a jot about multi-generational romances + riverdale

It’s important to marry someone, she said. Not because you need them to complete you or because you ought to be someone’s wife by hook or by crook. It’s just that worlds want to combine, they want to marry, and they use people to do it, the way you mix medicine in with something sweet, so it’s easy to swallow. That’s why we have to have all those silly things: a frilly dress and something blue and a bachelor party and a priest. Just so that a boy and a girl can live together and make babies? Posh. Because the big worlds inside us are mating, and they need the pomp.

-“Kallisti,” in The Bread We Eat In Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente.

I knew I would like Riverdale, even before I found out it’s a retelling of Archie comics. Yes, there are shows I like that are provocative and artistic that I can comfortably advertise as an interest of mine – but often what I find myself watching, for pure fun, is often high-stakes teenage melodrama. I’m now nine years out of highschool, but life has never lost that quality of choice that these retellings of adolescence often underpin: that being the mean girl or the nice girl come with moral short comings either way; that love is not going to be simple; that you have to work on every area of your life at once. Maybe someone with a degree in psychoanalysis or fairy-tales could point to the adolescence of these characters as an archetype in every person; you’re still a beginner, even when crow’s feet start to spur down your cheeks, and it might be more palatable to watch someone with a decade less on them make a mistake than someone who ought to know better. Maybe that last clause explains why I had weaned off these shows. Give me thirty-year-old women, a little older than me, and give me a blue print for how to be them and be smarter. These kids make the same mistakes I do. Teach me not to make them, instead of slapping my fuck-ups on a focus-tested face.

I digress: I knew I would love Riverdale because I had loved Gossip Girl, a show about wealthy Manhattanites so different from myself that identification should be impossible, in the way that the wholesome perfection of Archie and Betty ought to be fictionally untenable but is not. But just like Gossip Girl, the show features an attraction between the offspring of former sweethearts, which always irks me, and I’m trying to work out why now. Now, doubtless there’s a lot of very meaty metaphor you can read into that; often these shows cast the stakes of romantic selections as a choice between destiny and freedom. ‘Freedom’ gets tagged with moral superiority, following one’s true heart or true self, despite the many eases that ‘destiny’ offers. Usually the aborted romance of the parents is because one of them (typically the female partner in a heterosexual romance) chose the safe-bet husband, and as their worlds collide again, their children face the same temptation, and perhaps make a different choice.

Archie Andrews meets Veronica Lodge and is instantly drawn to her; her mother and his father reference their bygone relationship, how Hermione Lodge chose “the rich guy” over Archie’s construction-company father. Had she not, she would have altered the setting dramatically, but she chose business as usual. Supposedly.

There are two obvious components to take beef with: that these sorts of stories seem to suggest genetic, rather than moral, destiny (as it’s never adopted children making eyes at one another); that these stories often cast the self-interested choices of women as wrong, often because of that self-interest, when the spurned men rarely stand to lose as much as they do. But I think what bothers me is the closed ecosystem of the worlds that these stories take place in. The romantic options are always known-quantities, the children of former romantic options. The world is so much stranger than that. And if Archie ends up with Veronica … what then? If that’s rebellion, it’s not one that fundamentally changes the ecosystem of Riverdale, or even the ecosystem of romantic options. Rich romantic options go on, remain tempting. Unless they fuck off to parts unknown, their children will continue to orbit a world of old flames and wealth families, and even then it’s not the romance that changes the game, it’s the choice to leave town, an option even open to a spinster like me. Their child comes to the same crossroads. I feel like that sort of drama bills itself as the possibility of a truly new choice, but it isn’t. It doesn’t change the world. When their worlds collide, they don’t produce anything new.

a jot about publicity and weight loss

This is, in part, a matter of privacy. What information do we have the right to keep to ourselves? What boundaries are we allowed to maintain in our personal lives? What do we have a right to know about the lives of others? When do we have a right to breach the boundaries others have set for themselves?

