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My recent piece on Jen Trynin — on her music, on her book, on her — was a bit long and meandering. I know that. But I also know that it could have been much longer and far more meandering.

That’s a credit to her. Sometimes I’ll read, play, watch, or listen to some work of art and think about a post I could write, focusing on something that I found interesting or important. Nearly always, it’s one something. In that post, though, there were dozens of somethings, and even more I never get around to discussing.

I wondered a couple of days ago if maybe I shouldn’t have scrapped that entire post and wrote a different one about the nature of fame, using her book as a jumping-off point. That would be have been far more focused.

But, hey, wouldn’t you know it? Everybody’s a shithead, and I ended up with a more timely reason to write a post about that after all.

Trynin’s book, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, did a great job of telling a number of stories at the same time, all of them, ultimately, about her. In my previous post I talked about the time she caught her own video being riffed on Beavis and Butt-Head, and how nervous she was that they’d say something negative about her.

Not about her video, or about her music, or a particular lyric…but about her personally. I made one point in that post about how human that revealed her to be, but I can make another one here: she wasn’t cut out to be famous.

Let’s step back and think about that, because I mean it in no way as an insult.

While unkind words can hurt, if you put yourself in the public eye, you need to be able to handle them. Trynin, it seems, was not prepared. And it’s worth pointing out that nowhere in the book does anybody truly say anything mean to her or about her. She’s braced against a criticism (or perhaps an attack) that never comes. In fairness there is one less-than-glowing review she gets in Spin magazine, but even that negative piece contains words of praise. I’m sure you can guess which words she clings to.

Again, she’s human. Bad words feel bad to her. She’s already buckling beneath their weight before they arrive. She’s preemptively upset by them.

I can understand that. Of course I get negative comments here and there, and have to read some negative thing somebody’s said about a project I worked on, and it hurts. I think I do a decent job of not letting things get to me, but I certainly slip up in that regard more than I wish I did. You put your heart into something, or at the very least your time and effort, and you know not everybody will love it. You know that. You’re fine with that. Why wouldn’t you be? But you also sort of wish that the folks who don’t love it will…be nice? Keep criticism constructive? Move on with their lives without making you question your worth?

I avoid receiving widespread criticism because, quite simply, I don’t have a massive audience. The more eyes on you, the more negativity you’ll find. (The more positivity as well, but…you can guess which words I’d cling to.) If I were bigger, I’d have to face that more directly, and maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it well anymore. Based on what I read in her book, I’m fairly confident that Trynin, had she made it bigger, wouldn’t have been able to handle it well, either.

You need to turn it off. You need to reach inside and flip whatever switch exists that causes you to care about what others think of you. I think that’s fair to say. You can’t care.

But I wonder if what people really do is turn off their humanity.

What I loved about the Trynin I met in Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be was her humanity. It’s what caused me to become invested in (as opposed to, say, entertained by) her story. It’s what allowed it to resonate. It’s what made it matter to me.

In a comment on that post, ace commenter FelixSH said he’s invested in the stuff I write here for the same reason: “I feel connected. You open yourself up, and I feel like there is someone who feels similar to me. The melancholy that I find in your posts (especially ones like this) touch me and feel relevant.”

I appreciate that, of course, and I also believe it. I’m sure I still have my humanity. I’m sure because I can probably name a handful of positive things people have said about my writing, but I could repeat for hours all of the negative things I’ve heard that I’ve carried with me. If I could switch off my humanity, it wouldn’t hurt as much. But…well…humanity has its value, too.

Right now, every few days, another high-profile actor, director, or personality is accused of some appalling sexual coercion and behavior. I doubt very much that such behavior is anything like a recent phenomenon. Speaking up is recent. Publicity is recent. Fan backlash is recent. But this kind of behavior has surely been going on as long as we’ve had celebrities of any kind.

It’s also, however, been easy to overlook for far too long. I’m glad that those who engage in predatory behavior are now being held accountable for their actions. This is great news, in itself. But it also brings with it so many smaller jolts of bad news. Or maybe I should say disappointment.

Most recently (as I write this), Aziz Ansari has been accused of hideous and unwelcome sexual advances. Another day, another celebrity, right?

But Ansari feels like a kind of blow to me. Not only because I liked the guy — he was a consistent highlight of anything he was in — but because he didn’t seem like a creep at all. In fact, he presented himself quite directly as being the opposite of those who were abusing their power, manipulating sexual partners, and shirking responsibility for their actions. He spoke out against it. And yet, on a date with a woman he found attractive, he ignored clear signals, and respected her refusals just long enough to lull her into complacency and press her again.

The account linked above is a difficult read. It’s upsetting. The photos and text messages (from a number the blogger verified belongs to Ansari) make it all too clear that this actually happened, and we’re left with one less person we can allow ourselves to respect.

(Ansari has since responded to the accusations with a non-apology that I’d argue says very little.)

The thing is, though…I don’t know if Ansari is an innately scummy human being. Let me be clear that if this event unfolded as described, his behavior is truly scummy. But was he always that way? Did he start out that way?

Or at some point, did he switch off his humanity?

You need to turn it off if you’re going to survive stardom of any kind. We hear about tormented artists not only because torment has the potential to fuel such great art but because artists themselves are human. Humans, by and large, don’t cope well with being judged constantly by strangers. They often turn to self-destructive behaviors or, in some cases, take active steps to tank their own careers. Fame and humanity may not be universally incompatible, but they certainly don’t play well together.

And once you turn it off…if you seal yourself off from your humanity…it probably gets a bit harder to see that person telling you “no” as a person. It probably gets a bit harder to accept that somebody doesn’t want to sleep with you. It probably makes you feel that you can do as you please, because without the guilt, without the regret, without the contrition that comes packaged with humanity, you don’t have as much incentive to behave. If you don’t have to live with the fallout, you care less about triggering the explosion.

It all makes sense in my mind. In order to succeed in the public eye, you need to insulate yourself against criticism. You can’t bristle against every little slight. You need to let the vast majority of potential conflicts pass by without your involvement. So you turn off this part of you that feels, that cares, that listens. And, in doing so, you make it emotionally easier for yourself to commit atrocities you never would have otherwise.

Of course, the fact that it all makes sense in my mind doesn’t mean it’s not bullshit.

I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if I’m grasping at straws, but if I am it’s because I don’t want to believe that anybody is inherently awful. I want to believe that there’s a reason they behaved abhorrently. I’m not looking to excuse them and even less am I looking to excuse anything they’ve done (or been said to have done, as the case may be). Maybe there are just bad people. But do there have to be so many?

I want to justify it. Identify a cause. I suppose it’s possible that people who behave in hideous sexual fashions are themselves drawn to stardom, but I think that would be one hell of a leap, being as we hear about pretty awful sex crimes regularly from people who have absolutely no public standing whatsoever, and we know that there’s no “standard” celebrity profile. Stars come from all backgrounds, all walks of life, and exhibit the entire spectrum of personality traits.

I don’t know. I’d be interested to know what people think. I don’t want to conclude that any man in a position of power defaults to the tactics of sexual assault. In fact, I know they don’t. That alone isn’t it. That alone isn’t enough. So what is it?

At a number of points in my life, I’ve held positions of power. As a teacher, as a tutor, as a manager, an an editor. I think it would be idiotic to claim that everything I did in those positions was perfect and I am to be studied and emulated, of course, but I can say that I’ve never used that power to manipulate or coerce anybody. What’s more: I never wanted to. I never reached a point at which I needed to make a decision about whether or not to…push.

My mind doesn’t operate that way, and I think that’s why this is so bizarre, fascinating, and frustrating to me. I want to know what people are thinking when they behave like that. I have never looked at a woman I found attractive and wondered whether or not I should force her beyond her zone of comfort. I don’t even understand what that would feel like to consider, let alone pursue.

