For who could live without love? (Das Rheingold, redux)

So, remember how I mentioned those upcoming Big Games, the ones that likely mean we’ll be playing them for hours at a time and falling way behind in all of our TV-watching? One of these is the upcoming Elden Ring, From’s latest offering. This means we can expect the usual punishingly-hard combat, I’m sure – and this time it comes with a vaguely familiar premise:

A magical ring, now shattered, remnants of its power still clinging to the shards of it, power-hungry folk pursuing such fragments and jealously guarding what they have. A world tree – well, an “Erdtree,” anyway. There’s something a bit familiar about this, to be sure – but no, the world tree’s rather more Nordic

Ah. Of course. It feels very Wagnerian.

And so it is that we have, prior to the game’s release, embarked on the massive project of re-watching the Ring Cycle.

This time around, we thought we’d give the recent(ish) Lepage staging a look, with its notorious huge machine that (when it works smoothly) shifts and rearranges itself to form abstractions of the various landscapes we see in the show. Happily, the Metropolitan Opera has joined the video on-demand space, and a month’s worth of their subscription fee is plenty to let us see all four shows.

We begin with Das Rheingold, in which we learn how the Cycle’s eponymous Ring came to be: Once, long ago, the Rheingold rested somewhere deep in the bed of the Rhine river, guarded by the Rhinemaidens, who delighted in its light. Alberich, a Nibelung (translated in the libretto here as a “gnome,” though in the earlier production we saw he was much ore of a Gollum-like monster), watches the Rhinemaidens play with a kind of searing possessiveness. “If I could only catch one!”

…That’s right, Alberich is basically an incel. (One wonders what the “chan”-equivalent of the mythic age would have been like.) Since he cannot win any of the ladies he’s ogling, he instead steals the Rheingold from them, crafting of it a ring that should, in theory, allow him to wield the latent power of the gold and give him dominion over…well, everything, ultimately…provided that he renounce love for ever, for only one who has forsaken love completely may craft such a thing.

Meanwhile, the gods (that is, the Norse-Germanic contingent, headed by Odin and company – here with Germanicized names, like Wotan) have just had a spectacular home built for them by the giants Fafnir and Fasolt, and promptly demonstrate that they are spectacular assholes. Or at least Odin is, having promised the giants the goddess Freya in return for their labor (apparently without asking anyone including her), then promptly stiffing them when the expected outrage ensues.

Considering that one of the things Odin is known for is contracts and the honoring thereof, this seems like a bad sign.

Anyway, we learn just what a monumentally stupid idea this was when it is revealed that if Freya is taken, the gods immediately weaken, beginning to age and die without the influence of her apples of immortality. Helpfully, Loki (because of course Loki) knows somewhere they might be able to find enough gold for her ransom – after all, the Nibelungs have plenty.

And on that note, we’re off to the races.

What follows is a couple of hours of more leitmotif than melody and of characters behaving very, very badly. I mean, yes, Alberich is a power-obsessed asshole, but so is just about everyone else in this thing – the Ring Cycle is surprisingly light on sympathetic characters, and just in case we weren’t already fully aware of this, the gods’ majestic ascent to Valhalla is underscored by the Rhinemaidens lamenting that, basically, they’re dicks who can’t be trusted. (In this staging, Loki also looks on, having just pondered whether he might not just set everything on fire, who knows?)

The staging must have been really spectacular seen live – it’s essentially a huge conglomeration of…beams that reconfigure themselves into various shapes to set the scene. These are further enhanced by projections that appear to be either timed by the music or somehow are coordinated from up in the booth – the gravelly banks of the Rhine actually scatter stones as characters slide along them, for example. (Rehearsals must have been a beast.)

Here’s the thing about that set though: often, the surfaces it creates are just about vertical, and there’s nothing to hold onto. So a surprising number of the performers in this are kitted out with a flying rig, basically, allowing them to do things like “swim” directly upward, or (in the case of that final Bifrost crossing) walk directly up a wall. It is both very impressive and rather nerve-wracking to watch; I hope nobody was injured.

Anyway. It’s a fairly spectacular show, and the stage is definitely set. The ring, now cursed to incite ferocious greed and jealousy that will destroy both those who possess it and those who yearn for it, is in the hands of the giant Fafnir, who slew his brother for it. The Tarnhelm, which grants shapeshifting powers to the wielder (forged under duress by Alberich’s brother Mime) is lost to the giant as well. Alberich has slunk back to the underworld in shame and possibly minus a finger, and the gods have moved into their swanky new digs…though Odin clearly isn’t going to be able to stop obsessing about that ring anytime soon.

