I have been admonishing myself to start a blog for a decade now. Build the platform, find a space for my writing, something more visceral, more immediate than the often-interminable wait between writing and publication. The fact that I am finally starting one in the year 2014 is probably another essay in itself (for another time). I’ve had the title of this venture—But Then I Think—stuck in my head for several years now, the residue of a montage of café conversations I had during my three-year MFA stint in Tucson. I am finally taking the plunge with Stalking Sven Birkerts because this particular moment so perfectly captured the essence of the perpetually self-correcting mind that spawned said catchphrase. Welcome, and thanks for reading.
February 26th 2014
O’Hare International Airport
Having spent the past weekend immersed in Sven Birkerts—Time in the Art of Memoir, Other Walks, The Art of Attention essay in Aeon magazine, his Tin House interview—it was of course inevitable that the first person I would see when walking up to my gate in O’Hare would be Mr. Birkerts. For a moment I imagined that I’d conjured him, not literally, but that through immersion my mind had begun to visualize the subject of my attentions, much in the same way we often dream in the web of life-minutiae with which we fall asleep. I expected Mr. Birkerts to have quickly morphed back into his non-Birkerts self, just some random literary-looking bearded and bespectacled gent. But the mirage held. In fact, I noted the suave wooden cane on which he was resting one hand—an un-posed gesture that added a touch of panache and also gelled nicely in an identity-verification sense with his recent essay digression instigated by a bout of physical therapy.
There were seats open on either side of Mr. Birkerts and for a moment I imagined just sitting down and introducing myself as the guy who had, ironically enough “just finished writing a profile of you for the Ohio University Lit Fest brochure.” A simple enough thought—but that spare dozen feet of semi-open space between us was in fact a minefield of my insecurities—the same irrational fears of ridiculous public rejections that have left me always at the periphery, kicking myself afterwards for my concrete feet. I thought back to my pre-dawn packing for this AWP journey, in which I held two Birkerts tomes in my hand, neither of which made the final cut because my suitcase was over capacity and my carry-on shoulder bag was stuffed with things I “had” to read for class. I crouched down amongst the O’Hare crowd and opened the front flap of my suitcase, fighting reality, trying to will myself back in time to the moment that I had attempted to stuff The Other Walks in amongst the jeans and socks before giving up in frustration. “Try a little harder,” I plead with that past self of six hours ago. “Trust me—there’s always space.” This realization—that I would have to add “oh, I totally was going to bring one of your books, but you know—full suitcase” to the conversation further stiffened my growing certainty that an attempted introduction would go terribly wrong.
At some point Mr. Birkerts must have noticed the tall, angular guy in the long-sleeve green safari button-up (my lucky flight shirt) was staring at him. I kept glancing over at him, willing myself to take action. And I thought of how I’d tried to look up contact info—just an email address even—so I could maybe ask a couple questions to guide my profile, and then gave up after a fifteen minute Google search—even as I knew that the director of the Writing Programs at OU, having invited Mr. Birkerts to come to campus, obviously had the info. I was searching for. But I couldn’t do that of course—because somehow that seemed like a breech of etiquette—contacting Mr. Birkerts with an ill-gotten email address, when it was clear (Google-ly speaking) that he didn’t wish for unsolicited conversations. And how maybe that would have been easier—yes, of course I could have just walked up and said something like “hi, I’m Kirk—I emailed you a couple days ago,” and thus in the recitation of my previously-verified legitimacy would be spawned an immediate literary friendship.
Now, of course, from twenty-thousand feet over Iowa (or Nebraska? South Dakota?) I can see the ridiculousness of my reticence, and now the mind races off to the future awkwardness when in four weeks Mr. Birkerts comes to Athens and is struck with an unexpected discomfort caused by the recognition that I was the lurking mute of United Flight 521, a future scenario that quickly death-spirals into a scene of me being drummed out of the PhD program in disgrace.
I try not to obsess about my failings and try not to think about the remaining three hours of flight time available for me to pick at this tiny self-inflicted wound. For the moment I plot my Seattle plan, trying to figure out a not-creepy way to waylay Mr. Birkerts in SEA-TAC, as I promised my wife I would. A spousal promise. I’ve only been married nine months, but I imagine that a spousal promise—even one made via text message—is much more serious, weightier in fact than any vow I made as a single man.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before boarding the flight, before hoping in vain that my cowardice would be redeemed by the gods of the air or a benign United Airlines seating-assignment algorithm putting Mr. Birkerts in the seat next to me, before these useless prayers there was waiting in line—I in the queue for Zone 3 boarding, Mr. Birkerts less than six feet away from me waiting for the call for Zone 5. I could have reached out and touched his arm. But I stood motionless. I am the prototypical mental coward—I am fearless when I can act without thought (drugs, alcohol) but once the intent to act is slowed even the slightest by my internal deliberations, that filibuster is rarely broken.
And now, as if to further mock me, I realize that he is seated in the second-to-last row of the plane, where I always sit–for good reason, as it gives you the best chance of having an empty seat next to you. But I am sitting a dozen rows up and away from my fated seat next to Mr. Birkerts because I was in a flustered hurry while booking my ticket online in a Graduate computer lab filling with students and already ten minutes late for my next class. So I didn’t take the extra minute to choose my standard back-of-the-plane seat—I just accepted the one chosen for me—the one the computer system assigned, being the best remaining “non-premium” seat, i.e. the empty seat closest to the front of the plane. And so here I sit in seat 38F, a victim of my poor planning, left to stew in my peculiar fears, trying to convince myself that I will in fact introduce myself to Mr. Birkerts at SEA-TAC, and maybe even offer to split a cab. That I will overcome myself.
The most unsettling thing about this whole non-exchange is that in a simple pro-con equation the potential downside to the intro was so miniscule in comparison to the upside. But I am so fearful of that awkward moment, that I’d rather suffer through my lifetime of missed-opportunity regrets than risk…what, exactly? That Mr. Birkerts might be unfriendly? Aloof? Would I crumble if greeted with silence? What did I really fear, that Mr. Birkerts is some kind of crazy rock-star who might scream at me when I approached? That he is Hunter S. Thompson? I assume, based on his aura of quietude that he wasn’t having a drug-fueled meltdown, and would be highly unlikely to hallucinate my approach as a random lizard come to eat him. And yet, the curse of my imagination is that I always imagine bad outcomes, that I assume (and thus prophesize) failure. Safety through avoidance of risk.
Not this time. Overcome the self…
And so, on February 26th 2014, contrary to all previous expectations, I did end up making Mr. Birkerts acquaintance—after setting up my ambush spot at the arrival gate and then of course letting him walk past me while pretending to be deeply engrossed in some data byte on my phone. But I chased him down and introduced myself, and Mr. Birkerts and I strolled through SEA-TAC with our roller-bags and took the light-rail train into downtown Seattle, chatting amiably for over an hour. Sven Birkerts in person is as charming, intelligent and erudite as he is on the page, and he said many brilliant things—of which sadly I remember almost none, as I was floating in an endorphin-glow cocoon of this single epic victory over myself.