On moving, central Illinois, pandemic New York, unreliable memories, live music and the sea
|Karmela Padavic Callaghan||Aug 7|| 1|
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I finish reading Alexander Chee’s book, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, two days before my husband and I fly out to Illinois. It makes me feel like I have to write something autobiographical and the occasion of moving everything I own out of my graduate school apartment in Urbana, Illinois and to my in-law’s house in New York seems appropriate. If I were to write an autobiography, this would have to be an important point within it, a new chapter as a relative tells me over Facebook. I would pretty much have to examine and narrativize the story that led me here. After putting the book down, however, I can’t seem to conjure up a single memory about graduate school, previous moves, or anything else.
Take for instance Jethro Tull. It’s a Saturday and my father-in-law is off from work so he’s doing the crossword and listening to music loudly. When Jethro Tull comes on, I think of my own father. He also likes crosswords, loud music and lazy Saturdays. He, on the other hand, dislikes Jethro Tull. I know that he dislikes them just like I know that I am sitting down and that it is too warm in the house, but I cannot recall a single instance of my dad criticizing Jethro Tull, discussing Jethro Tull, or in any way acknowledging that the band exist.
I think about memories and my dad again when our plane lands in Charlotte Douglas International Airport. I’m waiting for the queue of not-so-socially-distanced passengers to move enough for my body to fit between the seat and the overhead bin at that weird diagonal angle you need to assume to be able to mount a backpack without hitting your head on the edge of someone else’s carry-on. Creedence Clearwater Revival faintly plays throughout the cabin and Creedence Clearwater Revival is among the most dad of all dad rock.
In the few years my dad spent first furloughed then unemployed, he kept himself busy by making mixtapes and playlists. Some must have involved Creedence Clearwater Revival. He would probably not call them his favorite, though he might roll out fun facts about their not actually being from the bayou, but they’re a classic and you put classics on mixtapes. As I try to hone in on a memory of him at the computer, listening to different albums and writing down songs he might like for certain mixes in the kind of notebook I had to use for math class in high school, or maybe a memory of us in our cabin in the woods playing cards and singing along, my body changes. My muscles become more alert and tense, almost as if I am getting ready to break into a run once the line clears. Really though, I am just trying to make sure that I remember how I feel right now, that I have something to readily recall, almost by muscle memory, when someone asks what moving across the country during a global pandemic was like.
Photo: Bardeen quad on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus during the summer
In the acknowledgements section of my PhD dissertation I wrote:
“More than any other place in which I have lived by myself, Urbana-Champaign has been and felt like a home. I have cherished having small-town routines, shopping at the farmer's market, having favorite yoga teachers and sources of coffee that never failed me. It would be absurd to thank the whole city, but with every year I have been a little more convinced that it would have been impossible for me to complete the work presented below anywhere else.”
I believe that I truly meant this at the time. My gratitude for the Midwestern college town that had me for six years must have been very real to some past version of me.
It has now been five months since my dissertation defense. Almost as much time since a spring break trip to see family in New York threw my husband and me into a quarantining with his parents for so long that our move date caught us living in their basement instead of respective apartments we were supposed to be leaving. These months have felt endless, like there has never been a point in time before stay-at-home orders. Arriving at Urbana already doesn’t feel like coming home.
My apartment is just as we left it. A pair of faded, ripped jeans I left on my bedroom floor is still there, and a big bag of onions we didn’t manage to eat has quietly sprouted in the fridge. The thin layer of dust on the shelves and the bulge of pamphlets and magazines in the mailbox hint at my long absence, but once we are through the door we settle into a familiar routine. The next morning, day one of the move, I go for a run then pull a loaf of homemade sourdough from the freezer and serve it for breakfast. We have it with ajvar and a Turkish eggplant spread from an international store I had conveniently bent my running route around. We have done this so many times that I could set the rickety round table in my living room with my eyes closed. The crunch of bread, the clanking of knives reaching into jars, the steamy and sludgy coffee from my banged-up dezva should be soothing because they are all so familiar. After breakfast, we start tearing the place down. We are ready for five days of fast packing, laborious trips to the post office and late night cleaning. By day three, I am waking up ready to leave. Almost everything about being here feels wrong. My work is over and my small-town routines have been made impossible by the pandemic (my barber opens his shop afterhours to give us haircuts and I am so sad that even the hot towel does not really feel good). When I go clear out my office, piles of quizzes I have graded hide piles of my own graded homeworks from early days of graduate school, most of which I aced, and they all seem to mock me.