People with high public profiles are allowed very few boundaries. In exchange for the erosion of privacy, they receive fame and/or fortune and/or power. Is this a fair price? Are famous people aware of how they are sacrificing privacy when they ascend to a position of cultural prominence?

There are many ways we have surrendered privacy in the information age. We willingly disclose what we’ve eaten for breakfast, where we spent last night and with whom, and all manner of trivial information. We submit personal information when registering for social media accounts and when making purchases online. We often surrender this information without question or reflection. These disclosures come so freely because we’ve long been conditioned to share too much with too many.

– “A Tale of Three Coming Out Stories,” Bad Feminist, Roxane Gay

Two essays in Bad Feminist struck me regarding their usage of ‘publicity’ as a concept: the one above, largely in conjunction with our expectation that celebrities come out, and that this affects positively the safety of non-celebrity closeted individuals; and one regarding the public debates regarding women’s bodies and the laws that cover them. Notably, Roxane Gay is also a big woman, as I am a big woman, but her discussion of weight largely dealt with the identity politics of that and how a drive for safety motivated her weight gain, that bad things do not happen to big bodies. Identity politics here means: when you pick up fiction that involves weight loss as a plot device, what size is the author? Does that matter? She’s as carefully evenhanded there as is she is throughout the rest of the work, but I thought it odd that despite her making public her experiences at fatcamp, despite the coverage of the publicity of embodiment for women and queer individuals, that weight and public perception wasn’t addressed.

Part of that is perhaps that talking about a fat body being a public matter seems mega-duh. If you’re big, ain’t no disguising that.

I have lost 95 pounds since 2012. 70 more to go if the body of my dreams could be a number; 50 and the doctor would never bring it up again. Lindy West described a ‘coming out’ moment for weight, which is powerful to hear, if you can get to that point in This American Life‘s podcast regarding it. When she says it, it comes off initially as if it should go with an angry gesture of the arm:”I’m fat“; before her voice wobbles and softens, “I’m fat.” West meant that there is a kind of virtue to being big but always trying to lose a bit more of yourself – you get praise for it, your corpulence is acceptable if temporary. So long as you can make it clear that you don’t mean to be this way, it, perhaps you, become something like an elephant in the room. And that creates an interesting paradox: at the same time that a fat person feels that fact about themselves to be so patently obvious as to be painful, they are always worried that it will somehow be brought up as a label for them. The way I felt is like it is something true about me that I cannot bear to have revealed. “I’m fat,” soft and wobbly.

That strikes me as an interesting conceptual issue regarding publicity.

There’s a snarl in me when it comes to weight loss. For so long, I resisted any serious effort, and I did so because of the public humiliation involved. Very little in the world encourages a person to be big. There are certainly reasons to gain weight, or reasons to have inappropriate relationships with food, but almost nothing paints the Rubenesque form as desirable besides Peter Paul Rubens.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

Here a very subtle sneer. “That’s nice. Have you published anything?”

“Yup.” I offer up my abridged CV.

Suddenly they stand up a little straighter. A light goes on in their eyes.

A moment earlier they were talking to nobody, a nothing, but now they’re speaking with somebody, a person who matters.

“Wow,” they say. “That’s amazing.” And sometimes: “I always wanted to write a book.” And sometimes: “I have a great idea for a book.” And sometimes: “Maybe you could help me write my book.”

This dynamic awakens a ferocious dormant animal, a snarling girl with a big mouth, too smart for her own good, nothing to lose, suffering privately. She’s me at fifteen, more or less. When she is ready to stop suffering privately, she’ll become a writer.

Oh really, she says. Now I matter? Wrong, motherfucker: I mattered before. (Also: Nope, can’t help you write a book, best of luck.)

She’s a little trigger-happy on the misanthropic rage, this snarling girl.

