Saturday, September 15, 2018

On Distance Traveled

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with basketball.

There were a number of factors. The NBA was full of colorful characters in that era, from Michael Jordan to Dennis Rodman to Shaquille O’Neal. My height was an advantage enough to make me adequate at playing the game in a way I was at so few other sports. And there were the friendships.

My best friend Mike introduced me to basketball through shooting contests on his driveway hoop, mashing Super Nintendo buttons while we played NBA Jam, and cheering on our beloved New York Knicks. We graduated before long to collecting trading cards for what we thought of as a financial investment, and playing pickup games at the park near our street.

I developed a circle of high school friends I played basketball with all the more as we dubbed ourselves the Hoop Squad, after what one of those friends claimed to sincerely think was the title of the basketball-themed teenage romance novel I was writing at the time (the actual title was Free Throw).

Fast forward fifteen, twenty years and I only followed basketball cursorily, and hadn’t played the game for a period of years. But after graduating from my MFA program, on the front end of a cross-country road trip that I knew might mean not writing much for weeks on end, I thought of a new project.

It started with a prose poem about Toni Kukoc and how he was a big fish in a very big pond with Jordan’s Chicago Bulls during the best years of his NBA career. I scrawled it in a notepad at a hotel gym in between sets, the workout expanding far longer than I’d intended and setting back the day’s drive. Then there was a late night session of writing on my phone at a friend’s house, while others watched TV or nodded off. Sitting on an easy chair, I drafted a poem about Magic Johnson and believing in magic, and all manner of innocence and love lost.

The project grew into thirty-ish poem-long novella about a divorce, a cross-country road trip, and most of all making sense of basketball fandom from that era, from Latrell Sprewell strangling his coach, to Reggie Miller embracing the role of villain, to remembering Mike telling me about catching a game, twenty years after he stopped following the NBA, and how he didn’t know who Steph Curry was, but remembered his coach Steve Kerr as a Chicago sharpshooter.

And I wrote about the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. In those teenage years, it was a dream destination that it seems absurd to think, now, was only three-hour drive from my childhood home.

Mike went there on a family trip that I was envious of, just as I was starting to fall in love with the game. He went again years later, an ill-fated trip when he and his girlfriend from that time wound up breaking up, thus tingeing the Hall with a bittersweet lens I doubt he’ll ever shake altogether.

My first trip to the Hall was in my early twenties, one of my last happy memories of a long-term relationship. We scheduled the trip after I’d accepted a job that would take us from living together to three hundred miles of long distance. I don’t think either of us saw visiting the Hall as a last hurrah in the moment, and we hung on for the better part of a year, but the relationship wasn’t meant to be.

The last time Mike or I visited the Hall of Fame, to date, was on a road trip through New England together, that I charted ostensibly to check off a bundle of states up there in my unending quest to visit all fifty. That Mike and I finally went there together iseemed like it ought to have been a trip of destiny—the two of us revisiting all of this history, and all of these things so important to our youth. Whether it was the ghosts of ex-girlfriends, or the degree to which the Hall is geared toward much younger people, from the perspective of our thirties, it was a letdown.

So it may be that I arrived at writing the last of the poems from this series, “Hall of Fame,” in which the speaker visits the Hall and imagines a Hall commemorating not the game, but his broken marriage and busted dreams.

It’s not a happy poem.

I think it’s better for that.

I revisited these poems a year and a half after I’d first drafted them, at a point when my life was so opposite that of the speaker in the poems. Where he was wistful, I was as hopeful as I could ever remember being. Where he was jaded and broken, there I was—happily married with a son on the way any day.

I stayed close to Heather those last weeks of pregnancy, in no small part for the practical reason that if she were to go into labor, I didn’t want to worry about covering distance between us. So, when she had a work obligation an hour away in Atlanta, I holed up at a campus eatery and organized these poems into a chapbook manuscript (and flash fiction pieces from another linked project into another chapbook—but that’s another story for another day).

The result is Distance Traveled.

