Relapse all you want, brain. I’ll just quit again. I could do this all day.
2020 has been the worst year of my life. As it has been for millions of people. That’s one of the relentlessly awful things about the year: it won’t even let mebe uniquely miserable. Oh, you think you’re sad? Get in line, buddy.
So after three or four years without smoking,1Without Instagram as a daily diary, I don’t know exactly how long ago anything was anymore. I’ve had a few relapses. A long one at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, when things were the worst. A one-pack bump in the road back when this year’s California wildfires first blew smoke into the East Bay. And now I’m in the middle of another relapse, again triggered by the wildfires that turned the skies in the Bay Area post-apocalyptic.
I don’t mention the wildfires because we were directly affected by them; we’re fortunate in that we’re completely safe. And obviously, I’d never equate a few days of reduced air quality to what people are going through after losing their homes or worse. But perversely, breathing in the smoke seeping through the windows always makes me want a cigarette. That raspy feeling in my throat that never goes away, the weird gurgling in my chest when I wake up with a coughing fit, the thin layer of ash that seems to cover everything and stick to my fingers: ah, I remember this, and I think I… miss it?
For about a week, I’ve been dreaming about smoking. Or more accurately: sometimes dreaming about smoking, and sometimes dreaming about whatever it is I tend to dream about but in which I’m playing the role of a person who smokes. The most alarming was having a standard-issue dream, suddenly noticing that I’d been smoking a cigarette, and thinking what the hell did you do?
I can’t blame everything on the smoke. Election anxiety, and general despair over the state of the country, have been particularly fierce over the past few weeks, and I hit a low point. At least a solid week with insomnia, no energy, no enthusiasm for anything, completely unable to concentrate on anything for more than 5 minutes at a time. Also, we watched an awful anime with a character who smoked a cigar throughout, and the next thing I knew, a switch in my brain had flipped and I was a smoker again.
As somebody who’s over-thought everything his entire life,2Although now that I think of it, is that really fair to say? the thing that never stops being weird is how anti-intellectual it is. I know that it’s gross, I know that I don’t need it. I know that my life is better in every conceivable way without it. I know that it doesn’t actually calm me. I know that it’s worse than a waste of money. I know that I can’t have just one or two; for me, it’s either nothing, or one every hour without fail. I know that it stains my mustache a repulsive shit-yellow-brown color. I know that I feel worse in the morning. I know that I hate the recurring cough. I know that in the middle of a pandemic for a respiratory virus, it’s the stupidest possible time to be doing it.
But even while I’m thinking that, my motor center has driven me to the 7-11 and has me paying for a new pack. It’s like the decision-making part of my brain communicates with the part of my brain that actually does things via automated customer support line. Thank you for your message. We appreciate you and value your input. While we fully intend to go buy cigarettes and start smoking them anyway, we’ll take your concerns under consideration. Please do not reply to the message.
The one positive is that I finally found something that helps me quit. I smoked for over 20 years, and I made several attempts over that time using nicotine patches, Wellbutrin, and my insufficient willpower, with nothing lasting more than three months. But finally, Chantix worked so well for me that I don’t even mind linking to a drug company’s website. No discernible side effects, and no need to quit cold turkey as with the patch. The first time I tried it, I’d heard it described as blocking the receptors that are activated by nicotine, so that you get no pleasure from it. That made me imagine some kind of A Clockwork Orange scenario, in which I’d find them nauseatingly repulsive, but that never really happened. Instead, it simply seems to just shut up the part of my brain that has me out buying cigarettes despite protests from every other part of my brain.
I’m also encouraged because I did manage to quit earlier in the year, after one pack, and with no assistance, and no setbacks. I think that simply knowing that I can quit and that I’ve done it before, for at least three years, helps a lot. 2020 may be a horrible year, but maybe it’s the year I can shed all of the toxic BS dragging me down.
Photos from a pre-COVID trip to Disneyland in February 2020
At the end of February, we took a short weekend trip to Disneyland, unaware that it’d be our last trip before the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, we spent most of the time inside Galaxy’s Edge. It was our first time riding Rise of the Resistance, and we were able to get a boarding pass two days in a row, which was lucky.
I like the idea of sharing travel photos when we’re all stuck inside and separated. Looking forward to being able to travel again safely.
And yes, I did buy a Han Solo vest specifically to go to Star Wars land at Disneyland. Jealous?
Witnesses the ravages of two years in under 60 seconds
Something that seems to work much better in social media apps than on blogs: taking a selfie every day and compiling it into a time-lapse video. Which is something I’ve been doing for the past two and a half years, for some reason. These were made with the Close-Up app for iPhone, which only added tools to help keep your face centered in frame late in 2018, apparently.
Some might say that it’s absurdly self-indulgent. Others might say it’s a mildly interesting art project that comments on the ephemeral nature of our existence and the seeming permanence of our attempts to document the mundane moments. Others might say it looks like someone is trying to learn the basics of piecing clips together in Final Cut. Others might just want to see a middle-aged man grow a beard over and over again. For all of you — and more! — here you go.
I don’t know who needs to read this, but after around 15 years I finally have to admit social media was a mistake.
Last week I deleted my Instagram account, because it was too important to me.
The thing that set me off was waking up to find Instagram had made yet another change to the app in the name of “user engagement.” I started my usual morning ritual of scrolling through photos — reassurance that the world was still there outside, people were still sharing their lives with me, and I’d be aware of anything going on — before I hit a dead end. Instagram was cutting me off like a surly bartender. I was presented with a link to “Show Older Photos” if I wanted to see my old and busted feed. Here instead were photos and videos from a ton of different suggested accounts that Instagram had determined I would absolutely like, and would absolutely have chosen to follow if only I’d known about them.
It was like the search page, but somehow different, algorithmically, in ways that I couldn’t quite detect, but I’m sure were painstakingly established by neural networks far more advanced than my crude organic ones. Instagram had spent over ten years learning what I like — apparently, Disney parks, bearded gay men, and cute dog and cat videos in roughly equal ratios — and if a project manager somewhere in the Fourth Circle of Facebook (Greed and Social Engagement Analytics) decided that the algorithm was now accurate to within 95% certainty for 90% of Instagram users in the target demographic, who was I to say otherwise?
To a lot of readers, this may seem like a trivial problem with no real-world consequence. That’s because it is a trivial problem with no real-world consequence.
It sure was a drag, though, because Instagram was the last social media platform that I still mostly enjoyed using. It was just nice to have an outlet for minor interactions with friendly strangers, being able to share parts of my boring daily life. But Instagram’s decision to shove suggested posts into my feed was the culmination of around 15 years of tech companies working to develop a new business model: software as betrayal of service. The model disrupts the traditional contract between a business and its customers with a simple four-step process:
Promise a straightforward and inessential-but-still-fun service (e.g,. a platform for sharing snapshots with a group of people of your choosing)
Attract enough users with this service to achieve either an IPO or acquisition by a larger tech company
Gradually dismantle everything that attracted users to the platform in the first place
I understand that I’m not dropping any particularly earth-shattering truth bombs here. For almost as long as social media has been a thing, people on social media have been complaining about it — corporations are creating a dystopian future and we’re all complicit in it! But those arguments have never been all that persuasive. Telling me “with Facebook, you’re not the customer…you’re the product!” has never resonated with me that much, because it’s been too easy to reduce that to “well, what’s in it for me?” I’ve always been far too boring a person to get that worried about privacy concerns. (Back when I was in the closet, I was filled with anxiety that my interactions online would someday be made public. Now, the thought makes me anxious because it’d just reveal how unimaginative and almost prudish I’ve always been). So the cost/benefit analysis always seemed like it was working in my favor: I get to have a fun and mostly insignificant social outlet, and the only cost to me is seeing frequent ads for hair-coloring and -removal products.
