I used to spend a lot of time reading Glenn McDonald's music-review site The War Against Silence. It was much more than just a music site, as any random sampling of a 20,000 word Shania Twain review can tell you. Rather, the site was, in McDonald's own words:"a weekly music-review column, and then a weekly column about music, and then a weekly column that was often inspired by music...It was against many things, beginning with but not necessarily including silence, and in favor of many more, including some of the things it was once against and eventually its own end."
The site taught me a lot about music writing, about actually thinking about what music meant, or could mean, to you, and how to actually think about its larger worth. I think the most noteworthy thing about McDonald's writing is that his taste and mine only occasionally overlapped--I had no great interest in Japanese pop bands or Tori Amos records, but I wanted to know what he thought of them, and how his understanding of them could benefit me. I still miss the site.
Anyway, the point I'm getting to is this, from McDonald's review of Low's Christmas EP. It contains one of my favorite pieces of writing on the subject of the holidays, sums up and expresses a lot of similar feelings on my part, and I include it here:
I hate Christmas for a host of small reasons, too, but most of them are variations on two fundamental objections. The first is that at least here in the US, Christmas is the single most egregious and pathologically self-contradictory example of systemic insincerity I regularly encounter, edging out the entertainment industry and the political process. "It's over-commercialized", everybody has been taught to grouse; even dissent has been co-opted, as if the problem is a matter of degree, and the holiday season would be a paragon of cultural discretion if only K-Mart would tone down the graphic design of its December circulars a little. Christmas isn't over-commercialized, it's defined by commerce. The carefully meta-religious phrase "holiday season" isn't informed magnanimity; it's just pandering to a wider audience.
The other big thing I hate about Christmas is that there's virtually nothing good about it that wouldn't be better if it were spread throughout the year. Gift-giving, decorations, baking, holiday parties, sending notes to people with whom you've fallen out of touch, donating to charity: all these noble pursuits, to the extent they are practiced at all, are compressed into a few frantic, resentment-laced weeks, and then forgotten about for the next eleven months. You could contend that without Christmas, even this much wouldn't happen, but I'm not actually that cynical. Take away the inertia towards scheduled solicitude, and I think we would devise healthier alternatives of our own. Without Christmas, I'm almost certain I would do more. I suspect many would. We would celebrate, and give, of our own volition, and in our own terms, and on our own time. And the component of joy, which seems so elusive as we struggle through December traffic snarls and fight like ill-bred zombies over whatever objects' commercials most crassly exploited our emotional vulnerabilities this year, would, I stubbornly believe, have a genuine chance to infuse our actions, rather than being crushed by their logistics. It saddens me, every year, that in a way we never get to find out how good-hearted we are, how willing we would be to touch each other even if the enormous klaxons at Macy's and Amazon.com didn't go off the day after Thanksgiving.
Our real gifts are given the moment we write each other's names on a list, the moment that we realize we care about each other enough to brave the swirling debris of a mangled holiday to include each other in what, if we squint and imagine, it might once have signified.
"He told me once that he wanted to take on everything at one time and conquer it all just so he could feel indestructible."
I have no idea how to begin this, so I'll just say it: it's been a year now since my friend Mike died. Up until this point, I've resisted trying to write something, because it seemed so goddamn hard, and I thought that maybe, with the distance afforded me by the passage of time, I could get some kind of a grip on the situation, some sort of perspective, and talk about it in some kind of meaningful way. But I haven't, and I suspect I never really will. All the insight this year has yielded is that he's dead, and I wish he wasn't, and it still hurts that he is.
As best I can remember, I met Mike sometime in early 2006, in the corridor of Bronson Hall at LSUS. I don't think we spoke at all. He was friends with my roommate Charlotte, and we would see him off and on around town, but he didn't come around a lot. My initial reaction was that he was kind of aloof and distant, which was not entirely untrue.
But for whatever reason he started dropping by our place a lot more, and whatever reserves I'd had about him melted as I discovered that we shared a common language of books and movies and comics and music. He did freelance work for a local paper, so we had journalism in common as well. I don't think I've ever met anyone who was so much on my own wavelength culturally, and I know I've never known anyone who owned so many books. Frequently, my first thought when running across some book or album or magazine article was that I couldn't wait to run it by Mike, or to ask his opinion.
In the six months or so leading up to his death, we had begun to grow closer as friends. On Wednesday nights, he played trivia at a local pizza place, with the first place prize being two free pizzas. After I joined his team, our group routinely placed first. Other friends of mine sometimes wanted to come along, and I never actively discouraged them, but privately I always preferred to keep it as something between us.
Some things he loved: Captain Beefheart and Guided By Voices; William S. Burroughs and Alan Moore and The White Album; Moon Knight, John Coltrane, and John Sayles; Captain America and baseball and Superman; hobos and yeggs and second-story men. Whiskey and coffee and cigarettes.
He had a kind of offhand, effortless cool. He was a few years older than me, and had lived in Athens, Georgia during the Elephant Six years, roomed with Andrew Rieger from Elf Power, was casual friends with Jeff Mangum, and is listed as playing organ on the self-titled Circulatory System album. It's to his credit that he never went out of his way to mention these things; I discovered his name on the Circulatory System album while searching his name online. He was not the sort of person who felt the need to remind you of how awesome he thought he was. As the son of a prominent local doctor, he came from money, but he never carried himself in the way of a rich kid: I'm sure his family helped him out, but they didn't support him, and I always respected that tremendously.
If you needed to know something about a movie or whether or not Grant Morrison's run on Justice League of America was any good or what the coolest figure in Aztec mythology was, Mike was a good source of information. He knew a lot about local history--if you needed to know where something in town was, he could usually tell you, but only after he'd first let you know what it used to be, and when it was built, and what was across the street. And it wasn't that he was trying to sound like a show-off; he just wanted to share what he knew.
