My pole-star song for 2022 is David Byrne’s Here, the opening number to American Utopia. I saw it performed live by the show’s Byrne-led ensemble last week, after Amy scored front-and-center seats through a Broadway ticket lottery; “close enough to see the sweat”, as she described it to friends afterwards. I don’t think it’s too early to describe the experience as life-changing.

Here establishes the show’s framing metaphor of the human brain. The curtain rises on Byrne holding a neuro-anatomical model, and he proceeds to indicate various parts with his hands, addressing the audience like a lecturer. “Here is a region of abundant detail,” he sings, touching one part, and then another. “Here is an area of great confusion.”

Having seen it performed, several moments in the song make me shudder on re-listen. One is the moment when the first of the ensemble’s two dancers first joins Byrne on the stage, harmonizing with the chorus, and beginning the very gradual build-up of performers that fills the stage over the course of the initial numbers. Another happens at the close of Here’s second verse, when Byrne runs a finger along the fissure between the brain’s two hemispheres. “And here’s the connection,” he sings, “to the opposite side.”

That moment defines the show. Having lyrically activated the corpus callosum, the remainder of the song celebrates the brain’s cohesion into something greater than the sum of its parts; how the presence of that connection pulls all those sections together into a miraculous organ that can listen, comprehend, and dream. The rest of American Utopia frames itself around the idea of the brain as microcosm for human society, as a model for many discrete regions connecting to make something beautiful and amazing. Byrne monologues briefly between all the songs—a mix of original numbers and venerable Talking Heads favorites—to set them all in this context, and to share his motivations for creating a staged concert whose musicians are entirely mobile, playing only portable, wireless instruments.

Ultimately, the show dreams of Americans, specifically, finding connection—for all their vast differences, and for all that has gone wrong. (Among the numbers is Janelle Monáe’s Hell You Talmbout, protesting racial injustice.) And performed today, American Utopia quite intentionally challenges the listener to put aside cynical thoughts of futility and hopelessness, and to consider other paths.

Hopelessness feel easier to come by today than ever before, but that doesn’t make it any healthier to swaddle your heart in. I needed to hear the suggestion of an alternative direction, and a reminder that even when things seem very bleak, one can gather personal energy and optimism by imagining a better future, and moving oneself in that direction.

On the topic of connection, the show catalyzed something I had experienced earlier that week. Apple’s Fitness+ channel, which I have been enjoying for the past year, recently added meditation guided-programming. In one recent episode, the instructor Christian Howard leads the audience through an unexpected and difficult emotional exercise. Think of a person you dislike, and then imagine the child deep inside them that just wants love and safety. And then imagine embracing and comforting that child. Just holding it for a few minutes.

The point, of course, is to see yourself in others, to see a common, shining, most-essential core shared by all individuals, and to acknowledge a similarity even when surface differences seem unbridgeable. It’s a bit of mental reality-folding I’ve heard from gurus in the recent past, most especially in the writings of Alan Watts, adapting Hindu cosmology for western audiences. It’s all very easy to forget! With music—with the experience of sitting just feet away from those performers, a memory I can revisit at any time by listening to the cast album—I hope it has seared itself more permanently into my own brain.

I have found ways to apply Byrne and Howard’s accidental amalgamation of sympathetic optimism into my life, starting with my day job that sees me working with lots of other people carrying their own desires and directions. It has already felt like a breakthrough. Time will tell whether this lasts beyond the intrinsic novelty of a new year, but I feel hopeful. (About feeling hopeful.)

None of this is easy. Byrne’s show is a wish to apply this on a national level, perhaps a global one. That’s a tall order! But that isn’t for me—one little neuron—to accomplish alone. I’ll take the lessons and that fortune saw fit to provide me with in the first days of this year, and do my best to light up the space around me, and I’ll see what might shine back as a result.

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My 2021 was less about accomplishment than revision. Most of it was good, and none of it was easy.

Perl

My relationship with the Perl programming language came to an uneven crescendo last year.

In January, I saw the language’s new documentation style guide published—a point of terrific personal and professional pride, and the largest direct contribution I’d made to this technology that I’d built my whole career upon. I applied the energy from that win into volunteering to propose and lead a new documentation team, an idea the Perl project’s steering council approved of enthusiastically.

And then, as an initial action, I applied on behalf of Perl to Google’s Season of Docs program, seeking funds that would let us hire an expert to audit Perl’s documentation. It worked! And just before the year ended, we published that audit’s results.

In between these wins, however, I had to dramatically curtail my own ongoing involvement with Perl. By late summer, I found myself with a leadership position at my new full-time job, which—when adding in my ongoing IFTF presidency—left me holding three leadership roles. Wisdom will tell you that priorities are like arms, and so I now had one too many. I made the difficult and painful decision to step away from leading Perl’s documentation efforts, just a few months after hyping myself up into it.

I realized only towards the end of the year that part of switching careers means that your earlier career has ended. Perhaps I’ll always think of myself as a hacker, but I do not call myself a programmer any more. I have barely written a line of code in any language since beginning my current job, six months ago.

I think I’ll find some balance here, in time. I did write a little Perl one-off script a couple of weeks ago in order to divvy up some reading assignments to my work-team. It felt very good! But the intense, decades-long relationship I’ve enjoyed with Perl—and with programming in general—has come to an end.

