Today, we feature an author interview with Thomas Page McBee. I first became familiar with Thomas’s work through this piece on Salon.com and his ongoing column on The Rumpus, and I was struck by the smartness and poignancy of his writing. I appreciate the way he observes people and incidents, keenly and from all angles, like turning a glass object around in your hand. Enjoy his words.
1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:
I do a lot of fact checking for my day job, which sounds dry but is actually a beautiful thing. I find I don’t know what I think I know (how to spell “Robert De Niro,” for instance). I have to adopt a position of healthy skepticism, which is different than doubt. It’s a curiosity. So, that’s a metaphor. Though I no longer work with a paper dictionary, my life is rich with reference material: online dictionaries that contradict my spell-check chief among them. I’m always reading definitions, figuring out how words work. I love the logic behind AP Style, grammar as architecture, the construction of language. Metaphors everywhere! I traffic in them.
2. What is your current favorite word?
I’ve been drawn to muscular words like hamstrung lately. I like the combination of jargon, a powerful image, and the right kind of sound in the mouth.
3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?
Ugh. Moist. It’s effective; just too effective.
4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?
Vulnerability. Though now I think I’m moving into a different space. Instead of looking at the phrase “Be Vulnerable” before I write, I’m visualizing “Have heart.” For me, there are a lot more dimensions in the latter, and it’s a key shift. With vulnerability, courage can be a byproduct, but with heart, courage — in all of its forms — is the actual engine. I see my relationship to this imaginary reader like I would anyone: sometimes there’s room for all of me, but usually you’re getting a slice. And that’s connection, that offering. It feels more real to me than just full-blown exposure, then asking to be understood. I’m not asking any more, I’m making a dynamic and welcoming you in.
5. For The Rumpus, you write a column—or essays in installments—entitled Self-Made Man? If you were to write a dictionary entry for “self-made,” what would it say?
To construct, with awareness and authenticity, a meaningful sense of self; an imprecise, endless fashioning.
6. In a recent essay of yours: “Self-Made Man: In Real Life,” you talk about the intersection of public vs. private and visibility vs. invisibility, particularly having to do with other people’s expectations and perceptions of you. I particularly loved this: “I think that we need to quit feeling obligated to trumpet our multitudes at the start of every interaction.” I’m wondering if you could speak a little to these concepts of (in)visibility and public/private life in terms of language and particular words. How can language serve to make us visible or invisible? Or, when does language fail us in our interactions with one another?
I think a lot about public and private space; what we reveal and what we hide and why. I think about it more now that I’ve experienced a gender transition, which just highlights for me all the ways I pass. It makes me question what passing even means; the negative implication is around being something we’re not, but I think it’s about being interpreted through one lens. I used to want to eliminate reductionism of that sort, but now I’m moved into a sense of it as not only a necessary way to maintain privacy and boundaries, but an opportunity to learn more about who I am through the ways I’m visible and invisible, the echolocation of what I put out there in all my shifting.
I think a lot about invisibility, about accepting what it has to offer. I think about the way identity is created and curated on the Internet in fragments; how self-conscious it is. And I think that’s a neutral quality, self-consciousness, where I used to feel otherwise. I’m just interested in what it is to be human, and I think narrative is a way to create a visibility that holds even in moments of invisibility: by which I mean, I think understanding oneself is to understand others, and that’s what allows us to not fail each other — in language or otherwise.
Also, it’s okay that we fail each other.
7. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:
bar·rel (ˈbarəl), n. [ME. barel; OFr. baril; ? < LL. barra, a stave, bar; see BAR, n.], 1. a large, wooden, cylindrical container with sides that bulge outweard and flat ends, made usually of staves bound together with hoops. 2. the capacity or contents of a standard barrel (in the United States, usually 31 1/2 gallons; in Great Britain, 36 imperial gallons; in dry measure, various amounts, as 196 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of pork or fish, etc.): abbreviated bbl., bl., bar. 3. a revolving cylinder, wound with a chain or rope: as, the barrel of a windlass. 4. any hollow or solid cylinder: as, the barrel of a fountain pen. 5. the straight tube of a gun, which directs the projectile. 6. the quill of a father. 7. the body of a horse, cow, etc. 8. [Colloq.], a great amount: as, a barrel of fun
It’s interesting to think that that which contains is also a system of measure. And, of course, how we have pushed that measurement into the soft space of the immeasurable: a barrel of laughs, for instance. I’m interested in measurement, in containment. I guess I haven’t been thinking enough about barrels.
gang·li (gang’gli), ganglio—
[gang·li-o— (gang’gliə), a combining verb meaning ganglion, as in ganglioplexus
gang·li-on (gaNGglēən), n. [pl. GANGLIA (ə), GANGLIONS (-ənz)], [LL. < Gr. ganglion, tumor], 1. a mass of nerve cells serving as a center from which nerve impulses are transmitted. 2. a center of force, energy, activity, etc. 3. a small tumor growing on a tendon.]
I have thought a lot about neurobiology, especially mirror neurons. I’m not sure how connected this concept is to ganglions but since I’m not a scientist, I choose to not worry about that. Mirror neurons seem to me a biological imperative for empathy. They act when seeing another animal performing a similar action: you flinch when someone else gets hit by a ball. We all learn so much through reaction. There’s a baby that lives upstairs, a toddler now, and she went through a whole period where she behaved exactly like her dog: barking at strangers in a soft woof. We are each other more than we know.
tab (tab) n. [earlier also tabb < Eng. Dial.; in some senses contr. Of tablet; in others, associated or merged with tag], 1. a small, flat loop or strap fastened to something for pulling it, hanging it up, etc. 2. a small, usually ornamental, flap or piece fastened to the edge or surface of something, as a dress, coat, etc. 3. an attached or projecting piece of a card or paper, useful in filing. 4. [Colloq.] a record; reckoning. 5. in aeronautics, a small auxiliary airfoil set into the trailing edge of an aileron, etc.
It’s interesting that human technology goes so far beyond our modern digital definitions. To think, the person who first created a tab. I always imagine buttonholes: what it would feel like to put your coat on for the first time with such ease. Revolutionary actions need not be large, just profound. I try to remember that.
fa·çade (/fəˈsäd), n. [Fr.; It. facciata < faccia; LL. facia; see FACE] 1. the front of a building; part of a building facing a courtyard, etc; hence, 2. the front part of anything: often used figuratively, with implications of an imposing appearance concealing something inferior.
Thinking about if it’s possible to have a façade that doesn’t “conceal something inferior.” Inferior! I mean a façade of calm, of strength, of ease doesn’t necessarily conceal an inferiority, just a complexity that isn’t public. It’s interesting to think of all the ways we attach value, even in areas of supposed neutrality (the dictionary, straight journalism, you know, language). To think that there’s an authoritative source for anything feels very dangerous to me. My own narrative is multiple, how can I ever believe that the world is anything but a prism of perspective, blended?
hy·pog·na·thous (ˈhī¦pägnəthəs), adj. [hypo + gnathous], having a protruding lower jaw.
I’m not sure I understand if this word applies to humans or only insects, but I do know that having a pronounced jaw was my dream for a long time, and now it’s a reality. Like I said, I believe in the profound, however small the container.
*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.
Thomas Page McBee pens a column about masculinity, “Self-Made Man,” for The Rumpus. Find his work in the New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, Salon, the San Francisco Weekly, and the Boston Phoenix, where he is an editor. His manuscript, THIS FRAGILE FORTRESS, about crime, forgiveness, and what makes a man, won the Mary Tanenbaum Nonfiction award from the San Francisco Foundation and was a finalist for the Bakeless Literary prize. He’s spoken about his work at colleges across the country. To learn more, visit thomaspagemcbee.com or follow him on Twitter, @thomaspagemcbee.
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