• skyrim

    It’s dark in the tailor’s shop. As I extinguish each candle, the light dims and the bright yellow children’s dresses, green ladies’ gowns, and smart purple waistcoats settle deeper into dull nighttime grey. In a few minutes, I will close the front door and return to my rooms above the shop for a quiet supper. A bottle of cheap Alto wine and a heavy volume of A Dance in Fire will keep me company on the journey into sleep.


    The door opens, and a striking woman made of cuts and muscle walks in wearing nothing but her smallclothes and a gaudy Amulet of Diabella perched on her head. She carries no knapsack, she has no pockets, but she walks slowly, groaning under the weight of a vast unseen treasure. An unhappy looking woman in full battle gear follows, too ashamed to meet my eyes.


    “What do you sell here?,” the unclothed woman asked. “Ah, fuck it. Doesn’t really matter, does it? Here’s the deal: I would like to take all of your gold, and in return I will sell you these 700 decorative spider carcasses I found, for premium prices.”


    What the fuck would I do with one decorative spider carcass, I wondered,  but when I opened my mouth to answer, the words that came out of my mouth were “I do hope you’ll remain in Solitude. The city could do with some new blood.”


    I play video games one of two ways: like an addict or not at all. It’s not easy for me to complete a game. Online multiplayer stresses me out, I don’t have the interest or patience to refine my skills enough to master platformers or racing games, and sports games mean less than nothing to me. I can get very immersed in single player narrative games, but I quit in frustration when a puzzle or battle gets hard, and over time it becomes demotivating to boot up the console and immediately be faced with a difficult and frustrating scenario to move through before I can get back to having fun. I like action RPGs because their controls tend to be pretty simple and their short missions can produce a reward relatively quickly.


    In the week between Christmas and New Year’s, I spent a lot of time playing Skyrim. Skyrim is over 10 years old but I tend to play the same games over again rather than seeking out new ones. RPGs fascinate me because they are nothing like life. Even if they do not have a fantastical setting (Is The Sims a deconstructed RPG?) they incorporate the fantasy that skills advance linearly, that we get to make informed decisions at the crossroads of our lives, and that we can reliably predict the consequences of those choices. If RPGs were more like real life, skill descriptions would all have conflicting information, all of it bad. Advancing one more level in one skill might close off others without warning. Halfway through your game a new tool might make all of the skill points you allocated obsolete, and you might discover late in the game that your buddy with all of the achievements started the game with a handful of advantages that you aren’t allowed to mention in their presence.


    If you look at RPGs not as games, but as spiritual training tools—and why not so look?—you might notice that even though RPGs simulate the hero’s journey of growth and empowerment with all of the uncertainty and unpredictability  edited out of that process, there is one deeply human dilemma that emerges late in every RPG: the featureless boredom of a life lived too long or with too much ease or with too many resources.

    In this play-through of Skyrim, I have progressed to the level where no battles are that challenging, loot and potions are plentiful, and the acquisition of trophies make no emotional impact. Take too much friction out and there is no story in the world that will keep a players interest. Most people are not inherently interested in optimizing weapons or endlessly visiting shopkeepers in a circuit to try and convert loot into gold.  There are different strategies out there to try and mitigate that boredom. GTA: V  brings in a property ownership layer to slowly convert the game into a simple resource management game; Destiny points you increasingly firmly toward online multiplayer content; Fallout 4 slows down your progression by introducing side quests that must be completed quickly to not lose conquered territory. 


    So you start to do the things that are rewarding: weird collections, dressing up avatars, making virtual dollhouses, playing the parts of the game that you still find fun and ignoring the rest. I had a friend who tried to collect every coffee mug in Fallout 3, and in another game he kept a house filled with human skulls picked up elsewhere. Which—forget the skulls—is about the range of options that any human has left, once your needs are attended to. You also have the option of trying to figure out ways to break it, there’s a huge catalog of Youtube videos of players catching the perfect bug or perfect coincidence.


    This also explains some of the stranger, anti-social behavior of the hyper-wealthy, behavior that I do not understand and yet affects my life so much directly and indirectly. Anybody with any interesting qualities or a healthy self-esteem would have taken the freedom to not have to work and done something more interesting with their time well before their wealth could be measured in billions. Gamers, playing an RPG past the point where the game had any challenge, compulsively optimizing their gameplay for gold acquisition is as good a lens as any to describe their affect and behavior. Time to prestige.

  • Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat!

    This delightful tweet from Linda Holmes sent me down the rabbit hole this afternoon exploring “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” and learning a little more about its composer, Frank Loesser.

