“The stars that night were glinting, and the bonfire on the shore waited like a beacon, but the brightest shimmer was running down my forearms, spiraling behind my palms.”
Last year, in cooperation with many of my friends on a private social network, I took an idea from neighborhood organizations here in Chicago and started a small online-only mutual aid fund. Over twelve months, we distributed more than seven thousand dollars from some friends to others, mostly in increments of $100 USD. I want to be clear that everyone involved in that system was of equal importance to its operation: people have to identify and articulate their need for help in order for donations to have a place to go, and both asking and donating take courage and labor. A number of the people involved made requests at one point and donations at another, which I think illustrates how important the fluidity of a mutual aid project can be. Here are the steps we took to get it running.
- In the fall of 2020 I started a new PayPal account, connecting it to a small, otherwise-unused free checking account I had signed up for when I arrived in Chicago so I could use local ATMs.
- The login email address was the incoming-mail address for a mailing list I created with Mailman. While having a mailing list was good, I wouldn’t actually recommend taking this particular step–it became a headache. Instead, it would have been better to get a free email account and set that account to automatically forward messages to everyone who wanted to help with admin.
- For a few months, we kept the idea of the fund quiet. I would put a little money in the PayPal account each time I got paid, and others on the admin team did the same. By January, we started reaching out in private to friends in our networks who had mentioned feeling squeezed financially, and made our first couple of disbursements. We chose $100 as our standard disbursement arbitrarily, but it’s worked out okay: it’s a round number, easy to remember, both significant enough to be helpful and relatively easy to raise.
- We set up the account’s paypal.me vanity URL with both “send” and “request” buttons, which made it easy for anyone who knew about the fund to interact with it, including people in countries outside the US.
- My friend Vanessa spent months working on a quilt and kindly offered it as a prize for donations. This was when we started telling more friends (still only by word of mouth) about the fund, and offered up to five raffle tickets per person at $5 each. Many friends gave more than $25 just because they were glad to offer it, and the days leading up to the raffle became the most significant week for donations all year. But it also spread word that the fund existed, so we got a number of requests that week too, allowing for the redistribution of most of the donated money quickly.
- To keep track of our numbers, we set up a simple check-register-style shared spreadsheet with one column for date/time, one for the admin making the entry, one for credits, one for debits, one for the updated account balance, and one for an MD5 hash of the name of the donor or requester. Several of us, with strong mutual trust, shared the password for the PayPal account. (I was glad to have that trust, since it was still technically linked to my bank account. No money entered or left the bank, though; we only worked out of the PayPal balance.)
- The reason for those hashed names was to protect privacy to some degree while still keeping an eye out for weird patterns, since many people who interacted with the fund were more than one degree of separation from the admin team. No such patterns emerged, I believe thanks the network of social trust already in place.
- Once in a while, one of the admins would mention the fund and note whether it had some unused cash or was tapped out, which tended to produce a small bump in requests or donations. As soon as there was enough money in the account to fulfill an outstanding request, we did so, without asking for justification or calculating who requested how often. When someone asked for more than the standard $100, we would try to fulfill it if the balance was high enough and there were no other outstanding requests; otherwise, we would cancel the initial request and send $100 in its place.
- By glad coincidence, our number of donations and requests balanced out very well, and at the end of the year there was a balance of $30 left in the account.
I sincerely don’t know if we were operating within the PayPal terms of service, so I’m not advising you to replicate the steps above yourself, but I think I can say that the flow of money was small enough that we didn’t seem to attract any scrutiny. There are a number of consumer fake-bank services in the PayPal space now, of course, but the single memorable URL endpoint and the ability to transfer money across borders were useful features. In future, we’re hoping to shift the account to a cheap corporate entity and let an accountant figure out any potential tax situations, but this setup worked well enough to prove the concept.
I want to emphasize again that a crucial factor in the operation of this plan, perhaps only second to people’s willingness to ask and to give, was the existing network of trust among interconnected small groups of friends. The fund is a tech solution to a social problem, but it would be no solution at all without people’s strong and meaningful ties to one another. Once my friends and my friends’ friends had done the work of building those bonds, all we needed was free tools, grace, and will. No blockchain ledger, no web3, no crypto, no “trustless” transactions. All of our transactions were made firmly on a foundation of trust. Even here in the Shrieking Twenties, when a million people are poised to jump down your throat insisting that mathematically-provable Beanie Babies are the infinite solution to all human problems, ordinary friends can still cobble things like this together out of the Web We Lost. It isn’t all lost yet.
