Author Archives: JSE

Tailgating

I was driving home from picking up sushi the other night, and another car was tailgating me. I was really annoyed. I was on a curvy road, it was icy out, and I was going the speed limit, 25 – and this guy was riding my bumper, with those new really bright halogen headlights shining right into my rear-view mirror. I was not going to speed up to satisfy him, and anyway I was just going a couple more blocks. But when I turned onto my block, the tailgater turned with me, and when I pulled into my driveway, he parked next to my house. Now I was kind of freaked out. Was the guy going to get out of his car and scream at me for slowing him down? He did get out of his car. No chance of avoiding a conversation. He came up to me and asked where a certain address on my street was. He was a DoorDash delivery guy. Tailgating me because his ability to make enough money to live on depends on getting a certain number of deliveries done per hour, and that means that it’s an economic necessity for him to drive too fast on icy roads.

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To A Crackpot

I still have a lot of text files from when I was in college and even high school, sequentially copied from floppy to floppy to hard drive to hard drive over the decades. I used to write poems and they were not good and neither is this one, but to my surprise it had some lines in it that I remembered but did not remember that I wrote myself. What was I doing with the line breaks though? I am pretty sure this would have been written in my junior year of college, maybe spring of 1992. Around this same time I submitted a short story to a magazine and the editor wrote back to me saying “free-floating anxiety cannot be what drives a narrative,” but I disagreed, obviously.

To a Crackpot

He eschews the shoulders
of giants. He chooses instead
the company of thin men, coffee-stained,
stooped with knowledge. They huddle
on the sidewalk, nodding, like crows
or rabbis. He speaks:
the world is hollow and we live
on the inside. (Murmurs of assent.) There
is a hole at the top where the water runs in. The sun
is smaller than my hand, and the stars
are smaller than the sun.

A woman walks by, drawing
his eye. She has no idea. Beneath their feet,
out in the dark, secret engines. The Earth turns like milk.

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The year of not reading long books

  • 30 Dec 2021:  Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir.
  • 5 Dec 2021: The Green Futures of Tycho, by William Sleator.
  • 30 Nov 2021:  The Cup of Fury, by Upton Sinclair.
  • 28 Nov 2021: Horse Walks Into A Bar, by David Grossman (Jessica Cohen, trans.)
  • 5 Nov 2021: All Of The Marvels, by Douglas Wolk.
  • 13 Oct 2021: Great Days, by Donald Barthelme.
  • 30 Sep 2021:  Beautiful World, Where Are You? by Sally Rooney.
  • 18 Sep 2021:  Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch.
  • 10 Sep 2021:  Hidden Valley Road, by Robert Kolker.
  • 26 Aug 2021:  The Hairdresser of Harare, by Tendai Huchu.
  • 7 Aug 2021:  Max Beckmann at the St. Louis Art Museum:  The Paintings, by Lynette Roth.
  • 2 Aug 2021:  To Live, by Yu Hua. (Michael Berry, trans.)
  • 1 Aug 2021:  Blackman’s Burden, by Mack Reynolds.
  • 29 Jul 2021:  Highly Irregular, by Arika Okrent.
  • 21 Jul 2021: Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen King and Owen King.
  • 12 Jul 2021:  Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.
  • 7 Jul 2021:  Daisy Miller, by Henry James.
  • 29 Jun 2021:  Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.
  • 6 Jun 2021:  Walkman, by Michael Robbins.
  • 4 Jun 2021:  Darryl, by Jackie Ess.
  • 25 May 2021:  Likes, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.
  • 18 May 2021:  Subdivision, by J. Robert Lennon.
  • 20 Apr 2021:  Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas (not finished yet, will I finish it?)
  • 15 Apr 2021:  No More Parades, by Ford Madox Ford (not finished yet, will I finish it? (Finished Sep 2021)
  • 26 Mar 2021:  Some Do Not…, by Ford Madox Ford.
  • 12 Jan 2021:  Metropolitan Life, by Fran Lebowitz.

