CategoryNostalgia

The past is a foreign country: I miss my friends who live there

In April my friend Russ Gilman-Hunt died. He was one of the first four people who worked at my job with me. He was funny, kind and clever. He was not very much older than me, but he had a deadpan world-weary affect and a quiet warmth that made him seem like everyone’s dad. I wish I had known him better, but most of his life was outside work, with his wife and two children and his community in the SCA. I wish they still had him.

In May I lost the job where I had worked with Russ, as did a number of my colleagues. I have a lot of support from people who care for me, and I am lucky in my socioeconomic class; that has allowed me to inform myself that this is an opportunity, more than a setback. (I have done so often and stridently.) I will probably have a new job soon. I like working, if not always working terribly hard. I hope I can make that work amount to something good.

It sometimes feels like the only things I write here are podcast show notes and epitaphs. I haven’t allowed myself much time to work on podcasts in the last month; hunting for what I perceive as a replacement means of survival has meant little available concentration for creative work. So this goes in the epitaph category. Sure wish there were fewer of those.

I didn’t always love my old job but I always liked it, and I took comfort in the idea that I was cultivating a good place to bring in new people and help them excel. I wanted to contribute patches to the leaky pipeline. I think Russ did too. I don’t know how much of that we managed. Some of the people I patched in got laid off with me. I’d say we did what good we could while seeing to our own survival, but. Well.

A job that you treat like just a job is, eventually, just a job. I want the work of my life to be more than that. Maybe in seven more years—if, God forbid, this WordPress install is still operating—I’ll tell you how that’s going.

In February I got an email from my old laptop, and then another, both suggesting that it was in Germany. I had not seen that laptop since it left the back of my car through a shattered window in 2010. The home page of its default browser, at the time, happened to be one I controlled and that was not linked anywhere else, so I told that page to blare alarms and notify me when and whence it was requested. It took seven years for that to (probably?) happen. I wonder if someone actually has that laptop, in more or less the same crumbling shape it was when it vanished. I wonder how well they read English, and what they can find out about me if they dig around on it. Surely nothing worse than the things I’ve written here myself.

I guess what I am doing here is reflecting, which is to say, looking for myself in a flawed surface. I started writing online in part because I wanted attention and in part because I already knew that my built-in memory could not be trusted to retain my life. My pipe is too leaky. All pipes are too leaky. Among my driving fears is the idea that anything I lose is lost forever, and that history unminded is a black hole, a /dev/null, a point of no return.

But to really believe that is to assert that I know the future, which is presumptive: the future and I have never met. Sometimes a setback is an opportunity. Sometimes the past writes you an email. Sometimes a kid whose dad dies grows up a whole person anyway. Even black holes leak back.

Dual Reflections on Cruel Intentions

It’s time once again for Reel 90s Kids, the podcast you have forgotten that we did one time! We have now done it again. Here is the audio click button thing that tells you the wrong file duration, and below it are the show notes.

0:00 – Thanks to Oliver Schories for this episode’s intro song, which I think has a 40% chance of deeply irritating my cohost.

5:23 – I could put links to the Wikipedia articles for Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Dangerous Liaisons here, but you can type names into Wikipedia as well as I can.

8:37 – A 1954 Jaguar Roadster.

10:48 – Sorry, Mr. Lester.

12:41 – Shooter the 2007 movie; Shooter the 2016 TV series. Since we recorded this episode, USA has apparently decided we’ve had a long enough gap between mass shootings to actually premiere and air it! Yaaaay

17:03 – Judge for yourself.

19:03 – I cannot put anything about the confluence of Bittersweet Symphony and Shakespeare in Love in the show notes, because my brain completely manufactured it. Why did I think this was a thing?! If you have a clue, please call our toll-free line.

20:13 – Audio taken from this Fusion interview.

22:48 – Movie studios were forced to stop running their own theaters by United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc, in 1948.

24:36 –

28:44 – The eclectic production history of Cruel Intentions 2, a “2000 American comedy-drama prequel.”

