Dorothea Lange’s Angel of History

Rebecca Solnit at The Paris Review:

Lange, Dorothea

This woman seems to have been standing in the meadow forever, with it and of it, welcoming us all, an earthbound archangel of the topsoil. You could imagine that below her housedress her feet have taken root or her torso has become a tree trunk, and the way she smiles and reaches out that right hand seems like the most generous way to say that this place is hers.

Everything in the picture affirms a sense of stability. The square photograph is bisected horizontally by the straight line where the flowering meadow joins the bare hill on the right and the tree-covered hill on the left that rise up from either side of her like wings. That line is even with her bosom, and her outstretched hand seems almost to rest on it.

more here.

Lives of Houses

Kevin Jackson at Literary Review:

My favourite essay, Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s ‘At Home with Tennyson’, is both a bravura work of close reading and a highly sensitive study of the poet’s loyalties, yearnings and fears about homes and homelessness. Tennyson, he demonstrates, was profoundly touched by the idea of home and ‘was equally good at evoking home when it existed only as an idea, as in “The Lotos-Eaters”, where so much of what the speaker broods over – “roam”, “foam”, “honeycomb” – has the word “home” flickering through it like a nagging but elusive memory’. Douglas-Fairhurst is yet another of the essayists here to be attracted by the word ‘nest’: Tennyson produces a ‘voice that is keen to create a nest of words for itself but also appears to be nervously eyeing up the lines of each stanza like a little set of prison bars’. This is criticism that draws quite close to the status of poetry.

more here.

Ending Covid: It will take some time, but rest assured: a coronavirus vaccine is coming, and it will work

Peter Kolchinsky in City Journal:

The biopharmaceutical industry will be able to make a Covid-19 vaccine— probably a few of them—using various existing vaccine technologies. But many people worry that Covid-19 will mutate and evade our vaccines, as the flu virus does each season. Covid-19 is fundamentally different from flu viruses, though, in ways that will allow our first-generation vaccines to hold up well. To the extent that Covid does mutate, it’s likely to do so much more slowly than the flu virus does, buying us time to create new and improved vaccines. Every virus has a genome composed of genetic material (either RNA or DNA) that encodes instructions for replicating the virus. When a virus infects a cell, it accesses machinery for making copies of its genomic instructions and follows those instructions to make viral proteins that assemble, with copies of the instructions, to form more viruses (which then pop out of the cell to infect new cells, either in the same host or in someone new). There is a critical difference between coronaviruses and flu. The novel coronavirus genome is made of one long strand of genetic code. This makes it an “unsegmented” virus—like a set of instructions that fit on a single page. The flu virus has eight genomic segments, so its code fits on eight “pages.” That’s not common for viruses, and it gives the flu a special ability. Because the major parts of the flu virus are described on separate pages (segments) of its genome, when two different flu viruses infect the same cell, they can swap pages.

Imagine two people with eight-page reports fighting over a copy machine. In the tussle, some copies might turn out to have a mix of pages from two different reports. This page-swapping process, where viruses exchange parts of their genome, is called reassortment. The flu can change rapidly when multiple strains pass through the same host. But coronavirus, as a one-page report, tends to stay together, and while coronaviruses can swap sections—in a process known as recombination—it is difficult to achieve and thus rare. (Imagine two pages ripping in the same way and swapping pieces that get glued together again.)

