Why I’m Not Reviewing Hallmark Christmas Movies This Year

Subtitle: Despite all this demand.

I.
If the thrill of Christmas is getting to be with your family and loved ones, last year was the worst Christmas season ever. Neal and I made the most of our pandemic isolation. We baked a lot of cookies. We got ourselves a new 55″ Samsung LED TV. It broke in 3 months, and Samsung in its poor customer service wouldn’t replace it even though it was under warranty, but at least we had the TV to watch Hallmark Christmas movies on.

I live-blogged 9 of those movies (out of 40+, not a thorough coverage). It was fun the way the 90s were. It was not a marathon, but when I think about doing it again this year, I imagine what a marathoner thinks after they finish that marathon they’d been telling themselves for years they’d train for. I see a Been There Done That T-shirt, also from the 90s.

Why run a second marathon if you’re not a marathoner? I’m trying to imagine being such a person, and the only things I can think of are (a) you want to beat your time out of a sense of disappointment or striving, or (b) the experience gave you a pleasure you’ve never felt before and can’t manufacture elsewhere, so it’s time to chase it again.

There’s no better way to live-blog bad television, unless you talk about striving to be funnier with it, the thought of which sends me down a bleak road. It’s the road I’ve seen any time I’ve thought this season about live-blogging a Hallmark Movie, which Neal and I have already watched 5 of and it’s only November 10. So then there’s the question of what pleasure it gave me, and whether I can’t get that pleasure elsewhere, and if I can’t get that pleasure anywhere other than live-blogging bad television, I have much larger problems than what kind of content to post here for the next two months.

II.
When I was 20 years old, I was given the job—paid, even—to review visual art shows around Pittsburgh for a print newspaper. I was an art history minor at college, or more exactly I was in the process of switching my minor from art history to writing, but it was enough to let me feel qualified, and I guess the job was of such little importance that my editors felt it was fine giving it to a 20-year-old who knew essentially nothing of art’s processes or market.

At the time, I also worked as the Opinions Editor for the school’s daily newspaper. I was a pundit on a tiny level, with a readership of maybe tens of people. I use the word not to place myself among anybody, but to capture the job at hand: opinion-haver. Take-maker. The best part of these jobs was getting to decide what I thought, write it down in words that conveyed those thoughts entertainingly, and see it published within days. I got the first and last word. Sure, sometimes we’d get letters to the editor,[1] but nobody read those.

Now I’m a man in his 40s who’s been writing his 2nd nonfiction book for 10 years. I’m acutely aware of the struggles it takes to make art, to see it through the long and complicated process, and while I still value reviews for the conversations they help us have about what art is doing and what it could or should be doing, when I sit down and work, again, on this book, I hear a lot of critics in my head. I hate every one of them. I don’t know why they have to keep telling me I suck, or that this argument I’m making about consent paradigms is branding me as a sociopath, or that telling people about this part of my life proves I’m a pervert nobody should respect.

“God, you’re dumb,” say the critics in my head. It’s such an easy job, being a critic. You get to sit back, wait, and have an opinion.[2] As a writer who hasn’t published anything in over a year, more and more this job feels very sad and self-destructive. And worse: it feels just riddled with jealousy. Many people get to have the (formulaic, fakey, heteronormative, bullshit-heavy) movies they wrote appear on screen for an audience of millions, and I get to sit in my home office wondering why I have so little to show of the 10 years I’ve been working.

I don’t like the form of their success, and last year I got to pretend it was the form I didn’t like. This year, I know it’s just the success.

III.
They already showed the Danica McKellar one. Faithful readers of this blog will recall that I love Danica McKellar. They paired her with a man I have a very hard time looking at, and the charisma was off, but they gave her the job of “Christmas Tree Whisperer,” and she got to have a number of scenes where she dropped pine needles in test tubes and shit so’s to deduce the cause of the rot problem at the Man’s family Christmas tree business (he refused to diversify what they planted and somehow they still could afford that house they put his character in).

After it was over (they kissed and there was still 15 minutes left, confusingly), Neal said, “We might have to think about alternatives to Hallmark movies this year,” and he didn’t have to say another word. I felt the same thing. Is it like we woke from a nap and the dreams we were having, fun at the time, feel pointless amid the day’s pressing needs?

