Shelter in Playlist: “Dang!”

This summer and fall, I’m going to make playlists and write about them. This is the fourth entry in a series called “Chaos.” If you’d like to read from the beginning of the playlist, start here. Hope you enjoy. Note: If you are easily offended by sexually explicit lyrics, use discretion when listening to “Dang!.” Said explicit lyrics will not be discussed in this entry.

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“Dang! (Feat. Anderson .Paak)” by Mac Miller

The back beat of “Dang!” is, as the kids say, cold. Produced by Vancouver-based Pomo, the bouncing drums, gentle synth, and swinging horns are life-giving, head-nodding, shoulder-swaying. This a song that bumps without jostling. I dare you to listen and not move your body. According to the song’s collaborators, the late Mac Miller and Californian soul genius Anderson .Paak, the hook came first: “I can’t keep on losing you,” .Paak sang for Miller. “Gone too soon. Wait! We was just hangin’…” Though .Paak composed his vocals about grieving the loss of a friend (supposedly the late David Bowie), Miller saw the ups and downs of a romantic relationship, and asked permission of .Paak to write his verses accordingly. It makes sense, when you think about it. Both love and death are about loss, desire, addressing unfinished business. Thus “Dang!” was born. Little did .Paak know that in two years, lyrics like “gone too soon” would take on new significance. Malcolm James McCormick, aka Mac Miller, died of an opiate overdose on September 7, 2018. 

At first listen, this song might sound like a continuation of our narrator’s voice from “Marie,” a man who uses empty affection as a tool to mitigate and mask his failures as a partner. Mac Miller’s verses on “Dang!” speak for the contemporary or more “evolved” version of this lover, the one who, in the face of a problem, goes beyond that oft-praised first step. Like “Marie,” the lover prostrates himself. “How many mistakes do it take ’til you leave?” he asks. “When I’m left with my hand and my face all red… I know I ain’t a saint, if it ain’t too late, well. ” Like the drunken plea of “Marie,” Miller also nods to intoxication as an accelerant to expressing his feelings: “Heartache drunk and hang up. What a mess I made us. Sense, I make none.” 

However, Miller’s speaker goes beyond confession, laying out the likelihood of his partner’s disdain. “Yeah, it’s complicated, got you frustrated. Get home late and you don’t trust me, baby.” Unlike merely listing his failures, he also attempts to step into her shoes, wondering about her reactions to him, her loss of trust, the limits of her tolerance. There’s also the use of “we,” a concept that never comes up in the one-way outpouring of “love” and compliments in “Marie.” Lines like, “You say you don’t care, is what you saying. We both know that’s some bullsh**. Okay, we be fighting, we be reuniting…” paint their partnership as an equal exchange of feeling, of knowledge, of shared conclusions. In the attempt to relay his partner’s feelings (“You say you don’t care”), Miller’s narrator lands much closer to a depiction of love than the resigned chosen ignorance in that of “Marie” (“I don’t listen to a word you say”). Unlike the narrator of Marie, who only mentions the past, Miller’s speaker sees communication and his stability as key to their future: “Tryna get through to you,” he tells her. “You safe with me, girl.”

When I refer to songs as ecosystems, I mean to measure how growth and death are represented, how the featured players interact with each other, in competition or in symbiosis. Life moves in cycles. History, too. “Dang!” marks the beginning of hope in this playlist. You wouldn’t think it in a song about holding on to life and love so desperately, but sometimes there is beauty in contradiction. Sometimes complexity does not equal evil; sometimes simplicity does not equal good. It is possible to love someone and let them down. It is possible to be in love and just as deeply disappointed. I was talking to a friend about the point I made in the previous post, how “Marie” uses the word “love” but it’s not really a love song. By that measure, my friend replied, no love songs are really love songs. He has a point. To what bar am I holding these songs, I have to wonder. When I think about these little ecosystems of love and care, to what utopia am I comparing them? To what utopia am I comparing America? Then I have to think: What is the use of criticizing without offering an alternative? Why am I using my precious life to stare at a computer and craft overly-complicated diatribes, both explicitly and implicitly about my country? “If this is love,” Miller’s speaker asks his partner, “why the f**k you complain?” What right do I, someone who has shelter and a job, have to complain? If I hate America so much, why the f**k don’t I leave? (Other than the COVID-related travel restrictions.)

