Fear of a Black Metal: Cyclonopedia and Evil

Borrowing everything from the Scandinavians except the panda paint, America Black Metal bands blend the core aesthetic with other subgenres to great effect. Over the past few years, it has become my favorite accompanying sound for almost any activity. Its energy, its all-encompassing crests and crumbles, its sheer power moves me in ways no other genre has in many years. And I am not alone: The darkness of this stuff touches something in us, something buried deep in our beings, in our nature.

We cannot understand and fight evil as long as we consider it to be an abstract concept external to ourselves.
— Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Evil, p. 231

Among the best of this mix of subgenres (e.g., Seidr, Panopticon, Deafheaven, Liturgy, Krallice, Falls of Rauros, et al.), the undisputed masters stateside are Wolves in the Throne Room. Their Cascadian Black Metal is as majestic as it is monolithic, mixing the forest and the trees, their epic songs can be as dense as they are sparse. In a 2006 interview, they explain the draw of Black Metal:

True Norwegian Black Metal is completely unbalanced – that is why it is so compelling and powerful. It is the sound of utter torment, believing to one’s core that winter is eternal. Black Metal is about destruction, destroying humanity; destroying ones own self in an orgy of self loathing and hopelessness. I believe one must focus on this image of eternal winter in order to understand Black Metal for it is a crucial metaphor that reveals our sadness and woe as a race. In our hubris, we have rejected the earth and the wisdom of countless generations for the baubles of modernity. In return, we have been left stranded and bereft in this spiritually freezing hell.

To us, the driving impulse of Black Metal is more about deep ecology than anything else and can best be understood through the application of eco-psychology. Why are we sad and miserable? Because our modern culture has failed – we are all failures. The world around us has failed to sustain our humanity, our spirituality. The deep woe inside black metal is about fear – that we can never return to the mythic, pastoral world that we crave on a deep subconscious level. Black Metal is also about self loathing, for modernity has transformed us, our minds, bodies and spirit, into an alien life form; one not suited to life on earth without the mediating forces of technology, culture and organized religion. We are weak and pitiful in our strength over the earth – in conquering, we have destroyed ourselves. Black Metal expresses disgust with humanity and revels in the misery that one finds when the falseness of our lives is revealed (quoted in Smith, 2006).

The urge to return to our roots is a prevailing ethos in Black Metal of all paints. In Norway, it’s about returning to the Norse traditions that predate the Christian and Western influences on the culture there. For Wolves in the Throne Room, it’s about a return to nature. “Our music is balanced in that we temper the blind rage of Black Metal with the transcendent truths of the universe that reveal themselves with age and experience,” they continue. “Our relationship with the natural world is a healing force in our lives” (quoted in Smith, 2006). Drummer and one half of the brothers that make up the core of Wolves in the Throne Room, Aaron Weaver was taken by Black Metal upon first hearing it. “… it’s more about creating a trance effect. It’s really got more in common with shamanic drumming and with noise music. It’s not heavy metal, it’s not riffs, it’s not head-banging music at all… It’s meditative music. Most heavy metal is very extroverted. It’s about putting on a big show and head banging and drinking a beer with your buddies. Black metal is the exact opposite. It’s all about gazing inwards and trying to discover things about yourself” (quoted in Moyer, p. 42). Having seen these guys live last year, I can truly say that their music is introspective to the point of turning one inside out.

Weaver discusses the connections between Black metal and the radical Northwestern culture he and his brother are immersed in, both of which are about “critiquing civilization, yearning for a more ancient sense of the world, a connection with tradition and nature that we’ve perhaps lost as modern people.” That’s not the whole of it, of course, he adds, “Then the darker side of it as well exists in both worlds. In both the Black Metal world and the ecological punk world, a hatred of humanity and a strong sense of misanthropy as we look around and see what humanity has wrought” (Moyer, p. 42).

We are going back to the future and forward to the past, engaging all of history’s villains and saints in quick time… Ancient ethnic sores are belching fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business oblivious to the fuedal past below. — Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 18.

