You Should Get to Know These Artists, Because These Artists Know You

If you know where to look, art can bring you to other people with breathtaking beauty. Make like Bill Nye and “consider the following”:

Shoplifters

If we are, indeed, an isolated people in a social media world, if it is at all true that Generation Z is more lonely and less empathetic than their parents, if we are losing the ability to make genuine connections with each other, it’s not for a lack of humanity. Humanity in the literal sense, as we can see a greater number and variety of people than ever before, either (for some of us) in person or (for most of us) through various periscopes (or, you know, Periscope). A scroll through one of these lenses brings us into contact with a dizzying montage of people, cats, dogs, and chicken sandwiches, all cast into a great range of activities and evoking a spectrum of emotional responses.

How we engage with this access to people and the things they do often leads to divergent types of responses: jump in and dance at the frenetic pace at which media is generated and consumed, keeping up to date with what people are doing and how that should make us feel; disconnect, withdraw, and seek a life of simplicity with fewer human connections. Both responses are problematic though not inherently bad, but they are linked by a common avoidance of compassion. Society isn’t bifurcated into dancers and hermits, but it is driven by the subconscious desire to avoid the hardest parts about living in the endless tide of human substance and ephemera. Milan Kundera writes that “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes,” and in order to avoid carrying that weight we so often turn away or move on[1]. We’re not a society of sociopaths, but at the very least one of the most recent human adaptations is a penchant for turning down the volume.

As it pertains to art, a dearth of compassion can be made manifest many different ways. There’s the hundreds of TV shows that are a lot like the other ones, movies focused on event and spectacle, and books driven primarily by finding out what happens next. There’s nothing “wrong” with a big dumb movie or a murder mystery romance or yet another legal drama, but each allows the consumer to look at people without really seeing them. They may tend towards superficiality or sentimentality. Lack of compassion can also lead to takes on humanity that are cynical, satirical, and deconstructed to extreme degrees. To look at human beings and think about them long enough, to really consider what we are capable of doing to one another, to ponder the immense absurdity of life on Earth, can be a terribly weighty thing, engendering apathy and a lack of sincerity. Worldviews colored this way have produced plenty of art – some of it very good – but while this art grapples with what it means to be human, it ultimately does so without compassion.

But there are some artists who look – really look – at people, and while recognizing their flaws and their hurts, while grappling with the ways individuals fail and the way the system fails them, they still manage to look at them with profound compassion. It’s these artists who show us what it is to be human, not because we don’t know, but because we stop looking, stop thinking, and stop feeling, and need an unflinching but caring reminder.

This post is, at its heart, my way of proselytizing for the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson and the Japanese film auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda. I must be one of a very small number of people to name these two men in a personal top-five, and while sometimes we prefer to keep these sorts of fan clubs exclusive, this is one of those cases where I just want everyone I know to discover them too. But there is more reason for me to pair them in a blog post than the mere fact that I love their work, as they have a number of compelling things in common, including this attribute of compassion. By putting them in conversation, I hope to make a case for why you should look them up, and why their style of art is something capable of moving us towards a compassionate experience which so much other entertainment lacks.

One doesn’t need look half-way around the world to engage with art that instills compassion and empathy, but it doesn’t hurt[2]. Art has the remarkable ability to help us see how we are like the characters, and therefore like other readers and viewers, and this effect multiplies when the others we encounter are separated from us geographically and culturally. Petterson and Kore-eda bring American audiences to a setting outside their own, as both create work with a distinct sense of the places they’re from. For Petterson, this is Norway, ranging from World War II to the 21st Century, from the idyllic countryside to working-class towns. One might have a general idea of what this is supposed to feel like, but Petterson’s perspective delivers enough difference to the reader to keep it fresh, such as the attitudes of Norway’s urban working class. All of Kore-eda’s films (until his upcoming release The Truth) take place in contemporary Japan, and so each film presents an encounter with newness and opportunities to see and learn about a different way of life well beyond the more well-known aspects of Japanese culture.

