Social Media Post on Sublingual Multimedia's Personal Blog dated 5/30/2022
This might be a lot for social media, but I need to vent, and I think here on social media I find an audience familiar with the broad strokes of my life and practice, but stranger enough that I might find some distance from these events which have shaken up my life in the past few years. Up until last fall, I was in fairly regular contact with a friend named Lewis. I had met Lewis a year into Obama's second term and was impressed by his charisma as well as his ability to make connections across domains. We immediately bonded over a shared love of art history, but I was never able to wrap my head around his ideas about representation. At this point, Lewis was a pHd candidate at a small research university in South Jersey studying the genomic sequences that are responsible for pigmentation patterns on mammals. You might've read an article around 2015 that made its rounds on reddit and science blogs about so-called "Zebra Mice" bred in the lab where Lewis worked - a more exciting story for those who aren't aware that Zebra Mouse is already a colloquial term for the striped mice used as a starting point for experimentation.
Now, I'm not usually one to pass judgement on other people's obsessions, but in my estimation, Lewis was afflicted by a curse that most would consider a luxury - the curse of too much free time. Maybe if he had worked on the more labor intensive side of the project he would've found more satisfaction in caring for these mutant mice, but that was considered a task for interns and research assistants, besides the fact that Lewis was commuting from Doylestown, where he lived at the time. Lewis worked on the software end of the project, and spent one frenzied evening each week crunching data - of course, reader, you are probably familiar with this archetypal worker, having spent years immersed in quarentine economics, but Lewis was making it work before COVID reached our metropolis, and slowly distanced himself from his colleages while throwing himself into his ideas about space.
I should clarify - Lewis is no astronomer, but he is interested in the idea of space - the geometric construct. Here I struggle, because I imagine anybody that could be reading this has some intuitive understanding of space, but I have to draw a distinction between the way a mathemetician thinks about space verses the way a non-mathematician thinks about space. I think what Lewis recognized is tha there is a deep subjectivity to this topic, so please don't think I condescend and feel free to skim if this all seems quite obvious. From birth, we develop an intuitive understanding of distance that stays with us all our lives. Simply traversing space grants an understanding of distance in terms of motions of the body - throwing a ball at a wall or riding a bike does much the same, with an extension of the body. As we grow, the world shrinks around us, and as we distrust our own measure, we admire athletes who perform for us feats that are only possible with an accurate understanding of the body and space.
Mathematicians, on the other hand, see space in terms of a set of rules through which we might construct a system which can be talked about objectively without engaging in vague, anthropocentric ideas of the body. One such system, Euclidian space, is such a close approximation to the space we experience here on earth that it has been used for millenia by engineers to communicate with eachother and with craftspeople or builders. In my experience as a machinist, I always had to keep in mind that the drawings of an engineer were rendered in this ideal space where a part could be exactly three hundred millimeters long, and while my tools could come closer to a measurement than the human eye can register, my work could only ever be within tolerance - decimal places deep into a measurement the discrepency between the space I inhabit and the space I imagine would be revealed. It's my understanding as well that mathematicians speculate about different kinds of space that follow rules unfamiliar to us, but may have some correspondance with physical reality at the quantum scale or in the middle of a black hole.
I loved talking about space with Lewis, but he always seemed slightly disturbed by the assumptions at play, and I have to admit, my own interpretation, outlined above, likely raises more questions than answers. I think Lewis found it hard to accept that we live and experience a world so tightly bounded by what to him was an arbitrary set of spatial rules. This is the point, philosophically, where I bow out, and accept that there is some mystery to the arrangement of the cosmos that I'm not likely to solve within my lifetime. Lewis had a solution, however, one that I have never been confident in my ability to pass judgement on, though I admire its boldness. Lewis's pet project was crafting and refining a theory of the nonexistence of space. Lewis rejected the notion that we live in space, and thought that images were the stuff of lived experience, while space is and could only be a mathematical toy. From what I understand, this idea isn't in itself totally unfamiliar to academics. To me it sounds similar to Aristotle's idea that a void cannot exist and that matter is continuous even in the vacuum of space. Lewis seemed unique as a space denier not in his theoretical framework but in his commitment to reading ideas about space into the world around him.
