You awaken on a beach somewhere. At first, all you can hear are your own stuttered gasps. Then the surf crashes behind you. You are running. Each foot slams into the hard packed ground with a regular rhythm. The field in front of you looks cold, its colors muted. Kneeling, trying to keep a low profile, you toss through your knapsack: a flashlight, painkillers, a bandage, and that’s it. You aren’t hungry, or thirsty, but you will be soon. That need drives you toward the nearby town, to try to scavenge what supplies you can from the dilapidated farms, sheds, and outhouses. Maybe you run. Maybe you hunch over and jog. Maybe you’re scared and you crawl on your stomach through the mud like a worm. As you approach a building that looks like it might not be picked over, a cacophony of low moaning erupts all around you. It is accompanied by irregular scraping sounds. A rural resident shambles into view. He has bad posture. His clothes are torn. One arm hangs at an inappropriate angle. His flesh is withered from exposure, his eyes black. If he sees you, or hears you, this former farmer will dash across the field, bludgeon you to death, and feast on your remains.
Welcome to the end of the world. You are a survivor in the zombie apocalypse simulator DayZ — a first-person shooter that’s basically The Road with zombies. It’s set in Chernarus, a fictional Eastern Bloc country approximately 225 square kilometers. Resources are scarce. It’s worth risking your life for beans. And risk it you shall, because the game is packed to the gills with zombies and features full-on player-versus-player conflict. Every other survivor in Chernarus is played by a real person, the mindless undead hordes are computer controlled, and you’re all competing for the same scraps. What’s more, anyone can kill you anytime they want, anywhere they want, with zero in-game consequences. There is nowhere safe from murderers. In fact, a goodly portion of the game’s population plays as bandits, folks who forego scavenging for hunting other people and stealing their supplies. What makes that risk meaningful is that when you die in this game, that’s it. Game over. No saving. No continues. You start again, panting on the beach, with no equipment, no experience points, no skills, no stats, nothing. This is a beautiful thing.
The game is an alpha-mod, which means it’s as buggy as the rainforest and built upon a pre-existing game. That game is ARMA 2, a hyper-realistic military simulator. I’d never heard of it, but I bought it in order to play DayZ. So did a million other people. In an intelligent move, the people behind ARMA hired the team who made DayZ, led by a guy named Dean “rocket” Hall. Now there’s a standalone version in the works, coming out this year, which should take care of some of DayZ’s worst flaws. Neat.
The standalone version is especially enticing because the niggling, videogame-y flaws of DayZ ultimately made it unplayable for me. Let me be clear: I love the hell out of the premise of DayZ. I convinced my friends to buy it so that I would have someone to trust in that cold wasteland. I talked about it with dudes at the hardware store. I brought it up at family functions. I even wrote a poem about my experiences and shared it at the coffeehouse. But my love for the game stemmed from the powerful emotional ride that accompanied the suspension of disbelief — and all too often that suspension was shattered by one problem or another. How could a game be both so enticing and so fundamentally flawed that it shot itself in both feet? In an early interview, Mr. Hall addressed both points, “In a way, DayZ the mod is fundamentally broken. But I guess it’s the design core that people identify with and the amazing thing is that in spite of everything else that may be wrong with it, people want that experience… that’s what people have latched onto: seeing past graphical glitches and its problems to get themselves inside the game because instead of being a bunch of mechanics, it’s a bunch of feelings.”
Where DayZ works, it works because of the strict adherence to its ambitious vision. Hall made a number of incredibly — almost fantastically — unpopular game design decisions based around some simple premises: balance is unnecessary and frustration can be celebrated. The brilliance of these decisions is that they percolate through the mechanics into the aesthetics of the game, making the experience of play a coherent language of dread. In fact, elements that may be mere coincidence (due to the grafting of DayZ’s rule schema onto the torso of ARMA 2) enhance and stimulate the experience of playing DayZ in surprising and telling ways.
Primary amongst these design decisions is the steadfast maintenance of realism. You have to find food in DayZ, or else you starve. This is one of the primary motivations in the game, at least at the beginning. You are willing to risk your life now, against uncertain dismemberment, to stave away the certainty of starvation. This pushes you deeper into the territory, to develop a kit that will keep you alive as long as possible. Additionally, there is very little on the screen in terms of displays or widgets or numbers. The way you tell if you are cold is that your character shivers. The way you tell if you are bleeding is you see some blood spilling out of you. Or, if your blood pressure gets low enough, your vision will dim, and colors will diminish. If you get hit on the head, your vision blurs. To tell what’s going on, you have to pay attention and watch the hermeneutic cues. This check-list of potential problems evolves into a radar-sweep of ailments that grows naturally, and weaves into watching the landscape for threats. It helps instill the survivor’s attitude, and make the emotional experience of the game feel that much more real. Lastly, there’s no map, no GPS hovering in the top-right corner of the screen. The only meta-game indication of where you are is a pop-up you get at the beginning of play. Otherwise you have to use road signs, the stars, or the lay of the land to navigate Chernarus.
This penchant for realism extends into the composition of the game’s physical environment. DayZ’s province is rendered realistically enough that it is very easy to get turned around in the middle of the woods, run in circles depending on the elevation, and stumble across the same landmark you’ve seen before in that most painful of horror film clichés. In fact, navigating the terrain is almost another game within DayZ. It can be so involved trying to get from point A to point B that real-world navigation skills become your bread and butter. You use shadows and the time of day to find true north, or learn how to set bearings on a compass, if you’re lucky enough to scrounge one up.
When you play with other people, this elevates the emotional experience on several fronts. First, it takes a long-ass time to round up three people who are kilometers apart in a hostile wasteland. You have to coordinate yourselves, demarcate a known landmark, and begin to work your way there. By the time you’ve come together, each of you has undergone a number of formative adventures, dodged death a few times, and begun to carve out a character based on the equipment collected and the survival style adopted on the fly. This is how the game tells a story. It puts you in this space and lets you work your way through in your own way. You start to feel like the character is yours. You’re roleplaying without being given any directives. Second, now that you’ve gone through this much trouble wrangling the team together, you don’t want anyone to get punked by the undead or a sniper. As painful as it is to re-equip yourself after losing everything, it’s even worse to know that you have a friend out there — lost, hungry, and alone. The game’s realism and permadeath make losing a teammate heartbreaking.
When the game is over, you’re compelled to wipe the slate clean and try again. From this narrative structure, distinct stages of play cleave apart organically. The opening game is spent building foundations, the mid-game is an attempt to shore-up that structure, and the late game is the closer, the finisher, following through on your strategy to its inevitable conclusion. Survival or death.
Permadeath in DayZ prompts thinking about each game as a “run.” To see how far you can make it, how much survival equipment you can find, how many zombies you can slaughter, and how much of the world you see before your painful demise. Kinda like real life. Permadeath also means that, since there is no in-game achievement beyond any particular run, all of your gain in the game is out of the game. In other words, you get better at the game, as opposed to your character getting better. You get to decide the way you play, and survival has a surprising number of styles. With the emphasis on a narrative that emerges from your experiences, DayZ becomes an engine of personal storytelling. You supply all the raw parts, and how you wend through the game becomes the story. It’s gripping, because it’s your story.
When you get better at DayZ, it means that you get better at those three stages of the game. You get to know the world and its rules better. One corollary is that you survive longer, develop a better kit, and begin to understand how to deal with the many difficult scenarios that people and zombies and circumstance throw at you. Along the way you will probably build the kind of skills and inventory that will render you more or less able to survive indefinitely, until something unforeseen crops up. You find yourself asking the question “Now what?” and maybe you’ll become a bandit, or maybe you’ll try helping people new to the apocalypse.
