Pass the Biscuits, Please

I went through this period, recently, where I got utterly obsessed with this song. I’ve known it for years, of course; who doesn’t? But the version that was in my head wasn’t Bobby Gentry’s original — it was a cover by Sinead O’Connor that slowed everything down and made the tragedy in the lyrics ache through the every sound of the thing.

Gentry, on the other hand, did something different. Listen to her version and, if you can forget about what happened to poor Billie Joe, everything almost sounds deceptively upbeat. There’s a lightness to the fingerpicking of the guitar, a romance to those swooning strings — those strings, which swoop in and out of the song as punctuation, fascinate me; they sound almost too modern to fit with the context and era the song was recorded, to me — and, all told, a casualness to Gentry’s performance as a whole that’s utterly winning. It plays like the character she’s portraying, someone affecting disinterest over the dinner table, but inside, deeply affected by what’s happened.

It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with the idea of song as method acting — I grew up in the Britpop era of Blur, after all — but “Ode to Billie Joe” wasn’t a song that did that, in my head. It was a slow, painful, melancholy thing. Hearing the original, actually listening to Gentry’s version, was a revelation that turned into an obsession, replaying it over and over to check I wasn’t imagining it.

Good Morning Good Morning Good

There’s something to be said for sunrises in fall here in Portland. This is what it looks like out of my window before I get up in the morning; I genuinely feel lucky to see this kind of thing, and also to wake up early enough that I get to see the sun rise each morning. (To be fair, up until last weekend, it happened after 7am and who isn’t awake by then?)

I’m A Burning Wheel

The odd thing is the impulse to write it out.

One of my few rules here is that I don’t share anything that feels too personal. “If it’s your decision to be open about yourself, be careful or else,” as Elliott Smith sang; it’s a nervousness born as much as anything of the lingering shame I felt for almost two decades in my marriage for just being me and not who I was expected to be. I’m recovering, still, but it’s not gone entirely. Maybe it never will.

So, with that in mind, I know better than to write about what happened on Monday here. It would be a bad idea: it would upset the other person involved — just the opposite— and I wouldn’t get any sort of closure from it. It wouldn’t achieve anything good, aside from allowing me to rant, rave and scream primally.

At the same time, perhaps those are things I need to do. Certainly, the more I think about what happened, the more I want to scream. The realization that what I was facing was simply a concentrated taste of what used to be my everyday, but my psychic shield was gone now; the pain (and, again, shame) of that realization, but also the anger that accompanied it, the disbelief, were and still are overwhelming. How is this still happening? How did I survive through it all before? Why didn’t I notice sooner?

But there’s also something better, the secondary realization that I don’t have that psychic shield now because I don’t need it anymore. The acceptance that I really am in a better place now, as much as that sounds like a euphemism for death.

My feelings are all over the place right now, and will be for some time. What happened isn’t resolved, and isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon. But perhaps what I need to work through them is a primal scream made pixels, or this talking in code. Extended subtweet as therapy.

How Many Times Do I Have To Make This Climb?

One of the stranger things about having done this job for so long is that, sometimes, entirely accidentally, you repeat yourself. You have a thought that feels new to you and think, maybe that’s a story, I should write that. And then you google the topic and there you are, having written a version of the exact story you were planning to write some time earlier.

It is, I guess, understandable — you have to forgive yourself for thinking like yourself, if only because, what’s the alternative? — but it’s also a curious feeling when it happens, not least of all because, on the occasions it’s happened to me, I’ve genuinely had no recollection of writing the first piece at all.

Again, perhaps I shouldn’t feel bad about this; I generally write somewhere in the region of three to five stories a day, so it only stands to reason that I don’t have perfect recall of what I’ve written, especially when you think about the fact that I’ve been doing this for more than a decade. On the other hand, it’s just a little embarrassing to genuinely think I’m having a thought for the first time, only to discover I’ve traced this entire process down in detail previously, and then utterly forgotten about it.

(The Monkees start playing in my head: “Do I have to do this all over again…? Didn’t I do it right the first time…?”)

