Pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins.
On movies and rain.
On luxury shopping, men’s fashion and end-of-the-world salvation.
Pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins.
My neighbour Connie comes over to tell me that Sue’s dog, an eighteen-year-old chihuahua, drowned in the community pool last night. Marcus is there now with a skim net. “Christ,” says Aura, my upstairs neighbour, leaning over her balcony. “I’m gonna finish this smoke then bring her some benzos.” “You’re so sweet, hun,” Connie says to Aura. Then she puts her hand on my shoulder. “Mickey, you think you can go help Marcus out?” I owe Connie. She’s the only property manager who would let me keep ten dogs in a one-bedroom apartment—pregnant potcakes from Belize and Cuba, foster failures from Miami-Dade, puppies found in trash bins. Heartworm. Mange. Parvo. Kennel cough. Connie feeds them Milk-Bones, calls them her hush-hush puppies. But nothing here is hush-hush. Eight months ago I moved in just after midnight and couldn’t even unpack my car in private. Aura watched me, yelled down questions as her dog barked at me and my dogs—“What’s your name? Where’re you from?” Woof! Woof! “Shh!” Woof! “Mickey. Orlando.” “Really.” She tossed down a pillow. “Doesn’t look like you brought one.” Turns out Aura had lice, so then I got lice. Connie shampooed our heads with the garden hose, our loused hair clumping together under cold water. Sang the Oscar Meyer Weiner song three times. After the third, everyone would be in love with me, she turned off the hose. Gave us twenty one-dollar bills for the community laundromat. “Use the Speed Queens on extra hot, okay? And dump in a cup of bleach. And Mickey,” she said, as Aura went inside to gather her bed sheets, “Watch out for Aura. She’s only seventeen.” At seventeen, Aura’s smoked enough to turn her lungs into twinned tar pits. Huffing out rings of nicotine that orbit on my popcorn ceiling, expanding when the Florida humidity gets to 85%, 90%. Aura yells through the vent—the divisions of this apartment complex are so thin—“Hey! You wanna come watch TV with me?” And I’ll ignore her, sweat into the carpet, stargaze at the yellowed Milky Way, dogs licking my salted skin. She’s not my daughter. I’m not her mother. I’m just her downstairs neighbour. I’m twenty-four. I take one of my dogs, Luca, with me to the pool. Marcus has skimmed out the dead chihuahua, Lana, and placed her in an insulated meal delivery box. He’s used to dead animals—before Connie hired him for property maintenance, he worked at Chimp Farm in Tarpon Springs. “Mick,” he says. “Come over.” I sit with him on the diving board. “How’s Sue?” “Aura’s checking on her.” He pets Luca, points to where he found Lana, and then finally breaks the silence with, “I’m trying out Christian Mingle.” Tells me that he’s not Christian, but for the right woman, he would confess his sins, melt the little wafer in his mouth. He shows me his profile picture. He’s in full scuba gear. You can barely see the pink scar that splits his face in half. Sue, drunk, once asked him, “Did the chimpanzee do that to you?” Marcus wouldn’t answer, doesn’t talk about his life in Tarpon Springs. He swipes, swipes, switches over to Tinder. Swipes right, right. He swipes right a lot. He puts out. Connie’s told me that he’s slept with half the women here. All it takes is him snaking a drain, fixing some Rosetta Stone cassette tapes. I say, “We should really go get the dog cremated.” He puts down his phone. “Gimme a minute.” Pinches off the heads of giant, flame-coloured marigolds, lays them next to the diving board. Grabs some sidewalk chalk, writes, REST IN PARADISE. Who wouldn’t love someone who makes a dog memorial of chalk and flowers? Who can pull half a pound of hair from a shower drain without gagging. Twist magnetic tapes back into clean loops that say, Now repeat—qué onda? * Sue gets drunk by the pool. It’s late, like two a.m., but I’m there with her and Connie, drinking, too. Smoking and tossing the butts into the gut of an inflatable, floating flamingo. Maybe eighty feet from here, across Cypress Drive, is the laundromat. Aura’s there, holding a landline between her shoulder and cheek as she folds other people’s clothes, makes long-distance phone calls to lonely Mormon men in the Salt Lake Valley. Slides her hand across a Disney t-shirt, fake laughs. Hangs up the phone. Wipes her face. Dials another number. Mouths, heyyyyy. Sue says that she might want to get a tattoo of Lana on her shoulder blade. “Here.” Connie says, “I think that would be nice.” Bless Connie, who really thinks that everything and everyone is nice. She’s too soft on the renters who take naked showers in the community car wash, slipping on leftover Turtle Wax and splitting their heads open on the blunt edge of the curb—but they must be nice! Or Natalie, the first-grade teacher who keeps plowing her two-door Toyota into Marcus’ mini orange grove—oh, sure, she’s a drunk, but she’s nice! Yeah right, Con. Get it together. She knows it takes Marcus hours to pressure wash the blood, splint the citrus trees. But then when I’m swimming, she’ll come out from the property manager’s office and toss me a bottle of Coppertone. Tell me to put it around my eyes. Points to her own face and says, “Believe me, you don’t want to look like this!” She’s lived in Florida, on the Suncoast, her whole life. She’s had skin cancer twice. Now, she looks down into the pool, at the mermaids painted on the bottom. Limned in moonlight and shifting in the waves of the murmuring filter so that it looks like they’re dancing down there. Or drowning, shaking a fist and saying, help. Sue downs her fifth drink. I wonder if I could fit ten dog portraits on my skin. I’d look like that mural of mutts in Dunedin, painted on the outside of Skip’s Bar: Welcome to Dogedin. A smear of collies, shepherds, hounds. Dogs howling at my spinal cord, tails curled between my ribs. Aura makes another phone call. Folds a dryer-full of someone’s clean towels. Sue, now 100% drunk, asks if I was named after Mickey Mouse. “No.” Marcus joins us by the pool. He says that he got stood up at Red Robin. Tosses his keys at the flamingo, spilling all of the butts into the shallow end, blurring the mermaids. Then he says ten Hail Marys for Lana—practice for his future Christian Mingle marriage. We play buzz—one, two, three, four, five, six, buzz, eight, nine, ten, fuck—fizz. “You drink, Mick.” Four a.m. Swiping left, left, and right. Sue drawing temporary tattoos on the soft inside of her arm with an inky blue pen: Lana’s face overlapping Lana’s face, a map of her dead dog grief. I smudge a small line of blue, hold Sue’s wrist and tell her I’m sorry. “Thank you, Mickey Mouse.” I watch Aura, still in the laundromat, talking, caped in a 101 Dalmatians pool towel. “Be nice,” Connie says to Marcus, “And help Mickey home.” I’m just as drunk as him, but we lace hands and walk towards my apartment. Halfway there, I stick my head into a planter of marigolds, try to puke in privacy. “Damn, garden head,” says Marcus, pulling back my yellow hair. “You can’t hold your liquor.” I cough, and he tells me not to worry, that tomorrow, he’ll top it off with some Miracle-Gro. And then he’s standing in my kitchen, getting me a glass of ice-heavy Gatorade that I drink, push the cold cup against my breastbone. He tightens the p-trap of my leaky sink. Wipes a drip of nicotine from the backsplash. I ask him if he wants to stay the night. My ten adopted dogs watch us have almost-sex—almost, because I change my mind at the last minute. “It’s cool,” he says, and covers my naked body with a thin dog bed cushion. Kisses my cheek. “I’ll see ya in the morning, Mick. I’m coming by to fumigate for cockroaches.” * I’m embarrassed, so when Marcus comes to fumigate, I don’t talk to him. Me and Aura stand outside with our dogs. She smokes, tells me that she’s sick of the phone sex gig, that Mormon dads in Utah are so fucking boring. “You think there’s enough bandwidth here for cam stuff?” “Well, Connie’s looking into getting fibre optic installed.” “Cool,” she says. “So, you almost fucked Marcus. I heard you. I saw him leaving.” I don’t say anything. She tosses her cigarette onto the ground. Lights another. Says that Marcus looked sad, took a pee in the parking lot. Asks if I want to come over tonight. “We could watch reruns of Pretty Wild on MTV. Or candle our ears. Or get really high and prank call the neighbours.” “Yeah, maybe.” She keeps talking. “Or order Five Guys and get an entire bag of peanuts and go to Chimp Farm and ask if it’s really true. About Marcus’ face. Or break into the church food bank and steal all of their Fruit Gushers. Or ride bikes down the Pinellas Trail to St. Petersburg. Or pool hop in Sarasota suburbs. Or”—she pauses to cough and I watch Marcus adjust his gas mask, spray insecticide along the door jambs. “Or go to Orlando and watch the Disney World fireworks from the parking lot. Look, hey Mick, look.” I look, and she exhales a perfect ring of smoke. “Ka-boom.” * That night, I go to the pool instead, with Connie, Sue, Natalie, Marcus, and my dogs. Natalie is passed out, almost, on a lounge chair. And Aura’s back in the laundromat. Folding, talking. Marcus is finally about to tell us what happened in Tarpon Springs, at Chimp Farm, when we see a red Supra pull up to the laundromat. Marcus says that it’s Aura’s ex-boyfriend from Tallahassee. The ex gets out of his car, yanks open the laundromat door. Aura presses the phone to her stomach. Aura and her ex go back and forth—louder, louder—until he raises his hand, hits Aura across the face so hard that her bottom lip splits open and splatters blood across the row of white dryers. Her body does a half-spin. Wrapped in the coiled phone cord, she falls over. By the time she hits the tile, we’re there, all of us, my ten dogs ringed around Aura. Marcus wrestles the ex into a chokehold. Says, “You think you’re stronger than a chimpanzee?” He’s not. His face turns blue. Marcus loosens his grip and before the ex can slip his head loose, Connie spits in his face. He tells us all to fuck off, leaves the laundromat. Tries to do a three-point turn but fails again and again. “Ha!” says Natalie, “You drive worse than I drive drunk!” She throws laundry pods at the hood of his car, blue and green clusters of detergent exploding. And Connie pets Aura’s yellow hair—“Shh, honey, you’re okay, you’re okay”—and Aura bleeds onto the pile of laundry, onto Dalmatians, and the moron on the other end of the phone asks, “Hello? Um, are you still there?” * Aura melted a benzo under her tongue as I pressed an ice pack to her busted lip, put her to bed. And now I’m walking through the apartment complex with my Catahoula, Lola. She pees and pees—she has a UTI. I pet her face, scarred from where another dog, a fighting dog, tore her cheek open. The light is still on in the laundromat. Connie is lit in fluorescence, cleaning blood from the dryers. “Hey.” “Mickey,” she says. She points at my shirt, covered in Aura’s blood. “I’ll wash that for you. Hands up.” I sit, in just a bra and shorts, on top of a Speed Queen. Connie keeps cleaning, dipping a rag into a bucket of diluted bleach. Lola gnaws on a dryer ball. Connie says, “You know, when Aura got here, she had to sign her lease with her left hand, because her right thumb, it was dislocated. Couldn’t hold the pen. Her nose was in a cast. I don’t know if it was him, or some other asshole in Tallahassee, but Aura, she’s a kid—she shouldn’t have it this rough.” I should have gone with her to St. Petersburg, Sarasota, anywhere. Connie leans up against a washer, hands on her hips. “How old are you, Mickey?” “Twenty-four.” “You’re a kid, too.” She pulls her red hair into a bun, and I can see the keloid scar on her neck where her skin cancer was cut out. “You pay your rent in cash. You don’t have a job. You don’t tell us anything except that you’re from Orlando. Mickey, Mickey. . .” Mickey. Orlando. Orlando: I hid in a dog crate while my boyfriend turned the house to a hurricane—fists flying through drywall, yanking wires out. “Hide and seek, Mickey Mouse? You know I’m gonna find you.” Broken plates. Broken ribs, too. Our dented fridge covered in Money Mart loan receipts, eviction notices. Duke Energy making the phone ring every day, then making things go dark. Waiting, waiting—then, cashing my last Denny’s paycheck and emptying my bank account and escaping into my Corolla. Down the I-4. Ribs healing at RV campgrounds, Walmart parking lots. Putting miles between me and Orlando, me and him. And as I looped through the sunshine state, I collected dogs with wormed hearts. Dogs that had laboured litter after litter of designer mutts, their milk-sucked nipples dragging on the hot Florida asphalt. Bait dogs. Dogs to surround me, love me, protect me, here, in Clearwater. Far enough that he wouldn’t bother to come looking, to come for a fight. But Tallahassee to Clearwater is more than double the distance of Orlando to Clearwater. Connie says, “Mickey, oh, I’m sorry, I’m—I didn’t mean to make you . . . You don’t have to tell me. Here.” She wraps me in a clean pool towel. “Go home, go to bed. It’s been a bad night.” I lay on my kitchen floor, hidden in curls of sleeping dogs. Their lungs wheeze like dull, singing saws. Mange-ringed tails drumming the tile floor. At five a.m., Marcus revs up the lawnmower. Connie turns on the sprinklers. Aura plays her favourite song on loop. But the divisions are so thin and I can hear her cry. I guess she can hear me too.
On movies and rain.
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. A song led me to the movie. I was exchanging notes with a friend recently on the Indian classical singer Kishori Amonkar when I recalled the first time I heard her voice. Years ago, I was on a train to New Delhi, when “Sanwariya Sanjh,” Amonkar’s duet with her pupil Raghunandan Panshikar, rang out from the speakers of a station en route. This must have been sometime after the turn of the millennium, when I was nine or ten. I was travelling with my father, whose face looked more resentful than usual because of an argument with my mother moments before boarding the train. The two singers sounded harmonious in a way my parents’ voices rarely did: Amonkar’s cries, seemingly in the background, and yet effortlessly propulsive; Panshikar’s deceptive lament, priming the listener for Amonkar’s voice, while purporting to do the heavy lifting. Like most children at that age, I perceived classical music as noise, but I remember imagining that the song was probably recorded by a couple in a happy marriage. A decade later, I discovered that Amonkar had composed the song as part of the soundtrack for Drishti, Govind Nihalani’s 1990 portrait of, well, an unhappy marriage. Fresh from the throes of a breakup, I had wandered into a retrospective of Nihalani’s films inside a refurbished Bombay theatre, having run out of things to do alone on a Sunday. And there was that song again, reminding me of my parents’ long-standing quarrels, just when I was trying to forget that the woman I dated for over a year hadn’t replied to my texts in a month. The film didn’t clarify much about the mystery of adult relationships. Nikhil and Sandhya, the philandering protagonists, spend their mornings sharing their coded dreams with one another, and their evenings debating sex and commitment with friends. The scenes mostly unfold as conversations, except for a wonderfully wordless interlude when Sandhya (played by Dimple Kapadia) embarks on an affair with Rahul, a youngish classical singer (played by Irrfan Khan). Stepping out of her office in the rain, Sandhya is surprised to see Rahul drenched from head to toe, waiting for her on the other side of the road. She smiles and hops across the pavement with her umbrella, as if to save him. Music and rain: one can’t help but admire the facility with which Indian filmmakers depict the onset of monsoons, the late-summer miracle of water returning to earth. In Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, you expect to see water overflowing from the pond where the protagonist Apu and his older sister, Durga, take their daily baths, but no, Ray captures the season’s first drops falling on the bald pate of a man idling by the edge of the lake. We’re in rural Bengal, miles away from the Art Deco buildings of south Bombay in Drishti, and yet classical music is again the threnody to a clutch of wordless moments, the inclement weather within. Any other director would have fretted that the mellow sound of Ravi Shankar’s sitar doesn’t quite work with the prophetic shot of Apu and Durga darting past a field without an umbrella, or the tragic instant when their mother, unable to make ends meet, steals fruit from a neighbour’s yard in the rain. These moments unfold on screen, however, with a naive insouciance, as though Apu had been dreaming them up in the first place. Bollywood movies, too, can be oddly persuasive with their rain sequences, so long as you aren’t just watching a flamboyantly dressed couple gyrating between trees. Recently I watched Manzil with a friend and we were both very impressed that for once Amitabh Bachchan wasn’t flopping to his knees in the middle of the road when the obligatory rain song came on. Instead of a posse of supporting dancers mimicking the protagonists’ every move, we see a shy couple, dressed respectively in a suit and a sari, hold hands and walk along the promenades of Bombay on a damp afternoon. There are no blunt displays of affection: the woman chastely rests her head on the man’s wet shoulders during the song’s final refrain. “This is how I imagine my parents dating,” my friend told me. “Never kissing—just walking around south Bombay in the rain.” I wondered about his own celluloid fantasies of romance. They were probably not too different from mine, and again had something to do with south Bombay and the rains. Did he picture something along the lines of a sequence in Dahek where a Hindu boy and a Muslim girl agree to meet up at a colonial-era church and daydream about being shadowed by each other as the girl splashes around a puddle with a group of schoolkids, and the boy drops by a corner store to buy some flowers? Or perchance something similar to the climax of Wake Up Sid where a baby-faced Ranbir Kapoor ends up getting drenched at Marine Drive and also confesses his feelings for an older friend? Despite sitting through The Notebook and Breakfast at Tiffany’s multiple times, their famous rain scenes always strike me as inappropriate. After all, you want to see white people kissing with the snow faintly falling outside a window in the background, not while chasing each other in the rain. Audrey Hepburn might be trying her utmost to summon some intensity, but I still have trouble believing that the director ever shared an umbrella with a stranger, or rescued a lover’s cat from a flooded alley. There is a formal obliqueness to rainy days that is at odds with the chatty ethos of Hollywood love stories. You end up being stuck somewhere; you don’t get much done. You’d rather not talk to anyone. But then you catch yourself humming a song.
A requiem for Trugoy and a rebirth for De La Soul.
Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. The taxonomy of New York hip-hop was set out by KRS-One on “The Bridge Is Over” back in March 1987: Manhattan kept on making it, Brooklyn kept on taking it, the Bronx kept creating it and Queens kept on faking it. But what about Long Island? The home of EPMD and Rakim wasn’t even worth mentioning at the time, devoid of a cultural identity. Island-dwelling Public Enemy had burst onto the scene with their uncompromising Def Jam debut Yo! Bumrush the Show just a month before, setting the stage for 1988’s “Plug Tunin’,” the first single by a group of three friends who went on to firmly stamp Long Island as hip-hop’s home of the outsider: De La Soul. From their playful first transmission, the group outlined their “new style of speak” with Trugoy the Dove promising to “dive beneath the depth of a never-ending verse, gasping and swallowing every last letter.” The remix of “Plug Tunin’” appends “(Last Chance to Comprehend)” to the title, a good-natured warning of pleasurable confusion to come. Peering in from their vantage point along the periphery of established hip-hop culture, De La Soul parodied and satirized the rap game across their entire discography. “Do As De La Does” mocks the banality of call and response (“If you like to drink some soda, let me hear you say Coca-Cola!”). “Ego Trippin’ (Part Two)” and “Afro Connections at a Hi 5 (In the Eyes of the Hoodlum)” are hyper-referential, over the top parodies of typical hip-hop braggadocio. De La Soul (“from the soul” in Franglais) luxuriated in the subversive potential of language. With each new track came a new way for the group to flow, a previously untested style to plant the De La flag into. Even their monikers were designed to obfuscate: reverse the names of both emcees and you'll learn that Posdnuos declares himself to be a “Soundsop" and Trugoy is simply named after his favourite food. To each other, they were Plug One and Plug Two. Derwin, Stickabush, Itzsoweezee, Dan Stuckie, Dante is a scrub, Buddy: the group developed their own cryptophasia, a personal glossary of inside jokes to define themselves in opposition to a harsh hip-hop world that was destined to misunderstand their methods. De La Soul’s private humour exploded outside of the boundaries of their songs with their early adoption and popularization of hip-hop album skits. Wearing colourful dress shirts, rocking leather Africa medallions and rapping about flowers, De La Soul were seen as hip-hop hippies, an image immediately rejected by the group in “Me, Myself and I,” the lead single from their groundbreaking 1989 debut 3 Feet High and Rising. The video for “Me, Myself and I” has the squad attending Rapper School alongside lookalikes of the acceptable emcee archetypes of the day. Here’s a partial list of what De La Soul implored the listening public to remove in their song “Take It Off”: those shell toes, that do-rag, those fat laces, that bomber, those Converse, that Kangol, that Afro, that Jheri curl. They defined themselves by what they weren’t. Posdnuos was the erudite moral leader, Maseo was the clownish DJ and the late Trugoy was the Everyman, so normal that he eventually changed his rap name from Trugoy the Dove to just Dave. In the video for “Stakes Is High,” a song whose lyrics became the urtext for the conscious rap movement, Trugoy is pictured doing laundry, raking leaves and washing dishes. A celebration of the mundane, Dave demonstrated to untold aspiring rappers that being yourself was more than enough. His normalcy was belied by an occasional propensity for abstract wordplay and lyricism, such as on the Stakes Is High intro where he intentionally avoids rhyming or Buhloone Mindstate’s “En Focus,” a funky meditation on fame dripping in what feels like generations of slang. His passing in February, just weeks before De La’s entire music catalogue would finally be made available on streaming for the first time, feels particularly cruel. Trugoy took center stage on De La Soul’s closest brush with the mainstream, their Grammy-winning guest spot on the upbeat “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. The only member of the group to actually rap on the song, his uncharacteristically frenetic verse features a memorably odd turn of phrase, urging “Don’t stop, get it, get it, until you’re cheddar-headed.” At a time when rap music often promoted one dimensional characters, Dave had the emotional range to joke around with a Burger King employee on “Bitties in the BK Lounge” and then play a local hood gaslighting a young woman being abused by her father on the unprecedented single “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa,” all on the same album (De La Soul is Dead). De La Soul almost single-handedly legitimized sampling as an art form on their debut. Four months later, Beastie Boys dropped their sampledelic masterpiece Paul's Boutique, choosing samples with the Dust Brothers that presented themselves as Easy Rider outlaws with a reverence for the routines and sounds of early hip-hop. Conversely, De La rejected the hip-hop canon before it had even been settled on, hellbent on redefining and widening the conversation of what rap music could be. Before De La Soul, sampling was usually about instant gratification. Recognize this drum break? Remember this funk song that we grew up with? That familiarity can occasionally be present in their music as well but De La’s primary producer Prince Paul mainly reveled in mining funk from unexpected sources: yodeling, kazoos, nursery rhymes, records for learning how to speak French. Anything was fair game . . . well, maybe not. De La Soul’s verve for unconventional sampling made them an early target for lawsuits and is partly why their music hadn’t been properly reissued or released digitally for so long. Now, after over twenty years, hundreds of contracts and months of rerecording elements that couldn’t be cleared, the world will finally be reintroduced to one of the most significant groups in the history of music. It’s a shame that Trugoy isn’t here to see this moment. But what he created is finally free to be cherished by generations to come.
On luxury shopping, men’s fashion and end-of-the-world salvation.
In the opening scene of Ruben Östlund’s 2022 Cannes Palme d’Or–winning film, Triangle of Sadness, the male protagonist, a slim white model, is asked to present two poses: “H&M”—full of laughter and fun, like a dude at a crowded bar drinking with friends, and “Balenciaga”—as stern and sombre as an Icelandic landscape. The two fashion looks—low- and high-brow, common versus luxury—represent two kinds of people: the masses and the elite. Who do you wish to be? And what can you afford? For most people, the answer is simple: love the Gucci, buy the Zara. There’s no shame in that. As the iconic German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld said, what matters is style, not the price. The democratization of fashion, thanks to the likes of H&M, Uniqlo and Zara, have made good-looking clothing ubiquitous and affordable. For many years, I was one of those people, aware of Prada the way one is aware of yachts or Porsche convertibles: as advertisements for the rich and famous. As a freelance writer, I had never even considered actually purchasing designer clothing. During two years of pandemic lockdowns, this changed. As the global crisis grew, so too did my own panic. I developed “Covidsomnia,” waking in the middle of the night worried about the “what next.” Like so many, I found myself drawn to the screen, turning over in bed and scrolling. One sleepless night, I found a new Gucci blazer, 90 percent off the store price. I added to cart. When the package arrived, I was stunned by the quality of the materials: brass buttons, a tightly woven wool, the Gucci shoulders. I felt myself…transformed, though I wasn’t sure into what. While friends joked they wore the same thing to work every day—jogging pants and hoodies—I upped my fashion game like never before, hunting down discounted silk ties from Kiton; handmade Gucci loafers with gold knitted bees; burgundy Prada suits. I had never owned such items in my life. And while I didn’t wear these clothes anywhere but my kitchen or living room, my wardrobe evolved in ways that surprised anyone who knew me. I felt like I was going somewhere, even if I was only travelling ten feet. It wasn’t just vanity. I was transported from this frail body—and frail, pandemic-ridden civilization—to a better, prettier place. I shopped, dressed up, and shopped some more. It turns out I wasn’t alone. Brunello Cucinelli, one of Italy’s largest luxury clothing brands, reported that in 2021 there was a 31 percent increase in sales, 20 percent higher than any other in its forty-year existence (in the first half of 2022, Brunello Cucinelli was up an additional 32.5 percent). LVMH, the French fashion conglomerate, reported a more than 40 percent increase in sales. At the end of year two of the pandemic, with inflation rates through the roof and a global food and energy crisis due to the war in Ukraine, the high-end luxury fashion market was booming. These statistics are hard to fathom. In an era of Zoom parties, closed bars and restricted travel, why were so many people buying Loro Piana cashmere sweaters and Brioni suits? Why not save money for a winter of expensive oil and gas? Were they—like I was—hoping to be led to an elusive elsewhere through a strange game of dress-up? Was it a hope for better times? Just what had the pandemic and war done to fashion? To us? Had we developed an acute sense of endings? With a brutal war raging, viruses spreading, and a global climate catastrophe worsening by the month, perhaps we’d all adopted a “what the fuck” attitude. What’s the point in saving when the end of the world is near? Hell, we might as well look beautiful. * In June 2022 I travelled to Pitti Immagine Uomo in the heart of Firenze, Italy’s biggest men’s fashion fair, to try to answer these questions. Truth be told, after two years of being locked in my apartment, I mostly just wanted to see the beauty of an old city and be around well-dressed people. I wanted to go to parties and not think about anything deep. Under the pretense of writing, I was hoping to be submerged in the superficiality of the fashion world. I certainly found that. But I found something else, too. The first day at the Pitti is damn hot—a sweltering 35 degrees Celsius. When I cross the street and enter Fortezza de Basso, flashing my press card, I feel like stripping naked—why am I wearing this beige double-breasted silk blazer? And yet when I enter the fourteenth century fortress grounds, following a long covered walkway that spills out onto the main piazza, I feel underdressed; I’m surrounded by men in their dandy-best. In the middle of the square is a sign denoting this year’s theme: “Island.” I’ve entered fashion paradise. Pitti Uomo began in 1972 as a men’s fashion trade fair where mostly Italian designers displayed next year’s models. It’s still a trade fair; it is not open to the general public. For four decades, it was an important event in the men’s fashion world, though nothing as international as its counterparts in Paris or Milan. Pitti’s reputation changed in the early 2010s, when fashion-obsessed men came to Firenze dressed in their finest (and often outrageous) fashions. It was a symptom of the times. With Instagram just taking off, people made the pilgrimage to show off and compete for photographic attention. Thus was born the “Pitti peacock.” Today they’re out in full view: in checkered fuchsia-and-gold blazers, in cream Fedoras, hands donning brightly coloured fans to quell the heat. This is more than Instagram vanity: it’s a hearkening to a time when people didn’t wear factory-repeated clothing. Goodbye, hoodies and sneakers. Arrivederci, H&M chinos. Seeking shade beneath a rooftop, a line of peacocks gather by the wall for photographs. Here I speak to Fredo, aged thirty-nine, German fashionista and journalist. He’s dressed in all Gucci: blue Gucci suit, burgundy Gucci shoes, outrageous Gucci sunglasses. I ask him what it is about Pitti that makes it so special. “For one week, we live in a magic fashion paradise. We watch shows, go to parties, and Firenze opens up its private piazzas and buildings. There’s nowhere like this. After two years of lockdowns, and now a war in Ukraine, it gives us time to enjoy the beautiful things.” Fredo, and his best friend Benjamin—aged forty-six, holding an SLR camera and leather Tom Ford purse, and wearing a gold-and-black polo with a gleaming gold chain around his neck—lead me through the fairgrounds. Hailing from Frankfurt, it’s Fredo’s sixth and Benjamin’s fifth Pitti. They seem to know everyone and anyone: in a way, they’ve come home. Ben snaps pictures of an older man in a straw Fedora and a perfectly tailored, cream-and-brown-striped, double-breasted linen suit. The man fans his younger girlfriend, dressed in a white polo, flailing white skirt and perfectly tilted white hat. It’s sexy, classy, a scene out of The Great Gatsby: classic 1920s opulence. A man in a bright yellow linen blazer, flaxen yellow Fedora and multicoloured flower pants conjures an odd theatricality, a kind of fetish dress-up that doubles as homage to handmade times. “Island”—it’s the perfect name. A respite from difficult times. Is that what fashion offers us? Is that why we’re all here? Fredo and Benjamin lead me into the conference centre, three floors filled with 682 brands, each with their own stall. The biggest names, like Gucci and Prada, wait for next week in Milan, but Brunello Cucinelli is here. When we enter his sprawling pop-up store, Cucinelli himself greets us in a double-breasted suit, loose white linen pants and white sneakers. Cucinelli is the stuff of legends: the son of a poor farmer, he grew up in the Umbria village of Solomeo. He became interested in fashion in the late 1970s, designing colourful handmade cashmere sweaters for women and bringing them to fashion fairs in places like Düsseldorf. The sweaters sold well; over the years his name became synonymous with high-quality, handmade clothing, and his cashmere was always the best. He also charges through the roof: nowadays a blazer can cost four thousand euros. His brand suggests excellence and exclusivity. An idealist in his enterprise, Cucinelli bases his business model on what he calls “a humane capitalism.” Sure, he charges exorbitant fees for his clothes, but he pays his employees 20 percent more than the Italian average, and gives 20 percent of his profits to charity, or as he says, “for humanity.” Cucinelli has also revamped his birth village. Home to the Cucinelli factory and employer of many of the town’s residents, he’s repaved the streets, renovated storefronts and restored the twelfth century church. He even built a 240-seat theatre, sixteenth century in design. In interviews, the man the New Yorker called “the Prince of Solomeo” is often known to quote Marcus Aurelius, Plato and Augustine; he prefers to talk philosophy rather than consumer reports. Benjamin and Fredo are here, in part, to interview Cucinelli for a German philosophy magazine. I tag along. They tell me that part of Cucinelli’s love for Pitti is that it’s an approachable, friendly affair: Cucinelli, for all of his multimillion-dollar success, is a man loyal to the local fashion community of the Pitti. See him shake hands, slap people on the back, pinch people’s cheeks. The big news is that Cucinelli is holding an invite-only dinner tonight. Benjamin and Fredo are going, and I’m determined to join them. I tell Cucinelli’s PR person—without really knowing what I’m saying—that I want to write about the latest in men’s fashion. She looks at me nonplussed. Then I add that I’m a poet, maybe Cucinelli would want to meet me, for I consider him a poet of the soul. The next thing I know, I’m on the guest list. I go home that afternoon, shower and change, then meet Benjamin and Fredo. * In the film La grande bellezza, director Paolo Sorrentino shows us a two-faced twenty-first century Rome: the lingering beauty of its ancient past and the superficiality of its upper-class residents today. At one party after another, the rich wear the best suits, in the best antique locales, drinking the best wines, spouting vapid philosophy as they struggle for the one thing they can’t buy—a sense of purpose amidst the deluge of hangovers. If you’ve seen the film, you get an idea of what the Brunello Cucinelli party is like, minus the line dancing. It’s both disarming and alluring. Entering the multitiered garden, I’m greeted with a glass of prosecco by a man in a Cucinelli suit. We descend the terraces. A bar on one level, a buffet on another, another terrace with an even bigger buffet. Classical music is pumped through overhead speakers. Everyone is dressed perfectly. There are rumours movie stars Taron Egerton and Jonathan Bailey have flown in by private helicopter. Fredo, Benjamin and I sit at a table at the edge of the fifth terrace and take it all in: a sunset over the old duomo, an ancient city falling into shadow. The buffet—manned by Cucinelli’s personal chefs, with food enough for five hundred—stretches across some several dozen tables. The wine flows, and when the sun sets, it finally cools down. The food is Italy at its best: prosciutto, ricotta, fresh oil and bread. Cucinelli’s favourite rigatoni in his favourite cream tomato sauce. It’s extravagant and the three of us are getting drunk. “La grande bellezza,” says Fredo, drinking gin and tonics like they’re going out of style. “I wish life could always be so beautiful.” The grass is manicured a perfect green. Lush cedars and eucalyptus sway above us lazily, while water burbles from the mouths of fish and ancient Roman gods. It has that dreamy Italian thing so many tourists seek when visiting the country: paradise, for an hour or a selfie. I love it, but there’s something about it that unsettles me. Perhaps it’s the very unreality of the experience. Cucinelli’s humane capitalism, while we dwell in the garden of opulence and exclusivity, seems totally absurd. Not to mention the disasters of the world lurking outside. “Isn’t it strange?” I say, noticing the alcohol hitting me quicker than I’d expected. “There’s a war going on fifteen hundred kilometres from here and we’re sitting here having a great time. Isn’t the fashion world a bit…unfair?” “Actually, it’s your question that’s unfair, Jonathan,” Benjamin says, swilling Bolgheri to wash down the delicious pasta. “If I live in Kyiv or Donbas, I’m not thinking about a Gucci suit, and certainly not the Pitti Uomo. Fashion is for peaceful, prosperous times. It’s a privilege. Pass the rigatoni.” A waiter refills our glasses. “So it’s about escape,” I say. “The island.” “Not only,” says Benjamin, munching on his food. He takes on a philosophical tone. “It’s about looking and feeling your best while you can. Because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow.” I let Benjamin’s thoughts sink in. He’s right: we can’t know the changes that lie ahead. The war, the pandemic, these dark times all reinforce that sentiment. And there’s nothing we can do about it. I try to settle into the beauty of this unreal world. Benjamin instructs: “Don’t ever save your best clothes for a special day in the distant future. It’s a mistake I used to make. We need to wear our best things while we still can.” Then he tells us about his German grandparents, forced to flee Breslau by foot at the end of January 1945. The whole city had to evacuate; the Russians were coming. Benjamin’s grandmother packed suitcases full of photo albums—their memories—as well as dishes and silver because they knew they could trade it for food. Then they bundled themselves in their warmest clothes; it was minus 20. They ran into their neighbour, who wore only a thin coat. Benjamin’s grandmother asked her why she wasn’t wearing her fur. The neighbour said, “Because I want to have something nice to wear when I come back.” But no one ever came back to Breslau. “You see?” Benjamin concludes. “Saving for better times is a mistake. They might never come.” I wake up the next morning to a nasty hangover. In my Airbnb, the air conditioning has stopped working. Startled, in a sweat, I check my phone and find a pic of Benjamin and Fredo: the two of them are drinking bellinis and laughing outrageously. The message: 10 a.m. Bagutta fashion party on such-and-such rooftop. I throw on some clothes and head over. When I get there, Benjamin and Fredo are nowhere to be seen. A dozen or so models, young twentysomethings, strut about the terrace in oversized clothing. The view is spectacular. One of the models leans against the bar and drinks coffee. I try to be journalistic, warrant my press pass, ask how she likes Pitti. She says she’s enjoying it. A student at Polimoda, the famous Florence fashion school, she hopes one day to be a fashion designer. I notice she has an accent, not Italian, so I ask where she’s from. “Gaza,” she says. Her name is Noor Hijazi and she’s twenty-one years old. Vaguely, she tells me she’s from somewhere south of Gaza City. I ask, “Why fashion?” Noor explains that when she was ten, she drew anime. Then, she started to draw portraits. She was always drawing. One day when she was thirteen Noor’s mother asked if she could draw her a dress. Noor asked her mom to describe it. Noor drew it; her mother took it to a dressmaker. “It was strange,” Noor said, smoking a cigarette. “It’s like I could see it all so clearly, like I needed to do it. When she was gone, I did twenty more drawings. When she got home my mother said, ‘The dressmaker was impressed. She thinks you should be a fashion designer.’ I decided this is what I’d do.” Noor studied technique on YouTube. After a year, CNN Arabia did a short documentary about her. She got a scholarship to study English from the US State Department, took courses in public speaking and how to apply to schools in Europe and America. In June 2021, the Polimoda application due date was fast approaching. There was also a war with Israel—the worst bombardments in Gaza since 2014. On the final due date for the applications, the Israelis were bombing her neighbourhood. Her laptop wasn’t working. She did the entire application on her phone, even photoshopping her portfolio. She submitted it, was accepted, and she ran a GoFundMe campaign to raise enough money for her first year. Leaving Gaza was part of her prerogative, she admits. “I don’t want to go back. This was the first year I saw a mountain, a river, the ocean. It’s beautiful. I don’t worry about bombs. I can live in my own room. And I love fashion.” Noor tells me about her love of sewing, which she enjoys almost as much as drawing. But she adds, “Fashion is political too. When Louis Vuitton did their keffiyah bullshit, it was a real turning point. It opened my eyes.” Noor is referring to June 2021, when Louis Vuitton designed a seven-hundred-euro keffiyah scarf. It was bad enough they were selling an object that symbolized the Palestinian resistance as a French fashion piece for exorbitant amounts of money; what really hurt Noor and other Palestinians was they made it blue and white, the colours of the Israeli national flag. The public backlash was intense—the online scarf protests made waves during the same 2021 war during which Noor applied to Polimoda—and it forced Vuitton to rescind their design. When Noor came to Italy, she wanted not only to make clothes but to represent her culture, as well. She used Handala, an image of Palestinian defiance created by the famous cartoonist Naji al-Ali, as the inspiration for several outfits. Noor wants to be the Bella Hadid of fashion design. “Fashion,” she says, “is as much about politics and identity as it is about looking good.” * Later that afternoon, Benjamin and Fredo invite me to the Antony Morato event; it’ll be huge, a thousand people partying in an ancient auditorium. But Noor’s words ring in my head. The island invaded; politics, inescapable. For some, like Noor, fashion is an island of survival. The heat is unbearable, 38 with the humidity. Looking for a bottle of water, I stumble into a small corner, a dozen stalls in the upper floor. It’s the first time I’ve been away from the crowds; there’s nobody but me and a few designers. A woman hands me a bottle of water and asks if I’m okay. “Yeah,” I say. “Just tired.” Looking around, I see I’ve landed in a special “focus on Ukraine” section. The woman who’s handed me the water is Lilia Litkovska, a designer from Kyiv now living in Paris. Posters for “Litkovska” line the walls of her small stall. She asks if I’m a buyer, did I want to see her catalogue? I tell her I’m a writer and lover of fashion, but I’d like to look. I flip through it, ask if it feels strange to be here given that there’s a war in her country. She says, of course, but it’s an excellent opportunity: she’s using it as a platform to speak. “Fashion has the ability to reach more people than political protest, or a petition. It’s effective. People listen.” I like her designs. There’s something military in a few of them; high shoulders and lapels. Some use recycled materials. It all feels natural, unforced, and I tell her that. Lilia, aged forty, explains that fashion is in her family—she’s from four generations of tailors. Lilia launched her collection in 2006, her brand in 2009. While she comes from a fashion family, her parents were initially against her profession. She studied economics in university; they wanted her to be a financial analyst. But fashion wouldn’t let her go. She needed, she discovered, to make beautiful things. Lilia loves the materials she plays with: cashmere, silk, wool. And she loves that the person who wears what she creates gets to transform what they buy into something of their own. I ask how the war has changed her designs. Lilia explains she had already pivoted toward fashion as a form of cultural expression before the war. In 2019, she started to use Ukrainian traditional clothing and folk symbols in her work. She wasn’t sure the cause of this reorienting of her design; perhaps it was the birth of her first child. Now, in 2022, things have taken another turn. She says, “I always loved the military uniform. When the war started, I was invited to the alternative fashion show in London. I used the yellow lines that our Ukrainian military wear, a line on the shoulder, chevrons and balaclavas too… The message is simple: even if we are wearing this kind of ugly outfit, our beauty cannot be taken away from us. We are ready to defend it.” She shows me her “Artisanal line”—how it uses scraps of leftovers from old clothes. These vintage materials are brought to rural parts of Ukraine in the Carpathian Mountains, where craftswomen weave new fabric out of the leftovers. “They’re doing this on hundred-year-old looms, all by hand,” explains Lilia. “This is very particular work, of a very old tradition, one that is dying out.” With Russians bombing these same Carpathian villages, along with the rest of the country, Lilia is worried the looms might not survive the war. She tells me she bought a loom so that she can preserve the tradition and teach others how to use it too. “Fashion,” she says, “is a way of keeping a tradition alive. The loom, the weaving, that’s knowledge. We can pass it on.” * That night at the Antony Morato party there are free drinks for everyone. Electronic dance music pulsates; the room shakes. Hundreds of people are crammed into an old auditorium in the old city. I confess I feel unprepared for this; Covid has de-socialized me and for all I know, the latest variant is making its way through the crowd. Nobody wears masks. As Fredo, Benjamin and I push our way to the front of the bar for our complimentary Negronis, I think about Lilia and Noor. Are they in this crowd of excess? Two women careen toward me; they’re wearing six-inch stilettos and laughing. Are they laughing at me, or themselves? Images of outer space flash across the back screen; we are going somewhere. Fredo, Benjamin and I stumble to the dance floor, close our eyes. The island speaks, the people dance. It’s what we’ve always wanted.
