Today, I had the privilege of being invited back as a guest on WHYY's Radio Times, where Marty Moss-Coane talked to me about How to Be Safe, teaching, writing, mass shootings, toxic masculinity, locking your windows, and Godzilla. It was fun! Full audio is here if you want to check it out.
What I remember first is his face, the student’s, appearing in the little window in the door at the top of the stairwell. When I told my wife about it later, I described his eyes as crazed, which I acknowledged as a cliché, but I couldn’t think of any more appropriate word. His expression was not a normal human expression. It was the kind of face a bad actor makes to indicate that he is playing crazy right now.
I was teaching in one of the worst buildings on campus, built in the sixties by an architect who specialized in prisons. The college, fearing student protests and the counterculture movement, wanted their new buildings to be riot-proof. The design deters congregation in common areas, and also includes three narrow stairwells, two of which are difficult enough to find that most students don’t even know they exist. When I teach in that building, I take the neglected stairwells, because I can avoid the crowded elevators and gather my thoughts in solitude. This student (let’s call him David) was short, and had to stand on his toes to position his face in the center of that window. I don’t know how long he’d been standing there, or if he’d frightened anyone else away while waiting for me.
I opened the door and smiled and said, “Hey man, you scared me.” I’m usually pretty good at affable interactions with my students, at drawing at least a polite smile. He did not step out of my way. After I brushed past him, he followed one step behind, and said, “Do you think I’m fucking stupid? Do you think I can’t hear what you’re saying about me?” By the time I processed what he’d said, I was in my classroom. I didn’t respond then because it seemed like a bad idea to have this conversation in front of everyone.
I don’t remember much about the 100-minute class period that followed. Probably there was discussion. Some in-class writing. Long stretches where I begged the students to give me more than they were giving me. I watched David the whole time, trying to determine if he would have another outburst, if he had a weapon on him, why he was mad at me. I hadn’t said anything bad about him, as far as I could remember. But maybe. Maybe at home I talked about him to my wife, and he was listening somehow? Maybe he’d been following me? At the end of class, I asked him if everything was okay. He looked at the floor and got fidgety and said yes, and then he ran out of the room.
Two weeks later, as I approached the classroom again, now coming from a different stairwell, now trying to vary my routes and arrival times, I saw David standing in the hall and holding his phone. He pressed on his screen and started playing what I later realized was an Insane Clown Posse song. While doing strange choreography with his arms, like a cheerleader spelling out the home team’s name, he shouted, “2-4-6-8… give me an A, loser!” and then he went into the classroom.
I hadn’t told my wife about the first incident, because I worried I was overreacting; students, especially freshmen, say and do bizarre things all the time. Now, I texted her and asked what I should do. She told me I had to report it to someone. She said I should have reported it much sooner.
* * *
The David story is one I usually tell as a joke. It’s an anecdote to share at happy hour; people love to hear stories about weird students, though usually they want a very safe kind of weird, like the guy from Pittsburgh who had a British accent because he’d taught himself to speak by watching BBC. When I tell acquaintances about David walking into my office a week later, holding fireworks in both hands, it is the setup for a punch line. I asked him why he was carrying explosives, and he looked so confused, it was as if his hands were completely separate organisms, out of his control. He looked at them and said, “Religion class.” At this point in the telling, I usually make a mediocre joke about how we never had that kind of fun in my religion classes in Catholic school. I tell people how oddly calm I felt, considering, but how I was also thinking: he’s small enough that I can push him down. I hadn’t been in a fight in a long time, but I’d had plenty growing up, and I felt pretty confident I could take him if I had to.
Another professor had suggested I offer to walk him to the counseling center and introduce him personally to the staff there. But David didn’t want to go. He told me just wanted help on his essays, so for the next few minutes, we ignored the explosives in his hands and talked about mundane things like MLA formatting. He left having absorbed nothing I’d said, still holding the fireworks. My lack of fear had nothing to do with courage. It was something more like ignorance. Some reckless part of me was convinced I was safe from actual violence. Intellectually, I knew there was no reason I was immune to being murdered, but also there was a thought in the back of my mind that of course I wouldn’t be killed. It would be such a stupid way to die. Ten minutes later, another student arrived for a conference and I talked to her about her thesis, about using more textual support for her arguments. Enough meetings in one day, and the unsettling interaction with the fireworks-wielding student blends in with the rest. It’s all just work.
* * *
Our classroom was a rectangular cell, with one long conference table in the middle, ten chairs on each side, and doors on both short walls. There was a phone attached to the far wall. I tried to subtly check it every class period, to make sure it still worked, though the reality was that if David pulled a gun from his bag, I would have no chance of reaching the phone. The better bet was for one of the other students to call security on their phones. But what if David attacked only me? Would they film it first and then call security? Would anyone even intervene?
Everyone in the room knew he was the weird kid. He slept through classes, and when he was awake, he always seemed confused, making the motions of a person who was paying attention while clearly not following what we were doing or saying. He rarely opened his book. Sometimes he raised his hand, and he spoke in a bizarre, halting cadence, seemingly out of his control (he might, for example, say something like “The author of this ARticle makesagood ARGUment”). The other students snickered at him often. Most classes, we broke into small groups, so one day I pulled two of my more mature male students aside to ask them to always be in David’s group, and to try to include him but also not push him too hard. His instability infected everything we did, and when class ended, I left quickly without looking back. The problem was, I didn’t know exactly what I was supposed to be afraid of. Was he capable of bringing a gun into the room and killing me? Was he more likely to just have occasional relatively manageable outbursts? Would he kill himself?
Some days I saw him running across campus, darting among the herds of students migrating from one building to another. His every movement seemed desperate and urgent.
* * *
Everyone who has taught college students for long enough has some stories like this. The female professors I know typically have many more, and worse, stories than the male professors. Most of the women teachers I know have had numerous male students shout at them, corner them in their offices, wait behind in the classroom to berate them when they’re alone. In those cases, the student poses a particular physical harm to one specific person. Based on my friends’ stories, some universities treat these incidents with the seriousness they deserve, while others tell the professor to try to be more understanding, or that they can’t do anything until the student actually commits a crime. One woman I know quit teaching because her department did nothing to support her when a hulking male student began stalking her.
The college classroom is a volatile space. Actual violence in the classroom is rare—though this is a purely anecdotal claim, as colleges notoriously underreport crimes on their campus, making any official stats functionally useless—but it lurks beneath the surface of every college course. I primarily teach freshmen, who are addled in all the ways one can be addled: stress, hormones, sleep-deprivation, prescription drugs, recreational drugs, social anxiety, loneliness. Dorm living, as it functions at most large schools, is a terrible and failed experiment that runs counter to any reasonable educational goals. By the second month of the semester, once grades have started rolling in, everyone is a single raw nerve on the verge of a breakdown. Then they come to my classroom where I push them into debates about race, class, and money. The quality of their engagement in this debate has a direct impact on their grade. I make jokes and I try to keep the atmosphere light, but everything is fraught. In all meaningful ways, I make their lives harder.
I would be lying if I said I feared for my life every day I spend on campus. I teach on an urban campus in a section of Philadelphia that has been in decline for decades. All the problems of poverty and drugs—crime, homelessness, a general sense of despair—bleed onto the campus. But I don’t feel unsafe there. It’s not because of the huge security force deployed by the school; it’s because most people, most of the time, are perfectly safe from being shot. But what if one of our 30,000 undergraduates snaps and comes to school with an arsenal one morning while I’m strolling past the library and staring at my phone? Large college campuses are especially vulnerable to a spree killing because of the high concentration of people, the sprawling layouts, the clustering of activity around specific times, the massive gaps in security. There is nothing you can do to make yourself safer in this instance, except to hope for good luck. It’s like living on a fault line and hoping the big one doesn’t hit while you’re there.
