Even when your heart is breaking: On Sleater-Kinney

I want to remember the good things first. I might not look like it, but I’m an optimist. Not necessarily in the “it’s for the best!” way or the “it’ll turn out alright!” way, but the “something good is out there and will continue to exist, come hell or high water” way. I admit that how this manifests generally makes me look like a rube. When a tabler for a charity manages to flag me down and tell a story about a bright, intelligent, but profoundly economically challenged girl in the Philippines, I want to believe it. When a stranger tells me he needs my phone so he can let his family know he’s okay, I want to believe it. When a homeless person tells me that he needs bus fare to get to his AA meeting, I want to believe it. When I think about the year 2014, I want to believe that, contrary to all evidence, it was ultimately a good year. That I figured myself out, or at least started on it. I want to remember the good things. I went to XOXO with a broken heart and met dozens of talented people and came back feeling like I had not only done something brave but that I was capable and courageous. I took a project at my job that made me feel like I was productive, intelligent, solving the right problems. I started writing for the Arcade Review, an amazing publication filled with astounding, formidable work. I don’t know if happiness necessarily comes easily for anyone. But sadness, at least, comes easily to me. I know I’m not the only person who has to do what feels like a disproportionate amount of work just to feel not depressed: we wouldn’t have diagnoses and medication and counseling if I was. I want to remember the good things. And I know this: some good things happened, and they happened to happen to me. But knowing and believing are different, distant things.


I found Sleater-Kinney only a year or two after they went on indefinite hiatus. It was my second year of college, and I was curled on an stuffy school-owned sofa, feeling utterly terrible about everything ever. I was browsing Last.fm, which I guess is kind of like Spotify before we had Spotify, and I saw the photograph, among all the other recommendations: three women leaning into the street, bored, one with her hand raised to hail a taxi. The album was The Hot Rock. The song was “Get Up.” That was the start.

That album, I found, turned out to be not entirely representative of S-K’s oeuvre. True, the band seems to have a habit of reinventing themselves with every album; it’s fascinating to listen to their discography in a marathon session, from the barebones punk of their self-titled album to the near classic-rock production of The Woods to this year’s grungy, fuzzy No Cities To Love. And there’s a definite through-line to nearly all of it—if not sonically, then at least thematically: their songs often embody anger (one that as a cis male I honestly can’t speak to except in generalities—and really not even then—but here we go), anger at corrupt(ing) systems, systems that view them as “just women” (see, e.g.: “Modern Girl,” “Was It a Lie,”), and the power that arises from that anger (“I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “Let’s Call It Love,” “Male Model,” “Prisstina”). I honestly don’t think there are many bands that have achieved that kind of coherence from their careers, that started so fully formed that the only path was to change their form entirely.

But The Hot Rock (1999) stands away from that. I’m not saying that this makes it better or worse than their other albums—simply different. Dig Me Out (the album prior) seethes and growls with Carrie Brownstein’s guitar, a nearly perfect rock album, the one that made Sleater-Kinney and Call the Doctor—tremendous records in their own right—feel like mere warm-up. Corin Tucker wields her voice like a whip. You can break your knuckles on Janet Weiss’s drums. And All Hands on the Bad One (2000, the one after Hot Rock) could easily be called the party album, politically charged and brimming with hooks and begging for sing-alongs. And from there, it’s a straight-shot to what Sleater-Kinney sounds like today.

But, then, The Hot Rock is a sharp detour right in the middle of their career. It’s sedate (as sedate as a rock album can get, anyway) in comparison to Dig Me Out, introspective and spiritual next to All Hands on the Bad One. With “The Size of Our Love,” the trio tells a story about a couple dealing with cancer: “I fight for a heart, I fight for a strong heart / I fight to never know this sickness you know / But I know it’s my own, I gave it a home.” (More often than not, I skip it—I’m usually not steeled enough to listen to it.) With “Get Up,” they stare, hearts open wide, at the beautiful impossibility of how anything is anything at all:

And when the body finally starts to let go
Let it all go at once
Not piece by piece
But like a whole bucket of stars
Dumped into the universe

Or how about “A Quarter to Three”, where they look at the wrong side of a failed relationship: “And the photo booth strip, / and the letter you wrote / they feel like nothing I could hold.”

I could go on. It’s not like The Hot Rock was the first and last time they did any introspection, and it’s not like the album lacks for grand sociopolitical statements either—far from it—but it is their only album where internal conflict came to the fore. And it’s my favorite album for that reason. (Dig Me Out is probably the objectively best album, but, well, that’s another article.) I remember listening to it with a certain soul-ache that I couldn’t express and wouldn’t understand for another five years, but feeling like this band had somehow tapped into that hurt, rang it like a bell, could speak to it, could create music and art from it. I remember the complicated optimism of “Burn, Don’t Freeze,” the cosmic love in the aforementioned “Get Up,” the grit and resolve radiating off “Start Together.” I wondered what part of me had kept me from ever realizing that those things could be part of my life. I remember how badly I wanted those things for myself, despite myself.

Oh little light that shines for me in the dark of night
Oh little sigh, sometimes I follow you all the way home
I would almost have to ask you, I hate to be led
So give me a spark, I can look for instead
“Night Light”

When I learned that Sleater-Kinney was releasing another album, I really did flip a lid. I had given up on ever seeing them perform—one of the tragedies of making your favorite band an apparently disbanded one is that what you see is all you’ll ever get. So when their new single, “Bury Our Friends,” came out, I put it on repeat for a week. When No Cities to Love was released, I listened to it for hours and hours—I still do. When they went on tour again, I was resolved to see them no matter what. And I did.

