desk lunch – 2015-06-04

Brought to you this week by the weather in the northeast, in June, when I wore leggings to work and needed a light jacket!!!!!!!! Also, I’ve had short fiction pieces accepted for future issues of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and Atlas and Alice. I don’t want to see the day when an acceptance doesn’t send me into a swoon at my desk.


The ripples carried the head further up the river. Gently it drifted, impeded here and there by the side of some stone, only to be pushed along again by the rush of the flow. It finally found a resting place on the shore where the water ran quiet into a brown muddy clay.

Terraform is a new short fiction series at Vice. Every story so far has been captivating and accompanied by incredible artwork. “A Song For You” stands out with its pacing and its patience. I mention patience because the language captured the protagonist: an AI with literally too much time in the world. I also recommend “The Judge” for its structure and humor.

It’s a complicated comfort, isn’t it? The endless distance, the hidden and isolated nature of the individual, but also the lights, far and small as they might be, where the voice in the back of the head resides along with the body. If there is anything spiritually nourishing in the world, it feels very far away, and yet it persists, trying for companionship through the darkness.

May’s entry for the advice-through-poetry column at The Toast haunted me with its descriptions on walking outside at night. Come for that and stay for the thoughtful reflection on Franz Wright’s “To Myself.”

That school secretary who threw out my book? She might as well have been telling me—and within a week of my husband’s losing his job—that my kind didn’t belong in her nice suburban school district. That my politics and my mouthiness and my checkered past would forever preclude me from finding a nice classroom somewhere to call my own.

Oh hey, it’s an essay on the friction between one’s artistic persona and their professional money-earning day-job persona. How interesting.

It doesn’t make sense to make blanket statements like “content on the web should be persistent” or “content on the web should be ephemeral”. Instead, we need to recognize that this “web” thing is conflating two very different forms of discourse, forms that used to be clearly and deliberately distinct.

The “web” is not a part of nature. It was not discovered; we don’t have to just accept it. The “web” is an infrastructural system that was built by people, and it was built very recently and very sloppily. It currently has the property that it forgets what must be remembered, and remembers what must be forgotten. It manages to screw up both the sacredness of the common record and the sacredness of private interaction.

These two short pieces discuss the central problem of the internet as the medium we know now. We’ve created the largest storehouse of knowledge known to the world so far, but the infrastructure of the web itself doesn’t prioritize one kind of knowledge over another: every bit of data, once it exists, is left out there exposed to the elements. “The elements” on the web have the same effect as they would on earth: neglect, avoidance, ignorance, all that leads to significant knowledge lost.

It’s a similar issue that came up a few weeks ago when talking about hypercomplex systems that collapse under their own weight because they can’t identify their own flaws. With the volume of information we see every day, how can we ever hope to identify the information we’re not seeing? How can we remember what we’ve already forgotten? Have we Fahrenheit 451‘d ourselves?


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desk lunch – 2015-05-14

Brought to you this week by Anna Chlumsky’s beautiful long-overdue freakout on Veep. 10,000 Emmys to both her and Ianucci for crystallizing in 100 seconds the life of almost every woman on the planet: we can’t have nice things because we tried one and it sucked.

Because what if Iago’s motivational difficulties, and his definitional rhetoric, really do not operate at cross purposes at all? What if Iago’s inability to describe his own motives without contradicting himself, and his diagnostic rhetoric, which scorns any opinions about the world that are not useful to him—what if these two monsters give birth to one another?

First: this essay is long. It is long, it’s funny, it’s engaging, but it takes a while to reach the point it’s trying to make: that the tragedy in Othello, and specifically what motivates Iago to bring the world down around their ears, tries to portray the limitations of a systematic, or hyper-rational, mind. Think of it as Spock’s dilemma in “Amok Time”: the hyper-rational person with unbreakable rules of conduct realizes something is wrong, but the way they run their life doesn’t allow them to identify the cause or the cure. In any case, I found it interesting to read a theory of how an unforgiving system could eventually collapse under the weight of its own mechanism.

