the last one

January is a highly chaotic month, resolution colliding with despair. It is a time about newness and a time about giving up. Everyone is shoving too many things at once into their calendars, all our new and shiny selves pushing to get onto the subway and crowding into tunnels and into the cold narrows of long streets where the wind navigates in from the rivers. Everyone is busy, and bright, and tired, trying to fit a whole year’s worth of proof into one month.

I’ve been trying to write a final griefbacon email for two weeks, to put together some perfect collection of paragraphs that would encompass the whole thing of whatever I’ve been writing for over four years here, polished to a high sheen, made coherent and gift-wrapped. I haven’t been able to do it; it was a January mood to think that I could, to think that things can be perfectly pulled together into the kind of ending that negates the fear of regrets. This is the last letter for a while and I meant to write about a lot of stuff and I’m not going to get to it, at least for now. Maybe at some point I’ll write about the Horny Billboard at the intersection of Lafayette and Houston; about how Vanya on 42nd Street is a christmas movie; about lipstick and yelling and Almodovar’s films; about Norman Fucking Rockwell! and the ten years of my life where I wore five-inch heels every single actual day that I left my house; about the Camp Cope album from 2018 that’s the best album I listened to last year and how all of you should listen to it, and useful anger and Courtney Love’s legacy and how the album is exactly the length of the commuter train from Philadelphia to Trenton on a Sunday in August; about the Frank O’Hara room at the new MoMA; about slow-cooker food and thanksgiving episodes of sitcoms and a million other things. 

And also, a lot of other people’s poems, specifically that one Kim Addonizio poem that goes around feelings-instagram with some small regularity, To The Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall, which I can’t find a link to so I’m just posting a photo of it here:

This poem is a lot of things and one of them is about being a drunk girl in a bathroom. The thing about being a drunk girl in a bathroom is that you don’t remember it, which is maybe part of why it is imbued with so much nigh-on religious grace. The other thing about being a drunk girl in a bathroom is what I think Thomas feels when he talks about Jesus and means it, whole-hearted and full-throated generosity, a condition of unconditional everything, arms and face and body open to the suffering of the world, able to hold all of it. 

The title functions as part of the poem, the engine already running up toward the limit, we are not introducing anything, we are already there. A small exclamatory list follows in the queasy second-person, a litany of overly specific experiences, absurd and disgusting, so personal that no one could possibly seem to share it, sang using a dildo for a microphone. And then it turns around like a gunslinger into the first person in the last three lines, listen. Listen, the poem like someone running full speed into a barrier, like someone holding out their hand to say stop, like someone firmly putting their arms around someone else who is crying too hard to breathe. I love you, it ends, from fast to slow, loud to quiet. Joy is coming. 

“Joy is coming” is very different from “it gets better.” Joy is coming, but it might not fix anything. It might not change anything for longer than a moment. There will be a time other than now, when you will feel something different, something opposite, from this, when you will feel joy. Maybe that time will be the balance of your life; maybe it will be an hour, or less than that, a fleeting second or two grabbed out of the air like a passing smell. Joy is coming, though. Something else will happen, and you will feel something else. “Something else will happen” is the bleakest reassurance which is why it is the best one; it is always true. Things don’t always get better, but something else always does happen. Joy will overwhelm this moment, unearned, selfish, useless, joy thrusting up out of the ground, frankly rude of it, like the green shoots and new leaves in the first chilly, teeth-edge-hopeful days of spring. Spring is my least favorite season and then every year when it arrives I swoon around, drunk on all the newness and mad at myself for falling for it, somehow, once again, against all odds, here it is. Joy is coming. 

The thing about strangers in bathrooms is that it is a kind of grace because there is not, and cannot be, any idea of deservingness. The narrator knows nothing about this person, if she is crying for a large or small reason, a rational or irrational one, if her problems are her own fault, if she is objectively the villain in her own story. It doesn’t matter. Listen. I love you because you happen to be standing near me. Grace is brutal, wiping away the work of earning love. Joy is coming, for you just like everyone else. Everyone is going to feel something else. At some point you will feel tired enough to sleep, hungry enough to not care. Something is going to matter more than this. The world is going to turn over in the dirt and uproot itself and blossom in spring, and nothing you can do can change it. January barrels toward change, toward unearned hope. Joy is coming and there is nothing you can do about, no way to adequately prepare yourself. 

Anyway. This probably isn’t actually the last griefbacon email; I can’t really imagine that at some point I won’t write some weird, long essay at 4am and decide to send it, but it’ll probably be quite a while or at least that’s the plan. The archives are still up and available to everybody, and I’ve made an overly-long list of some of my favorites below, for you to check out now or whenever you feel like it. 

Jenny Lewis and the history of the Hot Sad Online Girl

an essay about Peaches’ “Fuck The Pain Away,” the early 2000s and the song that defined it and all of us garbage children who came of age in that garbage era

I grew up in California and the name of that state is the name of a larger emotion and probably you can’t ever really go home again

Visible Storage at the Met; old friends; other people’s weddings

Money and love and soft places; I don’t have a favorite but if I had to choose it would probably be between this and Visible Storage

I have wanted a burrito ever since I wrote this piece so basically it’s a curse I put on myself

maps is the best song of the 2000s so far, maps is its own singular emotion

an old friend of mine who was also a true living legend passed away this summer and I wrote a couple things about it that are slightly more personal than I feel comfortable being in this ostensibly-personal-essay newsletter

I would put my body between Monica Lewinsky and danger without a second thought

I wrote these two essays that I kind of think of as a twinned pair while I was out of town and missing Thomas; one of them is about The Wedding at Cana, the other one is about long distance relationships and nearness and farness

a long list of stuff to do in new york. if you live in a place long enough your answer when people are like “I am here for a weekend what should I do” gets pretty weird; nobody is wrong when they say that new york city is over, but here are a whole bunch of my feelings about it anyway

on Back to School as a larger emotion

a cautionary tale about taking out your own air conditioner, the title is also a good punchline

on getting to the end of a decade and the weirdness of looking back on it; a lot of this letter has been about “trying to quantify and reckon up yourself into a list of accomplishments is a trap” and this is probably my favorite on that theme

doing stuff at the last minute is only thing I am good at which is to say I am not good at it at all, the layered horrors of procrastination, this is about all-nighters and somewhat obliquely about rewatching all of Mad Men

what I miss about drinking; a supreme court justice nominee yelling “I like beer!!!;” someone I once loved a whole lot who also liked beer a whole lot; culpability

