September 8, 2020

The internet is not forever

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 8:00 pm by chavisory

“A few of the younger Symphony members…remembered the stories they’d been told about WiFi and the impossible-to-imagine Cloud, wondered if the internet might still be out there somehow, invisible pinpricks of light suspended in the air around them.” -Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

A few years ago now, I was up very late, sipping bourbon, listening to the Cubs’ World Series-winning game, and trying to resurrect autistic community history from the dim corners of the internet.

And it was a frustrating and grueling experience. It was Autistic History Month, so founded by Maxfield Sparrow in 2013, and I think people had been realizing for a while that our community collective memory only went back about five years and that it was starting to be a serious vulnerability. (Honestly it still is.)

On one hand, it was certainly a good thing that so many people were being newly diagnosed as young adults, and sometimes as older ones, and deciding to be openly autistic online. On the other, there was no obvious way to direct this huge influx of people starving for community to the resources and information that did already exist, and so there was a whole lot of reinvention of the wheel going on. Neurodiversity.com, which had served that function for many of us who entered the community in the very early 2000’s, was already an inactive archive by that point, and while the references it contained were progressive for the time in which it was founded, many were out of date even just a decade later.

Twice I queried social media for people’s favorite “older” autistic blog or writing, defining “older” as being from before 2010.

Both times, nobody could name a source that wasn’t Neurodiversity.com, Ballastexistenz, or something by Jim Sinclair. And not to denigrate the importance of those voices, but there was so much more than that.

A friend posted a list of a dozen important autistic writers and activists from the early days after the neurodiversity movement moved online in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, and asked how many of them other people recognized. I knew who six were.

Multiple, currently prominent activists knew of none of them.

I’m using the autistic community as an example a lot in this post, but this isn’t exclusively about autism or the autistic community; that’s just where I’ve been consistently involved enough to notice and be affected by long-term dynamics. I suspect similar issues may be at play in other internet-centric communities.

*

One thing I feel has happened—and this may well be the subject of a whole other post—is that many people, especially if they’re relatively new to the community, are under the impression that autistic Twitter is effectively the online autistic community. And it’s not. Not only is it not, even now, but before Twitter was anywhere near as big a platform, before it was a thing at all, the character of the online autistic community was entirely different.

It’s different for both better and worse. The easily discoverable hashtags #ActuallyAutistic and #AskingAutistics make it incredibly easy for newbies to find other autistic people on Twitter and where to ask questions. It used to be harder, or you had to be extraordinarily lucky, to stumble upon the blogs that served as cornerstones of the community. Even while there are a lot of things I don’t like about it as much, the character and quality of conversations on Twitter are probably more accessible for some people. (And less so for others.)

The point, though, is that it’s fundamentally different.

*

I’m an Oregon Trail generation kid. Almost anyone my age or younger has almost certainly been lectured ad infinitum about how “The internet is forever” in well-intended warnings about being cautious in what we say and do online.

But the older I get, the more I find the internet is actually surprisingly vulnerable to human frailty.

There is so much writing that is just gone. So much community, so many of the best, most constructive and compassionate conversations happened in the comments sections of blogs that have been taken down or locked by their owners. Not just the content of those blogs, but the entire culture of the way people formed relationships around them, is gone or radically altered.

Servers are gone. People stopped being able to pay for web hosting. Or got tied up in life, illness, parenting, or more offline activism or scholarship and don’t have time to maintain archives and keep links updated. Neurodiversity.com is still there as an archive, but about half its links are broken. (I’m not saying this to blame Kathleen. Life happens.)

People died. Friendships imploded. People got burned out and simply disappeared off the internet, and unless there was an active effort to preserve and archive it, their work often followed a few years after, if only because they stopped paying for their web domain.

Some of that world made it into the Wayback Machine if you know exactly how to look for it, but a lot of it didn’t.

