When, your junior year of high school, you played tennis at Lyons Park with a boy who lived down the street from you, whom you’d known since grade school, only neither of you knew how to play tennis. You didn’t really hang out at school much—he was a senior and seemed to talk only of girls he was trying to work up the nerve to call, girls with more money than he or you had ever known, and you perhaps wondered why he never saw you this way but you never said a word about it. You appreciated the way he always talked to your brother, who had a degenerative condition that caused his mouth to perpetually gape and slobber as he slapped this boy’s back and loudly told him Hi at the lunch table or at the grocery store where your brother bagged people’s food and took it to their cars. Maybe you saw your tennis games with this boy, filled with calls of “Strike!” and backhands over the fence, as a break from the relationships boys and girls were supposed to have in high school—absent the struggle of whether to call you or not, the cotton mouth when you did answer the phone, this boy treated you a lot like he probably did in grade school, only now standing on opposites side of the net on the cusp of adulthood. Hopefully now, on the other side of the curtain with children of your own older than you were then, not having kept in touch since those dates on the court, you remember these tennis games every now and then, as this boy does.
When you read Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights after your senior year of high school in 1991 because you had no idea what you would do with the rest of your life and still held onto the small bit of hope that standing the sidelines in your ill-fitting pads and watching your own high school team win State championships gave you. Reading about Boobie Miles’ quixotic dream of getting out of a town where he was “just another nigger” coming to an end after a season-ending ACL injury despite the school spending more of its budget on sports medicine than the English department, the sheer luck that even got the team to the state playoffs on the flip of a coin, the seeming ease with which their head coach could just leave them all to coach linebackers at Texas Tech the next year: all of these cleared your palate of any perceived purity of the sport. And in 2004, almost 15 years after the book was published, when a movie adaptation was released and a popular TV series adaptation soon followed in 2006 that ran until 2011, and now, more than 25 years after the documented season, Friday Night Lights has entered the realm of American trope, a three-word cultural flashpoint whose connotations almost everyone knows. And now that those original players are in their late forties and in varying degrees of recline or decline after being made to feel immortal at 16 years old, the brief excerpts of their much longer lives have morphed from documented nonfiction to fictionalized national TV mythology: the coach comes back to the team after one year at Texas Tech (er, Methodist), female characters like the coach’s wife and daughter become just as focal as the players, and each season is a laboratory for values that everyone involved with the ’88 Odessa Permian team would probably consider overly effeminate, liberal, and/or big-city, and your Jewish Upper East Side friend Sarah, no fan of football or heartland values, says it’s her favorite TV show.
When the formalist term systematic defamiliarization assumes a primary role in the construction of your self-image. By removing yourself from the family, friends, and social mores of your initial iterations—birth, childhood, adolescence, education—and placing yourself as object into a new system—city, subway, urbanity—you sought, by estranging yourself from the comfort of familial tradition and placing yourself in an insular new system with no job and $200 in your wallet, to find a new way of seeing yourself: As both artist and artifice, simulacrum and simulation. And then you get married in this new iteration, have children, find your artifices hardening into modes of being, and you finally feel equipped to begin the journey into the central questions this work of art that you call your life seeks to address. Only these questions are sublimated in daily struggles like talking to your mother on the phone when she believes—truthfully—that you are no longer the person who accompanied her through her own transformation from high school dropout to abused spouse through divorce and remarriage, or going to the beach with your new family and squaring the sand beneath your feet with the simulations of beach and mountains you only read about until first travelling over the Great Divide with a church group the summer after high school and first seeing the infinity-like expanse of ocean meeting sky for the first time when at Daytona on spring break in college. And finally, sneakiest of feels, when you wonder if your childhood, your education, your experiences were all simulation, and only recently, after years of faking it, are you penetrating the skin of what it means to be human.
When your four-year-old daughter tells you, “You’re the best dad in the universe” and you reply, “No, I’m not.” When she says the same thing the next day, and you remember wanting to say the same thing to the man you called Dad but the best you could say—at the city fair when he allowed you to ride the Zipper the first time—was, “You’re a good dad.” And when she says the same thing the next day, and you put her cheeky little face in your hands, plunge your own face into her little nest of hair, and breathe deeply her talent for the superlative.
When you start telling your secrets to your primary care physician on the day before Thanksgiving. While she checks your ears, you tell her you don’t hear voices but you’ve thought about suicide in a purely theoretical way; when she asks if these thoughts are making it hard to function in your daily tasks, you ask if she means like going to yearly doctor checkups; as she checks off your yearly mental health survey you tell her you think you might want to revise your answer about childhood sexual abuse—does making you keep the bathroom door open while you get ready to bathe when you were a child while calling you a faggot and then taking pictures of you crying count as sexual abuse? And now when you enter any restroom you immediately lock the door and run cold water over your wrists to cool the panic, you tell her, and how your wife has never seen you cry, you’ve cried only twice since junior high school in fact, and maybe panic attacks are your tears now. You repeatedly tell her “I’m sorry,” when what you really want to say is “This really happened,” not to her but to yourself.