Next up: someone I can actually root for shows up, and it doesn’t go all that well.

Where the colors are

I suppose it’s kind of heartening that I’m not alone in feeling that an awful lot of media products lately have had that washed-out, desaturated, “this is serious so we can’t use colors” look to them.

It is, of course, autotune for the eyes. Didn’t hit the pitch you were aiming at? Can’t quite get the light for the scene just right? No problem, we’ll just do it in post – and then we somehow end up with a kind of…samey-ness to everything that I am marked as An Old for noticing.

I mean, yes, computers are cool, and yes, you CAN do some really awesome stuff with them, absolutely. But I love practical effects in movies; even the ones that read as a little clunky to a modern viewer still elicit a sense of ‘how did they DO that’ wonder that I just do not get from watching something or other from Marvel. I know how they did that. It isn’t mysterious to me. Respect to the crews involved in making all that CG come together, but there is a real delight in watching something and knowing it came from a whole team of bright, creative people devoting their energies to figuring out how to build that alien or explode that city or what have you, then doing it.

I suppose if all your art is “content” now – if it is more important that you make money than that anything is expressed – it is best to keep your costs down by letting the computers do more of the work. From the studio’s standpoint, all movies and tv – all media products really – need to be min-maxed in service to capitalism, and so here we are with cop shows with weird greenish filters, CG everything, lootboxes in video games, and entire generations of music listeners with preferences for computer-modulated voices over organic ones.

It’s also probably why approximately 97% of new movies/tv I hear announcements for make me check out immediately. Yet another entry in an exhausting cavalcade of sequels and reboots and so on, any new thing with a glimmer of promise or interest certain to be pounced on, copied endlessly, and wrung for money until absolutely nobody can muster the energy to care about it anymore.

I know, I know. Old man yells at cloud. It is a marker of my out of touchness with the world that it bothers me.

There must be others though, surely, who keep asking their tvs “…OR you could, you know, make new things?”

I suppose there are. The market for indie games is bustling and vibrant at the moment, at least until the big boys take notice and decide they need to muck everything up; I’ve played literal dozens of things from smaller studios that have been polished, complete, delightful experiences on release. Sure, some of them don’t quite go where I was hoping, and sure, there’s some janky bits, but oh boy is it ever worth it to be playing something that has the capacity to delight one.

The same goes for other media products, too. I will forgive an awful lot of rough edges and jankiness in something that delights me, in something that feels, as I experience it, like the people who made it were enjoying the act of making.

There is a kind of communion there. You had such an amazing time making this; I do not know any of you, but I can tell. I am having an amazing time experiencing it; thank you for sharing. At the tabletop, when it’s going well, everyone gets to have that feeling at the same time – making and experiencing simultaneously, enjoying it together.

That is just the best. Seriously.

I wish more of the people who make decisions rather than things understood it.

How do you feel today?

A while ago, on a bit of a whim, I Kickstarted a little mobile game project called Kinder World. In it, you have a cute little houseplant, and every so often, you need to water it. In order to do so, you may (optionally) perform a little wellness-related task: practicing a little gratitude meditation based on a prompt, for instance.

I’ve been participating in the alpha in this case; not something I normally do, but as I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been feeling a bit disconnected from myself of late, and it’s…actually pretty helpful to receive a little reminder a couple of times today to take a minute, already.

My favorite of the activities implemented so far has been “emotional naming.” This is exactly what it says on the tin – you take a few minutes to consider and name what you are feeling. Exactly what you are feeling, that is, not just the general feeling-family; you want to try and be as precise as you can.

It sounds very simple, right? I’ve actually been finding it quite challenging on some days, though, especially with the pandemic’s tendency to render all experience into a poorly-differentiated sludge.

Synchronicity being what it is, one of the podcasts I follow has recently started a special mini-season on emotions and the naming and management thereof. Here are the first two episodes for the curious: “How to Identify Your Negative Emotions” and “Emotions are Data…So Listen to Them.”

That first one features Brene Brown, of the famous TED talk(s) on shame and vulnerability. Apparently her most recent book is a discussion of 87 (!) different emotional states, and if the discussion of these in the book is anything like the discussion on the podcast I think I may need to go read it.