And I can only barely tell you what it was like to be there. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. As they took the stage, that feeling of wanting better flooded back from wherever I’d pushed it down to protect myself. About halfway through their set, Carrie Brownstein took up her mic and said, “If you think you’re invisible out there, you’re not: we’re looking at you.” Which meant more than I can really express. If I’m being cynical, she probably said that at every show. But I heard her say it that evening, and I know she said it to us. I was thinking: I’m glad I’m alive right now. For once, believing came easy.

Summer catch-up

I suppose it is A Format Of Sorts to bind up all the little scraps I’ve written into a big post.

In which yt. makes questionable decisions wrt. his finances

I bought a PlayStation 4 so I could play Destiny. You can probably see where this is headed.

It’s actually really strange owning a gaming console and playing AAA games again, mostly because it doesn’t feel like much has changed in the two or three years since I last touched a console. It seems telling that all three games that I now own for this parallelogram exist and could be played on other pre-existing platforms.

As for Destiny itself, well, it’s just a bucket of nonsense, isn’t it? It’s a lot of plot without a story, I think. It’s never clear why you’re going someplace and shooting any particular alien, though it certainly tries hard to tell you that something is at stake and that you must be motivated. The “Speaker,” ostensibly the leader of the free world, spends maybe thirty seconds telling you to stop the end of the world, then turns into a shopkeeper forevermore.[1] There’s a mysterious ~stranger~ whose only purpose is to tell you, in the guise of foreshadowing, that there will be a Destiny 2. I can’t remember, really, why it was so important to locate the “Black Garden,”[2] or why I needed to visit Venus at all. And I definitely don’t understand what was going on with this computer called “Rasputin” who kind of mumbled in Russian (I think), but the bored voice of Peter Dinklage (BVPD) made it clear that it (Rasputin) was obviously important because It Says So Right Here In The Video Game Lore. The BVPD (he plays a robot called Ghost) is just about the only human connection that the game offers—probably because his character is the only one that appears more than three times—and he sounds terribly uninterested in the whole affair.[3]

Cameron Kunzelman argues that Destiny’s storytelling tries to accomplish both an “evocation effect” and detailed exposition but handles neither side well. I suspect that this is at least partially a function of the mechanics of the game, viz. that balance it tries to strike between moment-to-moment-action-alien-shoot (which lends itself to a BVPD-type character) and MMO-style exploration (e.g. falling into a giant green pit on the Moon referred to only as the Hellmouth, a landmark which suggests a lot and confirms very little)—that mechanical balance, too, remains unresolved.

In which yt. reports on owning a Jawbone Up24

I’ve been wearing this thing around for the last three or four weeks, and I guess I like it. I guess. It’s comfortable. I don’t need to charge it constantly. It’s a bit big, but it looks kind of like a thing a person would wear. Plus, I mean, I like numbers. Numbers! Quantify everything! Set goals! Mindfulness whether you want it or not!

I didn’t buy it for the sleep tracking feature, but that’s what’s been most illuminating, actually. Apparently, I don’t sleep well. I stay up late, then I get into bed and stay awake even longer, then I get up in the middle of the night and stay awake a bit, just for kicks.

Granted, this should have been patently obvious. Yet it did not, somehow, occur to me that the thirty to sixty minutes that I spend tossing and turning before I actually get to sleep do not count as sleep. And here I thought I was getting a healthy seven to eight hours. (It’s more like five.)

But the thing is that I’m not totally sure what to do with this information. Walking around more is easy; if, at the end of the day, you need to feel a bit more active, you can get up and walk around awhile. You can’t quite do anything analogous for sleep, and I feel terrible about it. Not for want of trying. I’ve been getting into bed earlier, bit by bit; but then I toss and turn for an extra half hour instead. I skip evening coffee (which breaks my heart, but needs must), but I’m still super, super groggy in the morning. I get that it’s kind of part of the programmer ethos to want to, like, figure out the solution to a problem based on data, and I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do, but a few more weeks of this and I’m going to start worrying for reals. Is there such a thing as a nutritionist but for sleep?

There is not

Yt. truly regrets[4] all this not-writing he’s been doing. I might be able to claim illness and pre-/post-XOXO anxiety as the cause, although this is totally untrue.

But anyhow, it has been a touch slow at ~*~my day job~*~. I had a chance to blow out my Instapaper queue,[5] and there are some things on the Internet that perhaps you all as an amorphous (but charming, of course) Internet blob will enjoy.

  1. I’m honestly still coming down from my XOXO high. I feel like I might have done a bad job describing what it was like, but luckily Glenn Fleishman has it covered. And it’s true what he says; there was a strange mix of joy and inclusion and cliquey-ness, as if to say, “This is my inspirational group! Mine!” To be a part of such a group is empowering and terrible. Fleishman mentions this as well, but Tim Maly’s essay on who was not at XOXO and who we (i.e. western-centric technologically literate people) consider “creators” is difficult but worthwhile.

  2. Zoyə Street does a close reading of “Tsukema Tsukuru,” a Japanese pop song about makeup. (Yes.) I like the distinction drawn between “fake” eyelashes and “attached” eyelashes; anyway, authenticity is just a social (as in collaborative) construct, right? I think there’s a lot of power in consciously separating “the feeling of wearing makeup from the sense that makeup makes you look [a] particular way to other people.” Feels kind of like the first step in owning the conversation wrt. yr. own authenticity. (Which, again, is probably unimportant because it’s a social construct.)

