by J. Sam Williams
Life for all of us has been difficult during the pandemic. We’ve lost loved ones. We’ve gone through depression. We’ve started and quit new habits. We’ve learned a new way of life. Extraordinary circumstances have been met and handled with: apprehension, doubt, frantic and calm mindsets, and sometimes; aplomb. For me the pandemic coincided with a complete collapse of whatever was left of the family I grew up with. And while I sat in the smoldering wreckage of that family unit - damaged already some 10 years previous - I found myself searching for some sense of family that I could hold onto.
Enter: a cartoon?
I would not have guessed that my main sense of comfort during this time would be a family/work place animated cartoon about a burger restaurant on the Jersey shore.
But there I was in the midst of all the destitution and despair, turning again and again to this show: Bob’s Burgers. I took in episode on episode instead of basically any other content, letting the Belcher family nurture me through my arduous journey.
Just before the pandemic hit my sister and I had a falling out. Already missing my mother, who passed away in 2011, and with no other siblings, that meant it was only my Dad and I who would talk. Not quite the nuclear family, more of just a 1:1 relationship.
This is when the depression started. I tried to distract myself with work, to speak to those I love about this, to write through it. Nothing but metaphysical metacognition seemed to alleviate anything at all, and even then it would be extremely temporary. For a year, as the situation became more dire I found no relief from all-encompassing fear, dread and such a feeling of isolation. That was until January of 2020 when Bob’s Burgers came back on the air.
It was early Monday morning. I was having trouble sleeping. I’d woken from a nightmare where my wife had been clubbed to death. I couldn’t seem to get calm to pray, and there was no one for me to call. My wife needed her rest, and a break from all the consternation we’d been dealing with together. I picked up my phone and looked to watch something, anything that could distract me.
A Bob’s Burgers episode had just been released on Hulu. Bob and Linda Belcher, and their trouble-making but well-meaning kids, deal with whatever mess they get themselves into: it seemed nice, relaxing. The episode was “Drumforgivin,” a story surrounding Gene’s love of music and a misplaced effort by Louise to protect him when a musical instrument store manager bans Gene from returning.
As I watched Louise and Gene navigate the tricky dynamic of when to help someone else, and when not to, I found my smile return, my laughter trickle out, my mind completely empty of the ordeal. What’s so fascinating looking back on that episode is that the main storyline is all about what misguided loyalty looks like, and how to respect boundaries when they are set by siblings. By siblings! The very thing I was dealing with, when put on TV, eased my mind, gave me a brief freedom.
For the next several months I watched the entire show three times. That’s almost 200 episodes 3x over within five months. I couldn’t consume this story about a quirky family enough. I cannot express just how unusual this is for me. I had always gravitated towards stories about chosen family, having been much closer to chosen cousins, aunts and uncles than I ever was to my real cousins, aunts and uncles. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Parks and Rec, Avatar the Last Airbender, Never Let Me Go, Dr. Who, A Little Life; these were the stories I looked to for cathartic, emoting, or escaping. For the first time I needed a story about what family looks like when it is actually your blood relations.
Through all the rewatches, the binging, I came to realize that I felt like I didn’t have a family anymore. Of course I had my wife, and who could be closer than her? No one. But I didn’t have what she had. A mom who would talk to her for hours; a dad that would make his own cards, and listen to her when she spoke; and a brother who would actually talk to her.
The Belchers showed me what love can look like between people who are actually related. Is it perfect? No. Should it be the role model for families? No fictional story should be. But it gave me such comfort to see Bob and Linda listen and support their children. It made me cry to see Louise, Gene, and Tina support each other.
I remembered getting home from work before my wife, sitting on our couch, and pulling up my phone to watch one of my favorite episodes. In the episode Gene finds a stolen luxury toilet in the woods. After failing one of those take-care-of-this-flour-sack-like-it’s-a-baby projects, Gene proves himself a good caretaker of this talking toilet, and becomes desperate to save it when it’s battery starts to die. I couldn’t stop myself from bawling as Louise and Tina enlist the help of their friends to save this toilet from powering down and being re-stolen by “Max Flush,” criminal extraordinaire.
