is over. It’s an essay about all the ways we fail to pay attention. Or maybe just that there are so many things clamoring for our attention we lose track of time.
     Now I can’t find any caterpillars, and as I look I am lamenting not holding onto the last one. Or, rather, not realizing it was the last one. We mark so much in our lives: birthdays, anniversaries, the days friends and family members died. We step outside after a hot summer and realize the weather has changed, another season has ended, the earth keeps on turning as it swings its way around the sun. We look in the mirror and notice the gray hair, the lines etching themselves into our faces.
     But it’s hard to mark the last time you did something. One day you put your child down and never picked them up again. Chances are you’ve already seen some friend for the last time and just aren’t aware of it yet. We all know some stars are still giving off light long after they’ve died, but their light takes so long to reach us we might never notice when it finally winks out. My younger daughter just came home from college, and I can’t help but wonder, as she drives away, if I’ll ever get to pick her up again.
     I wonder if I’ll ever talk to David again. If I should call Floyd after his surgery. If Phil, whose son I went to high school with, will ever breathe again without hearing the wonder of his own failed heart. 
     I wonder if I’ll know the last time Jenn and I make love. The last time I’ll hear my father’s voice. The time my daughter will drive off and I’ll never see her car come swinging around the corner again. She makes fun of me because I am always standing at the door waiting when she arrives, and I haven’t yet figured out how to explain to her what would happen to me if she never did. 
     What I do know is that yesterday Jenn released the last butterfly. I can’t find any more caterpillars, but we stand in the backyard while the last leaves fall around us. The backyard looks like a coin pool, the fallen leaves all red and yellow and gold. The wind feels like the last warm breath of summer. Jenn takes the last butterfly out of its cage. She holds it perhaps a bit longer than she needs to, but I know she is saying goodbye. When she lets it go we watch it wind its way upward, tiny wings beating against a giant backdrop of blue sky. In a moment one of us will say “That was the last one,” but for now we watch it go, until finally it is so small I’m not sure if I can still see it, or if I can only remember what it looked like.  


When I first read Steve Edwards’s essay “The Last Cricket,” it struck me in the way the best essay always do—I wish I would have written that, I thought to myself. It’s a (seemingly) simple premise that’s beautifully rendered, the kind of essay that through language and image and idea, moves me. I wanted to write this essay because I identified with young Edwards, lying awake in his room. I identified with older Edwards, realizing that, once again, he had missed the last cricket. That once again the wintergreen stars had been moved toward winter by the turning of the earth.  

But every essay of Steve’s I’ve read has hope in it. He captures so well the melancholy that sets in us all at times, but ends with the idea that we can, if we’re lucky, look for whatever it is we’ve lost. “October,” Edwards writes, “comes along with its dazzling, razor-edged contrasts—warmth and cold, light and dark, color and gray— and other stories start singing. By the time I remember my intention to listen for the last cricket, the silence is already everywhere. Come the spring, I think, I’ll listen for the first.”  Reading Steve's essay made my own start singing. I hope you'll listen. 


Paul Crenshaw is the author of the essay collections This One Will Hurt You, published by The Ohio State University Press, and This We’ll Defend, from the University of North Carolina Press. His third collection, on the Cold War culture of the 1980s, is forthcoming from The Ohio State Press. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, Tin House, and Brevity.  

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 3, Rajpreet Heir, Reading Censorship

Reading Censorship

An Essay Inspired by Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris

Rajpreet Heir

My mom grew up in a house in England without books. Her parents, Indian immigrants with little schooling, cared more about her watching her four younger siblings than doing homework. Once after school, while at gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, a religious leader claimed women who receive higher education become lethargic, and my mom disagreed, arguing women should get the same opportunities as men. Her parents heard about her comments and later scolded her, worried about appearances within Coventry’s active Indian community.

When she had an arranged marriage to my dad and then moved to Indianapolis in the eighties, her British credits didn't equal out to a degree, so she finished one when my brothers and I were toddlers. In many of my early memories of her, she has large textbook book on her lap and a highlighter in her hand. She'd always wanted to write a book and English was her favorite subject, but a career counselor had pushed her into technology.

We had books in almost every room. When she read to me, I’d laugh when Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin taunted Old Brown Owl, I rooted for Sister Bear when she was excluded by Brother Bear, and hoped Penny would find a home in The Little Cottage at the End of the Lane. Birthdays and Christmas always meant books as presents: Mrs. Pepperpot, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Anne of Green Gables, and The Wizard of Oz. Under my mom's care, the librarians at Marion County Public Library knew my brothers and me by name. This also could have been because we were the only Indians in the area, or because we pulled down the dividers at the library checkout line for fun.

Slowly, I went from The Little Engine That Could to Ramona Quimby to the Babysitter's Club series to Nancy Drew. My brothers and I continued to participate in the summer reading program long after our friends turned from books to video games. In fourth grade, my backpack zipper broke from straining to hold my fourteen school library books and I put grocery bags in my new backpack in case the same thing happened again. In our home set of encyclopedias, I began looking up words like “sex” and studied paintings of ancient naked people. When I was in fifth grade, I’d secretly look at her Vanity Fair magazines, fascinated by all the beautiful celebrities and their revealing outfits. One day, my mom called me into her room and asked if I’d been looking at her magazines, noting the pile was slightly askew. After receiving my confession, which required just a few steady stares, she told me not to look at them anymore, and I turned back to the reality of hitting puberty at the age of ten.

That reality meant my mustache came in before my twin brother’s, I was the tallest in my whole elementary school, girls teased me for my hairy legs, I bled through my jeans a few times at school, and worst of all, my parents and I began fighting regularly. My dad would yell at me to help my mom in the kitchen and when I would run away to my room, he would bang on my door until I emerged, shoulders hunched. My mom became distant, even when I shouted from two feet away.

In middle school, when I began reading from the young adult section, she would occasionally read the back of my books before allowing me to check them out of the library. Ones she didn’t like—about prom, books by Judy Bloom, books about steady boyfriends, books about women who worked behind makeup counters—she made me return to the bookshelves. Sometimes I got wholesome biographies of politicians so I could put them on top of my pile, and I kept the romantic novels at the bottom or hid them under my bed. Once, I picked a book by Alice Sebold just because I recognized her name. At home, in front of my brothers, my mom went through my books and confiscated some, then gave me a startled expression when she read the inside flap of Sebold’s book. She handed it back to me and safe in my room, I read the description. The first sentence read, “Artist’s model and divorcee, Helen Knightly spontaneously murders her mother, an agoraphobic now suffering from severe dementia, by suffocating her with a towel.”

