critical role and the tender gift of story

You want to know people care about the stories they tell you.

Even I do. I who take such pleasure in divorcing a text from its context; who resented so much, in school, having to wade through the tales of an author’s real life as backstory to what we read. I don’t want this, I would argue. I don’t care who they were. Like with musicians and live recordings, miring a work of art within its own time and culture trapped it, I thought, from flapping free and extending its reach beyond the narrow confines of the world in which it was produced. “I wasn’t in that world, I’m in this one, and this text is speaking to me NOW!”

Critical Role turns that decades-long prejudice of mine on its head, though. And it’s not as though I haven’t engaged with fiction whose creators are still alive! I’ve stood in line with shining eyes waiting for David Mitchell to sign a book, swallowing the lump in my throat as he bought, with doodles, time for my husband to speak to him through his stutter. I’ve blushed five shades of crimson when Guy Gavriel Kay stumbled onto my post about A Song for Arbonne, and read it. I’m aware that there are living breathing people in the world producing work I admire, and that they want me, us, people everywhere to do so.

But that this started out as a work of love rather than as a career, or a path to one…I don’t know, I guess that’s unfair. I’m not knocking people who pursue artistic projects in the hope of bettering themselves in other fields. But the fact that this artistic came about, like DM Matt Mercer says, as a gift to his players…like “all roleplaying games are”…and then for all of them to be willing to expand the number of people allowed into that world, by such great numbers…it’s generous. It feels generous, and in a way that in one’s adult life one doesn’t often have the luck of encountering.

So many of our interactions, after all, are a bridging of gaps, a drawing closer of hearts and of minds, and then a polite cough and a closed door. There are spaces we reserve only for a handful of people — thoughts or emotions, reactions or experiences we share only with those we love. Or only with a handful of select friends. And whereas childhood is about, or can be about, finding as many people as possible to explore those avenues with, adulthood is realizing how many of those avenues are closed to you. And about learning to take that with good grace.

But here, we are allowed in. Not just as paying spectators, even, but as participants of a kind whose welfare…matters, I guess? I dare you to come to any other conclusion after watching DnD Beyond’s interview with Mercer about the end of the campaign. He attaches a hope to this project, above and beyond any success it may create for himself and the cast. All of the cast’s interviews speak to this — and they are all fantastic — but I point to his because he addresses it the longest. (And to be honest, because his crying is infectious.) It isn’t just a hope that the story pleases people. It’s a hope that…people become better as a result? That people are better to each other and themselves as a result? But such sentiments come from somewhere utterly un-self-righteous. Wishing to better people is an easy slogan to slap on your shitty website or church pamphlet. It’s harder to mean it, on- and off-camera. And yeah, I know, most of the 35k+ people watching (live) aren’t in a position to speak to the truth of that, but it kinda feels like he means it? Like they all do. He says he’s protective of this world, very much so, and for once, someone is saying it not out of a desire for IP infringement protection; the material concerns of lawyers and HR teams. He and they appear to mean it out of love. And out of the wish that good might come of it, bolstered by the knowledge that some good already has.

And that’s so goddamn touching. To be cared for, however tangentially, and to be believed in as a possible agent of good in the world. The number of people willing to believe in you like that drops off drastically as you grow older. It’s absurdly moving to be told otherwise, long past the age when you were supposed to stop wanting it.

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the things that we are made of : the album you didn’t know you needed

chapin.jpg

And I can’t stop trying to hold in my hands
that moment I could feel my heart expand
with more love than I thought could exist in the world
the hollows were gone, the emptiness filled
a life transformed down to the bone
this map of my heart is all that I own

I don’t like many female singers.

This isn’t fair, I know. But I want more from them. I want them to speak for me, in a way I never expect male singers to do (when they do, it’s a pleasant surprise). The dissonances between female singers and me hit me harder, and turn me off. When they bring sass I cannot; when they excuse things they should not (see: Amanda Palmer), when they don’t let their lyrics sink any deeper than the sheets, I turn them off.

Not so Mary Chapin Carpenter, or her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which I hadn’t heard till now.

She uses words I use. Careen, cadence, stars. She is more honest than is necessarily safe. She allows for the contemplation of sorrow without either seemingly clinically distant or letting it overwhelm her. Without it defining her. While still allowing for the possibility of warmth.