I can’t decide whether I should distrust the past me who looked at her Urbana history through rose-tinted glasses, the one who wrote that sentimental acknowledgement, or whether I should distrust my current self and her gloomy outlook, tainted by the pandemic and the five long basement months. Both of us could probably string together a compelling story composed of memories and those memories would probably all be true. But for both of us, the memories that we’d be leaving out would indicate our true agenda. All of my past selves are composed of memories that are convenient as if I cherry-picked emotional data to find a result I knew I wanted from the start. I can’t trust any of them.
If you don’t know what I mean, what I mean is this: When I speak of walking through a snowstorm, you remember a night from your childhood full of snow or from last winter, say, driving home at night, surprised by a storm. When I speak of my dead friends and poetry, you may remember your own dead friends, or if none of your friends are dead, you may imagine how it might feel to have them die. You may think of your poems or poems you’ve seen or heard. You may remember you don’t like poetry.
Something new is made from my memories and yours as you read this. It is not my memory, not yours, and it is born and walks the bridges and roads of your mind, as long as it can.
Alexandre Chee, On Becoming an American Writer
Most of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is, in one way or another, about remembering, writing about remembering or remembering through writing. Though he does not say it explicitly, Chee does not really seem to trust memories. He pinpoints their importance as a tool of self-defense. They can facilitate the construction of a self-image and they can contort themselves around past pains in such a way that those pains get enveloped, obscured and effectively hidden from other parts of the mind. Through his writing, Chee examines the self he built up from memories, takes it apart, rebuilds it somewhat in his fiction and keeps rebuilding it in real life.
Maine, where he spent his early years, is a frequent character in his essays. Reading about it as a place where he did not fit in, where he experienced racism and sexual abuse, where his father died and his mother went through financial hardship, I keep thinking that he does not like it. But then, in an essay about growing a rose garden, he writes about Maine roses thriving by the sea and there’s some tenderness to it. Writing about completing his first novel, he recounts scraping the majority of an early manuscript and picking the story up from a page rich with descriptions of the Maine summer. He describes tourists from neighboring states coming in in batches with a gentle scorn that I am familiar with. Having grown up on an island where the economy hinged on successful summers, and successful summers were fully defined by how many ill-dressed, laugh-worthy tourists visited, I read into Chee’s writing my own complicated feelings about my first, original home. Regardless of how much I have at times felt like I wanted to, or needed to, escape my hometown, my gut still told me to mistrust outsiders who were there for just a visit. And then I left to be a short-term resident, only slightly better than just a visitor, at many other places. Chee has moved a lot too.
About halfway through the book, arranged mostly in accordance with the arrow of time emerging from his life, Chee moves to New York. It’s a different New York than the one I have come to know through half a decade of visits and almost half a year of quarantine. But it is the same city that has a myth-like quality that doesn’t exactly stick to you but more so stains you in a way that cannot be hidden by your presumably being safely planted somewhere else. I used to ask my husband whether, as a New Yorker, he was annoyed by the city often being used as a device in fiction, depicted as either magical or awful place with the same amount of passion. What I was probably really asking is whether he suspected me of having internalized some of those clichés and let them frame my memories and expectations. I figured that eventually hints of this unrealistic infatuation with the city will show in my eyes. Maybe while we’re riding the subway back to his parents’ house at dawn after spending a long night getting dinner then doing karaoke then getting dollar pizza slices then closing a dive bar where the bartender knows a brother of someone from our party. I was sure that I was literally wide-eyed during some of those times, betraying myself as a small-town, foreign girl that had previously only seen such nights in movies. But once you live through a couple, you start to wonder why the movie could not eventually be about you. Writing about a high-rise Manhattan apartment he had sublet in 2003, Chee describes the view as inspirational. He writes that the “views resembled the way I wanted to feel about my own future each time I looked at them.” Regardless of how dirty, how rude, how unforgiving New York is, an expectation of something bigger and better seems to be hardcoded into it. Chee finished his first novel in New York; it was a long and difficult process that he devotes many of his essays to, but also a transformational one. And that was even before he had those windows overlooking an array of famous landmarks.
