Greg Poulos
A blog about Things, and also Stuff

Voting Is Not a Helvetica Activity

Back when Brexit was still what everyone was talking about, there was this Vox article extolling the virtues of the “amazingly simple” ballot used for the referendum.

But there’s one part of the Brexit vote that the US could gain a lot from imitating: It has an extremely clear, easy-to-understand ballot.

The question is written in plain language: “Should the United Kingdom remain in the European Union or leave the European Union?” And while it’s a yes-no question, the options make it perfectly clear which one you’re choosing and how you should do it. (The Scottish referendum ballot in 2014 was even clearer: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”)

Brexit ballot

And I mean, my goodness—isn’t it beautiful? So clear! So simple! This is a wonderful example of the kind of drafting clarity that gets writers’ and designers’ hearts all a-flutter. Imagine going into a voting booth and seeing that ballot, its two huge empty boxes, each one calling out to you, inviting you to fill it up, tempting you to lay down your big, thick, juicy X in its sultry frame … well, it makes voting almost seem fun.

More importantly, the ballot makes it seem like leaving the EU is a simple, straightforward process. I mean, first you’re in the EU; then you’re not. End of story. Right?

Except we’ve found out that Brexit is a little more complicated than all that. In fact, no one seems to know how the hell it’s going to work. The UK has to invoke something called Article 50, but it’s not clear who’s actually going to so, or when. Then there’s the matter of renegotiating all the UK’s trade agreements. And by the way, does Parliament has to vote on the matter?

It’s a total fucking mess. But the design of the ballot simply abstracts it all away. Suggests none of the complexity involved. Offers zero context for what leaving the EU actually entails.

The Vox article I linked to at the top of this post goes on to present a few examples of what it criticizes as poor ballot design. And it’s true that those examples are far from paragons of clarity. In my view, however, they do feature one major benefit: they reveal the guts of how the laws in question would actually work. When I’m voting on whether to allow Uber and Lyft to operate in my city, for example, I’m not sure it’s a bad thing to be reminded—in the voting booth—of what existing laws would need to get repealed for that to happen.1

The Vox article also references several studies that show how poorly designed ballots can obscure issues, decrease voter participation, and lead to thousands of votes getting thrown out without being counted.2 Those things are bad, and I agree that it’s important to design ballots thoughtfully. But but thoughtful design is more than clean lines and Strunkian minimalism.

Voting is a serious activity with potentially enormous consequences. It is not a Futura activity. It’s not even a Helvetica activity. It’s a Times New Roman activity, through and through.

Though the Brexit ballot may indeed be a model of “drafting clarity”, it’s also a model of obfuscation: a terrific example of why you should be extremely careful when you start dumbing down complex ideas in the pursuit of simplicity.

  1. Yes, I’m presumably stepping into the voting booth having already done my research, my decisions already made. But not always. How many of us have remained undecided up till the moment of truth? How many of us have had a last-minute change of heart? I know I have. And in that moment, would you prefer to be reminded of the gravity of your decision, or the lightness of it?
  2. The article cites one study of “more than 1,200 state-level ballot questions” which found you’d need, on average, “more than a four-year college degree in order to understand what you were being asked to vote on.” As far as I can tell, this claim is based on the Flesch-Kincaid reading score—which is, unfortunately, a bullshit metric.

Brexit Mulligan

It may have been a golfer’s joke, but there are also those who are serious about the idea. Apparently, lots of folks are already regretting their vote. Enough people to sway the results of the referendum? Who knows!1

Then again, why not take a mulligan? It’s not like it’s that hard. We do elections all the time. Just get everyone back together in a week or two and try again.

It’d be expensive.

So would exiting the EU. By a significantly larger margin.

It’s not even a contest. A UK Treasury report estimated that a Brexit would result in the UK’s GDP being “6.2% lower than it would otherwise have been by 2030,” or around $6,000 per household. That’s a lot. Multiply that by the population of the UK, and again by fifteen years, and it’s a lot more. Even if that math isn’t perfect, I hope you get the idea.

If the cost of averting all that loss is merely the price of running another referendum, that’s an amazing investment. It’d rank up there among the best investments in UK history, if not world history, period.

The people have already made their will known.

