'the hill we climb'

We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
And this effort very nearly succeeded.
But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
It can never be permanently defeated.
In this truth, in this faith we trust.
For while we have our eyes on the future,
History has its eyes on us.

Amanda Gorman, "The Hill We Climb," a poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, 1/20/2021.

odds and ends / 1.14.2021


We are a country built on fabrication, nostalgia and euphemism. And every time America shows the worst of itself, all the contradictions collapse into the lie I've heard nonstop for the last several years: 'This isn't who we are.'


Sam Sanders, "The Lies We tell Ourselves About Race." NPR, 1/10/2021. 

'This is not America.' That strange, contradictory phrase seems to descend like fog every time a legible and precedented event occurs in the United States. If it wasn’t America, it wouldn’t need to be said. Take the 1898 Wilmington insurrection, an all-American white nationalist riot also aimed at seizing state power, only it succeeded. Its example suggests that what happened this week was not a case of chickens coming home to roost. The chickens had simply never left. A more recent antecedent—one that I didn’t think could be forgotten so quickly—was the spectacle of armed right-wingers who filled statehouses last summer. These mobs were derided by many as mere LARPers, though the photos and videos suggested a high degree of professionalism—a dress rehearsal at the very least. It’s true that many of the people wandering through the Capitol looked ridiculous, too—decked out in horns and knockoff Marvel merch and Nazi-themed hoodies and Confederate symbols. Some people may treat the appearance of a Confederate flag as another bit of absurdity, but I’ve never had the luxury of taking it in any way other than literally and seriously. In certain situations it’s not worth trying to locate the line between playacting and enacting.

Blair McClendon, "Lost Lost Causes." N+1, 1/9/2021. 


LARPers: live-action role-playing, as in role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons.


NYT: Decoding "the iconography of the American far right." 

'It’s often all a caricature—it looks like military fan fiction—until it’s not and it crosses a very dangerous line,' said Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

'It’s funny until it’s scary,' she said. 

...[I]n an important sense all culture is larping—our species is Homo larpens at least as much as it is Homo narrans or ludens. The Viking who put on a bear sark was larping too. I larp every day I get up and pretend to be a competent professor of philosophy who understands anything at all about how the world works. This is all of course well-trodden ground for twentieth-century philosophy. Jean-Paul Sartre’s analysis of the waiter who was trying too hard to be a waiter—dressing up as a waiter each day and studiously imitating the bodily motions he associated with waiterdom—put to rest, if only incidentally, Heidegger’s expectation that there might be some deeper way of conducting ourselves that we can deem “authentic.” It’s just fake waiters all the way down, and fake philosophy professors, and mirror neurons spreading cultural patterns from one individual to the next. Another word for all that fakeness is, precisely, “culture.” And this is the danger of talk of larping: it reasserts willy-nilly the opposing, and dangerous, notion of authenticity.


Justin E. H. Smith, "An Exceptional Situation." 1/11/2021.


A lot of America slipped into conspiracy thinking during this pandemic, and they got there from yoga Instagrams and NFL forums and private church choir Facebook groups that were systematically invaded by QAnon and anti-vax recruiters. It’s going to be a rude awakening in the next few months as we find out which of our friends got sucked into truly astonishing tales of New World Orders and Great Resets that helped them cope—and just so happen to be spectacularly wrong.


Ben Collins, "We Need to Learn to Talk to (and About) Accidental Conspiracists." NiemanLab, 12/2020.

On mainstream social platforms, QAnon mushroomed out from its initial audience of angry alt-righters to infect accounts previously dedicated to crystals, yoga, and manifesting, where it got a glow-up, as it were, from the more aesthetically minded set. Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies how extremist groups use technology, coined the term “pastel QAnon” to describe the watered-down, sound-bite-friendly version with much more mass appeal than the angry (and much more masculine) original. Suddenly, QAnon hashtags were tucked into selfie captions on perfectly curated feeds that also extolled the wonders of detox tea—the kinds of accounts Jennifer followed. Highlights like “Covid?” and “Trafficking” were sandwiched between “Workouts” and “Meditation”; other times, they were hidden in Linktrees amid brand sponsorships.