I moved to New York before I even realized it. As our quarantine stay kept getting extended, I kept developing new routines. Everything started to feel familiar. First, a running route and muscle memory strong enough to make me turn around at the five-mile mark on weekdays and the eight-mile mark on Sunday without really thinking about it. Then, the grocery store that does sell tofu becoming distinct from the store which has that coconut yogurt I like, and the one that should only be visited for the hot bar and Russian pickles. Soon, I had all the mundane details of living her figured out and all that was missing were some shirts, pots, pans and books that were locked up in my Illinois apartment. I had never imagined moving in this particular way and I’m not sure any amount of cautious dreams would have eventually led me to a pandemic as means, or an excuse, fro kicking it all off. The pandemic did happen, though, and being a person who lives in New York now also just sort of happened. It snuck up on me, really, and all the anxiety concerning who I should be in this new city, who I wanted to be as I build my future here, barely got to me while I was distracted by learning which grocery was most likely to sell me cucumbers that will grow moldy within a few days and cause a salad crisis in my new household.
Reading about Chee’s high-rise apartment, my first thought was that I haven’t lived in an apartment with a worthwhile view in years. The second was that when we start looking for an apartment of our own in Brooklyn, I might have to insist on views and windows being a very important checkbox on our wishlist. I imagine myself standing in front of a tall window, taking in the sun, probably holding onto a cup of coffee, and instead of thinking back on who I was and who I think I remember being, allowing myself to look into the future unburdened.
“What’s your best Urbana memory?”
“I don’t know. I guess that one time we walked home in the snow at dawn was pretty poignant.”
“What’s your worst Urbana memory?”
“Probably also being really cold at some point.”
“What did you miss most about Urbana when you moved?”
“I guess it’s just a town that has character, you know?”
Home is where the heart begins, but not where the heart stays. The heart scatters across states, and has nothing left after what home takes from it.
So many of us lean into romantics when we write of whatever place we crawled out of, perhaps because we feel like we owe it something, even when it has taken more from us than we’ve taken from it. The mission of honesty becomes a bit cloudy when we decide to be honest about not loving the spaces we have claimed as our own.
On our way back, flying to John F. Kennedy’s International Airport after another long layover in Charlotte, I’m reading a different book, Hanif Abdurraqib’s They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us. Almost every essay in this collection is spiked with a memory of live music so vivid it makes me a little lightheaded. Abdurraqib is a Midwesterner so his shows are in Columbus or Chicago. His scene is punk, emo and hardcore. I don’t really like any of the bands he writes about having seen, but the voice that recalls them activates the part of my brain where memories still work. Suddenly, I find myself at every show I’ve ever seen.
Some I saw in high school, still using the Croatian word “koncert” that made them sound that much more high-brow. Some I saw in Chicago during college when being a metalhead felt like another atavism I brought with me from Eastern Europe. Some shows I just got caught up in while I was visiting family or in-between days filled with physics lectures. Those memories, memories of loud music and inadvertently touching bodies, are among my most convincing.
One time, Blaze Bayley, infamous from Iron Maiden’s worst years, drunkenly played a solo gig in an indoor bocce ball court in Rijeka. My best high school friend, a less intense Iron Maiden fan, spent most of it lying down on the bleachers because she was nauseous from drinks that were somehow cheaper for girls that night. The local band that opened for Bayley where the kind of acquaintances you refer to as friends when you want to sound cool. Their amp blew up during a death metal rendition of Rebel Yell, sparks flying to the tune of sudden a capella growling.
One time, me and the same friend got my dad to drive us to Ljubljana to see Iron Maiden, in their full restored glory. I had never seen them live before so the show almost instantly brought me to the edge of happy tears. I almost didn’t even care when, after the show, my dad said I was waving my hands out of rhythm every time the rest of the crowd started to clap in perfect synchronicity. We’ll see them again with all of our other high school friends in Split the following year, I’ll drag a college friend to an unbearably warm summer show in the Chicago suburbs in college, and then it will be my husband’s turn to watch them with me and my dad in Trieste in 2016. That last time I will have snuck out of a physics conference to catch a glimpse of my teenage idols, now able to see their cheesiness but still elated by the chanting crowd.
One time, while I was in boarding school, I had to get a chaperone to go to a Metallica show in an upstate New York basketball court. At breakfast the next day they demonstrated for all of my teachers what I looked like trying to headbang despite our seats being far away from the mosh pit. I never saw another upstate New York show again.