This argument makes no sense to me. If Brexit really is the will of the people, what’s the risk of running another referendum? They’ll just make their will doubly known. Huzzah huzzah.

And if the result of the second referendum is to stay in the EU? Then, I mean, whew—right? We really dodged a bullet there!

Think about it this way: Brexit is an enormous decision, impacting directly millions of Britons and indirectly impacting pretty much everyone else on the planet. So I don’t see why it’s unreasonable to insist that we (they) get it right.

If we run another referendum and Brexit wins again, what’s to stop us from running a third? Or a fourth? Where will the madness stop?

Simple: with the second referendum. Period. No more sour grapes after that. Everyone goes into it knowing that it’s for realsies this time.

Calling for a re-vote would be unprecedented!

So is leaving the EU. So what? Unprecedented stuff happens all the time.

You’re only calling for a re-vote because the referendum turned out opposite how you wanted it to. You’d never ask for a re-vote if the UK voted to stay in the EU.

That may be true, to an extent. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that, in cases were there’s significant uncertainty as to whether a particular course of action is better than the status quo, it’s best to stick to the status quo.

But, fine: let’s imagine an alternate universe where Brexit was voted down, and all the pro-Brexiters started calling for a re-vote. Even in this case, I’m not convinced I’d be against a re-vote. To paraphrase what I argued above: It’s Important To Get These Things Right.

I’d need to be convinced that a second referendum would be a sound financial investment, though.

  1. Probably not, though, just speaking realistically (or cynically).

Why I Don’t Use This Blog

I don’t post to this blog very often, and I’ve been thinking about why.

The obvious explanation—which I think explains why most people’s blogging efforts never really get off the ground—is that a personal blog is fueled primarily by the author’s need for social and creative expression, and while a blog may have been a great medium for that once upon a time, nowadays these needs are way more effectively served by outlets like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Social networks like those ones don’t simply provide you a platform from which you can express yourself; they also ensure, to some extent, that you’ll have an audience paying attention to you, giving you feedback on how super terrifically great your expressions of self are.

So my blog occupies this weird interstitial space. What need is it fulfilling that isn’t already being met? I have Tumblr for posting links, quotes, and all the tiny random snippets of culture which I think are cool and want to remember for myself.

I have Facebook for sharing more important stuff that I want to put in front of as many eyes as possible, and also for sharing stupid Pokémon jokes.

And I have Twitter for complaining about public transportation.

What about creative writing?

But this whole “Superseded By Other Platforms” explanation can’t be all, because I actually do have a conceptual niche carved out for this blog: it’s supposed to be an outlet for my creative writing.

That obviously hasn’t panned out these past few years—or, at least, it hasn’t amounted to much in the way of actual content. As it turns out, a blog is not a very good place to share creative material. Anything I’m proud of, I’m going to save it and send it out for publication rather than waste it here. Anything I’m not proud of, I’m not going to want to share. And anyway, most of the creative writing I do is for my novel, which really doesn’t translate well into blog-sized snippets.

Another issue is that this blog feels heavyweight. This isn’t actually written down anywhere, but for some reason, I feel like everything I post here has got to be … well, if not perfect, then at least substantial and somehow complete.

For example, this very post is taking forever to write; I’m crawling through it, trying to make sure I don’t toss out half-thoughts or unsupportable statements or poorly-written sentences. Which is dumb, because the only way to actually make sure of any of those things is to leave the post, let the post sit for a while, and come back to it later. Which is totally not going to happen. It’s a stupid blog post. The three people reading it are going to be okay if it’s not perfect.

How I Use Facebook (or: How Not to Use Facebook)

So let’s redefine what this blog’s all about, shall we? And let’s try to do it in a way that’ll end up with me actually making use of this space.1 Here’s an idea: maybe I can use this blog like how most normal people use Facebook.

My current Facebook “strategy” is to maintain as high a signal-to-noise ratio as possible. I’m actually kind of paranoid about it. I don’t know why.2 I don’t post often, and when I do, I try to avoid sharing anything everybody else is already talking about; that is, I optimize for quality and novelty of content.

I also tend to avoid posting my own commentary about anything current or political. By default, I assume my opinions are all dumb and wrong and poorly-thought-out. Since I tend to live by the philosophy that it’s better to remain silent and thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubts, this means I usually stay pretty silent.

