Hazlitt Magazine

How to Keep Running

Sometimes you wind up in situations you never imagined you’d be in, and you do what you have to to get out.

'I Feel Like Everything Shouldn't Exist': An Interview with Hannah Black

Talking to the artist and author of Dark Pool Party about celebrities as archetypal figures, shunning posterity, and whether we finally have the correct conditions for heterosexuality.

Best Sisters

The way we describe ability and care has changed over the centuries, but my relationship with Kiddo doesn’t need to be defined.

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Great Missenden Plays Itself

Exploring the town where Roald Dahl lived for the last thirty-five years of his life, and where some of his most famous writing is subtly but unmistakably set.

Nestled in Buckinghamshire’s Chiltern Hills, a 45-minute train ride from London, Great Missenden (pop: 2,255) was originally built in the 12th century around a vast monastery. Many of its row houses are themselves upwards of four hundred years old. The village’s sidewalks are red-bricked, its roads so narrow that only one car can travel on them at a time. Until a few years ago, it had more pubs than streets.The village feels as though it’s been ripped straight out of a storybook and, in a way, it has. Head south on the High Street, past the pharmacy, past the post office, past the old fire station and drunk tank, past the Cross Keys and the White Lion and the George, then take a right when you hit the converted remains of the abbey, onto Whitefield Lane. Follow this as it winds past some of the village’s larger detached homes into a forested enclosure, continues underneath a railway bridge, then shrinks into a gravel path boxed in by hedges on either side that is still, somehow, technically, a road, until you see a gated driveway cut out to one side, and a plaque marked “Gipsy House.”On the other side of this gate is a farmhouse into whose upstairs windows a large, cordial colossus might easily peer; in the nearby orchard is a bright blue caravan where a future champion of the world could feel right at home. The surrounding countryside, meanwhile, is just the kind of place where a mischievous fox might swipe a couple of geese—maybe even a jug of top-notch alcoholic apple cider.Until very recently, Gipsy House was home to an unassuming little shed, inside of which a 6’5” former spy and flying ace whipped up some of the classic children’s stories of the 20th century. This is where Roald Dahl lived for the last thirty-five years of his life, and where some of his most famous writing is subtly but unmistakably set.*Dahl first moved to Buckinghamshire in 1946. The Welsh-born, British-raised Norwegian was only thirty years old, but already had a lifetime’s worth of experiences under his belt. To wit: Trudging through the uncharted swamps of Newfoundland on a month-long, government-sponsored character-building exercise; running an oil terminal in East Africa as an employee of Shell; enrolling in the British military and then immediately arresting a bunch of hapless German townsfolk once World War II broke out; joining the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot; crash-landing in Libya when his plane ran out of fuel, leaving him concussed, badly disfigured (“My nose didn’t seem to be there,” he later wrote), and temporarily blind; recovering enough to fly again in the Battle of Athens; heading off to Washington, DC, to drum up support for the war effort as an attaché of the British Embassy; playing tennis with the vice-president and hobnobbing with President Roosevelt; sleeping with increasingly rich and famous women; being recruited as a spy; sharing an office with David Ogilvy and Ian Fleming; and puttering around Lake Ontario at a secret British training facility called Camp X. But when he finally returned to England at the end of the war, to live with his mother and sister Asta, Dahl had had enough of his high-octane, globetrotting ways, and was in search of a quieter life—what he described in a letter as one “among the cows and the sheep and the slow spoken types with straw in their hair.”At this point, Dahl was still fifteen years away from his first big children’s book. But his career as a writer was already in full swing. He had published a handful of elegant but unconventional short stories about fighter pilots in magazines such as Harper’s and Ladies Home Journal. Indeed, his first big break had been a (mostly) factual account of his crash, called “Shot Down Over Libya,” published in 1942. And his popularization of the idea of “gremlins”—the mischievous little creatures, well known in RAF folklore, used to explain all kinds of mechanical errors in planes—had brought no less than Walt Disney calling. He and the twenty-six-year-old Dahl had spent several years, off and on, at Disney’s studios in California trying to spin the idea into an animated film, without success; a Dahl-authored picture book, The Gremlins, intended to promote the never-completed movie and published by Random House in 1943, marked his first attempt at writing for younger audiences.Dahl’s profile grew over the next decade, thanks to some prestige film work, as well as a new story collection, Someone Like You, whose darker entries gave him a new reputation as the “master of macabre.” Work and pleasure still occasionally pulled him abroad, to New York City in particular, but when Dahl moved for good into the property that would become Gipsy House, in 1954, he was arguably less famous than its other new resident: his wife, the American film actress Patricia Neal.The newlyweds threw themselves into the task of renovating Little Whitefield, as it was then called, with aplomb. At the same time, Dahl found himself equally smitten with the village around it. There were pheasants to catch. Gardens to keep. Furniture auctions to attend. Cherries to pick. Even clandestine greyhound races in the nearby fields to bet on. “There are in fact so many things to be done all the time,” he wrote in a private notebook, “that it becomes impossible on any single day between April and September to find a moment for doing what a publisher would call serious work.”This was an exaggeration, but not by much. Never a prolific short story writer—he averaged about two per year—Dahl’s output nonetheless plummeted during his early years at Little Whitefield. From 1954 to 1958 he didn’t publish a single piece of fiction. And even when he pivoted mid-career, at the suggestion of his literary agent, to writing for children (by this point he had several of his own), Dahl initially didn’t take much from his immediate surroundings. His first post-Gremlins effort, 1961’s James and the Giant Peach, opens in the south of the country, by the sea, and most of the book is spent in a westward drift above the Atlantic, ultimately landing in New York City—the very city Dahl himself had fled. And 1964’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an urban story at heart, inspired in large part by an episode from Dahl’s childhood, when he and his classmates served as de facto focus groups for Cadbury whenever the company wanted to test out new and experimental bars of chocolate.It wasn’t until a slew of tragedies shook the Dahl family to its foundations that Great Missenden first appeared in his children’s stories. In 1960, Dahl and Neal’s four-month-old son Theo was struck, in his stroller, by a taxi in a New York City crosswalk; the baby survived, but developed hydrocephalus, wherein spinal fluid accumulates in the brain. Theo would be in and out of hospital for years afterwards. Then, in 1962, their eldest daughter Olivia suddenly died, at age seven, from a rare type of brain inflammation caused by the measles. And in 1965, Neal herself suffered a series of violent strokes while pregnant with the couple’s fifth child. She was thirty-nine years old at the time.Dahl spent much of these years away from his writing desk, dedicating himself wholeheartedly to keeping his family intact. Those efforts often went well above and beyond the call of fatherly duty. When Theo’s medical shunt kept clogging, Dahl helped invent a new one that was then put into general use; when he learned that stroke victims do all of their recovery in the first two years, he hired a team of “intelligent, ordinary people, a lot of them retired or housewives whose husbands were working” to give Neal aggressive, six-hour treatment sessions in their home—an unheard-of method that nonetheless yielded incredible results. (Neal, already an Oscar winner, returned to film work and was nominated again just three years after the strokes.) Dahl, meanwhile, became the family’s full-time cheerleader/drill sergeant, marching around Gipsy House relentlessly upbeat, trying to convince himself and everyone else within earshot that things would be OK just as long as he could keep his wits about him.It may not be a coincidence that when Dahl finally returned to his writing shed, the next thing he would put to paper was a tale about a family whose lives are torn out from underneath them—literally, this time—and who are saved only thanks to their endlessly clever patriarch.*Written in 1968, and published in 1970, Fantastic Mr Fox depicts exactly the kind of inventive and resilient father Dahl imagined himself to be. Mr. Fox adores his wife and children—so much so that to provide for them, he sneaks out each night to steal food from a trio of irritable farmers. When Boggis, Bunce, and Bean realize he’s the culprit, they try to dig out not just the Fox family home, but also the entire hill that contains it. Mr. Fox’s thieving habits, too, were shared by his author. When he first moved to Buckinghamshire, Dahl befriended a local named Claud, and together they would engage in “the sporting type of stealing”: a pheasant here, a handful of plums there. “There is a delicious element of risk,” Dahl later wrote, “and a good deal of skill is required.”Great Missenden itself makes an appearance on the page, as the site of the foxes’ besieged home. “On a hill above the valley there was a wood,” the story opens. “In the wood there was a huge tree. Under the tree there was a hole.” Next to Gipsy House, which sat on a hill, in Angling Spring Wood, there stood just such a tree: a gnarled, five-hundred-year-old yew that Dahl had nicknamed “Witches’ Tree.” (The tree blew over, in a windstorm, in 2003.)From then onwards, the village would make repeat appearances, some more obvious than others, in most of Dahl’s major children’s books. Danny the Champion of the World, for instance, from 1975, is like Mr Fox in that it, too, features a sprightly and sympathetic paterfamilias. In the book, Danny and his father live in a gypsy caravan inspired by the real-life one Dahl had on the Gipsy House estate. (Dahl had a lifelong fascination with gypsy culture, dating back to the first time he read Matthew Arnold’s poem “The Scholar-Gipsy,” and he was thrilled to discover that a family of gypsies regularly camped in the woods near his Great Missenden property.) The book’s pheasant-poaching scenes were inspired by Dahl’s more youthful adventures with his friend Claud in Buckinghamshire, and set in nearby Atkins Wood. A local petrol station, meanwhile, with its bright red, 1950s-style pumps, inspired the novel’s garage; it sits, preserved, on Missenden’s High Street to this day.Missenden would also show up on the page, in more ways than one, in The BFG. Published in 1982, it opens with a young girl called Sophie waking up in the middle of the night and looking out the window of her orphanage. That’s when she notices, in the distance, striding towards her down the High Street, “something black… Something tall and black… Something very tall and very black and very thin”: a giant. Dahl modelled the BFG after his builder, a large-eared man named Wally Saunders, and the orphanage after a distinctive black-and-white-patterned house on Missenden’s actual High Street called Crown House. Even Dahl’s long time illustrator Quentin Blake seems to have gotten the reference: his picture of the BFG, trumpet in hand, peering into a second-storey window across the street from the orphanage is a dead ringer for Missenden as it still appears. Fittingly, if one were to look out the window of this private residence today, the building you’d see is the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, which opened in 2005. On the side of the building is a mural of that exact same Blake illustration—only now the BFG is peering into the place where the archive of his creator’s many manuscripts and letters is kept.Then there’s Matilda. The last major book Dahl would ever publish, two years before his death, is once again set squarely in Great Missenden, with particular emphasis given to the public library at the end of the High Street, by the train station. This is where our hero first discovers her love of reading, while her neglectful mother is off playing bingo in the nearby town of Aylesbury. There is no small whiff of Dahl himself in the five-year-old Matilda: in her love of pranks, in her admiration for writers like Hemingway, and especially in the way she uses literature to travel “all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”*Throughout his thirty-five years there, Dahl felt by turns inspired by Great Missenden and removed from it. “I like the village very much,” he told one BBC interviewer, “but I’m not, I must admit, part of the social scene of Great Missenden and its surroundings.” Gipsy House’s location was already hidden from the High Street, and while Dahl was certainly a regular in the village, his relationship with many of the locals was cordial at best. “The local people,” he said, “like the builders and the plumbers and the electricians, they are rarely my friends with whom we play snooker regularly.”In general, Dahl’s personality tended to have an all-or-nothing effect on those who knew him. His penchant for sweeping, bombastic statements, especially in social settings, either totally won you over—as it did during his days among the buttoned-up bureaucrat crowd in Washington—or else alienated you entirely. Dahl considered this brusqueness part of his charm and seemed genuinely mystified whenever someone took offence.His first real experience of pushback came during the film adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, when the NAACP argued that the book’s depiction of Oompa Loompas as a race of African pygmies was racist. Confused, and an ocean removed from the civil rights movement that was then at full boil, Dahl nevertheless capitulated, rewriting those sections of the book and changing the Oompa Loompas into a separate race of green-haired, orange-skinned creatures instead.A more vicious instance of absolutism came in the 1980s, when an aging Dahl agreed to review God Cried, a large-format book about the civilian casualties of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Dahl hated reviewing as a rule, but the graphic photographs in the book—especially contrasted with his fond memories of being stationed in Palestine while with the RAF—stirred him. In the ensuing article, Dahl went in firing. He repeatedly compared Israel to Nazi Germany, and when that drew a wave of angry letters and phone calls, even death threats, he doubled down in an interview with the New Statesman, claiming that there was something deficient in the Jewish character, and that “even a stinker like Hitler didn’t pick on them for no reason.”Dahl’s biographer, Donald Sturrock, says this kind of blunt language was “par for the course[JH13],” and that the author’s correspondence is full of harsh generalizations about the many nations and ethnicities that had even momentarily irritated him over the years. The English, French, Dutch, Americans, Irish, Swedes, and Germans all got theirs, too. But Dahl was clearly unprepared for how his comments would be received in such a public setting, and in such a charged political moment. Here, as elsewhere, friends and family say Dahl was driven more by his love of provocation than any true anti-Semitism. But for many of his young fans, these comments were a jarring and unsavoury window into the man behind the pen.*Geography was always a much happier, and more reliable, source of inspiration than politics for Dahl anyway. Outside of his novels for children, Dahl occasionally drew on the countryside in his other writing, too. The narrator in “The Hitch-Hiker,” for instance, is driving a route, south to London, via Chalfont St. Peter, that means he likely came through Great Missenden sometime before the story opens. One of the bullies in “The Swan,” meanwhile, mentions offhand that he used to dissect chickens “and flog ‘em to a shop in Aylesbury”—the same town where Matilda’s mother had a daily bingo reservation. In 1989, Dahl collected some of these rural stories into a book called Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life; in the preface he writes admiringly of the “fine Buckinghamshire country with its rolling hills and beechwoods and small green fields.” Memories with Food at Gipsy House, a hybrid cookbook/food memoir written with his second wife, Felicity “Liccy” Crosland, was published posthumously.In his fiction, though, Dahl only ever explicitly named the village he called home for so many years once. This was in the early story “Mr. Feasey,” first published in the New Yorker in 1953. It’s a light tale about small-time crooks and ill-conceived scams involving identical racing dogs, and at one point the two hapless protagonists catch sight of their friend in some familiar territory, but which is here given a name for the first—and only—time. “We drove through the little narrow High Street of Great Missenden,” Dahl writes, “and caught a glimpse of old Rummins going into the Nag’s Head for his morning pint.” This beloved 15th-century pub is still there, on Nag’s Head Lane, and it’s as busy as ever. You might have to line up for your morning pint, but it’ll be worth it.After Dahl’s death, in 1990, at the age of seventy-four, of a blood disease, his widow Crosland stayed on in Gipsy House and for many years even opened its doors to the public at select times of the year. Today, however, the property is owned by one of Dahl’s grandchildren, and no longer accessible. Out of courtesy, the Dahl Museum’s free maps of Missenden and the surrounding countryside don’t specify where, exactly, Gipsy House is. But it’s a small village, and everyone knows the way.Yet the need to make the pilgrimage to Dahl’s house has lessened in recent years, since his work has now effectively rippled back out and become part of the village itself. The most talismanic part of Gipsy House, Dahl’s writing shed, was meticulously moved inside the Museum and Story Centre in 2012, with every single object maintained in the exact position it was in when Dahl died—even the jar of his spinal shavings and the massive ball of chocolate bar wrappers he kept on a side table. And Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be one of Dahl’s most city-centric children’s books, but when the Museum and Story Centre first opened its doors, Warner Brothers offered to donate the gates from its just-completed film version (the one with a squeaky Johnny Depp at the helm) as a gift; when those gates wouldn’t fit under the building’s awning, the studio had a new set custom-built and shipped to Missenden instead. Next door to the museum, Café Twit offers a selection of over-the-top foods inspired by Dahl’s books[JH16], including fizzlecrumper lemonade, served with vanilla ice cream and sprinkles, as well as Matilda-inspired Bogtrotter cake.Even Dahl’s grave bears witness to his larger-than-life works. The church of St. Peter and St. Paul is set back on another hill, in another corner of Great Missenden, and one grave in particular stands out among the hundreds there. Look for the circular bench that rings a tall, leafy tree, the names of Dahl’s children and grandchildren carved in each panel. A quote from The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me is engraved in the concrete at your feet—“We have tears in our eyes / As we say our goodbyes / We so loved being with you, we three / So do please now and then / Come and see us again”—and a set of big, friendly footprints direct you down to the grave itself, which Dahl fans like to decorate with children’s toys and onions. Dahl, apparently, loved onions.
How to Keep Running

Sometimes you wind up in situations you never imagined you’d be in, and you do what you have to to get out.

