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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Snapshot of Canada: An Accidental Reading List

ürgen Schwenkenbecher/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Cleaning our basement recently, I found a box of old Canadian magazines. The covers were crisp, the bindings intact. Published between 2011 and 2013, I’d gathered these issues of The Walrus and Maisonneuve as research for an abandoned book project. Curious about what was inside, I sat down with them and a pot of very British black tea — the kind The Empress Hotel serves with tiny sandwiches in Victoria, British Columbia.

People call The Walrus the Canadian New Yorker. Maisonneuve was named Magazine of the Year in 2005, 2012, and 2016. Between their striking glossy covers I found the stylish, substantial writing these magazines are still known for, and stories both evergreen and of their time: stories about food, sex, drugs, immigration, politics, Indigenous rights, art, and the environment.

Thumbing through old magazines can be fun. Dated advertisements reveal bizarre worldviews and outdated thinking, like the doctors who famously preferred Camel cigarettes, and a mid-century ad I found featuring two poodles smoking the Old Gold brand. Those were the days. Back issues also capture a country’s struggles, its psyche, mythology, and national narratives, and these Canadian issues returned me to a particular time in my own life.

Years ago, I pitched an idea for a book called Canphilia to a literary agent. Philia is a suffix denoting love or an affection for something, and I loved Canada. The title was too scientific for a first-person narrative travelogue in search of the Canadian national identity, but I was younger then, and that was the best I could come up with.

Covering 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, yet few Americans can name half of the 10 provinces let alone name beloved Canadian icons or defining cultural characteristics. “To outsiders,” my proposal said, “Canada seems like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks are the envy of the developed world. The country has one of the highest standards of living on earth, a functioning public health system, and it’s the only G8 country with balanced books. Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. Naturally, when people talk about it, most utter some variation of, Ah, I love Canada. But beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple syrup production, what do we really know about it?” One thing I knew was that living next to one of the most loud-mouthed, aggressive, arrogant countries in history could make any neighboring country appear quiet, peaceful, and humble. Or maybe their voice was drowned out by all of our patriotic, idiotic, saber-rattling nonsense.

The vast majority of Canada’s 38 million inhabitants lived in larger urban centers within 125 miles of the US border, so I planned to drive, hike, and ferry across the entire country, from west to east, sticking to the border, to investigate. “More importantly,” my proposal said, “do we even know what makes a Canadian a Canadian? What they stand for? How they think and act? And what do they think of us, anyway?”

I was ambitious and slightly bananas, and I wanted to do for Canada what Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones did for China, and Ian Frazier’s The Great Plains did for the American Midwest: write a vivid, nuanced, humorous portrait of a people and their homeland, that would appeal to a general readership and enlighten myself as much as my fellow Americans. In addition to Canada’s national character, I would interrogate my own interest, search for the reasons so many of us disgruntled Americans fall under the country’s spell. Obviously Canada wasn’t perfect, with its clear-cut logging and historically egregious treatment of Indigenous people. I wanted to examine Canada’s contradictions, and debunk popular stereotypes. I wasn’t interested so much in defining “constitutional monarchy” or “parliamentary democracy” for American readers, or helping them reconcile Canada’s independence with its connection to the Queen. I was interested in profiling the personality of the Canadian people and their culture while trying to figure out why I longed to live somewhere I knew so little about.

The agent loved the idea, but we never shopped it to publishers. I couldn’t afford to take enough of the trip to write any sample chapters, and supposedly, Americans don’t care enough about Canada to read books about it. I filed “the Canada book” away in the back of my mind as I developed other niche book ideas that never sold, because that’s the kind of writer I am. As I moved around, my Canada books and back issues came with me.

After reading these issues, I thought it’d be fun to assemble some of their stories, which reveal new sides of Canada to outsiders like me (and maybe you). This is not meant as a definitive Canada reading list. It’s a sample of what I pulled from one stack of issues from 2011 — 2013. That makes this collection more of a tiny time capsule, an incomplete portrait of a particular place in time. Actual Canadians can gather more wide-ranging, complete lists that capture the totality of Canada, its breadth and depth. These older stories also provide an interesting baseline to compare Canada now with Canada then. After reading them, I wondered: Has Canadian secondary education improved? Is Kraft mac ’n cheese still Canada’s national dish? What happened to that hyped comedy troupe Picnicface? Here they are in chronological order, with their subheads included as description. None of these stories feature hockey or The Tragically Hip, but one is about Labatt beer. Part of Canada’s identity involves outsiders’ reliance on cliché. Enjoy, eh?