Fourth of July in New York City and love as obligation

Thomas wrote this about going to see his family in Chattanooga last december and I love it a lot

I got really sad about the little independent movie theater in my neighborhood closing and I wrote about that and also some other stuff

I wrote a lot about the mountain goats although not as much as I wanted to and probably this short essay about Grendel’s Mother is my favorite one. 

the most recent one before this but I like it a lot, on little women, and also the falseness of coming of age narratives, and the movies, and looking in at other people’s families from the outside, and how much I love the Angelika

anniversaries and love and frank o’hara and drinking coffee in bed; I wrote this on Thomas and my third anniversary and it’s still one of my very favorites (there are a few older ones, but this is the oldest one that I still think about regularly)

that’s it for now. there’s a lot more in the archives and I recommend checking all of it out, even the ones I don’t think are very good. please email me any time with any questions or thoughts or whatever. thank you for reading, thank you responding and posting and sharing and supporting this letter, thank you for being the last two people awake at the sleepover telling each other secrets. xo

teen movie

Upstairs at the Angelika a skinny dude, who looks like a teen to me but is probably at least in college, is taking tickets. He is extremely enthusiastic about Little Women. “It’s a really tight movie, she does stuff that’s really cool, it’s not what you expect” he tells all of us waiting to go in, “and in 35mm, it looks fucking sick. Wait, did you read the book,” he asks us. “You won’t really get how cool it is unless you see what she changed.” It feels like a joke and it isn’t. Oh you love Little Women so much name three of their albums

The best thing about the Angelika is that the BDFM trains run directly underneath it. During the movie you can not just hear but feel the subway rattling beneath your feet, punctuating the action on the screen. At the Angelika, every movie is set in New York. The other best thing about the Angelika is the same best thing as every other small art house movie theater: They sell coffee, specifically very bad coffee, almost exactly the same bad coffee as bodega coffee and church coffee, which is to say the best coffee in the world, watery and flavorless and burnt at once, and you can take a tall paper cup of it into the movie with you and hold it warm in your hands. 

The final best thing about the Angelika is that it is the same as it was. The Angelika still has the same old movie posters up that it has had up in the lobby since I came here as a teenager, younger than the greasy-haired kid so excited for us to see Greta Gerwig’s sick-ass movie. The pastel splatter-painted ceiling and the junk-shop chandelier casting spidery shadows across it are the same as they were when I was thirteen and sixteen and twenty-one. The auditoriums are skinny and unadorned and uncomfortable by larger movie theater standards, and you can buy questionable homemade baked goods and simple supermarket-sliced bread sandwiches. Umberto Eco said about Casablanca that it “is not one movie, it is the movies.” I get popcorn and I put too much butter on it, because butter popcorn is the movies. I have been coming to the Angelika since I can remember, with my parents and with friends and with exes and by myself, sitting in the earnest home-painted darkness of the skinny auditorium. The Angelika is, to me, not a place to see a movie; it is the movies

One thing Little Women — the book, and all adaptations following— shares in common with other wildly popular mega-properties, franchises that have the particular traction gained by things beloved first and arguably foremost by teens, is that it functions in part as a personality test. Generations of readers have argued about whether they are a Jo or an Amy, just like generations of newer readers keep arguing about whether they’re a Slytherin or a Gryffindor. The discussion of who is a what and why would be enough to lend Little Women enduring popularity even if it had no other attributes.

However, Alcott’s book positions its reader not as any of the women of the title, but as Laurie, the rich-boy neighbor of the less-rich March family. Almost no one gets Laurie on a Little Women character quiz, but Laurie’s experience is the experience of reading this book, and, much more self-consciously, of watching Gerwig’s adaptation. The first moment that really got me was about ten minutes in, during the first flashback sequence. After the exuberant dance scene where Laurie meets the March sisters and then helps them get home, there are two paired shots of Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, first standing awkwardly in the March house as its numerous women tumble and talk over each other around him, everything the color of firelight except him, and then outside, in the banked and silent snow, about to begin the very short walk home to his very much grander house, turning to look back at the place he just came from, which emanates warmth out into the winter night so palpable you could nearly feel it coming off the screen. That was the point where I started crying, and I basically didn’t stop for the rest of the movie. 

Little Women is a book about longing to get inside someone else’s family. Laurie is all the only children who spent our time in high school at the homes of friends who had bigger, warmer, messier families, the lonely kids who were always looking to shoulder our way into someone else’s family, for whom love was a means of inclusion in a warm room in which we were not naturally welcome, and perhaps did not wholly belong. One thing this film gets right is the part of adolescence that is about always trying to get adopted by someone else, trying to find a family who will actively chose you. It is a movie about other people’s houses, and about the friend you had growing up whose house was always warmer — literally, temperature-wise — than yours, and the feeling at the late end of the night at a friend’s house when you didn’t want to leave, the dullness of returning to your own chilly, empty home. It is a movie about how both childhood and family are fictions, our own and other people’s. 

On the common application, the shared form that a lot of colleges use as their required document for applicants seeking admission, one of the personal statement essay prompts is, or at least used to be, “The transition from childhood to adulthood is partially defined by___.” I started this newsletter when I was still a college admissions tutor, which I’ve written about here often, but what I haven’t said as often, or at least not as explicitly, is that in some ways I started this newsletter because of that prompt. I don’t necessarily think it’s a great college-admissions essay prompt. Few people applying to college directly out of high school have the perspective to reflect on the transition between childhood and adulthood; it is like trying to photograph an ocean while swimming in that ocean. But from the first time I read that prompt, all I wanted to do was write an essay about the transition from childhood to adulthood, and how it is partially defined. Almost every single time I am stuck on a topic or on a way to approach the essay I’m already elbows-deep into, I come back to this question, created by a committee to go on a website for teenagers privileged enough to be applying to colleges. The transition from childhood to adulthood is partially defined by___.

