Hazlitt Magazine

Mickey Mouse’s Bait Dogs

Pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins.

The Possibility of an Island

On luxury shopping, men’s fashion and end-of-the-world salvation.  


Mickey Mouse’s Bait Dogs

Pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins.

My neighbour Connie comes over to tell me that Sue’s dog, an eighteen-year-old chihuahua, drowned in the community pool last night. Marcus is there now with a skim net. “Christ,” says Aura, my upstairs neighbour, leaning over her balcony. “I’m gonna finish this smoke then bring her some benzos.” “You’re so sweet, hun,” Connie says to Aura. Then she puts her hand on my shoulder. “Mickey, you think you can go help Marcus out?” I owe Connie. She’s the only property manager who would let me keep ten dogs in a one-bedroom apartment—pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins. Heartworm. Mange. Parvo. Kennel cough. Connie feeds them Milk-Bones, calls them her hush-hush puppies. But nothing here is hush-hush. Eight months ago I moved in just after midnight and couldn’t even unpack my car in private. Aura watched me, yelled down questions as her dog barked at me and my dogs—“What’s your name? Where’re you from?” Woof! Woof! “Shh!” Woof! “Mickey. Orlando.” “Really.” She tossed down a pillow. “Doesn’t look like you brought one.” Turns out Aura had lice, so then I got lice. Connie shampooed our heads with the garden hose, our loused hair clumping together under cold water. Sang the Oscar Meyer Weiner song three times. After the third, everyone would be in love with me, she turned off the hose. Gave us twenty one-dollar bills for the community laundromat. “Use the Speed Queens on extra hot, okay? And dump in a cup of bleach. And Mickey,” she said, as Aura went inside to gather her bed sheets, “Watch out for Aura. She’s only seventeen.” At seventeen, Aura’s smoked enough to turn her lungs into twinned tar pits. Huffing out rings of nicotine that orbit on my popcorn ceiling, expanding when the Florida humidity gets to 85%, 90%. Aura yells through the vent—the divisions of this apartment complex are so thin—“Hey! You wanna come watch TV with me?” And I’ll ignore her, sweat into the carpet, stargaze at the yellowed Milky Way, dogs licking my salted skin. She’s not my daughter. I’m not her mother. I’m just her downstairs neighbour. I’m twenty-four. I take one of my dogs, Luca, with me to the pool. Marcus has skimmed out the dead chihuahua, Lana, and placed her in an insulated meal delivery box. He’s used to dead animals—before Connie hired him for property maintenance, he worked at Chimp Farm in Tarpon Springs. “Mick,” he says. “Come over.” I sit with him on the diving board. “How’s Sue?” “Aura’s checking on her.” He pets Luca, points to where he found Lana, and then finally breaks the silence with, “I’m trying out Christian Mingle.” Tells me that he’s not Christian, but for the right woman, he would confess his sins, melt the little wafer in his mouth. He shows me his profile picture. He’s in full scuba gear. You can barely see the pink scar that splits his face in half. Sue, drunk, once asked him, “Did the chimpanzee do that to you?” Marcus wouldn’t answer, doesn’t talk about his life in Tarpon Springs. He swipes, swipes, switches over to Tinder. Swipes right, right. He swipes right a lot. He puts out. Connie’s told me that he’s slept with half the women here. All it takes is him snaking a drain, fixing some Rosetta Stone cassette tapes. I say, “We should really go get the dog cremated.” He puts down his phone. “Gimme a minute.” Pinches off the heads of giant, flame-coloured marigolds, lays them next to the diving board. Grabs some sidewalk chalk, writes, REST IN PARADISE. Who wouldn’t love someone who makes a dog memorial of chalk and flowers? Who can pull half a pound of hair from a shower drain without gagging. Twist magnetic tapes back into clean loops that say, Now repeat—qué onda? * Sue gets drunk by the pool. It’s late, like two a.m., but I’m there with her and Connie, drinking, too. Smoking and tossing the butts into the gut of an inflatable, floating flamingo. Maybe eighty feet from here, across Cypress Drive, is the laundromat. Aura’s there, holding a landline between her shoulder and cheek as she folds other people’s clothes, makes long-distance phone calls to lonely Mormon men in the Salt Lake Valley. Slides her hand across a Disney t-shirt, fake laughs. Hangs up the phone. Wipes her face. Dials another number. Mouths, heyyyyy. Sue says that she might want to get a tattoo of Lana on her shoulder blade. “Here.” Connie says, “I think that would be nice.” Bless Connie, who really thinks that everything and everyone is nice. She’s too soft on the renters who take naked showers in the community car wash, slipping on leftover Turtle Wax and splitting their heads open on the blunt edge of the curb—but they must be nice! Or Natalie, the first-grade teacher who keeps plowing her two-door Toyota into Marcus’ mini orange grove—oh, sure, she’s a drunk, but she’s nice! Yeah right, Con. Get it together. She knows it takes Marcus hours to pressure wash the blood, splint the citrus trees. But then when I’m swimming, she’ll come out from the property manager’s office and toss me a bottle of Coppertone. Tell me to put it around my eyes. Points to her own face and says, “Believe me, you don’t want to look like this!” She’s lived in Florida, on the Suncoast, her whole life. She’s had skin cancer twice. Now, she looks down into the pool, at the mermaids painted on the bottom. Limned in moonlight and shifting in the waves of the murmuring filter so that it looks like they’re dancing down there. Or drowning, shaking a fist and saying, help. Sue downs her fifth drink. I wonder if I could fit ten dog portraits on my skin. I’d look like that mural of mutts in Dunedin, painted on the outside of Skip’s Bar: Welcome to Dogedin. A smear of collies, shepherds, hounds. Dogs howling at my spinal cord, tails curled between my ribs. Aura makes another phone call. Folds a dryer-full of someone’s clean towels. Sue, now 100% drunk, asks if I was named after Mickey Mouse. “No.” Marcus joins us by the pool. He says that he got stood up at Red Robin. Tosses his keys at the flamingo, spilling all of the butts into the shallow end, blurring the mermaids. Then he says ten Hail Marys for Lana—practice for his future Christian Mingle marriage. We play buzz—one, two, three, four, five, six, buzz, eight, nine, ten, fuck—fizz. “You drink, Mick.” Four a.m. Swiping left, left, and right. Sue drawing temporary tattoos on the soft inside of her arm with an inky blue pen: Lana’s face overlapping Lana’s face, a map of her dead dog grief. I smudge a small line of blue, hold Sue’s wrist and tell her I’m sorry. “Thank you, Mickey Mouse.” I watch Aura, still in the laundromat, talking, caped in a 101 Dalmatians pool towel. “Be nice,” Connie says to Marcus, “And help Mickey home.” I’m just as drunk as him, but we lace hands and walk towards my apartment. Halfway there, I stick my head into a planter of marigolds, try to puke in privacy. “Damn, garden head,” says Marcus, pulling back my yellow hair. “You can’t hold your liquor.” I cough, and he tells me not to worry, that tomorrow, he’ll top it off with some Miracle-Gro. And then he’s standing in my kitchen, getting me a glass of ice-heavy Gatorade that I drink, push the cold cup against my breastbone. He tightens the p-trap of my leaky sink. Wipes a drip of nicotine from the backsplash. I ask him if he wants to stay the night. My ten adopted dogs watch us have almost-sex—almost, because I change my mind at the last minute. “It’s cool,” he says, and covers my naked body with a thin dog bed cushion. Kisses my cheek. “I’ll see ya in the morning, Mick. I’m coming by to fumigate for cockroaches.” * I’m embarrassed, so when Marcus comes to fumigate, I don’t talk to him. Me and Aura stand outside with our dogs. She smokes, tells me that she’s sick of the phone sex gig, that Mormon dads in Utah are so fucking boring. “You think there’s enough bandwidth here for cam stuff?” “Well, Connie’s looking into getting fibre optic installed.” “Cool,” she says. “So, you almost fucked Marcus. I heard you. I saw him leaving.” I don’t say anything. She tosses her cigarette onto the ground. Lights another. Says that Marcus looked sad, took a pee in the parking lot. Asks if I want to come over tonight. “We could watch reruns of Pretty Wild on MTV. Or candle our ears. Or get really high and prank call the neighbours.” “Yeah, maybe.” She keeps talking. “Or order Five Guys and get an entire bag of peanuts and go to Chimp Farm and ask if it’s really true. About Marcus’ face. Or break into the church food bank and steal all of their Fruit Gushers. Or ride bikes down the Pinellas Trail to St. Petersburg. Or pool hop in Sarasota suburbs. Or”—she pauses to cough and I watch Marcus adjust his gas mask, spray insecticide along the door jambs. “Or go to Orlando and watch the Disney World fireworks from the parking lot. Look, hey Mick, look.” I look, and she exhales a perfect ring of smoke. “Ka-boom.” * That night, I go to the pool instead, with Connie, Sue, Natalie, Marcus, and my dogs. Natalie is passed out, almost, on a lounge chair. And Aura’s back in the laundromat. Folding, talking. Marcus is finally about to tell us what happened in Tarpon Springs, at Chimp Farm, when we see a red Supra pull up to the laundromat. Marcus says that it’s Aura’s ex-boyfriend from Tallahassee. The ex gets out of his car, yanks open the laundromat door. Aura presses the phone to her stomach. Aura and her ex go back and forth—louder, louder—until he raises his hand, hits Aura across the face so hard that her bottom lip splits open and splatters blood across the row of white dryers. Her body does a half-spin. Wrapped in the coiled phone cord, she falls over. By the time she hits the tile, we’re there, all of us, my ten dogs ringed around Aura. Marcus wrestles the ex into a chokehold. Says, “You think you’re stronger than a chimpanzee?” He’s not. His face turns blue. Marcus loosens his grip and before the ex can slip his head loose, Connie spits in his face. He tells us all to fuck off, leaves the laundromat. Tries to do a three-point turn but fails again and again. “Ha!” says Natalie, “You drive worse than I drive drunk!” She throws laundry pods at the hood of his car, blue and green clusters of detergent exploding. And Connie pets Aura’s yellow hair—“Shh, honey, you’re okay, you’re okay”—and Aura bleeds onto the pile of laundry, onto Dalmatians, and the moron on the other end of the phone asks, “Hello? Um, are you still there?” * Aura melted a benzo under her tongue as I pressed an ice pack to her busted lip, put her to bed. And now I’m walking through the apartment complex with my Catahoula, Lola. She pees and pees—she has a UTI. I pet her face, scarred from where another dog, a fighting dog, tore her cheek open. The light is still on in the laundromat. Connie is lit in fluorescence, cleaning blood from the dryers. “Hey.” “Mickey,” she says. She points at my shirt, covered in Aura’s blood. “I’ll wash that for you. Hands up.” I sit, in just a bra and shorts, on top of a Speed Queen. Connie keeps cleaning, dipping a rag into a bucket of diluted bleach. Lola gnaws on a dryer ball. Connie says, “You know, when Aura got here, she had to sign her lease with her left hand, because her right thumb, it was dislocated. Couldn’t hold the pen. Her nose was in a cast. I don’t know if it was him, or some other asshole in Tallahassee, but Aura, she’s a kid—she shouldn’t have it this rough.” I should have gone with her to St. Petersburg, Sarasota, anywhere. Connie leans up against a washer, hands on her hips. “How old are you, Mickey?” “Twenty-four.” “You’re a kid, too.” She pulls her red hair into a bun, and I can see the keloid scar on her neck where her skin cancer was cut out. “You pay your rent in cash. You don’t have a job. You don’t tell us anything except that you’re from Orlando. Mickey, Mickey. . .” Mickey. Orlando. Orlando: I hid in a dog crate while my boyfriend turned the house to a hurricane—fists flying through drywall, yanking wires out. “Hide and seek, Mickey Mouse? You know I’m gonna find you.” Broken plates. Broken ribs, too. Our dented fridge covered in Money Mart loan receipts, eviction notices. Duke Energy making the phone ring every day, then making things go dark. Waiting, waiting—then, cashing my last Denny’s paycheck and emptying my bank account and escaping into my Corolla. Down the I-4. Ribs healing at RV campgrounds, Walmart parking lots. Putting miles between me and Orlando, me and him. And as I looped through the sunshine state, I collected dogs with wormed hearts. Dogs that had laboured litter after litter of designer mutts, their milk-sucked nipples dragging on the hot Florida asphalt. Bait dogs. Dogs to surround me, love me, protect me, here, in Clearwater. Far enough that he wouldn’t bother to come looking, to come for a fight. But Tallahassee to Clearwater is more than double the distance of Orlando to Clearwater. Connie says, “Mickey, oh, I’m sorry, I’m—I didn’t mean to make you . . . You don’t have to tell me. Here.” She wraps me in a clean pool towel. “Go home, go to bed. It’s been a bad night.” I lay on my kitchen floor, hidden in curls of sleeping dogs. Their lungs wheeze like dull, singing saws. Mange-ringed tails drumming the tile floor. At five a.m., Marcus revs up the lawnmower. Connie turns on the sprinklers. Aura plays her favourite song on loop. But the divisions are so thin and I can hear her cry. I guess she can hear me too.
Never Kissing

On movies and rain. 

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  A song led me to the movie. I was exchanging notes with a friend recently on the Indian classical singer Kishori Amonkar when I recalled the first time I heard her voice. Years ago, I was on a train to New Delhi, when “Sanwariya Sanjh,” Amonkar’s duet with her pupil Raghunandan Panshikar, rang out from the speakers of a station en route.  This must have been sometime after the turn of the millennium, when I was nine or ten. I was travelling with my father, whose face looked more resentful than usual because of an argument with my mother moments before boarding the train. The two singers sounded harmonious in a way my parents’ voices rarely did: Amonkar’s cries, seemingly in the background, and yet effortlessly propulsive; Panshikar’s deceptive lament, priming the listener for Amonkar’s voice, while purporting to do the heavy lifting. Like most children at that age, I perceived classical music as noise, but I remember imagining that the song was probably recorded by a couple in a happy marriage. A decade later, I discovered that Amonkar had composed the song as part of the soundtrack for Drishti, Govind Nihalani’s 1990 portrait of, well, an unhappy marriage. Fresh from the throes of a breakup, I had wandered into a retrospective of Nihalani’s films inside a refurbished Bombay theatre, having run out of things to do alone on a Sunday. And there was that song again, reminding me of my parents’ long-standing quarrels, just when I was trying to forget that the woman I dated for over a year hadn’t replied to my texts in a month. The film didn’t clarify much about the mystery of adult relationships. Nikhil and Sandhya, the philandering protagonists, spend their mornings sharing their coded dreams with one another, and their evenings debating sex and commitment with friends. The scenes mostly unfold as conversations, except for a wonderfully wordless interlude when Sandhya (played by Dimple Kapadia) embarks on an affair with Rahul, a youngish classical singer (played by Irrfan Khan). Stepping out of her office in the rain, Sandhya is surprised to see Rahul drenched from head to toe, waiting for her on the other side of the road. She smiles and hops across the pavement with her umbrella, as if to save him. Music and rain: one can’t help but admire the facility with which Indian filmmakers depict the onset of monsoons, the late-summer miracle of water returning to earth. In Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, you expect to see water overflowing from the pond where the protagonist Apu and his older sister, Durga, take their daily baths, but no, Ray captures the season’s first drops falling on the bald pate of a man idling by the edge of the lake. We’re in rural Bengal, miles away from the Art Deco buildings of south Bombay in Drishti, and yet classical music is again the threnody to a clutch of wordless moments, the inclement weather within. Any other director would have fretted that the mellow sound of Ravi Shankar’s sitar doesn’t quite work with the prophetic shot of Apu and Durga darting past a field without an umbrella, or the tragic instant when their mother, unable to make ends meet, steals fruit from a neighbour’s yard in the rain. These moments unfold on screen, however, with a naive insouciance, as though Apu had been dreaming them up in the first place. Bollywood movies, too, can be oddly persuasive with their rain sequences, so long as you aren’t just watching a flamboyantly dressed couple gyrating between trees. Recently I watched Manzil with a friend and we were both very impressed that for once Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t flopping to his knees in the middle of the road when the obligatory rain song came on. Instead of a posse of supporting dancers mimicking the protagonists’ every move, we see a shy couple, dressed respectively in a suit and a sari, hold hands and walk along the promenades of Bombay on a damp afternoon. There are no blunt displays of affection: the woman chastely rests her head on the man’s wet shoulders during the song’s final refrain. “This is how I imagine my parents dating,” my friend told me. “Never kissing—just walking around south Bombay in the rain.” I wondered about his own celluloid fantasies of romance. They were probably not too different from mine, and again had something to do with south Bombay and the rains. Did he picture something along the lines of a sequence in Dahek where a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl agree to meet up at a colonial-era church and daydream about being shadowed by each other as the girl splashes around a puddle with a group of schoolkids, and the boy drops by a corner store to buy some flowers? Or perchance something similar to the climax of Wake Up Sid where a baby-faced Ranbir Kapoor ends up getting drenched at Marine Drive and also confesses his feelings for an older friend?                 Despite sitting through The Notebook and Breakfast at Tiffany’s multiple times, their famous rain scenes always strike me as inappropriate. After all, you want to see white people kissing with the snow faintly falling outside a window in the background, not while chasing each other in the rain. Audrey Hepburn might be trying her utmost to summon some intensity, but I still have trouble believing that the director ever shared an umbrella with a stranger, or rescued a lover’s cat from a flooded alley. There is a formal obliqueness to rainy days that is at odds with the chatty ethos of Hollywood love stories. You end up being stuck somewhere; you don’t get much done. You’d rather not talk to anyone. But then you catch yourself humming a song.
Plug Two

A requiem for Trugoy and a rebirth for De La Soul.

Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. The taxonomy of New York hip-hop was set out by KRS-One on “The Bridge Is Over” back in March 1987: Manhattan kept on making it, Brooklyn kept on taking it, the Bronx kept creating it and Queens kept on faking it. But what about Long Island? The home of EPMD and Rakim wasn’t even worth mentioning at the time, devoid of a cultural identity. Island-dwelling Public Enemy had burst onto the scene with their uncompromising Def Jam debut Yo! Bumrush the Show just a month before, setting the stage for 1988’s “Plug Tunin’,” the first single by a group of three friends who went on to firmly stamp Long Island as hip-hop’s home of the outsider: De La Soul. From their playful first transmission, the group outlined their “new style of speak” with Trugoy the Dove promising to “dive beneath the depth of a never-ending verse, gasping and swallowing every last letter.” The remix of “Plug Tunin’” appends “(Last Chance to Comprehend)” to the title, a good-natured warning of pleasurable confusion to come. Peering in from their vantage point along the periphery of established hip-hop culture, De La Soul parodied and satirized the rap game across their entire discography. “Do As De La Does” mocks the banality of call and response (“If you like to drink some soda, let me hear you say Coca-Cola!”). “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” and “Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)” are hyper-referential, over the top parodies of typical hip-hop braggadocio. De La Soul (“from the soul” in Franglais) luxuriated in the subversive potential of language. With each new track came a new way for the group to flow, a previously untested style to plant the De La flag into. Even their monikers were designed to obfuscate: reverse the names of both emcees and you'll learn that Posdnuos declares himself to be a “Soundsop" and Trugoy is simply named after his favourite food. To each other, they were Plug One and Plug Two. Derwin, Stickabush, Itzsoweezee, Dan Stuckie, Dante is a scrub, Buddy: the group developed their own cryptophasia, a personal glossary of inside jokes to define themselves in opposition to a harsh hip-hop world that was destined to misunderstand their methods. De La Soul’s private humour exploded outside of the boundaries of their songs with their early adoption and popularization of hip-hop album skits. Wearing colourful dress shirts, rocking leather Africa medallions and rapping about flowers, De La Soul were seen as hip-hop hippies, an image immediately rejected by the group in “Me, Myself and I,” the lead single from their groundbreaking 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. The video for “Me, Myself and I” has the squad attending Rapper School alongside lookalikes of the acceptable emcee archetypes of the day. Here’s a partial list of what De La Soul implored the listening public to remove in their song “Take It Off”: those shell toes, that do-rag, those fat laces, that bomber, those Converse, that Kangol, that Afro, that Jheri curl. They defined themselves by what they weren’t.  Posdnuos was the erudite moral leader, Maseo was the clownish DJ and the late Trugoy was the Everyman, so normal that he eventually changed his rap name from Trugoy the Dove to just Dave. In the video for “Stakes Is High,” a song whose lyrics became the urtext for the conscious rap movement, Trugoy is pictured doing laundry, raking leaves and washing dishes.  A celebration of the mundane, Dave demonstrated to untold aspiring rappers that being yourself was more than enough. His normalcy was belied by an occasional propensity for abstract wordplay and lyricism, such as on the Stakes Is High intro where he intentionally avoids rhyming or Buhloone Mindstate’s “En Focus,” a funky meditation on fame dripping in what feels like generations of slang. His passing in February, just weeks before De La’s entire music catalogue would finally be made available on streaming for the first time, feels particularly cruel. Trugoy took center stage on De La Soul’s closest brush with the mainstream, their Grammy-winning guest spot on the upbeat “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. The only member of the group to actually rap on the song, his uncharacteristically frenetic verse features a memorably odd turn of phrase, urging “Don’t stop, get it, get it, until you’re cheddar-headed.” At a time when rap music often promoted one dimensional characters, Dave had the emotional range to joke around with a Burger King employee on “Bitties in the BK Lounge” and then play a local hood gaslighting a young woman being abused by her father on the unprecedented single “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” all on the same album (De La Soul is Dead). De La Soul almost single-handedly legitimized sampling as an art form on their debut. Four months later, Beastie Boys dropped their sampledelic masterpiece Paul's Boutique, choosing samples with the Dust Brothers that presented themselves as Easy Rider outlaws with a reverence for the routines and sounds of early hip-hop. Conversely, De La rejected the hip-hop canon before it had even been settled on, hellbent on redefining and widening the conversation of what rap music could be.  Before De La Soul, sampling was usually about instant gratification. Recognize this drum break? Remember this funk song that we grew up with? That familiarity can occasionally be present in their music as well but De La’s primary producer Prince Paul mainly reveled in mining funk from unexpected sources: yodeling, kazoos, nursery rhymes, records for learning how to speak French. Anything was fair game . . . well, maybe not. De La Soul’s verve for unconventional sampling made them an early target for lawsuits and is partly why their music hadn’t been properly reissued or released digitally for so long. Now, after over twenty years, hundreds of contracts and months of rerecording elements that couldn’t be cleared, the world will finally be reintroduced to one of the most significant groups in the history of music. It’s a shame that Trugoy isn’t here to see this moment. But what he created is finally free to be cherished by generations to come.
The Possibility of an Island

On luxury shopping, men’s fashion and end-of-the-world salvation.  

In the opening scene of Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Cannes Palme d’Or–winning film, Triangle of Sadness, the male protagonist, a slim white model, is asked to present two poses: “H&M”—full of laughter and fun, like a dude at a crowded bar drinking with friends, and “Balenciaga”—as stern and sombre as an Icelandic landscape. The two fashion looks—low- and high-brow, common versus luxury—represent two kinds of people: the masses and the elite. Who do you wish to be? And what can you afford? For most people, the answer is simple: love the Gucci, buy the Zara. There’s no shame in that. As the iconic German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld said, what matters is style, not the price. The democratization of fashion, thanks to the likes of H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, have made good-looking clothing ubiquitous and affordable. For many years, I was one of those people, aware of Prada the way one is aware of yachts or Porsche convertibles: as advertisements for the rich and famous. As a freelance writer, I had never even considered actually purchasing designer clothing. During two years of pandemic lockdowns, this changed. As the global crisis grew, so too did my own panic. I developed “Covidsomnia,” waking in the middle of the night worried about the “what next.” Like so many, I found myself drawn to the screen, turning over in bed and scrolling. One sleepless night, I found a new Gucci blazer, 90 percent off the store price. I added to cart. When the package arrived, I was stunned by the quality of the materials: brass buttons, a tightly woven wool, the Gucci shoulders. I felt myself…transformed, though I wasn’t sure into what. While friends joked they wore the same thing to work every day—jogging pants and hoodies—I upped my fashion game like never before, hunting down discounted silk ties from Kiton; handmade Gucci loafers with gold knitted bees; burgundy Prada suits. I had never owned such items in my life. And while I didn’t wear these clothes anywhere but my kitchen or living room, my wardrobe evolved in ways that surprised anyone who knew me. I felt like I was going somewhere, even if I was only travelling ten feet. It wasn’t just vanity. I was transported from this frail body—and frail, pandemic-ridden civilization—to a better, prettier place. I shopped, dressed up, and shopped some more. It turns out I wasn’t alone. Brunello Cucinelli, one of Italy’s largest luxury clothing brands, reported that in 2021 there was a 31 percent increase in sales, 20 percent higher than any other in its forty-year existence (in the first half of 2022, Brunello Cucinelli was up an additional 32.5 percent). LVMH, the French fashion conglomerate, reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales. At the end of year two of the pandemic, with inflation rates through the roof and a global food and energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine, the high-end luxury fashion market was booming. These statistics are hard to fathom. In an era of Zoom parties, closed bars and restricted travel, why were so many people buying Loro Piana cashmere sweaters and Brioni suits? Why not save money for a winter of expensive oil and gas? Were they—like I was—hoping to be led to an elusive elsewhere through a strange game of dress-up? Was it a hope for better times? Just what had the pandemic and war done to fashion? To us? Had we developed an acute sense of endings? With a brutal war raging, viruses spreading, and a global climate catastrophe worsening by the month, perhaps we’d all adopted a “what the fuck” attitude. What’s the point in saving when the end of the world is near? Hell, we might as well look beautiful. * In June 2022 I travelled to Pitti Immagine Uomo in the heart of Firenze, Italy’s biggest men’s fashion fair, to try to answer these questions. Truth be told, after two years of being locked in my apartment, I mostly just wanted to see the beauty of an old city and be around well-dressed people. I wanted to go to parties and not think about anything deep. Under the pretense of writing, I was hoping to be submerged in the superficiality of the fashion world. I certainly found that. But I found something else, too. The first day at the Pitti is damn hot—a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius. When I cross the street and enter Fortezza de Basso, flashing my press card, I feel like stripping naked—why am I wearing this beige double-breasted silk blazer? And yet when I enter the fourteenth century fortress grounds, following a long covered walkway that spills out onto the main piazza, I feel underdressed; I’m surrounded by men in their dandy-best. In the middle of the square is a sign denoting this year’s theme: “Island.” I’ve entered fashion paradise. Pitti Uomo began in 1972 as a men’s fashion trade fair where mostly Italian designers displayed next year’s models. It’s still a trade fair; it is not open to the general public. For four decades, it was an important event in the men’s fashion world, though nothing as international as its counterparts in Paris or Milan. Pitti’s reputation changed in the early 2010s, when fashion-obsessed men came to Firenze dressed in their finest (and often outrageous) fashions. It was a symptom of the times. With Instagram just taking off, people made the pilgrimage to show off and compete for photographic attention. Thus was born the “Pitti peacock.” Today they’re out in full view: in checkered fuchsia-and-gold blazers, in cream Fedoras, hands donning brightly coloured fans to quell the heat. This is more than Instagram vanity: it’s a hearkening to a time when people didn’t wear factory-repeated clothing. Goodbye, hoodies and sneakers. Arrivederci, H&M chinos. Seeking shade beneath a rooftop, a line of peacocks gather by the wall for photographs. Here I speak to Fredo, aged thirty-nine, German fashionista and journalist. He’s dressed in all Gucci: blue Gucci suit, burgundy Gucci shoes, outrageous Gucci sunglasses. I ask him what it is about Pitti that makes it so special. “For one week, we live in a magic fashion paradise. We watch shows, go to parties, and Firenze opens up its private piazzas and buildings. There’s nowhere like this. After two years of lockdowns, and now a war in Ukraine, it gives us time to enjoy the beautiful things.” Fredo, and his best friend Benjamin—aged forty-six, holding an SLR camera and leather Tom Ford purse, and wearing a gold-and-black polo with a gleaming gold chain around his neck—lead me through the fairgrounds. Hailing from Frankfurt, it’s Fredo’s sixth and Benjamin’s fifth Pitti. They seem to know everyone and anyone: in a way, they’ve come home. Ben snaps pictures of an older man in a straw Fedora and a perfectly tailored, cream-and-brown-striped, double-breasted linen suit. The man fans his younger girlfriend, dressed in a white polo, flailing white skirt and perfectly tilted white hat. It’s sexy, classy, a scene out of The Great Gatsby: classic 1920s opulence. A man in a bright yellow linen blazer, flaxen yellow Fedora and multicoloured flower pants conjures an odd theatricality, a kind of fetish dress-up that doubles as homage to handmade times. “Island”—it’s the perfect name. A respite from difficult times. Is that what fashion offers us? Is that why we’re all here? Fredo and Benjamin lead me into the conference centre, three floors filled with 682 brands, each with their own stall. The biggest names, like Gucci and Prada, wait for next week in Milan, but Brunello Cucinelli is here. When we enter his sprawling pop-up store, Cucinelli himself greets us in a double-breasted suit, loose white linen pants and white sneakers. Cucinelli is the stuff of legends: the son of a poor farmer, he grew up in the Umbria village of Solomeo. He became interested in fashion in the late 1970s, designing colourful handmade cashmere sweaters for women and bringing them to fashion fairs in places like Düsseldorf. The sweaters sold well; over the years his name became synonymous with high-quality, handmade clothing, and his cashmere was always the best. He also charges through the roof: nowadays a blazer can cost four thousand euros. His brand suggests excellence and exclusivity. An idealist in his enterprise, Cucinelli bases his business model on what he calls “a humane capitalism.” Sure, he charges exorbitant fees for his clothes, but he pays his employees 20 percent more than the Italian average, and gives 20 percent of his profits to charity, or as he says, “for humanity.” Cucinelli has also revamped his birth village. Home to the Cucinelli factory and employer of many of the town’s residents, he’s repaved the streets, renovated storefronts and restored the twelfth century church. He even built a 240-seat theatre, sixteenth century in design. In interviews, the man the New Yorker called “the Prince of Solomeo” is often known to quote Marcus Aurelius, Plato and Augustine; he prefers to talk philosophy rather than consumer reports. Benjamin and Fredo are here, in part, to interview Cucinelli for a German philosophy magazine. I tag along. They tell me that part of Cucinelli’s love for Pitti is that it’s an approachable, friendly affair: Cucinelli, for all of his multimillion-dollar success, is a man loyal to the local fashion community of the Pitti. See him shake hands, slap people on the back, pinch people’s cheeks. The big news is that Cucinelli is holding an invite-only dinner tonight. Benjamin and Fredo are going, and I’m determined to join them. I tell Cucinelli’s PR person—without really knowing what I’m saying—that I want to write about the latest in men’s fashion. She looks at me nonplussed. Then I add that I’m a poet, maybe Cucinelli would want to meet me, for I consider him a poet of the soul. The next thing I know, I’m on the guest list. I go home that afternoon, shower and change, then meet Benjamin and Fredo.  * In the film La grande bellezza, director Paolo Sorrentino shows us a two-faced twenty-first century Rome: the lingering beauty of its ancient past and the superficiality of its upper-class residents today. At one party after another, the rich wear the best suits, in the best antique locales, drinking the best wines, spouting vapid philosophy as they struggle for the one thing they can’t buy—a sense of purpose amidst the deluge of hangovers. If you’ve seen the film, you get an idea of what the Brunello Cucinelli party is like, minus the line dancing. It’s both disarming and alluring. Entering the multitiered garden, I’m greeted with a glass of prosecco by a man in a Cucinelli suit. We descend the terraces. A bar on one level, a buffet on another, another terrace with an even bigger buffet. Classical music is pumped through overhead speakers. Everyone is dressed perfectly. There are rumours movie stars Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey have flown in by private helicopter. Fredo, Benjamin and I sit at a table at the edge of the fifth terrace and take it all in: a sunset over the old duomo, an ancient city falling into shadow. The buffet—manned by Cucinelli’s personal chefs, with food enough for five hundred—stretches across some several dozen tables. The wine flows, and when the sun sets, it finally cools down. The food is Italy at its best: prosciutto, ricotta, fresh oil and bread. Cucinelli’s favourite rigatoni in his favourite cream tomato sauce. It’s extravagant and the three of us are getting drunk. “La grande bellezza,” says Fredo, drinking gin and tonics like they’re going out of style. “I wish life could always be so beautiful.” The grass is manicured a perfect green. Lush cedars and eucalyptus sway above us lazily, while water burbles from the mouths of fish and ancient Roman gods. It has that dreamy Italian thing so many tourists seek when visiting the country: paradise, for an hour or a selfie. I love it, but there’s something about it that unsettles me. Perhaps it’s the very unreality of the experience. Cucinelli’s humane capitalism, while we dwell in the garden of opulence and exclusivity, seems totally absurd. Not to mention the disasters of the world lurking outside. “Isn’t it strange?” I say, noticing the alcohol hitting me quicker than I’d expected. “There’s a war going on fifteen hundred kilometres from here and we’re sitting here having a great time. Isn’t the fashion world a bit…unfair?” “Actually, it’s your question that’s unfair, Jonathan,” Benjamin says, swilling Bolgheri to wash down the delicious pasta. “If I live in Kyiv or Donbas, I’m not thinking about a Gucci suit, and certainly not the Pitti Uomo. Fashion is for peaceful, prosperous times. It’s a privilege. Pass the rigatoni.” A waiter refills our glasses. “So it’s about escape,” I say. “The island.” “Not only,” says Benjamin, munching on his food. He takes on a philosophical tone. “It’s about looking and feeling your best while you can. Because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.” I let Benjamin’s thoughts sink in. He’s right: we can’t know the changes that lie ahead. The war, the pandemic, these dark times all reinforce that sentiment. And there’s nothing we can do about it. I try to settle into the beauty of this unreal world. Benjamin instructs: “Don’t ever save your best clothes for a special day in the distant future. It’s a mistake I used to make. We need to wear our best things while we still can.” Then he tells us about his German grandparents, forced to flee Breslau by foot at the end of January 1945. The whole city had to evacuate; the Russians were coming. Benjamin’s grandmother packed suitcases full of photo albums—their memories—as well as dishes and silver because they knew they could trade it for food. Then they bundled themselves in their warmest clothes; it was minus 20. They ran into their neighbour, who wore only a thin coat. Benjamin’s grandmother asked her why she wasn’t wearing her fur. The neighbour said, “Because I want to have something nice to wear when I come back.” But no one ever came back to Breslau. “You see?” Benjamin concludes. “Saving for better times is a mistake. They might never come.” I wake up the next morning to a nasty hangover. In my Airbnb, the air conditioning has stopped working. Startled, in a sweat, I check my phone and find a pic of Benjamin and Fredo: the two of them are drinking bellinis and laughing outrageously. The message: 10 a.m. Bagutta fashion party on such-and-such rooftop. I throw on some clothes and head over. When I get there, Benjamin and Fredo are nowhere to be seen. A dozen or so models, young twentysomethings, strut about the terrace in oversized clothing. The view is spectacular. One of the models leans against the bar and drinks coffee. I try to be journalistic, warrant my press pass, ask how she likes Pitti. She says she’s enjoying it. A student at Polimoda, the famous Florence fashion school, she hopes one day to be a fashion designer. I notice she has an accent, not Italian, so I ask where she’s from. “Gaza,” she says. Her name is Noor Hijazi and she’s twenty-one years old. Vaguely, she tells me she’s from somewhere south of Gaza City. I ask, “Why fashion?” Noor explains that when she was ten, she drew anime. Then, she started to draw portraits. She was always drawing. One day when she was thirteen Noor’s mother asked if she could draw her a dress. Noor asked her mom to describe it. Noor drew it; her mother took it to a dressmaker. “It was strange,” Noor said, smoking a cigarette. “It’s like I could see it all so clearly, like I needed to do it. When she was gone, I did twenty more drawings. When she got home my mother said, ‘The dressmaker was impressed. She thinks you should be a fashion designer.’ I decided this is what I’d do.” Noor studied technique on YouTube. After a year, CNN Arabia did a short documentary about her. She got a scholarship to study English from the US State Department, took courses in public speaking and how to apply to schools in Europe and America. In June 2021, the Polimoda application due date was fast approaching. There was also a war with Israel—the worst bombardments in Gaza since 2014. On the final due date for the applications, the Israelis were bombing her neighbourhood. Her laptop wasn’t working. She did the entire application on her phone, even photoshopping her portfolio. She submitted it, was accepted, and she ran a GoFundMe campaign to raise enough money for her first year. Leaving Gaza was part of her prerogative, she admits. “I don’t want to go back. This was the first year I saw a mountain, a river, the ocean. It’s beautiful. I don’t worry about bombs. I can live in my own room. And I love fashion.” Noor tells me about her love of sewing, which she enjoys almost as much as drawing. But she adds, “Fashion is political too. When Louis Vuitton did their keffiyah bullshit, it was a real turning point. It opened my eyes.” Noor is referring to June 2021, when Louis Vuitton designed a seven-hundred-euro keffiyah scarf. It was bad enough they were selling an object that symbolized the Palestinian resistance as a French fashion piece for exorbitant amounts of money; what really hurt Noor and other Palestinians was they made it blue and white, the colours of the Israeli national flag. The public backlash was intense—the online scarf protests made waves during the same 2021 war during which Noor applied to Polimoda—and it forced Vuitton to rescind their design. When Noor came to Italy, she wanted not only to make clothes but to represent her culture, as well. She used Handala, an image of Palestinian defiance created by the famous cartoonist Naji al-Ali, as the inspiration for several outfits. Noor wants to be the Bella Hadid of fashion design. “Fashion,” she says, “is as much about politics and identity as it is about looking good.”  * Later that afternoon, Benjamin and Fredo invite me to the Antony Morato event; it’ll be huge, a thousand people partying in an ancient auditorium. But Noor’s words ring in my head. The island invaded; politics, inescapable. For some, like Noor, fashion is an island of survival. The heat is unbearable, 38 with the humidity. Looking for a bottle of water, I stumble into a small corner, a dozen stalls in the upper floor. It’s the first time I’ve been away from the crowds; there’s nobody but me and a few designers. A woman hands me a bottle of water and asks if I’m okay. “Yeah,” I say. “Just tired.” Looking around, I see I’ve landed in a special “focus on Ukraine” section. The woman who’s handed me the water is Lilia Litkovska, a designer from Kyiv now living in Paris. Posters for “Litkovska” line the walls of her small stall. She asks if I’m a buyer, did I want to see her catalogue? I tell her I’m a writer and lover of fashion, but I’d like to look. I flip through it, ask if it feels strange to be here given that there’s a war in her country. She says, of course, but it’s an excellent opportunity: she’s using it as a platform to speak. “Fashion has the ability to reach more people than political protest, or a petition. It’s effective. People listen.” I like her designs. There’s something military in a few of them; high shoulders and lapels. Some use recycled materials. It all feels natural, unforced, and I tell her that. Lilia, aged forty, explains that fashion is in her family—she’s from four generations of tailors. Lilia launched her collection in 2006, her brand in 2009. While she comes from a fashion family, her parents were initially against her profession. She studied economics in university; they wanted her to be a financial analyst. But fashion wouldn’t let her go. She needed, she discovered, to make beautiful things. Lilia loves the materials she plays with: cashmere, silk, wool. And she loves that the person who wears what she creates gets to transform what they buy into something of their own. I ask how the war has changed her designs. Lilia explains she had already pivoted toward fashion as a form of cultural expression before the war. In 2019, she started to use Ukrainian traditional clothing and folk symbols in her work. She wasn’t sure the cause of this reorienting of her design; perhaps it was the birth of her first child. Now, in 2022, things have taken another turn. She says, “I always loved the military uniform. When the war started, I was invited to the alternative fashion show in London. I used the yellow lines that our Ukrainian military wear, a line on the shoulder, chevrons and balaclavas too… The message is simple: even if we are wearing this kind of ugly outfit, our beauty cannot be taken away from us. We are ready to defend it.” She shows me her “Artisanal line”—how it uses scraps of leftovers from old clothes. These vintage materials are brought to rural parts of Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains, where craftswomen weave new fabric out of the leftovers. “They’re doing this on hundred-year-old looms, all by hand,” explains Lilia. “This is very particular work, of a very old tradition, one that is dying out.” With Russians bombing these same Carpathian villages, along with the rest of the country, Lilia is worried the looms might not survive the war. She tells me she bought a loom so that she can preserve the tradition and teach others how to use it too. “Fashion,” she says, “is a way of keeping a tradition alive. The loom, the weaving, that’s knowledge. We can pass it on.”  * That night at the Antony Morato party there are free drinks for everyone. Electronic dance music pulsates; the room shakes. Hundreds of people are crammed into an old auditorium in the old city. I confess I feel unprepared for this; Covid has de-socialized me and for all I know, the latest variant is making its way through the crowd. Nobody wears masks. As Fredo, Benjamin and I push our way to the front of the bar for our complimentary Negronis, I think about Lilia and Noor. Are they in this crowd of excess? Two women careen toward me; they’re wearing six-inch stilettos and laughing. Are they laughing at me, or themselves? Images of outer space flash across the back screen; we are going somewhere. Fredo, Benjamin and I stumble to the dance floor, close our eyes. The island speaks, the people dance. It’s what we’ve always wanted.
Leonard Cohen’s Hydra