“Greece is a good place to look at the moon, isn’t it?”
Leonard Cohen’s house is not easy to find. But nothing on Hydra is. Street names are difficult to locate, and the houses don’t have numbers. The Greek island juts upwards, roads and alleyways wind around steep stone steps without railings. There are no cars or even bicycles allowed. The only transportation you’ll see are mules and donkeys (another reason to watch your step). There’s uncommon commotion stepping off the Aegean Flying Dolphin ship as a hundred or so travelers find our feet on solid land. Donkey drivers load suitcases onto the sad-eyed beasts of burden. The scene is loud and disorienting for a little while, and then suddenly very quiet. I stop and look around, distracted by a pack of stray cats grazing at a plate of fish bones some kind Hydriot has left for them, and by the overhead view of the port: a horseshoe-shaped stage for decades of writers and artists. The cafés and bars of the agora come into view, all arranged in a semicircle around the Aegean Sea. So do the whitewashed houses with their red roofs dotting the green and grey mountains. It looks just like the old footage in the Netflix documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love. It’s like stepping into an archival photograph. As I get my bearings and try to spot the street leading to my pension hotel, I spot a crinkled flyer for something called the Hydra Book Club. Spotting the Greek text first, I squint and see it’s also in English. “WHAT ARE YOU SEEKING?” it asks in all caps. “WHY NOT COME HERE?” * When Leonard Cohen first stepped off the ferry here in 1960, he probably didn’t know how important this small island would become to both his work and his mythology. What he found was a thriving foreign artist colony that fed his early ambition long before he was established as a musician. He also found one of his most famous muses, Marianne Ihlen, who would inspire his work and letters right up until his 2016 death. But Cohen has always had a deep connection to the places he’s inhabited. One of his great skills is finding the universal in his specific experiences, and so he’s written his locations into his work. He sings about the place by the (St. Lawrence) river in “Suzanne” and the music on Clinton Street all through the evening in “Famous Blue Raincoat.” There’s a monument to Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel in New York, where he famously rendezvoused with Janis Joplin on an unmade bed. And even when he retired from music to become a Buddhist monk, Mount Baldy Zen Center became his legendary refuge. Hydra is where Cohen first started to take writing seriously, and so it frames many of his early notebooks and letters (occasionally signed from Leonidas). Many of these are currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Everybody Knows exhibit. At the Toronto museum’s biographical show, there’s a set of his I Ching coins, a practice he became enamoured with during his Greek years, and the giant metal key to the Hydra house he bought with a $1500 inheritance from his grandmother and returned to throughout the ‘60s—the same one I had such trouble finding this past October. The ‘60s hit Hydra’s foreign colony like they did other artists of the era. There was plenty of sex and drugs, not to mention gossip and never-ending glasses of retsina. Cohen infamously wrote his second published novel Beautiful Losers in a fever dream of speed and intense heat and very little nourishment. You can read it in the prose. But Hydra was a spot of respite for Cohen, which led to his unique productivity. In a letter to his mother from when he first arrived, on display at the AGO, he describes his daily routine: I get up at 7:30 every morning and work for 3 hours. Then I go down to the port for a breakfast of milk and bread and honey. This is famous honey; the ancient poets sang about it . . . I sun for a few hours, then lunch on artichokes, cheese and roe and then the whole island goes to sleep for a few hours, I work for another two hours after siesta and then I wander down to the port & talk and watch the fishermen repair their nets and learn Greek. All in all life is orderly and sweet, always complying with the old ideal “A sound mind in a sound body.” * I’ve tasted the famous honey. The poets were right to sing about it. It’s my first morning on Hydra and I’ve ended up at a portside cafe called Isalos, which I’ve been told by the people at my hotel has the best Greek breakfasts on the island. The menu is filled with decadent spreads of cheeses, breads, cakes and pastries, but the best ones are made for two people and I’m here on my own. So I opt for fruits and yogurt, which is not usually my thing, but I’m in Greece. It’s worth it—thick and cold and refreshing, it's nothing like the yogurt in Canada, not even like the Greek yogurt sold in grocery stores. More importantly, it comes with a full little jar of honey, which slowly drizzles over the bowl in perfectly sweet little globs. Fending off a persistent wasp, I glance over to the next table. A couple is sipping iced coffees and eating croissants while a carousel of people come over to say hello. One older gentleman with a mop of grey hair and British accent sits across from them and starts singing in Greek. Another woman comes to take a selfie with them. It’s a hint of the old social scene I’ve read about, where artists and bohemians gathered to drink and chat. Striking up a conversation, I learn the man is one of the owners of the family-run restaurant. So I tell him about my brief and unfruitful search for Leonard Cohen’s house. Leonard’s children Lorca and Adam still often come and stay there, he says, as does their mother Suzanne Elrod. They’re treated like locals on the island, and they like to lay low. Adam has occasionally given gentle hints that the restaurant owner should stop sending tourists to the house. It’s easy to see why the Cohens would want some privacy while they seek a connection to their father, who the Everybody Knows exhibit hints was somewhat absent during their childhood. In his early Hydra years, Cohen was a father figure to Marianne Ihlen’s child, little Axel, but Adam and Lorca later spent many summers there. Adam Cohen, a musician himself, has made the Hydra house his own hub. He’s recorded some of his own and his father’s posthumous music there, and the video for “Moving On” takes the viewer right inside the sparsely furnished living room. But the more recent archival work, including Leonard’s early unpublished novel and short stories A Ballet of Lepers and the AGO exhibit, have been done without his children’s participation. They’ve been feuding with the Leonard Cohen Family Trust over control of his archives. Cohen kept his letters and notebooks because he was confident that they might be worthy of studying someday, but he never made himself easy to know. Always looking to find universality in his specific experiences, he often seemed like he was performing in his life too. That’s evident in Michael Posner’s recent Untold Stories oral history book trilogy. Many who knew him describe the experience of talking to Leonard the poet, not Leonard the person. His dry wit, his ladies' man image, his biblical allusions—it often felt like persona. The new glimpses offered by the posthumous archival releases have revealed a darker tinge to his unparalleled mix of the sacred and the profane—a fascination with guns and violence, humiliation and control. From A Ballet of Lepers, “A Short Story On A Greek Island” sets a story against an artist colony backdrop and ends in an act of gendered violence. So, it’s hard to know what you might find stepping in Cohen’s footsteps. There’s a famous photo of Cohen from Life Magazine in 1960. He’s sitting under an old olive tree at Xeri Elia Taverna, also known as Douskos (named after the family that owns it), and strumming a guitar while surrounded by expatriates. Leaning against him is Charmian Clift, an Australian writer whose novels Peel Me A Lotus and Mermaid Singing detail everyday life in Hydra as it was discovered by artists. This was years before Cohen was first dragged onstage by Judy Collins to sing his debut song “Suzanne,” and some historians like to claim it as his first-ever public concert. Douskos is still operating and still in the family, feeding generations of Greeks and travelers heaping servings of moussaka and fish soup. Walking into the big open courtyard slightly recessed from the action of the port, it's easy to imagine Cohen and his friends sitting right there. The tree still grows, and the guitar is still on a hook inside the restaurant—apparently the same one that Cohen played, having grabbed it right off the wall. There are no monuments to Cohen—the tree and the tavern have enough history on their own—but there is a Cohen poem on the menu. “They are still singing down at Dusko’s / sitting under the ancient pine tree,” he wrote in 1967, apparently not as good at identifying tree species as he was at poetry. “In the deep night of fixed and falling stars / if you go to your window you can hear them.” The beating heart of the foreign colony, a prime setting of Clift’s Peel Me A Lotus, was Kastikas. It was where artists would sit and kibbitz for hours, whiling away a day after swimming or trading rejection letters deep into the morning. A short jaunt from Isalos next to a clock tower that echoes throughout the whole island every hour, the former grocery store is now a bar and cafe called Roloi. This is where Leonard Cohen fans from all over the world have been descending on Hydra periodically since 2002. The Hydra gatherings are organized by the Leonard Cohen Files. A somewhat primitive-looking message board started in the mid-‘90s, the fan site was fully embraced by the artist himself during his lifetime, and he often fed them news and concert pre-sales even before the media. According to emails from founder Jarkko Arjatsalo, a Finnish fan who Cohen kept up a correspondence with for two decades, there were over 200 fans at the last Hydra gathering. They charter boats around the island, hike up the many hills, and screen concerts at the open-air cinema. In 2014, while Cohen was still alive, the forum decided to do something for his eightieth birthday and settled on a bench on Hydra overlooking the sea. Cohen wrote, “I bow my head in gratitude” in a message to the group, but he never got to sit on it himself. The entire island of Hydra is a culturally protected monument and it’s not easy to build there. By the time they got permission from the Historical Office in Athens and found a local architect to build it, Cohen had passed away. It was inaugurated with a concert in 2017, a year after his death. Walking the cliffside road from the inner town to the outer reaches of Kamini Beach, it’s easy to walk right by the recessed stone brick bench. Look carefully and you’ll see the plaque with a quote from Cohen “. . . came so far for beauty.” Somebody has tagged the wooden backrest with spray paint, which spoils some of that beauty he, and I, came so far for. But when I look over the ocean and see the sun setting, its perfect orange reflected in the deep blue of the water Cohen used to swim in every day, I get it. The Greeks are very serious about their sunsets, and this is the best one I’ve seen. It’s vistas like these that drew him back to the island over and over and over again. Unlike the larger-than-life mural of Cohen's face on a building on Montreal's Crescent Street, the specific bench is not the attraction—but it’s a good place to take in the island’s “orderly and sweet” charms. * Nowadays, Hydra still attracts artists from all over the world, but the tax bracket is a little higher. You can’t buy a house for $1500 anymore, nor can you live on honey and bread and salt-water swims without regular income. Airbnb has done very well on Hydra. The DESTE Foundation, a Greek contemporary art organization, has taken over a historic slaughterhouse a short walk from the Cohen bench. Where it used to colour the ocean red with blood and guts, it now draws people in for major installations. When I’m there, it’s showing an exhibition by ultra-profitable American artist Jeff Koons. Inside, a moving statue of the Greek god Apollo “plays” an incantation on an ancient stringed instrument that, as you move in closer, reveals itself to be “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis. Outside, a large sun-shaped wind spinner adds an Instagrammable embellishment to the gorgeous views. In the time since I’ve returned from Hydra, the town has made a rare exception and made Koons’s Apollo Wind Spinner a permanent fixture. Koons is a controversial figure, but it’s hard to deny the eye-catching mix of ancient and modern landscape. It reminds me of “Bird On The Wire,” which Cohen wrote when hydro wires were brand new to the formerly electricity-free island. The island evolves with its inhabitants without losing its innate sense of being. But despite being such a haven for high-profile artists both old and new, you’re more likely to find monuments to marine heroes on Hydra. “When I first arrived, I was blown away by the density of the story on this small island,” says Josh Hickey, an American-born, Paris-based art curator who spends months at a time on Hydra. “You do some digging and you end up in this rabbit hole of amazing writers who’ve all stayed or written about the island. But everyone is pretty discreet about it.” From September until October, Hickey runs the Hydra Book Club out of the Historical Archives Museum. Up the stairs past displays explaining the relatively recent 18th-century-beginning history of Hydra as a safe haven for those fleeing the Ottoman Empire, there’s a room filled with books. Tables are stacked with copies of Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Gregory Corso, Charmian Clift and George Johnson, Allen Ginsberg, Alan Ansen, Jeanette Winterson, and Polly Samson, along with rare copies of Beautiful Losers and The Spice-Box of Earth. All of these foundational writers spent time in Hydra and penned words about its mountainous charms. Yet, this is one of the few spots on Hydra where books are even sold. That’s compelled Hickey to make Hydra Book Club an annual exhibition, though he describes it as more of an art project than a commercial one. “I'm more interested in the social interaction that it provokes than the selling of an individual book,” he says. Sometimes, people that were part of the scene in Cohen’s day stop in and tell him stories. As much has been written, there are more stories whispered over mastika at tavernas. “It can be very gossipy,” he says. “Which is funny, because that’s what it was like in the ‘60s.” There’s a fine line between celebrating the art scene and parading it, because the rustic serenity of Hydra is what has historically made it such a haven. Having a drink and engaging in the boisterous conversation at the port can make it feel like a community, but take a few steps up the mountain and the air is so silent that your own footsteps sound thunderous. Lounge on one of the concrete bathing platforms and you feel part of a landscape that is indifferent to your ego. It feels immortal. But when one figure looms so large over a place, it’s possible to cast such a shadow that it’s hard to see what was originally there. After Cohen wrote the wistful “So Long, Marianne” looking back at his tumultuous but loving years with Ihlen on Hydra, he later joked onstage that when Ihlen first heard the song, she asked him who it was about. “It can’t be about me, because my name is Marianne-nah,” she said. She’s forever immortalized with the wrong name. “Greece is a good place to look at the moon, isn’t it?” Cohen asks in his poem “Days of Kindness.” He’s right, on Hydra the moon is as bright as any place I’ve ever seen it. But as I think about that poem, I can’t help but wonder, am I seeing it through my eyes or through his? * When I finally find Leonard Cohen’s house, it’s by accident. I’ve been wandering aimlessly uphill through the winding streets, following the sounds of horses and chickens past long-abandoned churches with for-sale signs. Every time I turn back towards the port, I see a new brilliant angle of the island stage. Turning onto what seems like a narrow side alley, I see a couple in shirts with logos from the Montreal marathon. They’re snapping pictures of a blue and white street sign. I lean closer and see what it says, in Greek and English script: Leonard Cohen Street. Then, I see the pleasant but unassuming bougainvillea-adorned white house. That’s the one! But, as I share the discovery with my fellow Canadian Cohenites, our voices never go above a whisper. This feels strange, we agree. We’re all Leonard Cohen fans, but there could be someone in there. It feels like we’re sneaking around. So we decide to continue our conversation elsewhere. We turn onto the next street and head down towards the port together.
