Hazlitt Magazine

Old Peg

“I guess I should tell you about something.”

The Business of a Marriage

After my wedding, I began looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted.

‘We Act Consciously on the Page and in Life’: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

The author of Craft in the Real World on revision, breaking habits, and fixing the writing workshop.


Old Peg

“I guess I should tell you about something.”

I am standing at the foot of the bed in front of Jenny. She’s leaning back casually, nearly naked, waiting for something to happen. It’s our first date. I hold my hands out in front of my face. I turn them front to palm, palm to front, front to palm. I smile in the dark as I flex them open and closed and then open again. These steady, strong hands. We belong here; we don’t belong anywhere else. But then Old Peg rumbles in my head, “You don’t know anything, Petra, you half-witted, you asinine, you suckling pig. We’re disgusting; grow up. We smell; take a bath. Use soap this time and honestly, when was the last time you washed our hair?” My parasitic twin yammers on at the back of my head, my damp curls caught in her mouth. She’s not much more than a mangled face peeking out from my strategically grown mullet. Her nose is not so much a nose as a small piece of overworked plasticene, rubbery with the unfulfilled promise of nostrils. One of her eyes shimmers, milky with blind opalescence and the other, squinty and hazy blue, rolls around and around ceaselessly as though in a perpetual state of coming-to. Her deviated mouth, revealing a cluster of baby teeth on one side, and a tongue; white and scabby like a sun-soaked maggot. I can sometimes smell her breath if I turn too quickly. If I happen to accidentally roll onto my back while sleeping and momentarily suffocate her against the pillow, she screams me awake and I have to change the pillowcase she has burbled into, tacky and warm with her sputum—smelling of halitosis and hair oils. * From the foot of the bed, I get down on my knees and look up at Jenny, who I am this close to going down on. I’ve managed to keep Peg from her all night, never turning, keeping my hair strong and steady at the back. There is only a soft glow, a spectre from the streetlights outside. This method of concealment, although rehearsed often, has never been put into action until tonight. Curious, warm, aren’t you going to invite me up Jenny? As we kiss, I pull her into my chest. Jenny sucks in a breath just as a warm breeze slips in through the open window and wafts through my hair. Old Peg’s rancid breath mingles with the air. Jenny lurches her head back, looks down at me on my knees and says, “What is that smell?” Once you smell it, you can’t not smell it. I abandon all boldness and shoot off a flimsy smile. * Old Peg can’t talk; she can gurgle and whine like a colicky baby, but I’m the only one who hears it. She does, however, make herself perfectly understood when she grates bitter, unyielding humiliations into my skull so loud and probing, I can’t help but reel back onto my heels. It’s a miracle I managed to bring someone home. Peg typically seizes my confidence before my dates even begin, but tonight she’s relaxed. She might even be in a bit of a good mood, all things considered. She even helped me recall some vital details about the plague, a topic I awkwardly turned to when Jenny mentioned she had a fear of vermin. If we ever disagree, Old Peg and I, and we invariably do, she always wins. And not because of the volume she dials up in my head, but because of this: if my head is tilted back just a little (like it is now, as I’m staring mournfully at my was-going-to-be lover), she can open her mouth wide enough to bite the folded skin at the back of my neck. The packed-up bunch of teeth in her mouth are ill-proportioned and they sink into my tough skin like drumming fingers, a rolling gnaw that ends with her sharpest tooth, her one and only canine. Because of this, I do as I’m told, and right now Peg is about to tell me to shut my mouth about the smell, just shut my goddamned idiot mouth. But I like Jenny. I hold my stupid grin and say as coolly as possible, “I guess I should tell you about something.” Jenny gives me a little smile, “What?” and slowly draws the word out. She’s afraid to ask but is asking anyway. Peg clamps down on my neck skin. I flinch and quickly smack my hand over the back of my head. I cover her nose holes until she lets go, and when she does I am inundated with curses. “You asshole, you could have killed me!” I ignore her, stand up, and take a seat on the bed beside Jenny, who is nervously biting her lip. I tell her the basics: * We were born together, much to our dismay. I can’t speak to the state of our parents, but I have a hazy recollection of unmitigated frustration on Peg’s part. She has the gift of boundless memory, being able to recall the smallest detail of our lives that she has no choice but to share with me. Our clinical diagnosis is rather fancy, almost highbrow when compared to what our old-world counterparts got: “The Two-Headed Boy of Bengal” or “Poor Edward and his Demon Head.” We had Craniopagus Parasiticus bestowed upon us. A parasitic head. We didn’t like the way that sounded at all so we agreed that, because of her grizzled appearance and the way she fit me like a rivet, she would be called Old Peg. By we, I mean certainly not my parents, who refused to call her anything but a gestational disaster. Jenny frowns, perplexed. I know she does not understand, but I try to stay positive. I’m on a roll now; she’s still here, she’s got her hand on my knee. I feel like she might be able to handle this. I break into a sweat, my mouth dries up, and Peg is doing her best, begrudging but hopeful, to help me out, correcting me when I use the wrong words. * I always fancied her a kind of feral child, surviving in the thicket of my dark hair with almost no social development, quick to temper, and with no capacity for external communication. Old Peg doesn’t like this because, in addition to her incredible capacity to remember everything, she also has the exquisite talent of being able to assimilate what I learn. She retains things that I had long forgotten. And so, if I happen to stumble on the names of, say, the wolf-nursed pioneers of Rome, she is quick to jump in, “Romulus and Remus, you idiot, Romulus and Remus.” Old Peg shares her inexhaustible library of knowledge, while I make things beautiful with my hands. Each of us possesses qualities the other does not have; together we make up the properties of a rather desirable person. Were I alone, I imagine I wouldn’t be capable of more than carelessly hammering together scraps of wood. But it is Old Peg’s aesthetic that works with my hands, that has made me a rather successful carpenter and bookbinding hobbyist. Unfortunately for Peg, I have nothing to offer her but the use of my hands to create her vision and my mouth to articulate her purpose. The work is made up of her guts, but I get the glory. She agonizes over the fact that I control our body. She can’t feel anything I do. She can dish out an orchestra of insults without feeling the sting their issue has caused. Contrary to this, I have the great burden of not only feeling Old Peg’s anguish, which I feel regularly, but her physical pain as well. Earlier today, I happened to absentmindedly smack my head on the edge of a cabinet door. Peg acutely felt the shock of it against her good eye, but I felt the pain doubly, like a funhouse of mirrors—a slightly warped echo of the original. Because of this, it’s difficult to have a good day. Peg is never really happy, so even a good day for me feels a bit off. Sort of like tonight. * Jenny. Sweet, beautiful, could-be-mine Jenny is still frowning. I stare at her earnestly, eagerly, and like a fool, wait until she collects herself. She smiles awkwardly, sits up straight, takes my hands in hers. “Let me see it.” I flinch, waiting for the barrage of insults to come slamming into my head from Peg. It. Even I’m insulted. But there’s nothing from Peg, just the doubled-up hurt she and I both feel together. I turn my back to Jenny and part my hair tentatively to reveal the face of my squinting, drooling sister. Because she’s a nice enough person, I know Jenny is trying not to overreact, but there’s really no preparing a person for this. When she finally speaks, she speaks clumsily, ruins everything. “O wow, it’s like an abscess.”             O Jenny. I can tell from the heat on the back of my head that Peg is blushing; she’s embarrassed and I, too, begin to the feel the heat blaze across my face. But I am angry. Without hesitation, I want to protect her. I brush my hair back over her face, keep her safe. For all of Old Peg’s cruelty and bitterness she is equal parts generous and patient. She is, after all, just a person who, without consent, must follow me wherever I go. And although I carry her around, she carries me too. Without Old Peg, I am not Petra. I turn around quickly and look at Jenny with different eyes. Sweet, beautiful, stupid, get-out-of-our-house Jenny. Jenny dresses quickly as I sit on the bed and stare at my hands again. These hands. These steady, strong hands. * I sigh and Peg says nothing as I turn on the table lamp beside the bed and flop down on my side. I part my hair again and put a clip in it to keep it parted. I can feel her breathe easier. In front of me, just beside the bed, is a full-length mirror. Behind me, on Peg’s side, is another full-length mirror. In this way, we can see one another in the reflections. I smile reassuringly; she struggles and then successfully focuses her good eye on me. I apologize. She does her equivalent of a shrug: she closes her eyes for a moment. A lengthy blink. She knows that I could have let it slide, I could have ignored Jenny and we would have had sex, and Peg would have waited stoically for it to be over. It’s happened before, in our twenties when I resented her, wore a lot of hats. I have a lot of scars on my neck from those days. But things change as you get older; you begin to see the value in things you love, in spite of everything. Old Peg knows it’s been awhile and so tries to soothe me by humming quietly in my head. She sounds like Cloris Leachman. She has the voice of a grandmother. She will live and die with me, only ever mourning—never having felt the inexorable grief one feels after having achieved the peak of orgasm only to understand that the body must relent and terminate the crescendo. And because of this, because I must feel both of us together, I mourn doubly when the final shudders of pleasure leave my body, and I find myself cold and bleary-eyed, turning my face to blink at the grimy dust glued to the sluggish ceiling fan above our bed. Peg continues humming softly as I reach behind me and stroke her face gently. It’s almost kind of us to do this for one another. She asks, “What does it feels like?” I have her call up a memory of us as children. It’s the simplest thing I can think of. Inside we’re talking: “Do you remember the sparkler Mom and Dad gave us?” We remember when the dying flashes from that sparkler began to sputter out, leaving my vision spotted with ghosts. Overstimulated from the glints of the flinty stick, my eyes attempted to recover and in doing so, distracted me from the loss of excitement; the thrill of something so fleeting, so ambrosial, dying—burning out as I stood there helplessly, like an idiot, blinking over and over, watching it fizzle out in front of me.
‘We Act Consciously on the Page and in Life’: An Interview with Matthew Salesses

The author of Craft in the Real World on revision, breaking habits, and fixing the writing workshop.

“This book is a challenge to accepted models of craft and workshop,” is how Matthew Salesses opens the preface to his latest book, Craft in the Real World (Catapult). “The challenge is this: to take craft out of some imaginary vacuum . . . and return it to its cultural and historical context.” For those who teach and are trained in traditional fiction MFA programs, the book might indeed feel like something of a shot across the bow. The first essay, entitled “Pure Craft is a Lie,” takes aim at certain workshop truisms that, in Salesses’s estimation, are less about objective literary merit than they are about reinforcing white European cultural hegemony. He gives the example of dialogue tags: writers are usually encouraged to mark their characters’ utterances with “he said” or “she said” rather than any other verb, because “said” fades into the background, while other verbs call too much attention to themselves. But, Salesses argues, that’s just because we’ve been trained to read “said” as a background word; another culture might use another term and see it just as neutrally. To tell a student that “said” is her only option is “not to teach her to write better, but to teach her whose writing is better,” Salesses argues. Salesses doesn’t just debunk; he also offers constructive, inclusive suggestions for rethinking and remaking workshop, drawn from his experiences as both a student and teacher in MFA programs. (Salesses holds an MFA in Fiction from Emerson College as well as a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston; he is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Coe College.) The second half of the book, entitled “Workshop in the Real World,” includes suggestions for alternative workshop models, a sample syllabus, and a collection of writing exercises intended to help professors start to detangle their understanding of the craft of writing from our cultural expectations of what a story ought to be. Salesses and I spoke by phone on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, the day that a mob of violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to protest election results. It was impossible not to be thinking about the fact that the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, perhaps the most famous MFA program in America, became what it is today in large part because its then-director, Paul Engle, solicited donations from conservative businessmen with the promise that the writing the workshop produced would fight communism. Storytelling has always been and will always be a politically freighted act; I was grateful to talk to someone who’s thinking deeply about how to do it carefully on such a difficult day.  Zan Romanoff: We've come to think that, if you want to be a writer, you will also teach, because that's how you make money. But as vocations, they're really not the same thing. When you pursued higher education as a writer, at what point were you like, I actually also want to keep teaching?   Matthew Salesses: Before I did my MFA, I taught English to students of all ages. I found that I really liked teaching; my parents were both teachers, and as a kid I thought, “This is never what I'm going to do! I'm going to do the exact opposite of this!” But once I got in there, it felt really great to have that interaction all the time. Also, I [was able to] get perspectives from people I never would have gotten perspectives from otherwise. Especially in an ESL context, they're just wanting to speak, and so they're sharing whatever's personal to them. Listening to all these different people's stories was like reading a short story anthology.  I felt like I knew how to teach ESL really well—I'd gone through training and been certified in it, and had very good results as a teacher. But then I got in the classroom, and I was doing the same things that I had been taught to do, but I could see that it was not nearly as good as I'd thought it might be. I felt immediately like, it could be so much better than this, and I didn't know how, because there was no training. In creative writing pedagogy, there's this idea that creative writing training has mostly been lore-based—we hear from other people what they do, but there's no written record or training or guide. So, I'd done the same things I'd seen in the classroom. The only resource I could go to was to ask more people, so I spent a whole AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference) just asking basically anybody I knew—and the good thing about AWP is that everybody you know is in one place—how they ran their workshops. Like you would expect, 80 percent of them said the exact same thing. But then I ran into [writer and Northwestern University Artist-in-Residence] Nami Mun, and she said, "I do every workshop differently, of course." It just really blew apart everything that I'd thought about teaching in a workshop style, which was mostly, you take the story and you fit it into the machine that the workshop is, and what comes out at the end is—I don't know what comes out at the end, really.  I started experimenting right after that, doing workshops differently for maybe half the class, trying to think about, rather than the kind of regular model that I'd learned, which stories might benefit more from people just talking about things? The thing that I hated, as a student, about workshops was when we spent five or ten minutes talking about something that the author could have just spoken up and said, “This is a cat, not an imaginary being.” [Many MFA workshops operate under the so-called “gag rule,” which stipulates that the work’s author must be silent for the bulk of the classroom discussion.] And so, instead of having those conversations, I started asking the authors, “Can you just tell us what you were trying to do here?” And it worked so much better. We had more time to talk about other things.  Then I started doing things that I did during revisions. I was just troubleshooting things that I found not that helpful about the workshop, which is that you've got this sometimes great, sometimes terrible advice, and you go home and you're like, well, now I have all this advice, but no one's actually taught me anything about how to revise the manuscript from this point. Nobody's said, “Here's what you do next.” No one's said, “Here's how you actually apply the advice to the manuscript.” So instead of doing the advice, which people were writing in their letters anyway, we started cutting up the manuscript and moving it around in class, and doing some of the things that people might do on their own together in a shared space. One thing I really liked about workshop as an MFA student was, my thesis professor was [the writer] Margot Livesey, and she would do these really amazingly ... I don't want to say bad, but she wasn't an exceptional artist—they weren't really good drawings, and we got to see things, like how her mind worked visually. So, I started doing that too, and everyone would laugh at the drawings. So we'd have a good icebreaker where everybody thought, “Look at that, he's a terrible artist.” But it would actually free up a lot of different ways of thinking about the story.  So, you're teaching and you're experimenting with all of this stuff—at what point do you start to think, “This should be a book?” That didn't happen until much later. I'd been writing a bunch of the Pleiades blogs about craft, and I'd written a bunch of op-eds around the internet, for NPR Code Switch and places, about the workshop. I had so much material. I'm always thinking, “This should probably be useful in some way.” I'm very much a product of productivity culture, so I started thinking, “This has to be a book at some point, because otherwise it's just wasted material.” And then [the writer] Roxane Gay tweeted something about how it should be a book, and a few editors contacted me, and I sent these links to my agent and was like, hint hint! So, we wrote a book proposal and went out with it.  And then what was it like to pull all of that material together? Were you surprised by how much you had, or did you feel like you had a lot of gaps to fill in? It was more the latter. I had way too much material, but a lot of it was about revision. I wrote about revision for a long time, and I wanted the book to be more focused on what craft is, and where it comes from, and how we can use it to better serve marginalized writers.  I also found because I had written these things for different venues and different editors—and the blog posts were blog posts, they were very much in blog post voice—so a large part of it was, how do I make all of this writing for various audiences into a cohesive argument for a specific group of people? I couldn't do it completely—that's why I separated it into two halves, because I felt like there were two separate but related audiences. There was the part that was really teaching-related, and you could use that in the classroom, and then a part for both those people and people who just wanted to write on their own.  That's actually something you talk about in the book: how important it is, as a writer, to define your reader to yourself, to understand who exactly you're trying to reach. So, I'm curious who the audience is for this book, beyond, of course, MFA instructors? I'm always writing specifically for my friend Kirsten Chen, who's also a writer. She's also Asian-American, but she grew up in Singapore, and so she has a slightly different background—she came over in high school. So, there's certain things I have to tell her more about to give her the context that you might have gotten just from growing up in America. There’s a certain amount that I have to fill her in on, but I think that's a good amount of filling in, that could be done for anybody who doesn't have exactly the same background or interests.  After that, I was thinking of friends of mine who are teaching right now, writers of colour who are teaching, trying to find something that they could use in the classroom. Some of the pieces just came out of people asking, do you know any craft essays by a writer of colour on this, and me going, “No, I don't know anything—maybe I should write one?” Some of this stuff came out of talking to students of colour in MFA programs who would run into difficulties trying to make their experience feel important to their professors and the administration and having nothing to point to. It's hard to do that, even though it should be easy, just by your own experience. It's hard to do it unless you have something to break in and say, “Look, we can use this as a resource.” And so, I really wanted it to be able to do that for students in those programs, or in any workshop setting.  And then of course it's the editor's job to say, “Let's broaden this to everyone!” And, of course, this is my bias, because all I do is write, and think about writing and talk about writing, but I think everyone who reads fiction should want to understand how it gets made. I loved that this book articulated some things I felt were missing in my own reading practice, in terms of reading mostly fiction by American authors and not understanding much about other narrative traditions.  I felt like when I was writing the book, partly what I was doing was taking the stuff that literary theorists have been talking about since the ‘80s in America, and before that in Europe, and just moving it to a writer's perspective. That felt strange, too, because you could find those books out there if you were just looking in a different place. Most readers of regular fiction are not necessarily going out there looking for post-structuralist theory or something. Right, and this felt like an approachable way to start having that conversation around how what we think of as right or wrong, good or bad, in terms of storytelling is actually a culturally constructed standard.  Something you mentioned earlier was that you write a lot about revision, and that makes a lot of sense to me, because one of the things you write in the book is that a first draft is often your first instinct, and those instincts are often not the most original thought you could have, so you have to drill down further to find out what you actually think or want to say. Can you talk more about why you feel like revision is such an important part of the process? I feel like that's something that I, as a beginning writer, did not understand at all: how much something could change in the revision process, and maybe should change. What we learn as revision is more like editing things to be more presentable, and less the kind of revision that fiction writers do all the time. But that was the education I had, too, so when I got to it, I just knew, what I'm writing is crap, I really don't want it to be crap, so I had to [do] something! So, I'd just work on a story endlessly, making the little edits, until I could figure out more macro changes. I believe really strongly in revision. I used to make my students take an implicit bias test at the beginning of a course and I would get the same result: we all had implicit bias, obviously. My students would say, “I'm not racist, I'm not sexist,” or whatever. And I would say, “Well, that's because you're able to think about it. You don't always act on your first impulses. We have a mind, and we can use it to correct our behavior and do better and become better people.” To me, that's revision. You put on the page all of this really deeply culturally informed subconscious stuff, and you have to use revision to be able to think about why it's there and what it means. And not just what it means on the page, but what it means that you're writing that thing in the world that we live in. It takes a long time and a lot of work to make these unconscious things into conscious decisions. For me the idea is, we act consciously on the page and in life, but I don't think that's a quick and easy process, trying to break your habits.  You also had a novel come out this summer, Disappear Doppelgänger Disappear. Can you talk about how you’ve applied the craft lessons from Craft in the Real World to your own fiction-writing process? So much of [Craft in the Real World] came from teaching, and trying to teach better. But also, so much of it came from the novel. I sold it on spec in, like, 2015. I thought it would be so much better to sell it on spec and then not have to worry about it being sold, and it wasn't better. It was just bad in a different way. So I ended up, instead of worrying about it being sold, worrying about what I was doing writing it, and it took me a long time, after it sold, to get a working draft going. I wrote a ton; I was working on it constantly, but I couldn't figure out what I wanted it to be for when it wasn't for selling the book. And so, a lot of my thinking on craft came out of thinking, well then, what am I doing here? What is the purpose of this? In my MFA we got the whole, there is no purpose for art except art, and this was the first time I had to face the fact that that wasn't really a thing. I really did have to spend a long time trying to figure out, one, who was I writing for—a lot of it came out of that—and then, why would they care? Unless it's just for the fun of reading a story—which is fine, it's a good purpose, it just wasn't my purpose. A lot of the book came from trying to figure out what I was doing and why I thought writing was important, and why I kept holding onto this idea that writing could do something in the world, why I was doing it and not doing something else.  One of the things I love about Craft in the Real World is that I think a lot of MFA students have gone through the process and felt like—well, that didn't work for me, and so I must be broken in some way, I’m not a real writer. And this book is you saying, no, it's not you that's broken, it's the process. Giving them permission for their experiences to be validating, instead of deflating. I took a couple of years off after my MFA and just taught, and worked, like, a regular job, and I was so sick of it that I wanted to go back and do more, so I got my Ph.D. But when I got into my Ph.D., it seemed like an accepted thing amongst everybody that workshops were terrible and they hated them, which seems like a weird thing to do, if workshops are terrible, to do another five years of those. I don't know if people thought it was their fault; people come to accept that it's just a thing, a crappy thing that they have to go through, like some kind of initiation process or something.  I actually really believe in the workshop process as a thing. I think there's a lot of value to it, and I also think if you're only doing workshops, that's probably not the best way to educate someone in creative writing. But I have a lot of faith in the workshop, and I think it can do a lot of interesting work.  I'd love if you could talk about how you've seen workshops evolve at the level of the institution. Obviously, you've been evolving your own methods pretty substantially, but what about your colleagues—how much interest is there at institutions? I think you've got two camps, really. One camp that thinks, “This is just the way we do things, and this is how we're going to do things, and to do it this way is to be a real writer.” But I actually think the other camp is—it's definitely growing faster. It's the only one growing, probably, at all.  At first, when I started doing [different types of] workshops, I would get a lot of pushback to them, just because they were used to the other way, and they thought, “This is the right way.” Even though they didn't like doing it that way! They still thought it was the way they were supposed to do it. I don't get that much anymore, but I teach mostly undergraduates now, and they've been less indoctrinated into it. But I do think still a ton of the workshops are being taught exactly the way they were taught in my MFA—gag rule, et cetera.  I think a lot of people say, “We can't let the writer talk because then they'll get super defensive.” But like, why would they get defensive? They would only get defensive if you're attacking them in some way. It doesn't have to be attacking. That's not the only mode a workshop can offer. I wanted to ask about one of your specific phrases in the section you call “Banned From Workshop.” You ask students not to use economic language to describe stories—"this didn't feel earned," "it didn't pay off," et cetera. I realized that those are things I say all the time, and as much as I don't think stories should be economic exercises in theory, the Western story structure is very much built around the economic concepts of earning and paying off. So, I'm curious how you try to think around that conflict. I do that because my friend, [the writer] Laura van den Berg, banned those economic terms from workshop, and I was like—I had never banned anything from workshop before, and I was like, if Laura's gonna do it, I can do it. I do think everything is so capitalistic, and it's nice to escape from that for a little while! We talk about how something feels: "The character feels like this here, I see it building up to this emotion at this point, and yet it doesn't seem as if the character in this passage has the reaction ..." Or we talk about expectations that the author has set up. The expectations that we're setting up, that we've gotten from reading other books. The expectations from what we think the audience is and what tradition we think the novel is in, whether it's fulfilling those expectations, or trying to undermine them in some way. We talk more about our personal readerly reaction to things and more in terms of expectations.  My students don't really have a problem with it—they seem able to avoid that kind of language. What is really hard for them is avoiding the relate language: "I relate," and starting everything with "I think," or "if it were me"—things that totally center them in the process. That is really hard for them to break. I find things relatable; it's just a funny way of speaking about things. Students seem to have it as a saying that they use, like, "relatable!" That's a thing and it's fun to say, but I don't think it gets at what's operating in the words themselves. It's not something the author can control: whether or not something is relatable to somebody. It's a totally legitimate reaction to something, [but] I don't think it's very helpful to an author at all. It's not very helpful to their craft decisions.  So obviously this has been an incredibly weird time to teach—how has it been running workshops in the pandemic? It's very different. I think the most successful things are when I try to approach it as if it's a totally different thing from teaching in person, and the least successful is when I try to port the things I was doing in the face-to-face classroom to an online environment. The attention is different.  My students seem to have a hard time—there're some classes where they're expected to do the same amount of work as they were before the pandemic. When I was a kid, I always thought, “What do my teachers do when we leave class? They must go in the closets.” But I think sometimes teachers do that with their students too—they think they don't have other things weighing on them, but of course they do, and in some ways the pandemic has been much harder on a lot [of] my students than it has been for me.  They just have so much stuff going on.  All right, before I let you go, are there any questions you wish I'd asked, stuff you haven’t gotten to talk about yet? The exercises! No one ever asks about the exercises! I spent probably more time writing the exercises and thinking about the exercises than the other parts of the book combined. It's interesting to think about what gets focused on later, even though the exercises, I was literally putting in front of my students and asking them to do them and was revising them as the students responded to them.  I really wanted it to be a practical book. I have this whole long rant, actually, about the mystical writer, the person who comes in and is like, “You just figure it out, you know when it's done because you feel it.” I had so many famous writers who'd visit and say nothing that was in any way substantial, and I thought, “They're getting paid so much money for this, it's ridiculous.” One of the funny things in the research is seeing how people in other countries think about characters versus how Americans think about characters, which is, “Oh, I heard a voice! A voice in the wilderness, and I just wrote down the voice that I heard.” Nobody else in the world thinks about it like that. They're like, what? These are made-up things, that you yourself are making up! 
The Business of a Marriage