My plan was that 2021 was going to be the year of reading long books. Why not? When the year started, there was no vaccine and I was teaching on the screen and so I was at home a lot of the time. Perfect time to really sink into a long book. I had gotten through and really valued some long ones in recent years — Bleak House, Vanity Fair, 1Q84, Hermione Lee’s Wharton biography — so why not Ford Madox Ford’s four-book Parade’s End, which I have wanted to read ever since I read and fell for The Good Soldier (aka the next book you have to read if you think Gatsby is the perfect novel and want “something else like that” but don’t think there could be something else like that — there is and this is it.)

But I didn’t read Parade’s End in 2021. I’ve read most of it! Two of the novels and half of the third. I will probably finish it. But — too high-modernist, too stream-of-consciousness, too hard under the circumstances. I have read a lot of it but I have never really been in it. It has made an impression but I could tell you only fragments about what happened in it. So my plan to read this, and The Man Without Qualities, and USA by Dos Passos, fell away. Sorry, early 20th century high modernism. And sorry too to Kevin Young’s Bunk and the 800-page history of Maryland and The Rest Is Noise and all the other I’ll-get-to-this bricks that didn’t even get taken off the shelf, as I’d imagined they might.

I read what I usually read. Stuff that caught my eye on the shelf. New books by people I know. Paperbacks small enough to fit in the pocket of my cargo shorts, for long walks — in 2021, we tried to spend a lot of time outside. (The small ones were: Blackman’s Burden and Great Days.)

I found I didn’t really read for pleasure this year. There were a lot of these books that I liked and admired; I don’t think there was one that gave me the sensation of “the thing I feel most like doing right now is reading this book.” But I’m not sure when a book (or a TV show, or movie) last made me feel that way, so it may be a mode of reading I’m done with! Anyway, books I liked: Douglas Wolk’s All of the Marvels — he read every Marvel comic ever written and wrote about what we found there. Nobody is better than Douglas at digging insight out of pieces of culture other people may see as low, or simple, or disposable. I’ve known that since I started listening to the mixtapes he was making in 1987. Of course one cannot help feeling that I enjoy reading Douglas reading those comics more than I would actually enjoy reading the comics. Darryl, by Jackie Ess, a perversely funny book about money that very cleverly disguises itself as a perversely funny book about sex.

Subdivision and Sleeping Beauties are an interesting matched set. Both involve dreamworlds. Lennon’s book is clearly marked as “literary fiction,” and rightly, but has the virtues of a great horror novel — authentic scariness, disorientation. Sleeping Beauties — well, you know I love Stephen King, and that I think he invented the virtues of a great modern horror novel, and I will keep reading these the same way I kept buying R.E.M. albums in the 21st century, but they are now kind of about themselves, gesturing at the virtues instead of really inhabiting them. The things people like to scold “literary fiction” for — shapeless plot & preoccupation with the married lives of middle-aged people — are here, and the presence of bizarrely-powered superbeings, gun battles, and rent flesh can’t change that.

The Green Futures of Tycho was as disturbing as I remembered. I loved it as a kid, but do I want my kids to read it? I think so? I wonder if there is fiction marketed as YA now which presents such a bleak picture of human nature. My sense is they make this stuff sunnier now. Here’s the first line of Sleator’s memoir, Oddballs:

When my sister Vicky and I were teenagers we talked a lot about hating
people. Hating came easily to us. We would be walking down the street,
notice a perfect stranger, and be suddenly struck by how much we hated
that person. And at the dinner table we would go on and on about all
the popular kids we hated at high school. Our father, who has a very logical
mind, sometimes cautioned us about this. “Don’t waste your hate,” he would
say. “Save it up for important things, like your family, or the President.”
We responded by quoting the famous line from Medea: “Loathing is endless.
Hate is a bottomless cup; I pour and pour.”

Yu Hua’s To Live was simple and incredibly moving. The Cup of Fury, Upton Sinclair’s gossipy memoir about how all the writers he knew, himself excepted, drank too much, was strangely entertaining. I think I liked Daisy Miller but I can’t remember a thing about it now. Horse Walks Into a Bar was annoying, built on a single conceit (entire novel as stand-up routine) that got old after, well, less than an entire novel. Beautiful World, Where Are You I already blogged about.