The love they showed one another was so touching. Was I the one who had been bad by not supporting my sister? Could I be more like the Belchers? That was silly. None of the Belcher children would ever speak the way my sister spoke to me. But I could be more supportive. I could speak up. I could fight for what I saw.
Yet I was scared. Scared to stir to the waters. Scared to act in any way and feel the whip of my sister’s reaction.
I gathered up all my courage and I said something.
It only got worse - and then worse, and then even worse-er.
Through it all I kept watching Bob’s Burgers, desperate to have any semblance of a loving family dynamic in front of me. Desperate to lift myself out of this harrowing depression. Desperate not to affect those around me too much. My chosen family, those who I loved and surrounded me, lifted and supported me. But I needed this one fix, this sign that relatives can be loving too, that family can work.
I couldn’t understand why this need had become so important to me. I’d never in my life been concerned about holding onto a sense of blood relation family. I’d seen chosen family work so well. But of course, it finally dawned on me. My wife and I were nearing a point in our life where we thought, “Hey, this could be a good time to start trying for a child.”
My sister's demands, actions, and health had sprung up inside me a great fear inside me. What if I couldn’t create a safe environment and future for my children? What if they had to face the fear I did with my own family? What if they had to meet my sister, and her husband? Could I let that happen, or was I too frightened that they might try and hurt my children? Why did a world exist where this was my family experience?
This became an unending thought, like a song stuck on repeat. I could be watching basketball, doing the dishes, playing board games, teaching online - it didn’t matter - all I could think about was my own potential failures with hypothetical children.
And yet, once more, Bob’s Burgers could give me relief. A relief to keep me calm and think clearly for a while. It would only take half an episode. I could stop midway through Bob negotiating a bank robbery, or trying to save Teddy’s Thanksgiving. I could see Tina wheel around the school robot, or Linda try to talk Gale out of more stupidity. It didn’t matter, just witnessing family talk, argue, and try to help each other was enough to make me feel hopeful.
As nightmares popped up, and my feelings of isolation and bleakness only deepened, I found myself physically uncomfortable. It was hard to move, it was hard to want to move. I couldn’t exercise, write, I felt like I was failing my students. I was gaining weight like crazy. In moments of solitude I was crying more than I ever had, not wishing to burden anyone.
One night, some couple months after a dangerous family encounter, I woke up from a nightmare. I could still see the kitchen knife my sister held, stabbing me over and over again. I went out to the kitchen and sat at the counter for fifteen minutes or so, sipping on a tall glass of water.
I watched a little Bob’s Burgers, the episode where Mr. Fishoeder introduces his brother Felix to the Belchers for the first time. I laughed at the ridiculousness of those two wealthy brothers, and then went back to bed and slept.
I had a detailed dream that I wrote my own Bob’s Burgers episode. In the episode Louise is gripped by a new prank battle, and ends up humiliating Tina in front of Tina’s crush, Jimmy Jr. The two begin feuding and Gene is caught in the middle.
At the same time Mr. Fishoeder and Felix are arguing because Mr. Fishoeder won’t admit he has one of their mother’s old taxidermied monkeys. Felix won’t let it go because that monkey used to be his best friend growing up, but Mr. Fishoeder doesn’t want to admit it because he broke off the monkey’s tail and is embarrassed. But Teddy knows Mr. Fishoeder and tells Bob and Linda who intervene - Bob begrudgingly - to try and help the brothers through this mess.
Gene sees his parents mediating this sibling spat and realizes he should do the same, attempting to bring his sisters back together. Tina gets on board but it takes a special conversation between Louise and Mr. Fishoeder to get Louise to realize she’s in the wrong and should apologize, that being a sibling is about loving all aspects of your siblings, not just the ones you like. It’s the whole person or nothing at all, and at the end of the day that’s what families do. Love and support.
