March 26th – April 1st

March 26th: Roger Ebert’s Review of Aquarius Summer’s “One Hour of Mouth Sounds”

Aquarius Summer’s “One Hour of Mouth Sounds,” the most compelling ASMR video of 2020, represents nothing less and nothing more than the future of cinema. Despite its lack of believable characters, a discernible plot, a memorable score, or cinematographical competence of the most basic kind, “One Hour of Mouth Sounds” balances existential horror with slapstick humor with a deftness I have seen few filmmakers attempt, let alone realize. Film, at its best, is a miracle, not an inevitability. No matter what Syd Field says.

What makes a good story? According to Joseph Campbell, a satisfying arc begins with the death of the old self and ends with the resurrection of the new. Dan Harmon frames it in simpler terms: a story requires a character to return to the same place they started, having changed. What is remarkable about “One Hour of Mouth Sounds” is that it does neither of these things. In fact, “One Hour of Mouth Sounds” rejects all narrative norms, trading these trappings for stasis and mundanity. In another artist’s hands, the film would implode, succumbing to the narrative and cinematic poverty that otherwise defines it. But in Aquarius Summer’s manicured mitts, the film succeeds not in spite of, but because of, this absence of traditional elements. 

Stripped away of its glossier trappings, every film is a transaction: the director delivers conflict, resolution, dialogue, drama; the audience pays them for it. “One Hour of Mouth Sounds” turns this expectation on its head. As a YouTube video, it costs nothing to watch. Freed from this expectation, it owes us nothing. If Aquarius Summer desires to upload a video in which they slurp and click and do their best impression of the Predator in 1987’s Predator, then she is well within her rights. Do we anticipate a climax? Do we want something, anything to happen? Of course. But does “One Hour of Mouth Sounds” care? No. Absolutely not.

That being said, there are hints of hidden, subtextual story at play. At one point, we hear a garage door open off-screen. At another, one can make out the beginning of a dispute. While Aquarius Summer, ever the consummate professional, reacts to these distractions with only the briefest of winces, the tension these moments add to the film is palpable. Is she using her YouTube channel as an escape from the domestic strife, or is her runaway success (in one video, she reports making “about 40K a month, IDK”) itself the cause of this conflict?

But this is beside the point. One goes to Aquarius Summer not for familial drama, but to experience “One Hour of Mouth Sounds.” And that one hour of mouth sounds is everything you hoped one hour of mouth sounds could be. I myself was skeptical of the ASMR genre before discovering Aquarius Summer, but no longer. Her other videos (particularly “Fifteen Minutes of Fingernail Tapping” and “Forty-Five Minutes of Knuckle Cracking”), while lacking the subtlety of “One Hour of Mouth Sounds,” deliver the same hair-raising lack of suspense. It’s unclear when her next video is due (in her most recent TikTok, she references a “looming divorce, not that she cares”), but as one of her four million subscribers, I’ll be there for it, day one. And if you ask me, you should be there, too. Aquarius Summer is a director to watch.

March 27th: I Am Twenty Karma Points Away From Achieving Ego-Death, and I Need to Tell You All About It

The first time I tried meditating, I lasted for one ten-minute session before realizing that meditation was a manifest waste of my time. In the time it took me to sit in an “upright, comfortable position” and “locate my breath,” I could have been doing so many other things. Ten minutes was enough to watch twenty TikToks, complete four sets of ten burpees, or incrementally advance an eleven-month-long, ultimately unfulfilling relationship begun on Bumble. Theravada Buddhism asserts that all things are temporary, and that the liberation of Nirvana is achieved only by letting go of one’s material wants. While this is all well and good, my material wants are my material wants for a reason, and freeing myself from them proved a futile task.

About a month ago, though, I discovered Kathmandu, a free app for iPhone users, and my life hasn’t been the same since. Within one week, I had already leveled up from Sotāpanna to a Sakadāgāmi on the Path to Enlightenment. Two weeks later, thanks to a lucky spin of the Karmic Wheel, I had transcended again. Now, just thirty days into my Journey, I am an Anāgāmi-level acolyte, and will have soon reached Arahant, at which my ego will have been sufficiently obliterated. Only then will I be able to move up to Kathmandu’s next tier, and begin working toward Nirvana 2. 

