Friday, November 18, 2016

Trifles, Light As Air

Part Five of an ongoing series. Catch up with part One here. 
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It is necessary to fail gracefully. We fail more often than we succeed. Despite ample opportunities for practice, it never gets easier.

Donald Duck is his own worst enemy. He rarely wins, and when he does it’s usually accompanied by a poison pill, a humiliation or setback. He fails not because he’s incapable but because he can’t overcome his worst impulses: wrath, envy, pride, greed, sloth. He looks for shortcuts and hamstrings himself out of spite.

The reason why Donald remains compelling is that he’s simultaneously both protagonist and antagonist. When faced with the choice between right and want, he deliberates. This has been part of Donald’s character from the very beginning. 1938’s “Donald’s Better Self” literalizes this conflict by putting Donald in the position of having to choose between a devil and an angel, perched one on each shoulder. Given the choice between selfishness and selflessness, he doesn’t always do the right thing. Placed into the position of being a reactive agent – such as for most of the longer adventure stories in the comics – he usually does, and enjoys the occasional happy ending. In the shorter 10-page features he stumbles because his motivations as a protagonist are self-defeating.

“The Crazy Quiz Show” first appeared in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories #99 in 1948. The story, from Donald’s perspective, is a crushing defeat. He studies hard for the purpose of winning a travelling quiz show, stuffing his head with trivia. Certain of his victory, he antagonizes the hosts. They ensure he loses the competition, awarding prizes not to qualified contestants but his own nephews as they answer ludicrously simple questions.

Donald’s problem is that no matter how well he stuffs his head with facts, he can’t escape his own pettiness. This pettiness reveals itself in his actions. He refuses to wait in line. He refuses to accept the rules of the game. He refuses to lose with dignity. 

He also refuses to acknowledge that his plan is flawed. He spends all his money on books to study for the quiz, certain that his investment will be returned when he is victorious. It’s a get-rich-quick scheme that hinges on him learning a great deal of information in a short amount of time – a shortcut that seems significantly more elaborate than getting a better job. (This is still 1948, though, so every person reading the story regardless of age would recognize the backdrop of postwar privation against which Donald’s quest for sudden riches becomes significant.)

Donald is undone by arrogance. “I hate to brag,” he boasts, “but I know the answers to just about everything!” It’s at this moment that the reader realizes that the conflict is not Donald in opposition to the quiz show, but Donald’s basest motives at war with his best. Our sympathy for the Duck disappears. He deserves what he gets.


We undervalue our gifts.

It’s easy to do this because the world tells us that we should. It’s difficult to keep faith in yourself. I’m a writer, or at least, that’s what I’ve often fancied myself. I didn’t start out as a very good writer, which is standard. I wrote a lot of shit, and that’s how it works. I wrote one completely terrible book that no one read. I wrote another slightly less terrible but only because the first book was so completely awful book. And finally I lit upon a decent idea, and a decent enough voice, and ran with it, far enough to produce a third, only partially terrible book.

Now there was a sense of accomplishment! It only took six years to write something not completely awful. It was the fruit of the most prolific period of my life, when I was producing a significant amount of content for both The Hurting and Popmatters, working for that site as a copyeditor, as well as the occasional piece for the Journal.

Here’s a secret about being a writer: you can’t be a writer unless you have something to write about. It’s fine to want to be a writer but without a subject a writer is useless. A writer only finds a subject by living long enough to separate the wheat of their experiences from the chaff. You have to read millions of words and write a few million yourself. Somewhere in the middle of all that reading and writing and living your voice appears and announces your topic.

Looking back on my career I focus on the long periods of languor, inactive stretches without any substantive work. After finishing my third book in 2006 I tried to sell it. That consumed most of the mental energy previously spent on writing. The significant difference is that the reward for writing is often the quality of the writing itself, while the reward for trying to sell a book needs to be selling a book. I did not succeed in selling a book.

In hindsight, it is good that I did not succeed in selling a book. 

The problem is that not selling the book was a blow. I had correspondence with dozens of agents, some of whom expressed interest and read the first chapters, a couple of whom even read the manuscript. I got good feedback. I heard a few variations on, “I love it, but . . .” Nothing led to a sale, nothing led to an agent, nothing really led anywhere. I worked my way down every figure in the US publishing industry and a few in the UK, until I could find no more names to contact. Everyone to whom I could show the book given my limited vantage point on publishing at the time, I did.

I would be embarrassed now if the book had been published. I thought it was about a few things – 9/11, mental illness, conspiracy theories – when really it was about one thing: being angry at my ex-wife. I was angry at the world for having left me in the position of living alone in central Massachusetts, working a dead end job that managed to be both unpleasant and unsettling. Anyone reading the book would be justified in wondering after the state of my mental health – one person close to me said it was a genuinely upsetting story told in a voice that was recognizably mine. Not the wished-for reaction.  

Failing to sell the manuscript took the wind out of my sails. It was a blessing that the book floundered, but at the time it was a significant blow. Playing around with another idea I produced a few thousand words about a man stuck in a hospital bed after almost dying in a car crash. He was really upset about his divorce, however. When I realized that was the direction in which my ideas were naturally trending, I put it up and never went back.

The only charm my terrible job had was that on most nights I was left to my own devices for the entirety of the shift – free to read, write, sometimes watch TV. Most of my knowledge of foreign film comes from this period – back when Netflix was still primarily a DVD rental company. I read Jane Eyre and Jane Austin, polished off the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series in a quick two days and spent a leisurely week on The Book of the New Sun.

But it wasn’t the kind of job that people kept. It was an easy job to get and a hard position to fill because the demands were significant and not readily apparent. The facility was set in the heart of central Massachusetts, tucked among rolling hills and ancient lanes. Most nights were quiet. But the clients were erratic – older kids and teens with mental illness, developmental disabilities, behavioral problems, or substance abuse issues. Often many at once. A lifetime’s experience dealing with mental illness and being around mentally ill people gives me an unusual degree of compassion for people in that situation. Regardless of how kind and understanding they may appear, many “normal” people do not have the patience for dealing with misfiring brains. I have nothing but patience for anyone who knows how to lose an internal battle.


We can’t really root against Donald but it is difficult to root for him. His life can be reduced to a series of morality plays, with the curtain often falling only at the moment of his most severe humiliation. Hubris breaks him.

For Donald the worst possible humiliation comes in the form of his own nephews. “The Crazy Quiz Show” presents Huey, Dewey, and Louie at a relatively early place in their development, before they become impossibly smart thanks to the introduction of the Junior Woodchucks and their eponymous Guidebook. They’re still just kids here, and young. Even given that, their ability to confound their uncle’s best-laid plans remains formidable.

You know you’re reading Carl Barks when you see Donald dressing down his nephews with the pejorative “Infants!” It’s a verbal tic you don’t see outside of Barks’ stories, because Barks’ Donald is a significantly different creature than later versions. In their contemporary incarnations the Disney mainstays – Donald, of course, Mickey, Goofy and the rest – are grown children, waddling through life with the deathless bonhomie of corporate mascots on an eternal sunset cruise. Barks’ Donald is very angry, and not simply because he has a temper. He rails against his nephews, against his uncle, against the world. He is condescending, rude, and dismissive even of his friends and family. (It should be noted that he appears to have few of the former and is only tolerated by most of the latter.) He has a monstrous ego and failure only ever emboldens him to double-down on his mistakes.

The effect of reading Donald Duck on the page is significantly different from watching him in a cartoon. Comics are silent, so Donald’s particular speech impediment is not represented. There is no indication that Donald in these stories sounds different from anyone else. This is important because the dialogue in these comics depends on a crisp, clipped delivery more similar to something you’d hear in a George Cukor comedy than a Silly Symphony. You cannot imagine Clarence Nash’s quack delivering these lines coherently.

Without his cartoonish speech impediment, he seems less like a talking duck and more like a person who just happens to be a duck. This is a world very much like our own. The rules of nemesis remain firmly in place, ready to smite any mortal who oversteps their boundaries. Barks’ world isn’t a world where everything naturally turns out for the best. It’s a world where hustlers, con men, and crooks lurk around every corner, ready to take advantage of anyone unlucky enough to believe the game isn’t rigged.

In Donald’s case, his nephews can usually be found at or near the site of his greatest defeats. Sometimes they purposefully set out to stymy him, sometimes it happens by chance. In this case, when Donald rushes the stage to be the first contestant, the boys have already beaten him there. The quiz show hosts are more than happy to give the boys the chance to upstage Donald, the “professional prize-grabber.” His first question is, “how many killowatts in a freedoffagraph?” Donald scratches his head and asks, “what’s a freedoffagraph?” A gong sounds somewhere off-panel and one of the hosts rushes to squeeze a grapefruit over Donald’s dead. “You’ve got to take the punishment!” he yells as he clobbers Donald with a wet “SKIVSH.” 

After this the hosts turn to one of the nephews (it’s often unclear which is which in these stories, but it matters little as the boys have no independent personalities) and gives him a slightly easier question: “How many tails does a dog have?” Under the hot klieg lights he quails, and question marks appear over his head. Donald rushes the stage to help before being pulled away but the nephew is still unable to answer – finally he stammers, “Depends on the dog!” Little beads of sweat pop off his head. But this is sufficient. The host exclaims “Good enough!” and gives the nephew a shiny new bicycle.

