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Dad and Kel were kind enough to mail a box of mexican chilis to London a few months ago, because they are just unfindable here unless you’re willing to pay six pounds a bag. Using a recipe from Stephen’s facebook page (this was one of the internet friendos I met in person last week as detailed in the last bloggo post) I whipped up a batch of chili from scratch, and it was fabulous. I share his recipe with you now:

8 oz dried mixed chilis (poblano, guajilla, pasilla, new mexico, etc)
Twoish pounds of chuck beef, cubed
Maybe some ground porky pork
Two beastly onions or three less beastly onions diced
Couple a cloves a garlic, chunky minced
Big tablespoon cumin seed, mex oregano, salt, and cocoa powder and a cinnamon stick

1.Reconstitute chilis in SUPER HOT HOT BOILY WATER for ten minutes, strain out water (and save it), blenderize chilis, pour through a strainer to make seedless paste.

2.Brown meat cubes and porky grimbles in a HOT HOT dutch oven or gud big dam stewpot, remove after briwning

3.Lower heat, throw in a bit of oil and onions and garlic, saute til transparent

4. Readd meet and pour in chiliwater just below the top of the meets and onyuns, simmer for a bit, and Pour in chilipaste

5.Grind up spices in a mortar and pestle if you’ve got it, throw in

6.Stir and cover and simmer at wicked low heat until it’s thick and sexy, maybe add black beans if you feel like it (I did)

The stew comes out thick and red, and actually way less spicy than you’d imagine for blending up a half-pound of dried chilis. Though when blenderizing it, I did tear up.







I lasted how long, like two weeks? Posting every day is super hard. I even missed like four days (before yanno the last six days of total radio silence). I have a good reason though! I’m at work every day (because Ian the Scottish Manplant is in Morocco) and busy every night (because, no joke, we have had random friends call us up all at once to hang out.) We had dinner with Ruşen and Mengu, two Turkfriends we met through Asli. They had been meaning to invite us to their places for ages, ever since we met back in February when Asli was in London. We met their hilarious flatfaced cats:

And generally just had great conversation about living in London, Turkey, and performing. (Rusen is a comedian and Mengu is an actress.) All over a delightful homecooked meal of kofte, pilav, falan and filan. (Delicious. Been way too long since I’ve had Turkish home cooking.)

We also met up with Harriet’s friend Rachel who was at the Crete wedding, because she got stuck in London on a layover back to the States. Went aaaaall the way down to a weird suburban hotel neighborhood near the airport and ate in an 800 year old pub. She had just done a random trip to the mountains of Switzerland and was heading back to Colorado for SKI SEASON. She works as a ski instructor and it made me intensely homesick.

Rachel and Emily and Whiskey as Madonna and Child with Whiskey in Crete

Then we also got to see our friend Federico from Istanbul, also on a brief weekend stopover in London. (He played Franz in the Producers and was in the improv group). His friend Yiğit, also in attendance, suggested we all meet at a gay bar in Soho because it had the greatest happy hour in town. Fede had an insane story about doing a play in Turkish after the Producers, and then almost going to acting school in Moscow despite never having really considered acting as a career, but then he got offered a way good job for the UN in Copenhagen. So.

And then, we met up with Meg and Stephen, two Seattle people whom I had only met through mutual friends on the internet, but we all share key interests — namely, Georgia, wacky travel adventures, writing, food. They’d just done a road trip in Albania and Montenegro — based on the trips I put in my book!!!! Fan club!!! I felt very special — and we all met at a Georgian restaurant called Minimo. We had to Instagram the food, and then Instagram ourselves instaframming each other.

I barely even use my instanfram anymore

We had an excited conversation about their trip, escaping the US of A, and then we drew the waiter into a fifteen-minute discursus of Georgian politics. It was so so great to meet them in person.

And then, we saw the Lion King on the West End.

Legally I can show you nothing

SO it’s been a bit of a week. Very fun. I have also reported all these things out of order.

