Nothing major here, I just wanted to send everyone a quick note of tidings of all the merriment you can muster today. I talked to my mom on the phone for a while. “So this is Christmas”, indeed.
Several of you out there responded very warmly to my initial letter, which was very nice. I know it was long and a bit dark. I can’t promise I’ll make it any lighter in the future! Especially given *gestures broadly* everything out there. But I do appreciate the feedback and love.
Personally, my merriment level is pretty low. Being isolated on Christmas sucks, frankly. On top of it, Starka has been having a pretty rough week in the health department. Everything checked out more or less fine at the vet yesterday, but she’s been very lethargic, seems a little weak, ooks very sad, and wants to be left alone. It’s a very difficult shift as she’s always been a huge cuddlebug. Just adding a real bonus level of dourness to the day.
A thing I saw somewhere on the internet today was the suggestion that even if you’re having a miserable Christmas in the middle of a miserable year, think of one thing you’re grateful for, or proud of. Just something nice in your life, even if most of the rest of it hasn’t been good. Which, hey, that kinda describes me.
Against all odds, this did end up being a pretty good year for music. Recorded music, anyway. Obviously live music has had perhaps the worst year possible. Nevertheless, even with all of the challenges artists have been beset with, a lot of delightful surprises got released in the latter portion of the year. And in the first couple of months as well.
On a more personal level, I did manage to do a couple of things with respect to overcoming my social anxieties that felt very good to have done.
So that’s a couple of things. There, I thought of them.
I hope you’re doing well. Merry Christmas, and thanks for reading.
Not especially Christmassy or anything but today’s music recommendation is the new debut full-length from the band Soft Blue Shimmer, titled Heaven Inches Away.
It’s a delightful dream poppy/shoegazey record from the Los Angeles -based trio that I’ve been listening to quite a bit the past couple of weeks. The record is being put out by local Boston label Disposable America, which is one of the top labels around, in my opinion.
Quick intro of me: Hi, I’m Tape. My real name is Matthew Mittelstadt but most people call me Tape, especially if you know me from the internet. I live in Boston, but I was born Midwesterly. I like music a lot. I used to play it, like in bands and stuff, but not actively for a while. That last part causes me to be sad a lot, not only because it’s fun but because I went to college to study it and in 2020 I pick up a guitar I’m like “wait, MINOR chord? that’s not a THING” and that sure does make me feel like I wasted a lot of money I’m still paying back to the government and also a higher-than-average number of years of attending college. I also used to write a lot but I haven’t really done that in even longer, and that also makes me sad. Sometimes I try to write or play music and I feel like I’ve forgotten how. Clearly I haven’t completely forgotten because here I am typing this now and it seems reasonably coherent, so that’s good I suppose.
It’s December 19th in the year of our lord two thousand twenty and to be very honest I’m not doing great. I just read this Defector piece by the very nice boy Chris Thompson, and basically you cut-and-paste in some different specific non-activity details, twiddle the numbers around a bit, and it’s my year:
I have been freaked out about this since early autumn, when it occurred to me that I seem powerless to sustain any reversal of this trend. My house required a significant renovation this year, which meant going without a functional kitchen for the entire summer. My wife and I started ordering more carryout and buying more prepared food, and it has been upsettingly difficult to get back in the swing of cooking for myself, which if nothing else at least will allow me to know what horrors I am ingesting. Just last night I ate an enormous takeout cheeseburger, then stayed up deep into the night playing video games in my darkened living room. Between the second and third paragraphs of this very blog I ate an iced sugar cookie. What is wrong with me? Why am I like this?
Why am I like this indeed.
I’m now at about my highest weight I’ve ever been by nearly a 10-pound margin. It sucks. Certainly there is a personal body image component (thanks, American society) but really the big thing is that I just feel… well, bad. Stuff hurts and is harder to do and there is just this lingering sense that my body is mad at me. Here is a chart of the last year:
You can see I was actually doing pretty well a year ago! In January of 2019 I had also set what was my previous weight record, and I also felt very bad at the time, and I set about fixing it. Which I had done a pretty decent job of. Put on a few during the winter, which will happen. One is inside more, it’s hockey season so there’s beers and eating lots of buffalo wings, the dog doesn’t like the cold anymore so instead of longer walks she just wants to do her business and get back inside. Those sorts of things. It happens.
