• the bear season 2

    After stalling out halfway through, I finished the second season of The Bear last week. Aside from some bright moments, I was disappointed. The first season caught a zeitgeist. I don’t think that the creative team found a way to develop the story elements that made the first season so fresh. 

    I loved that the first season was not about fine dining. It made room to explore more working class characters and settings. The Original Beef of Chicagoland was a restaurant out of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, not Chef’s Table. The visual language of Carmy’s fine dining flashbacks (the crisp white linens, flatware at perfect angles, chef’s brigade of intense young men) comes from fine dining documentaries. It’s supposed to be a contrast to the earthy, low-margin, traditional, welcoming environment of the Original Beef. Part of the democratic ethos of the show was the idea that there is a way to find excellence here, too. It’s disappointing to slip back to fine dining and it’s attendant connection to wealth and class.

    That promise and disappointment are found in secondary characters as well. Like Orange is the New Black and Lost, the first season was an ensemble show. It had generosity and attention for secondary characters. Anyone could anchor an episode. The focus is slowly shifting to a smaller number of main characters. You cannot ignore the racial aspect of this dynamic. Ebraheim, Tina, and Marcus are being left behind to give more time and story to Carmy and Richie. In the final episode of the season there’s a throwaway line that Ebraheim will be serving the old menu out of the back of the restaurant. As if you could fit the whole world of the first season through a Quikserv window.

    This is all connected. In the first season, Tina and Ebraheim knew the business of the Original Beef better than Carmy did. He knew the business of fine dining, but he didn’t know this business. That balanced the story and made an interesting power dynamic. While it’s great that the Original Beef crew gets new training, their expertise is no longer needed. Carmy was always able to tap out and go back to fine dining. In the first season, we’re always wondering why he doesn’t. He doesn’t seem to know why. In the second season, that source of tension is gone. Cliched beats about whether he can commit to a relationship don’t reheat well. 

    It wasn’t all bad. There’s so much talent on this show. Jeremy Allen White, Ayo Edebiri, Ebon Moss-Bacharach and Oliver Platt are so much fun to watch. Richie and Marcus get solo episodes that are fantastic. “Forks” was my favorite episode the show has ever done, and what a magnificent cameo by Olivia Colman. I didn’t like “Fishes” very much, but Jon Bernthal and Bob Odenkirk butting heads at the dinner table was electric. 

  • 2024

    Happy New Year!

  • dia de los muertos

    At my high school, we were required to have regular meetings with the college counselor starting in junior year. They would get more intense as the clock ticked toward senior year college application season, but the first meeting was a get-to-know-you. Couselors would get a sense of your goals, and start to get the ground ready by making a connection between our current academic performance and the options that might be open to us next year.

    My meeting was with a woman I’ll call Ms. Troy. Ms. Troy was a lovely, warm person. She was mixed race and Chicana, and an anchoring presence for many students of color. She had a funny—sometimes infuriating—ability to slip out of any social friction, unpleasantness, or conflict by giving a little laugh like you had said something funny.

    I was meeting with her and sharing some of my goals for college. I have no idea where this came from, but at some point I mentioned something about exploring my Latino identity. Ms. Troy gave her little laugh and said, “Oh don’t worry about that right now. That’s what college is for!”

    I understand now what she meant. The campus we were conversing in had a lot of pressure to socially conform, and there was only so much room to express an identity counter to the dominant culture. Colleges have resources that our school didn’t: access to international communities, academic circles, student activity funds. In just over a year, she was saying, you’re going to have so much more room to explore.

    That’s not how I understood it at the time. What I took from her words was that there was going to be some mysical process of identity formation coming my way in college. I was asking some huge questions: Am I Latino enough? Enough for what? Why Latino, why not Chicano or Mexican-American? How important is it that I don’t speak Spanish very well? What stories am I at the center of? What stories am I on the periphery of? What is my relation to whiteness? How has whiteness advantaged me in my life?

    These are questions I deeply wanted to know the answer to, and I really took to heart this short conversation. Those questions were unsettling. Exploring them led to places I didn’t enjoy thinking about. It was a nice thought, that they would resolve themselves in college all by themselves.

