My Brain Is A Lasagna

Time to dig in.

I woke up in the middle of the night with the phrase “my brain is a lasagna” echoing in my head.

Upon some consideration come morning it’s pretty clear what my subconscious meant by this enigmatic phrase. The sedimentary accretions of obsession built up over the past quarter-century of my existence resemble nothing so much as layers of pasta, sauce, meat, and cheese; varying in their taste and quality, but generally repeating themselves in a consistent order as they stack ever-higher.

Most of the time, I generally operate on only the top cheese level of my mental lasagna. But sometimes various external forces will slice in, surface hidden depths of past ricotta, and I’ll be out here thinking about Homestuck like it’s 2012 again.

The orderliness of the lasagna is an important element: as much as I may come off as an eternal dilettante, forever flitting from fixation to fixation without any seeming rhyme or reason, I’m actually generally pretty predictable. My tastes were fixed at a young age, probably around the time I watched Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy for the first time.

In college I got really into music & bands for the first time and thought I had completely Changed As A Person Forever, you know, the way you’re supposed to the second you get to college.

What I failed to account for, of course, was the obvious fact that I grew up around music, with a musician father, neverending music lessons, devotion to my favorite CDs, etc. Plus my obsession with local theatre company Starkid had more than prefigured my ability to get into Real People Doing Things In Real Life in a fannish way. It was really just another level of the same lasagna!

It is important not to neglect the long-buried layers of your brain lasagna. They are the foundations of your taste, the bulwarks of your very being. Just because they have since sunk far below fresher and more recent additions does not mean they are no longer worthy of your love.

Get in with your knife and fork one of these locked-down days and revisit the ground-floor pasta, the under-cheese. Yes, it’s a valuable psychological exercise in understanding yourself and your own past, but also it might be fun. Like, remember Neopets? I sure do. I’m pretty sure they still have those flash games up. I’m gonna go play some Meerca Chase.

Cold Boy Summer

The deep allure of the icy world of AMC's The Terror.

Here we are, in Deep Quar. This year is a wash, a complete write-off, which means that nothing matters and I can do what I want. 

In addition to taking up new hobbies I don’t need, such as roller-skating and calligraphy, and coaching myself through more or less continual breakdowns about my personal future as well as society, my main activity has been watching AMC’s acclaimed yet underrated miniseries The Terror (Season 1, 2018) over and over. 

I think I’m on watch #5 now and it has managed, incredibly, to not only stay compelling but become even moreso. The ten episodes unfold like a fractal, presenting new details and surprises with each and every journey through them. 

As I immerse myself further, I’ve learned the shape of it, becoming as much a master of navigation as Mr. Blanky: which narrow lead will I follow this time, tracking it through the episodes until it widens into a glorious and complex character arc? 

The allure of this icy wasteland during our long hot plague summer is complex. It’s appealing, of course, on a purely aesthetic level, to douse yourself in visions of a freezing, empty landscape while you’re trapped in a crowded, sweltering city. 

Then of course there’s the fact that the tension between the characters and their hostile environment— which, in a sense, the people in charge brought upon themselves, through Bad Decisions— is the guiding drama of the show. Sound familiar? 

Sickness itself, physical debility, does actually play a large role in the storyline, but it’s not in the form of a virus qua virus— instead it is caused by A) a deficit of fresh meat and vegetables leading to scurvy, and B) a surplus of lead in their canned foods, causing slow poisoning. 

It’s the men arriving in their ships — great unnatural beasts of made of dead trees (you bring the forest with you, Lady Silence declaims) — that carry the role of contagion. They have come to the land to conquer it but are quickly stymied and held fast by the ice itself, which acts as the immune system of the surrounding geography. 

But their icebound quarantine cannot hold for long. If they don’t leave, they will die. Of course, if they do leave they’ll die as well— a tension many of us can currently relate to, if not at such dire a level. 

And then, as I’ve said repeatedly, as a jokey yet ultimately sincere qualification for my love of characters who objectively are agents of an imperialist agenda, They Do All Fucking Die, Though. Justice is eventually served; the characters become pointless martyrs to colonialist ambition, starved and scorbutic and consumed utterly by either the maws of the monster, their fellow men, or the land itself. 