In high school, with more freedom with my transportation, and with a more rebellious attitude, I found ways to read about white girls losing their virginity to their white college sweethearts, white women warriors falling for white warrior men, and white women slow dancing with white lawyers while listening to country music. (The caucasity of these books was lost on me at the time.) Unable to talk to boys without my brothers snitching, unable to wear fitted clothing, and unable to attend dances with boys, I could only live vicariously through the fictional characters.

One rainy Saturday afternoon, standing on one side of table in the library while I stood on the other, my mom went though my pile of books and actually skimmed the pages of the books—something new. Only one in the group was romantic and it was at the bottom. It seemed as if my mom was done checking, but perhaps after seeing my relief, she picked up the last book. In the prequel, Elizabeth Wakefield, who had dropped out of college and moved to England, had kissed the wealthy son of the parents for whom she worked as a maid. From my mother’s expression, I could tell Elizabeth had gone further. Slowly, my mom put the paper book on the table, and looking me hard in my eyes, she said, “You can check out this book, but you need to know that women can do more with their life than this.”

Rajpreet Heir is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at Ithaca College with publications in The Rumpus, The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Best of Brevity, and others. She is working on a memoir entitled Indian in Indiana.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 2, Michael Wheaton on Lucas Mann


An Essay about Reading Lucas Mann's "An Essay About Watching Brad Pitt Eat That Is Really About My Own Shit" (That Is Really about My Own Shit)

One night two months ago, after putting my kids to sleep, I dragged ass into the garage once again to weigh myself. The scale said I was down five pounds. Ten more and I would be back even with the heaviest I’d ever been before the heaviest I’d ever been. That was age seventeen before I lost seventy pounds. I’m thirty-six now. Gradually then suddenly, I surpassed the previous high number on the scale in 2020 or 2021, having settled into a work/life model at home with my family that involved excessive afternoon and evening drinking, which led to excessive eating, which reminded me of myself at fourteen, except with more despair.

In the garage, I considered turning on the portable air-conditioner, but the heat seemed better for sweating out more numbers. I notched the resistance on the exercise bike a degree higher. The previous month, I had moved a thirty-two-inch television set into the room amid the chaos of cardboard, hamper, tool, and bike, but easing into my pedaling now, I found nothing on the onscreen apps I wanted to watch. I opened Twitter. I scanned more things I didn’t want to watch until I found something I wanted to read: the writer Lucas Mann had a new essay published online—a long one that I was aware existed on his computer, and had been hoping to eventually read, because a year earlier I interviewed him for The Lives of Writers podcast.

At the time, I had only interviewed fifteen writers previously. I had no idea what I was doing. I had very few listeners. I wanted to get Lucas Mann on the show anyway because I had, by then, read and admired each of his three books. One day, I finally sent a fan email that included a request to talk. Even though he did not have a book coming out (the main reason people are willing to talk to some guy like me), he agreed to let me record a conversation soon. He seemed excited to talk to someone about autobiographical writing. I still consider it a great kindness.

When Lucas Mann logged into the video chat the morning of the interview, he told me he was comforted by the series of toddler toy sets thrown atop a secondhand train table in the back of the room, which was on screen behind me. No bookshelves, nothing curated or decorative, just a fucking mess. He said he knew a lot of writer-moms with small children, but not a lot of writer-dads with small children. Most of my writer-friends don’t have kids at all, I told him. We seemed to connect, or at least recognize each other quickly: two mid-thirties straight white married male arts-and-humanities types from the northeast struggling with parenting, the pandemic, and the places in which writing does or doesn’t fit into any of it. The tone and cadence of his voice reminded me of people I grew up with. It was nice.

We discussed his books, of course. He wrote them before he had a child. Deeper into the conversation, I found out that since becoming a parent, he had been working on self-reflexive pop culture essays that might come together into a collection. He mentioned an essay about Brad Pitt eating in movies. I laughed. I knew the cultural phenomenon and loved the idea of someone writing seriously about it. “I always think of Ocean’s 11,” I said shortly after this. Then I moved on too quickly past the idea. I think I had a split-second fear of going into it: the many times in early high school I hung out in the basement of my buddy’s parents’ house with friends, drinking a metric ton of Mountain Dew, delighting in a full box of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts and family-sized bag of Lay’s salt and vinegar chips, watching the same movies repeatedly, often Swingers or Oceans 11, both set in Vegas. I would have described these movies as generally “cool” or “funny” then, but now I realize that the decadence of licking our fingers while staring into the giant screen of color on the wall before most of us could have giant screens on our walls seemed to match the setting of the movies in an almost aspirational way.

If you asked my friends back then the best part of Ocean’s 11, we all would have said “Brad Pitt eating.” In a high school hallway at lunch, one of us might hold a bag of chips in a delicate manner, pop bites between quips, dust off fingertips with fingertips, and wait for someone to notice the quote of body language, but almost no one noticed until the person doing it released the slightest tension into a more casual form of self-awareness, and then we’d be like, Okay, Rusty. I remember thinking about all this as Lucas Mann continued talking for a minute in the interview, but I became present again, though not before I started to feel a little jealous that I did not come up with the idea for an essay about Brad Pitt eating myself.


I just watched a “Brad Pitt eating” supercut on YouTube. In his essay, Lucas Mann mentions there are plenty of options. I chose the fifteen-minute version, which has 1.7 million views over three years. Before the supercut appeared on screen, I had to watch a commercial for the Shred app. It featured a bulging dude saying that if you want to lose weight, you shouldn’t be running every day, which I took to mean you shouldn’t be riding a stationary bike every day. He says this as images of his upper body without fat on it are intercut with images of other people’s uppers bodies with fat on them, which dissolve into images of those bodies with less fat on them. 

In the supercut of Brad Pitt eating, I hate a few things right away. Mainly I hate that I am still fascinated by the way Brad Pitt holds food. Like it’s a glass sculpture or a chihuahua that travels by purse. Like someone who is not quite sure what to do with it. Often the food is turned the opposite way it will enter the mouth. Or he folds his wrist inside instead of out while shoving it at his face, the move from model to consumer so sudden it jolts. I hate that I am still fascinated by the way he chokes up on forks and spoons and makes them vehicles of desperation. When the food is in a bowl, I see all the bites inherent in the quantity, and he cuts past all of them into pure demolition. Then the chewing. So deliberate compared to the offbeat nature of the bites, always something stuck in the teeth, a morsel he forgot to chew or swallow. The eating has aftershocks. And, over time, while his face may age throughout his career, his body doesn’t. I hate that I keep thinking of Pitt’s pecs in a tight shirt, not sure whether to call them big or small. Tight. The bottoms of his chest fall inches above where mine do. In fact, they don’t fall at all.

