Category Archives: Original Nonfiction

Suicide Squad and the Dangers of Critical Consensus

If the critics are to be believed, David Ayer’s 2016 film Suicide Squad represents one of cinema’s greatest failures in terms of artistic vision and commercial appeal. Its record-breaking opening and its 6.2-out-of-ten rating on IMDB (as of 19 September 2017) notwithstanding, moviegoers’ discourse about the film often mimics the film’s critical reception—a 40 out of 100 on Metacritic and a rather stunning 25% on Rotten Tomatoes. On the latter site’s sampling of critical quotes, we find gems such as the following:

  • “To say that the movie loses the plot would not be strictly accurate, for that would imply that there was a plot to lose.”—Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
  • “This is what happens when the comic book fanboys have taken over the asylum. It is damaged goods from the get-go, the kind of film grown in a petri dish in Hollywood.”— Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune
  • “Sometimes it’s good to be bad. In Suicide Squad‘s case, bad is just plain bad. It gives villainy a bad name.”— Adam Graham, Detroit News
  • Suicide Squad had the potential to be an awesome superhero summer blockbuster, but feels more like a rushed unification of underwhelming action, a disappointing story, and stale character development.”—Chris Sawin, com
  • “Taken from a popular DC comic series… helmed by a star quality director… peppered with a highly skilled, all-star cast … What could go wrong? Nearly everything.”—Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s Picks (All quotes taken from “Suicide Squad (2016), com)

To be sure, some of this criticism is warranted. When graded on the scale of truly great films to truly awful ones—say, Citizen Kane to The Room, or Casablanca to The Castle of Fu Manchu—Ayer’s movie falls squarely in the mediocre range. If we grade it on a sliding scale in which summer popcorn entertainment gets more of a pass for “not pretending to be any more than what it is,” the film scores a bit higher. Entertainment Weekly’s grade of B- (well above average, far from perfect) seems fairer than, say, Maltin’s claim that nearly everything goes wrong. Many things in the film go right, especially for its comics-fan target audience. Having read John Ostrander’s run on the comics title in the late 80s and early 90s, I felt more excited for this movie than I did for any other summer movie this year, even the superior Captain America: Civil War and the Ghostbusters reboot. This pre-fab investment in the film biases me; I probably came more prepared to like the movie more than the general audience or younger comics fans who have had less time to pine for an adaptation. It should therefore come as no surprise that I enjoyed Suicide Squad.

That does not mean that I am blind to its flaws, of which there are many. Nor am I taking issue with thoughtful critics who provide strong reasoning and textual evidence in their negative reviews. Honest, robust, and passionate criticism is essential to art and entertainment.

I admit to wishing, though, that so much of published criticism didn’t seem petty and mean-spirited, as if some critics are looking for any excuse to excoriate an artist’s work in snappy soundbites aimed more at entertaining than in improving the substance of the art. I am, in fact, unsure of how such criticism, masturbatory and self-important as it seems, differs from the very audience-baiting, cash-grab cynicism that these same critics often bemoan. An article written by Eve Peyser for Gizmodo is titled, “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” The only criticism of the film in this short post consists of linking to a Deadspin article about the movie and a claim that Suicide Squad is a “deeply mediocre film” (Peyser par. 2) Fair enough, but I would have been much more interested in reading Ms. Peyser’s thoughtful critique of the movie, rather than a simple statement that she hated it and that others probably did, too. Her thesis, as noted in the title, seems to be that we are to blame for bad movies because we keep paying to see them. That is an idea worth exploring, though to do so, we need to establish a commonly accepted definition of “bad movie” and prove that Suicide Squad fits the definition. Such an essay would require more time and space than was devoted to Peyser’s short post, but it would have been a much more interesting and substantive addition to our discourse about the film, its quality or lack thereof, and what our gravitating to it says about us.

To be clear, I am not taking issue with Peyser’s post, which also doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is—a short opinion piece making a provocative statement in order to increase site traffic and generate discussion about a major pop culture moment. What distresses me about American discourse on art and popular culture is that whenever critics overwhelmingly love or hate a film and then phrase their admiration or displeasure in language that is less than measured or thoughtful, their opinions take on the power of fact through sheer force. In simpler terms, once enough critics have passionately declared that Suicide Squad is bad, their opinions become our discourse. We all talk about the film as if it is factually bad to the extent that many fans and writers feel no need to justify their opinion—this in spite of the actual facts that critical consensus often changes over time and that one person’s waste of talent and budget is another person’s fun, thought-provoking entertainment.

