Population: Us

It feels redundant to keep pointing wildly at everyone who’s coming to similar conclusions about the instability of this online ecosystem right now—BUT—every time I find another person doing it I start yelling “YES. YES!” and do want to catalogue them in some way because these conversations are unfolding in many different spaces concurrently. It’s not just cartoonists writing about being cartoonists. It’s dancers and authors and comedians and zinesters and activists and journalists and musicians all pausing to look around and say, collectively, “What the fuck am I doing here?”

I’m thinking about comedian Bo Burnham’s remarkable special Inside. About choreographer and quilter Marlee Grace’s latest newsletter. Jia Tolentino’s “The I in the Internet“. Rain’s documentary The Shopkeeper. Mara’s “Sex, Husbandry, and the Infinite Scroll“. How to Do Nothing. The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. I could go on.

Robin called the other day and mentioned that I seemed to have stopped blogging, to which I say: it’s a fair cop. I was in Portland being consumed by my newfound ability to be close to other people and then I was moving and for the past ten days I’ve still been moving, but it’s the shitty back-end part of moving that we don’t talk about as much where you have to actually unpack and (in the case of this particular move) jettison decades of childhood ephemera from your tiny bedroom in order to make it a livable space for yourself as an adult.

A POV photo from Lucy's bed. Her laptop is open in the forground with this blog post on it. There are wooden cabinets and a lot of books and orange walls and houseplants. It's cozy and warm.

The last piece of furniture I needed to move in was my bed frame, which I’d decided to stain and refinish because “Imperfect DIY Projects” was in my “More” column for this year. Now that I can sleep in a space with visible floor area and a desk I can actually sit at (though I am, in fact, writing this on the bed), it turns out my brain is far more capable of turning to the digital spaces I’ve been neglecting for the past six weeks. By returning to writing, I’m breathing a habitual sigh of relief—the kind that turns into a stream of words about shit I didn’t know I was even processing in the background of whatever I was busy doing while I was thinking that I’d never write another word ever again.1

So, after all that preamble:

Nicole Brinkley wrote this essay called Did Twitter Break YA? as part of her Misshelved series on Patreon and it’s fucking great. YA isn’t my community, but it’s adjacent to my community. And booksellers (the community Nicole talks about most frequently in her writing) are absolutely within my community. The patterns she describes in this piece—of context collapse and “morally motivated networked harassment” and parasocial relationships and burnout—are patterns I know like the back of my hand.

There are so many nod-inducing moments, but this was the one that really made my blood run cold:

After all, access to authors is the real product—and if an author missteps, they’re just a failed product. There are always more authors to fill that spot on the shelf.

Bluergh. Hurk. Ek. How often have I slipped into thinking of myself as a failed product on a shelf? Certainly every time I’ve stopped posting as often on Patreon, or expressed enthusiasm about doing a drawing challenge and then failed to follow through. Definitely in those moments when I think that if I just had a bit more energy and time I could start making content that would grow my following “in earnest”. When I take two years to send a new installment of my newsletter. When I disappear.

But it’s not just the disappearance. It’s feeling of one’s absence being invisible within the onrushing tide of Other People’s Output. Remember that Drew Austin essay I linked a couple posts ago? He gets into it there, noting that “Every social media feed is an endless parade of these fragmentary identities, disaggregated into units of content and passing by quickly enough to evade the scrutiny that would detect their incompleteness.” The incompleteness being that we are all also doing and contending with other things. We have to be. We’re not just on Twitter 24/7—even people who seem as if they are.

- Well, there's nothing going on, is there? - There is always something going on.

This is the price of trying to succeed within the ecosystem of capitalism, and maybe it’s also why I want to keep sharing here and here alone: I haven’t contaminated this container yet. It gets to sit apart from everything else, just me and my thoughts.2

Earlier in the Pandemic Mara made a rare Instagram appearance, posting a series of text-based stories from her new home in Winthrop, Washington. I transcribed them immediately because, as with most things she writes and shares and speaks about, it sparked something in me that I needed to sit with for a long time.

