Happy New Year / 2016’s Top 5

It’s time, once again, for the grand tradition begun in 2002, in an Austin, TX, backyard. (See the 2014 and 2015 editions.) 2016 was a difficult year but this summing-up reminds me that there was indeed a lot of joy within it. This year’s version started as a letter written to two of the people who were with me in that backyard, chilly and shivering, listening to fireworks pop, and sharing puffs on a Arturo Fuentes Short Story Cigar. So, I’ve made some edits.

OK, here we go.

#1: A long spring weekend in the north Georgia mountains.
Needing a place to write that was away from my usual distractions, I went up to Clayton and Demorest, Georgia, basically the foothills of the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, in a cheap Days Inn motel room, with a printout of the Workbook manuscript Dan and I had written, I frantically revised by longhand, while occasionally looking out the window at the fog nestling over the mountaintops and getting tangled in the tree branches. I took breaks: to go on a long-planned birdwatching hike at the Lillian E. Smith Center of Piedmont College with accomplished birders who pointed out red-eyed vireos and crows by their calls and colors, even from great distances. Of the 15+ people on the bird walk, I was the youngest by two decades, and I spent a good amount of time being the “nice young man” who helped old ladies when they slipped on the rocks and roots. Then, back to writing. That Saturday night, nursing a bourbon after a long day of cutting-and-pasting and jotting, I turned on the TV, and turned to HBO, which I don’t get at home. A Beyonce music video had just started, and boy it was weird… and long. I checked Twitter to see if anyone could help me figure out what I was seeing, and so got to experience Black Twitter’s hourlong freakout over the premiere of Lemonade. The next morning, more writing, and then I checked out of the hotel, to go on a quick hike on the Warwoman Dell Trail, which ends in a trickling, delicate waterfall into ferns.

#2: Saratoga Springs, NY, 4th of July weekend.
I was there to see three Phish shows with friends but my days were free. I had a rental car, and went every day to a new trail in the Adirondack mountains. This was strenuous and beautiful and with vivid greens and dauntingly clear skies that I breathed in with each step. I took pictures and wrote haiku. I smelled evergreen perfume everywhere I walked, and rambled under tree shadows. I spent an afternoon sauntering around downtown Saratoga Springs–charming, lively–and its beautiful park full of mineral springs and duck ponds. The concerts were almost a anticlimax by comparison.

#3: The moment I hit the SEND button on 6/14/16, officially turning in the full manuscript for Bob Mould’s Workbook. Dan Couch and I have poured a lot into this book, and we ain’t done yet. (Our final revisions are due at the end of this month; publication’s scheduled for Bloomsbury’s Fall 2017 season.) I’ve published a fair bit, and my portfolio of criticism is reasonably robust but sending off our first full manuscript for publication was… well, it was something else.

#4: Andrea Couch & Erik Wofford’s wedding weekend, outside of Austin, TX.
Another April event. Andrea is Daniel’s younger sister, and a dear friend. She’s also friends with many of my high-school friends and acquaintances, so the wedding was essentially a class reunion–but the kind I would actually want to attend. I saw at least ten people who I hadn’t seen in a decade or longer. The outdoor wedding, along the banks of the Rio de Colores, was grand and thoroughly rain-drenched. Andrea and Erik trooped through it, sans umbrellas, and even, during a quick lull in the downpour, shot off fireworks over the river after they’d exchanged rings. But, really, the entire weekend was lovely, not just the wedding day–from my off-the-wall-insane hotel room (a floor-to-ceiling collage of burlesque/pinup photography & poster art) in a genuinely crazy cottage; to hanging out with Dan and his family; to (thank God) genuine Texas barbecue with beef brisket; to a fantastic open-air meal at a restaurant featuring a great punk Cajun band and kids playing everywhere on the playground and their parents sipping beer; to the fusion-skronk-disco stylings of the wedding band (Golden Dawn Arkestra).

#5: I’m moving to Atlanta.
This happened on 30 December: I signed on to rent a house in East Atlanta. I’ve spent the autumn negotiating a promotion that, among other things, allows me to telecommute my job from Atlanta. I like Athens a great deal, and I’ll miss it (though, really, it’s just 75 minutes away from my new home) but I realize that I’m a big-city guy at heart, and I miss the electric pulse and pressure and in-your-faceness of true urban spaces too much. Plus, I really, really love Atlanta–well, except for the traffic, which I’m learning to understand. The fall has been unusually stressful but, now that I know where I will be living, much of the anxiety has melted away. It feels like a weight’s been lifted from my heart, like I can breathe and see clearly again. The house is lovely, in a funky middle-class neighborhood that I like, and it’s all a good fit for me.

Honorable mention (cut & pasted from a letter to a different friend, out in L.A.): “I did attend a Sun Ra Arkestra concert [in February] that blew me away, here in Athens. The band veered from free-jazz atonality to blues ballads to big-band bebop to relatively straightforward swing. Such a nimble band. It all felt of a piece. The trombonist did backflips. The horn section insinuated itself into the audience on two occasions. They all wore sparkly futurist Egyptian garb. It was bizarre, and wonderful. Interestingly, given that Sun Ra was a keyboardist extraordinaire, keyboards played the most minor role–the horns and percussion led the way. Anyway, I’d been wondering where all the cute black and nonwhite women were in Athens–as college towns go, it’s a pretty white place. Well, apparently they come out en masse for space-age ruckus and skronk. Who knew?”