Part of my motivation for writing this post was funerary: I wanted to publicly acknowledge this ending, and reflect on it. I can let myself feel a little sad that this once-central part of my personal and professional identity, one which I’d always assumed would last my whole life, has instead come to its coda. I hope I can look back on this time of my life with gratitude, and allow that feeling to suffuse my new and ongoing occupations.

Work

In January, a startup hired me into my first full-time technical writing job. It laid me off in May, at which point I was already seeking a position elsewhere. I found it a month later at Google, where I have remained since, and where I expect I shall continue to reside for some time.

Joining Google involved another painful decision, even apart from the ensuing need to step back from Perl documentation. Choosing Google meant declining another opportunity, offered by a good friend, to work as a contracted technical writer for a nonprofit whose work is very important to me. For reasons too complex for this post—and more than a mere difference in salary figures—accepting Google’s offer was my only rational option. I do not regret my choice, but I can still feel the hurt from it.

This career shift has contained layered disruptions: not only does this work represent my first truly full-time job since 2005, but I discovered only in August—two months after joining the company—that Google had hired me into a senior role, and expected me to organize and lead a team of writers. I like to think I rose to the call, which involved weeks of especially intense professional development, communication, and improvisation.

I greet the new year wobbling like a just-born calf: standing, looking ahead, determined to roll through all the tumbles to come. The tumbling takes place mostly in spreadsheets and internal task-management tools, but I have managed to author a paragraph here and there within the product’s public documentation. I hope I can accomplish significantly more technical writing in 2022.

Interactive fiction

At the end of the year, I discovered the joy of streaming interactive fiction, with an emphasis on reading aloud. The happiness this has brought me has only intensified since I wrote that post. I have put more time into customizing my YouTube gaming channel, and have announced an intention to stream games—mostly text games—at least once a week for the foreseeable future.

Back in the early summer, IFTF welcomed several new board members, the culmination of a long effort by the board to reorganize the nonprofit into a longer-term mode that requires less intense attention from a more diverse band of core volunteers. It’s worked out quite well!

This year challenges me to address the organization’s long-dangling succession question. I now have a deadline to find my replacement as president: due to new term limits we established, I cannot retain my board seat past March of 2023. I’ll have been president for seven years by then, which is probably around two years too many.

Setting a positive precedent of succession is a crucial hurdle for any nonprofit that intends to outlast its founders’ initial involvement. I feel like I have the resources to do this right; it’s on me to actually apply them.

Life

Amy and I bought an apartment. A first for either of us, let alone both of us.

Other

I deleted 40,000 old tweets, and declared that I’d stop posting freely to Twitter. Against my own expectations at the time, I have actually stuck to this. With rare exceptions, all my tweets in 2021 were replies, retweets, sharing media, or starting conversations with non-rhetorical questions. No more unfiltered top-of-mind babbling of whatever seems funny at the time (and which I might regret for the rest of my life, five years later).

I try to stick to Peter Sagal’s rules of Twitter: share and amplify that which informs or delights, and nothing else. This may work against Twitter’s core design of making people as “engaged” as possible by upsetting and infuriating them, but it’s the only way I intend to use social media from now on.

Did I mention how happy the streaming has made me? Yes? OK. Well, thank you for reading. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope the coming year has good things for us both.

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For much of 2020 and 2021, both of my home’s game consoles suffered from a mysterious and irritating problem: their wireless controllers had terrible lag. Switch or PlayStation games that required precision input had become essentially unplayable: I could press a button and quickly lift up my thumb again before the on-screen character reacted.

I’d occasionally research this issue online, but seldom found useful advice. (Even today, the first hit for a search I just tried begins by advising that you play with a wired connection, instead.) We moved house in the late summer of 2021, giving me the opportunity to approach the problem fresh, and I’m happy to report that I do think I’ve overcome it.

The two steps I took, in the order that I tried them:

  1. I moved our apartment’s wifi router away from our game-console stack. One of the few useful suggestions I did find online blamed signal interference, and suggested putting distance between one’s consoles and radio devices like routers. Setting up our new apartment from scratch made this option more feasible than usual.

    In our last place, we had very literally stacked our consoles right on top of the wifi router! So, we stopped doing that.

  2. I turned on my TV’s “game mode” for the HDMI inputs that each console used. As my TV’s explanatory text put it, this trades off high-as-possible video quality in favor of maximizing display responsiveness, pushing out images to the screen as fast as it can.

    We’ve owned this TV for a while, and I don’t know if this option appeared with a recent OS upgrade, or if I’d simply never looked for it before.

In retrospect, I suspect that the latter step helped more than the former; I well remember how satisfied I felt when I tried my newly configured TV inputs, and saw the screen respond to the controller with neither delay nor any detectable picture degradation. But physically separating the router did seem to alleviate the problem to some degree before that, so I include it here for the sake of completeness.

So that’s my very short how-to for this rather modern gaming problem, and I hope it helps some future person searching the web for answers. I shall now pick up Hollow Knight where I’d last left it off, some 20 months ago.

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I’m pleased to announce the completion of a new and thorough information-architecture study of Perl’s developer documentation, conducted and written by Khawar Latif Khan. This represents an exhaustive audit by a communications expert of Perl’s enormous documentation collection, which in the typical manner of long-lived open-source projects has accrued over many years by countless contributors.

Khawar’s work includes a number of reports and recommendations for Perl’s development team to pursue, with the goal of making the language’s vast and often intimidating documentation more friendly and accessible to newcomers.

