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…)

New New New

It’ll come as little surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to… all of this that concentration has been in shockingly short supply in 2020, with seemingly every single month apparently running down the international supply that little bit more. The simple act of just getting through the day when so much is constantly happening all the time, without becoming distracted by 20 different things at any given moment, feels like an achievement in and of itself, with the end result being that every single day feels exhausting on a level that we’d previously only managed to achieve in entire weeks in the olden days.

There was a point the other day where I wondered if that was just me, and if it was more to do with my increasing age — my half century is on the horizon now, shockingly — than anything else. Maybe everyone felt like this at 46, I wondered half-heartedly, before checking the news and discovering three separate things that would have made jaws drop just five years ago, all happening at the same time and snapping me back to reality.

It strikes me that, at least twice within the last four years, there’s been a mass movement of people reassuring each other that we’re living in a New Normal that was particularly stressful — unhealthily so, in fact — and that we should be kinder to ourselves and those around us if we happen to fall short on stated goals. And, of course, the second time — when COVID hit, and we all went into a lockdown that’s still happening, despite what some might believe — came before the end of the first, meaning that we’re just living in New Normal on top of New Normal. Does that mean it’s a third New Normal, or a New Normal Squared? I’ve lost track.

All of these thoughts come up, of course, on a day when it feels as if everyone’s struggling a little bit harder than they expected to get basic tasks done, myself included. I’ve started to wonder, is there a way to do this differently?

Start Spreading The News

Just as I missed San Diego Comic-Con earlier this year, now it’s time to miss New York Comic Con, a show I’ve been attending since 2016, and one that I’ve come to appreciate not for the show itself — NYCC is a strange, ungainly beast that can be fun, but offers just as much chance of exhaustion with little to show for it — but for the trip to New York every year, at the point where fall is just starting and New York feels that little bit more magical as a result.

I mean, sure; sometimes the weather is just a wet, cold shitshow at this time of year and that’s not really any fun, but still — it’s still New York City! As much as I want to be cynical about the city, as much as I’ve come to disapprove of Times Square and its crowds, as much as I might want to grump or gripe about the place, I can’t. I love New York City for all the tourist-y reasons (well, not Times Square; that place really is a nightmare) and all the reasons that the city isn’t like anywhere else I’ve lived; I love the architecture, the oppressive wonder of the whole place. I love the pace of it, the feel of it. The exploration of it. It’s a city that I genuinely, wholeheartedly, adore.

(It’s a genuinely stupid thing, I know, but I remember walking past 30 Rockefeller Plaza on a nightly basis a couple of years ago; it was on my way from the Javits Center to my hotel, which was out in the middle of nowhere, it felt like. Every single night of my trip, I’d walk past it in the evening, and it was dark, and I’d feel just a little bit like I was living in the TV show of my life. There’s something magical about that, despite everything.)

And I’m not there this year.

The sadness about missing it crept up on me, unlike my feelings about missing San Diego. There, I was sad about not going for weeks in advance, whereas New York didn’t really occur to me until last week, when I realized I’m used to the travel and the eating at weird restaurants and the hustle and the noise and the everything at this time of year. It feels wrong not being there, but how many things this year haven’t felt wrong by this point?

The Kind of Set-Up This Is

There are times when you get a sinking feeling in your stomach, and your general, vague sense of unease suddenly becomes sharper, more definite in its discomfort. Like, say, a moment when you describe a situation to some financial professionals, they say, that’s impossible, no-one would do that, and you have to tell them that, not only is it not impossible, it’s something that’s already happened to you just a few months ago.

2020 has been, to be blunt, a brutal year for me financially. If 2019 was a year where I found my feet during and after the divorce — and it was, on every level; emotionally, practically, financially— then this has been the year that laughed at all of that and tried to cut my legs off. I lost work, I lost more than half of my income and have found no easy way to replace it as my industry got wrecked by a pandemic that undermined its already shaky foundations.

During all of this, an outstanding debt owed to me magically reappeared and was offered to me in the middle of the year. Something that wasn’t technically due for another few years was, in my hour of need, offered in full: a genuinely unexpected but entirely welcome lifeline to save what little hair I had left. All I needed to do was sign the paperwork and get it notarized and submitted, and everything would be fine.

Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t. I signed,notarized, and submitted the paperwork in July, and nothing happened. In September, weeks after the promised deadline, I found out why: the party owing me the money had ghosted the obligation, but was now offering it a second time through a new third party. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut put it. All I needed to do, again, was sign the paperwork and get it notarized and submitted.

That, then, was how I spent part of my birthday this year. After signing, I asked the representatives present what would happen next, and how real everything was. Well, they said, now that you’ve signed this, it’s essentially a done deal. Yes, I told them, but I’ve already signed this paperwork in July and nothing happened. Could that happen again?

