The thingies can make the difference between a wonderful poem and one that’s not quite there. We want to write books that expand our view of the world, that dare to examine the relation between thought and action, that want to explore new worlds. How are thingies relevant to these goals?

You may as well ask how fingers are relevant to hands.

And perhaps you now point out that your brain has something to do with moving your fingers.

And now you point out that your heart has something to do with what your brain decides.

More… “Always Sweat the Small Stuff”

I remember reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands back in fourth grade. The follow-up to that was going to see the play at a local theater. Though lost on me at the time, I realize now that there was a reason why we were encouraged, as inner-city youth, to get into Ben Carson. He was someone the adults wanted us to look up to. He had “pulled himself up by his boot straps,” with the assistance of his illiterate mother and food stamps, of course. I was at the age where I was eager to collect role models, and I found most of them in books, so I kept Carson’s story in mind for encouragement, re-reading it on my own once or twice.

There were some parallels between Carson’s life and my own that might have drawn me to him. My mother was fairly strict, and even after she went to prison, my brother and I lived with a Seventh-day Adventist family who also had very conservative guidelines on how everyone should live. I spent most of my life in predominantly white schools, so I was no stranger to the toll racism can take on a student. The dwindling number of black classmates as the years progressed was also an indication. Unlike Carson, violence had never been an issue for me, and though my grades were not always the best, I was a bookworm and was praised heavily for it. Since most people around me didn’t read, it didn’t matter that I was mostly reading fluffy romance novels. Just being a kid that was willing to pick up a book meant something. Stories like Carson’s were comforting to me because I knew people measured my worth by how smart they believed me to be. Being smart meant that you were going places, though no one ever specified where those places were.

More… “The American Dream”

Towards the end of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a newly graduated magistrate is sent to a small Colombian town to investigate the circumstances surrounding the murder of the novel’s ill-fated protagonist, Santiago Nasar. 25 years after the murder, the narrator, conducting his own investigation, travels to the Palace of Justice in Riohacha to examine the magistrate’s report. Although the narrator can’t find the magistrate’s name on any of the surviving papers, “it was obvious that he was a man burning with the fever of literature. He had doubtless read the Spanish classics and a few Latin ones, and he was quite familiar with Nietzsche, who was the fashionable author among magistrates of his time . . . He was so perplexed by the enigma that fate had touched him with, that he kept falling into lyrical distractions that ran contrary to the rigor of his profession.”

More… “He’s Got the Fever”

A few months ago, I decided to take a sentimental stroll through my old uptown neighborhood in New York City. It was about four in the afternoon that late autumn day when I exited the subway station at 145th and Broadway. Since it was cold, I wore a heavy leather coat, a black turtleneck with matching jeans, and black Timberland boots. Besides the McDonald’s on the corner, the one Jay-Z refers to on “Empire State of Mind,” little remains from those years when I was just another shortie growing-up along the way.

After years of neglect due to drugs, it was nice seeing new shops, restaurants, and clothing stores opening, but, at the same time, it was depressing to peep through the window of one bar/restaurant and see no faces of color except for the dishwasher. Walking down the avenue, I stared at the unfamiliar storefronts that used to be something else, as well as the newly built structures that will one day serve as landmarks in the memories of the new kids when they are middle-aged and obsessed with the way things used to be.

More… “Homeboy”

Few have ever witnessed the dehumanizing potential of mass society so up close as Bruno Bettelheim. After internment at Dachau and Buchenwald, Bettelheim came to America, where he served as director of the Orthogenic School at the University of Chicago from 1944 to 1973. There, he practiced what might be best described as a humanistic form of psychoanalytic theory. His approach was profoundly influenced by his experience of the camps, and, because of this, he went on to view his students — most living with either autism or prior emotional trauma — as struggling to develop an authentic sense of self in balance with an authentic sense of community. It’s important to note too that “authentic” here means what is emotionally and psychologically sustainable, derived from profound consideration of one’s self and one’s community. Many who were closest to Bettelheim in his decades at the school speak of his steadfast dedication to the regeneration of his young students, but, it should be noted, considerable controversy has mounted on this subject (and his reputation in general) since his death. More… “You, Me, and Everyone Else”

Since the winter of 1995, I have had an ongoing love affair. It has continued even to this day, nearly 21 years later. I have been engaged in this romance, if you will, during the course of several relationships and my marriage. I have always been open and honest about my love for Luciano and I will continue to maintain the open and honest attitude about him in any future relationships.