As of yesterday we were supposed to be married.
I didn’t even want to wait that long, really. After I proposed, Kat pointed out that a standard year of engagement and planning would put us right back in a Chicago winter, which offers logistical difficulties; I said, okay then, why can’t we just go ahead and get married in the fall? But Kat’s season is really summer. We settled on what is, often though not always, the first nice weekend in spring. We knew it was a gamble on the weather, but we didn’t know quite what else the stakes comprised.
It’s very beautiful outside right now. That die came up lucky. But late in the summer of 2020, with no coherent leadership and no clear timeline for when it might be safe to see our loved ones again, we took a deep breath and told our ceremony venue, our reception venue, and our caterer to kick us down the road to March 2022 instead.
There are few things I have ever wanted as much and as long as I have wanted to be married to Kat. I really hope this year won’t be quite as long as the past one, but it won’t be short. I’ll be forty before my wedding instead of after. It’s an arbitrary number, but it still brings home, to me, the cost of a lost year of one’s life.
Last night we got dressed up for a delivery dinner of fancy mushroom buns and congee, and Kat brought me a bouquet of flowers, surprising me the way she does every single time. Today we sat in the sun six feet from two of our closest Chicago friends and raised plastic cups of champagne. I still don’t feel quite to the point where I can even start grieving our losses. But oh, God, despite our shaggy hair and hollow eyes and aching hearts, I feel the sheer luck by which we have stayed well and safe this long as a weight upon me too.
My dear friends and family, I hope you weren’t expecting socks or hot sauce or movie reviews for Christmas this year, because you are all getting copies of LEONARD’S NEEEEWW BOOOOOKK!!! I had the great fortune to read an early draft years ago, and I’m so excited to have a physical copy to read again, dog-ear, and loan to my less close friends and intermediate family. There is no book whose title more accurately reflects the year of its publication! Read Situation Normal!!!
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.
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007): This was fine! I laughed most at the running drug gag. Casting Tim Meadows is always going to endear your movie to me, as recently evidenced by Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), that other music biopic spoof that had way more attention paid to its songs than its composition or editing. I think maybe there’s a sense that when people make a movie along these lines, they feel they have something to prove with the soundtrack but not about the form of the film itself? Or maybe they just realize that people are more likely to get up and walk out during a mediocre song than they are during an indifferent sequence of identically lit shots.
- Parasite (2019): Hbbgngbghghnnhhhhh. Beautiful and intense. I was less scared to watch this (emotionally) than I was of the two Jordan Peele movies I saw this year, and I think I was wrong.
- Charlie’s Angels (2019): The thing about the Fast and Furious movies, which are accreting their own genre as such things do, is that their original unsteady weaving across tone and essence for four films wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. You can’t redeem the ludicrous if you don’t have something to redeem. I can’t blame Elizabeth Banks for wanting to make a Fast and Furious movie, because making a Fast and Furious movie looks fun as hell! And making women the stars rather than the costars is an improvement the FF series would be well served to try out. But even though Kristen Stewart tries her best, this movie doesn’t sell its own stakes, doesn’t engage with its own queer potential, and doesn’t make any sense. It’s hard to win me over without doing at least one.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Rewatch, for about the forty-first time, because Kat had never seen it. I’d never quite realized what she pointed out afterward: the Young Woman Adventurer genre of late-twentieth-century YA lit, with its cool swords and self-actualization, is what primed me to fall so hard for this movie in the first place. It falls right into place with Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Cynthia Voigt.
- That Thing You Do! (1996): When I confessed that I was watching this for the first time, the entire population of Peach yelled my name followed by several exclamation marks, in unison. I liked it very much, but I can’t possibly offer a better review than my friend Elisabeth did nine years ago.
- 17 Again (2009): The first of two movies I watched in the span of two weeks in which Zac Efron, at a solid three inches shorter than me, plays a high school basketball star. Considering that there is a concrete number in the title of this film, it really can’t seem to handle the arithmetic of its own plot. Even the film’s own Wikipedia entry can’t consistently decide if Matthew Perry is supposed to be 35 or 37!
