|—||D.T. Max, Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story|
|—||Will Sheff on Townes Van Zandt, "I Live My Broken Dreams"|
This seems to be the Twitter account of James Dresnok, the last survivor among six US soldiers who defected to North Korea following the Korean War. Dresnok is the subject of Crossing the Line by Daniel Gordon, who has made a career out of DPRK documentaries. It’s an interesting companion to his earlier film A State of Mind, which followed two Pyongyang gymnasts preparing for the Mass Games. Both are rare observations of the daily lives of privileged, useful people in a totalitarian state. Both are marred by narration and simplifications that turn away from complex, uncomfortable truths (but maybe this is a trade-off that must be made to make a movie about North Korea).
I am still not sure if Dresnok is tragic, pitiful, or just stupid. He fled the strictures and discipline of the US Army for a nation where everything is controlled and everyone militarized. He seems happy to live out his days in a carefully constructed zoo, as long as the state meets his base needs for food, sex, liquor, and fame. In one scene, he describes his life in Pyongyang during the four year famine that began in 1994: ”I still remember the Arduous March. Because of the sanctions and blockation of the American government and the Japanese, at least thousands, I think, or hundreds of thousands of Korean people died from starvation.” In fact, it was between one and two million, maybe more. “My life has never changed since I’ve been in the DPRK,” he continues. “The Korean people starved to death, but I got my rice rations, 800 grams a day, every day the same. When I eat my rice, I think about the people who died, who starved to death, but yet they fed me.” It seems sincere. But yet he ate it, and still eats, unaware that suffering pervades so much more of his daily life.
His Twitter account is one of the strangest internet artifacts I’ve ever come across. Why did he send these messages? Is someone watching him, or are all tweets inane even when they are scarce and precious? What happened in the months-long silences between them? If the messages are carefully monitored, like everything in North Korea, how can it be that the first account he followed was a mediocre Kim Jong-il parody? Why is he following a gift shop in Peterborough, New Hampshire?
It is terrifying to think that North Korea might be a place so isolated and a state so totalizing that living within the truth is impossible. But at least it would be easy to forgive all the people who did evil and did not know. Dresnok owns an iPad, and with it the privilege of retweeting a bad joke from a CBS reporter. How can he not know—or not choose to know? And how then can we forgive him?
“From the time I was really young, I carried around an excellent fact about my father: he’d once stood on the very top of the Washington Monument. On the pointy tip, on the outside. That was the notion that I grew up with. I remember having some trouble picturing the circumstances in which he might have done this. We lived in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. and so I often saw the monument out the car window on trips downtown. I think I felt some retroactive worry for his safety, and I wondered about his apparently incredible sense of balance, but the truth of the story was never in doubt. It came up casually in conversation. Questions were shrugged off, or maybe I was too young to understand. Apparently it had to do with his job?”
I felt utterly anhedonic, without motivation or desire to make anything (including food to feed myself) or interact with anyone. I decided to simply sleep in and do nothing, which I could actually do, because I’m a lazy student again. When I woke up in the afternoon, the first thing I thought about was this blog. Was there anything about my shitty mood that could be transformed into a blog post, nay, into Art? Nope. There was nothing transformative about it whatsoever. It says nothing about me, you, the world, politics, art, religion, psychology, biology, geology, literature, or numismatics. But what does this instant desire to transform even low-level suffering say about me?
Have I been infected with the false idea that every feeling of ennui or meaninglessness is really the germ for a novel about ennui and meaninglessness in the 21st century? Or worse, the megalomaniacal idea that all my emotions must say something about The World? It’s easy to laugh at the folks who tweet pictures of their breakfast unironically as if we care, but is it any different when one sits down to write a ten-page essay on existential ennui when one feels slightly down? Isn’t the latter simply a more time-consuming way of doing, in practice, exactly what the former does, namely, to seek validation through expressing the minutiae of one’s life? The difference being, of course, that more intellectual types will enjoy the ten-page essay while shallower, or busier, or less overthinking types will hit “like” on the former. But in both cases, the whole thing springs from a rather momentary, insignificant point of our life. The transformative power of art, of literature, isn’t a delusion, it’s simply really overrated. Not one in ten outpourings about existential ennui reach further than the breakfast tweet: here is a snapshot of my state of being right now—but rather than express it plainly, I shall package it in the language of my people (which is to say, theoretical, postmodernist crap).
