League of Enthusiastic Losers

League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.

As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.

The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.

There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.

Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.

Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.

League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.

The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi

I’m delighted to announce that my short essay “The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi’s ‘Summer Break'” was just published in the 21st volume of the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies. Here’s the abstract…

“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.

From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces.

In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.

…that’s a lot of material to cover in such a short essay, but I think I did a decent job of contextualizing the story. This piece of writing was intended to serve as an introduction to my translation of the story itself. Unfortunately, despite almost a year of constant work and the assistance of multiple high-profile translators, we weren’t able to secure the publication rights. It’s a disappointment, but I hope the silver lining is that there are plans for the full God of Bears short story collection to appear in translation soon.

My essay is available on JSTOR; but, since I understand that not everyone has institutional access, I’ve also made a copy available on my website (here). Although it’s unofficial, you can download a PDF of my translation of the short story “Summer Break” (here). Years ago, I translated all of the stories in The God of Bears, and the illustrator I was once planning on working with to create illustrations is Maru, who you can find on Twitter (here). And finally, you can learn more about the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies on their website (here).

Be Green, Do Crime

Despite my interest in horror and dark fantasy, I’m very normcore in real life. Still, I am willing to engage in civil disobedience in order to touch grass. If I can’t afford to live in a neighborhood with flowers, then I’m just going to have to plant them myself.

This comic received a lot of support when I posted it on Tumblr, by the way. (This) is one of my favorite responses. Kudos to my fellow urban gardener for the addition!

The Capra Demon Is for the Gays

While waiting for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel, I started playing Dark Souls on my Nintendo Switch. I’m not into character customization, so my Chosen Undead is the basic male character. I named him Tulip. I am very bad at this game, and Tulip has been having a rough time of it. Yesterday evening, for example, Tulip fell down some stairs and died.

Tulip is currently spending a lot of time with someone called the Capra Demon. The Capra Demon infamously functions as a gatekeeper who blocks the player’s access to the majority of the game. It’s impossible to beat him without knowing exactly what you’re doing or getting help from real-life friends, and the game makes getting help difficult for reasons that are complicated to explain. Everything about this game is complicated to explain, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I leave it at “it’s just very hard to beat this boss.”

The Capra Demon exudes Pyramid Head energy in that he’s extremely fit, shirtless, and carrying two heavy meat-cleaver swords in such a way that his shoulders are pulled back, his chest is thrust forward, and the muscles of his arms are bulging. I made a stupid pastel-colored sketch of him and put it on Twitter, and I immediately lost five followers. I lost five more overnight.

When I say that I hate Pride Month – and sometimes I do hate Pride Month, kind of a lot – what I mean is that I hate the commodification of queer identity, and I hate how this commodification necessitates the sanitization of queer sexuality. Everyone is happy to see cute Disney animals dancing with hearts and rainbows, but nobody actually wants to see gay people being gay. And the Capra Demon is just about as gay as gay can be, which I think is charming and delightful.

I know the history of Pride Month, and I know why it’s important. Still, I wish people were able to accept difference not because it’s fun or attractive, but because… I don’t know, because it’s the right thing to do? Because we’re not animals? Because we’re capable of moral reasoning and extraordinary flexibility concerning what we’re able to accommodate into our worldview? And I just don’t feel that corporate rainbow merch and police-sponsored city pride parades are really helping people outside the community understand that being gay isn’t like Christmas, meaning that it isn’t a “special” thing that we collectively tolerate because it only happens once a year.

Like, being gay is being thirteen years old and playing Dark Souls because your friends are playing it, and then you get to this one boss, and you don’t know what’s going on but there’s just something about him, and the next thing you know you have your pants down and a wad of tissues in your hands, and then when you go to school the next day, maybe the way you talk about this video game character is a little weird, and your friends would never say that they’re homophobic, because of course they aren’t, but there’s just something about you that they don’t like, so they stop talking to you. You’ll make other friends as you find your community, but now you’ll have to live with the anxiety that there’s an element of who you are that a lot of people are always going to understand as being bad and wrong. Just like the Capra Demon is bad and wrong… but don’t his legs look fantastic in that cute little skirt?