Their faces fell, as they asked me to confirm: I’d really signed and notarized and submitted these forms before? And nothing happened? I said yes. That was unheard of, they said, no-one would just abandon the process at that point. But that’s what happened, I repeated, and they frowned, before telling me they now understood my concern. They ushered me out of the office, telling me I could expect a phone call if everything fell apart again, repeating their disbelief that it could have happened before, but refusing to say that it couldn’t happen again.

Happy 2020 birthday: here’s your sinking feeling, stronger than before.

Who Where Why

It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m not entirely sure what my nationality is  anymore. I mean, I know the answer from a legal perspective: I’m American. As soon as I became a naturalized citizen, I legally became an American and officially renounced my British citizenship. That, at least, is straightforward… kind of. It’s complicated, a little, by the fact that I didn’t actually surrender my United Kingdom passport — in fact, the last time I traveled to the U.K., I actually left the U.S. using my American passport and entered the U.K. using my British one, and vice versa, to make matters worse. My British one has lapsed by now, though.

But beyond the legalities of it, am I British or am I American? I can never quite find a tidy answer for that; I wouldn’t call myself a patriotic person by any stretch of the imagination — indeed, I think patriotism is almost inherently suspicious, to be blunt — but there are, nonetheless, things that get me feeling as if I belong to both countries at different times, for equally ridiculous reasons.

This is on my mind lately because of politics. In terms of British politics, I find myself fascinated and distraught in equal measure, nostalgic for the days when such policies would directly impact me, and also for the days when I had a vote to try and have a say in what was happening. I pay constant attention to the U.K. parliament news and have a strange sense of relief that I’m not there anymore, shamefully.

In the U.S., it’s a very different thing, and not only because I am here. I feel, at once, an outsider to much of what’s happening because I’m made one by a large swath of the electorate and their representatives — I’m an immigrant, and as such, not a “real” American to many. (This, despite being white, which likely legitimizes me in many people’s eyes, sadly.)

But I also feel a great sense of… shame, perhaps…? Disgust…? at what’s happening. I chose this country. I believed in it, despite everything — and everything that’s happening now, at least in terms of those in power, makes me regret that, and makes me feel foolish for ever having bought into the fantasy, or believed that things were getting better, however slowly.

I don’t feel American, entirely, yet I still get to feel the shame that Americans feel. It’s a curious place to be, wherever it is.

There’s Something Happening Here

I’m worried about the election. I’m trying not to be, and failing utterly.

It might be because, like so many people, I didn’t worry enough about the 2016 election. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t paying attention, or that I wasn’t in quiet, shocked awe at Donald Trump’s ascent ahead of time — my podcast history from that period would quickly put paid to any such suspicions. Like far too many others, though, I was convinced that Trump wouldn’t win because he seemed so obviously unelectable, so clearly unsuited for office. Who in their right minds would vote for him, I’d ask incredulously to people arguing he’d win.

(I remember, still, election night and the slow horror that crept over me as I realized he’d win. The feeling of betrayal, too; we’re supposed to be better than this, you fuckers.)

And this year, watching Trump and his supporters do everything in their power to fix the game in their favor and seemingly get away with it, the fear grows in me. Even though, again, I feel viscerally that there’s no way good people could vote for the guy who’s done everything Trump has — including forced hysterectomies for women detained by ICE, which is breathtakingly horrific and seemingly met by little more than a shrug by the majority of people — I have to remind myself of two things: there are those who think, somehow, that Joe Biden is worse, and that there are a lot of not-good people voting in this election.

The Biden thing is… whatever, really. He’s not my first choice, nor even my third or fourth. He’s old, he’s slow, he’s been complicit in some shitty things in the past. It’s hard to get excited about voting for him… but still; he is in no way as bad as, or worse than, Trump. It’s not even a contest.

That not-good people thing, though — that’s why I’m scared. I’d previously believed that the majority of Americans were, ultimately, decent people with some sense of morality, and after the last four years, I can’t say that with any sense of certainty any more. And that’s the fear, really. This time around, when it’s clear just who Trump is and what he wants to do, when there’s no shred of ignorance left after four years of his behavior, what if it just turns out there’s more bad people than good?

I Bet You Think This Song Is About You

For most of my life, I can remember people referencing the line about, “living in interesting times,” and talking about how it’s clearly a curse; I’m pretty sure I first heard that in my early teens, if not earlier. It was a reading that always felt a little too cynical, a little too on-the-nose and snarkily, “I’m so grizzled, I know that interesting is a euphemism for bad.” And then, 2020 happened.

Really, the strangest thing for me has perhaps been communicating with my sisters in the UK during the whole thing. Every few weeks, there would be a new message asking, essentially, “is this true? Are things that bad?” and I’d have to explain, yes, it’s kind of true, but not exactly as was being reported: yes, there were protests, but it wasn’t full-scale rioting throughout the city, say, or, sure, the skies are filled with smoke and we’re surrounded by wildfires, but it’s not exactly the red skies of Mad Max: Fury Road that the internet and some smart photo filters was making it look like, and least not yet.