Joey had a collapsed lung and a tiger tattoo that crawled up his arm like it could leap off and sink its claws right into you. It didn’t, of course. It just lay there, blown-out and faded, tensing when he tensed and twitching when he twitched.He showed it to me, that first night in the truck, all the places where it was wrong: missing a toe, tail crooked, its front paw as big as its head. “I told the guy to stop, to just stop, he was fucking it all up.” He puffed on his vape and the sick-sweet smell of maple swirled around me. “But he finished it anyway.”We’d been in his truck all night: In-N-Out drive-thru and a drive-in movie in City of Industry, which is exactly what you’d expect from the name—all wide streets and parking lots and stoplights that never seemed to change. They say people in LA live in their cars, but this was a whole new level.The actors’ voices crackled through his radio, but we weren’t listening. He pulled me on top of him, over the parking break and gear shift, so that my back was against the steering wheel. He didn’t take my clothes off, didn’t do much of anything except run his bare hands along my skin, trace the outlines of my tattoos, washed-out relics from another life. He asked me questions: which one was first, what the words of that one said, what the picture of this one had been before it got blasted in the California sun.His nails were brown with grease that didn’t wash off. Through my jeans, I could feel the tip of his hard-on poking into me. Through the back cabin window, I could see the truck bed, all the gear strapped down: a motorbike, an alternator, a toolbox.Damn near a whole mechanics shop, right there and waiting.*My sister had warned me: “A guy like that won’t know what to do with you.”My sister, she’s always spot-on about this stuff—sex, intrigue, anything related to attraction. Twenty-five years as a sex worker leaves you knowing a thing or two.“It’s just the relationship part I don’t know how to do.”*He was the AAA dude who changed my car battery.The car had only been struggling for a day before it downright died in the Trader Joe’s parking lot on Hyperion, the one with so many cars cramming into it that they hired that little attendant to stand in the sun and wave us all around. We pretended it helped.“It’s the heat,” Joey told me when he pulled that big truck up, blocking half the driving space and causing all the cars to back up even further. “Batteries die faster in the heat.”It was March and already ninety degrees in Los Angeles. I’d lived in the city for six months, most of which I’d spent crosstown commuting in my econo-car, a light blue Yaris with a couple of dents on the side and three of its hub cabs. I’d moved to the city after a long, celibate stint living in Asia, breathing toxic smog and riding motorbikes and forgetting what it was like to attract or be attracted. I’d run away to write a book, to live the expat dream, to escape a tailspin of bad relationships with sketchy dudes. I’d only succeeded in one of those ventures.I’d moved to LA for grad school, and quickly became one of the Angelenos who lives in their vehicle—who eats lunch, talks on the phone, applies mascara and checks the GPS while making a left turn across three lanes of oncoming traffic—vanilla air freshener swinging from the rear view and a glove compartment full of Kind bars, hand sanitizer, breath mints, tampons, anything you might need at any moment—your own self-sustaining, climate-controlled world until it up and dies on you on a blazing Sunday morning.Joey wrenched open my hood. “You from the Midwest?”I laughed. “No, why?”“You pronounce your words right. People here never say their words right.” Joey rattled off the places he’d lived: Detroit, New Orleans, Flagstaff, Pittsburgh—a restless, itinerate list that made me think: He was raised in an alcoholic family. He’s running.I watched his hands disappear inside the belly of my hood. I have no idea what happens in there—valves and gears that grind and whistle, a whole wilderness of metal and grease that propels me forward, makes my life possible, and I don’t have the slightest clue how any of it works. I don’t even like to open it.His elbows moved as he cranked some unseeable cranks, lifted my dead battery, pulled a new one from his truck, turned a few more cranks. The tiger on his arm flexed and flinched.When he ran my credit card, he lingered by my window and there was a moment, a split second, when I thought: I wonder if this dude is gonna ask me for my number.But he didn’t. He handed me my card back and told me to have a good day. Then he walked back to his truck and drove away.I forgot all about it as I went on with my day—cleaned the apartment, made a vat of food for the week, got stood up for a Tinder date, went to my sister’s for dinner—until I was driving home and my phone dinged with an OkCupid message.“Hey, didn’t I change your car battery today?”I grinned into the line of brake lights on the 101.*“The thing about these polyamorous guys is that they act like they invented fucking other women. It’s like, guys have been doing this for thousands of years. You did not make this shit up.”“And you told him this?”“Yeah. I’m doing this for women,” my sister replied when I raised my eyebrow. “I’m saving the world, one angry Tinder message at a time.”The light changed and the car stalled out. My sister jiggled the key and tapped on the gas, while my nephew waved his arm out of the window for the other cars to go around.My sister was full of anecdotes like this. She’d been dating on the apps for the first time since her ex—the kids’ dad—had relapsed, gotten arrested and sent away, for good this time. But because she refused to pay for a sitter, she’d have the guys over to the house, or else bring the whole troop to a coffee shop. So my nieces and nephew were basically dating too. “This is me,” my sister said about it. “This is my life. They better get used to it.” Her Tinderonis, she called them.So far, no one had gotten used to it.We were driving through Pacoima to look at a BMW a guy was offloading because he couldn’t get it to pass smog. Outside was a flat, stark stretch to the mountains, all busted sidewalk and broken glass, Virgin of Guadalupe murals on the sides of liquor stores.We made an illegal U-turn, and I stayed in the car while my sister hopped out to meet the guy and look at the BMW. Usually my sister buys cars at auction. She got into flipping cars with her ex. It’s tweaker shit, but it’s easy money and involves a hustle, which she likes, and it provided enough cash to finally get her out of stripping. By this point, she can get anything to pass smog. She can get anything to run again.Her shirt was low-cut, her ‘90s boob job prominently displayed, and her jeans were low, too, a denim line across her hipbones. She walked across the simmering pavement and from inside the car, I caught a glimpse of her, the way I suppose men see her. And even there, in the dusty desert heat, she was still so shockingly beautiful—despite the cigarettes and the childbirths and the bottle of wine at night. The kind of beauty that can support four kids and a meth addict, the architecture of her bones enough to make your heart stop.My nine-year-old nephew looked up from the backseat. “Oh good,” he said, glancing at the back of the BMW. “It has its plates.”I watched without sound as my sister talked to the guy, smiled, leaned in. She’s good at this part, getting the cars for cheaper. She was always good at this. Her ex was better at the selling, had that smooth-talking addict charm. “And people always take a man more seriously.”My sister signaled and I tailed them as she test-drove for a couple blocks. More smiling, more hair flipping, a wad of hundreds pulled from her purse. The hot, dry air pushed up against the windows.I tailed her to one of the cheap auto shops—she needed a new tire before she’d drive it on the freeway—then we went somewhere air-conditioned to eat tacos while we waited. The kids downed Jarritos and chips and not anything else.“How much you think you’ll make off this one?”She shrugged. “Three, four hundred maybe. Not bad for a day’s work.”The baby started fussing and my sister pulled her tit out and started nursing right there in the hard plastic booth.My nephew shook his head. “Chris hates that.”“Who the hell is Chris?” I asked.“Oh, he’s one of mom’s Tinderonis.”*Joey was different from the other guys I’d met in LA, and I liked that. Kind of. He didn’t have a man-bun or an urban safari hat. He didn’t manage social media accounts for teenybopper celebrities I’d never heard of, and he didn’t suggest we meet at a six-dollar coffee shop. He hadn’t moved from a suburb to chase a dream, or from New York to escape a dream, or from San Francisco to escape the techies.He was in mechanics school and worked for AAA on the weekends. He had non-descript sweaty brown hair and wire-rim glasses that weren’t any style at all. He wore a Bob Dylan shirt and a generic reggae-style lion shirt, or else one from a three-pack he’d bought at a dollar store.I didn’t know how he’d managed to live in LA for three years and still be so Midwest. I couldn’t tell if I liked it or not, but at least it was different. Refreshing. I was coming off a string of twelve first dates, of which I’d heard back from exactly zero of the guys. “Just try it out,” my new friends suggested. So I did.Our first date, Joey picked me up in his ratty truck, with all the machinery strapped down in the back, as though he might pull over and work on a broken-down car at any moment. He took me to play pool at a dive in Hollywood, where I didn’t know legit dives could exist anymore—a dingy place squeezed into a strip mall and filled with a bunch of other guys who looked like they’d just gotten off shifts at AAA or UPS or the loading dock at Costco, who looked like they’d also just barely left their Rust-Belt hometowns.My sister knows things. And not just about sex and attraction and intrigue. She knows how to survive.He bought me a soda water and told me how he’d really come a long way in cutting down his own drinking. He told me lots of stuff, over the course of a few dates—about leaving home at sixteen; about living in his van and selling jewelry at gem shows across the country; about the hotel room in New Orleans that caught on fire, how he narrowly escaped as the flames licked up $17,000 in cash; about his dad dying from a heroin overdose; about still sending money home, still paying his mom’s phone bill; about moving to California to try and stop his own drinking.I didn’t tell him much, mostly because he didn’t ask.From the beginning he called a lot. He texted a lot and he followed me on every social media site I was on. It seemed a little much, but my friends assured me that this was what a guy did when he actually liked you—when he wasn’t too cool or too self-involved or too emotionally stunted to be available. Maybe they were right. I didn’t have much to compare him to in this town. Or any town, really.“If you ever need anything done on your car,” Joey told me, “you can bring it into the shop. The guys will work on it for free.”I imagined my Yaris splayed open, tires off and hoisted up on those poles, twelve greasy-elbowed guys digging around in the hood, under its belly, its insides.“They don’t break down much,” I evaded. “I mean, that’s why I got the car. You kinda just put gas in it and go, right?”“Yeah, pretty much,” Joey shrugged. But he said it like he was bummed, like he wanted to get in there, under there, root around and tinker and twist, even though there wasn’t a goddamn thing to fix.*“I think he’s obsessed,” I told my sister.I showed her the line of texts—five in one day.My sister rolled her eyes. “The last guy didn’t text enough, this guy texts too much.” She scrolled a bit, then handed my phone back. “He just likes you.”“It doesn’t seem, you know, a little much?”“He’s pursuing you. That’s what men do. We just forget, with all these weenies running around LA.”Perhaps I should have considered that this was coming from my sister—a woman who’d had her Facebook account hacked, her phone hacked, her emails read, her clothes slashed, her panties sniffed. Who’d changed the locks and called the cops so many times that the locksmiths knew her by name and the cops had just stopped coming. Who’d lived like that for years, ten years—child after child, rehab after detox, misdemeanor after felony.So it must have been pretty bad, whatever happened the night she finally did leave. She never said and I figured it wasn’t my place to ask, that I could afford her that much. All I knew was that there was a bullet hole in the TV. And that after ten years, she packed the kids, grabbed all the valuables that were still left, and split.She didn’t go home for five weeks. She holed up at friend’s house, where she slept in the same bed as the kids every night. No one knew where he was, so she couldn’t even serve him a restraining order. She pulled the older kids out of school—she didn’t want them being anywhere where he could get to them. “He’ll get picked up eventually,” she said. “He always does.”He broke into the house a few times during that period, stealing what was left to be stolen, ransacking what was left to be ransacked, leaving a trail of boot prints across the floor.When he did finally get picked up, it was worse than anyone had expected. Kidnapping. Home invasion. Gunfire exchanged with the police.There’s no way you do that without a death wish, I knew that much. There’s no way you look out of a window of a meth house, see those lights flashing and hear that voice on the loudspeaker, and decide to fire shots unless you know there’s nothing left. That there’s nothing to go back to.That she’s finally gone.That you can’t keep running.So I understood the irony, of course, of taking dating advice from a woman whose longest relationship had been that. But at the same time, my sister knows things. And not just about sex and attraction and intrigue. She knows how to survive.I’ve always looked up to her, in a crazy way. My beautiful sister, with her tragic cheekbones and dyed blond hair—always with a different, half-broke-down car in the driveway.*The night it happened Joey picked me up in a different car—a red vintage European sports car. “It’s a client’s car,” he told me as he opened the passenger door for me. “She’s driving mine while I work on hers.”“Your truck?”“Yeah.”“Your client is driving your truck?” I couldn’t imagine any woman in LA driving Joey’s ratty old truck.He nodded as he closed the door. I watched him walk back to the driver’s side, and decided not to ask anymore. It didn’t add up but I honestly didn’t care. It was our fourth or fifth date, and I still wasn’t feeling butterflies.But when he brought me home later that night, I invited him up. Because I’d decided to sleep with him. You should know that; I feel like you should know that.We were making out on my bed and clothes were coming off and I asked him if he had a condom and he said no.I wiggled away from him. “Well I’m not gonna sleep with you without a condom,” I told him. “I don’t do that.”“Okay,” he said softly. He kept kissing me. He kept moving his hands, reaching them inside me, and I didn’t stop him. Because it felt good.“I mean, there’s other things we can do,” I whispered.“Yeah,” he said, his face turned away from me.He kept rooting around inside me. Then his hands pulled out of me, pushed against my thighs and spread them open. I felt him enter me.I sucked my breath and froze a moment. Then I squeezed and pushed him out of me. “Nonono,” I repeated, shaking my head. “We can’t do that.”“Okay, okay,” he sighed.But a couple seconds later, it was happening again—he was inside me, he was fucking me, and I’m not gonna lie, it felt good, but I didn’t want him to be doing it.“Stop,” I said.He didn’t.“Hey!” I said louder. He paused. Slowly, slowly, he pulled out of me. He stayed perched on top of me though, sweaty and panting. His arms were planked against my sides, blocking me in. The tiger quivered.“Look,” I said, “there’s a twenty-four-hour CVS three blocks away.”And then he responded with something so LA, the most LA thing someone could possibly say, that I would have laughed at it under different circumstances and that I did laugh at it later, when I told my friends and tried to play it off like it was something other than what it was:“I don’t want to lose my parking space.”The next time he stuck it in, I thought about fighting him off. Forcing him off me, standing up, shoving his clothes in his arms and hollering at him to leave and waking up my roommate. I imagined what it would take to get him off me—kicking, screaming, biting maybe. He wasn’t a small guy.So I gave up. I gave in. It wasn’t consent so much as not wanting a fight. But I could have forced him off me. I could have stopped it. He was well-endowed and I ended up cumming, despite myself, and I couldn’t have cum if I didn’t enjoy it, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it if I hadn’t somehow agreed. Right? These are the things I’ve told myself and they’ve kept me from giving up on dating entirely. And that’s the point, if nothing else, right?—to find a way to keep going.We ended up fucking in the morning too. I mean, I was already gonna have to go to the doctor and take the morning-after pill and get tested for everything, and it would probably make him leave faster. It was easier than kicking him out.When he finally did leave, he texted two minutes later. “Street sweeping. Got a $70 ticket.”Maybe it was asshole-ish of me, but I couldn’t help but smile.*I don’t know why I didn’t cut it off right then and there. Guilt maybe?“Guilt about what?!” my friends asked.“Knowing I wasn’t that into it and dating him anyway?” Even I wasn’t convinced.My sister just sighed when I told her. “Yeah, that always sucks.” She said it the way you might commiserate about a stolen wallet or a flat tire—one of those inconvenient inevitabilities.I must have looked real bummed, because she added, “How do you think these four were born?” She glanced towards the next room, where the kids were watching cartoons in their underpants—color bars bent around the bullet hole. “‘Oh, come on, I’ll pull out,’” she mimicked her ex’s voice and laughed.“It’s never happened to me before,” I said. “Not even when I was a drunk teenager.”My sister gave me one of those sad smiles, the kind only a sister can give you, and hugged me. She smelled like dirty hair and sweat.You can say a lot of things about my sister—that she drinks too much, that she screams at the kids, that she cries on the front lawn, that she stayed with an abusive meth addict for ten years. And these things are true. But sometimes you wind up in situations you never imagined you’d be in, and you do what you have to to get out, and you sell yourself out in the process. But my sister did get out. And she got her kids out, and she didn’t break down and she found a way to keep going—to tap the pedal and rattle the key and make it run again, however haltingly and shadily, semi-legal and under-the-table.I let things with Joey linger. He kept texting, every couple hours for a few days, mostly dumb shit—his breakfast, his lunch, a part of some car completely unrecognizable to me, his hands covered in grease, inspirational quotes and links to pop psychology articles that “might be helpful.”He ended up dumping me. Via text message, some 11 p.m. soliloquy so long my phone broke it into three speech bubbles—how it was clear I wasn’t ready for “this,” but how his life would be better for having known me, and that if I ever needed an ear he would always be there. I couldn’t tell if it was sweet or psychotic, or if I was jaded and unavailable, or if we were just two half-broken-down people, colliding with one another.I took a little break after Joey, deleted the apps and then re-downloaded them, the way we do. Because what else is there to do but keep going? Keep swiping and messaging and going on awkward first dates with dudes I never hear back from. It’s the same way I get through LA—just keep the oil changed and the gas tank off empty and the glove compartment stocked, and hope to God nothing breaks down, hope to God nothing costs me money, nothing leaves me stranded, no one runs into me or breaks my window or steals my shit. It doesn’t sound like much of a way to live, when you write it out like that, but I feel like that’s how most of us get by—hoping for the best and bracing for the worst, from inside our own, self-sustaining bubbles.*Every few months, Joey would try to get in touch with me: text, Gmail chat, Facebook message, Instragram message. One by one, I blocked them all.Six months later, he texted again. From a number I didn’t recognize, a number I hadn’t already blocked.“Hey Lauren, it’s Joey, how’s it going?”I blocked that number too. But for some reason, I saved the text.
Banner for She's Done it All Part 4 by Benjamin Urkowitz for Hazlitt
She’s Done it All! Pt. 4

Over us she has only time, not brilliance.

Featuring Cindy Li
Terrible Calvin Klein ads (12:23), building safer raves (32:07) and how to get into Berghain (40:41)
‘I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist’: An Interview with Hannah Black

Talking to the artist and author of Dark Pool Party about celebrities as archetypal figures, shunning posterity, and whether we finally have the correct conditions for heterosexuality.

