this. book.

It’s true fantasy. It’s magnificent. The fantasy is in this kind of a person being allowed to exist in the 12th century. I worry she’ll end like I worried they’d end Alexandra in O Pioneers. But then they didn’t end her that way—a mob, a rope, or maybe stones—and so I maintain hope that this book’s goal is not to leave us with a trickling hollow in our hearts intended to instruct (how many more cruel lessons do we need?) but rather to lavish us with possibility and leave us exulting in it.

This book is so short. I don’t want to finish it but it is so slim. I just want to read it forever.

True fantasy:

This is like Alanna of Trebond for adults. Or any other heroine were were silly enough to fall in love with before we realized we could never become them. This book is so good.

Also, I love when sex is centered in a soul but said soul is allowed to be adept at, and animated by, other things too. So rarely are we allowed that, without being caricatures.

random music fridays – montreal

Locomotive rhythms, concertina, and the blank canvas of instrumental to paint your own story onto—Talisk’s “Montreal” brings it all.

Am I a sap for concertina because my mom wanted to learn to play one before she died? Yes, yes I am. But this song is just good fun.

reagan, comedy, and balancing your fear of the end with your need to make others laugh at it

“Men become old when their hurt becomes need.” — Joe Henry

I’ve been watching the return of Jon Stewart to a kind of network tv nervously. His new show starts September 30 on Apple TV+, and regardless of the “network” chosen (one imagines Apple paid dearly for the contract), his return to the screen marks an attempted return to a kind of world I’m not sure we live in anymore.

I don’t hang out in the right circles to have much familiarity with it, but I gather from Matt Braunger’s podcast that people (see: academics and ex-academics) have been spending the interim years since Stewart retired Writing A Lot About Comedy. And that sounds exhausting. Necessary, maybe, but exhausting nonetheless. Not because critical thinking isn’t important here, but because, unless you’re totally without conscience, you can’t go too far down that road without finding yourself, on some level, culpable for the kind of misinformation and willful idiocy that placed us where we are today.

Remember fake news? Before Trump, I mean? Yeah, you had forgotten it pre-existed him, huh. But it did. Stewart would trot that phrase out to defend himself when conservatives accused him of shaping the world-views of young people toward a liberal bent. And he wasn’t wrong. It was a comedy show. He is a comedian. If college kids chose to take his comedy as truth, chose to use him comedy show as their source for news, is that really his fault?

I mean…look at these anti-vaxxers choking down horse paste and iodine. They got their garbage information from Facebook and Reddit, both of whom allowed that information to spread via their services, and who made money, at least in part, off the continued success their services enjoyed as a result of that leniency. If you exonerate Stewart, you have to exonerate them, too. And that’s a slippery slope.

Understand that I loved Stewart’s show, that it absolutely shaped my worldview in college (though it was far from my only source of information; oh for the time to read as much as I did then!), and that I deeply value comedy both as a performance and an exploration of the limits of psychological endurance. Because that’s what good comedy (stand-up! don’t talk to me about improv; it’s like the rictus grin in the face of the headlights) does—it makes bearable the unbearable, because you are brought to find something laughable, and therefore light, in it.

And I don’t like that the end result of this line of thinking seems to be “yeah but then maybe the unbearable shouldn’t be made bearable.” Because that leaves a lot of us up shit creek. But the moral calculus required to enjoy comedy about current events without guilt is deeply suspect. It helps when you know, through sources other than the spotlit mic (interviews or podcasts or blogs or whatever) that the comic’s kneejerk reaction isn’t just to sneer at the sorry lot of people in worse shape than him. It helps when you hear him express disgust at comics who preen in the adoration of really horrible people, people who you know do shitty things and vote for those who will encourage more of the same.