The same pattern repeats twice more, once for each nephew. The second question Donald receives is, “What is Mickey Mouse’s Social Security number?” Of course he doesn’t know, but the next question asked of a nephew is, “How many eggs in a dozen eggs?” He can’t quite figure it out. Donald rushes the stage again, but is imprisoned in a barrel-sized block of gelatin. The nephew finally figures out the answer, through luck. (Incidentally, Mickey does actually have a Social Security number: 746-55-2769.)

The final question for the nephews is, “What is two minus two?” The nephew struggles mightily for an entire page as Donald strives to free himself from his Jell-O prison. But the nephew, unable to muster an answer, simply stares blankly, unable to reason the answer. The host finally responds, “You said nothing! The answer happens to be nothing! You win!”

 Whereas the first nephew is simply given the bike, the second and third nephews are offered the choice between accepting a bike and accepting money. Being little boys, they choose the bikes and ride them offstage smiling. Donald, as one might expect, reacts poorly.

Finally, Donald escapes his trap and is given one more chance to answer a question, his fourth and final question for all the money in a giant barrel: “How many drops of water pass over Niagra Falls in a week?” But this is an answer Donald knows, so surely – the reader thinks, if only for a moment – his victory is assured.   


I didn’t get into grad school the first time and it was my own fault.

I barely got into grad school the second time and in hindsight I was very lucky.

Graduate school applications are complex because they represent the first hurdle. In order to jump that hurdle you need a lot of time and money. Although there are ways to sidestep the latter, they are very difficult and mean more of an investment of the former.

After I returned to school in 2007 it became clear that this was a milieu in which I could survive and even prosper. Within a set of rigid parameters academia is fairly easy to navigate. You’re left to your own devices most of the time but are expected to perform your knowledge periodically in order to continue on the same path. I fit perfectly because temperamentally I much prefer to be left to my own devices. The problem comes with the expectations of performance. 

Performance is a loaded word. Growing up trans without knowing I was trans placed me in a very difficult position in regards to masculinity: I was repulsed by it, completely alienated and even physically frightened, and yet lacked the vocabulary to describe or even the awareness with which to articulate my experience. Our media – our world – is defined by the reverence paid to masculinity. Sports, music, movies - every field defines the roles of several different masculine spheres into which male-presenting persons must fit themselves or risk being lost. Without masculinity a man is nothing. Powerless men are dangerous men.

I couldn’t handle sports, and felt little kinship with the men on movie screens or staring back at me from album covers. What did I have left? Certainly not fictional men in comic books, who were better than men could ever be in real life because they always made the right choices. You could learn ethics and civics from Captain America but what can a fictional character tell you about how to live when you hate yourself?

So I gathered what role models I could, even if I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I went through a Jack Lemmon phase when I was younger because he seemed to represent a vision of masculinity that wasn’t about striving towards victory but living with defeat. He specialized in playing broken men who somehow found the courage to keep going when by all rights no one could have blamed them for giving up. The secret to understanding his career is that his most famous roles were all essentially the same person placed in different situations. The passive C. C. Baxter in The Apartment and the self-destructive Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses are the same man – harried, beaten, but funny, trying very much to hold onto what little dignity was allowed them under the circumstances. They’re both cut from the same cloth as the more comedic Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts, or Jerry in Some Like It Hot: sometimes you laugh, sometimes you don’t, but there’s always the same guy at the center of it all, covered in flop-sweat and five minutes behind everyone else.

 Lemmon’s career culminates in 1973’s unfairly forgotten Save the Tiger. He won an Oscar for the role – fittingly, he won two in his life, one for this dramatic role and one for the comedic Mister Roberts. Same character in different clothes. Save the Tiger is about a washed-out businessman named Harry Stoner who decides the only way to save his business is by hiring someone to burn it to the ground. It’s a rough movie that occasionally veers into the maudlin but it’s an honest story about the ways society lies to men about masculinity. It hurts to wake up one morning and realize that the sense of invincibility you felt as a kid has completely disappeared, only to be replaced with . . . nothing.  

My successes in academia are hard-fought but always transitory. Everything I win slips through my fingers. I can’t hold onto it. I have no follow-through. Whatever I do, I always end up like Harry Stoner walking down the sidewalk in Los Angeles, dressed in the most expensive cheap suit imaginable and mulling over the fact that I lost my way and don’t know how to retrace my steps to get back.

The reason I didn’t get into grad school the first time is quite simple. I was sabotaged by a professor who developed a dislike for me but lied to my face that he would support me. In hindsight it’s not hard to figure out why. He was an old, petty son of a bitch and I had a strange, subtle fear of men in positions of authority that made it difficult to keep up my side of any professional relationship. Still does, to an extent. 

I only found this out later in the spring after I had received rejection notices from fourteen out of fifteen schools to which I had applied. I wrote a letter to the fifteenth program begging to hear an answer because it was the only hope still outstanding. To my eternal surprise the head of the department wrote me back a long letter saying, in essence, yours was a promising application but you need to get better recommenders. When he told me that, it suddenly made sense. I had been double-crossed.

Still, the message was encouraging. I didn’t throw in the towel. I knew I could do better, so I did. I retook the tests to improve my scores. The next year I applied to a wider spread of programs, had better letter writers, and got into a few. The last school I had heard from the previous year – where the department head wrote me the very long, gracious, and helpful letter – turned out to be UC Davis, where I am today.


Donald wants the same things everyone else does, but he never quite makes it because he wants it too much. He doesn’t get that in a world sharply split between suckers and sharpies, the worst suckers are those who fancy themselves sharpies.

Why does Donald fail? He has to fail. He falls short because the virtues needed for success in Barks’ universe are forever out of his reach. Patience and hard work are alien concepts. Donald’s Uncle Scrooge, introduced a year before “The Crazy Quiz Show,” quickly outgrew his original purpose as a foil for his wastrel nephew. Despite his mania for money, Scrooge was also a model for the precisely the kind of behaviors that Barks was keen to show Donald lacked. He was smart, but he was also diligent, forthright, and above all respectful of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. (His idea of an honest day’s pay was tantamount to indentured servitude, but it’s not as if Donald is ever doing anything else.) Donald is always trying to figure out a way around having to do the hard work of working hard, and becomes frustrated when his shortcuts invariably fall short.

Here’s his chance, though. He knows full well how many drops of water pass over Niagara Falls. This was in Volume IV of Electro-Kinetic Science! Victory is within his grasp. All he needs to do is get through the answer. The very long answer.

Donald should be exultant. He’s won: he’s beaten the con men at their own game. He pulled a miracle out of his back pocket. But the effort destroys him.

There’s something missing in Donald that forces him to take the path of least resistance even when it ends up costing him everything. His nephews win the day not because they are more clever or even more moral than their uncle. They win because they know on some level they’re playing a game. The hosts let them win because they’re little kids on a game show. It’s no fun to see a pro run the table, not when you can upstage him with his own children.

The nephews don’t really care that their uncle is barking mad. They’re used to dealing with such a mercurial authority figure, and the three of them are fairly evenly matched to the one of him. (Donald didn’t always get the upper hand on the kids, but every now and again he did. The very next Donald ten-pager after “The Crazy Quiz Show” was “Truant Officer Donald,” which ends with Donald making the boys attend Saturday detention for being willful brats.) They parade their prizes in front of him as he stews. One nephew exclaims, “Look! No hands!” as he rides by. The next announces, “Look! No feet!” as he rides the bicycle offstage balanced on his head.

At the very end, having stunned the audience with his amazing recitation, Donald is given the same choice as his nephews: take a bike or a barrel of money. A big barrel of money. But he’s been stunned by the effort. “The contestant is dazed from his great mental effort!” exclaims an audience member. “I’ve seen such cases lose all power of reasoning!” Donald chooses the tricycle and rides offstage in imitation of his nephews – “Look! No head!” He has humiliated himself.

What’s the lesson here?

Donald’s mistake would appear to be that he overestimates his own abilities. His greatest sin is overconfidence, and this makes him dangerous to himself. His nephews are instruments of divine retribution: there is nothing he can do that can’t be countered by three small children, and they serve as a natural check on his overweening pride. This is why, incidentally, Donald is usually relegated to a supporting role in later Uncle Scrooge stories. He’s no match for his uncle, and his uncle in turn regards his lazy nephew with a mixture of pity and condescension. His uncle doesn’t always get happy endings either, and when Scrooge falters it’s because he allows his own primary negative character trait – greed – to overcome his natural kindness.

The only truly consistent law of Barks’ moral universe is that you will fail if your intentions are misplaced. His ducks are such wonderful characters because they are motivated by the same desires we recognize in ourselves. We sympathize with Donald because his failures mirror our own. We see him riding the tricycle offstage to the roaring laughter of the audience and the quiz show hosts and we feel sympathy for him. Failure is a familiar sensation, even if – as is also the case in our own lives – we nevertheless recognize the comeuppance as well-deserved.