I have so enjoyed every story and post by you all, dear friends. How does it work when I just observe you, and when to like/comment on what you make here is to feed an algorithm that watches and profits off of our affection? I don’t do it because it feels…violent?…to us. This platform is very hard for me. Thank you for understanding. It pales in comparison to being near you. The simulacrum of closeness feels nauseating. I know we are killing something important in the process of creating connection. I want you to walk through the door, for us to play. You’re all here always.

This is it—the heart of the thing. We chase engagement as if it’s the Holy Grail, and yet to play the game on any level means we’ve already lost. There are so many people I can think of who I’ve finally been able to see and embrace and laugh with over the past month and attempting to get that through social media does pale in comparison. The simulacrum is nauseating.

This handful of broken online platforms can’t be everything.

Past a certain point I don’t want to spend my time cataloguing people’s writing about this—or generating my own—because (and this is the curse of the over-informed over-thinker) I know it all already. I know it in my bones. I may not have the right terminology for it, but I can feel it. I fear I am admiring the problem, thrilling to ever more accurate descriptors that tell me precisely how and why I’m locked in this unfulfilling spiral, rather than taking steps to change my behavior.3

As Tolentino points out, “The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all reward­ing to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”

But Nicole is ready for that.

[…] I do not want to wear the armor of cynicism. I do not want to be trapped in the ouroboros of perfection just because the community I interact with demands it.

So here is what I will say to you, dear reader: You do not have to participate in this cycle.

The system is broken, but the system can be abandoned.

In addressing this head-on, she wins my heart.4 She admits that the piece started out as one thing and then turned into another. She describes the trajectory it might have taken had she chosen to focus solely on the issue of where actual teenage readers sit in the modern YA landscape, and then she recognizes that this is really a conversation about so much more. (I will never stop loving this pattern, wherever I encounter it.)

The Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It School, the Grit School, the Capitalism School—they all urge us to keep producing and grinding and persevering, trusting that clarity will come from more work (even if that work, at its core, is purposeless, unfulfilling, or even actively harmful). With no time to reflect or catch our breath, we feel we have no choice but to trust the systems we’re given, to push and push and push until we “break into” the spaces that are communally regarded as desirable, and then fight like hell to keep that power safe because don’t you know this is a landscape of scarcity? There’s only so much to go around.

When I think about the last year, I don’t think about pushing. I think about waiting.

I had to wait. I had to wait a long, long time. In some ways I’m still waiting.

So when Nicole says:

These days it’s okay to not be sure what Twitter is for. We can stop going there until we figure it out.

It feels like permission.

It makes my soul exhale.

“I don’t feel good when I’m here” is enough of a reason to leave. Even if the places I wish I could stay—or the people I wish I could stay with—sometimes bring me connection and joy and validation and money and, yes, even love. If my gut tells me that I am not, at baseline, nourished the way I need to be: I can walk.

That’s the new rule.

Thank you, Nicole.

1. I’m also kind of glossing over the fact that my obsessive nesting has masked a deeper discomfort with having to face the true emotional cost of this transition. That’s a conversation for another time. But, as my therapist reminded me: this grief is chronic, not acute. Avoidance is a tactic we use to survive ongoing adversity. It’s not inherently evil.

2. Also, just a general side note in relation to all this: how often have I shared something like Nicole’s essay on Twitter or Instagram with the caveat “I’m fully aware of the irony of sharing this here, but…”? I want to stop doing that. If I’m reading something about how fucked it feels to still be on a certain platform and it resonates with me, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT SOMEWHERE OTHER THAN THAT PLATFORM. (I am yelling at myself here because this is a footnote and that’s what they’re for, I think.)

3. Whoops this is the moment I realized that this essay is also about my historical approach to relationships. Surprise!

4. She also reminds me of this stunning essay from adrienne maree brown about disrupting patterns of harm that specifically target Black women within movement work. I’m due a re-read because I haven’t stopped thinking about it for months.

Heroics

I just received some questions for an upcoming interview, including one about whether I know any real-life superheroes.

The question was meant to be part of a “lightning round” of easy options, but I’ve been chewing on it all morning. It feels like it comes paired with an unspoken definition, and I think that definition and my definition might be different.