    “Sit Down” is a showstopper from the musical Guys & Dolls: the gambler Nicely-Nicely bullshits a temperance congregation into buying that he has been reformed after a religious epiphany in a dream. A context that isn’t as visible to today’s audiences, as both the early 1930’s in which the musical is set and the early 50’s in which it was staged blur together in the rear-view mirror, is that Dolls was a loving tribute to the outsize characters of a time past; it is a similar project to the 80’s movies/musicals that pay tribute to 50’s and 60’s styles, like Grease, Dirty Dancing, Footloose, American Graffiti, and Little Shop of Horrors. Most of Dolls is written in a sophisticated pastiche of Big Band and Swing-era jazz, and it’s a mark of success that so many songs from the musical have become standards. For story reasons, “Sit Down” also draws upon the densely chromatic close harmony choral style that you might be familiar with from Disney animated musicals like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or Dumbo, and the white gospel/tent revival style from a song like “In That Great Gettin’ Up Mornin’.”

    Frank Loesser was a truly fascinating American character. His father was a pianist and made his living teaching, but for whatever reason—reading between the lines here, some tough personality clashes—his father never formally taught Loesser. He was self-taught on several instruments on the incredible strength of his ear, but seemed never to develop his musical reading or writing skills. Still, I think all of that dense European classical harmony is shot through his music.

    The first song of his that really came to my attention is “Inchworm,” from the movie musical Hans Christian Andersen. It has a beautiful childlike melody, and wrings so much sensuality from small and deceptively simple harmonic movements. [In addition to the many jazz and pop artists that covered it, it was a special favorite of David Bowie, who wrote, “Ashes To Ashes wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t have been for Inchworm. There’s a nursery rhyme element in it, and there’s something so sad and mournful and poignant about it. It kept bringing me back to the feelings of those pure thoughts of sadness that you have as a child, and how they’re so identifiable even when you’re an adult.“]

    Loesser was always connected to music but had to make his way in the world from a young age and made his living as a young man in various creative fields like advertising and business. His first entrance into show business was writing jokes for Borscht Belt comedians, then started writing lyrics for other composers. It is astounding to me, given how fresh and unique his musical style was, that he was well into mid-career and his forties before he was able to compose and write lyrics for his own musicals.

    The lyrics are great! Steven Sondheim singled out Loesser as having virtually perfect lyric writing technique, marveling at his ability to sound both conversational and stylishly playful in verse. Just look at that line I quoted in the title: “by the sharp lapel of your checkered coat”—those marvelous assonant plosive p’s in sharp and lapel and c’s in chekered and coat (by assonant, I mean the same consonant sound is repeated, and by plosive I mean that the consonant sound is made by a sudden burst of air). Those are the kind of words that demand to be sung, even if they weren’t also funny and charming and told a story.

    But it’s the music that has been stuck in my ears all day. I love the way that the sopranos in the chorus keep going up the pentatonic scale to hit the high note at 1:16 in the first video, and the way the chorus builds a chord in the phrase after at 1:23. I love the surprising cadences that lead into the verse, the chordal motion echoing church hymns. For such a big company number, the verses are surprisingly slow and its an incredible role for somebody who has the energy to ham it up.

    Other notable videos…

    Walter Bobbie at the 1993 (94?) Tony’s

    Just a murderer’s row of early 90’s talent, including J.K. Simmons, who is dead center and looking totally committed (this was even before his breakout role on Oz as a sadistic gay neo-Nazi), Nathan Lane, and Ernie Sambella (who would voice Timon and Pumbaa a few years after this performance).

    Titus Burgess at the 2009 Tony’s

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7gU_e8wlNE

    This was before Burgess’ breakout performance as Titus Andromedon on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and really shows off his incredible upper range. Worth it to watch the moment when he had to roll with switching the mics due to a technical malfunction on live TV!

    Justin Keyes at the Guthrie Theater

    I have a secret to admit—I’m not actually much of a musicals or theater person, very much an interested casual fan—, so I didn’t know what the Guthrie Theater was. If this is representative of the average quality of productions out there in Minnesota, though, I think I need to make a visit to Minneapolis. Fantastic singing, incredible costuming and choreography.

    Clive Rowe on Great Performances

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7F7_VvMlddk

    Rowe has a wonderful voice for this character (he does an incredible vocal trick at 2:02 that made my jaw drop). The tempo here is a little sleepy and takes a lot of energy out of the number, imho, but the orchestration is a little less swing-band and a little more Dixieland/hot jazz, which I thought was cool.

    The Cast of Glee

    Given the influence of Glee on theater kids, gay boys, and future Broadway cast members of my generation, I thought it was interesting that “Sit Down” was featured on the very fist episode of the show, showing how central it is to the American songbook.

