Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Dec 12, Dorian Rolston: Method Men


There’s nothing I can tell you about Nicholson Baker that you wouldn’t be better served just going ahead and reading him. In fact the whole point of this piece is to get you to do just that. But this particular piece of his—and why we call them that I’m not sure, piece of what—simply called “What Happened on April 29, 1994,” and simply about what happened on the day in question, isn’t exactly the hallmark of a great personal essay. Because the answer to what happened is: Nothing much. So I’m inclined to offer a few words by way of introduction.

That sounds patronizing, I know. Potentially to Nicholson Baker (as if his genius weren’t immediately obvious), and likely to the reader (as if you wouldn’t spot it on your own). I’m not sure what to do with that? I mean, for now I’m tempted to say yes and yes: at best the man may strike you as a kind of idiot savant, fixating on, among other things, the precise angle at which he slept through a movie on the couch (“tipped sideways forty-five degrees”). Indeed, it only occurs to him to begin writing the piece when, up from his nap, he starts sorting the mail on his desk (“into four piles,” just so) and discovers a fax from the publication who gave him the assignment. “So I took some notes on the margin of the fax,” he writes (presumably on said fax), “which smudged on the shiny paper but remained legible.”

Let me be absolutely clear: I love Nicholson Baker. When I first read “I took my daughter to school, and then...” that opening was already enough, and I knew I’d found my guru, in his supreme wisdom inviting life as is into the work. (I do mean savant in the fullest sense, from the Latin for to be wise.) And as with much wisdom, it’s the people with the most we tend to miss. What are we missing, I wonder, from that man on that day in April, 1994? That day, that man takes his daughter to school, goes to work, avoids reviewing a novel by writing an email about library catalogs, goes out for Chinese for lunch with wife and infant son, and then comes home to find his little princess proudly wearing her new Girl Scout Brownie uniform and cries? Yes, that wise man?

I am not wise, not even after reading Nicholson Baker over and over. I have here on my desk a sadly crumpled yellow folder with his essay inside and nothing else besides. Guess I was overly optimistic that, in researching this piece, I’d gather so much background information, so many interviews and reviews and tweets (he’s @nicholsonbaker8, but don’t bother because he’s “back in 2018 when I’ve caught up. #twitterbreak”), such as would necessitate a folder to hold it all. That was my first mistake: thinking that to explain Nicholson Baker anything but Nicholson Baker was required.

After I learned that lesson (though, in the new year, his Twitter is worth a look, featuring bokeh or blurred background shots of hoar frost on leaves, white sheets blowing on the line, and other homey delights), I changed tack. Much as he did the fax, I started taking notes on the essay itself, dashing the margins with embarrassing panache. Which was my second mistake: thinking there was anything really to point out. Specificity without symbol becomes transcendental, I note, about his daughter’s “long, blue-tasseled socks.” Indeed, if there’s one image burned in my mind, burning brighter in fact than any of my own memories from that day in ’94 (I was seven), it’s these “long, blue-tasseled socks.” So long and so blue, tasseled too.

Farther down the margin, wrapping around the bottom of the single page on which the piece appears, I describe this indelible quality as anti-Platonic. Meaning, I think, that far from an ideal form, as Plato would have it (up in the sky, untouchable archetype), this all-too-human detail appears so ordinary, so precious, as to be irreducibly singular. A piece of life itself. And here’s where I intended to look up some Plato, to clarify just how I mean the theseness of these socks to be transcendent in their specificity, sacredly mundane, meaning nothing else. But now the whole commentary seems ridiculous, and I’d just as soon move on (letting this be a cautionary tale).

The next phase of the project seemed a little more promising, if still badly misguided. I was going to text Sarah, a devout Christian, for her thoughts on Advent. Sarah and I had recently stopped seeing each other, having broken off communication due to irreconcilable differences of faith, and my feeling was that if nothing else some good material would come of the exchange, which surely the editors of Essay Daily would appreciate. This was after all an Advent calendar piece—ah, that must be it, piece of candy—and sweetening up meta-commentary on the form with a little romance couldn’t hurt. But no sooner had the idea flashed in my head than I realized, worse than being insensitive (perhaps indeed hurting), I was being nothing at all like Nicholson Baker. He’d never manufacture his own material.