She sounds exactly like she did in 1992, when my dad was at sea and my mom played her new album on audio cassette, in the kitchen in our rental under a stained-glass lamp that looked like the ones in restaurants. (I am, you see, biased.) At first we were baking figures we molded out of Fimo, but they all burnt, and eventually we laid the clay aside in favor of dinner. Mom stirred the soup as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” came on, and she sang along. I interrupted her, asking if her liking the song meant she’d leave our dad. Mom was, after all, home with children, and cooking for them, as was the character in the song.

She pressed pause to explain no. She played the song again and said listen, listen to how young she did this, how little else she has in her life before she started a family. I had a life first, she said.

I don’t know what music reviewers say about Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t want to know. Like so many reviewers, they seem given to jadedness, to being snarky for snark’s sake. And this album is anything but that. It’s always a relief to stumble onto someone too worn out by fashionable disdain to employ it, whether by experience or emotional soreness, and she comes to her earnestness through both. Even the rare twangier chordings — from which I flinch more out of reflex; an expectation of cultural remorse that I suppose is a product of the messages country music typically sends than because twangy chords are inherently awful to the ears — cannot detract from her tenderness and what, I suppose, feels like honesty, though I am of course in no position to know one way or the other.

“The Middle Ages,” in particular, is striking:

We used to dread lives rendered ordinary
we always said we’d own a grander story
but the only kind worth telling somehow
is the one about a jolt that makes you listen
that jagged lightning bolt of recognition
that love and kindness are all that matter now

Meanwhile, “Note On a Windshield” manages to be a startlingly gripping narrative song. I can count on one hand the number of narrative songs whose narrative power lives up to their melodic power, let alone songs that are gripping. When I find myself thinking “please no, please please please…” waiting on the next line of a song lyric, of all things, I mean, man. It’s beautiful.

I wish I could write about her the way men have written about Leo Kottke or Bill Fox. I would feel less disloyal, less deserving of critique for my musical preferences. But a little grain of resentment rubs me when I read such paeans: there is a whole constellation of people waiting to speak for you, when you’re a man listening to folk music. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to identify with you on how difficult it is thinking about The One Who Got Away, or how hard it is Working For The Man, or Finding A Girl Who Gets You. Or how what you believed in childhood isn’t what you believe anymore. Or how the gradual decline of your parents makes you empty inside.

I move through the world like an arrow that flies
Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies
And way deep down the echoes remain
Memories sounding like rattling chains

But lately I think I am coming around
I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground
And last night I stopped dead in these tracks
Recalling your hand on the small of my back

When I was younger how I took my time
Folly and wisdom form points on a line
From one to another with space in between
For the lessons you learn & the dreams that you dream

But tell me what happens when dreams don’t come true
How you overcome some things until they overtake you
Why you never got chosen, why you never felt claimed
By some passion or person that is never explained

I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back

But we are asked either to be sassy or to be in love. That’s about it. And that’s a really shallow list of ways to approach the world. So to hear someone like Carpenter — whose voice I freely admit to being more willing to believe in, familiar as it is — articulate a broader spectrum of existence is like a hug you thought you’d never get. Maybe it’s just because my mom is gone. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe it’s dangerous projection — but I’d never go up to her after a concert or write her a letter* or bother her with the tawdry tale of how her music makes me feel. As with Critical Role, or any number of books or video games, I look at how fans interact with with creators — and how creators react to that interaction — and wince at joining their ranks. It seems better to be self-contained, reserved and silent in your fandom, than to be open and risk disgusting someone with the fervency of your gratitude.

And here, I guess, the applicable word is more gratitude than fandom, really. But it is still something that goes best unexpressed. For what I am grateful for is for her blurring of lines she has no reason to know have been drawn. Between laughter and silence, between a desk lit by fluorescent lights and a stained-glass lamp over a stove. Between having a mom and not having one. If my love for this album stems from the shock and pleasure of hearing thoughts I’ve felt expressed by someone else, it is…offensive, maybe, to assume that such thoughts were believed to have been sent into a void. You write, after all, intending to connect to people. What for a listener (or reader, or player) is a shock and a pleasure was surely never meant to be. They intended someone to connect with them. The fact that it was you is immaterial.