As I look at my yearly tabulations on Excel, I see that if I write 1,185 words I will have averaged over 4,000 words per month on the year. Given the myriad other elements of 2016, it’s important to me that I achieve this meager milestone. (Hey, I’m already down to 1,139 words!) (1,132!)
I’m currently sitting at a table in Montpelier with five other writers, all on our laptops. It feels good. I’m helping out with the winter residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my beloved alma mater, prepping for a two-day generative microfiction workshop we’ll be conducting this week before attending a lecture by Trinie Dalton that will most probably remind me how much I have yet to learn. I’ve just decided on the fly that I want to have students read my friend Jeff Rose’s year-end collected chili meditations for the workshop, and I encourage you to as well, even (or especially) if you’re not that into chili.
Wow, I already ran out of ideas before I even came to a real one. In desperation, I just posted a call for suggestions on Facebook. The first came from my friend Richard:
Neutrality aids the oppressor. And go!
This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot as a teacher and as a human this year. Here are a couple of examples, one from my teaching life and the other from my human life.
I team-teach most of my classes during the fall semester, as the writing professor attached to a thematic seminar taught by another faculty member. One partnership this semester was with an International Politics professor who was teaching a class on dystopia in modern media and mythology. She is incredibly intelligent and on a work visa from Bangladesh, and also not that much older than our students. As November 8 approached, a couple of students in our class let her know they were voting for Trump, one fairly belligerently and with a looming hint that the student hoped Trump might the professor’s status as an immigrant and a Muslim against her. All of the students mentioned a particular class experience to me in which my teaching partner challenged the class to elucidate their argument; the class seemed to think that her perspective was not “neutral” enough, and that mine might be more neutral, the implication seeming that I might be more neutral as a white non-immigrant.
After the election I traveled to Standing Rock, ostensibly with my Trump-supporting childhood friend. He backed out as I was traveling to Kansas to pick him up, but before that happened another friend sent me a message that "30 hours in a car with a Trump supporter would be less feasible for a lot of people who feel color, gender, or orientation difference."
As I was thinking about that, I also thought about how I arranged this trip before the election in part as an olive branch to my friend, who would be downcast after the country finally came to its senses. I have to say, I wasn’t entirely disappointed when my friend backed out, and I’m starting to see that a lot of (white) people, in pretense to neutrality, have given a con artist with no virtuous qualities and his brood of leisure-class insiders the keys to the White House, mostly out of a sense of perceived familiarity with a guy who shares no cultural or financial referents with them except his self-identification as a Winner.
In both of these cases, I think, neutrality is essentially identification as the cultural “winner” – the person who, in setting and defining the rules of the game(s), is most apt to control the outcomes. This is not neutrality, and this is not moral. This is violent, and oppressive. And it’s why I’ve decided it’s important that I, as one white male, am not neutral.
Ok, I’ve now eaten dinner and sat back down, and my Facebook thread has waaaaay more responses than I could possibly respond to in the waning hours before the new year. They require much more thoughtful discourse than I’m capable of right now with a beer at my writing table and fireworks booming outside my window, but I’ bet listing them might both queue them up for near-future development and push me over my word count:
- From my friend Michael: “The reductiveness of ‘teach a man to fish,’ using actual facts about fish” (This is a full-on essay waiting to happen.)
- From musical genius Chris McFarland: “Write about songs that should no longer be covered, i.e.: retired like a sports jersey number” (To start: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” One of the most powerful songs ever written, that’s been borrowed and bowdlerized into submission.)
- From my old buddy Joe: “The Kansas Jayhawks: A List of Players and Coaches I have Watched” (Ooh, I sense a winter series of blog posts coming on.) “…or alternately: Duke Players: A List of Whiners, Floppers and Cheats” (This one pretty much writes itself.)
- From my friend Heather: “Words made up by children” (I wish I could think of my children’s right now, and/or tap into the voluminous cloud on this one. It’s rich for development.)
- From my old friend Angie: “Why people make New Years resolutions but always break them” (I’m doing my part not to break my word count resolution.)
- From my former student Loren: “The pitfalls and bias of crowd sourcing information from a social group who, presumably, have very similar outlooks and opinions.” Did I mention she was one of my more smart alecky students?)
- From my old friend Sarah B.: “A spiritual or supernatural experience that you have had that doesn't fit into your current worldview” (Standing Rock. More on this soon.)
