strictures and structures

if only we stopped trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time

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bike camping as a savage practice

I had always hated travel, and assumed that people only did it as some kind of status symbol. How pleased I was when I had a miserable time in Italy. You can run, but you take yourself with you, and therefore all travel is ultimately self-refuting, I said to myself. And that’s how I expected it to go when I planned to ride my bike from San Francisco to Seattle–an unenlightening experience notable only for the intense misery I was about to bring upon myself, and subsequent bragging rights. Mostly, the bragging rights.

And so, with a kind of lighthearted contempt for the adventure of it all, I packed my panniers and rolled out from San Francisco on September 5, 2016.

I’m not going to tell you that I had a lifechanging moment of enlightenment, or even that I changed my mind about travel. I did, however, answer one question to my personal satisfaction–why is every single bike camper so boring when talking about their trip? Every ride journal I’ve seen has been tedious. “68 miles today. 2500 feet of climbing. Good weather.” “72 miles today. Ate bacon for breakfast, yummy. Had a nice descent of about five miles right before camp.” “55 miles today. Fierce headwind. Stopped in town and bought a steak and cooked it on the campfire, yummy. Kinda cold tonight. So glad I packed a down jacket.”

I knew most people weren’t practiced writers, but even that was an insufficient explanation. This extended to in-person conversations too. No matter how enthusiastic you are about bike camping, or how skillfully you pry, the most you can ever get out of anyone who’s ever done this kind of thing is that it was “awesome.” And I didn’t think it was because bike camping is 90% pedaling. *Something* always happens on a long enough trip, and yet, nobody mentioned those stories either.

And now, please allow me to share my bullshit theory why. But first, I have to describe what bike camping is like.

Here’s a typical day: wake with the sun at 7AM or so, stay huddled in the sleeping bag until the world warms up enough that it’s safe to emerge, which is usually 9AM, eat a dry and demoralizing breakfast of beef jerky wrapped in a crumbly tortilla, put on wet clothes that I had hoped would dry on the bushes the night before but didn’t, take two hours to pack because I’m moving slowly because it’s still cold even at 10AM, hit the road finally at noon, pedal slowly for the handful of hours that I am in motion. Get distracted by shitty gas station ice cream, realize that I’ve been riding for only a couple hours and the sun is dropping. Ride into camp in time for the sunset, at 7PM. Set up camp. Promise myself that tomorrow, I’ll wake up earlier, pedal faster and longer, and not race the sun to camp, but instead, arrive at camp a leisurely hour before sunset. Shower, if possible, wash clothes, if possible, find a bush to hang them on. Eat, in the dark, often alone, usually more beef jerky wrapped in tortillas. Go to sleep. This day repeated itself for a month.

Was any of this awesome, or even fun? Sometimes, something objectively awesome would happen. One day, as I was riding by Defoe Bay, I saw a pile of people sitting on a grassy knoll by the sea, and it turned out that they were watching humpback whales. I spent half an hour watching the whales, and I hadn’t even known that whale-watching was something you could do in the Pacific Northwest. Another day, I saw the signs for an oyster farm, rode over, and ate a delicious raw dozen in the sun, with lemon juice, all by myself. But those days were far from the majority. Every moment of serendipitous joy was balanced out by a thousand painful ones. I spent a lot of time quite nauseated, either because I hadn’t slept enough, or because of how hard cardio makes me lightheaded. One fine morning, I moved my head too quickly and I vomited into my mouth.

And yet, I never doubted that I would rather be there on Highway 1, praying that a logging truck wasn’t about to drive me into a ditch, than anywhere else. That’s saying a lot for a nerd like me, who prefers to speak in caveats, exemptions, and qualifiers.

I chewed on this problem a lot, whether or not I was having fun. Consumption of food and entertainment is the usual way people have fun, so was this trip one long act of consumption? I had had to buy a lot of gear before I left, and that seemed like consumption. But I know what true consumption looks like, and consumption this wasn’t. How did I know that? When you’re consuming, the architect of the experience was someone else, not you. (And now you owe them money.) That’s why consumption is a passive activity, even for the most advanced and critically engaged connoisseur. You may consume a gourmet meal, but you were not the chef. You consume a movie, but you weren’t the studio. You wear clothes, but you didn’t stitch them. On the road, nobody else was there but me, deciding when to wake, when to pack up, what to eat, when to stop, when to sleep. I had total control over this experience.