And I remember feeling I’m alive and in no need of saviors
If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers
Where is your heart if not inside you

where is home or are you lost
where is love if not beside you

I had no answers but they let me cross

*Not technically true; writing letters is the easiest — but the world is small, and the threat of meeting a stranger after you’ve bared your heart to them is somewhat unnerving.

critical role : friendship IS magic

What amazes me about Critical Role…the amazement I have yet to find anywhere else…is the choices made in real time in front of you, made without consultation or focus groups, and which choices frequently align with the most emotionally impactful way a scene could play out. I know, I know, this is what, in ideal situations, stories do for us. What live storytelling, which to a certain extent is what tabletop roleplaying is, does for us.

But the ideal and the reality so rarely conincide, and for a whole host of reasons that are tangential to my point. I have hesitated to write about the show — even when I knew it would be a blandly informative info byte, like the fact that the day after the first episode I watched I returned my cable box to my cable provider because I knew I didn’t need TV anymore, if I was now organizing my week around a livestream of a D&D campaign — because it seems, however incorrectly so, not my place. Like it would be rude, intrusive even. Because these people are more…real? I suppose it’s because we watch the team for so long, live (or at least filmed live), and that results in a level of candor, aural and visual, that one rarely receives, even from personalities one follows on social media. Maybe it’s that as I grow older and see the gap close between the person I wanted to be and the person I become, I’m ham-handedly protective of people who seem to be in that same boat with me. I see the chat fly by during streams and think “please no one read it, please don’t let it get anyone down.” It’s the internet and I assume there is nastiness and my fear is that, as it has for so many others, its fever pitch will become too shrill, and fame will become a spotlight to flee. “Please don’t go,” is my refrain, and I suppose I thought that I was helping, by not writing or talking about this group of people whom I very much wish remain doing this for as long as I can.

Hell, maybe it’s that I was accidentally punched in the nose by Darin De Paul and, as I laughingly texted my husband immediately afterward, I shall never wash my nose again.

But decisions that would, in other contexts, be filtered through layer after layer of PR, HR, focus groups, supervisors and supervisors of supervisors, and which likely would get called out and watered down as too mawkish, too sentimental, too this that or the other…they just fucking happen, here, and there is no veto, the emotional dial gets turned up to nine and no big executive (or internet mob-driven) hand is gonna turn it back down on you.

CRITICAL ROLE EPISODE 114 SPOILERS

When Vax unfurls his wings to embrace Keyleth, that is one of those moments. That’s what I was thinking about when I started this post. And also at the 5:03:10 mark, when he…uses a bonus action to look over his shoulder…and he describes what he sees. That’s where I diverge from everyone else I watch things with (barring my husband). That’s where, among peers, as I’m about to cry, someone will quip some inane piece of trivia or roll their eyes about “people pressing buttons” or give me some line about emotional manipulation. That, that level of emotion and my willful embrace of it, not to put too fine a point on it, is why making friends is hard. I want to feel things. And a lot of people my age are deciding they don’t.

So, okay, there’s that.

But in searching for those time stamps I stumbled onto image captures of a moment I missed. Not because I wasn’t watching but because I wasn’t seeing. I knit in front of Critical Role, and I was doing so last night. Not thoughtlessly — I remember where I knit things and what I was doing, and it brings me comfort later, to wrap myself in a shawl and think that when I put those stitches next to each other I was sitting next to someone who, for example, is now dead, and whom I loved. I did this deliberately, you understand — I thought, in the future, I could remember the warmth of these moments spent watching this show, while wrapped in the shawl against the cold.

But because I was knitting, I missed a moment that went mostly unnoticed by the microphones, and thus by me.

When Scanlan burns his ninth level spell to counterspell Vecna — the god-in-the-making, for those of you who don’t watch the show, who has killed multiple family members of the party, in pretty terrible ways — it is an instant and un-nullifyable success. But by choosing to go to that max level, he has lost his chance to use Wish at that tremendous level — and this is why he was hanging onto that spell slot. Because he hoped to use Wish to save Vax, who is doomed to die as soon as Vecna goes down. He died before, but his patron goddess granted him a reprieve, in order to rid the world of Vecna. After that, though, his eyes have to close for good.

