Split-Level Houses

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.

On “Art for Art’s Sake”

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 Don’t Know about This Coronavirus Vaccine

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.


Some Pollyannaism in a Debbie Downer Year – Musics

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.

Next time: movies.

Beyond Consent: Why It’s Time to Talk about Sexual Autonomy

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.

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Some of the Ways I Love (& Don’t Love) My Families

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”:

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