Mussels are soaking in the sink, waiting to be steamed and the air outside feels a little sweet, exactly like spring should. We have a long hike, a big talk and the sort of church service that knocks you beautifully sideways under our belts today and I couldn’t have hoped for a lovelier expanse of hours. Hoping your day is filled with all the same notes of joy and reflection, brokenness and revival and love. Happy Easter, dear friends.
(artwork by Justin Reed)
A Film in a Minor Key: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia
by Andrew Root
In the Bangkok Post, May 26th, year 1967, there is an account of a concert pianist, a piano, and the pianist’s wife: the humidity of the climate produced a swelling of the felt pads within the piano, causing several of the keys to stick. The wood slowly expanded, warping the strings and changing their pitch and timbre, and what had begun as a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” finished as “Fantasia and Fugue in G-major,” much to the annoyance of the American pianist, Myron Kropp, who departed the stage in an unexpectedly collected manner. Kropp returned shortly thereafter to destroy the piano in front of the shocked audience using an axe that had been hung backstage in case of fire. Several ushers, the house manager, two stagehands, and a passing police officer eventually succeeded in disarming Kropp and dragging him off stage, but not before he had pulverized the temperamental piano. The Baldwin Concert Grand, generally regarded as a fine instrument, has been noted to be particularly sensitive to its environment, and while many blame the humidity for the instrument’s strange behaviour, others point to the attitude of Kropp himself, who – that very evening before the performance – had murdered his wife with a handgun upon discovering an infidelity.…
It could have something to do with the blood I just gave and the temperature that seems to be crumpling in this room, but I was left totally spellbound and delirious by this essay. It’s magnificent and strange and one of my favorite BWDR pieces. Kudos on this issue, guys.
Love in the Time of Cholera
RIP dear Gabriel García Márquez, whose words carried colors no one else’s ever did.
Watching girls play in the fog on the hill and having a moment of missing my own sweet sister and nieces.
I married my husband in large part for his heart, which is so wholly on display in this post below.
The first time I went to Cambodia years ago and learned about their recovery, I remember feeling furious — this towering self righteous fury — that the world, that my parents, had lived through the Khmer Rouge’s slaughter and atrocities and had done nothing. Nothing!
And now I am getting older and we have lived almost obliviously through our own genocides and persecutions and police states, how many times over? And we do nothing, and that occasional realization is enough to disembowel you with shame. I’m older now and I understand at least a few more of the complexities of the situations (but still so much less than leaders like Nomad Soul) and still I wonder: Is it that we don’t know what to do or that we know and we can’t stand to do it?
Because sometimes, it feels too much like the latter.
I meant to post about the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, but I kept thinking about it and then forgetting about it, which is pretty symbolic for the genocide itself and how we generally respond to distant tragedy.
But it’s been twenty years and this book, Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, is still one of the best nonfiction books I’ve ever read, and somehow put the tragedy in both personal, human terms as well as broad, big picture terms. It’s where I first heard the story of Paul Rusesabagina, the Don Cheadle character in Hotel Rwanda.
The genocide feels so far away now, like every act of horror before 9/11 is a distant, shadowy thing that was unusual because the status quo of the world was “peace” and not “terror,” or something. In 1994 as the genocide was happening, we were finding out Kurt Cobain was dead. We had troops in Bosnia. NAFTA had just been created. And now Rwanda is one of the brightest spots on the continent. The world has changed so much in those twenty years.
One section of the book that has always stuck with me is a transcript of a conversation between a reporter and the State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley. The Clinton administration had forbade any confirmation of “genocide” in Rwanda, because that would increase pressure to actually do something. Instead, the line was that “acts of genocide may have occurred.”
"Q: So you say genocide happens when certain acts happen, and you say that those acts have happened in Rwanda. So why can’t you say that genocide has happened?
Ms. Shelley: Because, Alan, there is a reason for the selection of words that we have made, and I have -perhaps I have- I’m not a lawyer. I don’t approach this from the international legal and scholarly point of view. We try, best as we can, to accurately reflect a description in particularly addressing that issue. It’s- the issue is out there. People have obviously been looking at it.”
Shelley was a bit more to the point when she rejected the denomination of genocide, because, she said, “there are obligations which arise in connection with the use of the term.” She meant that if it was a genocide, the Convention of 1948 required the contracting parties to act. Washington didn’t want to act. So Washington pretended that it wasn’t a genocide. Still, assuming that the above exchange took about two minutes, an average of eleven Tutsis were exterminated in Rwanda while it transpired.
I don’t know why that stuck with me. The perpetrators of the genocide were able to kill close to a million people in a 100-day time span using mostly machetes, which is 10,000 people per day.
I think maybe we have a hard time caring about a thing unless that thing is so dramatically devastating that it’s cathartic to care about it. It is hard to get worked up about a famine if the famine is successfully prevented. But also, ever since our disastrous involvement in Somalia, administrations generally don’t want to risk American lives for non-American interests. Which is valid but also cruel. And sometimes there is just nothing to be done. As commonplace as it has become, violating another country’s sovereignty is still a pain in the ass. So we let things run their course, because pissing off this country would threaten our relationship with that country and we need their airbases in case of a threat from this country, et cetera sic transit gloria.
