The Old Sincerity

Before the Internet, we subscribed to Nintendo Power magazine. Every video game was like a maze we asked our moms to drop us off in on her way to work, and whole days were spent finding our way over this fiery gap, or that impossible wall. When we got stuck we asked a friend who had gone before us, or we dug through our Nintendo Power library, or we threw the controller across the floor. The first time I swore in front of my mother, my small Mario had just been bitten once again by a fish. I said “Fuck!” and threw my controller across the floor. I gasped, and my friend James sitting on the floor next to me gasped, and my mom digging through her closet gasped, and I ran to my bedroom and locked the door.

This is the way video games were real.[1] Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I knew; Samus fell down shafts in the Brinstar, but I controlled Samus, and when I couldn’t hit B with the right timing to make Samus bomb herself up the high wall, I didn’t say, “Samus can’t do it,” I said I couldn’t. Death came often and had consequences. What kept me staring into the screen was less TV’s total narrative absorption and more this fire in my belly that felt like commitment and courage. Video games helped me feel big. To this day, knowing that Ganon once again has Princess Zelda gets me a little mad the way news of Amazon’s tax payments does.

Time to go slay another beast.

*

Gamers have terms for all this I won’t bother to learn, but one I’ve picked up is Platformer, meaning the type of game where you jump on and off a lot of different platforms while the screen scrolls back and forth. Super Mario Bros is the classic platformer. Mega Man 2 is another. Like Caddyshack 2, which played basically every afternoon on cable, Mega Man 2 was a sequel we knew and loved better than its original.

Two things made Mega Man 2 fun: one was that you acquired the weapon of the boss you killed at the end of the each board, and the other was that you could play any board in any order you wanted. So part of what made the game a treat was learning that the saw blades you get from beating Metal Man were handy in killing the floating eyeball things rampant in Heat Man’s board. Not every weapon was useful. Wood Man’s leaf shield felt too slow and cumbersome for most battle situations. Bubble Man’s bubble lead was virtually useless. In time, you refined your arsenal and this is how you traversed the maze of the game.

The afternoon I want to write about took place in the summer, in Jenny’s bedroom, where for a number of reasons the NES was kept in those years. Maybe I was 12. I was boards deep into MM2, which I’d never beaten in full before. What I failed to say about the game was that, like with all platformers, death came quickly and often, and even though the game had a password system that let you begin tomorrow with the same victories and weapons you’d acquired today, there were still lots of repeated frustrations. Somehow, that afternoon, I had made it to the final board, where I knew at the end of it lay Dr. Wily, the evil scientist who had built all these robots I’d been killing. I had a number of extra men, but not a ton, and I had an audience: Jenny sat up on her bed watching me play.

I made it to Dr. Wily, who I remember floating in a kind of pod it was hard to aim into.[2] I tried the trusty metal blade, and it bounced off. I switched to the quick boomerang, and nothing. He was hitting me two or three times a second it felt like. Then I died.

I used another man and tried again. Nothing with the crash bombs, nothing with atomic fire. Then I died again.

I thought about throwing the controller, but I didn’t.

I used another man. Every single weapon I tried on Wily did no damage and I couldn’t figure out how to not be killed again. Then I tried the only weapon left, the useless bubble lead, and it hurt him. “Oh my god,” I said, mad at all the men I’d wasted. Of course with this plot twist: the game’s most useless weapon becoming the only way to win. I did my best to keep hitting him with it, but he was too fast, or I was too slow, and I died again.

I was on my last man. If I died now I’d have to start the whole board all over again—not a disaster, but a frustration. I knew what weapon to use, and I went in ready this time. It was not easy. I kept getting hit and then hitting him, and if you looked at our energy meters it was neck and neck. I worried about running out of bubble lead. I was so unfamiliar with this weapon that I had to learn its tactics alongside Wily’s. It wasn’t looking good, and Jenny wasn’t keeping quiet. “Come on, come on,” she kept mumbling, the way her teammates did on the softball field.

And then I heard her say, “Come on, David! I believe in you!”

