Getting to Midway Airport has frayed my nerves. Illinois drivers perpetually going 120 was nothing new; they’ve stopped using blinkers too.
I’ve never flown out of Midway. I find it to be one of the airports of all time. We grab a pint. That and Southwest’s broken in-flight WiFi make reading on the plane easy to sink into.
My book is The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The first thing Gutenberg did with his printing press was not creating the Gutenberg Bible, a later side hustle of his, but printing indulgences, pieces of paper you could buy to have your sins redeemed.
Instead of dog-earing the bottom of this page, I take a photo. Apple detects the text, making it searchable.
I grow restless. I watch lightning over Colorado. I listen to Tems and Billie Marten. I try to sleep for two hours and succeed for ten minutes.
We arrive just after midnight. Our friend picks us up and takes us to our hotel in Jack London Square. We get out of the car and are spritzed by frigid August air. It’s good to be back.
We go to Firebrand for breakfast sandwiches the next morning, then Goth Target for some supplies. The number of new indie coffee shops we pass, though not unwelcome, raises basic questions of economics.
Sitting by the pool is the move. On the way down we see a pickup with a decal of Trump’s face on the window. We don’t get the joke.
Seconds after getting settled we find it’s not a joke. Several middle aged people come out onto a third floor balcony holding drinks and scream-talking. The men are wearing shirts with a trucking company’s name in red, white, and blue block letters and those chunky sunglasses that look like oil slicks glomming onto the top half of your face.
I can read in any circumstances, but I also have to update the group chat on this development. And Google the company on their shirts. It’s based in a small town just north of Merced. I end up reading Substack posts on my phone with my book in my other hand. It’s called compromise.
We go inside and get ready. Our friend catches up on the current season of Love Island on her iPad. I tell her to pay close attention to what’s going on with Abi, Scott, and Mitch; their fiasco will be relitigated heavily in episodes to come.
We drive about half an hour inland to a wooded area twenty minutes south of my hometown. This area, I explain, is where the teachers and coaches at my schools went to find greener pastures.
I recall someone asking my third grade teacher, point blank, out of the blue, how old she was. Without skipping a beat: old enough to know better. At the time, nervous scattered laughter. A general inability to make heads or tails of her reply. Now: a mood, Mrs. Roberts. A whole mood.
The ceremony is perfect. The groom walks out to a moving piano song that I realize is a Tenacious D cover. The officiant mentions speaking with the bride’s family to get a better sense of who she is; she shoots them a “what did you tell him” look. All laugh.
At cocktail hour I ask the bartender for a gin and tonic. He says “lemon or lime?” which I hear as “lemon or not?” and I say “sure.” He gives me a blank look and asks which. I realize what has happened and for some reason pick lemon.
We go to our tables. We briefly introduce ourselves to the strangers sitting with us, and then we all carry on conversations with the people we came with. I feel more socially anxious than I have in months. I realize it’s right around golden hour and I’m never dressed this well so I make my friend get up with me to go take a couple photos.
We come back. Our conversations merge. Our tablemates are great, of course. We pour each other wine, talk about work, and share stories of celebrities we’ve met. One woman worked at Pixar for many years and was once ambushed by Sarah Silverman while setting up for a presentation. We commiserate about our hunger and then about the dizzying number of salads we had to choose from.
They cut the cake. Dessert, dancing, talking, drinking, milling. I meet the friend of a friend I came with, who had existed only in her stories for so long that it was a running joke that he didn’t exist. At the cornhole boards, I toss a bag for the first time in about ten years, and it goes in.
I try in vain to convince people that chocolate Krispy Kreme donuts are better than the standard kind, as you get the exact same taste for most of it, but with chocolate, too. They say the chocolate isn’t good enough to replace the original flavor. Of what? Pure sugar? Be serious.
We talk with a couple who have a small child. They’ve moved somewhere closer to the child’s grandmother, a godsend for childcare but apparently the source of an overaccumulation of toys, which leaves their kid overstimulated at times, and the house messy. I realize I’ve done the same with my dogs.