  1. Make a huge facebook/whatsapp messaging group with all your friends. Bandy about the idea for curry and beers. Send lots of happy or thumbs up or vomming emojis/gifs. Everyone suggests the soonest possible weekend, and the soonest possible weekend wil be inevitably shot down for a weekday or compromise weekend date.
  2. Three people drop out of the whatsapp/facebook messaging group before curry day, or message to say that they can’t make it.
  3. Everyone comes from different directions on different trains/buses/bikes/super-jumps and meets somewhere in the middle of Brick Lane. It is raining, and nobody has brought an umbrella.
  4. Since you haven’t obtained a quorum yet, go to the Pride of Spitalfields for a pre-dinner drink. The Pride of Spitalfields is a tiny pub full of armchairs, framed black and white pictures of pancake-necked men, and wall-to-wall red carpets stained with centuries of dried alcohol. Stand outside in the rain and drink your beer with the three other people who are on time.
  5. Four other people arrive, and everyone decides they are hungry enough to deny any stragglers a vote in which restaurant we end up going to.
  6. Start shopping for a deal. Brick Lane, before becoming a gentrified street-art-covered hipster demilitarized zone, first was a Bangla community. Every family opened up their own curry restaurant along Brick Lane, and each restaurant offers a “set menu” deal — for in between nine and twenty pounds you can get an appetizer, curry, rice, naan, and some quantity of beer. Outside each restaurant, a buyruncu will try to talk you into coming in, and bargain with you to reach a good price. The trick is to get three courses and at least two big beers for less than 13 pounds. Bargain down until you feel your guts wrench with the absolute shamelessness of what kind of a deal you’re asking for. But if you go too low, you risk creating an adversarial relationship between you and the restaurant staff. Who’s ripping who off?
  7. Always refuse the first deal you get and look somewhere else.
  8. Unless you’re me, and starving, in which case vociferously recommend that everyone take the very first restaurant you can.
  9. Get seated in a large group, realize there aren’t enough seats available in the restaurant for your large party, and then negotiate with the other patrons/waiters to move everyone around in a logistical curry shuffle.
  10. Receive a text from the last person in your group, cancelling because something came up at the last minute.
  11. Order. Ask for really spicy, because remember that they had to tailor their food for English people, who did not natively eat spicy food. Do not, under any circumstances, order the Tikka Masala or Butter Chicken. Again, they were created for an english palate, and taste like chicken in fancy ketchup. Get the pilau rice and the garlic naan.
  12. Your starters and beer arrive. Everyone is in a great mood and talking loudly/yelling. The other patrons begin to eat faster in order to escape the drunken revelery they see coming from your end of the restaurant. Half of the starters are incredible homemade bhajis or samosas, and half are from a frozen packet bought down the street. There is no way to predict which starter will be which.
  13. The waiters come by and try to upsell you on pappadams. You decline.
  14. The mains arrive. Everyone either says this is the worst or the best dish they’ve ever gotten on Brick Lane. None of them are truly spicy. You flag down a waiter and remind him of your deal, and that it included a second big beer. You feast
  15. The bollywood music kicks up. It is awesome.
  16. You are all impossibly stuffed, due to several meals’ worth of curry and fried things, combined with dense starchy carbohydrates.
  17. Get up one by one to pay by card, or be a lazy fatass and wait for them to bring you the card reader.
  18. Everyone heads to the Pride of Spitalfields for a post-curry drink. Brendon buys everyone beers and tries to get the karaoke piano guy to sing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi, which he doesn’t know, so we all settle for Piano Man. It is great.
  19. The next morning, a sludgy hangover. Questionable bowel movements for a day or so.