The difference confronting audiences is tempered by familiar through lines from work to work. Each artist would work well for a starter-pack meme: Petterson’s novels are filled with cold, snowy winters, cigarette smoking, painful memories, strained family relationships, father-son conflicts, childhood traumas, keeping warm under the duvet, eating waffles, references to socialism/communism, and a few of the novels use the same stand-in for Petterson named Arvid; Kore-eda’s films are marked by family drama, questions of parenthood, preparing and eating meals, people taking baths[3], at-risk children, prayers at family shrines, and recurring cast members like Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. There is also consistency in style, tone, and aesthetics. However, the familiarity does not result in a paint by numbers feel, or even the sort of self-referentiality that other creatives with a distinct style can fall into[4]. Rather, I find that it helps bring me into the right mindset, to feel the rhythm, and to be paying attention to the subtleties. It also builds a relationship and a rapport with the author, or, in order to avoid an unnecessary discussion of Roland Barthes, at least a relationship with the type of work.

And what do I find when I follow Per Petterson to a cigarette in the snow with grieving Arvid, or as I watch another one of Kore-eda’s tense family dinners around a chabudai?

I find people. People I cannot turn away from, whose spirit is so familiar even in foreign circumstances, whose pain and whose hope becomes my own. Each artist has mastered the craft of bringing me into a world where my heart and mind are ready to encounter someone else and respond with compassion and empathy.

I find myself waking up with Trond, the point of view character in Out Stealing Horses, as the prospects of growing old alone wash over him while he lays in bed. I breathe the cold and refreshing winter air as he walks his dog, and I grow in understanding of him as the narrative shifts between his present day and memories of his formative summers in the countryside with his father. I find myself gripped by the emotional breakdowns which come for Tommy and Jim, the central figures in I Refuse, as a chance encounter after thirty years reminds them of their shared history and how their lives became devoid of love.

There isn’t much in the way of conventional plot in Petterson’s novels. Instead, he introduces characters with complex family issues and various traumas, and through events that are often unremarkable, he builds our understanding of their world and what they’re facing. Arvid faces his impending divorce and his mother’s cancer diagnosis in I Curse the River of Time, and he spends a couple days with her when she returns to her native Denmark. That’s about all that “happens” in the novel. But Petterson turns reflections over the sound of a coffeemaker into compelling moments of drama. And, throughout his work, Petterson writes in beautiful, simple prose, and while his particular choices make it best to read it in Norwegian, the style comes through even in translation. In I Curse the River of Time, he uses some of his most tender writing to describe Arvid’s memory of a retreat to a cabin with his future wife, only to shatter the fragility of that memory: “The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this moment could be ground into dust.” It’s a devastating, perfect turn.

The initial circumstances of a Kore-eda film are often simple to explain, even if the premises range from a simple family visit in Still Walking to the impossible situation facing two families who find out their sons were switched at birth in Like Father, Like Son. However, each film becomes an intricate study of human interaction which unfolds scene by scene, and the final act is always an emotionally-devastating pay-off of the themes established earlier and a series of call-backs to what might have seemed like minor details. Shoplifters introduces us to a family unit, but spends the rest of the film revealing the true composition of that family and, in doing so, poses the question of what actually counts as a family.

Just as Petterson gently ushers readers into the anguished psyche of his characters, Kore-eda deftly places the viewer inside the homes of his families. The set design, acting, and dialogue are all works of genius that dissolve the space between screen and audience. Every single time a character performs an action or uses a prop, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. You know how sometimes it seems like a character in a movie sits down or picks something up while giving a speech just to have something to do? Never happens in Kore-eda’s films. The characters become impossible to look away from in their humanity, and that humanity includes heartache and longing of a profound nature.

Both artists examine their characters with sincere compassion and empathy (and encourage the audience to do so too) even as their characters have serious shortcomings. Many of Petterson’s protagonists self-medicate with sex and alcohol while being predisposed to violence and general apathy. Petterson doesn’t judge them, and while he explores societal conditions, he doesn’t excuse them. Rather, he tries to help us understand them. The protagonists and sympathetic characters in Kore-eda’s films often have less than admirable qualities and make bad decisions, but the audience is invited to understand and empathize and question their assumptions, suspending judgement long enough to see them as complex humans in this impossibly complex life.