And because I wasn’t watching the screen, I didn’t see this:

I just…just…fuck.

notcrying

He just wanted to save his friend and now he can’t and he — he who is not typically, on the show at least, the one crying? — is crying and tries to hide it behind his hands, his giant mug, and…as someone who writes freely about tearing up but tries ferociously hard to avoid being caught doing it…for all the reasons mentioned above…I just. Oh god, oh god, oh god. I didn’t see that. There’s a whole whispered conversation you can read on their lips on-screen, the crux of which is:

“I was saving my wish for you.”

* * *

Neither my husband nor I have any friends who watch Critical Role. I got him into it after I read the Polygon article about the show — after I ditched our cable. But I knew he was loving the same things in it I did when he said, apropos of nothing whilst driving to the grocery store, that that kind of squad, having one, was just fucking awesome. He doesn’t know #squadgoals, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. And this is perhaps more moving, even, than the romantic plotlines doomed to crash to an end as a result of this loss. It’s the loss, too, of a friendship.

We’ve theorized on why we can’t get groups like this together. He points out his growing fatigue with the kneejerk, lambasting criticisms currently aflower amongst our generation. I point out my shitty track record at befriending women, leery as I always am of them intuiting that I am bi, lest they high-tail it as they have (three times) in the past. We both acknowledge that we, at least until recently, live in a part of the country where values tend to be a good deal more conservative than our own; and the degree to which your hearts then align, despite your best efforts, is affected.* And that neither of us grew up in cultures where carefree physical affection — hugs, head pats, etc. — was a thing. Mostly, we figure, we are too old. People’s emotional drawbridges are up by their thirties, and they’re not accepting new adventurers to the castles.

door

It may be something else too, though. We may just be too guarded in our affection. There are plenty of people I’d save a Wish for, but it’s easier for them not to know it. Like being seen crying, it can be — it IS — easier to be on someone’s side without them seeing. You can’t get kicked off the team if no one knows you’re there. In my old office I took the seat by the door, and the always-hot teakettle, in case we had an active shooter situation. My boss knew this but let me keep the seat. They were my people, yes, even the assholes. I almost tackled my boss to the ground once when both of us misinterpreted a nail gun as a firearm. Years ago, when our school district sent around pink slips like candy, I penned righteous letters of praise for all of my teachers and mailed them, unsigned, to the principal to try and protect them. Like with crying, it is easier to love people from a safe distance, unseen.

That is what we love most about Critical Role. That the affection isn’t hidden or wrapped up carefully in snark or sarcasm — both more acceptable trappings, today. It’s out there. It’s visible on people’s faces — it’s running down them. It’s like every bullshit JRPG holding up friendship as the ultimate goal of a story, come to life.

And, because it’s real, it’s not bullshit.

*Also, we may be bad at making this matter less.

birds and water

When my mom died I went to work the next day because I had just started a new job and didn’t know their policies or what people normally do or anything. I put on headphones so people wouldn’t talk to me but I couldn’t handle any emotional triggers brought on even by seemingly benign songs, so I listened to this instead. All day:

I share it with you now in case it helps.

random music fridays : playlist edition

Sometimes I try to listen to something other than soundtracks! Especially on Fridays when I’m the only one in the office. So then, for your listening pleasure:

Only the loss of this song from Amazon Prime’s licensing agreement could cause me to return to Spotify, whose persistent ads irk me to no end.

Holy shit, Gnarls Barkley was CeeLo Green and Danger Mouse. I had no idea. Also, the juxtaposition of the passive-aggressive “bless your soul” plus the the seeming earnestness of the next question gets me every time.

 

Come for the hymn humming, stay for the rockabilly. Also the line “I’m gonna cover myself with the ashes of youth.”

I felt like a dog chasing my tail with the familiarity of the chorus until I remembered the intro song to the thoroughly bizarre 1990 kids movie Mother Goose Rock n’ Rhyme. Have you ever wanted to see a bunch of famous musicians roleplay nursery rhymes in a world without straight lines or, seemingly, long-lensed cameras? Then this is the movie for you.