In her new book Dark Pool Party, the artist Hannah Black writes: “Accurate mimesis is a European obsession, which isn’t to say it’s bad but only that it could be dispensed with.” Like her video “My Bodies,” where black women sing that phrase over a montage of genericized white men, these texts read the world against itself, to dig out from the wreckage that capitalism and colonialism have made. “Celebrity Death Match” frames her journals as an issue of US Weekly: “Just before Rihanna came to collect me it occurred to me that I wanted to fall in love with her.” Elsewhere she describes the mental sorting that reduces each passerby to “M, F, unknown, or baby,” and asks: “Are we having a good time? Are we having the right kind of bad time?” The punchlines are all like that—funny, queasy. “She goes on to the next line and the next,” Hannah says of Hannah, “hoping every time to discover new material, to barricade, against hostile elements, the collective practice of living.”I met Hannah several years ago, outside a long tunnel of a bar in Chinatown. She was talking about Carla Lonzi’s anti-dialectical pamphlet Let’s Spit on Hegel, but I remember even more the rapid and circular way she spoke, returning her thoughts to the top of the log flume for another ride. In person or in print, she has a fluidly intuitive sense of timing. Right after she left, a man came by with a dead rat, carrying it like the mourners bearing a funeral bier. We didn’t meet any of those while discussing Dark Pool Party in the same neighbourhood recently, but at some point mid-conversation I looked up towards the trees framing the park and noticed a squirrel watching us curiously.*Hazlitt: I've been wondering, were you always a writer as well as an artist? Do they feel like disparate things to you, or...Hannah Black: I sometimes get defensive about there being a strong distinction between those two things, and in that position of defensiveness I might try to say there's been some collapse of distinctions, or a sense that everything's ended up in the trashcan of contemporary art. I think you can make an argument that lots of different forms of cultural practice have ended up being under the umbrella of contemporary art. Also, the Master's that I did at Goldsmiths [College]—it was called "Art Writing," but the intention was looking at writing as a mode of art practice, as if it were called Art Painting or Art Sculpture or something. But that meant that we spent most of the discussions just talking about what that would mean, which was a bit weird, because people are already doing that. There are artists who work in text or writing, or even produce novels. So I think just in terms of actually existing people, we do blur those distinctions quite a lot, but in practice people do seem to find it a little bit dissonant. I don't write many art reviews, because I don't really enjoy it that much, but that does feel like a weird conflict of interest. The idea that you're at the same time asserting yourself as someone who's in a position of knowledge, analyzing someone else's work, and then still trying to be open towards the uncertainties of making your own work. That does feel a bit weird sometimes.And then the third thing is just in terms of my character and how I am in the world, not to be too categorical about it, but I feel much more like I have all the neuroses and habits of mind that a writer has, and I don't know if I have the distinctive pattern of being that people associate with an artist. That is again a romantic and slightly outdated model, because there has been a change in art where now it's not so much about being this super-talented maker, there's now a lot of artists who aren't working with the hand or working through their own meticulous practices of image production or object production. You could say that idea is just an outmoded concept, but then I do relate more to writers. I read interviews with writers and I know what they're talking about. It doesn't mean to say that I'm not someone who can do that in an art context, but I think the thread through what I do is a struggle with writing.I have an almost superstitious idea that you only get really good at something when you're fully cognizant of the problems that it contains, and you're in touch with your failure, not in the sense of a deliberate failure or modernist grand failure or whatever, but just in the sense that at your utmost extension, with everything you can give to something, it will still somehow fail to be adequate to reality or experience. I find that problem really interesting. And also autobiographically, I've been writing since I was—I mean, I literally don't remember when I wasn't writing. I have early memories of looking at the scrolling copyright texts on some animated movie I was watching in the morning when my parents were still in bed, and being like, Oh, if you can read you can write, this revelation. I don't know if it's even true, but I was completely seized by this idea that I could do both, going into my parents' room like, "Guess what!" And them being like, "Whatever, we don't care." [both laugh]A story that I love to tell about myself—it's probably in a previous interview—you know that awful thing where you find yourself really charming, which is probably when you should be most suspicious of yourself? But my favourite toy as a child for several years was this magnetic alphabet set.Fridge letters.Fisher-Price fridge letters. I treated them like dolls, they all had different personalities and they would have arguments or date each other, they had this really intricate social life. And I was gratified recently, because there was a piece about people who report having synesthesia, and there's a strong correlation between people's letter-color associations and the Fisher-Price alphabet set. Which is weird, because—I think there was an early-2000s thing where people really liked to say they were synesthetic. It was a fashionable characteristic to have. And I'd always be like, "No, I have this strong association between letters and colours, but it's only because of the Fisher-Price magnetic alphabet."In a lot of ways, when I look back on my very long relationship with writing and I realize how much of it was almost like this cheesy idea that you have to do 10,000 hours of something to be a craftsperson, to be good at it ... I feel like, growing up, I had all the phases of trying to write like various different people, all the worst possible things you can think of. All the very bro-y phases, like my Kerouac phase, my Pynchon phase, all those phases. Then you get a certain sensitivity, and even glibness from that. It's possible one day that I'll have that suddenly with video or whatever, but—most of what I do has writing in it in some way, or is based on writing or has some relationship to writing. One of the things I like about art is that I'm writing with my left hand, or I'm doing something a little beyond my capabilities. I like that feeling.One of the problems I have with writing—a nice problem, but also kind of a problem—is that it comes really easily, so sometimes I have to find ways to challenge how easy it is. It wouldn't be easy for me to write a novel, but I can churn out a thousand words of whatever and it'll be nice sentences. And I'm very suspicious of nice sentences, so I'm always like,Oh no, I have to be less good on a sentence-by-sentence basis. That's like a John Updike thing, it's so annoying. No one cares that it's a nice sentence.I obsessively revise sometimes. And I liked what you said about failure, because I definitely know a bunch of writers, including myself, who will write something and then immediately think it's bad. That you wish you'd never written it, or that a lot of it should be taken out. Whereas I don't know a lot of artists who will make a sculpture or a video piece and then say, "Oh, this is garbage. It should not exist in the world."Really? Oh my God, I feel like that about everything I do. I feel like everything shouldn't exist. I think the way I manage is that I try to think of everything as disposable. I have no interest in posterity. I don't remember what context it was in, but I saw Eileen Myles saying that writing's a way for people to use you or be in relation to you after you're dead. And I was just like, What a disgusting idea. Firstly, you have no idea, thankfully. Let's at least leave that to the future. It could be that someone finds the email archive of some 52-year-old woman from wherever and that becomes the great text of 2350. You can write for whatever imaginary audience you want, and maybe there's some fantasy of audience that expresses, but I don't like the idea of posterity. I like the idea that everything will just go away. Someone was telling me recently—there was some issue with the New Inquiry website [where Hannah has published various pieces], and they were like, "maybe you should archive everything," but I kind of like the idea it will just disappear. That was for then, now it's gone [both laugh]. Why should I care?But that is different with art objects, and one of the reasons I find that quite a heavy process. I do occasionally make objects, but it's weird, because the idea of durability is so tied to that—everything's about value, and has to perform all of the functions that value does, one of which is just duration across time while remaining the same. So even if you're not doing that, you're somehow still in relation to this problem of the artwork and value. I'm interested in that problem in terms of analyzing capitalism, but in terms of the actual process of making things, it's not something I find massively activating. Fred Moten has a really nice thing about that, he contextualises the idea of commodification in the history of slavery. He says that as a Black person he's speaking as someone who has been marked with the commodity form, on the level of subjectivity.I don't particularly like my writing, it's not what I would've picked. The way I write has developed over time, it's not what I wanted. I wanted to be a novelist at one point. I'd love to be one of these more research-based writers who produces very lucid texts about some historical situation, but apparently I can't do that either. The only time I do anything good is when I'm very close to my own experience, and I'm not thrilled about that. I'd love to be cleaner. I envy the cleanliness of work that's either more ironic or more intellectual ... I think it's fine to have misgivings about what you do. I remember saying to a guy I was dating in college once, "I would never date myself." And he was like, "Well, you don't have to!" It was very relieving [both laugh]. You don't have to date yourself, you know?It was funny because I was really skeptical of self-love for a long time—I had a character say a line in this thing I wrote ages ago, something like, "love is supposed to be directed outwards, like envy." You can't have self-envy and you can't have self-love. But then because of recent experiences I have come to understand that most of what makes all relationships go well is some kind of foundational comfort with yourself, or okayness in yourself, that gives you more freedom of movement. And maybe there's lots of different ways to refer to that, and one of them could be self-love.I noticed that all of the pieces in Dark Pool Party were originally performed in front of an audience. How did that influence the way you composed them, as opposed to prose alone?I feel like they've all emerged from my social and living context; they weren't originally conceived as pieces of writing to be published and read. And yeah, the process is so different writing something for your voice. They did need some editing, because I know that I can read my own work well [out loud], I can cover up for problems more easily. One of the ways I manage my ambivalence is that I take almost any request for work as a pretext to write a new thing. And often it was in situations where no one wanted me to do that or thought that that would be a good idea [laughs]. The first place where I performed "Celebrity Death Match," which was at this reading in this bar next to Mathew Gallery in Berlin organized by Bianca Heuser—I was really late, I was trying to work on something all day, like, oh my God, I have nothing, and then I was like, maybe I'll use these parts of my diary, and obviously had to massively rewrite them and change them around. Then I turned up half an hour late and was like, "Sorry, I've just written a thing!" Which is also a bit swaggery and punk or whatever, and sometimes friends of mine who are much more methodical and take much longer to write things like that, I think they find it—maybe not annoying, but like, [sarcastically] "that's nice for you."I spend a lot of time doing nothing to have this frenzy of activity. I don't have a lot of issues around [writer's] block that some people seem to have, because I'm like, "Oh, apparently it'll take me three days of doing nothing to write this thing." And then the actual writing will be a few hours. That's how I do almost everything, I'm alright with that. But then I'm also not doing things which need a lot of planning or structure. None of those texts are very structured, so it's kind of alright to just write and then go back later and make sure they're not completely terrible.I was talking with somebody about how you have these really great punchlines in there—when you're like, "one small step for a wound, one giant leap for woundkind." Or, "I wanted to say that hating yourself for hating yourself was femme, but anyone can do it." [both laugh] How long have you kept a diary for?It's really on-and-off. I mainly write it on planes and trains and things, and/or in really intense emotional processing phases. I've kept it on-and-off since my teens, but it's just in a [Microsoft] Word document. I have one Word document that ran for several years that ends, when I first moved to New York, with: "I don't want to feel like this anymore." I was trying to do a fast, and I was like, "Oh, actually I'm sick of this," and then the diary ended. Because that was a phase in my life, and I'm just so embarrassed by that version of myself, I think I just wanted to lock it off in a separate document and then start again, which is a bit of a fantasy, obviously one carries on being just as much of a dick in different ways. It's definitely improved over time, but I remember years ago trying to work out from an old diary when I'd started a job, because I was putting together a CV, and couldn't find any references to any work I was doing. I had three jobs at that point, but if you read the diary you'd be like, "Oh, this is a woman of leisure who spends all her time contemplating her feelings."I really like that Anna Karenina thing where—I'm always thinking about my happiness and my unhappiness. I guess that's everybody, but I don't really have any other interests. When people are like, "here are my research interests," I'm like, "oh, that's amazing, you have research interests that aren't your feelings." I try to find solace in the idea that that's a consistent thing: You could be in the midst of a war and you'd probably still be sad if someone broke up with you. It's something that seems to be amazingly resistant to other life developments.Was there a logic or a system to how you assigned the names in "Celebrity Death Match"?Oh, someone else asked me that. It was really random. I was actually—I have a cute screenshot of this—I was talking to two friends, and they were both making suggestions. Because once I decided to replace the names with celebrity names then I couldn't think of any celebrities, my mind went blank. I was just like, "Tell me some celebrities!" And yeah, there's no relationship between them and the actual people. In fact, it's kind of ludicrous, if I could put the two people side-by-side you'd think that was really strange.I love how you refer to the actual Tom Cruise at the end, it's like a god suddenly appearing. And you describe a film set where nobody is allowed to look at him. Do you ever think of celebrities in that way? I sometimes find myself—not praying to them or thinking of them as a soap opera, like the Greek pantheon, but more like ... animism? Like they just represent certain things.I was queuing in Duane Reade, and there were three different celebrity gossip magazines, and they all had Gwen Stefani on the cover, and one said: "Gwen Stefani's tragic miscarriage, her husband might leave her, very sad." The other one said: "The secret of Hollywood's most romantic love story, Gwen and Blake will tell all!" There was another variation on what was going on with her. They all had that really amazing thing [celebrity magazines] do where people take pictures of [celebrities] all the time, and there's pictures of them with various kinds of facial expressions, which could be either "just sneezed" or "sad" or "thoughtful," this entire pantheon of facial expressions, like a stock-image database. You can just find one that's like Jennifer Aniston looking a bit sad, and then it's like "Jennifer Aniston's tragic life," and then in another one she looks like she might be really happy, and it's "Jennifer Aniston thrilled by whatever recent development." In that way celebrities perform so many functions.I think one of the primary things that celebrity and also TV does is this sense of pain-free gossip, or non-toxic gossip. It's a sort of semi-fictional social world you can share with someone but without it being hostile to anyone you actually know. One of my favourite tweets that I ever wrote is: "I often think to myself, 'What would Rihanna do?' And the answer is always 'be a totally different person.'" [both laugh] I find celebrities interesting as these archetypal figures, and they carry a lot of projections, they're in this really strange position. They carry a lot of emotional content on other people's behalf. A bit like the joke in Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher, where she's like, "I'm retaining water for Whitney Houston." Whitney Houston is retaining sadness for everyone. But I don't have this personal—I find that really interesting with someone like Hilton Als, I'm like, "Oh, you actually really like these celebrities, you would be excited to meet them."I do sometimes have this thought process like, Would I actually get on with Rihanna? Oh, I hope so, we'd get high together and maybe she would tolerate that I go on these weird rambling speeches and maybe she would find that charming. That's really hypothetical—I think actually if I met Rihanna I'd mainly be like, "Oh, cool, I can tell my friends."There's that line from the new Rihanna album where she's like, "Nobody texts me in a crisis," and a lot of people said, "Oh, this song is so vulnerable." But I feel like you could also read it another way, like, "Why am I not one of the gods for whom mortals leave their prayers in the temple?"Yeah. I work a lot with celebrities as figures in my videos, and I sometimes try to pass it off as a kind of fan relationship, but it's really not. An example of this is, I was really into The Pinkprint, like I listened to it non-stop for about six months, but I listened to it literally one song at a time. So at some point, I think I was three months in, this friend was like, "Oh, I really like this song," and I was like, "I'm not up to that yet!" I was really horrified [laughs]. And then I felt like I was just submitting myself to the album, so there was this point where I stopped skipping "Anaconda" when it would come on. I'm ready to accept "Anaconda" as part of the majesty of this album, because what that song means is “I can do whatever I like,” which is cool in what's basically a breakup album.I'm interested in the ways that [celebrities] are archetypes, but maybe differently from gods, they can change their significance. I did this video about Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie which just goes back and forth between their faces, Team Aniston and Team Jolie, and they almost switch positions, so there was the phase that maybe no one even remembers now, where Angelina Jolie was this crazy incest-loving blood-drinking——the vials of blood.Vials of blood, possibly having a sexual relationship with her brother [laughs]. "I have crazy sex with lizards!" That was her thing, and then she became this earth-mother figure and adopted everyone. And then previously Jennifer Aniston was this girl next door, this ordinary girl, unthreateningly pretty, whatever. And then she became this weird lonely-cougar kind of person, there were these strenuous attempts to cast her as being very unhappy, even though she seemed fine? Like, "JENNIFER ANISTON BARREN AT 42 YEARS OLD," and they have a picture of her with a very attractive young man, and you're like, she really seems okay, but she made a sad face once last week [laughs].I was really struck by the way you chopped up "I Will Always Love You" [in a video she made], because that song is famous or infamous for its colossal melisma, where she's drawing out each syllable. It made me think of—do you know Total Freedom, the DJ? I don't know if you've ever seen him DJ, but he'll often take, like, Aaliyah and put shattering glass or screams over it, really abrasive shit. But then he'll also do a beautiful remix of "Rock the Boat" or "Kiss from a Rose."I think the thing that's amazing in pop is—everyone says this, but it's ecstatic and sad at the same time. It somehow balances all possible feelings. It offers you this image where there's no contradiction. All your contradictory feelings are handed back to you as this beautiful bauble. Actually, they were all just facets of the same disco ball! It's fine! And every kind of messy, trashy, difficult experience can be remade as song, and dignified by that, which I think is, as we were discussing before you turned on the recorder, a bad way to navigate your actual emotional life. I have a long-term secret ambition that I probably will never do, which is to produce a flow chart or app that would tell you—because there's a pop song for every possible relationship condition, and it would be cool to have a thing that asks, "Have you recently broken up with someone, yes/no?" And then it would say "here's the song for your exact situation," but you'd have to check how people wanted to relate to that. Are you feeling like wallowing, do you want to move on from that, whatever.I actually had a really similar idea—well, a set of pop charts that wouldn't be based on sales but emotions. Like, how many people listened to this song when they were sad this week, or angry at somebody? I was also just listening to all of the songs that you used in "My Bodies," they're so good. I hadn't heard Mariah's "Touch My Body" in a year or two, probably. I love that part at the beginning where she goes oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah oh yeah [both laugh]. But I kept thinking of "Body Party," because—it's the most prominent song in your video, but it's also poignant in a way that not all of them are. Even before or aside from the whole Ciara-and-Future thing that eventually happened. The way that she says "I'm doing this little dance for you"?[giggling] It's so cute, I can't even stand it! I'm just smiling thinking about that song. There's an amazing remix of it, I think it might be a Total Freedom remix.[singing] "I'm having so much fun with you." On a whim earlier today I actually searched for the phrase "body party" with "people you follow" on Twitter, just to see what happened, and there was a tweet by Total Freedom where he said: "Once I heard a DJ playing 'Body Party' at some kind of memorial celebration in a cemetery."Wow, that's amazing. I'd have to check this, but I think it's the only one in the video that's "your body" and not "my body."And a lot of those songs—men in pop music rarely talk about their own bodies like that.Yeah, that's so true! It's a man's body that's her party ... I feel like—there's a James Baldwin quote that I could find, but to paraphrase it, "The people I grew up with had orgasms all the time, and they still chopped each other up with razors on Saturday night." There seems to be some specific pathology—white, Protestant, I don't know which specific culture to attach it to—that's been generalized, and I don't think is general? Like, the idea that if you could just be more sexually free that could produce some kind of general liberation. I don't think that's necessarily the case, I think sex can offer moments or experiences of freedom and joy, but that's not the only condition that—I mean, sex does everything, it can also be boring or bad or painful.I did this podcast ages ago, it was supposed to be responding to I Love Dick by Chris Kraus, and I made a "funny joke," but now I'm very serious about this—it's not that we have to end or abolish heterosexuality but that we have to begin it. Its conditions have yet to occur [both laugh]. Up until now, we haven't really had the correct conditions for actual heterosexuality. And in a song like "Body Party" ... you're right, it is super interesting that it's such a weird thing for a woman to say to a man, in a way. Ciara's super normatively beautiful, very high-femme or whatever, and for her to be like "your body is my party" is kind of crazy. It's not the mainstream relation that you're supposed to have between a man and a woman, it's supposed to be the other way around. And it's just so full of pleasure, it's such a pleasure song. I love this slight little thing her voice does when she's like, "You've got me so excited." She actually sounds like she's sexually excited, which is kind of amazing, to convey that in a vocal performance without it being super cheesy or over-the-top. It's quite restrained as a song, as well.Yeah, the structure of it, it's like she's endlessly descending onto somebody, like the inverse of "I Feel Love,"where Donna Summer's rising into the heavens.Yeah, that's almost like she's beyond sex, like she's just become some amorphous being. I think "Body Party" is also much more accurate to my actual experience of things, because one of the funny lines in there is when she's like, "Baby put your phone down, you should turn it off." Ciara is trying to have sex with you and you are looking at your phone, what is wrong with you? But of course even very pretty and amazing people will still have people being annoying to them sometimes. Nothing's a free pass. I had this phase where I was like, "Oh my God, straight men don't like having sex." It's a fun one-liner, it's not entirely true, but there's definitely—as a young woman, you're told that you should beware of men's sexual enthusiasms, but I think so much of men's sexuality is funneled off into power-plays or upholding some weird social structures.I think I mentioned this in one of the texts in Dark Pool Party, in "Atlantis," something like, "my activity as an artist has almost as many credit operations on it as a straight man's sexual desire." Like, that a straight man's sexual desire is having to do quite a lot, socially. It's a pretext for so much horrible shit, or even just boring shit. "Look at this array of very similar-looking people, that is what straight men find sexy!" And you're like, "Really? That seems extraordinary, but okay, fine [laughs]." There is this way that straight men sometimes seem underwhelmed or less fascinated by sex than queer people, or even straight women.I noticed that Dark Pool Party has this running theme of disassociation—not even always necessarily in a bad way, it seems more ambivalent sometimes. Like, when you're talking about the self as a character. Or instead of saying, "I want to make this person love me," the standard romantic-obsession narrative, you're like, "How can I make myself love this person?" There's this other line about the feeling of not being able to read yourself. All of that seemed connected to me.Sometimes when I wake up from a nap or I've just woken up in the morning, I'll have this really weird feeling of, I don't understand why I'm any of the things that I am. And I don't understand how I'm placed in relation to them. I was brought up with a not-particularly-coherent sense that I had some sort of relation of duty or responsibility or at least memory, respect, for these long histories that I was in. On my mum's side of the family, her mum was a Holocaust survivor, there was the Jewish experience in Europe, and then my dad's family's from Jamaica, and there's the vast historical outrage of transatlantic slavery. Especially as a child, it's very hard to understand what that has to do with you. It would be constant references to both of those things as having this intense explanatory power, almost everything could be related back to these long histories ... Gender also has some traditional or historical aspects to its reproduction, in a way you're a woman or a man in relation to the histories of being a woman or a man. Even if you reject them, you have to reference them or deal with them somehow.It does feel like all these weird lines of code, and I don't know much about DNA, but I like the idea that it's like a randomly remixed alphabet set. The idea that when a baby is born, here's your material, what are you going to do with it? Not that I'm saying everyone should do this, but for me it's interesting to take myself as, like, here's the stuff I have. I have this flesh, and it's been organized in a particular way to do with social forms like race and gender and class. It's like having some kind of Geiger counter to measure radioactivity, but I have my being as an instrument to measure what's going on with all that stuff right now. That also means that I have this slightly abstracted relation to myself sometimes, and probably for reasons that are just about being a fuck-up or whatever, but I sometimes find it hard to take myself that seriously. It's not so much that I feel like I'm performing, but I feel like everything could've been different.I really like the idea in Walter Benjamin, this idea that things at any moment could become different, and things could've been different at any moment. And sometimes when I think about the grand historical narratives that I was talking about, it's just crazy. Like, I don't understand why any of that happened. Obviously there's a set of reasons you can pull out, oh, this was a requirement of capitalist accumulation at that point that meant that slavery happened, but it's also completely crazy. Maybe "crazy" is the wrong word. It feels so illogical and so random, and then has such intense effects. Like that bit in the Ta-Nehisi Coates book [Between the World and Me] where he says, in this letter to his son, "It's not like all the people who had a horrible time in slavery were building up to you now having a good life." They lived and died in that condition, nothing can be done for those people.So I think there's a weirdness about taking some position of responsibility towards history, which, I don't even know what it means, but it somehow opens you out to this particular kind of ... oversensitivity to the world? I have to carry the fact that things worked out very badly for people for reasons completely beyond their control ... I think sometimes I annoy friends or people I'm dating, because I'm always interested in these long histories. I love hearing about people's grandparents or great-grandparents, and it's incredible sometimes. You're like, "How are you here, now?"What you were saying before reminded me of how in Dark Pool Party you describe apocalypse as being the texture of civilization. There's this part in The Devil Finds Work where James Baldwin is talking about Lawrence of Arabia, speaking of the English with a withering form of pity: "It would seem this island people need endless corroboration of their worth, and their tragedy has been their compulsion to make the world their mirror."Baldwin's amazing, and sometimes when I think about him it's like—he does this incredible "I'm being very reasonable" tone, he makes these citadels of reasonable argument and excellent prose. If anything's going to emerge from reasonable argument and excellent prose, I feel like Baldwin would've already done it. It's a bit like looking at the early Soviet graphic design, you're like, if graphic design could've changed the world, this would've changed the world. That's a good thing to think about if you get too into your prose powers, to be like, "What about Baldwin?" Although I suppose he still—those conditions are still unfolding, and things are changing, maybe. There's an interesting gesture of re-specifying the colonial centre, which has been this empty place, and I guess it's also something that's happened with whiteness in general, this attention to how whiteness operates as a weird kind of veil, or nullifies anything that might have previously been specific within those identity positions.A lot of the hardcore Marxists would argue that it's kind of random that capitalism emerges in Western Europe, that there's no particular reason for that, it could've happened anywhere. But then you're just talking about a parallel universe. Given that it did emerge there, it's interesting to think about what the particularities of that place are. And what's interesting about England is that it has a really early process of proletarianization. Just schematically, you have the enclosures, this conversion of communally held agricultural land into sheep farming or other kinds of value-producing land, people get removed from what we now maybe think of as an indigenous relation to land. If you think of indigeneity as a specific relation to a specific place, that gets broken really early in English history, and then you get the Industrial Revolution, and this now-rootless proletarianized peasantry are now corralled into cities and factories. And those are the people who are actually enacting the colonial project, those are the people who turn up in Australia or Africa or wherever.There's also the bourgeois class of colonial administrators, but a lot of people who're doing the footwork of that violence, the daily work of that violence, are a group who themselves have been through an intensely violent process of proletarianization. I really like that about [Silvia] Federici's Caliban and the Witch, how convincingly she plaits together these multiple stories. And it might be a reason, but obviously it's not an excuse, it's not to exonerate that. And although there was a break with England there's still ways that America is manifesting that project, or at least the Western European colonial project continues in lots of different places to this day. I was just thinking, when we had this break—I had this very intense Marx-reading phase, because I'd had this crisis point with writing, like, "Oh, this is terrible, I don't want to do this," I didn't really know what I was doing. It was this era of intense student protests in London, and I'd just started studying again, I hadn't really been reading or studying for quite a while. And then it was like, Wow, there's this whole world of theory and there's stuff happening. It was really exciting. And I felt really full, like, now I have something to say, I have a position.At that point I was not that interested in discussing race and gender, and then had the inevitable disappointment that you have, especially as a woman of colour in those scenes. I'm being asked to subscribe to an analysis that is strangely blind to obvious everyday facts of my existence. The strangeness of a lot of theoretical positions that I still appreciate for the rigor of their analysis of capitalism is—they have an ambition to make a total social theory that doesn't include race and gender, or only includes them as peripheral effects.There is a kind of crass politics of identity, which is maybe what some of those guys mean when they talk about identity politics, this idea that if you just have diversity and inclusion then everything will be great. Obviously that's not true, but I think most people who are paying attention to race and gender and sexuality are doing it in a way that's actually interesting, like, they're fully aware that they're also talking about a system involving class and value and accumulation and all those things. You end up with these weird paper tigers: "These people don't even know that race and gender exist!" "Well, these people don't even understand what class is!"I do still have this guilt reflex, where I'm like, oh God, I've just ended up as this weird kind of memoirist. I just do strange deconstructed memoir. And this isn't exactly what I intended to happen, but somehow I feel like that's just the vantage point from which I feel able to do an analysis. I don't want to do a PhD and sit in a library for five years, or all the things you might have to do to get to a point where you can start from the intellect. But then I really like that Nietzsche idea of all philosophy is autobiography, that seems true.Yeah, that seems true to me. When those guys say things like that, I'm just like... You know that Angela Davis literally wrote a book called Women, Race & Class, right?Yeah. But it's funny, because often those people do know about Angela Davis, and they'll trot her out like, "Look, we do care about Black women!" But they don't seem very interested in the people who're explicitly continuing that work. And there are massive aesthetic differences. Definitely in terms of the London communist scene, there's this whole aesthetic which is like, everyone outdoes each other in how sensitive to suffering and misery they are. There's all these boys in their twenties who read Adorno and do this emo thing online: "I'm very sad about everything that's happening." You're like, wow, it really is incredible that you're apparently the most miserable [both laugh]. What I try to avoid is the idea that suffering is either a measure of authenticity or a measure of social domination or oppression. The ways that people are immiserated don't mean that every aspect of their life is constant trials and tribulations they never quite overcome.I am susceptible to a kind of emo position where there's some idea that I'm suffering in the correct way. Really, no one cares [laughs]. Broadly no one cares, obviously your friends care if they love you and they're sad that you're sad—I feel like there's this weird Christian model where suffering is on the side of suffering. "Christ died for your sins, you have to suffer because people have suffered." The way that you show solidarity is that you suffer ... The idea that joy can be on the side of suffering, that you can offer up your pleasure and joy as this defiant relation to some of the historical heaviness I was talking about earlier, it took me a while to get to that point. And I think when I'm talking about happiness, it's not in this self-help, classically American sense of—well, maybe it is the classically American sense of the pursuit of happiness, not so much the pursuit of happiness as being alive to its possibility? It's always fleeting, it takes you by surprise, I think that's part of why love is interesting to think about, because it has all these elements of chance.It's more like happiness pursues you.Right, yeah, yeah. And just try to be ready when you hear its footsteps behind you. Don't Mace it [both laugh]. Because sometimes you do! You're like, "Ahhhh, I'm too surprised, I've fucked it all up!"I love in the book how you don't make travel sound glamorous or quirky—it's more like this process that sweeps you up inside of it. Airport terminals or train stations, they remind me of playing Sonic the Hedgehog as a kid, these disorienting and astonishing environments that accelerate your body through them. And I noticed that, in photos of your first solo show that happened recently in London, there were pieces actually named after airports.Oh, they were named after airlines.Right, airlines, airlines. So I was wondering, do you have a fascination with those kinds of spaces?This is funny, actually, I think it's strongly marked in the book in a way I didn't realize, partly because, like I was saying earlier, I write a lot when I'm traveling. Because I get stressed out easily, I have ADHD and anxiety issues, I feel very overwhelmed, and one of the things that I like about traveling is that you tend to have several hours at a stretch where you don't have to be doing anything. You're automatically doing something, which is traveling, so then you can kind of do whatever you like inside that experience. Aria Dean, who—we did a Q&A at the LA Art Book Fair—she brought that up and asked if it was related to this idea of fugitivity from [Fred] Moten ... There is this feeling of, this constant attempt at escape that never really gets anywhere, but you need to keep trying. That's the only way you're gonna stay alive, is to keep grasping for this impossible thing. I think how I put it in "City Built at Night" is, there must be somewhere to install this escape.I have this desire to show the workings, and I was watching Donald Trump speaking the other day, and I think that's part of his appeal, he makes this gesture that I want to call Brechtian but that might be claiming too much for it [Chris laughs]. He tells you how much money he's spending, he tells you how they're planning the campaign, he tells you about the polls all the time. He's somehow reduced politics to just its mechanisms. He's divested it of its remaining content, apart from being super racist. Although he's about as racist as most of the other candidates, more verbally racist, perhaps. Just to compare myself to Donald Trump, which is really weird—I like this gesture of revealing the conditions and talking about the polls or whatever, and I think one of the weird things about [Dark Pool Party], and why I sometimes feel weird when people are like "congratulations, you've written a book," is because I feel like all my writing happens so interstitially and so weirdly, and it must be some way I manage the anxiety of writing.One of the things I say to friends who complain about writer's block is: "You're just scared of writing something bad." Why don't you give yourself the real problem, which is that you'll write something and it might not be that good [laughs]? Which is unfair, because there's lots of different ways to have the same problem—I write a lot of shit, and have to go back and change things, and have written some things I think are awful, but I think I manage that by doing everything as if it's not really happening? I have friends who are really into the idea of the artist as a worker, and I'm not into that. I feel like I can't work if I tell myself it's work. The way I work is, it has to be either after the deadline or I'm supposed to be doing something else, but I kind of cheat on my official task for the day by doing another thing that's also something I have to do.I feel like this weird traveling salesman, sometimes, the way I make money—often the reason I'm traveling is because someone's been like, "Oh, we'll pay you 400 euros if you come and do this here." Both the origin of the text and the journey on which I'm producing texts is something that I'm doing because I need to make money. Obviously there's much harder ways to make money, and I have to say I feel lucky, because I understand that I am lucky, statistically. But it's not always fun. I used to love airports, like when I was a kid, one of the family outings that my dad would take us on, we'd go to Manchester Airport and watch planes take off and land. I hadn't been on a plane many times, and it just seemed like this amazing world of people coming and going. This was pre-9/11, when you could actually go and look at that and not be accused of being a terrorist, and not have to go through security screening, so you'd be quite close to where they were taking off and landing, it was magical. The displays with all the cities on it, and this romance of all the different cities in the world, because there's this secret affinity between cities more than the countries they're in.Like some of them are secretly making out. I feel like one of the most depressing things about being a businessman, aside from all the other things that you do as a businessman, is that literally flying through the air becomes mundane for you.Yeah!It's not beautiful or terrifying anymore, it's just something you do every week for your job.Yeah, and that has been—"sad" is putting it strongly, obviously it's a luxury problem, but there was one point last year where I was going on two or three trips a month, and I was actually exhausted, I was very stressed-out and anxious. I sometimes have this moment where I feel like I've basically become, yeah, a traveling salesman, or some kind of solo entrepreneur, and that wasn't really what I meant to happen. I wanted to escape, I wanted to not have a proper job. I don't know what the various desires were that went into going to art school, but they definitely weren't to do with becoming some kind of weird businessperson. I'm glad it doesn't come across as totally romanticizing, but I do still think there's some magic power of evoking cities, and I think that's really present in American culture, American cities especially have this supercharged atmosphere around them. There's this litany of street names, they're in songs, there's movies named after them.Which is one of the places that history becomes concrete, often I say that one of the manifestations of colonial violence is London, what London looks like. Central London or Paris. That's what they did with the money. Heavy, solid stone. And the approach into London through Heathrow—normally I do the cheaper airline, and that's like, Stansted [Airport], but I flew into Heathrow the other day, and it's just this massive, solid city. This bendy river and heavy slabs of buildings set down next to it. And you're like, "Wow, this really looks like what it is, a super-violent imperial centre that's asserting itself over you."Like when they're flying into the Death Star in Star Wars.Yeah, totally! It's exactly like that. The past couple of years I've been traveling a lot, that's obviously come out in my work. And I get very sentimental when I'm traveling sometimes as well, when you're like, "I'm having all these feelings about where I've just been and where I'm going to." When I left London to go to New York for a year, I was really emotional on the plane, I was crying a lot, and then I watched this very moving documentary about dogs and cried a lot about the dogs and how much people love their dogs and how much the dogs love the people. Then I was telling people this story when I had just arrived in New York and was having a lot of small-talk conversations, because I didn't really know anyone here, and a lot of them were like, "Oh, I cry on planes all the time." And I like the idea that if you look up and see a plane going past it's just full of people crying, that's been a really sustaining idea. Everyone's crying in the sky, but often from happiness.I don't know if this kind of thing has been democratized enough that I don't just sound like the Weeknd, where I'm like, "Oh, I'm having sex with too many women in too many fabulous apartments, I'm very alienated." From a very small amount of being in public, you start to get glimpses of why people go completely fucking crazy when they're actually famous, when they're going on world tours or whatever. It's maddening. It's a totally unstable existence, and that's just having a 0.00001% experience of what it might be like to be Nicki Minaj. It probably is fun because you're like, "Oh, I have a yacht, but..." [both laugh]There's also the thing about people having sex on an airplane, which, I can't imagine—I know it does, but I can't picture it as something that actually happens.A friend of mine who's like a sexual hero has had sex several times on planes. She's just amazing, she's like a sex athlete ... I had a phase of, not masturbating in public but like, a "fun places to masturbate!" kind of thing. And you can definitely do that on planes, because they give you blankets, they dim the lights, the conditions are perfect [both laugh].
Best Sisters

The way we describe ability and care has changed over the centuries, but my relationship with Kiddo doesn’t need to be defined.