*

One thing the Internet has obsolesced is working shit out on your own. We know this about bar bets and memory, none of us needing anymore to argue whether it was Rich Hall or Dennis Miller who played the fast food carhop alongside Taylor Negron in One Crazy Summer, say. But the survivable experience of being lost in unknowing for a while is what I’m talking about. In the maze of living, the Internet is a bird’s eye view.

With the Internet in my pocket, I would’ve just looked up how to beat Dr. Wily, and chalked my subsequent victory up to my execution of somebody else’s plan. I’m sure it would have felt good enough.

Despite my years of playing video games, I’m a glutton for somebody else’s plan. In grad school I devoted far more time to reading other writers’ craft books than figuring out how (and even why) I wanted to write fiction. Chalk it up to always wanting to get a good grade from teacher. My therapist is very good in her job in this regard. “It sounds like you’re looking to me for validation,” she’ll often say, and I’m like, Yeah, duh.

One thing I’m trying to work out for myself these days is free expression. I understand this to mean saying directly whatever you feel in the moment, the way children do until manners get shamed into them. I don’t like that. I’m bored. I’m horny. I want to be alone for a while. I just feel a lot of love for you right now. You are pissing me off. I don’t want to be friends. None of those feels possible for me to just say, not without real difficulty. One reason is that I’m often afraid of the other person’s reaction to what I’ll say. But a more pressing reason is that just saying what I’m feeling feels embarrassing.

Jenny and I continue to this day to joke about that “I believe in you!” She shares my feeling that it was a funny thing to do, but it also may be the most free and sincere thing anybody’s ever told me. To just say aloud what you’re feeling, uninflected with humor or irony, tends to make me roll my eyes. Twitter tends always to make me roll my eyes. I get embarrassed for anyone who writes something like, “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America.”

Sure, yes, nothing could be more boringly obvious.

And that’s I think what lies at the heart of my problem: I either assume that what’s not obvious is obvious, or I assume that the obvious never needs to be said. I’m probably wrong on both accounts.

*

My favorite Sebadoh song is “Mind Reader”:

Look, baby, I’m not a mind reader
You’re going to have to tell me so
You’re looking down at your shoes again
Take us down off of a cloud
Riding high in the sky
You’d have to tell me so

“Mind Reader” is a song about every relationship ever, and how what seems obvious isn’t actually obvious. Within that seeming lies a disregard of the other person’s experience of the world. Why don’t you see the way I see? It’s a selfishness I’m often guilty of, which you can see in the way I want to finish everybody’s sentences for them, my brain having already gone off on its own, abandoning the present the other person rightfully assumed we both shared.

Let’s state the obvious: the only way somebody can know what you’re thinking and feeling is by hearing it. This is why “the obvious” needs to be said. (Or written. Years ago, I chose writing over speaking, and only now am I realizing I could have chosen both.)

This isn’t, I don’t think, why people need to tweet. I think the ostensible, intended purpose of putting “If America is a democracy, then the GOP has officially become the party that hates America” out there is to inform one’s imagined audience. The hope is that this point (this “take”) is heard, and that it changes or in some lesser way effects somebody’s mindset. But I think the real purpose is to be given a place to speak. I’m not being a radical thinker here when I say that people tweet foremost to express themselves, to speak into a public forum when they feel otherwise powerless or small. I’m scared and/or lonely might be the base content of four out of five tweets, and it’s probably good and healthy to express that?

I don’t know, I’m figuring it out on my own.

But more and more these days, turning to Twitter for takes on what’s happening feels like running to the Internet for video game cheat codes.

*

So: not everything said is meant to signify to an audience, much less transport them somewhere new and exciting. I don’t think I want to believe this, or I think I enjoy believing that I’m a better person when I exempt myself from this truth. Here’s the reality: I might be able to argue that I’m better, but I usually feel worse.

John Dewey, whose Art as Experience I’m still slogging my way through (he’s a great thinker but just a terrible writer), makes a helpful distinction between expression and statement. For Dewey, science states meanings and art expresses them; the difference lies in the fact that statements point to or describe experiences, whereas expressions constitute them. Expressions make use of a medium to turn raw and spontaneous feeling—like, say, throwing a NES controller across the floor—into something else, something new, the way vintners make use of their feet to turn plucked grapes into juice for winemaking.