Lucas Mann, in his essay, points out that Brad Pitt connects his eating shtick to a method, at least in Ocean’s 11, where his character Rusty eats constantly on screen because he is constantly on the go, but the method is most certainly bullshit. “There is nothing less human to me,” Mann says, “nothing more strange and showy, than eating freely, constantly, without noticing yourself, and without any physical or emotional consequence. It’s not even that I don’t believe the character, it’s that I don’t believe Brad Pitt.” While I’m still fascinated, I don’t believe him either, and the only way I might is if we see him take a shit in the movie too.

All this noted, Lucas Mann soon explains why Brad Pitt seems so cool, or at least fascinating, when he is, say, taking down an ice cream cone in a scene that doesn’t call for it:

What I’m talking about is watching a body that is made to be looked at, that is professionally looked at, behave as though it’s simply doing something natural, unconcerned with what we might see. It seems I’ve just described the concept of acting. What I mean, though, is when the incongruity feels gratuitous, or at least pointed, and the lack of acknowledgment of that pointedness becomes part of the pleasure or tension—the one nude person on a non-nude beach rolling over for an even tan, an act of defiance made nonchalant.

At the end of this section, Mann pivots back to himself. He admits to looking at social media pics of once-skinny-now-jacked-gym-bros like Kumail Nanjiani and Chris Pratt, the satisfaction of hating them for their transformations. He contrasts it to watching Michael B. Jordan make the same transformation in a montage of the movie Creed, the way the soundtrack eggs on fans to try to achieve it themselves: “I have, stumbling through jumping jacks, trying to ignore myself bouncing, then settling, more ashamed than exhausted. When Michael B. Jordan eats in a movie, it is infrequent and purposeful: pure fuel.” For me, the thing that might influence me to exercise after watching the Michael B. Jordan montage is that most of the struggle is between the edits. We don’t see it. We see only chunked stages. We see a version of the way we might prefer our bodies to look and none of the real pain, time, stress, and money it takes.

This is the point where reading Lucas Mann’s essay stops being all about me relating to his body image dissonance and becomes also about me looking at his writing on a screen in the way he looks at Brad Pitt’s body on screen. This is not a place we can relate, I don’t think. This is the place that makes me the interviewer and him the interviewee. Lucas Mann is a lot better at writing than I am. When he posts links to his work on Twitter, he seems to be loved and admired by a lot of other writers I’ve read or heard about who do not know, or need to know, I exist. He has an impressive resume too, aside from the three big-press books of his: a funded MFA, NEA and US Artists fellowships, a tenure-track teaching job at a university, and from what I can read underneath a recent vague tweet, an announcement for another book, which I’m hoping is the collection with the Brad Pitt essay in it, seems near. In his bio, which lists most of these things (along with the kindness of admitting his poetry has appeared in my own lit mag Autofocus), he drops The Paris Review toward the end of his publication list. Baller move, really. Respect.

On the flip, for me: no published books. I still owe the money for the low-res MFA I did in a genre I hardly read anymore. I need to teach Freshman English at a community college in Florida a few more years to be financially forgiven. No one has ever given me money to create anything (and probably shouldn’t). My greatest publication credit will be Essay Daily if I don’t botch this essay, and it will most definitely lead off the list. I’m remembering now that Lucas Mann has also published in Essay Daily, and it’s not listed in the short bio on the Brad Pitt essay. 

If I have in the last year achieved any admiration from peers on the internet, it’s because I had to create an online lit mag, a podcast, and a book imprint to be noticed. Not much has come from my writing. I have bumbled around different media over the years trying to finally figure out the way I best express myself or the form of expression that best fits my life. I’ve been wondering if I’ve found it, if it’s what I’m doing now, but a lot of the time I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that whatever I do, Lucas Mann will write essays and books and continue to be very good at it. He will continue to earn prestigious awards and opportunities—I am in no way making the case that any of his successes, which he probably believes are minor compared to some of his peers, have been handed to him—and he will continue to work hard at it while toggling back to family and job rather than those things plus all the other stuff I assign myself to be noticed. And I think he’s on Sabbatical this semester. God bless.

A lot of the goal in writing is for the effort to be hidden. When I read an essay by Lucas Mann, the struggle of writing it well is cut out. When I think of Lucas Mann writing the Brad Pitt essay, I don’t think about how long it must’ve taken, or how much trouble he may have had getting the structure right, or if he struggled with the idea of sharing all this vulnerable stuff about his body image publicly, as I am currently doing after putting off revising this essay for two weeks. All I see is the final draft of a beautiful essay written in an almost nonchalant offhand intelligence. It’s like staring at a moving image of Brad Pitt’s body on screen with an ice cream cone in his hand. I can also hold an ice cream cone on screen, but I don’t look as good when I do.


The first thing I remember reading by Lucas Mann was the first chapter in his book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV. It’s written as a direct address to his wife, a long analytical love letter about watching her and watching mediated reality with her. I said to myself, Yes please. On Twitter, I followed his account. He threw a follow back, unexpected. I was endeared immediately. It was nice to feel also watched, even if I wasn’t.

I read the rest of the book in a few nights. I was endeared even more. I’m flipping through the paperback again now, remembering lying in bed next to my then-one-year-old who had just fallen asleep after a second bottle. I clicked on the nightstand lamp, pushed the bulb toward the wall enough so the faint side light could help me make out the text. Two and a half years later, I’ve forgotten most of the specific details and insights of the book, but rereading that first chapter, I come back to this passage I faintly underlined in pencil: “I want to believe that I’m not interested in fantasy. I am interested in the disreal, not the unreal, both in the art that I seek and the love that I live. But if you look at any life long enough, with enough vested interest, how do you not begin to push toward the fantastical?” And I want to say back, Exactly

Lucas Mann returns to his previous obsession with Reality TV in the Brad Pitt essay when he describes the workout culture on the show Love Island as a kind of foil to the Nanjiani, Pratt, Jordan thing. In the show, the gym in the house where people live while being filmed is centrally located. He describes the way an actor on the show might try to perfect the fall and fit of a shirt on their body in a mirror, their faces bouncing back and forth from satisfaction to frustration, trying to get it just right. Mann says, “When I’m watching this, I am free of envy because they look so worked up about it all, so small and human even as they don’t want to be.”