The best to sing along to. Similar in sentiment to Nick Drake’s “From the Morning,” the first-person chorus makes it, I don’t know, more satisfying to sing. More of a promise, less of a story you’re telling about someone else.

I’m such a sap for strings brought out of their quartets and into the world. The SNL-esque saxophones bug me a little, but the strings and even the lyrics are worth it.

their currents turn awry

Continuing the theme of Movies Which It Turned Out Had A Much Greater Impact Than I Anticipated, I thought I would rewatch a movie I hadn’t seen in a long time: What Dreams May Come. I’d seen it on our shelves, and was touched that someone else (who? when?) had liked it enough, as I had (back when I saw it in theaters in 1998), to want to keep it around. Also I figured it would be a safe choice, as I knew the kinds of loss discussed therein wouldn’t touch on my own.

“You can say everything you want to. Even goodbye. Even though she can’t understand it. And you’ll have the satisfaction that you didn’t give up. But that has to be enough.”

Welp.

Setting that aside for a moment though, can we talk about how the art design for this movie is fucking amazing?

painthill

Yeah, that’s the paint part. You’re damn right I’m talking about the paint part.

painthouse

Long story short, it’s easier for the main character to deal with the world as a painting rather than as a reality, so paint it is. I saw this on a big screen as a twelve year old with my painter friend, and we lost our shit. I worried, before we got to this part, that the advance of technology since then would have rendered it crap. But, like Jurassic Park’s animatronic dinosaurs, which still look better than lame CGI concocted a decade later, the paint part of What Dreams May Come is absolutely gorgeous. A quick google informs me that part of this may be due to its use of Fuji Velvia film, which “is known among landscape photographers for its vivid landscape reproduction.” Okay. But there is “good looking landscape” and then there is “my eyes are melting and I’m okay with that.”

Even setting aside the wonders of the painted world early on, the amount of care taken to frame and center things is painstaking, almost to Wes Anderson levels sometimes.

hedge

fade

library

I wasn’t in a position to notice or articulate it, as a twelve year old, but damn. Damn. Yes, the slow-mo and constant tinkling laughter flashbacks can get a little maudlin, but you forget to roll your eyes when another fantastical vista takes your breath away.

trek

Hell, even the hellscapes are impressive.

hall

But, ah…I didn’t rewatch it because it was pretty. I was worried…I always worry when I reengage with things I used to love…that what struck me before, watching it, would come off as hackneyed now. And as that CinemaBlend article earlier makes clear, the path to resentment of emotional button-pushing was clear, if you were an adult watching this move as an adult in 1998. But I wasn’t then, and I still can’t dismiss the whole thing as more hackneyed than not now, for one reason:

trees

I don’t know what Robin Williams meant to adults in 1998. He was their Mork, maybe. Their John Keating. But for the two of us sitting poleaxed in our seats in that theater — and on through to today, for people of that age — he was our Alan Parrish, our Peter Panning, our Genie, our Jack. His was the voice that taught you how to weave between a wisecrack one moment and abrupt earnestness the next, with a nakedness of heart that made my stomach turn over. He could build his characters up to bombastic levels of brashness, but then tear them down immediately, in front of you, where you had to see and hear it happen. Even if it wasn’t even his face you were looking at. That ducking and weaving of his voice, in and out of vulnerability and the transparent attempt to conceal it, was…exhausting? But also, because it was everywhere in 90s kids’ movies, it was a voice you knew. Even if you knew it might pull the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, you knew it.

And there is a ton of voiceover in this movie. Half of it is narration. By him. I didn’t read many words about him when he died because it always seemed unseemly. To pounce on someone real, so recently breathing, whose real loved ones are actively mourning them, as a way to get pageviews or something, I don’t know. Maybe the profundity of memories  regurgitated by so many people made it seem tawdry to me. Maybe I’m just bad at mourning — let’s not leave out that possibility. But the fact is that Robin Williams’ voice piloting us and the story through this movie was and remains emotionally arresting in a way, for people who grew up listening to that voice, that is possibly more impactful than anyone planned for. When your go-to extremes, the ones people associate you with, are grandiosity and tentative honesty, and when you slice clean down the middle and settle on desperate assertions made in a wobbly timbre, to someone who should know you and who no longer does, that they are okay and are going to be okay…well, shit. I had forgotten the memory loss component of this plotline, and so was completely unprepared for this scene:

look

That is his face as he watches his wife ramble mindlessly, not knowing him, not knowing herself, and just, crap. Crap. I did not sign up for this.