One of the main reasons we moved to London, the most culture-y city in the English-speaking world, was to be able to participate in some fun cultural arty activities. Like…we can go see a musical any time we want, and it’s pretty cheap usually — something like 15 to 25 pounds for a West End show. We can go to the library. There’s any kind of music, every neighborhood, every night.*Harriet’s already signed up for a tap dance class in Herne Hill (just two neighborhoods north of us) and I have tried several things so far. In no particular order, here are the extracurricular things I have tried:

1. Improv theatre. I learned a few favorite games and techniques, including “scene study”, a game in which you present a made-up scene from a made-up play as if you’ve been rehearsing every line/gesture/meaningful glace for an entire week. “Now we’ll see the famous ‘Barn love scene’ from the Tenessee Williams classic ‘Palaver Wednesdays Down at the Ranch”. The class is over now, it ended back in June. We met on Wendesday nights and then went to the pub after class.

2. Choir. Recently I joined the Victoria Park Singers, and they’re even doing a few songs that my college choir actually did for their Christmas concert. It’s a fun bunch of people. One of the guys is 90 years old and was a spook for MI5 during the Cold War, listening in on Soviet agents, and now he sings tenor. He was talking about learning French by immersion, and going down to meet his son in Bordeaux. What a cool guy. The choir meets on Wednesday nights and then goes down to the pub after class.

3. The London Bridge Writers’ group. I found this one on Meetup, and everyone takes a turn reading out loud whatever they’ve brought for ten minutes (~2000 words) and then everyone gives constructive criticism for about ten minutes. It’s a really supportive group with some really skilled writers. A few short stories, a YA novel in verse, fantasy, poetry, literary fiction…it’s really helpful for me, since this is my first foray into longform fiction. I’ve only read once there (both because I don’t want to crowd everyone out, and because I am a coward) but I have gotten some fabulous commentary from them and I am happy to give it in return. The writing group meets Monday nights in a room above a pub, which is convenient, because we don’t have to go anywhere else after the meeting.

As you have now surmised, English social life revolves around pubs. It’s pretty ok.

*One memorable nights out was Miranda’s birthday at a live-band piano request bar called Pianoman. They actually had a line to get in the door — maybe the first time I’ve ever had to wait in line and get accepted by a bouncer, which I thought basically only happened in LA, New York, and TV — and inside it was RAMMED. We could barely move through the throng. The band was on an elevated platform in the middle of the room, the bar was at the far end, and the rest of the place was a maze of smaller rooms and private booths and screaming humans. There were tiny pads of paper at each table for requesting songs, and then you had to submit the songs to a huge vat overflowing with slips of paper, and then the slips of paper would get transferred to the music stands of the players. I naturally came up with a way to avoid all that and picked a song that I knew would be fun for the players — “Because I Got High” by Afroman — and then gave it directly to the drummer, the most underappreciated player in any live band (next to perhaps the bassist.) They played it about five minutes later. Brendon, as usual, bought everyone too many beers and tried to get them to sing the Kiwi classic, Tutira mai Nga Iwi. This is a common pattern with him: buy beers for everyone, sing Tutira mai Nga Iwi. It is a great pattern. I always sing along.

A few weeks ago, Nina mentioned that she’d seen someone use the Ritz Theatre’s board to propose. I snapped a picture of it on the way to work:

 

“It’s a shit proposal,” she said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“You see it for two seconds on the way to work. You think: welp, that’s it.”

“That’s my proposal, I guess.”

“That’s my proposal. Moment’s done. I suppose I’m engaged now. Better start thinking about who to invite.”

“I see your point, it’s pretty unceremonious.”

“I’d want a flash mob. At least. In front of a huge crowd, lots of photographers, get to be the center of attention.”

“What if you drove by and didn’t see it? Mike would have to keep on paying for the next day until you did.”

“Or maybe we’ve just been assuming that it’s about Lynsey. Look, there’s no comma. Maybe it’s about asking Mike to marry whoever’s put up the sign.”

“Lynsey was just a red herring, you mean.”

“Exactly. Still a shit proposal, though.”



