A perfect storm of bullshit circumstances culminated in me, just barely two weeks off from turning eighteen—not even a month since graduating high school, stepping off a plane at Boston Logan that had taken off from Athens a few hours previously. Tired and a little bit delirious, I spent the night at the airport Hilton waiting for my internal clock to catch up on timezones and dreading the next day’s flight. Southwest Airlines to the innermost circle of hell, and in the first week of July: Orlando International Airport. I was off to college in a couple of months, a minuscule liberal arts school in Ohio, but until then my permanent address had moved with my parents. So keen were they to retire to Florida that the last week after graduating before the Big Move was spent in a two-bedroom hotel suite. I was heartbroken. Utterly devastated. To the teenaged version of myself, it felt like the end of the world.1
One night spent sobbing in an airport hotel sounds melodramatic at best, but if there was one thing I knew for sure in my confused teenage heart, it was this: I’d sworn an oath to myself that I would make it back. For a couple of years, it was one of the few things that kept me going. I try to remember that because, as goals go or for reasons to stay alive, I could’ve done a lot worse. It ended up taking eight years to get back to New England, the only place I’d ever thought of as home, but in 2019 I finally made it.
Shortly after I made it back, everything went completely sideways.
With hindsight’s perfect clarity, I can look back and say that if I’d let myself enjoy New Jersey, I could have called it home—and actually meant it. You see, I spent all those years wandering2 maintaining that home meant one very specific thing: Rhode Island or eastern Massachusetts. Nothing else would do. I enjoyed my time in Jersey, I met some lovely people, and if I’d let myself settle down properly there (or even if I’d bothered finding a nicer apartment), maybe none of this would’ve happened the way it did. Maybe it would’ve happened in a worse way, who knows. There are a million decisions that I could’ve made differently. Here, on this timeline, in this branch of the decision tree, I chose to move back to New England. I found a decent apartment in suburban Boston, started a new job, and thought that I’d settle down here and start the rest of my life.
Six months after I moved, while I was still very much in the process of settling in and re-acquainting myself with the area, the coronavirus pandemic came to America.
My gender identity crisis, which had already reached a boiling point before moving in terms of whether or not I was actually going to let myself come out, became an all-consuming maelstrom that drowned out everything else in my brain.
As if that particular identity crisis wasn’t enough, I started having some inescapable doubts about whether or not I was actually happy to be home.
For a while, I blamed that last one on the pandemic. After all, it had started out with me cancelling flights down to catch some spring training games. Travel is in my blood, as much as it can be–neither side of my family tree has ever been particularly content to stay in one place for too long. Rationalising it away as some garden-variety wanderlust was easy. Once the vaccines hit, during that glorious summer of 2021 before we knew this pandemic was going to stretch on for years to come, it stopped being so easy. Here was everything I’d been missing: my friends, the restaurants, all the tangible reasons I’d moved back. I had even started hormones by then, and on weekends I usually had a mediocre wig clipped to my slowly-regrowing hair. Things were looking up.
Everything, that is, except the nagging feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake. For every good memory I could revisit, and for every familiar curve in a road, there was something else haunting me. I kept gaining more and more distance from the person I used to be–a sad and directionless boy struggling with an identity crisis that wouldn’t even be his last–and I kept finding more and more reminders of that person.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the human condition, what it means to be alive, to have a soul, to exist in any meaningful sense. Even after years of therapy, I can’t even pretend to be an expert on what’s going on with my own subconscious. She remains as much a mystery to me as the inner machinations of the universe. There is one thing I know with absolute confidence, as surely as that sad boy knew back in 2011 that he’d make it back to New England: I’m not him anymore. The only thing we share is a paper trail. His motivations are not mine. His goals are not mine. At this point, they’re completely foreign to me! The thing that I expected the least about my transition has been the clarity of thought and sense of self that I’ve developed now that I have a different set of hormones pumping through my system. Once the initial brain fog lifted, I could feel the importance of those old goals fading. What replaced it? That’s the hard part.
He left me a lot of bullshit to clean up. I’m hardly in good physical health, the apartment has been a disaster basically since I moved in, but that all pales in comparison to this: there was no plan for what to do after getting back to New England. There were barely plans at all, actually–he was somewhat surprised to still be here for every passing birthday, and wasn’t entirely sure if he’d be here for the next one. I still don’t have much of a plan, honestly, but I know that I want to stick around for it. It’s a new feeling. I’m not used to it yet.
My justifications for having picked Seattle are somewhat flimsy: I know a few people there, people I care about deeply; and it’s somewhere I haven’t lived before. When I started considering what to do if I didn’t want to stay in Boston, it occurred to me that I’ve already lived anywhere that I’d want to live on the Eastern Seaboard. I also know, from experience, that I don’t thrive if I’m too far from an ocean. So, as much as I love Minneapolis, or for appealing as Chicago truly is, they were never truly on the list.
I have to live somewhere, though. I looked at the West Coast, and thought about the time I’ve spent there—brief, comparatively, but all good times. There’s a reason my last name is what it is, and it’s very much tied to an experience I had in southern California. Around the same time as I’d decided that I’d ruled out most of the East, friends I know and love–the sort of people I’d list as emergency contacts–had started making their way to Seattle. It seemed to be a critical mass. Besides, sweater weather lasts longer in the PNW.
So, I’m about to set out on the longest drive I’ll have ever taken. Fortunately, I have friends to visit along the way. As I write this, I should very much be packing my belongings into boxes. The moving container shows up this weekend, and my lease is up in a week. There’s plenty that I’ll miss, and it’s been hard these past few days not to dwell on it. Truth be told, I’m too sentimental to truly be “over” anywhere I’ve lived—even the places that objectively sucked. Like lovers I’ll never see again, I have such specific memories of them all: the way the air smells, random waypoints that tell me I’m on the right road (or at least, not on the wrong one), every good bar I drank in more than thrice. I can even remember cities I’ve never lived in like that, somehow. There are corners of Santa Monica that make that list of well-loved details, and I only spent two weeks there.