The moment between childhood and adulthood as defined by the college application, by the idea of applying to college, by movies such as Ladybird, which I did not see, and by the flashbacks in Little Women, does not actually exist. It is as much a cultural invention as childhood itself. The idea of childhood as gentle and consequence-free, a time when we are sweet and unformed, a time when nothing counts, is an invention and a lie. Everything counts as soon as we can remember anything, and before that, too. Horrible things happen in childhood, to children and to adolescents, and children and adolescents sometimes do horrible things, the consequences of which echo down their lives. Money and privilege insulate some of us from this, which is why childhood stretches out longer, and looks more like the movies about it, the richer you are, but even that does not shield anyone from the permanence of every choice, and the weight of ongoing time. There is no practice run, no softer playing field, no world without edges before entering the sharper one. 

The moment at the end of high school is celebrated in our culture to an absurd, nigh-on religious degree. But what childhood and adolescence actually are is something invented by old people, or people beginning to get old, people far enough away from youth to rewrite youth as a fiction, and little demonstrates this as much as the narratives that celebrate this moment. Childhood is not a lived experience but a word for an adult’s fear of getting older. When I taught teenagers, I found myself longing backward to when I was seventeen and eighteen, a time when I was objectively miserable, dealing with one family crisis on top of another, incapable of having a normal conversation with another human being, and making some of the worst choices of my life. My childhood was awkward and anxious and unhappy and I miss it every single day, which is how I know I’ve gotten older. What I miss is a fiction, a language to talk about passage of time. 

Little Women, and I suspect Gerwig’s whole thing, which I really shouldn’t try to speak to since once again I cannot tell you how much I am never gonna watch Ladybird, is also centered on the question of what defines the transition from childhood to adulthood. But it seems to me that the point of Little Women is that childhood, and adolescence, and the transition between the two, are all fictions, as narrow and false and artificial as the college application, invented by adult regret, and that the relationship to one’s own past is often defined by the desire to create that fiction, to write for oneself a past that never quite existed. Gerwig’s films, as far as I can tell, are obsessed with this transitional moment, but in Little Women at least, that obsession serves to point out how these origin stories are artifice and invention. A similar artifice makes up both the subject and the form of my actual favorite film this year, Almodovar’s Pain and Glory (obviously Parasite was the best film I saw this year, but Pain and Glory was my favorite, the one that lives closest to my heart). Pain and Glory has several uncanny and unexpected parallels with Little Women, none of which I can talk about because it would spoil Almodovar’s film and I normally could not care less about spoilers but I truly want as many people as possible to see this film and get its full effect, please go see Pain and Glory. But both of these films state, I think, that what we live can end up being secondary to what we create about our lives, and that most childhood-to-adulthood origin stories are no more accurate than a hastily rigged-up stage set. The transition from childhood to adulthood is defined by nothing; we were never as young as we think we were, and none of us ever existed in a state before consequences or pain. Hope is not easy for anyone, even teenagers, and family is never as clean nor as beautiful as it looks from the outside when it is someone else’s family. 

Little Women is a movie about wanting things, which is also an adolescent mood, a permission we give to the fiction of childhood. It is about wanting someone else’s family, but it is also — again like Pain and Glory—  about art and artifice and fame and praise, things that can replace ideas of perfect love and perfect family. One part of the fiction of adolescence is the way in which as we get older we delude ourselves into believing ambition and bigness are only permitted to the young and the privileged. What I perhaps envied most in the time I worked with students on essays about passion and goals and plans and the future was the state of ambition in which they were encouraged to live. Too much of my life had closed up and narrowed for me to feel those things in that same full-throated way anymore, or so I thought, maturity a process of resignation. 

I went to see Mitski play Central Park’s Summerstage two nights in a row this summer, in a crowd full of actual teenagers punctuated by the occasional thirty-something NYC-media person like chaperones at a very emotional outdoor prom. At the end of the second night, she played the first of the same two encores she had played the night before, and as it ended the crowd, just as we had the night before, screamed and yelled, shrieking her name, some people calling out “mom,” telling her they would die for her. Her show was extraordinarily, minutely choreographed, beautiful and compelling and by design not spontaneous at all, but for a moment at the end of these two nights, at the end of her last time touring for the foreseeable future, that performer’s shell seemed to crack, and she seemed to allow herself to take everyone in. She faced the audience and put her hand very simply over her heart. “This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted my whole life,” she said. I doubt I was the only person who burst into tears in the audience, but I felt it coming on like a wave with that sentence. It was the kind of absolute, undisguised want for which I had come to believe I had missed my chance, something I had told myself was necessary to leave behind. 

When I was very young, I remember every second was saturated was this sort of pure illuminating ambition. Eventually I had told myself to grow out of it, and had had it numbed out of me. Wanting that much, only for myself, seemed lavish, a privilege for the young and the pure and the lucky. But standing in that sweaty field just after sunset, I wanted to hold onto it, to pull myself back up on its raft, to live in its stupid, immature blaze again. It is a childish feeling, and a selfish one, and movies like Little Women, movies about making movies, about the all-consuming desire to make art, to be an artist, are in some ways childish and selfish, too. But Gerwig’s film burns restlessly with the exact same desire coming off of that stage on that late summer night in its purest, sweatiest form.

I think a lot about how “Geyser,” a song off Mitski’s recent album, a song that sounds like a howling love song is actually, according to Mitski, a song she wrote about music, about making art. The end of Little Women is brilliant in a stupid, card-trick, Houdini-smug way. The only clumsy cut in the whole film is between the two versions of the big romantic kiss, inserted to make sure you see how false it is, to make sure you see that you have been watching a fiction, that romance is only in service of art-making. Love has conquered nothing; it exists only to be made into art. Most art I love is something that shouldn’t work, that gets away with something it has no business getting away with, and knows it, too, and knows that that’s part of its thrill. Art like this almost always has a moment where it shows its hand, where it reveals its author’s salivating desire to be called a genius. Little Women wants to make sure you know that it isn’t a love story; it’s a story about Mitski saying “this is the only thing I’ve ever wanted my whole life.” It’s the fact that “Geyser” is about art rather than about love. That shot of the kiss doesn’t want you to feel romantic; it wants the teenage film bro working at the Angelika to say that it looks fucking sick.