- From writing colleague Nicole: “'On anticipation,' or 'Snacks and Rituals,' or 'Dropping the Ball' (any ball you want).” (Ohohohoho. Three dandies.)
- From my friend Carrie: “Dreams!” (I want to only write about this subject from now until forever.)
- From writing colleague Sheree: “10 things to do in 2017 to honor the lives of the artists we lost in 2016”
- From my old friend Sarah G.: “The trend I have increasingly been made aware of in my adulthood of people and friends committing to an event and backing out at the last minute...students backing out of an artwork, lack of commitment.”
- From my Aunt Stacey: “Close your eyes and tell yourself a story. Happy New Year!” (You too, Aunt Stacey, on the story and the happy New Year!)
I’ll squirrel these away for future essays/blog posts, or if anyone wants to run with any of them, consider it my New Year’s gift to you.
And that, my friends, just put me over. Here's the evidence, on advice from my old friend Darin: “Why numbers matter and how to fudge them”:
When on a snow-ridden afternoon you venture out into the backwoods of Montpelier, Vermont: down a steep hill past people on snowshoes who look curiously at you and your peacoat, scarf, and galoshes, up an even steeper hill where you see fresh tracks in the snow that might be a wolf or might be a dog’s diverging from the path into the woods, then you see a broad figure hunched over at the crest of the hill and think it’s a bear but it’s just a guy strapping his feet to a snowboard, and you keep walking until you realize you’ve gone in circles looking for this special place, an old slate quarry you used to enter in past summers—a 300-foot gash in the planet’s crust that you’ve heard people describe as a natural wonder, which strikes you as curious considering this is not a seismic fissure but a by-product of human industry, natural only in the evidence it gives of the planet healing itself. But this is not why—finally, after two trips round the makeshift canyon—you slip in through its cervical opening, travel in through its narrow slate passway that blocks out all sky, finally reaching its cool, warm center. You go here now because it is so solitary and so so silent, the discarded cans and Wu-Tang graffiti reinforcing a sense of community you value most: Those who were here, but are not here now, speaking with you in my voice.
I had nothing to add here. Feliz Navidad, everyone.
Ok. After yesterday's fiasco, I've got to hold it together today. And the only way I can do that is through a Christmas song by Sufjan Stevens. You can feel free to take lyrics about K-Mart being closed, to Santa Claus and Little Lord Jesus, to your sister's self-cut bangs and jumping off a ladder with your boots tied together as seriously as you like, but hopefully not so much so. I mean, the title does have not one but two exclamation points.
When you’re on Facebook and you read your childhood best friend, who has been in and out of prison for much of his adult life, talk about how Donald Trump is going to prevent sand jockeys from blowing us all up, and then you read a post by a colleague, a Muslim and a black man, about his granddaughter graduating college after her father, your colleague’s son, was shot and killed by a police officer twenty years ago, and you want to put your childhood friend and your colleague into conversation with each other. But you know that would be a bad idea, that every major American schism—race, religion, education, class—separates them, that the only connection they have is your affection for both of them, and you realize that your affection probably means very little to them when faced with the social constructs to which they’ve adapted themselves. You see in advance your colleague trying to teach your friend, your friend demanding what right your colleague has to teach him anything, and both of them blocking each other, and perhaps you, on Facebook, and you realize how shallow, how easy to break our connections with each other are, how deep and impenetrable our differences.
I had another "I Am Old" moment this year while watching the newer CGI Alvin & the Chipmunks. I won't go too far into it (it's embarrassing) but suffice it to say, I had a hard time with these new guys, much like I had ten years ago with the Jim Carrey How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I love the idea of carrying on and updating our collective mythology, but all this just seems so...commercial. But if I'm going down this rabbit hole, it's probably worth admitting that almost all of our 20th-Century American mythology is commercial at root, especially our Christmas mythology. Christmas isn't the season of giving, it's the season of spending.
Take the Chipmunks, and their most famous commodity - a song about opening presents, most notably a relic of the late 50s (the hula hoop) that culturally appropriated a sacred object of indigenous mythology, mass produced it out of plastic, and marketed it every thirty years so heavily that it became a symbol of the two most flippantly consumptive decades of the last century, the Fifties and the Eighties. It's no coincidence that Alvin and the Chipmunks' peak popularity was in those decades as well, so I guess that they're now being exhumed for their next every-thirty-years cycle right about now.
Did I mention I was a kid in the Eighties? When "The Chipmunk Song" was most ubiquitous as the song Rocky's trainers played in the cabin between workouts in the Siberian wilderness in one of the most obvious pieces of late-Cold War propaganda films of the period? God, we feared and loathed the Russians then, with their brutal dictator Putin, I mean Gorbachev, while Donald Trump amassed his wealth while getting a good laugh with Reagan over the great trickle-down economics sham.
