The Larger Lesson

It’s hard to make predictions, especially when they’re about the future. —Yogi Berra

I was reading the daily update from the New York Times this morning, and one of the sidebar articles linked at the bottom was about the boom in online sports gambling on lesser-known sports. It’s one of those chipper “how about that!” pieces that fill space in every paper, things that can be run today or bumped to tomorrow if the real news gets busy. But rather than being cheerful, it kind of got me down. And then it got me way down.

So here’s the premise. The Russian Liga Pro table tennis league streams matches sixteen or more hours a day. It doesn’t live up to its name; these players are hobbyists, not Olympic or professional caliber athletes. Most of them look to be about as good as I was when I was in college, which is to say not very good at all, even though committed, and way better than most people grabbed at random off the sidewalk. But with a match every half hour, Liga Pro offers constant action to bettors all over the globe. “Points in the Liga Pro move quickly, and many table tennis gamblers… focus entirely on fast-action midgame bets, wagering on which player will win the next point. Matches are brief, too, with winners often decided in less time than an N.F.L. halftime show.” 

I’ve never had to face a gambling addiction, but I’ve known some folks for whom it’s a huge problem. And that was my first shift downward from the pleasant surface of this story. Listen to these descriptions…

For gamblers, it is a quick rush, the equivalent of a scratch-off lottery ticket… Anything you can do to get the rush you get from winning or losing a bet more quickly, people tend to do that, which is why slot machines are so addictive… shrewd wagerers always believe they can find an edge… Arriving home from work around midnight, he takes a shower, eases into bed and begins looking for enticing table tennis matches to bet on. Some days, he said, his table tennis winnings exceed his earnings at his job.

This is nothing more than an intravenous line for gambling addicts. You’d never imagine that a low-level Russian table tennis league could damage the lives of people from Chesapeake, Virginia, to Sydney, Australia. But there you go. There’s always somebody willing to feed the beast.


But as bad as that is, my elevator had another couple of floors to go down.

Isn’t much of what we think of as capitalism just a broadly delusional gambling addiction? We often look at people like Bezos and Gates and Bloomberg and think, “what is an extra billion dollars going to get for you? You literally don’t have enough lifetime to spend anywhere near what you already have.” And the easy pop-psych answers are a) that they’re competitive and the money is a way to keep score, and/or b) that money is a proxy for power, and they love having power. Yeah, maybe. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s just a way to always be in the action? What if it’s always having a horse on the track, a seat at the table, a handful of this week’s Powerball slips? What if it’s nothing more than the adrenaline addiction of instantaneous outcomes?

“Shrewd wagerers always believe they can find an edge.” And we’d all like to think of ourselves as shrewd, when we invest in a company, choose a location for our restaurant, open our pool room. We read the cues, do the analysis, strike boldly. But according to the Small Business Administration, half of all small businesses fail within the first five years. And of the half that remain, a lot of them are bumping along while their owner works her day job to keep the family afloat, always hoping for the turn card to fill in the hand.

There’s a lot of blather about “rewarding risk takers.” Well, why? Why should risk be rewarded? What is it that’s noble about gambling that it should form the entire basis for our social organization? (And when a company or person gets to a certain level, they know how to displace the risk onto you and I, in a process commonly known as privatizing the gains and socializing the losses. Oh, time to lay off three thousand workers this afternoon? Sorry. Oh, that waste stream we’ve put into the river for forty years? Sorry. Winners gonna win, too bad about you.)

And it’s only certain risks that get rewarded, anyway. I mean, write a really elegant, adventuresome novel. Write a really marvelous, inventive concerto. Is THAT risk going to be rewarded? Not very likely, or very much. So we truncate our risktaking down to the modes that have a gambling market associated with them, even as we know that the house always wins. We surrender innumerable opportunities to live our lives in humane and delightful ways because we’re always at the service of people with gambling addictions that they call strategic plans.

We all rely on certain imbedded and rarely examined assumptions about human nature. Competition is thought to be the only appropriate governing mode of economics, that we will win or die. That comes from a notion that people can only be motivated by acquisition or fear, that we’re fundamentally lazy and need to be scared enough to get off the couch. But there are other ways of thinking about what humans are. We can become great not merely so that we don’t lose, but because we’ve been inspired by beauty and elegance. We can surround ourselves by aspiration and become greater through the attempt to enact some of that beauty ourselves. We don’t always need the threat of financial ruin or displacement to spur us forward. Ask any artist.

