Issue 089
February, 27, 2024

The Beautiful Meat Grinder and Scarcity Brain

Thanks for five years of membership support

Hello Roden Subscribers —

Running a membership program feels like sticking your head in a meat grinder and hoping a rainbow comes out. It’s a slurry of vulnerability and hubris and insanity, and it’s also a bit — let’s be honest — embarrassing. Please, you say, support my work? In the humble tone of a supplicant. #grateful Oops — there goes your ego, along with your head, into the grinder.

I’ve been running SPECIAL PROJECTS for five years and while I can’t say it feels any less awkward to ask folks to “support my work,” I can say it “works.” (The asking, the support.) And while the production of rainbows is debatable, the production of an incredible collection of creative stuff, about which I am proud (and without the membership program I would have never been able to do), is non-debatable! It’s there, the work, out in the world, affecting life.

As is my annual homework, I wrote up what I did — what was enabled by SPECIAL PROJECTS — the previous year. You can read my Year Five report here: Five Years of Memberships.

Add up all five years of reports, and you have a sloppy 30,000-word book about sticking your head in a meat grinder.

I’ve never really talked brass-tacks numbers around memberships, but my ego and prudence are both already rainbow grist, so why not: We sold over $250,000 of books last year. And topped it off with some $150,000 of memberships. I think this is … really good? I think this is … bananas? Remember: This is just me. I’m sometimes lucky enough to have an editor or photo editor or historian by my side. And I have assistants that keep me sane. But mostly: alone, typing and photographing and collating. I have but two books for sale. And yet they’re flying through the air all over the world. Last month, a bookshop in Manhattan sold fifty copies of Kissa by Kissa in a couple days and ordered fifty more. TBOT and Kissa sit in living rooms and cafés and toilets in some thirty+ countries. (I’m always grateful for in-the-wild shots. You can upload them here!) This is a system and business I built off the momentum and enthusiasm of the members of SPECIAL PROJECTS, the reasonable cost of living in Japan, national health care, open web standards, a safe & inspiring society, lucky access to great printers, and a shipping warehouse that was willing to take on a client who was just a dude in his underwear. Mostly, it’s built off your faith in my work.

What does any of this mean? I don’t really know! Time is passing, life is being lived, work is being done, and I think the aggregate is justifying whatever oxygen I might be sucking from our atmosphere. Practically, it means I’ve built a way of life, very much on my own terms, with very little compromise. Still: I suffer from some latent, unshakable sense of Scarcity Brain. As such, I’m often afraid to look directly at what the program is doing / enabling. Afraid to look at those revenue numbers. (Like some wave / particle curse, if I look too closely I feel they will transmogrify into Chex.) One example of my Scarcity Brain in practice: I’ve never allowed myself to spend more than $1,000 in rent. (Is that smart? Sure, when you’re 25 and make $18,000 a year. But when you’re 43 and just booked $400,000 in revenue? It’s probably worth considering how spending a little more on your studio might positively impact your ability to work. But Scaling Up fixed costs is like DEATH to the Scarcity Brain, and can be tough to talk such a brain into its advantages. When I bought my first Leica (the Q), back in 2016, I had a panic attack so intense (at having spent so much money on a single tiny object) that I had to crawl to the gym and run intervals to reset the Imp of Worry.)

And so my goal, always, is to defeat scarcity brain by simply honoring the original impulse: To find permission through the program to do the work. To make the books. To keep walking. To try and elucidate some process along the way. And to never gaze upon THE NUMBERS. (I only know those numbers up above because I am in Manic Tax Prep Mode™, a terrible Mode that I have to inhabit for one month each year, and a mode that never fails to trigger every single scarcity-impacted cell, bone, patch of skin, vibrating neuron, and toenail in my body.)

What those kinds of numbers above do enable, though, practically, materially, for example, is the ability to ship thousands of books in a very short period of time. For the launch of TBOT I had to pre-pay some $60,000+ in presumed shipping costs. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without having a membership war chest from which to draw. So thank you for allowing that (and much, much more).

Anyway, more important than the numbers (though the numbers can sometimes make real the other bits that are hard to “feel out”) is the body of work: Five years of walks, of essays, of pop-up newsletters, of non-pop-up-newsletter, of livestream working sessions, of board meetings, and two books that embody the types of books (in form and content and that deliberate intermingling) I’ve been trying to make for twenty-five years. I’ve gotten thousands of fabulous emails (and a couple stinkers) from all of you. As I mention in my “Year Five Writeup,” I keep a hey, you’re not a piece of shit text file (scarcity mind subversion!) and into that file I dump any kindnesses I receive from strangers. (If you ever feel the impulse to write something nice to someone: Do it.) It’s a potent thing, this 60,000+ word file. (And yet, I poked my head into a forum (uh oh) discussing my “Year Five Writeup” (abort, abort) the other day and someone called me a “huckster” (what did you expect, you fool?) and so OF COURSE one word is crushing the goodness of that “you’re not a piece of shit” file; but, I mean, uhh — I’m not out here selling tinctures of everlasting life, or productivity hacks, I like to think I’m running one heck of an honest membership program — if that’s hucksterism, then well, happily, huckster I am?)