I don’t really have a thing for the Capra Demon myself, to be honest, but as soon as I saw him I knew what was up. The Pride Month version of “this is for the gays” has become whatever sweet and wholesome child character is trending from whatever sweet and wholesome children’s cartoon is popular at the moment, but I don’t think that’s an accurate reflection of the reality of queer identity and sexuality. The Capra Demon is for the gays.

The Life-Changing Magic of Just Letting Things Break

Solarpunk Is Not About Pretty Aesthetics. It’s About the End of Capitalism.
https://www.vice.com/en/article/wx5aym/solarpunk-is-not-about-pretty-aesthetics-its-about-the-end-of-capitalism

Many solarpunks agree that the “punk” element becomes clear when they go past the movement’s visuals and into the nitty gritty. Solarpunk is radical in that it imagines a society where people and the planet are prioritized over the individual and profit. Of course utopian visions of the future aren’t new and art and technology have long drawn from nature: Just take the example of Belgian architect Luc Schuiten, whose drawings and buildings often employ biomimicry, where the form and function of organic elements influence design. The movement gained traction in progressive circles on early 2010s Tumblr, but as its popularity has bloomed over the past 10 years, early Solarpunks fear capitalist co-option. Flynn calls it “fake Solarpunk urbanism,” luxury condos with a green roof that price out existing communities and might end up doing more environmental damage.

This is a lengthy article with a lot of interesting links, and it’s worth checking out solely for the beautiful embedded video.

I think the emphasis on “radical action” might be somewhat misguided, though. My concern, as always, is the way anti-capitalist movements are embedded within the language of capitalism. Like, we have to be active! And go out and do things! And harness our energy as our best and most productive selves! I think this neoliberal emphasis on individual agency and power strays a bit too far into the territory of ecofacism, which holds that people who don’t have the skills or resources to survive environmental catastrophe deserve to die.

For me, the appeal of solarpunk is that you don’t have to do shit. You don’t have to work. You don’t have to make money. You don’t have to buy things. You don’t have to participate in “community improvement” projects. Instead, leave your job early and turn off your phone. Stay at home and chill out. Sit out on your porch and have a drink with your neighbors. Grass and flowers will grow in the cracks of the concrete without your help. All you have to do is literally nothing.

One of the reasons I enjoy living in Philadelphia is that it’s a very compact but very green city. The great thing is that it’s not green because of city planning or district gardening budgets, but rather the exact opposite. The city just lets plants grow, and nobody who lives here does anything to stop them. The Amish set up farmer’s markets on the weekends, and nobody bothers them. People sell fresh fruits and vegetables out of the backs of U-Haul trucks in parking lots on the weekdays, and nobody cares. Nobody chases away the urban outdoorspeople who plant gardens in the larger public parks. The city is covered in folk art, from Isaiah Zagar’s broken glass murals to the work of street artists whose tags are elaborate illustrations of Studio Ghibli characters. This aesthetic exists because nobody “did” anything to “fix” it, and it makes Philadelphia a comfortable and interesting place to live.

At the same time, a cleaner and more carefully managed solarpunk aesthetic would make much more sense for a place like New York, where “just letting things break” would result in most of Manhattan Island flooding in less than 48 hours. The sea level is rising, and I assume that the flooding is going to happen eventually, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have stylish vertical gardens while the city is still above water. People have to eat, and people have to live somewhere, so your rent might as well pay for community deck gardens and solar panels.

Solidarity with the Etsy Strike

The Etsy Strike isn’t just about the platform increasing its fees for sellers, although that’s a wild move for the company to make after bringing in record profits for two years straight. Rather, it’s about how these fees are structured to hurt small businesses.

In essence, Etsy is forcing independent artists to operate according to the same business model and practices as Amazon. The most egregious instance of this is the platform’s insistence that we offer free tracked shipping.