Adrenaline and competition and gambling are easy hits, huffing the gas of exhilaration. But they’re not the basis for a steady, rewarding personal or social life. We know the costs to our cognitive capabilities of being online all day every day. But we don’t think about the costs to our lives and our families and our communities from constantly seeking out that next big win, turning that next card, picking that next stock—or from working for those people.

Like sports gamblers, we invent stupider and stupider bets just to give us that hit more often. Every time a stock is sold, there’s one person betting that it’ll rise, and another person betting that it’s done rising. One of them is right, but they both play, over and over and over. There’s a “Dow Jones Futures” market (formally known as “extended-hours trading“) in which we can bet on what the stock market will do in its next session. Doesn’t that sound like betting on who’ll win the next point in a ping pong game? Doesn’t that sound like the kind of desperate need for action that an addict would take? We have no control over it, the outcome doesn’t respond to our actions or rely on our skills. We’re just flipping the coin over and over, imagining ourselves to have some system, some inside info, some method that makes us something other than another guy at the liquor store buying scratchers.

The next time you hear some legislator soapbox about “risk takers should be rewarded,” ask them to buy you a few bingo cards at Saturday’s parish game. It’d be a cheaper investment than trillion-dollar tax cuts to distribute investors’ gambling risks onto the rest of us.

Really, all we have is a life, to spend with the people we love, doing the things that lift us from animal necessity. Let go of the scorecard and do the things that matter.

The Power of Omnivorous Observation

The Genesee Billiards Club, which a) doesn’t exist and b) has seen better days.

I waste a lot of time. I read a lot of magazine articles, I listen to a lot of music, I watch a lot of YouTube videos. A time-and-motion analysis of my normal days would horrify you and embarrass me, so let’s not.

And yet, let me put forward a countering idea. None of that is wasted, because it all becomes seeds that can emerge without prediction in my writing. (Or becomes the compost within which the seeds grow: your metaphor may vary.)

Here, let me give you an example. I was writing about a young American on his way to becoming an elite table tennis player, about the training and the carefully planned nutrition and the constant nagging about technique and strategy that come with any elite athletic aspiration. And I was early in the story, not quite sure what I wanted to do, and started browsing YouTube videos of the Chinese world champion Xu Xin, an elite athlete since he was ten. And I came across this one. On its face, it’s inconsequential: a “day in the life” promo by his primary sponsor, Stiga. And I didn’t learn anything new from it, although that cool chop-and-catch trick he does with his fingernails at 1:38 does show up in the book.

But you cannot watch that video and not understand something new about loneliness, and how that kind of loneliness is an inherent part of elite activity. How one by necessity isolates from the world, from almost everyone else, in order to narrow down onto this single, mighty thing. My book became a book about loneliness a little bit, and it wouldn’t have without that small moment of woolgathering.

In my very first novel, I needed to know what kind of landscape Robert’s pool room would have been in, so I spent an hour on Google Maps, finally locating the building on Genesee Avenue in Saginaw, Michigan (near the corner of Federal Ave, if you want to look—it’s the three-story brick building at the start of this essay, with the phone number painted on the boarded-up facade). The book is set in 1956 and the street photo is from July 2014, but we’ve all seen enough of these small downtowns to know what it would have been like in a more vigorous era, when Saginaw was double its current population and GM workers were protected by their unions. And then to walk through the residential neighborhoods just off either side of Genesee, and imagining something about who would have lived in those homes and what that meant for Robert and Charles’ customer base. The Genesee Billiards Club owes its detail in part to pool rooms I’ve been in, in part to the Eagles’ Club where my dad spent most evenings, but in greater part to this seemingly casual browsing that leaves its residue behind.


This subconscious process comes up for me today because, I kid you not, I heard one of my fictional characters on the radio today. SRSLY!!!

