“What Comes Next?”

One of the big reasons I liked moving to a WordPress blog instead of my own website is that I feel less sense of expectations here. I pretty much declared, from the outset, that I’d be using this for book and movie reviews, and not really anything else. And that works for me. I’m a generally private person, in a lot of ways. Part of that is just my personality – I’ve never enjoyed opening up about things, never enjoyed speaking my mind more than I had to. I’m all about the indirect truth, if we’re being honest, or letting my actions speak for me instead of my words – which, honestly, is ironic, given my love of the written word and the fact that I generally think I express myself well in my writing. And part of that privacy comes back to life as a teacher; I think, in many ways, teaching is a performance, and any performer has to draw a line between their public self and their private self, and I long ago realized that with a name like mine, the Internet version of that self would be pretty much public to anyone who wanted to find it.

All of which is to say that I don’t feel the need to write personal blogs any more. And yet, sometimes the act of writing is therapeutic, and jesus, am I in need of some therapy these days. So I’m going to write here about myself, and the election, and probably my emotional state these days. And it’s going to be long, and it’s going to be about politics, and I may swear a bit. So, you know, if none of that interests you, that’s cool – I don’t blame you. I’ve got a book review I need to write for Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, and it’ll be up when I get to feeling more into it, and this blog will be back to normal traffic.

But for now, if you’re with me, let me tell you some things.

I’ve suffered from depression for…gosh, about 20 years now. At least, that’s when I went on medication for it. (Paxil, if you’re interested.) This isn’t something I entirely keep secret; I mean, I don’t exactly advertise (and I may be shooting myself in the foot by posting this, in terms of pre-existing conditions if I ever need new insurance), but I’ve told people if we’ve been on the subject of depression. I think it’s good for people to know that other people can survive it, especially teenagers; I’ve told this to students over the years who’ve been going through hard times and considering whether to get therapy and/or medication.

But I mainly start this story with this admission to help you understand my mental state. No, depression isn’t like being “sad”. It doesn’t really always follow your life; sometimes, you just get into a dark place, and you don’t even know why, and it’s infuriating. And yet, there’s also no denying that your depression is influenced by your life around you. My depression has been undeniably “better” since marrying my incredible wife and having my two children. That doesn’t mean it’s cured; as Maria would no doubt tell you, I still have my dark times, my frustration outbursts, my times when everything sucks and I have no idea why. But it helps having a wonderful family, a wife who spoils me, and my two insane and wondrous children.

That also means, though, that when life is bad, your depression is harder to fight off. It got real bad for me a couple of jobs back, when I was basically run out of a school I really liked because I (and a few other teachers) dared to sponsor a gay student organization in the South. (It gets hard to go to work when a lot of the staff hates you, and you know it, so you hide from your few friends so they don’t get tainted by their association with you.) It got bad at my last job, when I was starting to question whether teaching was worth continuing with, when I felt like the profession I loved was turning into a test proctoring job with kids who didn’t care.

And man, has my depression had a field day with this election.

It’s not the endless campaigning, mind you; that’s exhausting and irritating, but not depressing. No, what made this campaign so depressing was the noxious, hateful, vicious rhetoric unleashed by the Trump campaign.

(Let me pause here to explain things: Fuck no, I didn’t vote for that misogynistic, sexist, racist, xenophobic, fascist orange paraquat. I even kinda liked Hillary Clinton; she wasn’t a perfect candidate by any means, but she wasn’t the nightmare made flesh that she was portrayed as, and she was sure as shit going to be better for the country than the guy who watched A Face in the Crowd and said, “yeah, that seems like the right ticket.”

And I know some Trump voters, and they’ll tell me that they’re not racists/xenophobes/sexists/etc. And they’re not. But you know what? They also gave Trump’s racism/xenophobia/sexism/etc. their tacit support. They would tell you, “sure, he says awful things about Muslims/gays/hispanics/women, but I’m sure someone will tone him down.” And they could say that, because when you’re white and straight, you’re playing through the world on easy mode, and none of that shit applies to you. So if it does all happen, well, sucks for them, but at least you don’t have to worry about it. So no, you may not be racist, you may not hate women, you may not despise immigrants or support pumping electricity through gay teenagers until they convert.

But you voted for a man who does. Own it.)