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Take This Poem and Copy it

Take this poem and copy it in your handwriting on a piece of paper and insert words from your soul between the words your hands copied. And notice the additions made by the words from your hands and the subtractions made by punctuation, the spaces and the lines which are broken within your life. Take this poem and copy it a thousand times and distribute it to people on the city’s main street. And say to them I wrote this poem this is a poem I wrote this is a poem I wrote this I wrote this poem I wrote this I wrote this I wrote. Take this poem and put it in an envelope and send it to the one your heart desires and include a short letter with it. And before you send it change its title and at the end add rhymes of your own. Sweeten the bitter and enrich the spare and bridge the cracked and simplify the clumsy and enliven the dead and square the truth. A person could take many poems and make them his. Take this very poem and make only this one yours for even though it has nothing special which ignites your desire to make it yours it also has no possessiveness of the kind which says a man’s poems are his property and his only and you have no right to meddle or ask anything of them but this is a poem which asks you to meddle with it to erase and to add and it is given to you freely for free ready to be changed by your hands. Take this poem and make it yours and sign your name on it and erase the previous name but remember it and remember that every word is poetry is the offspring of poetry and poetry is the poetry of many not one. And someone after you will take your poem and make it his and command those after him the children of poets take this poem and copy it on a piece of paper and make it yours in your handwriting.

by Almog Behar
Wells’ Thirst
publisher: Am Oved, Tel Aviv,2008
Translation: 2017, Alexandra Berger-Polsky

Read more »

Coronavirus lockdowns have changed the way Earth moves

Elizabeth Gibney in Nature:

The coronavirus pandemic has brought chaos to lives and economies around the world. But efforts to curb the spread of the virus might mean that the planet itself is moving a little less. Researchers who study Earth’s movement are reporting a drop in seismic noise — the hum of vibrations in the planet’s crust — that could be the result of transport networks and other human activities being shut down. They say this could allow detectors to spot smaller earthquakes and boost efforts to monitor volcanic activity and other seismic events. A noise reduction of this magnitude is usually only experienced briefly around Christmas, says Thomas Lecocq, a seismologist the Royal Observatory of Belgium in Brussels, where the drop has been observed. Just as natural events such as earthquakes cause Earth’s crust to move, so do vibrations caused by moving vehicles and industrial machinery. And although the effects from individual sources might be small, together they produce background noise, which reduces seismologists’ ability to detect other signals occurring at the same frequency.

Data from a seismometer at the observatory show that measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Brussels caused human-induced seismic noise to fall by about one-third, says Lecocq. The measures included closing schools, restaurants and other public venues from 14 March, and banning all non-essential travel from 18 March (see ‘Seismic noise’). The current drop has boosted the sensitivity of the observatory’s equipment, improving its ability to detect waves in the same high frequency range as the noise. The facility’s surface seismometer is now almost as sensitive to small quakes and quarry blasts as a counterpart detector buried in a 100-metre borehole, he adds. “This is really getting quiet now in Belgium.”

More here.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Inside Tove Jansson’s Private Universe

Sheila Heti at The New Yorker:

In the nineteen-fifties and sixties, one of the most famous cartoonists in the world was a lesbian artist who lived on a remote island off the coast of Finland. Tove Jansson had the status of a beloved cultural icon—adored by children, celebrated by adults. Before her death, in 2001, at the age of eighty-six, Jansson produced paintings, novels, children’s books, magazine covers, political cartoons, greeting cards, librettos, and much more. But most of Jansson’s fans arrived by way of the Moomins, a friendly species of her invention—rotund white creatures that look a little like upright hippos, and were the subject of nine best-selling books and a daily comic strip that ran for twenty years.

Jansson travelled frequently to conduct her duties as the ambassador of Moominvalley, mingling at parties where businessmen wore Moomin ties.

more here.

On Anna Sewell’s ‘Black Beauty’

Karen Swallow Prior at Marginalia Review of Books:

It is perhaps partially owing to this plain style that Black Beauty is now classified as children’s literature. (But it is perhaps owing, too, to a modern day disdain for simple things like manual labor, animals, imagination, and kindness.) During the mid-Victorian era, children’s literature was a still-developing category of books. The fact is that Sewell was writing for men. And she was read by them, too, as one review attests: “Both men and boys read it with the greatest avidity, and many declare it to be ‘the best book in the world’.”

While horse stories and talking animals are relegated today to children (especially girls), literary categories were less rigid then. So although the premise—a tale narrated by a horse—might seem childish to modern day readers, such a conceit was a novelty, edgy even, in its day.

more here.