    Ashton Harris & The Hillsboro High School Players

    This was far and away the best high school performance I found on YouTube. Ashton Harris did a great job here. If you look through other high school performances, you can see where the trouble spots for less-trained voices are: In the narration verses, a lot of the long belted notes are high in the range, so if the young singer does not have strong pitch control it is very easy to go sharp. The choruses are very lyric-dense for the soloist, the words come fast, the tempo is fast, adrenaline is cranking your heart rate up and throwing your internal clock off, everyone around you is singing at full volume so you can’t hear the pit very well, and the line is syncopated. Almost all of the high school soloists rush through “And the devil will drag you under” and end up a full beat ahead by the end of the choruses.

    Frank Loesser with Frank Loesser

    Here’s the man himself. He had a perfectly serviceable voice, and it’s interesting to hear this simplified solo piano reduction by the man who wrote it, it shows what he thought was the essence of the song, and which lines he liked to mug with.

    …and one orthogonal connection.

    Loesser’s other big Broadway hit was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which also has a faux-revival big production number, “Brotherhood of Man.” NBC inexplicably chose this number for their network promo in 2012, which I was introduced to by this tweet. It feels insane to see this chosen, given NBC’s institutional problems with sexism in leadership and the no less than 4 sexual predators featured in the casts here. Every segment has something hilarious to look at. [Also it’s catchy as fuck and I will pay you $10 to tell me what that insane dance move that Ken Jeong does is.]

  • geek fascism

    aerial photography of seashore
    Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

    To my mind, there is no better place on the internet where highbrow and lowbrow mingle freely and in various novel mixtures than the Los Angeles Review of Books. Their contributors feel young and fresh compared to other “serious” book review outlets, their interests range from narrow academic topics to popular culture and any given essay or review draws freely from a full range of epistemology from first-person experience to the most obscure hermaneutics. I think that the context in which it was launched—a time when the academic market is in free-fall and with anybody with a specialized field of knowledge, particularly those at the beginning of their career doubting whether any of it means anything—gives it a kind of freedom to take leaps and make wild syntheses that I’m not seeing elsewhere.

    I can’t be sure about this, because LA institutions are certainly capable of looking diverse while maintaining racist disparities out of the public eye, but it also seems that there is a greater general expectation that the LARB audience is diverse than some of the “traditional” reviews (London, New York).

    Anyway, I’ll stop gushing. I just enjoy them so much.


    LARB published two articles marking the 50th anniversary of Frank Herbert’s Dune: one placing the novel in the context of the West Coast counterculture, and another exploring how online fascism has adopted it into their subculture.

    They are both great, and full of interesting ideas and connections. In the former, I was struck by Herbert’s upbringing, a unique mixture of experiences that fed into a work of writing outside of the usual left/right, conterculture/conservative binaries:

    Frank Herbert grew up on the political fringe. His grandparents were members of the Social Democracy of America — an ancestor of today’s Democratic Socialists of America — and helped found a socialist commune in Washington State, north of Tacoma. That’s where his father was raised, and it’s where Herbert spent many of his young years. Though the formal experiment in socialism died a few years before his birth in 1920, Herbert recalled inheriting some “rock-ribbed ideas about the ways people should live together.” Mainly, these concerned autonomy and mutual aid. The Depression ravaged the country but left his family, which grew its own food, intact. Herbert remembered those dark years as “marvelous times.”

    […]

    It’s easy to imagine that this socialist-raised, Native American–sympathizing young man would become a leftist. But for Herbert, commune living and Indian Henry’s backwoods lessons firmed up a hostility to the federal government. He came to oppose “any kind of public charity system,” he explained, because he “learned early on that our society’s institutions often weaken people’s self-reliance.” So, rather than following the trail of cooperative socialism to New Deal liberalism, he tacked in the opposite direction. Herbert became a Republican.

    Daniel Immelwahr, “Heresies of ‘Dune’”, LA Review of Books

    Our present moment is so deeply shaped by the conflict over counterculture and the antiwar movement. Although the movie was flawed for all of the same reasons that Aaron Sorkin is flawed, I thought The Trial of the Chicago Seven dramatized that well. Our boundaries of what are acceptable things to say, acceptable left-wing opinions to hold, are still constrained by the high water marks of that movement, and the scars of its failure. All of the compromises, issues that were never given center stage because they were feared to be unpopular, they are the millstones around our neck now. Thinking back to Herbert’s Pacific Northwest utopia, a community of white socialist colonizers on the same land that had been taken in active genocide only 30 or 40 years previously, it is clear to me that the America (or West Coast) that fomented the counterculture is such a dramatically different place that I don’t understand it.