One time in Chicago, I was seeing Mastodon or maybe Lamb of God for the third or fourth time and the person standing next to me peed on the floor like it was perfectly normal to do so. The ex-boyfriend I was living with at the time made me leave all of my clothes in front of our apartment door, as if just being in the same room where this happened automatically made me dirty all over.
One time, a college friend was visiting Croatia and we saw Boris play a thirty people crowd in a remodeled schoolhouse by a river, overgrown in weeds, in a city where even my speaking Croatian couldn’t stop us from getting lost. We saw them again later in Chicago for two nights in a row which felt more civilized, but that first show is still much more with me.
One time, I saw Cult of Luna with a graduate student I barely knew because that same ex-boyfriend declared he hated live music and I really didn’t want to go alone. She’d later go to the South Pole Telescope and I won’t really talk to her again. I will see Cult of Luna again, however, with another random assortment of physicists, many of whom I will also lose touch with after the music stops.
One time, I saw some punk band at a DIY venue in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village and accidentally locked myself in the bathroom. The girl who brought me there as a date had to come and save me. She had gotten invited to the show because the lead singer noticed their matching haircuts in a coffee shop earlier in the day, and I yet again came off as deeply uncool. Another time we saw Earth together and she took her high heels off and, to my horror, stood barefoot on the dirty venue floor.
One time, when I was in graduate school and dating my husband already, we saw Moon Duo play a small bar filled with lost stoners then stepped outside and got caught in a really animated mass of people. Everyone went slightly berserk when Run the Jewels took the outdoor stage. You could tell they were out of breath just a few songs in, but no one cared, the energy they emanated otherwise was just so pervasive.
The sweat, the crowd, the bodies, the reverb of music under my skin and at the bottom of my stomach, the dryness of my throat because always yell too much and never drink enough, it all comes back to me as I am reading. The plane jerks a few times, but I barely notice. The me that just wanted to go out and hear some noise, that girl is someone I think I trust.
Moving to a college town that is just a college town rather than being a college town embedded in a bigger city means that, by definition, the identity of the place, and your experience of it, get inextricably connected to the institution it derives status from. Moving to such a place with the intent of earning a degree strengthens that mental and emotional connection. It is not so much that you can draw a big equals sign between the town and the school, as much as everything you do in the town carries an undertone of school that you can never muffle enough. Were it not for school, you would not be there. Everything else follows from that.
After four years in Chicago, moving a few hours south, to a college town that didn’t seem to be much more, felt like shrinking my world. Before college I lived in a boarding school and barely ever left its rather small campus. When I landed in Chicago after graduation, everything seemed so big. I got used to that and decided that even though my hometown barely makes it past a few thousand residents I am actually a big city person. If Chicago, IL was my emotional Big Bang, Urbana, IL would be my Big Crunch.
I wasn’t exactly wrong with that prediction. Graduate students in my department unknowingly confirmed my suspicions early on when they gleefully noted that everyone there either took up ballroom dance or weightlifting or just worked a lot because “in the winter what else is there to even do”. Being a stiff and ill-coordinated introvert, I did a lot of running and a lot of yoga instead. Even those activities, though, sometimes reminded me that Urbana was small: when I trained for a half-marathon, I could barely put together a reasonable eight- or ten-mile route.
Yet, I could never disagree on the place having character. The food co-op, the relentless farmer’s market, the unnervingly well-lit dive bars, and even a few short-lived DIY venues gave Urbana a property that I eventually started referring to as crunch. Stitched to its twin city of Champaign, a city where everyone seems to be life-training for an impending move towards young Chicago professional life, by the sprawl of red brick University of Illinois campus, Urbana is crunchy in the same way a lentil stew would be if you found it on the menu of a family restaurant that specializes in inoffensive meat and potato dishes. You can ignore it, of course, but you can also lean into it some and enjoy the sweet dirt-adjacent taste.
