The final episode of Game of Thrones aired over a year and a half ago. Why bring it up now, then? one might ask. I’m bringing it up now because the series apparently has longevity, albeit not in the way viewers would have expected before its infamous eighth season was broadcast. I encounter it nearly daily on Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter, in large part because the fandom’s ire at its ending has not faded. I first watched the series after witnessing the beginnings of that reaction and wondering how a popular HBO show could possibly fuck up its ending that massively. This proved to be a mistake; in spite of myself, I got invested in the story and its characters. And I’m still mad about it. What will give Game of Thrones a lasting place in pop cultural memory is not the anger itself, though, but some of the realities behind it:

  • All media is inherently political – or, to put it a bit differently, all stories have a “moral.” And Tyrion memes aside, stories do matter.

(source: @mohitsinghvi_ on Twitter)


  • The stories we cling to are both a function of and an influence on our understanding of the world. 


That in mind, we can take a broad look at the questions Game of Thrones asks, and the answers the show offers. I’ll pause a moment here to say that I’m mostly interested in the answers themselves, rather than how the show reaches them. Although many fans disappointed by the ending of Thrones have suggested that George R. R. Martin will reach the same ending in a satisfying way, I fundamentally disagree. We all know the writing of the last two seasons of Thrones, which Martin was not involved in, was bad. From what I can glean from interviews, Martin’s planned ending most likely included the same basic points:

  • Bran becomes king of the Six Kingdoms
  • Sansa becomes queen of an independent North
  • Daenerys becomes a mad tyrant and burns down King’s Landing
  • Daenerys dies by Jon’s hand
  • Jon leaves Westeros for the North beyond the Wall
  • Cersei and Jamie are killed 
  • Arya leaves Westeros 


My opinion remains show-specific in that I’m reacting to these respective players’ characterizations as they are in the show. If Martin’s characters are unrecognizable from Benioff and Weiss’ characters – provided he ever actually finishes ASOIAF – my readings and opinions may change. The biggest assumption I’m making is that the main characters will end on the same notes RE: sympathy, that is, Daenerys and Cersei are the final villains, with Jon as the most sympathetic survivor of the series’ events. On, then, to the Big Questions the series asks:

  • What makes a good or bad ruler? 
  • And by extension, who makes a good or bad ruler?
  • Which causes are worth dying or killing for? 
  • When do the ends justify the means? 


Although season eight largely sidesteps any narrative importance for the Night King, we can invoke him to begin examining how Thrones portrays good, effective leadership. By the time we reach the Long Night, there are two monarch figures left standing who have thus far been cast in a sympathetic light: Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. Joining their forces together against the Night King and helping convince Cersei to add her own (sort of), a process that nearly kills Jon and does kill one of Dany’s dragons, marks a high point for both of them as leaders: they embody charisma, bravery, sacrifice, and a persistent faith in humanity. In addition to working with Cersei, they bring in outside forces (Wildlings, the Unsullied, and the Dothraki) and oversee cooperation between them and the xenophobic Westerosi.  

If the victory over the Night King can serve as the culmination of Jon and Dany’s mutual effectiveness as rulers, we should also take a look at some of their other qualities and how they affect their leadership. We’ve seen both make Ned Stark’s fatal mistake of trusting too much: Jon is killed by men of the Night’s Watch under his command, and Dany loses Drogo and her unborn son in trusting the witch Mirri Maz Duur. Jon loses the respect of some of his fellow Northmen by bending the knee to Daenerys; Daenerys inadvertently incites riots by executing Mossador for killing an imprisoned slavemaster without a trial. They mirror one another in their struggles as leaders; they learn through trial and error that mercy must be tempered with brutal shows of justice and vice versa. They both fail; they are both saved by fantastical forces at work in Martin’s world. 

The other key players who survive the Long Night should also be looked at, albeit briefly because their characterization becomes nonsensical some time before the last credits roll. Sansa and Cersei both weaponize a display of feminine passivity to their advantage, quietly leveraging shadowy schemers like Littlefinger and Varys against their political opponents. Sansa is sympathetic where Cersei is not, which seems to reflect a broader juxtaposition of Stark and Lannister characteristics. Cersei would torch the entire Realm for the sake of her loved ones; Tommen’s suicide becomes the point of her descent into pure villainy. Sansa is never shown to be particularly progressive, but she is just and honorable. Tyrion is something of an anti-Lannister in that he hates his immediate family, minus Jamie, but bears the Realm itself no ill will (although the show inexplicably discards his hatred for his sister near the end). Following his show trial in King’s Landing, Tyrion’s political machinations are initially motivated by a desire for revenge, which the show gradually replaces with a tenuous belief in Daenerys. Varys, on the other hand, is ostensibly motivated by a genuine desire to improve the Realm, but his lack of outright power forces him to resort to convoluted plots and bets on whether X or Y leader is more likely to align with his hopes. We never know what his true idea of “helping the Realm” entails because his power is usually restricted to the domain of secrets, blackmail, and clandestine plotting. 

All that in mind, I think it’s reasonable to say that the show nudges us towards supporting either Daenerys, Jon, or Daenerys-and-Jon as a duo as the best prospect for the Iron Throne, with people like Tyrion, Varys, and Sansa as necessary parts of a leadership that extends beyond the solitary figure of the monarch. We also see key supports in Davos and Missandei, advisors who have lived the lives of the enslaved and the common, who ground all these political machinations in the material realities of the Realm. 

Then comes season eight. 

Once we’ve crossed the anticlimactic Rubicon of the Long Night, the only major plot point left in the show is the question of the Iron Throne. We, as viewers, expect an answer to this ongoing question of leadership; all the major character deaths up to this point have played into the theme of (in)effective rule, whether that rule be moral or immoral. We naturally hope for some payout for our grief in a moral ruler, although we don’t necessarily expect that outcome. What we do expect is some coherent commentary on what brings good leaders to power or what keeps them from it.

What follows, of course, is a shitshow that plays into some of the worst, most reactionary tropes in popular media. I wish the arrogance of the two men who wrote it surprised me, but the messages behind the conclusion of TV’s most successful fantasy franchise are already prevalent. At their most sinister, they boil down to the following:

  • Women are fundamentally volatile and untrustworthy
  • The logical endpoint of revolutionary sentiment is mass murder
  • The status quo should be and will be preserved
  • Foreigners [read: POC] have no loyalty or convictions 
  • Bad genes make a person untrustworthy 


We can begin with the first point. Game of Thrones’ treatment of female characters has always stirred controversy. Rape scenes and gratuitous nudity aside, S8 cements the show’s “women problem” in its three key female leaders: Daenerys, Cersei, and Sansa. Some viewers suggest Arya’s victory over the Night King as a counterpoint, which I’d address by arguing that Arya plays no role whatsoever in the overarching plots of the show. Like Brienne, she is a strong woman who stabs things. Period. That isn’t a problem in and of itself; the greater issue is the sexist tropes the women who do make plot-relevant choices fall into. 