  3. The latest trailer for Final Fantasy XV is out and it’s—it’s certainly something. Every time a Final Fantasy game is announced, I poo-poo it, and then I watch a trailer and I’m in love again. Frankly, if the game really is just four boyband members taking a dramedy roadtrip with swords, I’d be mostly okay with that. It’s disappointing that this appears to be the first Final Fantasy in many years not to feature a woman as a party member—esp. since the best (read: most interesting mechanically/thematically) games in the series are the ones to feature women in lead roles. Okay, granted, I’m thinking mostly of X–2 and XIII–3[6], and the conceit for both of those is wearing different clothes to get different powers. I can’t tell if this is perpetuating a stereotype (girls, clothes, etc.) or (as per the makeup thing above) owning it, so to speak.

  4. Gamergate has been quiet for the last week or so, but it’s sadly only a matter of time before 4chan shitbirds start another campaign of astroturfing and harassment. The exact reasons for why GG is total bullshit have been covered extensively elsewhere, but it’s still very much an open question of what effect it’s going to have on journalists and indies trying to make a living in the industry in the months and years to come.

  5. Of note, though, is that games writing has seen the departure of Mattie Brice and Jenn Frank, two of the finest writers the industry has had. It’s easy to feel bad about this (and true enough, that video games are so toxic as to allow such a thing is genuine cause to feel bad); but it’s worth remembering that as they move onto bigger, better things, they both leave behind an admirable body of work. Paging through Brice’s blog is an excellent way to spend an afternoon, and last year Jenn Frank covered That Dragon, Cancer; and what starts as a game preview turns into something confused and sad and maybe, a little, feelings-are-looking-up. Worthwhile also is Frank’s tremendous piece on caring for her parents, agoraphobia, and living in Second Life. I am rereading it, paragraph by paragraph, as I edit this post. I am crying a little bit.


  1. Apparently Terran bureaucracy has delegated so much and become so (in)efficient that the leader of humanity has time to sell clothes on the side.  ↩

  2. Not about race.  ↩

  3. There’s exactly one (1) good bit of writing in the game: Ghost talks about looking up at the Moon and seeing the aliens’ data transmissions coming off of it and wondering/dreading what they were saying. Now, granted, his delivery is pretty bad; the line isn’t actually about Ghost looking up at the moon and being filled with a sense of wonder/dread at the prospect of extraterrestrial life; it’s actually just more exposition, because Ghost goes on to talk about encryption protocols or fake space magic history or whatever. But despite the writers’ best efforts to totally botch this line—this idea that a robot would look up at the night sky and see infinitely more than what a human could see and yet still be filled with that same (presumably) wonder/dread that homo sapiens felt 200,000 years ago—the thought is nearly perfect.  ↩

  4. So, honestly, yt. has been using the “yt.” appellatory abbr. as a bit of an affectation; I have finally justified it here, though, because unabbreviated, this would read “Yours truly truly regrets…” and that’s just nonsense.  ↩

  5. not a euphemism  ↩

  6. I hated typing those tortured numbers as much as you hated reading them.  ↩

Seven notes wrt. XOXO 2014

  1. oh my god i’m so tired and my brain might be a little busted up right now :( :( :( :(

  2. I was decidedly anxious as I walked through the gates of The Redd for XOXO’s opening party. All that sense of not-belonging did, miraculously, vanish after about half an hour, and I rode that feeling for four days. It was weird. I have not had fun like that in a long long long long time.

  3. Contrast with this afternoon as I stepped off the train in Seattle, towed my luggage back to my tiny apartment, grappled with the junk mail that had piled up, and finally in an anxious fit threw all my things down on the living room floor. I’d been feeling the tickle of mundanity since I woke up and checked out of the hotel. Stepping back into my apartment, though, was like getting hit in the face with a brick.

    That was also weird. I think this might be a quintessential grown-up experience, a little bit.

  4. Man is this a downer or what. I don’t mean it like that! Because XOXO was truly strange and exciting and (I hate this word but it is apropos here) inspiring. I met way too many people. They were way too smart! (That’s a good thing.) We talked about opera and clean water and art and literature and oysters and musician business models and roller derby and feminism and that’s just what I can remember. And they were all making their thing and that was terribly—inspiring.

  5. In the last few hours before this year’s festival closed for good, I started asking people, “What are you going to make now?” One person turned it on me; I thought I had an answer, and I didn’t. I froze up for a second. Awkward! I made some vague sounds about writing more, or expanding the kinds of media that I work in. And yeah, that’s stuff I want to do. But it occurs to me, as I decompress and sort through all these feelings of inspiration and excitement and (yes) anxiety and (yes x2) sadness that I am just about as liable as before to get stuck in the same rut. The tarp might come off and I wouldn’t have learned anything. I mean, the tarp is kind of the whole reason I went to XOXO in the first place, right? I didn’t go just (“just”) for creating; I already like the things that I make, as trivial and slapdash as some of them are, and that’s not a new feeling. But getting a brick’s worth of mundane sadness—actually, maybe that is the most important thing I’ve gotten out of XOXO. And I don’t like feeling like this, all boring and sad, hitting the social media like a crack pipe. You know. For a momentary jolt of interconnectedness.

  6. I read half of Gilead on the train back and I must have held my breath the entire time. I don’t know how much that plays into this current melancholy, but to read (half) a book about staring death in the face, well, it’s a hell of a comedown.

  7. So, then, what am I going to make now? I have no idea how, but I think I’m going to make myself happy. My life’s work. Here we go:

Depression is the worst.

So one day the other week, I woke up to sounds of cheers and merriment. And because I’m a little bitter in the morning, I couldn’t help but get just a little bitter about it. I didn’t know who was cheering or what reason there was to be so merry, I just knew that my slumber had been interrupted by happiness. Yes. I am a morning person.