    I am still living those questions. I no longer believe that there is someone out there that can give me the answers. I don’t believe my individual construction of identity has much of an impact one way or another.

    One person who explores this territory, and specifically as a gay Latino (with bad Spanish!) is JP Brammer. I loved this recent piece of his on the funny position that Dia de los Muertos occupies in US culture right now. It’s both a unifying example of Mexican identity, and also filled with iconography that are surprisingly new:

    It might surprise some to hear that the Día de Muertos parade [in Mexico City] stemmed from a single scene in a James Bond movie in 2015. Día de Muertos is, after all, a beloved tradition that many people hold close to their hearts. Indeed, the fact that it is a tradition, an heirloom of sorts, makes people protective, at times precious about it. 

    That it centers on the ancestors, a word that commands reverence, only adds to the idea that this holiday is an old, brittle thing that must be handled with great care. It’s understandable that some might view the parade through a cynical lens, as a tourist trap or as an inauthentic take on an ancient custom. “Fake,” others might say.

    But I’m not one of those people. In fact, in the James-Bond-inspired Día de Muertos parade, I see something else entirely: a cypher for how culture is generated and, frankly, for how absurd it can be. I mean that in a good, fun way.

    Please give it a read.

  • worldkiller

    amazon spheres beside a high rise building
    Photo by Hussein Haidar Salman on Pexels.com

    Last month I attended a one-day conference hosted at Amazon’s conference center in the South Lake Union area of Seattle. There’s a tech industry psychic hum in the streets there, just like the entertainment industry hum that runs through anonymous looking three-story office parks in northern LA or the legal hum that saturates certain blocks in downtown Portland. The office workers getting their morning coffee look focused and unencumbered by family or community commitments. They are men and women, and stylish. The pinup shirt wearing, punk rock programmer dude and the carebear gothic tenderqueer have both been disciplined by three tech recessions since the year 2000. The clothes are less formal and structured than the norm for, say, finance, but there is a look and bright colors are a risk. 

    Right across the street from the Amazon campus, a forest of huge rainbow glass-walled skyscrapers that hold the back office of the everything store, there is a humble red building. It’s a sex toy boutique with an old-school porn screening room. I find this delightful. 

    sky bird industry technology
    Photo by Jakub Pabis on Pexels.com

    When a platform goes away, especially when it has just left, it is hard to preserve memory of what it looked like when it was healthy. Especially things that you might not think of as platforms. Take phone calls. When the platform was built (not with lines of code but with redwood and creosote and copper) it was too expensive to use as a social network. Later, with home phone service and party lines, it got closer, but it wasn’t private enough. Once digital switching and billing and private home service came into being, there was a glorious period in which phone calls were welcome. Infrastructure to support the network sprang up, like answering services and phone booths and cordless phones. Friendships and relationships were built, distances shrunk. 

    That golden age was long gone by the time I was a kid. The phone system was becoming overwhelmed by telemarketing. Small breakdowns in the system were everywhere. For example, when everyone screens their calls using an answering machine, getting someone on the phone could take a full minute, much slower than in the era where each call was too expensive to waste on a cold call. Phone booths were always vandalized and often didn’t work. By the time that cell phones came around and changed the paradigm again, the stereotype of the Millennial that hates talking on the phone was well ingrained. 

    That same arc plays out over and over, for as long as humans have or will exist. Letters through the postal service, the bulletin board at the laundromat, philosophers at the agora. There are situations where these media survive long past when the rest of the world has moved on from them. Letters and phone calls still maintain relationships in prison. Astronauts swap movies on thumb drives on the International Space Station. 

    The porn store represents a node on a very particular kind of retail platform. That platform is rapidly disappearing, in no small part due to the work of Amazon. On that platform, you exchanged cash for a physical good. The store knew nothing about you, or where your money came from. You didn’t know anything about where the good came from. Somewhere out there, you could buy almost anything. 

