Out Alone In the Heaps

I've been put out, I thought.

I've been snuffed out.

I'm not alight any longer.

It was like being lost, dropped out, thrown out, spat out, shovelled under, dropped down a great hole. Small. Very small. Knowing then in the black coldness how small I am, that I'd never be anything big. Crumb. Splinter. Lost thing. Little lost thing. That's how it was. Something like that. Only that doesn't quite do it either. Not yet. It's like you're dead, being out alone in the heaps, absolutely dead, extinct, done in, never remembered by anyone ever, never existed even, not ever, not known anywhere at all. Like that. Except you're alive, except you're breathing, except you're there in this dead place, alive with all the thick deadness about you, on top of you, all around, moving in. That's where I was. Out in the deep of it. There I trod, panting and miserable in the thick leather suit with my hulking metal helmet covering my noggin and all of it so big for me that I had to shuffle up inside of the suit to see out of the helmet window. Me and all those dead things. Hundreds and hundreds of different sized things, all smacked up together. Load of rubbish, wasn't it.

I'm sorry, I thought, I'm so very sorry. For all the broken things. Ugly objects, how did you get like this, who did this to you? I'm sorry no one cares for you. I am sorry. But I can't care for all of you, there's not enough of me. I can't. I don't. You'd snuff me out, soon as anything. You'd have me in an instant.

Just ahead of me was an old wooden staircase, broken and cracked, with some steps missing. It must have been a long staircase, once upon a time. I wonder where it went. Now it climbed up to nowhere, but it stayed where it was, waving a little bit in the growing wind, but not sinking. A bit of a place, it was, I thought. As much of a place as you're ever likely to get out here. Not very solid perhaps but more solid. I reached for it and dragged myself up it and clambered and heaved up its steps, the banister shuddering, until I was higher than the heap ground and I could see then that it was still connected to some building and that for the moment, it was on top of the heap, the highest bit, like a mast of a ship. There I scrambled and there, on a step, I sat. Feeling sick. Gulls about me. They're living they are, I thought, hallo to you. I am here. I'm still here. Still alive.

—Edward Carey, Heap House

What an unexpectedly lovely book.

We Are What We Pretend to Be

I just finished watching Lodge 49. It’s wonderful. No one I’ve asked has heard of it.

It’s difficult to describe, beyond the setup: a down-and-out surfer finds a signet ring from a local fraternal order on the beach and returns it to the lodge. When he sees the dying lodge and meets the struggling people within, he falls in love with it and asks if he can join.

The lodge’s history is steeped in alchemy and ritual, so the show itself has mysteries, of course. But they almost seem beside the point, despite their intrigue. Todd VanDerWerff wrote about this halfway through the season:

It’s not clear what the larger point of the series is, or where all of its mystical portents and hints about some larger purpose for these characters are going. There’s a strong subplot about Dud’s twin sister, Liz (Sonya Cassidy), who’s working at a Hooters-ish sports bar named Shamroxx, because she’s so burdened down with debt passed down to her by her and Dud’s deceased father. There’s a dead body in a secret, hidden room in the lodge. There’s a loose seal wandering across the road.

All of this, I think, has led to people trying to guess what Lodge 49 means. It has some of the outward trappings of a mystery show like Lost or Twin Peaks, so it must play by the same rules as those shows, right? But the series’ fourth episode, “Sunday,” is as good an argument as anything that the series is less about trying to make sense of its many loose ends and more about realizing that you find life amid the loose ends.

Lodge 49 is the anti-Lost. It’s a deliberate inversion of the (very successful) mystery-meat show format. In this case, the mystery isn’t the main course; its function is mostly to agitate the characters into opening themselves up to one another. It gives them reasons to build and sustain a community. So the show will reveal the occasional mummified corpse or Bruce Campbell, but it’s mostly content to wander and explore and build connections. It’s been called “deceptively aimless”. And that makes it a breath of fresh air.