After my wedding, I began looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted.

Married people are supposed to share their money.  I found this out a few days after my wedding. My husband and I were eating the misshapen remains of a cheese tray in bed, after the tempest of uncles and hailstorm of aunts had swirled away. The last of the Greek cousins were gone. My mother-in-law, having conjured ice cream for a hundred people out of a freezerless kitchen, and my mother, her finger-joints swollen from pulling apart the maddening layers of ninety-six fuchsia tissue-paper flowers, had escaped back to their own lives. But our guests had left something behind: the yellow-striped card box, teetering on top of a bin of dirty forks. At the hall, while I was busy identifying the dead body smell as an actual dead body (a mouse, found expired under the snacks table and borne away in a festive napkin), my sister had dressed the box in wrapping paper, taped a purple pom-pom on top, and cut a slit through which our guests could drop their best wishes as well as cheques, gift certificates, and cash. The generosity of our friends and relatives, now tumbling out onto our bedspread, was humbling. Humbling, too, to take these gifts to the bank and be told we couldn’t deposit them unless we opened a joint account. “Neither of you can cash a cheque made out to both of you,” the teller informed us. “We get this all the time after weddings.” It never occurred to me that I would share money with another person. I moved in with my partner not long before we got married, and for the preceding ten years, aside from a brief, sad stint at a previous boyfriend’s, I had lived alone. I loved living by myself. In the life I knew, I was dictator and sole citizen of my personal republic. Our national drink was instant Nescafé; our national dish was spaghetti. Our flora was a single valiant cyclamen. Our anthem was silence. Our finances were a ball of earwax tied together with skipping ropes: a mix of magazine and newspaper journalism, arts grants, editorial services, and grant-writing contracts. But now our friends and relatives had invested in us—literally—as a joint endeavour. It was hard for me to grasp. My family is not much good at marriage, but we are spectacular at divorce. Both sets of my grandparents were divorced, back when such a thing was still scandalous. My parents divorced when I was seven, and they both got remarried and then got divorced again. Our home life reached equilibrium after the demise of my mother’s third marriage, and from what I could observe, the most stable household configuration was a lady, an armchair, and a newspaper. Other elements might come and go, but these three formed a perfect union. I tried to explain this to my husband early in our dating life, when he broached the subject of a future together. It’s not exactly that I don’t want to, I said. There’s just nothing in my experience to suggest that it works. For our honeymoon, we spent five days camping by the beach, and my wallet was stuffed with receipts: who paid for raspberry ice creams, who bought the hot-dogs, who bought the firewood. Friends inquired, Is this for your divorce lawyers? Meticulous records of the small purchases could hardly address the greater inequities: not only did my husband make twice as much money as I did, I had moved into the house he owned. I paid rent and half the bills, but every time he brought home a block of expensive cheese I had a sinking feeling that I was living a lifestyle I couldn’t afford and didn’t deserve. My husband’s parents have been married for fifty years, and in his eyes, keeping track of whose assets are whose is a purely academic exercise. To me, it seems dangerous to get too comfortable. As we started sending out our thank-you notes, I began reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Economy. I was looking for a language for the partnership, both metaphorical and actual, I seemed to have contracted. Love is a system of exchange, and cohabitation and marriage seemed to literalize its terms. Home economics is a redundant concept: “economics” comes from οἶκος for “house” and νέμω for “manage.” I wondered if the marquee theories of supply and demand offered any insight into how our household should be run. Perhaps, in dividing up the grocery bills, my husband and I should be Marxist: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Or maybe we should spend hedonistically rather than saving for the future. After all, as Keynes famously said: in the long run, we are all dead. Or perhaps the answers were hidden in the love lives of the canonical Western economists: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes. Romance is famously a form of lunacy, irrational to the core. But historically, marriage is a business deal. Building a shared life seems to demand a sophisticated form of double-entry bookkeeping, in which a column counting cash and a column counting feelings are somehow reconciled.  *  Adam Smith is famous for two ideas that came to form the basis of free market thinking: that an “invisible hand” hovers over the exchange of goods and services, ensuring their fairness and rendering intervention superfluous; and that if everyone pursues their own self-interest, all will prosper. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest,” he wrote in 1776. “We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.” A laissez-faire approach to love has appeal: if naked self-interest could really make for a happy household, perhaps the difficulties of marriage have been oversold. The trick, presumably, is to pretend to be asleep when it’s my turn to make the coffee, and to pocket the cash my husband leaves lying on the dresser. His ornery cat hisses at me and pees in my shoes, and her ill-temper represents for me what economists call an opportunity cost—because of my husband’s pre-existing mean cat, I can’t get a dog. If I ran on self-interest alone, some accident could easily befall her. In terms of romance, it would be advantageous to me to have more trading partners, but not if my husband can also trade with whomever he wants—a clandestine affair is to be preferred over an open relationship. Ultimately, I would want to work myself into the position with the greatest bargaining power by being the one who needs the relationship less. Smith could have designed the modern dating app. It is possible to dispense with Adam Smith’s romantic entanglements fairly briefly, because as far as we know, there were none. He never married and declared that anyone in love inevitably seemed ridiculous—a sucker. To an outside observer, the feeling is “entirely disproportioned to the value of the object,” he remarked. John Maynard Keynes is a different story. The thirty-five-year period of prosperity after the Second World War, an outlier that has nonetheless fundamentally shaped our expectations in the Western world, was dominated by Keynesian economics. Before the 1930s, most theorists believed that Smith’s invisible hand regulated employment, and that the market would naturally provide jobs for everyone who needed or wanted them. When the calamity of the Great Depression put millions of people out of work, Keynes proposed a revised role for governments. Unemployment, he argued, happens when people aren’t spending enough money on goods and services sold by their neighbours. The way to get consumers to spend more is for governments to put more money into their pockets. Any government stimulus package that seeks to spend its way out of a recession borrows from the playbook Keynes wrote, the 1936 treatise The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.  But I’m here to talk about his love life. The twentieth century’s most influential economist had the face of a swollen eel, so Virginia Woolf said, and they were quite good friends. She also wrote that he looked like a gorged seal with a double chin and a ledge of red lip, “sensual, brutal, unimaginative.” Keynes’s own opinion of his looks was no better. At twenty-three, he wrote to a male lover: “My dear, I have always suffered and I suppose always will from a most unalterable obsession that I am so physically repulsive that I’ve no business to hurl my body on anyone else’s.”  He got over it. And with a statistician’s zeal for spreadsheets, he created an itemized list of the many men he slept with. It reads like a series of detective novels: The Bootmaker of Bordeaux; The Sculptor of Florence; The French Conscript; The Stable Boy of Park Lane. Keynes’s circle, the Bloomsbury group, was tolerant of gay sex, but British law was not. Oscar Wilde went to prison for sodomy when Keynes was twelve. His Cambridge friends distinguished between “Lower Sodomy,” which involved actual sex, and “Higher Sodomy,” when men loved each other’s minds. Keynes himself appeared in a celebrated list: a database of ten thousand case studies compiled by Magnus Hirschfeld, a doctor from Berlin campaigning for the decriminalization of homosexuality. He sought patterns in the physiological and psychological attributes reported by the gay men he interviewed. Can you easily separate your big toe from the others? Hirschfeld’s survey inquired. Are you talkative? Are you logical? What was logical, at the time, was to marry a woman. In 1921, Sergei Diaghilev’s ballet company mounted a production of The Sleeping Beauty at London’s Alhambra theatre. A Russian ballerina named Lydia Lopokova danced the role of the Lilac Fairy. Her style was unusually robust, even cheeky—she once lost her underwear onstage. She was Georgian London’s manic pixie dream girl, and the public went wild for dolls with her face. Keynes watched her from the audience night after night, and then went around to her dressing-room door and introduced himself. “Don’t marry her,” Vanessa Bell warned him. “However charming she is, she’d be an expensive wife and would give up dancing and is altogether to be preferred as a mistress.” Lopokova’s finances were indeed in disarray. As a child, she was upwardly mobile: from a lower-middle-class background, she had managed to get free tuition as well as room and board at a dance school by the age of nine, and by the early stages of her career made twice as much money as her father. But by the time she met Keynes, she had weathered twenty years of the vicissitudes of professional dance: ballet politics, endless travel, vaudeville roles alongside bicycle-riding dogs. At thirty, she had been married and divorced from the Diaghilev company’s shady business manager (he turned out to be a bigamist), and the company itself was teetering. She knew she couldn’t keep dancing forever. Many of the letters Keynes and Lopokova exchanged (hers endearingly misspelled) during their courtship are about money. “Oh! One of the important happenings! Our engagement is extended for eight weeks,” Lopokova wrote of a theatre contract in 1923. “I am quite rich. I will write with tenderness all the expences in the book.” Keynes had given her a special notebook for her bookkeeping. Not long after they met, it turned out Diaghilev hadn’t paid the Alhambra’s rental fee; the theatre kicked them out and impounded all the props and costumes. Loppy, as Keynes called her, went into business for herself, booking gigs in various productions, and mounting some shows of her own. “Tomorrow I shall have my salary, is it not a pleasant thought? I am such a calculatrice nowadays.” Keynes began negotiating her fees with producers, sometimes writing business letters that he signed in her name.  The two married in 1925. For the first half of his career, Keynes had subscribed to the classical economic theory that a laissez-faire market would, when working properly, employ everyone. Keynes now wrote that the market, left to itself, would naturally come to rest in a condition of high unemployment. In the biography Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, Richard Davenport-Hines compares the revolution in Keynes’ approach to economics with the about-face in his sexual life. Keynes seems to have abandoned male partners altogether. The couple’s letters glitter with pornographic coinages: “I taste your buttons,” she wrote; “I want to be foxed and gobbled abundantly,” he replied. Despite all his friends’ predictions (Woolf considered Loppy an ignorant pleb), Keynes and Lopokova’s marriage was long and happy. The major disappointment was the stubborn non-arrival of children, even though Keynes tracked Loppy’s cycle as meticulously as he had once recorded his lovers. He became an advocate of government oversight to enforce fair pay standards for women in the workforce. She nursed him in his final decade, and then embarked on the kind of free-and-easy widowhood that comes with not giving a tinker’s toot: sunbathing naked in her garden; walking down the street with a shopping basket upside-down on her head; speaking Russian when she got bored of speaking English, whether her interlocutors understood her or not. What strikes me most now in Keynesian thought is its optimism. Reporting on a meeting with a potential booker, Loppy wrote to Keynes: “I did repeat what you said, noble failure is preferable to cheap success, that financial ruin was not so desperately important.” How fine and freeing to think so. As a unit, Lopokova the artist and Keynes the economist were seen, both by their friends and by historians, as complementary, a surprising fit that made for a stable home life with a bright seam of recklessness. If I am not behaving lovingly enough, the answer in a Keynesian marriage would be to give me more affection. The love I receive, so the bet goes, will overflow my coffers—I will be spurred to spend it back liberally into the home market. My husband objects that this is implausible and makes Keynes sound like a sop. “If I shower you with more love, won’t you just value my attentions less?” If my husband were married to Keynes, he might retort that currency devaluation isn’t as monolithic as it looks, and besides, the point is to reach full employment. A marriage in which no labour potential is wasted—no opportunity for making each other happy missed—seems a worthy goal.  *  On October 20th, 1918, Fanny Jacobs and Harry Rosenberg, near strangers, were married in a cemetery in Philadelphia. A crowd of over a thousand people, all Jewish immigrants from Russia, cheered from among the gravestones. It was a shvartze khasene, a black wedding, which folk tradition held would protect the community from pestilence. The Spanish flu had then killed over half a million people in Philadelphia alone. Holding a wedding in their resting place would please the dead, elders from the Old World said, and the dead could intercede with God to beg for mercy for the living. I started this essay in what now feels like the old world. Our emergency savings are in the joint account we opened with our wedding money. The teller who helped us was named Neena, and it was her first joint account too—first week on the job, she confided. A younger woman hovered over Neena, occasionally pointing out where to click on the screen. When our provincial government declared a state of emergency on March 17th, we spent some of our wedding money on a sack of rice, a gallon of olive oil, and a deep freeze. I’m still confused about the deep freeze—a couple of months ago we were vegetarians, and now we are talking about spending hundreds of dollars on an eighth of a cow in case global food supplies give out. But the deep freeze seems to make my husband feel safer, and in our household’s current economy, even an illusory sense of safety has a value higher than gold. In the past several years, a spate of studies by North American banks have found that more and more couples are choosing not to combine their finances—a Bank of Montreal survey found that only a quarter of Canadian couples completely pool their resources. There are regional differences: couples on the prairies are the most likely to share everything, and Quebec couples the least. Millennials are far less likely to use joint bank accounts than their parents. When Neena asked for my SIN, I wrote it down and slid the paper across her desk. But reflexively, I shielded it with my hand so my husband couldn’t see. I’ve always been told to keep my personal information secret—no one said secret until you get married.  Of the many conspiracy theories about the pandemic’s shadowy origins and agenda—5G, biological warfare gone wrong, Zuckerberg finally eliminating real-world interaction altogether—it feels to me like a dystopian victory for a particularly narrow vision of nuclear family. No sex unless you live together. Limited contact with friends and extended family. Historically, marriage was an outward-facing arrangement that wove otherwise unrelated groups into mutual-aid networks. Peasants used to sing songs and recite folktales that made fun of married love, as a way of reminding couples who were too wrapped up in each other not to forget their obligations to the wider community. Theologians used to caution married people not to love each other too much—it might distract them from the image of Christ in each other’s faces. But over time, western European and North American culture has idealized an ever smaller, more private, and more self-sufficient unit. At time of writing, my city’s by-laws impose a fine of a thousand dollars for being caught within six feet of anyone from outside my household. When I look out my window, the pods trooping past are like ads for conservative family values—mom, dad, two kids. The model for a virtuous life under current conditions matches most closely with the kind of marriage I was brought up to avoid—insular, isolationist, fearful of outsiders. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, my sense of myself as a person with an independent existence from my husband suddenly seemed like a fantasy—I couldn’t believe I had ever taken it seriously. It seemed clear that whatever happened to one of us happened to both of us, and any decision one of us made—to touch anything, to go anywhere—was being made for the other. The idea of reckoning up whose money had bought more of the cabbages or lemon concentrate in our emergency box was a dark joke. What future would we be keeping track for? The wider economy was running on the same calculation. Suddenly, it turned out, the imperative to earn a living had been a myth all along—none of that mattered. What mattered was not to die, and the government ordered everyone to stop working and go home. They would simply print money to keep us alive. As an economist commented on Australian national radio, “We are all Keynesians now.”  And yet—these dynamics have a way of reasserting themselves. As people locked down across the globe, the labour exchanges within households have come under heightened scrutiny. The economic impact of the pandemic has fallen disproportionately on women, especially women of colour, as jobs in the service sector have disappeared or become more dangerous. For some couples with children struggling to work from home, the imperative for someone to provide childcare in periods of school closure has pushed the lower earner out of the workforce. And in families in which one or both are still going out to work, all previous cost-benefit analyses that led to career choices have utterly changed—while pay may have remained the same.  * Shoshana Grossbard contends that you can, in fact, buy love. [[{"fid":"6707821","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] In this equation, which Grossbard published in 2018, the U stands for “utility,” which is the term economists use for what the rest of us call happiness. The individual’s happiness will depend on an equilibrium between the loving care moving from one partner to the other (i-j) and back (j-i). Loving care might take the form of home-cooked meals and folded linen on one hand, cash and approval on the other. Happiness in a marriage is a function of both love and self-respect, the latter of which is produced under several conditions: recognition of one’s labour competence; the ability to achieve a desired standard of living; a choice about what kind of work and leisure to engage in and when; and an inherent belief in one’s own worth. Love in lockdown is a paradox in which the value we ascribe to each other’s lives is high, and therefore we seek to minimize each other’s happiness by limiting each other’s freedom. I’ve never wanted to be one of those couples who exercise together, but to avoid going out we set up an exercise circuit that had us running back and forth between the weights in the living room and the skipping rope in the yard. After one of our biweekly grocery expeditions, my husband started coughing. We found a small neighbourhood grocery doing delivery, wrote all our emergency numbers on a sheet by the door, and prepared ourselves for the worst. Our ability to isolate efficiently is, of course, strongly associated with class. We have the kind of white-collar jobs that can be done from home, and we can afford (for now) the higher prices for local delivery. An apartment building abuts our lot, and I guiltily avoid looking up at its windows as I, the yarderati, get my safe exercise. We wouldn’t be in our current situation without a lifetime of help from our upper-middle-class families, and it is very plain to both of us how little we have earned our good fortune. My husband is still coughing, but over the past month no other symptoms have developed—our immediate fears have subsided. Instead of helping my husband get organized for the months to come, I’ve been distracted, lying awake planning out what I would have done if I were still alone in my old apartment. Being loved means I am no longer solely responsible for taking care of myself, but being cared for makes me feel less competent—I respect myself less.  