Glints in the Gloom: My 2018

The skies are a source of consolation

Even more than previous years in what has been a consistently stressful decade for me, 2018 was defined by the divide between what I absolutely had to do and what I felt I didn’t have time for. As a result – and I think this applies to a great many people, even ones who had relatively good years – I ended up prioritizing experiences over the pursuit of novelty.

Although my opportunities to experience culture outside the home have been constrained by caring for first my disabled mother and then my increasingly disabled father since they moved to Tucson in October 2010, this was my worst year for going out since before I could drive a car. My father had surgery in March and ended up spending the rest of the year shuttling back and forth between hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, I saw television and film that he was willing and able to watch on his Amazon Fire instead of going to the movie theatre and passed on the opportunity to see many concerts of interest.

We went to Disneyland right after New Year’s, before our passes expired.

Other family troubles further limited my forays into the outside world. My daughter had decided to live at home for this past semester, in part because she was concerned about her mother’s health. But that decision ended up making things harder for her when her grandmother, who lived next door, passed away unexpectedly in August. This led to her mother experiening a profound crisis exacerbated by other problematic relationships in her life, turning our daily existence into a relentless exercise in crisis management.

We all felt claustrophobic, often in relation to each other, but couldn’t see a way out of our predicament that didn’t make matters worse. This meant that a lot of the remaining time I had available for watching, reading, and listening was absorbed by trying to help my daughter cope with the situation. And that, in turn, usually led to me ceding control of the television and stereo to her whenever we were together.

My daughter’s painting of her mother, included in a group show for students

For these reasons, the culture I did manage to choose for myself this past year was severely limited and mostly experienced in bits and pieces: running errands in the car; finding something on Netflix at 5am when I was too exhausted to fall asleep; and exercising while I accompanied my daughter to the track for her nightly runs. This flip side of this deprivation, however, was that the experiences I did manage to make time for resonated more powerfully than they would have if my mind had been more cluttered.

Many were not “cultural” in a traditional sense. My daughter and I went hiking on the excellent trails near our house as often as we could. We learned to make delicious quiche together using her mother’s superb recipe for pie crust. I spent a lot of time looking up at the stars and made it a point to seek out good vantage points when it seemed like we were going to be blessed with one of the Sonoran Desert’s unparalleled sunsets.

That’s why my peripatetic Top Ten list is interspersed with photographs I took throughout the year. I want to document the experiences that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks of my worn-out mind. And I also believe that we learn more about a person’s cultural preferences when we have a sense of what they were doing when they weren’t listening to music, reading books, or watching movies.

I take more photos of our cats than anything else. This is Punka, a.k.a. Bear.

1) Parts Unknown

I had already been watching Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown for a long-term project — about the way in which cultural experiences centred around food are displacing ones centred on music and film — when I learned of his apparent suicide. It hit me hard, as it did a lot of people who followed his career. I know Bourdain had many demons and could be hard on the people he loved. But the evolution of Parts Unknown from its already wonderful first season to the last episodes he worked on is a testament to someone who was trying very hard to right wrongs.

A man of many words, he showed us the power in learning to listen. Although one of the world’s most widely recognized celebrities at the time of his death, he was devoting more and more of his air time to conversations in which he let others tell their stories. And he gave special attention to the sort of people that authoritarian populists use as scapegoats, focusing his own commentary on the injustice and discrimination they contend with.

While Parts Unknown could still make you very hungry in recent episodes, food was increasingly a pretext for presenting Bourdain’s vision of an irreverent multiculturalism able to respect the contributions of immigrants while still acknowledging the struggles of those who feel threatened by them and the broader impact of the globalization they represent. If you don’t know his work, I strongly recommend watching his shows on Israel and Palestine, Houston, Queens, Cologne, and West Virginia, to start with. And the since-disappeared Hong Kong episode, directed by his then-partner Asia Argento and featuring legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, is a perfect demonstration of the show’s capacity to foreground aesthetic concerns that most documentary television doesn’t even acknowledge.

My daughter loves Disneyland and the Renaissance Faire, a libertarian “Anti-Disneyland”, alike. So do I.

