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A Cleverist

I’ve been thinking a lot about about cleverness these last few weeks and how central a thing I think it is in the people I’m drawn to, but also how the term is often used in a slightly perjorative sense. And then of course here comes Ali Smith again just wrecking my shit out of nowhere without a care in the world in the last chapter of There but for the:

“Then she asked Mr. Garth did he really think there wasn’t anything wrong with being cleverest. Top of Mount Cleverest, Mr. Garth said. Brooke laughed. Then Mr. Garth said really slowly:

the fact is, that at the top of any mountain you’ll feel a bit dizzy because of the air up there. Cleverness is great. It’s a really good thing, when you have it. But there’s no point in just having it. You have to know how to use it. And when you know how to use your cleverness, it’s not that you’re the cleverest anymore, or are doing it to be cleverer than anyone else like it’s a competition. No. Instead of being the cleverest, the thing to do is become a cleverist.”

UGH I LOVE THIS WOMAN’S BRAIN.

Make Haste Slowly

In a chapter of Always Coming Home titled “Long Names of Houses,” Le Guin writes:

“It is hard for us to conceive, harder to approve, of a serious adult person not in a hurry. Not being in a hurry is for infants, people over eighty, bums, and the Third World. Hurry is the essence of city, the very soul. There is no civilisation without hurry, without keeping ahead.”

Suddenly I’m thrown back to reading Terry Tempest Williams at the bottom of the Grand Canyon seven years ago; an image I’ve never forgotten of runners trying to outpace the Colorado River.

“The river was red. It was a race; they ran shoulder to shoulder, faster and faster, bodiesbehindandbodiesinfront, inhaling, exhaling, fat-free hearts pumping oxygen into every living cell, the body a machine, sighing, groaning, moaning like one large organism running, running, faster and faster, sweating, puking, shitting, wheezing. They outran the river, faster and faster, every one of them, two feet times thousands tapping, drumming, beating the pavement, faster and faster […]”

They are singing together, these two. (If you’re reading this via RSS, I’d recommend the on-site version for clarity in this next part.)

“The hurry may lurk invisible, contradicted by the indolent pose of the lounger at the bar or the lazy gait of the stroller along the hotel walkway, but it is there, in the terrific engines of the TWA or BSA supersonic planes that brought her from Rio, him from Rome, here to NY, NY for the IGPSA conference on implementation of GEPS, and will rush them back tomorrow, hurrying across the world of cities where there is no tense left but the present tense, every second and tenth of a second and millisecond and nanosecond clocked, the readout always moving a little faster and the A rising.”

“In our human world, we worship speed and desire. We desire money. We assign money to time. What is time worth? Your time. My time. Our time. Talk fast. Work fast. Drive fast. Walk fast. Run. Who ever told us to wear jogging shoes to work? Don’t saunter. Don’t look. Speed walk. Speed dial. Federal Express will fly our thoughts around the world. We do not trust slowness, silence, or stillness.”

“Mozart’s A was a hundred and forty cycles a second, so Mozart’s piano is out of tune with all our orchestras and singers. Our A is a hundred and sixty, because the instruments sound more brilliant tuned up higher, as they all rise like sirens towards the final scream.”

“Stop time. Time? What was my time? What was your time? They are handed their time; for better or worse, their trophy is their time.”

“There is nothing to be done.”

“Where the runners stop, the river continues, a slow, strong current that now meanders through willows.”

“There is no way to heighten the pitch of the instruments of the Valley, no way to abbreviate their institutions and addresses and names to capital letters, no way to get them to move ahead.”

“I am not so easily seduced by speed as I once was. I find I have lost the desire to move that quickly in the world.”

Le Guin published Always Coming Home in 1985, but here I am reading it in 2021. Williams published Red in 2001, but I first read it in 2014. The precipitous time travel of literature never ceases to make my head spin. To discover these things all out of order and yet find them in conversation with each other—so close they could be touching. A thought moving at the speed of light, yet also crawling forward with impossible slowness.

“To see how much I can done in a day does not impress me anymore. I don’t think it’s about getting older. It feels more like honoring the gravity in my own body in relationship to place. Survival. A rattlesnake coils, its tail shakes; the emptiness of the desert is evoked.”

A thought you must think all your life long.

The rattle on the end of a rattlesnake’s tail is called a crepitaculum.

