December 2, 2013 | by August Kleinzahler
Wildsam Field Guides just released its San Francisco edition, which includes interviews, illustrated maps, an almanac, and personal essays. Below, the poet August Kleinzahler writes about living in the city by the bay.
Cold steamy air blew in through the open windows, bringing with it half a dozen times a minute the Alcatraz foghorn’s dull moaning. A tinny alarm-clock insecurely mounted on a corner of Duke’s Celebrated Criminal Cases of America—face down on the table—held its hands at five minutes past two. —The Maltese Falcon
The neighbor with the bad dog fiddles with her helmet and adjusts her front bicycle light before pushing off downhill in the fog. It is late for a bicycle ride, after ten P.M. Her dog throws himself against the glass of the front window behind the curtain, nearly strangling himself with snarls and a torturous medley of barks. She is headed west, in the direction of the ocean or park. There are dangers to be found this time of night in both places. But she is a fog chaser, and deepening night is best with the wind up and the cold, damp smoke blowing in off the sea at twenty knots. I can spot them, fog chasers, after so many years here. You might even say I’m such a one myself from time to time, especially when I find myself feeling more than a little remote from “society.”
In the daylight hours, walking her vicious companion, occasionally bending over to pick up its stool with a small, white, plastic baggie, one can see it in her eyes—the eyes of a fog chaser—haunted, darting about as if pursued by some threatening inner phantasm. She will rarely, if ever, engage the eyes of any stranger walking past, even as her creature takes a murderous lunge in his direction, gargling delirium at the end of his leash. But not mine—my eyes she will always look directly into, appraisingly and with a sneering displeasure. She knows that I know. Read More »
November 18, 2013 | by Adam Wilson
Instead of attending my ten-year high school reunion I went to a psychic healer. This was the Boston suburbs, on the eve of Thanksgiving. Annually, on the night in question, prodigal Massholes in the eighteen-to-thirty-five demographic flock to the bars in Allston, Brighton, and downtown Boston for both informal and official reunions. Said reunions are marked by blackout binge drinking, vomit-flooded gutters, vomit-mouthed makeout sessions, and less-than-sober car rides back to the suburbs in mom-borrowed minivans. Boston radio DJ’s have euphemistically dubbed it “Amateur Night.”
If this sounds appealing, then we may have been friends in high school—at least in a superficial, pass the blunt kind of way—but no longer have much, if anything, in common. I don’t mean that to sound snobbishly pejorative. I grew up just outside of Boston, in Newton, Massachusetts, a wealthy white enclave famous for Fig Newtons, a high concentration of psychiatrists, and its recent reign as CQ Press’s safest city in America. It is a place filled with driven parents and overachieving children; of the roughly 350 students in my graduating class, nearly a dozen went to Harvard, not to mention all those who attended safety schools like Princeton, Brown, and Cornell. Many of my former classmates have gone on to great success. But high achievement and Frat Boy idiocy are not mutually exclusive. Like Clark Kent, my former classmates slip easily from business attire to superhero casual, removing stiff shirts at happy hour to reveal Red Sox logos. By day they are lawyers, doctors, and titans of industry. By night they drop their ‘r’s and instigate fisticuffs with tough-talking townies. In part, this performance reeks of rich kid guilt—it’s a certain kind of slumming—but more so, I think it speaks to something particularly Bostonian, a product of drinking too much dirty water, or years spent sitting in obscured view seats at Fenway, or a Kennedy-inherited Irish McLiberalism, in which money is disconnected from decorum.
I know all of this—the styles and habits of my former classmates—through Facebook, of course. I have followed these classmates for years online, sharing in their triumphs and tragedies, comparing my sex partners to theirs. In a sense, social media has rendered reunions obsolete; it has killed our curiosity. No longer does one attend a reunion wondering whatever happened to so-and-so, or shocked that the band geek has blossomed into a beauty. And though romantic comedies have emphasized the important role reunions can play in the healing of one’s high-school psychic wounds, the truth, these days, is that life’s winners have already etched their humble brags into our collective conscience online.
But maybe I was just bitter and embarrassed. It’s not that I was in such bad shape ten years on—I’d managed to kick a drug habit (Tylenol PM), move out of my parents’ basement, and trick a wonderful woman into dating me—but that in a group of high achievers, I was definitively unimpressive. After a long period of unemployment, I had moved to New York and become the cliché of a struggling writer, working part-time in a bookstore, publishing occasional TV recaps online, and squeezing into the skinniest jeans I could manage. I’d received a number of rejections on my autobiographical novel about a twenty-something stoner who can’t get over high school. Read More »
November 13, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
It was not until I went away to college that I realized how much laundry my mother did. I don’t mean that my family of four generated an unusual amount—none of us changed more than once a day, or had especially extensive wardrobes—or that she stood around an industrial-sized cauldron like Mrs. Buckets in “Cheer Up, Charlie.” Rather, at any given moment, some step of laundry-washing was in process. If the washer or dryer wasn’t running, clothes were being sorted. Large piles of lights and darks littered the hall floor. There was a wicker hamper of some description, in a nook under the linen closet, but things either didn’t make it there or were sorted with such dispatch that they never reached its limbo. And always, always, there was the folding. My parents’ bed was generally covered with a large pile of clean clothes; anyone who happened to be sitting on the bed watching TV would either fold a few napkins in the course of a show (me) or sit atop a mound, occasionally knocking clothes onto the floor (my brother.) Then there was the hand-washing, or those pieces my mother had deemed too delicate for the dryer: there were usually a few of these hanging damply in the bathroom. She did not work full-time back then; one wonders how all the laundry might have gotten done if she had.