People change over time. Relationships change and evolve, or end. However, Luciano is the one constant in my life. While my thoughts and ideas about him have changed, I can say the changes are positive ones. That is, as I have matured, the way that I think of him has also matured. As I have spent the years watching him, drinking in every nuance of his movements as he speaks or walks across a room, I have moved beyond a mere infatuation. I have become enamored by him: his presence, his work and humanitarianism, and his care and compassion for others. More… “My Love Affair with Luciano”

My better half Rebekah and I are turning our basement into an izakaya. The reason: I’m obsessed. Also, because izakayas have a singular feel that no other social space can match, and I want perpetual access to that.

An izakaya is a Japanese bar that serves food, not the other way around. You drink while you eat a succession of small plates. Aesthetically, there is no one type, and the name izakaya is widely and vaguely applied, but the ones you commonly see in urban Japan have an aesthetic you might call “pub cluttered.” I like the way they look, stuffed with sake and whisky bottles, posters, hanging red lanterns, and people drinking at low tables made of beer crates under wooden signs whose Japanese characters could say “Hey ugly!” for all I know. Izakayas swallow you up. The clutter feels like a cozy blanket. I want to feel that at home. When the world can’t deliver, you have to make things yourself. We’re trying to make a lair, a lounge, a burrow, not a gendered “man cave,” but a cozy place to read books, listen to records, talk with friends, or be alone. And as people in Tokyo know, there are few spaces as snug as a room underground.

More… “Our Basement Izakaya”

June can be the cruelest month in London . . . if you originally come from Spain. At this point in the year, most cities in the Iberian Peninsula showcase a splendid sun: a warning of the blazing summer that is to come.

But this was not the case in the gayish Soho district. It was a rainy and chilly afternoon as I hurried along, weaving my way through the crowded Shaftesbury Avenue. I was late for my coffee with Robbie Rojo, a tanned and good-looking expat from Cadiz who I knew well from the internet. Still, I had almost no knowledge of him. This is usually the case with porn stars. If you have seen them in action, you know very intimate details about them, but you have almost no idea about who they really are. “Will his demeanor be as wild as his performances on screen?”, I wondered as I looked for him in the Starbucks of Wardour Street.

What brought us together on that gray London day were intellectual concerns. For a long time, men have commercialized the female body through the media, especially in porn. A Netflix show, Hot Girls Wanted, has recently brought many of these stories to light. But what about those men who become objects of pleasure for other men? “Who is the person behind the body? How do you live your life when you become an object of desire?”, I asked Robbie on Facebook. He found my highbrow doubts amusing. He was the first of many. Over the past year, I have been in touch with a good number of gay porn stars. Much maligned sometimes, yet also secretly imitated and revered, these men had many things to say about the ups and downs of a profession greatly transformed by the internet in recent years.

More… “Sacred Monsters”

Among the overlooked gems of the influential but short-lived genre known as New Journalism is the curious account of the violent conflict between a small band of country hippies and local businessmen in rural Missouri in the spring of 1972. Uniquely evocative of its era, Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse by Joe Eszterhas is set in the waning days of the war in Vietnam as America’s heartland is riding its last great wave of prosperity. Within two to three decades, countless Midwestern towns would be decimated by the 1980s farm crisis, the loss of good paying (read: union) manufacturing jobs, and the methamphetamine and heroin epidemics.

At the time, however, town elders in villages like Harrisonville, Missouri were focused on a more tangible enemy in the guise of a few shaggy-haired, weed-smoking ne’er-do-wells — many of whom were disillusioned Vietnam vets — instead of rising land prices, mounting debt, disastrous trade policies, and the rise of corporate agriculture. More… Charlie Simpson’s Apocalypse

Graduation week has special meaning to me as a university professor: It signals the end of my time with my students and the beginning of their new professional careers. As we end the academic year, I am remembering graduation week last summer. I spent part of my sabbatical from my university in Philadelphia at Sun Yat-sen University in the Guangdong province of southern China. The Sun Yat-sen University campus looks a lot like my own university campus during graduation time, with students clad in black graduation gowns milling around campus, many carrying bouquets of flowers and followed by misty-eyed parents and grandparents who keep stopping to snap pictures and take videos of their darling offspring. (And who can blame them for being so proud? I wept openly with pride throughout both of my children’s preschool graduations, and all they had to do to graduate was show up to class and not bite the other children.)

More… “Exchanging Notes”