wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: January, 2022

about writing.

  1. edit for clarity. know what you’re trying to say (but know too what you’re actually saying)
  2. first drafts record the writer’s encounter w/something (incl. ideas, own emotions, etc.); revisions/rewrites make the results of the encounter legible and useful to readers
  3. ‘knowing grammar rules’ =/= ‘using grammar artfully’
  4. you may have to repeat yourself
  5. if sharing a draft in progress undermines your ability to complete it, keep it to yourself. share it when it’s finished. there’s no good reason not to share your work except that you disavow it (why’d you write it?)
  6. your ‘signature style’ is what you keep coming back to; it’s what you get good at
  7. ‘style’ is how you solve writing-problems. all prose has some style. if readers are paying attention to style then they’re not immersed in the piece. style isn’t interesting in itself except to other technicians.
  8. write daily. stay in shape. writing long is very different from writing short, so practice both.
  9. first drafts are almost always too long, but good writers know when to add material to aid comprehension — including at a distance, e.g. extending paragraph 3 to make paragraph 9 hit harder (and vice versa)
  10. why edit and revise? so that page 1 and page 200 work toward a shared objective. saggy first draft often indicates the piece not knowing what it’s doing
  11. read christgau’s record reviews to see maximally dense, perfectly formed evaluative criticism — which gets more valuable not less as you register his limitations, some of which are serious liabilities
  12. don’t write to ‘express yourself.’ if you have something to say, say it. you write to communicate — to create something and give it to the reader. a thought or feeling isn’t more important just because you’re the one having it
  13. i SAID, you may have to repeat yourself
  14. a book that’s blurbed solely by other writers is probably bad. if ‘common readers’ can’t get it, don’t bother.
  15. please don’t write that thinly fictionalized story about not-Your clichĂ©-ridden revelatory mundane encounters with other bourgeois assholes. and once you’ve written it, move right on to the next thing.
  16. pick a writing tool and stick with it. eliminate obstacles to getting the words down. have a tool for ‘capture’ (e.g. pen/notebook) that travels with you. type in a minimally invasive text editor that lets you work quickly.
  17. explain in writing how to make a PB&J sandwich. explain it to a cook. explain it to a child. to an alien. to someone whose kid has a peanut allergy. to a pet. to god. to yourself.
  18. youth is inexperience per se
  19. just finish the first draft.
  20. habit isn’t ritual. you only need ritual if your habits don’t get you to a headspace for doing good work. expend a small amount of energy creating a healthy writing environment, but don’t dwell on it. test it by working
  21. write a lot. with practice you’ll understand more quickly whether a piece is working, which is called ‘wisdom.’ one cost/benefit of wisdom is: fewer interesting blind alleys. ‘interesting’ isn’t all that interesting.
  22. all writing is finding technical solutions to creative problems and vice versa. there’s no essential distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘technical’ writing — only different expectations/norms to internalize
  23. if you have time and are offered money to write, take it.
  24. the 33-1/3 series affords its writers extraordinary creative freedom in return for (1) making word count (2) hitting the deadline (3) writing with passion and generosity
  25. writing can be lonely work. make friends and do right by them.
  26. sometimes you don’t know what the piece is until you finish a draft. that’s ok. but in that case you should edit to make sure the thrashing-around isn’t undermining the piece. maybe cut it; maybe shore it up. maybe it helps.
  27. anyone can tell you whether the piece works for them. weak/new writers can help you see where problems are manifesting. good writers can help you locate their causes, which might be remote from the symptoms.
  28. all feedback is useful, but you have to know how much weight to give it. young writers don’t. but you have to start somewhere.
  29. is bertie wooster a ‘character’ or a device?
  30. write when you travel. take advantage of the headspace, but also be where you are
  31. ‘social’ media fragment your consciousness. great writers don’t fuck around on twitter (the only exception is @dril)
  32. the correct response to every compliment is ‘thank you’