Of course they don’t want to know about whether I actually know anyone who can shoot webs from their wrists or manipulate plants with their mind (and who’s to say I’d even tell you about those people if I did know them, hmm?), but my guess is they do want to know about people who fit a specific social profile. It’s wrapped up in the way we often talk about healthcare workers or firefighters—people who devote their lives to selflessly helping others.

I’m sure plenty of people have written about the role of superheroes in a system obsessed with power fantasies and quick fixes, but I’m going to scribble this down anyway for the sake of my own brain. Elevating essential workers to “hero” status feels akin to saying “A woman is president!” as if that solves the fact that the presidency itself is built on questionable foundations. Heroics feel given over to urgency and spectacle and performance. They create a division of responsibility, placing an unreasonable burden on the exceptional “heroes” to enact change, rather than addressing the root causes of a broken system.

So when I try to answer this question, I come up short.

The people I admire are mostly moving in spirals, guided by curiosity, poking their heads into things at odd angles, and reporting back with offerings. Often they’re taking the time to think about their values and then embody them through practice. I say “practice” instead of “action” because the latter still feels too close to…the other thing. Most importantly, they’re all in constellation with (and inextricable from) a web of other people who are thinking, wondering, helping, and connecting, too. And so it feels disrespectful to label them as “heroic”.

As Le Guin says:

[…] it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

This combination of words (rabbit/potato) makes me laugh every time.

Moving into caretaking as a practice, I’m noticing that there’s no “fixing” any of this. There’s no dramatic reversal. There’s just presence and flexibility and willingness, and that’s the best I can aspire to at any given moment. It’s a rich, sad, funny, strange stew.

Maybe I’ll just say Spider-Man.

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.

The Infinite Carrier Bag

What’s the thought you think all your life long? It must be a great one, a solemn one, to make you gaze through the world at it, all your life long. When you have to look aside from it your eyes roll, you bellow in anger, anxious to return to it, steadily to gaze at it, think it all your life long.

— To The Bullock Roseroot, an improvisation spoken during the Second Day of the World ceremonies by Kulkunna of Chukulmas

I’ve been making my way, very slowly and over the course of many loans from the Multnomah County Library, through Always Coming Home, Ursula K. Le Guin’s unclassifiable, meandering, pseudo-anthropological record of a fictional future people called the Kesh. I’m not even a third of the way into the thing, but as the above quote from the book suggests, I’m thinking about it all the time.

There are so many things I love about this collection, particularly its place-specific-ness. The Kesh live in a far-future, post-societal-collapse Northern California. Even with the ravages of climate change, they describe the local flora and fauna in a way that taps straight into the landscape of my childhood—what Cassie Marketos calls “our good earth to grow in”. It brings me back to hot, dusty hikes through the Sespe wilderness in grade school, shifting my weight side to side as a leathery naturalist lectured us on different varieties of manzanita. It roots me in a place I think about even when I am not thinking about it.

If we are friends in any capacity, chances are high that I’ve pressed Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” into your hands at one point or another. It explores a hypothetical world where stories are about the things they gather and contain, rather than the bodies they pierce and conquer, and I want to talk about it with everyone. It took me years to bother looking up where it had originally been published, which led me to Always Coming Home. Now that I’m a third of the way into this massive, discursive, lovely collection, it makes perfect sense. Theory in practice.

I like a book that forces me to take my time.

I’m a fast reader, and the first to admit that I can get a little breathless with my consumption. I spin out over ideas, get caught up in the excitement of newness. A book like this resists every opportunity to rush. The chapters and sections are all relatively small, but they loop and meander and digress. They build in layers over hundreds of pages to give an impression rather than a narrative. The experience feels very similar to reading oral traditions of cultures other than my own—an abruptness as one’s expectations of narrative symmetry and pacing are undermined in real time. The lack of them speaks louder than anything; makes me more aware of what I’ve been raised with, and of how things could be different.

Despite their distance from our current world of technology, the Kesh still interface with certain vestiges of present-day culture. These moments are some of my favorite in the book so far.