That’s why I wonder if it’s a curse. It’s entirely possible that I spent so long ignoring where I was in favour of a nebulous dream that died as soon as I worked out who I actually was that I’ll end up wandering forever, never accumulating more than can fit in a small box van, constantly in search of something I’ll never find. After all, I still don’t know whether Seattle will be home or not. At the very least, if it’s a city I can stay in for more than half a decade, maybe that’s enough.
Come back in ten years and ask me where I’m living. If it’s still on Puget Sound, maybe I found it.
At the time, in occasional moments of lucidity, I wondered if I was being unreasonable in my hated for the state of Florida in general or for the specific incidents that I endured there. Years of reflection and personal growth have led me to this conclusion: actually, I didn’t hate it strongly enough at the time. This ain’t just about their fucked up politics or generally weird vibes–I was born in Tallahassee. It’s deeply personal. ↩︎
Two in Ohio, two in Tampa, four in Central Jersey. ↩︎
America’s trains suck. Nobody’s going to contest that–when it comes to passengers, we’re pretty shit at moving them around. (Still pretty damn good at freight, though, despite the freight roads’ best efforts to sabotage themselves.) Despite this, every year, just enough people buy Amtrak tickets to justify its continued existence. Every year, just enough Congressional funding gets snatched away from the military-industrial complex while it isn’t looking to cover the funding gaps and keep the lights on. Hell, if Amtrak proposes discontinuing certain stops, legislators will lobby to ensure that a dismal, 3 train per week service keeps stopping in their district (even if they don’t want to fund it!). Like the rest of this country’s transportation infrastructure, it’s all falling apart at the seams, and a perfect storm of capitalist interests and archaic regulations stand in the way of the kind of change urbanists and rail enthusiasts dream of. Decades of under-investment in favour of private automobiles and freight trucks have left a once-great network a shadow of its former self. Given all of this, given a passenger train’s inability to arrive on time, even given how expensive a ticket can be if you want a sleeper car, why do we keep riding the rails?
It might be a healthy dose of romanticism. Railroads built huge swaths of this country, after all. It might be that, even when it sucks, it sucks far more comfortably and more humanely than air travel does. My train was 7 hours late, but almost nobody was complaining. I started writing this post on the Coast Starlight itself, somewhere in the middle of southern Oregon, and it started out as something more like a straight travelogue. It quickly turned into some ramblings on what I consider far more interesting questions: why do people take Amtrak, and what kind of people are you going to find on a long-distance train? End to end, the Coast Starlight takes 35 hours on the timetable, under perfect conditions. A direct flight, Seattle to Los Angeles, takes three hours runway to runway. Even if you factor in the TSA’s nonsense and how long it takes to get out of LAX, a 737 wins every time.
Up to this point, I’ve spent most of my life on the Eastern Seaboard, riding the supposed shining star of our passenger rail network, a crown jewel of speed and congestion. The Northeast Corridor: four hundred and fifty-seven miles of commuter trains navigating the remnants of fallen corporate empires. Our fastest and most technologically advanced trains, reduced to shuffling along between double-deckers and diesels owned by cash-strapped, fiercely independent original colonies, each of them oblivious to the interconnected nature of even the uncrewed flag stops and glorified suburban bus shelters that lie mere steps clear of stainless steel giants and thousands of watts of power – this is the America I know best. A metropolitan axis that desperately clings to exceptionality, even if it means self-asphyxiation.
I won’t lie, it freaks me out how big the non-Eastern states are. Weekends of driving half the length of Ohio convinced me that it needs to be two states. A mad dash up the 5, from Los Angeles to Silicon Valley in a rented luxury sedan, did more to convince me of Calexit’s merits than any disinformation scheme ever could: this is a state that feels like an entire country. And yet, I’m moving west. My new home state is approximately the size of all the New England states combined. What better way to properly acclimate myself to the scale of the West Coast than with a perennially under-funded railroad? Two hundred dollars, and I had a business class ticket from Seattle to Oakland on the Coast Starlight. (I briefly considered a sleeper car, but that would have cost 4 figures. If I was doing the full length of the route and had someone with me, maybe.)
My train left Seattle right on time, but I had woken up that morning in my friend’s apartment with a voicemail from Amtrak’s guest services: my train would have “no food service available”. That sounded pretty dire, even for the mere 24 hours timetabled to Oakland. I didn’t know if that meant the snack bar would be closed, or what–there were no details available. I was able to make some last-minute preparations to survive the trip: King Street Station is a quick five-minute walk from a Japanese grocery store. Armed with a dangerously cute insulated bag1 filled with snacks and refreshments, I stepped onto the platform and hoped for the best. When it comes to travel, my philosophy is to not make too many plans, but to have some frameworks in my back pocket in case things go wrong. It’s served me well thus far, but it feels a little bit like cheating when there’s a place that sells spam musubi and delicious prepared meals that close to the station.
(This falls well short of the truly bizarre preparations2 an Insider writer recently took for a trip on the very same route. I remain confused about the mindset required to do almost no research in advance but decide that a gallon of water is required.)
It turns out that “no food service” meant that the refrigeration was borked in the cafe, located on the first level of the observation car: no way to keep the infamous Amtrak cheeseburger or personal pizzas frozen. Ice for drinks was served out of a cooler shoved behind the counter, the one working refrigeration unit was devoted (correctly so) to wine and beer. At this point, I must introduce my favourite person on the entire federal payroll, a woman who I would lay my life down for: Angelica, the cafe car attendant. Unlike conductors and engineers, who have strict time limits on work hours for safety reasons3, lounge/cafe car attendants and sleeping car attendants work the train from one terminus to the other. On long trains like this, they do get meal breaks and a chance to sleep overnight, but they don’t get exchanged on and off the train like other crew does. Angelica’s announcements on the PA were a genuine highlight of the trip. Her opening spiel regarding the food situation (including a plaintive request for patience and care in “the world’s smallest shop”) ended with a promise that fresh food would be loaded on the train for us in Portland (and further points south) and these words: “Welcome aboard the Coast Starlight. We got you.”
