Some months ago, one of those 1.5x speed, flailing late night conversations life sometimes grants us produced an epiphany and that is – you can’t be both a Fuccboi and a Zaddy. To refresh on the etymologically recent but spiritually ancient concept of the Zaddy: a Zaddy is an attractive, (almost always) older man who is not necessarily a father but gives off that innate aura of responsibility. Do you ever think it would be kind of hot to be sternly told to get your shit together? A Zaddy is the type of person who could fulfill that fantasy. This is not to say that all Zaddies are good partners. I think the dark side of a Zaddy romance is probably be a man who doesn’t cede enough emotional territory, is patronizing in an unsexy way, or makes you feel messy and small. I mean, I am messy and small, but come on. I am already tired of typing the word Zaddy but I will forge on!
- The guy who is getting hanged TONIGHT
“They’re Hanging Me Tonight” is one of the songs that gets stuck in my head the most and it might be the prettiest ballad on the album. As for the narrator of this track…not so pretty. The way the story unfolds is clever – it throws you for a loop by starting out as a simple breakup song. This dude is sad because it’s raining and it reminds him of the night his girlfriend, Flo, left him for another man. That’s rough. It turns out this story is being told from the dude’s jail cell on the night of his execution because he straight up killed his ex and her new boyfriend. The twist of the line “they’ll bury Flo tomorrow/but they’re hanging me tonight” makes for good storytelling but this dude is still terrible and it rings too true to shit that is still being done. Flo was probably pretty smart for trying to leave.
- The guy who heard the Master’s Call
“The Master’s Call” is about a BAD DUDE who became an outlaw when he was only a teenager, grieving his parents to know that “their only boy was bad.” He repents from his sinful ways when he is saved from a lightning storm and a stampede by a barricade of already dead horses by what can only be a miracle from God and honestly it goes on kind of long and is hard to visualize. Point is, the narrator of this song converted and loves to talk about the time he almost died. He pulls out this story at every social event. He’s the speaker that comes to teen youth group events called, I don’t know – cRAVE in a jagged lime green font – and shares his edgy testimony about how he used to have sex and do drugs but now doesn’t and is still cool because see he has a printed t-shirt and jewelry on. What.
The trauma that drives a stake through in the lives of a family in Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House takes place in summer 1992, but you wouldn’t always know it by the clothes. Even with plenty of scenes following the adult characters in 2018, the art direction, costumes, and set dressing of Hill House itself impart an unmoored, out-of-time feeling. Like many a good Gothic drama before it, Hill House is a living thing. In stories from The Fall of the House of Usher to Wuthering Heights, great houses are used as a reflection (or magnification) of the hearts of their inhabitants. And the heart of Hill House, both the place and the show, is Carla Gugino’s Olivia.
Olivia’s character fits in another Gothic tradition – a certain type of extremely, almost anachronistically feminine women with high susceptibility to spooky meddling. I’m honestly not sure what to call this trope and I’ve had trouble finding scholarship on it. I noticed a trend in Gothic stories and those that take inspiration from the genre of female characters who are not the main actors or agents but are instrumental to the conflict. They usually die or are marked indelibly by the supernatural. It seems fundamentally different from fridging, though the fates of these women do tend to motivate other characters. They are often mothers, making this character type unique in that there’s not necessarily a hard line between the feminine power of a maiden and the feminine power of the maternal. What these characters share is an intentionally exaggerated femininity that marks them as more fragile, ethereal, or even less tied to this earth than others. And the nightgowns.
Golden joy, silver sorrow/everything so far/for your sake, for love’s sake alone/let’s empty these two bowls
So ends the baleful, synthed-out theme song to the 1991 anime Brother, Dear Brother as images of carriages, antique clocks, and parasols fade off the screen. The scene is set for something sweeping and operatic, the kind of story where destined love must overcome war, class divides, or even death. It’s a fair expectation from a Riyoko Ikeda story and director Osamu Dezaki, the same combination on The Rose of Versailles, which had all of that stuff. Then the first episode starts and it’s about…Nanako, an everyday 16-year-old, and her first day of high school. Brother, Dear Brother dares to establish a setting where the chasm between epic romance and mundane teenage life isn’t that wide. It may not exist at all. The characters’ minor dramas – being slighted by the school’s most exclusive clique, low grades on midterm exams – are placed up against dark secrets, mysterious terminal illnesses, and the kind of unrequited love that can destroy lives.
I have a weakness for art that is overblown, baroque, and unafraid to lean into its Too Muchness. My fondness for melodrama is because it actually touches me. Especially resonant nuggets of truth about the human condition are often at the heart of the biggest, heaviest-handed stories. When a character in Brother, Dear Brother is compared to a historical prince, we are rewarded with a freeze frame her dressed as a royal and surrounded by fluttering cherry blossoms. Anger and conflict are punctuated by sudden storms, lightning highlighting wide-eyed expressions. The protagonist’s crush actually has a rose in her teeth at one point. It’s all ridiculous. And very charming. Most of all, it conjures a world of female adolescence that forces the audience to live in its visceral experience instead of gawking at teen drama or hiding behind cynicism.