You can also see there that the graph keeps going up after March 14, which is an (approximate) date we all understand the significance of in this, the year of our lord two thousand twenty, the famous year I previously established that it is. Normally I might have expected it to maybe flatten out a bit at that point in the year, but of course that’s when I stopped having a built-in couple of miles of walking every day since I no longer had to walk to and from the subway for work anymore, as the length of my morning commute had condensed from about 4.5 miles from Dorchester to the Financial District to about 4.5 feet from my bed to my desk. And of course we all know the weird things working from home has done to the mental states to many of the people who are fortunate enough to still have jobs and specifically ones where we can work from home instead of going somewhere and dealing with a spreading pandemic out there. In my case, it was not great for my brain in general and my focus and attention span specifically!
And hey, May and June there, started getting it going in the right general direction! I bought a kayak! A fun way to get some exercise and also hang with friends in a socially distanced way, since everyone is in their own little boat!
That’s great and everything but since early July everything has been complete and utter shit if I’m being real honest.
I might not log back on for a bit but Starka's at the vet right now and she very seriously needs all of your best vibes
Before I go any further, this is Starka, taken in 2019 when there was literally not a care of any sort in this beautiful girl’s world:
Starka is my dog. She is 14 years old and literally my whole world. It’s cliché to say “I love her more than anything” but it’s true, I do. I am crying writing this right now because that is something that I have done I think every single day since the sixth day of July in this famous year, cry about my beautiful dog.
What happened that morning was I woke up and Starka was stumbling out of my bedroom and into the living room, barely able to keep herself fully upright for more than say three steps at a time. It looked like she was having a stroke or something. I was, to put it shortly, freaking the entire fuck out.
She was not having a stroke, as it turned out, but had become afflicted with something called “idiopathic vestibular disease”, which is basically something that just kind of happens to old dogs sometimes. The vestibular system is in the inner ear and is the major contributor to one’s sense of balance, be you human or canine or most other types of mammals. So basically in this instance, some unknown cause makes it so either the dog’s vestibular system isn’t working right, or it’s not communicating to the brain properly. This causes the lack of balance, and a head tilt, and the eye-twitching. I am going to link but not embed a youtube video (not because it’s “graphic” or whatever per se, but because it’s hard to watch a beautiful creature struggle so) that shows a dog in its backyard trying to walk around, and also I would call your attention to about the 2-minute mark when the owner closes in on the dog’s eyes, which are twitching rapidly and without stop (this symptom is called “nystagmus”). Here is the link.
I bring Starka to the vet first thing (my regular vet thankfully had an open appointment slot 10 minutes later and they are 5 minutes away so that worked out perfectly as it were) and then, because it is the famous year of 2020, I have to give her to the technician in the parking lot, who then brings her inside while I just, you know, don’t go inside. Let me tell you, when you think your dog is having a stroke maybe and also maybe could die, sitting in your car not being allowed inside the building is a really bad place to be. I sobbed and called my boss and my ex with whom I had adopted Starka when we were not-yet-ex, to let them know I wouldn’t be working and that our dog was doing very badly, respectively, and just kind of wondered why life was worth living if the universe could inflict these horrors upon such an innocent and majestic creature.
What happens with idiopathic vestibular disease is that most of the time it just kind of goes away after a little while, where a little while means a few days to a couple of weeks, probably. Which, it mostly did. But the first few days where it was very actively happening were just absolutely terrible. The first day or so I had to carry her up and down the porch steps so she could go pee and poop. Obviously the walking was a problem. Plus she clearly was having insane levels of anxiety, just constantly laying there and panting, and I honestly can’t say I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing if I couldn’t walk 3 feet without falling over and my eyes were constantly freaking out and unable to focus on anything.
The good news was, like the vet said, that it did slowly start to get better and after a few weeks or so it was almost like it hadn’t happened at all, except that her overall balance didn’t go all the way back to 100% normal, maybe 85% or so. She was more or less fine most of the time but would stumble on especially uneven ground, or if she was walking and got distracted by a noise and turned her head real quick to see what was going on, she would kind of lose her footing a bit. Nothing too big.
