Category Archives: life

Various moods

There are now two disposable razor blades on the sink, because my son started transitioning two months ago and the testosterone gel is working.

When something uniquely stupid happens in Australian politics, the feeling of relief that comes when I remember that I quit Twitter. This even makes the Clive Palmer billboards easier to handle. It seems clear that Twitter is never going to fix its problems: corporations don’t often change their characters, any more than people do, and Twitter’s personality has always been one of mealy-mouthed neglect. At this stage, harassment and abuse are part of their business model: each time nazis or fans chase someone off their platform, each time the President has another meltdown, it’s more publicity for them. They’ve made the political crisis part of their business model, a way to position themselves in the market. I really miss it but they’re just grifters and they don’t deserve the communities which have formed there, or any more of our trust.

I took on a bit more extracurricular work than I could manage last month but it’s all finished now. I’m still enjoying the feeling of not having to work on code after dinner most nights. I can just tune out or write or watch TV.

Seeing the five naked-eye planets lined up from horizon to horizon. Mercury’s not visible any more but you can still see Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars every clear evening. Both Venus and Mars are spectacular right now.

The flipside, in a way, of Twitter regret, is compulsively checking Mastodon, even though I’ve only made a few and fleeting connections there. Somehow, compulsively checking something which I’m not that invested in seems healthier, more mindless, like worry beads. There was a hashtag going around on it a couple of weeks ago, #WhyIStayOnMastodon: I said because I wanted to see where it went. There isn’t going to be “a new Twitter” because this whole thing is still in a state of constant flux, platforms come and go on this thing we call “the internet” and act like we’re old hands because we’ve seen its first few decades. So many people will tell you all about what it represents but I don’t think we know that yet. Mastodon can seem like the early days of the web, probably because the programmer-to-normie ratio is still very high, but it’s also something new and evolving its own culture. It’s healthy to not know where this particular part of it is going or if it will last.

Also, there are heaps of trans folk there. Most of my irl trans acquaintances are my son’s friends, it does me good to connect with a wider community.

There’s another whole blog post in how I feel about JavaScript right now, in the final stages of a long project where I feel like I’ve spent too much time trying to code in a language which I’ve always defended but which honestly has a lot of flaws. I’ve had moments lately where I worry that my ability to code is going away with age, or, what’s worse, that I’m too old to be learning new things. This is a symptom both of depression and of mild burnout on the stuff I’ve been working on, and I’m trying to wait for it to pass.

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Blogging again

Screenshot 2018-07-04 07.59.22.png

S L I T S C A N S P A C E

I’m going to be posting regularly here again, as a replacement for Twitter. I still miss it but  can’t see myself going back there anytime soon. I’m still persisting with Mastodon but it’s very much its own world.

Mark E Smith

1957-2018

Bend Sinister was the first, after I heard “US 80s-90s” on Triple J, but I’m pretty sure that I read Mark E Smith’s writing before I’d heard a note of The Fall’s music, in a weird one-page article in a Christmas issue of the NME:

Do not fail to miss the view-perspective of Hoalingen Station that the recently extended Publex offers. Your host thereof is Stingdorf Carthwaite, 34, who will happily point out all the amusing quirks of the now obsolete industry that lies beneath your balcony in the bottom of Raddingron Valley. Sti, a retired mobile-Op, also doubles as MC (squared) – his Apple DX9 backing him up tremendously during his renditions of ZZT, Band-Aid & Videogame tunes of the ’80s.

– excerpt from YOUR PUBLEX / TRANSPORT MAP OF HOALINGEN STATION

                                                                                                                  (publ. 1998)

“Hark the Hoaly Lunatic”, New Musical Express, 1985

This brings back an eidetic memory of Guildford station where a westie nerd with affected clothing and manners had dutifully bought the rag, then at its Stalinist peak. This was beyond my wildest expectations. I remember standing stock still on the footbridge, wondering what the hell it was. It seemed to be science fiction — at that time I could only read sf and fantasy, other forms of literature seemed impossibly dull — but it was experimental, blending a sordid and ruinous reality with a cookie-monster-like appetite for cliches and banalities, like the New Wave authors I was already addicted to but without all the hippie crap. There’s a lot of dodgy racial stuff going on too, but I didn’t notice that at the time, it didn’t stand out against the cultural background of 1980s Sydney, I’m ashamed to say.

I think I understood barely one quarter of it but was dying to find out more, and so I bought Bend Sinister and then in a crate in Merrylands found In A Hole, which I had no way of knowing was an unauthorised bootleg and eventually kind of a rarity, a raucous and lo-fi live recording from their 1982 New Zealand tour. It sounded horrible and fascinating at first listen, and I got hooked. And became one of those Fall fans. You’ll know what I mean if you were around at the time.

In the last couple of months my son, who’s almost 18, has gotten into the Fall, or “the drunk guy”: this is the family name for him because it’s what the kids called him when they were much younger and heard him on the car stereo. So when the news broke that Mark E Smith had died and the kids were still over in the Americas on holiday, I got a couple of solicitous fb messages making sure I was ok. I was still upset about Ursula Le Guin the day before.