As  I mentioned a few posts ago, our neighbor Gary is a petty criminal. He deals drugs. We know this because 1) a bunch of completely different people all drive up to his house at all hours of the day, stay idling in their car for five minutes, and then leave, and 2) his house always smells like drugs. This is funny for me, because our neighborhood looks exactly like a charming English suburb of charming brick houses and charming little gardens. It does not look like a place where a small-time drug dealer can just, like, openly deal drugs.  But then again, London is extremely lax when it comes to enforcing cannabis prohibition — often you’ll pass two people smoking a joint on the block, and this is true for anywhere in the city, and nobody will say anything to them, nor will they bother to conceal it.

So anyway, back to Gary. He lives with his Mom. I’ve talked to him a few times when he pops out the front door for an energy drink and a smoke break. He and his friend are day labourers and don’t always have work, so on their off days they hang around at home and play videogames. They are bloke-y and quite convivial to neighbors, generally.

A few months ago, I was at home with Caera and Ellie (and Mavis the Cat) when Ellie said, “There’s some guy in the neighbor’s back garden wearing a bandanna on his face.” Before I could really ask what she meant, at that point the front door boomed (our houses share a wall, so we felt their door being broken open) and I looked outside my window and saw this rather frightening scene:

I thought for a brief and terrifying moment that we were about to get home invaded, but it turns out that these plainclothes officers had gone undercover to do a home raid next door. We were all alarmed, but confused: they’re just dealing drugs? What’s the need for giant guns?

The cops bundled Gary, his friend, and Susan out the door. (Susan walks with crutches, so she just hobbled out in her own time.) They then all got handcuffed (except Susan) and stood around at the end of the street while the cops searched the house. They brought in the tiniest sniffer dog I’ve ever seen in my life to root around in the house.

Nina came in about ten minutes later. “They’d blocked off the whole street to do their little operation,” she said. “Let’s have a good gossip.” All four of us sat in the living room having an afternoon beer and peering through the curtains. We were all puzzled: what was all the fuss about?

“I reckon they were all just bored at the undercover unit,” Caera theorized. Susan was lighting the boys’ cigarettes, and they all seemed to be having a jolly good time, despite being detained. They quarantined Susan from the boys after that.

I was just heading out the door, so I waved at Gary as he was standing on the sidewalk. “All right?” I asked.

“All right.”

“You sure?”

“Sure,” he said with a smile. The cigarette fell out of his lips. He frowned, and bent at the waist to retrieve it with his lips, like a deer nibbling foliage. “I was just playing playstation up there when the cops come up on my CCTV and I thought, oh bugger, I’d better leg it. So I go out the back and they’ve already got their man there.”

“Ah,” I said, deciding not to point out that it is not something most people get, CCTV of their front door. “Good luck.”

“Happens every week. Welcome to south london!” he said cheerfully.

We later learned that the cops had searched the house for four hours, found nothing, and left the house in disarray. Apparently they’d had a tip about them stashing weapons somewhere, which is why the London SWAT team had materialized. In general, the neighbors on either side thought the whole raid unecessary, and thought the police should have left our small-time friendly neighborhood drug dealers to their peacable selves.

Myth: In contrast to Turkey, England is a place where average people feel no need to escalate their problems way, way beyond what the present moment calls for. People appear much more calm.

Fact: England is full of bizarre rules and it makes people, just average people who have nothing to do with their enforcement, immediately upset if you break them. Things will get very real very fast, but rarely will it end in a sweaty confrontation — more likely someone with authority will tell you to stop.

Anecdote: on the last warm sunny day of the autumn, Brendon rented a tiny boat for a few hours. In London there’s a ton of snaky dinky canals full of “narrowboats”, all owned by varieites of weirdo. Some good, bad, some social, some delightfully mad, some half-frog. All the boats have hand painted signs, logos, and a collection of firewood/garbage ties to the roofs.