I feel as though I’d have to have turned off my humanity. I feel as though I’d have to be somebody else entirely.

But, hey. I’m a shithead, too.

Because while I stand by what I’ve just said…there was a time. There was behavior on my part I truly regret. There was a situation into which I placed a young lady that appalls me to remember.

I was in my early 20s. She was younger, but not by much. A year or so. Even a first name would be too obvious to anyone who knows her, so for the sake of privacy, I’ll call her D. (I truly doubt she’s reading this, but if she is and would like to reveal her own name for any reason, and/or share her side of the story, she is more than welcome to do so in the comments below.)

We worked at the same store. I met her and we hit it off immediately. We were very similar. She read and wrote, I read and wrote. We talked books a lot. We talked music. I liked her. I wanted to date her.

She had a boyfriend at the time, and of course that was fine. We talked a lot. We hung out a few times. At one point she wanted me to help her improve her writing, so we worked on a few things together. She sent me what she wrote, asking for feedback. I’m sure I was polite in my feedback, but I also did genuinely want to help. I was flattered she came to me at all, so I wanted to make sure she got something out of our working together.

At one point, she split up with her boyfriend. I don’t remember the details, but I remember thinking this was my chance. I didn’t think twice. Why would I? I liked D. We got along. At various points, even while she was with him, I got the sense that she liked me as well.

We were talking online one night. I got flirty. Excessively so. I’m not self-censoring here; it’s been over a decade and I don’t remember specifically what I said so much as I remember the intention, which was clear. Blunt. I didn’t ask her on a date. I said and suggested things that were more directly sexual.

I don’t remember what she said that night, but I remember the conversation we had the next day. I’d made her feel cheap. She was surprised I would say things like that to her. She made it very clear that she didn’t see our relationship that way, and it was clear to me that I had damaged our friendship, and that I had breeched some kind of unspoken trust.

She and I remain friends today. We live a thousand-odd miles apart, so it’s not as though we see each other often, but we stay in sporadic touch. I don’t think she’s still mad at me. She made her feelings known, and I apologized without question. I was in the wrong. I had made her feel uncomfortable, and I had said things that were unwelcome. While I don’t remember the specifics of what I said or what she said in return, it’s safe to say she was not reciprocating in a way that should have encouraged me. I brought things to a point that upset her.

I upset her.

That was my fault.

I felt bad immediately. Not now, at this point in the future, when I see other people’s misbehavior being exposed…but then. Right then. Because that’s who I am. At the time, that night, I didn’t feel as though I were doing anything but pursuing someone to whom I was attracted. That was the spirit of my remarks. But I hurt D. I made her feel as though I were only her friend because I wanted more. I probably made her second guess every bit of feedback I’d given her on her writing.

That’s my fault. Nothing I said was inherently wrong, but it wasn’t welcome. Words are words, but they were out of place. I upset her. I still — here and now — feel terrible about it.

Which is why I can’t understand those who refuse to listen to the word “no.” Or to many other words that clearly mean “no.” Or to the body language and cues that make it clear the answer is “no.” I don’t get it. What’s missing? How do they live with themselves?

I’m haunted by the fact that I jeopardized a friendship by misjudging a situation and saying things I should not have said. I was obviously listening to my own feelings, and wasn’t listening anywhere near well enough to hers. Somehow I got it in my head that she liked me. I’m not saying she led me on — in fact, I’ll say the opposite: she did not lead me on — but I let myself believe it and that was that. I moved forward as though what I believed she wanted was what she wanted. And I upset her. And I’m sorry.

I don’t know how it’s possible to force yourself on somebody — anybody — and look at yourself in the mirror ever again. I couldn’t possibly do it. Not that I’d want to, but I can’t even imagine doing it without severing myself from my own humanity.

That’s the only way it makes sense to me.

The revelation about Ansari is particularly notable to me, because it’s the first time one of these accusations has targeted someone I’d say I really liked. (Unless we count the David Letterman non-scandal from a few years ago, but I think that’s in a very different ballpark, both in terms of its nature and how it was handled.)

So I reflect. And I wonder. Is Ansari just a shithead by nature? Or did he let himself become one? Did he sacrifice his humanity, or am I giving him too much credit by assuming he had any to begin with? How many things would have to change within me before I could possibly behave the same way?

I don’t know. I don’t have answers. But I sure do have questions.

For the record, as much as the Ansari situation bothers me, I refuse to to truly lose hope in mankind until we start hearing stories about one of these:
– Wes Anderson
– Will Arnett
– Michael Palin

Please be good boys.

The Compleat Jen Trynin

January 8th, 2018 | Posted by Philip J Reed in books | music | personal | television - (1 Comments)

The mid-90s were a strange time for me, culture-wise. It was the first time — and probably still the only time — that I really followed “current” music. Prior to that and for the most part since, I’d kind of hop around, exploring genres, artists, and time periods as the mood dictates. Very rarely does an album come out that I feel the need to buy or listen to immediately. I’ll eventually get to it, or I won’t. Who cares? There’s so much music out there…why prioritize something just because it’s new?

From around 1993 – 1995, though, I cared. I followed. I watched MTV constantly, which feels like an embarrassing admission, but it’s worth remembering that during that time, the channel was of genuine cultural importance. That’s not say it didn’t air or perpetuate complete garbage (such as anti-vaccination game show Singled Out), but it is to say that it also did things that mattered. From the inventive animated showcase Liquid Television to the brilliant sketch comedy of The State to the slacker-generation icons we found in Beavis and Butt-Head (which itself gave eventual rise to the misfit icons of Daria). MTV was an urgent and important cultural force.

I say all of this to provide a bit of context. I had the bands and artists that I loved specifically, such as Green Day, R.E.M., Beck, Oasis, and a few others. Those were the ones whose videos I’d want to catch, whose songs would periodically keep me interested however many others came and went without making an impact. But I also just kind of absorbed other songs in the background. Ones by artists that, for whatever reason, didn’t strike me with the same immediacy. They were often fun, cute, catchy. Sometimes they were none of those things, and you’d still end up retaining them. That’s one of the amusing quirks of popular music, after all; even things we don’t like can lodge themselves permanently in our brains.

Every so often, now, as I go about my day, my brain will feed me some snatch of a long-forgotten song. A melody, or a lyric. Maybe with a particular memory tied to it, but usually not. And because I spent so much time experiencing the songs that flit by on MTV or KROQ or the mixtapes my friends passed around, it can be difficult to identify the song I’m half remembering. I have to employ some detective work. I’ll hum it for people, as best I can. I’ll describe the kind of song it is. I’ll hope against hope that whatever fleeting pop song I’ve somehow internalized will be the same one that a peer has.

A few months ago, this happened. I remembered a chorus, but little else. And while the chorus is probably the most fruitful thing to remember, Google didn’t help, because the chorus was “I’m feeling good.” Lots of songs feature that line and title, or some very minor variation, and so there were too many results, none of which were correct. That was it. I couldn’t find the song that was haunting me.

My brain tosses me a few other bones. I start to remember more about it. I remember riding around in the summer time, in the car of an older friend, asking him to turn up the song because I liked it so much. I remember catching it playing in a restaurant or a store, and being cheered up immediately. I remember singing along to it. And the rest of the chorus comes back. “I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. I’m feeling good. For now.”

And now I find it, under a name I never would have remembered. The song is not named after its chorus; it’s called “Better Than Nothing,” and the artist is Jen Trynin.

I watch the video a bunch of times. Memories come back. It was one of my feel-good songs from that era. Cynical, but upbeat. Catchy, but honest. The mid-90s come back to me in the video’s editing, in Trynin’s clothing and hairstyle, in the song itself. It’s very much of its era, but…it holds up. It’s good. I’ve been listening to it off and on ever since. While you could certainly make a list of 90s pop songs that are better, I’d argue that that list would be relatively short.

