CategoryNostalgia

“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 immolate itself 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, 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.

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.

Idiotcams now completely redone, with occasional director’s commentary. I believe that just about doubled the size of my Flickr stream. It’s interesting to watch the annual picture count through the years: 39 in 2001, 89 in 2002, peaking at 115 in 2003, then suddenly dropping to 16 in 2004, 7 in 2005, 6 in 2006, and only two so far this year.

I’m trying to figure out how to do some sort of Xorph special, since Tuesday (ie Newcomicday) is also, um, Christmas.It’s going to be difficult without the ability to draw anything. Maybe I should do it in ASCII art.

You can’t buy real Christmas lights anymore. You go to Wal-Mart, you find the seasonal aisle in the back corner by the gardening supplies, you expect massive stacks of light boxes. Not so! You can, technically, still buy the traditional tiny-white-bulb strings–but that’s about it. No C9s or 7.5s, not even multicolored small bulbs. Instead we have–yes!–the stupid light extravanganza!

You have your net lights, which are a cheap and stupid way to get out of wading into the bushes. You have your rope lights, which are not only ugly but unwieldy. You have your bubble lights, which are fine, in limited qualities, indoors. And you have truckloads of curtain / icicle lights, which are–I firmly believe this–the will of Satan manifest on Earth.

All of this is meant, essentially, to explain the slightly odd configuration of this year’s Second House on the Left light display. We had a nice multi-colored theme going on, up until I ran out of working colored strings and still had three trees (the big ones, naturally) to go. The aforementioned trip to Wal-Mart produced the aforementioned results, and only by scavenging the clearance rack at Big Lots did we come up with five strings of C9s. Unfortunately, all of them were entirely white.

I got two of the big trees with said white lights, which at least makes for a symmetrical design. The problem was this: the enormously fat tree by the basketball goal (which I have privately nicknamed “Brendan’s Self-Image”) was mostly strung with colored lights already, and needed maybe one more string to top it off. A white string would have to be distributed evenly or look like whipped cream atop a cherry-and-lime jello mold.

This is why I sat on the driveway for twenty minutes today, unscrewing and switching bulbs between one white string and six colored ones.

Experts estimate that I have spent at least six months of my life doing menial, pointless work like that.

in through my veins
without brains

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