2014, or: What Is Even Happening Anymore

2014, it turns out, was a big weird year of a lot of awful stuff and a few very cool, not so awful things.  Here’s what it looked like for me, as a list of highlights mostly pertaining to this blog.

In January, I did a reflection on my relationship to HP Lovecraft and his fiction in light of his racism.  I also wrote some brief remarks on an assorted collection of music videos.

A few months later, in April, I released a quiet little Twine game called Patrick.  That same month I published a brief academic piece about replayability at First Person Scholar.

In May I began reading for my PhD qualifying exams, providing a little reading of some 16th century translations of Ovid and the peculiarly alienating effect the poem’s structure seems to have on certain elements of everyday life.

This was followed in June by more quals reading, with a reflection on the meaning of the figure of Guy Fawkes.

In July I went back in time and republished the first piece of fiction I ever sold, a horror story about zombies.

August saw the end of my exams reading and a loose, baggy monster of a post about the affective experience of gameplay as Ngai’s “stuplimity,” an incredibly important development for me that’s still influencing the way I’m theorizing games.  At the end of August, a very awful thing happened in the world of videogames.

In September, I wrote about that very awful thing in a way that branched from my earlier piece on games and affect.  I also passed my PhD qualifying exams, and since then have been chewing my nails off over the prospectus, which I will turn in this coming semester.

In October, I released a massive Twine game called The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo.  The response to it was more than what I was prepared for, and certainly more than what I was expecting.  I was incredibly fortunate to have Kim Parker on board for the art, and in the end we were covered in Kotaku, Polygon, Rock Paper Shotgun, Wired, The Sydney Morning Herald (?), and very recently named Paste’s #1 Indie Game of the Year.  I think I can honestly speak for Kim when I say we were both floored by the incredible reception of this game, and I’ve been deeply moved by all the people who’ve contacted me personally to let me know what the game meant for them.

In November, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo bit me in the ass.  Or rather, Amazon’s cloud services did.  Because of the increased traffic to my hosting, I had to move some of the sound files to Amazon’s S3 service, which did not notify me when I went well above and beyond the basic bandwidth caps for the month.  However, people were again spectacular in ways I did not anticipate — and generously donated the funds necessary to help me pay my rent that month, while JayIsGames kindly took over hosting duties.  UWWFN continued to exert its pull, as I guested on the wonderful podcast Justice Points to discuss the project and general social justice issues in gaming.

In December, First Person Scholar posted the transcript of a scholarly roundtable on the GamerGate fiasco in which I participated.  I also made a Twine ghost story for you.  And then I wrote this post.

Looking back over all that stuff, I realize I had a fairly productive year, despite feeling like I rarely get anything done and the fact that I go entire months without posting on this blog.  What seems particularly intriguing to me, in retrospect, is how it clearly highlights the divergent professional and scholarly interests that are increasingly coming to define my work and my presence — Renaissance drama, the study of literature and culture, the study of games and contemporary digital media, and the production of artifacts in those media that, in strange ways, reflect my attempts to bridge the gaps of the discourses I am constantly trying to navigate.

It was not a year I expected, but I don’t this was a year anyone expected, or hoped for.  But I was incredibly fortunate to receive the attention and support of so many people, and I hope to pay that forward as we approach 2015.

And finally, I have to say I would not be here without the love and support of my partner, who remains steadfastly by my side even when I quote Zizek while making dinner, even when I make comparisons between her family dynamics and Shakespearean tragedies, even when I stay up until two in the morning tearing my hair out over Twine code, and even when I plowed her new car into a yellow caution pole in a parking garage in August.  Without her grace and good humor I don’t know what would become of me.



The value of not having accomplished anything

This was a speech I gave on June 2, 2012 as the invited guest speaker at the graduation for my old high school.  I decided to take a different tone than is normal in such speeches, and hopefully suggest a more accurate picture of life after graduation.

Being asked to speak at a graduation, especially your high school’s graduation a half decade after your own, carries with it certain attendant implications and assumptions.  Speeches like this are basically just talking about yourself, and hoping you can find something in your own experience that will speak to other people in very different situations.  So one assumption is that I have something to say, some way to speak to you all in your positions out there, from my position here.  Not only that, but when people ask you to speak, they assume that you should say something valuable, which means that someone has assumed I have some idea of what is going on.  A second assumption, since it wasn’t too long ago that I was sitting out there is that since I’ve been asked to come back to speak to you, in the five years since I was sitting there, I have done something with myself.

So of course, my first thought when I was asked to come back and speak to you today was: “Wow, they’ve really jumped the gun.”

I decided that this is what I’m going to talk to you about today.  It’s a day when, as family, teachers, and friends have told you, you’ve accomplished so much.  But how do you judge what you’ve accomplished, and where do you go from here?  Is there some value in feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing, like me?  Now, to put my thought about jumping the gun in context: I’ll fully admit that I’ve done quite a lot of things up to this point.  Obviously I’ve graduated from high school, and thanks to the Randolph County Community Foundation and the Lily Endowment, I’m also the first person in my immediate family to get a four-year college degree.  No small feat on top of that: I’m also the first person in my family to pursue graduate studies.  I’ve presented at research conferences, I’ve given other speeches in other situations, I’ve even studied abroad in London, which is just something I’d never thought I’d do.  I’ve been afforded wonderful opportunities, and I’ve taken them.  But does that really qualify as having done something?  Does doing things count as accomplishing something?  Sometimes, when I look to the future, it doesn’t really feel like it.