Shipping costs rose steeply during the past two years. The pandemic also resulted in significant delays, and the new regulations regarding shipping packages to and from the UK haven’t helped. To ensure “customer satisfaction,” Etsy now penalizes sellers who don’t include tracking on every order, even if it’s just a single sticker. In addition, Etsy is aggressive about its policy of burying the listings of sellers who don’t offer free shipping.

What this means is that sellers are expected to absorb the rising costs of shipping. We are encouraged to purchase mailing labels through Etsy, which generally overcharges and also levies additional shipping fees on the seller. To give an example of what this looks like in practice, an artist would be expected to pay about $4 in order to mail a $3 vinyl sticker. This is exponentially worse when it comes to international shipping.

In other words, this protest isn’t about paying a few more dimes to Etsy for storefront rent. Rather, it’s about how Etsy is forcing small businesses to choose between losing money or raising their prices to levels that would substantially decrease sales. Artificially inflated prices also effectively shut out artists and crafters who don’t already have substantial online followings.  

This is only one of many instances of how Etsy’s recent policies and fee structures hurt small businesses and independent artists. The situation is especially upsetting because it doesn’t have to be like this. Although Etsy was never without its flaws, the platform was relatively welcoming to part-time and amateur sellers, and this inclusive environment resulted in record-breaking profits for the company.

Unfortunately, this profit has led Etsy to consider licensing itself as a storefront for large international distributors such as AliExpress and Rakuten, who are already operating on the same scale as Amazon. This is especially unfortunate because Etsy forbids independent sellers from reselling professionally manufactured goods, thus creating a double standard that puts actual artists at a distinct disadvantage.

Etsy is a major platform for independent creators, especially as competition to table at in-person conventions is at an all-time high and platforms like Gumroad and Kickstarter are quickly losing their viability. Even if you doubt the efficacy of a grassroots strike against a giant multinational corporation, I think it’s still important to stand in solidarity with the artists, crafters, and other creators who are taking a stand against the entire online marketplace becoming like Amazon.

You can learn more about the strike here:
https://etsystrike.org/

You can read and join the strike’s Reddit group here:
https://www.reddit.com/r/EtsyStrike/

You can sign a petition to Etsy here:
https://www.coworker.org/petitions/cancel-the-fee-increase-work-with-sellers-not-against-us

ETA: I want to acknowledge that it is in fact possible to send tracked first-class letters through Pitney Bowes, which has partnered with Etsy to offer tracked shipping directly through the seller interface.

That being said, there are two problems with using the Pitney Bowes letter tracking offered by Etsy, both of which have been well documented, even on Etsy’s own forums. The first is that this option is difficult for many sellers to access, and Etsy Support doesn’t help with troubleshooting. The second is that letters mailed via Pitney Bowes aren’t directly trackable via USPS (or via the Pitney Bowes site) and seem to have a higher instance of becoming lost, thus resulting in sellers having to refund orders.

The Reddit group for Etsy is constantly filled with variations on this second issue. One of the more common of these variations is that tracking never updates beyond “pre-transit,” making it seem as though the order was never mailed. Another common variation is that first-class letters aren’t actually tracked, with the “tracking” being more of a delivery estimate. This means that letters and packages are frequently marked as “delivered” even though they haven’t been. Because sellers are penalized for not responding to complaints within 24 hours, the easiest course of action is to apologize, refund the order, and hope that the buyer doesn’t leave feedback saying that there was a problem.

In addition, the Pitney Bowes labels are larger than regular first-class envelopes. More “professional” sellers therefore use stiff cardboard mailers even for first-class shipping, which is an additional expense, as is a label printer. What I wanted to argue is that sellers shouldn’t be penalized for simply using a stamp and an envelope to mail small paper goods, and that we weren’t penalized for this until very recently.