But I think the real cost is more significant, and it’s just subtle enough to take over gradually. A little sacrifice here, a compromise there, but nothing that seems that significant at the time. And then several years later, you look around and realize that instead of having friends, you now look at photos of what the people who used to be your friends are doing. And you’d swear that there was a time it was possible to check in on friends without having to scroll through advertisements. (Even ones that offer portraits that make your cat look like a 19th century naval commander, which is admittedly rad). And I feel like I used to be able to talk to people without having to first clear the room of a dozen artificial women who carry exactly three photos of themselves in their underwear and are eager to listen in and build a connection with me for the purposes of sex and bitcoins.
(It’s weird that Instagram’s machine learning neural networks are so advanced that they can do everything except spot insultingly obvious patterns in computer-generated spam accounts. But maybe I’m just gifted with a preternaturally advanced second sight, considering how good I am at recognizing crosswalks and stoplights for CAPTCHAs. If only I could monetize that skill, I could finally be the sugar daddy these young ladies want me to be).
There’s never been a shortage of crusty old curmudgeons lamenting that our smartphones have made us all detached and isolated. It’s pretty hackneyed. It’s also simple-minded, since it ignores all the people who’ve felt isolated their whole lives and finally have technology that can facilitate connection. Whatever the case, it’s absolutely not limited to smartphones. I can remember being at the Grand Canyon and distracted thinking of captions for the Flickr photos. I remember being out in a bar and thinking of topics of conversation better suited to a message board I read at the time, instead of the people I was with. I’ve spent the first half-hour of movies trying to think of clever names for the blog post I’d write about it afterwards. For a while, my internal monologue was replaced by a portion of my brain trying way way too hard to come up with a clever Twitter-perfect description of what I was doing or thinking. And I’ve found my mind wandering during vacations as I’m mentally selecting which photos I should share on Instagram to best capture the day.
Throughout a lot of that time, the constant in the background was Facebook. Never my platform of choice, but occasionally acting like social media methadone to help me come down from being over-invested somewhere else.
It’s normal to want to share the things you’re experiencing with someone else. And the risk of not being fully in the moment can seem worth it when you look at all the conveniences. I’ve always liked the “asynchronous broadcast” model that social media provides. After over 30 years of being a weirdo, I was just plain tired of the blank stares from people who didn’t understand what I was saying or were just plain uninterested. The idea of being able to just toss out ideas or updates whenever, and only the people who were interested were obligated to respond, seemed like a life-saver. The problem is that over time, it felt less like I was broadcasting and more like I was tossing out messages in bottles, desperate to get some kind of acknowledgement that people can see that I still exist.
That convenience extends to all the reactions. I feel a weird anxiety now, when I’m reading or looking at something on one of the few platforms that doesn’t offer reactions. I find myself wanting to respond to the poster to acknowledge that I saw them. It’s not that I’ve ever been insincere in clicking the Like button on a post, but that the whole mechanism adds another layer of artifice to the increasingly alien and unnatural social interaction. It makes something quick and easy that probably shouldn’t be quick and easy. Maybe I should be taking the time to tell someone directly “I enjoyed this,” or “I’m sorry this happened to you.” If that feels overwhelming, then maybe I shouldn’t be pretending it’s normal to have genuine social relationships with hundreds of people.
All of these are basically manifestations of the same problem: these platforms seem like a convenient substitute when “real” socialization isn’t available, and that feeling of cosmic-level loneliness threatens to creep in. But they demand a level of detachment that some of us just can’t keep up for long. The people who thrive on these platforms are the ones who are most comfortable treating them like a commercial broadcast: promoting themselves or their business, maintaining that same layer of artificiality-disguised-as-warmth that you see in talk show interviews. And that’s not even necessarily fake or insincere; it just means spending the whole time hyper-aware that you’re playing to an audience.
I’ll never be an influencer, and in fact it makes me more than a little nauseated to be living in a world in which people are described as “influencers” with no sense of shame or irony. And none of the selfies, vacation snapshots, or dumb jokes that I’ve shared online could ever be monetized in any way that’d be meaningful to a social media platform. But still I looked at my old Instagram account, and I couldn’t help but feeling like they’d Tom Sawyered me into painting their fence — I was providing them “content,” and I’d agreed to watch ads, do daily fake account screening, and probably provide a few gigabytes of facial recognition data, for the privilege of doing it.
The most ridiculous part is that I never once would’ve considered it “content” until I started seeing accounts I’d been following popping up with occasional sponsored posts and “partnerships” with brands. Is everyone but me an influencer?! I couldn’t tolerate Tik Tok for very long, not just because I’m almost 50, but because they’re even more blatantly commercial and eager to go viral. Seeing so many people begging for tips just felt unsettlingly sleazy, like I’d wandered into a G-rated, teen-filled version of an adult site that only offered dancing and lipsyncing. “Kidz Bop: The Onlyfanz Edition.”
Looking back over 10 years worth of Instagram posts, I realized just how significant it all was to me. Over time, it’d become my daily diary. It covered my entire relationship with my fiance, including our engagement. I found a group of people who helped me be more comfortable being out, more comfortable with my appearance, and just generally more confident. It helped me find a community that never seemed very welcoming in San Francisco. I realized that as far as content goes, it was all but worthless to Facebook, but it was absolutely priceless to me. It felt gross that I’d poured so much of myself into an app that didn’t feel any obligation at all to me.
So I deleted it. I started over from scratch with a new Instagram account that’ll let me keep in contact with the genuinely good people I’ve met through the platform. But I’m going to be careful with what I choose to share on it. Only stuff I’ve made and travel photos from places I’ve been. Nothing I wouldn’t be willing to share on a professional portfolio site. I’ve also deactivated my Facebook account, and it’s felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. It’s just too bad I won’t be able to delete it completely until an anti-trust action divests the VR portion of Facebook’s business from their advertising-and-election-interference division.
A while back, I deleted my 12-year-old Twitter account after getting harassed by a Trump supporter. I had always believed that it’s important to stand up to bullies, but when I tried to report the dude, Twitter directed me to a site that looked like it had been made by someone trying to learn HTML and CSS by copying random examples from stack overflow. It was asking me to upload a photo of my ID and a phone bill proving that it was my real phone number. I looked at the page and thought, “I could do that… or, I could just delete my account and be free of this toxic trash heap of a website forever!” The only thing that surprised me afterwards was how much I didn’t miss it. (For the record: I sent in documents two months ago to have an account closed for a family member who passed away on February, and Twitter still hasn’t even sent an automated response, much less done anything to close the account).
