I’m happy to report that my essay “Graham Harman and the Queen of the Blues” is a semifinalist for the 3 Quarks Daily Arts & Literature Prize, which will ultimately be judged by Gish Jen. Thank you so much, everyone who voted for it!3 quarks semifinalist

And thank you, of course, to hellfire of You Must Register (a great blog about gaming and theory), who nominated the piece to begin with.

Getting to meet Graham Harman and having him read something I’d written about his work was super exciting for me. He’s an extremely affable guy, and I was intensely awkward, not least because he understandably mistook me for someone else with same first name, someone he’d never met in person but with whom he’d (apparently) had a rewarding email exchange. I cleared up the confusion by saying, “No, haha, we’ve . . . never communicated before. Ever. But I DID write several thousand words involving you!” No better way to make things not weird.

I am an inexhaustible font of charitable thoughts.

The smell of partially metabolized alcohol emanating from another human being puts me in mind of limp, sweaty lettuce. Lettuce that’s yellowish and briny. Always lettuce, no other leafy green. Needless to say, I’ve never produced this smell myself, and never will.

It’s a fairly regular feature of my commute — even more regular on the morning trips downtown than on the late-afternoon trips back home. I find it other than pleasant. To escape it, I welcome the opportunity to hurl myself across the platform from the local to the far-more-crowded express. Burying my face in a taller man’s Burberry-girded armpit feels like a breath of fresh air.

But today, on my return trip, I stayed on the 1, because I had a seat and I had my headphones on and I thought — haha! — that I might be able to cocoon myself in music and a great short story about a lovelorn urban partygoer.

It took until Times Square for a grizzled man to board the train and loom over me, hanging on the bar above my head, his knees aligned with my knees, his hair, admittedly, the color of a unicorn’s mane. When he moved, wafts of sweat-lettuce billowed from beneath his enormous coat.

There was nothing especially aggressive or threatening about him. I had the distinct sense that he’d be embarrassed if he knew he was making anyone uncomfortable. When our shoes touched, he moved his foot. But I couldn’t help being discomfitted by the fact that he’d chosen to stand over me on a not-so-crowded train. There was plenty of room near the doors. There was plenty of room for him to lean back a little. There was plenty of room for me to not be in contact with any article of his clothing. Yet when the train swayed, his jacket would brush my thigh, delicately, just above the knee.

To be fair, that was only after I shifted to a slightly more rangy posture, one meant to convey a vaguely masculine indifference to the personal space of the people around me — to convey, in other words, that I was not easily cowed. The opposite is true, of course. I have to exert a conscious effort not to pull my legs up to my chest and wrap my arms around my knees every time I get on the subway. I don’t want to touch anything.

And here was this man who’d done the public-transit equivalent of choosing to pee at the urinal right next to me, even though there was a free one at the far end of the wall.

In the end, I felt guilty for feeling this way at all. The guy probably spent the whole time thinking about his sick dog, wondering whether he’d have to put her to sleep, and wondering who would welcome him home once she was gone.

Learning about Mormonism: A thing I could have done before, but didn’t.

Part 1. As an early-ish teenager, I attended the Mormon wedding of my formerly Catholic aunt. She’d converted for the man she was marrying. To my fascination, one of the first things this new husband of hers said to me was that Seinfeld was a bit racy for his tastes.

I remember being aggressively confused. “How?” I asked him. (“Him” being a mild-mannered gentleman who’d become my uncle and was, by all appearances, well-meaning.) “How is it racy? What are the racy parts? Have you ever seen any other TV shows?”

He may have gotten up and left the room, and I may have received some mild remonstration from my mother. I say “may” because the memory isn’t exactly crystal. I was young, and I assume I was a heel, even for that age. What more do you need to know?

So I did have some exposure to Mormonism prior to making the Elders’ acquaintance, but that exposure left no impression, because Mormonism, at that time, was totally undefined for me. I thought it was a sect similar to Methodism, only more obscure. Why else would it start with an “M”?

Winter is at least partially my fault.

I must apologize to the New York Metropolitan Area: I brought winter on. It was my hubris, and perhaps my egocentrism1.

Our temperate weather lasted so long, I stopped being unnerved by it. I would look at my calendar (ha ha, I mean my phone, obviously), read the date, and note that I had not recently felt the wind whistling straight through my ribs, tickling my heart and lungs on its way.

There were only two explanations: winter had ceased to exist, or my compulsive consumption of Builder’s Bars had made me a much hardier individual all around.