Today’s episode of the NPR show 1A was about America’s broad variety of “congregate care” therapy camps for teenagers, and the innumerable abuses they’ve perpetrated against their young captives. The guests were Kenneth Rosen, a journalist with a new book about the “troubled-teen” industry; Sara Gelser, an Oregon state legislator who’s trying to write oversight legislation in her state; and Megan Stokes, the executive director of the trade group, the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs. The program’s host asked a seemingly simple question: do these programs work? Rosen, the journalist, said there’s no research-based evidence that they do. Gelser, the state senator, said there’s no research-based evidence that they do. But Ms. Stokes, the E.D. of the trade group, gave a long non-answer, about how they’ve partnered with the University of New Hampshire, and exactly which research instruments they use for kids and for families and the fact that those instruments have received an A rating from some other trade group, and how each program hires a third party to conduct the questionnaires, and how the data is anonymized before it goes back to New Hampshire for analysis…

And it turns out that I’d written exactly this two years ago, when Kurt and Megan brought their adopted daughter Sarasa to family court because some educational assessment administrator had decided that she was in need of special education. The family’s psychologist had already testified that the school district’s diagnostic category was no longer in common use, and that she believed that Sarasa was doing well. Let’s pick it up there, with the judge’s follow-on question to the school district administrator:

“Ms. Barr, your judgment is that Sarasa is not doing as well as you might hope. What did you see that leads you to that belief?” 

She straightened herself, and Kurt was surprised to see how tall she was when she unfurled. She never raised her eyes from her notes. “Your honor, the Northern Radford County Unified Union School District adheres to the ICD-10, which is acknowledged as best practice among educational professionals. The PDD-NOS diagnostic category allows for an educator to capture behavioral disorders that don’t fall easily within the other autism spectrum disorder groups. Common indicators of PDD-NOS might include…”

“If I might interrupt,” the judge said, “allow me to clarify my question. My question is about Sarasa, and the specifics of your interaction with her. What did she do or say that you found troubling?”

Ms. Barr regrouped, tried to start over without the benefit of her prepared remarks.

from Trailing Spouse, 2019

We’ve all been part of this conversation, with a self-important person clearly painted into a corner and desperately trying to talk their way out without having anything meaningful to say. And those conversations stick in your head somewhere, accessible without prompting when the right moment draws them forward. Ms. Barr in the novel… Ms. Stokes on the radio… Mr. Roy in ninth grade… our current local Vermont state representative… people who have nothing whatsoever to justify their positions except the vast self-assurance that they’re right. People who drone on, delivering no information, sloshing out a soothing coat of paint that they believe conceals every flaw in their thinking.

We all have novels within us, even as every character within them is real. Each of us have built a storehouse of life experiences, from grade school and early family through web browsing and random NPR shows on the way back from the hardware store. All of those characters, all of those moments, are waiting for us to open that cabinet and put them to use.

Admirable, Wonderful, Remarkable and Strange

Nope, none of those. (from BabyNames.com, 2020)

As regular readers know, Nora’s been involved for several years in the pursuit of a local family’s history, as she attempts to write the fictional implications of early 19th Century Quaker life as played out by the Morison family of Danby, Vermont. And anybody who’s ever done historical research—whether genealogical, cartographic, legal or material—will know how many rabbit holes open beneath your feet, each threatening to swallow you for days at a time.

One important genealogical resource is findagrave.com, from which users can locate photographs of cemetery memorials and a little bit of historical info (leading to many, many offers to sell access to lots more info, hence the .com at the end of the URL). So Nora’s browsing findagrave this morning, looking at the roster of people buried at one of the numerous and tiny cemeteries of Danby. In modern times, we think of cemeteries as giant civic or commercial spaces in which we invest in a plot among tens of thousands of anonymous neighbors, but cemeteries used to be small grounds adjacent to one church or one small-town memorial for the use of that membership. Danby, which reached its peak population of 1,730 in 1810, has at least six of these historical cemeteries, each with a few dozen people or families represented.

Anyway, Nora finds one grave in a tiny Danby cemetery with four infant quadruplets, all dead in their early infancy in 1795 and buried together under one marker. And their names?

Admirable. Wonderful. Remarkable. Strange.

There used to be loads of people named after desirable attitudes; the category is called virtue names. Names like Constance and Hope remain with us as contemporary names, but they’re mostly decontextualized from their literal meanings. But there used to be lots of people, girls most often, with names that proposed the child’s ideal disposition and contribution to the community.

Some, as I say, are familiar. Charity and Chastity. Faith and Grace. But others are mostly lost to a different era. Opportunity. Agreeable. Harmony. Mercy. Prudence. Temperance. Honor. Justice. Verity. Nora’s actually found a boy named Hate-Evil in her searches. My mother’s Averill family way in the wayback had a girl named That Averill, so my great-great-grandma was the original That Girl!

So I say let’s bring That back, so to speak. Let’s have a whole generation of Admirable Parker, and Mercy Bushwick, and Verity Chen. Let’s meet Remarkable Nguyen, Agreeable Robinson, and Temperance Chaudhury. Mighty Peterson and Reliability Santos.

