CategoryConnections

Insistence, Reverence

It’s possible there are people reading this blog from time to time who don’t really know me in person, so perhaps it will be nice to clarify something. The Kat person who comes up often in my writing these days, or sometimes without writing at all, the reason I moved back across the country, the light of my days, is the very same Kate who first popped up here a month shy of eight years ago. Did I have any idea back then that one day we’d be getting married and spending the rest of our lives together, you may ask rhetorically? And to that I can only say: yes, I did have that idea, in 2012. It was only an idea, but I had it, and then bit by bit and turn by turn the two of us made it steadily more real until it all came true.

If you are reading this, whether I know you or not, I’m glad that you are persisting. I hope, too, that you have the chance to persevere.

Notes from the New Normish

Hi, we’re alive and fine. My privilege is as evident as ever, as my daily routine of isolation with Kat resembles what Maria called “an extended snow day,” mostly but not entirely without snow. I hurt for the sick and grieving; I worry for the essential and vulnerable; I watch Bon Appetit and experiment with vegan baking; I do my internet job and I watch out my window and wait. Here are some things that have held my interest in the last little while.

  1. As mentioned in asides, I read too much about menswear online and off these days. My favorite habit is to bargain-hunt for clothes from Japan on eBay, prance around the living room in them to aggravate Kat, and then secret them away so I can buy more. But the emergent result is that I’ve learned a lot about things I might have disdained ten years ago. I don’t have any special interest in James Bond, for instance, but Matt Spaiser’s blog about the tailoring of the films has taught me a ton about men’s fashion in the last sixty years. His post on how Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) went on to influence Bond’s costuming is a great example of the dry clarity of his writing.
  2. It seems like I’ve never written about Porpentine Charity Heartscape here before, which is strange, as her work has loomed large in my view and admiration for… seven years? Eight? Her work in writing and game design blends the sweet, the filthy, the transgender and transhuman, the pure and the skin-crawlingly cute in a way I find singular in every sense. If that sentence doesn’t hint at some content warnings, then I hope this one does. But that boundary is very much worth braving if you are so emotionally equipped. Her recent story “Dirty Wi-Fi” on Strange Horizons is a good introduction to her prose and perspective.
  3. Despite my limited dabbling in microelectronics, I can’t follow many of the technical specifics in this review of process and call for aid on a final, perfect Super Nintendo emulator. But the SNES was a system that still informs my design and aesthetic sensibilities, twenty-seven years later, and I respect the author’s work very much. The most striking quote to me:

    “I can tell you why this is important to me: it’s my life’s work, and I don’t want to have to say I came this close to finishing without getting the last piece of it right. I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever. I want this final piece solved.”

    What an extraordinary thing it seems, to me, to know what your life’s work is. I hope one day I do.

September Cinema Soundoff

  • Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019): Watched with Kat under certain influences, which was not a bad way to do it. I do not recommend this movie if matters like “the scale and logic of these events and creatures makes no sense” will bother you, but it has fun with itself, and in all honesty, I thought it executed on its premise with some similar notes but better than A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
  • Duck Butter (2018): Also watched with Kat, who avowed that it was a decent depiction of lesbian dating on fast forward. It’s a very sexy (and also frank-to-the-point-of-unsexy) movie, and I enjoyed it! I got a little tired of the handheld camera and lens flare, a very pretty aesthetic that I prefer in measured doses. It’s always a treat to see Alia Shawkat and Mae Whitman hanging out, though. In what was either a goof or a very goofy in-joke, Kumail Nanjiani has a tiny role as an actor listed in the credits as “Jake” who… I think in the movie… then played a character named Kumail?
  • Magic Mike XXL (2015): Rewatch, and in a proper ecstatic group setting, for this is holy writ.
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938): Another movie I cannot recommend if “the logic of these creatures and events” etc etc, and I found it hard to buy any real chemistry between noted iconic beautiful bisexual people Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Also there’s a scene between an actual terrier and an actual leopard that I cannot imagine the forerunners of the ASPCA were happy about. Not my favorite screwball or my favorite Grant, though I did enjoy how much he looked like a 21st-century avant-garde fashion icon in the scene where he’s running around in jodhpurs and tails.
  • Mikey and Nicky (1976): Now, see, THERE is the darkness I could feel trying to creep in the seams of A New Leaf (1971). I can’t say I enjoyed watching a number of these scenes—the sexual coercion, physical abuse and race-baiting by the title characters is a hell of a choice to make—but then, this is a movie whose tagline was “don’t expect to like ’em.” Indeed I did not, tagline! But I did like seeing that May’s technical directing had advanced to a striking degree in the years between her first film and her third. The mini-doc on its creation on the Criterion disc stressed again and again that despite the fluid, improvised feeling of the rapport between John Cassavetes and Peter Falk (and May’s own background in improv), every line between them was in May’s script, and even their spontaneous interactions were under her direction. That is impressive, and almost as impressive is the story about how May got fired from her own movie but (saith Wikipedia) “succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in.” I have no desire to watch this movie again, but if I had to choose between it and the following entry, I’d take this one.
  • Being There (1979): Man, this movie. It’s beautifully photographed and well acted and it’s not for me. I posted on Peach (yes, Peach) after I watched it that it seemed like the most old-school Republican movie I had ever seen, and got immediately questioned on that by my movie-watching friends. I will concede that director Hal Ashby and star Peter Sellers were by no means conservative voters. I didn’t miss the satire of the political and media classes woven through it, which I am certain would later influence Armando Iannucci: the shallow characters’ hunger for a novel face and twistable platitudes, and their projection of political guile or sexual prowess onto the blank canvas of a simple man.