The temptation, in these sorts of situations, is to try to paint the sunniest possible picture of the person, but I've always felt that overplaying someone's virtues is as dishonest as harping on their faults. Mike had his problems, like anyone else: he could be overly dour, and there was something in his demeanor that suggested a kind of haughtiness that was largely nonexistent, but I could never fault anyone who assumed on first meeting him (as I did) that he had an arrogance about him. But he was also incredibly thoughtful and generous: he went to California last summer and upon returning, he presented me with a book he'd bought—it wasn't a huge gesture, but it was entirely unexpected, and oddly touching.
I remember the last time I saw him, three days before he died. We were at Charlotte's house, and it was time to go home. It was late, but I was still very much awake. Mike seemed to be lingering, as if he didn't want to go. I thought I would drag my heels a bit, too, and see if he was up for something. But in the end I went on downstairs to my my car ahead of him. I still sat and waited, though, thinking he might stop when he saw that I was still there.
But he didn't. I watched in the side-view mirror as he walked to his car, then started my own and drove home. It's the last living memory I have of him, a tiny figure haloed with frost, moving across the face of a mirror and then off into darkness.
And I regret that I didn't stop him, didn't ask him if he wanted to hang out or watch a movie. I regret that I didn't get to talk to him one last time. These are regrets that are common to everyone who knew Mike. He was someone you were always happy to see on your doorstep, and always sad to see go. I never had a bad time when Mike was around.
When I got the news I didn't believe it. On a purely rational, reasoning level I did; I knew it was true. But there was a completely irrational voice underneath that was insisting that it was a mistake—Mike might be hurt, or in the hospital, or they thought he was dead, but everything would be cleared up, the facts would be made clear, and we'd all feel stupid for making such a foolish assumption. This, of course, was wrong. We pulled up to his house in time to see them wheeling the body away. It was a fucking horrifying sight, but even then, deep down, there was a desire to refuse to accept reality.
A few months before, Mike and I watched Gonzo, the Hunter S. Thompson documentary, and we left the theater discussing how massively Thompson had failed himself—first abandoning his talents and then, when the will to fight became too much for him, abandoning his own life. Thompson didn't have the heart to get old and keep kicking ass, but Mike did, which makes his death all the more senseless and tragic. He had so much more work to do, and so much more fun to have, and so much more life to live.
He is dead, but only in the most meaningless sense of the word. Death doesn't even begin to stand a chance against a person like Mike. None of us knew him as long or as well as we would have liked, but all of us are better for the time spent with him, and worse for all the time we will, for the rest of our own lives, be without.
"He smoothed his clothes and calmly stepped through the door, emerging from years of depression, uncertainty, and chaos, and into a world of gleaming hope. He strutted the few short steps to his car, fresh and glad, and drove away knowing that at that moment he was perfect." --Mike Schwalke
A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Robinson Film Center for a rough-cut screening of the documentary Invisible Girlfriend. The film focuses on Charles, who lives in Monroe, Louisiana, and who is in love with the statue of Joan of Arc on Decatur Street in New Orleans. Charles is convinced that “Joanie's” physical manifestation is a bartender named Dee Dee, who he is infatuated with. Since Charles's driver's license is suspended, he buys a bicycle and decides to ride it to New Orleans, some four hundred or so miles to the south. Along the way, he has a series of odd encounters with a number of genuinely strange and engaging people
I'm still not completely sure how I feel about the movie. I saw it with Lindsay, and while I agree that some of her criticisms are accurate, I don't feel they detract from the overall effect of the film. There are a handful of beautiful shots throughout and, while some of them don't entirely work, or are somewhat clumsy, or lose focus, this is simply because the camera being used just can't handle the conditions it's used to shoot in, creating an extremely grainy or unsteady image. I can live with this. Bitching about a blurry shot or a little grain when a movie has been shot by literally two people is like complaining that Bee Thousand doesn't sound like The Colour And The Shape.
There's the inevitable and more concerning question of exploitation, but watching the movie, I never got the impression that Charles was being manipulated or that scenes were in some way scripted. And while Charles is certainly crazy (and though he comes across as more or less harmless, you get the definite impression that his illness has taken darker turns in the past), the film never paints him as some kind of Funny Crazy Guy and never portrays schizophrenia as any kind of fun. Charles is extremely candid and clear-headed in his discussions about mental illness, and during the aftershow Q&A, which he and the filmmakers attended, he was remarkably lucid—though he still seemed to believe that his invisible girlfriend was with him.
Initially, I was troubled by the fact—revealed by Charles during the Q&A—that making the four hundred mile journey by bicycle was actually the idea of the filmmakers. This alone should probably have been enough to cause an outright dismissal of the whole movie, I thought. But, really, so what? The scenes that work best in the film—a farmer proudly showing off his muzzleloader while waiting for a calf to be born; a man who owns a ruined riverboat that he claims belonged to FDR; an old married couple who provide Charles dinner and discuss Walt Disney's cryogenically frozen corpse; a man who owns a strange roadside attraction dedicated to dead US Soldiers, and who breaks down crying while looking over their photos—are absolutely real.
That reality is reinforced in the film's conclusion, which is completely unexpected, focusing on one of those moments when you've been utterly blindsided by tragedy in some public place and you wind up all alone, walled up with your grief, your pain soundtracked by some idiotic song (in this case, a live version of The Doors' “Roadhouse Blues”) blaring in the background. It might be Invisible Girlfriend's single best moment.
The movie's not perfect. And it might not even be completely "real", but it's close enough, I guess.
"Like most North Americans of his generation, he tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he's devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves. It's hard to say for sure whether this is even exceptionally bad, this tendency."