“Better Than Nothing” is great. It constituted the only four minutes I’d ever heard from Jen Trynin, but that’s fine.

The phrase “one-hit wonder” has a bit of a negative connotation in popular music, and that’s something I’ve never totally understood. Having a hit is a good thing. Having one hit puts you, mathematically, leagues above almost every other band or artist that has ever existed. The overwhelming majority of musicians never have a hit. To have one is a triumph. It should be celebrated.

Instead, “one-hit wonder” always feels like a snarky way of referring to a musician that didn’t have staying power. Maybe it’s odd to me because I don’t think there are similar sentiments toward other kinds of artists. I genuinely don’t know. Does anyone look at a great painting and dismiss the painter because he or she didn’t also paint five other popular works? Does anyone care if a director makes just one beloved film? In literature I know for a fact that it doesn’t cause readers to look down their noses. To Kill a Mocking Bird, Lord of the Flies, Catch-22 and many other massively important works all came from one-hit wonders. Who cares?

Music, though, seems different in that regard, and I’m not sure why.

So I looked Trynin up and, sure enough, “Better Than Nothing” was her commercial peak. She had two albums, some other singles, and that was largely that.

Fine.

But I found that she also had a book. Her first album, Cockamamie, featured “Better Than Nothing” and was released in 1995. In 2006, she released Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, a memoir chronicling her brief experience with music stardom. What’s more, the book got rave reviews. I started skimming them as I found more and more, because I was increasingly sold on the book and didn’t want to spoil anything for myself.

Reviewers talked about how funny it was. How charming. How insightful. What a great writer Trynin was. What a great story she had to tell.

And…man, that sure sounded like fun. A great book by someone who wrote a song I loved (and now love again) telling a story I never knew existed? Sign me up.

I bought it, but could only find a used copy. After all, it was published over a decade ago. As a collector that disappointed me (shelfwear, dog ears, sticker residue, the horror) but…well, I still didn’t know if I would like the book, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

It arrived. I read it soon afterward. I liked the book.

Hell, I loved the book. It’s no secret that I read often, but it’s relatively rare for me to read something continuously. I’ll usually read for a bit, take a break, and come back to it. As much as I love books, it’s not common that one will dig itself so deeply into me that I can’t put it down.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be did that. I expected to read a few pages and get a sense of its content and style, and ended up reading a third of it in one go. Over the course of the next day or so, I finished it. The reviews raised my expectations to an impossible level, and the book exceeded them. It was every bit as good as the reviews said.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the book grabbed me the way it did. Sure, it’s about someone I remember. It’s about a topic that interests me. It’s well written. But those things describe so many other books that I never necessarily feel compelled to keep reading, or sometimes even finish.

I think the difference is that Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is so relentlessly human. I don’t know anything about Trynin other than what I’ve read here, and surely there’s always some degree of finessing when it comes to presenting yourself to the world, but I never got the feeling that she was presenting herself as anything other than what (and who) she actually is. Account for some simplifications for the sake of readability, some omissions for the sake of focus, and some inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory and I’m confident that the book shows us the real Trynin.

And the real Trynin is so identifiably, tragically, wonderfully human. I bought the book expecting a good story about one woman’s experience with the music industry, but I ended up reading about a person. A person who isn’t perfect. A person who makes bad decisions, and not always for the right reason. A person who doesn’t know what she wants. But a person who, at heart, is good, who works hard, who cares about people long after she should cut them out of her life. She’s flawed in the ways that we’re all flawed, but she has talent, drive, empathy…I was invested in her the way I’d be invested in a really great character. I wanted to see what happened to her. I wanted to see where she ended up. And the journey is humorously and engagingly complicated by the fact that she’s not even sure she wants to be famous to begin with.

The main thread of the story kicks off when Trynin decides that after years of trying to make her mark on the Boston music scene, she’ll make one last push (and financial investment) toward stardom. If she makes it, great. If she doesn’t, the universe has made her place very clear.

…but she makes it. It’s a surprise to her, her peers, her boyfriend, her family. Her album debut Cockamamie, released through her own invented label, gains traction. There’s buzz. There’s murmuring. Seemingly overnight, there’s a bidding war involving everyone from indie publishers to major labels.

Jen Trynin is going to be a star.

Listening to Cockamamie now, I can understand the fuss. It’s not the best debut I’ve ever heard, but there’s a strong sense of self-confidence throughout, suggesting that the album doesn’t represent everything Trynin has to say. In short, it’s an assurance of potential. It’s easy to listen to and wonder what she can do next, with proper support…and that’s just the baseline feeling you get overall. Focus on the perfectly refined standouts like “Better Than Nothing, “One Year Down,” “Snow,” and “Do it Alone” and…well, why not make her a star?

The parallel thread of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be, however, focuses on the kind of star they want to make her. Specifically, her marketing representation is insistent on positioning her as a “woman in rock,” as opposed to a rocker in general.

It feels understandably disparaging to her, and it’s something of a backhanded compliment to be sure. So Trynin bristles against it. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why they’d want to market her that way: it worked. I remember very well a number of “women in rock” that were sold (to varying degrees of success) with that very label. The time period was rife with them. Heather Nova, Lisa Loeb, Juliana Hatfield, Sheryl Crow, Mazzy Star, Liz Phair, Courtney Love, and countless others. Not the least of which is the musician whose rise kicks off quietly in the background of Trynin’s tale: Alanis Morissette.

Morisette leaned into that kind of marketing, and saw incredible success as a result. Trynin fights it, pulls away, rejects it…and finds her career crippled.

I’ll step in here to make clear that Trynin doesn’t assign blame. There are a few specific moments during which she admits she herself made the wrong decision (“Better Than Nothing” should have been called “I’m Feeling Good,” as its title makes it difficult for DJs and fans to know what the hell it is), but she never points her finger at anybody else, or at any circumstance, or at any quirk of poor timing, and say, “That’s it. That’s the reason I’m not famous.” She just tells her story. It’s up to you, if you’d like to find a villain. Trynin’s motive clearly isn’t to make anybody feel bad…it’s to share a personal story that, briefly, became a public one.

The “women in rock” thing resonated with me, I think, because it feels so cosmically cruel. Trynin does the right thing, artistically speaking, by not letting herself be defined primarily by her gender. But in addition to struggling against her own representation in this regard, she also overcorrects for the perceived issue: she refuses to let women open for her on tour, so that there’s no chance her concerts can be seen as a kind of “chick night.”

This kicks off its own scandal, which Trynin then tries to manage herself, arguably digging the hole deeper. One interviewer wonders why she sees something like this as a problem. She responds by asking if he’d be okay with a “Jew night.” The spirit of this response is something we all understand and would probably agree with, but it’s also obvious why it doesn’t go over so well. Trynin doesn’t say this because she’s anti-Semitic; she says this because she’s a human being, trying to articulate something she has trouble putting into words, and stumbling into things she shouldn’t say.

Much of Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be plays as a sort of cringe comedy, during which you hope against hope that Trynin will manage to stop herself from babbling a sentence too much, such as when she makes a misjudged joke about shooting heroin to one of her representatives, who suddenly becomes genuinely concerned for her.

As a result of her misguided attempt to convince the industry to focus on her music rather than her gender, her concerts end up protested. Interview questions shift from being about the bidding war, her sudden rise, and whether she prefers Jen or Jennifer, to what her problem is with other female rockers. One DJ, on air, openly tries to instigate a feud between her and Morissette. (Trynin defuses this masterfully, which registered to me as a significant triumph after the many David Brent-ian interactions that preceded it.)