* * *
What I’m saying is: if someone wanted to kill a lot of people on our campus in a very short time, they could. It’s important to state this fact directly.
* * *
Schizophrenia commonly manifests in a person’s late teen years, so it’s likely David was literally losing control of his mind while he was in my class. Our university’s urgent outreach team—established after the Virginia Tech shooting—was able to get him into treatment, and, though confidentiality laws prohibit me from knowing any specifics of his condition, it became clear he’d been heavily medicated, as he was now subdued to the point of seeming tranquilized. He failed my course because he could never stay awake long enough to get any work done. I assume he failed all his courses. When I submitted the F, I worried for months that he would find out where I lived, or that he would be waiting at the door of my office one day with a knife or a gun or both. As far as I knew, the only thing keeping him from going on a rampage was his compliance with his meds.
* * *
In most of my classrooms, there is only one exit, behind me. If a shooter entered the room, my students would see him first, I would be shot in the back, and they would have no escape. For reasons I cannot remember, I said this aloud to my students once. They laughed, but it was not a joke. I shouldn’t have said it.
* * *
Two years after David failed my class, someone graffitied a bathroom wall in my building: “April 20th I'll bring honor to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold… April 20th you will all learn the meaning of suffering." The date was a Saturday and also a famous day for smoking pot, which, from the perspective of an aspiring mass murderer, would be a poor choice to try to rack up a high body count. It was probably a college guy sitting on the toilet thinking it would be funny to freak a few people out, and then things go out of hand. Still, students told me that parties were poorly attended that weekend, and campus was unusually quiet.
Two years after that, in the aftermath of the shooting At Umpqua Community College in Oregon, someone posted this message on 4chan: “On October fifth, at 1pm Central time, a fellow robot will take up arms at a university near Philadelphia." Every area university sent warnings to their communities, but all stayed open. I had scheduled one-on-one conferences with my students that afternoon, and it would have been complicated to reschedule them all, and besides, I didn’t want to give some 4chan troll the satisfaction of disrupting my life. Half my students emailed to cancel anyway, and I couldn’t blame them; there are much better causes to die for than trying to make it to a meeting with your freshman comp professor.
From my office, I have a view of the center of campus, where there is a large bell tower that serves as a gathering place. If there were a shooting spree, I would probably see it unfolding. I imagined the mobs scattering through the heart of campus as gunshots popped behind them. The gunman stomping past the bell tower, scanning the area for clusters of killable people. My office is across the hall from the main department office, so usually it is a bustling place, but fifteen minutes before one o’clock, a silence that can only be accurately described as eerie settled over my floor. Nobody walked down the hall. The elevator did not ding. Every door but mine was closed. I decided I should close my door too, knowing it wouldn’t stop a bullet. My office is on the tenth floor, so as long as the shooting started at ground level, I would have time to barricade my door with file cabinets and my desk. I would crouch in a defensive position and text my wife. I would not text my mom, who still calls me every time she sees a news report of a crime on my campus. I envisioned all the possible outcomes, from my cowardly death to my heroically stopping the shooter. Sometimes when I imagine the shooting scenario, I get shot while I’m hiding. Sometimes while I’m charging the shooter. There are so many different ways to get killed. Most often, I imagine being caught in a stairwell, panicking and trying to run. Being shot in the back. And as the shooter steps over my body, I have just enough strength left in me to send a single text to my wife, to tell her I’m sorry, but I’m dead.
* * *
I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened. Afterward, a friend’s mother kept asking us if we knew anyone in the Trenchcoat Mafia, as if they had chapters in high schools across the country. Later, when I distributed an underground “newspaper” (really more of a pamphlet) that insulted most groups of people in the school, I was accused of being a potential school shooter. They sent me to counseling. They asked if I’d ever had thoughts of suicide or murder. I was seventeen and listened to heavy metal; almost of my conversations then were about suicide and murder. I wouldn’t even know how to hold a gun, let alone have a desire to shoot it, and I was not a threat to go on a rampage. But how could they know for sure? One afternoon, I found a note in my locker warning me that if I tried to “do a Columbine,” I would get my ass kicked. I knew it was written by the guy who cheated off me in AP English. We never spoke about it.
Like most schools, my university has an emergency alert system designed to quickly contact everyone on campus by text, email, and phone call. The majority of the messages are about robberies after midnight on party nights, drunk students walking home alone and getting mugged. I can no longer, in good conscience, ask my students to turn their phones off in class (not that they would do it anyway). They need to be able to access the emergency alert. I count on them to blurt out that there is an active shooter so that we can … what? Run? Hide? Fight? All three at once? It’s still better to know, I guess.
* * *
Think, for a minute, of how blithely we’ve accepted the regularity of mass shootings that I don’t have to name the shooter or the victims or give any other context besides the location, and every reader automatically knows what I mean. That I can say Sandy Hook and Aurora and Columbine and Pulse and Sutherland Springs, and San Bernardino, and you can quickly call to mind the basic details of the mass killings and organize them in your mind, either chronologically or by body count. Think about how diseased our culture is that we know these shooters and their body counts the way I used to have memorized batting averages and RBIs. Think about the phrase “active shooter” and its widespread acceptance into the lexicon. Before Columbine, that phrase only turns up in newspaper accounts describing hockey games or gun clubs. It was crafted, post-Columbine, to describe the new phenomenon of angry young men with access to military arsenals. It took less than five years—of shootings and meaningless platitudes from Congress and thoughts and prayers and then more shootings—for us to begin talking about the possibility of an “active shooter” as if it’s the weather, as if active shooters have always existed and will exist long after us.
* * *
It's been said often since the Sandy Hook shooting that if the mass murder of children couldn’t change the way our culture discusses guns, then nothing can make us change. But I think this is wrong: it did change the way we talk about guns, in that it made the NRA and its supporters more militant. It spawned a cottage industry of accusing murder victims of being “crisis actors,” employed by George Soros, paid to stage elaborate hoaxes of mass murders. For some men, it’s easier to believe that all gun murders (besides the ones in inner cities) are actually complicated frauds perpetrated by a cabal of rich liberals who hate guns more than anything, but also, for some reason, have done nothing specific to eliminate guns.
It’s not that we’ve stayed the same since Sandy Hook, it’s that we’ve gotten worse.
* * *
Some questions: If there were a shooting at my school, how many bodies would you need to see in the headline to click through to the article? If only three or four people died, how much coverage would it get? Would you see the tweet and shake your head sadly and then keep scrolling to the next atrocity? If I were one of the bodies, how would they cover me? I don't have a fascinating backstory. I'm just a guy with a pretty good life who goes to work and then goes home; I don’t even have any good selfies for CNN to run in the background while they debate nothing vs. nobody vs. nothing else. Does a life have value if it can’t go viral?
For me, the answer is five. I need to see five or more dead in a headline to click through. Otherwise, it’s just run-of-the-mill murder. It takes more than ten for me to feel surprise.
* * *
Every time there is another shooting, there is a push for more guns on campuses, following the same logic that if you’re attacked by a bear, what you need is several more bears to neutralize that first bear. Why, after all, would you want be alone with one snake when you can lie in a pit of snakes, just reveling in how safe you are? My campus is in a progressive, liberal city with strict gun laws, and, though we’re once again reaching record highs in shootings, the victims are largely the sort of people that progressive, liberal cities have determined are disposable. Right now, our campus is in the midst of pursuing a ban on all tobacco products, so it seems unlikely to me that we’re anywhere close to allowing guns, but I have some friends who teach on open carry campuses. The theory is that someone who wants to commit mass murder won’t be stopped by a restriction against guns, so the Good Guys on campus may as well be armed. I don’t know if I would be able to teach effectively, knowing I was surrounded by people who perceived themselves as Good Guys With Guns, but who might only be one or two bad days away from becoming some other kind of guy with a gun. The myth of the good guy with the gun relies on the belief that our essential nature is predetermined and static; you’re born good and you stay good and that’s that. They say an armed society is a polite society, but what they really mean is that an armed society is a dominance society; the boys with the guns establish dominance, and everyone becomes subservient to them.
