how to enjoy the real world
1. don't try present life as more beautiful than it already is (this is hard in both interpretations)
2. take photos right before you leave rather than when you first alive
the value of aesthetics
I got new glasses today. The last time I bought a pair of glasses must have been 5 years ago. They were Warby Parker. And they cost $100. This new pair was significantly more expensive than that. By orders of magnitude. But I bought them because a) Warby Parker doesn't exist here and b) being able to see is important. And if I consider that it'll likely be another 5 years before I get another pair of glasses, the investment seemed worth it.
"Worth it" is an interesting concept when it comes to aesthetic objects. Because when you buy an aesthetic object (anything that augments your visual appearance in any way) it's hard to quantify what /value/ you're getting out of them.
Or at least I thought so until today.
Today, I have come to a new understanding of aesthetic augmentation. And only because I've done a lot of it recently.
I think that there's two main functions of aesthetic augmentation.
The first is to deal with the the kind of dysmorphia that we all experience on some level - to close to gap between the platonic vision of ourselves and the self that exists in reality. I feel more like myself with bleach blonde hair and tattoos. Even though I was born with a full head of brown hair and unblemished skin.
The other function is (and I'm being very honest here) to make ourselves more visually attractive.
And so when we're investing money into aesthetic augmentation (whether they be permanent like tattoos, semi-permanent like glasses, or temporary like a pair of pants) it's actually quite easy to understand what the outcome should be.
Whatever we pay for an aesthetic augmentation or object, we should feel proportionately /more/ like the platonic ideal of ourselves, or proportionately /more/ attractive.
By that litmus test "worth it" becomes easy to measure.
Was my new chest tattoo worth it? Yes. Not only do I feel €180 more like myself. I also feel €180 more attractive.
But were my glasses worth it? By this measure. No.
And, to be fair, it would be hard to push the needle as much as it they would need to in order to qualify. I look like myself, sure, but I also look like myself /without/ the glasses. The glasses don't make me look €300 /more/ like myself. Nor do they make me look €300 more attractive.
They look like glasses. And I look like a guy who needs them to see.
Does that mean that I shouldn't have bought them? Maybe. I'm sure there are glasses that could make me feel more of both of these things. But €300 more? Probably not. I think for glasses the maximum improvement in either of those fields maxes out at around €100. Which, coincidentally, is how much the frames cost by themselves. (The additional €200 is because of the Zeiss lenses).
Is this a bulletproof theory? Probably not. But it's a functional one. Next time I'm deciding on any sort of aesthetic investment, I'm going to ask the question: "Does this make me feel €[xx] more like myself or €[xx] more attractive?"
Because those are both things worth paying for. And it's also an easy way to understand if something is over or under valued.
a matter of actual taste for once
I am currently drinking a very good €3 bottle of white wine that I bought at the grocery store.
As a matter of habit (and a matter of taste) I usually drink natural wine. Good, artisanal stuff that you certainly can't get at the grocery store and certainly not for €3.
But, as so many people have asked before, why spend €20 on a good bottle of hard to obtain natural red when you could spend €3 at the corner and have an experience that's just as delicious.
After all (haven't you heard?) they've done double blind taste tests that prove even sommeliers can't tell an expensive bottle from a cheap one.
There are many answers to this question. Of course there are. I am not on the side of either. I think drinking cheap wine is fine. I think drinking expensive wine is fine. I just want to drink good wine.
But the reason I drink natural wine is because it's a sure thing. It's a shortcut to good taste. But it's also an insurance policy against bad or boring wine.
Natural wine (in its stricter definition) is wine without any of the bullshit, tricks, and method that you can legally add to wine to make it taste good. No sugar to correct the taste. No sulfites to stop it from over fermenting. Just grapes, nature, technique, and timing. Also, natural wine often does away with /all/ the things that make winemaking easy: pesticides, machines, etc etc.
It's making wine on hard mode. You have to be insane to do it. And so the people that do do it, more often than not, are insane.
Basically, the price of entry to making natural wine is that you have to /really/ give a shit.
So the people that make it are nerds. They're artists and poets and botanists and astronomers and astrologers and weirdos whose only tools are time and the sun and the moon and the vibes and maybe a goat or two.
They do it knowing that it will be painful and that it's likely that it won't work. That it is painful and often doesn't work is what dictates the price most of the time. What you are buying is more of a sculpture made of soil than it is a drink.
Anyway. The point is that when you select out like that - when you know that the only people doing something are the ones who really give a fuck - then the products that you end up with are often worth giving a fuck about.
The thing about €3 grocery store wine is that while there are many that are good, there are also many that are bad. It's hard to know which ones are worth caring about and which aren't. And even when one's good. It's really hard to tell why.
If I go back to the grocery store and want to replicate my experience, which part of it should I bet on? The grapes? (Moscatel) Or the region? (Setúbal) Or the winemaker? (João Pires)
But then again. Do I event want a similar experience?
The person who taught me to love natural wine (hi Lisa!) taught me to love it because it's better (no sulfites and no sugar = no hangovers) but also because it's more interesting. It's more artistic. She taught me that each bottle being different is the point. That what you're tasting isn't really a grape, it's an interpretation, it's what somebody did with the raw materials. But most important, that it's something that somebody spent time to really care about making good.
In that way, it's no different to any other act of creation. And if I had to put my money - €3 or otherwise - on somebody, I'm going to put it on the person that cares the most.
on making anything
Last night I watched one of the most confusing movies I've ever seen in theatre. It was called (Siberia)[https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4687856/] and, although I did arrive a couple minutes after it started (I was starving and you weren't allowed to eat popcorn in the theatre. So my friend Sophie and I stood outside eating popcorn until we were fairly certain we weren't going to die.) I don't think that whatever I missed in the first few minutes could have explained what I saw in the next 90.
I was conflicted about what to write about it here because I didn't know what I felt about it. I didn't /like/ it. But there were things that I liked /about/ it. At times the cinematography bordered on genius. There were individual frames in that film that undoubtably belonged in an art gallery.