Clio Chang, "The Unlikely Connection Between Wellness Influencers and the Pro-Trump Rioters." Cosmopolitan, 1/12/2021.


Please, sit down. I’ve got a whole bag of Cool Ranch Doritos here: electric blue, plump as a winter seed, bursting with imminent joy. ... Join me. Grab whatever you've got. Open the bag. Pinch it on its crinkly edges and pull apart the seams. Now we’re in business: We have broken the seal. The inside of the bag is silver and shining, a marvel of engineering—strong and flexible and reflective, like an astronaut suit. Lean in, inhale that unmistakable bouquet: toasted corn, dopamine, America, grief!


Sam Anderson, "I Recommend Eating Chips."  The New York Times Magazine, 1/13/2021.


Félix Valloton, Bathers Caught in a Storm (Les baigneuses surprises par l'orage), 1893.

january first

The year’s doors open
like those of language
toward the unknown.
Last night you told me:
we shall have to think up signs,
sketch a landscape, fabricate a plan
on the double page
of day and paper.
Tomorrow, we shall have to invent,
once more,
the reality of this world.

I opened my eyes late
For a second of a second
I felt what the Aztec felt,
on the crest of the promontory,
lying in wait
for time’s uncertain return
through cracks in the horizon.

But no, the year had returned.
It filled all the room
and my look almost touched it.
Time, with no help from us,
had placed
in exactly the same order as yesterday
houses in the empty street,
snow on the houses,
silence on the snow.

You were beside me,
still asleep.
The day had invented you
but you hadn’t yet accepted
being invented by the day.
—Nor possibly my being invented, either.
You were in another day.

You were beside me
and I saw you, like the snow,
asleep among the appearances.
Time, with no help from us,
invents houses, streets, trees,
and sleeping women.

When you open your eyes
we’ll walk, once more,
among the hours and their inventions.
We’ll walk among appearances
and bear witness to time and its conjugations.
Perhaps we’ll open the day’s doors.
And then we shall enter the unknown.

                                   Cambridge, Mass., 1 January 1975.

Octavio Paz, translated by Elizabeth Bishop.


Originally posted 1/1/2011.

a christmas carol: louis armstrong - white christmas

Posted waaaaay back on 12/19/ 2010. It's snowing, so it looks like it will be a white Christmas here. 

Wishing you coziness, comfort, and rest however you can find them in these last few days of 2020.

imaginary outfit: jólabókaflóð 2020 (and too many books to read in the time allotted)

Ah! Another year, another jólabókaflóð upon us! Come, let us don our party gowns and soft-soled slippers, deck ourselves in antique diamonds, and curl up on silk-upholstered divans under tufted velvet quilts. The lamps are lit, and the soft glow limns trays of crumbly, deliciously moldy cheese, ruddy-cheeked pears, and faceted goblets of Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes. Tiles of glazed gingerbread teeter in stacks, impressed with beguilingly peculiar images—a woman tending bees, three running hares, an ammonite. But the true glories await on silver salvers, perched on a respondent marquetry table inlaid with mother-of-pearl stars: old, old books—books with marbled fore-edges, books with uncut pages. Books that dust your fingertips with gilt as you turn a new leaf. A paper knife is to hand, and someone has thoughtfully stopped all the clocks. We can read as much (and as long) as we wish.

A dream; a dream.


The idea of uncut pages is a fragment half-remembered from Anna Karenina. I skim the Constance Garnett translation, looking for the reference:

Anna answered a few words, but not foreseeing any entertainment from the conversation, she asked Annushka to get a lamp, hooked it onto the arm of her seat, and took from her bag a paper-knife and an English novel. At first her reading made no progress. The fuss and bustle were disturbing; then when the train had started, she could not help listening to the noises; then the snow beating on the left window and sticking to the pane, and the sight of the muffled guard passing by, covered with snow on one side, and the conversations about the terrible snowstorm raging outside, distracted her attention. Farther on, it was continually the same again and again: the same shaking and rattling, the same snow on the window, the same rapid transitions from steaming heat to cold, and back again to heat, the same passing glimpses of the same figures in the twilight, and the same voices, and Anna began to read and to understand what she read. Annushka was already dozing, the red bag on her lap, clutched by her broad hands, in gloves, of which one was torn. Anna Arkadyevna read and understood, but it was distasteful to her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people’s lives. She had too great a desire to live herself. If she read that the heroine of the novel was nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man; if she read of a member of Parliament making a speech, she longed to be delivering the speech; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister-in-law, and had surprised everyone by her boldness, she too wished to be doing the same. But there was no chance of doing anything; and twisting the smooth paper-knife in her little hands, she forced herself to read. 