I’m so grateful for Distance Traveled, a twenty-two poem chapbook, to have found a home with Bent Window Books, and it goes on sale today. Five bucks Australian (which I understand converts to about $3.50 US) will buy you your very own PDF of it. You can check it out here. Thanks to those who buy, and no worries to those who don’t. As always, I appreciate you reading to the end of a post, and I wish you all the best.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Falling In Sleep

One of the telltale signs I’ve been traveling, I haven’t been sleeping, or I’m not comfortable in place--I wake with a start, an odd hour, still half-dreaming. I think I’m asleep somewhere I’m not supposed to be: someone else’s home, or an office, or with someone else in the room I hadn't expected, and I grow self-conscious. I cover up. Put on extra clothes, pull the covers over myself. I wipe away drool, ready to engage with another human.

And I wake again. For real. Alone or with Heather and Riley, or in a hotel room with a friend in the next bed. In a context that makes sense in the real life context of my life, in which I don’t have anything to hide or be ashamed of.

My first memory of being embarrassed be asleep in front of someone: I’m in my grandparents’ house in Queens, where part of the living room is partitioned off into a makeshift dining/storage/guest room area. This is where my sister and I sleep because my grandparents slept in separate bedrooms, because my grandfather snored. Mom and Dad slept in the remaining proper bedroom.

My mother and father were early risers, but my grandparents got up earlier. I woke to the sound of water being poured from a kettle to make tea. The space was foreign, the hour early. I didn’t get up yet. I’ve always been pretty good at falling back asleep. But when I woke again, I found my grandparents, Mom and Dad, and my sister all up--worse yet, those times when I woke to my aunt and uncle in the house, calling me sleepyhead because it was eight o’clock. I was embarrassed to be that last one asleep, that little kid of the family. I told my sister to wake me up if I were still asleep when she got up in the morning.

And then there were those long car rides to New York, when I would get carsick and sleep was my best bet to keep myself occupied without feeling like I was going to throw up. And yet, I was embarrassed to be asleep too long. Or too soon. Or too close to our destination. I remember willing myself awake only to nod off again and will myself awake in a cycle over the course of hours.

Years later, an all-night poetry “lock-in” on the eve of spring break. I stayed awake until three or four in the morning, woke at six or seven. My mom picked me up to spend the first weekend of the break at her apartment in Syracuse, before I went back home. That night, we watched Amelie on her little tube TV, from a VHS I’d recorded from the campus TV station that showed films that were out of the theater but not yet available for purchase. I promptly fell asleep for the vast majority of the film. And I recall an in-between sensation. This embarrassment, still, at falling asleep, because falling asleep was childish, counterbalanced with a logical reason to be tired. Maybe I was just too tired to care.

But then, what of sleeping on airplanes? I’ve done it, probably dozens of times now. The combined effects of sitting stationary, of changes in altitude, of recycled air, of cramped quarters, of people around me sleeping and thus normalizing it, the effects of coming off a trip in which I likely didn’t sleep so much for work purposes, or a raucous reunion, or the sheer disorientation of a foreign bed. But what of this public sleep? Leaving myself seen, exposed?

And what of sleeping with Heather? The first time I've slept--really, literally slept--with any partner there has been a certain sense of something alien to it. And yet, on our first night together, after a day together, our first date, after talking until the wee hours of the night, we slept side by side on her bed, above the covers, clothed, each with an arm over the side of our heads, holding hands.

And I slept.

I’ve slept not only in bed or on planes with her. I’ve slept while she drives, while she watches TV on the other side of the couch.

I suppose this is learned behavior, but a strange sort I’ve grown out of and into--to feel comfortable enough with rest in someone else’s space. To trust this.

To wake, not embarrassed, but refreshed, or still half in dream, and ready to retreat to bed for the rest of the night.

That first date with Heather, I'd have readily admitted I'd fallen for her. But falling asleep? There may have been something even more intimate in that.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Shower Music

Most mornings, I wake up and I shower.

Most recently, I'm up early enough to make every move as quietly as I can, ever-aware of our sleeping baby. Before this stage of life, however, when I showered, I listened to music.

I can’t pinpoint when I started listening to music in the shower, but it must have been at some point in 2008 or later, when I got my first smartphone, and thus it first became reasonable for me to bring a music playing device into the bathroom with me.

I imagine that it started as a novelty. I love listening to music when I drive, when I cook, when I clean—showering was yet another opportunity to inject music into a routine activity.