Which might be one way to understand my bristling at most tweets. Despite what this blog usually demonstrates, I am as an artist more interested in expressions than statements. It only feels fair to hold myself to the same impossible standard.

And yet, my life seems to be calling these days for a turning away from Dewey’s idea, or at least it’s calling me to give myself regular breaks from the burden of always needing to cleave raw emotion to some creative medium. To risk whatever embarrassment might befall me—or, actually, to fully learn I’ve got no reason to presume any embarrassment. Jenny and I still joke about “I believe in you!” but moments after she said it, I finally beat the game.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Here’s another way video games are real: as an Xmas present, Neal got me Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a game where you are encouraged to create a character who looks like you and has your name, just in case living vicariously through a different person/creature is too challenging for you, and the overall point is to gather items and creatures on this island you’ve moved to, and turn them in for money. As I’m sure others have said, playing Animal Crossing every morning has helped balance my days and make them more emotionally even. It’s nice to have chores to commit to. I’ve got digging chores, where I gather ore from rocks and look for fossils, and then I do my shore cleaning chores, picking up shells and fishing for sea creatures I can sell. I do all this after my daily walk through the park, where I pause mentally every time I see a tree branch on my path, or a large pinecone, or even an insect—my immediate instinct is to gather it so I can sell it later. My video game practice has informed my living in the world practice, and I don’t see it as a problem, but then again I don’t play Grand Theft Auto and rarely, if ever, find myself in a position in this world where I need to carjack a woman while running from the cops.
  2. The Internet tells me that I actually was fighting an alien that Dr. Wily transformed into, but I have no memory of an alien, so I’m choosing not to believe it.

I Wear A Mask When I Sleep

One wall of our bedroom, the wall closest to my sleeping body, is mostly window, and it’s got just slats to block the light, not drapes. Here’s my view when I wake up most mornings:

I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but if I’m woken—by the need to piss, by a 7am robocall, by the early summer dawn—it can be a struggle to return. I might swallow and feel the passage in my inner ear clear out and open up, or my eyelid, if I open it for too long, will soften and decalcify, and I know it’s the beginning of the end. I know that falling back to sleep shouldn’t be a struggle, but my mind thinks it can accomplish most of what it wants through will and brute intellecting. When I’m woken before I’m ready to, I think Oh no and then I think No no, we’re going to take care of this and before I know it my mind is calculating awake minutes and worrying whether they’re too many in number and I’m the awakest I’ve been.

I sleep with a mask so that I can sleep in, because otherwise I’ll wake with the light. This isn’t bad in these dark and late mornings—though last night Neal and I went to bed at 2 after watching a third bad Christmas movie—but in summer it’s vital. I don’t fall asleep with the mask on. I don’t like it on my face. But at some point in the night as I turn over in bed I see it’s still dark in the room and I grab it off my nightstand, sliding it over my eyes, readying to fight the sun to get a full 7 hours.

This leads me to the moment I’m trying to write about. My mask is wide and dense. The light can’t creep in around its edges. Every morning there’s a point when my mind signals it’s time to get up, when its thoughts are no longer dreamy and imagey and associative but now conscious and about the day ahead. With the mask on, I don’t know if there’s light in the room yet. I don’t know what time it is. So I have to make a decision: do I pry up the mask a little to gauge the light in the room?

There are mornings when my mind sends the get-up signal, and when I do I see it’s 6am. The room is fully dark. Neal is deeply asleep next to me. And I panic: what am I going to do now? And the panic solidifies it: I’m not going back to sleep.

Every time I reach for the mask, to pry it up and check the morning light, I am filled with Election-Day levels of dread and hope. Please let it be light out. I should say that I’m fortunate. More times than not I peer around the mask and it’s light out, and what does that mean for me? It means I’ve had enough sleep, probably. It means I don’t have to struggle to try to fall back asleep, hating my stupid brain and my broken body for failing to do their jobs. It means I don’t have to lie there in the darkness, with nothing to occupy my thoughts, the room around 62°. Outside the bed feels cold and mean, which helps make our bed such a joy. My favorite part of the day is rolling leftward after lights out and holding Neal close, the warmth of him. I love our sheets and our down comforters. We each sleep with our own, Scandinavianly, with no top sheet. Every chilly pre-dawn, my body can be very comfortable in my discomfiting wakefulness, which only makes it harder to do what’s hard to do every morning, and particularly those mornings I’m stuck awake before I have any reason to be: get out of bed.