How Genetic Mutations Turned the Coronavirus Deadly

Robert Bazell in Nautilus:

Long before the first reports of a new flu-like illness in China’s Hubei province, a bat—or perhaps a whole colony of them—was flying around the region carrying a new type of coronavirus. At the time, the virus was not yet dangerous to humans. Then, around the end of November, it underwent a slight additional mutation, evolving into the viral strain we now call SARS-CoV-2. With that flip of viral RNA, so began the COVID-19 pandemic. As in almost every outbreak, the mutations that set off this global crisis went undetected at first, even though the family of coronaviruses was already known to cause a variety of human diseases. “These viruses have long been understudied and have not been given the attention or funding they have deserved,” Craig Wilen, a virologist at Yale University, told me.

A bat coronavirus caused the SARS outbreak that terrified much of the world and killed 774 people in 2002 and 2003 before it was contained. Since then, there have been regular flare-ups of Middle East respiratory Syndrome or MERS, caused by another bat coronavirus that passes through camels; since 2012, it has killed 884 people. Most research on potential pandemics nevertheless continued to focus on influenza viruses, such as bird flu, because they carry a significant annual death toll. COVID-19 is exposing the dangers of such a single-minded approach. A few scientists tried to sound the alarm. In a 2015 study, epidemiologist Ralph Baric and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina analyzed the genomes of bat coronaviruses and warned, “Our work suggests a potential risk of SARS-CoV re-emergence from viruses currently circulating in bat populations.”1 A second paper from the same group the next year warned that another SARS-like disease from bat coronaviruses was “poised for human emergence.”Bats are well known as a reservoir for potential new human diseases. The animals carry dozens, perhaps hundreds, of members of the coronavirus family. Most of those viruses are part of the bats’ normal microbiome, living in harmony with their hosts and causing no harm. But coronaviruses, like all forms of life, accumulate random genetic changes as they reproduce. Occasionally the mutations allow the viruses to infect other animals (including humans) and to score the big win in natural selection: producing ever-more descendants.

A win for the virus, that is. For us, not so much.

More here.

You’ve Got Mail. Will You Get the Coronavirus?

Nicola Twilley in The New York Times:

Scientists agree that the main means by which the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumps from an infected person to its next host is by hitching a ride in the tiny droplets that are sprayed into the air with each cough or sneeze. But with deliveries now at holiday levels as locked-down Americans shop online rather than in person, the question remains: Can you catch the coronavirus from the parcels and packages your overburdened mail carrier keeps leaving at your door? The first formal process for curbing the spread of infection by detaining travelers from an affected region until their health was proved was instituted in what is now Dubrovnik, Croatia, in 1377, against the bubonic plague. (This temporal buffer was originally 30 days, but when that proved too short, it was extended to 40 days, or quaranta giorni, from which we derive the word “quarantine.”)

Mail disinfection soon followed, as the then Republic of Venice extended and formalized the quarantine process to include cargo. Items that were considered particularly susceptible, including textiles and letters, were also subject to fumigation: dipped in or sprinkled with vinegar, then often exposed to smoke from aromatic substances, from rosemary to, in later years, chlorine. Once the items were treated, a distinctive wax seal or cancellation was usually applied to them, so the recipient would know where and when the disinfection had been carried out. (Such marks often provide the only remaining evidence of the ebb and flow of disease; some minor outbreaks of plague or typhus in remote areas of medieval Europe, for example, would have been lost to history without their postal traces.) The diseases changed, but for centuries mail disinfection techniques remained largely the same. As recently as 1900, during a plague outbreak in Honolulu, letters were routinely disinfected by clipping off the two opposite corners of each envelope and then spreading a batch of mail out in an airtight room filled with sulfur fumes for three hours.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

