I haven’t been blogging as much because it’s like a department store in December around here. I’m the TV critic for The Washington Post. That’s my bread, that’s my butter. There is ENTIRELY TOO MUCH to do this time of year. (The rest of the year, there’s only always a little too much to do, which is how I like it.)
This is a very different situation from my previous 20 or so years in the newspaper business. Before, I was always adrift on the sea of possible story ideas, the rogue features writer: What should I write about next? What’s news? What stories can I do that no one else is doing? How long can I dither on one story before my editor loses his mind? How perfect can I make each story? What happens now that the story I was working on has fallen through? What should I write next? Where should I go? (Etc., ad nauseum.)
Welp, I don’t have those problems anymore. The TV critic job is sort of like stepping in front of an open fire hydrant every day. And there is a LOT of bad TV out there.
Here’s what I’ve been up to lately.
The Fall TV Preview section of Arts & Style comes out this Sunday. (The illustration above is (c) Stanley Chow, for the Washington Post.) If you’re in Washington, kindly do drop $2 on a Sunday paper. If not, click here. There’s the capsulized brief reviews, which this year I organized according to viewer type, thanks to viewers like you.
There are other pieces in the section, by me:
>> The shit that S#*! My Dad Says is nothing compared to the shit Gloria Bunker Stivic’s dad said — forty fuckin’ TV seasons ago! What happened to Bunker-like versions of old people? We have such anger in America right now — can it not be coalesced into a sitcom about moving back in with your dad? We need the catharsis.
>> Outsourced: Oh, those FBPs! (Funny brown people.)
And yes, I’ve opined on the TV event of the season: HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It ran in Style in Friday’s paper, and our original, commissioned illustration, by artist Kako, was quite lovely. See? Newspapers: WORTH IT.
It occurred to me the other day that is has been 20 years — late summer/early fall of 1990 — since I felt as free as I have ever felt. I finished an internship at the Los Angeles Times and had packed my car with clothes, books, a tent, a sleeping bag, some other supplies, and set out to camp along the Pacific coast all the way up to Seattle, thrillingly alone and in charge of my fate. That was the plan/no plan. (My car was a tan 1989 Ford Probe, for real, and perhaps my favorite car I’ve ever owned; I still have dreams where I suddenly own it again.)
For the first time since I was 5, I was not in school in September. I was 22 years old. Back then there was no such thing, officially, as “the pre-adult” stage of life that unemployed twentysomethings now claim as their right. Our parents were not our best friends, and even if they were, we would never had said so; moving back home was a stigma, or worse, uncreative. I probably had about $500 in the bank and a Visa card with a $500 limit. (Privileged middle-class white person disclosure: My father was having a good year, as far as any of us then knew, and he made my car payments — $237 a month — for a bit.)
I had no job offers — in fact, I had plenty of rejection letters, including the nicest one from a guy at Hallmark, where I’d responded to an ad looking for funny greeting card writers.
So I camped — as in paid permit, not hobo style — on state beaches and in forested parks along Highway 1. I made campfires and snacked on Tostitos and salsa. I read books: What Am I Doing Here by Bruce Chatwin; Democracy by Joan Didion; Where I’m Calling Fromby Raymond Carver – I ask you Kindlers and iPadders, because I want to know: Will we be as able, years from now, to remember which e-books accompanied us on our journeys and travels, with the same tactile powers of recall? Is there an app for that, keeping track of when we read a book, with a corresponding GPS coordinate?
Because when a book is taking up space in your luggage or in your car, you are consciously and literally with that book, unless you lose it someplace, and then its absence is just as with you in a whole different way, mentally. I can close my eyes and see the cover of the Chatwin book reflected in the light of a candle flickering on a concrete picnic table at a beach campground in Morro Bay. I can also get up right now, walk over to the shelf and produce that very same book, and give it a sniff for traces of old smoke.
When I recently visited the apartment of my friends Jonathan and Scott, I spied on their bookshelves a copy of the very same guidebook, The Real California, I had with me in 1990, and have long since discarded. I recognized the spine of it it immediately and took it down and thumbed through it with awe.
Music is the same way. With the same certainty, I know the tapes I was listening to in the car on that trip included Depeche Mode’s Violator, the Pixies’ Bossanova, and a Nina Simone compilation that included “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (but not “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”). What happens to memories like this, when our entire music collections go wherever we go, in our pockets, whether down the street or around the world?
* * *
The trip didn’t last long.
Fate intervened, in San Francisco. With one phone call — a message relayed to me through my mother in Oklahoma, whom I had called a couple days earlier from a pay phone at a campground in Big Sur — I went a whole other way.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 1990, after a boozy San Francisco night, I tore out south down I-5, across the desert through Tehachapi, and east to I-40 — a 17-hour drive, or something like that — to try out for two weeks at a job in New Mexico.
And that changed everything. The road trip toward the question mark of my life was over, just 10 days in.
Another trip, of sorts, started then and there — a career that has been financially secure and intellectually satisfying, to such a degree that I am co-dependent on it. And yet, turning the Ford Probe around that morning all but assured that many of my future choices would be made around practical, level-headed things like paychecks, outstanding credit card balances, health plans, 401(k) matches, vacation time, story lengths, editors, deadlines. From then until forever, I would always have a piece of writing due. (Like today. I have four reviews to finish, and this is what I’m doing instead.)
I have no complaints, but I can count on one hand the true forks I’ve encountered in The Road, where the choice was either/or, and entirely mine. I kinda wish there had been more moments like that one, and I hope there are some ahead. I definitely sense there are some ahead.
Shit! Is this what a midlife crisis sounds like? I just briefly felt the crazy ghost of my father in the room.