Dome on the Range

It’s been getting harder, I’ll admit: harder to get up in the morning; harder to accomplish tasks for work, such as they are; harder to start updates like this and then finish them. It’s been five or six weeks since I began sheltering at home; other than walking the dogs, the only time I leave the house is to pick up groceries or go to church, where I am involved in livestreaming services. During that time I’ve dealt with the stress of maintaining hygiene when I go out–washing hands, not getting coughed on, etc.–but last week I started getting stressed out just from being home all the time: I wanted to get out, to go somewhere, to do anything. So, I get the stir-craziness of people who want to get things back to normal by any means necessary (of course, the “protests” and such are almost entirely ginned-up by people who have direct financial interests in getting things going and won’t have to face the risks of being on the front lines at retail and service businesses; the same people who got crowds out yelling about “death panels” during the debate over the ACA have decided that a few thousand preventable deaths are now just the price of economic freedom).

But realistically, I just don’t see how it’s going to be possible without rigorous and reliable testing and a stronger social safety net in general. I miss live music and movies, too (contrary to what I said in my last quarantine update, the local drive-in didn’t open as it was deemed non-essential at the last minute), but they’re not worth taking my life in my hands. The government can and should have done much more in ensuring that people wouldn’t starve or be evicted while shelter-in-place orders are maintained. I’ve lost income, too, but I’m fortunate to be able to do at least some of my job from home. In any case, I have a lot more sympathy for someone who has to get out and go to work to keep essential services going than I do for someone who can’t play golf right now.

So, I haven’t made quite as much of the time on my hands as I might have; the schedule we keep our kids on isn’t very conducive to finishing my own work, but even when I have the free time to do my own thing I don’t always have the energy. I peruse Facebook and Twitter; sometimes I watch TV, but not as much as you’d think; I window-shop online, filling virtual shopping carts with sale items and then letting them expire, deciding that I don’t really need anything that badly. It has given me a new perspective on science fiction works about people living in bunkers and shelters, and the psychological effects of that isolation: in short, it’s harder than it looks. Although I didn’t feel like digging into it too deeply last week, I’m sure that my newfound interest in Logan’s Run–about a self-contained community of people living in isolation, looking for distractions, while the social forces around them convince them that old people are expendable, and really who is going to miss them?–is not entirely a coincidence (that’s another blog post that I should have been able to put together in a day or two that limped on for a week and a half before I finally finished it).

Comparisons between the current coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic and the influenza epidemic of 1918 have also caused me to rethink some things: a few years ago, I wrote about the phrase “purple death,” and how its appearances in pulp fiction and serials may have been a reference to the 1918 epidemic. To further the connection, I’ve been thinking about how teleconferencing software like Zoom, Skype, and Facetime has finally realized and mainstreamed the “video phone,” a mainstay of science fiction and pulp storytelling that never really caught on with the public in the twentieth century, no matter how much it was advertised or how many times we were promised that the technology was just around the corner. Video phones, a natural extension of both television and telephone, appear early on in science fiction (a number of early depictions of television portray it as a two-way device: Fredersen uses one in the 1927 film Metropolis, for example); how useful such a device would have been for those who were quarantined during the influenza epidemic (or similar quarantines for polio)! Even the telephone, already in widespread use in 1918, had limits: you couldn’t just call someone up and chat for hours. But for a pulp writer, stuck inside, a technology that allowed him to see friends and family face-to-face without any risk of spreading infection: well, in that situation it’s not hard to see the video phone as a practical solution to a real problem instead of just unbridled technophilia.