Angelica, Our Lady of the Cafe Car, I hope every good thing that you deserve comes to you.
Since we had plenty of non-perishable snacks, hot coffee, tiny bottles of booze, and cans of Coke; and I had my insulated shiba bag; the lack of refrigeration wasn’t what turned this journey into a supposedly fun thing that I’ll absolutely do again.4 That didn’t happen until Portland: a Union Pacific freight train suffered an “upright derailment” that still managed to foul the points required to route trains out of Union Station. Stopped for approximately at two hours in Vancouver (WA), apparently the decision was made to drive the promised food up from Portland instead of waiting to see how long it would take for a route south to become clear. What did they bring us? Popeyes fried chicken. Big catering bags full of three-piece tender meals, with mashed potatoes, a couple packets of dipping sauces, and a biscuit. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a better biscuit in my life than the one handed to me in the observation car and enjoyed once we’d gotten back underway to Portland. This was around when I started thinking a little bit more anthropologically. Before the two-hour delay, I’d been sitting in the observation car: a punk who’d gotten on in Seattle with an acoustic guitar was taking requests and entertaining some booths. Unlike my previous long-distance Amtrak trips, there was no immediate pattern to the passengers: families with kids, some retirement-age couples, people of all ages. Pollsters should set up shop in the snack bar, honestly–they’d get a more representative sample than they do now with “people who answer phone calls from unknown numbers in the middle of the day” for the pressing questions of the times.
In Vancouver, most of us got off the train to get some fresh air, stretch their legs, and use a less cramped restroom. This is one of the more basic things that appeal to people about trains, I think: although a Superliner coach is extremely roomy and gives you plenty of opportunity to move around as compared to any jet, regular stops for fresh air are baked into the schedules. If you happen to subscribe to one of humanity’s most popular vices, what this really means is that smoke breaks are baked into the schedules: Amtrak is the last great refuge of the American smoker. My previous long-distance trips have been on the Auto Train5, which only featured one air break/crew change (overnight in Florence, South Carolina). For the smoker, these fresh air stops are a godsend, and many an ashtray was filled while we were stopped.
Of course, if this was an airport gate with an indefinitely-delayed flight, a queue would have instantly formed at the service counter, a thousand angry phone calls would bloom, and nobody would be happy. This? Even later on, when things got even worse, I only heard one or two people complaining. That’s all. If nothing else, it’s proof that if you give coach class enough legroom, they’ll be happier about whatever ordeals they face. I spent some time on the platform chatting with a couple from Seattle–in retrospect, this is one of the things that struck me. I am not normally one for small talk, in general I avoid conversations with people I don’t know under any circumstances, and yet I found myself chatting with people in the observation car or during fresh air stops. Whatever it is about rail travel (and I’ll tell you now, I don’t come to any satisfying conclusions as to why it has this affect on people), it affects even the most jaded of us.
Enjoying the least homophobic national-chain fried chicken in the country from the comfort of my train seat would have been enough to keep me happy. Once we got to Portland and received a new train crew, we had plenty of time to kill: to avoid the derailed freight train, a Union Pacific conductor would join us for a detour around the city on a freight line until the train rejoined its usual route south to California. Until that conductor showed up, we had an extra hour or so to stretch our legs. For me, this meant meandering around Portland Union Station: a beautifully-preserved structure from 1896 built by the Northern Pacific Railway, with plenty of late-1940s interior details and some gorgeous neon signs. Again and still, very few complaints to be had from any of my fellow travellers, nor from the many who joined the train in Portland.
Aside from the obvious suspects (railfans and smokers), I was still trying to understand what motivates someone to choose Amtrak over a car or a plane. Between a car and a train, it makes a lot of sense: driving sucks, and if you’re on a vacation in a city you’ve got to work out where to stash the car all day. I could have rented a car: depending on the route I could have spent around 12 hours on the 5 or around 14 hours on US-976–both just a little too long to comfortably drive in one day. Often overlooked is the fact that cars and their drivers need to stop every so often–if the satnav says 12 hours, that’s probably 14 hours total on the road. Once you break it up into a two-day trip, the train’s back in competition (assuming you care about yourself and don’t want to do a single-entry endurance race involving one or more hapless friends/co-drivers). Unless your car is German or Swedish, the seats probably aren’t as comfy as Amtrak’s anyway.
Jets fly the same route in two hours. I could’ve had an entire day in either my origin or my destination, and so could have everyone else on the train. Maybe it’s a luxury after all–Amtrak long-distance routes are sometimes described as a “land cruise”, a description that I tend to dislike. Free time, however, is the greatest luxury of all. Americans have fewer vacation days available to them, on average, than almost all other countries on Earth. In fact, most countries have a minimum number of paid vacation days that all workers are entitled to! With this in mind, it’s not hard to understand why vacationers may favour air travel. Why waste time in transit when you could use that time wedging as many activities as possible into your meagre few days off work?
It’s not difficult to see how the cruise ship comparison gets drawn, but I genuinely think more people are using Amtrak as a utilitarian form of transport than they are a luxury experience in and of itself. Travel of any sort can be an experience, and I don’t even think I’d describe a sleeper car as being especially luxurious in comparison to even the most budget of cruise ships. A Motel 6 seems to have a nicer bed, for example.7 The answer might be boring. It might just be that it’s the least bad way to travel the country. Air travel is tedious, and driving the highways sucks. I say this as a car enthusiast, someone who enjoys driving: the sort of person who likes Amtrak is probably the same sort of person who avoids interstate highways. They’re too full of trucks, and traffic–when they’re not busy destroying communities in inner cities, the ribbons of asphalt are busy avoiding nearly anything of interest.