I was never the best. I’m still not. I don’t say that because I’m trying to be deep or grab sympathy from the world, I say it because the past year of job searching has dug that fact into my cranium. From countless unanswered applications, to the countless “We regret to inform you…,” job hunting becomes a game of how confident can I be before I break.

I loved this for its relentless optimism. If I had to walk away from my 20s with only one thing, I would take this newfound ability to shrug off failure and continue to ram my head against a wall until it gives. I don’t know that it would have done much good to learn it earlier. I’m glad I have it now.

The act of explaining: It’s as if, before you speak, you have to relight the room you’re standing in. Dim this, walk in a lamp or two, replace a bulb. Can you see me now?

Another long essay, this one a review of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts using a memoir-through-vignettes format that made it such a weird and captivating read.

Solgangsbris, a poem by Kenzie Allen
It’s this life I want, this valley
between the hills and high places,
the steppes of what, so far,
I have known.

You should follow The Offing and we should move to Norway.


If I bought this for my mom, she would literally weep for joy and I would never hear the end of it. I would hear stories, daily, about her and Robert, so I need to link this here and remember it for the next important gift-giving occasion. Then I can visit my parents’ house and look upon A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT DOWNEY JR IN 19TH CENTURY RUSSIAN REGALIA.

desk lunch – 2015-04-23

Brought to you this week by the ENDLESS RAIN on the East Coast. I learned that printer paper crumpled into wet leather boots will soak up the damp caused by sloshing through three or four literal rivers to catch a trolley. As I write this, the rain’s taking a break, probably until I have to step outside again.

We either have to make spaces for ourselves – often unsustainable and without funding – or push past one another to get into positions of opportunity. And even our victories face outward. The acknowledgment serves to prove that we matter to people in power, even if we know that these are our stolen resources handed back to us. I’m not ignorant of the ways oppression sets us against our own, but how do we work against the impulse to covet and tear each other down?
The problem with letting capitalism dissolve the social contract between worker and employer, though, is that social relationships more generally suffer as well. In a precarious environment, where you can only rely on yourself, independence becomes the only virtue.. this means treating personal relationships with the same logic that employers treat workers—i.e., abandoning them when they are no longer useful.

Surprise! The two essays above are about the ways to measure how money changes you. Thinking back on tons of old stories, so many of them are about money, but money portrayed as this hilarious, overblown, written-from-privilege caricature; an awful character, like an Agamemnon, Judas, Wickham, Karenin, any dude in a Henry James novel, wanders onto the scene and flaunts their obsession with money, how their greed for material wealth transforms them into soul-sucking voids that pull at the Good Decent People around them. Greed (a deadly sin, guys) pulls and pulls until the GDP (OH! I AM CLEVER!) find the strength to overcome that pull and, I don’t know, die and retreat to the great agrarian commune in the sky. Money Equaled Greed, and I accepted that narrative because money made my life possible and I didn’t understand the cost of obtaining it, being all of like, 20 years old and comfortably middle class. Now I’m a self-sufficient adult who quantifies every transaction, commercial and personal, because I’ve learned no other way to exist! Remember: there’s no one in your life who wouldn’t fight you to the death in a cage match for $10,000. A Happy Thursday to us all!


“It’s not for you to relate to!” Write that in the sky. And it’s true – often, as writers of color, to portray our stories in all their vibrant authenticity, all their difficult truth means we’re not writing for editors and agents, we’re writing past them. We’re writing for us, for each other.
Setting as crisis — the street and its many offerings of knowledge and myth, the politics hidden in daily happenstance – is really a question of context. This is what we sci-fi/fantasy people call worldbuilding, but every genre has work to do in constructing layers of universe around a narrative.

I’m the idiot who wasn’t following Daniel José Older on twitter until this week. In these two pieces, he takes two different angles on the same issue: how do you portray the world? For writers, it’s worldbuilding- not the naming of places and sketching of maps, but how to make the world you live in (and by extension, worlds of your invention) authentic places. These authentic places are shaped by history, circumstance, every instance of force that constitutes the fabric of reality itself. Are you good enough at reading the world to understand the texture of where you live?