I did make a new read-only Twitter account earlier this year, because people kept insisting on posting screenshots of tweets on other social media platforms. Even though hypermedia was designed to let people verify their sources instead of going off on unsubstantiated self-righteous mobs, and we’ve all seen how easily photos and videos are faked or taken out of context, I guess that’s just what we’re all doing now. And it seemed rude to respond “If I wanted to keep reading this bullshit, I wouldn’t have deleted my Twitter account.” Twitter doesn’t allow searching the site without an account, so here we are. The overwhelming thing I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten so much worse than I left — it no longer even pretends to give a reverse-chronological list of tweets from your friends, but is showing me tweets that the people I follow liked, or just randomly popular tweets from accounts that they follow. Absolutely nobody seems to get any enjoyment out of it anymore, but nobody seems willing to leave. It’s just people promoting themselves and their work, raging at something an idiot politician said online, and complaining about how awful Twitter is. And I can sympathize, because even though it’s hardly ever informative and hardly ever entertaining, I still find myself checking in, just because it offers the potential of something new.
So I’ll see how long I can take the “share less, listen more” mantra to heart. I’ve still got this blog as an outlet for any personal stuff, where at least I own it. I just need to find a way to make it easy to share photos, random thoughts, and stuff that isn’t a long, rambling essay that takes me days to write. Whenever I get the impulse to open an app to just scroll through looking for something new, I’m trying to instead open Kindle to read a book, or a real news app of the sort that Twitter and Facebook derisively calls “Mainstream Media,” or even Comixology if I just want to read something dumb. I doubt it’d be a perceptible difference from the outside, but I think it’d mean a huge difference to me.
One funny(-ish) thing: when I started my new, less-posting-more-lurking Instagram account, it went back to the old behavior of showing me photos from people I followed, instead of cutting me off and filling my feed with suggested posts. I don’t know if that’s a change that they reversed, or if it’s a side effect of using Instagram less often, or if they simply don’t have 10 years worth of data on me to generate suggested posts. But it was at least satisfying to see that “fixing” the problem that set me off in the first place didn’t make me regret my decision at all.
I do remember a time when everything was quieter. Lonelier, sure, and I often felt like I was out of the loop of what was happening. But I also felt like I had more time to make stuff. And the things that made me angry or upset were more often than not things that I had some way of controlling, instead of things seemingly designed to cause me perpetual anxiety and despair. Maybe I’m naive, but I still feel like we can live in the always-connected future that the end of Spaceship Earth promised, without being beholden to shitty companies that seem to profit off our being miserable.
Rejecting the idea that America is nothing worth celebrating right now.
I barely remember 1976, but whenever I do try to bring up a memory, it’s invariably dominated by some version of the American flag. On a button, on a patch, on clothing, in fireworks, on a parade float, in bunting hung all around town, in every advertisement, on every TV commercial. I wonder if people born after the bicentennial are really able to appreciate how the entire United States seemed to be obsessed with displays of patriotism.
Especially since for the rest of my life since then, patriotism has been decidedly out of fashion. For about as long as I can remember, and certainly for as long as I’ve been living in Northern California, I’ve been surrounded by people rejecting Independence Day — if not the entire notion of America — as simple-minded jingoism at best, a cruel lie at worst. This year in particular, I’ve seen so many comments saying that the 4th is nothing to celebrate, America is a failure and an embarrassment, we’re all doomed, etc, that I’d almost think I’d woken up in Iran.
But you know, fair enough. The USA is in a sorry state right now, what with a bunch of people giving the office of President to one of the worst people on the planet, and then spending years letting that racist moron and his moronic followers all set the tone of our national conversations to the point where we act like we actually have to defend the most basic of truths and our most basic decency. On top of that, we’ve got a lot of people who’ve spent the last few years wishing we could have Obama back to fix everything, having to come to terms with the fact that they’ve spent a couple of hundred years hitting the snooze button on meaningfully addressing the country’s history of systemic racism. It seems like a bad time to be shouting that America is a perfect shining beacon of liberty.
And really, there are few things as quintessentially American as saying “America sucks.” Dissatisfaction and revolution are what started the USA in the first place, after all. The part that seems to be a more recent development — at least “recent” in terms of my own lifetime — is the desire to just shrug and let it lie there. To interpret it as “America sucks, because America has always sucked,” instead of “America sucks right now, but we can be so much better.”
When I was a teenager, at the start of the Reagan era, a bunch of opportunists decided to waste everybody’s time for a couple of decades by inventing a twisted bizarro version of America and insisting that it was the proper one. One of the most prominent sentiments from that was “Love it or leave it!” which is, obviously, anti-American by definition — the entire philosophy of America is the idea “Love it or change it.” But for some reason, back when hypocrites like the “Moral Majority” and trash like Newt Gingrich declared that they were the true keepers of the American Ideal, everybody just kind of shrugged and rolled their eyes. We let a bunch of fools and garbage people decide what it means to be “American” in the public consciousness. Instead of just rejecting them, we decided to reject the whole notion of American patriotism. Maybe since it was the late 80s and early 90s, we felt like it was more fun to mock people than actually making an effort to stand up for something?
Whatever the reason, it’s left us at what I pray is the final death rattle of the Reagan era, surrounded by people who’ve taken that cartoonish version of American exceptionalism to its grossest extreme. It would be pitiful, seeing Sarah Palin or Tucker Carlson or Laura Ingraham or Donald Trump struggling to form coherent sentences out of the last 40 years worth of insipid GOP catch-phrases to defend things like systemic racism, police brutality, or the violent murder of school children. But I feel no sympathy for them, since they chose to reject the light, and they each deserve whatever is coming to them. The people that I do worry about, and I do sympathize with, are the well-intentioned people who let these hollow, evil, shells of human beings set the terms of what they stand for and what they stand against.
When I was writing about Splash Mountain and growing up in Georgia, I talked about the false version of “the South” that everyone grew up just taking for granted. I don’t think I sufficiently described why it made me so sad, though. It’s a feeling of being unmoored, as if having my history taken from me. Knowing that it was a false history doesn’t help that much. So I can easily sympathize with the people who feel a bit of panic at seeing Confederate statues being taken down, even if they know intellectually that that panic makes no sense. In my case, part of it comes from remembering how I consciously tried to get rid of my southern accent, because I didn’t want to be associated with the popular conception of southerners as under-educated, racist, rednecks. Now I don’t sound — or feel — like I come from anywhere in particular. Instead of just rejecting all the things that white supremacists and anti-intellectuals stand for, I let them co-opt “the South” and let them decide what it is to be from there. I thought I was rejecting them, when I was actually just giving up and letting them steal my home from me.
Obviously, I don’t have any patience or sympathy for the type of people who yell that America is the greatest country in the world while refusing to take any actual responsibility for living up to its ideals and making it great. But at the same time, I don’t have any patience for the people who just want to mope and declare “America’s not worth celebrating this year” and then leave it at that. I mean, protest all you want, but at the same time: bitch, get over yourself. Pretty much everything that’s wrong with America this year was wrong last year and the 200+ years before that. Just because you’re only just now finding out about the evils of capitalism doesn’t mean you get to lecture the rest of us who want to eat a hot dog and watch fireworks. Great people living in America have spent centuries accomplishing amazing things in spite of the systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, and injustice towards native people. It’s astoundingly shitty — not to mention disrespectful to the people who’ve worked hard to make things better — to just throw up your hands and cede the country to a bunch of racist assholes. Especially since the only way those assholes seem to be “winning” is because they found a way to exploit our own apathy and complacency.