But the heart of the story is just who Trynin is. There are major, identifiable touchpoints in her career, but it always comes back to our author, our narrator, our protagonist, our tragic hero. There’s a scene in which she and her band catch an episode of Beavis and Butt-Head while on the road…and find the duo mocking their music video for “Happier.”

Trynin is overcome with fear that they’ll make fun of her. Call her ugly. Say some kind of deeply cruel thing about her that she’ll have to carry with her and be internally haunted by forever. She’s relieved when they don’t (they seem to focus more on the silliness of the extreme closeups in the video), but that says so much about who she is, and about where she was in her life.

Worrying when you find out (however you find out) that these two doofuses got their hands on your music video is understandable. If they say you “suck” instead of “rock,” that could absolutely have an effect on your career and on public sentiment. But she isn’t watching the episode as the rock star she temporarily is…she’s watching it as a human being who doesn’t want to hear people say mean things about her.

A single. A video on MTV. A spotlight on one of that generation’s most popular shows. These are breaks many people would have killed for. But she’s human. She’s talented, and she’s good at what she does…but she’s a person. With a heart, and with feelings she can’t let go of. It’s the most personal and moving sequence involving Beavis and Butt-Head I’ve ever read.

The book is full of these great, unexpectedly heartbreaking moments. She insists on buying an expensive dinner for everybody in her entourage out of some unplaceable sense of guilt, including her wealthy lawyer who intended to pay for everyone himself. She fights for her band to reap the financial rewards of her contract, despite the fact that this band didn’t play a single note on her album and only formed out of touring necessity. She’s confronted by other musicians who either never made it or made it briefly and failed, each of whom assure her that she’s going to come tumbling down…and you want to hug her, tell her she can do it, tell her that they’re just cynical, jealous assholes…but we already know they’re right. We already know how the book ends. They are cynical, jealous assholes, but they aren’t wrong.

Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is such a good read, and it surprised me with just how…wholesome it was. The sex and drugs and chicanery you might expect from a story about a rapid ascent to rock stardom rear their heads only as small, adorable equivalents. Trynin kisses a man who isn’t her boyfriend, unthinkingly takes NyQuil before a radio appearance, and keeps the television low in her hotel room so that nobody will know she’s in.

It’s so…human.

What’s more, I never got the sense from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be that anyone in the music industry was out to screw her. Everybody we meet seems to have her ultimate best interests in mind. They treat her well. They try to help her. Even as it becomes clear that she’s not going to be the wondergirl they hoped she would, they remain helpful and accommodating and friendly.

Toward the end of the book, Trynin puts together Gun Shy Trigger Happy, her followup to Cockamamie.

It makes good on every ounce of potential anyone saw in her to begin with. I’ve listened to this album too many times to count now, and I’m convinced it’s a minor masterpiece. I like a lot of things about Cockamamie, and I think a number of the songs — “Better Than Nothing” chief among them — are fantastic.

But Gun Shy Trigger Happy is superior in every way. It’s smarter. It’s better. It’s stronger. It’s more varied. It’s more mature. It’s more impressive. It’s really, truly great on its own merits.

It also sinks without a trace. Trynin’s rock and roll fairy tale, as she calls it, is over. Her record company renames one song and releases it as a single. There’s no music video. There’s not even any art on the copy that gets sent to radio stations. The album gets very positive reviews but the record company goes through the promotional motions, and no further. The album that should matter is treated like it doesn’t. Reading about this, I felt disappointed on her behalf.

There’s a truly sad moment toward the end of the book when she and her band play an abbreviated set as part of a long bill of acts. The set goes great. The crowd loves her. They cry out for another song, and Trynin starts to give them one. But her microphone is cut. The lights are cut. Her time on stage is over. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter what would have come next. It’s finished.

Some fragment of memory, a half-forgotten song, sent me on this little journey. There was a song I used to like. A song that used to help me. A song that made me feel happy.

It was nice to find it again. But I had no idea what happened behind it. Why would I have? I had no idea what else was on the album. Why would I have? I had no idea about Jen Trynin or her gift as an author or her incredible, overlooked followup. Why would I have?

Now I know. And I’m glad I do. Because there’s a story there. A person there. A moral there, whatever we’d like to take from it. (Trynin leaves us more than enough room to take whatever we please.)

And, selfish reader that I have always been, I found what is probably my favorite (and certainly the most gripping) work of non-fiction. That’s a happy enough ending for me.

But because I liked the book so much, I actually started to feel bad that I was only able to buy it used. That meant that the author didn’t see a penny from me. Normally, that wouldn’t bother me much. But Trynin had taken me on a journey, one I really enjoyed. One that led me to music I never would have listened to otherwise. One that…mattered to me.

I reached out to her. I let her know how much I enjoyed the book. I let her know that I ended up with a used copy, and if there were some way to support her (such as by purchasing an autographed copy; I told you I’m selfish) as a way of saying thanks, I’d love to do that.

She wrote me back. I won’t share her message here, but I will say that the image I’d built of Trynin — from her music and primarily from Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be — was accurate. She didn’t have to write me back at all. The fact that she did meant a lot. The fact that she was every bit the sweet, understanding, deeply human person I expected her to be meant so much more.

She thanked me for my message. She told me not to worry about paying for an autograph; she’d send me a new autographed copy just for the hell of it. Evidently, the book didn’t sell as well as anyone expected it to, despite the wealth of hype and positive reviews.

History repeats. However much talent she demonstrates, in whatever sphere, however positively the critics respond…well, there’s always next time.

It was a thematically appropriate fate for the book, but a sad one as well. It really did deserve better. It still does. So does her music. But…I don’t know. I guess we all have our place in the universe. I used to think I’d be a famous author one day. Of course, I might still be, but, more likely, I’ve found my place.

I have a job writing, and it’s a job I love. I work with people I love. I come home and I have a platform. An audience. I have a place to say anything I’d like to say.

That’s not what success used to look like to me. Whatever image I had in mind, it was probably a lot like Trynin’s. And you get closer for a while. Closer, and closer, and closer. And then no closer. You’ve found your place. Your audience may not be as big as you thought it would be, or as others expected it to be, but you have one. And that’s more than most people can say. It’s…y’know. Better than nothing.

Trynin also added me to her mailing list, and I’ll be notified whenever she’s playing with CUJO, her current band. Hopefully she’ll come out this way. I’d really like to see her live. Maybe I’ll get the chance to say hello, and maybe I won’t. But how often do you get the chance to see a great author rock out?

No moral here. No ultimate point. Just a little journey spanning decades that reminds me there’s always more to that four-minute song you love. I don’t know how many of those stories are worth knowing, but I’m glad I got the chance to hear hers.

Fallout is a game series I think about a lot. Even when I’m not playing it. Which, obviously, is most of the time.

There’s something about the series that keeps me enthralled. I love wandering the Wasteland, I love interacting with characters, I love deciding who to help and who to hinder. But I also love reading about the games. I love thinking about the games. I love watching others experience the games in ways I didn’t, not necessarily because their choices were different but because their perspectives were different.

When Fallout 4 came out, there was a bit of fan backlash. With the benefit of hindsight, I can largely agree with that backlash, even though I think the game did a lot of things very well. A friend of mine shared some of his frustration with the game pretty soon after release on Facebook. It was one of the first true criticisms of the game I saw.

Largely his complaint was with the way the game opened, which botched the necessary stage setting for the rest of the experience, he felt. Spoilers for this game (and Fallout 3) beyond this point. I’d consider them to be very minor, but you’ve been warned.

Anyway, very soon into Fallout 4, you witness the murder of your spouse and the kidnapping of your son. This sets the main story into motion, as you chase down the culprits through post-apocalyptic Boston.

