My Year of Finance Boys

From The Paris Review:

I shouldn’t have been surprised that the hedge fund analyst knew me better than I knew myself. It was his job to predict distant developments, covert motives, hidden risks, and shortly into our brief relationship he turned his powers of divination on me. After I told him I was writing a novel about finance, he suggested that I’d been drawn to him partly for mercenary reasons: that I was, in a word, dating him for research. He took it in stride—he lived and breathed all things mercenary—but he did issue a polite warning.

“Never put anything I tell you in writing,” he said.

I’d like to think that, in his predictive genius, he also knew I would eventually ignore this warning.

The hedge fund analyst, whom I’ll call Jake, was the last in a string of finance boys I dated during a peculiar if productive period of my life. Almost as soon as I’d embarked on my novel about finance, I’d begun scanning dating apps for Patagonia vests and Barbour jackets. I wanted investment bankers, private equity associates, traders. I maintain that my motives were not as Machiavellian as Jake would go on to imply. I’d decided my novel would treat the technicalities of finance lightly, and I was already doing research sufficient to my purposes: auditing finance classes at the university where I was a graduate student, reading textbooks, conducting interviews. But Jake was probably right that my creative and libidinal impulses became, for a time, precariously interfused.

My interest in finance men as romantic material was as mysterious to me as my interest in finance as material for a book. I’d never earned enough for money to be anything but a source of panic. I had no idea what a derivative was and thought bear and bull meant the same thing. The distinction between a 401(k) and a Roth IRA was lost on me and in any case irrelevant because I had neither. And yet at some point during my years in New York, I became curious about the world of finance, then dazzled by it, and then—as my interest concentrated itself on the men who operated its levers—transfixed. Maybe the political convulsions of 2016 had awakened my class consciousness and spurred me to learn more about the people who shuffled the world’s capital. Maybe, as I neared thirty, I’d grown tired of financial precarity and subconsciously begun a search for a mate who would ease my misery. Maybe I saw in these men an obscure point of recognition. All I knew was that my curiosity would persist until I satisfied it.

. . . .

On my very first outing, I had the fortune or misfortune to have many of my preconceptions confirmed. His name was Andrew, he worked at Goldman Sachs, and he was, to my jubilation, supremely boring. He’d gone to prep school in New England and college in California and now lived with roommates in the West Village, though he had his eye on a one-bedroom in a glass monstrosity in Tribeca. He was tallish, blond, inconspicuously good-looking, and responsibly dressed: the kind of person who lives in your memory only as a pleasing, gleaming outline, devoid of eyes.

He described his life in a white-noise murmur. He told me about a presentation deck he’d recently been tasked with putting together. He told me about the challenge of assessing new markets. He told me about his fraternity days, his weeks on Fire Island. He told me about his life’s dream. He wanted to clamber up the ranks of investment banking, he explained, and then start a company of his own. “I went to the Harvard of California, and now I’m at the Harvard of finance,” he said. “I want to do something unexpected.”

. . . .

In each of these men I saw the same enigma. Something about their jobs seemed to have drained them of personality, blunted their curiosity, thinned out their speech, as if the drama of being a person had been shrunk to a matter of market efficiency, as if after thousands of hours of sitting in conference rooms and hunching before Bloomberg terminals they’d mistaken their spreadsheets, pitch books, white papers, and cash flow statements for materials out of which to assemble a soul. It didn’t occur to me then to wonder if I might be projecting this blankness onto them, or to wonder what purposes of my own such a projection might serve.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

Meet Your New Robot Co-Writer

From Esquire:

Some art forms welcome, even require, collaboration. After all, it is the exceptionally rare film or television show that gets made by a single person. Music, too, often literally demands the assistance of others. Even in these cases, though, there is a tendency to flatten the many into if not the one, then at least the few. Films—enormous undertakings costing millions of dollars, employing hundreds of people in numerous fields—have an entire theoretical construct organized around this very flattening: auteur theory. Emerging from the French New Wave of the 1950s and epitomized by the New Hollywood iconoclasm of the 1970s, auteur theory argues that the director is the sole author of a film, or the figure to whom we should attribute the work. The notion of a single figurehead was codified in 1978, when the Directors Guild of America added a provision to its bylaws, the “One Director to a Film” rule (Article 7-208) that can only be bypassed if, as an IndieWire column put it in 2022, “director duos… apply to the union’s Western Directors Council and make the case that they are lifelong collaborators; one-offs shouldn’t even try.” Lifelong collaborators—that’s a high bar to clear.

As for the many musicians and producers and technicians that are involved in, say, writing and recording an album, the front cover still tends to credit, by virtue of its prominence, a single entity. Fans sometimes even mine famous songwriting duos like Lennon and McCartney to figure out who really wrote “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (Lennon) or “Rocky Raccoon” (McCartney). We seem prone to narrow credit down to the fewest number of creators possible, despite what the bylines say.

But what of literature? Creative literary art forms, particularly fiction and poetry, are inherently solitary pursuits. There is nary a legacy of prosperous partnerships, and almost no tradition at all of enterprises with more than two authors. There are—of course—exceptions (some of which we’ll get to), but think of it this way: How many classic novels are written by more than one writer? How many collaborative novels have you read? How many are taught in schools? How many can you even name?

More importantly: why is this the case? Why aren’t there more literary collaborations? To be sure, in fantasy, science fiction, romance, horror, and mystery, there is a much stronger history of partnerships, but less so in so-called literary fiction. Novels written by groups are rare in any genre. In literature, we venerate the one over the many, and while it’s tempting to explain this away by citing the solitary nature of the practice—or, perhaps, the singular voice written texts seem to represent—I would posit that writing is not, nor has ever truly been, a wholly solitary act, and that collaboration occurs way more often than we like to admit or can even consciously acknowledge. But this tradition of encouraging solo art over teamwork—which in the past has led to the industry of ghostwriting and to numerous incidents of plagiarism—now has a new, fiercer, and much more insidious unintended consequence: the inevitable rise of fiction co-written by AI, and the flattening of literary storytelling.

I ask these questions because of the publication of Fourteen Days, a novel written by 36 authors ranging from John Grisham and Erica Jong to Tommy Orange and Nafissa Thompson-Spires. The project was overseen by Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston, who both also contributed. Supported by the Authors Guild Foundation, Fourteen Days tells the story of a new superintendent of an apartment building on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The place is called the Fernsby Arms, which the super describes as “a decaying crapshack tenement that should have been torn down a long time ago.” The super tells the reader to call her 1A, an Ishmael for our journey through Covid, for as soon as 1A begins her job at the Fernsby Arms, which features “rotten” pay and a dingy basement apartment, the pandemic hits. The previous super lets 1A in on a little secret: the super can access the roof of the building, which provides her with stunning views of the emptied city. She hopes to keep her rooftop oasis a secret (for legal reasons), but soon the tenants discover this pocket of paradise. In the boredom and isolation of quarantine, they begin to connect with each other by telling stories. Fourteen Days is a kind of a miniature Decameron for this unsteady decade.

The stories alternate between humorous and poignant, personal and historical, dark and light. There’s an added component of wondering which of the 36 contributors wrote which part, a game I recommend readers not spoil by consulting the authors’ bios in the back of the book, where the contributions are itemized. It’s fun to try to link a story to its teller. Sometimes it’s obvious: I figured that James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare in a Divided America and The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, wrote the section about the Bard’s own encounter with a pandemic, but R.L. Stine’s brief addition wasn’t as easy to sniff out (though one fact should have clued me in). The Covid stuff—the uncanniness of empty streets, cheering for essential workers, toilet paper shortages, newly acquired hobbies—will affect each reader in their own way, but as for me, I didn’t particularly love being back in that atmosphere of novelty and monotony.

What struck me most, though, was the novel’s self-reflective theme of collaborative storytelling. The characters share themselves with each other through narrative.

. . . .

What Fourteen Days is not an argument for, however, is the beneficial results of literary collaborations (particularly group collaborations) as an artistic experience for readers—which is to say that as a whole, Fourteen Days is really bad.

. . . .

There is no doubt that the 36 writers whose names crowd the perimeter of the novel’s cover very likely found the experience of creating Fourteen Days to be fun, interesting, enlightening, profound, and instructive. Indeed, Fourteen Days is a portrait of, as well as an argument for, the vitality of collaboration. But there is also no evidence here that the greatness of individual writers is usefully mixable—somehow the math of literary creation functions inversely, where the higher the number of each factor in an addition or multiplication problem, the smaller the solution will be.

. . . .

The problem can be put this way: the act of collaborating is rewarding and enriching for the collaborators, but the results don’t usually hold up against the standard set by singular voices. As such, there is an enormous gap between the value of the act and the merit of the result. This divide has become newly relevant as our notions of what it means to collaborate, as well as our fixation on individual achievement, are now up against a force, a tool, and a readymade collaborator in artificial intelligence. And if we don’t amend our concept of human-to-human aesthetic cooperation, then we will potentially face an era of more collaboration, and yet somehow less uniqueness.

. . . .

If I am responsible for 99% of a finished piece, can I truly claim to be the sole creator of that piece? What about 82%, or 68%? When does it become dubious—or even unethical—to contain the numerous co-authors under the umbrella of one? Some might argue that these issues are essentially legal ones, as abstractions like “credit” are less about actual attribution than about profit-sharing and royalties, which result more from agreements made by the creators than honest accounts of their creations. But what if the situation were not a handful of people’s work being left out of the credits? What if it was something like hundreds, thousands, millions of contributors’ work not only going unacknowledged, but in fact remaining impossible to detect in a creation ultimately credited to no one?

Sean Michaels’s lovely and thoughtful novel Do You Remember Being Born? tells the story of a septuagenarian poet named Marian Ffarmer [sic], who accepts an offer from a major tech corporation to co-write “a long poem” with their artificial intelligence, named Charlotte. “Charlotte’s been trained,” Marian is told by an employee, “on a massive data set of poetry books and journals, on top of a basic corpus of ten million web pages. Two point five trillion parameters…”

Marian’s experience with the AI oscillates between awe at the poetry bot’s ingenuity and dismay at its algorithmic approximation of meaningful expression. At first, Marian can “taste the disjuncture between our lines, like chalk and cheese,” but then something changes, though Marian recognizes how difficult such shifts can be to accurately diagnose:

The software learned me to some degree, or I learned it, or else nothing changed at all except my posture toward its work: that instead of awaiting an obvious fit, hook and eye, I anticipated that band of friction, as a spade awaits the dirt.

The novel takes its time deftly and tenderly interrogating the nature of meaning, the inexhaustive dexterity of language, and our knack for finding thematic or linguistic connections where none were intended. Marian’s generosity and curiosity provide her with an openness about Charlotte’s literary abilities, while her intelligence and expertise refuse to permit mediocrity or meaninglessness. The delicate drama at the novel’s core comes from this complex inner conflict.

The conversations between Marian and Charlotte are written; Marian types into Charlotte’s software and hits the Proceed key. Marian’s typed side of the exchange is rendered in a unique font, while Charlotte’s responses are highlighted in gray, which usefully differentiates between the two and visually reinforces Charlotte’s fabricated isolation: Charlotte is literally kept in dull, slate boxes. But it performs another function: what does it mean when those gray highlights appear not in scenes featuring Charlotte, but moments in Marian’s personal life? In the novel, it’s a hint that Marian might eventually collaborate with Charlotte (or another AI) on more than just this one assignment.

Link to the rest at Esquire

If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, Try a Dysphemism

From The Wall Street Journal:

Dysphemism is a useful word. It’s the reverse of euphemism. H.W. Fowler’s brief entry on euphemism in his excellent “Modern English Usage” reads: a “mild or vague or periphrastic expression as a substitute for blunt precision or disagreeable truth.” Needing to use the toilet, one takes a pass on the precise words available and supplies one of the many euphemisms at hand, among them “going to the loo,” “inspecting the plumbing,” “visiting the House of Commons.” I had a friend, now long gone, whose speech was larded with dysphemisms. Of Jewish academics, some among them famous, who attempted to pass themselves off as gentiles, he would say “At least X has never taken advantage of being Jewish.”

Euphemists fancy themselves polite, dysphemists fancy themselves precise. Dysphemists wear their linguistic trousers high up and tight, euphemists don’t mind donning baggy pants. Euphemists often come off prissy, dysphemists brutal.

Certain subjects bring out the differences between the two. For euphemists abortion is designated “women’s reproductive rights,” for dysphemists it is “the remedy for careless copulation,” or, darker, “killing babies.” For a euphemist death is “passing away” or “heading to the beyond”; for a dysphemist death is “kicking the bucket,” “buying the ranch,” “case closed,” “fini.” I have of late been availing myself of a euphemism for death of my own devising—“departing the planet”—which suggests the possibility of a later life on another planet.

Whether you are a euphemist or dysphemist has much to do with temperament. Euphemisms tend to be optimistic and uplifiting, dysphemisms sometimes amusing but often dark. The euphemist through his choice of language generally wants to make life seem less stark, more agreeable; the dysphemist wants above all to be accurate in his descriptions and depictions of life. The former fancies he travels under the banner of pleasantry, the latter under that of unadorned truthfulness.

Euphemism can of course have its political uses. Political correctness has brought with it a number of new euphemisms, “differently abled” for disabled, “children at risk” for juvenile delinquents, “unhoused” for homeless and scores of others. More recently, Harvard University called its then president Claudine Gay’s plagiarism “duplicative language,” thereby attempting to blur if not demote the seriousness of copying the work of others without attribution. A dysphemist might call Ms. Gay, with the large salary she will retain even though no longer president of Harvard, an “affirmative action heiress.”

