Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gimme Some Truth

Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
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You lose a lot by telling the truth. Lies fester. 
This is especially true of the lies you tell yourself.
The truth is never quite so kind as we’d like.

Do you want to get understood? /
Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? /

“Outlier” is the sixth track off Spoon’s 2014 album They Want My Soul. After four years away Spoon had lapsed into semi-hiatus. Side projects multiplied. The album was good but only just “good” in the context of Spoon’s previous decade, where Spoon released five albums that are also five of the decade’s best. Part of this can be attributed to the record’s production, a more traditional rock sound that saps much of the energy. It is exchanged for a conventional rock presence that never quite coheres. Being Spoon it is still quite listenable. One of the album’s standouts – and one of the few to make good use of the album’s maximal inclinations – “Outlier” immediately attracted interest among reviewers for the seemingly devastating put-down,

And I remember when you walked out of Garden State /
'Cause you had taste, you had taste /
You had no time to waste.

It’s something you imagine Britt Daniel sneering over his shoulder at some cool loft party in SoHo. Except of course that it’s 2016 and for many reasons no one talks about loft parties in SoHo. I don’t know if that was still a thing even ten years ago. And Spoon are from Texas, which is a strange fact we must live with. Britt Daniel is 45 years old.

Who does the line describe? It’s never specified. The song sounds at first listen like a kiss-off but after a few spins the tone reveals itself as something closer to wistful. (Genius helpfully assumes the subject is a she despite the fact that gender is nowhere specified.) You may try to stay current in certain areas of pop culture in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. You don’t want to lose it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I still like to surprise myself musically.

Rock and roll is an attenuated force: not dead but experiencing a dissolution of cultural reverence. It’s on its way to being the new jazz, and there are worst things to be than jazz. Rock records as a genre function similarly to superhero comic books, another seemingly limited sub-genre that somehow hit hard enough early enough to successfully mutate beyond the conditions of its creation. Rock’s relevance is dependent on people growing up with it and coming to regard it as the default background music of their lives. Take that away, reduce rock to just another choice, and it lives or die on its own merits.

Its merits were that white middle class kids grew up listening, and kept listening for the rest of their lives. That’s not something I personally regret by any means. But the reason why I know so much music from before I was born is that my parents have listened to it their whole lives, and to this day they still – dimly, but still – remember a world before rock and roll. I was immersed in it. In any event, the idea that everyone grew up listening to rock music was always a lie, but it was a comfortable lie because we didn’t have to care that “everyone” in this case was a relatively narrow demographic who spent many decades imposing a white-bread monoculture on the rest of the world. Rock’s eternal appeal is premised on the invincibility of youth: rock and roll disconnected from youthfulness becomes rock and roll as a curated object.

As much as I like Spoon there music can be unsettling and insular. It’s sterile in a way that announces them as the product of critical and not necessarily popular culture. It’s rock music for people who listen to a rock music, full of signifiers and trafficking in inference over affect. They Want My Soul is unique in the Spoon discography for the way it plays with expectations, laboriously constructed over the previous fifteen years, of what a Spoon album is supposed to sound like – a stable idea even after the disconcerting Transference. The result is that in many places it doesn’t sound very much like Spoon.

Perhaps the band are aware of these limitations. The tone of They Want My Soul often approaches elegiac: the former Cool Kids, dominant forces in critically-acclaimed rock music of the 2000s, wake up and realize that cool is a devalued currency. Being the most lauded rock band of a generation – at least one of them – gets you a slot on NPR. The album’s last track, “New York Kiss,” returns to these themes with the recurring refrain of,

I knew your New York kiss /
Now it's another place /
A place your memory owns.

It used to matter whether I believed myself to be a person who would nod in approval at a performative walk-out of a Zach Braff vehicle. “Outlier” begins with the words “You were smart / You played no part,” directed at the song’s subject. Who is the “you” here? As in most Spoon songs, it’s never defined. Is it a third party beside either Daniel or the listener? Is it an ex-lover, the diminutive “kid” indicating gendered condescension on Daniel’s part? Or is he addressing his audience directly – all the kids who were savvy hipsters “back in the day” but are growing older and realizing that there’s nothing to be gained from staying “smart” at a comfortable remove from the business of living? New York changed, the idea of “cool” symbolized by pre-9/11 New York changed, maybe even dwindled to nothing. Now these ideas exist in our memory.

The belief that I wanted to be cool, that I cared about being cool – what was that? Pure anxiety. Does any of it matter? Not really. Growing up antipathetic to any expression of masculinity, I gravitated towards that which seemed least odious: the Expert, the man who knows his stuff. I lived to impress record store clerks with my taste, which would be funny if it weren’t true. Anyone who has gone record shopping with me can attest. I tend to preen.

In fairness, the mantle fit. I have a good memory for unimportant trivia and good technique for recalling information I don’t have at my fingerprints. A mania for reference books probably stems from a lifelong battle with short-term recall. Grad school has taught me the value not of knowing everything but of knowing the right things. If I don’t have an answer, I know where to get it.

The problem with being an expert is that the process of becoming an expert can drain the life of your subject. It’s not difficult to go through the motions but at a certain point it becomes rote and unchallenging. Yeah, I like this, this is OK. It sounds like some other thing I heard a while back. And oh yeah I guess this is trying to sound like Monster, well, why don’t I just listen to R.E.M. instead. I don’t listen to Monster near often enough. Didn’t expect Spoon to make an R.E.M. album. Spot the references. Oh, that’s an interesting variation on a theme. Everything interesting in 2016 is a variation of a theme. Good night to the rock and roll era.

No one gets what I've done /
Everyone else seems to look through it /
Oh, but maybe I've never wanted them to /
Couldn't count on it anyway.

Transference could easily have been the last Spoon record, and it would have been a fitting note on which to go out. After defining their sound to the point of clinical exactitude with their last handful of LPs, they set about to problematize every element. It’s not that the album wasn’t produced to within an inch of its life, a trait it shares with every Spoon album since Girls Can Tell. It stands unsettled and dysphoric next to the mannered perfectionism of Gimme Fiction or the clean-room Rolling Stones vibe of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Beats stutter where you need them to strut. The vibe is desultory: it doesn’t seem to add up to anything more than a series of attempts to wring order from whichever series of random recording events converged to create a song.

Picture yourself /
Set up for good /
In a whole other life.

Disquiet and rootlessness are the bedrock beneath Spoon, but Transference takes anxiety as it primary subject matter. Every moment of placidity is undone by the moment immediately after. The album uses the clarity of production on any given track to communicate emotional state: “Goodnight Laura” is a tender ballad, and you know this because the instrumentation sounds like a four-track demo. (It’s not, of course, but they use the badly recorded, out-of-key piano to ensure the song doesn’t get pretty.) “Trouble” sounds like a leftover from A Series of Sneaks, complete with a clever reproduction of late 90s lo-fi production. It’s lo-fi in the way that Pavement was lo-fi: every stray tousled hair has been calculated for maximum effect. It follows on the heels of “I Saw the Light,” which sounds like an intentional self-parody of Gimme Fiction’s distinctive motorik. It promises the transcendence of that album’s “They Never Got You,” but rewards the listener with five and a half minutes of mounting dread summoned by Jim Eno’s Hitchcock rhythm.

Transference is endlessly fascinating. It doesn’t work, it has been purposefully manufactured to work as poorly as possible, and yet it does, because it’s Spoon. We put up with a lot from bands we know and love. We project our expectations onto them. Spoon gave us a Spoon album that requires a great deal of work to appreciate, jittery and jagged. They did so with the confidence that we would put in the work. Our expectations reveal as much about us as about the art. There’s a bit of transference there. Are we still talking about a Spoon record?

I am drawn to the loping final track, “Nobody Gets Me But You.” It sounds off. It’s got two left feet, sauntering precisely in time but missing the swagger you expect. The sound is minimal, Daniel’s voice floating over the rhythm section. When the song finally kicks into gear at around the 1:45 mark, it struts with a disconcerting military exactitude. Can covering Television.

As a lyricist Daniel appears opaque. He is a perfect rock and roll writer because he understands how to create the illusion of intimacy with very few resources. He’s always having a conversation with someone. Almost everything he writes is in the second person – he is exhorting the listener at all times, constantly repeating the word “you” through so many songs as a way of – what? Drawing the listener in? Singling the listener out? Hectoring? Pleading? Daniel rarely tips his hand. The stories and characters he describes have no easy referent or allegory – they seem more along the lines of private jokes, obliquely described to a stranger.

Nobody gets what I say /
Must be some way to convey /
But no one else remembers my name /
Just those parts that I play /
Nobody gets me /
Nobody gets me but you.

Transference is an album about missing pieces. The album appears unfinished. One envisions a cat walking across the keyboard during the final mix-down – everything is knocked a couple degrees off kilter and woozy. It’s about the anxiety that emerges from having just missed something, past the edge of your perception. Who is Daniel talking to in the final song? Is he talking to a woman? A friend? Himself? There’s an obsession with playacting that pops up periodically in his lyrics – see, “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” from Gimme Fiction. He can’t move past the deception, whatever kind of deception it may be, because while it may keep him safe, it also means he’s profoundly alone. Needing to make a connection but feeling unable to do so is the kind of pain whose memory doesn’t fade.

I was dreaming in the driver's seat /
When the right words just came to me /
And all my finer feelings came up.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was released in the summer of 2007. I fell in love with the record soon after relocating from Worcester to Holyoke, a necessary move, and still about twenty minutes’ drive from Amherst. It was a pleasant drive over soft hills and ancient lanes – the road from Holyoke to Amherst passes next to the campus of Mt. Holyoke, in South Hadley. My fond memories of New England begin almost entirely the moment I move away from the vicinity of Worcester. The Five Colleges region is beautiful, and were it not for other factors I would consider living there again. (Mostly having to do with people, there being many from my undergraduate years I wish to avoid.)

The album is fixed in my memory to that point in time, not a good fate. Close identification with specific memories make a record difficult to revisit unless you want to dredge up the emotions associated with that record. I remember the period fondly – it was a very hopeful period in my life, one of the most hopeful periods. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it can be difficult to revisit.

This is also, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time I became disenchanted and bored with music writing. It is possible in hindsight that I could have migrated away from reviews and moved on to feature writing. I could have done that if I’d wanted. My editor put up with a lot from me (all my editors put up with a lot from me). I could tell she liked my writing because I always had all the work I wanted. Even after I got lazy and stopped turning in articles she kept throwing jobs my way, happy to print whatever I sent. Eventually I quit, and I did not leave under amicable circumstances.

Writing reviews is very unrewarding. Even the best review is at the end of the day mostly a product recommendation. Sometimes reviews aspire to something else. I wrote a few of those. Tied as they are to the promotional schedules of major corporations I doubt if music reviews have literary value.

