20201003

liminal, pt. i

I found a spirit in the lowlands outside the capital. She was a tiny wisp, a fragment of a fragment of something great, but she shouldn't have been possible at all. Not there. Of course she couldn't explain how she even existed. (Could you answer that question? I'm not sure I could.) And yet, there she was, in the form of a butterfly, shimmering in the shade.

I was a kid, overwhelmed by being forced into a world I did not understand and a culture I had sworn to destroy. This was . . . probably a few months after I was taken. I was angry and afraid and confused and at that moment, as I dipped my feet in the river and watched the spring leaves dancing in the wind, all of that stopped mattering. Here was something impossible. Here was someone who needed my protection.

"I've never met a human before," she said, while I stared in awe I couldn't have explained if I wanted to. "Are all humans this pretty?"

"Some," I said.

We talked. She was too new, too small, to hold much knowledge or recollection of the world, but there were fragments that suggested memories. She had so many questions about the world, about me, about the empire I'd vowed to topple. I felt, at first, wholly unprepared for something so momentous as educating an impossible spirit in the ways of the world. And then, as I tried to describe the life I'd had among my clan, there was clarity.

I understood, then, why the order that made her impossible needed to fall. It had always been this abstract ill: that I, tattooed like the hunters of old, would hunt that most dangerous of monsters, empire, and that I would stand in its ashes a conquering hero. Now that ambition took on shape and new purpose: it was mine to defend those who could not defend themselves, and so long as the empire stood, I could not stand as a champion of the weak.

I built her a shrine, then, out of fallen branches and flower buds and spring leaves. I promised her I would make the world safe for her; she promised friendship. Our contract sealed, I carved its sigil in the largest branch I'd found, and we both left that place changed.

That marked the beginning, I think, for both of us, as we both found a way to thrive and grow and change in an environment that should have been hostile to us. And one day we would be powerful enough to change the world.

20201002

a prelude for october (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

October has arrived at long last. Summer's grip has at long last faded, though at least here in Seattle it still fights to hold on even now; there's a chill in the air and the days are rapidly getting shorter, and the leaves are starting to change. A few early ones have fallen already, and drift through the streets in the breeze. Autumn is here.


It's always tempting to say there's nothing new to report, but it's never really accurate; it's simply that everything awful that's happening becomes a part of the normal backdrop of everyday life. For instance, it wasn't the case a month ago that the president had openly declared that he plans on executing a fascist coup should he lose the election, but is it surprising? It feels almost unremarkable, now: of course he is. That was a threat even back in 2016.

The pandemic continues as it ever has; after a month or two of cases locally declining (albeit slowly), they're on the upswing again, and our officials have long since lost interest in doing anything about that. It's demoralizing, realizing that our leaders have never cared about us, or even just having it confirmed--some part of my little anarchist heart has wanted to believe that in a time of crisis, perhaps our elected officials might get their act together. You have to hope there's hope, right?

This month's theme is "liminal." Spring and autumn are times of transition, and the fall in particular has always been seen as a season of change. There's a certain irony in choosing October for this, of course; here, at least, both September and November are more transitional months here; September is frequently summer's last stand, and November is when winter first has its chance to have its presence felt. October, though, October is when the autumn feels most like itself. When the liminal has a chance to have a character of its own.

I've been working on some short stories recently (if you missed the last one, it's here). Last year for October I wrote something here every day using Inktober prompts; which, while a fun project, would certainly distract from my continued attempts on that front. But I like October, and I liked working on that. So I'm going to try to get some concrete work done on whatever story I'm currently working on every day this month. (But I reserve the right to write some other things if I feel like it, I guess?)

It's not much, but you have to hope there's hope.

20200930

revelation, pt. i

 I noticed, after the fire, that we veil our tragedies in euphemisms. After a while I stopped hearing "I'm sorry for your loss" and "I can't imagine what that's like" and "these trying times"--they still used those words, I think, but they stopped feeling like actual language; it was as devoid of meaning as it was of sentiment. Because I realized then, when I saw someone who was supposed to be an authority figure shape their mouth into words that held no semantic value, that they didn't care. That's what the euphemisms are for: they make it palatable not to care.

It should have been devastating to realize that, but I felt suddenly free. I didn't have to perform the dutiful mourner anymore, no more brave smiles or trembling voice. Every last one of those motherfuckers putting an arm on my shoulder and telling me "I'm so sorry for you", I could just ignore them, give them a nice bright smile, and tell them to fuck off.

Can you imagine how much of a relief that is? The revelation that no one has ever cared? That it was all based on your willingness to pretend that you wanted to keep your tragedies obscured just as much as they did?

And eventually they all did fuck off. I was left alone, left to experience grief unshackled by their expectations. I could go out and drive all night and sing and scream until my voice was raw and then sit under the empty sky and just stare. No one was left to care if I was lashing out, if it wasn't appropriate, if I was ignoring my commitments, if I wasn't taking good care of myself.

And do you know, I'd never seen the milky way before? I thought I had, thought it was just some disappointing thing, a neat bit of astronomical trivia, but it's out there, and it's so beautiful. I'd never have even known if I hadn't realized that there's no place for people like me in society.