See, Nicholson Baker is normally something of a method actor in prose. He’s even gone so far as to mount a camera on a tripod and, before writing a word, film himself playing the part of his narrator. Then he simply transcribes the tape in book form—and voila, The Anthologist. There were some 40 hours of tape to transcribe for that novel, and it earned him the moniker Method Writer in an article I read once. The curious thing about that method writing stint, though, is that the narrator he’s playing, Paul Chowder, is himself a writer (an anthologist, sort of). Which means getting into character as Paul Chowder is really no different from just remaining Nicholson Baker, and the method’s ultimately methodless: ergo Nicholson Baker is Nicholson Baker.

An excerpt from the novel to prove the point: “Woops—dropped my Sharpie.”

Sorry—where was I going with this (had to get up to check the relevant passage in the novel and lost my train of thought...).

Right! Nicholson Baker, the method man. Or, as the OG Method Man himself sings, of himself, in the Wu-Tang song of the same name, “Method Man”:
Here I am here I am, the Method Man
Fun fact: that method man’s method has nothing to do with methodology, as I’d previously thought. No, Method Man, born Clifford Smith, got his stage name from the film of the same name, Method Man, a martial arts flick about a traveling kung fu show. (I’m getting all this, admittedly, from deep in the Wiki weeds, but I suspect Nicholson Baker, a known Wikipedia emissary, would approve, if not do much the same.) Anyway, just when you thought the rapper’s christening to be innocent film-buff fun, it turns out that “He was given that name by RZA, because he smoked a lot of Dust [sic].” And method means dust means Angel dust means phencyclidine means PC-fucking-P...when self-dissociation ensues.


A great piece of art, like a great piece of candy, is beyond the pale. That is to say, the piece is inappropriate—for criticism. It exists somewhere outside the realm of critique altogether, where to even attempt parsing the merits is to thereby diminish them. Parsing, to be sure, isolates, and so these socks once plucked from their home in the essay wither, shrivel up, fray. The ineluctable facts live in the whole, in the way sweetness layers a fine bonbon, creating a gestalt of flavors and textures and—for the sweet tooth equivalent of PCP receptors—whopping hits of candy. This piece exists only for the moment of consumption: pop the five-graph treat in your mouth, let melt.

Or, if you prefer, take it up yourself as prompt. This is what I eventually realized, in lieu of criticism, I had to do: to understand what happened on April 29, 1994, I had to become the man to whom the day happened, had to become Nicholson Baker. And because Nicholson Baker was after all playing Nicholson Baker, method-writing the method writer, I had to become, at the end of the day, more fully myself. To become my own method man.

This was Monday, December 4, 2017. The morning after the Essay Daily Advent calendar went up, and I’d gotten the assignment to write about what happened to Nicholson Baker when he got the assignment to write about what happened on April 29, 1994. I sat down with the then-new yellow folder and opened a fresh Word document when a truck rumbled down the drive, crunching the stones. Ginger shot up and began barking at the door, on high alert, and I looked out to see who it was mysteriously paying us a visit. Of course, the maintenance guy! I forgot his name but as soon as I recognized his bushy beard and lazy swagger I opened the door and said hello, and Ginger for her part pounced.

That time of year again, he was here to kill the swamp cooler for the winter. Up he clambered onto the roof, and Ginger, unnervingly aware of the only way back down, barked madly at the ladder. I tried coaxing her away, and when that didn’t work went back inside, hoping for her to follow, and I lost track of her for a second and she was eating cat shit again and I was furious because no matter how many times...sorry, I’m getting all worked up! Over the cat shit, sure, but mainly over my version of what happened. This here is a sweet enough domestic drama, just like that of April 29, 1994—just somehow not at all like that. Something’s missing; nice story, Dorian.

