Sunday, October 31

epoch / trailing edge of a prologue

The point precisely is that, to an Athenian audience, it was useful and pertinent, as supplying just what they needed to make the succeeding scenes intelligible. But it is difficult to accept the view that Euripides invented the plan of producing a god out of a machine to justify the action of deity upon man, because it is plain that he himself disliked this interference of the supernatural and did not believe in it. He seems, in such a typical prologue as that to the Hippolytus, to be accepting a conventional formula, and employing it, almost perversely, as a medium for his ironic rationalism.

"Prologue", the 1911 Britannica

I make a living as a hopeless nerd. That's the background noise, or part of it.

On the computer I use at work, I run a mildly esoteric piece of software called xmonad. It's a window manager, and if you don't know what that means, well, I promise you that it will never matter. As with most any desktop computer you've used in the last 15 to 20 years, part of my screen is devoted to displaying the status of various things. In my case, it looks like this:

The large, orange number towards the right is slowly ticking upwards, counting the number of seconds since midnight of January 1, 19701, which is the point in time that a handful of nerds once arbitrarily decided would define the Epoch. Since the nerds in question were working on an operating system that eventually sort of took over the world, this has turned out to be a decision with some consequences.

The idea of 1970 as a kind of Year Zero resonates for me these days, but there's nothing very-human readable about representing the date as a single 10-digit number. I've been keeping it in view not for any practical reason but because it's a kind of constant, low-level reminder of the tiny increments in which my life is ending, a sort of index to the magnitude of time. These are probably ridiculous ideas, but at least it's a little less garish than the skull-on-the-desk approach.

 

Last night, as this Halloween party at Casey's wound down, I found myself entirely sober and patiently explaining basic facets of reality to apologetic drunk people.2 I know it's undesirable to be the least intoxicated man in a group, but I never quite remember why until it happens.3 The drunken mind fixates and circles back on itself constantly. Checks and balances evaporate.

"I think I'm starting to understand why sober people quit hanging out," I said to Erik, who's been living in a van in the driveway since he came back from Europe. "Ah," he said in the tones of a man who probably knew the futility of explaining a thing before you were born, "slowly, a light begins to dawn."

 

Some years ago, shortly before tearing down Pearl naked with a carved pumpkin on my head for the first time, I realized in a sudden panic that I was nowhere near drunk enough to go through with the run. A friend found a bottle of Jim Beam and filled a coffee cup. I chugged it — it was too much to shoot, per se — and stepped out into the yard for a moment to decide whether I might black out or vomit into the gutter. The moment passed. I went back inside and found my pumpkin. We marched down the street and did the whole bit. All of the relationships that moment represents are probably dead, but I still remember it as one of the minor, absurd highlights of my existence.

Or here: It's Saturday at Harvest Moon. We've just finished playing a couple of the best — and most gruelling — games of ultimate I'll ever participate in. The sun is going down and we're sitting on the fields with beers in our hands. There are drinking games starting near the keg. Everyone is wearing the battered, essential remnants of thrift-stored costumes — makeshift kilts and random belts. My skin is covered in dried sweat, my knees are the color of crushed grass and crusted blood. These girls with long hair and long flowing skirts are throwing a disc back and forth in the fading light. I feel more perfectly in and of the world than I know how to express. I'm going to do this every year, I tell Dave and Alan.

Or again, maybe four years ago: A month and a half before Halloween, a weekend night at Winfield, wandering from jam to jam, dancing in the dust in front of the grandstand, a little stoned, passing a good bottle around, rolling smokes and drinking coffee at midnight, half a dozen of the people I love most in the world standing around the fire, for a few days nothing compromised and nothing broken that can't be lived above, below, or around.

At the time it all seemed like part and parcel of the life I was going to live until I died. But that's hardly ever the case at all. Often enough it's not exactly mortality that gets you — not your own, at least — but the way that you can so easily become a short-notice exile from what you think of as your own life. Friendships, relationships, families, marriages, jobs, disciplines, drug habits, religions, a given home, a town, a country, and easily enough your own mind... It's all subject to any loss or reversal you can imagine. Between what just kind of falls away and what goes straight to hell, there is not a whole lot of reasonable expectation of security in any of this.

Or I suppose it could be that the thing you believe yourself to be living out, the person you believe yourself to be — it's almost always temporary and illusory. Maybe there's some underlying arc to some essential story. A lot of people struggle to convict themselves of that idea constantly. I'm not sure I can buy in.

 

1 Yeah, it's actually more complicated than that, but if you're worried about the technical rather than the poetic details, a) you already know, and b) Wikipedia is right there. There's also this, this, and this.

2 "Your tire is flat" basic, not "the universe is almost entirely indifferent to your existence" basic.

3 And it hasn't happened to me much in a long time.

saturday, october 30

i was remembering today
the bright, brittle quality of your joy
the way you always hold yourself like a question
with no satisfactory answer
nine years now you've been at the
edge of my mind
i wonder if a lifetime
will feel any longer

Thursday, October 28

early a.m.