Let’s start with graduate school.  If any of you know me, or knew me when I was here at Southern, then you probably know I was pretty good at school overall.  Not only am I good at school, but I like it.  I like it so much that after twelve collective years spent here, I spent another four years down in Richmond at Earlham, and I liked that so much that I’m spending at least another six years at IU Bloomington to get my next two degrees.  I say six because that’s as much funding as my current fellowship offers – in reality, depending on how you plan things out, a PhD may take as many as ten years.  That’s obviously not my plan.  My plan is to do this thing in six.  I’ll also be honest in admitting that my circumstances are exceptional.  I’ve been extremely privileged in that the amount of debt I’ve accrued for undergraduate and graduate studies is manageable, and if I live very frugally, should remain so.  My second point of exception is that I know that right now I am on my way to doing – I am in fact already doing – the one job that I want to do, the one job I can see myself doing for years to come.

From an early age I was a good reader, and I knew I liked stories.  English was always my best subject.  I remember the fateful day here, atRandolphSouthern, in what I believe was ninth grade homeroom.  We were filling out these these short surveys for opting into college or university mailing lists, which you may or may not still do.  There was a little section on this thing where you had to put in your career plans.  Now I didn’t have a particular design in mind at this time, though obviously with my academic bent it made sense that I would function best in a scholastic environment.  But of course, the scholastic environment I was most familiar with at the time was high school.  So I looked up at my homeroom teacher, who was Mrs. Reed, and I asked something like, “Hey, do you think I should be a teacher?”

She paused for a moment, deliberated, and said, “You would make a good college professor.”

And I, in my 15 years of innocence, thought:  Yes.  Yes I would.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  Or it will be history eventually.  I’m not a professor yet, but barring catastrophe, it’ll probably happen.  The point of this story is to get across how incredibly single-minded I am.  The nicer way to put that is to say I’m driven.  I’ve known exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my life, more or less, for almost ten years.  I’m not deluded; I know that this isn’t how most people operate.  In fact most of my friends my age – some who aren’t in grad school, and even some of the ones who are – have no idea what they want to do.  The position you guys are in, just getting ready to leave high school, isn’t necessarily any better. The question in the same.  What’s going to come next?

You might be so impressed with me right now that you are thinking, yeah, this guy’s pretty on top if it, I could go to college and then go to grad school.  So let me give you some perspective on what exactly I’ve gotten myself into.  I am 23 years old – in a few weeks I’ll be 24.  I’ve so far spent 17 of those years in some sort of school, and if I get my PhD at 29, that’ll be 22 years.  Rounding up, I will have spent 76% of my life in the classroom or doing homework.  And what will I have to show for it?  Well obviously, Michael – you say – you’ll have your MA and your PhD and you’ll get a tenure-track position at a teaching college and pull a livable salary.  To that I say: hmmmm, maybe.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, tellingly titled “The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps” shows something rather frightening: in 2007, the year I graduated from Southern, there were 9,800 people with doctorates receiving federal living assistance.  In 2010 that number rose to 33,700.  Of course, I’m lucky – PhD candidates like me often receive more financial aid from their institutions.  For folks who just got their master’s, in 2007 there were 102,000 degree holders receiving aid, and a whopping 293,000 in 2010.

I should think it’s obvious that economically the country is not right now in the best possible position.  This is true even in – perhaps especially in – academia.  States are cutting funding, and private donors are finding fewer opportunities or less of an inclination to be generous.  Austerity measures at many educational institutions mean eliminating perceived extraneous teaching positions, minimizing the number of tenured faculty and increasing the number of adjuncts.  In other words, there are fewer solid job opportunities for people like me.  At the same time undergraduate tuition costs are going up and students are taking out more and more loans to pay for it.  The total student loan debt in theUSis over 1 trillion dollars, and it’s rising.  But many students are finding that, upon taking on all this loan debt in hopes that it will pay off once they have their degrees, there aren’t any jobs for them once they graduate.  So they go to work in the service industry, where the degree nets them approximately zero benefits.  And eventually, thinking that a higher degree will net them a better salary, they start looking at grad school.

It’s only natural to think this way.  All of us, at one point or another, have probably been assured that the more education you have, the better your life will be – the better your job, the better your income.  We were not lied to.  That used to be true.  But from where I’m standing right now, it’s not true anymore – and it may not be true again for a while.  Things are changing.  17 years of school under my belt, I don’t even have my final degree, and my generation is already looking at one of the worst job markets in recent history, regardless of level of education.

So the question again arises: what, Michael, have you done?  Or to put the emphasis on that question more correctly: Michael, what have you done?