* * *

Going Viral” (Maisonneuve, Kaitlin Fontana, Summer 2011)

“This fall, the sketch comedy group and online-video machine Picnicface will simultaneously launch a feature-length movie, a TV show, and a book. Can eight nerds from Halifax resuscitate Canada’s ailing comedy scene?”

In Halifax, far from the showbiz machine, Picnicface has been free to both develop a unique voice in front of a warm audience, and to cultivate a show without fear of high-profile failure. McKinney likes that the group is from Halifax—it reminds him of his early days in Calgary, before he moved to Toronto. “If they’d been born in LA, they’d have all been poached before they could create this voice that develops between like-minded people, this ecosystem that happens in smaller places,” he says. Halifax, for Picnicface, is an incubator. Little goes further: “We’ve done some garbage here, but I’m really happy we did, because it helped mold us.”

Canada’s Most Unwanted” (The Walrus, Jasmine Budak, December 2011)

“Domestic adoption is rarely the first choice for prospective parents. But with rising infertility rates and the availability of foreign infants declining, some 30,000 children in government care have a better shot at finding a family.”

Canadians have long adopted from abroad, but largely for humanitarian reasons, in spurts and small numbers: orphans of the Irish famine, World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars; and, later, in the mid-’70s, from orphanages in Cambodia, Bangladesh, India, and Latin America, through Ottawa’s newly established national Adoption Desk. But over the next two decades, as adoption became normalized and the supply of domestic infants began to wane, inter-country adoption became less about finding parents for destitute babies and more about finding babies for hopeful parents. It was no longer motivated by goodwill, but rather became a transaction in the business of fulfilling the developed world’s growing demand for infants.

Visions of the Future” (Maisonneuve, Chandler Levack, Summer 2012)

“A twenty-four-year-old singer named Grimes is the world’s hottest independent pop star, and her fame has cast Montreal into the spotlight yet again.”

Grimes’ success and the exposure she’s brought her Arbutus label-mates—Sean Nicholas Savage, TOPS and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, among others—have made Montreal a high-profile indie-rock hotspot once again, reminiscent of the time, several years ago, when Arcade Fire attracted the world’s attention to the city. Although Montreal has plenty of other worthy independent labels, like Secret City and Alien8, the rise of Grimes has made Arbutus a litmus test for the promise of the city’s young musicians. Today’s tastemakers are fickle, and too much hype can cause a community to cannibalize itself—especially one as small and tight-knit as Montreal’s music scene. As Morrissey once said, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”

Calgary Reconsidered” (The Walrus, Chris Turner, June 2012)

“Six truths about the city that’s no longer, simply, Cowtown.”

Even if you love the city deep down, you sometimes feel as if you’re merely putting up with it, waiting for it to grow all the way up and become what it pretends to be. Calgary is an overnight millionaire fresh from the sale of a gas exploration company, complaining about the greed of all those farmers who jacked up the lease rates. Calgary is the home riding of the prime minister abutting the home riding of the premier, and still insisting that it doesn’t get a fair shake in Ottawa or Edmonton. Calgary is the highest per capita income in Canada in a province with no sales tax, indignant that its property taxes are going up. Its conservatism sometimes scans as a youngster’s I-got-mine insolence. Its emerging power and prominence come across from some angles as pure teenage bluster.

The Hunter Artist” (The Walrus, Sarah Milroy, July/August 2012)

“In Cape Dorset, Nunavut, a new generation is redefining Inuit art, preserving northern traditions as it adapts to southern ways of life. One of these artists is Tim Pitsiulak.”