What should I read next year?

Update: Wait, I read Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi this year! I somehow didn’t put it on the list. It actually might have been the book that came closest to pleasure reading for me. Strangely, it was shortlisted for a Hugo this year; I say strangely because it doesn’t read at all to me like SF or fantasy, but rather as fiction that has taken some of the good things from SF without at all feeling like a creature of that genre. Maybe anything with fantastic elements is Hugo-nominable, but in practice, I’ll bet most people don’t see it that way. (Then again: The Good Place won a Hugo!)

Baseball and suffering

When I was younger, baseball made me suffer. I believed what Bart Giamatti said about the game: “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.” When the Orioles lost a big game I was stuck in a foul cloud for hours or days afterwards. When Tanya first encountered me in this state she literally could not believe it had to do with baseball, and really probed to figure out what had really happened. But it was baseball. That’s what happened. Baseball.

I’m different now. I can watch the Orioles lose while wishing they would win and not feel the same kind of angry, bitter suffering I used to. I don’t know what made it change. It might just be the psychic arc of middle age. It’s not that I care less. When they win — whether it’s the good 2014 Orioles getting the ALCS or the awful contemporary version of the team having a rare good night — I thrill to it, just like I have since I was a kid. When they lose, I move on.

It would be good to bring this change to all areas of life. Not to stop caring, but to stop sinking into anger and suffering when things don’t go the way I want. I don’t know how I did it for baseball, so I don’t know how to do it for anything else. Maybe I should just pretend everything is baseball.

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Pandemic blog: is this as over as it gets?

Here’s the UW Smart Restart tracker, showing the number of positive COVID tests among students and faculty since August:

And here’s the Dane County dashboard, showing positive tests per week over the whole course of the pandemic:

and deaths per month:

The future of COVID is going to be one where just about everyone has acquired some immunity to the virus, whether by vaccination or infection. In Madison, that future’s already here. 83% of everyone over 18 and 94% of everyone over 65 in Dane County has received two doses of COVID vaccine. We have vaccinated away most of the risk of COVID death here, and you can see it very clearly in the numbers.

On the other hand, people are still getting COVID. Cases aren’t blowing up but they’re also not going away. Once the more contagious delta variant set in, people started catching it, even among our 95%-vaxxed student body, and even in a city where — I know this, I just went to Fargo, remember? — people are substantially more likely than most places to be suppressing COVID transmission.

You hear a lot about removing COVID restrictions triggered on a reduction to levels of new cases below what the CDC classifies as “substantial,” which is 50 cases per 100K people over a 7-day period. Is that actually going to happen? I think it’s fair to ask: even once almost everyone has some immunity build-up, whether through vaccination or repeated infection or vaccination and repeated infection, are we going to get to case rates below “substantial?” We certainly haven’t in Dane County. There are only a few places in the US where cases are that low right now, and most of them are in places that just suffered a severe wave of COVID cases and deaths.

So one possibility is this: cases stay substantial forever, and because the people who want to be vaccinated get vaccinated, and because we are at last getting treatments that seem to be really effective for really sick patients, the toll of COVID gets much lower.

I don’t want to say that’s obviously true. I have learned my lesson about predicting this stuff. Another possible story is that COVID waves are geographically correlated (which is clearly true) and that cases in Dane County have stayed steady because of the large numbers of people nearby taking no vaccine or no precautions. On that account, the minor wave Wisconsin is experiencing now will die away just as the much bigger wave in the South did, and case rates could be low for good once that happens.

Maybe! But I think we have to be open to the possibility that this is as over as it gets.

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Road trip to Fargo

I turned 50 and, as I had long planned, I set foot in my 50th state, North Dakota, on my 50th birthday. It’s not far from Madison to Fargo, about 7 and a half hours drive, but I was a little intimidated; it’s been a long time since I drove more than four hours in a day, and I had questions about my 2001 Forester, which went from Madison to California and back in its youth but which is now, by some measures, an old car. But I needn’t have worried! Driving long distances, when you have the company of one of your kids, is not so bad. We listened to a lot of podcasts about the new MacBook Pro.