Todd wrote this more recently about the overdue decline of the white male anti-hero and the punishment of women for entertainment. It hits the issue from pretty much all sides, and the whole thing’s worth a read, but this bit leapt out at me:

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve capped an era full of white male antihero protagonists with a president who feels like he might as well be the main character of an antihero drama in some other universe, where viewers thrill at how he always dances one step ahead of the forces that would bring him down, cheered on by toadies and sycophants who eagerly abandon principle in the face of finally grasping power.

This is also a delicate dynamic to talk about because the surest path toward boring, bland art is to insist that it be morally, ethically, socially, and politically palatable. We need shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad to help us ponder the darkness within humanity, and within ourselves as individuals. To insist that art conform to some code of righteousness is a shortcut to making art that’s not worth thinking about....

What I am suggesting is that advocating for representation on TV and in films is not merely about painting an accurate, inclusive picture of the world we live in. Yes, we need more women antiheroes, more antiheroes of color, and so on — but we also need to think about how the stories we tell create long grooves in our culture, grooves that eventually crystallize into reflexive beliefs about who gets to be the protagonist and how they go about being that protagonist.

Read that last sentence again. The stories we tell create long grooves in our culture. It took me a while to understand that there is such a thing as a cultural illness, and that too many Travis Bickles and Jesse Jameses and Eric Cartmans often lie at the root of it. If you don’t believe that, sit down and listen to how Johnny Cash sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Then go into any bar where it’s playing and listen to how the drinkers sing that line.

Vonnegut wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” But he decided that wasn’t clear enough, so he wrote this too: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

I used to think that people who were troubled by phenomena like South Park were being uptight and humorless. Now I wonder whether South Park’s omnipresent “screw you for caring about stuff” theme carved some of the grooves that helped pave the way for our current predicament.

My hope is that we’re waking up to it. The current president* may not be a coincidence, but neither is the appearance of two movies about Mister Rogers or the slow rise of shows like Lodge 49 or The Good Place. I don’t think stories will save us. But maybe we’re starting to realize that stories have shaped us more than we suspected.

Talk About Adding Value!

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I can’t imagine how little self-regard you’d have to have to actually put a Facebook-operated camera and microphone in your living room. Especially after the last two years, let alone the last decade. Hell, just after this month.

Snowpiercer is the Sequel to Willy Wonka

Normally this kind of fan theory stuff ranges somewhere from uninteresting to mildly annoying for me. I can’t tell you how tired I am of my son bringing up that Darth Jar-Jar thing. But this is delightful.

It also stands as a good example of what analysis of pop culture can do if it’s done right and isn’t just The Church of Bazinga. The sequel theory itself is clever and diverting, but under the surface of this video lurks a really perceptive critical analysis and comparison of what these two films say about the world in which they were made.

Also: HUGE spoilers of Snowpiercer, which, if you haven’t seen it, you should, and if you didn’t like it, you were of course wrong.

Russians Meddling in Star Wars

In and of itself, the idea of looking for meaning and a reflection of one’s own life in pop culture is perfectly fine. I would even argue that it’s the first step toward digging deeper into a work of art, because it leads us down a path of critical thought and invigorating discussion with friends — and maybe even a little bit of self-examination.

But here’s where things have flipped on their ear in the 2010s: Many fans of a work aren’t just looking for meaning in the work itself, but for the work to impart meaning upon them. Too often, they ask pop culture to fill the role that religion, philosophy, or psychology once did.

Todd VanDerWerff keeps giving me lots to think about.

I’ve chewed around the edges of this before in trying to understand the relationship between writing and ego, and again while reading Infinite Jest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the decline of community and religious organizations has preceded the rise of fandamentalism and politics-as-pro-wrestling.

I’m not suggesting that the solution is “go to church”, of course. But we’ve created a vacuum of cultural and emotional need, and we’ve started the new holy war to try to fill that void.