As far as what the app actually does, its structure is fairly simple. Each day, you are expected to complete a meditation with one of twenty teachers. (With a small fee, one can unlock up to forty more.) These meditations can run anywhere from five minutes to one hour in duration, although the longer you sit, the more karma points you earn, and the closer you get to liberation.

But this is only the base level of Kathmandu. In addition to these daily meditations, users can also choose to follow seven other side-Paths. These tasks, which range from mini-games like “Dukkha Demolition” and “Seeking Siddhartha” to digital mindfulness worksheets, also add Karma Coins to one’s daily log. These Coins, in addition to getting one closer to Nirvana, can also be spent in Kathmandu’s Spirit Shop, which features a selection of upgrades designed to maximize one’s daily Karmic accumulation. One of my more recent purchases, for example, nets me three Karmic Coins every eight hours without my having to sit down and meditate at all. Another upgrade incrementally lowers my Suffering Threshold, increasing the amount of time per week I can afford to spend straying from the Way.

Critics claim that apps like Kathmandu, which encourage their users to aggressively promote themselves in order to get the most out of their service, are inherently incompatible with the selflessness they purportedly promote. While this thinking is not entirely misguided, this line of criticism fails to take into consideration that I had zero Karma Coins before downloading Kathmandu, and I now have 19,980. Would I have ever attained such a high level of enlightenment without the help of this app? No! Kathmandu has gotten me closer to breaking free of saṃsāra than I ever dreamed possible, and at this point I wouldn’t trade the app for the world.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “How is ego death possible for a pseudo-celebrity such as yourself?” To which I say this: it is very, very difficult. Harder than you could ever know. More draining than I could ever hope to describe on my Kathmandu Partner page. But Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has this to say about the Eightfold Path in today’s digital age: “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” This, then, is how I view my social media presence: as a gift to you. A gift I humbly ask that you repay by signing up for Kathmandu right away, and citing yours truly as the Buddhist who sent you there. My ego death is in your hands, friends. Nirvana, thanks to Kathmandu, and thanks to you, is at last within reach.

March 28th: To the Driver Who Shouted “Get a Car!” At Me While I Was Out On My Morning Jog: I Saw Your Face, and I Will Not Stop Running Until I’ve Sufficiently Imagined Myself Taking My Revenge

Hey, me again. You know who I am. On second thought, no, you probably don’t. You were driving very quickly. I had but a moment to recover my cool and flip you the bird while struggling to maintain my form, and then you were gone.

But I remember you. And multiple studies have demonstrated that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function (both by pumping blood to the hippocampus, as well as facilitating the production of osteocalcin, a hormone associated with long-term memory), ensuring that I won’t soon forget. There’s every chance in the world that you’re states away right now, sitting down to a lovely meal with your family or friends, but rest assured: I’m coming for you, and at a brisk average pace of 6.5 miles per hour.

Right now, you’re probably asking yourself something like, “Who are you, again? And why should I be afraid?” To answer both questions: I am your worst nightmare. Earlier today, I was wearing lime-green Sauconys, and you were sporting a pretty sweet pair of silver Oakleys. You shouted at me to get a car, and I mumbled, “I already have a car, buddy,” as you sped away. 

At which you might be like, “Okay, Speed Racer. If you’re so hot for revenge, then why didn’t you repurpose your burst of adrenaline as a burst of speed, catch up to my Mercedes-Benz G550, leap atop my sunroof, punch your fist through my sunroof à la the Terminator, and yank me by my throat to my oxygen-deprived doom?” Well, long-story short, I had just this thought, my planet-killing comrade. But Theravada Buddhism discourages such acts of instantaneous gratification, and thus I stayed my hand.