The film itself wasn't enjoyable. But I'm also fairly certain that the director hadn't intended for it to be. It was probably intentionally hard to watch. It wasn't supposed to be an easy or relaxing experience as an audience. But even knowing that, I still didn't think it was very good.
When I woke up this morning I found myself thinking a lot about the beautiful frames that belonged in an art gallery and very little about the weird story that belonged in a student film exhibition.
When watching the film, I was thinking about how many people worked on it. That there was an editor who cut the footage together in this way that made no sense to me. That there was a cinematographer who poured so much artistry into a film that few people would like. That there were actors who spent hours and hours on set recording a series of weird stilted monologues that belong more on a stage than they do on a screen.
When I was there experiencing it these things seemed like they were a waste. Like an embarrassment. But today I feel differently about it.
I think there's value in creating /anything/. In having an idea and bringing it to life. In labouring over something for your own enjoyment. For your own catharsis. So that you can be the same person in the world that you are in your head.
As somebody who struggles so often to create the things that I dream of making, I now realize that the feeling I felt is actually jealously. It's not "how did this get made?" it's "if this person can make this, why can't I make the things that I want so badly to create?"
I cry a lot in movies. And often in movies that (I'd imagine) aren't trying to elicit that emotional response. I cried in La La Land. I cried in The Last Black Man in San Francisco. And, although they're very different films, I cried in them for the same reason. It was so moving to me that somebody /made/ this thing that wasn't for everyone. But that obviously was for them. I cry because I know how much they would have had to believe in themselves so much, for so long, in order to make it happen. I cry because I know there's probably a lot of times where they wanted to give up but didn't. I cry because this person who made this thing exists. And so does the thing they were brave enough to make.
So should you watch Siberia? Fuck no. But does that mean it shouldn't have been made? No. But it does mean that you should make the things that speak to you. That are begging to get out of you. Because there is space for it in the world. There are people that will cry watching it. The people that it's for. Even if that person isn't me.
Winter in Portugal: WORSE than winter in canada!?? [NOT CLICKBAIT]
Hi, welcome to part 98123712837 of me bitching about how much being cold sucks.
Recently I wrote about daylight hours as a determining factor in where one decides to live.
I'd like to introduce you to another equation that should be an important part of the 'where to live' question: sustained average temperature.
Central heating was invented in 1816. Insulation was invented in the 1940s. Unfortunately, 200 years later, neither invention has made its way to Portugal.
It is currently 7 degrees in Lisbon [-7C below my minimum temperature threshold]. And enduring this temperature, for me, has been much harder than enduring any Canadian winter.
Let's use Marco's Comfort Constant (MCC) of 14 degrees.
The weather in Toronto is currently 1C or -13MCC.
The weather in Lisbon is currently 7C or -7MCC.
In order to be a happy, healthy person, I need to be walking outside for around 2 hours.
In order to walk for 2 hours outside in Toronto I would have to endure a total of -26MCC (arrived at by multiplying temp x time). In Lisbon I need to endure -14MCC.
Based on that measurement alone, Lisbon is a much more pleasant place to be. Yay.
But what about the other 22 hours of the day?
In Toronto, the average indoor temp is about 22C or +8MCC.
In Lisbon, the average indoor temp is THE SAME FUCKING TEMPERATURE AS IT IS OUTSIDE. Or -7MCC.
Let's extrapolate the numbers here and see what my average temp would be in each place during a day.
(2*-13) + (22*8) = 150
150/24 = 6.25M
OR, on average, I am +6.25MCC
(24*-7) = -168
-168/24 = -7
OR, on average, I am 13.25C COLDER THAN I WOULD BE IN CANADA.
The other thing that you can't really factor in is the psychological suffering of existing in a state of cold that has no end. In Canada there is a solution to being cold. Go inside. In Lisbon, I have to endure this until the earth spins on its axis enough to be summer again.
What I am trying to say is that I live an in eternal tundra from which there is no escape. I wake up cold. I go to sleep cold. I am typing this, in my home, with a winter jacket and shoes on. My fingers are numb.
I am chilled. To the bone. And I do not know if I'll ever know what it feels like to be warm again.
The other day somebody I care about sent me a story by Isaac Asimov called The Last Question.
A lot of people I really like happen to really like sci-fi literature. I've never really gotten into it myself.
And so while the story itself was interesting, I found myself thinking more about the /form/. About sci-fi itself.
People make it sound like sci-fi is about the future. But I don't think that's true at all. I think sci-fi is about the eternal present. Because sci-fi isn't about technology. It's about fears, conflicts, and concerns that - yes, will exist in the future - but have also have existed since the beginning of time.
Sci-fi always feels current because it's always still talking about the future (if you can get over the pedantry of the dates that authors often arbitrarily include). The things in sci-fi have either not yet come to pass or (in the cases of technology) have - and either feel obvious and natural.
Reading this story in particular, it's obvious that "a computer that can answer any question" was almost entirely theoretical back then (1956). That it does now doesn't feel spectacular. At least not to me. And Asimov's vision of the technology of the future doesn't seem out of place either. It seems inevitable. Whether that inevitability is real or informed by Asimov's vision of the future itself I can't be sure.
Sci-fi is about /possible/ futures. About imagined futures. And I think that maybe we've reached a point where all futures are imaginable. Where all futures are possible. Where we are so aware that we cannot predict or avoid any future more than the other.
The thing that I do find revealing is the /tone/ Asimov has about the future. Modern sci-fi's focus on technology seems to me to be focused on a world where things continue /as they current are/ as opposed to one where the world is unimaginably different to the one that we have today.
Maybe in Asimov's day an all powerful computer was something one could be ambivalent about. Today it's something almost entirely quotidian in our imaginings of near and distant futures. What we seem more concerned about isn't how dramatically things might change. But what the dramatic effect of them /not/ changing might be.
I've had mixtapes on the mind ever since I listened to the incredible episode of Louder than a Riot about DJ Drama and the death of the mixtape. The episode featured a lot of excerpts of Drama's early mixtapes and I was instantly struck by the unpretentiousness and authenticity of them.