For example, the idea that resentment is a function of envy. Perhaps that’s obvious to everyone, I don’t know, but to me the idea is worth taking a pause to consider. Those days when I am tired and strung out and the resentment is high? If I consider resentment as a variety of envy, what does that mean I am envious of? What do I want that someone else has, or seems to have?

The closeness of anxiety and excitement seems to make sense, as does the idea that in at least some cases it might be possible to re-frame the former as the latter (the example given in the show of a job interview is a good one). I’m a bit less sure about how or where I might be able to apply that in my own life, given that when I have anxiety it frequently arrives out of all proportion to…well, anything in reality really. Bit hard to work out how to turn that into excitement about something.

I think I’d like to learn more about this – how feelings work and what cues we might be able to take from them. (Clearly I am not the only one – I went to place a hold on Brene’s new book Atlas of the Heart and am currently 740th in line. Hazards of a big public library system, I suppose.)

The bigger challenge here will be avoiding turning this curiosity into yet another element of work, something for the to do list. Something else my inner critic can use as a weapon to attack me with when it thinks I need to be taken down a peg or six.

I guess we’ll see how that goes.

Clearing the decks

We’ve been clearing our gaming queue a little over the last week or so – there are some major releases coming up that we anticipate will consume a significant amount of evening playtime, so it’s seemed prudent to try and wrap up anything that’s been lingering in the backlog.

Case in point: The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (or, at least, the first half of it), which we began in September before it was thoroughly derailed by an unexpectedly packed October spooky-games fiesta. We’d made it all the way to the last case, even, just hadn’t picked it back up to get to the conclusion.

As of last night, we did…only to find that they’ve left an astonishing number of dangling threads, even literally introducing another layer of mystery in the final scenes. What about the mysterious thing your best friend apparently was supposed to be doing in England? The list of names? What was up with that William Shamspeare guy who is conspicuously introduced, has an actual character model, and then is never seen or mentioned or even thought of again?

This isn’t usual for Ace Attorney games, which will normally wrap up everything rather neatly within an individual installment; I can only imagine how maddening it must’ve been to finish this back when the first of these games came out and realize you would now have to wait years to know the answers.

It’s “But what about the gas station guy???” all over again.

Anyway. Given this I think I’ll hold off on a more elaborate discussion of the title until we’ve played its sequel, too.

It’s been nice to “drive” the last few evenings while we wrapped up this title, though. Immersing yourself in something is, I think, restorative; you dive right into a thing, letting yourself be wrapped up in it and carried along. All those executive function “muscles” – the ones that constantly tense with little reminders that you need to buy a chicken for dinner tonight, that someone’s birthday is next week, that you need to hire more people – get to relax.

I’d best get on with the day, but for now, please enjoy this kitten, who is very cute.

Winter seems to be doing that thing it does in January.

The sky is a frosty, stainless-steel gray, indifferently-lit; snow considers lingering on the ground, waffling on the question of whether to melt or merge into a glossy treachery of ice. Light either fades to a wan indirectness or ricochets from every surface in a blinding fury. The air becomes hostile; outdoors a mob of invisible creatures try to shred your chest with icy claws from the inside out, inside you find yourself wandering through a deceptively-pleasant desert.

Every time, after the holidays. As though it held itself back out of politeness until now.

By the time I am officially another year older it is typically fuck-everything degrees outside, and I may count myself fortunate if I can get anyone to join in should I have something planned.

Which I don’t, this year, other than claiming a couple of days off for myself. The winter break wasn’t all that restful this time around; I do not regret participating in the various holiday visions of my loved ones, but I could certainly go for some more unstructured time.

Maybe I’ll make a cake. I don’t know.

It’s a bit hard to feel enthusiasm for much of anything on a morning like this, I suppose (I am reduced to talking about the weather, even). Still. Building habits. Right? Just do a little of anything, anything at all.

This must be that languishing thing again. Time to go looking for some flow, I suppose.

Good thing(s) of the day:

  • Wordle, a once-a-day word puzzle break. Guess a five-letter word in six tries or less. (via Polygon).

What does having a hobby feel like?

A new year, a new effort to build good habits. Or, at least, to build habits and then hope that they turn out well.

I considered opening this post with a “How was your holiday, everyone?” or a “Happy new year, everyone” – but while I am interested in the answer to the question and legitimately do wish a happy new year to all of humanity at present (god knows we could all USE it), I don’t quite feel right saying that here. It’s the “everyone” that is the sticking point; I shall be exceedingly surprised if anyone other than a bot looking for an opportunity to monetize things ever turns up here.

