On a given afternoon, I sit down at my small bistro table outside with an espresso. The tiny cup on the tiny saucer. Thick coffee staring back at me. This is my afternoon ritual. My daughter will sometimes comment on this ritual or text me later in the day: did you have your espresso yet? Once the back door is opened, my dog runs out into the yard barking and chasing at something no one else can see. The smallest, subtle movements within the outside world spark his attention. He then finds his way under the bistro table, almost knocking it over with his 70 pound frame, bumping into me and the table. Then he sheds hair all over my pants.
Sometimes I’m caught up in the insignificant moments of the day. When summer begins, teaching is done, and administrative work slows, there is time to fully consider how insignificant most of the day can be. A barking dog. A cup of espresso. A bumped bistro table. That is my privilege as a professor. That is my privilege when I write. When I write, I can spend time with the insignificant. Most of our time on this planet, of course, is insignificant even if we think otherwise. We frame those insignificant moments with the occasional appearance of what feels significant: world event, war, oppression, work, personal issue, injustice, money, crushes, material things. Everything feels heavy and overwhelming. Feels. Open a browser. Listen to the news. Talk with someone. Fail. It feels overwhelming. Yet, the rest of the time that passes around us is fairly insignificant. Waking up. Looking at email. Having a coffee. Writing. Telling the dog to stop barking at nothing.
I’ll listen to Lyle Lovett while I drink espresso and my dog tries to knock the table over. In a live version of “Nobody Knows Me,” Lovett introduces the song as “a cheating song.” That’s all he says. No explanation. No further discussion. Who cheated? Why? When? In Mexico? I’ve often wondered what he means by that. The only evidence is this line:
She cried, how could you do it
And I swore that there weren’t nothing to it
Cheating is a significant moment for most people. It changes lives, desires, hopes, plans, trust, families. Lovett isn’t the only songwriter to consider being unfaithful in a relationship. There is no shortage of songs about cheating. Popular culture is largely build around the concept. “Your Cheating Heart,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Chain of Fools.” Yet, I listened to this song a thousand times before I heard Lovett declare it to be one about cheating. I thought it was a song about food — eggs and flour tortillas — and deep love. Two topics I seem to always want to write about and experience. I, too, love eggs in flour tortillas. I identify with this song. I don’t want to believe that the eggs, flour tortillas, or love are really insignificant to this song’s meaning. Nobody knows him. But his baby. What love is deeper than one in which the only one who really knows you is your baby
That’s the problem, it seems. She knows. She knows him well. She knows he cheated. That’s my problem. I don’t ever seem to know anything. Not about cheating. Not about love. Not about what my dog is barking at. Not about what a song might mean. Not about the difference between the significant and the insignificant. I teach writing and rhetoric and wonder sometimes how much I know about the subjects. If I am such an expert at both, why can’t I express myself in the ways I want to or need to? Why can’t I write something deeply significant? In many languages there is a difference between knowing something and knowing someone. In each instance, you need a different word for what you want to say. In English, we differentiate from knowing someone (I know your name) and knowing someone (we have slept together). But we don’t have different words for the different experiences. “Tell me something that you mean,” Lovett sings in “I Know You Know,” “not just what comes to mind.” What do I know? I know those things that come to mind. Wake up. Check email. Walk the dog. Drink coffee. Write something.
Sometimes when I’m home, after an espresso, I reach for my guitar, I play “Nobody Knows Me.” I slightly alter the melody. It’s such a simple song, and yet, I don’t claim I know it by heart. I identify with the song. I, too, like cream in my coffee. I, too, hate to be alone on Sundays. I, too, want to believe that only one person really knows me. It is not uncommon to draw a parallel between one’s life or a moment in one’s life with a song. We hear something familiar, it comes to mind, it feels like us. Identification is a significant moment of personal meaning. Popular culture often depends on identification. We see ourselves in the representation. Lyrics act as placeholders for one’s memory: this happened to me too. Or lyrics perform fantasies for us: Nobody knows me but my baby.
In “Record Lady,” Lovett says:
One day you know I will see
My phonographic fantasy
In sweet fulfillment to the last detail
A useful exercise in music appreciation and phonographic fantasy might be: collect lines from songs that reflect one’s connection to a theme in music. Consider moments of identification. Follow the trajectory. No cheating. Build a fantasy out of identification.
Fleetwood Mac shouting out “Don’t tell me you that you love me, just tell me that you want me” in “Tusk.”
Drive by Trucker’s “So I’ll take two of what you’re having and I’ll take all of what you got, to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love.”
John Prine pining for the woman who thinks all of his “jokes are corny” and who likes “her eggs all runny” and he ain’t “never going to let her go.”
