Final Looks

It strikes me that, back in Scotland at least, this is the time of year when the art schools hold their traditional final exhibit degree shows; even now, more than a quarter century after my own BA show, the thought makes me surprisingly anxious.

The degree show is exactly what it sounds like: the final show of the work you’ve been doing for the entire year, upon which you’re judged by the teachers, tutors, and whoever else is roped in on what grade your final degree is going to be. (For my school, it wasn’t only the exhibit that you were graded on; you could file supporting work as well. I did, and in the three hour window between getting my grade and the exhibit opening to the public, was told by tutors to put some of it in the actual exhibit, and remove some of the work originally in the exhibit because it wasn’t good enough. It was a lesson in self-editing, as well as a lesson in ego death.)

Even now, I can remember vividly how stressful preparing for the degree show was: the feeling that this one event would define the result of your last four years of life and work is a curiously masochistic experience, especially given the increasingly hands-off attitude displayed by art school staff in the final year leading up to it. More and more, you find yourself on your own as the final date moves closer, thinking to yourself, don’t fuck it up don’t fuck it up.

A year and change after my BA degree show, I was at it again with my MA degree show, the result of what had been at that point a sustained 12 months of work and self-directed exploration. The pressure on me for that show was, if anything, even greater for a number of reasons, but I remember feeling far less stressed about it, and far more convinced that I was doing the right thing, no matter what grade I got.

Somewhere out there as I type, there are likely kids like I was back then, feeling as if the weight of the world — and more importantly, their entire future — is on their shoulders as they prep their final exhibit. I hope they have more confidence than I did, and the perspective and self-belief that I didn’t get until my MA show.

Sticky Tricky Sweets You Crave

I do not understand why I don’t like soda.

“Soda” as a name for it is an affectation I’ve picked up since moving to the US, much to my dismay; it’s the same as the fact that I instinctively call trousers “pants” now, even though they are quite clearly trousers, dammit. I don’t really want to call it soda, and yet I do. In my heart, I know that it’s called “fizzy juice,” because that’s what we called it when I was a kid, but one of the true joys of fizzy juice, or soda, is that there’s no one true name for it. It’s “pop” to a lot of people, which I love very much. I don’t call it pop, however; I don’t even call it fizzy juice any more, much to my upset. I call it soda, as much as I wish I didn’t.

Anyway: I don’t like soda. I didn’t even really like it as a kid, with the exception of Lucozade — a sugary, syrupy concoction that was initially sold as a medicinal tonic before idiots like me started drinking it for fun — and lemonade in its British incarnation, which is basically Sprite but more bland. My sisters and my friends loved Coke, or Ginger Ale, or any number of a similar carbonated beverages, and I just… didn’t. I feel like it’s a missed skill, a step I somehow didn’t get around to treading upon at the right time. Something I’ve somehow done wrong.

It’s not something I think about, normally, but in summer I always end up wondering if I’d have a better time if I was a soda drinker — if the possibility of a nice big glass of soda with some ice cubes would make the heat more pleasurable in some way, instead of leaving me seated on the sofa, fan in my face, as I sweat and frown and long for cooler days.

And If It’s Morning, It Must Be Morning

More than a month after arriving back in the US, and I’ve seemingly lost the ability to sleep past 5:30 in the morning. I think it’s happened maybe twice in the past few weeks, if that…? Otherwise, there I am, literally waking up with the birds just before sunrise.

Aside from the obvious tiredness issue — oh, man, do I need to go to bed by 10 or 10:30 if I don’t want to feel sluggish as shit the next day; if lights aren’t out by, say, 11, then I’ll be struggling — it’s actually a surprisingly pleasant experience, this particular brand of insomnia: I get to appreciate the stillness and quiet of the morning for at least a little bit every day before the chaos starts, and my reading time has exploded. There’s something particularly nice about lying around with the window open, the daylight approaching and just reading with nothing happening around me.

What’s unusual, and unexpected to me before I remember that I’m me, though, the sense of… guilt, perhaps…? Obligation, maybe. A sense that I get occasionally during these mornings that I should be doing something. Not necessarily something in particular; it’s not as if I’m constantly feeling as if there’s one specific task that requires my attention each and every morning… I simply feel this nagging idea of, maybe this time would be better spent being productive.

It’s an idea I do my best to ignore. So much of my time is spent being productive — for work, for house chores, for whatever reason that I’m needed — that this unexpected downtime feels special purely because I do get to be lazy and selfish. For all I know, that’s the entire reason my subconscious has a secret alarm clock waking me up so early each day.

Get To The Chorus

With no small sense of sarcasm, I found myself making a list of comic books that had ruined western comics recently; I had been considering the many traditions that have disappeared across the past few decades, because that is something that I do simply because that’s how my brain works — I mean, it’s also my job, technically, which isn’t nothing in the grand scheme of things — and the list just popped into my head: Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Chris Claremont’s X-Men

Like I said, there’s certainly some sarcasm at play here, but it’s not an entirely sarcastic idea. The whole thing came from my thinking about an increasing need to over-explain and set the scene from writers in recent decades, and what that does for the speed of storytelling. I’d been reading old British comics again, and marveling at how blunt and brutal they were in establishing the story and stakes: with anywhere between three and five pages per chapter, there’s a speed and economy in deciding what’s actually important that feels entirely alien to contemporary US comics.

I’m old enough to remember “decompressed storytelling” as a selling point for comics at the turn of the century or just after — I guess we were still talking about “widescreen comics” at the actual time the 20th century fell apart — but the decision of slowing a story down to ensure it fills a collected edition was soon taken out of creative hands and transformed into a publishing manifesto but multiple companies chasing a market. Single issues switched from being complete units in and of themselves to chapters of a larger hole, and a skill of getting to the point was lost, it seems.