Fuck, this was supposed to be happy.
"It's Christmas time in Hollis, Queens. Mom's cookin' chicken and collard greens. Rice and stuffin', macaroni and cheese, and Santa puts gifts under Christmas trees": This is as much a part of my Christmas lyric vocabulary as "Faithful friends who are dear to us, gather near to us once more" or "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire." I'm still unsure whether this or "Walk This Way" (which established the black/white mashup that Anthrax/Public Enemy, Danger Mouse, and Girl Talk ran with) was more important to my junior high experience.
Ok, maybe not technically a Christmas song. BUT: 1) I'm about to visit the Trapp Family Lodge for Christmas for the third time, despite the fact that I haven't even seen The Sound of Music once and only have a vague understanding of who the Von Trapps were. But I know a few of one of their favorite things. 2) It's on Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass's Christmas album, and I know it more by Alpert's trumpet than by Julie Andrews's voice. 3) HAPPY. So happy.
Since the early Nineties my family has watched National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation at least once during the holiday season, mostly to remind ourselves that, no matter how bad its gets, it can always get worse. But oh yeah, this is a happy Christmas list. How about some Bing Crosby, Hawaiian steel guitar, and Clark Griswold's Christmas fantasy?
I totally ignored this song when it came out. I think it might have been because I was in the middle of a hardcore Dylan phase, and in a heated argument with my father about Dylan's singing voice he had the nerve to say, "Just look at Mariah Carey: better voice, and just as as good a songwriter as Dylan." It took me a long time to get over that one. She actually co-wrote most of her hits with Walter Afanasieff, aka Baby Love, the Russian-American producer who also co-wrote Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." Th is song, co-written by Afanasieff, unlike the rest of Carey's catalog has steadily grown on me over the years. Or, as my friend Walker recently said, "I don't even care, I fucks with mid-90's Mariah all day."
I have such a complicated relationship with this song. I can think of no holiday tune that's more thoroughly American, like an aural Norman Rockwell painting, with equal parts ebullience and vapidity that make it so easy to hum along to without worrying about any of the more grisly (birth of a tortured martyr), reverent (birth of a presumed savior), or more complicated elements (believing neither of these but still calling it Christmas) common to many songs of the season. My first memory of this song is hearing some muzak version on a used car commercial most years of my early childhood that sounded a lot like the Les Baxter version here, and getting that warm feeling that's so complicated to parse as an adult. In college I used to entertain my roommate Amanda by singing and dancing along to Debbie Gibson's version once a month or so throughout the year. It's still my favorite holiday standard, and I'll give any version a listen; two other favorites are the Squirrel Nut Zippers' and Los Straitjackets' versions. So of course I'm including all of them here.
In discussions of the best single-artist Christmas album of all time, you could do a lot worse than James Brown's Funky Christmas, which is actually a distillation of three Christmas albums he recorded from 1966-1970. Brown actually rivals Sufjan Stevens in the wealth of really great Christmas songs he's recorded that are both seasonally appropriate and completely in his own personality. This is just one of many in that respect, but man, does it make me happy.
Yes, the whole album. Every song - whether whimsical and jaunty, thoughtful and meditative, or just plain silly, is a shot of pure joy. As albums go, I can think of none that so crystallize the spirit of Christmas (whatever that is) than this one. I've grown weary of the actual TV special over the years, perhaps mostly because it can't seem to go more than two minutes without a commercial interruption (I should stop watching it on cbs.com), but the music has always been what moves this slice of mid-20th Century anti-commercial commercialism.
I've actually never been there during the Christmas season, but I've been enough in the warmer months to know what it means to miss New Orleans. And when I hear about "magnolia trees at night sparklin' bright" while "a barefoot choir in prayer fills the air, Mississippi fools gatherin' there," I know I'm one of those fools.
I'm a big fan of the Very Special Christmas franchise - have been since I shoplifted the first volume on cassette in 1987. What I think I love most about the songs gathered over its first three volumes (I lost interest after 1997) is how so many artists whose work I wasn't really into rose to the occasion to deliver original songs or reinventions of standards that felt - still feel - were/are Christmas to me. I designate this song by Billy Idol, which for all I know is an original, an honorary Very Special Christmas Song. Alas, I found it tacked on the end of a compilation titled Monster Ballads Xmas, with fourteen predictably glammed-up versions of predictably-selected popular favorites by Warrant, Dokken, Winger, et al that tend to run together. And then there's track 15. I love how Billy Idol somehow manages to channel Burl Ives, pulling us all around the fire and telling us it'll be alright while winking with mirth at the absurdity of the whole Christmas enterprise.