    It’s also a bit of a dire warning that people don’t always draw the conclusions we expect them to from their life experiences. I couldn’t help thinking of latinos who voted for **** this past election.

  • Embed from Getty Images

    Richard Hamming was a mathematician and computer programmer who worked for 30 years at Bell Laboratories. In 1985, he gave a talk called “You and Your Research” in which he shared insights from his career doing mathematics research and, at Bell Laboratories, working near scientists at the leading edge of their field in math, physics, and chemistry*. Hamming’s talk is aimed at the researcher at the beginning of their career, and really any scientist who is interested in taking their work from “good” to “truly outstanding.” Although it keeps focus on research on fundamental math and science problems, Hamming notes, “Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields.”

    Hamming’s talk is packed with clear insights about all sorts of things, from the importance of surrounding yourself with sharp people, the trade-off between pushing to reform bureaucracies and getting your own work done, aiming at the hardest problems in your field, to the ego issues that prevent people from doing their best work. I want to highlight a couple—although I could have chosen five or ten other ideas to focus on just as well.

    we are socialized to value luck over work

    In order to [reach] you individually […] I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, “Yes, I would like to do first-class work.” Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You’re not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance.

    I initially bumped on the harshness of Hamming’s phrasing, mistaking it for contempt. As I read further, I realized that Hamming wasn’t making a value judgement on those who are not interested in doing the extraordinary work that Hamming is talking about, merely noting that the wider society does not value the kind of sacrifices and trade-offs that come with choosing ambitious work. Most of the stories that our society tells about people who do extraordinary work tend not to focus very much on the large amounts of time and focus invested in the work in favor of easier-to-dramatize storytelling devices like divine favor, transformational episode, or divine intervention.

    (One red-hot example of this is the Netflix show Queen’s Gambit, which basically turns a story of a chess prodigy into a superhero origin story. Her progression from not knowing how all of the pieces move to a level of mastery such that she only loses two games in the whole show takes place in a single scene.)

    A side effect of over-representing the role of luck in great work is that it imputes a kind of arrogance to those who are interested in pursuing that kind of work, as though they were saying not “I want to do great work” but “I’m a special person who can do great work.” Thinking of yourself as special is not a popular attitude to take in American society, but it’s a barrier to ambition that is completely artificial.

    there is no quality time without a quantity of time

    Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outperform the former.

    The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunity—it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give a rate, but it is a very high rate.

    Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime.

    One idea that I encounter over and over in many domains (mastering an instrument and parenting are coming to mind) is the idea that, while not all time spent has the same value, the idea that a small amount of high-quality time can be a shortcut for large quantities of time is a delusion. In a cultural context in which we are pressured to monetize every spare moment and talent and in which economic pressure seems to never stop increasing, that delusion is very attractive. There is just no pathway to mastery of any field that skips investing lots and lots and lots of time and attention.

    I felt a little implicated by this remark. I am well aware that I have things in my life that are “time vampires,” that keep me from following my curiosity and learning to its fullest potential. I feel very much that my challenge at this point in my life is learning how not to chase every rabbit, how to continue to focus, and preserve the conditions where my mind can do its best noticing and best synthesis.

    That’s all for today. I hope you’ll check out the rest of the talk if any of this resonates.

    *This talk was brought to my attention by Spencer Wright, in his excellent newsletter called The Prepared about various news, problems, and cool facts relating to physical manufacturing. Even though I have nothing to do with that field, I have learned so much about what is coming down the line in the coming decades as the internet and the build environment will continue to converge. Wright wrote his own post about the Hamming talk on his personal blog.

  • welcome back

    Little Matt in 2008/09 ish.

    I started this blog in the fall of 2008. It was a welcome project in my first year of college, in a new city and a new climate that made me want to stay indoors all the time. It was a distraction, a way to channel opinionated energy. During the zenith of the blogosphere, it felt like spending all of this time writing into littler browser windows was worthwhile because we all had firsthand experience of stumbling upon (r.i.p. StumbleUpon) a blog and falling down a rabbit hole of individual obsession and personal expression.

    You had to be there, just like you had to be there when Tumblr was good and still had porn, or when Twitter was good and wasn’t full of Nazi grandmothers.