The Coast Starlight gave me plenty of time to contemplate all of this when our Portland crew timed out somewhere in the middle of southern Oregon. We were quite a few miles short of our scheduled crew swap and fresh air stop at Klamath Falls, and by the time they were driven up to the train, we were about 7 hours late. This persisted all the way through to Oakland, although we at least had plenty of the sub sandwiches (roast beef, vegetable, or turkey) that had been delivered to the train in Eugene.
There’s a screenshot on my phone of the Amtrak app, showing me that my train was approximately 6.5 hours late into Oakland. I felt great, though. Aside from a desperate need for a nice shower, a state I find myself in after using any form of transport, I didn’t feel fatigued, annoyed, disgruntled, or indeed any negative emotion at all. Most trips in a pressurised tube dehydrate me and are liable to leave me with, bare minimum, a cough.8 Driving for more than two or three hours–even in my beloved Golf, with the most ergonomically correct seats you can get in a car that costs less than $30k, guarantees that my knees and ankles will be miserable at the end of the day. This alone is reason enough to take the train.
I keep coming back to romanticism, though. I can’t think of any word better, and I think it describes the relationship that those of us who love trains have with Amtrak. It’s not like an unhealthy relationship–we’re fully aware of what it could be, and as such we are intimately aware of its shortcomings. If you’re even remotely pressed for time, Amtrak probably isn’t your first choice. If you do have the time, and especially if you’ve never done it: take the train sometime, for it’s the most perfect distillation of this country there is. Even if it all goes wrong, they’ll do their best to get you there. There are beautiful landscapes (punctuated by what’s left of America’s industry) passing by the train’s windows every mile. You’ll very likely be subjected to the side effects of our worst priorities as a society, but you’ll also experience more of what makes this country beautiful and good in one day than most people do in a month of suburbia. It’s broken, it’s beautiful, and it’s doing its best. Bare minimum, you’ll get a damn good story out of it.
For a somewhat more traditional diary of my trip, follow the linked Twitter thread. ↩︎
Link via archive.today, since I don’t feel like giving Insider any extra clicks. ↩︎
Amtrak’s Auto Train: Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA, you and your car are carried in comfort instead of having to deal with the most tedious stretches of Interstate 95. From my limited sample size, 90% of the passengers live in retirement communities and are, shall we say, golf enthusiasts. ↩︎
Another quirk of having spent as much time on the Eastern Seaboard as I have and paying as much attention to road numbering systems as I do: everything’s backwards and it’s weird. Out here, we have Interstate 95, a concrete colossus linking the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis to the coastal South. In Nevada, US Route 95 is, by many measures, the loneliest road in the country. It throws me for a loop. ↩︎
I have not had the pleasure of enjoying a sleeper car. If you want to make that happen, have your people get in touch with my people. ↩︎
Wear a fucking mask, people. The only plane trips where I haven’t felt some weird irritation in my throat or caught a cold have been during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic: in February I crossed the country to Nevada wearing an MSA 900, and this time I wore a well-fitting N95 because I honestly didn’t feel like catching any shit from flight attendants about a half-face respirator. ↩︎
Alright, well, that little experiment didn’t survive its first encounter with the enemy.1 I haven’t totally abandoned the whole playlist-post thing, but I don’t think it’s going to be a regular weekly feature. In fact, I don’t anything’s going to be a regular weekly feature anymore. There isn’t much point in beating myself up over failing to meet a self-imposed deadline about a fucking hobby.
It’s been the customary six-ish months since the last post around here. I’ve got some ideas to use this thing more often – maybe now that I’m out of the winter doldrums, they might even come to fruition. Or, this is just another lightning-quick flash in the pan that I’ve been waiting for, not realising that it would disappear as quickly as it comes.
Either way, I’ve been up to a couple of things. For one thing, I started a new job! It’s technically an old job. You probably don’t care about that, and I don’t blame you. There are far more interesting things to talk about.
After years of certain people (you know who you are) shouting at me that I need a podcast, I’ve finally gone and done it. My friend Noëlle re-launched er podcast, Idle Curiosities, and I’m the new co-host. Every week, we talk about things from our internet search history and what we learned as a result. I’ve been on four episodes so far, if you’re a completionist, but it’s not the sort of show that you need to listen to the entire backlog in order to know what’s going on.
I’ll probably post about new episodes every week here, under the appearances tag. Here’s the first 4 that I haven’t posted yet, for your listening enjoyment:
Being on this show is fun as all hell – even if nobody listened, talking to one of my closest friends every week and discovering what we’ve been searching for is really satisfying. I do hope you give it a listen.
In February, I went out to Reno for a week and discovered, once again, that I enjoy photography. There’s a cycle I find myself in, and perhaps you’re familiar with it too, where one sinks to such a level of long-term depression and malaise that they forget about hobbies that they enjoy. As far as I can tell, I haven’t picked my digital camera up since 2019, but it turns out that it’s a joy to use, I’m half-decent at it, and I had a lot of fun using it again. Maybe I’ll keep up with it this time around. In the meantime, I’m reëmbracing the halcyon days of early Web 2.02 and have started a new Flickr account to post them on. Twitter’s image compression sucks, Instagram is a dumpster fire, and as far as I’m aware there really isn’t anywhere great to post photography anyway.
a stupid idea i will almost certainly regret
While writing this post, I discovered that my Ruby install broke itself. Again. I’m thinking about moving to a different static site generator. It’ll probably require some massaging to make work, and I’m not looking forward to it, but I think it’s time to stop trying to keep this weird Jekyll setup on life support.
It’s weird to me that I can look back on this with nostalgia now. A couple of weeks ago I watched The Social Network for the first time in years, and it struck me just how fondly I remember those really early days of using Facebook before it all went to shit. We had so much hope back then that getting everybody online and connected was going to improve things ↩︎
Today’s playlist is a little bit of a grab bag with a loose theme. Back when I lived in New Jersey and found myself in New York City often, especially just around when the sun was setting, I found it impossible to not find myself feeling at least a little bit cool. The city has that effect on people, even if it’s mostly perpetuated at this point by artists who have long since stopped being able to afford living in Greenwich Village. There’s a certain romance1 to the whole affair, and you have to maintain that illusion in your head when you’re waiting for the fucking intolerable headways of late-night or weekend subway service.