The experiences I had at the Angelika as a young person were probably not all that special; I didn’t even see movies there all that much. I feel a lot about it because I have chosen to feel a lot about it, and feeling a lot about it feels better than the actual experience of being a teenager ever did. It is a story and not a record. Little Women is a movie about a mercenary artist, and it’s a mercenary movie. Gerwig’s Jo-as-Alcott is writing herself a childhood that neither she nor any of us watching the movie had. It is an only child’s idea of what it is like to be in a large family, and a rapidly aging adult’s idea of what it is like to be young. It is a person who has lost a loved one’s memory of living with that loved one. It does not resemble reality because it is not meant to; it is what we conjure up, or escape into, when we recognize the dullness, the chilliness, the ongoing lacks in our own reality, the holes that the consequences of our actions have been gouging in our lives since before we knew either of those words. It is the swaggery, selfish comfort of rewriting our story to be better than the way it happened, to propel ourselves out of the past by way of the past. We are turning around in the snow on a cold night to look at back at the rose-colored warm windows of a house where we do not live, going home alone, just outside the light from someone else’s house, where we imagine a life that is not ours, and is not anyone’s, and does not and cannot exist at all.

griefbacon is ending, like, this week? I’m just finishing some drafts at this point, there should only be one or two after this. the archives are staying up for the foreseeable future. xo

nothing time

This is the dead time of year, the days when nothing counts. The time between Christmas and New Years is a gap in the story, a pause in the music, a space between and inhale and exhale. It is not yet time to start anything new and it is too late to finish anything you did not finish already. Everything’s done; everything’s settled; everything’s filed. It’s terrible; it’s a huge relief. No one is going to notice you now if they haven’t noticed you already; might as well stay home, might as well do nothing, might as well stay out later, might as well buy that thing, have that drink, make that choice, or do nothing and refuse all of it. It is a time to text people you shouldn’t text and ignore texts you should return. It is a time to talk to no one. It is the photo-negative print that the loaded obligations and expectations of the holidays leave behind in their wake. Nothing is owed, and everything is finished. Try again next year. December 26th to January 1st is the least impressive moment of the whole calendar year and it is also, to me, the single holiest holiday there is.

This is the only time of year that’s really about forgiveness, whatever the Christian calendar and the onslaught of new green growth in spring claims. Forgiveness is sleeping in, forgiveness is getting up slowly, forgiveness is staying indoors, or forgiveness is going outdoors and talking to no one. Forgiveness is slow, and patient, and unspectacular. It does not fit, logistically or energetically, with the building blocks of work and achievement, with the ruthless pursuit of an unbroken momentum that colors the jaw-dropping lists of personal accomplishments that so many people are sweeping onto the internet right now.

Right now I am very sad, if I’m honest: I didn’t do much this year but write this newsletter and go to the gym and not drink and love some people halfway decently and others not as well as I would have liked to. I did not do anything exciting and I also did not save as much money as I intended to save by trimming out those exciting things. I once again did not finish or sell a book; I got off twitter for a while but only because I spent most of the year wrestling with the feeling that all of this had been a mistake and that I should quit writing and go do something else with my life, and the perhaps-worse feeling that it was too late to even do that, too late, even, to successfully give up. 

I could pull together a sunlight-shot photoset from marches and church Sundays and dinner parties and anniversaries and cats and lazy weekends and kisses and birthdays and tell it as a bright story, but the truth is that each of those things felt like something in which I was reaching for the experience, grasping it at it and then missing the mark and falling away. Whenever I loved someone or met someone new whom I wanted to bring into my life, I felt like I was disappointing them, saying the wrong thing and stepping in the wrong spots in an invisible dance diagram. I felt that my awkwardness, the uncool, not-fun-at-parties person I was for many years, whom I believed myself to have vanquished, had mysteriously returned. I felt like a bad friend and like a person who had lost most of their friendships; I felt like a lot of things had been lost by some negligence of my own that I had been too thoughtless, too distracted, too disorganized, to even notice had occurred.

It was not even a particularly bad year; everything was fine, really. There is no thundering disaster to offer a giddy, sprawling sense of burning it all down and starting again. In the past, I have felt nauseously energized at the end of extraordinarily bad years, as though all the year’s horror had fired me out of a canon and briefly it seemed like I could fly. The days that just kind of pass, that are just ok, that are not disasters but also do not get better and do not climb upwards, where the same problems simply persist at a low level, are a different thing, a sleepy monster that is somehow much harder to fight than the one roaring up spitting fire and thirsty for blood. It is awful how possible it is do nothing, how easy it is to simply never quite be happy. 

It is difficult forgive oneself for failures as subtle as this. The frantic aggrandizing mood at this seam in the year can feel like it runs counter to forgiveness, and so can the next day’s arbitrary to commitment to out-loud goals, as though we were never at any other time allowed to resolve to change our lives, as though this were our only chance. But the real holiday already happened, or is happening, extending across the 31st and the 1st, across the imaginary gap between years, between calendar numbers, stretching out lazy as a cat. Capitalism would have us believe that life divides into work and vacation right up until death, and that there is nothing else: work, and when you should be working. Work, and what rewards you can earn from having done enough work. Work, and getting away with something. But it is possible that this strange time, between the holidays and the new year, is something else, is neither work nor The Holidays, obligated in neither direction, towards oneself or away from oneself. It is possible that this is the only blank time of year and that blankness is the place where forgiveness starts, or at least where it becomes most possible, holding space, doing nothing, receiving no accolades, returning no emails. 