* * *
The real violence that plagues college campuses isn’t spree killers; it’s sexual violence, stalking and harassment and rape and all the related crimes. My own college reports only 36 incidents of “sex offenses” or domestic violence on our campus since 2014, a number so ludicrously low it is impossible to believe. I’ve personally known seven female students who were victims of ongoing harassment and stalking; none of them were willing to report it to the university for fear of reprisal, and they only told me because they thought I would keep their secret. Domestic abusers terrorize their victims, and even when a woman does seek help, they run into roadblocks from a culture that refuses to understand male anger as the root problem.
It has been well-documented that nearly all spree killers and mass murderers have histories of domestic violence. Many of them, like Elliot Rodger, leave behind notes detailing their sexual frustration. In a lightly covered recent mass murder, Spencer Hight killed eight people in Plano, TX in order to exact revenge on his ex-wife. Steve Stephens livestreamed a murder of a stranger as a twisted revenge on his ex-girlfriend, repeating, “This is your fault,” into the camera. Just this week, in the quaint suburban town next to mine, three women were stabbed to death by a jilted ex-lover with a restraining order. Regardless of who is doing the killing or who is being killed, women are left with the blame: if only somebody would have just fucked him, he wouldn’t have been forced to murder people.
In all measurable ways, the lives of aggrieved men are given more weight and value than any other category of people. If they’re white and Christian, they get in-depth profiles of their motivations. If, like Dylann Roof, they publicly announce they’re doing it because they believe black men are raping hundreds of white women a day, and they want to incite a race war, it leads to a search for other explanations. It becomes impolite to even quote the killer’s own words.
* * *
It has become trendy to criticize colleges for coddling the students, for creating safe spaces and issuing trigger warnings, and otherwise trying to accommodate the desire of young people to feel cared for. These articles portray college as a place paralyzed by fear of offending others and incapable of ever grappling with anything difficult. Most of this anti-college hysteria originates either from people who know better but want to make an easy profit, or from people who spend their days in reflexive fear of whatever young people are doing. For all the talk about millennials being afraid of challenges, there is little to no tangible impact in the classroom. The trigger warning conversation has made me more conscientious about how I present course materials, and how I put them into context. It has made me more cognizant of the complex histories each student brings with them to my room. It has made me a better, more aware teacher, better able to draw students into informed debates about sensitive issues. For those actually working with undergraduates, those who are listening and respecting their lived experience, college is basically the same as it has always been. There are good students and bad, students with open minds and those with closed minds. It’s just that there is now some more room for the perspectives of women, international students, people of color, and people who don’t identify as heterosexual. It’s a more interesting place to be. But now, more than ever, it would be easy for one angry young man to acquire enough weaponry to kill a couple hundred people in a few minutes, and nobody seems to give a shit about that. For active shooters, we get text alerts and thoughts and prayers. For young women of color demanding better representation, we get scores of editorials about how pampered young people are.
* * *
I don’t know if David ever graduated. Over the next several years, I saw him on campus, still subdued, carrying a bag way too large for his frame. When we crossed paths, I tried to avoid eye contact, though I wasn’t sure he would even remember me, given all he’d been going through.
The psychological problems he’d encountered had derailed his whole life. In his case, at least there were resources available to stop him before her harmed himself, or someone else.
* * *
In 1991, Gang Lu, a graduate student at the University of Iowa, killed five people and then himself. This incident is detailed in Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which may be the only perfect essay ever written. Fourteen year after that shooting, I was teaching my first-ever creative writing class at that school, in a building only a few blocks from the site of the shooting. A student turned in a story that was well-written but deeply derivative of American Psycho. I was 23 then and barely removed from my own phase of using violence as a shortcut to conflict in my stories. I was still listening to a lot of heavy metal and most of my writing involved fire and bones and melting skin. It didn’t even occur to me that the student could represent a threat, but a woman in class contacted me privately to say the story had dredged up some horrifying repressed memories for her and even the thought of attending class again made her physically ill. I allowed her to complete the rest of the course via email, but privately, I scoffed at her inability to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. I still believe the male student did not represent any specific threat, but I should have taken the woman’s concern more seriously. My failure was one of empathy, but also of pride: I was convinced that if someone were truly dangerous, I would be able to read it in his eyes.
But murder can hide behind anyone’s eyes. You look and you see whatever you want to see, until it’s too late.
* * *
It’s a dangerous precedent to set, to think all of your students are suspect. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not healthy to walk through a campus trying to rank the people around you by their likelihood of committing a mass murder. I know all this. And most days, I’m too preoccupied with more banal concerns to think about it. But sometimes, I look out into my classroom and I think: maybe today’s the day. I think: there is nothing I can do about it.
* * *
When I tweet about these issues, I get responses from gun owners calling me a pussy and a libtard. I get lots of messages from men shrugging and asking, helplessly, “What the hell do you want them to do?”
Here’s what I want: I want my rage to matter as much as the rage of the man with the gun. I want the gun to have fewer rights than I do. I want to go to work every day and know I live in a country that cares whether its citizens live or die. I want to be in front of a classroom and not look for potential hiding places and emergency exits. I want to know that just because some boy is not having adequate amounts of sex, I won’t have to bleed out on the floor of my classroom in order to make him feel better.
It's been a pretty good couple weeks of coverage for How to Be Safe. A quick news round-up here, for those of you not hanging on my every tweet:
1) In The New Yorker (!!!!), Katy Waldman writes, "the book’s alienated affect, flecked with sorrow and humor and rage, is so recognizable as one of the few rational responses to the status quo. In McAllister’s passion and exhaustion, in his struggle to communicate the incommunicable, one hears murmurs of Emma González’s speech at the protest on Saturday.”
2) O Magazine (blurry pics above and below provided as proof that I'm not making this up), Natalie Beach calls the novel "searing," and "haunting."
3) In Time, Sarah Begley writes, "Anna sees that something is rotten in these United States, and she refuses to gloss over it. . . . Anna is messy, intelligent, absurd, rude; you might even say distasteful. You could not call this a pleasant novel. But its brutal honesty befits the times.”
4) For Bookpage, Amy Scribner says HTBS is, "[a] prescient, achingly real novel," and, "Despite its searing subject matter, How to Be Safe is beautifully written. It’s also occasionally funny."
5) Bustle writes: "A gutting, shocking novel that circles a small-town tragedy, How to Be Safe is one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the year."
6) Entertainment Weekly included HTBS on a list of recent novels about gun violence
7) I did an interview with Midwestern Gothic about how to write about hot-button social issues, writing small towns, and writing in a female voice.
8) I have some events coming up soon in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn (and also maybe DC and Baltimore). Maybe come to those events, please.
A roundup of links and news and so on below:
- In the past couple weeks, How to Be Safe has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. A sample from Booklist: "Combining a deep character study, prescient satire, and an unfortunately all-too-timely evisceration of U.S. gun culture, McAllister’s well-voiced and remarkably observed page-turner is in almost all ways an anti-thriller—itself a comment on the current, terrifying mundanity of similar events."
- In The Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote some of the nicest things anyone has ever written about my work. A sample: "Like nothing else I’ve read, 'How to Be Safe' contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions."
- If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like to read, you can pre-order the book from pretty much anywhere.
- How to Be Safe is also on the LibraryReads top 10 list for April. Librarians, as always, are our favorite.