Even though Grossbard goes by @econoflove on Twitter, she doesn’t tend to use the word “love.” The equation itself is derived from the work of another economist, Charlotte Phelps.  Grossbard argues that what Phelps calls love looks an awful lot like what she prefers to call work-in-household (represented here as H): [[{"fid":"6707831","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] Here happiness is a function of the exchange of work between partners, combined with L for waged labour, X for consumer goods, and S for leisure time. Phelps, writing in 1972, argued that although a woman who becomes a housewife receives payment for her loving care through her husband’s provision of material goods, this exchange stops short of making love a market commodity. “No currency, money or approval, can buy love,” Phelps wrote. Why not go all the way, Grossbard asks, and say that the rewards for loving care (work-in-household) should be monetized? “Providing more legal support to exchanges of loving care for money is a key to more fruitful negotiations among partners and potential partners,” Grossbard writes. In Richard Thaler’s 2015 book Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics, he talks about his affection for honour boxes. You see them at highway farm stands or unattended campsites, nailed to a wall or a post: you can drop coins or bills in, but you can’t take them out. For Thaler, it’s a nutshell explanation of human nature. Enough people will voluntarily put money in the box, even if no one is watching, to make it worth the farmer or the parks service’s while. But if the box were easy to open or steal, it wouldn’t be long before someone did.  Before the crisis, my husband and I had set up rules to govern who paid for what proportion of which things in our household. There are plenty of apps designed to help couples keep track but our method is old school—a blackboard in the kitchen, on which each of us is supposed to chalk up our expenditures. The beauty of this honour system was that it allowed us to cheat on each other’s behalf. When I decided to buy a fancy jam that wasn’t on the list or pay more than my share for gas on a trip to visit friends, I could fudge the numbers.  Now we don’t seem to have any system. My husband set up the grocery delivery on his credit card, and depending on which news he’s been reading, the box arrives full of pie and ice cream (it is hopeless, everyone we love will die) or cabbage and canned sardines (we will all live long enough to lose our jobs in six months). We’re still figuring out what proportion of these emotional purchases I should be responsible for. One of the major contributions of behavioural economics is the distinction it draws between Econs and Humans. Econs are the purely rational agents found in economics textbooks: they buy, sell, change jobs, start businesses, and plan for the future in the most beautifully ordered way, always choosing perfectly between available options to maximize their own utility. Humans are the dazed, impulsive, occasionally altruistic characters you meet standing in a panic before supermarket displays of six kinds of apples. In decisions that involve any kind of self-control, a Human is actually two selves trying to act as one. There’s one self-trained on the future and one who sees nothing but the present. Human marriage is four selves trying to act as one; it’s like doing the dishes from inside a horse costume. One of the dominant metaphors for marriage in economic literature is the firm. Or The Firm, as I started to think of it, for the 1993 Tom Cruise movie. Whoever is behind on their share of cooking and vacuuming is letting The Firm down. McDeere was also supposed to stick with The Firm until death did them part. The idea is that marriage vows are in fact an employment contract, albeit with fuzzy terms. As always, exploitation is a strong possibility. In the 1950s male breadwinner model of the household, wives are the workers and husbands the cigar-waggling industrialists. Much Marxist-feminist ink has been spilled on the inequality of this relationship, and even though the proportion of contemporary partnerships that fit the male breadwinner model is low—in 2015, Statistics Canada reported that both partners reported income in 96 per cent of couples—the gender wage gap means that inequality follows most women home.  Intra-household bargaining matters to the politicians and bureaucrats running the economy. In part, for its role in driving buying patterns. Some theorists argue that the home is no longer comparable to a firm, because these days it’s not a site of production, but primarily a site of consumption. Although there is one essential product, an adequate supply of which is considered necessary for the smooth running of a country, that is manufactured at the discretion of the home firm. Families are the factories where children—i.e., future workers—are produced. When I lived alone, I had no one else’s income with which to compare my own, and success was defined as paying my rent and bills every month. Now, I am keenly aware that my husband makes more money than I do. Neither of us wants this fact to be meaningful. There’s lots to explain why we aren’t bringing home the same amount of bacon, since we do different jobs in different sectors. But it’s tricky to maintain an equal relationship when it’s so easy to quantify how unequally the outside world perceives your value.   * “You know that I have sacrificed my whole fortune to the revolutionary struggle. I do not regret it. Quite the contrary. If I had to begin my life over again, I would do the same,” Karl Marx wrote in 1865. He was corresponding with Paul Lafargue, a protégé who wanted to marry one of Marx’s daughters. “I would not marry, however. As far as it lies within my power, I wish to save my daughter from the reefs on which her mother’s life was wrecked.” Jenny Marx, née von Westphalen, was born into the Prussian aristocracy. She died in London after a lifetime of dodging bill collectors, begging from friends and relatives, pawning her belongings, and seeing four of her seven children die of poverty-related diseases. Karl and Jenny were childhood friends; he had studied with her father, who was himself a proto-socialist. Her family was nonplussed by the match, however, mostly because Marx was terrible with money. His happy-go-lucky spending habits at university (he was president of a drinking club and chose the most luxurious lodgings in town) drained his own middle-class family’s resources, and Karl and Jenny’s engagement was a negotiation that lasted seven years. Eventually, Marx agreed to sign a contract waiving Jenny’s liability for any debts he had incurred before their marriage. There would be plenty more debt to come. They married in 1843, when he was twenty-five and she was twenty-nine, and moved to Paris, where Marx wrote radical articles under a pseudonym. Within a year, a police commissioner knocked on the door, and Karl was expelled on the charge of atheism (actually for rousing sentiment against the Prussian royal family), with twenty-four hours to leave the city. He left, and Jenny stayed behind with the baby to sell the furniture to cover outstanding rent and bills. This pattern was repeated with dreadful monotony over the next forty years. Every time a wealthy relative bailed him out, Karl promptly rented living quarters fancier than he could afford, spent whatever was left on furniture, and was quickly broke again. The family was in rags and lived close to starvation. When Karl tried to pawn what remained of Jenny’s family silver, he was nearly arrested—how could such a vagabond have gotten hold of silver with the Argyll crest?  The Marxes serve as a chilling example to anyone contemplating marriage to a writer. Early on, Karl got an advance for the book he was writing on “political economy.” Jenny rejoiced that the book would soon make her husband’s reputation, usher in a socialist paradise, and yield enough royalties for the family to live on. Instead, Karl pretended to be two weeks away from finishing the manuscript for sixteen years. For most of this time, he hadn’t even started. The publishers demanded their money back as Karl spiralled off into more and more research, endlessly broadening the scope. There was so much more he needed to read and think about, sitting at his desk in the British Museum while Jenny fended off creditors.  All this paints Marx as a terrible husband. Yet, as the Prussian spy assigned to peep through the Marxes’ windows attested to his superiors, Karl was quite a cozy person to have around the house. He played stagecoach with the children, letting them tie him to a row of chairs and whip him; when he and Jenny went out, he was a good dancer. A friend remarked that he had seldom seen so happy a marriage, “in which joy and suffering were shared and all sorrow overcome in the consciousness of full mutual dependency.” Like Keynes, Marx was described by friends and strangers as hideous—short and squat, his rampant beard reeking of cigar smoke, his coat buttoned wrong. Jenny, like Lopokova, was considered beautiful and elegant, though eventually her face was scarred with smallpox, the doctor’s bill for which Marx described as “hair-raising.” It is also not the case that Jenny was Karl’s victim. She was an ardent socialist who considered her own health and safety secondary to the propagation of her ideals. “Where could we feel more at ease than under the rising sun of the new revolution?” she asked in her memoirs.  Even the Marxes, however, could not live on ideals alone. In 1850, pregnant and desperate once again, Jenny sailed to Holland to plead with Karl’s wealthy uncle for more money, to no avail. “I believe, dear Karl, I will return home to you with no results, fully deceived, mauled, tortured in mortal fear. If you knew how I yearn for you.” Meanwhile, Karl was impregnating their housekeeper, Lenchen. The baby was given up for adoption, and Karl’s friend and patron, Friedrich Engels, claimed to be the father. Jenny left no evidence of her private thoughts on Lenchen’s condition (the maid had come to Jenny from her own family back in Germany and was more like a sister than a servant), but historians speculate that it was nearly impossible for Jenny to have been entirely oblivious—the entire family lived in two squalid rooms.  We do know that by the end of her life, her husband’s book still unfinished, Jenny Marx was so depressed she could barely get out of bed. Her mother died, and with Jenny’s inheritance the family managed to rent adequate housing (again, it wasn’t long before the money was gone and they were out on the street). In her memoirs, Jenny wrote of this period, “We were sailing with all sails set into bourgeois life. And yet there were still the same petty pressures, the same struggles, the same old misery, the same intimate relationship with the three balls of the pawnshop—what was gone was the humour.” Poverty wasn’t funny anymore. Engels, the hero of any Marx biography, had gone to work for his father at the hated family mill so that he could support the Marx family while Karl completed his important work; now Engels cleared their debts and put them on a yearly allowance. Jenny did not live to see the success of the book for which she had sacrificed her health and peace of mind. Not because she died before it was published—Das Kapital came out in 1867 and Jenny lived until 1881—but because the book was a flop. It was not until later that the book found its unrivalled place in the history of economic thought. The Marxes, in short, did not manage a Marxist marriage. In emotional terms, neither of them seems to have got everything they needed, and in financial terms they certainly did not. There’s an authoritarian streak in me that whispers the appeal of rigid planning to enforce fairness—left to my own devices, I am well aware of how often I fail to consider the needs of others. For a household to be run in such a way that everyone feels in control of their own labour, and yet the mutually desired amounts of clean laundry, cooking, and sympathetic listening are produced, a manifesto may well need to be drawn up. Whether the Marxes each gave according to their ability is harder to assess. Who can be certain how much love they really have to give?  * Adam Smith was born at the tail end of the last outbreak of bubonic plague in western Europe; between 1720 and 1723, half the population of Marseilles died. In Smith’s lifetime, smallpox also devastated the Indigenous populations of the Americas, in part due to its deliberate use as a biological weapon. While Karl Marx was living in Soho, the neighbourhood was the locus of an eruption of cholera; 23,000 died of the disease in England that year. John Maynard Keynes lived through the Spanish flu. Marital norms also fluctuated during these economists’ lifetimes. The eighteenth century saw the rise of the love match in western Europe, a trajectory that mirrored the rise of the market economy and increased independence from the family network. While Marx sat in the reading room of the British library, the British upper classes were sentimentalizing the role of married women as the moral and emotional core of the household—the thin edge of the wedge we would now call affective labour. Keynes, who died in 1946, lived long enough to see sex take up a central place in the popular conception of a good marriage.  Among the many unknowns of how the coronavirus pandemic will reshape our societies is how the psychological and material effects of lockdown will affect people’s desire for partnership. As a lifestyle choice, marriage is objectively in decline: a United Nations report from 2019 found that, worldwide, people are marrying later or never, and divorcing more often. In the U.S., data from the past few years project that a quarter of today’s young adults will stay single for life. Some studies suggest that, contrary to popular belief, married women are sadder, sicker, and shorter-lived than their single counterparts. Marriage has always been a risky business, containing, as it does, scope for exploitation, violence, and the general misery of spending time with someone who makes you unhappy. In an age when companionship, for those able to exercise some control over their exposure to others, is more scarce, the calculations about what kind of household formation to seek become more complicated. The utility of a good marriage is even higher, while a bad marriage poses a greater threat than before. Quarantine conditions intensify all the dangers of a bad relationship, and advocates are calling the rise in domestic violence a pandemic-within-a-pandemic. The limited social contact outside the home means reporting avenues are blocked, and ongoing confinement makes it easier than ever for abusive partners or parents to monitor and control the communications, movements, and finances of victimized members of the household. Medically speaking, solitude is the ideal state. Early on, experts suggested that even people who shared a home should limit how much they touched each other. And solo living can allow for greater agency in choosing a desired level of risk tolerance. For those choosing to date during the pandemic, romantic dealbreakers can be incompatibilities of hand hygiene, or of willingness to roll the dice on attending a birthday party. Financially speaking, too, our society tends to place a high value on financial independence. But the economic imperatives that have driven partnership for millennia could set many searching for traditional forms of cooperation as we enter an era of global financial hardship. During the Great Depression, the divorce rate fell—people couldn’t afford to separate. Now, as then, the social forms our emotional lives take carry the imprint of more widespread crises not of our making, created by systems most of us only dimly understand.
The Year in Time

This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Before 2020, I measured my time in movement, and my work as a Black Jewish writer and filmmaker focusing on international human rights issues required it constantly. Six months in Israel and Palestine documenting the community organizing of African asylum seekers, three weeks in Japan and Korea filming with a US human rights delegation, four or five trips zigzagging across the United States for conferences and screenings. Humming Wyclef’s “Gone Till November” to myself went from cliché to ritual as I rolled luggage and film equipment through each new airport, and time away from home was a unit to measure life by. I arrived in Boston the first week of March 2020, just as COVID-19 began systematically shutting down the United States. I was there for a three-month arts and activism fellowship through Harvard’s Religion Conflict and Peace Initiative, an exciting and legitimizing opportunity in a career forged in conflict zones and stateless communities far away from the mainstream. I was determined to make the most of the kind of institutional access and resources that had always been out of my reach, and fought hard to keep up the facade of my plans. But every day my world got smaller and smaller. I remember surreally moving in reverse of the tide of abruptly dismissed undergrads scrambling for flights home on my way to pick up a key card for an office that I was only able to use once. I had exactly one night out at bars with my co-fellows who could only talk about finding somewhere else to ride this all out, and then a small going-away party for a colleague who left by the end of the week. Soon my Boston housemates packed up and left for nearby family homes, and I was alone under lockdown in an apartment and city I’d barely gotten the chance to meet. I contemplated packing up my life once more and going to stay with my parents until this was all over, but an urgent inner voice told me I had things to do right where I was. After an entire young adult life marked by travel, I had to learn to stay still, and do so entirely alone. The hardest part was finding new ways to keep time. I no longer had big plans to set the rhythms of my life to, and had to rely on the kind of rote daily routine I had always avoided to keep myself sane. I not only embraced routine, I became it: reading and writing in the morning, working out and editing video in the afternoon, Zoom calls with friends and sleeplessly waiting for the next day each evening. But ticking off each day on the calendar until my fellowship ran out wasn’t enough—I needed to account for the passage of time in a way that meant something. My grandfather had died just weeks before I left for Boston, and his funeral was a reminder of why my secular Reform Jewish family has kept our traditions and identity alive in the face of decades of assimilation. Judaism outlines clear lifecycle obligations, including what to do when someone passes, and fulfilling them held us together as we moved through grief to give my grandfather the send-off he deserved. Most meaningful to me was the mitzvah of accompanying your loved one to the grave and covering it with a bit of earth to lay them to rest, and doing so for my grandfather was an act of love and service that also called up the Black Muslim mourning rituals I learned from an Aunt who would also pass this year. All this brought new appreciation of obligation to my weeks alone, observing rituals like Shabbat helped me not only feel close to him, but separated one week from the next. I measured out my time in the Target tea candles I lit each Friday, going to the liquor store to buy wine for Kiddush, and surprising my Orthodox Jewish neighbors with a “Gut Shabbes!” greeting when we passed in the street. But once you can measure time, how do you make it meaningful? Most of the meaning in my life comes from work in service to others, and throughout the pandemic it seemed like the best thing I could do for anyone was to avoid others and not spread the virus. The principle of the preservation of life superseding all other duties, what Jews refer to as pikuach nefesh, for a time relieved me of my restless belief that my own worth was wrapped up in my ability to move and create. But that relief only lasted so long. In spring, the Black uprisings fueled by the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd hit Boston and brought with them a sense of urgency that forced me into the street, in the name of this very same principle of preserving life. After spending months alone in my apartment, I found myself and my remaining co-fellows marching from the historically Black Roxbury neighborhood to the Massachusetts statehouse, calling out the names of those lost to police violence. It was a shock to the system to move from a state of total isolation to suddenly being surrounded by tens of thousands of people, all wearing masks, and moving as one. In an instant I went from individually counting out my time in rituals and routines to breaking free of all of that to follow the demands of a singular collective moment. It’s that contrast, and connection, between personal and collective time that has come to define this year for me. COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, the November election—all have marked this year and brought with them the need for personal and collective responsibility for how we respond to the times we live in, and what we do with the time we are given. This year, every day I spent in isolation was in preparation for the days when I could join others in something bigger than ourselves. In truth, every individual sacrifice of this pandemic is part of a collective goal of fighting for a time when we can be together again. I left Boston in June, but live a similar life in San Francisco, this time with housemates to keep me company. I still count my time in routines and rituals, yearning for the day when movement returns to my life, but for now it is enough to know that even this is time well spent.
The Year Inside and Out