The Snarling Girl, Elisa Albert

Albert captured it so well. Snarls abound in me. I snarl in certain intellectual bravado contests, and I snarl at apparent instagram success, fuck you and your Hampton house, and I snarl whenever I plan out my meals, whenever I step on the scale, whenever I inch towards a dear goal I inch towards through small, consistent sacrifice. Like its mammalian upper-lip origin, it’s all about defense: I snarl when my value, my right to inhabit a certain territory, is questioned. The thing about losing weight is that what you want is public, you want a body that will at least not incur negative behaviors particular to weight, and ideally garner wanted attentions. But it ain’t a one-and-done affair. If you’re big enough that it matters, it’s going to take a while – everyone you know suddenly knows something about you. You want to be thin. You want to capitulate to a particular bullshit standard, my snarling girl says. Everyone I know would know that I want them to like me better than they do, for reasons that any Disney film will pantomime are foolish.

And to make matters worse, I want it, for reasons I think are foolish. I’m not unhealthy. I have impeccable blood pressure, have lifted weights, ran, stand for four hours a day, walk at least 5000 steps a day at work and above 15000 on the weekends. My body works. There are more delicate health issues that weight loss would prevent as a long-term practice, but in effect I am able.

Still, I measure out my meals into two-cup portions, vegan, chock full of those vegetables I never bothered with while I watched my indecently thin father eat chips and cookies all night long. I exercise. I feel guilt whenever my weight swings upwards, or I eat an unplanned cookie. I pat my collarbones all day at work. Is the bone more visible. Is there less than there was before. I’d love to be beautiful. Everyone wants that, and I do, too, and I know better. That, too, is about publicity, but it’s not about how my body is or is not public; it is about how a public value contrary to my big body somehow migrated inside it. The snarl in me is not always the right response, but it is a response that takes my worth as unquestionable. Lindy West’s coming out is a restatement of that. Fat, and not changing. Fat, and fine. Sometimes weight loss seems like a devil’s bargain between valuing what you want and valuing yourself. Get what you want – if you change yourself. Stay the way you are – and remain removed from what you’d like to be, perhaps the instrumental goals a different size could offer.

Body positivity has things to say about this. I’m not the only big woman in the world. Baby, it’s just a jot. So it is: no conclusions, but Gay’s book was deeply thoughtful, with one obvious gap to me, and that made me think. Now there’s another gap here. Isn’t that what it’s all about, collarbones?

a jot about huniecam studio & specialization

A ‘flow state’ is an even match between the level of obstacle you meet and your ability to overcome those obstacles. Obtaining flow is unobvious at the best of times – overcoming obstacles often changes our ability to meet them, either increasing skill or depleting a resource, which then changes the level of obstacle we are next able to meet – but particularly when I want it most. Like every adult, I come home with a certain bored rage and want to snap it immediately with something sweet, something fun, something different. Usually what I look for is a good game. HunieCam Studio fulfills those criteria, but when I was burned out as fuck and playing it, I was just empty-tank afterwards. Part of that is that you need certain mental resources left over to enjoy something, period, which is part of the frustrating cycle of coming home and wanting to be happy immediately 1 without really being able to be. Playing anything might have been an undue drain on what I had left, but what struck me as I played HunieCam Studio is that this is the game I am playing all the time: resource management of stressed employees.

As the title suggests, you are managing the women who work in a skeezy web-cam studio, trying to balance their level of stress with their ability to produce profit. You drag your cam-girls between buildings that represent different ways to spend their time and thus your money. You can accessorize them to cater to niche patrons. You can make them more skilled, though then they demand more money. Same with increasing their style. Someone has to provide for their vices, or they stress, and if they work for long enough, they need to retire to a spa to get mani-pedi’d and mud-masked until they’re refreshed enough to get back in front of the blinking red light. There is almost no titillating content beyond the premise, but even so it’s an extremely absorbing process of dragging between buildings and checking on timers and making sure the books are above the red each night. My first several times through, I played it without even achieving the limpest trophy2, and partially that’s because I selected girls based on brief backstory bios, and partially that’s because I went for as much diversity and skill as possible in my cam-girls. Not really a successful strategy.

