The desiccated remains of a French fry, most often uncovered while excavating one’s car or couch for loose change.
You’ve eaten at least one in your life, right? Admit it, you coward.
The desiccated remains of a French fry, most often uncovered while excavating one’s car or couch for loose change.
You’ve eaten at least one in your life, right? Admit it, you coward.
The spread of disease caused by people’s irrational and baseless skepticism over vaccination.
I wrote and published this word years ago. At the time it was a response to a generation of gauzy, wealthy, suburban moms refusing to vaccinate their children against preventable diseases, because of their belief in the widely-disproven link between vaccines and autism. At the time, it was a pet peeve… a baffled lamentation that privileged people with no critical thinking skills would imperil their neighbors because of some idiot information on the internet.
My god. I had no idea what was coming.
Today things are terrifyingly different… and infuriatingly the same. We’re two years into a pandemic that’s killed over 5.5 million people around the world. Vaccination, like everything in this star spangled toilet, has become politicized. Figures on the right have cynically stood against vaccination to appease their paranoid, imbecilic base. And figures on the left (myself included) have become haughtily embittered toward them all.
I just read a news update that Glenn Beck – remember that toad? – has reacquired Covid. It’s in his lungs now. He’s been a steadfast anti-vaxxer. And I now must waste the brainspace on the moral calculus over whether or not I should feel sorry for him. I feel like I should. I think it’s right for me to feel sorry for him. But the truth is: I don’t. I don’t care about him or his life. I think he’s a cynical monster whose hubris and nihilism got other people killed. It’s only fair it kill him too.
Being alive is fucking exhausting.
A reference or allusion made purely to draw attention to the intelligence of the speaker.
The worst thing about not being an English teacher anymore is that it’s now near-impossible to quote a poem without sounding like a complete asshole.
I taught lit classes for years. I recited, discussed, debated, analyzed, and harangued my students with some of the most lush, complex, and wonderful language ever written. And as a result, I now associate certain feelings or events with lines from Tennyson, Eliot, or Mary Oliver. It’s a bookish reflex.
It’s not meant to sound haughty. It’s not meant to seem intelligent. No more than a person quoting some sitcom catch-phrase means to sound commonplace or dopey. Those are just the words I like the most.
And yet… I see the inescapable truth:
I’m kindof a supercilious putz.
The rote and meaningless portrayal of solemnity.
One of the hardest things about getting older is understanding that the moments that are clearest for you, that have such resonance and meaning, mean nothing to the young. As someone who was 20 years old on 9/11, I’m always a little shocked to remember that for teenagers and even some 20-somethings, 9/11 has very little personal resonance. Or at least, an ever diminishing return on significance.
Never was this concept more clear than when I was a teacher.
Every year I’d assign my students an essay or article about 9/11 – most often Tom Junod’s Falling Man which I recommend, nay demand, you read – then spend the entire class discussing it, their own experience of 9/11, and what those experiences have come to mean now. In the beginning the assignment was a hit. But as years and semesters wore on, my students’ memories grew fuzzier around the edges, their experiences less immediate… not so much recalling an experience as estimating it from an optometrist’s chart.
I was in bed when the first plane hit. It was right at the start of my sophomore year of college. I was living in my first apartment. Very adult. Very exciting. My roommate woke me up to tell me there’d been some accident in New York; I should come see. We spent the next thirty minutes watching the tower smolder in the background as we gathered our things for class. Then the second plane hit. At some point we sat down and watched the towers collapse on television. We watched it all in near silence. And then, knowing no other alternative, we grabbed our bags and went to class.
It’s bonkers in retrospect, but then everything is bonkers in retrospect. Absolutely nothing had prepared us for something so upending and uncanny. On campus, our fellow students drifted dutifully from class to class; teachers half-taught their lessons, half-counseled their kids; classmates sat in silence, entranced by the dream of it all, until their cellphones rang, and they exploded from the room to answer it. My university would cancel classes later in the day, of course. But for a few hours that morning, we all drifted together.