Every time I’d send these messages back, I’d fight the urge to ask them similar questions about what was happening there, because I’d seen similarly breathless reporting about the UK. Was Covid rebounding so quickly, so cruelly as the numbers made it seem? Was the country still plunging towards the economic apocalypse of Brexit? Was the Government really admitting publicly that it was breaking the law, but everything was fine because it was only a little bit lawless?

(That last one feels particularly ironic to Americans, perhaps, given our own leader’s relationship with legality.)

Everything just keeps happening. Everything is just so interesting.

I remember watching HBO’s Years and Years last year, and being horrifyingly addicted — or addictively horrified, perhaps — by how quickly things turned convincingly dystopian as the show pushed into the future. But living it now, it’s both funny and tragic that, from today’s point of view, the show underestimated how fast the slide would actually be.

I’m tired. I want to be bored, again.

Over It

The other day, I was outside sniffing the air and thinking to myself, this smells smokier than it’s been in the last few days, but it’s been worse. To double check, I looked up for the sun and saw that, sure, it was a little bit orange, but far from the deep red that it had been at times in the past couple weeks. And then I realized just how good I’d accidentally become at normalizing seemingly everything that’s thrown my way in 2020, even the Oregon wildfires and the atmospheric fallout.

When the wildfires started, my reaction had been a mix of fear and frustration; I recognized the way the light was changing very early on — 2017 had very bad smoke in Portland as a result of surrounding wildfires, and the way that it turned sunlight orange isn’t something that is easy to forget — but, beyond the worry of how bad it was going to be this time, there was this unavoidable sense of, really? Wildfires on top of everything else? Of course, why should I expect anything different?

Portland has had a rough year. I mean, everywhere has — 2020 has been cartoonishly cruel in ways that feel surreal when you stop to think about it — but if Portland, Oregon got off relatively easily when it came to the global pandemic (and we did, realistically, despite the deaths and the massive economic costs it’s taken from the city in terms of permanently closed businesses), it got hit harder than most when it came to the federal response to the Black Lives Matter protests downtown. We were, terrifyingly, the first city in the country where protesters were pulled into unmarked vehicles by federal agents who refused to identify themselves, after all. Ground zero! Breaking new ground! The President couldn’t stop talking about us, even if it was all lies!

But, after awhile, even that became the new normal. Life continued. That’s the running theme of the year: life continues. We get on with it.

So the wildfires surrounded us, and the smoke smothered us, and we got on with it. We recognized the good smoke days and the bad smoke days and complained when the smoke didn’t clear when it had been forecast to, over and over again. We’re resilient. I’m just not sure if that’s truly a positive, is all.

You’ve Got Me Runnin’ Around In Your

I’ve been thinking about Matthew Sweet for the first time in a long time recently. For those unfamiliar with him — and, to be brutally honest, I’m not sure why anyone should be that familiar with him these days — he was a leading light of the Power Pop movement in the 1990s, with a nigh-unbeatable string of albums that were laden with hooks, riffs and his unfortunately nasal voice, and at the time, I was very much a fan.

From Girlfriend through, say, Blue Sky on Mars — that’s 1991 through 1997 for those of you keeping track of how time actually works — Sweet was one of the guiding lights of my musical tastes. It was the Britpop era, and in many ways, Sweet was the U.S. version of that, borrowing just as liberally from the 1960s British pop scene as an Oasis or a Menswear, and then choosing to do slightly other things with the fruits of his thievery, which also included American influences like Buffalo Springfield or the Beach Boys.

Despite how much his tastes and intent echoed the then-dominant music trends, there was something about Matthew Sweet’s output that felt “uncool” at a time when I actually cared about such things. I remember friends making fun of me for being into him, and me feeling a very stupid sense of shame as a result. (I was young, I didn’t know any better.) This didn’t actually make me like his music any less; it just made me listen to it on my own, far from judging ears.

Sweet didn’t stop making music after Blue Sky on Mars; he even had an album out a couple years later, called In Reverse. It’s simply that something had changed in that intervening period; maybe it was him, maybe me, or perhaps a mix of both, but I was bored of that album and what felt like his shift towards mid-tempo mediocrity. I tried to get into it over and over again, but my tastes had moved on to stranger things — 1997, when Blue Sky on Mars came out, was also the year I got into Super Furry Animals, David Holmes and Primal Scream, and followed their influences outwards — so, by 1999, I wanted more than what sounded increasingly like the Eagles.

Now, more than two decades later, I find myself wanting to revisit all of the stuff I loved before, and the stuff I didn’t back then, to see if my own aging process has softened my opinions, or if I’ll be disappointed by my younger self. Just how strong a drug is nostalgia, anyway…?