So I'm informed that NaNoWriMo (doesn't that shorthand just about make you retch?) is only fifty thousand words. So 1666 and two thirds words a day. Or, if you're cheating and started yesterday on something that is not a novel at all and intend to do most of the writing at night when you can't sleep anyway, about 1390 a night.

That still strikes me as one metric shitload of text. We are talking a couple of solid hours a day here, at least — time I could easily devote, on the internet, to involving myself in stupidly ramified arguments or looking at funny cat pictures. Time I could easily devote to not looking at things on the internet at all, which in my line of work1 is exactly what I should be doing with all of the time I'm not actually being paid for.2

So why subject myself to this absurd marathon, especially now that I've spent something like a third of my life strenuously avoiding any serious involvement with the entire improve-yourself-as-a-writer-you-can-do-it-just-have-faith mentality that produces exercises like this?

Ok, here's one answer:

Heartbreak is a constant, every form of love is compromised, the larger world is full of staggering pain and degradation, and everything that ever has mattered or ever will matter to you is going to die. Basically, life is shit.

This is a rational and defensible way to understand things. Of course it's not the only one, but in the immortal words of Roast Beef Kazenzakis, I got depression. I'm not a real happy guy this particular late October.

Anyway, taking the life-is-shit hypothesis as a point of departure, I have only ever found a few things that help with the overwhelming sense that life is shit. I'm not getting laid these days, I've been cutting back on my drug use, and for the moment I'm way too busy being a technocratic cog in an idiosyncratic corner of the capitalist/statist/whateverist system to be spending much time subverting it. That pretty much leaves writing.

It's not that I enjoy writing, exactly. Like the man said: Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein. I tell people I "like to write" because that's a pretty reasonable substitute for explaining that the state of having recently written something is often as close as I can get to a free and easy mind.

 

i should be in bed

Instead, I just downloaded a clock widget for my new cell phone that displays a picture of the Starship Enterprise. This might be the most sensible decision I've made all day long.

 

1 You know that old Far Side where the doting parents are watching the kid play Nintendo with visions of these amazing future job prospects dancing in their heads? I feel like the sardonic inverse of that attitude (which is to say the statement the cartoon was making) is roughly how my parents must have felt about the way I burned most of an adolescence in my bedroom, in front of my Gateway 2000, writing terrible code and clocking thousands and thousands of hours on IRC.

Well guess what: Now I go to work in the morning and log on to IRC and write terrible code. I BET NOBODY SAW THAT ONE COMING.

2 Which is kind of a funny question, when you're salaried. Although it is in almost every way preferable to an hourly wage and I try to stay mindful of how incredibly fucking privileged I am not to be punching a clock right now, it does sometimes occur to me that I'm not sure any more where the Work / Not Work divide falls in my life. I can't, for example, definitely say that the time I spend sleeping is Not Work, because for huge chunks of it I seem to be dreaming about code.

Wednesday, October 27

asides to the entire institution of american journalism, #1

Frequently Ignored Questions, re: the Tea Party Movement:

Q. Is this entire movement pretty much just a product of xenophobia, racism, and batshit-insane conspiracy theory, strategically camouflaged by some outraged rhetoric about economic policy?

A. Yes.

Q. Is "grass roots" really the best primary descriptor for social phenomena engineered and financed by a well-coordinated set of wealthy, politically entrenched elites with vested interests in the status quo?

A. Are you fucking kidding me?

Tuesday, October 26

So there's this thing called National Novel Writing Month. The idea is that in November, you pound out a hundred fifty thousand words of novel. There are little counters on a web site, and associated writers' meetups. It's a big topic in places where people gather on the Internet to make comments about writing instead of actually doing any writing that isn't about writing. Friends have been suggesting for something like a decade now that I ought to participate, and so once or twice I have gotten about as far as roughing out a really awful first chapter. I'm not opposed to the exercise, but there are some important problems with the idea of me writing a novel. They could probably be outlined as follows:

  1. I hate writing fiction.

But just now I got to thinking that maybe this is actually my year to participate. Sort of. I mean, I don't think I've got it in me to write a novel. I don't even think I've got it in me to write a short story. The best I can manage these days is maybe something around the length of a hackneyed plot synopsis of a nonexistent film

J. Smith keeps to himself mostly. If his neighbors don't know much about his past, maybe it's just that they've never had much cause to wonder. That's all about to change. Mr. Smith's past is about to catch up to him, and nothing in the sleepy small town of Baxter will be quite the same afterwards... (PG-13. Kevin Spacey, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lacey Chabert. Dir. by Ridley Scott. C+)

God, that was agonizing. I can't even model bad fiction convincingly in my head. I think a profound hubris is demanded of every novelist right at the place where you enter the field. Making up a story is making a contract with your audience that you will lie to them convincingly not just about what happened — that's the obvious given — but about the plausibility of your lie about what happened. Suspension of disbelief starts when an author has the balls to just plain fake it everywhere their own data is imperfect or the mechanics of the story unrealistic.