31:13 – I neglected to congratulate her, but Anne batted a thousand on these!

35:55 – The Deadline story in question. Alas, Cruel Intentions was not picked up to series after all.

37:35 – See you back here for the Drive Me Crazy episode in June 2019!

38:11 – And thanks to Jade Berlin and her terrifying accompanist for our outro music:

A Timely Varsity Blues Podcast

Kids dressed up like the characters from Varsity Blues. It's cute

Apparently the thing I do here now is, once a year, post a podcast I made with friends about a movie that already came out. This time I made one with my friend Anne! It’s about the non-classic 90s Teen Film Varsity Blues, for no clear reason that either of us could recall. Despite our claims at the beginning, we DID think of a belated title for it: Reel 90s Kids.

Because we remember.

I’m not going to link to the site we discuss for the latter half of the podcast because I don’t want to make anyone’s life sadder, including yours. I have faith in your ability to find it if you want to. Please don’t. Special thanks to small genius Aidan James for our outro music!

Sense Memory

In the spring of last year I was very ill. It got bad enough for long enough that I actually made and went to a doctor’s appointment, which found nothing wrong in any actionable way. Keep resting, drink fluids. As I lay wrung out on my couch, too sapped even to watch television, I stared at the tall ceiling above me and listened to the whining in my ears surge and fade, amplified by fever. For the first time, and at last, it occurred to me: I have had tinnitus my entire conscious life.

The next time I went to my doctor I asked about it, and she nodded. “Did you have a lot of ear infections as a kid?” she asked. I had. One of my earliest memories is of resting my head on the kitchen counter and feeling hot fluid drip out of my ear as my parents discussed what to do in low, worried tones. I ended up having surgery to implant temporary tubes in my eardrums. The infections stopped, but the damage lingered.

Tinnitus is usually called a “ringing” in one’s ears, but that makes me think of a bell or a telephone, which is why I never thought it described me. (Are you one of the people who can hear a persistent, faint eeeee when a CRT monitor or television turns on on? It’s like that, all the time.) The diagnosis explains a lot, actually—my preference for bass-heavy music, the way white noise helps me sleep, the staticky rush and roar I sometimes get in noisy crowds. My hearing is pretty good, considering, but the sound will be with me for the rest of my life, long after age takes that hearing from me. I’m listening to it right now, writing this. I will be as you read it. I will probably never experience silence. Yet I spent decades unaware, unable to distinguish this aspect of my life from that of everyone around me.

I am ashamed of much of what I’ve written here.

The consequence of publishing the things you think when you are twenty is that, later, people can read the things you thought when you were twenty. Most of these things were stupid. Some are toxic. Some are harmful. All were willfully deaf and blind to my own privilege. Several dear friends have turned up here in the last few years and started reading from the beginning, only to be embarrassed or repulsed by what they found. Despite the unbearable kindness of Sumana’s retrospective about this blog, I flinch to think of what it says about me.

All of this is a strong argument for the most obvious action, which is to delete nfd, or at least lock it: for the right to forget my previous self. I think I’m a better self than I used to be, and better at being human. But part of being better is honesty about everyone I’ve been. Ten years on, I still believe in transparency. To wipe this all away would be to brush out the trail marks I’ve left behind me, the stumbling footprint path from ignorance to… well, partial awareness of ignorance.

So I am letting the record stand. Maybe someone will read it and pick up a few of the things that cost me so much time and so much of others’ patience. Maybe you will read it, and grant me your own patience; or maybe you won’t. I wouldn’t blame you. I am flawed in every sense, but I will keep trying to learn to listen.

“I won’t find out all the ingredients till I’m dead.”

My friend Sumana is pretty spry for a retired newspaper columnist. For years she was MC Masala, syndicated in several papers all over the SF Bay, even after she had left it for the other side of the country. I loved the column and read every installment, and I was delighted to see that she recently resurrected its archives on her personal site, nearly a decade after she began that phase of her career. (As befits her growing skillset and shifting direction, she wrote the CMS for it herself!)