20200901

a prelude for september (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

Ah, September. The month when summer finally loosens its grasp, when the first real taste of autumn shows up in a stiff breeze. It's a month I've always loved, a month I associate with hope and change and freedom. It's hard to feel hopeful right now, but the weather marches on regardless, and so, I suppose, must we all. There are still hot days ahead, but their end is numbered, and even now, as the sun beats down endlessly, you can scent autumn in the air, see it in the leaves.

The world continues as it has: a steady decline from bad to worse. The pandemic is not going away, and our officials are doing nothing to make things better; we remain trapped in the limbo of a partial shutdown, an absolute failure of leadership at all levels. The police continue to perform extrajudicial executions of Black people in the streets; increasingly they are discarding even the pretense that they exist to serve and protect any interest but those of white supremacy and fascism. A white kid shot and killed two protesters in Wisconsin; a fascist was shot and killed in Portland after the police escorted a fascist rally into the heart of the city. The president is still actively attempting to sabotage the election and there is no indication that if he loses he will cede power peacefully. People were passing around tips to bypass the president's electoral sabotage and still pretending we live in a democracy. It is, I suppose, a useful fiction.

I was reminded earlier that the word "apocalypse" refers to a revelation, literally an uncovering or unveiling. I think a lot of people are worried that calling what is happening right now an apocalypse is too dramatic, too hyperbolic, that worse things have happened, but if this year has done anything, it has revealed who we are as a society. Our society has never cared about the lives of its citizens, and has always fought at every turn to make sure that those who need care are not cared for. It is not a revelation to all of us, but now the veil is gone, the mask is off. We can no longer lie to ourselves. The theme for this month is "revelation."

But some good news, at least for me: I have finished a short story for the first time since 2015. It is technically called "Masks" and it is available here. The five years since the last story I finished haven't been entirely barren; a lot of it was spent working on some larger projects, building worlds, trying to figure out narratives. But a good portion of the silence has been the crushing psychological weight of being alive in every year from 2016 onward. The act of writing escapist stories about adventure felt too trivial, and the present felt so awful that writing something set in the future felt like it could only feel cheap in comparison.

It's still hard to put words on paper right now, but I've been working on it. The world of this story has been growing in my brain for years now. It's finally starting to coalesce into something; I've felt drawn to this world for years now, trying to make it work, to understand its metanarrative, and slowly, I think, I'm coming to understand how to explore it.

20200814

fragile, pt. i

 Lately I've been thinking about people I haven't quite forgotten, but parts of them are fading away, merging with someone else--a woman whose name might be Sam, a man whose face belongs to someone else, but every time I try to make it resolve into the right one my memory rebels. "That isn't right. You're looking for this other man's face." And it's wrong, it's always wrong, but this person, however often you saw them and interacted with them, have faded away. Memory is fragile like that.

What makes it all the stranger is knowing those memories are still locked away in there, somewhere. Memories never really go away, they just get misfiled; what you're really forgetting is how to access what you need. (And, of course, how every time you access a memory it changes. How fragile even the most indelible memories we have must be.)

And somewhere out there someone right now is struggling to remember my name, or my face, or even why I lingered in their memory, what strange thing has prompted me to resurface in their memories. It takes so little for us to drift apart, and even less for the threads that tie us together, the memory of a shared history, to dissolve, brushed aside like so many cobwebs.

20200807

a prelude for august (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

Today it rained. Not the sad sprinkle that happens from time to time in the Seattle summer (though that happened, too), but a real rain, reminiscent of a fall rain. The whole day felt like a promise of autumn: windy, with rain and cloud cover, and cool enough that jackets started coming back out. A refreshing change from the heat, and a rare event this early in August, when summer's grasp on the world is unrelenting.

The pandemic continues. Numbers are stagnating here in the city, downtown has neither increased nor decreased in activity. And with no meaningful change in policy seeming imminent, now more than ever the pandemic feels like it will last forever, the worst of both worlds.

Meanwhile the country continues its descent into fascism, with secret police disappearing protesters and local leaders doing everything except actually stop this sort of behavior. The president has openly declared that he would like to delay the election and has repeatedly refused to publicly state that he will accept the results of the election if he loses. And our local police, of course, continue to brutalize protesters without provocation, escalating tension even further.

The rain today reminded me just how fragile everything is--even that endless, stagnant weather that characterizes summer can vanish in an instant. And though it seemed to offer us a promise of autumn, that promise, too, is fraught with frailty. It could be taken away without warning, without provocation, and the oppressive heat of summer could linger on far longer than this brief glimpse would have us suspect.

This month's theme is "fragile." I wish we weren't all feeling so fragile right now.

20200704

stagnation, pt. i

A thick fog settled over the city one night, and didn't lift. It blew in from the ocean, according to those who happened to be awake and watching the ocean at the time. And while the city was no stranger to fog, especially in the winter, it was seldom so thick--when I first walked out, I could not see my companion walking next to me in the mists. Nor did it usually linger; either the winds would drive it out or the sun would burn it off after a few days at most. But linger it did. Days passed, then weeks, and we were starting to wonder if it would be months. The fog had rendered travel all but impossible, closing the ports and the old imperial highways, and the city thrived on trade; and if the fog covered the entirety of the coastal lowlands, as my court scholar insisted, there would be no crops in spring (and, of course, no gardens).