We’ve already got a Strange Childress, though that’s not what it says on my driver’s license.

There’d be an enormous temptation to mess with it, of course: the Stoner family naming their son Whatever Dude Stoner, the Glass family naming a child Break Emergency Glass. And there’d be some folks who chose anti-virtue names, too: Idler, or Wastrel. But on the whole, it’d be nice to help kids be aspirational, right from their birth certificates onward.

Unreasonable

Not humanly possible, even if there ARE six of you!

The story goes that golfer Ben Hogan, after his first round with a young Jack Nicklaus, was asked his opinion about Nicklaus’ prospects. Hogan was said to have replied, “This young man plays a game with which I am not familiar.”

We are all occasionally blessed to encounter people who are unreasonable. Who are so fully committed to their art that they do things that the rest of us not only couldn’t do, but couldn’t have imagined before we saw it.

Or, in this case, heard it.

I am several years late to this party, but in case you don’t know, I’d like to introduce you to the music of Jacob Collier. Jacob is a self-professed “chord geek,” always searching for new ways to combine the relative handful of notes available to us. He’s that rare figure who uses music theory to create rather than merely to understand. And what he creates is unexpected at every instant, even as it always feels inevitable.

Collier, growing up in a professional music home, was encouraged to a path of what I can only call rigorous play. Before he’d finished high school, that path was emerging onto the field of overdubbed recording, in which he sang with himself in densely textured arrangements of well-known songs: a few by Stevie Wonder, some Lionel Richie, even the theme song of The Flintstones, all shattered and rebuilt to be simultaneously recognizable and not.

But then, this. (Headphones or good speakers, please. You can thank me in nine minutes.)

Henry Mancini wrote the song “Moon River” for the 1961 movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and it’s since been appropriated by tens of thousands of crooners from Andy Williams to Barbra Streisand to Frank Ocean. It’s a pretty song. But in Collier’s arrangement, it becomes both joyous and profound, and about three times longer than before. It becomes impossible. It has reached perfection.


Why is it that we cry when we encounter beauty? We can learn what Collier has done to build these chords, but it’s the chords themselves that break us to pieces. We can know that Spiro Kostof was trained in theater before his doctorate in architectural history, but it was the fact of his writing and his lectures that brought thousands of people to understand the built world in new ways.

When I see something like the dancer Yoann Bougeois’ interpretation of Claire de Lune, or pretty much anything that Simone Biles does, or the creative cycling of Danny Macaskill, I’m left wishing that every child everywhere had access to someone who is unreasonable. Someone who can show us up close what real greatness is, what it’s for, what it costs. Most of us live most of the time in the big bulge in the middle of the bell curve; we deserve to experience what’s out there on the far right tail.

And for ourselves and our own responsibilities, let’s close with a quote from Jacob Collier: Don’t wait for things to be possible before doing them.

Identities Chosen, Identities Assigned

Placing like with like (photo from PBS)

I borrowed yesterday’s post from two thinkers I admire, Kristen Renn and Masha Gessen, and their hopes that we could imagine our identities, and those of others, in ways that are more fluid and less fixed. That we are all invested with innumerable possibilities, some of which will be more fully expressed than others.

But that’s slow work, convincing people one at a time to imagine things like gender and sexuality and race and religious beliefs and politics to be blurry and mobile. Most of us, most of the time, still see and react quickly. We are all the products of a lifetime of living within a culture that has dyed us in particular ways. (Even when we work hard at being aware of ourselves, we mess up. I realized about an hour after I’d posted yesterday’s thoughts that I’d used an incorrect pronoun to describe one of the people I mentioned. I caught it myself and fixed it as soon as I saw it, but we’re all the products of long training and habit.)

We might all be free to imagine and to employ our own identity in a more deliberate way, but that individual work of liberty takes place within a culture that’s instantly ready to hold us to more rigid categories. I imagine us all with a clipboard, walking down the sidewalk and ticking off categories of race and gender and age, spending an extra second or two of study when we can’t easily “tell.”

And those determinations would be harmless enough, I suppose, except that the “observable designations” we apply also carry a whole galaxy of emotional tones that launch our encounters. The whole notion of racial profiling rests on the broad array of social and moral characteristics that we believe are associated with the visual characteristics of skin tone or facial structure or language use or naming conventions or clothing. We judge almost immediately who is an ally and who is a risk, and then act upon those unwarranted judgments.