Except I did, because I knew that watching this again in my thirties, where I actually knew something of loving people and losing them, was going to be different than watching it two decades prior. I just thought it would be more instructive. Less destructive.

Which is okay — again, I’m not satisfied with a drama unless I am crying, although this means I really should watch all dramas alone — but it’s worth a watch or a rewatch if you’ve seen it before. Even now, when the call to critique seems especially, justifiably, sharp. Look, the movie has problems, okay? I know. Here are some in bullet form:

1.) You should feel bad when your kids take other bodies because they think you’ll respect them more, or because you said something that made them think they’d be more attractive that way

2.) You should not love your spouse so much more than your kids that they demand you try to remember some memory you shared with _just_ them
3.) Women do more than laugh and look pretty

4.) They also do more than get depressed and kill themselves

5.) The flying people look dumb

6.) We are able to locate ourselves solely in the psyches of these people because they have literally no other problems than their loss: plenty of money, a huge house, love. This makes it easier to focus on their pain but it also makes the sheer lavishness of their lives somewhat distracting. While not entirely fair, this is still true. They met while piloting boats they rented for sailing around a lake in Switzerland, for godsake. And at least one of them was wearing a polo shirt and a sweater vest when doing so.

See, that last smarmy jab is where I feel present-day reflection is supposed to stop, right? There were these problems and that’s why the whole thing is shit, moving on. That’s kind of where CinemaBlend stopped, and heaven knows they’re not alone in finding the chink in a cultural artifact’s armor and jabbing it with a fondue fork until there’s nothing left inside but mush. But that does such a disservice to everyone — perhaps most importantly to you, the viewer.

If you turn this movie off fifteen minutes in because their ridiculously posh home says to you that the people in it are undeserving of empathy, then you’re going to miss a flurry of flashbacks whose physicality is frankly stunning. I’ve talked mostly about Robin Williams’ voice here but again — the tenderness in some of his gestures and body language is unnerving. Like you’re intruding by seeing it on film. At one point, fumbling with his wife’s hand, he kisses the side of it, where the index finger connects to the hand. Who even does that, right? No one kisses hands because hi, this isn’t a throne room, and anyway that is a rough part of your hand, that pushes carts and hauls thick backpack straps and gets blisters from shovels. It’s such a workaday part of the body. But he fumbles for it and presses it to his lips like he needs it. Such a sidenote of a body part and it’s his most treasured thing, for a moment. So much so that we almost shouldn’t be seeing it.

And the restraint, over and over again, when he realizes he should pull back and only just manages to do so. The space he gives his wife, who is unraveling beneath his hands, with which he knows better than to touch her. Especially this scene:

whisper

As a still, that looks creepy, right? It would be so easy for this to have come off terribly; for him to have seemed intrusive, abusive even in the ferocity of his conviction that she get better. But he doesn’t. Instead of smothering her with comforting hugs, or standing tall and keeping a stiff upper lip because Being Strong Is What You Do For Your Mourning Wife, he keeps his distance, and unravels too.

And that, of course, is was what I missed as a child too entranced by the visuals, and too leery of feelings, and too young by half, to see: she only comes back to herself because every much-lauded version of masculinity trotted out by this admittedly nice guy gets thrown aside, in favor of mutual dissolution. Obviously taken to extremes, this is a terrible example. But what seemed to me at twelve be mythologically simple — “resign yourself to hell to be with her, okay!” — takes on so many more shades now. He’s bidding her farewell but also himself. His knowledge of himself, his life, his children; his values and his friends.

Don’t think I am unaware of the wrongness of this in real-life situations. Remember my fury at Firewatch, which presumed to chastise the main character for “abandoning” his dementia-ridden wife? I was livid. Do not condemn, I seethed, the surviving loved one to a lifetime of seeking recognition and healing in those who will be host to neither. Do not condemn my father to that. Do not condemn my husband to that.