Anyway on August 15th, it happened again. Two days after her 14th birthday (observed, guesstimated). This time it wasn’t quite as bad as the first, and she recovered from it a little quicker, but her overall balance took another hit again.
After that things were going mostly ok for a while, though she was sort of barely-perceptibly looking… weird? I chalked it up to being old and less active due to the events of the last six paragraphs. But, she got this weird cough in early October, and I took her to the vet to have it checked out, because hey, there was in fact a wave of kennel cough going around the neighborhood. But instead of being kennel cough, what happened was two things: first, the very low-grade heart murmur Starka had as of the previous year was now a Grade V. That’s V out of a possible VI. So hey, that’s a thing to worry about. But secondly, the real thing to worry about, immediately, was that she had lymphoma. The vet said she would get a biopsy and some other tests done but that she honestly didn’t really even need to see the results of any of that because Starka definitely has it.
My regular vet referred me to the oncologists at the MSPCA’s Angell Animal Medical Center, which is sort of like the MGH or Brigham & Women’s for animals. I was looking into it and there seem to be three places in a whatever-mile radius that have veterinary oncologists, and the other two places both had a single oncologist while Angell has five. Anyway, after a week of absolute depressive fretting on my part, we got to go see an oncologist and it turns out that Starka has a lot of lymphoma going on all throughout her body and also circulating in her blood which is not good. In fact, since it was in her blood this meant that her lymphoma was the very bad-sounding Stage V. It’s the same Stage V that you’d talk about for humans. But, there is also “substage”, which is basically A and B – they have no symptoms and feel generally well, all things considered (substage A), or the opposite (substage B) – and Starka was in substage A. This, the oncologist told me, was Very Good in terms of whether or not chemotheraphy would work if I chose to do that. There was also another test that could be run to determine specifically which type of lymphoma cells we were dealing with, as there are apparently two: B-cell and T-cell. T-cell is rarer but very aggressive, while B-cell is the one most dogs will have and often responds well to treatment. The oncologist said they like to say B means “better to hear”. There were other tests they could also do like a bone marrow biopsy but that’s painful and that one apparently doesn’t really tell them much useful information in terms of how treatment would go. The B-cell/T-cell test would take a couple of days but since Starka was generally healthy I could take a little time to think about things and what I wanted to do.
And it was a lot of thinking, because they told me that if Starka ended up going through the entire chemotherapy process, which would last about 25 weeks, it would end up costing about $7000. I don’t know if you’ve heard but that’s a lot of money? Especially, you know, these days? I mean I still have my main full-time job being a fancypants insurance desk jockey guy, but I’ve also had a side gig basically since college of being the guy who plays the music at some sporting events (not like the Red Sox or Patriots level stuff, that’s TJ Connelly who is a very nice man and also started his own streaming radio station during the pandemic and seems to have turned that into some level of “real job”, but I did a pro lacrosse team for a lot of years and the past few years I’ve done college hockey and basketball games) which as it turns out due to the college I’ve been doing that for lately entirely cancelling sports means that I do not have that gig at the moment, and thus the not-at-all-life changing but still nice-to-have amount of money that comes with it.
So yeah. I went home and sat there, realizing that I basically had to decide what to do with my best buddy’s life. I don’t recommend putting yourself through this if you can avoid it! It sucks!
Y’all I have cried so much since July.
I would say my biggest concern was that I didn’t want Starka to suffer or struggle with just being alive. She’s such a good girl and I swear ever since she came home the only thing I have wanted, to the detriment of probably everything else in my life, is for her to live a healthy and happy little dog life. Until this summer I had done a very good job of that. The fact that now she has become beset with severe ailments that are beyond the general scope of my abilities to fix, or in the case of the vestibular disease and its lingering effects beyond the scope of seemingly anyone’s ability to fix, has really sent my sense of self-value into a rapid tailspin. But, the prognosis for chemotherapy was honestly pretty good: something like 80%+ of dogs with B-cell substage-A lymphoma achieve remission! And hey, I had almost entirely paid off about $25k in credit card debit. What’s another seven grand, y’know? Money is fake anyway.