Or rather, the day’s open doors. Live-blogging bad TV is a merry-go-round. Fast, fun, and it feels like you’re getting somewhere, but you’re not.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Once, a letter to the city alt-weekly took me to task for a poor review I gave a group show of local artists (Boring art = the sum of my take), and in it, the letter writer called me a “wannabe art critic.” My editor printed the letter the following week, along with a note she signed underneath it, which read, “Dave Madden doesn’t want to be an art critic, he gets paid to be one.” I wish I had it framed.
  2. Sure, there’s a lot of work it takes to form informed opinions. You have to see a lot of things, and you have to read a lot. It’s a lot of tracking, a lot of extended attention-paying. You have to remember what one artwork did at a certain point that created this feeling in you of “No” or “Yes” and then make a case for how this is a flaw/victory in terms of the work’s stated aims, and not in terms of you and your quirks or quibbles. (I mean, if you want to be good at the job you have to do this.)

Recall the Recall

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The whole country knew California had an election this week to recall the governor, an election that failed. The pundit wisdom is that Trumpism gave Newsom his victory, and given that a number of Californians I follow online didn’t seem to get vocally involved in anti-recall activism until after a far-right talkshow host became the leading replacement candidate, I imagine they might be right.

Though only 42% of voters turned out on Tuesday, or mailed in their ballots on time.

For me the message has always been: Don’t vote No because you fear the new guy, vote No because you love democracy, and this isn’t it. The rich people who paid enough money to gather enough signatures never had to make an argument that Newsom was unfit for the office. He broke no crimes. He committed no ethics violations. He just governed differently than they liked, and all they needed for a chance to replace him was the 1.5 million signatures they paid for—and if that seems like a high number to you, that’s equal only to 12% of the last gubernatorial electorate,[1] which is the required threshhold by which California automatically had to begin the process of setting up a recall election. Kansas, by comparison, requires signatures totaling 40% of the electorate.

It’s an enormous and costly process. Tuesday’s recall election cost California at least $276 million to run. If you want to know why that number is so high, I served as an inspector at a polling place on Eureka Street, and I will tell you what we had to do. Bonus: you’ll get to see what it means to hold a fair, functional, and accessible election. And extra bonus: you’ll hopefully see why we need to Vote No Again on 2022’s recall of three San Francisco school board members, and on the likely recall of our district attorney.

keep reading

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. wp:paragraph –>

    The whole country knew California had an election this week to recall the governor, an election that failed. The pundit wisdom is that Trumpism gave Newsom his victory, and given that a number of Californians I follow online didn’t seem to get vocally involved in anti-recall activism until after a far-right talkshow host became the leading replacement candidate, I imagine they might be right.

    Though only 42% of voters turned out on Tuesday, or mailed in their ballots on time.

    For me the message has always been: Don’t vote No because you fear the new guy, vote No because you love democracy, and this isn’t it. The rich people who paid enough money to gather enough signatures never had to make an argument that Newsom was unfit for the office. He broke no crimes. He committed no ethics violations. He just governed differently than they liked, and all they needed for a chance to replace him was the 1.5 million signatures they paid for—and if that seems like a high number to you, that’s equal only to 12% of the last gubernatorial electorate,{{1}} which is the required threshhold by which California automatically had to begin the process of setting up a recall election. Kansas, by comparison, requires signatures totaling 40% of the electorate.

    It’s an enormous and costly process. Tuesday’s recall election cost California at least $276 million to run. If you want to know why that number is so high, I served as an inspector at a polling place on Eureka Street, and I will tell you what we had to do. Bonus: you’ll get to see what it means to hold a fair, functional, and accessible election. And extra bonus: you’ll hopefully see why we need to Vote No Again on 2022’s recall of three San Francisco school board members, and on the likely recall of our district attorney.

    keep readin

Back to School

The worst best time of the year. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve heard those words (usually just before the word “savings”), a spark of anger pins me to my spot. Not yet damn it. It’s like last call on the bar night of your summer. As a kid I felt this, the dread of a coming routine and monotony, of homework and new classmates to navigate. Those pains got mitigated by shopping: new bluejeans, a Britches backpack in a cooler color, a fresh 64-count Crayola box with sharpener. I liked thinking about my First Day Outfit. But if Back To School was the start of something, it was the start of another chore. Another room to clean. Another bag of trash to take out to the curb.

Now I’m a teacher, and Back To School is still a drag, because teachers love summer break more, I’d argue, than students do. But if my Back To School is the start of something, it’s always the start of another shot. Teachers have, if you’ll forgive the pervy comparison, a Woodersonian school experience: we get older, they stay the same age. What that means is that the school year is like Groundhog Day (there’s a far less problematic comparison), where it sometimes feels like the only thing that’s changed is our wisdom (or ignorance) and our energy (or our weariness). A third comparison: for teachers, the start of the new school year is what the start of the new calendar year is for everyone else. A chance to do better. That’s what makes Back To School more of a thrill than a drag, for me at least.