On Thursday my grief took the form of obsessively posting lyrics to Twitter and chasing up videos on YouTube, and listening to In a Hole and his 2007 collaboration with Mouse on Mars before I went to bed. Then on Friday morning I watched the video for “Hit the North”, which isn’t their greatest work but the music video is tongue-in-cheek and cute, and I lost it, just wept.

A lot of people describe the Fall’s sound as annoying but then there were the fans. It’s not without reason that MES wrote more songs attacking the people who bought his records than any other artist I can think of. There was a time in the late 80s when me and a friend communicated exclusively in Fall quotes, WHAT’S A COMPUTER? EAT Y’SELF FITTER! WHAT YOU NEED, AN OVEN MITT, FOR YOUR VERBOSE KITCHEN until our peers intervened with threats of violence. It’s like Monty Python for indie wankers, it gets into your system, although the class background is miles apart, music hall rather than university revues. It wasn’t until years later that I realised that MES has more than a little in common with Spike Milligan: acute intelligence, well outside the Oxbridge culture pipeline, a knack for absurdism and catchphrase, gifted parodist of the degenerate language of bureaucracy, tends to crack up at own jokes, fairly awful racial politics.

After the early 90s I lost touch, I was trying to fix my own mental health problems. Being an angry young man is a real fucking trap if you’ve got depression, and the spite and fire of MES were entangled with too much of what I was trying to get rid of. The closest I’ve got to knowing what the Fall sound like to a non-fan, just bitterness and meaningless in-jokes. But I came back eventually, catching up on the best of the post-90s stuff on the 50,000 Fall Fans Can’t Be Wrong compilation, downloading my favourites on iTunes because I can’t play vinyl any more.

There’s no way to brazen this out and pretend that it’s not nostalgia, but the voice in my head scolding me for this is that impossible-to-satisfy ideal from my youth, a kind of Stakhanovism of artistic cool, never look back, keep your eyes locked on the gleaming horizon of future creative genius. “Are you still doing what you did last year,” as MES scolded a fan who gobbed on him at a gig in the punk years. It was always a bit ridiculous, especially if you were from the arse end of the planet.

But here’s the thing: MES actually did it. He was inspirational. On the second album he sang a line adapted from William Blake, “I must create a new scheme / or live by another man’s”, and he was an autodidactic smartarse from Manchester who actually forged his own vision of the world. It may seem perverse but despite the snarling vitriol and wilful obfuscation there’s a generosity to this, the line he scribbled on the cover of Hex Enduction Hour, ‘HAVE A BLEEDING GUESS’ was an invitation as well as a threat.

It collapsed in on itself, sped onwards by drink — I saw them live in 2010 and it was better than I expected but also upsetting because he looked ruined, and the last track on the album I bought after that show, Your Future Our Clutter, felt prophetic of his dissolution: “The whirlpools get wider and wider,” he whispers over a distorted buzz. “You don’t deserve rock ’n’ roll.” The one thing he always believed in. I haven’t been game to listen to that track since he died.

Ursula K Le Guin

1929-2018

One of my resolutions this year was to be a bit more alive to coincidence, which is the only sort of magic I believe in. And then two of my favourite artists, Ursula Le Guin and Mark E Smith of The Fall, leave within a day of one another. (I imagine the universe saying, sardonically, “don’t say I never give you nothing.”)

There are more weird symmetries here. I discovered both Le Guin and the Fall when I was in high school but really went into overdrive about them when I was at uni. With both there was a long fallow period in my thirties when I turned away from them. And I’ve lately shared my love of them with two of my three kids, one per twin. I was going to put both in the one blog post, but this one got too big, so Mark E will have to wait.

After I gave my daughter the Earthsea quartet for a birthday a few years ago, she got me to admit that I had never read The Left Hand of Darkness, so I read it while she was studying it for the HSC last year, and one memory of 2017 which will stay with me is the regular idea-bouncing/ranting/fangirling sessions we had while I cooked dinner on Wednesday evenings.

I don’t mind that I came to Left Hand late. Calvino says that there are classics you should put aside so that you can read them for the first time as an adult, not that I did this deliberately, but there are lots of aspects of the novel which I would have taken for granted when I was younger. It’s justly famous for its interrogation of gender, but that aside, Gethen is one of the most detailed and convincing planets in science fiction, and the gender themes are only one aspect of its portrayal of a relatively advanced human civilisation on a planet locked in an ice age, where politics has taken different but still familiar directions than it has on Earth. The book is a subtle example of the sort of modernist collage which I think comes from John Dos Passos, of weaving in-universe documents into the text, not as obtrusively as John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar but just as effectively.