Barks dismantles Donald in ten pages. We don’t want to see Donald fail but at the same time we do. His travails provide assurance that bad behavior ultimately creates the conditions of its own downfall. The instruments of this downfall may as well be the fates themselves. Crooks are simply a fact of life in Barks’ world, anonymous forces of nature that exist to test the individual’s resolve not against the universe but against themselves. No one brings the hosts to account for their part. It’s rigged but it’s still their game, and Donald’s problems begin with his assumption that the rules will remain consistent and equitable. What he doesn’t understand is that the rules of the contest are subject solely to the whims of the men behind the contest. The only way to effectively win in this situation would be, like his nephews, to accept that the game is rigged and act accordingly. Fair doesn’t enter into the equation. 


On the morning of 9 December 2014 I failed my Qualifying Exam. The QE is the final exam before the student advances to the level of candidate, and is preceded by the Preliminary Exam. Whereas the latter is designed to test a student’s knowledge of a large breadth of literature in your field, the former is designed by the student themself as a prelude to the writing of their dissertation. You write a prospectus for your project that entails what you will be doing and how you will do it, and then sit in a room for an hour and a half while five faculty members grill you on the details of a book-length scholarly project you haven’t yet written.
It is a grueling experience. Technically I did not “fail.” The official designation was “not pass,” and there’s a world of difference between the two. A failure would have put me in a tight bind, whereas merely not passing allowed me to make the test up in a manner deemed satisfactory by my committee. Thankfully, they agreed to allow me to make up the test by producing half of a first chapter. I wrote half a chapter over the course of the new few months and had no problem passing. I had stacked my committee with faculty who knew me and knew the quality of work I was capable of producing, and I suspect (but will probably never know) that may have saved me.

There are two kinds of failures: those where you know with certainty that you did all you could, and those where you know that you could have done more. The first is vanishingly rare, the second dominates every horizon of our adult lives. 

The best example of the first type of failure was my marriage. I have no plans to dig up old bones. It’s a dead subject that holds no interest to me. I am confident after having examined the matter from every angle for many years that not only was the divorce unavoidable but that it should probably have come sooner. I am even more certain that the only reason it lasted as long as it did is that I did everything in my power to make the relationship work. I failed, and it was an inevitable failure, but it’s not one I regret.

My qualifying exam was no such sanguine event. I failed because I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared despite many months of preparation, preceded by years of study. I walked into the room with a headache from a concussion the previous week but I didn’t want a postponement – even if I could have got one. I was as ready for that test as I could be, which wasn’t much.

I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t make myself focus, couldn’t buckle down and read the books and articles I needed to read, couldn’t even bring myself to spend a day revising my terrible prospectus. At a certain point, whether I admitted it to myself at the time, I gave up. I felt at that moment on that December morning as if I had been hollowed out and drained of every rivulet of motivation. I knew what was coming and I walked into the exam room already flinching from an imminent blow.

The exam itself was fairly brisk. After a couple questions it became obvious that I was woefully unprepared. They had already independently concluded that my prospectus was unworkable and proceeded to hammer me on the fact that I refused to give them a straight answer. The problem is that I was trying as hard as I could for over an hour to give them the straight answers they desired. Every time I opened my mouth I kept wandering off topic, thinking in my mind that of course I need to lay groundwork in one idea before I can move on to the next . . . only to be pulled up short. You’re not answering the question. Well, I’m trying, you see, I need to establish – no you need to answer the question. Why can’t you just answer the question. 

In the entire running time of the exam I didn’t answer a single question to their satisfaction. Every answer I gave appeared evasive or simply non-sequitur, and eventually my problematic answers became the subject of the test. At that point I knew it was over. They thought I was being equivocal, and I certainly was, but I was trying desperately throughout the running time of the exam to tell them in as simple and unambiguous a way as possible that I was trying my damndest to unkink my answers and give them what they wanted to hear. The harder I tried the more I felt my grip of the situation loosening, until eventually I was just . . . blank. I had no answers. I knew nothing. I was empty.

After a certain point they relented. We took a break and they talked. I knew I wouldn’t be getting a second round of questions. I don’t know what they said but the conversation lasted a while. When I was called back in the five professors explained their terms. They asked if I would accept them. I replied yes. I may have added something to the effect that they would have been completely justified in failing me outright. And they would have.


I blamed myself for failing the test. Given what I know now, maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. December 2014 was a year and a half out from the biggest shock of my life. I spent the following eighteen months descending into a state of agonized paralysis, a long dark tunnel with only one outlet. It was shaping to be a harrowing period, and I barely survived.

 I didn’t know this at the time. I didn’t know, either, that my concentration and focus issues were most likely not down to a moral failing on my part. I did a good job covering up for decades, developing an entire set of alternate study habits that enabled me to get by without consciously being aware of what I was doing. I spent two decades navigating around a boulder in my brain, unable to see the dimensions of the problem but still dimly aware of the need to adapt to match the pace of my gradually deteriorating concentration. Eventually the deterioration outpaced my ability to cope. This leaves me roughly where I am now at the present moment, unable to focus on reading for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. As of this writing I am in need of testing to measure what kind of learning disability I have, as a prelude to any treatment.

I can still write well, as typing focuses my concentration. Typing actually relaxes me, regardless of whether I’m typing an essay or an e-mail or chatting with friends. But I also know that as soon as I finish typing this essay I have to turn around and read it again for the purposes of editing. Copy-editing requires such a high degree of concentration for me that I am only able to do it for very short bursts at a time. 

Do you learn from failure? Do you lift yourself up off the mat, wipe the dust off and try again? Or do you wake up the next day and do the same thing over and over again? 

Donald is trapped. He can never learn from his mistakes, so his humiliation assumes ritual proportions. You don’t expect him to learn. Any movement he makes is lateral, figuring out a new way to get ahead or get one over, until that too invariably collapses in spectacular failure. He can’t actually learn from his mistakes, however, because that would be the end of his usefulness as a cautionary tale.

Perhaps there’s another world where Donald sees a therapist and gets help for anger management. That guy’s waddling around in a much better headspace now, able to be a much better parent to his nephews. He marries and settles down. His uncle is so impressed by his personal growth that he rewards Donald with a good job, with great opportunities for advancement. He never misses a day of his Wellbutrin, and neither do I. 


 Part Five of an ongoing series. 

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Someday We Will All Be Free

Part Four of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts OneTwo, and Three
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.

When you are transgender, you carry the knowledge that many people believe you should not exist. That you do not exist. That you are sick. That you need help. That you need to die.

We have no homeland. We have no Mecca. We fit in on the edges of a broader LGBT culture but are sometimes barely tolerated even by many who purport to represent us. (This is not a blanket statement, but the antipathy between the transgender community and parts of the larger LGB coalition is well documented.) The parameters of our own tiny culture are defined by external hostility.

At puberty our bodies experience irreversible changes. Since my own puberty is decades gone, my normal male voice will never naturally be any higher or softer than it is, and so I begin the long and arduous work of changing the way I speak. A trans man will grow unwanted breasts that require painful and expensive surgery to remove, a procedure that leaves scars. Those of us who live through puberty enter adulthood feeling at war with bodies. It’s a hell that has no ready parallel in cis life.

A very lucky few are now afforded the chance to transition before puberty, and being able to do so drastically reduces later symptoms of dysphoria. Those who are not so lucky face the prospect of long, expensive, and often painful medical intervention. 

No two trans people are the same. Depending on any number of factors, some feel little dysphoria while others are almost crippled. But there is one thread woven through the lives of every transgender person, regardless of the nature of their dysphoria or any external factors: hate. No trans person in the world is exempt from feeling, at all times, the hot furnace blast of hatred down the back of our necks. If we’re lucky we come out into the arms of supportive families, friends, and communities. If we’re unlucky coming out means cutting off all ties to old lives, parents, siblings, even children. But there is no degree of privilege or luck accorded a transgender person on this world that can stop random people from muttering “tranny” under their breath at the supermarket checkout line, or assuming any random trans person is an easy target to be raped and murdered when walking alone.

This is life for out trans people, whether or not they can pass: no passing privilege is solid enough to erase the fear of being clocked, and those who cannot or will not pass are easy targets.

This is life for closeted trans people, whether or not they can work towards transition: knowing that the medical intervention required to save your life will also make your life less valuable, less important, less safe, less loved.

Being trans means accepting life as a never-ending Hobson’s choice: our options are transition or not. Transition is dangerous and expensive. Not transitioning means living under a cloud of depressive, dysphoric haze so thick that some never escape.

It’s not an easy choice, and many opt out entirely. Another pile of bodies.

Those that come out to or are outed by their families as minors can be forced into conversion therapy so traumatic that the suicide rate is rumored in the region of 50% or even higher (these organizations do not publish death statistics). Another pile of bodies.

Those that do transition can face alienation so severe that thoughts of suicide become a daily companion. Another pile of bodies.

Those that transition are often simply murdered. Another pile of bodies.

There is a great deal more to being trans than trauma and pain. So many wonderful experiences – some of which remain incommunicable to outsiders, but many more that grant us special perspectives that could in the fullness of time blossom into a unique and abiding contribution to culture.

Most people don’t see any of that. They don’t know our pain. They can’t be bothered to listen when we tell them in the broadest terms possible that we have been given no choice at all: a quirk in fetal development marks us for life as irrefutably “other.” We don’t have any say in the matter.