I’ll start with Sansa, since her portrayal is arguably the least problematic of our three queens. In her case, I think Martin could feasibly achieve the same ending for the character without the sexism of the show, so my criticism here is more limited. To address the problem with show Sansa, though: she’s an “alpha bitch.” Her concept of leadership is largely informed by her observation of Cersei and Littlefinger, but her writing in particular throws in a side of cattiness, most apparent in her inexplicable disliking of Daenerys (apparently the script notes make explicit that Sansa is jealous of Dany’s beauty, which is particularly egregious). This is after she elects not to inform Jon of her Vale backup forces in the Battle of the Bastards, presumably sacrificing lives to appear the savior, and after she immediately ceases showing any concern for Jon RE: his trip to Dragonstone after he puts her in charge. And then there’s the whole spilling Jon’s heritage secret thing. Considered together with her insistence on ruling the North alone when another Stark has taken the Throne, it seems like she has a will to power, but we never hear about any particular vision for her reign, or why she would rather see herself rule than Jon or Daenerys or anyone else. Much like post-S6 Cersei, she seems to exist solely to fuck around with people. 

Ah, Cersei. At her best, Cersei is a compelling sympathetic villain. I genuinely felt for her when I saw her reaction to Myrcella’s death, and during her Walk of Shame sequence. By the end of GoT, though, she has become a cardboard evil queen from a Disney cartoon. She’s the worst of the Lannisters without any of their redeeming qualities, like Tywin and Tyrion’s intelligence or Jamie’s honor. Her deviant sexual attraction to her brother, the victim to her wiles, is the Source of All Evil. Her one redeeming quality – per Tyrion – is as gendered as her many flaws: she loves her children. When her children are torn from her, then, it’s only natural that she goes into full blown Female Hysteria mode and starts killing people nigh indiscriminately for the sake of revenge….and an aimless power. Her use and maintenance of said power is restricted to drinking wine and ordering men to act on her behalf. What makes Cersei’s ending tragic for me is her passivity: Cersei’s vindictiveness and paranoia can be traced to Tywin’s treatment of her as a daughter. She desperately wanted the agency afforded to her brothers. She never really got it, not even as the first Mad Queen. 

And what hasn’t already been said of Mad Queen Daenerys? My one major complaint about much of the post-S8 Daenerys discourse is that people so often argue that her ending would have been a good one if it had been properly developed. I disagree: her ending was bad. Period. Here we have a character who has spent multiple seasons promising herself and her supporters that she will rise above the legacy of her homicidally insane father. Going the insanity route with her is deeply nihilistic at best, and borderline eugenicist at worst. Bringing her anti-slavery stance and her desire to “break the wheel” into the mix adds yet another layer of problems. 

Let’s start with the sexism, though, since we’re already on the topic. Daenerys is a superb Strong Female Character™ at her best, so looking at her worst as a subversion of her best just doubles the shit heap. Again. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from her, a rare gem in season seven:

I have been sold like a broodmare. I’ve been chained and betrayed, raped and defiled. Do you know what kept me standing in through all those years in exile? Faith. Not in any gods, not in myths and legends: in myself. In Daenerys Targaryen.


To be clear: I am a Daenerys stan, 100 percent. I have been a Daenerys stan from the moment I realized I was emotionally attached to the show. I watched Game of Thrones for Daenerys Targaryen. She was an inspiration to me. And what made her special, what made her relatable in spite of all the dragonfire, was intimately connected to her gender. 

A quick recap of her arc: Daenerys grows up in exile alongside a narcissistic brother who sexually abuses her. The same family name that had her on the run from assassins as a child allows said brother to essentially sell her into sexual slavery. She learns how to get Drogo to love her as a way to win her own agency. She gains her power through her dragons, through “fire and blood:” in her first personal victory over an enemy, and in her own loss. Tell me this isn’t gendered:

She uses the power she gains to win agency for others. She eventually hopes to “break the wheel,” to end the Westerosi monarchy as it stands. 

That’s not to say she isn’t flawed or problematic. She’s self-righteous and borderline vengeful. The show portrays her as a White Savior figure to an egregious degree. She’s not good at dealing with contempt from her subjects (perhaps her survival-based need to be loved by Drogo has carried over?). She relies too much on a family name that ought not be relevant when it comes to her motivations for taking the Iron Throne. 

Nonetheless, what makes (or made) Daenerys unique for me was that she basically turns around gender-based oppression and makes her position empowering. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s naked in two key scenes in securing her power: the birth of her dragons and burning the Khals. It’s a stark contrast to her nudity in the series’ opening episode, when she is appraised and molested by her brother and raped by her husband. Here, I also think of her slave collar-style dress, where she wears a symbol of the oppressed from a position of power:

Apart from her name, her whole character is enveloped in outsider-ness. Her advisor and best friend Missandei, as well as her military commander, were once enslaved. Her Small Council is full of exiles who hope for a better Westeros. She falls in love with Jon Snow when he’s a bastard and potential adversary king. She’s foreign in Essos, where she grew up, and foreign in Westeros, where she was born. She’s a foreigner, but a foreigner portrayed as a symbol of hope, of literally rising from the ashes of loss and powerlessness. To me, there’s something fundamentally revolutionary in that.

Then, of course, we have season eight, because why not turn her into an actual Foreign Menace instead? Have her go mad because she’s a woman with bad genes who can’t handle grief and adversity. Take everything away from her because this show is realistic and we can’t let her have too much. Kill off Missandei, the only major WOC character, as a plot device to help trigger her inborn madness. Make her an incel. Make her the idiot who “just kinda forgot” about the Iron Fleet. Make her Her Satanic Majesty. Then make her noble lover stab her in the heart with a kiss, because bitches be cray, and she needs to be put down like the rabid dog she is. 

(An aside: one might counter-argue that the destruction of King’s Landing is about the inherent volatility of one person having too much power. But I would counter that every king or queen in this series is an authoritarian ruler of their respective domain.)

This is definitely show-specific, but I also want to take a moment to highlight what a fucking mess the blocking of Daenerys’ post-psychotic-break victory speech scene is: 

If you’re into Thrones discourse at all, you’ve probably already read analyses of the fascist imagery in this scene. I just want to point out the pernicious irony of having both the Nazi threat and the “foreign savage” threat portayed like this, since in reality, the former scapegoats the latter. Somehow, this scene wants us to view the fascists and the foreign savages as one and the same, united in Mad Queen Daenerys, the revolutionary who took her revolution too far. And I suppose Daenerys’ use of their respective native tongues to her two groups of soldiers should also have us quaking in our boots. Oh no! She’s not one of us! 

The actual script for this episode has Tyrion surveying the damage with the following thoughts: If this is liberation, [he] doesn’t believe in liberation theology. (Never mind Tyrion’s own use of wildfire in the Battle of Blackwater Bay, or anything he says in his King’s Landing trial about how he wished them all dead.) When he persuades Jon Snow to kill Daenerys, he say this:

When she murdered the slavers of Astapor, I’m sure no one but the slavers complained. After all, they were evil men. When she crucified hundreds of Meereenese nobles, who could argue? They were evil men. The Dothraki khals she burned alive? They would have done worse to her. Everywhere she goes, evil men die and we cheer her for it. And she grows more powerful and more sure that she is good and right.

Essentially, our message here is that “if you kill bad people, that probably means you’ll kill good people too.” There’s a more interesting discussion somewhere in there about how we as a Western, primarily white audience may be more upset about her killing Westerosi “evil men” than Essosi “evil men,” but I don’t think that’s the commentary this particular quote is making, since Tyrion was fine with killing people in Essos. 