And later as I was coming back from the cafe, I would realize the cheers were coming from Seattle’s infamous Ride the Ducks tour—that that day for some reason the Ducks were detouring down the street that I live on, and if you are at all familiar with these dorky tourist trap tours, then you know that the tour guide will milk their audience for every cheer they are worth. I’m pretty sure they feed on it like a slake moth. And somehow this made me angrier! Tourists! Having fun on their vacation?! How dare they?!

And maybe it was because my espresso shot was a little overextracted, or maybe it was because I might be a bitter person, but I started getting really bitter about it. Something like: “Fun? That’s not fun. That’s not lasting fun. Do they know it’s not fun? Are they going to post photos to Facebook for their friends to see? Wait, do I have friends? Do they have better friends than I do? Why don’t I have more friends? Why haven’t I called my friends recently? Wait, why haven’t they called me? Would a real friend call or wait to be called? Maybe I should call someone. Wait. What if they think I’m needy. Maybe I am needy. Nobody likes a needy friend. Maybe I shouldn’t call someone. I bet they wouldn’t care anyway. I need to learn to be self-sufficient. I don’t need friends.” And so on, for hours.

And then I was so worked up that I had to crawl into bed and stare at the ceiling for awhile.

And when I came to, I was sad.

Sad because I had the FOMO. Sad because I’d spent the day angry at other people’s happiness. Sad because I’d convinced myself that I was and should be alone. Sad because I should know by now that there are people who reserve thoughts for me and my well-being, and yet—not for the first time, and I doubt for the last—I was trying to push them out of my own brain, because I thought was I alone and had too much shame and guilt and rotten insides to deserve friends.

Some people who know me well and read this might be surprised to hear some of this. I wasn’t going to write it. I’d been thinking about writing it for a few weeks, but I decided to shelve it; and what you’re seeing is pretty different from what I expected. But in light of recent events and recent emotions and recent things, it felt like I could stand to try again. It upsets me, even though it isn’t about me. I’m not qualified to do much besides talk about the specificity of my experience, but if somehow someone reading this needs help, then I hope talking about it helps a little. And? I think I need to hear it myself.

{ * }

Depression is a lot of things, but it’s always personal—sometimes so personal that it feels like no one could ever understand. When I get that low, I can’t but fixate on my shame and my guilt. This feeling of being rotten inside. My belief that I’m a bad person, instead of a good person who’s done bad things. People will ask how someone as widely beloved as a celebrity could die by suicide, and maybe some of those people will silently wonder what kind of chance the rest of us have; of course, the quantity of love is not the same as the size of its meaning. And so that’s kind of what this little blog post is about, about this thing that Matt Fraction was talking about, kind of a little reminder for myself that that meaningful little thing exists, that there’s a thing that I can latch onto and look forward to. What that is changes a lot for me; I held onto his words when I first read them earlier this year. Last month it was the Sleater-Kinney discography. Before that, it was Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest. Last week it was the new Haruki Murakami book. And those are just the things that I can remember. The other things, I only know that they were small and trivial. But at the time, they were everything.

For anyone struggling with depression, finding that meaning can be the hardest fucking work. The mental and emotional pain of it is just as difficult and horrific as physical pain. There’ll be people who say that it isn’t, as if psychic pain lacks legitimacy, as if it’s possible just to “man up”—but that’s bullshit. It’s ignorant, and it’s bullshit.

I don’t know who’s reading this, and I don’t know your circumstances. (Google Analytics isn’t that creepy yet.) But if you’re in the midst of it right now, then I want you to know that you’re not alone in this. That is a fact, even if you don’t believe it, even if it makes you sick to your stomach, and even if that’s how you feel, I hope that you tuck that fact away in your brain somewhere where you can find it. And regardless if you find that meaning by talking to a friend or finding a therapist or making a vitally important phone call when you’re on the edge and afraid of what you might do to yourself, teasing out and chasing down that hope is everything, and it works, and you will get better because of it. There is a way to get through that pain and emerge on the other side. You’ll have to ask for help, but people will help you. It’ll take work and it’ll take time, and sometimes it might not feel like you’re moving forward. But you are moving forward, and you are getting better.

It’s worth it. It is fucking worth it.

*

So, this week? This week I think I’m latching onto people. Friends and family and all the love that goes with that. Which is cheesy, I know, but there is a loyalty and responsibility that I feel there, and I’m holding onto that, and I don’t want to let that down. So, thank you. Thank you for thinking of me and inviting me to things. Thank you for the video games we play together and for the jokes you make during Dungeons and Dragons. Thank you for the Twitter arguments. (I swear I enjoy them.) Thank you for the hug you gave me the first time we met; you said I looked like I needed one, and you were right. Thank you for having the courage to admit that saying “Have a good day” every morning wasn’t enough anymore, for either of us. Thank you for the rooftop barbecues and the sunsets that feel like they mean something. Thank you for accepting how scared and weak I can be. Thank you for not thinking that makes me undeserving. I love you all.

Re.: that thing I was going to write about depression and then sort-of gave up on

Recently I was trying to write something to rationalize/make significant/find meaning in the things that I’ve done in 25 years of being alive and in the past 3 to 4 years of trying to be a Real Person, and I ended up with a little audio self-affirmation thing for some reason? And—actually?—I’m pretty okay with that.[1]


  1. Not sure if I am going to do more audio! But I kind of enjoyed it! So maybe! FILDI! P.S. I tried to edit out as many mouth sounds as I could but :( I see that I :( missed :( a few. :(  ↩


Edited August 13, 2014
For Various Reasons, I did, in fact, end up writing that thing about depression.