Aside from Lords of Chaos (feral house, 2003) and the documentary Until the Light Takes Us (2009), Hideous Gnosis (CreateSpace, 2010) is the most in-depth exploration of what Black Metal’s not-so-joyous noise might mean to fans and to theorists of same. Though it’s a compilation of essays, documents, and thoughts from a symposium by the same name, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, New York, the book stands alone well as a collection of academic work on the subject. Edited by Nicola Masciandaro, it brings together pieces by Steven Shakespeare, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix (of Liturgy), Eugene Thacker, Reza Negarestani, and Evan Calder Williams, among many others, as well as naysayers and haters from the blog’s comments section, “to bask in the speculative glory of the problematic,” as Reza Negarestani puts it (quoted in Masciandaro, p. 267). Whenever academics or nerds turn their attention to something so sacredly held as Black Metal, its fans are likely to be wary. But if you, like me, enjoy immersing yourself in as many aspects as possible of the things you love, this collection is a welcome addition to Blackened Theory, the literature, music, thought, and culture that is Black Metal — and the internal, eternal evil that drives it.

@1jamiebell: What’s the speed of dark? (Tweeted March 22, 2012)

Another symposium collection, Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium (punctum books, 2011) brings together scholars to discuss Reza Negarestani’s world-warping book Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (re.press, 2008). Not since Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (Pantheon, 2000) have I been so simultaneously intrigued and scared of a book. It is a return to the “hidden prehistory” (as Steven Shaviro describes it) of the dark global forces of the twenty-first century. It is at once philosophical fiction, nomad archeology, Middle Eastern occult study, object-oriented ontology, and straight-up horror, all centered on Western civilization’s lust for oil, the darkest of matters. Leper Creativity sets out to excavate this work’s dark secrets. Their own introductory language reads as follows:

Essays, articles, artworks, and documents taken from and inspired by the symposium on Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials, which took place on 11 March 2011 at The New School. Hailed by novelists, philosophers, artists, cinematographers, and designers, Cyclonopedia is a key work in the emerging domains of speculative realism and theory-fiction. The text has attracted a wide-ranging and interdisciplinary audience, provoking vital debate around the relationship between philosophy, geopolitics, geophysics, and art. At once a work of speculative theology, a political samizdat, and a philosophic grimoire, Cyclonopedia is a Deleuzo-Lovecraftian middle-eastern Odyssey populated by archeologists, jihadis, oil smugglers, Delta Force officers, heresiarchs, and the corpses of ancient gods. Playing out the book’s own theory of creativity – “a confusion in which no straight line can be traced or drawn between creator and created – original inauthenticity” – this multidimensional collection both faithfully interprets the text and realizes it as a loving, perforated host of fresh heresies. The volume includes an incisive contribution from the author explicating a key figure of the novel: the cyclone.

More than worthy of a symposium as such, Cyclonopedia bridges and problematizes the divide between modern, global politics and the dark forces of ancient humanity. Claudia Card (2002) wrote, “The denial of evil has become an important strand of twentieth-century secular Western culture” (p. 28). To deny evil is to deny ourselves, to deny a part of our positive nature. Cyclonopedia digs deep into both sides. It is a triumph in both form and content. We’re dropped into the first hole in the plot as a young American woman arrives at a hotel in Istanbul to meet an online acquaintance with an unpronounceable name who never actually shows up. She finds a manuscript in her hotel room and begins culling its clues leaving her to wonder if her friend from afar was real at all (as Johnny did Zumpano in House of Leaves). “Meanwhile, as the War on Terror escalates,” the jacket copy explains, “the U. S. is dragged into an asymmetrical engagement with occultures whose principles are ancient, obscure, and saturated in oil. It is as if war itself is feeding upon the warmachines, leveling cities into the desert, seducing the aggressors into the dark heart of oil.” As Howard Bloom (1995) explains, “Behind the writhing of evil is a competition between organizational devices, each trying to harness the universe to its own particular pattern, each attempting to hoist the cosmos one step higher on a ladder of increasing complexity” (p. 325). The Middle East is sentient, alive, proclaims the embedded manuscript’s author Dr. Hamid Parsani, dark forces its lifeblood, its story the evil of all of history — human and nonhuman.