All of my best Urbana memories are a bit crunchy. That whole first summer spent drinking cheap whiskey on the stoop of my husband’s apartment before he had moved away but after we had fallen for each other. Every Saturday when I managed to go to the farmer’s market before rocket yoga and the second tomatoes were as good as the really expensive, pretty ones and the oyster mushroom guy greeted me as if we were old friends. Honestly, every Saturday when I made it through that class without pulling something or falling on my face. Every trivia game in that bar that doesn’t exist anymore but that used to have really good mason jar cocktails and we’d write “blood sausage” for every answer we didn’t know. Every time I got a discount haircut because I brought my barber a loaf of sourdough bread that I had made the night before. Every lunch I shared with a mentee-turned-coworker-turned-friend in the small vegan restaurant on campus where food tasted just like in my own kitchen and I was happy to pay for imperfection as proof of authenticity and care. In those moments I could forget that I was in Illinois on a mission, that being successful will mean leaving, that building up routines would probably never make me anything other than another academic just passing through.
On day five of the move, I meet with one set of friends for a midday coffee at what used to be my favorite coffee shop and another set of friends for evening drinks at an outdoor location I always thought I should patronize more often. Our conversations finally calibrate me. Instead of the many versions of me, each reflecting a different time of my stay in Urbana, which I have pitted against each other residing in some static tension, they start to overlap and mix until I am ready to admit to myself that I did love this town and I am also now ready to love somewhere else.
The last show I saw in Urbana was Deafheaven playing a club on campus that usually only hosted awkward raves and an occasional EDM act having name recognition among the undergraduate population. It was fairly empty, no mass of bodies to push up against, a clear and neat path open to anyone who wanted to stand very close to the stage. It was a typically cold night and I had too many scarves and jackets to hold because there was no coat check and no one was willing to just start a pile of jackets on the floor in some corner.
Before the music starts a stranger tries to chat with me. He comes away disappointed because we are there for different things. He’s really not all that into avant-garde death metal or what have you as much as he wants to see the shoegaze-y rock band from Brooklyn called DIIV that is the opening act. He says they remind him of surf rock, and I nod my head instead of rolling my eyes. (Later, I will recount this to a high-school friend back in Croatia – one that had been as committed to chasing punk and metal shows in mid-2000s Rijeka as I was and one that had, also just like me, cut his long curly hair short in recent years – and he will tell me that every single time I come home I have a new story about an awkward concert interaction with a strange man.) DIIV are not bad, and I can sort of get down with their slower vibe, but their frontman keeps making jokes about college and homework and everyone in the audience being a student. They seem to think it is hilarious to be playing a college town.The crowd is too small to react to that.
Deafheaven themselves don’t seem to care about being in a college town or the low attendance. They put on an honest effort at playing through Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. George Clarke shows up with wet hair, prances and skips around the stage in-between growls and generally seems both very into what he is doing and very out of everything else. I don’t like this record as much as I liked Sunbather, maybe because I had heard a lot more post-metal in the mean time, but I really enjoy hearing it live. Walking home in the snow later, I feel a slight regret for not having seen the band play in Chicago, years ago, after the first time their music really got to me.
Getting my education in heavy metal first from my dad then from other metalhead kids who loved the 80s, Sweden and underage beer-drinking in my Croatian high school, I spent a fair amount of my time as a music fan chasing bands that were the fastest, or the hardest, or had the most obscure lyrics. Deafheaven’s brand of post-metal that invites the word “gorgeous” much more than “brutal” threw me off on first listen and broadened my idea of what metal music can be on the second. I remember a graduate student that was teaching a general education philosophy class I was taking at the time telling me how much he liked it. Both of us admired the cover of the vinyl edition, the pinks and the oranges presumably resembling the inside of a sun-soaked eyelid. (I still give my copy a spin semi-regularly.) Had I seen them play live back then, it would have probably made me tear up.
When I told my husband about this, I realized that my memory once again cannot be trusted. I forgot that during my first month in Urbana, Deafheaven played a show there. I meant to attend but did not have any friends I could ask to come with me. Ultimately, I decided I was both too broke and too shy to go by myself. My husband had apparently also meant to go and also did not make it. We’ve laugh about the synchronicity of that more than once – couples usually bond over common experiences, not over ones they missed out on. Thinking about it now, I realize that while my memory holds space for the me that loved Sunbather in college and the me that finally managed to see them play, I had chosen to erase the me that was too shy to attend a concert on her own. Both are part of my Urbana history: the first eventually did evolve into the second and made it to the show.