I think maybe if I just put a picture of my dinner here I would be more pleased with myself.
There’s a good profile of the band Grizzly Bear by Nitsuh Abebe with the headline-as-question: “Grizzly Bear Members Are Indie-Rock Royalty, But What Does That Buy Them in 2012?” Spoiler: not much. Everyone who’s interested in making a living in the music business and what it means to be “big” in the indie scene should give it a read. (I was a little surprised how much their rundown read like Steve Albini’s classic “some of your friends are already this fucked.”)
What’s truly strange to me is how divorced these guys seem to be from the old-school music notion of writing “a hit” — a song that moves units, yes, but also moves asses (and hearts) — while simultaneously being baffled by why their songs aren’t played on the radio.
“I’ve always thought we write pop music,” Ed Droste says. “I think songs of ours could be on the radio. They’re not.”
Having actually listened to their music (I’m in the “suffocatingly fuss[y]” camp), this is baffling to me.
I remember a teacher at school who, upon being told by a pupil that there just wasn’t enough time in the day to do all the things they wanted to do, would simply refuse to accept this. There is enough time, was all she would say. There is always enough time. I have never been able to decide whether she was right or not. All I know is that the impression she wanted to give was devoutly meritocratic: that if you didn’t want something enough to wear yourself ragged in chasing it, then you probably didn’t deserve to have it in the first place.
One problem with deciding that you only ever want to post long and (how else can I put this) ‘serious’ things you have written on your blog is that this takes time and energy and inspiration. Time, in fact, is not such a problem for me. I have to go to work in the week but I don’t work unreasonable hours. I am home by 7pm most days. I have evenings and weekends. I’m tired in the evenings and I seem to sleep through most of my weekends, but that oughtn’t to stop me doing anything. Which only leaves energy and inspiration.
And if you believe some authors, you don’t even need either of those things. I am often tired but rarely so tired I cannot keep my eyes open. I have no dependents. I have no debt. I have a computer which works. I count myself incredibly lucky and privileged in all these respects. I had a creative writing tutor at university who would always say that he never had writer’s block. He would just sit down and do it. And if it comes to it, I can do that. I do that with the little book reviews I’ve been writing. I did NaNoWriMo last year by getting up at 5am to write for an hour and a half before work. It was exhausting but I may do it again this year. I’ve barely looked at the manuscript since but really what did you expect.
So what do I do. I pick up ideas and turn them over in my hand. I am looking to be surprised. I expect them to sprout legs. I look at them and put them down again. I write a few hundred words and I can’t think of how to end it and it goes into a file which I will probably not look at again. I think about what Jaron Lanier wrote in his book, about how the whole notion of a file system on a modern computer conditions us to think in certain ways that aren’t necessarily inevitable or even desirable. The first Mac, he explains, did not have a file system as we know it today. Nobody would even dream of going back to that now.
I’m sure I like to give the impression here that I am a relatively erudite and well-informed person, but if you were to build a graphical user interface which approximates the content of my brain on a 1:1 basis it would be full of the most shockingly stupid, banal, offensive crap. A lot of people are good at turning the crap that is in their brains into good blogs. But my filing system is intended to enable concealment as much as it is about categorisation.