But still. Even as I’m laughing some part of me is blaring a warning to untangle the news from the comedy, because it’s dangerous to imbibe as one. Even if you set current events aside and look at history—the excellent podcast The Dollop, for example, by Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, which I discovered by accident when Matt Braunger had Anthony on as a guest host on his This Might Help show. (Lest I sound like one of these insufferable people who beats you over the head with endless podcasts You Just Have To Listen To, I may as well point out that these are the only ones I’ve been listening to with any regularity, and it’s largely due to the pre-show banter. I miss hearing storytellers talk to each other. I miss hearing people talk about their craft casually, when it’s not the main point of the gathering but it comes up anyway. That’s why I put these guys in my headphones when knitting. Also, it’s nice to hear of people at least within a ten year radius of me who are decent parents. Lots of shitty parenting going on out there right now. And I don’t have any friends who are parents, so these podcast guys are all I’ve got.)

Let it be known, first and foremost, that The Dollop provides references. Lots of them. The show consists of researched stories from history, told by Anthony, while Reynolds (who does not know the topic beforehand) riffs off them. I enjoy history, but the topics they delve into (the year of the locust of 1895? Napoleon’s sister-in-law?) are frequently things I’ve only ever glossed over if that, or the timing is recent enough that my schooling either skipped it for political purposes or assumed I’d know about it already.

Such was the case with the sprawling two-part episode about Ronald Reagan, for which they invited Patton Oswalt on as a guest host (to contribute to the riffing). Now, I was either not yet born or a baby for Reagan’s tenure as President, which meant by the time I was in school the history books were just old enough to mention him but that was it. We just barely touched on him in American history, crammed between test prep in a rush toward the end of the school year, and it wasn’t until a government class taught by someone whose brother was royally fucked out of an education by Reagan’s cost-cutting that any bad policies were gone into detail. And even that was brief, because of course the extremely loud kids of conservative families opened their mouths, and rather than derail the entire class arguing politics with assholes who would only get their parents involved if engaged in political arguments, we moved on.

All of which I mention to ground the fact that to me that history is news. And I took it in from comedians. Did I know Reagan did bad shit? Yup. Did I know that rather than Trump-like malice he was made a puppet by scheming shitbags precisely because of his lack of motivation, paired with a well- and publicly-documented case of early-onset Alzheimer’s? Nooooo. I’ve little doubt that some republicans hold up his illness as a plea to make him untouchable, oh the poor man how can you make fun of him, blah blah. But having watched my mother succumb to that disease for a decade, I am secure in the knowledge that absolutely no way in hell should such people be in charge of their own bank accounts, let alone entire countries. (Even my mom knew this—she stopped driving and signed everything over immediately out of fear of what she might do.)

It’s on me, definitely, not to have known the seedier details of Reagan’s doings, especially when he’s held up as a saint by people running for office today. It’s on me for not knowing the watchwords of the competition. But realistically there is only so much history (or science, or economics, etc) one can be expected to know, while still going about one’s life. And that’s the problem. Because while on an academic schedule I had the time and means to make this history my business (and thus my failure to do so is my fault), most people don’t have that, and so play catch-up (or don’t) as best they can, as required by the normal course of their lives. And that means taking in history from whatever sources present themselves. And when the source of that knowledge that you should already have comes couched in comedic language intended, on some level, to entertain, it seems problematic. Not because we don’t deserve entertainment! Not because some form of it isn’t required to survive! But because by intermingling knowledge with pleasure it invites you to confuse the two. And then when you take jokes as fact, as people did with Jon Stewart and continue to do with far more odious and sinister hucksters like Tucker Carlson, the showmen can put throw up their hands and say hey, not my fault people are idiots, I’m not a news show and never claimed to be.

At some point, what you billed yourself as matters less than what you became. And you need to own up to that and either accept the responsibility you acquired for yourself, or step down. That sounds terrible and like it’s anti-fun, I know. But you can’t “not my problem” the electorate. They will become your problem. They are everyone’s problem. So deal with it. And don’t hide behind the “Ey, I’m just a funny guy!” schmooze. That’s how you get where we are today.

(Note: the Reagan episode of The Dollop—episode 400–is immensely entertaining and I highly recommend it. I use it here more as an example of a personal failing on my part to have read up already on something, than as an example of comedy run amok, or whatever clickbait-y title one might append to navel-gazing like I do here. Again, The Dollop is rife with sources, which places it in far more reliable, earnest territory than something like The Daily Show was. I just hope the new Stewart show is as up-front about its research. And that there is research, not just laughs.)

the bizarrely good time of a trekker not coming apart at the seams

Anna McNuff is not depressed.