  33. the myth of the writer-drunk should be put aside. alcohol worsens almost everyone’s writing all the time and drug dependency ruins your life. manage your impulses and decide whether doing good work matters to you.
  34. get in touch with people from your childhood. you know nothing
  35. shorter isn’t necessarily better, but the work should cross a certain meaning-density threshold. ‘make sure each word does work’ — but that’s vague, and length (unlike meaning) is measurable
  36. indeed, word count is a beginner proxy for discipline. first you cut the obviously useless stuff — then you wonder why you wrote it. the brevity-mantra turns you on to your own creative process.
  37. writing in public is usually grandstanding. don’t let that stop you
  38. be honest with yourself about how you take criticism. the goal is to identify what you need to hear (hint: it’s often uncomfortable), face it, and leave the rest. be honest about friends’/colleagues’ ability levels
  39. the people close to you mean well, but that doesn’t make them good readers or writers. you have to honestly, correctly judge that for yourself
  40. music with lyrics can be distracting while writing; then again it can inspire. figure out what works for you.
  41. be ruthless. be patient.
  42. print it out and read it aloud. everywhere you are forced to stop, scratch your head, wonder what you meant, lose the thread, detect dissonance — everywhere the mouthfeel isn’t right — make a note. those are symptoms
  43. good writing answers important questions
  44. oftentime young writers burn energy on ‘style’ because they don’t have much to say beyond ‘i’m young.’ being young is hard. but young people don’t understand how hard, or why. lucky for them. perspective like wisdom seems boring
  45. keep your body in shape. minds are things bodies do.
  46. the differences between ‘prestige’ publications and everyone else are (1) money and (2) ‘prestige,’ i.e. money. the New Yorker actually thought malcolm gladwell was important and impressive
  47. most successful young contemporary writers grew up with money and that’s why they’re successful. don’t demean yourself by chasing them. be brave and work with actual human beings
  48. the ‘oxford comma’ usually aids clarity. mentioning the oxford comma in your twitter bio is a cultural signal that you wanna be in the Writer Club but will probably settle for Assistant Editor, pretty please
  49. most editors are useful. some editors are bad. some are both. if you’re afraid to write STET on a misguided edit then you’re fucking yourself up.
  50. try writing a play for a small group of characters. the nakedness and constraint will reveal limitations
  51. a screenplay is an incomplete set of instructions for making a movie. reading (and writing) screenplays is hugely illuminating. doing it for money is another thing. most paid screenwriters have talent, skill, nothing to say. ask why
  52. ask yourself why so many comicbook movies are interchangeable. (the answer is ‘capital.’) ask yourself why so many ‘prestige’ movies are interchangeable. ask yourself why so many actors are interchangeable.
  53. most effects are, at some level, contrast effects.
  54. if you can’t imagine what The Other Side sees in donald trump (or joseph biden) then you can go ahead and try to write but you’re lacking an essential capacity — hopefully just temporarily, but why would any editor bet on you?
  55. the five-paragraph ‘essay’ form you learned in school is designed to facilitate grading, not writing. what do you suppose you were being graded on?
  56. ‘TK’ is a rare substring in english, outside of Atkins Diet clinics. stick it in a draft to mean ‘to come’ or ‘revisit this’ or ‘look up later’ — it’s easy to find all the TKs later
  57. read poetry. i know, you’re out of practice, you’ve never ‘gotten’ poetry, modern poetry is just diary entries with weird linebreaks. i know. read poetry. read it aloud and mean it.
  58. the music of a written line is a useful indicator of its function and effectiveness
  59. if you have writer’s block, change something significant
  60. keep a journal so it’s harder to lie to yourself about what you felt and thought
  61. as christgau says: the first step is to know what you think
  62. ‘erotica’ is good porn. try writing some
  63. it’s fine for writing to call attention to itself. it’s boring for writing only to call attention to itself
  64. come into the scene as late as possible and get out as quickly as possible
  65. find writing tools you like using, then use them. don’t fetishize tools; it interferes with the work.
  66. read the first page of Finnegans Wake along with McHugh’s annotations. that’s how much prose can do and stay (just) readable — and funny, and musical