I don’t actually think this is an especially good way to use Facebook. For reasons. But it works for me. And I’ve had people compliment me on the quality of my feed, which is cool.

However, it also means that whenever I have an impulse to share something on Facebook, I have to shut it down maybe 95% of the time.

A new charter

One of the nice things about this blog is that hardly anyone reads it. Not that my Facebook is blowing up like gangbusters, but it’s got a larger readership than this.3 So if I say something dumb or offensive, it’s unlikely to bum many people out. And the people who will read it are all close friends and family—folks who’ll cut me some slack (I hope) if (when) I say something really astronomically idiotic.

So here’s my new charter:

This blog will be a place where I can post stuff I’m too self-conscious to post anywhere else.

This shall include, but is not limited to:

  • Half-baked ideas
  • Poorly conceived arguments
  • Commentary on things about which I’m unqualified to comment
  • Opinions no one asked for
  • Opinions no one needs

Now, are these really the sorts of things I should be posting to the website that bears my name? Like, won’t a dumb post on my personal blog reflect more poorly on me than something boneheaded I say on Twitter or Tumblr, or some other more “disposable” platform?

I don’t know. Maybe?

But, like, look: despite all these words I’m writing, I’m probably not going to post here any more than I already do. So I doubt it’s going to matter.

Now excuse me while I hit “Publish” without rereading a word of any of this.

  1. No guarantees. Frankly, it’s still pretty unlikely I’ll post regularly here. I peg it at a 20% chance of happening.
  2. Well, I have inklings why. But getting into those would be a big whole rabbit hole of self-analysis that I don’t want to worry about right now.
  3. I don’t know this for sure. But it seems likely.

What I Am Up To, Six Months Post-Graduation

It doesn’t look great that the most recent post on my blog is over a year old, so let’s go in for a status update. Here’s a short list of the things I’m up to right now, six months post-MFA graduation.

  • Continuing work on my novel.
  • Interning at PanLex (staring June 20, for eight weeks).
  • Writing crossword puzzles that get rejected by the New York Times.
  • Working part-time as a technical writer at my old company.
  • Trying to launch a podcast about writing with a former classmate.
  • Failing to update my Moby Dick or Earthbound blogs regularly.

I would like to be making better progress on the creative endeavors … but all things considered, it could be a lot worse. So that’s something, I guess??

Best of 2014: Music

I have a tradition every year of compiling my favorite musical discoveries of the past twelve months, so I guess let’s do that again.

Best List of the Best Music of 2014: My Spotify List

(Admittedly, I may be biased about this one.)

Incidentally, this blog post is made somewhat redundant by the existence of this “Best of 2014” Spotify playlist. However, Spotify doesn’t have everything on it, so I’m gonna round out this blog post with music I found on the internet that ain’t on Spotify.

Best Devo-esque Japanese Pop Song from the 80s: “Modern Lovers” by Moonriders

This is a weird and wonderful song, made even more wonderful by the fact that the lead singer, Keiichi Suzuki, helped compose the music for the video game Earthbound. (Video games and Japan are going to be a recurring theme in this list, just FYI.)

Best Insane Mashup Album: Mouth Silence by Neil Cicierega

The mashup between “I Want You Back” and Pokémon news clips (it starts at around minute 12:00) will never ever fail to put a smile on my face (barring, of course, some kind of neurodegenerative calamity).

It hardly needs be said that the “Chop Suey”/”Crocodile Rock” mashup is 100% perfect.

Best Frustratingly Low-Quality Recording, New Orleans Street Jazz: “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” by Doreen’s Jazz

I found a whole new respect for jazz clarinet after stumbling upon Doreen Ketchens. I just wish the recording quality on this video were better.

Best Frustratingly Low-Quality Recording, Other: “Sanges Sweet & There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by Camille

I found the above video while searching for the track “Sanges Sweet – Version Courte” from Camille’s album Music Hole, because that song is flippin’ gorgeous. I came up short for the album version, but found the above live recording instead. With a bit of Smiths thrown in? Don’t mind if I do.

(Some kind soul has since uploaded the album version I was originally looking for. I feel like the video might get taken down soon, so enjoy while you can.)