Stories are often escape, and that sounds charmingly harmless as long as you don’t think about it too long. As long as you don’t start analyzing the structure of the most popular stories. As long as you don’t reflect that one of the biggest non-Nazi criticisms of “The Last Jedi” was its rejection of moralism and lack of a clear villain.

We love to quote Marx’s “opium of the people” observation, but my friend Dan recently reminded me that the full quote, in context, reads rather differently than most people think:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

At the core of fundamentalism of any stripe is a scrabbling desperation to change my environment to make me feel safe and reinforced. To change what is outside of me in the hopes that it will fix what is fearful and suffering inside. Whether with online fights about sci-fi or our current political climate, what we’re hearing now is the suffering cry of a diseased and possibly dying culture.

Remarkably perceptive of the Russians and modern American Nazis to see that the best way to attack our political system is to come at the new religion first. But they’re going to hurt more than just the shot at a more just and inclusive society. And they don’t care.

Who am I?

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Hence, in order to realise that inherent and untainted happiness, which indeed he daily experiences when the mind is subdued in deep sleep, it is essential that he should know himself. For obtaining such knowledge, the question ‘Who am I?’ in quest of the Self is the best means.

—Sri Ramana Maharshi

Let Everything Happen to You

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.

Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

Infinite Jest

Yeah, I know. I'm not sure what possessed me to write this up, really. We've had 22 years of literary reviews and irritated takes and responses and re-responses since Infinite Jest's splashdown. There's not much left unsaid, certainly nothing I can say that won't invite armchair psychoanalysis.

I started feeling the weight of all that before I was even halfway through the book. I've been reading for forty years and never seen anyone give this much of a damn about whatever book I was in the middle of. People asked me why I was reading it, a question I've never been asked before. I got eyerolls and smirks.

It became a sort of self-conscious reflex, watching for the drive-by comment or look whenever I sat down to read it in my office or at my kids' afterschool activities. I learned that Infinite Jest isn't just a book, and hasn't been for a long time now. It's become an opportunity for judgment the way Twitter and Facebook are now, a focal point for egos and frustrations and resentments and hurt.

These are the straits you may have to navigate, if you decide that you're curious enough to read it: On the left is a response spectrum that runs from LOL-hipster-affectation to what I can only term a bone-deep resentment of the book's very existence. On the right is this guy:

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Oh, that guy. The world's female English-speaking population is littered with stories of ex-boyfriends who thumped down this literary doorstop and actually said "You need to read this if you want to understand me." Which, first, ladies, I'm sorry about all the bad oral sex. But good on you for leaving. Hal Incandenza is my generation's Holden Caulfield, a beautiful and tragic character who maybe never had a chance, but also a pretty good dipstick for measuring dipsticks.

And so the book is tainted by what I think of as the Boston Red Sox Effect, wherein the thing itself might well be pretty great, but enough of the fans are just so damned insufferable that few right-thinking people outside of New England would be caught dead in a cap, much less a jersey.

Those insufferables account for probably half of the hatred. The other half looks to be a simple formula: Readers will put in the work for a difficult book, and they will put in the work for a long book, but if you give them both and they don't feel like you rewarded them enough for the effort, they will hate you for it. Not just the book. You.

And Infinite Jest is long. And it ain't Finnegans Wake, but Infinite Jest is difficult. So, reading it, most of what I felt was a mix of a sometimes dogged determination, an abiding fondness for the love and pain and empathy underpinning what David Foster Wallace built, and a cringing sympathy for the cultural quagmire his biggest work has gotten schlorped down into.

Or, at least, that's where I ended up. Starting out, I was unsure if I'd finish. The first 200 pages are, frankly, kind of a slog. There's beautiful writing and well-drawn characters and wit and insight, but you're scaling a wall of text, text that often offers only outcroppings of minutiae and tedium, and you have no idea what this book even is or where it's going. Are the plot lines going to converge? What is the point of this? What the hell with the endnotes, man?