  67. read House of Leaves, and Only Revolutions. don’t write like danielewski — just remember that someone somewhere is paying that much attention to the form and layout of the novel
  68. most ‘literary’ fiction is bad; ‘literary’ names style/tribal markers, not quality. among other things it’s a common term for novels in which nothing happens to boring author stand-ins
  69. ambivalence is a virtue, ambiguity is a failing. attend to details and have the courage of your convictions
  70. go back and make it denser. does it work?
  71. read Queneau’s EXERCISES IN STYLE. revel in it. then consider the fact that it was translated into English by Barbara Wright
  72. technical writing is less viscerally thrilling than ‘creative’ writing but the ultimate satisfaction is the same: clearly and elegantly saying something important to a distant human
  73. if M. John Harrison is one of the greatest living writers in english, why haven’t you heard of him? who else haven’t you heard of?
  74. fine paper, smooth ink, a well made pen: the purest sensual pleasure. decide on a budget, buy only what you’ll use. (i like Karas Kustoms pens.)
  75. strong critic-practitioners combine creativity, curiosity, and the sense of doubleness essential to sophisticated work. they’re essential. and: most critics are not just worthless but actively harmful.
  76. Dave Hickey. Roger Ebert. Ellen Willis. Pauline Kael. David Thomson. Robert Christgau. Greil Marcus. Lester Bangs. Stephen King. Erich Auerbach. Robert Graves.
  77. read it because you need to for your next project, or because you Want To.
  78. 30,000 words is a lot. 1,000 words is a lot. 50 words is a lot. don’t take up space you don’t intend to use.
  79. ignore awards ceremonies. don’t chase awards. get better at writing and try to sell it
  80. don’t emulate joan didion’s voice or her character. emulate her discipline and commitment to craft.
  81. david mamet’s best essays are as good as his best scripts, and shorter. read the pieces on hunting and whisky in JAFSIE AND JOHN HENRY, his warmest book.
  82. at times you may have to repeat yourself
  83. go back and make it simpler. does it work?
  84. if you locked down and ‘worked from home’ during covid-19, you just found out how much writing you’d get done if you had no social obligations. face this knowledge honestly
  85. exercising for 30 minutes buys you hours of heightened energy, productivity, focus. warming up your writing instrument works the same way. take 15 minutes to ramp up intentionally
  86. breath meditation isn’t a breath exercise, it’s an attention exercise
  87. read a lot. write about what you read. watch movies made for adults. write about them. look at art. write about it. try to put into words what you see, what you feel. think about what you are asking of your readers.
  88. HP Lovecraft’s writing is ‘notoriously bad’ and also, for many readers, astonishingly effective. read his best stories. think about what he’s trying to do, what he’s doing, and the gap between them. ask what really matters to him.
  89. read pynchon for his humanity. yes the limericks are bad. ask why someone who has mastered every skill available to the novelist would write limericks so ungodly awful.
  91. why do you read new fiction? for novelty? as market research? fashionable fiction is bad, almost without exception, and most people (and media orgs) recommend what’s fashionable. ask wise friends which books have surprised them.
  92. if a book’s blurbs tend to mention its sentences, it’s likely humdrum MFA-checklist ‘litfic’ — in which case you can ignore it without missing anything
  93. good writing tells the truth beautifully.
  94. ‘fashion’ is poisonous
  95. put stickers on your laptop, making it (1) readily distinguished from others and so slightly less likely to be stolen at a coffee shop (2) no longer pristine. don’t be precious about that.
  96. ‘book twitter’ is a nightmare, ‘YA twitter’ is worse
  97. freewriting is a good way to start the writing day: type without stopping, deleting, ‘getting it right.’ after a while your head is likely to catch up with your fingers
  98. self-publish a small collection of your best stuff. print a few dozen copies with your author discount. give them away.
  99. the truth is the easiest thing to remember
  100. wisdom is universal and sustainable, and benefits from simple presentation
  101. install f.lux on your computer so you can work later at night without completely wrecking your sleep
  102. it’s important to cross a threshold, coming and going. the most important feature of a good writing space is that you leave someplace else to get there — even symbolically
  103. consider not wearing a watch while writing.
  104. ‘where do you get your ideas?’ isn’t helpful
