I. About half my life ago, I lived in Pittsburgh, the city where I became most of myself. In the years after college, I hung out with a lot of my fellow alums who also stuck around, and as it happened a lot of us were writers who’d gotten reviews or event writeups printed in one of the city’s alt-weeklies, which was the early 2000s equivalent of getting your Substack mentioned on another writer’s Insta. Jenn was one such friend, and if memory serves, it was at a White Stripes show in a dive bar where I mentioned wanting to maybe start a magazine in town and she was like, “I’m in.”
That monthly glossy print magazine that would sell ads to survive became, instead, a fortnightly web magazine we called The New Yinzer. The first issue went live on 30 January 2002:
All of this makes me feel sad and happy, mostly the latter. I’m happy that Pittsburgh was the kind of city where kids in their 20s could get a wild idea, and in a few months win private foundation grants to pay for every little thing we needed (which, at the time, was mostly beer for parties, money to xerox fliers, and domain hosting fees). I’m happy that the words of our contributors live on in some hard-to-find nook in the basement of the internet (even if they might not be).
If I’m sad it’s because this happened so long ago. And it’s because, in making a profession out of writing and publishing, I look at The New Yinzer—where nearly any idea was a good idea, no matter how useless, written by someone we likely knew in town, and published in a couple weeks—and the first thing I feel is how far away that old mania is. I feel the loss of an audience tied to where I call home, as we’re all always hustling for the attentions of writers and editors we’ve never even seen in person.
II. These are the lamentations of an old man, but allow me to indulge them on the 20th anniversary of this thing I helped bring into the world.
What are the wild ideas I remember? We wanted to have an essay issue, so we had an essay issue. Jenn had the idea of an issue on … would it be sports? sporting? The Sport Issue, we decided, and pinned a jockstrap underneath a sports bra on Jenn and Corey’s red velvet curtain to make our cover image. I wondered whether Reader’s Digest was still a thing, so we asked a friend to interview the editor of the magazine and write about it. We thought it would be useful to have an intern, so we asked around at Pitt and got one, Bill, who got college credit to attend our staff meetings, haul beer in his car, and get his sympatico three-piece soul act, The New Alcindors, to play our events. I wondered whether those Can You Draw This Turtle art tests were still a thing, so we had Bill draw the turtle, send it in, and write about it.
“Art all is quite useless,” except when you live in a Pittsburgh. In a Pittsburgh—you may live in one—the most you can expect from the outside is genial condescension. A Pittsburgh is (or was in the 90s/00s) the hard-to-find nook in the basement of the map; what I loved the most about The New Yinzer was how it created a space, if virtual, for art to happen there, at home. For the place itself to matter as itself. More importantly, it was art that had no intention (or hope) in reaching a wider audience. Nothing in The New Yinzer was going to launch a career.
We did whatever we wanted, and people responded. Seth was a stranger who showed up at our happy hour, Sociable Behavior, and became an editor and a lifelong friend. Jim was a friend of a friend who let us print his one-panel comics, before leaving for New York to write a movie Steve Buscemi directed. One of the biggest alt-weekly writers in the city wrote an op-ed column about how much he hated our name.
We made something of it. Now it’s a ghost town. The archive is wonky—some links don’t work, whole issues seem to be missing—but today it feels like the most New-Yinzery iteration of The New Yinzer that ever was. How lucky we are to have this repository of writing very few people read but everyone had a terrific time making. On its 20th birthday, I wish it outlasts us all.
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, 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. 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)
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.↵
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.)↵
I. Here’s what the fall semester looks like for me:
About a post a week, a lot of different ideas, space to think and write about my thinking, and none of this counts all the time I have to watch Hallmark Christmas Movies and post about them.
Here’s what the spring semester looks like for me:
I hate the spring semester. The spring semester, every year, can go to hell.
II. It’s unfair to blame this term, which is busy because I teach an actual class while directing the program, as opposed to teaching the directed study theses courses I do with 5 students over the course of the fall, itself the same amount of work-hours as an actual class of 10 students, but far more blissful and easygoing and pleasurable in the one-on-one format. Plus the long list of directing duties that for boring reasons fall on this semester to do, and I won’t bore you with it all, because, like I said, it’s not all this semester’s fault. I should also blame my writing.
I wrote a lot last year, nearly 50,000 words of the second half of my memoir, and it was chiefly capturing work. I had to put memories and old feelings into words, often for the first time, and while it had its challenges—I’m not yet convinced this book is even readable, much less publishable—they were challenges of persistence. I had to just keep going.
Since January I’ve been writing an essay about something I’ve only told my therapist about, and my partner, and on top of the same persistence against shame and self-loathing, it’s taken a lot of attention-work. I’ve had to think really hard about what all of this means, and how to write about it in a way that doesn’t make people hate me, and knowing how little time I’m able to put to my writing, and how scant the energy I can give it after all the shitwork of spring, I haven’t thought a lick about this blog.
It paid off. I finished the draft this morning. I think it’s going to be good, but I always think that of a new thing. Then the publishing process comes….
III. The other day, my phone did something such that Instagram stopped working. I forced quit it, nothing. I restarted my phone, nothing. So I uninstalled it, and then realized I didn’t have to reinstall it. Months ago, I logged out of Twitter on my phone’s web browser, and as I use strong, cryptic passwords through LastPass, and now that LastPass only works on my laptop, I don’t know how to log back in again on my phone.
Old habits die hard. Today in the library I walked past this book, and I took this photo:
I realized my caption would be, “Sure, Alva,” but I had nowhere to post it.
Except here. Would anyone see anything I put up here without social media directing them over here? Is that a gift for what I might do with this space?
Before the spring semester burst like a water main in the basement of my pandemic life, I’d had the idea of writing a newsletter, delivering this blog to people’s inboxes, but then I stopped being able to see what pleasure would lie in that. 2021 has so far been about a drop in my satisfaction when writing things that don’t matter.
IV. But also, two wonderful things happened to me this year. One is that I discovered 70’s/80’s San Francisco synthpunk band the Units. They aren’t well known, but if they’re known they’re known for this perfect song:
I’ve written about this before, how some bands match the ongoing sounds that run in your head all the time, and how mine seem to be the asynchronous chewings of a hive full of bees. Constant busyness. That’s this song. I feel grateful to get to spend the second half of my life with it buzzing in me.
The other wonderful thing is that Neal and I have signed a lease on a 3-story townhome that will provide us with a laundry room, a second toilet, a guest bedroom, and a dining room where I can actually sit and write in a room that’s not The One Room We Always Sit In Every Day. For seven years we’ve been convinced that we’d never be able to live in what I still think of as an adult home, and then rents dropped because enough people think this city’s top selling point is its proximity to Silicon Valley. So not every part of this pandemic has been a dank basement.
fly SFO to IAD car to Centreville, Virginia stay at friend’s, 2 nights car to Fairfax, Virginia stay at sister’s, 1 night subway to Washington, D.C. car to Fairfax stay at sister’s, 1 night train to Williamsburg, Virginia stay at folks’, 3 nights train to New York, New York subway to Brooklyn stay with friend, 1 night subway to Manhattan train to Rutherford, New Jersey stay with friend, 2 nights car to Manhattan subway to Brooklyn stay with friend, 1 night car to Brooklyn stay with friend, 2 nights car to Brooklyn stay with friend, 2 nights car to Manhattan train to Essex Junction, Vermont car to Burlington, Vermont stay with friend, 2 nights car to Johnson, Vermont stay at Vermont Studio Center, 26 nights shuttle van to Burlington stay with friend, 1 night car to Essex Junction train to New York subway to Brooklyn stay with friend, 2 nights car to JFK JFK to KEF KEF to HEL train to Helsinki, Finland stay at Seurahuone Hotel, 1 night bus to Sysmä, Finland stay at Villa Sarkia, 10 nights bus to Helsinki stay at Hotel F6, 1 night ferry to Tallinn, Estonia ferry to Helsinki stay at F6 Hotel, 1 night train to St. Petersburg, Russia stay at Four Seasons Hotel, 2 nights car to Pushkin, Russia car to St. Petersburg stay at Four Seasons Hotel, 1 night train to Helsinki stay at Marski Hotel, 1 night bus to Sysmä stay at Villa Sarkia, 7 nights bus to Helsinki train to HEL HEL to KEF HEF to BOS stay at Hilton Boston Logan, 1 night shuttle van to Logan Airport bus to Portland, Maine bus to Bangor, Maine shuttle van to Monson, Maine stay at Monson Arts, 7 nights walk to Appalachian Trail walk to Monson stay at Monson Arts, 5 nights car to Québec, Canada stay at Chateau Frontenac, 1 night car to Monson stay at Monson Arts, 10 nights shuttle van to Bangor bus to BOS BOS to SFO car home
Places in bold I saw for the first time. If you count the U.S. and my layovers in Iceland, that’s six different countries I traveled to in three months. Jeers to the suspicious dicks at the border into Canada for not stamping our passports. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the U.S. is so much more chill about letting people cross its borders than every other country in North America.
Without activists, we could live in a world where the sex I have would throw me in jail, and where nazis would be granted carte blanche in all our public spaces. Trust activists. Trust antifascists. They are the heart of any democracy.
But they don’t speak my language.
I think this post is about some feelings I’ve had lately when I’ve tweeted, which is about the only way I speak up in a room anymore.
Activist language orients the listener toward an issue, and makes direct, sincere claims about how the listener ought to feel or act regarding that issue.
For instance, this recent tweet someone in my feed retweeted:
You know what’s hard? Losing a loved one to cancer. You know what’s not hard? Not watching football anymore. Not supporting teams & businesses that support a racist, misogynistic president. Not teaching fiction written by problematic white men.
That language operates on one level. It’s sparse, which I’m using in opposition to “dense”, in that the language asserts its literal meaning. It’s denotative language. It is by needs unnuanced. [*] Activist language cannot abide nuance, because nuance deals with subtle differences in meaning, and subtlety works against the aim of activist language, which is to be heard and understood.
I find activist language is very easy to tune out: either its message is one I’ve heard enough to’ve come to accept and agree with it, or it asserts a claim too brief and certain for me to engage in.
Black lives matter. Yes, always, forever they do, so let’s start punishing the cops who keep killing unarmed black people.
God hates fags. Oh like you know.
Here’s my least favorite example of activist language at work:
This is a problem. If we want our literature to capture the contemporary world, if we want that art to grow, staffing the infrastructure behind its dissemination with such a vast white majority stands in the way of that art’s becoming.
But “Read less straight white men” is stupid advice. It asserts that it would be better to read Ann Coulter or Dinesh D’Souza or Milo Yianopolous[†] over Matthew Desmond, whose Evicted has been heralded as one of the best books written about poverty and institutional racism in the last decade.
Pointing this out is to insist on nuance in an encounter uninterested, as I’ve said, in nuance. It asks people to use reason to make choices, not passion. Calls for nuance in an activist encounter are seen as attempts to silence the activist. They are seen as trying to argue against the issue.
I get it, though I disagree. I can also work to tear down the patriarchy and want more diverse workforces in publishing houses while saying that a sign that says “Read less straight white men” is simply (and doubly, given the grammar) stupid.
It makes me so embarrassed for the person holding that sign, but like god bless her for not being embarrassed to hold that sign. Every activist is brave for speaking up in a room. I know it’s not easy.
You might chalk all this up to a lack of conviction or sincerity on my part, and you might be on to something. It’s not that I don’t stand for anything, or that the positions I stand for are safe and privileged. Abortion should be both legal and free. Decriminalize public sex. Abolish Megan’s Law. I stand for all kinds of politically unsavory things that I believe in my heart would make this a better world.
But I’m uneasy just saying it. Or maybe what I am is too easily bored? Because to me the most salient feature of activist language is its humorlessness.
Funny things seem easy to dismiss. The Oscars does it every year to comedies. The court jester is the biggest fool in the palace. Funny people assert that we don’t take them seriously—and we used to heed them, before we collectively lost our confidence in reporters and news media and turned to the Jon Stewarts of the world to tell us the truth.
But as every comedian knows, it’s difficult to assume a defensive stance amid humorousness. Good comedians can call you, or your mother, terribly hurtful things—stupid, fat, ugly, tiny-dicked, etc.—and get you to enjoy the fun of it.
Their language is multi-level language. It speaks, and any number of messages are getting across. This, I think, is what makes it my language. I can’t tune it out. Nor does it ignite me into a quick counterargument. I’m unsettled, nondefensive, and sometimes in that place some new understanding slithers through.
Some people call this “laughtivism” but I could use a 10-year moratorium on portmanteaus. My favorite example is Veep, which is as smart about politics and D.C. as anything I read in the news, and gets also to be very funny. My favorite more explicit example of what I’m getting at is this guy:
Matt Buck is smart enough to know that for some hateful people it’s delightful to be hated, but for people filled with seriousness and passion it feels like shit to be laughed at. It’s deflating. It’s like reports of the president fuming when women play his male cabinet members on TV.
Note: about 35 seconds in, the person filming, I think, offers some narration: “And this is what stupid looks like.” It’s activist language, and it makes me so angry. It does its one-level thing and clomps on the toes of Buck’s far more nuanced takedown.
That narration operates in the reverse direction of what I’m calling for. Like I said, we need activists to make a democracy function. And so we need their language. What I’m taking as my role, maybe, or just how I want to live my life and participate in this democracy, is to follow two steps:
Hear activist language. Look into the messages it’s telling me.
Make something new with it. Form it into art that sneaks the message into the minds of whatever audience I might be lucky to get, the way I’ve heard pet owners slip heartworm pills into their dogs’ canned food.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
For starters, you don’t know the nature of the relationship I may have with the person I’ve lost to cancer, or the agony we both felt living with their painful cancer for so long, nor do you know the nature of my relationship to my loved one who may make their living and pay our bills from working on televised football games. The world is vast and sometimes hard to imagine but it’s crucial that we do that work of imagining. What has been easy for you is not always easy for everyone, and they’re not bad people for their different difficulties.↵
Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.
While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:
Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
Less – Andrew Sean Greer
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos
I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.