So, this playlist – a little bit moody, a little bit funky, a little bit late-night, very New York (despite only having, by my count, four tracks from NYC bands).
There isn’t much that I love more than an overlooked B-side, and Your Cover’s Blown fits the bill. If memory serves me right, this is the longest Belle & Sebastian song there is, and the payoff for six minutes of shifting time signatures is a song that deserved more love than it got.2 Continuing in the vaguely salacious, No You Girls, off of a Franz Ferdinand album that I’m still not entirely sure about. The song itself meets my main critera for this list – that is: does it make me want to walk down a slightly rainy New York City avenue with a bit of a swing in my hips and a saunter in my step. No You Girls ticks all the boxes, but I’m still not sure how I feel about Tonight. It’s not that it was a departure from the usual Franz Ferdinand sort of sound, but more that as an album it occasionally feels a little disjointed. Not always, though – some days, it hits perfectly.
I don’t have to equivocate about 12:51. The Strokes are one of my favourite bands, there’s going to be a playlist later that’s just them, I couldn’t not include any Strokes in tihs one. It would be an insult to the entire concept not to. Going with this particular track might feel a bit obvious, but it honestly won’t matter once you listen to the sublime, almost keyboard-esque guitars here. Including Mr. Ratatatatat is pure self-indulgence on my part. If you’ll forgive the personal digression, this is one of the songs I distinctly remember from back when Jeph Jacques used to live-stream the process of him drawing the next day’s Questionable Content late at night on Justin.tv, and he always had some really great music going in the background. There’s a fair bit of music that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have found out about because of those streams. The drums in the back of this have a fun little thing going on, if you’re paying just a little bit of attention.
My impression, and this could be just me, is that Maxïmo Park never made it as big as they should have on this side of the Atlantic, despite being in a similar genre and vein of music as Franz Ferdinand. That sort of style is Very Much My Shit. Apply Some Pressure is Very Much That Style,3 even if it is another obvious pick. Paul Smith’s vocals really set them apart for me, and it’s a less obvious pick than Bohemian Like You. I know it’s overpalyed, I know it’s the one Dandy Warhols song that everybody knows, but it’s fucking fun and I don’t care. The front half of this playlist is a love letter to the early-2000s alt rock scene for a reason. Truth be told, I think we’re far enough away from that era that we can start listening to the overplayed songs and appreciate them properly now.45
Am I remembering correctly that Combat Baby was in Rock Band, or was it in one of the Guitar Hero games? They’ve blurred together in my mind entirely by now, but one of those games is where I heard this song, and Metric rocks. If you somehow haven’t ever heard Emily Haines’ vocals, you’re missing out on a treat. In keeping with the temporal theme, Combat Baby is off their first studio album, in 2003, and I could have just as easily included Dead Disco in its place. Both are great – Combat Baby is just a bit more my speed lately. While I’m busy dating myself with antiquated pop-culture touchstones, I first heard Je Veux Te Voir on MySpace, and hearing it there sparked a mild off-and-on fascination with French pop music for me. Also, it’s got crunchy dancepop synth sounds, and I love thoes.
Some more self-indulgence for me here – I have a clear memory in my brain of sitting on a bench at Astor Place station waiting for a train one Friday night of listening to Novacane and coming to the conclusion that, as much as I adore Beck, especially bleeps and boops Beck, that I haven’t a damn clue what his lyrics are about a solid 60% of the time. I’m not entirely sure that I’m supposed to have a clue, either. You can just sit back and enjoy the bleeps. Panic Station is only here for the percussion. The rest of Muse’s 6th album fell really flat for me, but this one (and Madness) are catchy as hell. It’s funky, which isn’t normally an adjective I use with muse. There’s a bit of funk in Defalut’s synths, and if you listen really closely you can hear a bit of wobble from some random knob that gets bumped at the start. I’m predisposed to like any band that lists “synth operator” as an official credit in the liner notes.
Phenomena’s chorus is, of course, a Liquid Liquid shoutout, but it’s also the sort of song you hear in your head if you’re heading down the street in a nice sturdy pair of boots. (What, doesn’t everyone romanticise their life by imagining themeslves in a music video?) The Fallen is much in the same mental category for me. L.S.F. (Lost Souls Forever) heads a bit back towards the electronic, like Kasabian tends to do – I love them for it.
Your English is Good is another one I have a specific memory of: it came up on shuffle one night while I was riding the Staten Island Ferry solely to kill some time between one social engagement and another. Their entire first album is laser-targeted at my particular tastes, honestly. The arrangment of Quicksand reminds me of a Divine Comedy song more than I would’ve expected from Miles Kane, but it gets stuck in your head real easy.
DVNO is just absolutely dripping with coolness. If you haven’t seen it already, and you have any opinions at all about typography or the 1980s, the video is an absolute must-see (and has a fun little piano outro that replaces the album release’s slap-bass exit). You may have noticed that the next track up is twelve minutes long. Don’t worry about it.
Freak Out/Starry Eyes would have made this playlist solely on the strengths of the drum solo from 6:44 to 8:15. For reasons of expediency, I’ll otherwise keep my powder dry on LCD Soudnsystem for the moment. This track is worth every minute. Red Light Indicates Doors Are Secured is also worth every minute, but it’s only got two and a quarter. It’s about London and not New York, but I adore the mood (it’s almost a concept album, really) of Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not – if ever there was a better album-based representation of a night out on the town that I’m probably too old for at this point, I haven’t heard it. Listening back to the playlist, I don’t entirely enjoy the transition from Starry Eyes into Red Light, but I really wanted to end this list out with that one, so, forgive me.