Finally, since I live in a neighborhood that is basically suburban in character even if not literally in the suburbs, I’ve given a lot of thought to the self-containment that has always been a part of the promise of the suburbs. With its fenced-off yard, each suburban home is essentially a module in itself, and it could just easily be on the lunar surface or anywhere else as on earth. This was part of its appeal from the beginning, and the connection to space colonization is not accidental: as detailed in Ken Hollings’ fascinating book Welcome to Mars: Fantasies of Science in the American Century 1947-1959, “An ever-expanding, subdivided tract of land, the suburbs constitute the location for a project that will connect humanity directly with outer space, with the future and with its own emergent inner self. . . . In its self-contained isolation, the suburban colony becomes a model for life not just on this planet but on all the others too.” The suburbs are a template for the domed space colonies of Asimov, Heinlein, and the Jetsons. More to the point, as Hollings continues, “At the same time, this self-contained isolation will eventually establish the suburbs as a complex psychiatric community where aberrations such as alcoholism, schizophrenia and sexual deviancy can be studied in clinical depth by an increasing number of sociologists, psychiatrists and cultural anthropologists. It will also supply the pharmaceutical companies with a growing number of customers for a new generation of drugs.” This is more like what you get when you read Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard.

Why is this on my mind? The Atomic Age has a double meaning: yes, the splitting of the atom, for warfare or for civilian power, is the obvious engine for the growth and change that drove images of the future back then. But atomization, disintegration into discrete particles, each cut off from its neighbors, is implicit as well, a metaphor for the breaking of bonds that hitherto held society together. I fear that is what we are experiencing now–not collapse, necessarily, but at least drift–without some form of connection, well, what are we left with? I should acknowledge that in the scheme of things, I’m pretty lucky. Suburban self-isolation is a privilege. Things could be worse. As we’ve been reminded, I’m doing my job by staying home and avoiding the spread of infection. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m looking forward to the day the bubble opens, I can take off my helmet, and step out into the sun again, breathing deeply.

The Big Q

Well, like a lot of people, I’m stuck at home for the time being, practicing “social distancing” due to the spread of coronavirus/COVID-19. As it probably has for most everyone, the rapidity with which my life has changed has come as a shock, and I’m still adjusting. So far, those around me are healthy and getting used to the new normal. But I won’t deny that it sucks, and it’s probably going to take a while to get better. For myself, much of what I do–writing, composing, maintaining this blog–is already “work from home,” so I’m used to setting my own hours and doing personal projects on my own. But I don’t think I had realized how much the other things I do that get me out of the house–teaching lessons, directing my church’s choir, and running errands with my kids–gave structure to the hours at home, keeping it from seeming like one unending day off.

With live music venues closing down, freelancing has dried up for me. Movie theaters are closed (although the drive-in is still open). I’m fortunate that I still have church activities to participate in, as we have shifted to livestreaming services on Sundays, but it’s just me singing the hymns with my wife, the pianist, as the choir has been instructed to stay home. I can also teach lessons (for now), but most of the students who are continuing are switching to distance learning via Skype or Facetime, so that too has changed. Oh, and did I mention that schools in Kansas have closed until at least the end of the school year? Hello, homeschooling!

The amount of connectivity and the ability to stay in contact via social media is a great blessing, of course, even if it comes with the double-sided urge to simply keep refreshing Facebook and Twitter to glean the latest scraps of news or conversation. I had actually cut my Facebook use way back at the beginning of the year, but I’m glad I didn’t delete it completely, since it’s become so critical for livestreaming and staying in touch.

Like many, I have been trying to put the extra hours at home to good use. The rhetoric around self-isolation has been interesting to see, at least among the creative class: at first there were reminders along the lines that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while in quarantine from the plague; then there were acknowledgements that, hey, you don’t have to put that much pressure on yourself, and if binge-watching Netflix is what you need for self-care, then don’t feel guilty about it. For my own part, I don’t think I’m watching any more TV or movies than I was before. I’ve found it necessary to have some kind of schedule, however loose, and things to keep me active, including firing up the old Wii to acquaint myself with the fitness programs I never bothered to try before. I agree that there’s no need to pressure yourself to achieve something great, but I think it’s important to engage the mind and body so you don’t just melt into the couch. You might not end up with a masterpiece, but it’s the process, not the end product, that’s important right now. (And if you just need a little encouragement to start something you’ve been wanting to try, here it is: Go for it! What have you got to lose?)