That feels like Twitter for me. There are writers I keep watching, as if seated in the first row of a theater, looking up, and then there is everyone else. Small and human, needy and reaching, like me. Any annoyance I feel watching others I don’t like perform themselves and peddle their art is a product of my own desire to appear better to others online than I am in real life. “I want to be a different person a lot of the time,” Lucas Mann writes, “but really that means I want to be in a different body. It’s hard for me to watch someone and see the emotion they’re performing in some vacuum of intellect where their body doesn’t exist in performance.” He writes this about watching people who work out all the time on a screen in front of him, but reading it now out of context, I am still thinking about Twitter. I want to be a different person a lot of the time, but really that means I want to be logged into a different account. As he said to me on The Lives of Writers podcast when I talked to him (and I think in Captive Audience too): “All the terrible and/or interesting shit that social media is doing, reality TV did first.”

In the same section of the Brad Pitt essay, Lucas Mann notes the way movie stars and reality TV stars “both clearly know I’m watching all the time, and depend on that; both make me feel weak and fat and mortal, but also like they would be, even want to be, my friend.” He could add social media stars to the list. Since the start of the pandemic, up until recently, I have spent an insane amount of time on Twitter, where I don’t—where most people don’t—reveal images of their body most of the time. In some way, I suspect my body has changed so drastically since 2020 because no one except my family saw it every day, and I stopped looking at my body through others’ eyes and instead started looking at my online presence that way. I’m constantly watching literary writers perform in a vacuum of intellect (and idiocy) where their body doesn’t exist in performance. I’ve had the illusion that some of the connections I was making on the app—either by publishing them on my website or talking to them on my podcast—might become real friends. These people I could only watch before I made a website and podcast, who would have no reason to perceive me, might now perceive me and choose to keep doing so.

This is the thing with Lucas Mann and I. Reality television, social media, autobiographical literature, sports, film, fatherhood. We are into the same shit. We talked for an hour and fifteen minutes on the podcast. I had to edit out thirty-minutes of us talking more about my life or a book project of mine, which later turned into him performing another kindness for me: reading and saying nice things about it even though I know its structure was a mess and I have since given up on doing anything with it. But as time continues, the conversation pushed farther back into the mix of all the people he has talked to in his life, I become again the abstraction I am on Twitter. I click the digital content boxes he posts, and he clicks some of mine. 

We did meet in person at the AWP 2022 conference. We had a string of randomly occurring two- or three-minute conversations on the way to do something or talk to someone else. I appreciated that. He didn’t have to spend any minutes, and he didn’t have to stop by the Autofocus table like he said he would and wait more time than we talked in person for me to become free enough to give him a book. I’m becoming very self-conscious thinking about him reading this. Will he be weird around me next time we meet? It’s becoming hard to sort out: in some ways, I feel this might just be a form of parasocial relationship that became more complicated because the fourth wall was broken by these different encounters. In some ways, I feel that by saying some of these things, I’m risking a friendship, but the friendship I’m risking may not really exist.


So I’m pedaling the exercise bike, dropping the resistance to a four, wiping sweat under my glasses, leaning onto my forearms on the handlebars, hump-backed, clicking to see the number of calories I’ve burned. My wife Amy opens the door. She wonders what I’m watching tonight, but I tell her I am reading online. She saddles-up on the bike next to mine (we bought two so we wouldn’t have to share) and watches videos on Instagram or TikTok. Marriage, Motherhood, motherhood in a pandemic, motherhood amid professional frustration, having to deal with me dealing with fatherhood, fatherhood in a pandemic, fatherhood amid artistic frustration, our always present hatred for our own bodies has grown alongside our bodies themselves. We keep wanting to improve them even though the other person says they love it anyway. Though I can’t help but noticed how we often look at others on our screens instead of at each other.

From what I’ve read, Lucas Mann’s marriage also shares a bond of shame for the body despite the other person loving it, feelings he and his wife fear passing down to their daughter, who is just about the same age as my youngest son. Following Lucas Mann on Twitter and on Instagram, I have seen a lot of pictures of his daughter. She’s adorable. I don’t tend to share many photos on social—on IG I’ve shared three or four pics of my kids over the past couple of years, and I don’t think any photos of them on Twitter—and I wonder if I should, but I don’t, partly because any time I post something on social (and I’ve had to work through this in my attempt to be more active on Twitter since the pandemic), I feel watched and judged and pathetic, or worse not watched and not judged and pathetic.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Lucas Mann feels this when he posts on social. He posts quite a bit (and “I’m here for it”), which may mean that while he feels a certain way about his body, he doesn’t feel that way about his disembodied self. He seems to move through the digital world somewhat unselfconsciously. I am almost as self-conscious of my disembodied image as I am my body image. This might be a status thing (see: his bio vs. mine). I imagine it changes the way you think about sharing things with others. There is something about having a product of any kind on the internet that makes social media suddenly make sense for someone. I wonder if this is partly why I started Autofocus. I must make products to justify my usage of social media. If I am going to be the product on these apps, then I better have a product for people to buy to balance it out. Otherwise, yeah, seems pointless. If he does feel insecurity at times about his disembodied image too, we don’t see it. It’s (rightfully) cut out between the edits.

I mention Lucas Mann’s Instagram account because when I read the parts in his Brad Pitt essay about his daughter, I could picture her because of the photos I’ve seen. I could imagine her laughing when her tickles her, when she finds the full-length mirror and says Daddy daddy daddy until he smiles, having just crouched down next to her in the mirror, turning away from his image. “Loving her body, telling her to do the same, turns out to be easy, but I don’t trust the ease, because when I see her lovable body moving around the world, mine is always next to hers,” he writes earlier in the essay. I’ve never seen Lucas Mann’s daughter alive in a room, but he writes about her being in the 99th percentile of size, which is not something I can ascertain from a photo. In the essay, he gets excited by the idea of her being statistically more than other kids but worries about the performative aspect of the situation, projecting what he thinks is supposed to be the correct sentiment. Like, what’s the other option—worrying about it? Why would anyone worry about that? He explains the pride he performs for his big eater. He wants her to think about her body as much as he thinks of his, but with the opposite feelings.

One of my children is underweight. He measured very small in the hips and waist in the womb, a point of concern for the doctor. Now he doesn’t like to eat. A lot of times we settle on letting him eat junk so doesn’t get thinner. I wonder now how many times we have said something like “you need to eat your dinner. You’re very thin. We need to make you big and strong.” Sometimes, we can get him to eat his whole dinner if we convince him his muscles are growing in real time as he eats. He believes it. He takes a bite of chicken or broccoli and flexes his bony arm, scrunching his face as if protecting himself from the pain he’ll feel when the muscle bursts through skin. 