Still there is great technical challenge involved in writing 600-1000 word music reviews. It’s a genre limited by the descriptive imagination of the reviewer. There’s a reason why certain phrases recur so often in writers’ vocabularies, and even become commonplace idiom: it’s hard to come up with pithy yet accurate exegesis without falling back on stock phrases and formulaic structure. It’s so easy to reach for “angular,” although overuse has retired that one.

The masters of the form, such as it is, are writers who craft a distinctive voice for themselves despite the format, a difficult thing to do without becoming a caricature. The best rock writers embrace self-parody – spend some time trolling the archives on Christgau’s site, you’ll feel the grooves of his creative process real quick. Inasmuch as I had a voice, it was close to the voice I used for the early days of this blog – where, likewise, I spent a lot of time honing my chops writing endless reviews for comics that in hindsight did not always warrant aggressive scrutiny

My formula for writing music reviews is simple, and a variation of the format I still use for writing comic book reviews. You always start with context. Especially if you have space limitations, you are going to need to measure every word carefully. Context is hardest to write – a thumbnail history and gesture towards relevant established critical assessment. The cribbed critics’ shorthand required to communicate succinct impressions of a band’s history without any detail is a difficult art. The band’s most recent album is always a disappointment, the new one a “return to form” even if that phrase should be avoided.

It resembles in miniature a structure familiar from late antique and medieval composition: you begin with an infodump of your authorities (I usually pull out the Latin auctoritas to impress the freshmen – never fails) as a way of establishing to your reader that you are a member in good standing of a long-extant discourse network. Medieval monks hunched over parchment in candle-lit scriptoriums scattered across a continent were members of a community tying the middle ages back to the ancient world – that is, the very small proportion of the population throughout history who knew how to read, how to write, and had the time, inclination, resources, and stamina to do what all of these activities required in the ages before the printing press. They all read the same books, committed every line of Macrobius to memory, and could debate their favorite psalms for years at a time through torturously slow correspondence with other members of their tribe. Now it’s music bloggers.

There’s always a long section featuring a description of the record itself. What does it sound like? What is it trying to do? What is unexpected, what is familiar, what works and what doesn’t? There’s maybe time to tie the review into some kind of half-baked sociological thesis that alludes to a longstanding hobbyhorse of yours. Finish with a profound statement on the grand significance of whichever Avril Lavigne album you’re being paid to review (or not being paid to review). Always remember that whatever threads are introduced in the thesis must return in the conclusion, which places a natural limit on the number of themes that can be satisfactorily developed in the space allotted.

If you care about developing a voice as a music reviewer, that’s what you’ll do. Fill in the blanks according to subject matter and temperament. Sometimes, if you've built up enough goodwill to trust your audience, you can get away something expressionistic and personal. Sometimes you can get away with just describing how a song makes you feel.

Any type of writing can be broken down structurally, and once you understand the structure – how a piece of writing induces the desired affect through rhythm and timing – it is possible to create anticipation and suspense solely using sentence and paragraph length to create and sustain pleasurable tension, a ticking clock ratcheting suspense across your narrative. You can use interstitial elements like blockquotes of song lyrics to trick your reader into thinking they’re reading faster when you’re only giving them the false satisfaction of moving their eyes down the page faster. If you are writing something especially long, provide your reader with rest stops in the form of frequent breaks. You have to build to a grand finish, though, or you’ll leave your audience disappointed.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was a conscious attempt on the band’s part to step back from the sterile abyss represented by Gimme Fiction and move in a more organic direction. Organic in this instance meant an album grounded by a Stones-y vibe, complete with slight nods to Sticky Fingers. They do such a good job of inhabiting this voice that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is their most unmoored album, the least prickly of their classic period, the most accessible, most translucent. The least Spoon-like Spoon record. It’s mannered without trying: they songs inhabit their specific idiom so well that the record reeks of pastiche, to a greater extent than anything else the band has done. 

Oh, life can be so fair /
Let it go on and on.
The way I teach my students to think about writing expository essays is essentially the same way I approach thinking about a record. You need to understand your genre – and to do that you must understand who you are writing for, who you are writing to (not the same thing), and what you are trying to accomplish. Once you have a good idea of these you reverse engineer to create desired results. Stylistic development comes through repetition and practice.

So who are Spoon singing for? Who are they singing to? The lie rock and roll told itself was that rock and roll sang for everyone. There was a presupposition of universality that manifested in the hubristic belief that this music would live forever. Of course it won’t, nothing does. Spoon is a band for people with huge record collections. That’s who they’re playing for here, and it’s never more obvious than here. They’ve taken the idiom apart and put it back together in its most efficient possible configuration. It looks the same and makes all the right moves, but motivations are reptilian.

My favorite track off the album is “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” one of two strangely “classic” pop songs that bookend the middle stretch (the other being the horn-infested “Underdog”). It’s the pop rockist writers imagine when they use the term appreciatively – a platonic ideal of how popular music sounded at some indeterminate point in the past, but unrepresentative of how pop music actually sounds in the present. Spoon are under no illusions their music will ever be played on the radio (even if it sometimes is). It’s not designed to be played on the radio. It’s too arch in its devotion to the lost potential of discarded blueprints.

When you don't feel it, it shows, they tear out your soul /

My unhealthy devotion to Spoon begins in 2005 with Gimme Fiction. I think of the three album stretch of Kill the Moonlight through Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga as one unit, three records that while wildly different from each other in many ways represent the pinnacle of Spoon’s imaginative and fastidious music. At no point in their career do Spoon ever add so much as one single syllable to the rock and roll vocabulary. They operate under the assumption that the lexicon is closed, that it’s a dead language, and that there’s nothing left to be done but further refine the ancient style. They distill the affect of past achievement in a sturdy oaken cask and serve to connoisseurs.

I will argue for Spoon as the last great rock band, and Gimme Fiction is their greatest achievement. The album was designed to be the kind of album people refer to as a “greatest achievement”: from the descending acoustic guitar figure that opens “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” to the album’s jarring stop 2:45 into “Merchants of Soul,” there isn’t a single hair out of place. Some people are allergic to fussy rock records, preferring more spontaneous or at least less labored expressions. For Spoon, the effect doesn’t work unless everything has been constructed just so. It’s supposed to be alienating. It’s the only album that begins with a song about writing the record you’re about to hear, with appropriate nods in the direction of the redemptive power of rock and roll, which also manages to sound like the mounting apprehension that precedes a well-planned massacre.

It’s an album I never tire of revisiting. Nothing else has remained in constant rotation for as long – almost from the moment of its release. It never gets old. I regard individual Spoon albums with the same kind of fervent devotion that others reserve for David Lynch movies: each one presents to the audience evidence of a cover-up, and leaves the audience to imagine the crime at the center of the conspiracy. Gimme Fiction is Spoon’s Mulholland Drive.

I don’t regret that I no longer write music reviews. Doing so sapped a great deal of enjoyment out of music for a long time. You can destroy something through examination – vivisection becomes autopsy in the blink of an eye. I’m pretty good at writing reviews, but the satisfaction of writing a good review is purely intellectual. You have a problem to solve – how to describe an object in such a way as to indicate the dispensation of said object for a hypothetical reader – and very few tools to accomplish the task. I can think deep thoughts on demand about the nature of rock and roll but there’s not a lot of practical use for that. Much of the PR recycling that signifies online music writing is useless.

What really matters about music – and books, and everything – is that it makes you feel something. That’s it.

No, really.

It doesn’t matter what that something is – it could be disgust or titillation, academic curiosity or fevered devotion. When I was young I believed there was good art and bad art, and that it was the responsibility of the critic to differentiate between the two – and the reviewer, the critic’s emaciated and defrocked cousin, although they often inhabit the same body, uneasily. There’s no such thing as good art. There’s interesting art, more or less depending on your inclination. You don’t have to like something to regard it as interesting. On the contrary, discovering virtue in something you have previously dismissed, or in a deeply flawed work that nevertheless carries some spark of intrigue, is one of the great pleasures. Listen carefully to everything you hear, and listen with an open mind, or you’ll miss something important.

Cool is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t want to be scared. What does being cool actually get you? Does it bring you closer to the people you care about? Does it make you a better friend? Does it help you work faster? The people most concerned with retaining their cool are the people least able to do so. The people you should be the most concerned with are those least concerned with whether or not you are cool.

And that’s Gimme Fiction. It’s a labyrinth with no center, a maze built of allusion, implication, private joke and performative insouciance. The album’s tenth anniversary reissue came with two albums worth of demos and rehearsals. The remarkable thing about the album’s demos is that they reveal almost nothing about the composition of the songs. Even as demos the songs are fully formed. Chord changes are the same, lyrics, every coda and bridge intact as they will appear on the album if recorded poorly. Even Daniel’s inflection is much the same, every merciless sneer and falsetto turn already calculated and constructed to precise effect.  

Hearing the songs in such minutely realized detail at such an early stage magnifies the album’s achievement. They also threaten to break the album’s mystique. Daniel knew exactly how these songs were supposed to sound before he entered the studio. No assembly required; they were always there, waiting to be painstakingly chiseled out. Spend a few minutes reading Sean O’Neal’s oral history of the album, Gimme Facts. Every suspicion you may have had about the album is confirmed. The band spent a lot of time in the studio getting everything right. It’s filled with small little musical jokes that only a select handful of hyper-attentive listeners will ever get. The lyrics, which in context appear so mysterious, are snippets of conversation and reference to events in the band members’ lives. It wasn’t Daniel who played in a drop-D metal band called “Requiem,” but bass player Josh Zarbo.

It makes sense to describe Gimme Fiction, to explain it in the context of the band’s career, to use it to mount an argument concerning the destiny of rock and roll. It’s all hot air. Of certain interest to those who regard sifting words into novel configurations a noble goal in and of itself. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it is necessary to admit, finally, that any attempt to describe a work of art begins and ends solely with my response. The album is ultimately just a rock album, no matter how much my affection for it makes me want to puff it up into something more. If I’m doing my job I can convince you it’s good and important without making you question whether or not I believe anything I’m saying. Lying in the service of getting you to buy a record – that’s a good use of our time together.

At this point I get up and step back from the desk. I’m talking in circles. I can’t seem to get back to the point I wanted to make. Perhaps the point was lost a while back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I set out to write about Spoon because I had never written about them, even after I realized that they were my favorite band. It seemed an interesting way to talk around what I really wanted to talk about: my voice. I can write music reviews in my sleep. Or at least, I could.  It was a voice I was very comfortable inhabiting. It’s also something that takes a great deal of focus to do correctly, at least to do it in such a way that you’re not insulting your readers’ intelligence. After a certain point it is impossible to know whether you are repeating yourself.