I think for Lewis, everything bad in the world could be improved if humanity wasn't weighed down by the idea of space. Every election season we could look forward to a new diatribe about how the flaws in the electoral map could be chalked up to an instistance that space is an entity with the authority to override popular opinion, and we were with him up to a point. It almost seemed, however, that people also weren't the most disenfranchised party in Lewis's political map. I think that to Lewis, ideas or images were the truly conscious and neglected entities in the world, and humans were just machines operating in service of a malignant spacial function. After enough mixed drinks, Lewis would boldly declare space "A parasite feasting upon our Earthly utopia" with enough gusto that few would question his thinking.
Lewis's world was fascinating to me, but I have to admit my idea of him was tainted by more than a little jealousy - at that point me and Al, my partner and now my husband, were working fairly thankless and low-wage jobs, Al at a prestigious but poorly organized nonprofit and myself at a fabrication shop. At that point, I would have done anything for the amount of time Lewis found himself with and the fact that he never had to hustle outside of running his research algorthm and collecting his meager researcher's salary, with his wife taking care of the rest. I met Lewis thanks to Al, who met his wife, Jackie, in his college improv troupe. Jackie is a natural performer, and involved herself in the DIY scene where she met me and connected me with Al, who I have known and loved ever since. Jackie and Lewis had a troubled start to their relationship until Jackie hit the road, pulling her family's country western variety shows out of arrears by firing several rather unimpressive lasso performers and cutting a rather generous informal pension granted to a rodeo clown by her grandfather in the 80s (From what I understand, Freckles is now recieving Social Security payments and never had the resources to follow up on his lawsuit threats) as well as selling off some properties from a rather obscure Kensington-based country music label.
Jackie's ruthlessness with business kept Lewis comfortable while she was on tour, and I think the distance did them some good. When Jackie moved back to the city in 2017, Jackie was more forthcoming about her reasons why than Lewis. She was sick of the country-western aesthetic, to the point where the sight of a rolling Appalachian landscape made her nauseous, and wanted to be closer to her friends in the city. Lewis, I think, had a little bit of a crisis behind the scenes when his phD program came to an end and he found himself alienated from his co-researchers, without enough connections to take his academic career further and with his theory on space existing somewhere between math and philosophy and too far from his field of expertise. They moved from Doylestown to Frankford to try and "start fresh" and me and Al were excited to see them more often as their new apartment would be within rapid transit distance. Lewis and Jackie also married around this same time, from what I understand a very small ceremony which Al and I were not involved with.
Simultaneously, Al and I were making moves. My long-languishing multimedia practice was finally gaining steam, and Al ditched his non-profit job in favor of a freelance writing contract. Before this point, my dialogue had been mainly with Lewis, with Jackie and I sharing only an interest in real estate listings, but when Jackie was looking for apartments she began to send me photos of the locations she was scouting. It was usually pretty bare-bones, just a couple photos of the main spaces along with the address or Zillow listing, unless I asked for more details as I occasionally would. I returned the favor by sending Jackie similar documentation of our apartment-hunting process, forwarding her my photos as well as Al's. Then, after they found a place Jackie pivoted to sending me photos of commercial spaces - usually small new construction storefronts, though I didn't usually get a photo of the façade - it seemed that Jackie was mostly interested in functional space and well-trafficked location. When I asked what she was planning to do with the space, I recieved an evasive answer - something about a "multi-purpose workspace" and I didn't pry anymore. I was looking for something similar, after all - a home office suitable to take on the role of my multimedia thinkspace, where I could take my practice into the unknown future. I did find it in time, and I'm glad to be writing this within a space where I've come to love exercising my craft.
A few months later, Al and I threw a housewarming party, and Jackie and Lewis made their way down to our neighborhood. Among the many other connections I hoped to make that night, I was glad to finally introduce them to my multimedia firm's "hard science" advisor Steve. It is a great joy to have so many of my muses in one place - one that I hope all creative minds might one day experience - but it always feels like a delicate balance, each having their own unique set of sensitivities. I think Lewis was warming up to Steve, and I ushered them to the side into my thinkspace so that I might talk about my practice with them. In truth, Steve and I had hatched a bit of a conspiracy to pick Lewis's brain. Understand first that there is hardly a corner of my multimedia firm untouched by Steve's feedback, which is very valuable to me. In contrast, though we could have a dense philosophical conversation, I had been very hesitant to talk to Lewis about my work. I think this was because I was unsure about what Lewis would think about the role of space in my work. Certainly, as I took my practice from the drafting table to the realm of computer graphics, I began to work in an even more rigorously mathematical space. However, I have difficulty separating the idea of a space from the idea of an image - to me, any technique I use to describe or manipulate geometry is in service of a final image. If I flatter myself, I would say that my work exists in tension between the model and the image.
