The Opposite of Reading

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I took the wrong train, my first time outside all day, flummoxed by the light and shadows on the elevated platform that had been shaking my temporary apartment for the last three days in Gowanus. It’s not until Delancey that I notice I’m underneath the wrong island and exit the train and climb the stairs and walk the street corner and request the car — with fretting doubt. I’m only guessing if it will be faster than the three train transfers I’d have to make to get back (in twenty minutes) to St. Josephs for Cha-bone’s seven thirty reading.

Over the bridge, our car passes through a Hasidic enclave in Williamsburg on the way toward Clinton Hill and St. Joseph’s College. Block after block of buildings describe themselves in only the abjad of hebrew.

The neighborhood is both intriguing and opaque, off-putting. As if there was a small bit of Israel transplanted here. If I were traveling — and yes I’m just passing through — I might only observe and appreciate the differences without this feeling of confusion. The strict cultural tradition and orthodoxy and conservatism and uniformity of religious wardrobe styling is so weird to me, in such stark contrast and proximity to a modern, diverse, firing range of the present and future.

I try to navigate myself out of whatever might be an undercurrent of stereotyping or baroque, post-colonial othering. The wardrobes are traditional, modest, but also regal. But yet within the modesty and connection to an appreciation and genuflection toward divinity and law and an ancient, eighteenth century Polish style without irony, there’s an earnest perpetuation of a religious and/or cultural doctrine bending all to conformity and a lack of worn individuality.

And yet, above what foundation of reason can I pass judgement about upbringing and personal expression through wardrobe and hairstyles and an absence of architectural english? What if you didn’t have to decide what you wore about — ever? As if my english was any more expressive or less foreign or opaque of a codex on a long enough timescale. It’s just a language. They’re just clothes.

Only at dinner — well after the reading— in trying to unpack my Hasidic Park car tour commentary do I realize mid-sentence what caused all the cognitive dissonance.


I was jealous.


Of a neighborhood with a deep tradition and culture. And that a tradition, at least to my initial comparative introspection, was something to which I deeply lacked any connection. Or hadn’t discovered. Or, even in re-discovery, could never accept in that way (their way). Not out of a rebellion against social norms (against which I do quietly question, perhaps ina  great hypocrisy) but out of this strange openness of a household full of rational magical thinking and universal natural wonder. And freedom. To supposedly just be a human.

I was jealous of a standardized uniform, a constraint and discipline of the freedom from sartorial decision making.1

Yet within such freedom, does anyone ever escape the decision fatigue, that there is no path in which you are not either a part of a culture or (re)creating a culture or building something apart from a culture? My wardrobe and costume, whether serial or monogamous to an archetype or attempting to abstain from any style or substance of attention whatsoever, was as much about dressing toward or away from something as anyone else. I sat in the car in my twenty-sixteen era hipster costume, timeless tweed and modern cuff flipped denim and wingtips with soles beginning to grind down, translating every bit of sidewalk grit.

Perhaps we all dress according to our beliefs

The car drops me behind the block and I walk across this tiny little campus from the rear, a hidden pathway that bisects old Pratt-designed campus buildings. Surprisingly; on-time despite the travel mistakes and detour. I see a couple is walking up the front path from the sidewalk, phone out, the man looking just a little familiar and against their strangerness I think to ask if they know where the reading is but as we head to the entrance there’s clearly only one place to go.

At the table full of books the Greenlight employee ask for names to check-in and the man of the couple has the same name as my sister’s ex-boyfriend who she dated around her twenty-first birthday. Because his name is Schwartz! and is her ex-bofyriend, and not a stranger. Just someone I haven’t seen in eight years. We hug in the surprise of coincidence, I’m introduced to his fiance Sarah, and he and I both need to find the restroom so begin a conversation in which our eyelines are both tall and above the stalls. I sit with them in the audience and we all drop our books at one point or another onto the ground.

Do you have to believe in coincidences (or the after-effects of mistakes) in order for them to address your life?

Without taking the wrong train, there’s seemingly zero chance to me that I would have run into them, or recognized them enough to interact in the roomful of readers if the timing had even been fifteen seconds off in either direction.

Without taking the wrong train, I don’t drive through the borough contemplating cultural relativisms and wardrobes.

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The reading begins and the small college’s rep discusses the MFA program and its fellowships for all accepted writers. Then I learn from Jessica, the co-owner of Greenlight, we’re about to hear from Michael Shay-bon. Like Avon. Of course I’ve been mispronouncing him since I bought Kavalier and Clay at Borders in Santa Cruz seventeen years ago. Not the first. Probably the last, either.

Clearly I need help with my own english before trying to understand or criticizing anything inscribed in hebrew.