Anyone who’s lived long enough to learn to feed themselves likely has some kind of biographical dish.
Welcome to Cooking is Thinking, a column about the transformation of food and how we feel about it. Two summers ago, my grandmother-in-law, whom I’ve always called Nonna, spotted a couple of overripe tomatoes in her fruit bowl and asked if I’d like to learn how to make “something with tomatoes and bread I haven’t made in a long time.” In the near twenty years I’ve known her, this is how she’s identified many dishes to me. The “sauce, but for lasagna only,” or the “green sauce I used to make for company with a lot of chopped herbs” when her late husband would bring home a hunted goose. Even in the recipe cards she’s kept, or at least the ones I’ve seen, the titles focus more on their role in her day-to-day than a name. My favourite? Yelo Cake. It’s a simple pound cake recipe I’m convinced is designed specifically for her scratched-up 50-year-old Bundt pan. The couple of times I’ve tried making it in any other vessel it stuck and didn’t cleanly pop out. Imagine someone has cooked a particular dish a hundred, possibly even a thousand times over during the course of their life. By “someone,” I don’t mean a kitchen or restaurant professional. Just a person, someone used to making food for themselves. Often for others, too, and often, because of the history associated with this labour, a woman. What might the actions involved in making the dish have to say about their desires, their triumphs and failures, and how they have learned to comfort others or nourish themselves? It’s taken me a long time to understand the value in explicitly recording this type of cooking, whether it’s by recipe cards or through extremely specific oral instruction that sometimes borders on the theatrical. Anyone who’s lived long enough to learn to feed themselves likely has some kind of biographical dish, whether it’s a clear-as-glass chicken broth, or a tamale, or simply scrambled eggs smashed on toast. They aren’t necessarily perfect. To some they may not even be all that good. But what they are is embodied proof of what the maker knows. * There’s a chapter in London-based writer Rebecca May Johnson’s Small Fires, released in the UK last year and out in Canada this summer, that addresses the question of the biographical dish through her documentation of making one thing a thousand different ways over the course of ten years. One night, as a lonely undergrad new to a big city, a classmate on exchange from Italy teaches her a simple method for tomato sauce. Garlic, sliced thinly; olive oil heated enough to pull the garlic flavour into itself and frizzle the edges just slightly; tinned tomatoes and salt go in and bubble until the oil floats to the top; a bunch of basil gets thrown in at the end. The process takes all of twenty minutes, maybe thirty. This recipe becomes the anchor for Johnson teaching herself how to cook to impress or cook to feed, and how to distinguish between the two. What begins as an inquiry into the life of a recipe becomes a sort of side thinking project to her PhD at the time, and eventually a book on the intellectual nature of cooking. Johnson was taught one way of cooking what is essentially a pasta pomodoro sauce. While searching for the recipe—that is, a written record of what she’d been instructed in person to make—she adopts a classic Marcella Hazan method for sugo. She learns that there are multiple written versions of the classic recipe in existence—that perhaps Hazan’s enduring influence through this sauce alone has more to do with the nature of its adoption in a home cook’s life rather than its to-the-letter execution from an original set of written steps. Johnson suggests that even this form of no-recipe adoption, too, is itself a recipe. Cooking is thinking is the takeaway argument of Small Fires, and I can’t tell you how good it felt to read those three words in succession without some kind of qualification. There are many cooks and writers I’ve admired who have pressed this point through an essay, a recipe, or a film. But few in my experience have done so without hedging the argument in ways that suggest the thinking lies somewhere other than in the act itself. Cooking is thinking, but only if it upends tradition—the implication being that if tradition means the country of grandmothers and home-cooked food, then in tradition lies the absence of thought. Cooking is thinking, but only if it adheres to the tradition of Continental (read: European) cuisine cooked in brigade-run kitchens. Cooking is thinking, but only if the ingredients are of a certain provenance. Cooking is thinking, but only if it does something—other than feed people, of course. Cooking is thinking, but. * Unlike with writing, I cook best when I’m not thinking. Or, more specifically, when I’m distracted enough not to be alert about the cooking itself: if I’m underslept, missing someone, faintly hungover, impatient about something other than what I’m making, hungry and in need of a meal soon but not now, immediately after an argument. In situations like these, a comfort-seeking, animal part of my brain becomes alive, one that can pay attention in ways my environment these days either doesn’t encourage or does not immediately reward. Sometimes I’ll beat the hell out of a few eggs until they’re as thin as water, salt them, let them rest for ten minutes, then cook them on the lowest heat for fifteen minutes, stirring most of the time, till they’re custard-thick and perfect—only then do they get chives or pepper or a drop of cream. Or I can drop dried black beans in broth, olive oil, fennel, oregano, then epazote for tradition and baking soda for a science-backed way to skip a lengthy pre-soak. I’ll boil them for ten minutes and simmer for another fifty or so until they’re inky, creamy and ready to blend—my proof positive to anyone, usually just myself, that I know how to cook well. This isn’t to say I cook without recipes. Far from it: the fact that I need to follow these steps, that I need specific conditions to cook in this way, is an indictment of what otherwise sounds like instinctual cooking. My ability to pay attention in the way these foods need renders the conditions of their making a form of recipe unto itself. Watching my own mother cook, watching Nonna cook, and my own abuela before her, helped me recognize this deeply even if I didn’t understand it at the time. Shopping for what you know you have time to cook in a week sets the parameters of a recipe. Translating decades of domestic work experience into a set of strict oral instructions on how to turn past-prime vegetables, vinegar, garlic and sugar into a blissful braise is a recipe. Recognizing anxiety in a six-year-old child and calming her down with something as simple as hot honey stirred into lime juice will convince almost anyone that cooking—that creating recipes—is a necessary skill. * In 2017, American celebrity chef Tyler Florence announced his retirement from writing cookbooks (he’s authored more than a dozen), having declared the recipe deceased. “They’re dead the same way paper maps are dead,” he told the Washington Post at the time, decrying their inability to address every dietary need, every geographical and domestic reality—as if people who are used to cooking for others regularly don’t adapt written cooking instructions for these reasons every day. Not too long ago, lockdown-enforced home cooking encouraged food writers to revisit their own relationship with the recipe. Was it masterful to cook without one? A door-opening text to understanding the world if followed to the letter? An ahistorical argument? I think all these things are true. But I also think their suggestion that the recipe is an either/or proposition, that you either cook with or without one, limits how we understand the act of cooking. If you cook from experience, these instincts are still informed by a series of known steps. Perhaps they were relayed by a family member, a cookbook, a TV appearance—or even your own happy accident, all the more repeated step by step in the future because of the unexpected joy of the result. A trusted method, whether worked out individually or handed down from some multi-generational source, has still been tested over and over, has its own logic for how elastic or rigid its parameters are—is shaped by its own set of social conditions, artifices, even fantasies or superstitions. * For the tomato-and-bread dish, Nonna sliced the tomatoes in half, and asked me to scoop out the flesh with a spoon: enough to get the seeds out, but not so much as to disturb the fleshy parts that section the fruit. She instructed me to pile sprigs of parsley and thyme and two cloves of garlic upon themselves, chop them up together as if they were the same ingredient, then mix them into a bowl of stale bread soaked in milk. She insisted on mixing it all herself with her hands, then squeezing out the extra liquid into the sink, and I carefully watched her do this. She stuffed the strained mass into the tomatoes, I topped them with grated cheese, and we roasted them for forty minutes. They turned out crispy on top and soggy beneath. Not the way she wanted. She promised we’d try the recipe again, but we haven’t since. I came to understand that her disappointment in the tomato dish had more to do with her relationship with the act of cooking than the result itself. I followed her instructions exactly, at times in contradiction to what I might have done myself, or thought that in earlier years she would have wanted me to do. Nonna is ninety-five; an act of any kind on her part isn’t a given. She knew this then, and I knew it, too. What benefit was there in doing anything other than what she instructed? Six months after the tomato dish, she began to recoil from foods neighbours had often brought by the house: bready pizzas, steamed vegetables, sheets of broken lasagna deep-fried and covered in sugar. “This soup? Horrible!” she exclaimed about something cooked by a neighbour she’d known for 50 years. This was not out of spite. Her sense of taste was changing. One weekend I brought her a litre of minestrone made from dried beans and garden-grown zucchini. She didn’t like the colour and wouldn’t look at it. Another weekend, it was a container of pepperonata, made from red bell peppers, old and caving in; a glug of vinegar, and a pinch of sugar to mask their age. “Get me a fork,” she demanded the minute the lid was lifted. She ate the braised vegetables straight from the little plastic tub—cold, unheated, completely in contradiction to her lifelong insistence that food be eaten scalding hot. It’s extremely unlikely she was able to taste the peppers at that temperature, but she delighted in it, the first thing she ever taught me to make.
On the most iconic image in romance novel history.
Robert E. McGinnis was a prolific illustrator behind the movie poster for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, magazine illustrations, and over 1,000 book covers. In 1980, McGinnis created the cover for Johanna Lindsey’s Fires of Winter, the first romance novel cover to feature a fully naked man. The cover depicts a couple on a fur rug, the hero sitting on his knees, reclining, with the heroine in his lap. His bare thighs frame her hips and she is leaning back against his bare chest. McGinnis originally had the heroine naked as well, but added clothing at the publishing house’s request. The cover radiates sensuality. In 1985, McGinnis created the cover for another book of Lindsey’s, Tender is the Storm. The hero is stark naked and turned to the side, his entire body visible from head and shoulder down to muscular thigh. He’s clutching the heroine to his body, his arms strategically covering her breasts, and her breasts and body are strategically covering his groin. The overtly sexy nature of the cover caused concern among booksellers who were worried about the reaction from the public, and a large gold sticker was added to help conceal the hero’s butt and groin and the heroine’s breasts. These covers, known as the “naked covers,” represent some of the sexiest examples of what has become a romance novel cover cliché: the clinch. The clinch was first used in romance publishing in the 1970s and rose into prominence in the 1980s. Erin Leafe, host of the romance novel podcast Learning the Tropes, says that the clinch cover is often the first thing that people think of when romance novels come up. By the 1990s, the image was replaced by other cover trends, and romance publishing today showcases a wide variety of designs, yet the clinch still looms large in the public imagination. * In reality, the clinch is just one facet of the romance novel cover’s history. The roots of the romance novel cover lie in the growing paperback industry of the 1940s. Covers were largely illustrated during this period (and well into the following few decades) by men who worked as artists for publishing houses across multiple genres, including pulp and gothic titles. In The Look of Love, her book on the art of romance novels, Jennifer McKnight-Trontz writes that illustrators had two major concerns during this early period: creating a cover that would be eye-catching enough to compete with a magazine, and creating an immediate visual language to direct the reader to their desired genre, as paperbacks were often grouped by publisher, rather than by genre, in stores. Dr. Jayashree Kamble, president of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and an English professor at LaGuardia Community College CUNY, traces the beginning of category romance brand identity to Mills & Boon, a publishing company based in the United Kingdom. Created in 1908, Mills & Boon published romantic fiction in hardcover. Their romance covers were illustrated and typically depicted a scene from the story. In 1949, Canadian Richard H. G. Bonnycastle created Harlequin. As legend has it, Mary Bonnycastle, Richard’s wife, recognized the potential of catering to female readers through the romance genre. In 1957, Harlequin began to reprint Mills & Boon romance novels; in 1964, Harlequin moved to exclusively publish romance; and in 1971, Mills & Boon and Harlequin formed a publishing partnership. Harlequin began to transform the covers, creating a specific visual language to identify the Harlequin brand. The Harlequin logo was prominently placed, taking up the top quarter of the cover. A cover specific to the story slowly became less common, with the images focusing on the couple involved, rather than revealing the plot in any way. From the 1940s to the early 1970s, covers were fairly consistent in their relatively demure nature, occasionally featuring an embrace, a kiss, or a couple staring longingly into one another’s eyes. But in 1972, American publishing company Avon made a splashy entrance into the romance genre by publishing Kathleen Woodiwiss’s phenomenon The Flame and the Flower and in 1974, Rosemary Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love. The two novels were sensations, selling huge numbers of copies. The books’ sweeping stories and descriptions of explicit sex scenes are widely credited in the romance world as ushering in a new era and helping to coin the term “bodice ripper”. The phrase arose in response to scenes in historical romance in which a woman’s bodice would be ripped off in an act of sexual violence, and it quickly became shorthand for novels which featured plotlines involving sexual assault (an era of romance which thankfully began to die out in the eighties). The seventies ushered in the era of the clinch—arguably the most iconic and easily recognizable genre cover in publishing—and it reached its peak in the eighties. A clinch cover features a couple embracing or close to embracing. One or both partners typically have exposed skin and long, flowing locks. This cover type exemplifies the sweeping emotions between the pair around whom the central narrative is based. Other clinch cover characteristics include cursive or stylized fonts for the title and author name and a background or object meant to be representative of the story. The clinch cover embraced design excess and its roots in pulp illustration. These designs play into the public’s idea of the books selling sexuality as uncontrollable desire, says Dr. Kamble, eliciting an almost puritanical societal response. Beginning in the nineties, romance cover art began to move away from the clinch. For Lindsey’s 1991 Once Upon a Princess, the author’s name takes up a large portion of space in a cursive pink font, the title underneath in green, and a white flower in the top left-hand corner. Amanda Quick’s 1992 Ravished features the author’s name in large dark pink font, a light pink background with a lacey handkerchief, and the title of the book in swirling, cursive font. Lisa Kleypas’s 1994 Dreaming of You features her name in big, bold magenta letters across the top third of the page, an illustration featuring a country manor and a carriage being pulled by horses (despite the majority of the plot taking place in a gambling hall in London) and the title of the novel in bold magenta letters. Julie Garwood’s 1994 Saving Grace features her name across the top third of the cover, in a stylized black font, the title of the book taking up the bottom third, and a bouquet of tulips, tied in a black ribbon that swirls around the author’s name and the title. The use of landscapes, flowers, objects relating to the story and allowing the title and name of the author to take up more space all became more common. * The lack of diversity in the romance genre is obvious in the cover art itself, which largely features white and heterosexual couples. In the past, certain genres featured white models affixed with culturally appropriative clothing (for example, covers of the “American Indian historical romance” genre and the “Sheikh romance” genre were particularly transgressive for their use of stereotypes and appropriation). It wasn’t until 1994 that a historical featured a Black couple in a clinch pose on its cover: Beverly Jenkins’ Night Song. Since 2016, Leah and Bea Koch, owners of The Ripped Bodice, an all-romance independent bookstore based right on the border of Culver City and Los Angeles, have been creating an annual report titled “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing Report.” Major romance publishing companies were asked to self-report what percentage of books they published in a year by BIPOC authors (the report changed in 2021 to remove the self-reporting element, the 2022 report has not been released yet). The numbers are consistently abysmal. * While the clinch is an enduring feature of romance novel covers, the most prominent cover trend in present-day romance publishing is the move towards illustrative cartoon covers. Cartoon illustrative covers feature call backs to the popular rom-com movies of the early aughts. Emily Henry’s Beach Read, People We Meet on Vacation, and Book Lovers all feature colourful illustrations of the hero and heroine facing away from one another in a setting that exemplifies the book. Casey McQuiston’s 2019 bestseller Red, White & Royal Blue features an illustration of the two heroes leaning casually on opposite sides of the cover, and their 2021 novel One Last Stop shows an illustration featuring one heroine gazing out from a subway car towards the other who is walking by, coffee in hand. While many of the cartoon cover illustrations tend towards contemporary, such as Alisha Rai’s 2022 Partners in Crime and her Modern Love series, some historical romances are beginning to use cartoon illustrations as well, such as Evie Dunmore’s A League of Extraordinary Women series, all of the covers brightly coloured cartoon illustrations of regency scenes, and Martha Waters’s The Regency Vows series. “Bring back the oil paintings that fuck,” Leafe laughs. Podcast host Leafe feels that something is being lost as publishing houses start to produce fewer of the traditional romance covers. “There’s a desexualization that’s happening in culture. […] That camp and that celebration…as romance has moved into the mainstream, we’ve lost all of that. We’re losing something bigger when we lose all of that.” The clinch romance novel cover carries dual meaning. In the public imagination and the media, the clinch is a symbol tainted with misogyny. It represents a book primarily about explicit sex and is considered “lowbrow” or “silly.” However, this flattening of the clinch cover into a trope of “soft porn,” as Kamble discusses in her article “Romance in the Media,” loses all the nuance of the image and its possibilities. For some romance readers, the clinch is a radical act in defiance of a patriarchal society that doesn’t value women’s emotional connections or pleasure.
When my husband suffered a stroke, I was determined that this was not going to be the thing that unwound our love.