*

I’ve had only one dream in 2020 where I caught myself in the outside world without a mask on my face. I don’t remember where I was, a farmer’s market seems the best choice, someplace outside and commercial, but I remember the burning feelings of panic and shame. Otherwise, my dreams have been set in a world different from this one, where masks aren’t needed. I can be reckless there without feeling shitty about it.

The hard thing about virtue is that we no longer seem to be rewarded for any of it. I’ve done everything right every day and this is what my life has become? All the same, I try to remain brave and patient and kind and fair to others the way I shave or put on clean underwear and a pair of pants with a belt. Who is this for?

The key tenet of esteem-building is that it’s always foremost for yourself. “Ask yourself if these negative beliefs about yourself are true. Would you say them to a friend? If you wouldn’t say them to someone else, don’t say them to yourself.” I’d never break a promise to my friend, but it’s easy to have a second martini after having told myself not to have a first. When I start to fill the shaker once again with ice, the feeling I have is forgiveness. Let’s not be so hard on ourselves, say the I I’m trying to be and the I I am. Another hard thing: when I say that, am I being kind to myself, or is it self-betrayal?

Anyway I feel full of virtue these days, and it’s a dumb feeling.

*

One night, not long ago, I got the idea for a short story:

Title: Why Are You Hitting Yourself? (or Why I Am Hitting Myself)

It’s a story about a depressed person who drinks too much and who’s found not cutting as a means of coping but trying to punch himself in the face. Get really technical and specific about it: right hand versus left hand, the resulting look of bruising and such, the pains that linger physical and emotional. He’s like a connoisseur of it.

The good feeling comes from the pain maybe, but that’s only the tiniest surface of it. There’s the idea of someone hitting him as just punishment. It feels good to be hit by somebody, hit hard, right in the face, where it will show and hurt. Like: it’s the pleasure of being recognized as a shitty horrible person who needs to be corrected by the world, and punished for being so bad at being a person, so the punch in the face is a public service. It’s like chiropractic. “This isn’t going to make you any better but maybe the hurt of it will stop you from getting worse. You should feel good for knowing that it’s right to submit to this pain and hitting in your ugly wrong face.”

It’s not a silent plea for sympathy, it’s a plea to be regarded in not-proud-of-this disgust.

When I read over these notes the following morning, I emailed my therapist to see whether we could schedule an emergency appointment. She was off for the next two weeks, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to get through those weeks on my own. She saw me first thing Monday morning and urged me to get out of our apartment every day. The only thing I had to do out there was look at something new or different. She asked me what I would do if I could do anything right now, if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.

“Swim laps,” I said. It hit me quickly. My greatest dream right now would be to be given the keys to the gym on campus, where there’s an olympic-size pool, and sit on the edge and pull on my goggles and take a deep breath and launch myself into the water. As soon as the vividness of that image hit me, I felt the weight of its absence and that made me feel worse.

She pointed out I can’t swim right now, but I can exercise. I can walk through the park. Golden Gate Park: it’s right across the street from our building. I have a path I like to take. It shows me a lot of things I can’t see inside, some of it even beautiful. I hate that my life’s been reduced to this, a diet of gruel for a sick man.

The general feeling I have these days is displacement. The I I am, or that I’ve been, is somebody I can see way over yonder, my eyesight failing a little, his contours blurring. (Forget the I I’m trying to be, he’s out of the picture—or perhaps one of the gifts of depression is that it finally unites these two frenemies into the same target.) Every morning is a reminder that I’ve woken into this unwelcome world again, that I’m not dreaming. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed and walk through the park, but I know I have to, for now. It’s another dumb thing I’m made to do, but it’s working.