Not for long, of course— historically speaking, nobody learns from their mistakes, and Europeans continue to ravage Nunavut for the next century— but within the context of the fictionalized narrative as presented, the viewer is witness to the visceral consequences of the expedition’s terminal hubris. 

And despite the love you have come to feel for each and every one of these weird-looking muttonchopped white men, thanks to the writers’ brilliant evocation of class, rank, sexuality, and morality (& the actors’ tour-de-force performances, natch) to clearly define and distinguish them, you’re like: yeah, sounds about right. That’s what they get!

It’s satisfying, in the oddest way. There are so many moments in the show that you wish with all your heart weren’t happening, yet understand why they must. It’s the best kind of tragedy— no grief is wasted, each death serves a clear purpose. 

And after it’s over, you have a choice, as to what comes next. You can start it all over again, hop from the desolation of episode 10 back to the beginning to witness them all alive and clean, with gold braid a-gleaming. Or you can jump on over to the good ship AO3, and pick your poison. 

Take the relationship between Harry Goodsir and Lady Silence, for example. In Dan Simmons’ original book, the mute Inuit teenager Lady Silence becomes a romantic object for the protagonist Francis Crozier by the end of the story, in an uncomfortable example of racial exoticization and tired heteronormativity. 

In the show, the writers chose to transform Lady Silence’s character into the charismatic, complicated Silna: an adult woman, not silent until past the midpoint of her arc, empowered and flawed and afraid and intelligent, and, most importantly, lacking a romance plotline. 

Her most intimate relationship in the show is with Goodsir, the kindhearted if naive naturalist & surgeon’s assistant. They share a deep and respectful connection which includes plenty of Intimate Looks and even some cuddling. 

If the show had decided to Go There with these two, I would certainly have not felt positive about it at all— it wouldn’t sit right, for the same general reasons I dislike the idea of the endgame relationship of the novel.  

Because of the restraint shown in canon, however, and the emphasis on the unsaid and the undone, the door was flung open to fannish interpretation. It’s a synecdoche of the show as a whole, with the breakdown of good old-fashioned Victorian repression functioning as a highly appealing invitation for works that peel it back even further than the storyline does.

The Terror’s devoted fanbase has thus attacked the canon from all angles: delving deep into relationships both described and implied; extending the story to either build upon its real ending or diverge from it; engaging in purely aesthetic and erotic explorations of characters merely for the joy of it. All entirely common and valid approaches. 

But I would not hesitate to say that the relationship Terror fans have to the source material is unique, at least compared to other fandoms I’ve been active in. 

There is no second season of The Terror (at least not one that continues the story of the first), yet the fans are in more privileged position than fans of other limited canons, in that the body of research used by show’s writers used to craft their story is readily available for fans to access as well. And boy, do they access it— not only filling their stories with period-accurate details, but obsessing over each journal entry and daguerrotype as if they were any typical gif set or screencap.

This accepted treatment of the historical record as a para-canonical extension of the show itself is a blessing: one can peer behind the scenes, right into the writer’s room, as one reads lines of Battersby’s Fitzjames biography or Crozier’s letters to James Clark Ross, and suddenly understands, with shocking immediacy, the massive, fully-thought-out structures that supported the limited amount of story that was able to actually be scripted and shown. Not to be cliche, but it really is like an iceberg!

And unlike popular historical-fiction properties such as Hamilton, in which the figures represented are highly renowned, long-lived and nationally lauded, the doomed men of the Franklin Expedition bear little such cultural weight that one must contend with in order to portray them. 

Their lives are relatively under-explored, and their historical endpoints are tantalizingly undefined. Though one possible version of their deaths is shown onscreen, the masterful groundwork laid by these ten episodes of television create a fertile bed for further exploration by enthusiasts. 

The historical inevitability of the source material and the relative sensitivity with which it was treated in the show are dual permission slips for creators: one can forge ahead freely with one’s plentiful “what-ifs,” knowing both the immutability of these men’s unfortunate reality, and the soundness of this particular contemporary depiction of it. 