It’s not that she was compulsively clean in other ways; if anything, the house was fairly chaotic. Indeed, when we did have guests over, the door to the master bedroom had to be kept rigorously shut because there was so much laundry on the floor. We always had plenty of clean clothes, which is of course nice, but in retrospect I think she washed things too much: towels got frayed and faded long before their times, the knees of our jeans seemed to have unusually short lifespans. She used utilitarian detergents; there was some vague but distinct taboo against fabric softener that made the first sheet I borrowed in the college laundry room feel deliciously illicit.
Her constant laundry-doing was a running joke in the family, as well as something of a mystery. How was there always so much laundry? The mystery only deepened when I moved out on my own and realized that one load a week was sufficient to keep me in clean clothes and sheets, and that the whole process only took a couple of hours. Read More »
October 16, 2013 | by Diane Mehta
Vivian Gornick describes the journey to self-possession as one of unimaginable pain and loneliness. “It is the re-creation in women of the experiencing self that is the business of contemporary feminism: the absence of that self is the slave that must be squeezed out drop by drop,” she says, quoting Chekhov, in “Toward a Definition of the Female Sensibility,” from her 1978 collection Essays in Feminism.
The journey, Gornick observes, is “one in which the same inch of emotional ground must be fought for over and over again, alone and without allies, the only soldier in the army, the struggling self. But on the other side lies freedom: self-possession.”
Last July, three years to the month that my marriage ended, I also ended my first serious postdivorce relationship, on the eve of the twelfth anniversary of my mother’s death. It was the first year I had forgotten my mother’s anniversary and one month after my divorce became official. My ex-husband, who had vowed to become a better friend the day we told my father we were splitting up, showed up when others were too fed up with my ramblings and hand-wringing over a man who had made me astoundingly unhappy for months. For some, it was not easy to understand that the sexual content of being loved, after so much loss, was simply gripping. Read More »
October 15, 2013 | by Geoff Bendeck
Just beyond the Sarah Lawrence Library there is a patch of earth where young children play. They bounce into each other, ricocheting off in all directions, exploring their new world, digging into the ground incessantly with plastic buckets, scoops, and rakes. I wonder if they are aware of what they are doing. We are constantly sifting through the dust of the past. Annie Dillard said, “We arise from dirt and we dwindle to dirt and the might of the world is arrayed against us.”
A little boy, his hair a cropped mohawk, wipes his muddy hands on a bright orange shirt. Next to him a little blond girl rakes calmly at the giant mound of earth he excavated. Then without warning they toss down their tools and are off chasing something out of view. A new boy and girl move in and take their place, digging.
When I was a child my father told me a story about growing up in Trujillo, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. The story was about the day he lost his sneakers gambling marbles with the Garifuna Indians, who lived in thatch huts right on the beach. Read More »
October 10, 2013 | by Simon Akam
At the end of last year I returned to England after two years working in West Africa. In my bedroom at my parents’ house in Cambridge I encountered my old diaries. They sat in that ancient space alongside a photograph of my intake at Sandhurst in the year I spent in the army before university, and a first edition of Seven Pillars of Wisdom that my father once gave me. I was twenty-seven and uncertain of what I wanted to do with my life; I hoped reading my written record might give some better idea.
Reading the diaries in public garnered me strange looks on the London Underground. When a woman inquired I emphasized that that the handwriting was my own; I was not perusing another’s journal without permission. The process took about two months.
My oldest journal is a 1992–93 “mid-year” diary manufactured by a firm called Dataday. After a four-year hiatus, a series of page-a-days produced variously by Collins, Dataday, and WH Smith begins in 1996 and runs until 2002. Next come exercise books, one sheathed in a tan leather cover inset with porcupine needles, and a tranche of Moleskines. The final shift in format begins three volumes from the end of the archive. The books become larger; eight by eleven inches. They are bound in quarter leather and the covers are marbled. The first bears in gilt script Simon Akam and سيمون أكم , which is a rough transliteration of my name is Arabic. New York 2008 appears further down. In short, a slightly embarrassing trajectory of increasing literary pretension.
I first kept a diary in the summer of 1992, when I was six years old. I imagine it was a school project, a record-of-your-holiday-please, which in our familial case was to Brittany in northern France. My writing at this stage is wholly descriptive.
Thursday 16 July 1992
at school in the morning I did a jigsaw and in the afternoon I palys [sic] with clever sticks and after school I went canoeing with P palyed [sic]
The real, day-to-day effort starts four years later, at ten.
Monday 1 January 1996
I still can’t get to grips with the fact that ’95 has ended, it went so fast. T. H. … came round and rattled on about his Christmas presents, we showed him the end of the The spy who loved me and he piped down, probably scared stiff. In the afternoon Daddy and I fitted my bike computer, the black tape wound around the front forke [sic] to secure the wire gave the bike a mean look. We watched the worst Bond movie I’ve ever seen, On her Majasty’s [sic] secrat [sic] service.
I do not know why my diary began when it did, in the dead time of New Year before the Christmas decorations came down. Whatever its inception, that daily diary persists, with periods of greater and lesser enthusiasm, for seventy-eight months. It peters out entirely in the summer of 2002, when I have just turned seventeen. The last, rather embarrassing entry is scrawled as follows:
Friday July 26 2002
Pulled [British slang for made out with] F. H. in a punt [flat-bottomed boat propelled with a pole] on the way to Grantchester. [Photogenic village outside Cambridge, once haunt of poet Rupert Brooke] Read More »