- I've been adding a lot of events for HTBS. Right now, they're mostly in the Philly area, but I'm continuing to update that page, so please check back occasionally to see if I'll be in your neighborhood.
- The Millions published another short essay of mine, this time about how I learned to become a better creative writing teacher by breaking away from a default syllabus and giving students more freedom. There's also some discussion of the worst day of class I ever endured.
- I think that's it.
The title of this post really contains most of the essential information. But: The Young Widower's Handbook is now in paperback. I've never had a paperback release of a book before, so it's exciting to see the novel get another run. It got some really nice reviews last year, including:
- The Washington Independent Review of Books said it opens with, "among the most heartbreaking first chapters in contemporary literature."
- Kirkus Reviews called it, "a quirky, well-told debut."
- Publisher's Weekly called it "a remarkable debut novel."
- Seattle Times called it, "a sweetly moving debut" and listed it alongside 3 other debut novels, "that will leave you hungry for what these authors do next."
ALSO: the paperback includes a bonus essay about the origins of the novel, and some discussion questions, for those of you in need of help with your various book-related discussions. Please consider ordering from your local independent bookstore. If that's not an option for you, it's available at Amazon and any other website that sells books.
* * * * *
In related news: my forthcoming novel, How to Be Safe, got a starred review in Kirkus Reviews, which called it, "A brilliant, tragically timely second novel," and added, "This novel is an indictment of gun culture, hot-take journalism, and social media, and if that sounds like a miserable premise for a novel, fear not: McAllister is a brave and stylish writer, and Anna is a singular creation... Intensely smart. Sharply written."
* * * * *
In completely unrelated news, the Eagles won the Super Bowl, and the entire city lost its mind, and I got to write about the game for Buzzfeed, in an article a lot of people loved, and a small handful of people really hated, which was fun.
* * * * *
In further unrelated news, I joined Instagram, where I post pictures of such things as: my face, some trees, bad menu fonts, and Not Trash. If these things interest you, you can follow me @realpizzatom.
In a year when so many people lost so much faith in the fundamental institutions of our country (and I know a lot of people felt disenfranchised long before the past two years, and I know it’s a function primarily of good luck that I’d been able to live without that daily anxiety for most of my life), it seems pretty stupid to write a year in review post about the relatively minor events of my own life. But I feel compelled to do it anyway. Because the scope of the problems is so vast and still so unknowable that I don’t even have anything worthwhile to say about them. Because most days, the only thing you have is the personal. Because taking stock of yourself is at least one way to try to control some of the things you can control.
For the past five years, when people asked me and my wife what was new, we didn’t have much to say. We weren’t having children like so many of our friends. We were settled into the same jobs that we’d had for years. We already owned a home. Very little was changing. That was fine, even if it made for boring conversation. This year was different. A lot of things happened. Some of them were very good. Others were not very good at all.
1. I published my first novel: It didn’t end up in any of the year-end lists and it never quite broke through the marketing noise, but it’s selling much better than my memoir, and more importantly, my publisher facilitated a number of opportunities for me that exceeded any reasonable expectations I’d ever had for my writing life. I did live radio. I spoke at events in a dozen cities. I was featured (alongside Lauren Grodstein) at the Free Library of Philly. I got reviews and interviews in major publications. I flew to Vermont for the Misty Valley New Voices event, where the world’s friendliest people treated me to a dinner and a tour of their quaint town (I know quaint could be read as patronizing, but it’s the only appropriate word), and then taught me how to ski, then gave me a wine bottle with my face on it, then had me read to an enthusiastic crowd from the altar of an old church, and then they gave me dinner again, and then I had some bourbon sitting by the fire in the lodge and I felt like everything in the world was briefly okay. This all happened a week after the inauguration. When I landed in Rutland, my driver said he didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just give the president a chance. “I mean, he hasn’t even done anything bad yet,” he said. The next morning, the president signed the Muslim ban and when I came home, I was greeted at the airport by thousands of protesters. An inconvenienced passenger stood next to me in the terminal and said he wanted to beat the fuck out of all those protester pussies.
2. I spent a beautiful afternoon in Charlottesville, after speaking on two panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I had a salad and three beers and sat (almost) in the sun, and next to me, a woman who kept asking the bartender confusing questions finally apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I’m a poet.” All college towns feel a little bit fake, like movie sets built for young beautiful people, but I found it to be a very nice town overall. I didn’t know anything about the city’s history then. Five months later, Charlottesville would become home base for the white supremacist mobs the president loves. On the bus ride home, I would get a call from my wife telling me her father was dead. The rest of the year has been defined by his absence, and I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about it. I’ve written so much about dead parents, I feel like I’ve used it all up.
3. Before my father-in-law died, when he was in the hospital recovering from a minor surgery that in no way suggested he would be dead soon, I told him I was close to selling my second novel, to a new publisher and a new editor (available in April!). It wasn’t official yet, but it was close. He clapped for me in his hospital bed. Seven years ago, when I published my memoir, he called me and asked, “How does it feel to have an actual dream come true?” And I had never thought about it in those terms before. I had dreamed of doing a thing when I was young, and then that thing had happened. It seemed impossible. I was trying to act very nonchalant about the whole thing, and he gave me permission to feel good about it. Anyway, he’s dead now. It’s hard to get past that.
4. My wife and I sold our first house, which we had bought at the height of the real estate bubble, using the life insurance money from her mother’s death as a down payment. We lived there for five years, and then moved because we were able to get a good rate on a house owned by an injured police officer who told us, as we were visiting the house for the first time, that he hated New Jersey and was desperate to leave. We spent the next five-and-a-half years renting the house because it was unsellable. Real estate is miserable, and I have thought so many awful things about the municipal workers in Barrington, New Jersey that I’m too ashamed to detail them here. Since 2012, we’ve completely wiped out our savings twice for the sake of that house. We’re lucky to have good enough jobs and few enough debts that we could survive it. To even entertain the concept of savings. I’ve been a homeowner for 11 years and the one thing I’m sure of is that I do not want to be a homeowner.
5. For the first time in my employed life, I worked on a two-year contract. I have to reapply for my job again in March, but for one year at least, I was certain that I would be employed in consecutive years. I think I’ll probably get another new contract, but also public education is being dismantled piece-by-piece and nobody wants to be an English major anymore. And I’m sorry, because this was supposed to be one of the positive items.
6. My dog died the night before my wife and I flew to Paris to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We’d owned her for three years. She was one of the dumbest animals who has ever lived, but she was very sweet and had had a hard life, and, though my wife cared for her deeply, the dog was more closely bonded to me. I spend a lot of time alone in the house and it’s nice to hear a dumb old dog snoring under the desk while you work. It’s nice to see her roll onto her side and slap her tail against the carpet just one time, summoning you for a belly rub. It’s nice to have some external motivation to go for a daily walk. With the dog, I felt more like an actual part of my neighborhood than I ever have in my adult life. I spoke to neighbors. I let their children pet the dog. I saw the subtle changes in people’s homes. The dog died because we chose to make her die. She had stopped eating and drinking most days, and for the last two months, she rarely left our bedroom. We were certain she would die while we were on vacation, and at least this way felt like we were doing something sort of humane. Having a dog is often a burden, and it’s expensive, and they make the house filthy. I’ve promised my wife we will wait a while to get a dog, and still I check Petfinder once a week just to see who’s available and who needs a home. Two nights ago, in the rain, I carved a hole in a Rubbermaid container and then into a Styrofoam cooler, which I placed inside the Rubbermaid, so I could construct a makeshift shelter for a feral cat we’ve named Oreo. We put food out overnight and it disappears, but I have no idea whether we’re feeding a cat or a family of rodents. It feels good to be taking care of something, even without the reciprocation of a dog’s heavy, dumb head dropping into my lap when she’s lonely.