I’m running on about 3 hours of sleep today, and if I hadn’t already made this playlist earlier, this post wouldn’t have happened today. It is, in fact, the last one I made in the big flurry of inspiration that birthed all the previous playlists up to this point, so next week’s will be completely off the cuff. The chances of it being a disaster are non-zero.
This is just 80 minutes of Los Campeisnos!, one of my absolute favourite bands. Technically, it’s the first one I made since deciding to start actually trying to fix my playlists, and it was also made at someone else’s request. I could go on talking about Los Camps! for hours if unchecked. What do I even say? They’re an emo-indie band from Cardiff, you’ve probably heard You! Me! Dancing!, if only because it was used in a Budweiser commercial. I didn’t put that one on here, even though I think it’s a great song1. At large, I love and resent them and equal parts for how damn clever their lyrics are. Even at a surface read, I find their lyrics and imagery to be top-notch – and if you’re at all pretentious, even just a little, it’s hard not to fall in love. There are, of course, songs that I didn’t manage to fit in here. For example, I should have found a way to fit Avocado, Baby in.
Broadly speaking, the first album (Hold On Now, Youngster…) is the most twee of the crowd. From there, the albums get more emotionally heavy-hitting, and a bit less chaotic.2 There’s something to that first-album energy, though, and it’s not like they get any less frenetic. They only got more emotionally raw – listening to the front half of this playlist while deciding on a final track order nearly brought me to tears.
Side A: Prologue / Heart Swells
The first two songs are a prologue of sorts – I didn’t want to go right in with the emotional depth charges.3In Medias Res is almost too perfect an encapsulation of how LC! likes to arrange a song – lush orchestration and the sort of dynamic shifts that will send you diving for the volume knob if you’ve got it too high for the quiet bits. Death to Los Campesinos! is the song I originally started the playlist with. It’s jangly and bright if you ignore the lyrics.
In some way or another, all the songs from Heart Swells / Pacific Daylight Time through to Knee Deep at ATP remind me of failed relationships and forgotten friendships. Heart Swells is uncharacteristically straightforward for Los Camps – I didn’t give it much attention the first few times I listened to this album, but that was a mistake. Baby, I Got The Death Rattle and You’ll Need Those Fingers for Crossing are desperate anthems of self-loathing. The Fall of Home, heart-wrenchingly, sums up everything I’ve ever felt while driving through the town I grew up in.4
Content warnings apply to The Sea Is a Good Place to Think of the Future, moreso than for others – if ever a Los Camps song is obviously about self-harm and suicidal thinking, it’s this one. You’ll forgive me for not dwelling on it too long, moving and moody as it is. Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #1 is a little lighter, if you can consider a song about wasting your money in a phone box trying to call your ex “lighter”.5
A Litany / Heart Swells brings us almost to the end of Side A. I was feeling particularly smug for managing to bookend this part with the two Heart Swells, if you’re wondering – and I absolutely tried to fit Heart Swells/100-1 in there too. We can’t have it all, like this ballad tries to remind us. A slow, almost hollow shout into a the void, and the faintest of replies.
If we’re going to continue this tortured metaphor, Knee Deep at ATP is an overture to Side B, which is more musically upbeat. I can pinpoint where I started falling in love with Los Campesions, and it was this lyric:
Maybe the lining of a winter coat mightn’t be the best place / to hide a summer secret
Side B: A Good Night for a Fist-fight
Songs about Your Girlfriend is, to a fault, full of those turns of phrase that I love so much. A Slow, Slow Death almost feels like it belongs on Side A, but… there’s a certain sense of hopefulness in accepting the inevitable, and that tips the scales for me.
An article I read ages ago declared that We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed, as a song title, was as good a way to sum up LC! as any. I tend to agree, but the song itself is also a damn fine encapsulation of their whole deal. Layers of metaphor, waxing poetic about the end of a long-distance fling, a shrieking nihilistic damnation of one’s own vital organs. If I had to rank their songs,6 this one is on the podium. So is Here’s to the Fourth Time, and I honestly can’t put my fingers on why. There’s something about the vocals that just gets to me. Every so often, I get in a mood where I want to listen to the same song on repeat for an hour or so, and Fourth Time is a frequent flier on that particular mission. International Tweexcore Underground, honestly, is just here because it’s fun. A little bit of painfully upbeat early-installment weirdness, but the good kind.
Romance is Boring is another podium finisher for me. It’s loud, it’s brash, it bites. It’s good. If you care about that sort of thing, it’s even got a little bit of a personal victory for lead singer Gareth – he stole one line from one of his favourite bands, The Beautiful South (whose lead singer he would later briefly tour with). Los Camps also covered the song in question if you’re feeling exceptionally meta about it all. Coming up for air from the digression: I don’t know jack about guitars, and the only way I know how to describe the guitar sounds on this track is “crunchy”. Crunchy is good.
Rounding out the potential podium: By Your Hand. I’m a sucker for the drums, the almost-triumphant chorus, the insufferable layers of sexual innuendo, the luscious second verse into the bridge… there isn’t anything here I don’t like. If you listen to just one track from this whole list, go with this one. I guess that makes it my favourite, if I really had to pick.
My Year In Lists makes the cut for two reasons:
You said, “Send me stationery to make me horny”
So I always write you letters in multicolours
Decorating envelopes for foreplay
The line that immediately follows:
Damn extended metaphors, I get carried away
At least they know they’re doing it.
In the event that you didn’t notice that this band is British, a lot of their lyrics involve football metaphors. Every Defeat a Divorce (Three Lions) is more obvious about it than most – it’s not difficult to imagine a dating history as tortured and hopeless as England’s perennial failure to win a championship. 5 Flucloxacillin takes the cake, meanwhile, for hardest song to spell. Its album, Sick Scenes, came out in 2017, and it’s not difficult to read the majority of that album as a reaction to the forces conspiring to fuck things up: the immediate after-effects of the Brexit referendum, the class warfare between older and younger generations, the utter defeat that felt all too common that year.