I loved that they were hosted. Loved the adlibs. The interludes. There was a kind of theatre to them - a scrappiness that I recognized from my early days of creating where you'd throw in anything that really made the thing work. It didn't matter if it made sense, or had precedent. It was a way of communicating. And communication really has no rules.
Ever since then I've been thinking about mixtapes and what they could mean for me. Mixtapes don't really exist in my life, but other kinds of storytelling, other kinds of curated suggestion, are more prevalent than ever.
I've also been thinking of broader, more encompassing formats of communication. Especially as you meet and connect with people, is there a /thing/ that you can create that can communicate your identity more effectively?
Suggestions and recommendations have always - for me - been the most direct path to understanding. I share things I like with people I like so they can exist instead my head for a bit. You can tell who I am by watching a movie I like. The movie tells you more than I could about how I exist in the world. What I believe and what I feel.
I've started to wonder about a format - a kind of mixtape - that exists over a massive timescale. What if there was an audiofile, for example, that was hours long, curated around a single mood, feeling, place, or emotion?
There was a video version of this in Toronto - people curating visual mixtapes - but I think audio might be a format that feels more correct to me. What if, over the course of several hours, you listened to songs, podcasts, and audiobooks that immersed you in a certain kind of world.
Spotify is sort of starting to do this - combining playlists of music, podcasts, and other audio. But I think there's space for a more raw version. A re-emergence of a kind of mixtape. It won't be for everyone but it'll be for someone. It'd definitely be for me.
I love to live in moods and emotions. Imagine a week's worth of audio about nostalgia. Songs. And excepts of books, and movies, and soundscapes. I don't know how or when I'll start exploring this. Only that I will.
song exploder and marvel vs mastery
Song Exploder is a super popular podcast and Netflix TV show (although it doesn't work as well in visual format) about how music is made.
It's a show that's built for marvel, not mastery. Which means that it teaches you how things are made, but not how to make them.
The creators of song exploder believe in the myth that there is something special about creative people and about creation. That making unique things is a result of /being/ unique. The show is not for people who want to make music themselves.
It's for people who want to marvel at the ability of other people to make music. It's for people who want to continue to believe in magic.
It is cool to hear how people construct a song. It's cool to hear the little parts that you may have noticed. It's informative. But it's not educational.
Information isn't helpful if it can't be applied. I'm not saying that everything should be useful. Or even that Song Exploder /isn't/. Only that there's a difference between that people - sometimes even the people making the thing - don't notice between useful and useless information.
Useless information is entertainment. Useful information is entertainment. The only difference is in the purpose of the information. The distance between how I did something and how you can do it too.
walking slowly in the direction of a conclusion
today I watched “don’t fuck with cats” on netflix. it’s a doc about Luka Magnotta, a Canadian murderer, and how a group of people on the internet basically tracked and solved his crimes while they were happening.
the ending isn’t a twist necessarily - but filmmakers walk you right up to the edge of a conclusion that, within the universe of the film, is both impossible to avoid and impossible to disagree with.
it’s one of those theories that wouldn’t work at all without the context of 90+ minutes of buildup and storytelling to support it. if you told it to somebody on the street they’d rightfully ask for a lot more evidence than is provided in the doc. BUT when you’re /in/ the film the conclusion seems both undeniable and entirely surprising.
that combination or surprise and certainty is interesting for its rarity in the real world. surprise and certainty exist almost in opposition to one another by definition. it’s not often that you immediately believe completely new information. you almost never go from not thinking about something as a possibility to buying into it as the only logical one.
BUT the reason it works in this film is because you’re dying for something to make sense. and so when you’re presented with any /compelling/ (note I said compelling not even plausible) evidence, your brain is ready to throw in the towel and accept it immediately.
this isn’t a strategy that’s useful or even advisable in any other context but it /is/ something that you see in documentary quite often - where a filmmaker builds you up with hours of evidence from which to draw your /own/ conclusion and then robs you, at the last minute, of the freedom to do so.
but the less logical the details, the lower the bar is for what’s considered a logical explanation. or, in other words, logic is relative. it’s the reason people believe conspiracy theories, personal mythologies, and anything at all. people want the world to make sense because it so infrequently does. one way to convince people of an idea is to convince them of the absurdity of the alternative. the alternative - to not believe it would be to believe that the world makes no sense. and there’s very few people brave enough to do that.
but you didn't vs but you can
A supposed criticism of conceptual art is that "I could have done that" and the supposed response to that criticism is "but you didn't". Whether or not this conversation has ever actually taken place seems unlikely but also unimportant - the moral here isn't about the merit of art making but rather about gatekeeping - that some people make it and some people don't.
The fact that the line between being an artist and not being an artist is /merely doing the thing/ is a topic that is sensitive to a lot of creative people. It's the reason that most creative industries are opaque about techniques. It's the reason that magicians never tell you how it's done - the secret usually isn't that impressive.
There's a threat that, if other people knew how, that they could easily do what you do. And so many creative people preserve their techniques as a means of preserving the scarcity of their identity.
The fewer people who know how to do something, the less people there are to /merely do the thing/.
Today I discovered the art of Andy Goldsworthy. He makes beautiful visuals using nature as his medium. What he does is pretty simple. But instead of "but you didn't" Andy's specifically invites you to think "but I can".
To me, the existence of Andy's work itself feels to me like an invitation to imitate. I am going to make work like his work. And he'd probably be happy about it.
How do I know? Because archives of his work are paired with techniques, explanations and diary entries. Reading the diary entries gives you an interesting look into his process. It makes it clear that the joy is in creation. It doesn't take away the magic to know how it's done. And honestly, when you think about it, it never does.
The beauty in art - art you can make yourself and art that you can't - is that it is made. It exists. Somebody did it. That's the whole thing.
I don't think it's ever mattered how, or how hard it was to do.
To explain how is the generous thing. It's the egoless thing. It's the thing that we're all doing here.