So anyways. Brendon had rented a boat for his birthday to take a little dinky cruise through the dinky canals. It was a new company — kind of like an Uber for London canal boat parties. They made rules: only eight people on a boat, only two drinks per person, and only the renter can steer (and must stay sober).

Naturally, Brendon gave Harriet and I a huge sack of beer and told us to wait around the corner from the dock so he could pick us up and circumvent the 8-person 16-total-beer rules. (We were 10 people altogether.) Harriet was sort of nervous about it but I said “eh, don’t worry. It’ll be fine.” I figured if we did see any of the narrowboat captains, they wouldn’t really be interested in what we were doing.

A severe miacalculation on my part. Proving, I think, that I do not yet have a good grasp of the culture.

Everything started grandly. We had snacks and beers and a tiny speaker blasting just the worst music, kind of the dregs of American 80s rock and 90s/early 00s pop.

The birthday boy

“Think it’s fine we’re here?” Harriet asked.

“Well the boat guy asked if we were waiting for anyone else, and we were already obviously eight people,” Brendon said. “Maybe it’s not a big deal?”

The first boat captain we passed took a picture of us.

It was a bit unsettling, and we referred to the paperwork Brendon had signed. Is it really a big deal? Did we just imagine the guy snapping a pic? Maybe we’re just very handsome?

“Ah, turns out we’re not supposed to play music,” Brendon discovered in the papers. We did not turn it off. I took the rudder because Brendon was driving waaay too fast and missing all the scenery. We guttered down to a crawl and passed by another boat under a bridge. I waved and said hello to all the tourists on the boat. The captain was much less ambiguous in his unhappiness.

“Hi,” I said.

“YOU’VE GOT TEN PEOPLE THAT’S TOO MANY IT VIOLATES THE INSURANCE OF THE BOAT” he said.

Hmm.

At about the halfway point of our trip, we pulled the boat over and ran to Morrison’s for more beer.

We got back on the boat, and we hadn’t gone more than five minutes before a little dude in a little skiff from the little boat company drove up to us. It was: the company’s boat police.

“Pull over.” He said in an exhausted tone, suggesting to me that this was a pretty common problem he dealt with.

Brendon and I started covering our tracks at the same time.

“The guy asked if anyone else was coming–”

“They just saw us and we hopped on–”

“Pull over. You know you’re not supposed to have more than eight people.”

Since I was driving (oops) I brought the boat over and Harriet and I hopped out.

I mean, in summary, we behaved badly and got caught, but what was interesting to me from a cultural perspective was that how non-cops worked together to get the company security people to get us to follow the rules. In Turkey they’d either shrug about the rules (even something that violates the insurance — I’ve definitely gotten ATV rentals in Cappadocia without the requisite insurance) or start a fight when they found out you were breaking them.

I also understand why in retrospect narrowboat captains wouldn’t be crazy about a bunch of landlubbing drunken yahoos crashing around the canals.

But it was a great party!

As you may or may not be aware, place names in England often sound like well-intentioned nonsense. For instance, here is a list of my favorite train/underground stops:

  • Woking
  • Wapping
  • Wadding
  • Barking
  • Tooting
  • Tooting Bec
  • Chigwell
  • Chorleywood
  • Fairlop
  • Goodge Street
  • Cheam
  • Nunhead
  • Elephant and Castle
  • Purfleet
  • Cockfosters

A fun game I like to play by myself sometimes is narrating along with the train announcements in that particular sing-songy way that the train announcements here have, but making up Englishy places that the train goes, i.e., “This is a train to West Bumpleyshire.Calling at: Dinkle, Piss-on-Porpington, Fadding, Fadding West, Dagger Spence, Worcestershire Sauce, and West Bumpleyshire.

The reason place names sound so goofy is that they have had something like two thousand years and countless revisions. The borough of Southwark started out as Suthriganaweorc, which means “fort of the men of Surrey”. Apparently. “Elephant and Castle” is named after a pub that no longer exists. (God knows how they named Cockfosters.)