From the beginning, the column showed off her skill (and taste) in comedy, cosmopolitan interest in religion, and clever use of parables from both ancient texts and her own life. I still use this aphorism about books and sandwiches to remind myself how to engage with people at social gatherings. I stole quite a few ideas for tiny stories from her, sometimes immediately, sometimes much later; she delivered insights about the nature of attachment that would influence me for years to come.

Over its run, she let her readers in on landmarks in her life in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way: her move from San Francisco to New York, the concurrent shift from one career to another, her wedding—and even personal connections to events on a larger scale, like the end of glasnost.

She was way ahead of the curve, of course, on relaxing vice laws and marriage equality. She showed up early to the fight against manspreading (and manxiety). She preceded me in getting over Aaron Sorkin, and I took way, way too long to come around to her Brian K. Vaughn fandom. And she made some predictions about herself that were wrong in amazing ways: she does, in fact, now give many thousands of dollars to charity, and one branch of her current unpaid public service uses skills she is still developing, and increasing all the time.

Reading back through these, I felt smug and flattered all over again that I got to make a subtle appearance here and there.

Her final column makes me well up with feeling. I first started following Sumana’s blog sometime in 2001, so right now it falls around the halfway mark in the timeline of our friendship. It’s only gained more meaning to me since the first time I read it—I’d never even listened to the Mountain Goats back then!* To this day, she posts regular entries stuffed with insights and links to explore, whereas I didn’t write a damn thing here for all of 2014. I am so fortunate that I was able to make a connection with her back then, and to have followed her with aspiration ever since.

It’s been almost nine years, Sumana; where are you from now?

I shouted, “Congratulations!” She responded, fist raised, “Perseverance!”

Peer to Peer

I worked for the Centre College IT department during my senior year. It was 2002. BitTorrent hadn’t reached critical mass yet, and the filescape was fragmented: finding music or software cracks meant risking your boot sector on Kazaa or Limewire or eMule, and I spent weeks cleaning malware off the computers of those who tried. Even so, I knew I had it easy. Just a couple years beforehand, IT had been dealing with Napster.

I had been part of the problem myself, then. Music is so ubiquitous now, from so many services, that it’s hard to remember when it only came in physical form. I only brought a couple dozen CDs with me to college; they, and what my friends would loan me, were all the music I could listen to. Then I downloaded this piece of software, and—while the network creaked and shuddered—my Dell became a boundless playground.

There was so much weird stuff out there, and so many obscene delights: old TV themes, rap skits, Prince B-sides, that wildly misattributed cover of “Gin and Juice.” Oh, also every song I’d ever wanted. Before the advent of decent portable MP3 players, we burned teetering stacks of sharpied CDs, or stuffed them into fat binders; we blew out car stereos and hijacked theater sound boards. Most people go through some kind of music epiphany in college, but I’ll never be able to separate my own from the opening floodgates of P2P distribution. It couldn’t last.

The courts didn’t really kill Napster: money did. I’m afraid for Twitter.

Twitter has to start making money. They’ve decided to make money via advertising. Faruk Ateş can explain why that’s a bad idea, both in selling one’s users and in stifling innovation. I wish I could just pay Twitter to let me keep posting from my third-party client and stop serving ads.

Yet I regret intensely paying to join app.net. Everything I love about Twitter comes from the fact that it’s free, anonymous, open and inclusive: my broke friends won’t be on app.net, nor will the horse books or identity thieves or psychotropic stumble-spelling genius joke poets. But will they be on Twitter? Or will Twitter fuck this up and commit suicide by cash?

It’s mindlessly easy to get music now: free if you want it, fast if you pay. But there’s no playground. The weird is dead. I have no doubt that we will retain the ability to type out 140-character sentences in any number of places for some time to come, and I know that the (vast, vast) bulk of those sentences are throwaways. But some of them are the best sentences we have yet made in English, and they can only exist in the atmosphere of Twitter, the alacrity and transience and irony and fierce, fleeting joy.