Relevant links:

This project was organized by me, with assistance from The Perl Foundation (the nonprofit that helps fund Perl), and with the knowledge and approval of the Perl Steering Council (the volunteer body that manages Perl development). Funding came from Google, via its annual Season of Docs program. Google’s financial contribution allowed us to hire Khawar as a paid professional, a phenomenon seen so seldomly in open-source projects—even ubiquitous and venerable ones like Perl.

My sincere gratitude goes out to Khawar, Google, and the many individuals from the Perl and technical-writing communities who helped make this project possible. I extend special thanks to Doug Orleans for introducing me to Season of Docs at the start of this year.

I hope that the Perl team finds the work inspiring and instructive towards future development.

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Screenshot of OBS, with a Hadean Lands game set up for broadcast.

This month saw me bit by the streaming bug, playing Andrew “Zarf” Plotkin’s Hadean Lands for four hours, spread across two sessions. I set up a YouTube playlist that contains these two recordings. I plan to add further sessions to it, once I resume play after the holidays.

Doing this makes me feel very happy. I’ve wanted to play traditional, parser-based IF in public view like this for many years! Not only do I love this strange old style of adventure game, I love reading out loud for small audiences. Streaming lets me combine these while also encouraging me to actually finish some of these games. Text games often play a little better as a group activity, after all—especially the more puzzly ones, like Hadean Lands, where a few extra pairs of eyes on the action can help you return to details quite easily missed when playing alone.

It took me so long to finally wade into the streaming-pool because no inexpensive, Mac-friendly streaming solution existed whenever I checked, every year or two. But today, there is OBS, and I have to say that it is very good. I had never heard of it before friends with recent streaming experience unanimously recommended it to me, when I asked their advice last month. They were all correct: OBS is a best-case-scenario gem of an open-source, cross-platform application.

While its interface initially overwhelms and presents a number of rough spots, I nonetheless found myself able to speak its language quite quickly. Within a few hours of noodling around, I’d set up a basic “scene” collecting the three windows comprising a Hadean Lands session, all laid out and sized independently from my computer’s desktop view. I also made a handful of separate scenes, such as a zoomed-in map view for calling attention to my in-game location, and dropped a thematically appropriate NASA photograph of a lunar landscape behind it all in order to fill out the empty spots.

OBS hand-held me from there through the mechanics of actually setting up, performing, and recording my streams. YouTube is one of several platforms for which it offers a level of integration so complete that it helped me discover features I had never noticed through the service’s own website. I ended up attaching OBS to the YouTube channel I’d made a few years ago for dumping occasional PlayStation recordings onto, and that feels as fine a fit as any other.

I’m so pleased with the results! Other than some mysterious and occasional flickering in the game’s main text window, the problems that crop up during these first two broadcasts have been my own fault, all first-time-out mistakes. Both episodes, for example, feature my switching to the map view to discuss something map-appropriate, and then forgetting to switch back to the game-view for several minutes. Furthermore, the first episode opens with 15 minutes of dead air, and the second one has me unwittingly muting my headphones halfway in, resulting in my rudely talking right over Zarf’s guest author-commentary for quite a while before realizing the situation.

I apologized profusely to the author after that latter mishap, and thus we remain friends who shall return to the game on Sunday, January 2 at 6 PM Eastern time. In fact, I plan to keep at it for as many Sunday evenings as necessary until finally completing the adventure. And I reserve the right to keep streaming further adventures on Sundays beyond those, if it still feels good.

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Consider adding a guide to pronouncing your name to your online profile pages—especially if you have reason to believe that people likely to say it aloud, including those from other linguistic cultures, might have trouble with it.

I recognize that personal-profile real estate is scarce and sacred, so just as I feel about advertising your preferred pronouns, I don’t consider this extra work obligatory for all. I merely point out its availability as a tool to help people address or refer to you in the ways you prefer.

In my day job, I have the good fortune to interact every day with colleagues from all around the world. This doesn’t merely expose me to the brilliant diversity of human naming conventions; it challenges me to participate as an accurate and respectful invoker of all those names, in an act of fundamental office politesse. And in a related bit of good fortune, my workplace lets employees attach a recording of themselves pronouncing their own names to their company-intranet home pages. If set, this recording appears as an orange “Play” button by the employee’s name. I always appreciate seeing it there, especially before a meeting, or a presentation where I plan to offer a shout-out to a colleague.

I have used this feature with my own name. Experience teaches me that pretty much everyone gets “Jason” right on the first try*, but “McIntosh” often leaves people guessing as to the hidden vowel, and where the stress goes. Years ago, in fact, I added a pronunciation guide to my personal homepage, linking to a recording behind my name’s transliteration into IPA. While that link’s text might be a bit too obscure, I felt right about the link itself then, and I still do today.

And yet, despite what seems like obvious utility to me, online platforms that increasingly concern themselves with pronoun display give surprisingly short shrift to basic pronunciation. My employer’s profile-management webpage offers its pronunciation-upload tool underneath a set of pronoun-display options that take up far more vertical space, including explanations for their existence and links to more information. One can see a similar effect in tools like Slack, where administrators can set up pronoun display with a top-level toggle, but name-pronunciation is available only as a custom field—and thus, I expect, very rarely set up.

I suppose this is at least in fact an effect of novelty, what with the entire notion of pronoun display being only a few years old, and the conversation around it still feeling fresh. But its high relative importance versus name-pronunciation still seems strange to me, because pronunciation help seems so much more generally applicable for my day-to-day interactions!

