Monday, February 27, 2017

Let's Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About Teaching Let's Talk About Love

Part Six of an ongoing series. Catch up with part One here. 
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Part One - The Modern Age

This is an intensive writing course. You will have writing homework every night and reading homework many nights. The theme of this course is taste – what you like, what other people like, how we define ourselves according to our likes and dislikes, and how we articulate these preferences. We will be examining the rhetoric of taste, as well as writing about how tastes are shaped by environment and culture. By investigating issues surrounding taste – good taste, bad taste and everything in between – we will be able to explore ideas of genre, audience, and persuasion that are central to the writing you will be expected to perform in this class as well as throughout your college career.

I taught college composition from the Fall of 2012 to the Summer of 2014. Freshman comp, compulsory general education requirement. My time teaching the subject was split between two courses, UWP 1 and ENL 3. UWP stands for University Writing Program, the department that administers the bulk of writing education on campus. ENL stands for English.

The two courses teach the same thing. My lesson plans in terms of writing education remained largely unchanged between them. UWP isn’t a “literature” course in the way most students are expecting – there’s still reading, but the course description specifically excludes fiction, plays, and poetry. Some degree of self-selection is anticipated, with students migrating to their preference. In reality the requirement is impacted to the degree that students land in one or the other class by virtue of scheduling. Everyone needs it – most students need very badly to become better writers – but freshman composition is nobody’s favorite. I accept that and try to make the topic interesting for students who may have very good reasons to dislike writing. 

As long as the basic writing education remains consistent I have leeway to devise my own courses. I enjoy challenging myself. Sometimes the experiments work, sometimes they don’t. The worst thing I can be is bored, and switching up the material every quarter keeps me engaged. My way of pushing through the drudgery of teaching writing – a valuable task but draining – is writing interesting syllabi packed with fun stuff that I want to read and teach. Variety makes a difference when you have to grade 25 near-identical papers on the same topic you’ve been reading about for a year. If I don’t stay engaged my teaching suffers.

The exception was the year I built a class around Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love – A Journey to the End of Taste. This is volume 52 in the venerable 33 1/3 series, a series of small books each devoted to a different seminal record. Let’s Talk About Love is a 1997 Celine Dion album, home to Dion’s megahit “My Heart Will Go On.” This was the theme song to James Cameron’s 1997 Titanic, culturally ubiquitous for many years. That is changing.

Every other book in the 33 1/3 series is a labor of love. Let’s Talk About Love is the only volume devoted to an album the author dislikes. Neither hatchet job nor spoof, the book is an honest attempt to understand a cultural phenomenon whose appeal escapes the author. What could have been a joke becomes more. Wilson begins with a general and unexamined definition of  “cool.” He discovers that no attempt to define Dion’s appeal using the traditional tools of the paranoid critic accurately explains the sincerity and community he finds among Dion fans. “Cool” unravels. Wilson ends the book chastened, confronted with his shortcomings as a listener and a critic.

Wilson comes to understand that his antipathy to Dion’s music says more about him than her, and certainly more about him than her fans. The fans who agree to be interviewed are faultlessly polite to Wilson despite the fact that he is writing a book whose very premise is condescension. He ends the book certain “cool” and “uncool” are arbitrary labels affixed to certain kinds of cultural artifacts based on social, economic, and political factors that exist extrinsic to the artifact itself. There’s nothing in the music itself that makes it cool or uncool. Music is cool or uncool solely on the basis of who listens to it, and who is judging who.

What did you think was cool five years ago, and why? Do you still think it’s cool today? How is your idea of cool different from what you believed five years ago? Please explain your answer.
The subtitle of Wilson’s book – A Journey to the End of Taste – hints at the scope of the inquiry, but gestures towards possible misunderstanding. The book itself is ostensibly a tour of Dion’s music, and for prospective buyers Wilson’s “journey” appears to be an exploration of a distasteful cultural artifact. After reading the book it is difficult not to see that the title means, simply, that we have reached the end of taste.

What is taste? How do we assemble these criteria? To where do we look to see our virtue as consumers reflected back at us?

My students had no feel for the idea of taste. The very idea of value judgments based on musical preference was alien. This was a representative cross section of older American teenagers, alongside a high percentage of foreign students badly in need of dedicated ESL resources I had not been trained to provide. They understood the idea of “cool” – that never goes out of style – but a high percentage of them were confused by the process by which coolness translates (or doesn’t) into tastefulness. I highly suspect most of the class didn’t even know Celine Dion, despite the fact that the book spends a great deal of time discussing her worldwide popularity. The circumstances of her initial fame have faded. The teenagers who lined up around the block to buy tickets for Titanic have kids of their own who are old enough to go to the movies by themselves.

Imagine for a minute explaining to a group of strangers why Elliot Smith is supposed to be cooler than Celine Dion, when no one in that group has heard of either Smith or Dion. Your understanding of taste is shaken. How do you explain why a sad white man with a guitar is inherently superior to the pretty white woman singer? Especially since many in your class would be more inclined to appreciate the latter than the former?

Taste is a weapon, constructed around class distinction, and exists in an uneasy relationship to cool. Coolness is neither universal nor timeless, but the concept itself translates. In four classes, out of 100 students, no one cared to mount a defense of taste.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

When a critic or heavily invested music buff says, as they often do, that discovering music or writing “saved my life,” I think what lurks behind the melodrama is a feeling that a facility with pop culture and words has saved us from the life of subservient career, suburban lifestyle and quiet desperation we imagine befalls people like Celine Dion’s white American fans . . . (Wilson)

Rock & roll lingered because a powerful demographic decided it would accompany them through the world for the duration of their lives. It probably reached the end of its natural lifespan some time ago, but lingers in permanent attrition. The music now looks inward and tacitly accepts a senescence of diminished expectations juxtaposed against consistent technical refinement. It was born as the plaything of the boomers and it falls into eclipse just as the boomers’ grip on cultural production has finally gone limp. Rock & roll is no longer quite so important as it had been, or perhaps more accurately, it is no longer quite so important as it had believed, and grows less important by the day.

(When I refer to “rock” in this context, it is meant and should be taken to mean non-metal, “alternative,” “indie,” white, with guitars . . . the kind of rock music to which music critics [and vestigial rockist organs such as the NME] gesture lazily when they discuss “rock” as a concept. A very small gene pool, something increasingly acknowledged even among partisans.)

Losing cultural relevancy turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the music itself, and no group symbolizes this paradox quite like the Strokes. For those who come in late: the Strokes arrive in the early 2000s, overhyped by the British press as the next big thing in rock music. They did pretty well behind their first album, 2001’s Is This It, but the massive sales heralded by the hype never arrived. The band became huge within the sphere of people who cared about contemporary rock & roll, but that attention never completely translated to the mainstream. Generation X was aging out of their most intense period of cultural engagement, and something about the studied insincerity of post-2000 bands never quite sat well with many older rock fans. Perhaps it was the arrival of the Strokes that crystalized the fact that in the United States by 2001 the sphere of people who cared about contemporary rock & roll was smaller than expected, and shrinking.

In hindsight the notion that the Strokes were ever going to be superstars in the United States is laughable. They were a band built from a kit, cobbled together with bits and pieces of the previous 25 years of rock history. There was no attempt at “authenticity”: the Strokes came from money, had no hardscrabble origin, and dressed quite well in that scruffy early 00s way. Previous generations would have labeled them poseurs and dismissed them sight unseen. But the Strokes were only the tip of the sword, the first of many prominent bands from the era who trafficked in pastiche and cultivated a blank affect that repulsed as many listeners as it attracted.

