Apr 082018
 

Yesterday I wrote about my TV watching in my log for Transparent. Rereading today I realize I may have given the impression I have something against TV shows and have lived without watching them until recently. This isn’t true.

It is true that I didn’t have a TV for for most of my 20s and once I did have one in my 30s I didn’t pay for cable beyond the basic broadcast channels. The TV was almost exclusively a screen for my VCR and DVD players.

I didn’t have anything against TV shows though. It’s just that I couldn’t be bothered to figure out when shows people were talking about were on, generally forgot to be home or to turn on the set when I did figure it out, and when I did remember, was never able to muster the patience necessary to endure (or tune out) the commercials. (And they drove me batty.)

Because I was guaranteed to miss episodes for any show I tried to watch, I couldn’t follow story arcs and hated episodes that ended with “To Be Continued.” So what I watched were either short episodic comedies such as Seinfeld or The Simpsons or series that were iconic enough to be a group activity. Star Trek: The Next Generation night was a quasi-standing appointment for my college friends.

Troi senses commercials coming but can’t find the remote to turn down the sound.

 

So my point yesterday wasn’t that I was living in a cave for most of my life. I was simply pointing out that that my current experience of TV is not a symptom of my movement from one mode of viewing (broadcast) to another (streaming). Instead, I’ve shifted from watching TV only rarely or incidentally to viewing enthusiastically and with genuine interest because of the arrival of streaming.

There are problems with streaming obviously. I especially dislike the way it encourages viewing as a race, which makes the experience about quantities (time, speed) and the fact of consumption rather than qualities related to the experience of story, character and form. But overall, streaming has made TV series a part of my imaginative life in a way they never have been. And I’m pretty excited by that.

One final note: inspired by streaming, The Beav and I recently subscribed to cable, thinking we’d maybe enjoy it now that we were more TV savvy. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Cable TV is like The Machine from The Princess Bride, sucking life directly from your body, leaving you dull and listless. After one month we’ve already decided to cancel it all.

Westley discovers that “cable” doesn’t mean “commercial free.”

 April 8, 2018  Reflections Tagged with: ,
Apr 072018
 

I hate the act of watching television: the weekly schedule, the commercials, the hassle of figuring out what’s on, the crappy episodes that fill space and the cliffhangers that try to bring you back once you’re done. It all annoys and frustrates me, and as a result, for long stretches of my adult life I’ve had no television. And when I have had one, I haven’t subscribed to anything beyond basic cable, because cable just makes everything worse by orders of magnitude.

(As an aside, once when I was young—maybe nine or ten—I did something (I don’t remember what) and my father sent me to my room as punishment. Whatever I did must have upset my mom pretty badly though because she intervened and said, “No. He’s going to sit here and watch television with the rest of us.” So for the next half-hour I sat crying on the couch in front of the TV. Lesson learned.)

DVD box sets and now the combination of Netflix, iTunes and Apple TV changed all of this because now I can watch television series without having to watch television. This has been a revelation. Yes, managing multiple subscriptions is a hassle—and I came to Transparent late because I wasn’t subscribed to Amazon Prime—but  it’s worth the trouble.

In general, the shows that appeal to me the most generally reach for a novelistic scale. (And in those cases where a series doesn’t seem to be reaching for it, if I like it, it’s usually because I see an unintentional reach emerging across the episodes.) Concretely this scale usually manifests as seasons of ten or twelve episodes, each of which is roughly fifty minutes long. These episodes develop a complex, multi-threaded narrative which, thanks largely to the recent successes of HBO, seems to have become something like the standard for “quality” television.

Jill Soloway moves this notion of “quality” in a very different direction. Like I Love Dick, the first season of Transparent is built of brief episodes of only thirty minutes each. Each operates something like an overtly incomplete collection of scenes. These scenes develop a story, but they also make visible gaps in the narrative that are filled in only by implication and supposition. Imagined in terms of painting, the series is a careful combination of positive and negative space.

I have two lingering thoughts about the first season.

First, I can’t help seeing Soloway as the true dauphin of 90s New Queer Cinema, a movement of real aesthetic power that I worry will slip away into the past and be lost. Soloway clearly works within its aesthetic. Her concrete treatment of media, her use of found images, her reliance on technique from underground film, and her self-consciousness and deep political commitment are all direct links to that earlier historical moment. Yet importantly, she fuses this heritage with comedic and melodramatic story forms that make her work attractive and accessible in a way so little of the New Queer Cinema was.