I was rowing when it happened. I heard a thud, the kind of full, invasive sound that could only be a body buckling to the floor. It’s amazing I even heard it. My computer had died and whatever mindless rowing show I’d been watching had left my AirPods. It’s also amazing I was still home. I’d had a late start that day and was running about an hour behind. It’s funny how those sorts of random occurrences take on deep significance when they are simply fortunate. I knew what was going on the moment I rushed up two flights of stairs and found him. The kind of stroke my husband Roland had that morning, basilar artery ischemic, is not the sort of thing you want to be googling. It has a high mortality rate in cases where the victim (and yes, you are very much the victim, a stroke attacks cruelly) is not given prompt medical attention—if, for example, they are home alone. Somehow, in another (ahem) stroke of luck, we happen to live just a few small blocks from the best stroke hospital in the country. Roland was at the hospital very, very quickly. I remember every detail of that day. I remember how long the ambulance idled in front of our house. Our son Jamal and I stood on the lawn in the April chill. Way underneath the magical thinking of this is going to be fine, I was quietly hysterical. I remember thinking, people should know how much pain I’m in right now, like I already knew it was going to be a long road. I remember the kindness of the first-responder medic, who rolled her eyes with me when her clueless partner asked what my relationship to Roland was as I was stroking his face. I ran into her hours later, my car illegally parked on a street near Toronto Western Hospital. Why wasn’t he already in surgery? She remembered my name and walked me in to expedite the process. I was there to sign liability paperwork—due to early COVID restrictions, that was the only reason I was even allowed inside. I was lucky enough to be able to briefly see Roland before he went into surgery. One of the nurses was annoyed I was there. He shoved a gown at me and grudgingly allowed me to accompany them to the stroke ward. I just kept telling Roland it would all be okay. I pulled my mask down for a moment and smiled at him. The nurse glared at me but I didn’t care, I thought there was a very real possibility I would never see my husband alive again. I probably made a few jokes which mercifully I can’t remember but can guarantee were highly inappropriate. Then I sat on the floor in the waiting room, beside a plug so I could charge my phone. It was the worst five hours of my life. At one point, the doctors emerged and told me they’d been unsuccessful in eliminating the blockage but were going to go back in. They were performing an extremely sophisticated laparoscopic surgery. They enter through a vein in the hand. I just sat there, texting frantically with friends who couldn’t be with me. David, a friend and colleague, came and waved from the street. I could see him but he couldn’t see me, which is a great metaphor for how I actually felt, completely alone, invisible. The waiting room was almost totally empty, many of the chairs taped over, signs of COVID everywhere. Finally the doctors reappeared. Was it the same doctors? I couldn’t be sure. He had survived and was resting in post-op and no, I absolutely couldn’t see him because of COVID. I went home completely numb and friends brought dinner. It was soft, whatever it was, and I could just let it slide in. I had zero appetite even though I’d eaten nothing all day but I needed something to soak up the three glasses of wine I chugged. Later in the evening, Roland called me. He was pretty out of it, but he was alive. * Our life before the stroke had been a whirlwind: me refusing to stop building restaurants, Roland painting more in the last fifteen years than he had in the twenty prior. In some ways we are each other’s muses. He is the person I want to most impress with all the ways I choose to flex creatively and I know he only cares about my feedback on his visually arresting, large-format paintings: portraits that will stop you in your tracks, eyes that jump off the canvas and bore into you. When COVID hit, all of that ground to an immediate halt. Being in lockdown, even for those of us able to do that in the most privileged way possible, still felt like the kind of dream that has an ominous soundtrack. Things seemed, ostensibly, okay—shaking a daiquiri for cocktail hour is fun, for a minute. But the restaurant business reality of no revenue for the foreseeable future quickly set in. The stroke got way out in front of all my fears about losing five successful businesses, literally how we eat. A really good way to stop caring about potentially devastating financial consequences is to only care about whether your husband lives or does not. * What I wasn’t expecting was how normal it would all eventually feel. The way we could adjust to vastly different circumstances, like newly wet flour in yeasted bread dough settling into a pan, proofing into all the nooks and crannies, breathing in the constraints, like it’s nothing. A medium-plus stroke is not nothing. But in the months after, it somehow went from feeling like everything to just being a thing we deal with. This happened at a glacially slow pace, as all things in stroke recovery do—can you still call something glacially slow if the icebergs are melting way too fast? (“Yes!” a pedantic loser cried from the balcony, “the metaphor is about speed of movement, not the climate crisis!”) Obviously everyone’s stroke “journey” is different and some people make fast(ish) and almost total recoveries, but that has not been our experience. Even though Roland had the stroke, I very much think of it as our experience, because when you live with someone and love them and are also in some ways a caregiver, you are very much in it with them. This can be incredibly isolating, not just in a practical sense, but in a way that makes you feel as though no one can really understand, unless they’ve been through it. At first it was the destabilizing uncertainty: would it be a bad day, or a rare good day? How could I keep both our moods afloat when I was working really hard on the basics of our survival while maintaining an unbreakable facade of hopefulness? Was there effort in that? I don’t remember. Roland was sad a lot at the beginning and I knew I couldn’t let that sadness drown us both. Many of life’s challenges force reaction and demand a change of perspective, but particularly with health issues, you have to really be committed or the ugliness of it can win. I absolutely refused to let it. This was not going to be the thing that unwound our love—a love born in a fireball of attraction, bonded over a shared enemy and nurtured over decades of simply never being bored of each other or running out of fascinating things to talk about while remaining enthralled with each others’ faces. * The first week was scary. There is an increased chance of a second stroke in the immediate aftermath of a first one, so getting through that first week is nonstop stress. My adrenaline was pumping, I felt coked out. I barely slept and hardly ate. I still couldn’t see him in person. Roland’s face sagged on the right side, and his right eye drooped and wasn’t properly doing its job. On the second day, already transferred from Western to a rehab centre—a good sign! and a place I hope to never see again—Roland walked to the washroom on his own. This made it seem like the stroke hadn’t done too much damage. But this walk was a false flag. It turned out the stroke was still evolving and hadn’t finished wrecking shit yet. On day five, still unable to see him in person, I got a call that he’d have to go back to the hospital. I collapsed as the doctor was patiently explaining what was going on. Well, not so much collapsed as slowly sunk to the floor. The MRI confirmed what the doctors suspected, that it was the "best case scenario,” an evolving stroke. It did not sound particularly best to me. I begged the doctor to let me come see Roland, but got nowhere. That was the second-worst day of my life, waiting by the phone and feeling completely without control and terrified that the man I loved so much was going to die alone, in a hospital. I don’t know who I was more scared for, me or him. I remember Jamal trying to comfort me in this moment but I couldn’t be comforted. I waved him away and distracted myself by pacing around a house that felt shrouded in fear, a marked departure from our usual Haitian music, accompanied by Roland loudly unloading the dishwasher while I sat in my chair, laptop and phone in eyeline, putting out fires and maybe writing something about how annoying the restaurant business is. I was suffering from PTSD and I kept replaying the fall over and over to the point where I stepped around the space on our bedroom floor where he’d collapsed as though there was police murder tape outlining a body. Roland eventually moved back to rehab. He called it “jail.” The longest they will let you stay is seven weeks, and the doctors and physiotherapists were all strongly encouraging him to stay the full tour. Most of the nurses were perfunctory at best, with a couple of exceptions. Obviously they were working under very taxing circumstances, but as a patient, maybe Roland shouldn’t have a clear memory of one of them checking him a little too coldly for death signs. He said he felt like they were just waiting for him to die. I was totally unmoored. I felt all my roots pull out and revolt, my sense of self tangled up in fear of the unknown. I didn’t cry much, I just got numb. I am so used to being in control of what happens to me that when it was ripped away I was like a beach ball floating out to sea, getting tossed by waves I’d never seen coming. I continued sleeping and eating the bare minimum. I will be forever grateful to a small group of pals who took turns dropping off dinner because I really couldn’t take care of myself. All I could see was cloudy grief and all I could do was soft focus on Mad Men. I pretty much retreated from my life, which wasn’t hard because, thanks to COVID, most people were doing the same, retreating. It felt like the whole world had stopped anyway, so my world being yanked to a halt didn’t register much. I didn’t want to take sleeping pills or eat weed because Strokey had no sense of time. He would call at all hours and I never wanted to miss a FaceTime. I wouldn’t let him see me cry, I felt like my only job was to keep his spirits up. Even if I had allowed myself a rare bout of tears, when he called I wiped my eyes, taped on a smile and slid the phone open . . . it’s called acting, and it actually helped me cope, in a strange way. Knowing I had to be strong for someone allowed me to access more bedrock than I even knew I had. It was around this time I discovered ASMR videos, out of desperation. I truly cannot explain why someone role-playing a doctor or aesthetician or giving me an eye exam in a whispered voice (shout out August and Whisper Audios and obviously Maria) would be so relaxing and lull me to sleep, but it really helped. I only just recently weaned myself off regular use of them as a sleep tool (in an ironic twist, watching videos right before bed can’t actually be all that good for you, even if it’s effective short-term). Roland tried hard to keep his spirits up but it was very, very difficult. COVID protocols meant many hours a day alone and the ward was understaffed. There is a strange phenomenon that is common after a stroke in which you may become far more emotional, called emotional lability, and yes, it feels like a liability, to so much, if you’ll allow the almost-homonym. In Roland’s case this often manifested in sudden-onset bouts of tears, which was so hard to see through a screen and so extremely out of character. The doctors wanted to put him on antidepressants (they were often looking for quick solutions to make the rehab day-to-day easier but those solutions didn’t usually take in the big picture). I was positive Roland’s depression was circumstantial and would lift when he came home. We discussed it at length. I was nervous about making a potentially wrong decision but some part of me felt sure antidepressants were not the right way to go (though obviously they are right for some and have helped many, many people). We opted not to do it. Around that time one of the rehab social workers decided it was good social work to tell us that maybe this was it, that perhaps he wouldn’t improve any more, which was absolute bullshit and borderline cruel. Even if it had been a reasonable prediction (he couldn’t walk at the time), it wasn’t (because now he can), and there is no way this is a good thing to say to people in week three of stroke recovery who desperately need the motivational power of hope. I was furious and complained about her and have no regrets. That is sadistic behaviour, a way for a person who feels small to taste a little power. It wasn’t all doom and gloom at Toronto Rehab (a place I suspect is vastly better in non-COVID times). There were a couple of people who went above and beyond. A nurse, Gita, showed Roland tremendous kindness and extended humanity in a forehead touch or words of encouragement. And Jennifer, a personal support worker, sat with Roland while he ate lunch, mostly so he wouldn’t choke on his food, but the company was appreciated as he slowly and carefully taught himself to use cutlery with a hand that wasn’t fully tuned in. We FaceTimed many times a day but it wasn’t the same as being there. The weeks just kept ticking by. * It was somewhere in these grey and fuzzy weeks that I started really working out, like maybe I took it a bit far? I had done Pilates and weights and some light cardio for years but I amped it up considerably, rowing for thirty minutes six days a week, doing twenty minutes of Pilates, yoga or weights and then thirty minutes of hula hooping, just to put a fairly low-impact workout into the “maybe a bit much?” category. I’ve only cut the time down a little bit as I’ve gotten more into lifting, which is quite possibly the perfect workout, or at least, it’s what I’m currently obsessed with. It did wonders for my ability to cope, which had started to feel quite tenuous. Of course I told no one how unhinged I was feeling, because I’m terrible at asking for help. It’s funny to be so aware of all the things I’m bad at. Here’s a list: Things I Am Bad At (an ever-evolving list): Asking for help: Number one thing for sure, I would far rather suffer in silence than try to explain why I am feeling sad to even the best pal Letting go of control: Whether it’s as a table boss or just in general, my instinct is to be a decision maker. It’s something I consciously work on and every once in a while I just let someone else drive, and it’s nice! Constant productivity: I can be lazy in ways that would astound. Some days I will simply choose to do nothing and honestly I don’t even feel bad about it Being empathetic enough: Under some circumstances I can lack appropriate empathy. I usually get there eventually, but my instinct is towards harsh judgments, maybe unnecessarily harsh Letting go of dead horse grudges: I will simply keep beating them, sometimes quietly, to myself, sometimes screaming from Twitter Hearing all the praise: Even though the dumb insults flow right off, the architecture of the gatekeeping, the sense that there are forces at work to actively keep me down never fully leaves. And even if a lot of that is actually true and we obviously know that misogyny . . . exists, I could maybe focus a little more on the positives Making money: I could’ve made so much more money if I had just played a different game But then the final "what-are-your-flaws-that-you-are-quietly-spinning-into-positives-as-you-go-down-the-list thing" is being bad at giving a shit: I truly don’t care about all the garbage bridges I’ve burned. I didn't really want to cross them anyway . . . imagine wanting to be famous? Disgusting. I'm unable to really do anything about all of this, despite trying. Yes, I have tried TRYING. I will never be good at asking for help, it’s simply not in my DNA, but I am aware enough to have warned a few friends I’ll need to be on suicide watch when Roland dies, as life would seem quite pointless without him. I learned this while we were apart for almost seven weeks. I suppose it’s possible I’ll die first, but it seems like a bad bet. One thing I am good at is kicking up a stink. The head of Toronto Rehab had naively given me his cell number and, citing Roland’s mental health hanging in the balance, I bugged him so much he caved and let me sneak into the facility four times in ten days for evening visits, which massively cheered Roland. He was miserable and wanted to come home so badly, but of course, the rehab doctors wanted him to complete the recommended stay, and so did I. I was concerned his mobility was still too limited to safely navigate our house, despite my efforts to add some ease with toilet and shower bars. (The day after Roland came home the ban on visits from partners/essential caregivers was lifted. I’d like to think I played a tiny part in that. Masks work and it was a cruel separation.) * Home day was late June. I had arranged for a physiotherapist to come to our house. I found him through Twitter (can’t fully hate that hellsite, have made a lot of pals on there). His wife reached out to me when I was crowdsourcing, looking for the best physiotherapist in the city. I sent him an email and he replied with so much empathy and shared so many recovery stories, I knew we should work with him. Roland was skeptical. “He is just trying to get a client,” he told me. But also, Roland’s brain was fucked up! He wasn’t thinking straight and he was wrong. David Frake of Balance Physiotherapy has been a life-changing person. It is no exaggeration to say that I have no idea how we would have come this far without him. The care he puts in, the hope he endlessly provides, it has been the single most important thing for us. He goes so far above and beyond the hour-long weekly physiotherapy sessions he has with Roland on Fridays. I have sent him many text messages when things have felt a little bleak, because the real cunty part of stroke recovery is that it’s unreliable. When Roland couldn't see properly out of his sluggish and sagging right eye, he insisted that he would be happy as long as his eye recovered, which he didn't believe would ever happen. It eventually did, and he just replaced that goal with other impossible-seeming ones. The happiness he expected to feel over his recovered eye was not proportional to the relatively quick recovery of said eye. Happiness in general, at this time, was elusive. Because even though you are always making progress, it is one step forward, two steps (five steps?) back. The plateaus between progress jumps can be six weeks long, so you constantly feel like you’ve hit the final recovery wall, that there may be no place left for the goalposts to move. That’s the thing about recovery: you are always moving the posts in terms of what is acceptable, and based on many conversations, I know the only thing that is actually acceptable to Roland is walking and existing as he used to. Within a couple of days of being home, Roland was chewing something and spat out most of a molar. Yes, absolutely, this is what we needed right now, a broken tooth and a dentist visit post-stroke at the height of the first lockdown, the first of many, it would turn out. Remember being super scared of getting COVID? Because I do, and going to the dentist felt extremely high risk, but what choice did we have? I parked as close as I possibly could to the entrance to the office on Bathurst, but there was construction and a lane closure so I couldn’t pull over right out front. The best I could do was just around the corner. We had a walker for Roland, but he didn’t want to use it (pride, stupid stubbornness?) so Jamal and I just held onto him as we took a thirty-meter walk that felt like a mile. He did not get COVID at the dentist. Those first few weeks at home feel like they were a million years ago. They say you don’t remember pain but I’m not sure that’s what I felt. I was so relentlessly hopeful and positive and I just dug into that, even as Roland was unable to walk on his own (we had a walker on every floor to assist him and going up the stairs involved a lot of effort on his part and mine, as I lifted his disloyal right leg for each step). On his first night back I cooked poached chicken with ginger scallion sauce and steamed a big pile of vegetables with a small side of brown rice. I wanted to vastly change his eating habits to help stave off another stroke. He was not impressed. And I was extremely not impressed by his disappointment. We had a small argument and I very quickly realized he wasn’t fully himself, which scared the hell out of me. But that this was one of maybe two or three disagreements over the last two (almost three) years frankly feels like a fucking miracle. We slowly learned to navigate his healing. I learned to be very soft and forgiving of things that might once have irked me. He napped a lot in those early days of recovery, sometimes sleeping more than fourteen hours a day. I continued to cook healthy food but stayed away from poached chicken breast, a leg man is a leg man. (Though I do think it’s worth pointing out that I make very delicious poached chicken.) I started describing a stroke as a twenty-car pile-up on the highway of your brain’s quickest route. Recovery is the next car getting off the highway just before the devastation and twisted-up metal of cars blocking the road, except it’s night time, and the power is out, and it’s a thunderstorm and actually, turns out there is no road. So one car slowly and timidly draws a new path where there never was one. Your brain is resourceful this way, but it’s slow going. After a while, all the cars start taking this newly formed exit and your brain learns a whole new way of communicating with your body. It isn’t just the slow mobility or plodding “stroke walk” we are always fighting against to ward off permanence. It’s waking up feeling shitty most days and knowing how hard that is as a constant and working to try and bury that feeling, which in itself is effort. I remember assuming there was going to be a moment where everything would feel like it was going to be okay and I’d cry and it would be like this sappy TV show snapshot, but that has never happened. Roland’s first steps unassisted were across our front porch late in the afternoon on July 1. Even though we were both overjoyed, it didn’t have that sigh of relief, everything-is-fine vibe. Recovery is so torturously slow that you almost don’t notice it. This is why I record Roland’s walk all the time. He needs to be able to see how far he’s come. I see it, but it can feel imperceptible and if you let it, and that’s where hope can get sucked out, Dementor-style. And what you need to keep moving forward in impossible-seeming circumstances is hope. So we just keep having it. Some days it feels okay. Roland is able to speak at close to his pre-stroke pace, and he seems less bogged down by foggy neural pathways. These days are the pins in the mountain that keep the whole climb from falling apart, but they are also psychologically torturous. Knowing that it is possible to feel better, but often not in fact feeling that—the frustration of that would knock me right down. But Roland works so hard to stay optimistic and keep hope alive. I know I am a huge part of that. To