“Greece is a good place to look at the moon, isn’t it?”

Leonard Cohen’s house is not easy to find. But nothing on Hydra is. Street names are difficult to locate, and the houses don’t have numbers. The Greek island juts upwards, roads and alleyways wind around steep stone steps without railings. There are no cars or even bicycles allowed. The only transportation you’ll see are mules and donkeys (another reason to watch your step).   There’s uncommon commotion stepping off the Aegean Flying Dolphin ship as a hundred or so travelers find our feet on solid land. Donkey drivers load suitcases onto the sad-eyed beasts of burden. The scene is loud and disorienting for a little while, and then suddenly very quiet. I stop and look around, distracted by a pack of stray cats grazing at a plate of fish bones some kind Hydriot has left for them, and by the overhead view of the port: a horseshoe-shaped stage for decades of writers and artists. The cafés and bars of the agora come into view, all arranged in a semicircle around the Aegean Sea. So do the whitewashed houses with their red roofs dotting the green and grey mountains. It looks just like the old footage in the Netflix documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. It’s like stepping into an archival photograph.   As I get my bearings and try to spot the street leading to my pension hotel, I spot a crinkled flyer for something called the Hydra Book Club. Spotting the Greek text first, I squint and see it’s also in English. “WHAT ARE YOU SEEKING?” it asks in all caps. “WHY NOT COME HERE?” * When Leonard Cohen first stepped off the ferry here in 1960, he probably didn’t know how important this small island would become to both his work and his mythology. What he found was a thriving foreign artist colony that fed his early ambition long before he was established as a musician. He also found one of his most famous muses, Marianne Ihlen, who would inspire his work and letters right up until his 2016 death. But Cohen has always had a deep connection to the places he’s inhabited. One of his great skills is finding the universal in his specific experiences, and so he’s written his locations into his work. He sings about the place by the (St. Lawrence) river in “Suzanne” and the music on Clinton Street all through the evening in “Famous Blue Raincoat.” There’s a monument to Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where he famously rendezvoused with Janis Joplin on an unmade bed. And even when he retired from music to become a Buddhist monk, Mount Baldy Zen Center became his legendary refuge. Hydra is where Cohen first started to take writing seriously, and so it frames many of his early notebooks and letters (occasionally signed from Leonidas). Many of these are currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Everybody Knows exhibit. At the Toronto museum’s biographical show, there’s a set of his I Ching coins, a practice he became enamoured with during his Greek years, and the giant metal key to the Hydra house he bought with a $1500 inheritance from his grandmother and returned to throughout the ‘60s—the same one I had such trouble finding this past October. The ‘60s hit Hydra’s foreign colony like they did other artists of the era. There was plenty of sex and drugs, not to mention gossip and never-ending glasses of retsina. Cohen infamously wrote his second published novel Beautiful Losers in a fever dream of speed and intense heat and very little nourishment. You can read it in the prose. But Hydra was a spot of respite for Cohen, which led to his unique productivity. In a letter to his mother from when he first arrived, on display at the AGO, he describes his daily routine: I get up at 7:30 every morning and work for 3 hours. Then I go down to the port for a breakfast of milk and bread and honey. This is famous honey; the ancient poets sang about it . . . I sun for a few hours, then lunch on artichokes, cheese and roe and then the whole island goes to sleep for a few hours, I work for another two hours after siesta and then I wander down to the port & talk and watch the fishermen repair their nets and learn Greek. All in all life is orderly and sweet, always complying with the old ideal “A sound mind in a sound body.” *   I’ve tasted the famous honey. The poets were right to sing about it. It’s my first morning on Hydra and I’ve ended up at a portside cafe called Isalos, which I’ve been told by the people at my hotel has the best Greek breakfasts on the island. The menu is filled with decadent spreads of cheeses, breads, cakes and pastries, but the best ones are made for two people and I’m here on my own. So I opt for fruits and yogurt, which is not usually my thing, but I’m in Greece. It’s worth it—thick and cold and refreshing, it's nothing like the yogurt in Canada, not even like the Greek yogurt sold in grocery stores. More importantly, it comes with a full little jar of honey, which slowly drizzles over the bowl in perfectly sweet little globs. Fending off a persistent wasp, I glance over to the next table. A couple is sipping iced coffees and eating croissants while a carousel of people come over to say hello. One older gentleman with a mop of grey hair and British accent sits across from them and starts singing in Greek. Another woman comes to take a selfie with them. It’s a hint of the old social scene I’ve read about, where artists and bohemians gathered to drink and chat. Striking up a conversation, I learn the man is one of the owners of the family-run restaurant. So I  tell him about my brief and unfruitful search for Leonard Cohen’s house. Leonard’s children Lorca and Adam still often come and stay there, he says, as does their mother Suzanne Elrod. They’re treated like locals on the island, and they like to lay low. Adam has occasionally given gentle hints that the restaurant owner should stop sending tourists to the house. It’s easy to see why the Cohens would want some privacy while they seek a connection to their father, who the Everybody Knows exhibit hints was somewhat absent during their childhood. In his early Hydra years, Cohen was a father figure to Marianne Ihlen’s child, little Axel, but Adam and Lorca later spent many summers there. Adam Cohen, a musician himself, has made the Hydra house his own hub. He’s recorded some of his own and his father’s posthumous music there, and the video for “Moving On” takes the viewer right inside the sparsely furnished living room. But the more recent archival work, including Leonard’s early unpublished novel and short stories A Ballet of Lepers and the AGO exhibit, have been done without his children’s participation. They’ve been feuding with the Leonard Cohen Family Trust over control of his archives.    Cohen kept his letters and notebooks because he was confident that they might be worthy of studying someday, but he never made himself easy to know. Always looking to find universality in his specific experiences, he often seemed like he was performing in his life too. That’s evident in Michael Posner’s recent Untold Stories oral history book trilogy. Many who knew him describe the experience of talking to Leonard the poet, not Leonard the person. His dry wit, his ladies' man image, his biblical allusions—it often felt like persona. The new glimpses offered by the posthumous archival releases have revealed a darker tinge to his unparalleled mix of the sacred and the profane—a fascination with guns and violence, humiliation and control. From A Ballet of Lepers, “A Short Story On A Greek Island” sets a story against an artist colony backdrop and ends in an act of gendered violence.   So, it’s hard to know what you might find stepping in Cohen’s footsteps. There’s a famous photo of Cohen from Life Magazine in 1960. He’s sitting under an old olive tree at Xeri Elia Taverna, also known as Douskos (named after the family that owns it), and strumming a guitar while surrounded by expatriates. Leaning against him is Charmian Clift, an Australian writer whose novels Peel Me A Lotus and Mermaid Singing detail everyday life in Hydra as it was discovered by artists. This was years before Cohen was first dragged onstage by Judy Collins to sing his debut song “Suzanne,” and some historians like to claim it as his first-ever public concert. Douskos is still operating and still in the family, feeding generations of Greeks and travelers heaping servings of moussaka and fish soup. Walking into the big open courtyard slightly recessed from the action of the port, it's easy to imagine Cohen and his friends sitting right there. The tree still grows, and the guitar is still on a hook inside the restaurant—apparently the same one that Cohen played, having grabbed it right off the wall. There are no monuments to Cohen—the tree and the tavern have enough history on their own—but there is a Cohen poem on the menu. “They are still singing down at Dusko’s / sitting under the ancient pine tree,” he wrote in 1967, apparently not as good at identifying tree species as he was at poetry. “In the deep night of fixed and falling stars / if you go to your window you can hear them.”   The beating heart of the foreign colony, a prime setting of Clift’s Peel Me A Lotus, was Kastikas. It was where artists would sit and kibbitz for hours, whiling away a day after swimming or trading rejection letters deep into the morning. A short jaunt from Isalos next to a clock tower that echoes throughout the whole island every hour, the former grocery store is now a bar and cafe called Roloi. This is where Leonard Cohen fans from all over the world have been descending on Hydra periodically since 2002. The Hydra gatherings are organized by the Leonard Cohen Files. A somewhat primitive-looking message board started in the mid-‘90s, the fan site was fully embraced by the artist himself during his lifetime, and he often fed them news and concert pre-sales even before the media. According to emails from founder Jarkko Arjatsalo, a Finnish fan who Cohen kept up a correspondence with for two decades, there were over 200 fans at the last Hydra gathering. They charter boats around the island, hike up the many hills, and screen concerts at the open-air cinema. In 2014, while Cohen was still alive, the forum decided to do something for his eightieth birthday and settled on a bench on Hydra overlooking the sea. Cohen wrote, “I bow my head in gratitude” in a message to the group, but he never got to sit on it himself. The entire island of Hydra is a culturally protected monument and it’s not easy to build there. By the time they got permission from the Historical Office in Athens and found a local architect to build it, Cohen had passed away. It was inaugurated with a concert in 2017, a year after his death. Walking the cliffside road from the inner town to the outer reaches of Kamini Beach, it’s easy to walk right by the recessed stone brick bench. Look carefully and you’ll see the plaque with a quote from Cohen “. . . came so far for beauty.” Somebody has tagged the wooden backrest with spray paint, which spoils some of that beauty he, and I, came so far for. But when I look over the ocean and see the sun setting, its perfect orange reflected in the deep blue of the water Cohen used to swim in every day, I get it. The Greeks are very serious about their sunsets, and this is the best one I’ve seen. It’s vistas like these that drew him back to the island over and over and over again. Unlike the larger-than-life mural of Cohen's face on a building on Montreal's Crescent Street, the specific bench is not the attraction—but it’s a good place to take in the island’s “orderly and sweet” charms. * Nowadays, Hydra still attracts artists from all over the world, but the tax bracket is a little higher. You can’t buy a house for $1500 anymore, nor can you live on honey and bread and salt-water swims without regular income. Airbnb has done very well on Hydra. The DESTE Foundation, a Greek contemporary art organization, has taken over a historic slaughterhouse a short walk from the Cohen bench. Where it used to colour the ocean red with blood and guts, it now draws people in for major installations. When I’m there, it’s showing an exhibition by ultra-profitable American artist Jeff Koons. Inside, a moving statue of the Greek god Apollo “plays” an incantation on an ancient stringed instrument that, as you move in closer, reveals itself to be “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. Outside, a large sun-shaped wind spinner adds an Instagrammable embellishment to the gorgeous views. In the time since I’ve returned from Hydra, the town has made a rare exception and made Koons’s Apollo Wind Spinner a permanent fixture. Koons is a controversial figure, but it’s hard to deny the eye-catching mix of ancient and modern landscape. It reminds me of “Bird On The Wire,” which Cohen wrote when hydro wires were brand new to the formerly electricity-free island. The island evolves with its inhabitants without losing its innate sense of being. But despite being such a haven for high-profile artists both old and new, you’re more likely to find monuments to marine heroes on Hydra. “When I first arrived, I was blown away by the density of the story on this small island,” says Josh Hickey, an American-born, Paris-based art curator who spends months at a time on Hydra. “You do some digging and you end up in this rabbit hole of amazing writers who’ve all stayed or written about the island. But everyone is pretty discreet about it.” From September until October, Hickey runs the Hydra Book Club out of the Historical Archives Museum. Up the stairs past displays explaining the relatively recent 18th-century-beginning history of Hydra as a safe haven for those fleeing the Ottoman Empire, there’s a room filled with books. Tables are stacked with copies of Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Gregory Corso, Charmian Clift and George Johnson, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Ansen, Jeanette Winterson, and Polly Samson, along with rare copies of Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. All of these foundational writers spent time in Hydra and penned words about its mountainous charms. Yet, this is one of the few spots on Hydra where books are even sold. That’s compelled Hickey to make Hydra Book Club an annual exhibition, though he describes it as more of an art project than a commercial one. “I'm more interested in the social interaction that it provokes than the selling of an individual book,” he says. Sometimes, people that were part of the scene in Cohen’s day stop in and tell him stories. As much has been written, there are more stories whispered over mastika at tavernas. “It can be very gossipy,” he says. “Which is funny, because that’s what it was like in the ‘60s.” There’s a fine line between celebrating the art scene and parading it, because the rustic serenity of Hydra is what has historically made it such a haven. Having a drink and engaging in the boisterous conversation at the port can make it feel like a community, but take a few steps up the mountain and the air is so silent that your own footsteps sound thunderous. Lounge on one of the concrete bathing platforms and you feel part of a landscape that is indifferent to your ego. It feels immortal. But when one figure looms so large over a place, it’s possible to cast such a shadow that it’s hard to see what was originally there. After Cohen wrote the wistful “So Long, Marianne” looking back at his tumultuous but loving years with Ihlen on Hydra, he later joked onstage that when Ihlen first heard the song, she asked him who it was about. “It can’t be about me, because my name is Marianne-nah,” she said. She’s forever immortalized with the wrong name.  “Greece is a good place to look at the moon, isn’t it?” Cohen asks in his poem “Days of Kindness.” He’s right, on Hydra the moon is as bright as any place I’ve ever seen it. But as I think about that poem, I can’t help but wonder, am I seeing it through my eyes or through his?   * When I finally find Leonard Cohen’s house, it’s by accident. I’ve been wandering aimlessly uphill through the winding streets, following the sounds of horses and chickens past long-abandoned churches with for-sale signs. Every time I turn back towards the port, I see a new brilliant angle of the island stage. Turning onto what seems like a narrow side alley, I see a couple in shirts with logos from the Montreal marathon. They’re snapping pictures of a blue and white street sign. I lean closer and see what it says, in Greek and English script: Leonard Cohen Street. Then, I see the pleasant but unassuming bougainvillea-adorned white house. That’s the one! But, as I share the discovery with my fellow Canadian Cohenites, our voices never go above a whisper. This feels strange, we agree. We’re all Leonard Cohen fans, but there could be someone in there. It feels like we’re sneaking around. So we decide to continue our conversation elsewhere. We turn onto the next street and head down towards the port together.
Unwritten Recipes

