My Modern Love Essay is in The New York Times

One evening a couple weeks ago I woke up from a nap and groggily checked my phone, then my email. Sitting in my inbox was a message from Daniel Jones, editor of the Modern Love column at The New York Times. Even if you haven’t heard his name, it’s likely you’ve read, or perhaps even listened to, his work.

I have been familiar, probably even obsessed, with the Modern Love column for years. As far as essayists are concerned, there is no bigger platform. One former contributor to the column called it the literary equivalent of landing a spot on American Idol.

It’s incredibly difficult to get an essay published in Modern Love. I imagine this is because it’s highly competitive, but also because the timing has to be right. For instance, I read that one of the essays chosen in 2012 had better odds as it focused on Mormonism because Mitt Romney was running for president. Even still, timing is always tricky. Last year I wrote an essay about my mom. I submitted the piece a month before Mother’s Day, hoping it would be accepted in time for the holiday. It’s always good to think ahead. Still, I ended up waiting four months for a reply, only to be rejected. You just never know how the submission process will go.

But, like any persistent writer, I tried again.

This year I decided to send in another submission, but change things up a bit. I’ll try to take you through my creative process, but bear with me, describing what goes on in my mind could get messy.

I knew I needed to nail down a unique topic. I wanted to subtly raise awareness about Lyme disease and ME/CFS by mentioning the two in my essay, as I typically do in all my work. But I also needed something broader, more captivating, something everyone could relate to. So I thought about who I love because, after all, the column is about different kinds of love.

The only problem: I love a lot of people and I’ve written about many of them already. There was one person I hadn’t written about, though. Coincidentally I had been wanting to write about my girlfriend, Shannon, for a long time. After channeling my love for her, I had to figure out how to write about our relationship from a unique perspective.

I tried to focus on the most abnormal part of our life together. If you read this blog, then you know my life is full of unusual things, but I needed the piece to relate to both of our lives. It felt like I had already written about most of the abnormalities in my life. But I went with my first thought, which was to write about how Shannon and I are confined to such small spaces. Then I came up with the idea of comparing that to the lifestyle of healthy couple (we’re both sick, if I didn’t mention that).

Most couples spend maybe eight hours in bed each day, but we spend all of our time in bed. Though, I had some issues with accuracy on this. For starters, Shannon and I don’t live together, so it would be hard to make the case that we spend all of our time together in bed. When we’re together we do, sure, but we’re not together often enough. Unfortunately, for the last few months we’ve both been bedridden in different countries.

With this in mind, I broadened the essay’s scope and narrowed its time frame. This way I could honestly say that when we’re in the same place we spend all of our time together and also mention that we live apart, adding another layer to our already complex relationship.

Then, for reasons I’m not conscious of, the 70s movie “Love Story” popped into my head. Perhaps it was just because I really enjoyed the movie, but I latched onto the famous exchange when Ryan O’Neal’s character tells Ali MacGraw’s character that he’s sorry, and through tears, she replies: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Or at least that’s how I remembered it in my mind.

By some sort of free-association, I decided to change the last part of the famous line to fit with the circumstances of our relationship. I write most of my essays about parts of the human experience, many of which are different for sick people. I have written about how relying on my smartphone isn’t an addiction, it’s survival; I’ve written about how I want to have kids but can’t because of my chronic illness. So perhaps it was this template of sorts that gave me the idea to rework the famous line from “Love Story.” But then came the really hard part: actually writing the essay.

Researching Modern Love

While I wrote the piece, I also researched the types of essays that have been featured in the column in the past. I religiously listened to the Modern Love podcast, which has celebrities read the essays written for the column, and at the end of each episode Daniel Jones, the editor, gives his take on each work. I tried to absorb as much of his perspective from the podcast as possible, but I also combed through his posts on the Modern Love Facebook page. That was a big help. Particularly, I really latched on to a note on the Facebook page encouraging writers to submit their essays even if they hadn’t been perfected. I took that to mean: quality is important, but a submission doesn’t necessarily have to be flawless to get accepted. In other words, syntax can always be tweaked later on. I assume this is because most essays go through a couple rounds of editing before being published, so there’s plenty of chances to polish up each sentence during the editing process. This is also my guess because topic and narrative arc seem to be emphasized in Modern Love essays. I could be wrong on that, but it’s a pattern I’ve repeatedly noticed.