When you were coming up /
Did you think everyone knew /
Something unclear to you? /
And when you were thrown in a crowd /
Could you believe yourself /
Did you repeat yourself? /
Because no one would hear /
And just say it again /

So, who am I writing for? Writing to? Why am I writing?

The answer to the first question is that I’m writing for myself. That’s the only person I’ve ever cared about pleasing. When I write for another venue I write for that venue’s audience, but when I write for myself, I’m writing to my audience. And my audience indulges my every whim. No matter how long an article or demanding an essay, I know there are people who will read it and chew and digest what I’ve said. It’s powerful to know that even if my audience is solely composed of people with whom I’m on a first-name basis, I’m actually on a first name basis with more than a few people. Thanks to my writing.

But it’s not the same anymore. Something’s changed. I can write again, sure, write to excess, quickly, and with alacrity. That much is back. Something that was stuck for a long time came unstuck and now I can barely find it in me to stop writing. Sometimes when I type I know who I am, other times I seem less sure. Recently something inside me shifted and I found a new voice. My old voice did the job for which it was designed: it made me sound smart, made me seem like an Expert. I was making it up as I went along. Most experts are.

It’s a funny type of masculinity that hinges on knowing trivia for fifteen-year-old rock records and thirty year old comic books. It’s the kind of masculinity into which you crawl and hide because it represents the least traumatic way of asserting yourself across a bafflingly gendered social sphere. If you can’t figure out a way to assert yourself, some field in which you can feel as if you have a respectable toehold, then you don’t have anything. It’s not much, but it’s some kind of identity that provides the modicum of success you need to pass relatively unmolested through the world. No one pays close attention to you if you look like you know what you’re doing. Busying yourself with immersive hobbies that demand a great deal of specialized expertise that can only be gained through work and experience? It’s a way of distracting yourself from looking closely at the real problems in your life.

I don’t want to lie anymore. I spent almost every day of my life lying to myself, to other people, to the world – a thousand lies every day, each one more extravagant than the last. I don’t feel like an expert. I feel like an imposter. The reason why is simple: I am an imposter.

And we was cutting through the park /
Trying to get home before too dark /
Who was it that we saw that night /
Was it you?

The third-to-last song on Gimme Fiction, “Was it You?” is a haunted forest, deliberately paced with professional exactitude by Jim Eno, shafts of moonlight falling through the leaves. The band stretches the opening vamp of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” over a tense five minutes. You encounter a mystery in the forest. You are disquieted but you sit to rest. You close your eyes for a moment and you are asleep before you realize you are in danger.

The sound of soft rain on the forest floor gives way to the mechanical stride of “They Never Got You,” tripping along like a metronome. It’s an odd capstone for an album devoted to irony and subterfuge. There’s nothing sinister at work. Coming on the heels of “Was it You?” – to say nothing of “The Infinite Pet,” “My Mathematical Mind” and much of the rest of the album – you expect to hear something false. You listen intently for the hidden valences. Hints, clues, pieces that can be assembled. But there’s nothing obscured. The song is about what it is about, and what it’s about is seemingly the rarest emotion in the Spoon catalog: reassurance.

There’s no sneer, no paranoia, no apocalyptic medieval imagery. It’s as simple as Daniel describing the sensation of confusion that accompanies profound loneliness – what does everyone else know that I don’t? Behind the (fake) ironic detachment and (affected) cool, behind even the intellectual pretense of the band’s sophisticated art direction, the common thread tying together both Daniel’s lyrics and his peculiar talent for musical pastiche is nostalgia. Not for a specific place or location, but for an age, a feeling – youth. Nostalgia operates differently for Spoon than for most pop bands, however. It’s a negative expression. The past is full of bad things: bullies who count your teeth and managers who sink your career. Daniel doesn’t want to be a kid again. He’s happy being an adult, and proud to have escaped whatever awful childhood he left behind. They never got him.

Don't let em in /
Don't go too far /
And cover your tracks. /
Cover the path to the heart /
Don't let those footholds start /
And don't let no one in /
Because they never got you and you never got them.

Why do everyone else’s lives appear to be so easy – or from a younger perspective, why is my life so uniquely hard? It feels like I spend every day all day talking to people and trying to find someone, anyone, who hears what I’m saying and understands what I’m trying to say. I never do, at least when I dream of being young.

But that’s the lesson. Beneath the surface texture – the stannic coolness of an album that crackles like frost under your foot – lies a beating heart. The monster at the center of the maze is a message of hope. It does get better. You can leave your past behind. The truth is what you take away. Everything else is window dressing. 

I took a river and it wouldn't let go /
I want you to stay and I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and it goes on.

I took my first estrogen supplement on July 30th. I’d had the bottle for a few days. I regarded it with the healthy reverence you accord a poisonous snake. Only I wanted to be bitten.

It’s a funny thing, knowing you hold within your hand the means to change your life. The moment is pregnant. You want it, of course you want it. You went to the doctor. You asked for it. The pharmacist filled the prescription for you. You took the bottle home and placed it on your shelf. You don’t want to look at it.

What am I afraid of?

It’s not that I don’t want it to work. Of course I want it to work. I don’t yet know what that means. I know what to expect physiologically even if many of the details vary. I’ve read enough. I’ve been told enough. I’ve thought about precious little else for months.

Am I more afraid of if working, or of not working?

Even though it’s not remotely the same thing, my thoughts dwell on my experience with antidepressants. These were pills that held the promise of some kind of relief and renewal in the face of what I could only perceive as broad dissatisfaction. They never worked – rather, they all worked a little bit. I notice when they aren’t there: my mood suffers and my temper becomes more volcanic than normal. Without them I am less functional, but they give me little in the way of positive help.

It’s not an antidepressant. It’s not a pill to improve my mood. It’s not a medicine to treat the symptoms with dispatch and leave me unchanged. What I have isn’t a disease. It’s part of who I am on a molecular level. The atomic formula of estradiol is C18H24O2. Just a handful of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules cobbled together by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Nothing more. Through a strange and cruel biological quirk my body craves but cannot produce the molecule that saves my life.

But it’s not just that. It represents a life somehow – different? Better, hopefully. More problematic in almost every way. Irreversibly altered. No coming back. When you take the first pill you set a timer. Before you take that pill you can push the clock forward indefinitely. Once you do this, time lurches into motion and you are pulled inexorably forward towards –

What, exactly?

My estradiol is coupled with a testosterone blocker called spironolactone. It’s also a diuretic notorious for making people need to go to the bathroom and consume large quantities of salt. I am given the spiro two weeks before estradiol. This is unusual but not unheard of – in any event, I am glad to start the medications in the order that I do because taking the spiro first allows me to feel in minute detail the immensely gratifying sensation of testosterone leaving my body. Long before my first dose of hormones, I notice a gradual calming. A fidgeting creature ceases to squirm quite so much. The experience is illuminating. Without testosterone my vision is clearer. I feel slightly more relaxed, slightly more focused. (Only slightly, however.) Although I am easily winded and disinclined to heavy exertion, I am happier already.

Life without testosterone is a different life altogether. Things make more sense. The constant screaming in the back of my head falls silent. In its absence there is stillness, crisp and cool. In the steep air I can breathe.

Since the moment I voiced I have felt the truth of my circumstances as a solid object, immovable and undeniable. There was no doubt. I suffered great torment because there was no doubt: I did not feel so much as a token resistance, not from my consciousness. It would be a much longer process to flush the hesitation and temporizing, the fear and regret and self-loathing that accompany the revelation, but the actual premise itself? Never once questioned. Once I heard, I knew. I could never unhear.

There was still, however, one last kernel of doubt, a doubt constructed not from a desire to escape my near certain destiny as a transgender woman – but a doubt manufactured from years of bitter experience and disappointment with drugs that promised to heal but could only ever staunch the bleeding. Estradiol works for most people in my position. But I’m not most people.

Only one way to find out.

I want to be there tonight /
I want to get there but it's just out of sight /
I took a river and felt so slight so hold on.

It is custom among the members of my tribe to dissolve our estradiol under the tongue, those who receive the pill. Why do we do this? My doctor doesn’t believe there’s any noticeable difference in efficacy. I’ve come to different conclusions whenever I’ve looked for a concrete answer.

The truth is that we do it because it’s how we do it. There’s no real ceremony in the process of receiving hormone replacement therapy. It feels important. It feels significant to a degree that few things will ever feel significant in your life. There should be something more significant to the moment than filling a prescription and taking a pill. Placing the tablet under our tongues signifies the event through the observance of a ritual, however small and private. We have precious little history that isn’t colored by tragedy – long centuries of isolation, ignorance, persecution, and suicide. We cling to the culture we have, whatever form it takes. We create it for ourselves from a whole cloth.   

It is profoundly odd to suddenly become a controversy. People dispute my existence. My symptoms are imaginary. My feelings in the matter are just that – small feelings of no lasting import, indulged only by perverts and the mentally ill. But sensation is a species of feeling, and every feeling is imaginary, in that the capacity to feel is solely confined to intangible processes that flit between a billion neurons in the time it takes you to read these words. That I feel as I do, and that these feelings reveal my misattributed gender as a source of constant pain, is not up for debate. It’s not up for discussion anymore than the color of my eyes or my dominant hand. My reality is solid.

Without testosterone my thoughts are clear: that is reality. I do not feel so harried: that is reality. My extreme paranoia dissipates almost immediately: that is reality. I can examine my emotions rationally and deliberately. Here’s my self-hatred, a knotted ball of calcified hair in my gut. Here’s my feelings of inadequacy, remnants of a fetal twin whose passing is marked by a cluster of vestigial teeth extracted from my side and carefully catalogued. Here’s my anger – all my anger, every single ounce of wrath and rage I’ve ever felt burning through my body like alternating current, a tumor nestled against the base of my skull, coloring every impulse traveling along the highway of nerves that run through my body to my brain. My emotions are strong and random, chaotic impulses nestled equidistant between fight or flight. I always feel under attack.  

Owing to a number of factors I remain largely free of the worst consequences of physical dysphoria. I am immensely grateful for this, even abashed. It is likely to my understanding that ignorance of my nature prevented my from focusing feelings of disquiet on any specific parts of my body. I knew simply that I hated it all. I avoided mirrors and was unable to make myself exercise. My body was the enemy, and naturally my research interests focused on relitigating the disposition of body and mind.

I took a river and the river was long /
I want you to stay course I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and goes on.

But reality, if solid, is always more complicated than initially appears. My body wasn’t my enemy. My enemy is my perception of my body. My perception has been until very recently clouded by the presence of the wrong sex hormone. Balance the hormones and balance the perception. That’s how it works on paper. Individual results may vary. I remained convinced, wrapped in the invincibility of my cynicism, that what was wrong with was more than could be fixed with a pill. I was too broken.

