Writing has actually been important to me for longer than reading has. Don’t worry; I’m not suggesting that this is in any way a good thing. Writing without reading is almost entirely worthless for anything beyond its therapeutic value.
But I wrote, long before I understood stories. Long before I understood characters. Long before I understood structure or themes or my audience. I wrote a lot of garbage. It went nowhere, which is exactly as far as it deserved to go.
Eventually, I started reading as well. Nothing of much merit. Some John Grisham, some Michael Crichton, some Stephen King. The pop stars of fiction. I’d like to think I would have enjoyed actual literature, but I sure as hell wasn’t reading any, so we’ll never know for sure.
At some point in the mid-90s, looking for something to read in my high school library, I found a copy of Catch-22. I’ve already talked about what an important moment this was for me. I won’t say much more, except that this is the book that made me a writer. It’s the book that revealed to me what writing can do. It affected me in a way no work of art had ever affected me, and, suddenly, writing wasn’t just some passive hobby. It was what I wanted to do. It was the first thing I’d ever thought to take seriously.
That was around twenty years ago. In the time since, I studied literature at college. I dedicated myself to honing my craft, working with a number of deeply accomplished writers who, for reasons I’ll never understand but will always appreciate, showed me more patience and support than I deserved.
I was a kid. I was stubborn. I thought I knew more than I did.
They helped me anyway.
I joined a number of writing groups online, and met other helpful artists who guided me forward. I connected with people on various forums and shot drafts back and forth. Often the mere act of providing feedback helped me see weaknesses in my own work that I couldn’t have addressed otherwise.
I got better. I started writing for a number of different websites, all of which took a chance on me when they certainly didn’t have to, and all of which helped me to improve a little more.
I started seeing my work edited. Not marked up, not annotated with suggestions, but changed. I provided something, and they published something else. I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle. Who were they to meddle with my work? They were people who knew what they were doing. I was still learning. In time I started to realize that the edits almost uniformly made my work stronger. I started to take note of what they were cutting, what they were changing, what they were resequencing. My work got better.
I started seeing my work commented upon by readers. The internet provides that incredible resource, something that traditional print media never allowed. Feedback from your audience is instant. If I wrote something good, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find 20, 30, 50 people telling me. If I wrote something bad, people would tell me. I could reload the page and find twice as many eager to tell me that.
I bristled. I was a writer, so I was supposed to bristle.
Then I listened. Not to everybody, of course, because there will never come a time that I’ll please everybody. But sharp criticism — even if it’s sharply phrased — was helpful to me, too. Perhaps the reader had missed my point. More often, I have to admit, I failed to deliver it clearly. I learned. My work got better still.
I started hosting my own writing workshops. I started tutoring others who wished to write better, whether for professional or personal reasons. I did my best to help them understand the lessons I had to learn painfully. I saw progress. I watched them evolve from writers at one level to writers at another. To this day I’m still not sure I’ve ever felt more satisfied than in those moments.
I got work as a writer. An an editor. As a proofreader. At some point the hobby that had become a passion had become a career. I’ve worked in television, radio, newspapers, magazines, the private sector, the government. People need writers. Countless individuals along the way had helped me become one. This was how I earned a living. If that’s where I stopped, I would have been happy.
That isn’t where I stopped.
A few weeks ago, on May 2, to be exact, I fulfilled a lifelong dream. I signed a publishing contract. I pitched an idea. Months passed. Emails were exchanged. Conversations were had. A contract was prepared. I signed it. I’m writing a book.
I can’t really offer much more in the way of detail. Well, I could, I suppose, but I’ve been asked not to. I’m happy not to!
The point is that I’ll be working on a complete draft over the course of the next few months. Noiseless Chatter won’t go away. I still intend to post new things. Maybe I’ll share some insights or anecdotes about the writing process. I’m really not sure. But as busy as things have been for me, this made them much busier overnight.
This is a good thing. Because this is what I’ve worked for. And this is where so many people in so many places for reasons I couldn’t possibly tell you helped me get here.
You, all of you, helped me get here. Those of you I went to school with, those of you who followed me here from YouTube or Nintendo Life or Adventure Game Studio, those of you who stumbled across an article I wrote here or elsewhere and stuck around…you’re the reason this is happening.
There’s another writer online I respect very much. I’ve followed his career. I’ve read much of his output. I do my best to support him whenever I can. In fact, I’m jealous of him, of his talents, of his abilities. He’s great at what he does, and he deserves everything he’s achieved.
He’s also broke.
He has a Patreon, and that seems to make the difference between whether or not he can afford groceries for the month.