The other problem is that English pronunciation, as any language teacher knows, bears little resemblance to the spelling anymore. Southwark is said “sutherk”. Dulwich and Chiswick are similarly “Dull-itch” and “Chizik”.

This is all a long and rather convulted introduction to Brixton, the neighborhood where I work. I figured the name came from something like “Brick’s town,” but no — “the stone of Brihtsige,” Brixistane, used to be a few huge rocks in the middle of a field that hut-dwelling Anglo-Saxons used as a convenient meeting spot.

Tenpenny's Farm, Coldharbour Lane

Brixton is a wild place. Through the industrial era and just up until the 1930s, it was an attractive neighborhood for the middle classes — close by train to Central London, but cheaper housing. And it got HELLA bombed during the war. After WWII, Britain sent a boat over to the Carribbean and invited people in former British colonies to come back to the motherland and like, work. There was just nobody to rebuild the city. All the Caribbean and West Indian immigrants settled around Brixton initially because that’s where the labour center was. This was a key part of modern British history because it was the genesis of a multicultural nation – the idea that you could be both black and British. Brixton as a result became a powerhouse of immigrant culture. Every musical genre that made England famous has roots here. (The song “electric avenue” is about Brixton, because it has a street literally called Electric Avenue, because it was the first street in the entire city to get electric lights. That was in the 1870s though.)

After the “Windrush generation” arrived (so called because the boat to the Caribbean was named the Windrush), the neighborhood transformed from middle to working class, and received a lot less government attention. There was a bunch of riots in the eighties after stop-and-frisk policing became widespread, and white police killed a few black people (sound familiar?). Some white wackjob planted a nail bomb in the middle of Electric Avenue back in the 90s because he wanted to start a race war. Poverty and neglect gave the neighborhood a bit of a rough reputation. My dad cued me into a Clash song, “The Guns of Brixton”:

“When they kick in your front door

How you gonna come?

With your hands on your head

Or on the trigger of a gun?”

A photo of windrush square in brixton which I did not myself take

Because this story is the same the world over, developers began arriving in the 90s. Brixton Market, where I work, was due to close down about ten years ago and get turned into condos. It’s sort the Grand Bazaar of South London — an indoor grid of streets and shopfronts, and wide skylit hallways which open through arches to the street. In 2008, though plenty of market stalls still sold Afro-Caribbean goods to the locals, plenty more had been abandoned or shuttered.

The residents of Brixton staged enough protests that the city council stepped in and vowed to rejuvenate the market. They brokered a deal with the owners: for the first three months, there would be free rent, and anyone could apply to open a space. For three crazy months there were tiny indoor cinemas and theatres, arts classes, handmade goods galore, groceries, god knows what else. At the end of the three months, the owners increased the rent by such a staggering amount that most of the wildness had to move out — but the plan had worked. Some businesses survived, and lots more moved in.

The market’s digestive tract

I work at a place that’s been here all ten years. My bosses, Anne and Ian, have changed the function of their three shops time and time again over the last ten years according to market forces and their whim. They did sustainability workshops, ran a restaurant, a cafe, and now they run both a homeware/kitchen store and the plant shop. “We apologize for being at the forefront of gentrifying everything,” they told me.

It’s still a vibrant place. You might hear a different language at each shop along a row — Albanian, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, Hausa, Swahili, Thai.

The plant shop

A jamaican seamstress named doreen insisted I buy this mango print shirt, and so I have done so

Eating a gentrification burger in brixton market

Also, as few of you know, I moderate an online poetry forum. This is a strange community I fell into about two years ago, when I was still living in Istanbul and looking for another artistic outlet. It’s a community which requires everyone to give feedback to others before they post a poem of their own, which prevents people from doing drive-by bloggings where they blast out their sadboi feelings and disappear, never to return. Moderating that poetry forum is a bit like filtering through the internet’s collective unconscious. Or its digestive tract.