“Evil is a by-product, a component, of creation” Bloom (1995, p. 2) writes matter-of-factly. To understand its legion forces, we have to look extensively at the edges between nefarious, non-human history, as well as the insidious inside ourselves. It is in this way that the draw of Black Metal and the study of its ethos is something we cannot afford to ignore.

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Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium is available as a free download from punctum books. Many thanks to Kenyatta Cheese who emailed me about Cyclonopedia almost two years ago. Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake.

References:

Beck, Don, & Cowan, Christopher. (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bloom, Howard. (1995). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Card, Claudia. (2002). The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil. New York: Oxford University Press.

Masciandro, Nicola. (ed.) (2010). Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Symposium 1. New York: CreateSpace.

Moyer, Matthew. (2011, Winter). Wolves in the Throne Room: From Mount Olympia. Ghetto Blaster, 30, 40-42.

Negarestani, Reza. (2008). Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. New York: re.press.

Smith, Bradley. (2006). Interview with Wolves in the Throne Room. Nocturnal Cult.

Keller, Ed, Nicola Masciandaro, Nicola, & Thacker, Eugene. (eds.). (2011). Leper Creativity: Cyclonopedia Symposium. New York: punctum books.

Svendsen, Lars. (2010). A Philosophy of Evil. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive.

The Deleuzian Delusion

Michel Foucault once said that the twentieth century might eventually be considered Deleuzian, and he still may end up being right.  Gilles Deleuze, and his frequent cowriter, Félix Guattari, wrote some unignorable books in the late decades of last century, the two volumes Anti-Oedipus (University of Minnesota Press, 1983) and A Thousand Plateaus (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) being the two most prominent in either’s canon. Each has an extensive body of work in his own right, but Deleuze casts a large shadow over his friend and colleague. Such a shadow in fact, that it prompted Ian Bogost to Tweet the following on March 3rd, 2012:

@ibogost: Earnest, snark-free question: how did Deleuze get so popular? What is it about Deleuze that is so appealing to so many?

Assemblages, rhizomes, bodies-without-organs, repetition, difference… I can’t claim to have an answer to Bogost’s question, as I can’t claim to understand much of the Deleuze that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of it, and a lot of it more than twice). I do know that a lot of it is difficult simply by dint of the contrarian angle on subjectivity: These books challenge the fundamental way(s) most of us tend to feel that being in the world works. Holland (1999) opens his book with the obvious: “The Anti-Oedipus is not easy to read” (p. 1). About writing it with his coauthor, Deleuze said, “Between Félix and his diagrams and me with my verbal concepts, we wanted to work together, but we didn’t know how” (2006, p. 238). And about A Thousand Plateaus, he mused, “Now we didn’t think for a minute of writing a madman’s book, but we did write a book in which you no longer know, or need to know, who is speaking…” (quoted in Nadaud, 2006, p. 19). On page 22 of the latter, they even write it out, in black and white: “We are writing this book as a rhizome. It is compose of plateaus. We have given it a circular form, but only for laughs.” How is one to make sense of bastard philosophy such as this?

I once asked my friend and mentor Steven Shaviro what path to take as I embarked upon the plateaus alone for the first time. He suggested using Claire Parnet’s Dialogues (Columbia University Press, 1987) as a sort of crib notes to the two major volumes mentioned above. Dialogues was compiled between the writing of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Deleuze talked about the book’s in-betweenness (i.e., its being between both the two books and the three authors), writing that what mattered was “the collection of bifurcating, divergent, and muddled lines which constituted this book as a multiplicity and which passed between the points, carrying them along without going from one to the other” (Deleuze & Parnet, 1987, p. ix). And so it goes. My Deleuzian delusion is that I’ll ever get a handle on this stuff.