So I have dedicated some time to things I’ve put off, including putting together a Shop page for this blog to replace my too-static homepage for Prime Material Press, the publishing outfit I started to market some of my ragtime piano pieces years back. I still have inventory of printed copies of those pieces, but I’m also planning to use the Shop page to make pdfs of some unpublished pieces available. I hope to update the Shop frequently, but for now it at least contains samples and ordering instructions. I have also included a link to Paraclete Press, which published my choral anthem “We Are Summoned” in January (you can order directly from them or through your local music retailer); hopefully choirs will soon be able to meet in person again to rehearse and perform it!

As for the immediate future, I have some plans in mind for future posts on Medleyana. As I promised at the beginning of the year, I had hoped to post more this year; February was a bit fallow, but hey! It’s not too late! Look for upcoming installments of Fates Worse Than Death and capsule reviews of movies and books in the coming weeks.

Before I go: drop a line in the comments and say hi! Are you in self-isolation? If not in the U.S., how are things in your country?What are conditions like? How are you dealing with social distancing if you are practicing it? Thanks for reading, and stay well!

Medleyana: Year Three

Well, another year of blogging has passed, and that means it’s time to write a “state of the blog” post again. I can tell this has been a busy year for me, at least based on the gap between posts earlier this spring. As I said then, I’ve given myself permission to not write unless I have something to say, but I still find the discipline and structure of blogging helpful for making myself finish things. Speaking of finishing, I’m finally nearing the end of a project that has taken a lot of my writing time and is probably the number one reason I haven’t posted as frequently in 2016 (more on that as it develops).

I suppose I don’t really have much to say in comparison to previous yearly summaries, but as always I want to say “thank you” to those of you who subscribed, commented, and shared links to Medleyana. I appreciate the feedback and fellowship. And in that spirit, I’d like to turn outward and recommend a few other online sources that I rely on and enjoy.

noiselesschatterbanner

First off, I still follow Philip J. Reed at Noiseless Chatter; like Medleyana, Noiseless Chatter covers a wide range of topics–whatever Philip and his guests feel like discussing–so it’s hard to point to a representative sample. Philip recently wrapped up a long, intensive dive into ALF, the television series about an alien puppet who lives with a suburban family and eats cats (seriously, I was never really a fan of the show, but Philip goes into much greater detail). Other articles have provided thoughtful looks at popular culture, the creative process, and heavy topics like mental health and suicide prevention (Philip’s response to the death of Robin Williams, and the dialogue that followed, is one of his finest moments, as far as I’m concerned). If you’ve followed Medleyana for long, you’ve probably seen me mention Noiseless Chatter before, but if you haven’t checked it out yet, what are you waiting for?

swampflix2

I’ve also recently been taken with New Orleans-based Swampflix, a movie review and discussion site run by fellow Dissolver Brandon Ledet, among others. Swampflix casts a wide net in its reviews and articles, including up-to-date releases and older films going all the way back to the silent era, “from the heights of art cinema to the depths of basic cable schlock.” That’s a mandate I can get behind, and it’s just as much fun to read about films I’ve seen to get the writers’ insights and perspectives as it is to browse their reviews to get recommendations for new things to watch.

wltw

Like many sites these days, Swampflix has also spun off into a podcast. I’m not a very regular listener to podcasts–I enjoy them, but it’s not quite a habit for me–but I’ve enjoyed the episodes I’ve listened to. Another podcast I’ve found entertaining and informative is We Love to Watch (formerly Listen To Our Podcast), by Aaron Armstrong and Peter Moran (in addition to their website, they’re on Stitcher and iTunes). They cover a variety of genre and exploitation movies, as well as a few higher-profile selections that dip into those areas (like Deliverance). They’ve also sometimes covered the same movies as Swampflix, giving an interesting range of opinions and perspectives (like when they both covered 1981’s Possession, a bizarre and unsettling film I also caught up with earlier this summer).