Which is not to say I didn’t want to make you pay for your aggression, friend. The Sunroof Strangling above described is only one of many fantasies I have nursed, and still nurse, with regards to your comeuppance. And it’s far from the best one. In another scene, you look up from texting at a stoplight to find your Benz’s tires slashed, and me leaning against the driver’s-side door, glorious in my lime-green Sauconys, a steak knife in hand. In my favorite of these imagined ends, I track you for hundreds of miles, across bridges and state lines, until at last I arrive at your home. I greet you as you get out of your car. You recognize me, and we embrace.

I’m not naive, pal. In all likelihood, I’ll give up running (as well as Theravada Buddhism) in a number of weeks. I’ll spend these weeks dreaming up increasingly elaborate punishments for you. One day many, many miles from now, I will catch you at a stop sign, where I will take advantage of your stasis to tar and feather your windshield, thereby rendering impossible forward progress. I will map out a series of concentric routes, each of a larger radius than the last, and in time you will pass me again (or perhaps, by that point, I will have increased my pace to the point where it is I who passes you), whereupon I will tell you to get a pair of shoes. (Sauconys, if you want my recommendation.)

My favorite scene, the one that keeps me going that extra mile, is this: years in the future, I challenge you to a race, barefoot, across hot asphalt. I easily beat you. “Get a car!” I shout back at you, crossing the finish line. “Because you need it!”

But then—and this is why it is my favorite scene—you break down. You weep. I forgive you, and you forgive me. And together, barefoot, we run on, and on. The soles of our feet blistering, our chests aching with a pain we cannot quite explain, into the dying sun.

March 29th: On Tim Clare’s We Can’t All Be Astronauts

It’s funny. For a book whose thesis is that ambition isn’t the best thing (especially if it ruins your life), Tim Clare’s We Can’t All Be Astronauts has rekindled my drive more than anything else I’ve read in recent memory. The last time I felt this optimistic—not only about my writing itself, but about my chances of sustaining (and being sustained by) writing for the rest of my life—was right after finishing Anne LaMott’s Bird by Bird. Where LaMott’s book (which you should absolutely read, in the off chance you haven’t already) focuses on the act of writing itself, though, Clare’s book explores the relationship between a writer and their writing. Because writing, to a writer, is often not a thing, it is the only thing. If it is fuel—and a potent grade, at that—it is of the nuclear sort, infecting everything it touches, killing its host even as it drives them on. Like any love, writing is a gift; like any love, writing is also a curse. As anyone who’s had their heart broken can attest, it is a painfully pleasant state, being possessed.

Clare is twenty-six when the book begins. He has written a novel, and he has an agent, and he is a member of a group of successful, up-and-coming writers around the same age as him. And yet he is miserable. His novel refuses to come together; his agent has stopped answering (promptly, at least) his calls. His girlfriend has broken up with him; his friends, many of whom have landed book deals, are well on their way to living out their (and his) dreams. It’s here that Clare’s quest kicks off. By the time the book launch of one of these friends arrives, he has decided to either commit himself anew to a life as a writer, or give up the game for good. The rest of the narrative covers his attempts to answer this question, and then to come to terms with the answers he finds.

I don’t believe in pre-ordination, but I’ve long held that books, like people, enter one’s life when they do for a reason. I read Bird by Bird my senior year of undergrad, when I first began to suspect that other writers might be enjoying the act a tad more than me. (Answer: most of them were not.) Now, four years after finishing college, my question wasn’t whether writing was difficult (it is), but if I wanted to subject myself to it for the rest of my life. So, after listening to Clare’s podcast Death of a Thousand Cuts for the last six months, I picked up We Can’t All Be Astronauts. 

And it’s helped me to answer this question, at least for now. I’m twenty-five, and I’ve written the first draft of my first novel, and I hope to start sending it out to agents in the next eighteen months. I’m also on 20 mg of the antidepressant Lexapro, and I’m moving back in with my parents within a week. I’m turning twenty-six in three months; I’m moving to New York, and going back to school, in four. I’m painfully lonely, and spend most of my time talking to my cats. 

Writing, I thought, was going to become my life. I was going to make it, or it was going to break me. These were the only two paths, as I saw it. I had, quite intentionally, closed all other paths off.
But this isn’t how it works, as Clare himself discovers by the end of his quest. It doesn’t have to work this way, at least. It’s possible for writing to sustain you, instead of you struggling to sustain it.