They’re not entirely the same, of course. Petterson’s spare style results in a dream-like haze, while Kore-eda’s minimalism focuses attention on the details of chopping vegetables and the regular hum of a conversation. Even when the premise or circumstance of Petterson’s work revolves around a great event like World War II or the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster, the story remains less-plotted than Kore-eda’s narrative. Petterson engages with social issues, though not as overtly as Kore-eda. But the differences the two men exhibit in their craft makes their similarities that much more compelling. A Norwegian novelist and a Japanese filmmaker have each developed a unique and brilliant style of storytelling, and in doing so they have demonstrated a keen eye and caring heart even while looking directly at the painful complications of being a person, and they have managed – time and again – to deliver these compassionate and empathetic looks at humanity to readers and viewers in compelling works of art. That compassion, that aching co-existence with broken people, is as much a part of their style as melodic prose and contemplative pacing, as natural a presence as heart-shaped waffles or fried tempura.

Thankfully, both Kore-eda and Petterson are continuing to produce new works. Kore-eda is 57 and releasing a new film at a rate of about one per year, with The Truth arriving in October. Petterson is 67 with a new novel about every three years, publishing Menn i min situasjon last October, which will be released in English as Men in My Situation sometime in the next year or two. Though not household names, they are experienced, established, internationally-recognized artists who still have something to say, and each has shown the ability to try new things while remaining true to what makes them great.

Now I hope that you will see for yourself.

Please read Out Stealing Horses. It’s a beautiful, contemplative look into the quiet life an old man and the riveting moments which have stayed with him, dramatic and subtle alike. It’s probably Petterson’s best, but the rest of his bibliography will not disappoint. It’s a short, accessible book that will move and provoke, a page-turner that demands a reread.

Please see Shoplifters. It is one of the most emotionally-affecting, thought-provoking films in my recent memory. Kore-eda is at the top of his game, and the performances are absolutely astonishing. You have to see this film. If it’s the only one of his film’s you see, it will be worth it, but don’t be surprised if you begin to explore the rest of his phenomenal filmography.

I don’t want to judge what you read and watch or how you spend your leisure time (that’s not to say I don’t do it). But I sincerely hope that you will consider whether or not you are really seeing the people you’re looking at. What do the images of humanity you see every day demand from you? And how will you respond?

Your public library is freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 It’s a little fraught to quote Kundera in a post about compassion and the value of empathy when The Unbearable Lightness of Being grapples in such complicated ways with Nietzsche’s philosophy. Oh hey Fred btw God is still alive.
2 I don’t watch enough foreign films to be that guy, but in my opinion two of the three best films from last year were foreign (Roma and Kore-eda’s Shoplifters), and Burning and Cold War were also really, really excellent. I would like to see the Academy and American audiences give great foreign films more recognition, and it’s looking like many of the best films of 2019 will end up being foreign projects. Hopefully they’ll get their due.
3 Bath culture is one of the things I’ve learned about Japan by watching Kore-eda. I was like why are they all so intent on taking a bath at night and then it kept happening and I was like oh this must be a thing and turns out it is. Something like this wouldn’t occur to me otherwise, and these small exposures to cultural difference have value when interacting with art from other countries.
4 One of my other most favorite filmmakers is Wes Anderson, and while I think some people are overly critical of his signature style, I do acknowledge that, to some extent, each successive film parodies what has come before.

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I Wrote a Fairy-Story

Some thoughts on the process of writing in one of the genriest of genres.

I’ve wanted to write a work of fantasy since I started writing[1]. And in fact I began my career (in 2nd Grade) with a story called Sorfanzorck where different types of monsters do battle in a world called Sorfanzorck. I tried a few times as I got older to write a bigger and better one (including Sorfanzorck 2), but I always gave up. As I got older and started writing more fiction, I thought up plenty of ideas for novels (fantasy and otherwise), but I didn’t write a complete draft of one until I was *checks notes* 22 years old[2]. It was a family drama, which is a far cry from high fantasy. The next novel I wrote was a fairly subdued literary fiction type deal, and while the supernatural crept into the novella I wrote after that, it was still about a young boy in 1960’s rural Wisconsin.

But, in the meantime, I was delving more and more into fantasy storytelling, as much of my last year or so has been devoted to the Tolkien legendarium and A Song of Ice and Fire + Game of Thrones. In so doing, I found myself thinking up my own fantasy stories, or bits and pieces of them, but I was hesitant to try to put them together into a full story. It felt pointless to do so when there are so many towering achievements in the genre, as well as myriad lesser imitations that have still managed to get published. It was the wrong way to think, but I was feeling like my fantasy world needed to do or say something in a distinct voice.