Perhaps we can say the show did some good in not putting Jon on the throne after everything? In not propagating the tired message of the best rulers not wanting to rule? Ah, but no, we’re given the sense that Jon should have ruled (because powerful Targaryen genes + mentally stable Stark genes + dick), but gave up the chance for the duty to humanity, i.e. the duty to off the Jezebel who would have him sympathize with her atrocities. More sexism: in swearing fealty to Daenerys, Jon becomes impotent with regard to the plot. He is exiled not for murder, but for becoming the subordinate of a woman who is further in line for the throne from him. Grey Worm, the Unsullied, and the Dothraki (hell, even Drogon) have no interest in revenge because Daenerys’ death has broken them from their apparent enchantment (and because the show is maybe kinda a little bit racist and couldn’t be bothered with giving meaningful arcs to the POC characters). O, the wiles of revolution and beautiful women!

There’s more I could say, but the more I write, the more angry I get, so I’m just going to address my last point, which is the actual ending. The final scene shows us Bran and his Small Council, with the implication that things aren’t “back to normal” quite yet, but they will be. As the Three-Eyed Raven, Bran will likely be incredibly long-lived, so we can assume the status quo he maintains (if he is successful) will last quite some time. I’ll put aside the question of why the fuck Bran isn’t considered evil when he admits to knowing everything that would happen in King’s Landing and not saying anything about it. Instead, let’s look at his characterization by the end of the show: he can see the past, and apparently the future. He’s a Stark, which I guess we’re supposed to be pleased about? He has no human emotions. 

If the Starks are the house that most embodies the Middle Ages chivalric tradition and Bran himself is essentially a robot, the show’s proposed answer to its leadership question is…what, exactly? Let the AIs rule us? Centrist technocracy 5ever? The best leader is one who is all-knowing and has no emotion? “Let us end our wars by reverting to the tepid conservatism that precipitated them” is a fucking stupid message. “The payoff to attempts at revolution will be a return to the status quo” is ahistorical. So, what then? 

We have always told stories. In our stories, we have always tried to show what is wrong with the world and suggest how we might change it. The king “with the best story,” though, is in fact the one who leaves the story either woefully incomplete or woefully contradictory and nihilistic. And so Game of Thrones leaves us with this: a bad story. Period.



This past year expanded the theater of war between the “real” and the “imaginary,” I think. “Alternative facts” became an alternate reality where a large proportion of the US population seemed intent on willing the virus out of existence by simply behaving as if it didn’t exist. Now we have over 360,000 deaths, if we’re to trust World-O-Meter as a source. Forget the stock market: sickness is our largest investment. 

I’ve posted before about feeling abstracted, and it’s a feeling that remains. Any time I post here, I feel almost obligated to talk about the pandemic, since it’s dominated a roomy corner of my mind (and probably your mind too, dear reader) since March. There’s an elephant in every room. But it’s also been a year of immersion in the imaginary, a year where the inner world eclipses the outer. I got a copy of House of Leaves for Christmas, and its central premise of a house that’s larger on the inside than on the outside feels oddly current. Imagine a bunker taking root: a retreat from the virus and the sunburnt world of forced vision into an underground labyrinth that expands as you traverse its sticky web of tunnels.

All of this is a lengthy way of saying I’ve been playing a lot of video games. If I spent more time in 2020 thinking about something other than COVID-19 and my personal failings, it was video games. A list of games I played or started (or continued) playing in 2020:

  • Pokemon Shield
  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons
  • This War of Mine
  • Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • Fire Emblem: Three Houses
  • Fire Emblem Heroes
  • Fire Emblem Fates (Conquest)
  • Layers of Fear: Legacy 
  • Hollow Knight
  • Super Smash Bros Ultimate
  • Okami
  • Stardew Valley
  • Rune Factory 4 Special
  • The Witcher 3
  • Hades
  • Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition
  • Link’s Awakening
  • Bioshock
  • Oxenfree
  • Octopath Traveler
  • Tales of Vesperia

The titles I highlighted in blue are games I’ve spent over 100 hours playing. Fire Emblem: Three Houses and ACNH top the list at over 300 hours apiece. I gamed as if gaming were my full-time job. I spent quiet hours reflecting on the games. I finally openly admitted to reading fanfiction – FE3H spurred me to read more of it than ever. I spent hours writing paragraphs on paragraphs arguing about character motives and moral standing on Reddit. I re-realized the depth (and absurdity) of my obsession when I recently found myself delving into semantics and theological history to argue with a similarly obsessed player about whether or not a game character represented the will of divinity. 

With the amount of time I spend on gaming, I even feel a capitalist compulsion to search for justification. I’ll never profit from it. You see, I’m not actually good at gaming. Even after all these hours, I’m below average. Why, then?  

That eternal, infernal question brings me back to the concept of immersion. My clumsiness in figuring out game mechanics even adds to the chance of getting lost in one digital world or another – it’s like memorizing the strip of sidewalk outside your house in your bumbling attempts to learn how to ride a bike. 

A key difference is that even after the sidewalk ends, you can bike on. The world stretches out of sight, beyond the limits of the mind. Games, though, present something like a yarn ball of neatly contained possibilities. The yarn ball is a soft, safe shelter, a warm dark paved with a million possibilities of thread. You can immerse yourself in a ballpit, immerse yourself in a hobby, immerse yourself in an ocean, in a language. The word implies a separation, a surface containing a succinctly named and defined system (does this count as a pun? You know, gaming system. Ha.). Surface tension to prevent leakage between system and world. 

From a current events perspective, I experienced 2020 as an anti-systematic year. We saw the US, and many other countries along with it, fail to streamline virus prevention efforts. We saw delayed election results, disputes over once-trusted institutions, a stuttering transition to online work and school, a dissolution of public-private boundaries via Zoom, etc. etc. We saw the shadow of entropy, that enigmatic enemy. 

(2020 would not work as a game. The disastrous release of Cyberpunk 2077 is basically 2020 as a game. Highly anticipated. Top tier marketing. Yet even after multiple delays, the game hit the market glitch-riddled. It crashed systems. It lagged. From what I’ve heard, the story wasn’t even that good. The company was forced to offer refunds to everyone who bought it, no questions asked. Unfortunately, the Reaper is not offering refunds on 2020 at this time.)

When I read my course evaluations, a few students (rightly) criticized my slow response times on emails. It’s true – I procrastinated on reading and replying to emails. I procrastinated on grading. I procrastinated on my own assignments. The creeping dread was always there, the figurative Nosferatu fingers stretching long, pale, and sharp around the door. I never lost awareness of the distinction between the fictional and the real, blurry as it may be. Nevertheless, I still find myself succumbing to the urge to shut out the world the way I turn off a game when it gets too frustrating (shoutout to Hollow Knight). 

Maybe I love math after all: on some deep, primal level, my sorely limited mind wants the world to be a system, a law, a narrative. A linear progression, maybe. Something subject to a benevolent, controlling force. Maybe playing games is a search for God, or for the America we learned about in primary school textbooks, or for a year where we all actually follow the resolutions we set for ourselves. A world where the past doesn’t ooze into the present. A world where intellectualizing doesn’t necessitate cold dissociation. 

If I learned anything this past year, I learned that that kind of dissociation is both dangerous and necessary. 