I am starting to find the answers to some of those questions. I don’t hate America. I think I complain about it because I love it. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t want to make it better. If I didn’t believe in the American experiment, I wouldn’t care whether or not the people in charge are keeping the promises of its founders. I wouldn’t care about expanding the definition of those promises to fit all Americans, not just land-owning white males. If I didn’t love my country, I wouldn’t think about it so constantly, how its power structures are present in the work of its storytellers, how our country’s values get passed and absorbed through its singers and entertainers and bards. How, through TV shows and news shows and articles and songs, the principles that shape our sense of justice embed themselves in our perceptions, playing out everywhere from the highest courts to the dimmest living rooms. Perhaps I scribble about lyrics here because I’m trying to protect myself from America at its chaotic worst, a place where lies and pledges and insults are cast without consequence, left to rot until they suffocate us. What I am doing here, I think, is refusing to live in chaos. I refuse to live a world where words don’t matter.  

Things I’ll Miss: An Updating List

Among the list of Questionable Habits I have been chipping away at for the past few years is the tendency to stage a dramatic breakup with the places I call home. A few months or weeks before I’m set for departure, I will begin cataloging perceived flaws of my living situation, incompatibilities with the city or neighborhood, sites of friction between who I want to be and what the surrounding community has to offer me. Sometimes, the stories told to motivate these transitions are true: “I just want to live somewhere habitable,” I said as I left the bedbug-ridden, smoke-choked apartment complex in Stevens Square. Seems fair. Or later, after I was sexually harassed and groped next to my bus stop on North Broadway, I was ready to move somewhere where that didn’t happen so much. Also fair.

But there were other times when I was in pain, or unsettled, or just plain bored, and I splashed my discomfort onto my surroundings for no good reason. No good reason except I was wounded, and scared, and broke. Maybe moving felt like a way to be mobile when I felt trapped by my financial circumstances. Without realizing it, I was straight up chewing and swallowing the cliche of “you can never escape yourself,” dipped, of course, in the irony that moving is really expensive. At 21, I left a fully furnished $275/month bedroom in a house full of kind, cornfed college boys for roach-hotel floors and scratchy couches halfway across the country in New York. Two years after that, I left a wood-floored apartment on a tree-lined street, complete with a balcony and dishwasher, because Saint Paul had “too many families.” When I was 26, I left a whimsical, high-ceiling-ed room in a refurbished mansion after a year of living there because I was “tired of the Uptown hipsters.” I moved every single year of my twenties, except for twenty-nine. According to one story I told about that first cheap apartment in Lawrence, things were “too slow.” I wanted to be a writer, and in order to do that, I couldn’t sit around, killing mosquitoes on the porches of my childhood friends, working the counter at a burrito place. Now, that’s all I want to do. I want to be a permanent fixture. I want to know a place so well, I notice the slightest change in my surroundings. New checker. New addition to a neighbor’s garden. New spiders. Sometimes I worry that this desire to be permanent is only one of many novel desires (I’ve never wanted permanence before), and my desire for permanence won’t be permanent, after all. We’ll just have to see.

Leaving Minnesota in 2017, I was more careful to give thanks as I said goodbye. I knew I was doing the right thing, but for the first time I wasn’t belly flopping into the next phase. My life in the Twin Cities had been complicated and rich and heartbreaking, and the state spoiled me rotten with amenities. I took a long time to say goodbye to the cool mossy lakes and big fat bike lanes and glittering frost. The corny yellow trains and long, wild nights and backyard fires. It was not a perfect place, but it was a good place for me for a while.

