Wednesday, May 30, 2012

John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Violence of the Lambs" (2008)

"Human history is mainly the history of human customs, and we know very little of animal history from this point of view. Nevertheless animals do change their customs."—John Burdon Sanderson Haldane, British Geneticst, What is Life?, 1947
"Animals are changing, and I cannot tell you why."—Inusiq Nasalik, 88-year-old inuit elder, September 6, 2004
Last year I was asked to write an article for this magazine about the future of the human race, a topic on which my sporadic descents to the crushing mental depths of pop-rock culture crit had predictably made me the go-to guy. Nonetheless I undertook in all good faith to fulfill the assignment. The future of the human race is something we ought to take seriously, since despite all the fortunes spent on those giant space-monitoring radio dishes and the exploratory satellites and whatnot, there exists not a shred of conclusive evidence to contradict the rational assumption that away from this blue ball we live on, the universe is an infinity of unfeeling matter. So let's keep this thing going, is my take.
Pursuing insight, I spent a couple of days at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University in England. I called the woman I'd been told was the most farsighted person at FEMA. I talked to any self-identifying and not instantly, obviously insane futurologist who'd answer a query—Bill Lilly at the New School for Human Advancement was especially accommodating. I spoke with someone at the Vatican. The Vatican actually has a future expert, essentially a house Book of Revelation wonk. In short, I want you to know that I tried and tried, for months, to write about something other than what I've ended up writing on here, a tangent that came up early in the research but immediately screamed career killer and was repeatedly shunted aside by this reporter in favor of things like out-of-control nanotechnology of the near future (which, you'll be delighted to hear, is something they're fairly concerned about at the Future of Humanity Institute). But as I tried every way I knew to find some legitimate half-truths about the future for you to read about on your flight to Dallas or wherever your loved ones live—and I do suggest that you visit them soon, as in this year, I really do—the problem became that people who make a profession of thinking seriously about the future won't really tell you anything that isn't cautious, hedged, and quadruple-qualified, because, as I came slowly to comprehend and deal with, no one knows what's going to happen in the future.
My surprise at this pretty obvious-seeming realization showed me the extent to which, thanks to Hollywood or my own paranoia or whatever, I'd unconsciously internalized a belief in the existence of some guy, some prematurely middle-aged guy, either Jewish or Asian (or, in the comedy version I sometimes screen internally, Irish), who sits in a room in the bowels of some governmental building and actually knows what's going to happen in the future, whose mutterings need to be heeded, whose moods must be tracked with concern if not alarm, and whose very existence is a cause all over the world of slight, constant anxiety, and properly so. Is this a dying spasm of the religion gene? Probably. All I know is that it came as a great liberation to me, having this creature expunged from my imagination, with his alert levels and his survival kits and all his total crap that he goes on about while with the left hand building nukes and starting wars. I reminded myself that incessant potential catastrophe is the human condition, is in fact the price of possessing consciousness, and I determined to live with greater ease from now on, and not to let anyone scare me about the future, because the truth is, the worst thing that could ever happen to you is death, and that's going to happen despite all your worry and effort, so it's simply irrational not to say fuck it. I'm not saying start chain-smoking cloves and having unprotected sex with seaport trannie bar girls, though neither am I saying to abjure those things if they're what make you feel most alive. I'm just saying, take courage. That and pretty much that alone is never the incorrect thing to do. And these thoughts were so edifying to me, and I really looked forward to sharing them with you, hoping they might lighten your load along the road.
Then I was introduced to a person called Marcus Livengood.
Good day, sunshine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Why we care about whales" by Marina Keegan

When the moon gets bored, it kills whales. Blue whales and fin whales and humpback, sperm and orca whales; centrifugal forces don’t discriminate.
With a hushed retreat, the moon pulls waters out from under fins and flippers, oscillating them backward and forward before they slip outward. At nighttime, the moon watches its work. Silver light traces the strips of lingering water, the jittery crabs, the lumps of tangled seaweed.
Slowly, awkwardly, the whales find their footing. They try to fight the waves, but they can’t fight the moon. They can’t fight the world’s rotation or the bathymetry of oceans or the inevitability that sometimes things just don’t work out.
Over 2,000 cetaceans die from beaching every year. Occasionally they trap themselves in solitude, but whales are often beached in groups, huddled together in clusters and rows. Whales feel cohesion, a sense of community, of loyalty. The distress call of a lone whale is enough to prompt its entire pod to rush to its side — a gesture that lands them nose-to-nose in the same sand. It’s a fatal symphony of echolocation; a siren call to the sympathetic.
The death is slow. As mammals of the Artiodactyl order, whales are conscious breathers. Inhalation is a choice, an occasional rise to the ocean’s surface. Although their ancestors lived on land, constant oxygen exposure overwhelms today’s creatures.
Beached whales become frantic, captives to their hyperventilation. Most die from dehydration. The salty air shrinks their oily pores, capturing their moisture. Deprived of the buoyancy water provides, whales can literally crush themselves to death. Some collapse before they dry out — their lungs suffocating under their massive bodies — or drown when high tides cover their blowholes, filling them slowly while they’re too weak to move. The average whale can’t last more than 24 hours on land.
In their final moments, they begin belching and erupting in violent thrashing. Finally, their jaws open slightly — not all the way, but just enough that the characteristic illusion of a perpetual smile disappears. This means it’s over. I know this because I watched as 23 whale mouths unhinged. As 23 pairs of whale eyes glazed over.
I had woken up that morning to a triage center outside my window. Fifty or so pilot whales were lying along the stretch of beach in front of my house, surrounded by frenzied neighbors and animal activists. The Coast Guard had arrived while I was still sleeping, and guardsmen were already using boats with giant nets in an attempt to pull the massive bodies back into the water. Volunteers hurried about in groups, digging trenches around the whales’ heads to cool them off, placing wet towels on their skin, and forming assembly lines to pour buckets of water on them. The energy was nervous, confused and palpably urgent.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Jeni's: "ice creams that make you blush"