Second, there are no gay male characters in this season. Gay men appear—partying unseen but loudly next door early on for example—but they do not matter. Given the self-awareness and political commitments of this very queer series, I don’t think their absence is an oversight. Quite to the contrary, I read it as a kind of calling out: gay men’s lives have been improved immensely by the efforts of legions of queer people, but as the political needle has moved toward accepting the idea that white, affluent, stylish men might be allowed to love each other, the political fire seems to have died out in many of these white guy’s bellies. The fight for all queer people’s rights continues, but, as this series points out, these gay men aren’t around. I think this is a purposeful and powerful gesture.

Apr 062018
 

Carson McCullers is interested in the feelings and the states of understanding of adolescents and other marginal people who are on the cusp of self discovery or transformation. She also writes in slow motion, capturing their subtle emotional variations and incremental changes in perception. She sets the tiniest stages of a thought in sharp relief. As a result, following her narration of a scene takes patience.

McCullers’s novel made me conscious of how—during  important periods of my life, yes, but also in ordinary days and boring weeks, in conversations with others but also when I’m alone—my feelings operate as a process and develop through variation. Yet in memory, the process isn’t retained. I remember my feelings as nouns rather than verbs. McCullers’s novel reminded me of the busy work of feeling that I continue to forget and restored (at least for a moment) the complexity and significance of that work to my sense of the fleeting moments of daily life. (Aciman’s in Call Me by Your Name reminded me of this as well.)

Frankie, the novel’s young protagonist, is difficult and cantankerous. Yet everything about her bristles with life and enthusiasm: she is alive to herself and is working as hard as she can within her limited means to make the materials of her childhood into a Self. She’s fierce, takes risks and is playing for stakes, yet she remains open to being touched by others as she struggles to be different, elsewhere and better, three terms that to her are largely synonymous. How can you not be charmed by that?

Finally, it’s worth saying that McCullers’s diction here is a feat of strength. Without resorting to odd neologisms or showy deep-dives into the OED, she describes subtle difference of emotion and of setting while maintaining a consistent register of lanugage. If this novel were a painting it would be richly monochromatic. The effect is so seductive that, by the end, I found myself nostalgic for a Georgia summer heat I’d fled years ago because her description of it convinced me that I’d somehow missed its beauty. I hadn’t—I’m sure of that—but if you’ve ever endured that heat without air conditioning for any length of time, you can appreciate what a powerful spell McCullers must weave in order to make me think I had.

 April 6, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 022018
 

I experienced this book like a delirium.

This is the Antebellum West, the Civil War and Reconstruction viewed through the eyes of a gender fluid gay soldier who cares less about history than the soldier he loves and who loves him back. Because he’s the narrator, the book follows his lead, never questioning the nature of their affections and presenting the physicality of their relationship bluntly from the outset.

The result is dream-like and utopic and is disturbed only occasionally by outsiders. For example, after meeting with the couple on official business and saying nothing about the narrator wearing a dress, a military official later writes to schedule a second meeting and requests that the narrator come dressed as a man.

Yet however idealized the narrator’s relationship, the world he lives in and the wars he participates in are brutal and cruel. The book draws a great deal of its energy from the narrator’s casual disengagement from this bloody (and often genocidal) violence. I couldn’t sort out the tone of this distance.

Eventually though I began to wonder whether the other people caught up in the violence—especially the Native Americans—were simply wind0w-dressing and whether this was symptomatic of the author’s outside position vis-a-vis the American conquest of the West. Could it be that he set out to write a western, and from across the Atlantic, the detailed historical backdrop appears to serve primarily as a generic (but literary) setting? I don’t know, and find this aspect of the book troubling.

 April 2, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Apr 012018
 

This book is populated by characters that became real to me as I watched them live for forty years or so in New York. They aren’t interesting in any extraordinary or flashy way—which makes the title odd—but I cared about them and became involved enough in their lives to lose track of the fact that the book would end.

Now that it has, I feel torn up and sad the way you do when you lose people.

Update: That last bit surely sounds exaggerated, but it’s not. I miss Ethan, Ash, Jonah, Jules and Denis. There’s no other way to say it, and I’ve been in a funk all day from their story being done.

 April 1, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

It’s been a long time since I’ve taught a book where the gap between how much I loved it and how much my students disliked it was as large as it was with Karen Russell’s collection of short stories.

I can say without reservation that these stories are (almost without exception) marvelous. Funny and allegorical, they are a lot like bones: let them simmer slowly over a steady heat and they give up riches. Yet my students, who I thought would be sucked in by the fantastic elements and young adult protagonists, were put off and confused by them. They asked things like “Do the goggles really let them see ghosts?” and “Are the girls werewolves?”—which is fine but only if you’re willing to accept that the answer is “Yes. But maybe not.” And then to think about how “yes” changes your sense of the story, and then how “no” and “maybe” do. For reasons I don’t really understand, my class wouldn’t go there and got hung up on the ambiguity generated by the conceits.

