I'm forever behind the trends, which is part of why I've never set up a blog of my own. My sophomore year in college, a class was supposed to include reading postings from Chiapas on the World Wide Web (we were still calling it that) and I was so intimidated by this that I debated dropping the class. I also recently heard myself say, as if from a great distance, "I don't get the point of Facebook. I can just call someone." In actuality I was not wearing a little tweed hat with a feather and leaning on a gnarled cane, but I was in spirit.
So anyway, here I've leapt into waters unknown to me but charted by millions of thirteen year olds before me, and I'm feeling rather proud. I'll do my best not to let it degenerate into one of those personal yet not at all juicy diaries ("I saw Bob the other day. He looked great. I also ate some eggs") or lists of products I'd like to purchase ("A nice pair of flip-flops"). If I sense either coming on, I'll stave it off by spilling some nefarious secret that should never see the light of day. Not one of mine, of course, but someone's.
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I just came home from a week in glorious Madison, Wisconsin, where the beer is locally brewed, the cheese curds squeak between your teeth, and bratwurst covers the land as far as the eye can see. It is a lovely place — a small city with a lot of the amenities of a larger one, great restaurants, big lakes, and a killer farmers market. I lived there (the city, not the market) for seven years before moving to New York, and I think I imprinted on it.
But of course, nothing is perfect. While in Wisconsin I also spent some time at a strange little amusement park bounded on one side by a dairy farm and on the other by a large graveyard. Every now and again as my nephew and I were risking our lives on a rickety rollercoaster called The Necksnapper or something similar, we'd be drenched in a hot breeze redolent of sun-heated cow and cow-related products. I'd grip the handlebars of our personal deathtrap as we hurtled around hairpin turns and think of the century-old graveyard on one side and the hundred cows in the sere yellow fields on the other, us humans in the middle, climbing into metal contraptions with rubber bumpers so we could playfully ram each other senseless. The moment felt faintly absurd and maybe a little profound, some armchair anthropology with a touch of sunstroke.
The same feeling overtook me several years ago when I was at a bar, watching people dance to a blues band. For some reason I started focusing on a father and his twenty-something daughter, who were dancing enthusiastically. I was sitting this one out, feeling a little congested and itchy. (Later I realized I was in the very beginnings of anaphylactic shock, but that's not important right now. Hospital, epinephrine, home.) Anyway, I was watching the people on the stage as they beat skins with sticks and blew into finely calibrated metal tubes and strummed strings stretched over hollow wooden backings, and all the people below them moving to the sounds they made. It felt very simple and very sweet to me, the whole idea that humans somehow invented music and then kept revising and building it, and that we all seem to enjoy finding some way to move to it. (At this point in the story I am often asked to clarify: I was not stoned.) It's a bizarre phenomenon, but to me the great pleasure of it, the thing that makes me think humans aren't totally lost yet, is that it isn't strictly necessary to survival. I assume we began this for pleasure, and to some extent, continue it for pleasure, though it offers more profound effects as well. It also offers Nickelback, but that goes back to that "nothing's perfect" thing again.
The same thing — not truly necessary but needed nevertheless — could be said about storytelling. Once I was asked at an author visit in Atlanta what purpose fiction served in the world today, from a student who seemed skeptical it had any real purpose at all. I've spent so much time in fiction classes and working for a literary magazine that it had been a long time since I'd questioned the purpose of it all. I love it; that's my purpose. Yet I thought it was a fair question — maybe this student was a poli-sci major, or pre-med, and the idea of telling stories to one another was not impressing her as a life-or-death pursuit.
I found myself saying that literature, producing and consuming it, was an act of empathy, maybe one of the most empathetic acts possible, and that the world seems so short on empathy, on the simple ability to imagine a life outside our own towns and skins, that if anything we need more of it. It was an off-the-cuff response but I actually still believe it's true. It's like talking to as many people as you can, who see the world in as many different ways possible. If music can draw me out of myself and into some other space altogether, fiction gets me out of myself and into someone else. And of course sometimes it simply occupies me enough to prevent going pop-eyed with rage on the subway, which perhaps is more important.
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Michelle Wildgen is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You and editor of the anthology Food and Booze. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, Best New American Voices, Best Food Writing, and various anthologies and journals. A senior editor at Tin House Magazine, she lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Books mentioned in this post
Michelle Wildgen is the author of But Not for Long