Using euphemisms one can feel both elegant and (if need be) artfully deceptive. Dysphemisms cut through the nonsense supplied by—you will have guessed it—euphemisms. The novelist Kingsley Amis remarked of the euphemism “workshop” to describe classes in creative writing that, “If there’s one word that sums up everything that’s gone wrong since the war, it’s Workshop.” Think of the sad euphemism of “collateral damage” in war to describe civilian deaths. Yet not all euphemisms are nonsense. Many are necessary; some are useful; others make life seem less coarse. Better, I suppose, to have “a negative cash-flow problem” than to be broke.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

Excerpt from My Antonia by Willa Cather

From Penguin Random House Canada:

I

I first heard of Antonia on what seemed to me an interminable journey across the great midland plain of North America. I was ten years old then; I had lost both my father and mother within a year, and my Virginia relatives were sending me out to my grandparents, who lived in Nebraska. I travelled in the care of a mountain boy, Jake Marpole, one of the “hands” on my father’s old farm under the Blue Ridge, who was now going West to work for my grandfather. Jake’s experience of the world was not much wider than mine. He had never been in a railway train until the morning when we set out together to try our fortunes in a new world.

We went all the way in day-coaches, becoming more sticky and grimy with each stage of the journey. Jake bought everything the newsboys offered him: candy, oranges, brass collar buttons, a watchcharm, and for me a Life of Jesse James, which I remember as one of the most satisfactory books I have ever read. Beyond Chicago we were under the protection of a friendly passenger conductor, who knew all about the country to which we were going and gave us a great deal of advice in exchange for our confidence. He seemed to us an experienced and worldly man who had been almost everywhere; in his conversation he threw out lightly the names of distant states and cities. He wore the rings and pins and badges of different fraternal orders to which he belonged. Even his cuff-buttons were engraved with hieroglyphics, and he was more inscribed than an Egyptian obelisk.

Once when he sat down to chat, he told us that in the immigrant car ahead there was a family from “across the water” whose destination was the same as ours.

“They can’t any of them speak English, except one little girl, and all she can say is ‘We go Black Hawk, Nebraska.’ She’s not much older than you, twelve or thirteen, maybe, and she’s as bright as a new dollar. Don’t you want to go ahead and see her, Jimmy? She’s got the pretty brown eyes, too!”

This last remark made me bashful, and I shook my head and settled down to Jesse James. Jake nodded at me approvingly and said you were likely to get diseases from foreigners.

I do not remember crossing the Missouri River, or anything about the long day’s journey through Nebraska. Probably by that time I had crossed so many rivers that I was dull to them. The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.

I had been sleeping, curled up in a red plush seat, for a long while when we reached Black Hawk. Jake roused me and took me by the hand. We stumbled down from the train to a wooden siding, where men were running about with lanterns. I couldn’t see any town, or even distant lights; we were surrounded by utter darkness. The engine was panting heavily after its long run. In the red glow from the fire-box, a group of people stood huddled together on the platform, encumbered by bundles and boxes. I knew this must be the immigrant family the conductor had told us about. The woman wore a fringed shawl tied over her head, and she carried a little tin trunk in her arms, hugging it as if it were a baby. There was an old man, tall and stooped. Two half-grown boys and a girl stood holding oilcloth bundles, and a little girl clung to her mother’s skirts. Presently a man with a lantern approached them and began to talk, shouting and exclaiming. I pricked up my ears, for it was positively the first time I had ever heard a foreign tongue.

Another lantern came along. A bantering voice called out: “Hello, are you Mr. Burden’s folks? If you are, it’s me you’re looking for. I’m Otto Fuchs. I’m Mr. Burden’s hired man, and I’m to drive you out. Hello, Jimmy, ain’t you scared to come so far west?”

I looked up with interest at the new face in the lanternlight. He might have stepped out of the pages of Jesse James. He wore a sombrero hat, with a wide leather band and a bright buckle, and the ends of his moustache were twisted up stiffly, like little horns. He looked lively and ferocious, I thought, and as if he had a history. A long scar ran across one cheek and drew the corner of his mouth up in a sinister curl. The top of his left ear was gone, and his skin was brown as an Indian’s. Surely this was the face of a desperado. As he walked about the platform in his high-heeled boots, looking for our trunks, I saw that he was a rather slight man, quick and wiry, and light on his feet. He told us we had a long night drive ahead of us, and had better be on the hike. He led us to a hitching-bar where two farm-wagons were tied, and I saw the foreign family crowding into one of them. The other was for us. Jake got on the front seat with Otto Fuchs, and I rode on the straw in the bottom of the wagon-box, covered up with a buffalo hide. The immigrants rumbled off into the empty darkness, and we followed them.

I tried to go to sleep, but the jolting made me bite my tongue, and I soon began to ache all over. When the straw settled down, I had a hard bed. Cautiously I slipped from under the buffalo hide, got up on my knees and peered over the side of the wagon. There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land-slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheepfold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.

II

I do not remember our arrival at my grandfather’s farm sometime before daybreak, after a drive of nearly twenty miles with heavy work-horses. When I awoke, it was afternoon. I was lying in a little room, scarcely larger than the bed that held me, and the window-shade at my head was flapping softly in a warm wind. A tall woman, with wrinkled brown skin and black hair, stood looking down at me; I knew that she must be my grandmother. She had been crying, I could see, but when I opened my eyes she smiled, peered at me anxiously, and sat down on the foot of my bed.

“Had a good sleep, Jimmy?” she asked briskly. Then in a very different tone she said, as if to herself, “My, how you do look like your father!” I remembered that my father had been her little boy; she must often have come to wake him like this when he overslept. “Here are your clean clothes,” she went on, stroking my coverlid with her brown hand as she talked. “But first you come down to the kitchen with me, and have a nice warm bath behind the stove. Bring your things; there’s nobody about.”

“Down to the kitchen” struck me as curious; it was always “out in the kitchen” at home. I picked up my shoes and stockings and followed her through the living-room and down a flight of stairs into a basement. This basement was divided into a dining-room at the right of the stairs and a kitchen at the left. Both rooms were plastered and whitewashed-the plaster laid directly upon the earth walls, as it used to be in dugouts. The floor was of hard cement. Up under the wooden ceiling there were little halfwindows with white curtains, and pots of geraniums and wandering Jew in the deep sills. As I entered the kitchen, I sniffed a pleasant smell of gingerbread baking. The stove was very large, with bright nickel trimmings, and behind it there was a long wooden bench against the wall, and a tin washtub, into which grandmother poured hot and cold water. When she brought the soap and towels, I told her that I was used to taking my bath without help.

“Can you do your ears, Jimmy? Are you sure? Well, now, I call you a right smart little boy.”

It was pleasant there in the kitchen. The sun shone into my bath-water through the west half-window, and a big Maltese cat came up and rubbed himself against the tub, watching me curiously. While I scrubbed, my grandmother busied herself in the dining-room until I called anxiously, “Grandmother, I’m afraid the cakes are burning!” Then she came laughing, waving her apron before her as if she were shooing chickens.

She was a spare, tall woman, a little stooped, and she was apt to carry her head thrust forward in an attitude of attention, as if she were looking at something, or listening to something, far away. As I grew older, I came to believe that it was only because she was so often thinking of things that were far away. She was quick-footed and energetic in all her movements. Her voice was high and rather shrill, and she often spoke with an anxious inflection, for she was exceedingly desirous that everything should go with due order and decorum. Her laugh, too, was high, and perhaps a little strident, but there was a lively intelligence in it. She was then fifty-five years old, a strong woman, of unusual endurance.

After I was dressed, I explored the long cellar next the kitchen. It was dug out under the wing of the house, was plastered and cemented, with a stairway and an outside door by which the men came and went. Under one of the windows there was a place for them to wash when they came in from work.

While my grandmother was busy about supper, I settled myself on the wooden bench behind the stove and got acquainted with the cat-he caught not only rats and mice, but gophers, I was told. The patch of yellow sunlight on the floor travelled back toward the stairway, and grandmother and I talked about my journey, and about the arrival of the new Bohemian family; she said they were to be our nearest neighbours. We did not talk about the farm in Virginia, which had been her home for so many years. But after the men came in from the fields, and we were all seated at the supper table, then she asked Jake about the old place and about our friends and neighbours there.

My grandfather said little. When he first came in he kissed me and spoke kindly to me, but he was not demonstrative. I felt at once his deliberateness and personal dignity, and was a little in awe of him. The thing one immediately noticed about him was his beautiful, crinkly, snow-white beard. I once heard a missionary say it was like the beard of an Arabian sheik. His bald crown only made it more impressive.

Grandfather’s eyes were not at all like those of an old man; they were bright blue, and had a fresh, frosty sparkle. His teeth were white and regular-so sound that he had never been to a dentist in his life. He had a delicate skin, easily roughened by sun and wind. When he was a young man his hair and beard were red; his eyebrows were still coppery.

As we sat at the table, Otto Fuchs and I kept stealing covert glances at each other. Grandmother had told me while she was getting supper that he was an Austrian who came to this country a young boy and had led an adventurous life in the Far West among mining-camps and cow outfits. His iron constitution was somewhat broken by mountain pneumonia, and he had drifted back to live in a milder country for a while. He had relatives in Bismarck, a German settlement to the north of us, but for a year now he had been working for grandfather.

The minute supper was over, Otto took me into the kitchen to whisper to me about a pony down in the barn that had been bought for me at a sale; he had been riding him to find out whether he had any bad tricks, but he was a “perfect gentleman,” and his name was Dude. Fuchs told me everything I wanted to know: how he had lost his ear in a Wyoming blizzard when he was a stage-driver, and how to throw a lasso. He promised to rope a steer for me before sundown next day. He got out his “chaps” and silver spurs to show them to Jake and me, and his best cowboy boots, with tops stitched in bold design-roses, and true-lover’s knots, and undraped female figures. These, he solemnly explained, were angels.

Before we went to bed, Jake and Otto were called up to the living-room for prayers. Grandfather put on silver-rimmed spectacles and read several Psalms. His voice was so sympathetic and he read so interestingly that I wished he had chosen one of my favourite chapters in the Book of Kings. I was awed by his intonation of the word “Selah.” “He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom He loved. Selah.” I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular, the most sacred of words.

Early the next morning I ran out-of-doors to look about me. I had been told that ours was the only wooden house west of Black Hawk-until you came to the Norwegian settlement, where there were several. Our neighbours lived in sod houses and dugouts-comfortable, but not very roomy. Our white frame house, with a storey and half-storey above the basement, stood at the east end of what I might call the farmyard, with the windmill close by the kitchen door. From the windmill the ground sloped westward, down to the barns and granaries and pig-yards. This slope was trampled hard and bare, and washed out in winding gullies by the rain. Beyond the corncribs, at the bottom of the shallow draw, was a muddy little pond, with rusty willow bushes growing about it. The road from the post-office came directly by our door, crossed the farmyard, and curved round this little pond, beyond which it began to climb the gentle swell of unbroken prairie to the west. There, along the western sky-line, it skirted a great cornfield, much larger than any field I had ever seen. This cornfield, and the sorghum patch behind the barn, were the only broken land in sight. Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I.

Link to the rest at Penguin Random House Canada

PG knew about Ms. Cather and My Antonia (he even recalls how to pronounce Antonia), but had never read any of her books. He was completely captivated by the portion he posted above and is going to download the ebook version so he can read the whole thing.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at Art

From Salmagundi:

Art is useless, said Wilde. Art is for art’s sake—that is, for beauty’s sake. But why do we possess a sense of beauty to begin with? A question we will never answer. Perhaps it’s just a kind of superfluity of sexual attraction. Nature needs us to feel drawn to other human bodies, but evolution is imprecise. In order to go far enough, to make that feeling strong enough, it went too far. Others are powerfully lovely to us, but so, in a strangely different, strangely similar way, are flowers and sunsets. Art, in turn, this line of thought might go, is a response to natural beauty. Stunned by it, we seek to rival it, to reproduce it, to prolong it. Flowers fade, sunsets melt from moment to moment; the love of bodies brings us grief. Art abides. “When old age shall this generational waste, / Thou shalt remain.”

Art is for truth. Even Wilde suggests as much, though he, and we, don’t call it truth but meaning. Art points beyond itself. At what? At us. The role of art is to compile the endless atlas of human experience. It’s often not a pretty picture for, as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. Except it’s not a line; it’s a tangle. The gurus want to solve human nature; so do the utopians, the ideologues and revolutionaries. The artist, wiser, observes it, above all in herself. One answer to a question of the moment, is it ethical to engage with art by bad people, is: what other kind of people are there? If artists are heroic, it’s in this: that they are willing to confess the dirty human secrets that the rest of us can’t even bear to look at.

Art is for justice. Excuse me, “social justice.” So today’s ideologues and revolutionaries claim. They seek to yoke the artist to their plow. But the artist and the revolutionary, Baldwin said, “seem doomed to stand forever at an odd and rather uncomfortable angle to each other.” Both are visionaries, he continued, but their vision differs. Art may sometimes serve the cause of justice, but only ever indirectly. To improve the world (I will not say perfect or save, for these are illusions), you first have to know it. Art comes before politics, because truth comes before justice.

Art is good for us. That’s the institutional line: the NEA line, the PBS line, the foundation and museum line. Art is meant to “educate” us, to “enlighten” us—at most, to “challenge” us or challenge “the status quo,” but always within the four corners of consensus values. It’s always repelled me, this way of thinking: its mealy-mouthed, Victorian, Unitarian-church-lady lukewarm bath of civic good intentions. Art is good for us, like exercise and vitamins and have lots of fiber in your diet, a kind of spiritual tonic for the body politic. It is exactly such earnest importance that Wilde was thumbing his nose at. Yet aren’t I guilty of it, in my own way, too?