Higher Education

I’m a hindsight junky. I’m always flipping through old journals and sketchbooks, trying to find a narrative through-line that I can string up and hang insights on like so much laundry. The weird contemplative timelessness of Quarantine—not to mention the exhaustive self-reflection that tends to accompany a breakup—has only encouraged this behavior. But it’s not recriminatory! I love making sense of my life this way; seeing how the seeds of everything dear to me took root far earlier than I could’ve known.

2016 to 2020: a period bookended by two formative talks. The first wrestling with the paradox of gaining professional recognition faster than my financial situation was improving, the second realizing what I wanted to do with my time once that discrepancy had evened out.

Those four years also held a presidential term of unprecedented dreadfulness, a deeply formative relationship, profound shifts in my creative practice, and the growing realization that the systems underpinning this country are deeply broken. My undergraduate degree also took this amount of time, albeit from 2009-2012, which has had me thinking about the last four years as an education of its own. What do I hold a degree in now?

I asked people this question on Twitter, and the responses were predictably fascinating and funny in equal measure, but I wasn’t sure how to bring the conversation to this venue. And THEN the other day I saw Robin Sloan playing with inline response forms via his newsletter/blog and everything clicked into place. The invitation to contribute creates a bit of interactive magic without the bloat of a comments section—just a quick way to remind the reader that this is a collaborative experiment.1 I thought implementing something like this was out of my technical reach, but it turns out I have a plugin for contact forms already installed, so LET’S TRY:

    (If you’re reading this via RSS, the contact form doesn’t carry over. Beyond my skill to heal, I’m afraid, so just open this post in your browser if you’re dying to play.)

    Maybe I’ll update this post with some of your impressive new diploma titles? But then again, maybe not.

    1. I know I’ve said that I like how private this space feels right now, and this could break that illusion by inviting people to get in touch, but I also really like tiny emails as a form of call and response—and I’m not asking for anyone’s name or email address, so I literally can’t respond.

    Selves

    Tonight I opened Twitter, exhausted from another long day of menial tasks laden with outsized emotional significance because they all have to do with moving, to find this tweet from Beck Tench.1

    The thread that follows? I love it more than words can express.

    This is one of those moments where I wish there was a better way to share these little…presentations? Mini keynotes? What are Twitter threads, really? Especially with Beck’s delightful illustrations, this collection of thoughts cries out for something bespoke like Robin’s scroll-snap essay on newsletters or Other Robin’s tap essay on fish. Twitter doesn’t do it justice—jumbles the order, messes with the pace. The best I can offer is this version on Thread Reader which, y’know? It’s actually all right.

    I appreciate you, Thread Reader. You’re doing a decent job.

    A N Y W A Y:

    I came to wonder if the sharks swimming in the waters aren’t fears or doubts, but rather they are actually selves. And if, in times of stress, it’s those selves we must stay true to.

    Yes.

    1. Do you have those people in your circles who just consistently say and think and share the most lovely, considered, thought-provoking things? Beck is one of those people for me. I love her tweets. And blog posts. And just…her whole deal.

    Two Rambles

    Ramble #24 (January 7th, 2021): The 7th anniversary of my arrival on Patreon! Reflections on my first solo Christmas, good quotes about solitude, writing down nice things, thinking about early internet communities, trying out anonymous audio-based support groups, picking a word for the year, stuff about birds. There’s also a bonus recording attached to the original post on Patreon from Tim Dee’s The Running Sky, which is just gorgeous.

    January 7th, 2021
    Ramble #24

    Ramble #25 (January 21st, 2021): much shorter. Took a walk. Petted a cat. Tried to figure out how I’ve changed my relationship to being online and whether I could distill that process into replicable steps. (Also, thanks to a truly mystical service Robin turned me onto called Descript, this is the first Ramble with a proper transcript.)

    January 21st, 2021
    Ramble #25

    (If you’re universally hot for RSS feeds—and if you’re here, let’s be real, you probably are—you can always subscribe to these directly in the podcast app of your choosing with this link.)

    [Complete Ramble Archive]

    Delights

    This morning I woke suddenly in the dark, startled by something toppling in a gust of wind, and decided to get up. I very rarely regret being up before the sun. It’s something my dad taught me to love, waking early to wash the previous night’s dishes or listen to Satie at the kitchen table. Sometimes we’d go to the park and hit tennis balls back and forth on the empty courts, or walk around the block in the pitch black till my legs itched unbearably from the cold. Whatever we did, it always felt like secret, stolen time. A pocket of temporal spaciousness.

    So, this morning, I got up and made tea and decided to curl into the armchair in the corner of the living room and use this particular pocket to read.