Anyone who’s lived long enough to learn to feed themselves likely has some kind of biographical dish.

Welcome to Cooking is Thinking, a column about the transformation of food and how we feel about it.  Two summers ago, my grandmother-in-law, whom I’ve always called Nonna, spotted a couple of overripe tomatoes in her fruit bowl and asked if I’d like to learn how to make “something with tomatoes and bread I haven’t made in a long time.” In the near twenty years I’ve known her, this is how she’s identified many dishes to me. The “sauce, but for lasagna only,” or the “green sauce I used to make for company with a lot of chopped herbs” when her late husband would bring home a hunted goose. Even in the recipe cards she’s kept, or at least the ones I’ve seen, the titles focus more on their role in her day-to-day than a name. My favourite? Yelo Cake. It’s a simple pound cake recipe I’m convinced is designed specifically for her scratched-up 50-year-old Bundt pan. The couple of times I’ve tried making it in any other vessel it stuck and didn’t cleanly pop out. Imagine someone has cooked a particular dish a hundred, possibly even a thousand times over during the course of their life. By “someone,” I don’t mean a kitchen or restaurant professional. Just a person, someone used to making food for themselves. Often for others, too, and often, because of the history associated with this labour, a woman. What might the actions involved in making the dish have to say about their desires, their triumphs and failures, and how they have learned to comfort others or nourish themselves? It’s taken me a long time to understand the value in explicitly recording this type of cooking, whether it’s by recipe cards or through extremely specific oral instruction that sometimes borders on the theatrical. Anyone who’s lived long enough to learn to feed themselves likely has some kind of biographical dish, whether it’s a clear-as-glass chicken broth, or a tamale, or simply scrambled eggs smashed on toast. They aren’t necessarily perfect. To some they may not even be all that good. But what they are is embodied proof of what the maker knows. * There’s a chapter in London-based writer Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, released in the UK last year and out in Canada this summer, that addresses the question of the biographical dish through her documentation of making one thing a thousand different ways over the course of ten years. One night, as a lonely undergrad new to a big city, a classmate on exchange from Italy teaches her a simple method for tomato sauce. Garlic, sliced thinly; olive oil heated enough to pull the garlic flavour into itself and frizzle the edges just slightly; tinned tomatoes and salt go in and bubble until the oil floats to the top; a bunch of basil gets thrown in at the end. The process takes all of twenty minutes, maybe thirty. This recipe becomes the anchor for Johnson teaching herself how to cook to impress or cook to feed, and how to distinguish between the two. What begins as an inquiry into the life of a recipe becomes a sort of side thinking project to her PhD at the time, and eventually a book on the intellectual nature of cooking. Johnson was taught one way of cooking what is essentially a pasta pomodoro sauce. While searching for the recipe—that is, a written record of what she’d been instructed in person to make—she adopts a classic Marcella Hazan method for sugo. She learns that there are multiple written versions of the classic recipe in existence—that perhaps Hazan’s enduring influence through this sauce alone has more to do with the nature of its adoption in a home cook’s life rather than its to-the-letter execution from an original set of written steps. Johnson suggests that even this form of no-recipe adoption, too, is itself a recipe.  Cooking is thinking is the takeaway argument of Small Fires, and I can’t tell you how good it felt to read those three words in succession without some kind of qualification. There are many cooks and writers I’ve admired who have pressed this point through an essay, a recipe, or a film. But few in my experience have done so without hedging the argument in ways that suggest the thinking lies somewhere other than in the act itself. Cooking is thinking, but only if it upends tradition—the implication being that if tradition means the country of grandmothers and home-cooked food, then in tradition lies the absence of thought. Cooking is thinking, but only if it adheres to the tradition of Continental (read: European) cuisine cooked in brigade-run kitchens. Cooking is thinking, but only if the ingredients are of a certain provenance. Cooking is thinking, but only if it does something—other than feed people, of course. Cooking is thinking, but. *  Unlike with writing, I cook best when I’m not thinking. Or, more specifically, when I’m distracted enough not to be alert about the cooking itself: if I’m underslept, missing someone, faintly hungover, impatient about something other than what I’m making, hungry and in need of a meal soon but not now, immediately after an argument. In situations like these, a comfort-seeking, animal part of my brain becomes alive, one that can pay attention in ways my environment these days either doesn’t encourage or does not immediately reward. Sometimes I’ll beat the hell out of a few eggs until they’re as thin as water, salt them, let them rest for ten minutes, then cook them on the lowest heat for fifteen minutes, stirring most of the time, till they’re custard-thick and perfect—only then do they get chives or pepper or a drop of cream. Or I can drop dried black beans in broth, olive oil, fennel, oregano, then epazote for tradition and baking soda for a science-backed way to skip a lengthy pre-soak. I’ll boil them for ten minutes and simmer for another fifty or so until they’re inky, creamy and ready to blend—my proof positive to anyone, usually just myself, that I know how to cook well. This isn’t to say I cook without recipes. Far from it: the fact that I need to follow these steps, that I need specific conditions to cook in this way, is an indictment of what otherwise sounds like instinctual cooking. My ability to pay attention in the way these foods need renders the conditions of their making a form of recipe unto itself.  Watching my own mother cook, watching Nonna cook, and my own abuela before her, helped me recognize this deeply even if I didn’t understand it at the time. Shopping for what you know you have time to cook in a week sets the parameters of a recipe. Translating decades of domestic work experience into a set of strict oral instructions on how to turn past-prime vegetables, vinegar, garlic and sugar into a blissful braise is a recipe. Recognizing anxiety in a six-year-old child and calming her down with something as simple as hot honey stirred into lime juice will convince almost anyone that cooking—that creating recipes—is a necessary skill. *  In 2017, American celebrity chef Tyler Florence announced his retirement from writing cookbooks (he’s authored more than a dozen), having declared the recipe deceased. “They’re dead the same way paper maps are dead,” he told the Washington Post at the time, decrying their inability to address every dietary need, every geographical and domestic reality—as if people who are used to cooking for others regularly don’t adapt written cooking instructions for these reasons every day. Not too long ago, lockdown-enforced home cooking encouraged food writers to revisit their own relationship with the recipe. Was it masterful to cook without one? A door-opening text to understanding the world if followed to the letter? An ahistorical argument? I think all these things are true. But I also think their suggestion that the recipe is an either/or proposition, that you either cook with or without one, limits how we understand the act of cooking. If you cook from experience, these instincts are still informed by a series of known steps. Perhaps they were relayed by a family member, a cookbook, a TV appearance—or even your own happy accident, all the more repeated step by step in the future because of the unexpected joy of the result. A trusted method, whether worked out individually or handed down from some multi-generational source, has still been tested over and over, has its own logic for how elastic or rigid its parameters are—is shaped by its own set of social conditions, artifices, even fantasies or superstitions. * For the tomato-and-bread dish, Nonna sliced the tomatoes in half, and asked me to scoop out the flesh with a spoon: enough to get the seeds out, but not so much as to disturb the fleshy parts that section the fruit. She instructed me to pile sprigs of parsley and thyme and two cloves of garlic upon themselves, chop them up together as if they were the same ingredient, then mix them into a bowl of stale bread soaked in milk. She insisted on mixing it all herself with her hands, then squeezing out the extra liquid into the sink, and I carefully watched her do this. She stuffed the strained mass into the tomatoes, I topped them with grated cheese, and we roasted them for forty minutes. They turned out crispy on top and soggy beneath. Not the way she wanted. She promised we’d try the recipe again, but we haven’t since. I came to understand that her disappointment in the tomato dish had more to do with her relationship with the act of cooking than the result itself. I followed her instructions exactly, at times in contradiction to what I might have done myself, or thought that in earlier years she would have wanted me to do. Nonna is ninety-five; an act of any kind on her part isn’t a given. She knew this then, and I knew it, too. What benefit was there in doing anything other than what she instructed? Six months after the tomato dish, she began to recoil from foods neighbours had often brought by the house: bready pizzas, steamed vegetables, sheets of broken lasagna deep-fried and covered in sugar. “This soup? Horrible!” she exclaimed about something cooked by a neighbour she’d known for 50 years. This was not out of spite. Her sense of taste was changing. One weekend I brought her a litre of minestrone made from dried beans and garden-grown zucchini. She didn’t like the colour and wouldn’t look at it. Another weekend, it was a container of pepperonata, made from red bell peppers, old and caving in; a glug of vinegar, and a pinch of sugar to mask their age. “Get me a fork,” she demanded the minute the lid was lifted. She ate the braised vegetables straight from the little plastic tub—cold, unheated, completely in contradiction to her lifelong insistence that food be eaten scalding hot. It’s extremely unlikely she was able to taste the peppers at that temperature, but she delighted in it, the first thing she ever taught me to make.
‘The Things We Take For Granted Hurt Us The Most’: An Interview with Jenny Odell

Whose clock are you on? The author of Saving Time discusses actors versus automatons, and existing between the margins of the “unforgiving timetable world.”