Then if not consumption, was it the opposite: was I producing something? I wanted to believe that I was, because production is held up as a superior activity to consumption.  It’s active, not passive. It seems more admirable to cook your own food, direct your own movie, or to make your own clothes, than to merely buy them. It is perhaps considered more morally worthwhile than consumption because of the greater expenditure of energy, and I was expending a great deal of energy every day. I lost four pounds in that month of riding. It seemed plausible to say that I was producing a lot of muscle. But though I desired to feel morally superior to all the couch potatoes, I had to admit that I was not productive, because of the reverse logic. To produce means that you’ve created something that someone not you can now experience. I moved north, and I left no trace–nothing anyone could consume, no book, no poem, no painting, no buildings–nothing except a little bit more carbon dioxide and waste heat.

I was feeling orthogonal to the two halves of capitalism, and not in the usual “Marx was right, eat the rich” kind of way. And here’s why. To be a member of a capitalist civilization is to be forever wrestling with time. You have to save for retirement, you have to schedule going to the gym, the doctor, the grocery store. You arrive at work and leave at the exact same time every day. You are forever marking time, trying to save it, and use it efficiently. To be a solid, middle-class citizen is to treat time as any other monetary asset. It is to give up on improvisation. The more responsible you are, the more you give up on your chances to live fully in the present. To be civilized is to be constantly in your head, outside of time.

Bike camping, on the other hand, is nothing like that. Once I’d picked my points A and B, I did not need to plot out anything in between. I no longer lived by alarm clocks, but by sunrises and sunsets. I did not know where I was going to be sleeping each night. I would look at my paper map every night, and pick out a campsite that lay a respectable number of miles farther north, but often if I was feeling tired that day, I would make camp earlier. And somehow, despite the enormous quantities of time afforded for thinking, riding outdoors day after day was not conducive to introspection. It wasn’t that I had zero thoughts, but I only had them at a pitiful rate, a new one maybe once every three days. Going into my head was useless, even dangerous on roads with high traffic, so I didn’t do it.

I stopped being civilized, and for the first time in my life, I had to admit that Buddhists had a point about identity being some kind of illusion. The best analogue I can think of to the mental state I was in is bilingualism. I can feel that part of my brain shuts down and another part wakes up when I think in Shanghainese, rather than English. Some part of me went to sleep on that trip and did not wake up until I returned to civilization. Living inside of time is the end of self-consciousness, and the elimination of any need for analytical thinking. I felt as though I were in a long meditation that persisted through states both waking and sleeping. I went on a trip into a different state of mind altogether, a trip that was therefore as hard to describe as a dream, and impossible to convey as a story.

I might as well give in to the difficulty of the problem, and stick to saying that bike camping is awesome.

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the impossible burger–a lukewarm review

The Impossible Burger is the most high-tech attempt yet to create a vegetarian meat substitute that might appeal to meat-eaters. The creators analyzed the various chemicals in beef that give it its distinctive flavor, and concluded that the most important one to duplicate was hemoglobin, a complex protein which you may already know of due to its role in oxygenating blood. Hemoglobin is why blood is red.

Instead of hemoglobin, the Impossible Burger contains a plant analogue with the painfully un-mellifluous name leghemoglobin, which is harvested from genetically modified yeast.

It pains me to say this, because I’m a weepy environmentalist, but the Impossible Burger isn’t quite there yet. The texture is really loose and the flavor sort of one-note. It’s intensely umami at first, as if it’s trying to overcompensate for the lack of whatever other billion proteins give beef its flavor. If you’d told me that it was a real meat burger, I would have believed you, but I also would have said, what kind of shitty burger is this, and the next time we hang out, can it not be here? You could trick me into thinking it was real meat, but only by taking advantage of our friendship.

Sadly, this is not yet an impossible burger. More like an improbable burger. But it’s definitely the best meat substitute I’ve tried so far.

the witches of eastwick–a bad review with style

China Mieville has a favorite quote that says, in essence, that writers ought not to be too proud of themselves. That the kind of self-conscious observation they engage in is in reality done by everyone, and that writers are alone in thinking that these mundane observations are of such importance that they ought to be committed to paper. This is, in my mind, uncharitable to good writers, who do not merely set their boring observations down on paper, but go on to synthesize something interesting out of them. They record the noise, and draw out the essence that is the signal. But John Updike demonstrated no writing talent in The Witches of Eastwick, and ought to take this stricture to heart.