I’m trying to make his body healthier, but I realize now that I am making him more self-conscious of his body—that it isn’t enough. It’s my own psychological complication with size in reverse. I worry it could lead to a lifetime of getting bigger and smaller, bigger and smaller, and never being happy when confronted with an image of himself in a mirror. Even years ago, when he learned to dress himself, we occasionally walked in on him changing his shirt, and he would turn and say, Don’t look at me! We tell him he’s beautiful, we tell him his body is a place to be proud. It’s just us, his parents who love everything about him, even when he is testing our patience and nerves and sanity (we leave that part out), but we respect his wishes. Amy and I have wondered, Fuck, is our dysmorphia genetic? Does it just pass down? 

My other son never had an issue eating until recently, which I believe is either the influence of his brother or his age (three), which comes with the promise of fighting every single thing his mother and I say. We have praised him as a big eater quite a bit. We have probably told his brother to eat more like he does. When friends or family members saw our big eater as a baby, they mentioned the cuteness of his pudgy little body, the contrast of it next to his older brother, and we joked about his ravenousness, and at meals we watched him eat like it was a sport or dance. Now when family or friends see him, they remark on how much he has thinned out. They say it in an approving manner, and I mirror the slight smirk on their face when I nod. 

I don’t think my younger son has yet thought about his body in the way that I or his mother or brother do, worried if it is too big or too small or just right to whatever expectations he may pick up from us or others or the television or the internet. He loves to run around the house naked, as Lucas Mann describes his daughter doing, with his hands on his little tummy, laughing. It helps his brother not think twice about being unclothed, or not think about it at all. He’ll just strip right down and chase him all around the house, little fists punching out in front of him. It’s a gift my younger son provides us. We remember the right way to look at a human body, regardless of its shape or size, is with a sense of humor about the absurdity of having one.

But I also just realized that in our house we don’t even own a full-length mirror.


There was a brief period when my father bought and used a camcorder. Lucas Mann writes the previous sentence at the start of the sixth movement of his essay on Brad Pitt, and I am using it now because it is also true and related for me.

Lucas Mann mentions the camcorder to get into one of two surviving videos from its use. In it, he’s at his second birthday party, and his now-dead brother—who I have a reference point for because Lord Fear: A Memoir is one of my favorite books—films toddler Lucas contorting scoops of cake into his mouth, oblivious to the camera and parents laughing at him off frame. His brother turns the camera on himself—“aviator sunglasses, clean-lined jaw, swoop-necked weightlifter’s tank”—and for Lucas Mann this image becomes the most indelible one of his brother all this time later. It’s both the contrast between the model his brother wanted to become and the addict he became and the contrast of that image with the image of himself eating. “There should be different plateaus in memory,” Lucas Mann writes, “one up high to keep real grief, real love, away from the superficial maw, yet there my brother is, still inseparable from a general idea of appetite and why it’s wrong, always the conflation of petty shame and danger.”

There is only one surviving tape from my father’s camcorder, or there was at one point when I was kid. I doubt anyone has the tape now. It was mostly clips from a few birthdays—my first birthday, for instance—and a few Christmas mornings. My father is always holding the camera, an offscreen presence that has become somewhat metaphorical to me in time and memory, but there is one short clip with my father in front of the lens. Brief static, and then the clip cuts into scene late and leaves it early, which I suspect meant he was trying to tape over it. He and my older brother are at the baseball field, walking in a large group of Little Leaguers and coaches. I assume this was for some kind of fundraiser. My father appears thinner than in any photograph I have seen of him before he had kids and any version of him after he had kids. He looks a little weak by comparison. He’s sipping a coffee in a Styrofoam cup, and you can see it’s black, same as I take it now. It must have been right before the divorce.

In those few pre-parent photos I have seen of my father, he is thick and round, often in grey sweatpants and sweatshirt. I recognize him more as my father in these photos—brown hair instead of blonde (though he claims he doesn’t dye it), a skin-tone he wasn’t yet worried about tanning (or bronzing), and of course the body (soft and mostly hidden), but it’s not the father I ever knew. In one of the photos, the main one I imagine I am conflating with all the others, he’s in the grey sweatsuit on the beige couch smiling up at the baby boy up in the air above him. This photo I have is labeled by my mom as being of me, but I know for a fact—comparing to other baby photos, other photos as I’ve seen of my father when I was an infant—that it is my brother. I can only remember my dad as the person he became after he left the house (I was five), which seems in most ways the opposite of who he was when he was there. That last clause there could be a justification for him to have left, but I mean it only superficially.

My father, in my memories of my time with him, used the word fat a lot. He never said the word in a neutral way, as a general descriptor. He said it always with a hard, elongated f sound that landed on a harder quicker t, the click of it at the end signifying disgust. My father and I are now estranged. We haven’t spoken since the year before the pandemic. The detail about the word fat is a small thing related to that, but it’s related. When I talk bad to Amy about my body since we’ve had kids, I never say fat. I say F-A-T, even though my oldest can spell and read. When Amy talks bad about her body since we’ve had kids, she says the actual word, and I motion my hands up and mouth stop, as if she said fuck at the top of her voice. A part of me realizes, even in those moments, that spelling instead of saying the word fat puts fear around it, which gives it more power. I worry that saying F-A-T is worse than the way my father said the word.

While I don't remember my father ever really directing the word at me, all the projection of his hatred onto other people’s bodies was certainly meant for my ears. I believe the logic is I won’t call my son fat to his face, but I will call all these other people fat so he can hear it, and realizing later his body looks more like theirs than mine, he might become more like me and do something about it. Or maybe there was no logic. Just an impulse to degrade bodies that reminded him of the one he had as a child, then as a teenage heavyweight wrestler, then as a soon-to-be-father and father several times over, the last child (me) unplanned and inconvenient. From what I’ve read underneath things he has told me, he was already planning to leave the family and had to put off the exit strategy.

It is one thing to be fat and another to be called fat, and another to be called fat without being directly called fat, and another when it’s someone who has changed his life to become a competitive body builder, and another when the judgment for competitive body building has nothing to do with the act of lifting the weights and instead to do with a few chosen people deciding who has the best looking physique, as evidenced by numerous variations of muscle-bulging poses, and it is yet another when that version of a competitive body builder eats nothing but burned meat, raw broccoli, and powder-become-liquid in a blender. Let’s say, on one of his two weekends a month, my father takes me to McDonald’s because he doesn’t have enough time with me to deliver a hard no to the request. I order a value meal, supersized. I tell him it’s his turn to order. Do I look like I eat this crap, Michael? He says it loud enough for others, particularly the cashier, to hear. He’s wearing a bright tanktop that shows his nipples. I fill up with five-seconds of each soda at the fountain, meet my dad back at the table, where he must sit through me devouring the whole meal. I imagine we talked about something, but I don’t know what it could have been. At times, I wonder what my father would have been like with a smartphone when I was a kid. I suspect if he had one he’d have been retreating into an app to look at other people parading their bodies on Instagram as he did in real life. I believe he would have had his own account mostly of photos that featured his competitive body.

My father won a bunch of trophies from those competitions. He brought my brothers and I to most of them. I have uncomfortable memories of being somewhat proud to rub a fake tan onto his back in the locker room while other men sprayed themselves, penises dangling between the opening of their wrapped towels, before going out in the audience to watch the same men in bikini bottoms pose to pop music. He featured the bigger trophies in his house. Monuments to the great job he did not feeding his body very much aside protein and fiber. 

But when I think about that now, I don’t think about all the not-eating he did. I think about the eating he did immediately after. Post-competition, whether or not presented with a trophy, we went to the nearest Pizza Hut, where he ordered an entire large pie for himself and ate the whole fucking thing in the one sitting. It was like eating was supposed to be something under control until boom it wasn’t. Kind of like Brad Pitt on screen, the way the food is held as if his mind isn’t on it, then devoured as if it’s the only thing possibly on his mind. I don’t think my father’s body, or his seeming self-control, really impressed me as a kid—though as a late teenager well over two hundred pounds I did want something more like it so I would stop hating myself and maybe get a girl to love and fuck me—but I was impressed by, and I suppose wanted to emulate, the binging. He ate a whole pizza. A true sighting of the appetite—the size of it. It seemed superhuman. And the only reward for suffering.

I’ve made this connection to myself before, though I wouldn’t have made it then, but when I was feeling extra bad or sad or whatever as an early teenager, before I lost a lot of weight and was still gaining it constantly, I would convince my mom I was sick (depression made this easy), stayed home from school and ordered a whole pizza and two-liter soda. I ate and drank fucking all of it on my bedroom carpet watching old WrestleMania VHS tapes (consider the bodies I’m looking at as I eat), and then threw out the carboard and plastic evidence underneath whatever bags had already been placed in the outside garbage bin. To throw off any suspicion, when my mom came home and made dinner, I ate most of that too.

I wonder now if my son becoming self-conscious about taking off his clothes in front of Amy and I might also have stemmed from seeing me with my shirt off as little as possible in his life. I’m sure he has seen me shirtless or naked more than I realize, and he enjoys the body I have: he surprises me on the couch by lifting my shirt and blowing raspberries into my belly, laughs about the way my skin vibrates on his lips, but instinctively, I pull down my shirt because I don’t want to see. I flash back to the time I played recreational sports as a kid and would refuse to take off my shirt any time I was told to scrimmage on the “skins” team in soccer or basketball. I had to plead a deal with the coaches to always be on “shirts,” which was almost as embarrassing as taking it off, but apparently to me not quite. As I got older, and this request became more awkward and less tolerable, despite still loving sports and playing them on my own or with friends at our houses, I quit. That was the power of my dysmorphia. I let it kill most things outside of it.

I think back on my time in rec sports, but I am still that way now. I hate going to pool parties. I hate going swimming. I rarely take my family an hour to the ocean. Like Lucas Mann, when my first child was born—and at the time I had been doing boxing workouts for a year a couple times a week and had never been in better shape—I winced when taking off my shirt until the nurses put my son skin-to-skin on me, blocking a portion of my chest and gut. All I felt were the eyes, or worse, the cameras, a truly wild thought considering I was the least important person in the room and I just became a father to a small and fragile child. It’s sad to me that I was still considering myself, even my body, in the first few minutes of my son’s birth. I have the photo of us, but I never look at it. In my memory, I only see his face.

As Mann says, “This is the greatest privilege afforded in my fantasy of thinness: that it eventually might allow you to disappear—to other people sure, but most of all to yourself.”


Late in Lucas Mann’s Brad Pitt essay, he recounts his experiences writing with humor about his body in creative writing workshops and the time he failed at writing about it without humor: at a reading, everyone is laughing anyway. Even before this moment, he recounted something his father told him after he dropped a bunch of weight: “He said, now you can’t write about being a fat person anymore because people will get mad about appropriation, which was meant as a compliment but felt like silencing, and also served to prove my suspicions that everything I’d ever felt or expressed was really about what was wrong with my body.” I have to admit I laughed when I read the quip from his father, because it feels true in an odd way, though I hated reading it as if my own father said it to me, and I was made to feel the same way Lucas did then.

Of course, there are fatter people. Many cannot simply become unfat. Some do not feel a need to do so. At the moment, I am down twenty pounds since I first read the Brad Pitt essay. Does this take away the subject for me? As someone who, perhaps in a few months, will not appear fat to other people, maybe it’s cringe. The reason for a writer like him or I to be funny about body image, and for the audience to laugh about it regardless, is so we don’t mistake it for real trauma, which is often the subject of personal literary writing. As Mann says, 

It’s hard to call any of these invisible scars of fat boyhood or yoyo diets a trauma; I still don’t really believe they are. I think it’s my choice whether or not this pain over my body is real, is earned, is worthy of having ever existed, yet it always has. To consider life without it doesn’t feel a choice at all. When I’m asked to empathize with people’s addiction or depression or illness, this is the only frame of reference that comes to my mind for feeling out of control, unable to find catharsis, but I never say that.

I also don’t have much interest in calling it trauma, but I do have giant stretchmarks all up my stomach, all up my chest, all up my inner thigh and groin, no matter how much weight I lose, and the invisible scars have led to some clearly related addiction issues particularly around pot and at times alcohol, both of which tie closely for me into food. And then there’s the suicidal ideation, a couple times pretty severe, but I mean, let’s not get into it. In a way, I feel that Lucas might be trying to diminish his body issues, or the other issues that have stemmed from body issues he may not mention, because body image issues are privileged issues. It’s like an apology three-fourths of the way through the essay, one I also feel the need to make because the act of writing about being fat, or having been fat, puts us at risk of others thinking all we’re doing is showing our discomfort with other people’s fat projected onto ourselves, though to me, it’s more my discomfort with my father’s discomfort with fat projected onto everyone else and the shame of projecting it back at myself in a way I do not think I really project onto others. 