    The Book of Delights by Ross Gay came very highly recommended. This is sometimes a deterrent because I’m the sort of nightmare person who stubbornly avoids things the more often I’m told to consume them, but in this case I’m glad I persevered. 

    The premise is very simple: a year’s worth of daily essayettes on various sources of delight. The collection glows precisely because it isn’t some kind of Pollyannaish litany. Instead, it captures the complexity of finding joy in a flawed world, and the particular necessity of claiming joy as a Black man in America. Gay’s entries are full of digressions and caveats. He’s constantly gesturing toward vast, complicated power structures with one hand while using the other to point at tiny, captivating miracles poking their heads out of the soil.

    I love any piece of work that wrestles with the paradox of “and yet” and “even still,” and this book is no exception. I love it because it doesn’t demand that we wait to be pure enough for joy. It doesn’t position a sense of a wonder as a commodity to be bought or earned. It doesn’t disqualify people. Delight is simply there, in spite of it all.1

    Two years ago I sat in Mother Foucault’s Bookshop on a Saturday morning with the sun streaming through the windows and listened to my friend Anis perform his poem Today’s Love Is Brought to You by the Letter Jon Sands. (You can probably hear me laughing in the background of this video. You can certainly see me crying in the background of another in the series from that morning.)

    Hearing the way Anis says “I fucking love Black people” echoes the many celebrations that run throughout The Book of Delights.2 These two half-Black poets share a tender ear for the sublime and an irreverent sense of humor—the kind of sharing that makes me wonder if they’ve met.3 Their words flow into each other and elicit snorts and grins and also pangs of truthful recognition. Neither of them eschew the paradox of what it means to embrace delight in the world we live in—in the skin they live in—and I am so deeply grateful for it.

    I stayed curled in the armchair for an hour or so, and when I was done reading the acknowledgements (one of my favorite parts of any book) and had breathed one of those happy, book-finishing sighs, I looked out the window and realized there was white frost sparkling on all the neighborhood rooftops, and that the sunrise had snuck up on me, and that it was January 20th.

    A laptop resting on a pillow in front of a window. There's a luminous pink sunrise glowing on the horizon.

    Happy new presidency, America.

    1. “Wanna hear something terrible? Even here, at the end of everything, I still love it.”

    2. Which echoes the “black abundance” of Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. And so on, and so on.

    3. Yes, part of me also wonders if there’s the sort of inexplicable friction we sometimes recognize as envy in this comparison. Occasionally people will refer to me alongside other creators whose work I admire and rather than feeling like a compliment it elicits a jab of petty resentment. But my friend Mara taught me that often what we envy in the other is an aspect of the self we haven’t fully claimed yet, and you know what? I believe that. It checks out. Things have gotten better since I started noticing those tiny jabs and thinking “Yeah, okay, that’s me too. I have that. Wouldn’t notice it if I didn’t.”

    Convening the Poetry Cabal

    Walking the walk RE: my last post and sharing something utterly delightful that just landed in my inbox.

    Phil and Liam, the folks behind Galaxy Brain, are hosting a digital Burns Night celebration this Friday. Come prepared to read a poem and share a toast in memory of Scotland’s beloved national bard.

    (Exactly what mice plans is he talking about here?)

    Burns Night is technically the 25th, but since the celebration traditionally involves a certain amount of Scotch Consumption, they’re opting for a weekend-friendly date. Alcohol is optional, sharing a poem is mandatory.

    Friday, January 22nd. 7:30 Pacific. Online. Details here.

    Stumbling

    “If everyone’s social media experience looked like your social media experience I think people would want to be on social media a lot more.”

    I’m in therapy. I mean, I’m in my house, same as every other day, but I’m looking at the particular video call window that corresponds to “being in therapy” and my therapist is saying these nice things to me and I’m laughing because my feeds are full of just as much chaos and anxiety as anyone else’s, but she presses on.

    “Every time you tell me about some new community or project you found or someone you met online, it sounds fascinating and beautiful and hopeful. That’s…well. That’s not my experience of being online. I had to quit.”

    I stop laughing and try to hear what she’s saying—turning it over, weighing it against my experience. Is it true? So many days I feel like I’m purposefully recoiling from the internet at large, erecting sandcastle barricades against an inrushing tide. 

    But it is true.

    I’ve been changing my relationship to being online.

    Some of it is keeping in touch with friends who are fascinated by the same sorts of hybrid creations I am. Friends who build things. Friends in different professional communities. Paying attention when they mention some new discovery or avenue of interest.