I was not prepared for the possibility of my sister. She was born in that in between time—the days before summer vacation has started and all the possibilities are still alive, waiting. I was jealous. After seven years, 11 months and one day, I had unwillingly ceased to be an only child. On the car ride to the hospital, I vowed not to hold her. That sentiment stuck. Maybe I would have changed my mind if she were soft and sweet, delicate as a ballet slipper, like the babies I’d seen in movies. But she was none of those things. She was a sound: squalling—with a tiny face wide at the mouth, bunched into wrinkles everywhere else. I watched her hiccup for breath, her wrinkled skin gone neon, bright as a Barbie shoe. There’s a picture of me from that day, standing over her, my head topped with a floppy mullet, soft stomach jutting out. The puzzled look on my face says, who are you? Or, rather: Who are you to me?It was a long time before anyone realized there was something not the same about her. She first had to grow old enough to compare. For us to see that she was still crawling, while the other toddlers on our sleepy suburban street had learned to walk. Unsteady, but upright. She said few words, rarely strung together. Outside, in the summer, she tried to keep up with the neighbourhood kids—giggling bundles of gawky angles, bruises and scraped shins—but couldn’t. Our family doctor ordered tests. There were assessments, a word I didn’t quite understand. It suggested a definition, but I didn’t know yet that you could define a person—that you could want to fix them, to decide different like her meant broken. After the results were delivered, she became affixed with the label “developmentally handicapped.” Like she was a jar, a shirt, boxes that you organize in a closet.A diagnosis is meant to give a reason. We can say, look, you have cancer. That is why you are feeling so unwell. You have depression. That is why you are so sad. You have this, so you are that. We expect a direct correlation, a cause, a salve to soothe us against all the things in the world that don’t make sense. The things that hurt us. A diagnosis tells us if A, then B. In this way, we define and we mend and we neatly slot the world into order. A diagnosis of disability tells the world where to fit a person, what they can and cannot do, how they will be loved and love in return. It designates relationships and builds hierarchies. From the moment my sister was diagnosed, people expected it would define us, too. Her and me. When they spoke they left so much room for the wrong words, such as caretaker and burden and problem, but too little for the right ones, such as sister and friend.They all answered the question I had at the hospital for me, wouldn’t listen when I told them they were wrong.*The word retarded is Latin in origin. Retardare means “to make slow, delay, keep back, or hinder.” The first time it was used in reference to intellectual disability was 1895. Not yet a pejorative, “mentally retarded” was considered a kinder, more precise term, meant to replace previous iterations—idiot, moron, and imbecile. Other terms, also meant to be neutral, were “subnormals” and “mentally defective.” Ability within that realm was divided into “high grade” and “low grade.” By the 1940s, those subclasses became three: educable, trainable and custodial. An educable person could be taught academic skills, like reading and writing. Trainable meant a person could learn—well, be trained in—life skills, such as how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth. Custodial meant a person needed care, institutionalization.Today’s accounts scrub these terms clean with clinical politeness, a doctor breaking bad news. Say things like, “A person who was custodial generally received very limited developmental opportunities.” Trust we won’t think of the word custodial and its split definitions: having the responsibility for taking care of a child and also involving punishment that requires a criminal to spend time in a prison. Trust we won’t know. I wonder if those authors are right. If that’s why I’m sometimes the only one in a room who hears the word “retard” and cringes, goes hot and cold inside, a flickering thermostat, body on the fritz. If it’s because I’m the only one who’s held their sobbing kid sister, tears mapping down her face, while she asked what it meant, that word those kids on the street and in the school hallways called her. Me, who couldn’t find a way to say it. To nod all those times she asked if it meant her.*I call my sister Kiddo. When I was in Grade 8, she started kindergarten at the same school as me.  The teacher didn’t think much of her—she worried at Kiddo’s diagnosis, was sure that she would never count past 10, that she couldn’t be taught anything. One day, she locked Kiddo in the kindergarten washroom and forgot about her for an hour. When they finally went to her, Kiddo’s face was pale like Styrofoam and even her shirt was damp with salty sweat and, I think, tears. At home, we would never, ever lock the bathroom door again. The next year, Kiddo transferred schools, then transferred again, finally enrolling in an expensive private school for “special children.” She learned to count to 100, then higher still.During this time, Kiddo and I formed the big-sister, little-sister relationship familiar to so many siblings. Meaning, I thought I knew everything and was delighted when Kiddo sometimes agreed. I complained loudly to my parents that she wouldn’t leave me alone, but secretly ached for her to look up to me. In the summer, we settled into the milieu of 1990s suburbia: every day we walked our dog, a black lab named Bruno; then played barefoot tag in circles; spent hours at the park behind our house; coloured landscapes of crescent birds and pointy suns; sang in a way that was more like shouting. We watched a lot of TV. Kiddo fast-forwarded to the parts she liked and skipped the rest.Of course, one day, the VCR broke. We found dozens of Kiddo’s tiny toys jammed into its geared depths. They were mostly melted. A wad of fluorescent plastic. Nobody saw her do it, and none of us could figure out how she didn’t get her hand stuck inside. It didn’t matter: the VCR was done, kaput. (This did not lead to my parents buying a DVD player, a new technology they mistrusted would catch on. Ditto computers. Ditto everything actually cool.) When they told Kiddo, who by then had switched to watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 on repeat, she mimicked Raphael’s most dramatic scene, yelling “Damnit!” at the top of her lungs. My parents were shocked, but I laughed and laughed and laughed.*In 1914, the U.S. formed the Committee on Provision for the Feeble-Minded. Headquartered in Philadelphia, PA., the committee placed satellites throughout the country, staffed with so-called intelligent men who I imagine steepled their fingers and said hmmm a lot, all banded under one objective: To disseminate knowledge concerning the extent and menace of feeble-mindedness and to suggest and initiate methods for its control and ultimate eradication of the American people. In New Jersey, the committee summarized “The Problem” of its “helpless, but dangerous class” as such: “They must be prevented from procreating, for their defects are known to be heritable and their numbers tend to multiply.” Like bunnies or mold.The solution was to create work colonies. In the committee’s words: “To clear the land for farming purposes means work of a character that does not appeal to the normal citizen, but for the feeble-minded boy-man it is a joy.” A joy. These stuffy self-proclaimed arbitrators of destiny and choice decreed work colonies a win-win. The “waste product of humanity” could be put to good use, they wrote, toiling without pay, rendering overgrown strips of land, brushed with oak and pine and pitted with swaps, into farmland. Readying it into a place with a sellable slogan: The Garden Spot of a Nation.Does this sound naïve to you? This expectation that you’ll understand my sister is my sister?Grainy, colourless photos of the colonies show men in high pants and suspenders clearing roads, laying cement blocks, hoeing fields of sweet potatoes. There is a swimming hole that’s supposed to be idyllic, looking-glass water hemmed in by low trees, but to me it feels eerie. It all does. These places of mandated paradise were prisons. These places where men go to have blank faces and others see and say, Oh, that expression must be happiness. Because that is what they’ve decided.When people ask me what developmentally handicapped means, I choose my words carefully, delicately. I am a dancer pirouetting over landmines. A seamstress threading sequins on a bomb. I tell people that it means that my sister’s developmental skills do not always reflect her age. That her reading, writing and motor skills can develop at a slower rate than others’—that some may not catch up. That it means she writes in block letters and reads, but not novels. Picture books. But I never linger. I try instead to tell them who she is: stories about growing up together, broken VCRs, that time she once told her teacher, with confidence, that all she knew about Jesus was that he was dead and it was probably cancer that killed him.Because not much time at all has passed from those work camps to now. We think yes, but a lifetime of conversations tells me no. We could accordion in yesterday to today. Smoosh inside an urge to define and fix, to sweep people under rugs like detritus. To decide for ourselves who they are and all they can be.*Kiddo and I do this thing where we press our thumbs together and declare, “best sisters.” It means that it is us against the world. In modern parlance, that she is my ride or die, though neither of us can drive or even ride our bikes very well. It means that I took the day off work to help her get ready for her prom, told her a thousand times that she looked beautiful. It means that when I moved to Yellowknife for a job, we talked on the phone almost every day for three years. It means that I taught her how to make cookies and bagels and pancakes and she taught me how to five-pin bowl and to not suck so much at Wii. It means that we have a pact to eat an inhuman amount of junk food and thrift ridiculous T-shirts at every sleepover. That I’ve coached sports I don’t play very well, attended dances and banquets, cheered from the sidelines.It means that one time, she invited her high school crush over when neither of them knew I was home, working in our basement office, and that when he tried to pressure her into watching porn and doing things, I scared him so much I thought he would shit his pants. Went toe-to-toe, became a mafia enforcer, taught him about RESPECT. That the next day at school, he told her I was terrifying and that he would never try to make her do those things again if she didn’t want. That when I asked her how she felt about that, she said, “Good.” That we talked about how those things are fun when you want to do them. When you’re ready. And that when she was, we went on double dates and talked about all the nice guys and the jerks and how sometimes you cannot tell who is who. That if I could I would protect her from all the awful things in the world, not because she needs it, but because she is the person I care about most.It means that I cannot describe to you what love is. That I could try with beautiful metaphors and similes and imagery, but it’s just what happens when you press your thumbs together and say, “best sisters.” And all the other moments in between.*In late 2015, The Mighty, a website with the tagline “we face disability, disease and mental illness together,” took down a story called “Introducing: Meltdown Bingo.” In a subsequent post on the article’s removal, the site’s editor acknowledged the post was meant to be funny—a lighthearted take on common consequences of an autism meltdown—but missed the mark. The site was called ableist, and called out for disability shaming: its focus on the mother’s distress, not the child’s—its portrayal of a person as a burden. It wasn’t the first time The Mighty was nailed for its tone and approach. Many writers and activists with disabilities have rightfully criticized the site for leaning toward stories written by parents of children with disabilities, with many of the articles falling into “inspiration porn” territory. As in: look at how we’ve overcome. As in: our story of resilience will brighten your day. As in: here’s your next Tumblr meme.The controversy spawned the hashtag #CrippingTheMighty and a set of resolutions for better coverage of disabilities, including promising to hire more writers and editors with disabilities. These are good, necessary conversations. There’s a tendency to treat disabilities like they’re one-size-fits-all shirts. It’s true there are many people who are unable to advocate for themselves, who need allies to help speak up for their rights. But I’m always surprised when I introduce Kiddo to friends and colleagues who’ve never met her and they fumble through the conversation, talking to me as if I’m her translator. I have to remember they didn’t grow up in these communities, that so many people only knew those with intellectual disabilities as the kids in the sequestered special classes or from movies like Rain Man or What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? or, oh god, The Ringer—if they knew them at all. Is that even an excuse any more?The more we can break down those assumptions and stereotypes, the better. That a huge part of that is creating platforms for people with disabilities to voice their own lived experiences—to advocate for themselves—seems obvious to me. I do wonder, though, if these movements politicize the personal. If, on some level, they sacrifice the idea that relationships are complex, that we can express care without being caretakers.*The word caregiver has interesting origins. It started out as caretaker—a word that seems to accept the countless ways caring can take from a person. I know it’s more likely a nod to the idea of “taking care of,” but there’s something to be said for the way the word doesn’t hide. It was first included in the Oxford English Dictionary in the mid-19th century as “one who takes care of a thing, place, or person; one put in charge of anything.” The first recorded use was in 1858 to describe a mother who acted as a nurse to her daughter and a “servant” to her husband, allowing us to guess at the word’s knotted beginnings of self-sacrifice, duty and expectation. The word caregiver waited a century to make its way into the vernacular, arriving in the mid-1960s via the U.S. book The Meaning of Mental Illness to Caregivers and Mental Health Agents. The definition: “a person, typically either a professional or close relative, who looks after a child, elderly person, invalid, etc.” (Now the OED uses the word “disabled,” but not much else about the entry has shifted.)Even after “care” got its new, kinder appendage, the word caretaker persisted throughout the ’70s and ’80s. There are newspaper articles from the late ’80s that wonder over the new, presumably faddish P.C. adoption of “caregiver.” My Webster’s family dictionary, copyright 1977, for instance, is a red-canvas, gold-embossed dignified tome, a book whose weight and age have split its pages from the spine. It doesn’t include the word “caregiver,” only taker—physical evidence that past perceptions stick. Many of those who care for other people, family and professionals both, prefer the term caregiver. Probably because it lacks the gross connotation of physical objects, and people are not meant to be objects that burden us. Nor property to which we owe janitorial duty.Even “caregiver” is now ceding to carer. I like the word carer. Its simple and maybe a bit meaningless, but in a way that I think is good. A way that’s universal and also more truthful. A way that gets us closer to the word care, the pared down synonym for all our closest and best relationships.What people can never understand is that Kiddo takes care of me, too. When I say this, they expect stories of inspiration—the types of life lessons critics of The Mighty so loudly derided. I hear things like, She must have taught you to be a better person. Or, She must really put life in perspective, huh? She must show you how much you have to be grateful for every day. She must have taught you patience and tolerance and humility. I mean, sure, human relationships can teach us many things. And, I know these comments are meant to be kind, but they rankle. They’re not kind; they reinforce Chicken Soup for the Soul popular bullshit thinking that reduces her down to a person who can only exist as a cosmic life lesson—they rob her agency, her purpose, and give them to me. They’re just as bad as the ones I get when I tell people we spent the weekend together for a Girl’s Night. Like, It must be tough to take care of her and Sorry you had to spend your weekend doing that. Or, What do you even do together all that time? I’m tired of patiently explaining that we’re sisters, so that’s what we did: sister stuff.Does this sound naïve to you? This expectation that you’ll understand my sister is my sister? If I know the person—and often I do—I’ll take a deep breath and try to explain. I’ll tell them about how, when I broke my leg, she visited every other weekend with an armful of cheesy movies, made me popcorn and climbed into bed next to me, laughing at how dopey I was on painkillers. That every time I’ve had to move apartments, she’s there with a mop and packing tape. That we chat about boyfriends and how much our mom annoys us sometimes as we fill cardboard box after cardboard box. I’ll say that of course she was my maid of honour when I got married—even though so many people tried to dissuade me, wondered if I didn’t want someone more “capable.” That she walked down the aisle in a bad-ass suit covered in skulls, her hair four inches high in spikes. Her speech thanked me for coming to her hockey practices and praised my baking skills. I’ll tell them how I called her three years later, sobbing, when my husband left me and she gave me the best, sagest advice: “You know what Lauren? A cat is better than a husband.”*I stayed with my sister recently, at my parent’s house, where she still lives. My mom was out of town, visiting our dying grandfather. It was an epic 10-day Girls' Night. She made me dinner when I had to work late, made sure the tea was on when I had to work later still. Every few nights, we visited Shoppers Drug Mart, spritzed ourselves with expensive perfume, pretended we were rich before walking a few aisles over and buying Skittles. At the end of it, she drew me a picture of our new apartment. She gave me a large room, labeled “room,” and excellent hair, labeled “hair.”There was a time when I thought my sister and I would move in together. That I would, in fact, take custody of her. I couldn’t stand the thought of her moving out of my parents’ house and into a group home—the horror stories I’d heard about exploitation, violence, abuse. I wanted her there, with me, because she’s my best friend, but also because—let’s just cut past the red-cheeked shame and admit it—I was guilty of ableist thinking too. I assumed she needed me in a way that she doesn’t. I presumed that need was eternal, that it trumped her independence. That she’d want me there as much as I wanted to be there.During those 10 days, I learned that Kiddo had discovered the term “special needs.” I’d never heard her say it before—wasn’t aware that she knew the world had given her a label and expected her to abide by it. Well, I’m still not sure she thinks that. When I asked what she meant, she responded that’s what she was, special needs. That some people have autism and some people have Down Syndrome and some people have other things. That her friends were special needs too. Then she asked me what my disability was. And what my friends’ disabilities were. When I was unsure how to answer, reluctant to categorize myself as other than her, she told me it was okay, I probably had autism. Then she asked if I wanted to eat popcorn and watch a movie. She turned on The Sandlot, fast-forwarded to the good parts.
Yer Favourites

How an obnoxious subset of their fan base led me away from the Tragically Hip, and Gord Downie brought me back. 