The Big Lebowski was a critical and box office bomb, but it has since become a beloved touchstone for its own subculture, and not in the ironic, we’re-in-on-the-joke way that Plan 9 from Outer Space or The Room has become a cult favorite. Citizen Kane, often called the greatest film ever made, received mixed critical reviews upon its release. Conversely, Oscar winners like The English Patient and Crash have lost both critical and popular momentum over time. Donnie Darko has become a cult classic, even though it did woeful box office and puzzled many critics. Often, it is only with time and consideration that we can recognize a formerly overlooked classic or a work we initially rated too highly.

This phenomenon is not limited to cinema. Moby-Dick was a failure it its day and is now considered one of the great American novels. The most popular poets of the American nineteenth century have given way to Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. John Donne has gone in and out of style over the centuries. In spite of all this, we—both professional critics and audience members—often speak about a film as if its fate has been decided definitively, for all time. And for every thoughtful critic like a Leonard Maltin or Peter Travers or Lisa Schwarzbaum, there are a thousand trolls filling comments sections and Twitter feeds with recycled criticism and pure human ugliness instead of original thought.

For those who believe that Suicide Squad is flawed or just plain awful, all I ask is that you show your work. I ask the same of the film’s defenders. I ask that we wait until we experience a text for ourselves before we decide with whom we agree. And for the love of all that’s good and true, let us leave behind the flame wars and the name-calling and just talk to each other.

I’ll start. I’ve said that I enjoyed the movie as a biased comics fan, though I am not blind to its flaws. I loved the performances by Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Will Smith, and Jay Hernandez. Jai Courtney disappeared into his role of Captain Boomerang. I found the characterizations and development of Harley Quinn, El Diablo, and Deadshot to be intriguing and fun. The movie had the best soundtrack you could ask for, and many of the visual effects were strong. I appreciate Ayer’s decision to scrap King Shark for Killer Croc, a character who could be rendered by a living actor and makeup. And what we saw of Leto’s Joker whetted my appetite for more.

As for some flaws, here, in what I hope is conciliatory and thoughtful language, are some problems I had the picture. These points contain spoilers, so if you have not seen the film, beware.