On the return flight, I fall asleep while reading an essay about My Chemical Romance. I gather that Abdurraqib likes their record he is reflecting on but my chin sinks towards my chest and my eyes become heavy so all the nuance of the paragraph I had just been focusing on gets lost. I have always been a terrible plane sleeper. I drop into fragile sleep, just at the edge of consciousness yet cutoff from the unreal sight of masks, face shields, gloves, and even a few full-body cleanroom suits surrounding me.
I jerk my eyes open because of a buzzing noise smaller but sharper than the constant hum of the plane. The buzzing is my watch, and my husband’s watch, because it’s ten minutes to the hour and our watches want us to get up and make a hundred steps each. My hand is on my knee and his hand is on my hand and our watches are conspiring to mock us because we can’t even stretch, let alone get to some stepping. The passenger in the window seat, their body dangerously close to mine, has left the window open. I catch a glimpse of water and another slew of memories catches up with me uninvited.
My relationship with the sea and summers spent on the beach has taken some sharp turns over the years. Before middle school, I would spend every second of every summer day glued to the edge of the Adriatic. I’d lay down a flimsy printed towel on one of the concrete or gravel beaches we always called ugly but couldn’t leave alone in my hometown or the village where my grandparents live and only retreat home for food and sleep. The beach became less fun when I became teenager and the friends and cousins in my summertime crew became more likely to use our salty hangouts to mock me, to cheat in card games, to push and pull me under water whenever we went for a swim. By the time I moved to America, I had soured on the beach. During my yearly visits home in those years, swimming became something I only really did with my mom and our dog, away from other people, on some rocky beach somewhere way out of sight.
While I lived in Chicago the water became important to me again. If I squinted at lake Michigan, I could briefly pretend that Chicago summers weren’t so terribly different from summers in Croatia. This white lie gave some continuity to a few years that included a lot more jumping from place to place and a lot less lying of roots than any time I had experienced before. I didn’t like swimming in the lake, but walking by it, or just catching glimpses of it through some window comforted me. In a roundabout way, realizing how emotionally attached to the water I was far away from home, made me appreciate that iteration of home more. My love for the Adriatic, so much smaller, warmer and muddier than the great lake, crept back in. When I was moving to Urbana, away from lake Michigan and into the featureless flats of central Illinois, I complained bitterly about leaving the lake behind.
Since quarantine started, I have been running more than ever, and every single one of my runs in New York has led me to the water. By now, I take it for granted. I expect the deep blue surface, textured as if it were frosting that someone carelessly spread with a flat spatula, to just be there whenever I glance sideways. It’s a similar feeling to what you get living on an island where running or driving in any direction eventually takes you to some shade of blue, to some splash or ripple. Watching the sea from the sky, while we were just starting our descent to New York, I could not see its limits. For a brief moment, it looked like we were just going to plunge straight in, find ourselves in the middle of it. And it felt like a homecoming.
*In quantum mechanics, the spectral gap of a system is the energy difference between the system’s lowest energy state, and it’s first excited state. For the system to transition from its lowest state to a more energetic one, it has to acquire some additional amount of energy to skip over the energy gap.
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ABOUT ME LATELY
LEARNING I called into my first faculty meeting at Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) from my Urbana apartment after we had packed up most of the living room. I was really worried about appearing disheveled, or the chaos in my apartment appearing on camera, and consequently making a bad impression on my new coworkers. In fact, I was so worried that I almost forgot about the larger chaos that has been our shared reality for the past months. My introduction as a new faculty member was then a one-two-punch of friendly welcomes and intimidating plans. Schools in New York City are supposed to re-open for modified in-person instruction sometime in September and no amount of friendliness could hide the fact that this meeting was barely going to scratch the surface of shared pandemic worries. A few days later I got a glimpse of my teaching schedule in a science department meeting and while we still spent a fair amount of time discussing concerns like the logistics of students eating lunch and teachers juggling remote and in-person sessions within the same course, all still anxiety inducing to say the least, it felt good to be getting ready to start working again.
It’s not so much that I have been unoccupied in the past weeks – I have been lucky to have more writing projects come my way and moving was a whole other type of project in itself – as much as a new job and a new routine feel like a promise of a chance to learn how to be a new person. Or at least a new-ish one. I understand that there is rarely such a thing as starting over, that what we mean when we say that is that we want a magic wand that could wave away the need to unlearn whatever it is that’s keeping us feeling stuck, but thinking about going to work, even in these so-called difficult times, excites me more than it did a few months ago. I take that to mean that I have maybe unlearned some of the fear and sadness I brough with me from graduate school. In addition to all the planning meetings I also had a chance to call into a few seminars on equitable course design and joining those discussions, rather similar to ones I had been having within the Access Network for the past few years, made me feel even better.