Oxford. F**king Oxford. I hated it within a month of living here. If you know me, you’ve heard the list of things I hate. Everyone drives. People talk at grown women like they’re toddlers in a beauty pageant. You can’t walk anywhere without the sidewalk ending or a truck with NRA stickers revving at you threateningly. Starts and ends with the residents aged 18-24 who are going the same weird, selfish phases that I went through, but are doing it with double-parked Range Rovers, unironic Reagan Bush t-shirts, racist Snapchat filters for their Greek events, and an open disdain for the very values that allow them to cheat their way through a Marketing degree. “Socialism Sucks” is a popular sticker I see on laptops here. At the willing blindness of parading that mindset in an institution literally funded on the collective backs of taxpayers, I bite my tongue. It’s not like these people didn’t exist in New York or Minnesota. There’s just a higher percentage of them here, and the city’s infrastructure, its policies, the very social fabric of this community is built around their whims and the whims of their parents. Their parents are oil barons and old money factory owners with slave-owning ancestors, who fly to Atlanta for plastic surgery, who keep condos in Oxford stocked with Tito’s for football weekends where they drink with their spray-tanned children until they’re red in the face, ready to descend on public spaces, shouting slurs at anyone who doesn’t conform to their idea of personhood (read: white, wearing gendered clothing), ready to relive the antebellum glory they never knew. The next day, they begin again at 8:00 am, eating shrimp and drinking overpriced cocktails on balconies until the sun sets, at which point they go into the local bookstore, asking for Tami Lahren’s autobiography (is that how to spell it? I’m not going to Google her name). None of this is exaggeration; all of this I’ve witnessed over the past three years. I hate it here. Not everyone is like this, but the majority are, and too many forgive them. I never will, even though I don’t know the worst of it. I hate it here. I will say it until I’ve pulled my U-Haul across the county line, and then I will never think of it again. (I wish.) I hate it here.

***

I started writing this post before the streets and the grocery stores emptied. Oxford without its people is usually the best Oxford. Now, the quiet is a little stranger. Now, you can walk everywhere. My plan for this post was to focus on the things I would miss about this place, to give thanks for what the good parts have given me. Those parts have abruptly changed, and will continue to change, in the aftermath of coronavirus precautions.

The Oxford Canteen would have top of my list of places I would miss, the restaurant where I’ve staffed the counter for three years. But we had to close. Listing its wonderful qualities seems too much like a eulogy right now. I’ll come back to it.

The second would be the Whirlpool Trails, where I run, but I stopped running outside. Being out is still allowed here, but I began to want every moment I spent out of my apartment to be calming and slow and spontaneous. I can take the world for what it is a little easier when I’m not panting to house music. So I do workout videos inside; my favorites feature some very fit New Zealanders who come with my membership to the YMCA. You haven’t lived until someone yells keek, keek, uppah-cut at you while they float through a Peter Jackson-esque green screen landscapes.

Sometimes the main walking paths are too straight for my anxiety, too narrow, too many people there. I like to dip and scurry through lonely routes in my neighborhood, between graves in Faulkner’s cemetery, through the overgrown lot where they said they were going to build a church but never did, up the back stairs, under the canopy, behind the Lamar House.

The birds are so loud lately. The air is so wet and fresh. The lilacs are blooming. I saw a fox. Twice! Here are some photos from my walks:

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Sometimes I don’t hate it here.

 

 

The Rules

I’m typing this with one hand because I jammed my left pinkie during an intramural basketball game. We got beat so badly the refs invoked the “mercy” rule. There were only five of us from the English department, and only one of us under 30. Our team name is ‘As I Lay Dunking.’

Last week was our first game and I yelled at the refs a lot. Later I felt deeply ashamed. These refs were just kids. They were training to be refs. They were terrible, but they were supposed to be learning. Instead of laughing off their calls and enjoying my remaining mobility, as I should have done, I stamped my foot with impatience and made exaggerated official gestures of the calls they missed: over the back! block! double dribble! I asked what? what? are you kidding? a lot. When someone on the other team stepped a few times before taking a shot and no travel was called, I re-enacted the young man’s steps, narrating my disbelief. The refs-in-training ignored me, as they should. After the buzzer sounded, I gathered my shoes in my arms, hurt and biting, yelling across the floor to where they had gathered in their striped shirts. Go to bed! I said.

This week it was my goal to not yell at teenagers so much. I did okay. Most of the kids were just having a nice time. They leaped around us like antelopes, delighting in their dominance. But one kid in particular started running up to me during every shot I took, screaming nonsense sounds. There was no reason to do this; he and his team were beating us, and I was missing my shots, anyway. Though he wasn’t assigned to me, he continued to jet my direction and scream in my ear. I ignored the kid’s behavior once. I ignored it twice. The third time, I had to walk away quickly. I could feel my heart sending drumbeats to all the emergency outposts. My temples, my lymph nodes, my stomach.