At the podium with a copy of his newest book, an orange hardbound collection of essays on fatherhood, Michael is kind and gentle with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and a beard and thick black rimmed glasses and cuff rolled jeans and brown shoes and validation of my cultural wardrobe aspirations. As if how your dress affectatiously challenges you to better prose. He expressed how genuinely happy he is to be there, having walked around Brooklyn all day and explored Red Hook (in the day time).

He appears the opposite of nervous and reads from his essay The Opposite of Writing.

“It’s short,” he jokes.

His introduction, full of southern impersonation and a comfort in speaking his own words, both inspires and upsets equally through the triumph of metaphors and other literary devices I couldn’t even name. I know they’re in there, though. The back of the book quotes a so-cal (the so-cal) newspaper declaring he is “more or less incapable of writing a boring sentence.” This is verifiably more true, and subjectively so based on how I reacted to reading his Moonglow; underlining passages (a thing I never do, but I guess I should) and more or less cursed aloud about how good the writing was to my empty apartment walls off Dupont Circle.

I’d never more felt upset that a book of semi-fiction wasn’t full-truth. I wanted it to be possible to write about true things, my things, other things, like he did. How in the fuck did he construct those metaphors? With which set of tonka truck writing instruments did I need to play with on this ascent up the mountain and descent into the mine? Maybe that’s the magic of fiction.

When he was probably younger than I am now, about to marry who would become his ex-wife and on the precipice of his first publication, he found himself pinned to the advice of an accomplished southern writer. And that advice was to not become a father. In the friction of that conflicting instruction between life’s professions, he wrestles the sun into the earth:

“If I had followed the great man’s advice and never burdened myself with the gift of my children, or if I had never written any novels at all, in the long run the result would have been the same as the result will be for me here, having made the choice I made: I will die; and the world in its violence and serenity will roll on, through the endless indifference of space; and it will take only one hundred of its circuits around the sun to turn the six of us, who loved each other, to dust, and consign to oblivion all but a scant few of the thousands upon thousands of novels and short stories written and published during our lifetimes. If none of my books turns out to be among that bright remnant because I allowed my children to steal my time, narrow my compass, and curtail my freedom, I’m all right with that.”

I hear my father’s own vulnerable, tearful sensitivity cooly tucked underneath the surface of Michael voice as he is closing the piece. And no, there’s nothing embarrassing or uncomfortable in that sincerity or wavering of voice. He’s talking about an imagined universe in which his children didn’t become humans, and this is the parallel universe in which I currently but perhaps temporarily situate myself, having neither written a novel nor fathered anyone. Yet.

I see where he’s going next, because I’ve read the pull quote in Austin Kleon’s blog, and it’s brilliant and full of stoic realism, in a way that temporarily helps me feel like I could just no longer fret about anything, because I presume tenuously that I can replace Chabon’s notion of novel writing with whatever my pursuit, and be all right with that, too, and go forth to whatever else it is that I strive toward. Children, empathy, experiences, another ten-thousand hours of meditations; really anything to bear witness against the entropy.

“Once they’re written, my books, unlike my children, hold no wonder for me; no mystery resides in them. Unlike my children, my books are cruelly unforgiving of my weaknesses, failings, and flaws of character. Most of all, my books, unlike my children, do not love me back. Anyways, if, one hundred years hence, those books lie moldering and forgotten, I’ll never know. That’s the problem, in the end, with putting all your chips on posterity: You never stick around long enough to enjoy it.”

The interview that follows by his friend and parent-author Julie Orringer is effortless in all the ways that the Kushner-Franzen reading two weeks before drew sparks from an awkward tension. Here on stage, well lit, well amplified, they talked about the GQ piece which started the whole thing, about his son’s Abe’s sensibility and aptitude with style as fully revealed in their trip to the parisian week of fashion. Not merely the obsession/attention of/to the details, but an ability to recreate, remix, express himself through his tweening sartorial selections. And he is recognized, spritely, by a titan of the industry (doesn’t matter who, not this his father cared or would have known otherwise a priori), as someone who gets what he was trying to do, and perhaps even sublimely demonstrate a more fresh and pure form of the art of fashion itself, and takes one step in ascent up the mountain.

Later, through readings at the end, Julie helps eek out that Michael’s superpower is observation and empathy. (You want your interviewer to be a true fan, not mentors; or at maximum, a peer. So they represent the fan, the audience.) His father’s power had been bed-side observation and reasoning. Perhaps his son’s superpower is observation as well.

He talks about being in the hot hell of paris fashion week to his son’s heaven — bored out of his mind because, I think, he’s interested in empathy, not labelled fabrics. But their observations are of a kind. They have to be. Piercing and total. He’s telling the story and I find myself surprised that he was ever bored. About anything. There’s always something to take in, if you want to be open to it. But, as a writer with his observations I imagine that it was within the crucible of boredom that allowed him to truly see his son for the little man and the prince of fashion (GQ’s title, not his) that he had already become, or was becoming. And to accept, and marvel, and let go and admire his shining son.