Now here’s the part where you probably start thinking I’m a little insane.  Because this is the part where I tell you, with utmost sincerity and gravitas, that I’m not unhappy with anything that I’ve done – or what I haven’t done, or what I haven’t yet done.  As I said earlier, I know that I am doing the one thing that makes me happy.  I mean, it is literally my job to read books and write papers, and teach other people to read books and write papers.  I’m playing to my strengths.  And if making bank was my ultimate goal, I would never have wanted to become a college instructor in the first place, economic climate regardless.  So where do I get off being so pleased with myself?  My reasoning is this:

We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.  That’s a proverb I was very recently reminded of when attending a speech by the poetry scholar and Quaker thinker Paul Lacey.  “We all have to drink from wells we did not dig.”  It may seem lately that the wells dug for us offer less than palatable waters, or in some cases, are running dry altogether.  And those bitter waters may make us bitter.  But the danger here is to forget, in our anger and bitterness, our own responsibility to dig new wells for the future. This was Paul Lacey’s point in invoking this proverb: to emphasize not only our dependence on the communities that precede us, rear us, and nurture us, but the importance of remembering that we ourselves are responsible for rearing the generation to come.  And so I find myself here today, back in the community that nurtured me, with that thought in particular pressing on my mind.  Things will not get better unless, together, we make it happen.  If the wells dug for us go bad, then we dig new ones.  And it’s our responsibility to remember that these wells will not belong only to us.

All of my statistics about the postgraduate lifestyle was probably not incredibly relevant to you.  I can perhaps alleviate some of the fear I may have instilled by saying that if your field of interest is the hard sciences, things look a bit brighter for you: funding is tight, but not as tight as is in the humanities, and the availability of private sector work for scientists means more job opportunities.  At the end of the day, I’m an academic, so apart from that, I can’t speak to each of you out there, not as personally as I’d like to be able to, about your situations and futures.  You have your own plans, proclivities, interests and uncertainties.  Maybe you’re going to go after an undergraduate degree, and maybe you won’t.  Maybe you’ll take a few years off, maybe you’ll join the military, maybe you’ll just get a job and live your life.   What matters is passion and confidence.  I’ve been able to make my choices because I was lucky enough to know early on what I was good at and what I could do with myself.  Feeling confident in what I can do and what I will do has helped me get this far.

Finding a similar confidence is a task you now face.  What can do you with your life to fully occupy the world that is to come, the one outside these doors, the world that we will make together?  Each of you will encounter personal and social circumstances which are, in varying degrees, both similar to and distinct from those I’ve encountered.  It is true, in a broad, cultural sense, that many of the problems you will face will be the problems I face.  We are close enough in age, you and me, to be in this together.  But generations are tricky things.

Five years ago, in 2007, when I was up here giving my salutatorian speech, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut in saying that true terror is waking up one morning and realizing your high school class is running the country.  Now, us ‘07 kids, we’re almost there.  I can feel that encroaching terror.  For all my self-deprecation, I am on my way to becoming a gatekeeper of higher education.  Whether or not the field recovers from its current unfavorable state, whether or not I get a job after I get my degree, for the next few years I’ve at least put myself into a position of digging new wells.  In the fall, I’ll officially be an Associate Instructor at Indiana University Bloomington.  My job will be teaching IU’s intro to composition course to first-year students.  I will have a greater effect on their early undergraduate education than any other teacher, because it will be my responsibility to impart to them the skills necessary to navigate the years to follow.  If any of you are going toBloomingtonin the fall and end up in a class called W131, I may be your instructor.  I’ve already been installed as an authority figure for you, as weird as it is for me to think about that.

At some point, yes, you will realize that your high school class is in charge of running the country.  You may not think you’re ready now, and you may not think you’re ready in five years or even ten.  But that doesn’t matter.  The fact that I’m standing here, right now, speaking to you, only further proves that point.  Whether I feel ready for it or not, whether I’ve done something or not, the world is asking me to step up.  I’m being asked to dig some more wells, and so that’s what I’ll try to do.

Today, class of 2012, I can offer you, I think, one solid piece of advice.  You have just accomplished something remarkable – you’ve made it to your high school graduation.  But I speak from experience when I say that the troublesome thing about accomplishments is that no matter how amazing and world-ending they may seem in the moment, you keep doing stuff afterward, or you at least keep being asked to do stuff.  You will start to feel like you have to live up to the things you’ve already done, and you will start to feel like maybe you can’t.  As this goes on, it may eventually start to feel like you haven’t done anything at all.  But that’s only natural; remember that while today you celebrate, you still have the entirety of your lives ahead.  You still have wells to dig, though you may not know where you and how you’ll do it, in all the large and small ways now available to you.  As it turns out, the value of not having accomplished anything is, in fact, immense: it is a driving force, a point of both profound anxiety and sublime motivation.

Not having accomplished anything means knowing you still have something yet to do.

So let’s get on with it, Class of 2012.  Let’s do this.