And then I took the pill. 

Something unscrews the top of my head. What had been cramped becomes spacious and airy. My ability to think reforms, shattered into a thousand pieces, scattered across a thousand corners of my mind. Where I had felt gravity pulling me downwards, I now feel the loosening of bonds. I am lighter.

Within two days of my first pill I experience a foreshock that heralds a great scouring. I don’t just feel lighter, I feel light, illumination radiating from within and spreading outward to my hands and feet. At first I mistake the sensation for panic. Both panic and joy evolve from similarly tentative origins, moments of unease that often presage imminent danger. But sometimes the danger never arrives. The anxious anticipation that precedes panic gives way to peace. The accumulated plaque and oxidation of decades of misery, crusted across the interior of my skull, begins to dissolve. 

I feel different, emotionally and physically. I move different. I think different. I have reclassified the broad spectrum of negative behaviors that have largely abated since beginning hormones as “masculine”: this is a problematic designation which will need to be revisited at a later day, but it is involuntary. My dysphoria is emotional and behaviorial. When I am angry, when I lash out with rage or sarcasm or caustic wit, it feels wrong, there’s no better way to describe it. When I am compelled to assert myself, to parade my opinions and critical acumen for the world to inspect, preening for praise and looking expectantly to the esteem and approval that I could never instill in myself – it feels like swimming upstream. The testosterone persists as a shadow of fear. I imagine it as black ichor, pure corruption. One drop can scar. There’s no going back to the way things were.   

I stop fighting the current. I let go and float. It’s a cool night. The water feels good against my body. I am warm without heat. The moon is directly above me. I no longer feel my body. I am a speck of consciousness lodged between the earth and the moon. I am quiet.

Had I fought I would have drowned. But I’m not tired anymore. I don’t feel anything. I am empty. I am happy. I am alive.

It's time to take the trash out /
And redefining what you are /
Redefining what you're about.

A Series of Sneaks was released in May of 1998. I didn’t know who Spoon were at the time. The album sold poorly. Four months later their A&R rep Ron Laffitte quit his job and, despite promises, the band were dropped by Elektra and left to fend for themselves.

Bands form their own mythologies, but only great bands leverage that mythology effectively. Lafitte’s betrayal is the catalyst that creates Spoon: after two decent records, one for Matador and one for a major label, there was little left in the way of a career. This despite having already caught the attention of a handful of forward-thinking critics – like any number of bands, at this point in their history they could have easily disappeared and few would have considered it a great loss.

“Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now” is one of two songs recorded and released by Spoon in the immediate aftermath of this debacle. But what should be a straightforward diss track becomes something else. At a point when Spoon’s sound was struggling to assert itself beyond being heavily influenced by the Pixies and Pavement (and the Fall and Wire), they retreated from battle but refused to concede the fight. For a band that could easily have dissolved entirely, to turn around and casually drop one of the best songs of their career under the pretense of attacking their former manager – in hindsight it’s a career-defining move. They had nothing to lose. There was nothing to be gained by not trying to swing for the fences every time.

It’s a gorgeous song, plaintive and urgent in equal measure, wrapped in a minor key melody that lodges itself in your mind despite its grim subject matter. Daniel recycles a painful personal anecdote into a universal complaint with the casual expertise of a master, and its here that his voice fully emerges as more than merely the sum of its influences. The question repeated like a mantra through the chorus, “Are you honest with anyone?” is, an accusation, an expression of anger, but also a lament and ultimately an admission of guilt at his own culpability in having been fooled.

This is Spoon. From the rubble of certain disaster they emerged with something new: a sense of grievance that Daniel could shape his words to fit around, the perfect original sin for a lyricist who would devote his career to exploring the softer side of paranoia. From this betrayal emerged a far more focused band. They returned from a holiday brush with disaster in time to drop five of the great rock and roll records in quick succession at a clip of one every two years. Gaze upon their works, ye mighty.

Redemption. Sentiment without nostalgia. Good things emerge even from lies. One day you too will find the secret key that opens the door to wake the sleeping compassion at the heart of the world.  
Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

One Hundred and Sixty Four Days

Part 1 of an ongoing series. Follow up with Part 2 here
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.

it me.

It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s all in my head. I hear it as clear as if it were being whispered in my ear.

It’s January 17th of 2004 and my wife is in the hospital. I drive 90 minutes both ways to visit her for a half-hour every few days. We are living in a house that has gone untenanted for decades and has no bathroom except for a toilet in a room where every surface fixture has been torn out. In November of the previous year I spent a week trying to fix the toilet with a snake only to eventually discover the main sewer line to the house had been blocked by a flushed condom. For many years I will consider these to be the worst weeks of my life.

I start a blog because I need to talk to people. I name this blog The Hurting because at that moment in time it’s the only sensation I am capable of feeling. It’s a joke that perfectly reflects my mordant personality, but not really a joke. I don’t want to die but I no longer care about being alive. This is the only sensation I am capable of feeling for many years to come.


It’s August 3rd of this year. I am driving in San Francisco. I don’t know where I am or where I’m going. What I thought was a straight-shot from Diamond Heights down to the Haight has turned into a detour down the freeway in the opposite direction, leading to the warehouse district near the docks. My phone refuses to tell me where I am or how to get to where I am going. Waze isn't working.

I panic, a sensation that begins with a tingling in my toes and the tips of my fingers before seeping back up through my extremities and finally wrapping its cold fingers around the area where my neck sits on my shoulders. Something in my brain sticks and the gears stop moving. I can’t think. I don’t know how to get where I’m going. I keep driving. My passenger is very polite but this is a terrible first impression. I become more and more anxious with every passing moment. I don’t know where I am. I am smiling and trying to cover it up with jokes but inside I am seething, unable to do any more than follow the most basic and rudimentary plan to go the long way around Golden Gate Park.
My anxiety builds and I eventually lose altogether the capacity for deliberate thought. One block at a time I proceed to unravel, leaving a trail of myself in my wake like an unraveled spool of yarn. I turn onto the sidewalk and end up driving through a skate park in front of a police station. My passenger has turned five shades of pale within the previous twenty minutes. She is queasy from my driving.

It’s September 2011, the first day of grad school. I’m seated around a room with twelve other very smart students. I am the second oldest in the room. Of these students, one will leave at the end of the first year to work on a boat. Another will leave in year four. The first of us to graduate will find a job at the end of year five.

From the beginning people seem to think I’m very smart. I don't want to disabuse them of the notion. I do a good job, I think, of projecting a mixture of expertise and confidence. In practice it comes out strangled, grumpy, and pretentious. No one notices how profoundly, painfully uncomfortable I am in every social interaction. People laugh at my jokes. Based on what I have heard, I expect my grad school cohort to become a very big part of my life. In truth, we are very different people with only a few commonalities strung between us. Six years later, I see none of them socially, and the few friendships I have had in the department have been snuffed by my own disinterest - all but one.

It’s November of 1983 and Saga of the Swamp Thing #21 hits stands. This is Alan Moore’s second issue on the title, although issue #20, which mostly consists of the previous writers’ subplots being neatly tied up, is rarely reprinted when Moore’s run is later compiled into trade paperback.

No one in America knows who Moore is in 1983, just as no one expected anything from a novice foreign kid moving onto a struggling book that had only ever been published in the first place to capitalize on the the release of the oddball 1982 Wes Craven film adaptation. Eventually “The Anatomy Lesson” will be acclaimed as one of the great character reinventions of all time.

He’s just a ghost. A ghost dressed in weeds. I wonder how he’ll take it?

The hook of “The Anatomy Lesson” is that everything Swamp Thing had believed to be true is suddenly, in an instant, revealed to be a lie. The premise of the original Swamp Thing series was that Dr. Alec Holland was a scientist accidentally turned into a monster who devotes his life to finding a cure for his condition. Moore’s innovation is to reveal that this has been a grave delusion on the part of the monster, who was in fact merely a swamp creature who had tricked himself into believing he had once been a man.

In a rage Swamp Thing kills the person responsible for the revelation before running away from the world. Being an immensely powerful plant elemental, suicide is not an option, but he lies comatose for weeks. Life-changing revelations are comics’ stock in trade, and because “The Anatomy Lesson” was so popular and influential, every secondary and tertiary character from either of the Big Two has been the recipient of similar shake-ups. These lesser shake-ups still advertise Moore’s story as a primary inspiration - even 33 years after its initial publication. But the one thing none of the subsequent iterations ever quite get right is the violence and terror of Moore’s initial idea, the nightmare that you might one day wake up and discover that you are a different person from who you were when you fell asleep.


It’s Fall of 2009. My professional relationship with Popmatters.com ends after I stop replying to e-mails from my editors. Writing about music for five years has almost completely sapped my enthusiasm for music. I have learned a lot from writing hundreds of 600+ word music reviews, the sheer numbing repetition of which taught me a great deal about wringing novelty on demand from a small toolkit of familiar tropes. I also learned how to loathe the same music I once loved so much that I dropped out of college to marry a DJ.

Around the same time I will burn my final bridge at The Comics Journal after I stop replying to e-mails from my editor there. Even though I haven’t even begun the process of filling out graduate school application, I am already trapped in a serious depression which will not lift until I begin graduate school two years later, and even then only briefly. I have through sheer numbing indifference effectively severed ties with every publication that ever paid me to write. I don’t really understand why I do these things, I just know that I am helpless to prevent my worst self-destructive tendencies.  

It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I don’t really understand anything anymore. I teach twice a week and enjoy four-day weekends. I will sometimes go to the grocery store on Thursday evening and buy sufficient supplies to not leave the apartment until next Tuesday. Every social interaction outside the context of a classroom is enormously painful and places significant stress on me. I have no perspective on my situation and I am unable to see anything unusual in my behavior. I am unable to see anything at all.

My last real attempt at a regular social engagement – the department’s weekly softball game – eventually fizzled. The people in charge of organizing the games are very serious about softball and there isn’t always a lot of room for people who just want to run around in the sun.


It’s after midnight on May 19th, 2005. I am seeing Revenge of the Sith for the first time. Of all the Star Wars films it remains the one I’ve seen the least amount of times. I am embarrassed to admit the depth of my identification with someone who destroys his own life because of his inability to understand why he keeps failing at everything he tries. On paper everything makes sense. But inside nothing quite fits and everything keeps breaking as soon as he touches it. He watches in horror as everything he cares about is taken from him, through his own actions. 