2) Murs, A Strange Journey Into the Unimaginable

While it was great to see Kendrick Lamar receive the recognition both he and hip-hop more generally deserved in 2018, this record by fellow Los Angeles-area rapper Murs was the one that spoke to me most. Pared down, without making a fetish of minimalism, it relates painful experiences in the artist’s life with a refreshing lack of bullshit. And the music is slow enough, in that classic West Coast mode popularized by Dr. Dre, to give listeners room to reflect instead of just reacting. It’s far from a nostalgia trip, though. Murs turns the camera on himself, testing out musical selfies that link back to different periods in his past. But then he faces it forward, to examine where he’s headed. The track “So Close So Far” is a particular stand-out, invoking social media technology as a way of exploring the way distance opens up between lovers who live together: “Life stay pulling us in different directions/Share the same roof but we losing affection/Same Wi-Fi but we lacking that connection/We make up and keep it going/Every now and then we got to reset the modem/Best friends still need to check in”

This is one of sci-fi novelist and tech critic Annalee Newitz’s panels at the Tucson Festival of Books

3) The novels of Gillian Flynn

Because my daughter had been urging me to read Flynn’s Gone Girl for years and because I needed a way to distract myself from other concerns, I read all three of her novels in succession. It was interesting to see her progress as a writer from Sharp Objects through Dark Places to Gone Girl and more interesting still to discern traces of her years as a critic at Entertainment Weekly during the George W. Bush years in both the form and content of her fiction. I didn’t love everything about these books – Flynn has a penchant for cringe-worthy similes — but I think about them more than many things I love. They do a fine job of repudiating the presumptions of identity politics without recourse to Fox News stupidity. Also, when team after team of detectives were questioning me about my mother-in-law’s death, because the circumstances in which I found her –- there was a lot of blood — looked extremely suspicious, I couldn’t help but feel like Gone Girl’s male protagonist Nick Dunne. I even said as much to a female officer, who raised an eyebrow high.

I try to appreciate my surroundings no matter how stressful my day. This was taken after my dad’s surgery in March.

4) Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, July 22nd at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix, Arizona

I’m such a huge Pavement fan that this would have been a highlight of my year under any circumstances. But it’s so hard for me to find a way to make the two-hour drive up to Phoenix for a concert right now that just getting there before Malkmus’s set began – with just enough time to procure a double Makers and Coke – felt like a significant achievement.

The previous time I’d seen him, in April 2014, I had the pleasure of talking to him briefly about baseball after the show. Fifteen minutes later, though, just as I was getting back on the freeway to drive home, I became violently ill. It took me ten hours to make it back to Tucson, because I kept having to pull off to the side of the road until my cold sweats subsided.

Less than two weeks later, my mother died in my arms, before being resuscitated by the EMTs so that she could hold on for a while longer in hospice. That came at the end of the only six months of my life as bad as the ones I’ve just suffered through, which made my memories of that concert stand out all the more, in spite of my apparent food poisoning. This year’s show was better, however, and not only because I survived the return trip without having to hurl.

Sparkle Hard, the record he and the Jicks were touring this year, is considerably better than its predecessor and may well turn out to be his best work since Pavement once the dust has settled. While retaining the meandering, guitar-forward approach that has predominated on most of his solo releases – a friend once described Malkmus’s aesthetic as “Grateful Dead music for people who don’t want to admit that they like the Grateful Dead” — Sparkle Hard seems less emotionally remote. My favourite song, “Kite”, recalls the reluctant sincerity of Malkmus’s best Pavement material without losing the structural complexity he started exploring more intensely after they had disbanded. The lyrics stick in your head with the tenacity of lines like “lies and betrayals, fruit-covered nails” even though they forego ostentatious surrealism. I spent the summer replaying its urgent rhetorical questions in my head: “Why ya gotta ask? Why don’t you just know?” It’s hard to imagine him being more direct than that. Or me finding a better way to express my frustration at being perpetually misunderstood.

Sometimes I just want to be a fanboy. Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks on July 22nd at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix

5) Sorry to Bother You, directed by Boots Riley

Boots Riley’s debut feature is not a perfect film. But its madcap energy is more than enough to turn the category of “black comedy” on its head. Riley meditates on the intersection of race and class in an American society where the have-somes are in ever greater danger of turning into have-nones. Humorous and horrific in equal measure, it makes good on the narrative promise of the lyrics he wrote for The Coup over the past twenty-five years. Watching it is like reading Gulliver’s Travels: the most exaggerated elements are also the most viscerally true.