One of the things that ultimately convinced me to go ahead and do it was this piece, written by a veterinarian, about how they deal with advising people about their pets’ cancer diagnoses:
I usually refuse to answer the question (with one important exception, which I will get to in a moment).
It’s very difficult for me to answer that question because there are way too many personal factors that go into the decision of what to do. In addition to the overall prognosis for that particular cancer, there could be other pre-existing conditions. It can become very complicated, and so much just depends upon the person who is asking.
Except when it comes to lymphoma. When it comes to lymphoma, I will share what I would do.
For me, that is an easy choice: I would treat my dog with a CHOP multi-agent protocol.
The good news here is that it’s been about two months since Starka started chemo and her lymph nodes have almost entirely returned to normal size, except for a couple of them. She looks so much healthier and has more energy (for a very old dog). At the visit last week, her primary oncologist hadn’t seen Starka for a couple of weeks (one week was an “off week” in the chemo schedule that’s normally every Thursday, and the next another oncologist filled in at the last minute as the usual one was out that day) and sounded almost giddy at how much better she was doing. There are challenges – dogs generally take the chemo very well, better than humans do, but she does go through spells here and there of unpleasant pooping experiences or getting real tired for a few days – but it’s been going very well. That doesn’t mean I still don’t worry about her constantly and cry for at least a couple seconds every damn day, because I absolutely do that.
Uhhhhh so yeah that’s why that weight graph has just gone solidly up since July. I eat my feelings, and I have had a very lot of feelings to eat. On top of it my theoretical exercise time, of which in I tried to get some in at least a couple times a week, has fallen to virtually zero. I mean, for long stretches I didn’t want to leave the house for an extended period because I was worried Starka might have some terrible fate befall her that I could have somehow prevented by being home, so I wouldn’t really leave except to get groceries or the like.
And of course my dog is merely the most glaring of the factors contributing to the miserable state of my brain! I’ve ordered way more takeout than I should be doing, especially given that it’s pretty regularly “food to eat your feelings to” that I’m ordering. And of course I feel bad about the not exercising and eating poorly, to which I respond by continuing to eat poorly. Also by bedroom is a fucking mess, a thing about which I also feel bad and feeds into the exercise/eating bad feelings spiral. Also I’m very lonely! I’ve been single for five years and been on I think four dates in the meantime and haven’t so much as kissed anyone in about three and a half years I think! This makes me feel extremely bad! I did manage, in a rare moment of having a self-esteem level above zero, to tell my biggest crush that I had said crush, but as I’m sure you can extrapolate from the previous 2,900 words, nothing came of that. She’s very nice though and still laughs at some of my stupid jokes on twitter. Side note: if anyone knows a way to not think a day about someone a dozen times a day who definitely thinks about you approximately zero times a day, please let me know, I’m in the market for that kind of information. Don’t worry I have plenty of other crushes that I think about far too often as well. It’s definitely fine.
Ok so that 2,900 words thing was not a joke and in fact I’ve gone over 3,100 now. I should probably go do something else for a while. Eating and showering seem like good ideas since it’s now noon and I’ve been up since 6:45 when Starka woke me up to poop in the freezing-ass cold out of doors. Maybe I’ll pick two square feet of my bedroom to tidy up. I wouldn’t want to set an unattainable goal, which these days is usually any goal.
Before I hit the big Publish button, as a lifelong music enjoyer I would like to share a recent album I have been enjoying. The idea is that sharing some music would be A Thing at the end of every post on here.
So this episode’s selection is Hill, Flower, Fog by Emily A. Sprague. It’s a beautiful ambient electronic album that feels downright pastoral. Perhaps fitting given the album title and cover art. This was a nice little review of it that I read.
Check out the album on Bandcamp. It’s on Spotify or whatever but Spotify is a scumsucking piece of shit company that’s contributing heavily to the rot of the music industry. The other streaming things are not as bad as Spotify but they’re also not really “good” per se. You can stream a couple of the tracks for free on Bandcamp and also buy it for merely $8, and I guarantee you will get more than $8 of enjoyment out of it.
