Category: Writing

O Being

My mother, a prolific listener of audiobooks from her many years of long commutes, likes to send me recommendations for podcasts sometimes; one that’s really stuck with me is Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poetry Unbound. I truly don’t know how popular it is, or if everyone I know who likes poetry is already over it, so apologies if I’m walking in here like “any of you nerds ever hear of Star Track?!” But I really like listening to Ó Tuama’s soothing voice and gentle perspective.

In particular, one episode on Rafiq Kathwari’s poem “Mother Writes to President Eisenhower” has been on my mind, perhaps because of certain recent events involving the British monarchy. I found the poem and the episode about it affecting on their own merit, but also because of what is left unsaid: Ó Tuama doesn’t claim to have deep knowledge of the history of Kashmir or of Partition, and he unpacks the work without comparison to his own experiences. I wouldn’t have known, if Mom hadn’t mentioned it, that his career background is in conflict mediation, and specifically in working in reconciliation organizations in his native Ireland. I’m glad the things he chose not to say weren’t lost on me, here.

“I think he’s inviting us to pay attention to all the other voices that it can be easy to consider silencing, as a result, perhaps, of not liking the medium of their communication or as a result of thinking, oh, they’re just distressed because of the war. He’s saying, Yes, they are; and listen.”

“The fictional world, the story, is a place we visit enough, and it can become a type of home we return to. Unlike the real world, where ‘returning home’ is a city that is changed and often a house that is in less repair than when you left, to perhaps find something like an attic or one room that is ‘mostly unchanged’ and the weird disjunction between ‘the world almost familiar’ and ‘years ago, untouched’ – fiction can mindfully make more graceful introductions to us for ‘this is what you remember, but here is a room you’ve never seen’ tied together well.”

Old Fashions

I realized with mild startlement, this morning, that I’ve been using a Google Reader replacement called The Old Reader for over eight years—longer than I actually ever used Google Reader. One of the widely loved features of GR was its quiet, useful social function, allowing you to follow your friends and see what they wanted to surface and recommend. The idea of a social network that just unobtrusively shows you the things you want to see, in order, seems like a quaint and nostalgic dream these days.

I never actually made much use of the social feature—I just wanted a reader that persisted between computers—but today (after eight years!) I’ve realized that The Old Reader lets you follow people too, and I’m curious about trying it. Do you use it, dear Four People Who Read This Blog And Possibly A Lost Search Crawler Robot? I’m xorphus there and I’d be happy to connect.

Toward Translucency

ic20010923

Last week I did something I’ve been putting off for six years: I went back through this entire blog, one page at at time, and locked away a few hundred of its two thousand entries. Most of those, but not all, were from the very early days of this millennium, when I still regularly listened to dialup noise before I could put a text file through a transfer protocol to publish things here. Some friends and I would eventually guess a few things right about the future of the internet. But I did not anticipate the future of Brendan. That’s in part because I didn’t know who Brendan was.

Reading through my public diary in full, for the first time in a long time, the feeling that emerged for me was… well, a bit less chagrin and resentment than has been there in the past. (Therapy!) In the past that feeling has obscured the text, preventing me from looking clearly at my own writing. What I saw this time was that through years of trying on different voices, whether projecting unearned assurance or closely imitating people whose assurance I envied, I was aching for an identity I had not found.

A lot of the things I would end up wincing at were attempts to write out ideas I didn’t even really support, just to practice thinking through them—things I then left to stand in the record while I moved on inside my own head. Many more were attempts to summon a Brendan who could achieve validation and love from the internet, the validation and love he didn’t know how to show himself, if he just put the right words in the right order. The blunt term for both cases, I think, is “sophistry.” But I’ve done enough excoriation over that. What I saw this time was that I had a lot of years of stumbling to do before I stubbed my toe on something that looked like self-knowledge. Starting to unearth it took years beyond that.

I think at least once a week, if not once a day, about the Web we lost. Right now I’m having complex and tangled feelings about the Web in which I started this thing. It was gentler, in some ways, than the milieu in which I’m writing this now—one where the idea of sudden attention makes me feel more fear than excitement. It was also exclusionary. The only reason I was able to start writing here, half my life ago, was my place at the pinnacle of privilege. That privilege has also extended me tremendous benefit of the doubt from all the people who have read this stuff and still decided to be my friends. I don’t plan to take either for granted anymore.

Deprecating a moment of pique I typed out about someone I dated for two weeks, which I then left on the whole internet for anyone in the world to read for twenty years, is not going to hide the search, the work, or the ache to figure out who I was. I’m not trying to polish my image here, or make it appear that I never held opinions I now reject. (I did! Lots of them! They might still be on the Wayback Machine!) What I’m trying to do instead is forgive the old Brendan for all the things he left for future Brendan to regret. And forgiveness means letting some of those things go to rest.

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.