Perhaps this won’t always be the case, but as of today, I can use various social cues and conventions to almost always correctly guess at a non-correction-worthy third-person pronoun for someone I have just met. When I do get it wrong, I apologize, course-correct, and move on. Those old-fashioned proper nouns, however, prove a slipperier challenge: one very easy for me to get wrong, even when they’re printed right there in front of me, and with the person’s appearance or other cues offering little if any help.

You certainly don’t need to use a fancy tool or upload a recording someplace to make this work! Any profile offering a free-text field makes this possible. My inspiration for today’s post, in fact, came from Quinta Jurecic’s Twitter profile, which (as of autumn 2021) contains a text-friendly phonetic guide to “Quinta Jurecic”. (The partial use of an emoji-based rebus, while non-standard, makes it especially memorable!) This sort of phonetic spelling is what I use when I email people to confirm my planned pronunciation prior to a name-dropping them in a public presentation, if I can’t find a recording or guide elsewhere.

You could make the argument that it is not a person’s responsibility to constantly—or even passively—teach other people to pronounce their name correctly, and that this is especially true when the name belongs to a marginalized or “foreign” person operating within a hegemonic culture. You would not be wrong! I would never insist that anyone do extra work to save me a little research. I merely wish to bring attention to the option for personal consideration, and state a further wish that more online platforms that center the display of names also provide tools that encourage mindfulness and confidence regarding the respectful pronunciation of those names.


* More frequently than you might guess, people tag me with entirely different names. “Justin” is far and away my most popular sincere misnomer. But this does not strike me as a pronunciation problem—and as I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, I feel too amused to issue a correction when it happens, most times.

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A comic book panel depicting two tiny, robed figures looking out over a fantastic Arabian cityscape.

My final Sandman post for the time being, having listened to all 25 currently published hours of Audible’s radio-play adaptation of this personally formative comics epic. (If they produce more episodes in the future, I reserve the right to write more about it. I do not foresee myself giving the same treatment to the upcoming television adaptation.)

As always: this merely records my own reactions to this dramatization of a personally beloved printed work, and does not strive for any objective or thorough review of its content.

A Game of You

This is the first Sandman arc that I read in its original, monthly, serialized format, rather than as a tidily bound collection. Like Season of Mists, I didn’t remember it very well, but for a wholly different reason: I never really had a chance to re-read and savor it as a whole work. Each issue ended up in the trash shortly after I read it, alongside every other used-up periodical in the house. (I was 17; I didn’t make the rules.)

Since I never owned the collection, I thought very little of purchasing a digital edition on Comixology before cueing up these Audible episodes. It took the work of just an evening or two to absorb. How much shorter it seemed than it did in my memories, where reading the whole work took half a year!

My confession: I wish I hadn’t done this, at least not before listening. A Game of You is a terribly sad story, the first real tragedy of the greater Sandman epic, with losses that feel much more profound than the gruesome deaths that pepper the earlier stories. Experiencing it twice so rapidly in two different formats left me utterly exhausted. My fresh exposure to the original material also made the adaptation’s divergence from the printed text stand out all the more, and some of these creative decisions didn’t sit right with me.

I feel a lot better equipped today to appreciate the themes of this storyline. Just as its title suggests, A Game of You plays with shifting, slippery, uncertain identities, both mundane and fantastic. Its includes a lesbian whose one-night stand leaves her pregnant, a scene where three womens’ individualty blurs as they adopt an aspect of triple-bodied Hecate, and an antagonistic dream-creature who colonizes and subsumes the childhood memories of unwitting sleepers.

And then there’s Wanda, a fiery transwoman who knows precisely who she is, but roils with subconscious anxiety that she hasn’t gone far enough to claim it. The radio play excises this quality from her, leaving her contribution to the theme as—just being transgender, I guess?

I understand the reason for the change. The comic explores Wanda’s fears through a focus on the particulars of her anatomy in ways that may have seemed sympathetic 30 years ago, but come across as distasteful today. In this adaptation, Wanda’s nightmares about operating rooms carry additional narration stating outright that she has a generalized phobia of medicine, for no particular reason. Her conversation with Dead George about the old gods’ gender essentialism remains, but with the dialogue rebalanced to give Wanda a lot more say, and to suggest that George is merely an ignorant troll rather than a truth-speaker from beyond the veil.

Alongside her neighbors Hazel and Foxglove, Wanda feels very dear to me. The three women may have been the first openly queer characters presented to me in new fiction with wholeness and respect, instead of an invitation to gawk or laugh. And coming in from a fresh re-read, I couldn’t help feel that poor Wanda, who already loses so much in this story, would have even more taken away from her by this radio play.

One particular change around Wanda felt particularly sad. In the final chapter of the comic story Barbie briefly humors Wanda’s aunt by using Wanda’s birth-assigned gender in conversation. But as soon as she starts speaking candidly and from the heart, she reverts back to Wanda’s correct identifiers—an act of love, more than mere defiance. The older woman, touched by Barbie’s sincerity, stops “correcting” her for the moment and comforts her instead. It’s a subtle, powerful moment.

But the radio play removes this as well. This version of Barbie doesn’t give Wanda’s aunt an inch, refusing to recognize (what we would today call) Wanda’s deadname, and pushing every wrong-side-up pronoun back at her—the way we’d expect any true friend in the twenty-first century to stand up to a closed-minded attitude. This makes a fraught scene much more palatable to modern listeners—and it’s poorer for it.