    Some of it is using an RSS reader to change the cadence and depth of my consumption—pulling away from the quick-hit likes of social media in favor of a space where I can run my thoughts to their logical conclusion (and then sit on them long enough to consider whether or not they’re true).

    Some of it is joining small communities who meet regularly to write letters or discuss abolition or cheer each other on throughout the work day.

    Some of it is just letting myself wander, link to link, through people’s personal websites and passion projects, seeing what comes up.1

    Most people (myself included) stopped using the internet this way years ago. Our footpaths converged around the same 5-10 platforms, each with its own particular manner of communication. I have learned, unintentionally, to code switch every time I craft a new post. It’s exhausting, trying to keep track of all those unspoken rules shaped by years of use.

    But I don’t have rules like that on my blog. I turned off stats. There are no comments. No likes. It’s been long enough since I wrote regularly here that I’m not bringing any tonal baggage with me.

    Hell, the last time I had a regular personal writing practice online I was eighteen.

    A theme of the past year has been trying to disengage from my attachment to what I think other people want or need from me, and to rekindle my working relationship with myself. Changing my relationship to being online hasn’t been linear. I still go on social media. It’s not like it’s become obsolete in my world overnight. But my therapist (as usual) is right. 

    Something’s on the move.

    1. I spent an afternoon last week dredging up memories of StumbleUpon, a service that flung users around to random sites with the click of a button between 2002 and 2018. It was great! The closest thing I’ve experienced recently was Jenny Odell asking folks on Twitter to share their favorite single serving websites. (LEAF.COM!!!) Not a full replacement for the service, but a delight nonetheless.

    A Nice Carpet

    No trip to Juneau for Comics Camp in 2020 (and, from the looks of it, none in 2021 either), but we did gather in April and January for two truly lovely online…hangouts? Digital-councils? Un-tele-conferences? Whatever they were I liked them.

    During the most recent one I tried leading a Creative Wayfinding Workshop based on my recent talk for Jolabokaflod PDX. At one point I had folks in the room populate a spreadsheet with the faces of people they admire.

    A nine by seven grid full of tiny headshots. There are authors like Lynda Barry, Ryan North, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Adrienne Maree Brown. Politicians like Alexandra Occasio Cortez and Rashida Talib. Cartoonists like Blue Delliquanti, Spike Trotman, and Ray Behr. Even a photo of Kermit the Frog.

    Sitting alone in my room watching these little cells fill up filled my heart up, too. Hearing people talk about who they’d chosen and why, doubly so. Seeing people include the faces of their peers and fellow campers alongside Nobel laureates and pop stars and politicians?

    Well.

    It pays to remember that people aren’t just looking up to people they’ve never met—people who are famous or dead or both. Chances are good they’re looking up to their friends, too. The ones who are kind. The ones who fight for what they believe in. The ones who know how to say no and make it feel like a gift.

    It pays to remember to tell those people we look up to them, when we can.

    Scarcity/Support

    Photographer Joshua Kissi articulated something I relate to very deeply about the idea of “success” for creators in the current age in this interview:

    “There’s less of a binary now. It’s not a clear ‘you made it,’ or ‘you didn’t.’ For a long time, people romanticized this idea of the starving artist because there were so few that make it to the top. Now people are finding spaces that make sense for them, and it’s not because it’s being forced upon them. They’ve had way more control and autonomy over building a space they feel comfortable creating from. They’re not making things from a scarcity mindset anymore.”

    Read this via Aundre Larrow, who I followed after hearing him speak about Instinct, Luck + Preparation for In/Visible Talks. When I thanked him for his insights on Twitter, he immediately messaged me and asked “How can I support you?”

    The question caught me off-guard. I can be cagey about this stuff when put on the spot, despite maintaining such an open demeanor online. Usually I’m the one doing the offering, the listening, the supporting. 

    I get uncomfortable when people turn it back on me. 

    And when it comes from a fellow creator at a similar stage in their career? Then it’s not as simple as just saying “Here’s my Patreon!” and moving on. There are things we need, but perhaps don’t know how to ask for—things other creators might understand better than anyone.

    So even though I don’t think I gave a particularly profound answer at the time, I still think about that exchange whenever I interact with someone new. What happens when I open a conversation with an offer of assistance? And when (jumping back to that Interintellect conversation on authenticity) might it feel misaligned with the default level of intimacy that’s present between strangers? This is stuff I love thinking about, and behavior that I love seeing in my timeline.

    As Kissi says elsewhere in the interview:

    “I am most proud of the ability to impact people over time. […] Even if something is starting with me, it’s not ending with me.”

    May we all start things that don’t end with us.