  • Other than the aforementioned Harley, Diablo, and Deadshot, most of the major characters were underdeveloped. Much of this problem can likely be attributed to having so many major players in one film—eight or nine Squad members, plus Rick Flag’s SEAL team, plus Amanda Waller and her flunkies, plus various military personnel and prison guards, plus the Joker and his henchmen. That’s a bunch, folks. This leads to several other problems, noted below.
  • One major plot point we’re supposed to buy is that Rick Flag is in love with June Moone, a.k.a. the Enchantress, and his love for her is what keeps him under Waller’s thumb. However, we don’t see that love develop on screen, and the characters share so little screen time together that it’s tough to buy even after the fact. Ayer chooses to address this point by having Waller say, “We put the two of them together, and they fell in love just like we hoped, and now I own Flag.” The logic behind this plan makes no sense, and we are given nothing on which to base an investment in this relationship, even though many of the film’s attempts to connect with the audience’s emotions hinge on said investment.
  • Speaking of Waller, those unfamiliar with the comics will likely find her to be, as Deadshot describes her, a gangsta, but as for her methods and motivation, we don’t have a clue. We know she’s worried about the threat of metahumans—that the “next Superman” will be a villain—but we have no idea why she believes that only other villains can fight such a threat. Perhaps we’re supposed to infer that she believes only bad guys can be controlled, but if so, this film’s plot pretty much scraps that notion, since the antagonist comes straight from the team itself. In fact, as the credits’ Easter Egg shows, she already had files on heroes—files that she gives to Bruce Wayne. If she knew of trustworthy good guys, why depend so much on bad ones that you have to threaten and bribe? Why couldn’t she try to form the Justice League, other than the fact that such an act would ruin the plot of the upcoming film?
  • Killer Croc is given almost nothing to do until the end of the film and has no scenes that would require an actor of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s caliber. He is unrecognizable under the makeup. Croc’s lack of both development and necessity makes the waste of a good actor almost as awful as what the film does with Adam Beach. It’s fine to kill a character to establish that, yes, the neck bombs keeping the Squad in line are real, and Waller or Flag are willing to use them. But why bother with hiring such a strong actor to do so little?
  • Katana is criminally underdeveloped, which makes her big emotional scene fall flat. It’s hard to care about the fate of a character we have spent no time with and know very little about.
  • Why does Deadshot almost never wear his trademark helmet and glowing eyepiece—except that it would rob us seeing Will Smith’s face?
  • Much has been made of how the lead-up to the movie spent so much time on the Joker and Leto’s method-acting craziness, only to give us very little of what was shot. Even Leto has spoken out against how much of his performance ended up on the cutting room floor. I would not want to see the Joker overshadow the main storyline, but it seems unfair to both fans and Leto to give us so little footage, most of which is only marginally connected to the plot.
  • Speaking of the plot, there are holes. Waller and Flag talk about how fighting the Enchantress’s transformed lackeys is useless, but then the Squad fights them and takes them out handily. What was Waller and Flag’s conversation based on, and why were they so wrong, and how did they feel about it? Why did June Moone bring forth the Enchantress in that hotel room, which allowed the villain to escape? Why does it take the Enchantress days to build her machine, and how is destroying military hardware the same thing as destroying all humanity? How does an ancient witch know how to make an intricate machine, anyway? Why didn’t Waller just have her retrieve all the secret information from every country instead of just Iran’s, and what were the generals going to do with that information? Why wasn’t the Enchantress’s big bad brother released at the same time she was? Flag kills the Enchantress by crushing her heart; why didn’t Waller do that in the first place, especially after just poking holes in it didn’t work? Why does Killer Croc never seem to get rattled? Why does finding out that Flag hid letters from his daughter cause Deadshot to complete the mission instead of just, you know, shooting Flag in the head? And so forth and so on.
  • Sound editing—when the Enchantress is speaking English in the final scenes, I could barely understand a word she said. Since these are the climactic scenes, it seems kind of important.
  • Many critics have said that the movie becomes too conventional in the last two acts. I think part of what they mean is that these unrepentant, scum-of-the-Earth bad guys start acting like good guys and doing good-guy stuff. The Captain Boomerang of the comics would never have come back to the team after being given an out; Jai Courtney’s character does, with no real explanation except that he’s apparently been affected by team spirit, the sense of which is then undercut when we learn that he is serving three consecutive life sentences and is therefore unlikely to get any benefits from his work. (For that matter, his trick boomerangs are so underused here that the audience might be forgiven for thinking they are ordinary.) Deadshot, Diablo, Harley, and even Captain Boomerang seem to form genuine bonds and become invested in each other’s fates, just as good guys would, even though they constantly talk about how awful they are. Complications and complexities are fine, even necessary and desirable, but you probably shouldn’t talk constantly about how you’re a vicious killer without a conscience and then undercut that concept with your every act. It would have been better if the Squad had continued as an anti-team, one that worked together out of mutual selfishness instead of an increasing sense of duty to each other. In the absence of that, what separates them from the Justice League, other than their criminal pasts?
  • We are never really certain about the nature of the Enchantress’s henchmen—what they can do, why they look the way they do, what purpose they serve other than distraction.
  • Why does the Joker look like a pimp?

Again, if you’re a comics fan, you might overlook some of these flaws. You know about Waller’s motivation and personality, and so when the film doesn’t show us, you can fill in the blanks yourself. As a stand-alone movie, though, Suicide Squad should have done better than that, especially since so many of the characters and events have been altered.

Given all of that, I can understand why many critics and viewers found the film to be mediocre or worse. And if you overlook the film’s flaws because all you want from it is to turn off your brain and go along for the ride, well, fine. What we should not do is let an apparent critical consensus at one moment in time take on the characteristics of fact, so that we ignore why a film might be good or bad and simply yell at each other about how good/bad it is. We cannot let unsupported statements of opinion stand in for substantive criticism. To do so teaches us nothing about the text or ourselves; it only widens the divide between camps, until, like the Suicide Squad itself often does, we turn our slings and arrows inward and leave each other bloody and battered but not enlightened.

Works Cited

Peyser, Eve. “Suicide Squad Sets Box Office Record Because We Don’t Deserve Better Movies.” Gizmodo.com, Gizmodo Media Group, 7 August 2016. http://io9.gizmodo.com/suicide-squad-sets-box-office-record-because-we-dont-de-1784950994. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” IMDB.com, IMDB, 2016, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1386697/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

Suicide Squad (2016).” RottenTomatoes.com, Fandango, 2016, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/suicide_squad_2016/. Accessed 28 November 2016.

New #CNF Publication

I’m happy to announce that my personal essay entitled “Past, Present, Popcorn” is forthcoming in Wild Violet. Thanks to God, Kalene, the editors, and all my friends and readers.

Publication Announcement related to If Anybody Could Have Saved Me

The essay originally written as part 1 of If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life has been traditionally published on rolereboot.org. Please take some time and read it here.

If Anybody Could Have Saved Me: Battling Depression at Mid-Life– Preface

Depression sometimes feels like drowning. You’re wading in a river, and the bank drops from under your feet, and you realize that someone filled your pockets with stones. Perhaps it was you. You fight with all your might, trying to surface, but your lungs burn and your muscles ache and the light gets dimmer until darkness seems like an old friend.