Art, I have preached, is for bildung, self-development, especially within the context of an undergraduate education. Art helps you to become a deeper, freer version of yourself, etc., etc., blah blah blah, you’ve heard the song a thousand times. So what’s the difference between that and “art is good for us”? If there is one, it is this. The whole modern idea—the liberal idea—is that the group isn’t all. The state, the clan, the tribe: that within these we carve out space for the individual (think of the Bill of Rights, as it dwells within the Constitution); that carving out space for the individual (“to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men”) is indeed the whole point of the thing. But that space is always under siege, mainly by people who think they know what’s good for us: by the church ladies or, now, the progressive commissars, who are really just militant church ladies. The point of art-for-bildung, as I understand it, is to help you to become an individual—a cussed, wayward, stubborn individual, with your own ideas and purposes—not to fit you to the group. Is it contradictory to try to use the setting of an institution, a university, to teach young people to be individuals? It is. It would be better not to have to. But that is what we have.

Art is for constituting the tribe, especially in modernity. We’ve seen no better instance of this recently than the all-conquering Swifties, a group so large and mighty it could plausibly demand a seat on the Security Council. Art unites us across existing groups; it creates new groups where none existed. Hence the salience of “fandom” —the costumes, the Cons, the devotional art—for the rootless children of the internet age.

Art is for connecting us, as individuals, outside the borders of the group. In a previous piece for these pages, I said that artists’ proper role, not even now but especially now, is to be un-political, trans-political, to remind us of everything in our experience that can’t be captured by the categories of the moment. Three weeks after sending in the piece, I came across a perfect example of what I was talking about. It was an essay by Meghan Daum, called “The Broken-In World,” about life after divorce, life in middle age, life in the wake of life’s inevitable fuck-ups and regrets. “[A]s your story joins the chorus of stories being told and listened to in as many versions as there are broken people to tell and hear them,” she writes, “you slide into a new kind of world.…It’s a world built on scar tissue, which turns out to be a surprisingly solid foundation. And at some point, without quite realizing it, your life goes from broken to broken in.” It is a piece about the beauty that lies on the other side of disfigurement, the honesty that lies on the other side of forty. And those are human things, two among a million, that don’t have anything to do with where you stand on the identity grid or the political spectrum.

Link to the rest at Salmagundi

PG notes (renotes, again?) that he doesn’t necessarily agree with items he posts on The Passive Voice.

A journalist goes undercover to reveal the absurdity of the art scene

From The Washington Post:

“If you are not rich, you’re not getting rich,” the writer Fran Lebowitz once quipped about life in contemporary America. Judging from “Get the Picture,” Bianca Bosker’s mesmerizing new book about New York’s contemporary art scene, Lebowitz might as well have been talking about cultural capital. If you’re not born with it, you probably won’t amass much of it, because the gatekeepers in this book make it clear that they’re not sharing any wealth. “The art world is the way it is because not everyone has access to it. And not everyone understands it. And that’s sort of what creates interest and intrigue,” a gallerist on the Lower East Side tells the author.

Bosker, an Atlantic contributor goes semi-undercover with the 1 percent of cultural capital, in swanky Chelsea galleries and drug-fueled VIP rooms at Miami’s Art Basel. Her goal is to figure out why contemporary art attracts so much money, status and (occasionally) talent. She spent several years taking entry-level jobs in galleries and artist studios so she could vividly capture the new class hierarchies in American culture and the subtle cues that mark cultural distinction.

In one memorable scene, a former assistant at the prestigious Gagosian Gallery describes how her employer had “such stringent guidelines on answering the phone that her boss made her record herself rehearsing the one-word greeting (‘Gagosian.’), then practice till she aced the intonation: curt with a downward inflection, because ‘you do not want to sound happy.’”

Bosker learns that money is never enough in the New York art world; it must be the right kind of money, preferably old, or at least vaguely attached to cultural prestige. “Gallerists hid the prices, then refused to sell you a piece, even if you could pay for it,” she writes. She patiently talks to an endless succession of nepo babies who are reluctant to discuss their inherited privilege, so it’s refreshing when the gallerist Rob Dimin admits he would never last in the New York art world without his trust fund: “To get to this point without the family support — hell [expletive] no.”

In a telling scene, the artist Julie Curtiss panics when her paintings sell at record prices at auctions, not just because she doesn’t get a cut from secondary sales but because hype that comes too quickly can destroy careers. When the art becomes associated with nouveau riche investors, top galleries turn up their noses, and careers can collapse quicker than a meme stock.

The galleries inform her that the way to avoid this is to sell art only to “Good Persons,” which tends to mean wealthy White people with friends at powerful institutions. One gallerist tells her, “You don’t necessarily want just, like, Joe Schmo to buy it and put it in his one-bedroom Bed-Stuy apartment and it never sees the light of day again.”

The book also asks deeper questions about the ways art institutions now fetishize political radicalism, while often abusing or excluding those who live it. Contemporary art galleries are happy to exhibit Black, queer or even (occasionally) working-class artists; they just prefer not to sell the art to them or share boardrooms with them. At the time Bosker’s book was written, there were 176 members of the Art Dealers Association of America, one of them African American.

Meanwhile, salaries in the art world are so absurdly low that only rich kids with family money can afford the entry-level jobs, turning galleries into self-selecting clubs that perpetuate their own privilege. Bosker exposes the often-abusive labor practices of art institutions and shows how gallerists, artists and curators take pride in treating their employees like vermin. They “hire by feel and fire on whims,” and one Manhattan gallerist brags about putting assistants “through hell the first day.”

Language also helps to keep outsiders away. Bosker quotes a widely discussed paper on the birth of “International Art English,” a blatantly exclusionary dialect, “not necessarily for communicating,” that instead serves to build tribal identity among art elites. It grew, the argument goes, out of dubious translations of French theory in American magazines in the 1980s and still shapes art-industry-speak, where the francophone suffix -ité is often applied awkwardly to made-up English words. Bosker quotes a news release describing artworks that allegedly “summon forces of indexicality and iconicity from the aspirations, alibis and abuses of sovereignty.”

“Art devotees spoke like they were trapped in dictionaries and being forced to chew their way out,” Bosker writes. When she told a curator that a performance art piece was “boring,” the curator disagreed: It wasn’t boring, it was “durational.”

Thankfully, Bosker’s book is neither boring nor durational. She has written a dark comedy of manners, and what she exposes here might be a new kind of country club mentality, where the cultural elite can no longer exclude people based on race, gender or sexual identity, so they come up with clever new ways to build moats around their little castles. “Outsiders,” a gallerist explains, “have zero social currency and just can’t help anyone.”

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to C. for the tip.

wooden skewers – Wikipedia

Groff and the Radical Act of Paying Attention

From Public Books:

She doesn’t have a name when we meet her, though she’s been given many over the years: Lamentations, assigned to her as a foundling, a name of profound grief and mourning if also poetry; Zed, formerly the name of her mistress’s pet monkey, “the least and the littlest and the last to be counted like the strangest of all the letters of the alphabet”; “murderess,” perhaps a fair description of her legal status, if not her spiritual one. But “Girl” is what she calls herself, as she urges her starving body and exhausted legs and indefatigable spirit deeper into the wilderness.

The girl—the runaway protagonist of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, The Vaster Wildshas spent her life being shunted from one institution to the next: first, an orphanage; then servitude; then brought to the Jamestown Colony by her mistress without consent. Fleeing the starving, diseased encampment, she sloughs off these past names and identities and “dwindle[s] the self she had once known down to nothing.” But with this evacuation of the self into nothing comes great knowledge and insight. For “a nothing is no thing, a nothing is a thing with no past,” and, what’s more, “a nothing could be free.” Releasing the girl from the oppressive structures in which she had been enclosed, The Vaster Wilds is equally interested in exploring a spirituality unfettered by patriarchy, a god not reduced to that of a specific religious text or rite but as expansive as the cosmos. Hierarchies thus reordered, the girl finds herself in holy communion with nature.

In The Vaster Wilds, a servant girl escapes the Jamestown Colony in 1609, and attempts to survive in the wilderness. She escapes during the winter known as the Starving Time, though as the novel progresses, we learn that the famine is only one type of suffering motivating her flight. It is a tale reminiscent of early American writing: captivity narratives and survival stories, peppered with the brimstone of Puritan sermons. Yet, in The Vaster Wilds, Groff sought to “transform the stereotypically combative and masculine relationship” between man and nature—the conflict that structures tales of survival—“into something feminine, more profound and subtle.”1

It seems a great risk for a writer to compose a novel around a character who so persistently thinks herself “a nothing,” whose thoughts are focused so intently on daily survival and bodily needs. For a writer less skilled than Groff, a novel like The Vaster Wilds could easily read as a slog. Days and nights of endless running and cold bleed together, and the mending of boots is hardly scintillating material. The Vaster Wilds follows the girl closely in a tight third person, taking only occasional detours as she encounters (rare) others on her journey, slowly unspooling the girl’s history to explain how she has been brought to Jamestown, and why she is so desperate to escape from it. When the girl’s attention flags, she strays from her path, losing days to wandering in circles, finding herself far from her intended course. The lesson for the reader is clear: slow down, pay attention, look closely. Meandering sentences turn on unexpected verbs, as when the girl comes upon a natural hot spring; crystalline images emerging from the bleakest of settings, as when she finds fish frozen in a shallow pond.

To sustain such a taut narrative requires a different sort of skill than subsisting in the wilderness, but Groff exercises the same discipline and force of will as her protagonist. And—just as the novel, in its shocking final sentence, turns to address the present-tense reader directly—so too are we invited to exercise Groff’s, and the girl’s, discipline ourselves.

Link to the rest at Public Books

The Return of Ideology

From The National Interest:

When the Chicago Black Lives Matter account (@BLMChi) shared a post on X celebrating the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, many on the Left reacted in shock. What did protesting police violence against Black Americans have to do with cheering on the gruesome massacre of Israeli men, women, elders, and children?

. . . .

Another word that has featured prominently in these discussions is “ideology.” Some sixty years ago, the sociologist Daniel Bell published a book called The End of Ideology (1960), where he argued that there was no serious debate left to be had about political ideologies. Totalitarian visions, on both the left and right, had lost their appeal among reasonable people. Today, by contrast, ideologies are roaring back to life. Their return frightens those who know how this story played out in the twentieth century. If we hope to limit the appeal of ideologies, we urgently need to understand how they work.

Drawing on the rich scholarly literature on the subject, we may define ideology as a pathological, modern, and revolutionary narrative. It is “pathological,” both in the usual sense of abnormal or unhealthy and in the literal sense that it is a discourse (logos) that triggers powerful emotions (pathos). As a pathological narrative, ideology is resistant to many rational objections. The specific points that ideologies draw on are often true. Israel has indeed used settlers to colonize parts of the West Bank (though it dismantled Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005). Right-wing populism similarly exploits genuine economic or political grievances. The persuasiveness of ideologies, however, lies not in their arrangement of facts but in their mobilization of feelings. In this respect, we might even consider ideology as a literary genre, namely a form of melodrama rather than a philosophical discourse.

Unlike religious dogma, political propaganda, or conspiracy theories, ideologies are inherently modern. They reject the classical vision of history as repetitive or serial and insist instead on the necessity of progress. In ideological narratives, a morally compromised past must give way to a regenerated future. Where millenarian or apocalyptic narratives involve divine intervention, this change is wholly secular. Ideology provides a revolutionary script for human action. Viewed from this angle, ideologies may have more in common with other modern ways of thinking than we realize (or are comfortable with). Rooting out ideology means recognizing that we all carry its seeds.

The word “ideology” was coined during the French Revolution by intellectuals trying to make sense of and avoid what they saw as the horrific excesses of the Terror. Ideology, as they understood it, was a science that should lead us to the truth in moral and political matters. It should prevent the errors that drove the French revolutionaries to fratricidal violence. The Idéologues’s project was inspired by the doctrine of historical progress, which had recently emerged from the Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns (an academic dispute that surged between 1680 and 1720 in France and England). For the Moderns, what made their age greater than Antiquity was the gradual advancement of society toward reason and justice. This Modern vision received its canonical expression in the Marquis de Condorcet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794). 

In describing the gradual advance of reason towards a more just society, the modern doctrine of progress assumes that there is one final destination. In Hegel’s phrase, there is an end of History. More importantly, there can only be a single end. The triumph of reason results in homogeneity. Once we have prevailed over error and superstition, we should all see rationally and reach straightforward agreements about how society should be organized and administered. The modern theory of progress, in this sense, is at odds with a pluralist conception of society. 

One might fairly ask whether pluralism was a value in historical or political thought until very recently. Should we criticize modern progressives for their “monism,” if no one had previously defended a pluralistic outlook? In fact, the classical vision of history already promoted a de facto pluralism. For the Ancients, history had no telos, no goal; the future was simply more of the past. This meant that the social and political conflicts that characterized the present would never disappear. The wealthy and the poor will not agree about what is just, Aristotle concluded in Politics. A balanced constitution was the only viable political solution, as it provided a compromise between feuding classes. This same logic persuaded the American founders to create one political body (the Senate) that could express the opinions of the wealthy few and another (the House of Representatives) that defended the interests of the many poor. Never did they imagine that these different outlooks would be reconciled. “In all civilized countries, the interest of a community will be divided,” James Madison argued during the Federal Convention in 1787. “There will be debtors and creditors, and an unequal possession of property, and hence arises different views and different objects in government.” Madison even turned this conflict of viewpoints into an epistemological virtue: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed,” he affirmed in Federalist Paper No. 10. For classical thinkers, pluralism may not always have been a good in and of itself, but it was inevitable. 

The modern theory of progress rejects this classical acceptance of irreconcilable political differences. In its place, it envisages the eventual convergence of opinions around a single rational viewpoint. The greatest challenge to this assumption comes from the reality check that people tend not to agree on important things. This realization abruptly dawned on progressive thinkers in the early years of the French Revolution. Even among its supporters, profound differences of opinion prevailed about how to organize the new government and distribute its powers. Each side was persuaded that its opponents were not only misguided but irrational. From accusing rivals of erroneous thinking to branding them as counter-revolutionaries, there was but one small step. The modern theory of progress, which the Idéologues had hoped would put an end to revolutionary violence once and for all, had, in fact, fueled its advance.