The City mind thinks that sense has been made if a writing is read, if a message is transmitted, but we don’t think that way. In any case, to learn a great deal about those people would be to cry in the ocean; whereas using their bricks in one of our buildings is satisfying to the mind. […] What does it mean to cry in the ocean? Oh, well, you know, to add something where nothing’s needed, or where so much is needed that it’s no use even trying, so you just sit down and cry.

If that isn’t social media in a nutshell, I don’t know what is. The desire to know everything, consume everything, document everything butting up against Marge Piercy’s recognition:

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

When I retweet or double tap on a post by a friend to express my approval, I’m not using their bricks in one of my buildings. But when I write? That’s when we’re in conversation—occupying the same room across space and time, building it together.

This is what Le Guin manages, in this layered, looping collection of stories and ideas: she writes a re-envisioned world into being, and then writes herself—writes all of us who create—into that world. “What do they do,” she asks, “the singers, tale-writers, dancers, painters, shapers, makers?”

They go there with empty hands, into the gap between. They come back with things in their hands. They go silent and come back with words, with tunes. They go into confusion and come back with patterns. […] The ordinary artists use patience, passion, skill, work and returning to work, judgment, proportion, intellect, purpose, indifference, obstinacy, delight in tools, delight, and with these as their way they approach the gap, the hub, approaching in circles, in gyres, like the buzzard, looking down, watching, like the coyote, watching. They look to the center, they turn on the center, they describe the center, though they cannot live there.

It’s the doubled items in this list that I love the most: “work and returning to work,” “delight in tools, delight”. I love that Le Guin understands these as separate, yet interlocking elements. I love that she has thought, so deeply and with so much lenience and also so much slantwise clarity, about the purposes we might serve in remaking the fabric of society.

She was a writer with a thought to think her whole life long. And the beautiful thing about writing is that the thought didn’t end when she did—now I’m thinking it, too.

Perfectionism, Process, Patterns

[I’m going to start cross-posting the weird captain’s log audio updates I’ve been doing on Patreon for the last couple years here on my blog. If you’d like to take a spin through the whole archive, I’ve made a page for every past episode here.]

Okay, so! A Ramble. Typically when I share these on Patreon I try to keep it simple and just throw up a list of links to things I talked about, in case folks want to follow up and read what I’m reading. I still don’t know how to approach the practice here. Ironically, this particular Ramble is about the relative ease of talking compared to writing for me, and how the pressure to “get it right” in text is so much stronger.

I recognize that this is probably diametrically opposed to how a lot of people feel about any kind of public (or semi-public) speaking, but I think by talking, and my best thinking-talking usually happens when I’m addressing people who get it. Sometimes this is specific friends for specific projects, but there’s a reason this practice came into being on Patreon. My Patrons have bought into the weird, non-transactional structure I’ve built for my page, which means they’re probably the people I trust the most with an imperfect, non-linear audio snapshot of whatever I’m thinking about at the time.

On a practical note: I talk so much faster than I write. My guess is that a transcription of each Ramble would feel like an insurmountable slog to read through, but as a 20-minute audio snippet it’s a relatively small ask. You can do other stuff while consuming it, which I know people do because they comment and tell me about it! How lovely to imagine a friend or stranger doing dishes or puttering in the garden while we spend twenty asynchronous minutes together. It’s the best.

Every Ramble also comes paired with a photo I took while recording it. This started because I was too lazy to draw a cover for the first one, but it’s become a really important part of the process. It creates a visual touchstone that reminds me of the season and the weather and the moment when I was thinking these thoughts. Seeing them all together feels like a form of cyclical time travel.

Anyway, here’s today’s:

A moody photograph of a skyline at sunrise. There are black buildings and telephone poles silhouetted in the foreground and a streak of orange against slate-grey clouds on the horizon.
December 8th, 2020

This Ramble felt like going to therapy on a week where I think nothing in particular’s been going on, but find myself reckoning with the unseen weight of countless stressors from the last three days alone within five minutes of opening my mouth. Except I should replace “stressors” with “stuff I’ve been thinking about while reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home” to paint a more accurate picture.

And because I do think it helps, here’s that list of links to things mentioned:

So that’s that. These come out roughly every 2-3 weeks, or as the mood strikes. Don’t set your watch by it.