We see the physical harassment of Asian Americans in response to COVID.

We see BLM participants labeled “dangerous,” and white supremacist rioters called “patriots.”

We see store owners and managers making immediate judgments about who’s a “customer” and who’s a “potential shoplifter.”

I do it, too. We all do.

I see a lifted pickup truck and I worry about its driver’s capacity for anger management.

I see a police officer and I fear that if we had an encounter, I wouldn’t be able to trust the honesty of his recounting of the event.

I see a political yard sign and I can create an entire opera about the family life behind the doors.

Our capacity for rapid and uninformed judgment is immense, and it carries decades of cultural messaging that we don’t even remember learning. We are all native storytellers, even when we’re not all that good at it.


The seven deadly sins are often paired with what are sometimes called the seven recuperative virtues. Greed is countered by charity; gluttony by temperance; sloth by diligence; and so on. But I think these may be mistaken, because they continue to focus on the individual. I’m lazy: I should be more motivated. I’m angry: I should be more patient. And as nice as it is to imagine ourselves capable of that level of moral self-correction, or insist upon it from others, I don’t think it’s likely to work very often. I think instead that the appropriate counter to each of those cardinal sins is to stop paying attention to ourselves and to turn our attention outward. To become attentive, to become curious, to become eager to see what every encounter might offer.

To imagine that we don’t already know the story.

To believe of others what we hope is true of ourselves: that we’re not done yet, that there’s still growth and opportunity and magic ahead.

To return to Masha Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? To which I will add, what if we saw everyone else that way as well?

It depends on what the meaning of IS is…

Pick one and stay there.

In yesterday’s online New Yorker, Masha Gessen wrote a fascinating piece on transgender kids and the legal fights over various forms of reassignment or transition therapies. Rather than enter the fray of what is and is not “appropriate,” they raised a lateral question that I think is crucial.

People—including young people, acting legally, with their parents’ support—choose to have babies, move continents, subject themselves to extreme physical risk by engaging in certain sports, make what often amounts to commitments to lifelong medical intervention with S.S.R.I.s for depression or stimulants for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, join the R.O.T.C. or the National Guard… What if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we accepted that some losses are desirable and some are regrettable, and that we can’t always know the difference? What if we knew that we are always changing not only as individuals but as societies, and the categories we use to sort ourselves mutate faster than we realize?

Mahsa Gessen, “We Need to Change the Terms of the Debate on Trans Kids”

We think of identity as something both immutable about ourselves and differentiating from others. We would never need to declare ourselves as “I am ___” without the context of knowing that other people are something else, that both those statuses are fixed, and that the difference between them matters in some deep, fundamental way. 

That sense of permanence and inevitability is reassuring. Like the Ronco Showtime Rotisserie, we can just set it and forget it. Our gender, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our age, all just facts rather than decisions, things about ourselves and others that we can know with certainty.


I’ve written before about the sociologist Kristen Renn and her ideas about ecological identity or situational identity. Based on her study of mixed-race and queer college students, she finds that the way we identify ourselves depends in large part on our context: the language that is available to describe ourselves and others, our decisions with whom to bond and from whom to distance.

I want to talk about two ways to think about situational identity. One has to do with location on a continuum. I’m 62 years old. That’s a fact, based on the related facts that I was born in 1958 and that the earth goes around the sun in a certain pattern at a certain rate under a certain system of marking time. Okay, arithmetic is arithmetic. But am I young or old or middle-aged? Those descriptors are entirely dependent on the context I’m in. When I did my ethnographic research with teenagers, I was simultaneously old (I was 36 and they were 15-18) and young (because I carried no authority, and didn’t have any vested interest in telling them what to do). Among my closest local circle of friends, I’m a pup, the second youngest of ten. I can comfortably walk a few miles, but have some lingering tendon damage in my right forearm from a month of firewood loading and splitting and stacking last fall. Where does that put me, and on whose continuum?

I’m just shy of 5’5″. Does that make me short or tall or normal? I can call myself short because American men average about 5’10”, but in a room full of women, I’m right at the mathematical average. And if the neighborhood kids came over, I’d be the one reaching for the stuff on the top shelf. I’m short for most team sports, a little tall to be a jockey.

So that’s comparative identity. But the second way of thinking about situational identity is one of performance. I grew up in a working class family, but went on to college and then grad school and then professional academic life. And lemme tell you, pal, I can code-switch with the best! I’m a total double agent, I can go unnoticed in both worlds because I’ve never felt fully at home in either. I’ve always been active in choosing my vocabulary and my references because I’ve always taken social class to be a mode of performance rather than a fixed truth about myself.