*

For a couple of years before I started this blog, I was a frequent commenter at Salon.com. I was doing a lot of temp work at the time and it was a way to pass the 9-hour days stuck at a reception desk. Debates in which every single comment was a worthwhile essay unto itself, frequently superior to the original article, would wind on for days. I easily spent hundreds of thousands of words there and God alone knows how many hours of my life. And I don’t regret it; I learned a lot about the kind of blogging I wanted to do there. But I had pretty significantly curtailed the time I spent there by midway through 2010, partly because I had just grown not to enjoy what the culture there had become, partly because I was deliberately spending my time here instead, having realized that with the amount of effortful writing I did there, I could have something of my own to show for it. But at some point Salon revamped their account and comment section structures. I didn’t sign up for a new account or I might’ve tried but found it onerous and before long I was locked out of my old one. And I lost access to all of it.

Then WordPress itself a few years ago either suffered a glitch or changed a setting—I never succeeded in getting an answer—and users lost all of the data about how many times posts had been shared on other platforms like Facebook.

One post of mine had been shared over 20,000 times. The counters were eventually reset, and that post logged another 8,000 shares or so before the counter disappeared again and stayed gone this time.

I have no idea whether WordPress lost the data, or still has it but decided to stop providing it to users without premium accounts.

More recently, Tumblr attempted to purge its platform of adult content [Content note: Linked story contains discussion of sexually explicit material, including child pornography] in an event popularly known as the “Tiddy Ban.” Many erotica-focused blogs were removed entirely, others were allowed to remain but were made unsearchable and dashboard-accessible only. And countless other users had individual offending posts removed from our blog archives utterly without recourse. Over the ensuing months, many of the confiscated posts were restored upon appeal, having been judged to have been wrongfully snared by deeply faulted screening algorithms.

But one of my posts, to which I have never been able to regain access (despite several other much sexier posts having been returned), was a long and multi-layered discussion of executive dysfunction and diagnostic disparities among autistic women and the politics of self-diagnosis.

Whether because the author of the article I linked to works as a stripper and said so in her bio, or because the preview image for the article depicts the bare knee of a young woman sitting on a bed, I’ll probably never know. I’ve protested multiple times to Tumblr staff, but at this point don’t hold out much hope of getting it back. It had over 1,000 notes in multiple reblog threads.

People who’ve lost work in previous fandom purges have similar and far, far worse stories.

*

I’ve been rewatching the X-Files over the past couple of years. And it’s a different experience than it was during the original run. At least partly because, watching with subtitles turned on, I catch at least 50% more information from dialogue than I did then. But also because watching episodes in close time proximity instead of spaced out week by week, or multiple weeks during holidays and production breaks, or months during the summer, or years, like between the end of the original series and the second movie and the revival, brings out whole different sets of resonances and parallels and sneakily revealed information than what was obvious the first time through.

And I have so many questions about whether anyone else has noticed them, or wants more back story about the same things I do, and while there are XF communities on Tumblr and Twitter now, they’re hugely dominated by younger, newer viewers and overwhelmingly MSR-obsessed (which is not a sin, obviously, and I’m also starting to find exceptions to this) and gifset-driven. There’s not a ton of in-depth discussion of other issues. I was a dedicated lurker of the AOL message boards circa 1994-1998, and what I’d really like is to go back to some of the boards I didn’t follow then and see if these were in fact things that people were talking about at the time even if they weren’t the things I was seeking out discussion about then. Those boards are lost to history, though, or at least to anyone without deep access to AOL’s servers and archives.

To some extent you can tell from the fanfic of the time what other fans were preoccupied by—Gossamer and a couple other archives of long-form fic are still there. But as far as speculation about any subject that didn’t make it into a lot of fanfic, those discussions, if any, have been made completely inaccessible to any average present-day fan.

I can’t tell you the number of posts or comments important to me that I thought were safe in my bookmarks, only to try to go back and find a blog taken down or locked or a domain abandoned.

In a couple of cases, authors have been kind enough to send me files to keep for myself of work they decided to take offline. But I’ve started just downloading or printing out hard copies of anything particularly important to me before it disappears in the first place.