I understand that this may look different from the perspective of a store with thousands of sales and a smooth workflow, but my sympathies lie with artists and other creators who aren’t operating on a large scale and don’t yet have the experience (or personal connections within the community) to be able to understand things that are easy for more established sellers.

There are a lot of nuances to this argument that I simplified in order to provide an accessible summary for why so many smaller storefronts went on strike. The point I want to emphasize is that there’s no need for Etsy to be so hostile to amateurs.

Like An Adult

A conversation with a friend reminded me that “self-care” means actually taking care of yourself at work. “Working through the pain” is sometimes necessary in special circumstances, but it shouldn’t be expected, and it definitely shouldn’t be the default.

Night in the Woods, Part Three

Night in the Woods contains universal themes, but it’s also specific to its cultural and political moment. If you ignore the context, you run the risk of misinterpreting the story (as I would argue that the person who wrote the Polygon review did). I’ve seen numerous reviewers and theorists label Night in the Woods as “cosmic horror,” but that’s not really what the game is about.

The protagonist, Mae, encounters two monstrous entities during the story. The first is an unseen creature that lives deep in the abandoned mine tunnels under the town of Possum Springs. A cult of older residents of the town have kidnapped and sacrificed at least two young people and one of their own members to this creature in return for a vague promise that the creature will somehow prevent the town’s slow economic decline from advancing. The members of this cult tell Mae and her friends that they’re getting older and would like a younger generation to take over, and the creature itself tells Mae that it’s been sending her strange dreams so that she would be more receptive to the fact of its existence (and thus presumably more willing to join the cult). The second monstrous entity is a giant cat that Mae encounters during one of these dreams, which tells her that, although it’s a “god,” it has no interest in the welfare of lesser beings.

Mae and her friends don’t join the creepy death cult, of course. At the end of the game, Mae explains that what she’s taken away from this experience is the conviction that, if there is no benevolent higher power in an absurd and hostile universe, then she and her friends will just have to help and protect each other while doing the best they can for themselves and their community.

I’ve read a few interesting theories about the relationship between the mine monster, the space cat, and several mysterious incidents in history of the town of Possum Springs, but I don’t think any of that is really the point. What’s more compelling than any of the elements of cosmic horror in Night in the Woods is the fact that the game is filled with commentary on large, impersonal systems that exploit hardworking but vulnerable people.

Mae feeling forced to drop out of college while her brilliant friend Bea can’t go to college is an example of this. Mae’s parents being afraid of losing their house to the bank because of a usurious mortgage they took out to finance Mae’s tuition is another example, as is the fact that entire neighborhoods in Possum Springs consist of little more than similarly repossessed, unsold, and subsequently abandoned buildings. Mae’s friend Angus was abused as a child, which was observed but ignored by his isolated religious community. Meanwhile, the pastor at the church where Mae’s mom works wants to open a shelter for the railroad drifters, but she fails to obtain a permit from the city council, which is afraid that lowering the property values in that neighborhood will fatally disrupt an already struggling real estate market.

In other words, Night in the Woods suggests that it’s not individual activities such as “going to college” or “owning a home” or “participating in a religious community” or “being engaged in civic service” that’s the problem; the problem is but larger economic forces that steamroller over working-class people in small towns. None of the people Mae interacts with are stupid or unaware of what’s happening, but most of them aren’t given any real choices. For example, Mae’s aunt, who is a local police officer, is doing the best she can, as is Mae’s father, who was laid off from his job and now works at the new large supermarket that forced the local grocery store to be shut down.

There’s an ongoing side story (largely told through optional sidequests) about the historical tension between the mine owners and the labor unions in Possum Springs, and it’s clear that the mine owners were evil while the labor unions were brave and valiant. At the end of the game, Mae’s father is seriously considering starting a chapter of a labor union at the grocery store chain where he works, but the game’s presentation of unions isn’t entirely positive. The unions are male-dominated, for one thing, and there’s a scene in which Bea explains to Mae, from her own experience, that homosocial labor solidarity lends itself to an atmosphere in which overt sexual harassment is swept under the rug. In addition, Mae’s friend Selmers, who started writing poetry as part of the rehab program she entered after becoming addicted to pain pills at her job as a pharmacy, performs a reading of an incredible piece about how even unionized jobs are becoming unsustainable in the face of global capitalism.