Worse than Trump’s rhetoric, though, was the reaction. They say that at the heart of every cynic – which I undeniably am – beats the heart of a wounded optimist. And that’s true. Because I like to think that the world is getting better, and over the past decade, it has been improving in so many ways. It’s not perfect, but we were making progress. And every time I would see people screaming “Trump will deport you, wetbacks!”, hurling abuse at women in burqas, creating mock lynchings, or the like, it made me realize that maybe we’re not as good as we thought. And not only is that fucking disheartening, it makes it real hard to look at your children and think that they’ll be safe.

And so, let me be honest: my depression has been in high gear for about the last month or two. It has fed off of the noxiousness, the awfulness I’ve seen on the news, the alt-right trolls, the spewing of vitriol, the tacit “looking the other way” that so many have done. And you can say, well, Josh, none of that affects you – turn it off. And I know I should…but I can’t. I feel compelled to know what’s going on, and I can’t look away, and I feel like someone needs to see it, to acknowledge what others are going through. Because, look, I’m pretty spoiled as a straight white male…but as a teacher, let me be all sappy, and tell you that I feel some love for pretty much every kid who’s ever come through my classroom, and I have a lot of kids because of that, and they’re of every orientation, every ethnicity, and I’m scared for them.

But, I thought, the election will be over soon, and he’ll lose, and we can go back to ignoring him like sane people do to Alex Jones, and Michael Savage, and the like.

And then came Tuesday night.

In hindsight, we should have seen it coming, of course. I’m not even talking about the polls at this point; I’m just talking about what a fucking nightmare 2016 has been. We joked earlier in the year that maybe Bowie and Prince didn’t die, and instead just went back to their home planets; now, I’m wondering if they didn’t just get out while the getting was good, and couldn’t warn us before they left.

Whatever the case, you could feel the shock set in across the internet, and in our house. It wasn’t just that a Republican won, as so many have argued online. I remember George W. winning in 2004, and it wasn’t this feeling. I was disappointed, but not like this. No, it was because we thought, as a country, that we were better than this. That we would look at a man who played off of fears, off of our worst instincts, who offered no policies, only insults, and that we would take the high road.

But we were wrong, apparently. And as Trump’s win became clearer, you could see the glee on the internet. Jewish writers started getting flooded with anti-semitic tweets and insults. Nazi symbols got sprayed on walls. And if you haven’t seen stories about some of the emboldened racists acting out, you’re not fucking looking. You’re not seeing the woman in a hijab who talked about how a truck pulled up to her and the man inside told her that he can’t wait until Trump says it’s okay to rape them and then deport them back to wherever they came from. You’re not hearing the guys who gleefully walk into a club and say “Pussy grabbing is okay now!” You’re not seeing women who have been sexually assaulted watch a man who assaulted women be given the benefit of the doubt and rewarded for it while a woman is blamed for her husband’s infidelities. You’re not seeing the gay men give pictures of where they’ve had things thrown at them in the street and say “You’re next, faggots! Trump’s coming for you soon.”

You’re not hearing my children come home and talk about how one of their classmates is walking around the playground with a stick and playing “hit the Mexicans” and yelling “send them back.”

You’re not hearing the students in my senior English class make uncertain jokes about how one of their classmates, an immigrant, might not be able to finish the year if she gets deported.

Fucking funny, right? What a grand fucking joke this all is.

So, yeah. I’ve been really, really depressed over the past few days. It’s not that we lost; it’s that the vileness, the hatred that I saw won. And that it feels emboldened, and that it’s been given the okay to do what it wants. And I don’t need to hear that not every Trump supporter is like that. I don’t give a shit. The fact is, if you voted for him, you turned a blind eye to this. And I know we’re supposed to say that politics shouldn’t separate friendships, and they don’t – my wife and I have cancelled each other out every year in elections until this year. But kindness and respect for human beings are a dealbreaker, and if you can’t see what you’re unleashing, then take a fucking look around.

So. Depression.

But I can’t live this way – not this depressed. And one “advantage” of teaching is that you have to put on a good front – you can’t wear your depression, your bad day, in front of your students. (Though I did hear one of my seniors commenting yesterday that “man, all my teachers are really down today.”) And so I’ve been trying to be in a good mood, trying to be my usual energetic, overeager self that I am in the classroom. And it’s helped.

But more than that, I keep coming back to a tweet I saw Tuesday night from Justin McElroy. He said this: “I’m gonna wake up tomorrow and keep trying to be good and so are you and no one gets to vote on that.”

