Small Clever Rooms
I used to do year-end best music posts, but it started to feel a bit silly when most or all of my list every year was just stuff that could be found on any of the countless other lists put out earlier by people who had actual deadlines to hit. But I did find myself wanting to look back at 2018 when the year turned, so I widened my scope a little bit. Here are some of the most notable things that happened in my life in 2018.
In 2018 I finally deleted my Twitter account and created a Mastodon one. It was a little tough to cut the string, and I don’t have any IRL friends on Mastodon, but I still don’t miss Twitter at all. Mastodon is better for my blood pressure: it’s got fewer Nazis, better moderation to handle the ones who do show up, and just generally a more personal and chummy vibe. There’s still a fair amount of irreverent shitposting, but it’s mixed with a good dose of positivity and all-in-this-togetherness and people generally tend to value being considerate and kind to each other. I still waste a lot of time on it, like I did on Twitter, but the time wasted feels a lot healthier. And being surrounded by marginalized people, many of whom were pushed off other platforms or just quit in disgust, is pleasantly disorienting and enlightening.
I got really into Dar Williams in high school. After the intervening 20 increasingly irony-laden years, a lot of her stuff seems sort of painfully earnest, but it seems like that wheel is turning around a bit: authenticity unmarred by self-shame is “in” for 2019.
I credit the Dar Williams song What Do You Hear In These Sounds with inoculating me, about 20 years ago, against the stigmatization of therapy. But it took a really long time for me to actually consider it for myself, and then a couple more very foot-draggy years for me to finally take even the very minor step, in mid-December, of seeing an actual therapist in person for a short consultation session. It went fine, I guess. I’m very guarded and don’t open up to people easily, so the twenty minute session was fairly impersonal and coldly intellectual in a way that I doubt was very indicative of what actual therapy is like. But it was a first step and I’m hoping to be able to continue that momentum by “shopping around” a bit and ultimately actually starting regular therapy in 2019.
I bought a house in June. Actually a condo, because I don’t want to be responsible for the upkeep on a whole house, I think single-family dwellings are a relic of the past in a city growing as fast as Seattle, and I probably couldn’t afford one even if I did want it. Writing a lot about this doesn’t particularly appeal to me so I’m not going to. Suffice to say the process was roughly one part exhilarating to three parts agonizing and stressful. I do think we had some snafus that led to worse-than-normal circumstances and the average ratio of good to bad is probably more like 1:1 in Seattle (and even better in places that aren’t growing so fast). I’m glad it’s over and that I don’t yet have buyer’s remorse after six months.
I’ve always had a bit of a fascination with both fonts, scripts and handwriting. I spent a summer in high school improving my normal day-to-day handwriting, and higher education in math ensured that I had further daily practice since the abundance of symbols made computerized note-taking nearly impossible at speed. Then my last full-time job exposed me to a nice variety of the world’s languages, and the aesthetic pleasure of the diversity of the world’s scripts was what fascinated me the most. So late last year I finally took up calligraphy with a dip pen. My practice has sometimes been sporadic but I’ve stuck with it for a full year; the “culmination” of the year’s practice was a little set of tags for my Christmas gifts. It’s not too much, but it’s the first work I did intending it to be “presentation quality” and not just an address on a postcard or some bullshit phrases written purely for practice.
The Postman’s Knock has been a great resource for learning some different lettering styles. It’s the kind of website that offers so much for free that I’ll buy some stuff more as a way of thanks than because I really need it.
A Bike Crash
I crashed my bike about a week before Thanksgiving, under circumstances that still aren’t 100% clear to me. I’m pretty sure I took a turn a little too fast and since it was a fairly cold and very foggy morning, there was a patina of frost on the trail or something that caused me to just go over sideways. The fun thing is that I don’t really remember. I’m pretty sure the last thing I was doing before I found myself dazed on the ground with a bloody face was rounding a corner. But I apparently also called my partner four times in the immediate aftermath and left approximately the same message each time.