Growing up when the internet was a brand new and barely understood resource to most families, we were told “The internet is forever” in caution against revealing personal information online by elders who mostly didn’t understand it very well or how it would change over time, and now we’re the ones telling parents, and especially parents of disabled kids, the same thing when it comes to putting photos or information about their children online.

And I don’t want to undermine the seriousness of the risk of just how unpredictable and wide-ranging the impact of personal information or depictions of children in private and vulnerable moments released on the internet can be. I deeply believe that parents should think twice about this.

But the irony is that in too earnestly believing certain warnings about the internet, we’ve grown to trust it too much. In some ways, the internet, far from being forever, has actually proven a remarkably poor medium for preserving cultural memory.

It turns out that the cultural resources and internet communities we value and want preserved don’t just last without attention and work and love.

August 8, 2020

Mushrooms and minor updates

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:37 am by chavisory

IMG_1200I went hiking a little bit upstate last week and saw some beautiful bracket mushrooms. I climbed Sugarloaf Hill in the Hudson Highlands, and it was fascinating to see how much the ecosystem changed along the way even in a relatively small elevation gain. Further up this same trail was cactus.

Also I once again have a couple pieces in the newest issue of Fuckit: A Zine, the “Vote Motherfucker Vote” issue–one poem, one essay about hope in fundamentally unpredictable times, weird dreams, and Game of Thrones.

July 18, 2020

What if we really are this queer?

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:11 pm by chavisory

A research study on sexual orientation among autistic people, actually published a couple of years ago but recently making the rounds of social media, has found that just under 70% of autistic respondents identified as non-heterosexual, whether they be LGBTQ+, or on the asexual spectrum, or both. While this may sound like an incredibly high number, it roughly accords with both anecdotal accounts from within the autistic community over the years, and my own (very rough) estimates of what might be the case, loosely extrapolated from earlier studies on the rate of transgender identification and gender non-conformity among autistic youth tending to find rates seven to eight times higher than among non-autistic teens.

While the underlying reasons for these results is not yet well-understood, a very common response to them is that rates of non-heterosexuality are probably actually similar in the non-autistic population, but that autistic people are simply more honest, or are less impacted by heteronormative socialization, care less about social disapproval, or do not pick up on social messages of disapproval around gender and sexuality like non-autistic people do.

I both find these explanations unconvincing, and think we should be very cautious of embracing them, for several reasons.

1. There is ample evidence that autistic people are perfectly capable of perceiving negative messaging from our social environments. No, we don’t necessarily do it as well or in the same ways as non-autistic people. But autistic adults have written endlessly about picking up anti-autistic and ableist messaging from our environments and internalizing those attitudes. Even if no one giving us these messages even knew what autism was, we readily picked up on the fact that it wasn’t considered okay to be the way we were. We frequently realized that people didn’t like us or considered us weird even when parents and other adults explicitly denied that was the case. We learned to suppress stimming and how to fake eye contact in many cases without even being explicitly told to.

And compared to anti-autistic messaging, homophobic messaging in our society during the time many of us were growing up was very, very overt. In many places, it still is.

The controversy over Ellen’s coming out (and that it nearly ended her television career), the murder of Matthew Shepherd, the nasty comments made about teachers suspected of being lesbians, the fact that “gay” was one of the more common insults available…these were features of my early teen years.

Believe me, I did not miss the memo that it was considered wrong and looked down upon to be gay or bisexual when I was growing up (there was much less mainstream recognition of asexuality, let alone asexual spectrum orientations like demisexuality). It was not especially subtle. I don’t know how much people realize this who didn’t grow up in proximity to evangelical Christianity (which my family did not follow, but its cultural presence was hard to miss), or in socially conservative parts of the country, or during the culture wars of the 1990’s, but it did not go unspoken. It was not subtle.

Hannah Gadsby said in a recent interview, “If I could’ve been more feminine, I would’ve been. Where I grew up, that would’ve made my life a whole lot easier.” I probably would’ve, too, if I’d known how. I didn’t know how. I couldn’t meet those expectations; I didn’t just not understand they existed.