Self-contained fictional worlds got me through the months alone. They gave me idols I’ll never have to kill, idols with no closets to hide skeletons in. Myriad worlds illuminated in soft incandescence. No sunburns or temporary blindness. They also enabled my shitty, avoidant coping mechanisms. The list of unread emails is not growing smaller. People are not growing less disappointed. The barrage will not cease. 

I see that paradox in my own life, and in the personified life of this country. I remember an introductory German history class I took in undergrad covering a chapter about the Black Death. We discussed the warring, intertwined concepts of carpe diem and memento mori: “seize the day” and “remember you will die.” In contemporary translation, maybe “lol YOLO” or “it’s just the flu, bro!” versus “Jesus Christ, there’s a pandemic! People are dying!” The YOLO crowd feeds into the number of deaths. The knowledge that any given day could be your last feeds into the YOLO urge. Carpe diem is justified by memento mori. In spite of my frustration, I genuinely sympathize with the people who are pretending the virus doesn’t exist. It’s difficult to remain invested in a future you can’t take for granted. And we can’t really say our culture encourages altruistic sentiments. 

(Incidentally, my new favorite video game character, Edelgard from FE3H, is someone principally characterized as willing to sacrifice present comforts for the sake of a better future. Don’t click that link if you don’t want spoilers for the game, btw.)

As much as I want to embrace the Taoist appreciation for paradoxes, this one strikes me as deeply sad. Live to die; die to live. Sacrifice your “real” life at the altar of pretty systems. Or vice versa. 

Is grey the ugliest color? 

Is there a self-help book to help one find balance? And can it be expanded to cover the wide world of individuals? (Ah, there it is. The longing for systems.) 

To close, I want to bring up another game, one that only takes a couple hours to play through. What Remains of Edith Finch is a multi-platform game I initially encountered through a video of a full playthrough in a movielike, commentary-free format. Intending to watch the first ten minutes or so to decide if I wanted to buy the game, I found myself drawn in and watched it all at once. I have since played the game, but you can watch the linked video like a movie without losing much of the experience. 

In the game, you assume the first person perspective of the titular Edith Finch, a 17-year-old girl who returns to her abandoned family home as its last surviving member. We learn almost immediately that the death of Edith’s brother Lewis seven years before had catalyzed her now-deceased mother’s decision to flee the house, a whimsical monstrosity that looks like Howl’s castle with a Tim Burton aesthetic. Edith has been raised to see the house as a physical manifestation of a cross-generational family curse. The game’s narrative covers the deaths of the family – vignettes of an inherited, lethal curse, if you will. But the truth of the curse is never revealed. Perhaps there’s a supernatural culprit; perhaps not.

In any case, without spoiling the individual stories, I was struck by a common thread among the stories. The untimely deaths in the Finch family are all tied to a victory of imagination over reality – that is, until reality wins with the deaths of the imaginers. We see hallucinations, dissociation, grand plans, reveries, and (perhaps) a cross-generational self-fulfilling prophecy. Another embrace of carpe diem and memento mori; another tragedy. 

I’ve spent the past year halfheartedly resenting my own abstraction from the slow-motion car crash we’ve all been collectively witnessing. But to immerse oneself in an imperfect system feels akin to a dive towards the sun to become another Icarus.

Color is molten. Color is an undertow. For now. 

Fragments of poems come to mind: from Tracy K. Smith: “faces radiant with panic.” From Sylvia Plath: “the blood jet is poetry.” It’s hard to read poems at all when the chills come from the same source as the fear. The radiance is the panic. Blood is life is death. Also from Plath: “This is the silence of astounded souls.” 

My greatest hope for 2021 is that color can bloom again without overwhelming this carefully cultivated grey ecosystem.



To actually close, I’ll add some photos from my camera roll that have that 2020 feel. With black-and-white filters, of course, for that narrative cohesion and dramatic effect we all crave. 

(trash accumulates)

(journal entry from easter 2020)

(self-portrait: overexposed) 

November 11th is almost over, but I wanted to write about poppies, so here I am.


Another day on the verge of departure, another week past, another season, and it’s not like I can call it unremarkable. And yet what drove me to “blog” again is not the world per se, but the idea of a flower I haven’t personally experienced in…two years now? Three? That flower, though – the knowledge that there are poppies growing somewhere – is a call to return, a hailing, an interpellation, and and and…


Today is Remembrance Day, Veterans Day, Armistice Day, a day of names that may vary depending on which side of World War I your forebears fought on. And the poppy, particularly the red poppy worn on the lapel, is its flower. In this strange year, eyed by strange ghosts, we renew our international vow to remember. 


How to remember?


First, the ghosts that demand attention, the ones we don’t know personally. Then, the ghosts that demand attention, newborn, in gestation. Fields of asphodel, fields of poppies – flowers. I’m sitting in my bed, surrounded by everyday detritus, in the Year of Our Lord 2020, on Remembrance Day, thinking about flowers. That’s rich. And, I suppose, a rambling way of admitting to a distance I’m ashamed of, but not one unique to me. 


According to World-O-Meter, the US coronavirus death tally has surpassed 247,000. That’s over twice as many American deaths as in World War I, and over half of our national death count in World War II from 1941 to 1945. Roughly 83 9/11s’ worth of deaths. The human mind, science tells us, begins to reduce faces and names to statistics long before a country is tasked with comprehending that many people vanished, much less remembering them. And still I’m caught off guard by my own inability to feel that loss, to process, and by finding myself a bystander in yet another historical instance of “how did this happen?” On a somewhat tangential note, last year, my Elementary German I students didn’t know what the Berlin Wall was. We Americans have a short attention span, perhaps.  


In any case, everything has moved into abstraction. I ask myself again what has happened in the past week:

  • Joe Biden was elected President
  • Donald Trump refused and refuses to concede the plainly lost election
  • Rudy Giuliani gave a speech at Four Seasons Landscaping, sandwiched between a crematorium and a sex shop
  • Alex Trebek died
  • I read DMZ Colony by Don Mee Choi for class
  • My students took a test online
  • I ordered more books to add to the growing pile next to my bed
  • etc.


The poppy is a salient flower. One must imagine poppies sprouting up between all these shards of half-lived, distant events, swelling into a field. Poppies blinking awake. A promise of red. 


Regarding bullet points one and four: Biden’s victory was a moment of lightness, that feeling of coming home after a shift of a shitty foodservice job to make a beeline for the sofa and finally rest your aching feet. The announcement the next day of Alex Trebek’s death felt wrong – Wasn’t my shift over? Wasn’t 2020 finally beginning to look up? 


Biden’s election brought talk of an American redemption, a restoration, a return to normalcy and a more welcoming idea of “greatness.” In a way, Alex Trebek (a Canadian!) embodied many of the values of that view of greatness. He hosted Jeopardy! long enough to become a familiar face, a part of that after-shift routine. Occasional jibes and hints of condescension aside, he treated contestants fairly and politely. He, the contestants, and the viewers all took part in an everyday celebration of knowledge for its own sake, wherein luck was at play, but watching the show, you could believe in the merit of the day’s winner. And Alex’s Q&A sessions with the contestants turned winners and losers alike into brief neighbors. A competition, yes, a performance, a spectacle, but there was never a sense of ulterior motives. It was just fun to share in people’s enthusiasm for random factoids. And Alex’s pristine pronunciation made you want to assume he naturally knew the answers to all the questions he asked. 


