Wednesday, August 14, 2013

New Sheriff, Good Walter, Great Wheels

I realized this morning that I still had the Canadian arena rock power ballad, "When I'm With You," in my iTunes library. I set the Shuffle feature to play only songs that I have not listened to since I imported, five years ago, upon arrival to the Bay Area, all of my music from my old computer into a new, sleek MacBook (which, thanks to Time Machine, updated two years later to an even shinier MacBook Pro). There were about six hundred songs total. I listened to six or seven. When I do get time to write now, I try to listen to new music, which, as the gods of electronic music permit, is often now my very oldest. In 2003, I sat up every night one week in Chicago importing all of my CDs into an early version of iTunes. Since, I've rented the digital rights to music I might never actually own. In the day to day, I'm never really aware of the distinction. With a little time, I suppose, we forget everything.

Thanks to that right combination of child care, naps, rest, downtime from teaching and grading, organized toy bins, clean kitchens and sanitized miniature potties (we are toilet training) by which I don't feel either the neglectful husband-father-partner or the zombi-fied life slouch, the time I make to write arrives with great relish and an overly confident conviction that to write is to live, or to at least feel alive, in exclusion of nearly everything else by which I more practically measure the vitality of a life: marriage, family, groceries, solvency. Call it faith, or perhaps, force of habit. If writing once felt like traveling to an exotic country, it feels now like living in another culture, one where I know the language and customs, but can't quite follow recipes. One day, I'll learn. It's not unlike listening over and over to a crescendo-loving Canadian arena rock power ballad: start small, build, accumulate, and repeat. To sustain such optimism is a positively ecstatic prospect, whatever the outcome.

"When I'm With You" was first released in the United States, in 1989, four years after Sheriff released its last album and broke up. I was twelve years old. The deejay played the song at my first school dance. We stood, like any near-adolescent Catholics, in small groups, yearning desperately and indiscriminately, and despising our impure hearts. Sheriff had recorded the song in 1983, then cut a few more records, and finally disbanded. And here's a nice moment of revenge and counter-revenge: when the song did finally top the U.S. charts, the singer and lead guitarist tried to get the band back together, but the other members hated them so much for breaking up the band that they refused to reunite or subsequently license the name to new members. So, the singer and guitarist formed a different band, Alias, which recorded a year later a different #1 hit, the equally Canadian and power ballad-y "More Than Words Can Say." "More Than Words Can Say" was played on live radio more than a million times. What, I wondered, more than words, might say, "need"--poetry?--but I do remember that we had other dances, where the dancing was more closely monitored. We were advised to, literally, keep the Holy Spirit between us.

What I felt sympathetic for then, as now, about Sheriff, was that the band gave up on success before it should have, and then couldn't really find a way to enjoy it once it arrived. Writing feels this way, most of the time. It is lost on me which poems or essays a friend or editor or stranger will like, much less when or how those poems and essays will arrive into other lives. I used to see this as a failure of character: myopic, a significant failure. If I wasn't the predictive authority on my own accomplishment, who would be? Now, I'm more skeptical that playing both sides of the board isn't a bit like cheating. Who can be so attuned to how and why they do anything, without self-consciously shaping the act to conform to the intention? Sheriff must have thought they saw the path forward, without each other, and by either standard--they should have stayed together, they would do better on their own--they were right. L'enfer, c'est les autres. Perhaps, we would all do well to embrace a househusband period.

After Katie's death, I thought that surely I understood how fleeting and temporary is happiness, how unstable is vitality, how malevolent the universe around me means to be. Instead, the terms of happiness became broader. They came to feel more complicated by significance, and not entirely my own. That these early years of straining in both directions to feed, water, clean, and house the children, and play with, read to, and love them, will resolve soon enough into sequence and nostalgia, seems impossible. But then, I've written the last six years toward a broad project about marriage, death, continuity, feeling, loss, and absence, arriving to few obvious conclusions while hoping still to understand something about my life, either then or now. I imagine that if I didn't write, I'd be less neurotic, and probably less sensitive. To live is to write? Well, that sounds fine. I'll write, either way. Maybe it's also true that I'm a better person, or at least a more useful one to the people around me, when I'm changing a diaper while Cait is at work, than I am when I hole up in the closet and insist that no one bother me for the next few hours.

I'm curious how "Breaking Bad" will end. I don't really like the show--it's no Friday Night Lights, West Wing, Lost--but I get that it's first-rate television: great acting, writing, directing, and production, and fantastic cold opens. In every podcast I listen to, and periodical I follow, the show is lauded in much in the same broad way that watching "The Wire" and celebrating its moral ambiguity was the humblebrag gesture of 2008. Which is to say, like "The Wire," "The Sopranos," "Seinfeld," "Hill Street Blues," "Mash," "All in the Family," "The Bob Newhart Show," or "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" before it (I can't develop the sequence any further without cheating), "Breaking Bad" is officially now our semi-generational trope. To say "Breaking Bad" is to conjure simultaneously: the voyeuristic pleasures of watching someone else do bad things; a curiosity about chemistry; an admiration for Bryan Cranston's, et al, devotion to craft and humble development; even a postmodern meditation on the nature of pop culture itself.

From the bathtub scene onward, I haven't liked the essential conceit of "Breaking Bad," which is to bring everyone to consequence or justice except for the main character. Because the show can't continue without Walter White, I don't see how he will be caught until the very end, when of course, we'll either cheer to see the moral scales finally balanced or cheer its resolution not to follow the rules. Isn't that a rather obvious manipulation of pretty pat terms? In the meantime, Walter engages an increasingly absurd skill set: the training of a geologist, the street smarts of a crime lord, the duplicity of a psychopath, the growl of Lee Marvin, the acuity of the director of OMB, and Einstein's command of the laws of space and time. Clearly, I'm in the minority of opinion. Who knows where opinion will eventually settle. When you make the rules of the universe in which your characters operate, it's hardly a surprise that you never (or at least, wait until the very end to) kill your darlings. Good Walter or Bad Walter will emerge victorious. The screen will go dark. And, you know, better Walter White than me.

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