Eight years later, I took a job teaching at that same university… and every September the sights and smells of campus autumn did their Proust thing. Threw me right back to that morning. Only now, when I’d drift into class on 9/11… I’d have to teach something. Chaucer, most likely… September is always time for Chaucer. I wanted to understand 9/11 as the social metaphor it was becoming. We were already two wars and countless atrocities in… 9/11 had come to mean so much already that I wanted to know what my students made of it – the remembrances, the rhetoric, the vinyl towers silhouetted on windshields, the magnetic American flag bumper stickers, the anthems and the bonfires… and always the thrumming, insistent creed that we Never Forget. That’s the one that always got me.
I assigned a short essay on the meaning of that phrase – Never Forget. Something like, “Why do we say never forget, and not always remember?” The answers I got were varied and vivid. Conversation lasted all class long. At least in the early years.
I’ve always found Never Forget a troubling phrase. It always rang hollow to me – to expect a unified response to something we all experienced together, sure… but ultimately, terribly alone. We commemorate as a society, sure. But we remember alone. We mourn alone. We look for meaning alone. It’s a lonely business, being a person.
There’s something tiresome, and to me deeply disrespectful, about how quickly we commodified 9/11 – the bumper stickers, t-shirts, and decals, the syrupy gifs and memes and schlocky slogans all insisting upon a certain tone of how to remember. Or, rather, how we must refuse to forget. Never Forget was just branding. And a brand is just an empty promise, written in the language of sincerity, to sell you something you don’t need. Because if you really needed it… no one would have to tell you to buy it.
Never Forget has always been too easy to say, and too cheap to deliver. It requires nothing more of us than obeisance. It calls upon no action. Demands no reflection. Summons no change. It urges no understanding of what caused it, nor wisdom for how best to prevent another moment like it. “Never Forget” demands nothing but our static, silent, horrified appraisal. It’s a symbol, sacred in the public imagination… yet entirely devoid of meaning. It’s content.
For those too young to remember 9/11, it will no doubt vanish into the horizon soon enough. You can’t forget something you couldn’t remember in the first place. But for the rest of us? What will we do with these two decades of perspective? What do we do with all of… this?
If the last 20 years of history are any indication… we’ll do nothing. Nothing at all.
Engaging in political incitement and violence on behalf of another’s cause without purpose, understanding or repercussion.
If you are white, and you are inciting violence at a protest, you are putting black lives at risk.
If you are white, and you are rioting, you are putting black lives at risk.
If you are white, and you are looting, you are putting black lives at rick.
If you are white, and you are not listening, you are putting black lives at risk.
If you are white, and you hurl a brick, deface a building, shatter a window, push a cop… you aren’t doing it for anyone other than yourself. Any violence you bring will not be revisited on you – but on the black lives you claim to value and support.
You want to throw something? Throw your fucking money.
Donate to the Black Visions Collective.
Donate to the George Floyd Memorial Fund.
Donate to The Bail Project.
Donate to Black Lives Matter.
Our job is not to throw punches. It’s to listen, support, and protect. Shut the fuck up, get in line, and if necessary take the hit for your neighbors.
The physical principle wherein a diner’s choice of entree will remain uncertain until the moment the waiter asks them what they’d like to eat.
It starts so simply.
“I’m going to have the chicken.”
“Or maybe the fish?”
And with that, I hurl into into the labyrinth. With that, I go quite mad.
Am I the Andrew who orders chicken? Or the Andrew who orders fish?
Maybe I am both. Perhaps neither.
I dither in silence – chicken or fish, chicken or fish – while my dining companions continue on in time. They raise their wine glasses. Toast to life and spacetime.
A whiff of oblivion curls through the air.
No! No, I have ordered before. I have eaten. I shall eat once more.
O! But to decide? Do I want chicken? Do I want fish? Couldn’t I have both?! I can be the kind of man who orders two entrees at dinner. I wouldn’t even need two plates. Just spoon the one onto the other in a pile before I go mad. Oh no. Oh god. I will remain at this table forever – trapped and starving at the crossroads of chicken and fish – I am the parched and brutal horizon twixt sky and sea that stretches on, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Nothing to be done.
The universe has cracked. Time rolls over my eyes like a stone.
Where is the waiter? Where is the waiter? Only the waiter can pull me from this oblivion. WAITIER. WAITER. WHERE IS THE WAITER.
And then, like a gasp, I realize the horrible truth.
I have waited. I am waiting. I shall wait.
The waiter is me.
The fear that the obscure name or reference you just dropped was either incorrect or mispronounced.