Lots of people didn’t like the Strokes. Some people were incensed by the Strokes. But although it wasn’t clear at the time, they did actually live up to the hype by ushering in a new generation of rock roll – a generation defined by shrinking horizons political, economic, and social.

The buzz on the Strokes for better and for worse was that they were a band that sounded like another band, another cooler band from twenty-or-twenty-five years earlier. No two people agreeD on the same band: some heard the Ramones, some Television, or the New York Dolls. I always heard the (early) Cars. All of these bands are there, and a dozen more, but none of them are dominant. Just bits and pieces, a little sound here, a guitar tone there. But even though it appears as if it should be an easy matter to dismantle the music, reduce it to its components and dismiss it in pieces, the finished product is more than the sum of its influences (in this case, any band that could theoretically have cut a 12” for Ork Records in 1977). The Strokes sound like the Strokes, and that’s a pretty distinctive sound, even if born familiar. There's no mistaking "Last Nite" for anyone else but them.

The Strokes assembled a sound by mixing-and-matching a group of primary influences whose common denominator was not musical but visual. They play music that sounds like it should be played by guys who look like the Strokes. Music history reduced to fashion.

Or at least that’s how it started. The Strokes got two albums out of their “classic” sound before changing. Inevitable, given that the band’s sound was as arch as it was limiting. The Strokes’ brief mystique effervesced around the idea of limitless cool, cool without measure. Being cool means no one sees you sweat. How, then, do you change?

Is This It was a magic trick. Room On Fire was the same trick again, in some ways better developed but lacking the immediacy of its parent. They had to do something different for their third album, and they did: 2006’s First Impressions of Earth showcased a band completely transformed. Now they sounded like a contemporary rock band. Reviews were mixed – polite verging on indifferent. It wasn’t that they had tried and failed. The album itself was hardly terrible. But it was different and, what’s worse, it was normal. A difficult third album, one by turns admirably abrasive and ineptly commercial, is hardly a great sin, and certainly a common one. But the Strokes weren’t just any band, they were the Strokes. With their aura of invincibility punctured, were they really even the same Strokes anymore?  

The Strokes couldn’t go on as they were. It was five years from First Impressions of Earth to 2011’s Angles, bizarre and baffling. Two years after that came Comedown Machine, a sturdy synthesis of the better pieces of the Strokes’ modern sound – odd pop trinkets juxtaposed against fast-paced rockers that reveal themselves pleasantly intricate on closer inspection. “Slow Animals” is the best distillation of later Strokes, an effervescent and effortless uptempo number built on a rhythm that somehow manages to stomp and skitter at the same time, powerful and nervous in equal measure. It’s an extraordinary composition, and ample evidence that the band did not cease being interesting after their first two albums. 

The Strokes play really well together. Their problem was one of expectations, born partly from their Oedipal relationship with their influences and partly from commercial prospects that failed to materialize. What exactly people expected, I couldn’t say – nor even if there were specific expectations. Maybe there were none, maybe I'm imagining it. Maybe that was the point. The future seemed quite far off. No one was making long term plans in the Fall of 2001. 

But that’s not what this essay is about.

In chapter 6, Wilson states that, “to supposedly more refined, educated ears, being a ‘showoff’ is the height of tackiness.” In this chapter and throughout the book, Wilson explores the concept of audience as it relates to the kinds of music we listen to. Here he presents a dichotomy between “more refined, educated” listeners and those listeners who are impressed by tacky, “showoff” music. What kind of assumptions is Wilson making about the type of people who like to listen to “tacky” pop music vs. those who listen to “artier” music? Do you agree with these assumptions?

I exhort my students to remember three principles of good writing: concision, precision, and clarity. They’re all related. Look for one and you’ll find the others.

A person’s writing can be as distinctive as a fingerprint, but bad writing is usually bad in all the same ways. Most writing does not deserve the courtesy of close attention. Writing in which the writer has little invested requires a similar investment from the reader. Good writing is good courtesy, a reflection of the sincere appreciation that you extend to your readers for the time spent with your words.

One of the easiest ways to communicate a lack of appreciation for your reader is to turn in writing rife with misspellings and grammatical errors. I ask my students to put themselves in the shoes of their prospective bosses, reading poorly written resume cover letters and making snap, often quite unfair judgments based solely on whether or not the applicant took the time to run spellcheck. In writing, as in life, we are often judged on the basis of small gestures that are expected to serve as shorthand for larger trends. Still: turning in a piece of writing, produced on a computer in the year 2016, that is nevertheless rife with the kind of misspellings and petty grammatical errors that Microsoft Word automatically fixes, broadcasts complete contempt for your reader. 

The best writing is the simplest writing. This is true in most instances because we judge a piece of writing based on how well it communicates its message. A good idea deserves to be understood, and the best way to ensure that your ideas are understood is to communicate clearly and precisely.

1.     In chapter 7 of LTAL, the assertion is made that two different audiences heard The Rite of Spring in 1913 and 1914. Furthermore, they suggest that the difference between these audiences was that the first audience was completely unprepared to hear a new and challenging piece of music, while the second audience was “eager to be shocked” (LTAL 78). What does that tell us about how the effectiveness of certain rhetoric might depend on its audience? Is it possible that the effectiveness of certain rhetoric might be changeable?

2.     How might these ideas of audience relate to our own discussions, in terms of what kind of audience might enjoy pop music like Celine Dion vs. what kind of audience might enjoy “difficult” or “challenging” music? How would you describe your own tastes according to these standards? What sort of preconceptions do we carry about the kind of audience that prefers one type of music (popular, accessible) to the other (obscure, difficult)?

Interpol is first and foremost a drummer’s band. Wipe every preconceived notion about the group from your mind, and begin again with the assertion that Sam Fogarino’s drumming is the most vital and necessary part of the band’s sound. Perhaps it doesn’t jump out at you. Listen again.

Few bands have been worse served by advance hype than Interpol. If the Strokes suffered from a sustained but diffuse familiarity that befogged the minds of listeners desperately searching for some kind of ironic “tell” that was never forthcoming, Interpol suffered from one specific comparison, a comparison which has dogged them since the very beginning of their career: Joy Division.

It would be difficult to deny that Joy Division was a strong influence, at least for 2002’s Turn on the Bright Lights. But the influence has been overstated, primarily because of a surface similarity between the sound of Paul Banks' and Ian Curtis' voices. This similarity has been overplayed, particularly since – beginning with 2004’s Antics and continuing through to the present day – Banks has changed his singing slightly with every album. His voice is recorded different each time, or at least carries a different affect based on the album’s tone: for Turn on the Bright Lights he is febrile, exhausted; for Antics, cold, alternating between emotionally distant and imperious, almost barking in places. For 2007’s Our Love To Admire he is flayed, harsh, metallic, but morose and vulnerable on 2010’s self-titled affair.

But make no mistake: it’s Fogarino’s band. Interpol is defined by a semi-antagonist dynamic between the drummer and the vocalist, the latter perpetually one half-step behind the beat and running to catch up. Fogarino is implacable, a metronome in human form, unerringly precise but still effortlessly loose. Banks is just a singer, Fogarino is a force of nature. A drummer’s drummer, in essence. Fogarino is ten years older than banks, six years older than guitarist Daniel Kessler.