Last year I also re-read the first four Earthsea books, and didn’t quite find myself as swept away as I was at thirteen or fourteen, but that’s to be expected, and I still love them. Far more imaginative than the average high fantasy setting, and they contain as rich a description of mortality as anything I’ve read in science fiction and fantasy. One of my abiding memories of my adolescent reading of the books is that they made me aware of death in a way which I hadn’t before, as something at once intimate and distant. Mortality is one of the weak spots of both sides of the conjoined genre of sf&f; science fiction, in particular, tends to see death as either a bug which can be hacked, or the occasion for some Picard platitudes about how it makes us truly human. There are elements of the latter in Le Guin but I think she goes beyond that into something visionary. The Dry Land is not exactly a place of consolation.

Another good thing about the Earthsea books which I missed as a kid is that each of them is a separate novel, with its own register and style. In most of the high fantasy I’ve read, each text is a section of one large book, which in recent times threatens to outrun the ability and lifespan of the author. Each of the Earthsea books shows us its world and characters from a perspective which is distinctive and appropriate to the nature of the story. This is most apparent in Tehanu, published twenty-odd years after the first three, and a breathtakingly good feminist interrogation of high fantasy in general, but it’s already evident in the first three books.

I haven’t read either The Dispossessed or The Lathe of Heaven since I was a student: I think I’ll make time for both soon. The latter is a bit underrated, I remember it as a witty and frightening satire of utopian thought, mingled effectively with a meditation on dreaming.

I look back over what I’ve written here and it feels like I’ve used chatter about technique to obscure how I felt when I found out that Le Guin had died. My kids are overseas, at the tail end of a month-long holiday with their mum and stepdad to celebrate the end of the HSC, and the thought of my daughter finding out that Le Guin had died when we were apart made me cry uncontrollably. I made a joke about this on Twitter and Facebook, but now that I’m trying to write about how it made me feel with a bit more honesty, I feel dried up. They’re coming home tomorrow, and I may be better able to express it after that. Or that this flat sadness, which I trust will also pass, is not something which I’m capable of expressing.

Look, there’s also this: ever since I learned that Joyce died in 1941 I’ve had a kind of obsession with people whose lives end in the middle of great events, it seems like a peculiarly touching aspect of how our lives work within history. The idea that Le Guin is unable to see how the current moment in the United States works out is one of the things that made me sob, but she was more far-sighted than that, and her works are one of the things that give me courage: that much which they may tear down can be rebuilt, that it took utopian dreams to build it in the first place.

Kensington St

One of the advantages of working in a neighbourhood where you used to live for eight years is that you can go for a quick walk during your lunch break and come back quite depressed.

KensingtonSt

Wait, did I say “advantages”?

My man day

It has come to this blog’s attention that certain forms of behaviour previously thought to be gender-neutral may now be regarded as dangerously effeminate unless otherwise labelled. The following account of a day in the life of the author should clear up any lingering doubts.

I get out of bed, have a shower and then sit down to a breakfast of man muesli with man yoghurt.

Before I leave I put on my man coat – despite its velvet facings, it is definitely a man coat – and my man scarf. My man scarf was a gift from my man girlfriend and I knot it with a casual man flair.

I need these man items of clothing because it is cold outside. Man cold.

Then I man walk to the man bus stop and wait for the man bus.

Once on the man bus I get my man book out of my backpack: man critic Harold Bloom’s authoritative study of the great Irish man poet W B Yeats. I am troubled by the reflection that a study of a poet who believed in fairies and desired to be reincarnated as a lovely golden bird may not actually be that manly a man book. But then I recall that Harold Bloom is such a man professor of English literature that he once put his man hand on Naomi Wolf’s thigh when she was his student. Mmmm, now that’s man teaching.

I arrive at my workplace, which is a man university. I get a man cappuccino at the cafe and catch the lift to my man office, perhaps exchanging man gossip with any man friends who should happen to be in the lift.

After a long day of man office work – subtly differentiated from ordinary office work by the fact that I, a man, am doing it – I catch the man bus home.

Because it is a Wednesday, I have custody of my man children, who are all girls. I man cook their man dinner, and man put them to bed.

After I man do the dishes, I may relax with a beer, but most nights I have a cup of man tea.

Generation XL 4

A manifesto with annotations

And, anyway, Generation X* weren’t** especially sarcastic† or ironic.‡ On average, Generation X rocked out at AC/DC a couple of weeks ago and will cack themselves over Hey Hey.

For the rest of us: being isolated in one’s love of something obscure is for the young. When you’re older, it starts to feel too much like a Beckett play.

*An American term? An English band? Maps onto Australia how, exactly? It doesn’t, but it’s too late now to fix that now.

**Very few boomers marched against the Vietnam War; only a small minority of people attended a key party or joined the Manson family in the 70s; the Lost Generation, generally speaking, knew where they were at all times. “Generations” are defined by their outliers.

†Most of the sarcasm I remember from high school was in the “hey did you swallow a dictionary” vein, background radiation by Australian standards. Adopting another layer of sarcasm as a defence against this was a loser’s game, to put it mildly. Even for sarcasm.

‡No, this is not ironic.