Even when I wasn’t dressed like this, it felt like I was wearing masks for protection.

6) Claude Debussy, Arabesque #1

Last December, as my daughter was struggling through a particularly dark stretch, she decided to take up the piano. I bought her an electric Yamaha for Christmas, which she promptly put to good use trying to figure out Debussy’s “Clair de lune” by ear. That perverse method worked well enough to convince her to take lessons and learn how to play “properly” using sheet music. Right now, she is working very hard on a famous Mozart piece, his piano sonata in C, K 545. But it’s this other short Debussy work that she has practised most often over the past six months, the only one by that composer that her teacher thought a talented beginner could conceivably come close to mastering. No matter how much I hear the piece – and I hear it a lot, day after day after day – it never gets old. I’m hearing her play it in my head right now.

I love that moment right before the last light dissolves into darkness. This is from the Linda Vista trail near my house.

7) “What Is Politics?”, a course at the University of Arizona team-taught by Noam Chomsky and Marv Waterstone

My daughter decided at the last minute to take this course, which packed a semester’s worth of work into eight weeks, because she was excited at the opportunity to be taught by perhaps the world’s most famous public intellectual. I would drive her to the evening sessions and then sit in the lounge across the courtyard waiting to pick her up. Twice a week, I would be happily working away when groups from the course would come into the room for twenty minutes to hold break-out sessions in which they discussed that day’s lecture, before returning for the Q&A session to which the rest of class was devoted. Because the course was open to members of the community as well as University of Arizona students, these groups facilitated exchanges across generations, with passionate retirees discussing the material with undergraduates who could have been their grandchildren. Although that sounded like a great idea, it was less successful in practice, since too many of the young students clearly lacked the knowledge and experience to feel comfortable contributing.

Thankfully, my daughter was not one of them. I would see her out of the corner of my eye, enthusiastically sharing her perspective with mansplaining Baby Boomers, diffident frat boys, and the type of fiery women who dress like Joan Baez because they have been doing so since the early 1960s. She and I would talk afterwards. And then I would listen to the lectures and discussion sections she had recorded – as an Honors student, she had Chomsky and Waterstone there as well – and we would talk some more, because she was keen to explore her ideas with me.

It soon became apparent that, even though she loved Chomsky’s presence, she found his thinking about politics limited. Over and over, she would complain that he covered the same favoured topics instead of actually engaging with the voluminous reading assignments. “If I have to hear one more time about the anarchists in Barcelona back in 1936, I’m going to scream.” And she was particularly troubled by his apparent failure to understand how culture influences politics, noting that he did not seem to get the point one of the early required readings had made about Antonio Gramsci’s work.

But the fact she was reading this material at all and finding so much to say about its relationship to the lectures testified to the impact of the course. Although I found Chomsky’s lectures rather dry and repetitive myself, they were good at fashioning negative space for the concepts that he and Marv Waterstone wanted to communicate, as well as accessibly providing a perspective on history very different from the one students learn growing up. And she remembers well what he said, in spite of her critique, which means that she will retain a connection to the mid-twentieth-century leftist tradition he represents long after he is gone. Not to mention that she got to read Mark Fisher’s breathtakingly insightful book Capitalist Realism for a class. Maybe the course didn’t end up changing her in a way that Chomsky would approve of, but its impact on her was huge.

The more devices and apps at my disposal, the more helpful handwritten notes seem to me.

8) Hoco Fest 2018 Day Four, September 1st at the Hotel Congress in Tucson

Although I saw much less live music than I would have liked this past year, for the reasons described above, every concert I did manage to attend was worth my time. In addition to the Stephen Malkmus show, I watched a frighteningly good piano competition featuring a former classmate of my daughter’s; tripped out to an awesome double set by local band The Myrrors at the now-sadly-defunct Cans Deli; enjoyed a night of stories interspersed with songs by personal favorite Richard Buckner, whom I was able to chat with afterwards; and had the unexpected pleasure of discovering Canadian punk band Lié opening for the also-excellent Algiers. But my highlight was undoubtedly the one night of the Hotel Congress’s annual Hoco Fest that I was able to attend.