I’m sure you don’t care, actually, but if I were to write that what I put up here is only the tip of the iceberg, please do not take this to mean that there is some great hidden work of genius lurking below the surface. All it means is that the tiny part of what I do that is good is supported by a whole mountain of mental rubbish. This is actually the best I can do with what I have.
this is comfortingly/disturbingly similar to my current self-assessment and anxieties
This is probably my favorite record of the year. I like the guitar tone, how it’s anchored low enough that it combines with the drums and dispatches these kind of insistent, splaying sub-rhythms. Allison Crutchfield, the singer, is the sister of Katie Crutchfield, who also filmed a video for this series. Katie’s video is more mannered, but in an airy, indefinite way, as in the bodiless manners of ghosts. Initially I think this quality issues from the haunting subtraction of ambient noise, the way that, in this cemetery, in the honeyed overgrowth, there’s no animal disquiet. Instead Katie is surrounded by a voided dome that intensifies her shape. (I’ve found that people appear most human in mindless space.) Her songs usually have a talking cadence to them, speeding carfuls of syllables. This one doesn’t. This one stretches, as if remembering a skin. (Later, while writing this, I listen intently and finally notice the insect chirps, a whole lightly-pieced web of them, that decorate her performance, and, nearer the end, her woe of bugs.)
People describe guitars as “crunchy” a lot but I feel the Swearin’ record is one of the word’s more correct applications. It’s as if a body is being tossed against and through it, settling occasionally between ridges. Otherwise I wonder if my enthusiasm for the record is not an indication of its precise appearance in my life. Big guitar records get bigger, acquire totemic weight when you require that they carry you through your bullshit, which they do. They sail you through privately, as if in an extra dimension, which is considerate of them, when all you feel you have to contribute to the physical world is stupid emotion.
In 1973, two social scientists, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, defined a class of problems they called “wicked problems.” Wicked problems are messy, ill-defined, more complex than we fully grasp, and open to multiple interpretations based on one’s point of view. They are problems such as poverty, obesity, where to put a new highway—or how to make sure that people have adequate health care.
They are the opposite of “tame problems,” which can be crisply defined, completely understood, and fixed through technical solutions. Tame problems are not necessarily simple—they include putting a man on the moon or devising a cure for diabetes. They are, however, solvable. Solutions to tame problems either work or they don’t.
Solutions to wicked problems, by contrast, are only better or worse. Trade-offs are unavoidable. Unanticipated complications and benefits are both common. And opportunities to learn by trial and error are limited. You can’t try a new highway over here and over there; you put it where you put it. But new issues will arise. Adjustments will be required. No solution to a wicked problem is ever permanent or wholly satisfying, which leaves every solution open to easy polemical attack.
Here are 17 Tetris longreads to keep you busy for a while.
A youthful, dopey thing that young dopes do is buy a typewriter under the pretense that they’re going to use it to write. Romantic notion, eh? Plopping this clackety thing on the kitchen table, jabbing out a draft, then harrowed pencil marks, then a new draft, and so on. It’s completely impossible to do this, of course. In my own young and dopey days I faced down a typewriter ribbon and wrote pages upon pages about the experience of writing on a typewriter. Writing on a typewriter is all one can think about when writing on a typewriter, so divorced is it from one’s ordinary mode of working, one’s fluent mode of thinking. Using a typewriter to bang out prose is a bad party. It’s talking about how wasted you are, and thinking you’re fascinating for doing so.
There are times I still bother to notice things. On this sleepy afternoon: the featheriness of the clouds, the grooves-and-gravel texture of my building’s rear façade, the hundred-year history of paint upon rust upon paint upon rust of the fire escape. Nothing interesting, I don’t mean to imply that any of these things are interesting. But now that my phone has displaced my physical surroundings as most-likely-to-be-viewed, I find that the act of noticing has joined the act of typing in its descent to the level of novelty. “Weird, I’m studying the texture of a wall,” I mention to myself, thereby lifting my focus from the wall to the act of noticing the wall, thereby sort-of killing the actuality of the wall itself. What is the texture of the wall? It’s a thing I’m supposed to congratulate myself for noticing. I will congratulate myself using my phone, make my congratulations public, make sure that people know I’m the kind of guy who notices a thing.
I’m very sad about this, of course, but it’s too late to pretend that typing on a typewriter is any kind of way to go through life, or that looking at clouds is anything other than a bad party.