July 5, 2019

On the sun deck

From the sun deck, a ferry does not seem to move very quickly.

Upon leaving the ferry terminal, the motion of the boat is barely perceptible when you are on the vessel, and the expanse of sea in front of you feels endless. The ferry is—or at least it seems—a slow, lumbering vehicle.

The trip on board is meditative, with the islands in the distance only gradually coming in to view upon your slow approach. I sit on the sun deck and stare out across the water at the silhouettes of mountains in the mist; there is nothing on my mind but the sea and the slow roll of the waves below us.

It is only when you are approaching the islands, when the ferry docks come into sight, that you realize just how much distance you have travelled. It is then that you realize that this seemingly slow vessel, the ambling nature of the voyage, was in fact a speedy traverse of the sea. In all its seeming slowness, the boat has moved incredibly quickly.

It’s an apt metaphor for life: that the days often pass slowly and it’s only upon looking back that the years seem to have flown by. On the boat, like in life, the joy comes from sitting meditatively on the sun deck, relishing in the majesty of the journey.

View of water and islands from ferry

Poem of the week:

Self-Portrait With No Flag
Safia Elhillo

i pledge allegiance to my
homies       to my mother’s
small & cool palms       to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth       & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands       good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

i pledge allegiance       to the
group text       i pledge allegiance
to laughter & to all the boys
i have a crush on       i pledge
allegiance to my spearmint plant
to my split ends       to my grandfather’s
brain & gray left eye

i come from two failed countries
& i give them back       i pledge
allegiance to no land       no border
cut by force to draw blood       i pledge
allegiance to no government       no
collection of white men carving up
the map with their pens

i choose the table at the waffle house
with all my loved ones crowded
into the booth       i choose the shining
dark of our faces through a thin sheet
of smoke       glowing dark of our faces
slick under layers of sweat       i choose
the world we make with our living
refusing to be unmade by what surrounds
us       i choose us gathered at the lakeside
the light glinting off the water & our
laughing teeth       & along the living
dark of our hair       & this is my only country

A few things to read and explore:

Hanif Abdurraqib has quickly become my favorite music writer—nay, any kind of writer—in the world. His new monthly column, Notes on Pop, is worth a subscription to The Paris Review for it alone:

There’s something about staying up late on the phone that, for me, still feels like getting away with something. Lucy Dacus asks Am I a masochist?” and though the impulse for asking isn’t the same, I found myself in the grips of that same question. Fighting to stay awake on the phone with someone is romantic, even if the mornings after are less so. But it all becomes worthwhile, when you understand that the voice is the only thing that can bring you close to someone you wish were in arm’s reach.

I learned to value the way a voice can interrupt longing. How it builds a bridge that feels real from the place you are to the place you want to be. How its familiar sound can heal and reassure under even the worst circumstances. The thing about a hospital’s silence, the thing that has always haunted it for me, are the moments when a person you love cannot speak. If they are not awake or unmoving or hooked to machinery. Even after a doctor promises they’ve made it out of the woods. I just want to hear the voice of someone I care for, telling me they’re going to be okay.

Ruth Reichl’s introduction to the new edition of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me is absolutely perfect, in the way that almost everything Ruth Reichl writes is perfect:

I went to the library, borrowed the book, and stayed up all night reading it under the covers with a flashlight. One chapter began, Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat,” and my heart thumped as I read Mary Frances’s voluptuous description of her private relationship with tangerines.

Early the next morning I went to the refrigerator, removed a tangerine, peeled it carefully and left the sections sitting on the radiator while I went off to school. Home again, I spread the dried half-moons on the snowy windowsill, as Mary Frances had done as a young bride in France. Then I put a section in my mouth, whispering her words to myself, paying attention to the sensual crackle of the skin beneath my teeth and the sweet spurt of juice rushing through my body. In that moment I felt as if I had discovered a new way of being in the world.

This piece on Desi activism in the United States has a poignant description of growing up brown in today’s America:

Children are not supposed to understand the way the world works, but children know what nobody else is willing to say out loud. As a seven-year-old, I understood that my dark skin, the lilt to my spoken English, and the stories of where I came from would not be accepted or understood by the people who surrounded me.

I hid myself from the world I lived in. My shoulders tensed in nervousness; I only spoke when I had to, and quietly, so others wouldn’t remark on my accent or mock me. I was always hunched over a book or scrawling compulsively in my notebook. It was my means of escape, submerged in a reality I created with my mind.

When I opened my locker in the eighth grade to see sand nigger scrawled across it in black Sharpie, it was only confirmation of what I already knew: racism did not just exist, it was the infrastructure on which America was built, and I had never lived my life without it.

I’m intrigued by this metaphor of finding your second mountain” as a path to live a moral life:

Some people are broken by this kind of pain and grief. They seem to get smaller and more afraid, and never recover. They get angry, resentful and tribal.

But other people are broken open. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that suffering upends the normal patterns of life and reminds you that you are not who you thought you were. The basement of your soul is much deeper than you knew. Some people look into the hidden depths of themselves and they realize that success won’t fill those spaces. Only a spiritual life and unconditional love from family and friends will do. They realize how lucky they are. They are down in the valley, but their health is O.K.; they’re not financially destroyed; they’re about to be dragged on an adventure that will leave them transformed.

They realize that while our educational system generally prepares us for climbing this or that mountain, your life is actually defined by how you make use of your moment of greatest adversity.