Whenever I’m back home, I watch Jeopardy! with my dad, whose political beliefs I vehemently oppose, every night. I wonder if that will still be the case in the future.


Biden is a re-run of Jeopardy!, so to speak. I’m glad he’s there. But his presence and his victory do not negate the damage of the past four years, and of this year in particular. Alex Trebek will grace my TV screen again; Alex Trebek is dead. He just joined a massive and growing cohort of people who will not see 2021. It’s not too late for any of us to join that cohort. We can’t take anything for granted anymore, not even those of us who were privileged enough to believe for a long time that we were inherently part of an effortless greatness. Since Alex announced his diagnosis, I have actively dreaded the news we got a few days ago, and oddly, I still dread it. The individual tragedy hasn’t registered: I’m lost in the field of poppies again.


And so I’m writing this without direction, unsure of what it means to remember, to participate in remembrance. Thinking about the poppy as the gorgeous paradox it is in what and how it can mean: producer of opium, tranquilizer, aid to colonization, thing of beauty, killer, sign of life, vision, sign of disorder.


When I was in Dortmund for my English teaching assistantship, I commuted to and from Soest, about a 40 minute train ride from industrial drudge to quaint medieval town and back again. Germany has a population of over 80 million within a land area less than half the size of Texas, that is to say it’s quite densely populated. Although the train passed cultivated field after cultivated field, wind turbine after wind turbine, the only thing I saw (beyond the occasional deer) that felt wild, felt self-perpetuating, was the odd smattering of red poppies edging towards the train tracks. The odd reminder that what you think you know of your tired route won’t stand to time. Or that there’s room for life in the gaps. Anywhere. 

(I could never get a good picture of the trackside poppies, which seems fitting enough.)

Consider these paragraphs the petals of a poppy, meandering around some unknown dark center, some promise. Bliss? Oblivion? Cataclysm? 


Pretty, too. Consider this still of Kurt Cobain lying in a carefully constructed field of silk poppies and machine fog: 


(I did not exist when people whose faces and names I will never know constructed that field. Now the man pictured does not exist. And we will all join him in nonexistence. Perhaps the faceless poppy-setters already have. How strange.) 


I have no answers, so today, I’m turning once again to 


[at this point I broke off, and now I’m returning a couple days later to see if I can write myself into a hole I can disguise as conclusion. I’ll include some digital doodles as an interlude.]


If I recall correctly, I was going to continue that sentence to talk about images, images in language. A poppy or two from the endless field of invoked poppies. A source of comfort and consternation, something to explain why napping is my favorite pastime when I am at all times conscious of and terrified by the flow of death in my veins. Black center of bloodred petals, vault of silence in every throat, and yet the words exist, and yet some author you read in high school English class can germinate red in twenty-odd teenage heads. A form of collective memory? Yet we’re going wrong and will do so again and again. 


If we can share in tragedy, we can share in beauty. Both belong to memory. And so I’ll cease my rambling by sharing with you some poems with poppies, beginning with my own rough translation of Paul Celan’s “Corona:”




From my hand autumn eats its leaf: we are friends. 

We shell time from nuts and teach it leaving:

time returns to the shell. 


In the mirror is Sunday,

in the dream there is sleeping,

the mouth speaks true. 


My eye descends to the sex of my lover:

we gaze at each other,

we give voice to dark things,

we love each other like poppy and memory,

we sleep like wine in the mussel shells,

like the sea beneath the moon’s bloodbeam.


We stand intertwined in the window, they look up at us from the street:


it is time that they know!

It is time that the stone concede to bloom,

time for a heart to beat in disquiet.

Time for it to be time.


It is time. 


From Emily Dickinson:


It was a quiet seeming Day —

There was no harm in earth or sky —

Till with the closing sun

There strayed an accidental Red

A Strolling Hue, one would have said

To westward of the Town —


But when the Earth began to jar

And Houses vanished with a roar

And Human Nature hid

We comprehended by the Awe

As those that Dissolution saw

The Poppy in the Cloud



Another rough translation (really rough this time, since I tend to get angsty when trying to translate end rhymed poems), this time one of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus




Only the one who has raised

his lyre in shadow as in sun

may know what it means to join

in the song of praise without end.


Only the one who once ate 

at the dead’s own banquet of poppies

will never again face the loss

of even the quietest note. 


Although the reflections we see in the pond

may often be lost to a ripple,

know the image.


Only within the double-space

will the voices become

undying and mild. 



Two Sylvia Plath poems, both of which feel current, the latter of which is one of my favorite poems I’ve ever read, one I can recite from memory and often turn to for comfort:


Poppies in July


Little poppies, little hell flames,

Do you do no harm?


You flicker. I cannot touch you.

I put my hands among the flames. Nothing burns.


And it exhausts me to watch you

Flickering like that, wrinkly and clear red, like the skin of a mouth.


A mouth just bloodied.

Little bloody skirts!


There are fumes that I cannot touch.

Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?


If I could bleed, or sleep!

If my mouth could marry a hurt like that!


Or your liquors seep to me, in this glass capsule,

Dulling and stilling.


But colorless. Colorless.


Poppies In October


Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.

Nor the woman in the ambulance

Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly —


A gift, a love gift

Utterly unasked for

By a sky


Palely and flamily

Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes

Dulled to a halt under bowlers.


O my God, what am I

That these late mouths should cry open

In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.



And because I’m so happy Louise Glück won the Nobel, I’ll let her words wrap up this account of confusion: 


The Red Poppy


The great thing

is not having

a mind. Feelings:

oh, I have those; they

govern me. I have

a lord in heaven

called the sun, and open

for him, showing him

the fire of my own heart, fire

like his presence.

What could such glory be

if not a heart? Oh my brothers and sisters,

were you like me once, long ago,

before you were human? Did you

permit yourselves

to open once, who would never

open again? Because in truth

I am speaking now

the way you do. I speak

because I am shattered.



Tart Cherries 

All that glitters isn’t blood, but still, a million needle pricks and tingling skin when I see their shock of red, the vacationing feeling that inhabits this land pre-midsummer. Reincarnation, their reality: the repeated sacrifice. The passion.


Seashell Nightlight

The room is sea-themed, I think, although this is lake country. A sin: someone has hidden light under a vessel. But light hides badly. The glow is not ocean or water, but a fear set aside for later.


Sacred Heart of Jesus 

“Do we really have to go? We’re on vacation!” 


Clearview Drive

A house, a lake, a softly chiming clock. A neighbor’s pool, a walk to the waterfront – both too cold. Sources of excitement year after year. I find my first and only fossils here. I carry them in a shopping bag through airport security.  



Remember how I used to say I liked to fish? Lies! 

I liked fishing in the abstract, by which I mean to say 

I liked to buy the bait, the fake worms set with glitter. 

I liked the minnows too – less so, the killing them. 

I mostly just liked novelties.


Elk Rapids

The town where I get my first fake leather jacket. The town with the store that sells candy cigarettes. I feel so adult! 