I had a mild concussion, according to the urgent care doctor, in addition to the obvious external injuries to my face. (It’s a very good thing I was wearing a helmet.) This was the first time I’d ever had a concussion, and probably my worst bike mishap of all time. For fifteen years of cycling as my main mode of transport, I consider this to be not too bad. I hopped on my bike again as soon as I had a chance to get it into a shop for a safety check, which turned out to be about three weeks later, and while I’m taking corners a little more gingerly since then, it wasn’t a scary enough experience to put me off my chosen lifestyle.
I wrote a couple songs about and for Einstein. You can listen and download “The Eternally Incomprehensible Thing” and “God Does Not Play Dice” for free on my studio page. They’re also on Bandcamp if you would like to pay for them.
We lost two cats in 2018, both to cancer. The first was Fiona, a sometimes-sweet, sometimes-ornery little female calico who we got not long after our last long-time cat Einstein died (also, as far as we know, from cancer) just three years ago.
We adopted Fiona at the very end of 2015, like, between Christmas and the new year. The cat shelters were all pretty cleaned out and we found her in a Petsmart, where she won us over by mooshing her forehead against our hands when we reached into her cage (an endearing tendency that she maintained for her whole time with us). We were looking for a low-key cat for our tiny apartment and she did fit that bill pretty well, though she was also much more interested in playing than anticipated and particularly skilled in the vertical dimension of the hunt. She was very hot-and-cold with her affection, alternating between curling up in inconspicuous locations to avoid any disturbance — which she would answer with swipes if necessary — and insistently demanding attention immediately. But she never completely lost her original charming love of a gentle hand to moosh her forehead against, at least until, shortly after we moved, she stopped eating and lost interest in just about everything.
Admittedly, I have led a pretty sheltered life. But nearly nothing in it has been as painful as having a sick cat with no appetite. The feeling of powerlessness as this small creature, who you love and who depends on you utterly, basically wastes away under your care is uniquely agonizing. And when it’s clear that trips to the vet are terrifying for the cat, and the only way to get them to eat is to force-feed them, my partner and I have fortunately been in agreement that euthanasia seems like the most merciful route. (I know that pet euthanasia can be a fraught issue and I have no judgment for people who choose otherwise, especially given the mind-boggling array of miserable circumstances in which pet owners can find themselves.)
So we had Fiona put down, when it was pretty clear to us that cancer had made her life a constant pain and being consious held no appeal to her anymore. It was still, and will always be, a difficult decision. We don’t know what’s in a cat’s head and they have no way of telling us, so all we can do is glean what we can from their behavior and tell ourselves the stories that comfort us most about the decision we have to make.
After all that, losing Fiona was like a dry run for Gandalf, almost exactly six months later. The circumstances were almost identical: complicating factors (in Fiona’s case, our move; in Gandalf’s, the arrival of a new cat) obscured the symptoms of a cancer that we didn’t get checked out until it took a turn for the worst, not that treating a cat’s cancer is really on the table for us. In both cases the diagnosis followed almost exactly the same route: after the distressing drastic behavioral change, blood and urine labs turned up something, and then an ultrasound revealed basically the worst-case scenario.
But whereas we’d only had Fiona for two and a half years, my partner had had Gandalf for over a decade, since he was two years old. He’d been in my life for the vast majority of that time as well. Unlike Fiona’s sometimes-fractious temperament, Gandalf loved to be around people; he was mild-mannered, so gentle with his claws that you could tussle with him without getting scratched, and daffily affectionate later in life with a purr that grew louder year by year and that we called his “pigeon purr” for its complex mix of percussive rumble and high-pitched pseudo-vocalizations. He was simultaneously easygoing and chock full of personality, quick to find any plastic bags left out (for impishly chewing on), new open cardboard boxes (for sitting in, a classic cat move), or clean laundry (also for sitting purposes). When we moved into our two-story condo, he quickly developed one method of ascending the stairs, from which he did not deviate for the remainder of his too-short life: galumphing all sixteen pounds of himself up them at maximum speed. He loved having his lopsided triangle face scratched so much that he learned how to grab your hand with his claws and pull it back to his face if you stopped before he was done.