Here are my resolutions for this school year:

  • Privilege the macro-level when it comes to reading and commenting on student MSs. Not just overall shape and structure and form stuff, but stuff like implied authors, mode-shifting, and even that outmoded idea of theme. This is the stuff I feel shakiest on as a writer and teacher. The stuff that has always felt to be on the spookier side of writing—can’t we just take care of the pence of our texts and let the pounds take care of themselves, so to speak?
  • Keep my directing duties in their place. Easier said than done, but for me (who chases after quantifiable achievements so as to convince myself I’m not a bad person), it’s easy to believe that I’ve been hired for the job of Academic Director of the MFA Program, and that I need to fill my workday with answered emails and new spreadsheets and other “deliverables” to prove I’m worthy of the job, whereas the reality is that it’s my turn in the faculty rotation for this service duty, which should take exactly half my working hours—i.e., 3/6 of my workload alongside research (2/6) and teaching (1/6).[*]
  • Stay safe, flexible, and compassionate. Because the one glaring difference this Back To School is that the Groundhog Day effect is reversed: we are back in offices and classrooms after 17 months of shut-in pandemic monotony. That feels great, and yet people are wary enough about the prospect of coming back together that a colleague published an op-ed in last Sunday’s Chronicle that was given the headline: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to kill me?”

As much as the laziest parts of me might love business as usual, it’s neither a way to grow nor what our times seem to be calling for. I’m glad that we’re back. I can’t wait to see students in our offices again, behind masks for now. I feel excited this morning, maybe half-hopeful, half-wary, but tonight is the first night of classes in our MFA Program and the thrill of that is still palpable, even though I personally won’t be in classrooms owing to my teaching thesis students one-on-one this term.

I guess the point of this post is to capture that feeling, however poorly and distractedly I’m doing it. The best part of my job is getting a student to learn a new thing. And the ultra best part of my job is getting a student to see something they wrote in a new light, to realize that what they’ve been trying to do—be a good writer—has already been happening. For us teachers, today’s the first day that starts.

Now I need to go pick out an outfit.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. If you read this and think I should be using quote marks above when I write “Now I’m a teacher,” that’s fair. I’d much rather be a teacher than an administrator but this currently is my lot in life.

How Not to Be Wrong on Twitter

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Spoiler: you can’t. Everyone’s wrong on Twitter. Well: everyone posting a sincere tweet that’s usually based on anger and/or policies they’d like changed is wrong in and throughout their post(s).

Why? Well, I’m here to figure it out. This idea came to me three minutes ago.

*

Here’s what happened. I was on Twitter to tweet in anger about the effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. I hate recalls because I love democracy (I’ll return to this later), but mostly I hate that this recall effort, which from all I’ve seen based is in witlessness and failed imaginations, has garnered the signatures it needs and will be voted on in 2022.

I’ve had beefs with the Chronicle in the past, and for sure they’ve been part of the problem in aiding this recall effort, by devoting headlines to crimes that scare people and are easy to share on social media, broadcasting this idea that San Francisco is a crime-ridden wasteland. But also, I’m glad the Chronicle has also provided articles, columns, and op-eds, detailing all the ways that crime is down in the city.

To be clear: if you’ve believed that crime (i.e., robberies, burglaries, assaults, thefts, sexual assaults, larcenies, etc.)[1] is up in San Francisco, you’ve been sold a lie.

keep reading

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. wp:paragraph –>

    Spoiler: you can’t. Everyone’s wrong on Twitter. Well: everyone posting a sincere tweet that’s usually based on anger and/or policies they’d like changed is wrong in and throughout their post(s).

    Why? Well, I’m here to figure it out. This idea came to me three minutes ago.

    *

    Here’s what happened. I was on Twitter to tweet in anger about the effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. I hate recalls because I love democracy (I’ll return to this later), but mostly I hate that this recall effort, which from all I’ve seen based is in witlessness and failed imaginations, has garnered the signatures it needs and will be voted on in 2022.

    I’ve had beefs with the Chronicle in the past, and for sure they’ve been part of the problem in aiding this recall effort, by devoting headlines to crimes that scare people and are easy to share on social media, broadcasting this idea that San Francisco is a crime-ridden wasteland. But also, I’m glad the Chronicle has also provided articles, columns, and op-eds, detailing all the ways that crime is down in the city.

    To be clear: if you’ve believed that crime (i.e., robberies, burglaries, assaults, thefts, sexual assaults, larcenies, etc.){{1}} is up in San Francisco, you’ve been sold a lie.

    keep readin