I'm an arrogant person, and probably middling dishonest, but I can't carry this off. I can't write a story with rocket ships in it, because I don't know how rocket ships work. I'm a straight white male from the small-town American middle, reluctantly pushing 30, and I am frequently unsure I know what that's like well enough to fake it. The idea of telling a reader implicitly that I know what might happen to, say, a gay teenaged girl in the suburbs of Atlanta is terrifying.

I don't know what doctors do, or how to clean a gun, or what it is actually like to know what the hell you're doing in a fistfight. I have never tried heroin, dropped acid, tended bar, or scaled a rock wall. I don't know how to get around in Tokyo, how a waiter keeps six orders straight in his head, or what it feels like to be pregnant.

I read this piece of forum trolling the other day - a guy supposedly posting on an image board after doing a couple of years in prison. Like a lot of the commenters on the MetaFilter post where I found it, I more or less bought in for most of its length, whatever my nagging suspicions. It's a compelling and in its own way kind of brilliant piece of writing, and on closer examination it's got to be total bullshit. This guy, he has what I lack. I could probably fabricate everything he fabricated, and maybe even do it more plausibly, but I don't have the chutzpah to sell it.

(I'm sure you could argue right about here that a steady diet of genre fiction in my youth has left me with the idea that I have to reach much further outside of mundane experience than is necessary in order to write fiction, but what I'm trying to get at is this: I'm not up to it when it's a two-lane highway any more than I am when it's interstellar travel.)

ANYWAY, I'm not going to write a novel. I'm not even interested in writing a novel. I already have an unused guitar sitting in my bedroom. It doesn't need an unpublished manuscript to keep it company.

I am kind of interested in the idea of writing a whole lot of words in the month of November, so I think I might just try to hit that 100k 50k. I'm going to fail for a number of reasons, not the least of them being that my hands will already be twisted little balls of agony from all the flailing I'm going to have to do on a keyboard at work, where we are about to dump months and months worth of fresh code on a public who will immediately and perhaps even justifiably loathe us for the effort, but it still seems like a good idea.

Since I'm already breaking the rules, we'll just say I started about two hours ago.

This entry is roughly 873 words. In the interest of full disclosure, here's how I'll keep track:

lynx -force-html -dump ./26 | wc -w

Sunday, October 24

spider/leaf

Saturday, October 23

A map of Iraq war deaths, based on Wikileaks data.

Friday, October 22

you know i was our economies in trouble

Chris Onstad needs some money. I think the guy has earned a little support.

 

Today's first political robo-call, as transcribed by Google Voice:

Hello, this is former U. S. Senator Wayne, allard and I'm calling to ask you to support Steven Bailey for congress. Steven is not. A career politician use a businessman. Hello better United States Air Force, bite me. Steven is worried about the direction our country is headed. Hey Ms running. To make a difference. You know I was our economies in trouble. Your we need to get government. How to the way, so this is Tim create more jobs. Yeah. Americans want and meat you get back to work but burdening the economy with more taxes, regulation, you'll get this going again. Steve, it'll stand up for a smaller federal government. You will be a committed voice against the business. As usual, Yeah, of a larger deficits and our looming Cisco trainer. Yes, it is why I'm supporting. Even Bailey. Yeah, I hope you will join me. You send him to cuts.

Golden.

 

Here is a picture taken from a dirt road near my mom's childhood home in Kansas on a Sony digital camera with a built-in floppy drive.

wstmrlnd

A few years later, I gave the camera to my friend Jacob, before he hitchhiked to New Mexico from Boulder and had it stolen along with his guitar and most of the rest of his earthly possessions. Although I was a little saddened by this, I cannot really imagine a more fitting end for the device in question.

Thursday, October 21

dsc05073

I'm gonna slap that look off your face
like life don't hold no mystery

Modest Mouse, "History Sticks To Your Feet"

 

The First Rule of Program Optimization:
        Don't do it.

        The Second Rule of Program Optimization (for experts only!):
                Don't do it yet.
                                -- Michael A. Jackson

 

How did you survive all those fires and floods?
How did you survive your insufferable friends?
It was the plow that broke the Western plains
And it's just my heart gets rejected by my veins

Rilo Kiley, "Wires and Waves"

 

You wrote your thesis on the Gospel of Thomas,
you shot some reversal film in Angkor Wat,
and this book you once read
says there's less people dead
at this point now than those who are not.
And this film we once saw was reviled for its flaws,
but its flaws were what made us have fun.
And the life some folks had might have made us feel bad,
why feel bad man, it's nothing you've done.

Okkervil River, "Singer Songwriter"

Sunday, October 17

you were
the only answer
my plans
spun all around you
five years in the wrong, i am assured
my name to you is just another word

Mike Doughty

Wednesday, October 13

brontosaurus is rad

saturday, october 9

outside it's going over into fall,
going the tone of ray bradbury and roger zelazny
lightning over the mountains two nights ago
and a crazy wind blowing down out of the
foothills, snow on the peaks in the morning
all day i nursed a hangover indoors, black coffee
and glasses of water, playing cards in a mild daze
and waiting on some event to signify more than
a minor rearrangement of tokens

Saturday, October 2

lost lake

Friday, October 1

Reviewing my notes from last night, I see that I should have had somewhat less to drink.