    That platform didn’t exist everywhere. In cities where the power of the city government was finite and the size was big enough that there was some undesirable area where a sleazy, taboo business could exist without neighbors complaining, there could be remarkable freedom. In most places, the power of the local government could keep them out. If the government couldn’t do anything, customers could be harassed. 

    man on empty street passing by abandoned store
    Photo by Faruk Tokluoğlu on Pexels.com

    You can’t really go back. As much as I miss the good parts of healthy local retail, and as much as I worry about what will happen if the right wing succeeds in enforcing repressive suburban values onto the internet, internet retail does work better for most people in more places than local retail did in the late 1990’s. 

    But I love that these powerful symbols, one the last of its kind, the other the worldkiller, face each other on Westlake Avenue.

  • red letters

    “Well, if there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

    Luke Skywalker, Star Wars

    Los Angeles is the movies, and the movies is LA. If you drive north of the city on the 101 for an hour, you get to suburbs filled with peripheral industry people. Somebody did a rewrite on Lethal Weapon II and put a downpayment on a house. Another person did the same with royalties from an insurance commercial. That’s every third house in Sherman Oaks or Woodland Hills.

    Drive up the 101 another half hour and you start hitting farms and beach communities. This is where industry people go when they don’t want to be found. Hang a right and drive another half hour inland and you’ll get to the citrus groves and chaparral hills. That’s where I grew up. My house is 45 miles as the crow flies from the Hollywood sign. 45 miles and a different cultural universe.

    It used to be almost impossible to watch cool movies. If you were lucky, your had access to an independent video rental store with some personality. We had a Blockbuster. Our selection of “Foreign” movies consisted of about one shelf of DVDs.

    Anime, black and white classics, silent film, these were hard to find. Forget gay and lesbian movies. You could put in the work to see them. You could make a trip to a bigger city with a better selection. Universities sometimes had media libraries. You would watch movies on a 15″ screen with headphones in an uncomfortable study carrel warmed by CRT tubes. Local libraries having big, good movie collections is a recent phenomenon. If you could afford it, you could order from a mail order catalog, or from Amazon. Amazon’s deep catalog of old books and movies used to be a killer feature.

    If you were lucky, really lucky, you knew someone with a killer home video collection. That used to be what it meant to be “into film”. It meant shelves and shelves of tapes in their basement or living room. Those people shaped so much of my taste. Indie dramas, foreign films and music documentaries from L——. Queer cinema classics and Merchant and Ivory films from M——. Studio action films from G——.

    This assumes that the movie got a home video release. There were plenty of movies that never got a VHS release.

    The arrival of Netflix DVD-by-mail changed everything overnight. It had a broad collection, accessible to anywhere the Postal Service reached. It improved some other parts of the video rental experience that sucked. No late fees, keep it as long as you want, drop it back in the mail when you’re ready to send it back. “I have to return some videotapes” is a punchline in American Psycho. We really did have to figure out when to return tapes all the time.

    Netflix swept away Blockbuster. It delivered the killing blow to the independent rental stores*. It devalued physical media. Netflix originals ducked legacy union contracts by streaming instead of releasing in theaters or on home video. Now it is killing its DVD by mail service, as it has wanted to since the early 2010s.

    I sometimes think about those people with big collections in the 90’s and early 2000’s. They paid a lot of money, and even the big collections only had a fraction of what is available on the big services now. In the last 10 years I have paid a lot for streaming. I have nothing in my house to show for that spending. We used to have more power to shape the culture that got left to the future through the objects we left behind. Movies can disappear, or be censored so easily now. The entire paradigm where I hand you money, you give me something I want, and we both go our separate ways seems to be ebbing away. In this new world, anything that provides you ongoing value, that brings you joy must be paid for, again and again, until you cannot afford to keep it.

    *Except my beloved Movie Madness in Portland, Oregon, which has not died but did retire—it’s now operated by a non-profit.

  • clickwheel dreams

    There’s Las Vegas and there’s Las Vegas. Technically the Las Vegas Strip isn’t even in Las Vegas. It’s in the Clark County townships of Winchester and Paradise. The name Winchester was chosen by the public in a naming contest. “It was said to have more of a Western flavor” than the other nominations. The name Paradise was chosen by five casino owners in celebration of its shelter from the Mojave Desert and municipal tax collectors. And somewhere off the Strip, far from Paradise, was a resort that my aunt owned a timeshare in.