No one died.

She isn’t doing some soul-searching out here.

She’s just running the entire length of New Zealand.

And it’s immense fun to read about.

I read a lot of travel narratives. Particularly on foot or on bicycle travel narratives. And, usually, people are undertaking these trips because they are fraying. A divorce, a death, a loss of a job, empty nest, psychotic break, a breakup…usually, shit has gone down.

Here, it hasn’t. A cheerful Brit is just running the Te Araroa Trail. Very much making me wish the pandemic would allow us to do the same. The lack of snakes, scorpions and mountain lions seems like a bonus. The plants that embed their thorny tips under your skin, less so. Ditto the number of river crossings required—I’ve fucked that up before and been bounced along river rocks like stone-washed jeans; it sucked.

But those views! And the huts! And the number of towns along the trail where one could restock and/or rest if one’s muscles were threatening murder! My pandemic-friendly spin bike touring has taken me along the section of the trail around Queenstown; it’s as gorgeous as she says it is. And the pre-pandemic film date means you get the added thrill of seeing strangers strolling about, greeting each other, breathing in each other’s airspace like it’s no big deal. It’s as revivifying as it is to McNuff, who herself, lonely on the trail, basks in the friendly interactions with strangers just as much as we do now. (Case in point: a cashier marked a pumpkin I bought as regular versus large, because it had no sticker and she wanted to save me the dollar or whatever it was, and I wanted to write her a sonnet.)

I’m not entirely sure this book isn’t self-published. I don’t particularly care. It’s a good time. It doesn’t preach; it doesn’t try to change you. We’re all a bit too threadbare for miracles at the moment. It’s enough just to marinate in someone’s else’s endeavor, and entertain the dim hope that one day global circumstances might enable us to take up the torch.

light

One of the good and sensible reasons for decrying the slavish devotion to realism in games—in terms of light and physics and the careful construction of seemingly random, natural rhythms—is the amount of labor involved. These people work long hours for little pay or acclaim, comparably, and lose their jobs at the whim of extremely rich people far distant from their daily experience. One of the less good and less sensible reasons to decry it is to assert that such disastrously detailed work is extraneous and doesn’t matter to the experience.

This is the kind of light you get as the sun is sinking rapidly, visibly below the treeline. This is the kind of light they pour into open world games. It’s what I spend most of my time taking screenshots of.

I don’t need to point out the obvious in some kind of threadbare defense of escapism: no one has this kind of light on tap, humans function better with sunlight, etc. etc. It’s 2021, you don’t need me to tell you the value of seeming to be somewhere else, somewhere sunlit, if only temporarily. And I certainly don’t intend to imply that my personal enjoyment of these lighting effects justifies the kind of crap Ubisoft and *cough* other AAA employees experience on a daily basis.

But don’t label such extravagant attention to detail extraneous. I will put down what I’m doing at a moment’s notice to try and capture the luminous glow of a sunset behind mesh curtains or sunrise stretching catlike across a table. Not because I have any skill with photography but because if I lost my sight tomorrow, those are scenes I would want to conjure. People I love, yes, but also how light falls on the world they live in.

Devaluing the results of problematic labor practices is not the ideal way to achieve the amendment of those practices. And again—I know riggers; I bought my kitchen table off one—I know their pay sucks; they’re rotated out like racehorses on contracts so no one ever has to pay them full benefits. That sucks. But turning up your nose at their work and saying fuck this, we only need 8-bit, let’s pretend like we’re living in 1987? Nah. That’s exactly what those assholes calling the shots are doing, except they’re doing it as regards ego and exploitation, some of it sexual. Looking back isn’t the way to get what you want. Neither is undoing two decades’ worth of visual advancement.

Find a better way, because in the darkest of plague-strewn winters, we need to know those clouds are going to clear off and let the sunshine in.