We don’t “identify” as anything but who we are.

America is cruel to her minority populations. As educated and empathetic as I believed myself to be, voicing instantly gave me a newfound appreciation for the existential threats posed to non-white non-cis communities every day. It’s one thing to know it in your head and believe it and even to act politically in accordance with these principles: support Black Lives Matter, protest inequality, fight for social justice. To be "woke."

It’s another thing entirely to know – to learn sometimes in a single terrifying moment – that the target has been painted on your back as well. You don’t understand safety until it’s gone.

We stand and fight for dignity and respect with every other marginalized group that recognizes us as comrades-in-arms.

Trans people exist in every society, have existed at all times throughout history, and are equally represented among all other vulnerable populations. It doesn’t discriminate. It is often comorbid with various kinds of mental illness and neuroatypicality. Trans people are as likely to be disabled or to suffer from chronic illness as any other demographic – perhaps moreso due to the decline in standards of living experienced by many trans people as a result of coming out. Many trans people are homeless. Trans people can be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or straight. Trans people come in every color. Trans people must often resort to sex work in order to survive – one of the few industries that welcomes us with open arms – and that stigma multiplies. At every level our desperation makes us vulnerable to be used, exploited, and discarded.

There are still few enough of us living openly that for large swaths of the country transgender people are as real as martians. Some parents would prefer their children die during conversion therapy than live as their true gender. They hold on to precious memories of their sons and daughters who died for needing to be recognized as daughters and sons.

To be trans is to understand that everything in this world is precarious. Everything you love is contingent. Even love is contingent.

To be trans is to understand that every day is a gift, every new morning an achievement.

Every day a victory.

We do not give up, we cannot give up. We cannot cede one inch of our minuscule, miserable, beautiful territory for any reason, to anyone. Any concession and every setback we experience as a community, whether at the hands of far-right politicians or our supposed “allies” in progressive circles, can be measured in hate crime and suicide statistics. Another pile of bodies.

No more bodies. 

Every trans life matters. Every death diminishes me, weakens me, steals a precious voice from my community.

Take care of yourself. Love your loved ones. Help as many people as you can. Live another day. It's important that we all, every single one of us, live to see the end of this. We are a small community but we are capable of extraordinary acts of courage and support. The smallest gestures of love can save lives. 

We save each other.

We must survive. We must help each other. We must work. We must achieve great things separately and together. We must love great loves. We cannot take one single moment for granted. We don’t get second chances. We must drink life to the lees.

Nothing has changed. The world does not hate us more or less now: it hates us as much as it always has. We are not surprised by the flood tide of bigotry that threatens to drown every meager hard-fought victory we have achieved. We are gratified by every ally who stands with us in this fight. We expect that we will have to fight, because we always have to fight.

How do we fight?

We live.

Part Four of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts OneTwo, and Three
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon. 

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

I Am Not A Good Person

Part Three of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts One and Two.
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.


I’m mean. I’m petty. I fly off the handle at the smallest provocation. I antagonize people who have done nothing to earn my antagonism. I nurse grudges and remember every specious imagined slight. I am passive-aggressive and casually cruel to the people around me. I try my best to not do these things but I feel that I am never in control of my emotions.

That’s what I used to believe about myself. This was the person I thought I was and the face I presented to the rest of the world. I believed with all my heart that I was a terrible person. I didn’t want to be but I felt helpless to change. I accepted it as a given that there was something wrong with me.

It made sense that this was happening. I saw nothing wrong because while I hated my situation I hated myself more. I saw no value in myself. I was a drag on the people around me, someone whose presence was never accepted but tolerated.

That’s not how I see myself anymore, entirely. I can’t answer the question of whether or not I am a good person. Given my circumstances and limitations, I try my very best. I fall short. I feel like I fall short more often than not, especially now given the stress of transition. There are more opportunities to get it wrong. Hopefully going forward I’ll understand where I got it wrong and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Negative moments have a way of sticking around where positive events dissipate. I remember bad things I’ve done, people I’ve wronged (intentionally or far more likely unintentionally), people I’ve insulted (usually but not always unintentionally), people I’ve inconvenienced, people who dislike me for reasons I don’t know but I can hazard a guess, people who dislike me for unknown reasons. For every casual acquaintance in my life I have a mental folder two inches thick filled with incriminating evidence of my social awkwardness. I don’t go out much anymore because every social interaction is an opportunity to embarrass myself.

Talking about the past is difficult. Disentangling what I remember from what happened is unsettling. I remember myself being awful. Other people remember differently. Casual acquaintances remind me of nice things I’ve done or said over the years, small gestures of kindness or generosity that revealed my character. It’s not that I don’t believe what people tell me. I don’t remember.

Disassociation is a coping mechanism. I refined it into art for decades, years spent putting on a mask and trudging forward blindly through each emotionally fraught and perilous situation. Eventually every situation was categorized as “emotionally fraught and perilous.” I was always disassociating. It became habit, and after that it became reflex. Especially in a crisis, people often tell me I can be distracted to the point of obliviousness, despite doing the minimum of what is required. I’m not even on the same planet.

When I say I don’t remember doing nice things for people, I mean it quite literally: I cannot remember most of the nice things people tell me I have done. I remember things I did out of obligation, out of resentment or duty, out of boredom or anger, but I have trouble remembering even the simplest gestures of kindness. Imagine looking behind you and seeing only negative emotions. What positive emotions you keep are a source of embarrassment. You feel guilty when people do nice things for you and are unhappy when people give you compliments. Doesn’t everyone feel that way?

(If you do I’m profoundly sorry. You do not suffer alone.)

I have a RateMyProf page. It’s hurts to look. Not because my students are mean – quite the opposite. My comments are laudatory. People go out of their way to say wonderful things about me. Rather than enjoying the praise it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me extraordinarily unhappy. Teaching is one of the few things I consider myself to be actually good at. I enjoy doing it and usually get a good response, even if my pedagogy can be unusual. Nevertheless whenever I see the ratings and students’ very sweet comments I want to turn away. 

For some unspecified reason it hurts that people think I’m good at my job – because all I see when I look back is the ways I’ve failed and fallen short. My frequent lateness, my procrastination with grading, my inability to complete even the simplest tasks on time. I adapt the persona of the absent-minded professor to cover my lapses, but it’s not really a persona. My memory doesn’t work right and I often need two or three reminders from students before putting up the homework. How is this the behavior of a good teacher? 

(Every teacher does these things sometimes. We’re only human.)

It’s important to remember: I wasn’t just in the closet hiding from the rest of the world, I was in the closet even from myself. It’s a very small closet where even the slightest movement can topple the heap of accumulated mental clutter – what happened to me. In order to maneuver in such a tricky space, you learn to move with economy. You bend yourself backwards. Good things – even extraordinarily good things, such as luck or achievement or even romance – can’t be interpreted correctly. The wires don’t work right, and every opportunity to feel a positive, honest emotion is diverted. Good luck makes me anxious instead of grateful. Achievement of any kind makes me question my worth, and I live with a case of imposter syndrome so severe I am in essence running out the clock on graduate school before they realize I’ve been deceiving them for six years. Love makes me doubt either the sincerity of the affection, or worse, fills me with doubt as to the reliability of my friends and family. If they like me, what’s wrong with them?

To return to the first question: I don’t know whether or not I’m a good person. I feel very deeply that I am not. That I am all those things I listed at the beginning of the essay, and more – hateful, petty, manipulative, forgetful, self-serving, incompetent, untrustworthy. Yet the evidence does not completely support this narrative. 

How do you know if you’re a good person? It is in this instance a practical question. If you already have grounds to suspect that your memories are being edited by disassociation, the question becomes terrifying because suddenly you don’t know what matters more: acts of cruelty to yourself or acts of kindness to others. The reason you don’t know is that you don’t trust your memory.

Being chronically unhappy distorts your perceptions. Anyone who has experienced serious depression knows the sensation of fighting a treasonous brain hell-bent on clinging only to the most upsetting recollections. Unhappy memories linger in anyone’s brain, but never have leave to rest in that of a depressive. 

(I suspect most people live with more depression than they realize, or admit, but that’s pure bias.)

There is also the complication that transition, as much as we may want or be able to control the outcome, entails inconvenience for many and serious trauma for a few. The people in our lives are hurt. It’s unavoidable, whether or not it’s a “fair” reaction for them to have. People respond to change poorly. We feel genuine anguish when our actions hurt other people. The problem, and most people who remain in your life eventually realize this, is that the ultimatum driving the change is life or death.

Having a poor self-image is a part of depression. It distorts your thoughts. You can’t trust your own reactions because your memory has selected only the worst instances for comparison. The worst social mistakes or intimate faux pas you have ever committed are never far from your thoughts. You are intensely self-conscious. Your actions seem labored, strangled – people are uncomfortable around you sometimes even if they may not know why. You wear on people. You come to regard it as a kind of sour-milk smell baked into your soul. 

Under these circumstances, it is extraordinarily important not just to be able to ask yourself whether or not you are good, but to be able to understand and accept the answer. It’s also extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps the best way to ensure that you are a good person is to surround yourself with good people. You see the person you wish to be reflected in the faces of the people you love. 