The crucial moment of the film comes a little more than halfway through. Palpatine has been revealed and cornered in his office by Mace Windu. It was a close battle but finally Windu has the upper hand. As fierce as he was, Palpatine was ultimately no match for the most feared warrior in the whole of the Order, and because of his unique relationship with the Dark Side he is also the fighter best suited to match Sith aggression in kind. Dun Möch cannot overcome Vaapad. The problem is that the fate of the battle at its most crucial moment hinges on Anakin. And he’s conflicted. He knows what’s right, somewhere. But he feels loyalty to Palpatine, a sensation driven by feelings of fatherly devotion stoked by the Chancellor in anticipation of this very moment.
Anakin has the choice to do one of two things, depending on who he chooses to believe. He can follow what appear to be his first instincts to ultimately back the Order despite his terrible miscalculation - or back Palpatine which will mean ultimately standing against the Order. I’ve thought about this moment a lot over the years and what I believe is that in the last moment before he makes his decision Anakin realizes that he was wrong about Palpatine and had completely misjudged his mentor. And that moment of revelation, when he realizes he was wrong and that Palpatine had been manipulating him for over a decade, he experiences the most profound sense of disappointment in himself. He knows he’s failed and everyone around him will have to suffer the consequences. And he hates himself so much that in a single impulsive instant he succumbs to the pull of the Dark Side and destroys his life.
That’s when the battle is lost. Anakin has fallen so deeply into the pit of his own self-loathing that he’s willing to murder half the galaxy rather than admit that all his problems were of his own making. He loses his mind. He wants to die so badly he goes into battle against the one person in the universe he knows can never defeat. The battle is close but Obi-Wan demonstrates the virtue of Jedi self-discipline by fending off Anakin’s attacks long enough for the younger fighter to exhaust himself. Which he does. What Obi-Wan fails to account for is just how deeply his friend has fallen: he wants to die because he can’t stand the thought of living with the memory of what he’s done. And for the rest of his life Anakin hates Obi-Wan for the "mercy" he showed on Mustafar - for refusing to kill his former pupil.
One of the reasons I don’t watch Revenge of the Sith very often is that the last thirty minutes never fail to demolish me. Obi-Wan’s last words to his pupil - “You were my brother, Anakin, I loved you” - cut me like a knife. The tragedy is that all of this could have been prevented if Obi-Wan had spent more time being a mentor than a brother. He wasn’t ready for the responsibility and a lot of shortcomings in Anakin’s training got papered over by Obi-Wan’s generous insistence on always seeing the best in his student.
The most underexplored yet crucial relationship in those films remains that between Dooku and Yoda. Dooku was Yoda’s Padawan. Yoda and Obi-Wan both share the dispiriting experience of seeing their Padawan and trusted friend turn to the Dark Side. Although they are portrayed as two of the great paragons of the Order, both fail as teachers, both similarly unable to communicate the necessity of virtue to the next generation. Complicating matters, Dooku’s own Padawan was Qui-Gon Jinn, whose humble demeanor and commitment to charity could not be more different than his imperious and aristocratic former master. Given the pattern it makes sense that Qui-Gon's last Padawan would follow in his own mentor's footsteps.

It’s late September and I’m on Twitter. A loose acquaintance – friendly, but never intimate – mistakes a passing comment for sarcasm. I inform him I’ve recently undergone a number of changes which entail a significant change in my outlook. I don’t have the same motivation to excoriate bad comic books for the sake of winning points for an ever-shrinking coterie of those handful of patient people who can wade through the wreckage of my repellent personality to find the few gems of modest wit scattered haphazardly in my wake. He jokes that he hopes this doesn’t mean I am hanging up my scalpel for good. I am profoundly sad because I no longer see myself reflected in my friend’s words.
I’ve said many times there were two main influences on the genesis of this blog: Jon Morris’ Gone and Forgotten and Abhay Khosla’s “Title Bout.” I’m nowhere near as funny of either of them. I talk to Jon on Twitter now and I’m still slightly star-struck whenever I do so. I know Abhay well enough that I did a long interview with him a few years ago for this site. I don’t do many interviews for a reason, but that one is a pleasure and one of the highlights of my time writing this blog.
The voice I cultivated to talk about comic book online is a hybrid of three approaches: the high art pretension of the old print version of The Comics Journal, the type of knowledgeable-but-funny approach taken by writers such as Morris (who can still definitely bite but is far more kind than I in many instances), and Abhay’s complete fearlessness. Back in the early days of the comics blogosphere – back when many of the best writers were still writing for their own personal web pages – there were bloggers that sometimes occupied two of those niches but no one who could comfortably shift between the three at will. I appreciated the fact that I was free to define my site however I wished. In hindsight, I was also one of the first writers to see that those stylistic divisions – essentially between quote-unquote “high-brow” critics (read: middlebrow with a thesaurus), fans, and satirists – were becoming less important with the ascension of the internet as home for the vast majority of writing about comics. Everything was converging. 

I clung hard to the remnants of the old Journal-approved house aesthetic for a bit too long. Although originally horrified, eventually I embraced the more stylistically catholic possibilities of online criticism because I recognized within me tendencies towards all three. So I tried to be funny and I tried to be profound and I tried to be biting, sometimes all at once. For the first few years it worked pretty well, I thought. I learned a lot from the first few years of this blog.
But then blogs started dying and gradually most of the blogs that got started around the time The Hurting did were also gone. Technically, this blog is still here, though you wouldn’t know it from how often I update.


It’s early Summer. A random retweet in my feed informs me that Celexa has been known to create sleep disorders for years despite doctors’ insistence that it had no effect on sleep patterns. Although I had switched to Wellbutrin the previous year (which appeared to create a brief improvement in my mood, an improvement which was later proven illusory), I had taken Celexa almost every day for sixteen years. I believed that my sleep problems were permanent, although oddly in the last year I had ceased to need either a sleeping pill or CPAP machine in order to achieve a better night’s sleep than I had experienced since I was a teenager.  


It’s 2006 and I work as night staff at a residential treatment facility for juvenile mental patients and substance abusers in Rutland, MA. I start this job in the Fall of 2004 and will stay in the same position and at the same pay until the Summer of 2007. I see things I can never forget. Had I stayed any longer I would almost certainly have been accepted for a promotion and found a career in social services. I was good at the work but had to leave because it was slowly killing me. 

I live in Worcester, have one friend, and go on about a dozen awful OK Cupid dates. I get a cat, who I name Janet after the drummer of Sleater-Kinney, who I saw in Boston in 2005 during what I believed for the next decade to be their last tour. The cat is still alive and lives with my parents.


It’s September of this year and I am correctly medicated. For the first time in my life I experience joy.


It’s Winter of my first year of college. I decide in an instant to drop out because I am profoundly unhappy. Everything feels wrong and I don’t know why. This is the second worst mistake of my life. I move to Oklahoma, where my friends will be the man who runs the comic book store and a few senior citizens who work at the department store where I work part-time after any income from my writing fails to materialize.


It’s January 3rd. I’m downloading Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes onto my cell phone. I will not miss a day’s activities for the foreseeable future. After an unfortunate phone bill which forces us to switch data plans, I manually deactivate every nonessential app on my phone to free up bandwith for the game. My username is GeorgeRBinks. 


It’s the first day of Jr. High and I’m the new kid starting in a very small school where all the students have known each other since kindergarten. Break and lunchtime activities are strictly codified by gender: the boys play basketball or football, the girls mostly talk and watch the boys. I can’t play those games to save my life. I barely understand the rules of football, and that only by virtue of the game’s numbing ubiquity. Sports will always make me feel bad about myself. 

I crack jokes and do all the ingratiating things that usually work with teachers and school staff but no one has patience for the parvenue. I’m the smartest kid in the room but I fall into a deep depression that doesn’t lift until the age of nineteen, and even then only briefly. All the things which had previously seemed so unimportant were suddenly the only things that mattered. It had still been possible to stay on the fringes at a larger school where the division between elementary and Jr. High was observed by virtue of being on different campuses. The new school, however, is a four-room school building housing grades K-8 situated at the center of a half-mile radius hamlet without so much as a gas station to call its own. What seems at first glance to be cozy is actually suffocating. There aren’t a lot of happy memories.
My problem was not that I assumed I was the only one suffering – it was that I assumed everyone suffered equally and I was uniquely terrible at coping.


It’s May 7th. After having not listened to music for a week, I listen to White Lung for four hours straight. In particular I listen to Paradise compulsively for around ten days. I can’t listen anymore. Until I die those songs will take me back to the worst days of my life.

I don’t remember much from the first weeks of May. A great deal of it feels as if it has already been smudged, obscured from recall out of the necessity of segregating the trauma in my mind. Sometimes I feel momentary stabs of the same existential terror and dread I felt during those weeks. I joke to myself that I’m having flashbacks but I realize in short order that it may not actually be a joke. I may very well have PTSD. 


It’s the last day of high school and my car is totaled, ironically, driving home from an All-Night Sober Grad function. I walk away from the accident completely unharmed. After a generally pleasant last few months of high school, this serves as a first in a series of bad decisions and unfortunate accidents that will doggedly haunt the next two decades of my life. I secretly blame this accident for much of what follows. I am wrong to do so.


It’s October 1st. I’m sitting down to write this essay and thinking there would be many easier ways to do this. But it’s all just a delaying tactic, tricking myself into writing my way out of my problems. Scheherazade dodging the axe for another day.


It’s Kindergarten and everything is really awesome. Everyone likes me. Nothing I encounter at school amounts to more than busywork and rote memorization, largely of things my parents already taught me. School is great.


It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. What was wrong? I was stuck. Unable to make any forward movement in my life. Retreating away from the world, alone, what? A wounded animal in a cave? Waiting to die? It felt at the time that I was waiting for something, although I couldn’t have articulated that if I had wanted.

Over the years everything had just . . . spun out of control. There was no chaos, no confusion. Things fell out of my hand and kept rolling and I didn’t notice they were gone until they were too far away to find. I was in a waking coma. Nothing registered, good, bad, or indifferent. Every emotional response I had was reserved for other people – being happy, sad, proud, indifferent, angry. I could rouse myself on the behalf of others but when I most needed to help myself I was unable to do so. I wasn’t even very good at helping other people, but I wanted to be needed and useful, a tendency that sat at odds with my ability to actually follow through on my stated desire to be needed and useful. I had no consistency or follow-through, and no ability to make good on even my most modest ambitions without constant support from every person in my life. 


It’s the day before Christmas, 2009. I have finished every grad school application and am spending the day shopping with my partner. I buy a copy of Tegan & Sara’s Sainthood at the Newbury Comics in Amherst, MA. That branch of the store will eventually close, relocating to Northampton. Although it takes me a few weeks to get into it, eventually I will listen to Sainthood, along with its sister album The Con, on near repeat. Those albums will remain a constant in my life for the next six years, a period of time during which a week does not pass without my listening to them both at least once. 


