An Exception To The Rule

“Situations get fucked up, but turned around, sooner or later.”

While my love for Elliott Smith has faded somewhat since the early 2000s, that one line from “Say Yes” is something that returns to my head on a regular basis, it seems. When I first heard it, it was something that instinctively seemed true in large part because I was particularly optimistic and given to magical thinking at the time, so of course the universe would solve things and reward good people, right…?

This past year, though, it’s been particularly difficult to think along similar lines. 2020 has been almost supernaturally cruel, as if everyone were living in a horror movie where the slasher was the entire calendar year itself, out to demolish our self-esteem if not just kill us outright. There’s been disease and disaster, protests and police riots, layoffs and financial collapses, with the world playing out as if we all stepped into a Previously on… recap at the opening of Years and Years season 2 by mistake. We got the “situations get fucked up” part, but where’s the “turn around”?

(Sometimes I wonder just how much more frantic I’d feel were I in the U.K., where Brexit is still happening at the end of this year, but then my brain forces me to think of something better before it just shuts down involuntarily. I can’t really blame it, considering.)

As things tend to, though, there are signs that things might be changing in small and big ways towards the end of the year, and… perhaps… improving…? I’m almost actively fighting against optimism at this point, however. It’s too close to an election where I’m grimly convinced shenanigans will prevail, and I’ve gone through more than enough “hopes get dashed at the last minute” experiences in the last few months to be too nervous to expect anything else, thankyouverymuch.

The end result is, the Elliott Smith lyric now feels curiously, frustratingly naive, the product of more innocent times that probably never existed in the first place. I hate that; I hate to find myself that cynical, and I find myself wishing that, if and when things do improve in the short term, then one of the first things to recover is my sense of hope, however un-earned and childlike it may be.

And I’ll Set You Free

I keep feeling as if I should write something about the election, especially considering that it’s easily the thing that’s dominating my thoughts for most of the day these days — it’s become a horrifying avatar of 2020 in that way, and one that I get more than a little concerned about when I consider things not necessarily working out the way I’d want them to — but, the sad truth is, I’m not sure what I’d say if I had the opportunity.

I’m exhausted by the 2020 election. I’m far from alone, I suspect; how could anyone be anything else, considering the year we’ve all been having? Even ignoring the fact that this particular election season has been quite as depressing as it has been — these particular candidates! This particular “discourse,” as the kids would have it, if those kids were cynical pundits who felt required by their career choices to pretend that everything isn’t quite the trash fire that it actually is! — this was hardly going to be a year for everyone to get excited about the prospect of engaging in the democratic process. We were too busy trying not to get sick, trying not to lose our jobs, our homes, our friends. This wasn’t the year, to put it mildly.

The electoral process waits for no man, however. (Imagine if it did! Imagine the many ways the United States could do elections better, like getting rid of the Electoral College, or either allowing everyone to vote by mail without it being portrayed as the end of the fucking world, or giving people off on election day or or or!) So, we’ve spent the last year or so with the entire apparatus at work, going through the motions of the primaries, the conventions, the debates, the entire time an entire nation just thinking that, really, we all have more important things to do and can we just have a different President already and move on.

And now we’re, what, a week away…? The anticipation, the pressure, of it all feels physically palpable at this point, ever-present. And, perpetually, exhausting.

After The Fact

I can remember, as strange as it sounds, the point when I realized I wanted to be a writer as a career. Or, at least, a point when I realized that I was going to write as part of whatever the hell I actually wanted to do for a living.

It was in the final year of my Bachelor’s Degree at art school, oddly enough; by this point in my life, I’d actually been writing for some time — as a kid, like everyone else, I’d been writing the comic strips that I was eagerly drawing, telling myself that the words were really just there to give me something to draw. Unlike everyone else, though, I kept doing that until my early 20s, and I started doing that in public, writing and drawing comic strip and other things for the university newspaper.

Even with that, though, I hadn’t thought, oh, this writing thing, I think I want to keep at it. The university newspaper stuff was successful enough, and brought with it a small amount of recognition, or what passes for it at that level. (Really, it was my partner-in-crime Andy who got more of that; he was the more talented, and the more recognizable, of the two of us.) It still felt like a diversion, though, and so I quit before my final year of study, promising myself that I’d buckle down and take the actual school work more seriously. No more writing; I’d just work on the illustration part, instead.

And then I realized that I wanted to have something to illustrate.

Again, initially, it felt like when I was a kid; the words were there to back up the pictures. At some point, that changed. I can’t remember exactly when, but I can remember making my pitch to the teachers in charge of selecting who’d get into the Masters degree program the following year, and telling them very clearly that I’d only just scratched the surface of what I should be doing.

“I’ve been doing it all backwards,” I said. “The thing I can do well isn’t the visuals; I can do that well enough, but it’s really about what the visuals are there to support. I think I need to write more and see what happens.”

I didn’t know what I wanted to write, or what I would write. I didn’t think I’d become a journalist, but I also didn’t think I’d become a fiction writer, or essayist, or anything else, either. It really was as simple as I put it at the time: I needed to write more, and see what happens. I still feel like that now, more than two decades later.

Every Year, A Little Bit Older

For all the time that I’ve spent pondering the intricacies of aging in the past few weeks — and, given that I had a birthday a couple of weeks ago, that’s an upsettingly large amount of time, I have to shamefacedly admit — there’s one element of that whole “growing older” thing that had, until recently, seemingly evaded me: the recognition that, as it turns out, everyone else gets older at the same rate as I do.

Okay, that’s maybe a little too simplistic — but, sadly, not entirely offbase.

I was reading XX the other day, the new novel by graphic designer and comic book creator Rian Hughes, when the thought suddenly occurred to me: Rian Hughes is probably somewhere in his 50s now. It was something that, at once, seemed only logical and simultaneously impossible. After all, Hughes was a designer on a number of my favorite Britcomics and related titles back before I was really paying attention to graphic design: I can still remember his redesigns for Speakeasy and Deadline back in the day, and that was three decades or so ago. He has to be getting up there.

And yet, Rian Hughes is one of those figures who, in my head, doesn’t age past… late 30s at best…? It’s an imprecise art, but there are those people — not friends, friends age just like regular people — who are set at particular ages and don’t get to go past that, in my head. I can’t explain the logic, and I can’t pretend that there’s any kind of science at play here. It’s entirely arbitrary, but that doesn’t make it any less real. I simply have a lingering disbelief that Rian Hughes could possibly be as old as he actually is.

I like to think that this isn’t just me, and that everyone has artistic heroes that are forever stuck in a particular period that they have trouble shaking off. That could simply be my own neuroses shining through, though —  a needy sense of please, let it be other people, not just me. Still. If I’m 46 now, there’s no practical way for those I looked up to in my teens and twenties suddenly to be younger than me anywhere other than my heart, sadly enough.

(Amusingly, I couldn’t track down a birth year for Hughes. Maybe this isn’t quite as unrealistic as I thought…)