    You do anything long enough and it accumulates its own gravity. Even though 95% of everything I’ve posted reflects a self that’s no longer around, I’m glad that it exists. I’ve been doing this long enough that I have learned to skip the apology post about not posting. No money is changing hands, this is something I do for my own satisfaction. Here’s what’s changed this time, though:

    For the first time, I have moved to my own domain and I am managing my own hosting. In the summer of 2019, I took a programming class with Epicodus, a programming boot camp based here in Portland, and had a great experience. I learned how to use command line tools and got a very shallow introduction to the web development stack. I’ve been eager to get my own little piece of the web set up, and because this has been the most side of side projects, it took me a couple months to migrate the blog.

    As frustrating as it has been, it has been very fun to learn more about how the internet works one level deeper than I understood before: how to configure DNS records, how to implement security certificates to serve the site over HTTPS rather than HTTP. Connecting remotely over SSH and FTP. I have invested a little money and a whole lot of time to get the blog to almost exactly what it was on the WordPress-hosted site. All of the positives are intangible, but they mean something to me.

    I am hoping to keep writing. I thought I wrote about this already, but if I did I can’t find it: I do think that 2009 was the height of social media and the internet for me. Social media had not been monetized yet, let alone changed to serve us dark feedback loops of anxiety and desire. There were great people writing about film and tv and movies in a way that was so much fresher and obsessive than magazines and newspapers permitted. Gawker was incredible, music was easy to find. Doxxing was rare and the general tone was optimistic.

    I am trying to find my way to the best of that. Engaging in slower, better writing than faster, worse writing. (Quickness is a valuable quality in wit, scorn, and parody, and not so valuable in other registers of writing.) Taking my recommendations from real people, not algorithms. Going away and coming back from the internet, like a hunter leaves the cave, rather than having everything brought to me predigested.

    Part of that 2009 ethic is coming back to “long form” (1.e. more than 280 character) writing. I have the time to think right now. 2020 is a high-water year for distraction because everything is a distraction while nothing quite distracts. I hope you’ll read along with me.

  • hey there mister bisexual

    Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

    It is bi visibility day. One lovely thing about bisexuals is that—because it’s a tricky identity to wrap your head around—although folks come out as gay and lesbian according to a more or less microwave popcorn distribution centered around late high school and young adulthood, folks seem to steadily come out as bi as they assimilate that self-knowledge into the life and relationships they have.

    I identified in high school as bisexual, but in college that didn’t last very long. I got really in my head about whether I was adopting the label because I was afraid to identify as gay, something that felt more taboo in the religious context I was raised in (more on that in a bit). In college I decided that because my attraction leaned heavily towards men, I might as well identify as gay and at the time it brought me a lot of satisfaction.

    If the process of creating myself has been imperfect and absurd, coming to terms with my sense of desire has been downright chaotic. Boxes, labels… when we are looking for words to tell us who we are, they can be extremely helpful. Being named can help us feel less alone and make us feel like others who are like us have lived and have had meaningful lives. They are only ever shortcuts to self-understanding, though, and in the best case scenario, where they help you grow, one eventually grows out of them.

    Once I put away some of my issues around body shame and being outside of the beauty ideal—a fucked up hierarchy that has so much power invested in it, particularly by gay men—I was able to rediscover my sense of play and exploration in regards to sexuality. It’s painful to think about how grim and serious my mental models for sex were 10 years ago. It was a hunger that could only be satisfied by metaphorically feeding off of, taking away from, someone else and (at best!) letting them feed off of you. Each the only one to see the true face of hunger. It was not a popular offer! Once I was able to trust others a little better and believe more in my own capacity to give pleasure, a whole different attitude that was light and playful and improvisatory and spontaneous and experimental opened up, and with that came better sex.

    And an interest in exploring bodies other than cis men.

    I think that I would have been fine with the (imperfect, contradictory) identity of “gay man who sometimes has sex with women sometimes and is pretty indifferent to the continuing decoupling of sex and gender,” but reading through Shiri Eisner’s Bi: Notes for a Bisexual Revolution. In addition to going through some of the negative stereotypes of bisexuals in media—the vampire/serial killer/sociopathic/hedonist, the bi-until-graduation, I Kissed A Girl And I Liked It—Eisner points out that bisexuals are particularly destabilizing to patriarchal values because every deviation from its rules is a choice. It’s true that there are not very many visible bi male icons, and there is nowhere near the level of definition about what their (our) role is in society, much less than the roles of straight man or gay man.

    I’m still figuring out what it means to be bi in practice. I’m happy to be visible, to be counted, to surprise anybody that has known me for a long time and people who form expectations instantly when they meet me alike. If I can open up the idea that the world around you is messier and more complicated than it looks on the surface, that’s a good day’s work done.