The most contentious debates in society often concern subjects such as history, where logical analysis alone is insufficient. Who did what to whom, who is on “the right side of history,” and who is not? These are questions that can only be answered through narratives. Narratives are not antithetical to reason per se, but they operate on other levels, as well.

In a famous study, the theorist Hayden White argued that many historical narratives mirror literary genres. Tocqueville’s history of the French Revolution has a tragic dimension; Burckhardt’s history of the Renaissance is more satirical. We might add that progressive narratives, such as Condorcet’s universal history, are melodramatic. Condorcet observed that if reason only advances gradually and it takes extended periods of time for societies to improve, that is because there are obstacles to progress. Error and superstition are among the chief hurdles to overcome. But these are not simply problems that each and every one of us must surmount individually. They have their own backers and institutions, such as despotic kings or a regressive Church. Conversely, reason and justice have their own valiant defenders, most recently (and conveniently, for Condorcet) the philosophes themselves.

. . . .

One of the effects of literary genres is to excite and direct our feelings toward characters and situations. Tragedies, Aristotle taught in Poetics, elicit feelings of pity and fear; comedies make us laugh with their happy resolution. Melodramas take maximum advantage of this process. We are meant to feel anger and revulsion toward the villains, pity for the victims, and joy when the hero ultimately triumphs. 

But the feeling that melodrama produces most effectively and provides its generic specificity is righteousness. The satisfaction we experience in the end stems from the fact that the villains get what they deserve. We cheer for the heroes because they are on the side of justice. As Brooks put it, in melodramas, the law is “sacralized.” It becomes an object of awe and veneration, two powerful feelings. 

Link to the rest at The National Interest

PG acknowledges that the OP is rather far afield of the usual topics included on The Passive Voice, but he’s been reading a lot of history lately as a way of better understand the present.

Change seems to be happening at a more rapid pace in many areas of human endeavor these days but human nature, taken as a whole, never changes.

7 Books About Authorship Hoaxes

From Electric Lit:

Public fascination with con artists, scams, and heists has been on the rise, with stories of Anna Delvey, Rachel Dolezal, Caroline Calloway, and Elizabeth Holmes splashing across magazine covers in the last decade. Alongside it, my thirsty interest in literary scandals has grown, watered by “Bad Art Friend,” a mysterious manuscript thief, the pathological lies of an editor cum author, and the invented auteur JT LeRoy. Surely there must be fiction in this vein, I thought. We live in a literary soup of cultural appropriation, ghost writers, plagiarism, fabricated memoirs, artificial intelligence, autofiction, and nebulous influence. Who doesn’t love a juicy story about pretending to be someone you’re not in order to make art? So began my fiendish fascination with novels that dive into questions about authorship, who owns a story, what parts of life we can acceptably use to write and which are unethical (or at the very least, gauche). If there are a glut of real-life examples of scammers, surely there must be fictional tales of authorship hoaxes.

The ones I found tend to keep pace with thrillers, though the crimes were less gory, more fixated on the ever-hungry ego, and pleasurably literary. Often, these books portray adults who can’t do their own homework, pushed to the brink by their desire to succeed while their peers burst up as stars, they desperately steal the work of others. These books are less about “real talent” and more about vanity and ego that fuel people to be known as artists, rather than make great art.

Even the books in this list whose villains aren’t stealing source material (or whole manuscripts) offer an exploration of authenticity and how to deal with inevitable periods of diminished inspiration. Inherent in this plot, is a sense of mystery about where a work originates and how one can prove who owns material. Some of these take up the dangers of cult personalities and the treacherousness of fame. Others lambast broken systems (publishing, the artworld) and how creative merit fails to correspond to financial or critical success. Underneath them all sits the question: Who are you and where do you get your ideas?

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne

At any given reading, it seems the most common question is “Where did you get the idea for this?” John Boyne’s main character Maurice Swift is obsessed with this too, because, simply put: he is a good writer with no good ideas. After a chance encounter with famed author and Holocaust survivor Erich Ackermann, he panders to the older gay man and preys upon his loneliness, becoming an assistant of sorts, traveling with him on book tour. Over the course of the tour, he teases out a story that Erich has never shared about his time during World War II, which Maurice uses to write his first novel. As the rest of this elegantly plotted novel unfolds, we watch as Maurice continues to find new and atrocious ways to grift stories for his novels. 

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Jacob Finch Bonner had a respectable start to his publishing career but has been struggling to write a second book for far too long. When a student of his comes along that is painfully arrogant but has a brilliant idea for a book, Bonner is jealous. The plot is undeniably juicy, and it seems only a matter of time that he will be eclipsed by a student, washed up and forgotten about. But the book never comes out and Bonner eventually discovers his student died. He decides to use the plot for his own next book (chapters of Bonner’s book are interwoven with the story so readers slowly come to see what exactly this atomic plot is). This thrilling read gets even more propulsive when someone who knows Bonner stole the story starts hunting him down to pay penance.

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

This recent release is a fast-paced and pulpy book that follows two grad school peers, June Hayward and Athena Liu, and the ways their careers diverge drastically. While Athena has become a bestseller, June’s books have never caught the attention of the media. When June witnesses Athena’s death (in a ridiculously campy scene involving choking on a pancake), she decides to steal Athena’s latest manuscript about Chinese laborers in World War I. After Athena’s death, June edits the book, and through a series of incredible maneuvers by her publishers is transformed from a white author to a racially ambiguous one rebranded as Juniper Song. Unsurprisingly, June, or Juniper is haunted by fact that someone might figure out her secret. And indeed, they do. 

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

You Can’t Unsubscribe From Grief

From Electric Lit:

Replying All on the Death Announcement Email

On New Year’s Day, I got an email from an old writer friend announcing plans to end her life. Her life was already ending. This expedited ending-of-life had been approved by a medical professional. She was electing to die with dignity. Her death was scheduled for the following day. Like a hair appointment or a visit to the dentist.

It wasn’t an email directly to me. I subscribe to her newsletter.

Farewell, the subject line read. That was her voice. Grand and direct. There was no beating around the bush. Happy New Year! the email began and then: I’m planning to end my life.

After I closed the email, I tried to stop thinking about her, but that night, on the eve of when I knew she was going to die, I couldn’t sleep. I googled her name, read every article that appeared on my screen. Read all the hits that weren’t actually about her. The ones with her name crossed out that the algorithm insisted were relevant. Maybe it knew something I didn’t.

I read about all the diseases I was probably suffering from that had nothing to do with her (or the disease that was killing her), I read about all the new diet trends that would shed my hips of love handles (I hadn’t seen her since she got sick, but in her last photo she was rail thin), I read about a minor celebrity cheating on another minor celebrity and then them reconciling and then them breaking up and then them getting back together again (she loved the thrill of gossip)—I read everything in the hopes of catching a glimpse of my soon-to-be dead old writer friend.

A week later, I got an email from a literary magazine announcing the death of its co-founder. I did not know its co-founder. I just subscribed to the newsletter.

I read the announcement from the literary magazine as if it were the announcement of the death of my old writer friend because after she died, I didn’t receive such an email. Because she was not here to write one. Or to send one. Though she could’ve scheduled one. Which is a thought I’ve had more than once since her death. Why didn’t she do that? That would’ve felt so like her. Not so fast, it might’ve read. I’m still here.

After the newsletter announcing the death of the literary magazine co-founder, my inbox was flooded.

I am so sorry to hear this. May you and yours find comfort. Keep him close to your heart.

I didn’t email anyone when my old writer friend died because it felt like I didn’t know her well enough. We met at a writing residency in Wyoming in 2016. We watched the presidential election together: I baked cookies, she bought liquor. We only inhabited the same space for a handful of weeks. So, how can I justify the vacuum suck of losing her?

The day after the election, we sat at a kitchen table and talked about our bodies. About who they belonged to. About culpability. I remember us disagreeing. The strangeness of feeling so connected to each other and then realizing, suddenly, that we may not actually know each other.  

I cannot keep the literary magazine co-founder close to my heart because I did not know him at all.

Life is eternal! Your memories are the tap that keeps him living!

I think my old writer friend would’ve liked the idea of tapping a memory, like a keg or a maple tree.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The birth and life of an American classic: ‘Our Town’

From The Pulitzer Prizes:

Shortly after 8 p.m. on January 22, 1938, the veteran actor Frank Craven appeared on stage at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and began to speak. “This play is called ‘Our Town,’” he said. “It was written by Thornton Wilder.” It was the first time the character called the Stage Manager had delivered these lines before an audience, the first time Wilder’s classic play about life, love and death in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, had ever been performed publicly.

For some audience members, the show’s lack of scenery and episodic narrative may have seemed odd or puzzling. But, in time, the observations and emotional impact of “Our Town” would be felt and enjoyed by legions of theatergoers around the world. Eventually acknowledged as a classic American drama, it would win Wilder his second Pulitzer Prize, the first of two he received for playwriting. (His first prize was for the novel “The Bridge at San Luis Rey”; his third was for “The Skin of Our Teeth.”) To this day he is the only author who has won Pulitzers for both fiction and drama.

“Our Town’s” significance was not immediately obvious, nor did it have an easy birth. The play’s long journey to Princeton, and the genesis of Wilder’s mythical town, began in 1920, in Rome. Wilder, 23, was a student at the American Academy, studying Italian, Latin and, notably, archaeology.

While visiting a local dig, a first-century tomb, he was struck by the vivid juxtaposition of past and present. In a letter to his parents, cited by Penelope Fitzgerald in her biography of Wilder, he described the formative experience: “… while by candle-light we peered at famous paintings of a family called Aurelius, symbolic representations of their dear children and parents … the street-cars of today rushed by over us. We were clutching at the past to recover the loves and pieties and habits of the Aurelius family, while the same elements were passing above us.”

He quickly realized that, although separated by thousands of years, ancient and present-day people were perhaps not very different at all. That realization, his idea that human lives across centuries are universally conjoined by certain personal moments and milestone events, became a foundation of “Our Town.”

“Our Town’s” unusual form evolved gradually. Its pantomimed actions and leaps in chronology, as well as the Stage Manager who, breaking “the fourth wall,” talks to the audience, may have seemed wildly radical to audiences in 1938. But Wilder had been writing plays that experimented with untraditional and surreal stage techniques for some time, even as he published the novels that established his reputation.

In “The Long Christmas Dinner,” from 1931, a family’s life over 90 years, including its births and deaths, is portrayed in an uninterrupted series of scenes at a single table, an effect later used by Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane.” A stage manager appears in “The Long Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden,” whose central activity is a car trip depicted without scenery. Most significantly, “Pullman Car Hiawatha,” set on a train, again features a stage manager but also includes a mention of Grover’s Corners (this time in Ohio), and a central character who reflects on her transition from life to death. In “Our Town,” Wilder incorporated all these devices and used them to their fullest, most memorable effect.

While the play sprung completely from Wilder’s creative imagination and aesthetic beliefs, “Our Town’s” creation was aided immeasurably by the catalytic involvement of Jed Harris, a hotshot Broadway producer and director of the era. (His other career credits include the first productions of “The Front Page” and “The Crucible.”) Wilder met Harris by chance in 1927, on a train returning north from Florida; by the end of the trip he was sufficiently impressed to offer the producer his first full-length play — whenever Wilder got around to writing it.

The promise took years and miles to keep: “Our Town” was conceived in successive residencies at New Hampshire’s MacDowell Colony (in Peterborough, the model for Grover’s Corners), begun in earnest in 1936, and further refined in a hotel outside Zurich. When two acts were complete, Wilder, true to his word, offered them to Harris in 1937. “I saw it as a director’s dream come true,” said Harris, who wanted the play so urgently that he sequestered Wilder in a house on Long Island until he finished writing the third act.

But as “Our Town’” moved from page to stage, the two men clashed. Harris could be unyielding and cavalier, and Wilder, perhaps uncomfortable with the collaborative nature of commercial theater, became frustrated and angry about cuts and adjustments in his script. As late as the afternoon of opening night in Princeton, a doubtful Wilder wrote and sealed a letter listing many last-minute reservations. “The following elements in the production of ‘Our Town’ are likely to harm and perhaps shipwreck its effectiveness,” he began, striving to have the last word, if only in private.

Despite his concerns, the production was solid. Frank Craven had returned from Hollywood and films to play the Stage Manager, and the cast (which included Craven’s son, John, as George Gibbs) had wept the first time they read through the script. Lighting and sound glitches marred the sold-out premiere. But if Wilder was troubled, he deferred to the audience’s reaction. In a letter to Alexander Wolcott he wrote, “A great packed house in Princeton was deeply absorbed.  Applause interrupted scene after scene. Laughter swept the house.”

First critical reaction to the play was mixed. D.X. Parreno, theater critic for The Princetonian, didn’t “know whether ‘Our Town’ was a great play,” but it was “rich, stimulating, often quite inspired.” The first national review, in Variety, was unabashedly negative and memorably wrongheaded: “It is not only disappointing but hopelessly slow,” it said. “It will probably go down as the season’s most extravagant waste of fine talent.” The reviewer also took a swipe at Jed Harris: “It’s hard to see what the erstwhile wonder boy of Broadway saw in this disjointed, bitter-sweet affair of small town New Hampshire life.”

Some early audiences were equally mystified. After Princeton, the troupe moved to Boston’s Wilbur Theatre for more previews. Due to poor ticket sales Harris pulled the show after five performances. Typical of some responses, Eleanor Roosevelt later said the work “moved and depressed” her “beyond words.”

Yet word of the play’s special power had reached New York ahead of its opening there. In a great risk, Jed Harris invited Brooks Atkinson, theater critic for The New York Times, to a rehearsal, hoping early exposure would give the critic extra time to savor and reflect on the play. The risk paid off. When the play opened on February 4, 1938, Atkinson’s review called it “one of the finest achievements of the current stage,” celebrating Grover’s Corners as “a green corner of the universe.” Atkinson noted that Harris had “about the best script of his career in his hands.”

The Broadway success of “Our Town” launched its trajectory as an American classic. “It’s already broken a house record,” a thrilled Wilder wrote to a friend. “Imagine that! Isn’t it astonishing, and fun, and exhausting?” The 1938 Pulitzer jury unanimously recommended it for the Drama prize, which was conferred on May 2, the first time that the prizes were announced live on the radio.

. . . .

Yet the play’s classic status was confirmed far away from Broadway. It was first licensed for amateur production in 1939. “Over the next twenty months,” writes Penelope Fitzgerald, “ ‘Our Town’ was produced in at least 658 communities across the United States and in Hawaii and Canada.”

To this day, it remains one of the most performed plays anywhere. While part of its appeal to theater companies may be economic (no costly scenery), Wilder’s plain-spoken philosophical observations about living and dying and his gently lyrical portrait of young love seem to resonate with audiences across decades, just as the Aurelius family of ancient Rome resonated with him. In its ideal of a common humanity, the play also strikes an understated nationalistic chord, suggesting that small-town America might take its place alongside other “civilizations” in history.

Link to the rest at The Pulitzer Prizes

The Dangerous Radicalism of Longing

From The Dispatch:

In a recent episode of Daryl Dixon, the new Walking Dead spinoff, Daryl says, “You can’t miss what you never had.” And for some reason I keep thinking about it. 

According to the internet, this is originally a Hunter S. Thompson quote, though I suspect someone said it before him. This is one of those sayings that sounds profound and wise but isn’t actually true. Or at least to the extent it’s true, it really depends on context and the definitions of “can’t” and “miss.”

I think an enormous number of our problems come from people who miss things they never had. Just off the top of my head: Palestinians miss having a viable country, but have never had one. Lots of people who grew up without siblings, or fathers, or best friends miss having such people in their lives a great deal. People who had bad experiences in high school, or who never went to college, miss things they never had. 

Maybe this helps explain why I say the definitions of “can’t” and “miss” are important here. For the sorts of people described above, missing what you didn’t have is a kind of longing. And people in fact do and can have such longings. “Missing,” it seems, conveys a statement of fact. You actually had something and lost it. “I had a brother. He’s gone. I miss him.” That’s a different statement than “I always wished I had a brother.”

Regardless, such desires are very, very, common. Regret—a good word for combining both “miss” and “longing”—over what might have been, what was lost, or what you never had is one of the most powerful human emotions and one of the greatest drivers of despair. Such feelings are also one of the most powerful motivations for human action. 

The first nationalists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were full of longing for a nation that had never actually existed. Sometimes they invented an ancient past of national identity and claimed they were seeking to restore what was lost to the Romans or some other conquerors. 

The romantics, who helped create nationalism, played similar games. The idea of the “noble savage” was essentially a kind of unscientific science fiction. It was based on ideas that had no actual basis in anthropological or sociological fact. But it did have a good deal of theological support. Man, before the fall, lived in happy ignorance and harmony with nature. Knowledge or technology or modernity ripped us out of this blissful state. All that was required to return to it was the will to return to it. 

I think that in a very fundamental—and very oversimplified—way, all radicalism stems from these kinds of longings. Karl Marx was very much a romantic, and his vision for the end of history looked very much like Rousseau’s vision of the beginning of history. Once all class consciousness was swept away, once the economic aristocracy was toppled or liquidated, everybody would be able to live in an unconstrained state of natural bliss and autonomy. The Marx-influenced radicals pushing for “national liberation” in the 20th century were not as fully utopian, but they believed that all of the suffering and inequities of their lives could be erased with a cleansing purge of imperial control. The Islamic radicals of Iran and elsewhere believed that all that was required to live in spiritual harmony and happiness was to remove the decadent bulwarks of “Western” liberalism, religious pluralism, secularism, capitalism, etc. 

None of these stories ended well, and many ended horribly. 

But the radicalism such desires can inspire aren’t the problem with missing what you never had.

. . . .

 As families shrink or break down, as the sinew of local communities breaks down, the government is seen as a necessary substitute. No, I don’t think all women should stay at home and rely on their parents or husbands as providers and breadwinners. But in a society where so many biological fathers have little desire to be real fathers or actual husbands, the demand for the state to compensate for what’s missing increases. 

This isn’t just a point about the growth of the welfare state or those darn progressives. It’s just one example of how people miss what they never had—fathers, husbands, healthy families and communities—and look for cheap substitutes for them. As I’ve been saying forever, “The government can’t love you.” But when you lack people who love you, when you lack a sense of community, the hunger remains and you pursue whatever you think might satisfy it. 

Another form of longing drives this tendency: nostalgia, which might be the best rebuttal to the claim, “You can’t miss what you never had.” Nostalgia is one of the most powerful forces in politics and life. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t prone to it. Nostalgia is a neologism coined by a Swiss medical student to describe the melancholy (a medical term back then) felt by Swiss mercenaries who fought far from home. It’s a mashup of sorrow or despair and “homecoming.” It’s come to mean homesickness for the past. 

The problem with nostalgia, at least in politics and economics, is that it is a highly selective remembering—and misremembering—of the past. We tend not only to emphasize the good stuff and forget the bad stuff, we exaggerate the good stuff beyond reality. This has always been my problem with “Make America Great Again.” It’s a nostalgia-soaked misdiagnosis of the past that tells people they can have what they miss but never had, at least not in the way they remember it. 

Link to the rest at The Dispatch

How a Collective of Incarcerated Writers Published an Anthology From Prison

From Electric Lit:

It would make sense that any history would begin at Stillwater Prison, where so much of the story and mythology of prison in Minnesota also begins. It is where Cole Younger of the famous James-Younger gang did their time, and where they spent their own money to start the Prison Mirror, the world’s oldest and continuously run prison newspaper.

My first experience with a writing community came when I was still near the beginning of my sentence, decades ago, and was welcomed into the Stillwater Poetry Group (spg), the first place where I felt that art was something to be taken seriously. As part of the spg, we met with so many interesting local writers: Desdamona, Wang Ping, Ed Bok Lee, and J. Otis Powell, among others. It was exhilarating, until decision-makers in the facility realized the threat that artists and poets pose to the ideas of the captivity business. After only a year and a half, the group was disbanded. It was my first lesson in how easily good things in prison get discarded. Watching art and culture go away can create a bleak and hopeless landscape that will jade and obscure a person’s faith in creative community. It was a pattern shown to us repeatedly.

Several years later, after a long education shutdown and budget cuts, and years into Minnesota’s own mass incarceration expansion era, a new wave of incarcerated writers/thinkers/persons were emerging at Stillwater. Dr. Deborah Appleman and Dr. John Schmidt volunteered to teach courses on linguistics, literary theory, and creative writing. Out of these classes, a semblance of a new writer’s community was created and a book was published. Letters to a Young Man and Other Writings offered us both the gratification of seeing our words in print and a renewed sense of purpose. Then, collectively, we waited, just as before, for the facility to let the professors back in to cultivate our new community. Again, we were reminded of how good things in these places are rarely allowed to come back once they’ve left.

During those early classes I formed a friendship with Chris Cabrera, a genius young artist with whom I shared similar lofty aspirations for both our work and our lives. We spent hours conversing and arguing over the creative and intellectual visions we had. Cabrera would shout these big, abstract rhetorical questions at me, one after another, as we tried to figure out what so many more years as artists in prison would look like without fundamental change. We argued whether art was enough to free us, and to what extent we might go to make our dreams reality—or if it would even make a difference in a system that had pretty much always disregarded our work and our humanity. In the end, I think we agreed that neither of us wanted to disappear without the chance for our work to be realized, or at least the chance for it to be recognized and embraced by the people about whom we cared most.

Chris envisioned an ongoing writing program facilitated mostly by a collective of incarcerated writers. Ideally, it would harness resources so that it could offer writing classes and opportunities throughout a writer’s incarceration. I thought it was a great idea, but our experiences with administration and abandonment in the past made me suspicious of programming in these places. I wanted to publish and to have a career, even if it had to be behind these walls. I was working on a book project and was constantly worried something administrative would mess it up. We both argued that a collective couldn’t work unless we were ultimately reconnected to the greater, free-world literary community to which we had very little introduction. It was lofty thinking for guys who had sparse writing credits between them, and who really had no formal writing instruction outside an early creative writing course. Our experiences with Dr. Appleman, though, had empowered much of our thinking. Why not think big? Another writer from our community and I had just won the Pen Prison Writing Awards. Why shouldn’t we believe our work and our community had a right to be cultivated?

It was from these conversations that the Stillwater Writers’ Collective (swc) was born, out of an agreement that our power was as a community, and a realization that if we didn’t support each other, who would? We also realized that it was hard to get our peers, even when they are threatened, to write when there aren’t instructors to read and validate their work. Historically, there just hadn’t been enough support or success in our prison system to warrant that kind of confidence.

The swc was also created because our small cohort agreed that, at some point, someone or something was going to come along with opportunities that we had been waiting for throughout the long stretches of our collective incarcerations. There was agreement that as a community we would need to be ready so that the blessing we felt was supposed to be ours wouldn’t get passed along to somebody else. We believed it would be a crime for the story of writing in the Minnesota state prison system to be told, or written, without us. Just as the foundations of these old structures had been laid by the hands of the imprisoned, we were trying to lay a new literary and intellectual foundation. We were fortunate to have the support we needed from our then-education director, who introduced Jen Bowen and Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (mpww) to us, and whose own vision made for an ideal partnership for the community at Stillwater, and throughout the state, to grow into what it has.

American Precariat: Parables of Exclusion is the culmination of a special partnership between Coffee House Press and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop with an editorial board starting with twelve writers from the prisoner-created collectives of the Minnesota Correctional Facilities at Stillwater, Faribault, and Moose Lake.

For the past decade, mpww has provided a first-of-its-kind ongoing writing program within Minnesota state prisons. What started from a single creative writing course taught by the organization’s founder, Jen Bowen, has expanded from one facility to every prison in the state. The program offers a wide range of writing classes at all levels of the learning spectrum, as well as an extensive mentorship program. The workshop has become a model admired by potential prison writing programs across the country.

Before mpww, there was already a burgeoning community of talented, but mostly unrecognized, artists and writers incarcerated in the state of Minnesota. Mpww’s presence offered opportunities and resources to meet and take instruction from the larger literary community in the state, helping us to grow into a stronger community and to develop as individual writers. The relationship between mpww and the incarcerated writing community has produced numerous awards and countless publishing credits for many of the workshop’s students, as well as for many of the incredible writers that make up the mpww instructor staff and mentor program.

The twelve members of this book’s editorial staff are a small group of the much larger collectives that have grown up in our state, and throughout the country, in the sense that writers and artists always find each other in these kinds of spaces. There are creation stories that connect to make this community possible.

Most of us on the editorial board of this project recognize how exceptional it is to have the opportunities mpww provides. It affords us agency in our work that most incarcerated writing communities in the country do not share. Writing communities have and do exist in other prison systems that don’t have the same kind of programming infrastructure that we have in Minnesota. Ever since human beings began using confinement as a means to control other human beings, there have been writers imprisoned. Writers have risked their safety and their futures to find ways to sneak their words out into the world. The written word matters. Just as likely—and for just as long—writing and intellectual communities have existed in those spaces. Just like we did, artists will always find each other. It’s like a law of nature—if you put a thousand people in a single space, the artists, even with their own divergent energies, will gravitate toward each other.

Time in the life of a writer, or a prisoner, is an emergency. Incarcerated writing communities provide for us what we can only assume they offer to non-incarcerated writing communities: peer support, friend- ship, competition, rivalry, and shared stakes in the success of their members. These communities offer reminders of time and the emergencies time represents. Classes get canceled and cut. In 2005, our whole education department shut down for months and every computer in the joint was wiped and scoured. Stories, essays, poetry, and even an anthology of our work disappeared from the universe. There are lockdowns, seizures of materials, intentionally, and sometimes collaterally. There are surprise transfers that leave us without computer access, and we must figure out how to keep the things we need most. We, who are working hard to mend some of the wounds in the social and familial fabric of our lives, live with a stopwatch to create evidence that will show something redemptive within us.

I published my first memoir, This Is Where I Am, after 17 years in prison with the support of my small but unified family unit. Less than a year later, my mom passed away. She was my last living blood relative. Deadlines, story and book completions fulfill the need to have whole pieces of writing that can speak for the incomplete parts of our lives and families. They are our main emergency.

We build community because we can’t expect, demand, or control the machinations of the captivity business. Likewise, we can’t be sure that the politics of confinement will provide the spiritual and artistic resources we need to transcend our encagements. These collectives are our expression of both community and art. They provide our agency. The carceral state will not feed the kind of hunger an artist in these kinds of places experiences. So, we find ways to feed each other. There is a ceiling to the kinds of programming corrections provides, and this includes education. A member of the collective (and the editorial board) connected me with the right people to be able to finish my bachelor’s in English when the prison system was unable to help me. Most of the computer labs in the system were originally proposed, and in many cases set up, by members of our community who knew their value. There is a constant nourishing in the books and magazines we pass around. There are the friendships—the several successions where one member will encourage the work of a newer writer to keep revising, because they see the genuine value, and then, later, they see these stories win awards or find publication in reputable journals. There are also the rivalries, so strong and ingrained into the history of collectives. They have driven some to become the writers they were never sure they were supposed to become. We join forces because individually we are writers and poets and artists, but collectively we are power and possibility and refutation of the hypocrisy of the carceral complex.

Does your life matter? Does your art matter? I hope so. I know that I could never rely on an ever-constricting prison system at a pivot point of mass incarceration to answer these questions for me.

There is great significance to a panel of incarcerated writers editing an anthology on the precarious class in 2023. We, the editors, are the same population who have been tweaking and revising our work so that our voices might gain acceptance into the journals and anthologies we’ve hoped would validate our efforts. We are trying to make greater sense of our place in the larger, broader world. It matters that this is a volume edited by the imprisoned, because the history of class hasn’t always been written by the powerful, but they have always been its editors. We are a group of human beings who sought out community to consolidate the power of our own work; we, the incarcerated, are editing this most recent chapter on class. As a group, we have come to understand, or have tried to understand, power and class distinctions through the ways we have, as an incarcerated community, categorized and divided ourselves. Incarceration is the extension of the same mechanisms of power and marginalization that Black, brown, queer, and impoverished human beings have been manipulated and oppressed by through the institutions of our society. We are the depository of that pipeline.

Just as the largest of corporations believed that they could drop sewage into nearby rivers, or bury our human footprint in a land-fill or in a plastic swirl in the oceans, without the earth spitting its truth back at all of us, we dispose of human problems into the chasm of the penal system without confronting the socioeconomic circumstances that created the problems in the first place. The power dimensions that are at once manipulative, deceptive, and plain old mean are also cowardly and speak to the fragility of the human place in the eco-system. We have felt for so long—and our social and economic systems support the belief—that human beings must control each other to control the world.

As a broader, new American society in the wake of a global pandemic, we’ve now felt the soft incarceration of being sequestered, a fear of being trapped, and a fear of catching invisible sickness with uncertain consequences. The trapped analogy is obvious. The pathologies in all forms—viral, bacterial, psycho-sociological—well, we’ve been passing them back and forth unknowingly for generations until we are too sick to know any better. We watched, from inside and out, as a knee pushed on a neck and the stop-clock-emergency-of-time ran out, and then, like so often in our history, we have watched the fire and the rage. We bite down because we know that the violence of taking a person’s time and all their hope can’t be represented in a short video clip on tv, or even elicit the flash or rage such violent taking should.

During the course of this project, our editorial board went through two cohorts—the first, pre-pandemic, totaled twelve individual editors in three separate correctional facilities while the second consisted of a much smaller concentration of editors. Covid-19 did just what time in these places does—change and complicate things further. There were expected and unexpected transfers, incongruent security priorities and lockdowns that made it impossible for our cohorts to meet, so we had to depend on individual institutions to relay memos and manuscripts. Institutions have never been known for an ability to make adjustments to benefit the humanity of their inhabitants. In the pandemic, prisons reverted to the answer they knew best—tightened security. Our project went from finding its purpose and personality to frozen indefinitely—and that continued well beyond when the rest of the world started to open and venture out again. Significant effort was made to keep up momentum, but it was extremely difficult to keep twelve humans, all separated in different carceral compartments, connected to each other and to a changing outside world. When we did come back to this work, we were without members from both cohorts and access to the entire group from Stillwater was cut off. We were left with the cohort from Faribault, with participation from a couple of transferred editors in an entirely different facility in Moose Lake. And by that time, the entire world had transformed. Editing a book about class looked, felt, and tasted exponentially different.

. . . .

In so many ways, prisons are secrets hidden from the rest of the world. Society has always hidden its most disturbing transgressions. Yet, culture still matters in these hidden spaces. We, the incarcerated, are the caretakers of it. If a prison is old enough, it remembers the prisoners that quarried the granite for its walls, or laid the bricks for its cell blocks that we have spent a century inhabiting. The incarcerated have always been more expendable than the buildings that house us, but our ideas echo long after we have left our initials scratched into old slabs of inmate-laid concrete, or scribbled on the walls of holding tanks. The state may maintain the institutions, but we nurture the culture, always—we, the artists, students, musicians, and writers. Prison writing communities are proof of a force stronger than single unread poems or stories. They are proof that there are more of us coming!

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

PG hasn’t had a client charged with or convicted of a crime for a very long time nor has he had any reason to visit a client in jail or prison. He is thankful because these were very difficult cases for him to deal with.

All of PG’s criminal clients had committed a crime of one sort or another. While there have been a number of cases in which a miscarriage of justice has occurred and an innocent person has been punished as a criminal for a crime he/she did not commit, such cases represent a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of people charged with a criminal offense.

Most people charged with a crime have done something wrong. There might be compelling extenuating circumstances that provide an excuse for the individual’s criminal acts. Or the person may have been charged with a crime more serious than would be justified by her/his actual behavior.

Part of the reason criminal cases were almost always difficult for PG to deal with is that every person charged with a crime has parents, children, spouses and/or friends who are devastated by the criminal charges that have been brought against someone they care about deeply. Bad people may hang around other bad people most of the time, but PG never handled a criminal case where there were not some good and innocent family members who were deeply saddened by the criminal charges.

If the loved one is incarcerated for an extended period of time, the heartache often lasts for an extended period of time.

Reading the OP brought to mind another book with a similar theme.

Thornton Wilder and Our Town

From BookBrowse:

In Ann Patchett’s novel Tom Lake, the main character fondly remembers starring in a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. This is Wilder’s best-known play, which debuted in 1938 to mixed reviews but earned him a Pulitzer Prize that same year, making him the only writer to have received the award in both fiction and drama.

Born in Wisconsin to a father who was a newspaper editor and diplomat, the young author was exposed to travel and writing early on. He attended Oberlin and Yale for undergraduate study, and Princeton for graduate school. He also studied Italian and archaeology at the American Academy of Rome.

Wilder volunteered for military service in both World Wars. In the first, he spent eight months with a U.S. Coast Guard artillery unit. In World War II, with three Pulitzers under his belt, he served in the Air Force and was eventually promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was awarded the Legion of Merit Bronze Star, the Legion d’honneur, and the Order of the British Empire.

In 1942, Wilder collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock as a screenwriter for the movie Shadow of a Doubt. By production’s end, Wilder was away at war, and other writers were brought in for edits. The director spoke highly of him and praised “the contribution of Thornton Wilder to the preparation of this production” in the opening credits.

Our Town is quite a departure from the excitement of war, international travel, and Hitchcock movies. It’s considered an American classic for its portrayal of life in a small American town, but Wilder started writing it on one of many overseas trips. The idea came to him on an archaeological cemetery dig in Rome. He examined the tombs belonging to the Aurelius family in candlelight while traffic rushed nearby, and felt the relationship between the past and present differently than before. In a letter to his parents, Wilder wrote, “We were clutching at the past to recover the loves and pieties and habits of the Aurelius family, while the same elements were passing above us.”

With Our Town, Wilder wanted to portray ordinary people having ordinary lives, which even still contain extraordinary events like weddings and deaths. He worked on the play for over six years, in New Hampshire and New York, but also in Zurich, where he learned experimental theater methods introduced in Weimar Germany. Our Town‘s opening performances in Princeton and Boston received negative reviews. Audiences didn’t care for the experimental techniques Wilder used, such as forgoing sets and props to have actors mime the action. Breaking the fourth wall by having the stage manager speak directly to the audience was likewise poorly received. Eleanor Roosevelt remarked that the play “moved and depressed [her] beyond words.”

However, once on Broadway, it was an instant success, evidenced by Wilder’s win of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Wilder himself frequently played the stage manager. The next year, Our Town was licensed for amateur rights and was soon being performed virtually everywhere, by people of all ages, in part because it didn’t require a set or props.

Link to the rest at BookBrowse

The Stages of Womanhood

From Electric Lit:

It was in the midst of these days when I was struggling to complete the—what would it be?—seventh, no, sixth stage of my growth as a woman, being a year late already with that, according to the (ineffective) anthroposophic doctor I had consulted about my persistent ear infections, when I was awoken yet again during a particularly restless night of being awoken, first, by my child, then by a mosquito, then by my child again, then by the tickling in my ears, then by my child again—when I was awoken yet again, this time by the high-pitched wail of an air-raid siren that I mistook at first for a malfunctioning fan in one window and then a fan in another, going around turning off and unplugging the fans one by one, then finally making my way downstairs and out the back door to stand in the yard looking up until the sound of the siren died abruptly, the wail descending. Of course I thought of war, since our country was in conflict yet again with another country. I thought maybe the mosquito that had been bothering me would live longer than I would. I thought of calling the local police station. I wondered if my husband had heard the siren through his ear plugs. He was sleeping downstairs so that he would not be bothered by me, since I was sleeping so badly these days, or by the child, who was waking so often. The doctor had told me that the next stage, the last stage of womanhood in which a woman is reproductive, was very important creatively. The stage that came after that was very different—also wonderful, she said, but very different. But I had not yet completed this stage, which was supposed to be a growth into full womanhood. As far as I could see, I was exactly the same this year as I had been last year and the year before.

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

The Elegant Balance of a True Friendship

Hyperboles, a short story

by Sarp Sozdinler

From Electric Lit:

Two mathematicians but they are more friends than colleagues. The older of the two, Henry, teaches to graduate students in Tokyo while Liam, fifteen years his junior, works as a consultant for a private contractor in Madison. Liam makes fun of Henry because his name pentadecimally has more letters than his in correlation with the gap in their ages, but no one but them finds it funny. The two have been sending each other letters every month for the past eighteen years, on the days or weeks of the calendar marked with a prime number as another inside joke.

What did the triangle tell the circle? Henry asks Liam in his last letter before Christmas, postmarked on the twenty-third day of the month.

What? Liam asks in his reply.

You’re pointless, Henry writes back two weeks later.

They have a tradition where they send a pen nib back and forth as part of their snail mail correspondence, to be used for when someone important in their field passes away. The rule is that whoever is in possession of the nib on the day of the news should write a few words after the deceased and reserve a memorial spot in either The Times or The Tribune, the only two international papers distributed to where each lives. They’ve only made use of the nib six times in eighteen years, the last dedicated to Henry’s professor from his doctorate, who had lent him the nib in the first place. As the recipient of the nib, Henry wrote a numerically melodic eulogy for the man, showing his gratitude and appreciation in iambic pentameter. When he later tried to describe the experience to Liam, he used such quaint words as exultant and qualmish, the kind of feelings only the people past a certain age like him would feel.

In one of his more recent letters to Liam, Henry writes, What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?

Liam replies: Envelope. He knows this thanks to the video his son shared on Twitter a few months back, which is also probably where Henry saw it.

Two months later, following their longest lapse in communication, Henry asks again in another letter: What’s one word that starts with an E and ends with an E and only has one letter in between?

Envelope, Liam writes at first but then, keeping in mind his friend’s declining health, replaces his paper with new stationery to ask him, What?

You’re pointless, Henry replies.

The next morning, before Liam can make it to the post office, he receives a phone call from Henry’s stepdaughter in Tokyo. Her father has passed away in his sleep.

“Toward the end, he started naming his friends after the months they died in,” she tells him. “So I guess you can start calling him August from now on.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

Iona
08:05 Hampton Court to Waterloo

Until the point when a man started dying right in front of her on the 08:05, Iona’s day had been just like any other.

She always left the house at half past seven. It took her an average of twenty minutes to walk to the station in heels, which meant she’d usually arrive fifteen minutes before her train left for Waterloo. Two minutes later if she was wearing the Louboutins.

Arriving in good time was crucial if she wanted to secure her usual seat in her usual carriage, which she did. While novelty was a wonderful thing when it came to fashion, or film, or even patisserie, it was not welcome on her daily commute.

Some time ago, Iona’s editor had suggested that she start working from home. It was, he’d told her, all the rage, and her job could be done just as well remotely. He’d tried to cajole her out of her office space with sweet talk of an extra hour in bed and more flexibility, and, when that didn’t work, had attempted to drive her out by making her do something awful called hot desking, which she learned-was corporate speak for sharing. Even as a child, Iona had never liked sharing. That little incident with the Barbie doll was still seared in her memory and, no doubt, her classmates’ as well. No, boundaries were necessary. Luckily, Iona’s colleagues quickly became familiar with which was her preferred desk, and it morphed from hot to decidedly frigid.

Iona loved going into the office. She enjoyed rubbing shoulders with all the youth, who taught her the latest lingo, played her their favorite new tracks, and told her what to watch on Netflix. It was important to keep at least one finger plugged into the zeitgeist, especially in her profession. Bea, bless her, wasn’t much help on that front.

She wasn’t, however, looking forward to today very much. Her latest editor had scheduled a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree appraisal, which sounded altogether too intimate. At her age (fifty-seven), one didn’t like to be appraised too closely, and certainly not from every angle. Some things were best left to the imagination. Or not thought about at all, to be honest.

Anyhow, what did he know? Much like policemen and doctors, her editors seemed to get younger and younger with each passing year. This one, believe it or not, was conceived after the World Wide Web. He’d never known a world where phones were tethered to the wall and you had to look up facts in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Iona thought back, somewhat wistfully, to her annual appraisals when she’d first started at the magazine, nearly thirty years ago. They didn’t call them “appraisals” then, of course. They were called “lunch,” and they happened at the Savoy Grill. The only downside was having to politely remove her editor’s fat, sweaty hand from her thigh on a regular basis, but she was quite adept at that, and it was almost worth it for the sole meunière, deftly detached from the bone by a subservient waiter with a French accent, and washed down with a chilled bottle of Chablis. She tried to remember the last time someone other than Bea had attempted to grope her under a table, and couldn’t. Not since the early nineties, in any case.

Iona checked her reflection in the hall mirror. She’d gone for her favorite red suit today-the one that shouted I mean business and don’t even think about it, mister.

“Lulu!” she called, only to discover the French bulldog already sitting right by her feet, ready to go. Another creature of habit. She leaned down to attach the lead to Lulu’s hot-pink collar, studded with diamantz spelling out her name. Bea didn’t approve of Lulu’s accessories. Darling, she’s a dog, not a child, she’d said on numerous occasions. Iona was quite aware of that. Children these days were rather selfish, lazy, and entitled, she thought. Not like darling Lulu at all.

Iona opened the front door and called up the stairs, as she always did, “Bye bye, Bea! I’m off to the office. I’ll miss you!”

Link to the rest at Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting

PG doesn’t usually include posts with excerpts from books, but when he started reading a sample of Iona Iverson’s Rules for Commuting, he was captivated by the voice of Iona and how quickly the story took off.

The Life I Never Intended to Love: Dog Owner

From The Wall Street Journal:

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a dog person. One of my earliest memories of a dog is from when I was around 5 years old and a neighbor’s golden retriever knocked me face-first into the concrete.

As an adult, I harbored both a mild fear of dogs and a major irritation at their seemingly entitled owners who would bring them into places they don’t belong, let them invade my personal space and then say, “She’s friendly!”

This made it all the more curious that I should become, during the pandemic, the sole caretaker of a German shorthaired pointer named Bo. He has proved to be an inexhaustible and exhausting daredevil, prone to illness and injury, a chronic whiner who relentlessly demands my attention and takes up most of my time and energy—challenges I hadn’t considered or in some cases even knew existed. He cost me a fortune in medical bills and made me spend days disinfecting my apartment. Weirdly, he also turned out to be the surprising way I filled a hole in my life that I never knew existed.

A GSP, as they’re often called, isn’t a starter dog like a golden retriever or a bernedoodle. It’s a dog bred for hunting, with so much energy it’s hard to imagine it unless you’ve spent real time with one. A dog that during its adolescence, according to a popular meme, resembles the velociraptor portrayed in “Jurassic Park” as an absolute terror. The websites of rescue organizations looking to rehome GSPs describe them with words and phrases like “exuberant” or able to “sail over a 6-foot fence,” offering some clues as to what owners can be in for.

I read none of these cautions in the spring of 2020. San Francisco was under shelter-in-place orders, and as an avid runner who was single, living alone and going a little batty, I wanted to see how many days in a row I could run. On day 27, I was bored enough, despite my lifelong antipathy toward canines, to try running with my friend’s dog Edson, an impeccably trained GSP. That first day we ran together, I let him off leash amid the wooded trails of Presidio national park. I recognized that I felt joy watching that dog run.

A few months later, I was looking at litters of GSP puppies—just for fun, I told myself. Then I reached out to a breeder named Amelia Brockelbank in Alpharetta, Ga., and soon we were having regular phone conversations. I peppered her with questions and confessed my deepest fears. What if I don’t love him? She’d take him back, no questions asked. When I saw number 24 among her six-week-old puppies’ headshots, I knew my fate was sealed.

When I told my GSP-owning friend that I was getting one, he congratulated me. Then he texted me the GSP-as-velociraptor meme. Still, people said Bo would be a great fit for me and in many ways, they were right. The December before the pandemic hit, I had run a 50-kilometer trail race with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. I was surely active enough for this dog. Five days after I brought Bo home, and on the eve of my 39th birthday, he slept through the night. I had the perfect puppy.

The transition into full-on dog mom was swift. My Instagram feed was soon full of Bo’s antics: Bo asleep on the couch with his legs so straight I call it his rigor mortis pose; Bo tagging along while I clambered up Snowmass mountain on skis at sunrise; Bo leaping in the air with the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. I cuddled him; I coddled him; I made up rap songs for him.

The first signs of trouble came when Bo was around 8 months old. He jumped out the car window after getting a whiff of a milkshake on the side of the road, ran across four lanes of traffic and relieved himself at a gas station before I was able to get him back.

Then he started escaping the dog park and raiding nearby picnics. I’d chase him around, screaming his name, until some poor soul would tell me what he’d managed to steal: a pork bun here, some chicken wings there, a marzipan pastry that left him smelling like a French bakery. The $470 emergency room visit after he inhaled the better part of three slices of Indian-seasoned pizza was when I knew I was in over my head. Much of a dog’s behavior, of course, is a reflection on its owner, and I admit there was no shortage of mistakes I made.

Around the time that Bo hit adolescence and seemed to forget all the training we’d done, he started having consecutive bouts of a parasite, which required me to sanitize my entire apartment. I lost count of the vet trips, canceled vacations and the number of times I stood alone on the streets of San Francisco at 3 a.m. with him wondering why I had ruined my otherwise responsibility-free life. GSPs can be a “vocal” breed, and Bo whined constantly, no matter how much I seemed to do for him. Some nights the whining got so bad, I’d go sit in my car and cry.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The Toughest Fish in the Barrel

From Electric Lit:

Sunrise Foods, just a few blocks from my house, is marked by a glossy freestanding sign, a cheery egg-yolk yellow against an often gray, wintering Toronto sky. Back in December, just before I turned 14, Tracey “with an e” recruited a bunch of us from the school lunch table to work here in her uncle’s new bagel and smoked fish store. Now, six months on, all my peers are gone. But I have learned to tell whitefish chubs with their oily, golden hue from goldeye that wrinkles away from the skin. I’ve learned how to sheath my arm in a plastic bag and plunge it into a barrel of gutted herring, floating in their vegetable oil pond. How to act like I wasn’t afraid to touch the fish until I wasn’t afraid to touch the fish.

At the barrel I re-tie my white apron over the green Roots Athletics T-shirt I bought with my first paycheck, protecting it from oil splashes that never wash out. My dirty-blonde waves are pinned on top of my head with a clip of faux pearls. A berry-scented hair spray from a purple bottle helps disguise the fish smell.

I’d had an argument with my mother just before I was hired at Sunrise. She was annoyed that the sleeves of my winter coat no longer reached my wrists, that I was yanking my shirt sleeves down to my mittens to cover the gap. My growing body and its expense had slipped her mind. I had to agree to chip in my birthday money, but I got to choose the store and the new coat. Then it hit me: birthday cards only come once a year. I really needed a job.

The customer’s eyes follow my arm as it disappears into the dark oil. I reach around blindly. Even in a barrel, the fish resist being caught.

I’ve seen my mother eat herring from a little glass jar, lifting scraps of the silvery sliced fish onto a Triscuit with her fork or sometimes her fingers, and sliding the cracker onto her tongue like it’s a delicacy. Her family served it at all kinds of holidays when she was growing up.

At the Sunrise counter, though, you can buy herring sliced in oil, in cream sauce, or in wine vinegar with red onion and black peppercorns. But barrel herring is high-drama herring. “Time for herring theater,” I whisper to Hymie, who speaks Yiddish with the uniformly geriatric customers, and makes our best-selling tuna salad with a secret ingredient (chicken bouillon powder).

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Reddit, Tell Me Where I Went Wrong

From Electric Lit:

My neighbor (32F) is not speaking to me (44M) because I made some repairs to her home while she was out of town. These were mostly exterior and relatively minor (clearing debris, replacing deck boards, adding a utility sink, installing a rain cap), but I did climb onto her roof. She says I was out of line by not asking permission and that she no longer trusts my judgment.

We live two streets away from each other in a small neighborhood of old houses. We have been friends for a year and hooking up for about three months. I would like more, but she is a relatively new widow and single parent to a four-year-old boy and doesn’t have the capacity right now. She is seriously my ideal woman, though, and I am willing to wait. I am not the most attractive guy and never thought I’d interest a person of her caliber. We’ve gone out a few times when her mom was watching her son or if there was a “Parents’ Night Out” at his daycare, but mostly it’s a couple hours together after her son goes to sleep. She’s invited me along with a larger group to go hiking a couple times, and we get each other’s mail and water each other’s plants if the other person is out of town.  

I bought a house in this neighborhood after my divorce because it was close to my job and to my ex-wife’s house (we share custody of two teenagers), but a lot of people move here because it is one of the few affordable city neighborhoods in a good school district. Then they realize that because the houses are all extremely old repairing them is a hassle. You think about yanking down the wallpaper somebody painted over only to discover lead paint or try to replace a door and realize you’ll have to get one custom made. I’m an engineer and can get into this kind of stuff, but a lot of people don’t. My neighbor told me on more than one occasion that her house stressed her out. She could handle the yard work and minor repairs and outsource the truly big projects, but then there were all of these things in between. Installing a utility sink felt impossible when you had a full-time job and a young child and no spouse, but were you really going to pay someone to do that? “You don’t have to pay me,” I’d tell her. “Get the sink, and I’ll put it in,” but she wouldn’t let me. I figured it was about her son and his father, about not wanting him to see anyone step into that kind of role, and so I dropped it.

The night before she went out of town, we were on her porch drinking beers and watching for the fox that lives in the overgrown lot across the street. Her son had gone to bed about thirty minutes before and was still sleeping lightly. We couldn’t go upstairs yet and so we got to talk. Work, TV shows, a book she almost loved whose ending felt contrived, my daughter’s failing grade in chemistry that brought me and my ex-wife to a moment of real collaboration. We had a fan going to ward off the mosquitos, and the sunset was just beginning to brighten the edges of the summer sky. When the dog walkers passed, we’d wave, and this gave me a good feeling, all of these people seeing me with her. It felt like being claimed.

“This is nice,” I said.

“What?”

“Being with you. I’m glad we don’t sneak around.”

She made a face. “Why would we do that?”

Her voice had a slight edge to it, and I knew I had to tread lightly. I couldn’t imply she was risking her reputation or trusting a person she barely knew to behave well if whatever it was we had ended.

“That first night you slept with me I was so happy,” I said. “I told myself, she has a kid and we’re neighbors. She isn’t going to hook up with me unless she thinks it could really be something.”

She took a long drink of her beer and seemed to consider her response. I was hoping she would say I was right, but she just shrugged. “We’re both adults. You never struck me as a lunatic.”

Link to the rest at Electric Lit

Divorcée Fiction: On Ursula Parrott

From The Paris Review:

I’d never heard of Ursula Parrott when McNally Editions in­troduced me to Ex-Wife, the author’s 1929 novel about a young woman who suddenly finds herself suspended in the caliginous space between matrimony and divorce. The first thing I won­dered was where it had been all my life. Ex-Wife rattles with ghosts and loss and lonely New York apartments, with men who change their minds and change them again, with people and places that assert their permanence by the very fact that they’re gone and they’re never coming back. Originally published anonymously, Ex-Wife stirred immediate controversy for Parrott’s frank depiction of her heroine, Patricia, a woman whose allure does not spare her from desertion after an open marriage proves to be an asymmetrical failure. Embarking on a marathon of alcoholic oblivion and a series of mostly joyless dips into the waters of sexual liberation, Patricia spends the book ricocheting between her fear of an abstract future and her fixation on a past that has been polished, gleaming from memory’s sleight of hand.

It’s been nearly a century since Ex-Wife had its flash of fame (the book sold more than one hundred thousand copies in its first year), and as progress has stripped divorce of its moral op­probrium, it has also swelled the ranks of us ex-wives. Folded in with Patricia’s descriptions of one-night stands and prohibition-­busting binges are the kind of hollow distractions relatable to any of us who have ever wanted to forget: she buys clothes she can’t afford; she gets facials and has her hair done; she listens to songs on repeat while wearily wondering why heartache always seems to bookend love. My copy is riddled with exclamation marks and anecdotes that chart my own parallel romantic catastrophes, its paragraphs vandalized with highlighted passages and bracketed phrases. There is a sentence on the book’s first page that I outlined in black ink: “He grew tired of me;” it reads, “hunted about for reasons to justify his weariness; and found them.” The box that I have drawn around these words is a frame, I suppose; the kind that you find around a mirror.

For all its painful familiarity, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of Ex-Wife’s nostalgic charm; there are phonographs and jazz clubs and dresses from Vionnet; there are verboten cocktails and towering new buildings that reach toward a New York skyline so young that it still reveals its stars. If critics once took issue with the book’s treatment of abortion, adultery, and casual sex, contemporary analyses have too often remarked that Patricia’s world cannot help but show us its age. “Scandalous or sensational?” wrote one critic when the book was last reprinted, in 1989. “Times have changed.” Yes and no; released in the decade between two world wars, and just months before Black Tuesday turned boom to bust, Ex-Wife probes the violent uncertainty of a world locked in a perpetual state of becoming.

Lurching toward sexual revolution but still psychologically tethered to Victorian morality, women of Parrott’s generation found themselves caught in the free fall of collapsing conven­tion. The seedy emotional texture of Ex-Wife’s Jazz Age de­bauchery reflected the panic felt by women across the country who had glimpsed freedom but remained ill-equipped to navi­gate its consequences. Almost immediately following the book’s publication, the press began a guessing game that sought to identify who was being shielded under its mantle of anonym­ity; was Ex-Wife a confession, a fantasy, or the indictment of a culture shifting too rapidly to acknowledge the inevitable casualties we leave in the wake of change? By August of 1929, conjecture had correctly zeroed in on Katherine Ursula Parrott (née Towle), a journalist and fashion writer who seemed to bear an uncanny resemblance to her bobbed and brushed heroine.

Considering the book in the context of what we now know about her life, one cannot put much stock in Parrott’s sug­gestion that Patricia was a composite figure. Instead, Ex-Wife seems to have been a place to record injuries too personal for her to claim as her own. Born in Boston to a physician father and a housewife mother, Parrott decamped to New York’s Greenwich Village shortly following her graduation from Radcliffe College in the early twenties. Her first marriage, to the journalist Lindesay Parrott Sr., ended in divorce in 1926, the year he discovered that the childless marriage he had in­sisted upon was not so childless after all. In 1924, Ursula had learned that she was pregnant and left the couple’s London home for Boston, where she gave birth to her only son before depositing him in the custody of her father and older sister. It was a secret that she managed to keep from Lindesay and their glamorous circle of friends for an astonishing two years. Marc Parrott, whose afterword concludes this book, would never have a relationship with his father. He was nearly seven years old when his mother finally acknowledged her maternity and assumed responsibility for his care. It was 1931 by then, and Ursula had become one of a handful of women who would find her fortune writing escapist romance tales under the pall of the Great Depression.