The city--my city--was dying, and all I could do was climb to the top of the tower, where the fog did not reach, and watch. From such heights it was almost beautiful. And, I'm told, the people hidden by that shimmering blanket of clouds found some new sense of normal, navigating the suddenly labyrinthine streets to deliver messages and parcels. The system they had developed, my scholar told me, was actually quite clever. She always did find the wrong things exciting. 

But she was the only one of the court who did not insist that it would clear by spring. And she was the one who spent her days (and her nights; I'm not convinced she ever slept) researching, hoping to understand the fog, to find a way to make it lift, if she could. But until her efforts bore fruit, there were no signs of change, and every day as I watched the fog from the safety of my spire I wondered how long we could last, how long before the stagnation finally claimed us and we were truly, finally, lost in the mists.

20200702

a prelude for july (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

The fact that we live in a boring dystopia is nothing new, but it's often not emphasized the extent to which it is, in many ways, more dangerous precisely because it's boring. Washington (among other states) is beginning to reopen, and predictably this has led to an increase in COVID-19 infections; there was no reason for reopening apart from the fact that people are bored, that companies are complaining, that the stagnation felt endless. Boredom is also why people have tuned out of the protests, which are still ongoing; it's why there was wall-to-wall coverage of the autonomous zone in Capitol Hill when it first happened but almost no coverage of noted bootlicker Mayor Jenny Durkan ordering it dismantled. Changes happened, some of them meaningful, some of them insultingly meaningless, and perhaps they will even continue happening.


It's July now. It still feels like June, which is to say it's still cool and cloudy with some periods of sun, some hints at the heat to come, but within the first two weeks of July, summer will come in earnest. The clouds clear, the sun comes out, and nothing changes until September. Sometimes there's smoke, sometimes the days are hotter than others, but the key aspect of summer is that it's endless. A time of stagnation, a time of listlessness, a time where the days stretch on too long. A time when you realize that you are in it for the long haul.

So this month's theme will be stagnation, as we watch our dying empire stagnate and fester, as we watch the heat of the summer settle in and refuse to leave, as we hunker down against the reality that our society is not capable of solving even the simplest of crises. There is no end in sight.

20200626

power, pt. i

I used to wonder if she realized, every time we celebrated midsummer, just how powerful she was on that day. She was the sun and the summer, warmth and heat, and I was the winter and the moon and the night. On those longest days when we were young, while I languored in the shade, too lethargic to do anything but watch, as she laughed and danced and lived, I'd wonder if she knew she could reach out and break the world right then if she wanted to. And on that shortest night of the year, when she was spent and the moonlight and the cool ocean breeze stirred me back to something resembling life, when she tried not to fall asleep as we watched the stars and the dancing flames, I would ever find myself wondering how long we could wax and wane in opposition to each other like this.

(You're wondering if I could have done the same when the days were short and the nights seemed endless, but the sun scorches, the moon soothes. My power was different. I don't believe she ever saw it, back then.)

The years passed, our dance continued, and eventually she stopped celebrating the solstice. We had other things on our minds, and a little celebration, even of her favorite time of year, seemed frivolous. But even as the sun and the heat sapped me of energy, sometimes I would still feel her tapping into that power, just for a little bit. Perhaps she couldn't help it.

When we finally parted ways, when I grew weary of the blazing sun, I could still feel her when the days stretched on forever. Lost, seeking, and then, finally, on midsummer years hence, I felt the moment when she reached out and broke the world. And--because our dance was always more than the two of us, because this, I think, was always fated--on that day the sun went into eclipse, as the moon for the briefest of moments blocked out the sun's scorching rays.

For that moment I could tap into her power. For that moment I could heal what she had broken--not everything, but enough. And I wondered if she knew, if she was also thinking of all those times she fell asleep leaning against my shoulder.

I don't know if she could have fought, but she didn't. And I would never know if it is because she did not have the will, or she did not have the power.

20200603

a prelude for june (scenes from an apocalypse, cont'd)

June has arrived in Seattle (and presumably in other places, as well). The locals have been known to call this month Juneuary, because it's a month characterized mostly by cloud cover and drizzle. (It's also much warmer than January, but by now we're used to the warmth and the nice weather and the absence of sunlight feels like a betrayal.)


Just when it felt like the pandemic was going to wear on for a changeless eternity, a police officer in Minneapolis murdered a black man by kneeling on his neck until he was dead, while his comrades watched and while the people of the city cried for him to stop. This has sparked a protest movement bigger than I have ever seen, with protests happening in all fifty states and internationally, with police reacting with excessive violence across the country (as they reliably do). This is what it looks like when a people feel that they have nothing left to lose, when the yoke finally is too much. When a society so utterly fails to take care of its people that the only option left to them is to take to the streets, this is what happens.

This month's theme is power. It's always been a fixation of mine in my stories: those who have power, those who have none. The common saying is that power corrupts; an alternative version says that power reveals. That is: if I were to give you unlimited power right now, with no possibility of being held accountable, what would you do with it? "Power corrupts" takes the view that no matter who you are, you would do something awful with it; "power reveals" believes that if you do something awful with your power, it is an indication that you were very likely awful to begin with. Of course, power also self-selects. You don't simply get handed power in our society; you must seek it out, and those who seek power seem to be inclined towards being less than stellar examples of humanity. Whether this is a relic of our society or of human nature is unclear.