(Super tired today and doesn't feel like I'm making any sense. Fine by me. Still doing the thing. Just trying to work it out.)
on summing things up
Not to get into tik tok media theory… but if there's anything you can take away from 2020 - the year we lived entirely online - it's that people /want/ to create. And they'll do it if you make it easy enough for them to do so.
One of the things that's hard to independently arrive at is format. It's a fancy word for what and why together. And one of the things tik tok does so brilliantly is generate millions of formats. Anything that can be copied easily, with little effort, is a good mass media format. And while tik tok is the first horseman of a pre-formatted world, it's not the only one.
2020 saw the shift towards formatting having a massive impact on what we share. in the sense that people who want to share things have to think less than ever about it. two examples are spotify's wrapped (which is built by spotify and shows you your most listened to music in an easily shareable format) and the more grassroots /go-through-your-camera-roll-and-post-photos-from-this-year/ phenomenon that happened on new years' ever.
A lot of people hate both of those formats. They find low effort sharing annoying instead of beautiful. I exist in direct opposition to them. I want to see people share everything they can about themselves. I want to live in a world where everyone is earnestly transparent. I /do/ care what you listened to most this year. I care what everyone listened to most this year. I care what the photo recap of your year looks like. What did you do? What moments did you capture? What kind of photos do you take with your phone? And why?
The beauty of formats is that the constraint actually allows you to see the individuality in the thing being shared. We all know what it's supposed to look like, so individual nuances are even more apparent. Not that that's the point. The point is that you should make things. Something. Anything. And we, as a society, should just keep making that easier.
These are things I know about myself as it relates to weather:
1. Being cold makes me sad
2. Anything under 12C is too cold for me
3. 24C is the temperature at which I am most stable
This last 10 days or so I exchanged winter in Lisbon for summer in South Africa. I've been back to South Africa a bunch since leaving in 2003. But this is the first time that my mind was in the headspace of really thinking deeply about where to live (as I've talked about in this journal before).
My conclusion is this: winter should be avoided at all costs. Not for temperature reasons (provided winter where you are is above 12C) but for sunlight reasons. The part that I've enjoyed most about being in South Africa is the long days, which, instead of a gradual lengthening, came all at once at the other end of a flight.
The sun sets at 8 here. And it's bright out until around 9. Thats 4 hours more sunlight than in Lisbon right now. It's a whole day of extra sunlight every week. There's more life to live in the summer. And I'm starting to think that living is pretty much the point.
the treachery of images
Curation of images and the narratives they create is a thing that's talked about a lot. In looking back at 2020, I'm starting to feel like maybe it's not such a bad thing.
I have this thing called aphantasia which means that I can't picture things in my head. Which also means that I have almost no visual memory. Because of this, if I want to remember something visually, I have to take a picture of it.
I use my camera the way my parent's generation did - to remember things. To capture good moments. To create a permanent record of a fleeting thing. To give a memory a physical form.
So I only take pictures of things that I /want/ to remember.
In a year like 2020, that makes accurate reflection a complicated thing.
2020 was a tough year. The most prevalent memories in my head are of a year of anxiety, deep depression, a terribly sad break up etc. But my camera roll tells a story in which 2020 was filled with small moments of tender genuine joy. And a surprising amount of physical beauty.
What am I supposed to make of that? In one way, there's something in there about deception - that the camera roll is an inaccurate reflection of my life as it actually was (and on an ongoing basis - as it actually is). But the counterpoint to that big, shitty things are evidently easier to remember and recall than the little moments that make up the majority of my photos.
It's easy for me to look through my camera roll and create and image of a 2020 filled with joy and beauty and moments of a life throughly lived. Which creates a bit of a conflict. Is that how I /should/ remember 2020?
The irony is that I have no choice. 2021 will come. And so will 2022. And all that'll be left of this year will be my camera roll. All that will be left will be good memories. Tiny moments and big ones. And so eventually, I'll be forced to remember 2020 as it was - a year filled with an infinite amount of good things worth remembering.
how to give a wedding speech
My cousin got married last weekend. And I can objectively say that his speech was the best speech I've ever heard at a wedding. By an enormous margin.
Here's some truths about wedding speeches:
- They're an opportunity to express your love for somebody in public
- They're often highly contextual, but empathy (i.e. just seeing somebody being emotional) does a lot of the work in making them "enjoyable"
- The less context you have, the more they become an exercise in pure emotion
So if you want to make a speech that resonates with /all/ of the guests, the only way to do it is to reduce the amount of context you need to really /get/ it. To get to the personal, you have to go through the universal.
My cousins' speech was brilliant for a number of reasons. But it also had some things I'd never seen in a wedding speech before: structure, a gimmick, and a callback.
The whole conceit of the speech was that he's a man of few words, and that he often keeps his thoughts to himself, saying much less than he really feels.
Or, in his words "saying one thing, but thinking another".
The genius here isn't just that it sucks the audience in, but that it gives the audience something they can all relate to. They've (presumably) all met the groom at a wedding. And if they have, they presumably know that he's a man of few words, who says little but thinks a lot.
It takes it away from the hyper specific stories that nobody was witness to, and allows you instead to just deal with the information you have in front of you. To be sucked into the story.
The speech was bookended by two moments where Buzz (the groom) "thought one thing, but said another". The first was when he met his wife for the first time - they were young. at a shitty bar. she was wearing all black. And the last was on the wedding day - at their wedding. she was wearing all white.
The joke was that he was thinking the same thing both times.
It's hard to communicate humour. How funny the descriptions were. How well the story was told.
But it's an undeniable storytelling device.
Him saying one thing while thinking another, allowed you to hear one thing and think about another. When he tells you that he thought the same the first time he met his wife as he does standing in front of her now the conclusion is obvious - he loved her since the very first moment.
We're seeing somebody marry the love of their life. So the joke conveys the emotion because it conveys the truth.
when to fundraise
In the world of public radio, every december is fundraising time. Public radio is entirely funded by listeners. So the money helps them continue making the shows they make with complete freedom and creative control. It’s a good model.
The thing is, fundraising sucks, and most people suck at it.