Whites imagine Inuit, and Inuit imagine whites; Inuit art is where their fantasies meet, but the interface is changing. Kinngait continues to release its annual portfolio of about forty prints, as it has for more than fifty years. Despite stars like Kenojuak, prices for the prints have remained fairly consistent and modest, in the $500 to $2,500 range. But one-of-a-kind drawings are gaining a following and, as with the prints, the prices are regulated by Dorset Fine Arts, the co-op’s Toronto distributor, which sends the art to dealers across Canada and around the world, who then charge what the market will bear. Pitsiulak’s largest and best drawings can now sell for as much as $12,500, making him one of the most successful artists in the North. His aunt Kenojuak’s best works sell for around $16,000. Shuvinai Ashoona’s prices are close behind Pitsiulak’s and rising fast. This phenomenon of individual artists’ commanding widely differing levels of remuneration could someday lead to a break with the old co-op way of doing things, in which the revenue from higher-priced artists supports the costs of maintaining the studio and distribution, helping to fund the production of those artists who are less likely to sell. Inuit artists in Cape Dorset may hesitate to abandon a system that has afforded them predictable prices for pieces on completion (as well as studio space and material costs), irrespective of the vagaries of the southern art market.

Manufacturing Taste” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, September 2012)

“The (un)natural history of Kraft Dinner — a dish that has shaped not only what we eat, but also who we are.”

The point is, it’s nearly impossible to live in Canada without forming an opinion about one of the world’s first and most successful convenience foods. In 1997, sixty years after the first box promised “dinner in seven minutes — no baking required,” we celebrated by making Kraft Dinner the top-selling grocery item in the country.

This makes KD, not poutine, our de facto national dish. We eat 3.2 boxes each in an average year, about 55 percent more than Americans do. We are also the only people to refer to Kraft Dinner as a generic for instant mac and cheese. The Barenaked Ladies sang wistfully about eating the stuff: “If I had a million dollars / we wouldn’t have to eat Kraft Dinner / But we would eat Kraft Dinner / Of course we would, we’d just eat more.” In response, fans threw boxes of KD at the band members as they performed. This was an act of veneration.

John Cage’s Canada” (Maisonneuve, Crystal Chan, Fall 2012)

“The twentieth century’s most important avant-garde composer may have been American, Crystal Chan writes, but he found his greatest inspiration north of the border.”

On a Thursday night in August 1961, Cage took the podium at Montreal’s Théâtre de la Comédie-Canadienne and moved his arms in a circle, imitating the hands of a clock. In response, eighteen musicians began to play. The piece, called Atlas Eclipticalis, was Cage’s first Canadian premiere, and he had written it by matching notes to star positions in an astronomical atlas. At the time, the whole world had its eyes on the stars; earlier that spring, a Soviet cosmonaut had beaten the Americans to space. Composing music with the help of astronomy was still an eccentric method, though, and one that marked an important shift in Cage’s career. After Atlas Eclipticalis, Cage moved away from writing music with notes, rests and other conventional symbols. Instead, he went on to create graphic scores—essentially, drawn music—and write textual instructions. He started to see himself as a creator of experiences through sound, rather than a composer of music.

The Place Where Art Sleeps” (Maisonneuve, Chris Hampton, Fall 2012)

“The vast majority of the art gallery of Ontario’s priceless collection isn’t on display — it’s tucked away in high-security, top-secret vaults.”

Of the AGO’s eighty-five-thousand-piece permanent collection, only about 3,900 works are on display right now. At any given time, 95 percent of the collection is in storage. Paintings, sculptures and installations account for roughly eleven thousand pieces in the vaults, while photography and works on paper make up the other seventy thousand. This isn’t unique to the AGO. Art institutions are a bit like icebergs; the public sees less than a tenth of their holdings. But that may finally be changing. While security and conservation remain top priorities, galleries are beginning to experiment with new ways for the public to engage with their broader collections. Visitors increasingly want to see everything—including what’s behind the scenes.

Doppel Gang: Why Canada Needs Quebec” (The Walrus, Mark Kingwell, January/February 2013)

“Why Canada needs Quebec.”

Yes, there it is. Quebec is Canada’s familiar-strange double, a return of the repressed, so like the rest of the country and yet so minutely, eerily different. Are they plotting something large and secretive, some kind of surprise secession? Probably not. No, they probably just want things to go on like this more or less forever, teetering between passive entitlement and passionate outrage, sketching a glorious future free of any reality principle.