I graduated a year ago

when i went to my alma mater’s graduation yesterday i was overcome with an intense feeling of mixed nostalgia and incredible sadness, because as i watched all of my friends who were only a year younger than i grab their little pieces of paper and pose smilingly  it occurred to me that so long as i didn’t visit the campus, so long as i didn’t see this happening, i could have maintained a little fantasy in my head that though i had left, all of these friends of mine would still be there, still doing what they had always done, having the same sorts of parties and petty squabbles we had always had, and in that sense the thing i lost was more the thing i left.  but that really isn’t how this works. if i go back in four years i will know nobody except faculty, not that they don’t count for anything, but the ecosystem which i had personally inhabited will be entirely grown over, replaced, the landscape uncanny and new and not for me.

a friend who graduated yesterday observes this morning in her facebook status, as she prepares to move out:

i don’t know how to do this.

and my response, my thought based on my year turned out:

you know how sometimes you have a dream, really good or really bad or just plain vivid, and after you wake up it kind of stays with you? and you think about it a lot while drinking your coffee and eating breakfast but eventually the day goes on and other things happen, the thousand little mundane expectations and frustrations, and you forget about it for a day or two or a week or however long but then, suddenly, for no real reason, you remember it and it seems just as real to you at that moment as it did when you woke up from it and you experience a sensation of heartclenching injustice at the fact that something so real could so easily and quickly become unreal, and yet at the same time leaving you incapable of not feeling what you still know to be its reality? and you do this again and again as time goes on, forgetting and remembering the dream sometimes at random, or sometimes because you want to tell someone the story, or sometimes because simply and frankly it feels good to feel that way, to remember that even if things aren’t real now at one point they were, at one point every dream you ever had was the realest thing that ever happened to you?

it’s sort of like that. you do it like that.

2011: Arcs, the Apocalypse, and American Horror Story

My review of last year opened with a rather definitive statement.  There will be no such statement this year.

2011 was a different sort of year, a more difficult year, a year of complication and nuance and building and unraveling and expectation and perhaps — overall — fear.

When speaking of narrative a term that gets thrown around a lot is “arc.”  Where does a character start, and where do they end up?  The thing about life is that you’re always starting somewhere and ending up somewhere else, and then starting again.  You never really stop moving.  2011 was the year many arcs ended, and when many other began.

2011 was the year of learning what it means to occupy; to learn its dangers, and its signification.  American Horror Story is not just the name of a hit new series on FX, it’s also a buzzy phrase for our current political and economic clusterfuck.

But, then again, it’s also the name of a hit new series on FX.

I watched it recently, and American Horror Story is pretty good.  It did its homework on haunted house movies, and it’s got some visual flair.  It’s also one of the most sloppily written things I’ve seen in the past few years — there are, perhaps, no ghosts, just the mournful whisper of wind through the gaping and multitudinous plot holes.

But then there are also actually the ghosts.  The fact that the show is so poorly written means that, when you get right down to it, the character arcs make no sense.  Stories of haunting, as I’ve written on this blog before, often deal with that which has been denied or displaced or forgotten, the problems we’ve neglected to face but which still occupy, however nebulously, some space in our lives.  To save you from any spoilers, suffice it to say that the arc of American Horror Story does not attempt to navigate this hauntological cohabitation of the past and present.  What it does is cheat, in at least two ways.

One is the introduction of an apocalypse storyline — something the latest season of Dexter danced around as well — which is probably the most boring thing imaginable in a horror story for me.  The antichrist, the fruition of Revelation — so fucking what?  Supernatural or horror-inclined shows need to learn is that betting the whole damn farm only makes me think you’re not taking the game seriously.  The stakes are so high they’re meaningless.

The second way AHS cheats is a bit more subtle.  Though it wants us to think the apocalypse is a Bad Thing, total annihilation is in fact the only workable way out offered by the logic of the plot.  The only way our ghosts can be overcome — or at least, cohabitated with — is to be ghosts ourselves.  To force ourselves to belong to the past, or as the past seems to those who inhabit it, in a character’s words, “one long today.”

The apocalypse is the end of futurity.  If there is no future, there can be ghosts.  The ghosts become us, or we them.

Interesting, then, that the world is supposed to end in 2012.  I doubt this, of course, but I guess I could be proven wrong.

But for the time being, no matter what American Horror Story (the series or the situation) suggests, I rather think I’d like to continue soldiering on into the future, with my ghosts in tow.

In 2010 my life was working to a clear, definite point.  It was a time of transition but that transition’s nature felt solid.  The solidity fell to pieces in 2011, when many things happened.  These weren’t necessarily bad things; my graduation was one of them.  I am the first person in my family to obtain a four-year degree, a first-generation college student and, now, a first generation graduate student.  These are wonderful things.

And they are frightening things.  I am on my own now, further afield than any chick from the ancestral nest.  My friendships from undergrad, though they maintain in some ways thanks to modern technological convenience, have ended their arcs for now.  I need to build new relationships, I need to find new ways to occupy the world I’ve made for myself, and that others have made and will make for me.

It would be dishonest to not here mention the one arc still hanging from undergrad: the most frightening and the most wonderful thing of all about 2011.  She knows who she is, and to her I say thank you.  Thank you for staying in this story, even as it got messy.

For the rest of you, I wish you and all your ghosts a happy new year.

Texts from Last Night

The library here is a lot stranger than any others I’ve ever been in.

It’s two towers of aging Indiana limestone that have stood here for forty years and for all I know might stand for forty more.  Unlike most major university libraries students are allowed to browse the stacks freely, which is of course quite a privilege, and something that makes me excited to have it at a resource.  Actually being there, however, is quite an experience.