The push I needed to start writing turned out to be the final season of Thrones, not because it was good, but because it wasn’t[3]. In my frustration with the ways the storytelling faltered, especially in comparison to all of the thoughtful fan theories that had been going around for years, I thought it was time to go for it, even though at that point all I really had were a few general characters, scenes, and concepts to work with. Many people, including the incomparable Dr. Ed Risden, say to write what you want to read, rather than just wishing that story had been written by someone else. Writing a fantasy of my own was a way to engage with my love of and disappointment in Game of Thrones.

My endeavor[4] reinforced the fact that writing fantasy is really challenging, but it also made it clear to me that it is doable and that so many of the mistakes made by certain Emmy-nominated writers are inexcusable. Here are some things I learned in the experience of writing a fantasy novel:

It’s harder than writing other fiction. This is another reason why I was hesitant to start writing; writing a novel is hard enough without having to account for all the world building that goes into writing fantasy. What does this world look like? Who lives there? What technology exists? Are there non-human creatures? Is there magic, and, if so, how does it work? These questions (and many more) have to be answered in order to make the world feel real, and the rules of the world have to be consistent. A strong sense of place is necessary in all fiction, but it’s easier to guide the reader through 2000’s rural Wisconsin than it is to bring them into an imagined world, even if the reader is familiar with some standard fantasy conventions and tropes.

It’s also easier than writing other fiction. Turns out, being able to make things up is easier than following the rules. As I just said, writing fantasy requires the author to establish and follow in-universe rules, but that can be easier than abiding by the rules of this universe. Writing a period piece requires looking up things like what year Ben E. King released “Stand By Me” and what kind of trucks people drove in the 50’s and 60’s. Writing contemporary literary fiction requires a realistic imitation of the world that all your readers are familiar with. But in a fantasy world, I get to decide how the government works, how far it is between here and there, what kind of weapons people use, and how the class system makes people feel. I have to be consistent with those made up things, and consider how the imagined rules impact the characters, but there are times when that can be easier than trying to imitate what the real world is like.

Names, maps, and languages are not just bells and whistles. This is both a routine annoyance and a fundamental part of building a world. What to name your characters and your places, and why? Names and the sounds of names mean something. The language people use changes how they relate to each other and understand their world. It isn’t necessary to invent a language before writing a fantasy novel, but at the same time Tolkien’s approach to world-building is not just an extra move by a gifted philologist. A working system of words help breathe a world into existence. Rather than try to make up names, I used a name generator (which is itself an impressive work – follow that link and check out Emily’s project). Even doing that was not mindless or random. In the future, I’m sure I will change many of the names to increase the consistency, and while doing it this way worked fine, it revealed how a world can be enriched by a good system of language and naming.

So too with places – the actual shape and topography of the world. I haven’t created a map yet, but I will have to at some point. It gets tricky, because things need to happen in specific places, and those places need to be the right distance from each other, and what is next to what will affect what happens where. Again, Tolkien established his maps early, and while “Of Beleriand and Its Realms” is rightly considered the driest chapter of The Silmarillion, it’s still part of an important task in building the world[5].

Building the world helps tell the story. In describing the interior of a palace-type building, I referred to how the art and architecture represented the historical time period when those parts of the palace were constructed, giving my world history. One of my characters is a high-ranking official, and in her first chapter she brushes off the supplications of a low-level official, and then I thought hey, I want to know what’s up with that guy, so I made him another point of view character. A valuable metal is crucial to life in my world, but in order to make it more than a McGuffin, I considered how its value would impact society, and what would happen if one of the characters discovered it in their lands. World building is hard and takes times, but through it the story reveals itself.

Chekhov’s lore is useful and a ton of fun. Sometimes worldbuilding involves referring in passing to a person place or thing, and the first time its mentioned I might not really know much about that person place or thing. But then, later on, an opportunity will arise to mention that person place or thing again, and this time it feels much more real and much less like a place-holder. It’s important in storytelling to set things up ahead of time, and sometimes this can be done by just referring back to something mentioned earlier. This is also a way that symbols and themes can emerge in telling a story. I didn’t know that fire would be an important symbol in my story, but it just sort of arose naturally as a recurring thing.