The Witches of Eastwick is not a good novel because it sets down the observations, but does not go on to make anything out of them. Updike is clever and observant and has a way with words, but a failure to conceive of the characters in anything like a truly lifelike manner means that the book is just a string of scenes disrupted by interminably long purple passages. This is probably because John Updike, for all his celebrated imagination, can only conceive of women in terms of their sexual differences from men–that they give birth and that they like fucking men. They have little personality beyond those differences.

This, for example, is what John Updike thinks a liberated woman thinks about for a nearly page-long paragraph right before she enjoys a good hot tub orgy with her two best friends and the tall, dark, but not handsome, stranger who’s just moved into town:

“…she was reminded now of her four babies, how as they came one by one it was the female infants suckling that tugged at her insides more poignantly, the boys already a bit like men, that aggressive vacuum, the hurt of the sudden suction, the oblong blue skulls bulging and bullying above the clusters of frowning muscles where their masculine eyebrows would someday sprout. The girls were daintier, even those first days, such hopeful thirsty sweet clinging sugar-sacks destined to become beauties and slaves…”

This book is written the way a white guy dances–no beat, no rhythm. Too in love with his own cleverness to ask any bigger questions, to see that something logical links scene to scene. He had a few interesting thoughts about babies while writing this orgy scene, and he just jammed them in without considering the context. Who the fuck thinks about babies right before an orgy starts? Who would want to go back for seconds with that person? Updike characters, apparently.

It’s all even worse when you consider that the book is set during the Vietnam War. The two characters who care about the unjustness of the war are a man branded as effeminate, and a woman branded as a shrieking harpy, whose husband literally murders her in an effort to get some peace and quiet. That’s what passes for moral complexity in Updike’s world–sure, it might be bad that a great superpower invaded a weaker country and massacred its citizens for no good reason, but have you considered that the people who think this is bad are really annoying?

As satire, this is just shit. Satire is supposed to be clever criticism. Equating the deaths of Vietnamese and Americans with annoyingness displays a sad and stupid lack of perspective that is no doubt also responsible for how unsexy the orgy scene is.

I still can’t get over how bad the orgy scene was. I bet even Burning Man has better orgies than this.

I suppose now I should finally say a word about the premise. The book is about a triumvirate of witches who are divorced or widowed, and their inescapable magnetic attraction to a rich new guy who moves into town. And they have a lot of sex with him even though he is very annoying. Unbelievably, this is supposed to be a feminist book. As far as I can tell, Updike is the kind of guy who sees feminism, and thinks it means it’ll be easier for average-looking guys like him to get laid. An important observation, but one that misses the point, which explains why this book doesn’t have one.

 

The day I drank goat blood

So here’s the Tanzanian countryside.

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Tanzanian friends reading this, please forgive me for what I’m about to say, but as an outsider, it looked depressing, sere, sterile. It was paralyzingly hot, so hot the air became thick against the skin. The soil was so dry it was sublimating into dust. In short, not nice.

One fine Sunday, most of our hostel piled into a van, and we drove through this for an hour and a half to arrive here.

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A true oasis, this hot spring was the result of water seeping up from the ground. What a miracle. And certainly it was the most bountiful, clear, and gorgeous source of water for miles around, so when five Maasai led a string of goats by us, I didn’t take it seriously when my friends Katy and Crystal speculated that they were going to kill the goats. So convinced was I that the Maasai had only brought their goats for a drink that I got up and found our tour guide, Rufano.

“Yo, Rufano. They’re not going to kill the goats, are they?” (I don’t think Rufano even knew my name yet at this point. I’m a direct kind of person, especially when there’s something I really want to know.)

“They are, actually. They’re going to do it over there so they don’t upset you mzungus.” (“Mzungu” means “foreigner” in Swahili.)

Damn it, I was going to have to go back and tell Katy and Crystal that they were right.

“Do you want to go see them kill the goats?” Rufano asked.

I weighed the chances of being judged cruel to animals against the certainty of the pleasure of a new experience. Certainty won. It usually wins.

We walked through tall grass and low trees to a clearing. We’d missed the start of the killing. Both goats were on the ground, throats cut, but one had already stopped moving. The remaining goat’s legs were jerking, and its body thrashed out small arcs through the dirt. One man was kneeling at the dying goat’s throat, and catching the blood in the kind of cheap white bowl I would have expected to see at Ikea. He was drinking it. I knew that the Maasai, when they are thirsty, would cut the vein of a living goat and have a drink when they were thirsty, but it’s one thing to read about it on Wikipedia, and another to see it live. The first reaction I had was to wonder, how could drinking blood possibly make you less thirsty? Blood is salty, after all.