Somewhat thankfully, there is now Gilles Deleuze: From A to Z (Semiotext(e), 2012), a three-DVD set of those liminal lines between Deleuze and Parnet. Covering topics alphabetically, from A for “Animal” to Z for “Zigzag,” it’s a rare and interesting look at the man and his letters. Unlike the film Derrida (Jane Doe Films, 2002) on Jacques Derrida, of course, this is not really a documentary. Parnet, a former student of Deleuze’s, knew him well, and director Pierre-André Boutang likens Deleuze and Parnet to a Jazz duo, playing off of each other in an improvisation of concepts and cons, using the alphabet as a grounding framework. “Deleuze had taken into account the fact that each reel lasted ten minutes,” Boutang (2004) wrote, “which produced a rhythm. And the charm of 16mm film is that the sound reel lasts longer than the image. With some people, you cut once the image stops. You don’t feel like doing that with Deleuze” (p. 7). During the discussion about culture (C is for Culture), Deleuze says, “Talking is dirty. Writing is clean.” If you snuggle in to watch this DVD, get ready for four hours of dirty, dirty talking.

Many others have tried to make sense of Deleuze in book form, with various tropes and varying degrees of success. The most recent being Gregory Flaxman. Flaxman is not new to Deleuze: His previous book was The Brain is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2000). His latest, Gilles Deleuze and the Fabulation of Philosophy: Powers of the False, Volume 1 (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), uses the idea of friendship as an initial condition from which to reexamine Deleuze’s philosophy. Covering everything from Deleuze’s apprenticeship with Friedrich Nietzsche to his vow to overthrow Plato, Flaxman reintroduces aesthetics to Deleuzian studies, showing how Deleuze situated fiction in the center of a minor philosophy. He writes, “Deleuze declares no abiding loyalties: not only does he mingle with countless philosophers, but he flirts with just as many writers, filmmakers, and artists” (p. 181). This nomadic “promiscuity” is one more reason that the well of Deleuze’s ideas isn’t likely to run dry any time soon, and Flaxman’s is a deep and welcome reconsideration. Moreover, his focus on friendship is intriguing. Stivale (1998) wrote, “This rapport of friendship lies, I believe, at the very core of these authors’ collaborative engagement…” (p. ix). Nietzsche freed Deleuze from the arid areas of academe, and Deleuze focused Guattari without truncating his thoughts too much (which, if you’ve read any Guattari without Deleuze, you know they needed a trim here and there; though Deleuze might not agree with my assessment: He speaks highly and fondly of Guattari in A to Z [L for Loyalty]).

Speaking of friendship, if you’d like a more personal — and historical — look at Deleuze and his main co-conspirator, there’s François Dosse’s Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives (Columbia University Press, 2010), which, appropriately enough, is 651 pages long. The duo met shortly after the revolts of May, 1968 (to which Anti-Oedipus is largely a reaction: “Initially it was less a question of pooling knowledge than the accumulation of our uncertainties,” Guattari said in Chaosophy [2009, p. 69]). Guattari had just been passed over as Lacan’s successor, which sent him into a deep depression tempered only by throes of mania. With a milder manner and more comfort within his confines, Deleuze was the calm of their storm, a storm that still surges through classes and discussions in philosophy, postmodernism, post-structuralism, cultural studies, film studies, net criticism, and so on. So, what was their beef with Marx, Freud, Plato, and every other thinker (save Nietzsche and Foucault, of course) that preceded them? It’s all here. Dosse’s book is the definitive story of these two major collaborators, thinkers, writers, jokesters, and, perhaps above all, friends.

Desire is under it all, according to the iconoclastic French duo. The capitalism machine creates layers and layers of desires and subsequently splits selves into schizophrenia (hence the subtitle of both volumes of their two-volume work: Capitalism and Schizophrenia). William Carlos Williams (1923) once wrote, “The pure products of America go crazy.” That’s not exactly what they meant, but maybe that’s why Deleuze, along with Guattari, have such a hold on the academy’s mass mind: Our spirits are all spiraling apart in so many separate ways, just as they said they would all those years ago. But maybe, as they were, we can still be friends.