I learn (not the hard way, thank God) why you can’t say to someone whose dress has sleeves you like, “I like your sleeves.” It implies you don’t like the dress. You have to say: “I love your dress, the sleeves are so cool.”
On a return trip to the bar I recount to the bartender the cause of our misunderstanding from earlier. He laughs it off and shares the fact that whiskey sours can have both lemon and lime, though it’s nonstandard. I share the fact that lemons and oranges get their flavors from “righthand” and “lefthand” versions of the same molecule.
It grows late. The bride and groom had mentioned a bar they want to go to afterward but people are lolligagging and we’re not sure if we’re going to make it. We take turns describing how totally not tired we are at all.
A sharply dressed child tells us he’s four. The time between elections and Olympics. Practically nothing. I am that times eight. I simultaneously feel like I’ve barely been alive for any time at all, because eight times nothing is still nothing, and like I’m ancient.
We do reach the bar. A cover band who happens to be there plays “Yellow” by Coldplay for the bride and groom. When they finish, the guitarist says the next one can be a love song too, if we want. It’s “Man in the Box” by Alice in Chains.
My wakefulness is doing well for 3 AM Central; I briefly fear my social battery is not, and running on fumes. I need not have. I quickly make someone’s night just by telling him he looks exactly like Christian Bale (which he does) and giving him vindication with someone he’s with who (wrongly) thinks he looks more like Wil Wheaton or Bradley Cooper. I run into someone who went to my high school, despite neither of us having ever been to this bar. I get a temporary tattoo pressed onto my face.
The next morning I wake up feeling fairly uncomfortable. Hung over, can’t get back to sleep, hungry. But just like the night before, walking into the hotel a human icicle, my heart is too full to care much.
In The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes:
Now that the context of reading is again shifting, from the private page to the communal screen, authors will adapt once more. They will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the essayist Caleb Crain describes as "groupiness," where people read mainly "for the sake of a feeling of belonging" rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style. Writing will become a means for recording chatter.
I typically worry that my writing bucks this trend too hard, loitering too long in the abstract. Writing this post I began to worry that I unintentionally overcorrected on this one. Neither is worthwhile, of course, because one should have the courage to write whatever the hell one wants.
Liquid courage is great. I’m frankly surprised I’ve never had a problem with it. It obliterates concerns like these, and concerns at social events (like weddings) around whether I’m being loud enough or too loud. Whether I’m defending my opinions enough or too much. But while it lowers inhibitions, it’s not an underlying motivator to push us past them. Only other things can do that. Virtues. Wanting to do right by people, wanting to be better.
Most virtues, including courage, are forms of willpower. Courage requires exerting will over fear; wisdom requires exerting it over ignorance; love, in a great many cases, is simply the act of exerting it over selfishness.
One also learns as one gets older that willpower is more than a bucket of fuel, running down, getting replenished; it’s also a garden you cultivate. You exercise it regularly to maintain your store of it. Using none and falling into passive consumption can replenish it for a time, and can then become much more of a drain than overdrawing your account. You have to roll it like a snowball into more of itself, a sphere of solid willpower, solid courage.
Sometimes I feel like I’m tolerating and navigating other people; other times I enjoy their company and resonate with them. I don’t want to make this a morality tale and say liquid courage should never be used to switch from the former to the latter, or that it’s antithetical to willpower. I don’t think this is true and it would also be fairly hypocritical.
What I can say is that there’s another kind that’s not as elusive as it may seem and, in the way it exercises underlying willpower, contributes to many other areas of life. A basic willingness to put yourself out there; a basic faith in humanity that you extend both to yourself and to the ability of others to perceive you without undue maliciousness. It doesn’t come magically and can’t be bought it at the airport bar. It has to be exercised in small ways fairly often. Still, like many plants, it’s more than worth the trouble required to keep it alive.