There are lyrical themes and phrases that Los Camps! like to stitch through their work – She Crows (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #4) is partly here to represent their most recent release: a 2021 EP of songs cut from 2011’s Hello Sadness, but also to represent the Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown Tetraology. #1 came on 2008’s We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed. We’ve Got Your Back, on Romance is Boring (2010), is technically suffixed (Documented Minor Emotional Breakdown #2. Similarly, Baby I’ve Got The Death Rattle is Uncredited Breakdown #3.
Let It Spill, if verified Genius annotations are to believed, contains Gareth’s favourite verse. I wasn’t originally sure how to finish the playlist off, truth be told, but I could’ve done far worse than this. 2013’s No Blues had to be represented somewhere, and if it wasn’t with Let It Spill I would’ve gone with a song I’m awarding an honourable mention to, For Flotsam. No Blues is far, far from a bad album, to be clear. I just couldn’t make that track, or Avocado, Baby fit. If you’ve really enjoyed the playlist, there’s more tracks for you out there.7
Emacs tells me I’ve now written over 1800 words about this band at this point, and I’m sure you want me to shut up. Here’s the links – see you next week.
Please refer to my previous comments about liking songs with a big crescendo – this one’s about as big as they get. ↩︎
I draw a line between “chaotic” and “frenetic” – there’s certainly a hyper-active, up-tempo feeling to a lot of LC! songs, but I don’t think anything sums up the pretentious chaos of Hold On Now, Youngster any better than the count-off that begins Broken Heartbeats Sound Like Breakbeats. ↩︎
Do you really think I could resist starting a playlist off with a song named In Medias Res? Of course I can’t. ↩︎
Lead singer and lyricist Gareth spoke at length about The Fall of Home, and there’s some bitter irony in me having to give you a Wayback Machine link in reference to a song about municipal rot. ↩︎
For the longest time, I thought that the last line of this song was “many years practice of speaking in hashtags” and not “speaking in hushed tones”. Not quite the same, is it. ↩︎
Here I go with another bullshit writing experiment… this one might be weekly, but it’s more likely to be fortnightly. I don’t really want it to become monthly, at that point I’m not sure it can be called a regular feature at that point. We’ll see. (If you want to skip the tedious backstory and just get to what the hell I’m doing, click here.)
I listen to a lot of music. In fact, there’s an entire system set up to deliver a constant feed of pleasant yet unobtrusive background music that I can listen to from basically anywhere in the house.1 When I don’t have the BGM running, I’ll either pick an album or two to queue up or turn to a Spotify mix, because they’re usually pretty good. The main reason I’ve just been streaming music for a while, though, is that all my playlists suck. To a fault, each one of them has grown to be about six hours long, are completely disjointed, and are full of tracks that I skip every time.
To be honest, I was perfectly happy to keep living like this. That is, up until a friend of mine asked me to make a playlist after I’d queued a bunch of tracks up in Discord one night. It was entirely off-the-cuff, but I think it turned out pretty decent, in retrospect. While I was compiling it into an actual playlist on a streaming service, I started adding some similar tracks, but feared that it would quickly swell like so many other lists have. With that in mind, I decided to arbitrarily limit myself to 80 minutes per playlist – the maximum length of a standard MiniDisc, before ATRAC3 let you wedge double the music on a disc.2 With that constraint in mind, and working from the songs I’d thrown into that music bot, I ended up with two pretty dang good playlists. Since my friend mentioned liking my musical taste, I used those as jumping-off points for what turned into 5 ~80-minute compilations.
I’m going to try and post a new playlist weekly from here on out. Hopefully, it’ll be an interesting way to help me sort through my disaster of a music library and share some of the songs that I truly adore. Before I start in on the playlists that started this all, I’d be remiss without also mentioning another inspiration for this project. My friend Emily puts out a newsletter and playlist every week of brand new music. You should subscribe to it – I find something I never would’ve otherwise heard every time.
With the tedious backstory out of the way, here’s Volume Zero of what I’m calling The Playlizt:3the late night list.
The first two playlists were made directly from the tracks I queued up in a voice chat – I split them in 2 to meet my arbitrary and self-imposed 80-minute duration limit, and I tried to sort them by mood. Volume 1 is definitely a little moodier than Volume 2, but I was (and am) in a fairly depressed state so they’re honestly all a bit moody. Links to the playlists on Spotify and Apple Music are available after my commentary for each one.
Ask Me Anything is the very first song I heard from The Strokes, and shortly after this they became one of my absolute favourite bands. This song doesn’t really sound much like their other work, but it’s heavy on the Mellotron and I love a good Mellotron feature.
This playlist actually has a few songs that were my introduction to a given band – a late-night Wikipedia rabbit hole about London Underground stations and their architecture led me to Mornington Crescent, a track off of what I consider to be Belle & Sebastian’s best album.
Listening to Lucy Dacus convinced me that Dancing in the Dark is actually a trans anthem with this cover. I will not be taking further questions at this time.
You Are A Tourist is my favourite Death Cab song, but I do insist that you listen to the demo verson if you like it.4
Another introduction, another cover: I Can Change is how I discovered Ezra Furman. (Your eyes do not decieve you – this playlist has two different LCD Soundsystem covers.)
California Stars might be the best song off of Billy Bragg and Wilco’s project writing music for unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs. I became obsessed with it when an ex of mine moved to San Francisco, and it’s stayed in my head ever since.
I’ve always liked Beck – the thing about his music is that he covers a lot of wildly different ground. The first two songs here are a bit quiet and downtempo, but it picks up after Guess I’m Doing Fine with Heroin. (I’m a sucker for a good crescendo, a song that builds up into something – Never as Tired as When I’m Waking Up from vol. 1 is another favourite example.) Honestly, I only just noticed that I started and ended this one with two wildly different Becks.
If you liked Magma, you’ll like the singer’s new band, Nova One. I’m also duty-bound to point out that, like me, they’re from Rhode Island.
Another soft spot of mine is long and meandering songs. 23 Minutes in Brussels meanders something fierce. Up with People doesn’t wander quite as much, but it’s certainly taking its time in a way really speaks to me.