There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Like most of us this year, I have developed new tactics for not screaming into the void more than my daily quota allows. Mask on, I force daily sanity walks on myself, darting away from those who get too close, dancing up sodden little hills and down curbs until I’m back at my tiny apartment, covered in stress sweat. Despite my love of deking around barrel-chested men, I’d rather not drain my adrenal stores while buying tampons. I began taking evening walks, free to wander far into the quiet recesses of Toronto’s many neighborhoods, with only the occasional dog to nod at. The benefits of this adjustment, besides the comparably empty streets, include something that I’ve always enjoyed, but have never formally embraced: looking into strangers' windows. Before you dial 911 on your microwave, let me elaborate. When I began making a more conscious viewership of interiors, I determined a set of rules to avoid feeling like the wrong type of perv. By my own authority, I may “glance” “within” someone’s window if a) they've left the curtains open, b) they are not present in the room, c) I do not fully stop to get a better look, and d) I do not leave the perimeter entailed by the sidewalk. Politely canting my head towards the house in question could be construed as a sign of respect, if also a minor intrusion. To me, it’s like window-shopping. Instead of mannequins, I browse floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, hovering bunches of helium-filled balloons, tiers of potted plants, and once, in fact, a serenely armless mannequin. Kitchens are best. Nearly every night, I pass a butter yellow one that faces my local park. I always fall to admiring the wall-mounted wooden dish rack that displays plates front wise, a thing I’ve only ever seen in New England-set dramatic feature films. To me, an empty room represents potential. Back when I used to attend plays, few things made me happier than sitting in the house—a beautiful contextual use of the word—gazing at the bisected interior of a living room or a kitchen or an entire home; a life-sized Polly Pocket. I knew that presently, some door would spring open, a light would turn on, a newspaper would be tossed on a chair. There is something exciting about anticipating a space before it is inevitably interfered with by a human—what might also be called living. Sometimes, though, my mood sours when passing certain favoured houses, feeling the distance between the turreted mansions and my own lightless apartment; the distance between me and the better me, who would live in one of these glowing houses. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that where I live is a reflection of me as a person, and wouldn’t I be just so much better if I lived in this Victorian rowhouse? Architectural Digest surely thinks so. A value so often applied to distance is the realization of the bigger picture—the vista we are only capable of seeing when forced to move a few paces back for one airborne reason or another. In May, I began noticing the tents pitched in many of Toronto’s downtown parks. At first glance they looked like impromptu campgrounds, perky and colourful under trees in full flower. Huh, I thought. That seems new.  With the already overcrowded city shelters unfit for safe use due to COVID-19, and evictions looming, encampments quickly spread beyond the places where you might typically see them, for instance, tucked between trees and under overpasses in the Rosedale Valley—shelters of all shapes and material. Over the years, there has been a redoubling of city-initiated sweeps—intentional clearings of improvised shelters deemed, among other things, as fire hazards. City officials say that this is done in an effort to direct people living in camps to shelters or other, safer, temporary housing options. Many of those evacuated return to the in-between spaces, quickly rebuilding their modest shelters until another inevitable sweep once again clears them out. Nearly two years ago, Nicholas Hune-Brown wrote in Toronto Life that, “As wealth fills every crevice of the downtown core, [people] aren’t just excluded from prosperity—they’re punished by it, left to watch as the city’s affordable housing options are knocked down to clear the runway for Toronto’s rapid, unstoppable ascent.” Hune-Brown wrote about the “gradual accretion” that led to the then—and now current—crisis. At present, there are 8,700-9,000 people in Toronto experiencing homelessness (a number that reflects only those who can be accounted for). This adds more than 2,000 people to the number Hune-Brown cited as growing between 2016-2018. Numbers don’t offer the most sympathetic perspective, but they don’t lie. Whatever is pushing people out of permanent housing and into the window of temporary or chronic homelessness, it is only growing stronger. As of summer 2020, camps were pitched in just about every park I passed on my walks, including the southern spots like Moss Park, Alexandra Park, Trinity Bellwoods, and Cherry Beach. Clusters and lines of tents and tarps and sleeping bags and kitchen chairs and piles of soft belongings and Gatorade bottles; everything that a person with a home has the privilege of keeping tucked in some IKEA storage unit or another. Here it was, placed out in the open. This includes the residents themselves, who might seek shade under a leafy tree, or smoke with friends, or otherwise find ways to fill the hot days that we all sought refuge from. Encampment residents are frequently harassed by police, threatened with eviction, ticketed, and neglected by the underfunded social services meant to help them. Bolstered by a municipal by-law that forbids camping in public parks, tents have been slashed, overturned, and violated. Mayor John Tory lifted the ban on encampment evictions in August, which has made the encampments even more vulnerable to the whims of those who want them gone under the bad faith argument that it’s for the residents’ own good. In June, there were 14 current COVID-19 outbreaks, 528 confirmed cases, and four deaths—in shelters. In the encampments that have been tested for COVID-19, there were none.  All this happened more-or-less coterminously with Toronto’s Black Lives Matter protests, and the calling for a 10 percent defunding of police services. Instead of defunding, two thirds of city councillors voted to keep the $1.2 billion gross operating budget of the police intact. Contesting those who would have the encampments removed is the volunteer-led Encampment Support Network. Since the spring, ESN has mobilized an ad-hoc team of people to be present for the various encampment communities sprawled across the city. That could mean providing them with donated water and energy bars during the hottest days of summer, first aid, outdoor yoga classes, use of phones/tech, and friendship, to name just a few essentials. They have publicized their advocacy for the encampment residents, calling them neighbors and featuring encampment friends on their social media by name. ESN is further dissolving the boundaries between the housed and the unhoused by creating opportunities for supporters to participate however they can, from organizing winter boot drives, to donating ice and food, to spending time with the residents and getting to know them more intimately, Many artists, like Michael DeForge, have created art (that rips) in support of the encampments—colourful and energized graphics that reflect the optimism behind the efforts of the residents, organizers, and volunteers. One of the most surprising accomplishments of ESN is their insistence on making the encampments—and the city’s efforts to break them down—as visible as possible. The public nature of homelessness, in this case, has been the thing that allows us to begin really seeing what has been here all along. More and more, the beautiful houses that I swoon over felt symbolic of something painful in our city. Awareness of inequality manifesting as pleasure in these beautiful and unavailable homes, a way for me to avoid thinking too hard about the more pressing disparities. Instead, I nurtured the reliable gripe I’ve held for years in some form or another: that I don’t have enough. In Toronto’s well-kept parks, the encampment communities have become a palpable reminder of the people whom the city, when not facing a pandemic, does an excellent job of keeping on the fringes of awareness. During a very cold winter, I will worry about the people who curl up in sleeping bags in front of banks or over warm-ish grates, but they are intermittent enough to be forgotten by a self-absorbed person like myself within minutes of passing. But I can’t do that now, not with the constant reminders of the encampments, which flow from public space to public space, even filling a little roadside arena at the corner of Queen Street and Dufferin, tents climbing up the incline. Never have I been so viscerally reminded of shelter poverty and the enduring housing crisis that existed in Toronto long before Trump suggested we might protect ourselves with bleach infusions. Upwards of 1,500 people currently live in Toronto’s encampments, more than twice as many as the number of new shelter spaces the city has created, including an interim respite, installed at Exhibition Place’s Better Living Centre. When the images were released in November, public response was aggrieved, to say the least. The Better Living Centre respite is perhaps one of the bleakest interiors I have ever seen; a squat building converted to a chilling warren of glass walls with cots that look poised to interrogate hostages. As ESN plainly articulated in a statement released on October 23rd, “We visit the same encampments every single morning…People want housing, they want homes where they will be safe and warm. Every day we lend residents our cell phones to call 311 and ‘Central Intake’ who coordinate shelter spaces. We ask for temporary shelter, for hotel rooms, for beds. Every day we are told there is nothing available.” When I started writing this, I intended to discuss my love of interiors. But, as I often find when lingering on something comforting, I also discover its inverse truth. Considering something like beautiful home interiors makes it unconscionable to discount the reality of exteriors. I stand by what I said: empty rooms represent possibility, and as we move into another cold, in many cases fatally cold, Canadian winter, what is it that we as individuals, a city, a province, a collective psyche need to do to join those empty rooms with the people who want and need them, with dignity and aid to make places where they feel safe, dignified, and wanted? How do we apprehend what to me feels obvious: that shelter is a human right and its commodification has made us defensive of what we have, and wary of those who don’t? I love kitchen nooks and big cushion-strewn beds and fabulous windows that let in the morning light. I love original moldings and hand-painted ceramic tiles and shelves built of wood “rescued” from old barns. Rooms, and those permitted to fill them, exist on a continuum. To possess the good room I must avoid the bad room. But I can’t persist in believing myself worthy of the good room when I live in a city, in a country, in a world that thinks and politicizes the belief that so many of us are not. In 2020, we have all been forced to reckon with a suffocating sense of what’s ours, and how we might make each other sick because of it. This year, I have so frequently felt that I am pressed against the window of my own existence, desperate to find my way back to a world where I may feel what others feel, smell their pungent perfume, get my foot stepped on. It was not the briefly glimpsed interiors that made me aware of this, but the encampments. In a different world, the tents would disappear as our neighbours ceased to need them. But until that happens, I hope we never stop seeing them and everything they mean about this place where we all live, despite how it can feel, together.
‘There’s Some Kind of Evil Behind Every Great Work of Art’: An Interview with Alex Ross

Talking to the author of Wagnerism about uncovering counter-narratives, keeping a healthy skepticism of your relationship with art, and totalitarian intolerance of eccentric creativity.