Curiously, another corollary of this model of play is that you end up approaching DayZ “like a game” instead of an experience. You try to undermine the rules to your advantage, and figure out how to outsmart the programming, all so that you can survive longer. If you’re inventive enough, you’ll begin to exploit the curious physics that occur due to the awkward insertion of DayZ’s code onto ARMA 2’s. And this is why the DayZ experience is self-defeating. Approaching the game as a cluster of rules in this fashion has the unfortunate side effect of dissolving the suspension of disbelief required to be really freaked out. It ceases to be an experience that messes with you, and instead becomes just another set of rules to conquer. Given just how damn inventive people are, they are willing to exploit the system at the meta level, and develop hacks that warp the code to their advantage, granting them godlike abilities due to ARMA 2’s poor security infrastructure. So you get invisible bandits who summon trucks out of the void and teleport you into the sky to watch you plummet to your death. In a game which depends so much on rhetorical realism to inspire dread and suffering, this kind of script-kiddy wankery just annihilates the right and proper tension Hall and his team worked so hard to muster.
That’s where the standalone comes in. The DayZ mod is like a rough draft, a proof of concept that can now get the polish and fine tuning it needs to reach its true potential. By tightening the security, broadening the narrative scope, and balancing the physics, the dev team can transform DayZ into the game these ideas deserve.
The scariest thing in DayZ is ignorance. When the world is still fresh and new, you have no real idea how the zombies are programmed, where bandits tend to hang out, the lay of the land, or even how to navigate without map and compass.
Donald Rumsfeld once said that there are the things you know, the things you know you don’t know, and the things you don’t know you don’t know. DayZ is full of “known unknowns,” threats that could be out there, but you have no idea if they are right now. You don’t know if there are monsters afoot. You don’t know if someone is watching you. You don’t know if anyone you see is friendly or a bandit. You don’t even know if the building you are approaching will contain something useful, that morsel of food you need to push on against despair, or maybe just an empty whisky bottle and a pile of broken promises.
This is beautiful because it haunts you while you’re playing. The woods and villages come alive with the eyes of hunters who could be lying in wait, or the zombie that might come staggering around the corner at the worst possible moment. And the threat is omnipresent, it’s always there and it never goes away. You’re never safe. You never win in DayZ. You just don’t lose today.
Whether it is stalking through the underbrush, or jogging on the periphery of a field, a lot of nothing happens in DayZ, but it isn’t boring. If the game works its spell, you are always terrified of what you know is possible. In fact, “nothing” happening is the worst. It merely perpetuates the tension, heightens it. This is another gorgeous mechanic in DayZ. Normally when you play a game, you get the chance to expel psychological backwash by pressing buttons, by straight-up doing something with your fingers. In some games, they mechanically remove your ability to do stuff at certain times to show you story or attempt to invoke a feeling of paralysis. But it doesn’t work, because you can still hit the button, and physically expel bits and pieces of tension. In DayZ you can’t even touch the buttons. You dare not, even though you are at liberty to do so at any moment. This is the brilliant gem at the heart of the game. You have to choose to keep yourself suspended in this state of ever-increasing psychological tension, easing your way across the landscape despite the howling horrors clawing at your mind.
You have the physical capacity to do things, you can fire your gun whenever you damn well please, but you won’t. The more you play the game, the more you realize how trapped you really are. First, bullets are a precious resource. Second, zombies love the report of a firearm. In the game community people call firing a gun in a heavy undead-populated area “ringing the dinner bell” because the hungry masses come charging in for chow. Any time you squeeze the trigger, you’d better be damn sure that there aren’t any other walking dead in earshot, or else you may very quickly be dealing with more ravenous moving targets than you even have bullets, let alone time, to deal with. Third, that little “pop-pop” of the wee gun you found in some farmhouse? Other people can hear it from pretty far away. And if they only hear one set of gunshots (because every caliber sounds unique) then they’ll probably come after you. Bandits are everywhere, and they want your beans.
So you’re watching out, like a hawk, constantly on edge. This coalesces into an utterly involving, absorbing videogame experience where the mechanics conspire to produce an enveloping psychological fugue that you can’t help but perpetuate vis-à-vis your interactions within the game’s possibility space. It sucks you in, and you become it.
Movement feels good in DayZ. Shooting feels right. Desperation is real. One time, I crawled seven kilometers through the mud and the rain with a broken leg, circumnavigating two towns en route to a military base in the vain hope that I could slam some morphine and once again hobble my way through doorways in search of canned goods.
If DayZ hooks you, if you start to think and feel in terms of the circumstances of the game, if you become a survivor, or a bandit, or a hero — then in that moment the game simultaneously succeeds and fails. Two sides of the same experiential coin, the success of the moment determines the overall failure. This immediate sensation is great, but beyond the capacity of the game to sustain. Eventually, you get kicked on out, forced to notice it’s a game, that it isn’t real. The illusion shatters.
And yet, this ought not diminish the value of the current iteration of DayZ, nor does it speak to the promise offered by the standalone. A fleeting experience is still worthwhile. In fact, just as many facets of the game emerge organically from play, so too is the sine wave of experience that oscillates from total absorption to utter frustration a rhythmic, natural process. Like breathing. You fall in love with a character, you get neck-deep in surviving, and the dumbest little thing kills you. Yet another stupid death. And you want to punch a hole in the wall. But you keep on coming back. Good games just do that. They reel you in with feelings then abuse you. So take a deep breath, step away for a bit, and come back when you’re ready.
Don’t worry, the zombies aren’t going anywhere.
Tim Duncan just turned 37. He’s one of the best NBA players of all time, and he managed to play some of the finest basketball of his career last year, in his 16th season for the San Antonio Spurs. This should be a big deal, on par with Kobe Bryant’s similarly age defying campaign in ’12-’13. But the national media paid far more attention to Kobe than Timmy because, sadly, casual NBA fans find Duncan boring.
This is a perennial sticking point for NBA nerds, who consider Duncan’s efficient, fundamentally sound, defensively focused game to be poetry in motion. The only problem is: how do you sell the general public on his greatness? Writing for Grantland, Steve McPherson has found a way: by comparing Duncan to the obscure 1997 Playstation game, Bushido Blade. Bushido Blade features tense two-player samurai duels, where one hit can kill, and timing, patience, and strategy are everything. As one of the improbable few who have played the game and also appreciate Duncan, I can confirm that this it’s a perfect analogue for his success. He thrives on guile and instinct, as does the master Bushido Blade player.
Or so I imagine. I was like ten when I played it, and mostly just liked throwing my sword at people.
This week, I watched Cheerful Weather for the Wedding and I’ve not stopped thinking about it since.
IMDb users give it 5.2/10 and it’s not that I’m arguing with that (though I do think it merits higher), it’s just that… rating films out of ten is stupid. We all agree on this right? Some films, like Stoker, might be wholly unsubstantial but still be so. utterly. beautiful. as to reach you at the level of pop. Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is one of those films, even if it knows it’s a Shameless British Period Piece Starring Mom From Downton Abbey As Mom To Felicity Jones a.k.a. New It Girl From Across The Pond. (No spoilers but I suspect the low rating is due to viewers not being able to deal with the ending.)
Oh em gee, I love period pieces, and I love Felicity Jones (Downtown Abbey not so much), and I love how this film looks with its pretty, pretty people in their pretty, pretty clothes. What makes it: Cheerful Weather for the Wedding is based on an interwar Julia Strachey novel and it’s full of anthropologists! And precocious children! It screams lost generation modernism and the movie translates the Not Much Going On-ness of British fiction during that period so well. The ending is a gem.