The second reaction was deep satisfaction that I had managed to see something that most tourists wouldn’t have seen.

The third was pride that I was not averting my eyes.

The man at the goat’s throat was refilling the bowl for another drink. Rufano said, “Would you like to drink it?” He had a teasing sort of look on his face.

Later, I would tell everyone that I had felt peer-pressured into it. The Maasai had looked so thrilled that a mzungu would join them in one of their customs. There were big, big grins all around, brilliant against their dark skin, and a happy, festive feeling in the air. The Maasai to my immediate right had even pulled his phone out and was filming the whole thing, and for some reason, keeping the flash on. In the glare of that tiny limelight, how could I not want to make them happy? But the truth was, if Rufano hadn’t offered, I would have asked.

The goat blood was bright red, the same color I’d seen any time I had cut myself. There was only a little in the bowl, perhaps a tablespoon. The goat had been mostly dead–mostly drained–by the time I’d arrived. I put the bowl to my lips, and drank it all. The taste was not salty. In fact, I would describe it as tasting like a goat soup made by an inexpert cook who had forgotten to put salt in. With the addition of some chopped chives, and salt, I believe that most people might enjoy the taste.

But I don’t really want to encourage you to drink the goat blood. Because the more mzungus do it, the less special I will feel. But fortunately, I have a feeling that even if I were to try to persuade you to drink it, you still wouldn’t.

Lisbon partnered dance report

I can’t recommend it. With the exception of one swing night, there’s nothing to do but kizomba. If you’re not a fan of close embrace right off the bat, like me, there’s little to do here. At Barrio Latino, at least, it’s too crowded to do anything but close embrace, which cuts off a lot of interesting vocabulary.

There have been only two times in my life where someone walked out of a dance with me halfway through, and I’m sorry to say that Barrio Latino, Lisbon, was the site of the second time. This is the rudest thing you can do to someone, short of insulting them outright.

I asked another guy there what the deal was, and he just said that the Portuguese were very arrogant. Considering he was French, that’s saying quite a bit.

I don’t know why the other dance reports I read online were so glowing, but my AirBnB host said that gentrification has proceeded at a mind-boggling pace. The price of rent in Lisbon doubled within a year, which makes San Francisco look sane in comparison. So maybe the Portuguese have gotten more unfriendly in the last couple years.

Why is modern art so damn boring?

I made the mistake of going to a modern art museum today. I stood before a big yellow triangle that invited me to contemplate its massiveness, its yellowness, and its angliness. And nothing else. I attempted to let my mind fill with yellow, to consider the purity of the three straight lines. And I just couldn’t do it. I got bored and left after ten seconds.

Why is modern art so damn boring? It’s too reductive. Deriving meaning from some colored shape relies on seeing its relationships with other colored shapes. Trying to appreciate a giant installation that’s nothing but a big vertical stripe feels wrongheaded for the same reasons that attempting to derive Newton’s laws from studying a single point mass would be. The most interesting truths lie in the studying of interactions. You would never learn about gravity from studying a closed system with a single point mass, and any experience of yellowness that you get from looking at a big yellow triangle will be similarly stunted. It’s too cerebral, too pure, too sterile.

You can tell all this abstract art is a failure to communicate when you have to, have to, read the informational placard that comes with it. This, even if you are already familiar with several centuries’ worth of art history, and have years of experience studying drawing. A piece of visual art should speak for itself. It shouldn’t need help from a completely different medium. I’ve become accustomed to seeing exhibits and considering the artwork and its accompanying placard together as a single piece of work. I rather doubt that this is what any of the original artists ever intended.

It’s not that abstract art is hard to get. It’s that there’s too little to get. You get it, you absorb it, and then you think, damn, is this all there was? Sadly, the answer is yes.

The Rainbow Fish: a searing review

this book if one can use the term is HORRIBLE in sum it is about a poor misunderstood gorgeous fish that must MUTILATE himself simply to attain acceptance from the swimming mediocrities thats right BODILY MUTILATION for the sake of SOCIAL ACCEPTANCE what kind of message does that send to kids i ask you no kind of message at all i say much better that the kiddos read some ayn rand

Moby Dick: a positive review, with qualifications

My comprehensive theory of art appreciation, accounting for the objectivity and subjectivity thereof, goes like this: past a surprisingly low bar of technical competence, whether you like something is a function of how much you happen to click with that particular artist as a person.