Another take: David Foster Wallace, the great writer and suicide, once said that depression is narcissistic. Though I doubt he meant it as a universal truism, and I certainly don’t take it that way, I understand his point. When you feel emotionally crippled and physically ill because of your life, your career, how people perceive you, and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss your reactions, your very emotional health, as navel-gazing. Admitting that there is a certain amount of narcissism inherent in depression, though, I think such a blanket dismissal of its legitimacy would be a mistake.

If you’re not going to dismiss it or just try to “suck it up” and ignore it, though, what do you do?

I’m a writer, so my first instinct is to write about it.

Going DFW one better, I think there must be an element of narcissism in any personal essay or memoir. It’s far from the only or most representative element in those genres, but it’s there. To believe that some story from my own life might be entertaining or enlightening to others is to assign myself value. The same is true when I “write for myself,” at least when I subsequently publish those works.

I suppose that this project therefore represents a double-dose of narcissism, but those who know me can tell you that, like much of my work, it also originates in a deep and well-earned sense of self-loathing. I am not doing this to make myself look good or sympathetic, nor am I doing it to punish myself. I am writing it to understand and deal with my depression. At the very least, I hope my doing so can help remind other depressed people that they are not alone.

I first proposed this project as a kind of dark joke on Facebook. “I am thinking of honest-blogging about my struggle with depression,” I wrote, “but my depression tells me nobody would read it or care.” I expected to get a few “ha-ha” reactions and, perhaps, a couple of well-wishes. The status update hardly went viral, but it produced more responses than I imagined. Between comments, which are still appearing as of now, and personal messages, at least two dozen people have encouraged me to share. “Perhaps,” I thought, “there’s a space for something like this, maybe even a need.” More specifically, since the depression blog/memoir could well constitute its own sub-genre, maybe there is a space for my contribution.

As for what that contribution will be, it’s anybody’s guess. I don’t have a specific structure or form in mind. I would imagine that some entries will be long and detailed, like book chapters or personal essays. Others will probably read like journaling. Sometimes I may tell you about what I’ve fought through on a given day; sometimes I may recount an experience or a hope/fear for the future. Some posts may be only one or two sentences long, or contain only a single image, or read more like a prose poem. If I solidify my own conception of what this project is over time, I’ll let you know.

What I can tell you at this point is that it’s not my only focus. I teach five English classes a semester. I am working on several writing projects besides this one: several stories and essays, a potential novel, and a script I’m tinkering with. I’ve got a wife, three kids, a son-in-law, a granddaughter, a cat, and a dog. And as a narrative junkie, I read and watch movies and television all the time. If some time passes between entries, keep checking back, or join my mailing list. I’m probably just buried in work. I’ll be back eventually, God willing.

I can also predict that, like most of what I call my “freebies”—works I post on my site, rather than trying to publish them traditionally—these entries will be rawer, not as exhaustively drafted and edited, less organized. I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult for me—share intimate details about my life and emotions—and if I think about it too much, I may well dilute or even ruin the work.

Now, a warning. Some of my content may be disturbing. You might find descriptions of live-wire nerves, rock-bottom anguish, poor behavior, harsh language, violent acts, sex, and more. I hope you’ll also find humor and love and light. Life is, after all, good, and I am quite lucky and blessed. That’s one reason my depression is so maddening. That’s one reason I need to understand it.

Join me, won’t you? The waters are choppy and filled with jagged rocks, but if we work together, you and I, we might just find our way back to shore.

Email me: officialbrettriley@gmail.com

Tweet at me, bro: @brettwrites

Find me on Facebook at my author page

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I’ll Tumblr 4 Ya

Puppy Love #creativenonfiction

Puppy Love

            Recently on Facebook and Twitter, I stated that those who say they wouldn’t change a thing about their pasts are either lying or overly stubborn. I caught some flack for that claim. One of my friends misunderstood; he argued that he wouldn’t change a thing along the way because he’s happy with the destination. Another said that, because she constantly critiques herself, she wouldn’t change much. As for the latter, I can only envy my friend’s comfort with most of her decisions and actions. I constantly self-critique, too, but in retrospect, I still find that I’ve erred much of the time. In terms of the former, my statement wasn’t about changing who I am today. It’s about wishing that my present self could go back and say to the younger me, “Even though you think you know what you’re doing, you are about to make a mistake. Don’t be dumb/selfish/mean/insensitive.”