The first day, we didn’t see much; by the time CJ got home from school and we were ready to go, it was almost 4, so we drove through the familiar landscape of western Wisconsin, stopping for Culver’s in the suburban outskirts of Eau Claire, and stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn in Brooklyn Park. (Thanks to Hotel Tonight, the perfect app for road tripping, which allows you to easily book a cheap same-night hotel room when you feel you’ve got about two hours of driving left in you.) Nobody is wearing masks in Brooklyn Park, even though it’s in greater Minneapolis, not the hotel clerk, not the people in the gas station convenience store, nobody. It’s something you notice if you’re used to Madison (and we wore ours inside, without anybody looking at us funny.) The next morning, my birthday morning, we set out into western Minnesota, as the forests started to peter out into prairie. This part of I-94 is the land of pretty lakes, like Lake Osakis (the “sak” here is the same as “Sauk”)

and of unexpected roadside attractions

perhaps most notably the world’s largest prairie chicken, in Rothsay, MN.

All these pictures are by CJ, by the way. He has taken up photography. We got him a camera, an actual camera, which it turns out they still make, on the repeated promise that he would actually use it, and he’s lived up to that. He knows what all the buttons do. More importantly, I think he has a real sense for how things should look in an image. Well, you be the judge. It takes a tough man to shoot a prairie chicken.

We roll across the Red River into Fargo around 1:00. I’m now a fifty-stater, I’ve known for a while it was within reach; two cross country trips with Prof. Dr. Mrs. Q and family trips to Hawaii and Alaska got most of the hard stuff done. Then Jennifer Johnson-Leung of the University of Idaho invited me to give a seminar in Moscow and suddenly I was at 49.

It turns out I’m not the only person to leave North Dakota for last. It’s such a common thing that there’s a club for it. I’m now a member:

Large parts of Fargo look like any other low-density Midwestern sprawlville but there’s an old turn-of-the-century downtown that gives you some sense of what the place was like when it was old and rich. (It reminded me a little bit of J. Anthony Lukas’s book Big Trouble, about what was going on in Idaho — big trouble, in case you didn’t guess — around the time Fargo was being built.) There’s a building with “Kopelman’s” engraved across the top. Really? One of us, in Fargo? Really. The building now houses North Dakota’s only abortion provider. A few years ago they found that the mikveh was still there in the basement, under a concrete slab.

We had lunch with an old Ph.D. student of mine, Rohit Nagpal, with his wife, who’s a doctor there, and their extremely enjoyable two-year-old. The lunch place, BernBaum’s, is a Scandinavian-Jewish fusion deli, and it is good. Not “I’m surprised a place in a small-to-medium city in North Dakota is this good” good — good good. Why don’t Jews put lingonberries on our blintzes? Because we never knew about them, is the only explanation.

We went across the river to Moorhead, MN to see the Hjemkomst Center. So it seems that Norwegian-Americans sometimes become obsessed and build replicas of old Norwegian things. A Moorhead guidance counselor named Robert Asp built an exact replica of a wooden Viking ship. After his death, his kids sailed it from Minnesota to Norway and back. Now it’s in a museum:

A different Norwegian-American, Guy Paulson, built an exact replica of a 12th century wooden church that stands on the southern shore of the Sognefjorden.

OK, not exact; for it to meet US code he had to use nails. “But it would stand up without them,” the guide assures us. Norwegian wooden faces are thick with feeling.

We cross the river and eat schnitzel and spaetzle at a bar where everyone is watching the North Dakota State Bison demolish Indiana State, 44-2, at the FargoDome. Then it’s time to leave Fargo, because we don’t want to have the full distance to drive the last day. The sun goes down over western Minnesota

People on the internet are saying there’s a chance of seeing the Northern Lights, so we parked on the side of a dirt road in a corn field far away from any light and with an unobstructed northern view, and we stood out there freezing for a long time until it was completely dark, but the promised borealic peak never came. CJ got some good Milky Way pictures, at any rate. And we still made it back to the Twin Cities outskirts to sleep.