What I’m trying to say is that the “horror of an absurd and uncaring universe” in Night in the Woods has very little to do with the mine monster or the star cat. Meanwhile, the death cult of older people who will literally sacrifice the lives of younger people for the vague promise of being able to sustain an imagined standard of living is about as clear of an allegory of the months leading to the 2016 U.S. presidential election as you can get.

According to Scott Benson, the game’s writer and artist, Night in the Woods is supposed to be set in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, but Possum Springs could be anywhere, really. The first time I played the game, I thought it was set in an area of rural north Georgia around Athens, but it could be anywhere – upstate Michigan, rural Kentucky, eastern Washington State, Baltimore, St. Louis, Portland, San Jose, Fairbanks, Cleveland, Buffalo.

The game is so well-written, and it’s so relevant and important. The scariest thing about Night in the Woods is the sheer number of reviews I’ve read that brush it off as a boring platformer with unexplained cosmic horror and an unlikeable protagonist. I’m strongly considering writing about the game for a professional venue, but I need to figure out how to do so without referencing (and thus reinforcing the validity of) these reviews.

We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy

In the spring of 2014, back when people still used Facebook, I came across a post from a male friend who was a grad student at a West Coast school known for its progressive social climate. He had put together a proposal for an event with a female grad student in his department. She sent the proposal to their department chair, who returned it with a brief comment saying that it was unprofessional of her to submit such a shoddy piece of work. My friend and his colleague therefore sat down together and rewrote the proposal. This time he submitted the papaerwork, and the department chair congratulated him and told him that their administrative assistant would be in touch soon to help set up the funding.

When my friend forwarded this response to the female grad student, she pointed out that, lo and behold, he had made a mistake and attached the first draft – the very same one that she had submitted the first time around.

My friend was upset, as he rightly should have been, that such an obvious display of sexism could happen at his Progressive Liberal™ institution. I replied with “I blame the patriarchy” as a comment on his Facebook post and then thanked him via DM for being a good ally and talking about this in a semi-public space.

I didn’t think too much about this exchange until I got a notification that someone had replied to my comment on his post. A white woman around our age, who was a grad student herself, wanted to let me know that she objected to my use of the term “patriarchy.” She threw the Merriam-Webster dictionary at me, saying that, if “patriarchy” is defined as a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the family,” then we haven’t lived in a patriarchal society for a long time.

I literally saw red when I read that.

Within the space of ten minutes, I had posted more than a dozen responses to her comment, each of which cited and linked to accredited sources of statistics strongly suggesting the male dominance of various political, economic, social, religious, and cultural fields in the United States.

When I came to my senses, I sent a DM to apologize to my friend. He got back to me right away, saying that my responses were important and asking me not to delete anything. I thanked him again and then took a nice long break from the internet.

I was still upset a week later, though, so I copied all of the text from my responses to that comment on Facebook and made a zine that I called “We Don’t Live in a Patriarchy.” Several dozen of my friends (and friends of friends) wrote to ask me for a copy. I also took copies from three print runs to Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago within the span of two months, and I sold out of all the remaining copies almost immediately after I put them on Etsy. I think I probably ended up giving away or selling more than a hundred copies of this zine, which I found surprising, especially given how quickly put together and cheaply made it was.

The world has changed since the spring of 2014, but not as much as you’d expect, and not always in a sane and reasonable way. I’ve considered updating this zine several times, but I always decide against it. The truth is that I dislike being angry. I feel like anger is a tool that no one person can hold for an extended period of time, so it gets passed from one feminist to the next like a baton. I made my angry feminist zine back in spring 2014, and now it’s time for me to step back so that the next group of young people can speak and be heard.