The Tragically Hip played a show at Detroit’s Cobo Hall on November 23, 1996. The concert was captured in its entirety, and released the following year as Live Between Us to a throng of eager fans, most of them Canadian. I was one of them. That compact disc has more scratches on it than I can count, simply because of the overuse I subjected it to while driving around the suburbs in my mom’s Toyota Corolla.The first song that night was “Grace, Too,” which, over time, became the band’s most popular concert opener. As the drums kicked in and the bassline appeared, lead singer Gord Downie took time to acknowledge the night’s opening act. “This is for The Rheostatics. We’re all richer for having seen them tonight.” The crowd cheered. Throughout the evening, Downie, when not singing, seemed to be improvising. At the end of that first song, he ranted, “I was raised on TV/Like so many of you I see around me/Nothing to live or die for/No religion, too,” inspired either by Canadian author Hugh MacLennan, to whom one of the Hip’s most famous songs is formally dedicated, or John Lennon, or both. After that, Downie unleashed a few guttural screams.[[{"fid":"6696511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - Grace, Too","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The show was peppered with musical references: to David Bowie, to the Beach Boys, to the Rheostatics, and to Downie’s own work, both with the Hip and as a solo artist, both past and future. The show, like the band itself, provided a canvas for Downie’s antics, going off in musical tangents nowhere to be found on the album versions of the songs. Eventually Downie even started casting theoretical movies based on his own songs, sliding Peter O’Toole into the role of the curmudgeonly lighthouse keeper in the film inspired by “Nautical Disaster,” the Hip’s best song to my ears. (Jodie Foster, according to Downie, would play Susan.)I heard Live Between Us long before I ever saw the Hip in person. Downie was weird, funny and courteous. The band was bold and experimental. The fans ate everything up. I thought that Live Between Us was everything a rock show should be. I still think that. *Shad Kabango is a rapper who has been nominated three times for the Polaris Prize, holds a Master’s degree in liberal studies and is the former host of the CBC Radio One program q. Kabango is an authority on Canadian culture, but grew up with no particular attachment to the biggest Canadian musical group of his youth. Despite liking some of the band’s singles, he could not classify himself as a fan—he knew what that word meant when it came to the group’s faithful.“As far as their legacy,” Kabango said during a phone interview, “they are Canada’s band.”If you're over the age of twenty-five and grew up in Canada, you'd likely have a tough time arguing with Kabango’s assertion, whether they were for you or not. Their career has been marked by not just a sort of welcome ubiquity, but a rare consistency; the band's lineup—guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay—has remained constant, led by Downie, an engimatic man in the best, most entertaining manner possible.It felt like the Hip would be making subtly evolving albums forever. And then earlier this year, news came out that Downie had glioblastoma, an incurable form of brain cancer. The band would go on a Canadian tour this summer, culminating with a nationally broadcast finale in Kingston on August 20. It will almost certainly be the band’s final show.With its first two full-length albums, 1989’s Up To Here and 1991’s Road Apples, the Hip became major players on Canadian rock radio. The four-album run that followed, from 1992’s hit-laden Fully Completely to 1998’s Phantom Power, marked the band at its height, as the group pushed away from its blues-guitar-based beginnings to a sound that was more in line with, although still slightly askew from, the heights of alternative rock.While Downie and company have never supported the obnoxious behaviour that their songs and persona occasionally attract, they have certainly capitalized off of their inextricable link with a very white, very male, mainstream Canadian image. “In the beginning, they were sort of more of a rock band, a traditional rock band. They kind of grew into their strange, which was really kind of the great three-card monte when it comes to the Hip,” said Dave Bidini, of the Rheostatics. His book On A Cold Road is, among other things, an account of his band’s tour with the Hip. “At first blush, if you played someone their most famous songs … certainly ‘New Orleans is Sinking,’ you play them that song [and they sound traditional]. And you get a couple of songs down and you realize that this stuff is working on deceptive levels, levels that are … deeper and complicated.”[[{"fid":"6696516","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - New Orleans Is Sinking","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Hip became radio staples on classic rock, new rock and, because of the agreeability of songs like “Ahead By A Century" and “Bobcaygeon,” even adult-alternative stations. The band headlined huge outdoor shows in Canada and even started its own travelling outdoor show, Another Roadside Attraction. Starting with 2000’s Music @ Work, the Hip’s style and mainstream preference diverged from one another, but each new album yielded a notable single. Most importantly, those albums were devoured by the band’s still-growing fan base, which allowed the band to fill arenas across Canada. The Tragically Hip has been Canada’s biggest rock band for twenty-five years. However, unlike Rush, the previous title-holders, the Hip was (and is) distinctly Canadian in a way that is sometimes explicit and other times subtextual. Downie’s lyrics, equal parts profound, earnest and baffling, name-check small Canadian towns, hockey players, artists affiliated with the Group of Seven and more hockey players. Perhaps more importantly, the Hip never broke big in the United States. The five friends from Kingston could play decent-sized clubs and smaller arenas (shows often frequented by Canadian expats), and even performed on Saturday Night Live thanks to their relationship with Dan Aykroyd, a fellow eastern Ontarian. However, once they crossed the 49th parallel, they went from Wayne Gretzky to a third-line grinder. Which, undoubtedly, only increased Canada’s ownership of—and love for—the Hip. In a country both small (in population) and big (in area), the Tragically Hip could say the same, minus the parentheticals. * That inseparable link between band and country could expose a fan base—to be clear, a tiny but disproportionately loud portion of it—as nationalistic and closed-minded. Opening bands could get “Hipped” off the stage, with fans chanting “Hip, Hip, Hip” or even booing as they played. It's no surprise that the lyric “It’s not the band I hate/It’s their fans” from Sloan’s “Coax Me” was long rumoured to be about the Hip. (Chris Murphy later revealed it was actually about a single Kate Bush fan.) Between the length of their resumé, the fans and the perception of what the Hip represented, it could be daunting for anybody from outside of a certain demographic to fully access the band. I was a die-hard Hip fan when I was a teenager—I listened to bootleg concerts, parsed lyrics, checked setlists, belonged to a message board, etc. Yet, those fans started to get to me.For about the sixth time in a two-year span, I saw the Hip play live on June 24, 2006, at Historic Fort York in Toronto. That night, they played “38 Years Old,” off of their debut album, Up To Here. The song is about a very real prison break in the 1970s, with the added fictionalized element of Downie’s “brother” who escapes from jail, where he was sent for killing his sister’s rapist. It was the first time they had played the song in at least twelve years.[[{"fid":"6696521","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"The Tragically Hip - 38 Years Old","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The Sadies and the Weakerthans were the openers that night, the latter of whom had become my new favourite band. There were similarities between them and the Hip: both were Canadian bands from outside one of the country’s big three cities (the Hip are from Kingston, Ontario, a city about halfway between Toronto and Montreal, while the Weakerthans are from Winnipeg); they are both straight-ahead rock groups who dabble in outside-the-margins experimentation; in Downie and John K. Samson, they are both fronted by left-leaning, erudite singers who are not going to blow you away with the quality of their voices; and both routinely sing overtly about Canada.During the Weakerthans’ set, a friend of a friend started chanting “Hip, Hip, Hip.” It irritated me. When I told him so, he yelled that he did not particularly care what I thought, that he was there to have precisely his type of fun. The Weakerthans were clearly there by invitation from the Hip—the headliners thought it was a good idea for their fans to hear this band. The least this guy could have done, I thought, was shut up and tune out. He was not alone: A whole swath of Hip fans—you can picture them: shirtless white dudes, many waving Canadian flags or slathered in red-and-white facepaint, fairly drunk—was trying to drown out the openers, too. This was not the first time I had seen this behaviour, but it was the first time a band I admired was the victim. Hip fans had this reputation of being loud, nationalist louts, the types of people who never would have cared about any of Downie’s politics or cracked open a book of poetry. For reasons that have always eluded me, the Hip, like Pearl Jam, can attract fans who do not really care about any other musicians. Those fans were there to shout along with songs that they listened to after portaging ten years ago, to name check every hockey reference embedded in Downie’s lyrics, and to revel in The Definitive Canadian Experience. I was turned off for about a decade. As Bidini, a huge admirer of the Hip, wrote in On A Cold Road: “Of course, there are folks out there … who suggest that by parlaying their parochial image into superstardom, the Hip are merely enforcing Canadians’ fear of exotica, giving us what we know rather than what we need, perpetuating the CanRock trademark of stolid rock played in plaid jackets.” While Downie and company have never supported the obnoxious behaviour that their songs and persona occasionally attract—in a famous CanRock story, Downie sarcastically dedicated a song to fans who threw items at Daniel Lanois’s band at a Canada Day show in Barrie, Ontario in 1994—they have certainly capitalized off of their inextricable link with a very white, very male, mainstream Canadian image. Downie has vociferously defended his occasionally discourteous fan base, most notably with a poem upon induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005. They had a cameo as a team in the Canadian curling flick Men With Brooms. Hell, they probably sell more hockey jerseys than the Florida Panthers. They are not running away from the image.All the while, it has been difficult to sum up what makes the Hip definitively Canadian beyond the obvious. Michelle McAdorey toured extensively with the Hip in the ‘90s when she was in the folk rock band Crash Vegas. For a few moments, she considered what made the Hip so Canadian, eventually giving up. “Two guys named Gord. I think that’s all I can come up with,” McAdorey said with a chuckle. “Gordie’s voice is Canadian-sounding—not just his name, his voice,” said Maya Miller, the drummer for Vancouver-based garage rockers The Pack A.D. “We don’t sound like Americans. And the Tragically Hip, they don’t sound, by any stretch, like an American band. … Maybe it’s because they’ve been around for so long and done this amazing job of sort of bringing everyone together on a basic level of what it feels like to be Canadian. They’ve just created this thing where they are Canadian. I don’t know if I could even begin to pinpoint it.” When you cannot explain nuance, it becomes easy for perception to become the accepted reality.* Yes, the Hip conjures up thoughts of cottages, hockey (who else but Downie would make reference to a “forget-yer-skates dream,” the quintessentially Canadian nightmare?) and obscure towns. They have never boiled Canada down to just that, though. Downie has been talking about First Nations Canadians since “Looking For A Place To Happen” off of Fully Completely, and his perspectives have let the listener follow everything from an inquiring bird to a depressed polar bear. Once you get away from the too-easy stereotypes, helped along by that small group of fans, the band and the way the media has covered the Hip, you can get at the curious mind and generous heart of an enduring group. Even when Downie is singing about hockey, it has not been a simple glorification of the sport. In “Fireworks,” off of Phantom Power, Downie sings of a young hockey-obsessed man who is positively affected by a girl who doesn’t “give a fuck” about the sport. “Heaven Is A Better Place Today,” the lead track from 2004’s In Between Evolution, was inspired by the death of NHLer Dan Snyder, killed in a car crash with his Atlanta Thrashers teammate Dany Heatley driving. Downie uses the incident to delve into the meaning of grief, the emptiness of funeral platitudes (“Don’t say, ‘People lose people all the time’ anymore”) and the power of simple human decency. There was never anything as perverse as Bruce Springsteen's “Born In The U.S.A.” being co-opted for use in political rallies and international sporting competitions. Nonetheless, the band has always painted a nuanced, conflicted, if ultimately positive, view of the country. For the Hip, Canada is never the point; it’s the jumping-off point. Still, there is something about their nature and style, not just their content, which is profoundly of this place. The easiest assumption is that, as Kabango and Bidini both said, they were exceedingly normal: five guys from just another Canadian city, in plaid shirts, jeans and T-shirts, playing rock music. But even there, Downie has gone out of his way to subvert expectations, dressing in gaudy sequined suits with comically oversized top hats on this tour. Max Kerman, the frontman of Hamilton’s Arkells, came to the Hip atypically: Instead of the band introducing him to new acts, it was those acts, bands that he loved as a student, that introduced him to the Hip through opening for them in the mid-2000s. Arkells opened for the the Hip when they were touring their 2012 album, Now For Plan A. “I think the reason why Canadians like the Hip, and this is just my own hodge-podge theory, is [they] sort of combine the intellectual side of Canadians—that we’re thoughtful, smart people — with that humble, meat-and-potatoes side, too. When you combine Gord’s lyricism and the band’s … rock-and-roll aesthetic, I think that’s why people connect with them. It’s not just a simple rock-and-roll song. There are a few layers to it. But it’s also really comforting, because it sounds like The Rolling Stones sometimes or R&B or whatever.” Kerman remembered trying to learn some of the Hip’s songs when he was in university, doing acoustic sets in anonymous bars. He said it taught him that there was “real shit happening there that you just don’t see very often in pop-rock.” That is a lesson many of the Hip’s peers and successors have learned. “As far as the lyrics and the structure, as far as the archetypical rock song, they don’t create the standard rock song,” Miller said. “The obvious point is with the lyrics. There are choruses. But they’re kind of odd choruses a lot of the time. They’re not following the traditional path of appealing to a certain mindset or teenagers or anything as far as rock goes. They’ve got this kind of straight-up rock-and-roll sound, to my hearing. But the lyrics, they’re a little art-rock. That in itself kind of sounds a little bit different from the norm to me. And maybe that sounds Canadian to me.” Yet, the Hip could never represent all of Canada, which would seem to be the point. To expect any rock band—especially now, at a time when the electric guitar is on the periphery of mainstream culture—to stand in for an entire country would be absurd. “We’ve lamented [Canada] can’t really be squeezed into one thing,” Bidini said. “That’s a beautiful thing. It’s like love or space: We’ll never really understand it because it’s complicated. I’d rather a place be complicated. … Gord is a tile in the mosaic. You need a lot of different colours to make an interesting mosaic—now more than ever, too.” McAdorey agreed with Bidini’s point, rhetorically asking, “Why should they try to do everything?” It is a fair question, and an unfair demand of a rock band—or anyone, for that matter. The Tragically Hip delved into this country’s history and culture more than any popular musical act that has come before or since. It's not the complete story of the country, and that's okay. Fully Completely is an album title, not a realistic request.*The first Hip concert I went to was at the Molson Amphitheatre in Toronto on Canada Day in 2004, exactly ten years after Downie told the audience what to do with their disrespect about an hour north of there. I went with my friend Matt, who I’d known since I was six. (I had two drinks, and they hit me embarrassingly hard. Before the openers, the Joel Plaskett Emergency, had even hit the stage, I was screaming, for no reason in particular, that my shoulder hurt. To implicate myself further, I believe the drinks were hard lemonades. We are all immature idiots sometimes.) Before the opener’s set, Downie sang “O Canada” with Plaskett on guitar. “Happy Canada Day, folks,” he greeted the half-empty venue. The Hip never shied away from its base, or its image. The five men were fine with who they were, and they were fine if that, or anything else, kept people from seeing all of their layers.This past Sunday, more than twelve years later, Matt and I went to what will probably be our last Hip show, which also happened to be my first one in a decade. It was the final of three shows at the Air Canada Centre, and the fourth-last one of this tour. I was initially hesitant about going to a show this tour, fearing the concert would be a living wake as opposed to the type of Hip concert I remembered.Ultimately, I decided I had better go for the same reason, I’m guessing, that many did: This would be my last chance to see the Hip. I resumed my old habits, trying to find the details of the shows that led up to Toronto. The band had been treating the tour as an opportunity to play mini-sets from all of their albums; I joked to Matt that we would probably get a set from Now For Plan A, an album I barely listened to that was released well past the group’s peak of cultural relevance. I was right. After the first intermission, the Hip banged out four songs I barely recognized. There was something really nice about this—the five men, contracted together so that they left massive pockets of space on the flanks of the stage, playing whatever songs they damn well pleased, recognizing that every part of their body of work, not just their mid-'90s hot streak, mattered. Downie looked like he was having fun, and I smiled. It was perhaps imbued with more poignancy than usual, but this was still unmistakably a Hip concert.There were signs that something was not quite right. There were teleprompters all over the stage. There was less ranting and rambling storytelling from Downie. He has never remembered every lyric even when he was fully healthy, but watching Downie, in Toronto, seem to forget the “That night in Toronto” line in “Bobcaygeon” was harrowing. His wry smile afterward was vintage Downie, both heartening—he still has his sense of humour—and hard to watch. The band closed with “Grace, Too,” that quintessential Hip opener. Context could have mucked up this moment, and perhaps it did for some fans. However, watching Downie release those familiar guttural yelps, as he has done so many other times, was dark, sure, but also life-affirming. When life conspires against you, do not run away from who you are; you tap even further into who you are and what you do.To myself and to anybody paying attention, the Tragically Hip has been teaching us many crucial artistic lessons: that you can respect your fans, even love them, but not be beholden to them; that you can be ambitious and striving but also populist; that you can be serious but not insist on taking yourself seriously; that you can be frustrated by your country but not disown it; that you can be an intellectual and an everyman at the same time; that you can grow together with a group of people you love dearly while not sacrificing your individual vision.You can do all of that with intelligence, respect and dignity, never requiring any half-measures. You can sing to end all songs.
‘The More Time I Spend on Iran, The Less I Think This Is About Religion’: An Interview with Laura Secor

The author of Children of Paradise on a decade of reporting on Iran, history as a story of ideas, and the importance of understanding the events in foreign countries on their own terms.