    But the shape of the actual narrative is at odds with that intent. The protagonist—well, the focus character, this movie has no protagonist—is simultaneously a naif and a cypher who spends exactly one day outside the lap of megawealth in his life. But he’s not an antihero, and the camera loves him. A lot of the plot is taken up with mourning the passing of Melvyn Douglas’s titan of industry, and the mourning is impossible for me not to read as genuine! I think that in 1979, before Reagan, this movie would have carried a lot of nostalgia for an era of bipartisan harmony between rich white men. I placed it next to the preceding movie because I think “don’t expect to like ’em” applies again for me here. The suits Sellers wears here have aged beautifully, but that central takeaway has not.

  • Enter the Dragon (1973): Rewatch, as the conclusion to the Portland Intermittent Hong Kong Kung Fu Movie Club. When I last watched it in 2012, I was struck by how directly some of my old favorite nineties movies had lifted its scenes or sequences; this time I was struck by what a joy seems present behind the frame, despite the grim attitude of its story and its central character. In this case, neither all of the movie’s scenes nor all of its suits have aged well, but the sense that they knew they were making something special here persists.
  • Burning (2018): This is an adaptation of a Murakami short story, and I’m not particularly a Murakami fan; it is also a thriller that takes a solid eighty minutes—the length of some entire feature films—before the plot gets going. The full movie is 148 minutes long! But I was interested enough in the costuming and set dressing, which are meticulous and subtle, to stick with it and enjoy it. The core cast is fantastic, particularly Steven Yeun, and I was very glad that the frequently absent score kept from hammering home any of its ambiguous points.

    For another take on Murakami that I really enjoyed, which does use music but lets you interpret the visuals, I recommend LeVar Burton reading “The Second Bakery Attack.”

  • A Room with a View (1985): I’m pretty sure this is the first Merchant Ivory production I’ve watched, and I only sort of liked it. I have seen few movies about such a trivial and silly cast of characters, which is maybe part of the point, but I appreciated Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis bringing some deft and unspoken dimension to their stock types. I was going to say “understated” there but then I backspaced over it because, you know, Daniel Day-Lewis. This movie has great costumes and some of the shots are just gorgeously composed, especially in the first act! But as far as rich people having flings in Italy go, I prefer The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). I don’t know why I’m imagining being forced to choose between movies so many times in this roundup. Maybe because I’m writing this during my last week of opportunity to get things from Movie Madness?
  • North by Northwest (1959): I don’t know if you’ve heard of this movie, but it’s pretty good. I didn’t enjoy Mad Men very much, but I think if I’d been familiar with Cary Grant’s character here, I might have felt a little more fondness for it. The thrill of a grasped reference goes both ways, too: when Hitchcock lingered on a long shot of Grant blinking down an empty stretch of road, I got to hammer my thigh and go “plane! plane! plane!” with great glee.