I would be remiss if I failed to include the blog of Rick Kelley, aka Luddite Robot, whose coverage of film is deep and always well-researched, and who doesn’t shy away from the political implications of works, even while acknowledging their power (he’s right on about the flimsy allegory of Metropolis, but it’s still one of my favorite films).

Finally, I also want to recommend fellow Dissolver Zack Clopton’s Film Thoughts. Zack is a true “monster kid,” a fan of all kinds of horror and genre fare, as well as a collector of monster toys and action figures. He both writes knowledgeably about a wide range of movies (his “Director Report Card” series is a highlight) and reflects on what those movies have meant to him in his life; Zack’s affection for the genre shines through in every post.

Thanks again for a great year!

Hi there! Wow, a month and a half sure flies by, doesn’t it? But I think I’ve given Pee-Wee Herman the top spot for long enough. More long-form content will appear on Medleyana soon, but in the mean time I haven’t been idle. If you missed it, you can catch up on Tune in Next Week, my ongoing series at The Solute in which I’ve been writing about the 1939 Buck Rogers serial one chapter at a time (and the most recent installment of which was just published yesterday). With only two chapters left to go, I’ll soon have a little more time to write over here.

Another project that has occupied me this spring is putting some more of my compositions on my long-neglected YouTube channel. I haven’t posted everything, but the pieces that are up represent a good cross-section of my output, including some of my ragtime piano, wind band, and electronic compositions. The big one is my symphony Carnival of Souls, recorded by the Wichita Wind Ensembles Professional Band in 2012.

If you haven’t already done so, I invite you to subscribe to Medleyana and/or follow me on Twitter to get instant notifications of updates and announcements. Thanks!

Medleyana: Year Two

A year or two before I began Medleyana, I idly mentioned my interest in starting a blog to a friend. “No one reads blogs anymore,” he said. That gave me pause, but eventually, I went ahead and started anyway, and the result is this blog, now two years old, give or take a day.

Within the first six months of blogging, I realized that a lot of my articles started with a reminiscence such as the one above, with the rest of the article enumerating the reasons the other person was wrong. I quickly found that as tempting as that rhetorical device can be, I needed to use it sparingly, lest the entire blog become a giant exercise in “staircase wit,” a compendium of the things I should have said, if I’d only had the presence of mind. (Of course, if I argued as vociferously in person as most people do on the internet, I’d have no friends left, online or off-.)

So, as I celebrate Medleyana’s second birthday, I don’t bring up that friend’s offhand comment to prove that he was wrong. In fact, in many ways, he was right: the time in which a blog could amass a large readership just by being out there is long passed. This summer has proven to be something of a reckoning, not just for bloggers but for all kinds of “long form” writers on the internet.

In addition to the abrupt closure of The Dissolve, “free-form” radio station WFMU’s Beware of the Blog ceased posting; as of July, both exist online now only as archives of past content. I’ll admit I wasn’t a regular visitor to WFMU’s blog lately, so maybe I’m part of the problem, but when I first discovered it I spent quite a bit of time browsing its posts and downloading files from its collections.

Looking at it now, its mixture of original articles and reposts of unusual tapes and records, comics, and other found oddities are a good example of what the web used to be like as recently as ten years ago. Industrious writers with scanners and mp3-editing software could clean out their closets and share whatever weird stuff they found with the world instantly. It’s not just that the early internet was less commercial in nature (although that’s certainly part of it–Beware of the Blog was a volunteer-driven affair): it was countercultural, picking up the habits of reclamation and subversion that had driven the alternative press in the ’80s and ’90s. And it went both ways: like many of the blogs and websites that emerged around the turn of the century, it developed a culture of users (both writers and commenters) that gave it an identity. In the past, I’ve compared online forums to bars or coffee shops that are always open, and that was especially true of the websites that attracted regulars, “where everybody knows your name.”