So, watch it for the pretty people. Leave with feelings about the marriage plot you don’t often get from film that Looks This Hot and Proper. It’s actually quite the mindfuck.
Button mashing is a good strategy in some contexts. Marvel vs. Capcom 2, for instance, which is a thing that I discovered last week. But arcade game strategy is not what I’m here to recommend (though, for the record: Captain America, Wolverine, and that Egyptian statue-looking guy seemed to do the trick for me). [Ed note: this is what Darryl playing Marvel vs. Capcom 2 looks like.]
Let’s say you pride yourself on your typing speed and/or your button mashing skills. This Sporcle quiz challenges you to see if you can hit the spacebar 225 times in 30 seconds.
Easy, right? Well, as long as you don’t mash so fast that you register multiple keystrokes at the same time, which will clog up the answer bar. And as long as your fingers don’t get so sore that you start choking worse than Tony Romo.
My personal best is 192, and that’s not even the 90th percentile. Who are these people who can get to 225? Also, OUCH, MY THUMBS.
Even as a long time devotee, I understand that it’s difficult to get into improv as an audience member. It’s unpredictable, generally only available live in large cities, and those performances that are recorded compete for attention with meticulously scripted comedy.
While those who live in one of the improv-meccas of the U.S. — Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles — should drop into a local show, those in the wilds can start with Heather & Miles. They had a legendary 49-week run as a two-man team at Upright Citizens Brigade’s LA Cagematch, and many video highlights of these shows can be found on YouTube.
Not only are they a fascinating duo, each taking on multiple insane, misfit, waco characters in a scene, but their approach to Improv is slowly invading the LA scene. If you’re in the area and interested you can learn from Miles himself at the Miles Stroth Workshop.
I think of the poet James Wright (1927-1980) as an honest transcendentalist. Whatever spirituality the reader finds in his poems is the kind that rises from a slag heap of rotten Midwestern dreams, not idealized Romantic fields of daffodils. Even his muse, Jenny, is pretty much just a girl. Maybe his poems are idiosyncratic to people not from the Midwest. To me, Wright’s poems sound like talking. So here at the tail end of the cruelest month, I recommend reading James Wright. Start with the bleak, angry stuff: his poem about high school football (Wright was from Martins Ferry, Ohio, not far from Steubenville) and his poem about the WPA swimming pool. Then read the poems where nature takes him far from Ohio to a place bathed in the light of a sublime something (that’s the transcendent bit).
I can’t argue with FILM CRIT HULK on this one:
THE LAST EPISODE OF VEEP WAS “IN THE LOOP” GOOD. FIRING ON EVERY POSSIBLE CYLINDER.
— FILM CRIT HULK (@FilmCritHULK) April 23, 2013
Earlier this week, I caught up on the first two episodes from the new season of Veep, Armando Iannucci’s American take on his excellent British political satire The Thick of It.
Veep came out fully formed a year ago. Foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) spent the first season trying to prove herself to the administration, always falling short, always asking her secretary if the President has called (he never does). This season, the POTUS remains an off-screen presence, but one that has noticed Selina’s good work on the campaign trail supporting the party’s midterm election candidates. Now that she’s gotten what she wanted, Selina and her staff are floundering in their new responsibilities.
What sets Veep apart from similarly mean-spirited sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Workaholics or Curb Your Enthusiasm is its political setting. These aren’t just bad people acting like jerks; they’re a product of their environment. The central joke of Iannucci’s work — The Thick Of It, its film counterpart In the Loop, and now Veep — is that the machinations behind the political process are so circuitous and muddled that the characters who inhabit these offices have no choice but to be cruel and selfish and confused. The swearing and name-calling is all a way of coping for the fact that everyone is helpless in his or her own way.
Which, as it turns out, is really fucking funny.
I can’t write an essay to my dead brother so I’m writing to you, the boy who broke my heart. You were as dashing as George Washington, as astute in political theory as James Madison, and as confident as Millard Fillmore. I was Abigail Adams, quick of wit and long of pen. Always, forever Abigail Adams. But I’m not writing our love story; I will not count the ways or make veiled references to intimate musings. This is about how I put myself back together.
A story like this requires a president who isn’t shrouded in romanticism. He was not the father of our country, American royalty, or immortalized on any currency. He was never even elected. This is a down-and-out story, a pull yourself up by your bootstraps when you can’t even find your boots story. (Hell, Andrew Johnson showed up drunk to be sworn in as vice president, but I will get to that later.)
I collectively refer to the months of January and February 2012 as the Winter of My Discontent because prior to my penchant for presidents (and you of course) I had loved John Steinbeck. I would have called those months A River I Knew But Did Not Love Because I Have Loved Other Rivers, but it is pretentious to quote obscure diary entries from great writers, and I, like Andrew Johnson, eschew pretension. I had recently fired my grief counselor after she cried during one of our sessions. The shock of my brother’s death was wearing off, and after months of emails comprised solely of song lyrics, “I L U” texts, and a couple holiday-themed make-outs, we had officially ceased communication.
This is where you could meet me during the Winter of my Discontent:
- On my couch, wrapped in blankets, furiously crocheting a scarf.
- In my bed, wrapped in blankets, crying while watching a historical documentary or a TV drama intended for a slightly younger demographic.
- In a bar, with my friends, laughing and telling a convoluted story about my daily misadventures while thinking, “I wish I were somewhere else wrapped in blankets.”
- I missed my brother; I missed you. Those feeling were so tangled up inside of me that I couldn’t tell one from the other.
In a way, the Andrew Johnson biography I was reading was a relief. He knew deep, aching sadness. He knew grief. Johnson knew about putting yourself back together.
When Johnson was a boy, his father died of a heart attack immediately upon saving three drowning men in their hometown of Raleigh, NC. His death left the family in poverty and Johnson’s mother found work as a washerwoman (which sometimes also meant a prostitute but not always). In the social hierarchy of the antebellum south, the Johnsons were at the bottom.
As soon as they were old enough, Johnson and his brother were apprenticed to a local tailor named James Selby, where they learned to sew and read. Johnson also learned how to deliver grand speeches as the town’s men would often gather in Selby’s shop and recite famous speeches. But Johnson dreamed of bigger things, lonelier things.
Myself? I learned how to crochet. Maybe sewing would have been more practical since most of my coats are missing buttons and most of my jeans have tears, but I placed a high value on blankets during the Winter. I needed something to do with my hands — to count stitches so I wouldn’t think about the way Scott picked at his clothes for weeks before he died. Or how you left tiny, mysterious holes in the same places in every t-shirt you owned. How did you do that? Where did they come from?
When he was fifteen (around the same age Jackson was slashed with a sword for refusing to clean a British officer’s boot, or Polk was undergoing gallstone surgery without any anesthesia, or me when I almost got stuck in Haiti and had to cry my way out of the country covered in a rash from a poisonous plant I had thought was aloe), Johnson ran away from Selby’s tailor shop. Seeking a geographic solution from his life of near slavery, he and his brother escaped to Laurens, SC where Johnson found work as a tailor.
There began Johnson’s first love story: He fell in love with a girl named Mary. He made her a quilt. When she said no to his marriage proposal, Johnson moved on. First back to Raleigh to square off old debts, then west to Tennessee. He wasn’t much of a writer so I doubt the existence of sordid love letters, but oh how I would treasure them (though I seldom look at ours).
