Living Among the Dying—2019 in Review

I have lived for a long time in fear of disruption.

I remember once, we brought smoothies from Jamba Juice into a burger joint. As I walked in, I was confronted with a sign that told me no outside products should be brought into the restaurant. I stayed outside. Though I knew there would be little protest from the employees, I stayed outside. It took a great measure of coaxing before I came into the restaurant, still ashamed and drying my tears.

I always wanted to buy women’s clothes, to show that I had no gender insecurity of course, but when would I do it? When would I ever pick out something lacy and flowery (it wouldn’t really count unless it was actually feminine) and stare into the cashier’s eyes, two day scruff and all, and tell them I wanted to buy it?

I just don’t want to be bothered, is that too much to ask? I want to wear a dress without getting stares. I want to transition without effort, to wake up one morning changed. I want to sleep for hours, and wake up before writing words that only the generous will ever see. I want to be validated, but I do not want to hurt.

How can I be in the world without being?

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Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan in Twin Peaks

I only know Laura Palmer in memory. In 4:3 aspect ratio, on a screen within a screen. Her face is un-living, whether smiling through the flickers of a VHS or cold and dead on the shore of a lake. Laura’s ghost binds the remains of Twin Peaks together. Years later, Bobby Briggs weeps upon seeing her image. Her pictorial specter orbits the town as the same callous masculinity, the same slow, corporate indifference, kills innocents like her again. Laura emphasizes, incompletely, how we live in the shadow of past atrocity.

We are on stolen land, using phones created with stolen lives, in a nation built on violence. When Cooper describes Laura, white, blond, drugged out, and Albert says “that could be anyone,” it is terrible erasure, but also devastatingly true. Laura was killed by circumstance, by a town that refused to help when it saw need, by men who refused to heed her wishes, and by abuse and terror. She was killed by the same things that float around us, hidden, waiting to strike. I live in the same America she does. I hear of mass shootings or accidents or murder and I feel their victims’ pull, feel the way their death will shadow and color my life. I see my neighbors wish for their deaths, with thin blue lines and upholding of family values. Connection kills. It is cold comfort.

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Photo by the author

Capitalism masks these connections through sheer volume. I type on this computer, knowing that some hands suffered to make it, but not knowing which hands. I eat, not knowing who picked this fruit, who grew this grain, whose truck carried it from far away. I read a book, knowing who wrote it, but not who bound it or who set the typeface. At work, I do not see the faces of my customers, the lives of the freelancers whose writing I use. My job is an exercise in constant distance.

It is an old Marxist observation, this alienation from labor, but I felt it seep into my skin this year. I felt the way we are bound, and also the way that connection is obscured through logos and corporate mandates. This is not a delivery person with two kids; this is an Amazon partner. This is not a teenager, desperate for cash, but the Taco Bell guy. As we are flattened into demographics and numbers, we are also made into employees. Our identities become structured by whatever bigger things hold us.

Capitalism does this for innumerable, complex reasons, but what looms large in my mind is the power and terror connection has. By buying electronics, by working for a tech company, by playing video games and watching Netflix, I help American capital spread its wings and solidify its control. Individuals are not to blame for injustice and climate crises, but nevertheless, we will have to change. Oppression determines the structure of lives. This is fundamentally horrible and so capitalism does its best to distract, to diffuse, lest we grow powerful in anger.

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Roger Waters in the “Wait for Her” music video

That anger is heard in every snarl of Roger Water’s voice on his 2017 album Is This The Life We Really Want? It’s easy to dismiss this album as treading the same old ground; both its sound and subject matter pour directly out of Water’s nostalgic The Wall tour. That would diminish its power. The terror of colonial force and the mind-numbing capacity of materialism have only escalated since Waters’ seminal, misanthropic, and self-absorbed album. The vivid anger of The Wall has blossomed into a a world encompassing and empathetic rage. Resigned and furious he screams, “Every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life, it is because we all stood by, silent and indifferent.” These words are obvious and plain, sure, but true enough to ring in my ears.

I listened this album many times on the bus home from work. Passing endless parking lots and cars, I thought of how the construction of American cities enforces death. Little is within walking distance, everything is a drive away. So many die in car accidents, but that is taken as just the cost of living. I have not mentioned gentrification, education, spikes on sidewalks, or any of the other ways our cities cloak violence under mundanity. “It’s normal” Waters shouts at the end of Is This The Life’s title track, the words swallowed by the drone of a helicopter’s rotors. The machine both obscures and emphasizes the truth. It is normal, that is the terror of it.