It’s surprisingly easy to insert social commentary, but a little subtlety is important. One of the (many) reasons it is ridiculous to deride fantasy as escapist is because so often it reflects or comments on our own lived reality. We can see this in the psychology of characters, but also in their sociological conditions. I found, in constructing a society, that it was a natural thing to invoke our own social issues, both intentionally and without thinking about it. Either way, I found that the more overt it was, it was more likely to jar a reader out of the world and not match with the tone of the story. I also found that it was useful to have multiple characters give a perspective on an issue.

It’s important to consider how to go about making intentional references to social issues, but I also found how easy it is invoke various issues unintentionally. Race and gender are tricky in fantasy, and I’m not going to try to give this a full discussion in one small post right now, but suffice to say that as a white American male it is too easy to fall into the familiar mistakes.

Characters still matter (duh). A fantasy story has the inherent advantages of constructing a captivating world full of intriguing creatures and powers, but I found myself still most drawn to making great characters and having them interact with one another. I wrote my most favorite character ever in this story, and, for the first time, I got a little bit emotional when I killed a character off. It’s easy when writing genre fiction to rely on tropes and archetypes – I don’t have to do as much work to acquaint you with the wise old man as with some rando guy in rural Wisconsin – and it’s okay to use tropes and archetypes to some extent, but it’s even better to write in relation to those existing conventions. It’s become exhausting to mention “subverting expectations” in relation to Thrones, but what made Jaime arguably the best character in the books and in the show (until they made a mess of it) was the way his character subverted the idea of the knight in shining armor.

World building is crucial to fantasy storytelling, but the story becomes something special when compelling characters act within that world and interact with each other.

There’s no internet. It’s fun to write about a world where people hear things via word of mouth. I love the the way this works in ASoIaF + Thrones, and actually the video game Skyrim uses it to nice effect, too. People hear about things going on in the world days after they happen, and probably with some healthy embellishment, and they talk about them with each other (“did you hear,” “they say,” “then I took an arrow in the knee”). It’s a lot more interesting to have your characters talk about something you wrote a few chapters earlier than it is to describe a scene of a bunch of people staring at their phones (if you’re reading this on your phone please finish reading, share a link to my blog, and then put your phone away).

Earned epic moments are fun to write, not just to read. I don’t mind reading and writing little scenes. I enjoy writing dialogue. Many of my favorite things to read are not necessarily plot-driven, and my own longer works often lack drama. But oh man is it fun to write an epic banger of a chapter. We love these moments in fantasy stories that give us chills[6]. I can now confirm they are fun to write, not just read. However, I was reminded of how important it is for these moments to be earned. In this most recent work, one of the first ideas I had was for this dramatic moment in a battle, but it didn’t end up happening until one of the last chapters. So much of the the story went into setting it up, and I had to be patient even though I wanted so much to write it. The moment did not disappoint, and I love what I came up with, and I love the way the rest of the story built towards it.

And, lastly, I feel more sympathy for George. I have taken a fairly moderate stance towards George R.R. Martin’s lack of progress in finishing The Winds of Winter, let alone A Dream of Spring. I understood why it was taking him so long, and recognized he was carrying quite a burden, but I also couldn’t quite wrap my head around why he wouldn’t just freaking go for it and finish the damn thing. My guess is I would be even more frustrated if I wasn’t such a new reader (there are people who have been waiting 23 years for this saga to end). However, now, after trying in earnest to write some fantasy, I understand just a little better the challenge he is facing. I’m already starting to see how much I have to keep track of while trying to construct a coherent narrative, and my world is 1/100 the size of Martin’s. He has the expectations of millions of readers, so he has to get it right, and, well, knowing what “right” is can be quite challenging. You can do it, George!