My friend’s complaint was that as soon as he regained control of his character, he started gathering up loot, talking to new characters about unrelated things, building crazy weapons…in short, doing exactly what no human being could possibly do after witnessing the murder of his spouse and kidnapping of his child.

Fair enough, but I didn’t share that concern.

Yes, you can start collecting garbage and, as he put it, go adventuring with your new pals from the future…but you don’t have to, and the game doesn’t actively or immediately encourage you to do so. Someone brought up The Last of Us as a point of comparison, as that’s another game that opens with personal family trauma in the face of apocalypse, and handles it much better. And…well, yes, it does. That game is a masterpiece, with a deeply affecting opening sequence. Period.

…except that you can actually work against the intended emotional impact there, too, spinning in circles and acting like an idiot when your main character is supposed to be experiencing profound personal trauma.

That’s just an inherent gap of the medium. The character is meant to do or to feel something, but the player is not obligated to do or feel anything. Great games draw players in and encourage them to bridge that gap themselves, but the gap is always there at the start. You’re the one required to cross it, and you’re the one who can choose not to.

Fallout 4 makes it easier for a player to work against it than The Last of Us does; that much is absolutely true. There’s more to do in Fallout 4 for a start, meaning a player has more to experiment with and — therefore — more to distract him. And, frankly, the pre-war world we briefly occupy at the start of Fallout 4 is a bit cartoony and detached from reality compared to the deeply true-to-life single-parent home of The Last of Us, so we are at a relative emotional remove.

But, again, the fact is that any game that offers interactivity* allows the player to do things that aren’t in service of the game’s end. Mario is supposed to grab the flagpole, but he can walk endlessly into the side of a pipe if he wants. Link is supposed to collect the triforce pieces, but he can smash pots and play minigames until the player loses interest. And you’re supposed to mourn the collapse of your family in Fallout 4…but you can find a laser gun and play Buck Rogers if you prefer to do that instead.

I’m not shifting the blame away from any particular game. If the game fails to keep a player engaged, that’s on it. But the fact is that you can detach from the main goal at any point, whether or not there’s in-game incentive to do so.

My friend taught me something about myself as we had this conversation. He said that I probably have a greater willingness to “play along” than he does. And I’ve been stewing on that ever since. I don’t just suspend disbelief…I actively invest belief in whatever a game would like me to.

And why not? As with novels, films, television shows and even some music, the appeal to me is an opportunity to inhabit a world that an artist has created. I don’t have to give myself over emotionally to these things, but I find it both easy and rewarding to do so. I like playing along. Give me a hackneyed setup. Give me an idiotic twist. Give me a predictable arc. I’ll go along with anything if I expect it will pay off in some interesting or satisfying way.

Obviously, it doesn’t always. And if a game (or novel, or film…) loses me, I tend to stay lost. But I’m willing to give things the benefit of the doubt as long as I possibly can. Which is why I didn’t have an issue with Fallout 4‘s hamfisted emotional opening; I was absorbing it with the belief and understanding that it wasn’t an end in itself…it would lead to something else that would excuse whatever flaws it displayed up front.

Did it? Well, I won’t get into that, because it would distract from the point of this piece. The important thing is that I’m not only willing to engage with games on their own terms…I do so actively. And once my friend pointed this out about me, it felt important for me to know. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

I have another friend who will reload his Persona game over and over again until the conversations he has with other characters go exactly right. When I play, I let the conversations happen more or less naturally. Yes, that means I lose out on the chance to connect with certain characters before the game ends, but if my natural interaction with those characters isn’t something they enjoy, then why am I trying to connect with them at all?

The answer, of course, is that I can unlock gameplay perks by completing these connections (or, as the game calls them, Social Links). But it must be more important to me to be true — to “play along” within the fiction of the game — than it is to treat these interactions from the perspective of a player sitting on the couch who, really, has no reason to go through any of this except for the in-game perks. I treat the characters as people, and surround myself with the ones I would surround myself with in reality, rather than as digital means to an end. Even though, strictly speaking, that’s exactly what they are.

Heck, just today I was playing Wasteland 2 — my love of Fallout extends to related games easily — and I was low on supplies in a difficult area. I found a locked door and was able to force it open, revealing a small room. Inside were some containers, which were almost guaranteed to have the health and ammo I needed desperately, among some other nice treats. But one of my companions figured out my intentions. She said, “This is Kathy’s office. We shouldn’t be in here.”

…and I left the boxes unopened.

She was right. It was Kathy’s office. And they were Kathy’s things.

Why did that matter? It probably didn’t. My digital avatar could have used those digital goods…but I wanted to play along. My character wasn’t a thief, so he wasn’t about to thieve. My character makes friends and helps good people, so that’s how I’ll play…even if deviating from that self-imposed rule would make my experience easier.

And, yes, it would make the game easier, but would it make it more satisfying? Is playing games about getting to the end, or about the experience along the way? If you think it’s the former, you aren’t wrong, and you’re entitled to that belief. But I fall firmly into the latter camp.

I like opening myself up emotionally to art, when I can. Speaking only about video games, it would be difficult to get emotionally invested in Mega Man, for instance, as much as I love it. But as story and characterization become more important seemingly by the hour, I find myself rewarded for giving myself over to games like Limbo. Or The Last of Us. Or the single best example of unexpected consequence I’ve yet seen, Braid.

And, certainly, the Fallout games.

Opening myself up emotionally — playing along — isn’t just a way to feel what the developers want me to feel. It’s a way to feel what the character would actually feel. It’s a way to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. In somebody else’s situation. In somebody else’s dilemma. And that’s valuable. Studies have shown that readers of literary fiction develop a stronger sense of empathy, while readers in general (those who read popular fiction or non-fiction) aren’t much different in that regard from non-readers.

Likewise, not all video games have the same empathetic value, and I think the difference is similar to the split between literary and popular fiction. Popular fiction pulls you along through an experience, but literary fiction encourages you to think about the consequences or implications of that experience. It’s another layer, and it’s the defining one. Video games haven’t been around long enough to earn equivalent labels, but I do think there’s a difference between playing Call of Duty and playing Fallout 3. They each hand you guns and tell you to shoot the bad guys, but only one of them will haunt you for years with the choices you made. Or failed to make.

I’ve written about post-apocalyptic ethics a few times (such as here and here), but I wanted to share another memory with you now. One in which my willingness to give myself over to the game actually resulted a deep ethical shock to my system.

For all of the settlements I failed to save, for all of the people I failed to help, for all of the tragic outcomes I failed to avoid, there was a situation in Fallout 3 in which simply exploring one area — and the consequence of exploring that area — felt more meaningful to me than almost anything I’d done in video games before, or have since. By playing along with the game, I expected to feel consequences. But I never expected to feel monstrous.

Why would I? I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

My favorite parts of any Fallout game are the Vaults. Within the universe of the series, Vaults were designed as (largely) effective fallout shelters to protect humanity through nuclear war. Of course, they also functioned as contained social experiments, with different (and often cruel) variables inflicted upon the unprepared occupants to see how they would cope. By the time you as a player get to experience any of the Vaults, the experiments have almost uniformly come to an end, and you get to explore the wreckage, reading terminal entries and assembling the unseen Twilight Zone episode that was these occupants’ lives.

May favorite Vault experience was Fallout 3‘s Vault 106. I stumbled across it on my own. No character in the game had mentioned it, and I had no specific reason (apart from curiosity) to climb inside. It’s a game, after all. I might as well check out this new area and see what cool items I can dig up.

I had seen several Vaults in the game already (you begin the game in one, find an important character in another, and — in a truly brilliant sequence — tour a promotional model in a bombed-out museum), so the design was familiar, but it was immediately apparent, once I entered, that this was not going to be a safe experience. Tables and chairs were overturned, trash was everywhere, and the lights didn’t seem to be entirely functional. I was on guard for enemies at this point, but I couldn’t find any.