The passing of this ethos is part of what Vox editor Todd VanDer Werff laments when he calls 2015 “the year the old internet finally died:” now there’s so much emphasis on social media and going viral, it’s harder to create a website with an identity that is a destination, rather than a source of memes and videos to share. The content is often no less quirky than before, but the context is quite different: instead of being part of an ongoing discussion with a community of writers and commenters (something The Dissolve excelled at), each picture or link is encountered as part of the reader’s Facebook or Twitter feed; to the extent that it has any attribution, it’s more like a brand than a source to return to (one reason a lot of these meme-mills are radio stations). According to VanDer Werff, writers of longer articles (what used to be the expectation for writers and journalists) are in trouble unless they can also provide the quick hits that generate clicks.

Of course, Medleyana isn’t really playing on the same turf as The Dissolve (or the A.V. Club, or Grantland): it’s just me, not a staff of writers, and it’s a labor of love, not a job. But the landscape has changed for bloggers, as well: the same month that The Dissolve and Beware of the Blog shuttered, Iranian-Canadian blogger Hossein Derakhshan wrote about the world he remembered before he was sentenced to six years in an Iranian prison for his writing:

Blogs were gold and bloggers were rock stars back in 2008 when I was arrested. At that point, and despite the fact the state was blocking access to my blog from inside Iran, I had an audience of around 20,000 people every day. Everybody I linked to would face a sudden and serious jump in traffic: I could empower or embarrass anyone I wanted. People used to carefully read my posts and leave lots of relevant comments, and even many of those who strongly disagreed with me still came to read. Other blogs linked to mine to discuss what I was saying. I felt like a king.

Again, I’m not sure I have much in common with Derakhshan; it’s hard to read his comments and not feel that he mourns the influence he once wielded as much as the changing structure of the internet. And while he isn’t wrong about the changes in the way we exchange ideas online, there are simply more people writing then there were before, making it harder for individual voices to stand out. The friend I mentioned at the beginning of this post didn’t say anything about people not writing blogs anymore, after all.

More seriously, Derakhshan goes on to point out how commercialized and homogenized the dialogue is when it’s in the hands of corporate social networks like Facebook: “The Stream now dominates the way people receive information on the web. Fewer users are directly checking dedicated webpages, instead getting fed by a never-ending flow of information that’s picked for them by complex–and secretive–algorithms.” Those algorithms tend to emphasize what users have already shown that they like with their clicks and upvotes, contributing to the echo-chamber quality of such networks. That’s a fair concern, and one shared by many observers: that the internet will become more like television, with a fragmented but largely passive audience, faced with an infinitude of choices, but less likely to be challenged by different perspectives.

Ultimately, while my readership is not large, at least not in comparison to the heyday of the form, it has been growing: this summer’s Fates Worse Than Death has been a success, at least measured in comments and discussion (some of which have taken place, yes, on Facebook and Twitter). This year I stretched myself more to post on a weekly basis, and I experienced and learned about some fascinating films that I might not have been motivated to explore otherwise. And just personally, I’m pleased that I was able to stay on my self-imposed schedule with some late nights (and a few very late nights!). I’d probably try to keep this series going all year round but for two factors: first, it’s too time-consuming, and I would burn out if I tried to keep it up for much longer; second, I have other things I’d like to pursue as well. To those of you who may have found your way here for coverage of serials, I hope you’ll check out some of the other topics. And rest assured that I’ll still be covering them in one way or the other.

Finally, thanks for visiting, and for reading. If you’ve taken the time to comment, or contacted me personally, or if you’ve shared one of my articles, know that I appreciate the feedback. If there’s anything I can to do to improve your experience in the coming year, or you have a suggestion for a topic you’d like to see covered, or you just want to say hi, please don’t hesitate to comment, send me an e-mail through the contact page, or find me on Twitter!