    I’ve heard that timeshares suck. I don’t understand how they work. I do know that my family ended up in Las Vegas often. I don’t know it if the timeshare ended up less expensive than regular hotels, but we used it.

    One day in 2002, I was waiting outside the resort for the Deuce to take me and my family to the Strip. There was a guy, a townie, waiting for another bus. I saw two things that would become omnipresent over the next 10 years. I saw a pair of Apple earbuds, and I saw him reach into his pocket, pull out his iPod, change a song, and put it back into his pocket.

    I may have seen The iPod ads with the dancing silhouettes. If so, they hadn’t made an impression. In an instant I saw that the iPod was freedom. No more flipping tapes. No more pretending that the Walkman’s anti-skip buffer was enough to make CD playing portable. I had to have it.

    I never quite owned an iPod classic. Their time came and went. For years they were too expensive. I had a knockoff, then lost the knockoff. The iPhone came out and I begged my dad for one. In the Apple Store, my dad mugged a heart attack to the guy ringing us up after hearing the total. He thought he was hilarious. The Apple guy awkwardly stood waiting for him to stop laughing at his own joke. I wanted to die.

    Panasonic SC-H57

    This weekend I bought a secondhand Panasonic CD player with integrated iPod dock. I love designer CD players from the early to mid 2000s. They will never design them like that again. It’s all Bluetooth speakers from here on out.

    It’s hipster consumerism, but I can’t apologize for being sentimental. It’s a beautiful thing to construct romance and meaning from consumer technology that was everywhere basically yesterday. I’ll find the poetry in the Bluetooth speaker too. Give it time.

  • 2021

    new year energy

    It’s January once again. Predictable things that happen in January include the one weird week late in the month where clear skies and sun convince me and the daffodils that spring is around the corner, and a manic period where I’m convinced that I can change everything in my life that needs changing. I can, I will, and in my favored manner, with extreme effort all at once.

    Instead of offering resolutions, here are some of the themes I think will be sounding throughout my next year:

    play

    I completed a coding bootcamp and switched careers last year. I spent a lot of time working on my focused work muscles, and it’s time to turn my attention to play. I really love the way that Cal Newport talks about ‘high-quality leisure’: the challenging, active ways of using downtime that restore and recharge us after focused work. https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2019/05/31/on-the-pleasures-and-sorrows-of-life-without-screens/ It’s kind of like exercise is to the body: sometimes rest requires more than sleeping, it may require stretches, breathing, reclaiming range of motion.

    I’m particularly looking forward to trying to build relationships around writing and playing music. I have dearly felt their lack in the past years, particularly since the beginning of the pandemic. I’m ready to find others to play with.

    finding space for books and music (aka cutting down on podcasts)

    As my work has become more mentally taxing, demanding, and as it requires more single-task focus, I have found it harder to make space for reading and listening to music. I’m looking forward to continuing my journey toward cutting down on passive podcast consumption and doomscrolling to make that happen.

    I dearly love podcasts, but it’s so easy to just keep listening to them. If podcasts were books, I’d read better books. If they were articles, I would abandon more of them. I have a few podcasts that I’m pretty attached to on a parasocial level, but I’m working on winding those down and trying not to get attached to new ones.

    practicing networking

    I could write a lot about this. I am hungry for in-person, social, group ways to experience my passions. Professionally, artistically, even among my friends. This year I am rededicating myself to making that happen and to putting social effort into participating in new ‘scenes’ that I have curiosity about.

  • toot or boot?

    Twitter Mascot

    My therapist asks And does this serve you? when I’ve been complaining about something and he’s trying to gently ask me to consider that ‘stop’ might be an easy way to improve the situation. It creates space to feel honest feelings about the things that we hate doing but we have to because it serves a purpose in our lives, and a way of double checking that the purposes they serve actually exist.