My Instagram page is an ocean of calm. Thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles. Slow mornings with tea and cats. Pictures of the books I’m reading set against tropical greenery. The pace is patient and soft—a direct response to a life deeply altered by chronic fatigue, in which the fast became the impossible, and posting about slowness became a way for me to grapple with the loss. It also became an expression of my politics: the less “productive” I was, the closer I felt to the anti-capitalist resistance that used to have me marching nearly every week. Once a Marxist in the streets now a Marxist in the sheets, right? Not exactly, as it turns out. In her book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock (Random House), artist and author Jenny Odell writes: “On Instagram, posts about slowness, self-care and ‘taking time out’ [act as] advertisements. [T]hey read either implicitly or explicitly as exhortations to the viewer: You, too, could (should) be this slow!” Here, a leisurely pace is simply another facet of the experience economy, something to be bought in service of the good life. “[S]eeking new ways of being,” Odell writes, “I find only new ways of spending.” At a time when income inequality is rapidly worsening, what does it mean for privileged people to react to burnout by “fortifying walled gardens of slowness, minimalism and authenticity”—an aspiration that is far removed from most people’s options and lives? In many ways, Saving Time is an answer to this question. From how the “slowness” of the privileged is made possible by the speeding-up of others to why resisting the climate crisis involves a rejection of uniform clock time, Odell’s follow-up to 2019’s How to Do Nothing establishes her as a leading philosopher of our age. Within these pages we encounter factory lines, automation, trees, leisure, moss, disability, art: a vast array of histories, experiences and realities that lead us to a world in which time isn’t running out, as we’re so often made to feel. And what of slowness? Odell suggests a slowing down that has nothing to do with consumerism. Rather, it is a matter of attention, of noticing “simply what has been happening all along, just outside [our] perception.” At this pace, time expands outwards, not forwards, calling our awareness towards the lives of both human and nonhuman beings—a path towards collective wellbeing that is not predicated on possessing a front garden in which to rest your lovely teacup. Odell writes: “What consumers do is buy green, not hold each other and cry.” Saving Time asks what could happen within our lives, within our time, if we were able to do the latter instead. Richa Kaul Padte: I’d love to start by talking about our “unhealthy fixation on morning routines.” You’re referring to the extreme self-optimization of productivity bros, but lately I’ve begun to feel that even “healthier” morning routines—morning pages, meditation trackers—stem from the same place: a desire “to see time…as something we [can] cut up, stack, and move around.” Routines focussed on self-improvement purport to help us use our time well. In contrast, you later cite sociologist Richard Sennett, who observes that “routine can demean, but it can also protect…it can compose a life.” What distinguishes this second type of routine from the first? Jenny Odell: I think the difference has to do with the reasoning behind a routine. For example, a traditional ritual, where different things are done in a certain order for a certain length of time; the goal in some cases [here] is to feel connected to the past or be reminded of specific values. A routine or a ritual may simply be a recipe for what an individual or a society has decided is the best, most beautiful, or most meaningful way to do something. The kind of problem you’re describing shows up with routines in which the goal, out of all these possibilities, is the squeezing of some (narrowly defined) value out of each minute. The hallmark of this kind of goal is quantification, as a well as an overall punitive feeling that has more than a whiff of industrialism and the Protestant work ethic. The danger is that you can get so caught up with measuring, rewarding, and punishing yourself that you never get to step back and ask that broader question about what the routine is for. And of course, it plays right into the overall cultural idea of individuals with time in their individual time banks—not ideal if you’re trying to see the world in terms of support, solidarity, and mutual care. The idea of robots coming for our jobs has been a fear for a long time, but the reality is less about machines taking over factory lines and more about “the social relations within which [machines] are employed.” There was recently a conversation online about the way this has affected translators, who are often now paid to edit documents that have been run through Google Translate or other AI—a tedious, frustrating process that’s as lengthy as translation, but for which they are paid much less (the so-called real work has already been done by AI, or so employers claim). Is it robots or capitalism coming for our jobs? Your example gels so well with a book I cite, Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job. I really appreciate that book for the way Mueller situate[es] current conversations about automation within the longer history of work and technology. All throughout this history, you see that machines and automation don’t so much replace work as reorganize it; so while it may not be accurate to say “robots are coming for our jobs,” you could still certainly say “robots are going to affect our jobs.” And as long as the goal of work is to make a profit, the way that they affect jobs has often been to make the work of humans duller, less well-paid, and more geographically far-flung. In so doing, it also intensifies that work, pitting workers against each other, automated systems, and the clock. Emily Guendelsberger, whose book On the Clock I also cite, gives such a visceral description of working in an Amazon warehouse, in which her movements are dictated by her own scanner gun and she “compete[s] with computers, algorithms, and robots that never get tired, or sick, or depressed, or need a day off.” You write: “the implied answer to the question ‘who will do the low-wage work’ is that it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s not you.” As you go on to say, “some people’s time is not only valued less, but also understood as existing for the sake of others’ time.” To ask your own question back to you: “Who gets to occupy time and who (and what) does not”? There seems to be this idea that some types of activity achieve changes and progress in the world (e.g. salaried work), and others don’t (e.g. caretaking). One appears to be going forward in time and the other appears to be going in circles—if it appears at all. This difference is reflected both in how society values each type of work—literally, in terms of wages, but it also shows up less literally in the way that certain tempos are privileged. Someone’s schedule is always more important. Some people are expected to rush or wait for others, like stagehands running around in the background so the real show can go on. The structure that defines whether someone is considered an “actor” here is the same as that which governs power imbalances in general: it is typically an able-bodied, white, male, cis temporality that is given priority. It makes me think of this brutal opening monologue in the 1998 film A Civil Action, where a cynical personal injury lawyer is describing the chances of winning a trial on behalf of an injured or deceased plaintiff: “A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle-aged, a dead woman less than a dead man, a single adult less than one who is married, Black less than white, poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime.” At the same time, I want to point out the parenthetical who (and what) in my own question. There is a broader historical version of what I’m describing, in which Western colonial powers encountered places and people they considered to be existing without time. It was as if the timeline didn’t start until they arrived, and their linear, quantified time was given priority over existing Indigenous conceptions of time. An important part of this clash is the notion that only humans occupy time and that everything else is just sort of existing, again, in that cyclical way—an environment made of automata, not actors. That is the very attitude that has contributed so much to our current climate crisis, in that it frames so much of the world as things to be mined and exploited to death. What’s interesting is that in both of these scenarios I’ve described, to occupy time means to be something closer to a subject. To be left out of time is to be something closer to an object. Jenny, it feels like every time I’m interviewing you, I’m undergoing a massive chronic illness reckoning! Your first book, How to Do Nothing, held me closely in 2019, so I was really pleased to see the space you afford to illness and disability in Saving Time. In particular, crip time—“the tension between a disabled person’s temporality and the clock-based, industrialized timetables of modern-day society.” While at one level this is a question of disabled people’s agency (we don’t all have the same number of Beyoncé hours in a day!), it is also, in associate professor of feminist studies Alison Kafer’s words, a “reimagining of our notions of what could and should happen in time.” How does crip time expand possibilities for everyone? A really beautiful illustration of this expansion is in Sara Hendren’s book, What Can a Body Do?, where she talks about her relationship with her son, diagnosed with Down’s syndrome at birth. There are obviously challenges, which Hendren notices often have to do with time and being out of sync with how value and progress are usually framed. But she also describes it as a gift: it’s through observing and interacting with her son that she can begin to see a different framing, one where a person can be something more than a receptacle of potential work, and where joy and meaning are the desired outcomes.  This is the same gift I feel that crip time gives to all of us: it is a real, embodied demonstration of a value system that is different from the one that—whether or not you’re disabled—constricts so much of the human experience. It provides a standpoint from which we can consider things about the shape of time that especially able-bodied people may have taken for granted, and I find that it’s often the things that we take for granted that hurt us the most. When you think about who is actually comfortable in “clock-based, industrial timetables,” you start to realize how narrow it is—not just in terms of disability, but also, for instance, in terms of age. I really feel that there is so much of us that exists at odds with, or between the margins of, the unforgiving timetable world and the values it espouses. Crip time shows us that it doesn’t have to be that way. Ideas about having a good life usually go in two directions: extending your life via so-called wellness and fitness, and/or juicing the crap out of the short life you have (travel the world! Skydive!). As someone with chronic illness, these both feel like options where I’m set up to fail. But as I get older, I realize that everyone’s life is circumscribed in a variety of ways that mean one or both of these strategies will invariably fall short. You offer a more freeing alternative: “Maybe ‘the point’ isn’t to live more…but rather, to be more alive in any given moment—a movement outward and across, rather than shooting forward.” How is this type of living in the moment different from carpe diem in the action-packed sense we usually understand it? For me the difference has to do with how you define an individual, or how much weight you place on the currently dominant notion of an individual. Juicing the crap out of the short life you have is what you do when you see yourself or your life as a product that you need to get the most value out of—even better if you can get more value out of it than your neighbour gets out of theirs. When I talk about being “more alive,” I’m describing a relationship—between myself and another person, myself and a bird, or myself and an entire place, for example. I feel more alive when I’m really there with that other, in a way that can sometimes erase the clock, replacing my time with our time. And I think it’s pretty intuitive, this idea of building bridges across rather than accruing to oneself. When you look back at the moments in your life that you associate with meaning (vs. “success”), they might not have been straightforwardly happy or comfortable, but I’m guessing they involved some kind of especially resonant moment with something or someone outside of yourself, and that they might have changed you for good. For me, being receptive to such a feeling is part of what I mean by being more alive. You talk about the need for “not just biodiversity but...chronodiversity,” which is linked, as you write elsewhere, to “a less human-centric model of who and what is owed respect and justice.” How are nonhuman conceptions of time, such as moss time, connected to justice? There’s a part of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Gathering Moss that I really love, where she describes having to adjust her studies to the moss itself. She says, “Rather than looking at the clump as an entity, I had to recognize that the clump was simply an arbitrary unit that was convenient for me, but had little meaning for the moss. Mosses experience the world as individual stems and to understand their lives I needed to make my observations at the same scale.” Taking seriously the idea that time is as real for the nonhuman world as it is for humans means admitting that nonhumans have experience, which is the beginning of the idea that they also deserve rights. As current “rights of nature” campaigns illustrate, this requires empathy, imagination, and I think also a reckoning with the history of why and how we divide the world into human and nonhuman. To go back to what I said earlier about who (and what) gets to occupy time, in the book I cite the theorist Sylvia Wynter, who has written about how [the] very narrow definition of “Man” in the idea “Man vs. Nature” arose out of a specific historical moment: the point of contact between Western colonial powers and the people and lands they sought to exploit and exclude from historical time. Nature here would’ve included not just the local ecology but colonized people, similarly framed as resources. This divide went on to affect who and what are considered subjects as opposed to objects, as we can see so clearly in the history of slavery in the U.S. and the absurd compromise of the three-fifths rule. What was interesting for me to learn was how historically specific that distinction was—subject/object, in time/not in time, foreground/background—and to see how much it spills into the modern day: not just in how different peoples’ time is valued, but in how the nonhuman world, which is certainly changing, is still rarely figured as having actors in it. That has to change, and is part of why I titled my climate change chapter “A Change of Subject.” I agree with the environmentalists, in particular Indigenous activists, who argue that a real response to the climate crisis would have to address this issue of cultural perception.  Part of seeing time as something we use involves seeing ourselves as separate from time. But you advocate, instead, for an understanding in which all beings—including those we presume to be inanimate, like rocks—are constantly being inscribed by time. Can you talk more about what this means? It reminds me of Donna Haraway’s concept becoming-with, where everything exists “in thick co-presence” with everything else. For me, I think of Henri Bergson, the philosopher that I rely on quite heavily in this book, and his description of walking past the buildings of a familiar town: “Like myself they have lived, and like myself they have grown old.” I honestly find myself thinking about that line all the time. Sometimes I imagine perception as a windshield that can get dirty with all kinds of things like petty worries, self-absorption, and impatience. But on good days, when the windshield is especially clean, I feel not only that I can see everything but that everything is there with me, that the world is present and I am present in the world. I can go to the park, full of trees, birds, and rocks, and feel co-present with them, seeing that “like myself they have lived.” I find that it is a much less lonely existence. In the book I describe a buckeye tree in a local park: all of the different stages it goes through and its fall and winter dormancy. At the beginning of this year, I had COVID and was quarantined in my room, and when it happened, the tree was still dormant, with little buds on the ends of the branches just waiting. Then when I came out of quarantine and finally went for a walk, I was surprised to find that the clock had skipped ahead while I was inside: perhaps because of the massive amount of rain we got, the buds had not only opened but the leaves had already escaped. What was really surprising to me, though, was how genuinely overjoyed I felt. I think I literally threw my arms out to the side, and the look on my face was the same exact one you would have if you hadn’t seen a friend since last year.
The Big Coin Heist

It was a piece of currency so large it seemed unimaginable anyone would try to steal it. But that was part of the appeal.