            Many of those past actions involve wronging others. And while I could—and, eventually, will—write about my struggles with relationships and family, today I am thinking of my failures to take care of an old friend. His name was Tank. He was a dog. He loved me, as dogs love people, unconditionally and with his whole being. And, as is often the case with people and their “love” for animals, I cared about him when it was convenient and ignored him when it wasn’t. Now, when I try to sleep at night, I often see his face—dark fur with brown patches, a white chest as if he were wearing a cummerbund, eyes so radiant they could melt a glacier. He always looked so happy, until the day he got sick and I abandoned him.

            I still remember the day I brought him home. It was during my first marriage, when things were always volatile. I was nineteen years old, with a wife and daughter. I was a student at Louisiana Tech University and was majoring in engineering, which I hated. But I had come out of high school with dollar signs in my eyes, and since I had taken all the college-prep math and science classes my high school offered, I felt well-prepared. I didn’t particularly enjoy the work in those courses, but I believed that I could work a job I didn’t like if it meant that I could make enough money to do whatever I wanted otherwise. And since even in 1989-90 we could tell that computers would soon rule the world, I declared a computer engineering major.

            I hated my classes. Hated them. My favorite things to do were reading and writing, and there I was, taking Calculus II and Chemistry and Introduction to Computer Programming. As I sat there taking notes on arcane formulas and weights of gases and ways to make a “DO WHILE” loop or whatever it was called, I saw my future stretching out before me, endless days of sitting in front of a screen and writing code so that other people could use computers to do the kinds of things that I really wanted to do. But I have never been a quitter, and my parents were proud of me and my scholarships, and my wife and her family constantly expressed money concerns in ways that told me changing my major to, say, English would lead to full-scale civil war. And so I trudged on, miserable and bitter, angry at myself for declaring a major that I didn’t want and at them for pressuring me to stick with it.

            My strategy—if you can call unconscious decisions a strategy—was to self-sabotage. I stopped going to classes I didn’t like and never got around to dropping them. I skipped tests to go home for a weekend. I went to see Aerosmith and Joan Jett the night before a Trigonometry final, which I showed up to twenty minutes late and left before anyone else. When the university put me on a one-semester academic suspension, I packed up my family and moved back to southeast Arkansas, where I enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Monticello without declaring a major. After drifting for a semester or two, I finally pulled the trigger and declared. I was an English major. I have never looked back.

            But in between realizing that I hated engineering and finally making the right decision, I went through several varieties of hell. And since my family life caused a lot of the tension, I wanted something else to love, something that, like my beautiful daughter, would not judge me or pressure me to live a life I didn’t want. I thought a pet might strengthen the already-firm bonds between me and my daughter. So I decided to get a dog.

            A lady I knew from work was giving some away. They weren’t any special breed, but I knew when I got mine that he would be fairly big—not Great Dane or Saint Bernard big, but not poodle or Pomeranian territory, either. I chose him because he was gorgeous and gregarious, and because he had a great name already—Tank. It conjured images of unstoppable canine energy, powerful runs through tall grass. I brought him home in the back seat of my car. He was good.

            Of course, Tank would later royally piss off my wife, who wanted no dogs bigger than her mother’s Boston Terriers. As he grew, he barked gruffly at inopportune moments and refused to be housetrained even to the extent of scratching on the door. Thus we would awake to find the newspapers we had left out still as spotless and crisp as the day they were printed, while a steaming pile of poop sat on the floor right next to them. He pissed on the tile floor of our mobile home’s kitchen and soaked the carpet more than once. I was constantly cleaning up after him, and none of the old tricks I had learned worked at all. And so I became hyper-aware of any noise in the night—light scratching, the staccato clicks of toenails on tile, whining. And I would rise up out of my deep sleep, already shouting, “Tank, NO!” as I bolted down the short hallway.

            More often than not, I was too late or found it was all a false alarm. Tank kept me on my toes that way.

            I couldn’t leave him outside; we lived in a trailer park that did not allow loose pets, and we had no money or permission to build a fence. I had no desire to chain him to a tree or a doghouse just for my own convenience; I was at least that selfless. And so I would sleep a few hours at a time, these restful periods broken up by anxiety and stress and nasty work that I had little patience for.

            Oh, I still loved the dog. During the day, we’d go outside and I would let him run around in the thirty yards or so between our trailer and the next one. He would chase insects and frolic and play fetch with whatever ball I could find. I’d run with him, trying not to trip over him or step into a hole. I’d tackle him and ruffle his fur and scratch his belly, and he would chase me and rear up on his hind legs, his forepaws on my stomach. Sometimes I’d take those paws and walk with him, fashioning an awkward dance.

            Yes, our life together waxed and waned between frustration and boy-and-his-dog joy. Until, that is, we moved back to Arkansas.