I hope everyone is staying safe out there. I hope that we are able to remove power from the police who are abusing it, and that something new and wonderful rises up to replace them. We are standing at a crisis point, and I hope that the people are realizing exactly how powerful they are.

20200525

the official rs mason quarantine media list

You all clamored for it, so here it is at last. I have been playing video games and watching things on the internet (frequently with other people, also on the internet) more often than usual during the pandemic, and I finally have started doing a thing I should have been doing with the things I watch and play . . . decades ago, probably: writing them down, along with some thoughts.


I will be updating this list as I add more items to it, so save it to your bookmarks, check it daily, make it a part of your regular routines. It won't update that often but maybe it will help.

So without further ado, please enjoy

The OFFICIAL RS Mason Quarantine Media List!!!!!!



MOVIES (AND TV SHOWS I GUESS?)
PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
This was exceptional. Reviews often describe this French historical film as a lesbian deconstruction of the cinematic male gaze, which is extremely reductionist--there is so much more to this movie than simply a commentary on other cinema. It's a touching love story set in 18th century France, and a story of several women who have different ways of coping with what society expects of them. It's quiet and intimate, and so much story told in the way the characters look at or don't look at each other. It is streaming on Hulu and is extremely good.


BIRDS OF PREY
Fun and visually interesting, but I found Harley Quinn's accent irritating and I don't really have the urge to rewatch. Comic book movies aren't usually my thing, though, and I liked this better than most. It was very stylish and gleefully nihilistic, and seemed to at least escape from the endless self-serious grimdarkness of the recent DC cinematic universe.


LITTLE WOMEN
Oddly paced and slightly disjointed. The decision to jump between the "past" and the "present" was odd, the story seemed to pick up with the expectation that we would know what was going on--having not read the book, I did not know what was going on, so it took me a while to catch up. I'm given to understand that even those familiar with the source material occasionally run into this problem of the story being somewhat disjointed. Still, it was a good watch, even if it's probably not on the rewatch list.
I believe it was on Amazon.


SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER*
This was a rewatch for me (except for the new bits, which were new). This show is delightful and subverts the classic cartoon trope of the clash between the forces of good and evil by actually making actions have consequences--the status quo is not preserved eternally. This show goes places, has good queer representation, and explores some interesting and complicated character dynamics. It's on Netflix. Go watch it.

BAAHUBALI
An epic story from India which feels in many places inspired by the Lord of the Rings movies, featuring over-the-top action stunts, big epic battle scenes, demigod characters, some very silly moments, some very tragic moments. Also quite a bit more blood and gore than LOTR, so heads up on that. This is two movies, each of which is a bit less than three hours, and while it could very easily have fit into a single movie, there's a charm in the odd, meandering pacing. There are some regrettable choices, such as the African-coded army of evil barbarians that invade the kingdom, but overall, very fun. It's on Netflix. (Catch the version in the original Tamil language. I think Netflix has like four different languages on there.)


AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER
A good story featuring some interesting characters and surprisingly mature themes mired down by a number of issues. The tone is frequently all over the place; though the show seems at times to be interested in telling a feminist narrative, the female characters frequently feel very stereotyped; and just generally the Nickelodeon goofiness seeps its way into the story and detracts. It's still a good show, and I think I understand why it's so well-regarded, but we watched this right after She-Ra and that contrast really just highlighed all of Avatar's shortcomings. It's on Netflix.


KNIVES OUT
An extremely well-structured and well-crafted whodunit with some strong Columbo vibes. Features several send-ups of murder mystery tropes, some amazing acting from an ensemble cast, and a broad array of awful characters, each awful in their own unique way. Some genuinely good and well-earned twists, some supremely well-timed comic beats, and a compelling and unexpected narrative. Strongly recommend.
It's on Prime.





GAMES
ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
I don't know if I would have picked this game up if it weren't for the quarantine. This has become a cultural touchstone for certain parts of the internet. It's pure escapism: move to a deserted island, clean it up, decorate it, make it yours. The game progresses in real time--if you start a construction project on Tuesday in the real world and they say it will be done tomorrow, it will be done on Wednesday in the real world. You can time travel using your system clock if you want--many people do--or you can just let the game happen at its own pace. It's very relaxing, and I personally really enjoy watching the island slowly develop as time goes by. (My current project is breeding flowers, which can take weeks of real time. It's nice to have a little something to do when I wake up every day.) Best enjoyed with some friends who are also playing it.


PERSONA 5 ROYAL
An expanded remake of 2016's Persona 5, which was itself fantastic, P5R adds some new characters, some new content, some quality of life improvements, and some gameplay tweaks. If you're unfamiliar, the game combines visual novel segments, where you live out your life as a high schooler, hanging out with friends, working part-time jobs, studying for classes, and dungeon crawling, where the dungeons are the metadimensional manifestation of the twisted cognitions of the corrupt adults who hold the reins of society. It offers a much more interesting experience than your traditional JRPG (both in combat and during dungeon exploration), and the game is incredibly stylish and has a killer soundtrack. It is a very long game, clocking in at over 100 hours, which is a lot of time to invest, but it's worth it.