I Miss My Office

I.
But not for its preciousnesses. My office on campus, that is. (My home I share has only a bedroom and the other room.) Imagine you’re standing in the doorway and able somehow to see ahead of you and to the right at the same time and here’s how it looks:

Even if you don’t know me you’ll note a number of preciousnesses: yarn art, taxidermy, an afghan my grandma crocheted in the 1970s, the wood clock with a plastic caught-marlin face I made for my dad in shop class in 7th grade, the one hand-written rejection I got from The New Yorker in grad school, I could go on. No, there’s no window in there, which I’d always considered a dealbreaker but here we are, eight years in with this space, and I miss it, but like I said not for its preciousnesses.

If I had anybody I could make a deal with on this, I’d be willing to lose all that if it would get me access. I miss just getting to sit in there, alone.

II.
One thing nobody has ever really written about is how writers need a room of their own.

III.
I will try to explain. This morning I took my walk through the park and decided to listen to a podcast, which I don’t usually do, not a podcast listener here, and I looked through suggested ones and decided on Song Exploder, which a friend had once recommended to me, and sorting through the episodes I downloaded the one with Phil Elverum about “I Want Wind to Blow”, the lead track off a record I’ve loved for more than a decade.

I walked through Heroes Grove, which is a long thin stretch of tall redwood trees that smell cedary and wet (I take my mask off in there), and Elverum was talking about how Calvin Johnson gave him a key to Dub Narcotic Studio, and he’d just spend all his time there recording, and trying things out and failing and trying again, and that’s when I missed my campus office, again.

In grad school, I moved in with Neal, into a place we called the Barbie Dream Condo, because it looked like a 1970s angular ski chalet with big round fireplace and exposed beams everywhere. It had two bedrooms and I was given, or I outright took, the other bedroom as my office. The second year we lived there I was given a fellowship that let me off the hook from having to teach to pay my tuition bill, and that was the year I finished my book proposal. I wrote it slowly. A lot of mornings I wouldn’t feel great about my ability to finish the book, or I’d feel lonely, or I’d be disinterested in looking again at porn, or all three of these, and I’d pick up the nearby guitar and try to record a song somebody else wrote. I used Garageband, I learned effects and things, and that year I recorded track-for-track covers of Smog’s Wild Love, Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand, and Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie.

What was fun about recording other people’s songs? There was the pleasure of getting it right. Most of the chords or tabulature I needed had long before been posted online, but sometimes I had to discover them myself. Like with “A Big Fan of the Pigpen” on Bee Thousand:

It’s a puzzle pleasure, figuring it out, matching the patterns. But the other pleasure was creative, trying to add or insert something that felt like my own. Like how “Pigpen” ends—in the original recording, they dub in a jam from an outtake (“2nd Moves to Twin” featured on King Shit and the Golden Boys) and so I did the same, from everything I’d previously built when trying to record Of Montreal’s “We Were Born the Mutants Again with Leofling” (which closes out the perfect Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?). Another example: I hated how “Gold Star for Robot Boy” sounded without a live band behind me, so I turned it into a limping folk waltz.

I’m not a songwriter, and I’m not a loner. I know that I’m a social person, which is why this month especially has been hard, but why then was it so easy to live virtually alone in rural Finland for a month last year? It felt so good to be so alone for so long, and so fulfilling. And the reason was that I had a room of my own: my desk in there was the biggest I’ve ever had, magically, and it sat at the very top of a the house, it was the last door at the end of the hall, and the windows I faced looked out to yellow birch trees rising above suburban roofs, and powerlines three or four magpies would always be perched along.

I got a lot done there. These days I have that time, but not that space.

IV.
Now I’m back to preciousness. Forever I’ve wanted to be the sort of person who could work anywhere. A novelist I know who writes in series, and who publishes sometimes 4 books a year, once met us for a drink, and when we showed up at the bar she was sitting on a bench with her laptop open, writing more of her current novel. It’s always seemed to me a stronger sort of art practice, and I’ve tended to read my inability to follow it as evidence that I’m not really a writer, or that I’m posing, still, at this role I shouldn’t have tried to take up.