Sunday morning we went into downtown Minneapolis. CJ wanted to take pictures. We went up to the top of the Foshay Tower, which I’d never heard of.

Foshay was a Minneapolis industrialist who built this huge art deco obeliskical office building in the middle of town, only to lose his shirt in the crash three months after the grand opening. He was eventually convicted of wire fraud (though not before escaping his first trial with a mistrial, the one holdout juror being, it turned out, the wife of one of Foshay’s business associates, undisclosed.) But he remained a popular figure in town and it seems like his full pardon by Truman in 1947 was celebrated rather than questioned.

CJ wanted to see the new football stadium. Really? But guess what, it’s a beaut and I’m glad we walked around it

He got a picture with no people but in fact, even at 10 in the morning, central Minneapolis was already thick with Cowboys fans in full Cowboys paint, gearing up for that night’s game. We walked across the stone arch bridge, picked up some antelope tacos, sweet potatoes, and bison bowls at Owamni, and then drove down to Minnehaha Park because CJ loves taking waterfall pictures.

From there it was a straight drive home, because CJ had Halloween plans with his friends. We listened to Taylor Swift all the way. CJ is a sophomore in high school and when I was that age I was just starting to have Opinions about Records. I didn’t know that CJ had Opinions about Records, but it turns out he does — not vaguely “notice that I am alternative” stuff like the R.E.M. albums I was opining about at 16, but about Taylor Swift. I try to hold back my tendencies to want my kids to value exactly the same things that I do, but I cannot lie, it warms me that CJ has Opinions about Records. I learned a lot about Swift’s progression as a writer and I was even able to sneak in some older songs (“Fire and Rain,” “Linger”) that I felt helped situate Swift within a tradition. Anyway, I kind of knew Taylor Swift was great but I gained new appreciation for a lot of the non-singles, like “Getaway Car.”

We made it back to Madison in time for CJ to meet his friends and for me to greet some of the masses of kids walking for candy; after a year of distanced trick-or-treating, there was a lot of pent-up demand.

There was one more sunset.

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The greatest Astro/Brave(s)

The pennants have been decided, largely without my attention, because never in recent memory have four teams I less care for been vying for the title. The Dodgers and Red Sox are OK I guess but they just won. The Astros keep winning pennants and are holders of a recent world championship tainted by sign-stealing. And the Braves are a just-OK team that knocked out the Brewers. If they still had Kevin Gausman and Nick Markakis, I’d root for them anyway, but now? In fact, unless I’m forgetting somebody, there is no ex-Oriole playing on either side of the World Series this year. So much for that metric.

But the Series must go on, and with it, this annual feature: which player had the greatest combined contribution to the two teams that remain? I have to admit, I couldn’t think of a single player who played for both. (Has to do with growing up an AL fan when both of these teams were on the other side.) When I ran the numbers, there was a pretty close race for first, and here’s what’s cool — the two players, Denis Menke and Denny LeMaster, both came up with the (Milwaukee) Braves in 1962 and went to the Astros in the same trade in 1968! Menke was a shortstop, who had a couple of All-Star years in Houston but never fielded as well as he had for the Braves. He was later the hitting coach for the pennant-winning 1993 Phillies, and he died about 10 months ago in Florida. LeMaster was a starting pitcher for most of his time with both teams, never a star, always a reliable innings-eater.

And who was on the other side of the trade for these two great Astro-Braves? Chuck Harrison, who didn’t amount to much, and Sonny Jackson, who never really equalled his 49-steal age-21 rookie season, but who stuck around for 12 years playing kind-of-OK baseball, 7 years with the Braves following his 5 for Houston. He’s probably the player with the longest combined career for both this teams. And he went to Montgomery Blair High School in my home county of Montgomery County, Maryland. Maybe that’s the closest connection I can make between the Orioles and the 2021 World Series.

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Beautiful World, Where Are You?