All of that applies to publishing. The industry of publishing is itself the disseminating of stories: this is an industry we made to get stories out further, faster than anyone could have dreamed centuries ago. Older’s BuzzFeed essay draws up the most basic ethics of publishing: get different stories out there. We’re too smart with too many resources and too long of a reach to keep publishing and buying the same ten novels every year. We need stories from everyone and everywhere, and if there isn’t 1:1 cultural correlation between writer and reader? That’s the point. See someone and understand them on their own terms. Do you really think teens extorting their community for money to watch their kids was a universal experience? I still loved it.


The study also found that these women experienced “similar themes to ‘traditional’ intimate relationships, such as emotional growth and identity development fostered by friendship, jealousy, break-ups, and shifts and changes in the relationship.”

There isn’t enough writing about nonconventional relationships. There isn’t enough straightforward discussion about all the ways that people fit together. Here’s a start.


Once per calendar year, I have to watch Will Smith’s video for Wild Wild West. This year, the original video was taken off youtube- the original seven-minute masterpiece featuring Salma Hayek, Will Smith in longjohns, a giant flaming W (for THE WEST, as you know), cameos by STEVIE WONDER and ALFONSO RIBEIRO (3:00 mark), and a thorough rapped synopsis of the Will Smith/Kevin Kline steampunk western I’m too afraid to rewatch for the first time since 1999. Instead, I found the live awards show performance above. It opens with Will Smith in a violet three-piece suit riding a horse into an auditorium. Then it gets… weirdly forced, almost hollow, as if Kenneth Branagh (WHO PLAYED THE VILLAIN IN THIS FILM) found the magic mirror that made Wild Wild West possible and destroyed the dream world where they all existed. TL;DR – THE MUSIC VIDEO IS TREMENDOUS.

desk lunch – 2015-04-09

Brought to you during a binge-watch of Madam Secretary. If The Good Wife was CBS’s first arrow into my Smaug armor, this show is Bard’s arrow. I will fall into the lake at Esgaroth, clawing helplessly at the dream of Téa Leoni and Tim Daly’s sweaters and blazers collection.

The obvious thing that has happened is that the technology has become more central in the students’ experience…. These classroom technologies become more conspicuous as things that separate the students from the class and what I suspect they understand as the “real” me.

It still shocks and humbles me to see how deeply we feel our connection with technology. We’re long past taking the Office Space printer to a field with baseball bats. When a site or drive crashes at the worst possible time, when something blows up on Twitter without us, when we just can’t parse the tech in front of us, it hits us where we breathe. I appreciate the piece above, written by a grad student teaching his composition classes online, on the difficulties that his students encounter as they learn solely through an online presence. A simplified workflow doesn’t offer a substitute for vision, intention, and communication. It’s something I should have etched into the back of my hand so I don’t forget.

The temptation I’ve wrestled with is to simply dismiss this silly thing, New Yorker or no, as the sad ravings of a man trying to escape his guilt-ridden Protestant Puritan heritage and justify his consumerist lifestyle. But I can’t. It’s not about defending Audubon’s honor against this weird ad hominem assault—or not primarily that, anyway. It’s about defending an idea against the false dichotomy Franzen tries to advance in his essay.

No, you didn’t ask and no, I’m not over the Audubon Society’s beef with Jonathan Franzen over ethics in avian journalism. I read this from a fainting couch with my phone in one hand and smelling salts in the other. I hope, for Franzen’s sake, someone will bind this scathing takedown from the Audubon Society in a life-sized illustrated folio, with birds of America shrieking throughout AND ANOTHER THING.

The character of Cromwell as drawn by Mantel fascinates me because he does nothing without a purpose, and yet it’s not clear what drives him. He accumulates wealth, but gives much of it away, so greed  isn’t his motive. He cultivates safe spaces for Protestant religious practice but retains a lifelong loyalty to a Catholic cardinal. He rises in court and in authority, but doesn’t get drunk on power; his inner monologue reveals a man who never believes he is completely safe.