So given Lewis's aversion to space, Steve and I concocted an experiment. I would show Lewis first my exercises in generated textures and patterns - something we felt would almost certainly be digestable to him. Then, we would show him different methods of projecting these patterns into space and onto three dimensional objects. Steve compared it to "boiling a frog" with the end goal to extract from Lewis a more rigorous definition of what qualifies as a space and what qualifies as an image. Unfortunately, due to my carelessness, I will never know the result of such an experiment. When we sat down at my computer, Lewis noticed an open Discord window - Jackie had, earlier that day, sent me a photo of an empty room on a busy avenue that had once been a tattoo parlor - although now whitewashed and joyless, turned to a blank slate in service of real estate speculation. Lewis snatched the mouse out of my hand (which he later apologized for) and scrolled up through months and months worth of empty rooms and corresponding addresses, exchanged back and forth between myself and his wife. I could tell he was upset, and felt awful about my carelessness. For the rest of the night, he was brooding, and left early with Jackie. I would later learn that what I saw from him wasn't annoyance or discomfort at our dialogue of spaces, but rather (to my great discomfort) the triggering of an intense erotic fixation. I think Lewis was encountering a taboo he had set up for himself, and maybe Jackie was playing into it as well. I think, because of my role in this experience, my dialogue with Lewis greatly degraded from that point onwards and much of the rest of this story is pieced together, with the permission of all parties, from my conversations with Al, who has a closer personal dialogue with Jackie.
I gather that after their train ride home from our housewarming party that night, Jackie and Lewis concieved their first and only child.
At this point, reader, I must beg your forgiveness. I'm not proud of my role, or non-role in the events that follow, but I ask you to understand that Al and I had a sort of voyeuristic relationship with this other couple. We were happy to get a glimpse into their lives as a reference point for ours, and it felt like the sort of relationship where it wasn't our role to hold them to some standard of ethics, so we kept our distance and listened, judging later in private. Just know that the pain of your judgement is a minor scratch compared to the scars left from the constant self-flagellation such a relationship represents. Lewis and Jackie were going into this phase of their life with, relative to our existence, a lot of privilege and support. We were interested, and a little horrified, to watch them burn through their savings and goodwill. I simply ask that if you know me personally, you take my word that I am working against this tendency in myself to look for a neutral stance in a deeply flawed situation and seek distance from those I love.
Jackie quickly settled on a small storefront in a 19th century brick apartment building, and we learned more about their business plans. The plan was to set up a "nanoeatery" called the Stew Stop in trendy Fishtown along Frankford Ave. Looking back on it, I am in awe at how well I repressed my critical instinct. I used to have such an inclanation towards negativity that blocking it feels like supressing my gag reflex, and maybe this was an instance where I shouldn't have held back. But then again, they made it work for much longer than I expected. I'm sure that as soon as you read that pitch, you probably thought of the soup place on Frankford that shut down, the baked potato place on Girard that shut down, or maybe the post-apocalypse themed VR lounge that went out of business, and they were dealing with all the same issues. It was a high rent area, a low profit-margin product, and they didn't want to jack up the prices to rinse the gentrifier set, but what other play is there? In fairness, they both really threw themselves at the business. They were two individuals with one-track minds, and together they could almost hold something like that together. Jackie worked the business end of things and the front desk, and Lewis threw himself at the stew schedule. I haven't mentioned it, but Lewis really had a magic touch in the kitchen. He had a way of intuiting the state of a meal in progress from the texture of the ingredients and making that immediate appraisal that keeps any talented chef on track.