And I’m trying to live that right now. I’m trying to be a force for good for my students, and remind them that not everyone is Trump.I’m trying to actually teach my students, while I’m teaching literature, about humanity and decency and respect. I’m trying to remind them that respect and kindness matter, and that everyone deserves it, and that they sometimes need to understand what it’s like to walk around in someone else’s shoes and see the world as they see it. I’m trying to basically be a good person, and stand up for people, and teach my children how to be good to others, and to be kind, and to realize that everyone is a fucking human being, no matter what  – no matter who they love, where they’re from, or what they look like. And in general, I’m trying not to give up hope on this world.

My friend Nancy on Facebook said she’s basically running her Facebook now like “an Underground Railroad of love,” and I’m all about this idea. So go be a good person for a while. Reach out to someone in need. Find a way to compliment someone you disagree with. Remind yourself that we’re all in this together. And when people tell you that they’re going through hard times, that they’re not being treated fairly…maybe listen to them a little, okay?

At the very end of the movie Se7en, Morgan Freeman says this: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

I’m about with him right now. I’m hoping to agree with Hemingway along the way, but for now, I’m all about the fact that I refuse to give in to the tidal wave of hatred and misogyny I see, and to try to keep my hopes up. It’s hard, but I’m going to try.

Wish me luck.

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman / *****

ag_coverI haven’t read American Gods in probably 15 years or more, and yet, for all of these years, I’ve held it as one of my favorite books, and perhaps Neil Gaiman’s best work – no small praise, that. And any time you remember a book that fondly, there’s always the worry that you’re wrong, that you’ve overestimated it somehow, or have papered over the flaws in your mind. And so, as I sat down to re-read it recently (inspired by, in no real order, texts from a friend who was reading it for the first time, the upcoming Starz series, and the fact that I owned – but hadn’t read – the revised, “preferred” text), I couldn’t help but wonder: what if it wasn’t as good as I remembered?

I needn’t have worried. Not only is American Gods every bit as good as I remembered, it was more – richer, more thoughtful, more elegant, more magical, and just plain better. (And not all of that, if any, is because of the “preferred text,” which feels more like a series of small restorations rather than any major one or two.)

But in its general shape, American Gods couldn’t be simpler. It’s the story of Shadow, a man recently released from prison, and the friendship – of sorts – he strikes up with a man named Mr. Wednesday. It doesn’t take long for Shadow to realize that Mr. Wednesday isn’t anything as simple as he pretends to be, and that there’s more to Wednesday – and maybe the world – than he’s ever realized. And yes, as the title implies, Shadow learns of gods living in America – the gods of immigrants, of Vikings, of Egyptians, of Russians, and of more, all of whom brought their gods with them, and left them in America.

And to be honest, that’s most of the plot. Shadow gets involved with Wednesday, who is rallying the old gods – ancient, mythological gods – against new American gods of Media, of Technology, hoping to inspire them to battle back. But to focus too much on the plot of American Gods is to miss the point. This is a book about the world Gaiman has created, and more than that, in many ways, it’s a book about America – albeit a view of America that could only come from the perspective of an immigrant who both loves the country and is somewhat baffled by it. It’s an America filled with odd roadside attractions, where faith is both constant and fickle, where immigrants brush against each other without a second thought, with odd traditions that no one remembers and a land that’s older than the nation that lives there. And in many ways, through his eyes and vision, Gaiman captures America more accurately and more honestly than any less fictional, more “factual” perception ever could.

But more than that, American Gods works because it plays to Gaiman’s strengths: it creates a magical, alternate version of our own world, one where magic is real, where belief has consequences, where ritual becomes bond, and where gods exist, and brings it to life so real that you can lose yourself. It’s why the book works in spite of – maybe even because of – its loose plotting; it’s a book that lives and breathes, and whose wanderings only fill in the shadows and corners of this strange place. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a version of this book without the odd short stories of other gods, or the conversations about faith and history, or the descriptions of odd, inexplicable American landmarks. More accurately, it’s impossible to imagine a version of this book without those things that still works like this one does – that still creates such a vivid world, such a perfect and magical reflection of America that’s both profoundly strange and yet instantly recognizable for what it is.

And that, more than anything else, is why I love this book so much. I love its ideas, and its characters, and its glimpses of a world beyond our own; I love its sense of magic that infiltrates our own, and its sense of history that we can’t ever escape. But more than that, I just love living in this book and with these characters – seeing the things we see, dipping our toes into the strange world Gaiman has created, and experiencing his boundless, staggering imagination, even if only for 5oo pages.