Right now I’m sitting in the room that’s not our bedroom. Neal is on the sofa and I’m in the recliner. He’s watching Happiest Season on the TV and I’m listening to Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me in my headphones. Normally when I try to work at home I go to the bedroom and sit up in bed, my ass where my head rests at night, but I don’t feel like doing that today, and anyway it hurts my back, so I’m here, distracted every few minutes by something Kristin Stewart or her girlfriend is doing on the screen. It’s okay, the distraction, but this is the kind of writing I can do here. Blog posts. Hallmark Christmas Movie liveblogs. If I can call these things essays they aren’t working very hard, because I can’t.

So I miss the one room on this planet where I’m allowed to go inside and sit, and where I can expect nobody else will come inside. My guess is this is a luxury, that most people on this planet don’t have such a room. So I’m trying not to beg sympathy about this.

The context: this virus forced my workplace to close its dorms, which has led to around $50 million in lost revenue, and my school is broke and poor, comparatively, so this is (or this is being presented to us as) a real budget scare. My salary was cut by 9% a week or so after my partner was laid off at his nonprofit, whose revenue was also cut by the lack of outdoor park events in a pandemic. To save money, my school has closed down all but 2 or 3 buildings, shutting off the power and no longer staffing custodians. This is saving my school a reported $400,000 a month. So even though it’s two blocks from where I’m sitting, and even though nobody is in there, I can’t go into my office because it would require expensive electricity and someone to clean the toilets and urinals after I used them.

When this was made clear to me in August, I decided I was a fool for trying hard to be in my office all the time. Was this really a year to work hard, or was this a year instead to stay mentally and bodily healthy? My school didn’t need me at my best this year.

I still feel that way, but I miss my office. And here’s the thing I’m only just now realizing: it’s not even mine. It’s theirs.

V.
If I had a room of my own, I would just sit in it. That would be the point. Then, in time, I’d write something there I liked.

Form and Formlessness

I.
First, listen to this 6-minute song (you can skip through but I don’t recommend it):

For those of you who skipped it, what you have are 3 chords cycled over and over again: G then A then Bm. It’s a scalar step up that feels like a step down, but the point really is that it goes on and on and on. I’m a devout Bill Callahan fan—or I have been, I no longer am, and what’s changed is what I’m writing this post on forms in artmaking to find out—and this song is my favorite of his, probably, from what’s historically been my favorite of his like 49 records.

When I listen to Knock Knock I’m once again living alone in an attic apartment in Pittsburgh, cooking freezer-aisle pierogies or Wishbone-marinated chicken breasts on the gas stove in the tiny alcove of my kitchen, or I’m washing plastic plates in the wide shallow sink, this record playing across the room on the turntable I keep under my cabinets, next to the microwave my parents bought when I was 7. Callahan’s cycles are cycling, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I’m out of school and all of my school friends have left Pittsburgh for bigger places. Those were lonely years, and I was deeply, woefully closeted to myself, but I can look back on them fondly.

The point: what Smog songs did for me was strip art formally bare and still present an enormous lush world rich with emotion. The form is this: put 2 or 3 chords together, repeat that forever, and then either throw a new chord in, briefly, or shift to a one-line refrain that resolves the tension of repetition as surely as a tonic chord resolves a dominant seventh. More than the romance of Bill Callahan’s world—a world of horse textures and river-longing where each of us listeners becomes a quiet traveler alone in our thoughts far outside of towns—my fandom was built on this minimalism.

Bill Callahan is different now. Now he’s rhapsodic:

Rhapsody or collage? The new idea is that there’s this part of the song, and then once it’s established it’s time for a new part of the song. Then let’s do this. Then let’s do this. Let’s end once some effect is achieved.

If “River Guard” is a poem, or a prayer, “Breakfast” is an essay. Why don’t I like it?

*

II.
What I mean by “is an essay” is that one formal characteristic of the essay is that it has no set form. Essays don’t have prosody to break down their wholes to component parts, and they’re unlike narrative which has causal progression and a “beginning, middle, and end.” Essays’ formlessness disturbs basically every student I teach: we all want someone to give us a structure. I try instead to teach the embrace of formlessness. It’s a feature of essays, not a bug. (I’ve written about this before.)