But as I read those 200 pages, I could hear Wallace encouraging me to hang in. There's a point to all this, he seemed to say. You're going to need to, as Tom Waits once said about his music, let it chase you around a few times. I hung in and read those 200 pages mostly on faith. And that's when it started to open up.

The turning point for me was a chapter that could and probably should be published as a standalone essay. It's a rundown of the things you learn when spending time in a sober living facility or treatment center. And it's sad and beautiful and funny. Here's a bit:

That boring activities become, perversely, much less boring if you concentrate intently on them. That if enough people in a silent room are drinking coffee it is possible to make out the sound of steam coming off the coffee. That sometimes human beings have to just sit in one place and, like, hurt. That you will become way less concerned about what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do. That there is such a thing as raw, unalloyed, agendaless kindness. That it is possible to fall asleep during an anxiety attack.

That concentrating intently on anything is very hard work.

That was when it started to click for me, why he was telling parallel stories about privileged athletes and blownout addicts and a home video that kills people, stories that were clearly connected but never seemed to come together. It was where I found the book's heart.

I wish you could meet Johnny. Johnny's a hell of a guy. He's a kind man and a talented man, a man who has gone through some stuff and is now determined to be more, to be good. There's a decent chance he'll become a household name one day. But if you ever do meet him, Johnny will tell you that Infinite Jest is the reason he got sober before his life got intractably kertwanged. So Johnny's one of a very few with whom I've found I can really talk about it, who sees it less as a literary moment or reason for GRAR than the outflooding of love and sadness and worry and illness and absurdity that it is.

Because, look: There is not a more honest, thorough, and thoughtful portrait of what it is to be addicted to something and to try to recover from that addiction anywhere in storytelling that I'm aware of. Nothing more keenly but lovingly focused on what it's like to try to become more whole by repeatedly slamming your face against your own precious intelligence until both eyes blacken and your nose is pulped. That stuff bulges from the seams of this book, and it's only half the picture.

The rest is, in a word, entertainment. Entertainment as analgesic then anaesthetic then addiction. How we've come to depend on it the way some people depend on hydrocodone or at-least-daily orgasms or ecstatic revival experiences. How it's affecting our minds and time and relationships. How we're killing ourselves with it.

To that end, he deliberately builds everything in the book—its structures, its narratives, its displaced jumps through time, even and perhaps especially its ending—to withhold those things we instinctively crave from stories. He seems almost taunting at times. I'd find myself preparing giddily for dramatic scenes he'd spent chapters building to, only to be dragged around them to witness the quiet aftermath. I'd get really excited for what had to be an inevitable and beautiful romance, only to be given reasons why it shouldn't happen.

And I would get angry. And I would argue with the book for not giving me the thing that I wanted. And the book would ask me why it should. And I would try to compare what the book gave me to what I demanded. And I always found that what the book gave me was more honest, more true, and certainly more profound than the momentary change of my emotions I was chasing.

And then the ending came. And I will not spoil the ending. But it came, and it went, and I was looking at the first page of the endnotes nearly telling the book out loud that it couldn't fucking end there, I need to know, and I turned back to read the first chapter again, and then I understood, and the brilliance of that abrupt stop's timing just about floored me.

But I'm still pissed off about it.

It isn't for everyone. I get the hatred. Hell, I get the feeling that some of its fans hate it. It starves you of most of what you want, and kind of does a neener-neener dance about it. It is gavaged full of moments and insights that should be on posters and in pamphlets in every 12-step meeting room on the planet, but then wraps those gems in layers of dense and confusing and sometimes deliberately tedious story pacing. Points ground down to microscopic precision. Sentences you can't hear the echo from the far side of. Paragraphs that chew up pages.