    I joined Mastodon. This is the 3rd time. The first time was after some kind of Twitter corporate outrage. The second was after reading How to Do Nothing and hungering for richer online experiences.

    This time around, Mastodon feels much more mature as a platform. There are still huge holes in the user experience that need attention. It’s hard to find people. It’s even harder to find people based on keywords and hashtags. The only way to build an audience is through word of mouth, like Follow Fridays. This time, I am questioning whether the habit of publishing anything online is serving me.

    Out of the many dreams of what social media can do, two have been seductive to me. The first vision is social media as a public channel for keeping friends and family updated on big life events etc. That’s Instagram. The second is as a forum to get attention in a way that is difficult to get offline.

    I read many bloggers in the period between the founding of Daily Kos and Huffington Post to the end of Google Reader. They were smart people, but not journalists or paid writers and sometimes from a marginalized group or young or from an unimportant place. The internet allowed them to compete for their share of the internet audience. Same with niche subjects or hobbies. All it took was four or five writers and their audiences on a beat to create an idea ecosystem. Generous attention to each other’s writing created that feeling of group cohesion.

    The writing that I’ve shared on blogs on Twitter are the closest I come to asking for online attention. I struggle with that. The version of me that emerges from that body of work has less of my sense of humor, less of my sense of delight. He tends to emerge more often in anxiety and alienation than in joy or connectedness. He doesn’t share as much as he’s learned, and the only subject he has endless time for is himself.

    My favorite online writers either focus on a narrow range of topics or they write in their own voice. Idiomatic blogs are conversational, fast pieces of writing. Books or works from publication have a higher bar for polish and accuracy. It’s understood that a blog post is more perishable. The thing that can perish is the voice of the mind working through its first reaction. First thought, best thought. It’s not always true, but it does have a strong flavor!

    In the last 15 years, it has been very rare for me to get constructive feedback that inspires me to keep going. I tell myself that I keep writing because its rewarding. I worry that it’s because either I can’t give up on the idea of being discovered to be interesting, or that I don’t have the imagination to try something else. Does that serve me? I’m not sure. It takes practice to make perfect, sure. Audiences and artists train each other, though. There’s a ceiling for how far you can develop without high quality attention and feedback.

    That’s what I’m really looking for: high quality attention and feedback.

    I don’t know how to get it, online, in person, whatever. I write because even if I never get the feedback I want, I will end up with something to read back through. I hope it ends up more than that, but many people create even less.

    I promise to myself that in 2023 I will seek more play, more attention, more good feedback. It’s time to be more brave.

  • tweet

    photo of cheese fries
    Mmm… chili cheese fries” by jeffreyw is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    When the restaurants shut down, one of my favorite neighborhood bars shut down too. They were lucky—the bar was on a quiet street that was easy to pedestrianize. They opened back up with outdoor cafe seating a few weeks later. There were changes. Order at the window. Sanitize your own table. The menu got smaller. My favorite dish, a platter of fries, bacon, and jalapeños covered in cheese and served with a strawberry ketchup, was cut from the menu.

    About 18 months later, I was back in the bar, and delighted to learn that the full menu was back. Once I ordered my fries, I discovered that though the dish was on the menu, it wasn’t quite back. Even a blunt combination of cheese and meat and potatoes demands delicate balances to approach greatness. When the oven is too hot or the dish warmed too long, the cheese gets hard and dries out. The cheese should smother the fries, not cement them together. The salt in the bacon and cheese requires under-salting the fries. If there is not enough strawberry jam mixed into the ketchup, it conflicts with the jalapeño brine.

    Eighteen months is a long time. Most likely, the kitchen turned over while the dish was off the menu, and there was no one there to teach the new people how to make it. Or a change in vendors led to a different cheese blend or ketchup order. It’s possible that it’s just a bad dish and I no felt nostalgic for it.

    Many of the things we value in our everyday world, things that make up the texture of ordinary living, are contingent on relationships. A bar that doesn’t maintain relationship with its staff, a kitchen manager that doesn’t maintain relationship with its vendors, even a patron that doesn’t maintain relationship with his favorite dish, all of these can cause a dish to unravel.