And for that matter: it’s been disappointing to see grown-ass adults throwing tantrums when their preferred presidential candidate didn’t get the nomination. I was extremely disappointed when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, but there’s one thing I noticed: she got over it. And she got right back to work. A lot of people seem to think that the political process ends with the election of a President, which makes me wonder if a lot of people were paying attention in middle school Civics class. There’s this idea that we’re entitled to a President that satisfies every one of our demands, and that the process of finding one person to represent the needs of over 300 million people shouldn’t require compromise. That’s not just unrealistic; it’s downright stupid. Electing a President is the start of the process, not the end. They set the course for the administration, but it’s up to the rest of us to do what we can to make things better for everyone.
I really like the phrase “a more perfect Union.” Taken out of context, it implies a relentless pursuit of self-improvement: no matter how perfect things seem now, they can always be more perfect. I know that the 4th is ostensibly to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, but I’ve always been more a fan of the Constitution, anyway. Besides, stating definitively what you intend to do, and then spending a decade figuring out a plan to actually achieve it is another one of those things that feels quintessentially American. And that’s not some lazily cynical criticism, either; it’s praise. America is more than just a declaration or a list of ideals; it’s an ongoing process.
Maybe it’s the fault of the historians who insist on referring to America as a “grand experiment.” The intention was to remind us that the liberties we enjoy aren’t guaranteed, and that they’re by no means permanent or protected from collapse. But calling it an “experiment” implies a passivity that’s deadly for a democracy. It implies that we should wait and see what happens, instead of working to make it happen ourselves.
I’ve seen the suggestion that the Declaration of Independence is a sham and a lie, because it claims that all men are created equal, but was written and signed by slave owners and rapists, for the purpose of keeping for themselves land that had been stolen from Native Americans. But I don’t see what we accomplish by rejecting the idea as a lie or a failure, instead of seeing it as an aspirational ideal that we’re still, over two centuries later, working to achieve. It’s better to learn from history instead of just assigning a thumbs-up or thumbs-down review to it. And it’s no more accurate to ignore all the positive things a human accomplished than it is to ignore the negatives and present them as flawless paragons of humanity. You might as well say that Benjamin Franklin made all his contributions via a friendly mouse.
I’ve also seen the suggestion that rejecting the American right wing’s version of American exceptionalism requires us to admit that America isn’t at all exceptional. After all, there are plenty of other democracies around the world, plenty of strong economies, plenty of countries that promise the blessings of liberty to their citizens, and plenty of countries with a higher standard of living than ours. All of that’s true, but there is one thing that makes the USA exceptional, and that’s part of what we celebrate on the 4th of July. America is the only nation I can think of that is defined by its ideals instead of by its geography or by its ethnicity. That’s pretty remarkable, because it means that none of us are just working off a vague feeling of what the country means to us; we’ve got an actual template that we should be working towards. One of those ideals is that we’re a nation of immigrants. So if some asshole tries to run for President on a platform of fearing, persecuting, and driving away immigrants, we should all have enough damn sense to recognize that as inherently un-American.
And it means that they’re ideals that we shouldn’t dismiss as nothing more than an accident of our birth. When I see someone going on Facebook and saying that “they’re not feeling the fourth of July this year,” I think about the hundreds of people who’ve subjected themselves to cruelty and indignity to give their families the chance at the life that could be so carelessly taken for granted by someone else. And when we call for social justice, we’re not calling for constant struggle, but for a world in which no one has to struggle for the same things that we take for granted. And where we don’t have to see someone being murdered by the police turned into just another one of your callously insipid memes.
So if I’m this grumpy and sick of seeing such performative cynicism playing out throughout the country, I can’t even imagine how frustrating it must be for the people who’ve worked so much harder than I have to make the USA a place that lives up to its ideals. I imagine it requires a level of sympathy that I lack. I so often find myself saying, “If you really don’t have the hope that we can improve, then why are you still inserting yourself into the conversation? Step aside, shut the hell up, and make room for the people who actually want to make a difference.”
We need to have an America that’s defined by the best of its people instead of the worst. We need to acknowledge that optimism and positivity may be corny, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less realistic or inauthentic than relentless negativity. We need to stop dismissing the aspiration to improve ourselves as being a worthless endeavor simply because we haven’t achieved it yet.
America is joining a gym membership on January 1st, even while people tell you that you’ll just give up and it’s a waste of money. America is buying an acoustic guitar and pledging to learn how to play it, even though you’ve got an assortment of musical instruments lying around the house that you were never able to learn. America is trying to learn a second language just for the sake of learning it, even though people tell you it’s too hard. America is always working to become the most perfect version of yourself, rejecting anyone who tries to control you via fear or via misplaced nostalgia, but also rejecting anyone who tries to ruin you with despair.
I hope that this year brings change, and next year is one that we can all feel less conflicted about celebrating. But we can’t just fall back into our old patterns of complacency, looking for quick fixes from the government, or easy-to-identify villains to whom we can administer the sickest of burns and most devastating owns, as a substitute for actual civic engagement. Any of us who are embarrassed to be American need to snap out of it and recognize it’s our responsibility to make America a place where intelligence, integrity, decency, and mutual respect are honored. It’s up to us to define what America is, and we shouldn’t trust the definition to a bunch of idiots and self-interested maniacs. It’s up to us to appreciate dissent and uncertainty and realize that it’s all part of the effort to turn America into the place it’s always aspired to be.
The final part of my playlist, which is mostly about feeling a connection to other people through popular music.
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part three, I wrote about “Starbucks Music” and what life was like back when we had to wonder what song was playing.
Hyper-Ballad, Björk This isn’t my favorite song from Post, but that’s mostly because Post is such a brilliant album it’s almost impossible to pick a single favorite song. (Except I can, and it’s “Isobel”). But this song brings back two strong and related memories, fifteen years apart.
The first is listening to Post non-stop for what seemed like months, as I was driving to my job at a game studio in Emeryville. I remember really paying attention to “Hyper-ballad” the first time, because it stood out as the most stereotypically Björk song on the album — the most remarkable thing about her genius is how she maintained her unique weirdness but was still able to make it commercial. She’s successful without ever feeling like a sell out, and a song about imagining throwing herself off a cliff is a great example of that.
The second is just last year. YouTube recommended a video of someone who’s not Björk doing a cover of “Hyper-ballad.” I thought it was a one-off oddity, but after watching it, it kept recommending more covers. The song seemed so unique and personal to one specific artist, and I remembered being obsessed with Post and feeling like I’d somehow formed a unique connection to it. Seeing all these covers of this weird song — and remembering that it was a hugely popular album — made me feel connected to all these other fans who loved the music and had probably gone through the exact same process of discovery.
Gypsy, Fleetwood Mac My memory of this song is likely the same as anyone alive in 1982: I remember the video. It was pretty epic for the time, and it played constantly. Specifically, I remember the image of Stevie Nicks running into the rain singing, and I thought she must be the most beautiful person in the word.
Lovesong of the Buzzard, Iron & Wine I already wrote about having a near-out-of-body experience listening to The Shepherd’s Dog on a plane, but the specific thing that makes the album so brilliant is the production, which has the songs drift in and out of each other with weird audio flourishes that seem like the transitions in a dream. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is probably the most straightforward and pleasant song of the record, and it immediately follows the sinister “White Tooth Man,” and transitions into the more ethereal “Carousel.” The effect is like the last hypnagogic shock of wakefulness and then gradually falling into a deep dream.