But then, it became functional, too. Most of the songs I listen to run between three and five minutes long, and so it functioned as a timer. During the weekday rush, if I listened to more than one full song, I knew that I ought to wrap up my shower and get on with my day. On the weekends, I could typically allow myself the luxury of two or three full songs.

All of this seemed logical enough to me, and it became second nature to scroll through albums and playlists on my phone while I was brushing my teeth. At some points, I’d just downloaded new music I was excited to listen to. Other times, a particular song fit a holiday or special occasion. More often, the music was a more arbitrary choice.

I didn’t give any of this much thought until, after a the better part of a year of living with Heather, she asked me how I chose my songs to listen to in the morning. I stumbled through a clumsy response about listening to whatever I wanted to hear. She suggested I write about the decision-making process instead.

And maybe there is more to it.

More often than not, I listen to upbeat music in the morning. The old time rock and roll. The top forty. The hip hop. The folk. Each of these genres represents some differences--in part a reflection of my mood in those early stages in the day, but also with the acknowledgment that whichever song I choose is likely to have an impact on the day to follow. If I dance to Bruno Mars in the shower, I might strut through my morning commute. An Aerosmith song from the eighties adds a little more purpose to my step.

But not all of my shower music is so energizing. There are those softer mornings when my head aches from not quite enough sleep or coffee, and a ballad from Counting Crows or Sara Bareilles or Damien Rice just feels more correct. I tend to proceed into such days a little more pensive, reflective, or even nostalgic.

There are times I've feared I’ve complicated my mornings too much. At various points in my life, I’ve started the day by turning on my portable DVD player or open Netflix on my phone and watching an episode of a sitcom or fifteen minutes of a movie while I make coffee and pour a bowl cereal, after which point I read a chapter of a book over breakfast, then get to my morning shower song.

Since having a child, most of these luxuries fell by the wayside.

Still, I loved that life at times. That feeling of experiencing so many different forms and turning on different parts of my brain in the process. Other times, the choice of what to watch, which cereal to eat, and how much to read, let alone which song to listen to felt like too much.

I’ve learned to grow more flexible with routines. To accept quiet more. To go with the first box of cereal I lay my hand on. Not to keep track of the number of pages read and to focus rather on the principle that reading in the morning is a good way to get started, no matter how few pages or even paragraphs I actually get through.

I’ve grown a little less picky about song choice for the shower, too. But I haven’t let go of the music altogether.

I still recognize those precious moments in the shower as moments that I have the control to listen to what I want to listen to, without consideration of anyone else’s preferences, or the courtesy of keeping music low to not disturb others, or succumbing to whatever’s playing over the fitness center speakers on a given day.

I recognize those moments as setting a tone for a day.

And, when I stop to think about it, I still recognize the beauty of human voices. Guitars. Basses. Drums. Pianos. The way they work in concert. The way they butt against one another. The way that they create something that exceeds the sum of their parts.

I leave the shower clean, refreshed, and just a little bit new. Sometimes, even snapping my fingers.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

On the Reckoning

#MeToo is a reckoning.

I’ve looked on, seeing the mighty fall and rightfully so. Many of those men accused were ones I was aware of but had no real attachment to--the Harvey Weinstein’s and Kevin Spaceys of the world. Then there was Aziz Ansari whose show Master of None I loved (and for whom the accusations were a bit different in type) and Junot Díaz whose writing had inspired me and whose short stories I had taught.

And I wondered, in this time of reckoning, if I might be found guilty, too.

This wondering implies a level of guilt, because one should ideally know that one is not now and has never been a monster. So does my wondering mean I’m guilty, too, or that my level of self-conscious neuroses is breaking new ground?

I remember an overnight, out-of-state trip, five or so years out of college, staying the night with a woman I imagined I might have asked out had we gotten to know each other a little better a little sooner, or if we’d both been single for longer stretches in school. We had a good time, talking more in her car and her home than I think we had cumulatively in the time we knew each other prior to that weekend, and at the end of our second and final night together, I made a move to kiss her, precipitated by a lame line about something I wanted to ask her, I leaned in, leaving her ten percent of the distance between us to meet me.

She didn’t. She politely declined and offered enough rationalizations to defuse any remaining suspicion of sexual tension from my mind.