Best Song That Sounds Happy But Is Actually Extremely Sad: “The Procession of Celestial Beings” by Joe Hisaichi

This is a selection from the soundtrack to the film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was easily the best animated film of the year—maybe even the best film of the year, period. The song sounds rather cheerful, but if you’ve seen the movie then you know it’s actually extremely bittersweet.

Incidentally, the whole soundtrack is really great. If you have time, I’d recommend listening to the whole video above, not just the selection I’ve chosen.

And speaking of Princess Kaguya

Best Sappy Closing Credits Song: “Inochi no Kioku” by Kazumi Nikaido

Also from the Princess Kaguya soundtrack. Not much else to say than this is super pretty and I like it a lot.

Best Overclocked ReMix: “Coming to Chimerica” by Binster

To be honest, I didn’t even remember this song until I started trawling through my saved Youtube videos from this year. But I wanted to put an OCRemix somewhere on this list, and it turns out that this song is a ton of fun, so in it goes.

Best Album Chock-Full o’ Thick ‘n’ Crunchy 80s Synths: Dangerous Days by Perturbator

This song is actually totally available on Spotify, so I’m actually not sure why I’m putting it on this list.

Oh, right! I remember why. It’s because it’s so very dang delicious.

Best Song from a Fourteen-Year-Old Musical: “The Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This is also available on Spotify, although the movie version above is a bit different from the album version. (The actual song begins at around 1:10.) I’m including the video here mostly because I love the accompanying animation, done by artist Emily Hubley.

Best Incredibly Sappy Video Game Cover: 

This song is essentially a bunch of children singing about love to the tune of a video game song. The performance isn’t even particularly good. I’m actually kind of ashamed about putting this up here. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this unless they’ve played any of the games from the Earthbound series. Even then, it’s a stretch.

Best GWAR Cover of a Kansas Hit: “Carry On My Wayward Son” (by GWAR, duh)

Mainly here as a palate-cleanser from the previous song.

Fun Fact! This is the first time in human history that a GWAR song has ever been described as “a palate-cleanser”.

Best Live Performance Extensively Featuring a Kazoo: “Fuerteventura” by Russian Red

I went to see Russian Red in concert this year! She is great. And she plays the kazoo! What’s not to like?

Nothing! That’s what.

Best Live Performance Discovered Via an Nobel-Winning Economics Blogger: “Sonsick” by San Fermin

I don’t remember how I originally found out about San Fermin, but I do remember that upon researching the band further, I discovered that Paul Krugman likes them, too! He linked to thislive performance of “Sonsick” on his NYTimes blog. Who’d’a thunk it?

One of my favorite moments in the video is the cut to the horn players at 3:42. The saxophone player is super into it! Yeah! I like that saxophone player a lot!

Best Song Representing the Dissolution of a Longstanding Mystery: “Even at My Aunt’s” by Chisato Moritaka

OK, so there’s a story here.

A long time ago, I once borrowed an imported Bemani-style Game Boy Color game from a friend. I ended up playing this game a whole lot, enough so that I learned most of its songs by heart. However, the game was entirely in Japanese, so I didn’t really know anything about the songs I was playing—not even their titles, which were for the most part written in kana rather than Roman characters.

Now, seeing as how time is an eternal march toward undying and infinite chaos, I eventually lost track of the game. But a few of its catchier tunes stuck with me. One song in particular would keep popping into my head; after a few years it got to the point where I could scarcely remember more than a few notes of melody. It was kinda driving me nuts. But I figured there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

Then I realized: I could solve this problem . . . with technology.

So, starting with naught but this half-remembered melody and the recollection that my mystery game had been an installment of the Beatmania series, I managed to successfully track that friggin’ song down.


Here’s how I did it:

  1. Downloaded a Game Boy Color emulator.
  2. Sleuthed around on GameFAQs to figure out exactly which Beatmania game I was looking for. (Beatmania GB2 GotchaMix)
  3. Downloaded the appropriate ROM.
  4. Re-learned out how to navigate the game’s Japanese menus.
  5. Found the cheat code (on GameFAQs) to unlock all hidden songs in the game.
  6. Played through songs until I finally found the one in question.