Here’s my dream though: they have read the thing and someday, they are going to be at a cocktail party, trying their best to fit in and to impress but failing and when they leave and become self-hating and say to themselves (or to their significant other) something along the lines of “I’m like an animal and am not fit to attend these things and I don’t understand why anyone would invite me to wander loose among the humans like that,” they’ll remember this book and think “oh, wait, I get it now…”

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with:
Mar 312018
 

The idea for this book is straightforward: cull the biographical material for enough details to describe a typical work day for each of the chosen writers.

I know most of the writers here quite well, and yet the resulting portraits turned out to be fascinating. A biography presents a life, but how someone fits the thing it is that they do into that life operates like a windows onto their personality and their sense of who they are.

 March 31, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 302018
 

I’d used Macs throughout high school school but, for reasons of cost, had always had PCs through university. I didn’t switch to Mac until I started my PhD. At that point, I bought a mini so I could use Scrivener while writing my dissertation. I loved that machine more than just about any computer I’ve ever had, but eventually I upgraded to a MacBook Pro, which at the time had two video cards and lots of ports. Eventually, opting for a bigger screen, I sold it and moved to an iMac.

In the years since, I’ve had other Macs, plenty of iPhones and a couple iPads. And yet, over the past few years, I’ve been less and less satisfied with my computers. The early problems were all about gaming. I’m not a hardcore gamer, but I play games as a way to hang out with family. Increasingly though, playing games with them was not an option because so many games just wouldn’t play on my Macs. There might be a port, and I might be able to load it and “play” but having a game operate on the Mac at minimum specs is not the same thing as being able to “play with” other people. The reality of this distinction became glaring when I bought a retina iMac. It was beautiful, but could barely run any game I played even at 1080p.

So I sold it and bought a new MacBook Pro. This machine turned out to be a disaster. Even without the touchbar, it was extremely expensive and my experience of the machine was not good. I hated the keyboard, which seems petty, but on a laptop is a big deal. More importantly, I was getting beachballs all over the place as I worked. And this happened even on text-based documents.

There was nothing physically wrong with the machine, but it was not at all enjoyable to use. Thinking it might help, I wiped the drive and reinstalled the OS, but the machine continued to gasp as it did basic work. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it had to do with the fact that so much of its resources were being spent to run the display at native resolution. Yes, that screen was gorgeous, but it wasn’t worth the hassles it seemed to be causing.

After months of this I was fed up and called my brother. He’s got good sense and we talked through options. On the one hand, I liked MacOS and didn’t really want to give it up. I also did most of my work in DevonThink Pro and Tinderbox, neither of which worked on Windows. (Scrivener did.) On the other hand, with a PC, I’d eliminate the substantial friction caused by using a Mac in a workplace that’s purely PC. Becoming familiar with Windows again would also help me with the classroom and student tech. And yes, I’d be able to play whatever games I wanted to.

After talking through all this, I made the (in retrospect) extremely impulsive decision to sell my MBP and to order the parts I needed to build myself a PC. That was a little more than a month ago, and I’m typing this post on that new machine.

And what do I think?

The change proved to be more disruptive than I’d imagined. I miss Apple’s core programs: Mail, Safari, and Notes. Microsoft’s equivalents aren’t. And yes, things are generally tackier and I’m less confident about security. But that said, Windows 10 is a decent OS, and so far I don’t have any regrets on that score. The change’s certainly made it easier to deal with IT at work .

As far as software goes, I miss being able to move files or to create replicants using DevonThink’s contextual menu. But other than that I realize, I prefer having my files sit in the OS file system rather than inside an app. Tinderbox is a different story. I’ve struggled to find tools for doing what I used it for. A lot of times I just wind up doing the work with pencil and paper. This is a loss, but not enough on its own to swing my decision.

So for now my life is bifurcated between an Apple iOS mobile experience for photos, notes and a lot of web browsing, and a Windows PC desktop for work and gaming. For now, that division is working well and I feel good about it.

To be continued…

Update: The irony of all of this is that as I post here, Apple has begun to support external video cards. Would this have solved my problem? Who knows. For the moment though I still feel good about watching from the outside as Apple finds a way to get its Mac hardware back up to speed. The computers they’ve sold these past couple years haven’t been.

 March 30, 2018  Reflections