            Our new life brought all kinds of changes. We lived next to my in-laws, who had multiple dogs and two or three cats. Our trailer sat at an intersection between a road leading to a highway and a gravel road that wound through the more rural portions of town—the dangers of traffic and big trucks in one direction, the song of small patches of woods in the other.

            I now had to commute around an hour and a half every day. I was taking a full undergraduate load and working a part-time job that actually drifted toward full-time hours, though the pay was rotten in those days of three-dollar-and-thirty-five-cent-an-hour minimum wage. I had homework and old friends to see and relatives to visit, as well as a wife and daughter that needed and deserved my time and love. And as all this coalesced, my nineteen-to-twenty-year-old self made some good decisions and some bad ones.

            Good: I took care of my school, work, and family responsibilities. I made time to hang with my friends, to throw parties, to read for pleasure and play video games every chance I could.

            Bad: I had less and less time for Tank. And because I was so busy, I was able to rationalize it. “He’s got a lot of other animals to play with,” I said, letting him out more often and hoping that he would not find his way to the highway, where he would almost certainly be flattened. “It’s not like I’m being lazy,” I said, and that much was true. “It’s not like I don’t care about him anymore. There’s just so much to do.”

            Easy words. In many cases, justified. But empty and hollow and insufficient nonetheless.

            Because eventually, Tank got sick. One day I came home and he did not greet me with bounds of joy. He looked my way and dragged himself over to the car as I got out, his head hanging as if he were ashamed of his poor efforts. He moved like a dog four times his age. It struck me as odd. I asked everyone about him, but no one had paid him much attention. So I sat with him awhile, scratching behind his ears and telling him what a good boy he was. I talked with him as if he could understand (which, for all I know, he could) and might reply at any time. I told him about my day. But as evening descended and the temperature dropped, I patted him on the head and said, “See you later, buddy.”

            By this time, Tank was a full-time outdoors dog. His refusal to take to house training, along with my in-laws’ always-open and comparatively warm laundry room, led my wife to insist on it. I was too tired and distracted to fight about it, and besides, in southeast Arkansas dogs with worse places to sleep led full and happy lives.

            Around this time, my school workload increased, and my employer wanted me on duty more often than not, as the cold months had descended, bringing with them the approaching holidays. And so for several days in a row I came home at odd hours—3 pm or six or eleven—exhausted and hungry and ready to fall into bed.

            I didn’t see Tank. And, to my everlasting shame, I didn’t even think about him.

            Finally one day my wife was waiting for me. She looked both upset and angry. “Tank’s sick,” she said. “He’s in the laundry room.”

            “Shit,” I said, more annoyed than concerned. The weight of the day settled on me; I felt it in my lower back, my shoulders, my aching head. I dropped my things on the living room floor and crossed over to my in-laws’. I pushed open the door of the laundry room.

            Tank lay there on his side, breathing shallowly. When he craned his neck to look at me, his movements were stiff and labored, as if the very motion pained him. It probably did. His eyes were dull and weeping; his fur looked matted. And yet, as I came in the room, his tail beat a weak tattoo on the concrete floor. I thought I heard him make a low sound in his throat. It might have been an abortive bark, or a whine, or nothing at all.

            I sat down with him and took his head in my lap. I stroked his fur and spoke softly to him and promised him that he was still my dog, even though I had failed him lately. I told him that he would be all right, that whatever had taken hold of him would let go. That he would stand up again, and frolic and leap and bark and wake the neighbors and dig in the hard fall dirt. I apologized for being gone so much, for not realizing how he felt.

            And yet I couldn’t think of what I could do for him. I was an undergraduate, meaning I had no income at the college. We had already spent the overage from my financial aid that semester. I doubted that any of my relatives would have lent me money to take Tank to the vet, and all of my friends were either off at college somewhere or broker than I was. And I could not stay out there with him much longer. I was starving and tired, and I had to go do it all again the next day.

            So after a while, I lowered his head back down to the concrete and promised him that I would be back as soon as I could.

            I never saw him again.

            The next few days were even busier than before. When I came home, I was in no mood to take care of anybody besides my daughter. I would do what she required, and then I would sit on the couch and vegetate or go to bed or slog through some homework. I thought about Tank, and I asked about him; apparently his condition had not changed one way or the other. I took this as a positive sign—no news is good news, right?—and went on with my day.

            Then one day I came home and was told that Tank was gone.

            “What do you mean, gone?” I asked. “Did he die? I thought he was stable.”

