We misbehaved in the usual ways in the summers when we were younger. From middle school through high school, my friend Lindsay every summer came and spent time with me at my grandmother’s house during our annual stint there. We snuck out at night and got unsafe rides with boys we didn’t know, zoomed off to bonfires on beaches with the misguided optimism that we’d be able to catch a lift home at some point. It’s lucky worse things didn’t happen.
She arrived one year and when we got up to the attic where we slept, she unzipped her duffel and dug through clothes to reveal three loose cans of Natural Ice, supplied by her older brother. We drank them warm that night as fast as we could.
We crept quietly from the attic, down the steep back stairs, and out a side screendoor without letting it slam, and out into the night. We rushed across the grass, climbed into a car and got whisked off to where there was fire on the beach.
Now, I’ve heard, the bonfires don’t happen because they draw the police; the drugs are expensive pills not older-brother-beers. And Lindsay is married and owns a house in the town where we grew up. I am making her a table as a way-belated wedding present from a board from the attic which was, for certain nights in summers half a lifetime ago, our shared room, snuck out of and back into, like youth in certain moments. I’ll round the edges of the table, eliminate sharp corners; her second kid is on the way.
“Arguably literature’s basic charge is to describe being in the world—the Grainger catalog reveals just how extensively our writers have failed to document the varieties of work happening now, and the hyper-precise terminology surrounding that work.”
Neat piece on the specificity of words and the specificity of tools, materials, and devices found in this mammoth catalog. This was a highlight, in his discussion of item descriptions:
"If ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn’ counts as a story, then so, too, must ‘all-wood coffins store flat and assemble without tools. Can be stacked 3-high when assembled to maximize space in mass-casualty emergencies.’ Or: ‘High-visibility warning whips alert other vehicles of your presence.’ Or: ‘Stretch knit material covers head to protect from overspray.’
My dad drove the speed limit across the border from New Hampshire back to Massachusetts with a trunk full of fireworks. We set them up on the short dock over the river and waited a long time for it to get dark. My brothers and I lit sparklers to pass the time, which I’d never done before, never had a sparkler in my hand!, and they sizzled and spit tiny hot bites on the wrist that were worth it.
When it was dark we made our way to the dock, my dad and two brothers and me, and we saw neighbors on a lawn on a hill down the way. We were each assigned two to light off and I wish I could remember the names. I took the lighter and aimed the flame at the fuse and it sizzled and I ran up the dock and stood with Will and Sam and then: just light, just noise, like standing in a champagne glass, sparks like bubbles rising. And we screamed and laughed and the sparks fell into the river and the next one was lit and blasted off and again and when we were done the neighbors cheered from the hill.
I particularly hate that phrase about women ‘wanting to have it all.’ Because that’s not about women, it’s about humans. The humans want to have it all! Blame the fucking humans who situated themselves halfway between the beasts and the gods and then discovered it was an uneasy place to be.
From an interview with Jenny Offill at the Los Angeles Review of Books, which makes me now want to read Offill’s latest novel, Department of Speculation.
My brother Will teaches high school English in a town nearby, and he invited me in for the day. In his classes, you’ve got kids whose parents are professors at Harvard and kids who moved to the US three months ago and are just learning English. They’d just read The Crucible, and an article I wrote about Damien Echols and the West Memphis Three fits in to their discussion about witch hunts, judgment, being wrongly accused and misunderstood.
In one class, the kids spoke openly about their experiences being judged. One talked about being “one of those Latinos who happens to look Asian,” and how one time at the skatepark some kid started yelling Asian slurs at him. When he told the kid he was Latino, the kid started with other racist bullshit. Another girl, a nineteen year old, talked about how a lot of people thought she was stupid because she was nineteen, but they had no idea what she’d been through. “I’m not stupid,” she said. A girl talked about how a man asked her if she needed help figuring out how to ride the city bus, and offered to pay her fare. “I ride the bus every day,” she said. “Just because I’m a girl, I don’t know what I’m doing?” A kid from Cameroon talked about how just because his foster parents were lesbians people thought it meant he was gay, too.
My heart cracked and swelled hearing their stories.
Will had them write me thank-you notes for coming in to their classes and a bundle of them arrived in the mail today. Some of the notes were funny. All were kind. The one above made me cry. I learned more than they did.
I know there must be a few of you out there from Boston and its surroundings. You guys know about Grub Street? One of the country’s leading independent writing centers? It’s an amazing place. I took my first writing class there eleven years ago, an intro to Fiction workshop. It was a life-changer. I’ve taken a handful of workshops and classes over the years. And it makes my throat clench a little to say that this fall, I’ll be teaching two seminars there. Personal Days: Writing About Work on September 3, and the Basics of Writing Book Reviews on September 10. Sign up!
A perk of the neighborhood: people leave things they don’t want on the sidewalk in front of their homes in boxes labeled FREE. Books, dishes, flowerpots, chairs, pants. And once recently, wood. It was bundled neat, tied with red ribbon, and leaned against a fence in front of a big house around the corner. Dirty boards, yellow pine beneath the dust and grime, excavated in some sort of renovation, they were asking to be taken. We carried two stacks back home and washed our hands.
They sat out back, and then I turned them into a table. It’s not very good.
This is not me being humble. This is not a case of feigned failure. It stands, and the grain is loud and lovely, and it will be lovelier still with some finish. But there are certain things a table should do and be, and this one does not tick all the boxes, or at least not well. The boards are warped just so, and it’s almost level, but not quite. I should’ve done a few things differently. Good practice, though, I guess.
I’m thinking about putting it out on the sidewalk, a Sharpied sign saying FREE taped to it. I wonder how long it would take for it to get grabbed.
This is a novel of beginnings and endings, of before and after and the threads that pull through both. Behind the trauma and well-paced, high-stakes action, it’s a story of how we go about the hard job of connecting with each other, each of us a star in our own small constellations, and how we try to find order in the chaos, whether it’s possible or not.
My brother Sam skateboards. That’s him in the photo above, flying. He’s broken bones before and his elbows are often crusted with thick scabs. He does tricks I don’t know the names of. There’s nothing I can think of that so intimately acquaints a person with the dual realities of gravity and cement, and the sound of skateboard wheels on street is one of my favorite sorts of roars. Bret Anthony Johnston is also a skateboarder. He wrote the short story collection Corpus Christi, and is the head of the creative writing program at Harvard. His first novel, Remember Me Like This, came out recently, and it’s gripping and great. It features a younger brother who skateboards, and I would’ve liked the book regardless of that fact, but liked it especially because of it. I reviewed it for the Rumpus. You can read it here.