I told a friend about it all afterward, under the premise of being proud of myself for making any move at all. I was only a year or two removed from the multi-year relationship that had largely defined what I knew of dating, and was feeling my own arrested development around how to do anything like dating.

My friend wasn’t impressed. He told me I should have kissed her--forget the set up line and leaving her space.

I heard him out and, at that time, actually thought he was right.

Because stealing a kiss isn’t as bad as the kind of grabbing our president suggested celebrity men could get away with, nor the kind of power plays or druggings or aggressive misogyny the worst of those taken to task during #MeToo have faced. But when I recall that night, that advice, and my reaction; when I recalling physically compelling one ex to hold my hand during a post-breakup talk, and not taking the hint on a third date in college when the girl gave me the cheek, and instead bulling through to put my tongue in her mouth--these moments may not have crossed legal boundaries, and some might chalk them up to courtship, or boys being boys. But I’m not comfortable with the roots of my own actions in these cases, all relativity and degrees be darned. The root? I was physically stronger and deluded by male entitlement and aimed to take what wasn’t being offered to me.

And that’s a problem.

I’ve grappled with these memories and this culture more since the birth of my son. I like to think of myself as an enlightened parent, and I’m fortunate to have a wife far more enlightened than me, and not afraid to call me on my BS. So, our son is going to learn about consent and respect for women in ways that I wasn’t taught, but also wasn’t ever confronted with explicitly.

As I write this post, he lies asleep over my shoulder, too young to consider any of this, even on its most abstract terms. There was an activist not long ago who advised parents should look for even their babies’ consent before going so far as to change their diapers. The idea was teaching body ownership and ideas about consent mattering from this nascent point of life. She was promptly lampooned on social media for the extremes she advocated, and even I, who admire the principle she’s getting at, struggle to imagine waiting for definitive body language from my little guy that, yes, he agrees to me tending to his soiled diaper.

And this will not be easy--this selection and rejection of philosophies and practices, these conversations, this coexistence with a surrounding culture that doesn’t entirely agree with anything Heather or I might say.

But we will try to do better, so that our son might do better than me and my friends. So that he’ll never have to worry about his own guilt but rather remember his own agency in his own relationships, and perhaps even using his voice on behalf of those who can’t use their own.

It’s a lot to put on such a little person.

But he will grow.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Death of Myth

In his phenomenal, and phenomenally strange book Preparing The Ghost, Matthew Gavin Frank writes, “I’m not sure which is worse: death by myth or death of myth.”

I read this line the day after I’d had a phone conversation with an old friend in which we discussed old memories of going to the movies, starting with his seminal trip to see American Pie 2 the night it was released and before he had turned seventeen (and thus would be able to see any R-rated film he so chose) because his other friend worked at the theater and got him in. They also got into the theater the blond girl my friend worked with, whom he was infatuated with, with whom he took a photograph that night in one of those automated kiosks in the mall.

I tried to one up him, and recalled the Black Friday when the two of us went to two separate movies--Meet The Parents and Remember The Titans. A momentous occasion because it was the only time growing up when at least I had been to two movies in the theater on the same day, not that we were particularly clever about it—actually paying for both sets of tickets rather than sneaking between screenings. More (in)auspiciously, I recalled that McDonald’s had been running a discounted offer on cheeseburgers—four for two dollars if I remembered rightly—so, growing boys that we were, we each got our own paper bag of burgers, smuggled into the theater beneath our jackets and pigged out over the course of the second movie.

He didn’t remember any of this. And it was sad. For as modest as the memory was, I took to be a shared moment in our coming of age, and a memory unique to the two of us, now, apparently, made unique to me alone. Maybe on account of the occasion not being so memorable to him after making more trips to the movies than I did as a kid, and having more instances of pigging out in fast food revelry. Or maybe I had parts of it wrong.

For why would we have feasted on McDonald’s cheeseburgers the day after Thanksgiving, when his house in particular was surely well-stocked with leftovers? So maybe it wasn’t Black Friday. But a Google search does reveal Meet The Parents and Remember The Titans came out within two weeks of each other, so at least that piece seems to hold up, and they each came out in the fall of 2000, when my friend would have first had his car and when we made all sorts of nonsensical excursions around town, so our movie-fast-food day falling on or around that day seems feasible.