The figure turns to address two others. Like him, they are dressed in head-to-toe black, their faces obscured. Unlike him, they are lagging on the stairs of Berlin’s Hackescher Markt S-Bahn platform. Because there is no audio and his face is turned away from the CCTV cameras, there’s no way to know what he’s saying, but there’s something in his body language. A restlessness, like an eager kid telling his friends to catch up because they’re at risk of missing out.  It's 3 a.m., on March 27, 2017. The figures are going to steal a 100 kg coin the size of a car tire made of the purest gold in the world. Whatever the leader says works. The two other figures catch up, fall in line, and when they reach the top of the stairs, speed walk towards the end of the S-Bahn platform. The three figures step off the platform, onto the track bed, and over to the service pathway running parallel to the tracks. They didn’t have to worry about any trains passing by and spotting them, because they knew that the S-Bahn wouldn’t start up again until 4:13 a.m. The path they walk gives them an enviable view of the unattended city, theirs in the way all cities belong to those awake at such an early hour. The Berlin Cathedral looms above them and Monbijoupark, with its winter-battered trees, peers over the S-Bahn tracks. Beneath them is the Spree River, and ahead is the Bode Museum, part of what is known as Museum Island. It was there, on the second floor of the Bode Museum, that the Big Maple Leaf coin awaited them. Since its creation, the coin had possessed a curious quality, a weight greater than its mass, and a worth beyond its face value. It had a way of changing lives. The three figures were moments away from learning that themselves. If they succeeded, the coin would certainly make them rich. But it also had the potential to do more: make them infamous, noteworthy, respected, admired for the brazenness of their act. Which was the idea. This was meant to be a provocation, and what was at stake in those early hours of the day wasn’t just repercussions, but reputation. * Ten years earlier, 6000 kilometers away, in Ottawa, designer and engraver Stan Witten was at his desk with a set of graphite pencils drawing three silver maple leaves on an 8.5x11 piece of paper. The veteran Royal Canadian Mint employee was focused on getting the leaves just right. He wanted to ensure the leaves felt alive, as if they would curl up and float off the page. They were for a special project unlike any he had ever worked on for the RCM. The project, to create a 100 kg coin, twenty inches thick, with a face value of one million dollars, was so unprecedented that when RCM chief technology officer Xianyao Li was told about it, his first thought was, “It’s impossible.” The idea for the Big Maple Leaf coin formed as the RCM was launching a new series of pocket-sized coins made of 99.999 percent pure gold, often referred to as “five nines pure.” Raw gold is typically muddied with other elements like silver, aluminum, or zirconium, and needs to be processed so that there are less than ten parts per million of other elements. The typical standard is four nines. That extra decimal represents hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional value, and a source of technical pride for an organization like the RCM. But the RCM wanted to signal a little more to the world, to draw attention to the new line of coins. In 2004, the Austrian Mint had created what was at that time the world’s biggest coin: a 31 kg coin made of 99.99 percent pure gold. In doing so, Austria hadn’t issued a direct challenge, but because there is an unofficial rivalry between international mints, they might just as well have. What if the RCM combined one accomplishment with another? What if they created a big, 99.999 percent pure coin? Really big. Big enough to draw attention. Most coins can be struck with a hydraulic press, but there was no machine large enough, or powerful enough, to strike a coin this size. Li and his colleagues would have to turn to casting, a process not unlike pouring batter into a cake mold. The problem with that was the need to create a custom mold that could produce the needed thickness. It would also have to be a mold strong enough to withstand so much hot molten gold, while flexible enough to let the coin pop out after. Precision also had to be considered. Because the coin was to be sold at 100 kilograms, if it ended up weighing 101 kilograms, that additional gold would be an expensive loss for the RCM. If the coin came out of the cast under 100 kilograms, the team would have to scrap the entire coin and start again. The process could also risk contamination, turning five nine gold into four nines.  Over the next three months, the team worked through the process. They knew they were working on something unique. Defining. Whenever a coin was cast, the whole plant would gather and provide support. “Everyone wanted to know how successful it would be,” recalls Xianyao Li. “When we succeeded everyone was so happy. When we scrapped one coin because of the weight, everybody found a way to support the team so they don’t feel bad.” Eventually the casting process succeeded. Witten used hand engraving tools to remove slight defects that emerged during the casting process, enhanced the details of the maple leaves and the image of Queen Elizabeth (designed by Susanna Blunt) on the opposite side. The coin surfaces were primed by hand, pre-polished, and then given a frosted finish. In May 2007, the Big Maple Leaf coin was revealed to the public and the press at the RCM’s Ottawa offices. Internally, the team celebrated. Special posters were made and signed by all involved (Li has one framed in his office). Team photos were shot. There was also a celebration in the employees’ cafeteria, with coffee and cake, and a chance to stand next to the coin and have a photo taken. In the days, weeks, and months after, the Big Maple Leaf coin’s creators saw their hard work receive international attention. The Guinness World Records organization officially recognized the coin as the world’s largest. There was high demand for the coin to tour the world. The creators received personal attention too. Witten saw his name appear widely in external publications and brochures. All of it has been tucked away in a filing cabinet he keeps at home, to look back on when he retires.   As for Li, he was invited in 2008 to give a presentation at his industry’s most prestigious event, the Mint Directors Conference. He broke through in the mint industry in ways he hadn’t before, becoming a member of the technical committee that oversees the industry. And the RCM itself? “This built some confidence in the mint that we can overcome a lot of technical challenges,” Li says. The RCM’s work with the coins wasn’t entirely done, however. The coin had attracted other attention as well. Wealthy companies and individuals reached out to the Mint, inquiring if the coin could be custom made for them. The RCM accepted. In the end, six coins were created. One stayed with the RCM in a vault. One went to Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian gold mining outfit. One went to an Austrian investment firm. One went to Queen Elizabeth. The last two went to two individuals in Dubai, one of whom, it is rumoured, uses the coin as a coffee table. When all the work was done, the team was proud of it as an artistic accomplishment, an engineering accomplishment, and a national accomplishment. “I think coins tell a lot about a country, and showcase the country. What’s important, what they’re proud of, what’s meaningful,” Witten says. Li adds, “That’s our history. The coins do give us things we can pass down for years.”  They felt they had created something lasting. “Coins are permanent, right? Even one this heavy. They don’t burn or don’t blow away, or get lost,” Witten told me. “Unless someone steals it,” Li added. * The three thieves arrived at a wall that once belonged to a support structure that connected the Bode Museum to the Pergamon Museum. The bridge itself was long gone, and the structure had lost its purpose, but that morning it would find one again. Scaled, the wall leads to the only second-floor window accessible from the outside of the museum. It was the thieves' best way in, and they had planned accordingly. Nearby was a ladder they had left behind from a previous visit, six days earlier, when everything had gone wrong. On March 21, the would-be thieves had climbed that ladder up to the window, to remove bolts from security glass that covered the window and gain access to a locker room for museum employees. Mid-bolt removal, however, the glass had cracked. Worried, they fled. If anyone noticed the damage the next day, security would likely be increased and their only entry point would be closed to them. The damage was noticed. A repair order was issued, but it wasn’t prioritized, likely because the damage was written off as wear and tear. The thieves had been given another chance. But if they didn’t succeed today, on March 27, the coin was going to be gone. It was scheduled to be moved to the Berlin Kulturforum, across the city. If that happened, their weeks’ worth of planning, stress, and anticipation would be for nothing. They climbed the ladder and stood in front of the security glass for the second time in a week. No longer worried about causing further damage (what did they have to lose now?), they successfully removed the remaining bolts on the security glass and got the casement window behind it open. They knew they didn’t have to listen for the shriek of an alarm, because they knew the alarm sensor in the window had been faulty since 2013 and was turned off. They knew this the same way they knew the window damage hadn’t drawn concerns, the same way they knew how to do everything they were about to do. Their crew had a fourth member. They had an inside man. They were in. There was the risk of being caught by one of the guards who patrolled the rooms and halls of the museum, but that morning there was only one guard on duty, and he was patrolling another floor. In order not to set off the motion sensors throughout the museum during their rounds, guards turned them off.  At that early hour, the thieves’ hurried steps would have pierced the silence and the assumed decorum of museums, echoing off the hardwood floors and into the high ceilings. They walked out of the “Employees Only” door and left the first of several doorstoppers meant to ease their escape. The path took them past frescos of the god Pan and Renaissance images of Christ, past statues of Prussian military leaders watching their advance and a collection of 18th century French artwork. They passed an assembly of baroque southern German art before finally moving past an image of a man victoriously holding a decapitated head, and arriving in the first of the series of rooms, painted envy green and filled with narrow door frames only one person can fit through at a time, that made up the museum’s numismatic section. Around them were coins from the Holy Roman Empire all the way to the present. There was ancient and modern currency from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal. There were quotes about currency from a Nürnberger leaflet from 1652, inscribed on a plaque: “Money rules the world. You noble Miss Money/Everyone courts you/What does it matter: because your love on earth/can do anything.” Then there was the Big Maple Leaf coin, in all its purity, size, detail, and value. It was right there and now all they had to do was take it. One of the thieves removed an axe from the backpack they had brought with them. He wrapped his hands around its black rubber handle, and the yellow grip at its base. Then he swung the axe towards the case protecting the coin. * When the Big Maple Leaf coin arrived in the Bode Museum in 2010 it had been on something of a Bad Luck European Tour. This coin was the one purchased by the Austrian investment firm, AvW Invest. The company dissolved around 2010—the head of the company was arrested for fraud—and the coin was sold at an auction for 3.27 million euros to a Spanish precious metals company named Oro Direct Sales. That company, too, got into trouble. Police descended on their offices in 2014 with suspicions of money laundering and illegal trading. The coin, however, narrowly avoided that fate thanks to Boris Fuchsmann, a Ukrainian real estate mogul living in Düsseldorf. A collector of art and luxuries, Fuchsmann had registered for the auction Oro Direct Sales had won while in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. During the auction, however, he was visiting Kruger National Park and had no cell reception. Afterwards, he reached out to the Spanish company and offered 100,000 euros more for the coin than they had paid. Oro agreed. Not long after, Fuchsmann got a call from the Bode Museum who asked if he could lend the coin for a special exhibit called “Gold Giants.” He agreed.  The Big Maple Leaf coin proved to be a draw to the museum. The press covered it. A TV film crew filmed the exhibit. Its success was considerable enough that, while the other coins that were lent to the museum for the exhibit were returned, the museum asked Fuchsmann if they could give the Big Maple Leaf coin a more long-term home. The coin became a permanent addition and the museum became its guardian.  * The glass encasement that guarded the coin smashed into pieces so thick, so heavy, that when they fell onto the hardwood floor, they left deep gouges that remain there, like scars, to this day. With the coin now exposed, the thieves put their hands on it for the first time. Muscles tightening beneath the 100 kg weight, they lifted the giant Maple Leaf coin and lowered it down onto a handle-less wooden trolley. They had to move. The guard could return to the security room at any moment and reactivate the motion sensors, and then the propped open doors would trigger an alarm. They hastily pushed the trolley back along the route they had come, its small wheels click-clacking along the floors, leaving the occasional skid mark. Plaster was ripped off the walls as the trolley bumped into them. When the thieves arrived back in the locker room, they lifted the giant coin up towards the window. They left the trolley behind, shoved the coin, and gravity did the rest. Waiting below was a wheelbarrow. (Unbeknownst to them, the wheelbarrow had been noticed ten days ago by an electrician working on the S-Bahn’s signals, but he assumed his colleagues had left it there). The thieves loaded the coin into the wheelbarrow and pushed it to a spot above Monbijoupark, where a driver was waiting. Their bounty was put into the trunk, then the thieves got into the car and drove off. In sixteen minutes, they had become millionaires. After 4 a.m., the guard on duty in the Bode returned to the security room from his rounds. The guard was an eight-year veteran of Museum Island security but had only recently been transferred to the Bode. Tonight was his first time on solo duty since starting there and his first two rounds (one starting, according to logs, at 18:55 and another at 23:00) had been uneventful. He had no reason to think the third would be any different. Then, on a monitor, he saw something confusing. Several doors on the second floor were open, even though he was certain that he’d closed them earlier. Fear gripped him. Someone was in the museum. How had this happened? He hadn’t heard or seen anything. The guard radioed Museum Island’s central security for backup. One of his colleagues noticed the scuff marks the thieves’ trolley had left on the hardwood floor. Tracking them eventually led to the scene of the crime where someone, according to reports, exclaimed, “Oh shit, the coin.” A call went out to Bernhard Weisser, the director of the museum’s numismatic collection, who initially thought he was being pranked. The coin was so big, so awkward to transport, the museum had considered it an unlikely target for a theft. “That was a big mistake,” Weisser would later tell the press. Another call went out to the Berlin Police, who misunderstood the scope of what had happened. One coin was missing? Considering the museum had thousands of coins and other priceless artworks, that hardly seemed like a major crime. It wasn’t until they arrived at the scene and an officer saw the broken glass case, along with a plaque describing a 100 kg coin, that the police realized it hadn’t been just a piece of ancient pocket change. The ensuing investigation was made considerably easier by the thieves, whose heist may have been daring and well-planned, but hardly careful. Caution didn’t seem to have been a priority. Along each step of the heist, the thieves had left easy evidence to collect. At the S-Bahn Hackescher station, CCTV cameras had captured that morning’s journey. Where the ladder, axe, trolley, and wheelbarrow had been left served as useful landmarks to identify the thieves’ in-and-out route. Gold fragments had also been left where the coin had been dropped, which outlined their final escape path, as did another security camera which caught the getaway Mercedes driving away from the scene. The thieves had left DNA on several of their tools. The police, nonetheless, didn’t have any immediate theories as to who the suspects could be. But they would soon find out there was a place in Berlin where it wasn’t much of a secret at all. * Wander streets like Karl-Marx-Strasse and Sonnenallee in the borough of Neukölln, located in southeast Berlin, and you’ll notice signs of what many call a parallel society within Germany. Hookah bars, as well as stores selling Middle Eastern nuts and sweets, all demonstrate the local population: the Arabische Grossfamilien (Arabian extended families) that have made the borough their home. These families are made up of Kurds from Southeast Turkey who, during the 1980s, fled Turkey for Lebanon, then fled Lebanon for Germany due to the Lebanese Civil War. When the families arrived as refugees, they were subject to what is now considered a failure of politics and a policy of neglect. They were excluded from society. Ignored into its margins. They received welfare, but little opportunity. They weren’t allowed to work or leave Berlin. Germany’s disinterest encouraged isolation, but the country’s neglect had another effect. While the vast majority of Grossfamilien were law abiding (and this remains true today), a contingent began to seek financial opportunities beyond German law. If Germany wouldn’t shape their futures, these men would shape their own. They turned to drugs, prostitution, extortion and theft to make money and, over time, robust criminal organizations, referred to as clans, were formed. As a clan member named Yehya E. relays in the book In the Gangs of Neukölln by journalist Christian Stahl, “It’s about being a man, and being a man is very important . . . It’s the face you wear. One with which you can walk around on the street. You can’t let yourself be seen anywhere when you’re not a man . . . So, you carry the dream of being a big mafia boss in your heart . . . to be a hero for a moment.” Becoming that hero is made possible because of accessible hierarchies, where there are no fixed positions. What elevates you is what you do. Youth make themselves upwardly mobile in the clans by building a resumé of assaults, petty theft, and drugs. And some graduate to more audacious crimes; like the Big Maple Leaf theft. Seeking respect and recognition, the thieves made no secret of their plans, which is why, eventually, the police were contacted by clan informants, and told three names. Ahmed, Wayci and Wissam Remmo. The police knew the Remmo clan, and the three men, well. The Remmos are one adversary among the small battles in an ongoing war between the clans and police. When luxury cars double park in Neukölln and an officer tries to give a ticket, they are quickly surrounded by clan members yelling “Get out of here, this is our territory, fucking cop.” When officers are leaving work, they are followed home, or asked on their way out the door how their children are doing in school by clan members—who name the children, and the school. Patriarch Issa Remmo arrived in Germany in 1995 and has thirteen children and fifteen siblings. He has always vehemently denied any criminal activity, insisting he is nothing more than a real estate investor and restaurateur. He has posed for photo shoots in crisp dress shirts, pouring coffee in a standard suburban backyard, promoting the image of himself as unassuming entrepreneur. Nonetheless, his family—especially his children—continually find themselves in court. * With the information they obtained from undercover sources, the Berlin Police got to work. They began monitoring the communications of numerous members of the Remmo clan. Police suspected talk of the museum robbery was being restricted to encrypted message services. But the police did get an investigative foothold when they became aware of a twenty-year-old man named Denis W. Denis W. had started working at the Bode Museum only twenty-six days before the theft. More significantly, he was known to be a school friend of one of the suspects, Ahmed Remmo. A week after the theft, he had also drawn attention to himself through a sudden financial windfall. He had invested thousands of dollars in a local bakery, he had been luxury car shopping, and he was seen wearing a new 11,000-euro necklace. The police had found the inside man. A police officer remembered Denis W. from three weeks before the theft. He had pulled him over for filling up at a gas station, then driving off without paying, all while using a fake license plate in case cameras caught the act. The officer at the time had noticed Bode Museum floor plans in the back seat, as well as screwdrivers and nylon gloves in the trunk. Later, it would also be discovered that Denis W. had photos of the museum that corresponded with the thieves’ escape route. A bigger breakthrough on the case came when a raid was executed on July 12, 2017. Among the targets were the Big Maple Leaf coin suspects, and more evidence was found. Police found an app on Wissam Remmo’s cell phone for calculating gold prices. His search history unearthed queries for equipment that could melt gold, along with news updates on the heist. His camera roll included screenshots of Google Map directions that appeared to indicate the thieves’ getaway route. In his apartment, they found gloves with glass fragments that matched the museum window the thieves had entered through. Police found a piece of paper listing current gold values with Ahmed Remmo’s fingerprints on it in a kitchen spice rack. Between all the suspects, the police found clothes—a rare Armani jacket seen in the CCTV footage, gloves, shoes—that had small gold particles on them, which police hoped would match the coin.  All of it was damning evidence, though at risk of being deemed circumstantial. But it was enough for the police to arrest the suspects the day of the raid, pursue an indictment, and set the trial process into motion. * The police were eager to involve the state as soon as possible.  The state attorney’s office was now part of a three-prong attack underway against the clans, and here was a significant chance to gain ground in the battle. But convictions against clan members are rare: the criminal organizations’ wealth allows them to intimidate witnesses to recant their testimony, as well as afford the city’s best defense lawyers, eager to chip away at any perceived vulnerabilities in the prosecution’s case. Even a pinch of doubt could mean the panel of judges (there are no juries in German courts) refusing to convict. If there was a successful conviction, the impact on the clans could be minor. Time in prison can be as comfortable for clan members as life on the outside. And jail time was often perceived to be a means of proving oneself. (“Prison makes men,” is a common expression among the clans). Clans often use members who are under twenty-one to commit more overt crimes so that they will be tried in more lenient youth courts. But a successful outcome for the clans wouldn’t necessarily spare the parties involved from anger. On July 17, 2019, patriarch Issa Remmo’s son was cleared of murder. Remmo began yelling in the court room at the prosecutor. “I know you, and everyone who works with you . . . I am a clean person. I have respect for the court, for the police. I have respect for this country, but absolutely none for you.” Outside the courthouse, he continued in front of the cameras of Spiegel TV. Addressing informants, he said, “I know you . . . As god is my witness, I will fuck your sisters.” The trial for the coin heist began in January 2019. The suspects covered their faces with magazines to protect themselves from the press, and none of their family or friends were in attendance. They sat still and silent in the courtroom as the charges were read, only speaking to confirm their names and professions. (They told the judges they were students and couriers). Over the course of several court dates scattered over months, the details of what happened the night of the Big Maple Leaf coin theft were laid out. Museum employees explained the security gaps that had led to the window alarm being inoperable. The guard on duty that night was questioned about his movements. He shared how haunted he was by those who refused to believe he hadn’t heard or seen anything that night, and shared the anxiety he has suffered since. Police investigators testified about searching the crime scene and their investigation of the Remmos that led to the arrests. Experts were brought in to connect suspects to the thefts and the evidence. An ex-girlfriend of Ahmed Remmo, who had told investigators about him hiding tools and bragging about being a millionaire, was called to the stand. (She retracted her comments once there). Ernst Pernicka, an archaeometrist, provided critical evidence linking the gold particles found on the thieves’ clothes to the giant coin.   On February 20, 2020, all parties gathered to hear what verdict had been reached.  After acknowledging the theft at the heart of the case was “the coup of a lifetime,” judge Dorothee Prüfer passed down the court’s decision. Denis W. received three years and four months of prison time. He was fined 100,000 euros, his presumed cut for being the inside man. Wissam and Ahmed Remmo were sentenced to four years and five months (priors for assault and breaking and entering led to longer sentences). They were fined 3.3 million euros, the estimated value of the coin at the time. Wayci Remmo was released due to a lack of evidence tying him to the crime. The three men’s defense lawyers attempted to appeal the verdict, which was denied in July 2021. It likely didn’t help that Wissam Remmo became a suspect— and was eventually arrested—for another spectacular crime in 2019: the robbery of the Green Vault, a museum in Dresden. The haul? Royal jewelry some estimate to be worth 113 million euros or more. * One question remains: What happened to the Big Maple Leaf coin? It was never recovered and nobody believes it still exists intact. It was impossible to sell as is, so it was likely broken apart or melted. Its presumed fate evokes another quote that had been on display in the Bode Museum that night it was stolen, not far from where the Big Maple Leaf Coin stood. The author bemoans what he considers the worst fates that can befall a society. There’s war, plague, and famine. He then adds debasement—the destruction of a currency’s value. It’s likely no single piece of currency has been so stripped of so much value. And yet, another value remains. One that now lingers, like fine gold dust, on all those who came in touch with it.
Gestures of Ambiguity: On Todd Field’s Tár

Tár holds back too much to work as a commentary on cancel culture, and isn’t elusive enough to succeed as a work of art. 

Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film.  Two women are chatting in the lobby of an auditorium, minutes after an onstage interview in New York. “Do you find yourself overwhelmed by emotion when you are up there at the podium?” One says to the other. “Yes,” the older, more eminent woman replies. “Yes, that does happen.” The younger woman plays with her hair and looks longingly at her counterpart. “God, it must take hours to come back down to earth.” The famous woman is clearly flattered by the attention and—not for the first time, one suspects—sizes up this person so eager to please. She points to the expensive-looking handbag of the admirer, “That is a fantastic bag, by the way.” But just as their conversation is about to take a franker turn, they are interrupted by the older woman’s assistant: “Sorry, your lunch with Mr. Kaplan.” The older woman apologizes before taking her leave. The fan asks, with a knowing smile on her lips, if they can text each other. Later, the older woman is in Berlin, having returned home from the airport to her wife and daughter. The wife can’t help noticing that her partner has a new handbag. Lydia, the protagonist of Todd Field’s Tár, clearly gets off on the power she wields in a room, the eagerness with which younger women are always asking if they can text her, or gifting her their handbags. In the opening scene, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik reads aloud her Wikipedia page from a podium—she is, among other things, the first female conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic—and they exchange wisecracks for the next twenty minutes on the evolving role of the conductor in an orchestra, the importance of time in a composition. Finally, I thought, the first time I sat through the scene: finally, a movie for those who listen compulsively to podcasts. Lydia’s assistant, Francesca, has the face of a woman who has never once raised her voice. Her wife, Sharon, the first violinist in the Berlin Philharmonic, is also incredibly naïve. After all these years of marriage, she doesn’t seem to have caught on that Lydia frequently steals her anti-anxiety pills, or the fact that Lydia’s rich male friend, the aforementioned Mr. Kaplan, isn’t the one gifting her those handbags. What struck me about the movie is that the director Todd Field isn’t scared of leaving things out, trusting the audience to infer the story from disparate details. The scenic counterpart to Lydia’s tête-à-tête with Gopnik is a later moment when we see her teary-eyed, watching an old tape of Leonard Bernstein in the basement of her parents’ house. By then, we’ve seen her struggle to cover up accusations of having inappropriate relationships with younger colleagues and manipulating their career prospects. We’ve seen her prey on a new member of the orchestra and plot to have her long-time assistant conductor replaced. Inside her parents’ basement, we witness Lydia overwhelmed by emotion, no doubt recalling the days when she’d been a young hopeful twentysomething herself, still becoming. You realize that Linda Tarr didn’t just change her name and become a celebrity conductor, but that her story is also a version of the Horatio Alger myth. As Gopnik pointed out in a recent Esquire article, Lydia was born too late to have been mentored by Bernstein. The fact that she has escaped scrutiny about her background so far suggests that the mythmaking is perhaps de rigueur in the world of classical music. Indeed, the film fails to impress at precisely those points where Field seems too plugged in to aspects of contemporary discourse. We don’t quite see Lydia being hounded after the allegations are published online. We only glimpse the repercussions, and the logic of her downfall feels too literal. The emphasis on one person’s monstrous behaviour cloaks a deeper rot: the systemic coddling of the temperamental artist. One wonders where young Linda Tarr picked up the rules of the game. The male composers she hangs out with are either dwindling fossils or cartoonishly incompetent. In the middle of an argument, Sharon hints that their relationship, too, had initially been a chess move on Lydia’s part, that marrying the first violinist—who also happens to be a native German speaker—was perhaps a way for Lydia to assert her authority over the orchestra. But where are the men from whom Lydia presumably imbibed these toxic traits? Her brother is a benign presence, just about appearing in one scene. The outgoing assistant conductor is fusty, unambitious: he lashes out at Lydia after his unceremonious exit before disappearing for the rest of the movie. When James Joyce’s landmark collection of stories, Dubliners, was published in 1914, the poet Ezra Pound praised the book for being careful to avoid “telling a lot of things that the reader didn’t want to know.” Field seems to have left out the bits the viewer would want to know. Is Lydia’s relationship to music sacred, for instance, or is that too a part of her power grab and need for social accomplishment? Does she really care about redeeming Bach and the other old masters she defends during a guest lecture at Juilliard, or is the deference to history also something she learned from the men who preceded her? During the interview with Gopnik, she throws around highfalutin abstractions about making the metronome tick in every performance. Later she lies to her assistant about needing to work on her version of Mahler’s Symphony No.5, while actually planning to meet the woman with the handbag. The appearance of a black dog at one point was reason enough for multiple critics to compare the movie to Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but that’s akin to calling a random photograph of an insect Kafkaesque, or a stray scene in an Irish pub Joycean. Field doesn’t delve deep enough into Lydia’s viewpoint for Tár to work as a commentary on cancel culture. As a work of art, on the other hand, the film isn’t elusive enough, often failing to generate images that capture its themes. (The exception, of course, is Lydia being haunted by sounds of multiple women screaming each time she steps out for a run in the neighbourhood park, an instantly iconic moment.) By muting the story of the former student who committed suicide after Lydia badmouthed her to potential employers, Field might be indicating that the maestro probably forgot her sins—muted them in her head, so to speak—but then again, we aren’t privy to what Lydia truly thinks or feels about anyone, just the imposing pull she exerts on those in her orbit. If Lydia can observe her wife yielding to her instructions during rehearsal sessions, surely she can recall the exact nature of the damage she inflicted on a protégée. “She thinks she is being ironic,” Lydia’s assistant texts someone early in the film. You could say something similar about Field’s intentions in the movie, his sloppy gestures of ambiguity.
God, We Were Married!

It was the best first wedding we could have asked for. But it wasn’t enough! Clearly!