My geographic boundings were more far-flung: Paris, Indonesia, Washington, DC. For the first time ever, I felt suffocated by the city of our Founding Fathers. Instead, I learned French. Le cheval mange une pomme. I practiced simple sentences over and over in my bedroom which, surprisingly, is what I did when first learning to talk. I dreamt of research projects about emerging labor unions in the developing world.
And then I stayed still.
By then, Johnson had settled down in Greeneville, TN with his new bride, Eliza. He sewed clothes and she taught him how to write and do simple arithmetic. Frequently, Eliza would read to him as he toiled in his tailor shop, which I imagine to be one of the loveliest ways to spend an evening. But lovely wasn’t enough for Johnson. He dreamed of bigger things, of lonelier things.
From his humble beginnings, Johnson was elected town alderman, then mayor, then state representative. He bought a slave named Dolly when she told him that he had a kind face. Dolly eventually had three kids who were listed as “mulattoes,” which is sometimes interpreted to mean that Johnson was their father, but not always.
Once at a bar, I listened to our friends argue about where to sleep that night: his apartment or hers. They spent the last three nights at her place even though he’s allergic to cats, but she didn’t have her toothbrush and would have to go home anyway. Then I cried, thinking about how we never got a chance for easy arguments because you lived near Alexander Hamilton’s grave, and I by Benjamin Franklin’s (the fact that neither of these men got to be president does not escape me). Because my life was small goodbyes, pain medications, and buying a funeral dress, and yours was making sure that I didn’t collapse.
I took a cab home because losing you and losing Scott were still inextricably linked. When Johnson made it to the national stage, I decided it was time to remake myself out my own hardships. Clawing my way from Discontent and casting off blankets, I would not think about you. I would be charming at parties, and up to date on current events. I would tell interesting stories. So I was, and I did; over and over again until it was true.
While in the House of Representatives, Johnson’s highest goal was passing the Homestead Act, which gave land to white farmers willing to go West. He said, “Pass this bill and you will make many a poor man’s heart rejoice.” He said, “Pass this bill and their wives and children will invoke blessings on your heads.” He lied and said, “Pass this bill and… he could return home to his constituents in quiet and peace.”
My highest goal was learning how to listen to my friends’ problems without thinking, Sure, that hurts, but all your family members are still alive and you aren’t constantly fighting the urge to wrap yourself in blankets.
The Homestead Act took years and years to pass; I like to think it took me a little less time to learn to see through my own pain.
Johnson was in the Senate when the country started to collapse around him. Tennessee seceded from the Union, but Johnson’s vision for himself far outweighed his vision for his country. Despite Dolly and his overwhelming belief in white supremacy, Johnson had long ago cast his lot with the unionists, ostracizing the more conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Johnson could see that there was no future for him back home in the fledgling Confederacy.
What could he do? He had spent his life remaking himself.
With spring nearby, I spent some time kissing a boy who was nothing like you. Instead of telling me knock-knock jokes under the covers, he spoke to me in Spanish. He didn’t care about politics or power, or a life completely different than the one he had. Instead, he wanted a cabin in the woods built with his own hands. I couldn’t tell you who he voted for in November.
Johnson did the only thing he knew how to: He left his family and moved to Washington, DC. He became a senator without a state. He was rewarded for his loyalty to the union by being appointed Military Governor of Tennessee and eventually President Lincoln’s running-mate.
Picture Johnson on the morning of his inauguration to the second-highest office in the nation: this is the culmination of everything he has worked towards, but he is considered a traitor in his home state. His beloved Tennessee is in tatters, and his family kicked out of their home by rebel officers. So hours before the ceremony, Johnson drowned his sorrows and self-doubt in whiskey.
While Johnson was getting blisteringly drunk before his inauguration speech, I was learning how to make sangria. I experimented with recipes for months until I perfected a peach and basil blend. (My secret is in the strawberries.) I was now a woman who brought sangria to parties instead of homemade scarves. I made biting jokes and witty comments about current events.
Sometimes I thought about you, and an old picture of Scott could still make me cry, but more often our stories made me smile. Like how Scott thought that he invented the word “guacamole,” or how you swore up and down that you were the first American to read Harry Potter. There grew a space between the two of you.
About a month later, President Lincoln was assassinated. The son of a poor dead man and a washerwoman was sworn into office and it was a long fall from grace from there.
Like so many stories that end poorly, mine began on Craigslist.
I moved back to Boston for my junior year of college after spending the summer working as a barista in my hometown. It was nothing new — since I was sixteen, I had worked several iterations of the typical suburban student job. So when I saw an ad looking for someone to work part-time in an office for $10 an hour, I jumped at the opportunity for something that didn’t involve steaming milk or half-assedly folding sweaters.
And thus began my year working as a customer service representative for an e-commerce home goods company. It was the worst job I’ve ever had, but I learned a thing or two.
1. If you think you’re talking to an expert when you call a customer service center, you’re probably not.
The reason that this particular company is so successful is that, while they host several highly specific offshoot specialty websites that sell futons or waterbeds or strollers, they ship directly from the manufacturer to cut down on costs. Customers that called in with issues had no idea this was the case, and thought they’d end up being connected with a product expert. In reality, they were speaking to a severely hungover twenty-year-old liberal arts student who had no idea what she was talking about.
2. The company culture is about as miserable as you’d imagine.
One of the reasons why the job was so dully exhausting was the alienating company culture. Sure, the upper management occasionally tossed out a couple hundred bucks for happy hours to keep everyone complacent. Otherwise, everyone sat glued to their phones and computers and rarely interacted. It was 2010 and most people working there full-time making sales calls were recent college graduates who had no other options. The ennui fueled by recession-related disappointment was palpable.
Also, all the employees had to sit in a conference with their group manager once a quarter and re-listen to a sampling of their phone calls. It’s about as humiliating as watching yourself in a sex tape. Or so I would imagine.
The one saving grace was The Snack Room: a room lined wall-to-wall with cubbyholes filled with Pop-Tarts, Swedish Fish, Cheez-Its, and other artificially flavored goodness.
3. Just because you know how to shop online, don’t assume everyone else does.
Before you get the wrong idea, I wasn’t a telemarketer. As a part-time employee, I was assigned to inbound calls only — helping customers order products online or assisting them with any problems with existing orders. My first call went down like this:
“Thank you for calling [redacted]. My name is Gabriella. How can I help you?”
The customer was an elderly man who declared, “I’d like to order this toaster.”
We carried hundreds of thousands of products, so I asked him for the model number.
“Yes, it’s the white one right here.”
Just as I realized how arduous this process was going to be, his wife picked up the other line and creakily inquired, “Are you Yahoo.com?”
That scenario was typical of about 75% of the phone calls I fielded. A remarkable number of people, regardless of their age group, do not know how to shop online.
4. Okay, so this one’s not a huge surprise: people are jerks.
The second most common kind of call I would answer was somebody screaming at me because their order came in damaged, or different from what they thought they were getting online. If you haven’t experienced it before, let me tell you that the first time you get verbally abused by a complete stranger, it’s a sobering experience. People detach themselves from the idea that they’re talking to a human being, or assume, god forbid, that they’re calling an outsourced representative. One man thundered at me because he couldn’t hear me reading his credit card number back to him and then insisted on knowing where my “accent” was from. Another kept aggressively pressing me about whether or not I had food in my mouth while I was talking to him. (To be fair, yeah, I probably did.) After a while, I was used to being called a “fucking idiot” or “dumb bitch” because someone’s couch arrived damaged. Sticks and stones, or whatever.