In February 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini stepped off a chartered Air France flight, millions of ordinary people lined the streets of Tehran to celebrate the return of the man they called the father of the revolution. Iran’s new regime saw itself as a revolutionary response to the despotic five-decade rule of the Shah—an overthrow that brought an end to more than two thousand years of monarchic rule.Khomeini’s arrival marked the beginning of a theocracy and an era of convulsive politics. The new regime carried on with the use of repression and brutality, but the shift in the definition of patriot created targets out of those who had previously felt safe.The arrival of the ayatollahs and their never-before-seen form of government that married democratic structures with theocratic oversight created a kind of fixation in western countries that this new Iran was somehow unknowable. How did one read political and cultural cues at arm’s length in a country where nothing seemed familiar?This perceived inability to know about Iran also obscured the very robust conversations Iranian intellectuals and activists were engaging in: they debated the moral, philosophical, and political underpinnings of what the Iranian project was and what it could be.In Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Laura Secor explores these debates and conversations as they unfolded over decades against the backdrop of political turmoil and repression. Her meticulous reporting, deep research, and lyrical writing have resulted in a gorgeous book thick with history and emotion. Secor tells the story of modern Iran through the lives of the people who have struggled for it: from students and writers to philosophers, clerics, and poets.As the west cautiously re-opens itself to Iran, Children of Paradise is a necessary contribution to understanding the dynamic and determined work of Iranians to create a modern nation on their own terms.[[{"fid":"6696471","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","link_text":"an-interview-with-laura-secor","attributes":{"class":"file media-element file-media-original"}}]]Naheed Mustafa: Your book is a lush and detailed story about a conversation Iranians have been having for generations, about what kind of society they want to live in. What was the starting point for you with wanting to tell this story? Laura Secor: I started travelling to Iran in 2004, and I have to admit that my first impulse to go there was in a sense perverse. It was a country that felt like it was forbidden. It was a place that most Americans didn’t go, and that we had received a lot of negative ideas about, and I wanted to know what was behind that curtain, and to understand the place on its own terms, and not as I felt like a lot of us did, as a foreign policy problem to be solved, or as a place that existed in relation to us. So, when I went in, I was curious to know about the life of the country, and what continued to strike me, as I talked to Iranians about the stories of their lives, was the compression of the history of the last thirty years, the sense that so much had happened in such a short time, and it was such a dramatic history, and it had penetrated the lives of individuals at every level. So I kept thinking about the people I met as, in a way, characters in an epic novel and I was captivated by that story, and the way that it threaded itself through those lives.And so, you’re thinking about Iran in a way that’s different from the kind of narrative that you’re getting from whatever media you’re consuming about Iran. How do you start to try and get past what you already know or think about that country? To begin with, by talking to people. And by listening to stories, trying to map them against historical events. One of the things that’s difficult about researching Iran is that there is a really vast literature on that country, a lot of it is scholarly, and it’s really rich, there’s a lot that we can and should know about Iran from that literature, but it’s not generally accessible to a broad readership. So one of the things that I tried to do was to do a lot of reading, and try to understand the intricacies of the political history. But then to lift up a little bit away from them, and create a map that I could then hold against the lives of the people I was talking to, so we could sort of say, you know, ‘Where were you when this happened?’ and ‘Where were you when that happened?’ and I started to see that there were common points of intersection with these narratives that made the history come out in more relief. But to me it was really important for the book to be able to tell people’s stories in intimate detail because I think that’s how we get close to a place. The history can feel vast and alienating, particularly when it’s of a place that’s really far away and whose history is in many ways very different from our own. So I tried to use that intimacy to bring readers into the lives of Iranians and into the life of Iran, but at the same time I really found that that frame of reference, because we’re missing it, had to be supplied.Children of Paradise is focused on the intellectual push and pull from which the modern Iranian state emerged. In the Western narrative of Iran, the modern state is understood as coming out of a series of mostly violent events. How do you reconcile those two realities, the intellectual tradition that you’ve been referring to, and then this way that we’ve understood it as being this convulsing of violence? I think both are true, and I was really interested in a story of ideas in this history, because in Iran ideas are taken seriously, in a way that they aren’t always here, in the West. And one of the things that I felt strongly was that this kind of language of abstraction is really a native one in Iran, the literary and intellectual forms that are most powerful in the culture are poetry and philosophy, so to see how closely those literatures tracked with people’s psyches, and with the psyche of the country, in a sense, was really fascinating to me and, I felt, an important part of Iran’s story that’s often missed. And that's not to say that ideas ever function in a vacuum. Ideas are connected in some ways to violent events, and they certainly are in Iran, so while I think it’s definitely true that, and I think the book also does document a lot of convulsive events, there is also this other architecture that I wanted readers to understand and to see in order to better know the country, and to better understand what was motivating those events.You referred earlier to this idea of the compression of history. I’m wondering given that we’re in this phase of the West trying to get to know Iran, or get to know again the new Iran, or a newer version of it, how do you think that compressed history is going to be understood outside of Iran? I don’t think that’s for me to say.Do you think it’s even possible to understand that? I think that if we pay attention it is. One of the things that it’s sometimes very difficult to persuade people of is that we really do need to understand the events inside foreign countries on their own terms. There is a sort of impatience, at least in my country, with that kind of reporting. We kind of want to know, well, what does this have to do with American foreign policy and with our next policy decision, and I haven’t written that book. I believe that we need to engage with the interior life of countries if we wish to understand them. And that doesn’t mean that we need to get involved in their internal politics, but to at least know what motivates them and where they come from and what the history is I think is significant for anyone who’s seeking engagement and broader understanding.Early in your book, you talk about the story of the little black fish. Can you tell us about that story?[Laughs.] It’s funny, the first time I heard about that story was from one of the reformists who had been a revolutionary, who said that the piece of literature that brought him to the revolution, that made him a revolutionary, was a children’s story called The Little Black Fish. So I went to the library and found that story. And when I had finished reading it, I wanted to throw the book across the room, because I could not understand at that point, very early in my research, what this story had to do with a revolution. [Laughs.] And it’s a story that was written by a secular leftist writer in the sixties, it’s a parable that’s told through animals, which is common in Iranian fiction and poetry.The main character is a little black fish, who lives in a very small stream, and decides that he believes that there is a world beyond this stream, and that he wants to explore it. And everyone tells him, you’re crazy, there is no world beyond this stream, this is where life begins and ends. But he insists on exploring it, and he goes through a number of trials and adventures on his way out to the open sea, where, in the open sea, there is a school of brave fish like himself who have made this quest, and they are so strong that they can drag the fisherman’s net to the bottom of the sea. But he gets there, finally, and reaches his freedom, and winds up sacrificing himself for the freedom of another fish, and at the end of the story he dies. So it’s not the kind of children’s story that would be typical in my country, it’s got a rather dark cast to it. But it contains themes that I later realized just resonated again and again with the history and the mentality in a way of revolutionary movements in Iran. It’s a story that is about refusing to be bounded by some received idea of one’s fate, or destiny.It’s a story about free will, and it’s a story about sacrifice, and at the time that it was published, which was I guess 1968, one of the things that’s also very haunting about the story is that the author of it drowned, he was on vacation, and he stepped into this river with very rapidly coursing currents, and he didn’t know how to swim, and there was for a while a rumour that he had been killed by the Shah’s secret police, nobody could really verify that, but the fact that he drowned became part of the myth of the story and the author. So to me, the story, at first, I didn’t understand it, and the more time I’ve spent on this book and on the lives of the people I’ve met, the more it seemed to resonate with everything that I found. And one of the things, you know, I bring it back again at the very end of the book because one of the themes of the book is this persistence of a very dynamic civic spirit in Iran, under very unpromising circumstances. Again and again you see people emerging who are willing to put themselves at risk in order to make a better life for their countrymen. It’s a source of wonder to me, in many ways, and really of awe.At the very end of the book, in the final section, I introduce a character who is also an avatar for the women’s movement in Iran. The women’s movement really takes wing at a time when so many other movements have been crushed, but these people come forward and take on some of the most obdurate parts of the establishment, the judiciary, and I really started to think about that woman who I introduced in that section, her name is Asieh Amini, as the little red fish, the one who picks up this journey at a time when others have abandoned it.Several years ago I was in Kabul, and I ended up at a conference basically on women and political participation, it was an international conference and the representatives were all from Muslim majority countries and the rep from Iran, she was an Islamic scholar. She was talking about Islamic law, and how women in Iran had used Islamic law as a way to move themselves forward but it was incremental, but if you saw the shift that had happened in the previous three decades, that there had been profound advances that women had been able to make by contesting and engaging with this particular aspect of the Iranian system which on the outside is perceived as monolithic and unchanging. How do you see that from inside Iran? What has that engagement been like and is it an engagement that people in Iran are generally well aware of? First of all, nothing is monolithic and unchanging in Iran, that’s one of the interesting things about the Islamic system in that country. It’s got a lot of different pressure points in places where you can tug on a string that makes something happen over here, and it’s a very dynamic place, which doesn't mean that there aren’t also some pretty hard and fast barriers to how much can be accomplished and how fast.The women’s movement is really variegated, it’s not easy to describe a single strategy or a single approach to taking on some of the issues, and there is part of it that is legalistic, there’s part of it that has concentrated on lobbying, in a sense, to get laws changed. There’s part of it that has focused on society. There’s the Million Signatures campaign, which involves women basically hand to hand, behind closed doors, distributing pamphlets that delineate discriminatory laws and educate other women and get their signatures on a petition with the aim of collecting one million signatures.The person I’ve profiled in the book is Asieh Amini, and her focus was on juvenile execution to begin with, and then eventually on stoning, and these issues don’t only affect women, but they do have a disproportionate affect on women. So there’s really all kinds of ways, I think, that the women’s movement has approached the systemic discrimination in Iran. I also think we have an idea in our minds of Iran as being a particularly repressive place for women, and while that is true, it’s also probably by regional standards a very dynamic place for women and you do see, if you travel to Iran, you see women in every kind of public role, and that’s something that may not be true in some of the other neighbouring countries.In talking about the state that emerged after the Islamic revolution of 1979, you write, “It emerged in impassioned, ambivalent dialogue among passionate, ambivalent people, and the state it produced is passionately ambivalent too.” What do you mean by passionately ambivalent? [Laughs.] I think of Iran as straddling a very profound fault line, both culturally and politically. It’s a country that is kind of defined by and driven by its divisions, and those divisions even run through individual people, at least that’s what I found in a lot of my research, and in the people that I profile in the book.At the very beginning, the revolutionary impulse is a really divided and interesting impulse. I think we think of it as, well, there was this revolution that produced an Islamic theocracy, therefore it was a revolution for Islamic theocracy. It was not. It was a really diverse movement that included people who were leftists and people who were liberals and nationalists. Even among the Islamists, the Islamism that drove it was a really dynamic and variegated force at that time. The thinker who I profile mainly from that period is Ali Shariati, who is interesting because what he does is he takes the language and the concerns and the commitments of the left, and he marries them to Islam, and that becomes a really potent force, because, in Iran, you had a really secular left that was largely urban and educated, and then you had, and this is complicated and it’s dealt with in the book, but the country had at that time a pretty serious urban/rural divide, and in the countryside you had a lot of traditional people who were at that time migrating into cities and finding themselves cheek-by-jowl with these urban secular elites who they didn't understand and who they felt looked down on them.What Shariati’s ideas did was, in a sense, they gave the revolutionary impulse back to the traditional people, and it gave Islam back to the urban elites, and in a sense unified the country for a moment, behind that idea, so suddenly if you were a traditional religious person, you were not some rube from the countryside to be looked down upon, you were the revolutionary vanguard, and according to Shariati it was not that Islam was compatible with revolutionary impulses, it was that leftist revolutionary ideology actually originated in Islam. So that was a really powerful way of thinking. But it was also, in a sense, it had its own in-built ambivalences, because he was reconciling a lot of things that did not spring from a single source and there was always, I think the cliché, which I hesitate to use but I can never get away from it, is that Iran is a country torn between tradition and modernity. I don’t really much like that, because I don’t think tradition is one thing and I don’t think modernity is one thing, and I don’t think that they’re necessarily pulling against each other, but in some sense, the intellectual and political project after the revolution was to create a uniquely Iranian vision of modernity that could enfold the traditions that were also indigenous to that country.And that's a conversation that’s still ongoing. Yeah.One of the things that’s difficult to disentangle is whether the politics have been Islamicized, or if Islam has been politicized. Is that even a conversation worth having when it comes to Iran? That’s a really interesting question. I feel that the more time I’ve spent on Iran, the less I think that any of this is about religion. I think that it’s really a story of politics, and in many ways the revolutionary state, although at first blush, the world looked at it and said, ‘My god, this is medieval fanaticism,’ actually it was a very modern state that the revolution produced and the kind of autocracy and repression that it produced is very familiar, that techniques of it and the shape of it. Over time one thing you see in the early revolutionary years is even Ayatollah Khomeini slowly becoming more and more pragmatic in his approach to politics and to the world, and this pragmatism is a very big piece of the Islamic republic’s outlook. So while it’s certainly not a secular state, and while it certainly is a state that has made a very special place for Islamic jurisprudence and for Islamic morality, it is a system that’s also actually more familiar than not, and that does not, I don’t think, need to be understood in religious terms.From the outside, Westerners tend to see Iran as a static state with an unchanging ideology. What kind of shift has there been in how Iran’s leaders and intellectuals see the project of the theocratic state? I think that from the very beginning, the theocratic state was never totally static, because it had contestation built into it, whether it meant to or not. The constitution of the Islamic Republic came out of compromise and conflict. There were on the one hand these Islamic nationalist liberals who were in the government at that time who presented a draft constitution that looked like the French Fifth Republic, and then you had clerics on the other hand who said, ‘No, this won’t do, we need to include a dimension of clerical rule.’ So these two dimensions were brought together from the very start into a kind of contradictory document, and that has produced a set of contradictions that make it impossible to eliminate dynamism from the system, as hard as they've tried. [Laughs.] Because the theocratic elements of the state, no question, are stronger than the republican elements. They ultimately control the security apparatus, the judiciary, the foreign policy, a lot of the most definitive levers of the state. But what they have not been able to do is eliminate dissention within their own ranks, or within the ranks of the larger bureaucratic government that includes the republican elements. So it’s been really interesting, over even the last ten years, when we’ve had a very open contest between the more autocratic elements of the regime, and the more republican elements, to see that even when the conservatives hold all the offices, they still wind up producing dissent. And you still wind up with factions that are critical of the system as a whole in some ways. I think that is in a way the fate that the country set itself when it adopted that constitution, and it’s something to be grateful for.A couple of years ago, I was assigned to review a couple of books, one that was a history of the revolution and of the late Shah period and the other that was a history of the Islamic Republic, and as I was reading these books I was thinking, there was a sense that we as Americans, we knew Iran under the Shah, because we were close to the Shah’s court, and so any history you read of that period has granular detail about the inner workings of government. But after the Islamic Revolution, I think we imagine that we don’t know Iran anymore, that it’s receded, it’s become an unknowable place. But if you look at any history of the Islamic Republic, it is actually so much richer, in terms of its connection to the society. So much more is visible, because the Islamic Republic, which is no less autocratic than the Shah’s regime, still has somehow created a space where the currents that actually move through the society can bubble up to the surface and be seen.And so in a lot of ways it’s in keeping with the tradition that you’ve already laid out, where there’s been this constant engagement with ideas. Yeah.So how do you explain that? When you’re out and about in your life as a journalist, and people are talking to you about Iran and you’re talking to people about Iran, is it a matter of convincing people that this is actually what’s happening there, and not this sense of static and immovable ideas? I suppose. I like to think that our ideas about Iran have changed in the last ten to twelve years, to some degree. There was this reformist period between 1997 and 2004, when President Mohammad Khatami was trying to open up the country, and at that point there was a lot of press about the dynamism of Iranian society, and then things kind of skewed to a different side, where the image of Iran was, well this is a place where there’s really a free press and people are very active and engaged and young people are yearning for connection with the world. And that too was a skewed impression, because that movement was up against some very hard forces of repression that were often not also brought into that frame. And then under Ahmedinejad I think we swung back the other way, and started to look at Iran again as a sort of hardline monolith, so when I talk to people about my work, I find a pretty wide variety of impressions that they’ve gleaned from the news and from other sources or maybe even their friends with Iranian backgrounds, because there are increasing numbers of Iranians in the United States, and as you know, even more in Canada, so I don’t want to overly generalize about what people think about a country they haven’t seen, but I do hope that my work is useful in bringing readers and ordinary people into contact with the sophistication and diversity and dynamism of that culture.Your book is a series of portraits of Iranians who engaged in various ways with the revolution, and then you go on to see what became of them. You talk about a man named Akbar Ganji who started out as a true believer but within a decade had lost his fervor. You summed up his views as, “in a religious state, religion became vulnerable to the vagaries, the antagonisms of politics. To criticize the state was to criticize Islam.” Iran has the same Islam it’s always had, well, not always had, but let’s say that Islam has always been part and parcel of that conversation since the revolution, but Iran has, as you’ve just alluded to, made a variety of political decisions, and taken a variety of political pathways. So how true do you think that that idea that Akbar Ganji put forward, how true is that still? Well I think what he was getting at with that idea was not then that you couldn’t criticize the state because it would be to criticize Islam, but that in order to make sense of this problem, you had to think about Islam in a different frame, and I think that he and some of the other reformists that were connected to a philosopher who’s featured in the book, Abdolkarim Suroush, a lot of their efforts were focused on removing religion from this kind of wordly interplay of conflict and politics, and saying, ‘Look, religion is not besmirched by these things, it’s not touched by them, religion the thing itself is ineffable, it is in a sense unknowable, and everything that we have built around it is only human, and therefore we can argue about it, and we can interpret it, and rediscover it, and disagree about it.’ This was a radical thing to do, philosophically, and Ganji was a follower of Suroosh’s and I think in the end, that was the view that he came to, that allowed him to be critical of the state without being critical of his religion. He’s a very religious man. So, that was the innovation in a sense of the intellectual reform movement, was to take this inner core of religion and try to protect it from the accretions of ideology and politics, which was in a sense the opposite of what Shariati did. Shariati took religion and tried to make of it an all-encompassing ideology. I think it was Suroush himself who put it this way: Shariati wanted to make religion corpulent and he wanted to make it small.When it comes to the state itself, does the state take dissent—I mean, we know how it treats dissent—but does it understand dissent against the state as being related to religion?What I’ve described for you is the reformist point of view, which has now fallen into the opposition, but the state itself does use religion in this way. The state itself does stipulate—the problem with dissenting in Iran is that you can always fall into the category of being accused of apostasy or of waging war against God, or of various formulations that turn dissent into an act of religious warfare, and that falls into a punitive category that can be quite severe. So yes, the state, part of its power, lies in its assumption of its own identity with religion and really divine right.How useful are terms like “reform,” “moderate,” “conservative?” How useful are these terms when you’re talking about Iran? They’re useful if you know what they mean, but the trouble is that they’ve been kind of evacuated of meaning in the foreign press in a lot of ways. Not intentionally, but I think that American readers certainly have a hard time distinguishing among them because the spectrum of political thought in Iran does not match ours one-to-one or really in any other ratio. It’s hard to talk about left and right, it’s hard to talk about moderate and conservative, without defining those terms. There are definitions for those terms, moderate less so. I have a problem with moderate, because it doesn’t really describe anything that can be fixed to a political category in Iran. But certainly there is a spectrum of political factions that you can look at and clearly delineate, but the trouble is that our terms, and our political vocabulary, doesn’t totally fit it, and it doesn’t automatically signify what we want it to signify when we talk about the Iranian spectrum.So when you are talking about the spectrum of political opinion, there are always going to be marginal voices on either end, but in general terms, even when you make reference to reformists in the current context, are the parameters still that Islam is to play into a role in politics, or are people able to talk about the idea of separating religion from politics and still be taken seriously in the Iranian political context? The Iranian political context is religious. And if you’re talking about electoral politics, and the kind of politics that can legally and substantially be a part of the political playing field, that has to fall under the provisions of the constitution, and the constitution includes clerical leadership, and it includes religious law. So to very directly criticize those things puts you in a kind of dangerous space.Now, the reformist movement, which emerged really in the nineties, came to fruition with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami and was essentially crushed in 2009 with the Green Movement, that movement always defined itself as an internal movement for incremental democratic reform. It did explicitly take on the religious structure of the state or its nature. But even that movement, which was incremental and internal and really an insider’s movement, even that movement after 2009, when it very directly clashed with Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, and the revolutionary guards and so on, when it took those forces on, after that it was labeled the sedition, and placed outside the pale of allowable opinion. The reform movement still exists, that’s very clear in the behavior of the state. When you talk to ordinary people, I think the question of religion and the state runs more deeply through the society, and that there are a lot of people who—Iran is still a very religious country, a lot like the United States, and I think that there is rather broad constituency for a politics that is not theocratic, but even so, probably it would have a sort of—I don’t know how to put it, sort of like in the United States, religious people would be elected to a representative government.You so beautifully illustrate the contraction and expansion of the idea of modern Iran. It’s rigorously debated within the country. How challenging is it for Iranians to engage in that debate about the relationship between what the vision of the country was, and where they want it go? I think it’s gotten more challenging, not because that debate isn’t still alive and not because it doesn’t still resonate, but because the space for discussing it is not very open and under Khatami what we saw was this opening of the press which really allowed for a very deep and serious debate over the future of the country, and it also allowed for a surge of civic engagement, and you could see how much hunger there had been for that, for young people who wanted to be invested in the future of the country, and making things better, and they got involved in things, not just debating the role of mosque and state, which I don’t think many of them felt comfortable doing at that time, but they got involved in everything from supporting the rights of women and children and minorities and the provinces to laying poison for rats on blighted streets of Tehran to opening up hotlines for family counseling. They really got involved in improving life in the country. And that movement sadly got rather violently crushed, but I never believed that it went away, first of all because a lot of young people earned their chops in those days as journalists or as community organizers and so forth, there were a lot of people who entered the world of work and activism at that time and whose skills and commitments were shaped by it, and there’s also a sense that I think is ongoing, that Iranians want to be involved in shaping the future of their country, so I think it’s hard to totally assess, I haven’t been there myself since 2012, so that’s part of what is inhibiting me, but I think you can see almost always below the surface, this kind of rippling of, I don’t want to say dissent, because it’s not just dissent, it’s of engagement and a sense of wanting to be in charge of their own and their country’s future.Now that Iran is being cautiously welcomed back, what are the preoccupations internally about how Iran will hold its own internationally?Again I’m not there to assess that, but my sense is that this is a really delicate and important moment for the Islamic republic, and on the one hand, this opening presents a lot of opportunity. If you look at it from two sides, you have on the one hand the hardliners, and the deep state that Ayatollah Khamenei is at the head of, which does have a guiding ideological commitment to anti-Americanism and to maintaining Iran’s independence and its status as a bulwark against Imperialism, and then on the other hand you have the Rouhani team, which is much more pragmatic and sees Iran’s bread buttered perhaps on a different side. So these forces have not really come to a stable equilibrium, and one thing that we’re going to see is how they manage that, because I think there’s a sense that this opening, there’s no doubt about it, it’s perceived as positive inside Iran. And if that sanctions are lifted, and there is a period of economic recovery in Iran, because Iran has been through a lot economically in the past decade or so, so if you see a real positive economic benefit from reconciling in a sense with the Western powers over the nuclear deal, and if you see Iran being welcomed back at least to some extent into the community of nations and having a role that is less antagonistic in world bodies and so on, I think that’s going to be perceived very positively by the populous, which has really, for a long time—one of the words that you just always hear in Iran and I guess also elsewhere in the Middle East is dignity, and this is a great moment for the restoration of Iranian dignity on the world stage. So that’s something that probably everybody would like to take credit for, you would think.But there is some concern, I think too, for the hardliners, that they don't want to see Rouhani’s people taking all the credit for that, and they also don’t want to see Iran becoming overrun by Western influence, and I think that’s a very real concern to them. They have a lot of fear of what that would mean, and how that might weaken their hold on the levers of power. So I think there is right now a very real clash of internal forces in Iran, and we don’t know what the outcome of that is going to be, either for foreign policy or domestic.The idea of dignity, restoring dignity or maintaining dignity, there’s a real strong sense here, Canada’s just been through a truth and reconciliation process with its Aboriginal people, and that's part of the conversation around dignity, is reckoning with your past. I’m wondering, do you have any sense of that? You make reference in your book to the infamous summer of 1988, the two months where the state carried out thousands of executions and there are a variety of stories like that. Do you think that this restoration of dignity is going to be connected to that kind of reckoning in any way? Sadly I don’t. I think for that kind of reckoning to happen, and I do think that kind of reckoning is ultimately going to be very, very necessary to national healing, but I don’t think that this opening, the resolution of the nuclear file and the lifting of sanctions and this international picture, I don’t think that this is really going to have any impact on that. I think for that to happen that requires a much deeper and more dramatic shift, and I don’t really see that happening under Ayatollah Khamenei.Can you give us some sense of, what was that like the first time that you went to visit Iran, just in terms of your own experience there, what did you see, what was it like? I went to Iran in the fall of 2004, before I ever went as a journalist, I went as a tourist, and that was in some ways wonderful, because I got a much longer visa than I would ever get as a journalist, and I was able to travel, and to see a lot of the country and it was revelatory in a lot of ways, it was also frustrating, because even tourism in Iran, at that time at least, was very heavily managed, and there was a lot I couldn’t see and a lot of people I couldn’t talk to. But I went back, in the summer of 2005, on a reporting trip for the New Yorker, and that was to cover the election, the presidential election that brought us Ahmadinejad, and that trip was really the one that burst the whole place open for me, and in some ways it would never had happened that way if I hadn’t also gotten to see the country from a different perspective earlier, but in 2005, I really got to talk to a lot of people and to see the country in a moment of real political interest, and I wish I could say it’s the kind of place that you set foot in and you immediately fall in love and in some ways it really should be, because it has everything, and there’s no place more interesting in the world and it’s culturally rich, and it’s beautiful and the food is great and people are hospitable and all of that is true. It’s also a really difficult and in many ways unpleasant place to be. So I found it to be a really complex experience. I’d never really worked or travelled in a place that felt so repressive, and that had as much tension running through it, so that was something I wasn’t totally prepared for and that made a big impression on me. But that combination of there being so much of interest and beauty below the surface, and of the surface being so hard to crack, was kind of irresistible.The idea of living in a revolutionary society, is that still a sentiment that sits on the surface in Iran? Not exactly, in the sense that the revolution, yes, for a lot of people who were born after 1979 and that is now a lot of the population, the revolution belongs to their parents and not to them. But that’s still living history, it’s very much alive history, and I think that one thing the revolution did that has been very interesting for Iran is that it gave people a sense of ownership over the state, even though the state kind of slipped their grasp very quickly. So there’s a sense I think that might be special, of a state that ought to belong to its people, and that rightly belongs to its people, and that fuels some of the, at least among the opposition the anger that the state does not seem to be responsive to its people, so I think that that is one of the legacies of revolution, and that sense of agency, and of the rightfulness of agency, whether or not it plays out in reality.In terms of the revolutionary experiment itself, I think that one of the things that is worth emphasizing is just how unique the state is, that that revolution produced, that for Iranians to try to figure out how to navigate this system that they created after 1979, and how to leverage it to produce the kind of society and atmosphere that they want to live in, they don't have models, they don’t have other places to look to say ‘This is how it’s done,’ they are looking at their own structures and trying to understand them, and to penetrate them, and it creates a political discourse that is in some ways alienating for those of us on the outside, it seems like there’s a cottage industry of specialists who are telling us what to think about Iran and how to understand its politics, because we can’t look at a frame of reference that feels familiar and understand it as anything like a parliamentary democracy, but I think that uniqueness is a legacy of the revolution as well.
Straight to Hellmouth: When Punk and Magic Meet

There can be fantastic narrative dissonance when conflicting elements clash.

On a brutally hot day in the summer of 2014, I found myself in the cavernous basement of a New York restaurant fancy enough that me ever formally eating there would be inconceivable. The establishment in question was Del Posto, a high-end eatery located in the shadows of the High Line on the west side of Manhattan. I was there to talk with their dessert chef, one Brooks Headley, a guy who had won a James Beard Award for his work creating delectable pastries, was about to release his first cookbook, and would go on to open Superiority Burger, an establishment dedicated to some of the best veggie burgers you’re ever likely to eat. Headley’s résumé extended past the realm of food, though: over the years, he’d also played in fantastic cult punk bands such as Born Against, Skull Control, and Universal Order of Armageddon. It was a reminder that you can find people with a background in punk in the places you’d least expect: lauded chefs, acclaimed authors, and soccer coaches among them.That moment I’d had in the basement of Del Posto echoed through memory as I read the early pages of Jeremy P. Bushnell’s novel The Insides. After a brief prologue focusing on her in her youth, the novel’s protagonist Ollie is introduced as an adult working as a butcher in an upscale restaurant in Manhattan called Carnage. “[T]he Carnage basement is a huge length of semicircular tunnel, lined in clammy antique tile,” Bushnell writes. As Ollie gets to work, she cues up a playlist that starts with music from Swans11A reference that, given the recent accusation of rape directed at frontman Michael Gira, has bleaker connotations than simply “this is a character who likes punk.” and begins carving. Between this and the fact that, when we meet the teenage version of Ollie, she’s hanging out in Tompkins Square Park—a New York location synonymous with a certain strain of fast and loud music—the character is pretty recognizable as an aging punk in her thirties.More than that, she’s also an aging punk in her thirties with a long-running familiarity with magic. In the prologue, Ollie and her friend Victor encounter a warlock squatting in a building on the Lower East Side; in the present day, Ollie becomes involved in the search for a knife with mystical properties, including a connection to a portal to a dimension full of unpleasant worm creatures. All of which places The Insides in one of the weirder sub-genres readers can encounter: stories in which punks do magic.Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement punk shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer, whereas magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. Why is this a thing? It comes down to archetypes. At its core, punk can be said to be about passion over virtuosity—a handful of chords and the right attitude are what matter. The Platonic ideal of a punk song is something fast and simple and direct. Your conservatory training will not get you far in the realm of basement shows, quasi-legal DIY spaces, and late nights at dive bars with dirt-cheap beer. (Again: archetypes.) Magic, on the other hand, is largely about the necessity of formal training. The Harry Potter series of books is, after all, structured to match its protagonist’s education in casting spells and understanding the operation of supernatural devices and concoctions. Lev Grossman’s The Magicians also emphasizes the need for some form of training for its characters to hone their occult abilities. (Though, to be fair, there is a subplot about more DIY ways of picking up magical skills—though that’s described as a more perilous direction.) In books, movies, and games, magic tends to be a practice where experience and patience are key.All of which is to say that throwing magic and punk into the same storyline is probably going to cause some sort of narrative dissonance, which can be used to a variety of ends. In the case of Bushnell’s book, Ollie’s background in punk is one of several ways in which she’s presented as opposed to traditional power structures—she’s a biracial woman with a chaotic childhood and no inclination to work a traditional nine-to-five job. This, in turn, puts her in both figurative and literal opposition to the novel’s villains, a father-and-son team of right-wing extremists seeking the knife that’s the McGuffin in this book’s plot. Magical devices are portrayed as having the ability to control and confer authority, with horrific consequences—but in placing its hero on the other side of that divide, it manages to be thematically consistent while still establishing a good sense of place along with some unsettling cosmology. It’s one more detail in the creation of a memorable central character, and it helps to shape the milieu around her.Arguably the best-known narrative to bridge punk and magic exists in a different medium entirely. The DC Comics character of John Constantine has shown up in more realistic settings as well as alongside said publisher’s superheroes and villains in the Hellblazer series. He was played by Keanu Reeves on film and by Matt Ryan on television; he’s also been hailed as one of the handful of high-profile bisexual characters in contemporary comics. And he, too, has a history in punk: during Brian Azzarello’s early ’00s run on the series, a flashback issue featured a young Constantine playing in a band as part of London’s late-’70s punk scene.22There’s another musical connection, albeit one that’s a bit less punk rock, especially viewed from 2016: When he was first created in the 1980s and appeared in the pages of Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, Constantine’s look was inspired by none other than Sting.The manifestation of magic in Constantine’s series has varied over the decades from writer to writer: Garth Ennis and Jamie Delano brought demons and supernatural creatures to the forefront, while Azzarello and Warren Ellis’s runs played out more like crime fiction with a handful of surreal elements. The ways in which magic is put to use have also changed: in some arcs, you might see magical devices, such as a book that can predict the future, while in others, misdirection and illusion were the hallmarks of his trade. And while it’s difficult to come up with a definitive take on a character who has existed in multiple continuities and been written by numerous writers, it can be argued that Constantine’s subdued use of the supernatural later in life echoes his youthful anti-authoritarianism: a deepening of an existing impulse—the early issues of Hellblazer were set in Thatcher-era Great Britain—and its evolution into something stranger, as he found himself pitted everything from violent neo-Nazis to demons with a penchant for draining human life.It’s also interesting to compare Constantine to his fellow English punk-turned-magician, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Rupert Giles. When the series opens, he seems to be a fairly straight-laced agent of a literally patriarchal organization, the Watcher’s Council, whose members act as mentors to the young women bestowed with uncanny abilities in order to fight evil. As more information about his misspent youth trickles out, his buttoned-down nature is seen, more than anything, as a way of counterbalancing his earlier tendencies towards chaos. Over the course of the series, he ends up breaking with the organization that had employed him over their more controlling and authoritarian tendencies, including drugging the title character and leaving her in a possibly fatal situation in order to test her. The Watcher’s Council’s shifting role over the course of the series, from a positive one to a much more controlling one, prompts Giles to rekindle his rebellious tendencies decades after having suppressed them, to a much more beneficial end. It’s a fairly neat character arc over the course of the series, and illustrates the ways in which the dissonance between anarchic punk and formalized magic can play out in dramatically interesting ways.The dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set.For some works, it’s the embrace of regional specificity that brings together magic and punk. In Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York, a pair of New Yorkers are swept up in the affairs of a pair of drunk, vomit-prone, and diminutive magical creatures. The music of Johnny Thunders runs throughout: one of the novel’s major characters is introduced pondering the best way to play his solo from “Private Love.” Soon enough, the restless spirit of Thunders himself makes the first of a series of appearances, wandering through the East Village in search of his lost guitar. It feels very much like an encapsulation of a particular moment in that neighborhood’s history, turned ecstatic and strange. Here, too, Millar subverts expectations, making his supernatural characters even bawdier and harder-living than the humans that surround them.On the (geographic) flip side of that, Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat books (collected as Dangerous Angels in 1998) blend magic, a stylized version of Los Angeles, and a fondness for rockabilly bands. Nearly everything in these books feels impressionistic: one major character is called My Secret Agent Lover Man; the plot of Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys involves enchanted articles of clothing, including pants made from a goat; and throughout, there’s a juxtaposition of tender emotional moments with an energy that seems of a piece with Chuck Jones cartoons or Richard Lester films. One chapter of Weetzie Bat ends by describing how the characters “lived happily ever after in their silly-sand-topped house in the land of skating hamburgers and flying toupees and Jah-Love blonde Indians.” The following chapter opens with the title character asking, “What does ‘happily ever after’ mean anyway.”The fact that the bands these characters watch and play in are on the aggressive side of the musical spectrum might seem to clash with the jaunty tone Block uses to tell these stories. But that can be somewhat deceiving: these are books that are also willing to go into some fairly dark places, with 1989’s Weetzie Bat, the first in the series, including upsetting glimpses of suicidal depression and terminal illness alongside the magic and visions that drive its plot forward. Call it an echo of the way certain punk bands can channel the cartoonish along with the searing: the Cramps, Sex Pistols, and even Fucked Up come to mind, making use of stylized imagery and conceptual devices along with the more gut-level pull of their music. And while Block invokes a larger-than-life sense of stylization, magic and art serve to both bring characters together and distance them from one another. There’s plenty of give-and-take here, and a running evocation of the very punk idea of collective structures. None of the families in these books are all that quote-unquote traditional, but the bonds that connect the people within them are clear and tangible.For writers who know how to use it, the dissonance that emerges from the collision of magic and punk can be as useful as a squall of feedback used judiciously in the middle of an already-intense band’s set. There are others that run up alongside that memorable energy: Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, about a man living in Texas who can see the spirits of the dead, is saturated with the presence of Gun Club frontman Jeffrey Lee Pierce; Sarah McCarry’s33Full disclosure: McCarry is a friend. trilogy that begins with All Our Pretty Songs smashes together Greek mythology with Seattle punk history, pushing the concept of the iconic into uncharted territory. Washington, D.C., punk fixture Ian Svenonius’s 2012 book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock 'n' Roll Group used the device of a séance to critique decades of rock history. And whatever casting director thought to fill the role of wizard rock singer Myron Wagtail in the Harry Potter films with the indubitable presence of Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker pulled off a nicely subversive pop-cultural coup.44Though it has led to some awkward moments when talking about Pulp with friends unfamiliar with them: “Right, you know the guy who sings in the wizard rock band in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? Yeah, his band in real life was really good.”Someone stepping out of a basement show and waving a wand can feel like a wrong note or a righteous character beat depending on how a writer pulls it off. Magic, as a concept, has accrued certain narrative expectations over the years; so has punk. But in both forms, finding the right balance between tradition and something more personal is essential—and finding a new way to combine two ostensibly conflicting elements can lead to a more rewarding outcome than anyone might expect. It needn’t break the spell.
Tech Support