Heaven and earth meet on a spoon of Jeni's brambleberry crisp ice cream
An assortment of pints makes a great gift for father's day ... or for someone recovering from dental surgery. Also a perfect just because treat with a slice of blueberry pie.
Available for order at 

Friday, May 25, 2012

W.H. Auden's "The More Loving One" (1957)

 Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
 That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
 But on earth indifference is the least
 We have to dread from man or beast.

 How should we like it were stars to burn
 With a passion for us we could not return?
 If equal affection cannot be,
 Let the more loving one be me.

 Admirer as I think I am
 Of stars that do not give a damn,
 I cannot, now I see them, say
 I missed one terribly all day.

 Were all stars to disappear or die,
 I should learn to look at an empty sky
 And feel its total dark sublime,
 Though this might take me a little time.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"The Proxy Marriage" by Maile Meloy

William was tall and thin and shy and awkward in school. His best social tool was that he played the piano, and so was recruited for school musicals, which placed him at rehearsals and cast parties with kids he would otherwise scarcely have known. He thought he would be either a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally. His piano teacher was a banker’s widow who gave lessons in her lace-curtained house, and his physics teacher was primarily the wrestling coach. But William could imagine another kind of life.

Through the musicals, he became friends with Bridey Taylor. Bridey had golden curls, like a Botticelli angel, and a face that didn’t go with them: a long, straight nose, dark eyes. She had a clear, bright mezzo-soprano voice and she wanted to be an actress. Her mother had left when Bridey was nine, and she had grown up with her father, a lawyer, who adored her. Bridey was confident, even a little vain, and she was good at school, except for math, which didn’t interest her. William helped her through trigonometry, teaching her the concepts at lunch before tests so she could forget them immediately afterward.

William had no girlfriends in high school, and his mother once sat him down at the table in her spotless kitchen and asked if he was gay. She said it would be fine with her. She loved him unconditionally, and they would figure out a way to tell his father. But William wasn’t gay. He was just absurdly, painfully in love with Bridey Taylor, who leaned on the piano and sang while he played, and he had no way of telling her. He was too shy to pursue other girls, even when the payoff seemed either likely or worth the agony. But he didn’t tell his mother that. It was too humiliating. He just stammered an unconvincing denial.

Other boys asked Bridey out, and William suffered through it. She viewed them with amusement, but she accepted most invitations. Encouraged, in their junior year William decided to ask her to the winter formal. He was getting ready, vibrating with anticipation, when Bridey told him that a tennis-playing senior named Monty had invited her.

“What did you say?” he asked.

“Oh, yes. I guess.”

William excused himself from homeroom and went to the disinfectant-smelling tiled bathroom. He waited until he was sure that no one else was there, then threw up in a green graffiti-marked stall. He hadn’t thrown up since he was six, when he had the flu, and it was harrowing. His body seemed to have been taken over by some alien force.
But Monty made a mistake. He sat Bridey down in his parents’ living room, two days after the dance, and told her that he’d wanted three things out of high school: to be captain of the tennis team, to get into Berkeley, and to have a serious girlfriend. The first two had already happened, and Bridey would be perfect for the third. She reported the conversation to William, laughing. “He was so earnest,” she said. “About his goals.”
    William made a mental note never to be earnest with Bridey.

    In September of their senior year, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked and the towers fell. William’s parents were out of town, and he overslept, waking when Bridey called him.

    “Wake up!” she said. “Terrorists are attacking America.”

    “Where?” he asked, groggy with sleep.

    Everywhere,” she said.

    At school, teachers brought out television sets on A.V. carts, and they all watched the news, silent and dazed. In November, troops were sent to Afghanistan. In December, Bridey’s father came to her and William with a request. He’d been asked to arrange a proxy wedding for a Marine corporal in Kandahar and his fiancée, who was in North Carolina and pregnant. They wanted to give the child his father’s name and a death benefit if something went wrong. Most states didn’t allow proxy marriages, and Montana was the only one that allowed double-proxy weddings, in which neither party had to be present. The practice seemed to have been allowed before statehood, and had been used for soldiers during the Second World War, but no one knew exactly why it had arisen: possibly because it was difficult to travel long distances to a courthouse to marry an out-of-state sweetheart. Mr. Taylor asked Bridey and William to be the proxies. He’d asked his secretary and his paralegal first, but they’d had no interest.