Their idea to negotiate the difficult landscape of restaurants was to offer two stews every day. One stew would be "On-Tap" - freshly prepared that morning at $8 a bowl, and another would be "Day-Old" at $4 per bowl. Lewis was in at sunrise every morning to do prep work, and Jackie and the unborn child, who they had decided to name Louis (AKA Little Lou) would always get the first taste. I will admit to a tinge of nostalgic sentimentality here, because Lewis's stews were truly flawless. My fond memory of his Moroccan Butternut Squash Stew, which I was lucky enough to enjoy "On-tap," colors that entire fall for me, and his Wild Rice/Rabbit stew was also a highlight, and his dessert stews were a real treat on a cold day. Ask Jackie entered her third trimester, however, it was obvious that burnout was starting to settle in. Hemmed in by a tight budget and a full schedule working in the kitchen six days a week and buying ingredients on Tuesdays, Lewis started to fall into his old habits. His latest obsession was cooking a "French Onion Stew" - caramelizing onions for days on end to get the perfect consistency. He began to see the empty space between the surface of the stew and the lip of the pot as an obstacle keeping him from properly evaluating his stews, and would fill his pots and pans until they were overflowing, until the surface tension broke and spilled savory liquid all over the burners, the smell of which would waft through the serving window and scare away customers. Lewis was constantly trying to unload his stews, and as their friends we would frequently find ourselves with a fridge full of "Two-Day-Olds" and "Three-Day-Olds." I think eventually, disposing of failed stews became just as much of a craft for Lewis as cooking, and I felt bad for his sous-chef and dishwasher who would find themselves straining two batches of soup that Lewis had prepared and rejected before they even clocked in, keeping the grease from clogging the old pipes while trying to remove enough fluid to fill up trash bags full of stew, and checking with Lewis at every step along the way, as he would become furious if they disposed of some element that he wished to use in a future stew. Customers became confused to find the "On-Tap" stew a frankenstein amalgamation of the previous week's stews while the "Day-Olds" were something whipped up by the assistants in an instant pot and often much more flavorful and well-proportioned.
Little Lou was born completely healthy several weeks after his due date. The Stew Stop, which had only been open for half a year, had not lived up to the new parents expectations and they decided to cut their losses and shut down the business. I think a smoothie shop opened up in its place. Jackie had a connection at Swathmore College who got her an adjunct job, and Lewis found some new grift working from home for a biotech company based on his pHd research.
It's unfortunate when the contrasts that serve a couple well when trying to simply live life turn into points of contention when it comes to child-rearing. I am a strong believer in healthy dialogue, but you can certainly get to a point where you're talking in circles and circles and I can only imagine that when the stopwatch of a living being's experience of childhood begins, there's an urgency to smooth over issues that just doesn't exist for two adults who have all the time and freedom in the world to come back around to the core of their relationship.
While Louis was still a swaddling infant, Jackie and Lewis became polarized about what his future education should look like. Jackie wanted to send Little Lou to a Quaker-run charter school that practices the Montessori method, a method of teaching that emphasizes play and exploring personal interests. Lewis wanted to give Louis - I don't want to say a more conventional education, but I think Jackie saw it that way. Lewis was enamored by the idea of "ipad babies" - children raised on a constant stream of images. I was familiar with the phenomenon, and had recently started noticing young children, toddlers sometimes, on the bus or train with their eyes glued to a digital screen. I made the mistake of pointing out to Lewis that many of the videos used for keeping kids occupied aren't just images, but computer-generated images that accurately describe a three dimensional space. I never heard back from Lewis, and that was the end of the dialogue between me and him.
Maybe that was my fault. I don't think our dialogue needed to end, and I would've liked to been able to support Lewis through everything that's happened since. I always liked egging him on when he got really into some niche idea, but I never stopped to consider if that was good for him, and for the people around me. From what I understand, Lewis and Jackie worked out a shared custody agreement over Louis, who spends three days each per week with Lewis and Jackie, and Sundays are spent with a third party who I am acquainted with but whose identity I am legally barred from revealing. If I leave you here, reader, please don't feel let down or disappointed. I believe that a wide range of different arrangements can form a family and a healthy environment and I have no doubt that Louis will grow up with all the love and perspective that anyone could ask for. I admire Lewis and Jackie for finding such a compromise, and I don't write this as a critique of their ways. Rather, I write to confess that I regret I won't be involved with Louis's upbringing. To know someone is to get a glimpse at a vast and complex landscape, and it hurts to be judged a poor navigator by those who are most familiar with the terrain. In these paragraphs I have written, I can assemble a map and chart my journey through the lives of my friends, but I can't change the outcome. I can only thank you for your patience and hope that revealing myself in this way to the public eye, which is far outside of my comfort zone, will help to correct my behavior and make me more sensitive to the needs of others.