Even if we won’t really see it for months.

over nine waves, a headache

I haven’t been able to pick up AC Valhalla for a while, but I think about it at least once a day. It turns out I had been perched right on the precipice of the end of Wrath of the Druids, as I learned yesterday. I’d spent so much time gallivanting around Ireland doing everything but the main quest—as I am wont to do—that I’d lost sight of how everything had been building up. And then poof, it’s over, welcome to the Siege of Paris DLC which just came out (and of which, again I’d lost track—not a pandemic fog issue, but rather work-related).

There is a real enjoyment, though, in the continued voicing of Eivor-as-woman lines that were clearly written for Eivor-as-man. Not so much in romantic relationships—those are always a little shallow, with Ubisoft—but more in terms of self-regard.

During the final fight of the DLC, in the dialogue thrown around before the conflict, the big bad lists why what they do has shown honor, and demands to know where yours is. “You know!” Eivor shouts, not righteous but tiredly familiar and with every expectation that her interlocutor does know (and that it won’t matter and that she’ll have to fight anyway). And I mean, they do. But the delivery on that line is so characteristic of Eivor’s voicing, and so refreshing coming from a female character you get to play.

Eivor is neither dissolving into tears nor whipping herself into some Hollywood level frenzy of The Wronged Woman to state her case. She’s just pointing out the obvious with the knowledge that it probably won’t change (but the hope that it will change!) the unpleasant task that she’s about to undertake. And the fatigue in her voice is well-founded—of course the final battle has to happen and of course her affirmations of where her loyalties lie don’t sway her aggressor. But being able to be in that position as a heroine in endgame is unique, and enjoyable.

I’m sure there have been, and will be, papers written that touch on game directing decisions like this that are made and that, in the interchangeability of their voice-acting lines, do a disservice to real or perceived differences in how men or women (let alone anyone else) might approach the situation. But I relish that decision made here, that interchangeability. It’s not that dissolving into tears is uncalled-for, shameful, or deserving of scorn. Depending on how you played the game, after all, you may be fighting your lover. But the fact that that’s not the theatrically-assumed default, when playing through Eivor as a woman, is so damn satisfying. Let me be weary. Let me know what ridiculous heights this situation is going to be dragged to and let me try exhaustedly to talk it down anyway. And to fail! Because attraction, romance and pre-existing sexual relations can’t solve every problem. And letting that still fall apart for Eivor-as-woman is satisfying. Because rather than positing gender as some trump card to be played at a certain point in the game, it’s rendered as just another facet of oneself, and one that’s not going to change the fate of nations. I don’t want to always be playing as Helen of Troy. Sometimes I want to be playing as Scout Harding. This time, I get to.

random music fridays – faith

I’m rewatching Outlander ahead of the next book’s release at the end of November because a.) life is too short and b.) the return to the 1960s is to Outlander as Tarabon is to Wheel of Time. It’s slow, it’s not where we want to be, and it’s e n d l e s s. Frankly France feels that way too? But I’ll still limp through a few hours of show rather than spend months rereading books I’ve read too recently. (See: within the last decade.)

But anyway, that, season two and France, means the episode titled “Faith,” and this song:

Get ready to ugly cry.

I love Bear McCreary’s scoring for the show, admittedly, but usually what I’m loving is fiddles, cellos and hand drums, sprinkled in with the occasional hornpipe. This piano just wrecks me. As it’s supposed to. It’s striking, that he can bring this to the table and also something like Clean Pease Strae or Comin Thro the Rye.

This is the part where I express awe or respect for something and someone rolls their eyes and goes “acting!” or “music!” like I shouldn’t be impressed because of course these people are good at what they do, it’s their job.

Yes, but. This could easily have gotten maudlin, given the subject matter. Too many strings, too many instruments altogether, the insistence on a different motif, maybe Claire’s or the Skye Boat Song. But Faith gets her own piano melody, and this is the only time we hear it, and it is devastating.

to tar valon! or: put down the quentin tarantino and shower, young man

Pictures! We have in-costume pictures of the Wheel of Time cast! Behold:

From left, I believe: Nynaeve, Mat, Lan, Moiraine, Egwene, Perrin, and Rand. Massive props for putting Moiraine in the middle, not Rand. (Just to be clear about how on-board I am with this, we may or may not have had an argument when I was pregnant about the feasibility of naming our child Moiraine. “No one will know how to pronounce it!” “It rhymes with Lorraine and that’s a real name! It’s not that hard!” We had a son though, so the issue was moot.)

