Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Paris Review, Tin House, Kenyon Review, Vice, and The Morning News. Curbside Splendor published his essay collection, "Everything We Don't Know," in 2016. @AaronGilbreath
Do you remember me? you type. I have some questions. I would be grateful if you might be willing to answer them.
Why did you hurt me? is your question, the only one, but you do not write this.
Of course I remember you! he replies, almost immediately. I will give it my best to answer any questions you have. I hope you are doing good.
You ask if he might be willing to share his memory of that day at the mall. Your point of view would be helpful for my own closure, you say, no matter what that may be. You ask if he has ever thought of it again, if the experience ever held any weight for him. You tell him there are no right answers, because you believe this is true.
Gil responds from a different email address. His personal one.
Let me really think about it, he says, so I can give you my best recollection.
I want to help you, he says, in any way that I can.
“He wanted to know if there was such a thing as a ‘Fart Chart’ of different kinds of beans,” McGee said. “And if he used a different kind of beans, could he maybe eat a couple more servings? He also wondered if there was something he could do to the beans ahead of time.”
The next day, McGee went looking for answers. At the Yale biology library, he discovered that plenty of food-science research had been published by and for the food manufacturing and packaging industries, but little of it had been shared with chefs or home cooks.
“I spent hours in that library because I had never seen anything like it,” McGee told me. “Poultry science and agricultural and food chemistry. I would just flip through random volumes and see microscopic studies of things I eat every day. It seemed so cool and unexpected. It took more than a day to home in on the right sources about beans, but not only did I find out what’s in them and what you can do about it, but there is a fart chart and there are things you can do to lessen your suffering. Most of the research in the field of flatulence was funded by NASA. If you think about it, it makes good sense — these were still the days of capsules.”
I couldn’t quite figure out why Japanese listeners had come to appreciate and savor the blues in the way that they seemed to—lavishly, devotedly. Blues is still an outlier genre in Japan, but it’s revered, topical, present. I’d spent my first couple of days in Tokyo hungrily trawling the city’s many excellent record stores, marveling at the stock. I had shuffled into the nine-story Tower Records in Shibuya (NO MUSIC NO LIFE, a giant sign on its exterior read), past a K-pop band called CLC, an abbreviation for Crystal Clear—seven very-young-looking women in matching outfits, limply performing a synchronized dance, waving their slender arms back and forth before a hypnotized crowd—and ridden an elevator to a floor housing more shrink-wrapped blues CDs than I have ever seen gathered in a single place of retail. I had been to a tiny, quiet bar—JBS, or Jazz, Blues, and Soul—with floor-to-ceiling shelves housing owner Kobayashi Kazuhiro’s eleven thousand LPs, from which he studiously selected each evening’s soundtrack. I had seen more than one person wearing a Sonny Boy Williamson t-shirt. I had heard about audiophiles installing their own utility poles to get “more electricity” straight from the grid to power elaborate sound systems. What I didn’t know was what about this music made sense in Japan—how and why it had come to occupy the collective imagination, what it could offer.
In Calgary, Aziz found a Muslim community in conflict—and denial—over how to address the fact that dozens of young men were leaving their community to travel to distant battlefields. The Canadian government estimates that as of the end of 2015, 180 Canadians overseas were actively involved with terror organizations; about half of them are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, having been recruited by groups such as isis. It was difficult for members of the city’s Muslim community to accept that radicalization was happening in Calgary. It seemed implausible that these young men could be capable of carrying out acts of violence abroad—until it started happening.
Many in the community hoped that Aziz might be able to intervene. He was, after all, not much older than those who were leaving. Other imams in the community, most of them foreign born and middle-aged, had trouble connecting with Muslim youth born and raised in Canada. They didn’t know how to address political issues such as the conflict in Syria with those who were unsettled by the slaughter of thousands of civilians. Imams across the country feared that broaching the subject of overseas conflicts and jihad directly might draw objections from others in their mosques—or worse, attract the attention of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (csis).
Maybe it’s not a coincidence that Rudisill, crotchety patron saint of the fruitcake, is related to one of the most famous American queer men of all time. She was an aunt of Truman Capote. Capote, effeminate and limp-wristed, could be considered the ideal target for the word fruitcake in its other, equally noxious meaning.
The expression “nutty as a fruitcake” has been sewn into common American parlance since as early as 1935. Fruitcake is something like the word faggot’s first cousin. To be nuts was to be mentally ill, after all, and queerness was, for a time, a flavor of mental illness. The common history of the moniker goes as follows: A fruit, susceptible to the whims of nature, tends to grow tender and soft. For a man to embody these very traits, a sensitivity to the elements that is typically coded female, goes against the imaginings of masculinity our culture worships.