Ok thanks for reading all that, if you did. I haven’t written in years so this probably wasn’t a good example of “writing” but it feels kind of good to have done it, so hopefully I’ll do it again later and be a little better at it now that I’ve got some under my proverbial belt. Maybe I can start playing music again too. That would be nice.
I don’t want to dwell to long here on trying to sum up the year in music; 2018 was a kickass year if music is your thing. Like previous years, I’ll talk briefly about my very favorites that were the true standouts of the year for me, and then list the remainder of my personal top 25.
Camp Cope, How to Socialise & Make Friends [ Poison City / Run for Cover / Bandcamp ] Camp Cope made a splash, at least in America, in 2017. That year saw the Australian band visit the States on a summer tour with Cayetana and the US release of their 2016 self-titled debut LP. In 2018, that splash turned into a wave. “The Opener” was released as a teaser single, but it really set the tone for the band’s year. It’s a visceral rebuke of the system sexism women in the music industry face, and it also happens to be one hell of a bop. How to Socialise is partly political, partly deeply personal, and sometimes both at once, exploring Georgia Maq’s friendships, relationships, family, and experiences with abusive contemporaries. I get the same feelings listening to Camp Cope as I did when I was first exposed to Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile circa 1993. Camp Cope are three women who do not and will not take any shit, and they will be heard. Album closer “I’ve Got You” was also one of the defining songs of the year for me; it’s a beautiful song about Georgia’s father who died of cancer in 2016, just a little over a month after my own dad had done the same. It’s a song that was at times exactly the song I needed to hear to make sense of the world, and at others too much for me to bear to listen.
Weakened Friends, Common Blah [ Don Giovanni / Bandcamp ] The past few years have been difficult for a lot of people to navigate. There’s a lot going on in the world, the news gets worse and more insane by the day, and somehow we’re just supposed to deal with it and keep our own lives in order too? There’s no roadmap for this shit. Everyone has a different way of dealing with life in this bizarre, unravelling time, and Sonia Sturino’s way is writing songs – and thank god for that. After a wait of a little over two years since their last EP Crushed, Weakened Friends finally released their full-length debut, and it’s a big one. Instrumentally the band is as tight and honed as ever, but Sturino is really growing into her unique, inimitable voice. A number of these songs have been running through their live sets for a while, and bassist Annie Hoffman (pulling double duty as recording engineer) has done a fantastic job translating their power and energy. Common Blah is full of infectious fuzzed-out jams and was by far my most-listened-to album this year, which is fairly impressive since it only came out in October. Plus, a bunch of these songs (“Blue Again”, “Early”, “Aches”, “Not Doing Good”) give me that feeling, that ache you feel in your chest, when you listen and everything just resonates; how could I not spin this constantly?
Seriously, check those albums out if you haven’t. But, also, seriously, check out these other ones too. They’re all pretty great.
While there was a lot that went wrong in the world in 2016, it was, like 2015 before it, an amazing year for new music. Here’s a rundown of the 25 albums that had the most impact for me this year. Unlike last year I’m not going to go into each one individually, but I will add some notes and links.
This year there were three albums for me that were my clear favorites, and I’ll talk about those a bit first and then list the rest.
Weakened Friends, Crushed / Gloomy Tunes [Bandcamp]Ok sure technically this isn’t an album, but rather two EPs, but nothing impacted my life more than this record. The second I heard my homie Adam 12 play “95” on RadioBDC this summer I immediately needed to know who was responsible. I could go into more detail but I already talked a little bit about what this band meant to me this year in a previous post. Suffice to say, this band was everything. (Get a copy on vinyl or CD if you can, because it includes the bonus track “Waste” which is a staple of their live show and a kickass track that you don’t get by just buying the digital version.)
Field Mouse, Episodic [Bandcamp / Topshelf]Field Mouse’s first album, Hold Still Life, was one of my favorites of 2014, a delightful collection of fuzzed-out dream pop. (Technically it’s their second, not first, but good luck finding 2010’s You Are Here anywhere.) Episodic comes more focused and vicious than its predecessor. Between the face-melting, frustrated lead-off track “The Mirror” and the cathartic final barrage of closer “Out of Context” (possibly the best musical moment of the year, if you ask me), the album shows that Field Mouse successfully fine-tuned their already great sound and, having also become a proper five-piece rather than a duo with help on the other instruments, solidified into a band worth keeping your eye on.