Part Three of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts One and Two.
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gimme Some Truth

Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon

You lose a lot by telling the truth. Lies fester. 
This is especially true of the lies you tell yourself.
The truth is never quite so kind as we’d like.

Do you want to get understood? /
Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? /

“Outlier” is the sixth track off Spoon’s 2014 album They Want My Soul. After four years away Spoon had lapsed into semi-hiatus. Side projects multiplied. The album was good but only just “good” in the context of Spoon’s previous decade, where Spoon released five albums that are also five of the decade’s best. Part of this can be attributed to the record’s production, a more traditional rock sound that saps much of the energy. It is exchanged for a conventional rock presence that never quite coheres. Being Spoon it is still quite listenable. One of the album’s standouts – and one of the few to make good use of the album’s maximal inclinations – “Outlier” immediately attracted interest among reviewers for the seemingly devastating put-down,

And I remember when you walked out of Garden State /
'Cause you had taste, you had taste /
You had no time to waste.

It’s something you imagine Britt Daniel sneering over his shoulder at some cool loft party in SoHo. Except of course that it’s 2016 and for many reasons no one talks about loft parties in SoHo. I don’t know if that was still a thing even ten years ago. And Spoon are from Texas, which is a strange fact we must live with. Britt Daniel is 45 years old.

Who does the line describe? It’s never specified. The song sounds at first listen like a kiss-off but after a few spins the tone reveals itself as something closer to wistful. (Genius helpfully assumes the subject is a she despite the fact that gender is nowhere specified.) You may try to stay current in certain areas of pop culture in an attempt to stave off the inevitable. You don’t want to lose it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I still like to surprise myself musically.

Rock and roll is an attenuated force: not dead but experiencing a dissolution of cultural reverence. It’s on its way to being the new jazz, and there are worst things to be than jazz. Rock records as a genre function similarly to superhero comic books, another seemingly limited sub-genre that somehow hit hard enough early enough to successfully mutate beyond the conditions of its creation. Rock’s relevance is dependent on people growing up with it and coming to regard it as the default background music of their lives. Take that away, reduce rock to just another choice, and it lives or die on its own merits.

Its merits were that white middle class kids grew up listening, and kept listening for the rest of their lives. That’s not something I personally regret by any means. But the reason why I know so much music from before I was born is that my parents have listened to it their whole lives, and to this day they still – dimly, but still – remember a world before rock and roll. I was immersed in it. In any event, the idea that everyone grew up listening to rock music was always a lie, but it was a comfortable lie because we didn’t have to care that “everyone” in this case was a relatively narrow demographic who spent many decades imposing a white-bread monoculture on the rest of the world. Rock’s eternal appeal is premised on the invincibility of youth: rock and roll disconnected from youthfulness becomes rock and roll as a curated object.

As much as I like Spoon there music can be unsettling and insular. It’s sterile in a way that announces them as the product of critical and not necessarily popular culture. It’s rock music for people who listen to a rock music, full of signifiers and trafficking in inference over affect. They Want My Soul is unique in the Spoon discography for the way it plays with expectations, laboriously constructed over the previous fifteen years, of what a Spoon album is supposed to sound like – a stable idea even after the disconcerting Transference. The result is that in many places it doesn’t sound very much like Spoon.

Perhaps the band are aware of these limitations. The tone of They Want My Soul often approaches elegiac: the former Cool Kids, dominant forces in critically-acclaimed rock music of the 2000s, wake up and realize that cool is a devalued currency. Being the most lauded rock band of a generation – at least one of them – gets you a slot on NPR. The album’s last track, “New York Kiss,” returns to these themes with the recurring refrain of,

I knew your New York kiss /
Now it's another place /
A place your memory owns.

It used to matter whether I believed myself to be a person who would nod in approval at a performative walk-out of a Zach Braff vehicle. “Outlier” begins with the words “You were smart / You played no part,” directed at the song’s subject. Who is the “you” here? As in most Spoon songs, it’s never defined. Is it a third party beside either Daniel or the listener? Is it an ex-lover, the diminutive “kid” indicating gendered condescension on Daniel’s part? Or is he addressing his audience directly – all the kids who were savvy hipsters “back in the day” but are growing older and realizing that there’s nothing to be gained from staying “smart” at a comfortable remove from the business of living? New York changed, the idea of “cool” symbolized by pre-9/11 New York changed, maybe even dwindled to nothing. Now these ideas exist in our memory.

The belief that I wanted to be cool, that I cared about being cool – what was that? Pure anxiety. Does any of it matter? Not really. Growing up antipathetic to any expression of masculinity, I gravitated towards that which seemed least odious: the Expert, the man who knows his stuff. I lived to impress record store clerks with my taste, which would be funny if it weren’t true. Anyone who has gone record shopping with me can attest. I tend to preen.

In fairness, the mantle fit. I have a good memory for unimportant trivia and good technique for recalling information I don’t have at my fingerprints. A mania for reference books probably stems from a lifelong battle with short-term recall. Grad school has taught me the value not of knowing everything but of knowing the right things. If I don’t have an answer, I know where to get it.

The problem with being an expert is that the process of becoming an expert can drain the life of your subject. It’s not difficult to go through the motions but at a certain point it becomes rote and unchallenging. Yeah, I like this, this is OK. It sounds like some other thing I heard a while back. And oh yeah I guess this is trying to sound like Monster, well, why don’t I just listen to R.E.M. instead. I don’t listen to Monster near often enough. Didn’t expect Spoon to make an R.E.M. album. Spot the references. Oh, that’s an interesting variation on a theme. Everything interesting in 2016 is a variation of a theme. Good night to the rock and roll era.

No one gets what I've done /
Everyone else seems to look through it /
Oh, but maybe I've never wanted them to /
Couldn't count on it anyway.

Transference could easily have been the last Spoon record, and it would have been a fitting note on which to go out. After defining their sound to the point of clinical exactitude with their last handful of LPs, they set about to problematize every element. It’s not that the album wasn’t produced to within an inch of its life, a trait it shares with every Spoon album since Girls Can Tell. It stands unsettled and dysphoric next to the mannered perfectionism of Gimme Fiction or the clean-room Rolling Stones vibe of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. Beats stutter where you need them to strut. The vibe is desultory: it doesn’t seem to add up to anything more than a series of attempts to wring order from whichever series of random recording events converged to create a song.

Picture yourself /
Set up for good /
In a whole other life.

Disquiet and rootlessness are the bedrock beneath Spoon, but Transference takes anxiety as it primary subject matter. Every moment of placidity is undone by the moment immediately after. The album uses the clarity of production on any given track to communicate emotional state: “Goodnight Laura” is a tender ballad, and you know this because the instrumentation sounds like a four-track demo. (It’s not, of course, but they use the badly recorded, out-of-key piano to ensure the song doesn’t get pretty.) “Trouble” sounds like a leftover from A Series of Sneaks, complete with a clever reproduction of late 90s lo-fi production. It’s lo-fi in the way that Pavement was lo-fi: every stray tousled hair has been calculated for maximum effect. It follows on the heels of “I Saw the Light,” which sounds like an intentional self-parody of Gimme Fiction’s distinctive motorik. It promises the transcendence of that album’s “They Never Got You,” but rewards the listener with five and a half minutes of mounting dread summoned by Jim Eno’s Hitchcock rhythm.

Transference is endlessly fascinating. It doesn’t work, it has been purposefully manufactured to work as poorly as possible, and yet it does, because it’s Spoon. We put up with a lot from bands we know and love. We project our expectations onto them. Spoon gave us a Spoon album that requires a great deal of work to appreciate, jittery and jagged. They did so with the confidence that we would put in the work. Our expectations reveal as much about us as about the art. There’s a bit of transference there. Are we still talking about a Spoon record?

I am drawn to the loping final track, “Nobody Gets Me But You.” It sounds off. It’s got two left feet, sauntering precisely in time but missing the swagger you expect. The sound is minimal, Daniel’s voice floating over the rhythm section. When the song finally kicks into gear at around the 1:45 mark, it struts with a disconcerting military exactitude. Can covering Television.

As a lyricist Daniel appears opaque. He is a perfect rock and roll writer because he understands how to create the illusion of intimacy with very few resources. He’s always having a conversation with someone. Almost everything he writes is in the second person – he is exhorting the listener at all times, constantly repeating the word “you” through so many songs as a way of – what? Drawing the listener in? Singling the listener out? Hectoring? Pleading? Daniel rarely tips his hand. The stories and characters he describes have no easy referent or allegory – they seem more along the lines of private jokes, obliquely described to a stranger.

Nobody gets what I say /
Must be some way to convey /
But no one else remembers my name /
Just those parts that I play /
Nobody gets me /
Nobody gets me but you.

Transference is an album about missing pieces. The album appears unfinished. One envisions a cat walking across the keyboard during the final mix-down – everything is knocked a couple degrees off kilter and woozy. It’s about the anxiety that emerges from having just missed something, past the edge of your perception. Who is Daniel talking to in the final song? Is he talking to a woman? A friend? Himself? There’s an obsession with playacting that pops up periodically in his lyrics – see, “The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine,” from Gimme Fiction. He can’t move past the deception, whatever kind of deception it may be, because while it may keep him safe, it also means he’s profoundly alone. Needing to make a connection but feeling unable to do so is the kind of pain whose memory doesn’t fade.