Maybe I’ll make it as a writer, whatever making it means. But this won’t make me happy. I’ll already be happy by the time this triumph arrives, given it arrives at all. So much of my dream is out of my control, but my happiness is not. And I’m going to fight my fucking hardest to keep it that way.

March 31st: 11 Algebra Word Problems for 2021

  1. Ever since January 6th’s raid on the Capitol, Evan’s uncle Roy has cleaned his Mauser Model 98 twice a day: once before breakfast, once while watching Fox’s evening news. If he has done this every day since the raid, how many times will he have polished his gun by the time Biden is declared triumphant for the final time on May 2nd, 2023? 
  2. When Elon Musk charges $5,000 dollars per NFT, 800 NFTs are sold in a day. For each $250 increase in price, 80 fewer NFTs are sold. Given that NFTs actually worked like this, given that we lived in a sustainable, comprehensible world, what is the price per NFT that results in the greatest sales, in dollars, from NFTs each day? 
  3. Nearly 20,000 people died due to gun-related violence in America in 2020, representing a 25% jump from the year before. Given the recent shootings in Atlanta and Boulder, and given that thoughts and prayers do worse than nothing for the victims of this violence, then how many condolences and well-wishes will be given before we decide, for the nth time, that enough is enough?
  4. A UFO that looks an awful lot like a close-up crushed Coors Light can’s flight pattern follows a parabola whose arc can be modeled by the function y(t)=-4.9t^2+19.6t+52.4, where y represents miles, or maybe feet, or maybe inches—the perspective is off; you may or may not have had one too many yourself—and t represents seconds. Given this function, how long is it, in years, until the government tells what they’re hiding in Area 51?  
  5. On February 3rd, Canada became the first country to designate the Proud Boys a terrorist group. Given that the US takes only 18% of cues from its neighbors to the north, what is the probability that we persist in our explicit biases, and refuse to call a spade a spade, which is to say, a white nationalist a white nationalist?
  6. The number of shrimp tails based upon boxes of Cinnamon Toast Crunch (CTC) can be modeled by the equation s(c)=.0000001c+2, where s represents the number of shrimp tails and c represents the number of boxes of CTC sold. If General Mills sold 105.2 million boxes in 2020, then how many more shrimp tails will be found in 2021, assuming there is no drop in sales?
  7. Zack Snyder’s Justice League doubles the run-time of the film’s original two-hour release. Write an equation modeling the length of Justice League based upon x, where x represents the number of director’s cuts released. Then use this information to predict the run-time of the 11th director’s cut (tentatively scheduled for 2049).
  8. In February, the United States rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement. If the US was previously on track to cut emissions by at least 26% by 2025, what percent of emissions will the US have to cut per year to minimize the amount of tragedy over the next one hundred years?
  9. Before getting banned from Twitter, Donald Trump tweeted an average of 35 times a day. If one tweet increased the level of cortisol (the hormone primarily responsible for stress) in the bloodstream of an average reader by nine micrograms/deciliter (mcg/dL), then how much cortisol is not dumped into one’s body over the course of one week of blessed silence?
  10. Given the nine questions above, how badly, on a scale of 1 to 10, do you wish for some things—certain things, certainly not all things—to go back to how they once were?  
  11. What is the value of a life?

March 30th: On They Look Like People

As far as my creative sensibilities are concerned, I realized a couple years ago, and again a year ago, and again yesterday that my artistic interests lie where the low- and high-concept meet. They Look Like People, the 2015 film written and directed by Perry Blackshear, therefore lands squarely in my circle of well-loved tales. It follows two best friends, Christian and Wyatt, the latter of whom believes humanity is being taken over by demonic forces, the former who listens to a self-help tape recorded by his ex-fiancée. It’s a film about things falling apart. More than that, it’s a film about the people who are there to fix you when they do, and the very real fear of these people not being enough.