7. What am I supposed to say here about Paris, besides that going to this city had been one of my wife’s goals since she was old enough to know Paris existed? We ate so much food. We drank a lot of wine (I spent a lot of this year experimenting with drinking more, and found that it works pretty much any day of the week). I struggled with the language. The toilet in our AirBnB stopped working on day 2. The Eiffel Tower was one of the seediest, most unpleasant landmarks I’ve ever seen. Crowds at massive tourist attractions behave monstrously. While we were there, the American president called self-identified Nazis “very fine people.” I had to email my mom every day to let her know I had not been killed by a terrorist. Everywhere we looked, there were police and military patrolling with massive guns. The crepes were great. We rode the Metro all over the city. We felt free and in love and for days at a time we could forget about all the other nonsense. You can be in a place where terrible things are happening all around you and still feel good about being alive if you’re with the right person. Platters of cheese help.
8. I wrote a short essay about guns that has almost certainly been read more than any other thing I will ever write. I wrote it in an hour, and it's one of the only complete pieces I've written since mid-summer. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about that either.
9. I taught an advanced fiction course and then the fiction capstone course, retaining many of the same students, and it was the best teaching experience of my life. Most days, I felt actual joy walking through the door to the classroom, looking forward to hearing what strange, funny, insightful things my students would say. I learned a lot about anime and also about swords. I was floored by their ambition and commitment to writing, which is so much greater than mine was at their age (I wanted people to think of me as a writer, but I had very little interest in writing; I barely even read anything then). We talked about whether fiction and art even matter in a world like this, and they continually reaffirmed my sagging faith.
10. I read a lot of books. Some of the books I liked a lot: Sweetland, The Red Car, Ghost Story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closely Watched Trains, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Mrs. Bridge, Girl at War, Dirty Diamonds #8, Massive Cleansing Fire. Some writers keep incredibly detailed records of their annual reading, and though I think it would be nice to be one of those people, I am not one of those people. It’s possible I’m a bad reader. You can find more about these books by searching for them on the internet.
What makes something a good year? I have no idea. A year is an accumulation of days in which you hope more good things happen than bad things, and then you make some promises to yourself to try to make the next one better. It all keeps happening no matter what you say or do.
Two out of five stars to 2017, a mostly shitty year in which some good things happened for me.
This morning, as I tried to process the news about the shooting in Las Vegas, I wrote a very short essay called "What To Do With My Body In the Event I Die in a Mass Shooting." I had intended to maybe not share it at all, or just post it on this site, but the good people at The Rumpus liked it and published it this afternoon.
You can read it here. It starts like this:
Here's a chapter from my memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey, which I wrote mostly in 2007-8, and which was published in 2010. Why share it now when the book is out of print and nearly every athlete mentioned in there has retired?
Because it's week 1 of the NFL season; because, at every author event I've ever done, I'm always asked about how the Eagles are going to do next season; because so much has changed in the way I think about sports and the way I watch football specifically; because nothing has changed at all, really; because this chapter was the first thing I ever published; because I both recognize the person in this book and also do not recognize him at all; because this book opened many doors for me; because I still feel okay about it overall; because in the years between this and my novel, I had more than a dozen conversations with more established writers asking when I was going to write a "real book;" and because it's Sunday and I don't know what else to do with my time.
The memoir is still available as an ebook. Maybe you'll like it. It's almost impossible to calculate how much has changed, but my dad is still dead and the Eagles are still an entity that soaks up way too much of my attention. I still feel pretty good about the book, though I also don't think I could ever write it again.
This is a short, but pretty important, update: I have a new book coming in April 2018. I love the cover (though I never would have guessed I'd be a guy with two books with roses on the cover), and I love the publisher, and I feel extremely grateful to be publishing books at all, let alone to be working with such talented, energetic people. When I showed the manuscript to my agent, she said she loved it, but then warned me that we might not find anyone who's willing to publish it; it's a dark book, and it's a little weird, and so I feel even more fortunate that Liveright is willing to take a chance on this one.
I'll wait to share all the details, but for now I can say: this is the closest I've ever come to writing the kind of book I've always wanted to write. I tried so many times, but was always too young, or too afraid to take chances, or something. So I am extraordinarily excited to have this book on the way.
And, hey, if you've read and enjoyed The Young Widower's Handbook, please consider leaving a review at one of those places. User reviews matter more than you might think, and they really help other people find the book.
I have a new essay up at The Millions, discussing the future of print literary journals in an era when most writers submit to online journals first and printing can seem like a huge waste of money and time. As I note in the piece, I don't think I'm smart enough to come up with the perfect formula, so I talked to editors at a number of other journals and gathered their thoughts. Here's a paragraph from that thing:
Barrelhouse recently opened for nonfiction submissions, and though our previous call was quite restrictive (we were looking exclusively at essays between 18k and 35k words), this one is wide open. Having lost faith in most people to even read the submission guidelines—our call for very long essays elicited a surprising number of young adult novels, in addition to flash fictions, one-page essays, and dozens of poems—I decided to avoid the frustration of writing out detailed guidelines only to have them ignored anyway.
Still, I thought it might be helpful to share some expanded thoughts on the essay types I see most often, and the reasons I feel burned out on them. Two of the most common questions any editor gets at conferences are, “What’s your biggest submission pet peeve?” and “What topics are you tired of reading about?” Every editor’s answer will differ, but I think it helps to be transparent about how all of this works. My goal here isn't to be discouraging, but to share some insights into my thought process, and also to maybe save both of us some time, so you're not submitting work that has little chance of getting published, and I'm not reading essays that aren't right for Barrelhouse.
Some important disclaimers before we get started:
- With one exception (essay type #6, below), submitting a piece that falls into one of these categories does not mean you’ll automatically be rejected. It doesn’t mean you should immediately withdraw that piece from Barrelhouse or any other magazine. What it does mean: I’ve seen a ton of essays like this in either content or style, most of them haven’t worked for me, and this one may have an uphill battle to win me over.
- HOWEVER, there are major exceptions to every essay type listed below and I’m aware that for every rule or restriction imposed on authors, there is some brilliant person who has proven that rules are meant to be broken, etc. Please proceed with the understanding that we don’t need to spend all day pointing out the exceptions to one another.
- Barrelhouse exclusively publishes nonfiction that has a pop culture angle of some sort, and while we have sometimes stretched to make a beautifully written essay fit our needs, we’re pretty firm on that requirement. I do reject essays, even some truly excellent essays, on that basis all the time, and it’s sometimes frustrating, but that’s the deal. That’s our thing that we do.
- For what I hope are obvious reasons, I won’t be sharing specific examples from actual submissions below.
- Every editor will tell you that in any batch of submissions, there may be a few standouts that you have to accept, but very often, there is a massive middle class of submissions that are competently written, polished, pretty good in some areas, and hard to distinguish from the pack. Sometimes you make the wrong call on which ones to take. Often, it comes down to some subjective distinction that is impossible to quantify.
Okay, let’s get into it.
1. My Time At Summer Camp- Maybe it’s because I never went to summer camp, or because in every undergraduate nonfiction course I’ve taught I’ve gotten a half-dozen summer camp essays, but I would be fine never reading another one ever again. I get that camp is a formative time, there are some important coming-of-age moments, there’s usually a sex scene, and usually a drugs-and-drinking scene. There’s a young person feeling alienated and lonely, and there’s all the funny and sad stuff kids do to fit in. There are lots of potentially fascinating and dramatic elements in play. And yet, every summer camp essay reads the same to me. They typically end with a rote lesson about growing up. They offer no surprises. More than any other essay type I’m listing here, the summer camp essay can often be very well-written and indicate the author’s talent, and yet still be incredibly boring. Please, if you must continue to write about your important summer camp experience, include some werewolves or a sea monster or something.