The early 2000s were consumed by the hunt for the saviors of rock and roll prophesied during the Clinton administration and desperately hunted by an industry whose A&R men stuck to the idea of rock as an art form of mass appeal longer than most of the rest of the country. At the time the Strokes’ failure to conquer the American airwaves was still seen as a temporary setback for the industry and not a sign that rock had lost its gravity. At the time every subsequent much hyped band was still greeted with wary enthusiasm: every buzz band represented a new chance to win the hearts and minds of a generation who would otherwise have little connection to the genre.  

In 2002 Pitchfork prefaced their review of Turn on the Bright Lights with an allusion to the “veritable shitstorm of publicity drummed up by a certain New York City band, one that had the audacity to not be the denim-clad messiahs of rock and roll we'd been promised.” The industry was wise to be wary of buzz bands who failed to make the turnover, because the music itself had become insulated from a mass audience through a gradual distillation of style down to a patchwork of genre signifiers. The best rock music in this period was rock music being made by and for people with large record collections, people who got the jokes. Rock music in the first decade of the twentieth century was defined by consistent refinement of existing principle, without a lot of outsized novelty. The humility is itself confrontational. 

This turn inward on the part of rock & roll was mirrored by a general cultural turn away from rock over the same time period. Hard rock and metal had long since segregated themselves on the airwaves, thriving as they still do on a wavelength apart from other forms of contemporary rock and pop. Teen pop never really went away after the high tide at the turn of the century, although the stars kept changing and only a few of them managed lasting careers. Hip-hop reigned. It was important for rock's self-image to continue to be able to dominate the cultural conversation. It's a genre that has historically relied on the the illusion of universal appeal to provide thematic ballast. Without its reflexive self-importance, where did it have to go? 

Interpol did not arrive borne on the wings of the same ruinous expectations as the Strokes. They were a decidedly murkier, less mainstream proposition. Instead of taking their cue from the kind of bands that could have been seen skulking around the East Village in 1977, Interpol were devoted to post-punk and proto-goth influences like Joy Division, yes, but also Magazine, early Bauhaus, and any number of groups that could have been shelved alongside them at Rough Trade in 1979. As with the Strokes, however, the band quickly moved past the simple recitation of their earliest influences on their way to developing a distinctive and recognizable sound.

The critical consensus of 2002, while enthusiastic, could not shake the compulsion to comparison, and the incessant drive to quantify influences marks reviews from the era as surely as the incessant use of the word “angular” as an adjective to describe any random guitar noise. Here is a section from that same Pitchfork review, written by Eric Carr:

Speaking of Closer, Interpol can't seem to shake being likened to Factory prodigies Joy Division. The cause, however, isn't necessarily evident. Indeed, Daniel Kessler's sublime, angular downstrokes follow the smooth confidence of Carlos Dengler's basslines, and Paul Banks sings with Ian Curtis' downcast delivery and dramatic flair. The difference, however, lies in the music itself: what Joy Division played was sparse and jagged-- punk with a melancholy, but often minimalist bent. Interpol, meanwhile, are punk in ethic alone; their music bears few of that genre's signatures, with the band instead immersing themselves in a grander, more theatrical atmosphere with lush production that counters their frustrated bombast.

The situation was egregious enough that it became, in hindsight, the single most notable thing about the band’s reception. In 2012, writing about the album’s tenth anniversary for the same website, Matt LeMay wrote,

In retrospect, 2002 may have been the very year that we stopped talking about how music sounds, and started talking about what other music it sounds like. "Interpol sounds like Joy Division" was one of the first critical observations to turn into a full-fledged meme. In the intervening years, other bands have sounded a whole lot more like Joy Division, and the comparison now feels like just that: a comparison.

The mania for comparison infected critical discourse to the extent that, for anyone looking inside the echo chamber from outside, it would have been difficult not to come to the conclusion that the genre was hopelessly narcissistic, stuck playing variations on a theme for a dwindling coterie of fans and critics who were happy to assume that the culture still revolved around them. Most fans and critics were certain that the lifestyle and fashion of twenty-something middle-class white kids would remain the cultural norm, as they had been for much of the previous century. 

“Alternative” culture – which was very much still a thing in 2002, even if the label was falling out of use – was premised on being in some way “other,” a way for white kids who grew up in the wasteland of the 1980s and 1990s to focus their dissatisfaction through inappropriate or edgy music and lifestyle choices. It was difficult to mask the privilege inherent in the enterprise, however. Teenage rebellion is a wonderful idea when rebellion is merely a lifestyle choice, symbolic and of little lasting consequence. But the instinctive posture of rebellion adopted by so many rock fans and critics who believed that liking rock music in the twenty-first century was a brave attempt at thoughtful iconoclasm was sour and curdled at its core.  
As Wilson wrote, describing the split between Celine Dion’s fans and Eliot Smith fans, this was,

one of the ruling paradoxes for partisans of ‘alternative’ culture: It might look like you were asserting superiority over the multitudes, but as a former bullied kid, I always figured it started from rejection. If respect or simple fairness were denied you, you’d build a great life (the best revenge) from what you could scrounge outside their orbit, freed from the thirst for majority approbation.

There’s nothing worse than a former outcast with a small cache of cultural capital. The problem with this mindset is that as the market for rock music shrank, the idea of rock critics as cultural gatekeepers was revealed to be a remarkable feat of self-delusion. Only rock critics believed themselves to be arbiters of taste. As the rest of the culture moved on it became easier to walk past them altogether. The vaunted “authenticity” represented by artists like Smith could be seen for what it was: elitism built around a set of stereotypes and suppositions that betrayed a rigid adherence to the promulgation of class, gender, and racial restrictions that dated back to the 1950s and 60s.

Wilson's book was just one of the signs from this period that the previous critical paradigm was crumbling, not just in terms of what people wrote about rock but how musicians regarded themselves. The magpie styles and studied professionalism of groups like Interpol and the Strokes (and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the White Strips and Arcade Fire and Spoon, et al) was a direct challenge to the notion that rock needed to enact a revolutionary pose and reinvent the wheel with every new generation in order to be interesting. Without the comforting illusion of middle-class rebellion to fall back on, what was rock? Something people wrote about on their blogs. The goal of rock stardom even for popular bands was no longer mansions and limousines, but being able to pay a mortgage and afford health insurance. No one gets to be Led Zeppelin anymore. It's a job now. There's no such thing as "selling out" when corporate sponsorships, licensing, and constant touring can't even guarantee a decent middle-class living for popular bands. To pretend otherwise is pure fantasy. 

The sterotype of the tortured artist – an Eliot Smith or Ian Curtis - will never fade from pop culture. But the idea that art is only as good as the degree of suffering involved in its creation is no more an objective standard than the idea that Celine Dion produces superior music simply by virtue of her plainly being a more technically proficient singer than either Smith or Curtis. 
That’s not to say that Eliot Smith isn’t pretty good – or Interpol or the Strokes – just that there’s no moral high ground gained from preferring Smith to Dion. My students had no problem understanding this idea. It’s music created for a specific audience, just like any other music. Maybe you fall into the intended audience, maybe you don’t. Maybe it changes your life, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it’s just pleasant background noise. People enjoy what they enjoy for a wide variety of reasons. Maybe it might be more productive – as Wilson ultimately posits – to ask how the music makes you feel, and why it makes you feel that way. That feeling is the only “authenticity” that matters in music, any kind of music.

But that’s not what this essay is about.