I was dreaming in the driver's seat /
When the right words just came to me /
And all my finer feelings came up.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was released in the summer of 2007. I fell in love with the record soon after relocating from Worcester to Holyoke, a necessary move, and still about twenty minutes’ drive from Amherst. It was a pleasant drive over soft hills and ancient lanes – the road from Holyoke to Amherst passes next to the campus of Mt. Holyoke, in South Hadley. My fond memories of New England begin almost entirely the moment I move away from the vicinity of Worcester. The Five Colleges region is beautiful, and were it not for other factors I would consider living there again. (Mostly having to do with people, there being many from my undergraduate years I wish to avoid.)

The album is fixed in my memory to that point in time, not a good fate. Close identification with specific memories make a record difficult to revisit unless you want to dredge up the emotions associated with that record. I remember the period fondly – it was a very hopeful period in my life, one of the most hopeful periods. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons it can be difficult to revisit.

This is also, perhaps not coincidentally, around the time I became disenchanted and bored with music writing. It is possible in hindsight that I could have migrated away from reviews and moved on to feature writing. I could have done that if I’d wanted. My editor put up with a lot from me (all my editors put up with a lot from me). I could tell she liked my writing because I always had all the work I wanted. Even after I got lazy and stopped turning in articles she kept throwing jobs my way, happy to print whatever I sent. Eventually I quit, and I did not leave under amicable circumstances.

Writing reviews is very unrewarding. Even the best review is at the end of the day mostly a product recommendation. Sometimes reviews aspire to something else. I wrote a few of those. Tied as they are to the promotional schedules of major corporations I doubt if music reviews have literary value.

Still there is great technical challenge involved in writing 600-1000 word music reviews. It’s a genre limited by the descriptive imagination of the reviewer. There’s a reason why certain phrases recur so often in writers’ vocabularies, and even become commonplace idiom: it’s hard to come up with pithy yet accurate exegesis without falling back on stock phrases and formulaic structure. It’s so easy to reach for “angular,” although overuse has retired that one.

The masters of the form, such as it is, are writers who craft a distinctive voice for themselves despite the format, a difficult thing to do without becoming a caricature. The best rock writers embrace self-parody – spend some time trolling the archives on Christgau’s site, you’ll feel the grooves of his creative process real quick. Inasmuch as I had a voice, it was close to the voice I used for the early days of this blog – where, likewise, I spent a lot of time honing my chops writing endless reviews for comics that in hindsight did not always warrant aggressive scrutiny

My formula for writing music reviews is simple, and a variation of the format I still use for writing comic book reviews. You always start with context. Especially if you have space limitations, you are going to need to measure every word carefully. Context is hardest to write – a thumbnail history and gesture towards relevant established critical assessment. The cribbed critics’ shorthand required to communicate succinct impressions of a band’s history without any detail is a difficult art. The band’s most recent album is always a disappointment, the new one a “return to form” even if that phrase should be avoided.

It resembles in miniature a structure familiar from late antique and medieval composition: you begin with an infodump of your authorities (I usually pull out the Latin auctoritas to impress the freshmen – never fails) as a way of establishing to your reader that you are a member in good standing of a long-extant discourse network. Medieval monks hunched over parchment in candle-lit scriptoriums scattered across a continent were members of a community tying the middle ages back to the ancient world – that is, the very small proportion of the population throughout history who knew how to read, how to write, and had the time, inclination, resources, and stamina to do what all of these activities required in the ages before the printing press. They all read the same books, committed every line of Macrobius to memory, and could debate their favorite psalms for years at a time through torturously slow correspondence with other members of their tribe. Now it’s music bloggers.

There’s always a long section featuring a description of the record itself. What does it sound like? What is it trying to do? What is unexpected, what is familiar, what works and what doesn’t? There’s maybe time to tie the review into some kind of half-baked sociological thesis that alludes to a longstanding hobbyhorse of yours. Finish with a profound statement on the grand significance of whichever Avril Lavigne album you’re being paid to review (or not being paid to review). Always remember that whatever threads are introduced in the thesis must return in the conclusion, which places a natural limit on the number of themes that can be satisfactorily developed in the space allotted.

If you care about developing a voice as a music reviewer, that’s what you’ll do. Fill in the blanks according to subject matter and temperament. Sometimes, if you've built up enough goodwill to trust your audience, you can get away something expressionistic and personal. Sometimes you can get away with just describing how a song makes you feel.

Any type of writing can be broken down structurally, and once you understand the structure – how a piece of writing induces the desired affect through rhythm and timing – it is possible to create anticipation and suspense solely using sentence and paragraph length to create and sustain pleasurable tension, a ticking clock ratcheting suspense across your narrative. You can use interstitial elements like blockquotes of song lyrics to trick your reader into thinking they’re reading faster when you’re only giving them the false satisfaction of moving their eyes down the page faster. If you are writing something especially long, provide your reader with rest stops in the form of frequent breaks. You have to build to a grand finish, though, or you’ll leave your audience disappointed.

Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga was a conscious attempt on the band’s part to step back from the sterile abyss represented by Gimme Fiction and move in a more organic direction. Organic in this instance meant an album grounded by a Stones-y vibe, complete with slight nods to Sticky Fingers. They do such a good job of inhabiting this voice that Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga is their most unmoored album, the least prickly of their classic period, the most accessible, most translucent. The least Spoon-like Spoon record. It’s mannered without trying: they songs inhabit their specific idiom so well that the record reeks of pastiche, to a greater extent than anything else the band has done. 

Oh, life can be so fair /
Let it go on and on.
The way I teach my students to think about writing expository essays is essentially the same way I approach thinking about a record. You need to understand your genre – and to do that you must understand who you are writing for, who you are writing to (not the same thing), and what you are trying to accomplish. Once you have a good idea of these you reverse engineer to create desired results. Stylistic development comes through repetition and practice.

So who are Spoon singing for? Who are they singing to? The lie rock and roll told itself was that rock and roll sang for everyone. There was a presupposition of universality that manifested in the hubristic belief that this music would live forever. Of course it won’t, nothing does. Spoon is a band for people with huge record collections. That’s who they’re playing for here, and it’s never more obvious than here. They’ve taken the idiom apart and put it back together in its most efficient possible configuration. It looks the same and makes all the right moves, but motivations are reptilian.

My favorite track off the album is “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” one of two strangely “classic” pop songs that bookend the middle stretch (the other being the horn-infested “Underdog”). It’s the pop rockist writers imagine when they use the term appreciatively – a platonic ideal of how popular music sounded at some indeterminate point in the past, but unrepresentative of how pop music actually sounds in the present. Spoon are under no illusions their music will ever be played on the radio (even if it sometimes is). It’s not designed to be played on the radio. It’s too arch in its devotion to the lost potential of discarded blueprints.

When you don't feel it, it shows, they tear out your soul /

My unhealthy devotion to Spoon begins in 2005 with Gimme Fiction. I think of the three album stretch of Kill the Moonlight through Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga as one unit, three records that while wildly different from each other in many ways represent the pinnacle of Spoon’s imaginative and fastidious music. At no point in their career do Spoon ever add so much as one single syllable to the rock and roll vocabulary. They operate under the assumption that the lexicon is closed, that it’s a dead language, and that there’s nothing left to be done but further refine the ancient style. They distill the affect of past achievement in a sturdy oaken cask and serve to connoisseurs.

I will argue for Spoon as the last great rock band, and Gimme Fiction is their greatest achievement. The album was designed to be the kind of album people refer to as a “greatest achievement”: from the descending acoustic guitar figure that opens “The Beast and Dragon, Adored” to the album’s jarring stop 2:45 into “Merchants of Soul,” there isn’t a single hair out of place. Some people are allergic to fussy rock records, preferring more spontaneous or at least less labored expressions. For Spoon, the effect doesn’t work unless everything has been constructed just so. It’s supposed to be alienating. It’s the only album that begins with a song about writing the record you’re about to hear, with appropriate nods in the direction of the redemptive power of rock and roll, which also manages to sound like the mounting apprehension that precedes a well-planned massacre.

It’s an album I never tire of revisiting. Nothing else has remained in constant rotation for as long – almost from the moment of its release. It never gets old. I regard individual Spoon albums with the same kind of fervent devotion that others reserve for David Lynch movies: each one presents to the audience evidence of a cover-up, and leaves the audience to imagine the crime at the center of the conspiracy. Gimme Fiction is Spoon’s Mulholland Drive.

I don’t regret that I no longer write music reviews. Doing so sapped a great deal of enjoyment out of music for a long time. You can destroy something through examination – vivisection becomes autopsy in the blink of an eye. I’m pretty good at writing reviews, but the satisfaction of writing a good review is purely intellectual. You have a problem to solve – how to describe an object in such a way as to indicate the dispensation of said object for a hypothetical reader – and very few tools to accomplish the task. I can think deep thoughts on demand about the nature of rock and roll but there’s not a lot of practical use for that. Much of the PR recycling that signifies online music writing is useless.