No one was following the rules, and no one was enforcing them. No one had enforced them last week, and no one would enforce them next week. Competent refs would have spoken to this kid, and if he’d continued, given him technical. But these were not competent refs. They were darlings who might have never seen a basketball game in their lives. Soon, I knew, I would lose control completely. I imagined yelling at him that if he didn’t stop, I would call his dad and tell him he was failing calculus. I could see the boy try to and fail to laugh, and his teammates laughing. The pleasure I would get in his humiliation both warmed me to my core, and disturbed me. I called a timeout on myself. I breathed.

Intramural games don’t matter, but rules do. Rigorous, attentive care by officials keep boundaries in place so we can enjoy the game within these boundaries. Last week I was so upset at the chaotic game, I cried. It wasn’t just the game, I told my friend Joshua, who was kindly listening on a bench as we were passed by taut people in expensive workout gear. This kind of protection, the protection the rules provide, seems to be eroding everywhere around me. There is a lack of agreement on a shared reality. The illusion of fairness is gone. A necessary shedding of false narratives in some cases, and in others, a crumbling definition of justice, reciprocity, responsibility. My classroom, my department, the University, the country. No one seems to be in charge. I used be able to play in blind faith, and I was privileged to play. I don’t get to anymore. Grown-ups have to show up, to be careful and rigorous, to keep order. Always for the sake of kids (even rude-ass kids like the screamer). Always for our fellow adults, who are children, too, at times. And I’m not blameless in the realm of irresponsibility. I almost lost control, and it wasn’t the first time. I have work to do about where I put my anger, how far I let myself go. I need to figure how not to weave anger so deeply into the pleasure of words. Anger is not a place to play, either.

After the timeout, the yelling-in-my-face boy came over and offered us oranges from a bag. We all looked at him, some of us still panting with effort. This juvenile, affectionate gesture could have been a peace offering, or it could have been mocking, I didn’t know. He was nervous. He tried not to look at me, but I found his eyes. I refused his offer, and as he walked away I pledged to never to come near him again. He didn’t quit screaming, but I kept my word. I ran away from him for both of us. I made a single basket. Small victories.

 

Art and the Market

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to an old friend.  

I had an incredible workshop leader a couple years back that was a bit precious about his approach to writing. He was all about guarding his time with his “craft” at all costs, protecting it from the demands of the market, insisting that writers should find other ways to feed themselves to make sure their art remains art. At first I was like sure, being a purist about one’s time is seductive, but it is also privileged and assumes that one gets no satisfaction from art one gets “commissioned” to do. Why does stuff that is accessible to consumers have to be in a different category than stuff one does for oneself or fun or “art”? Why not both? 

After ten years of writing commissioned Young Adult novels, and getting back on the commercial train of freelance these past two years, I can say there does appear to be a difference between what people pay you to do and what one does for the hell of it on your own time. Artists have been saying this for years and I refused to listen. I thought my creativity was under my control; or rather, I thought that when I asked it to perform for me, it would, no matter what the circumstances. I’ve procrastinated, sure, and I’ve had blocks, but I’m a pro. I take the proverbial alka seltzer and get back on the ol’ pony, which in this analogy, is an ergonomic chair. Writing rule number one, get your ass in the seat. I can do that. I thought I’d never have any problems producing. Even if it’s shit, at least something’s moving. 

Money ruins everything. At least it has for me. Even though my commercial work played with fun concepts (themes that I, too, might explore on my own time) there seems to be, more and more, a certain point where I realize the core of what I’m doing is empty. Not of content, and not even of value to the world, but of [ something ]. I really hate the word “passion” being thrown about carelessly, like a free t-shirt one gets at a conference, so I won’t use it. Vivre, maybe, because I’m pretentious. Anyway, it’s always at the end of the project, where I need a reserve shot of energy in order to see the project to completion, and what I need isn’t there. This cycle of hate keeps happening. I come to hate the one thing I love above all else, and destroy my body in the process. My friends have seen it, my family has seen it. Perhaps they’re as sick of it as I am. It goes like this:

Phase one: I get the assignment and I tell everyone about it, ecstatic that I’m getting paid to put words together. I explain the project is kind of [insert not-explicitly-negative-but-coded-negative adjective here, i.e. corny, corporate], but I’m excited to collaborate with [editor], and I think (key word: think, it’s probably not that cool) we have an [innovative, attentive, exciting, funny] approach to the usual way of doing [genre / commercial category]. 