Marc Parrott’s recollections of his mother paint a vivid por­trait of a spendthrift who often worked for seventy-two-hour stretches in order to meet the deadlines that would keep her (and her lovers) in furs. Parrott swanned through the thirties publishing short stories and serialized novels in women’s mag­azines, her name often mentioned alongside the Hollywood stars who were attached to her screenplays and cinematic ad­aptations. Although I never once found her son mentioned in the many news items devoted to her work and her persona, Parrott was occasionally found in the company of a pet poo­dle improbably named Ex-Wife; in more ways than one, it would seem, her greatest scandal was also her most stalwart companion.

Though Ex-Wife was initially framed as the writer’s en­dorsement of a dangerous new cultural model, Parrott herself was painfully aware of the double standard that continued to condemn “girls who do.” Divorced for a second time in 1932 and for a third five years after, the writer openly mused about her vulnerability in a world where marriage no longer insulated aging women from “man’s urge for variety.” Parrott called di­vorced women like her “Leftover Ladies,” a term that implies both surplus and rejection. Her abandoned woman is doomed to a battle that offers neither victory nor surrender. I think of Patricia examining the phantom lines that have begun to etch themselves across her face. I think of her cold creams and her lipsticks, of her awareness of a clock that never stops ticking. “The Leftover Lady is not free to get old,” Parrott wrote the winter after Ex-Wife came out, “for she has entered the compe­tition, in her work and in her social life, with younger women. And that competition is merciless.”

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

The virtue of discretion – When the rules break down, you must judge what to do on your own. Discretion is necessary for navigating the muddle of life

From Aeon:

It is midday, the sixth hour, sometime between Easter and Pentecost, at a Benedictine monastery, and the monks are gathered for the main meal of the day. It could be any century between the 6th and the 21st, and anywhere from southern Italy to South Korea. Although each monastery is autonomous, governed by its abbot, the order prescribed by the Rule of St Benedict regulates every particular of the proceedings. The monks eat in silence, except for the sound of biblical passages read aloud for their edification. Fare and portions are specified in detail: two cooked meals (no meat), one pound of bread, and a cup of wine daily, no more, no less. Every aspect of life is stipulated: how and when the monks may sleep (all in one room, dressed and belted, with a light burning all night); the order in which the Psalms are to be sung each day (with an added ‘Hallelujah!’ between Easter and Pentecost); clothing (two tunics and two cowls, plus shoes and socks for the monks who work in the fields); bed linens (one mat, sheet, blanket and pillow per monk), when to get up and when to go to bed. If micromanagers have a patron saint, it is surely St Benedict.

Yet each of the 73 chapters that make up the Rule of St Benedict foresees exceptions and mitigating circumstances that may soften the apparently rigid order. The monks may not eat the flesh of four-footed animals – unless the abbot grants permission to the weak and sick who need stronger sustenance. Silence reigns at meals – unless the abbot gives permission to entertain a guest with conversation. Monks are allowed one hemina (around half a pint) of wine and not one drop more – unless they have laboured all day under the hot summer sun. Private possessions are forbidden – no book, no writing tablet, no stylus, nothing whatsoever – unless the abbot wills otherwise. No precept is so rigid that it cannot be bent if the abbot judges that circumstances warrant an exception: it all depends. The abbot’s discretion does not contradict the Rule of St Benedict; it is the Rule.

Discretion is the faculty of it-all-depends. When a general rule collides with recalcitrant particulars, it is discretion that sorts out the resulting muddle. No rule can encompass all the situations to which it may have to be applied, and the shuffle of human affairs is constantly dealing us wild cards. Even in the ordered world of the Benedictine monastery, circumstances fluctuate. One reason why the Rule of St Benedict has survived for so many centuries in so many places is its flexibility. In contrast with the short lives of so many other would-be utopias and ideal communities, which rarely last for more than a single generation, the Rule of St Benedict – originally composed for Benedict’s own monastic community in Monte Cassino in southern Italy in the early 6th century CE – still provides the blueprint of the organisation of Benedictine monasteries all over the world, as it has for 1,500 years. Not for nothing does St Benedict call discretion ‘the mother of all virtues’. When universal rule and particular situation don’t align, it’s discretion that leaps into the breach. We couldn’t live without it.

And yet we’re uncomfortable living with it. We like our rules clearcut and unambiguous, and above all consistently applied. We equate rules applied the same way to all people in all situations with equality and predictability, two cardinal virtues of the rule of law. Exceptions immediately trigger suspicions of special pleading, unfair treatment or wanton caprice. The power to exercise discretion, whether in the court, the classroom or a government office, invites gimlet-eyed scrutiny for the least sign of abuse – or simple error. Distrust shadows discretion like a private eye shadowing a suspect, just waiting to catch the culprit red-handed. As a result, discretion has been driven underground, still in constant but now clandestine operation. It’s become the indispensable faculty that dare not speak its name.

How did this happen? The decline in the fortunes of discretion is part of the history of rules. That history is long and labyrinthine, and rules have always meant many things: the rules of arithmetic calculation, of games, of warfare, of cookbooks, of parliamentary procedure, of traffic, of musical composition, of marriage and divorce, of spelling, and on and on. There is no known human culture without rules, and almost no human activity that slips through the tightly woven mesh of rules. But amid this dazzling diversity and ubiquity, we can make out two broad categories: thick rules and thin ones.

The Rule of St Benedict is a sterling example of how thick rules and discretion work hand in hand. Thick rules announce a directive about how or how not to behave, clearly and succinctly, but then they go on to fatten that precept with examples, exceptions and appeals to experience (call them the three exes). For example, an early 18th-century treatise on siege warfare contains what sounds like a self-evident rule: ‘Always attack the enemy’s stronghold at its weakest point.’ But exceptions immediately follow: if a good paved road that made the transport of heavy cannons and munitions easier led to a stronger part of the fortifications, then the attack should begin there instead.

A thick rule requires the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike

Take another obvious-sounding rule from a 17th-century handbook on how to play various games: in chess, don’t sacrifice a piece worth more for one worth less. Yet in the next breath comes an exception: should your adversary seem to have a penchant for playing a particular piece – say, a knight – then you should do your utmost to put the knight out of commission, including sacrificing a piece of higher value (say, your bishop), in order to discombobulate your opponent and gain a psychological advantage. Thick rules are learned by example and from experience, and they are constantly being stretched by exceptions – the three exes (and perhaps a fourth ex, for extenuating circumstances). These are part and parcel of the rule itself, the woolly coat that cushions the rule against unforeseen circumstances.

A thick rule requires discretion to follow; the ability to discern among cases that may, at first glance, seem alike (for example, what the monks will be served for dinner) but, in fact, differ in significant respects (eg, this monk is strong and healthy, and that one is sick and weak). But what exactly is discretion, how does it work, and who is qualified to exercise it?

Discretion is not the whole of judgment, but it is an essential part. Judgment is the ability to bring together universals and particulars, a two-fold task. First, we must decide, which universal – which law or rule or maxim or principle – applies to this particular case at hand? The judge who arraigns a suspect must figure out what charge to book; the doctor must decide the diagnosis and treatment for the individual patient. Because this kind of judgment is all about cases, it is sometimes called casuistry. The pages of newspaper advice columns are full of everyday conundrums that mobilise casuistry: ‘My husband is an anti-vaxxer. Should I lie to him about having our child vaccinated?’ Here, judgment must decide which moral principle takes precedence: the principle of trust and truthfulness between spouses, or the principle of parental responsibility for the child’s welfare. Casuistry tries to figure out which rule or principle should dominate in this specific case.

So discretion is the second form of judgment, mustered after that first decision about universals and particulars has been made: this is indeed the right universal for these particulars, but its rigid application without some adjustment to these particular particulars would cause some unintended harm. In the case of the parents who disagree whether their child should be vaccinated, we are likely to want to know more specifics about both the marriage and the risks run by the child, in order to temper the application of whichever principle we have decided should trump in this case. Either marital trust or the child’s welfare may suffer, depending on the decision, but there is a further duty to try to minimise the harm.

What kind of harm depends on the kind of general rule. In a court of law, injustice might result from, for example, applying the full rigour of the law against theft to a poor, hungry person who stole food. In the kitchen, following the cake recipe’s instructions about the amount of baking powder may result in an oven explosion if you’re cooking at high altitude. In a spaceship launch, not taking into account how far the launchpad is from the equator when calculating the amount of fuel needed for a rocket to reach escape velocity can crash the rocket and its payload. These are all cases in which the unambiguously apt universal – the law forbidding theft, the recipe for this kind of cake, the calculation of escape velocity – must be tailored to fit the particulars at hand, just as the abbot granted the weak and sick a portion of meat at dinner, or the guest at dinner a courteous conversation partner. Casuistry pits one universal against another in the case at hand; discretion tweaks the apposite universal to the particulars of that case. Both casuistry and discretion are feats of judgment, but not the same feat.

. . . .

We exercise discretion all the time, but we can’t give rules for how we do it

Link to the rest at Aeon

Why Can’t I Write Whenever I Want To?

From Writer Unboxed:

In springtime, after a cold, dark winter, my teachers would fling open the windows to let fresh air flow into the schoolrooms.

Unfortunately, my school was surrounded by farmland and the fresh spring air had usually warmed up enough to bring with it the unmistakable stench of silage, that pungent slurry of fermented grasses the local farmers spread on their fields to keep the cows fed before the summer crops came in.

Amid the groans of pupils holding their sleeves to their noses, the drone of bumblebees, and the window-rattling supersonic roar of Concorde’s pilots being taught to land at the nearby airport, you could occasionally hear the frantic scratching of pens on exam papers, spring being testing season in Scotland.

I never minded taking tests.

It appealed to what I would later learn was an ADHD trait of hyper-focus, but at the time I thought of as ‘having a good short-term memory and a decent sense of how to manage my time within the 90 minute window of most tests’.

(Obviously, I was one of the cool kids…)

I loved the quiet order of the test rooms: everyone socially-distanced for intellectual purity—long before it became fashionable for health reasons.

I adored the knowledge that no one would talk or make fun of me for ‘being a swot’ or otherwise distract me until the end of the test.

Even the quiet shuffle of the invigilators haunting the aisles of the temple of learning like the ghosts of cloistered monks added to my odd sense of freedom in an exam room.

I could regurgitate hastily-memorized algebraic formulae with ease, there—so different from the panic that seized me if asked to stand at the board and talk about numbers. I could quote passages from history and biology facts by closing my eyes and remembering how they looked on the textbook page. But best of all, there was always that moment when the I turned to the part of the English paper that said “Write a short story, or essay, on…”

Of course I felt the same incipient nausea as everyone else while speed-reading the list of possible topics: how was I to fill 40 minutes writing about a trip to a new place, or imagining I had found a bottle on a beach?

The will to keep calm and carry on began to leak from the room as 99% of the pupils looked at the ceiling in despair, or scratched a few stilted lines onto the page, hoping for magic to happen.

But soon something would bubble up in my brain. Soon I was radiating enough energy to make up the deficit from everyone else: my mind full of ‘what ifs’ and kooky characters who might play in these worlds.

I began to write, as unsure as everyone else about where I was going with this idea, but with one piece of certainty tucked up my sleeve for emergencies: I knew that once I started writing some force would pluck me from the school room and transport me on landslide of words, slipping and sliding down the scree of sentences, unaware of the passing time until a sixth sense alerted me to an internal five-minute warning, and I could turn and sprint towards ‘the end’.

As uniformed bodies stumbled from the exam room, drained and demoralized, I positively bounded out into the sunny, stinky Ayrshire spring, whistling and giggling, and wondering why everyone else looked so glum.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

169 Square Feet in Las Vegas

From The Paris Review:

The Las Vegas apartment complex was advertised as a fresh start, a place to reinvent oneself. With only 169 square feet in the so-called “micro-studio,” there was simply no room to bring much of my past life with me. I was not seeking reinvention, but I was looking for cheap rent.

I arrived in late afternoon on a warm fall day. New friends had invited me to go camping in Utah and were soon to depart, so I tossed my few belongings into the studio without taking much stock of the space. I did, however, note what I would come to call “the bathroom situation.” Along the apartment’s eastern wall stood the shower and the toilet, both separated from the rest of the space by only a curtain. The only sink was the kitchen sink. Well, I thought, that pretty much eliminates the possibility of anyone staying the night. I showed up to my friends’ doorstep tired and sweaty, and as we chatted, the last member of our camping caravan emerged from his bedroom, hair damp from a shower. I snuck a glance into his room. His apartment was basically the same size as my entire micro-studio, and contained many more things—paintings from Chile, philodendron cuttings in blue glass vases, and, in the living room, even a large white rug and a recliner.

My tiny apartment, as I named it, was fine for the time being. Utilities were included in the price. I had a desk that doubled as my dining table, and enough cabinets to use for my clothes. There was a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a two-burner stove, where I made, nearly every day, toast and eggs sunny-side up. When I showered, steam filled the room, and the dracaena I’d just bought seemed to like the humidity.

One night, I invited my new friends over for dinner. I owned very few kitchen essentials, so I used a Crockpot Express to steep risotto in wine while I used my only pan to sauté onions. It would take a full day for the smell of caramelized onion to dissipate from the apartment, and, over time, I began to worry that the scents of all my meals had fossilized in my linens. The philodendron man made a comment about a YouTube video he’d watched on micro-studios in New York. Why, we wondered, were there micro-studios in sprawling Las Vegas, where subdivisions and suburbs were more common than even regular-sized apartments? When we left to go eat in the courtyard, our arms full of pots and plates, one of the friends said she’d stay behind. She needed to use the bathroom, but didn’t want anyone else inside at the same time.

Because I lived alone, I normally didn’t close the curtain to use the toilet. I closed the curtain only when I had visitors, which seemed like a performance of modesty, since the toilet was never going to be private. But there were not many visitors. One of my only guests was the philodendron man. The first time he visited by himself, I was nervous. I ended up overcooking the shakshuka I’d planned for dinner, and when he arrived, the place smelled of burn. We drank wine on my bed, and he left. From a friend, I learned he was anxious about the bathroom situation.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review