In the end, if delight is where you find it and myriad pop pleasures meet the heterodox needs of diverse publics, what is the real substance of the dislike I and so many other commentators have for Celine Dion? (Wilson)

Before the first day of class on my first day of teaching what became affectionately known among my fellow teachers as the “Celine Dion class,” I was certain that Celine Dion was a figure of enduring prominence who required no explanation. Surely she’s a massive star whose music is still played across the world, and who will remain a fixture in the firmament for so long as Titanic remains a touchstone in the culture.

The lesson I learned is that culture doesn't work like that. I was usually too afraid to ask what percentage of my class had never heard of Dion before walking into class on the first day. I would wager that most had heard Dion before, even if they may never have known the woman’s name, much as kids from my generation grew up surrounded by the previous generation’s AM Gold without ever knowing who sang “Superstar” (unless we asked). At a certain point extraordinarily popular music graduates to the status of background noise. The idea that someone who sang adult-contemporary ballads might be prima facie uncool, and therefore a ripe target for mockery, was alien.   
Students already understood a great deal of the cultural hierarchy that Wilson explores so painstakingly throughout his book. There’s no intrinsic reason why rock music sits at the pinnacle of culture, so it just doesn’t, and no one under the age of approximately thirty-five seems to think that’s in any way unusual. It’s music for white people, what’s more, a certain type of white person. Anything that smacked of contemporary rock was understood by my students as being for a very specific demographic: hipsters.

For all the controversy over the definition of a “hipster,” my students knew the type immediately: white, middle-class, snotty. People who think their tastes make them more interesting than you. The music they listen to is consequently branded as “hipster music” – and subsequently dismissed.

To understand the significance of “audience” to rhetoric – the first principle of any rhetorical instance, be it a song or a college paper, is the recognition of your audience – we watched a few music videos. I took the class step-by-step through the process of reading music videos for signifiers that indicate demographics.

The first video we watched was always the video for Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Although the song isn’t much (nothing compared to anything off Teenage Dream, one of the great pop albums of the new century), the video is quite well constructed. Directed by Grady Hall and Mark Kudsi, it makes a reasonable effort to make Perry palatable to a potentially much larger audience after her early success with teen pop.

The video begins with a plane crash in the jungle. Perry is marooned and left to fend for herself, a process that includes turning into a distaff Tarzan and conquering nature through her indomitable will. The song itself is innocuous, a standard female-empowerment (but not too empowered) anthem with a rhythm sufficiently ponderous to ensure it can crossover to modern adult contemporary stations (or Spotify streams). It’s been constructed primarily for a demographic roughly five-to-ten years older than the teenyboppers who rushed out to “buy” 2008’s One of the Boys. She strikes a blow for female empowerment by taming a tiger through the power of courage. She even outfits her new pet with a “Kitty Purry” collar. Of course, Perry is mostly naked throughout the video, ensuring that teenage boys (and their dads) will at least find her interesting to look at.

Every quadrant accounted for: while (assumedly) the core demographic of teenage girls is already invested due to familiarity with Perry, the message of genial if noncommittal female empowerment offers a patina of respectability for moms and older sisters. Perry’s dress, on the other hand, appeals not simply to men and boys but to girls themselves who admire her and aspire to her confidence and attractiveness. Every element of the video, including the clever winks at older viewers intimately familiar with the tropes of the jungle adventure, has been precisely calibrated to appeal to a different audience. Showing students how something as innocuous as a music video has been carefully constructed for the purpose of selling them a product – in this specific case, Perry’s music, but also Perry as a star and commodity independent of any specific hit song – was a key moment in the class. 

The second video we watched was Danny Brown’s “Grown Up.” The video, directed by Greg Brunkalla, is based around the conceit of a school-age version of Danny Brown rapping the song while on a walking tour of his neighborhood. He’s a class clown with rapid-fire delivery, and the video does an excellent job of selling him as a talented rapper with a sense of humor. It’s also a grounded video, following Brown’s child doppelganger – played by nine-year-old Dante Hoagland – on a walk through the streets of Harlem and Williamsburg. This communicates a sense of location, a necessity for new acts who often struggle to leverage regional popularity into national exposure. A rapper needs a hometown to rep, and (although it’s worth noting that Brown himself is a native of Detroit, not New York) the video asserts through its street-level focus that Brown is still a product of the neighborhoods from which he came, grounded even while striving for success. It’s a different valence of authenticity, it should be noted, than the self-excoriating misery of an Eliot Smith, but just as legible to its intended audience.

The final video we watched was Beach House’s “Wishes.” Directed by comedian Eric Wareheim, the clip defies easy categorization. Ray Wise is a ringmaster of a strange troupe of acrobats and cheerleaders who perform for the edification of an impassive crowd in a mostly empty stadium. Such a description does little to communicate the strangeness of the exquisitely produced clip, with Wise mouthing the words to an aching and languid dream pop ballad about, well, wishes. And love. Or loss? It’s difficult to tell precisely. Which is probably the point. 
No one ever knew what to think of the clip. Most students appeared unimpressed, as stone-faced and silent as the crowd in the video. When I asked about the audience for this video – asking them to pull out the same kind of demographic information we had found in the previous two videos – they didn’t know and couldn’t guess. The signs and referents were alien. The sense of humor was alien. It sticks with me that at least one student found the music itself upsetting and sad. Much of the video was simply illegible to them. Most probably dismissed it as hipster bullshit. As inexact a measurement as that may be, its also not completely wrong.

I love that video, and I love that band. The class, however, did not love “Wishes,” and the majority of students found no purchase in the clip’s pervasive weirdness. They understood the effect of the video in toto was to broadcast a message that this music was simply Not For Them. It was a product produced for a highly specialized audience who can enjoy not just Wareheim’s anti-comedy, but Beach House’s gossamer synthpop. No one is born knowing either.

But that’s not what this essay is about. 

To Be Continued


 Part Six of an ongoing series. 


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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thirteen Years of Terror

Always practice proper care and storage of your valuable comic books.

  • Ten years ago, it was cold. It was bitter cold. I was living in a shack on the outskirts of Rutland, Massachusetts - and I say shack because that's what it was, really. The cabin was sixty or so years old. It didn't have any heat or insulation. It broiled in the summer (central Massachusetts can be very humid and there was a swamp in the backyard) and froze in the winter. We didn't have a bathroom - just a toilet on a bare wood floor. All the other bathroom fixtures had been torn out because they were rotten. We bought a gym membership in Worcester so we could drive 20-25 minutes to bathe. A wing of the house was closed off because it had been destroyed by water damage. (Link)
I wrote those words three years ago, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of this site. At the time ten years seemed like an immense amount of time. But the days keep tumbling down. Now we’re a teenager.

I am happy to report that in the year since I last contemplated this site’s birthday, not a lot has really happened. It’s been a very quiet year, not much to report.

Yeah, about that.
  • January 2004 was a very cold month. (Did I mention it was cold?) The temperature never rose above freezing for the entire week of the 17th. My wife (now ex-) had been hospitalized, and I was alone, freezing, with just our dogs for company. I read Journalista! every morning and followed every blog to which Dirk Deppey linked. I was bored, depressed, lonely, looking for something to keep my mind off the cold. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision. But somewhere along the line on Saturday, January 17th 2003 I registered for a Blogspot account and began The Hurting. The name fit my attitude at the time, and I guess it still does - even though I'm no longer living in a shack in the woods and my life has improved by every conceivable metric, I'm still as mordant and droll as ever. When will the hurting stop? Good question.(Link)
 Funny thing.

If you haven’t checked in for a while, you might not have caught that there was, uh, a pretty big change around here. Massive. I mean – big.   