Phase two: I run into roadblocks. I had hoped to incorporate [x], but editor tells me that their boss (it’s rarely the editor themselves, and I believe this is true) doesn’t feel my [x] fits with [the y genre / commercial category]. I’m disappointed, but editor and I find a compromise between [x] and [y]. I’m happy; I’m giving them what they want, and I’m still trying something new, something I care about executing.

Phase three: The first draft is complete, but something has gone wrong. I’m new to the [y] genre, so it’s understandable. Or, editor didn’t communicate their desires about [y] well enough. Or, editor thought our [xy] compromise was going to work, but their boss is still not happy. They’re happy with all the [y] parts, though. I’m a very proficient [y] writer, they tell me. Please, keep up the [y]. I’m disappointed, but I want to be seen as a professional. I start adjusting my habits: I have realized I’m not going to be able to have the kind of fun I want, so I need to work harder in order to get it over with. 

Phase four: Working hard has failed. Maybe it starts with sleep: I lose it over stress, which makes me eat worse, which makes me my mood drop. With my mood dropping, I drink more coffee, which elevates my heart rate, but rarely can bear the full weight of my mood. I’m anxious because of the coffee, so I instinctively and compulsively avoid the work that makes me anxious, but I know I have to complete it, so I try to push myself harder into doing what I don’t want to do, which makes me even more anxious. I put a lot of energy into appearing unruffled. The more affected I am, the thicker my professional facade.

Phase five: Reckoning. I admit to my peers, and eventually my editor, that this is not turning out how I’d like. That’s how I phrase it: how I’d like. This, too, is a lie. I’m in a daily battle with the fact that what I like doesn’t actually matter. What matters is completion of [y] according to the rules of [y genre]. I start getting more “just checking in” emails from my editor. We set “drop dead” dates. I miss them. We have more “honest” conversations; we re-strategize; we agree that I need more guidance; we agree I need less guidance; we agree that as long as I can get a working second draft, the third will be easier. The final “drop dead” date approaches, and it seems impossible I will ever get it done. I give myself permission to ignore the rest of my life, my inbox, my phone, my bladder. I go into a fugue state; I dissociate from myself as a human with particular tastes and style. I purposefully become too tired and caffeinated to care what I’m writing (in my 20s, I did this with alcohol, as well) and allow my fingers on the keyboard to take over. Somehow, the dawn of the deadline, a second draft emerges. Somehow, it resembles what they want. As I return to my body, I feel floaty, confused, and a strange sort of pride. I send my editor a manic email as the sun rises: “[Y] DRAFT ATTACHED! *Shania Twain voice* LOOKS LIKE WE MADE IT hahaha, right??? Anyway, THANK YOU SOOOO MUCH!”

Phase six: I feel done, euphoric. I feel like the worst is over. I can do this. I start talking to friends about my journey, about how I didn’t think I liked writing [y], but it’s not so bad! I think I’m getting the hang of it.* A week passes, and I get an email from my editor which starts with something like: “First of all, there’s a lot of great stuff here.” I am overcome with nausea. Any mention of “great stuff” means that moments of proficiency are scattered throughout a large scale failure. I scroll through the emailed comments, which I often think are going to end, but they never do. I try to take it like a pro. I thank the editor. I make a plan to revise. I sit down, and I become angry. I feel my skills are being doubted, my understanding of the assignment turned upside down, the estimate of my abilities shrinking with every highlighted section. I know in my heart that the edits will make the piece better, but a nagging voice in the back of my head asks, Why do I care whether or not this piece is good? I never wanted to write [y]. They asked me to do this, knowing I wanted [x] or [xy]. If they wanted [y] so much, they should have asked someone else. Each small edit sends a spidery thread up to these larger questions, which I have to cut or ignore in order to get through the edits, or else I’m paralyzed by a web of self-doubt and toxic ego. This means double the work: not only am I doing the physical work of revising, I’m doing the emotional work of talking myself down from existential disruption. Earlier in my career, this is when I would start drinking more. I’ll be honest: the drinking helped. But it quieted all inner voices; not just the rude, unprofessional ones. It muted gentleness, too.

