Fine, sorry, I misled you with that title. Trust me, you would’ve been disappointed anyway — it’s the nature of clickbait. But you’re already here, killing time at work or counting down hours at home, so just hang on a second. See, I’m frustrated too, in my own, impotent way. What I need is for you to read my words, cut through the flesh and boil down the blubber, oil the lamps and illuminate these crevices inside my brain, inside all our brains.
No, I didn’t secretly work my way through college as a high-class call girl, nor am I here to bestow the 18 Rules to a Happy Marriage. What I want to tell you is that once, driving in the car with my daughter, she scratched her head, examined her fingernails, and said more to the air than me, “I like the smell of my own dandruff. I know it’s weird, but I do. It smells good to me.” I want to shake you and scream that this is the fascinating stuff — not the dandruff, precisely, but the weird little secrets we tote around inside to keep life manageable. Because I understand what she meant, even if my specifics are a little different, and yours too.
When I submit a personal essay, hoping for publication, I’m aware as often as not that I may as well be hollering down a well. Where’s the hook? It’s just my story. But I’m sick of the fantastical; sick of distance. I’m sick of oxfords and rolled-up jeans, of hands proffering field-fresh flowers; I’m sick of inspirational quotes and do-or-don’t lists; sick of dreamworld photo shoots and filtered Instagrams. I’m sick of you, and god knows, sick of me, too.
In our crush to share everything, we’ve moved awfully close to sharing nothing, or at least nothing real. A personal story is no longer enough; we now require outsized versions of ourselves to entice an oversaturated, unimpressed, easily distracted audience. The quest for relatability has become something to sneer at, a sign of weakness. But while a story about someone’s date with a porn star may titillate, will it resonate beyond an initial read? I doubt it.
I remember a Granta short story I read years ago, before children, before social media became standard fare. The author, the title, the details, all irretrievably submerged, but still I carry this scene in my mind: a father, an ill-fitting diaper, a miraculous, one-handed dive to catch baby poop as it spirals toward the ground. What strikes me now is what struck me then: the utter believability of the internal dialogue, how, even as the excrement steams in one open palm, the father begins reformulating the story for later, how he’ll tell it, how his friends will receive it, the teary-eyed laughter over beers as he reenacts the save.
For me, this is all there is. What interests me is the intensely personal, the things we don’t talk about, the strange sense of accomplishment I get cleaning my youngest son’s face in the morning. How do you say, why would you ever say you’ll miss picking dried boogers out of another person’s nose? But there it is: “Blow — that’s not a blow! GOOD, that’s it! Here, look up. Now go eat.” The squeeze of the bottom, the kiss on the nose, the claim to another, dis-missed! The remarkable in the mundane. The remarkable is the mundane.
Take a look at Roger Angell’s “This Old Man: Life in the Nineties” for a recent, stunning example of the power of the personal. You won’t find any shocking revelations, no grand plot twists, only a life, but you will see your own reflection in the remembrances of a 93-year-old man. And you will click on this link, literally or figuratively, for years to come.
I keep circling back to basics — the shedding, secreting, excreting of all that’s unnecessary — how necessary the unnecessary is to my life. The sweaty neck of an 8-year-old boy, on tiptoe at the kitchen faucet before dinner; the stench of a teenage fart, trapped amid hysterical laughter inside a closed car; the oily hair and morning breath, the musky pits and oozing zits of careless youth; the dog’s fish breath, the slightly sour smell clinging to my fingers as I wipe eye gunk from his open, whitening face. I know it’s weird, but it all smells good to me.
Yesterday, cleaning up the back yard, I found a piece of perfectly patterned dog poop. I imagined tiny, overalled workmen, shouting over one another, “‘Behind you! On your right!” in Floyd’s bowels, engineering my daughter’s missing sock into an impromptu sausage casing, an intestinal assembly line charged with keeping flower, stripes, and colors intact. It made me chuckle, and for a second I thought about taking a picture. But who wants to hear about the poop in your own backyard? I guess not most of us. So I scooped it into a bag, scoured the lawn for landmines, and moved on to the next pile.