Because it is normal does not mean we are unaffected. Normalcy oozes strangeness from the margins. Laura Palmer’s death exposes Twin Peaks’ wounds, letting the strangeness of the world bleed. The black lodge might be some eternal force, but circumstance brings it out. Laura’s death is a point at which the world shatters. In a similar vein, Dark Souls 2 is unfairly maligned for its lack of geographic consistency. But this is its most profound contribution to Souls: a world that has been so shattered through the cycles of death that it cannot make sense anymore. While Dark Souls 1 communicates class through a logical hierarchy – everything falls below the land of lords and the ramshackle wooden homes of Blighttown uphold the noble palaces – Dark Souls 2’s world folds in on itself. As systems grow and outlast their makers, their logic ceases to function. We get sky elevators to pits of lava, doorways to the past, kings that rule while still dead. Capitalism’s attempt to order itself only exposes its rot. Nothing is stable. Though the player’s mission is to re-institute monarchy, the game’s form reveals that mission to be fruitless. The stability of the world cannot be restored.

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Dark Souls 2 – From Software; photo by the author

Other work knows that change is constant, and rejoices in it. In a vivid and meta portrait of religious crisis, Anodyne 2: Return to Dust positions stability as a far more terrifying kind of death. As the player character, Nova, cleans the world of “dust” in the service of “the Center,” she becomes more aware that cleaning is an act of pacifying, ordering the world to remove individual selves. The game’s structure reflects this, asking the player to visit a static, polygonal world. Goals are set for you, and the various menus are flush with currencies and items that represent progress. When Nova dwells among those who live in dust, outside of the Center’s influence, all of this structure vanishes. It is replaced with a kind of joyful, communal routine. It asks both its players and its character to begin to imagine a changing, flowing world.

Like its predecessor, Anodyne 2 asks its players to prod at the game’s artificiality and to leave its borders beyond. A sterile life is impossible, so why not let ourselves be? We will die, we will slip into the earth, shattered in the sun. So why not see that as a kind of life? The earth with change with our lives and our deaths, why avoid it? We all know the cost of the end of history, the stagnant growth of corporate culture. Idle stagnation has far too high a price to pay. So let us transform.

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Azzurra Caccetta in the Wait for Her music video.

The conclusion of Is This The Life We Really Want? similarly emphasizes the need for change. Across the final three tracks, Waters chronicles the reunification of the singer with a woman. Almost a divine feminine, this figure represents the pull of empathy. At their meeting, the part of the singer that is “bloodthirsty, blind, mindless, and cheap” dies. That death saves from a life of hollowness. He sings, “It would be better by far to die in her arms than to linger in a lifetime of regret.” Though Waters idealization of a feminine other, who can pull him from sleep and complacency, comes with its own problems, it reminds me of my relationship with my queerness. We talk about “being born this way” or not being able to help ourselves, but living is always a choice. Many queer people have lived in the closet entirely while many others have been erased by history. We have to choose to push into the world. To change our names, our pronouns, and to love those who love us. Furthermore, we have a choice to not just be compliant, a choice to not disappear behind veneers of proper relationships or political normalcy. We can be strange, bold, and ourselves. Embracing this means embracing the woman I could become, if I would let myself.

Becoming, though, means disrupting. My name cannot just change on a whim like a twitter handle or a username. I must change it. I must push myself into the world, break its borders. I must be in the world and be. I cannot let the world wash over me. As much as I sometimes want to stay static, I know that I must move. Dare to be myself on my own terms. The planet is dying, our structures are built on lies and violence. Everyday I see the ways the world breaks over itself, the way violence is mirrored in all our lives, and how difficult that can be to escape. But there is another answer. I am still in the world, and with that terror comes power. With that recognition can come righteous anger. I can cease to be who I was and become more than who I am.

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Final Fantasy VII – Square Soft

At the end of Final Fantasy VII, Cloud and crew don’t know if they are too late. The planet might already be dead and whatever they do is only a slowing, but they still push forward. As Cloud comes to understand who he is, not a macho man or a solider, but a sensitive person who has lived through tremendous violence, he pushes outside himself. It is too terrifying not to, knowing what he could otherwise become. Final Fantasy VII’s ending is ambiguous. The world survives, but not as we knew it. Healing has happened, but maybe not for us. I don’t know that that matters. I am still taking the invitation to live beyond myself, to “bury my old soul and dance on its grave.” Come what may, I know it will be better than lingering in self-doubt and distance.

The more I write, the more I know the perils of transcribing media onto one’s own life and morals. I also know the power of claiming stories as our own, to tell anew, to rewrite, to build beyond, or even just as a marker that we are not alone. All the things I consumed in 2019 could not quite envision themselves beyond the capitalism they were produced in. But they did point to a new self, refusing to linger in doubt and let empty tradition linger. I want old things to die, so new things can grow. I want the idle parts of me to die, because to live is to disrupt. So let’s break shit, wear dresses, and plant flowers.

Here’s to 2020.

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