Which isn’t to say that ableism isn’t often spoken aloud, or that subtle manifestations of homophobia can’t be harmful.

But I think there’s a particular danger of this narrative, too, to autistic youth in parts of the country where homophobic and transphobic messaging is still very overt, that it doesn’t matter as much what they hear because they won’t absorb or be as affected by it.

Because we know that autistic youth absorb and are profoundly affected by ableist and anti-autistic messages even when they are relatively subtle.

Why would queer autistic youth not be by homophobic ones?

2. I don’t think most people are being fundamentally dishonest about their most visceral experiences of attraction and desire, and I do not think making this assumption sets a good precedent.

I’ve written about this before, but I just don’t think that our media environment is pervaded with assumptions about how sexuality works for most people….because they’re actually all lying about it and this relatively small fraction of us (most of whom are not autistic) are the only ones who didn’t get the message that we were supposed to.

I don’t think that generations of queer people have been met with shock, rage, and confusion upon coming out to their families, that a shocking percentage of kids living on the street are queer because they were kicked out of their homes for it, or that the existence of an organization like PFLAG was necessitated to help straight parents come to understand and accept their gay kids, if nearly everyone really was queer and just denying it.

We don’t like being told that we’re not capable of knowing our own minds. We don’t like it for good reasons. We object when people tell autistic trans youth that they’ve just been brainwashed into thinking they’re trans and deny them gender-related healthcare. Or self-identified autistic people that they only think that because they’re quirky or awkward and autism is an internet fad.

“You only think you’re what you say you are because that’s what society told you” is not a rhetorical stance I think we should be adopting.

People have a right to self-identify and by and large I think we should believe them.

I also don’t think we should present identifying one way or another as more honest or virtuous, or imply that someone who says they’re straight is categorically more likely to be lying.

Someone’s professed orientation should not be a moral issue and we should not make it one.

3. Differential interpretation of available data is not necessarily dishonesty.

Both the beauty and the horror of the human mind, I was saying to a friend recently, is that it’s capable of assembling data into narrative in a basically infinite number of ways. We often like to believe that if other people had the same information we do, they would draw the same conclusions or the same logical consistencies from it, but that is often not true at all.

Many people, for instance, believe that if only I knew what they knew about how some people are affected by autism—that some autistic people are intellectually disabled, or can’t speak, or self-injure, or need intensive help with activities of daily living—that I would be in favor of curing or preventing autism, at least in some cases. But I do know those things, and I still don’t agree. The fact that we have access to the same information but draw different conclusions from it doesn’t mean any of us is being dishonest or disingenuous or only saying what we’re saying out of fear of disapproval, rather than that we see that information differently, interpret it differently, and genuinely disagree about the best possible course of action based on that information.

Likewise, among the populations peripheral to the autistic community–the people we refer to as autistic cousins, as belonging to the Broad Autism Phenotype, or simply as neurodivergent but without being able to categorize someone exactly and definitively as belonging to a specific diagnostic category, there probably are people who could in all honestly identify as autistic, but who don’t, for a variety of reasons. Some may really just be in denial. Some may not be ready in their own minds to identify as autistic yet, but will eventually. Some never will because they don’t feel the weight of their experience justifies it. They may be right or they may be wrong but the rest of us generally take them at their word as far as their own experiences.

Conversely, within the LGBTQ+ community, we recognize that though in many cases, the terms “bisexual” and “pansexual,” among others, may be being used by different people to describe extremely similar patterns of attraction, there are subtle distinctions between them which are meaningful to some people but not others. (I somewhat suspect that the same may be true for the categories of “demisexual” and “gray-ace.”)

mr buress with a psa
[Image is a meme of comedian Hannibal Buress, a black man in glasses, depicted with four multicolored emblems representing the pride flags of bisexuality, omnisexuality, pansexuality, and polysexuality. It is captioned to read “These broadly overlap but the distinction matters to some people and that’s okay.”]