Speaking of a long journey that involves both Mount Rushmore and Chicago, this is the last roundup I will begin drafting in Portland! I am on track to get pretty few movies on the list in October, but I am hoping to follow this with at least one entry like those from my original road trip out west eleven and a half absurd years ago.

General Clap

Hey, I finally discovered that back in May I placed in the 2018 Lyttle Lytton contest! Specifically I placed with an entry in the Found division—just scroll down to where my name is spelled wrong. I am proud even though it’s not like I wrote anything for it. But the reason the biggest category on this old blog is called “connections” is that I still delight in plugging one thing (a bad sentence I read) into another thing (a web site I love).

And there are a lot of connections that really worked for me in this year’s list! It’s good company to be in. Not only did another Found winner pull an egregious bit from my most hated episode of one of my all-time favorite shows, but there’s an entry under the Perennials that recalls my first entry. There are bullet journal and Engagement Chicken jokes too (hi Kat). But the thing that really rang my bell was seeing a semi-vanished webcomic writer—someone I still admire—pop in with a brilliant entry, and Adam Cadre give her a wink and a nod. I don’t chase the Internet as hard as I used to, but I’m glad the cool-kid serendipity of a decade ago isn’t all gone.

“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!”

By now all this is past the point of relevance

But it needs to get written down anyway. On Saturday morning, September 7th, I woke up feeling grumpy about the way nerds had treated my friend Elizabeth and made the following series of ill-advised tweets.

If you see the numbers under those widgets you can see that they became the most far-reaching things I have ever written. I did not plan for that. They were tossed off, poorly thought out, and not particularly intended to stand in the record. This took a while to dawn on me, and when it did, I considered deleting them. I chose not to mostly because it wouldn’t undo anything, and because I should be held to account for my words.

I failed as an ally and a writer in several ways by writing what I did. The most significant and glaring is that I didn’t ask Elizabeth before posting them. That’s enormous. She and I had talked privately about the abuse she was getting, so it was on my mind, and I am so used to violent misogyny being directed at women who point out flaws in popular culture that I failed to consider her public stance about it. But even if she had discussed the hate more openly, I still should have asked. At the very least I should have reconsidered using her twitter handle, which made it even easier for a new wave of garbage to find her.

Also, as several people have pointed out, those three tweets are not exactly an iron syllogism. Elizabeth wrote a strongly worded post taking a strong stance against PAX; all I did was briefly express disappointment. I still think someone with a feminine name and icon would have received more abuse than I did for that tweet, but I certainly am not doing the kind of work Elizabeth does, and should not have tried to accord myself her stature.

There are other things about my phrasing with which one might well take issue, but those two are the most basic and important: I didn’t show my friend the respect she deserves. I can’t undo that, but the least I can do is point out for other people who want to be allies where I went wrong. I hope this helps someone else avoid a similar mistake in the future, especially if that someone is me.

As for the original matter of the controversy, I’ve been wrestling with it, but the simplest way to put it is that I take a version of Elizabeth’s view. I’m not going to PAX in 2014, I’m definitely not volunteering there, and I won’t be back unless and until they demonstrate change from the top down. It won’t be enough for PAX to come up to the standard of games conventions; from here on they’ll have to be twice as good as everyone else to make me consider attending.

I have dear friends in and around the Penny Arcade organization, many of whom work tirelessly to create safe space, and I’m not going to spurn you or your work for being involved with PAX. But I will say that attending any conference without a clear, detailed, rigorously enforced harassment policy is a bad idea. PAX rose to that standard in 2012, but when internal pressure from the volunteer corps relented this year, they failed again. That alone is a valid reason to stay away.

Some people can’t do that. PAX is a big part of how money works in games, and if the choice is between taking a stance and making your rent this year, I don’t have the moral authority to stand in judgment. I hope you’ve got other avenues for promotion too, though. I won’t see you there.

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 time, the distance and the price

This post contains spoilers for Constellation Games up through chapter 30, but it’s not really a Constellation Games post; it’s about Starslip, and contains spoilers for its ending.

I’ve connected the work of Kris Straub and Leonard Richardson before, and not just because they both wrote serialized stories that trade heavily on the importance of artwork in space, calling things into being with poetry, and a pure-thought immortal hivemind end-stage of all life protected by a group of mortals. I could do that thing where I try to assert that they both take place in the same fictional universe, but I’m not going to, in part because the idea of hopping around between infinite possible universes is kind of the point of Starslip.