I…don’t have to worry about that. My writing career isn’t as impressive or storied as his, and if we both died tomorrow he’d leave a legacy and I’d leave very little. But I can afford to eat. I can afford a place to live. I don’t have to worry about who will be sending me a check, or how much I have squirreled away in case that check doesn’t come.
I don’t just get to write; I get to make a living as a writer.
I’m a tremendously lucky person for that reason if for no other, and I don’t let myself forget that. Better writers than me struggle more than I do. Worse writers than me do much better. There’s not much in the way of correlation between talent and success. No matter how much I have of the former, I’m a very lucky person to have any of the latter.
I’ve worked with more talented individuals than I could possibly list here. Sometimes on projects that went nowhere, sometimes on projects that could have been better, sometimes on projects that went better than we could have dreamed. I’ve known more people who have picked me up when I was down and encouraged me to keep going when I was hopeless than I can even remember. I’ve gotten where I am because a lot of people gave up little pieces of themselves to hold me together.
And now I’m getting a lot further.
This opportunity will open a lot of doors for me. That’s thrilling and frightening in equal measure. I keep expecting to wake up at any point now. And, of course, I keep hoping I won’t.
The draft is coming along great. I’m excited to share it with my publisher and excited to share the details with all of you once the time is right. This is a big thing for me, and I think you’ll enjoy it.
I grew up without much support for my writing. I can’t really blame anybody. Nobody should write because they expect to make money at it. I didn’t expect to make money at it, and my family understandably thought I should maybe look into some other career.
But then I started to meet people who also weren’t doing it for the money, who were doing it because that’s who they were. They worked at grocery stores or at restaurants or at movie theaters to pay the bills, and then they’d come home and write funny, moving, thought provoking things most of the world would never even know existed.
And they helped schmucks like me.
If I hadn’t found that support, and hadn’t had that support upheld so many times over the years, I wouldn’t be a writer today. Not professionally, at least. I’d have a hard drive full of Word .docs and a pad full of notes that would go, ultimately, nowhere.
That would be okay.
The fact that I’m any further along than that is a bonus. It’s more than enough for me. It’s always been more than enough.
But pretty soon, I get to take another step.
I’m a really lucky guy.
I hope you’ll stick around to see it through with me.
I promised a new year’s post looking back at 2017, and then never wrote it. What’s more, I didn’t even want to write it. Very little appealed to me less than looking back at the past year. I kept waiting to see if I’d be inspired to write it, and I never was. Which shouldn’t have surprised me at all; I’ve been lacking the inspiration to write about things I would like to cover. Forcing myself to write a new year’s post — even something as simple as “Let’s not do that shit again” — just wasn’t going to happen.
Besides, I knew I’d have to follow that up soon enough with the actual tradition that is my birthday post. I might as well put it off, and say anything I had to say later.
It’s later, now. Today is my birthday. I turn 37 as this very site enters its seventh year of existence.
And what is there to say? What do I want to say? What can I bring myself to say?
It was a hard year. I’d stop short of calling it terrible (in fact, it wasn’t terrible), but, much like the year before it, it certainly wasn’t easy.
Life has been trying, lately. Change is always hard, but I think it’s fair to say it’s far harder when that change isn’t your choice. I had two friends pass away. I had my car legally totaled by a freak hailstorm, and then had my replacement car targeted repeatedly by vandals. I was forced to move out of a place I loved and into a place I didn’t. I was accosted in a parking lot one night and then had to recount it again and again to authority figures who haven’t been able to find the guy. I ended up hurting the one person I’m willing to believe has ever truly loved me.
And…well, something else. Something I’d prefer not to go into now, even as I’m opening myself up. Suffice it to say, I went through something this past year that left me more or less convinced I would not be around much longer. Very likely not long enough to even write this post. Something I’ve told almost nobody, and certainly nobody who will ever read this site. I struggled alone, through something I really believed was going to kill me. I guess I got lucky. That much depends on how you look at it, but, either way, I’m here.
Oh, and evidently the world is in a political deathspin. That’s nice, too.
It’s difficult when so much of your headspace is dedicated to simply coping to find the inspiration — or, perhaps, the energy — to be productive. Through all of this, of course, I work a full-time job and freelance whenever possible.
I start thinking about things I’d like to do as chunks of time I won’t get back, and then I don’t do them. Sure, I could read for an hour, but then that’s an hour less of sleep, or one less freelance job I can take. I’d love to see that new movie, but after travel and conversation with whomever I go with, that’s three or four hours I can’t use to catch up on everything else that’s been slipping. I can write an article for this site, or I can actually watch / play / listen to / read whatever the heck I might want to write about.