(I imagine them arriving, an armful of malware links and broken English piled into a briefcase just that bit too plastic in its newness. An unsettling leer precariously balanced somewhere between a car-upholstery-patterned suit and the sort of hat lesser movie villains might have worn in the 1940s. Ringing the bell and, on having no answer, almost doubling over to peer into the window, all that uncanny length and angle contorting. It dismays them to be chased off by the watchdog, the spam-catcher, but they are, over and over again, in a flurry of loud and ferocious barking. The leer never wavers, though, not even as they withdraw and drift to the next house.)

All the same, here I am, taking up the effort to undertake a small expressive practice, most days. The latest villain in this, ironically, has been the effort to exercise for at least half an hour, most days; success there has thus far meant failure here, and vice versa.

Is a single hour of the day in an adult life so impossible? Half an hour for the body, half an hour for the mind; how is that so difficult to maintain?

Yesterday I read What Having A Hobby Feels Like, which is quite the mood on a number of levels. One of the many facets of our Boring Cyberpunk Dystopia: the idea that there may be people, a lot of people even, who either legitimately cannot identify interests to pursue or who have lost the knack of pursuing them without feeling the additional need to monetize them. Another: how incredibly difficult it is to actually start anything new, especially with all of the algorithms competing for our attention, uncaring whether that attention is legitimate interest, fury, or just…filling time.

I cannot decide whether or not it is ironic that an article about the difficulty of finding and keeping hobbies is on Substack, where a number of people who express themselves in long-form writing like this gate their thoughts and ideas behind paywalls. Factor in the recent letter from the president of Square Enix that appears to be trying to justify the incursion of capitalism into every free moment with baffling suggestions like “people will create more things if we offer them incentives to create!” and I begin to wonder if I am going mad, or just getting old. (Old enough to remember a version of the internet that felt less like corporations inserting themselves between me and…everything else in the world.)

I have always believed that a creative person’s need to create is elemental. That creating things is a thing they just…need to do, in the same way that a husky needs lots of vigorous exercise every day. That it just IS, whether or not one is getting paid, whether or not one becomes famous, whether or not one changes the world or builds a career. Being able to convert that energy into a career is certainly amazing, and lots of us would love to, but even if that isn’t possible, one would still need to make something. It is a truth.

On occasion I have flattered myself that one reason I might be feeling a malaise (vague, or not so vague, or sharp and keen and cutting) is that I am one of these creative people, and that the habit everyday life has of rushing in to fill every nook and cranny in the spacetime continuum with grocery lists and laundry and spreadsheets and doomscrolling and maybe, on a good night, a little old-fashioned escapism means I do not get that exercise, doing the human equivalent of sprawling on the hallway carpet looking longingly at the door.

Capital already gets a decent chunk of my days. It has the money, and so I exchange some time for the resources I need in order to live. Outside those hours I would appreciate it if it would kindly fuck right off.

I start a short vacation today. Just a week, and I have no particularly exotic plans – some days’ worth of taking care of miscellaneous household activities but otherwise not doing very much, followed by a short trip to a cottage with some friends.

No grand aspirations there, either; I shall take my just-started embroidery project (my first ever), the needful devices to try and keep up with my writing initiative, some books downloaded from the library, perhaps along with a proper print book or two. I will attempt not to make too great a botch job of the former, and socialize a bit, and probably let myself get roped into playing a board game or two.

In the meantime, some cooking plans, and some quiet, and that is about all.

The sensation of simultaneously not particularly feeling like doing anything (distressingly common the last few months) and of being completely overwhelmed with choice paralysis when the moment comes to try doing something anyway (which of the, oh, twenty-five or so different games out now, all tempting-looking, do we want to play? I have a backlog of books approximately a mile high; what shall I read first?) is an extremely first world problem, I know, but it’s very acute right now. And very annoying; now, finally, for a little while, I will have time to do things!

…and so what shall I do?

While catching up on my podcast backlog (because of course I am behind on that too) I listened to an episode of Cautionary Tales which ponders the possibility that it is not only raw talent that leads to brilliance, but also…well, having time to muck about doing whatever, basically. The idea that these unstructured periods of doing nothing may in fact be essential to the creative process; that busy-ness and focus may be quietly undermining us.

I wonder about that.

Building a habit is hard.

Yes, I know, tell us something less obvious; but it’s on my mind today. I’ve been trying to build several habits at the same time.