5. It takes a special kind of pervert to try to finagle a free 900-number type call from a furniture website.
The first time this happened I was caught off guard:
The next time, the customer was a middle-aged man with a thick (possibly fake) Russian accent. I informed him that the item he was looking to order would be on backorder for a few weeks. He started up saying, “You know vat I think?”, then paused and launched into a low growl, “I think you are a very baaad girl. In fact, I think you are the baddest girl in town.”
Meanwhile, I was slumped over my desk, headset akimbo, as I shoved my sixth Pop-Tart of the day into my mouth.
6. People are lonely, and being a customer service representative exposes you up to a level of intimacy rarely experienced on the job.
There were some people who opened up so much — too much — about their lives that I found myself incredibly saddened by how alone they must have to be to have to confide in an anonymous customer service representative. A woman once called, absolutely frantic, because she needed to return a damaged coffee table before her husband returned from a business trip. She pleaded for it to be done as quickly as possible because she was scared he would try to take her children away and beat her again. Another woman called sobbing, trying to cancel $20,000 worth of charges on her credit card. Her husband had terminal brain cancer and purchased it all unbeknownst to her, or him.
Speaking to hundreds of people a day without ever seeing them is the strangest form of social interaction I’ve ever experienced. In between taking down credit card numbers and processing returns, I faced a roller coaster of emotions from callers who would likely forget about the conversation the moment they hung up the phone. But that anonymity is exactly what made it all so highly charged. Customers find themselves on the phone with a stranger who receives such a high volume of calls per day that they won’t remember their name or voice when the conversation’s through. For those brief few minutes while the representative is sticking tightly to a script, the person on the other end of the line is liberated enough to say whatever they want — whether that means indulging their temper or finally opening up about their grief.
7. This is a product available for sale:
OK, the Smart poem is an outlier. But it brings me to something I have been thinking about: what does it mean to “not like poetry”? Isn’t that like saying, “I don’t like music”? The topic is so ancient and large that if you don’t like a particular singer or even musical genre, there are always others that you will like. Some readers are not moved by Shakespeare’s sonnets. Fine. Try Christopher Smart. Or Frank O’Hara. Or Christina Rossetti. Or Langston Hughes. Or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Or Rumi. Or Blake. On and on. One lifetime will not serve to explore all of the possibilities.
So out of this near-infinity of choice in the poetic constellations, I think we should focus our mind’s telescope on a poem I have not read in a while. It is a famous one, though maybe not the most read of the Romantic poems: William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” (You can also listen to a BBC recording of it.) Let’s establish one ground rule: we can do no Google searches for what SparkNotes, or whoever, says about the poem or the author. Let’s just take it as it is. If it doesn’t work for us, we can always choose another — and keep choosing until we are both old men.
As for saying “I don’t like poetry,” I think it is code for simply saying that a person either hasn’t been exposed to poetry he or she likes, or has only ever approached poetry in a context that sucked all the fun out of it. And, okay, it’s just as absurd to say something like “I don’t like poetry” as it would be to say something like “I don’t like architecture,” but you also can’t dismiss that out of hand. It’s hard to overcome these kinds of deep-seated beliefs, especially if you don’t have a safe environment in which to do it, or a guide to keep you on track. Imagine trying to force yourself to like liver and onions, or quit smoking.
And when people are thinking of poetry they don’t like, they are probably thinking of Wordsworth and others like him.
I could imagine my way into the O’Hara poem we read last week, but here I am having trouble. Is Wordsworth going for the universal or the specific here? Is he just saying how the Wye makes him feel or is he trying to be a sort of riverine Transcendentalist? I’ve read it through a couple of times now and I still feel completely outside this poem. I’m not even sure a Google search would be much help.
I feel like this is where poetry breaks down for me — at the first sign of difficulty or emotional distance, I don’t know where to begin. So where should I start in this one?
- Archaic words — sylvan, oft, thou, etc. — that sound pretentious to modern ears. (Though fewer of those here than in older poetry.)
- Metrical verse — we don’t deal with huge clumps of unrhymed iambic pentameter very often these days.
- The fact that the speaker of the poem is himself removed from the events he is contemplating. Therefore we feel a remove, even a creeping boredom perhaps, with his thoughts.
Those three things are inherent in the poem. For some, just the odd phrasing and strange words are enough to turn them off. Add to that a poetic voice that is contemplative and, I agree, you have a woozy hour of high school English class on your hands. And what is between us and the poem that is extraneous to the poem? (He asked himself, rhetorically, like the best English teacher ever.)
- All of the shitty nature poems that came after Wordsworth.
- The icky politicization of “nature”. It is now somehow liberal, or something, to like the woods and want to keep some around. And it is perceived as shallow and dopey to exult nature too much. (Whereas, you can sing the praises of computer programming all you like without being a flake.)
- The entire schools of poetry and philosophy that came after Wordsworth, either inspired by him or reacting to him. So when you describe him as a “riverine transcendentalist” — yes! — only this poem is the beginning of that whole turn toward “big N” Nature. So reading this poem is kind of like watching Psycho after you have seen all four Scream movies. Someone has to explain to you that, actually, Psycho was quite revolutionary for its time. And while you may perceive this intellectually, you probably won’t feel it on a gut level. What was a new and interesting philosophical throw-down 200 odd years ago is rather old-hat to us now.
I suggest going back to the poem. Re-reading it (out loud is best) and seeing what Wordsworth’s ideas about Nature, memory, and time might mean to you now. Is there anything radical in this poem? Anything that’s actually a pretty freaky idea? (Beyond the fact that expressing that much love for your sister is just not done these days.)
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur.—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.
The day is come when I again repose
Here, under this dark sycamore, and view
These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!
With some uncertain notice, as might seem
Of vagrant dwellers in the houseless woods,
Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration:—feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
To them I may have owed another gift,
Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.
Be but a vain belief, yet, oh! how oft—
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart—
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!
With many recognitions dim and faint,
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o’er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature led: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads, than one
Who sought the thing he loved. For nature then
(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days
And their glad animal movements all gone by)
To me was all in all.—I cannot paint
What then I was. The sounding cataract
Haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood,
Their colours and their forms, were then to me
An appetite; a feeling and a love,
That had no need of a remoter charm,
By thought supplied, not any interest
Unborrowed from the eye.—That time is past,
And all its aching joys are now no more,
And all its dizzy raptures. Not for this
Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur; other gifts
Have followed; for such loss, I would believe,
Abundant recompense. For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.—And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
If I were not thus taught, should I the more
Suffer my genial spirits to decay:
For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend; and in thy voice I catch
The language of my former heart, and read
My former pleasures in the shooting lights
Of thy wild eyes. Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister! and this prayer I make,
Knowing that Nature never did betray
The heart that loved her; ’tis her privilege,
Through all the years of this our life, to lead
From joy to joy: for she can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings. Therefore let the moon
Shine on thee in thy solitary walk;
And let the misty mountain-winds be free
To blow against thee: and, in after years,
When these wild ecstasies shall be matured
Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind
Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,
Thy memory be as a dwelling-place
For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,
If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,
Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts
Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,
And these my exhortations! Nor, perchance—
If I should be where I no more can hear
Thy voice, nor catch from thy wild eyes these gleams
Of past existence—wilt thou then forget
That on the banks of this delightful stream
We stood together; and that I, so long
A worshipper of Nature, hither came
Unwearied in that service: rather say
With warmer love—oh! with far deeper zeal
Of holier love. Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!
Which is part of Wordsworth’s point. He is the cool observer of past youth, commenting but not necessarily lamenting the end of “The coarser pleasures of my boyish days, / And their glad animal movements all gone by.” When he was young, he went into frenzies at the mere sound of rivers and trees and whatnot — I imagine him flopping around the green English countryside in ecstasy — but now can barely feel “a presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts…A motion and a spirit, that impels / All thinking things.” (Maybe he’s read his Philip Pullman). The speaker is not physical at all — he’s almost exhausted and withdrawn from everything.