Look, A Game of You isn’t even about Wanda; my hangups about her treatment here are really just an expression of my exhaustion with the way I mishandled my own exposure to it. This story means a lot to me, and it’s so much sadder than I remembered, and the radio drama preserves that well enough that I cried a little at the end, despite all my misgivings.

Barbie’s final lines, spoken directly to the reader, echo profoundly through time, and through the three decades of lived experience that now separate she and I. Or rather, the kid I was when I first read her story, and the person I am now. She and Wanda and Martin Tenbones and all the others have been part of me, all this time, and that’s why I wanted to listen to all of this in the first place.


On the other women:

Hazel’s voice actor turns in a great performance, sounding just like I’d imagine her. Foxglove’s actor punches her up with a New Yawk accent which I did not hear on the page, but I will absolutely allow, and I hope to hear more of it should this play roll into Act III.

Hazel’s ignorance about how babies are made must make her look like a goddamned idiot to modern young listeners or readers. I half-expected Gaiman’s narrator-voice to wander in with a reminder that the non-existence of the internet only begins to describe the cultural and knowledge gaps a marginalized person faced in 1991 that they would not have today.

I really admire how the story presents Thessaly to us as a sexy-nerdy witch—the radio play includes new narration suggesting that the listener probably knows a Thessaly, all mousy hair and big glasses and art-history books—and then slowly reveals her as so witchy that she is no longer entirely human. We naturally assume her motivation for hunting the Cuckoo is to save Barbie, but we come to learn it’s actually because she sees the Cuckoo as a potential threat to her own unnaturally extended life. She does not care about any collateral damage she might wreak in her quest, and ends up directly causing mass death and destruction across two worlds—all because a bird looked at her funny one time.

On that note, and for the second time in this Audible-driven re-read of The Sandman, I found another Watchmen nod: this time, to a side-story of an unlikely friendship that forms between two (or three) dissimilar characters, and who at the height of their bond are slain in a stroke by an apocalypse pulled onto New York City by a monomaniacal antihero. Huh.

I just this moment understood that during their little moon-walking trick, Foxglove, Hazel, and Thessaly respectively repeat the Maiden, Mother, and Crone theme that echoes down the whole length of The Sandman—though you wouldn’t know it to look at any of them, as is the intent. Morpheus himself recognizes this, and drops a clue when he calls Foxglove “little maiden”. And that seems pretty weird, in the moment! “Maiden”? According to whose definition, exactly? Well, the same inflexibly ancient ones that wouldn’t recognize Wanda as a woman either, says George. All their empires long since reduced to the blowing sands that make the Caliph shudder, a few stories downstream.

The Hunt

Great story. I’m laughing as I type this! “Great story,” after all of the above. Okay. Well, it is.

Definitely my first encounter with the idea of Baba Yaga in any medium.

Given the adaptation’s willingness to sand down dicey language, I was a little surprised it kept Grandpa’s old-world muttering about Gypsies and Roma and Jews intact. But he also rants about Michael Jackson and so on, so, who listens to him anyway.

The Soft Places

As delicious as any other example of secret-history fiction found in The Sandman.

This story and the next one concern residents of The Dreaming passing the time out of earshot from Morpheus, casting wry judgment on his new girlfriend without dropping her name. Oh boy, do I ever recall the fun my online friends had speculating about this mysterious woman’s identity! An early and joyous communal fan experience, for me.

The Parliament of Ravens

So good.

With this episode and the next one, the adapted Sandman feels like it’s celebrating its own conclusion-for-now, having a bit of fun with its own theme song: this time, having it play from baby Daniel’s toy music box.

Little Daniel and Goldie cooing at each other in the comic is adorable but the effect here, performed by adult actors talking like pre-verbal babies, is just a bit hard to listen to.

Ramadan

A big reach here: this adapts the 50th issue of The Sandman, printed after the Brief Lives arc. But Act II clearly wanted to go out on a high note, just like Act I did, and we have to allow it. The theme song sidles in with a magnificently corny Arabian kick.

Ramadan might contain my very favorite artwork of any single Sandman issue. This time, I do not regret refreshing my memory first. Not that I needed to—I have much more clear recollection of buying and savoring this single issue in my university dorm room, years after A Game of You began. Truly a treasure.

My only note about this marvelous adaptation is its completely understandable choice to leap clear over a certain eyebrow-raising panel from the comic’s earlier pages, not even trying to retune its text—the only time the otherwise panel-faithful play does this, to my recollection. Unlike other omissions I have mentioned, this one does not diminish the tale at all.


I don’t expect I’ll have to much else to say about The Sandman for a while. I had a good time writing these last half-dozen articles. If they whet your appetite enough to pursue any of the referred work, I hope you enjoy reading or listening to it. While neither is flawless, especially as they communicate across a thirty-year gap, this comics series is very important to me, and taking in this lush and quite unexpected audio adaptation has made me feel happy, and fortunate.

Two comics panels depicting a woman dressed in a modern black funerary skirt and pillbox hat, standing by a bus terminal. She faces the reader, then turns and walks towards a waiting bus. A narrative caption reads: 'And that's all.'

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A panel from a 'Sandman' comic book. Death, smiling, says to Dream, 'I just hope you know what you're doing.' Dream replies, 'I hope that same thing, on occasion.'

Continuing my personal and subjective experience of listening to Audible’s radio-play adaptation of The Sandman. This post breaks into Act II, released in late 2021, adapting more than twenty Sandman issues from the early 1990s—including the point at which I first started reading the monthly comics.