I explored the Vault deeper. There wasn’t much food or anything to scavenge. Before long I met an occupant…who ran at me, babbling incoherently, and brandishing a lead pipe.

I holstered my weapon, which is a cue in this game for not wanting to fight, but the occupant kept coming. I backed up, giving him time to reconsider, but before long he was attacking me, screaming, not letting me speak to him. I didn’t really have a choice, so I targeted him and shot him dead. The game named this attacker “Insane Survivor.”

Well, there was my answer. At least one occupant had gone insane, and that’s why Vault 106 was trashed. It’s also why I couldn’t reason with him in the same way that one can reason with many other individuals: he had no sense of reason. His mind was gone. He was insane.

Further into the Vault I encountered a few other enemies marked as Insane Survivors. At first I still tried to get them to drop their weapons. After all, my character lived in a Vault once, too. My friends lived in Vaults. I’m not here to cause trouble. But they were indeed insane, and I had no choice but to kill them if I wanted to survive. It really was me or them. And if they were truly crazed, beyond any kind of understanding, lost entirely to brainless, unending violence…isn’t ending their lives a kind of mercy?

Being attacked by humans was nothing new. Fallout 3 contains a lot of people in enclosed spaces who want you dead. Killing Vault dwellers indeed felt wrong, at first, but after enough of them swarm you with weapons, you make a decision. And each time it happens, you make that decision a little bit faster.

What really set this experience apart, though, was something that happened as I was walking through a corridor. I heard some bizarre mumbling ahead of me, and proceeded with caution. After a few steps the entire screen went blue, and the mumbling stopped. I thought it was a glitch in the game, especially when, a few steps later, the color was properly restored, and the babbling started up again. An Insane Survivor was up ahead. I chased him down and killed him.

These “blue-out” moments kept happening, though. I went from assuming it was a glitch to assuming that there was some kind of unreliable blue lighting in the vault (a night-time simulator?) that was kicking on spasmodically. I then assumed the Insane Survivors were trying to disorient me by flicking the lights on and off. It was creepy enough as it was, and it became even moreso once I realized, after several more times, that the vault looked a lot…cleaner when it was blue.

The tables were upright. The papers were stacked neatly. No more grime and greasy (bloody?) handprints. The computer monitors were not smashed. In fact, they were functional. And if I activated them, I could read notes that changed each time I called them up. They asked me to soak in the blue. It was safer here. It was nice…

Eventually I was able to piece together that these blue-outs were caused by gas leaking through the vents. It was causing hallucinations. It was causing colors to change, characters to vanish and reappear, items to rearrange, exits to relocate or disappear entirely. Someone, somewhere, according to a computer terminal, had decided to test a psychoactive chemical on the residents of Vault 106. It was still being pumped into the rooms when I entered, long after everybody was driven mad by these hallucinations. Was it intended to continue indefinitely? Or was it meant to be temporary, with those conducting the experiment either going mad themselves, or being killed by those who did, before they could discontinue it?

The blue-outs kept happening. Then going away. Then happening again. I was in two versions of Vault 106 at once. One safe and cool…one treacherous and full of murderers. At one point I was attacked before the hallucination (as that was now, clearly, what this was) kicked in, and the attacker turned into a character I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the game…one of my childhood tormentors. I tried not to fight, but I lashed out at last, just in case my hallucination was more powerful than reality. He disappeared when I struck him, became somebody else, eventually turned back into the real-life attacker in the properly-colored world.

It was disorienting, overwhelming, and frightening. It’s one thing to know the odds are against you. It’s another to not know where you are, how to get back out, or what’s waiting around the next corner.

Ultimately I made it as deep into the Vault as it was possible to go. There was a small room. A storage cupboard. I opened it and I found one last occupant there, sealed off from the rest of the Vault dwellers. When I opened the door, she attacked me, but something was different. The game didn’t mark her as an Insane Survivor. She was marked instead as Survivor. The absence of the modifier (the qualifier) gave her an entire history.

She had not been driven mad by the hallucinations. Instead, she saw what was happening to the others and, unable to interfere without getting herself killed, gathered up as many supplies as she could and isolated herself from the chaos. The occupants originally entered Vault 106 to escape the war on the surface, and she entered this storage cupboard to escape the war in Vault 106.

But I killed her. She fought me, and I killed her.

Because I couldn’t reason with her. Because I was on edge. Survival was not the issue. She didn’t have much of a weapon. (Did she even have a weapon?) She was not insane; she just knew she had no reason to trust me. Why would she approach me in peace? For all she knew, I would shoot her in the head, loot her supplies, and leave again. That’s what anyone else would do, including her fellow residents, lost to their madness.

I wouldn’t have done that, given the choice. I wouldn’t have killed a sane survivor. And yet that’s just what I did.

I’m not monstrous. I’m flawed. I may not always make the right decisions. But I’m not the bad guy. I choose not to play as the bad guy. That’s my choice, and one this game — like many others — allows me to make. I’ve chosen not to be the villain.

And then, suddenly, I was.

Vault 106 successfully messed with my mind enough that it culminated with me murdering an innocent woman. A woman who took steps to avoid the Insane Survivors all around her lost her life to a reasonable, pragmatic guy who had just gradually gotten used enough to gunning down Vault dwellers that he didn’t think twice. Was I any better than the Insane Survivors? Or did I just have better equipment?

All I know is that there was a sane woman locked safely away in a Vault somewhere. And sanity in the Wasteland is a precious resource. Now she’s dead, because I thought it would be fun to do a little exploring.

And that’s what demonstrates Fallout 4‘s biggest weakness to me. Ultimately I don’t share the same concern as my friend, but he helped me to understand what I felt was lacking. In that game, I made my biggest decision — to destroy the Institute — and never looked back. No, I don’t think it was a perfect solution to Boston’s problems, but before doing it I was convinced that I was making the right decision for me. Afterward…no additional information or ramifications made me reconsider that. The decision was large, but ultimately hollow. I decided to do something and did it, and had no more afterthought than I would after having flipped a light switch.

Fallout 3, however, haunts me years later…and all it had to do was give me a Vault to explore.

I never expected such a small thing to have such a big impact.

And, of course, small things don’t always.

But any time they do, I’m reminded of the importance of playing along.

—–
* The exception here might be visual novels, with the only true opportunity for deviation coming from withholding input. But, honestly, I’d think that counts. When the game is waiting for your response and you choose to provide none, ever, at any point, that is still a method of playing.

This is a story I meant to share a while back, but I didn’t have the time to actually write it up. Now, with the big kerfuffle between Steve Whitmire and seemingly everyone else Steve Whitmire has ever met, it seems like a good time to actually post it. Hopefully this reminds folks that while the people operating the Muppets may be flawed and sometimes shitty human beings, what the characters teach us still makes a difference.

A few weekends ago, I spent some time at Denver Comic Con. I enjoy conventions for one major reason: vendors.

I’ve had conversations about this. About the fact that I’m paying admission just to go buy things…and about the fact that anything I’ll find there will be available — in some way — online anyway. And, really, I can’t argue with that. But I keep going, every year. Sometimes I’ll hit other conventions as well. I think part of the appeal for me is the feeling that comes with being part of an event, but there’s also the more logistical appeal: seeing the vendors in person, with their inventories spread out before them, allows me to browse.

Sure, whatever books or DVDs or figurines I pick up at Comic Con are exactly what I could find online later. But would I find them online? As much as I love Amazon (and I do love Amazon), I still like spending hour after hour in physical book stores. That’s because Amazon is a great service when I know what book I want, but bookstores are great for browsing…for when I have some approximate concept of what I’ll enjoy, but am otherwise open to new titles, new authors, new experiences I can’t even imagine yet.