What really matters about music – and books, and everything – is that it makes you feel something. That’s it.

No, really.

It doesn’t matter what that something is – it could be disgust or titillation, academic curiosity or fevered devotion. When I was young I believed there was good art and bad art, and that it was the responsibility of the critic to differentiate between the two – and the reviewer, the critic’s emaciated and defrocked cousin, although they often inhabit the same body, uneasily. There’s no such thing as good art. There’s interesting art, more or less depending on your inclination. You don’t have to like something to regard it as interesting. On the contrary, discovering virtue in something you have previously dismissed, or in a deeply flawed work that nevertheless carries some spark of intrigue, is one of the great pleasures. Listen carefully to everything you hear, and listen with an open mind, or you’ll miss something important.

Cool is a lie we tell ourselves because we don’t want to be scared. What does being cool actually get you? Does it bring you closer to the people you care about? Does it make you a better friend? Does it help you work faster? The people most concerned with retaining their cool are the people least able to do so. The people you should be the most concerned with are those least concerned with whether or not you are cool.

And that’s Gimme Fiction. It’s a labyrinth with no center, a maze built of allusion, implication, private joke and performative insouciance. The album’s tenth anniversary reissue came with two albums worth of demos and rehearsals. The remarkable thing about the album’s demos is that they reveal almost nothing about the composition of the songs. Even as demos the songs are fully formed. Chord changes are the same, lyrics, every coda and bridge intact as they will appear on the album if recorded poorly. Even Daniel’s inflection is much the same, every merciless sneer and falsetto turn already calculated and constructed to precise effect.  

Hearing the songs in such minutely realized detail at such an early stage magnifies the album’s achievement. They also threaten to break the album’s mystique. Daniel knew exactly how these songs were supposed to sound before he entered the studio. No assembly required; they were always there, waiting to be painstakingly chiseled out. Spend a few minutes reading Sean O’Neal’s oral history of the album, Gimme Facts. Every suspicion you may have had about the album is confirmed. The band spent a lot of time in the studio getting everything right. It’s filled with small little musical jokes that only a select handful of hyper-attentive listeners will ever get. The lyrics, which in context appear so mysterious, are snippets of conversation and reference to events in the band members’ lives. It wasn’t Daniel who played in a drop-D metal band called “Requiem,” but bass player Josh Zarbo.

It makes sense to describe Gimme Fiction, to explain it in the context of the band’s career, to use it to mount an argument concerning the destiny of rock and roll. It’s all hot air. Of certain interest to those who regard sifting words into novel configurations a noble goal in and of itself. Perhaps it is. Or perhaps it is necessary to admit, finally, that any attempt to describe a work of art begins and ends solely with my response. The album is ultimately just a rock album, no matter how much my affection for it makes me want to puff it up into something more. If I’m doing my job I can convince you it’s good and important without making you question whether or not I believe anything I’m saying. Lying in the service of getting you to buy a record – that’s a good use of our time together.

At this point I get up and step back from the desk. I’m talking in circles. I can’t seem to get back to the point I wanted to make. Perhaps the point was lost a while back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I set out to write about Spoon because I had never written about them, even after I realized that they were my favorite band. It seemed an interesting way to talk around what I really wanted to talk about: my voice. I can write music reviews in my sleep. Or at least, I could.  It was a voice I was very comfortable inhabiting. It’s also something that takes a great deal of focus to do correctly, at least to do it in such a way that you’re not insulting your readers’ intelligence. After a certain point it is impossible to know whether you are repeating yourself.

When you were coming up /
Did you think everyone knew /
Something unclear to you? /
And when you were thrown in a crowd /
Could you believe yourself /
Did you repeat yourself? /
Because no one would hear /
And just say it again /

So, who am I writing for? Writing to? Why am I writing?

The answer to the first question is that I’m writing for myself. That’s the only person I’ve ever cared about pleasing. When I write for another venue I write for that venue’s audience, but when I write for myself, I’m writing to my audience. And my audience indulges my every whim. No matter how long an article or demanding an essay, I know there are people who will read it and chew and digest what I’ve said. It’s powerful to know that even if my audience is solely composed of people with whom I’m on a first-name basis, I’m actually on a first name basis with more than a few people. Thanks to my writing.

But it’s not the same anymore. Something’s changed. I can write again, sure, write to excess, quickly, and with alacrity. That much is back. Something that was stuck for a long time came unstuck and now I can barely find it in me to stop writing. Sometimes when I type I know who I am, other times I seem less sure. Recently something inside me shifted and I found a new voice. My old voice did the job for which it was designed: it made me sound smart, made me seem like an Expert. I was making it up as I went along. Most experts are.

It’s a funny type of masculinity that hinges on knowing trivia for fifteen-year-old rock records and thirty year old comic books. It’s the kind of masculinity into which you crawl and hide because it represents the least traumatic way of asserting yourself across a bafflingly gendered social sphere. If you can’t figure out a way to assert yourself, some field in which you can feel as if you have a respectable toehold, then you don’t have anything. It’s not much, but it’s some kind of identity that provides the modicum of success you need to pass relatively unmolested through the world. No one pays close attention to you if you look like you know what you’re doing. Busying yourself with immersive hobbies that demand a great deal of specialized expertise that can only be gained through work and experience? It’s a way of distracting yourself from looking closely at the real problems in your life.

I don’t want to lie anymore. I spent almost every day of my life lying to myself, to other people, to the world – a thousand lies every day, each one more extravagant than the last. I don’t feel like an expert. I feel like an imposter. The reason why is simple: I am an imposter.

And we was cutting through the park /
Trying to get home before too dark /
Who was it that we saw that night /
Was it you?

The third-to-last song on Gimme Fiction, “Was it You?” is a haunted forest, deliberately paced with professional exactitude by Jim Eno, shafts of moonlight falling through the leaves. The band stretches the opening vamp of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” over a tense five minutes. You encounter a mystery in the forest. You are disquieted but you sit to rest. You close your eyes for a moment and you are asleep before you realize you are in danger.

The sound of soft rain on the forest floor gives way to the mechanical stride of “They Never Got You,” tripping along like a metronome. It’s an odd capstone for an album devoted to irony and subterfuge. There’s nothing sinister at work. Coming on the heels of “Was it You?” – to say nothing of “The Infinite Pet,” “My Mathematical Mind” and much of the rest of the album – you expect to hear something false. You listen intently for the hidden valences. Hints, clues, pieces that can be assembled. But there’s nothing obscured. The song is about what it is about, and what it’s about is seemingly the rarest emotion in the Spoon catalog: reassurance.

There’s no sneer, no paranoia, no apocalyptic medieval imagery. It’s as simple as Daniel describing the sensation of confusion that accompanies profound loneliness – what does everyone else know that I don’t? Behind the (fake) ironic detachment and (affected) cool, behind even the intellectual pretense of the band’s sophisticated art direction, the common thread tying together both Daniel’s lyrics and his peculiar talent for musical pastiche is nostalgia. Not for a specific place or location, but for an age, a feeling – youth. Nostalgia operates differently for Spoon than for most pop bands, however. It’s a negative expression. The past is full of bad things: bullies who count your teeth and managers who sink your career. Daniel doesn’t want to be a kid again. He’s happy being an adult, and proud to have escaped whatever awful childhood he left behind. They never got him.

Don't let em in /
Don't go too far /
And cover your tracks. /
Cover the path to the heart /
Don't let those footholds start /
And don't let no one in /
Because they never got you and you never got them.

Why do everyone else’s lives appear to be so easy – or from a younger perspective, why is my life so uniquely hard? It feels like I spend every day all day talking to people and trying to find someone, anyone, who hears what I’m saying and understands what I’m trying to say. I never do, at least when I dream of being young.

But that’s the lesson. Beneath the surface texture – the stannic coolness of an album that crackles like frost under your foot – lies a beating heart. The monster at the center of the maze is a message of hope. It does get better. You can leave your past behind. The truth is what you take away. Everything else is window dressing. 

I took a river and it wouldn't let go /
I want you to stay and I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and it goes on.

I took my first estrogen supplement on July 30th. I’d had the bottle for a few days. I regarded it with the healthy reverence you accord a poisonous snake. Only I wanted to be bitten.

It’s a funny thing, knowing you hold within your hand the means to change your life. The moment is pregnant. You want it, of course you want it. You went to the doctor. You asked for it. The pharmacist filled the prescription for you. You took the bottle home and placed it on your shelf. You don’t want to look at it.

What am I afraid of?

It’s not that I don’t want it to work. Of course I want it to work. I don’t yet know what that means. I know what to expect physiologically even if many of the details vary. I’ve read enough. I’ve been told enough. I’ve thought about precious little else for months.

Am I more afraid of if working, or of not working?

Even though it’s not remotely the same thing, my thoughts dwell on my experience with antidepressants. These were pills that held the promise of some kind of relief and renewal in the face of what I could only perceive as broad dissatisfaction. They never worked – rather, they all worked a little bit. I notice when they aren’t there: my mood suffers and my temper becomes more volcanic than normal. Without them I am less functional, but they give me little in the way of positive help.