Perhaps I needed a clearer frame. This day, after all, marked the changing of the seasons in Tucson, and out here in the desert there aren’t really seasons in the usual sense, which is an interesting tension. The maintenance guy was merely playing the part of maintenance guy, fortifying the house for winter when there was no real winter to speak of—no chance of snow, and last week’s temperatures running record-breaking highs. Meanwhile the dog, playing the part of dog, up to the same old shit. In other words, what was meant to signify change actually signified stasis. (Advent of course being itself a season, and one of waiting at that.) As the French, Nicholson Baker’s primary readership for the piece, would have it: plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose.

But this was getting much too complicated. Somehow, Nicholson Baker tells the same old day in the same old way, from start to finish, things meaning what they mean.

But no! If that were all, his five-paragraph essay—at risk of being recognized for one of those dreaded hamburger essays in high school—would amount to nothing more than diary. “A Day in the Life of Nicholson Baker,” more accurately, more modestly. And appearing no less in Nouvel Observateur, a French weekly with nearly half-a-million circulation that now goes by the rather more voguish L’Obs. No, that just won’t do. Not even for les mots justes such as these, which I dare say might jumpstart the pulse of even the most velveteen Parisian heart: “I made my son laugh by tickling the soles of his feet with my beard and”—and here’s the heart-jumper—“making munching sounds at his ribs.”

Giving up on my day, I tried to imagine what made Nicholson Baker’s more newsworthy than mine. Imagine the Times, with a comparable readership to L’Obs, running a similar anthology of events for a given day here (his piece was just one of no less than 240 contributions of the sort). On the Times homepage I found, for my December 4, headlines about the tax overhaul that would turn the penniless grad student cliché literal, and about the looming government shutdown, and about the Baker—oh, different Baker, Baker Jack Phillips who was due for a ruling on the right to deny same-sex couples their wedding cake. No, my day did not belong here, with the big issues.

Although...if pressed I could say something of the following: Look, the government needs money to run the country, and money comes from taxes, and more taxes are what grad students (among others) are now expected to pay, and I’m one such grad student, and my discipline of creative writing is about freedom of expression, really puts the free in freedom of expression, which is to say really not at all remunerative, unless a better expression—a great piece—is what’s needed to prove writing’s worth, maybe mine(!) on Nicholson Baker’s(!), but that doesn’t sound right because, right, we’re talking rights, the First Amendment being that anyone should be able to freely express themselves, the very argument, in my opinion unconscionable and (for a sweet shop) rather unsavory, put forth by this other Baker, putting me and my day right in the heart of the state of the union.

Well, fine. Like yoga, reasoning is often a stretch to nowhere.

But then if there’s nothing newsworthy about my day, there’s nothing newsworthy about Nicholson Baker’s, surely. The most we get of current events, over lunch with his family at the Chinese restaurant, is: “We talked about an article on homelessness that she had read in the New York Review of Books.” And that’s that—no what we talked about, no what the article was about, no mas.

Unless that’s in fact what makes it news—that apolitical, atemporal, stepping off the perpetual news cycle to give us the feel of our feet on the ground. That I did this and that. That I am, in a word, alive.

Sorry—had to pee (do you wash your hands when you’re home alone, I wonder).

That’s better.

Now where was I—ah, yes, alive.

This must be what my editor was getting at when he agreed to my pitch. His name is Will, and I know him personally (same grad school, same pennilessness), so when in my hyper-caffeinated borderline-PCP-dissociative state the night at the coffee shop I fired off the idea for a piece on the quintessential day-in-the-life essay (for the essay-a-day Advent calendar, naturally) I didn’t really think through what I was saying. Something about meta-fun, and about a workshop in which I taught the piece and had students do their own imitations (nearly everyone beginning, I woke up when my alarm went off, or, My alarm went off and I wanted to hit snooze, or some variation therein), and about the intrusion of life spilling onto the page (more coffee) in the form of intimacy. “We’re big fans of that Baker essay,” he wrote back, “for precisely the reasons you mention—that weird intersection of intrusion/spillage/intimacy.” I couldn’t believe it.

And I couldn’t live up to it. Here I am, at a loss, having talked at length about Nicholson Baker, about the man just living his life (intimacy) when suddenly (intrusion), at last light, “I realized that this was the very day I was supposed to write about and that I had thus far taken no notes.” And as for spillage? 