If the River Was Whiskey,
If I Was a Duck

If our Phrenes, when fusty, could take the waters,
Head to Baden-Baden, play the tables and come
Home fresh, or, infused with saffron, spritzed with anise,
Return as cocktail-drinking cocktails; if the World
Wide Web was Roxy Music; if we were Eno
Seated at a VCS3, helmsman of time’s
Own ship, ever drifting into port, then yeah—I’d
Dive to the bottom too. But they’re not, and it’s not,
And we’re not, and only a god can save us, not
Cybernetics or Gold Bond Cream. For we are the
Bomb, not in the sense of cool, as we used to say
Or still say ironically, but The Bomb, the pearls
We sold regained, only now they’re sad peppercorns
That pull us down like bottles falling into front-
End loaders at 4 a.m. But things hold fast, sure
Us, whether through analogues or discretely, that
Existence is not just some hemispherical
Container filled with drupes, but life, the voice of Bing
Crosby, patience, yes, a true bowl of cherries, a
Question ripe and there as William Williams’s plums

by Robert Farrell
Narrative Magazine

Monday, March 30, 2020

Sole Craft as Soulcraft

by Eric J. Weiner

Shoes could save your life. —Edith Grossman, survivor of the Auschwitz death camp

These boots are made for walking/And that’s just what they’ll do/One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you —Nancy Sinatra

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self —Knut Hamsun

Quarantined, sheltered, holed-up, bunkered, hiding, homebound, trapped–whatever you want to call it–I am, probably (hopefully) like you, socially isolated from everyone but my family, trying to do my part in “flattening the curve” on a virus that seems intent on overwhelming a system ill-equipped to deal with such a thing. Like the prisoner who resorts to counting the pockmarks on the cement wall of his cell to pass the time, I have used some of my new, spare time to take an account of my collection of shoes and boots. But unlike Derrida or Heidegger in regards to Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting of boots, I have absolutely no desire to be profound or provocative. I simply and admittedly have a bit of a shoe and boot “problem” that I would like to discuss; not sneakers or trainers—never caught the bug—but handcrafted leather footwear that typically go from very expensive to “holy crap that’s a lot of money for boots!” My wife doesn’t understand it. “Another pair of boots?” she sneers as I unapologetically remove my latest purchase from its sturdy cardboard case; a stunning pair of Horween shell cordovan lace wing-tip boots, color number 8, with Goodyear welts, lug soles and copper rivets, handmade in the USA by one of the oldest family-owned shoe/boot-makers in the country. They ain’t cheap but they’re not “holy crap” expensive either. They are beautiful and rough, sophisticated and classic, yet in no way arrogant or pretentious and will be around, if properly cared for, long after I am dead. Seems like a deal to me.

It’s both true and a fact that a good boot or shoe can make a man just as quickly as a poorly manufactured one can break him. Slip a hand-crafted Chromexcel leather boot on a man choking in the grip of life’s callous hand, lace it snug around his foot and ankle, and he just might stand up even taller than God made him and, like a slave breaking his chains of bondage, throw that hand off as if it was nothing more than a bit of schmutz on his collar. I completely understand why soldiers and cowboys wanted to die with their boots on–dignity in death, meaning in life; take my last breath, just don’t take my damn boots! Read more »

The Useful and the Sweet

by Rafaël Newman

Some years ago, a friend told me about his dilettantish taste for nicotine, indulgence in which, however, he noted ruefully, was often thwarted by his young daughter. He supposed the vehemence of her protests derived, simply, from a concern for his health – to which I responded, perhaps: but that there might also be a further factor. His daughter, I reminded him, was just barely prepubescent, and thus newly arrived in what classical psychoanalysts call the “latency phase”, in which the para-erotic pulsions characterizing the various stages of her psychosexual development to date, and directed at her opposite-sex parent, the putative object of her nascent desire, are in retreat under the dawning realization that she is unlikely to be successful in her Oedipal struggle; and so she begins instead to bend to the will of a superego offering a compensatory identification with her triumphant rival, her mother. (This was before I had read Didier Eribon.) As a consequence, I concluded, his daughter was in the midst of developing prohibitive feelings of disgust at the merest suggestion of the desire she was busy repressing, and was thus likely to react with exaggerated horror at any sign of eroticism on the part of her erstwhile object.