  105. try summing up a subject that interests you in 100 words. it seems like too few, then feels like too many. then it’s just the job
  106. get a day job that affords you unbroken writing hours. figure out how much time you need at a stretch to get real work done, and don’t lie to yourself about what you’re willing to give up to get and guard that time
  107. rhyming is easy, rhyming beautifully is fiendishly difficult
  108. if you make puns, make sure they’re very good (few are) or nauseatingly, vertiginously bad
  109. don’t be interesting, be interested and get beautiful work done on time and to spec
  110. someone else with even less talent than you is willing to work twice as hard for the opportunities you’ve been given. they’re your competition — not yesterday’s geniuses but someone young and hungry who wouldn’t piss away this chance
  111. words don’t matter, music does
  112. be proud of your hard work and dedication, but get over yourself. talent is cheap and plentiful
  113. writing won’t make you rich and probably won’t make you happy, but it might make you more human
  114. learn to tell the difference between pleasure, happiness, and joy. pursue joyful practices — remember that joy and pain are not opposites
  115. get good sleep. your bleary-eyed writing isn’t more real, it’s less clear. eat a decent breakfast, stay hydrated. you write with your body
  116. find the first notebook that you’re eager to write in, buy ten of them, and don’t go on about it
  117. help people help you
  118. get fluent with your writing tools. back up your computer regularly. avoid proprietary data formats and cloud-based software tools that will vanish sooner than you think.
  119. don’t blame your lack of work ethic on anyone, including yourself. just figure out what it takes for you to get good work done, and do that every day
  120. all wisdom is isomorphic
  121. in lieu of coffee, a steady infusion of tea plus occasional dark chocolate
  122. one reason ‘active voice’ is often preferable to ‘passive voice’ is that it makes causality and responsibility clearer, i.e. it’s closer to the truth — it was never about style
  123. get your vision checked, and if you need glasses, get them. even slightly blurred vision imposes a tax on your every action that’ll drain you over time
  124. ‘writing’ is actually several processes involving a wide range of mindsets and work structures. research, outlining, drafting, time away, review, rewriting, revision, polish — and at every stage, planning (plus dreaming)
  125. the reason you outline is that it’s easier to move a line on a blueprint than a wall at a construction site. the necessary skill is: looking at a blueprint and imagining the house. this takes careful practice
  126. any amount of focused writing is good but if you’re writing extended prose pieces then aim for at least a thousand (unpolished) words a day. come back to them later, prepared to throw them out
  127. a good writer has a solid ‘theory of mind’ i.e. can vividly imagine the audience’s experience of the text and track/project audience knowledge
  128. it’s not important to ‘identify’ with characters, it’s important to understand what’s at stake for them and invest in how their stories play out. write murky motivation, sure, but clear situation
  129. relatedly: don’t worry about ‘relatability.’ write clearly, raise the stakes, show us an effort of will (even the will to avoid, or just to know)
  130. the reader isn’t you. you need to model her mind, which means you need to know (i.e. imagine) who she is. reflect on your own prior knowledge and imagine hers
  131. never impose unnecessary cognitive tax on the reader. stay out of your own way and hers. clarify your intention and clarify its presentation. make sure there’s an unbroken reading-line through each sentence, through the piece
  132. outlining should be thoughtful. drafting should be fast. editing should be ice cold.
  133. take time between drafts to get perspective on what you’re actually doing, unobstructed by what you want to believe you’re doing. minimize downtime within a draft to maintain continuity and focus
  134. my varsity baseball coach, whom i intensely disliked but who damn well knew his business, had this mantra: PRACTICE DOESN’T MAKE PERFECT. PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.
  135. writing teachers love going on about hero-journeys and story structure. in trivial form what you need to know is: ‘heroes’ want, exert will to get, face themselves, and exert will to return home more experienced
  136. that said, campbell’s HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES is a great read.
  137. this is a good start on the nontechnical stuff.