That’s a lot of intellectual energy for two movies that are good, but neither of which hold much resonance for me—either in the films themselves or the experience watching them aside from associating the smell of mustard and onions with the sight of Denzel Washington loading a bunch of brooding football players onto a school bus.

But then there are other memories--other myths--that grow complicated and conflated. Like the night when I was off working a summer job and two of my best friends wound up alone with two girls they’d casually been pursuing before I left and ended up making out with them in separate cars at what must have been the same time (or so we deduce, less based in evidence, but because it makes a better story that way). I think that one of these girls was the same one another friend had hooked up with weeks earlier--from which we began using the term “wiener cousins” because of their shared partner. I may be conflating young women here, though--easy to do when I don’t have a name (or names) to attach; when I was out of town when the action went down.

And then there’s a graver myth. About the summer night when this whole crew friends, me included, almost died.

We were singing along to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” on the car radio, wrapped up in the joy and absurdity of four late teen guys belting this song.

I remember the car swerving suddenly. My friend, the driver breathing heavily. And I remember the lot of us, after a pause, going on singing.

It wasn’t until after the song was over that I learned the swerve was more than steering clear of a cat in the road, or the wheel slipping, or hydroplaning over a puddle. There had been another car driving on the wrong side of the road. That there had been a near collision. From the backseat, focused on the music, I hadn’t even noticed.

The group of us hang out a lot less nowadays, but when we’re together, this memory--this myth--has a tendency to come back. In singing the song. In remembering that (for me, phantom) car that was headed right for us.

None of these memories that I recall really speak to what Matthew Gavin Frank writes about. He’s more concerned with giant squid lore than inside jokes and anecdotes among suburban teenage buddies. Just the same, these are some of the myths that I can most readily access. The ones I imagine we’ll all continue to reference among ourselves and tell our sons when they hit the right age. The ones that will change as we all grow older, as we have more recent and, frankly, more important memories to focus upon. The death of myths, as we know them.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

My Thirteen Takeaways

Author’s Note: As is often the case for posts dealing with specific media, this post does include some spoilers. I’ve tried to avoid or more substantially flag when I reveal specific plot twists—of which the show has many—and stick more to points that are already out in popular media about this show. Nonetheless, if you intend to watch the show and don’t want any spoilers at all, you’ll probably want to hold off on reading.

In the spring of 2017, I got lured into the world of 13 Reasons Why, the teen drama on Netflix established on the premise that high schooler Hannah Baker committed suicide and left behind her a set of audio cassettes fingering thirteen reasons (and, loosely, people) who pushed her toward killing herself. The show’s based on a YA novel by the same name that I have not read, but that I’ve generally heard was well-received.

Why did I, a man in his mid-thirties, watch this show? Some of it’s a predisposition to love brooding, soapy teen shows. I was all in on My So-Called Life as a pre-teen for what I interpreted, and in some ways was, a glimpse at high school life. As a proper teen, who more cleanly fit the target demographic, I got a bit obsessive over Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and turned in weekly, if a bit less fervently, to Felicity and Dawson’s Creek. Later, Freaks and Geeks engendered a similar vibe to MSCL for its less glossy presentation, and eponymous outsider characters I more readily identified with and recognized from my own world. There were other shows, before and since, but I think this sampling makes the point--it’s not a reach to think I’d watch a show like this. Add on the considerable buzz and controversies around the show at that time (we’ll get into more of that soon) and you have a show that the universe all but dared me to give a try while I was sitting on the recumbent bike in my apartment complex’s exercise room.

I had mixed feelings on the show when I watched that original season, and feel a good bit more conflicted after mowing through season two at a clip of one or two episodes a day. In fitting with the schematic of the show, I give to you my thirteen takeaways from watching up to this point.

1. Questions of Artistic Responsibility
One of the key questions about 13 Reasons Why, and indeed one of the ones that first lured me to the show was the questions it evoked about artistic responsibility. Anytime art represents violence, sex, drug use, or foul language, there are questions to consider about what its role modeling or conceptually introducing to its audience.