The Naked and Famous, Simple FormsI didn’t know what to expect with The Naked and Famous’s third LP. Their first was a grand initial release, but their second seemed a bit of a departure and the consensus seemed to be that it was a bit of a misstep (though listening to it again in the wake of Simple Forms, it looks a lot better to me than it did at the time). What I got was a synthpop album I simply couldn’t stop listening to. Written and recorded in the wake of the dissolution of band principals Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers’ relationship, the songs show a newfound and coincidentally mature sophistication in the arrangements that really gives this release a wonderful edge.
Last night I saw a band called Weakened Friends, and they played a song called “Blankets” for li’l ol’ me.
They’ll probably say it was because I gave them my password for a certain streaming video service a few days ago, but they didn’t really have to do it. All it would have taken was “we haven’t practiced that in months, I don’t think we’ll be able to do it,” or “I don’t like playing that song anymore,” and I would have totally understood. I think they just wanted to do something nice for someone who really likes their band.
“Blankets” is one of several of their songs that really helped me when I was in a pretty dark place this summer, dealing with some things in my life and also learning new things about how bad anxiety can get. I’ve gone to see them 5 times before and they hadn’t played it, so it was really excellent of them to play a song that’s not in their rotation just because I basically asked for it. It meant a lot to me, anyway.
It so happens that they were playing their set while election results were beginning to take shape, and as the night continued, the reality of what’s happening began to set in. I got home and found it hard to sleep, and woke up still in disbelief. I’ve been halfway to tears all morning. But whenever I think back to last night, and a very small, nice thing that a few people did for me because I had done a very small, nice thing for them, I smile, at least for a moment. Thanks to Sonia and Annie and Cam for giving me something nice to reflect on today in a sea of burning garbage.
It’s going to be tough sailing in America for the foreseeable, and there’s a lot of people out there that are going to be targets of the angry, disillusioned mob who wrongly think that black people, brown people, women, Muslims, Jews, LGBT, immigrants, or any number of other false scapegoats are the cause of their ills. If you are in a position to volunteer your time to help some of these people or to do some kind of work on their behalf, please do. If you can afford to donate to an organization that will do work on behalf of these groups, please do. But if you can’t, just try to do something nice for someone, no matter how small it may seem. The little things matter. One little thing that seems really insignificant to you might be the thing that completely changes someone’s day in a way you can’t imagine. Let’s be there for each other, OK?
Julien Baker is only 20 years old and somehow writes and sings like she’s been carrying the weight of the world for 40. I had the same reaction the first time I heard Sprained Ankle as when I first heard Sharon Van Etten: completely devastated.
Failure returned after 19 years away and didn’t appear to skip a beat. The Heart Is a Monster is the spiritual successor and counterpart to their 1996 magnum opus Fantastic Planet, and while band reunions rarely bear edible, much less appealing, fruit, Failure’s return did not disappoint.
Purity Ring’s debut Shrines was a revelation when released in 2012, but few bands were more copied in the intervening three years. As such, their followup isn’t nearly the aural innovation as its predecessor, but Corin Roddick and Megan James make up for it with even tighter songcraft and James’ voice which soothes while her lyrics stealthily unnerve.
While Screaming Females were always one of the strongest forces in rock this decade and a truly talented power trio, for once they get a recording that really shows off how damn good they are. Melissa Paternoster leads the way with her great voice and is one of the most talented guitarists going, but King Mike’s slick bass grooves really come out into the open on this ripping rock record.
I almost can’t believe I have this as low as #5. Sleater-Kinney surprised everyone with perhaps the best-kept secret of the new millennium their new, already-recorded album. Like Failure, Sleater-Kinney picked up almost exactly where they left off and came back with an album perhaps a little older and wiser, but just as vital.
I have difficulty properly describing Krill, and I think it it’s because of the existential uncertainty I get when I listen to them, somehow imbued with both joie de vivre and ennui. Krill ended their run as one of Boston’s best bands this fall, its members scattering to New York and Austin, and we’re all worse off for it.