What is the shame in writing about love? It is embarrassing. It feels like wanting others to know too much. It feels like one is writing what comes to mind, not what one knows. Songwriters write about love and lost love all the time. Lyle Lovett is no stranger to this genre. After all, “I Know You Know” concludes with “I know you know/I’m so in love with you.” He doesn’t seem too embarrassed to write this line or to say it out loud to popular culture audiences who don’t know him deeply or personally. 90% of all music would vanish if the love song or the cheating song vanished. Other writers write about love as well. Most memoirs I read are about failed love: breakups, divorce, death. The rhetorical situation of any of these moments, as it is with music, is to write. Experience or feelings require expression no matter how little or how much we know about what moves us. The academic, Jim Corder, wrote that rhetoric is love. Corder writes:
We’re always standing some place in our lives, and there is always a tale of how we came to stand here.
Lately, I’ve been trying to write mostly about where I stand in my life. By doing so, I am not writing about the supposedly more significant things academics tell themselves they should spend their time considering and forming expression around. This approach was the focus of my book Authentic Writing. What is authentic academic writing if it finds significance in eating and traveling with one’s kids and not the grand narratives that typically indicate scholarly writing? I tried to act like I know an answer to that question. On my social media, a space where many comment on the significant and overwhelming worldly events we daily hear about and observe, I have tried to emphasize the insignificant: a meal I’ve eaten, time with my kids, something I saw on the ground while walking the dog, a dumb joke I made up. I’m interested in showcasing the banal as significant. A writer composing a memoir often does that as well. A songwriter often turns three or more chords into the same. Cheating in a relationship, one might add sadly, has become banal too. So many songs. So many incidents. It is not uncommon. Lyle Lovett admitting as much as he introduces a song. I need the insignificant so that I do not drown in the significant.
The other day I posted a meme to my Instagram account’s story that read something like: one day someone will be obsessed with you, but it will be your dog. I’m not sure my dog is obsessed with me. I don’t think he is. I’m not even sure how well he knows me. He’s obsessed with insignificant things like a ball thrown over his head or peanut butter. He would probably leave me for anybody who puts his leash on and walks with him out the door. He would cheat. I know him better than he knows me. I’m more obsessed with Tik Tok than Instagram. Tik Tok gives me tiny stories throughout the day that often question or deal with the insignificant: people complaining about their dates, dogs doing stupid things, people dancing, people repeating and imitating other Tik Toks. Most of my Instagram feed is food pics, memes, and people asking themselves questions about their happiness. Sometimes I make embarrassing Tik Toks of me playing the guitar, country versions of “Get Off” and “The Humpty Dance” or sad attempts at playing Lyle Lovett songs such as “If You Were to Wake Up.” I can’t explain why I do this. I don’t know why I do this. Not every gesture I make has significance. They are sometimes just what comes to mind. “I think I’ll play a song on Tik Tok.” “I want an espresso.” I am not a good singer nor a good guitarist. Maybe, with these videos, I am asking a question about myself, similar to what Lovett says about himself. Somewhere across Tik Tok, 450 people have watched me embarrassingly sing “If You Were to Wake Up.” Or they watched for a second or two before scrolling up and onward to a dog or cat video. The performance was insignificant. The dog video may have felt more significant. That point seems important to me for some reason.
Lyle Lovett is tall. I’m short. He has the rugged good looks of a Texan who has endured many harsh summers in the fields. I’m balding. He plays beautiful guitar. I strum away and hope to stay in tune or even change my strings on a regular basis. He has twins. I do not. He became a dad at 59. I was 37. He wears boots. I have boots I haven’t worn in some time. He’s been in love, it seems, and he has been disappointed. We share that. We’re trying to write about such experiences. In songs. In books. On Medium. To ourselves. In our heads. Talking to our dogs while we sit outside with an espresso in a tiny cup on a tiny saucer. In “Who Loves You Better,” Lovett sings “and questions I ask of myself.” He’s questioning himself. He’s questioning someone’s love for him. We question what we think we know and what we think we do not know.
Questions I ask of myself. I spend a lot of time asking questions of myself. That’s how I wake. That’s how I find myself driving around town. That’s what I do when walking the dog in the evening as the neighborhood quietly goes dark, and around me are darkened homes, darkened windows, maybe others’ dark thoughts. “Sometimes,” Corder writes, “we fail to judge either the events within our narrative or the people, places, things, and ideas that might enter our narrative.” Another exercise (no cheating) might be to judge or at least consider what has entered our narrative. Not so easy to do.
I love flour tortillas with eggs. And hot sauce. And potatoes. “Each of us is a narrative,” Corder writes. I like the idea of being a food narrative. I am happy to talk about the place where I stand via food. The food writer James Beard composed a memoir that mostly dealt with the banality of his eating: breakfast, lunch, dinner. Food is my area where the insignificant (what I eat) meets the significant (what is pleasure). I think a lot about food, about eating, about Sundays, about meals I want to know with someone else. Then, in the afternoon, maybe after a lunch or a long two or three mile walk with the dog, I let these thoughts settle for a bit in the dark parts of my mind, and I have a small espresso in a tiny cup while sitting at a bistro table on my porch.