As a writer, I tend to feel dismissive of these arguments. While I do so with reserve and with purpose, I have written scenes that capture some level of sexual assault, and characters with racists attitudes. These things exist in the world, to take a more puritanical stance against including them in art feels an awful lot like dodging the tough conversation, or marginalizing victims from having their stories told. (There are most certainly other sides to these arguments, and how unsavory dynamics are ultimately rendered on the page matters a lot more than authorial intent, but, well, there’s a lot more to get into than this aside in this single entry of this single blog post is really equipped to do.)

A show about teen suicide, aimed at a teen audience, broadcast on a ubiquitous platform like Netflix--I get that it calls these questions into sharper relief.

In particular, a culminating scene in season one actually shows Hannah slitting her wrists in the bathtub. The moment’s not as shocking as it might be if it weren’t already clear in the show’s mythology that this had happened, but it’s nonetheless a stark visual that doesn’t pull any punches, and that critics of the show has labeled as outright instructive to viewers who might be contemplating suicide.

A willingness to go there all but defines, this show, but it does also raise reasonable questions about whom the target audience for this show really is and if a major media platform like Netflix that’s so accessible to teens—including more vulnerable populations—needs to take more responsibility in what it not only makes available, but actively markets to a younger audiences.

The creative writer in me doesn’t want to see artistic vision compromised. The guy who has spent most of his professional career in one form or another working with a demo aged ten-to-twenty wonders if there is a need to rein things in, particularly when Netflix isn’t governed by the cable TV standards I grew up with, nor does it require a theater ticket taker checking IDs to only let viewers of a certain age through the door.

2. Suicide as Sexy
One of the main points critics of the show brought up after watching the first episode of season one was the degree to which suicide is portrayed as sexy. Indeed, particularly in her early portrayals, we see Katherine Langford’s Hannah Baker as the sexualized crush of Dylan Mennett’s Clay Jensen, and her borderline sultry delivery on her suicide tapes more than reinforces that read. In the end, there is some legitimacy to the claims that the show at least romanticizes the idea of killing oneself in ways that are far from healthy, particularly for at-risk viewers.

3. This Show Hooks You
Maybe it’s my aforementioned predisposition to liking teen dramas, but this show has an addictive quality to it, and as some socially minded critics pointed out, and uncanny ability to embed itself in a viewer’s psyche based on the hypnotic quality of Hannah’s voice and deep dive into her and, later, other characters’ psyches. While I found the second season a bit less binge-worthy, it nonetheless draws viewers into its world with a strong, steady hand.

4. It’s Brutal
While season one wasn’t afraid to get rough and tumble with depictions of sexual assault and other violence, I found season two somehow even more brutal. There are times when the show is utterly unapologetic in its realism, and in the #metoo era, there is merit to not sidestepping uncomfortable truths. Just the same, by the late stages of season two, I found myself feeling as beaten down as the characters. (The spoilers will get most explicit in the next paragraph if you want to jump ahead to number five.)

I, for one, wasn’t surprised when the verdict came in, and Hannah’s parents did not win their case against the school, because to win the case might have afforded them some peace and solace, or might have effected some change in a toxic school environment. In a show, and particularly a season so relentless in its beatdowns and disappointments, it felt less shocking than inevitable that this would be the outcome. And then there was the bathroom scene from the finale--truly one of the most brutal scenes I’ve ever witnessed on television. I can, in a sense, understand the impulse to depict bullying violence at its most raw and graphic, particularly to set up our understanding of Tyler deciding to shoot up a school dance. However, I’m also in the camp that feels this scene went over the edge, past art to a particularly graphic depiction of unnecessarily shocking violence.

5. The Teen-Adult Balance
There’s a consistent quandary in the teen-centric drama genre: where are the grown-ups? Feature them too little, and we start to question what world these kids are living in, or why the parents are so absentee. Feature them too much and they risk overtaking the show and, well, that’s not why we tuned in.

In defense of 13 Reasons Why I’ll argue this show is uncommonly good at striking an appropriate balance in this particular area. The roles of parents and school administrators are mostly understated and mostly believable when they are on screen, and bolstered by the core question/value judgment that no, the adults are not involved enough and they’re leaving these kids to the wolves.