It’s May 16th, 2002. I am living in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it is early morning on the day of the release of Attack of the Clones. The film later comes in for a great deal of criticism, with some even ranking it below perpetual whipping boy The Phantom Menace as the worst film of the Prequel Trilogy. My memories of the midnight showing are overwhelmingly positive. People loved that movie, at least before the Internet told them they shouldn’t. The battle sequence on Geonosis that comprisies the last 45 minutes of the film gets a fantastic reaction. The first time Yoda pulls out his lightsaber produces the loudest cheer I have ever heard in a movie theater.

It’s a meticulously constructed and deliberately plotted movie. It has some of the most gorgeous sequences in the entire series. Lucas’ use of color to indicate changing tone and mood as the film pivots at the halfway point to indicate the darker direction of the next 1 ½ movies is masterful, and completely ignored by most of the film’s loudest critics.

I am again drawn to Anakin’s character both despite and because of the film’s insistence on showing us in awful detail just how unbalanced he has become. The boy who had once been a child prodigy has grown into an uncomfortable young man. He’s very good at his work and – on paper at least – is meeting every developmental milestone as a Jedi. But there’s something wrong. The sense of endless potential he used to feel every day as a boy on Tatooine has been stifled by the rules and expectations of an Order that has no interest in changing their educational approach to fit someone who is, from the outset, troubled. What he needs most is a father figure, but the father figure he should have had died on Naboo when he was nine years old. In place of the fallen Qui-Gon Jinn he has many teachers and a few friends, but none step forward to provide the guidance he so desperately needs.
There’s something wrong. He’s unaccountably violent. He shouldn’t have been separated from his mother: it’s increasingly obvious that the Jedi Council were right. He was too old to be trained as a Jedi . . . because being a Jedi means being indoctrinated from infancy into a thousand-year old cult of self-denial. Anakin doesn’t have patience. He’s also dangerous: he becomes infatuated with an older woman who is unable to properly rebuff his increasingly aggressive advances because he’s already one of the most powerful people in the galaxy. She becomes trapped in an abusive relationship with someone who spends their entire “marriage” gaslighting her. She convinces herself this situation is satisfactory because she loves him too, albeit probably not with the same intensity with which he loves her.
Emotionally, Anakin is fragile and often hurting. He doesn’t know how to talk to people naturally so he talks to women like he learned it from watching TV, which he probably did. His affect is flat and his dialogue preposterous, because he’s still a little kid in the body of a professional killing machine with the powers of a god, and he’s just repeating lines he’s heard other people say to produce the desired results. He gets frustrated when he can’t make himself understood. No one quite believes what he says because there’s a frightening insincerity in the way he comes across, but he can’t see it. He’s just not a healthy person, emotionally, and the fact that countless experienced Jedi masters pass off his obvious mental health issues as “growing pains” is the strongest indictment of the Jedi Order of the Prequel era as dysfunctional, sclerotic, and passive. The only person who bothers to try to relate to Anakin on the level of an actual affectionate parent figure is the last person in the galaxy to whom he should ever listen.

After the movie lets out at around three, I wait up a couple hours and go to my job as a morning receiving associate at Kohl’s in Owasso. I’m living alone for a period because my wife could only find a job two hours away in Norman. The house is very quiet.


It’s August 3rd and I’m driving into San Francisco to meet a woman I know from Twitter. It’s 90 degrees at my house outside of Sacramento but jacket weather in the city. I am on time but from the moment I reach the Bay Area everything goes wrong. It doesn’t matter. We spend a couple hours walking up and down the Haight talking about nothing at all. It is the first time I have knowingly spoken to another human being who understands precisely why my life has been so thoroughly disappointing on so many levels. I can’t as yet even begin to approach the challenge of expressing my sorrow in words, but I don’t have to because for the first time in my life I’m speaking to someone who already knows. I haven’t had a best friend in many years. I have one now. I feel as if I have taken my first step into a much larger world than any I could ever have dreamed possible just a few months before.


It’s early Summer of 1993 and I am in a serious car accident from which I walk away completely unharmed. Although for years my dad blames himself, it is later revealed that the accident was caused by faulty Firestone tires which caused our car – a Ford Explorer – to flip over on the freeway driving down I-5 somewhere parallel to Chico. The defective tires are recalled in 2000.


It’s the Fall of 2007 and I have returned to school, long overdue, as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. After spending many months worrying that I would be unable to meet the demands, it is quickly confirmed to me that I will have no problems with the level of work expected. I enter as an English major and eventually graduate with minors in Comparative Literature, Classics, Political Science, and a certificate in Medieval Studies.
My first year, the 2007-08 school year, passes quickly. Initially I have energy and momentum. This fades as the first year fades into the second year. I have already made the decision to work towards graduate school as the classroom remains one of the few places in the world where I completely understand the demands placed on me. When my initial year-long burst of enthusiasm wanes, I carry forward powered by a dogged and increasingly desperate sense of purpose. I start making mistakes. My focus begins to shift. I can’t concentrate on anything. The ease with which I can fulfill the routine expectations of the classroom soon fades in the face of the difficulties of navigating the realm of professional interpersonal relationships. I am competent with people in face-to-face interactions but the longer we are apart the harder it is for me to keep track of my obligations. I go months without talking to people I know I should be talking to on a weekly basis. Why can’t I make myself care that I am starting to fall down, hard, at one of the very first tests of my willingness and commitment to get into grad school? People are counting on me, but the pressure of knowing other people are depending on my actions makes the task appear insurmountable. 


It’s June 19th, 2015. I meet my friend Mike for the first time after having known each other for over a decade. Our two blogs began a month apart back in the Winter of 2003-04. My blog has been on life support for a very long time but I refuse to shutter it, preferring to believe that one day soon I will find the time and energy to mount a proper return. I want to believe I am capable of doing this but my motivations for doing so other than a merely abstract sense of obligation are completely hollow. Mike and I rarely talk about topics outside the field of our shared interests. He is one of my better friends, notwithstanding that at the time I have very few. His favorite character, incidentally, is Swamp Thing.
I see Mike a couple more times over the next year, a period during which I am spending a lot of time in Southern California. I go out of my way to spend money at his store even at times when I don’t have a lot, because I understand better than anyone how valuable and important it is to have a job that you both enjoy and are good at. Talking for a few hours I can almost convince myself that I still have interest in my hobbies or my supposed “field of expertise.” People ask my advice all the time on what they should be reading. I am never less than amazed when people take my opinion seriously. 

In August I will share a very important secret with Mike, and his reaction is the kindest of anyone I know. 


It’s the Spring of 2010. After failing to be accepted to grad school, I have a mild nervous breakdown. For reasons I cannot fathom I decide to get back into Magic: The Gathering. 

In hindsight it’s easy to see why: I needed a task to occupy my mind that was both time-consuming and meticulous. The game demands an attention to detail that I find both frustrating and challenging, although for many years I will not make the connection that I appreciate these sensations in the context of a game precisely because I am unable to master them in my daily life.  
I am not very good at Magic, and I will never be very good. After playing regularly for the next five years I become a competent duffer, someone with a better-than-average comprehension of the game who remains unable to be more than a strictly competent player. Every moment in the game is regulated by a precise turn structure and elaborate timing rules that, when properly understood, form an ingeniously flexible and challenging game engine. I can understand the mechanism in theory but in practice I am very poor at juggling multiple cognitive challenges at once. The endless metastasizing decision tree that is even the most rudimentary game of Magic consumes much of my brainpower. It feels at times like exercise.  

During this period I begin to hang-out at the game store in Amherst. It’s a basement store that smells both of mildew and the Papa John’s pizza restaurant upstairs. I need company to keep from falling into my own head so for the next year I am usually hanging out at the store for a couple hours a day for a few days a week. I don’t cultivate any close friends, but really I’m just looking for the anonymity of a group of strangers with whom my only connection is a single shared leisure activity. 


It’s June and I’m lying in the bathtub. It occurs to me after the events of the last few months that there is no longer any point in denying that I am bipolar. I am most likely bipolar II, which for me means I very rarely – if ever – experience periods of extended energy resembling a traditional “manic” state. It is likely that those periods of my life when I have felt best and most productive were brief periods of hypomania surrounded on all sides by long stretches of apathy and torpor. I had for a long time - over twenty years - resisted the idea that I shared the same condition as literally every other person in my immediate family, but that was merely denial. 

It’s May 25th 1983. Return of the Jedi is released in theaters and although I am too young to understand the wider context Star Wars is immediately my favorite thing in the world. I inherit my cousin’s old Star Wars toys, including a partially demolished Millennium Falcon that may still be sticking it’s nosecone out of a box in my parents’ mildewy basement. 

My cousin in this instance is my dad’s brother’s son, who I will meet perhaps three times in my life. I am not close with my uncle, especially after he becomes estranged from my father. After he learns of my decision to drop out of Berkeley he will never speak with me again.
Burger King sells glass tumblers commemorating the film. Ours break over the next few years but they live in my memory. Sometimes I see them online and wonder how they can look so different in reality than they do in my recollection. I wonder sometimes as I get older why it is that so many other things in my life fall by the wayside or curdle into some form of strange obligation . . . but with Star Wars I can always somehow manage to get back to being a child and staring at those Burger King glasses in the kitchen of the trailer we lived in for a year when I was young. Sometimes those memories are the only thing I care about anymore.


It’s December 2nd 2014. I give myself a concussion while eating tortilla chips at the kitchen table. I am studying for my qualifying exam just a few days later. I fail my quals - to be precise, I receive a grade of “Not Pass,” and am told I would be allowed to pass if i completed part of a chapter. I do so with little difficulty.

The concussion had no impact on my ability to take the exam. I wasn’t ready. I wouldn’t have passed it with another six months, given the fruitless direction of my reading and the difficulty of writing my prospectus. I don’t really understand why I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing but for many months I am simply unable to focus completely on the job of formulating my dissertation outline. Due to a combination of my concussion and many days of sleeplessness I am not thinking entirely straight and believe it is within my abilities to bluff my way through the oral exam. 


It’s July. I am sitting in a doctor’s office listening to my new doctor reel off facts about my new medication, a litany that includes a number of possibly regrettable side effects. Although it takes me a few weeks for the enormity of the decision to completely sink in, in the space of a few moments’ discussion with my doctor I have understood and accepted that I will never have children.   