But I do think they have one thing in common, across all of those:

The One True Pairing phenomenon is real, but it’s a curse. Any two parties so affected are the Keymaster and Gatekeeper of a door that opens into stark, existential horror.”

“Wherever there is a Memnon Vanderbeam and a Princess Jovia, the former seeks the latter. And they never get together. It just. Doesn’t. Happen.

The last Starslip is bittersweet, and a lovely conclusion to a long story. The subtext of the whole conclusion arc, though, is incredibly dark. Out of all infinity, there is exactly one timeline in which Vanderbeam saves Jovia, and he has to make enormous sacrifices to do so, including his own life. The comics we saw in Starslip depict that timeline, but what happens to them in the uncountable others? Uh, this kind of thing.

That’s what I think Jenny and Ariel understand when they kiss. Ariel sees the horror, the mind-destroying vastness of possibility in which they will always be apart. Jenny sees the hilarious impossibility that maybe this is the right timeline, and Copernicus is wrong, and they are the center of the universe after all.

I think that at the beginning, Starslip’s daily punchlines masked the weight it carried in its core, but it carried it all the same. The impact of that weight landing, seven years on, was incredible. It deserves assessment, and I hope to be able to give it some as it restarts its run from the beginning as (!) a syndicated comic. Re-read Starshift Crisis.

Mom’s boyfriend is named Jerry

And he’s a museum curator, and his house (two authentic log cabins that he took apart and reconstructed with a new stone building between them) is filled with historical artifacts and ephemera. It is NOT exactly filled with light, because log cabins are not known for their vast expanses of window, but I tried to get a picture of one such artifact anyway.

The A-Bomb And You

It’s a framed flier full of survival tips for when you are struck by an atomic bomb, obviously from the 50s or 60s. These are unbelievably helpful tips; what’s really tragic is that they were kept secret.

Four Survival Secrets

Allow me to transcribe:

  1. Try to get shielded. Get down in a basement if there is one. Caught in the open, take shelter alongside a building or in a ditch or gutter.
  2. Drop flat on ground or floor. Flatten out at base of wall or bottom of bank.
  3. Bury your face in your arms. Hide eyes in crook of elbow. That will protect face from burns, flying objects, temporary blindness.
  4. Don’t rush outside right after a bombing. Wait a few minutes after an air burst, at least an hour if the bomb explodes on the ground, to let the radiation die down.

I can’t figure out which words to emphasize for amazingness. Is it the admonition about “temporary blindness?” The advice to people caught in the open under a nuclear weapon, which is to go flop in a ditch for convenient body-collection? The idea that you must wait at least an hour for radiation to die down?

Anyway, the best part is the name of the establishment that brought this important, life-saving information to you, dear reader.

Grimm Funeral Home

Hacking xoJane

Important Technology People have been calling RSS a dead technology for a couple years now, but I read more content via feed than ever—292 subscriptions in Google Reader, at the moment. But because my use case doesn’t get as much wheelgrease as it used to, a lot of sites will just throw one sitewide megafeed into their <head> tag and call it done, rather than allowing users to subscribe to substreams. They do this even when their site software supports subfeeds just fine!

Take a blogazine like xoJane. It’s produced by women, and the writing there is smart and honest and very funny. I was introduced to it when my twitter idol Julieanne Smolinski became a contributing editor. But while I knew I wanted to read all her columns, the only autosubscribable feed on her author page is the firehose of ALL xoJane content. That would overrun my Reader, and it would be a pain to sort out Ms. Smolinski’s posts, which are the guaranteed gold I’m after.

Fortunately, for certain values of “fortunately,” xoJane is built on Drupal, which some geek decided should let you subscribe to anything anywhere forever. To get a feed of a given author’s content there, you can construct a URL like this:

http://www.xojane.com/rss?author=Firstname%20Lastname&title=Firstname’s%20Posts

And then paste that into the “subscribe” box in whatever reader you use. For instance, here’s a Julieanne Smolinski feed, and here’s one for Kate C, whom I have recently discovered is also great.

Update 2012-08-07: WELP, xoJane broke their individual author feeds. The next-best solution, I suppose, is to follow Kate and Julieanne on their high-quality social media.

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