    William’s mother thought that it was a good idea, and a way to do something for the country when everyone felt helpless: a small offering. William thought that she hadn’t believed his claims of heterosexuality before, and was happy with the idea of his marrying a girl. He wondered if Bridey’s father thought he was gay, too—or just dickless and unthreatening.

    But William took the thing seriously; he couldn’t help it. Even a fake marriage to Bridey Taylor filled his heart with unaccountable joy, and he went home after school and put on his dark-gray recital suit and a tie. He and Bridey were getting fifty dollars each, and he thought he should dress for the job.

    At the county courthouse, he found Bridey with her sneakered feet up on a heavy wooden table. Her hair was pulled back in a stubby, curly ponytail, and she wore the jeans and sweatshirt she’d put on for school. She glanced from William’s face to his suit.
    “You look nice,” she said. There was annoyance in her voice.

    Sunday, May 20, 2012

    Friday, May 18, 2012

    Kahlil Gibran's "On Joy & Sorrow"

    Then a woman said, "Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow." 
    And he answered: 
    Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. 
    And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. 
    And how else can it be? 
    The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. 
    Is not the cup that hold your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter's oven? 
    And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
    When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. 
    When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight. 
    Some of you say, "Joy is greater than sorrow," and others say, "Nay, sorrow is the greater." 
    But I say unto you, they are inseparable. 
    Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. 
    Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
    Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced. 
    When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall. 

    (from The Prophet)

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012

    Tiramisu à la Marcel Proust

    12-15 Saviardi sponge fingers
    4 eggs
    100g caster sugar
    Amaretto di Saronno
    500g mascarpone
    2 cups cold coffee
    Cocoa powder
    From this ancient past — its great houses gone and its inhabitants dwindling, like the last creatures of a mythical forest — came something infinitely more frail and yet more alive, insubstantial yet persistent; the memories of smell and taste, so faithful, resisted the destruction and rebuilt for a moment the palace wherein dwelt the remembrance of that evening and that tiramisu.
    [From Household Tips of the Great Writers, via brain pickings]

    Thursday, May 10, 2012

    "On Fame" by John Keats

    Fame, like a wayward girl, will still be coy
    To those who woo her with too slavish knees,
    But makes surrender to some thoughtless boy,
    And dotes the more upon a heart at ease;
    She is a gypsy, will not speak to those
    Who have not learnt to be content without her;
    A jilt, whose ear was never whispered close,
    Who thinks they scandal her who talk about her;
    A very gypsy is she, Nilus-born,
    Sister-in-law to jealous Potiphar;
    Ye love-sick bards, repay her scorn for scorn,
    Ye artists lovelorn, madmen that ye are!
    Make your best bow to her and bid adieu,
    Then, if she likes it, she will follow you.

    Saturday, May 5, 2012

    Ignazio Danti's Maps (1580s)

    Italia antiqua (Ancient Italy) v. Italia nova (Modern Italy)
    Hall of Maps, Vatican
    Map of the Western Hemisphere
    Terza Loggia, Vatican
    [Scala Archives]

    Wednesday, May 2, 2012

    Flower Knot How-to from MaiTai

    Lay the scarf flat. Front down.
    Bring two opposite corners together and tie a double knot:

    Tuesday, May 1, 2012

    “Marginalia” by Billy Collins (2005)

    Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
    skirmishes against the author
    raging along the borders of every page
    in tiny black script.
    If I could just get my hands on you,
    Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O’Brien,
    they seem to say,
    I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

    Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
    “Nonsense.” “Please!” “HA!!” -
    that kind of thing.
    I remember once looking up from my reading,
    my thumb as a bookmark,
    trying to imagine what the person must look like
    why wrote “Don’t be a ninny”
    alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

    Students are more modest
    needing to leave only their splayed footprints
    along the shore of the page.
    One scrawls “Metaphor” next to a stanza of Eliot’s.
    Another notes the presence of “Irony”
    fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

    Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
    Hands cupped around their mouths.
    “Absolutely,” they shout
    to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
    “Yes.” “Bull’s-eye.” “My man!”
    Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
    rain down along the sidelines.

    And if you have manage to graduate from college
    without ever having written “Man vs. Nature”
    in a margin, perhaps now
    is the time to take one step forward.

    We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
    and reached for a pen if only to show
    we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
    we pressed a thought into the wayside,
    planted an impression along the verge.

    Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
    jotted along the borders of the Gospels
    brief asides about the pains of copying,
    a bird signing near their window,
    or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
    anonymous men catching a ride into the future
    on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

    And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
    they say, until you have read him
    enwreathed with Blake’s furious scribbling.

    Yet the one I think of most often,
    the one that dangles from me like a locket,
    was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
    I borrowed from the local library
    one slow, hot summer.
    I was just beginning high school then,
    reading books on a davenport in my parents’ living room,
    and I cannot tell you
    how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
    how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
    when I found on one page

    A few greasy looking smears
    and next to them, written in soft pencil-
    by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
    whom I would never meet-
    “Pardon the egg salad stains, but I’m in love.”