Now watch this video with Callahan pal and labelmate Will Oldham, where he talks to schoolkids about how he learned songwriting practice:

Oldham’s idea is “why try to reinvent the wheel” when the classic form of songwriting “works”. “The only reason it has to be new is you want to claim something for yourself,” he admits, which is true of most artists. But, newnesses are possible within old forms. If you skipped the above video, here’s the song he gives as an example (and then elaborates more on the idea afterward):

I don’t need to spell out all its newnesses. The great big useful point Oldham makes is that once you’ve established a familiar form (in this case by following a verse with a chorus) then you can get away with unfamiliar content. “Anything you want to put into a song can work when you put it into the song.” You can be weird or dark or unusual in what you sing and how you sing it, because the form indicates to wary, unsure listeners that they’re still on steady ground, and something of what’s expected will soon return.

Anymore Bill Callahan keeps his ground unsteady. I don’t think he’s stopped singing about rivers and horses and brambles, but his forms’ songs feel less to me like worlds I’m invited inside and more like landscapes blurring out the window of a train I’m on, one that’s not stopping anytime soon. I was open to this years ago, and maybe I’ll need it again soon, but not this year.

So what does this have to do with essays? And what does it have to do with Hallmark Christmas Movies?

*

III.
Well, everything. I’ve said before that HCMs are like sonnets—or probably I said that they are as formally predictable as sonnets—and lately I’m trying to figure out if I’m an HCM formalist or something else. (One flaw in English is that there’s no adjectival equivalent for “content”. That is, we’ve got nothing good to complete the analogy, form : content :: formal : _____. “Semantic” comes close, but not close enough. “Material” is closer.) Maybe I’m an HCM materialist.

If HCMs have 9 acts, then Act 1 is “Demonstrate the Woman is good at her job.” Last night we watched an HCM where the Woman was Lacey Chabert and told a shopowner in Brooklyn how a judge ruled that the owner of his building can’t legally raise his rent, so he won’t have to close the store that’s been in his family for generations. The Woman is good at her job of Being A Lawyer. Before that, we watched an HCM where the Woman had a hairless cat’s face and told a panicking bride-to-be that red and white roses would make a far better bouquet than the white peonies her flower shop was out of. The Woman is (questionably, for those of us not in the target audience) good at her job of … it wasn’t clear what her role there was but you won’t be surprised to learn she leaves that job by the end of the movie to plan events at an enormous wintry inn.[*]

I’m going to do my best to list every job I recall the Woman having in an HCM:

  • Event Planner
  • Baker
  • Cafe/Coffee Shop Owner
  • Bookstore Owner or just small-scale retail shopowner in general
  • Reporter/Online Content Producer
  • Lifestyle Blogger
  • Scavenger Hunt Designer
  • Lawyer (rare as hell)
  • Teacher (rare as hell)
  • Executive Assistant
  • Violinist (twice this year alone!)

We haven’t watched the one where Holly Robinson Pete plays the titular Christmas Doctor who has a background in the military, but there’s a doctor-soldier for you. My point here is look at that list. If you know anything about HCM formulaicness it won’t surprise you—the oldest joke about HCMs is how baldly aspirational their Womans’ jobs are, how they seem to flatter something the target audience secretly believes about themselves.

That’s the form. Why can’t we all imagine different content to fill it?

Hallmark has done something pretty special these last few years, which is use the textures of yuletide to make a form as formulaic as the romantic comedy far more baroque than it’s ever been[**]. But not too baroque that the rest of us have had any trouble absorbing its nuances. You don’t need to watch this entire 6-minute commercial for a deodorant that wants you to use it on your “private parts — front and back!” but look at how they pack in all the acts:

We watch an HCM as steadily as we hear a verse-chorus-“middle-8” pop song. We always know what will happen next, so why not make what is happening now more interesting?

I’m not getting at a point, I know. What am I saying? More and more I’m watching Hallmark squander the treasure of its form. I think they are extremely insecure about the reasons people watch and what keeps them coming back for more. I think they have a real fear that if the Woman’s job isn’t aspirationally fun or cute or challenging-but-not-too-stressful, then they’d lose viewers/money.