With regards to my efforts to do more science writing, I got commissioned to write a short article for a popular science publication I didn’t necessarily even think would respond to a random pitch and then another one for their website. Needless to say, it felt good to say I am a writer and be taken seriously and getting paid to write feels like real luxury. Calling up experts to provide comments for the article has been also been a learning experience, partly in not being nervous and partly in owning the fact that I do have a fair amount of physics expertise I can bring to these interviews. As I’ve written about before, though I have decided to move away from research, talking about physics still excites me so the prospect of learning how to successfully weave teaching it and writing about it into a sustainable future career is really invigorating right about now.
LISTENING Cheesy but reliable arena show recordings: Uriah Heep’s Live in Europe 1979 and Queen’s Live at Wembley Stadium. Longtime favorite records I was reminded of while writing the essay for this letter: Cult of Luna’s Salvation and Deafheaven’s Sunbather.
On the podcast front, we finished season two of Michael Lewis’ Against the Rules while we were packing and cleaning. I liked it more than the show’s original run. Here, Lewis focuses on coaches and access to coaching rather generally. This leads him to having to discuss a number of structural inequalities. The issue of having to have a coach to succeed because otherwise the system (take your pick: sports, education, arts, personal finance) is bound to be confusing at best or hostile at worst could be given more emphasis in Lewis’ storytelling, but in its current iteration the podcast is still illuminating. I disagree with his sentimental view of high school coaches that call their students fat and lazy, and the last episode in which he himself gets voice lessons is somewhat self-indulgent, but most of this series is still worth listening to. If nothing else, it again clarified for me how many resources the rich have and the rest of us don’t even know are an option.
READING This article by Anna Hamilton in Bitch Magazine about the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and how it is time for it, and our views of disability more generally, to expand and evolve. The discussion of what is often called universal design – designing activities and spaces to be inclusive from the start rather than appending or modifying them after a specific accessibility issue has been pointed out – struck me as particularly important. Hamilton quotes:
“Journalist s.e. smith, who covers disability issues, identifies the problems with this blanketed approach. “The ADA was fantastic, groundbreaking civil rights legislation that clearly established a framework for the personhood of disabled people,” smith says. “But it is also rooted in a very limited and medicalized view of disability, and it relies on individual enforcement—in essence treating violations as a personal rather than systemic problem.”
“For example, if you have diagnosed ADHD, you can get accommodations at work, but if you are self-diagnosed or can’t provide documentation [those accommodations] can be denied, and that’s not actionable,” smith continues. “Whereas if a workplace [builds] ADHD accommodations into the job, people don’t have to disclose or have proof to get what they need. A revamped ADA would have to rely heavily on disabled policy experts to create a framework that better reflects a shared future while creating room for innovation and creative interpretation—legislation is a really rigid way of setting and protecting civil rights, and we can’t just legislate disablism away.” ”
Writer Jia Tolentino in Interview Magazine’s Ask a Sane Person series being direct and clear in a way that is inspiring and terrifying. I found this exchange particularly sharp
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?
TOLENTINO: That capitalist individualism has turned into a death cult; that the internet is a weak substitute for physical presence; that this country criminally undervalues its most important people and its most important forms of labor; that we’re incentivized through online mechanisms to value the representation of something (like justice) over the thing itself; that most of us hold more unknown potential, more negative capability, than we’re accustomed to accessing; that the material conditions of life in America are constructed and maintained by those best set up to exploit them; and that the way we live is not inevitable at all.
As well as her views on positives that may come out of the pandemic and the necessity of practicing hope for the future
INTERVIEW: What good can come out of this lockdown? Are there any reasons to hope?
TOLENTINO: I hope ego death becomes a more commonplace experience. I hope the absence of stability and predictability revives our political imagination, helps more of us inhabit the original position when we consider the kind of world that would make us excited and proud to live in.
INTERVIEW: What prevents you from giving up hope in the human race?