Tolstoy: coming through with an uncannily resonant metaphor. 


I did force myself to read, again and again, this year, trying to get my attention back in line, knowing the only real escape available to me was burrowing into a book. To tempt myself, I ordered books with abandon, anything that caught my eye, spending un-needed gas money at various small bookstores. 

Rifling through my to-read pile, with one eye on the clock, as I steal an hour on Christmas Eve to type this, here is an alphabetical summary of some of what I find:

Eula Biss, Having and Being Had. On Immunity was such a dazzler that I will read whatever she writes, though there is something alienating about the quality of self-reflection in some of her other writings.  Lauren Oyler gets close to it here (n.b, NYT link): 

Professional artists—who are paid completely arbitrary but potentially significant sums to do the thing they most want to do, by entities that range from nefarious to worthy—are in some ways well situated to examine the contradictions of class. In other ways, though, people “compelled” to make art (as Biss says she is) don’t know much about reality at all: they are the rare, lucky individuals whose lives approach the ideal ...

Frances Borzello, Seeing Ourselves: Women's Self-Portraits. I somehow stumbled across Rachel Cooke's 2016 review in The Observer (the book—a survey of women artists, and how they depicted themselves, from 14th century on—was published in 1998) and was sold from the first line: "Some books are so beautiful, you tremble to open them." After listing a selection of the women featured, Cooke concludes:

Here are ideas for a hundred novels I will never write, or perhaps just one too-clever-by-half genre-bending book on female identity which, if I had the time and the money, I would research in the grand libraries of the world, this volume on my desk in every single one.

Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet and The Complete Stories. Ever since I edited a short piece on Carrington in Broccoli Issue 05, I have meant to read her work. Merve Emre's piece in the 12/21/2020 New Yorker is a compelling nudge:

When asked to describe the circumstances of her birth, the Surrealist painter and writer Leonora Carrington liked to tell people that she had not been born; she had been made. One melancholy day, her mother, bloated by chocolate truffles, oyster purée, and cold pheasant, feeling fat and listless and undesirable, had lain on top of a machine. The machine was a marvellous contraption, designed to extract hundreds of gallons of semen from animals—pigs, cockerels, stallions, urchins, bats, ducks—and, one can imagine, bring its user to the most spectacular orgasm, turning her whole sad, sick being inside out and upside down. From this communion of human, animal, and machine, Leonora was conceived. When she emerged, on April 6, 1917, England shook.

Ted Chiang, Exhalation. Most newish movies seem to evaporate out of my consciousness as the closing credits roll, but Arrival (a linguist works to communicate with alien life; time and questions of free will percolate) didn't. It was based on a Chiang short story and made me curious to read his work.

Jamaica Kincaid, My Garden Book. Recommended by a couple of friends; I am saving this to read in February, when my garden is still in snow-covered dormancy.

Lives of Houses, ed. by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee. Found thanks to Kate Bolick's engaging review in the NYRB:

The tradition of truly epiphanic, thoughtful writing about our relationship to the home seems confined to a hard-to-reach cupboard in which specialists might root around, rather than a central aisle that most of us will return to throughout our lives. Hence my delight over the new collection ... edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, which brings together some of the best writing about the home that I’ve ever had the pleasure to read—and, crucially, loads of black-and-white photographs and illustrations.

Pictures?! YES. 

Alain Mabanckou, The Negro Grandsons of Vercingetorix. Sometime in the blurry period of 2020's great Before and After, I subscribed to Rhian Sasseen's Phrase Book, a newsletter all about works in translation. Her description of this novel—'a realistic approach to how political conflict feels both rapid and slow-moving'—chimed with the times.

Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Parhul Seghal described the book this way in the NYT:

[A] metafictional, metaphysical tale narrated by a man struck dead by pneumonia. Too grim? I neglected to mention that he’s being carried into the afterlife on the back of a voluble and enormous hippopotamus.

If we imagine the historical progress of the novel like the evolution of man—from a crouching primate to upright homo sapiens—Machado’s book represents the moment when the novel learned to dance. 

In a year short on laughs, this sounded irresistible. 

Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings. The beautiful excerpt in The Paris Review about model-making and W.G. Sebaldpure readerly pleasure. I cannot wait to read this.

Ann Petry, The Street. This 1946 story of a Black single mother's struggles was first the novel by a Black woman to sell a million copies. At Lit Hub, Tayari Jones wrote:

There are no stunts here or sleight of hand. This novel, like real life, is rife with seeming contradictions and layered with complex truths. And like the human experience this book is riddled with pain, but somehow powered by hope.


Hugh Raffles, The Book of Unconformities. Purchased thanks to another stellar Seghal NYT review (and the recommendation of Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books):

The Book of Unconformities is a consummately “unstable and intimate energy-space,” and among the most mysterious books I’ve ever read—a dense, dark star. It’s the biography of a few notable stones, including a 20-ton chunk of pockmarked meteorite, mica prepared in Nazi concentration camps, the layer of marble running under Manhattan. Between these narratives flickers the devastating story of Raffles’s two sisters, who died within months of each other in the mid-1990s.


Claudia Rankine, Just Us. I stayed awake into the small hours of a September morning, riveted and discomfited (productively, I think/hope) by Citizen; this is another one I can't wait to read.

Anna Seghers, Transit. The NYRB describes it as "an existential, political, literary thriller that explores the agonies of boredom, the vitality of storytelling, and the plight of the exile with extraordinary compassion and insight." (The Christian Petzold adaptation was an unsettling wonder.)

Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses. Her Atlas of Remote Islands is a prized treasure; very eager to explore this new work: 

Each disparate object described in this book—a Caspar David Friedrich painting, a species of tiger, a villa in Rome, a Greek love poem, an island in the Pacific—shares a common fate: it no longer exists, except as the dead end of a paper trail.


Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss. This year showed that the ability to recognize the sublime near at hand—in a mushroom, a bumblebee, or a clump of moss—is invaluable. 

And even with all these unread books (not to mention the ones crammed in the dark corners of shelves and piled on my office floor) I have some I plan to order once the holiday postal mayhem resolves: 

Kevin Brockmeier's new ghost book (The Brief History of the Dead has stayed with me, with its uncanny city of vanishing folks and lonely polar explorer); Zachary Mason's riff on Ovid (The Lost Books of the Odyssey I remember affectionately); a new collection of Sheridan Le Fanu's gothic tales (because Dorothy Sayers references them), and everything/anything by Danielle Dutton. And what about this new George Saunders on Russian short stories?! (Is this the year I dive back into reread my shelf of Russian literature? Maybe.)

Merry everything, pals.


STAUD Amaretti dress in tawny port / Georgian diamond dangle earrings / Georgian Giardinetti enamel ring / Koholmen oil lamp / Folio Society edition of E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life / Toast quilted velvet throw / Parigi stemware from March / Woman beekeeper springerle cookie mold for gingerbread tiles / Rupert Sanderson green velvet mary janes / Christmas pears.

toward the winter solstice

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Timothy Steele, from "Toward the Winter Solstice." 


Originally posted 12/21/2016, but extra-relevant tonight, given the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

'when the white stars talk together like sisters'

I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit’s wings—
I bore my sorrow heavily. 
But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago. 
From windows in my father’s house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city’s lights. 
Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.

Sara Teasdale, 1884-1933. From Flame and Shadow, 1920.


Charles Burchfield:

Winter Moonlight, 1951. Watercolor on paper. 40 x 33 in. Wichita Art Museum, Wichita, Kansas.
Orion in December, 1959. Watercolor and pencil on paper. 39 7/8 x 32 7/8 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum.


Post title: from Thomas Merton's 'A Christmas Card.' Originally posted 12/27/2010.