Aunt Sharon’s Baby Doll from Childhood

If this is eternal youth, then death may be preferable. But no one escapes the signs of age. Not even this infant relic. Her matted, clumped tufts of hair halo greying plastic. Her limbs, so unlike trees whose frames brave the winter; the joints are fraying. She’s exoskeletal. What mold grows inside?


Zebra Mussels

Because I like them, it surprises me to find out how they’ve poisoned this place. 


White Ceramic Crucifix

Hung over the bed, the figure seems large the first time, a sentinel in a town too small for crime. Later, I am unimpressed by the earthenware that shows no red of the wound, barely offers expression of suffering. It sprouts roots and fuses to the pale wall.


The Town Club

minus the bowling alley that wasn’t really 

a bowling alley minus the phone booth with the line 

always busy what is this place really except a refilled 

shirley temple, fryer grease, bloody mary 

olive from my father’s toothpick? 


The Holiday Inn

Because “togetherness” is a different word.  Because the world is not the piece of music you longed for it to be.



Family land. Non-family flowers. Beautiful regardless. 


Munson Nursing Home

crunch of un-tourist-trod snow

eye blue as death bewildered in its mirror

ring of younger eyes still 


neither recognizing the other


Munson Hospice

“A dismal place”


High Beams

a function of snow a function of woods a function of nights a function of aspiration pneumonia


Sacred Heart of Jesus

More dead in life, more alive in death? His face holds the sun at the front of the cathedral. The sun holds his face and the years collapse. His body — and I can almost believe the words I read from the altar. 


Horizon Books

Titles I picked out here: Tao Te Ching, God Is Not Great, The Waste Land and Other Poems, (god give me strength) Twilight. New Moon. Eclipse. 

“Let us go then, you and I”— ah, wait, it looks like it’s closed now. Damn. 


Sacred Heart of Jesus

Is she still here? She looks nothing like her. The ground is frozen; we bury her months later. I help lift the casket, my last sight of her is earth and cherrywood. 


Doug Murdick’s Fudge

Forget last words. I would like to know what my last confection will be. 

Is this fudge only special in memory? I remember the little plastic knife, how we sliced so thinly to extend the indulgence. 


The Jolly Pumpkin 

Turns out there are novelties yet. We try a new restaurant. I get a new nickname. 


Sweet Cherries

Only subdued is vitality palatable. 

For every fever, there’s an antidote. 

These seeds are darker, richer. The bruises, 

more plentiful. In the beginning, 

I am afraid to touch 

what was and now isn’t – cherry picking

too late in the summer, days no longer growing 

longer. But year by year, my bowl grows 

more motley. Each mark, less meaningful. 

Unrepentant against my teeth, the fly-bitten 

cherries still bleed out their sweetness.   


Evening. Second day of a semester generally considered bizarre since before its beginning. 

The cicadas are humming. Droning. A behavior intolerable to the sun and the parched earth of Las Vegas*, where I spent the last few months convalescing (if I may be so melodramatic) from my eight weeks of solitary quarantine. The ebb and flow of that sound brings me back to the other cicada-infested places I’ve lived: two different suburbs of Chicago, time-flashes here and there and everywhere, college in New Orleans.

I can thank Facebook memories for replacing the role of the Catholic Church in my life as a perpetual reminder of all my fallings from grace (with “grace” as a generic noun standing in for a rather low baseline in my case). Today: jokes about procrastination from August 2015, a time partially stemming from and yet preceding some of the worst months of my life.

Failing a class is not remarkable, especially at the postsecondary level. I know this. I knew this. And in a sense, it wasn’t wholly new either – many a merciful teacher essentially airlifted me from the maw of failure over my years, which is a hard fact to acknowledge, since I also tend to present myself as some sort of academic. 

The cicadas again, at it like an intrusive stream of consciousness, like that one quote from The Castle displayed in the Kafka Museum in Prague that I’ll never forget: You are not from the castle, you are not from the village, you are nothing. 

I’m writing this in an open forum not to self-abase, believe it or not (although let me insert this aside to say that the aforementioned religious institution and social media platform have often encouraged self-abasement as humility’s simulacrum). Instead, I’m reflecting on how this strange semester is starting, and on the threads that weave my reception of it. Today, I taught two sections of Elementary German I; thereafter, I “attended” two Zoom seminar meetings. Everything up to expectations, aside from more technical difficulties in my second German section, where I couldn’t get the classroom camera to work when I had students tuned in from Zoom as well as there in person. 

It’s so easy to feel like nothing. The professor of one seminar, which addresses intersections of performance theory and poetry, brought up how we perform our roles as students in Zoom, with our posture, background, eye contact, etc. etc. It’s something I feel acutely, the sense of performance, and along with that, the dread of forgetting my lines, letting my slow thinking hinder any possibility of ad lib. 

We are expected to serve as pedagogical pioneers in this situation we tack with descriptors like “unprecedented” or “unforeseen” until the words turn to ash in our mouths. Here, I think of Joan Didion’s titular essay in The White Album, how she (or, rather, her I-speaker) panics when social upheaval shreds the old scripts, narratives, expectations —

Expectations. A metaphorical virus to match the actual, except the pandemic of expectations started long ago and will never stop, not before our species and its (our) very limited capacity for perception come to an end. When I grieved for my self-perception after failing three classes, I grieved for my expectations, for they were starving to death: I had expected myself to pull through at the last minute in a manic fit of typing, strained eyes, and anxiety. And when that failed, I expected to be forgiven, as I had been before so many times, as I would be again afterwards. Late work accepted. Emails with words of reassurance. The fleeting validation of points and letters on transcripts: Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Like Blanche DuBois, because I couldn’t rely on myself, because all those authorities were strangers when I so desperately performed a collected, hardworking persona. 

In retrospect, it worked. Sort of. My transcript from my year abroad in Berlin (which was the background for my extremely important term papers due at the end of August) consisted entirely of As and Fs. Three of the latter. I pretended it didn’t happen, essentially: I simply never send my grades from abroad to the University for credit, and they never bugged me about it. That year and its struggles didn’t become a tabula rasa; they became buried. By me, by administrators and grad school adcoms who ignored the missing year. By benevolent strangers.

Now, though, given the unprecedented circumstances, I wonder if there’s some sort of moral failing in this. I resurrected (or vampirized?) the old expectations by pretending they had never died in the first place, even when on some level, I knew I would fail myself again. As I’ve done now, by choosing such an ill-fitting word: “resurrected.” No, it was more of a reanimation. A framework of excuses. A truth unacknowledged, just like the virus and the lives it suffocates. 

What a strange semester, where we at the University of Iowa are thus far simultaneously failing to acknowledge the virus by holding in-person classes and seeing it set into stark relief with so many classes online-only and with an in-person mise-en-scène of video cameras and moveable plexiglass barriers. This speaks to the feeling of America right now, this sight without seeing, these undead expectations we’re trying to resuscitate. 

I’m so scared.

Scared of my own capacity to fail; scared the clinical designations for my problems (e.g. ADHD) are clear masks over character deficits; scared the clinical designations for my problems mean I simply lack capability; scared of my country; scared for my country – and of and for my university, my students, my classmates; scared of everyday rituals I don’t recognize; scared the old rituals will persist with their tumors; scared of seeing when it’s so easy to fall asleep and I’m so, so tired.