There is a scene near the beginning of the film where Wyatt finds an old photo of Christian and him. On its back, written in Sharpie, is a note from Wyatt and his own ex-fiancée, Hannah, wishing Christian luck in college. When Wyatt flips the photo over again, Christian’s face has been replaced by a bone-white mask with a black, gaping mouth and empty sockets for eyes. This, then, is what Wyatt overtly fears. What he truly fears, though, what he perhaps doesn’t even know he fears, is the answer to the question his therapist asks in the very next scene: “Have you ever had a relationship that didn’t end up disappointing you?” He hasn’t, as They Look Like People makes very clear, and his schizophrenia both exacerbates and is exacerbated by the fear that he never will.

Christian’s fear, meanwhile, is that he’s afraid. He thinks himself weak. This is why his ex-fiancée left him, and it’s why he still listens to her voice while going to work every morning. It’s why he exercises every day. It’s why he takes Wyatt in. There’s little else to say.

The best endings, just like the best stories, aren’t those with the most explosions, the most A-list actors and actresses acting out their well-paid hearts, the highest-quality special effects. The best endings are those in which a character, or more than one character, faces down their worst fear. It doesn’t matter if they triumph over this fear, or even if this fear is a terribly cinematic thing. All that matters is that they face it, and that they are or are not left standing, and we care about the state in which they are left. They Look Like People, despite its economical run time, does many things. Most importantly, it does this. Few movies have ever moved (or will ever move) me like this film did. May it move you, too.

March 31st: On The Block Island Sound

On its surface, The Block Island Sound (2020) is a horror film like any other to land on Netflix. Harry is a character who has begun to fear for his sanity, to see and hear things that are not there. Ashamed of these hallucinations, afraid of what they might mean, he hides them from his sister Audry and his niece Emily. As these things go, though, his mental deterioration only escalates, and at last he is forced to confront the source of his fear. The entity haunting the island’s eponymous sound reveals itself, and Harry and Audry and Emily face it, and not all of them survive.

This is the plot (more or less) of every horror film and psychological thriller in existence. The main character’s internal conflict climaxes at the same moment the external conflict reaches its peak. By overcoming one, the protagonist also overcomes the other, or vice versa. Where The Block Island Sound distinguishes itself is in its ability to balance these threats. On the one hand, the film is about Harry’s father’s dementia, and Harry’s fear of suffering the same fate. On the other, the film is about the mysterious force that is causing (literal) tons of dead fish to wash ashore, waterfowl to drop dead from the sky. The home Harry has so long taken for granted has been transported, suddenly, to unstable ground. And the evil responsible is twofold: it is his father’s mental illness, yes; it is in equal measure the entity killing the island’s wildlife. The horror is paranormal; it is also mundane as salt. It is supernatural; at the same time it is the most natural thing in the world. All things end, and one’s ties to their youth are often the first things to go.

The writer Tim Clare, paraphrasing another author whose name I now forget, has this to say about fantasy: when it is at its best, the dragon is a metaphor; it is also a dragon. I think the same thing can be said for successful horror. The reason The Block Island Sound occupies the same echelon in my mind as do films like Alien, Get Out, and Annihilation is that both its conflicts are treated with the appropriate gravity. Unlike in much of blockbuster horror (I’m looking at you, James Wan), the character’s interior troubles aren’t in service of a series of set-pieces and jump scares. Dementia is horrifying enough on its own. Neither, though, does the film’s supernatural threat exist solely as an analogy for its everyday counterpart. Even films like It Follows and The Platform, which attempt to blend horror and social criticism to the same degree, make this mistake, forgetting (or forgoing) the consequences of their world in favor of the metaphor this world was created to serve. 

The Block Island Sound avoids this mistake. Harry’s mental deterioration is all too real, and so is the paranormal entity causing it. There are things in this world we know and fear; there are more things that we do not know, and therefore fear all the more. What this film does is to make us question this balance. Perhaps the thing to fear more is the thing we already know, the thing we already fear, the thing we have seen in the waking world all too often before. Perhaps it would be better if all we had to fear was the unknown. If the unknown was the problem, after all, staying home, sticking with our loved ones—this would be enough to keep us safe. As we know, though, this is rarely enough.

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