When such a thing happens, there’s no real recourse; you have to say goodbye to your new (old) idea and start over. Which explains why I’m here now, rewriting a post that I thought was brand new, but actually wrote a few months ago without realizing it. Secrets behind a writer’s life, revealed, fact fans…

This Is What Exhausted Creativity Looks Like

Another set of graphics for the THR newsletter; the first three were created at the end of a very long day at New York Comic Con, when I was utterly done and yet had these to do before sleep. I was quasi delirious (I’d worked for about 18 hours by that point, with breaks for eating and con socializing, which to be honest, I count as working), and pretty aggressively just wanted these to be done. Yet, looking back at them, I kind of like them…? Maybe exhaustion is the key to creativity or something.

There was an alternate version of this one made with a different headline…

…but neither one got used on the intended date. (They’ll maybe show up at some point; it was for a story about Catwoman casting in the new Batman movie that never ended up in the newsletter.)

Looking For The Great Pumpkin

Hallowe’en — because I’m old and pretentious enough to add the apostrophe— wasn’t the big deal that it is now, when I was a kid. Oh, people dressed up and did trick or treating (or galloshing, as it was called in Scotland in the 1980s), and there was bobbing for apples or the closest alternative, but it was literally kids’ stuff as far as I recall. I don’t remember it being anything that adults really indulged in.

I often wonder if that’s an age thing, or a nationality thing; was America always a country that couldn’t wait to dress up at the end of October to make morning commutes and days in the office that little bit more colorful, and I just missed out growing up elsewhere? Even in art school, I remember Hallowe’en shenanigans being limited to the parties at night, rather than the all-day event it is here, these days.

(I also feel as if it’s something that gets a lot more attention in terms of decoration in the U.S.; I don’t remember houses going as all-out in the Scotland of my childhood, but that might be selective memory at play. At most, I think there were minor things on the night itself as a sign that a particular house had treats to give out to kids. Am I misremembering? Maybe.)

All of which is to say: I don’t get Hallowe’en, not really. It doesn’t hit the nostalgic notes of Christmas, and I’m not sure what the appeal is supposed to be unless you have a cosplay fetish. (If you do, though, go to town.) I am, I’m afraid to say, the Hallowe’en Grinch who’s waiting for his heart to grow, still. Perhaps this will be the year when the penny drops and I finally understand what the appeal is supposed to be. It’d be nice, if so.

Cheap Self-Awareness in Other People’s Misery

I saw at the end of a book review in The Guardian, a link to buy the book itself, along with the book’s price: £7.99. Immediately, unexpectedly, I found myself flooded with nostalgia.

When I first moved to Aberdeen to attend art school, I was 19 years old and devastatingly lonely; I was a shy person, completely lacking in confidence and convinced that the rest of the world wouldn’t want anything to do with me. I’d moved across the country to a city where I knew no-one and hadn’t built any new social structures yet, and I was lodging in the spare room of an alcoholic old woman who made me so uncomfortable that I locked my door as soon as I was home and tried to spend as little time as possible in her presence.

My safe space in those first months was the bookshop.

I’d love to tell you it was this quirky independent bookshop run by fascinating people with equally fascinating life stories, but that’s not true; it was part of the Waterstones chain, and everyone working there seemed somewhat bored by the job. But I loved it, nonetheless. On Saturdays, I’d spend hours in there, leafing through books I’d heard of and those I hadn’t, picking up random things based on if the cover caught my eye or if the title was strange and interesting. I remember the displays and the filled bookshelves with a sense of awe and excitement even now.

And this is why the review pushed all of this into my head: the books were under £10 for the most part — not the hardcovers, of course, they were a special occasion thing — and so seemed affordable and a reasonable cost of discovering new things. I bought so many books in that first year in Aberdeen, all because I was in love with the way that bookshop made me feel, and found out so much about my taste and myself in the process. It was a journey of small, affordable, self-discovery; just not the traditional one people experience in their first year of college.

All The Rich White Folk Are Going To Argue

I’m back on the Succession train, finally. What’s funny is that, in many ways, what brought me back wasn’t necessarily the show itself, as good as it is — and it is very good, an oddly perfect distillation of a very British flavor of grim satire for the Trump era that, fittingly for the age, occasionally forgets which side it’s on and helps the viewer to do so, as well — but all the conversation surrounding it. There are more than a few plot developments I learned from Twitter rather than the show itself, so coming back before everything got spoiled for me only made sense.

