Last week I went to the Castro Theatre for the first time since before the before to catch a tribute to Jenny Slate, as part of the SF Film Festival, which included a conversation with Slate before and after a screening of her new movie, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
You likely recall the viral video. In making a feature-length version (which took 7 years), Slate and collaborator Dean Fleischer-Camp found a narrative where Marcel’s community of shells has been lost and he’s alone with his grandmother, Nana Connie. And in talking about how they made a funny 3-minute video into a funny 90-minute film, Slate made it clear that the work they did was very serious. ‘I mean, it’s funny,’ she assured us, ‘but the only way that could work is if we stayed very serious to the characters’ lives.’
This is Del Closean Truth in Comedy improv 101, I know, but it bears repeating, and reminds me of a moment in a TV special on the AFI’s Top 100 Films of all time, where Dustin Hoffman talks about why he wanted to be in Tootsie, and in doing his best to talk about wanting to honor and get to know interesting women, he chokes up and says, ‘That was never a comedy for me.’
And then reminded me also of this line from an interview with the writer Elizabeth McCracken:
I can’t say that I have any religious belief, but to the extent to which I believe there is redemption in the world of sadness, it is through black humor. In the worst moments of my life, there is always a joke to be made, and that’s a deep comfort to me. It’s not putting off sad feelings; it’s part of sad things.
I share her faith. I really want you to go see this movie, so I’ll say little about it that’ll spoil the magic. But there’s a moment halfway through where Nana Connie is trying to get Marcel to say yes to what he’s been saying no to. ‘But what if everything changes?’ he asks, in tears. ‘Again?’
‘It will,’ Nana Connie says.
And Marcel sighs an exact sigh I’ve made dozens of times in my life, times when I don’t want to have to do it, even though I know I should. Most of my life the only status quo I’ve claimed to like is this one, but in my 40s I’m suddenly aware how quickly I’ll act (or refuse to) just to uphold whatever status quo I’ve achieved in this part of my life.
It’s a confusion of comfort for happiness, this habit. It privileges equilibrium over thriving. That I was moved to tears in a scene where two shells with googly eyes stop-motion waddled next to each other on a windowsill is just one reason why you should go see the movie.
Afterward, somebody in the audience asked Slate how she’s able to be so vulnerable in her work, and allow me to paraphrase her response:
I don’t feel vulnerable when I’m working. And I say this as someone who feels vulnerable all the time as a person just living my life in the world. But when I’m working I’m guided by something else. It’s like those cooking shows where the chefs have an enormous pantry full of everything and I’m like, Why don’t you just cook oatmeal? Like, how are you not so overwhelmed? And for me that’s creating: there’s always so much you can do or make, so for me it’s about appetite. It’s asking, what makes me feel hungry as a maker and what can I make that will satisfy that hunger?
Slate said she’s looking for projects that let her do more than the outlandish characters she’s made gems out of so far in her career. Her metaphor here was a panther on a leash. I want for her something like what comic actors Bob Odenkirk and Bryan Cranston got from the Gilliganverse. And I want for me some of the same, if on a slightly smaller scale.
I heard recently that the best-selling car in the U.S. now is the Ford F-150, but Edmunds tells me this has been true since Reagan took office. To me a truck is another car, which makes me not a great citizen of Flyover Country, where N and I landed yesterday for our annual Fourth of July trip. We come after a year that South Dakota has earned a lot of national headlines, owing mostly to its Governor, whose political ambitions, like so many GOPers’, are aided by others’ spinning her general ignorance and distrust of public institutions as (a) strength and (b) freedom.
The latest iteration of this is her attempt to launch fireworks in a National Park (one stolen from the Lakota Sioux) during a pandemic and what’s forecasted to be the worst wildfire season in years. As good as those fireworks feel and as good as it looks on camera, it’s an all-around bad idea that could have damaging consequences. It’s, yes, a bummer, but one way I’ve come to understand maturity (political and otherwise) is that you need to accept the inevitable preventative bummers.
The way N & I accepted it when we couldn’t fly out here for Christmas in 2020, so it’s been almost a year since we were here, and it’s been two years since we were here for his aunt’s big shindig at her lake house in Minnesota canceled last year because we’re all mature adults, and I’m so happy to be here. I’ve been in and around this part of Flyover Country, which I prefer to call the Plains, for nearly 20 years, having moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 2003. N was born in South Dakota and lived there all his life until he moved to Lincoln in 1993. If I’m allowed to call his family my family, I have dozens of friends and family in the Plains. I feel equally at home here as I do in San Francisco or Virginia.
There are many zones of Flyover Country, many states where the F-150 sells better than any other car. I don’t feel comfortable in Texas. Ever since I and a friend of mine drove through the state in 2001, pulled over near the border by highway cop who wouldn’t let us leave until he found the nonexistent drugs he knew were in our car with VA plates, literally sneering at us the whole time like a caricature of a Texan, I mostly look forward to leaving Texas when I’m in Texas. It’s a state that works overtime to psychically push you the fuck out of there. And I don’t feel comfortable in the Deep South, which if you know me you know I don’t need to get into again.