After repeated failure, I eventually looked at a guide, which offered the simple and nearly always applicable advice: specialize. One person attracts with full style, everyone else c’s with full skill, everyone has the same accessory to attract a shared audience, with one poorly paid girl who ran around convenience stores to attend to the crew’s respective vices. Simple. Smart Industrialized. I want to think about specialization as a strategy, and I want to talk about reading game guides.

Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his own labor to embrace all the other laborers. But, unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.

Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things…

In this distribution of functions the scholar is the delegated intellect. In the right state, he is Man Thinking. In the degenerate state, when the victim of society, he tends to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking…

Books are written on it by thinkers, not by Man Thinking; by men of talent, that is, who start wrong, who set out from accepted dogmas, not from their own sight of principles. Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.

Hence, instead of Man Thinking we have the bookworm. Hence, the book-learned class who value books as such; not as related to Nature and the human constitution, but as making a sort of Third Estate with the world and the soul. Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees.

– “American Scholar,” in Nature, by Ralph Waldo Emerson3

One of the things that games can teach you is the situations where your intuitive strategies succeed and fail. I love to diversify: do something different; read something different; my Spotify playlists are more about left-turns than discernable themes; I typically view nothing quantitatively but rather as a series of categories. Similarly I develop soft-spots almost instantly for particular characters that has nothing to do with their quantities contributions to strategy. None of these are winning intuitions in a typical game. “Specialization” may be overbroad as term, but I intend it to describe selecting development in a very limited amount of sectors, in contrast to the number of opportunities to develop others. My cam-girl’s were doubly specialized, for example: they had extremely limited functions that that they were highly skilled in, and attracted a niche audience that I created by giving them all the same niche.

Sometimes I think of my refusal to specialize as a kind of cowardice. ‘Specialize’ involves taking something in particular as special – i.e. to choose to value one thing over another. HunieCam Studio is like my life in that I am constantly flitting between tasks, where the resource being managed is myself. Modulate your level of stress against how much you have to work, to get more money, to survive, to buy things that modulate stress, so that you can work more. Specialization is like making choices at all in life. After all, it’s just the one lifetime, hardly long enough to do a few things, much less everything. Which things do you pick?

Yet life is not so neat as to reward a single strategy, even if that’s sometimes what we want behind our moral story, a clean way to make choices in any situation. Worse, it often feels supernaturally dull. That’s half of what I hate in my work life, that it involves such a limited use of myself.

Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.

― John Dewey

Dewey4 claimed that the feebleness of human infants is in fact a complicated evolutionary strategy. It puts us immediately in a situation where a vast amount of motor failure is likely before we meet with any success. This outfits us well to approach many, many different circumstances, because in the process of failing to do what we intend (pick up a toy, for example) equips us with incidental knowledge about how to accomplish other sorts of things, even if they were not things that were initially wanted to do.

Even so, there’s a limited circumstance where failure feels interesting. Babies have all their needs met. If they want something, pick up a toy, say, that’s usually not for mere self-maintenance, but because of the brute nature of wanting things. Theoretically, I have all my needs met (tie my own shoes and everything) before I game on a Friday night, but it might be something more akin to where you are on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.5 If you can’t tell, I ain’t that high up on it right now. It might be difficult to find repeated failure in a silly little cam-girl game interesting if you feel you are going nowhere in your life, for example; maybe it feels like too much of the same terrible thing. I think often about which games are actually going to give me something back at the end of the day. Something purely exploratory, with no sense of success or failure, imputes a sense of time wasted to me, for reasons I don’t like. Even if it’s only fake money, it’s nice to have seen my clicking go somewhere.

Yet success isn’t all you want – you want to figure it out yourself.

From Yayification’s brilliant Steam guide.

I still struggle with whether or not I should read a game guide, the same way I sometimes wonder if I ought to see a therapist. Anything they can figure out, I should be able to figure out for myself. Besides, if you take out the puzzle part of a game, it just becomes a matter of clicks and keystrokes, rote activities which produce no joy on their own. You want to click with purpose, ha. You want to have figured out exactly what you need to do and then done it. That scales from games to life choices.