Was I becoming one of those bearish men who seem forever impervious to the cold? The type of man who, I’m certain, climbed Everest in nothing but a flannel shirt, long underwear, and double-wide suspenders?

Had my relocation to New York City finally triggered my third puberty? Would this one take?

No one's spirit animal.

I believed so. I believed it, dear reader. And that’s why today’s temperature barely crested the freezing point (in Wisconsin, this is known as spring). I had to feel the wind whipping off the harbor in the morning and off the river in the evening to remember the sorry truth: I’m a wimp about the cold.

So thanks a lot, Global Warming. You’ve had your sick little laugh. Time to stop killing polar bears and penguins and just let it be cold again. If you’ve forgotten how, swing by my heart. You might be inspired.

1Egocentrism: A pseudopsychological artifact of the early aughts. There’s a tiny room in my brain’s language center devoted entirely to this word. The room is decorated in fake wood paneling and has a shag carpet. There’s a half-bar and a stool. On the wall opposite the half-bar, one of those singing bass — the animatronic, tail-wagging kind — is mounted. And what this bass says, over and over, is “Egocentrism. Egocentrism. Egocentrism.” I love that little guy.

Despite my perfect musculature,

people frequently make the mistake of thinking I’m scrawny. They see elbows, kneecaps, and ribs straining against a thinly stretched layer of near-translucent skin, and for some reason, their thoughts don’t immediately run to Paul Bunyan or Ron Swanson.

Not me, apparently.

No. I do not want to watch Toddlers and Tiaras.

Now, I’m a freethinker. So much so that if I were 12, Ayn Rand would be my favorite author. Nevertheless, I am susceptible to the power of suggestion, and it was that power, I’m sure, that compelled me to purchase an XS shirt from H&M today.

An XS shirt, right off the rack. Didn’t even think of trying it on. Just figured the smallest one available was the one for me.

When I eventually attempted to don the shirt in the comfort of my own bedroom, I was stunned – and not a little proud – to find that it did not, in fact, fit. I could barely button it, even after exhaling and doing something odd with my bones whereby I pulled my shoulders much farther toward my chest than they’re comfortable going, making a catcher’s mitt of my sternal region.

I just couldn’t believe there was an upper-body garment in this world that was too petite for me.

But there is! Such a garment exists! It seems you were wrong, untold masses: I’m not scrawny — on the contrary, I BURST STRAIGHT OUT OF MY CLOTHES.

This unintentional but altogether rewarding experiment has confirmed that what I really need is an H&M small, which I believe is what other manufacturers consider a child’s medium.

How to Be Alone

is one of those books Jonathan Franzen wrote besides The Corrections and Freedom. Franzen’s name is so big that I’m puzzled when people glance at the cover and say, “I feel like I’ve heard of him?”


But then, that’s a symptom of Franzen’s favorite theme: the disappearance of  this country’s (indeed, the world’s!) Culture of Reading.

My profession notwithstanding, this theme bores me half to death. I don’t feel terribly troubled by the specter of Reading’s disappearance – partly because I find it unlikely, but also, more importantly, because I don’t care whether other people read, so long as I get to.

Along with being erudite and sporadically eloquent, Franzen is curmudgeonly and self-pitying. As I read, I find myself shaking my head, rolling my eyes, and sighing loudly at choice sentences. I want my audience — everyone on the subway watches me with rapt attention — to know when Franzipan is being a tool.

Predictably, I’ve come to realize that the sentences I find most objectionable are those that most closely resemble my own inner monologue.

The Toys of My Youth, Part 1

Legos. At first I liked the oversized type, which weren’t really Legos at all, but Duplos. Duplos were more conducive to building futuristic firearms, and why did I have hands if not to fashion and wield mulitcolored, orthogonal ray guns? However, at some point I discovered that Legos worked better than Duplos when it came to constructing armadas of spaceships, and even though the smaller pieces taxed my dexterity, I fell in love.

I say “armadas,” but I don’t think I ever produced more than a squadron. A squadron seemed the right size for the amount of imaginative real estate I had available. My youngest brother had a grander vision and built on a grander scale: he could fill an entire room with warlike vessels of all dimensions, dozens of them all together. No two were alike, since our limited Lego resources didn’t allow for standardization, but my brother could rattle off their specs as if he were reading from a technical manual.

The whole family treated these fleets with a certain reverence: they were not to be meddled with, and certainly not to be dismantled. Even my father, driven to a state of fury by the ships’ total colonization of the kitchen table, would simply order that they be moved. Never would he touch them. At least, not so far as I recall.