Truth is Fragmentary, Skulljhabit, a braindump, and this place that is no place

Maybe something a bit lower key, yes? A little rambly, maybe? Less formal? (Like formality is even a thing for this blog.) Pretend that we’re sitting at a kitchen counter somewhere. In one of his more recent (term used loosely) videos, Zefrank talks about getting unstuck in creative work, and one of the tricks he mentions is thinking about “specificity of experience.” If I paraphrase (badly), Zefrank is referring to one’s thoughts and feelings in reaction to a particular subject, e.g. how you feel (sad, angry, bored, etc. etc.) watching a movie, or, like, how you feel waiting for it to start or the atmosphere in the theatre after it ends, or even how it feels to write about that movie. I’m pretty sure that as a filthy blogger, this is basically about the only thing that I’m any good at.[1] Anyway, I bring this up because I’ve been literally (not literally) holding a copy of Gabrielle Bell’s Truth is Fragmentary in my hands for two weeks and turning Porpentine’s Skulljhabit over in my brain for even longer, and once again I don’t know quite what to do with ‘em. (Except read them. Ha! Ha! Thanks for that joke, Dad Brain.) Really, the only thing I can think about is that experience part. To wit: they have nothing in common except that they both have a little bit of travelin’ feels to them. So I’m going to talk about travelin’ feels, I think. Kind of.

Truth is Fragmentary subtitles itself with “diaries and travelogues,” which if we’re being kind of rude, sounds like the most indulgent thing ever. Heck, the whole travelogue genre is the poster child for indulgent vicarious living, what w/its jetsetting and deliciously authentic foods and romanticized backpacking trips across the south of France. Yt. has to disclaim that his touchstones for travelogues are limited to Anthony Bourdain[2] and Elizabeth Gilbert[3], so maybe this is a bit heartless.

Whatever my perception of the travelogue in general, though, Bell’s entry in the genre is remarkably pragmatic. Anyone who’s familiar with her work will probably know about her self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact drawing style (not much shading here, just splotch shadows and a keen handle on negative space), so that pragmatism, too, probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s no glamorous jet set; Bell makes it clear that she’s traveling to Oslo/France/Colombia/etc. as part of her comicking career—to do work.

It’s a direction that lets Bell open up a bit, get kind of personal; there’s no grand culture clash (partially, one has to assume, thanks to the internet), no sweeping rumination on The Entirety Of Life And What It All Really Means.[4] Sometimes it’s just what she’s talking about with friends at a bar, and sometimes there’s small a personal drama or two, like who’s talking about her behind her back. Not fate-of-humanity stuff.[5] But with Bell’s attention (and aforementioned technical skill), those are the kind of situations that feel like they carry a lot of weight. It’s palpable, her sense of accomplishment upon completing whatever she’s working on, whether it’s wrapping up comic convention appearances or drawing the last panel in the comic we’ve just finished. Or, simply, surviving a plane ride from one place to another.

Sheesh, I just wrote a “celebration of the mundane” paragraph, didn’t I?

Okay, but so this is what I’m getting at, yeah? The personal, mundane stuff: surviving a plane ride can have real personal importance, just because sometimes the act of traveling is so fraught with unexpected emotion. Yt. (sort of) remembers a This American Life episode about Travelin’ Feels[6] (and possibly? possibly about crying on airplanes). And if yt. remembers with any accuracy, the whole airplane crying phenomenon comes from a sense of liminality—being neither here nor there, but at least in a quiet, calm moment of loneliness. I’m not talking about being at a destination, but the act of traveling and being in transit; that state really, truly does feel lonely to me, regardless of if I’m, like, going a long distance on an empty plane or surrounded by strangers or even traveling with people I know. So that’s like the most personal thing, right? Loneliness? Right? Am I just a crazy person? Am I? Am I?!

Certainly, if you’re collecting skulls![7] In her liner notes for Skulljhabit, Porpentine mentions the superstition angle, the formation of habits without knowing the efficacy of those habits—crazy person behavior. (I spend about 70% of my time feeling like a crazy person, so believe me.) The randomness of the game mechanics—whether or not one follows any habit at all—turns the world of Skulljhabit into a waiting room (filled with skulls). For the longest time it’s not clear what the player is supposed to actually do—sell skulls? shovel skulls? take endless walks up the mountain? But the interminable fog, the fact that the player can take a one-way train ride and somehow end up back in bed, all contribute to a sense of transience. With how little the village acknowledges the player’s presence, the player barely exists there at all. The “promotion” that the player receives as a result of their decorated skullduggery (heh) reinforces that sense of never belonging. The player’s whisked away, as quickly as they came, to a strange bureaucratic building, seemingly devoid of life but built to purpose—just not your purpose (which is skulls). So Skulljhabit feels like a game about the process of traveling to me; being from a place, going to a place, even being in a place, but not belonging to a place. If we choose to read into the letter written to Skulljhabit (aka the player character)—the emotional core of the game, the single thing that meaningfully ties the player character to some place—then there’s a thread about the things we lose in transit, whatever form that transit takes. And if we want to get really wacky, here, then there’s an entire story being told from the opposite side of that letter, at the same time that Skulljhabit is shoveling in the skull pit. The tragedy I see in the game isn’t the loss of the letter itself, but (maybe obviously) the loss of that contemporaneous story.

That’s all well and good, but what do all these travelin’ feels have to do with anything? Well, I’ve got the Travelin’ Feels[8] these days because I’m planning a trip to Portland to attend XOXO.[9] And I’m scared. I’m scared shitless.