6. The Nexus Point of Technology
13 Reasons Why faces the persistent challenge of trying to translate a story from before the smart phone and social media explosions into modern television or film. To be fair, the original novel was published in 2007, and was thus not totally removed from cell phones or Facebook, but nonetheless predates today’s ubiquity and functionalities. The show feels a bit clumsy in its first episode, with Hannah explaining reasons for using audio cassettes to deliver her message in what is ostensibly 2016.

I’ll credit the show, however, with incorporating new technologies naturally throughout the show, weaving text and picture messaging and social media posting in generally authentic ways that advance plot nicely.

7. Moments of Joy
Make no mistake about it--as referenced earlier in this post, 13 Reasons Why is persistently brutal. However, I do have to cede that out of a combination of writing, soundtrack choices, and acting--and perhaps the very contrast to the shows most brutal moments--when it does arrive at its moments of joy the show shines. These moments include the close of season one, and a portion of the season two finale as the woebegone, hard-won friends the show features cut loose on the dance floor.

Happiness is all too hard to come by on this series, and maybe that’s the point. But when we do glimpse it, it feels organic, true, and earned.

8. Soundtrack
This show’s music—particularly for season one--is awfully well chosen, and sets a killer (no pun intended) mood.

9. No Trivializing Teens
One of the great quandaries in how to present teenagers in a teen-centric drama is to resist the adult urge to look back at this time in life with condescension--i.e., sure everything seemed like a big deal with heightened hormone levels and limited scope of experience, but it was all kind of silly in retrospect.

13 Reasons Why certainly doesn’t trivialize the teenage experience. If anything, the show may go past even the teen perspective to render the most dramatic and at times dark representation of this time in life imaginable.

10. Hitting All Hot Buttons
Particularly in its second season, this show doesn’t shy away from hot-button issues. In fact, there’s a pretty reasonable argument to be made that the show leans into the hottest issues excessively, past the point that they necessarily feel organic to the show, and up to an extent that they feel wedged in and forced. This isn’t to imply that suicide, self-harm, domestic abuse, violent bullying, cyber bullying, sexual assault, drug addiction, and school shooters don’t come up in the real world--they very obviously do. The ubiquity and weight of so many of these pieces in the confines of a school year at one school, however, can feel overwhelming and, at times, as though the show isn’t giving many of these individual issues the full attention they deserve if the show is going to introduce them at all.

11. LGB Representation
Maybe it’s me who’s out of touch with recent teen TV, but I’m accustomed to high school shows with the token gay character or relationship--the Willow Rosenberg, Jack McPhee, Ricky Vasquez (side note: I love Wilson Cruz being cast as an attorney in 13 Reasons Why) character who, regardless of how well written or acted the part is, nonetheless also feels a little token-y.

While one might argue that openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters are disproportionately represented in the cast of characters for this show, in a disproportionately barren landscape for such a long time a show could do a lot worse than normalizing a spectrum of sexuality.

12. The Mysteries Generally Meet Aristotle’s Ideal
Each season of 13 Reasons Why has featured at least one mystery--the first what the thirteen reasons are, and particularly how Clay might figure in; the second who is pushing the misfit characters to speak the truth, and who is trying to intimidate them into silence, particularly after it becomes increasingly clear what’s happening and that these two forces are at odds with one another.

Aristotle wrote that the ideal ending should not only feeling satisfying in and of itself, but also simultaneously surprise the audience and feel inevitable. In each of the prominent mysteries of the show, I’d contend that it delivers the goods on the reveal.

13. Should We Watch Season 3?
After I finished season one of 13 Reasons Why I assumed that my time with these characters was done. There was only one book for source material, we’d gotten through the thirteen tapes and their thirteen reasons, and even arrived at a happy ending (if one tinged with the appropriate degree of sorrow, based on the premise of the show).

I watched season two less out of eagerness to follow up on the next step in these characters’ journeys or out of a sense of stories untold, and more a leap of faith based on what I perceived as the quality of season one.

Season two wasn’t as good.

Worse, the brutality of the season, and particularly that bathroom scene from the last episode left me mentally fatigued and almost regretting having watched. The saving grace? (Big spoiler ahead.) That the show opted not to deliver upon the much-foreshadowed school shooting with a braver statement about compassion (if a murky, arguably icky “walk up, not out” vibe).

The end of season two most certainly set up a season three. So will I watch?