There are some pacing issues in the story, including a very, very long cutscene explaining a key plot twist in excruciating detail, but with a game as long as it is that's to be expected. You probably won't be doing nothing but playing this game for two weeks straight (well, under normal circumstances), so you might be playing it over the course of several weeks or months, and the story is structured like that, expecting that you might forget or otherwise miss some points from earlier. But it's an amazing experience and worth checking out.


TANGLEDEEP
I love this game. It's a roguelike dungeon crawler which takes direct inspiration from the classic roguelikes (Nethack, ADOM, Angband, etc.), but with modern sensibilities and a 16-bit aesthetic. It features a cool red-haired lady protagonist (shout out to the angry Steam reviewers who are mad about being "forced" to play as a female character), an interesting (if sparse) story, and is a refreshing change from the grimdark aesthetic that many roguelikes are fond of.

One of the things I like about the game is that it is difficult without relying on randomness. Supplies are plentiful--you will never die because you ran out of healing items. It also adds roguelite elements without making them required--you can easily beat the game on a fresh save file without needing too much skill, if you wanted. The roguelite elements can make the game easier but are not required, so if you find yourself grinding them it will be because you want to, not because it's required in order to progress. 

There is a New Game+ after you clear it if you want to test your build, or you can start over and test out a new character build, so there's plenty of replayability. This is everything I wanted in a roguelike. It's chill and charming and has a mood that's less "YOU DIED" and more "let's go explore some mysteries!"

This is a game I want to write about more. It is good.


THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER HD
I had never actually finished this game before, believe it or not, though I'd started a few files. (I have a tendency, when I sense the end of a game is coming up, to put off finishing it because I don't really want it to end.) This is the Wii U remake of the original, which has some quality of life changes over the original and is widely regarded as an overall improvement on what was generally regarded as a very good game. It holds up pretty well! There's still some jank to the controls, but it's pretty good. The Wii U gamepad can be used to display your map, so you can navigate without pausing to bring up the map or relying on a small minimap; you can also hot-swap items from the gamepad. (Seriously, having a second screen to play games on is a huge QoL improvement. It's a shame the gamepad is massive and hurts to hold after a while.)

The Great Sea is fun to explore; the dungeons are mostly pretty easy, though the last few have some clever puzzles. Nintendo often struggles with hint placement; I often encountered hints that I didn't particularly want or need, and on a few occasions didn't get a hint when I really felt like one would have saved me a bunch of time. Overall a solid experience, with a lovely art style and a nice maritime adventure feel.


HYRULE WARRIORS
It's Dynasty Warriors, but Zelda. You beat up armies of faceless mooks and capture bases and outposts in a semi-strategic fashion, but you're Zelda characters. It's fun, it's not quite mindless (but pretty close); there is a fair bit of grinding if you want to do more than clear the story, but if you enjoy the core gameplay it's not too bad.


JET LANCER
Everyone compares this game to Luftrausers, but that game didn't work on my computer so I'm going to compare it to Asteroids, but with gravity. You're a futuristic mercenary jet pilot (I hesitate to say you are an anime jet pilot, but you are very close to being an anime jet pilot) and you are fighting other mercenary jet pilots, along with some boats and submarines and gun platforms and the occasional robot. It's got customizable loadouts and fast-paced action and various objectives and lots of accessibility options and a customizable control scheme, and it's lots of fun. Go check it out.


MONSTER HUNTER WORLD: ICEBORNE*
Monster Hunter is exactly what it says on the tin: it is a game where you hunt monsters, carve bits off them, and use those bits to make more powerful gear so you can fight more powerful monsters. It's a simple but effective loop. The game is all about learning a monster's patterns so you can understand when and where it's safe to attack, and unlike many RPGs it matters which part of the monster you hit, creating a risk-reward system where your best damage is often done by standing close to the part of the monster most likely to ruin your Christmas.

Despite being the least obtuse game in the series, Monster Hunter World is still hella obtuse, and is best enjoyed with a friend who knows the ropes, and preferably by watching some Youtube tutorials about your favorite weapons and possibly some of the mechanics. The initial learning curve is steep and many of the mechanics are not documented at all so you can uncover new ones literal years after you started playing, but once you're past that initial curve it's pretty smooth sailing.


PERSONA 4 GOLDEN
Persona 4 didn't get its hooks in me in the same way Persona 5 did. While I enjoyed it overall, the alchemy that made Persona 5 work just isn't quite there. It has strong themes (identity and the truth), an interesting narrative (a small-town supernatural murder mystery) that builds well on itself, and a mostly pretty solid cast of characters, but the combination of those elements doesn't feel as compelling. The dungeon crawling element also leaves a fair bit to be desired; the actual act of exploring the dungeons is not particularly interesting, and the combat, while more interesting than traditional JRPG fare, is not as dynamic as in Persona 5. And while the mystery is good and the story rewards you for paying attention, overall the pacing of P4 feels sluggish, often leaving you waiting around for the next plot element.

It's also dragged down by several problematic elements, some of which were at the initial time of release (2008) probably progressive-for-its-time-and-place portrayals of sexuality and gender, and some of which were just . . . not great. At its best, Persona 4 is about coming to accept yourself, even the parts society doesn't find acceptable; at its worst, it suggests that being true to yourself means simply accepting your assigned place in society, and casually pokes fun at marginalized groups.

For all that, if you enjoyed Persona 5 or are curious about the series, it's worth checking out.