Alex Ross’s new book Wagnerism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) opens with the death of its subject, clutching his heart in a Venetian palazzo. When Wagner’s erstwhile acolyte Friedrich Nietzsche heard the news, he fell to bed ill, overwhelmed. That malady proved incurable for Nietzsche, who still agonized over the idol-turned-rival until his mental breakdown years later, and it lingered down through the century he helped usher in. A longtime music critic at The New Yorker, Ross purposefully ignores Wagner’s own peers, focusing on how his grandly ambivalent ideas blasted through every other medium. “The composer came to represent the cultural-political unconscious of modernity,” he writes, “an aesthetic war zone in which the Western world struggled with its raging contradictions, its longings for creation and destruction, its inclinations toward beauty and violence.” Wagnerism reaches monumental proportions. One gets the impression that Ross read everything ever published by or about Wagner, then wandered through the appendices. There are chapters on literary admirers like Willa Cather and W. E. B. Du Bois, on the ways cinema has absorbed or mimicked his music, and necessarily on Nazi Germany. Hitler adored both the deathless melodies and their creator’s grotesque anti-Semitism. Wagner told his patron Ludwig II that “I consider the Jewish race the born enemy of pure humanity”; his 1850 essay “Jewishness in Music” describes German Jews as the worms feasting on a corpse. Studies of cursed art often amount to glib apologetics, as if the author were hovering cross-legged over a prayer mat, serenely undisturbed by politics. Wagnerism climbs towards a reckoning instead, following the inferno into Valhalla. Chris Randle: I didn't realize this until actually reading the book, but I was amazed that you eschewed any mention of Wagner's musical influence, and I'm wondering if you were always working under that restraint. Was the book in its present form from the beginning? Alex Ross: Yeah, I decided right at the outset I wasn't going to talk about the musical influence, because it's such a huge topic in itself. There's thousands of composers who've been influenced by Wagner in one way or another—it would've added hugely to the scope of what was already a huge book. I actually don't think that the topic of Wagner's influence on music is as interesting, because there's nothing too surprising about it. He was this powerful figure in musical history, and he introduced a new musical language to some extent, especially in Tristan and Isolde, but he's not more influential than a bunch of composers who came before him, or even after him, from Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven to Stravinsky or the Beatles or whoever. Whereas this phenomenon in the other art forms—literature, architecture, dance, film—it is kind of unique. I don't think anything quite like it had happened in cultural history. I didn't know how prolific Wagner was outside of music, often arguably in a bad way—even outside of the anti-Semitic writing. His politics especially, I got this sense that they were never quite coherent, constantly shifting in a way that many distinct people latched onto. There's just a gigantic amount of research involved with going through that material, how did you go about all that and keep track of it? Yeah, he wasn't just a composer, and an important fact about the work is that he also wrote the texts. There are a lot of aspects to his non-musical activity which are...distracting at best, and malignant at worst [laughs], but in terms of the dramas, he was kind of a brilliant dramatist. He wasn't an acclaimed master of the German language in terms of his literary output, and a lot of German people, when they look at the librettos in isolation, it's very difficult, this strange, mangled, pseudo-archaic version of the German language, and it's just not conventionally beautiful. But when that libretto is sung, and the singing is placed in this dramatic situation that he creates, it becomes really compelling. Wagner was actually really good at structuring acts of an opera and building tension, undertaking these ambitious stories filled with so many interesting psychological details while pursuing grand themes—power in the Ring cycle, the lust for gold and the opposite force of love, all the philosophical underpinnings. He was a great psychologist, and all these characters are really rich; like, Wotan is so fascinating because he's this man of power who wants more power and ends up destroying himself in his need to always have more and more. He ends up plunging into this state of psychotic despair and self-pity, which is one of my favorite moments in all of Wagner. So there's a lot there, but there is also thousands of pages of the prose writings, a lot of which is just very difficult to make sense of, and yes, his politics were all over the place. If only he had simply written the music and written the texts and worked as a conductor, as a theatrical director; if only he hadn't felt the need to spew verbiage on every subject under the sun. But that was who he was, a completely irrepressible and verbose and monomaniacal figure who had to have an opinion about everything. The research was pretty huge. I started out by going through all the operas very carefully, the scores and the librettos. I didn't read or reread all of the prose writing, but I went through the main ones. And then I just started absorbing the material needed for each chapter, so many novels, plays, poems, I don't know how many hundreds—including some big-league works of literature, like Proust and Finnegans Wake and The Waste Land and several big novels by Virginia Woolf. None of which was a chore [laughs]. Part of why the book took so long, I think, was that it was so enriching for me to revisit all this literature. Some of it I was reading for the first time, some of it I had read back in college and hadn't understood very well, and it was great to come at these classic works from a fresh angle, looking through this curious lens of how they reacted to Wagner. A lot of the book is about them, it's about this period in art and literature, and not so much about Wagner himself. Wagner is sort of this thread that I follow through one of my favorite historical and cultural periods, the fin-de-siecle, decadent, somewhat insane, endlessly fascinating period from around 1880 to 1914. I've always been maybe unhealthily attracted to it, since I was a teenager. This fantasy-land when art reigned supreme. It just seemed like in Vienna and Berlin and other cities, artists, composers and writers were the superstars, the celebrities, and everyone in the streets was aware of their work. The cab driver would recognize Gustav Mahler on the way to the Court Opera. For me as a kid, who grew up worshipping art in all these forms, it feels like Disneyland [laughs]. But at the same time there were a lot of ominous currents underneath that world, so I'm also very mindful of how anti-Semitism was spreading, how hyper-nationalism was spreading, so it's a tale with an unhappy ending in a lot of ways. My favorite discovery from that era might've been Joséphin Péladan, the Catholic occultist writer. He really comes off like a Ronald Firbank character, this ludicrous— I loved writing about him. It was so much fun, he was just such a madman. You're never sure whether it was just a massive put-on, a way of seeking attention—setting himself up as the magus of this Rosicrucian order that was basically just him and putting on these wild art exhibitions, holding rituals and ceremonies. I think he was a performance artist to some extent, but also a serious, if extremely eccentric, literary figure. He wrote this 21-volume novel cycle, La Decadence latine, of which I absolutely did not read 21 volumes. I made my way through maybe four or five of them, and it's crazy stuff. When I did my audiobook, there was one moment where I just burst out laughing while reading it, about his novel Le Gynander—the androgynous and magical figure whose mission is to convert lesbians to heterosexuality, and generates all these replicas of himself, each of whom seduces and marries a lesbian, and they all worship a giant phallus. And Wagner is playing [laughs]. It's just so crazy. But it's also part of the fabric of the time, this was a period when artists were seen to be social figures, very much in the vanguard. It was thought that art really could help bring about a revolution in society or great spiritual transformation. You also go through a series of counter-readings: Black Wagnerites, Jewish Wagnerites, queer Wagnerites. Was there anything especially revelatory in that for you?  Yeah, at the outset I was aware of some of that material, and I definitely wanted to uncover these counter-narratives. The issue is that so many people equate Wagner completely with anti-Semitism and Hitler and Nazism, and they kind of erase everything else that went along with the phenomenon of Wagnerism. So what I was trying to do, without at all marginalizing that other narrative, that line of succession from Wagner to Hitler, which is extremely important and very real—it becomes more and more central to the book as it goes along. Without concealing that at all, I just wanted to add to the picture, to complicate it, with all these other ways in which Wagner affected people; from the far left to the far right, all these different social groups and minority groups who identified with Wagner and found him inspiring as they looked to ennoble their own traditions. So I was aware of W. E. B. Du Bois and his love for Wagner, and I was aware of the fact that for a lot of early gay-rights activists, as gay culture emerged into the open at the end of the 19th century, Wagner was a sort of icon, seen as an ally figure or even "one of us." Some people thought that he was gay based on the very romantic letters back and forth between him and King Ludwig II, when in fact they were just these flowery letters. And there are wonderful descriptions of Wagner's fashion sense.  Yeah, there was this androgynous side to him, he liked to wrap himself in these soft, silky fabrics, so there was this cultivation of a feminine mode of dress—which he was conscious of, and he talked about androgyny as an ideal in his work. His whole attitude towards gender and sexuality is really complicated. I mean, sometimes he can sound like a total misogynist when he talks about women, but there was something unconventional about his gender identity—it was not just standard masculinity. And that emerged into the public eye in an uncomfortable way for him when these letters to his designer-milliner about his favorite satin fabrics were exposed and published. He was widely mocked. But then somewhat later [the sexologist] Magnus Hirschfeld reviewed that episode and said, no, this is part of why Wagner is so interesting as an artist, because of this gender identity that he possessed ... There was more of that than I realized there would be. I knew about Du Bois, but I discovered this singer Luranah Aldridge who almost sang at Bayreuth in 1896, and who was the daughter of the great Black actor Ira Aldridge. Some of that Hirschfeld stuff, I just found out more about Wagner and Hirschfeld than I realized there would be. Those sections of the book kind of grew in importance, just because I ended up feeling like it wasn't just one or two eccentric cases, this was actually a deeper phenomenon. Even the case of African American intellectuals identifying with Wagner, that was more widespread than I thought at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century. It shows you how a figure like Wagner can be inspiring and useful to audiences and spectators who might otherwise be hostile to him—you would think, by contemporary standards, that they would've rejected him, and of course this goes for the Jewish Wagnerians as well. But in fact they felt the right to take the work and make it their own, and ignore whatever aspects of Wagner were inimical or even directly hostile to them. People in this era worshipped art to an extreme degree, but they also felt free to take it and manipulate it however they wished, and I think today we tend to feel more bound to the original intentions behind a work and the biography of the artist, the context, so some of that freewheeling approach has ebbed away. I found that relationship between spectator and artwork really interesting. I don't know if you saw, but when Florian Schneider [a founding member of Kraftwerk] died earlier this year, people were sending around this amazing clip from 1990 or so, Detroit clubgoers on some local TV dance show just losing it to Kraftwerk's "Numbers." Obviously Kraftwerk don't have the racist baggage of Wagner, but they're easy to caricature as these impossibly white German guys, and yet they were closely intertwined with so much techno music. It is easy to reduce these things in that way. Yeah. The side of the relationship that I've always found so interesting is—I go through a whole series of examples of people being overwhelmed by Wagner, to a degree where they're losing control, they're put under a spell. It has this narcotic effect on them, they feel drugged by the music. There's this almost sexual vocabulary of being penetrated by the music—Baudelaire says that. And yet the spectator doesn't end up being passive and powerless. At the end of the process they emerge, having reinvented Wagner for their own purposes. That's what the Baudelaire relationship is all about. At the end, despite seemingly prostrating himself before the god Wagner, his Wagner is almost unrecognizable next to the original. He's just converted Wagner into this proto-avant-garde French bohemian figure. And that happens again and again. I'm fascinated by the doubleness of that, that you lose control, lose yourself, in the music and the work, but you emerge owning it in this very dramatic way, taking possession of it ... It's this pronounced pattern that you see over and over with a lot of these figures. The music has a strong visceral, sensual effect, but it's also extremely vague in terms of what it's actually conveying, and the spectator ends up projecting themselves into the work rather than receiving some clear message of meaning. I really like that one detail you mention, the Jewish music fan who was a contemporary of Wagner, who had the bust of him crowned with both a laurel and a noose. I love that. It's such a great visual encapsulation of the relationship that a lot of people had with Wagner, which is kind of my own. I meet so many people today who don't worship the man at all—they're fascinated by him and the work, but there's this adversarial, critical aspect to it too. They're constantly fighting with Wagner ... I think it's a healthy relationship to have with a work of art, to always be a little on guard and skeptical and aware, and not naively trusting the work to give you a pure and innocent and positive and uplifting message. I like that dimension of wariness [laughs] listening to Wagner. I always feel very awake and alert listening to Wagner and wondering what exactly is going on while I'm swept up in the music. Until very recently, the prize for the World Fantasy Award was a bust of H. P. Lovecraft, and I've seen multiple essays from people who won it saying, "I turned mine to face the wall," or turned it to face a Samuel Delany book. At another talk I was doing, during the question period, someone drew that connection between Wagner and Lovecraft. I was actually talking about African-American Wagernism, and they pointed out that the new show Lovecraft Country—I've only seen a couple episodes of it, but it feels like it has some of that same dynamic as the older Jewish engagement with Wagnerism had, or African-American Wagnerism. Du Bois was actually pretty much straightforwardly worshipful of Wagner; he objected to the anti-Semitism but he never sensed any kind of anti-Black racist threat from Wagner, so far as I know. Jews were Wagner's fixation. He didn't have very much to say about Black people. I feel like they're similar in that they've both had this vast influence beyond their fields, Lovecraft more than he did within his own medium, but different in the sense that, if you read a random Lovecraft story, the racial paranoia really is inescapable, even when it's transposed to cosmic horror. Whereas Wagner I don't think is reducible in the same way. Yeah, it's not blatant with Wagner. There is this recurring debate over whether there are anti-Semitic stereotypes present in the works, the dwarves in the Ring cycle or Kundry in Parsifal or Beckmesser in Meistersinger. And people have plausibly said that they do match up with anti-Semitic stereotypes. The problem is that Wagner never gave any indication that he intended such a thing, and a lot of people actually didn't pick up on it at first. It's only really in more recent decades that people have concentrated on this strain of Wagner, it wasn't widely noticed at first. It's not blatant in that way. I absolutely feel there's something there, but it's quite hard to pin it down. But it's still the same problem. You can't look away from any of this with Wagner, you can't pretend it's not there, because he was so influential as an anti-Semite with that horrible essay he wrote in 1850, which was widely distributed. It definitely played a role in the expansion and intensification of anti-Semitism in German-speaking countries, because he was such a revered figure, and he put his weight behind anti-Semitism in a very dangerous way. There's a running joke in the book that I love, where you're discussing people like Nietzsche or Thomas Mann who have endlessly tortured relationships with Wagner, but now and then you mention figures like Marx or Brecht who were either indifferent or disdainful towards him. Do you feel like you learned anything from those reactions as well? Yeah, I mean, they're just fun, because there's a lot of over-the-top Wagner worship going on in the book, hopefully not from me. So it's refreshing to have someone come in and say, "This is just total repulsive nonsense." Marx was totally scornful of the whole Bayreuth operation and the commercialism of the festival. Brecht was quite dismissive. Mark Twain had some great put-downs of Wagner. So it breaks the spell a little bit, but those voices were also part of the conversation around Wagner. There was so much mockery and bitter, vicious, but funny criticism thrown his way, like the critic Eduard Hanslick, who said that the prelude to Tristan and Isolde reminded him of "the old Italian painting in which a martyr's intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a reel." [laughs] There was such a fury around Wagner right from the start, people were deeply, viscerally put off by him, just as there were people who were swept away by him. I think some part of Wagner actually—he got very upset by all this criticism, but he was canny enough to know that it ultimately didn't do him any harm in terms of spreading his fame. There's some part of him that always had to have controversy around him, he always had to be causing a stink somewhere. He just couldn't leave it alone and have a peaceful, slowly expanding career. There always had to be this turmoil, that was just his personality. I wanted to ask you about the way Wagner was treated under Nazi Germany—I was struck by that detail about how performances of his music actually declined during that era. You distinguish between the Nazi high command, which loved him, and his uneasy place in the popular culture of fascism, which was mostly evil kitsch. Or, like, pop songs from America. I read about Nazi culture trying to figure out, well, just how much Wagner really was there saturating the landscape in Nazi Germany? And I came away feeling that there wasn't as much of it as people assumed, and one clear piece of evidence for that is the declining number of Wagner performances. I came to realize that the Nazis, and especially Joseph Goebbels, used a kind of American-style, technologically driven, mass-distributed culture as a way of controlling and distracting the populace. They ultimately found it much more useful to use movies and pop songs and outdoor entertainments to have that adhesive effect, more useful than so-called high culture. There's individual bits of Wagner which are very famous, the "Ride of the Valkyries" and Siegfried's theme, but the operas themselves are huge and complicated and unwieldy, and a lot of people found them very boring, including all of these Nazi underlings who were herded to performances of Meistersinger at the annual Nuremberg party rallies, basically under Hitler's orders. And they would fall asleep, they would sell their tickets to other people, they just wouldn't show up at all, so people would be herded in from a hotel area [laughs], forced to sit through Meistersinger. This was all Hitler's maniacal idea: He loved Wagner and had grown up with Wagner, and he assumed that everyone else could have and should have the same experience, so he sort of forced it on the masses. And there was tension between that attitude of his and Goebbels's more pragmatic approach, that popular culture was much more useful in terms of keeping the populace entertained and distracted. I mean, Hitler also enjoyed Hollywood movies, so he was aware of the strong effect of that. And the other interesting thing about Wagner in Nazi Germany is, there were some Nazis who simply didn't like Wagner, not because they weren't interested in the music or found it boring but actually because they found Wagner kind of suspect. There was just something off about Wagner. He was decadent, he was bohemian, there was something sexually off about him. There was a rumor that Wagner himself was Jewish. These sort of stories spread around, and Hitler Youth groups would be discouraged from going to Bayreuth, because it was deemed unhealthy for robust young German youths [laughs] to be exposed to this dubious, decadent composer. And there was this gay atmosphere at Bayreuth for a long time—it was known to be a gay mecca, where you could express yourself more openly, and that went back to Wagner himself, who was welcoming to gay people in his circle. And then his son Siegfried turned out to be gay, so he always had the entourage around him, and Cosima [Wagner's widow] seemed not to mind having gay people around. So gay men and lesbians would congregate in Bayreuth. That sort of atmosphere was persisting in the 1930s, and it was felt to be problematic in the Nazi period. But I don't want to exaggerate this. Wagner was a big propaganda figure in Nazi Germany, and Hitler did absolutely love his music. I was just trying to introduce some nuance and complexity and just point out the ways in which Wagner—there's a lot of aspects of Wagner that have nothing to do with Nazi ideology, the totalitarian ideology. When you set his anti-Semitism aside, a lot of Wagner's other political ideas are contrary to the all-powerful central state, the huge military. Wagner was always something of an anarchist when it came to political organization. It's interesting to compare him to Richard Strauss, who I imagine was the most revered living German composer—it seems like the Nazis both admired and resented him, maybe because they sensed that he despised them. I'm always chilled by that diary entry where Goebbels wrote: "Unfortunately we still need him, but one day we shall have our own music and then we shall have no further need of this decadent neurotic." I think that sorry tale of Richard Strauss in Nazi Germany may give you an idea of what it would've been like if Wagner himself had confronted such a state—which he couldn't possibly have done, because Wagner was a 19th-century figure and this kind of totalitarian state in its modern form didn't exist, they couldn't have imagined it. But yeah, Strauss also had these anarchistic leanings and unconventional political ideas. Music mattered to him above everything else but he thought the Nazis would be useful for advancing the cause of his own works and classical music in general, in the same way that Wagner thought the Kaiser would be able to take up his cause, and that he would become the official composer of the new German Empire, which did not happen at all. Strauss's disdain for the Nazis—he was somewhat anti-Semitic himself, or had been when he was younger, but he absolutely rejected the idea of Jewish composers being banned and resisted various aspects of Nazi policy, and eventually it became quite uncomfortable for him because his son married a Jewish woman and his grandchildren were considered non-Aryan. Signals were sent to keep him in line, that something bad could happen to his family, so he ended up in this private misery during the later stages of Nazi Germany, emerged intact, and ended up writing his beautiful final pieces. But that gives you an idea of what happens when an independent-minded post-Wagnerian composer collides with totalitarianism, which has no patience for the eccentric, self-willed artist. You did this whole investigation of Wagner in film; obviously there's the endless recursion of "Ride of the Valkyries," but I loved what you suggested about the use of leitmotif in cinema, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that. Right from the start of movie history, there was this idea that Wagner could be used as a model for how music goes together with film images. Already in the silent era, Wagner was being held up as a guide for how you identify characters and situations onscreen by tagging them with these brief motifs, and people write, "Do what Wagner did." And Wagner's own music would be part of that library of motifs, that the movie-house pianist would have at their fingertips: Horses, play "Ride of the Valkyries"; a storm, play Flying Dutchman music. So at that basic level, Wagner was integral to the development of film music. Then when sound came in and you have these big professional orchestras recording symphonic scores by composers like Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, many of whom were emigres, who came out of this late-Romantic musical tradition, and Wagner was just inescapable in that tradition. Richard Strauss was also a huge influence, especially on Korngold, but there's Wagner all over how those scores are constructed and the orchestration. Film music is Wagnerian from the outset. In that chapter I was actually breaking my rule a little bit, not writing about Wagner's effect on composers, because I do talk about Steiner and Korngold and Bernard Hermann, but then I sort of expand it beyond what's on the soundtrack, what the composed score is doing—I'm also talking about Wagnerian motifs in the stories, versions of these classic mythic situations from Wagner's operas. There's a whole bunch of movie scenes where people are listening to Wagner—with the rise of Nazi Germany there's this instant cliche of identifying Nazis onscreen by playing some Wagner, or they're listening to Wagner. And then more eccentric strains, Luis Bunuel with the surrealist use of Wagner, and later Fellini, Ken Russell—Lisztomania is such an incredible film [laughs], it's such a bonanza for anyone who'd been immersed in all this for years as I was. There's so many careful little inside jokes in that movie. That chapter ends with Apocalypse Now, which is kind of the masterpiece, the most amazing Wagner scene in movies. And also maybe encapsulates the political contradictions. Yeah, that's why it's so great, I think. It's not just incredibly viscerally effective, how it's filmed and the helicopters and the synchronization of the music to the shots, but also there's this huge irony at work where the kind of music that was so often associated with Nazi aggression in movies and newsreels is now being used to portray American military aggression. With this racist edge to it, because Robert Duvall's character has these racist insults that he throws out as the assault is underway. It's basically America beginning to take on the role of global villain, there's this transference or inversion with the Wagner music there, it's tremendously effective. And then it sort of undermines itself, because it's so thrilling that you lose track of the ironic, subversive message, it becomes this glorious macho spectacle with Wagner playing. You have this absurd situation where soldiers are playing the music in real-life combat, just because they've seen the movie or seen the scene on YouTube or whatever, and feel like it's the right thing to do. That was not the message that the movie was supposed to be, I think [laughs], at least from Coppola. John Milius [the screenwriter] had a different political orientation. And that turnaround is also some Wagnerian irony, the scene from the movie being misappropriated and politicized in a new way. I'm curious, why did you choose to do that abruptly memoiristic turn at the end? I thought that was fascinating, it just stands out so much from the rest of the book. That was funny, because I'd been working on this book for 10 years, and I was finishing the draft in January of 2018—of course it had to be edited, that whole process before publication, but that was the moment where I was finally finishing the rough draft. My 50th birthday was coming up, and I told myself that I have to finish at least a semblance of a rough draft before my 50th birthday. Over Christmas I was maniacally working away. Then a couple days before my birthday I was flying back from New York to L.A., and I wrote a rough draft of that epilogue just on the plane, and I was saying, "I'm going to change all this, I'm not actually going to put all this in the book." I was sort of telling myself that I was finished by writing this stuff down, and I could claim at my birthday party, "I finished the book!" And then I left it all in the book [laughs], and never took it out. It is much more—obviously the book isn't personal at all, it's a work of cultural history. But I thought, I don't know, I just sort of used myself as an illustration of the same kind of process that I'd been depicting with all these other figures, where they have these personal experiences with Wagner and these unexpected associations come into play. They find this new relationship between the music and their own world. I realized that that had been happening to me, and I'd been replicating this familiar mechanism of relating to Wagner. Struggling with Wagner too, because I wrote about how I hated Wagner when I first heard him, I saw him as this huge historical problem when I was studying European history and culture in college, and then I developed this deeper appreciation for him. So that was...experimental. I guess usually with a huge book like this, on a topic that's maybe a little bit obscure, the author would usually put that kind of personal introduction at the beginning, to create relatability or something [laughs], and I guess I was being a little perverse by putting it all the way at the end and making people suffer through [laughs]. My own take on all this just didn't matter so much, that's not what the book is about, but I thought it would be—just confess my own personal stake at the end. It was this funny story, or funny in retrospect, of how I got dumped immediately after a performance of Die Walküre at the San Francisco Opera, and then proceeded to sit through the remaining two operas with my now-ex-boyfriend, because I didn't want to seem to be too destroyed by this, even though I was [laughs]. Five or six hours of Wagner operas with this guy, it was a disaster. That kind of personal misery and humiliation, all this dark emotional stuff, I just saw that in the opera. Wagner loved to depict that kind of emotional state in his work, so that was jumping out at me as I was watching the opera, and I realized how amazingly piercing his psychological insights are. Do you have a sense of how the Wagnerian is shifting or mutating in our own time? I don't know, it's so complicated. He's still so controversial—people love him or hate him or can't make up their minds about him. A lot of what I describe in terms of Wagnerism in arts and literature, having these deep relationships with Wagner, a lot of that has ebbed away, but it's still going on, and you still find Wagnerian references in literature and there's still Wagner all over the movies. But there's also this philosophical conversation around Wagner, and I talk about contemporary philosophers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek who've written about Wagner. I feel like there have been these waves with him: After World War II, there was consciousness of his dark political legacy, and some people tried to respond by emphasizing his connection with leftist politics, and other people really wanted to focus on the anti-Semitism and emphasize what had been covered up previously about Wagner's racism. I feel like maybe in the past 10 or 15 years, just in terms of the books that have come out—I talk about this wonderful book by Laurence Dreyfus about Wagner and sexuality, and that's been a revelatory book for a lot of people. People are still talking about the leftist angle of Wagner and trying to find that balance, in terms of figuring out Wagner's politics. And the way Wagner is staged is so wildly diverse as well, especially in Europe. You have no idea what you're ever going to get when you walk into a Wagner production, and that's good. Some of these productions are a little nonsensical at times, but the project is a really serious one, and sometimes those productions are revelatory, because they rip the operas away from the traditional situations and context; it can reveal powerful new layers in the works themselves and make you think very differently about them. I actually resent when people call some random superhero movie "Wagnerian," because I think they're all terrible and I hate them. Like, Jack Kirby is Wagnerian. Those things are not Wagnerian [laughs]. The word Wagnerian just gets thrown around a lot [laughs]. When people say "Wagnerian," they always mean grandiose and bombastic and bulked-up superheroes wielding weapons, and that's only part of what Wagner is about. So often all that grandiosity is a background, and what really matters is the psychology of these intimate interactions. The grandiosity is a foil. And it's why those psychological, intimate moments have such an effect against this huge landscape, to suddenly be so close with the emotional nitty-gritty of people's lives. It's startling when you zoom in on the individual in that way, like a wide shot and a close-up. At the end of the book I give some examples of the gross overuse of the word "Wagnerian" [laughs]. I was getting a Google alert, actually, and every week it'd just be crazier and crazier. I had to shut it off eventually, because it was too much. If nothing else, maybe the book will make people think twice about using the word "Wagnerian." Is there anything else you want to say about the book? I do hope that it makes people rethink whatever assumptions they might have about Wagner—I do think these are tremendous works of art, and they're absolutely worth getting to know despite the huge problems attendant on them. I think you can be aware of all that and still have this very personal relationship with the work. If you're not thinking about the bigger historical questions all the time I think that's okay, you don't always need to be focused on that. You can lose yourself in the work and then step back and regain that larger perspective, with all its troubling aspects. And I think we can do that with any artwork. There's some kind of evil, there's something foul, behind every great work of art in history. Nothing has ever come from some place of innocence and purity. What's that Adorno line...? "Every work of art is an uncommitted crime." Or Walter Benjamin, "Every document of civilization is at the same time a document of barbarism." And those are sort of typically over-the-top, club-you-over-the-head Frankfurt School proclamations [laughs], but there's also a deep truth there, I think. I feel like sometimes with Wagner they just want to shove him to the side, like, this artist was so awful that we just can't deal with him. But the problematic assumption with that can be, if we just get rid of this figure and a few other bad apples, then everything that's left will be okay, when it's not. Systemically, in terms of racism and misogyny and homophobia, our whole cultural history is scattered with that, so it doesn't do any good to get rid of Wagner, because he's just an extreme representation of these omnipresent wounds, that we have to be aware of and come to terms with.
The Year in the Wilderness

Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. - notes from a suicide [abandoned] - When it all began to end, I took to wandering—up and down, to and fro—the grey sink rim of the city’s waterfront. Shuffling past the other occasional pilgrim-patients hunched in masks, all of us ridiculous and shapeless and sad, I kept seeing a strange bird in the harbor that I didn’t know. Setting itself while it worked at a careful but busied distance from the rough affability of the mallards and screeching anxiety of the gulls, it was black, angular, and ugly, riding low in the bobbing water before hook-stitching under and surfacing a few minutes and masts away—a puzzled, furious punctuation-mark of a thing, perplexed and perplexing. I’m not much of a birder (though quarantine has made me more sensitive and invested in their comings and goings—my head divebombed by a furious cheeping redwinged blackbird mother in June, listening for the backyard laserbeams of cardinals in August) and I thought it must be some kind of heron. But then one day near dawn, I saw one of these unlovely beasts on the wood of the dock, in perfect stillness fanning its wings outstretched in the early sun, and I realized what I was looking at.It was a cormorant. - Jesus spent forty days alone wandering the wilderness. Before the pandemic that robbed this year from us, the feat of that used to sound impressive to me. Strictly speaking, quarantine means simply forty—a quarantena of forty days was the length of time, for example, that ships and crew were required to remain in dock in Renaissance Venice’s bustling commercial ports during the worst years of plague. But the word quarantine’s earliest attestations in English in fact refer very specifically to the desert isolation and subsequent temptation that begins Jesus’ ministry in the synoptic Gospels. Oxford scholar William Wey, for example, while making a fastidiously documented pilgrimage to Palestine in the 1470s, described the vista of the vast waste Christ was said to have wandered: “By yonde ys a wyldernys of quarentyne, Wher Cryst wyth fastyng hys body dyd pyne; In that holy place, as we rede, The deuyl wold had of stonys bred.” Similarly in the Stations of Jerusalem, written around 1500 and forming a compendium of tourist diaries analogous to Wey’s, we can see the word “Quarantine” morph into a proper name for this area itself: “And after we..turnyd vp to Quaryntyne, There Jhesu fastyd xl deys.” It has been seven times forty days now, and the “wilderness of quarantine” still yawns before us: skies now ashen and sober, leaves now withered and sere, of a year most immemorial. And this story feels now changed to me.The climax will unspool differently depending on which Gospel you read. Matthew (assiduous, conciliatory, eager to make his Jesus a palatable fulfiller of law rather than breaker of it) makes the temptation to power and wealth—the kingdoms and glory of the earth—his last, because it is their access his Gospel is most mourning, most tempted by, and most must repudiate. But Luke is more desperate and fugitive. Too long alone—too long without a good meal or the company of friends, and recognizing finally that the comforts and compromises of ease and power are never to be his, he is set upon the pinnacle’s height. And the devil said to him: If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here. And that would be proof, wouldn’t it? That this world of suffering has a purpose, and you a place in it. Surely the angels and archangels and the choirs of heaven will swoop like bats from their perches to break your fall. Surely someone will stop you. And then you will wake in the cooling bath, or your face in the sick, or in the bleached snugness of the hospital, clean and bright and hungry, and know you were spared for a greater purpose: a life worth living. So let it show you. Jump, the devil said. And if it means anything at all to live, you will be saved. And if not, well, what will it have mattered, anyway? - The cormorant is a water-bird that nature, in its cruelty, has not made waterproof. This is why while ducks, with their cheerful greasiness, perch like placid cake decorations on the waves, the cormorant looks always half-sunk, in crisis, always absurdly seeming on the edge of drowning. This is also why they must sun themselves; their soggy feathers otherwise keep them perpetually cold and wet—the evolutionary tradeoff they receive to plunge so low and so deep in pursuit of their wriggling twilight prey. I only know this because, for the poet John Milton (into whose sink I have sunk so much of my life), the poor ill-favoured bird is an icon of the demonic. For Milton, the otherwise ungainly animal’s sunning pose—limbs outstretched, head drooping in solemn silence—is a vicious parody of the crucifixion.In Book 4 of Paradise Lost (1667), when Satan penetrates into our reality and descends upon Eden to pervert Adam and Eve, it is as this bird he perches in disguise to watch the humans and discern how he can seduce them to ruin: Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,The middle Tree and highest there that grew, Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true LifeThereby regaind, but sat devising DeathTo them who liv'd; nor on the vertue thoughtOf that life-giving Plant, but only us'dFor prospect, what well us'd had bin the pledge Of immortality. So little knowsAny, but God alone, to value rightThe good before him, but perverts best thingsTo worst abuse, or to thir meanest use (4.194-204). The image is more evocative than even (so far as I can tell) Milton seems to have realized—the cormorant is now considered a pest, an “invasive species” though it is native to the region, by many Ontario farmers and land developers because its ferocious deforesting of branches as it roosts and its corrosively acidic droppings kill whatever tree it squats in. In nesting in the Tree of Life, then, the Cormorant-Satan foretells its destruction—turning the immortally blossoming tree into the dead wood that, in many medieval legends, would become the planks of Christ’s cross. - Almost every day of quarantine, now in its ninth month, I walk past the spot on the waterfront where, when I was eighteen, I almost killed myself. The disclosure of despair is always fraught, always risking a spillage of the toxic waste it is meant to rinse and flush away. The publication of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther was banned in Leipzig in 1775 for the spate of copycat suicides it is alleged to have inspired; high schools still struggle to calculate their responsibility in teaching or staging Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet; and more recently teen drama Thirteen Reasons Why was accused of carelessness in its handling of its radioactive freight. Voices carry; it has real consequences to breathe our sorrows, and a cultural apparatus and habit has arisen to keep these in their own quarantine. Despair too is contagious. We share it as we shed a spore. But this year, with the spokes and axle of our world so manifestly and catastrophically broken, the claim to “being fine” amid all this would, I think, betray even worser pathologies. - Once in the dark, with the DVD menu looping, he whispered my name and kissed a zigzag constellation down the meridian of my face—five marks whose scorch I can still feel to this day, like cinders cast from a splitting log. Like the coal the angel pressed to Isaiah’s mouth. And he became my faith. And for a few months there were comic books and bad movies and waking up tangled in each other. And then, just as suddenly there was a girl, and I realized no promises had ever been made. And I stood exposed—bereft the confidante he had been, out on a ledge among classmates and family and my own soul who now suspected my secret but without the shelter of him to stand with. And I understood, in this sudden solitude, how broken I was. So I set a date, and picked a spot—both calculated to speak of the wound. But both too, probably, meant to be found out—and when I agreed to discreetly meet with a counsellor, I found instead that suddenly my confidences were betrayed, and there were teachers and a careless policeman and handcuffs “for my own protection” and a squad car and a padded room and a gentle doctor explaining that in the womb my genes had been “feminized” and that is why I was so ruined. All very tacky. All very tawdry. All very teen. When I walk past the secluded spot I thought once to make an indecent end, it feels now like staring at last night’s campfire in the cold morning, fine white ash and bottlecaps. Instead of the ember-sting I feel cauterized—like when I was young and prone to nosebleeds and the doctor shoved what felt like a lit match up my nose and burned away, I guess, the offending tissue, and I never learned what else because I didn’t want to be impolite. I know what it means to be suicidal, and feel like apocalypse is descending—a too-muchness, an attempt (feeble and desperate and sad) to wrench meaning into life. But I don’t know what to do with a bleached, bare aftermath. - In the 350 years since Milton jammed the devil down its throat, the cormorant’s reputation has not much improved. On July 31, 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry startled conservationists and scientists alike when it declared that the cormorant, once almost wiped out by the profligate use of insecticide DDT, was now subject to a province-wide open hunting season annually from September 15th to December 31st. With a game license you can officially kill up to 15 a day, if you like—not that the Ford government has required any official disclosure of the slaughter. Birdwatcher and fisherman Bruce Cox has expressed dismay at this casual carelessness: The Ministry of Natural Resources dug deep into their Orwellian thesaurus and announced Ontario’s newest sport hunt as a “fall harvest” of the double-crested cormorant. […] What is the government’s goal? A 10-per-cent reduction in cormorant numbers? Fifty per cent? More or less? The unmanaged hunt of an inedible native bird that was virtually wiped out in Ontario but for a couple of dozen nesting pairs presents an ethical dilemma for conservation-minded hunters and anglers. With no management plan in place, the hunt is at best almost completely devoid of scientific grounding, and at worst, live target practice. The cormorant hunt, seemingly mindless in its perversity, is actually quite coherent as part of Premier Ford’s project to “open up chunks of the Greenbelt” for development. The province’s “Protect, Support, and Recover from COVID-19 Act,” for example, instead of managing the mounting viral threat, contains a suite of provisions to rewrite environmental laws, including a stripping away of conservation experts consultation and regulatory power over wetlands, forests, and flooding. It is “not policy and institutional reform,” remarked the Greenbelt Council’s David Crombie in his resignation letter, so much as “high-level bombing.” With the earth’s principalities and powers at the foot of the tree throwing dice for its raiment, it now seems the crown jewel of Ford’s “COVID recovery” consists mostly of the paving of the provincial wetland to put up a casino parking lot. - #wrap { width:615px; margin:auto; padding: 0 0 6em 0; } #left_col { float:left; width:300px; } #right_col { float:right; width:300px; } Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita mi ritrovai per una selva oscura ché la diritta via era smarrita In the middle of life’s path I discovered myself in a dark wood and found that I was lost In the seventh circle of Hell, Dante’s pilgrim, who began the journey hinting at his own self-destructive despair, finds himself plunged into the Forest of Suicides. There, the souls of the dead are now trapped immobilized in trees whose limbs and trunks are painfully thrashed, denuded, and befouled by an infestation of harpies. More grisly still, the tormented Pietro della Vigna tells the horrified pilgrim, when the Last Judgment returns their flesh to these spirits, these souls will instead have their inert bodies cast into their boughs like ragdolls, impaled on their branches by God like a shrike. This is supposed to be a far-cast vision of sadistic justice to come—the body that was carelessly thrown away thrown back just as carelessly—but instead it seems to me to figure the particular somatic experience, which the exiled and lonely Dante is like to have known intimately, of what it feels like to be lost to oneself. I have tried many times to anatomize what precisely quarantine has done to me. The first hundred days, all alone in a small apartment, without human touch or voice, I felt parts of my self slough off and fall away. My skin buzzed; tears came from a dull, flat depth, and then just one day altogether stopped; my face felt nailed on and my actions distant, as though all of who I was was suspended in some foul aspic of bone and fat. I became aerosol, a fibre-optic showpig, and the flesh of my body now feels like a piece of outdated hardware, drawered in a tangle of wires, its battery corroding. This virus is supposed to steal people’s sense of smell and taste. It feels like while I hid I engineered it myself, in my bones. There have been the real, measurable losses and indignities as well. My beard is suddenly grizzled, the coarse white hairs startling those who have not seen me in a year. My right ear has failed, my hearing lost to a mass of internal scar tissue. With it went my ability, however meager, to sing. It was never a great voice, but it was a little joy—a bellowing to bad musicals that has doubtless annoyed neighbours for decades. Now there is just a waterbird croak. There were the funerals, shameful in their inadequacy: grief smothered in antiseptic and gauze, maimed rites for kind people who deserved so much better a goodbye. - And now a second wave is cresting. They say it will be more brutal than the first—the pandemic bursting lungs like wineskins, with all the world again closed and everyone far away and under cover, and I feel myself shrink and harden like a fist at another season of these desolations. “God never gives us more than we can handle” has always seemed to me a very obnoxious sentiment from a religion whose founder died a brutal death on a torture post. God gives all of us more than we can handle; that seems to be something rather close to the point. I am, I admit, in despair. I do not believe that is a moral failing. Faith, hope, and love aren’t states we can will ourselves into—grace comes when it will come. Hope is just something I will have to hope for. I imagine I will survive. I have survived till now. On the ledge and on the water. - In the water of the harbor is the mismade cormorant. Unloveable, inedible, no song but a guttered grumble. Wet and cold. Waiting for the sun.
Aaliyah, or View the Infernal Storm

Her thoughts returned to the battlefield.

Way up on Weston Road, in a linoleum-lined kitchen that overlooks a basketball court and a giant park, Fozia’s head was spinning. The children were in school. Her plight wasn’t different from other hoyos in the neighbourhood but she had no way of knowing. One spoke little about these things.   It was Ramadan so any water or pills were taken out of sight of her husband. Fozia wasn’t a puny refugee; she had fought a tyrant most don’t remember. She had a bullet lodged in her side. When her husband wanted to cause her pain, he’d grab her waist tightly. She’d smile and her friends were envious. They wished their husbands were as affectionate.   Here, she’s stuck in a grey high-rise surrounded by bungalows housing Filipino families, aging Italians and Poles. She looked out at the landscape and saw life go on below. She wondered about ending it once and for all. Grind up sleeping pills in the children’s dinners and take her sweet time torturing her husband. She’d throw acid in his face and let him wander. She’d lock the place from the inside and stalk him. Please Fozia, stop! I’ll be a better man. Please, for the love of the Almighty! She’d start stabbing him when the amphetamine kicked in. Sadly, these thoughts remained fantasies. She felt like a failure whenever she’d snap out of it. Do it then. If you’re not a coward, do it! Her thoughts returned to the battlefield and the men she dispatched over the years. She was a lioness at one point but now she was a prisoner in Toronto.   The first time she heard about the war for liberation in the Ogaden, the land between Somalia and Ethiopia, was when her family sat around the radio in Mogadishu. They listened to the stories of the fighters who resisted Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie. In 1974, the Lion of Judah as he was called was struck down and the ancient empire became a socialist republic. She wanted to free her brothers and sisters who still were under the thumb of the habesha. She signed up to fight but didn’t tell anyone she was due to leave for basic training. Her mother cried and her grandmother yelled at her. Naya Fozia! Look at what you’re doing to your hoyo! Have you no shame! What business do you have fighting habeshas? Where did you dream this up! Ya’Allah! Ya’Allah! May You restore her to us safely. They travelled in the back of an army truck. She was joined by fifteen other women. They drove to Beledweyne, near the Ethiopian border, and the wildlife along the Shabelle Valley mesmerized her. Sun-kissed children ran alongside the convoy, clapping and singing for them. When they camped at Feerfeer, on the Somali side of the Provisional Administrative Line, they sang. Maanta, maanta, maanta!   The children were four in total. There were three girls; they were the eldest, and one boy, who had started grade school at Portage Trail Community School, joining his sisters. Our heroine spoke little English and her eldest daughter Samiya translated for her. After a parent-teacher conference, her husband blamed her for the children’s failing grades. He slapped her into tomorrow. When she fell down, he kicked her in the head. Fozia lay there all night, passing in and out of consciousness. This is where her middle daughter Aaliyah found her. Hoyo, are you OK?   The little girl showed signs of a disorder. For one thing, she tormented small animals. The neighbours placed mesh atop the walls dividing the balconies, in case their cats leapt over to the other side and found Aaliyah sitting there, bored and playing with garden shears. Several cats had been found at the bottom of the building. One had been decapitated. At school one day, the teacher told them that salt kills snails. Aaliyah walked along the Humber and gathered as many snails as she could. She set them down on a picnic table and poured salt in a circle. The snails were in the middle and she prodded them with a twig. Foam bubbled out from the shells as they were pushed onto the ring of salt.   The advance into the Ogaden was moving quickly. The Somali army was allied with the Western Somali Liberation Front. The liberation front was formed by Somalis in the Ogaden to resist Ethiopian rule. They saw themselves as inheritors of the famed anti-colonial warrior mystic, Sayid Mohamed. Life on the front was hard. The women of the Liberation Front cracked jokes about Fozia. She screamed at the sight of a snake. She hated the food and began missing her mother’s goat and rice. Sweet yellow mangos. Papaya sprinkled with lemon juice. She was tired of eating dates and the oodkac was giving her heartburn. Do these people not have fruit? She killed her first habeshas in the battle for Jijiga, in the Somali region of Ethiopia. The fighting was fierce. She felt the tremors of the shells. Around the corner of a collapsed building, the squad commander spotted the enemy handing out rounds of ammunition and Kalashnikovs from the back of a truck. They ambushed them and seized the shipment. She stood over their bodies, spat on them and cursed them with the Arabic word for pig. Ganziir!   It was time to break the fast. The children were each allowed one samosa and a couple of dates. They were too young to fast. Their mother told them they can fast when they turn twelve. Aaliyah was two years away. They joined their father to pray while she finished preparing the meal. Fozia loved their enthusiasm for Ramadan. Back home, her grandmother taught her how to fill and fold the samosas. She thought about the times she helped her grandmother cook. At first, it seemed menial. Grab this container, fill this cup. Then it got more hands-on. Chop this onion, slice these peppers. Fozia’s grandmother used to caution her around the kitchen and recount all the accidents she had over the years. The fold between her index finger and thumb was scarred by hot oil. Her forearm had the rounded imprint of a pan. Fozia drifted back to the comfort of yesterday. Habibti, get away from the oil. You’re not ready for that yet. Get me more flour and mix it with water. Do you remember how much water it needs? Fozia nodded. She scooped a cup of flour into the bowl and slowly added water. Here ayeeyo. Is this good? Mashallah! Fozia felt her grandmother’s lips as she bent down to kiss her on the forehead. What would I do without you, habibti! Fozia took another Tylenol when Aaliyah walked in and saw her sipping water. Hoyo, you’re not supposed to do that! That’s haram! She grabbed Aaliyah by the arm and covered her mouth. You will not say another word. You understand? Aaliyah nodded and she let her go. Tell your father the food is ready.   Aaliyah was at school and the teacher asked her where the bruise on her arm came from. She told the teacher that it was her father’s doing. The teacher shot up and reported it to the principal, who in turn alerted the Children’s Aid Society. A social worker came by the next day and told the mother, through a translator, that her husband had to leave the home or the children would be removed. When the visitors left, she started yelling. I know your father doesn’t beat you but now you have these white people in my home threatening to break up my family!? Who said it! Aaliyah stepped forward and bravely answered that it was she. Her mother took a shoe and gave her something to tell her teacher about.   The next day, Aaliyah sat in the classroom when her friend Hakima said her brother was going to pick her up on his moped. She asked Hakima if her brother could take her as well. When they reached a gas station to refill, Aaliyah took out a jar she’d taken from the classroom and pumped gasoline into it. Aaliyah strong-armed Hakima into silence when her brother returned.   That night, when the children of Weston Road were asleep, Aaliyah stood over her parents’ bed. The jar of gasoline in one hand and a lighter in the other. She poured it on her father’s face and chest. Before either one could figure out where it was coming from, the bed was on fire. Her mother crawled to a corner. From there she saw her husband furiously shaking while her daughter marveled at what she had done.   Fozia took her to the police station. She told them her husband beat Aaliyah and the violence disturbed her. Her mother told her to keep quiet and let the attorney speak. Brother, you should have seen the inferno! When the Crown attorney posed questions, she regurgitated the answers her mother fed her. When the decision to find her criminally not responsible came down, the mother allowed the province to care for her daughter at a mental institution.   The days felt long and drawn out. Fozia was ashamed to show her face around the neighbourhood. She called Toronto Housing about a transfer but a subsidized unit big enough for a family was hard to come by.  One day, she had enough. She marched into their offices on Elm Street. She requested a translator. Can you tell this woman I need a transfer. I’ve been waiting for years. My husband died there and it’s giving me nightmares. I can’t stay there any longer. I understand her frustration but the city hasn’t been building enough public housing to keep up with demand. We’ve been relying on developers to give us units in their new buildings. The list is very long. She has to wait. How long I wait!? Waiting, waiting, nothing! I understand ma’am but there’s not much I can do. She took a deep breath and gathered her papers and her purse. When she got to the subway at Queen’s Park, she saw a man who resembled her dead husband. She stared at him until he got on the streetcar. On her way to Lawrence West station, she thought about the journey she took to meet him in Toronto. After the Ogaden War ended in defeat, many people became disillusioned by the empty promises of the regime. Friday’s mandatory neighbourhood cleaning became insulting. She refused to sing Marx, Engels, Lenin iyo Siad. Her mother told her to join the singing. She didn’t want Fozia reported to the neighbourhood committee. In 1979, her mother’s clan had been targeted by the regime. Their wells were poisoned and cattle destroyed. Thousands died from starvation. She slipped into the night and joined the rebels. She became a fighter for the Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF). SSDF was started after a failed coup against the military regime. They hailed from one of the larger clans in the country and the regime repaid the treachery with interest. Fozia turned against the army she once served. In a raid on an arms depot in the port of Boosaaso, she was injured and captured. The guards refused to let her see a doctor and the other women dressed her wound. None of them wanted to risk her death by pulling the bullet out. She languished in jail for years. After a general amnesty in 1989, she returned home to find that her grandmother had passed away. She cried and cried. She beat her chest and smacked her head. The wailing was heard around the compound. Her mother urged her to eat. She refused food and locked herself in a room at the other end of the house. She refused her mother’s offer of an imam coming to pray over her. In the midst of her mourning, the country devolved into all out civil war. Then, one night, she could hear gunshots outside. She rushed to her mother’s room and found her on the floor. She laid down beside her and stroked her hair. We have to get out of here, hoyo. The fighting is getting worse every day. Habibti, I can’t make the journey. If Allah sees it fit, I’ll die.             I can’t leave you here. Don’t worry about me. These rebels won’t kill an old woman. I’ll invite them in and offer them tea. I’ll be fine. You’re a young woman, you need to get out and live your life. Make sure to visit me when the fighting ends. You’re all I have. She ran away at dawn. Her stomach was in knots. Her siblings were scattered around the world. They were counting on her to get their mother out. She felt lost. The only sounds she heard were bullets. Explosions off in the distance. She joined the movement of people leaving Mogadishu. She made her way to Beledweyne and from there went to the small town on the Ethiopian border where she had launched her dream of freeing Somalis living in the Ogaden. In Feerfeer, she gave a nomad her mother’s wedding jewels to carry her into Ethiopia. She made it to Djibouti and was selected by a charity to head to Toronto. When she got here, she stayed in a refugee centre on Lippincott Street. She found it hard to sleep. She was placed on dish duty and it was there that she met her husband. He was charming at first. He took her out to the movies. They walked down Bathurst Street to the lake and reminisced about their lives back in the Horn. They agreed to move in together but Fozia wanted to get married first. She invited the Salvadoran woman who ran the kitchen to be her witness and he invited the Somali translator who prepared them for interviews with immigration. They rode the 45 Kipling bus from the subway. She wore a purple skirt with a gold shirt. She put on a lavender hijab and she wore jewelry lent to her by a Somali woman at the refugee centre.   Aaliyah found herself in a hospital that in a few years’ time would be shut down due to unexplainable deaths and unusual treatments on the patients. Night watchmen and orderlies raped her repeatedly. She tore out chunks of her skin with her teeth so her therapist recommended she have them removed. Her meals consisted of oatmeal, soup, and mashed potatoes. Aaliyah’s rage was tempered through frequent sedation and she stopped thinking about what day it was. They were allowed walks in the inner courtyard. She attended school. The teachers yelled at her for falling asleep. The staff punished her by keeping her sedated. She soiled herself and the staff dragged her into the shower and let the hot water run over her. She thought about the day her mother would get her. If she knew, she’d come. Aaliyah just knew it. She had saved her mother and soon hoyo would realize what a heroine Aaliyah was. She was sure of it. She dreamt about it. An orderly would assure her that her mother would. She began trusting this man because he seemed to understand her pain. He showed her pictures of his newborn and she asked about his baby whenever he worked. He told her that his mother died when he was young and that Aaliyah shouldn’t hate her mother. One day, she told him about the things that were happening to her. She started crying as they sat on the bench in the hospital’s courtyard. He put his arm around her and told her to have faith.  That night, he came into her room and helped himself to her body. Who could she trust? She retreated into her numbness and the hatred for her mother surged upward. Why didn’t she fight for Aaliyah? She told Aaliyah to say those things and she said she would come back home. Aaliyah did her part but hoyo lied. She plotted her revenge as his curls slashed her across her face. They felt like splinters piercing her torn skin. By the time she was seventeen, she was released through a program the province set up to compensate victims of the scandal. The whole thing was exposed when the therapist who ordered her teeth removed was caught up in a pedophile sting. He took great pleasure in detailing his treatments on the patients. He referred to them as inmates. He wrote about the nightmares Aaliyah had. Her father, still ablaze, chased her around. Come on, give your father a hug. He wrote that her sedation should be around the clock for her wellbeing. Patients' charts entered into the public record, as a part of the inquiry, found that patients were sedated for weeks on end.   The beginning of their marriage was bliss. She felt a sense of hope about this new place. He got a job in a shampoo factory and on the weekends drove his friend’s cab. They got an apartment at Weston and Lawrence and before long, she was pregnant. It was then that the insults began. She couldn’t do anything right. He warned her not to socialize with the other women in the building or the neighbourhood. They will turn you against me. Those vipers. After she had Aaliyah, he started laying hands on her. If I do everything right, he won’t get upset. He told her to drop out of adult school. He spent the weekends away from home. She heard he was seen driving a neighbour of theirs around to do her errands. She felt relief that he wasn’t home.   After her release, Aaliyah was placed in a halfway house downtown. She didn't make friends and the best she could do was small talk. None of the staff were told she was a victim of the scandal. The ministry of health assigned her a social worker and the staff were only privy to her housing needs and the fact that she had been found criminally not responsible. Her social worker arranged for dentures. Aaliyah didn't like wearing them. They made her feel old. While on a supervised community visit, she asked a fellow resident, in Somali, if she could do her a favour. I need a gun. Allah! Sis, I don't get mixed up in that shit anymore. Listen, I have money. This shit is no joke. I just got out. I'll give you 5000 today. I have more but I need it by next week. I'll see what I can do. How are you going to get the money to me? They've been doing a lot of searches lately. I'll figure it out. Money order? That works.   Aaliyah looked up the address of one particular offender and stalked him for weeks. He used to work the night shift at the hospital. He would come into her room whenever he felt like it. She found herself drifting off. If hoyo hadn't let them take Aaliyah, she wouldn’t be here. She wouldn’t be this monster without teeth. She hated looking in the mirror. She bristled whenever a man brushed past her. She didn’t want the world to see her ugliness. She waited for the opportune moment and crept into the orderly’s townhouse. He was playing with his daughter before he noticed her. She shot him in the head. She thought about shooting the little girl too but changed her mind. A neighbour found the daughter an hour later.   Next she went to her mother’s building and waited for her to return from Friday prayers. Please habibti, you don’t have to do this! The superintendent discovered Fozia's body. The day before she'd asked him to replace the batteries in the smoke detector, minutes before she fell victim to the toothless fury of her daughter. Hoyo never came. She never called or wrote to her. Aaliyah rescued her and she let her be torn apart by wolves. Aaliyah took a walk along the Humber Trail. She threw the gun in the river. She bought a mango juice at the gas station a block away from the highway. She bought a pound of sour candy from the bulk store. She got on the 89 Weston bus to Keele station. She watched the landscape drift by as the projects morphed into tree lined streets with a lawn bowling club. She walked past the tweakers at Yonge and Bloor streets. She made her way down Isabella Street and sat on a bench near the halfway house. She took the dentures out of her pocket. She put glue on both sides and popped them in. It was uncomfortable but she took a deep breath and thought about the furniture she’d get for her new apartment. The future seemed bright.    
The Year in Running