But even retaining that stance, even speaking as one who will quietly walk out of this world rather than put my husband through what my father went through, when the time comes, I still collapse a little, listening to him patiently explaining to this woman who no longer knows him how he will remain, until he no longer knows her, either.

It is I guess, again, the power of fantasy. That chance for winning. I don’t reject it when it is trotted out as a mere fantasy. I reject it when it is used, as it was in Firewatch, to condemn those who truly had no other choice. Dissolution, that choosing the worst, is a noble and beautiful choice in fiction, as in What Dreams May Come. But that’s because it’s fantasy, and “sometimes when you lose, you win.”

In life, it’s less picturesque. You just lose. Your partner, your children, yourself. Or you force them to lose you, bit by bit. And if your voice carried a generation from childhood to adolescence, you force them to lose you, too. To wonder if they have any right to a sense of loss, and to stumble onto your work years later, and be twisted up by it.

Which maybe makes you a little less lost, but it’s still no painted valley.

fire

this is halloween (alas)

I love fall! Pumpkins. Cider. Blowing leaves. Non-IPA beer again, finally. Sweaters! Love me some sweaters. Know what I don’t like? Halloween.

Yeahhhh.

Candy is great! Dressing up is fun! But fear sucks. It really sucks. I was never a big fan of it and I like it even less as I grow older and, I suspect, become that stick sinking even deeper into the mud. How did this happen? Let me present Exhibit A:


The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Topping even Enter the Void as my most-loathed movie ever. Yes, I know, even though it’s something of a cult classic now. Even though people — people my age! — still throw money at shirts and bags and statues  and all manner of paraphernalia embracing this movie. This movie made in 1993. It’s that old.

In 1993, I turned seven. My grandmother, possessing a great deal of money but perhaps not a deep understanding of the psyches of kids, showered us with plastic Nightmare Before Christmas figures. Every single one. We went to see the movie together on one of her rare visits out to see us, and afterward she sent us all…all…of the plastic figures from the movie. Maybe as a sort of memento of our brief time together.

Every night I heaped my toy box high with books and hoped the toys wouldn’t murder me in my sleep.

Jack was so skinny he could fit through the plastic Fisher Price handle hole, I figured, so I tied him up with shoelaces first. Then I worried that this might heighten his animus towards me and thus that I was worsening my chances by risking his skeletal wrath. Eventually, though I remember no conversations about it, the toys were removed (double-bagged), placed in a box in the garage, and I breathed a sigh of relief. At least until a move years later, when Jack’s skeletal hand ripped through the bags during the moving day fracas, and even my fifth grade self recoiled in horror. We donated the toys to charity shortly thereafter.

The songs, though, never leave you alone. “Making Christmas,” with its maniacial, mechanical dirge that I’m sure was meant as commentary on the materiality of Christmas (oh-so-deep, 90s!) but which comes off to a 7-year-old as just creepy and awful. “This Is Halloween,” which keeps appearing again and again in pop culture, like some sort of chronic disease that can’t be cured. When I hit the Halloweentown world in the first Kingdom Hearts game, I put the controller down and walked out, offering my sister multiple bargains (hours of uninterrupted EverQuest game time? homework assistance?) if she’d just play through it for me. Even the colors of the world, entering it, scream at me to run. Tired orange, rotting purple, that gray-brown wash over everything…that fucking mayor with his twisty head…that is no space I ever want to inhabit. No love story can draw me in; I don’t care about Jack and Sally; I just want out. As someone who always tended to hover on the sidelines of cultural acceptability, this was an awkward hill to die on, popular as the movie was with people who weren’t, well, popular. But as soon as the Jack Skellington handbags come out, I am gone. Peddle your creep factor elsewhere. That uncurling vine ramp can curl right the fuck back up, thanks.

Which brings us to Exhibit B:


The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t.

It’s a strange thing about millennials at the upper end of the age bracket: we got to sop up a lot of the cultural beats of the 70s, because that’s what had made its way onto TV (and therefore recordable and endlessly-rewatchable VHS tapes), even though more recent cultural moments existed. I know almost none of the TV specials, holiday or otherwise, that aired brand-new in the 80s, for example. I was too young (see: an infant), the shows too new, and anyway my parents didn’t get cable for years. But the 70s? Oh, the 70s, via 90s reruns, gave us a bucketload of feel-good gooey peace and love holiday gems, and The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t was one of the best.