TOLENTINO: I don’t feel that I have the right to consider giving up hope. To do so would mean abandoning or failing to recognize the work that’s being done—the strikes that are being organized, the doctors and nurses who are keeping people alive and fighting to get their patients out of prison, the millions of people who have had to risk their lives and go to work in the pandemic regardless of whether they have hope or not. I appreciate Mariame Kaba’s idea that hope is a discipline. It’s a choice—it can’t be a matter of fluctuating affect, whatever viral news story or TikTok gave you hope in people or took it away. In general, I try to expect nothing and hope that everything is possible. I want the courage to need very little and demand a lot.
This issue of the Vittles newsletter that discusses foods from the Balkans because so much of the food mentioned is very much the food I had always considered mine. I have always had a hard time explaining to American just how many cultures are seemingly combined and mixed in the way we eat in Croatia and writer Ada Jusic drives that point home as well. Though I don’t eat many of the dishes one would consider emblematic of the Balkans now because they are so heavy on animal products, reading her list still made me very nostalgic.
This poem by Dorianne Laux titled For the Sake of Strangers.
WATCHING: We finished watching Hannibal. Though this show seemed to get deeper and deeper into its very specific and often absurd version of intensity with each episode, I found myself wishing there had been more of it. The ending made sense and given how terribly arch some characters had gotten in season three, it probably shouldn’t have kept going, but it speaks to its quality that I was ready to take in more of it, all ridiculousness notwithstanding.
As a complete change of pace we then watched the documentary series The Last Dance that focuses on Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls and the six championships they won together. Generally, I am interested in the way sports and athletes are mythologized much more than the mechanics of any particular game. This series was an interesting example of propping up a legend of someone who was already widely considered to be legendary. It is not shocking that a documentary about Michael Jordan that includes Michael Jordan makes him look good, giving him the benefit of a doubt even when exploring the darker moments of his past. The Last Dance is compelling and tells an inspiring story, but none of the tension or enthusiasm it carries within it can be mistaken for anything like objectivity. On a more technical note, the way the series jumps in time was sometimes confusing and the overall structure of the story struck me as a little uninspired. The really significant amount of access to all sorts of celebrities that recount the Bulls’ story could have certainly been wrapped up in some more tight storytelling.
Sticking with documentaries we also watched Netflix’s Fear City which details the takedown of five families that used to comprise the New York mob. This is another series that should have been more compelling and more dynamic. Mafia stories are just not that interesting if all you have to offer are bits and pieces of wiretaps and a photograph of something bloody here or there. There’s a lot of more insightful and more punchy true crime out there (the first season of Gimlet’s Crimetown being one that I will always gladly recommend).
We also watched the 2019 film Knives Out which turned out to be both star-studded and slightly ridiculous thus fitting in with the rest of our recent TV consumption well. It’s a flashy and at times fun satirical take on a crime story, though I am not sure that I would call it good. I loved Agatha Christie as a young reader so Daniel Craig’s private detective Benoit Blanc, terrible accent and all, worked well for me as a poke at how ridiculous Hercule Poirot could be. At the same time, Knives Out contains a few really cringe-worthy political moments that seemed unnecessary (why does this film need both political subtext and an over-the-top acted out political text?). Further, the fact that the really convoluted plot ends with the one presumably virtuous person on top was mildly heartwarming but mostly irksome – in real life, rich white people would always win. The implication that the non-white, non-rich protagonist (Ana de Armas, acting really well and being really gorgeous) succeeds because she is of a pure heart was also bothersome, her success felt too much like a reward handed to her for being some sort of a model minority, resisting corruption at the hands of people that have a lot more privilege. I wanted to be amused by Knives Out, but in the end, I could not quite get over not being sure what exactly it was trying to say about the wealthy in America.
EATING The kind of junk you eat after packing up everything in your kitchen and your fridge and hopping on and off of various planes masked, anxious and exhausted.
Extremely sad airport falafel wraps. Homemade gochujang and tofu dumplings that have heavily succumbed to freezer burn. Hummus platters from breweries with socially distanced outdoor seating and contactless menus. The only vegan-ish item on the menu of a local Korean grill that still comes with a mayo-soaked side salad. Vegan sandwiches that feel like a splurge because of the good fake cheese and the decent fake meat, but really you just overload them with ajvar because you don’t want to leave a single drop behind once you leave. A dry bagel and a piece of fruit because you’re in an airport where everything else is soaked in cheese and topped with meat and you are desparate. Saucy tomato-soaked pasta that signals you may have just made it back home again.