To say nothing of what those places think of homosexuals.
Now: the Plains for sure has a mixed scorecard when it comes to queers. Brandon Teena was raped and killed in Nebraska. Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming (the High Plains). But Iowa granted gays the right to marry six years before the rest of the U.S. did. Plus: I came out in the Plains. That I felt safer doing it here than in Pittsburgh or Virginia has, admittedly, less to to do with the land and the culture than the fact that I knew nobody when I came out here, but still: I feel safe here. I feel safe and at ease in the Plains.
On second thought, maybe the land had something to do with it after all. When it comes to U.S. Promised Lands, there’s the West Coast, and the sun setting over the Pacific, and that feeling you get when you stand on a California beach and watch the sun set that the rest of the country is at your back, and it’s like you’ve moved beyond them, and you’ve put them behind you, and in doing so there’s a kind of release that I can tell you personally feels like a burden that’s been removed from your shoulders. It happens very quickly. Let me tell you that you can live 35 years of your life away from the West Coast, with 18 of those years in the go-go-go anxiety of Eastern Seaboard sub/urban speediness, and two weeks after you move to California you feel like you’ve woken from a bad dream.
Oh, life can also be like this.
Like Blaine Fabin, my journey west originally found a comfortable end in the Plains, and of course the first thing I noticed here were the endless skies. I’d never seen the end of a city before, but not a month after I moved to Lincoln I stood in a parking lot in the Haymarket distract, near the railroad, and saw nothing beyond those tracks but open fields, an orange sun setting over them. The city just stopped right over there, with nothing in anybody’s way. I can’t capture the warm awe I felt in my chest, but seeing this had a profound effect on me. A year later, I was a homosexual. Just like that, kind of.
Our connecting flight from Vegas landed in Omaha yesterday around 6pm. It was partly cloudy and only in the 80s, a relief. (A line I used to open a short story in my collection gives you the general idea of the weather in Flyover Country: I live in a place that gets all the temperatures, 0 to 100.) By the time N & I got our luggage it was raining harder than I’ve ever seen it rain. Noisy, heavy, percussive. The wind blew it laterally at us even though we were under a 10-foot-wide awning. N’s mom was picking us up and taking us to Trader Joe’s to stock up before we drove up to South Dakota, which Trader Joe’s hasn’t discovered yet. Trader Joe’s was 16 minutes from the airport (!!!) and halfway there the rain stopped, and halfway past that the sun was out and the roads were all dry.
The Bay Area has microclimates and the Plains have microstorms.
To drive from Omaha to Sioux Falls, all you do is cross the Missouri River on 680 and get on I-29 North and stay there. The Plains is a place where an 8-hour drive to another city is only, as my mother-in-law called it in conversation last night, “a good day” and not, as I’ve always seen it, a form of masochism. Sioux Falls is 2.5 hours from Omaha. We’d need gas somewhere on the way, so N proposed we stop in Missouri Valley, Iowa. (They’ve got a good travel stop close to the interstate.) I took this photo in the men’s room, where I pissed without a mask on, and it might perfectly encapsulate everything I love about the Plains:
Oh, right: I’d been the only person wearing a mask in Trader Joe’s, including the staff, and it wasn’t until we were done with checkout that I wondered why I was masked up. I’m vaccinated. The CDC tells me I no longer need to do this. Also, I’m susceptible to peer pressure, and everyone I saw when I turned down another aisle had the same look on their face when they saw me, like what I imagine my face looks like when I see someone’s dyed their dog’s hair some pastel color. Who is that for, really?
For 14 months, my answer to that question went something in my head like: Me, but also all of us? I wore a mask to prevent myself from inhaling the exhaled virus of people who didn’t know they were exhaling SARS-CoV-2, and I wore a mask to take my part in the public, shared work of destigmatizing mask-wearing in specific and illness in general.
Nebraska had, for a time, a mask mandate. South Dakota never did. (Another bit of ignorance that got accepted here as strength and freedom.) The only people I saw wearing masks yesterday were a trio of Latinx women at De Leon’s Restaurant and the one guy who helped us at the Apple Store (a guy from Watertown, S.D.). I respected these people’s choices, and even admired them, the way I admire it when someone speaks in public about a certain kind of sex act they like. I like seeing people who seem to know themselves.
The trick of being an adult is working out this conflict—am I knowing myself or asserting myself in willful ignorance? Have I found and am now exercising my beliefs, or am I repeating beliefs I’ve been given? I’d originally written “The trick of being in the Plains” there, but all this is true everywhere. What made me want to site this in the Plains, originally? There’s a feel I get here that the vast distance from any U.S.-cultural center (if you don’t count Minneapolis, then Chicago—which many people also wouldn’t count—is 600 miles away) has led to a Left Alone mentality here. That is: folks feel left alone with their own thoughts and to their own devices.