Runners were perfectly suited for 2020. You’re telling us we get to stay more than breathing distance away from any other people? What’s the catch?

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. From about a half-mile away, I saw another runner trudging toward me. At the bottom of our hills was a thin bridge with barely enough sidewalk for one person to stay out of traffic, let alone two moving with the shambling grace of very amateur athletes. I looked back and started to cross the street, planning to give that stretch of sidewalk to that other runner, who already had traffic behind him in his blind spots. There hadn’t been many cars in either lane for days, since this was way back when quarantine still felt like a thing that was part of everyone’s reality at the same time, but out of habit I knew it’d be safer for me to cross than for him. There were no cars behind me, so I turned forward and started to cross. But I saw an arm waving at me. And a smile. The big guy in the Dallas Cowboys windbreaker was already changing sides, yielding me the sidewalk, and I think I understood why: he was sticking to routine, following protocol for no other reason than he’d previously agreed to do so. I’d given him that same patch of sidewalk the last time we’d passed, even though I’d ended up with the safer side of the bridge each time, and he would’ve felt like he was breaching our silent contract if he hadn’t waved me back onto my path. We never talked about any of this. We did an air high-five that day, and once a week or so thereafter. That’s it. At the beginning of the pandemic, the stupid battle lines weren’t anywhere near as stark as they became. Whether my fellow Georgians will admit it now or not, most of them seemed fine for a while with doing a little stockpilin’, social distancin’, and hand-washin’. Still, the instructions offered a lot of wiggle room, and the facts-disinclined were testing the spirit of the laws shortly before ignoring the letters. OH, the calories we would soon expend on arguing about whether things that are happening are happening or not. My immediate family quickly got used to being among the oddballs in each of our social circles, the ones who’d need to be accommodated in order to be included, until it usually became simpler for us to just not see many people for an unknowable number of months. This did not apply to runners and hikers, or at least any of the ones I’ve encountered. In March, the first people I found who were going above and beyond the safety basics were runners. I remember my first run after those first two weeks of HARD LOCKDOWN, when I went out in a mask and a gaiter, promising to turn back around if it looked crowded out there. And then the first stranger I encountered hopped to the grass on one side of the path and gave me a fist-pump as I did the same, and I realized the whole world hadn’t lost it yet. People run for a lot of reasons, many of them mysterious even to runners. Most people don’t understand any of them. That’s fine. Runners and non-runners discuss theories about these reasons, often settling on loves of solitude, nature, and process, plus the magic of making an hour or two disappear, emerging miles later with lungs and legs that feel like they’ve been used. Let’s not discount solitude. It’s not exactly about avoiding people, because if that were the case, 2020 would’ve provided more than enough already. Running means time and space to bear parts of my brain away from other people, leave them on the road or in the woods, and return as something 0.01% better. So the trail, a place without interactions by design, became a funny place to have some of my best interactions of the very weird year. As extended family members and other long-time associates continue to express big theatrical shock at the idea of following the written rules three, six, and nine months into quarantine, strangers in the backwoods and on the track around the park do the opposite thing, which is also the easy thing: give a little space, no questions asked. By being the kind of people who are competent at dealing with people only after we’ve removed ourselves from people for a while, runners were perfectly suited for 2020. You’re telling us we get to stay more than breathing distance away from any other people? What’s the catch? It made for a lot of weird bonds, one of my favorite things of the dumb year, a bunch of fleeting connections based on an instant understanding that we strangers are the same, all the way down to not needing to haggle over whether we are the same. Months later, I still often pass some of the same runners. Somewhere in each of our brains is a log that tracks whose turn it is to yield or cross, to give away ground, to make the extra effort, no matter how insignificant that gesture feels when we’re both passing a crowded restaurant patio, a little world that’s elected to move on into something that used to be called Happy Hour. Sometimes, especially during July’s hottest and most demanding days, these runners’ transactions happened without a word or even eye contact. Sometimes there’s a smile, a wave, or a “Happy [Whichever Holiday We’re Kind Of Missing Out On],” a little church in the wild. Running a certain number of miles costs a certain amount of effort. The same goes for keeping up a bunch of weekly Zoom calls, seeing the mask-truther’s appropriation of MY BODY MY CHOICE painted alongside STOP THE STEAL on the back of a Kia Sorrento, and re-re-explaining why we’re still sticking with all of this. These five-second friendships with other runners have had no cost at all, though. Just routine and rhythm and grace, just giving a shit without making a big thing of it.
The Year in Photographing Flowers

I have no idea what history will make of 2020, but the only record I have kept of this cursed year are blurry photos of shrubs.

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Every afternoon, day after day after day after day, my husband and I set aside our work or, depending on what we read in the news, our failed intention to work. We put on our shoes, loop our face masks around our necks, and set off on an hour-long walk around our neighborhood. The section of Portland where we live is so quiet many longtime Portlanders have never passed through. We often walk for blocks in the middle of the street. We settled here just seven months before the shutdown, and I barely started to explore my new city before it shrunk to the size of Arbor Lodge. After a quarter-century in San Francisco and a two-decade-long career writing about food for newspapers, I quit both in the summer of 2019. My husband, a longtime Portlander himself before we met, and I moved back to the city he missed to buy a house. I was just emerging from my perennial disorientation when the March shutdown hit, and now I leave home so rarely I need Google Maps to drive across town. In Arbor Lodge, however, I am familiar with every block and every yard. Portlanders, I've learned after hundreds of walks, are prodigious gardeners. For the last seven months Christian and I have traced the course of the year in blooms, each one ubiquitous for just a few days. A week when the giant purple irises unfurl. A week the white-flowered dogwoods erupt, and another when the coral-hued dogwoods join them. A week when the perfume from the giant lindens pools in the streets and seeps through our window screens. Our new house has a scraggly lawn, half moss and half dandelions, and when I spot a flower I fantasize about planting, I snap a photo on my phone with the hope that I can one day ask a nursery worker to identify it. Walking around Arbor Lodge, in our quarantine bubble of guilt and anxiety, can feel as much like a dissociative act as a coping strategy. Even on our strolls up Willamette Boulevard or east on Ainsworth we can't stop talking about how American democracy is crumbling in the grip of a psychopathic narcissist, how COVID-19 has killed hundreds of thousands of people, how the police have attacked protestors peacefully demanding racial justice, how hunger and homelessness have surged—not to mention the fires, the white supremacists, and the collapse of the restaurant industry I spent 20 years covering. We wave to neighbors whose names we don't know from the middle of the street, unable to get over the sense that all of us are forced to endure these overlapping apocalypses alone, any fellow feeling thinned out as it is shared over phone lines and broadband cables. Every day makes me aware of how it is a luxury to have time to take a stroll, to have a house, to share that house 24 hours a day with a husband I love and a one-year-old cat who arrived at just the right time. I have no idea what history will make of 2020, but the only record I have kept of this cursed year are blurry photos of shrubs.  *** In the early days of the shutdown, determined to cling to a sense of accomplishment, I began my mornings with Gay Zumba videos. I bought bread flour in 50-pound sacks. When my freelance assignments evaporated I started a pandemic email newsletter with a friend, brushed up on my Spanish, scheduled Zoom happy hours, and donated small amounts of money to stave off hopelessness.  As the months passed all those aspirations ebbed away and the sense that we had left the Before Times for some permanent new era grew. Even if ambition didn't return, new work came my way, and aspiring for anything beyond solvency while the world burned down felt self-indulgent. As the Before Times receded so did a sure sense of who I was back then—back in San Francisco, in my career, in my ties with my family and friends. I often feel as if 2020 has remade me into a new person. I've come to call him Pandemic Self. His life is circumscribed in tiny, banal rituals. Pandemic Self wakes up every morning when the furnace whooshes on at 6 a.m., measures out a few grams of tea into a tiny clay pot, and sets the water to boil. He does the New York Times crossword puzzle, then shuffles between four newspaper sites until the news makes the anxiety rise up his gullet. It takes Pandemic Self until 9 to start work, maybe 10. Then his cat marks the hours with her own rituals: from printer top to lap in the morning, from couch nap to playtime at the same time each night. Pandemic Self shuts down the lights in the house—the sunroom, then the living room, then the kitchen, always in the same order—at 9:30 p.m. while his husband checks the news on his phone one last time. Even my pandemic thoughts seem to ricochet around the borders of Arbor Lodge, looping from tea to dinner, then laptop, flowers, and cat toys. I may tell myself this would be an amazing time to work on a new book, but Pandemic Self peers out at the world and retreats. Limbo has brought with it extremely low-stakes habits. Pandemic Self now reads science fiction for the first time since he was a teenager—the more escapist the better. He battles the dandelions in the yard. He's currently on a break from refined carbs. When he checks in on his friends, they have the same conversation every time—how horrid the Orange Tyrant is, who's safe or ill from the virus, which Netflix shows are soothing enough to watch right now. Pandemic Self is oppressively dull. Pandemic Self has surprised me in one way: by refusing to meditate. I have been practicing zazen for 15 years, some years tentatively, other years daily. I attended my first Saturday morning lecture at the San Francisco Zen Center in 2005, searching for some peace in the middle of a crisis, but I quickly learned there was nothing relaxing about facing a wall while I attempted to watch my breath rise and fall. The reason I keep coming back to the cushion is because sometimes, when some moment in my daily life provokes fear or anger, zazen gives me a split-second buffer. In that small space, if I'm paying attention, I can catch hold of my reaction and let it rise and fall instead of rushing out of my thoughts to infect my entire body. You'd think that nothing would drive a man to meditate like a major life change, a pandemic, and a political crisis. But the Portland zen temple I sat with last winter closed to the public a few months later, and I got too twitchy to maneuver myself onto my cushion at home. Swirls of cat hair now cover its black cotton surface. The momentum from those years of practice, however, is what has driven me to give Pandemic Self a name—to acknowledge he is a pattern of thoughts. It also prods me to question: If my sense of self now is circumscribed by my habits and confines, what does that say about the self of 18 months ago or 20 years from now? In my teenage years, I loudly traced my own outline in bands and books, as if devotion to Meat Beat Manifesto or James Baldwin were personality traits. After eight months of being stuck in my house in a new city, with no fixed career, I've realized how much I let city and work define the story of who I was. That story was hardly static: The 25-year-old who shuttled between kitchens, clubs, and queer movies became the 35-year-old who spent his nights in restaurants and his days writing about his meals, who became the 45-year-old who had married a handsome researcher and tweeted every moment he wasn't reporting. So, does it mean anything I am now a person who drinks tea for two hours every morning and takes photos of flowers? Or would that be hanging a painting on the projection of a wall? This existence is so fleeting it reminds me there may someday be a New Job Self, a Retired Self, and a Nursing Home Self, each unable to see itself apart from the conditions that shape its days. Returning to that sense of transience, day after day after day after day, seems to ease the claustrophobia of this limbo. It has helped me slough off some of the resentments and ambitions from the Before Times that I carried from San Francisco to Portland, and gives me a different buffer: a moment to listen for what the After Times may call me to do. This city may still be a labyrinth, but I know how to get from the Peninsula Park rose garden to the house with the giant sprays of red flowers I fell in love with last July. I have six months in 2021 to figure out their names.
The Year in Self-Improvement