As before, I aim only to present responses, not reviews. I do my best to avoid major spoilers.

Overall observations

Where Act I contains Sandman stories I felt deeply familiar with, Act II starts to cover ground I didn’t know nearly as well. Of the two major story arcs adapted here, Season of Mists occupies a liminal space in my relationship with the original comics, while A Game of You is both very special to me but also barely remembered, for reasons I will eventually explicate. I ended up preparing myself for the listening of either one in very different ways, which… well, I’ll get to that too.

A bit of self-discovery I made with this listen: I enjoy most of the one-issue Sandman stories more than any of the long-form story arcs. I certainly find a half-hour, self-contained radio play much more satisfying than an hours-long epic that spans several listening sessions, so I wonder how much of this reaction comes from the Audible production retroactively coloring my appreciation of the comics. But I feel pretty sure it’s true anyway.

The production quality of Act II suggests that the radio adaptation’s creators spent all their star-power budget on the actors voicing the stories’ fantastic characters: the Endless, the Norse pantheon, the hordes of Hell, and so on. But after Season of Mists, Act II largely stars ordinary human characters, relegating the gods, angels, and immortals to the wings. And with notable exceptions, the skill and range of the actors voicing these mortals drops from exquisite to merely cromulent. Nothing to really complain about—I still feel so happy this adaptation even exists, and produced amidst a global pandemic, yet—but still noticeable.

Act II also feels a little more free than its predecessor to edit the original material for 21st century decorum. Much of this happens around the ensemble of queer women who star in A Game of You, but all the stories seem to get a bit of trimming here and there. The rougher edges from the comic book that Act I seemed to take pride in leaving untouched instead get sanded down, here. I generally sympathize with these decisions, even when the changes left me aware of things gone missing.

Season of Mists

I remember how excited I felt buy to the Season of Mists trade paperback just as it hit the shelves for the first time in 1992, a whole year into my personal Sandman fandom. It would at last plug most of the gap yawning between The Doll’s House and the point at which I began to read the monthly comic. And: I read it straight through exactly once, and put it away. I didn’t like it!

My copy lies in an unlabeled box in the basement, and I found myself both too impatient to dig it out and too miserly to spend the ten dollars or whatever on a fresh digital copy. So, I went into this listen nearly thirty years removed from a text I’d read a single time, of which I only remembered a few scraps of content plus my overall negative reaction.

The good news first: This story rules, actually. It’s so fun! Because I came into it essentially free of comparative experience or expectations, I took barely any notes; I simply enjoyed this devilishly delightful court intrigue featuring a truly sprawling cast of larger-than-life characters. (There goes the acting budget, again.) It’s not perfect; I wasn’t comfortable with how the imprisoned Nada has little to do for most of the storyline other than sob pitifully, for example. But I did find so much to like, and quite a bit more than I thought I would, given my recollection of it.

My new appreciation for this story hinges on what I now see as a misapprehension I held about Season of Mists’s implications for the whole epic’s overall cosmology. Between this storyline and 1991’s Orpheus one-shot (not yet adapted by Audible), I misread that every being in The Sandman’s universe went to Hell when they died. I thought that these books wanted me to accept that each soul gently escorted away by Death, that spunky goth girl, was immediately hurled into eternal torment! That sat really poorly with me.

Thanks to this fresh approach to the material, I now understand that the dead of The Sandman’s world go to whatever afterlife they expect.* The shades filling Hades’s caverns in Orpheus are ancient Greeks who had no reason to imagine ending up anywhere else, you see. And similarly, every permanent resident of Hell died believing they belonged nowhere else. Season of Mists makes this clear from the start, and from many angles: the narrator’s description of the Infernal plane, the protagonists’ interview with one of the veteran damned, and Lucifer’s own monologuing.

Season of Mists depicts the damned as spiritual masochists, reveling in a mixture of justified hopelessness and the license to blame their everlasting misery on forces entirely outside their control. They certainly do not represent every mortal that ever lived; merely those who ache to feel their self-assessed sins scoured out of them, forever. They are having the time of their lives, in Hell!

An aside: How funny to hear a new, big-budget comic book adaptation prominently featuring professionally cast visions of Thor, Odin, and Loki who act nothing at all like their most obvious popular-culture representations today. This Thor’s horny, drunken loutishness can’t help but sound like a deliberate troll of the MCU. Of course, all these guys were Marvel properties back in 1990 as well, so Gaiman et al may have been tweaking the competition back then too—but the stakes were so much lower!

A more regrettable aside: The hapless schmuck at the end who, when faced with Hell’s surprise new management, whines “Oh no, it’s so much worse!” immediately reminded me of the guy from Rathergood’s (extremely NSFW) animated short The Wanky Shit Demon and I laughed. (This is one of the few notes I did take about Season of Mists. I’m sorry.)

Thermidor

I initially felt thrilled to hear this, quite sure that I’d somehow managed to never read the original comic—wow, a whole story about Lady Johanna Constantine, after her teasing introduction in Men of Good Fortune—but it turns out that of course I’d read it; it appears in the Fables & Reflections collection, after all, and I comfortably recognize every other story printed there. I had simply neglected to remember this one.

The Reign of Terror setting probably didn’t appeal to me, and the out-of-order way I originally read the early comics robbed the main character of any special significance. Similarly, I felt quite familiar with The Sandman’s Orpheus by the time I read this, so I never felt the shock of his introduction here. Only the story’s wonderfully unsettling climax jogged my memory, with Orpheus leading a choir of severed heads in song.