I put on an episode of radiolab - maybe one of the best podcasts ever made - and they opened the episode talking about fundraising. they said millions of
people listen to radiolab every month and less than 1% pay to support the show.
I LOVE radiolab. I should pay for it. I probably will pay for it. But even still, this fundraising spot did nothing for me. If I thought anything, I thought “who cares”.
The reason I don’t care, I think, probably has a lot to do with /when/ they ask for money. At the beginning. Before I’ve heard the episode. When I have to use my memory, instead of my emotions, to remember how good the show is.
If you want people to give you money, here’s what I’d do:
1. Schedule your /best/ work to air during the fundraising drive
2. In the middle of the episode, before the climax, when you know the audience is sucked in, that’s when you make the appeal.
3. The appeal should be something like this:
“okay so we’re in the middle of a story right now. an incredible story with incredible reporting. and telling stories like this is what we love doing. just take a second to notice how you feel right now. how stuck into the story you are. how this feeling, listening to this right now, makes you feel. How much is that feeling worth to you? If it’s zero dollars that’s cool. But if it’s more than zero, then I need you to go right now to radiolab.com and donate that amount of money so we can keep doing what we do.”
4. obviously dress that up. make it good. but focus on the way they’re feeling /now/. make it immediate. don’t make them rely on their memory.
Even at the end of the show it’s too late. I’ve already extracted all the value I’m going to get. And it was free. Why would I pay now?
Before is the same problem. You haven’t done anything for me yet. Why would I pay?
The middle is the only time that makes sense. I’m paying to continue. I’m putting a figure on how much I’d pay to feel how I feel now (alive) /all/ the time. How much would I pay for /that/? A lot .
Zurich's airport is one of the best I've seen in terms of visual design. Not architecture or interiors (those were nothing to write home about) but the design system in the airport was insanely beautiful.
It occurred to me that the simplicity of Swiss design (the home of Helvetica, for example) probably comes from the simplicity of the country's beauty. There are mountains. Mountains are beautiful. You don't have to do much to convince anybody of that fact. So really, when you're designing, what you're trying to do is get out of the way. To leave things as they are. To not ruin the beauty of the mountains by adding too much.
The design system in the airport is incredibly simple. It's black and white. A lot of white space. And a beautifully simple font. That's how all information in the airport is communicated. It's so good that it's the first thing I noticed.
The restraint says a lot. The Swiss flag is red and white, for example, and those colours are featured nowhere in the design system.
The other thing is that everything you see /is/ designed. I'm writing this in the Cape Town airport right now. The departure and arrival boards here look they're built in Excel. Making it beautiful wasn't something they thought of. But that's okay.
Here, the appeal of the country is the diversity. It's the rainbow nation. Let's throw shit together and see what happens. The collisions, the haphazardness, the magic that happens in the meeting of unexpected things. That's their vibe.
In Zurich. The vibe is well thought out. It's simplicity. Without even leaving the airport, I can imagine what Zurich is like. They probably have clean, uncomplicated, reliable public transport. The architecture probably isn't fancy. It's probably just trying to get out of the way so you can see the things that are beautiful without too much distraction. Without too much clutter. Without too much getting in the way.
where should I live?
Where to live is a question I've been thinking about alot lately. The question started broadly (what continent? what country?) And has slowly narrowed (what neighbourhood?) and finally, yesterday, it narrowed itself down to a single decision - do I want to live in /this/ apartment or not?
Of course, where to live is a question about a lot of things, but it's also quite obviously a question of taste.
Lisbon is a city of seven hills. And the apartment is in a neighbourhood at the top of the highest one.
Walking there, I had the realization that choosing to live in a particular place also means to have a lot of choices made /for/ you.
Choices about what you can and cannot do, about where you will or will not spend your time, about, in essence, who you will or will not be.
One of the things that I won't be able to do if I choose this apartment is walk fast on rainy days. Over centuries the cobblestones have been made slick and smooth. When it rains, it turns them into a hydroplane.
You can't go anywhere in a rush when it rains.
Choosing to live there would mean choosing to live slowly. To never allow myself to be in a rush. To accept the speed of life.
Only a certain kind of person would choose to live like that. It's a matter of taste.
For what it's worth, the reason I would do it is out of a preference for personal romance.
I like my life to be something that I find beautiful.
While not practical, I like the idea of walking on streets that were made hundreds of years ago.
I like the idea of living on top of a hill where you can see the whole city from a single viewpoint.
I like the idea of living in a building with a tiled exterior. I like that it's close to a dog park with a beautiful view where, on Saturday mornings, you can get coffee and listen to Brazilian jazz music.
And, perhaps more importantly, I like that it's not for everyone.
I think that's how you know that you're developing personal taste - when not everyone likes the things you like.
Having taste means that sometimes (maybe even often) other people don't get it.
what are romcoms about?
Romcoms are my favourite film genre.
A lot of people don't like them. And if you're one of those people, it's probably for a simple reason - they're not for you.
Romantic Comedies are a kind of mythology. What kind? Well the name gives us a lot of clues.
People hear romance and think love. But romance comes from the word romanticism. As in the historical period. The literature genre. Or the languages.
The tl;dr on romanticism is this: for 50 years between 1800 and 1850, a bunch of people started focusing, for the first time, on emotion, individualism, "as well as glorification of the past and nature". Basically, people started giving a fuck about life itself, the internal and the external, being beautiful.
Romanticism gave us (the so-called west) a lot of things. It's the reason we have beaches and national parks. It's the reason it's considered good manners to open the door for other people. It's also the reason most of us believe that you should marry somebody you love.
Then there's the word comedy. When we think of comedy, we most often think of things that make us laugh - or at least try to.
But comedy, in this context, exists as the counterpoint to tragedy.
A tragedy is a story about a fall in fortune of a sympathetic character - most often ending in people dying. And a comedy is the inverse, a story in which somebody's fortunes go from bad to good, and where they end up both alive and better than where they began.
So if we smash those two words together we get a close approximation of what a romantic comedy actually is - a story focused on emotions in which a person ends in a better place (emotionally) than they began.