We aren’t talking a big budget here. Judd Hirsch, Mariette Hartley, Henry Gibson, all — at one point — in their disco finery. Rubber masks. Plastic bats on (visible) fishing lines. Go ahead and google it; you can watch the whole movie on YouTube. But if you’re looking for doom, gloom, and gore, you won’t find it, despite the profundity of vampires, werewolves, mummies and every other Halloween horror that typically sets my teeth on edge, for the simple fact that this movie is about being lonely. And about realizing that that needn’t be the case.

“Nobody loves a witch!” Marriete Hartley’s witch snarls through the keyhole in her tower, as she once again refuses to fly over the moon, inaugurating Halloween and allowing it to happen. The pleas of her sometime-boyfriend, Judd Hirsch’s Dracula, matter little. No one in the town dresses up as a witch, and this makes her sad. Everyone just expects her to be sullen and cruel and scary, and she’s sick of it, and she’s not going to do it. Halloween can go to hell, as far as she’s concerned.

But a little girl from the town (nervous, in no small way, given that she has been led by Igor and a werewolf and a Frankenstein monster up into the scary mansion that overlooks the town, in the faint hope that her voice might reach the Witch where no one else’s has) pipes up in the hallway, informing her that no, she loves witches. Has dressed up as one in fact. Because she thinks they are cool and magical, and have great hats, and also they can fly so I mean, bonus points.

The Witch, who has been crying, opens the door and can’t believe her eyes. She has one fan — this kid in her home-sewn pointy hat with a dollar store broom and cape. After confirming that this child is indeed real, she relents and flies over the moon, on one final condition: that she and Dracula go disco dancing like they used to. Which they do.

This is the only Halloween movie I can think of that warms my heart. All the others, even the cute ones made for kids, are scary or sad or both. Casper’s all alone. Linus waits eternally for a great pumpkin that will never come. And I think this is what makes me a Halloween stick in the mud, more so even than my abominably low Tim Burton tolerance or a pronounced distaste for the undead: I want to have my heart warmed. Movie, book, video game, doesn’t matter — let there be something moving at the heart of it. Not because I am particularly fond of Hallmark goop, but because of Exhibit C:


Things are so bad we have embraced a cartoon dog telling us how bad they aren’t, as flames consume him, as an indicator of badness.

Or, Life is Shit and Short and Messy and Halloween’s fixation on this, on the frailty of our meatbag selves and the minds that pilot them, frequently to do terrible things, doesn’t make any of that feel better. It’s not distracting, it brings no relief, I get no rush of schadenfreude. I don’t need a dark night and a mist-wreathed lake town to remind me there is evil in the world. We kind of get that, in 2017. Big time.

And maybe ultimately my issue with Halloween and horror in general is broader and more selfish still. Maybe I just hate that we don’t win. In fantasy stories, you might win. The emotional stakes might be high, and people might die, but there’s still that chance. The formula demands that possibility of triumph. It’s fantasy, after all. But the formula for horror, while no more complex, is a good deal grimmer. Shit sucks, we pause to reflect on the depth to which shit sucks, and then people stop screaming. The end.

And that’s probably what I dislike most about creepy!Halloween. We lose. We always lose. The killers escape, the ghosts come back; hell, even the bodies of people we love come back, drained of their affection and, worse, even their recognition of us. (Did you think I wouldn’t go there?) Everything is terrible in horror, yes, but everything is terrible already. By adhering to the shitty horror formula, you ensure that even the ghosts (har har) of redemption, or of healing or of hope, never make it across the page or the screen. There’s only the flash of fangs or bones or metal, and then failure. Death and darkness. Over and over and over again.

And not only is that not what I want to hear now, it has never been what I want to hear. Or see, or say, or play. If I wanted — indulge me in my melodrama for a moment — to see a horror story unfold, I’d have myself tested for the APOE e4 gene. But I won’t, and I never will. Because horror stories are a dime a dozen. Hope has value.

Also, fuck Halloweentown forever.