Recalling the month or two after I received word that I would not be forgiven for not turning in my papers, I’m coming to the belief that transparency will not eliminate toxic expectations, but it may suck some of the poison out. I don’t know if I’ll leave this post up forever, since there’s stigma associated with both my clinical labels and the behavior that underlies them, and I’m scared of that, too. But thinking of myself as the exception to social understandings (e.g. that there are consequences to violating class policies, like the one on late work) has not served me well. I’m broadcasting these insecurities because I believe our common practice of putting smiley face band-aids over our wounds and blemishes has done more harm than good. 

I have already told my students I’ll accept late work, contrary to what the class syllabus says. Am I feeding into more views on exceptionalism? That inner inkling we love to deny we have: won’t be the one to fail, won’t be the one to catch the virus, won’t be anything but the best and the healthiest. Or: I am from the castle. I am from the village. I am everything. 

No – we’re all from some sort of dystopian Schrödinger’s castle-village, some bizarre liminal zone, at the moment. Everyone knows the balance is upset, the fulcrum has moved, but an alarming number of people seem inclined to play Emperor’s New Clothes and see reactions without seeing the capital-E Event that people are reacting to.

Let me bring some honesty to my performance-of-self: I have struggled and am struggling. The causes for this, as far as I am aware, are a combination of brain chemical imbalances, perfectionism, and lies I once accepted from myself and others as truth. Meanwhile, I’ve devoted over 500 hours of playtime to video games in the past few months. I can’t read more than a few pages of anything at a time. I live at the hub of a wheel of chaos: beside me, dirty bottles and glasses, magazines and clothes scattered across the floor, a side of the bed piled with books and fruit snacks wrappers. The chaos wheel reaches beyond the literal trash and detritus of a somewhat-disordered mind into the feeling of what it’s like to be an individual in America right now, I think. (Or at least someone enrolled in a university so committed to a “return to normalcy.”) One can choose whether or not to acknowledge the mess. This time, I choose to acknowledge it. 



*For the sake of factual accuracy, I will admit that there are cicadas in Las Vegas, but they didn’t live near my bedroom window, so I’m going to let myself be an unreliable narrator and, fittingly enough, pretend they don’t exist



Yes, bleach: Nirvana’s first album; a disinfectant and destroyer of clothing; a Presidentially approved injectable. And a blue powder that, in the presence of an appropriate solution of hydrogen peroxide, becomes the most potent chemical one might apply to one’s hair. 

The Nirvana album title was apparently inspired by an AIDS prevention poster that encouraged heroin users to “bleach your works before you get stoned.” I wonder if anyone might have misinterpreted those words – bleach not the needles, but rather, the syringe, your blood, your heart. Die for the sake of your health. After all, you won’t – can’t – regret it.

Six months ago, I would have laughed at the idea of anyone suggesting bleach injections, or anyone capable of reading a label believing they might be helpful.

What a strange timeline we live in – and I know this to be true because those words have become more of a cliché than any public health slogan in recent memory. We live in a timeline “soaked in bleach,” and the bleach has seeped downward into the ridges of our fingertips, into our windpipes, into our national consciousness. If the halfhearted attempts at quarantine are a valley between peaks of activity, that valley is flooded with bleach.

Accordingly, I keep shopping online; accordingly, my hair is fried. 

I spent eight weeks alone in my apartment starting in mid-March. But that period of time was, surprisingly, not the most alone I’ve ever felt. Instead, I had sudden company: I am a control freak aware of (and kind of sad about) the futility of seeking control. As daily life collapsed around us, it became apparent that many people are control freaks, and that the unmitigated spread of COVID shined a spotlight on the aforementioned futility. The kindred spirits became corporeal, hunted out of the shadows. 

As Americans, we take the beloved closing lines of “Invictus” to heart: “I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul.” That poem feels like a more fitting religious text for American culture than the Bible. We believe in bootstraps, which is to say we believe in personal agency as an absolute truth. To have one’s head grabbed and forcibly turned, to be forced to look upon the ugliness of God’s earth and Trump’s America – this is a wrenching away from a national faith. This is a chokehold on a dream. For me, the pandemic feels like waking up on November 9th, 2016 over and over again, to the same awful sense of powerlessness shining like a spiteful sun through a bedroom window. I know I share this feeling with many, just as I share the new additions to our vernacular: “unprecedented situation;” “given the circumstances;” “we’re all in this together” (outside of the context of High School Musical); “we realize  this must be difficult,” etc. etc. 

We live in a time of unprecedented empathy! And in a time of ordinary human greed, which becomes its own enabler. In any case, we know we lack control and we know we want control. (I, for one, fantasize about escaping the timeline in which Breonna Taylor’s killers have not been arrested, the world is regarding us with mingled horror and contempt as we kill our own with negligence and apathy, and the President has responded by selling beans with a forced smile that caricatures itself. I would make my escape through a portal to a parallel universe in which Daenerys Targaryen wins the throne and there really is no war in Ba Sing Se.)

And so my hair looks jaundiced. 

Like many others, I occupied and occupy much of my time alone with popular fantasy. Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to let me build and break the land itself with the casual push of a button. My villagers all love me, of course. They happily bask in my presence as benevolent dictator of the island of Elysium, where pears and roses grow natively. Of course. Meanwhile, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has led me into new domains of Reddit and Twitter Discourse™ where I can passionately argue for my chosen path and against the other three possible paths on this choose-your-own-adventure-style JRPG (no spoilers, but I’d just like to take this opportunity to say that Edelgard is the best Lord and if you disagree, you can fight me). 

At some point, though, fantasy is not enough, just as “meeting” people via Zoom is not enough. (Helena Bonham-Carter reading “The Wild Geese” to the world via Instagram is almost enough, but not quite.) There is something rotten in the States of America and to look at the world is to feel like you’re touching a live wire you can’t pull away from. But to look away is worse. 

O bleach, if only you could disinfect the “works” of this country, this fraught moment!

Contrary to what Cheeto may tell the media, our beloved bleach is not actually capable of such feats. That doesn’t rob it of its symbolic value, however – its ability to clean, to clean harshly and painfully, to drain of color in the name of eradicating pathogens. A bleached material that once held color will never be the same. Here we see bleach as a means of sea-change. 

Our environments shape us – our circumstances, choices, identities. But we constitute those environments. The shards of an old idealism in me have yearned to push back against the burden we all bear. Beyond idealism and pessimism, I’d like to take part in reaching a collective breaking point where we say “enough is enough” and finally believe it.

This is all very broad. But one has to start somewhere. I started with myself, and with lyrics from a largely forgotten Lady Gaga song on Born This Way:

I just wanna be myself

And I want you to know, I am my hair

I’ve had enough, this is my prayer

That I’ll die livin’ just as free as my hair


Before 2020, I had never touched my hair with anything stronger than those “semi-permanent” dyes that never last as long as the box promises. Not for lack of interest – I was fickle and afraid of ending up with a color I hated (my parents also forbade it before I turned 18, but my fickle nature still stands). My options were also fairly limited because my natural hair color is a medium-dark brown. To dye hair more than a couple shades lighter than one’s natural shade, one must set aside the typical box dye kit and reach for the ever-daunting bleach. The chemical process. The point of no return. 

