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.
The very first of the THR newsletter graphics created for the site’s new back-end system — which ultimately didn’t make that much of a difference for me, despite what everyone expected ahead of time. They stayed the same size, and we approached the process the same as we ever had; it turned out to be much ado (and much a-stress) about nothing, which is likely better than the alternative.
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…?
Being a freelance writer isn’t for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who truly cares about money. As this year, especially, has shown, you’re at the whim of countless elements outside your control, from editors whose tastes are unintelligible and unknowable to budgets that change with little notice but control if you’ll meet rent that month or not. In the (gasp) decade-plus that I’ve made it as a freelance writer, I’ve often thought about giving it up and finding something else — something better-paying, something more stable, something with a set schedule that might actually involve some level of physical activity to keep my muscles from slowly atrophying on a near-imperceptible basis — to do, instead. Really, who could blame me? Here are three of alternate options that I’ve struggled with.
Librarian or Bookseller
Pros: I like people. I like books. What if I could put both of those things together, and help people find the books they really wanted, and make them happy? Cons: You have to go to school to become a librarian, I’m pretty sure. And even if you didn’t, I know that I’d judge people’s poor taste relatively harshly enough that I’d risk getting fired for failing to disguise my horror at some of their choices.
Some Kind of Comic Book Industry Professional
Despite how vague this sounds, it’s rooted in some kind of reality. I know a surprising number of people who’ve jumped from writing about the comic book industry, like I do, to actually being part of that industry, whether as an editor or some executive level position. There are even people inside the industry who’ve made noises that I should make the switch myself, and there are certainly days when it feels like an option I should consider — and then, almost inevitably, there are days when I’m writing about the industry and remember that it’s a cruel and unforgiving one without any true loyalty or retirement package that transforms even its most beloved figures into exhausted husks by the time it’s finished with them.
Plus, no-one’s actually, like, offered me an actual job or anything.
This has been, for years, my unofficial retirement dream — to give up being a freelance writer and instead deliver mail part-time. I’d get exercise, I’d be part of a community, and perhaps even get cookies from grateful households during the holidays. Unfortunately, 2020’s apparent destruction of the United States Postal Service has maybe put paid to this fantasy.
Guess I’ll just have to keep writing for now. If you’ll excuse me, I’m pretty sure I need to get to work on some pitches…