That possibility, through something as equally opaque and challenging to ascend into, modern fashion, was, G-d yes, what I chided against from the car through hasidic Williamsburg. Of what you can’t know your son might become. To be original, to have a voice and artistic expression carried, written as textures worn on the body. Don’t children dwell in a tradition of possibility and change and something old become new under the sun?

Questions on purple index cards make their way to his hands. His answers are thoughtful and stories with arcs and plot and color. He’s just, clearly, what I think is called a mensch. He’s asked about Philip Roth (who recently died) and can only just speak personally. Read him right after reading Great Gatsby in his step-father’s basement collection when he’d been in college and felt their connective response and lineage, and thought he could insert himself there, too, on his way after that summer to UC Irvine for a writing program. You needed to have a novel started. Later they were both up for the same award and his second wife, too pregnant to fly, is replaced by his mother, the still young, attractive woman that she is. He introduces himself to the Fitzgerald-inspired idol and begins to stumble around to ask something about a humourist he felt there was some connection to and Roth just dismissed him immediately, but then the titan of words sees Michael’s mom and they end up hitting it off and have a great night.Michael retreats to his banquet table.

And so, the great personalizing parable after dozens of humanizing anectdotes about balancing parenting with writing: Everyone seems to fumble in fandom around idols, regardless of the level of fame or “success” the fan has collected for themselves along the way.

The talk ends and I’m standing in line, with Sarah and Schwartz, waiting to receive our inscriptions and handshakes, Sarah who works at Quartz, as a Senior Editor, and whose book is coming out on the Twelfth™. “We can just say it comes out on the Twelfth™ now, it’s already going to be next month, next month.” Sarah doesn’t quite know how to pitch it to me (succinctly, I assume). Schwartz tells me it’s getting great press and is excellent and she’s being modest. I believe him.

She’d asked on her purple index card, “When did people start showing up to your readings?” There will (or may) be a long time when no one shows up, or just your friends and family show up, but that you’ll build up your constituencies beyond the people you know one reader or one tiny little enclave of readership at a time, and then they slow play the instrument of your words and someday you start to inspire someone else, too.

They ask about my writing and I labor myself into an awkward description of the book idea that I’ve been working on (I mean, you didn’t think I wasn’t working on a book, right?) and it’s a little hard to pitch. Because it might be about museums and my anger toward wall text and the unknown translations within ruins and meditation, if that’s what it even is about. I’m fifty-five thousand words into it without looking back and I have to write it to even know if it’s anything.

I stop and see Michael as we’re approaching the front of the line and realize all at once that he’s… holy s— actually my favorite author.

Or certainly at least an author toward whom I deeply aspire. And I didn’t even know that. And how many other things are true that I can’t have had the time to read inside myself, let alone across these reading rainbows. But now I do. Even though I’ve only read two of his novels, and so I have no idea what I would like to even say to him. I buy a copy of Telegraph Avenue so I can get two inscriptions and read it because it’s about the east bay, and introduce myself. He’s just nice and I say something that in translation felt like, “I mean I imagine you might get this a lot, about having wanted, feeling Moonglow to be actually, you know, real” in the fumbling of my incredibly real and incredibly fresh fandom. Not that I was nervous – I just wasn’t prepared to say all of the other things. Not that it’s, to me, the time or the place anyways. I think that’s what fan letters and blog posts are for. He’s just so genuinely pleasant and it’s a gift to have met him and shake his hand in hello and goodbye and thanked him for his words in person and now I need to go do more things because I think I’m more nervous in the here-and-now afterwards than I was before or even during.

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Outside, as I’m walking to dinner and leaving them, on the corner, I pitch the soon to be Schwartzes on the second idea that, despite being potentially an incredibly easy book to at least draft, I think it is just kind of stupid and silly and would potentially be embarrassingly revealing; the stories I am far more nervous and fearful about making public.

They both smile and raise their eyebrows in unison. This is called lighting up. “Oh, yea, totally get that idea. Way easier pitch.” Schwartz riffs on it structurally. I tell them the working title in my head. It’s probably not the title. But if you can pitch the idea like that, then maybe that’s the stupid idea you’ve been waiting for. “F—, I don’t know what it’s going to actually be, or if it’ll be any good. I guess I just need to write it and find out.” Sarah took three years to research and write Gigged. My whole life has been the research. So I should probably just get started. No one comes to the readings in the beginning, anyways.


  1. I’d tried a uniform in DC years before. I stumbled into an outfit I liked on a trip to New York, and decided why couldn’t I just wear that every day? And so I did. Black jeans and a denim/chambray top in 15 subtle variations. I bought three of the same of five types of shirts, in actually the correct size (Extra-Long). It was boring but the consistency allowed me to focus on the hundreds of hours spent in various phases of selling and managing and trying to survive the onslaught of hundreds of people. It was also the most fun and surprisingly rewarding period of my professional life to that point.

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