2. I Remember the 60s, Do You Also Remember the 60s? I’m 35 years old. For 25 years of my life, I’ve been bombarded by paeans to the life-changing effervescence of the 60s. Every time I type “the 60s,” that Buffalo Springfield song starts playing in my head. I acknowledge the importance of studying history and I also acknowledge that great writers can mine strong essays out of territory that has been covered a million times before. But also, let me assure you: these are the most formulaic of all essay submissions I receive. They too often rely on stock imagery and phrasing. They too often exalt the radicalism of the Baby Boomers, who right now are devoting their retirements to dismantling all the fundamentally good things about our country. They say things like, “Vietnam changed all of us,” in a way that suggests it’s meant to be profound. Nostalgia is poison for memoir; it has only a passing resemblance to the truth, and it glosses over all the ugliness and darkness that generate energy and tension.
3. Better As a Blog Post – Or maybe even as a tweet. About ten percent of the nonfiction submissions we receive are better categorized as “reminiscences,” not so much essays as brief forays into memory. Often a lighthearted, sweet memory of a dog the author once loved, or a car they restored one summer. There’s usually a clever observation or a nice line in there, wrapped in 600 words of window dressing. I’ve read and loved some very short essays, so this is not a rejection of flash pieces in general. A great flash piece is a monument to compression, to concise, sharp language that can often read like poetry. The pieces I’m talking about here have low word counts, yet still feel baggy. They feel like first drafts that could eventually turn into something better. Like good anecdotes to share over dinner.
4. “Courageous” But Hollow- There’s a big market for confessional essays, and I’ve both published and written pieces that fit that category. Confession and revelation are at the heart of a lot of the best nonfiction. But too often, even in essays that get widely celebrated online, I find that authors are relying on the act of revealing as the whole essay. They’re celebrated for being brave for confessing to having terrible thoughts, or to having hurt someone very badly. A great writer starts there and then builds on it. A lesser writer just keeps repeating the confession. People like to call this kind of writing “brave,” and it is, in a superficial way. But I want a piece that’s not looking for high-fives just for having admitted a bad thing. These essays would benefit from the author asking themselves, “So what?” over and over again until they come up with a good answer. Okay, you bulled someone in eighth grade – so what? Why should your reader care?
5. Man In Bar Thinks Trenchant Thoughts- Often falling into the category of DFW-lite, often written by Guy In Your MFA, often written by me circa 2005, these essays purport to be revealing some deep, meaningful truths about the world, but rarely transcend the misanthropic ranting of a pretty smart Philosophy minor. The most disappointing thing about these essays is how often their Big Ideas are facile repackaging of conventional wisdom. I love Thomas Bernhard too, so I get the appeal. But the bar to clear here is so high, because you’re asking a stranger to sit with you in a dank bar while you just pontificate and opine about things with no particular structure. I know this is a submission type that plagues many fiction editors too. You can get away with more pontificating in an essay than in a traditional story, but still, you have to give me a reason to care. And the things DFW and Bernhard had—and most other writers do not—were fucking genius brains and the ability to write some of the most complex, brilliant sentences in the world.
6. Why My Ex Was Wrong To Dump Me, I'm not Mad I'm Actually Laughing- Guys, don’t do this. Please stop doing this. Please understand that no editor in the world is interested in publishing a 6000-word essay about what a bitch your ex is, especially not if that essay is loaded with transcripts of all your texts with her. Please consider the possibility that if you’re writing (and trying to publish!) revenge essays, then you are not the protagonist of this story. It’s pitiful, and sometimes creepy, and it makes for very bad reading, and we’re never going to publish it. Why do I address this only to guys? Because in seven years as nonfiction editor, I’ve read a couple hundred of these kinds of essays, and they’ve all been written by men who are determined to let the world know that [REDACTED] from [REDACTED] blew her chance at true love because she’s too selfish or immature or stupid or whatever. About a quarter of these pieces have included interludes where the author stops to personally address the ex, in case she’s reading (and I’m sure the author eventually emails it to her too). Anger and rejection and misery are the motivators for countless works of great art; they’re also at the heart of the world’s worst writing. It’s on you to evaluate the piece objectively and determine whether your piece is petty revenge, or if it’s trying to elevate the story of your breakup to something much more complex and interesting.
I know the impulse of someone reading this list may be to immediately pick one of the items above, write a great essay that fits that category, and send it to me just to show me how wrong I am. I would probably think the same thing. And if that’s what you’re thinking, please go for it. All I want is to read great essays, so whatever you have to do to get there is fine with me.
If you are interested in submitting your essay to Barrelhouse, submissions will be open until July 15.
UPDATE: Berry Grass checks in on twitter with an egregious oversight by me.
A RE-IMAGINED LIFE
First you start drinking, then you start talking about death. It’s a natural progression.
At least it is for my wife and me.
We’d been dating for two years when my father died of esophageal cancer. A year later, her mother died of ovarian cancer, the byproduct of a hereditary predisposition that she passed on to my wife. We were in college then. Time suddenly seemed very limited. The future seemed like a place other people got to visit, but not us. I moved to Iowa City for grad school and she stayed at home with her dying grandfather.
After two difficult years of maintaining a long-distance relationship, I was in both a personal and professional crisis: I’d wasted my time in grad school, drinking every day and never writing, and I was coming home carrying no completed work and about thirty extra pounds. I had applied for a temp job and had no marketable skills. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to marry her. I proposed after my graduation, and then we drove home together, our first real road trip. I called my brother from the parking lot of a Bob’s Big Boy to tell him I was getting married. We got lost in western Pennsylvania and drove until midnight looking for a place to sleep. I don’t remember much else from the drive, except the feeling like I’d passed through something, like I was finally entering the good part of my life.
Four years later, we were in Seattle, celebrating our third anniversary. The year before that, we had gone to Ireland, and before that, we were in San Francisco, and there had been a number of shorter trips in the interim. Since then, we’ve traveled to Italy and a dozen other places. I’m an anxious traveler—about the logistics of flight, about the crowds, about visiting the right places at the right times, about being lost—and I wouldn’t have gone on any of these trips without her. I would have talked about going, but never committed. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed our travel, I realized recently that it’s never so much about going to a specific place as it has been about being with her while we are in that place.
There has been an unspoken urgency to our travel: to see as many places as possible while it is still possible, while we are still physically able, and while we’re still both alive.
By the time of our Seattle trip, we were both in our late twenties; if we were fated to die at the same age as our parents, then we had already crossed the midpoint of our lives.
I know it sounds melodramatic. But the deaths of our parents were foundational for us; they made us acutely aware that at some point one of us will be alone again, and quite possibly that will happen long before we’re ready, if being ready is even a possibility.
When we were in Seattle, the weather was so perfect it was suspicious (had everyone been lying about the rain just to keep visitors away?), and we were sitting outside at a French restaurant that served homemade sausage that tasted better than almost anything I’ve eaten in my life, and we were both feeling very lucky to have a life that allows us moments like this. We were deep in that giddy mid-vacation high where we had convinced ourselves that not only could we move to Seattle, but we should. We ordered the fourth-cheapest bottle of wine to avoid looking like the kind of cheapskates who just pick out the lowest-priced bottle regardless of quality. We started talking about where we would travel for future anniversaries, and then she said something about how I’d better not die on her.
I promised not to be dead—or rather, I promised to try really hard to not be dead—and then I asked her for the same. Soon, we were discussing how I would handle it if she died suddenly. Would I still talk to her family? Would I sell the house and move a thousand miles away? Would I ever date anyone again? Would I even leave the house? Would I completely collapse (this was my prediction)? Would I eventually find some way to rebuild a decent life? Friends are sometimes horrified to hear that we used this occasion, of all occasions, to talk about my hypothetical life as a widower. But it’s not like I was plotting her murder. It’s not like I was looking for an escape hatch. We were a little drunk and we were in love and we were capable of talking like adults about sad things.