Because, look, 2014’s been pretty bad for me. Okay? It’s been lonely and sad and anxious. Despite seeking help and having a small but profoundly generous support network, I feel like I spend so much time wallowing in negativity. So this trip into the Great Unknown (that is, a Social Gathering in Another City) sans backup is, okay, yes, a lot exciting. But also effing horrific, and the opposite of everything that I want to do right now. Because I’m pretty sure the bubble is shrinking again. I’m pretty sure the tarp is falling off. And I’m pretty sure that if I don’t try this now, I probably never will.

Is this making any sense? Oh man. Okay, different tack. I’ve felt—homeless lately. Weird, right? But I dunno, I have some pretty firm opinions on what a Home is, which sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) leads to tortured sentence construction so I can refer to places of residence by their function. E.g. “your apartment” vs. “your home.” And so this place that I’m living in now, I dunno, there’s nothing there. It is just an apartment. It’s a waiting room (without skulls); it’s transit; it’s not any place in particular.

So. That’s the last four weeks.

You know, I don’t expect this trip to be life-changing; I just want it to be kind of fun. And (okay this is def. going to make me sound like a crazy person) I want to know that I can be in transit and arrive at a place and not belong to that place and still be okay. I would like to be able to get off a plane (or a train car for this Portland trip, I guess) and know that I have accomplished that most basic task of being human and surviving. I’d also like to attend John Roderick’s Rendezvous while I’m in Portland. That would be pretty rad.[10]


  1. I have so many feels, y’all. But I’ve been thinking about it because even after like a decade (!) of on-off blogging, I still feel like I have basically no idea how to express anything external to my brain with any kind of coherency. For example, do you have any idea what I’m talking about with this paragraph? Heck, I kind of don’t! An example would be helpful; that thing I wrote about howling dogs is useful reference material, then. That was very much about the experience of playing that game. Not to say that I’m displeased with how that piece came out, but man it’s only been like a couple months since I wrote that and I already know that I would have done it way differently these days. On the other hand, the experience of playing it was way more important to me than, say, theme and tone and texture and mechanics (though obviously those things fed directly into everything that I found deeply personal about that game). Which is fine; there’s a place for that stuff, certainly. E.g. there’s Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, which is in my experience is more important to have played than to play (???). By its own admission, it’s very much (my words) an “experiential” (??????) game, where the important thing isn’t the game itself, but one’s reaction to it; the “tangible” bits—or what Zefrank calls in his video the “specificity of observation”—(so, e.g. loudness of static, locking/unlocking of choices) again feed into that experience—but it’s not a game about its mechanics. Obvious, right? (Can I just disclaim that I realize how tortured this paragraph is? Totally aware of it. I also realize this isn’t an excuse at all [cuz like this kind of disclaimer just highlights how many solvable structural issues that this paragraph has], but probably if MultiMarkdown supported footnotes in footnotes, this problem would be marginally tolerable.)

    I guess what I’m trying to say with this mess is that I have a serious struggle with backing up that “experience” with what’s actually in the text. (This came to light when I was talking to friends about True Detective and Rust Cohle’s philosophic turn at the end—spoiler alert, by the way, so you can skip the rest of this footnote—and no one bought it because they felt like it came completely out of nowhere. I was trying to make the argument that basically every scene with old-Cohle getting interrogated by the detectives is Cohle pitting his nihilism against his need to believe that his daughter/his life/anything and everything that humankind has ever done, no matter how seemingly minute, has significance despite the infinite darkness that surrounds them. So when Cohle finally ends that struggle inside himself—“The light is winning”—I felt like it was an extremely effective conclusion to an incredibly complex character arc. It’s a way more interesting thematically, I think, that Cohle considers himself a being of darkness—see his “bad men” quip—and tries to reject his humanity, but he realizes through this that his humanity is the most vital thing about him; contrast to what I think a lot of people wanted out of True Detective, which is that there’s weird supernatural cults and horrors and I-don’t-know-what-else that humanity has no chance against. The problem, of course, is that I couldn’t cite any example in the text to support this. Although this actually suggests to me that old-by-now cliché that people don’t want that kind of hope, and instead want to see gritty and dark, and the conflation of grimdark with thematic maturity. Which is a cliché and probably not true, unless you look at, say, Man of Steel, because after all Superman is supposed to be a completely cut-and-dry good guy who never compromises on the goodness of his heart, except then fucking Zack Snyder was all grimdark about it. End parenthetical!)

    Did I mention that this is the blog post where I just completely braindump about everything that I’ve thought about in the last four weeks? Secrets are revealed to the people that read the footnotes.  ↩

  2. Who isn’t actually as bad as all that.  ↩

  3. Gilbert catches a lot of flak for being what Jesse Thorn once tactfully referred to as a ”certain kind of white lady”, but she really is a funny, smart woman. And she wrote this thing about (yes) boozin’ it up on a backpacking trip across Provence, which, yeah, is like the most indulgent thing ever.

    Now, granted: the most advanced thing I know about wine is how to pronounce “pinot”; I’m not the biggest fan of cheese (I think the most adventurous thing I can manage with any regularity is brie, which is like the most whitebread of cheeses); and while I find certain aspects of French cuisine rapturous (of course it would be the thing that resembles deep-fry), I find just as many things utterly ???. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m a charlatan about the things that a person would backpack across the south of France to experience, which is probably why the idea sounds incredible.  ↩

  4. Bell brushes up against these topics during a self-imposed quasi-exile, in her home in New York while reading some Michel de Montaigne, and I will quote her thoughts here:

    “Life?”