A common theme circulated in analyses of fandom activity is that flawed canons invite transformative works as a means towards reclamation or confrontation, that some canons demand “fixing.”

But in my opinion The Terror’s fanworks are not necessarily “corrections,” in the same way many a typical Marvel or Game Of Thrones fix-it might be. They are not proof-of-concept arguments that things ought to have gone differently, or that mistakes were made in the portrayal or plotting of certain elements. 

Instead they more often act as celebrations of the hard work the writers of the show put into each episode, and, more vitally, as brand new installments in the long tail of general Frankliniana — an established tradition of narrative treatments of this strange, sad saga that began with Charles Dickens himself, includes both the Terror book and show, and continues now with each new story written and uploaded. 

In conclusion: Please watch The Terror S1 starring Jared Harris and Tobias Menzies, available on Hulu in the US and Prime in Europe. It’s very good. I didn’t even talk about Jared Harris or Tobias Menzies in this otherwise it would’ve been like 4,000 words and I’m tired now. Thanks! 

(Silna is the big spoon, you love to see it.)

Fear of the Archive

Matter in the sink.

I was discussing with Sam the “genre,” so to speak, of the Online Techno-Polymath Guy. You know this guy. He (and it’s usually a he) has his own website, probably hand-crafted in Kirby, Github, or Wordpress, as well as a well-regarded, personable Twitter presence. 

He keeps track of everything he reads, writes pithy blog posts on esoteric subjects. His personal philosophy is progressive with a futurist bent.  He has worked in a variety of fields, though you are unsure what he actually currently does for a living. He is knowledgeable, authoritative, but eccentric, which you can tell by the fun colors he’s used to design his fun little homepage. 

You can have fun clicking around his carefully maintained archive, witnessing the dynamic interplay of his disparate areas of interest. You can ooh and ahh at his reading lists, his quirky, inventive stances on issues like quantum computing and social media moderation. 

It’s all very inspirational. 

A few years ago I tried to code & maintain my own personal blog. It was nice and pretty and purple. It was the latest attempt in a long series of attempts in the past decade to put forth a professional, public-facing Place Where I Put The Words, and lasted about 4 months before I gave the fuck up. 

From Livejournal when I was 11 to the Substack page this very missive is sent from, the only thing constant about my modes of longform online self-expression has been their sheer inconstancy. 

But Allegra! you ask. You’ve famously been on Tumblr for ten years! Does that not count as a consistent vector, much like that of which you speak? 

The answer is of course it fucking doesn’t. Tumblr, maintained in the classic sense, requires the absolute bare minimum of active curation. I see, I like, I add keysmash tags (NOT organizational tags), I slam that add to queue button. SOMETIMES I will post something original, something that took a bit of effort, but it will be quickly lost to the fast-moving morass of gif sets and memes that make up the majority of my feed, which to be honest is a great comfort. 

It is the opposite of longform, the opposite of professional. It is a direct expression of my id, whereas a hypothetical personal, permanent Allegra Web Presence, in the vein of your dime-a-dozen Online Techno-Polymath Guy (OTPG), would be a thoughtful altar to my ego. 

To those that fall more on the OCD side of the OCD-ADHD Smart People spectrum, which I assume most OTPGs do, it might be a relief, a soothing companion, to have a place where all one’s throwaway ideas and uncategorizable sparks of genius can be arranged neatly.

But for me, out here waaaay on the opposite side, wholly unmedicated and completely, at this point in Apocalypse Time, unmoored from any structure, academic or otherwise, I’ve accepted that it’s inconceivable I could ever have the energy or wherewithal to maintain such a platform. 

I can’t even stick to one personal bookmarking system, one centralized, private Archive Of The Self that would be the first step in the dance of keeping a public thought catalog. I jump, without pattern or sense, from one tool to another: a few months carefully curating my Google Keep here, another few months using Pinboard there, a long while flinging things into the black hole of my Chrome bookmarks and never giving them a second thought. Not to mention the long periods I spend doing no bookmarking at all, finding the whole endeavor to be utterly unappealing.