To be clear, plenty of people go to work at this time. It would be wonderful if this liminal time were actually honored as a legal holiday and all commerce and government and infrastructure and tourism shut down and not a single person went to work, but we do not live in that ideal world. Far more people are at work than are staying home. But the unguarded porousness in these days seeps into offices and shifts and jobs, too. Ten in the morning and two in the afternoon and eleven at night all still feel exactly the same. It still seems like it might be possible to do something very large and very reckless and have no one notice or care. The identity-less sense of being unseen and out of step with time has applied in my experience even at the times when I went into work every day between Christmas and New Years. The lost space at the end of the year, the gap in the dance, the pause between sentences, does not change or lift according to circumstance; it is the circumstance itself. Like the holidays and all their expectations, it exists no matter where we find ourselves when it arrives, and it acts on us in whatever state it finds us. Only our reactions to it change. 

This non-event holiday is, I believe, what we really mean when we say that the city empties out at the holidays. Nothing-time just starts earlier, maybe, for those of us who stay in a place like New York over December 25th. It is less about the clearing-out of physical space, although it does mean that too, how the lack of rushing bodies slows the mind and the blood pressure. The emptying out is part of this sense of uselessness, that this time is useless and people are therefore permitted to be useless within it. This softness, this forgiving uselessness is perhaps why nothing really changes the fact nor the feeling of the city emptying out this time of year. New York, despite its best efforts, cannot so wholly undo itself that the days when the city empties at the bottom of the year do not still feel like themselves. Of course, it happens in every other place that isn’t New York, too. The emptying out that those of us who live here and want to act like we know some kind of secrets talk about is not specific to the city at all; our lives empty out at this time of year, the streets picked clean with tumbleweed blowing through them, traffic dispersed and buildings shut up into closed-eyed windows, every chance already missed, every decision already made, every verb in the future or the past tense and nothing in the present.

A decade is as arbitrary a measure of time as a year; today is no more despairing or prideful than any other day, nor is tomorrow more hopeful. There is no reason for the days at the end of the year to be blanker, nor for the ones at the beginning to be cleaner. These things are invented for our own comfort, out of our rioting need to make our own experiences legible, to locate something large enough that we might let ourselves go limp in its grasp. In this way, the calendar is just another religious fabrication, and so are all the holidays and renewals, anniversaries and self-congratulations, taking-stocks and successes and failures, losses and accumulations, within it. Even these dead days at the end of the year are an invention, merely a fiction more widely agreed-upon than most. Today feels like Sunday but it is not Sunday. Nothing is coming for us tomorrow, neither to destroy us nor to save us. No new year is new, even one that changes more of its numbers than usual. 

But still we all want to believe our lives are going to change. We are reeling out into a future that is already here, hoping we can propel ourselves into a new universe, fearful, nauseated, trying. But I would stop and hold the softness of this liminal nowhere time, and try to forgive both success and failures, to forgive ourselves for wanting to believe that the movement of a clock could change us, and a new set of numbers could render us new. I try again as night rushes in for the last time this decade, to forgive myself for wanting to believe in the religion of an early enough morning, and in the currency of a long enough list of good deeds.

Maybe wasted time is a failure, but failures can be a softness, a relief like an empty city after the holidays. This is a time to sit uncomfortably with who we are when we have nothing to show for ourselves, and how we might still be loved. Forgiveness turns us toward our soft and couch-bound bodies, our fleshy and stupid wants. There are a few more hours left to cleave from the calendar and the clocks and fall into the useless indoor wasted-time softness of love. In love we render one another invisible. Imagine the year means nothing; imagine the decade will not matter. Imagine the part of love that is the other person’s body convincing you to sleep in on a morning at the dead time right before the end of the year.

happy new year, griefbacon is ending but there are two or three more coming before that. love to all of you at this arbitrary progression of one day into another. xo

best albums of 2019

hi friends, and welcome to my favorite time of the year. I’ll (probably) send something in the next day or two about why this dead, low-stakes time between christmas and new years is the best time of the year, but right now I have something else for you. sometimes this newsletter has kind of been something like a music blog, so I wanted to do a Best Albums of 2019, but the truth is that my way of relating to music, in which I listen to one song on repeat for a month at a time and also find it necessary to put The National’s entire discography on every playlist I make, means I get through new music slowly and haltingly and rarely discover my favorite albums of a year within that same calendar year (my favorite album of 2019 is an album from 2018, for instance, but there’s another letter coming about that, too). My point is: I didn’t feel like I was qualified to write a Best Albums of 2019 post, so I asked Thomas — who is one of those people who listens to new music at an almost incomprehensible rate the week it comes out, and who is constantly sending me albums that look fantastic and imploring me to listen to them while I put “Hairpin Turns” on repeat again — to write it for me. I’ll turn this over to him now:

I dove into the music of 2019 expecting to surface with absolute gems, inarguable and shining. What I discovered is an interesting pile of emotional shapes and solids, some of them strange, several of them feeling far too much. 

I’m not sorry. 2019 was a weird one. 

Here goes…

Jenny Lewis, On The Line

There is nothing I could say about Jenny Lewis that Helena hasn’t said already and better. (HF note: this is absolutely untrue, but I do think you should click on that Jenny Lewis piece, since it’s my favorite thing I wrote in 2019). On The Line came out back when the year was young and I said then it would be (one of) my album(s) of the year, and that’s not changed. A round of Red Bull & Hennessy for everyone, line ‘em up and get wicked, y’all. (Spotify)

Jamila Woods, LEGACY! LEGACY!