Since that dream I’ve no longer experienced the sense of depression I had then. I no longer rely on Bob’s Burgers the way I used to - though I still watch lots of it - and I’ve come to a comfortable spot with my mentality with my sister. I have my boundaries and I can enforce them where I need to. Cause if she wants to love me she needs to support all of me, not demand from me.
And while things aren’t patched up, and haven’t gone back to what they used to - and probably never will - I have found solace in where we are. I am content and full of love, albeit from a distance. And I no longer have a need for such extreme escapism. I feel confident and free.
I listened to my parents’ record collection as a kid, gathered from my maternal grandfather’s business stocking the bars of the Valley of the Sun with jukeboxes, my mother’s affection for those four boys in the 60s who paved the way for rock ‘n roll - I mean, of course, Davy, Mickey, Michael, and Peter - and my father’s intellectual curiosity that as a rebellious Catholic youth had him purchase Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid.” My first vinyl purchase was Black Flag’s “In My Head,” but as an adult, the first songs I played my first born were the same off the “Ramones Mania” compilation cassette I also listened to religiously. Punk rock is what had led his mother and I to meet, and our engagement photos included air guitar jumps at the grave of Johnny Ramone.
I hope it’s safe to say that we all have a team or some fandom that we champion, I don’t much see the joy in this life if there ain’t something or someone to root for. And there’s no devotion quite like the one carried for a favorite band… except maybe for a favorite wrestler. There are some loves that transcend the genre, the medium, or the sport. If you’re CM Punk, Dax and Cash of FTR, or an editor for Meow Meow Pow Pow, you’re an enthusiastic student of the squared circle, but particularly a pupil in awe of Bret “the Hitman” Hart. The stars of AEW sneak tributes to the Excellence of Execution into matches all the time, and Jane Rebecca-Cannarella and I constantly exchange beautiful photos and stirring promos of the Best There Is, the Best There Was, and the Best There Ever Will Be.
To love a Hart means to love the late Owen, too, and his tale was told in a song named after him by Manhattan Murder Mystery, whose live shows have been compared to battle royales.
When I called Highland Park in Los Angeles home, I would ride the Metro to work and listen to Razorcake’s podcast, and that’s where I first heard Manhattan Murder Mystery. They’ve been called folk, maybe because singer and rhythm guitarist Matthew Teardrop plays a harmonica, they’ve been called punk, because that’s the scene they’ve been a part of and ethic they’ve held, and they’ve been called folk punk, which I personally don’t see as accurate (and I used to work at the same coffeehouse as the Andrew Jackson Jihad guys, so, I know what’s up). I tend to agree with a bio I’ve read from the Manhattan Murder Mystery website, which simply states they are “a rock band.”
While the band has had rousing working class rallies like “City Hall” from “Women House,” and romantic tragedies like “Luxury Liner” from “Dumb,” my first listen was specifically a song called “I Always Think About Dyin’” which is as about as bleak a punk song as the title suggests, and I mean gritty yet catchy early East Coast garage punk that would have made GG Allin proud (bubblegum era Jabbers GG, not poop era Murder Junkies GG).
I have danced just off Hollywood Blvd with Spider-Man to “Bathroom Song,” I have drank whiskey with Teardrop at a Lincoln Heights hostel, and I have sung the praises of the band’s performances to anyone who asks me what I listen to. Teardrop’s lyrics have been classified as everything from protest to poetry, but I just think he’s a great storyteller, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble of comrades who I have admired from album to album - bassists Gibbons and Katya Arce, and drummer Laura Velez, are an adamantium backbone of a rhythm section, and guitarist Todd McLaughlin and keyboardist Mateo Katsu solidly hoist the sonic hooks of each anthem.