Comic Con, to me, offers a vast array of great experiences I might never find it I didn’t have the chance to browse. And every year I come home with a bag of stuff I didn’t know existed. Rarely am I disappointed with my haul; not everything I find there will change my life, of course, but I always feel at least a little more enriched for having read, seen, or listened to whatever it is I discovered.

This year I did my normal thing of walking around the various booths, seeing what was on offer before I spent any money. You can count on seeing largely the same kinds of products from year to year, but sometimes there’s a surprise. And fairly quickly I found my first and favorite surprise of the year.

What caught my eye was a big banner with the Sesame Place logo on it. One guy sat behind the table, and there were stacks of books in front of him. Just seeing that banner brought back a lot of memories I don’t often think about. They’re from my childhood, so they get excluded along with much of what I actively try to forget.

For those of you who don’t know, Sesame Place is a Sesame Street theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania. I’ll always remember the name of that town, because I grew up in Southern New Jersey and remember seeing the commercials constantly. Here’s one I remember quite well. It was my first experience of the song “Short People,” by the way, and if you watch this video maybe you’ll understand just a bit of my shock the first time I heard the actual song on the radio.

Langhorne, Pennsylvania seemed like a special place. Had Sesame Place existed in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, the town name wouldn’t have registered the same way. We knew those cities already. They were just places on a map that contained things. But Langhorne wasn’t a name I ever heard in any other context. Langhorne was Sesame Place. And that was magical.

At some point, I got to go. I’d guess I was around 10 years old. I could have been 8. It was me, my brother, and my mother. We were joined by our neighbor and her two kids, Jennifer and Brian. According to Google Maps, Langhorne was a drive of an hour and a half from where I grew up. As kids it felt like much longer, or maybe that was the anticipation magnifying everything. I remember playing a game in the car that I don’t think I played at any other point in my life. We’d take turns using our fingertips to “draw” on somebody else’s back, and they’d have to guess what we drew. These were definitely the days before I had a Game Boy.

By this time, I’d been to Disney World, which is unquestionably the larger and more significant family theme park. But…I didn’t love Disney. I had nothing against it, and of course I could recognize Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck easily enough, but I wasn’t actually a fan of any of their films. To be honest, I’m still not. It wasn’t until the Disney Afternoon introduced me to Duck Tales and Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers that I became an active fan of anything Disney. The Muppets, on the other hand…I loved those guys. And I was excited about the trip.

So, of course, I went over to the table and talked to the man selling books. He introduced himself as Guy Hutchinson, one of the authors of Images of Modern America: Sesame Place.

If you’ve traveled around America, you’ve probably seen books with this identical cover design everywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever picked one up prior to this, let alone purchased one, but they’re out there. Visit a decent-sized town or city and there will be some equivalent of this book with photos of old railroad bridges, buildings that are no longer there, significant construction projects…you get the picture.

I always figured they were more souvenir than anything. You’d pick one up as a memento, the same way you would a refrigerator magnet. I didn’t really care. Then again, I didn’t really care about railroad bridges or construction projects in general. The Muppets, on the other hand…

Guy — who shares his name with a Sesame Street Muppet — started to tell me about Sesame Place. Not specific facts or trivia about the park, but rather a very basic introduction to the fact that it exists. He likely wasn’t expecting many people in Denver to know about it. He’d have to start with Sesame Steet‘s familiarity and move on from there.

But I told him that I knew about it, and that I’d been there. He was clearly enthusiastic, and I wasn’t trying to deflate him as much as I was trying to let him know that he could skip the introduction and get right to the really exciting stuff.

And he showed me his book. Which was, I admit, really exciting.

Again, I haven’t picked up other books in this series, but this seems to support my assumptions about them. There’s very little straight writing…in keeping with the Images of Modern America theme, they’re almost entirely visual, with very informative cutlines.

To be frank, I think I could have read and loved a 500 page book about the history of Sesame Place whether or not it contained photos at all…but I understand that I’m mentally ill and other people might prefer pictures of the rides.

I immediately knew I’d buy the book, but we talked for a while longer. He talked about how cooperative everybody was at the park, how they provided photos and information for him, how they described attractions that were planned but never made it to the public.

This book might be a souvenir, but it was also a fascinating one…and just talking about it transported me back to that trip I took as a child…one of which no photos exist. But the book — broken down into eras in the park’s history — provides the next best thing to me.

One of the things the park provided to Guy was master artwork of Buford T. Higgenbottom, a Muppet who was created specifically to serve as the park’s mascot. Guy used this to have stickers made — among other things — and he very kindly gave me one.

That might not sound too interesting on its own, but while Buford has a page on the Muppet Wiki, there’s no image of him there. And a Google image search turns up completely dry as well. The park was really his only hope for getting that art, as it doesn’t seem to exist in any quality anywhere on the internet.

Of course, now Noiseless Chatter will show up in a search for it, which WAS MY PLAN ALL ALONG.

I told him about my few memories of the park. About a clear little rubber ball with Big Bird and the Sesame Place logo inside that I had for many years and finally lost. And mainly about one particular attraction, which I’ve always wondered about.

Remember, I was a kid, so my memory is not reliable. But I recall some kind of attraction in which you had to cross a long, narrow platform, suspended a terrifying height in the air. I remember there was water below, and I think more was falling down like a fountain. I remember the platforms being yellow and, for some reason, I remember it being themed after Count Von Count. In my mind, it was a very dangerous activity and I was afraid I’d fall and die. That’s not the work of excited imagination, mind you…that’s the work of actual fear. I was scared while navigating that attraction and still retain an image of what it looks like in my memory.

He wasn’t sure what attraction I was remembering, but he did tell me about a Count-themed Halloween show that evidently was scary enough to earn the park some complaints.

I told him I’d buy a copy of the book, and he smiled and said, “I’ve got some swag to share with you, too.”

One bit of that swag was another, more general, Sesame Place sticker:

Then he gave me some really cool things.

Evidently when the park launched, there was — for lack of a better term — an arcade. There may still be one, I don’t know, but it was less of a traditional arcade than it was a computing area, where kids could learn and work at computer stations. Something like that would be much less of a novelty today than it was in the late 80s, but it was apparently pretty cutting edge at the time.

Guy gave me four tokens from that computing area. While doing his research, the park revealed that they had buckets of them collecting dust. That was a lucky find for him, and then again for me.

Those are really great. They’re all the same design; I just flipped two of them over to show off both sides. But even better were these season pass badges:

These are two different designs: Big Bird and Super Grover. They are slightly different sizes and colors in addition to the different character, so I don’t know if one entitled the wearer to more perks than the other, or if you just got to choose which one you liked best when you bought a season pass. I don’t know if Sesame Place even has season passes anymore, but if they do I’m sure they’re just little cards you keep in your wallet.

But…man. These things are incredible. They’re beautiful. I love these.

When he gave me these, I laughed. Grover was my favorite character as a kid, and I loved his Super Grover persona. In fact, when I was little I had a Grover doll that was almost as big as I was. Here’s a photo of that and proof that I used to have hair:

Guy told me that Grover was the one everybody liked, and nobody involved with the park or the show seemed to realize it. I’d believe him. He said that the park wanted the badges to feature Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, as they were assumed to be the two most popular characters. But somebody had the idea to actually ask people which character they liked best…and we ended up with Grover.

I didn’t want to eat up Guy’s entire morning, but I thanked him for his kindness, and for some really incredible vintage goodies I never would have expected to have in my entire life. It was like getting a chance to visit the park again in 1986 or whenever I went and having the foresight to keep all these little things you never would have thought would matter to you. It actually meant a lot to me, and I told him he made my day.