It’s far larger than any academic library I’ve been in, and thinking about the books it’s acquired throughout the years — for the first time in my life if I want to read something I can almost guarantee it’s close by — it’s a little unsettling.  On one hand, it’s exciting to consider all of those books around me, all of those things freely available for me to pick up and read.  On the other it makes me intensely aware that there are many more books available to me than I could ever read, literal decades of accumulated attempts at communication, more than I could ever comprehend or understand or synthesize into a coherent whole.

This becomes especially pertinent if you hit the library during a slow period, or if you end up in part of the stacks where no one usually goes, and have plenty of time on your hands.  You may be surprised at what you find.

I was on the ninth floor of the east tower — the highest you’re allowed to go if you’re not staff — when I first saw the phone.  It was probably the beginning of September and I was dropping by to pick up some books for a possible research project.  I stepped out of the elevator and into the small hallway situated in the dead center of the stacks.  Immediately across from the elevator bank are the restrooms, plus a table supporting a yellowed dictionary (which seemed adorably quaint to me upon first glance) and I noticed, right by that, a purple cell phone.

Cell phones aren’t unusual, of course, and I figured this one wasn’t my problem.  Someone had left it — probably after sending a text or making a call, which incidentally is a big no-no since cell phone use is prohibited beyond the main lobby.  After waiting around for a few minutes, listening for anyone approaching or to see if anyone ducked out of one of the nearby bathrooms, I realized that the owner probably wasn’t going to come back any time soon. Because I’m something of a Good Samaritan, I decided to take the phone down to the Lost and Found, after I got the Milton biography I came for.

I grabbed the cell phone — a purple Motorola — and slipped it into my bag before running my errands.

It wasn’t until I got back to my apartment that I realized I’d forgotten about the phone entirely.  I’d been distracted in the stacks and gotten a deal more than the Milton bio I was aiming for, and the Motorola had slipped my mind.  I found it when I emptied out my bag and instantly felt a sharp pang of embarrassment.  Of course, all was not lost.  I just turned the phone on.

I already mentioned it was a Motorola.  It was also marked as a Verizon phone, and beyond being purple was mostly nondescript.  It was one of the models that slides open to reveal a perpendicular QWERTY keyboard.  It also had a camera, but the background was what looked like a default image: two figures silhouetted against a sunset on a beach.  Above that the time was displayed, the signal strength (good), and the battery life (about half).  My plan was to see who the last person contacted was and hit them up letting them know a friend’s phone was missing, so I quickly navigated through the menus.

I discovered the lists of incoming and outgoing calls were both blank.  The text message in- and outboxes were likewise empty, and so was the address book.

I can’t say I wasn’t suspicious.  This simply wasn’t how people use phones. Yet, if someone had chosen to clear out their phone, well, more power to them, no matter how weird it was.  That just meant I had no way of getting it back to them on my own, and at the time I remember being distinctly grateful that the next day I could just drop it off at the library Lost and Found, as per my original plan, and be done with it.

So I set the phone aside, and went about my business.  It was a Wednesday, which meant my roommates would be out most of the evening for various reasons, so I took advantage of the situation by making full use of the kitchen.  I was dipping chicken thighs in Italian dressing when I got the first text.

I’d left the phone on, and right next to my own phone in the pile of homework I habitually keep on the kitchen table when I’m cooking.  There was no ringtone, only a setting to vibrate, so when the text came, I thought it was my own phone going off.  (I personally hate ringtones.)  But I was surprised to see, after washing my hands and heading over,  that it was the purple Motorola’s screen that had lit up with a message notification.  One new text message.

Thinking I might be able to return the phone in person after all, I opened the message.  It was prefaced by the number of the sender — no name, since there was nothing in the address book — and I could tell at first glance that the number wasn’t local.  The message said

are you home yet?

I hit reply and with fingers not at all used to the keyboard wrote back that I wasn’t the owner of the phone, that I’d found it in the library, but I’d be happy to return it if I could figure out who it belonged to.  I hit send and waited.

I expected a response within at least a few minutes.  In my admittedly limited experience with things like this, people are pretty prompt when a phone is missing.  But as it turned out, I didn’t get a response until half an hour later, after my chicken and sweet potatoes had been in the oven for a quarter of their bake time.  I was sitting at the table doing homework when the next text came.

are you home yet? this is harder than i thought lol

Confused I spent some time comparing the originating phone numbers  They were the same, but the second seemed oblivious to my reply to the first.  Not sure what to do, I replied again, something along the lines of, I’m sorry, this isn’t my phone, I said I found it, could you tell me who it belongs to?

The phone was silent again until I was doing dishes almost an hour later.  I took my time checking it, since I was already expecting something less than helpful, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed.

when they knocked i didnt answer so its ok. ive been drinking a little. ok maybe alot lol what about you?

Still the same number.  I didn’t respond to it this time, figuring that whoever was on the other side of this conversation was probably a bit more than drunk.  Instead, as a mild curiosity, I googled the number, idly fantasizing I’d find it associated with a Facebook page or something.  No such luck there, but I did manage to pin down a region: Rancho Palos Verdes, CA.  Nowhere close to local, but the university takes students from all over.