*For one miraculous project a few years ago, the beginnings of phase six are where I stopped. The email about the second draft was an email about final edits. They loved my version of [y], and I loved it, too. Oddly, it was also at the lowest point of one of the most depressive states of my life. Fodder for a future therapist.

Phase seven: I cut the whining threads, day by day, draft after draft, and drink up tiny pools of relief in sending small chunks to editors, like those little cups of water they hand out during endurance races. In my 20s, I muted my angst with booze and cigarettes. Last year, with yoga, meditation, and (slightly more) honest conversations with (really wonderful) editors. Either way, I finish. I take off the too-small shoes, and the relief of bare feet erases all memory of the pain. I can see parts I like when I look at the document. I’m able to smile again when I talk about the project. Soon, someone reaches out about [z]. I’ve never worked in [z]. I could do cool things with [z]. They show me what it pays, and even after all a decade of doing this, I’m still dazzled, still feel undeserving. I think, I’ve learned my lesson. I have boundaries, now. I can hold fast to my heart while working my ass off. I shake their hand, and we’re back to phase one.

Last month, I didn’t get through phase six.

The rotten feeling I get as I claw toward the finish line keeps getting worse. In my most recent project, I found myself openly weeping more often than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t sit down at my computer without holding back tears. I couldn’t finish; I tried to overcome this lack of ending in every conceivable way. I wrote about my feelings, I tried to eat and sleep better, I tried to give myself small goals. But I was still miserable, and still woefully behind. Not only that, there was a whole team of people waiting on me for this writing; I had to do my job so they could do theirs. There’s an episode of Radiolab where they do a small segment on vocalizations of affection and aggression, and how they’re related. In the segment, they touched on tears, and why we release them, and what different tears mean. Generally, though, good or bad, tears mean the same thing: slow down or stop. Tears were coming everyday to talk to me, and I had no choice but to listen.

So, I quit the most lucrative writing gig I’ve ever had. The reason I gave to myself is that I am currently supposed to be finishing my thesis, not writing the [z genre]. (It is kind of wild, though, and truly was fun, at times, to learn a new way to build a narrative.) I agonized over quitting this for weeks, because I don’t like to be a quitter. But the core reason for taking the job haunted me: I didn’t take the job to “see a personal creative project through”; I took it because I was curious, and I needed money. My curiosity (I guess) was sated, I got some money, and I found I had no will to keep going. Writing in this context becomes a skill that sustains me financially, but not emotionally.

God, I wish I was different. I wish I could have just seen it through without losing my shit. I still don’t quite understand why I can’t have both, or why I can’t do one, then the other, then back to one. I wish it were that simple, that I could just do commercial work for good people, get paid, and be proud of a job well done. Then, go home to my beautiful wife, a literary manuscript. But I think my “soul” (whatever that is) is telling me that my writing is for something else. Probably not for something huge, but for some other personal purpose. Though I don’t quite understand all of it yet, I do see now why my workshop leader encouraged the separation of money and art. It’s hard to keep things light and fun and messy when it feels like your livelihood is on the line. It’s hard to play when you’re over-caffeinated, over-worked, or worried about being paid, and play is essential for good writing. Or at least it is for me. 

This slow realization is why I reconnected to my old friend, who I was roommates with for a brief time New York (the friend whose email exchange inspired this post). We both worked a few jobs to pay the rent, but we spent our spare time making stupid videos. We hoped we’d get famous, but really we were just trying to make each other laugh. I was thinking, damn, what a joy it was to make art for no reason with this person. Not no reason, though. For each other. While we guard our time from the market, it’s also true that trusted eyes nourish art, like sunlight. Even if we don’t share everything, I still believe my friends make things for me, and I know I make things for them, and that’s enough to keep us going. We write because we love to write, and we love to write because we write to each other, as I’m writing to you, and that’s enough.