One thing we do know is that autistic people prioritize information differently than non-autistic people, that we tend to show a bias for specific, localized information over broad, generalized information.

And so one thing I think may be happening, not even just between autistic and non-autistic people, is that some fraction of people may experience incidental same-sex or same-gender attractions, but not as significant enough in the grand scheme of things, in their overall pattern of attraction, to identify as queer or bisexual rather than straight. While another person, for a hundred different possible reasons, including but not limited to an information-processing style that prioritizes specific over generalized information, may experience or interpret those attractions as meaningful enough to identify as bisexual or queer.

Neither of these people is necessarily being dishonest or hiding the truth from themselves, rather than assembling information in a way that feels most meaningful to them.

I think that’s something we should actually honor, rather than suggesting that they’re either brainwashed or too fearful to be true to themselves.

It probably is the case that more people are queer than currently self-identify as such, because internalized homophobia does exist, and because we live in a society that in so many ways can make it hard to find good, non-judgmental information about the real variety of experiences and identities that exist in the world, much as it is the case that autism is likely still under-diagnosed, because of a whole range of prejudices and lack of accurate information made available to families, and yet it is not the case that “Everyone’s really on the spectrum somewhere!”

And like the “Everyone’s a little autistic!” line, which we rightly hear as a dismissal, it hamstrings the ability of queer people to talk about actually being different from the majority in important ways.

Just like I don’t believe that so many autistic youth go through our childhoods feeling lonely and alienated to the point of deciding that we’re not really human at all because we really are just like everyone else, I do not believe that so many queer youth go through our early lives feeling alone and ashamed because a stunning majority of our peers really are just like us, but that we alone (including non-autistic queer people) just didn’t get the memo that we’re not supposed to be that way.

4. If we really are more queer on average than the non-autistic population, why would that be wrong?

Why would that be undesirable?

Why do we even feel the need to reach immediately for this explanation that “Oh no, we’re not really more likely be queer, we’re just more honest about it?”

So what if we were?

Why would it even be implausible? We don’t know that much about how exactly sexual orientation originates to begin with, but like autism (in most cases), it doesn’t seem to be the result of one “gay gene” or “straight gene,” but rather a complex interplay of many factors, both genetic and environmental. The affirmative declaration of the gay community for years and years was “Born this way,” and while there’s been some backlash to that in recent years—that it shouldn’t matter whether people are born queer or choose to be, our mistreatment on that basis is still wrong—progressive society now tends to accept sexuality as innate enough so as to make it not just wrong, and harmful, but probably useless, to try to change or cure it.

The same is (slowly) coming to be considered true of autism. That yes, while it poses certain challenges and often requires particular supports, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it.

We also know that autism is highly correlated with other complex conditions, for reasons we don’t totally understand, that are definitely physiological and not a matter of personal interpretation of experiences, like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and epilepsy. There’s also a whole raft of more nebulous conditions like alexithymia and prosopagnosia whose precise relationship to autism (whether they’re “genetic stowaways,” or result from the inherent neurological differences that comprise autism, or are downstream consequences of those processing differences) is still unclear.

When discussing those conditions, we don’t tend to say “But probably they occur in non-autistic people at similar rates. We’re just more honest about it because we’re not affected by social pressures the same way.” At least not that I have ever heard.

Why when it comes to gender variance or sexuality do we reflexively feel the need to attribute some higher virtue to our identification, or emphasize that it’s not really that more of us are? When we don’t do that with regard to other aspects of identity or disposition whose relationships to autism we don’t really understand yet?

Why could it not be the case that some aspect of autistic neurology or development gives rise to a higher rate of non-heterosexuality than more typical neurology or development does?

What would be wrong with that if it did?

July 9, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 11:59 am by chavisory

Hi everyone! In case you missed it, I have a new post up at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism again this week, “When Adaptation Looks Like Laziness,” about some of the ways we may try to adapt to executive functioning or motor planning issues when we don’t necessarily know how to explain what’s really happening. Hope you enjoy!