We were married five years we were married ten years we were married twenty years, we were married in the forest with the trees, it was only the trees, us and the trees, until there were no more trees, and that was it for the trees, and after that we were married in the desert, at night, under the moon and the stars and the dead, your dead, my dead, America’s dead, o!, how they danced! We were married in the city and we were married in the snow, we were married up in Heaven and also in the basement, not a metaphor, just the basement, we were married by the ghosts, and we were married in life and we were married in death, and o!, God, we were married! The first time we got married there was cake. Do you have any idea what it was like to taste that cake? I’m asking. I need to know. Because I can’t remember. I don’t know what to do about the ways in which the times we got married blur together. We get married in the same room with different people, we get married in different rooms with the same people, they walk in different doors with different faces, different bands play the same songs over and over one on top of the other forever and ever in our history which is endless, eternal, infinite, and ours, and I know, I know, that sometimes there was pie; but the first time there was cake. It was the biggest cake I’d ever seen. It filled the whole room. It was pink, with yellow roses, and when I walked around it you were gone. All our family and friends were there. We had never before been married, and everything felt like a promise, and a mystery. Where were you? Who could say! Here’s what else I can remember. There was a band on the stage in a gymnasium, the windows were cranked wide, they were those windows that crank, you remember them, right?, and there was such a beautiful breeze, there were folding round tables with the most beautiful linens, the dance floor laid out before us like the rest of our lives. It was the best first wedding we could have asked for. But it wasn’t enough! Clearly! When I asked you to get married we were in the woods near the lake, we were staying at a cabin, we were on vacation, we’d never been on vacation before, never before had it ever been just the two of us, renting a space in which we could maybe finally relax for a bit like we’d always talked about. A rental car was parked outside, at the door were the wolves, but we were in the forest, near the lake. I can’t remember any other time I asked you to marry me. I wish I could tell you if that meant something. I can tell you I got down on my knees, and I told you that I would love you for the rest of our days, I said “Will you marry me?” I said “You are the light of my life and I will love you for the rest of our days” I said “I want us to grow old side by side and maybe buy a house one day and just keep building a life with every breath we take” I said “I love you” you said “Jesus look at the size of that thing” and we did, we did look at the size of that thing, as it rose out of the dark of the woods out of the hole in the ground we never saw until it was too late and the whole of history was rising up in pain and fury behind us, the ground, the dirt, just screaming and screaming, and then you said “Yes!!!” and then you said “RUN!” and we did. And there it was!!!!!!!!!! Rising up behind us!, and its bones were screaming, they were screaming so loud, it was awful, have you heard bones scream? Don’t! All the while we were screaming, we were in the car, there we were, screaming, in the car, we were going, the house was gone, something was happening to the lake, it was sloughing off the dead bead of leaves like the skin we had thought it to be and what was beneath that was beyond us, we had never driven that fast before, we could barely steer, we were lucky we didn’t hit anything, didn’t spin out, we could never figure why there were no other cars anywhere on the road, we didn’t know where all the people were, then the trees were gone, they were bursting from the ground, they were flying through the air, we never saw those trees again for as long as we lived, and we were afraid of the air, because of how it was another colour entirely outside the car, because of the smell, and we kept going, and we were gone. What was it? Where did it come from? How many days since the last time we were married? Five? A million? How many lifetimes has this been? Does it matter? Yesterday was back then and tomorrow isn’t ready yet. Today we’re looking at the Hudson. We’re staring at the Jet Skis marking out a summoning circle, at the clouds circling in concert, lower and lower in the sky, at the water bottles floating under the piers, we’re lying in the grass, surrounded by trees, we’re looking at the garbage scows pushed ever forward to the new dump they built on Ellis Island, as the waters rise and rise and rise. I love you so very much, and cannot tell you what it means to be by your side for the rest of time. We were married at home, in our bed, what I mean is the ghosts in the laundromat had wandered up and, seeing the ring of engagement upon your finger, asked us if we wouldn’t maybe like to be married, and we would we did, then we were, and they wept and wept and wept, and the room was so full of love that the ghosts nearly came back to life then and there, but they didn’t, not that time. Once we got married in Florida, on the beach, in front of God and our families and the state, which will never love us, and that’s OK! Because we have each other! Now and forever! And we ate so many crabs and the shrimp was so fresh and there was a key lime pie the size of a dolphin, we had gotten sunburned, we lay in bed, married, we were so tired, everything hurt, and our fingers were touching, and the moon was out, and the sky was clear. Years later, the beach we were married on was underwater. The hotel we stayed at was underwater, all fifty stories of it, every room and window and bed, the sea crept up the coast, it chased us down, and we watched and watched and watched. Have you ever watched your memories drown? Can you pretend? Can you watch your home be choked by the sea? Can you picture nothing at all because the bodies float so thick you can’t even see? The waters rose and rose and rose. They drank of our buildings and swallowed our homes. Once when I was younger I was at the beach with my dad and we were out swimming, it was freezing, and the undertow grabbed us and we swallowed the sea and the sea swallowed us and then it spit us out and we spit it out up onto the shore, beached and breathing, hungrily, and I will never forget this, not even when I’m dead. One day, not today, but one day, you and me’ll be under water too, and our bones will make a home for what comes next, but, until that day comes!, at least we have our money, secured in a safe and protected account, with the only bank an American can trust. Sometimes when I think about being married, I feel like a peasant, in winter, standing against the tanks, rolling in over my children to burn my village to the ground. Other times when I think about getting married I feel like the tank, and other times I feel like the village, about to be burned to the ground, and I smile, because I love you so much. Other times it’s a different feeling entirely! Anyway. As I was saying. We were married by a rabbi, we were married by our friends, we were married in a deconsecrated church upstate painted black with the sky for a ceiling on a clear day that was so clear you could see the rest of your life unfold, I mean that’s how open the sky felt, it felt like forever, then it opened, like you always hope the future will. Our parents looked so happy. The world was so bright. We were married on the balcony of the apartment next door after we moved into it, it was so easy to move next door, everyone should always move next door, then it started to rain and we went inside and our friends were gone and then our clothes were gone and I was inside you and we were married, we kept saying it, over and over, we’re married, it was amazing, it was incredible, we got a distant relative to buy us a new rug, that’s another great thing about being married is that people buy you all kinds of things that you then have to put somewhere in your two-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment in central Brooklyn after writing each and every one of them to thank them because they did a genuinely nice thing and you and your hands cramp, and you forget who got what, and you begin to float, in the air, like that, for a time. It’s fine. It’s a real Rube Goldberg situation as regards the Instant Pot, the Crock-Pot, the cast iron fryer, the seltzer machine, the plates, oh my God the plates we got are so beautiful, every single meal is a wonder, we learned how to plate our fucking meals for these plates they’re that good, Jesus God in Heaven, the plates! Eventually our building was hit by one of the many low-flying planes that began to swarm Brooklyn in those years—you remember the year of the many low-flying planes of course—and we lost everything. I was cooking us spaghetti and meatballs and it was a Sunday, it was early winter, there was a frost, but it hadn’t yet snowed. We were listening to a record, and we thought there was dust on the record, “What’s that sound?” you asked, but there wasn’t dust on the record, and the player was plugged into the stereo fine, and then the plates started rattling, we were keeping them in an open shelving situation, it really opened up the room!, and they were rattling, the glasses were screaming “WHAT IS THAT SOUND?” you asked, and I didn’t have an answer, and the planes were so close, we could almost touch them, we knew it had to be a plane, and so that’s what I said, “It’s probably just a plane!,” but you couldn’t hear me, because our ear drums burst, and then the plane hit the building, and that’s when things got really uncomfortable, because we were getting married in two days, and now we were dead and everything we owned was burning rubble, but that’s OK, we’ll get married again, this time in the chicken restaurant we love so much, they just serve chicken and wine, and everything is perfect there, and I love you. The lights are low. Our friends are all around us. They cook the potatoes in the chicken fat, it’s incredible, you have to try it, I’m sorry, I know, we’ll have other options next time, I promise, but we were just hit by a plane, and I hope that’s OK. Once, while we were getting married, I was eaten by a bear, and so then you ended up married to the bear. You never really talk about it. I was trapped inside the bear, who had just eaten me, it was hard to hear, and then I was dying, and so then, soon after, the bear died, and there was weeping, and that’s when I realized I was a ghost, bound to the bear’s bones for all my days. It wasn’t the worst wedding we’ve had. OH! One time when we got married, right after we got married, our families locked us in a closet and told us we could not come out until we got to Heaven. It was hard to do so soon after we were married. Our hearts were crowned in fire. Everyone wept, and they never stopped. Up in Heaven, we got married by the angels. We weren’t really supposed to be there, though; Heaven, as you know, isn’t for people: it’s where the angels live. People can’t go to Heaven, that’s a myth they invented so the workers would think that their suffering served a purpose other than to enrich their bosses. There are no bosses in Heaven. There is no money in Heaven. Everything’s free and there’s always enough and the angels sing. Imagine that! We never had children and we were fine with it, we always had children and we were fine with it, we were the only constant, it was us, always us, except, sure, there was that time with the bear, though that is absolutely a technicality. We’ve been married by our children and we’ve buried our children, we’ve watched the sun die at the end of the world and then gone straight to bed. In the morning, we got married. The room was full of plants. All kinds of plants! They were blooming all around us! They kept growing and growing, they filled the whole room, they pushed us up to the ceiling, they were blooming all around us!, we were taken up the stairs, it was like an omen, but good, I don’t know what the word for that kind of thing is, it hasn’t yet been covered in our vows. We have vowed to love each other til the world ends, for as long as we can, for all of our days, til money itself is dead and gone, these are just some of the ways we have vowed to love each other. You can’t break a vow, that’s the whole point of vows, it’s why and how sometimes our marriage lasts til the end of the world, and it’s really hard to live that long, since the end of the world is really different from, say, an extinction event, in that it takes so much longer for the sun to die than it does for life on earth to be wiped out over and over and over again. The death of money is sometimes an issue, debt is pretty much always an issue, the police are an issue, there are a lot of issues to tie your love to if you want, and next time we’re maybe avoiding this whole endless love thing entirely, because I am really wondering if it’s worth it to live so long. OK there was one time where it was absolutely worth it. We could move stars, pull heat from suns, build whole worlds full of endless children who all found new and exciting ways to break our hearts, and our hearts would break open, and be remade, new, and wild, with the dawning of a dying star. We were married for forever that time. We were so beautiful then. When we fell in love we fell in love in the forest. There we were, alone, in the forest. The pines were so tall. There were so many things we could not even begin to imagine. Light was so hard to come by there. It’s probably why we ended up needing glasses with the exact same prescription. It’s so easy to sleep on a bed of leaves out there, piling up pine needles into mattresses, sleeping on the floor, nothing daring to come near us, the rain washing over us. It’s dark. It’s night. We build a fire. We eat dinner. We’ll never get rid of the taste and God we have tried. There’s something out there, in the night, we can feel it. It isn’t stalking us. It’s just out there. We don’t know where. We can hear it, way way back in the woods, past the wind winding its way through the trees, their branches creaking and bending, the leaves too full of life to rustle, the floor a burial of the leafy dead, seeds dropping and planting and living and dying, everything stretching up to the sky, which we had not seen in who even knows. How long can you go without a dawn until you lose track of anything resembling time, and have you ever felt more alive? When night falls you don’t even notice, it’s like it’s happening in another room across the hall, and this room’s built out of ghosts, and its walls go all the way up. This is where we came from, whenever anyone asks. We came from the woods. Have you ever seen a good home? Close your eyes. Can you picture it? The clearing? The birches in a grove, stretching all the way to the sky, the moon sliding into place? Can you picture it? There’s a door to a room in the middle of the grove. Behind that door is the terrible king of the terrible forest. There’s nothing that’s been promised to us but the rest of our lives. I love you. We’ll turn the handle. We’ll open the door. It’s just sitting there. We can see the deer walking on their two strong legs, their antlers ringed in gold. They are looking right at us. The door is open. We can almost hear them now. They sound, so softly, like a crashing wave, like a round of applause. Everything behind us is already dead. Tomorrow we’ll be married! How do we get there? To tomorrow? Do we close our eyes? Do we hold our breath? The door is, like I said, right there. It’s open. And it’s calling our names. Do you see what I’m saying here? In the morning this will all be different. In the morning we’re in the meadow. It’s beautiful. We’re married. Nothing has changed. None of this will stop. The sea will eat our bones and our memories will drown the sun. Once upon a time there were two people and they loved each other very much. Everything else is what keeps you up at night. Everything else is the rest of your life.
‘Between Adorations and Lamentations’: An Interview with Patrick Bringley

The author of All the Beauty in the World on creating a personal map of meaning during his time as a guard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.