Volumes 4 and 5 are probably the least bleak and moody of the whole set. They also have the highest density of songs I was really into during high school.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times Map of Your Head got stuck in my head between roughly 2010 and 2013.
Umphree’s McGee’s cover of Weird Fishes/Arpeggi scratches an odd jam band shaped itch for me.
One of the only playlists I have with any meaningful focus is the one with every member of The Strokes’ solo work – Albert Hammond Jr’s first solo album is my favourite off that particular collection.
Some of the tracks on vol. 5 were originally on a playlist I’ll talk about in the next post – my main theme here was rhythmic drum beats or constantly-driving music.
Whirring starts off going somewhere fun and ends in an explosion of guitars. It’s breathtaking.
Hallogallo is the song that I built this playlist around. Neu! was started by two former members of Kraftwerk in 1971 and is one of those bands that not many people listened to, but that inspired innumerable acts afterwards.
Going from Blur to The Strokes to Yeah Yeah Yeahs to The Rakes really sums up a notable phase in my life. (That phase isn’t over, for the record.)
I also had a serious Kings of Leon phase that tapered off pretty quickly after Come Around Sundown. I first heard Molly’s Chambers in a Jetta commercial, and I distinctly remember going to find it on iTunes after seeing that commercial. I’m a little hazy on this part, but it might have been one of the ones I downloaded using a code from a Pepsi cap.
I hope you enjoy this jaunt through my music library – I promise you, the next edition won’t have five separate playlists in it. If you like it (or even if you don’t), let me know!
This is another one of those things that I should write up. Also, it’s usually playing Phish live recordings. ↩︎
If you’re wondering whether or not I currently own a MiniDisc player, the answer is no. I’m seriously thinking about it, though. ↩︎
Yes, it’s spelled like that on purpose. If you know who to blame… you know who to blame. ↩︎
It samples Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark. If that excites you, go listen. Right now. ↩︎
For reasons I don’t fully understand, I’ve been obsessed with keeping notes to myself in plain text files. A long time ago, this is the sort of thing I used Evernote for – until they drastically changed their pricing and plan options, anyway. Making me pay more money to use a service across multiple devices is a sure-fire way to encourage the construction of a janky half-baked self-hosted replacement.1 This mindset has put me at the intersection of a few rocks and hard places:
I stopped using Dropbox for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I already pay Microsoft for Office 365. Most importantly for this case, that means that they give me a terabyte of free storage in OneDrive.
My favourite text/markdown editor on iOS, 1Writer, only supports Dropbox, WebDAV, or iCloud Files/Files.app locations reliably.
OneDrive doesn’t work great on Files.app in iOS. At all.
On the desktop side of things, this has been a solved problem for a while. A friend of mine told me about nb, which has been working great for me as an automatic system for managing and syncing plain text or Markdown-formatted notes. Every time I open and edit a note, it commits the edit to a Git repository. When you open a note on another computer, it runs git pull first to make sure it has the latest copy. It solved almost all of my problems… except for those pesky little things called smartphones. Up until now, I had an extremely precarious system involving a WebDAV directory that was also configured as the storage directory for nb on my primary computer. This made a lot of assumptions about the availabiltiy of a WebDAV resource being shared out of my home, as well as introducing frequent merge conflicts when I’d also updated a note from another computer. Inspiration struck on how to fix this while I was setting up org-mode for myself, though.2
The new workflow works perfectly, and it looks like this:
I open 1Writer on my phone, and a Shortcuts automation fires that tells Working Copy to pull my nb-notes repository every time I open that app.
After I close 1Writer, another Shortcuts automation fires off telling Working Copy to commit any changes in the iCloud Drive folder that both apps save files to, then to push that commit.
Gitea runs a post-push webhook that connects to a machine that’s always online in my network and has nb installed. This machine runs a webhook receiver, and it scans the Gitea payload from each POST request for a commit author that matches the one I use on my phone. When it sees one, it runs nb index reconcile to scan any files that weren’t modified by nb itself.
Here are the nuts and bolts.
webhook is an ambiguously named program that serves webhook endpoints and fires off commands when they’re accessed. After installing it, I defined a hook.
Gitea, like other Git servers, returns a lot of useful information in its payload – in this case, I’ve told webhook to only trigger on commits from the specific author name that Working Copy’s identity is set to on my phone.3
The script nb-git-hook.sh, in the same directory, is dead simple:
This command tells nb to scan its storage directory for any files that it wasn’t aware of – if it finds any, it assigns them an ID number and creates a new Git commit so that it can keep track of them in the future.
iOS Shortcut Setup
While I was writing this, I discovered that Shortcuts.app on iOS doesn’t have a great way of sharing automations. If you set up a shortcut, that at least generates an iCloud share link – for reproducibility’s sake, I’ve converted the automations to simply call a shortcut instead of having individually-defined actions.
For the curious, I’m using a very similar Shortcuts+Working Copy setup with beorg to use my org-mode files on my phone as well. Setting that up is what led me to working out how to make this work with my notetaking system, in fact.
An obvious solution here would be to have fewer devices.
A previous iteration of this blog featured a post about setting up an ADS-B reciever to track airplanes within radio distance. I’ve relocated that post to live as its own article instead of being a blog post, since it’s more of a permanent document.
By my count1, this is indeed the 4th time I’ve completely reworked my blog and started over. Last year, I tried writing about baseball. The year before that, I don’t think I actually wrote anything. Who can tell anymore? To be perfectly frank, I don’t expect the readers2 to expect much from me, and they’re correct in doing so. Part of me hopes that this time I’ll be be able to use this blog occasionally without feeling bad about how I never do. I’m also hoping that I’ll actually have things to write about: the long-abandoned projects I’ve been neglecting for years.
That’s probably all gross and unearned optimism, though.
Either way, I’m declaring a new start. Again. The thing they don’t tell you about those is that you can start over as many times as you need to.