I am entirely confident in calling myself a writer, because I write. It’s not something I am, it’s something I do, almost every day. Among my local friends, I have the supposedly fixed identity of writer because my work has been published for thirty years and I’ve taught writing; in the world of “real writers”—that is, the community I aspire to join, that of published novelists—I’m a wannabe, a pretender. A “contributor,” to use the term from the Bread Loaf conference for that majority of us who pay full tuition because we’re not among the promising select few. But both of those attributed labels are less important than the fact that I write all the time, and try to get better at it.

What if we thought of identity as a pattern of action rather than a trait? To come back to Gessen, what if we saw ourselves as always changing, always uncertain, but always capable of making choices? What if we believed that we were responsible for our identity rather than passive heirs? What if we thought of ourselves as doing gender, as doing sexuality, as doing race? That we usually do it one way, but we could easily imagine doing it differently, and sometimes might?


Now, that said, I want to come back tomorrow and talk about the differences between the identities we choose, and those that are applied to us by others. That’s a whole ‘nother thing, as my working-class friends would say.

Stay tuned.

The Function of a Story

Barry Lopez, 1945-2020

In honor of the passing of novelist and essayist and environmentalist Barry Lopez on Christmas 2020, his spiritual home, Orion magazine, asked nineteen of his friends and colleagues to offer remembrance. And I was deeply moved, not so much by their memories of a friend, but by their consistent memories of his purposes as a writer. Of his steadfast belief that he should be simultaneously honest and generous, that in fact those two commitments were paired and parallel.

I bring some of those thoughts to you today.

The last time I saw Barry was at the Berkeley Book Festival, in 2019, where he told a story about sitting in a strip mall in Alice Springs, Australia, with a Pintupi man. Barry was explaining to the man the distinction our culture makes between nonfiction and fiction, the factual truth versus the emotional one. The man listened carefully, thought for a moment, shook his head, and said, “that wouldn’t work for us.” Then he said, “the distinction we would make is between an authentic story and an inauthentic story. An authentic story is about all of us, all the people. An inauthentic story is only about the one who wrote it.”

I put this story in my pocket, with another I heard Barry tell about a word an Inuktitut speaker in Yellowknife shared with him: Isumatuq. Storyteller. The person who creates the atmosphere in which the wisdom reveals itself. And in that same pocket, I added something else Barry said when we were teaching together at Pacific University, that we are pattern makers, that if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace, they will have the power to bring a person for whom the world has become chaotic and disorganized up from their knees and back to life.

Triangulated, these three seem sufficient to construct a writer’s life.

Pam Houston

In my mind he was traveling widely, to forgotten places across the globe, with a searchlight, like some archaeologist of the inner landscape, hoping to remind us of what we could be. Working, in effect, to bring us back to our senses.

Pico Iyer

We were drawn to art that chastened and unsettled us, but also to those artists, writers, and musicians to whom we kept returning to be reminded of what was, for us, solid ground.

Barry has often said that his role as a writer is to help. He did that by offering us a vast landscape of experience to consider, and he showed us how to observe and attend to our own landscapes with tenacity and kindness.

Alan Magee

Barry’s respectful engagement gave me permission to notice small things, to see patterns, to connect them with their effects in a wider world, just as he had witnessed animals destroyed by our hurtling from one place to another too fast to notice.

Molly O’Halloran

Although his heart has stopped beating, after a long and dignified battle, Barry’s voice hasn’t been silenced. No. It abides in the books. They remind us that the world is vast and wonderful, that the heart and the curiosity of one Barry Lopez were vast and wonderful too, and that his character was keen and strong and benevolent. That’s the miracle of literature. We still have his voice, and it’s incomparable.

David Quammen

And the last words, from Lopez himself:

If I have a subject, it is justice. And the rediscovery of the manifold ways in which our lives can be shaped by the recovery of a sense of reverence for life.

If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

Barry Lopez

Self-Inflicted 9/11

I cede my time today.