That’s all for now. Maybe someday you’ll step into the world I’m working on, but for now I’m glad you took the time to read this. Look for another (quite different) post next week.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

~click the number to return to the text~

1 Oh goodness me that is a terrible way to start a blog post. But it’s true.
2 And it was baaaaaaaad. But that’s okay! There was some good in there, and writing is like anything else that requires failures to improve.
3 For the most part, I tried to not think about the last two seasons or engage with Thrones-related content for a few months after the finale. It’s only recently I’ve started thinking back on how bad they were. I really, really enjoyed Lindsay Ellis’ two-part breakdown of the problematic writing.
4 I always type this word “endeavour” without thinking and I want to leave it that way but the squiggly red line is just too much for my OCD brain. That’s an Anglicization we need back.
5 Just wanted to take this opportunity to say I love The Silmarillion and also it is better than The Hobbit and we need to stop scaring people away from it by saying it is challenging and/or boring.
6 Speaking of The Silmarillion, sometimes I just think about Fingolfin calling out the most powerful being in Middle-Earth to fight him and I’m just like man. That’s got to be the most epic moment besides Húrin’s last stand.

Abstract and Brief Chronicles of the Time

If Kevin Feige can announce ten Marvel projects over the next three years, I can announce three blog posts over the next three weeks.

Do you ever write a first sentence, or even just a first word, and think about ten (give or take) ways you could go from there? With this post, I got as far as the word “Well,” which I didn’t end up starting this post with, because I’ve realized how often that is how I/we/he/she/me start sentences both written and spoken. Now, to let you behind the curtain, this is most certainly not the way I thought this post was going to start. But, as Sean Connery’s titular character in Finding Forrester argues: “The first key to writing is to write. Not to think.”

Despite the dearth of posts on this blog, I have been writing (and thinking, probably too much) quite a lot. For the last year or so, my work and living situation has given me lots of time to write, and I’m proud to say I have taken advantage of it. I wrote a novel about Wisconsin and death (I only meant it to be about one of those things) which is just now starting to get some eyes on it and we’ll see what becomes of it. I wrote a novella about innocence and Christian mysticism (which happens to take place in Wisconsin), and that’s on the shelf until it isn’t. And now I just finished the first part of a long work of fantasy.

I moved to a new city for a new job about a month ago, and that new job started Friday, and my writing habits are going to have to change. This might be just as well, as I’d like to take a break from writing longer projects and return to focusing my efforts on blog posts. Ideally I’ll be posting one a week going forward. I’ve made similar commitments before…in April 2015 I wrote: “Around this time last year I decided that I was going to try to post something on the blog close to every day. And I failed. Miserably. I wrote consistently for a couple weeks but it didn’t take long for me to give up on the venture.” A key difference this time is that I understand better than ever that a blog takes longer than a day to write, and I now have much more practice with the writing close to every day thing. I’m also not declaring this into the reaches of perpetuity; it’s a temporary goal.

As it happens, I have a plan for the first three posts (the order of two and three could change). First, I’m going to do some metacognition by sharing some of my thoughts on the process of writing fantasy. There will be some inside baseball in that one, but I think it will have broader interest for anyone who likes to think about how we come up with and relate to stories. Next, I’ll have an essay about one of my five favorite writers and one of my five favorite directors, and while proselytizing for both of these remarkable artists (hint: one is Norwegian and the other Japanese) I will discuss some of the things their works have in common which I think are interesting and significant. The third will be an essay about an important theme present in Tolkien’s legendarium, Harry Potter, The Road, and Avatar: The Last Airbender (hint: it starts with an “h” and rhymes with the best Wisconsinism).

And now, mostly unrelated, I just wanted to share Proverbs 20:5 with you. The Bible, the Book of Proverbs included, can feel repetitive sometimes (don’t @ me), but I don’t think there’s anything quite like this proverb, or at least not said quite this way. I find it compelling:

“The intentions of a person’s heart are deep waters, but a discerning person reveals them.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

The Dread Before Debate

This is the unofficial start of a great and terrible journey.

Some things matter even though they’re stupid.

The ACT. 80s action movies. The application form you have to fill out even after uploading your resume. Two-night-20-candidate-primary-debates.

It’s stupid, what NBC is putting on TV Wednesday and Thursday night, because that’s too many people talking at the “same” time for each to give a fair impression of themselves and their ideas, let alone engage with each other in actual debate. It’s also possible that the ability or inability to do well in a debate – however we decide to measure that – is a poor indication of what kind of president a person would make.

But it matters, as primary debates have the power to affect voters’ decisions, especially early and in a crowded field. It matters, because it helps winnow the field and it informs how the media will cover the candidates.