Here is a thing I wrote about “how to start writing poetry if you’ve never written poetry before” for the forum. After reading a few hundred dozen iterations of the same Xtreme edgy feelproblems diary entry type poem, you start getting a feel of what people need to hear to write much better poems. So, I hope you find this useful.

***

A lot of novices approach poetry trying to write out their feelings, explore gigantic ideas, sum up existence or love or life with a single verse…my advice is to narrow the scope. Just look at one thing. I mean, actually really look at it. A tree in your yard. The vapors coming off a pot of boiling water. The color of the wood of the table. What that person said to you offhand the other day. You know how when people are learning to draw, they just make sketches of everything? They draw hands like a trillion times in different positions. You’re just sketching but with words right now. Just try and notice a very small thing as truely as you can.

Five principles to follow:

  1. Use as few words as possible. Too many words can fill your poem with static.
  2. Embrace imperfection. You will feel like you’ve done a bad job and not really described something as completely as you could. This is a good thing. Poetry works its magic through being imperfect. A poem moves, and moves fast. It’s like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: you can know the velocity or the position of a poem, but not both. Allow yourself to only capture one.
  3. Listen. You’ll start to feel ideas or sensations or words pull you in different directions at first. It takes experience and judgment to know which ones to follow, and you can’t follow them all in a single poem. Just listen to that interior sense. And:
  4. Go wherever the writing takes you. It might make absolutely zero sense, but you’re writing poetry. It can not make sense. Allow yourself to mash up words, ideas, images, or feelings indiscriminately, and just see what works later. You’re a mad scientist, or a mad chef, I suppose, and you might discover unexpected things through your experiments. Don’t worry about editing until you’re done.
  5. REVISE. Set whatever you’ve written aside for a day or a week or a year, and come back to it. Read it as if it were written by someone else. Ask: what was this person trying to say? How are they trying to say it? Is there a way it could have been said better? Most people who start writing poetry do not ever learn to revise, and holy shit, your poems are always going to suck unless you learn to revise.

And then of course once you feel like you’re getting the hang of it, you can go back and learn about all the technical terminology and shit like that. Read a lot of really off the wall and classic poets at all times, and try to notice what they do.

So as I mentioned, I’m writing this book. It’s set in Istanbul, which gives me a practical reason to scheme about, visit, and imagine my favorite city in all its bizarre detail. The other fun part is that it’s a novel about characters caught up in a conspiracy theory, which means I get to play conspiracy theorist — a popular activity in any Middle Eastern country — and plot and plot away. There is always a plot afoot. If you ask any Turkish person about their opinions on any major world event, you are about to get a lot of sinister cabals and plots thrown at you. (I really enjoyed this article which in one part compares 9/11 trutherism from a Turkish guy’s perspective to just straight-up American nationalism as propaganda). I do end up crossing most of the plots out as storytelling impracticalities, but it’s wicked fun to try and come up with them.

What’s more alarming is watching everyone discover or manufacture plots in the real political world, and then acting on them. I watched a gruesome facebook conversation unravel (and managed to not participate, which is a huge personal win for anyone that knows me) about the Kavanaugh hearings, (I am so very sorry to bring them up yet again,) and the one extremely right-wing guy was convinced, convinced, that Dr. Ford was some sort of…operative…planted by the democrats. Or, think about the bizarre conspiracy which appeared a year or two ago that the democrats were running a child porn ring out of a DC pizza restaurant, and someone showed up to shoot the place up. On the left, think back to during the 2016 election when liberals were split between people who were convinced to varying degrees that there was a plot to destroy Bernie’s campaign, and people who were convinced to varying degrees that everything the DNC had done was totally ethical. And, of course, the really evil plot of climate change, hanging over our heads like a secular doomsday.