Maybe this is just me being old. Or maybe this is something I should give more thought to, and write up that list properly. We’ll see.

Kurt Had No Idea

Like Billy Pilgrim, I’ve come unstuck in time, it feels like.

We joke that, since the pandemic started — fuck, since Donald Trump became President years before that — time has become increasingly difficult to gauge: did something happen this week, or the week before? Was it actually months ago? It’s been the regular go-to with friends for some time (but how much time, ha ha etc.), but ever since arriving back from the UK, it’s been particularly true for me. Somehow, I’ve stumbled and lost my footing on the calendar. It’s a disorienting feeling.

It’s not merely that one week will feel like two, by the time the weekend arrives, although that’s been the case for the past couple of weeks at least. (We can blame overwork for that, at least, I think, as much as I should feel worse about that.) It’s the feeling of uncertainty when waking up and genuinely feeling unclear about what day it is: is it a weekend, or a weekday? Am I meant to be working, and if I am, is it one of those days when there are meetings or interviews, or am I just writing? How anxious about the day ahead should I be?

Beyond that, even, since we reached May, I’ve been convinced that it’s been later in the month than the reality. I’d have deadlines looming that were more than a week away, while other things I’d feel were missed opportunities rather than open doors for me to walk through.

Is this all coming from the travel, or something else? I can’t tell, but it doesn’t really matter where it comes from. What matters is the feeling of tumbling forward, a little unsteady and unclear about just when I am, the entire… well, the entire time.

We’ve Finished Our News

I’ve been listening to a lot of 1970s David Bowie lately; the Ziggy-era stuff, when his teeth were bad, but his music was good and Mick Ronson was there with a crunchy guitar to make everything better. It’s the result of The Algorithm, or at least, it was at first — Spotify thought to serve me up “Oh, You Pretty Things” on the same day that YouTube suggested a live version of “Queen Bitch,” and it felt as if the world was trying to tell me something, so I went with it.

The more I listen to this period of Bowie — my favorite period of his by some distance, I admit — the more two particular thoughts come to mind. Firstly, oh my God, you don’t get this music without his obsessive love of the Velvet Underground, and more importantly, what must it have been like to hear this when it was new?

I think this about the Beatles, too. Both were part of the establishment by the time I was really listening to music, with their songs both well accepted and widely shared, sewn into the fabric of pop culture and pop music alike. The influence of both had been soaked up and recycled to the point where some of the sounds and the ideas they’d introduced were watered down and robbed of their undiluted strength, and yet, I still wonder: what was it like to hear “Paperback Writer” and those chiming guitars for the very first time? What was it like to hear, “Gotta make way for the homo superior,” coming from someone who looked like Bowie?

A lot of this is rooted in how afraid and small pop culture was before these sounds, of course — how fragile everything seemed to the point where the Sex Pistols were seen as an existential threat, as opposed to a shit band with a fun attitude. But still: just imagine living in that small world and discovering these things for the very first time, and thinking, this is what the world could be like.

Where Am I?

I had a thought, the other day — two weeks after arriving back from the UK — that surprised me even though it shouldn’t: I suddenly realized I didn’t have to plan the UK trip anymore. It was over and done, and the next one wasn’t for another six months. It felt strange to think that, and somewhat wrong, too.

What you have to understand is that, for the first quarter of this year, the UK trip was a permanent part of my brain. Even when I wasn’t actively planning it or thinking about it, it was there: I’d think of the future as “pre-going to the UK,” and “post-going to the UK.” (There wasn’t really a lot of the latter; it was as if the first two weeks of April were an event horizon that I’d never actually manage to pass, at times.)

I would do mental math continuously: how can I do X, Y, or Z with the time I had there? How much time would I have I have? When should I leave and return, how long am I staying in each place, when should I be where? It was never-ending, and ever-present, and even when decisions were made, then it was time to book things and spend extortionate amounts of money, and worry about that, too, while trying to remember all the details and also wonder if I’d made all the right choices.

All of that is behind me now, and has been for a few weeks, but it took me a long time to actually realize that: such was the enormity of the trip in my head that I needed that time to recover before I could realize what wasn’t actually there anymore. There’s a whole level of stress and background noise that just isn’t present anymore, and as grateful as I am, I’m also feeling curiously lost at sea without it.

No, I’m Wrong

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has the idea of a dream library that’s filled with all the books people have never written, but thought about writing — the unwritten stories by celebrated authors and those who never got past the blank first page alike. It’s a wonderful, romantic idea: yes, all those small disappointments we harbor inside (because all of us, each and every single one of us, has at least one book they secretly wish they’d been able to write; I have many) are relieved just a little because there’s somewhere that those dreams are fulfilled, no pun intended.

What I want to see instead, though, is a sister library: one filled by the versions of books that we’ve read but misremember. Especially when, as I’ve been discovering on multiple occasions lately, the versions of the book that we remember end up being significantly more interesting than the actual books themselves.

As frustrating as this experience has been — these experiences? Does it count as a separate experience if the disappointment is the same, just on a different topic? — there’s something to be said for the realization that my initial suspicion, fueled by the curmudgeonly attitude of an old man, that books were simply better back in the day, or at least filled with more interesting and challenging material, especially when it came to culture writing turns out to be just plain wrong.

Maybe I was simply more impressionable and more easily impressed, or it could be that my memory has rushed to paper over earlier disappointments by making me believe I was reading better material in the first place. All I know is that certain books I remembered as being eyeopening and worth of a revisit have demonstrated that just the opposite was true. The age of the cynical curmudgeon is always now, it seems.