Turns out the point of no return is great for simultaneously serving as a respite from current events and as a purveyor of visible agency, however small. To deviate from my natural color, the color that’s grown from my head since infancy, was to reject a given condition. It also meant dedicating an inordinate amount of time to watching other people burn their hair off with bleach on YouTube, and eventually reaching the conclusion that losing my hair was an outcome I could live with. People’s judgements of my appearance (whether real or projected) no longer felt significant. Not when they would never see more than my pixelated representation on a screen. Personal agency – what beautiful words! And only sometimes a lie. 

People’s hair reacts differently to bleach based on a number of factors, e.g. natural porosity, moisture and keratin or their deficiency, melanin content and underlying pigments, etc. The bleaching process opens the hair cuticle, where the bleach-developer solution essentially leaches away the natural pigments within the strand (as well as artificial color). In the ideal scenario, this leaves the one bleaching with intact hair lightened to the desired shade, whether that’s a brown or honey blonde or a white base for toners. In the worst case scenario, the hair can’t handle the harsh chemical stripping process and literally begins to melt off during or after bleaching. Other less-than-ideal scenarios include bright orange hair and leopard-like spots that weren’t adequately saturated with bleach or that processed too slowly. Often, amateur bleachers will be left with “hot root,” in which the roots lighten significantly more than the ends because body heat around the scalp makes the bleach process faster. 

To summarize: bleaching your own hair is risky. Especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I knew I didn’t know what I was doing. And therein lay a paradox: to take control of my hair meant to relinquish control of my hair – for a time – to a foreign chemical that made no promise but permanence. 

The trouble with agency is that it doesn’t reach far enough outward, barring the presence of money or other resources it might attach itself to. Frustrating. But something about the idea of consciously choosing to give up control captivates me. And others. It must be why skydiving and bungee jumping exist as cultural institutions. On some level, it’s the most difficult choice to make, and the one that requires the most faith – faith in scientific reactions, in one’s ability to fully saturate the strand, in the expertise of YouTube hairdressers, to name a few examples. Faith in agents of change. 

My first attempt at bleach gave me yellow-orange hair and a couple dreaded leopard spots. It gave me hair that will never be the color it was, not before it’s replaced by new strands. It gave me hair that frayed at the ends and felt altogether too strawlike, hair that required deep conditioning masks and protein treatments to prevent it from blowing itself into a frizz cloud.

There have been second and third attempts, root touch ups, self-inflicted questionable haircuts. I’ve learned about toning and bleach baths and at this point, I’ve probably spent more money on hair products than I would’ve spent at a salon (not that the salons were open). My hair still isn’t the exact shade I want – I was inspired by the disease bleach trope and wanted and still want silvery white hair meant to symbolize the emotional tumult of this past year. Every time I add more abrasive products, I’m playing the fun game of “will this be what finally burns it all off?”

No matter. It looks significantly better than it did after that first round. It no longer feels like straw; my curl definition has mostly returned. And I don’t regret subjecting my hair to a chemical crucible. I don’t regret doing what the internet warned me not to do, although a number of my fellow quarantine bleachers have testified otherwise. 

I can look in the mirror, look at myself and say, “There was an action; here is its consequence. Here is the evidence of a choice I made. Here was a conscious decision to change.”

I realize how trite it sounds, but fucking up my hair has been my most empowering experience in recent memory. Purely at a personal level, yes, but the macro rests on foundations of the micro. I am not, we are not bodies pushed along predetermined currents through the aether. We set our own paths within our confines. 

What an awful year this has been. I don’t expect things to improve soon. But I will cling to my blue power and my peroxide developer as I cling to the comfort in knowing that nothing lasts forever. The dream-shards can be reassembled into something better, maybe even something good, until it breaks again. And so on. 

There are steps awake and waiting to be taken. 

I will take what I can get. 


I’ve been thinking about the word pastiche a lot, with its bougie French flair, its ambivalent connotations, and its applicability not just to my life, but to pop culture in general. It fits so well with other artsy words: curation, collection, collage. 

Per Wikipedia, pastiche exists among “mechanisms of intertextuality” as a style of derivative art that “celebrates, rather than mocks, the work it imitates.” A retweet, then; a reblog. Someone else’s expression I can breathe more life into by claiming it as my own – my Twitter page’s unique constellation of retweets and answers is my own.

Nonetheless, calling someone’s work “derivative” is still a common enough insult. It seems like the difference lies in whether the work stems from one or few very recognizable parties or whether it pulls in threads from a more eclectic mix of artists and thinkers and little jewels of culture. I’ve mentioned that I’m reading Moby Dick. It’s quite clearly about the anguish of the human condition – a futile search for the meaning, for a new language extracted from the unspoken. And yet, it’s also a very over-the-top whaling guide, a commentary on Judeo-Christian and Greek mythology, and a quirky representation of 19th century Nantucket Quaker culture. Lots going on there; as with life and art, we can’t distill it into a single coherent message (other than, perhaps, “Captain Ahab is batshit but whales are cool”). 

Speech itself could be called pastiche, ritual, the reuse of words we’ve heard from the mouths of others. What is there but imitation? To find a voice is to find your proprietary blend of sources to imitate, consciously or otherwise. 

Where am I going with this? 

(I couldn’t think of anything new to “blog” about…)

Really, though, I’ve been in the typical bog of self-indulgent guilt because I’m reading too many books and articles at once. I’ll read a chapter of Moby Dick before switching over to Twitter, then Reddit, then Another Country, then odd pages from poetry collections, etc. etc. I have always struggled to hang on to a single source, a single thread at once, and I worry that that speaks to some undesirable Millennial condition the Boomers love to jeer about: so much scrolling! So many tabs! (Yes, that last one is a valid criticism.) Or it could speak to my most recent psychiatric explanation of Why I Am The Way I Am: ADHD. A learning disability. 

There’s something to be said for synthesis, though, and for its child: pastiche. Perhaps trying to make a quilt of a million disparate sentences and images and banal realities is not the most efficient means of understanding the world. But I have some modicum of faith in this paradox: the more voices I can add to the cacophony in my head, the more likely I’ll be to make out the whispers of my own. 

I want to believe things, and firmly. And loudly. 



…posting. The last time I had anything resembling a “blog” was in high school, when I used to pour my heart into the drain of a blank-faced internet. Until I found out that people were actually reading that shit. I mostly keep paper journals now.

As long as I’m privileged enough to give myself this platform, though, by paying DreamHost for this domain, I might as well use it, I suppose. But how exactly does one blog? Life updates?

I am mostly staying home – surprise surprise! After eight weeks alone in my one bedroom apartment, being back in Las Vegas with my parents and sisters feels comfortingly normal. It doesn’t do anything to counter the macro-level strangeness of this year, though, nor has it made me any more productive. 

I’ve been playing a lot of Fire Emblem, a lot of Animal Crossing. I’m hoping to ease up on the Switch in the near future, but tentative plans for my AC island include an outdoor gym for Sprocket, my favorite jock villager, with an adjoining sauna, and perhaps an open-air art studio. I’m also considering expansions to the “Herzstück” (heartpiece) of my island, the Low Budget Carnival. 

In other news, I’m over halfway through Moby Dick. Page 412 of 658 in my edition. I’ve learned quite a bit about whaling practices, but we have yet to actually, you know, encounter Moby Dick. Somehow that feels emblematic of our times.