So this is a thing that happened. You won't be seeing that name again. That guy’s gone, save for legal ID and documentation (such as the above excerpt) and credit cards. All that stuff takes time, and I’m motivated to move quickly. There’s no reason to wait another minute. 
  • One of the more distinctive - perhaps to its detriment - attributes of this blog is that over the years I've settled into a pretty peculiar rhythm. I don't post a lot, obviously, but sometimes I post more than others. On a good week I'll manage a full essay and maybe a couple other smaller things. I may bewail my unproductiveness, but that's where I'm comfortable, and trying to push for more than that never seems to work out. I got out of the habit of doing shorter text posts a long time ago, for whatever reason - it's easier for me to write at length, as opposed to producing something more concise and pithy. I've been told point-blank that writing such long essays turns off as many readers as it may attract, but I think that's changing - one side-effect from so many established media companies colonizing the internet (and so many start-ups replicating that format), is that the length of articles and the attention span required to read them online appears to be expanding. That's fine. I do this as much for myself as anyone else, and that's the format in which I'm most comfortable writing. Why have a blog if you can't do what you want with it? (Link)
Early on the morning of Tuesday, October 11th 2016, I posted my essay “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days.” To say the essay provoked a response would be an understatement.

I wasn’t trying to make a statement, really. It made sense to me that since it had been a long time since I had posted anything, I should probably come back with something good for anyone sticking around after (almost) thirteen years of diminishing returns. The problem was that I had more than a couple good ideas about how to go about doing so. I worked through each idea in its turn and couldn’t make up my mind which to use. The original draft of the essay began with far more modest goals, simply to announce the big news, maybe in passing come up with something cool and memorable.

Oh, hmmm, I wondered throughout, should I say that? I have a good idea for a bit about that. I could spin off the Star Wars sections to their own essay. I could split it up to run over a week. It keeps getting longer, Jesus. How honest should I be? My mom will probably read this. Everyone I know could potentially read this. Fuck. I don’t see any way out of just putting it all up at one gulp. If I cut it up people would try to guess and given the nature of the revelation that’s not a good idea. I guess if I’m in for a penny I am in for a pound, I am cutting nothing. I'm playing fair: all the clues will be there right in front of the reader – if they know what to look for. If you knew the ending, you read with that awareness. If you didn’t? You had no idea and got to be surprised. 

How do you get people to sit through a 6,000 word personal essay about Star Wars, gender, and suicide? Admittedly it was about Star Wars only on the surface, gender pervasively but subtly, and suicide – well, yeah, that’s right there. You turn it into a murder mystery where the reader gradually discovers that for months they’ve been talking to a dead man. 

I used the opportunity to write a coming out essay as an opportunity to reshape my life. Everything leading up to that fateful evening of April 30th felt like it could be formed into a story, a life told in shards, incident and observation all leading inevitably to –

Why am I doing this?

Why am I writing about my life?

It felt remarkably important that I produce something good. Something that might in some way explain my recent absence. As the essay grew however it became a means of explaining quite a bit more, years and decades of regret and uncertainty all leading inexorably towards the kind of once-in-a-lifetime earth-shattering epiphany that they write about in those modernist novels on which I’m supposed to be writing a dissertation. It’s seemed, on a moment’s consideration, that it was actually a remarkable story.

I don’t really get the option of living a private life anymore. If you know I’m trans you already know my most intimate secret – so secret even I didn't know. I’m also stuck carrying around this corpse of a dude I used to inhabit, animated for brief moments by the able ventriloquist team of Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman. I have been writing either in the pages of the Journal or online in some capacity or another (most prominently this site) for sixteen years. I have to live with the fact that it will always be a keystroke away. So – why the hell not? I have nothing to lose. After the essay goes out? There’s no putting that genie back, ever. I am what I am. I’m a woman.
  • Longtime readers of this blog know that I'm poor. Before I went back to school in 2007 I spent much of the previous decade shuffling around a handful of low-paying, dead-end jobs, getting some degree of satisfaction from working part time as a freelance writer but generally dissatisfied with the shape and direction of my life. In hindsight it's obvious that I had no one to blame for this state of affairs but myself - I made a few precipitous decisions in my early twenties that had great, far-reaching unpleasant consequences. Usually this is the part where someone says, "I made some mistakes but I don't regret anything!" That's bullshit: although I have learned to regard my past with something resembling a sanguine wistfulness (for the necessity of my own fragile mental health, if nothing else), that doesn't mean I don't live every day with a sensation of definite regret hovering somewhere in the vicinity of my conscious thoughts. (Link)

It’s interesting to read old blog posts and see all the urgent warnings my subconscious sent up the flagpole. Descriptions of vague unease abound, the kind of open-ended descriptions that scream across the years for some kind of resolution – “a sensation of definite regret hovering somewhere in the vicinity of my conscious thoughts.” That’s from an essay wrote on November 21st, 2011, soon after the famous incident on the UC Davis quad where student protestors were assaulted by police with year gas. I knew a few of the protestors and had in fact been sitting in class with them earlier in the day, but I was home napping when the incident occurred.

It’s been a weird year. It’s been a weird decade. It’s been a weird lifetime.

Almost from the moment I knew I was trans I knew that I would need to one day write a blog post to explain that fact. I knew that sooner or later I was going to be called to account for my life and to explain – for my own benefit, if for no one else – just what had happened. It’s very upsetting to see that your life to date had been building towards one massive “Shyalaman Twist.” When that happens, everything gets reevaluated. Everything. Every incident, relationship, misadventure, success, failure, love, hate, loss . . . it’s all different now, like it happened to a different person. Which it did, in more ways than one. Someone else started this blog on January 17th, 2004, and that someone was me but also not and no longer.

We all change, we’re all changing all the time. Look at a picture of yourself from the last year, from the last decade. Sure, it’s you, but it’s not. You’ve changed, too.
  • But the image I remember most from Episode III isn't one of the battles – it's the last shot. Obi-Wan gives the baby Luke to Owen and Beru and wanders off into the desert. Even after everything has occurred and Anakin has become Vader, you know that Owen and Beru are relatively safe because of their connection to Anakin's mother - and hiding the child with them is the safest choice, the proverbial "hiding in plain sight". Of course, eventually things change - the Rebellion comes home after those strange droids are found wandering the desert, and when people start asking questions about Ben Kenobi everything starts to fall apart and people die. But that last shot, in the wake of the storm of the Jedis' defeat and the fall of the Republic - drawing the explicit parallel between Luke's arrival and later Luke's departure from home at the beginning of Episode IV – that's the shot the whole prequel trilogy was building to, the bridge between the past and the present. It's the crux of everything that happened and everything that will happen - a moment of bittersweet triumph, but a triumph nonetheless, A New Hope for the future of the Republic cradled in the arms of his family. It's, basically, the apogee of Star Wars in one single shot, all the bluster and sentiment, epic scope and cheesy serial origins, the melodrama and the ham-fisted intellectualizing, the emotional pull of childish nostalgia and the legitimate gravity of melancholy adolescence. It's all there. (Link)
Coming out isn’t the hardest thing I’ve ever done, it just isn’t. But it has still been a long, complex, and exhausting process, a process that isn’t over yet. It feels like I am dragging my ass when in fact I am going remarkably fast by any standard. I'm not getting any younger – except for the strange fact that I am? I feel now younger than I have ever felt. I have found an enthusiasm for life I could never have imagined possible. The first thing I feel when I wake up in the morning is no longer regret at being alive. 

I hope it lasts.