It was upon actively considering this phenomenon for the first time, and engaging in a little of what the lads like to call “self-reflection” that I understood some of the psychological underpinnings of all this. 

The fact is, I fundamentally dislike being confronted with my own archive. It’s like that scene in Withnail & I, where they’re dealing with the horrible state of their kitchen sink. I think there may be something living in there. I think there may be something alive, Marwood says.

A few moments later he attests to having found unspecified “matter” in the sink, begs Withnail not to look, and Withnail, “surrendering to the situation” (in the words of the screenplay), recommends abdicating the situation entirely: I think we've been in here too long. I feel unusual. I think we should go outside.

That is generally, unhealthily, how I relate to the decayed pits of my own past that pock my digital properties. Scrolling months, years, back into my Keep archive brings up the bile: at any moment I might come across definitive proof that I was smarter years ago, that I have since then sundered my intellect with the twin weapons of idleness and vanity. 

Better to be inconstant in one’s archiving (or forgo it completely) than to constantly be faced with the dirty dishes, the nauseating, living “matter” of one’s past interests, pasts opinions, past genius lying guilelessly buried under strata of increasing idiocy.

Clearly this is not a healthy approach— in the words of Joey Dosik, I keep on running away— and is something I need to work on. As my January start at NYU’s Experimental Humanities masters’ program approaches I expect I will try to figure out some new tricks, as I’m determined to Do School Right This Time and note-taking/organization will likely be a big part of that. 

That is all to say, I like having this Substack because I can just throw shit up whenever I want, never mind how many months I’ve gone since the last one, never mind how there is absolutely no linking theme or genre. The very act of writing is stressful enough without having to worry about consistency or coherency, you know? 

The prospect of maintaining a OTPG-style Professional Online Writingspace any more personalized than this one triggers the gut reaction of “organizing = stress = brain no likey,” as well as a deeper and more primal rejection of the idea that my thoughts are worth being formalized for public consumption in any way at all— which probably emerges directly from the phenomenon I believe we’re calling “imposter syndrome” these days.

Also, it would be work. I hate work. Fuck work. 

(That said, someone please hire me. To do something. Anything. I’m not busy. At all. Thanks!) 

5 Futures and 1 Past

Some options.

a collaboration with Sam Vilkins

1. A very soft future, everything coated in synthetic vellum, tactile and inviting. Objects encourage touch in order to tempt you away from skin.

2. A stifling future, where there's no point anymore in checking your back when you feel eyes upon your neck. Stuck in a stand-off, watching and being watched, each move mirrored into infinity.

3. A diluted future, all things spread out, the gaps between atoms yawning and quiet and calm. There is a homeopathic intensity to the impossible distances between one moment and the next.

4. A clockwork future, all as it was and will be at once. You must choose to step through the gears, catching at your skin, and ignore the ticking all about your ears.

5. A filigreed future, infinitely detailed. Fractals draw your attention ever deeper and down, into dangerous complexities that multiply and spin in glittering logarithmic insistence.

&

An unsettled past, thought inaccessible but only unreceptive. Hard surfaces seem bruised. Even cloth and stone hum and crackle as you near. Things fall under shadow here, as the light has moved on forward, but work can be done in the dark. And the steps, once witnessed, need no vision to recall.

Bless You

Even at a distance the holiness itched at her, burrowed under her skin, inflamed her infernal mucous membranes.

Minnie, sitting alone in a pew at the back of the church, was trying very hard not to sneeze. 

She was nearly as far away from the altar, cross, and font as it was possible to be while still physically remaining inside the church, so the effect was not as bad as it could’ve been, but even at a distance the holiness itched at her, burrowed under her skin, inflamed her infernal mucous membranes.

The priest was droning on and on— kingdoms of the holy and such, blah blah. Minnie tried to force herself to pay attention, in the vain hope that distracting her ears would also serve to distract her itchy noise and throat. 

“Alethea’s memory will live on, and all that knew her will remember her as a pure, kindhearted, innocent—” 

ACHOOO!” 