And yet wanting this does not preclude outside input, I have to remind myself. Usually a guide tells you that if you look at a puzzle this way, the solution becomes obvious. You can cross-pollinate that knowledge by trying to apply previously successful perspectives on fresh problems, seeing how they fare, what features are shared and what aren’t between two sets of circumstances. You can get interested, in other words, in what your failure has to do with your perspective – and this doesn’t make you less thoughtful. Refusing to specialize is sometimes John Wayne nonsense; it is a way of refusing to engage with others in shared projects. Some people have the right intuitions to approach particular problems, but cannot describe them in terms clear and abstract enough to realize that a different set of problems can be approached successfully in the same way.

I do want to say one last bit about specialization and choice, though it’s wandered off from the point. I do worry that sometimes it’s really existential angst about choosing things that prevents me from taking specialization in any circumstance seriously. I’m an American of a particular political alignment that clashes deeply with the recent election, however, and I want to include one brief excerpt regarding compromise. It involves the protagonist, a witch, being confronted with an assassin masquerading as a middle school teacher.

“How about you, Miss Delfine? Do you think the occasional witch burning helps to weld society together?”

Patricia lost a breath. Then she found it again and looked up, regarding Theodolphus with a steadiness that he couldn’t help admiring. Her thin lips pushed out.

“Well, Patricia said. “A society that has to burn witches to hold itself together is a society that has already failed, and just doesn’t know it yet.”

All the Birds in the Sky,6 Charlie Jane Anders

The most thrilling part of games is realizing a new way to think that allows you to abstract amongst strategies Often that abstraction hops all the way to the top level, life or something like it, but also between games and puzzles. Games do test strategies, but the results are only hypothetical imperatives: if you want this, do that. For the strategy to be worthwhile, you have to want something it gets you. You can look at certain kinds of puzzles and decline them as worthy of pursuit. You can cut the Gordian knot. You can refuse to compromise; you can specialize. I’ve always thought of specialization as deeming one thing unworthy and thought little of it accordingly, out of a moral allergy to labelling anything unworthy plus an intellectual arrogance. How belatedly obvious that morality often involves labelling something ‘unworthy.’ Better check that intellectual arrogance.

a monty python reference

For what it’s worth: the blog and I are not dead yet [long live blog]. There’s been no particular reason for the inactivity, and now no particular reason for its resurrection. Probably how Frankenstein felt.

I picked up Hits1 in 2014 as I exited a graduate program in Philosophy, hoping for a real job. I took me the better part of 2015 to score one, and score is a funny verb when even saying “World, one jillion, Sophia, love,” is too poetic for the actual situation, you have to enunciate zero, “Sophia, zero.” I work as a facilities customer service representative for a large banking conglomerate: every little girl’s dream. Probably I won’t ever talk about that again, as it seems, well, professionally suicidal, but largely my life has been commuting to that gig, working that gig, then collapsing at home and watching something on Netflix I’ve already seen so that I can trust that something pleasant will happen that day. Somehow that has carried on into the end of 2016.

Though there are bright spots.

Meet Willa.

See this Instagram photo by @raygunsue * 7 likes

babies. #rabbitsofinstagram

See this Instagram photo by @raygunsue

I adopted Willa and Sherman from a rabbit rescue. They spend their days destroying furniture and looking at me suspiciously.

I hope you will be hearing from me soon. I aim to write a bit more. Surely that’s how one hopes, right? Just let me write a little bit more.2

Thank you, to the stranger who reached out.

halls of mirrors

As is the case everywhere else, we must, in the novel, distinguish between making tools and reflecting on the tools made.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

I had the pleasure of asking a teenager a difficult question. My former university hosted an Ethics Bowl, where high schoolers and college students compete by responding to contemporary ethical dilemmas using moral philosophy. They’d noted John Locke as defending the preservation of as many rights as is possible. I asked them if they could justify the preservation of rights secularly, as Locke had rooted his defense in the Garden of Eden. They looked at one another and repeated their point.