Does the opposite - a romantic tragedy - exist? Of course. (See: Blue Valentine). But we don't call it that. For the most part, we just call them dramas. Because if we had to take every movie about love and put it in one pile, we'd have very few movies left to put in the other.
So, are romantic comedies about love? Yes and no. Because while romcoms (like everything else) centre themselves around love, they're not being in love. They're about falling in love.
Romcoms end where falling in love ends and being in love begins. Which, as anybody who has done both knows, are two dramatically different things.
Romcoms are, for the most part, the origin story of a couple. They are the answer to the question - so often asked of couples - "So how did you two meet?". They start where you would start the story (the meet cute) and end where you would end it (the profession of love or something close to it).
It's not any more complicated than that. People who criticize romcoms for being an inaccurate and unrealistic depiction of being in love are right for all the wrong reasons. Romcoms are actually, in my opinion, a surprisingly /accurate/ depiction of what it's like to /fall/ in love - confusion, conflicts, implausibility and all.
So, why only focus on the beginning? That's a step down the path to understanding who romcoms are a mythology for. And it's a question I'll dig into tomorrow.
meanwhile, back at the ranch
Meanwhile, back at the ranch is a storytelling device (or maybe just a piece of storytelling advice) that uses the continually building of two separate storylines to keep an audience interested throughout the course of a story.
I think the basic idea is that it’s easier to build tension in two stories at the same time than it is to craft one single engaging narrative.
Basically you build one storyline up to a cliffhanger and then, right when the audience is at the height of their interest in what’s going to happen next, you go back to the other storyline.
You repeat this adfinitum until the stories eventually collide with one another. The most dramatic time for the stories to collide is at the climax. For obvious reasons.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, is a story device but also a neat little bit of mythology. That lives and the stories in them don’t happen in a vacuum may seem obvious on its face but MBATR helps us see the relationship between one thing and another.
One thing happens because of another. Or this is similar to that.
Putting two stories back to back has the inevitable side effect of making us compare one to another - an exercise that leads to observations that are often more philosophical than the storylines we’re comparing and contrasting.
It can help us see how things are the same, how things are different, how one thing causes another, how randomness or something like it impacts our lives.
p.s. this is a note to myself to actually do some romcom critical theory some time. the observation in this post came from The Holiday.
books I read you might want to read
This is less inspired than the list of podcasts I posted in this journal mostly because I don't have super strong opinions about the quality of these books. I just know that I enjoyed them.
This year, for the first time, I found myself a) reading more fiction than non-fiction and b) enjoying fiction more than I enjoy non-fiction.
Anyway, here's some stuff I read that you might want to read:
The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) - Brilliant. Beautiful. Romantic. Historic. Extremely educational. Extremely emotional. My favourite novel of the year.
East of Eden (John Steinbeck) - The first book I read this year. Epic in the literal sense of the word. Never been into "the classics" but this was great.
The Overstory (Richard Powers) - Insanely powerful. Made me think about trees long and hard for a long time. The kind of book that completely absorbs you and changes the way you look at the world while you're reading it.
The People in the Trees (Hanya Yanagihara) - I was absolutely absorbed by this. Recently learned that it is, in lot of ways, an ode to Lolita.
Exhalation: Stories (Ted Chiang) - Read this on planes when that was still a thing earlier this year. Used to absolutely devour short story collections. This is an entertaining one by the guy who wrote the story "Arrival" was based on.
podcasts to listen to
Been pulling together a list of the best podcasts individual podcast episodes I listened to this year (regardless of original release date).
These are all painfully good.
1619: The Birth of American Music - The story of American music and its relationship to Blackness. This, to me, is the perfect audio story.
Dolly Parton's America: I Will Always Leave You - The story of Dolly Parton's rise to stardom and the story behind writing hits like "I Will Always Love You" and "Jonele".
Constellation Prize: Crossing Guard - Really what I needed when I needed it. Very 2020. Loneliness. A brilliant, brave idea, and some really brilliant storytelling techniques.
Constellation Prize: Two Years with Franz - Another one from the same podcast. Created about two years before the others. Again an unbelievable premise. Took a while to get into it but undeniably brilliant by the end.
The Cut: The Joy of Sext - The pinnacle of "current event" podcasting. Insightful, well researched, and strung together by some great interview subjects.
Reply All: The Case of the Missing Hit - it was a tough choice between this and Zardulu (which originally aired in 2016). The Case of the Missing Hit is on the top of many people's best episodes of 2020 for a reason. It's just a really ambitious idea. It's proof that sometimes just doing the thing is what makes it great.
Forget every other list of "best podcasts of 2020". I've read them all. This is the one that matters most.
Will add to this list as I think of more.
The more obvious choices from some familiar names:
Radiolab: Dispatches from 1918 - Writing, podcasts, videos etc. about the pandemic never quite landed from me. It was always the last thing I wanted to hear about. This was the only one that felt entertaining and interesting to me. It showed that their contribution to the world - the thing they do consistently - was still worth doing no matter what they were doing it about.
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Mortification and Civilization - One of the best examples of what the medium can be like. Which is to say beautifully uncomplicated. Chose this episode because it covered a theme - civilization - that I often think about. But easily could have chosen any of the others.
Heavyweight: Vivian - While listening to this episode I cried because I was jealous of how meaningful making something like this must be.
Detail vs Detail
The word detail can be either a noun or a verb. And which one it is (or should be) depends on what kind of story you're telling.
The noun is an individual fact or item.
The verb means give full information about something.
It's the choice between going deep or going wide. How many or how much.
If you're telling a story and you…
…go really deep on one thing, you don't have to go that deep on many things.
…go deep on many things, you can't afford to go deep on anything.
I just had a really interesting experience in which my uncle told me stories about his childhood that I'd already heard from my dad's perspective.
My dad tells these stories in a wide shot. My uncle tells them in a series of close ups.
My dad's stories are a documentary about WWII, my uncle's stories are Dunkirk.
I think part of me believes what they say about how self interested people are - that they only want to hear about themselves. There was something about the telling of the stories - they way they were told through his eyes - that made me feel like I was experiencing them through mine.
