I am anticipating an uptick in traffic to my humble little compost heap today because of my “Me Fund” essay on The Billfold. Hi, Billfolders! This seems a great time to introduce some of the material I’ll be posting here in the coming weeks. As I noted in the Me Fund piece, I’m taking a writing class right now. I’m going to be posting all of my assignments here for the sake of accountability and habit. Below is the first, which was for our “autobiographical” essay assignment.
“I’m not sold on ‘biting’ as a practice.” It was a clumsy, incomplete thought prompted by a beautiful, towering sandwich, but really. The point of a sandwich is to pick it up and bite it, and as anyone who has been to a restaurant in the last five years will confirm, biteable sandwiches are an all-but lost art outside of the home kitchen.
I can admit and even appreciate that the presentation was great: stacked neatly on one side of the white rectangular plate, all of its colorful elements were on display. It was a lovely sight, but you’d need the jaws of a Burmese python just to get it in your mouth, and its contents would squish out the other side under the slightest pressure. Sometimes I’m up for the challenge and the resulting mess, but that day, thanks to chapped winter skin and the needless aggression of my flossing routine, I had a cut on the corner of my mouth where my lips join. It cracked and bled every time I opened my mouth too wide. I wasn’t going to make my face bleed just to honor that farce of a sandwich. I shouldn’t have had to, anyway.
As I proceeded to cut the sandwich into a dozen pieces- and watched it fall apart even under the precision of a knife and fork- I elaborated on my initial rejection. “No one can fit this in their mouth. They plate it like this, it looks nice, and then you’re forced to destroy it because you can’t possibly eat it as it’s served. Why make a sandwich that can’t be eaten as a sandwich?”
I’m a suspicious, prickly person: usually on edge, always anxious, never amused. I’ve always been like this. At my Hebrew nursery school, I liked using blocks, drawing, coloring, and making things, but I didn’t cotton to activities like, “making pretend spaghetti” in the Playskool kitchen. One of the teachers once pantomimed stirring sauce in a plastic pot and held it out to me, saying, “See? See, I’m cooking meatballs!” and I responded, without hesitation or humor, “There’s nothing in there.” I was a darling child.
I didn’t lack for imagination. I invented elaborate personalities and adventures for my menagerie of stuffed animals and wrote stories as soon as I could write a sentence, but those were from my imagination. My imagination and my peers’ and teachers’ imaginations were not the same, so no, I did not see the pretend meatballs and I thought it presumptuous for my teacher to expect me to be party to the reality in her head- Seamlessly! Just like that, “See the meatballs?” Of course I don’t see any fucking meatballs, they’re in your head– with no warning. Couldn’t she have warned me, asked me if I agreed to the details of her internal fantasy?
I didn’t appreciate being put on the spot. It seemed to me that if “they’re imaginary” was a valid explanation, why, my peers and teachers could say anything! What was to stop anyone in that room from assuming the right to intrude upon my internal fantasy with the details of their own?
I don’t remember what I did instead, but I definitely didn’t make imaginary meatballs. I think I walked away without another word.
I wasn’t sold on imaginary meatballs any more than I am now sold on unbiteable sandwiches, on ironic fashion, on sarcasm as a way of life, or on the (near-universally-accepted) advice that people should “play hard to get” to win someone’s affection. All of these things have a way of getting under my skin, the resulting frustration entirely out of proportion to the initial offense.
But I am only like this because I prefer sincerity. I prefer forthrightness and honesty. I consider it ideal to serve food that’s user-friendly, tell someone what you’re thinking and how you feel, and to wear things because you like them. I don’t want my sandwiches, playtime, relationships, and clothing to be rife with performance and justification and guessing-games. That sounds confusing to me. I can’t accurately appreciate those things on the quality of their irony or prevarications or their disguise as something else- why even bother? Why present something that so intentionally refuses an honest response? I mean, I do get it. It’s just that more often than not, I both get the joke and hate it.
Sincerity, especially when it comes to the self, is a hard sell. If you present your honest self to the world without the armor of some elaborate farce or justification or ironic joke, you are exposed. The world will respond to you, and you can’t claim, “They just don’t get it,” or “That isn’t even the real me.” It’s safer to dance around something than to state the naked truth, thus presenting your intentions- green and delicate- unguarded.
Yet, isn’t that little green bud always in there, somewhere, under all the high-concept window dressing? Isn’t that what you want people to see eventually? And isn’t it terribly lonely to stand before someone who has formed an opinion of you without even knowing your truth?
I don’t intend to preach. When someone meets me, they have a pretty clear picture of my basics within the hour, assuming they want to. Someone who does not want to accept or understand you- you and your sandwich, or your imaginary meatballs, or your ironic outfit- will fail to get it no matter how honest or guarded you are. People will either like you and get you, or they won’t. I say, the sooner the truth comes out, the better.