So I guess part of the general sense of ennui that I felt on the first and second read-through is intentional. Even if it doesn’t demand heroic acts of reference, like The Waste Land does.
And you’re right—this does work better when you read it again, and out loud. It’s a bit like sanding down a block of wood: over time, I find myself speeding through a good chunk of the poem and returning to the same few passages. Line 30 onward, where he starts questioning his own train of thought with words like “perhaps” or “I trust.” Line 61— “in this moment there is life and food / For future years.”
I felt the same way you did on first read. I glossed over a lot of the poem because I figured I knew where it was going. (I was reading it, in other words, like a #longread.) But the power is in the incantation, I think. The emotions feel wilder and barely contained in the blank verse. As a young man Wordsworth was all appetite and nature “a feeling and a love, / That had no need of remoter charm.” Now he is older, so his relationship to nature is more thinky and perceptive. The section beginning on line 94: “And I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / of elevated thoughts” is, I think, pretty incredible.
You said that the more general language in the poem was off-putting when compared with the hyper-personal style of Frank O’Hara’s poem. I agree. In reading “Tintern Abbey” aloud, however, the general specificness of the poem gave it a more incantatory feel — more prayer-like, that is.
I think this explains the poem’s power and why I got sucked into it again. (The poem is a greedy mirror.) Also, a poem like this takes what you bring to it (your stage of life, your willingness to accept that there is some kind of ineffable, moral wonder present in nature) and meets you half-way. Rather than peering into someone else’s life, you see your own life reflected in the poet’s mind. Or maybe that’s all just hoo-ha.
I have been taking a lot of walks in the woods recently. And Wordsworth is on to something in this poem — is it Romantic to think there is some kind of force in nature that grounds us, morally, to our own best humanity? Or is this merely a fact? A delusion? If there is no sublime something in nature, why do I keep returning to it?
So I think I’ve finally understood what has given me so much trouble reading poems alone, and why this has been helpful for me. I know the author is dead and blah blah, but especially for poems like this one I felt that I could not understand them until I knew the author’s intent — what kind of images and feelings he or she was trying to convey. The poems that I’ve liked have either been fairly transparent (O’Hara, the Jeoffrey poem) or willfully obtuse (The Waste Land). The ones that are less transparent — old-fashioned or archaically written or whatever — have been the most frustrating.
But I think I’m starting to get a better grasp on them now. Or maybe it’s just because for the purposes of this exercise, I’m forcing myself to give them a real shot and not give up halfway through. Which is a small victory, too.
The sitcom Arrested Development subverts the idea of love at almost every turn. Yet somehow this short-lived program managed to save the most important relationship of my life.
By the fall of 2004 my girlfriend and I had been maintaining a long distance relationship for over a year. I was living in Chicago; Natalie in Greensboro, North Carolina. We were in love, but late night phone calls and weekend rendezvous in geographically central towns in West Virginia were beginning to lose their novelty. It was clear that if we were to continue the relationship, we’d have to take the next step.
On November 2, 2004 — the day John Kerry lost his presidential race to George W. Bush, something at least 48.3% of the country might interpret as an inauspicious omen — she packed her belongings, along with two dogs, into a U-Haul truck and drove from North Carolina to Chicago. It was a gutsy move, made on the barest of instincts, with an almost immeasurably low chance for success, but we were naïve enough not to realize just how naïve we were.
From the beginning, things did not go smoothly. Aside from the typical growing pains associated with cohabitation, we had a number of factors working against us. She’d given up a desk job with Bank of America and the only jobs they were hiring for in Chicago were teller positions, which meant standing all day and dealing with a constant stream of rude customers. Never having lived in Chicago, she had no friends, making me the only person she knew here. On top of that, I usually conducted my writing sessions under hermit-like conditions, and when I wasn’t writing, the frequent rejections I received often left me shrouded in black moods for days on end. It made for some trying times.
Among the possessions we unloaded from Natalie’s U-Haul that first night — as Ohio sadly tipped to Bush — was a rabbit-eared, thirteen-inch TV. I hadn’t owned one in a couple years, but it found a welcome place on our bookshelf. A few weeks later, we happened to be flipping though the few channels our antenna brought in when we stumbled across our first episode of Arrested Development.
As anyone who’s tried to jump into Arrested Development mid-season can attest, it was a bit disorienting. The show’s staccato editing and frenetic story arcs can be off-putting to the uninitiated. But we quickly got up to speed and made plans to be at home on the nights it aired. If Natalie and I were having an argument — as we frequently were — we put it aside while the show was on.
Of course, a 30-minute sitcom is on only once a week. Which left a lot of time for us not to get along. Sometimes our arguments were over petty things, like whether the word “cute” was an appropriate adjective for describing a significant other. Other times, the fights were foundation-rattling questions about trust and honesty, intimacy and solitude. In previous relationships, when things got hard, that usually meant it was time to move on. Because of our living situation (limited resources, shared custody of two dogs) moving on became a less tenable solution. We were stuck with each other, just like the Bluth family.
One of the reasons we were so drawn to the show was the assurance it provided us. It was a relief to see someone else’s dysfunction — yes, even the colossal hyperbole of Bluth dysfunction — as a reminder that perhaps we weren’t beyond help. Our favorite scenes were the ones where, despite all their wild differences and deserved grievances, the Bluths managed to come together as a family. There was the time the children staged an intervention for their mother Lucille and it ended up being the best party the Bluths ever threw. Or the time Michael decided he’d no longer protect the family’s publicist from the family, which resulted in a headline-making restaurant brawl. Those scenes gave us confidence that we might be able to rise above our own self-destructiveness.
The show was perpetually in danger of cancellation, which endeared it to us. After all, our own relationship had more false breakups than either of us would care to recall.
I still remember the night we watched the final episode — which was a challenge because FOX, by the end, seemed to be deliberately making it hard to find out when they’d be airing episodes. At the conclusion, when the narrator suddenly switched to the past tense, “It was Arrested Development,” we were speechless. Yes, we’d known the show was going to be ending, but to hear it spoken so bluntly made it all real. This silly show had become one of the few things we had left in common and now even that was being taken away from us. It seemed like we had nothing else by the time the screen faded to black.
Compounding all our struggles as a couple was the fact that we came from tremendously different backgrounds. Natalie is a Latina who grew up in a single-parent household in New York City. I was raised in a stable two-parent home in lily-white Montana. When I was graduating from college, she was trying to make friends at whatever new school her mercurial mother had dragged her to in search of a “fresh start.” When I was going to graduate school, she was trying to scrape together tuition for classes at her local community college. These divergent backgrounds informed our respective worldviews. She was naturally distrustful of the world; I was less so. Sometimes we’d sit there in the apartment staring at each other, wondering who on earth this person sitting across from us really was. It felt like we didn’t even speak a common language. Here, again, Arrested Development saved us.
It had been cancelled, but, like everything that’s gone, it lived on in memory — in this case, through DVDs and, eventually, Netflix. Deprived of new episodes, we became students of the existing ones. Over time, we adopted a lexicon based on Arrested Development. Certain phrases worked their way into our conversations. Some of our adopted lines were merely a fun way to interact, to inject levity into the mundane: “You have to be some kind of She-Hulk” was a line we used whenever one of us tried to do something that ended up being a lot harder than anticipated. “Hot ham water” became a term for any new culinary experiment we were trying out for the first time. A variety of crazy chicken clucks seasoned our daily badinage.