The pleasure of being a judge in these sorts of competitions is the opportunity to play mouthpiece to the doubtful part of yourself. I don’t know how to justify the preservation of rights as much as possible, but what I hoped to find, in the students’ answer, was a recognition of the applicability of a question like that. Regardless of the availability of an answer, the question makes sense to ask.

Much later, I came across Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel,” referencing books I haven’t read and terms for literary canon that I am not familiar with, but found a familiar refrain. The two paths seem to deal primarily with what a person can control, and what she can’t. The first path, presented by Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, seems to affirm that there is some hope, for control, or clear thinking, such that one can make choices in the world, such that it makes sense to go on being in the world. The second path, presented by Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, is either a cynicism about that interaction between you and what you can’t control, or a denial of that interaction being ‘settled’ in favor of either party. Both paths involve a self-consciousness of being novels, and accordingly take a stance on what novels can do.

The first path seems obvious to me. Looking back over what I’ve written, so often how I’ve defended (even only privately) a piece of art rests upon how it reinvigorates oneself. Notably, the kind of invigoration I’m talking about doesn’t involve selling everything you own and sailing around the world, but rather getting up, just as you did yesterday, and giving it one more day. And like my difficult question to that teenager, there is an obvious question with applicability here: why is it good to keep on giving it one more day? Surely it must be the case that, sometimes, it isn’t. Someone I met briefly in a sweaty Colorado hostel once told me it boiled down to food and sex and compliments.

At the very least, this sort of art makes sense to make. At the very least, it makes sense to write novels that are optimistic about the writing of novels, such that a good novel can keep you going. Work on the second path is less clear to me. Reviewing Nabokov, Sartre might have said it best:

Mr. Nabokov (whether out of timidity or scepticism is not clear) is at pains not to invent a new technique. He mocks the artifices of the classical novel, but ends up using them himself, even if it means suddenly foreshortening a description or a piece of dialogue by writing, more or less, ‘I’m stopping now, so as not to lapse into cliche.’ This is all well and good, but what is the outcome? First a sense of unease. Closing the book, one thinks what a lot of fuss over nothing. And then, if Mr. Nabokov is so superior to the novels he writes, why does he write them? You would swear it was out of masochism, so as to have the pleasure of catching himself redhanded in an act of fakery. And then, lastly, I’m willing to admit that Mr. Nabokov is right to skip the big novelistic set-pieces, but what does he give us in their place? Preparatory chatter (though when we are duly readied, nothing happens, excellent little scenes, charming portraits and literary essays. Where is the novel? It has dissolved into its own venom: this is what I call a literature of the learned.

– “Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov,” in Critical Essays (Situations I), Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Christopher Turner, 2010.

The marker of a philosophical education, like any education, seems to be well-surveyed nescience. You know that you do not know so very many things. The same seems to go for a certain kind of novel, amounting to a criticism of writing novels, and the way that novel-writing may represent a deep, generically human desire to make sense of our lives, and have that making-sense have value. You read novels and start to see the yawning gap of what novels cannot do. Accordingly, you may find a yawning gap between your life and your ability to make sense of it. You may press the snooze button repeatedly.

The tempting answer is that the optimistic path can at least account for its selection. It makes sense to write novels that defend why one ought to write novels, and less sense to write novels that do not. But the temptation of this answer is lessened if its defense requires a defense — perhaps that optimistic novels make sense of the enterprise of writing novels might lead to the question of, well, why fucking write novels?.

Worse, when artistic works seem to exclusively focus on artistic works, or what artistic works in general mean. They start to seem as meaningful as a hall of mirrors. My friend Cotton and I would bat that back and forth. He defended this by stating that art is about life, and isn’t art a part of life?

A diary entry about navel-gazing wouldn’t be complete with considering why I would even write such an entry. How clever of me to refrain.