It’s sometime in the Winter of 2000. I first read Tom Spurgeon’s essay “Comics Made Me Fat” on the old TCJ.com – from back when the site had a message board. I will return to reread this essay every few years, one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing about comics. I can relate to almost every word of the essay even if the specifics of my experience are different.
Although he was hardly the first to articulate the idea, what sticks with me the most from Spurgeon’s article is brief mention of old-school Journal writer Darcy Sullivan, and his belief that “reading comics may indeed be a very bad thing for many of us, contributing in very specific ways towards our becoming emotionally and spiritually crippled.”
At the end of the essay, after some biographical details regarding his associations with food and comics, he ends with an observation regarding the nature of superhero fandom that

superhero comics promote such an unrealistic fantasy based on bizarre, arbitrary models of action that they don't really give anyone a model for fully socialized behavior. A kid who idolizes the biggest shithead basketball player on Earth can at least pursue the sport in which his hero participates. But until fighting ninjas become a club activity on major college campuses, the core activities of the superhero are lost on the superhero devotee. What replaces it is a realization - the Stan Lee model of secondary selling by making the creator the hero and the reader a potential hero - that indulging in the fantasy aspects of the stories one loves can have eventual financial or vocational awards. In the meantime, stay in your basement, and if you need a companion while you're down there, call Domino's.

There are two aspects of this quote that jump out at me after sixteen years. One is the fact that, over the course of the following decade and a half, superhero stories have come to occupy so much space in our collective cultural landscape that their “bizarre, arbitrary models of action” have become almost normalized as socially acceptable behavior. Ten or twelve years ago it was common to see articles bewailing the superhero movie glut – as well as the accompanying prophecies of direct market implosion which would follow the failure of two or three successive superhero movies. Now it’s expected that the release of a new superhero movie will be accompanied by earnest op-eds in major newspaper regarding what Captain America tells us about the limits of American foreign policy in a multilateral world. Everyone writing about comics in the early 00s was dead certain that superhero movies were a bubble that would pop when the average person figured out, like us jaded and cynical critics, that superheroes were stupid. We got that wrong.

The second thing I would like to point to is Spurgeon’s completely dead-on observations that, since superhero stories could not actually be directly aspirational, the creative process behind comic books could be portrayed as such. I can’t grow up to be Spider-Man, but I can grow up to write Spider-Man.

When I was a kid I bought into this fantasy with all my heart. My friends in Jr. High all idolized basketball players, although by that age the vast majority of kids will have realized they will never play sports at the professional level. The difference between them and me is that it took me a lot longer to figure out I wasn’t going to be the next Mark Gruenwald than it took them to figure out they weren’t going to be the next Michael Jordan.

I don’t know when exactly, and I doubt there was any specific incident. But eventually as I got older and the mistakes of my youth gradually transformed into the disappointments of adulthood I realized that it just wasn’t going to happen. Breaking into any kind of writing is difficult, and although the barrier to writing comics might seem from one perspective to be ludicrously low (relative to many other fields), from the vantage point of the average fanboy and reader it’s an almost impossible distance to bridge.

If you grow up reading comics and never really stop, you carry a lot of baggage around the activity. There’s the comics you read because you want to read comics. But there’s also the comics you read because you’re unhappy and need to distract yourself. The comics you read because you don’t understand anything going on in the rest of your life. The comics you read when you should be out running around. The comics you read for comfort as a child that become the comics you read for a crutch as an adult.
Younger readers – by which I mean, at this point, people who have still been reading comics for over a decade – who don’t have this baggage don’t understand why the dichotomy between the old-school Journal pedantry and uncritical fan culture evolved the way it did in the 1980s and 90s. Since they had no connection to the world in which this duality was a reality, it dissipated the moment comics discourse rematerialized online and became something more than just the domain of a relative handful of white men in their twenties and thirties and forties writing about either how awesome the comics they loved as a kid were or how much reading comics as a kid stunted their development. The fact is that for many people, myself included, both statements are completely true.

I don’t blame comics for making my life what it is today. I ultimately can’t blame anyone for that but myself. Comics were there for me when I was a kid and needed a place to put my mind that was far away from my body, but they also became a crutch at periods where I sought to isolate from a world I didn’t understand and in which I didn’t wish to be implicated.

After I realized that I would probably never write for comics I didn’t know what else I wanted to be. My imaginative horizons were limited by the fact that I was perpetually discontented and antisocial. I knew I had to be some kind of writer. I spend my early twenties trying to be a novelist. I wrote three novels that were all various shades of terrible, the last of which was just not-terrible enough that I was proud of it. I had a lot more success writing online, where the invention of blogging meant that I could have my own forum to discuss whatever whenever I wanted. I knew comics really well and already had connections and a tiny bit of reputation based on my having been published in the Journal for the last few years of its existence as a print magazine.

The problem is that I have always resented comic books. For whatever reason they grabbed me when I was very young and nothing else in my life has ever stuck around quite like comics have. But in reality comics is a small field dominated by abuse both professional and personal, built on the very real fact that people who want to write Spider-Man will do anything to write Spider-Man. Very few people get to be Jordan, but if you buy his shoes you can run around and pretend for a few minutes.
So, yeah: that’s my secret origin as a critic. I spent my life preparing for a career in comics, only to discover two things: 1) it’s a snakepit that eventually grinds all but a very few “lucky” people into hamburger, and 2) for whatever reason I lacked the wherewithal to even begin to understand how to approach the field as an aspiring professional. When faced with the dizzying array of options and obstacles, it was simpler merely to throw up my arms and grab a flamethrower.

And boy, it sure is fun to be an asshole! People laugh and pat you on the back for making witty observations and delivering trenchant commentary. It’s great work to criticize for the amusement and edification of an audience of dozens online the hard work of people who are probably being taken advantage of by the rounding-error arm of a multinational corporation. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of posting a withering takedown of Identity Crisis to make a person believe they’re really doing something of worth for the betterment of the human race. And there’s certainly nothing that can reignite your love of comics quite as much as the endless dribble of sexual abuse stories that dominate the comics news cycle with soul-crushing regularity.
If we’re being honest, the reflexive negativity of the critical stance was where I was most comfortable because it was where I felt safe. If I’m smart and articulate and can write quickly and with relatively few errors I can publish enough to build a small audience. Small audiences can sometimes be leveraged into bigger platforms through advantageous networking. Networking forms the basis of professional relationships that can later become work. On paper, at least, I know how the system works.

I don’t know how to talk to editors. I come off as weird or tetchy when I want to be personable and funny. When I tell jokes there’s an uncomfortable edge to them I can never quite dispel. Somehow or another even though I have plenty of people who tell me how much they love my writing, more work rarely materializes. It’s no secret why this work doesn’t materialize, it’s not magic: people who want work go out and hustle for work. I was incapable of hustling, so I was stuck on the outside heckling. My attitude was toxic and my willingness to slaughter sacred cows for the amusement of the people who read my blog (and later, Twitter feed) bordered on masochistic.

Eventually people stop paying attention for a number of reasons. Overall blogging readership declines. My audience gets sick of intermittent updates and stop-and-start series which might lurch into brief life before shuddering to a halt a few hundred yards down the road. There’s no follow-through. My early reputation as a cynical shill for the Journal represented at least a modestly honorable position, even if I was at the time capable of little more than aping the style and tone of better writers who had defined what by the late 90s and early 2000s had been codified – even stereotyped – into the Journal’s “house style.” Eventually, as the Journal ceased print publication and its significance in comics culture receded further and further into the rear view mirror, I was left alone as a kind of curio, a forgotten man who had once perhaps had the raw material for a promising career in the field but who had strangled his own potential by systematically alienating every single person in a position to advance my writing in and around the comics industry. Every now and again I’d pop up for a special guest spot in one of Tucker’s columns for TCJ.com, or I’d post something to my own ghost-ship of a blog. But I was a spent force. I felt, on the balance, that comics had taken a great deal from me and left me with almost nothing in return.

I feel intensely jealous of every writer who was able to turn their blogging into a career. My current position at the AV Club – a position from which I am currently on partial leave, ostensibly for health reasons – appeared completely out of the blue, based on nothing but the last flickering ember of my old reputation magically smuggled across a gulf of years. I have been writing professionally for fifteen years and still cannot manage to make more than a few hundred dollars a month as a writer. It’s no mystery why. I did it to myself.


It’s the last week of September this year. By chance I click on a link on my Twitter feed that takes me to an article that explains the meaning of the term “executive dysfunction.” I begin reading with mild curiosity and by the end I am weeping. I see myself reflected in every symptom, and more than just a casually resemblance. For years I had joked with my students that I had a bad memory and needed to constantly be reminded of things - I see in a moment that I’ve used humor to mask the very real fact that I cannot regularly remember even the simplest of tasks that do not depend for completion on rote muscle memory. 

I can only leave the house if I run down a very precise mental checklist of tasks which must be done in a very specific order or not at all. I cannot remember the proper way to perform simple household chores even when I am shown repeatedly and try my best to replicate the form of what I am shown. I have gradually lost my ability to read, unable to concentrate on a single book or article for longer than fifteen minutes at a time. The last book I finished reading was a YA Star Wars novel that required a monumental force of will to complete. I have thoroughly internalized the conviction that I am lazy, incompetent, and undependable. I am never surprised when I find myself doing through sheer carelessness stupid things that hurt me and the people around me.
This is my third life-altering revelation in the space of five months. I am very tired. At this point I am quick to accept the idea that I may have some form of executive dysfunction, as I have already seen that nearly everything I believed to be true about myself was a lie. Within a week I have a referral from my psychiatrist to be tested for Adult ADHD. 


It’s the first semester of the first year of my first attempt at college, at the University of California, Berkeley. For the first time in my life I build the courage to see a psychiatrist. After one appointment he diagnoses me as a mild depressive and prescribes me Celexa. I notice the effect on my mood immediately, when I am struck by giggling fits in my dorm room the day after having taken my first pill. I will be very happy for many months, and by the time the feeling begins to wear off I will already be living in Oklahoma.


It’s October 7th 2016. I briefly attend my department’s yearly potluck, which is held within the first few weeks of the new school year. I have been looking forward to attending for the purpose of getting approving looks from people who will notice I have lost almost fifty pounds over the last five months. I run into two people I know well, they both notice, and it is gratifying for a number of reasons to be told by one of them that they did not at first recognize me.
For years I had tried to convince myself that this was my milieu, but in a flash I realize that I don’t know any of these people. Of all the grad students in attendance I am the only one from my cohort, and all are younger. The professors expertly perform the part of suburban intellectuals. Their casual (if sometimes affected) manner masks the deep self-satisfaction of the liberal academic: generally decent folks who live in a very nice bubble of their own deliberate creation. Suddenly the sense of professional obligation that had brought me to attend every previous potluck snaps and I realize I have no reason to be there. I leave the party after five minutes. I’m happy to do so.
I’ve made enough of a shambles of my career in grad school to date that the prospect of finding a tenure-track position after finishing my dissertation is probably not realistic. I realize that I’ve known that for a while and have already acclimated myself to the idea, even if I haven’t wanted to articulate it to myself. I like teaching. I’m good at teaching. Academia would be perfect if it weren’t for other academics. 