It’s a kick to the head to realize Manhattan Murder Mystery has been at it across two whole decades, and a pleasure to watch them evolve. There are two videos for the song “Parking Lot,” and the first directed by Simon Cardoza looks like a 1990s college rock artifact that would have been at home on “120 Minutes” (note: this is a high compliment). But the second by Layne Pavoggi is a psychedelic gangsta noir film, like Alejandro Jodowrosky if he directed an episode of “Breaking Bad.”
Their fourth album, at a juncture where band members have moved apart and out of L.A., some starting families of their own (my first born was in the womb when his mother was alongside me at that aforementioned hostel show), may be the one that wins them their long overdue global praise. It is in no small part thanks to the powerhouse behind it, Chicago’s Steve “don’t call me a producer” Albini (the man behind Pixies “Surfer Rosa,” Nirvana “In Utero,” PJ Harvey “Rid of Me,” shall I go on?). And fitting for this main event attraction cheered by its fanatic following, this new release is entitled “Baby Wrestlemania,” with cover art in the style of Ghanian pulp cinema.
We get right into it with “Artie Lange,” the first track and a recollection of the comedian’s suicide attempt.
and I know I’m worse for wear
messed my mind up beyond repair
so I stabbed myself in the stomach
There is an intertextuality between songs that is reminiscent of another Albini recorded artist, the late Jason Molina with both his band Songs: Ohia and its album “Magnolia Electric Company,” and the follow up when the band changed its name to Magnolia Electric Company and released “What Comes After the Blues.” Phrases are carried on from song to song, in the title or otherwise, such as a variation on an “Artie Lange” lyric showing up as the second track’s title, “Messed Up Mind.”
Like Molina, whose words were about the demons that he ultimately succumbed to, Teardrop sings about his struggles, surviving poverty and how hard most of us have it under capitalism and an increasingly emotionally detached society - “I’m Alone and Life Is Tough” finds the song’s protagonist without his true love and “covered in dirt and dust… holes in my shoes and shit in my lungs.” But despite the despair, Teardrop seems to find redemption or at least pride at weathering the storm. Where Molina had John Henry, Manhattan Murder Mystery has Jim Cornette at its folk hero, “Greensboro” chronicling the night the legendary wrestling manager fell off the scaffold at Starrcade ‘86.
I got a 20 foot drop
between me and you
And if I ever get out of Greensboro alive
I’m gonna dust myself off, do what a man’s gotta do
The band’s earlier work was often called “literary” - I think even as the cultural references have shifted from James Joyce to Road Warrior Animal (see their video for “Dumb,” which gives a history of the world from Genesis/The Big Bang to “Charlie bit my finger!” to Skynet decimating humanity), what counts is the poignancy of relating it all to one’s personal life (to be fair, I’m an easy mark for this - the band’s video for “Too Tough To Survive” came out after I had moved away from L.A., and the sight of scene queen Karen Centerfold with a tambourine brought me to nostalgic tears).
Other songs’ geography includes Imperial County and East Hollywood, and then we arrive at “Bodybag,” the first single (with an accompanying bloody music video with messianic tendencies) which prompted me to text these lyrics to my family:
forever in a body bag
then he came back
and I’m stuck here in this sack
“Matthew Teardrop is the Bob Dylan of my generation,” I also texted them. (I know he hates this comparison, or at least, isn’t historically a Dylan fan.)
The penultimate track “Me and Brittany” is a haunting story of the narrator remembering a dead friend, driving her to pick up her boyfriend as he’s released from prison, and watching her family cry at her funeral. It’s in this song he mentions having a baby and naming it Wrestlemania.
But it’s the last track that shares the album title, and is ostensibly Teardrop sharing advice with his daughter so she has a happier life than he did before she came into it. (I’m not telling tales out of school, this was covered in a recent interview.) The song even kicks in sounding like Hulk Hogan is about to walk out to beat The Iron Sheik for the WWF title, followed by a more upbeat melody and good life suggestions we could all heed.
try to find someone you could love
when it comes down to push and to shove
you might need someone to kiss and to hug
you might need someone to hold your hand
don’t get stuck with someone you can’t stand
It’s been a long, sad, bloody road, but if this is Manhattan Murder Mystery’s drive into the sunset before Judgement Day, the Polaroid we are left with is as beautiful as an expectant Linda Hamilton. But I still believe in this band as our future.