The fact that I am still trying to convince myself that exposing this very ugly part about my self-perception is worthwhile and reasonable compounds the problem. The feelings you associate with your body at any point, which often come from other insulting gazes or words, still live in there even if you’ve lost a lot of the weight that brought the gazes or words your way. They cannot be metabolized and popped into nothing like fat cells. In the end, you just succeed in looking less like you still see yourself. Women have it worse, no doubt about that—it’s touched on in Mann’s essay—and so we push ourselves further down into the place that says it’s probably not worth discussing. But look, in between writing a draft of this essay and coming back again and again to revise it before submitting, I have regained five pounds. I’ve been drinking most days the past week or two, maybe as a way to continue eating and avoid exercising. I’m not blaming the writing of this essay, except I don’t think it’s a coincidence. 

Toward the end of this section of Lucas Mann’s essay, he takes the piece, I think, to its deepest point. He says, “I tried bulimia a few times; no, it was more than that—knees on the tile floor, fan wailing to cover the noise. I couldn’t ever pull the trigger enough to fully purge. Even now, re-reading that sentence, the judgment appears to be more on the failure to complete than the impulse to try. This is the first time I’ve ever written that sentence. I’ve never said it out loud.” Later, he discusses going back to therapy just before his wife got pregnant. In sessions, he brings up eating and his body, explaining away the inability to talk about his view and experience with it as a disorder, calling it instead a need for endorphins. He explains that, after traveling for a writing residency and running a lot, existing in a world for a while where the people there only know this slimmer version of him, he never returns his therapist’s calls. 

Around the same time Lucas Mann was back in therapy for a stint, I was also in therapy for issues mostly unrelated to my body, but related to my father, so in some ways related to my body, and it took me more than a year to finally talk about the body issues to my thin therapist. “Oh, by the way,” I said one day in the middle of a session. “I should mention I had an eating disorder during my first year of college. I lost a considerable amount of weight without one and then couldn’t imagine stopping.” I went right past it, rarely spoke of it again, even when nudged into it. At risk of this seeming like boasting, I had no problem puking. I have said that last clause of the previous sentence out loud before (to the therapist), but I’ve never typed it out, disembodied. Somehow, it doesn’t feel any more real to me now that I have. It was much harder, face-to-face, with my thin therapist. Maybe it’s possible she was once obese too, or that the thinness is a manifestation of a lot of psychological issue and turmoil and pain around fat for some other reason, but I won’t ask. I can’t tell from looking. 

This reminds me of something Lucas Mann says about Brad Pitt in his more recent movie Ad Astra, which Mann claims oddly calls the most attention to his body because it is hardly present: “Maybe the goal all along has been to have his art become as little about his body as possible. Maybe his fantasy is the same as mine—that success, satisfaction, will only come when he feels like he’s disappeared and he no longer must confront what is seen on screen, in the mirror. But who knows? The point is never to know what it feels like for him, right?” And somehow, I read that again and I think of watching Lucas Mann post on Twitter or Instagram. I think of talking to him on the podcast. I think of reading so many words he has written and published. Do I really know what anything feels like for him? Not even close. I push toward the fantastical.


Lucas Mann’s Brad Pitt essay ends back on himself as a parent. It might be the only place he can land to make the essay work for most people. See, it’s not just about me and my dumb issues… the stakes are high; I have a daughter! I feel the same way about my sons. The only thing that might legitimize me worrying about this is my fear of passing it on to them. As he writes, “The question is how to end a narrative that hasn’t changed and that I still can’t envision changing, no matter how much I want it to, no matter what in my life has changed around it.”

It’s a good question. I feel like the whole narrative of being a parent, too, pushes toward an inevitable macro failure that arrives after all the micro failures in between. In his essay, looking at photos of he and his daughter, Lucas Mann goes on to say, “I don’t want to change anything about the pictures except my body in them, and sometimes, when I think that, I can almost convince myself that it’s reasonable. I’ve tried so many times to change my body, but it’s never changed the way I feel about it, just distracted from the effort it might take to love myself the way I want her to.” A small enough change, for me right now, is writing this essay back without flinching the way he or I do when our kids search their fingers across our flesh and squeeze.

But I’m back here, in the garage, pedaling. I’m not watching or reading. I’m thinking about how I too might end this essay. The above paragraph seems like a good enough spot, but there is something in Lucas Mann’s Brad Pitt essay I have not mentioned that has stayed with me the most since the first reading. He says that he always wanted a daughter, in part because the shame baggage of his body wouldn’t be his exactly, and he doesn’t trust his ability to be kind to a boy: 

I have known fat men whose fatness was a show of strength, or even a performative joy—look at all that I can consume; it’s a joke to me, so you can laugh too. I’ve felt hatred for these men, and a great deal of jealousy, but never kindness. If I had a two-year-old son in front of me sizing up his birthday cake the way I once did...the thought trails off, or I don’t want to follow it.

Lucas, the way you avoid following through on the thought makes me oddly happy. Even without your knowledge, it’s a way of seeing me without having to look directly at me. I exist where that thought trails off. I try not to be my father, but some days I hear him in my head or, worse, out of my mouth. I fight myself from inside of my body. I fight myself from outside of theirs. I’m on screen, I’m off screen. Right now, I prefer to be off. I’d rather be words on a podcast or this website or one day a book, disembodied, trimmed up, easy to consume.


Michael Wheaton’s writing has appeared previously in DIAGRAM, Bending Genres, HAD, Rejection Letters, Burrow Press Review, and other online journals. He publishes Autofocus and hosts The Lives of Writers podcast. Find links and more at mwheaton.net.

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Advent 2022, Dec 1, Lucy Schiller, The Air and the Larynx: on Nicholson Baker