“You mean,” he said, “she interprets my cigarette smoking as a manifestation of such eroticism?”

“Yes,” I said. “Because it involves you repeatedly touching yourself with pleasure.”

I’ve been recalling that conversation a lot lately, as the injunction, issued by a global superego, to avoid doing precisely this – touching oneself, specifically one’s face – has made many of us hyper-aware of our tendency to do so, and lent an ostensibly banal behavior the allure of the forbidden. Read more »

Monday Poem

Like The Old Harry

….. –for my father, Jim

My father was an opaque poet
of blue collar verse
who’d sling odd terms
from the corner of his mouth
opposite the one holding
the lip-gripped cigarette
issuing curlicues of smoke
which circled his cocked head
his eyes squinting from their sting
his playful gags filled earcups
from which I, with fresh curiosity, drank
to quench a thirst for the secret
stuff of words

“Up Laundry Hill,”
he’d say to my question,
“Hey, dad,where you goin’?”

as if the place he was headed beyond the door
was a high meadow in which my grandmother
with a bar of brown soap
might scrub shirts by a slow river
and hang them to dry on lines strung tree to tree
as an August sun drenched them with a bounty
of white light and a day’s-worth of heat

Like the old Harry was his expression
for the speed of a world that moved
like the Old Harry as I, in new Keds
ran, not like the wind, but like the Old Harry,
a quick little shit on white rubber soles
consuming the universe of our yard
in nanoseconds

Whoever Old Harry was my dad knew him well—
knew he could outrun light when it came down to it
despite the equation upon which Einstein,
regarding questions of velocity, stood

—there’s more to earth than science:
the music of syllables
the humor in their arrangements
the unexpected flash of odd conjunctions
the comfort of the syntax of tradition
the sudden crack of their smart whip
which sometimes sends us like the Old Harry,
in a sprint, up Laundry Hill

Jim Culleny

Sitzfleisch and a Movie in the Time of Plague

by Michael Liss

I am one of those people who cannot sit still. I wasn’t good at it as a child, and as the decades pass, every indication is that I will never be good at it. I suspect I inherited this from my father, who lacked a single iota of Sitzfleisch, and have passed on the gene to one of my children (no need to name names here, she knows who she is and who to blame.)

I did fully disclose this to my wife before we were married, not that she needed to be told. She hangs in there, with occasional  moments of thoroughly merited exasperation. Weekdays tend to take care of themselves, as we both work fairly long hours. Weekends, on the other hand, can be problematic, so I’m fairly sure she likes it when I leave to go running in the park with my group. As I’m not the greyhound I used to be, this can take quite a bit of time, especially when you add in a stop on the way back for some empty calories. Before you know it, it’s almost Noon. Sitzfleisch problem solved, at least until 1:30.

Of course, this was all before Coronavirus, all before I was deemed “non-essential” and even officially old. I’m not sure where this “old” nonsense came from, but the solicitude for my health and wellbeing merely as a function of an arbitrary number is a little hard to take. All of a sudden there seem to be an awful lot of things I’m not supposed to be doing. I never thought “aging in place” was meant to be taken literally.

This is such a petty complaint. In my City, my Mighty Gotham, we are apparently all aging in place, all taking care by taking shelter. This just doesn’t suit us well. Sitzfleisch is for suburbanites.…the kind of folks who drive a football field’s distance for a quart of milk and have 5,000 square-foot homes with enormous refrigerators, storage space, and a game room where the kids can fight with each other from another zip code. Read more »

On the Road: Coping with Calamity

by Bill Murray

Two minutes after the explosion the fire station alarm rang. The firefighters who scrambled from sleep to the scene, along with the regular overnight shift at reactor four, were among the first fatally irradiated. Unquestioned heroes, they battled the blazes until dawn with no special training for a nuclear accident, in shirtsleeves, using only conventional firefighting methods. They walked amid flaming, radioactive graphite.