I shrugged this off as I went about my business, finishing up the dishes and moving on to more homework.  It occurred to me at one point that due to the time difference, my mystery correspondent was drinking a little (okay maybe a lot) at four in the afternoon.  Strange, but I hear they have odd ways in California.

Regardless of my own lack of response, I saw the purple phone had received yet another text after I got out of the shower.

hes been weird since you left

By this point I was beginning to feel a bit uneasy.  Whose phone was this, who was texting it, and why were they ignoring me?  I began to consider the possibility that this was an elaborate prank, or maybe part some psych doctoral student’s research project.  Of course it made me wonder what sort of prank or research project relied on people stealing a cell phone from a library and sending those people aimless texts.  I wondered if it were some sort of trolling gimmick — someone with money to blow was hoping to get a rise out of me, and would upload a transcript of my hilarious reactions to a cutting edge comedy website, or a 4chan board or something.

That still didn’t make any sense.

I got another text while I was pondering the possibilities, though.

i saw lights outside my window are you home yet

I swallowed.  It had to be a trick.  Someone’s dumb game.  Would I be playing into their plans if I called?

Only one way to find out.

I called the number and waited.  One ring, two rings, three rings, four and five and — someone picked up.  “Hello?” came a voice.  It sounded like a woman’s voice, maybe middle-aged.

“Hello,” I said, doing my best to organize my thoughts.  I honestly hadn’t expected anyone to answer and now I didn’t know what to say. “I’m not sure whose phone I’m calling from, I found it in the library here and when I received a text from your phone I tried asking for a name so I could–”

There was a groan.  “I’m so sick of this,” the woman said.  “Don’t you have anything better to do?”

Then she hung up on me.

I stared at the screen for a few moments, watching  CALL ENDED blink on the screen, and then set the phone aside again.  It was certainly some kind of trick, I decided.  I was getting texts from the woman’s number.  I got one just before I called her.  There was no way she didn’t know what I was referring to.  It was a prank, a really elaborate and inscrutable and asinine joke.

A bigger man, at this point, would have checked out, just turned the phone off.  But I was beginning to feel indignant and more than a little pissy toward whoever was orchestrating this game, and more than a little anxious to see if they tried anything further.  So I just set the phone aside on my night stand, right next to my own phone, and went about the rest of my nightly routine, finishing up reading for the next day’s classes.  As 11:30 rolled around, the purple phone hadn’t shown any signs of life.  I went to bed.

I’m a heavy sleeper, which somewhat explains what happens next.  How I remember it beginning is rolling over in bed during the night, as I think most people do, and becoming aware that something was off about the light level in the room.  That set me on the path for a full awakening, and as I smashed my face into my pillow in protest I became aware of a low buzzing sound.  The sound of a phone vibrating against my night stand.

I’d forgotten about the purple Motorola and immediately assumed it was my phone going off, that there was an emergency somewhere.  I reached out, my hand scrabbling around the nightstand until I felt my phone’s familiar case, and cracked open my eyes.

The screen was dark.  The light was coming from the other phone.  Memories returned and, irritated, I picked up the Motorola with the intention of turning it off.

That was when I caught sight of what the screen said.  It was not a call, of course, but a text message.  But not just one.  The screen said there were now 15 new messages.

I dropped the phone, my hand reaching out again for my glasses.  I blinked as I pulled them on, wondering if I’d read the screen correctly.  On the night stand the phone buzzed again as I picked it up.  16 new messages.

I hit a button, automatically opening the most recent.

im coming now let me in

I closed the message and frowned, still trying to get the sleep out of my eyes.  As I focused on the screen I noticed two things.  The first was that it was past two in the morning.  The second was that the battery icon was flashing.

But before I could fully comprehend that, the phone died, the screen flicking to black in an instant.  But in that instant I saw once again the background image, the wallpaper, that sunset.

Then I was alone in the dark.

I took the phone back to the library the next day, not even bothering to see if my own phone cord would suffice to recharge it.  I decided, after my night of intermittent sleep and uneasy dreams, that I didn’t want to see whatever else it had to say.

“Hey,” I said to the man behind the reference desk, “I was wondering if you had a Lost and Found here.”

“Sure do,” he said.  “Lose something?”

I shook my head and showed him the phone.  “I found that up in the stacks on the ninth floor,” I said.  “No one was around, so I figured if anyone came back looking for it they’d check here.”

“Ninth floor?” said the man.  “Thank you very much.”  He took the phone and dropped it somewhere below the counter as I walked away.

I wondered if I had imagined the look on his face when I set the phone down between us.  It was almost surprise, or rather, the look someone trying to hide surprise.  Or recognition.  Maybe I had imagined it, I decided.  Just like when I glimpsed the phone’s wallpaper for the last time, and in my confused, half-asleep state imagined I saw, standing black against an orange beachside sunset, a solitary silhouette where I had before seen two.


Last week I got a call from an unfamiliar number.  I usually don’t answer them but occasionally, if the mood strikes me, I will.

This time, after maybe four or five rings, I did.

“Hello?” I asked.  I was standing in the hallway of the apartment, just getting ready to head out for the night.

