Issue 059
September, 8, 2021

Stupid Life Tricks

Third Kissa by Kissa, turn off your phone, just say no to jerks

Hello from the other side of summer. It’s cool-ish, the humidity is low. It feels like a big wet hot sick dog that had been sleeping on our faces finally woke up to go for a walk. We’re not quite ready to wind down the dehumidifiers but we can start eyeing those off buttons in gleeful anticipation.

I’m Craig Mod and this is Roden, your monthly newsletter that tries to never not mention humidity, just one of many projects supported by the 1,000+ paying SPECIAL PROJECTS members.

Kissa byyyyyyy Kiiiiissaaaa

This last month has been all logistics and wayward attempts to make progress on the next book (name to be announced in October?). However, the third edition of my previous book, Kissa by Kissa, is now fully bound and wrapped and is being logged at the distribution center. I swung by the binder last week and was able to witness the care and attention being paid to every single copy; they rigged up a couple jigs in order to meet my (kinda annoying) one-millimeter specifications for margins and cover overlay. Every copy is handbound. Needless to say, the books look and feel amazing, and lay flat effortlessly thanks to the switch to a swiss-style binding. I’m very excited about this edition. I learn more with each iteration, am able to work with ever more talented, caring people. It feels good and I’m glad to be able to share this with you all.

I’m going to run a members-only livestream video session this weekend, hacking together a little edit of the production process of this third edition.

This edition will be 1,000 copies. $95 + shipping, as usual (we use DHL, tracked and it usually arrives ~3 days of ordering anywhere in the world). There are currently 616 people on the wait list. Yearly SPECIAL PROJECTS members will be first to be notified when it’s available for sale later this month, and will also get a $40-off coupon (Monthly members can upgrade to Yearly and get the coupon). I’ll give members a twelve hour head start to grab copies and will then notify the wait list. And then announce more broadly. I don’t think it will sell out, but then again I didn’t think the first edition would sell out, either, and it did in two days. If you’d like to get one for the holiday season, this is probably the time to grab it. Launching later this month! Thanks, as always, for your support.

Tabitha Soren’s Surface Tension

Photography Stuff

I significantly expanded my previous short review of Teju Cole’s Golden Apple of the Sun, looking at his full body of photographs+words book work.

The always excellent Jia Tolentino (you have read her essay collection, Trick Mirror, right?!) has a great piece on Tabitha Soren’s “Surface Tension” series. The opening is critical:

A few days ago, I picked up my phone and, in the course of about a minute, looked at a photo of my fat-cheeked baby giggling in a wading pool, a closeup shot of a fan-tailed songbird, a video of hundreds of desperate people waiting for a disappearing chance to exit a nightmare, a paragraph in a news story about a mother of five who died in a flood, a digital rendering of a blue sunset on a planet near the edge of our solar system, a video of a bikini-clad influencer begging her followers to save the coral reef, a text from a friend who was mad at herself for starting another argument with an anti-vaxxer, and a recipe for cold tomato-cilantro soup.

Our phones are hotzones of blarg-miasma which we’ve slowly been inhaling for a decade+. Soren’s photos (one at the top of this section) are gorgeous responses to the nonsensical and mystical ability of these devices to transport us to all tragedy at any moment. Produced using finger-grease-smudged iPads, photographed using a large format camera, the images become otherworldly. I love them.

Somewhat related, this Aziz Ansari interview from 2017 (!!) talks about his total unplugging from the internet:

He’s off social media. He deleted the Internet browser from his phone and laptop. No e-mail, either. Technologically speaking, he’s living in, like, 1999.

Which is, honestly, as far as I’m concerned, the way to go if you want to do deep work (creative, scientific, political, whatever). It’s astounding how we continually set ourselves up for failure by maintaining direct access to brainmush. It’s like littering your house with Twizzlers and Peppermint Patties while doing keto — there’s no need, you ain’t the Dalai Lama. You can opt out.

I also think the oft bandied about trope that: to disengage with social media is to retreat to some bourgeoisie bubble of privileged la-la-la-I’m-not-listening, is not only nonsense, but a dangerous framing. In fact, the main beneficiaries of staying with your eyes glued to the Doom Stream are the companies producing the streams. That’s why they’re so seductive. (Not because the streams are righteous, but because the streams are super duper profitable; the paperclip machine will make paperclips at all costs, will enchant you into the Church of Paperclip.) The greatest trick modern internet giants played on us was making us believe that political engagement — to be an ally, as it were — requires sacrificing our own health (physical and mental). When, in fact, the most capable (and, paradoxically, tuned into the world) and tangibly influential folk I know are those disengaged from that dopamine-cortisol loop.