***HI HELLO WHEEL OF TIME SPOILERS AHEAD***

Mat Cauthon looks like your average film school douchebag and that is so incredibly appropriate. Put down the Quentin Tarantino and shower, young man. Moiraine looks as badass as she should. I could wish they’d embrace the almost-canon implication that she’d been “pillow-friends” with Siuan Sanche when training—the graphic novel version of New Spring implied this, though the book itself did not—but I doubt they will and that’s fine. I’m interested then in Thom Merrilin’s appearance since even Jordan’s posthumous writer seemed perplexed at the requested romance between—

Alexandre Willaume, who plays Thom Merrilin

Oh. Okay then. I guess that covers that.

Egwene, though, interests me most. How deep in her head will they be allowed to go? She’s why I’d most like to reread the books (I won’t—no time—but I’d like to). When I finished the series, which itself necessitated two rereads between the time I was 11 and 22 years old, I was 100% Team Egwene. I bought her faith in the institution she’d pledged herself to, and believed in the power of protecting an institution that had made you what you were, with a dogged insistence that what flaws that may have developed in the interim could and would be fixed. (By her, or those who loved the White Tower as much as she does.) If you don’t buy that, Egwene’s loyalty seems misplaced at best and self-destructive at worst. Butttttt…

Egwene can fuck up. Look at Gawain! Girl, he’s just a pretty face! And a bigot to boot! He’s so busy slobbering up the boots of his brother his whole life that he never bothers to think for himself. His loins longing for Egwene is the only thing of Gawain’s that operates independently of Galad, and seriously…come on man. Ageless or not, no one wants to just be a pretty face forever. I know, I know, there is a token effort to portray him as someone capable of more nuanced thinking in the last books, but compared to the character development of someone like Egwene, he’s a flickering candle before a bonfire. She’s better than him. And I dimly recall both of them realizing this at some point near the end maybe? And no one gets to process this really before the books end?

Gawain aside though, I want to know if Egwene’s arc still rings as true to me as it did the first time. I have incredibly little patience for institutional loyalty now. Whatever that group made you once, there is probably something shitty happening in it now (and maybe then too). Someone forcing themselves on the assistants or siphoning cash for a personal slush fund or enacting draconian edicts on people without the power to speak out against them or just engaging in general corruption. If Egwene’s faith in the White Tower and its tenets were fixated on an individual or even a couple of them, that would be one thing. But it’s not—the whole way she justifies to herself what she does is that for all the individual failings she discovers, she remains convinced that the institution can and should outlast them.

But I don’t even know that the show will have that much time to sit in Egwene’s head. That EW article is slightly cringe-inducing in its implication that “haha women own everything in this world, crazy!” which is a hop skip and a jump away from “men’s rights woooo!” The White Tower doesn’t control everything (though it wishes it did), and you may be attracting the wrong kind of crowd to your tv show by advertising it as men’s bold struggle against a matriarchy. That’s, uh, not what these [deeply flawed but not in THAT way!] books are about.

And make no mistake, these books ARE flawed. None of them are my favorite books, and for a reason (though I’d be happy with a whole series just based on the Rhuidean arches flashbacks in book four, let’s be honest). I’m not excited about this series because it’s the filmic realization of all my childhood fantasies. I just want to see someone do these characters better than a guy who got his start writing Conan the Barbarian, of all things. Jordan tried to be inclusive, in his way, but he was ham-handed about it. I want to see someone do better.

…and I’d also like to see some mega-talented thespian booked for essentially-cameos-until-the-last-scene for Verin. Judy Dench, for example. Judy Dench would make an amazing Verin, for her final speech alone.

random music fridays : lost in translation soundtrack

Yeah, it’s going to have to be YouTube or bust for this one. As with many soundtracks produced doing the hodgepodge contract era between the known lands of physical dominance and digital takeover, the licensing fees on this one are a legal nightmare and no streaming service offers it in full.