The power station fire brigade arrived first. Lieutenant Volodymyr Pravik, their commander, saw right away he needed help and called in fire brigades from the little towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl. When Pravik died thirteen days later he was a month shy of age twenty-four.

“We arrived there at 10 or 15 minutes to two in the morning,” said fire engine driver Grigorii Khmal. 

“We saw graphite scattered about. Misha asked: Is that graphite? I kicked it away. But one of the fighters on the other truck picked it up. It’s hot, he said. The pieces of graphite were of different sizes, some big, some small enough to pick them up….

“We didn’t know much about radiation. Even those who worked there had no idea. There was no water left in the trucks. Misha filled a cistern and we aimed the water at the top. Then those boys who died went up to the roof – Vashchik, Kolya and others, and Volodya Pravik…. They went up the ladder … and I never saw them again.”

Another fireman told the BBC, “It was dark because it was night. On the other hand, you could see and even recognize a person from 10 to 15 meters. It was if (sic) the sun was rising, but with a strange light.”

They climbed to the roof of what was left of reactor four, preventing fire from spreading to the other three reactors and so preventing what could have been a truly ghastly night. By 5:00 a.m. all the fires were out save for the one in the reactor. That fire burned for ten days. It took 5000 tons of sand, boron, dolomite and clay dropped from helicopters to put it out. Read more »

Essential Services (a very short story)

by Amitava Kumar

Every day that week a line formed outside the liquor store by noon. Those in line stood six feet apart, checking their phones, or reading a book, or looking up at the trees. Twelve people were allowed at a time into the liquor store.

A man and woman, wearing masks and gloves, arrived from different directions. The man, who might have been in his twenties and whose mask was blue colored, made a flourish with a gloved hand and let the woman take the place ahead of him. For a moment, he studied the back of the woman’s head. She had blonde streaks in her hair.

‘You weren’t answering the phone last night,’ the young woman said to him, turning. ‘Do you think it is easy for me to step out like this?’
Her companion hadn’t stopped smiling under his mask ever since she arrived.

He now said, ‘I’ve heard that the wait is longer in the line outside the CVS on South Hill Road. Your father must need medicines. Let’s meet there tomorrow.’

Ask a Hermit, Part III

by Holly A. Case (Interviewer) and Tom J. W. Case (Hermit) 

The following is the continuation of an interview with Tom, a pilot who has largely withdrawn to a small piece of land in rural South Dakota. Parts I and II can be found here and here

Interviewer: I’d like to ask how you would tell the story of your inner jukebox—perhaps under the title “The Inner Jukebox: A Bildungsroman.”

Hermit: Ah, the inner jukebox, its bearings rusty and contacts dusty. That thing used to roll on an endless reel, telling me and shaping how I feel.

Music, I really used to think, is one of mankind’s greatest achievements. Now I just think less, it seems, or about different things. But even as I give music less thought, it surely is very special.

Music can fit a mood, bend or even break a mood, make a new mood, take you places—what a thing! But at the same time, there is always the chance of going missing as in other ways I have described. In no way have I shunned or avoided music, but I do not seek its warp-voyager quality any longer. I must say that I am not beyond being grabbed and taken for a ride from time to time, however.

The soundtrack you mentioned, I used to make so many playlists to fit time, place, and mood, and it never failed that by the time I had finished making the perfect playlist, it no longer fit those things. I might conclude that it has everything to do with the aforementioned coloring; that the more one truly accepts their immediate surrounding and circumstance, there might just not be a track cued up (unless on an elevator, help us).

All of that said, it can be counted on that I am nearly always narrating my plodding with ditties and tunes spontaneously coined.

Interviewer: On the subject of where the mind goes (and warp-voyagers), what are the thought patterns that recur in hermitude?

Hermit: This is perhaps the one area in which I struggle the most. Thought.

I said just before that I think less, or about other things now. Not true, that, upon reflection. I interact with my thoughts less, but there is no evidence that I think less. Thank you for reminding me. Read more »