Right now, I can carry 281 people I love in my pocket, and pull them up whenever I need to learn something new. Twitter is how I talk to the world. I know this isn’t entirely healthy, but intoxication rarely is. For the second time in my life, I’m high on sharing, and I don’t want it to end.

The lower-case I is symbolic

There was a time when I liked romantic comedy films. Yes, it’s true! Despite my status as a burly exemplar of stoic masculinity, I once enjoyed the mixture of clever dialogue and bittersweet tension one might see employed by an early-period Bullock, Roberts or Ryan. Then, in the late nineties, my testicles descended, and also romantic comedy went right down the shitter. In a mere five years, we went from While You were Sleeping and The Truth About Cats and Dogs to Legally Blonde and Kate and Leopold. Kate and Leopold, Liz Lemon.

Things have not improved since. The men are shrill, the women are boorish, the scripts are assembled from plot coupons and the banter is a nonsense collection of zero-liners. I saw The Proposal on an airplane a year and a half ago and I’m still angry about it. I’m not going to compare it to genocide except to say that it was worse than genocide, and dumber.

But hey! Around the same time that came out, a lady named Jac Schaeffer triple-threatened an indie movie called (unfortunately) TiMER. It has the one girl from Buffy in it, it got a tiny distribution deal, nobody saw it and it holds a 58% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s also the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in over a decade. Kara found it streaming on Netflix, and I offer the following three reasons to watch it if you like this kind of thing:

  • It passes Bechdel
  • If stuck in an elevator with the characters, I would not murder all of them inside five minutes
  • It posits a semi-science-fictional plot mechanic and actually explores some of its ramifications

I realize those bars are low enough to skate over, but I am not trying to damn with faint praise: it’s a fun movie and I was still thinking about it two days later. Its premise is that you can get a timer implanted in your arm. If your One True Love also has a timer, the two will automagically calculate the day you meet and start counting down to it. This is a big honking metaphor for a dominant cultural narrative applied to women, but the movie has the grace to hang a lampshade on that and then pull the Asimov trick and wonder how this can go wrong: one character has a blank timer and is on a crusade to get other people implanted, one has twenty years of waiting to look forward to, one has a timer go off way too soon, one gets a fake timer on the Internet, one has it painfully removed. And the ending isn’t as easy as you’re thinking!

Basically, this is a movie with smart jokes and kissing and it does a better job of exploring the conflict between free will and predestination than the Wachowskis did. My only improvement would be to put more than one nonwhite character in it, and also feed everyone involved a damn sandwich. (And not have the main character be named Oona. Hey, maybe Jac Schaeffer is a Wachowski.) Doubly recommended if you’re one of the nerds who liked Machine of Death.

SO THERE

I love Nathan Rabin. I’m just going to quote this whole thing, from his ongoing retrospective on the endless NOW THAT’S WHAT I CALL MUSIC series of chart-topper compilations:

Like The New Radicals, Semisonic will forever be tarnished with the one-hit-wonder tag. That’s a shame, because it was a fantastic power-pop group, a trio of eggheads with a gift for monster hooks, passionate vocals, and sincerity that never lapsed into sentimentality. Their 1996 album debut Great Divide is a minor power-pop masterpiece, but the trio’s follow-up birthed “Closing Time,” the group’s unlikely contribution to the NOW pantheon.

At a time when much of what passed for alternative music was steeped in rage, angst, and sneering irony, Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson was refreshingly willing to be romantic and sincere. He wrote great love songs like “Secret Smile” and “Singing In My Sleep,” and songs that weren’t what they appeared to be, like “Closing Time.”

On the surface, the song finds the romance in barflies scrambling for a closing-time hookup, but according to So You Wanna Be A Rock & Roll Star, the likeable memoir of Semisonic drummer Jacob Slichter, it was written about the birth of Wilson’s first child. The song’s key line is purloined from the Roman philosopher Seneca, who originally wrote, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” It’s a line with multiple meanings; there’s the end of life in the womb and the beginning of life outside, but also a father and mother forsaking the pleasures of youth for the responsibilities of parenthood.