The radio adaptation fans its tail out a bit during this scene. Where the comic simply depicts Orpheus with his mouth open for a few panels while Lady Johanna adds narration about the mind-bending power of his song, the audio play has him really sing something lengthly, haunting, and Greek. As I write this, I do not know whether the song is original to this production, or if Orpheus’s voice-actor performs it—but it’s a very cool, surprising moment. And then the play reprises the whole song again after the episode ends, just so we can hear it unburdened with overlaid acting and narration!

August

A marvelous story in a wonderful setting. One of my favorites, and such a pleasure to hear acted out.

The man whom the comics introduce as “The dwarf Lycius” is here presented as “Lycius the Little”. Several other instances of the D-word are quietly excised from this adaptation, save one, after which Lycius boldly asks Augustus to call him by his name instead.

Removing the crass diminishment that characters throw at Lycius beforehand makes his retort seem a little less audacious than it does in the original text. While it doesn’t affect the story in any appreciable way, it does foreshadow the more complicated retuning that the adaptation will apply to Wanda in A Game of You.

Three Septembers and a January

Before this listen, I had never noticed the monthly progression—slightly disguised—in the titles of these three one-off stories.

This one’s another favorite, and a special one: the very first Sandman story I read. It happened to be the most recent monthly copy in my local comic shop when my new friends on GEnie’s online comix forum convinced me to give this series a look.

I feel certain that I hadn’t heard of Emperor Norton prior to this story, but I don’t recall ever feeling surprised at learning of his non-fictional status—did Gaiman mention it in the letter column? Did my online friends talk about it? Either way, my knowledge of His Excellency’s true story begins here.

Another notable line-edit for modern tastes: instead of dropping into velly solly feigned ignorance of English when an opium addict accosts him, Norton’s envoy Ah How now calls him a fool and tells him to get lost! I snorted. Good old Ah How, you tell ‘em.

Relatedly, the comic depicts Delirium as a Chinese woman when she drops in on Dream to describe her visits with the most desperate of San Francisco’s immigrant population. The radio play keeps all her dialog, but opts not to mention her appearance, even though it many times describes how Morpheus’s own likeness shifts to match his perceiver’s frame of reference. I can understand the edit, but feels like a cool little detail lost; I think it’s the first time the comic book suggests that all the Endless, not just Dream, have fluid appearances.

My thoughts on the adapted A Game of You, the first full Sandman arc I read in serialized form, will need to wait until my next post.


* Except, perhaps, for atheists; in “Facade”, Death tells Element Girl outright that the oblivion she craves is “not an option.” But Death, focused on inevitable departures while very uninterested in discussing destinations, makes this ambiguity fit.

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This article completes my notes from listening to Act I of Audible’s The Sandman adaptation, covering four one-shot stories that round out this production. As before, these notes represent my subjective response to listening through this new take on an old favorite, and do not intend to provide thorough or objective critique.

These four stories are collected in print as Dream Country. I purchased this volume from New England Comics in Boston in 1992, where I had it signed by the author and a couple of its artists. I was 18, and utterly unworldly. I had ridden from Bangor, Maine to meet these creators, and found their greeting genuine and warm, even though they’d been meeting queued-up fans for hours. Everything else about the trip was quite awkward, but that moment will always mean a lot to me. I am not certain if I still own the book.

Calliope

The announcer stating the title of this episode left me thunderstruck. Calliope is also the name of the first piece of amateur interactive fiction I shared with the world in 1999. Enough time has passed between then and now that I had forgotten any connection between this comic book and my embarrassingly dorky game, but of course one directly inspired the other.

Oh no… And I didn’t realize until literally right now that the plot of my later game The Warbler’s Nest absolutely takes inspiration from the upcoming Sandman story arc A Game of You. My goodness! Well, I’ll have more to say about that when we get to it.

Back to Calliope, the Sandman story: on one level, a rather self-indulgent tale about the pain of writer’s block, taken to horrific extremes. I loved an early moment when a fan, handing a bit of gnarly plot-device to the frustrated author, asks him “When— what do you need it for?” The narration does not spell out that he was, of course, about to ask “When is your next book coming out?” and then thought better of it. And then he can’t help but ask anyway, a bare moment later in the conversation! Fannish anti-pattern behavior written and portrayed with wince-worthy accuracy.

Listening through the stories in publication order for the first time, I see clearly that Calliope’s more subtle structure as an authorial do-over of the very first Sandman story, more tidily told. Even Dream remarks on the curious similarity, right before he gives the this story almost exactly the same ending as the earlier one.

As with the first story, Calliope’s villains have captured a mythical being through magical trickery, and proceed to pass it down through generations. But this time, they have a good (very, very bad) motivation to keep their captive locked up and abused: the desperate authors have enslaved her to act as their personal, literal muse, using shockingly casual brutality to force inspiration out of her. The wizards back in issue one, by contrast, passively held Dream in a dungeon for 70 years due to a mere sunk-cost fallacy. Poor Calliope’s situation is so much more terrible, and therefore that much more compelling.

Calliope’s trauma also echoes Jed’s, as seen in The Doll’s House, concluded directly before this story. Gee, there sure is a strong theme in Sandman’s first two years of undeserving people (mortal and otherwise) being locked up in basements and attics for years at a time.