HAPPY 2017! May it be an improvement over 2016 in every way.

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Bob Mould saves my life, again

Last night could’ve been a bust.

Bob Mould came to Athens’s Georgia Theatre on a Thursday night with his crackerjack rhythm section—Jon Wurster on drums, Jason Narducy on bass—and nobody showed up. Well, not nobody. But the Georgia Theatre can hold roughly a thousand folks, and only about 150 attended this gig. So, it was considerably undersold. We were mostly achy graybeards and thin-hairs, with my friend (at age 31) being among the youngest there by a good decade. The night was chilly, the air thick with the campfire smoke that seemed good until we realized and kept realizing that the smoke came from continual wildfires blooming and raging an hour north of us in the mountains near western North Carolina. Those of us who shuffled into the venue were melancholy, shell-shocked, numb with fear, wearied with anguish over the presidential election. The balcony section was curtained off entirely, and the floor never looked completely packed, even by mid-set.

Bob & Co., though, didn’t give a shit. At 9:40pm, they strode onstage fast—the house lights were still on—and slung their instruments into their hands and took one quick look into each other’s eyes and Wurster clacked his drumsticks one, two, three, and off they went on a 70-minute roar into the stratosphere. Tight, fast, loud, and focused, Mould and Narducy swirled across the stage during instrumental breaks, Narducy high-kicking on occasion, and Mould bearing down on his axe while lurching purposely. Wurster mouthed the words as he pounded away on the drums.

As usual, Bob thought of the show in terms of themed packets, starting with a one-two-three punch of Hüsker Dü classics—“Flip Your Wig,” “Hate Paper Doll,” and “I Apologize”—and then vaulted headlong into two Sugar songs (“A Good Idea” and “Changes,” which come back-to-back on 1992’s Copper Blue). The band didn’t pause for breath (or applause) between songs, or even slow down during the whole set, so the effect was like being in a melodic wind tunnel, one song blurring into the next. I liked the effect, as it allowed for a sonic continuity between tunes that were sometimes written and recorded 20 years apart from each other. The band played songs from Bob’s most recent three records—Patch the Sky (2016), Beauty & Ruin (2014), and the astonishing Silver Age (2012)—as well as from Beaster (“Come Around,” from 1992). A lot of Hüsker Dü songs got airplay, sure, but so did Patch the Sky. Though the band rarely veered into Bob’s late-1990s/early-2000s electronica period, all other aspects of the man’s career surged through the house. The whole set felt of a single piece, in a way that wouldn’t have been true if I had listened to the studio versions, in a Spotify playlist. It all made sense together.

But of course I’d think that, being a Bob Mould fan for more than half my life. During “You Say You” (from Patch the Sky), I wondered what someone relatively unfamiliar with Mould might think of this concert. And there was my friend, who to my knowledge does not own a Bob Mould record and has heard Hüsker Dü mostly on YouTube, and she was flailing away, headbanging and pumping fists into the air, probably imagining Donald Trump on the receiving end. I felt better. Bob probably imagined the Orange One getting pummeled, too, which might be why there were no ballads on this set, and why “In a Free Land” got played but not “New Day Rising” or “See A Little Light,” why the only song that Bob introduced properly was Patch the Sky’s “Hold On,” why we all sang along during a ferocious rendition of the Mary Tyler Moore Show’s theme (“We’re gonna make it after allllllll!!!!!”) instead of the Hüskers’ “Divide and Conquer.” The mood in the house could have been somber, given everything and given that Mould’s songs are rarely exactly sunny, but the man was smiling throughout, bounding around the stage like a drunken monkey. His joy is contagious, cathartic, and Lord did we need it.


RELATED: A decade ago, I wrote about seeing Bob in Seattle. A few years later, I did an audio version of it.

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Song of the Day: Wussy’s “Halloween”

From the superb album Attica!, this dreamy, impressionistic song evokes childhood and teenage life in a small town for me like no other song, even though I’m not sure that’s exactly what Lisa Walker is singing about, and I didn’t grow up in a small (or even relatively midsized) town. Its tonal twang reminds me of driving around Dallas at night, the skyline blinking and the twilight submerged beneath the convergence of tangled interstates, gliding through the Friday evening traffic toward my friends in Oak Cliff, imagining adventures I knew about only from radio songs—few of which were as good as this one.

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“The same progressives who bemoan the way Fox News has polarized political discourse in America, masquerading as news while never troubling its followers with anything that would disturb its most cherished and untested convictions, happily turn to the satellite radio station of their preferred genre or subgenre of music or seek out the support group or message board that fits their demographic, the political site that skews their way. Entering the realm of the other seems done solely to express rage.