As complicated as all that sounds, it really only took like an hour. And most of that time was spent first trying to find the song on Youtube, which path ended up being a dead-end.

Can I just point out how incredible this whole story is? I mean, consider the sheer amount of technological and informational infrastructure that went into solving this problem. The hardest part of the whole process wasn’t emulating a Game Boy Color on my computer; nor was it obtaining a ROM of an obscure Japanese rhythm game from the 90s; nor was it even finding a cheat code for said game.1 No: the most time consuming part was me trying to save time by scouring the hundreds of videos of Beatmania songs that people have uploaded to Youtube.

If this story doesn’t epitomize all the promise and peril of modern technology in a single stroke, then I don’t know what does.

Anyway, this is the song that I was looking for. It’s pretty definitely worth it???

Most Linguistically Novel Version of a Song You’re Probably Sick to Death Of: “Let It Go” (Multi-Language Full Sequence) from Frozen (Various Dubs)

Maybe you don’t like this song. Maybe you once liked it but now hate it to death. Maybe you already saw this video back when it was making the rounds earlier this year and it does nothing for you.

Whatever. I don’t care. I think it’s cool. I especially like the Japanese bit at 1:13. It’s cool and screw you.

Best Song I’m Just Adding in Here So That We End on a More Upbeat Note than “Screw You”: “Star Bit Soufflé” by Stemage

(See award title.)

  1.  YEBISUSAMA, if you’re curious.

Fun Fact Corner – Sleepwalking Harpooners

Did you know? Harpooneers in the 19th century were notorious for sleep-harpooning.

It’s true!

There are literally hundreds of recorded instances of a ship’s harpooner accidentally impaling his fellow sailors under the sleep-delusion that he was spearing a whale or some other sea beast.

This was a huge problem on whaling vessels, as you might imagine. And even to this day no one really knows why it was so. One leading theorist of the day suggested that

as harpooning is such a singular physical act, requiring all manner of unconscious coordination, and because it is a practice undertaken exclusively in circumstances of the greatest physical and psychological duress, it must needs be that the nervous system of the slumbering harpooneer involuntarily and spontaneously relives the whole physical sequence of events in order to practice for further harpooning runs—or perhaps to experience previous runs again, in his instinctual attempt to analyze what may be improved for future eventualities.

Whatever the case, the whole thing got to be so problematic that many harpoon producers actually began to sell “safety” harpoons. These were made out of rubber, and later on, foam. The idea was for harpooneers to keep one of these safety harpoons in their sleeping quarters, so that if they were ever to experience a sleep-harpooning fit, they would grab the harmless rubber weapon rather than a lethal steel-edged one.

As it turned out, the safety harpoon never gained much traction amongst harpooneers, as they found themselves all too often grabbing their safety harpoons rather than the real deal—an easy mistake to make in the chaotic shipboard confusion preceding a whaling run. But unexpected, the general non-harpooning populace—and children in particular—had great fun using the safety harpoons for play-fighting.

One of the most successful safety harpoon companies was the Norton Edward Rodgers Foundry. Originally, this company operated a blacksmithy oriented at making products for New England fisherman. During the late 19th century, the company transitioned into making safety harpoons exclusively. Eventually, it expanded into making toy weapons of all sorts.

The company still exists today—albeit under a much more familiar name. That name? It was derived from the initials of the original Norton Edward Rodgers Foundry, of course: NERF.

The Truth

The truth is a funny object. It is long and flat and no one knows what it looks like on the inside. Turn it around in your fingers and you’ll see it shimmer like bright hot beads or crystals in the sand. Sniff it and you’ll get a whiff of something green and slimy, like a pickled eyeball. Lick it and it’ll be incredibly salty, like— well, like a pickled eyeball, I guess. Most things in life are like pickled eyeballs, I guess. The truth is no exception, I guess.

Call Me Moby

I started reading Moby-Dick, and I am going to (sort of) try and blog along as I read it. I have an “official” Tumblr for the project, but I am going to reproduce the first post of the project here for your reading pleasure.

We must, of course, begin at the beginning.

Herman Melville’s masterpiece, famous as it is, is probably most famous for its opening line, one of the best-known opening lines in all of American literature:

“Call me Ish—


Wait, what?

(Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)




I guess Mr. Melville is gonna dick us around a bit with some prefatory material. Fine. I’m game. What have you got?

The pale Usher—threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.

This is book is crazy! This book is already crazy. Melville is cracking open the authorial first person so that he can personally tell us about a nameless existentialist schoolmaster who has a thing for dusting and maritime etymology. Sure! Why not.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I genuinely pity any teacher who has to teach this book to a class full of high school students. Not only does it have the word “Dick” in the title, but it also manages to hit the words “queer” and “gay” in sentence #2 of the preface.

And but so the etymologies we get from Melville here are pretty cool. We kick things off with a nice reference to Richard Hakluyt, who was basically 16th century England’s version of Don Draper, except instead of slide projectors he advertised the New World.1 Then there’s a quote from trusty old Webster’s, followed by one from the perhaps-less-trusty but equally-as-old Richardson’s.

This piqued my curiosity, so I looked up Charles Richardson on Wikipedia: he was an English philologist and lexicographer of the 19th century. Then I immediately closed the page, because I realized I was on the verge of falling into the enormous rat-hole that is the history of English lexicography. While potentially interesting, this diversion would be basically counterproductive to my primary aim: reading Moby-Dick.

Suffice it to say, a very great many people have felt (and continue to feel) very strongly about what makes a word a word in English, and how exactly to list those words in the dictionary. If you want more information on the topic, I’d highly recommend The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch.

On the topic of whales and old dictionaries, however, I’d like to point out a really cool resource I came upon recently: an online searchable version of Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, including both the 1828 and 1913 editions.

You may ask why anyone would want to bother with a couple of weird, old, outdated dictionaries. Well! Where you say “weird”, I say “classy”. Where you say “old”, I say “super classy”. Instead of “outdated”, I say “classy-as-balls”.2 If you’ve made it this far into my essay concerning the “ETYMOLOGY” section of Moby-Dick, you’re probably someone who things weird, old, outdated things are actually pretty cool.

But here’s some proof. The definition of “whale”, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary that’s built into OS X:

whale 1 |(h)wāl| – a very large marine mammal with a streamlined hairless body, a horizontal tail fin, and a blowhole on top of the head for breathing.

Fine. But now let’s check out Webster’s circa 1828:

WHALE, n. [G., to stir, agitate or rove.] The general name of an order of animals inhabiting the ocean, arranged in zoology under the name of Cete or Cetacea, and belonging to the class Mammalia in the Linnean system. The common whale is of the genus Balaena. It is the largest animal of which we have any account, and probably the largest in the world. It is sometimes ninety feet in length in the northern seas, and in the torrid zone much larger. The whale furnishes us with oil, whalebone, &c. [See Cachalot.]

Holy moley! It’s like a little encyclopedia entry!

Instead of the streamlined, hairless prose of the NOAD, you get some honest-to-god personality. It’s like you’re talking to a fusty old academician. He hedges (“of which we have any account”), speculates ( “probably the largest in the world”), even throws in a bit of poetic language (“torrid zone”). There are also great sprinkles of old-tyme life (“The whale furnishes us with oil, whalebone”). And he uses “&c.” instead of “etc.”, which is totally outdated.

Anyway, the resource is there if you want it.

Back to Melville. Since I’ve gone on long enough already, I’ll let the etymologies be; you can ponder them yourself. Instead, I’ll just finish up by making two comments on the heterogloss of “whale” we get at the end of this mini-preface:

  1. “Fiji” is spelled as “Fegee”, which is delightful.
  2. I bet Mr. Melville thought he was pretty honking impressive by breaking out Erromangoan on us. But GUESS WHAT, Herman—there are FOUR LANGUAGES in the Erromangoan family. So which one didja mean? Huh? Sie? Or the moribund Ura? Huh? Maybe it was one of the extinct ones (Utaha or Sorung) (which maybe weren’t quite so extinct when this book was written)?

Huh? HUH??


Sorry about that. I probably shouldn’t antagonize our pal Herman here quite so much. There’s a lot of book to go.

Anyway, next post, we’ll actually be able to begin the novel proper! Huzzah huzzah—

Wait, what’s that?


Ah, crud.