It’s great, though.

Admittedly, I am biased. Lost in Translation is my favorite movie. Ever. I’ve seen it even more often than Fellowship of the Ring, which clocks in somewhere around 20 viewings by the last calculation I did. And it doesn’t make much sense for me to hold it so high, really. It was a red flag I saw, acknowledged, put up on a pedestal…and promptly ignored. I turned around and went off to Japan fully aware of the likely extreme loneliness I was incurring by doing it. I don’t know what I was thinking beyond perhaps a subconscious wish to go all God Emperor of Dune on my 20s. If I can survive the worst timeline I can survive anything.

Worst timeline, ha. Oh, we sweet summer children of the aughts.

Anyway, the soundtrack to LiT was, and remains, fucking amazing. Even people paid to think about music think so. Wikipedia informs me that it embraces “dream pop” and “shoegaze,” two more genres I didn’t know existed until someone threw them into an article. The only travesty is that, again thanks to licensing, the soundtrack itself (even the physical version, which my dad gifted me when I left for college) lacks The State We’re In, by the Chemical Brothers:

This plays during their mad dash through the lamplit bars and pachinko parlor and then into traffic montage, starting at the 4:17 mark on YouTube. And ah, not to throw all my cards on the table here or anything, but I have that timestamp memorized. That’s how much I love this song, this soundtrack and this movie.

Part of me wants to say something reflective like “the older I get the more nuanced facets I appreciate about it” or the more proactively defensive “it has aged in the following ways but is still worthwhile for these reasons” but…yeah, nah.

I may have shared the geographic location of these characters—I’ve even stayed in the hotel, and may or may not have absconded with one of the robes, because it had been washed a million times and was super-soft, while the ones they sold were fresh and starched and and scratchy—and even their cultural isolation. But I’m only the camera when it comes to their inner turmoil. I’m never the person angsting out loud about their souring relationship or the terror of getting married; I’m the person those people tell those tales to. God knows why; I probably have a blackboard for a face, just waiting for people to map out their next moves on. (It’s certainly not because I’m giving off some sort of nurturing or mentoring aura. For a long time I figured it happened with straight men because they understandably coded me as gay, but then the occasional queer woman would do it too and I no longer have any clue. Nor do I have any answers for any of these people; I never do. I just listen.)

But I’m saying I don’t love this movie because I see myself as any of the characters. Even having lived in Tokyo and been lonely as fuck. And for once it’s not like I want to read some fic where we hear what Bob says to Charlotte in the end and then they go off into the sunset together (though I guess I wanted that when I was 18?). It’s more that…the movie makes the city a canvas with finite boundaries, on which grief and doubt and loneliness can play out and then be left behind. And it’s the finiteness of it, the fact that one can check out of a hotel or get on a plane and be done with that particular flavor of heartache that is so…comforting. Even with the narrative knowledge that nothing is finite here—both characters are still ensnared in relationships with people who seem not to know who they are anymore—it’s hard to think of the future as something as gray and lonely as the rainy Shinjuku skyline when there’s morning sunlight just setting the clouds on fire and Just Like Honey is playing:

That may be my favorite vague ending ever. And I was this many years old when I learned this song was written for this movie. I assumed it pre-existed it. I assumed people were infusing it with meaning in, like, late 80s bars years before I made it the last thing in my headphones as I left Japan (yeah, it was Ennio Morricone’s L’Arena when I got back home and the customs guy stamped my passport, but it was Just Like Honey on loop until the JAL attendants made us put our electronics away).

Maybe I just love this soundtrack because it lets me feel like a character whose story was done for once, instead of the camera that has to keep rolling.

Anywho, it’s a great soundtrack. Give it a listen.

Sidenote: According to an interview on the movie’s 10th anniversary, Sofia Coppola said the soundtrack was composed of “just songs I liked and had been listening to, and Brian Reitzell would help me out and make me Tokyo dream-pop mixes.” Goddamn, if more women directors found themselves with the kind of money and power one finds somewhat more readily to hand when one is Francis Ford Coppola’s child, and thus could make more movies just based on Stuff They Like…I’d have a lot more favorite movies.