Persona 4 Golden is now available on Steam.

20200518

awakening, pt. ii

People always talk about time as if it happens slowly, like ten years happens in increments of weeks and days and hours, but it doesn't. You wake up one morning and you realize that ten years have passed, that it's been a decade since you were who you were back then. And, critically, the person back then cannot be considered you in any real meaningful sense of the word--you are not so young, so vibrant, so fucking naive. How could you be?


Remember how you used to find romance in those songs about making a promise to your future self? There was this idea that your future self would find some power in being reminded of a commitment that you had to remain . . . did you even know? Or did you just know that you didn't want to be what you are now?

That's unfair, of course. The worst part isn't knowing that your past self would be disappointed in you today, would play you those old songs and hope that it might stir the part of your soul that was full of whim and wonder. The worst part is not knowing, being so out of touch with who you were before that you don't even know how you would react to seeing yourself now. At least if you were disappointed or angry or bitter you'd provoke a reaction--what if your past self was simply indifferent? And what if it worked? What if you managed to shame yourself into changing into a version of yourself more palatable to that naive fool who thought the world would be softer? Is that not somehow the worst possible outcome?

The world is not the same as it was ten years ago. You do not wear the same shoes or walk the same streets. Just as you cannot imagine the world as it was ten years ago, so back then you could not imagine the world as it is today. And the one thing you can say with certainty, having suddenly awakened to find yourself in this new world, is that ultimately none of this matters. Time makes fools of us all.

20200504

awakening, pt. i

The secret is I should have died. I don't remember what happened, only waking up in the dormitories with the sensation of pain, more intense than any I'd yet experienced. And when I opened my eyes she was standing there, silhouetted by the moonlight and yet glowing with her own radiance, her back to me and her arms raised in . . . supplication? But then she turned back to me and I could feel that cool radiance, lessening the pain, making me feel calmer, more at ease. I tried to shape words but the pain spiked and I could only just manage a strangled "What--" before biting back a scream. Somewhere in the darkness I think she smiled sadly. "Rest now. We can talk in the morning."


That night I dreamt I was chasing the moon, but no matter how I tried she always stayed out of reach--it felt like I was close, but how can I compete with the moon? How can anyone?

I was disoriented and confused in the morning and it took a moment to realize the pain had subsided--it was still there, and moving still hurt, but I could move, and even speak. And as I shuffled my way into the corridors, I noticed people whispering about me. I still didn't even know what had happened, until I found her again.

That makes it sound like I found her on accident, but no. What I'd tell myself at the time is that I had fallen in love with her, but really I'd become obsessed with her. When I awoke that night to find her standing watch over me, channeling her light into me, I knew then that I must have narrowly escaped death, and only thanks to her help. That was real magic, something beyond the tricks and trinkets of the court mystics.

I cornered her in an empty corridor and demanded to know what happened. Someone, she said, had infiltrated the academy with the express purpose of ending my life--and when I collapsed on the way to the infirmary, she found me, and healed me. There was no one else there. It was my own stubborn pride that almost killed me--I insisted on walking off under my own power, refused to show any weakness in front of my classmates at the academy. I delayed going to the infirmary until no one would see me, and I nearly died for it. Once she'd finished explaining, she smiled at me--a strange smile, one I have never in the years since then been able to parse--and left.

After that, the entire academy thought I was a legend--survive an assassin's blade and walk around the next day without so much as looking a bit peaky. And all of it could have come crashing down at any time if she decided to reveal my secret. And so the obsession grew, and I dedicated myself to endearing myself to her, to keeping her close and safe so I would never need to worry that one day she might whisper my secret to the wrong ear and destroy the unearned legend I had built myself.

20200502

a prelude for may (scenes from a pandemic pt. v)

I always liked May Day. Not just because it's a far truer celebration of the worker than America's half-assed Labor Day, which mostly celebrates office workers with jobs cushy enough to get Labor Day off. May Day is a time for awakening and rebirth, the time when spring is really, truly here, and not as the fragile creature it was through March and most of April. The world is alive. You can do anything. This year, the rebirth we're hoping for, of the society that comes after the pandemic, ideally a society that is a little kinder, a little more just, seems as far away as the bitter cold of winter does on a perfect spring day. It's not impossible to imagine, but it is a difficult memory to conjure.

I keep losing track of time. I haven't missed anything I have scheduled, and I do still have things scheduled, but the days still slip away. Time is social, and the social markers of time are missing, so our minds drift, searching for new anchors to make sense of all of this.

There's a sense of menace creeping into the city. I'm not sure if that's the right word, but every time I go out it seems the number of weird and bad interactions I have with strangers goes up, and a lot of the social norms that were being observed before are starting to break down. In the boring dystopia in which we now live, boredom itself has become dangerous. Boredom and desperation make people make strange decisions.

Part of why I'm falling behind on writing these is, of course, that I'm losing track of time, but I also think I have this need to rise to the occasion, to write something meaningful and relevant, to capture the moment with my words, which is fine, and I think there is a value in that form of chronicle and catharsis, but also it's a trap. Because one the things about living in this pandemic is, yeah, it's tedious. It's boring.

This month's theme is awakening. And I think, when this is over, I'll try to go back and fill out the archives with the stories I missed.

