Saturday, December 29, 2018

tops of 2018, plus some low points

More mornings than not in 2018, I woke up to a string of insults and imperatives--from myself, hurled at myself before I could bring a cup of coffee to my lips. I spent too much money on coffeehouse lattes, so they came with their own shame, curled like foam on top. I got coffee from gas stations and 7-Eleven, augmenting it with things that left a chemical taste in my mouth. There are too many tiny plastic creamer tubs in landfills bearing my fingerprints. I felt tacky and wasteful. On days I made coffee at home, I felt virtuous, even though it tended to be weak and/or instant, and I ran through portable mugs faster than I could wash them.

The cliche I live by.
Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash
Even the thing that was supposed to jolt me out of my internal invective to be better came with its own list of ways I could do it better.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast so badly that watching other girls execute higher, more graceful back flips gave me almost physical pain. "Oh, Taylor Niemeyer? She's good," I might say of a fellow elementary school gymnast. "Good" contained so much. Pointed toes. Flexible spine. Muscled legs. Moral purity. Otherworldliness.

By middle school, I'd realized that no kid who'd taken lessons only at their local Parks and Recreation, in the same community center that hosted cooking classes and holiday parties, was going to the Olympics. Perfectionism isn't just ambition. It's a horrible awareness of what could be, and everything that's standing in the way.

Eventually I made some kind of life for myself as, I dunno, a queer artist or something? But, like, with a day job and health benefits. To me, the queer aesthetic is questioning what's standing in the way, and who put it there. It's a belief that there are a thousand answers to "what could be," not a single, unachievable Platonic ideal. It's mixing the ingredients of What Is to create a weird but tasty smoothie.

But the part of me that hangs onto those health benefits also hangs onto the idea of the perfect back flip. How can I be a revolutionary when our white supremacist capitalist world has been so good to me?

I went to therapy. I considered these things. I wrestled with them. I wrestled with cancer and infertility and grief and came out on the other side with a belief that I was strong after all. I set my striverhood a little further to the side.

I'm always diving headfirst into What Could Be.
Photo by Eugene Lim on Unsplash
Then I took a certain kind of job with a certain kind of well-meaning boss who invariably wrestles with his own perfectionism and anxiety, and it was like a hole was punched in a container I'd built brick by brick. The tenuous peace I'd found in simply ("simply," ha) being alive and fed and loved and making things was suddenly nearly inaccessible.

I had such a good life. I felt like such a piece of shit.

All of this came to a head in July, and then again Christmas Day, when all the low-grade stress and self-flagellation of the past year crashed into the complicated, banal stress of the holidays. Wrapping six hundred framed pictures of Dash for relatives. Driving from loving relatives' house to loving relatives' house to loving relatives' house to loving' relatives house in a thirty-hour period.

Somewhere between Santa Ana and San Clemente I lost my shit and said really unkind things to AK and scared Dash. And then I did it like three more times. If this were a Christmas movie, I would need to be rescued by the owner of a small-town tree lot who would turn out to be Santa-Jesus. Or, I don't know, maybe I'm the villain, and AK would leave me for the owner of a small-town tree lot.

Apparently there is a movie called Fir Crazy.
If I have a resolution for 2019, it's to rebuild that brick container around my perfectionism, and to tune out the loud voices of perfectionism around me. In practical terms, that means a two-month trial hiatus from verbally shitting on myself. That doesn't mean not admitting my mistakes--but maybe I don't have to beat everyone to the punch.

Perfectionism is egotistical and unhelpful and paralyzing. I also know that art--making it and experiencing it--saves me again and again. As does AK, who does not tune into the same radio frequencies that whisper in my ear. This can be confounding when I'm like "But do you hear it??" But ultimately thank god she doesn't hear it.

All of this is my very rambling, arguably depressing lead-up to my Tops of 2018. Here are thirteen books, movies, TV shows, and podcasts that kept me going and helped me escape:

1. Suspiria: I realized halfway through that I wanted the witches to win. The witches won. Also this movie punches Nazis. 

Me before coffee.

2. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie: This raw and messy memoir reveals what healing looks like in textual form. I think this is what they meant in grad school by "performative writing." Alexie is hella funny, and also writes about how humor is a defense mechanism.

3. The Dream: This podcast peeled the three remaining scales from my eyes re: capitalism. America is one big fucking pyramid scheme.

4. The Favourite: As they say, everyone is going through something. Queens, concubines, politicians, scullery maids, bunnies. An intense love/hate triangle about power and self-hood, punctuated with just the right amount of strangeness.

I related most to Queen Anne, who wasn't as stupid as she seemed, but could not strategize to save her life.

5. Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home by Nora Krug: Beautiful, meticulously crafted journal that captures all my feelings about guilt and reconciliation.

How to be nostalgic without being a Nazi.

6. The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes, translated by Daniel Alarcon: Emma Reyes was born into extreme poverty and abuse in Colombia in 1919, and bounced between convent orphanages and relatives' homes. Not only did she survive, but she lived to tell her own story with a visual artist's eye for detail and a winking, mischievous take on the world around her.

7. Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam: It takes the writerly equivalent of a neurosurgeon to write from the point of view of a sexually abusive kidnapper in a way that is both sympathetic and unforgiving. Nadzam is that writer.

8. Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation by Ari Folman and David Polonsky: A classic for good reason. Now illustrated, with imagination and humor.

The other Queen Anne.

9. Sharp Objects: Gillian Flynn delivers cocktails of psychology, zeitgeist, and creepy detail. The miniseries version adds oppressively lush aesthetics (think lots of floral wallpaper and creepy dollhouses) and alcohol. Patricia Clarkson is the heartbreaking/-broken mother we all fear becoming. Amy Adams plays a troubled heroine, like Libby Day in Dark Places, whose angst goes far beyond quirk.


TFW your little sis and her brigade of roller bitches discover a toothless dead body.

10. Decoder Ring: Willa Paskin takes deep dives into all corners of pop culture, from hotel art to the "Sad Jennifer Aniston" tabloid trope. Riveting, relevant, and delightfully weird.

11. Faithful Place: Dysfunctional family dynamics, beautiful writing, and muuuuurrrrrder. I loved it for all the same reasons I loved Sharp Objects.

12. Bodies: As suspenseful as a true-crime podcast, except the mystery unfolds in patients' own bodies. Usually women. Usually fighting through layers of medical and cultural bias as well as with what's going on physically. It's a quietly radical podcast that's oddly empowering for hypochondriacs like myself.

13. A Star is Born: On one level, a dramatic musical that throws its arms wide and belts shamelessly. Also a heartbreakingly believable portrait of addiction: The characters truly love each other, know what they're getting into, and find periodic happiness, but it's not enough to make for a happy ending.