June 20, 2020

At the end of the day

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 10:29 am by chavisory

IMG_1122
I’ve had a rough week of plumbing, maintenance, and landlord issues, but the evening sky a couple of nights ago decided to make it up to me.

June 16, 2020

Reminders of joy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 2:02 pm by chavisory

I know I haven’t talked much about this in a while, but just as a reminder, I also run a small side blog, Reckoning of Joy, which I started shortly after the 2016 election and pledged to keep running for the duration of the Trump presidency (and maybe longer, who knows), the purpose of which is to keep track of the progressive and civil rights victories achieved in spite of the current administration. For keeping our collective spirits up, but also for educating each other about how and why these things are and can be achieved, even now. And we’ve seen victories happen thanks to activism and advocacy on every scale from local school board resolutions Supreme Court decisions.

Particularly as the repercussions of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery continue to snowball, I would love to hear about it if your cities or states have instituted reforms that maybe haven’t made national news yet. The blog itself has a submit button, or you can e-mail me at the address for this blog in the About section.

I hope everyone is keeping as safe and well as possible!

May 15, 2020

Television culture and temporal connectedness in social isolation

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 11:11 pm by chavisory

There’s something I’ve noticed, and didn’t expect at all, since the start of the pandemic and my city’s quarantine/social isolation orders, and I’m curious as to whether other people are sensing it, too.

But it feels like there has been a subtle but meaningful return to a media culture around needing to be in a particular place to either be online or turn on the television at a particular time for a show or event, compared to the last several years in which more and more of our media consumption has moved to on-demand streaming formats that allow us to watch programs whenever is convenient for us and not only at their scheduled air time.

I first realized it when I was out walking in the park late one evening, and looking at my phone realized I had about 20 minutes to get home to get home, get food, use the bathroom, and get situated so I didn’t miss the start of an event I was looking forward to after a couple of weeks of limited social contact, that it felt like the old days of faithfully planning to be home by 8:00 on Friday nights to watch the X-Files.

Between musicians doing live performances from their living rooms, online worship services, Zoom meetups, and also just chat dates with friends, it seems like there are more online events that we have to plan to be available for because they won’t be archived or readily available to catch up on later than I’ve been used to, and it’s a substantial shift back in time in how I interact with media.

And I realize these things did exist before this, and I rarely partook of them since I was working at live events most evenings; I do also wonder whether I’m just noticing it more now that these things comprise the entirety of everyone’s social life. There are no work conflicts, no going out to see a show and knowing you can catch up later on whatever you missed. It’s happening when it’s happening. And the fact that those things happen when they happen, and won’t just always be there, being a recurring fact that helps structure the time of a day or a week.

Before March of this year, I actually do not know for sure when the last time was that I had planned to be home, or in a particular location, in order to watch a scheduled program on television at a particular time. I think it might have been for a Game of Thrones season premiere in the summer of 2017, with the rest of the production staff of the summer theater festival where I was working at the time.

Before that, the last game of the 2015 World Series?

And before that, I have no idea. I actually haven’t owned a television since I graduated from college. Virtually everything that I watch now, I access through Netflix or other on-demand streaming services where I can access whatever I need days or weeks or years after its release.

Even during the final season of Game of Thrones, when I was tuning in to the latest episode on Sunday nights so I could discuss it with coworkers Monday morning, there was no pressure to do so at 9:00 PM EST on the dot or else I was going to miss the beginning of the episode; I could take my time making dinner and sit down to watch whenever I felt like it without being in danger of missing any vital information.

Whereas, when I was a teenager, before DVR (which we never had at home), before on-demand streaming, before I learned how to program a VCR to avoid that kind of stress after several high-anxiety close calls, if you missed an episode of something during its air time, at best you got to watch it several months later during summer reruns.