20200425

masks, pt. ii

I always thought the conceit of a masquerade, that we are in some way disguising who we are, was absurd. Most people who know me could identify me from the shape of my chin, the color of my eyes, the way I smile or don't smile, my voice, the way I carry myself; at best, it protects us from being identified by strangers. It grants the illusion of anonymity, not anonymity itself. Or perhaps that's the point. Perhaps, so long as the masquerade continues, we have ensured that strangers will remain strangers, that when we stand unmasked in the cold light of morning no one will be look at us and ask "isn't that" or "didn't she". But when the moon is bright and the stars are out the dawn is a distant threat, a phantom to haunt our morning selves. Plenty of time to dance.

Without the benefit of masks, I can always tell you from your sister by the way you carry yourselves: she cannot hide her confidence, her defiance, no matter how she tries. Even when you're pretending that you are her, there's a tentativeness there, like you are afraid that your passing will disturb the tranquility of the world. You are, I have always felt, a creature of silence.

When I saw you, I was certain you were her. You thought it was the mask, I think, that my powers of perceiving you were diminished by your disguise--the way you smirked at me when I called you by her name, playfully chided me for paying so little attention. I wanted to protest, to tell you that I had paid attention to little else this evening, that your dress and your hair and the roses and the mask were so elegant, so beautiful, I could scarcely think about anything else. But I tripped over my tongue and you just laughed and I fell in love all over again.

You asked me to dance. I would have thought that was unthinkable, before, but here you had become someone else entirely. For my entire life until this moment I had been in perfect control of my life, but here you led and I followed, lost and dazed and happier than I had been in countless years. And as the festival wound down and we sat on the roof, we talked, or rather, you talked, and I did my best to listen when all I could think about is the way your lips moved, the way your voice sounded.

I think you were talking about masks. You said something like, "I'm so glad that we sometimes have this chance, to take off the masks and be who we really are." I was too enthralled and had had too much wine for the words to really take root then and there, but the seed was planted. And when dawn finally did come (I didn't realize I had even fallen asleep, but you were still there, your arms around me, watching the sun rise) you seemed different. I could no longer think of you as a tremulous creature hiding in the wake of your sister, and you could finally see through the air I projected of perfect calm and perfect control.

It seemed so wonderful at the time, to be privileged to this secret world. I had forgotten, momentarily, how dangerous the truth can be.

20200410

masks, pt. i

One summer when I was a kid, the wildfires drove everyone out of our hometown. It felt so sudden: one day everything was fine, I was out playing in the fields of sagebrush and tumbleweeds with my friends, and then I came home and my father made me put on a mask and my mother thrust a bag of my things into my arms. "We have to leave," she told me, and we did. We drove for what seemed an eternity (all trips last forever when you're a child), stopping at the occasional rest area on the way out.


My memory of the trip, as childhood memories often are, is hazy, a series of images and feelings: everyone wearing masks at the rest area; the sky filled with smoke; a sickly sun shining through the haze; my eyes burning; my parents chastising me when I fidgeted with the mask. We stayed at a motel in a town I don't remember, somewhere that was supposed to be safe from the fires for the time being--I remember that very clearly, my father on the phone with someone, saying in hushed tones, "We're safe here for the time being."

That night when they had both gone to sleep, I stole the room key and went outside without the mask on and just walked around--some foolish gesture of defiance, I suppose, or maybe just restlessness and a longing to still be spending my summer under the sky. I could feel the smoke in the air almost immediately, making my lungs hurt and my breathing shallow.

We drove on from there, further from the smoke, until we stopped seeing people in masks and the sun shone bright and clear, and the confusion and uncertainty faded into a dull tedium. But that sensation of not being able to trust the air stuck with me long after the smoke had cleared.

20200404

a prelude for april (scenes from a pandemic pt. iv)

I'm pretty sure I had plans for April's theme, but like so many things this past month, it's gone now. It's cold out there--cold like a normal Seattle winter, which isn't that cold, and is still warm enough that the leaves are starting to come in on the trees and the flowers are in bloom. There are even tulips at the courthouse. Spring is a time of vibrant colors, of life, and that's no less true when there is no one there to witness it. Those tulips still exist even if there aren't many people left at the courthouse, even if the usual spread of office workers eating their lunch on the steps, admiring the fountains and the flower arrangements. The color isn't there for us. So many people will miss the spring, sealed away in their homes--it's a small tragedy in the grand scheme of things, but it is one worth marking.

It's interesting how quickly the city is finding a sense of normal in all of this. In some ways we're still struggling, of course, but in others . . . this is how life is now. It won't last forever, but it could very well last for a very long time, and damned if we aren't determined to find a way to get by, to make it easy, or at least smooth. Within the past week, the data in Washington state has been promising. The growth of the disease seems to no longer be exponential; it's far from over, but it is comforting, at least, to think that all of this is working.

This month's theme is masks. Unlike the indifferent beauty of spring, masks, literal and figurative, are something which exist for us. There are masks which protect, masks which conceal, masks which keep us warm. And on some of them you can doodle a little angry face with a sharpie if you want. I am trying very hard to retain a sense of a schedule right now, but it is proving to be something of a challenge.

20200329

returning, pt. iii

I missed last week because, as you may imagine, I had other things on my mind.