This was probably my most anticipated release of the year. Somehow Every Open Eye sounds even more resounding and explosive than their 2013 debut, The Bones of What You Believe. Like Purity Ring’s sophomore effort, CHVRCHES took a sound that had excited listeners, tightened up the writing and arrangements, and in this case gave us an album that will stand out as one of the decade’s best.
Carly Rae Jepsen announced a small tour of 4 cities in the Northeast, and I was shocked that the Boston venue was the Paradise – a small club with a capacity of barely 900. Didn’t she have a massive hit in “Call Me Maybe”? How could a Pop Star play such a place? No matter. Carly Rae owned that room like few musicians I’ve seen before in my life. In a year full of excellent concerts, Carly Rae Jepsen’s was a pleasant surprise as by far the best of all of them.
Obviously I’m not reviewing concerts here, but that assessment carries over here: in a year filled with great releases, E•MO•TION was one that I anticipated being a pretty nice album but ended up being one of my absolute favorites.
I was first exposed to Braids early in 2014, opening for Wye Oak at that same Paradise. I was so blown away by their performance that I bought all three of the albums they had at the merch table and ate them up for weeks. Interesting and challenging electronic music melded with traditional rock instrumentation and Raphaelle Standell-Preston’s commanding, unique vocals. Deep in the Iris is still an electronic pop record, but instead of sounding futuristic, the sound is somehow warmer and antique even as vocals and synths glitch past. The songs are more clearly written while somehow being more experimental. It definitely feels like the product of years of refinement have resulted in Braids’ essence becoming fully formed, and with it came the most artistically satisfying release of the year.
I was trying for a while to come up a post with my thoughts and feelings on the news/confirmation that @horse_ebooks was in fact being run by humans. I had a lot of feelings about horse_ because horse_ was one of my very favorite things on the internet. Even though many including myself speculated that something changed about horse_ back in September 2011 when the posts stopped being posted via the Twitter client “horse_ebooks” but started coming “via web”, we didn’t know. There’s a big difference between thinking that perhaps your favorite goofy Twitter spam bot is actually a human and knowing that for sure.
The thing is, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about horse_, and they’re highly complex. Chris Whitman summed up what I think is my greatest disappointment with the situation in his post:
The (admittedly pretty unrealistic) promise of the web was to smash the dichotomy between so-called content creators and their consumers. Corporate media is over. From now on we entertain each other, we inform each other, we all both produce and consume for and from each other.
Where this failed, of course, was in the tendency for word-of-mouth—especially on such an open platform—to produce exponential differences in the dissemination of voices and ideas. Traditional corporate-style media, with its wealth, power and connections, could simply integrate the few voices with the lion’s share of the popularity and attention who were looking for ways to leverage their exposure into a living wage. Specific companies rose and fell but we have remained in the majority consumers of corporate-produced media.
Inside this, spam bots, and @horse_ebooks in particular, represent found objects, marketing efforts repurposed as art by Twitter users, to be enjoyed outside their intended context. They aren’t invented by Twitter users, but the social context that elevates them to an artistic position is the result of a user-centred social movement. If Duchamp is the author of the Fountain, then Twitter users are the authors of @horse_ebooks.
I think that’s one part of where my disappointment originates: something that was in a sense created by Twitter users as an alternative to the status quo turned out to be a perfect example of that status quo. It’s a reminder that there is no escape from the horizon of the creator/consumer relationship, that we are told what to retweet, what to like, what to share to our friends, and we obediently do it. There’s no room for playful subversion, for any real irony, just cynicism.
Ultimately, I’m grateful that we had horse_ for a few years, both in its original true spambot form and its person pretending to be a spambot form that ended up remaining just as great. I’m disappointed to find out that the latter ultimately ended up being a vehicle for someone’s self-aggrandizement, but I’m more disappointed that there’s no more horse_ tweets.
Here’s a small list of other things people have written that resonated with me in some way:
And of course, my pal Erin Watson wrote a small book called No Experiences, in which she wrote a series of poems, each incorporating a horse_ tweet. Only 400 were printed, but you can still read all the poems on the website or buy a copy for a ridiculously paltry sum while they’re still available.