The Sea, Morcheeba I first heard about Morcheeba right before I took my first trip (as an adult) to London. I’m too ignorant of music to even know how to classify them (house music?) but it must’ve been a popular genre at the time, because from the moment I got on the Virgin Atlantic flight to the moment I left London, I heard it constantly. It was like Morcheeba was following me through England, just out of my peripheral vision.
My stronger memory is a comically petty one: it was another trip to Disneyland with my friends and one of my friend’s parents. We were driving back from Anaheim at night, and I’d put on a playlist I’d made called “Fire and Rain.” The last half had all the water-related songs I could think of, and it ended on “The Sea.” When it was over, my friend’s mom said, “That was really nice,” and I felt inexplicably proud.
I Wish I Was the Moon, Neko Case I may be misremembering this one, and it didn’t actually happen but I instead read about it in an interview, but I like the memory enough not to care. It was seeing Neko Case in concert for The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight…. in San Francisco. She introduced “I Wish I Was the Moon” by saying (paraphrased): “This was a tender love song I wrote for my dad, and now it’s the theme to vampire fucking.” I already had a crush on Neko Case for her music, but I think that was the moment that cemented my respect for her as one of the most effortlessly funny people I’ve seen.
Dirty Back Road, The B-52’s This song reminds me of my first year in Athens, when I saw The B-52’s in concert at UGA for Cosmic Thing and instantly became a huge fan. This song in particular reminds me of weekends driving from Athens to my job in Gwinnett County (coincidentally, at the mall that was used for season 3 of Stranger Things). I would head down the Atlanta Highway (the one from “Love Shack”) in my beat-up old VW Bug, and even though it was kind of a major artery, most of it was a stretch of two-lane road through the woods. It wasn’t particularly reckless driving, and I definitely wasn’t in a sportscar, but that song — especially the extended sound of crickets at the end — perfectly reminds me of driving on a highway through Georgia at night surrounded by nothing but darkness and trees.
Into the Mystic, Van Morrison This always reminds me of the first time I heard the song, which wasn’t Van Morrison’s original but a cover by Poi Dog Pondering. (Which I don’t have a decent recording of). I believe that as the years went on, Frank Orrall would frequently do a cover of “Sweet Thing” in the encore of a Poi Dog show, but for this specific memory, he was doing “Into the Mystic.” This was the second time I’d seen them at the Georgia Theater, promoting their album Volo Volo. While the first concert had been a complete surprise — and remains one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to — I’d become a big fan since then, getting as much of their music as I could find and listening to it obsessively. So I’d spent the entire show singing along with songs I already knew by heart. When he got to “Into the Mystic,” I couldn’t sing along anymore. I had never heard it before, but it seemed as if everyone else had. So I just stood there and listened as the rest of the crowd sang along.
Usually, that kind of thing would make me feel isolated, but here it was different. It made me realize that there was an entire world of beautiful music I hadn’t heard yet, and I could spend the rest of my life discovering it.
That’s more than enough of that. If you’ve somehow enjoyed reading these self-indulgent posts, please let me know, and I can make it an ongoing thing. Probably with just one or two songs at a time. And if not, then the next time I need to sleep on a long plane flight, I’ll just use Advil PM and a boring book.
My playlist of memories continues with Starbucks Music and hazy recollections of the 1970s.
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part two, I wrote about false memories, driving, and being homesick.
Shoot the Moon, Norah Jones I still say Come Away With Me is a great album, one of my top 20 even if not my to 10. (If you don’t believe me, listen to the tracks “Seven Years” and “Nightingale”). I think the reason I tend to forget that it’s so good is that I’ve unfairly lumped it in with “Starbucks Music,” because I so often heard “Don’t Know Why” playing in coffee shops.
My strongest memory of “Shoot the Moon” was hearing it in a Borders bookstore in Marin County in 2002 and making peace with being in my 30s. I recognized the song and realized I really liked it. I’d been having a lot of anxiety around turning 30 the previous year. All of my optimism about getting to work for LucasArts had been more or less crushed by the reality of working for LucasArts, and by that point, my follow-up job had either ended or was clearly on the way to its end. My career hadn’t ended up where I wanted it to be, and I was worried that I hadn’t accomplished all the things I’d wanted to accomplish by the time I turned 30. But being in a chain bookstore in Marin County — in many ways the Heart of Whiteness — and hearing a relaxing jazz-infused contemporary pop song, and realizing that I recognized it and liked it: that was somehow calming. I just let all the suburban middle-class whiteness wash over me and take me into its bland but loving embrace.
If the Stars Were Mine, Melody Gardot This, on the other hand, is the darker side of “Starbucks Music.” I don’t believe in “guilty pleasures” anymore — what’s the point in feeling guilty for liking something? — but I’ve got to say this is a song I’m not 100% happy to have in my music library.
Unlike anything on Come Away With Me, this feels like a song that was specifically created to one day appear on a Starbucks compilation album. I think the stereotypes of Starbucks and PSL basic bitches is marketing nonsense, but this feels like something trying to capitalize on that as if it were a real thing. It doesn’t seem like a genuine piece of music that happened to connect with a certain audience, but crassly designed to hit a very specific demographic of white person.
Still, the reason I keep it is because it conjures such a perfect memory. I was on one of the once-in-a-lifetime jobs I was absurdly fortunate to get with Imagineering multiple times. I was at the Grand Floridian at Walt Disney World, standing on the porch outside Narcoossee’s restaurant, and the weather was perfect and the day was perfect. For the first time, it occurred to me that I could uses Shazam to identify the music playing around the resorts, and I’d end up with a playlist that would always take me back there. (It had actually never occurred to me that Disney licensed the music that played around the resorts instead of recording it specifically for them).
Hearing this song reminds me of one of the only times that I was having the best time of my life and realized it in the moment, instead of after it was already over.
Lady Pilot, Neko Case This reminds me of driving back from Disneyland on I-5 with my friends. They were playing all Neko Case albums, and it was the first I’d heard any of her music. (And known it — I’d never made the connection she sang my favorite New Pornographers songs). At the time, I thought her voice was phenomenal, but also kind of exhausting — her earlier country-heavy records are pretty spare, and to the uninitiated can seem a little overwhelming. I liked it, but also I was tired and grouchy and felt like I’d spent an hour listening to a woman with a uniquely powerful voice yelling about Tacoma and Deeeeeeeeep Red Bells.
Later, I was listening to Blacklisted and during “Lady Pilot,” everything clicked for me. It was suddenly the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. And it’s still up there with “Dirty Knife” and “This Tornado Loves You” as my favorite Neko Case songs. My crush started there.
(And because I feel like this sounds a little harsh and undermines my huge fandom of Neko Case: if you watch her live singing her own material, she frequently does that thing where she starts belting out a note away from the microphone and then sweeps across it. So she must be well aware her voice is too powerful to take at full blast).
We’ve Only Just Begun, Carpenters This reminds me of being a little kid in the seventies. I don’t really have any single specific memory, more a montage of being a weird little kid who adored the Carpenters. In my mind, it’s shot like one the Disney live-action movies from the 70s, all fuzzy and amber and set to “On Top of the World” and “Close to You.” My mother used to like to tell a story about me being around 4 years old and sitting on a stool to perform “Sing” with a little microphone, and I crossed my legs and leaned toward the camera like I’d seen singers do on television. Like I said: kind of a weird kid, and that plus the fact that I loved ABBA intensely should’ve been a sign that something was up with me. Just sayin’.