It’s not an antidepressant. It’s not a pill to improve my mood. It’s not a medicine to treat the symptoms with dispatch and leave me unchanged. What I have isn’t a disease. It’s part of who I am on a molecular level. The atomic formula of estradiol is C18H24O2. Just a handful of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules cobbled together by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Nothing more. Through a strange and cruel biological quirk my body craves but cannot produce the molecule that saves my life.

But it’s not just that. It represents a life somehow – different? Better, hopefully. More problematic in almost every way. Irreversibly altered. No coming back. When you take the first pill you set a timer. Before you take that pill you can push the clock forward indefinitely. Once you do this, time lurches into motion and you are pulled inexorably forward towards –

What, exactly?

My estradiol is coupled with a testosterone blocker called spironolactone. It’s also a diuretic notorious for making people need to go to the bathroom and consume large quantities of salt. I am given the spiro two weeks before estradiol. This is unusual but not unheard of – in any event, I am glad to start the medications in the order that I do because taking the spiro first allows me to feel in minute detail the immensely gratifying sensation of testosterone leaving my body. Long before my first dose of hormones, I notice a gradual calming. A fidgeting creature ceases to squirm quite so much. The experience is illuminating. Without testosterone my vision is clearer. I feel slightly more relaxed, slightly more focused. (Only slightly, however.) Although I am easily winded and disinclined to heavy exertion, I am happier already.

Life without testosterone is a different life altogether. Things make more sense. The constant screaming in the back of my head falls silent. In its absence there is stillness, crisp and cool. In the steep air I can breathe.

Since the moment I voiced I have felt the truth of my circumstances as a solid object, immovable and undeniable. There was no doubt. I suffered great torment because there was no doubt: I did not feel so much as a token resistance, not from my consciousness. It would be a much longer process to flush the hesitation and temporizing, the fear and regret and self-loathing that accompany the revelation, but the actual premise itself? Never once questioned. Once I heard, I knew. I could never unhear.

There was still, however, one last kernel of doubt, a doubt constructed not from a desire to escape my near certain destiny as a transgender woman – but a doubt manufactured from years of bitter experience and disappointment with drugs that promised to heal but could only ever staunch the bleeding. Estradiol works for most people in my position. But I’m not most people.

Only one way to find out.

I want to be there tonight /
I want to get there but it's just out of sight /
I took a river and felt so slight so hold on.

It is custom among the members of my tribe to dissolve our estradiol under the tongue, those who receive the pill. Why do we do this? My doctor doesn’t believe there’s any noticeable difference in efficacy. I’ve come to different conclusions whenever I’ve looked for a concrete answer.

The truth is that we do it because it’s how we do it. There’s no real ceremony in the process of receiving hormone replacement therapy. It feels important. It feels significant to a degree that few things will ever feel significant in your life. There should be something more significant to the moment than filling a prescription and taking a pill. Placing the tablet under our tongues signifies the event through the observance of a ritual, however small and private. We have precious little history that isn’t colored by tragedy – long centuries of isolation, ignorance, persecution, and suicide. We cling to the culture we have, whatever form it takes. We create it for ourselves from a whole cloth.   

It is profoundly odd to suddenly become a controversy. People dispute my existence. My symptoms are imaginary. My feelings in the matter are just that – small feelings of no lasting import, indulged only by perverts and the mentally ill. But sensation is a species of feeling, and every feeling is imaginary, in that the capacity to feel is solely confined to intangible processes that flit between a billion neurons in the time it takes you to read these words. That I feel as I do, and that these feelings reveal my misattributed gender as a source of constant pain, is not up for debate. It’s not up for discussion anymore than the color of my eyes or my dominant hand. My reality is solid.

Without testosterone my thoughts are clear: that is reality. I do not feel so harried: that is reality. My extreme paranoia dissipates almost immediately: that is reality. I can examine my emotions rationally and deliberately. Here’s my self-hatred, a knotted ball of calcified hair in my gut. Here’s my feelings of inadequacy, remnants of a fetal twin whose passing is marked by a cluster of vestigial teeth extracted from my side and carefully catalogued. Here’s my anger – all my anger, every single ounce of wrath and rage I’ve ever felt burning through my body like alternating current, a tumor nestled against the base of my skull, coloring every impulse traveling along the highway of nerves that run through my body to my brain. My emotions are strong and random, chaotic impulses nestled equidistant between fight or flight. I always feel under attack.  

Owing to a number of factors I remain largely free of the worst consequences of physical dysphoria. I am immensely grateful for this, even abashed. It is likely to my understanding that ignorance of my nature prevented my from focusing feelings of disquiet on any specific parts of my body. I knew simply that I hated it all. I avoided mirrors and was unable to make myself exercise. My body was the enemy, and naturally my research interests focused on relitigating the disposition of body and mind.

I took a river and the river was long /
I want you to stay course I want you to go /
I took a river and the river was long and goes on.

But reality, if solid, is always more complicated than initially appears. My body wasn’t my enemy. My enemy is my perception of my body. My perception has been until very recently clouded by the presence of the wrong sex hormone. Balance the hormones and balance the perception. That’s how it works on paper. Individual results may vary. I remained convinced, wrapped in the invincibility of my cynicism, that what was wrong with was more than could be fixed with a pill. I was too broken.

And then I took the pill. 

Something unscrews the top of my head. What had been cramped becomes spacious and airy. My ability to think reforms, shattered into a thousand pieces, scattered across a thousand corners of my mind. Where I had felt gravity pulling me downwards, I now feel the loosening of bonds. I am lighter.

Within two days of my first pill I experience a foreshock that heralds a great scouring. I don’t just feel lighter, I feel light, illumination radiating from within and spreading outward to my hands and feet. At first I mistake the sensation for panic. Both panic and joy evolve from similarly tentative origins, moments of unease that often presage imminent danger. But sometimes the danger never arrives. The anxious anticipation that precedes panic gives way to peace. The accumulated plaque and oxidation of decades of misery, crusted across the interior of my skull, begins to dissolve. 

I feel different, emotionally and physically. I move different. I think different. I have reclassified the broad spectrum of negative behaviors that have largely abated since beginning hormones as “masculine”: this is a problematic designation which will need to be revisited at a later day, but it is involuntary. My dysphoria is emotional and behaviorial. When I am angry, when I lash out with rage or sarcasm or caustic wit, it feels wrong, there’s no better way to describe it. When I am compelled to assert myself, to parade my opinions and critical acumen for the world to inspect, preening for praise and looking expectantly to the esteem and approval that I could never instill in myself – it feels like swimming upstream. The testosterone persists as a shadow of fear. I imagine it as black ichor, pure corruption. One drop can scar. There’s no going back to the way things were.   

I stop fighting the current. I let go and float. It’s a cool night. The water feels good against my body. I am warm without heat. The moon is directly above me. I no longer feel my body. I am a speck of consciousness lodged between the earth and the moon. I am quiet.

Had I fought I would have drowned. But I’m not tired anymore. I don’t feel anything. I am empty. I am happy. I am alive.

It's time to take the trash out /
And redefining what you are /
Redefining what you're about.

A Series of Sneaks was released in May of 1998. I didn’t know who Spoon were at the time. The album sold poorly. Four months later their A&R rep Ron Laffitte quit his job and, despite promises, the band were dropped by Elektra and left to fend for themselves.

Bands form their own mythologies, but only great bands leverage that mythology effectively. Lafitte’s betrayal is the catalyst that creates Spoon: after two decent records, one for Matador and one for a major label, there was little left in the way of a career. This despite having already caught the attention of a handful of forward-thinking critics – like any number of bands, at this point in their history they could have easily disappeared and few would have considered it a great loss.

“Laffitte Don't Fail Me Now” is one of two songs recorded and released by Spoon in the immediate aftermath of this debacle. But what should be a straightforward diss track becomes something else. At a point when Spoon’s sound was struggling to assert itself beyond being heavily influenced by the Pixies and Pavement (and the Fall and Wire), they retreated from battle but refused to concede the fight. For a band that could easily have dissolved entirely, to turn around and casually drop one of the best songs of their career under the pretense of attacking their former manager – in hindsight it’s a career-defining move. They had nothing to lose. There was nothing to be gained by not trying to swing for the fences every time.

It’s a gorgeous song, plaintive and urgent in equal measure, wrapped in a minor key melody that lodges itself in your mind despite its grim subject matter. Daniel recycles a painful personal anecdote into a universal complaint with the casual expertise of a master, and its here that his voice fully emerges as more than merely the sum of its influences. The question repeated like a mantra through the chorus, “Are you honest with anyone?” is, an accusation, an expression of anger, but also a lament and ultimately an admission of guilt at his own culpability in having been fooled.

This is Spoon. From the rubble of certain disaster they emerged with something new: a sense of grievance that Daniel could shape his words to fit around, the perfect original sin for a lyricist who would devote his career to exploring the softer side of paranoia. From this betrayal emerged a far more focused band. They returned from a holiday brush with disaster in time to drop five of the great rock and roll records in quick succession at a clip of one every two years. Gaze upon their works, ye mighty.

Redemption. Sentiment without nostalgia. Good things emerge even from lies. One day you too will find the secret key that opens the door to wake the sleeping compassion at the heart of the world.  
Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
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