Aside from my dealings with close family, the most critical step of the process of transition is coming out. You only get to come out once, and I wanted to do it right. I knew from the very beginning that I would be using the blog to do so. One reason it’s so long is that I had almost half a year to draft it in my head. No detail seemed superfluous.

I knew it had to be good. And I knew it had to be honest. I’ve never lied to you.

Go back and read my tenth anniversary post. That piece has a good potted history of the blog, such that I probably don’t need to go over much of the same material again. It’s still accurate. Funny how hindsight plays us for fools. Much from the my life now reads as perversely ironic.

The gist is that this blog was started at the lowest point in my life. Literally, the precise exact lowest moment – nothing since and nothing before comes close to the despair and helplessness I felt in that moment. I reached out to start a blog because reading other peoples’ blogs at the time was the only thing that distracted me from the fact that my life had completely fallen apart and I was trapped in a terrible situation. And I started The Hurting and that gave me something to do. Something to look forward to.

Back when Dirk Deppey shuttered Journalista! 1.0 I spent some time doing heavy linkblogging myself, just like he had done. I managed a few months until I realized that doing the job right took multiple hours a day. Even though there was still a need for a content aggregator in the comics blogosphere, it was too much for me, and would soon be too much for anyone. The first year of this blog – as with most blogs – was pretty intense. Lots of writing, lots of talking back and forth. I answered letters! Remember that? People used to send in e-mails to my blog and I would reply to them on the blog. What a fucking concept.

People who come here, if you’ve come here long enough, know that the reason I have my own website is that I need a place to write the kind of stuff that literally no other venue would ever touch. Not just many thousands of words on Star Wars or Secret Wars or any other kind of fictional war. When I was in the throes of my divorce in 2005 I even wrote about that on here, a bit. I was losing my mind so I didn’t stop to think whether or not I should. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did.

I’ve written about povery, and I’ve written a bit about politics. There’ve been periods where I talked about music exclusively, periods where I go in crazy deep on one topic until I’ve completely exhausted it, probably dozens of abandoned series by now, abandoned due to lack of interest on my part or yours. Now I’ve written about being trans. Will continue to write about being trans. This site remains what it always has been: my site. My life. And I’ve never lied to you.
  • Things weren't supposed to be this way. I quite college after my first year partly because I wanted to become a writer - a real, professional writer. (That wasn't the only reason, but it was what I told myself.) I worked at it - maybe not as hard as I could have, but I did. I wrote stories that were never bought. I wrote a few novels that were never published. I didn't realize until many years later that I had done the absolute worst thing to myself I could have done if i honestly wanted to make it as a writer: you can't write anything good at the age of twenty, and the effort will instill terrible bad habits that can take years to break. You just don't know anything. I never sold a novel, although I can at least say I got as far as a couple agents reading my books before deciding not to follow-up. (Link)
So what’s the takeaway?

I’ve thanked a lot of people, expressed my gratitude in many different ways for the many things people do for me every day. I now believe that being helpful to others is the most important thing we can do. I spend a lot of time helping people, although you probably don’t see it unless you’re in the trans community. I help people outside the community, too, don’t get me wrong – but that’s where much of my attention is, and will likely remain fixed, for the foreseeable future.

Much of the past 2/3 of a year has been spent being considerate of others. For all the major people and activities in my life, I’ve had to formulate a strategy of disclosure that would accomplish my goals of (heh) a peaceful and orderly transition. I’ve spent a lot of time thanking people, which I like to do more often now, as I think it’s very important to express gratitude however and whenever possibly. It’s easy to avoid saying “thank you,” but it pays significant dividends. Smile when you do it.

So it’s time for me to thank someone else.

Thank you.

When I posted my coming out letter on October 11th (National Coming Out Day, the link to which I obviously could not advertise in advance and still keep the secret a secret), I had no idea what to expect. I had told a few people in advance – basically, if I told you in advance of that date, you’re someone I trust and someone I knew would have my back. But the reaction? No clue. I had an idea that I’d get some positive reactions and maybe it might cause a ripple in the corner of the comics world where my name still carries some small currency. Maybe. 

Early in the morning on that day I pressed publish on the most important essay I have ever written. I made a Doctor Who joke (“It is the end, but the moment has been prepared for”) and threw a match to light the bonfire of my life. I left social media for the rest of the day – the longest I’d been off Twitter in years. I didn’t want to know what was happening. I had a couple agents report back that everything was going well, the reaction was positive. I wasn’t too worried. But every time I’d peek at the website the comments section grew bigger. My Inbox was filled with e-mails. I got DMs from people I hadn’t spoke to in years. People I barely remembered, but who remembered me. 
All told, hundreds of people reached out to express their support and love in one of the most stressful moments of my entire life. I can’t reply to everyone individually, I just can’t, and I'm sorry. There’s too many of you, and too many wonderful, heartfelt comments. It was too much. Too much positivity shut down my system just as cleanly as too much negativity. I got spooked, overwhelmed. Could not process.

How do you react to something like that? What do you do the morning after the world – or at least your world, your friends, your peers, colleagues, and coworkers – come together to tell you not just that you are appreciated, but that you are loved and respected and considered important by hundreds of people across the world whose faces you have never seen?
  • I've been reading comics for almost as long as I've been alive - literally, some of my very first memories are buying Batman comics on family car trips and staring at them in my car seat. I study, write about, and teach literature for a living. If I don't have at least some ability to judge the aesthetic merits of a comic book after all this time, then I honestly don't know who does: there's my sense of entitlement for you. I write a comic book blog with a 9 1/2 year paper trail - you can look back through the archives and find every stupid thing I ever wrote, every creator I ever needlessly antagonized, every sweeping generalization I popped off and then painfully retracted. I know a few things about how comic books work. (Link
When I wrote above that, “the most critical step of the process of transitioning is coming out,” I wasn’t exaggerating, at least for me. My life changed on the evening of April 30th, but it also changed on October 11th. Because that’s the day every last illusion I still held regarding my old life was shattered into a thousand pieces.

I believed that I was forgotten. I was a name that appeared in a pile of old issues of The Comics Journal, another in a long line of asshole bloggers who came online to bloviate about superheroes and rock music. I had a few people I knew who liked my work and always spread the links around – you know who you are, because I’ve thanked you in person. But I didn’t think anyone cared.

I was a spent force. I was exhausted. I was a blogger who didn’t blog, a writer who didn’t write, a critic who stopped caring years ago about “good” and “bad.” My site was a ghost town, surely just two steps away from that final, irrevocable concluding post, you know the one – “well, it’s been a while since I posted last, but . . .” I’m sure there were a few of you expecting to find that on October 11th.

And then suddenly, in an instant, I wasn’t any of those things. I wrote a 6,000 word coming out letter that went semi-viral. It ended up on Metafilter, and especial thanks to Martin Wisse for that gift unasked. What was the final tally for the piece?

As of 01/17/17

Almost 11K.

There were two things that made me realize that the essay maybe was pretty good after all, against all my low-self-esteem-fueled expectations:

One, the essay circulated for an eternity on the internet – at least a day – without anyone on social media giving away the ending. Think about that: people actually read it, and the reason I know they read it is that they knew how important preserving the final twist actually was.

Two, the essay continued to circulate, via Twitter and Metafilter, among people who didn’t know me from Adam or, heh, Eve. I expected people I knew to be kind, but I wasn’t expecting total strangers to say things like: 

That’s just a sample. All those people I never knew, pulled together by the intense emotional experience of reading me talk about Star Wars.