Building a network through the fog of depression can feel impossible. Now, more and more people are going online to fill gaps in our mental health care system. 

The first time she had a panic attack, Michelle Daniel-Newman thought it was the flu. She was in her early twenties and on her way to a downtown Toronto nightclub when the symptoms started. It was 2001; she makes a point of emphasizing that it was around the time of 9/11. Inside the club, it only got worse. She didn’t understand what was going on. “It was like an out of body experience,” she says. Crying, and scared, she drove back home to Thornhill, a suburb of the city, deeply unfamiliar with what she was experiencing. As her anxiety and panic continued over the days and weeks that followed, her reaction was to close off from the world. “I got to the point where I did not want to leave my house.”When she finally opened up to the idea of help, it was hard to find. “I remember one day I felt like I hit rock bottom,” she writes in an article for Pink and Blue Magazine. “I was desperate to talk to someone. I was ready.” She drove to a therapist’s office. “I told the receptionist that I needed to see the doctor right away. Her response was ‘I’m sorry, we can’t see you. Why don’t you go to the ER and be seen by the doctors there?” The experience of being turned away made an impression on her. “In emergency you’re being pushed and pushed. You’re not taken seriously. When you’re ready to accept the help, and you don’t get the help you need, you’re crushed.” She walked outside, sat in her car and cried for hours. “It was shit. Complete shit.”For years, she struggled to build her life, to interact with the outside world. Going to doctors and therapists eventually helped, but not as much as she would’ve liked. Nothing seemed to work. Then, two pieces of news, delivered in quick succession, changed her world. The first: in late 2007, a doctor told her that she had cervical cancer. The second, which she learned after waking up from surgery for the cancer: she was two-and-a-half months pregnant. “It was the most fucked up experience of my entire life.”And then a revelation came in, of all places, a karaoke bar.“Have you ever heard that song, ‘Don’t Stop Believin’?”Daniel-Newman first heard the Journey anthem in 2009, and it gave her something she was desperately lacking: hope. It didn’t cure her of her mental illness, nor did it aid her recovery from cancer, or make the prospect of an unexpected pregnancy any less daunting. What it did was spark something in her—something that told her that all those things could be beaten, and that she had the strength to do so. Though she is not particularly religious, she calls it a sign from God.*Anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness are hard to talk about. “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror,” wrote David Foster Wallace in his 1998 story, “The Depressed Person.” Empathy has its limits. Describing the precise way that your own brain tortures you in terms that someone can understand and process can be almost impossible—can words quite capture what it feels like when every cell in your body feels individually and uniquely nauseous?For most people, building a support network is a crapshoot, and often they only end up with a gallery of uneasy voyeurs who can look but when it comes down to it, do not (or cannot) truly understand what they see. Living with anxiety, depression, panic disorders—that’s hard. Personally, there have been times when I’ve wondered how long I was going to be able to handle my own anxiety and depression, whether I was ready to take on a whole life with a brain that feels mis-wired. Explaining it to people is hard. Asking for help, and articulating the kind of help you need, is hard. The darkly ironic challenge of mental illness is that the illness itself is an obstacle to seeking help: making the people you love most feel, at the moment you need them most, a whole lot like strangers.Misery might love company, but suffering demands understanding. By and large, the mental health system as it exists today fails to acknowledge the fact that many people struggle to build support networks, because building support networks is hard if nobody in your life understands what you are going through. Heretohelp, a government mental health initiative in British Columbia, notes on its website that “people living with depression tend to report fewer supportive friends, less contact with their friends, less satisfaction with their friends and relatives, lower marital satisfaction and confide less in their partners.” How can you effectively build a support network if you can barely leave the house?*In January 2015, Daniel-Newman teamed up with her therapist and close friend, Melanie Tinianov, to create a Facebook group called Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support, a forum for members—who span the globe, from North and South America to Europe and Asia—to open themselves and their illnesses up to strangers, seeking advice and guidance from people with first-hand experience. I joined in the spring; it grew quickly, gaining more than two thousand members by the end of 2015. Today, the group has grown to over three thousand.Often, the first person to respond is Daniel-Newman herself. During much of her day, which the 38-year-old mother of two spends at home working as an independent contractor for an at-home beauty products company, she keeps up with the group, offering advice to just about anybody who asks for it. That she’s not a licensed therapist or psychologist seems to be a technicality, rather than a major hurdle, to Daniel-Newman; she wants Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support to go big. Though she isn’t a professional, she seems to have an appetite for it—she wants to one day open up a brick and mortar 24/7 clinic where people can go for support. “I see so many suffering,” she says, “and they’re suffering alone […] What I needed [when my illness was at its worst] is what it [this group] today.”It’s a model meant to bring people together in a way that may improve upon the traditional in-person support network structure built primarily out of friends and immediate family. The philosophy is not dissimilar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous: that first-hand knowledge of suffering is, in some way, deeply valuable to the healing process.These online support groups seem to exist at the intersection of traditional group therapy, personal networks, and social media, an even newer extension of a new idea: that social care—treating mental illness partly through the power of social interaction—can possibly be as effective, if not more, than the traditional doctor-patient structure."Students are so lucky. The general public gets a ten-minute pill-push."The form they take can differ widely. While Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support lives on Facebook, there are various traditional Internet forum boards and forum-style sub-Reddits devoted to mental illness as well, such as r/depression, r/anxiety, and r/bipolar, or apps like 7Cups, which connects people suffering or in need of support with one of 140,000 trained listeners. The common thread that connects them is that they seek to build a community of suffering strangers.Those who have suffered—and continue to suffer—from mental illness often have a sharpened understanding of what others going through the same thing might need. Since many of them have experienced existing structures and traditional therapy already, they have a keen sense of where the gaps in mental health care exist and what the best way to fill those gaps might be. It isn’t that apps like 7Cups, or groups like Anxiety & Panic Disorder Support are meant to be improvements upon therapy—Daniel-Newman and Tinianov insist that traditional therapy is still a crucial part of mental health care—but rather that they provide an outlet within the existing therapy paradigm that emphasizes one-on-one care, but struggles to provide it at the scale required. “There’s nobody stopping us from doing a better job of caring for one another,” says Glen Moriarty, founder and CEO of 7Cups.Daniel-Newman echoes this sentiment; she guesses that her group’s success in helping is just as much about giving people the feeling of having helped as it is about the feeling of having received help. “This group changed my whole life,” she says. “It made me feel like there’s more of a purpose here on earth for me.”It’s a populist take on mental health care: The Internet as a tool to fight mental illness, rather than just a place of refuge.*The front lines of the health care system can often seem ill-equipped to handle mental health concerns. If you’re lucky enough to have a family doctor (which in 2010, five million Canadians over the age of twelve did not), and that doctor is able to see you in a timely fashion (which is the case for less than fifty percent of the Canadian population), there is a significant disparity between the availability of different types of treatment given to mental health patients. According to a 2012 Statistics Canada study, ninety-one percent of Canadians suffering from mental illness felt their needs for medication were met; only sixty-four percent said the same about therapy. Moreover, money can be an insurmountable hurdle: despite the country’s reverence for its health care system, not a single Canadian province provides coverage for anyone who seeks therapy outside of a doctor’s office.Angela Townend, a social worker with the London Family Health Team,11Who, full disclosure, has been involved in my own treatment. says colleges and universities have not been able to adequately deal with the number of students looking for care. “The waitlist for counseling at Western [University, located in London, Ontario] is horrendous,” says Townend, who places some blame on a lack of financial investment in mental health programs on campus, but concedes that there is a silver lining to the fact that Western has such a long waitlist: It means, at least, that kids are asking for help.In both Canada and the United States, the problem of mental illness on university campuses is striking. A 2002 study found that between thirteen and eighteen percent of Canadian students suffer from mental illness, and according to Statistics Canada, the country has the third-highest suicide rate among adolescents in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries. Maclean’s reported in 2012 that Ryerson University in Toronto saw a two-hundred-percent increase in demand for counseling, and that up to twenty-five percent of Canadian university students will experience a mental health problem. (And it is a plausible argument that students, who have direct access to counseling services, have a pretty good deal: “Students are so lucky,” says one Western University science student, noting that he gets appointments whenever he wants, while the “general public gets a ten-minute pill push.”)Broadly speaking, the conversation surrounding mental health has focused heavily on de-stigmatization, in hopes that those who need care won’t have to suffer in silence and will be able to ask for help when they need it, without fear of judgment. In effect, there has been a scale-up of the conversation—millions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook posts were shared in the name of Bell’s #LetsTalk campaign, for example—without the corollary scale-up of the actual resources required to provide help to those who most need it. The ongoing tragedy in Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities provides stark evidence that care is often concentrated in urban centres, inaccessible to those in more rural areas. But even in cities, it would be wrong to assume that care is easily available. For its 20,000 patients, for example, the London Family Health Team is able to provide 2.6 social workers—two full-time and one part-time practitioner. Across Canada, the numbers are dire, and getting worse. In 2010, the number of psychiatrists was 13.9 per 100,000; by 2030, the CMA estimates that number will fall to 11.9. Nationwide, non-urgent cases take an average of eleven weeks to be addressed by a psychiatrist.*Glen Moriarty of 7Cups invites a thought experiment: “Imagine we could delete the concept of therapy,” he asks. “Knowing what we know now, and what we have now—imagine creating a new mental health system.”In the past decade or so, this idea has gained traction. “Having social ties can promote feelings of attachment and companionship, enhancing one’s sense of purpose and self-esteem. For individuals experiencing stress, one’s social network can provide personal support and enhance coping,” writes the Canadian Mental Health Association, in “Mental Health Promotion in Ontario: A Call to Action,” published in 2008. “Social contacts also serve as resources for sharing information that can enhance one’s ability to deal with adversity, therefore moderating distress.” As social networks themselves exist increasingly online, so too must the social care.Social care is a broad term. Townend, Daniel-Newman, and others I spoke with all acknowledged that it is a crucial aspect of mental health care, but differed when it came to their own interpretations of it, as well as the ideal form for it to take. But the concept, at its base, is that a thriving social network can be highly beneficial to one’s mental health care. Increasingly, the health care field is turning away from archaic paradigms of mental health—such as the notion that it is a simple chemical misfiring—and towards trying to see mental health existing within a person’s broader social life. Along with freedom from discrimination and violence and access to economic resources, one of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s three most significant determinants of mental health is social inclusion.“We don’t let people say ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’”The most successful support groups on the Internet, however, do not, by and large, grow out of existing social networks, but rather out of groups of unfamiliar strangers.Anonymity (or in Facebook’s case, a lack of personal familiarity) is a positive force when discussing mental illness. “Anonymity kills stigma,” says Moriarty. Likewise, many of 7Cups’s listeners are “people who got help and wanted to give back,” he says. “People are afraid of being judged. If you don’t have someone in your immediate life who gets you, talking to someone who doesn’t judge you can be powerful.”This describes Daniel-Newman, too. She does her best to be the one person that members of her Facebook group can go to, no matter what. In an average day, there are anywhere between ten to twenty posts, and a great deal of Daniel-Newman’s time is taken up with monitoring discussions and, in many cases, personally responding: her phone is “constantly going,” she says. She understands how hard it can be to involve loved ones in your own recovery. “You don’t want to burden people. It’s a lot easier sometimes dealing with strangers. They’re strangers, but they connect,” she says, leaning into the word. “You connect instantly. You share that common feeling, and you have that bond.”The ability of friends and family to provide support is often limited by their own experiences of mental illness. Understanding mental illness is different from experiencing it, and given that for many people expressing how and why they are suffering is difficult, this distinction can feel excruciating. Many depressed people to whom I’ve spoken are (as, indeed, I am) prone to feeling like their pain is unique, as if nobody has ever felt so plainly awful in the specific way they do. Despite recognizing the idea as ridiculous, it can often make talking about it all the more difficult. Networks can ease the burden placed on one’s own social circle.Or, as Townend puts it, “Friends and family can’t always be the place where you go to deal with that stuff. You can burn them out. You need your friends and family for a lot of the fun, laid-back stuff.”For better or worse, online support groups attempt to help build a social support network by catering to the anti-social impulses of the mentally ill. “I like to say I have a theoretical support network. Which means that theoretically, I COULD call people,” wrote one poster on Reddit’s r/depression sub-Reddit last year. “Practically, I’m better off taking a couple Benadryl and a Xanax and passing the fuck out. It’s quicker, and cheaper and it means I don’t have to put the masks on first.”*Using the Internet as a vehicle poses obvious challenges. Mental health professionals such as Townend acknowledge that the web can often be a wild west or sorts—a fact which has to be considered when she directs patients online. “I’m always a bit wary, especially with younger patients,” she says, noting that sending someone online is essentially sending someone into a space that they can’t control. She, however, thinks moderation can mitigate that. “That’s a good side of the internet,” she says, “there are really good support networks that get monitored and moderated.”What it means to be monitored and moderated, though, can differ. Implicit in the act of moderating is creating a particular type of safe space, but there is little agreement about what that should actually look like. For many years, Erin (who does not want her last name published for privacy reasons) was a user on the r/depression sub-Reddit, and her frequent participation led her to become a moderator there four years ago. She understands that in an open forum, controlling the type of support that users receive is important. On r/depression, Erin tries to de-emphasize the positivity that Daniel-Newman tries hard to inculcate.“We don’t let people say ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay,’” Erin says. Her users find that far less helpful than those giving the advice tend to think it will be, and less helpful than someone simply understanding what they’re going through. There are some strict rules she and her fellow moderators follow—no religion, no discussion of suicide methods, and no personal information—but beyond that, they try to be “as lenient as possible when people need help,” she says, but “much less forgiving when people are trying to help.” She admits that over-moderation has its drawbacks: when people transgress group rules, they often do so without any malice. Those moments are great opportunities to help educate people on best practices when it comes to supporting those with mental illnesses.Daniel-Newman and Tinianov insist that their only rule is that nobody is allowed to give medical recommendations of any sort. In practice, though, their group seems laden with all sorts of invisible rules and ideas about what it ought to be. Arguments are discouraged—anything they don’t agree with is liable to be deleted. I was even kicked out of the group for reaching out to other members of the group to talk about what it means to them. It remains unclear why this was an offense worthy of exile—especially since I’d cleared it with Daniel-Newman before posting. Despite numerous conversations about ethical considerations, I have not been allowed back in, despite repeated assurances from the admins that this will happen. Daniel-Newman and Tinianov’s guardedness and skittishness underscores a point: the world is a scary place for people who are suffering from mental illness, and even well-meaning gestures can seem very much like an intrusion. It was a reminder of how easy it is—even for someone like me, someone with my experiences—to underestimate the difficulty of being open about your own pain.
Everybody Hurts: The Soundtrack of My So-Called Life

How the seminal series became a masterwork in scoring teen angst, one lawn-twirl at a time.