Absent parents leave children vacant.

Pandemic work.

I get stiff writing about my writing projects, it’s hard to be slangy or relaxed about it. So much of me is wrapped up in this shit, can’t just let go. Definitely can’t joke about it, alas.

The greater fool

In 2020 I wrote the latter 2/3 of a sequence of essays structured by the major arcana of the tarot — one for each of the 21+0+0 cards, followed by a bunch of unnumbered responses and sequelae. I’d started the sequence a decade ago, but shelved it when other things came up; in 2020 I was able to see the work in a new way and fell back into it, first with passionate intensity and then with a little more inner resistance.

After the essays sat in a drawer (on my blog) for a few months, I gathered them up, lightly touched up a bit, and wrote a handful of ‘reversed’ essays responding to/correcting/chastising the early (resentful) ones. Haven’t shared those. It turns out I was writing, all along, about midlife crisis — that painful transition from acquisitive youthful living to integrative, sustainable adulthood.

It’s a book’s worth of stuff, I’m happy to say, with a book’s shape. With some refinement, it deserves to be read. Printed a couple of copies to mark up, read one with some satisfaction and begin to red-pen the thing. There is the problem of the centrality of copyrighted illustrations to the work; let’s deal with that later.

Maybe The Greater Fool will see print this year. That’d be right; it belongs to plaguetime.

The ‘high weirdness’ book

The second chapter of my 33-1/3 Phish book was consciously structured, though not entirely consciously written, as a kind of ‘backdoor pilot’ for what’s turned out after eight years(!) of on-and-off work/avoidance to be a long manuscript about antirational thought and practice. In 2020 I couldn’t bring myself to work on it with any commitment — and wrote the tarot stuff instead. Last summer, with the fog of Covid-19 seeming to lift, I started riding to Central Square in the mornings to write at an outdoor table at 1369, my favourite coffee shop in town. This project began to bubble up to the surface again, and I pushed through some material that’d been frustrating me.

Now I’m able to imagine finishing it.

Not to say it’ll happen soon. I suspect the soonest this manuscript will become a book is 2023, though I’ll have to scramble to make it. Also it needs a title. (I have an absolutely perfect title for the chapter on Nomic, and am afraid to share it before its time.)

A big portion of the planned work is a ‘syllabus’ of texts, weird and not, but weirdly read — shorter critical pieces in a shared key. I’ve written a lot of words here but have covered only a small fraction of the intended topics. The limiting factor here is actually reading time: I skim and pick and synthesize very quickly but now only get through about 50 books a year cover-to-cover — a humiliating loss, as reading constantly and quickly was a big part of my identity when I was younger. To increase that number I’ll have to eliminate ‘recreational Internet’ entirely; imagine having run marathons in college, then spending ten years smoking two packs a day, and you’ll get a sense of the nature and severity of the problem.

This work is the closest I’ve come to a Statement of Purpose, personal and vocational. A good sign: the other day it occurred to me to print up a handful of pocketbook editions of some completed portions of the work, to share with friends and see if it works. A threshold has been evidently been crossed.

I Ching

A small number of notebook pages I’ve given over to conversations with the I Ching oracle. (‘Oracle’: in the sense of ‘the oracular power of dice.’) This is an intellectually stimulating and emotionally challenging activity and I heartily recommend it, though it’s fallen off for me these last few months. Part of my practice here was meditating on the call/response afterward, which led in just one instance to an astounding, heartbreaking private vision that’s continued to shape my ongoing encounter with self/world throughout the year. I’ve not regretted even a moment of working with the book, which is unusually high praise for someone with such a hard time maintaining focused unself-conscious attention.

These are precious pages to me though few.

Dungeons, delving

In winter/spring 2021 I ran a D&D campaign for my son and his friends, using Moldvay’s Basic rules from 1981ish. It was wonderful, and I filled many a notebook page with plans and schemes and notes and after-action reports. It’d be nice to kick it off again this spring or summer, in person. I count this as ‘work’ because (1) it involved shitloads of writing over a long stretch of time (2) running the game itself was terrifying, high-stress activity (because it was my son and his friends, and it felt like a lot was at stake). If you don’t know, now you know.

Time to go for a walk.

On climax (excerpt).

Note: This is excerpted from a work in progress. –wa.

To loosely borrow terms from molecular biology: the climax is the egophilic end of the story, its region of attraction and attachment to the sensemaking, sense-craving world of selves. But the body of the story is egophobic, deranging and repelling the unitary ego-self, asserting an alternate order in which we the audience become disordered, dissolve. ‘Lost in the story.’ We bind to the story at its premise (‘on entry’) and come undone, and are put back together when we leave at the end. Maybe that’s what endings are for. They feel great — like letting go of something you’ve clung tightly to, and feeling blood rush back into your hands.

Anticlimax leaves you with an otherworldly feeling, which — in the terms, not solely allegorical or metaphorical, of the present work — marks the presence of an actual other world. Storyworld is real, we can live whole lives there. Anticlimax and ambivalence and insinuation leave open connections between day and night, dream and waking. Sometimes you want that. Sometimes you need it.

Taxonomizing, categorizing, hierarchizing, contrast-heightening judgment marks and enforces that grey blurry border between this world and others. It pushes story-stuff back into its cage. The poet is ‘unacknowledged legislator’; the critic is the hanging judge impressing the law upon once-free subjects. Making the lawmaker’s aspiration into his fiefdom.