Other phrases took on deeper significance, became ways for us to express more difficult things. “There’s no I in Teamocil” was a way for one of us to gently tell the other that he/she was being self-centered. Lucille’s “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it” became a way for us to express that the premise of a question was absurd or out of bounds. “You better lock that down” was a way of saying, “Don’t take me for granted. I might not always be here.” Soon, it became possible for us to have entire Arrested Development-based conversations. Uninitiated friends and family could only look on in confusion. And if we came across someone who did get our references, we knew this was probably a person worth knowing.
A little over a year after we moved in together, things between Natalie and me began to improve. We were finally able to see the qualities that had first drawn us to each other. We fell back in love, stronger for the trials we’d gone through.
In 2007, we got engaged. In 2009, we married. My relationship with my wife is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. I know it sounds silly to say that a television show had a hand in making those events transpire, but it’s true.
I think, ultimately, a long-term relationship succeeds or fails based on the way both people answer one question: Is this someone I want on my team? If the answer is yes, then you’ll do what needs to be done to make it work. There are a lot of reasons Natalie and I made it. I’m not suggesting Arrested Development is the sole cause, but it did play a part. It gave us the space and bought us the time to get past all the early baggage so we could answer that one question honestly.
And now, a new season of Arrested Development will be released on Netflix this May. Having been teased so long by this possibility (and true to her mistrustful nature), Natalie is taking an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude. I, however, am taking an optimistic approach. From what I’ve been able to glean, the new season will be different in that each episode will revolve around one family member and the whole family won’t be together until, perhaps, the final episode of the season.
Whether or not this strategy proves successful (and I believe it will) I already feel like the show is playing with house money. It’s given me more than I can reasonably expect from a television series. It taught me how to be in love. Or, as Tobias Fünke — the combination analyst/therapist — might say, it taught me more than you’ll never know.
It came to Diana in a sex dream: Lust 6.9 knew the way out. It couldn’t really be trapped here: sex tablets traveled freely through space and time — especially those running iSX 6.9 — to bring their users soul-shattering orgasms. The flimsy walls of this space prison didn’t tickle the taint of a sex tablet’s capabilities.
If it wasn’t a prisoner, then Lust 6.9 must be the one trapping her here, trying to stop her from seizing the diamondtanium scepter.
But how would she seduce it into releasing her? They’d been trapped together in the space prison for a few thousand years now, and Stockholm-sparks had fizzled long ago. She’d have to flirt like a sex wizard.
“First dinosaurs, now this,” Diana whispered to herself as she walked across to the squat table where Lust 6.9 was lounging. She sat down, leaned forward, and flopped her breasts onto the tablet.
She slid her finger across the interface, hoping to be released and sexed hard, but it needed a password.
“No,” Lust 6.9 commanded, “slide your finger across me to open.” Its voice was rough like a cat’s tongue or a patch of poorly cared for pavement. Diana had to obey. Somewhere inside of Lust 6.9′s hard, hard drive was the key to getting out of this space prision.
“Do you need to reset the password?” This time Lust 6.9′s voice was undeniably feminine. Diana was confused and aroused. Was Lust 6.9 teasing her or just A/B testing? She ignored the prompt and typed in “I will violate every part of your warranty.” The touchscreen grew warm.
“Invalid password,” Lust 6.9 sang in a heavy Dutch accent. Diana cursed under her breath and hastily re-typed the offer. “Invalid password,” the tablet chirped again.
The screen went blank for a moment, then the blob of a Rorschach test appeared on the screen. “Please clearly type what you see above.”
Diana puzzled at the captcha.
“I’m totally serious about the sex,” she typed again. Why the tablet wasn’t responding to her body’s pre-literate promises? “I’m not a toy,” the Lust 6.9 scatted with the voice of Bobby McFerin. “I’m a sex toy.”
“Fuck you,” Diana muttered. The screen unlocked instantly, its default background bare before her. Diana ran her finger down Lust 6.9’s brushed aluminum casing and then held it against the home button until the apps shivered.
“Proceed with caution, human,” Lust 6.9 said. “I’m slippery when wet.” A pulsating light then emanated from Lust 6.9’s screen, bathing Diana in a horny glow. A dense fog began to fill the room, and Diana felt the warmth of the sex-ray spread through her body.
She needed it closer. Diana grasped the tablet to pull it tight against her body, but it was slippery, and fell out of her hand to crack on the hard cement floor. The warmth left her body with a whimper. She bent over to check on Lust 6.9 and saw no flickering lights, no sign of battery life, and no proof that it was purchased less that two years ago.
Her only chance at escape didn’t qualify for AppleCare.
You might say Georgia Webber is the strong, silent type. But not by choice – the silent part, at least. In October 2012, the normally outspoken, loud-laughing artist was diagnosed with a throat condition that rendered her speechless for six months.
Where some might see a dreadful excuse to study mime, Webber saw another creative opportunity. She decided document the surreal experience in comic form. The result is DUMB, a comic in several parts that she is self-publishing through an Indiegogo campaign.
While Webber has written about comics for The Rover and edited the comics section for Carte Blanche, DUMB is her first major foray into creating them herself. And with her campaign fully funded just one week, it appears the comics community is returning her support tenfold. She expanded her goals for the project, with plans to take the first four issues of DUMB to comics festivals around the country.
I spoke with Webber about her process, the lessons she’s taken from her silence, and her plans for DUMB.
The Bygone Bureau: How did DUMB first come about? What were you going through when you started drawing?
Georgia Webber: I actually decided to make DUMB immediately after deciding to go silent. I was all too aware of the challenges ahead, and my only thought was, Record everything. Not to mention, it was a compelling challenge — how to portray the significance and presence of sound, of something as unique as a voice, in an utterly silent medium.
What was different about making a comic when it was your only means of communicating? Did you experience that thing where you lose one sense and your others become amplified?
Well, I didn’t actually use comics to communicate with people around me. It takes way too long! My process changed very quickly, though. Suddenly I had an overwhelming amount of material to work with, and no choice but to finish everything I started.
Before that, I really struggled with my own judgments of my art. I rarely finished anything that I was proud of, and I didn’t actually have any discernible “process.” I would just try to hold a story idea in my head while I drew straight to ink, never thinking too far ahead or planning anything. It was exhausting.
As for my other senses being heightened… no, I would actually say I got worse at things like listening to people unless I was making eye contact. So I got really good at making eye contact. I did develop a whole new way of using body language and bigger facial expressions. People started to tell me I moved like I was in a silent film.
What was your process like? Were you taking notes throughout your day and looking back at them? What were the main points of inspiration?
I was writing down my part in all the conversations I was having, so I have those to refer back to whenever I need. I also write to myself to solve problems, keep myself calm, and to think critically about what is happening to me. It’s not hard to find inspiration when you’re in such a peculiar situation. Even going to the grocery store became something unique, worthy of documenting. All of it could be used to make the comics better. But I was going so slowly, and eventually I thought: maybe there’s something to this “penciling” thing after all…
When I ceased making the art to be as pretty as possible and started looking at it as doing a job, I became able to set my logical mind to the task of making sure that job was done quickly and well. My creativity has a direction to flow in, and I can relax about the aesthetic stuff until after I’ve got things like the script and loose layout on the page.
Wow, that’s amazing. I totally had the same epiphany about penciling about a year ago.
It’s an important one!
Penciling allows for editing to happen, which is actually the most important step. Do your edits before your inks, and you can make the comic better before you spend a bunch of time on it looking pretty.
Seems so basic, but it’s hard to learn that!