The way in which Succession is treated in the culture circles I apparently move in is fascinating, because of the ways in which repeated disdain displayed for the decadence and immorality of its characters often feels laced with an unspoken jealousy, with that only ramping up even as the series itself becomes ever-more clear in how utterly broken everyone in the show actually is, to the point of approaching — and, at times, arguably crossing — the point of self-parody. It feels as if it’s a conversation between creators and audience where the former is saying, louder and louder, don’t you get it? These are not aspirational figures, and the latter laughs in response, says, yes, they’re terrible, but it’s so fun.

It is fun, of course. It’s a funny show as much as it’s anything else, and the second season is sharper in its humor than the first. But I’m just as moved by the quiet tragedy of what’s happening, as well, the cautionary tales of the main characters — well, some of them, Cameron is just an idiot — as they remain impressively unaware of their own circumstances because of those same circumstances, their self-awareness shielded from view thanks to the fact that they can easily afford to escape elsewhere when necessary. It’s a show that feels horrifyingly, unmistakably of the moment.

(Of course, such wealth also, arguably, allows them the ability to buy their way out of any consequences, defeating the tragedy of their stories. Ah, well…)

I’m glad I’ve returned to the show. I might have come back for the wrong reasons, but it’s good to be back, nonetheless.

To Boldly Go Where Some Have Gone Before

The first season of Star Trek: Discovery left me cold, ultimately; I could see what it was trying to do, I could even appreciate what it was trying to do, but it didn’t work for me so heavily that I put the series aside, sadly. Despite my deep and enduring love for Star Trek as a whole — I’m that person who’s even watched Enterprise, like an idiot — I felt as if Discovery was a fundamental misunderstanding of the franchise and it’s essential ingredients, a misguided attempt to update the idea that accidentally jettisoned the optimism at its heart. When the second season started, I skipped it; I had other things to do.

That, it turns out, was a mistake.

I dove back in based on the show’s NYCC panel, which I covered for work. They talked about the show resetting itself for the third season, about how much it respects canon despite starting as a prequel (and one that really, really, didn’t respect canon but whatever), but more importantly for me, co-showrunner and EP Alex Kurtzman kept returning to the notion that Star Trek is about hope and living up to that hope despite everything, and that felt like what had been utterly missing for me in that first season. The panel made me excited about the show, cautiously, so it was clearly time to check out that second season after all.

Discovery has been famously (infamously) troubled as a production, switching showrunners between seasons, stumbling around to try and find its footing, so I shouldn’t have been that surprised that the second season feels like a different show than the first. More excitingly, though, it feels like Star Trek, right down to having real life situations transformed awkwardly into sci-fi morality plays every now and then. The characters suddenly… liked each other and felt as if they had character, and weren’t just slavishly doing whatever the writers demanded of them in any given moment. In Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, the show had a curious mix of moral center and charismatic black hole who weirdly made sense as a Captain. It all, almost immediately, felt as right as the first season felt wrong.

(There are still problems, of course, not least of which a belief that bringing back “dark” characters is inherently interesting, or that having someone announce how they’re feeling is preferable to their demonstrating that emotion instead, but… those are pretty Star Trek, too, really.)

The rediscovery of the show — no pun intended, etc. — was a surprise joy, and catching up has become a welcome way of decompressing from work in the evening. Ever since I was a kid, Star Trek has been a kind of comfort food for my head. I’m genuinely thrilled that I get that feeling again.

“That’s Where Instinct Lives”

“I’m worried about people that are trying to eliminate or delete or get rid of the mistakes… It’s like, no, no, no wait, that’s where brilliance lives. That’s where instinct lives. That’s where God lives. That’s the spark. You know, when the book was printed, I looked at it, and I got halfway through and I was like: ‘This is such a weird book. It’s so weird.’ I’d thought, as I used to do with my lyric writing, I thought I was being so clear and so obvious and actually overstating my points. Overdoing it, really. But actually, the book is weird. It might take a bit of work, but I feel like if you go from beginning to end and you close the book, you might look up and see something a little bit differently than you had before.”

— Michael Stipe, from here.