Amazon

Hamilton (Original Cast Recording) / *****

9a0719a9435a9d31860f6a7067004fc0I’m going to be honest and say that I feel fairly unqualified to write this thing that I’m writing. I’m not a huge musical fan, or more accurately, I don’t think of myself as one. I’ve come to think over the years that maybe I just don’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and that’s all I thought there was for a long time. But as I’ve seen more – Avenue QSweeney ToddThe Book of MormonOnceThe Lion King – I’ve come to realize that I was maybe selling musicals short as a kid, and that goes doubly for many of the classics. (Teaching and viewing Les Miserables this year has reminded me that, yeah, there’s a reason that one’s such a classic.)

And if that’s not enough, there’s the fact that nothing makes me feel more like a middle-aged white guy than talking about rap and hip-hop. I’m getting more and more into rap these days; from The Roots to Jay-Z, from Kanye to (especially) Kendrick Lamar, to all the various members and permutations of the Wu-Tang Clan, I’m finding more and more to love and enjoy about rap, but I’m still acutely aware of my lack of experience in the genre. I’m diving into it with more and more passion, but it’s a genre that I’m new to, and much of the essential history is still unknown to me.

All of which makes me feel unqualified to talk about Hamilton, given that a) it’s a Broadway musical, b) it’s a hip-hop album, and c) it draws on and alludes so heavily to the history and traditions of both that I’m only catching maybe a quarter of the references. And besides, it’s Hamilton. What new could I possibly bring to the table after all the acclaim, all the reactions, all the praise?

And yet, here I am, feeling compelled to write about it. Why?

I mean…have you heard it?

Look, if you haven’t, you may well be like me. I’d heard bits of Hamilton over the last year, ever since first becoming aware of it in an NPR story about its (then) pending jump to Broadway from a successful off-Broadway run. Since then, the acclaim has piled on, and I’ve often thought, “Yeah, I should check that out,” but just never gotten to it. The concept – a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton- sounded great, but also like a gimmick. And even though I liked what I heard, I had a feeling that a) it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype around it, and b) if it did, I suspected it might rely so heavily on the main performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda that I’d be more impressed with him than the show.

Then I heard it this week, and turned out to be wrong on every single count. Hamilton didn’t just live up to the hype; it surpassed it, blowing past my expectations again and again until I was in awe. By the time the first song ended, I was hooked; by the time I was at the end of the third track, I was starting the whole thing over just to take it in again; by the time I was finished with the first act, I was in awe; by the time I finished the whole thing, I was pretty much just stunned.

Where to start? Maybe, let’s start here: Hamilton isn’t the single-performance spectacle I expected. Yes, Miranda is phenomenal as Hamilton, bringing out the swagger, confidence, intelligence, and aggressiveness that makes the role so instantly iconic. But Hamilton is packed with rich characters, and many of the show’s best numbers are given not to Hamilton/Miranda, but to the supporting cast. Listen, for instance, to Reneé Goldsberry belt out “Satisfied,” a rapid-fire dissection of her own conflicting emotions and pained sacrifice. Or Daveed Diggs’ staggering machine-gun pace – in a French accent – as General Lafayette explodes back onto the stage in “Guns and Ships.” And none of that gets into the quiet, malleable performance by Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, whose solo number “Wait For It” is a burst of unexpected energy from a character known for his reticence.

17-lin-manuel-miranda-w529-h529Because, that’s one of the true joys of Hamilton. Even though I’ve only experienced the musical through the cast recording, there’s no worry that you might lose the story. Every character – every single one – has their own “voice,” their own rhythm, their own pace, their own motifs, to the point that even though many actors play two roles, you know who they’re playing as soon as they start into their part. Listen to how Hamilton always has to have a faster pace than everyone else around him, running around them in more complex rhymes to demonstrate his own dazzling intellect. Or listen to how Burr, always unwilling to commit to a position, shifts his voice and rhythm to fit the song around him, making him the eternal chameleon. Realize how you know that Jefferson is a true rival for Hamilton as soon as he demonstrates his flexibility (most notably in his frustrated, raging burst in “Washington on Your Side”), to the point where their two “Cabinet Battle” numbers are a staple of the show, as these two verbally spar and duel back and forth.

So, yes, Hamilton is astonishing from a musical perspective. The songs are catchy, the voices compelling, and oh, the motifs that link the show together are dazzling. The way Miranda turns time into the foil of so many, from the slow count of a duel to the way our legacies are removed from our own hands through the slow clock of history. Look at how satisfaction drives characters, both in its emotional terms and in terms of honor. And that’s just scratching the surface – Miranda knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing isn’t just making a rap album. It’s a coherent, tightly constructed experience, to the point where I struggle imagine listening to many of the songs out of context, knowing how much they gain when you put them all together.