A good concept album will sell me every time, and a great concept album fills me with awe and envy. It’s one thing to stick to a thesis, another to use it as a sure foundation, to build upon it something entirely your own, shining and beautiful. Jamila Woods has forever been a secret weapon for other artists, but LEGACY! LEGACY! places her in the front of a class, demanding attention, writing names on the board like “OCTAVIA (Butler)” or “(Nikki) GIOVANNI” and teaching while singing, singing these legends into being, leaving you wanting to listen again and then to go to the library for more of that rich source material. (Spotify)

Hatchie, Keepsake

Discovering Hatchie was the result of an almost-end-of-year cheat code. About a month ago, I found a list of overlooked albums from 2019, and right in the middle was Keepsake, the debut album from Harriette Pilbeam. After a single listen, I had to listen again and then a third time. It became a go-to, one of those albums you put on for the commute home. Keepsake lives in a space I didn’t realize I needed, a sonic limbo between The Cure’s Disintegration (1989) and Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career (2009), with a touch of The Sundays for good measure. This album is a moment to stop and collect, something sorely lacking in 2019. (Spotify, Bandcamp)

Georgia Maq, Pleaser

Toward the end of the summer, I heard Camp Cope for the first time, and I decided right then and there How To Socialise & Make Friends was my album of the year. “The Opener” is a perfect track, fearless and excoriating. But alas, HTS&MF can’t be my album of the year, because it came out in 2018 and I’m the one turning up late to the party. However, just two weeks ago, Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq dropped a heretofore secret solo pop album, just over a half-an-hour’s worth of songs recorded in somebody’s bedroom or several bedrooms. With one listen, it kicked its way into this top ten. This is DIY New Order, this is Alanis 2019, this is the Sleater-Kinney album we didn’t get. Pleaser (the album) is fantastic, and “Pleaser” (the single) is at-once bleak and catchy as hell. (Spotify, Bandcamp)

King Princess, Cheap Queen

Cheap Queen is an album sitting uncomfortably close on a crowded train, talking to itself about questionable decisions bravely made the night before, daring you to lean in and listen. Every song is defiant and charged, from the sweeping dips and sways of “Homegirl,” to the don’t-you-dare-look-away gaze of “Prophet.” Speaking of, that heel turn at the two minute three second mark of “Prophet” is the defining sonic jaw-drop of 2019. Then there’s the entire Broadway musical contained in “Isabel’s Moment.” It’s difficult to write about this album without contributing to an unruly pile of hyphenated, invented adjectives, but that’s kind of the point and here we are. If you made it this far through the year without giving this album a shot, get into it now. (Spotify)

Harry Harris, I Feel Drunk All The Time

Full disclosure, Harry Harris is a beautiful human and I know this from first-hand experience. A couple years back, he helped Helena treat me to a most wonderful birthday in Edinburgh, just by being a lovely fellow and sharing a few beers. And while it’s not unusual to have a musician in your friend group, it’s something else entirely to have a Harry Harris. All this to say, Harry’s 2019 album blew me away, blessed as we were to hear it some weeks before the rest of the world. He writes songs that fill your sails and break your heart, and he sings them like he’s tearing down a highway. Harry is a gift and I Feel Drunk All The Time is a work of heart and art. And if you don’t tear up or just flat out cry before the title track is over, I don’t know what to do with you.

(HF note: Thomas listened to this immediately when Harry sent it to us, because he’s a good person; because I’m a leaking garbage bag full of feelings, I didn’t listen to it until much later. “Harry’s album is so good, you should listen,” Thomas kept saying and I kept answering, “I know, that’s why I haven’t listened yet, I’m too scared.” The truth is that during that weekend in Edinburgh a couple years ago, Thomas and I went to see Harry play a show in a tiny room above a bar. I arrived in the sort of jovial mood in which one shows up to support one’s friends in their art-doing endeavors; three songs in I was regretting that we had sat in the front row because it meant I had to actually hold my face together in order to keep from sobbing. One of my worst qualities is that, as much as I work to get over this, some part of me hangs onto the boring, snobbish, patently incorrect belief that anyone who is truly good at something must already be famous for doing it. Seeing Harry play just one set of songs disproved that belief in a tidal wave, and I was left with this enormous sense of loss and forgiveness and wonder. Perhaps many of us, quietly working at the thing we love day in and day out, truly are producing work as good as or better than that by the people whose names everyone already knows; perhaps the true best albums (and books, and movies, and anything else) of this year really are the ones unlikely to make any, or many, lists. Perhaps there really is so much that we’re all missing out on, at every moment, just waiting to be discovered, to flood illumination into our lives from less-visible sources. The handful of songs Harry played that night made me feel so much - not just about this, but about all the stuff strummy singer-songwriter-y rock music (for better or worse my favorite genre) is supposed to make you feel, about heartbreak and renewal and regret and compassion and the feeling of watching the landscape go by out a train window with your headphones in and thinking it isn’t too late to remake your whole life - that I was terrified to listen to his new album. When I finally did, it was in the middle of the summer, well after it had officially dropped. A dear friend of mine had died unexpectedly, and I knew I Feel Drunk All The Time was also about the loss of a dear friend. I found myself walking around Soho on a blindingly bright day, listening to one song on repeat for hours, and it was the first thing that had actually felt like the right thing to do. I have rarely gone a day without listening to this album since.) (Spotify, Bandcamp)

Harry Styles, Fine Line

A couple weeks back, I sat bolt upright and realized one of the many problems with 2019: there was no Golden Hour. Kacey Musgrave’s 2018 effort was a north star of an album, the kind of record that just works and nobody can argue. Throwing a party? Throw on Golden Hour. Everybody nods. But here we are a couple scant weeks from the end of this tumultuous year, and praise God Almighty there’s another sun on the rise. The Golden Hour of 2019 is Fine Line from young Harry Styles, late of One Direction. Unapologetically pop, full of Feelings with a capital F, reminiscent of the finest ‘70s FM Gold, The sonic run through the first five tracks is a flawless rollercoaster of bops. I’ve said too many times with too much misplaced optimism that only pop music will save us all, and I’m saying it again. We need so many more Fine Lines and we need them right now. (Spotify)

The Highwomen, The Highwomen

I was walking on 8th Avenue. I’d just hopped off the subway at West 4th, on my way to meet Helena. I crossed MacDougal right as the chorus of “If She Ever Leaves Me” began. I stopped walking. That was it. I was done and finished, wrapped and shipped. Hardly ever do I listen to songs on repeat, but I had to hear this again and again. The entire album could just be that one song repeated ten times and I’d call it perfect. Fortunately, it shares a track listing with eleven more songs just as wonderful. Politics is awful, everything is on fire, and yet we are so lucky to live in a time when Carlile, Hemby, Morris, and Shires each exist as an independent artist, much less a supergroup like this. (Spotify)