Gandalf was the origin of the term “flavor bag,” where after we got a new bag of dry food and emptied it into a tote, we’d cut it open and lay it flat for him to spend fifteen minutes licking the flavor residue off the inside. His last flavor bag, which he enjoyed with as much gusto as we’d ever seen from him, was two weeks before he stopped eating entirely. I won’t belabor his abrupt decline, which was also shockingly similar to Fiona’s, except to say it was especially painful to see in a cat once so uniquely vibrant and friendly. The boy was one of a kind and we will miss him dearly.
Media and Things I Loved in 2018
I loved Mount Eerie’s 2017 album A Crow Looked At Me enough to write a rare blog post about it. 2018 saw a follow-up and sequel of sorts, Now Only, and I loved it no less. If the first half of Crow was a transmission from the middle of an inferno of grief and the second half a sort of staggering away from it, Now Only is learning to live with the scars. It’s still a tough listen but less immediate and turmoil-wracked, more brain and less gut, with a wider view of things and song lengths and instrumentation to match. Taken together, ACLAM and Now Only stand as one of the more important musical works of the decade for me. It comforted me during my two terrible losses this year to know that Phil Elverum lived through something worse than what I was facing, to have him make gentle mockery of my impulse to isolate myself in my grief in Now Only’s title track:
I remember looking around the hospital waiting room,
full of people all absorbed in their own personal catastrophes,
all reading books like Being Mortal, all with that look in their eyes,
and I remember still feeling like “No,”
“No one can understand.”
“No, my devastation is unique.”
Anyway, to take a turn away from the tragic, Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer was unsurprisingly excellent. As someone initially drawn to the sprawling, eccentric and ambitious if imperfect out there-ness of her first two LPs, I wasn’t the best audience for her turn to a tighter, more focused pure pop album, but the mid-album run of “Screwed,” “Django Jane,” “Pynk” and “Make Me Feel” in particular is absolutely undeniable.
Of Montreal, one of Monáe’s collaborators back in the day, released a pretty focused pop album as well after losing me with their hard turn into shambolic kitchen-sink mayhem (and borderline musical blackface) following their masterpiece Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? 2018’s White is Relic / Irrealis Mood might seem like another trial of patience, with its six tracks clocking in at over five minutes each, but think of them as six pairs of two shorter tracks which blend more or less seamlessly into each other: a bit more manageable. “Paranoiac Intervals / Body Dysmorphia” is the first single and the standout for me, a slice of perfect electropop that melts into something more abstract and unsettling, but “Writing the Circles / Orgone Tropics,” which follows it, is a nice slower comedown with some killer one-liners.
I got back into Future of the Left, the group of extremely loud British folks with the screamiest and most sardonic frontman since… well, his last group Mclusky, in a big way in 2017. Said frontman has his own project Christian Fitness, under which name he released an album called Nuance, The Musical in 2018. It’s a half hour of stuff just slightly too off-kilter (and sung or spoken in too low a register) to work as Future of the Left tracks, and it’s a blast from start to finish. The addition of strings in some of the tracks mix the sound up a bit without too drastically changing a game that never needed to be changed.
Finally, Jean Grae and Quelle Chris’s rap opus Everything’s Fine was Bandcamp’s number 1 album of 2018 and in my opinion the honor is well deserved.
Dream Quest is a combination roguelike/deck builder/dungeon crawler with atrociously amateurish art (apparently created by the developer’s daughters, which is endearing) and game design so good that the developer was apparently hired by Blizzard solely because of it. It’s very difficult, but not to the point of being enraging. And it’s addictive, but not excessively so: I played it a lot for maybe a couple months and then put it down possibly forever when I felt I’d accomplished all I cared to. It’s definitely worth $3 on the App Store and almost certainly worth $10 on Steam if the App Store isn’t an option for you.