  • I have spent the last week laid low by the extreme air pollution caused by multiple wildfires across northern California, Oregon, and Washington. Physical symptoms include burning eyes, nausea, migranes, nosebleeds, cough, wheeze, and dryness. Emotional symptoms include despair, helplessness, inability to focus, insomnia, and anhedonia. For several days in the middle of the week, the air in Oregon was the worst in the entire world.

    The wildfires here are different than in California. Forest fires are a natural part of the life cycle in California, and the large fires we are seeing in the last 20 years are the result of catastrophically bad management. Forest managers and/or the politicians that supervise them decided to cut down the number of managed burns to almost nothing, leading up to a huge amount of fuel in the forests over large areas without managed fire breaks. In Oregon, forest fires happen but are once in a few generation events.

    When British colonists arrived here, they found an abundance of large white oak trees, perfect for shipbuilding, which they—true to their nature as disastrous incompetents that ruined every ecosystem they came into contact with—cut down in great numbers. White oaks are hardier against fire than their faster-growing neighbors that they compete with, the Douglas fir. The pre-colonial landscape of Oregon contained a slow dance between the white oak and the Douglas fir: the firs would light-smother young oak trees, building up a dense stand, which would then burn down to the advantage of a lucky white oak that resisted the fire, earning enough light to get established and remain alive for several hundred years. It’s a beautiful dance, one that colonists put a stop to when they logged the white oak to near extinction, then stopped the wildfires, then started clearcutting the remaining monoculture leaving nothing but sterile mountainsides full of decay.

    The forest are the land’s lungs, and they are burning.

    For my entire lifetime, the forests of Oregon and Washington have been dangerous traps that look like enchanted landscapes. These traps are everywhere, and they are starting to knock into each other and go off: overfished oceans, pumped out aquifers leading to ground collapse, disruption of the water cycle, destruction of the atmosphere, mass extinction of animal species. They are all connected by one phenomenon: the capitalist market system assumes that the earth’s natural resources are infinite.

    It’s comforting to think of the market as a circulatory system where money flows through exchanges of value, but if you zoom out far enough it looks like a giant system of roots, and at the tip of every root is someone extracting something out of the earth and not putting it back: mining, harvesting, slaughtering, fishing, felling. For all our talk of progress, there has never been a year since the Industrial Revolution where we have restored more than we have destroyed, planted more than we have harvested, or rested more than we have disrupted. The resources of the earth are not infinite, however, and we are starting to experience that collapse.

    It has been difficult to accept that the slow disaster of ecological collapse is going to be the entire story of my lifetime, and nothing that I do professionally, artistically, or socially, will be more important than that story. Teenagers and folks in their early to mid-20’s got there a lot faster than I did. I had a childhood where environmentalism was a niche political issue instead of the loudest story forever, and that has opened a big generational divide between me and those just a little younger than me.

    Despite the large challenges of climate change—and the more that I learn about the different policy choices that led to the world being as it is right now and the more that I learn about economics and the more that I learn about our scientific research system, the more truly convinced I am that we have all of the tools and resources, right now, to decarbonize the global economy—the fact that we don’t have a full consensus about the existence and scale of the problem is what makes me despair the most. I wish I could scapegoat uneducated white people as the roadblock, but I’ve seen ignorance about this problem from wealthy, educated white East Coast cousins and working class, high-school educated Southwest cousins both white and latino.

    Individual actions are not going to be enough to fix this problem, and I set myself apart from a lot of my anticapitalist liberal friends because I don’t think that nationalizing industry or banning categories of businesses are going to do it either. It can be solved with a combination of aggressive taxes for the wealthy and taxes and regulation for industry and manufacturing that are polluting or have a negative effect on the ecosystem. This idea seems to make older folks nervous, but I don’t see why the status quo isn’t making them more nervous. It may seem like confiscating wealth to highly tax the wealthiest 50 people in the country, but it’s also confiscating wealth to set the conditions for unstable weather events, make property uninsurable, then do nothing as people lose their homes.

    Voting isn’t going to be enough. There’s no question that **** has to be dismissed, but the center-left party is too reliant on the status quo to meet this challenge. I’ve used a lot of words to get here, but this is what I want to say: we have reached a tipping point of rolling, painful natural disasters. There is no longer a choice between change and no-change. The choice is between managed change and violent change.

    I am a peace loving person, I love growth and building for the future and cycles. I am trying to find acceptance with the fact that those will not be the conditions under which I get to build my life.

  • Juliet Takes a Breath

    Juliet Takes a Breath, Gabby Rivera

    To begin, a little disclaimer: If there are readers that see themselves in Juliet and take strength in her journey, I want to honor that. If there are white readers out there that are able to see themselves through an outsider’s eyes through this story, I think that’s a valuable thing too.