He signed my book before I left, and drew Cookie Monster. Why Cookie Monster? Because, according to Guy, he’s the only character you can draw without worrying about his pupils. If you draw Big Bird or Bert or Elmo or somebody and their pupils are slightly off, they look wrong. But with Cookie Monster, who has crazed eyes that wander constantly and asynchronously whenever the puppeteer moves, you can put the pupils anywhere and they’ll look right.

I felt really lucky to meet Guy that day. Not only was he a friendly and interesting person, but he clearly loved the work he had done. And he relished the chance to share it with someone who could appreciate it. I hope he met a lot of those someones over the course of the weekend.

What I do know is that he reminded me of a positive childhood memory, and gave me vintage trinkets that, miraculously, survived the decades that passed since the park was founded.

I hope he enjoyed speaking with me as well…if only because I could then feel like I repaid the favor somewhat.

I have a friend who is pretty busted up about the whole Steve Whitmire thing. About the negativity that’s been passed around among people he admires. About the ugly underside to what are supposed to be comforting and reassuring productions. About the fact that it’s impossible to know who’s in the wrong…Steve Whitmire, or everybody else who’s ever lived?

But meeting Guy…interacting with him…listening to him talk and watching him get excited about an amusement park…this is what the Muppets are all about. Someone who grew up loving them so much he wrote a book about them, and someone else who grew up loving them buying that book. The two of them meeting and sharing memories. Two strangers who may have nothing else in common in the entire world sharing a moment over something that’s given them both so much joy. That’s offered such valuable escape. That’s guided them through difficult times and helped shape them into who they are today.

The Muppets have allowed me to connect with and bond with more people than I can probably count. (Ah, ah, ah!) Those of us who grew up with them remember them not as characters on some shows we used to watch, but as early friends who helped us understand that however different we are, whatever our strengths or weaknesses, however small we might feel at times, we each had something unique to bring to the world.

Guy reminded me of that.

He could have sold me his book and moved on. I wouldn’t have blamed him. That’s what vendors do.

Instead he showed me great kindness long before I expressed interest in buying anything.

That’s more valuable than the book could have been to me or the money could have been to him. In scary, uncertain times, it’s important to remember that there are still little rafts of sunlight out there to find. I credit the Muppets. And no amount of behind-the-scenes idiocy will change that.


The book is available for purchase from Amazon here, if you’re interested.

The Hotel New Hampshire, John IrvingChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Hotel New Hampshire
Author: John Irving
Year: 1981

I’m closing this series the way I opened it: with a book I read on a whim, and which affected me deeply. In both cases I had no expectations going in. In both cases, I just felt compelled to pick up the novel. In both cases, I came away a different person.

This is why I read. This is why everybody should read.

The difference between those experiences, though, is that Catch-22 turned me into a writer. I was younger then. I wasn’t…me. I was somebody, for sure, but Catch-22 hit me at the right time. It gave me direction I didn’t know I needed. It said, “Look. Look at all of the amazing things literature can do.”

And I never looked back. I’ve been reading and writing ever since. The number of days on which I’ve done neither is very low indeed.

That’s a great trick, but as Daffy Duck so eloquently put it, you can only do it once.

Because I’ve been a reader and writer ever since, books can’t affect me that way anymore. One of them had to do it, and one did. Now, sure, I may read a book that I end up loving, but it can’t be transformational. Can it? How many times can a human being be reinvented?

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t reinvent me, but it could have. Maybe if I had found it earlier. Certainly reading it for the first time was like hearing echos from a past I never lived through. It felt familiar. It felt like an unburied memory. It felt like I was revisiting a book I loved long ago and finding that it was every bit as important as I thought it was then.

With one difference, of course: I’d never read it before.

It was too late to change me. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t improve me.

I worry, probably too often, that there are a finite number of books I’ll be able to read before I die. I worry because…well, I love books. I want to surround myself with them. I want to get lost in them. They mean something to me in a way that so much else…doesn’t. They’re important. They’re enriching. I keep reading, experiencing, falling in love dozens of times over…

And one day I will die.

And when I do, literal mountains of books will be left unread.

That’s sad enough.

It’s worse to realize that some of those books could have become favorites as well…and I’d just never gotten around to them. Life was too short. Some alternate version of who I could have been is locked away forever in a book on some shelf that I never had time to pick up.

I think you can guess which episode of The Twilight Zone hits me hardest.

That’s the whole reason I’ve done these writeups at all. Somewhere out there, there’s a book that can affect you. A book that can change you. A book that can teach you things about yourself and about the world and about people you never meet, and that’s a more valuable gift than most of us realize.

Read. Grab a book and read. Ask for recommendations, or don’t. Follow your gut, follow the reviews, follow something that leads you to a book, because literature is important. Literacy is important. Opening your mind to the numberless volumes of great works that have already been written is important.

The Hotel New Hampshire called to me from a shelf just a few short years ago, the same way Catch-22 did a lifetime ago. I didn’t recognize its voice, but it still sounded familiar. And I ended up loving a book so immediately, so deeply, so urgently, in ways I hadn’t felt since Catch-22. Old feelings came back. Something was rekindled. Something that I thought I was privileged to feel once I was downright blessed to feel twice.

The Hotel New Hampshire is the story of the Berry family, and the relentless unfolding of their continuous tragedy. Except…get this…it’s actually pretty comforting. And inspiring. And funny.

Their lives seem to be cursed. No sooner does one misfortune pass than another–usually larger and more devastating–takes its place. We follow the Berrys over the course of many years…watching them grow up, grow older, push along through sorrow after sorrow…

…but not mournfully. Because they have each other.

And that’s something I’ve never actually witnessed in a great work of literature before.

I’ve seen happy families. I’ve seen sad families. I’ve seen families pull together and families fall apart.

But I’ve never seen a family stay so consistently loyal, so open and dedicated to each other, through so much unimaginable darkness…and I never thought it could be so convincing.

A lot happens in The Hotel New Hampshire, and different scenes and sequences will stay with different readers to different degrees. But I think it’s impossible to come away from the book without a deep admiration for just how real the Berry family is. John Irving tapped into what makes a modern American family so sad, so stifled, so stuck…and reminded us that we can all find hope in our own way. Together, and yet as individuals. Doomed to face a darker tomorrow, and yet able if not to stare it down than at least to keep going. Or, as Irving himself puts it in this context, to keep passing the open windows.

The Berrys don’t ignore tragedy; they process it. They reshape it into something they can cope with. After all…don’t they sort of have to? Even when the tragedy is so large that it takes one of them (or two…) they understand that they need to keep going. What else is there?

And so The Hotel New Hampshire becomes, gradually, a chronicle of sadness that never quite feels sad. Because the sun does rise again. Maybe on a new and different tragedy, but there’s also a kind of richness to that. So much so that our narrator, John Berry, ends the book, yes, with a lot of sadness in his past, but with a personal history of exploration and understanding that he could not have had otherwise.

The Berrys keeps finding ways to move forward. And as upsetting as some of their experiences can be (there is one sequence that takes place during Halloween that I find tremendously difficult to read, though I deeply respect how affecting it is), they don’t get to choose what does and does not befall them. All they can choose is what they do next.

And, in that sense, the Berrys are heroes. They keep going not because they ever succeed…but because they don’t. In other hands, the Berrys would have starred in a cautionary tale. In other hands, so would all of us. But here, in The Hotel New Hampshire, they remind us that we’re all flawed, that we’re all groping along our own seemingly unending chain of miseries…

…and that that’s okay.

We can still choose what we do next.

The Hotel New Hampshire didn’t get to change who I was, the way Catch-22 did.

It just taught me something important about sadness, and how to process it.

It taught me that, no, you can’t reach into your life and pull out all of the things you wish you never experienced.

But you can keep going.

And you should.

Because there’s still something ahead that you’ll be glad you’ve seen. Even if it is, right now, just some book on a shelf.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

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