It was the details that mattered. Small things; the layout of a banquet hall, the tune somebody whistled, the colour of a cassette.
No Reservations and the podcast problem
I just wrote and deleted a massive post carefully outlining the current issue with the state of podcasting and how, over a span of 50 years, to make the medium as good as it can and will be.
The tl;dr is this - we are in the soap opera era of podcasting. Most all podcasts are low quality and exist to sell ads. Even some of the high effort ones.
In order to change that, a few things have to happen. Things like decoupling audio storytelling from journalism, making pro tools easier to pirate, and a lot of boring mental work to develop the "language" of the medium (just like film has a language, audio needs a highly developed one too).
The question of audio language is one I think about often.
Specifically, I think about what I call the "conceit of the microphone". Aka the fact that any story told in audio has to, in some way, address why the microphone is there and that somebody is operating it.
The conceit of the microphone exists mostly because of podcasting's journalistic roots. Podcast journalism is historically a first person endeavour. In Serial (the most popular podcast of all time) Sarah Koenig is the narrator, the storyteller, but also the main character and the person who literally holds the microphone.
The reason the conceit exists is because there is no other model. So in fiction, in documentary, in whatever, somebody, at some point, has to address the fact that they have a microphone. There are some ways to do this that are better than others. A common way is to hear the sounds of the recording beginning.
This is something that absolutely does not exist in any other medium. No other piece of equipment has to justify its presence (imagine if, in a documentary movie, every shot began with them focusing the camera for a few seconds - you'd go insane). So why does it exist in audio?
BECAUSE WE HAVE NOT ESTABLISHED THAT ANOTHER PERSON COULD POSSIBLE HOLD THE MICROPHONE.
I had this realization last night while watching No Reservations for the first time. We have no idea who is holding the camera. We know nothing about them. Their relationship to the person hosting the show is solely to document what they are doing. And it's assumed (at least I assumed) that neither of these people would be involved in editing this footage.
Which is to say that in film, the camera often isn't a character. They're there to be invisible.
From a story perspective that implication is huge.
Right now, every storytelling podcast tells the story to us. The fourth wall doesn't exist. We are an active participant. We have to be.
But the cameraperson stands in for us, the audience, what it'd actually be like to be there in the flesh. What we'd see. What we'd look at. What we'd hear. They allow us to see things through our own eyes. To be a witness. Instead of a participant.
It also opens up a whole level of artistry that doesn't currently exist in the medium. If the sound designer were the cinematographer, where would they choose to point the microphone? What sound would they collect? Who would they interview? For the most part we are letting journalists - people who tell stories with words - dictate those decisions for sound designers - people who tell story in sound.
If we decoupled the reporter and the audio recording, we'd open up a whole new world of possibility. We'd create a whole new kind of story. What would it sound like? I have no idea. But it'd certainly be something very new.
Bianca Giaever and the gift of yourself
Weeping in public is one of the greatest decadences in life. I know because I do it as often as I possibly can. Which isn't very often because it's not something you can plan for or fabricate.
Every now and then, though, I'll stumble upon some piece of magic (read: a podcast episode) that makes me sob uncontrollably and unexpectedly as I go about my day.
Weeping in public is the highest praise I can give to any creation. It means you've created something that I'm helpless in the face of. That I feel so much (awe, or sadness, or connection) that there's nothing else I can do but show my soft underbelly to the world. To cry helplessly in the street for all the world to see.
You have ruined my day. You have made my body a conduit of pure emotion. You have reached me. You have made me and you, complete strangers, into us.
Of course, being the highest praise means that I don't weep in public as often as I'd like to. I genuinely wish everything I listened to moved me to tears. But the droughts between the tears are so long that I mostly forget that it's possible.
And then, off my guard, it happens.
What will or will not make me weep in public isn't something I understand. I don't want to understand it. To know the trick would take away the magic.
But I think, on the other side of that coin, is that the person making the thing probably doesn't know either.
The first moment to make me cry in Bianca Giaever's "Two Years with Franz" was a subtle one. A tiny one. One that she couldn't have possibly known about or planned for. It was something that existed outside of the story. It was Bianca herself.
Here's the moment:
"I kept listening, and I kept listening. I told my friends about the tapes. And
then eventually, so much time passed that I stopped telling them. And they
When I came across a good tape, I would always play it for my boyfriend.
Sometimes, at night before bed, we would read Franz’s poems out loud to
Franz, and the tapes, they became part of our relationship…
my boyfriend was the only person with enough context to understand what
the tapes meant to me. What Franz meant to me."
I know that she couldn't have known I would cry there because she doesn't know I exist. (Although I emailed her once, in a past life, asking what she was working on next).
Because she doesn't know that I exist she doesn't know that what she describes is the thing I miss most right now. Somebody who has context. Who understands what anything means to me. And to whom that now has a shared meaning - mattering to them because it matters to me.
The overarching narrative is about big love. But the thing that got me was the little love. The imperceptible things you feel only in their absence.
And so what's the point? What's the lesson to be learned here. It's not about what makes people cry, but about what makes things worth doing.
She didn't have to put herself into the story. But she did. Because it was the honest thing to do. And it's also the thing that set off the waterworks. She rolled over, and showed the world her soft underbelly.
In an interview that I watched recently (that may or may not have been an episode of Hot Ones), Hasan Minhaj said that the best advice he ever received was from John Stewart, who told him to move towards his discomfort.
For me, personal writing, inserting myself (my real self) into my writing has always been something that's made me uncomfortable. Something that I thought nobody would care about. Something that has always felt, to me, as too earnest to be bearable.
And it's something that I'm trying to do more and more of.
“What is most personal is most universal.”
That's the lesson.
Ira Glass and the atypical interview
I consider writing in books a cardinal sin for reasons that I don't entirely understand.
Dog earing pages seems like the most logical and more humane way to go about noting things that you enjoyed for two reasons.