And so, to be blunt, I’m aware I haven’t had the most productive year here. I won’t do the math, because there’s no way it would lead to any number I’d like to focus on, but I’m willing to believe I’ve had the least productive year here.
It’s not all about volume. I know that. We all have our ups and downs, but I wouldn’t say that the quality of my work — here or elsewhere — is any lower on the whole than it’s ever been.
I’m a really glass-half-full kinda guy, huh?
Alright, fine. I will say, in all honesty, that I’ve published some of my favorite things in the past year. Flipping through the archives I see posts that felt important to share. Posts that opened doors for me creatively and professionally. Posts that led me to people and artists I would not have encountered otherwise.
But I wish there was more of it. I have a number of things I wish I could have written. I have a number of series I wish I could have kept up. I have a number of things I’ve been asked to cover that I simply haven’t been able to, because I’ve been drained and dragging and empty.
That was 2017. A year I simultaneously wish I could do over and am glad I’ll never see again.
Now it’s 2018, and having a birthday just about a month into the year is actually very efficient for someone like me: I get to blast through all of my introspection in one good stretch. I’m glad, because I don’t think I’d survive doing it twice annually.
Shortly before the new year, a Facebook friend shared an image of a chart like the one you see above. The idea was that you’d fill in one square each day, color coded by mood, and when you were finished you’d have a bit of pixel art representing your year. I thought “pixel art” was a bit of a stretch — as you’re guaranteed to end up with a vague speckled mess as opposed to, say, an 8-bit apple — but I also thought it might be a nice idea. I mocked up my own version in Excel — along with mood options I felt were more suited to me specifically — and, so far, I’ve been keeping up with it.
And you’ll see it’s…really not that bad. So far, 2018 has been pretty great. It hasn’t been perfect, and I’ve had a couple of lousy days, but…things are okay.
I’m happier. My background tragedies have either been resolved or naturally receded. I’ve met a great new person. I have a wealth of new opportunities. I wake up in the morning to go to a job I love and, relatively speaking, I have energy on the weekends to do the things I enjoy.
“The year” is obviously just a construct. It’s helpful to file away history by the page, and this is how we’ve chosen to measure it. Beyond that it has very little significance. I know that. And yet, this time around, it really does feel as though a dividing line has been carved. I approached the end of one year an anxious tangle of despair, and started the next one feeling…normal.
Feeling almost human. Feeling like just a person who gets to live. One who, of course, has to deal with whatever hardships life chooses to lob his way but one who doesn’t find them unduly compounded to the point that they’re impossible to overcome.
But there’s a caveat.
Obviously a chart like that can’t show the complete story. Nearly every day I experience the entire colorful range of those emotions. Maybe I’ll get lucky and not feel too anxious. More likely, I won’t feel happy. But those things change by the hour, at least, and mapping emotions at that level would be unsustainable. So at the end of each day, I have to sort of average it out. And averaging a day out to “satisfied,” even if it’s accurate in a general sense, by no means tells or suggests the actual emotional cocktail that is any given day.
Even moreso, though, the chart doesn’t and can’t take into account the background hum of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness that I experience constantly. A friend who saw my chart a few weeks ago congratulated me on having a great start to my new year. And, again, I have. But as we continued the conversation and I mentioned that in spite of those very good days I still feel like I have no hope for the future and very little desire to keep going, he said, “That doesn’t sound like a great start to me.”
And, well, it’s not. I’m never one to mince words anyway, so let me be clear: it sucks.
I don’t like the feelings I’ve been cursed with. I don’t like that that’s where my brain lives, only popping out temporarily for a peek at the sun before sinking into the mire again. I don’t like that that’s who I am. After a social event this year, another friend of mine asked me if I enjoyed myself. She was taken aback when I replied, “I have a complicated relationship with enjoying myself.”
I didn’t say it to be wry or even to dodge the question. That was my answer. It was honest. And it’s only when somebody else hears it and is baffled by it that you realize that’s not how it’s supposed to be.
A good day or a good social event isn’t about enjoying myself. It’s about distracting myself — maybe — from the desolate hum that is always, hour by hour, pulsing through my brain. It’s about not actively hating who I am or what I’m doing. It’s about not being so anxious or socially terrified that I shut down completely.
You need to grade these things on a curve. For me, that’s a good day.