I begin to feel the stirrings of something I believed long gone. I hear the rattling of distant chains. My academic ambitions were someone else’s dream, another man’s borrowed clothing in more ways than one. I used to have other ambitions. It might be nice to feel some of those old desires once again.  


It’s May 19th, 1999. I am watching the first available midnight showing of The Phantom Menace. A week earlier my friends and I had camped out overnight on the hard concrete outside the theater for tickets to the first new Star Wars movie in 16 years. Thanks to the internet, I will never need to do so again, although much of the charm is lost that way. Although conventional wisdom is quick to turn and the film is rejected by large segments of fandom - based on what are admittedly a few regrettable elements - it remains one of my favorite movies. 

Something that is often overlooked about the film is how closely it matched form (structure) to fit the function of introducing an important character as a little kid. It is part kid’s movie, and many of the elements adult viewers find most cloying, including the comedic sidekicks, slapstick, and extended racing sequences, were specifically intended to appeal to younger children who would recognize the outline of a kid’s adventure film even if they were too young to have an attachment to the original films. 

It’s also a very sad film because it’s about the best day in Anakin’s life. It never, ever gets better for him than his victory at the Boonta Eve Classic. He will carry that memory for the rest of his life, the moment when everything still seemed so golden and full of potential. He achieved a massive upset with nothing but his skill and ingenuity, and believed that he had succeeded in winning his heart’s desire in leaving Tatooine to find a greater destiny in the stars. Of course it didn’t quite work out like that. 


It’s February 22nd, 2010. I am sitting in a hospital waiting room updating my e-mail every few minutes as graduate school application decisions begin to stream in. I am listening to Tegan & Sara on constant repeat. That afternoon I receive my rejection from Yale. The e-mail begins, “Your application to the English Language and Literature program has been reviewed and a decision has been reached.” I was not expecting to get into Yale, but you always apply to a few schools to which you have no hope of actually being accepted. Sometimes the Hail Mary lands, but not today.

Later I will conclude after reviewing a few items of circumstantial evidence that I was sabotaged by one of my recommenders, an older male professor who did not think highly of my abilities or ambitions. Although there are other reasons, one of the most important was my tendency to disappear for weeks or months at a time. Other people believe and I believe as well that I am inherently flaky. Unable to ever stick the dismount, always puttering out just a few yards from the goal. I am not accepted to any grad schools in 2010, but I wait another year and am accepted into five.


It’s May 5th 2016. I’m driving home from the preview showing of Captain America: Civil War. I enjoyed the film more than I had expected, and in fact it the first substantial thing to succeed in diverting me for the better part of a week. 

I’m driving home from the theater along a brief stretch of freeway used for a shortcut from the supermarket back to my apartment. There’s a rightward bend where the road rises and tilts slightly. I feel the sudden urge to grab the wheel and pull to the left as hard as I am able, driving the car into the oncoming lane and hopefully killing myself. 

It’s the closest I have ever come to killing myself. It’s a long and vivid few seconds that stand out in the context of a week I otherwise can’t fully recollect. 

Thinking about it later, I realize that - far from being an isolated incident - this was something I had done almost every time I sat behind the wheel of a car for many years. I used to take solace in the idea that, as bad as my life could be at time, I never considered suicide. In truth, I considered it on a daily basis for many years, but the thought never stuck around long enough to stick in memory. Just a thousand stray thoughts spread over a thousand days, all considered and dismissed in a few seconds. Never lingering in my mind as a serious problem, just . . . random impulses. 

I concluded recently that I have been convinced for much of my life that my death would come in the form of a car accident. The nature of the method is such that a moment’s hesitation or weakness could easily have seen a stray thought converge with a random impulse, and the act would be done in a heartbeat. 

I didn’t kill myself. I came within a hair’s breadth of doing so. I would have flipped the car into traffic and felt my body be shredded by multiple tons of steel shrapnel. It might even have looked like an accident. It might even have felt good. 


It’s July of this year. I begin a Twitter account dedicated solely to posting Raid scores from Galaxy of Heroes. The game is the only thing capable of consuming my attention during long stretches of time when I feel nothing but anxiety and paranoia. 

There is a mechanical precision that appeals to me. It’s a resource management game dedicated to collecting and building teams of Star Wars characters to battle one another. The resource collection itself presents a significant logistical challenge: there are many different types of currencies, only some of which can be converted, and all of them must be shepherded in such a way as to maximize impact while minimizing outlay. I have never spent any real money on in-game content. The challenge for me lies in using a very limited resource base to achieve the best possible return on my investment. It’s all about spending credits on incremental improvements to character stats. Judging when, where, and how to spend what and on who is endlessly challenging, and requires constant awareness of a quickly evolving metagame. 

It’s the only part of my life in which I am capable of making long term goals and sticking to them. I am comforted by the clockwork regularity of the game’s schedule, and the satisfaction of periodic breakthroughs in my understanding of the game’s arcane leveling mechanisms grants an illusion of accomplishment to the successful execution of pointless tasks. The constant background hum of gradual improvement gives form to some of my most formless days, even in the first weeks of May.


It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I’m listening to Tegan & Sara on my headphones, because I’m always listening to Tegan & Sara on my headphones.

I keep circling around back to this day because it’s the day everything changes. I can’t quite bring myself to open the curtain and look at what’s hiding there, waiting for me, not yet. It’s all too big and too painful. 

If you’ve read this long - well, God bless. I had a number of things I wanted to say and I doubt I’ve said anywhere close to everything I need to say. I keep putting off the end because I know once I reach the end of this essay, and publish it on the site, and it is read by anyone - I will no longer have any control over my story. It will be out of my hands, forever, and I will be left to deal with the consequences. 

It would be nice if I could keep writing forever, perpetually pushing forward these final few words - the final two words, actually - for just another day, another chance to sit and think and hide. If you’re reading this now there’s a chance you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, maybe even know me from Twitter. Maybe you’ve never met me before. Maybe this article has gone viral and is being circulated by thousands of people who are devoting their long lunch breaks to hacking their way through the thick maze of my verbiage in order to get to the surprise at the end. Maybe only three people will ever finish it. 


It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. My life is over. I have driven myself into a ditch and I have no idea how to extricate myself. I’m killing myself slowly but surely with bad food, lack of exercise, disinterest in my work, my hobbies, my friends. My overriding sensation on most days is a generalized lack of vigor that leaves me feeling like a wax approximation of a real human being. 

I failed. At work, as a writer, as a friend, as a blogger or a critic, as a son and a partner.
I’m not beating myself up unduly. I’m not being harsh. It didn’t work, and by the time it came to right the ship it was already too late. Does this sound melodramatic? Please bear with me for a few more precious seconds and all will make sense . . . it’s not melodrama. It’s truth. 

Most people never get a second chance. This essay represents the end of a lot of different things: it means, for one thing, I’m willingly giving up a large part of the privacy with which I have closely guarded much of my life. This isn’t everything: my partner and my family are mostly absent, as my reckoning with them is a private matter. But my reckoning with myself? with my career? with my endless feelings of self-loathing stemming from my bottomless perception of my own inadequacies, real and imagined? Well, that’s different. This is the end of something very real - not this blog itself, but something much, much bigger.

Something I’ve learned over the past few months is that privacy and discretion are not rights, they are privileges. And I keep putting off finishing this essay because I don’t want to give up those privileges. I don’t have a choice, really: there’s no option here, and I hate that. I’ve been a very private person for my entire life. Suddenly I find myself relinquishing a large part of that privacy, forever . . . not exactly willingly. 

I feel good about this essay. I haven’t felt pride from anything I’ve written in many years. That’s just another thing that has been taken from me by the march of years. I want to get back in the game. I have a great deal to make up for. I pissed away the first half of my life on sickness and sorrow and unhappiness, resenting the rest of the world for my own shortcomings, pushing away everyone I ever cared about in the process of punishing myself for the sin of having been born. If I was a dick to you at any point in whatever our shared history may be, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I only hurt people because I was hurting myself. And the hurting never stopped. 

I’m not the same person I was on April 29th. I wish there was a better way to say it other than - for months now I’ve been maintaining a bit of a false front. I haven’t been tweeting much for a while because I’m having a difficult time keeping up the pretense that I’m still that person. He was mean and petty and thought being clever was the greatest achievement to which a man could aspire. He had his good qualities, sure, when he tried. Trying was very difficult. I’ve been told by people who are in a position to judge that I am a far kinder and far more pleasant person now than I ever was in the before-time. I’m not that person anymore and I am working every day, slowly but surely, to overcome that person.  

During the last week of April 2016 I was reading Thus Spake Zarathustra with my class. Because I am increasingly bored with teaching I have written a series of increasingly odd and difficult syllabi that challenge my ability as a teacher as much as my students’ abilities as writers. On the weekend of April 30th I read these words: 

    Man is difficult to discover, most of all to himself; the spirit often tells lies about the soul.

There is no better way I can describe what happened to me. Every lie I had ever told myself was revealed in a single instant, a single statement spoken with the quiet authority of armageddon long delayed. 

But there is always a reckoning. We can only hide out from ourselves for so long. And so we must continue, we must press on until we reach the moment of truth, however painful.

It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.

I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s all in my head. I hear it as clear as if it were being whispered in my ear. Whose voice? There’s no one else in here with me. But the voice still belongs to someone else. It lands in my brain with the subtlety of a lightning bolt, leaves me sizzling in the aftermath, every nerve ending fried by a sudden and painful shock.
I will spend the next few weeks in a daze, recovering from the next few seconds. I will suffer secondary revelations. I will experience the slow and unsettling reorientation of every facet of my personality I once believed to be stable and dependable. Every aspect of my life is thrown into chaos and uncertainty. I am on my way to becoming someone better, hopefully. Hopefully. But it’s still very hard.The memory still feels like I'm scraping my head along the hard tile floor.

I turn my head and hear a voice that changes everything. Whose voice is it? It’s my voice, only it isn’t, speaking to myself from outside of myself. It’s me and it isn’t me. The words hit with the impact of a death sentence, and I feel a heavy curtain falling behind me. I can’t turn back. The road is blocked. The only way out is through. 

I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s my voice. It says only two words, and is gone again, having changed everything in an instant. It’s all over. Everything’s over. Everything’s just beginning.
It’s a glorious dawn.

I turn my head and hear a voice. It says two words:
“You’re trans.”
 And I am. 

Part 1 of an ongoing series. Follow up with Part 2 here
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