            At this point, my wife revealed that her brother had gotten tired of watching Tank suffer on the laundry room floor. He had loaded Tank into a truck and carried him out into the woods, where he laid him down on the ground and shot him. It was a mercy killing; my brother-in-law had no malice toward Tank. He was doing the only thing he knew to do, which was put Tank out of his misery, because I, Tank’s owner and friend, had done nothing.

            When I heard this news, I felt as if someone had stabbed me with a coring knife and hollowed me out. Into that emptiness spilled conflicting feelings that threatened to crack the foundation of my self-image. I was furious with my brother-in-law for killing my dog. I was grateful to him for doing something to help Tank. I was sad that Tank was gone; I was happy that he wasn’t in pain anymore; I was relieved, damn me, that I would not have to take the time to go into that room and comfort him. Yes, I actually felt relief for myself.

            What kind of person was I?

            Tank had done what very few people have ever done for me. He accepted me and loved me and gave me his loyalty without question or condition. He loved me when I played with him, and he loved me when I ignored him. He greeted me every day as if he hadn’t seen me in years, during a time when my own wife seemed to wish I would disappear forever. He lay on that cold concrete and fought against whatever was ripping him apart and looked at me. He tried to wag his tail.

            And what had I done? Had I gone to every friend and relative I had until I had found enough money to take him to the veterinarian? Had I begged a vet to work out a payment plan with me so that my friend, for whom I was responsible, could live a longer and happier life? Had I sold something precious of mine to finance his treatment? God help me, did I take him out and shoot him myself if I could not be bothered to do anything else?

            No. I let him lie there in his sickness and rot from the inside. Because I was busy. Because I wanted some time for myself. In truth, because I was lazy and selfish.

            As I have gotten older, I have come to believe that how a person treats animals says a lot about how much they value life itself—the Earth, the people in their lives, people in general. If Kalene’s diet allowed it, I really think I would try to become a vegetarian because I simply cannot abide how animals are treated in the food industry, how each animal’s life must be as important to it as mine is to me. I believe that animals have souls, emotions, desires, maybe even dreams and goals. And I want to do as little as possible to hurt them, my meals notwithstanding.

            But in those days, no matter my intentions, I was not a good person. I mistreated that dog, even if I did so for what seemed like good reasons and mostly by omission, rather than commission. I was responsible for his life, his health, his happiness. I failed him in every way possible, even in my own heart.

            But I didn’t emerge unscathed. I have never stopped thinking about Tank, or the other pets I had before him. And every single thing I’ve done for my pets since then has been influenced by his presence in my life. It’s why I gladly put off getting things I want or going on trips when my cat needs medical attention. It’s why I advocate for animal rights, why I speak out against things like puppy farms and kill shelters. It’s why, even when I take a bite of steak, I remember that it was once a part of a living, breathing creature that did not want to die and that had done nothing to me.

            Tank taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned, one I’ve tried to pass onto my children. Animals aren’t interchangeable tokens we move around at our leisure. They are important, soulful beings with whom we share this planet, this life. If I ever see him again—and I believe that I will—then I plan to tell him that. And I will run with him, talk with him, pet him, and throw that ball to him for as long as he wants.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

NEVERMIND as Cultural Bomb

If You Ask Me

Nirvana’s Nevermind as Cultural Bomb

            I suppose every generation has at least one do-you-remember-where-you-were-when-it-happened event. Some are Earth-, or at least nation-, shattering: the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first shots over the walls of Fort Sumter, the Nazi invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, the launching of Sputnik, the moon landing, Watergate, the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.

            Some are moments when world leaders die unexpectedly, changing our lives in less cataclysmic but still important ways—Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Diana.

            Still others mark a change or absence in the art and culture that we experience every day. Take the realm of music for an example and you could pick several names from the last forty years: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Lennon, Presley, Wallace, Shakur, Jackson. And if you made such a list, you would be remiss if you failed to include Kurt Cobain.

            Other people have written about Cobain. I don’t suppose my story is much different than theirs.  It might go something like this.

            “And lo, the 1980s came to pass, and in this time the land lay enshrouded in the shadow of a dark and evil force, an entity that ensured the unequal distribution of power and wealth and a return to the personal politics of a bygone era, and that force was named Reaganomics.

            “And the popular music of this era would uncritically reflect the thirst for material goods and economic excess for its own sake. The artists of the day would often symbolize the conspicuous consumption that prevailed throughout the land. And in the fullness of time this music would be called Hair Metal.

            “And many Hair metal bands would garnish their stages with enormous set pieces, models, blow-up figures, and laser lights, and they would dress in tight leather and spandex and multiple bandanas and thick make-up and whole cases of hairspray, and in their lyrics they would register their desire for never-ending parties and limitless sex and the unfettered flow of drugs and alcohol.