So, that’s where we are! (TMI, perhaps, as usual.) Thank you all for your tremendous support. I harbor no illusions that I’ll have another year like 2023 — it was pretty special on almost every level. Maybe we’ll hit those revenue numbers again, maybe not. Members churn, of course (which is why I need to keep imploring you to join. But a surprising chunk of members have been around since the early days, and believe me, I notice / am buoyed by this.) Like I said: The goal is simply good work, more of it, sustainably, honestly and openly, a lot of it produced sitting in sweatpants. (Nothing feeling so divine as a good pair of sweatpants after a long day walking.)

How’s your 2024 going? January was mostly a month of recovery, as you might imagine given the end of 2023. My arm has recovered (fully? I am reticent to say so, and thus jinx it).

February has been productive (though I’m behind in everything; see: the date on this newsletter). I did a one-on-one interview for a magazine with the governor of Iwate (Morioka’s prefecture). I finished the “Year Five” essay. I also published a photo essay about my parents visiting Japan. Wrote a look back at walking in 2023. Explained my New York Times pick of the year, Yamaguchi City, which was listed at #3 in “Places to Visit, 2024.” And have been clocking three+ solid hours on the Random House edit of TBOT almost every day. (I find my brain maxes out at about three hours of “serious prose time.” Thankfully I can easily fill another eight hours of work each day with emails and other, less taxing writing.) Delighted to report: RH-TBOT is transforming in meaningful ways. I am more and more excited about this edition, and if I can keep pushing it with the help of my RH editor, Molly, then I think it will sit wonderfully in conversation with the Fine Art edition we (the SPECIAL PROJECTS “we”) put out last November. This was always the goal — to push the book to a place I couldn’t do on my own, with an eye towards a broader audience. It will have at least 50% more text than the fine art edition, new chapters, and more. Context context context. And history.

Recent Inspirations

OK OK — enough solipsism. Here are some inspiring things from the wider world I’ve recently added to my library / brain:

moonbound cover x3

First, please go pre-order Robin Sloan’s forthcoming novel Moonbound. I read a draft in 2022, and have just finished the advanced galleys and, reader — this is a special book on so many levels that I may need a fainting couch. It’s travelled far from that 2022 draft — in terms of rigor of story completeness, prose, hilarity. I feel lucky to have seen this evolution. Sloan has been honing his Sloan Voice (optimistic, technical, joyful, curious, a bit morbid) for the last twelve years and Moonbound is nothing if not the apotheosis of all he has learned, the height of his powers as writer and beacon of light and love in this weird world of ours. The sweep of the scale of the book — how it looks back on this moment in history (it’s told 11,000 years in the future), and how it sees our current foibles as a rounding error in the grander scope of humanity’s potential — is maximally inspiring (both in view and how this is pulled of technically, in the prose). Come for a blast of goodness, but stay to witness the expert crafting of imagined, very possible futures. And look at that cover: PULP PERFECTION.

Also, the bastard will send you a free Risograph’d zine if you pre-order. Just forward your pre-order receipt email to More details on Sloan’s newsletter: “Leverage.”

Patricia Lockwood’s perfectly insane Priestdaddy (2017) — 🤌. As Molly put it on a recent call, no one does sui generis sentences better than her. I had (embarrassingly) never read her work before her faultless recent London Review of Books essay about meeting the Pope. Now a card-carrying fan. And Priestdaddy is one of the pound-for-pound funniest things I’ve ever read. It deserves every accolade.

This essay — “A Patel Motel Cartel?” (1999) — about how Patels (Indian Americans with the last name Patel) run a motel? cartel? in America?

It was news to me that Moonies were behind sushi’s boom in the US. What a thing, cults.

Apropos of the whole Membership Thing, this essay by Rebecca Jennings at Vox (which everyone, everywhere seems to have linked to, if not read), was painfully accurate. I’ve still never installed TikTok. Not because I think it’s evil (though, perhaps) but because I know my brain, and I don’t need any other distractions. Fortnite with my stepdaughter (we are a cheery Battle Royale Duo, FWIW), is enough of that genre of distraction. I’m endlessly grateful that the SPECIAL PROJECTS membership program + email newsletters enable me to actively not need to engage with something like TikTok. My reach is presently really sweet. I don’t feel the need to maniacally “grow it” or literally dance for follows (which I know TikTok isn’t about anymore but sounds funny). That said, I suspect many of you found me through Twitter, which was invaluable for growing my audience (for growing so many of us Gen X / Elder Millenial audiences). I almost feel guilty for having been able to build my readership on something as anodyne and basic as Twitter. Text in a box? (In a badly programmed box, on servers that barely stayed up.) It was a simpler time — blogs and Twitter and a little Facebook, just ten years ago.