I picked “We’ve Only Just Begun” because I think it’s the most 1970s of the Carpenters songs I loved in the 70s. I only found out within the past few years that Richard Carpenter got the tune from a jingle for a bank, which seems obscenely crass and commercial now, but fit right in with the gestalt of the 70s. It was a different time.
Day After Day, Badfinger I remember finding out about this song. I felt like it was just part of the background music of the 1970s, kind of like how I know all the words to “Dust in the Wind” despite never owning a Kansas album. Whenever “Day After Day” would come on, I would think how much I liked it, but then forget about it until the next time. I never knew the title or the artist. In fact, because the singer sounds a lot like Paul McCartney to me — and, I would later find out, it was produced by George Harrison, and the band was “mentored” by the Beatles — I always assumed that it was a slightly-lesser-known Beatles song from an album I just hadn’t bought yet.
Years later, I heard the song playing while I was out somewhere — I don’t remember the details, but I do remember the realization that I was living in the future and could just use Shazam to identify the song once and for all. One of the minor mysteries of my teen years was resolved, and gone forever were the days when we had to spend even a moment wondering about pop culture trivia.
Now that I think of it, it’s a companion piece to “Sleeping Satellite” by Tasmin Archer, which I wondered about throughout the early 90s. Once I got identify it on Shazam and instantly get it on Napster (ask your parents), it drained a little bit of the mystery from the universe.
Next time: Our not-particularly shocking, easy-listening finale! Featuring Fleetwood Mac, Morcheeba, and Björk!
Day 2 of the playlist brings repressed memories, homesickness, lots of driving, and feeling slightly more connected to the Japanese people
With the goal of updating my blog every day, I’m spending this week compiling a playlist of songs that were supposed to help me sleep but instead just brought back vivid memories of significant times hearing them. In part one, I wrote about the album and the airline trip that inspired the whole thing.
Aguas de Marco, Cibo Matto If the theme is “memory,” then this was a case of repressed memory, missing time, and possible abduction by Cibo Matto-loving aliens. Recently we were watching a documentary that featured Antonio Carlos Jobim’s son performing “Aguas de Marco,” and it made me want to listen to the well-known original with Jobim and Elis Regina.
Except that wasn’t the original version, or at least it wasn’t what I remembered as the original. After listening to every cover I could find on YouTube, I stumbled onto the one by Cibo Matto, which stuck in my mind as the “real” one. I also suddenly remembered a brief period where I was obsessed with Cibo Matto, and had completely forgotten about it. Like when Obi-Wan says he couldn’t remember ever owning a droid, but then you see him going on all these adventures with R2-D2, except even less exciting and I somehow knew all the lyrics to “Spoon” without any memory of ever hearing it.
I Hear the Bells, Mike Doughty This is kind of cheating for the rules of the playlist, since I can’t remember exactly when it was or where I was headed. Regardless, I have a vivid memory of being in my car, driving on the most boring stretch of 580 at night, nothing visible out the windows except highway and hills. It was the first time I’d listened to Haughty Melodic loud, without any distractions (and finally rid of any preconceptions that it’d be just like another Soul Coughing album). The music was swelling, I was singing at the top of my lungs, and I would’ve sworn that at any second the car would take flight and launch off the freeway into the darkness.
You Are the Everything/Untitled, REM I got Green while I was in my freshman year of college in Manhattan, just because “Stand” was popular on MTV at the time. I’m not sure that I’m cut out to live in New York now, and I know for a fact that I wasn’t when I was 17. I remember sitting in my dorm room one night when I was feeling particularly homesick, and when “You Are the Everything” started with its sounds of crickets and frogs at night, it occurred to me that it had been a month since I’d actually seen a tree outside of a planter. That album became one of my links back home to Georgia whenever I started to regret trying so hard to escape Georgia in the first place. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d end up leaving Manhattan to go to school in Athens, Georgia, instead, where I soon got sick of hearing REM constantly.
Which reminded me of the untitled bonus track from Green, which conjures a vivid memory of annoying the hell out of my roommates. We had downstairs neighbors in the dorm who listened to “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction super loud at least four times a day, which in retrospect was lucky for me, since they bore the brunt of all the annoyance that would’ve been directed at me for listening to Green almost as often. The opening drum beat from that untitled song is now combined with the sound of my Mac Plus ejecting a floppy disk as my memory of my year-long audio assault on the poor people who lived with me.
Sweet Thursday, Pizzicato Five I was taking beginning Japanese language classes in Japantown over the weekends, and I’d always hit the bookstore afterwards to pick up an import CD from Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine, or game and anime soundtrack. I was riding back to Marin from San Francisco on 101, listening to The Sound of Music by Pizzicato Five, and I was enjoying it so much that I drove past my exit and figured I’d keep going north until the album ended. I thought “Sweet Thursday” was beautiful (and still do), but this day in particular was after a class where we’d gone over the days of the week. The phrase “mokuyoubi no asa” (Thursday morning) jumped out at me, because it was the first time I’d heard it as the word for “wood” plus one of the words for “day.” I’d spent all my time learning vocabulary through arbitrary memorization, and it had never occurred to me that the Japanese names for the days of the week had a system just like English, with “sun” + “day,” “moon” + “day,” “Odin’s” + “day”, etc. It suddenly felt like the language would be more accessible and fun if I looked for patterns and similarities instead of thinking of it as something completely foreign and difficult.
Sweet Thing, Van Morrison For some reason, the two best Van Morrison songs (“Sweet Thing” and “Into the Mystic”) weren’t on his best of collection from 1990. So I heard multiple covers of the song before I heard the original. One was from an album by The Waterboys, and the other was during a live show by the band Poi Dog Pondering. (The first two Poi Dog Pondering concerts I saw at the Georgia Theater in Athens are still the best concerts I have ever been to). One day after classes, I went to one of the used music stores in Athens and finally bought a copy of Astral Weeks. I listened to it on the drive home but didn’t even make it to the end of Baxter Street before I was entranced by it — a flowery word, but I don’t know how to describe it. It really wasn’t like any album I’d ever heard before. I drove around the campus and then around the town to give enough time for the tape to finish, then I rewound it and started it over again.
“And I shall raise my hand into the nighttime sky and count the stars that’s shining in your eye” is still one of the most romantic lines from any song I’ve ever heard.
Next time: Starbucks music, both good and bad! My eternal and ever-evolving crush on Neko Case! And I can’t stress enough how weird a kid I was in the 1970s! You don’t want to miss this one!
Compiling a playlist that didn’t help me sleep, but did start me on a weird ride though my teens and twenties.
My friend is participating in something called “Holidailies” this December, and while I definitely can’t post every day, I like the idea of taking part informally and writing as often as I can. For as long as this blog has existed, I’ve been fighting against my natural tendency to write 5000-or-more-word rambling essays that even I get lost in. Writing shorter stuff more often seems like a good counter to that, a good way to be less dependent on Facebook, and a refreshing callback to the early 2000s. And as long as we’re doing flashbacks to the early days of blogging, why not start with an unsolicited playlist?
Last night I was on a very late and delayed cross-country flight back home, so I tried to compile a playlist that would help me sleep. My goal was to get a repeat of my experience with The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine a few years ago.