What do you even say to something like that?
  • Even after everything has fallen apart, there is still life enough to fill a universe, hope enough to rage forever against the brutality and ignorance of the worst evils. (Link)
In 2016 I learned that everything I thought I had known about myself had been a lie, and then a few months later the same thing happened again.

I truly believed that I had no talent. I truly believed that my effectively quitting writing in 2007 was a good thing, and that getting “realistic” about my limitations as a writer was necessary and important. I truly believed no one but a few nerds here and there even remembered who I was. I truly believed I was better off teaching writing than actually writing.

And then, after October 11th, I learned that all of this was rubbish. The lesson came abruptly, violently, and without any possibility of appeal. There was just no way for me to get around the fact that every ounce of low self esteem I had cherished over the years, every argument and critique and dismissal, every enemy I had made and every monumentally stupid and ill-informed opinion I published had not, in fact, made me a pariah.

I still don’t know how it happened. I don’t know where 10,794 clicks came from. I don’t know where all these people who remembered my writing and remembered me were hiding. All the people who must have read the essay and urged it on to their friends, family, and coworkers. I had no good answer, I have no good answer, and there is no possible way to spin the situation from an unflattering angle. People liked the essay. They liked me. They like me. You like me.

What a world. 
  • Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time might be thinking that I've gone soft in my old age. I mean, this blog used to provide at least a modicum of comic culture commentary, now it's just leftfield indie reviews buffeted by weird photoshop projects. I can definitely see why I may have slipped down a notch from the ring of "A-List" bloggers -- not that I'm bitter, no. You kids today, with your Dave's Long Box and your When Fangirls Attack. Why I remember when all we had was Neilalien, and a rock, and sometimes when we were really lucky Neilalien would link to the rock and it would make a hollow "ponk" sound like someone tapping a coconut with their finger. (Link)
I will begin by thanking the person I always thank first; he who must always be thanked first in any lineup of comics bloggers. Neilalien “retired” years ago but you wouldn’t know it from his website, still your best one-stop-shop for Dr. Strange news. He was the first of us, and in many ways the best of us. The earliest community of comics bloggers was composed of people who either knew Neil or had been helped by Neil. He doesn’t get a lot of credit for the behind-the-scenes stuff he did to keep other peoples’ blogs working. I know because he used to give me technical help in the earliest days, and I’m not the only one. He cares about blogging, really cares about the medium in a way that was inspirational to every single one of us “foundational” comics bloggers who first congregated around Journalista! 1.0 way back in the day. Thank you, Neil.

Mike Sterling is one of a handful of people named in my coming out essay. He was a good friend before I came out to him, and I believe he was the first person outside my immediate family to whom I came out. The reason why is that he is the kindest person I know, an opinion that has only been reinforced a hundred times since then. When it was time to announce my new name publicly, I asked him to do it on his blog because it’s the one place I know where our old community still comes together. He makes it look easy, even if it isn’t. I’m happy to report that I’ve been three times to Sterling Silver Comics, and each time the store has looked more prosperous – more stock and more customers. I sincerely hope it will remain so for many years and decades to come. Thank you, Mike.

Bully the Little Stuffed Bull – and his pal John, of course – is someone I have grown to care about a great deal over the years. His site is the kind of site you used to see all over the place: knowledgeable, funny, with a distinctive editorial voice and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of comic book trivia. It’s also extraordinarily labor intensive, such that it is a rare visit to Bully’s site when I don’t marvel to myself, “how the hell does he find all the time in the day?” I am glad Bully exists and believe he serves a necessary function in our lives: no matter how bad or weird or unpleasant things get, Bully is always there to remind us that comics oughta be fun. It’s been a rough few months for Bully, just like all of us. I’ll always remember when I first saw his little ear peaking out of the dresser drawer where he’d gone to hide out from the world after the election – that’s the first time in those awful first weeks of this Brave New World I felt a surge of real hope. If a little stuffed bull can find it within himself to face the world, what excuse do I have? Thank you, Bully.

A younger blogger, but one who has become very dear to me in the last few months, Odai Quaye has already distinguished himself for his thoughtful and perceptive writing. He did me the ultimate honor a little while ago by actually writing something about me! I didn’t have the words to thank him for such a kind gesture, and I still don’t. The idea that someone, anyone, would think enough of my writing to see me as an actual influence – I could never have imagined that. I anticipate a bright future for him. Odai, my friend: things will improve with time and perspective. I know that sucks to hear, but the best thing you can do is just start writing now and never stop. Then by the time the perspective arrives, you will have the necessary skill to use it. You will have to write a million bad words before you will be able to write something you are proud of, but trust me, you’ll get there. Please look at all the bullshit I’ve done over the last fifteen years and avoid those mistakes – go make your own. Thank you, Odai.
  • I don't have anything particularly thoughtful or poignant to say, so I'll just say thanks to everyone who reads, and thanks to everyone who doesn't read; thanks to everyone, period. Extra special thanks to every other blogger in the world. So I'll just put out a blanket thank-you to everyone, even the people I hate or find annoying, because hey, we're all one big happy family. (Link)
Looking back at my life I realize I haven’t always done a good job supporting the people who supported me. Milo George is the first person in a position of power at any publication who liked my writing. Hell, I don’t even know if he liked it so much as he liked the fact that I usually turn in relatively clean copy, even if I’m usually also (always) late on my deadlines. It’s been over a decade since you worked at The Journal, but you’ll always be the only editor I ever had who I respected enough to let monkey with my copy and not feel huffy about it. You were also a good friend back in the dark days of 2004-2005, a period that I believe was very difficult for you as well. Your life has improved considerably since The Long Road Home, and I regret that we don’t talk much any more, but you were one of the earliest and most vocal supporters of this blog. Thank you, Milo.

I have in the past thanked the two patron saints of this blog, Abhay Khosla and Jon Morris (including being mentioned in The Essay), so I don’t think I need to say more other than to say I still consider you both to be far better writers than myself and remain profoundly humbled by every compliment you have thrown my way. You two don’t have much in common other than the fact that I always thank you both in the same breath – hell, I don’t even know if you even like each other. But you were both formative influences on me as a writer, and that has not changed in the decade-and-a-half-ish since I first discovered Title Bout and Gone and Forgotten. Thank you both.

Of all the blogs I follow and all the bloggers I feel privileged to know, Andrew Weiss is in a class by himself. The writing I’m doing now is something I picked up from reading your example: confessional essays structured around pop-culture musings, personal memories accreted around music or comics or TV shows that open up little windows into scenes from our lives. Sure, you’re not the first person to do it. But in our little corner of the blogosphere there is no one quite so uncompromising or unflinchingly honest. You’re also a walking bullshit detector, and one of the few people I pay attention to when you call me out on something (which has happened a few times and will surely happen again, me being me). And you’re funny, too, when you want to be, as well as being the only person who can make me care about video games just by describing some badly localized 30-year-old JRPG that had a limited print run on the Sega Master System. Thank you, Andrew.

I am going to officially label Tucker Stone as my #1 fan. I thought about embarrassing you by putting up one of your early gushing e-mails to me, but suffice it to say they exist, I have them, and you better not piss me off. You gave me without necessarily even realizing it the great gift of being my closest reader. You read what I write and you actually think about it. You give it the exact same weight and consideration as you do anything else you read (and you read quite a bit). Sometimes you tell me things about my writing that I didn’t even know. I would also like to state, publicly and for the record, that if you ever published TV of the Weak again, I’d drop everything else to once again write about Grey’s Anatomy for you. Thank you, Tucker.