The National, I Am Easy To Find

It’s funny how things become a part of your life, how you come to love what your partner loves. My initial exposure to The National was during a roadtrip with Helena and my reaction was less than enthusiastic. “Is that guy going to apologize again?,” was my question. Funny how things change, indeed. Here we are a few years later and Spotify tells me The National was my artist not only of the year, but of the entire decade. I Am Easy To Find is no small part of that, an album wherein Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner step aside from their own microphones and let women’s voices fill the gaps and expand the conversation. Will This Is The Kit, Mina Tindle, Gayle Ann Dorsey, and Sharon Van Etten become regular features of future The National albums? We can only hope. (Spotify)

Lucy Dacus, 2019 EP

We saw Lucy Dacus in concert three times this year. I don’t think I’ve ever done that. One artist, thrice in a single year. We saw her twice in Central Park, opening for Mitski over two weekend nights in the summer, then we saw her again a couple weeks back, headlining her own show at Webster Hall. The difference between being the opener and being the headliner is breathtaking. In either case, Dacus and her band (those boys love her so much!) sound gorgeous and put on a brilliant show, but left to headline with no reason to hold back, they have an energy I wish I could bottle and keep forever. Her 2019 EP is a collection of covers and originals, including her stunning and dad-dedicated take on Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark.” An artist’s EP of ostensible B-sides shouldn’t feel like a cohesive effort, and yet for Dacus it all works, its only fault being how it clocks in under half an hour. So flip it over and start again. Keep on dancing in the dark. (Spotify) -TS

(griefbacon is ending soon, you know that already. I have a few more drafts to get through so it’s gonna be less the end of the year and more like the end of the first week of January, I think. enjoy these weird few end-of-decade days and listen to some albums. more of whatever this is real soon. xo)


“Maps” (by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, off their 2003 album Fever to Tell) is the best song of the 2000s so far and it isn’t even close. Maps (in the interest of keeping this email from being a miserable experience for everybody, I am not going to put quotation marks around its name each time) is the thing that you maybe don’t understand if you weren’t old enough to fuck up your life in ’00s and it is the thing that came after, the immediately post-recession coming-of-age thing, when nothing you could do could fix anything, so you were free to do whatever the hell you wanted. Maps is the sense that a world that offered no hope was also an after-hours party with a closed door. Maps is the fact that I was worried that that sentence would make me sound old and then decided I didn’t care, almost. Maps is the moment between an inhale and an exhale that feels like fuck you and fuck everyone no one can ever tell me anything. It rarely lasts very long these days and that’s a good thing but also I almost never listen to Maps anymore, which doesn’t in any way diminish Maps at all. Maps is the fence in front of the empty lot near my old apartment where I used to make out with people on my way to taking them back to the apartment and Maps is the fact that that wall was part of why the apartment seemed like a good choice; this is what, to Maps, counts as planning ahead. Maps is that person you loved once whom you would cross the street to get away from now but sometimes, when you can’t sleep and the ceiling is blue with the imprints of lonely cars passing way down below, remembering the worst things they ever did to you feels like home.

Sometimes desire is like the low but incessant buzzing in the back of your ear in a room full of people where you’re sure that nobody else can hear it. Maps is that noise, and that kind of desire, sitting in a room at a nice event amongst nice people while hot fevered images burn a hole through the back of your mind so insistently that you feel certain everyone else in the room must be able to see what you are thinking. It is the way in which dwelling in your own interior emotional life and in the polite exterior world at once sometimes feels like nothing short of science fiction, like a book for kids where there are invisible wizards everywhere but everyone else is half-asleep and un-special and you are the only one who knows it, you are the only one who can see the wizards. Maps is the line in Closer about a heart being like “a fist wrapped in blood” and Maps is the shitty, horny, teenage self-impressed part of me that still loves that line, and that movie, and that whole kind of thing. I believe it is possible to argue that Maps is the best thing we have done in this whole twenty years, the best single souvenir floating up to the surface out of this sinking ship. By “best” I hope it’s clear I just mean “the thing I like most,” but not stopping to differentiate between those two things is Maps, too.

At the beginning of this century I was a child who had never done anything at all and “Last Nite” by The Strokes was the most important song in the world. It is truly truly impossible to explain, if you were not there, how much all of New York City in 2002 sounded like Last Nite by The Strokes. It was like the way that the subways smell like pee, so absolutely ground-in that you eventually don’t notice but the fact that you don’t notice is another way of saying that it’s all that you notice. Last Nite is a nihilistic little sex ballad that meant nothing and did nothing and felt nothing, but downtown some of the streets still hadn’t been cleaned up and good bars had cracked fake leather booths in them and looked like nothing from outside and bands sounded like the 70s again. It took me years to realize that I had moved to New York in order to try to live in a place that didn’t exist anymore, in order to try to squeeze and broad-shoulder my way inside the place from my parents’ stories, one that was long dead by the time I arrived in it. But in the fall of 2002 everything sounded like Last Nite and you rarely ever saw a cop in the subway, most coffee was terrible and there was still a Virgin Megastore in Union Square. New York was still a place that didn’t have its shit together, that slept until noon and cared about bands, and I felt welcome in it in a way I rarely have anywhere or to anything, and it sounded like Last Nite and pretty soon it also sounded like Maps.

Last Nite is a vastly inferior song to Maps, but listening to Last Nite in my high school english teacher’s office in the spring of 2002 and then moving to New York that fall was one of the very few times when an experience actually aligned with my fantasy of it, when the idea of the thing became the thing itself, when the painting fit the frame. Both of these songs are part of something that people I guess sometimes call the “rock revival” in New York. The thing about rock music is that when it works it is a long-jump grasp at the immediacy of the moment and for a minute music in this era achieved that; the time we were in was the was the time we imagined ourselves in. It’s our time to be hated, sang Karen O in another song from the same year. Sometimes I listened to that song so much that I couldn’t even hear it anymore. The destination was right here, where we were already standing. 

Anyway, Maps. There’s a building near Washington Square Park where I used to have a lot of sex in the basement and that building is right next door to the church where I go on Sundays now with my kind husband and his genuine experience of Christian faith and my saint-like godparents whom I have finally allowed myself to love now that they are older than anyone I love has any right to be and the collision of these two facts, the way those nights map onto these mornings like dirt in a room right after you’ve cleaned it, that’s also Maps. 