And so, even though it’s stupid, I’m going to watch it. Both nights. Alone. Probably beginning to end. Perhaps I’ll splurge on a cheap bottle of wine.

I called it a clown car when the Republicans did it, and it’s a clown car this time, too, but now it’s my clown car (and these clowns exhibit a general level of competence and decency).

If it was just stupid, I wouldn’t be so worked up about it, because then I could just ignore it if I don’t like it. The stupidity of the Grammys holds the potential to baffle and infuriate, but since they don’t actually matter it’s not the end of the world when Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year for 1989. On the other hand, the stupid Oscars do matter, and so it’s a travesty when Green Book wins Best Picture. This upcoming unwieldy, ungainly, unholy debate with all its pageantry and unrealistic performativity is stupid, but it matters.

Again, it matters because the field of candidates is massive and needs to shrink somehow, and this is the way we’ve decided to do it, because if there’s one thing Americans love in their government and politics, it’s nostalgic outdatedness. One way or another we need to eliminate contestants, and short of a Michael Scott “Beach Games” style competition, this is as good a way as we’ve got. Imperfect as it is, these debates will have an impact on who becomes a serious candidate going forward, and that, obviously, matters.

Rather than tune out the debates and their subsequent coverage, I’ll engage with them because they are important, but by doing so I will be subjecting myself to the beast of political primary season, which, like working with the Flying Dutchman and daytime television, is grueling, mind-numbing, and repetitive. By watching on Wednesday and Thursday, and then, inevitably, following along with the reaction, I will be entering into something that will make me confused, frustrated, and anxious. This first debate will signal the start of my engagement with this process, and, therefore, I’m dreading it.

I’m dreading having to watch as petty attacks and counterattacks unfold, faux pas become national scandal, backlash comes for the backlash, willful misrepresentation runs wild, and Joe Biden inexplicably maintains frontrunner status. I’m also dreading, albeit with a sort of guarded optimism, watching these twenty people perform for me as a yet undecided person. I don’t know now which one of these people I like the most, or who my first and second backups are, but they’re going to come from this field. I’ll be interacting with the one before I know who they are, like the first few weeks of Hogwarts or Christian college. What if I come to love a candidate only to see them fall in the polls? What if I set myself against another and then they emerge as the only viable alternative to one I dislike even more?

There will be more debates, and I’ll do more research and take the isidewith quiz, but this first impression still carries a lot of weight.

But that’s all just the primary – I’m also faced with the reality that one of the people – and it may not be my first, second, or even third choice – will be the Democratic nominee and the person I will support in the general election. This is it; this slate of twenty people holds the name of the nation’s hope for decency, competency, and the fundamentals of our republic, and Larry Bird’s not walking through that door.

Which brings me to what I’m dreading most about this first official step in really getting to know this field of candidates: whatever happens, for better and worse, in this Democratic primary, millions of people, including many of my family and friends, are going to vote for Donald Trump.

It doesn’t really matter who “we” decide on. It doesn’t matter how qualified and civil that person is, how well-reasoned and well-intentioned their policies are, or how patriotic and inspiring they act. We can put all these people under the microscope and suss out the “best” candidate and proudly present them before the world in Milwaukee next summer, and they might just be our sacrificial lamb before the Republican Molech and the devastating weapon of the Electoral College. Even if Trump is defeated, the fact remains that people I know to be thinking, feeling individuals will have decided long before that the candidate representing my views is inferior to that guy. All the discourse, base and elevated alike, put into the Democratic primary will be dross before them. They might have hardly given any thought to the differences between Trump’s potential opponents.

This is how the rest of the Eastern Conference felt about LeBron all those years, isn’t it?

On a personal, selfish level, I’ll admit I dread the possibility of going all in on a candidate and finding myself in a place where I really believe they are the Prince/Princess Who Was Promised, buying their merch and touting their policies and maybe even doing some actual on the ground work to flip Wisconsin, only to see them lose to a man who I still can’t believe is President even though I actually can believe it because I have studied American history but you know what I mean. But on a greater, existential level, it’s just a real bummer. The most “electable” candidate might get nominated and that soul-selling will be for naught, or the most inspiring might get nominated and that ambition will be punished.

And it’ll make this entire thing, beginning with this ridiculous debate, seem all that more stupid.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter