Oh Well, Now What

For the past two weeks the (only) bathroom in my house has been torn up so that some very old plumbing could be replaced, a process that created a bit of disturbance in my home life. Scheduling with the plumbers, coordinating with the contractor, taking time off work, then more time, hoping they wouldn’t find anything else in need of repair as they went along.

And, of course, wondering how I was going to pay for all of it — which is what we’re all doing do these days, is it not? The wondering, the calculating, the gratitude for days when we don’t have to drive anywhere, don’t have to buy anything, need neither furnace nor air conditioner to keep things comfy, and feeling guilty for wanting things to be comfy when there is drought and flooding and fires and hurricanes and all that going on.

The final bill came in at less than I’d expected. That was a nice surprise.

It was followed by another surprise, though, this one not so nice, when I learned that a project I’d been developing since March at my radio station was not going to be included in the new fiscal year budget. But! They were still very excited to see what I could come up with, given no additional hours or compensation to actually, you know, do the work.

It really doesn’t love you back, does it.

So I’m moving into autumn with six months of oh-well behind me and a season of now-what stretching out ahead. Which isn’t great, but it’s freeing. And let’s be honest. Six months of poking at a project that could have been up and running in six weeks is a good indication that something was amiss all along.

Was it me? Yes, it was me. I was amiss. Remiss. Something.

Though institutional plodding bears some responsibility. So many meetings. So many discussions. So much revisiting. I miss my café days when I could decide on Tuesday to put something on the menu and have it there on Wednesday.

Not that I miss food service. I do not. What I miss is the opportunity to be nimble. My employer — my entire industry — is a lot of (mostly good) things, but it is not nimble. Which is why I’m not hugely disappointed my project was scuttled. Just a little… bummed. Yes. Let’s go with bummed.

There are other projects.

There’s this here blog, for instance. And this one, which is every bit as neglected, but hope springs eternal.

Meanwhile, mums are appearing on porches, pumpkins, too, for the early adopters. Perhaps I can stop mowing for the season. That’s reason to rejoice.

That, and I’ve got a functional bathroom once again. Two cheers, at least, for that.

The Bones of Birds

There is no ground, said Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, that is the good news. The bad news is that we are falling, falling, never to land. As if in a dream.

Is it a dream? ¿Quien sabe? (“Who knows?” and also, “Who cares?”)

I just finished reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, with its loopy timeframes and its suggestion that reality is something other than what we’ve been led to believe. Which is likely true, regardless of what we believe, or what that “something other” might be. (¿Quien sabe?)

Raise your hand if you’re (still) waiting for things to get back to normal. Heh.

The wheel is turning. The wheel has already turned. The wheel has never stopped turning.

Imagine you are a red colobus monkey. Imagine you are a passenger pigeon. A North American bison. Imagine you are Sephora toromiro, the flowering tree that once filled Easter Island. The means by which you sustain yourself — the mycorrhizae of relationship and symbiosis — are disappearing, have disappeared. The turning is beyond your control.

But look: the garden needs weeding. The cat wants to play. This week I’ve had to tear up my bathroom floor to replace 70-year-old drains. The daily-ness is the tether, the ongoing, ever-present neediness of now.

Truth: the future has always been a burden. And every best-of-plans has a never-saw-it-coming.

Bones become porous in the absence of gravity. Density is lost. Hollowed out, like the bones of birds, so perhaps we might one day fly.

August Links

A long-ago friend told me “You can’t build on shifting sands,” and so it is perhaps not the time to build, when the sands are everywhere in motion. You can almost hear the Earth turning, like a restless body on a hot summer night, the god of natural acts kicks away the tangled bedsheets and brings our whole house down. How little it takes!

I didn’t mean to go a month without writing. I got involved in a few home improvement projects and one thing led to another, and now it’s almost Labor Day. Well, so. August is an inadvertent month; as someone* once said on the eve of some war** or another, “You don’t introduce new products in August.”

We can do some links, though. Just a few, because, August. Also, my internet was out for a bit and I liked being without it more than I thought I would, once I got over it being gone. Which probably explains all the home improvement projects.

Anyhoo.


Tim Kreider has a new newsletter: People react to powerlessness under stress in a variety of ways. They avoid; they deny; they self-anesthetize. Personally, sitting at my mother’s deathbed, I decided that unqualified sobriety was no longer a tenable policy for me.

Color is disappearing from the (built) world.

Lyz Lenz has my number: “Doing a Little Word Puzzle as the World Burns.”

As does Oliver Burkeman: If you want to write, you need a schedule.

Indi Samarajiva dismantles the propaganda organ otherwise known as The Economist.

Ours is not the only shell government in the world that ignores public services in favor of serving the interests of the wealthy. As George Monbiot writes of life in the UK, “The only public services not facing a major shortfall are defence (whose budget Truss intends greatly to raise) and roads. There’s a reason why the government spends so much on roads while strangling the rest of the public sector: they are among the few public services used by the very rich.

FDR’s Labor Secretary held the office for 12 years, a record for that position. She was also the first woman U.S. Cabinet member. If you like Social Security, you can thank Frances Perkins.

Politics is the WWF.

National Whiskey Sour Day has come and gone. I celebrated.

Favorite read of the month that wasn’t on the internet: The Factory, by Hiroko Oyamada. Asking the question to which we would all appreciate an answer: “What am I doing here?”

I wanted to say, Um, no. But then… maybe? The Cheese & Pickle Sandwich.

Here’s to all of your own inadvertencies, and to the last day of August, and everything after.


*Andrew Card, White House Chief of Staff for George W. Bush, remarking on the post-Labor Day timing of the big media push in 2002 to set the stage for…

**…the invasion of Iraq the following spring. It was one of those rare early moments of saying the quiet part out loud, back before such a thing became commonplace: that the media blitz wasn’t comparable to marketing, it was marketing. The product was the war, and they didn’t want to begin the process of selling it to us before we were ready to pay attention.

We pay attention in September. It’s axiomatic.

July Links

Summer becomes eclectic as July slides into August and nobody seems to know what’s going on. Normal summer activities like going to the lake and hiking in the Shawnee feel strangely inaccessible. Could it be the $5.15/gallon price of gasoline that keeps me close to home? Perhaps it’s the monster heat that makes even normal erranding feel like an excursion into some sweaty hellishness teeming with Other People who all drive much too aggressively in their absurdly large vehicles.

Also: I’ve become squeamish about ticks.

I did find a new local bar to hang out in (that’s it in the picture up there), though I’m not sure I’m ready to start doing that again. Maybe if I only go when it’s as empty as in that picture.

Anyway.

Here are a few things besides the heat and the price of gasoline that captured my attention this month.

Indi Samarajiva writes about the commons, and the wreck of it, by a culture and an economy that privileges cars over public transportation. (You may need to give up your email address to read it. Worth it.)

Also: how caregiving is — or ought to be — a kind of commons: Anne Helen Petersen interviews Angela Garbes on why raising children is not an individual responsibility, but a social one.

And: in light of the current chaos that is abortion care in the U.S., it’s worth revisiting Jenny Brown’s 2018 argument that birthing is an economic activity, and women are fed up with doing the unpaid labor.

In other health-related news, COVID-19 hasn’t gone away. We’re not talking about it anymore, but Dave Pollard is keeping score: “Not only are vaccinations losing their power, infection is almost useless as a means of protecting yourself against future infection.”

And: in case you need reminding, industry whistleblower Wendell Potter continues to reveal how health insurance in the U.S. is an abomination of wealth extraction and spin.

Speaking of wealth extraction, music critic Ted Gioia writes about the absurdity of navigating “fair use” for music videos that seek to educate an audience. “I have zero interest in breaking the law, or finding out how much I can bend it. But it would help if someone could tell me what the law actually says.”

A welcome escape from the ordinary: Robin Sloan’s newsletter. Read to the end for an exploration into one facet of the oddly-now-quotidian 21st century media algorithm.

The extraordinary TikTok videos of Azuma Makoto. Trust me.

More music: I spent a recent 90 minutes enrapt in the re-mastered 1981 Simon & Garfunkel Concert in Central Park. As the old folks say, it’s good for what ails you.

I’m so grateful to live in the same world as Nick Cave and The Red Hand Files. “I want to facilitate, in some small way, a mutual journey toward meaning; to decrease the dimensions of our emptiness and draw us closer to love and to beauty. I understand that these sound like grandiose claims, but they are not. This common project – to improve matters – is available to all of us.”

Onward.


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Children of Ozymandias

The Princes hoist their flags above the Capitol dome, 
fist-bumps for all the children of Ozymandias, 
they inherit the crumbling empire, sandblasted 
from sea to shining sea, limestone and lithium, 
dust in all their mouths.

The incoming tide laps the shores of an eastern seaboard
retreating inland like an ill-fed army, one giant gated fiefdom 
of chipboard and hot glue, PVC-wrapped porch columns
gone akimbo in the infernal heat, even the termites 
aren’t interested. 

We learned to build sets all summer in the theater; 
from the orchestra pit they were so convincing. 

Look now on our Potemkin Land of the Free, and despair!
Everyone is wealthy on TV. There are rifles for all but no food 
in the kitchen, surprise! A car for every parking space and 
all the tanks are empty. A wrinkled lip, a sneer of cold command: 
Close the borders! 

Never mind. 
No one’s going anywhere, anyway.

Cargo ships run aground in the land between the two Americas, 
and all the shelves at Target are empty, while high overhead
the satellites collide and veer off into orbits no one thought 
to calculate. What are we to do? I read somewhere we could 
shoot them down with lasers. 

But how then will we stream the next season 
of The Gilded Age?

It’s Just What Was

Abandoned Schlitz brewery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin [source]

A month after a tree fell on my house, a tree fell on my neighbor’s house, as if this were now a commonplace thing, trees falling down on people’s houses. 

It’s disconcerting to confront a thing that is where it ought not be. Something that was once one way is now another, and the sense of discontinuity is like falling in a dream, knowing you are falling, knowing that the ground both is and is not somewhere down below. 

There is something in us that resists the evidence of the altered now, even when what used to be was not at all what we wanted, was indeed far less lovely than a tree that no longer shades the house. I am at my desk and look up to see a man standing at the bottom of the stairs. There is no man at the bottom of the stairs. What I see is an after-image, a ghost. And yet I steel myself for whatever interaction is coming, before realizing I am still dreaming. Still falling.

Also: I don’t believe in ghosts.

Also: I know the ghosts are everywhere.

The map of the world shows a world on fire, but it can’t be on fire because we need to go to work, and so the world is not on fire. 

Still dreaming, still falling.

Yesterday I spent time on the Abandoned America website, scrolling through images of places that are no longer one thing but are not yet something else. Shopping malls and amusement parks and roadside attractions re-absorbing into the body of the world. I’ve heard people denigrate these images as ruins porn. Yet nobody calls it ruins porn when we visit the Roman Coliseum. We call that cultural enrichment. 

Maybe we’re too close, maybe it’s too soon. We walked through those malls. We worked in those factories. It wasn’t great. It’s just what was, and now it isn’t anymore.


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June Links

I thought it was just me, but no. I’m pretty sure we’re all just winging it.

Some of us have been gifted — by genetics, by trust funds — with superior wings, like those of the great blue heron in the pond by the library. Some of us have learned to stay aloft by riding the higher currents, like the black-headed vultures that circle far above some point of interest on the riverbank below.

And some of us are just flying squirrels, with no real wings at all, assured by our capacity to glide from branch to branch that we are really flying, when in truth we’re just falling a little more slowly than we otherwise might.

If you live in the U.S., especially if you live in a Republican-governed state, you may have done what I did Friday: searched out relocation options on the coastal west, thinking a move from your blood-red Midwest state might be in order. The most powerful response to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling came from the governors of those west coast states, in sad and stark contrast to the milquetoast pronouncements from Democratic leadership in Washington, D.C. who for some reason thought gathering on the Capitol steps for a rousing rendition of “God Bless America” was in order. You can’t make this shit up.

Meanwhile… folks are aiding and abetting. Because “winging it” doesn’t mean you’re on your own.

Unless you’d like to be, and some well-meaning person tries to get you paired up. Heather O’Neill wonders why our culture is so afraid of single women.

Oliver Burkeman says, “It’s worse than you think,” which left me feeling… comforted?

Food and culture writer/podcaster Alicia Kennedy has thoughts on productivity and precarity: “My work, my labor, is in living and in learning and in fiddling around, for as long as I can get away with it.” Same. She also writes one of my favorite newsletters.

I don’t know Chris Glass, but visiting his website is like dropping in on an old friend (who takes very good pictures).

Civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis unpacks the New York Times’ disingenuous (misleading, false) reporting on the recall of San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin, while attorney Stanley Cohen shares some Boudin family history.

What I’m listening to: Mother Country Radicals, a podcast hosted by Zayd Dohrn, son of Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, who adopted Chesa Boudin after Boudin’s parents were imprisoned for bank robbery. Clearly, I am fascinated by this story, this family, these people.

What’s for dinner: this, please, once a week, for the rest of the summer.

The Tree on the Roof

Hackberry (Cellis occidentalis) by Pierre-Joseph Redouté. Source: New York Public Library via rawpixel.

There is a tree lying across the roof of my house, a fairly large tree that came down yesterday in the early hours of an overnight in which the temperatures never dropped below 80 degrees. I felt it when it hit the house, the shudder waking me from an already restless sleep.

I went downstairs, noticed shadows outside where there ought not be any, the silhouette of a thin branch floating in front of my kitchen window.

When the day grew light enough I went outside to have a look. I was surprised to find relatively little damage to the house, at least as far as I could tell from peering up through the branches. Gutters and soffits, sprung from their careful fittings, lay buckled beneath the thick torso of the fallen tree, but the roof itself appeared to be intact. Though I won’t know for sure until the tree service arrives and the tree is lifted and removed, something that might not happen for days.

Or longer. The last time I needed to hire a tree service it took three months for the work to get done. But that work didn’t involve anything so hazardous as a tree on my roof, so perhaps this time will be different.

I spent the day on the phone, making calls to line up a tree service, leaving messages, waiting for people to call me back. I filed a claim with my insurance company, and later in the day I talked to a claims adjuster, who wasn’t rude, exactly; he just sounded jaded and indifferent to my situation. But maybe it was me, edgy and hyper-aware of the precarity and randomness of the moment, knowing that the tree could have fallen differently, resulting in a situation far more catastrophic than what I was facing.

Am facing.

Most of the time I feel safe in my house. It’s been a reasonably reliable container. But things have happened here, and I am not always at ease within it.

The cellar has flooded, the roof has leaked. Et cetera.

For the past few days we’ve been under a heat advisory, told to stay inside if we can, assuming we have air conditioning, which I do, and for which I am grateful, even though it comes at the expense of more carbon rising into the stratosphere. (How to square that circle, I wonder.) And so I’m spending most of my time in this space, under the weight of the tree on the roof, reading, typing to you, waiting for the next thing to happen.

Did the heat bring down that tree, a hackberry whose rotting interior is now exposed for all to see? I am no arborist, but I suspect the stress from year after year of summers grown too hot for this particular species played some part in its demise, even if it was just to give increased comfort and quarter to the burrowing insects that have been feeding on its core all this time.

May Links

Source: New York Public Library

“I know what I value. I don’t know what I need.” Says Heather Havrilesky, in conversation with Jennifer Louden on the Create Out Loud podcast. I get it. I feel that way sometimes. But for today, at least, I know what I need:

Someone to fix the roof of my garage, plus money enough to pay for it.

Magic words for a letter to all of my (Republican) representatives that will persuade them to re-enact the assault weapons ban, and leave trans kids — and library books, and people with a uterus — alone.

Something to take to the potluck next week. (It’s a “snacks and summer cocktails” potluck. I’m thinking this might do. And this.)


Like you, I have thoughts on the state of things. We were short on hosts this week at the station, so I sat through more npr news and midday public affairs programming than was probably good for me. I’m trying to hunt for what podcaster Andrea Scher calls “small wonders” in the midst of the enormity it all. But first:

The cost of doing business: Like the 3500 people who die each month in car crashes so we can continue with our happy motoring, the mass murder of school children and grocery shoppers and church-and-synagogue-members and concert-goers and night-clubbers is now “the cost of doing business” in America. People actually say shit like this. Out loud.

Speaking of happy motoring, Alex Pareene says there’s never been a better time since the 1920s to be an anti-car person.

Libby Watson argues that health care is not just for those who somehow manage to do everything right.

Forced birth is slavery.

Will travel fix your sad self? Adam Sandler’s Joe Romano clarifies what travel can and cannot do for you.

“This is the internet: It feels real until you back away, and then it feels kind of like nothing.”

I do not use Twitter. This week at work, I was asked to post a link on the stations’ Twitter feed to a story my colleague had produced. It was “my” first tweet. I felt momentarily embedded in the Great Link. Then… nothing. “The amount that Twitter omits is breathtaking; more than any other social platform, it is indifferent to huge swaths of human experience and endeavor. I invite you to imagine this omitted content as a vast, bustling city. Scratching at your timeline, you are huddled in a single small tavern with the journalists, the nihilists, and the chaotic neutrals.” Robin Sloan,”The Lost Thread”.


What I’m reading: The Zookeepers Wife. I was looking for a good story, something not too hard to handle, as I’m a bit, um, fragile these days. (Surprise!) Anyway, someone recommended this book. I went into it thinking, it’s about a zoo! How wrenching can it be? I had no idea.

What I’m listening to: too much npr, not enough Bill Evans.

What’s on the stove: it was cool enough to make soup last week, but now it’s hot and humid. So, no stove tonight. Let’s just have this for dinner all summer, mk?

What small wonders are you finding in your world?

This Week You’re a Flowerpot

So much has been written this past week about abortion rights and the leaked Alito opinion, with responses far more comprehensive than I could hope to create, so I’ll keep my commentary to one small point of fact, shared in light of the sudden urgency among Democrats that WE MUST DO SOMETHING NOW.

As Ann Friedman put it, “NOW?!?”

Democrats have had fifty years to Do Something. Fifty years to codify Roe v. Wade into law, twenty-one of which have been under Democratic administrations. They didn’t do it.

In fact, Congress has had 250 years to Do Something, 250 years to codify a women’s right to bodily autonomy into law. They haven’t done it.

The full personhood of women remains contingent in this country, dependent on the good will of those we elect to office and the Court of Nine — really, five — who decide whether we are flower pots or people. Rectifying this has never been a priority. How do we know it’s not a priority? 250 years is how we know.

Americans by a large majority favor legal access to abortion, just as we favor affordable health care for all, affordable child care, paid parental leave, and a living minimum wage. We don’t get what we ask for. Instead we get forever wars and culture wars, a bloated military budget, and a wringing of the hands on the part of Democrats whose only unified response to the situation is to call on voters to “elect more Democrats.”

Yes, of course, I consider the alternative, and yes, I will continue to vote for the ones who seem to not hate women, hate children, hate the poor and people of color quite so much. But I’m tired of it. Tired of issues of major consequence being reduced, time and again, to messaging for the midterms.

Fifty years of post-Roe inaction is a message, too.


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April Links

My month-long hiatus extended nearly half a year (surprise!) as I wandered through a wet, gray, Midwest winter and on into early spring, when none of the news was good (really, is it ever?), despairing of pretty much everything. I did work on some half-assed hand-sewing (that pile above), which got me through, (still gets me through), and I finally dared a couple of dinner gatherings at friends’ homes, which allowed me to see that the world had not entirely gone to shit, not while Linda makes her most excellent cherry pie. I’m still on the fence about restaurant dining, but I’ll sit around in people’s kitchens now, which is a vast improvement over a year ago, right?

I’ll have a more substantial post to share with you soon. Consider this a gentle tap at your door, me on the porch, offering a plate of cookies.

_ _ _ _ _

Speaking of a year ago, this one’s from last May, and I find myself returning to it again and again: Alex Steffen on discontinuity and the climate crisis and how one of its grimmest aspects is “its transapocalyptic nature. That is, just how much of the world can thrive relatively well while enormous numbers of people suffer.”

Case in point: I keep waiting for mainstream news orgs to spend some time on the ongoing discontinuity in Sri Lanka. Even briefly. It hasn’t happened. [from Indrajit Samarajiva]

Lyz Lenz talks with journalist Allison Hantschel about how newspapers were damaging themselves long before the internet and private equity came along.

Music and cultural critic Ted Gioia on the Netflix/CNN+ disaster and what’s next for streaming. Hint: the greed might have to be dialed back a bit. For realz.

Laurie Penney, on why nominal choice does not equal liberation.

Roxanne Gay contemplates Sister Corita Kent’s rules for her university’s art department. Rule #1: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

What I’m listening to: mood enhancement. Arooj Aftab, Tony Karapetyan Trio & Sebastian Studnitzky, and Hania Rani [the last two via Ted Gioia]

What’s on the stove: a season-straddling take on traditional potato-leek soup, light enough to say “Spring is here!” and robust enough to satisfy on these lingering cool nights.

What I’m reading: I’ve gone full-on Murderbot Diaries, blazing through the entire Martha Wells series, some via print, some on audio. These books are so full of angst and tech-speak and ethical quandaries and other-worldliness (literally) there is no brain-space left for (my own) despair. Which is to say, exactly what I need right now

Until next time,

November Links

So much keeps happening. Much of it passes without need for comment, because what is there left to say? Our laws are as broken as everything else. Also: we don’t know how things will end, because nothing is ever really over.

Since this is my last post before I go on my December break (which, let’s face it, could go on a bit longer, knowing me), I’m sharing a lot today. Take what you need, come back again and take a little more.


Sonali Kohlatkar writes about “social spending” vs. “military spending.” Over the last several weeks the major U.S. media players have served up story after story about inflation, labor shortages, the cost of a Thanksgiving dinner and the price of gasoline (and milk!), but have given us virtually no information about the $753 billion going to the Pentagon via Biden’s Build Back Better plan. 

For further reading on U.S. outlays for military and national security, spend a few minutes with Stephen Semler of Speaking Security. This is why we can’t have nice things. Unless you think bombs are nice things.

Some activists say we don’t vote with forks, we vote with votes, that the whole idea of the “personal carbon footprint” was invented by oil companies to distract well-meaning individuals from the singular issue at hand, which is the need to stop burning fossil fuels. But as Lisa Held writes in the (alas, dearly departing) Peeled newsletter: “As someone who covers food policy closely, I can tell you first-hand that Congress is a mess. When meaningful legislation actually gets passed, which is rare, changes take an insanely long time to implement. Oftentimes, they’re reversed or rolled back. Corporate influence is everywhere.” 

Meanwhile, some votes seem particularly fraught: Rebecca Solnit on the media coverage of the Nov. 2 election results in the U.S. “The Washington Post seemed to believe that Virginia was a national referendum on the (Democratic) party… but (losing candidate) Terry McAuliffe is not the Democratic party, and the nation didn’t vote in Virginia’s election.” 

How the bus driver shortage helps explain our current economic weirdness.

Why Tokyo Works “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.”

I know next to nothing about cryptocurrencies, other than the fact that they require a shite tonne of energy to create and maintain. But this particular perspective on Bitcoin, et. al., made me feel a little less benighted.

This one is a hard one. But it resonates. There Will Be No “Confessions of a Misogynist.”

Apparently it’s “cozy season” on social media, if not in our actual lives. “Collect a bunch of cozy-projecting objects and you’ll just end up working to maintain your stuff, when what you really need is for your stuff to maintain you. From Brooklyn to Silicon Valley, earnest aesthetes line up all their handmade ceramics just so but have no idea how to cook a fucking soup without spending 45 minutes on the internet searching for the perfect recipe. Is “Cozy Season” a Cry for Help? [Kathryn Jezer-Morton, via AHP]

The Trolly Problem is an ethical thought experiment we might do well to revisit.

From Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files #171: “As Susie and I grow older, the anger at the indifference and casual cruelty of this world can still burn bright, but it does not define us, for the oxygen that fuels that anger is love — love for the world and love for the people in it. Love becomes anger’s great animator, as it should, as it must.”

Pick your battles. Pick fewer than that. [via Rob Brezsny]

The CNN milk story seemed to irritate a lot of people this month. But as Lyz Lenz points out, “It is harder to be an American family right now. No one is disputing that. But it’s not because of milk prices. It’s because of a lack of affordable healthcare, housing, and a lack of childcare.” But we’re giving the Pentagon $753 billion, so it’s all good.

Were you beaten as a child? Maybe it was called “spanking.” Maybe “discipline.” Once again, the U.S. is an outlier. And once again, not in a good way.

One way to radicalize the heartland: take away the jobs. This is not an apologia for Trumpism, or racism, or xenophobia, or any of a dozen other social maladies facing our rust-belted, Bible-belted midsection. It’s an indictment of an economic system that seems designed to bring out the worst in human beings.

Music to calm you. From Ted Gioia’s The Honest Broker newsletter.

Kinda into the French 75.

Pod-interest: Shane Parrish talks with Douglas Rushkoff about extremism and social media. Debbie Millman interviews Nick Offerman about acting and woodworking.

I’m watching the Great British Baking Show this weekend. Taking my mind off the coming winter. Snow can wait.

I’ll leave you with this bit of wistfulness, via The The Marginalian:

“Everything that you are seeing has, apart from small changes, been there for thousands of years before you. After a while — not long — you will no longer exist, and the woods and rocks and sky will continue, unchanged, for thousands of years after you. What is it that has called you so suddenly out of nothingness to enjoy for a brief while a spectacle which remains quite indifferent to you?” ~ Erwin Schrodinger, My View of the World

Thanks for reading. Be well. Have some pie. I’ll be back soon enough.

Housekeeping

Just a quick note today, and a couple questions for you.

For the last month of 2021 I’ll be off-line and somewhat out-of-pocket, which means the last planned post for the year is this Sunday’s links post, for which I have a slew of things to share with you. It’s been that kind of month.

As for December, it’s my red wheelbarrow, upon which so much depends. There are things to think about. This blog is one of them.

I’ve been writing in this space for ten years. And before this blog, there were two others. I’m not quite OG, but I’m OG-adjacent.

I intend to keep writing, here and elsewhere, but I’m considering how I might want to proceed. I know most of you subscribe via feed or email. Would you be (just as) happy with an email newsletter rather than a blog post? Would it make any difference? A newsletter feels more personal to me, more connected, less vox in deserto, but that’s me. What’s your take?

Also, I’m wondering how you feel about the monthly links posts. I know I’ve only done two so far, with a third one coming this weekend, but I’m completely enamored of them, and I look forward all month to putting them together. They give my online wanderings a sense of focus. Do you find them useful? I like it when writers I enjoy point me toward writing they enjoy. Give me all the links. The internet is too big for me to wander it alone.

But maybe you have all the links you need, and you just want more me. Maybe even more poems. (Seriously! I could make that happen!)

Please share your thoughts. I’m going to take your replies with me into my (deep and dark) December, and come out on the other end with a bit of clarity. That’s the plan, anyway.

Look for me on Sunday, then I’ll see you on the other side.

As always, I’m grateful for you.

Things Fall Apart

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats, "The Second Coming"

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial led me to wonder about the history of riots in the U.S. and around the world, and if our era was particularly riotous compared with other times and places. Spoiler: civilization is rife with riot. Surprise!

Here is a list that focuses on the U.S from the 18th century on. Race riots, draft riots, labor riots. The Know-Nothing Riots, in particular, have a certain familiar tenor.

This list is international and covers a broader historical period — its first citation is of a riot in 44 BCE that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar.

This list is mostly focused on riots in the Pacific West and Northwest of the U.S. over the past 150 or so years. Portland is just the latest iteration.

Yeats’ poem is 100 years old. The passionate intensity is as old as civilization.

Everything falls apart. We (at least) can count on that.

Just In Time

I'm a just-in-time poem, sitting offshore
in a shipping container on an uneasy ocean
waiting, waiting, waiting 
for the crane to hoist me high 
and swing me to the ground, 
for the door to open and the sky to appear, 
I will fly free like the miseries 
from Pandora's box, beat my wings 
against the windows of an indifferent world, 
until I settle at last in some poor poet's soul 
and live out my days in the sweet mercy 
of endless supply and not a single demand.

Give Us Your Burned Out Millennials

Fox River, Indiana [source]

The little city down the road from the little town in which I live announced this week that it wants to add 5,000 residents to its population. I think it’s a great idea. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Or maybe just your burned out millennials in search of affordable housing.

My friends who live mid-city shared a link on social media recently to a house for sale in their neighborhood. “Come be our neighbors!” It was a nice house. 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, a basement, a manageable yard. It listed for under $200,000.

Out-of-state friends were gobsmacked. “What’s wrong with it?!”

There was nothing wrong with it. That’s what houses sell for here.

You want one?

Yes, it’s a small city in the Midwest. No, it doesn’t have a scene of any kind, except maybe sports; people are into basketball here. And high school football.

And, yes, the statehouse is full of reactionary Republicans and the state produced two of the most milquetoast vice-presidents in recent memory, but Indiana voters chose Obama in ’08. Yes, we did.

It’s true we’re powered by coal, and there are lots of big pickup trucks with stickers on the back reminding us that “coal keeps the lights on.” But we’re retiring the coal-fired plants — oh, so slowly — and we’re adding solar farms. Lots of solar farms.

Public transportation is abysmal here, there’s no denying it. But there are bike lanes (for the brave) and an off-street bike route that connects my little town to that not-so-big city, and a bicycle-and-pedestrian masterplan that’s translating into actual trail miles in the real world, not just in a slide deck. Astonishing, I know.

Property and other taxes are low, which is a mixed blessing, given that we want nice things but have no way to pay for them. But it does make it easier for people without a trust fund to afford that house.

The city’s downtown is livable, walkable. There are food trucks and art fairs. There’s a new bookshop (!!) on Main Street, owned by a couple local guys who went away and came back. People do that here. They leave, and they come back.

Plus, Hoosier National Forest is gorgeous.

Also: we’re not experiencing drought or wildfires. Which is not nothing.

There’s something to be said for aspiring to a functional life in a place less… aspirational. The Midwest is not sexy, but it’s do-able. So, sure. Bring us 5,000 intrepid sojourners. Maybe not all at once, but soon. We’ll leave the porch light on for you, powered by solar!

Once more for the folks in back: Indiana! It’s not that bad!

Glasgow

Journalist George Monbiot maintains that the only hope we have is to leave the oil in the ground. Leave the coal. The natural gas. If we want to spare ourselves the worst of what’s coming, we have to leave it all where it is.

Maybe we could leave the forests, too. Even the ones ravaged by the pine beetle; in a century, maybe two, they will come back around. In the meantime we can return to the selective harvesting practiced decades ago, no more clear-cuts or plantation-style reseeding.

It’s (almost) too much to hope for, too far beyond the realm of what seems possible. And yet.

In two essays, one before Glasgow and one as the conference got underway, Mr. Monbiot argues that, if we were serious, we could transition to cleaner energy in months, not decades.

“There’s discomfort in environmental circles with military analogies,” he writes, “But the war is among the few precedents and metaphors that almost everyone can grasp.” He’s referring to the second world war, when the U.S. and other allied nations turned their entire economies toward a single mission. If we did it once, we can do it again, “The only thing that stands in the way is the power of legacy industries and the people who profit from them.”

Kind of a big obstacle, that.

The reports coming out of Glasgow are grim. I heard one head of state from a country so smogged by emissions their people cannot safely breathe the air argue for the right to gain all the comforts and elegancies the fossil fuel age has to offer — for another 50 years! — before they transition to something less harmful. Assuming said transition doesn’t mess with their economy too much. Seriously!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, no matter when the transition comes — and it will have to come, because the water is rising — it’s going to mess with everybody’s economy: household, community, nation, world. And it’s likely that we’re going to see some devolution going on, not in 50 years, but in 15. 10. 5.

Now.

It’s happening now. Those cargo ships tossing about on the ocean, awaiting their turn in port? They’re a bellwether. This unceasing pandemic? Ditto.

Things are going to be different. Things are different already. But isn’t the sunset beautiful?

I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill

I spent time this week listening to Eva Cassidy, whose music was unknown to me until long after her death in 1996. [h/t to music critic Ted Gioia, whose thoughtful homage got that ball rolling.]

It left me thinking of other artists and creators whose work goes largely unnoticed while they’re alive, and sometimes — sometimes — finds its way into the common culture long after they’re gone. Van Gogh’s wife became his persistent champion after he died in obscurity. Emily Dickenson had a sister who brough her poems to posthumous light.

Noticed or not by our contemporaries, the work we create is the verse we contribute to what Whitman called “the powerful play.” Most of it will go unheralded. So it goes. Our work is not (only) for us. It’s (also) for those who come after. Sometimes long after. We all plant trees under whose shade we will never sit.

It works the other way, too, where certain work — activist work in particular, creative and disruptive to business-as-usual — disappears down the cultural memory hole to become yet another subject about which we do not speak. History is littered with those as well.

Workers are in the news a lot these days. As are unions. With all the pushback one might expect.

Time for a resurrection.

Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead.”

“I never died,” says he.

Obscure Sorrows

Henri Ospovat, circa 1901 [source]

From John Koenig’s Tumbler, and now book, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Follow the link to go to a more complete definition.

Monachopsis: a subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place.

Meantime: the moment of realization that your quintessential future self isn’t ever going to show up.

Occhiolism: the awareness of the smallness of your perspective.

Anechdoche: a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening.

The wends: frustration that you’re not enjoying an experience as much as you should,

Daguerrologue: an imaginary interview with an old photo of yourself.

Mimeomia: the frustration of knowing how easily you fit into a stereotype.

Anthrodynia: a state of exhaustion with how shitty people can be to each other.

Sonder: the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.


Bonus Koenig: “Are these real words or do you just make them up? ”

h/t Ivaylo Durmonski for opening that jumpdoor.

October links

Mount Vernon, Indiana, 1937 [source]

Jon Michael Greer throws a shoe at intentional communities, and while much of what he says makes sense, it didn’t quite extinguish my desire to get on that bus to Elsewhere. I’m still curious. Still looking around. Still eager to hear your thoughts about it, if you have any to share.

On debt and death: an essay from Tennessee-born writer Molly McGhee on taking on her mother’s debt after her death. Found after falling down a rabbit hole via the prolific output of author Robin Sloan:

“Why are these people harassing me? What good does it do them?” I didn’t have an answer for her. Or I did, but it felt obvious and stupid to say out loud. They wanted money. Everybody wants money. The people in power don’t care if we live or die, as long as they get paid. […]

There are endless articles on why America has failed to curb the pandemic. The truth is simple. People profit from our death. Foreclosure companies, debt collectors, real estate agents, news corporations, health care tycoons, senators, and presidents, to name a few.

Molly McGhee, “America’s Dead Souls”

The Facebook Files is now a podcast. I’ve been following the story on NPR. Will I listen to the pod? Probably not. This company has already taken enough of my precious time.

On a related note, before I deleted my Facebook account altogether, I used the “unfollow everyone” strategy to clear my newsfeed of browsable content and give me a sense of control (heh) over who and what I engaged with. I did it manually, and it took a minute, but once it was done, it was workable enough, though ultimately unsatisfying. Still, for those who feel the need to remain on the platform, I recommend giving it a try, even though — or maybe especially because — Facebook really doesn’t like it.

Who is Oleg Deripaska and why does it matter that the FBI raided his Washington, D.C.mansion? The world is awash in treachery and greed. See how many famous faces you recognize!

Do you feel compelled to finish reading every book you start? Does it make you feel incomplete if you to abandon a book mid-read? Bibliophile John Warner feels no such compunction.

Suzanne Vega introduces and sings “Tom’s Diner.”

Music critic Ted Gioia offers ten suggestions for dealing with criticism. He’s writing for musicians, mostly, but it’s useful advice no matter what sort of creative work we’re putting out into the world. My personal favorite: #10. Because I’d much rather avoid it altogether — wouldn’t you? — but then where would we be?

Perfect fall soup. Skip the cream if you want, or replace it with coconut milk. Either way, it’s luscious.

Leaves are falling.

Be well,

Intermediation 2.0

“Here is a Ducat” artist unknown [source]

It’s not news that the health care system in the U.S. is broken. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve seen how ghastly it is to offer health care as a for-profit industry with all of the same just-in-time inventory and staffing issues that plague the rest of the economy.

And we know insurance companies have worn the devil’s mantle in the industry for decades, creating a boondoggle of opaque billing and protocols.

Now we learn from journalist David Sirota how private equity firms have woven their tentacles into ERs around the country, squeezing budgets as they siphon profits and compromise patient care (surprise!), leave ERs understaffed, and increase physician liability while hiding that risk within layers of paperwork and legalese.

It’s enough to make you swear off going to the doctor at all.

Private equity-owned ER staffing firms have been frequently sued by whistleblowers on their medical staff. Last year, the Washington state doctor Ming Lin sued Blackstone-owned Team Health for removing him from the schedule after he posted on Facebook criticizing the company’s unwillingness to appropriate sufficient funds for face masks and proper infectious disease protocols at the beginning of the pandemic.

And last month, Envision Healthcare, which is owned by the private equity firm KKR & Co and is widely viewed as the staffing company that invented surprise billing, was forced to pay a $26-million jury award to a physician it had terminated for claiming that the company’s understaffing of a busy Kansas ER violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), a 1986 bill that requires hospitals to keep physicians on hand to “stabilize” patients regardless of their ability to pay.

But few of the whistleblower lawsuits have alleged systemic fraudulent overbilling, because most physicians who work for the firms have no idea what is being billed under their licenses.

They have no idea because they are “supervising” a staff of physician assistants and nurse practioners, rather than working those ERs themselves, due to a private equity staffing practice of reducing the hours of higher-paid staff. Sirota explains:

An internal document circulated to client hospitals by the KKR-owned Envision Healthcare advises clients that between a quarter and 35 percent of ER visits could be handled by an employee who earns an average of 66 percent less than a board-certified emergency physician. As a result, bigger ERs now often “single covered,” meaning they only have a single doctor on duty at a time, and smaller ERs are often run by nurse practitioners or physician assistants being supervised remotely by a doctor.

In the article, Sirota refers to a private Facebook group “full of the anxious testimonials of doctors who fear losing their licenses over something in the daily mountain of paperwork on which they are required to sign off related to the endless string of patients treated by a nurse or physician assistant under their titular (and often Zoom-based) supervision.”

This intermediation on the part of firms that deal in junk bonds and hostile takeovers adds a layer of indifference and cruelty to the health care story that would be infuriating and dispiriting were it not so unsurprising. We’ve been watching it happen for so many years it’s become background noise: we’re all profit centers for someone, and for some of those someones, that is pretty much all we are.

It’s nothing personal.

It’s just business.

What a great system!

But never mind all that. The leaves are finally turning and we built a fire in the firepit at my friend’s house the other night and played music as the sun went down and the moon came up. I drove home afterward with campfire-scented hair and a head full of harmonies, put another blanket on the bed, did not set an alarm.

I hope you’ve enjoyed something equally satisfying this week.

History Is Not Inanimate

Teocallis at Chichen-Itza, Frederick Catherwood [source]

This past Wednesday a Tennessee legislator stood up in the Tennessee chambers and stated that the Civil War has not ended. That it is still going on, and that the South is winning.

He was making a bollocks economic argument, which the linked story does a fair job dismantling, but it reminded me that I wrote something not too dissimilar just a few weeks ago (sans the bollocks argument). Which led me to consider all the ways in which the past is fluid, unfixed and open to revisiting.

Re-conceptualizing.

In the Long Now, the State Senator may be right. The brackets we put around historical events are rather arbitrary. There is always a before and an after in any story, and those are a part of the story, too, the concentric circles that radiate outward until all their energy has dissipated into, has been absorbed by, lives on within, the ecosystem.

Performer Niko Case writes:

“History” is a place I linger and look for because it comforts me; it’s a bit of a habit. It has the most beautiful wallpaper and I have to make sure I don’t live there full-time. After all, history is not inanimate either and the past changes behind us. The wake from a ship on the ocean is a movement that never stops moving. It is a “forward” also.

NIko Case, Entering The Lung

History clings to us, like a shadow at our heel. It’s a thing we cast, and it attenuates with the sun, with our changing perspective. How much of it is the thing that happened, and how much of it is us, squinting into the light, trying to discern the boundaries?

Realizing there are no boundaries.

It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago about where and when you draw a line around a thing, and call it good or not good, call it done, say “this is a part of it” and “this is not.” It’s not a poem about history, but it feels like part of the same conversation, ongoing.

October

Lady Plomer’s Palace, John Thomas Smith [source]
The maple trees along my street 
hold on to green leaves 
that ought to be red by now
and yellow like the sun that won't
stop warming us, 
I mowed the yard one last time 
before putting the machine 
away for the season, 
optimist about almost nothing 
beyond the end of yard work, 
believing it must surely be at hand, 
short days ahead and long nights 
meant for novels that last 
through all the cold months,
I will unpack my favorite sweater, 
turn away from the news, 
pay attention to how the sky looks 
just before the snow comes, 
if it comes at all,
if the grass will ever stop growing, 
if the leaves will only turn red. 

Indiana: It’s Not That Bad!

Workshop at a Carbonated Water Factory [source]

I read Alan Lightman’s Probable Impossibilities and sat for a while with the notion of an indifferent universe. I decided I was pretty okay with it.

It takes the pressure off. The cosmos does not care!

This weekend I wandered through the museum at the Working Men’s Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, a two-room display of bones and crystals and old paintings in ornate gilded frames, weapons from the Civil War, the skeleton of a horse named Fly who served in that war, the tooth of a woolly mammoth, plus the preserved body of a four-foot-long alligator gar, along with teacups and women’s shoes, and some questionable taxedermy.

Everything is interesting to someone!

In a gallery on Main Street there were mandalas made from plastic bottle caps and Mardi Gras beads by artist Diane Kahlo, whose best-known work is probably the traveling exhibit Las Desaparecidas de Ciudad Juárez: A Homage to the Missing and Murdered Girls of Juárez. Which goes to show: we can do serious work and still play with beads and bottle caps, still glue stuff to other stuff. It’s okay. The cosmos doesn’t care.

New Harmony is the site of two utopian communities, one religious, one secular, that were established in the early nineteenth century. Neither community lasted for more than a few years, failing for all the usual reasons. But many of the structures the residents left behind have been restored and maintained, not just as historical artifacts but as functional public spaces.

There are cabins, there is an opera house, a community house. These folks built things to last.

The Workingmen’s Institute, with the horse skeleton and teacups and alligator gar, was established by William McClure, one of the founders of the second community. He had the institute built just a few years after that last community disbanded. It contains Indiana’s oldest library and was inspired by the mechanics’ institute movement in Europe, which was creating lending libraries for the working class while Andrew Carnegie was still in short pants.

I have a decal on a corkboard in my art room that says, “Indiana: It’s not that bad!” And even though I drive on back roads past more than a few Trump yard signs to get there, New Harmony is one reason why.