Karen O was 23 or 24 when she wrote this song. It was about her boyfriend at the time, who was in a band you’ve never heard of and don’t care about, who never wrote anything that can even aspire to touch the hem of Maps. They were both about to go on tour; in the video she’s crying because she’s waiting for him to show up and afraid he isn’t going to, it’s incredibly legible and pedestrian and obvious and the tears are real tears. Every line of the song is a promise, which is maybe what feels so unhinged about it, why it feels from end to end like a bad idea, like “bad idea” distilled down to its single molecule. I’ll stay the same. Don’t stray. My kind’s your kind. Wait. They don’t love you like I love you. Every promise attempts to extract another promise in return. Love should be something you can offer someone, a springboard and a running start, a tangible object lobbed with murderous certainty across distance, but it’s not. It’s horribly static, it elicits no promises, it makes nothing and compels nothing. All we can do is stand there in the middle of our consuming love like those religious drawings in which a saint is surrounded wholly in fire and yet their body does not disintegrate. A simpler way to put this is that love feels like a guarantee but it isn’t. I don’t know what happened next with Karen O’s boyfriend; I think they broke up fairly soon after Maps got big. I could look it up but it doesn’t matter, the point of Maps is the incredible sense of doom, the gallows-feeling of dread that accompanies every breath and syllable in it. It’s the end of the world; the world is the size of your heart, the world is the size of your phone. It’s holding up two hands to stop the floodwave breaking through the wall. 

Textually and historically, this is a song about how to live with the knowledge that the thing you most fear is with absolute certainty going to come to pass. Knowing that something is not going to work out and is going to fuck you up sometimes has absolutely no bearing on wanting to keep doing a thing, throwing your whole body at making it work as though at a locked metal door two feet thick. Maps is about all of that and it sounds like that, too. Maybe you’ve never begged anyone to stay, I mean genuinely, maybe you never have, I don’t know your life. I have no idea how Maps sounds to you in that case, but to me this song is the sound it makes when the part of me that knows better gives up its claw-hold on the ledge and I am left with no guard rails within myself. It is begging someone to stay, and it is the fear that isn’t this — this abject grossness of begging someone to stay— just what all of it meant all along, all the better words and the careful conversation, the allowances and niceness and responsibility and silences, wasn’t all of it just this underneath, wait they don’t love you like I love you. 

Maps is about longing and heartbreak and futility and Maps is about New York in the earliest part of the 2000s but what Maps its really about is making out in bars. Making out in a bar is a gross, inappropriate, impolite thing. Making out in a bar is not, in any sense of the word, ok. Maps is also not ok. Maps is the national anthem of not being ok. Sometimes everyone loves me is the exact same lie as nothing matters and sometimes their intersection is the choice to make out in a bar, and when Maps starts up it’s always slower and lower-key than I remember, slinking in on tiny feet, and I think oh maybe this isn’t even going to make me feel anything at all this time. There were times when I thought because something felt good, it couldn’t possibly hurt anyone, and believed that sharp-toothed joy must be in itself a moral highway sign. That’s what Maps sounds like once it settles in and starts to build. For a while I really believed that what felt good must also be right and that this was a system by which I could navigate the world. There are so many songs that are so much better, musically, than Maps. But of course that’s not the point; they don’t sound like when good intentions distill down to one dark corner in one single dark room. 

Karen O said that she liked knowing that people did Maps at karaoke, and not insignificant to its achievement is the fact that it is a perfect karaoke song. Maps is a karaoke song that anyone can sing and a song that pins to the wall one of the three or five emotions that live in a karaoke room, when a shitty day is a broken heart and a broken heart is the end of the world but the end of the world is maybe, at least, a party. People rarely ever actually cry at karaoke but karaoke often feels a lot like crying; more things that aren’t crying often feel like crying than actual crying does. Sometimes what people seem to be doing at karaoke is engaging in the belief that if only they could once and for all get it outside of themselves, it would stay there, and they would be free of it. Maps is that and Maps is easy to sing because there isn’t really much singing; you just whisper, and then you yell, and maybe you think about somebody who isn’t there, someone you don’t speak to anymore. 

The world is ending and it never felt like these two decades were actually decades, they were a throat clearing, they were a way of waiting for something to happen. We were standing on the curb waiting for the century to show up and open its doors and gesture us on board. We would be ready whenever it got here, the future which was absolutely going to look like the future and not like the present. And then it turned out that no, this was it, we’d been in it already the whole time, and twenty years had passed and whatever we’d done waiting for the thing to arrive was the thing itself. I listened to Maps a lot and walked too fast and achieved a lot of things that weren’t the thing I meant to achieve. I loved people and failed at loving people and more often than not those two were the same. I made out in bars. I even once begged someone to stay, at the coldest hour of the early morning, howling from a forge set up and blazing in the worst part of myself.

Another thing Maps is about is how much better it feels to think about these things after the fact, how with some time a fiction settles over certain memories. I think a lot about Karen O playing that song over and over for the rest of her career, as the lyrics transformed from a present hurt to a distant memory, the long slow triumph of it becoming monotonous and losing its sting, just a song, until the only person left who existed in the story was herself, standing onstage doing the same thing for the thousandth time.

The things that hurt me at the beginning of this century don’t hurt anymore, or at least they hurt in totally different ways. Perhaps the condition of the future is that it never feels like the future; perhaps in ten years nobody will listen to Maps, or make out in bars anymore, but I hope they do, and if there’s any positive utility to the obligated, eulogizing mood in the current moment as the calendar slams into the brick wall of the new year, it’s this, the stubborn determination to have held something that can be carried forward. The world is ending, but we made some beautiful things in the wreckage. We get to keep Maps, and Maps is perfect, and someday everything that hurt you might be a good story, a record you can play to prove that something happened here, once, that something endured. The world moves forward much too fast but you can still sing Maps at karaoke, and it will still tell you that your most painful, stupid longings are at once much bigger and much smaller than you think.

just a reminder that griefbacon is ending at the end of this year, for now anyway, but we’re going to have a lot of fun until then.

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