The reason the people were so unafraid of the cops who were so sparsely distributed through our Capitol that hasn’t been breached since 1812, when it was burned… the reason they could film themselves throwing things through the wall of our Capitol, and our property, and going through the Capitol, sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s office and have that played on Fox News, they know they are not in jeopardy because the cops are taking selfies with them, walking them down the steps to make sure they’re not hurt, and taking care with their bodies, not like they treated Freddie Gray’s body. White Americans aren’t afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they are committing insurrection and engaged in attempting to occupy our Capitol to steal the votes of people who look like me. Because in their minds, they own this country, they own that Capitol. They own the cops, the cops work for them and people like them and that people like me have no damn right to try to elect a president. Because we don’t get to pick a President. They get to pick the President. They own the President, they own the White House, they own this country. And so when you think you own the place, you ain’t afraid of the police, because the police are you, and they reflect back to you, “We’re with you. You’re good. We’re not going to hurt you because you’re not them.” Guarantee you if that was a Black Lives Matter protest in D.C., there would be people shackled, arrested en masse, or dead. Shackled, arrested, or dead.

Joy Reid, MSNBC, January 6, 2021

Apple Polisher

Good job, buddy!!!

When I was thinking about going to grad school, I was asked to provide the usual array of stuff: undergrad transcript, statement of purpose and research agenda, letters of recommendation, writing samples. But one of the requested items was entirely alien to me—they asked for a CV.

I had no idea what a CV was. I knew that it was kind of like a résumé, and I learned that the letters stood for curriculum vitae (or course of a life), but I’d never seen one. I went to the bookstore reference section and all the books on résumé construction, and none of them had an entry for CV. I managed to patch something together, which I’m sure was awful, but they took a chance on me anyway.

A singular mark of the scholarly enterprise is the overreliance on Latin, a holdover from two earlier conditions: that the academy was largely humanistic, and that the reading of Ovid was part of the early schooling of every one of the tiny cohort of privileged children who were aimed at Yale from birth. Now that higher education contains a much broader array of intellectual and professional fields, and an expanded cultural community, the continued embrace of Latin is simply one of the secret handshakes that divides insiders from outsiders. We could refer to the CV as an extended or expanded or full résumé, but that wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.


One of the very best things about my current professional life is that I don’t have to update my CV every time somebody gives me a participation medal. My most recent CV is dated April 2018; I’ve done some stuff since then, but I haven’t had the need to enumerate every scrap of it to defend myself. I know what I’m good at, and I can give you examples as needed.

There’s something kind of sad about a culture whose members must all maintain a document listing their every single accomplishment, both major and minor. It’s as though we’re keeping our own notes for some imagined posthumous biographer, a laser-printed proclamation that our work really has mattered. There’s no other profession in which a résumé goes on for more than a page or two, even for senior executives. But academics are often greatly afflicted by the fraternal twins of vanity and insecurity, and the rabbit’s foot of a growing and well-tuned CV is a comfort in an uncertain world.

As is true in most endeavors, size matters, and we invent creative ways to compare ourselves against others without being caught looking. A twenty-page CV feels more important than a ten-page CV, and so people are tempted to pad. We report every single committee and task force, every single presentation, every time we’ve been mentioned. Like seventh-graders, we get creative about increased margins, double spacing, doing anything we can to add one more sheet to the stack of our significance. (If it matters to you, the round, chunky Palatino is a great typeface for making the same number of words take up more space.)

We invent metrics for the publications themselves: the total number of times we’ve been cited, the h-index, the g-index, the i10. And trust me, we all know our own. 377. 7. 13. 6. So there. I just got my six-month royalty statement from The University of Chicago Press yesterday, which shows units sold both during the current period and LTD (lifetime to date). Neither book is at Harry Potter levels, but they’ve both done their work in the world, much of which I’ll never know about.

And that’s the problem. We don’t know. We’ll never know. We can’t know. And so we cling to whatever scraps of evidence we can dredge together, prepared to show our papers at every border crossing, hoping for safe passage.

Atomized by Design

Individuals could come together into something greater…

A few days ago, Nora received a book from a friend in the fiber community, having to do with woven coverlets. It turns out that the author of that book is a member of the board of The National Museum of the American Coverlet. You might share my surprise that such a museum exists, or that it has a board of directors, or that you, too, could be a member for a forty dollar annual fee.

I don’t mean to pick on the NMAC. I’m delighted that an historic art form, one practiced mostly by women in relative anonymity, is recognized and honored. But the fact of its existence made me think about how many small groups there are in America, each hoping to survive by finding its tiny community.