Continuing with video games, I loved CrossCode for its gameplay and, after about halfway through, its story. (The story is fine for the first half but became really compelling for me at that point.) It’s very well-made: the look and feel are so nice that the possible grindiness is enjoyable, and the puzzles in the dungeons consistently hit that “just hard enough to be satisfying to solve” sweet spot. I’ve heard complaints about the dialogue, in particular the ham-handed accents and verbosity, but it didn’t really bother me. Your mileage may vary, I suppose.
I think I read more in 2018 than in the last few years, but between deleting my Goodreads account and having gotten most of what I read from the library, most of it was pretty ephemeral and none of it sticks out in my memory as being astonishingly good (or bad). I did finally make my way through Ulysses, which I enjoyed intermittently but mostly just sort of swam in. Reading it with a guide helped, as I’d never have unlocked the more puzzle-boxy aspects of it on my own. Ultimately my favorite chapters (or “episodes” as I suppose they’re called) were:
- Episode 11, “Sirens,” whose rhythmic and lyrical prose most rewarded reading without comprehension
- Episode 15, “Eumaeus,” whose meeting of the two protagonists is rendered with surprising, understated gentleness
- Episode 16, “Ithaca,” for the same reason and all those described in this cute Slate article
I don’t watch much TV, but I watched a little more this year than previously. Steven Universe continues to be, in my opinion, one of the best things going in any medium, even hamstrung as it is by Cartoon Network’s frankly self-sabotaging airing schedule, or lack thereof: its compassion, worldbuilding and characterization are just as strong as they were when I got into it originally. The Good Place was a surprise winner: live-action stuff is a tough sell for me because it can just be Too Much emotionally. But it’s been just consistently great, packing gobs of plot into each episode while consistently delivering great gags and interesting, well-acted characters. Just top-notch along every axis that I’m aware of. And the first seasons of Hilda and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power were also very solid, if not revelatory like my two favorites of the year.
Finally, I started listening to podcasts more consistently in 2018. My reliable weekly listen has been Daniel Ortberg’s Dear Prudence podcast — I’ve been a big fan of Daniel’s other projects for many years, and his advice-giving is no less a joy. In between, I’m listening to the whole backlog of Scott Aukerman and Adam Scott’s U Talkin’ U2 2 Me? and R U Talkin’ R.E.M. RE: Me?, half tributes to a couple bands that hold a lot of nostalgia for me and half just two pretty funny guys shooting the shit in a breezily amusing way.
Between living with a partner who’s living outside the demands of capitalism as much as possible and sort of existing in/keeping an eye on some more radical spaces, I came across some ideas that seemed novel or made me think about things in a different way. This is necessarily a little vague, and some of these ideas are probably very Systemic Critique 101, but as someone that the current predominant systems have been pretty good to, I haven’t necessarily been pushed to think about these things as much as the places I got them from. None of them are sourced, unfortunately, aside from one quote I’ve seen that’s pertinent. They were sort of osmosed over time rather than picked up atomically from single sources.
Capitalism Isn’t Axiomatic
We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.
What values arise from treating capitalism as a bedrock assumption in society? A couple have been on my mind this year. The first is the notion of “success” in capitalism. By most widely-accepted measures, to be successful necessarily includes having enough money to sustain yourself, and preferably more. But all this really means, assuming your money was earned with your labor and not inherited or gotten some other way, is that you have a skill that’s valuable under capitalism’s priorities. The thing is, if you look at how effective capitalism’s priorities have been in addressing, say, climate change, arguably the most pressing issue facing humanity in modern times, it’s clear that they’re not actually very well-ordered.
Other notions also seem less solid if you don’t accept capitalism’s priorities at face value, like that of “disability.” Some disabilities start to seem like dissonance with the structure of a society set up to satisfy capitalism’s demands, rather than inherent impediments to a fulfilling life. Indeed, the term “disorder” suggests this reading: not a deficiency as the term “disability” is often understood, but a difficulty fitting with the prevailing order. I think it’s possible to imagine a differently ordered society, for example, that doesn’t expect the majority of people to submit to strictly regimented schooling and then do more or less the same thing for 8 hours a day or more in order to continue to live, where “Attention Deficit Disorder” isn’t something that needs to be treated intensively.