For most of my life, I’ve been okay with flying, but there was a period of a couple of years where I would get a severe, morbid anxiety every time I had to get on a plane. Final Destination-style visions of fires, explosions, crashing into buildings, wings shearing off, plunging into the ocean — all kinds of nightmare visions that wouldn’t go away unless I just sat there with my eyes tightly shut and hyperventilated for a couple of hours. At the start of one of these flights, I was feeling too exhausted to panic, so I just closed my eyes and put on some music. It was the first time I listened to The Shepherd’s Dog all the way through, and it was one of the most profoundly, memorably relaxing experiences of my life.
At the risk of sounding like a Sunday School camp counselor advocating a “natural high,” it was better than any experience I’ve had with marijuana, and was even more relaxing than the first time I was prescribed Vicodin. It felt like my spirit floated out of my body, guided by a similarly-floating big-bearded man whispering in my ear but in a way that was neither creepy nor sexual, to a wide stretch of imaginary North Georgia countryside in the summer filled with trees with swings and cicadas and creeks running underneath old wooden train bridges.
As the last song faded out, there was a peaceful silence for a minute and I must’ve fallen asleep, because both the flight and my anxiety were almost over. I won’t go so far as to say that album “cured” me, but the vivid memory of that feeling of relaxation is something I’ve been able to go back to ever since.
Last night’s attempts to “recapture the magic” didn’t work, but they did have another oddly profound effect: conjuring up unexpectedly vivid sense memories of the most significant time I heard each song. It’s been a while since I’ve really paid attention to the music I was listening to, instead of treating it just as background music, so it was surprising to keep coming up with such vivid and specific associations with each one. The first was
The Rain Song, Led Zeppelin In high school, I got all of the Led Zeppelin albums on vinyl, even though cassettes were what all the cool people were using. All the Zeppelin album covers were weird and varied and maybe even thrillingly blasphemous to a sheltered Pentecostal kid, so it was worth it to get the vinyl and record it to a tape on my friend’s turntable. That had the added benefit of letting me make hand-drawn art for the tape sleeve that mimicked the album.
Hearing “The Rain Song” makes me remember trying to copy the typefaces on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti, and then putting the tape in my Walkman and lying on my bed in the dark, letting this song wash over me over and over again. I can guarantee you that during the part that starts I felt the coldness of my winter, I would launch into a fit of air drums at least as embarrassingly, earnestly clumsy as the cheesiest caricature of a dorky 1980s teen that you’ve ever seen on TV or movies. This was also the first time I can remember feeling that floating-out-of-your-body transcendence that listening to great music can evoke.
Dreams, Beck This song is terrible at making me drowsy but does a tremendous job of conjuring up a strong memory. This one is recent: I’d just been laid off from eero, and I was driving alone down to Anaheim for a “screw it, I’m unemployed” trip to Disneyland. As I got through the Grapevine and started going through Burbank, the album Torches by Foster the People came on, followed by Colors by Beck. Hearing those two albums back-to-back, in a car, on the I-5 through downtown LA, felt as much the platonic ideal of Los Angeles as anything in Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” video. It was like a sucking on a pure bullion cube of Los Angelesness. I remember the opening hook for “Dreams” came on as I was passing the Citadel outlets in Commerce, and feeling a sense of freedom and belonging that I never felt in southern California. I thought I could totally get used to living in southern California, after years of thinking of LA as nothing more than an obstacle between me and Disneyland.
Next time: suppressed memories of Cibo Matto! Driving in the darkness with Mike Doughty! Annoying my roommates with non-stop Green! A bilingual breakthrough in San Rafael! Don’t miss it!
On October 4, 2019, I got engaged to my boyfriend at the new Star Wars land in Disneyland. As recently as 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have thought any part of that sentence was possible.
When I say I didn’t think it was possible, I’m not just talking about the obvious fact that for most of our relationship, California has been under a bigoted ban against marriage equality, initiated by a bunch of homophobic Mormons and opportunistic Republicans. At this point in my life, I’ve finally learned not to let other people’s bigotry get in the way of my own happiness, so the less time spent thinking about those a-holes, the better.
Instead, I mean every aspect of it seemed like something I’d never get to see. Which is probably best illustrated if I back up a step to explain how the whole idea started.
Disneyland’s a popular place to get engaged, so I’d always had it in the back of my mind as a maybe-some-day possibility. When they announced a Star Wars land where you could actually go inside a full-size Millennium Falcon, that seemed even better. I’d been wanting to get married and fly off on the Falcon ever since I was nine years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back and its very confusing romantic scenes between Han Solo and that other person.
We went toDisneyland twice in June, at the end of the month for my birthday, and earlier in the month to take advantage of a reservation against the insane crowds that never seemed to materialize (yet). While there, I was trying to get a feel for the logistics of popping the question, and I wasn’t having much success. They move people too quickly through the queue for Smuggler’s Run, which is good for wait times but bad for once-in-a-lifetime romantic gestures. And Plan B, surprising J with a ring while we were posing for a photo in front of the Falcon, lacked any sense of privacy.
Worse than that, though, was that it seemed very selfish of me. I’m the one who’s had a lifelong obsession with Disney parks. J’s a fan, but not as into them as I am (because I’m not sure it’s even possible to be as into them as I am). And I’m the one who was such a Star Wars nerd growing up that it’s the entire reason I moved to California. Naturally I’m predisposed to fall in love with the idea of a Star Wars land in a Disney park, but for a proposal, it’d be better to pick a location that’s special to the both of us.
During that second trip at the end of June, it started to become a place that was special to the both of us. We had a great time. (Especially surprising since we didn’t get a great first impression earlier in the month). And as we were headed back into Galaxy’s Edge for a third time, I thanked J for indulging me with so much time in Star Wars land over our vacation, and he replied with something remarkable: “I’m not ‘indulging’ you. I like Star Wars at least as much as you do.”
And then he added “I even like the prequels.” Which is troubling, granted, but I know that mixed marriages can work. What was even more startling was realizing how astoundingly dense I’d been. Not just realizing that I’d been living with another Star Wars fan. I’d spent so many years — decades! — feeling like I had to apologize for or make excuses for the things I loved, that it had gone past being self-deprecating and had turned into something I do reflexively, like a verbal tic.
In my defense, even working at LucasArts, I felt like I’d get made fun of whenever I outed myself as a Star Wars nerd. So even though Disney had spent billions of dollars to build a place catered specifically to Gen Xers like me who’d tear up at the sight of a full-size Millennium Falcon, I was locked into thinking of Star Wars as my own weird little nerdy obsession. And that mindset, once it takes hold, is pervasive. If it were just about a bunch of movies or theme parks, it’d be trivial. But for me, the constant feeling of being weird and other had taken over completely. It affected how I think of everything, both insignificant and significant.
One of the things that was hard to get used to when J & I started dating was that so much of my sense of humor was based on being sarcastic, and tearing things and people down. I had to get used to the idea of just trying to be kind instead of always trying to be clever. After nine years being more supportive and unapologetically enthusiastic about the things that make us happy, I can’t say I miss the days when I felt like I always had to have a snappy comeback or defensive explanation at the ready. I finally realized that we were a couple of big gay adult nerds in the middle of a playground built for fans of movies about space wizards, and I was with someone who shared my enthusiasm for big gay nerdy stuff without any need for qualification or judgment, and it seemed like the perfect place to get engaged to the perfect person to get engaged to.