Higher education has thousands and thousands of organizations related to its work. In fact, almost certainly more organizations than colleges and universities themselves. It would be a marvelous research project to learn exactly how many higher ed organizations there are, how many millions of volunteer hours they consume, how many billions of dollars they peel away from their institutional members for workshops and travel and membership fees. The private enterprises of airlines and conference hotels are massively subsidized by higher education, one meeting at a time.

There are organizations about the operation of higher ed as a business. There are organizations about various modes of student support. There are organizations about pedagogical methods, and about research methods. There are organizations to support disciplines, and sub-disciplines, and transdisciplines. There are organizations to support different tiers of teachers: faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, grad students. There are organizations to assist with and oversee accreditation. Each of those has conferences and conventions, publications, governance, websites, staff. Each of those have members, whether institutional or individual, who pay dues. They represent an unseen division of the higher education enterprise, the tens of thousands of weft threads that are woven across the five thousand warp threads of individual colleges to form the incoherent plaid of American higher ed.


I served on our Town’s Select Board for six years, and one of the things that I’m still so surprised by is Vermont’s governance structure in which the layer of the county is irrelevant. Vermont has fourteen counties, which do almost nothing. They’re a regional convenience overseen by the Superior Court, whose judges hire a clerk and a treasurer and which pays the salary of a Sheriff. The state mandate of the counties’ Sheriff’s Departments are also court-related: secure transportation of prisoners or the mentally ill. Whatever other duties they have are taken up as commercial agreements with schools and towns, like any other private security company.

The real home of governance in Vermont is its two hundred and fifty or so towns. In Rutland County, there are 27 of them (plus the City of Rutland), ranging in size from Castleton at 4,717 residents down to West Haven’s 264. Each town elects its own clerk, responsible for dog licenses and marriage licenses and maintaining the property records. Each elects its own treasurer, responsible for payroll and accounts payable and accounts receivable and grants management. Each has its own board of property appraisers, its own board of auditors, its own microscopic endowments that distribute a few hundred bucks at a time to a graduating senior or a dairy farmer.

In other states, much of this would be handled at the county level. You’d go in to the county building for your marriage license or to do a title search or transfer your mortgage, and the office would be open from 8am to 5pm five or six days a week. And they’d pay (and train) four professional clerks instead of 27 different elected clerks with wildly different skills, each of whom works for a few hours a week. (Our town office is open Monday and Tuesday except for lunch, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning, a wonderfully random array.] Vermonters distrust larger levels of government almost reflexively, and are more than willing to exchange expertise and supervision for “local control.”

But that’s hardly unique to Vermont. The notion of local control is baked into our Constitution, making America nearly ungovernable. Every state gets to make fundamental (and wildly diverse) decisions about education and taxation and judicial organization and speed limits and liquor distribution and elections. We were a country designed for an era of limited mobility and limited diversity and limited information, and we hobble forward in our starched waistcoats and powdered wigs into an unknowable future, divided from one another by our commitment to autonomy, entirely unable to plan.

And so all of these ancillary organizations arise, doing the things informally that we could do far more efficiently and effectively (and less expensively) than we do now. We are so fearful of “government” that we doom ourselves to volunteerism and amateurism in every endeavor, a hidden tax of memberships and time and training sessions and mistakes that is our invisible balancing of the books; and we pay an immense number of for-profit businesses to do things that we could provide publicly. These are our investments in the misshapen ideal of small government.

We are not a loose band of competing British colonial land commissions any more. States are the very worst idea of American governance, but by historical circumstance and political wrestling, they hold vast and counterproductive power. We are reduced to George H. W. Bush’s “thousand points of light,” each wrangling with all the others for a few dollars here and there, unable to illuminate the way forward.

In his masterful history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis uncovers the way that the early commercial speculators of Southern California worked to create an immense number of smaller cities in the LA basin, so that none would be able to develop sufficient power to hinder the oligarchs’ dominance. We resist funding government functions, but we’re more than happy to give billions to Jeff Bezos instead, with no accountability. We recoil in horror from “socialized medicine,” never thinking to do the arithmetic of how much we spend on profits and staffing costs for health insurance companies that don’t really need to exist at all. (If you’re worried about a “bloated bureaucracy” or “death panels,” I suggest you needn’t look any further than Blue Cross Blue Shield or Humana.) America is designed for selfishness and mistrust and competition, which somehow we have rebadged to masquerade as virtues. We believe that the world is meager and harsh, that we must fight with our fellow citizens for the scraps; by so believing, we make that vision manifest. Our current political and public health crises are a fundamental and predictable part of the design, not a surprise.