Anyway, that Jia piece and the Aziz interview and a conversation with a bud the other night shook all this loose. Related reading from my essay archive: “The Glorious, Almost-Disconnected Boredom of My Walk in Japan” and “How I Got My Attention Back.”

In more prosaic news, Fuji just released a new, pretty dang affordable medium format camera: the GFX50SII. It’s about $4,000 bucks and weather-sealed and is a tool I’d love to take on a walk. I think the current camera landscape shakes out as:

  • if you’re shooting digital, it kinda doesn’t make sense to shoot anything less than full-frame; there are essentially no size (or even really price) benefits to anything smaller than full-frame when you include used market deals (I realize some people are extremely wedded to APS-C but it mathematically / objectively doesn’t add up; note: video is a (slightly) different equation)
  • medium format digital was always a bit a) too big, and b) too expensive; but this new GFX50SII seems to rectify both; I’m curious to play with it in person! And the Fuji G lenses look great (although the 50SII + GF45mm f/2.8 is about 1.5kg of kit)
  • if film turns you on, go for it
  • smartphones as do-it-all-and-do-it-pretty-well devices

Point and shoot digital have been (rightfully) functionally eviscerated as foretold by prognostications from a decade back. The film boom doesn’t make any sense to me unless you’re doing wet plate photography, in which case — YES. And smartphones (and I’d lump action cams and drones into this general space as well; computationally enhanced photography) are, to me, the most exciting of all. The only thing I care about on new iPhone or Google phone models are the camera capabilities. Notch, smotch. What voodoo dance are the camera sensors and chips and algos doing together this year?

I’m still shooting my work with a boring old Leica M10, 24MP, four year old body. But, wow, does it sing. It’s nice to hit a “good enough” point within the relentless forward trudge of technology, and for full-frame non-specialty cameras, I think we hit it right around the release of the M10. The dynamic range is amazing, the image quality when paired with Leica glass is astounding, and the battery lasts me almost a week of daily shooting. I love it.

Fuji is covered in snow, way ahead of schedule:

snow fuji

I can’t believe I climbed the thing in snowy off-season twenty years ago.

Film Notes

Cruella dress
  • Memories of a Murder (2003), is now my favorite Bong Joon-ho film. I was dazzled by the technical virtuosity of Parasite, and Snowpiercer was quirky and fun, but ultimately I felt emotionally let down by both films. Maybe ever-slightly too preachy? (Says the guy preaching about turning off your phones.) (Still: I’ve watched both films twice and felt similarly deflated both times.) Regardless, Memories of Murder shows off Joon-ho’s already refined technical skills (he was only ~32 when he made it), and the story is fascinating, and I’m pretty sure people actually got hurt during some of those fight scenes. I watched it on a random recommendation and was thoroughly impressed.
  • Cruella (2021) is, bar none, the most unexpectedly fun film I’ve seen in the last few years. It was a blast, all the way through, from start to finish. I watched it with a twelve-year-old and they loved it. I loved it. It’s a good example of a seriously tight script. No pussyfooting. Go go go. And it’s essentially a movie about … fashion design! I had a false impression of some lamebrained Suicide Squad type film, murder, cynicism, insanity, another two-dimensional anti-hero, zzzz; but, no, it was genuinely a delight in so many ways. Four days after watching and I’m still astounded.
  • I watched the trifecta of The Big Short (2015), Margin Call (2011), and Wolf of Wallstreet (2013) as a kind of finance bonanza. Big Short is a masterpiece; I can’t believe what Adam McKay gets away with directorially. But it all works. Margin Call was a disappointment; script and casting didn’t coalesce for me, and felt oddly paced, lumpy, it was a lumpy film. And Wolf of Wallstreet was of course beyond indulgent in run time and what they show on screen. It holds up. Last time I saw it was in the theater. Jonah Hill deserves a medal for his role.
  • You don’t need me to tell you this but — I did a bank run on Paul Thomas Anderson’s oeuvre and, geez, he is a surgeon. There Will be Blood (2007) and Phantom Thread (2017) are masterpieces. I actually had never made it through The Master (2012) so I went back and … HOW DID I NOT MAKE IT THROUGH THIS BEFORE. Does it coalesce into a coherent whole? Not really. But on a scene by scene basis it’s where I want films to take me visually and emotionally. The loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman stings all the more now. Joaquin is possessed.

One Dumb Trick

A general heuristic I’ve come to use to ascribe “value” to (a portion of) my life and work is that of: How many hours / weeks / months a year am I spending with people who truly inspire and delight and generate a mutually positive bump in ye old “good vibes” or excitement about life itself? How many symbiotic creative “partnerships” am I entering into? And am I at least maintaining / increasing that number of connections in meaningful ways as time passes?