I almost didn’t go. I was still traumatized by having discovered my mother-in-law’s body earlier that week and still dealing with the fall-out of a very stressful summer. Seeing this excellent festival is an important tradition, though, so I eventually persuaded myself that I could spare a few hours away from home. The fact that The Dream Syndicate was playing was strong motivation, since I had never seen them live before. Robyn Hitchcock, who is invariably a treat, was opening as well. And I try to catch Giant Sand on the rare occasions when Howe Gelb reconstitutes some version of the band.

All three acts gave excellent performances. Seeing them under those circumstances, however, amid so much personal turmoil, made them transcendent. At times, it felt like I was having the sort of cosmic experience associated with hallucinogenic drugs, even though I was nursing a single cocktail. During a break between sets, I stood off to the side, scrolling through my social media feeds. Although I felt a tremendous need to write about the impact of my mother-in-law’s death, I wasn’t able to share the news yet, since not everyone in the family had been informed. Instead, riding my largely natural high, I wrote a post about the novel I had long wanted to write and then started replying to the comments that began pouring in:

needs to conduct a poll. If he were to publish a novel, would you be most interested in reading — bearing in mind his strengths and weaknesses, lures and bores:
1) A lean first-person narrative in an indulgently white male Modernist spirit, assured of its own importance while subtly demonstrating that it isn’t important at all;
2) A semi-fictional engagement with his voluminous personal “archives, arranged in a non-linear, pieces-of-a-half-missing-puzzle format in sync with the more theory-inclined examples of 80s postmodernism;
3) An extended piece of cultural criticism that gradually reveals itself to be a startling literary confession, full of references that his daughter will deride for their pretentiousness and which he will insist cannot be pretentious because he isn’t pretending;
4) A somewhat autobiographical third-person narrative in a lean Raymond Carver-smokes-with-Joan-Didion style, crafted by someone who cannot smoke tobacco but loves the way its leaves, when hung to dry, smell.

Looking back on this post now, after four more months of stress and strain, I am awestruck by the confidence I was able to communicate at a time of sadness and uncertainty. Needless to say, I didn’t make much progress towards any of the novels proposed here. But when I remember that night, the music becomes more than music, like an electrical current of possibility surging through the burdens of duty and despair.

Some of that no doubt had to do with the fact that many of the people in attendance that night were publicly mourning the loss of local guitarist Gene Ruley, best known for his work with the criminally overlooked band River Roses. As Giant Sand’s set unfolded, I found myself standing between The Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn and Robyn Hitchcock, who were clearly loving the show. Near the end, Gelb said a few words about Ruley before the band launched into a cover of River Roses’ “Phoenix 99”, a wistful song about the desire to get away from Tucson that somehow turned into a reminder of why people – like Wynn and Hitchcock – keep wanting to return here. When River Roses frontman Chris Holiman walked onto the stage to join in on vocals, I could hear people around me crying. Then I realized that I was one of those people.

I painted this multi-media watercolor to honor my mother-in-law’s memory, without forgetting what made her hard to be with.

9) Burning, directed by Lee Chang-dong

There was a time when my girlfriend and I would see maybe 150 films in theatres each year. I remember how deprived we felt, when our daughter was a newborn, because we went three months without going to one. Even as our schedules have diverged and our commitments increased in recent years, I would still manage to see three dozen or so on my own. This past year I only managed six. Like my live music outings, though, they were a good six. As noted above, Sorry To Bother You did a great job of articulating a political vision of American society in crisis. Black Panther’s advocacy for an unreconstructed late-1960s-style multiculturalism may have troubled me — there’s only so much strategic essentialism I can stomach — but the movie was a blast, even if I was rooting for the villain. While Won’t You Be My Neighbor? doesn’t rank with the best documentaries, it’s a moving and important picture that brought tears to my eye. Isle of Dogs wasn’t Wes Anderson’s best, but still a delight to watch. And taking in Haskell Wexler’s half-fiction film Medium Cool, about life in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, on the big screen at Tucson’s wonderful The Loft Cinema was a rare treat.