The entire church swiveled at once to stare communal daggers at Minnie, who at that moment was grateful for her own demonic histamines, which had so conveniently covered up the far less appropriate reaction of bursting into helpless laughter at the idea of Alethea being called innocent. 

The priest cleared his throat. “As I was saying, Alethea will be remembered by her loved ones, her mother and father and sister, faithful congregants all, and of course by her dear fiancé, Mr. Norman Henderson…” 

Minnie resisted, with some difficulty, the urge to blow her nose ostentatiously into her sleeve at the sound of that bastard’s name. Come on, she told herself. Just a little while longer, and then it’ll all be over… 

She closed her eyes, sat back, and thought of Hell as the service droned to a close. 

Finally, after what could’ve been days, the organist struck up a dour hymn that made Minnie’s nerves crawl, and the assembled mourners stood up and began to filter, murmuring sadly, out of the church. Many of them stopped to pay final respects to Alethea, laying flowers in her casket, letting tears fall on her pristine gown, and suchlike. 

Minnie slowly made her way up the nave and joined the queue, politely waving little old ladies and stone-faced teenaged boys to go on and make their farewells before her. 

She watched from only a few feet away, a hiss pressing against the inside of her teeth, as the execrable Norman leaned over and pressed a sloppy, weepy kiss to Alethea’s cold cheek. 

At last, everyone had gone. The final notes of the organ rang out as Minnie sidled up to the casket, boot-heels clicking elegantly on the stone floor of the church. 

She leaned over the side of the casket, and gazed tenderly upon Alethea’s face, pink cheeks and delicate lips frozen into peaceful stillness. 

“Friend of the deceased?” 

Minnie whirled around, and, taken by surprise, sneezed explosively right into the pinched face of the priest. 

“Oh dear, I am so so sorry,” she lied. The priest looked as if he were trying his best not to seem perturbed, wiping Minnie’s snot carefully off his face and collar with a fusty, ancient-looking handkerchief. Minnie could see red welts forming where her demonic fluids had landed on his skin, and managed to transform her triumphant grin into something resembling a bereaved simper before he noticed anything out of the ordinary. “Yes,” she said sadly, “you might say we were friends…” 

The priest nodded solemnly. “So sad, what happened to her,” he said gormlessly. “Such a shock to the whole community. I christened her, you know… beautiful child, beautiful child…” 

“So horrible,” Minnie agreed. “I mean, an aneurysm, at her age… You don’t expect that sort of thing to happen! And just before she was about to get married, too… a tragedy, really…. Oh, Alethea!” 

Giving into her most theatrical instincts, she swooned dramatically, draping her whole upper body over the side of the open casket, and emitting a keen that echoed through the empty, cavernous hall. “So beautiful, even in death!” she howled. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell, if you didn’t know! It almost looks like you’re just sleeping, Alethea…” 

The priest put an unwelcome, clammy hand onto Minnie’s shoulder, fashionably and unorthodoxly bared in her black dress, which he instantly withdrew with a jolt, as if he’d been burned. Minnie smirked, her head buried in the crook of her elbow. Still got it. 

She straightened up,  resolving her expression back into grief as she turned to him, and noted with satisfaction that his hand was already beginning to grow inflamed where it had touched her skin. 

“I’ll just, uh,” he said, beginning to itch in earnest at the red marks on his chin and neck, “I’ll just. Hm. I’ll see you at the graveside service, I suppose…?”

Minnie just smiled at him, perhaps a bit too sharply, as he tottered away, muttering about aloe vera. 

When he’d disappeared out through the transept door, Minnie leaned over Alethea’s still form and grabbed her cold wrist, flipping it upwards. With one black, needle-sharp nail, she dug an unspeakable shape into Alethea’s pale, bloodless palm. Then she raised her own free hand, where a corresponding design, equally as grotesque, had been scratched just days before at the outset of the ritual.

“Here goes nothing, babe,” Minnie whispered, and pressed her palm to Alethea’s. 

One circle of Hell… two circles of Hell… three circles of Hell… Minnie counted, taking deep breaths, praying to all that was unholy that this would work. 