References:

Boutang, Pierre-André. (2004, February). Everything About Gilles Deleuze and Nothing About Gilles Deleuze. RevueVertigo, no. 25.

Boutang, Pierre-André (Director). (2012). Gilles Deleuze: A to Z, with Claire Parnet [DVD]. United States: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles. (2006). Letter to Uno: How We Worked Together. In Two Regimes of Madness. New York: Semiotext(e).

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1983). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Guattari, Félix. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Deleuze, Gilles & Parnet, Claire. (1987). Dialogues. New York: Columbia University Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1995). [front cover copy]. In Gilles Deleuze Negotiations. New York: Columbia University Press.

Guattari, Félix. (2009). Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977. New York: Semiotext(e).

Holland, Eugene W. (1999). Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Introduction to Schizoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

Massumi, Brian. (1992). A User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Nadaud, Stéphane. (2006). Love Story between an Orchid and a Wasp. In Guattari, Félix, The Ani-Oedipus Papers. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 11-22.

Stivale, Charles J. (1998). The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari: Intersections and Animations. New York: Guilford.

Williams, William Carlos. (1923). Spring and All.

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I am indebted to Steven Shaviro, Katie Arens, and Ken Wark for what little I understand about the subject(s) at hand.

Temporary Eponymous Zone: SXSW 2012

SXSW can always be considered an extreme example of the platitude “when it rains, it pours,” but this year, it was a bit too literal. SXSW Interactive weekend was a rainy, sloppy affair like I haven’t seen in my few years in Austin. Someone — nay many ones — downtown likely made a killing on rain boots and umbrellas because they were everywhere, and I know nobody packed those for the trip. Once Interactive was over and the guard changed for Music, the rain had subsided and the sun shone again. The outdoor shows that would have been a drenched disaster went on without weather-induced incident.

I started off my own, soggy SXSW Interactive with a quiet breakfast with Howard Rheingold. He was here to talk about his new book, Net Smart (MIT Press, 2012), and it was his first time at SXSW since he was the keynote speaker for Interactive ten years ago. His book Smart Mobs (Basic Books, 2002) was just out then. Lots has changed around the conference since, but the ideas in that book were prescient (as proven by its echoes in Amber Case’s SXSWi keynote this year). Net Smart will definitely send out the same temporal ripples. Other than books, Howard and I talked about everything from the weather and breakfast to life and careers. It was so nice to sit down with one of my mentors for a face-to-face interaction after over ten years of virtual ones.

Next on the list of rain-limited events was a trip to Red 7 to see my friends Jake Flores, Ryan Cownie, Seth Cockfield, Brook Van Poppelen, Lucas Molandes, Nick Mullen, Blake Midgette, Kath Barbadoro, and others put on some free funny. Now, a show like this is a fairly typical night for me here in Austin, but this line-up is like three really good versions of those nights all put together. We had to go through a wormhole to find the back door to Red 7, and once inside we found our friends in the dark, damp, abandoned-warehouse feel of Red 7’s backside (there was some other event hogging up the inside space). Assorted badges followed us in, but most quickly left. The venue was perfect for the material in play though: dirty, dark, wet, hilarious. For those outside the community, the Austin stand-up comedy scene is one of its best kept secrets. It boasts not only open mics nearly every night of the week, but damn funny line-ups on a regular. Jake’s show was no exception. Against all the SXSW rules, we left early to catch Ume at Stubb’s.

Ume played on the big, outdoor stage at Stubb’s, which left us happily skanking in the mud. Eric Larson was out of town, but Mark Turk filled in nicely on bass, even after only two rehearsals. He and Rachel held down the rhythm and rumble while Lauren brought the flash. Fresh off of a Left Coast tour with Cursive, Lauren kept up her supernova energy (this was also only the second of no less than eleven shows Ume played during SXSW). The last couple of times I’ve seen them, they’ve ended with a new song that sounds like Lauren is singing for Kyuss. The track is thick, heavy and huge. According the Eric, the working title is “Black Stone.” I’m anxious to play it very loud on my headphones. We saw them again on Tuesday at Bat Bar with Eric happily reinstalled. Even with sound issues, they never disappoint.