P. S. And keep writing!

It saddens me to say that The Dissolve, my favorite site on the Internet for the last two years, is closing up shop. The whole thing happened rather suddenly, but has been confirmed by an announcement from Editor Keith Phipps. I’m saddened to lose the insights of Phipps and the other writers for the site, but I’ll also miss the lively discourse among the commenters and the general culture of sincerity and encouragement. Despite The Dissolve’s official focus on movies, subjects under discussion often ranged widely both in the regular articles and in the comment sections. There are at least four articles on this blog that got their start as comment-section projects (my Lovefests on Addicted to Love and Cowboys & Aliens, my Scarefest on The Visitor, and my tribute to former Dissolve writer Nathan Rabin, Guardian of the Gods). That’s not even mentioning The Solute, the site launched as both a tribute to and an extension of its parent site. I’ll continue to post over there, and if the current influx of commenters over there is anything to go by, it may well end up being a continuation of the lively forum we had at the Dissolve; I invite you to read wallflower’s memorial, which eloquently sums up the feelings of so many of us.

R.I.P. The Dissolve, and good luck to its staff as they move forward.

Je Suis Charlie

Je-suis-Charlie

I wasn’t a reader of Charlie Hebdo, but I’m as shocked as anyone by yesterday’s terrorist attack on the offices of the satirical magazine in Paris, a premeditated shooting that left twelve dead. Like many of the people around the world who are responding to the attack with expressions of solidarity, I’m horrified by the concerted attempt to shut down free expression through intimidation and violence.

France is arguably the cradle of free speech in its modern form, given expression by such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Beaumarchais, but it is also more vulnerable to terrorism than the United States, both geographically closer to the Middle East and home to a much larger Muslim population than the United States. It goes without saying that radical Muslims are a small minority, but relations between the majority and minority cultures in France are fraught. (I’ve spent some time in France, mostly as a child, so I’ll limit recollection of first-hand events to recalling that I was advised not to speak English loudly or be seen reading English-language newspapers on the Metro: during the 1980s, a period of tension with Iran, it was considered wise not to advertise your Americanness, although I’m sure I could hardly help it.)

Situations in the U. S. and France are not exactly comparable, of course. Still, it is striking that the attack on Charlie Hebdo happened on the same day that I read about Kirby Delauter, a Maryland politician who threatened to sue his local newspaper for using his name and likeness without authorization because it was publishing stories about him that he didn’t like.

To be fair, Delauter’s threatened lawsuit (a suit which would be laughed out of court, if he could find a lawyer willing to pursue it at all) is hardly in the same category as a shooting spree. However, it reveals a similar mindset, a hostility to the free press and its tendency to print truths or opinions outside of the subject’s control, and the message to writers is the same: don’t stick your neck out. (To his credit, Delauter has apologized for his comments.)

It’s a mindset revealed in the wake of last year’s massive Sony hacks and the subsequent withdrawal of the studio’s comedy The Interview (which depicts the fictional assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un) from wide release. There are still disagreements over whether North Korea was actually behind the cyberattack, but the fact remains that the authoritarian country was happy to take credit for it and that it is still a place where open criticism of the Dear Leader is grounds for imprisonment or execution.

In both the case of Charlie Hebdo (which regularly ran cartoons skewering Muslim fundamentalists, including irreverent depictions of Mohammed) and The Interview, one could argue that the humor on display is tasteless, even offensive. It is especially offensive expression that needs protection, however: articles or cartoons that offend no one hardly need protection, do they? In any case, the magazine’s staff were fully aware of the risks they were taking (having been the targets of threats and arson previously) and felt the threat itself was reason enough to keep pushing: as editor Stéphane Charbonnier (who published as “Charb” and was among the dead) told Le Monde after another threat in 2012, “When activists need a pretext to justify their violence, they always find it.”

It is tragic that such words now form Charbonnier’s epitaph, but if they are remembered and taken seriously, we can learn from them. Those who attacked Charlie Hebdo believe they are sending a message, but the clear meaning is the opposite of what they intend: the answer to offensive speech is more and better speech, and participation in civil society, not bullets and intimidation. Perhaps that sounds naïve, and is easy to say from my relative safety in the U. S., but it is a principle worth standing by. As one of Charlie Hebdo’s own headlines read, “Love is stronger than fear.” In the wake of these attacks, Nous sommes Charlie.

Charlie_Hebdo_love_hate.0