“Hello,” said a voice, a young woman’s voice.  “I’m sorry, I don’t know whose phone this is, I found it today, but you’ve been texting me and–”

I understood what was happening, at least on a surface level.  I suddenly understood, with perfect clarity, as if I could see it physically, what phone this girl had found.

But I still don’t know what came over me.  I knew, as she was speaking to me, exactly what it was I was going to say.  I don’t know why I said it, but with a heavy sigh I did: “I’m so sick of this.  Don’t you have anything better to do?”

And then I hung up.

My phone began to buzz in my hand almost immediately; she was calling me back.  I held down the red END button, watching as my phone’s screen went black, and I kept it off for the rest of the day.

When I turned it on the next morning, I was relieved to see there were no new messages.

You precious winners, all

OBVIOUSLY I have dropped the ball the past few weeks in blogging, but there has been infinitely good reason for this!

Well perhaps not infinitely.

Anyway, the last three weeks or so have been super crazy for me because I have had to deal with Spring Break (woooooooo) and a convergence of schoolwork that I hadn’t really scheduled out in any meaningful way.  This PREDICTABLY came back to bite me in the ass.  The title of this post comes from The Winter’s Tale, which I’ve been teaching lately in position as a TA for the college’s Shakespeare class, and it’s been a good time.  I have a very strange relationship to this play, I think, in that I’ve read it a few times now and seen a few productions, and I can never quite get it to gel, but there are little hints in it of something greater.  Perhaps someday I will be able to articulate at length exactly what those hints are????

But also there has been good news.  I’ve mentioned somewhere before that I plan on going to grad school.  The good news is that this is probably happening?  I got a really generous offer from a good program, and they invited me down to check the place.  I spent last weekend slumming around the campus, which at the time was hosting a pretty neat research conference.  I really liked the atmosphere of the English department there, and the faculty were all quite nice, and so I accepted their offer of admission earlier this week.  Once all the paperwork gets hammered out, I’ll move and etc.

Soon I will be able to rant about Shakespeare and I’ll get to say I’m a GRADUATE STUDENT, which makes it totally more plausible that the things I am saying are not bullshit.  Isn’t this exciting, guys?!

Other reasons I have been busy: preparing for a speech I have to give next week and a research conference I’m presenting at halfway through the month, and also another research conference at the end of May.  Oh and I suppose I have to find time to do some classwork and graduate at the end of April.  Needless to say my life is crowded currently, but I am developing a writing itch, by which I mean I haven’t actually written fiction in a while and there are enough ideas bouncing around in my head that one of them will have to be put down pretty soon.  This might (might) be the blog project I mentioned a few entries ago, but that depends on whether or not I can get the specifics to come together.  The beginning is there, and there’s sort of a middle, but nothing like a feasible wrap-up.

And speaking of fiction: I have another story appearing somewhere soon!  I’ll have the link for you here when it drops.  Hopefully it is a story you like!

I will leave you with this video about black metal:

Hey cats and kittens

Not much exciting news to relay this week, other than my pal and yours Mr. JOEL GOLBY has finally got off his bum and put up a website for his comics, and you can see it right here.  Super cool!  I’ve known Joel for a while but we met up in person for the first time when I was in London and he bought me Earl Grey.  That’s how you know someone is truly worthy of being your friend and also British!

Also once he drew a picture of me, and it looked like this (I did the colors):

he was! he was RAD!

That is really pretty accurate, just so you know.  Joel is very honest and true-to-life in all his artistic endeavors.

ALSO: I am going to see a production of Comedy of Errors tomorrow night, which will probably be reviewed next Friday.  After that I’m on Spring Break and I maybe will try to initiate a little short fiction project here!  Super exciting, but it depends on how well I can get things to hang together.


Here I Am

2010 was probably the best year of my life.  I say this without exaggeration.

Throughout the last year, for various reasons, I’ve been contemplating the way we devise narratives with our lives.  We read our lives, so to speak, in the same way we read stories: we look for beginnings, middles, and ends; we look for progression and change and development.  These things are not there, in the objective sense — unless you subscribe to the notion of God as a master author/reader — but things we construct in our own contemplation.  We want our lives to be stories; we need stories to give form and order to our existence.  This is all stuff you’ll hear more on in the new year, when I begin serializing my final senior essay on literature.

I’ve often thought that my life, as a story, is not one worth telling.  This is why blogging as an autobiographical platform holds little appeal for me; the narrative of my life is of interest to pretty much me and, perhaps, those closest to me.  Not you, Stranger on the Internet.

But it has become increasingly obvious that if there is, so far, a time in my life worth writing about, it is the year 2010.  It was, as I said, the best year of my life.

I mean this in a qualified sense.  I don’t mean that nothing but good things happened to me this year; in fact quite a few unfortunate things happened.  But it was the best year of my life in that I end it feeling fulfilled, because many things happened, and many of them were exciting or interesting.  Most of all, they have made me more like me, if you follow.  I am more myself now than I have ever been.

Another way of putting it is that 2010 in the Life of Michael actually makes a pretty good story.