    As a piece of writing, however, Juliet is very mixed in quality. For all of the time that we spend in Juliet’s head, I never came away with that deep an understanding of what shaped her attitudes towards gender and sexuality in the 19-ish years of her life before the events of the book take place. Despite being based on a set of meaningful real experiences, the observations of Portland, Oregon or the Bronx, of the people that fill out those places and attend the workshops, etc. never go past superficial observations. We find out fairly late in the story that it’s supposed to take place in 2003, yet every character speaks in the language of queer subculture circa 2015, and I’m fairly certain that the undercut that brings catharsis to a character late in the story would have been perceived not as cutting edge queer fashion in 2003 but as a weird attempt to resurrect a Nazi haircut.

    Even the plotting has a pageant-like quality where Juliet experiences cliched microaggression after another with a corresponding Socratic dialogue enlightening the reader about the real power dynamics at play. It left me wondering who exactly this novel was for. I don’t think Juliet—in either her 2003 or 2015 incarnations—would believe the journey that we get in this novel. It does not seem like it’s for a “mainstream” white feminist reader, exactly either, although the internal politics of white feminist spaces and relationships end up taking center stage in this story for much longer than brown queer spaces do.

    But for all that, the description of finding strength in a queer scene free from the white gaze or the burden of navigating and accommodating whiteness was really effective and even though I had to slog through much of this novel, by the end Juliet had won me over.

    I am interested in the new graphic novel adaptation that seems to be in progress. Perhaps the magic that illustrations can do to bring depth to characters through facial expressions and ground scenes in place can smooth out some of the roughness in the writing and allow the story to shine.

  • I am often in the First Baptist Church building in downtown Portland for work. It’s a grand old building dating to the 1890’s, and like many mainline denomination buildings, it has seen healthier times. It has a tremendous twice a week meal program for people who are sleeping rough, but also holds events which puts its staff in the deeply uncomfortable position of having to move along people on one day they are trying to bring comfort to on another. It has a grandeur to it, with a kidney shaped sanctuary that, in it’s fully open configuration, seats nearly a thousand people, but which must seem echoingly empty on a normal Sunday. It now hosts a Cambodian ministry that is lively and active, with families and elders and children all present.

    I am deeply ambivalent to religion—Christianity in particular because that’s my tradition—but I am not hostile to it, and I understand a bit of the function that it provides to people in hard times. These are hard times. Religions are both survival strategies and philosophies for what comes after survival. Pandemic aside, there is so much hardship in our society right now and our civic lives have been hollowed out from churchgoing Sundays to bowling on Wednesdays to drinks at the Eagle Lodge on the weekends.

    Millennials were sold a bill of goods. We were told that the best thing about us was that we were not attached to the old ways of doing things, that we were digital natives, post-social, and that those were good things. Instead, internet hypercapitalism Hoovered up all of the civic institutions that needed us to enter them as a generational transition* leaving us with nothing but a never-ending parade of headlines about such-and-such institution closing (until the newspapers themselves closed).

    *Of course, many of the institutions sucked. They were racist, they were sexist, they made no room for youth. That’s a huge part of the story, I just wish they had closed for those reasons and not because they had bad websites or didn’t offer online checkout or easy social sharing or any of the thousand, sociopathic reasons we decided to patronize a shiny new online business instead of one with a presence in our actual lives.

    One of my favorite places in the church is the doorway to the service entrance to the church, the pathway that goes past the garbage and recycling to the street and where the deliveries come in. That door has a simple stained glass window, dedicated to the memory of Robin McAllister. At their very very best (maybe a rare best), churches are a place where people can turn labor into care for a community through service. I don’t know their story, but I think Robin McAllister must have been a person who understood that.

  • Coronavirus Diary No. 3

    Los Angeles Times: ‘Batman’ shut down after positive COVID case, reportedly Rob Pattinson. New York Times: Trump Vaccine Chief Casts Doubt on Vaccine by Election Day Fox News: Salon owner denies Pelosi’s ‘setup’ claims, says House Speaker ‘owes the entire country an apology’. Twitter: We Might See A Lot More Coronavirus Pandemics Ahead, Experts Warn.

    I feel pretty hopeless right now.

    It was muggy and hot this afternoon; Long August has not yet yielded to Wet Autumn. All I wanted to do was to go to a movie theater. Movie theaters are not open, they shouldn’t open, in fact they should stay closed for so long that I’m worried that they will disappear completely. I don’t spend all day thinking about how “coronavirus sucks” but the thought isn’t far from my mind, just like other sucky facts like **** being president or climate change or megafauna going extinct. It’s a train of thought that you can’t even let leave the station because it’s just car after car of awful realities and diffuse loss. I fucked up today, I started thinking about how I usually have so many things to do with the kind of mood I had this afternoon: go to a bar and get a cocktail, visit someone, go get a meal, try and make smalltalk with strangers at a gay bar, go to the mall.