            “When these bands first appeared, they heralded the expansion of music into new and interesting directions, and their charming fin-de-siecle attitudes super-charged the youth of the land. But as the wealthy hoarded more and more of the land’s resources and the poor became more desperate and those in the middle disappeared, the land’s taste for Hair Metal transmogrified into a yearning for something new—something angrier than New Wave and more accessible than Punk.

            “And in the latter part of the decade, those who yearned discovered bands such as the Melvins, and later, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mother Love Bone, and Dinosaur Jr. And new bands formed under the influences of these forbears, and their names included Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With regular rotation on MTV, these bands grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. And perhaps their success is best epitomized in Nirvana’s second studio album, the 1991 release Nevermind.”

            I’ve got much love for 80s Hair Metal and the other bands mentioned above. But when Nirvana released Nevermind, few people were probably aware that the band had actually detonated a cultural bomb, one that would change the musical landscape and the youth of America. Nevermind is nothing short of a watershed moment in musical history, and now that we are twenty years past its release (!!!), I feel that I must consider it and its place in my life.

            Nirvana formed in 1987, and in 1989, when I graduated high school and saw the birth of my daughter Shauna, they released their first album Bleach on the famous grunge label Sub Pop.  I was aware of this album and liked it quite a lot. As many critics pointed out, Nirvana’s sound emulated the Pixies’ in many ways, especially the LOUD-quiet-LOUD structure of their songs. For influences, you could certainly do much worse, right? And I remember really liking songs like “About a Girl,” the simplified growl of “School” (“Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck. / No recess!”), the metal-like anger of “Blew,” the speed-metal-ish “Negative Creep.”

            But with Nevermind, I went from being aware of Nirvana to being obsessed with them. The album sounded like a mélange of many things I’d heard before, but at the same time, it sounded completely new. It was angry in a way that you could only find in the punkiest punk or the speediest metal; it was sardonic; it was sincere and heart-wrenching; it was critical. I listened to each song and felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the album.

            “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song for which they are probably most famous, is the borderline-incoherent scream of a new generation. Songs like “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are” demonstrate Nirvana’s range—the one hard and heavy, the other like something The Police could have recorded. “Breed” could be a punk song. “Lithium” and “Drain You” rock like metal, though neither shares the typical subject matter of the most prominent hair bands. “Polly” is, quite frankly, one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard. And the dirge-like “Something in the Way” is simply, completely different than anything else on the album. The repeated lyrics are both haunting and mystifying: “Underneath the bridge / My tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped / Have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass / And the drippings from my ceiling / It’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings / Something in the way, mmm…”

            As a band, Nirvana also looked different. We had already moved from bands like the Beatles, who first came to us in button-down shirts and ties, to long-haired, leather-clad, hirsute rockers to the 80s-era spandex and make-up. Nirvana, by contrast, looked as if they had just fallen out of bed at a college dorm. They wore faded jeans and t-shirts and cardigan sweaters. On stage, they leaped around as if they had just come from the mosh pit themselves, or else they stood still; they had no elaborate set pieces or enormous scaffolding that spanned the arenas or massive fireworks displays. If they tended to destroy their instruments a la the Who and countless other bands before them, they could not always be counted on to do so safely or in a way that seemed practiced; witness bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his bass into the air, only to have it land on his own head.

            In their televised performances they seemed to exude a barely-controlled anger perhaps restrained only by a distaste for excess. They could rip your spine out with their crunching chords or soothe your aching eardrums with an almost-melodic detour into a song like “Something….” Their music seemed to have been made by people who knew what had happened to America in the 80s—the false siren call of “family values” that marginalized alternative family paradigms and modes of being; the “prosperity” that stopped at the very top and trickled down to the rest of us not at all, in spite of the political rhetoric at the time; the belief in American exceptionalism that still hamstrings us today. Nirvana’s music seemed to rise up from the middle-class-to-poor spirit that had been trampled on. Starting off as a marginal voice from a marginal movement, it took center stage with Nevermind and reminded us that music could be more than what it had become.

            I will always love my Hair Metal bands, both the fun ones like Poison (yep, I’m not ashamed of that) and the more serious ones like Dio. But I can honestly say that Nirvana reminded me of what rock music could be, beginning with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s death was every bit as important and traumatic to me as John Lennon’s. Cobain might not have reached Lennon’s level as a songwriter, but as a voice crying out in the wilderness of our lives, Cobain has no superior.

            In this, the twentieth year since that watershed moment, I salute Nevermind all over again, and its three creators, whose collaboration was, like Cobain himself, gone too soon.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.