I don’t have space to fully thank everyone I want to thank. If I didn’t thank you here, it’s not because I don’t love you, but because this is a list of the bloggers and writers who, knowingly or not, helped me on my way to thirteen fucking years of erratic bullshit, AKA The Hurting. There are tons of Twitter pals who have excelled over the years in showing their appreciation and support – Cormac, Mario, and Cole spring to mind, although if memory serves me well I believe you all got started as commenters on my site. Jog – Joe McCulloch – you’re the dean of our generation of comics writers, and the respect I have for you based on your limitless font of knowledge and enthusiasm about the medium is pretty much unequaled. Justin - we'll be seeing more of each other in the coming years, I'm fairly certain. Megan – well, I’ve thanked you elsewhere but I’ll say it again: you were his good friend but my great friend.

To all the comics industry figures who forgot about me over the years, well, that’s OK, I kind of forgot about myself too. Still, after writing a long coming out essay with a lengthy digression about the history of comics criticism over the last couple decades, it was interesting to see on whose radar I still registered. I burnt some bridges over the years and that’s not always something that you can fix with one well-timed personal revelation. Oh well. I’ll get ‘em next time.

  • I'm not living in a garret yet, but I haven't had a shower in over a month, we have no heat besides space heaters (during the coldest New England weather in decades, no less), this house is falling apart, our life is falling apart and my wife is in the hospital. Again. What keeps us going? Besides our love (which is something that I am certain you do not wish to hear about [fucking ha ha ha I say from 2016]) it’s a dogged belief that life matters, that its important to keep living and keep striving. This is not where I thought I'd be at this point in my life and for this I am grateful. Pain and turmoil can only make us stronger, can only strengthen our commitment to those things in life that do matter. (Link.)

I began the year a mess, on a downward spiral, eating myself to oblivion and content to let every important thing in my life slip away. My blogging output in that time was epic Tweetstorms about the Joel Schumacher Batman movies – yeah, I watched those a couple weeks before I figured out I was trans, so draw the line yourself. I think, in hindsight, that this was the work of someone who was on the way to losing their mind.

(But, you know, they’re still funny: here’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. I did one for Superman Returns but I found that movie so depressing – and it was literally the day before April 30th – that I do not want to revisit that moment in time or that headspace, ever.)

I ended the year – well, a woman, for one thing.

But also somehow 1/3 of the way into writing a book?

It’s been quiet for the last couple months but I am already resuming work on the next chapters. Between the election, the end of the academic quarter, the holidays, a trip to LA in December, and of course, the stress of coming out and getting ready to live publicly as a woman, there wasn’t a lot of writing time. But that changes – well, now. Life won’t wait.

For those who may have come in late, I have written five chapters of something that will end up as a series of essays about my life. It’s not a “memoir,” let alone a “trans memoir” – there are already enough of those. It’s just my life. I’m trying to come up with a dozen sequels to “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days” – maybe that’s a fool’s game given the response that one received, but I still have to try.

I do think “Gimme Some Truth” is a better-written essay even if the emotional connection may well be more recondite for most readers. I wrote that one for all the folks who stood by me all those years when my output was little more than the occasional dribble. If you’ve been following me long enough to develop a taste for my writing, this one is for you. I purposefully eased the safety brake on all the wonky shit that I sometimes try to minimize for a more general audience – so that was one for the Tuckers in the audience. 

“I Am Not A Good Person” got a good response from people who recognized themselves in my own self-hatred – a surprising amount of people. “Trifles, Light As Air” is about Donald Duck, Carl Barks, and failure. The election happened halfway through the writing thereof, so if you detect a bit of a response to Current Events it’s probably not a coincidence. Speaking of which, “Someday We Will AllBe Free” is not an essay I wanted to wrote nor believed I would need to. But it was necessary to find some hope in the midst of a very hopeless time.

I even managed to set up a Patreon – and don’t think the money isn’t greatly appreciated, and even if you only contribute a dollar, that’s one more dollar than I had yesterday. It also makes me feel accountable: people are actually waiting to get what they paid for. Best get on the stick.
  • The only possible reason you would have to be blogging about comics in the first place is the fact that you have a special interest in comics above other arts. In all seriousness, why would you bother writing about comics if you didn’t really care for them and about them, or liked them far less than you did, say, movies or novels? Why not just write about movies or novels or poetry or pottery or whatever, if that’s what holds your interest?

    So the assumption is that if you’re writing about comics at all – especially with the low signal to noise ratio inherent to the medium and the extremely low rewards involved – you must hold comics in a special place in your heart. If not, well, why bother?
Some of you may be wondering how long this website will continue. I used to toy with the idea of shuttering it, especially during one of the periodic low points, but I never actually pulled the trigger. There was always something that held me back from lowering the curtain. And now, look at that. Long after almost every blog that started thirteen years ago has shuttered, I’m still around – why?

I think the answer can be found in the fact that as soon as I knew I was trans, I knew it was something I’d end up writing about on The Hurting. I knew that I needed to eventually write something to make sense of . . . everything . . . and I needed a place to put it. Why not here?

There were times when my connection to this blog were stretched so thin as to almost break, but I’ve always come back. If I’m down on comics I write about music, and if I’m down on music I write about movies. I always need to be writing, and I’m not very happy when I’m not. But I also needed to disabuse myself of the idea that I would eventually return to daily-or-near-daily posting and linkblogging – something I think about time to time and beat myself up for not being able to do like I used to. Mike still does it, and he does it better than I ever could.

This site is . . . well, it’s home. I’ve moved a lot. I’ve had different jobs, different relationships. Lived all over Massachusetts and California. (Lived in Oklahoma for a couple years there, too, but that was in the days before this blog). Was married, didn’t take. All throughout I’ve kept the same ugly (and my god is it ugly) orange blogger template, the very same template I set up on that fateful day thirteen years ago. I’ll never change it. (I changed it once – to white text against a black background. Heidi MacDonald specifically singled it out as ugly and difficult to read, which was cool.)

I can no more get rid of this blog than I could cut off a part of my body. It’s who I am. It’s a mess, irregular, erratic opinionated, digressive, hyper-verbose to a repulsive degree, insular, poorly coded (I mean, I let dead links pile up in the sidebar for years between cleanings), sometimes simply infuriating. Just like its owner. But also just like its owner, there’s something here that keeps people coming back year after the year, long after most similar websites have faded into the digital dust. I need to stop questioning it. I stick around. I’m still here. I’m still alive.

If you’re still reading? Thank you, sincerely. I don’t know what I did to deserve the things this blog has brought me – the friends I have made, the colleagues I have connected with, the violent arguments and the terrible jokes. The one constant remains a devotion to comics trivia that manages to be as scattershot as it is far-reaching.

I don’t know what the next year, what the next five or thirteen or thirty will hold. It’s a weird time to be alive. But I am optimistic. I am always optimistic these days. I have a new lease on life, and that’s no hyperbole. In the last eight months I have begun the process of changing everything in my life, and will continue to change my life until it is eventually unrecognizable. There is always continuity, though, and for me the form this continuity takes is The Hurting, my home and my heart.

Sometimes I’m gone for months. Sometimes I post three times in a week. I’m happy where I am now – periodic serious essays and maybe, once I establish more of a rhythm in the new year, other updates as well. I don’t know. The Hurting has no other function than to reflect my life and my thoughts, and as those change the site will continue to change as well.

But whatever happens, don’t worry about me coming back, eventually.

I always have, and I always will.