    At the beginning of this, during the period I wrote from in March, it looked like this was going to be a trial of individual endurance: how long can I stay in my house, what do I do with all of this time, what new hobbies am I going to pick up, what can I learn, how am I going to connect with people in new ways? I knew our response was going to be poor, but I thought that surely the huge constituencies of people that are taking deep deep wounds from an incompetent response were going to be enough to demand action. Businesses, anything hospitality, the mass unemployed, landlords and renters alike. Instead, every single fracture point in society seems to be crumbling. The injustices that were already worn as collars have become garrotes, tightening with no sign of stopping, cutting into flesh.

    I was reading Plato’s Republic yesterday (when I was 20, a cute blond cello playing philosophy major named Paul told me that I would enjoy reading Artur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and I’m still working my way through the necessary background reading to learn whether he was right. He was drunk, and it was almost certainly the last book he had read and didn’t have anything to do with me in particular, but 10 years later I still want to know whether he was flirting with me or not.) and was struck by this observation, given by Socrates and directed towards the city—mirroring Socrate’s ideal model city—which has paid for greater wealth and a more complex development with inequality, injustice, and the presence of corruption:

    We will have to find agreater” title for the other because each of them is a great many cities, but not a city, as they say in the game. They contain two, at any rate, which are at war with one another: the city of the poor and that of the rich. And within each of these, there are a great many more. So if you treat them as one city, you will be making a big mistake… As long as your own city is [just and soundly governed], it will be the greatest one—not in reputation; I do not mean that; but the greatest in fact…

    There’s so much captured here: the way that inequality and corruption go hand in hand, the way that displays of wealth and high levels of civic development often do too. There has always been a poor America, a rich America, a black America, a white America, a men’s America, a women’s America. Languages, countries of origin, who we love and how we worship. None of these divisions are new. What feels new right now is that it feels like we are all breaking down to the level of the pod. I feel constant anxiety about how many people are in my bubble. It makes me question my own values and good judgement. When I take down the barrier of the mask with someone new, I question their values and good judgement too, and this includes roommates and good friends and family and lovers alike. Don’t get me started on other people—everyone else gets my least compassion, my highest suspicion.

    I have some ways that I am required to be in the world, and some ways that I choose to be in the world. Whether or not I engage with the outside world, events are taking place in it without me. If I choose to withdraw more, I become more dependent on people whose inability to make that choice is being exploited: retail and food workers, delivery drivers, service providers, healthcare professionals. We’re all suspicious of each other, we’re all unhappy that our way of life has been tremendously disrupted at best and obliterated at worst. I feel that friction all day, I don’t have very many opportunities to recover and rest from that friction, and I don’t have very much hope that the status quo will change for many months at the earliest, and years at worst.

    One of the most shocking changes in real politics that has happened in my lifetime, the stuff underneath the bloated two party scrum, is the change in national mood between the open, assimilationist, culturally dominant, modern attitude of the United States towards the world (sometimes and somewhat reciprocated) and the closed, fearful, decaying attitude we all carry now. It’s been one of the most consistent social trendlines in my lifetime, connecting the end of “Made in USA” products at Wal-Mart to 9/11 to the shoe thrown at George W. Bush to ICE detention centers now and hundreds of thousands of corpses filled with Sackler family pharmecuticles.

    (There’s a lot of erasure in this narrative. Throughout this period there have been people who have seen the ugly side, who did not participate in the civic religion. There was a girl I went to in high school who did her senior project on the Zapatistas and I sometimes think about her, and her vision of the world in relation to myself at my age. I didn’t know shit about this country or this world and when I’m honest with myself I admit that I don’t know shit about the future or what’s possible.)

    One of my favorite pieces of media to revisit during the **** presidency has been Louis Malle’s 1986 documentary …And The Pursuit of Happiness (currently only available to watch through the Criterion Channel service). This documentary interviews many first generation immigrants, from a very diverse set of countries of origin and across the United States. One thing that pulses through the documentary like a pulse is the visible enthusiasm, excitement, that the interviewees have for the process of adapting to a new place.

    There’s not much of that to be found right now. It’s like we’ve all woken up to the fact that we’re in a burning building, and nobody wants to evacuate without knowing who is going to be in control of who gets to come back in. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but there’s no guarantee that it gets better.

Matthew Eilar

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

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