Ume's Lauren Larson rocking Stubb's. (photo by Lily Brewer)

Monday found me getting my Music badge, which I’d tried to get the previous Friday, but was denied. Credentialed up, I met Alex Burns for lunch. Alex and I have worked in tandem on at least two versions of 21C Magazine as well as several years together on the Disinformation website. Alex is another great mind with whom I’ve been in touch and exchanged ideas for over a decade and finally met IRL at SXSW. People say it every year, but it cannot be overstated: The sidebar conversations that an event like SXSW affords are very often its true value.

Dave Allen, Hank Shocklee, and I hamming it up in the green room. (photo by David Ewald)

While meeting in the green room preparing for our panel “What Happened to the Big Idea in Music Technology?,” Hank Shocklee stopped by to say hello. As one of the sonic architects behind the sound of Public Enemy, Hank has had a profound influence on the way music sounds in the twenty-first century, as well as my appreciation thereof. It felt more than appropriate to run into him before we took the stage. Dave Allen (North), David Ewald (Uncorked Studios), Jesse von Doom (CASH Music), and I had done a version of this talk in San Francisco last September at SF MusicTech Summit. At SXSW Music, we were joined by Anthony Batt (BUZZnet, Katalyst, etc.) and novelist and music critic Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm, On Celestial Music, and many others). This gathering of minds represented every aspect of the issues we were addressing: From artists to fans and from technologists to journalists, we used everyone’s expertise and experience to express our opinions about the direction music is headed as an industry, a cultural practice, and as a commercial enterprise. Ours is a discussion that will continue as long as people love making and hearing music and other people try to capitalize on that love.

Speaking of music technology, the Vinylrecorder T-560 was on display at the trade show. This device allows one to cut a vinyl record from recordings on a computer. It’s like burning a CD, except it offers the “warmth” of vinyl playback. As many times as events at festivals like this prompt me to question what year they think it is (e.g., Bruce Springsteen? Counting Crows? Billy Corgan? We’re only doomed to repeat history if our elders keep force-feeding it to us.), I have to admit that the idea of pressing my own records looked like the kind of useless fun I often enjoy most. Home recording fun notwithstanding, the back-to-the-future approach of the Vinylrecorder is a great metaphor for many of the attitudes represented in music technology: “How do we use what we have now to get back to the way things were?” they seem to be asking.

This is part of the reason we gathered to talk about these issues. There’s no going back. Technology has lowered the barriers to entry, but you still have to be good at what you do. The internet has made fame much easier and fortune nearly impossible. You have to learn the technology. It’s easier now than ever to get heard, yet harder to stand out. Events like SXSW emphasize just how noisy and cluttered the current music milieu is. How do you cut through it all? If you want engagement, be engaging. Show us something. Doug Stanhope has a joke about how you never see ads for drugs. “If you have a good product,” he says, “people will find it. You don’t need to advertise.” No one owes you a living just because you make music (or Doug as a comedian, or me as a writer, etc.), but if you do something people want, they will find you. Rain or shine.

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Many, many thanks to Dave Allen, David Ewald, Anthony Batt, Jesse von Doom, and Rick Moody for the great discussions both on and off the stage; to Hank Shocklee for the chat; to Rebecca Gates for coming by; to Howard Rheingold and Alex Burns for sharing meals and beers; to Andy Flynn for hooking it all up; to Ume for rocking everything as usual; to Tarryn Lambert and friends for the lively debate; to Brooke Pankey for braving the city streets on a bicycle with us; to Luke and Abby Brewer for walking nine miles even though we couldn’t get their young selves into a show; and special, special thanks to Lily for enduring the whole week with me.