It is, in short, a fucker. But it's a brilliant fucker. It's built in ways nobody dreamed of making a book before. The experience of reading it was for me what any recovering addict will tell you they went through, once they started Doing the Work. A period of drudgery undertaken on faith, an a-ha moment, a honeymoon, a more laborious but joyful plunge into continuing on and mining the depths even when the pink clouds dissipate, and a journey whose one consistent theme is that you'll never be given what you want, because what you want isn't good enough, what you want is about your feelings. And your feelings don't matter. Your feelings are at the whims of tides and currents. Acceptance of and presence in the facts of the moment are, by contrast, a filigree you can set a house on.

I love this book in the way I love my life. That love is occasionally studded with warm feelings of happiness and ecstasy, but the love itself is not a feeling. It is a promise to roll up my sleeves and get to work. It is a lifetime of care. So I am left with what I need. Things to think about, people to care about, and a well of gratitude that I was alive to witness it.

Gotcha

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It’s been two years since we brought him home all riddled with worms and bugbites. Two years of stepping on metal pencil eraser housings, of LEGO blocks chewed to Dali-esque dimensions. Two years of him giving a piece of his mind to, well, whatever it is past the northwest corner of the fence.

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Two years of gazing longingly at dogwoods, yearning for a love that can never be.

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Two years of perfecting his are-you-going-to-eat-that Oliver Twist face.

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Two years of jockeying for couch position with the kids. And mostly winning.

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Two years of mirroring my own distrust of authority with more forthrightness and courage than I ever showed.

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Happy Gotcha Day, boogs. Please stay off the dining room table.

How Music Was Made on Super Nintendo

This is one of those intersections of art and engineering that never fail to delight me. The sheer scale of effort required to manually code individual sound instructions to get around the hardware’s technical limitations is insane to me. That’s a labor of love. And the end result is often beautiful enough to stand on its own as ambient music.

Cleaning House

Took me awhile after leaving the place, but I finally got it done. Some of it was foot dragging, some of it was technical hurdles, but after a couple weeks of farting around and sending support emails, I've finally purged my Twitter history.

But, you ask, what will we do without your archive of shitposts? To this I say, if you love something, let it go.

I’ve covered the whys of my leaving before, and mostly inertia kept me from sweeping up after I left. Jack doubling down on the “we should let Nazis and other abusers have their say about whether people are people” horse hockey finally got me fired up to finish the job. Plus I’m not sad about erasing all evidence of my previous shitposting.

Part of me really is sorry to do it. Twitter circa 2008 was a delight. It was a kitchen conversation the whole world was invited to. The whole world showed up, sat at the table or hunkered down on the floor by the lazy Susan cabinet in the corner, and we all got to know each other. We gave each other a window into our lives. We made jokes. Dear god, did we go overboard with that part.

But, if you followed the right people, there was love in that room. This isn't nostalgia. If you've been around that long, go use advanced search and look at your timeline from 10 years ago. It's a different place. A place that brought daily delight.

So I'm not angry. I'm sad. I'm sad to see yet another bunch of ostensibly well-meaning white men with money fuck things up for everyone. I'm sorry that that kitchen conversation devolved into becoming, as one friend so perfectly put it, the paper bag that we all scream into now.

My Facebook's gone, my Metafilter account's gone, and my toots are all purged (well, all but 175 that appear to be unfindable even from my archive). And I feel better now. More at peace. Less distracted from the people around me that need me now, today.

I made countless friends through those venues. Friends on nearly every continent. Friends who I’ve laughed and grieved with. Friends who have met me in, God, four countries outside of this one. I am sorry to shut the door on these places. But I'm not sorry to embrace what has come next. The next right thing. The next person who needs me. The next quiet moment, the next gift of boredom. Let us give thanks for having nothing to entertain us.

(Oh, for the record, I used TweetEraser to do the deed. No recurring monthly fee, no auto-posting to your timeline, and they patiently helped my dumb ass through multiple failed attempts when I didn't read the directions closely enough.)

Update: Scratch that. Now it’s 194 tweets. What the hell, Twitter.