    Okay, she goes on a bit more than that, but you get what I mean.  ↩

  5. Unless her day was really boring (one assumes) and ergo she has to make up some fate-of-humanity story (e.g. zombie apocalypse) to fill up a page.  ↩

  6. “Travelin’ Feels” is the title of the worst blues song ever.  ↩

  7. oh my goddddd  ↩

  8. Oh man I’m cracking up every time I read “Travelin’ Feels,” why didn’t I edit this out, it’s so badddd. Whyyyy  ↩

  9. Festival only; no talks. A bit conflicted about this; it would have been even more costly (and I’m not exactly swimming in cash at the mo’), and if previous years are any indication, the talks’ll go up on YouTube before long to soften the blow. But the list is filled with names that I highly respect, and I would have loved to see them speak in-person. I mean, Gina Trapani? Darius Kazemi? Joseph Fink?! John Gruber?!? Johnathan Mann? Anita Sarkeesian?!?!?!?! Those other people…?!  ↩

  10. Hey, wait, what? That’s it? That’s the end? Aw man aw geez!  ↩

On howling dogs

So having spent the last two-ish weeks trying to articulate exactly what Porpentine’s game howling dogs means to me in sort of a critical way, I’m going to have to declare intellectual bankruptcy. I suspect in my current state that I’ll never to able to get any sort of coherent post out of all this.

I find it very personal.

SO FUCK IT

I like howling dogs.[1] That’s putting it lightly, but I don’t want to gush too much. It has probably become my favorite game. It has reduced me to tears on the two occasions that I played it, each time for very different reasons. It once filled me with what Richard Hofmeier described as “holy dread”.

From the time that I first completed it (many months ago) up until the second time that I played it (not many weeks ago), I completely agreed with his sentiment. The game indeed inspired in me a respect founded on “holy dread”—not simply because Porpentine is a very skilled writer in describing the bleak situation of the game, but because of what might clinically be described as my excessively negative self-absorption. The first time around, playing through howling dogs was like wincing at my reflection in a mirror. The sort of self-involved, repetitious prison that the game plunges players into is just about as good a metaphor for the kind of emotional blockade that yt. (or anyone), with an impressive amount self-loathing, might create.

I fear that I have just used that phrase lightly. “Self-loathing.” And I do not want to take this phrase lightly. “Self-loathing.” I think it’s easy to pass off; just another degree of self-deprecating humor. I know I’ve done it before. (The exact count is left as an exercise for you, dear Readership.) But the normalization of this whole “self-loathing” concept, setting up this whole iterative cycle of feeling progressively more shitty about myself for myriad (generally insignificant) reasons—and yet for an extended, irreparable period, this is what I was doing. (I am still doing it. Less often, one hopes.) [2]

STARVED TO DEATH BECAUSE YOU WERE FED BIRDSEED[3]

Something that I find personally difficult about howling dogs’ mechanics: self-care is an option. You’re forced to eat and drink to continue; those things are the bare minimum that anyone has to do to stay alive. But what about the wrappers that your food comes in? The bottles of water that you drink? Do you send those down the trash chute? Do you bathe yourself? That level of self-care is barely a step above not-being-dead. Yet the option remains: is that what you do? Or do you let the trash pile up, ignore the itch of your unwashed skin, so you can tether yourself to some illusory world before the crushing reality of your situation has time to sink in?

Something I find even more difficult: the choice between embracing the visor and embracing the room of dark metal—between glorious escapism and crushing reality—eventually proves to be no choice at all; it’s a red herring. The visor inevitably expels you from its world, and each time you encounter what’s effectively a game over signal:

{*}

Which one might expect from such a thing.

But the cell offers nary a hint as to its inner workings. There’s nothing to suggest the possibility of escape, no subtle gap in its walls, no door that could suddenly slide open. And once the system starts breaking down—when the water ration turns tepid,[4] when the “sanity room” fills with white noise—forget it; if the system did have a path for escape, that machinery has surely broken down, too.

Clearly there is a prison to escape; it’s just not clear what the prison actually is.

The stones wonder if it is interesting to suffer.

The end of howling dogs see you entering another world generated by the visor—it is a sequence I remember very well from my first playthrough. This world is by all accounts the most fascinating yet:

A square of leaves dipped in silver, hissing with wind, bristling with night.

The bedroom window. You are awake. You consider going back to sleep, then remember:

I am awake now because it would be most interesting to be awake now.

So you get up.

The patter of interesting things on the sill, on the threshold, at the door. Uncohered interesting things still forming at the corners of your eyes, latent fascinators prickling, swirling just out of sight.

The calendar has no days and the clock, no hours.

Which life was this again?

Most interesting. Interesting. Interesting. And yet there is no substance. But there is a question about worth. “Which life was this again?”

Immediately before you plunge into this, you can look at your photograph in your cell one last time:

You no longer see the appeal of this photo.

Contrast with what you feel looking on it, just a few days before:

Every day you think of ways this photo could have been improved: better lighting, better surroundings, closer to see the subtleties in her expression, further back to see her form and better imagine embracing her…

There is a question about worth.

Bluntly: I replayed howling dogs when I was in a recent dark moment and had a perverse desire[5] to return to its world, where worth (by any definition) was not determined by lasting value but merely by immediate captivation. Like following a dowsing rod from one resonance to another. Latent fascinators.

I suppose that would have been that but for stumbling, basically by accident, upon the game’s elusive Secret Ending—which is really no secret at all.[6] While discovering it does involve a challenge of sorts, the solution lies more in player perception—yes, you, the player, the person reading these words—rather than in mastering some game-like system. There’s no stat to raise, no energy meter to fill.