  1. Fine—not actually like Don Draper at all.
  2. “a couple of classy, super classy, classy-as-balls dictionaries”

Five Year Update

Dear all,

It’s great to hear about everyone’s lives since graduation! I guess now it’s my turn to give an update. Unfortunately, I’m not nearly quite so interesting as all you are. I’m not off doing field work in South Asia (sounds amazing, Francesca!), or working on a cure for cancer (your research is way over my head, Ari, but please mention me in your Nobel speech when you win). But I’m chugging along, making do as I can.

As many of you know, I came out to San Francisco right after graduation, to work at a little startup out here. You may have heard of it: we’re called ToneBuildr, and we make online music software. You go to the site, make music, share it with friends. Pretty cool stuff. I’ve learned a ton since I’ve come out here. Over the years, I’ve worked my way up from a newbie engineer to head of the frontend product. I’m pretty proud of everything we’ve worked on, and we’ve built a really amazing team!

Of course, there’s more to life than work (contrary to popular belief! ;). My main hobby in that department has been trying to climb to the moon on a ladder. I’ve been peripherally interested in climbing to the moon on a ladder for a long time, but I really picked up interest in it just these past two or three years. Honestly, it’s actually kind of overtaken my life—in the best way possible! I’ve met the coolest people doing it, and learned a ton in the process.

Like, there’s a TON to know about ladders. Climbing to the moon on a ladder might not be rocket science, but—well, Max, you probably deal with this stuff every now and again over at JPL, right? It not nearly so easy as it sounds. Stuff like how to best join ladder rungs to the rails, how to get the most tensile strength for your buck, or the best color of paint to use. Really complex stuff. It keeps my brain going, though, which I love, especially when I’m feeling fried from staring at a computer screen all day.

And trying to climb to the moon on a ladder has definitely been keeping me in shape, too. I’ve been training every day for the climb up to the moon. I still have a few kinks to work out in the ladder, but I figure you can’t really start training too soon: the moon’s quite a climb, after all! Just like Kacey’s been building up to her ultramarathon with those crazy-sounding runs, I definitely don’t want to be faced with the big 240,000 mile climb to the moon without having prepared a bit. It’s a bit hard to find places to train, but after a lot of cajoling, I’ve managed to get the SFFD to help me out.

Which brings me to the relationships! Man, those fire department guys are the best. When I told them that I was trying to climb to the moon on a ladder, their eyes lit up and they seemed super psyched to help me out. One of the other guys, Tony, is training to climb to the moon on a ladder with me; we keep joking how once my ladder’s ready, he’ll race me up to the top. Which is ridiculous, because how can two people race on one ladder? Tony really cracks me up.

And trying to climb to the moon on a ladder has been amazing in one other way: it’s how I met Amanda! We met at TechShop while I was working on MoonLadder Mark VII™ (that’s what I’m calling the ladders that I’m building to climb to the moon on; I’m on Mark XIV™ now). The rest is history! We’ve been together for eight months now, and things are going super well. We’re probably going to move in together once her lease is up in a couple of months. By that time I’m pretty sure I’ll finish my ladder to the moon, and will be getting ready for the big climb.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on for way too long. As you can tell, once you get me going on how I’m going to climb to the moon on a big freakin’ ladder, it’s kind of tough to get me to stop. But hey, if Jamie can go on for pages about teaching underprivileged schoolchildren in rural Louisiana, I feel like I’m allowed to go on for a bit about how I’m going to climb on a ladder of my own construction to the moon. (Just kidding, Jamie! It’s super amazing to hear what you’re doing.)

It’s been so great to hear from all of you! I can’t wait to see you all at the reunion this weekend!


Some Thoughts, and a Metaphor with No Purpose

My depression kicked into gear about a year ago—to the extent that it makes any sense to say this sort of thing “kicks into gear”. Which it doesn’t. Make sense, that is.

So I’ve been wanting to do a sort of status update on it for a while now, but haven’t been able to formulate any single coherent idea I want to communicate. I’ve felt obligated to come up with such a formulation, because I am a writer and an editor, and my job is to pull disparate thoughts into a meaningful whole, to puzzle pieces of a jigsaw together so that it’ll match the picture on the box. But that’s not happening.