try and recover from a stroke without a devoted partner? I can’t even imagine. We have a running joke where he’ll respond to some low-level annoyance of mine with, “Don’t worry honey, I’ll died soon” (which is precisely how he says it in his own particular vernacular) and then I wait a beat and say, “But when?” Every once in a while, he’ll add an addendum that takes a dark quip and forces too much reality onto it, noting that if he ever has another stroke I should let him die. These kinds of conversations about our mortal fragility are important and more people should have them—autonomy over our own bodies is essential, even if it includes not wanting to exist in them anymore—but I am not always able to face that version of reality, especially while already confronted by so much of it. Obviously I would prefer Roland had not suffered a massive stroke that has infected his (perfect) walk. Yes, I miss seeing him stride toward me. It would always raise my heart rate a bit, confidence personified in movement. But I am so grateful he is still fundamentally the same person. I know we aren’t supposed to think in terms of it could have been worse, BUT IT COULD HAVE BEEN! Many stroke survivors experience massive personality shifts and memory issues and I don’t know how we would possibly navigate that. Learning to walk again, even though it is too slow for two impatient people, feels surmountable. The nebulous fog of the unknown—will he paint again, will he ever wake up not feeling like he was run over by a truck, will he walk close to normally and have his old energy back—can seem like an impossible maze, but it’s one we need to stay put in, because it’s the hope that keeps us going. How would we cope if it ever were to feel hopeless? He still hasn’t painted. The thought that he might not again is unbearable for me, but for him, the focus is on survival, painting feels less urgent. A small mercy that he isn’t aching for it, although he recently mentioned an urge to for the first time since the stroke. Occasionally he gets very wistful and introspective and asks me if this is how people will remember him, which guts me. I have so many memories of him pre-stroke and while I can hold on to them and think fondly of a time in our lives when we weren’t mired in the worst parts of recovery, I also have a strong sense of who he is fundamentally. Even though our lives are maybe less carefree now, my love, adoration, and respect for him remain unchanged, perhaps even elevated by the boundless tenderness that one must access when caregiving. I don’t fully understand where I am in terms of processing because a large part of plowing ahead through the obstacles of stroke recovery is this whole keeping hope alive thing. And maybe a little bit of that is believing in something that isn’t achievable. Almost three years on, I am not prepared to accept that we have reached any sort of pinnacle of recovery, but is that naive? I wonder what would happen if I had to acknowledge that this is as good as it gets,which, our physiotherapist is constantly assuring me, it isn’t. But is that just part of his game at keeping us focused on physiotherapy? A so-called normal walk? This kind of circular thinking, while obviously pointless, is effective at keeping me in a state of suspended hope. I don’t try to pretend it hasn’t been traumatic, but I am good in a crisis, always have been. One thing I can say for certain is what a profound experience it has been and is. To discover what I am capable of as a person. To know that the deep love I always believed Roland and I had is in fact extremely real. The complexities of a strange new power dynamic could easily crush the strongest relationship, which is why open communication is so important. There are unpleasant things that need acknowledging, and if you ignore them, they can swallow up all the good. I sometimes feel like Roland is so focused on his recovery that my stress is irrelevant to him. But when we talk about it, he is understanding. He gets that he is not in this alone, although I’m sure it’s easy for him to feel like he is. Roland probably has moments of feeling like he can’t criticize me, or more specifically, something I’ve said or done, as he might’ve before the stroke, because he depends on me more. which becomes especially fraught when I occasionally get sick. I was recently down for 48 hours with a barometrically swollen head, not quite a migraine but enough to make me pretty useless for day-to-day tasks. I got annoyed when Roland didn't load the dishwasher—who is going to do it, the magic dish fairies? I heard him say "I can't" and insisted he meant "I won't" because even though simple tasks like that are difficult for him, he is absolutely capable, he just normally doesn't have to, because when I'm not sick I don't care about doing it all myself, (which is a whole other conversation about what motivates my domestic inclinations, me or the patriarchy...why not both!?) I knew saying something would only make him feel bad, but I was feeling so shitty and just couldn't stop myself. It took some time to unwind because his first reactions in moments like that can be defensive, mostly because he feels so bad a lot of the time! It makes for complex discussions, but essential ones. Without those kinds of talks your brain is left to circle its own drain with unanswerable questions. What if I got really, actually sick? It would be like having both kidneys removed, the relationship would have no one able to clean up. We both need to understand each other or we won't have the strength that comes from mutual support to bear the additional pressures stroke recovery heaps on us. I truly understand how hard it is for him, because I am bearing witness to it every day, and we talk about it a lot but try not to let it rule all conversation, a delicate balance. It’s very painful, physically and psychologically, and he navigates it all really well for the most part—he cracks sometimes, and so do I, but I know how lucky I am to have him and that feeling has only gotten stronger even if he (stupidly) wonders why I choose to stay with him. I joke that I can’t leave him, it would only confirm to the haters what a cunt I am if I do! Find yourself a partner with black humour and be happy for a long time. I don’t know how you untangle your own trauma when you are focused so completely on someone else’s. Most days I think I’m fine and am exactly the kind of person who can take on this kind of constant thrum of pressure. It’s like living next to a hydro field. The result of the stroke, the hum of electricity, is always there filling in the days, influencing our lives in countless ways, but also easy to adjust to so you almost don’t hear it. * I‘ve been thinking about it, my trauma in this, because of a conversation with a new pal who knew just what to ask me and intrinsically understood the complicated feelings that can exist around caregiving for a loved one. I pointed out that she seemed to understand this a little too well. “A parent?” I asked. Turns out her husband had died of cancer a few years back. She talked about how long and intense grief can be. I have been turning our conversation over, trying to figure out if I am in fact grieving something. I can honestly say I’m not. This is a lie I tell myself, because a person who is not mourning anything doesn’t randomly well up—not often, but it happens—and if it happens when I’m alone, sometimes I’ll allow strange sounds to leave my body. It would be misleading to call them anything other than grief. I was walking around New York City recently—I left Roland for five days (very encouraged by him to do so: “Honey, you need a break from me”) for the first time since he had the stroke. I cut fruit and put it in deli containers for five breakfasts and made bulgur and bean sauce for five lunches, hopeful this would mean healthy eating (not Pizza Nova). And still, I was very anxious leading up to this trip. (I’m not an anxious person generally—I have obviously experienced anxiety over the past few years and when it does hit, I wonder, how do people live like this?) Anyway, there I was on a beautiful late autumn day, crispy skies, bright, happy sun, wandering the Lower East Side, stopping in appealing-looking stores and letting the city guide me, sitting down for a glass of chenin on a sidewalk patio before searching out the next thing, and I thought, damn, I’ll never do this with my husband ever again. I’ll never walk aimlessly around a city with him ever again. I welled up behind my sunglasses. And then I thought, he never liked doing this shit anyway.
Why the producer’s “do-nothing” approach means everything.
Welcome to Mind in Bloom, a column deconstructing current events, music and art. I’ve always found it strange trying to explain moments of creative inspiration that felt like signals from the beyond to my skeptical audience of friends. I was in London, UK, a few years ago and bought a vintage designer jacket from a charity shop. After close examination and some Googling, I became paranoid that it was inauthentic and returned it. This experience got me thinking about the thin line between fake and real online and unexpectedly led me on the path toward the album that I’m working on now. There was the time I was asked to officiate a wedding in Los Angeles and nearly fell down a cliff into Topanga Canyon while staring at my phone. That inspired me to write about technology’s effects on our lives in my song “Infinity Pool.” One particular walk along Queen Street West where I noticed a shockingly high concentration of weed stores led me to write the politically charged “Skyline” in one sitting as soon as I awoke the very next morning. Even a stray sentence overheard at a house party could be the impetus for a great creative endeavour, but you’ll only see it if you know to look for it. The internet was set ablaze recently by an insight into the creative process—an old rich white man at the top of his field proudly claiming total ignorance about his profession on national television. The takes came in hot and hurried. No person of colour could ever say that they had no idea what they were doing in their workplace. He was the poster boy for white male privilege. Commenters claimed that he was a Republican who was responsible for turning Kanye West into a Trump supporter. Folks unearthed a quote, of him suggesting that a band should change their name to something more racially provocative, as evidence of his low moral character. Worst of all, they even found photos of him in front of a mixing board, irrefutably proving his technical acumen. Someone even said he ruined Yeezus. So many people rushed to invalidate this isolated statement. People were outraged. But how would they have responded if he’d said the opposite? “I’m a musical genius. After producing hit albums for Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slayer, Johnny Cash and others, I would say that I know everything about making music. I’m the best—that’s why people hire me.” Wouldn’t that have been more distasteful? Maybe what’s so triggering about this shoeless man lying on the couch with his eyes closed in the studio is that we all wish we could reach his level of nonchalance, to go on TV and say, “No special set of skills over here, just vibes.” A far cry from the explosive, angry discourse that preceded it online, Rick Rubin’s new book The Creative Act: A Way of Being is a surprisingly reassuring and comforting read about the spiritual origins of creativity. The Creative Act isn’t a straightforward guidebook on how to become a better producer, musician or artist. There’s little in the way of direct anecdotes about Rick Rubin’s experiences in the studio shepherding world-famous acts to their greatest achievements. He avoids naming names unless it’s absolutely necessary. You won’t find any technical jargon or learn about mixing techniques. Instead, the book is a celebration of the intangible factors that foster creativity that aren’t often discussed. With all the industry machinations that can get in the way of art being expressed fully, it can be easy to forget that music itself is quite a magical thing: an untouchable, invisible element that emerges out of the ether and carries an immense power to move us emotionally, intellectually and physically. Rubin’s book encourages us to listen to ourselves and be more intentional with how we develop our ideas, whether we’re artists or not. You get a feeling of what it might be like to be produced by Mr. Rubin when absorbing the various kōans in the book. The author doesn’t suggest that his way is the only way of doing things. He writes about building habits that put you in the ideal state of mind for creativity to flourish. Anyone familiar with the mindfulness movement will recognize echoes of contemporary self-help language in Rubin’s writing, especially when he compels us to look to the cycles of nature for inspiration. While any experienced artist will likely already be familiar with many of the principles within The Creative Act, there’s something revitalizing about having your mind reoriented by the consistency of Rubin’s spiritual perspective. The book points the reader back toward ways of thinking that they may have always suspected were true but perhaps had ignored or forgotten in the name of logic and maturity. Rubin’s ideas often go against conventional wisdom, particularly the repeated adage that “the audience comes last” when it comes to creating. Rather than thinking of everything you work on as the piece that will define you for eternity, Rubin advises us to think of each release as an “experiment” that functions as “a diary entry of a moment of time, a snapshot reflection of who the artist is for that period.” While the music industry exhorts artists to produce as much music as possible to stay relevant, Rick helpfully reminds the aspiring artist that “commercial success is completely out of your control.” The book does a great job of illustrating how our own psychology can impact what we create. The “78 Areas of Thought” in the book seem designed to shift the reader to the point where their mind is free enough to operate from a childlike, open perspective that helps to remove the pressurizing influence of commerce and expectation from the creative process. I was particularly struck by the section about having your antenna up to be aware of “apparent coincidences appearing more often than randomness allows—almost as if there is another hand guiding yours in a certain direction.” I haven’t seen many people in the music world acknowledge the unexplainable, otherworldly aspects of creation so to see it be one of the main parts of Rubin’s book is heartening. The Creative Act showcases what often takes a lifetime of creating to realize: that the artist themselves isn’t always the driving force behind what they create. It’s a welcome reminder that what we do as artists is inherently a spiritual exercise. “We are required to believe in something that doesn’t exist in order to allow it to come into being” is how Rick puts it. With The Creative Act, Rubin digs into his vast well of experience, not to take credit for his many successes but in an effort to explain the unexplainable—to gave a face to the heretofore unseen.
In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew.
I stood at the lip of the cliff watching the other kids bound off its edge. Behind me, Rig Nilsen started running from the tree line, like he did every time he leaped, convinced the running start let him gain a few extra feet in the air. He was a short, string-limbed kid with a waxy face. His older brother’s hand-me-downs were bunched on his body, flapping in the breeze as he ran—baggy clothes, he told us, helped prolong his time in the air. He jumped off the cliff. He let out a warbling howl as he fell but went silent when he slammed into the ground. I hunched down with the others and peered over the ledge. In the rocky grass, about fifty feet down, Rig Nilsen lay on his back surrounded by the kids who’d already leaped. “It’s just the legs!” he finally shouted. Both bent out at the knees, his shins perpendicular to his thighs. Everyone rushed to drum on his twisted knees as his legs eased back to normal. Rig pushed himself to a stand, clapping and bouncing to prove he was fine—like we ever had doubts. In Dolor, we had no concept of damage. Time was the closest to damage we knew. It took a few seconds for Rig to straighten to normal. Just as it had taken a few seconds, collectively maybe a minute, for the other children to heal from their injuries. Healing? Injuries? God, if I’d spoken like this on that spring afternoon, everyone would’ve thought I’d gone crazy. Billy Logan leaped off the cliff and twisted his arm in the landing. Susie Cannavale snapped her left thigh into an L. Ty Donahue struck her head on a rock, creating a gash as deep as a fist, but soon her skull fused back together and Ty was laughing, asking the other kids to describe the wound, jealous she hadn’t seen it herself. Then it was my turn. I often wonder what would’ve happened—to me, to Rig, to the entire town of Dolor—if I had refused. What if instead of leaping I stretched out in the grass and gazed at the sky, or walked back to the tree line, spent the afternoon hunting for berries? What if I had suggested we all go swimming? But I lived for these milliseconds of flight. I’d waited all winter—the rainiest in my thirteen years—for a day as brilliant and clear as today. At the edge, I sprang off my left foot, flapping my arms like I might lift into the sky, falling forever. But I landed. Everyone always landed. Except when my left foot hit the ground, a terrible sound cracked out of my body. A strange sensation—I knew it only as a sensation, not as pain, or as agony, fear—fired through my body. The other kids started laughing. They thought I was playing a trick, imitating some deranged monster by yowling and screaming. My left ankle bent in like a hook, the sole facing the opposite thigh. The cuff of my pants started to darken. Something slick and warm coated my skin. But we were miles from any lake. The ground was as dry as a dune. The kids swarmed around my discolored jeans. Rig Nilsen grabbed my ankle—we loved touching the misshapen limbs—and the sensation spread to my eyes. “Don’t!” I yelled, rolling side to side, grays, greens, and blues blurring together. “What’s wrong with Jackson?” “It’s taking too long.” “I need . . .” I shouted. What did I need? I needed the sensation to end. “Father . . . My mother. Take . . . Me to . . . home,” I spit out. “We should get someone,” Rig said. “Move out of the way!” someone screamed from the cliff. “We can’t!” Rig responded. “Jackson is . . . I don’t know.” “His leg’s not going back!” “Home,” I muttered. “Can you walk?” Rig asked. I assumed I could. Perhaps that was my problem: If I stood my leg would return to normal. But I collapsed when I tried. Chewed food spilled from my mouth. “What the hell is that!?” someone said. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “We need to carry him,” Rig said. I appreciated his know-it-allism, then, his need to be the smartest person in all situations, traits that had, before that moment, made Rig insufferable. Eight sets of arms slipped under my body and scooped me up to their waists. I was taller and heavier than most children my age, and their hands slipped and tensed underneath as they carried me from the cliff to the forest. Ferns on the floor of the forest brushed my back. I caught glimpses of canopy. I kept expecting the sensation to cease. Soon enough, my ankle would straighten and I would wriggle from everyone’s grasp, run back to the cliff, ready to leap. As we closed in on Serenity Lake, splashing and laughing grew louder, the idle chatter of people who’d never known pain. The kids let me down in the sand. Adult faces replaced the children’s faces. I recognized the adults, and was relieved to see them. In Dolor, everyone knew everyone else—if not by name then by face—but these faces were poor replacements for the only two faces I wanted: my mother’s and father’s. In crisis, I would learn, we long for love to alleviate pain, for the familiar to suppress the intrusion of hurt. I believed seeing my mother pull her hair into a bun before leaning over to kiss my forehead would oust what had invaded my body, that my father’s calm baritone voice could alone silence this awful sensation. “We’d all been jumping,” said Rig to the adults. “He didn’t do anything different. He landed and we waited for his leg to go back but it didn’t.” “It’s the oddest thing,” said an adult. “I see you put water on it,” another adult added. “Did that help?” “It’s not water,” said Rig. He hand was pink at the fingers. The first adult reached for my leg, ignoring Rig’s protests and mine. He squeezed the ankle. I screamed the loudest I’d ever screamed. The adult withdrew his hand. “This isn’t for me,” he said. “Not for me,” said another adult. “I don’t like the look of it,” said a third. “Maybe someone in town would know what to do,” the first adult suggested, trying to sound wise but clearly disturbed. He wanted only to do what he’d come to the lake to do: relax and swim with his family. The other adults wanted the same. They gravitated back to their chairs and their books and their snacks. “One . . . Two . . . Three.” I was lifted again by the children. On the edge of town, we passed the rundown shacks where the eldest community members resided, the old men and women who lived off small vegetable gardens rather than buying food from the Market. Only one person lived there now, Ginny Prentice, the oldest woman in Dolor. No one interacted with Ginny. She was months from Resignation and, we believed, she preferred to keep to herself, preparing for an eternity of unimaginable bliss in Fortune, the life we all received after this one. But that day she waited outside, leaning against her fence tapping the point of a picket. “Is he alright?” Ginny asked. There was no time to respond. We passed the school house, the market, the tennis courts where the balls thwacked against rackets. A football flew over my head. The sound of feet on grass became feet on concrete as we entered town square. They let me down on the steps of town hall. In front of me stood the statue of Henri Caton, the man who established Dolor more than a century earlier. He’d chosen this land for its beauty and safety—mountains surrounded the town. The outside world was shaded by constant suffering, while Dolorans—thanks to Henri Caton—had lives of love, leisure, and plenty, unthreatened by peril. Governor Brase, the trusted and unfazeable leader of Dolor, crouched above me. “Oh god, oh god, oh god,” he muttered. He bent closer, his glasses tipping down the bridge of his nose. “And if I touch it . . .” I didn’t stop him. As Governor, it was his right. His touch caused me to spit up more food. “This isn’t supposed to happen,” he said. “We need to get him—it might be contagious. Have you kids felt anything?” “Felt what?” Rig asked. “Hey you,” said the Governor to Ty Donahue. “Kick him.” He pointed at Rig. She kicked him hard in the thigh. “OW!” Rig said, confused. “It’s—what is—like a dull thing in my—” “Annabelle! Get me six pairs of gloves!” the Governor shouted at his assistant. He and five gloved kids hauled me up to a restroom on the top floor of town hall. They lay me down on a bed of yellow towels. “We need to quarantine you,” said the Governor. “It won’t be for long.” He beckoned the other kids out of the bathroom. The lock clicked into place. * My mind went messy with hyper-sensation. The pain waned and strengthened. The cool tile offered me solace. I rested my cheek against it, then flipped to rest the opposite cheek, to distract myself from the pain. Finally, I passed out, and was awoken by a rubbery hand on my forehead. My parents hunched above me. Puffy suits marshmallowed their bodies. They looked at me from behind bubbles of plastic. “Honey,” said my mother, as she stroked her gloved hand on my cheek. Her voice sounded abrasive through the mask. “How you holding up, sport?” bellowed my father. I flinched seeing them like this; the sensation spread. I shouted in agony. They held their hands to my shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay,” they said. “What happened to me?” “It was an accident,” my mother said. “When will it stop?” “Soon,” said my mother. She opened my mouth and placed two tablets inside. “These are from the Governor. Imported from beyond the mountains.” “Swallow them whole,” said my father. They tasted bitter but I swallowed. “You’re going to need a doctor,” said my father. “What’s that?” “It’s a . . . I don’t really know. They tell me it’s someone who fixes bodies.” “There aren’t any in Dolor,” said my mother. “I’m broken?” “It’s confusing for us, too, honey.” My parents leaned down to hug me, but barely. “Can you take off the suits?” “It’s for our own protection.” “And yours.” “We need to be one-hundred percent in order to help you.” They placed a pillow under my head, a blanket over my body. They slipped into the hall. * In Dolor, children played together in the streets, in the forest, at school, at the lake. Families went for long walks before dinner, commenting on the flowers and lizards and other creatures they encountered. Dinners were healthy and large and dragged deep into the night. Parents tucked their kids into bed, reading them the books that were read to them as children. In the morning, the sun provided its favorite rays. We deserved exceptional lives because we lived exceptional lives. But I had none of that now. There was only pain circling the edge of my body, waiting for the numbing tablets to quit. Screaming sounded in the hall. I wondered if it was the doctor. The door opened. Two people in marshmallow suits heaved Rig into the room. He skidded into the base of the sink but quickly stood, rubbing his back. He hobbled across the room, hugging the walls, to keep a safe distance between us. “What’s it like out there?” I asked. “Don’t talk to me,” he said. “I don’t want to get sick.” “My parents said a doctor was coming. They’re the ones who fix things.” “Doctors are just a myth to make people feel better.” Footsteps sounded in the hall. We silenced ourselves. I looked at Rig, made a face like, See? The door widened enough for a tray to slide into the room. It closed immediately. Rig raced for the door, but the lock had already clicked. There were two plates, two slices of pizza on each, and paper cups next to the plates: numbing tablets. I asked for my share but Rig told me I didn’t deserve it. “If it weren’t for you I wouldn’t be stuck here,” he said. He stuffed half a slice in his mouth and struggled to chew. * On our third day together, Rig discovered a bar of soap under the sink. To pass the time, we tossed it back and forth. Once that became too easy, Rig wet the soap. We only ever caught it two or three times in a row, but the suspense gave us something to care about. * Five days passed with no sign of the doctor or our parents. Rig and I started to smell. He washed himself in the sink, rinsing his face and under his arms and—as I covered my eyes—his privates. Rig filled me a soup bowl with soapy water and I washed myself on the floor. The pain decreased. Or, I got used to the feeling. My ankle doubled in size and resembled an eggplant. Rig loved poking the squishy expanses of flesh. The fifth day became the sixth then the seventh. Our rapport splintered into something meaner and feral. “I need to get out of here,” Rig kept saying. “I can’t go anywhere.” “You’re not coming.” “You can’t leave me here” Rig had grown up in the same Dolor I had. We’d been taught to care for each other, to praise each other, to smile in the streets and to tell everyone how good we felt. This mindset had helped our community prosper. And it would help us prosper again. “That’s all junk,” Rig said. “No one’s helping us. No one’s praising us. I’d rather get resigned. Secure the bliss waiting for me in Fortune.” “What’s happening outside?” I asked, desperate to change the subject. “Who do you see?” Rig’s descriptions of people hanging out in town square had helped me endure our confinement. It had given me hope, because I believed I might one day be back among them. But for the first time since I’d been put here, the square was empty. Rig stared out the window. “I don’t even see any birds,” he said. He leaned to the right, to get a better angle, then to the left. “Nothing.” “It’s never empty.” “Come see.” He helped me into a stand. I leaned against him, hopping on my right foot. The streets were as empty as air. The statue of Henri Caton stood alone in the center of town. I pressed my ear to the glass, listening for children shouting or adults laughing, and what I heard was a wide sheet of silence. I slid down the wall to the floor. In the hallway, footsteps pounded faster than normal. A white suit flung open our door and tossed a large cardboard box inside. The door slammed shut. The box was packed with nonperishable foods, chips and cereals and dried milk and canned peas. Enough to last for a month. Rig panted ferociously. He kicked the door and hammered the handle with his fists. “I need something heavy,” he said, and I suggested the porcelain lid on the tank of the toilet. He lugged off the lid, dragging it to the entrance. It took every muscle in his body for him to lift it, but when the lid struck the handle, it snapped off with a shuddering ting. “You’re a hero!” I said. “Help me up.” He didn’t even look back. “Rig!” I shouted, until I could no longer hear his footsteps. I crawled to the sink and pulled myself to a stand, hopped out the door, where I could lean against the outside wall, hopping down the hall without putting weight on my ankle. I shouted “Hello” every few minutes, hoping someone might answer, might come to my aid. Downstairs, I collapsed into a leather rolling chair at the front desk and wheeled myself into the empty world. I only lived a few blocks away, in a small cabin not unlike every cabin in Dolor—wooden and pleasant, with a wraparound porch and rich green shutters, a flower garden tiered with tulips, a row of stones cutting a path across the yard. As I wheeled through the streets, eyes washed over me. Blinds flinched shut when I looked at the houses. It took nearly an hour to get home. I waited for my parents in the driveway, expecting them to rush to my aid. I called for them. Finally, I hopped to the porch and sat on the doormat, screaming for help. People in the surrounding houses watched my pleading unfold. I had assumed my parents were busy hunting for doctors, but no—they were hiding at home, ignoring me. My mother pulled the blinds in the closest window. “Honey,” she said through the glass. “You can’t be out here.” “Let me in,” I begged. My father appeared beside her. Red lines streaked their eyes. They seemed disturbed by my presence, or by what my presence suggested about them. “This is terrible for us.” “We really do wish we could help,” said my father. “You abandoned me,” I said. “We need to do what’s best for Dolor.” “We wouldn’t know how to live with it.” “Live with what?” I asked. “You’re so much stronger than us.” “And we need to protect ourselves.” “For the good of Dolor.” They started to cry. This gave me minor relief, knowing this wasn’t easy for them, but that comfort meant little beside their betrayal. “I’m healthy,” I told them. “You’re contagious,” said my father. “And we don’t have a cure.” They insisted they loved me. They insisted they felt for me. “We know what you’re going through,” they said, because they didn’t. People who’ve never known pain can never know empathy. Comfort had trapped them inside of themselves. They were caged by convenience and pleasure. They lowered the blinds. * In the morning, a man in a marshmallow suit delivered a box labeled TUESDAY. I was awoken by the package thudding the porch. “Help me!” I said. But he strolled away, confident I couldn’t catch up. He delivered similar boxes to every house in the neighborhood. I opened ours, picked out an apple and a bag of almonds. I hopped back to the chair. Once I rolled out of the driveway, my parents stepped outside for the box and, as if I were going to school, they politely waved goodbye. I wheeled into the center of town toward the lake, planning to return to the cliff. I thought if I jumped again it might fix everything. I didn’t care how long it would take to get there. I would crawl if I needed to. In the town square, the statue of Henri Caton had been toppled, and its extended arm, pointing—as the story went—in the direction of Dolor, was bent to a crooked V where it hit the ground. I touched the arm, and the metal pressed inward under my hand, the material cheap and pliable. There were scrape marks over the body and it smelled like an unflushed toilet. Beside the school, the tennis court nets had been shredded. A wavy metal sheet covered the face of the general store. I rolled closer, to see where the sheet had come from—normally, even at night, the general store windows were exposed, greetings cards and boxed cookies on display—and was surprised to see the metal had been lowered from above the windows, that it had likely been there the entire time. At Serenity Lake, the lounge chairs that once crowded the shore had been tossed in the water, stuck upright in the lakebottom, so they poked through the surface like fingers through the holes in a glove. As I rolled on, I felt people around me, the way you can feel someone is home even when they’re not speaking, but no one emerged from behind the school or the stores, no one shouted to me from the forest, or crept wetly out of the lake, waving to me. At the edge of town, though, close to the cliff, I heard an aged, gravelly voice calling my name. Ginny Prentice leaned against her fence. “You’re the hurt boy,” she said. Her face resembled an onion, round, with sprigs of hair on the top. I nodded. “About time it happened to someone.” “Are you a doctor?” I asked. She shook her head. “But I’ve known doctors. I can fix you.” She pushed me onto her property, rolling me up the walkway. “Don’t you need a suit?” I asked. “What’s the point?” Ginny said. “I’m a month from Resignation.” At her porch, she bent down and I draped my arm over her shoulder. Together we limped inside. She fed me porridge and raisins and let me sleep on her couch. I flinched awake a few times from rolling onto my ankle but slept largely uninterrupted, my best sleep in a week. In the morning, I bit on a towel as Ginny straightened my ankle. It hurt more than it had the first day. Afterward, she tied a T-shirt around the ankle and lumped ice over top. Weeks passed before I could put any weight on it. Over that time, Ginny talked about the utter boredom of life in Dolor compared to the rest of the world. She fled Dolor once, in her teens, but returned home after two days, frightened by what she discovered: a world of risk and excitement and grief. She regretted not staying longer. She lacked the courage, she said, to ever go back. She was a Doloran. Whether she liked it or not. And she’d spent her life awaiting Resignation. I didn’t like hearing her talk this way, didn’t like being reminded that very soon, on her sixtieth birthday, two officials would inject Ginny with a serum that would send her to Fortune, where population stability wasn’t an issue. “Are you excited?” I asked her one day, hoping to slip some joy into our morbid conversations. “Fortune is supposed to be even better than Dolor.” “It’s not any greater than here. Not any worse. It’s just an end. It’s called death—not Resignation. That’s a word you should know so you can accept it.” “I’ll be all alone.” “That other kid’ll probably show.” “No way I’m letting him in,” I said. “You’ll get lonely,” she said. And I knew she was right. The final week before Resignation, when I could hobble without the aid of a crutch, Ginny did what she could to teach me to survive on my own. She wrote out instructions for maintaining the garden, showed me how to fry an egg, how to sew a button onto a shirt and chopped an excessive amount of firewood for the winter—she said I was too young to learn to chop it myself. I was slow to pick up new skills. And the low hum of pain still in my ankle made any physical labor exhausting. Ginny pitied me. “You’re gonna die here,” she said, watching me mangle the tomatoes I plucked from the vine. “Then tell me how to survive,” I said. “They’re coming tomorrow,” she said. “You’re too young,” she said. “You’re gonna die here,” she said. “Stop telling me that,” I said. “It breaks my heart just thinking about it,” she said. “Now come, let’s eat some dinner.” That evening, the night before her sixtieth birthday, we feasted on a platter of Ginny’s favorite foods: waffles, French fries, salted cashews, ice cream sandwiches, and a rich brown drink that burned and scraped in my chest. After a while, the burning softened, and I was all giggles and burps. We played backgammon until my eyes glazed over in sleep. I woke up later than normal. My head was a pile of stones. The Resignation Officials always came first thing in the morning, before the sun even rose, and the sunlight pressing through the blinds made it obvious that I’d slept in too late to see Ginny again. I hobbled to the kitchen, then to her bedroom, but both rooms were empty. I am going to die here, I thought, the idea coming to me in Ginny’s pitying voice. There were some leftovers in the fridge and, though my stomach felt spiky, I tried to heat half of a waffle using a skillet on the stove. I burned it so badly a sooty cloud of smoke climbed out of the pan. Ginny’s voice returned to me. It seemed like a guarantee, now. I would die here. She had died here. Death—the word she taught me to use instead of Resignation. Death, a word that hovered in front of me. A word like a door I would enter. I hadn’t been awake for an hour and I already wished that Rig was here with me. I would’ve been fine to return to the bathroom if it meant I wasn’t alone. If my parents refused to see me, surely his had refused to see him. Ginny was right. He would find me. And I would welcome him in—I would beg him to live with me. Anything would be better than slowly starving to death on my own, if I didn’t burn down the house before he even arrived. I limped to the front door planning to forage some fruit for breakfast now that I’d ruined the waffle. When I opened the door, however, Ginny was standing before me holding a deep plastic bowl filled to the brim with blackberries. “They must’ve forgotten about me,” she said. “But they’ll be here tomorrow.” The next day, the officials didn’t arrive. They didn’t arrive the next day or the following week. It’s been a month, and every day we are waiting a little bit less, and a little bit less, and a little bit less.
The author of The Wife of Bath: A Biography offers an unexpected channel into the life of one of literature’s greatest fictional characters—Alison of Bath.
The Wife of Bath (a.k.a. Alison of Bath) speaks with the knowledge of experience: travels throughout Europe, mercantile savvy, five marriages, domestic abuse, sex, and pleasure. Indeed, before launching into her Tale—a parable about what women desire—she delivers a Prologue rife with “truths” from her own “life.” Truths and life are in scare quotes here because Alison, of course, is a fictional character. But that fact hasn’t lessened how real she has felt to centuries of readers and reinterpreters of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the iconic late fourteenth-century poem that portrays a heterogenous group of Canterbury-bound pilgrims. Alison calls our attention to who has long wielded the pen and shaped the record, and who has not: “By God, if women had but written stories / Like those clergy keep in oratories, / More had been written of man’s wickedness / Than all the sons of Adam could redress” [“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” trans. Nevill Coghill]. Alison is astute, wry, and candid. She also likes to enjoy herself. As Chaucer scholar Marion Turner writes in The Wife of Bath (Princeton University Press), a new biography of this titular taleteller, “[S]he gossips! She drinks! She tells her husband’s secrets! She looks for a new husband at her previous husband’s funeral!” Turner’s biography traces Alison from her fourteenth-century context to her appearances, both literal and referential, in works by William Shakespeare, Voltaire, James Joyce, Hilary Mantel, Patience Agbabi, Jean “Binta” Breeze, and Zadie Smith, among many others. “She lives for readers in a way that most characters do not,” Turner writes. We spoke about how and why Alison’s presence has endured, and our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. Melissa Rodman: I’d love to start out by placing this book in conversation with your previous book, Chaucer: A European Life, which focused on Chaucer himself as the life to untangle in context. Now you’ve turned to the Wife of Bath, the character, and I’m wondering what led you to make that choice. Marion Turner: I really enjoyed writing and researching the biography of Chaucer, and it involved a lot of travel, a lot of working with different kinds of records. I did feel like I was able to get inside the imagination of the author and the audience in the fourteenth century, through thinking about what he saw, where he went, the structures he lived in. I thought, “I would really like to write about a woman,” and I really enjoyed writing literary biography, but I wanted to do something experimental as well. Of course, it’s hard to write about women from the distant past because we don’t have the same amount of evidence. And when we do have evidence, it’s often been written by men, or—even if it’s been written by women—it’s usually been filtered through men, through forms that have been designed by men, sometimes male ghostwriters, sometimes there’s a male editor, male scribes. I wondered if there were other ways of thinking about women in time that didn’t involve going to an actual, individual woman. What would it be like to try to think about how we can access different aspects of historical truth and the imagination, through someone who is not real, who is a character? Right now, people are still writing new versions of the Wife of Bath, which is crazy in a way—650 years on, she’s still inspiring so many texts. The intertextuality you’re talking about really emerges in reading The Wife of Bath, not just in medieval times but also in your incorporation of Virginia Woolf, for example. Woolf seems to be central to your project. I don’t know if that connection was something you thought about prior to the research stage? Woolf has always been really influential for me, even though I’ve never been an expert on modernism. One thing that’s very striking for me is that many of the things that Woolf was saying in the early twentieth century were things that the Wife of Bath was saying in the fourteenth century. There are two particularly important aspects here. First, Virginia Woolf writes at length in A Room of One’s Own about the fact that women haven’t had the chance to tell their own stories, and she tells this story of an imagined Shakespeare’s sister who would not have been able to get her voice heard. Now, Virginia Woolf is writing this in the early twentieth century, but in the late fourteenth century the Wife of Bath is saying, “All the books have been written by men. Who painted the lion? Men have told all the stories. They have said terrible things about women,” and, “If women had been able to write stories, they would have told of the wickedness of men.” The other thing, which I think is fundamental to what Virginia Woolf wrote, is the idea that women need a room of their own, which is shorthand for saying economic independence. A key part of my argument is that the Wife of Bath emerged at this particular historical moment because women did have a certain amount of economic freedom and independence. She has benefited from inheritance laws. She’s been able to be a working woman; she’s been able to inherit from her husbands; she’s been able to have a certain degree of economic power. And that reflects the historical reality of the late fourteenth century, although, of course, this is not an era of equality. But it wasn’t an era of total subjugation, oppression, either, and, in fact, after the Black Death, women were able to work more. Women also set up new households with their husbands. They weren’t staying, living, with their parents or their husbands’ parents. They weren’t childbearing, usually, at very young ages. This was a moment at which women did have some economic independence and, therefore, more sexual choices as well. Interestingly, it’s comparable to post–First World War, which of course is an important moment for Woolf. At a time of demographic crisis, when lots of people die, when terrible, terrible things happen, out of that can come social change. And in both of those appalling instances—the Black Death and the First World War—because so many working men died, it did give rise to opportunities for women. What’s so interesting is that Alison, a fictional character, emerges in a nonfictional way. I’m going to quote something you wrote that’s really intriguing: “The illusion of honesty that she cultivates through her assured performance is deeply appealing to many readers who feel they can see inside her head, and this becomes even more engaging when she voices things with which we can identify.” I’m wondering, in your reading of the Canterbury Tales, when did you first connect with Alison in this way? It also brings up this question of gender dynamics that you’re discussing. How can Chaucer, a man, create this woman who has spoken to both men and women across time? I first read the Wife of Bath when I was about fourteen or fifteen, and I did find her extremely striking as a character. So many people say, “Oh, Chaucer. The Wife of Bath. Oh, she was my favourite. She was the one I remember.” Many people when they read her, first they get deceived by the illusion, so they think there is an authenticity to it, which changes once you understand some of the misogynist sources that lie behind her construction. Some of us might think, “Oh, good on her”; medieval readers are thinking, “Oh, women are so terrible.” So, there are all kinds of complex things going on with our preconceptions. The Wife of Bath is essentially the first character in English literature, and not just the first female character. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath to experiment with the very concept of what a literary character can be. That doesn’t mean she is the same as characters in Victorian or modern novels; of course not. There are all kinds of stereotypical aspects. But, at the same time, this is a figure who speaks at length in her confessional Prologue about herself. She talks about her past. She has a sense of temporality. That’s crucial in character formation. She circles things in her mind; she returns to things. Traumatic incidents keep coming back when she talks about the domestic violence that was enacted against her. That keeps recurring in a way that really gives us the sense of a mind. And, of course, it’s an illusion. This isn’t a real person. Her voice is so idiosyncratic because, unlike her sources, she has this properly funny voice. She’s comic. She kind of laughs at herself. She’s self-deprecating. And she’s not the kind of cynical old bawd of the Romance of the Rose, which is one of the key sources. She has a moral sense. There are all these aspects of her, which are not just about being a woman but are about being a character. Chaucer uses this character; he does it a bit in other characters as well, but more in the Wife of Bath than in any of the other Canterbury pilgrims. It’s partly about character, which isn’t only about gender. But it’s absolutely fascinating that he chooses to experiment with a female character, because not only should literary characters not speak this way, neither should fourteenth-century women. Chaucer is able to give us the sense of someone who is thinking about issues, such as rape and domestic abuse, in ways that he couldn’t have experienced—but that a fourteenth-century woman might have. He moved in very mixed circles, and women were reading and listening to his texts. The whole point of the Canterbury Tales is to let all kinds of voices speak. As a writer, as a thinker, he was deeply invested in trying to make leaps not only of imagination but of perspective. What you see is determined by where you are standing. You mention briefly in The Wife of Bath some allegations against Chaucer in his own life, his own domestic violence potentially. I’d love to hear you elaborate a bit more about that. In some headlines earlier this year, that discussion also has reemerged. There was a legal document that said he was no longer liable for allegations of “raptus,” which can be translated as rape, against someone called Cecily Chaumpaigne. There was a phase of scholars who said, “Well, Chaucer couldn’t possibly have been a rapist. What an outrageous thing even to imagine.” And then there were other scholars who said, “We have to take this seriously. We have to wrestle with the idea that the author whom we love might have done this terrible thing and that he might have been able to write sympathetically about women and treat them badly in his own life.” And just a few weeks ago some scholars found some other documents, which have demonstrated that this was not about rape. That, in fact, Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were on the same side of a legal dispute, where she had left an employer to go work for Chaucer, and, by joining together, they were stopping the employer from suing her for leaving him or from suing Chaucer for taking her away from this other employer. It’s a great example because it shows how people think, “Can anything still happen in the world of medieval studies?” But documents are still being found. There’s still ambiguity, but we’ve got a bit more clarity now. Would you say that Cecily was in an economic relationship with Chaucer, or was there a romantic tinge? There’s no evidence of anything romantic, but the economics—as you identify—is so interesting. One of the things that fascinates me about the Wife of Bath is not only her individually but the literary and real worlds that she represents. For instance, when the Wife of Bath talks about her own household—maids and nurses, working women within her household. As I mentioned earlier, it’s really crucial that women are able to work, and service was a major way for them to gain economic independence. There are many societies in that era, and in other eras as well, where the kind of service work of the house is done by women who are not paid, by the daughters-in-law, sisters of the household who are not allowed to leave, who are not allowed to earn money, who stay within the household as unpaid service providers. The fact that Chaucer lives in a world of female domestic and other labour, it meant that women could leave their fathers’ homes. They could go and earn a salary. They could save up money, and then they could set up their own home. Now, of course, that’s not to say there was no exploitation. But it was better for women than living in slavery. Women did lots of different things, like the cloth trade and brewing and different kinds of textile work. The Wife of Bath herself talks about working in the cloth trade. We also hear about women who are parchment makers or who own ships, and there are women who own companies. Particularly widows. Their husband would die, and they would go on running the company, training apprentices. You can imagine these networks of women, who are sometimes crossing hierarchies, employers and employees. But sometimes they’re obviously supportive networks, where money is being left, where training is being gifted, and women are being gifted the economic independence. [In] the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, where she is talking about how she gets money from her husband, she loses all her personal power when she gives it up to her fifth husband, and she has to get it back. She has to get economic power before she can have any other kind of power. Cecily Chaumpaigne in some kind of service role shines a new spotlight on that part of Chaucer’s world. It also makes me think about the lion line that is instrumental to this book: “Who painted the lion, tell me who?” It’s such a beautiful line as written by Chaucer, and then your close reading of it in The Wife of Bath is so powerful. Can you walk me through how in Chaucer’s text you were drawn to that line and then what the close reading process entailed? The Wife of Bath’s Prologue has lots and lots of different sources, and many of those sources are from an antifeminist tradition, a tradition of texts which are about how dreadful women are. Some of them are biblical texts by people such as Saint Jerome or texts by poet Eustache Deschamps. In the “who painted the lion” moment, Chaucer moves outside of that antifeminist tradition and goes to a fable. Fables were a really crucial way in which people were taught at school. So, we’ve moved into a different kind of source, and that is striking in itself, in terms of thinking, “What is Chaucer doing here?” He’s allowing us to have a moment where the Wife of Bath keeps telling us, essentially, that she’s a creature made by texts, that there are only antifeminist texts, there are only misogynist texts. She’s been made out of them. How can she get out of them? The basic idea is there’s a picture of a man killing a lion, and a lion looking at it says, “Well, who painted that?” Obviously, this is a painting done by men to say, “We’re better than lions. Aren’t we great?” If the lion were able to do the painting, then it would be different. The lion is saying, “This isn’t fair. The artist is biased.” It’s back to perspective again; where you’re standing determines what you see and what you represent, or history is written by the victors. This is something that really speaks to all of us, to say, “Think about the bias in art. Think about the bias in everything that you read. Who wrote it?” This is the fundamental point not only in thinking about gender but in thinking today about fake news, social media. This could not be more relevant, I think, to our own era as well. She’s so prescient. I don’t know how that happens. Absolutely. There are so many things which are extraordinary, and I think that also speaks to why people have taken her up so much across time. Because you also think about the Tale that she tells, which is then this story of, “How do you construct an appropriate punishment for a rapist? Is the appropriate punishment simply to kill them?” And she says, “No. Let’s make them think about what they’ve done. Let’s make them think about female desire. Let’s make them try to get into the shoes of someone whose desires are not taken account of. Let’s try that.” And there are lots of issues and complexities with that story, but it’s a very modern perspective on punishment. Make the punishment fit the crime. Try and reform someone. And some people wouldn’t agree with that. But it’s very, very interesting to think about her foregrounding those debates. One of the things that also is so modern is this concept of interruption. As you write, “At the heart of the Canterbury Tales is the idea of interruption. We repeatedly hear an authoritative voice challenged by a kind of voice that isn’t usually given the opportunity to speak—in life or in literature.” How might Chaucer have found that kind of voice in a sea of prescriptive—repeated, regurgitated, everybody painting the lion in the same way—voices? It is important to note that he is doing something that is genuinely innovative in literature. Chaucer is a merchant’s son, so he’s not brought up in a courtly, aristocratic environment. He’s brought up in the city of London. He has a variety of different jobs that involve travelling. He’s a prisoner of war. He’s mixing with different kinds of communities and ethnicities. He lives in the heart of the trading world. But in terms of the texts that he’s reading, a really crucial source for him is Boccaccio’s Decameron, which does have lots of different voices telling stories. At the same time, they are all of the same social class. He gets models from literature, “Okay, we can have different voices coming in,” and the tale collection is such a rich genre for being able to voice different opinions and have different voices. But I think that one of the genuinely novel things that Chaucer does is he says, “Well, what happens if we make these people different classes? If I say, well, actually, I’m going to have a miller interrupt the telling of the stories and stop the monk from telling his Tale and say that he’s going to reply to the person of high level, the knight. What happens if I have the person who talks at length being this kind of mercantile woman?” I think he also is inspired by things like the development of new kinds of voices in Parliament, so the growing strength of the Commons in the English Parliament, the emergence of the speaker, someone who can speak for a group of others. He himself was an MP at one point. This is also the era of the Great Revolt of 1381, so politically he does have models for interruption, for low class voices being able to speak. In literary terms, he’s really trailblazing in that. I wonder if it would be interesting for me to say a little about the fact that this book goes up to 2021? Yes! It was actually after I started the work for this book that I heard about Zadie Smith’s play, The Wife of Willesden. I already knew there were modern Wives of Bath, but that play was being written while I was writing this book, and then I was lucky enough to be able to see an advanced copy and then to go and see the actual play in November 2021. The fact that one of the most celebrated writers today, Zadie Smith, is choosing to write a play about the Wife of Bath really makes my point: that this is still someone who is so relevant, so interesting to people. In Smith’s play, Alison becomes Alvita, and the Arthurian Britain of the Wife of Bath’s Tale becomes eighteenth-century Jamaica. It says to audiences today, “Look, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is a relevant part of our history, but eighteenth-century Jamaica and the slave plantations, they are also a relevant part of our history.” And today, I think, there are some people who want to say, “Well, it’s one or the other,” who want to say, “No, we have to focus on Britishness, on this country. That the history of what was going on in the colonies, or on the slave plantations, that’s only relevant to a small demographic.” It’s [Smith’s play] saying, “No. This is the history of this country.” And it’s not about shutting other parts of history out but demonstrating the breadth of what is relevant to thinking about British identity in this case, and saying that we need to acknowledge colonial histories does not mean saying we’re no longer interested in Chaucer. Not at all. We’re interested in all these things. That’s also very interesting to me as someone who works in a university, where we think a lot about diversifying the curriculum, which I’m very committed to. It’s not about trying to limit but trying to expand in various ways. Something like The Wife of Willesden or Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales. Patience is a Nigerian British author who’s done this brilliant version of the Canterbury Tales, each in a different kind of modern poetic genre, but it started as the Wife of Bath. There’s something in the last chapter, too—in talking about the live aspect. Of course, one can read a play, but it’s also about seeing a play. Zadie Smith, I believe, includes herself in the final scene of The Wife of Willesden. It’s the “who painted the lion” question again, and Zadie Smith’s parallels to Chaucer, all those questions about authorship. There’s an author figure at various points in the play, and when you see it live, the actress playing the author figure looks kind of like Zadie Smith and is there with her MacBook, and it’s very cleverly done. I’m glad you also raise that issue of orality of the text, because across time the Wife of Bath has usually been put into oral forms: ballads, plays, performance poetry. I found it very interesting, then, to write the penultimate chapter, which is about what happens when she goes into the traditionally silent form of the novel. And very often, novelists then find ways still to make her voice very important because that voice is really crucial to understanding her. So much about this project is about life writing. I’m wondering if there are other lives you’re looking to write about next and where this process of life writing has guided your scholarship. It’s a really interesting area, isn’t it? Of what’s happening with life writing more generally at the moment. Hilary Mantel very sadly died after I had written this, but I was pleased that I had the little bit about her in it as a small homage. [The introduction to Turner’s The Wife of Bath begins with an epigraph from and close reading of a quotation from Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light: “It might have been my mother or it might have been the Wife of Bath.”] Traditionally, I would have said that historical fiction is a very different thing from life writing or biography, and, of course, that is broadly true. But someone such as Hilary Mantel, who was so extraordinarily talented and groundbreaking, really troubles that boundary by doing so much research into thinking about [Thomas Cromwell]. It is fiction, and she markets it as fiction, but there obviously is also truth to it. So, I think that kind of work is really challenging us to think about the place of different kinds of historical life writing, that there are times when using the imagination in the way that she does might give us access to a certain kind of historical truth. That is, of course, something that can be very misused. You have to have the kind of talent of Hilary Mantel to be able to make it work and to make clear that there is historical truth, and there are truths; there are things that happened, and there are things that didn’t happen. It’s important not to blur the boundary so much that we get away from that, of course. It’s so interesting with both Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel making the jump, as their careers progress, into playwriting. It gives you such a different way of thinking about subjectivity, doesn’t it? When you have that performance and when you are also as a writer handing over so much to the actors because their imagination, their interpretation, counts so much. I imagine that for a novelist, that then allows them a different kind of collaboration, which for some people would be a nightmare but for some people would be very energizing, and pleasing, to have that more collaborative mode of writing, which I think is absolutely what we see in Chaucer’s work and in the way it was treated by readers and writers who did feel they could intervene and do their own versions and write their own things on the text. Lots of times they do things that as a reader you think, “Oh, you know, they really got that wrong. They’re doing all kinds of terrible things.” But there’s also something very important about the fact that people respond creatively to these texts. These texts are not dead, even when people might think, “Oh, they’ve got it wrong.” But they’re reading it! They’re thinking! They’re doing things!
Are we losing our capacity for cinematic enchantment?
Welcome to Wayward Watching, a column on the seen and unseen in film. Quentin Tarantino was fourteen when he first watched Rolling Thunder, tagging along with his mother and her boyfriend to a Friday night screening in Los Angeles. Years later, he’d show up whenever the movie was playing in a theatre in the city, regardless of the time of day or distance. In his recent book, Cinema Speculation, he claims that the film is “the best combination of character study and action film ever made.” A contemporary viewer, however, might be forgiven for being baffled by the enthusiasm, for even wondering what Tarantino saw in the movie at fourteen. It’s not just that we’ve seen multiple versions of the story of a returning war hero who goes on a murderous rampage after a family tragedy; more that, in an age where every other TV show is a crime procedural or a violent thriller, and every other movie about a celestial superhero battling apocalyptic nemeses, we’re too jaded to believe that action flicks can double up as character portraits. Later in the book, Tarantino praises the “feel-good catharsis” of Rocky’s screenplay. He claims that Sylvester Stallone was, among other things, a canny scriptwriter with an ear for comedy, and that the dialogue in an early film, The Lords of Flatbush, is replete with his trademark wisecracks. But there isn’t a funny moment in The Lords of Flatbush—I rented it last week on Amazon Prime. The entire movie is just about redeemed by sporadic closeups of Perry King’s zero-buccal-fat face. The story revolves around four young ruffians growing up in a Brooklyn neighbourhood where women end up marrying their high school boyfriends and men inevitably have a comb handy in their pockets. The characters are stuck in crises not too different from ours—Who do you love? Who do you marry? What are we supposed to do with our lives?—and yet their predicaments seem naïve to audiences hardened by decades of group-tested entertainment. Halfway through, Stallone features in a rooftop scene where Tarantino feels his performance is “Brandoesque.” King’s character, Chico, chastises Stallone for being happy with idle fantasies, for not wanting to step out of their borough and see the world. This being early fifties’ New York, Chico can’t help but be casually racist: “You can have all the imagination you want, but you’re never gonna see no c----s in Tokyo.” Stallone’s resemblance to Brando, however, is cosmetic: his character is named Stanley, much like the lead in A Streetcar Named Desire, and he is dressed in a sleeveless black vest in multiple scenes. When he goes off on Chico, he mumbles his lines too effusively, like someone acting in a college play. It could be that a millennial like me was born too late to grasp the import of a movie made fifty years ago. Or perhaps we’ve all collectively squandered our capacity for enchantment. Tarantino first watched Rocky on the big screen during opening week, and the audience apparently went berserk during the climactic knockout: "I’ve been to movies where something happened on screen and the audience cheered. But never—and I repeat—never—like they cheered when Rocky landed that blow in the first round that knocked Apollo Creed to the floor…Every blow Rocky took seemed to land on you." My first time watching the film was different. Not long after Rocky Balboa was released, a school friend decided that we needed to catch up on the previous five movies to better understand the latest installment of the franchise. And so, on a Saturday afternoon in Assam, a crew of peacocking teenagers were huddled around someone’s older brother’s desktop—back when we called computers “PCs”—passing around a joint and hallucinating over Stallone’s bloodstained face. The plan was no doubt to watch the films back to back, until we discovered that the torrent file for Rocky II (or was it Rocky III?) was overlaid by Russian voices. I remember us all erupting when Hulk Hogan came on. Cushions and mattresses were soon lumped on the host’s bedroom floor and the viewing area was transformed into a ring for spontaneous wrestling bouts. Our friend’s parents were away at work, which meant that we were free to raid the kitchen cabinets in search of alcohol. At some point more people, all of them boys, were invited, and someone came over with a box of pork dumplings from a vendor at the end of the street. Stuffed and stoned, I passed out on a couch while Rocky kept swearing in Russian in the other room. And yet it wasn’t as if we just thought of movies as ambient noise. I remember countless late nights when my sister and I would catch the last few minutes of a whodunit or comedy on TV and spend the next hour dreaming up outlandish backstories. What was supposed to be an empty hour before drifting to sleep became something to look forward to: I still don’t know if Dr. Evil from Austin Powers had indeed travelled from a different planet in the first half, as we imagined, or if Matthew McConaughey had spurned Kate Hudson in the opening scene of How To Lose A Guy in Ten Days. We were ardent about our tall tales, our pretend versions of these half-glimpsed movies, in a way that those who sat through the actual films from beginning to end couldn’t have been. Then there was the Harry Potter universe, with which my sister was obsessed at that age. Someone had gifted her a DVD box set of the first five films, and she used to watch them after school on loop. I, too, sometimes found myself affected by their charms. Reading Oliver Twist in eighth grade, I pictured little Daniel Radcliffe ambling around the streets of nineteenth-century London in a newsboy cap. Long John Silver, from Treasure Island, looked suspiciously like Alan Rickman when he popped up in dreams. Tarantino might yearn for the exuberance of crowds applauding the action hero in a theatre, but those of us who witnessed audiences cheering on the most mindless of Bollywood flicks—and later replicating the violence offscreen—will always struggle to see that sort of fandom as innocent. I feel envious about the flashes of insight that older generations claim to have routinely experienced at the movies. The Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy reportedly started writing his magnum opus, Samskara, after watching The Seventh Seal without subtitles as a graduate student in England. Recalling the memory later, he wrote, “Often creativity is aroused by imperfect understanding and even misunderstanding.” The closest I came to having an epiphany inside a packed theatre was during an IMAX screening of Avatar years ago, when the colours in every frame seemed like something out of a psychedelic trance, though I doubt I’ll feel the same way about the images in the new sequel. Decades after seeing The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie could credit the film as his “very first literary influence.” Who honestly expects Marvel Studios’ Eternals, or last year’s Hindu-nationalist cringefest RRR, to ever inspire anything imaginative?