This word association is quite fun; it’s like rummaging through an old thesaurus from a blazingly shittier America. Recently, I began trying to trace the precise pathways through which this food became a pejorative, motivated by intense personal curiosity: I had grown up eating fruitcake and considering it a delicacy. My family is from the Indian state of West Bengal, where fruitcake is widely considered a food to cherish rather than to trash. The architecturally stodgy, pre-packaged variety that so many Americans seem to abhor was a food my family and I would eat with tea. Other families could have stuff from Entenmann’s or Carvel; we preferred these tutti frutti cakes that came in rectangular aluminum packaging. We’d even eat it for breakfast. It was aseasonal, dislodged from Christmas. If doing so were nutritionally sound or socially permissible, we’d eat it every meal.
Almost six months after she was hired, the shop had an opening for a full-time mechanic. Layton wasn’t moved into the position, as she’d been promised. Instead, the store hired a young man who hadn’t gone to bike school, and whose experience came from volunteering at the same bike shop where Layton had previously worked. “On his first day,” she says, “he overtightened a seatcollar on a carbon seatpost and cracked it, smashed it. I fucking would have known not to do that.”
Layton was never explicitly told that she wasn’t going to be moved into the full-time mechanic position. Instead, her bosses “hired around” her, evading her questions when she pressed them about when she’d get to start working on bikes. While she doesn’t hold a grudge against the mechanic who broke the seatpost, she’s irked that the shop manager and owner weren’t upfront with her about what they thought her capabilities were. “I took a huge pay cut, making a quarter of what I was making to work there, because I was promised that I would be hired as a mechanic,” she says. “And I never once had a bench of my own to work on.”
When Fingal points out that D’Agata, far from revealing the meaning of Presley’s life by sifting through its particulars, is inventing and imposing his own meanings on it—this is during an exchange about tae kwon do, which Presley practiced and for which D’Agata concocts an elaborate originary legend involving an “ancient Indian prince”—D’Agata replies that there is something between history and fiction. “We all believe in emotional truths that could never hold water, but we still cling to them and insist on their relevance.” The “emotional truths” here, of course, are D’Agata’s, not Presley’s. If it feels right to say that tae kwon do was invented in ancient India (not modern Korea, as Fingal discovers it was), then that is when it was invented. The term for this is truthiness.
Yet D’Agata, as Fingal notes, is not presenting Presley’s story to the reader as something that has been “poetically embellished” (Fingal’s phrase), or as the chronicle, as D’Agata insists, of his own search for meaning. He is presenting it as a work of nonfiction. D’Agata clearly wants to have it both ways. He wants the imaginative freedom of fiction without relinquishing the credibility (and for some readers, the significance) of nonfiction. He has his fingers crossed, and he’s holding them behind his back. “John’s a different kind of writer,” an editor explains to Fingal early in the book. Indeed he is. But the word for such a writer isn’t essayist. It’s liar.
I stood on a corner under my $11 umbrella, glad it wasn’t a $5 umbrella. I laughed out loud. What else could I do? After about five minutes, a teenage girl emerged from the mist. She was wearing headphones and a surgical mask. Surgical masks are very popular in Japan. They are supposed to be all about protecting yourself and other people from disease, but they’re also worn to indicate a lack of sociability, with which I theoretically sympathize but at this particular moment found inconvenient. No fool, the girl started to cross the street before she reached me, and I shouted “Excuse me, excuse me” and then even ran after her. She did not break stride. She did not even move her eyes.
If you have utterly humiliated yourself but no one is around to witness your humiliation, is it possible it has indeed not taken place? Asking for a friend.
It must be said that no history of women’s contributions to music was being taught. There were no special university courses. There were no books or magazines in the library. Obviously there was no internet. Any piece of information about a woman playing music was most likely found in a bin in a used record store. The radio “rule” was no more than two female singers in a row. This held true even for the earth-shattering FM format, which blasted great music to hungry minds barely weaned off transistor radios. (When my mother was a cleaning lady for a small radio station in the American Midwest, she used to save all of the demo 45s for me that had been thrown away. Most of these records were by women: the band Fanny, country singer Skeeter Davis, Aretha Franklin’s sister, Erma, singing “Piece of My Heart.”) But even among leftists there was an assumption that women weren’t making music. In 1981, when I went on the air with Rubymusic, a radio show specializing in this very subject, even my radical (and very supportive) radio station, Vancouver Co-operative Radio, was concerned that I might not be able to find enough music by women to fill half an hour every week.
Mr Ingold wrote about the importance of the word talo. Roughly translated, it means house. But it also has a deeper meaning. When Finnish herders are raised in a talo, it is not simply that they grow up in one place. “A house,” explains Mr Ingold, “is a total establishment, an organic unity of place and people, cumulatively built up through the work of generations.” It is not something that can be shaken off. When Aarne says that herders are “born” to do it he is not being flippant. Like his father, he feels he had little choice. Nor does he regret that. Raisa explains that “this is what we want to do. There’s a richness to this wild way of life.”
That remains true even as threats from climate change, logging and other signs of expanding human footprints impinge on their vast emptiness. But throughout the centuries herders have adapted to changes wrought from outside. They have embraced GPS tracking, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) and drones.