At some point, I joked about how I could carry her ashes with me and travel to the places we’d never seen.
“That really sounds like a book,” she said.
It did sound like a book, I agreed. I hoped it wasn’t already a book.
We ordered another bottle of wine.
Over the next hour, The Young Widower’s Handbook came to life. We brainstormed the general shape of the novel together: the backgrounds of the young couple, the cause of the wife’s death, the road trip, and potential stops the widower could make. I scribbled notes on the backs of receipts, and she tapped out text messages to me so we could have the ideas stored somewhere.
When we returned to the hotel, I sat and scrawled two pages of notes in our room; in the morning, I couldn’t read some of them, but many of the notes from that session have survived, in some form, to the final draft of this novel. That morning, I wrote the opening paragraph, which hasn’t changed since that day.
This novel comes from a place of great love and great fear. Before meeting my wife, I was a very sad, very angry young man, and her love and compassion showed me how to be a decent person in the world. We’ve been together for almost fifteen years, and so the person I’ve become is so intimately tied to her and our relationship that I can’t envision who I would be without her. In writing The Young Widower’s Handbook, I envisioned the protagonist, Hunter Cady, in a similar relationship, and wanted to explore his despair as he not only tries to properly honor his dead wife, but has to learn to re-imagine himself in a new life. Starting in Philadelphia, he carves a jagged path across the country, hitching on the final leg with a group of travelers, and ultimately arriving in San Francisco. Nothing on the road trip goes according to plan, but each interaction with a stranger in a strange city is a chance for him to redefine himself, to try to be the man his wife always believed he could be.
In writing these scenes, I wanted to face my own fears. I wanted Hunter to honor his wife’s memory while trying to overcome his fear of the future. I wanted him to discover a version of himself that he could be proud of—the version that his wife had always seen. And I wanted readers to feel exactly what I felt that night in Seattle, on our anniversary, when my wife and I were celebrating the best days of our lives.
Another quick post just to note that I had two new essays published last week.
First, this piece at The Review Review, in which I offer advice to writers on how to conduct themselves at readings when promoting their books. Here's a sample:
Next, Miracle Monocle, the literary magazine from the University of Louisville, released their latest issue, which includes my travel essay, "The Least Authentic of All Experiences." It's a little longer than the travel essays I wrote on this site last summer, and it's about Italy, romance, authenticity, vanity, and a lot of other stuff. A sample of this one:
A quick roundup of news related to my novel, my life, and my other writing-related activities:
1. NJ.com reviewed The Young Widower's Handbook and said a lot of nice things about it: "Though terminal ennui could become tiresome, McAllister adroitly deals with a major issue: How does one partner keep going after the other dies?"
2. The Seattle Times included TYWH in a roundup of 4 noteworthy debut novels, and also said some very nice things about it.
3. The Washington Independent Review of Books said, "Be warned, this is among the most heartbreaking first chapters in contemporary literature," and also they seemed to like the other chapters a lot too.
4. Shaun Bossio interviewed me for Redivider about my book, my writing routine, and the failure of English departments to articulate their value.
5. At the end of the month, Mike Ingram and I will be among the many authors featured at the new UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay. This will likely involve a like episode of Book Fight, in addition to some other events. Due to time and budget constraints, this looks like the only stop I'll be making in the midwest for now, so if you're near the area, I hope you'll consider coming out.
6. I wrote a short essay about the inner lives of sports mascots for The Classical, and had a lot of fun with it. It starts like this:
7. As it turns out, I may not be able to make it to DC for the Barrelhouse Conversations & Connections conference, though if you live in the area you should go, because there are so many great people there, and featured authors Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sarah Sweeney, Geeta Kothari, and Tara Campbell are worth the price of admission alone.
1. Fred, my father-in-law, died last weekend. His son walked into his apartment and found him dead on the floor. The cause of death is unknown, though there's no real mystery; he'd been obese for decades. His health was in decline. Last time I saw him, he was in the hospital after having his toe amputated due to complications from diabetes. But he was supposed to still be alive. Until that afternoon, his death was still theoretical.
2. I was on a bus in rural Virginia when my wife called to tell me the news. I didn't believe her, so she said it again, and a minute later, the call was dropped. I couldn't get Wi-Fi and the signal was so weak I couldn't text anyone. I tried to respond to her in all the possible ways, but I was in one of those strange few places where you're still incapable of contacting people. I wanted to tell her I was coming as fast as I could, but this wasn't technically true, and anyway, what did it matter? My instinct was to rush home and somehow save the day, but what could I do besides arrive at Fred's apartment and confirm that, yes, he was dead, and, yes, we were all sad? This was a useful reminder of my helplessness in the face of real problems; the world does whatever it's going to do, and you have no say in it. Your father-in-law dies sometime on Friday night and lies there on his apartment floor until the next day, and there's nothing you can do about it. You just ride the bus and when you get home, you hug your wife and tell her how sorry you are.
3. My first impulse was to write something about Fred. It's one of the only skills I have. As I sat on the bus taking notes on my phone, I quickly lost faith in the value of writing as a survival skill. And yet, a week later, here I am.
4. My own father died 14 years ago. His was a prolonged illness that gave us time to say our goodbyes and get affairs in order, to warn people, to try to gird ourselves against the injury of his loss. I remember so little about the days following his death, except that I delivered the eulogy, and that I was very angry at everything, and at night I would get so drunk it scared me and when I woke up I hated myself. Later, I wrote a book about it, and even later, I wrote another book driven by the fear of my wife's eventual death. Since then, I've written a book about a school shooting. If it seems sometimes like the only thing I write about is death, it's because that's the only thing, besides food, that I think about every day.
5. About Fred: he worked at La Salle, where I met my wife, and, though he was an enormous man, the size of an NFL offensive lineman, he was the least intimidating person I'd ever met. A different, worse, kind of man would have overstepped his boundaries trying to protect his daughter, using his access to every building on campus to check on us, asking his friends to spy on us. Instead, he would call her a half hour before stopping by her dorm room, then call again to ask if it was okay for him to come in. When he arrived, he would be carrying family sized bags of M&Ms and Wint-O-Green Life Savers. He would drive us to Wendy's and buy us lunch. From the moment he met me, he accepted me, and he trusted me to treat his daughter well. Later, when it became clear I would be around for a while, he began introducing me to strangers as one of his kids. When I had no father, he was there to fill that void. Some people never even get one father, and I was lucky enough to have had two.
6. This is where I'm supposed to share some anecdotes, to distill his existence into a few brief stories. One story will be funny and another will be heartfelt and poignant. Maybe the third will be a small moment that's somehow revealing of Fred's deeper character. Show, don't tell. Scene vs. summary. All that shit. I'm sorry, but I can't do that right now. You're just going to have to believe me when I say he was a very kind man who made the people around him better.