I have read a lot of Modern Love essays and, while there are other similarities, the common denominator I always notice is each essay has an unusual perspective on a relatively common subject. There was the man who dealt with the death of his father through the lens of a dying goldfish, or the lesbian couple who grappled with their evangelical Christian faith, or the single woman who decided to forgo social norms and ask her local baker on a date.

Acceptance

When I opened the email from Daniel Jones I was expecting to get a rejection, but at the same time I suspected that he may surprise me. Mainly because his email came less than two weeks after I submitted the essay and the rejection I got from him last year took four months. This time, I thought, he was either really on top of his rejections or I had just landed the publication of my dreams. I opened the email and found my essay was accepted. Although I have to admit, I had to read the email several times to make sure it properly registered in my mind. For two reasons: (1.) sometimes acceptances aren’t really acceptances — maybe an editor wants you to work on your essay some more and resubmit it, but won’t commit to using it; or (2.) maybe an editor is just being nice and you read the email wrong and it’s really a rejection.

Thankfully, I read correctly. Daniel’s email said that my essay was “lovely” and he wanted to use it. Honestly I can’t remember a moment in my career in which I have been so happy. I used to write about port-a-potties. I once wrote about the best nightclubs in Durham, North Carolina; I’ve never been to Durham, never been anywhere remotely close to North Carolina. And I didn’t even get a byline for those pieces. Now I was going to write, as the podcast says, about “love, loss, and redemption” for The New York Times. And I did. Today you can find my essay, “Love Means Never Having to say … Anything,” online and in the Sunday edition of the newspaper this weekend. Please check it out.

If you can’t tell, now I feel like I can die a happy, or at least content, person. While I may have other goals I want to accomplish, it’s hard to imagine achieving anything more satisfying than writing for my favorite column in The New York Times. This is something that seemed unattainable for such a long time, especially while I’ve been stuck in bed. But I did it. I accomplish one of my loftiest goals without leaving my bed. Ha! Beat that George Saunders! Just kidding. Nobody should aim for trying to accomplish anything without leaving bed. Well, except maybe some really good sex. And sleep. Try to get some really good sleep.

All I’m trying to say is I will probably accomplish many more things in my life, but when I do, it will most definitely be “icing on the cake,” an extra bit of success on top of the things that fate nearly kept me from achieving.

Lastly, thank you for being part of my success — as my health has gradually improved I wouldn’t have kept writing without this blog nor would I have maintained it without readers like you.

Before you go:

1. Thanks again for reading!

2. In case you missed the link to my Modern Love essay above, you can read it online here. But also, please consider reading it in print. It’s nice to read something tangible sometimes. The essay will run in the Sunday edition of The New York Times this weekend. I think you can get it at just about any Starbucks or chain grocery store.

3. I am fundraising to pay my medical bills so if you’d like to help out by buying a shirt or hoodie I would be very grateful!

4. If you would like to donate to support this blog I would be equally grateful!

The Truth About Attraction  

Perceiving one’s own attractiveness is a complicated thing. It’s walking a line between narcissism and self-deprecation. Somewhere in the middle is the goal, at least for me, but it always feels like I lean too far to one side or the other. I can be both self-deprecating and narcissistic, although typically not at the same time. How I come across in this post remains to be seen.

I can’t be certain, but I think my physical attractiveness peaked in high school or college. This is probably the case for many people, sure, but I now find myself to be a harsh contrast from my days of underwear modeling and bodybuilding. It’s not that I consider myself unattractive, I just didn’t expect to lose my boyish looks and model’s body so quickly. I used to be ripped, with a chiseled jawline and thick head of hair. And when I say “I used to” have these things I mean not that long ago — a few years. Now it feels like I woke up one day with a receded hairline, expanded waistline, and poor health. I might have expected this kind of physical deterioration to happen over several decades, not a couple years in my mid-twenties. That is if I expected my looks to deteriorate to such an extent at all.