And as much as I will not miss so much about this period of time, I kind of like it? Even as I hate the audiovisual mess that marks so much group interaction on Zoom and can’t wait to get to go to church for real again, I like the sense that a media event is meaningful because it is happening right in this moment, and won’t be there later, and a bunch of people have shown up on time to experience it together. There’s a sense of temporal connectedness about it that I haven’t felt in pop culture in a long time and hadn’t realized I was feeling the loss of. I suspect it’s one of the things making me feel a little bit more grounded in time than I have been, and certainly more than I expected to feel while I’ve had no work schedule for an extended period of time.

I wouldn’t mind if we kept a little bit more of it after all of this.

May 14, 2020

Elsewhere

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 9:52 am by chavisory

Hi all!

Just wanted to let people know if you’re interested that I have two pieces out in other places this week. First, in issue #2 of “Fuckit: A Zine,” a short musing on prayer and Call the Midwife. It’s available here.

And second, I have a new post, “Why Doesn’t Respect For Communication Diversity Include Non-Speaking Autistic People?” at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, here!

I hope everyone is holding up okay and getting to enjoy spring at least a little bit!

 

April 28, 2020

The beautiful and tragic world of “Tales from the Loop”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by chavisory

When I was in creative writing class in high school, whenever we were stumped for a writing prompt or idea, we would be sent to Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book composed of haunting and richly detailed, but disconnected, pencil drawings.

Even before I knew that the new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop, was actually based on a different series of paintings (those of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, with whom I was not familiar before), it reminded me of what it would feel like if somebody had created something like a coherent narrative encompassing all of the images of Van Allsburg’s book.

Tales from the Loop tells the interwoven stories of several families who live in a town, never named, above an underground experimental facility working with advanced, quasi-metaphysical technology, and the repercussions on all of their lives of their interaction with the cast-off detritus of the research station. Episodes can be understood as standalone stories, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made to shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits (which many of the more negative reviews have accused it of being a rip-off of), but what it feels more like to me is if Ray Bradbury and Stephen King teamed up to write Lake Woebegone Days, with the emotional tenor of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Others have called it a “gentler” take on sci-fi, and while that’s not quite right, either, it does do something I haven’t quite seen before, which is to plunge us into a world of strange and advanced technology, and then not engage with or explicate the theoretical science of it almost at all, in favor of dedicating the storytelling almost entirely to the emotional fallout of characters’ decision-making about it. The result is often anything but gentle, though it is relentlessly humanistic and emotionally immediate.

One aspect of the storytelling I particularly appreciated is that there is no sense whatsoever, at any point, that anything has to work out right in the end.

Because the thing is, that is not actually a rule in the real world. Things can be fucked up and stay fucked up, beyond the end of an episode, or a season, or forever. Things can go wrong that can never truly be made right.

Even much grimmer and darker shows like the Walking Dead maintain a sense, which ebbs and flows like a tide, that eventually, inevitably, something has to go right for these characters. But this show just has none of that, a lack which allows it to maintain an outrageous degree of suspense for a show so emotionally- and character-driven, and occasionally makes it one of the most terrifying and devastating things I’ve ever seen on television. But the terror comes not from threats posed by disruptive technology or supernatural, external evil or civilization-ending catastrophe, but just from the small and selfish ways in which humans fail each other.

And that’s not to say that nothing good or beautiful ever happens in this story; it does. But every time it does, it’s the consequence of a character proactively, and sometimes painfully, choosing right. Nothing ever feels inevitable about it, and for that, it’s all the more wondrous.

Most of the characters find themselves in trouble not only when they fumble around with mysterious technology they don’t understand (although definitely that, too), but when they attempt to use that technology as a shortcut or escape hatch from being honest with each other or themselves. The thesis of the show isn’t anti-technology, but things go badly when characters try to use technology to evade the fundamental problems of being human. When they manage to make things better for each other is when they face their own deepest hearts and vulnerabilities.

April 15, 2020

The hanging clouds

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 8:13 pm by chavisory

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A friend said a couple days ago that my pictures from New York all make it seem like a blend of beauty and sci-fi apocalypse, and I have to say that’s a pretty accurate distillation of the mood these days. This is another one from my evening walk around the ballfields a few nights ago. West Side skyline, one lamppost, retreating storm clouds.

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