“The rigorous division of websites into narrow interests, the attempts of Amazon and Netflix to steer your next purchase based on what you’ve already bought, the ability of Web users to never encounter anything outside of their established political or cultural preferences, and the way technology enables advertisers to identify each potential market and direct advertising to it, all represent the triumph of cultural segregation that is the negation of democracy. It’s the reassurance of never having to face anyone different from ourselves.

“I don’t believe it’s an accident that this segregation has become our cultural norm at a time when America is as politically polarized as it’s ever been. The hard fact of democracy, which is always a crapshoot, is that for it to work we can’t shut out who or what we don’t like, who or what we have not bothered to encounter. Popular art, which depends on crossing barriers, can’t exist in such confines. And criticism—which is meant to help people make sense of work they don’t know or assume they won’t like, or work that they know but haven’t really thought about—becomes something like samizdat in a culture set up to enforce the boundaries that art and criticism must transverse.”

—Charles Taylor, “The Problem with Film Criticism,” Dissent (Fall 2011)

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Things we wish for, things we mourn


Next month, I turn 40. This blog is eleven years old, which means it spans the entirety of my thirties. I wish I could tell you that, looking over it, you can chart my moral, aesthetic, and philosophical progression. Hell, maybe you can but I can’t. Mostly, what I see are false starts, unexpected directions, a few failed dreams, and tiny glimmers of success that few people have seen and which I don’t fully understand. I’m not complaining, exactly. This is life, after all. Few of us live the grand, theatrically adventurous lives of someone like Orson Welles; most of us are closer, in one way or another, to John Williams’s Stoner or Thoreau’s people living “lives of quiet desperation.” I wish I could tell you that I feel wiser and more assured, and maybe that’s true in actuality, too, but mostly I just feel more resigned to life’s troubles and less passionate about potential futures. Some of that is me; some of that is the ever-churning (but rarely improving) world. I suppose resignation is a better mode than raw anger but I was hoping to find a fruitful in-between stage. Perhaps there’s still a radical, open-hearted, community-minded man in me. I won’t look for him with an expensive sports car (can’t afford it) or by bedding 19-year-olds (not interested) but I’m sure the journey will be riddled with plenty of other midlife-crisis clichés that all the twentysomethings can laugh at until it happens to them.

Anyway, Terry Teachout put up a recent blog post that means more at midlife than it might have at age 28, when I started Quiet Bubble. Unlike blog memes of a decade ago, he didn’t ask that it spread or that others respond but I’m doing so in the spirit of the thing. Here we go.

Five things I wish I had:
1) A loving, committed relationship.
2) The ability to turn off my ruminating thoughts, especially at night.
3) A flat belly.
4) A good sense of money management.
5) A working Olivetti typewriter with all the ribbon, cleaning supplies, and spare parts that I would ever need

Five things I wish I could do:
Standup comedy.
2) Dance well.
3) Withstand rejection with equanimity, and without taking months to recover.
4) Play bass guitar and upright bass.
5) Swim across the English Channel. (Why? I don’t know but I’ve always wanted to do it.)

Five things I wish I’d done:
1) Have children.
2) Visited New Zealand and the South Seas (which I suppose is still possible).
3) Asked out more women in high school and college.
4) Lived in a log cabin, in the mountains, for a yearlong stretch.
5) Gone to a college outside of the South.

Five things I’m glad I did:
1) Write a book with one of my best friends.
2) Ran a half-marathon.
3) Visited Paris for two weeks, at exactly the moment—age 22—when it could do me the most good & introduce me to the most new things.
4) That 4-day whirlwind trip to New York during a blizzard in February 2005—so many museums, galleries, restaurants, the Village Vanguard, cold smiling walks, and walking through Christo’s Gates in Central Park over and over again.
5) Published one great open-hearted short story, and one great open-hearted essay, that I’m truly proud of. Maybe that’s all I’ll get from my fiction and creative nonfiction, and maybe it’s enough.

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“[Americans] believe in a universe of divine justice where the human race is guilty of sin, but they also believe in a secular justice where human beings are presumed innocent. You can’t have both. You know how Americans deal with it? They pretend they are eternally innocent no matter how many times they lose their innocence. The problem is that those who insist on their innocence believe anything they do is just. At least we who believe in our own guilt know what dark things we can do.”

—Viet Thinh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (2015)

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Back-to-school film quiz

From Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006, dir. Michel Gondry).

Over the past year, I’ve co-written (and turned in) in a book manuscript, and worked extensively with its related blog; acquired and shepherded a difficult but incredibly rewarding book from start to finish; published a couple of book reviews; and began thinking through a screenplay I wrote long ago that I actually want to direct, adapted from a blog post from even longer ago. So, not much writing energy left for the blog or the newsletter. (Though, ahem, I did see through a series on Buster Keaton, refreshing and recharging my criticism in some interesting ways.) And, if I were you, I wouldn’t expect too much from the blog for the time being. But I will always have time for one of Dennis Cozzalio’s film quizzes. Here’s the new one, a back-to-school edition appropriate for me, as I live in the quintessential southern college town. Here we go.

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