On the bright side, I like to think that my intellectual attractiveness has yet to peak. I hope that will be in the next couple decades. But the sad truth is that physical attraction is really difficult to part with or overlook. Self-confidence and the way you perceive your own looks matters I suppose. But, and I may be mistaken, it seems few people, if any, can be fully attracted to someone else without being physically attracted to them, regardless of the person’s self-confidence.

No matter how you feel about a prospective mate, his or her appearance matters. Is it the biggest factor? Not always, but for me it is definitely important.

The nice part about attractiveness is that, usually, if someone doesn’t find your looks appealing, another person will, or they will put more weight on attributes like your sense of humor or intelligence.

Physical attractiveness used to matter way more to me. This may be because I’ve matured, or I’ve developed my own non-physical attributes thus stimulating my awareness of such traits in others, or maybe it’s a product of my illness and my isolation from the women I used to find attractive, or most women in general. But I have a feeling that, although they are very beautiful, I would not find most of the women I was attracted to as a teenager or in my early twenties as attractive now.

Saying that, however, makes me feel picky. And I can’t help but feel like my standards are way too high, especially for a chronically ill guy who hasn’t gone on a date in, oh I don’t know, five years? Yikes!

I realize that this is entirely out of my hands — my body has plans that don’t involve dinner with an intelligent and gorgeous woman. But I also feel like if I was able to date I would have to face the reality that women might not find me as attractive as they used to, and that includes those of whom I am still very much attracted to. There is, after all, not much worse than being attracted to someone and it not being reciprocated.

That idea is kind of heartbreaking, isn’t it? It is for me. I miss both the physicality of affection and the giddiness of knowing someone is attracted to me and something will come of it. I think this is the first time in my life that I’ve been deprived of those things, at least in person.

I haven’t had someone give me that look, the look that says “I want you to kiss me” in such a long time. I can’t even remember the last time, actually. And I definitely haven’t had someone give me the look that says “I want to rub Nutella all over your bare chest and then lick it off,” but that’s a whole other blog post.

Besides being sick and living in a very rural area, a three-hour drive from any large city, I am, as I’ve mentioned, not as attractive as I once was. A big part of that is the weight I’ve put on.

I am, at the moment, the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life. This may surprise some people — it surprises me. It was not two years ago that I was emaciated, unable to eat solid food, instead I drank two Odwalla protein shakes each day — my only digestible source of sustenance. Now, while I haven’t recovered enough to step on a scale (though, I’m getting close), using my observations as a former fitness instructor (and a human), I would say I’m somewhere around 180 pounds. At 5’8″ that is more than I have ever weighed. It’s even greater than my weight during the bulking phases of my bodybuilding days. (#bulking). 

Don’t get me wrong, by no means do I consider myself morbidly obese, but I definitely consider myself overweight. And if I do in fact weigh around 180 pounds, then, according to the body mass index many fitness professionals use, I am in fact overweight. But to be honest I’m not worried about my current weight. It is the possibility of becoming heavier and living at an unhealthy weight that scares me.

One reason for my concern: this is the first time that I can remember in which gaining weight is mostly, if not entirely, out of my control. 

For over a year now I’ve been on hydrocortisone, a drug used to boost low levels of cortisol, a vital hormone. Coincidentally (or not) I started the drug around the same time I began to put on weight. For the last few weeks I’ve started to ween myself off hydrocortisone in an attempt to see if my body will correct the imbalance itself and make adequate amounts of cortisol. Several months ago I tried to ween off the drug, cutting down to 7.5 mg in the morning from 10 mg. Within a few days I felt awful and had to up the dose. Now, after slowly cutting back by 0.5 mg a week, I am back to taking 7.5 mg and I haven’t had a bad reaction yet.