How are you supposed to write an essay on Nicholson Baker—which, you remind yourself, you elected to do in the first place—when you feel too tired and airless to enact the obvious tricks? If you were to write an essay on Nicholson Baker, you’d start catching yourself writing like Thomas Bernhard, and nip that in the bud. Wrong guy, but related somehow. No self-referential stuff, no clauses like he said, I thought. Just stop already. No footnotes, no spiraling digressions. You can’t really pull off what Baker pulls off, though you are convinced that one reason he’s so good is that most people do really kind of think in the ways he writes, maybe to a lesser extent than he does, but really, they do notice things like the quality of particular types of sunlight and the grosgrain of ribbon, unless, unfortunately, they don’t. More and more, you (I) have been meeting more and more people who seem not to really notice these things, and you/I wonder if you/I are even becoming one yourself/myself. If the pandemic has been one long smooth-seeming ribbon, we are the grain in that smooth-seeming ribbon. Our little daily rituals and lives compose it, and sometimes it just feels difficult to be so aware of that fact, all the time. Just like Nicholson Baker wrote his first book, The Mezzanine, about someone hyper-aware of the grain of his lunchtime walk, and has continued to populate his fiction and nonfiction with a similar awareness to, even fixation on, detail. Except that it’s not simple detail but the perception of detail that seems to interest him. A very essayistic thing, the act of choosing and conveying detail being as important as the details themselves. The act of looking or inquiring into detail as the main engine of the work, even the meaning of the work, alongside whatever details get uncovered. Baseless, for example, is a book about government secrecy and filing FOIA requests and building narrative from piecemeal information as much as it is answering the question of whether or not the U.S. used biological weapons during the Korean War. Double Fold is literally a book about the sorrow and injustice of losing the ability to encounter historical details thanks to library administrators’ policy of “destroying to preserve”—demolishing reams of old newspaper, sometimes badly digitized, in order to supposedly save space. “Reading Aloud” is an essay about the act of reading an essay aloud, and you can listen to Baker himself read the essay about reading the essay aloud at a James Joyce conference, slipping and missing in a few places, making you wonder if the reading itself is, you know, meta, even though it’s obviously not. (The New Yorker, where that essay was originally published, summarizes the personal essay in third-person on its paywall page, stripping, as I see it, the Baker magic from the details he reports. It makes for abrupt summary. “This was writer’s first reading, several years ago,” reads the New Yorker summary. “Tells how he began to sob at the description of a woman enclosing a breakfast muffin in bakery tissue. Tells how he managed to regain himself. Since that afternoon in 1989, he’s read aloud from his writing a number of times, and each time he’s shown a little more self-control. Describes his tactile feelings for his layrnx [sic].”) In Vox, fiction, notorious, lovely, and slim, a character of Baker’s traces his penis with a pen on a piece of paper, finding that it’s better and more erotic and, by the way, slightly more enlarged that way than if he were to photocopy it (though that’s also partially because he’d have to write “70% reduction” on the photocopy). Perception or conveyance, yes, just as or more important than dismembered fact.

Today, many of the days feel like the other ones and the cozy embrace of routine doesn’t really entice anymore, probably because there’s little break from it. Fact can feel flat, and there’s only so much looking at yourself you can do. It’s not bad to look at yourself, necessarily, of course, but I do increasingly wonder if it is a limited way of writing, particularly now. Here’s what I’ve been feeling like—like language is increasingly being boiled down to larynxes, the air of an essay deemed unnecessary in the cold, plain light of the Internet and the pandemic and routine and the feeling of impending doom. I had to eventually move the mirror out of my office, actually, because in between sentences I was glancing at it, not for any reason other than to glance at something new, but what I was seeing wasn’t particularly new at all, which is basically the same reason I would like to get off of Twitter and Instagram, would like to dive back into real reading again, not this shallow flitting kind, but the deep kind, about which Nicholson Baker has so much to say. He wrote a six-part essay on the history of the word “Lumber,” for God’s sake. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve become hopelessly tired of thinking about myself, and the idea of revealing or examining myself in writing doesn’t really appeal anymore, and yet the whole reason I love Nicholson Baker—or one of them—is that his style cannot help but reveal his particular mind. I happen to very much admire that mind. I wonder: is there a way to look at your mind in the mirror? Oh yeah: writing an essay, ideally. (I almost just wrote “writing. Lol.”) Is there a difference between sharing your own mind and sharing the rest of yourself on the page—the former is what I think Nicholson Baker is good at, and yet I, as a writer, have been tempted many a time to take the latter as a proxy of, or shortcut to, the former. Particular experiences I’ve had, in other words, instead of the ways in which I call them back and think through them. This is why I’ve sometimes avoided the personal, sticking instead to things external to myself, which, through arrangement and artful writing, you can maybe find a bit of air. Baker has a great essay, by the way, on large versus small thoughts, and seems in one way or another to always be mapping his own intellectual activity, even and especially when he is writing about things outside of his own experience (see: the highly formal collage of Human Smoke, which assembles a history of the lead-up to the second World War, assembled by a pacifist’s brain).

Some more questions: can I just say “I like Nicholson Baker” and leave it at that? No, because this essay is the intellectual proof of engagement with that fact, an attempt to breathe air back into the larynx croaking out those four words. Does this particular writer inspire his acolytes to build, as Leon Wieseltier once uncharitably wrote of Baker’s book Checkpoint, “creepy hermeneutical toys,” but ours are about Baker and his work, like he is the sun to our tulips, his constructions the ones we start to fixate on amidst the otherwise oatmeal days? What is it about Baker’s work that forces his admirers to sometimes talk endlessly of themselves—not always to bad effect (see B & Me, by J.C. Hallman, aping Baker’s U & I, his own chronicle of his literary relationship to John Updike)? Actually, I have always hated cascades of questions inside essays—the questions never really get answered, and I think they’re a way of gesturing at inquiry rather than actually inquiring—and so, instead of asking, I will posit that we love Baker and imitate him within an inch of our lives because the force of his attention works on ours, widening our apertures as we read him, as if we are reading a manual of how to remember to look, really look, at the world, its secrets, its particularities which build into bigger truths. If we allow ourselves to be carried along by him, he inflates us right back to where we want to be: avid and unexpectedly thoughtful, in a world that does not seem to want us to be these things. And we sing again, or can.

This is the thing about Baker, at least to me—although I am reluctant to spend too much time on myself, despite having written an essay, at this point, all about me—is that he fixes me. Patches me up. Sends me back on my way. So far, the medicine has been bottomless. I have read him over and over again for this reason. Regardless of topic or detail, he reminds me of the human importance of the act of inquiry. It sounds basic, and it is, and that is why I relish the reminders, or, just as often, relish watching him inquire. He is my reminder; he reminds me why I write and from what spirit to go about it. I come back to myself. And right now, a few days before Thanksgiving, I am sitting at a cheap little desk in the third floor of the rental house I share with my boyfriend, staring out of the window into a bright sky, where four separate jets are ripping through the air, each leaving a cold chalky trail. Now they’re going this way, now they’re going the other. Two seem to be about to collide. Again, I notice. I’ve been watching for thirty minutes, off and on. This scene would happen with or without me, but the frame of the window, and my position in front of it, is what causes the sight to be arresting (to me), and strange. Even worth wondering about. What a lovely thing, when tired of oneself, and when tired of the world, to watch a mind you love continue to streak and wiggle through it.


Lucy Schiller is a writer based in Pittsburgh, where she's at work on a forthcoming nonfiction book. You can find more of her writing at www.lucy-schiller.work.