7. He had just moved to a new apartment, and the only time I'd been there, I was helping him unpack. Even though he'd moved several times in the past few years, and he'd shed a lot of his belongings, he still had so much stuff. He was a deeply sentimental man and had a hard time parting with his possessions. There was the flimsy plastic centerpiece we'd bought for his 60th birthday, three years ago. The carpet he'd been saving for 25 years, just in case he ever needed it, because it once belonged to his grandmother. The panoramic poster of the Milky Way he'd been carrying in his car trunk for at least 8 years, just in case he had time to get it framed. Christmas decorations of every conceivable size and shape. A series of file folders of incredible specificity, including Cable TV Remote Instructions, Tom-Fred Halloween, How to Read a Palm, and Snow History - Past Bad Winters. Two weeks after we unpacked his things, I was back in his house repacking everything, boxing some items to donate and bagging others for trash. The remainder is stacked in my basement so later my wife and her siblings can sort through it and determine which of of these things will constitute their inheritance. When I was twelve years old, I had to help clear out my grandmother's three-story house; she and her children had accumulated so much junk during the decades they'd lived there that it took us nearly three full days to empty everything. That weekend was, and still is, the hardest work I've done in my life. Since then, I've been afraid of leaving a mountain of junk behind me, have hated clutter and viewed it as a sort of prison, have tried annually to walk through my house and throw out anything I don't need because I don't want to subject someone else to sorting through all my odds and ends after I'm dead, trying to determine why I kept this newspaper clipping or that magnet. And yet, I felt impossibly sad when I pulled Fred's winter hat out of his car. I placed it on top of the Keepers pile for reasons I can't explain, except that it seemed too intimate a belonging to throw away, not when there are still loose hairs in there, not when it still seems like he might show up again with a cold head. I thought then: maybe clinging to every object is the only way to live. Maybe our junk is the thing that defines us. Maybe the only way to really know someone is to dig through their knick-knacks and garbage and see the things they valued beyond all reason.
8. The truth is, it doesn't feel like he's dead. I just haven't seen him for a couple weeks, which isn't unusual. That's all death is: it's not seeing someone again, for a very long time. Eventually, you see everyone for a last time, and you rarely know when it's coming. This is my final text to him: I think we've done 400 at 8-10. Tails on. It was about shrimp. Most of the time, your last words to someone are as meaningless as a guess at a shrimp recipe.
9. In the aftermath of the death, the procedural details are easy. You call the people you have to call. You arrange pictures artfully on a piece of poster board. You go through the motions of being alive because there's nothing else you can do. You tell everyone you're doing your best.
10. Okay, here's one story: when my memoir was published in 2010, I tried many unsuccessful marketing strategies, including setting up a sales table at a bar in Bethlehem, PA, where the Philadelphia Eagles hold their training camp. The book had an Eagles angle, and I hoped to intercept hundreds of Eagles fans between practices, sell out of fifty books in a couple hours, have a nice lunch, and head home. Fred drove with me, ninety minutes from his apartment, and sat there with me for five hours. We went home with forty-nine books, and that one sale was only because Fred had finally convinced the restaurant manager to buy one. One man asked me why anybody would ever write a book. Another spent a half hour telling me I was too young to have written a memoir, and he was the one who should have written a book. Several people asked me where to locate the restroom. Not only did Fred never complain about wasting a whole day to make one pity sale, but later he would talk about that day fondly, as if it had been a great success. The next year, he asked if I wanted to go again.
11. Fred's final years were a struggle, a litany of bad breaks and health problems, and every time he called, I worried he was going to tell me about some new catastrophe. We complained about him too often, about the ways he'd become a burden and the poor decisions he'd made-- eating badly, skipping his physical therapy, not applying for a new job, everything. We worried he would end up having to move in with us as he gradually lost his legs and his ability to work. We talked about the renovations we'd have to make to accommodate him. We dreaded having to become his full-time caretakers. As you get older, you spend more and more time complaining about your parents, their foibles and bad habits, even though you know their time is limited. You love them, but they also know how to annoy you in a way that nobody else can. The complaining is a kind of fear, that before long you'll adopt those same bad habits that annoy you so much. That eventually, you will decline and become demanding and frustrating, held hostage by your own character flaws. That you will wear out your welcome. Later, we felt guilty for all the complaining, for being so wrapped up in ourselves that we didn't realize how little time he had left. But that's an essential part of it too: the regret, the failures.
12. I got that phone call last weekend, and I wanted to rush home and I wanted to do something. I knew I couldn't save him, and I knew I could only do so much to help my wife, but what I wanted to do more than anything was to be there in the moment and to see him, to bear witness to his life. To say, yes, this man lived, and he was good. It wasn't always the life he wanted but it was a life still, and it mattered, no matter how you parse all the details.
13. One of the happiest times of Fred's life was when he worked for the Girl Scouts. He told me often that the number one rule at camp was to always leave a site in better condition than it was in when you'd found it. We don't get to determine how people remember us, but if he could, I think he would want everyone to know that nobody ever worked harder at following that rule.
It's been a full week of book-related action, including a fun but exhausting trip down to Washington, DC for the AWP conference, where I met a lot of cool, supportive people who were very excited about reading the novel. Full details/links below:
1) Research Notes at Necessary Fiction - In which I discuss my (probably not great) research habits as a writer, and specifically what I had to research to write The Young Widower's Handbook
2) Salon Author Questionnaire - A group Q & A with authors Cara Hoffman, Sara Flannery Murphy, Jason Rekulak and Amanda Eyre Ward. Some fun questions in this one, including, "How do you contend with the hubris of thinking anyone has or should have any interest in what you have to say about anything?"
3) Huffington Post interview - Brandi Megan Granett asks a few questions about point-of-view, writing masculinity, and more
4) Radio Times interview - I linked this in my last post, but, I don't know, here it is again. A 50-minute interview about writing, teaching, grief, and a lot more. The very bad picture at the top of this post is of the control room at WHYY.
5) Largehearted Boy playlist - for the great Largehearted Boy site, I compiled a playlist of songs to accompany this book, and talked a bit a bout how music influences my own work.
6) Review at The Big Smoke - A really nice review by Joseph Edwin Haeger. A sample: “What is appealing about The Young Widower’s Handbook isn’t that it’s funny and entertaining, but that it is both of those things while being honest about grief. Even though it’s a sad book (I mean, what do you expect from the title?), it’s a book full of truths that speak to the full human experience, from happiness to sadness and everything in between.”
7) ADDED 2/14: I wrote a piece for the "If My Book" series on Monkeybicycle, in which I compare the novel to a variety of sights and sounds you'd encounter on a road trip.
I have events coming up on 2/15 (3:30 at Temple U's Paley Library, and 7 PM at the Cherry Hill Barnes & Noble) and 2/23 at the Tirefire Reading Series in Philly.
A number of options for those of you who have a burning desire to hear my voice (which, as an aside, one thing I've learned over the past four years that babies really like my voice for reasons I can't explain, they just stop what they're doing and snap to attention, so maybe if you have young children, you can set up a playlist of me talking about things and your baby will be soothed and calm and everyone will be happy*).
1. I was on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi. We talked about sports fandom, death, and mourning.
2. I was on the #CNF podcast with Brendan O'Meara. We talked about podcasting, editing Barrelhouse, shifting between fiction and nonfiction, and finding urgency in your writing.
3. I was on The Drunken Odyssey with John King. We talked about my memoir "Bury Me in My Jersey," the problem of being a football fan, structuring books, writing about love, and a bunch of other stuff.
4. The Young Widower's Handbook is available as an audiobook through Audible. A sample below:
1. Last week, the literary journal JMWW published my short essay, "See You in a While." It's about drinking beer on my deck with my dog and trying to appreciate good things. It'll take you less than 5 minutes to read.
2. Today, the lit website The Millions published a piece I wrote about how podcasts can build communities and change the way we discuss books. As I say in the essay, "Literary podcasts are like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine." I say more stuff besides that too. Read it here.
3. Booklist reviewed my book and said, "McAllister’s debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby." So that's a good thing.
4. I've been adding lots of events over the past week. Starting 1/21, I'll be making the rounds, with a bunch of stuff in Philly and South Jersey, but also events in VT, GA, Boston, DC, and hopefully some more places soon. See the full listing here, and check back for future updates.
This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse.
The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.
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Do you know what a catch is?
This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?
The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.
On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.
Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.
Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.
And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?
When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.
I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.
Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.
I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.
I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.
The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.
These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.
The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.
The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.
In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.
The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.
While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.
With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.
A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be ruled a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.
As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.
Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence
The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.