When I was a sophomore in college, I spent an entire class period pronouncing, “Goethe” phonetically.
I found out later when I said “Go-thhhh” to my father who, in his characteristic charm informed me, “It’s pronounced ‘Gher-teh,’ you dickhead.”
I still crumple from the shame.
A horrific event that happens over and over and over and over again.
Of all the words I’ve made, this is the one I’ve reposted the most. As such, this essay is the one I’ve rewritten, edited, scooched, amended and adapted the most as well. Says something, doesn’t it?
You reach a point when you realize that life, history, and even the world itself are a long, arduous, gorgeously told tale of utterly stupid and entirely avoidable tragedies.
And the hardest part of that lesson is to know that we never seem to learn from it.
Santayana said we would repeat history if we don’t learn from it. But watching George Floyd die teaches me that history teaches us nothing more than how to watch the same cheap and wicked things more quickly, with greater efficacy, and from a greater distance. We learn how to recycle the same abuses, faster.
This week, we all watched a white police officer kneel on George Floyd’s throat until he died. Think about that. You watched a police officer murder your neighbor. George Floyd was murdered. And we watched.
George Floyd is just one of thousands of black men murdered with no cause – none – by members of an institution that in one breath assures it’s here for our protection, while it threatens and even takes life. Demeans and humiliates while demanding respect. Acts flagrantly, without cause or control while demanding obedience.
I believe in law, and justice, and the need for control.
Which is why I do not believe in the police.
George Floyd’s life mattered. But even more than that, George Floyd’s life was his. It was not someone else’s to take away.
His life didn’t (shouldn’t. doesn’t.) require my nor anyone else’s insistence to demonstrate its worth. His value as a person was (should have been. is.) self-evident.
George Floyd mattered. Black lives matter.
That white people – hi, I’m a white person – cannot bring themselves to understand and say and value that statement matters too. It makes us accessories. It means we share the guilt.
A word that’s spelled like how feels to say.
As every dorky seventh-grader knows, onomatopoeia is what we call it when a word’s spelling emulates its own sound.
Bump! Blam! Zlorp! (yes, zlorp…)
We think of them as play words, childlike and fun, connoted as they are so often with children’s literature, comics, and cartoons. Think Batman’s Biffs! and Thwacks! Or the cold snikt of Logan’s claws. The thwip of Spidey’s webs… Nightcrawler brimstone BAMFs… it’s endless, really.
But onomatopoeia aren’t just fantasy sounds. They’re like us. They’re dull. They hide all around, studding our drudge as we slap our alarms in the morning and honk or our horns in traffic. We click our mice and tap our keyboards. We scratch our scalps and rattle the ice in our empty cold brew as we flip through magazines and crunch on our salads (as opposed to that dripping, sizzling burger your buddy got).
Everywhere smartphones ring and emails woosh and elevators chime as we shuffle and gabble and prattle and chatter and whisper and hollar and whine through the beeping and splashing and crashing and roaring and plinking and belching and zipping and zooming and tearing and hissing and hooting and blaring, tintinnabulatory world.
But there’s something else I’ve noticed: A species of word so seemingly similar to onomatopoeia, it’s often overlooked. These are words that aren’t merely spelled to emulate their sound – rather, the work it takes to sound them emulates what they mean.
There should be a word for all these words. Not onomatopoeia… but onometapoeia. Words whose spelling tells the story of how they feel. See what I did there? Cleverness. Ever heard of it?
Ever notice how smooth the word smooth is? Say it out loud to yourself. Smooooooooth. No bumps. No wrinkles. Not one ruckled phoneme. Smooth is pure smoothness from tip to tail. It slips effortlessly from the mouth like a hand over a bedsheet.
Think of the journey a slip takes. How it slides on the slick s, then lifts off the palate on the l, hovers aloft for the breath of the i, before collapsing finally on the cold, terminal p. Every slip slips from the lips.
Say it to yourself. Do it now. I dare ya. Slip.
Spot one, and you’ll start to see onometapoeiae everywhere.
Think of how lazy lazys feel, stretching out like housecats and luxuriating across a sentence.
Or how looms loooooooom long and dark,
How boats bob on the buoyancy of their vowels, hulled in by their consonants.
Or how every fling is flung from your teeth and tongue.
Even tongue. It fills the mouth to say its name. Say it now. Like a soft fist bunched in your mouth.