To look into the closed system of meaning which is the poetic text, the living community, the human life, and pronounce judgment from without — to demand that it be made legible, communicable, meaningful, climactic — is to cut away that aspect of it which most resembles your own life, all life. This is fear. It is to choose order over disorder and so welcome destruction. It is to refuse to see beauty in the strange; it is to look at the nonsensical world, the impossible universe, to look into infinity, and demand that it do the only thing it can’t, to make sense. To you. You of all people, you of all nations. This is fear and fuck that.

Criticism is possible — e.g. this book exists — but you have to go inside to know. You have to know in vivo. What can you say about music you can’t hear?

One small regret.

Once, at the really groovy ‘launch party’ (is that what they call it?) for the 33-1/3 Phish book, I was in mid-ummm-rant about Phish’s media reputation and I referred to ‘well compensated asshole {criticname}.’ I was drunk and I was improvising, and wish I hadn’t said it; moreso I wish I hadn’t been quoted in the paper the next day.

{criticname} hasn’t gotten rich off his writing and should have.

I wouldn’t know whether he’s always an asshole, I doubt it, but he’s definitely sometimes one, and — here’s the bad part — not always on purpose.

Breathe in, breathe out.

Sleep apnea is pernicious and, I suspect, much more widespread than is popularly understood. The most common symptom seems to be sleeping longer while not feeling refreshed — you don’t generally know you’re dealing with it until someone else points out that, at times during the night, you stop breathing altogether for several seconds.

It’s less creepy than it sounds, a little, but much worse for you.

Apnea is associated with a huge range of problems including heart arrhythmia. I don’t know whether this is directly due to brief periods of oxygen deprivation or indirectly due to the lack of real sleep.

What happens is: apnea breaks up your sleep. No REM sleep, no deep sleep, no lasting dreams. In other words, no unconscious processing of the day’s small traumas, and no cleansing rest. This is the hell of it. There’s no refuge from it, no way to sleep it off.

There are two varieties of apnea: ‘obstructive’ (something in the way of your breathing) and ‘central nervous’ (your body forgets to breathe). Obstructive apnea is easily enough dealt with: mouthpieces, masks, weight loss. A healthy diet, good hygiene, etc. It sucks, it can kill you in the long run, but it’s a physical problem with physical solutions. Nervous apnea is this other thing. In my experience — including this last week — nervous apnea goes hand in hand with anxiety. I mean, it’s there in the word ‘nervous,’ isn’t it. My assumption is that they form a vicious cycle. This week I had a major source of anxiety lingering in my mind, and found myself sleeping much longer hours: nearly nine hours one night, two+ hours more than my normal. But I felt more tired each day. Which then adds further stress, which…

And my CPAP machine, which pushes air down my throat so apnea doesn’t kill me, tells me this week I experienced an average of three apnea incidents per hour. That’s three times my typical CPAP-treated rate — though it’s just 1/10 of the untreated rate, i.e. without the CPAP I just don’t sleep.

Over the last few years I’ve learned a great deal about the relationship between my breathing, my sleep, and my mental and physical health. Above perhaps 1.5 apneas per hour, I don’t dream — at least I don’t remember dreaming. Above 2.0, I experience bouts of nearly dizzying fatigue in a couple of days.

Below a single apnea per hour during sleep, I have vivid dreams which I remember in the morning.

And my concentration, imagination, mental dexterity, and energy are restored to me.

Yesterday my main proximate source of anxiety was dealt with; last night I was below 1.0 for the first time in a week; this morning I awoke eager to write for the first time in a week.

The correlation between low apnea and good living is, for me, 1:1 and immediate. I breathe right at night, I’m a human being the very next day. (Several straight nights of bad sleep take a couple of days to get right.)

Simple physical things that contribute to bad apnea outcomes for me:

  • Not brushing my teeth before bed
  • Not shaving
  • Not showering at night
  • Sunburn(!)
  • Some other illness going on
  • Forgetting to wash the mask
  • Staying up looking at screens

I was surprised to figure out last one, but it’s true and should be obvious — I see an uptick in apnea when I get late-night screen time. Again: nervous, it’s in the name.

My dad frequently points out that he’s been diagnosed with a ‘small gullet,’ which I always found silly when I was younger. Then my doctor said one reason for my own obstructive apnea is that I — well, you take a goddamn guess. And dad reminded me that my grandfather was built the same way. Bad and broken dreams are heritable in a literal, physical sense I guess.