Umberto Eco argued that “central to the psychology of the authoritarian is the plot.” That way you can dismiss any criticism against you as just some of the faceless schemers out to get you. This is what Trump of course is doing now, but interestingly, it is also what Nixon did fifty years ago. I’m currently listening (just finished, actually) the Slow Burn podcast, about what it was like to live through the Watergate scandal. Did people think it was a partisan scheme to seize control of the government? How was it all covered up for so long? I mean — in the very first episode, they talk about how the Comittee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP, you cannot make this shit up) sent FBI agents over to imprison and sedate a woman who had overheard her husband, CREEP campaign chairman John Mitchell, talking about how the president had sent dudes to install bugs at Watergate to spy on the Democrats. (YOU CANNOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP.) At first, during the most recent election, when all the stuff about Russia tampering with elections* in multiple ways came out — I did my best to resist talking about those ideas because they just sounded too insane. But once more evidence for an insane thing was uncovered, it made sense that other insane things might also be true. During the Watergate scandal there was a huge uptick in conspiracy speculation. That’s when the idea of JFK’s assasination being a government operation really took hold. Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew got convicted of taking bribes and resigned just ten days before the Saturday when Nixon fired the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, and the Special Prosecutor investigating him for obstruction of justice. The real things happening in politics were so unbelievable that it just became way easier to accept the previously impossible. History has gone in a great cycle.

So how do you filter through everything that’s going on and pick out which plots are real and which are implausible? We’re all measuring each other up these days, and you’re lying if you’re not — we’ve all got friends who have gone deep down the rabbit hole and consume weirder and weirder theories.** We’ve got friends who believe absolutely none of it. Most people try and place themselves in the middle. It is unbelievably easy to get swept up in the tide of crazy news. I’ve consciously disengaged and don’t — can’t — follow the news as hard. But I think swimming in this atmosphere has made me want to write this kind of book as a way of channeling that feeling into something productive, rather than gripping my wonderscreen phone with fear as society shudders towards what feels like collapse. Not to fault the people who can follow the news: I’m personally just losing my ability to do it. But I am still gripped, just like everyone else is, driven to find out what the hell is going on and why everything’s gone totally bonkers. Believing in conspiracies and plots that I know are fictional, at least, scratches the itch enough so that I’m able to maintain some perspective. I hope.

*Far more damaging than Russian propaganda news stories, by the way, is fucking fucking Fox fucking News publishing the most bullshitty bullshit for years and years. A book recently came out showing that left-wing media coverage at least had, like, a much higher probability of getting fact-checked or investigated at each level before it got picked up in higher and higher news outlets. Right-wing media tended to find stuff way on the fringe at put it on blast without really scrutinizing it. Which, while illuminating, is pretty exhausting. (Russian hacking to find kompromat in the DNC headquarters, and then releasing it, was hugely damaging, as it dominated the election from that point on. Please, please, I never want to have a conversation about that again.) It is absolutely not just right wing media though spreading unfactchecked stuff! Anyone else have boomers in their news feed throwing liberal-slanted memes up on facebook without taking a good hard look at them? I’ve called out former high school teachers something like twice in the last month for posting questionable memes. This is very uncomfortable for me to do. (Sorry if you are one of them now reading this. Know that I still like you and have a high opinion of you, and I forgive you for being taken in by a sophisticated cabal of web developers who have engineered a brain-chemical feedback loop of outrage and vindication in order to paralyze us to our screens. I am also paralyzed to my screen. Help. Please let me out. This is not a dance. My body is dying in a vat.)

**Some of them alarmingly become modern fascists — thankfully, almost nobody I know — but they describe it as getting ‘redpilled‘, the terminology of which is taken from that one scene in the Matrix where Neo’s offered the choice of taking the blue pill and going back to dreamland, or taking the redpill and ‘going down the rabbit hole’ to learn the truth. I think this trend of consuming progressively weirder news and getting radicalized has a lot to do with social media algorithms. I would highly recommend this Zeynep Tufekci article,  and this long piece about how youtube uses AI and bots in a feedback loop to cannibalize children’s TV characters and make mass-produced cartoons which bear little resemblance to entertainment.