Most days, write a little. A minimum of 200 words.

Most days, take a walk for at least 20 minutes. 30 is ideal but 20 will do, especially if it’s brisk walking.

Something about the way these things are timed makes it weirdly hard to get both in. Or perhaps it’s not timing, perhaps it’s exhaustion from work, where I am currently trying to manage Rather A Lot.

There is a lot of grindy samey-ness going on, and it seems to be squelching those more lively energies and curiosities that I can tell are just kind of lurking back there, restless and bored, glowering broodily out a window. My mind keeps reverting to old, uncomfortable places that it hasn’t spent much time in for years, despite my efforts to work toward well-being.

Outside, some of the plants continue to just…give up the ghost, it seems. Some are tenacious and tough but some just seem to have decided this particular level of sticky summer swelter is Enough, Thank You, and they droop over their containers. As I drag myself in from walking, sweat dripping through my shirt, I kind of feel where they’re coming from.

I think I really, really need that vacation.

Reservations at the Overlook

Pile of Shame time: I have never watched The Shining all the way through.

(I’ll wait a moment so those of you who know me can gasp dramatically. Perhaps faint a little for good measure.)

Oh, I’ve seen clips. I’ve seen parodies of it. I’m well aware of the basic outlines of its plot and of its most famous scenes. I’ve more or less watched it without really watching it…

But I’ve never sat down to actually watch it from beginning to end.

Eventually I expect I will remedy that, just so I can cross it off the list. But for some reason, the other day I was browsing my library app and it recommended the original novel to me.

Why not? I thought. What the hell.

And so last night I started reading.

I’ve always had sort of mixed results with Stephen King; I respect his position in the horror canon, but he’s never really clicked for me in long-form writing. I’m not sure what it is that puts me off, exactly. Perhaps it’s passages like the one in the first few chapters where the caretaker, showing Jack around the Basement Of Ominous Pipes And Conspicuously Mouldering Paperwork (with possibly Chekhov’s Furnace; we’ll see), delivers a spectacularly misogynistic little anecdote about an older woman who came to the Overlook Hotel. She brought a boy-toy, you see. And drank a lot. And it didn’t end well for anyone, from the sound of it.

I am not certain whether King wants me to feel visceral disgust toward the woman, the caretaker delivering the speech, or both; for now, I grimace and continue reading.

It is remarkable how very 70s the book is, immediately. Just a few pages in there’s a reference to English Leather, which I only have the dimmest memory of vaguely seeing an ad for somewhere once upon a time. (That specific ad pre-dates me, as does the book. But I am gratified not to be the only person who looked up that commercial because they saw it flit through Jack’s mind and wanted to make sure they weren’t imagining this was a cologne brand or something.) There’s a reference to Uncle Wiggily, which I think my grandparents had an extremely antique copy of, and which seriously makes me wonder why Jack’s mind went to that game rather than, I don’t know, Battleship.

And then of course there’s the obvious things: A radio with a list of frequencies to tune to instead of cell phones (but oh the glorious lack of need to justify why someone’s phone isn’t working, am I right, writers?) The…paper-ness of everything; filing cabinets and inboxes and outboxes that were actual boxes and little personalized notepads you kept in your pocket, with an actual pen.

I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet. I guess we’ll see.

TIL what a “Doberge” cake is.

So we’ve been watching Crime Scene Kitchen recently when in need of a “something to switch my brain off and have going in the background” sort of show. It’s reality TV; Art it is not, intellectual content, it is not.

But it is rather dumb fun.

Here’s the conceit: Several teams of bakers are turned loose in a kitchen where something has been recently prepared. From the items left scattered around that kitchen, they must deduce what it was and then reproduce it; the team either farthest from the dessert or with the poorest execution gets sent home, and the rounds proceed in this manner until eventually only one team remains.

Thus far it’s largely consisted of us watching the teams look at what’s in the kitchen, guess, and then proceed to create various goodies while the two of us look on and say things like guys what the hell there was obviously carrot in the kitchen it has to be a carrot cake okay?

The jokes are rather silly, the presentation is over the top, and the whole thing just seems a little…hokey? Or something? And yet it’s sort of weirdly enjoyable anyway.

I don’t know, maybe it’s just that I really like cake.

Oh, and for the record, a Doberge cake is a New Orleanian descendant of the Dobos torte that folds lemon into the dainty-little-chocolate layers mix. I’d never heard of it before, but I’m certainly curious now.