The next step was to start the next phase of our relationship based on an elaborate lie. Neither one of us wear rings, and I had no idea about ring sizes or how to measure them. So I just took a wild guess about size and ordered a plain ridiculously cheap ring off of Amazon. (This will factor in later). I figured that since the ring wasn’t going to impress, I’d have to work harder on the presentation.
Since J really enjoyed the datapad games in Galaxy’s Edge, I thought of a scavenger hunt that would lead to the ring. I contacted my friend and former boss (and guardian angel who’s been directly or indirectly responsible for the highlights of my career), who works with Imagineering, and asked if there were any way I could get mocked screens into J’s datapad app. Since that isn’t possible for obvious reasons, he came up with a better suggestion: 3D print something that looked like a Star Wars artifact to hold the ring, “discover” it at Dok-Ondar’s antiquities shop, and then give it to J.
That’s the point where the scope of the project exploded. I’m glad that it did, in retrospect, but it did end up taking the better part of a month. I knew that I wanted it to look vaguely Star Wars-y, and I wanted it to light up when opened. I started by trying out variations on the Jedi Holocron, but I couldn’t find a model that opened in a way that I liked. (And I wanted to avoid the possibility of its getting confused with the ones on sale in the store). Then I looked at various puzzle boxes on Thingiverse, but they all required narrow tolerances and complex shapes that I’d need a CAD tool to be able to modify, and I wanted something more personalized. So I ended up scrapping the puzzle box idea and just making a simpler box in Blender that just twists open.
I wasn’t looking forward to having to wire up and solder a bunch of LEDs and sensors, so fortunately I didn’t have to. Adafruit makes a neat board called the Circuit Playground, and it comes with LEDs and several sensors attached. After a good bit more experimentation, I settled on a design with the main board at the base, soldered to a smaller LED board (called the NeoPixel Jewel, if you’re curious) just underneath the ring holder.
The board in the base responds to motion, pulsing a slow purple (one of J’s favorite colors) when it’s left alone. When you pick it up, it starts to pulse in a rainbow pattern, both because it’s pretty and appropriate for a proposal during gay days, and because Adafruit makes rainbow LEDs super easy to code. Capacitive touch sensors are wired to the ring holder, so when you touch the ring, both LED boards light up with a brighter, constant rainbow pattern. It all ended up being a lot simpler than I’d originally intended, but it soon became apparent that what I’d originally intended was way more complicated that necessary.
After I’d printed and assembled the box, I was fortunate yet again to have a co-worker with a lot of experience designing and painting 3D prints. He introduced me to the dry-brushing technique. Considering that I’d never painted anything like this before, including miniatures, I’m pretty happy with how much it ended up looking like aged bronze. The hardest part of the whole process was having to do it at work, to keep it a secret. Actually, keeping it a secret from J was the hardest part overall, since every time I made a new development or learned something new, he was the first person I wanted to tell about it.
Once the thing was built, I just had to figure out the logistics. My friend put me in contact with someone who works at Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland, and she was absurdly, preposterously helpful. She helped come up with a version of the proposal that would fit in with the park’s overall storyline and how to incorporate the cast and the character of Dok-Ondar himself.
Finally, to explain to J why we had to be at a certain place at a certain time, I made up the story that we were helping to playtest an early prototype of a new interactive game in Galaxy’s Edge. I said that because it was such an early prototype, I’d been sent a bunch of static screens that would later take place of the Datapad app.
For the past few years, we’ve been going to Disneyland to spend the Gay Days weekend along with a bunch of friends. I asked a friend to be my accomplice, taking the box from me and sneaking it into Dok-Ondar’s ahead of us, and then the plan could start.
The first screen was presented as a message from an explorer who’d spent almost nine years (how long J and I had been dating up to that point) looking for a rare artifact (named after the place where we had our first date). He’d traced it to Batuu and said it would probably be in the hands of someone who dealt in rare antiquities. That obviously led to Dok-Ondar and the next screen. (As long as I’m describing everything, I should probably admit that I was super nervous, so I rushed through the “game” part instead of letting J do it at his own pace).
The next screen told us to go to Dok-Ondar’s and look for an artifact with a certain symbol on it. (Nerd sidenote: I put in a pattern of two-rings all around the jewelry box and again on top, assuming I’d say it was supposed to represent the twin suns of Batuu. I was reminded at the last minute that the fiction says Batuu has three suns, so I had to change the text to say the twin moons. I may have bought an engagement ring that didn’t fit at all, but at least I got the number of suns on a made-up planet right).
As we headed to Dok-Ondar’s, my heart sank into my stomach when I saw a line of guests waiting outside. I’d been worried that the store would be too crowded to pull this off — we wouldn’t find the box, or it’d be taken by another guest by accident, or it’d just be too loud and chaotic and ruin the whole thing. But right as we came up, I got a text message from my accomplice saying we should talk to the cast member at the door. I told them our names and that we were looking for an artifact, and they let us in. The cast had actually started a queue outside the store so we’d have the place mostly to ourselves for the proposal!
Once inside, we both set off to look for the box. While J was searching the shelves, I went to the counter and pointed at a glowing box behind it. “I found it,” I called out, totally cheating. J came over and we checked the next screen.
It said that Dok-Ondar probably had no idea how valuable the box was, so we could get it for a steal. I held the jewelry box up to Dok-Ondar and asked him to appraise it. He spoke a few words in Ithorian (!) and the Cast Members translated it for me: “It’s only valuable if you give it to J.”
So I gave it to J. He opened the box, and it began to pulse with a rainbow light. Then my choice of a less-expensive, nondescript “placeholder” ring came back to haunt me: it wasn’t clear that it was an engagement ring. It looked just like a Star Wars-y machine part or something. It didn’t help that I’d set J up for a puzzle hunt. It also didn’t help that I didn’t get down on one knee or anything, which is something I’d resolved not to do a long time ago, since I feel like it’s an outdated part of the ritual that sets up a weird power dynamic when you’re supposed to be entering into an equal partnership. Whatever the case, the thing I’d planned to be the big reveal wasn’t quite.
J was still figuring out what to do with the ring, so he put it on his index finger. I pointed to his ring finger and said, “It works better if you wear it on that finger.” He said, “But that’s where married people wear a ring.” I said, “So will you marry me?” He said yes, and the cast members cheered.
Afterwards, some super-nice operations cast members took us to the Smuggler’s Run ride and gave us the VIP treatment by letting us use the FastPass queue. Then they took our picture in front of the Falcon, and escorted us into Oga’s Cantina for a celebratory drink. (My friend and accomplice bought us a round, but Disney let us in without a reservation). It was all a big wonderful blur, and we ended up spending most of the rest of that day in Galaxy’s Edge, too. Everything from that weekend after the proposal is now jumbled together in my memory, but I know I built a droid and named it R3-X4 in honor of the date. And that night we watched the fireworks going off over Dok-Ondar’s shop as if in celebration.
In all, it turned out even better than I’d hoped, and even better than I imagined “get engaged at Disneyland” would go after years of having it as a vague some-day possibility. I’ll always be grateful to the friends that helped make it happen, and to all the cast members in Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland who went out of their way to make the engagement of a couple of strangers into something unforgettable.