I was struck by the fact that this book was getting a huge amount of press, and I was clearly supposed to have heard of the author, Sally Rooney, but I had not. And when I asked people about this, I was told it was generational. Rooney is “a millennial author” and I am not a millennial reader. I took this as a challenge! Can I read millennially?

Here are some thoughts which I suppose contain plot spoilers if you are the sort of reader who wants to avoid those before reading the books. (I am.)

What I really like about the book is its strange and affecting choice to use a narrative voice which can go anywhere and see anything but cannot enter any of the main characters’ minds. Everything is done through dialogue and description of bodily motion. The narrator never speaks in the first person but somehow has a personality, is a kind of lonely spirit, which sometimes wanders away from the narrative action entirely and goes out into the night, while the characters keep talking inside the cozy, lighted house, where the narrator can no longer hear. (The only other recent book I can think of that does something like this is is J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River, but the purpose there is pretty different; that one is really going for, and achieving, outright spookiness.)

This choice is the central stylistic fact of the novel and every moment gets colored by it, as in a novel written in the second person.

There is a lot of sex in this book, for instance, and the fact that we are locked out of the human experience of it, just watching bodies roll over each other, makes it uncomfortable to read — frankly, kind of porny. By design, since the characters themselves are not really able to experience each other as people, even though at moments they think they’re so doing.

The story is broken up by emails from one character to another — in a normal novel these could be simply changes of register, a comfortable way to vary the style and bring in information about the characters without cramming it artificially into dialogue or reminiscence. But here, because we’ve been locked out of the characters’ minds, the artificiality of the form comes to the fore. We don’t experience the emails as direct contact with the character’s beliefs, but as performances, which is of course what letters actually are. And so the little philosophical essays that might otherwise be read as authorial thesis statements by proxy are, here, more like — what, affectations? Things the characters wear, like clothes, from which observers can tell what kind of people they are asserting themselves to be.

About two-thirds of the way through, the narrative breaks the rule and goes into Eileen’s mind for a reminiscence of her early romantic feeling for Simon, the man we’re watching her present-day romance with. (Simon is also Jesus, sort of.) I’m not sure why Rooney does this. In fact the book, which sets itself up very satisfyingly, doesn’t seem to know what to do once it has established its mood of eerie distance. The last part of the novel — back to the distant narrator, at this point — contains a lot of long monologues which feel purposeless and lack the snap of the very, very good renderings of speech earlier on. To be honest I had the feeling Rooney was tired of moving the characters around on the board and knows that in novels people traditionally settle down together in the end so that’s what happens. But this very assured and unconventional book doesn’t like having a conventional ending. On some level I think Rooney recognizes this, so puts the ending in a pair of letters rather than try to narrate it.

This sounds like I didn’t like it, but I did like it. Rooney set herself a difficult task and didn’t, it seems to me, bring it off; but most books don’t even try anything hard.

Some other people writing on this book:

Tony Tulathimutte in the Nation, who makes some correct criticisms of some of the sentences in the book;

Anne Enright in the Guardian, who is very good on the strange power of the novel’s style, and who is completely won over by the ending that left me so unsatisfied.

Update: There is another read here, which is that I’m overthinking it and this is meant to be the sort of novel in which you feel about the characters the way you might about people you know, and just straightforwardly hope for certain outcomes for them, the way one does (I mean, I do) in The Age of Innocence or Elena Ferrante novels (I mean, the ones I’ve read.) If that’s the work the book is doing, it didn’t work for me (but I think it worked for others, like Anne Enright.)

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Wildlife removal

Something — a rabbit, it turned out — died underneath my porch. We could smell it but we couldn’t see it. Some people wouldn’t mind handling this themselves, but none of those people are me, so I called AAAC Wildlife Removal. The guy got out of his truck, sniffed around the porch, looked me right in the eye and said, “You never get used to the smell of death.” That alone was worth the price.

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A farewell to Tab

Another part of my childhood gone: I learned today that Coca-Cola discontinued Tab at the end of last year. This is middle age, to feel a loose kind of sorrow at the demise of things you didn’t even like.

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