The intersection of personal relationships and the messy cocktail of talent, drive, and competition has become, increasingly, my narrative catnip. I love a good sports anime that is Actually about Human Connection All Along. Some of the most complex and painfully human character types come from these stories: the prodigy who doesn’t want glory as much as everyone wants them to want it, the relentless competitor who can’t work their way into born talent, or the people who define their entire worth by a grueling and fleeting achievement.These tensions have been explored wonderfully in shows like Ping Pong and AKB0048, and this past summer, Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
In Revue Starlight‘s Takarazuka-based performing arts school, the girls are not only training to be musical theater stars in their everyday lives, but competing in after-hours, surreal duels to choose their own “stage of destiny,” Yes, the director worked with Ikuhara. Fantastical elements aside, Starlight has moments of surprising bluntness regarding the ruthless and often unfair system that allows only certain actresses to set on a path to become a Top Star. I loved the arc of rivals and leading students Maya Tendou and Claudine Saijo, or the tragedy of Nana Daiba, a girl who rejects her potential to be a top star because she fears the isolation that her success at the expense of others’ failures would bring.
I’ve started a few drafts about Maya, Nana, and others, but I keep coming back to an episode of Revue Starlight that ultimately doesn’t have much to do with being a star, but being a good partner. The protagonist, Karen, is motivated by promise she made with her childhood friend, Hikari, but to me there is a far more compelling look at the weight of long relationships and promises in the duo of Kaoruko and Futaba.
The Affair has relied heavily on drowning and ocean metaphors since its pilot in 2014. Its moody opening credit footage of crashing water fit the rustic landscape of Montauk and set the mood to think about the capricious and overwhelming nature of lust and love. In its four seasons, almost every character has cheated or imploded their relationships in some way, but When Fiona Apple sang “there’s only one thing I can do and that’s be the wave that I am/and then sink back into the ocean” I always had the sense that those lines, or maybe the song in general, were about Alison. Alison who starts the story defined by a literal drowning – the death of her toddler son. A woman who is afraid of the ocean, but is treated as a siren by most of the men in her life. I started watching The Affair to pass time, and because I’m drawn to stories and discussions of infidelity. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved or feel so seen by a character, but Alison has come to be very special to me.
**spoilers for the latest season of The Affair**
I just finished the fourth and latest season and while it expanded far beyond the actions of its original affair and into overly soapy territory, I couldn’t look away. Even at its worst the disastrous orbit of these characters – the “main” couple but also betrayed spouses, children, and new relationships – was bleakly addictive. Most importantly for me, Alison remained the emotional heart of the story. Her extreme choices and darkest turns never felt contrived and campy so much as tragic. No main character hated themselves more or tried harder to have a purpose; to be understood, loved, and chosen. As you may have seen in entertainment headlines lately, Ruth Wilson has left the cast. In the show, this meant the fourth season climaxed in Alison’s death. She never got to rewrite her narrative as she wanted. Her story, in her own words at least, is now over, but I imagine she’ll be on my mind for a long time.
Next month I’ll be 27. This isn’t a number I’m too thrilled about. Plenty of older people rush to call me young if I verbalize my discomfort, but not as many as in past years. It’s too close to 30 to have many excuses anymore, but I feel like I only stopped being a child in the last, oh, two or three years. It wasn’t marriage, divorce, or physical aging that finally caused the break. It was a slow realization, the remolding and hardening of a series of decisions – not all of them bad but all of them difficult and messy – that I had set into motion on my own. I played with real narrative weight in my own life long enough that the distance between my emotional reality and the ability to go home again became too great. The grief of losing touch with the pre-adult me and the comfort it brought is a brutal amputation. I see other people my age (and much older for that matter) shambling through the same mourning process. The world is bad and we all know it. My generation grew into something far more bleak and doomed than we were ever prepared for. It’s not a world that my friends and I want to be in most days, and the thought of bringning anything else into it seems irresponsible at best and cruel at worst. My body doesn’t care about this at all.
I’ve spent most of my life treating childlessness as a foregone conclusion; an internal imperative so strong that pregnant women and mothers seemed fundamentally apart from whatever I am on a source level. They have different boundaries, as if the lines around them were pleasantly fuzzy. And there’s me, so hardwired to be self-contained within the limits of my own body. I’m sharp; a set unit you would never think to add to or subtract from. If I try to imagine myself pregnant, or with small children, my brain short circuits like the blue screen of death. The mythology of motherhood as a sacred and primordial mystery, the deepest source of feminine power, is not something I’m interested in contributing to. Really, it’s only strange inasmuch as any experience we find ourselves utterly locked off from is.
And yet, after over 26 years of bullheaded confidence, something is wavering. I pass couples with young children in Prospect Park and I try to project onto them, but not because I want it. A snapshot moment of a happy family is of course not the whole picture. Those couples fight and get too tired to fuck and those children throw tantrums. It’s still a slice of something I’ll never know. These moments didn’t use to register as anything, but now seeing parents with a stroller feels like peeking in people’s windows at night. TV plot lines about couples strained over whether to have kids make me sad now, but not because I want it. “We’re pregnant,” announced my brother’s friends at Easter brunch, and I looked away and excused myself. I started crying in the bathroom, but not because I want it. I’ve become consumed by what not wanting it means.