And on this “true” ending, the false choice between reality and escapism falls away. You are in another visor world, assuming the role of an empress doomed to perish by assassination. (The next in a long line of assassinated empresses.) But if one unlocks the particular secret of this world, the demarcation of visor and cell crumbles[7] with the arrival of a woman referred to as Sky Mask. As she rescues you from your assassin, you realize something vital:

And how didn’t you notice all these days that the material of every surface in every world was black metal and that every light was like something mosquitos kill themselves on.

Everything was dark metal, fluorescent. Neither visor nor cell; they are as good as the same. They imprison, it has to be said, but the prison is something else.

By this point in the game, I was devouring each passage, clicking for the next as quickly as I could. I get the sense that anybody who’d seen me in that moment would have thought I was nuts. Tears welling up.

I imagine one of the most torturous experiences I could will upon myself is continuing that cycle of feeling shitty for insignificant reasons. The weight of each minor moment of self-loathing exacting its price in self-worth.

A “recent” dark moment. “And how didn’t you notice all these days…”

I had a question about my worth.

You understand why the photograph was so frustrating.

The (truly) final sequence of howling dogs sees you fleeing with Sky Mask while the walls move to lock you in. Even after overcoming so much danger, the way remains difficult, and the slightest misstep will plunge you back into your prison. The two of you enter a strange library, Sky Mask leading you across:

Running through the darkness, a library of hearts rises up around you. You feel an aching hollow as your gaze twists across the beautiful hearts, the bold hearts, the true hearts.

"don’t stop, please

they’re just showing you what you already have"

And that was enough. I left my room and climbed to the top of a nearby hill, wiping my eyes. I stayed there for a long time, watching the moon rise over the eastern shore.

*


  1. Basics: howling dogs is a Twine game with a vaguely sci-fi bent.

    You awake in a small cell (“A room of dark metal. Fluorescent lights embedded in the ceiling”) with little to do except accept and consume your daily ration of food (some variety of flavored nutrient bar) and water (cool and refreshing) from a dispensing machine. You can take a shower and tidy up your space, if you want. There is a “sanity room,” filled with screens projecting some naturalistic, ostensibly calming scene. Eventually, once you’ve exhausted your options (or even if you haven’t), you strap a visor onto your face and play with the lights flashing past your eyes until the next day comes; each scenario that the visor presents you with, so vivid and real, provides relief to what would otherwise be a hopeless prison. Why you’re in this situation, exactly, is never explained (though if you attempt to take more than your allotted food or water ration: “Preserving rations is vital for mission success”). But by the time the game opens, it likely no longer matters; a counter tells you that this is the 367th time you’ve done this.

    There’s also a photograph.  ↩

  2. Ouch, did that hurt to write.  ↩

  3. C.f. Ultra Business Tycoon III, another of Porpentine's games. Kind of a parodic love letter-turned-deconstruction of the unabashed time-suck games that lonely, nerdy people (e.g. me) grew up with. It’s a tender, nostalgic thing, shedding layers of cynical video game insanity to reveal a bright emotional core in its final paragraphs. I feel like it covers a lot of similar ground as howling dogs, thematically, although it is much more of a “game” (OH BOY TIME TO TALK ABOUT WHAT GAMES “ARE”) and eventually becomes more direct in its message. I suppose howling dogs is like looking at yourself in a mirror; UBTIII is your sibling banging on the bathroom door, wondering why you’re taking so long.  ↩

  4. Even the barest luxury of chilled drinking water can be taken for granted.  ↩

  5. Misery loves company, they say.  ↩

  6. On Porpentine’s page for the game, in lieu of a description: “two endings.”  ↩

  7. More subtly, in another passage: “[Y]ou balance yourself against statues of her eminence the empress carved in the twilight mode.” Which is an odd way to phrase it, unless one is not an empress.  ↩

They saw you coming

Moleskine: £15 sketch book you’re too afraid to draw in. They saw you coming.

John Allison.

I see a lot of notebooks at work. Everyone’s got a notebook. It’s usually a Moleskine. And everyone always has a pen at hand. In meetings, I constantly see the latter poised over the former, ready to jot. Five minutes later, the writing device has been abandoned—tucked behind an ear, maybe (in sheepish admittance to the idea-not-practice-ness of the whole thing). Some stubborn fools will leave the writing device out, laid to rest upon the page; or maybe they’ll fidget with it, bang the tip around on this surface and that, like the words just need some jostling.

It wounds me, but I do this too. Constantly. I’ve been wondering why. I suspect I have an answer.

Notebooks used to be a precious thing. To me, anyway, they were a precious thing. Yeah, I’ll admit it. I treasured my notebooks. I had a Moleskine or two—or three—or four. I wrote in them, in tiny handwriting with meticulously practiced letterforms.[1] They were legendary notebooks, if the ad copy is to be believed. They inevitably led to great art. I guarded them jealously, treated the pages like gold leaf, and was loathe to make any wasteful mark.[2]

These days, I have the opposite problem, even if the net effect is the same. In the day to day trenches of adult existence, it becomes plainly obvious what one needs must sacrifice and where one’s attention must lie so that one can continue eating—such that it becomes pointless and/or counterproductive to pursue any other end, even if one of those ends had once kept the screaming at bay. Not so long ago, I was paralyzed by the potential of language; now I can barely see the virtue.


  1. I suspect I am the member of a very limited group of people over the age of six who have actually practiced their cursive.  ↩

  2. I have never used up every page of a Moleskine. Ever.  ↩