As someone who is notorious for never being in a rush and always taking my time, this piece on why everyone hates slowpokes was a fascinating read for me:

The accelerating pace of society resets our internal timers, which then go off more often in response to slow things, putting us in a constant state of rage and impulsiveness. Your mileage may vary, of course, but overall, we are getting to be a more and more impulsive society,” Wittmann says.

This has been my mantra for a long time now: signal what you’re going to do—and the values that drive your decision to do it—for a long time so that nobody is surprised when you actually do it. I love the term radiating intent” to describe that ethos:

All in all, this is a healthier approach, or maybe addendum to the ask forgiveness” maxim. Radiating intent builds trust, whereas simply asking forgiveness without warning of the action… frankly, that smells fishy.

What I’ve said so far is solid, but I’m going to go reach further: I also don’t believe that ask forgiveness” is inclusive advice. If you are from a group who has historically not been granted forgiveness, how is that going to land? Or if you’re in a group with cultural baggage around subversive behavior?

I picked up The Interpreter of Maladies when I was seventeen years old and was mesmerized. I’ve revisited it numerous times since then. This is a loving ode on the occasion of the book’s 20th birthday:

An interpreter is many things: a mediator between different languages; a well-equipped reader able to fully grasp the complexity of a text and impart its meaning; someone who performs, either faithfully or fancifully, a piece of music or a part in a play. But Jhumpa Lahiri gave her interpreter another, somewhat peculiar matter to interpret: the malaise of men and women. The idea of a person who must find exact, efficacious words for ills appealed to me. I went home satisfied with my new purchase. But I was already convinced, even before I started reading, that I had discovered a splendid definition for someone who, in today’s globalized world, sets out to tell stories. For what is a writer, if not an interpreter of maladies?

I find incredible delight in sitting in museum cafés and restaurants, and have spent many hours reading and writing and observing people as I eat egg salad sandwiches in them. This piece captures the experience and charm beautifully:

But I adore this type of restaurant experience almost more than any other, although the food usually isn’t especially remarkable. There’s something about that combination of expense and mild inconvenience, the hushed tones everyone adopts as soon as they walk through the trellis, the fussiness of the staff uniforms, the reliableness of the menu (locally sourced if it’s been upgraded in the last ten years, Aramark if it hasn’t) that soothes me, makes me feel like I’ve got a solid financial future ahead of me and plenty of afternoon appointments to make me feel busy but not so much that I have to do any work. Also available to me is, almost as a guarantee, chicken salad sandwiches, little desserts (not always petit fours, but close enough in size to petit fours that I’ll definitely order two), big slices of carrot cake where each individual slice has its own piped-on carrot frosting, slowly-rotating stands of diagonally-cut sandwiches, rose-petal tea, too-small plates and cups, an Afternoon Classical Music playlist going on in the background, lots of little lamps rather than overhead lighting. Service will be too rushed at first, then completely disappear when it’s time to ask for the check, or else a cafeteria-style line where I will almost definitely try to shoplift a banana just for the thrill of it.

Many years ago, I spent some time with local street artists, watching them perform their craft, mostly furtively to avoid detection. Many of those same artists now practice commercially, and it has been interesting to see how street art has become almost mainstream:

Graffiti was once a countercultural threat that conservative forces roundly maligned as a racially coded stand-in for urban delinquency. It was an archenemy of both the New York Police Department and real-estate developers for the supposed downward pull it exerted on property values. Now, graffiti had not only helped catalyze gentrification of one of the city’s fastest growing neighborhoods, but was also being handsomely rewarded for it, with legal recognition by a judge and jury. […]

In America, as crime dropped in the 1990s and affluent college graduates enacted a great migration from the suburbs to the country’s cities, graffiti became the literal poster board for the authentic” urban culture they were seeking—driving up prices along the way. It was only a matter of time before the artists themselves got wise.

I’ve been putting off reading Tommy Tomlinson’s book because I know it will inevitably cause me to grapple with my own experience of being fat, but I’m going to start it this summer so I’m diving in first by reading his introductory excerpt in The Atlantic:

Losing weight is a fucking rock fight. The enemies come from all sides: The deluge of marketing telling us to eat worse and eat more. The culture that has turned food into one of the last acceptable vices. Our families and friends, who want us to share in their pleasure. Our own body chemistry, dragging us back to the table out of fear that we’ll starve.

On top of all that, some of us fight holes in our souls that a boxcar of donuts couldn’t fill.

My compulsion to eat comes from all those places. I’m almost never hungry in the physical sense. But I’m always craving an emotional high, the kind that comes from making love, or being in the crowd for great live music, or watching the sun come up over the ocean. And I’m always wanting something to counter the low, when I’m anxious about work or arguing with family or depressed for reasons I can’t understand.

Being married to an infectious diseases physician means I’m especially fascinated by stories about superbugs and infections these days:

For decades, public health experts have warned that the overuse of antibiotics was reducing the effectiveness of drugs that have lengthened life spans by curing bacterial infections once commonly fatal. But lately, there has been an explosion of resistant fungi as well, adding a new and frightening dimension to a phenomenon that is undermining a pillar of modern medicine.

Simply put, fungi, just like bacteria, are evolving defenses to survive modern medicines.

A beautiful rumination on coming back to the foods of our heritage:

Our meals are associated with memories, but that’s not to say that we can’t carve out new ones. The things that we run away from can be the same things that call us back home. Dumplings that burn the hell out of the tongue. Avocado slices to cool it down. And codfish with ackee that tastes like something I can’t quite name, a composite that I have to re-create in order to comprehend.

And a few more:

Take a moment to look out the window at life floating by, my friends. I’ll be back in touch soon.

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