Unmasked” (Maisonneuve, Andrea Bennet, March, 2013)

“Before the 2010 G20 Summit in Toronto, police infiltrated activist communities as part of a massive, costly campaign that resulted in high-profile arrests and prosecutors. Who were these undercovers, and how did they avoid scrutiny?”

Guelph was also home, in the lead-up to the G20 summit, to a branch of one of the largest undercover police operations in Canadian history. The $676 million security bill for the G20 summit and its G8 counterpart—which was held on June 25 and 26 in Huntsville, Ontario—included funding for an eighteen-month-long infiltration of activist communities, from January 2009 through June 2010. The Joint Intelligence Group, a well-staffed network of OPP and RCMP officers based in Barrie, Ontario, carried out this investigation. According to the JIG Operational Plan, the effort included twelve “trained covered  investigators,” as well as commanders, managers, and technical and office support. Over the course of those eighteen months, JIG made $8 million worth of capital purchases and had a $297 million operational budget. It set up commander offices, a project room, workstations—and, during the G20 summit itself, an operational “War Room.”

Fight of the Bumblebee” (The Walrus, Sasha Chapman, March 2013)

“Honeybee colonies are collapsing around the world, putting food production in danger. We may need Canada’s indigenous pollinators to save the day.”

South of Detroit and Windsor, sandwiched between Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, the flat lines of Essex County farmland carve the southern tip of Ontario into tidy rectangular parcels of fertile, well-drained soil. When you approach Leamington from Highway 401, it is difficult to imagine this area as the nearly impenetrable forest it once was, or that the fires lit by would-be farmers to clear the land once burned so brightly they could be seen 500 kilometres west in Chicago. Today the aerial view looks more like a semi-industrial park, because the area is dominated by gunmetal grey–framed greenhouses. With some 355 hectares under greenhouse vegetable production, more than anywhere else in North America, the region’s output is larger than the entire industry in the US, and growing much faster than other types of agriculture.

First Do No Harm” (Maisonneuve, Ann Silversides, April 2013)

“Are doctors and drug companies to blame for the opioid-abuse crisis? After two shocking deaths in small-town Ontario, Ann Silversides reports from one of the largest coroner’s inquests in Canadian history.“

Under the Influence” (The Walrus, Matthew J. Bellamy, June 2013)

“Beer is to Canada as wine is to France. How Labatt and its allies brewed up a nation of beer drinkers.”

Before the Black Christmas of 1936, Mackenzie approached J. Walter Thompson Co., a major global advertising agency. Mark Napier of the Toronto office had an uncanny feel for the cultural logic of the age, and wanted to portray brewers like Labatt as instrumental, not detrimental, to the nation’s development. In a series of advertisements published in the national monthly Canadian Homes and Gardens, he highlighted Labatt’s long, influential past. “It really all began 70 years ago,” read the text of one ad in 1937, under the tag line “Then As Now.” In others, he linked the company’s evolution to watershed moments in our history, such as Confederation and the Boer War, when “soldiers knew good ale.” As Canadians searched for uniquely Canadian ideas, events, experiences, and commodities—the makings of a national identity—Napier served up Labatt’s product as an age-old piece of Canadiana.

The Marineland Dreamland” (The Walrus, Craig Davidson, July/August 2013

“Deconstructing memories of a scandal-ridden theme park.”

I worked at Marineland for eight summers. Brendan Kelly, six years. Phil Demers, twelve. It paid our rent and put beer in our fridges. Best summers of my life. To a man, we spoke those words.

It makes you wonder. What if, rather than fabrication, “The Tale of the Frozen Sea Lion” was an act of erasure? My unconscious mind embarking on a sly mission of disburdenment, of purposeful forgetting? If I forget enough, if my own story fills with holes, I can tell myself it’s a lie. And that’s easier, overall. Easier than holding on to the knowledge for twenty-plus years, doing nothing meaningful about it. Easier than remembering how I laughed as my supervisor kicked a dead sea lion.