My So-Called Life’s ode to joy doesn’t arrive until its seventeenth episode, “Betrayal,” but it’s worth it. By then we have spent ninety percent of the ABC series watching fifteen-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) emancipate herself from mousey suburbanite to scarlet-haired Jordan Catalano scholar—a premise I explore in In My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life, my new book dedicated to the show’s feminism.In “Betrayal,” we awake with Angela, the camera trained on her face, her head on her pillow, her mien neutral. “I loved Jordan Catalano so much, and talked about him so much and thought about him so much, it was like he lived inside me. Like he had taken possession of my soul, or something...” *PREGNANT PAUSE* “...and then one day… I got over him!” The Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” electrifies a now-ecstatic Angela, turning her into a whirling, bopping, lip-syncing dust devil. “Let me go on,” she mouths, “like I blister in the sun/Let me go on... big hands, I know you’re the one.”This is not a song about masturbation. Violent Femmes frontman and writer Gordon Gano told the Village Voice as much in 2013. For him it’s about drug addiction; for Angela, guy addiction. “It was like he had been surgically removed from my heart and I was free,” she says of Jordan—and the tune presages their messy breakup. “While the familiar, catchy song perfectly captures Angela’s blissful awakening,” writes Kelly Maloy in “Their So-Called Scene,” an entry in the MSCL essay collection Dear Angela, “the song’s arrangement is unsettling, staccato, and in places unrhythmical and avoids an unrealistic suggestion that the Angela-Jordan relationship has been resolved.”Critics lauded the series back in 1994 for Angela’s unreliable narration, but when she isn’t speaking her mind, the show’s music does it for her. According to Maloy, MSCL’s soundtrack “often highlighted characters’ nuances or illustrated their inner turmoil.” Mixing up Beverly Hills 90210’s legacy, the show bypassed hokey mall acts like Color Me Badd to feature musicians more akin to Peach Pit headliners The Flaming Lips. Animal Bag, Buffalo Tom and Juliana Hatfield all appeared in various scenes within its single season. “Buffalo Tom itself typifies the music that characterizes the show,” Maloy writes, “a scrappy band (and one of several Boston-based groups featured in the show) formed by three college students whose lyrics focus on feelings of longing and emptiness.” But it was Hatfield, another Bostonian, who was granted the biggest storyline of all in the episode “So-Called Angels” as a street kid with angelic pipes. At the time, the singer-songwriter with the diminutive voice and the lofty lyrics was a teen girl idol:Everybody’s watching, everybody’s lookingShe’s such a sucker, he don’t want to fuck herHe is gonna kiss me, if he doesn’t miss meI am ready for it now, already on the ground11Hatfield’s “Spin the Bottle” plays over a scene in which Rayanne and her friends prepare her house for a party.Hatfield refused to lie down for the patriarchy, choosing instead to stand shoulder to shoulder with the third wave’s riot grrrls. Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna described this feminist contingent in the 1992 fanzine “Girl Power,” in a manifesto entitled “riot grrrl is,” which included the line, “BECAUSE we want and need to be encouraged and to encourage in the face of all our own insecurities, in the face of beergutboyrock that tells us we can’t play our instruments, in the face of ‘authorities’ who say our bands/zines/etc are the worst in the US and who attribute any validation or success of our work to girl bandwagon hype.” So when Angela is alone for the first time with Jordan, the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself” music video soundlessly flickers across the scene in the foreground. We can’t hear it but we can see it, and we know what lead singer Christy Amphlett is saying—this is the paean to onanism we were looking for:I don’t want anybody elseWhen I think about you, I touch myselfOoh, I don’t want anybody elseOh no, oh no, oh noReleased in 1990, the lead single from the Aussie band’s fourth studio album, diVINYLS, became infamous for deigning to promote female masturbation. Four years later, a teen girl on primetime was giving solo sex a sweaty-palmed handshake.The riot grrrl was “grunge’s indie sister,” according to Dear Angela’s Michele Byers. Grunge, meanwhile, that offspring of punk and heavy metal paired with angsty lyrics about alienation, entered the mainstream in the early ‘90s on the backs of Nirvana,22Lead singer Kurt Cobain makes a brief appearance in MSCL on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine’s memorial issue from June 2, 1994 (he had died on April 5th). “I can’t look at him,” Rayanne says (along with the rest of us). Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots (a band Angela claims she listens to). “There’s a feeling of burnout in the culture at large,” Simon Reynolds, author of rock subculture chronicle Blissed Out, told The New York Times in 1992. “Kids are depressed about the future.”Composer W.G. Snuffy Walden attempted to musicalize that zeitgeist in MSCL’s theme song. He “stole” the words out of Angela’s new best friend Rayanne’s (A.J. Langer) mouth, the ones she initially uses to propel Angela towards freedom: “Go. Now. Go!” But Walden needed “more of an electrified teen angst,” so he threw in some guitar riffs as well. When that still wasn’t enough, he brought in his friend, singer Julian Raymond, to add the pièce de résistance. “Just soar,” he told him. The result, Walden believed, “spoke to that youth.”[[{"fid":"6696446","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life Intro HQ","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]So did Claire Danes. Though she was only thirteen in the MSCL pilot, her instinct was already as much physical as it was intellectual. In one of the sweetest scenes in the series, after the second time Angela and Jordan kiss—in the show’s second episode, “Dancing in the Dark”—Danes performs an “impromptu ballet” on the empty lawn of her family’s glowing house, floating not along the music but the magic of the moment. “I had to find something that caught her emotion,” Walden said. So with the camera hovering above her, a glockenspiel drops notes down from the heavens like rain and Angela blooms into the tiny ballerina that twirled through our pubescence.If Walden offers one of the more joyful musical moments of the series, REM provides its most melancholy. At the end of the pilot, Angela returns home from a club late at night to find her dad, Graham (Tom Irwin), at the end of their block in a passionate argument with a woman who is not her mom. As she watches them, “Everybody Hurts” drifts in:When your day is longAnd the night, the night is yours aloneWhen you’re sure you’ve had enoughOf this life, well hang onMichael Stipe reportedly wrote the track after hearing about a suicidal fifteen-year-old girl at his sister’s school. Released on the band’s 1992 album Automatic for the People, “Everybody Hurts” appeared that year on the soundtrack for the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I’ve never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” guitarist Peter Buck wrote in the liner notes of their best-of album, In Time, “but the idea that high school is a portal to hell seems pretty realistic to me.” The band chose simple lyrics precisely because they wanted to speak to those students. As Buck told MOJO magazine in 1994, “trying to reach a seventeen-year-old and say, ‘it’s OK—things are tough but they get better’ involved economy and directness.”Equally economical and direct, though slightly less critically acclaimed, is Enigma’s “Return to Innocence,” which provides the closing soundtrack for MSCL’s twelfth episode, “Self-Esteem.” The German new-age group’s 1993 single is an uplifting slice of electronica that samples—sans permission—an aboriginal chant, which it pairs with basic lyrics that trumpet self-acceptance. The song rises up as Angela, who recently battled a bad zit, watches her mother and sister perform in a fashion show and comes to realize the ubiquity of beauty:Don’t care what people sayJust follow your own wayDon’t give up and use the chanceTo return to innocenceA rather crude reminder of the recurring theme of Angela’s coveted (in various ways) innocence, MSCL’s soundtrack also serves to narrate her sexual awakening. Buffalo Tom’s shoegazing ballad “Late at Night” has such a presence in episode 12 that the Boston band actually materializes in a club scene, the trio serenading Angela’s public confrontation with Jordan (who is himself in a band, appropriately named Frozen Embryos), with whom she has been regularly making out in private in the boiler room. Here the song actually serves as Jordan’s voice:I, I close my door at nightBut she gets in all rightSo I turn on the lightThough he attempts to ignore Angela, at the end of the episode, as the song predicts, Jordan finally brings their relationship into the light by grabbing her hand in the school hallway in front of all their friends. Despite Angela’s 1000-watt grin, however, the lyrics imply Jordan is still fumbling:I, I held her hand too tightToo hard to make it rightSo I could sleep at nightIt’s Jordan’s own song, “Red,” that most powerfully highlights their dissonance when Angela mistakes it for a song about her (“Oh my god,” Rickie says, touching a piece of Angela’s hair, “‘Red,’ that’s you”):I was goin’ nowhere, goin’ nowhere fastDrownin’ in my memories, livin’ in the pastEverythin’ looked black ‘til I found herShe’s all I need, and that’s what I saidOh, oh, ohI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahShe’s my shelter from the storm,She’s a place to rest my headLate at night, she keeps me safe and warmI call her ‘Red’Yeah, yeah, yeahI call her ‘Red’[[{"fid":"6696451","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life : Jordan Catalano - Red [HD]","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]The ballad is in fact about Jordan’s car—Angela, again, “makes everything too complicated” by assuming it’s a metaphor.33Of course, for the viewer, it is a metaphor for Jordan’s masculinity, which Angela is perpetually threatening to undermine. Writer Winnie Holzman says in In My Humble Opinion that she was partly inspired to write the scene because she knew Jared Leto could play the guitar and sing. “I wish now that I’d gone to Jared and said, ‘Let’s write a song,’” she says. “At the time the whole thing was just happening so fast. I think, honestly, I might have been too shy.” In retrospect, she wishes she and Walden had imbued the lyrics with more “violent or dark imagery” in the context of Jordan’s tough upbringing. As it is, the truth is not illuminated for Angela and she continues to believe the song is about her while every other tune riffs off her inability to make her and Jordan happen:All my lifeIs changing every dayIn every possible wayAnd all my dreamsIt’s never quite as it seemsBecause you’re a dream to me (a dream to me)- “Dreams,” The CranberriesTrust in dreams to begintry to keep it all in sightAnd try to work it all outtry if you will, try if they won’tYou’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t try- “Try,” Billy PilgrimBecause I’ve been dying And I’ve been trying For ways to get through Days to get through - “South Carolina,” Archers of LoafDawn can’t decide if there should be more of this porchShe’s sick of being inside, he reads the signsAnd now they’re making out in Lancaster, just to pass the time- “Dawn Can’t Decide,” The LemonheadsEven the show’s Halloween episode wears its detachment on its mohair sleeve. Angela drifts back in time to meet the Jordan-esque Nicky Driscoll (“Nicky Driscoll is going nowhere, and I’m not going there with him,” his girlfriend says, echoing the lyrics in “Red”). The strains of “Blue Moon” are heard in the distance as Nicky approaches his untimely death, leaving him stuck in the first verse of the 1934 ballad (sung here by Elvis):Blue Moon, you saw me standing aloneWithout a dream in my heartWithout a love of my ownIt’s a song that could very possibly be a staple of Angela’s CD collection. Billie Holiday released a version of “Blue Moon” in 1952 and Angela tells her dad that she is a fan of the jazz singer, in addition to The Smashing Pumpkins, Rage Against the Machine and Porno for Pyros. “Her interest in Billie Holiday highlights the melancholy that is a fundamental characteristic of her personality,” writes Kelly Maloy in Dear Angela, “and her familiarity with other bands, which can be vaguely classified as ‘alternative,’ position her in a scene that is as foreign to Graham as [The Grateful Dead] scene is to her.” Music often betrays Graham Chase’s age.44At one point he mocks Angela by saying, “Wild parties, Axl Rose,” at another he asks Danielle why she isn’t going as Madonna for Halloween. “Dad, Madonna peaked,” his youngest daughter responds.As much as the Dead represents Angela’s alienation from her dad, the jam band godfathers are also an example of how music can bring individuals together. “The Grateful Dead is this thing we totally share,” Rayanne says of her mom, so it’s not that shocking that she is so excited about Angela’s dad giving her his Dead tickets. For Graham, it’s his way of sharing his life with his daughter. For Rayanne, it’s Graham sharing their life with her. And vice versa. Angela is introduced to Rayanne’s world through Animal Bag’s “Everybody,” which she hears in the pilot at the house party her new friend invites her to, while Sharon is invited back into Angela’s entourage through Buffalo Tom (“I am sick of being perfect,” she says, after agreeing to attend the band’s gig). When Angela rejects the Dead, she is not only rejecting her dad, she is rejecting Rayanne too.In contrast to the doleful indie rock to which Angela gravitates, Rayanne’s musical taste is more frenetic, like she is. Aside from the Dead, she and her mother also share The Ramones. Rayanne chooses to sing “I Wanna Be Sedated” from their 1978 album Road to Ruin—fittingly—for her first, disastrous, performance with Frozen Embryos. Before the gig she stands in front of the mirror with her mom, both of them singing the track which unites them in every way:Twenty twenty twenty four hours to goI wanna be sedatedNothing to do, no where to go,I wanna be sedatedJust get me to the airport, put me on a planeHurry hurry hurry, before I go insaneI can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my brainOh no oh oh oh oh55Toad the Wet Sprocket’s “Fall Down” delivers a similar message earlier on in the season in the episode (“Other People’s Mothers”) which leads to Rayanne’s almost-death: "When the good times never stay/And the cheap thrills always seem to fade away/When will we fall?/When will we fall down?"The music video, released in 1988, actually stars a young Courtney Love—pre-Grunge coronation—and shows The Ramones quietly eating breakfast while a busy array of sped-up excitement unravels around them. “We would be on the road 360 days a year, and we went over to England, and we were there at Christmas time, and in Christmas time, London shuts down. There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go,” singer Joey Ramone explained in a video interview. “Here we were in London for the first time in our lives, and me and Dee Dee Ramone were sharing a room in the hotel, and we were watching The Guns of Navarone.” It’s the same itch that leads Rayanne to drink, the same itch that leads to her relapse.66If The Ramones’ album title wasn’t clear enough, the use of Afghan Whigs’ “Fountain and Fairfax” in the background of the gig scene is: "Angel, I'm sober/I got off that stuff/Just like you asked me to/Angel, come closer/So the stink of your lies/Sinks into my memory." Right before, Rayanne slips into a jazzy77The genre itself is a nod to her freneticism—as J.J. Johnson put it in an interview, which appears in Downbeat: The Great Jazz Interviews, “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” rendition of the “Sesame Street” theme tune. She claims she still watches the show every day and the 1969 song captures her inability to find her way to Xanadu:Sunny DaySweepin’ the clouds awayOn my way to where the air is sweetCan you tell me how to getHow to get to Sesame StreetMeanwhile, her friend Rickie Vasquez (Wilson Cruz) doesn’t need a utopia, he just needs a home. Juliana Hatfield thus composed “Make It Home” for MSCL’s Christmas episode, which is devoted to Rickie’s tetherless lot as a young gay man in the ’90s:Open a window, let in the snowCold is all I knowGo to the fire, stir it aroundThere’s a warmer place for you to goAccording to Cruz, the soft-footed dirge actually inverts the melody of the Christmas Carol “Silent Night.” And when Rickie runs into the arms of Angela’s mom, Patty (Bess Armstrong), at the end of the episode, it’s to the choral group Inner Voices singing “I Feel Like Going Home.” It’s a relief, then, two episodes later when Rickie carves out a space for himself. At their school’s World Happiness Dance, he and the girl who is crushing on him, Delia Fisher, are shuffling their feet on the sidelines to Haddaway’s “What is Love?” After wordlessly agreeing to hit the floor, the two of them begin to move with the crowd. Then World Happiness is actually achieved (if only briefly) as Rickie suddenly chucks all his inhibitions and explodes into his own personal ode to Paris Is Burning:Oh, I don’t know, what can I do?What else can I say, it’s up to youI know we’re one, just me and youI can’t go onWhat is love?In Dear Angela, Andrew Coomes calls it “possibly Rickie’s most powerful moment in the series.” He and Delia form their own gravitational pull, rearranging their peers into a circle around them, turning all eyes towards them. And at the end of the song, the claps of the crowd embrace Rickie and Delia as they embrace one another. This is love.[[{"fid":"6696456","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"My So-Called Life - Ricky & Delia Dancing","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
The Greatest Thing Metallica Ever Did Was Start to Suck

On the 25th anniversary of the release of The Black Album, an appraisal of how Metallica’s Post-Good era helped secure its legacy as the greatest American band of all time.

The other day, my friend sent me the following text:What’s the greatest American band of all time?My friend and I ask each other these sorts of questions often—not necessarily in search of answers as much as in an effort to try to determine the lens through which one must view the problem in order to (hypothetically) solve it. So, before we get to my actual answer (which is Metallica), let’s take a look at the two ways in which we as a culture measure a band’s greatness.The first is reach—as in, how many people are aware of this band? The second is the sheer quality of that band’s music. These two measuring sticks of genius are, of course, by no means mutually exclusive—consider the Beatles, or Prince, or Stevie Wonder, or the Rolling Stones. As well, as the years pass, a band’s place on this spectrum can undergo massive change: Maybe the critics come around to the populist juggernaut, as they did with Led Zeppelin, or, as with Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me, some record everyone dismisses as amateurish and unlistenable gets discovered by a generation of weirdos who love how amateurish and unlistenable it is.But there is only one American band brave enough to defy these conventions so hard that they shatter them, and that band is Metallica. They treat this art/commerce continuum like James T. Kirk treated the Kobayashi Maru. They laugh in its face; they crap in a paper bag, light it on fire, and leave it flaming on the doorstep as they ride their metaphorical skateboards away, cackling with impish glee.Metallica began its career by making four records—Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets, and ...And Justice for All—that are the foundation upon which thrash metal was chaotically wrought. Much like the Beatles, Metallica showed up to the party, changed music forever, then suddenly left without so much as a goodbye. Not by imploding like the Beatles did, but by making the conscious decision to actively and enthusiastically sell out and make populist, semi-generic hard rock albums that sold like hotcakes.And because of this, their fans really, really fucking hate them.They initially tried to call their first record Metal Up Your Ass—the artwork, naturally, was to feature a disembodied, knife-wielding hand protruding from a toilet—before eventually settling on the more family-friendly title Kill ‘Em All.A little history, just to illustrate the sort of people we’re dealing with here: Metallica began when drummer Lars Ulrich met guitarist/singer/dirtbag James Hetfield in Los Angeles. Ulrich was a Danish rich kid who looked like an elf and was trying to follow in his famous father’s footsteps and make it as a professional tennis player; Hetfield was a fatherless loner who worked in a sticker factory and wrote in his high school yearbook that his life goal was, “Make music. Get rich.”11All of this information in this sentence about Hetfield is available in Mick Wall’s Metallica biography Enter Night, on pages 36 and 42, specifically. Once their lineup cohered with bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist Kirk Hammett, the band set about recording an album full of musically ambitious, virtuosically played songs brimming with speed, raw energy, and exuberance. Most of Hetfield’s lyrics were either about beating the shit out of wizards, how hard it ruled to be in or around Metallica, and in the case of “Phantom Lord” and “Metal Militia,” both of these things simultaneously. They initially tried to call the record Metal Up Your Ass—the artwork, naturally, was to feature a disembodied, knife-wielding hand protruding from a toilet—before eventually settling on the more family-friendly title Kill ‘Em All.In those early days, with every subsequent album, Metallica’s music became more punishing, more violent, more unthinkably complex than the record that came before it. They were insular, escapist fantasies for rageful losers for whom life was nothing but one long high school hallway, populated by an endless succession of jocks shoving you into one locker after another. These were the people that Metallica—Hetfield in particular—had once been, and in 1989, when the band’s music video for “One” hit MTV, Metallica fans must have felt the same mix of optimism all the Bernie Sanders people felt once it seemed like the decrepit Democratic Socialist from Vermont actually had a shot at beating Hillary Clinton.It has long been enshrined in the annals and/or dungeons of metal history that Good Metallica did not give a fuck about anything or anyone, including whichever members of Metallica Ulrich and Hetfield deemed nonessential. They mooched off their original bassist Ron McGovney while actively courting Burton as a replacement behind his back, then passive-aggressively convinced McGovney to quit by electrocuting his instrument with beer. They fired their original lead guitarist, a lunatic boozehound drug dealer named Dave Mustaine, after a rift that began when he punched Hetfield in the face for kicking his dog, and ended when he woke up the day after a show with the rest of the band standing in front of him holding a cross-country bus ticket in his face. They’d later use four of Mustaine’s compositions on Kill ‘Em All, while Mustaine would go on to form Megadeth, partially out of a desire for revenge.22For further reading on the Mustaine/Metallica rivalry, please refer to Mustaine’s breezy, egomaniacal, and aptly titled memoir Mustaine: A Heavy Metal Memoir, in which he writes about these indignities the way a supervillain might write about getting kicked out of the Justice League. After Burton was killed in a tragic 1986 bus accident, Metallica spent the next two years drunkenly torturing their new bassist Jason Newsted by tossing his shit out of hotel windows and telling people he was gay behind his back. Such was their myopic dedication to hazing their new bassist simply for not being their old bassist that they ordered the engineer on 1988’s ...And Justice for All to turn Newsted’s playing all the way down in the mix. This was a bizarre, disrespectful decision that could have potentially undermined their own record, but they did it anyway, because as we have established, part of what made Good Metallica so great is that truly gave no fucks.But in July of 1991, Metallica wriggled out of their old selves like a pack of molting cicadas. They released “Enter Sandman,” an inescapable non-thrash smash and still a favorite among people in charge of picking the warm-up music for high school football games. Their diamond-selling self-titled album (often referred to as The Black Album) soon followed, officially ushering in the second era of Metallica, which can be referred to interchangeably as “Post-Good Metallica” and simply “Bad Metallica.” The Black Album was, well, extremely easy to listen to. It was hook-laden heavy-ish pop rock that seemed designed in a laboratory to appeal to as many people as possible, and couldn’t have been further from Justice’s insular and intricate thrash.In the decade or so after The Black Album, it began to seem like Metallica had moved on from hazing their new bassist—you could, after all, actually hear his instrument this time around—to directly hazing their fans.In metal, massive stylistic shifts are relatively common. The Black Sabbath of the ’70s sounds nothing like the Sabbath of the ’80s; KISS has sounded like at least four (all bad, all fun) bands; Pantera was originally a semi-generic glam metal band before they were PANTERA: HORSEMEN OF THE KICKASSOLYPSE, etc. So contextually, Metallica shooting for a new, stadium-sized sound was not completely unexpected. But in the decade or so after The Black Album, it began to seem like Metallica had moved on from hazing their new bassist—you could, after all, actually hear his instrument this time around—to directly hazing their fans.First, Metallica cut off their long hair, which a sizable portion of the band’s fan-base viewed as high treason. (If you’re having a hard time wrapping your head around why this is a big deal, think Sontag’s “The mask is the face,” except in this case, the hair is the guitar.) The haircuts precipitated Metallica’s 1996 record Load, the cover art for which featured a close-up on a mixture of cow blood and human semen, and which was a sonic mixture of Southern butt-rock and performative malaise that fans found even less appealing. Just for good measure, Metallica followed Load up with a sequel titled Reload just one year later, then in 1999 put lots of the songs their fans already hated onto S&M, a live album they recorded with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 2000, they toured with Kid Rock—who has always been Post-Good—and even had him fill in as their lead singer a few times. 2000 was also the year they sued their fans for illegally downloading their music on Napster.33In actuality, they sued Napster itself, but given all the crap they’d spent the past decade putting them through it felt like the lawsuit was yet another way to directly antagonize their fans. It didn’t help that this was also around the time that Lars Ulrich told Playboy, “If you stop being a Metallica fan because I won’t give you my music for free, then fuck you.” Shortly thereafter, they made a song with Ja Rule and Swizz Beatz which, instead of appealing to both a rap audience and a rock audience, appealed to absolutely no one. They capped off this historic run with St. Anger, their 2003 record that sounded like what would happen if Tony Robbins made a nu-metal album about sobriety which contained zero guitar solos and drums that sounded like trash cans.All of this adds up to one thing, and one thing only: the conclusion, among millions of people, that Metallica went from a band that rocked ass to a band that sucked ass. This is not, strictly speaking, about the actual quality of Post-Good Metallica’s output. Instead, it has more to do with the perception that Metallica started sucking, which at this point is so widely believed that it has basically become true.The funny thing is, though, I get the sense that Metallica fans wouldn’t view the band’s early material with such reverence if the band hadn’t started systematically alienating the people who got them to the top. When it comes to fandom at least, hate is a far stronger emotion than love, and it seems like the further Metallica has drifted from its roots, the more incredulous the world has become that this group of sell-outs and lame-os could have once made such perfect, untouchable music. This relationship works in reverse as well: If the first four Metallica albums hadn’t been so great, it wouldn’t be so fun to hate on every move the band has made since then.For an artist to truly succeed, they must either be uncompromising in their vision or uncompromising in how much they’re willing to compromise that vision.I have no doubt that history will one day be kind to Post-Good Metallica, for I have already begun the process. And besides: a fair portion of Post-Good Metallica’s material is… actually pretty good? St. Anger in particular is a fascinating album, especially when you listen to it directly after watching Some Kind of Monster, the documentary that ostensibly captured the record’s creation but is more accurately a portrait of the band as they slowly realize that even they think they suck, and the very strange therapy sessions that occur therein. And if you chop down Load and Reload into a single, sixty-minute disc, you’re left with one of the last genuinely great hard rock records of the ’90s,44For the record: “Ain’t My Bitch”; “Attitude”; “Hero of the Day”; “Mama Said”; “Until It Sleeps”; “The Unforgiven II”; “Fixxxer”; “Bleeding Me”; “Devil’s Dance”; and “The Outlaw Torn.” Call it Unload, then tack on “Fuel” as a bonus track for good measure. right before all the wimpy indie rockers, dance-punks, and wannabe Lou Reeds would go on to hog all the cred in the realm of guitar music. Speaking of Lou Reed, even Lulu, Metallica’s collaborative trainwreck with the real Lou Reed, is better than people think it is, if only for the sheer novelty of listening to Lou Reed recite sexually explicit slam poetry over thrash riffs (not to mention the genuinely great closer “Junior Dad” and the genuinely good “Cheat on Me”).We’ve already seen Good Metallica expand its audience beyond its original cult of longhairs and outcasts: each of those early records has since gone Platinum and become so culturally ubiquitous that you can buy a Ride the Lightning hoodie at Urban Outfitters. And as more and more lame-asses and false metal fans (including, I guess, me) start getting into Good Metallica, perhaps it is only inevitable that the devout will react by embracing Bad Metallica, and all the things so eminently hateable about that version of the band—the haircuts, the drum sounds, the Ja Rule—will cease to be fuel for the anti-Metallica fire, and instead tests of true loyalty to the cause.For an artist to truly succeed, they must either be uncompromising in their vision or uncompromising in how much they’re willing to compromise that vision. But as time passes and history separates us from context, it becomes the listener’s responsibility to decide what those compromises actually were, and what turned out to be the plan all along.[[{"fid":"6696426","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original"},"type":"media","attributes":{"alt":"Metallica - For Whom The Bell Tolls with lyrics","class":"media-element file-media-original"}}]]
Banner for Straight Expectations part 1 for Hazlitt
Straight Expectations Pt. 1

We’ve escaped and we’re half-starved! Get us something!