I wasn’t going to go to the naked hot tub party. I’d spent the day trying to write about the day, to write ultimately about Nicholson Baker’s, only to see just how little I knew about what made one great and the other not. I still had no “long, blue-tasseled socks.” And as much as I wanted to be there to celebrate my friend Hannah’s birthday, the whole thing made me uncomfortable. Hannah and I, too, had recently stopped seeing each other (though before Sarah and I were a thing, which quite coincidentally began, as Hannah and I did, at the Wildcat Laundry on Speedway). I’d decided a polyamorous relationship just wasn’t for me, and here I was expected to rub up next to her poly pals in the steamy tub and hide the fact of my being, deep down, a prude. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d gone skinny dipping; never had I ever dropped trou in winter.

Then I found myself slipping off my underwear in the dark and climbing into the warm wet glow. Not so fast! The underwear wouldn’t quite come off? Because I was already nervous and there was already a svelte man with interesting red facial hair gently cajoling me to get in with him and I was trying to get in with him but not, you know, with him and to make it all seem so smooth as if given not a second thought...but my undies! Damn them, Banana Republic boxer briefs, black, the only kind I ever wear. (My crotch, apparently, is literally a black box to me.) So what actually happened was I finally slipped them off and tripped, kind of rolling my near-fall right into the inflatable basin with a strange improvised hurtling maneuver that splashed.

A word about inflatable hot tubs. This one, my host informed me, cost just $300, which made it seem affordable even though I’d never considered owning one and thus had formed no opinion about what’s reasonable to spend. It resembled, more than anything, a giant French cruller (which in German is called Spritzkuchen). Those are the donuts made from pâte à choux, a light airy pastry, which is then braided to form a soft ruffled ring—not, to be sure, for hurtling. Now nervous not just about my vitals but about what damage concealing them might’ve done to the air-tight tub, I sat there stiffly, with him, hot in the buff, a kind of filling. “Ever seen a mountain lion?” he asked.

Soon others, Hannah included, came in. And we were all shoulder-to-shoulder, limb-over-limb. Perhaps it was that I’d had a few by then, or that others had too, and that some of the ganja’d gone round and though I don’t smoke I get contact high very easily, likely out of my need to please others (seeming high even when I’m not so as to keep the buzz)...because when I finally opened my mouth to speak, to tell them what it was I did, all I said was: “I write about my id.” I clarified, “Mommy issues.” The striking blond woman across from me, whose feet I might’ve felt with mine, wanted to know if this was “Oedipal,” to which I nodded, thinking how Mom used to take me to her favorite bakery, Pâte à Choux, which, in a way, is where we were now.

Anyway, I had a good time and was glad I went after all. Sadly, though, no jets: this much I gather not from memory (I was too nervous to really form any) but from the notes I hastily jotted down upon my return home. I’m back, I wrote. It’s the end of the day. Technically the next: after midnight. I just spent the evening at my friend’s birthday party. We were naked in a hot tub—that was the party. It was an inflatable tub, and honestly the inflated rim felt more comfortable, like a cushion. But there were no jets and that was a disappointment. All in all it was...when the notes begin to blur, smudging. I must’ve been still a little wet as I wrote.

But I’ll do my best to reconstruct the night, the end of the day, as Nicholson Baker himself must’ve done with his smudges on the fax.

The tub conversation ranged, free and languorous. We talked about what we took in our current state to be remarkable things, from nervous system therapy (a tall woman there practiced it, whatever it is) to the aforementioned mountain lion sightings (apparently they weren’t altogether rare). When we turned somehow or another to lucid dreaming, I wanted to chime in, that I had dabbled myself, had even been to Hawaii to profile that guru, Stephen LaBerge. But then I remembered about an embarrassing moment at the clothing-optional pool there, and I didn’t want to draw any more untoward attention toward this newly nude. In truth, I hadn’t been naked on the Big Island, taking the “clothing-optional” at its word, and to cover this—the fact of covering up—up, I’d brought a notepad and pen poolside, pretending to take notes, which I realize in retrospect is pretty creepy...but I digress!