No one would call it a glamorous job. In their identical modest dark blue suits and clip-on red ties, the guards of the Metropolitan Museum in New York are a bit like scarecrows, keeping order and keeping quite still. They’re on their feet for eight to twelve hours a day, often, punishingly, on marble floors. And yet they have as company some of the more precious, awe-inspiring objects in the world, with what must seem like endless hours to contemplate them.  The museum occupies five New York City blocks, an incredible encyclopedic storehouse spanning 5,000 years of culture from every part of the world: sculpture, vases, tapestries, photographs, furniture, musical instruments, armour, one Egyptian temple, and a surprising number of baseball cards. Plus some of the most instantly recognizable human gestures involving pigmented liquid—Monet’s spots, van Gogh’s swirls, Pollock’s sploshes and splats. The Met is New York’s most visited attraction, with around five million visitors a year.  As one of its guards, Patrick Bringley’s visit to the museum, you might say, lasted around ten years. In All the Beauty in the World (Simon & Schuster), he tells his personal story of a decade working at the Met, fulfilling the vital but somehow easily overlooked role of guard.  For Bringley, the job provided much-needed stillness when he was grieving the death of a family member. In between interactions with visitors, he attended the art on display. More recently, Bringley has started leading tours of the museum. On a recent Saturday morning, he led a tour group into the less frequented visitors’ entrance on 81st and Fifth Avenue. “I never walk up those steps,” he said, referring to the palatial stone stairs leading to the museum’s more well-known front door. Leading the group on a winding path from Greek and Roman Art through Egyptian Art to Asian Art, he expressed a respectful awe for the museum and its collection. He also offered his own definition of art: “Something that is more beautiful than it had to be.” It’s a definition that might well be applied to his book—a deeply felt memoir that serves not only as an intimate guide to the museum but to the experience of the essential human activity we call art. I spoke with Bringley about the book, the museum, and his new line of work, which sees him wandering those familiar marble floors in a new capacity. Darryn King: Patrick, you’re no longer working as a guard at the Met. But have you been back as a visitor? What’s that like? Patrick Bringley: Yes! You know, I went and made the time to visit the Tudors exhibition, for instance. One thing that I definitely feel when I’m in there is, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that I’m just going to spend two hours in here.” My normal experience is being posted there for a day, and thinking this is cool, but knowing I’m going to have another five, ten, fifteen, or twenty days inside this gallery, sort of rattling around and absorbing things. I have to retrain myself to do things on a compressed time schedule. The cliché question to ask guards in museums is, “What’s your favourite work of art here?” It’s either profound or banal. And of course, I’m sure different works of art speak to you at different times. But I do still want to ask you the question: What’s your favourite work of art in the museum? It’s a difficult question to answer. I always feel that when you stand in front of a piece of art and commune with it, it’s somewhat hard, even when you’ve stepped away from it, a day or two later, to create exactly what was going on in that moment. You really only have that one moment. Your memory of it decays. So you have to return to the work. But I can tell you about a picture I absolutely love. I adore Pieter Breugel’s “The Harvesters.” It’s a painting from around 1560. A lot of people consider it the first true landscape painting in the history of Western art. But, more to the point, it just feels expansive. It feels like a window. It’s one of these paintings that deepens the longer you look at it. The colours bloom. Thematically, the peasants huddling in the corner, taking a break from bringing the harvest in, enjoying a meal with each other, feels more universal and more sympathetic, and more human, against this grand unfurling landscape. It really feels like a painting that’s about a lot. It’s an artwork that feels great, it’s not just that you find it, you know, aesthetically enchanting. It tries to get a lot, or something fundamental, across to the viewer. Reading your book, it’s clear that guarding the Met’s galleries was a job you were in a unique position to appreciate, at a very specific time in your life. Tell me about your thought process when you signed up for it. My brother had recently died. I found that the months spent at his hospital bedside, or at his apartment in Queens—it had a great simplicity to it. And a great straightforwardness of purpose. There was something very basic happening, which is that I was spending time with a loved one in a period of suffering. There was great tragedy about that, but there was also poignancy, and beauty, and substance. The idea of just going back to any old office job and sitting at a desk and looking at screens and brown-nosing my boss and pleasing clients, or whatever—that felt too divorced from this glimpse of something greater that I felt I had just been participating in. I relished the idea of going to a place where I could continue to keep my eyes on bigger things, keep my head clear, and think my own thoughts. And not need to engage in nonsense and office politics. I hit upon this idea of becoming a guard, both because it is a very straightforward and honest job, and because it offers this great, gigantic, nourishing meal of art to partake of. What art spoke to you during that period? When I first started as a guard my assigned home section was “Section B,” the Old Master paintings, and I was very grateful to be there. The paintings were gorgeous, obviously, but it was also the subject matter of the pictures, particularly the old, old pictures dating back to the 14th century. I’m not a Christian, but I was intensely moved by the depictions of Christ’s suffering and death. They were so sad, but so beautiful, and clearly the Old Masters were fascinated by that mix of emotions, by the poignancy of the human drama, its beauty and its pain. There were paintings called “Adorations” and there were other paintings called “Lamentations” and sometimes I could hardly tell the difference between them, emotionally speaking. I understood that feeling. When you sit at the bedside of someone who is very ill, it’s very simple and bare and thus unbelievably beautiful, but it’s also anguishing. I appreciated remaining in that atmosphere and not having to just whiplash back to some office job. It’s art from a time when part of the function of art was to help people make sense of their lives, provide instruction, even alter their beliefs. I wonder if you would have gotten quite as much out of doing this job at the Museum of Modern Art or the Whitney Museum, surrounded by more recent art. When you look at art that was made a long time ago from different cultures, they’re very infrequently looked at as pieces of art history—as something that’s in conversation with other artists, or to be admired and appreciated for its aesthetic worth. Mostly, if you’re looking at an ancient Egyptian object, that object was made as a sort of machine with a definite spiritual purpose: to please some god, or to transition a person into a supernatural realm. Similarly, with an old altar piece, or something that was not made for people to nod their heads at and say, “Oh, isn’t that a great example of late-Gothic painting.” It’s primarily made for you to meditate upon the subject matter. Which is, oftentimes, something that has real import in how we think about the world and how we think about the human drama. That’s what they want foremost in our minds, usually. I’m interested in the disparity between the guards’ and the curators’ experience of the museum. Of course, those folks, holed away in their offices, are contemplating art in a deep and thoughtful way. But your book reminds readers that the guards, unlike the curators, have these great long stretches of actual face time with the art. Do you think the guards get to experience something at the museum that the curators don’t? Apart from sore knees? While on a post, you would often see the curators walk through, and they would walk through at a pretty fast clip. They were going to their office where they had something to do. They were writing an exhibition catalogue, or they were researching for a planned exhibition. I would certainly bob in their wake, as it were, and feel very privileged to simply—with no ulterior motive—experience the art. I would sometimes feel that I was closer to the artists’ ideal viewer. These artworks, oftentimes, had been in a church, or they were in somebody’s home—meant to be experienced sort of passively. To seep into you over long periods of time. Rather than being studied with a definite purpose. This isn’t to say that curators can’t put themselves in that frame of mind. But without question they have less opportunity to do so. They’re busy with other things. I would also think to myself that I was very privileged as a guard to have complete freedom in my manner of thinking. If you’re a curator, you belong to a certain academic tradition. There are styles in which you tend to think, because that is how the field tends to think, or that’s how the museum has things framed. And that’s not to say that a curator can’t have original thoughts. Of course they can. But they can’t be so idiosyncratic as to decide, “You know what? Rembrandt stinks.” I never thought to myself that Rembrandt stinks. But I could! I had total freedom to come up with my own idiosyncratic map of the Met and figure out what I responded to and didn’t respond to. It’s clear in the book that, as well as enjoying looking at the art, you have a great love of people-watching in the museum, and interacting with visitors—even if it’s just to inform them that, no, there’s no Mona Lisa in the museum. Or dinosaurs. I always appreciated the visitors who felt discombobulated. Those were the visitors who were most likely to talk to me. They see a guy wearing a suit that doesn’t look like a fancy suit—a little bit threadbare, a little bit cheap—you seem a sympathetic ear to them. And they ask you questions. I always thought they were right to feel all spun around in a museum that is enormous and tries to be about the whole wide world and beautiful things, cosmic things, intimate things. They saw me as a kindred spirit and they seemed to me as similarly wide-eyed. Sometimes, of course, I would turn up and it felt like a day of work. They would snap me back into the mindset of wanting to absorb all these things with a wide-open mind. The visitors are funny, because they come at the art with all different styles of thinking and all different ways of being. I really valued the ability, through them, to escape my own narrow patterns of thinking; to realize that a work of art can be seen from many different angles, can be appreciated on different levels. It enriched my own thinking of what the Met is. There’s a point in the book when you realize that coming to this astonishing place feels more like a job. Maybe that you’d outgrown the position. Can you describe that creeping realization? I never felt that I outgrew the Met. To this day, I continue to visit, explore, and grow. But I do think that it’s natural, when you have a job, to start to focus on little things that annoy you about it. Or to come at it with a narrow mindset: oh, I can’t get the days off or overtime I want, or my feet hurt, or this guard who’s on my team today is not my favourite person. I think in some way, increasingly thinking along those lines was, paradoxically, a sign that I was doing a bit better. In my early days at the Met, I felt very speechless and quiet, and wide-eyed, and almost invisible, wanting to stand in the corner and take these things in. When I became a more veteran guard, I had fallen back into rhythm with the world; having friends at the Met, having opinions on the sections I liked and the sections I did not like. All these more normal things about feeling at home in your job. And part of feeling at home is sometimes taking it for granted, or complaining about little things. How should people approach a visit to a museum like the Met? I do think there are a fair amount of people who use it for its intended purpose. Which is, just show up, and explore, and get your head all turned around, and see some beautiful things, and press the palm of the person that you’re dating that you brought along with you, and have a beautiful and interesting afternoon. And then leave, hopefully carrying some lesson from it into the world that suddenly feels a little bigger or a little more full. But I certainly do think, of course, that the Met could be used in a more full-hearted way. One thing I preach in my book: don’t think of it as a museum of art history, as a place to learn about art periods and styles. A lot of people are not particularly interested in that. Why should they be? There’s nothing that requires you to be interested in the history of early Renaissance painting or whatever the case may be. But I would urge people to realize that the building is where you can learn not just about art but from it. Because really this art is about these very big and sometimes very intimate basic questions about life and death, and about the forces in the universe that we might call gods, and about the big mystery of existence, which is, in part: Why do we live in this world that is so colourful, and fragrant, and sensually rich, and beautiful? You can go to the Met and see what civilization has made of those questions for thousands of years. And you can find things to agree with and things to disagree with; things to inspire you and things you can dismiss out of hand. You can have direct experience of these things. What’s cool about the Met is it’s sort of like when you go on vacation in a foreign city and you stand in front of some beautiful landscape: “Man, I’m here. I am looking at the River Po,” or whatever the case may be. At the Met you have that sort of direct experience. You’re looking at the Rembrandt, it belongs to you, you are communing with it. It’s very real and it’s very direct. In that way, it’s sort of a contrast to looking at things on screens, for instance. Lately you’ve been working as a tour guide in the museum. Getting to move from room to room must feel good! And an opportunity for you to share all the thoughts you’ve accumulated over the years. It’s great fun. It’s fun having people in tow and, like you said, bringing them room to room and showing them things they might not otherwise see. Whereas as a guard you had to get a little bit lucky to find a person that might catch your eye and seem to be in the mood to be shown things and to talk about things. I certainly draw on my experience as a guard, both in figuring out what I can say about these works of art or about these galleries that might be interesting to people. But also, in knowing how to relate to people and how to talk about art with people, and what they find interesting and inviting. As a guard I had thousands of casual conversations about paintings or sculptures with all sorts of different visitors who came into the museum, and I picked up the entry points that they found inviting into the art. You’ve written a beautiful book about this job you had. But what would be your Glassdoor-style summary of the whole experience? I think I’d analogize it to being a visitor in a great big art museum. In my first several years, I felt almost invisibly small as I wandered through a place that seems to pleasantly swallow you up. And then, as the years went on, I became interested in asserting myself and discovering what I think about these things. And discovering what use I could make of all this art. And also, this little world that I found around me within the Met, with all of its visitors and all of its guards. So the book tells my pathway from standing still, speechlessly, in the corner, to moving forward, exploring, and ultimately feeling like I had something to carry with me out of the museum altogether.
A Letter from the Editors

Announcing some exciting changes at Hazlitt.net. 

 Haley Cullingham: So, this summer, Hazlitt turned ten years old. Which, given I remember our then-publisher saying when he hired me seven years ago that he couldn’t even guarantee us a year, is extremely exciting. Jordan Ginsberg: I…don’t think I ever got that note? Feels like somebody just walked over my grave. But, yes, in the dog years we use to measure digital publishing, Hazlitt is several thousand years old now, and what better time to mix things up, in my opinion. Famously, people love change. HC: Thank you for the vote of confidence. So, then, before we talk about all the big changes that are coming this year, can you give us a little overview of your seven years as the editor-in-chief of Hazlitt? What stands out to you as most memorable about the site’s decade of life? JG: It really has to start with the writers and artists we’ve worked with along the way, doesn’t it? That is a very obvious answer, but given that we’ve never had much of a mandate beyond making a site that we wanted to read and just kind of encouraging contributors to run wild and pursue their passion projects in order to achieve that, the extraordinary amount of incredible work we’ve published is, among other things, a real testament to everyone’s ability to navigate an editorial sensibility that has been, let’s say, pleasantly mercurial. (I hope.) HC: I know this could be an extremely long list, but could you share a few pieces you edited that have really stuck with you over the years? JG: Wow, Feds Cullingham wants names named. Going back, though, Sarah Weinman’s “The Real Lolita” was a huge turning point—by far our biggest and most involved project up to that point, and a kind of perfect synthesis of the journalistic and literary ambitions we had for the site at its best, and I think helped set the tone more broadly for a kind of crime writing that was more interested in helping to reclaim and elevate the voices of victims. And despite being published by the world’s largest trade publisher, being literature- or book-adjacent was never mandatory by any means, though it did come up organically fairly frequently. Nick Hune-Brown on Gordon Korman, for example, or Rafe Bartholomew on his iconic bartender father’s long-simmering life as a poet (adapted from his wonderful book, Two and Two). That being said, we did build up a robust fiction section, featuring the likes of Bryan Washington and Michel Faber and Zoe Whittall and Olga Tokarczuk. And there have been many great pieces about the broader worlds of art and culture and technology and beyond, and the experiences that become meaningful to us, and how we in turn imprint that meaning on the world around us—Samuel Ashworth on Dirty Dancing as the great Jewish horror movie, say, or, Helena Fitzgerald on the end of AOL Messenger (and, elsewhere, on the colour green, in general), or Nick Hune-Brown on the Shen Yun ballet, or Elisa Albert on (and against) ambition, or Soraya Palmer on decolonizing desire. And, while you and I are in fact the products of journalism school, we never intended for Hazlitt to be a news site (except for those few years when the great John Michael McGrath was Canada’s best news blogger), but Alicia Elliott’s essay after the killing of Colten Boushie and Anthony Oliveira on Toronto’s gay village in the aftermath of the arrest of a serial killer who had been terrorizing it for years were stunning, foundational pieces of writing. And that’s to say nothing of the whole enterprise that is the annual Year in Review series, which is just an absolute murderer’s row every single year. You know what’s fun is emailing your favourite writers on the planet and asking them to write about literally whatever they want. (And, occasionally, smuggling in your own stories about dog poop.) In conclusion, Hazlitt, what a good website—a website that has, in fact, employed a number of extremely talented and wonderful people, from our founders, Robert Wheaton and Chris Frey and Alex Molotkow and Britt Harvey, to Scaachi Koul, to Anshuman Iddamsetty, to Kiara Kent, to our many excellent interns, to Haley Cullingham herself. Haley! You have also been part of the great Hazlitt internet machine for many years, and the site has increasingly reflected your taste and sensibility and vision, to its absolute and unambiguous benefit and success. What’s stood out to you? HC: It’s extremely hard to choose. I think one of the best things about working at Hazlitt is that moment when a writer sends you a pitch that is so weird and delicious you just want to yell when you get it. So much of what has made the site great over the years is that we’ve tried to be a place where writers can write the pieces they’ve always wanted to publish, but hadn’t found the right home for. I’m thinking of those moments when, like, Matthew Braga emails and says “I want to write about what composers think the ocean sounds like,” or Will di Novi says he’s been watching an entire world happen in the alleyway behind his house for years, or Tom Thor Buchanan says he went to a town in Mexico full of dentists, or Suzannah Showler is like “so my parents sort of met in a cult,” or Alex Manley wants to write about growing up in a city full of lead pipes and it becomes this amazing anti-capitalist screed. Or his fellow Montrealer Heather O’Neill wants to write about perverts. Or Naomi Skwarna wants to write about swimming pools. Or Mayukh Sen wants to write about falling asleep listening to reruns of The Nanny. And those pieces are always so unexpected, and human, and wonderful. But there’s also the more traditional work, the reported pieces and cultural commentary, that have been so powerful as well. Some of the many pieces that stick out to me over the years are Neil Price’s essay on searching for humour in Black literature, Rollie Pemberton’s feature on Little Jamaica in Toronto, Jonathan Kaufmann writing about a legendary food column for those diagnosed with AIDS, Billy-Ray Belcourt on the linguistic terrain of Indigenous writing, Kathleen Hale on the Slenderman stabbings, Haley Mlotek on the perception of self-loathing in women’s writing, Alison Motluk on surrogacy, Anna Fitzpatrick on the Addams Family, and Tina Horn on Kink.com. But I could honestly keep going forever. We have been so, so lucky to work with the writers we have. And something I do want to mention, which was a huge part of the reason I myself wanted to work at the site, was the respect and kindness I saw demonstrated by your editing before I got there. I was the editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve in Montreal at the time, and had so much admiration for everything you all were doing, and I remember thinking when you and I started corresponding: this is a person I want to work with and learn from. And then you hired me, so thanks for that. So, we hit ten years, and of course that was an opportunity for a lot of reflecting and a lot of planning. One thing that is unique about Hazlitt is that, as you mentioned, we are owned by a publishing house, and you and I both edit books as well. And many of our favourite Hazlitt authors have since published books with us or with other wonderful editors at the company, which is amazing. But, at the risk of me feeling the power of your eye roll all the way from Nova Scotia where you are currently located, can you tell me a little about your own career arc, how you grew from a noted body modification columnist living in the Mexican desert to an acclaimed book editor, and what the future is going to look like for you? JG: Finally, the chance to be the centre of attention—thank you for this. But, yes, in late 2004 I was a year and change out of high school, doing shipping and receiving in a snowboard and skateboard shop warehouse and not going to university, due to a lack of money and direction, generally, until the site BME, the body modification e-zine (e-zine, holy shit, 2004), announced they were going to hire a staff writer, and I, at the time a person of tattoos and piercings and whatnot, applied and got the gig, just a few months after they’d moved their operation from Toronto to La Paz, Mexico, where they then moved me, my first time ever on a plane. So with no real experience doing anything, I spent most of 2005 bopping around (Mexico City, Guadalajara, Las Vegas, Caracas) covering events and interviewing folks about the extraordinary things they were doing to their bodies and the bodies of others. I did end up going to the school formerly known as Ryerson University for a journalism degree after that, and from there ended up at the National Post, first in the sports section, then as the home page editor, and occasionally tricked them into letting me review heavy metal festivals and Tool concerts and whatnot. Then, in late 2012, an upstart internet periodical named Hazlitt announced it would be hiring an editor, and now here we are, one decade later. I’ve aged terribly. But, as you say, along the way, we were delighted that a number of our wonderful contributors were in fact going on to write books, and that helped spark the idea that became Strange Light, which launched in 2019, and which I am now going to be dedicating, well, all of my time to. Which means Hazlitt needs a new editor-in-chief. And that new editor-in-chief’s name…is Haley Cullingham. Haley! As I said above, your voice and vision and skill and talent have increasingly been driving the site for years now, pushing it into new and thrilling and unexpected places, and knowing a little bit about what you’ve got planned, I cannot imagine better hands for Hazlitt to be in for its next phase and beyond. One of my core beliefs is that any time you have the opportunity to replace yourself with the country’s best magazine editor, you take it. The future is very bright. People are gonna plotz. What can you tell readers about what’s next? And also, how did you, the editor-in-chief of Hazlitt, get here? HC: Ugh, thank you. In the years I’ve been here, the site has seen a lot of change. But the thing we’ve tried to keep consistent throughout is something it’s really important to me to carry forward when you abandon us: that we are a writer- and artist-first site. What that looks like has been a learning curve as the expectation and understanding of online publishing has shifted dramatically, but for us, it means paying fairly, supporting writers to develop their own voice, and publishing work that a writer feels is truly representative of their intention. What I’m most excited about for this new iteration is that, for the first time in a long time, Hazlitt Island will not just be you and me doing our best not to turn into the characters from The Lighthouse. As part of the new vision, we’re hiring four incredible freelancers to help support the work the site does, and I’m obsessed with all of them. Each of the new contributing editors has a history with the site, and I’m so thrilled that they’ll become even more a part of making Hazlitt happen. We’re bringing on two new features editors: Amelia Schonbek and Asna Shaikh. Amelia is based in New York, and has written for the New York Times, New York Magazine, Longreads, and more. She’s also the author of one of our most-read Hazlitt pieces of all time, a feature about Swan Lake’s place in Soviet politics. Asna is based in Vancouver and in addition to her experience at Room magazine and the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, she was our inaugural Hazlitt Fellow, and we’ve been benefiting from her incredible editorial eye ever since. Hazlitt’s interviews section has always been something that we’re proud of, and I’m thrilled that we’re bringing on Naomi Skwarna as our interviews editor. Based in Toronto, Naomi has herself been part some of the site’s most memorable conversations, with authors such as Max Porter, Rachel Yoder, Ben Lerner, and George Saunders. She’s an award-winning writer, with beautiful work in places including the New York Times, SSENSE, The Believer, the Globe and Mail, and more. I’m so excited to see her apply her curatorial eye to the interviews section on the site. And finally, we’re going to revive Hazlitt’s poetry section, which will be edited by the remarkable Billy-Ray Belcourt. From the Driftpile Cree Nation, Billy-Ray is a beloved author and academic (his most recent book, A Minor Chorus, was longlisted for the prestigious Giller Prize). I can’t wait to see what Billy-Ray will do with our poetry section.  I also want to highlight our columnists. We have Abhrajyoti Chakraborty writing about film, Natasha MH writing about fashion, Rollie Pemberton writing about music, with more to come. And of course, we’ll continue to publish the short features, longform, and fiction that have always been a crucial part of the site’s DNA. A few other things that will change: moving forward, the site will publish on Wednesdays, and we’ll open submissions for short periods of time throughout the year—we’ll share more on that on our socials soon. But otherwise, we’ll be the Haz people know and love, which is to say, slightly chaotic, hopefully unpredictable in a delightful way, and committed to staying weird. JG: Haley, I am just out here, looking out over the Northumberland Strait, watching bald eagles dive-bomb the hell out of unsuspecting waterfowl, the circle of life in action, pumping my fist. This rules. Hazlitt forever. HC: Hazlitt forever!