But I have a machine that helps me breathe when I forget or just can’t, and when I use it properly I’m restored to the world and feel something I identify as ‘normal.’ Funny old world.

Irreal Life Top Ten, into 2022.

Most new things are terrible because they’re things, cf. all of ‘social’ media; I tend to stick to the older stuff.

Here are ten things I read or saw or heard or played this year.

  1. Robert Aickman, COMPULSORY GAMES. Aickman was the writer that Kelly Link is slightly too melodramatic to be, hard as she tries (a debt she’s been admirably candid about) — master of a slowly insinuating, deftly handled eerie domestic horror. These stories, ably selected and introduced by the independent scholar Victoria Nelson for NYRB, are even stranger now than when they were written; Aickman’s world is gone, heightening the sense of ghostly presence which his unsettling and subtly comic prose creates. His characters walk amidst invisible ruins and find themselves drawn into old invisible story, bound up in worlds at right angles to their own. Aickman’s singular stories might reasonably be called ‘urban fantasy’ but they parallel his other life as conservationist — a formless ambivalence creeps in its own time at the edges of his characters’ regimented modern lives, something stranger than civilization. The ‘supernatural’ seems to live in the earth itself, on old roads and new, in buildings and on trains. I was blessed this year to discover Aickman’s disturbing tales and must come back. Otherwise I suspect they’ll come for me.
  2. The Matrix: Resurrections. The first third of this deeply personal mess of a movie is a proud and mournful reflection on the legacy of The Matrix by one of its cocreators, which is necessarily a regretful look at points missed and possibilities foreclosed. Its final movement is an attempt by the resurrected Neo to rescue the resurrected Trinity from a perfectly mundane life in San Francisco — a successful bid to resist (momentarily) the reduction of the Wachowskis’ vision of imaginative freedom to mere nostalgic style or ‘cool’ — and this is the part that feels both most precisely autobiographical and, frankly, most sentimental and jokey. The middle is a lot of Matrix-y infodumping and rehashing (with Jonathan Groff and Neil Patrick Harris killing it) and I found it hammy and irritating. Distilling The Matrix to a romantic quest-story about twinned male/female avatars reunited through magical (self-)love is…well, it’s myopic, which is to say Lana Wachowski is welcome to bring forward that facet of the extraordinarily multifaceted original, but The Matrix and its two preposterously ambitious sequels are poorly served by this revisit. I was glad to watch it, and desperately wish cocreator Lily had gotten involved too — together the Wachowskis were one of the all-time great cinematic pairings, which is maybe the hidden inner-story beneath Neo and Trinity, come to think of it. (And by the way: seeing Carrie-Ann Moss and Keanu Reeves reunited for this film makes every low-hanging joke and moment of kitsch absolutely worth it. They are simply beautiful together.)
  3. Hex, DIGITAL LOVE. The most 1993 album imaginable, just lovely minimalist ambient textures played on synths that could not possibly sound more dated. The intense ‘X-Files love scene’ vibe of the album goes right to my pleasure centers, its proto-cyberculture cheese the ideal expression of a certain zonked-out placeless nighttime soundscape. Reading Viriconium in a Disney hotel while listening to the first Software album at dawn was one of the peak aesthetic experiences of my dumb life, and this album somehow evokes that combination: it sounds like a computer consoling itself after a breakup. There’s even a track of just chanting, and it’s fine. It’s all perfectly, digitally, lovely just fine.
  4. The Dirk Gently books. Douglas Adams wrote three of the best comic novels of the 20th century, but he was a clumsy and lead-footed novelist and his other novels are all tedious and bad — these two, for instance. No matter.
  5. D.W. Pasulka, AMERICAN COSMIC. This bad book contains one chapter of real substance and the rest is credulous, innumerate, monomaniacal horseshit. What made it interesting, for pages at a time, was my sense of the book as a field recording of Pasulka either getting ‘redpilled’ by ufologist wankers or losing her mind in the most ordinary way — which explanation you choose depends on your levels of charity and credulity. I suspect she went looking for religious conversion, fell into a cult of personality, had a breakdown (check her Twitter feed), and will end up writing overwrought crank books that trade on her scholarly credentials, like her mentor Jeffrey Kripal.