How salacious this is all becoming! I am, frankly, ashamed. As if what Nicholson Baker can pull off with a teary-eyed shot of his daughter’s socks I can manage only by forcing myself to strip. As if I have to expose myself to make something of my day. The point is that it was relaxed and fun and cheery and we all seemed to have a good time, one barely legible note reads. But now I’m home and miserable.

But then I think of Nicholson Baker and, even if I don’t measure up, feel better. How much love he pours into the day, to see his daughter’s socks as if they were the only socks she’d ever worn. Is he, this mystic of the mundane, not teaching us to love the world? How would I write if, instead, I loved that naked hot tub party? I could say that there were, what, eight of us in the tub, packed into the warm bath of aquamarine. I could say, too, that there were shadowy patches where no one looked, and sometimes we stood up and sat on the edge to cool off, skin steaming into the night. Or sometimes we just got out, and crossing the brick patio the ground was cool and a bit dirty, which I worried my feet carried back into the tub but never did anything about. I think I should go to bed now, I wrote finally. Good night.

But it was not. A writer setting out from the start to write about his day is not, really, living, and so no matter what happens to him it’s lessened, caricaturized by his own attempt to capture it. This writer, which I was, is no intimate creature, his life lived in service of the material. He less lives than materializes—such is his method. But the writer who goes about his day willy-nilly, who in fact attempts to write something else entirely (a novel review, say) and fails, gets distracted, allows life in, to happen to him—that is no writer at all but, in a word, a person. While Nicholson Baker was living, I was merely writing, and merely writing about what Nicholson Baker wrote at that. I was making meta-fun of myself.

In the end, what happened on April 29, 1994, is that a man lived. This man is, to be sure, full of wisdom, imperfect, a little forgetful, potentially suffering from a mild case of hyperthymesia (near-perfect autobiographical memory), loving, obsessive, dilettantish, tender, well-intentioned, tired, trying—in other words, a man of contradiction, in one, human. If anything, then, it’s the humanity of these socks that lives on in them. “She was proud of her long, blue-tasseled socks, and her pride made my eyes fill with tears,” he writes, “partly because I was tired from writing about libraries all day.”

Aha! Do you see? Not the socks but the tears in the eyes seeing them, tears of fatherly love tinged with workaday fatigue, tears of such Earthly joy. This tacit acknowledgment, that nothing is ever just one thing, that nothing lasts, I find utterly enlivening. I want to shout it out: What happened on that April 29 in 1994 and on this December 4 in 2017 and on every day before between and since is...but I don’t really know. “Now, several months later, the bathroom is built,” the piece ends. “The strips of masking tape, which we didn’t bother to peel up when we finished our architectural planning that evening, have become ineffaceably baked onto the gray planks of the back deck. They are, in fact, the only tangible remains of that particular day.”

The last time we met, Sarah said she had a surprise for me. It was a Carpenters album, vinyl, with a rustic portrait of a couple on the inside flap—or, rather, what I presumed to be a couple. They are, in fact, brother and sister, Karen and Richard Carpenter. (They look good together?) Swooping over the portrait in a soft though hurried script was a note, addressing me, as only she ever could, as Dori (with a heart to dot the i). I’m listening to the album now, but not to the song she circled with a small heart on the track listings on the back (“Knowing When To Leave”). I’m listening, over and over, to my new favorite song: “Superstar,” which is actually a cover but perhaps best-known in this version. The chorus gets me every time:
Don’t you remember you told me you loved me, baby
You said you’d be coming back this way again, baby
Baby, baby baby baby, oh, baby
I love you. I really do...
I find myself so moved I pick up the phone to tell her I love the album. Listening to that surprise, I text—but then I just can’t resist, can’t ignore how much I need her response to this, need the material. And writing an Advent essay. Thinking of you obviously. Just wanted to say thanks


Dorian Rolston is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. His mouth is going numb as he writes this, perhaps from reading his own work aloud to himself, perhaps from the numbing agent he's just received for a root canal.

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