I realize that not taking a drug that is vital to my body is risky. But the truth is I hate the way it makes me feel and look. My skin is constantly greasy, I have the acne of an adolescent, and as I mentioned earlier, I’ve gained a lot of weight. However, not taking hydrocortisone mostly for reasons of vanity is at best cavalier and at worst irresponsible. But I’m not taking the little bit of health that I’ve regained for granted. If I don’t do well without hydrocortisone I will immediately start taking it again and I’ll just have to deal with being overweight with greasy skin and acne until my body starts to make enough cortisol.

Another possibility is my appearance has changed because of the liter of saline that is infused into my body each day. I imagine that could cause someone to look puffy and carry some extra weight — water weight. Perhaps my weight gain is a mixture of the subcutaneous fluid from the saline infusions and a side effect of the hydrocortisone. It could also have to do with my metabolism slowing with age and the fact that I am eating again. But I still eat very healthy — usually just fish, veggies, and fats.

Either way it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that my health is more important to me than vanity. And if I’m not as attractive as I once was, so be it. That, like the hydrocortisone, is a tough pill to swallow, but it is one I can deal with.

Thanks for reading this post. Please subscribe. And if you are in a giving mood I would be incredibly grateful if you would check out my fundraiser to pay for the time I put into this blog.

 

Impractical Father’s Day Gifts Every Dad Will Love 

 1. Medieval-style Trash Grabber With Attached Drink Holder 

This Renaissance-inspired trash grabber will make every dad’s day. It features medieval designs made from iron and copper and has a durable, bronze-coated pincher and twenty-pound anodized steel shaft that makes grabbing the remote, or picking the lint from between his toes, both easily accessible and a strenuous workout. But what this grabber will cost him in pulled muscles and achy joints, it will make up for in convenience. The best part is it holds his beer steady while he grabs at those hard to reach places. 

2. Kevlar-enforced Boxer Briefs

These briefs are so protective he won’t need to wear a cup to his softball games anymore. They are made with the highest quality Kevlar* and a durable neoprene lining. Each handcrafted stitch was done with the toughest vinyl to ensure these briefs stand up to any challenge. They’re stiff and heavy, sure, but what real man needs comfort when he can have durability? Besides, let’s be honest, he could use the added weight as exercise to lose that gut of his.

*Although this product has not been tested to be bulletproof and fireproof, in all likelihood it will deflect bullets while exposed to fire. 


3. Swiss Army Knife With Maple Wood Mustache Comb, Nose Hair Scissors, and Boar Hair Toothpick

Bring your father back to childhood by getting him this Swiss Army knife with a modern twist. Every dad needs his mustache manicured and now he can do it with style and convenience using his dark maple mustache comb. How does a wooden comb fit in a folding knife, you ask? Well, it just does, along with the nose hair scissors made from the steel of an old aircraft carrier and a reusable toothpick from wild boar hair. 

4. Pops Pamper Pack: Gorilla Snot Hair Gel and Horse Sweat Beard Oil 

He might not admit it, but your pops loves to be pampered and this pack featuring one-of-a-kind hair gel will treat him right. It is made from an all-natural concotion of gorilla snot, bat guano, and a pinch of railroad tar. Also included in the Pops Pamper Pack is beard oil made from the sweat of thoroughbred horses. Both come in our patented Oily Old Man, Musky Millennial, and Hairy Hipster fragrances. 

5. KillerGriller PuttingVision 3000

There’s only one item this Father’s Day that combines your dad’s love of meat, golf, and TV. It’s the KillerGriller PuttingVision 3000. Fitted with the biggest TV you have ever seen attached to a barbecue, this grill also features a roll-out putting green. No more putting into drinking glasses; now your dad can simply unroll the artificial lawn and putt into a hole hanging off his deck while watching the pros on the Golf Channel and grilling a juicy steak. 

Thanks for reading this humor piece. Obviously none of these are real gifts, but a guy can dream, right? Happy Father’s Day!