There’s a sense in which the experience of watching season two felt like my experience of watching the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black. I don’t think 13 Reasons Why--especially season two--is as good, but it also didn’t leave me as down-trodden to the point that I had no real desire to spend another hour in its world.

At the end of the day, I probably will at least start watching a third season, if only out of curiosity, and if only because I like more of the characters than I don’t. If I’m busy, or if Netflix releases a lot of other shows I’m interested in a similar time frame, I imagine it will go on the back burner.

OK, so that’s a bit of an anticlimactic close to this post. I’ll leave you, then, with Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” the song from one of the show’s finer moments, the final scene of season one.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

While You’re Here

Live long enough, and you’ll say goodbye to people.

I grew up in Utica and lived in New York State for the first twenty-four years of my life. I’ve since lived in Maryland, Oregon, North Carolina, and Georgia. I’ve moved less than some, more than I necessarily expected to earlier in life, but I expect if I’d stuck around longer in one place, I still would have seen people around me go, and wound up with a similar number of goodbyes as I’ve had.

In college, I got invested in my college newspaper. More than an activity or a job, it was my world--the center of my social life at school, and I probably spent more waking hours in the newspaper office than I did any room where I’d lived those four years. It was tradition to go out to dinner after our weekly meetings, and I remember the end of one of those last meetings, as goodbyes loomed too large to ignore they were coming.

A group of my friends from back home made a surprise visit.

It was a strange moment, because I was happy to see my closest friends--the guys I’d travel with and travel to visit for years to follow, who’d wind up being the groomsmen at my wedding. But at the same time, I was conscious that in their visit, and spending the night with them, rather than my newspaper friends, I was foregoing one of my last opportunities to spend time with the latter group, and particularly so all together at that time in our lives, in that place.

I got to thinking about that sense of feeling torn, well over a decade later, and how arbitrary it is. After all, now I pine for spending time with my guys from Utica. I suppose it comes down to understanding that I’d see those guys no matter what. They were like family, and though we didn’t live in the same place anymore, either, we would have holidays and vacations and special occasions. I didn’t have to appreciate them while they were there, because they’d never be far--at least not in a temporal sense.

And now I look at our weddings as something like a farewell tour. There was the one in 2011, but all the more so the two in 2015, mine bringing up the rear in 2016. In the moment, these times felt less like goodbyes than culminations--in television parlance, less like series finales than special episodes.

But then, I suppose the biggest goodbyes are like that, not in someone disappearing all at once and forever, but rather by degrees of visiting a little less or going from phone calls to the very occasional email to no contact at all between birthday greetings on Facebook.

I think of my Grandma Jean. She was my favorite figure from childhood, and I can remember Sunday afternoon visits to play board games with her and my sister as the good old days in the purest sense. Grandma grew older and more tired before giving way little by little to dementia, until I wasn’t sure she recognized me when I visited her at the nursing home. Until she didn’t entirely wake up when I came to see her. Until she passed away.

It was the first loss I’d had of someone who was a regular and truly dear part of my life, and my first encounter with the very specific kind of regret that comes with wishing you’d spent more time and paid more attention and had more appreciation for someone before she was gone.

I wish she were still around to know my son.

It’s foolish to wish for Grandma Jean, who made it to ninety years old, to have instead made it past a hundred instead, and Riley’s lucky to have two great-grandparents still around. But as I reflect on people past--gone not only to death, but to moving away (whether they or I headed off), or simple changes to the times in our lives, I recognize that my relationship with Riley, too, will change.

There are those times, I’m ashamed to admit, when I resent him or, more to the point, the responsibilities that he entails. It’s a paradox, to love someone more than I’ve ever loved anyone else, but to still lament the loss of time to write or read or exercise or watch a movie. And then there’s the advice I receive time and again about treasuring what time I have, because before I know it, he won’t want to cuddle, and his feet will stink, and he’ll prefer time spent with friends to time spent with me, and he’ll be off to college.

It’s a paradox. But then, if we lived every moment with each other as if we knew we’d miss each other later--not so much in appreciation as fear and premature sorrow for something that isn’t yet lost--well, that’s not really a way to live, either.

So, I hold him close and I set him down. I sing to and coo at and laugh with him, and I also feel grateful when he goes down for a nap. In this way, I live a life with him, while he’s here.