Dog earing makes revisiting the thing you enjoyed a kind of game between your past and present self. Sometimes you recognize what it is right away. Sometimes you don't. But either way it allows you to come to it anew, without the way you were thinking then influencing the way you think now.
Basically good realizations will survive the years between visits to the same page. Bad ones (or situational ones) won't.
I've only ever written in (tragically defaced) one book.
And the story goes like this:
The HotDocs theatre in Toronto was doing a live podcast event. And one of the live performances was a podcast that I actually listened to called "Science Vs".
The live episode was whatever. It was fine. It was about wine and coffee and chocolate. The premise was "are things that taste good bad for us?"
After the episode the host, Wendy Zuckerman, did a Q&A.
The questions were all entirely forgettable except for one.
Late in the game, somebody asked "If I want to make a podcast like Science Vs. what should I do".
I remember the confidence coursing through my body in the moments between the question and her answer. She's going to say (thought my body) the obvious thing. She's going to say that podcasts are the easiest medium to start. Just do it.
Except she didn't say that. She said the opposite of that. She said "Go to journalism school".
I don't know that I've ever been so offended. So disgusted. Felt such injustice, as I did on that day.
The answer was wrong. And I was determined to prove it.
I left the theatre and went directly to the second hand bookstore looking for… something. That I didn't know quite what to call yet. I was looking for something to learn from. I was looking for the best non-fiction writing out there. So I could read it all. So that I could learn from it. So that I could prove that you didn't need journalism school. That you just needed will, and dedication, and the ability to learn from people that are better than you.
The thing I was looking for was called "New Journalism" or "creative non-fiction" the thing that I found was a book called the Kings of Non Fiction - a collection of work edited by Ira Glass.
Ira Glass, I was sure, knew infinitely more than Wendy Zuckerman about how to tell a good story (a fact I believe to this day). He was the creator of This American Life. As far as I was concerned, he was the creator of podcasting. If he said something was good, it was good.
I read the book in a weekend. I wrote the lessons I'd learned in the margins of each story. It was an education of my own. The writing in the margins was physical proof that you could learn just from observing. I don't remember exactly what I wrote or learned. But I remember what it meant: fuck journalism school.
The idea that I could learn all I needed to learn about telling stories on the radio from Ira Glass isn't, I don't think, a unique concept. I think that's pretty much a forgone conclusion in podcasting. It's why everything sounds the way it does. Everyone that makes radio, at some point, passes through the school of Ira Glass either literally or spiritually.
So usually when somebody in radio is talking about, or especially to, Ira Glass, it's with a real sense of reverence.
Except for this one interview I listened today. On a podcast called Tape.
The host of the show, more than anything else, seemed entirely unphased that he was interviewing Ira Glass. Part of it was journalistic, sure, but it also seemed like he'd sent a phone call into the universe and would have happily talked to whoever picked up on the other end.
The result is an interview in which Ira is treated, in the first half of the interview, like Ira Glass, and in the second half, like just some other guy.
The dynamic was an interesting one that yielded interesting questions and interesting answers. He got Ira to say things that were so outside of the usual script. And in a way, you got to see who he was as a person because he was just being treated like one. Even one that the interviewer doesn't particularly like that much.
This technique - the one of doing away with irreverence and just approaching a subject with whatever is on your mind - might be described as the opposite of mindfulness. But it might just as easily be described as being entirely present.
Good ideas come from the collision of novel things. What happens if you let whatever is in your mind collide with everything else in your life? You're seeing things through a particular lens, sure, but at least it's a novel one. At least it's a new way of seeing.
It applies in interviews, but also in everything.
We dedicate so much mental energy to thinking about how a person should be. But what if we didn't? What would we make then?
Anthony Bourdain and the Third Thing
I know that my life is out of whack when I lose the ability to read. Because to lose the ability to read, for me, means that I've lost the ability to relax. To be present. To be okay with having nothing better to do.
Or even worse, it means that I feel like reading, my one constant passion and comfort, isn't a thing worth spending time on.
In the last week or so I've gotten the ability to read again. I was inspired by a journal here (sorry I can't remember which one. But thank you, whoever you are) that described reading as a rhythm. And lately I've been in need of a rhythm. A thing by which to differentiate the passing of each day. (it's 2020. we all know the feeling. I won't go on about it.)
[I just fact checked this. It was @thedominica. and she used the word momentum - not rhythm - which actually better describes the relationship with reading that I was trying to get back to.]
The thing I decided to read was Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. It was recommended to me, multiple times, by the same person, long ago. I knew they recommended it for a reason - because they saw something in it that reminded them of me or that they thought I might see too. And so I wanted to see what that thing was.
The thing I saw was a Third Thing.
To make a long story short. A guy (who is a poet) spent his life married to a woman he loved (who was also a poet) and when she died, he wrote a piece about their life together that was published in Poetry Magazine.
It's a beautiful piece that'll make the right kind of person (me) cry on the right kind of day. But the part that matters goes like this:
"We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention."
I want to zoom in on this part:
"Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts…"
Because it's the part that matters when it comes to Bourdain and, more selfishly, where Bourdain begins to matter to me.
Bourdain is a great writer. This is a fact. But he's a great writer because he's writing about food.
It's food that /allows/ him to be a great writer. The writing is in service of the love of food. The food is the third thing.
Now this realization isn't novel. Or even one that I'm learning for the first time. Like most lessons about creativity. It's one I've learned before and forgotten.
The insight here is that the relationship between a person and their thing (their craft, their art, their whatever) /is/ a relationship already.
The reason creation can feel like suffering for so many people is because the love for the craft is an unrequited one.
No matter how much you love coding, coding will never love you back. No matter how much you love writing, writing will never get any easier.
Except when it's directed at a Third Thing.
Mastery for the sake of mastery means nothing. There is a reason masterpieces exist. They're an application of skill. They're a third thing. They're mastery in service of something else.
Which is to say that passion and skill need an outlet. They need a direction. There's no masterpieces without mastery. But mastery shouldn't exist without masterpieces either.
It's the only way to have a satisfying relationship with your craft. To allow it to support you, to encourage you, to enable you. To love you back.