A lot of famous people died this week, and I feel like the passing of Ian Tyson got lost in the shuffle. A Canadian cowboy turned folk singer, he wrote "Four Strong Winds," the ultimate New Year's Eve song.
It's about how the winds of life scatter us from the people we love, and the sadness that comes with it. The line "But our good times are all gone/ And I'm bound for moving on" always makes me think of my amazing circle of friends in grad school and how fate condemned us to be separated. It also makes me think of being a high school teacher, where I get to watch teenagers blossom into adults but then have to say good-bye to them. I repeat this bittersweet ritual every year and it never gets easier.
I used to love New Year's Eve as a holiday. It meant a fun gathering with a group of my friends in Lincoln. Nebraska, made merry by food and drink. I haven't been able to take part for over a decade now, and the old professor who linked us all together has been dead for a few years. Nowadays New Year's Eve just reminds me of the impermanence of everything in this life.
I've got more yesterdays than tomorrows, and the burden of the past weighs heavy on my heart. The new year represents less a new beginning for me than it does a stark reminder of my mortality. I am thinking a lot tonight about how the strong winds of life have separated me from so many people over the years, some of them permanently through death.
I know this isn't exactly the cheeriest New Year's Eve message but tomorrow I will focus on the future. We owe it to those we've lost through death, distance, and estrangement to remember the good times we had together before they were all gone.
My newest Substack is out, a more reflective piece on the dominant themes in American politics in the past year. I chose to focus on the politics of cultural reaction, which are the true dividing line in the electorate.
I saw that recent article in the Times about students at a school in New York who have called themselves "Luddites" and are logging off of social media and subsisting on flip phones. Their reasons are pretty compelling to me, since I know deep down in my soul that I use my smartphone and social media far far too much. The article reminded me of how I used to be very much like those kids.
When cell phones first emerged in the 1990s, I did not have any interest. It took me forever to even get an answering machine. When I started teaching as a grad student TA in the 2000s, I noticed how cell phones brought disruption and distraction to classroom spaces. Back then I reveled in living the life of the mind., which meant a lot time spent in contemplation.
I still used and loved the internet, but as something alongside my daily life, not central to it. I started blogging all the way back in 2004, a great way to articulate all the ideas banging around my head back then. Did people read what I blogged? Not many, but I didn't really care, readership wasn't the point.
I finally had to get a cell phone when I moved out of grad school, an already antiquated flip phone I kept for four years until I replaced it with a slightly slimmer flip phone that a buddy of mine used to tease me for. When Facebook first hit the scene I signed up to see what it was all about, but I found it pretty vapid and disorienting. The world of smartphones and social media seemed like a useless time suck to me and I was pretty proud of being out of step. I spent my time at home listening to music and reading books, the thing that still relaxes me most. I didn't think I would ever bother changing my habits.
Then I got hooked.
Partly this was because I was living far away from most of my friends and family at the time, and Facebook offered a crucial lifeline to the people I missed most. More crucially, once I got my first smartphone about ten years ago, boredom mostly left my life.
My wife likes to joke that smartphones have helped reduce smoking since cigarettes used to be such an effective boredom killer. Stuck waiting for the bus? Sitting bored on the couch? Need to step out of a lame social engagement? Light up! This was brought home to me by the recent Get Back documentary about the Beatles' recording sessions in 1969. So much time is spent sitting around waiting for things to happen, and smoking the boredom away. Today folks in the studio could be checking Twitter or Instagram or playing games during downtime. Part of me wonders, however, if that boring downtime is actually crucial to the creative process, that our brains need to slow down to find the solution to our creative impasses.
In any case, my phone and social media have allowed me to lift the crushing weight of boredom. Waiting in line at the store, waiting for my train, getting my car fixed, and all other dull situations can be escaped. Instead of my mind wandering, I get to alternately chuckle at the jokes or get irritated by the discourse on Twitter. So many of the people on Twitter that I follow are also just so damn smart and insightful. Day to day conversations in real life can be so mundane, on Twitter I can get far deeper opinions on things I actually care about.
I am trying hard to reduce my social media usage, and with the changes on Twitter to ween myself off of that particular site altogether. I've gone from filling up those boring minutes to getting distracted when I am with my kids or agitated over stupid fights online. My new year's resolution this year is basically to use my smartphone and social media a lot less. I will report back later if having more boredom in my life is a good or bad thing.
My newest Substack is up, where I ask the title question less as an inquiry and more as an accusation. Prestige media talks a lot about how Democrats are losing rural, but not how Republicans actively demean cities and antagonize their voters. As I relate, the reasons are rooted in ideas of what's "American" as well as the expectations the media has placed on the two parties.
On my Substack this week I discussed how Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is the most popular work of capitalist critique in the English language. For that reason, modern day adaptations tend to downplay those elements. I think Apple TV's Spirited is especially egregious in this regard.
This week brought 2022's Spotify Wrapped, the moment of truth for music hipsters. We can tell people what we listen to, but the app gives us the numbers and it doesn't lie. I've found that my Wrapped can sometimes be a good indicator of my mental health in any given year. The year when "Weighless Again" by The Handsome Family was my number one was....not a good one.
I was elated to see that most of my top ten, including my top two songs, were new ones rather than old favorites. In recent years I have been making an effort to listen to new music whenever possible. I wrote about my number one, Cate Le Bon's exquisite "Moderation," earlier this year. My number two comes from Mattiel, a band I liked so much that I bought their most recent album on CD and have been playing it constantly in my car.
They get their name from lead singer Mattiel Brown, who grew up on a Georgia farm but makes post-punky music rather than country twang. Their aforementioned Georgia Gothic album was my favorite this year, but my favorite song wasn't on it. "Those Words" came out as a non-album single, a tradition in great need of being returned.
The song is wonderfully bouncy with a pleasing jingle-jangle reminiscent of fellow Georgians REM. Brown's deep alto voice, as with most Mattiel songs, is the thing that elevates it beyond the usual indie rock. Its rich dark sound just holds together while giving extra zest, like putting brown sauce on an English breakfast. It's a song I put on many mornings as I boarded the commuter train, mixing my need to get pumped for the day with all the nagging doubts still there in my mind.
A lot of stupid shit people say gets me mad, but little more than other dudes my age who like music saying they don't listen to anything new. As we age it's crucial to keep living in the now, and not in the past. I may not be the largest audience, but I am glad groups like Mattiel are out there for me to listen to.