  6. Subnautica, or as I refer to it around the house, ‘Underwater Anxiety Videogame.’ This Minecraft-in-the-ocean game combines mundane fetch-quests with vertiginous terror; if you have even a sliver of thalassophobia you’ll find this deep-sea diving game (which I play on Switch) truly, lastingly unnerving. It sends my blood pressure through the roof. It is lovely to behold, maddening to play, and — when you find just the right bit of salvage or weird fauna on the sea floor and are able to craft just the right item to advance — as purely, simply satisfying as any game I’ve played in years.
  7. Zelda: Breath of the Wild. An excellent candidate for ‘best videogame ever made,’ and better than ever during this idiot pandemic. It’s said that when the design team presented an early version to the creator of Zelda, he spent two hours doing nothing but walking around and climbing trees, enjoying the view and the childlike feeling of freedom. That’s how I play it: walking the vast and varied (psycho)geography of Hyrule, climbing rocks, picking apples, paragliding off mountains, occasionally hearing brief snatches of music like recovered memories. This was my escape in early 2020, and coming back to it this autumn was like slipping back into a familiar dream. On its own terms, as good as Nethack or Go — sublime.
  8. Tom Moldvay’s D&D BASIC SET. This isn’t the version of Dungeons & Dragons that absolutely everyone had; that was Frank Mentzer’s ‘BECMI’ series (Basic/Expert/Companion/etc.), along with Gygax’s ridiculous Advanced hardcovers. And it isn’t the final form of the classic game; that’s Aaron Allston’s 1991 Rules Cyclopedia, which collects the entire BECMI line (with variant ‘Immortals’ rules) in a notoriously unreadable hardcover and was for many years the most sought-after single D&D item. It’s neither the newest nor the oldest D&D version, neither its most idiosyncratic nor its plainest presentation. No, this is just the best one-book introduction to D&D and its most elegant little ruleset: quick, easy, improv-friendly, with just enough rules-weight to handle archetypal ‘fantasy’ adventure play but no more. The trend in ‘old school’ gaming is toward ultralite rules systems, but Moldvay’s 64-page distillation of the original D&D set feels good in the hand; there’s a reason millions of people fell in love with it. The current batch of ‘RPGs for kids’ fail to improve meaningfully on D&D run by a cool, sane, caring Dungeon Master — for such a group, this is absolutely the system I’d recommend. An experienced DM should get the canonical Old-School Essentials ‘retro-clone,’ which perfects the organization of the system at the cost of some of its innocent flavour.
  9. Miles Davis live, 1973. Courtesy of the essential The Heat Warps blog, Miles Davis fans are getting to revisit, in order, every known live recording from his early electric period — 1969-1975, spanning the era between the Bitches Brew live airings and the pulverizing, polarizing Agharta/Pangaea band. 1973 was a period of deep exploration for Miles driven by his mad guitar genius Pete Cosey, who was taking Hendrix’s electric experimentation to the next plane; by the end of the year the band had gone well beyond Miles’s arrogant ‘best rock band ever’ boasting into a realm of nightly ritual insanity, hard-rock companions to the free-roaming psychedelic fusion of Herbie Hancock’s ‘Mwandishi’ band. I’m listening right now to the Tokyo show from 19 June 1973, and the screaming undanceable tempos and formless solo wailing mark this as antagonistic experimentation rather than what was already getting called ‘fusion’-genre stuff; the initial emphasis is on aggressive attack rather than funk interlock, somatic but — until the spacious ‘Ife’ gets nasty on the back half — not quite erotic. To what extent Miles’s alienatingly single-minded ‘jazz-rock’ quest should be understood as political is a question for someone who knows the period, and Miles’s biography, better than I do; all I know is, the man who played some of the most nakedly, uncynically romantic music of the 50s and 60s played some of the most angrily in-your-face ‘jazz’ of the 70s, for audiences that sometimes had no idea how to process what they were hearing. Listening to the live shows reveals Miles as committed to a degree beyond curiosity or perversity; something complex and uncomfortable happens on these tapes. It’s some of the best shit I’ve ever heard.
  10. EU Machine Directive. The other day I told my brother I was reading EU regulatory documents for electronic devices the other day, and complaining about their bureaucratic insanity. His response: ‘Of course, why do you think Brexit happened?’ He’s wrong, but he’s not wrong. Such is the world in 2021, I mean 2022.