We were separated when the empire began to tear itself apart. She spent her days in the empire's heart, I'm told; every now and then I'd hear a story with her name in it. They loved her, there, as she tried her best to maintain the fragile peace, to give voice to the downtrodden. She was a champion of the people, a symbol of hope for people who otherwise would long have given into despair--at least, that's what the stories said. Sometimes I wondered if there weren't stories where she was the villain, confounding the peace, poisoning the minds of the populace with false hope and empty promises. But if those stories existed, they never found me out in the hinterlands. And just hearing her name made me smile.

Some days, I'll admit, I resented that she made pretty speeches while I lived by the sword--out this far from the heartlands, what peace and stability the empire had once offered had long since faded away. So the people of the hinterlands made their own peace, and when that was threatened, they turned to vagabonds and mercenaries like myself to make things right. It's possible some of them thought of me as a hero later, and I know many of those I crossed swords with were certain I was a villain. Some of them probably even told stories about me, but none of those stories seemed to travel.

It was years later when we reunited. She had, impossibly, won. At first I hoped that we could carry on as if neither of us carried those years with us, that we could be just as inseparable as before, be just as wonderful and impossible together as we had been. But neither of us could pretend the years hadn't happened. Neither of us could return to the people we were before.

We tried. Somehow it was worse that there was no hostility, not even any real friction, just this distance that neither of us knew how to bridge, growing wider with every passing day. In the end I packed up my things and slipped away in the night, for good this time. And I hope that someday she hears stories about me and finds it in her to smile.

20200327

scenes from a pandemic, pt. iii

Today was my first day back to work and, coincidentally, the first day Governor Inslee's stay at home order was in effect. The streets felt like nighttime streets. There was still traffic, but not much--one or two cars at a time at most; much more frequently just stretches of empty road. People on streets behave differently at night. There is no longer the assumption that a car might be coming at any time because there probably isn't; instead they simply rely on the fact that they'll probably see one coming if there is one. It felt like that. Downtown was the worst. In the U District, there were still plenty of people milling about, but downtown felt deserted.

I was given a little sheet of paper to give to the cops in case they harass me for being out, which is surreal. It doesn't look particularly official but it says where I work and that my work is considered an essential business and that, as such, it's essential that I be out there. I don't think it will be a problem, though--cyclists and joggers are out in force, especially on the multi-use bike trail I take home. With the exception of the occasional mask, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't seem like anyone on the trail is aware that the city has been shut down.

Business, as you can imagine, is very slow. Slower than it was two weeks ago, the last time I went to work, and slower, I'm told, than it was even yesterday, when the stay-at-home order was not yet in effect. The usual expectation in service jobs of trying to find something to do even if there are no customers was gone. The handful of customers we encountered seemed grateful that we were open--there are not many places downtown that have elected to keep their doors open, as it trns out.

Residential concierge desks downtown seem to have set up a little system where they tape off an area several feet away from the desk and ask you to stand behind the line when interacting with them. Like all of this, it feels strange. Just another reminder that whatever you thought of as normal is gone, now. The rules have changed.

At my first residential delivery of the day, there was a wedding going on in the lobby. A small gathering of people--four or five at most, maybe less. It was sweet, and sad, and strange: while the concierge asked me questions from a list about whether I was currently feverish or had recently been to China, someone else started trying to talk to me, telling me to wait so that I didn't interfere with the wedding. I stood aside until the bride had walked down the lobby to where her betrothed and the officiant waited.

That image will stick with me, I think. In many ways it captures the feeling of every interaction I had with people today. There is a profound sense of loss, of uncertainty, but people are doing their best to get by, to find little moments of joy where they can, to be kind to one another.

20200316

scenes from a pandemic, pt. ii

Last night, Governor Inslee ordered bars and restaurants to close, except for delivery and take-out; when I called out from work this morning, my store was still open; it's never been primarily a dine-in place, so I suppose the order won't make much more of a difference than the pandemic already has. (As for me: the mild cough lingers, the malaise/fever/whatever seems to have subsided. It feels kind of like the last day or two of a cold now.)

When this first started happening, I don't think I anticipated that one of the side-effects would be that my comrades working at restaurants and bars would be suddenly trying to navigate the bureaucracy of unemployment. My housemate, who works (or worked, I guess) as a cook at a restarant/bar, said that as he was trying to fill out the application online last night, the server crashed, presumably as food service workers across the state all tried to fill it out at the same time so they could make sure they could still pay their bills this month.

We will spend the duration of this crisis wondering if the measures that have been taken were too much, or if they were too little too late. Is the economic suffering caused by this measure worth the lives it might save? On some level, of course, that suffering would have happened with or without the measure, but for many, this will never be enough.  What are they planning to do when the order expires at the end of the month? Do they hope the crisis will be over by then?

The most important question, though: will they actually take measures to protect society's most vulnerable from the economic fallout of all this? Will they take measures to protect those workers who are still forced to go to work and interact with the public because their services are considered too essential to be shut down? Or will the interests of the ownership class prevail, and the underclass ultimately be left, as America is so fond of leaving them, to live or die by the whims of fate, protected only by a woefully inadequate social safety net?

COVID-19 will lay bare, has laid bare, the inherent cruelty of our society. I will leave it as an academic exercise for the reader whether this revelation will lead to any meaningful change towards a kinder world.