The end of the story alarmed me once more when Maddoc, his mind sundering under Dream’s retributive curse, babbles “Keats’s biography—from the lamia’s viewpoint!” A spot of research showed me that Tim Powers published The Stress of Her Regard in 1989, the same year that this story saw print—so that line of inspiration, at least, seems unlikely.

A Dream of a Thousand Cats

I didn’t grow up around cats, so as a comics-reading teenager I didn’t understand what the wise seer-cat was talking about as she described her species’s natural ability to sense adjacent realities, sometimes tracking and stalking things in them invisible to humans. Today I’ve lived around cats for a good quarter-century, and I get it now.

I don’t have a lot else to say about this one. The radio adaptation played it just as I remembered it. An early fan-favorite story, at least among the online communities of the day. Simple and memorable, with a perfect ending that will delightfully poison the way you see every sleeping kitten for the rest of your life.

Facade

Perhaps the weakest of The Sandman’s one-shot stories, right before one of the best. The performers and producers do all that they can with the material, but it still took me a while to get through.

This story stars Element Girl, a D-list superhero from the late 1960s. According to her Wikipedia page, her Death-assisted suicide in The Sandman was the highlight of her brief, depressing career. Facade feels like the product of a comics writer wanting to take a swing at a superhero-deconstruction story—imagine trying to live a normal life looking like a barely-human freak, even if you did have mystical control over all the elements—using his established comics series as its vehicle, and getting permission to kill off an acceptably obscure character.

At least this gives Death her second significant appearance in the series—and arguably the first time we get a direct perspective on her work and her methods, instead of observing her by way of her brother. And, except for a fleeting mention in the upcoming Season of Mists storyline, I believe that this story represents the last time that The Sandman explicitly sets itself within the DC universe.

This radio adaption wisely transposes the original published order of its last two stories, so that Act I can go out on A Midsummer Night’s Dream instead of this dreary thing.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

It feels like cheating to call perhaps the best of the one-off Sandman stories, even though it deserves it. You see, nothing horrific happens, for once. We are invited to see a play, and we do. We explore layers under the layers, and none of them carry booby-traps to shock or upset us, even as we are surrounded by all sorts of narsty creatures with such sharp teeth. Audible’s adaptation preserves all the charm and wonder of the original comic.

Dream acts like a total dick to Shakespeare at one point, and Queen Titania’s wandering eye finding poor Hamnet, a danger muffled by fantasy and history, feels at least as sweet as it does foreboding. Everything else about this story is pure delight.

When I visited New England Comics that day in 1992, they had decorated the shop’s window with a display celebrating The Sandman—including copies of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both lay open at either end of the window, suggesting the display’s other elements as spilling out of their pages. Four more years would pass before Gaiman et al would see their own Tempest published, concluding the saga.

I wonder if Audible’s adaptation will get that far, having crossed the original epic’s halfway point with Act II’s publication this year? After those stories comes Brief Lives, and then we move soon enough into the apocalyptic slog of The Kindly Ones, followed by a lengthy epilogue. Close to a third of The Sandman’s total length is given over to chronicling Morpheus’s long-foreshadowed downfall, and as I recall, it’s not pretty. How will it play in the ears? Nothing to do but wait.

In the meantime, you can bet I have carried on to Act II. I will continue to post my notes in Fogknife, as I go.

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My employer’s New York City offices have started to welcome those who wish to show up in person ahead of the company’s mandatory return-to-office date, still a few months away. I initially poked in out of curiosity, and then to excavate my desk and get situated, and finally to figure out how the on-site dining options worked. This last step got its hooks into me; last week I showed up three days out of five, quite literally coming for the lunch and staying for the work. I have seen this effect spread; my floor seems a little more full every day, leading to the sincere pleasure of meeting work-colleagues in person for the first time since my mid-summer hire date.

On one recent day, I met three workspace-neighbors in a short span of time, and without thinking offered a handshake to each. In every case, a barely perceptible beat passed before they returned the gesture. This left me feeling a little awkward, aware of how enthusiastically I wanted to transgress against a pandemic-era norm. (For what it’s worth, this thrice-over identical reaction came from two men and a woman, of varying ages.)

And so, I made a Twitter poll, and I left it up for one day, and this is how it begging-your-pardon shook out:

Among twenty-five respondents, there existed a tidy two-to-one vote against the idea of shaking hands with a coworker, even if you both know that you are both vaccinated. This is not what I expected to see. While obviously not at all a scientific survey, these lopsided results still gave me pause.

In casual conversation around this poll, I picked up an undercurrent that plenty of my colleagues abhorred shaking hands, and that they have for their whole lives! They have merely tolerated it as an unavoidable social obligation, all this time. My friends offered a range of reasons, including distaste for a perceived macho ritual, the aversion to unnecessary touch that neuro-diverse people commonly have, or simply discomfort when people squeeze too hard.

I cannot exactly recall where or from whom I learned handshaking etiquette while quite young—and to be firm about it, like a man!—but I’ve rather enjoyed the little ritual ever since. I have eagerly clasped and squeezed hands of every sort, beyond count. And yet, before this month, I never pondered how many of these hands’ owners didn’t enjoy the contact nearly as much.

Today, I have begun to experiment with not shaking hands, instead opting for the little palm-to-breastbone bow—more of an exaggerated nod, really—that I took up over the pandemic. I’ve had plenty of chance to practice, while the office continues filling up. Most people accept this maneuver without comment, but I left at least one person awkwardly pumping a ghost-hand in the air, suggesting I should still read the situation a little closer and apply the old methods when requested.

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