Weirdly, the event that precipitated my thinking about this wasn’t reading the quote above, but seeing an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that my partner was watching. It centered around a competition between a small, pony family-owned cider business and the out-of-town hotshots trying to use automation to subsume or extinguish them. Despite that the show takes place in a wholly imagined animated universe whose inhabitants are all anthropomorphic quadrupeds, and where friendship is, literally, magic, they still seem to operate in some kind of capitalist system. I get that the show operates at least partially via analogue to the real world, but it’s still kind of weird that in a world where literally everything is made up, these magical ponies still have to worry about paying the bills (at least when it’s convenient for a plot arc). There’s still, apparently, an economic system in place that threatens a family with losing their farm if they can’t make enough profit. This doesn’t seem like it has to be a given.
(I don’t have a fully formed better alternative to capitalism. But I think we can move toward one incrementally.)
Personal Property Is Illusory
Speaking of the pony farm, when you get right down to it, the notion of owning things, or more nebulously, places, hardly seems like it should be a given. In fact, the only really solid reason that the things I consider to be “mine” continue to be so is because of the threat of violence by either myself or (more likely, let’s face it) the state.
This seems like a more fundamental state of affairs, admittedly. I have a somewhat naïve notion that even non-human animals defend their property rights to some extent, viz. a hunting animal defending its fresh kill against a scavenger. But the extent to which humans have taken property rights seems a lot more extreme. Humans hoard, sometimes wildly excessively (I’m thinking here of billionaires, not people whose houses are full of junk), in a way that seems plainly influenced by capitalism. Be it a competitive impulse, spurred on by that illusory notion of “success,” or a fear of finding oneself without necessary things and the valuable labor required to obtain them, the human acquisitive impulse doesn’t seem like a super healthy one. But what does a society look like when you don’t take personal property as a given? Obviously I’m not the first person to ask this. It’s just been on my mind a little more this year as I’ve been questioning things.
What’s My Motivation?
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
The acquisitive impulse I mentioned in the last paragraph seems to be driven by two main emotions: shame (of being compared to one’s peers and found inferior) and fear (of losing everything and being unable to live). Maybe that’s not accurate, but bear with me. The point is that people engage in unhealthy behavior all the time. Sometimes it’s long-term unhealthy, because we don’t have a great grasp of long term consequences (helloooo, global warming). But sometimes we do things that feel shitty immediately or even as we’re doing them and don’t really know why. I do such things all the time, for sure. And I often don’t know why.
My question is: why the fuck not? Why isn’t the very basic skill of being able to assess your own motivations for your own actions (and thereby determine whether those motivations are healthy ones) a fundamental thing that’s taught in every school? As I mentioned much earlier in this post, I want to start therapy in 2019, and I hope to get better at this skill there. But why aren’t we taught the value of it, and some ways to do it, earlier? Per the David Hume quote above, why is our schooling all reason and no passions?
I mean, I think I know at least a couple reasons why. If I may be slightly glib, they are: patriarchy, which overvalues the “male-associated” virtue of reason and devalues the “female” realm of feelings and emotions; and capitalism, which assigns literal value to those areas commensurate with patriarchy’s priorities. This feeds into part of what people who talk about “toxic masculinity” are talking about, I’m pretty sure: the inability or refusal to acknowledge the emotional motivations for one’s actions (and, by extension, the legitimacy of other people’s feelings) because of our society-wide stigmatization of emotion leads to doing harmful things you insist are based on pure reason but are actually driven by emotions that you’re not even aware of. I know about this because it took me until about the age of 30 to start recovering from it. (See Therapy, above.)
Anyway That’s It
I don’t feel like trying to wrap this up in an elegant way. Here’s to 2019 not being a total shitshow.