What I’ve Been Writing and Reading: July 2021

Here’s how fast feelings about the pandemic have changed in my peer group over the past month: About a month ago, I rented a karaoke room for the evening of July 31st. I figured a room for 15 people, max, would be enough, and I was looking forward to singing karaoke for three uninterrupted hours with my vaccinated friends again. I love karaoke, but it is the single most pandemic-unfriendly activity that I enjoy, and so it has been entirely off the table for a year and a half.

Then, I reached out to friends. Many were enthusiastic but some were nervous about the idea of karaoke-ing again—particularly the friends with children who were below vaccination age. A dinner party I was invited to was abruptly canceled over similar fears. All totally understandable. I decided to change my reservation to a smaller party—I figured a room with a minimum of five and a maximum of nine would do it. 

Then, King County’s health officer announced that everyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, should wear masks indoors. (Frustratingly, it’s just a recommendation and not a mandate. If we’ve learned one thing over the last 18 months, it should be that policies need to have consequences, or else the majority of people will ignore them.) One of the two couples I had invited (also understandably) dropped out over fears of breakthrough cases and the delta variant. I decided to withdraw the invitation from the other couple because I felt like my invitation to a night of revelry was instead placing them in a complex moral quandary between the limits of friendship and public health.

Please don’t think that I’m complaining about the fact that a karaoke night got canceled—I am healthy, my friends are healthy, we’ll see each other again in safe outdoor settings over the next few months, and I am so grateful for all that. I know that millions of people have suffered in ways that I can’t even fathom over the last 18 months.

But I do think it’s remarkable that in four weeks, we’ve basically lost the progress that we had been making for the most of this year, largely because people have refused to get vaccinated and certain businesses (Fox News and Facebook) have decided that it’s more important to make a ton of money off anti-vaxx fears than it is to responsibly reopen society. I’m most furious at Fox and Facebook, of course, but I’m also angry at everyone who thinks they know more than the public health and medical workers who have sacrificed so much to carry us to this point. It is beyond disgraceful that a sizable chunk of society simply refuses to stand up and stroll five steps across the finish line. 

Instead, here we are—back at the beginning again.

Find me online

I recorded an interview with the good folks at the WMQ&A podcast about my comic, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying. We talked a lot about stand-up, and the myth of cancellation, and how awesome comics are. It was a super-fun conversation—although for some reason I was feeling super-energetic and talking at 1.5 speed through the whole discussion.

Also, the gang at AHOY Comics and I put together a Spotify playlist for Snelson: Comedy Is Dying. There are plenty of songs on this list that were produced both before and after the 1990s, but somehow this playlist is the single most ‘90’s thing I think I’ve ever heard.

I’ve Been writing

In the Seattle Times, I profiled Magnolia’s Bookstore, which is a remarkable neighborhood bookstore. The books on the shelves change with the times, but Magnolia’s Bookstore thrives largely by staying the same dependable neighborhood hub it’s always been.

And in my Business Insider column I wrote about a new report from global management consulting group McKinsey that proves why economic inclusion is great for growth, and why the internet isn’t a zero-sum game. In other words, those white dudes who are positively terrified that their lunch will be eaten by women and by people of color are all hot and bothered over exactly nothing.

Last year, Kroger closed a few grocery stores in Seattle and Long Beach rather than pay employees $4 extra an hour in “Hero Pay,” even though they just announced that they’re giving a billion dollars in cash back to shareholders, with no strings attached. I wrote about why this short-term obsession with buybacks is making American business weaker, dumber, and more inclined to fail—and why investing in workers and customers is the right economic move.

One of the Biden Administration’s most powerful and tools in the war on climate crisis is…fiscal policy? It’s true, and here’s why.

I’ve been reading

For no particular reason, it’s been a big month for me and coming-of-age novels. I started the month with Heaven, Mieko Kawakami’s critically acclaimed novel about a teenager who is brutally bullied by his classmates. This one is critically acclaimed from just about every corner of the bookish internet, but it didn’t work for me—the portrayal of the bullying felt too passive for me, and it just felt like cruelty for cruelty’s sake. Likewise, French author Victor Jestin’s new novel Heatwaveabout a teenager at a family summer camp who is the only witness to a fellow teenager’s suicide, felt too invested in making the main character an unlikeable sociopath. Maybe if you’re into Bret Easton Ellis, this might work for you, but I think I’m long since over that bratty nihilist phase. Every main character doesn’t have to be likable, but both these nihilistic dives into how shitty it is to be a teenager really felt like torture porn to me.

One new-ish coming-of-age novel I can recommend, though, is Vendela Vida’s We Run the Tides, a story of a teenage girl who is alienated from her friends when she decides not to corroborate their fabricated story of a sex predator who harassed them on the street. I have no idea if it’s fashionable to like Vida’s fiction right now, but I’ve always been a fan: She is the author of many short, gorgeously written novels that hinge on a woman’s single moral choice, and she delicately explores those choices from every possible angle.