Wolf Hall finally arrived on PBS this past Sunday. Here Sara covers a lot of what I appreciated about Mantel’s books and the miniseries. Mostly, I love Wolf Hall because it’s so weird compared to every other version we’ve seen of the story of Henry VIII. Sex exists in whispers and contracts; everyone hustles for a spot in the room with Henry, the room where everything happens but no one can reveal the cost and effort it took to get there. Wolf Hall captures this temporality so often absent from historical fiction: no one knows they’re in a story, no one knows there will be one accepted version of how their lives shook out. Cromwell’s story is about the story, the steps taken to unfold and shape a life. Who cares about how it ends when everyone dies anyway?

NASA’s Dawn Mission twitter account linked to their video animating the planned trajectory of the craft around Ceres, a dwarf planet in the asteroid belt. It came up again after more than a month without an update about those bright spots on Ceres’s surface, and the animation shows that Dawn still hasn’t made it into the close approach phase of its journey yet. I just want to note for the record that we (as a species!!) regularly shoot robots into space and MAKE THEM OUR EYES. There’s a robot on a comet, there are robots on and around Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Pluto, and a robot has left our star system for interstellar space. PEOPLE WALKED ON OUR MOON’S FACE.

Look: just because Bronotsaurus can rejoin the land of valid dinosaur taxonomy does not mean that Pluto gets to be a planet again. Have scientists re-evaluated fossil records and revised their 25-year-old conclusions? Yes! Has Pluto gained the mass necessary to meet the IAU’s standards for planet status? No! Did the IAU cave a little and designate objects in Pluto’s neighborhood PLUTOIDS to appease people? Yeah, like seven years ago. When it comes to science, these developments are a feature, not a bug.

desk lunch – 2015-04-03

I used to “take lunch” by literally taking my lunch into an empty conference room with my kindle for 30 glorious minutes a day. NO LONGER. MY DESK IS MY HOME NOW. Here’s what I’ve been reading since last Thursday. Future installments on Thursdays. This Friday’s special.


They’re not raunchy “bodice rippers,” a dismissive term that more properly refers to the historical romances of the 1970s, which were never Harlequin specialties, anyway. They’re not “pornography for women,” either—Harlequins were long quite prim, holding the line against premarital sex until the 1980s, and to this day, the company’s offerings are often mild in comparison to the gloriously filthy stuff that’s readily available on Amazon. To dismiss them as “trash” is lazy and intellectually incurious.

I spent several lunches and commutes home imagining #Harlequin as a Harlequin heroine, standing on a mountain or in some tall grass, her hair windswept as she outsold traditional publishing with frightening determination. If she meets your eyes, an Elle Woods What, like it’s hard? slips past her lips and you realize how little conviction for anything you hold in your bones.

Furthermore, is it fair to say that “technology” writ large has truncated our discourse or diminished textual engagement, when more platforms are enabling more people to say more things on a scale never previously imagined? It makes you wonder if maybe the whole character limit thing is a red herring. Maybe Twitter is unsavory because its users are too wayward, irreverent, and defiant of the “rules.” After all, what kind of despicable person omits the first two letters from the word you?

I like this piece’s take on the changing language of literature, which isn’t changing nearly quickly enough. It’s humbling to step back and realize that writing in the 21st century requires literacy and fluency in a dozen kinds of discourse and you either get that and run with it or you don’t and I mock you relentlessly behind your back. (Also recommended from sevenscribesthis cultural-environmental history from fivefifths.)

Furthermore, the overall demographic of LGBTQs doesn’t jive with the demographics of the areas where we allegedly live. LGBTQs are more likely to be of color, but the neighborhoods cited as gayborhoods are overwhelmingly white. Queer women and trans people are more likely to be poor, but the neighborhoods cited as gayborhoods are overwhelmingly rich.

This raises more questions than it answers and that’s good. There’s no one answer as to what part of the country is More Queer Friendly than any other; there’s so many permutations of so many answers that there’s not even one question. 

Chill takes and never gives. Chill is pathologically unfeeling but not even interesting enough to kill anyone. Chill is a garbage virtue that will destroy the species.

A sip of vitriol for the road.


lmm

Precious cinnamon bun, don’t let the world change you.