I do not want kids for the reasons that we’ve mostly agreed are bad reasons. There’s no legacy I care about passing on, my parents are fine enough that I don’t have a compulsion to fix their mistakes, and I know it’s selfish to create people in hope that they’ll take care of you when you’re old or sick. So what are the right reasons? No, I really want to know. Those happy kids in Prospect Park will probably grow up and mourn the loss of their childhoods in a world that’s even more unforgiving than mine. Even if the future looked better, it’s hard to imagine inflicting womanhood on another person. Are those mothers who express relief at only having sons, who say “boys are just easier,” actually relieved that they don’t have to pass on that particular millstone? It seems like there may not be a reason right enough to justify the risk anymore. And yet.
Maybe it’s that I’m almost 27 and some chemicals in my brain are nudging me to consider things because they’re attuned to rhythms and deadlines unparsable by my rational mind. My body doesn’t care about the doomsday clock any more than the world cares about me. But maybe it’s that I’m so sad and so bad at handling grief that I fantasize about experiencing hope and innocence vicariously; a fairy tale witch lying in wait to leech a sense of security and optimism from another generation. Do people want to have children because the only way to re-experience the veil of real safety and open-endedness is to draw it over someone else’s eyes?
As so many things do, I was reminded of The Age of Innocence. In particular, I thought about the sum of May Welland, the character most invested in and protective of the status quo. ” …the world of her youth had fallen into pieces and rebuilt itself without her ever being conscious of the change. This hard bright blindness had kept her immediate horizon apparently unaltered…she had died thinking the world a good place, full of loving and harmonious households like her own… ” I have always focused on the other main characters, on Newland Archer and his crippling fear and obligation or Ellen Olenska and the price of her unconventionality. The mutant strain of longing for a family is the first thing that has made May truly click with me. There’s an allure in being so naive that you sail right by the painful severance from your pre-adult assumptions. How lucky to raise children in the glow of your own childhood.
I’ve always liked the word weltschmerz and I think my unpackagable sadness over having children is the essence of that feeling. The world of split-second fantasies and lives I’ll never lead isn’t a reality that actually exists. It’s not even that I want children. I want to think about whether or not I want them in a world where the odds wouldn’t be stacked against them from the start.
I’m on a train from Boston to New York after spending the weekend at Readercon, a sci-fi and fantasy literature convention. On this leg, I’m spread out at one of the cafe car’s diner booth tables and I’ve decided this is actually more romantic than the side-by-side seats.
Cons are weird. They are little suspended worlds of textured beige wallpaper and malnutrition where time works differently. Even if you travel across the country to go to one, you end up spending so much time in hotel lobbies and ballrooms, cut off from sunlight, free from rules about when it’s appropriate to drink. This was entirely book-centric and even the small dealer’s room was strictly selling the written word. It tempered the bizarre con effect, but not entirely. I’ve been to Anime Expo and SDCC and D*Con – those are truly flash cities. Unsurprising trivia: I’m a person who is uselessly upset that I wasn’t alive for a World’s Fair.
Yesterday was, as swarms of optimistically half-dressed people trying to find space at porch and rooftop bars can confirm, like real spring. It was a similar day two years ago that I moved into a 4th-floor walk up in Hoboken, New Jersey. The 2-bedroom with exposed brick and blessed with in-unit laundry was above a nail salon, down the block from a 24-hour diner, and across the street from the bus stop I would take every day to Manhattan. Some days I didn’t like it; didn’t like the fellow commuters in their 20s who seemed both younger and more put together, didn’t like the yuppie families who never moved their strollers out of the way on the sidewalk. Sometimes I just resented not living in the city, worried my co-workers were thinking less of me as the only non New York State resident or annoyed at myself for falling short of my dream of a cooler Lower East Side life. But it was home. I hesitated to call it that, especially when the relationship that made it home was destabilized, but it was. Though I haven’t lived there in any real way since November, I had to leave it for good yesterday.
Becoming a member of the church I spent roughly ages 11-18 going to involved, among other and more bureaucratically complicated things, choosing a “life verse.” I never made it to membership, which turned out to be dodging a bullet, but had come down to two choices for a life verse. My new testament pick was Philippians 1:6 – For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. It had been the focal point of a lesson at my evangelical middle school and I kind of liked it. Over time I cooled on this verse in line with my diminishing confidence that anything, let alone a “good work,” had indeed begun. My alternate choice stuck with me.
Jeremiah 29:11 goes “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. I like the New American Standard translation here. I think it’s the drama of the word calamity. Some versions go with “not for evil” but that’s much less of a mood. The past few years have meant throwing out most of my preconceived notions about how my life would go and what kinds of experiences would be viable for me. There are times when words like calamity don’t seem too far off. Jeremiah 29:11 is appealing on a visceral level because the thought that something, somewhere knows my plan is superstitiously calming. Jeremiah’s “I know” is more reassuring, more solid than Phillippians’ “confident in this.” It’s a verse that is at once soothing and stern, in the way being told to snap out of it can sometimes be a balm.