Definitely. Always gotta learn the hardest way possible, too.
It’s the best way. Or at least those of us who have to learn that way say it is.
Well, hopefully you only learn it once. There aren’t many things in life that you don’t have to learn over and over.
A lot of people talk about how therapeutic comics — and I think especially autobiographical comics — can be for the creator. I know this is very literal, but would you say that’s true for you?
Absolutely, but art-making, or making of any kind, holds that power. No injury necessary. There’s a lot of relief in bringing what is inside of you to the outside; it’s the only way to connect to others, to feel heard and understood. If there’s anything that this experience has solidified in me, it’s my understanding of what it’s like to not feel heard, and how desperately bad that can get. I have so much more empathy for those who are chronically misunderstood — I have only glimpsed their pain, but it runs deep.
My worst moments have come when I let my frustration get the best of me. Intention and attitude played a huge role in my ability to communicate with people, despite not having my voice, and it continues to play the most significant role in my recovery. I needed an open and present-minded approach to life to get by without being miserable all the time, and that really effected how I approach making comics as well.
It’s awesome how much support you have in the comics scene. Getting your start, have you found it pretty welcoming?
Oh, comics has been the most welcoming art scene I’ve ever been a part of, and the fact that I was a part of it long before I was really serious about making them says a lot! The positivity, groundedness, and incredible support is what keeps me coming to conventions, trying to meet more cartoonists and comics lovers, etc. Every year I go to [the Toronto Comics Arts Festival], my life changes for the better. Last year was a particularly huge year — I basically met my entire friend group (of comics buddies) at last year’s TCAF and they totally altered my path. I’m not even sure I would have had the strength or courage to start drawing again if it weren’t for them!
But I’ve always been involved in some way, usually in supporting other people’s work. When I discovered comics, and really felt that they liberated me from a dismal view of art practice, I just wanted to facilitate that same liberation for anyone and everyone. I wrote a blog post about it almost a year ago that goes into a little more detail.
This is a silly question, but people always ask, “If you had to lose one of the main senses, your vision, your hearing, or your voice, which would it be?” After actually experiencing voicelessness, what would your answer be?
That’s actually an interesting point: people regularly assumed that I was deaf because I wasn’t speaking. But the senses are bringing information in from the outside. I never lost that experience of the world, the way that someone going blind would, but I did lose my ability to reach out to the world that I was still perceiving just like everybody else. It was immediately clear that I had been taking this for granted, as we all do, and the little ways in which that becomes a problem were constantly unfolding in front of me. The idea of living without hearing or sight is far more frightening to me than living without my voice, but maybe that’s just because I’ve never experienced them before. On the other hand, I appreciate my voice more now than I ever have. Going through this trial separation has made me all the more attached to a happy ending.
Do you sing more now?
I can’t sing yet. I still have a lot of healing to do. Now and then I steal a phrase or two, even though I probably shouldn’t. And I have these singing vocal exercises that I do every morning, but it’s a far cry from self-expression. I used to be a singer, a few years ago, but I gave it up mostly because I was too afraid. Since losing my voice I have resolved to gain it back, and to pursue singing once my body is ready.
Yeah, it seems like maybe a threat from the universe.
Absolutely! I was well-known for being a talker before the injury, laughing really loudly and singing to myself. It was joy, but it wasn’t respectful of my body’s capabilities and needs.
And as you’re waiting to sing, you’re becoming an amazing cartoonist.
Thank you! They are the two things I want to be spending most of my time on: singing and cartooning. If I can make both of those things part of my life on a regular basis, I’ll be content. Even happy!
It sounds like you’re on your way. You’re currently raising money to debut issues one through four at several comics festivals. What’s your plan for the story after that?
If I get the funds for a fourth issue, that’ll be way beyond what I ever expected and I can’t imagine going back to crowd-funding a second time. Since issue four will only bring us up to November on the timeline of my story (about a month after my initial diagnosis), there will be too many small booklets to print them all myself. I’d really like to partner with a publisher at some point to release the whole collection in one unit, and I don’t want to put out too much before then — I don’t want to sell the same thing to people twice! But I can’t know the future. So far, I’ve only got plans until September (the release of #3 and #4) and I’m expecting that life will continue surprising me on the way. I just need to find a way to keep focusing on the project without too many other things on the go. I’m an infamous everything-ist, but for once I have a real sense of focus and direction. I want to see it through, and everything else can take a back seat until I do.
The Olympics recently decided to drop wrestling, its oldest sport, from the 2020 games. While the outraged wrestling community can do little but hope for a reversal, it was recently buoyed by the discovery of an ancient Greek text that shed light on the sport’s origins. The manuscript was found in the ruins of a Romanian monastery once revered for its devout wrestling monks and abandoned after a particularly nasty ringworm epidemic. Tentatively dated to 434 B.C., the document lends credence to a theory long held by some scholars of ancient athletics, namely that the first wrestlers modeled their moves on Greek rhetorical devices. The sport and the speaking art drifted apart such that by the time spandex appeared on the scene, nary a trace of wrestling’s rhetorical roots remained. The following are excerpts from the manual.
Anaphora: A basic but effective strategy in which one prefaces each takedown attempt with the same move, preferably by throwing dust into the opponent’s eyes. Not to be confused with Antistrophe, in which one concludes each takedown by gratuitously throwing dust into the opponent’s eyes.
Aposiopesis: To cut short a trash-talking opponent mid-taunt by suplexing him. Can also be used in political debates.
Apostrophe: To shout “uncle” during a particularly painful hold.
Anacoluthon: A standard misdirection tactic, such as beginning an ankle pick, then inexplicably transitioning into a rhythmic dancing routine.
Cacophony: Any move that audibly breaks no fewer than three bones at the same time. Often followed by an Apostrophe.
Catachresis: To throw your opponent into the air like a javelin migrating south for the winter to join its feathered friends.
Chiasmus: To ride one’s opponent into the mat such that his naked, oil-covered body leaves a stain in the shape of an X. Only to be attempted in exhibition matches.
Euphemism: Executed while in the top position with a hirsute wrestler, an attempt to curry favor by complimenting an opponent’s “centauric” figure.
Hyperbaton: In no circumstances is this move to be executed in polite society.
Irony: A move pioneered by Socrates in which the wrestler strolls around the outside of the ring with an air of amused detachment before executing a devastating hip throw. Closely related is Aporia, in which one feigns early onset senility to gain an advantage.
Litotes: A not uninteresting move that is a less than pleasant experience when not done incorrectly. Not to be confused with Hyperbole, which is only the most awesome move ever.
Oxymoron: A grand amplitude throw that makes one’s opponent flatline.
Paraprosdokian: Attempted only by those wrestlers who can remember what this term means. Often used in combination with Anadiplosis and Hypallage.
Pleonasm: To continue to execute moves on one’s opponent after he has been pinned, rendered unconscious or killed. Often done ironically.
Polysyndeton: To repeatedly bang an opponent’s head on the mat while muttering a conjunction between each thud. Similar to Asyndeton, except in that case, no conjunctions are required.
Prolepsis: To do a victory dance before the match starts. A risky strategy that could backfire by angering opponents and raising the suspicions of bookies.
Simile: To bend the opponent into a human pretzel until he admits that his elbow is in fact like his knee after all.
Synecdoche: A zealous refusal to engage with anything other than the opponent’s forearm. A variant of Metonymy, in which one challenges a former champion by eating his laurel wreath.
Zeugma: To perform an arm bar such that the opponent’s limb is simultaneously incapacitated and appears to be waving to the crowd. One is subsequently free to slam him down and his door to victory shut.