This can be a bit difficult to quantify. More difficult than, say, how many bucks you got in the bank. Which is why so many people only use the bucks-in-bank metric for life-value measurements. Money’s an obvious measuring stick, sure, but also sort of weird because if you happened to buy the right jpeg with ten randomly generated words in Times New Roman on it last week, you now have a billion dollars in your account and so, now what do you do? (*whispering* Scientology …)

It goes without saying but, switching measuring sticks presupposes: Maslow’s bases covered. Living in a country that has a national health insurance plan and a functioning government and a stable currency and a population that largely believes in scientific fact gets you, like, 99% of the way there in 2021.

The corollary of recognizing that positive, uplifting relationships — with people who give a shit and work hard and like to challenge themselves and operate with a generally positive ethical compass — are the very stuff that life is made of, is that once you reach a certain phase of career / life / talent, you can very much choose to not work with folks who embody the opposite. Let me say that again: You don’t have to work with assholes. (Again: Presupposing you’re not living paycheck to paycheck in a country without insurance or child support or sensible housing laws. Presupposing a bit of wiggle room.)

This was such a stupidly profound realization for me. And one I didn’t come to until my … mid-thirties? I always thought you simply had to suffer assholes for the sake of “career trajectory.” Which is, yes, sort of true to a degree at certain stages in your career where you might not have options. But I suspect we tend to carry this idea forward a bit too far. I certainly did. I find myself constantly advising friends and loved ones (like some deranged life guru on mantra repeat): You are too talented to work with jerks. And so, I say the same to you out there: You’re probably too talented, too good at what you do, to suffer under an asshole or be abused in a work (or personal!) relationship. And, in fact, you have more power than you think.

You may be able to say no to a shitty contract and walk away.

If you’re reading this in your 20s, my biggest tip for cultivating more “power” in work relationships (aside from hanging out on the right Discords and buying the right, uh, NFTs) is to keep fixed costs of living so low you can say no to that bad contract without crippling yourself financially. Aside from when I lived in Palo Alto for three years (where I paid an unbelievable $1000 in rent), I never paid more than … ~$750 in rent in Tokyo. And, in fact, most of the time I was paying about ~$600. I was thirty-five before I finally felt like I could pay more without sacrificing my ability to protect work-freedom. (My obsession with maximally low-cost living was, most definitely, a pathology I probably could have shed a few years earlier.)

So — just a gentle reminder. Sometimes you can’t avoid the assholes, but often you can. And if someone is being a true dingdong to you, consider what would happen if you just walked away. Would the world end? Would you not have another opportunity? Often, contracts (legal or social) with broken people are the very thing blocking healthy opportunities. (I have now morphed into a fortune cookie.)

Political angle (why not): We’re talking broadly about worker abuse. Social safety nets — UBI, health care, child care, etcetera, in empowering the general population with the ability to walk away from bad contracts — disincentivize that abuse. A reductive example: when you’re paying for national health insurance but maybe not using it all the time (and wondering what you’re paying for), you’re actually paying for more general fairness in the general population. And that probably means you’re walking past calmer, nicer people on the street, and your neighbors are going to be a bit kinder as a result. That alone ain’t worth nothing. Plus, the generalized (lots of “general” because lots of curve smoothing) financial returns — to get cold for a second — on investments and business opportunities within the context of that kind of society are almost certainly higher than those in a society where everyone is infighting, eating pet medicine, and can’t get a broken bone set for fear of minor bankruptcy.

To circle back to the original point: Adding up time spent with people I am inspired by as a general life metric has proven invaluable. It led me to recognize the blocking effects of dingdongs. It’s also helped guide me in my work — i.e., What work has connected me to the most high-value Good Ones out there and how do I do more of it? ([ed: Writing.]) It’s also what’s made this pandemic so psychologically exhausting for me. Until last year, I’d spend roughly three months boots-on-the-ground each year with these folks I love, taking long walks, doing the symbiotic-inspiration thing, and, man, Zoom just does not cut it. I’m hungry to get out again. Technically, I could travel now but I’ve filled the year with good work to get done, and am leaning into that. But next year — I’m looking forward to a lot of walks in a lot of cities and countryside lanes with a lot of good humans.

Alright, that’s that.

I think I’m going to run a members-only writing diary for this next book. The idea: For the next three weeks I’ll send out a daily-cap of book-related writing / editing work to a pop-up members-only newsletter. A simple thing. A couple notes each day. (This is a good example of something I’d be reticent to do in a broad public way, but is fun and motivational in a members-only context.) Related: I’m going to take a Ridgeline break in the meantime. I need to be in full book mode. If you’re interested in following along, join up.

As always, thanks,