    I met a contractor that specialized in home renovations in small, out of the way, wealthy Ojai, California. He explained why he ordered his hardware from a small, independent hardware store. “I can get 25-30% better prices ordering from Home Depot. That’s real money. But sometimes I make an ordering mistake. Sometimes things break. I can run out and back to Ojai Lumber in 30 minutes. If there’s no hardware store in Ojai, then I have to go to the Home Depot in Oxnard. That’s a round trip of two hours, and my guys are standing around until I get back. My time is much more expensive than materials. There’s a big difference between one local hardware store and no local hardware stores, so I try to make sure that I give them business when I can.”

    That’s attending to relationships.

    Elon Musk goes out of his way to show contempt for anyone he does business with. Nothing attracts his attention faster than letting slip that you have your own goals and financial interests. I am not enjoying seeing Twitter fall apart. But I am enjoying him fail. He assumed that everyone would eventually give up on having their own interests in the platform, and that nobody else would have any human reaction to his abuse. Twitter may be more complicated and less perfect than my favorite plate of cheese fries, but it has turned out to be no less vulnerable to falling apart when the people who make it stop cooperating.

  • novel

    File:Monumento a Miguel de Cervantes – 05.jpg” by Carlos Delgado is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

    For almost 500 years the type of story most popular among literate Europeans was the chivalric romance. The Song of Roland, Troilus and Criseyde, the kind of stories that Monty Python and the Holy Grail makes fun of. In 1605, Miguel de Cervantes writes a bawdy little satire called Don Quixote. It takes all of the noble tropes of the romance and turns them upside down. In the place of a young noble undergoing a challenge of grave importance to earn the hand of a beautiful maiden, there is a destitute old crank and his wisecracking frenemy wasting their time shouting at windmills and fantasizing like incels about the feminine qualities of the beauties they’re totally going to find.

    That’s how Cervantes accidentally invented the modern novel.

    The novel embraced that it was a low, grubby kind of story. They didn’t have to be any more realistic than the romances. They just dealt with slightly more grounded people than Chosen Ones on a divine quest given to them by God. They made mistakes for petty, human reasons. That turned out to be relatable to people, and novels are still with us today.

    I thought about the romance and the novel recently while watching TV, bored. I was watching It’s A Sin but it could have been any number of shows or movies. I realized that I wanted a drama but I was watching some new form of show that reminds me of school pageants.

    Pageants present well-known stories about well-known people going through well-known situations. If the pageant is about George Washington, there will be a cherry tree and the Delaware will be crossed. About California history, expect Missions and Gold Rush and Silicon Valley. Any child actor is welcome to play their part artfully, if they so choose, but the form doesn’t demand it. A good pageant keeps the story moving along even when the people on stage aren’t behaving in ways that resemble any human let alone a particular character, or can’t remember their lines, forget how to speak, are having an out of body experience. It’s a funny art form!

    Many shows and movies that get applause for being brave and diverse and bringing new stories are secretly pageants. It’s A Sin was about AIDS in the 1980’s, a rural, innocent looking twink moved to a big city and was taken under the wing of worldly club queens. There were tearful scenes of family betrayal and discrimination at work. Among a large cast of characters are stand-ins for straight allies, lesbians, older gay men, Black and Asian gay men.

    Playing with pageantry can be great. Juno sends up the teen mom after school special by giving you a quirky, character-driven comedy. A lot of the pleasure of Ryan Murphy or Aaron Sorkin shows, Derek Jarman films, or Julie Taymor musicals are that they are pageants.

    Pageants are blunt, though, and I don’t think they can ever introduce a new story as well as a drama. Work in Progress, The Bisexual, and Chewing Gum are all weird, flawed shows. But showing the messy ambivalence of the human, strange, lovable characters at the heart of those shows gave me a chance to fall in love with them. That’s what I need from TV.

Matthew Eilar

Matthew Eilar headshot

This is my personal blog. I’ve been blogging since 2008, and self-hosting this blog on Linode since 2020.

the gram

books

recent reading

movies

twits