Knives Out (2019): Well obviously this was going to be my movie of the year. I’ve been on the RJ train for a few stops now. The thread I’m starting to see through most of Johnson’s movies is a desire to challenge his audience within the bounds of genre, because he likes surprises and he likes genre. Given the opportunity, he’ll subvert your expectations about plot rather than transgressing or calling out the bounds of the category; he challenges himself to offer perspective on the rules of the story without breaking them. “No deconstruction” is maybe his core constraint. Knives Out, even though it switches genres each time there’s an act break, is still very much an Agatha Christie-style mystery made by someone who loves Agatha Christie and wants to do right by her memory.
The other thing Johnson has to do every time is include one thing just to fuck with me. Here I am in an April flashback, grumbling tipsily into my telephone…
… about exactly the accent Daniel Craig sports for the entirety of this film. The thing is, I know Daniel Craig can do a believable American regional accent, because his West Virginia twang in Logan Lucky (2017) was solid! That makes the grievous offense of Benoit Blanc even more baffling.
I have only one operating theory about what led to this dialectic horror, and it’s not a strong one, but I like it anyway. If Blanc has a manner of speaking that… mostly… equates to a Louisiana drawl, and has a French name, it hints that his ancestors were Acadian: descendants of European colonists and indigenous people who were deported from their homes in a cruel forced migration, but into the United States, rather than out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this would draw a subtle line between Craig’s Blanc and Ana de Armas’s Marta Cabrera.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986): An awful movie and the centerpiece of one of my favorite nights this year. I’ve had a fondness for Mystery Science Theater 3000 since I first became aware of it, back in the Comedy Channel days, but I was never a dedicated fan until late 2018. That’s when I started relying on marijuana and puppet wisecracks to deal with the loneliness and insomnia that came with the fourth year of my long-distance relationship.
There is a younger version of Brendan—one to whom this very blog regrettably attests—who would have some choice words for a self who turned to substances for emotional problems. Present Brendan has more than a few choice words for that guy in return. But there’s no need to start 2020 by airing our dirty laundry. The point is, I had a temporary problem with making the time when I felt down pass in a more pleasant way, and I am glad the law and some remarkably cheerful sales experts allowed me to solve it. It worked! And now I live in Chicago and I get to sleep safe-and-soundly next to my fiancée every night.
The hitch was that my very first experience with THC, years ago, had put me off it for most of the intervening period, because it made time pass much more slowly. I had never experienced chemically induced time dilation—except anesthesia, I guess—and even now that I’m more seasoned it can still wig me out.
And then I discovered the solution to my solution’s problem: the steady schedule of the Satellite of Love is the gentlest way to reassure oneself that time continues to pass, at both the hourly and the yearly scale. I watched a lot of MST3K while hovering gently above my couch, and it helped relieve my brain of the duty of relitigating the 2016 election when I woke up to pee at 3 am. It doesn’t hurt that I can now relate to the idea of making bots as an isolation coping mechanism.
All of which is to say that I count myself a devoted if not expert fan of the series these days and it was a happy coincidence that their live show came through Milwaukee the week after I arrived in Chicago.
It was pretty perfect. The only TV diasporant aboard was Joel, and this was purportedly his last live tour, but there was some good video action from Mary Jo Pehl and Rebecca Hanson, and I liked the rest of the cast very much. There were welcome surprises in the fictional basis of the show, too, like (spoilers!) GPC succeeding Gypsy so nobody has to say a word that hurts people anymore, and the hint that Emily Marsh (as Emily Crenshaw) might succeed Jonah Ray as host.
If I counted all the episodes of MST3K as “movies” in my list this year, it would be a lot longer, but also inaccurate because I invariably drift off before it ends. But this one got my full attention—and sobriety, as I had to drive to Milwaukee and back that night—and I was rewarded for it. It’s a different, effervescent, and engaging experience to be present in the room where it happens. I say that like I’m surprised about it even though I got a degree in live theater.
All right, sorry for being a pothead who talks about his cult basic cable entertainment for like eight paragraphs. One thing that dovetails with this entry is that I’ve noticed my favorite jokes in MST3K aren’t of the “insert a line” or “compare unexpected reference” variety—they’re the wry or exasperated bits pointing out fundamental filmmaking mistakes. Bonus points if Crow name-checks Roger Corman in a way that almost sounds fond.
Okay! It’s 2020 now and the world is frightening but it’s not allowed to go anywhere until I finish writing up my December post! Tune in very soon to find out the truth: did Brendan complete his goal of watching a hundred movies this year? A sentence in your near future will reveal the answer! Yes! Was that extra emphasis or a spoiler? Tune in very soon to find out the truth: wait I already said that!