Dear everyone who has mocked my Semisonic completism: YEAH, FUCKERS.

In which scrolling through Google Reader gives me a mild heart attack

Rian Johnson is posting like twenty pictures a day to the just-created Brick tumblr, for some reason. Happily, today he included this DVD-cover fan art that I did back in 2005. I always meant to clean that up and redo it; I had a couple other ideas for doing similar treatments of different scenes, but I don’t remember what they were now.

I’ve been thinking about Brick a lot the last couple of days, actually, because it’s occurred to me that I have pretty simple tastes in terms of plot. Give me any of the following and I will squeal with delight (double points for setting it in high school):

  • Emotionally crippled badass tries to get to the bottom of things (Brick, Neuromancer, Veronica Mars)
  • Young woman comes into her own and learns how dangerous she can be (Howl’s Moving Castle, The Privilege of the Sword, Bone, everything by Robin McKinley)
  • Tenuous network of friends and lovers collapses under the simple pressure of human desire (Lovebot Conquers All, Battlestar Galactica, Magic for Beginners)

And, of course, the latter is why I love Scott Pilgrim. Take away the video-game trappings and the fight scenes and the hipster music references and the fourth-wall humor and… okay, don’t take any of those, they’re great. But the real reason I have such an aching priapism for those comics (which I didn’t pick up until 2008! GAH) is the way O’Malley spends so much care and attention setting up what we in the Indie RPG Club call a relationship map. He gets you to like everybody in it, gives them each their own petty little wants, and then lets them tear each other apart.

Not that I would know anything about what that’s like.

White pepper is awesome. Also, this is sort of about faith

I’ve reached the point, in my autoeducation as a cook, where I no longer really measure spices or indeed many liquids. This is great for saving time and for not having to rinse a measuring cup every time I need a quarter-unit of something. It is less great when something I make turns out well and I want to write down the recipe for the future. “A bunch of white pepper,” I find myself writing. “Like, as much as a good cook would put in but then also some more.”

If I could always trust myself to make the same judgments based on words like that I wouldn’t have any problems, but I have no faith in Locke and therefore I am not even sure I’m the same person who started this post, much less the one who cooked a pretty good spaghetti nonbolognese earlier tonight. Also it is probably going to be unhelpful in my inevitable cooking blog.

The (thoroughly hidden) point I wanted to record here is that I’m kind of a good cook now? I’m still working in a very small range, but I keep trying new things and they keep turning out pretty okay. I think cooking is, like kissing and biking, essentially a matter of confidence. The food will believe you’re in charge if you act like it.

I learned to cook spaghetti in ten-gallon vats, almost exactly ten years ago, when Jeremy Sissle got me a job at Fazoli’s. He was also the one who trained me on pasta-cooking rotation. We got to the end, and he hauled out the hose, sponges and soap. “Turn on the hot water,” he said, “and fill the bucket, add about this much soap, and… I mean, you know how to clean stuff.”

I still recite that sentence to myself in scary and uncertain places. It sounds stupid, but I did know how to clean stuff, and remembering that snapped me out of the standard lost-and-seasick feeling that everybody gets from new jobs. (At least, I assume everybody else gets it too.)

The other half of my cook-with-confidence mantra was posted by Kevan, years ago, in a comment on Leonard’s site: “I’ve only recently stopped… expecting food to be an inedible, inert, black lump of Syntax Error if I get something slightly wrong.” It’s so true, and such a perfect encapsulation of the way programmers approach other disciplines: raised by severe machines and math problems with one answer, we expect frustration as a punishment for the smallest mistakes (and indeed, with computers, that often remains the case). But once you realize that the notion of discrete measurement is a consensual hallucination, you find the world a more interesting place. Screw Locke. I’m glad I’m not the same person I used to be.

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