Manhattan Murder Mystery can be found on their website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and their Bandcamp where all their recordings are available.
h. is the Meow Meow Pow Pow blog editor, a writer, a wrestling fan, a recovering ex-musician, and a dad. Whatever it is he does now can be found at HubUnofficial.com.
Follow Jesse Bradley on Instagram at questionabledecisioncomics.
Here is week 19 of Sam's reading journey, the metrics and first week can be found here
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (Editor), Ted Nasmith (Illustrator)
Jesse Bradley still isn’t used to the heat in Florida but wants to turn the heat on the Republicans this November. Follow him on Instagram at questionabledecisioncomics.
Road Salt, digital photography, as photographed in Belmont, MA
I have always photographed things that catch my eye, especially the more mundane or overlooked those things might be. I am particularly drawn to views of nature, sky & ground, and abstracted details of objects found in urban settings. This photograph was taken in winter waiting on a commuter train at the Belmont, MA station to get back into Boston. I was struck by how beautiful the road salt became as it pooled and veined into crusty canals resembling marbled granite.
Here is week 18 of Sam's reading journey, the metrics and first week can be found here
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Rachael Crosbie’s new chapbook, Peanut [the cat] auditions as Courage […from Courage the Cowardly Dog], embraces the classic, Nickelodeon speculative horror cartoon as a template to unpack the lived terrors and traumas of a harmful, romantic relationship. Crosbie’s beloved animalfriend is cast as Courage, bearing witness to the experiences her owner endures and doing her best to offer care and empathy in the aftermath. Whereas Courage’s owners are rarely fully aware of the danger they are in on the show, Crosbie closely examines, deconstructs, and embodies the physical and psychological tolls from their relationship with Him to answer, as they write, what haunts you the most?
Through their deft use of imagery, texture and sensory engagement in their writing, Crosbie makes their reader feel where anxiety and terror live in the body after the trauma of Him. In their poem [episode 5, The Computer], they write, you only exist for play and pleasure and all your pleas for help look like minor tremors, the kind you’d get from being out in the sun too long. In another poem, they write, you can always be His if He breaks and buries you enough. Each poem is vibrant with physical reflex, with reaction to both memory and remembering, from cold mattresses and taste-erasing whiskey to Peanut’s soft fur acting as brief moments of comfort through the healing process. Peanut thinks you’re dead and sniffs you, curling up on your chest and purring warmth in you. Throughout the collection, Peanut stands vanguard, as Courage would, concerned for the wellbeing and happiness of her human, a stand-in for His’ failings as a romantic partner.
Crosbie employs innovating templates for several of their poems’ form and syntax, many based on a series of classic games, such as Bingo, Operation, and the Ms. Paint computer program. The juxtaposition between the intended joy of these childhood play things and the painful reflections positioned within their structures simultaneously grabs the reader’s attention and highlights their emotional impact. In their brilliantly crafted poem, [lost episode of a maze], Crosbie turns a multicursal maze into a kind of twisting contrapuntal, a choose-your-own-path of language that reads through to a completed line, no matter which direction you follow. Their poems also observe a playful use of thematically appropriate portmanteaus, such as crunchyscream and deadhearted.
Crosbie’s collection is a still-tender unpacking of the bad days and the bad days that followed for anyone who’s been put through the ringer of a bad relationship and was lucky enough to have a loving quadruped to see them through to the other side.
Jesse Bradley wishes he can’t feel his face. Follow him on Instagram at questionabledecisioncomics.
Here is week 17 of Sam's reading journey, the metrics and first week can be found here
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jashar Awan (Illustrator)
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