In my Nonfiction Studio course we begin each class writing from a prompt for thirty minutes or so, then discussing the choices we made in our writing and what it tells us about what writing is and can do. For camaraderie purposes, I write along with them. When I get something down worth sharing, I aim to post it here, if only because the semester’s beginning and my being deep into an essay project have led me to post much less here than I did in 2020. Last night’s prompt was to write an essay with the above title, and this is what I wrote.
“All art is quite useless” is a phrase I hold onto as dearly as “We are all sinners.” Both release me. Not the way the harness on a rollercoaster releases me after the car slides in to whatever that large hut thing is called, returning me to my calm-hearted life, but the way a snow day did, all those years ago. I don’t have to be anything other than what I am today, and what I am isn’t any worse than what you are. Ditto the art I make.
I come back, unfairly, and perhaps without enough compassion, to a former student’s writing, and revising, and revising again for their thesis, an essay about laundry. There was a paragraph about the temperature of water called for with various materials and colors. There was a whole thing about stains, and another thing about their delicates, and then the term “delicates”. It was, as far as art goes, totally useless, and while my job was to help them make the essay what they hoped it would be (I recall their aims being very personal, in that they found themselves thinking one day about laundry and how weird it was, and they wanted to inspire their reader to think this deeply about laundry themselves), I privately resented having, once again, to talk about this essay on laundry.
Q: Who cares?
Q: So what?
These are real, and indelicate, questions that “All art is quite useless” protects the artist from deigning to answer, and so I come repeatedly to this feeble feeling whenever I’m in the vicinity of Art For Art’s Sake-ers. But:
A: Why is caring important?
A: What else, if not this?
The question, in prayer one morning, that changed my life just a touch, but irrevocably, the way a cat’s tail knocks the heirloom glass off the table: “Why me, God? Why do I get unconditional love?”
The answer, immediate: “Why not you?”
When it’s so hard to accept that anything you do is good enough, Wilde’s epigram feels like salvation. I am tired of art that doesn’t say anything. I am tired of laundry essays that steer my mind only them-ward. This weariness is why I’m writing the book I’m writing now and not the book I wanted to write eight years ago. But the moment I think of duty, or purpose, and the moment I wonder whether to align my purpose with some cause in the world I’m writing about, I stop writing about it. I hate “Art For Art’s Sake” as a critic and an audience, but I hold it very close as an artist.
I. I mean this now, as I type. I’m starting this post in ignorance.
Last week was Dad’s 74th. My dad doesn’t really talk on the phone. After annual birthday calls home, my partner is always shocked when I hang up after a minute. Sometimes Dad and I don’t last the whole minute. My sisters and I had planned to FaceTime together with him, because corona. We joked in advance: Well, this won’t take long.
After the initial pleasantries, Dad talking about how many miles he logged at work that day (he got his first smartphone in October), Jenny asked us all a question: If the vaccine were available tomorrow, would you take it?
Jenny works at a medical office. She’s the frontline worker of the frontline workers, in a sense, meeting the people who come into the clinic for care, some of them knowingly infected, with positive test results. She’s the most careful person I know about avoiding infections. So we got where this question was coming from.
I said “No,” and shook my head. My dad said, “I would.” Jenny elaborated that she’d read the vaccine would be given to healthcare workers first, and she wasn’t sure whether her employers would require her to take it to be allowed into the office. She was half curious and half looking for advice. Dad asked me why I said no, and I said something along these lines: It’s been rushed to the market by an administration we all know we can’t trust to provide sound medical guidance. The sample sizes of the tests haven’t been large enough, and we have no idea what the longterm effects are.
Shani was unsure, but she pointed out that she probably won’t even get access to a vaccine any time soon, so luckily doesn’t have to make the decision. Jenny said, “Yeah, it’s interesting,” and then with the topic she’d provided exhausted, we ended the FaceTime, text-joking with each other afterward about how long we actually got to talk with Dad this time.
My last post was written from and about gloom, and those feelings are real and fill at least half of every day. What’s also real is that other parts of the day are still filled with joy, and it’s mostly owing to the internet: the art and music and movies I’m still allowed to access. (Also the people. Zoom is sometimes great.) Perhaps this is the silver lining of our country’s long decline—it will always be more profitable to a market oligarchy to let me pay for streaming art consumption than ban it because of the ideas it gives me.
Call me naive … please.
Herewith starts a series of posts to share what is new to me that I’ve loved these last few months. This post is on Spotify.
Back when everyone started talking about Spotify, they sold the All The Music In The World angle, as though having access to that was useful for people like me who suffer from choice paralysis. (They called me Dithering Dave at the Cribbage table back in grad school.) Nobody really did a good job selling Spotify’s more useful feature: its recommendation algorithm. It is very good. Unsettlingly good. Not only does my Discover Weekly playlist dig up songs I’ve forgotten I love, but it has either led me to explore, or introduced to me wholesale, some very good bands:
Amanaz – A Zambian band from the 1970s, who themselves introduced me to a subgenre: Zamrock, which is this mix of African and psychedelic musics. I love “I Am Very Far” but the big perfect hit is “Khala My Friend”.
Alex Chilton / Big Star – Many people know that Alex Chilton was only 16 when he sang “The Letter” but up until a few months ago I was not one of them. I never enjoyed Big Star’s first record, and I still might not. Ditto the second. But Third/Sister Lovers is a perfect, perfect record. It’s like the best Smog record before there was Bill Callahan.
Minutemen – My friend in middle school loved this band and I dismissed it all those years ago as punk noise (he also loved the Ramones and as much as I respect those folks I’ve never once wanted to, like, put on their record), and then Spotify suggested “History Lesson Part 2” and I was sold by the brotherly love between Mike Watt and Boon. Current fave is the two-disc Double Nickels on the Dime. (Plus Mike Watt can get it.)
Elton Motello, “Jet Boy Jet Girl” – English lyrics over the same backing track as Plastic Bertrand’s “Ca Plane Pour Moi”, which you’ve probably heard on a soundtrack somewhere. This one’s about running after a rich dude who fucks you when he wants but also lets you fly around on his jet: “He gives me head” is the refrain. It’s the party song I’ve been needing in my life for 2 decades.
Bill Fay – Long forgotten English 70s balladeering Cat Stevens type. I first loved “I Hear You Calling” (“All my time is lying / on the factory floor”) and then I fell hard for “Let All the Other Teddies Know”:
Months and months ago, my high school friends Chris and Beage and I tried resequencing records from our youth, which I blogged about here and here. I’ve since picked it up with college friends Beth and Steve. The idea is one of us creates a playlist challenge the others have two weeks to create. Steve just made us do Roxy Music mixes under 45 minutes exclusive of “Love is the Drug”. Before that Beth had us make mixes of songs about platonic friendship. Here’s my friend mix:
Here’s a comprehensive playlist I’m keeping of songs with just 2 chords:
Making playlists is a weak form of creativity, but it’s a form of it, and when the world’s this unsafe to step out into, I’ll take all the weak creativity I can get.
When I was in middle school, I wanted to have sex with my P.E. teacher. I’ll call him Jim. He had a mullet and a year-round tan, and he listened to the same radio station I did: 99.1 WHFS, the freeform indie station few of my friends even knew about. He was nice to us non-athletes. I remember his lips, I remember the snug shorts he wore, and I remember the one time I caught the slimmest glimpse of his royal blue briefs as we all sat on the ground with our legs spread wide, stretching our hamstrings.
I was the 9 jillionth teen to have a crush on their teacher. My crush is not unusual. That I wanted to act on my crush and shower with Jim, touching each other everywhere, I had the fantasy dozens of times—probably also not unusual. But that I look back on this and think it would have been nice if that could have happened, that feels not just unusual but dangerous.
I’ve written so many wrong versions of this post. Maybe I’ll never get it right.
When I was 13, my granddad drove me to things like the orthodonist. He’d moved in with us after my grandma died. He was born in 1909, impossibly old to me. I’d watch him drive, eager to start learning. He did this thing where when it came time to signal a turn he’d lift or lower the turn signal with his pinky, just like a half-inch, and then halfway through the turn he’d let it go. Whereas my mom, when she drove, would just push or pull the stick all the way and let it click back off itself.
Once, on the way to the orthodontist, we came to a red light that was more backed up than usual at this hour. Two cars ahead, there was a car in two lanes; the driver must have realized too late that they needed to go straight and not left, and so our left turn lane, with our green arrow, was stuck. Granddad raised a finger off the fist he gripped the wheel with, pointing at that car. “Bet you she’s a yellow-skin,” he said.
I think of that moment a lot when I hear the words “family first.”
I think of a lot of things. I think of James Dobson and his anti-gay Focus on the Family. I think of the colleague I once had who said that asking faculty to host events for students on the weekend was “the opposite of family-friendly”—meaning my family wasn’t a family because it didn’t have kids in it. I think of The Godfather and the Fargo TV series and Oedipus and ruin. And naturally, I think of Philip Larkin (pictured, right) and his perfect poem, “This Be the Verse”:
But last week I watched the first half of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin broadcast by the Met, and noted in the subtitles this line, sung by the mezzo to the baritone about the soprano: “She is beautiful without the arrogance of beauty, noble without the arrogance of nobility, pious without the arrogance of piety.”
I liked it because the virtues (whether the 4 cardinal or 7 holy ones) have always seemed like obnoxious impossibilities. It’s like when I first started talking again to Jesus and reading about his deeds and ideas. I’m supposed to live as he did? Who can possibly compete?
The living as turns out to be key. Here, the mezzo (a) points to how the virtues become more virtuous and useful when we see them as ways for acting, guidelines for one’s behavior and comportment, while (b) simultaneously warning us against exemplifying or being characterized in full as any one of them.
In other words, make the virtues adverbs, not nouns.[*]
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
You might want to point out that the mezzo extols the soprano’s virtues with adjectives. She “is beautiful” and “is pious”, but I’m reading those as effects of verbal actions. Or better: how is her generally being-a-person? Oh she does-be’s beautifully. She is-acts nobly.↵