I don’t know, I’m just riffing. I just think it is worth thinking about, at least a little bit. The book is heartbreaking, but worth reading. It’s important to know these things happened.
And here now is my insufficient essay tribute to Joan, beautiful and formidable as a continent.
"If we were establishing a monument to Joan (not the worst idea ever), I’d demand it be two-fold. Half to honor whatever fantastical genetic engineering delivered her impossible physique. And the other half to her strength. There is an inexorable calm and mettle to Joan that makes me want to cry. I am petrified by her unflinching judgment and intoxicated by her ability to graciously deflect everything in which she does not wish to become entangled.
I am confused by her grace, so foreign to my brash, clumsy earnestness. By her ability to lead without recognition and keep afloat on the delicate crust of tactful, unceasingly appropriate professionalism that I’ve smashed through always, despite every attempt to be above gossip and provocation and injustice. How she manages the office and the men who pursue her and the women who begrudge her and the husband who fails her and does it all without stooping to tears but once.
For my part, I’ve almost never felt something I did not verbalize. Every emotion has gushed through me in loud roiling riptides and tsunamis. Erupting in howling wails at lovers and tears at work. In depthless anger and longing at parents and in wild, reckless joy at kindred spirits.
And anything I have not yelled, I have written and shared and over-shared. I own absolutely none of Don’s acumen for compartmentalization, none of Joan’s elegant ability to brush aside that which might be uncomfortable to hear. No share of Roger’s almost total irreverence, Anna Draper’s easy forgiveness, Sally’s preternatural calm.
As loudly and plainly as possible, I have presented my laments and talked through them laboriously. After all of which, you can assume: When I am devastated, you will know it. My comfort zone is the cacophony of modern desperation. When we are unhappy—incidentally or profoundly—there are an unbearable number of mediums to broadcast it and no expectation to hide it.
So this is the aspect of Mad Men that scares me most: the implication that every single character is so discreetly and quietly unhappy. Am I the only one that feels almost every last character is (to varying degrees and levels of awareness) desperately, wildly, deeply, paralyzingly unhappy? So unhappy they grapple and tear at and stampede and betray and smother each other in some savage effort to salvage their own lives.
Or maybe I am projecting. It’s impossible to tell if they’re happy, because they speak of the concept so infrequently it’s as though it has never even occurred to them. But I know I have never burned down a version of my life in which I was actually happy. Dumb and selfish and impulsive and impetuous as I have been in my youth, every single time I did the wrongest thing, it was not in an effort to hurt anyone else but solely to save myself (whether I realized it then or later).
And this crew? They are the most proficient of emotional arsonists.”
—Erica Cantoni, ”I Won’t Have My Heart Broken” (Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine. June 2013)
(To read the rest of this essay, and the entire issue it originally appeared in, click here.)
An excerpt from an old essay I wrote on Mad Men, which is still the most curious, entangling, tenderly subtle show on television for my money.
So glad for its return.
"I have forgotten all the major stories, and yet I could carve in bone my memory of a dozen tiny, quiet scenes:
Betty, sitting in a late-day Roman glow, her hair whipped and molded into a European chignon. Looking so modern it was as if she alone dragged in the backdrop change, inventing the ’60s. As if she’d finally shed the kids like a dead skin or a fire and emerged, victoriously golden. Reborn. How the Italian men hit on her and insulted Don when he approached, as a stranger. Which was perfect, right? Because how long had it been since they’d known each other at all? I’d etch in how he fell back in love, madly so, with Betty for two days. With this restored, empowered version of her. All cold upper class beauty, all superiority, all linguistic-flexing power. Too good for him, which is the key to everything.
I’d etch the repose of Roger’s tired face when he calls Joan late at night, with Jane, the regrettable wife, passed out beside him.
Peggy’s hand on Don’s after Anna dies. This single brief touch a complete swelling orchestra composed to explain the depth of their bond and its tenuousness. How vital and still wildly vulnerable this tie is in the possession of a man so accustomed to scorching any tenderness entrusted to him.
Everything encompassed in the moments Don calls Betty “birdie.” The whole rattling film projection of their courtship and marriage and children and infidelities and lies and second tries and reheated dinners. And the end that Betty pretends comes with the bang of Dick Whitman’s betrayal, and not years of whimpers. Every aching sweetness remains in “birdie,” somehow fossilized and surviving but useless as a mate-less bull.
The literal restraint of the characters—their buttoned-up loneliness. The moments of elegant non-response and suffocated reaction. The things they do not tell each other, the fights they don’t finish, the slaps that aren’t delivered. The communicative release they never allow themselves (even as it might be their salvation).
Sometimes, I find myself watching Mad Men through a sort of fantasy lens, as if it were an underwater ballet. A cold, slow-floating drift of Asian dance and sad, silent theater.
—Erica Cantoni, "I Won’t Have My Heart Broken" (Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine, June 2013)