Why, for instance, have I never seen a nurse in an HCM? I’ve seen far too many soldiers, but none of them has been the Woman. I’ve never seen a Woman be a cop (thank God), but this absence has nothing to do with what cops have become in the dominant imagination after 2020’s exposure of their decades of systemic violence and abuse, and everything to do with Hallmark failing in its imagination of what people will readily watch over the holidays, and how the magic of relating to a protagonist works.

N & I are in disagreement on this, and characteristically I probably in my heart believe he’s right. Last night, we watched the Man and Woman walk into a bakery, and there on the floor were big circle-stickers set 6 feet apart from each other, in a line back from the counter, indicating where people should safely stand in a pandemic, and my heart surged and I literally sat up in my chair. I rewound it and verified what I was seeing—evidence. Something real in the fakest of TV worlds. (Never mind that everyone in the packed bakery was maskless, because no pandemics exist in the HCU.)

I repeated to Neal my old complaint that none of this year’s HCMs has even acknowledged the circumstances of this pandemic, and N asked how I think they could do that. How could they do Almost Kiss with masks on? How could actors enunciate their lines and do carol songs during Town Square Christmas Tree Lighting Applause Scene? And obviously they can’t. If the magic of an HCM lies in its content, the HCM falls apart, but I don’t think it does.

So, finally my point, which is Will Oldham’s point: when your form is strong enough your audience will follow you, and don’t conflate your content with your form.

If you demonstrate the Woman is good at her job and then disappear her to a location outside her routine where in time she’ll help a Niece-Daughter with a seasonal creative project, we will watch them do this with masks on, or with unglamorous jobs to have to go back to, or with a skin color that isn’t white and speaking sometimes a language that isn’t English. We will accept aggressively grumpy people or outright horny ones, we will feel less alone. Or I will. I’ll be grateful that Hallmark has in this way said yes to the pain and confusion I feel about being alive right now.

I’m not even getting into the sex-positive HCMs I can imagine, or the HCMs about working-class people living paycheck to paycheck in ever-unaffordable cities. That we don’t have any made-up stories to watch—on Hallmark or any channel—about us living safely together in a pandemic, that we have only the news of this, is one part of why we’re not living safely in this pandemic.

*

IV.
“Once I realized that formalism was on my side,” Oldham says in the above vid, “it made going to work every day a lot easier.” I’m hoping to teach this in the spring, in my Nonfiction Studio course (I’ve abandoned the MFA workshop model, probably for good, a topic for another post). I’m hoping to spend some time thinking very hard about the forms of the essay—and I don’t mean “the braided essay” or the (ugh) “hermit crab essay”.

I mean essay forms that all of us know as well as songs and HCMs. Does that mean only the 5-paragraph essay taught in most high schools? Well that’s the big one. The toast is another. The prayer. If all an essay is is the written-out portrayal of a thought process, putting ideas out there and coming to some new understandings, we do this all the time, and I want to see what happens to my and my students’ writing once we sign on to a form and unanxiously honor it. If you don’t have to worry about losing your reader, where might the art you make take them?

The essays of late Bill Callahan are not, turns out, what I go to music for. Without formalism I need dynamism, I want the sonic equivalents of a sex worker being disappeared to a small northern town over Xmas and finding not just clients but love, and Callahan is keeping his voice steady, and guitar picking understated, and what’s left are his incredible lyrics. (“With kisses / sweet as / hospital grapes”). His newer songs sound the way my students’ early drafts read and the way HCMs feel to me now: magical at times, but hopefully on their way to somewhere better.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Probably we’ve watched 5 HCMs since I last live-blogged one, and the only thing I can say about my not writing about any of them is that isolation and not seeing family over Xmas has been hitting me hard, and I’ve had little motivation to do anything, and a side effect of this has been to hourly convince myself of my worth-/use-lessness, so to the five or six of you who seem to be enjoying these writeups I apologize. But I also think you aren’t missing out on anything enjoyable. I might be out of things to say.
  2. Though if you watch 1949’s Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Vivien Leigh you’ll be amazed at how many of the HCM acts and tropes they cover, even down to the Woman’s debate between Sensible Man She’s Meant To Marry and Irascible Handsomer Kook She Can’t Stop Thinking About.