I started rewatching Girls and it’s still good! (At least season one, episode one.) Hilariously: Facebook and Gchat (GCHAT!!!) are referenced as things used by folks in their 20s. Uhh … my have times changed. I had to check and double check when Girls came out — 2012. AKA — just a hundred million years ago.

And let’s have a moment of silence to recognize that Google utterly failed to produce a messaging app that people use. (It’s almost as mysterious as the fact that: I bet almost none of you have an app installed on your phone that was made in Japan. How WEIRD.)

Fargo season five is a masterclass in so much. Juno Temple — fabulous, of course. But Jennifer Jason Leigh stole it all, IMO. Some of the most LOL TV of recent memory. And also one of the best revenge arcs. Bizarre characters that all earn their place. Even Jon Hamm was right at home playing The Worst Man. I watched the entire season twice in one week. I’ve never done that before.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: George Saunders is a magical spirit animal, and his Story Club newsletter is a freggin’ national treasure. This is what the internet promised: Folks like Saunders taking their kindness, their patience, their wisdom, and pitching it up wide and far for all to catch and learn from. Every year I get a ping on my CC paying for Story Club, and every year I am so happy to see it keep going.

Veritasium’s mini-doc on the blue LED and how Nakamura Shuji went through several layers of hell to discover it, is incredible. Most amazing, to me, was Nakamura’s schedule — he toiled for 1.5 years, seven days a week, taking only New Year’s Day off, iterating on experiments to discover the elusive blue LED. Then he found it. Won the Nobel Prize, and changed the world immeasurably. Almost everything we touch / look at today is blue LED dependent. Had it not been discovered, you’d be reading this on a monitor the size of a small oven.

Ian Frazier’s essay collection Hogs Wild. Every essay: YES YES YES. Funny, generous, smart. What more do you want? Like John McPhee crossed with John Jeremiah Sullivan sprinkled with some Sam Anderson. (Frazier feels a bit like one of these last-standing museum-exhibit writers of a certain moment, who were given carte blanche, from an era when magazines had surpluses of capital (advertising arbitrage funded basically all 20th century writing) and a darling writer could do whatever they wanted.

I’m still grateful at random points during the year for McPhee having written the Pine Barrens, but can’t imagine it being written now (well, not without the help of, say, a Membership Program? 😎))

Matt Webb, enteral techno-optimist and mensch, made a Galactic Compass. Neat. How he made it tickles me, though — a full back and forth collaboration with ChatGPT. All of my coding is done in VS Code with GitHub Copilot looking over my shoulder, and to say it is profound would be the understatement of the decade. I can’t imagine coding without this partner, ever again. These LLMs have many limitations, but their ability to elevate technical tasks is swoon-inducing, and I suspect portends their value in other areas. Beardy dorks try to underplay this, but straight up: Programming with an LLM is pure touching-the-still-unevenly-distributed-future.

This short, Death and Ramen was unexpectedly excellent. I love that the tools to produce films of this cinematographic caliber are now so accessible. Imagine trying to make this twenty years ago. Thanks, Dear Algorithm, for recommending it. (YouTube, it turns out, for me, is just an endless bucket of additive gems; I watch about 30 minutes a day and whatever Instagram Brain is, YouTube Brain is the opposite.)

And finally, somehow I had never heard of Black Pumas. Here’s one of their songs, “Colors,” — slyly a thing of transcendent mishmash beauty. (See, more YouTube algorithm love.)

Thanks Again

Anyway, that’s all I got. There is a lot on the docket for this year. Some big walks, alone and with good people. A trip to Yamaguchi to meet the mayor and governor. Wrapping up the RH-TBOT edit (probably the biggest project of the year — because it dovetails into a whole lotta promotional work in the second half). Hopefully launching Kissa by Kissa Japanese edition. (Fingers crossed.) I might have a … Japanese radio show (??) later this year. And more more more. All of it powered by SPECIAL PROJECTS (radio shows do not pay; nor do Japanese editions of books) and your kindness. So thank you. Five years dusted. Excited about the next five. (I can see the next five books waiting to be done, and so that’s easily … ten years of work right there.)

Finally, I’d be remiss not to put on my supplicant hat at the end. So: The best ways to support my work are to buy my books and prints, send me a nice email (just hit reply), or, of course, consider joining SPECIAL PROJECTS.

More soon!