The point is to accept that our impulses cannot save us from impermanence, that change and failure and death are inevitable—that stillness, as much as movement, is divine. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in, and beset by in 2020? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Keep up with this year's series here. Something most of my reading audience, which is composed mostly of people from the literary scene and the hardcore social justice crowd, doesn’t know about me is that I live a secret double life in the land of white “wellness” women. Think meditation apps, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, life coach Instagram influencers who intersperse so-genuine-it’s-nauseating inspirational quotes with advertisements for their latest online course that will heal me from the inside out—that’s what I’m talking about. Oh, and the yoga. There is so. Much. Yoga. Yoga for strength, yoga for better breathing, yoga for mental health, yoga for better emotional boundaries, yoga for increased psychic awareness. You name it, I’ve done a course for self-improvement in it, and I am signing up for more as we speak. It all started innocently enough, with my interest in trauma therapy. I left the psychotherapy biz a couple years ago, but like the nerd I am, I still keep abreast with developments in the field. Right now, somatics, or body-based healing, is the name of the game in the trauma recovery world (which I now know is a vast industry spanning treatments from the scientifically validated to the exhilaratingly cutting-edge to the flat-out weird). Once one starts down the somatics path, it’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump to the kind of yoga and mindfulness that purports to “neurosculpt” your brain for maximum meditative power, and then before you know it, you’re taking ice cold showers every day to tone your vagus nerve before the online session with your Soulful Sexuality Coach and devoting your life to the Wim-Hof Method. My slide into self-improvement dependency was well on its way before the COVID-19 pandemic, but something in me kicked into overdrive around June 2020. My personal world, along with the world in general, was collapsing in on itself: my friends and family lost jobs and plunged into mental health crises; entire social scenes that I belonged to dissolved into conflict, violence, and tragedy. More than one person I know died, and many attempted to take their own lives. In the midst of all that horror, the spiritual seeker within me awakened. Trapped in quarantine in downtown Toronto, I started on an Asian, transsexual Eat Pray Love journey, Pandemic Edition™. Instead of travel to “exotic” locales, I had my tiny, crumbling studio apartment. In place of a $200,000 book advance, I had, well, no advance. In lieu of a deliciously mysterious new male love interest, I had first my long-term partner (who came to live with me after fleeing the US), and then literally no one after my partner went to stay with their parents in Ottawa. In early days of the pandemic, self-styled marketing guru Jeremy Haynes tweeted: “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with either: 1.) a new skill 2.) starting what you’ve been putting off like a new business 3.) more knowledge You didn’t ever lack the time, you lacked the discipline.” The backlash to Haynes’ tone-deafness to the socioeconomic and mental health impacts of the pandemic on marginalized communities was swift and razor-sharp, spawning memes and sub-memes pointing out the utter ridiculousness of exhorting self-help nonsense amidst unprecedented global and individual crisis. Yet a nagging, narcissistic part of me seized onto Hayne’s sentiment. Of course, I didn’t believe that other people should be held to an absurd standard of self-improvement in response to the pandemic. On the other hand, there was no reason that I, Kai Cheng Thom, Queen of the Universe and Mistress of All She Surveys, Priestess of the Old Religion, and Breaker of Chains, ought not to be, right? In the past eight months, I’ve completed a 100-hour Meditation Teacher Training, a 100-hour Pranayama Breathwork Facilitator Training, a 40-hour Yoga Nidra Teacher Training, and a 45-hour Restorative Yoga and Somatic Movement Teacher Training. I’m also midway through a Post-Graduate Certificate in Conflict Resolution at the University of Waterloo, as well as a 500-hour Somatic Breathwork Facilitator Training, a 300-hour advanced Meditation Teacher Training, and a practitioner’s course in functional breathing. Oh, and at the height of my madness, I also started learning how to play a new musical instrument. Before you ask, yes, I do have a full-time job and several side hustles, as well as community organizing activities, all of which I now do online. Let’s unpack that last paragraph, lest you interpret it as an enormously extended humble-brag: I suppose one might say that all my “accomplishments” and “personal/professional development” are “impressive.” You might think, sure, she may have gone a little overboard, but there are worse coping methods than self-improvement, right? Here’s a reality check for you and me both: I am addicted to self-improvement. Literally, I am obsessed with it. Throughout the day, I think about the courses I’m doing and my performance in them at least a few times every hour; when I’m alone, I get anxious and dizzy and make myself sick worrying about whether or not I’m learning enough. When I’m not worrying, I’m fantasizing about all the Amazing Things I’m going to do with the knowledge I’ve acquired, except that then leads me to notice gaps in my knowledge and skill set, which makes me anxious all over again. When I’m in a self-improvement course, which is for obvious reasons always online these days, I’m often not able to pay full attention, because I’ve already detected omissions in the course content that I of course have to fill, so I start researching new self-improvement courses to help me with that. When I find a course that seems, based on a cursory glance at the marketing photos and copy, to be what I’m looking for, I become fixated on it. I go back to the course website over and over again. I look up the instructor’s social media. I get twitchy and panicky. I try to resist the urge as long as I can, because most self improvement courses are expensive as fuck, especially the ones I want to take, because I’m never satisfied with just doing something at the surface level. I have to become a teacher, a master, an expert. Eventually, I register for the course. I’ve dipped in and out of debt over self-improvement. The only way I’ve been able to keep this whole cycle going is because I’m sometimes able to get scholarships on account of being an “oppressed minority” and because I spin my teacher trainings into courses or trainings of my own, which then make just enough money to pay off what I’ve spent on the last course. I’m not alone in this: The wellness industry is, by and large, shaped around the model of a pyramid scheme, and it works well, because what it sells is fulfillment. Peace. Self-mastery. All of which people desperately want in the time of quarantine, political and environmental apocalypse, the end of things. There are moments where I do find real peace in what I do—usually in the middle and at the end of my latest training. The wellness industry might be a pyramid scheme, but many of the practices it has appropriated and commodified are not: meditation, yoga, martial arts, and breathwork are all powerful and valuable when practiced skillfully under the eye of a master. And for all the jokes and scathing comments that an anarchist social-justice tranny like me might make about Wellness™, there is something deeply beautiful about a community built around the notion of changing oneself for good. Where taking time for personal practice and sacredness isn’t seen as a bourgeois indulgence, but rather a necessary form of self-care and collective healing. My strange and strained relationship with self-improvement reminds me a lot of the Batman mythos, in which six-year-old Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents murdered by thieves and then obsessively devotes his life to learning combat and fighting crime. Yet no matter how many crimes Batman solves or supervillains he defeats, he can never be happy because he cannot accept that his accomplishments will never bring his parents back to life. It’s kind of the same with me and healing work. I’ve devoted my life to practices that are supposed to make me a better person and a more skillful healer because, I suppose, there is a part of me that still believes that if I can just learn more, I can stop my friends from getting hurt, hurting each other, and dying. Maybe in 2021, I’ll put my savior’s crusade to rest, if for no other reason than it’s doomed to fail. I can’t save anybody. Maybe not even myself. This is the whole point of meditation and contemplation: To accept that our impulses cannot save us from impermanence, that change and failure and death are inevitable. That stillness, as much as movement, is divine. Maybe I’ll finally learn how to be and not do, how to let myself heal by not healing. You know, I bet there’s a course for that.
‘The Ethics of Being a Poet’: An Interview with Jenna Lyn Albert

The author of Bec & Call on the role of poet laureates, the political power of writing, and capturing a sense of place in her work. 

On Friday, October 2nd, Clinic 554, the only clinic to provide clinical abortion access in the province of New Brunswick, closed after successive provincial governments refused to fund clinic-based abortions. Now, abortion access is restricted to three hospitals concentrated in two regions of the province.  It may feel like this headline is plucked from 1988, when those seeking an abortion were not protected by Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms—the right to life, liberty, and security of person. Then, 32 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in R. v. Morgentaler that Section 251 of the Criminal Code (prohibiting abortion except where life or health of the woman was endangered as confirmed by at least two doctors) violated Section 7. The law of the land may have changed, but the law in New Brunswick remained.  Indeed, the premier of the day, Frank McKenna, refused to let Dr. Morgentaler operate an abortion clinic there (Morgentaler did it anyways). The province fought Morgentaler in court as New Brunswick continued to subscribe to the so called two-doctor rule, in violation of the Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative premiers maintained the position of McKenna. Dr. Morgentaler died in 2013, yet the province of New Brunswick continued to litigate the issue until the Morgentaler clinic closed in 2014. In 2015, Premier Brian Gallant removed the two-doctor rule, meaning that those seeking an abortion could now receive one free of charge in three publicly funded hospitals. Clinic 554 took the place of the Morgentaler clinic and continued to offer abortion services, in addition to being a family practice and an LGBTQIA2S+ centre of excellence. Although the Government of New Brunswick began offering abortion services in those three hospitals, it has yet to fund abortions in a clinic setting, which means those seeking an abortion at Clinic 554 have to pay out of pocket. Clinic 554 often provided abortions even when patients could not afford the cost of the service, which ultimately proved financially unsustainable for the clinic. Activists, advocates, patients of Clinic 554, and concerned New Brunswickers alike mourned the closing of the clinic and engaged in various forms of advocacy to try to keep it open. Among them was Fredericton’s poet laureate, Jenna Lyn Albert, who used her platform to share a perspective that the 92-percent male Fredericton City Council wouldn’t necessarily have. For her regular reading to city council, she chose the poem “Those who need to hear this won’t listen” by Conyer Clayton, which details the experience of having an abortion. Two councillors were quick to decry the poem as “too political” and inappropriate for the Council setting—other councillors disagreed, and a community conversation ensued. I spoke to Albert, most recently the author of the collection Bec & Call (Nightwood Editions), about the political power of poetry and the role it can play in Atlantic Canada. Katie Davey: As poet laureate, you read poems at the Fredericton City Council meetings regularly. On September 28th, you selected a poem that was questioned by a few councillors. What happened? Jenna Lyn Albert: Every two weeks, there is a regular City Council meeting. It's custom for me to share a poem during their moment of reflection. There was nothing particularly different about this council meeting. I prepared a poem. It was a poem by another poet, which is, again, typical. I don't read one of my own poems every single council meeting, partly to use my platform to share diverse voices. Rather than constantly hearing poems from just one person, it is a great way to lift up poets in the community and poets who are discussing pertinent topics.  So, I had chosen a poem that was about a poet's experience having an abortion. And I very intentionally chose that poem. That week, Clinic 554 was shutting down. It was timely, and [the closure was] cause for a big discussion in our community. A lot of people here in Fredericton are mourning the loss of the clinic, for multiple reasons, including for the lack of abortion access. Clinic 554 is also a centre of excellence for LGBTQIA2S+ healthcare. And [the clinic’s] Dr. Edgar is a family physician, so there are going to be 3,000 patients added to the waitlist for family doctors in the province.  I had introduced the poem by stating that the clinic was shutting down this week, and I was dedicating this poem to the clinic itself. I shared a few details about the poet and shared a little note that the poet had included with the poem. One of the councillors, Dan Keenan, spoke up in opposition to the poem, feeling that it was too political, and that is not what the poet laureate role, or the intention of the moment of reflection, should have been. Another councillor also spoke up, Councillor Chase. One thing that was discussed was how, prior to there being a moment of reflection, that time was used for a prayer. [Chase said] they had gotten rid of the prayer because it was “too political,” which is not the case. They got rid of the prayer because the Supreme Court said that city council meetings should not have that religious aspect at the start of their meetings.  I got a little more information afterward. The former poet laureate, Ian Latourneau, was actually one of the inciting forces to having poetry read during that moment of reflection. It was just a moment of silence. And Ian asked if he could share poetry, and it became a tradition from his laureateship to mine. So, if it isn't the role of the poet laureate to be political or to cause real reflection, what is the perceived role of the poet laureate? I would say that it is, and I'm certainly not working outside of what poet laureates across Canada have done historically, and are still doing right now. I really took inspiration from other poet laureates. For example, El Jones and Rebecca Thomas are both former Halifax poet laureates. They certainly used their platforms to discuss really uncomfortable but important political issues. Rebecca Thomas wrote a poem about removing a statue of a colonizer and Halifax City Council considered it and the statue was removed. I think what is surprising to so many people is the power that poetry can have. So often these [poet laureate] positions are perceived to be about painting cities or countries in a positive light and writing things that government officials would love you to write that are praising the beauty of a city, or an organization's important work. But when it comes to actual politics, which, it’s a municipal government body, so they're discussing politics in that forum. Some cities are really welcoming to that with their poet laureates and others are not. So, I think it's becoming a wider discussion, because I'm certainly not doing anything that hasn't been done before. This isn't the first time you've experienced this type of pushback from the municipal government over the poem you selected, is it? No. Back in June, I had made the request to share a video that a poet here in Fredericton had made. His name is Thandiwe McCarthy. It was in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence, and systemic racism as a whole. The poem is called “enough,” and the only reason I reached out to the city council beforehand was because I wanted to share the actual poet’s video, rather than just reading it. I wanted that poem to come from the poet's mouth and not my own. When I wrote the city clerk, she passed it on to the mayor, and he said the poem was fine as long as it didn't deal with anti-police sentiment or use strong language.  On those grounds, I was not able to share the poem and instead read a poem, also about systemic racism, by Danez Smith that had no cursing and didn't explicitly call out law enforcement. When I informed Thandiwe McCarthy about what had happened, I let him know that if he did want to address this, whether it was with media or city council directly, that I would fully support him, whatever his choice may be, and once it made the news, city council very promptly changed their mind about allowing that poem in.  Growing up, my dad would always share music of the ‘60s and ‘70s with me and just say: “Listen to the words, Katie.” These words were often very political. He was sharing the sentiment and the politics, quite frankly. Isn't poetry the same? Isn’t it often political by nature? It really is. There are certainly poems that are more of the fluffy, pretty kind of pastoral poetry that you might expect to read from the Romantic poets, but there are poets who, their entire careers, their entire collection of poems, are political. They explore issues that are really important. It's more than just pretty words. Even some of the poems that might seem like that just on the surface have more going on behind those vocal flourishes, which, it's again an opportunity to give voice to poetry. Rather than just having it read on the page, city councillors are able to hear a poet read these poems to them. It's another way of taking in the art form, where you're actually forced to listen. Or to be really kind of soaked in it in a way that—not always being on the page has that same effect. And that plays into the tradition of spoken word poetry. Often, it's kind of looked down upon as a lesser form of poetry, because it originated with disenfranchised groups, people who are LGBTQIA2S+ or BIPOC, or disabled, or in these other situations that make it so they might not have access to formal education in the poetic form. So, it's also hearkening back to some really old traditions of storytelling. That’s where poetry has that freedom. There's really a lot of importance behind those words. And hearing them proves a different experience.  In a place like Fredericton, or even more broadly, in New Brunswick, what role do you see the arts playing in actually shifting the narrative and contributing to change? I'm really hopeful. With the current generation of poets and the future generations of poets, there has been a lot of change. Historically, in Fredericton, a lot of the poetic traditions here have been predominantly white, predominantly straight, predominantly male. And we're seeing now the power that female poets, Queer poets, Black and Indigenous poets have when they're able to be heard and have their poems given a platform, whether that's a spot in a literary journal, or a slot in a live event where they can share their poetry. It really has the chance to incite change.  I think a lot of people look at poetry, and they don't take it seriously, or they think it's boring. I always say that there's a poem that someone out there will love, even if they don't like poetry. It's not all sonnets. It's not all the things you learned in high school, there is poetry that's so diverse and has such different perspectives, and can educate and inform, and really change perspectives.  I think that's such a great transition into talking about your first collection of poems, Bec & Call. I ran out to Westminster Books and bought it as soon as it came out. I remember when I first started flipping through, I couldn't stop smiling. In so many ways, it really is beautifully New Brunswick, both the good and the bad. I found myself nodding my head in agreement. Tell me about the collection and about that writing process.  When I was writing the collection, I was reading so many different books by so many poets, and some of them were part of the New Brunswick canon, like Alden Nowlan, and others were new emerging poets from all across the country that had really new ways of writing poems, ways I hadn't even realized were possible when I was writing my own poetry, just taking in the works of other people and seeing, I didn't even know I could write about stuff like that. That's really when I stopped censoring the writing I was doing and started writing things that felt right to me, and things that felt like they needed to be put out on the page. That involved poems that were about sexuality and being a young woman in this province; that involved poems that dealt with poverty and being bilingual and feeling like I was losing that aspect of my language and culture. I grew up in Saint John, which is a primarily Anglophone city, so I always had that distance anyway from my Acadian culture, because my only access to it was through French immersion. I wrote about family—my family always jokes that all the dirty laundry was aired out in that poetry book, what else could she write about now? It was really a personal collection of poetry that didn't just aim to write pretty words. It was intended to explore issues that were of concern. I remember moving to Fredericton and my first year here, I lived alone, and my mom had me download this tracking app so if anything ever happened to me, she would be able to find me if my phone was still on me. Because being a woman living alone in the capital city, that also, for a few years, was one of the cities that had the highest sexual assault rates, was terrifying to her. There were also some scandals in the CanLit community, with some professors and poets who had been accused of sexually assaulting students and young women that are in the poetry community especially. That really opened my eyes to the fact that sometimes, community can also be toxic and dangerous. It taught me a lot as a young woman in this industry about really knowing the people I was associating with. It really scared me to think that I could potentially be in these circles and not realize that the predators are right there. It scared me thinking that I could potentially be enabling that by either supporting them as an artist or facilitating events. It made me really cautious as a writer and as a community member.  In terms of what my impact was, what I was doing, and the potential dangers, it also made me more caring. When I was first starting to work on my manuscript, for example, I wrote a poem about missing and murdered Indigenous women. I realized after workshopping the poem and discussing it with some friends that I really trusted to critique my work that it really wasn't a poem that needed to come from me—it was one that was about an experience I couldn't identify with. The opportunity for that subject matter to be voiced should have gone to an Indigenous person. So, it was also just learning when not to write or speak, which I think for any poet is valuable. So that was a big part of the book, too— looking into the ethics of being a poet and a member of this broad community, not just here in Fredericton, but across Canada, and how to respond and be a part of that literary canon without causing harm.  Tell me a bit more about what it takes to be both a writer and a poet in Atlantic Canada. It was intimidating at first because our communities are smaller, you don't have the same reach that poets in Toronto would have, for example, but the community is really strong and supportive. And if you want to write poetry, and get into literary magazines, being here in New Brunswick doesn't prevent that; you can still get your work out anywhere, which I like to remind some of the young poets that are just starting. You don't have to go to Toronto to study poetry or get published, you can do that anywhere. I chose New Brunswick and chose to stay here. I had the option to go to a few other universities for my MA, but I chose to stay here because I wanted to write about here and my experiences being Acadian. I felt like the opportunities I would have in New Brunswick would really benefit me. And to write about here, I felt I needed to be here. How have your experiences with the municipal government in Fredericton shaped you as a writer and shaped your views on the role of poet laureate? It’s really given me perspective. It's a very different audience from what I would typically present to; my poetry tends to be very feminist and bold. When I was reading for Council, I found I was trying to make selections that still kept the spirit of what my poetry is. I really tried to pick poems that dealt with subject matter that was important to people in Fredericton. When I chose my own poems, I did kind of pick and choose what would be received well, not necessarily censoring myself, though some poems I've read at Council would have had a curse word in it, for example, and I would have substituted it for something else because cursing is not particularly acceptable in those environments, which is a whole other discussion. I have some strong opinions on how people who have been historically disenfranchised shouldn't be criticized for using strong language to express their emotions and experiences.  It certainly also shaped my views on the power poetry can have. I always knew the potential harm and I always really thought about the potential harm that the words I was writing could cause. I didn't always think about the benefits that poetry can have. It wasn't that I wasn't cognizant that poetry can incite change. It's just I hadn't seen it in action in this way. I really first saw that with Ian, when he was doing his laureateship, and some of the other poet laureates across Canada. It's really an eye-opener to be in that position and to be given that platform to really share poems and art in ways that I hadn't been able to previously. It was also really eye-opening to have the experience of trying to write commissioned poems. I've done some that were really difficult to write even if it was about things I was passionate about, like the 50th anniversary of bilingualism in New Brunswick. I wrote one for a local literary festival, Word Feast, and I really struggled with making sure I wrote a poem that was representative of what the festival was about. So, it was also a learning moment for me on how to write poems for, again, a different audience than what I'm used to. A lot of my audience has been young women, people that are queer, in academics, and other poets. When you're writing poetry for a crowd that might not love poetry or might not be familiar with it, you kind of write a little differently. And that's not necessarily bad, but it's writing in a different way. So, it's really been a teaching experience for me on how to write for a crowd that might not be the same crowd you'd have at a coffee house, or a rowdy literary event at the Capitol. It’s been really great to have that opportunity.