So. Herman Melville’s technical competence is beyond question. Mixed as my feelings are, if you want to insult his powers as a stylist, I’d have to fight you.

Now, the question is–would you like Melville as a person?

To answer this, you must ask yourself:

Have I madness within me?

Am I a man or woman of powerful great feeling?

When life holds me down to its grindstone, whether to sharpen me to a keen point or to wear me down into nothing, do I shower incandescent sparks of poetry in response?

And most importantly: Do I really, really like whales?

The very first time I ever heard of Moby Dick, I was reading the marginalia in The Princess Bride. Goldman said something along the lines of, “only the most masochistic, dedicated readers read all the whaling chapters in Moby Dick.” In which case, most readers must skip sixty percent of the book. Why does nobody mention this? I thought it was just going to be one or two chapters about whales. I thought I was just going to grit my teeth for half an hour, and then I’d get to be better than everyone else. Why do people only talk about the white whale and Ahab? Ahab barely shows up! Is there some kind of conspiracy amongst all the English literature scholars out there? Will a shaggy grad student knife me in the back now that I’ve spilled the beans? (Bring it, bitches, I’ve known too many academics to ever fear them. My Daisy Red Ryder and I await you with pleasure.)

I’m still reeling from the pages and pages of excruciating detail on how exactly to use a block and tackle to hoist a sperm whale. But sprinkled in amongst the classifications of whale species and the exact measurements of whale skeletons, are gorgeous meditations on life, with roughly the same density as one might expect fruit chunks to be distributed in a fruitcake. You vigorously masticate an agonizingly dense substance for a long time, and are then rewarded by a chewy burst of flavor.

I tell you this so you can come in with the properly calibrated expectations.

As for me, personally, yeah, I’d get along with Melville. Not enough to be roommates, but enough for a long plane ride.

I live in a valley with a culture of ruthless efficiency, where the prevailing aesthetic is commercial, minimalist, and sterile. Moby Dick is lush, ornate, and uninhibited. It’s everything–whaling manual, Shakespearean tragedy, a play, a series of prose-poems, a loose collection of essays. It is precisely because of its chaotic nature that it achieves the kind of authenticity, the kind of earnestness that seems so hard to find these days. Real life is always irregular. Moby Dick is overwhelmingly passionate, and somehow, despite all the jokes in it, gay* and otherwise, I don’t want to mock it. Someday, I’ll reread it.

*  Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, – Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

vertical versus horizontal sharding: a mnemonic

Okay, imagine you have a stalk of celery.  Each lengthwise fiber represents a column in a table in a relational database.

Now cut the celery vertically. You have vertically sharded it!

Okay, now imagine you have a carrot. Each ring-like bump on the carrot represents one row in a table in a relational database.

You cut the carrot into a bunch of little slices. You have horizontally sharded it.

Thank you, thank you. My consulting fees are $300/hour, plus catered lunch.

Train to Busan: a glowing review

Now that I’ve seen this movie, I don’t feel like I need any more zombie movies.

This is not actually true. I have a bottomless appetite for zombie stories. But Train to Busan is so perfectly executed that I do feel temporarily sated. It hits all the usual themes–the real enemies are not the zombies, but your fellow humans; the authorities suck; and it has the usual social commentary. This particular movie takes a few potshots at the 1%. They’re all on the nose, but it’s hard to be subtle in a zombie movie.

Train to Busan begins when the ruthless hedge-fund manager and unlikable protagonist Seok-woo accidentally buys his young daughter a Wii for her birthday the second time in a row. She uses this as leverage to coax him into taking her to Busan so she can visit her mother. Father and daughter must then survive an outbreak on the train. The result is kinetic, with never a wasted moment. At times it’s even quite touching, as Seok-woo learns what it takes to be a father. This is a zombie movie with good family values.

The train is a truly inspired setting. How did nobody think of this before? A train is perfect for survival horror. It’s close quarters, hard to escape, and has few useful tools. Not only that, but the train is a wonderful embodiment of the drive to escape that must be present in all zombie movies.

Back in its home country of South Korea, Train to Busan sold over ten million tickets. The population of South Korea is only about 50.7 million people. Twenty percent of an entire nation (plus me) can’t be wrong. Go see this movie!