This spirit is real. People in the Plains, where the closest services are often very far away and the weather is severe enough to make getting there not always easy, can do more kinds of things than people I’ve met around the country. They’re like the opposite of a software engineer. And “Minnesota Nice” is also real, which might explain the comfort I feel. In Texas I’ve felt unveiled hate. In the Deep South we felt aggressive politeness that veiled their hate or disinterest. In New York City I’ve felt aggressive rudeness that’s actually an odd form of niceness. Here, likely because I’m another white person, people are mostly just nice. As a person well versed in veilings and dodges and ironized layerings, I feel very safe and comfortable in their absence.
The writer Jesse Lee Kercheval, originally from the Deep South but making her career chiefly in Wisconsin, once told me that the main difference in the two places is in how they complain. In the Deep South, expressions of heat, say, are always lyric and associative. There’s a poetry to the Deep South’s “It’s hotter than a June bride in a feather bed” or whatever. The magnitude of your feeling is directly proportionate to the artfulness (however stale over time) of your speech. Whereas in the Midwest, people use simple repetition. “It’s hot. Real hot.”
I can admire the Deep South for Kercheval’s reasons, but it’s still not the place for me. The Plains also aren’t, probably, “the place for me,” but I know that voice she was talking about, that plainspokenness, and I’ve got almost 2 weeks to hear it, and I hope you reading this have as much of a lovely Fourth of July weekend as I’m about to have here.
Maybe you’ve been watching Mare of Easttown like Neal and I have these last few weeks, and probably you’ve heard that what makes the prestige crime drama so compelling is the accents. Kate Winslet says /wooder/ in the pilot, etc. etc.
Well, we finished the show last night, after its great finale, and what I loved the most about the show was Mare’s house. Here’s the exterior:
It’s a split-level; half of the bottom floor is underground, and the top floor is like 4 feet above the grass. This is the kind of house I grew up in. For 18 years I knew only this kind of home as a home, and everything I learned about the world out there came from TV and movies, and that’s what I want to write about today. In all those 18 years I basically never saw another on-screen split-level house, even though pretty much everyone I knew who didn’t live in a townhome lived in one.
So I never got to see my home as a Real American Home.
Much of this is pragmatic: good luck filming inside a split-level house. As soon as you walk in you can only go up or down. Here’s Mare’s foyer:
Now: that’s a fairly huge split-level foyer. Ours was maybe half that, no fancy windows on either side of the door. (Neal’s mom’s old house had this big a foyer; the realtors who sold it called it an Executive Split-Level.) Given that so many scenes in homes take place at the door—welcoming home a long-lost relative, receiving a package that kicks the plot into motion—what you need is a home with the kind of foyer that branches out around the floor. Like this:
Look at all the places The Simpsons can go once they close the door! They can go to the formal living room, they can go to the dining room, they can go upstairs, they can go back to the coat closet, they can go over to the chest of drawers where they’re storing who knows what!
These were the kinds of houses they made in Reston, or Great Falls, or even the newer homes across Herndon Parkway from us, the ones that were all brick on the outside and had big high church-like windows over the front doors.
I know the Simpsons are far from rich, but where I grew up theirs was the kind of house wealthy people lived in. So when I watched Mare of Easttown, though it’s set hours from where I grew up, I felt like I was home again, living among the kind of people I knew growing up, and that we also had stories worth telling.
Mare’s house is gorgeous. It’s just gorgeous. Look at the laid brick walkway, above, and the black paved drive. Look at this kitchen that stems from the living room at the top of the steps:
We don’t really see it in the show, but that back door seems to go to a mudroom kinda thing that dollars for donuts was added on to the house years after it was built, which somewhere back there I just know has a back door that opens to a tiny painted wood deck, the paint long peeled and flaking, with warped-nail wooden steps leading down to the backyard surrounded by a chainlink fence. I love the built-in cabinet by the fridge, and all the undercounter lighting. And I love how it’s got, from certain seats at the eat-in table, a direct view of the front door:
My guess is that when Mare’s house was built, that kitchen was two rooms separated by walls: a kitchen and a dining room. Maybe you could access the kitchen from the top of the stairs, but it’s also possible you had to walk through the living room, over into the dining room in the back corner of the top floor, and then into the kitchen—like with the split-level in Fairfax my pal BJ lived in for a few years after college. And also the split-level he grew up in in Herndon, a house that was like a second home to me. That house, the house on Maleady Drive, was special in that the formal living room was on a kind of half level halfway up the stairs, with the top of the landing leading you to the dining room and kitchen.
I don’t know what else to say. Are they even making split-level homes anymore? A cursory search online says yes, but they’re big and fancy. Was our house big and fancy when my parents bought it, as new construction, in 1976? Unlikely. For a number of years there were six of us living in there. Here’s what it looks like:
There used to be a crabapple tree there to the left of the driveway. The garage was added after I was born. There’s no way to get into the house from there but to walk out and down that walkway, which I don’t remember being at an oblique angle. There’s no way we wouldn’t have cut right across the lawn.
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.