I love these words. They’re like little stories of themselves. Sleeks dive like falcons. Swamps feel like boots stuck in mud. Yonder echoes. Lather foams. Wrench and pry take oomph and muscle to intone. Your ear might hear a bell ring. But you can feel in your mind every wring of a washcloth.
Slink. Velvet. Snuggle. Swivel. Frond. Crouch. Shine… They’re endless.
Even nipple is a story of itself. Nipple! A sprightly bump, it juts and puckers, calling unanticipated attention to itself. Have you ever heard someone say nipple in casual conversation? You can’t take your mind’s eye off it… peeking through the cotton t-shirt of someone’s sentence. Nipple is just so… nippleish… innocent and dirty at once.
All this to say… the world’s on fire. And unkindness is rampant. Take what joy you can find and squeeze it to the last drop. Look around at the words around you, and lean closer to the onametapoeia you can hear.
And if you can’t find an onometapoeia… just look down. There are two (hopefully) waiting for you just under your shirt.
The feeling of being clobbered in the chest by a hasty gulp from a carbonated drink.
One day, a few years ago, I’d taken my car in to the garage to have some expensive part re-expensived. After a mere five minutes I’d managed to annoy the mechanic, so when he offered to get me a ride back to my apartment (as it would take the day to re-expensive my car), I panicked and insisted that I could walk.
This was in August. In New Jersey. And the heat and humidity had already reached critical, mouth-like levels. This was also during the long chapter of my life when I refused to wear shorts (an almost Calvinist period of affected self-denial, courtesy of my 20s). So, leaving him my contact information, I trudged out the door and waded my way through a hundreds-degree swamp of blinding sunlight, and choking humidity.
For about four or five miles.
By the time I made it home, I was quite near death. I shambled into my apartment groaning like a madman. I unbuckled my jeans which, being completely soaked-through with sweat, dropped to the floor and pooled around my feet. I needed hydration desperately, so I flung open my refrigerator and grabbed a frigid bottle of seltzer water, which I downed in one sloppy, guzzling swig.
All was slaked and satisfied. All was crisp and cool. And in an instant… regret pierced relief like a knife in the heart.
The carbonation, all jazzed up by its whitewater splashing down my gullet, went full supernova in my esophagus. It felt like I’d swallowed a hot rock, or a fistfull of bees. My eyes watered, my ears rang. I listed about the kitchen like a drunkard, too dazed to be still, too beset to adequately flail. I pounded my hand on the countertop once, twice, the pressure building and building in my chest… as if at any moment a fount of seltzer would burst, Xenomorphically, through my ribcage and redecorate my kitchen in Panebianco Red.
Ready to pop, I reeled back, opened my mouth wide, groaned the guttural groan of the over-seltzered… and I burped. Burped a burp that was more than a burp – it was a kind of birth. A tearing, keening, muscle-knotting display of physiological theater.
A kind of meat opera.
I coughed. I drooled. I dabbed tears from my eyes. And finally I laughed – alone, in my underwear, standing in my kitchen beside an open refrigerator, my pants piled about my ankles, an upended bottle of seltzer glugging its remaining contents onto the floor. And, as ever, my brainless cat standing sentinel, gawping at me in abject befuddlement.
In another few seconds, that moment would be gone. I would wipe my face and pull my pants up… pat my cat on his furry head, and move on with my day. I’d cancel my car-contingent plans. I’d clean my cat’s litter box. I’d make a sandwich, and watch an episode of Frasier (no doubt). I’d return to the ordinary stuff of days that right now I couldn’t possibly recall with any accuracy.
But that episode with the seltzer bottle – that I can’t possibly forget. Moreover, it acts in my memory like a lens – bringing into sharp focus the moments that proceeded and followed it. Amid all the things I’ve forgotten – important and inconsequential alike – this day I remember in vivid detail. Had it not been for that idiot spasm of seltzer-fueled grotesquerie, followed by the absurdity of me in my undies, drooling like a doofus and wiping my face on my forearm… I wouldn’t remember that day at all.
That’s what a moment of foolishness does – it sticks in your memory like a pushpin through a photograph. It holds fast that which time and nature seem so dead-set to take away. And the only cost is a little bit of pride, and the reminder that your body is way more gross than you’d like to admit.
How lucky is that?