How had I never heard of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man before? The sci-fi novel is about four multidimensional versions of the same woman—one of whom, like the author, is named Joanna—who crash into each others’ lives. One is a strong feminist, another is a shy woman from an alternate earth looking to get (traditionally) married, another is from a sci-fi world where men and women are at literal war. The novel is a little shaggy—a good editor could have cut maybe 75 pages out of the book and given it a good narrative push—but it’s not really about getting from point A to point B, in any case. It’s an exploration of all the different roles women assume, and how those roles overlap in surprising ways. Weird, experimental, and surprising.

The Female Man was a good antidote to the audio version of Thunderball that I listened to earlier this month. The beginning of the book, when James Bond is sent to a health club because all the booze and cigarettes have ruined his health, is pretty funny. But there’s also a huge chunk of the book devoted to a thinly disguised rant about why women are biologically unsuited to drive cars, told in a such a chummy way that you can practically imagine Fleming picturing the reader laughing and nodding along with him. I revisit Fleming’s books every decade or so, and I cringe my way through them a little more every time—not a new or unique observation, but the diminishing returns are very real.

I wrote a little bit about Seattle author Peter Wayne Moe’s Touching This Leviathan in my Seattle Times column, but I’d like to double-down on that recommendation here. It’s a book-length essay about the unknowable-ness of whales, and it pulls together sources including Moby Dick, scientific papers, the Bible, and much more to make its case. I haven’t read many books specifically written on the topic of how little we know about something, but Moe does great work here on what would very likely be a fool’s errand in most other writers’ hands. If whales interest you even a little bit, I guarantee you there are three or four images in this book that will stay with you.

I picked up Léo & Colas Grasset’s non-fiction comic Dirty Biology: The X-Rated Story of the Science of Sex on a whim one day at Phoenix Comics, and I’m so glad I did. I like well-composed non-fiction comics a lot—particularly ones that focus on science, which is a weak spot in my education. This one is a beautifully illustrated and actually funny book about sex and sexual reproduction, from one-celled organisms to insects to fish to mammals. One thing I love about the book is that the narrator—a simplistically drawn outline of a human—is a total (nongendered) perv who is always kind of getting off on the subject matter. That allows the authors to make all the requisite sex jokes through an adorable and non-threatening mouthpiece. If you’re into explanatory comics, this is a great example of the form.

And the star reading experience for the month was Children of Time, a novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I loved Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, which was a sci-fi novel about the cascading consequences of our actions, played out across thousands of years, but it left a lot of people cold. I think Children of Time does much of the same work that Seveneves did, only more efficiently and thoughtfully—and it’s a lot more fun to read, too. If you’re interested in sci-fi about space travel, evolution, non-human intelligence, and what it feels like to come face-to-face with the consequences of your actions, you’ll probably enjoy this book. I just learned that Tchaikovsky has already published a sequel, but I’m honestly not interested in reading it. I think this book said what it needed to say, and I’m very happy to leave it as a stand-alone experience.

That’s all for this month

In honor of The Karaoke Night That Never Was™, I’m closing this email with a list of my ten favorite songs to sing at karaoke, and a list of the ten songs I can’t wait to sing at karaoke for the first time when all this is over.

Please note that these lists, and the numbering thereof, are subject to change at any moment, depending on my mood. Also please note that many—most?—of these songs are way beyond my vocal capacity as a singer, but that’s kind of the point of karaoke for me: It’s more about feeling than skill.

My Top Ten Favorite Karaoke Songs

  1. “Conquest,” The White Stripes
  2. “Ballroom Blitz,” The Sweet
  3. “Sucker,” Jonas Brothers
  4. “Mr. Brightside,” The Killers
  5. “Runaway,” Kanye West
  6. “Starships,” Nicki Minaj
  7. “End of the Road,” Boyz II Men
  8. “Grace Kelly,” MIKA
  9. “Patches,” Clarence Carter
  10. “Shake It Off,” Taylor Swift

Ten Karaoke Songs I Can’t Wait to Try When This Godforsaken Pandemic Is Finally Over, If In Fact That Day Ever Comes

  1. “Blinding Lights,” The Weeknd
  2. “Megatron,” Nicki Minaj
  3. “Land of 1000 Dances” Wilson Pickett
  4. “How You Like Me Now,” The Heavy
  5. “Way Less Sad,” AJR
  6. “Starlight,” Muse
  7. “Brutal” or “Good 4 U,” Olivia Rodrigo
  8. “Piragua,” Lin Manuel Miranda, from In the Heights
  9. “Vienna,” Billy Joel
  10. “Under the Table,” Fiona Apple

If you have karaoke lists or suggestions of your own, I’d love to hear them—you can just reply to this email and let me know.

Until we sing together again,

Paul

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