I began this year by moving to London for four months — an adventure in and of itself, a wonderful experience that I’m grateful for having.  Then I moved out on my own for the first time, temporarily.  I sold and published my first short story.  I completed an independent research project and I helped teach a summer literature course.  In the fall, I reunited with what I suddenly understood was an extensive and important network of friends.  For the first time, I recognized how much I like the people around me.  I also realized, quite abruptly, that the cold steel barrel of my senior year was pressed against my forehead.  In response, I applied to grad schools.  Yesterday morning, I was woken up by an earthquake.

Other things happened, things great and small, things you wouldn’t care about, but they happened and I am glad they did.  I made it through, somehow, alive.

I am inclined to say that 2010 was a turning point, that I can definitively say in the future that, after this year, things were different.  Things will be different.  I am a different person now than I was 12 months ago.

In the sense of Heraclitus, this is true every year.  But it’s never been so obviously true.

I can’t say with certainty — Heraclitus again, or maybe Hume! — that 2010 was a turning point, or even really as important in the long run as it seems.  But I know that right now, it was one of the most significant years of my life, maybe a defining chapter in the narrative of my life, and here I’d like to take a moment to publicly thank all of you who made it what it was, and made me what I am.  I can’t help but cast myself as the protagonist and you all as the supporting characters — the great but necessary lie of autobiography — but I hope that in your own stories, you’re ending the year as fulfilled as I am.  And if not, then I hope the next chapter’s better.

Here is the last theory quote I stumbled upon in my senior research.  It’s about the intertwining of life and narrative, and of life and fiction I’ve been discussing and will discuss in my senior paper.  It comes from the essay “Fictional Protocols” in the collection Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by one of my great heroes and influences, Umberto Eco. I leave you, and 2010, with it:

At any rate we will not stop reading fictional stories, because it is in them that we seek a formula to give meaning to our existence.  Throughout our lives, after all, we look for a story of our origins, to tell us why we were born and why we have lived.  Sometimes we look for a cosmic story, the story of the universe, or for our own personal story (which we tell our confessor or our analyst, or which we write in the pages of a diary).  Sometimes our personal story coincides with the story of the universe.

It happened to me, as the following piece of natural narrative will attest.

Several months ago I was invited to the Science Museum of La Coruña, in Galicia.  At the end of my visit the curator announced that he had a surprise for me and led me to the planetarium.  Planetariums are always suggestive places because when the lights are turned off, one has the impression of being in a desert beneath a starlit sky.  But that evening something special awaited me.

Suddenly the room was totally dark and I could hear a beautiful lullaby by de Falla.  Slowly (though slightly faster than in reality, since the presentation lasted fifteen minutes in all) the sky above me began to rotate.  It was the sky that had appeared over my birthplace, Alessandria, Italy, on the night of January 5-6, 1932.  Almost hyperrealistically, I experienced the first night of my life.

I experienced it for the first time, since I had not seen that first night.  Perhaps not even my mother saw it, exhausted as she was by giving birth; but perhaps my father saw it, after quietly stepping out onto the terrace, a little restless because of the (to him at least) wondrous event which he had witnessed and which he had jointly caused.

The planetarium used a mechanical device that can be found in a great many places.  Perhaps others have had a similar experience.  But you will forgive me if during those fifteen minutes I had the impression that I was the only man, since the dawn of time, who had ever had the privilege of being reunited with his own beginning.  I was so happy that I had the feeling — almost the desire — that I could, that I should, die at that very moment, and that any other moment would have been untimely.  I would cheerfully have died then, because I had lived through the most beautiful story I had read in my entire life.  Perhaps I had found the story that we all look for in the pages of books and on the screens of the movie theaters: it was the story in which the stars and I were protagonists.  It was fiction because the story had been reinvented by the curator; it was history because it recounted what had happened in the cosmos at a moment in the past; it was real life because I was real, and not the character of a novel.  I was, for a moment, the model reader of the Book of Books.

That was a fictional wood I wish I had never had to leave.

But since life is cruel, for you and for me, here I am.

Initiate finals week in 3, 2, 1

So hey I go to college!  I used to be pretty secretive about where exactly but given recent links I’ve posted this semester it is not entirely a secret anymore.  So if you want to know what kind of school I go to, you should check out this blog.

Also, because I go to college, I am getting ready to start the first finals week of my senior year.  Oh gosh, guys!  Just think, this time last year I was all freaking out over going to London and basking in the glory of American Psycho… which reminds me, they are making an American Psycho musical.  Isn’t that a terrible idea!  Or maybe the best idea?  If all the songs are done in the style of 80s power ballads or other era-appropriate music is might actually be pretty amusing.

I case you couldn’t tell I don’t have any profound thoughts this week so I’m just collating some links.  Once things wind down I’ll maybe get back to thinking about dumb things to say about popular books or movies, and then we will be right on track!  In the meantime, watch this and think of me.

This blogging thing

Sometimes it seems like a bad idea to do this blog every Friday, especially on the Fridays when I have nothing important to say — not even literary criticism quotes! — and this Friday is one of them.  The year is winding down, I got a few final papers to write up, some drafts of some stories to do, and three more grad school applications to finish.

However, it is cold, and there is snow, so let’s enjoy the beginning of this wondrous season with a special performance by my new favorite musical artist, OtamaTone.