I think I need to let go of the hope that I’ll be able to integrate these experiences into any kind of useful narrative.

One small thing that I’ve found odd about my experience is that no one ever sat me down in a room and told me, “Greg, you have depression! I am diagnosing you with depression.” Rather, my psychiatrist just said she thought medication would be useful for me, and gave me a prescription.1

Antidepressants are super great. I don’t mean to be flippant about this. But I have not really wanted to kill myself since I started taking bupropion, which is a marked improvement from how things were before. I started taking the medication around December of last year, which means I’m pushing half a year now. So far, so good.

I can still feel dips every now and again. They’re milder than before. I know what they would have felt like a year ago, before medication—and it’s a little eerie, like being under local anesthesia and feeling the pressure of an incision.

The metaphor is not quite a right one, however, because anesthesia implies numbness. Here, depression is the numb condition, and medication has provided me access to a wider range of emotion, not a narrower one.

I feel lucky. I found a medication that works pretty well, with no discernible side effects, and I found it pretty quickly. Because of this, I feel like I’ve cheated somehow. Like I have just enough depression to be sort of special, but free of any truly substantive hardship.

I mean, heck, I never even got sat down in a room and told I was broken! So clearly I must be cheating.

Normally I’d leave the self-deprecation there—but in this case that would be irresponsible. The impulse to say, “Oh, no, it’s not really a big deal, I can handle it, my problems really aren’t so bad,” is a seductive, noxious one. It’s the same impulse that kept me feeling trapped for long enough that I got to the point I did. Which, though far far shy of where it could have eventually gone, was still too far, unnecessarily far.

When I was in my depression, I was convinced I wasn’t worth helping. And any time I got out of it for a spell, this became proof I could handle things just fine. In my experience, the space between depression and dismissal is very narrow.

I used to post stories to this blog on occasion. A few months ago I removed several stories from the archive, reasoning that I might eventually want to submit one to a magazine or contest. (A lot of places don’t accept material that’s been published elsewhere, even if it’s just on a personal blog.)

But here’s a fun fact: as I was taking down posts, I also took down the one post where I mentioned having depression!

The funness of this fact may be lost on you if you never read the post, or don’t remember it very well. Its main thesis (which I was admittedly kind of oblique about) was that the social stigma around mental illness is pretty fucked up, especially given that these conditions by their very nature make it difficult for sufferers to go out and get help. These conditions love festering in the dark, so why conspire to keep the lights off?

So: the post in which I disclosed my depression, and in which I also argued for the importance of more open discussion of mental illness, is the post I deleted.

I hope you can now see why it is such a fun fact that I took down that post.

Isn’t the fact fun? Aren’t you having so much fun???

Imagine a big pool. And to get into the pool, you have to dive in at the deep end.

Everyone is forced to go into the pool.

Most people can swim. For these folks, the pool is a lot of fun! They get to swim around, do underwater somersaults, chat up their friends, and just generally have a ball.

A few people can’t swim. Not through any fault of their own, of course. They just never learned how. But the fact of the matter is they’re in this pool and they can’t swim.

Now, none of the swimmers really wants to come out and say it, but let’s be honest: The non-swimmers? Kind of a drag. These people just can’t let go and have fun. They’re stuck puttering around the shallow end; or clutching at the edge of the pool; or faking it as best they can, kicking frantically, terrified that their tenuous buoyancy will give way at any moment.

Of course, the shallow end is for lame-os. Clutching the edge of the pool is even worse. And—ugh!—let’s not even mention those cheaters who are wearing floaties. They’re never going to learn to swim properly with those stupid things on. At least the people who are faking it are trying. Besides, swimming really isn’t that hard. You just kind of, like, kick your legs and move your arms. It’s actually second-nature. You just need to let yourself learn.

So the swimmers keep swimming. And the non-swimmers do what they can to get by. And occasionally someone will go under, and everyone will look and shake their heads and comment briefly on what a tragedy it all is. Certainly we can all agree on that. Certainly it’s a downright shame.

And then it’s back to swimming.

  1. I mean, there was more to it than that. I talked to her about all sorts of stuff. What I am trying to say in this footnote is that I feel like my psychiatrist knows what she is doing, is a responsible professional, &c.