And then I get anxious about actually enjoying myself. On those rare occasions that I do fine, tell jokes, make some new friends, or whatever else, I end up giving people the wrong impression. I’m open about my mental health issues here, on this blog, because it’s far easier to consider them and write about them and post them for people I’ve never met than it is to put myself on the spot in front of somebody I see regularly. But when I do open up to people, I often get responses such as, “That’s not true. I’ve seen you in social situations. You can do it.”
In a sense, they’re right. In a sense, they’re wrong. Sure, I can do it. And also, I can’t. It depends on what my brain lets me do. If I’m able to push through, I will. Why not? Who on Earth would rather have a bad time with others? Certainly not me. When I do struggle, fail, shut down, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s because I can’t — genuinely cannot — push through the barrier. My own mind will not let me enjoy myself.
I want to enjoy myself. Why wouldn’t I?
I want to have truly great days. Why wouldn’t I?
I want to be funny and charming and sweet to everybody, all the time. Why wouldn’t I?
Instead, those things happen with extraordinary rarity. Life is already hard. People are already assholes. Getting ahead is already difficult. On top of all of that, I have my own mind holding me back. I wrestle with it 24 hours a day, every day that I’m alive. A good day might mean that I won 51% of the matches. Honestly, a good day might just mean that I won 20% of them.
When I can’t push through, I can’t push through. There’s no decision I can make or amount of energy I can invest to change that. It’s a problem. And while medication and counseling have helped me a great deal in reducing the volume of the hum, it’s always there. Every moment of every day. And it always will be.
One of the most flattering things that happened this year is that I was contacted by the marketing arm of a counseling service I’ve actually used, and which I was certainly happy with. (Here, in this context, I’d prefer not to mention them by name.) They have a resource section managed by their therapists and wanted to know if they had permission to use excerpts from my blog, to help others who are dealing with the same kinds of issues.
They had no idea I was a former patient. When I told them, they were surprised. But they singled out a few posts I had written as being potentially helpful to others and…well…that’s pretty much the whole reason I open up in the first place.
It helps to talk about it, sure…but only so much. Every so often I might type out an experience and give myself a new perspective on it by doing so, but, more likely, it’s just me, firing sentences off into the aether. If I can help anybody out there — anybody at all — by sharing the way I feel…if I can make them feel less alone…hell, if I can make them feel better just because they don’t have to deal with the kind of crap I do, or don’t have to deal with it as severely or as deeply…well, then, it’s worth it.
We all suffer what we suffer. We don’t get to choose our afflictions or our hangups or our neuroses. We all have issues, and, if I had to guess, I’d say a very small percentage of people indeed would have chosen their particular issues.
But that kind of universal dissatisfaction is exactly what gives us such great escapes as books and movies and music and video games in the first place. It’s why I immerse myself in those things. It’s why I (at times…) write about them. It’s why I discuss them. It’s why I connect with people who like the same kinds of escapes that I do.
I’ve known many people who find their escapes (whether or not they’d call them that) with travel. Or with partying. Or by shopping. And that’s all fine. Those are good things, as long as you don’t overdo them, or do them foolishly without regard for consequence. But those are never things that have really helped me. I’ve never gotten home from a party — no matter how fun — and said, “I really needed that.”
Conversely, I’ve said that or something very similar after a huge number of books.
Art is important. It’s art that has allowed me to understand who I am. It’s art that has allowed me to see myself through another lens, and gain valuable perspective about what’s important. It’s art that provides a consistent source of comfort, which is essential when your own mind provides you with a consistent source of discomfort. Art allows me a crucial and necessary balance.
I feel privileged and grateful that I have that. I feel even more privileged and grateful that I’ve been able to be part of meaningful projects that have helped people, provided them with entertainment, or at least just gave them something fun to enjoy during some downtime.
I’m lucky. I know that. I’m a writer who gets to make a living doing what he loves. I have friends who care about me. I’ve built the family I never had before. As trying as the past year has been, every day this year seems to remind me at least once that it’s worth sticking around.
Thirty-seven years of struggle takes its toll, though. And I’ll always have that nagging feeling of helplessness because each year makes it more clear that I’m going to have these same struggles forever. They won’t go away. They can’t. That isn’t an option.
The only option is to keep on going. To hope you don’t cause too much damage along the way. To hope you’ll have enough green stretches to catch your breath. To find people who understand — actually do understand — who will help you feel less alone.
I guess that’s what it’s like to live with that hum. You’re cursed always to feel alone, even when you know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’re not.
And you’re not. Whoever you are, whatever you’re up against: you’re not.
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.
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.
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
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.
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. (In fact, it’s probably worth noting that she’s Jewish.) She says it 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.
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.
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.