And, oh, those lyrics. At this point, I’ve spent a fairly large amount of time digging through the Genius annotations on the songs (many written or approved by Miranda himself), and even then, I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of it all. As if it’s not enough to create insane rhyme schemes, duelling verses, raps that dive through other characters’ words to make their own verse (as in “Farmer Refuted”) – as if all that’s not enough, Miranda manages to interweave nods to Broadway shows throughout the ages, countless legends of hip-hop and rap, and historical details through and through. Indeed, that latter one is fairly incredible; by all accounts, Hamilton is far more faithful than I would have expected, showing off that Miranda knows his history and his players, and dives into their emotions and ideas, using them not just as background, but as part of the musical. What other musical doesn’t just orbit around the founding of the nation, but makes its debates and struggles part of the text? (I know. 1776. Shut up. Miranda knows that too.)

But none of that would matter – not the infernally addictive songs, not the insanely crafted lyrics, not the brilliant writing – if Hamilton weren’t so emotionally powerful and rich. Miranda isn’t just telling the story of history; he’s telling the story of a man who was desperate to prove himself, who wanted to use his intellect to make something more of his life and find a place in that. It’s the story of a man whose gifts made him arrogant at times, and off-putting, and whose very gifts were the very thing that undid him. But it’s also the story of a man who always held back, fearful to commit. It’s the story of a woman who loved a man but gave him up for her sister, and always regretted it. And most importantly, it’s the story of Hamilton’s wife, who stood by him, fought with him, forgave him…and crafted his legacy in ways he might never have dreamed.

hamilton0044rMiranda doesn’t just make these characters walking icons from history; he makes them people. And if you doubt that, try not feeling George Washington’s weariness when he tells Hamilton that he needs time to himself, to tend his own vine. Or when Burr and Hamilton sing to their newborn children. Or, most critically, when Hamilton loses his child, and the brutal, devastating “It’s Quiet Uptown” follows their marriage in the aftermath. Never – and I say this without hyperbole – never has a song hit me like this one has. It’s a quiet song, and a simple one, following Hamilton and his wife as they grieve, and listening as Hamilton – ever hyper-verbal, ever fast-paced – for the first time is without words. And it wrecked me. And then on the second time? It wrecked me even worse. It’s a devastating, haunting number, and if you doubt that Miranda has succeeded in making these characters come to life? Listen to it in context and try not to feel the pain in every line.

At this point, I look back over these 1,500 words and realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface of how great this is. How it’s genuinely inspirational. How it reminds us that, even nearly 250 years later, that era was uniquely American, and the men within it every bit as revolutionary and wild as some we see today. How we all strive to create something larger than ourselves, and want to leave behind a story that people still tell. Or just how damn good it is – not just important, but fun and exciting and listenable and enjoyable. How awe-inspiringly well-written it is, and how stupidly, unfairly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda is. (He’s my age, almost exactly. What a stupid, super-nice, incredibly talented, apparently incredibly humble jerk.)

In other words, it’s just another middle-aged white guy raving about Hamilton. But dammit, people…you try listening to it and not having something to say about it all.

And if you’re thinking this is a lot of words, well, I like to think Hamilton himself would be okay with that.

Two quick announcements…

Since 2004, I’ve been posting my book and movie reviews on a little self-designed/maintained website called ClydeUmney.net. Earlier this year, I decided to shut it down in favor of a WordPress blog, but one of the things I was concerned about was losing all of that material – honestly, that was a ton of writing (upwards of 2,400 movie reviews and 1,000 book reviews), and I didn’t want to lose it all.

Well, as of tonight, all of the archives are officially set up and completed on a simple little Google site that provides free hosting. It’s nothing fancy, and it doesn’t look nearly as nice as what I had, but all of the reviews and essays are up, complete with star ratings when I implemented them in 2009, as well as an alphabetical index you can use if you’re looking for something particular.

Anyways, It’s all up for you here – feel free to check it out and enjoy.

Secondly, I’m glad all of that new/old content is up, because this place may be dead for a few weeks thanks to arm surgery I’m having this week. I hope to be back and reviewing soon, but if a couple of weeks go by, don’t give up on me just yet – I may just be (quite literally) unable to post much. I’ll try to work through the backlog when I return.