Writing, for me, is an interesting thing. When I was younger, I did a lot of writing. I wrote all the time. If I had free time, I was probably either writing or I was reading. In middle school, I filled notebooks with all kinds of wacky stories and mostly-bad attempts at absurdist humor as I read Douglas Adams books over and over. My middle school had an after-school writers’ group that met every week where students would share their latest creations over Chips Ahoy cookies and Newman’s Own lemonade provided by my favorite teacher ever, John Stewart1 and I attended every week without fail.
I continued writing in high school. An after-school writers’ group met there as well, filled mostly with juniors and seniors who seemed so cultured and worldly compared to myself and the younger members. Their prose and poetry with previously-unknown themes of sensuality, drugs and exotic travel were eye-opening to a thirteen year old freshman. I devoured their work and explored new poets the exposed me to like Dickinson and Plath. As high school rolled on, I discovered zines and was drawn to their cut-and-paste ethos and deeply personal narratives, and at the same time became interested in playing guitar and drums. I got together with friends, learning how to play our favorite songs and how to write our own, taking poems I had written and crafting them into lyrics.
Crafting music and poetry continued in the first few years of college, and then for some reason I stopped fairly abruptly. Looking back, I think there’s a number of factors that contributed, but it’s hard to say there was a specific reason. I just wasn’t writing anymore. I did some short- and medium-form writing on this site’s earlier incarnations, but I wasn’t writing poetry or music or longer pieces like I used to. Twitter came along later and I use it quote a bit, but nowadays I almost never write elsewhere.
Today I find writing to be extremely difficult. I don’t try to do it very often, and when I do, I usually end up staring at a blank page or screen for a while, not knowing where to start. If I do come up with something, I tend not to get very far and I have a lot of trouble figuring out where to go next. When trying to write music, I sometimes come up with an interesting motif or chord progression, but I have the hardest time coming up with another part into which to transition. Eventully when I encounter a roadblock (and I invariably do), I beat myself up for my inability to meaningfully continue; I remember when writing was second nature to me, and I wonder why I can’t still do that.
I believe one of the biggest stumbling blocks is that I don’t write regularly. Getting into a routine with an activity is a great way to hone your skills and keep them sharp, and this is something that I clearly haven’t been doing. So I’m going to make time to write, even if just for a few minutes.2 The other major issue I have is that I subconsciously feel like everything I write is terrible, and that I should be able to write something good. In my conscious mind, I realize that not everything I write has to be or even will be good, and that part of being creative is that some things you create will not be very good, but that you learn how to be better by creating those things and learning from them. It’s just hard to realize that when I’m upset about writing.
So my first step is going to be to reinstate a Mr. Joyce-style journal. I have a small stack of Field Notes notebooks that I bought last year (the last time I decided I was going to get back into writing) and those seem like the perfect thing to use. Additionally, I plan to use this newly-rejuvenated website3 more actively.
With any luck, this won’t be the last you hear of me in 2013. Let’s get some output and break my long cycle of creative despair, shall we?.
Mr. Stewart passed a little over two years ago, and when I heard the news, I was crushed. I don’t think there was a single person more influential in lighting a creative fire in me that, while I’ve struggled in recent years, still remains a guiding force in my life. He had a deep love for teaching, mentoring, and inspiring young minds, and I know he deeply affected so many of us lucky enough to have experienced a few hours a week talking about books with him. ↩
In high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Joyce. My favorite thing about his class was that we had a writing journal: every day he would supply the class with a title and for the first five minutes we would write whatever came to mind. The journal wasn’t graded in any way. Occasionally (once a week, I think; maybe it was daily? it’s been a long time) he would ask for volunteers to read what they had written. We had a separate notebook just for these writings. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a great way to get students writing every day. ↩
I had been letting this site lie essentially dormant for years, posting perhaps a few times a year. The other day, I navigated to ataxia.net and was greeted by the message “Error establishing database connection”. After about an hour of investigation, I learned that the database holding all of the posts was irrevocably corrupted. So, I got to start over! Ataxia’s back with a new look and fixing things has gotten me more excited about it than I’ve been in nearly a decade. ↩