THE NERVOUS BREAKDOWN - 15 MAY 2014
Was it really that bad?
Y’know, being a dad…wife in the war, Middle East, etc.
It was a fairly constant struggle for me: The fact that it wasn’t that bad at all. In fact, many times—a lot of the time—it was quite excellent. I can’t really adequately describe what it’s like to get rip-roaring drunk by yourself, as the bats fly overhead, wife in Baghdad, with the sound of the call to prayer ringing out over Istanbul, the moon coming up, and you light an illicit cigarette and the hum of the earth is loud and…A grilled fish lunch at an old cantina in a secluded cove north of Beirut, with the table literally in the water, catching up with an old friend from Riyadh, the waves licking up over the table cloth, sea froth kissing the food with salt water, cold bottles of beer…Or to have Christmas in Erbil, in northern Iraq, the odd situation of your wife agreeing to watch the kid while you put on a suit that doesn’t quite fit, so you can get in a taxi and try to track down Christians who fled Baghdad, in the wake of a bombing at a church that killed dozens, to find a woman who will speak to you, in the middle of the street, on Christmas day, with the taxi idling, getting a good enough quote to go back to the house, so you can file a story, so you can sing “Jingle Bells” and squint in the sun of northern Iraq, and later that night, toast it all with a bottle of duty-free scotch.
That doesn’t sound…that bad?
Maybe I’m just an idiot, but what was hard for me—the five years we lived in the Middle East, among amazing colleagues, raising a daughter, at times beside or at least in the geographical vicinity of unspeakable atrocity, unfairness, or at least relative misery—was the absence of a script, the way a life like that seemed so exceptionally good and bad at the same time, and yet the worst part, for me, was how I had trouble finding any folks to have common cause, to compare notes, to help chart a course toward excellence. All I wanted, I thought, was another stay-at-home dad, another husband of a correspondent, another guy in a giant, echoing house in Beirut, watching his daughter scamper across 100-year-old tile floors, wanting very badly to do something useful, aware that fathering on its own merits might have fit the bill, but still having aspirations to do something bigger, whatever that means, thinking maybe he could write something—but all the while this tinkling, menacing sense that something monstrous was lurking.
Your friends, your family?
I wasn’t exactly seeking sympathy. “Yeah, that’s hard, you all alone.” Boo-hoo. Because I wasn’t alone. We worked so hard to stay in touch. (Even when she was deeply embedded, I always had some way to get word to my wife, however convoluted and cloak-and-dagger.) The core problem in the end was that we didn’t want to leave. We didn’t want that life to end, but part of us knew it must. Even if we sort of knew it was the right thing to do—to leave, not to voluntarily remain in such an odd, potentially explosive situation—it was still so tempting on many levels to stay. I mean, we left people behind who are still there and thriving and there is some regret. (I even found a dad a lot like me! And I miss the hell out of him.) There is definitely some regret. But we paid our dues. For five years, we were there. Now we’re in Venice, CA and we’ll see how long this living in America thing lasts.
Best way to get to New Orleans?
So how’d you get from there to here?
I was a young editor at The Village Voice in 2004, when I began to write some weird, first-person dispatches: a story about the ghoulish experience of smelling dead flesh at Bodies: The Exhibition, “I Survived the Staten Island Mall,” and finally a report from a day at an Off-Track Betting parlor in Midtown. Then I moved to Rolling Stone, where there was no opportunity to write such things. When we moved to the Middle East, I started coming up again with stories again—and I wrote the bulk of them for the wonderful editors at The Review, a weekly supplement to an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National. I know it sounds far-fetched to talk about a publication so obscure, yet we’re talking editors like Jonathan Shainin, who’s now at The New Yorker, Peter Baker, a novelist; and John Gravois, deputy editor of The Pacific Standard. Then all hell broke loose at the paper, so adrift, I started freelancing elsewhere. My first big pieces were for The Awl and The Morning News, both excellent and off-beat literary websites. (Can I call them that? Sure.) I gained confidence and experience and landed pieces at Slate and Salon, then I moved to places like GQ and The New Republic, and more recently Harper’s and The New York Times Magazine. I love to write, but not only am I kind of tirelessly trying to get better at the work, there’s also the life-long and daily process to maintain and develop relationships with editors, especially because they keep moving around!
MFA versus NYC?
There’s no right answer to this question, I don’t think. I treasure my time in NYC, first as a wide-eyed college dropout, working as a courier (for like a day) then years later, after living in Indonesia, as an editor. We bought an apartment, learned to roam the five boroughs, and both of us thought about never leaving. But we did. And it took years not to yearn for the rattle of an F Train, the Union Square Farmer’s Market, the compost bin on 7th between B and C, a hungover date with the Second Avenue bus and then a Four Train to Van Cortland Park in the Bronx, where I’d go many a Sunday. In Saudi Arabia, ten-thousand miles away, I’d watch the opening credits of Mad Men—a show I don’t particularly like, and though I’d long since quit smoking, and though I never had much of an office in Manhattan—Don Draper’s thing made me yearn again for a New York life. Then an old friend called me to say he was starting a low-residency MFA program. Did I want to give it a try? I did, and during these incredibly nourishing 10-day residencies, in Tampa of all places—with Nick Flynn and George Saunders and Karen Russell and Miranda July—I started to see how I could find a way to care again about a new community. So I started reading the books I was asked to read for school, and it was so exhilarating to think—not about what was new or hot or urgent or the next thing, and how to pitch such—but about what was old and beautiful and eternal and meaningful. Then I figured out, slowly, how to combine what I was learning in school with what I missed in New York, first writing little creative pieces, then writing criticism of new books, and slowly publishing more substantial pieces of my own creative writing. The happy accident was that, as I took my studies more and more seriously, I seemed to be producing writing that editors in New York—of which I once one was and still had nostalgia for and issues with—started to be more interested in what I was putting together. So, yeah: NYC and MFA and then LA, for me.
I’m writing about America now. It’s weird. This place: It’s a wall of hydrogen peroxide, each bottle just eighty-eight cents. It’s artisanal dog food. It’s a daily paper on your doorstep. It’s NYC and LA and a small town in the Midwest and my aunt and uncle’s place in Montana and my childhood home in Miami and a shotgun house by the track in Louisiana that I still miss dearly and hope to call hope again some day. I love it here and am so happy to be home and hope we can make it work. All of us.
Buy the book. And write to me. I love pen pals.
This piece was published by The Nervous Breakdown. Read the original here.