Beneath her hand, she felt a sudden flood of heat. From Alethea’s wound, bright red blood was flowing, slicking Minnie’s fingers and splashing down onto Alethea’s immaculate white gown. 

“Lethe?” Minnie whispered. Alethea’s hand spasmed, clutched around Minnie’s; her whole body jerked, and her eyes flew open. As Minnie watched, the pure, cornflower blue of Alethea’s irises was crowded in by scarlet, the same rich wet red as her dripping blood. Minnie would miss the blue, but really, it was a small price to pay. 

“Minnie,” Alethea said hoarsely, blinking those big red eyes, fluttering those long lashes. Minnie wanted to kiss her. Instead, she sneezed again. 

“ACHOOO!” 

“Bless—” 

“Don’t!” hissed Minnie, pawing at her nose with her unbloodied left hand. “That’ll make it worse!” 

“Sorry,” giggled Alethea. She sat up in the casket, and pulled Minnie forward with a gentle tug, pressing their foreheads together. Minnie could sense the hellfire heat surging through Alethea’s veins, clearing out the embalming fluids, lighting her up anew. A second chance— everything she deserved. 

“How does it feel? How do— how do you feel?” Minnie whispered. 

Alethea rolled her head, cracking her neck and letting out a sigh of pleasure. “Incredible. You did incredible, babe. It’s like— oh, it’s so warm, it feels so good…” 

She lifted her bleeding hand away from Minnie’s, and gently blew across it. Her eyes glowed, slightly, as the cuts healed over in an instant, leaving a scabbed scar to match Minnie’s own. Then she smiled, showing off teeth slightly sharper than before, and Minnie felt a swift flush of desire clutch around her insides. “Come on,” Minnie said. “Let’s get out of here before they come to take this stupid box to the cemetery.” 

She helped Alethea down out of the casket, then snapped her fingers. The lid of the casket swung shut with a muffled thump. 

“What’ll they do when they find out I’m gone, darling?” Alethea said, wiping blood off onto her dress. “Someone will surely notice.” 

“Don’t care,” said Minnie with a shrug. “We’ll be long gone by then.” 

“Car’s outside?” 

“Always.” 

Minnie, at that moment, could feel no sneeze lurking in her sinuses. With an easy, relieved confidence, she leaned in towards Alethea, ready to finally find that kiss she’d been craving—

“ACHOO!” 

Minnie lurched back, unbalanced by the force of Alethea’s sneeze. 

“Oh. Right. You too, now, huh.” 

Alethea wiped her nose on the puffed sleeve of her burial gown, and rubbed at her eyes, the whites of which were visibly irritated now, going red as her new irises. “Yeah, I guess so. Ugh, I’m itchy. You were really sitting in here dealing with this for the whole service?” 

“Of course,” Minnie said. “Anything for you.”

Alethea batted her eyelashes. “So sweet.”

“That toad of a priest called you innocent, by the way.” 

“Ha!” Alethea laughed. “If only he knew that—” Minnie never found out what the priest should’ve known (though she could’ve probably guessed) because Alethea interrupted herself with a triple-decker sneeze, nearly toppling over into Minnie with the force of it.  

“I think I’ve got some tissues in the glovebox,” said Minnie, swinging a stabilizing arm around Alethea, guiding her back down the aisle towards the exit. “And hey, it doesn’t last long. By the time we’re halfway to Memphis we’ll both be feeling right as rain.” 

“Memphis,” sighed Alethea dreamily. 

“First stop, Graceland, just like I promised.” 

“And then…?” 

“And then, babe, I’ll take you home. Show you around, introduce you to the family… you know, all that stuff.”

Alethea’s eyes were watering, and Minnie was pretty sure it wasn’t just from the allergies. They got into Minnie’s bright red convertible, sitting pretty (and pretty illegally) at the curb just outside the church doors. 

“Let’s go to Hell!” Alethea shouted, raucous and free, and Minnie slammed on the gas, and they sped off down the road, away from the church, leaving the empty casket behind. 

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