As good as these films were, though, they all paled before my final cinematic outing, to see Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Based on the very short story “Barn Burning” by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, but with plenty of references to the longer William Faulkner story by that same name that Murakami was invoking, Chang-dong’s film tells the story of a twenty-something man of humble origins who becomes reacquainted with a woman he went to school with, then ends up in a strange love triangle between her and an inexplicably wealthy man who likes to burn abandoned barns for sport.

Although the beginning of the film leavens its subtle political commentary on South Korea’s forgotten generation with plenty of humour, the story heads down a dark path when the woman disappears and the protagonist begins to suspect his wealthy rival of wrong-doing. Beautifully filmed, Burning shows us a Seoul very different from the impossibly slick metropolis depicted in so much of the Korean culture that makes its way to the United States. We experience the tensions caused by social and economic differences with a visceral intensity reminiscent of Mike Leigh. But because Chang-dong is willing to pursue his story into uncomfortable places, his film never feels tendentious.

Like Murakami’s best work, it fuses matter-of-fact details with magic realism to powerful effect. Early in the film, we watch as the woman brings the protagonist back to her modest flat and they proceed to have sex. Her cramped space, with clothes strewn all about, looks nothing like the sanitized spaces we are used to seeing in most pictures. The mise-en-scene reinforces the awkwardness of the lovemaking we witness – it’s hard to imagine a more accurate depiction of the pause to put on a condom – but also contributes to the power of what we don’t see, aptly distilled in the figure of the cat he is supposed to feed during her absence but never actually sees. I am certain that, even if I had gone to movie theatres as often as I used to in my cinematic heyday, Burning would still be my film of the year.

Living in a place where wildlife is abundant and easy to see makes makes life a lot more interesting.

10) Tosca, starring Sonya Yoncheva, Vittorio Grigolo, and Željko Lučić, part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD broadcast series, seen for the encore performance on January 31st, 2018

The three things I knew about my dad growing up were that he loved baseball, gardening, and opera. Although physical impairments gradually diminished his ability to garden during the second decade of his retirement, he still did enough that moving to Tucson with my mother in the fall of 2010 was a major blow to his psyche. Baseball and opera had to pick up the slack. The former was easy, thanks to the MLB app on his Apple TV. Going to the opera, though, meant getting him and my significantly disabled mother into the car to go watch one of the Met’s HD broadcasts at our local movie theatre. It was physically and emotionally taxing, but I did it, knowing how much it meant to him.

I also brought my daughter along, when she was in the mood, which made him extremely happy. Given the number of senior citizens where I live, I was almost always the youngest person in the theatre unless she was there too. It made her feel strange, I know, having so many eyes trained upon her as the embodiment of hope for the art form’s future. But she loves music and was happy to please her grandfather, provided that the opera was interesting and the performance compelling.

In the years since my mother passed away, my father’s decreasing mobility and the pressures that my own family was dealing with made it more difficult for me to take him. We both made excuses, saying that a particular production wasn’t great or that the singers were not ideal for the roles. I knew, though, that it was making him sad not to get out of the house for something other than medical appointments. That’s why I made it a point to take him to see Tosca in January and impressed upon my daughter how important it was for her to share the experience with him.

Although she was somewhat reluctant to go, she didn’t regret her decision. The sets for this new production, although dismissed as being too conservative in a New York Times review, did a beautiful job of rendering the actual locations in Rome where the story takes place. And the performances of Yoncheva and Lučić were particularly good as the soprano playing a famous soprano and the evil police chief Baron Scarpia who seeks to takes advantage of her. Their famous second-act scene was both true to the spirit of Puccini’s masterpiece and a deft acknowledgement of the #metoo scandal then shaking the entertainment business, including the Met itself. The real highlight for me, though, was hearing my daughter and father excitedly discussing the performance on the ride home. Months later, no longer able to get out of his hospital bed without assistance and too disappointed with the sound quality of his nursing home television to enjoy watching opera, my father was still running on the fumes of delight from that night. And I know it will remain a cherished memory for my daughter and me as well.

I took this photo by starlight, without a tripod. This is Pusch Ridge.


Photographs courtesy of the author.