What Happens When You Go Offline

Alastair Grant / AP Photo

Stressed by constant connectivity, exhausted by having to rely on his computer and phone to communicate, artist Sam Winston decided to see what would happen if he tuned out all of modernity’s noise. Instead of just going camping or leaving his phone at home during a long bike ride, he isolated himself in the dark for a few days in his east London studio. “No screens,” Tom Lamont writes in 1843 magazine. “No sun. No visual stimulation of any kind.” Winston taped all his studio windows. He prepared all his food, slept, and worked in darkness. His experiment revealed a lot about the function and capabilities of the human mind under the opposing conditions of constant stimulation and the calm of deprivation. Many of us can relate to Winston’s urge to tune out, if not the way he went about it. Now that so many of us are hunched over our phones during shelter-in-place, relying on screens for news, entertainment, socialization, and work, the onslaught of information is more apparent than ever. Winston wasn’t simply escaping a glut of screens and information. He was escaping our era, one which has evolved so quickly that humanity has barely had time to adjust. A study in 2011 found that on a typical day Americans were taking in five times as much information as they had done 25 years earlier,” Lamont reports, “and this was before most people had bought smartphones.”

The world in the 21st century is no more richly textured or exotic to touch than it used to be. It smells about the same and there are no new flavours. Not since the coming of factories, then aeroplanes, domestic appliances and motorways has there been a serious uptick in sound pollution. Yet the spill of information and distraction that comes at us by eye has grown and grown ceaselessly for two decades, without any sign of a halt or plateau. DM! Breaking-news! Inbox (1)! This is a time of the scrolling, bottomless visual, when bus stops and the curved walls of Tube platforms play video adverts and grandma’s face swims onto a smartphone to say hi. People watch Oscar-nominated movies while standing in queues, their devices held at waist height. A Netflix executive can quip, semi-seriously, that he covets the hours we sleep (hours in which we do not, currently, stream Netflix shows). Apple has put an extra screen on our wrists and Google retains quiet hope that we will eventually wear a screen inside our specs. Big news lands in 140 characters or less, ideally with a startling picture or piece of video, else it doesn’t register as big news.

Our brains tend to lean on the visual, heavily prioritising sight over the other four senses. Ever since we climbed on to two feet as a species, taking our noses farther from the aroma-rich savannah floor, we have been wired to be seeing creatures and for better or worse we usually experience the what’s-next-what’s-next of this world through our peepers. As an artist, Sam Winston was often on the lookout for topsy-turvy projects – weird, sidelong ways to unmoor familiar habits or nudge his work in new directions. He wanted to know what would happen, to him and to his work, if he hid away from the ocular blitz for a while.

Now, working and sleeping in his blacked-out studio, he began to notice new things. Without sunlight as a guide, the day’s rhythms came via aural clues he had been only dimly aware of before: the cessation of London’s air traffic overnight, or the sound of idling vehicles as they took fractionally longer to move off from traffic lights during rush hour. When he brewed cups of rooibos in a rote-remembered action at his tea station he noticed that he could hear the difference between hot and cold liquids as he poured them. He began to see, he later told me, “how intelligent our senses are. And how we just drown them in the tsunami.”

Winston found that he was productive in the dark, too, drawing until his pencils were nubs and creating a series of huge sketches – broad-stroked in places or crowded with overlapping sentences in his crabby handwriting – that would later become part of an exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London. Between drawing jags he had vivid daydreams, even hallucinations, “as if my brain was a digital radio left on search, constantly searching for an available channel”.

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The Can That Was Supposed to Help Save a City

Amy Sancetta / AP Photo

Like many cities whose economies once relied on manufacturing, sections of Youngstown, Ohio, have fallen into disarray. But the city had a plan to revive Youngstown’s East Side, where steel manufacturing once ruled: Joseph Co. International would build a $20 million dollar campus to produce Chill-Can, the world’s first self-cooling beverage can, create jobs, and revive the city. In a collaboration between Youngstown’s Business Journal and ProPublica, reporter Dan O’Brien writes about this ambitious, failed saga of product development and urban renewal, and the difficult bargain cities and corporations make. Youngstown bulldozed homes to build the campus. They gave Joseph a $1.5 million grant, which included funds officials took from sewer and water projects. “This is going to revolutionize the beverage industry,” Joseph’s CEO told one publication. “There will be no other facility like it in the world.” But as O’Brien reports, the facility remains unfinished, and no jobs have been created. The problem involves the city’s approach to redevelopment, which reaches far beyond Chill-Can.

While some firms failed to deliver, officials acknowledge, Youngstown’s program has ultimately leveraged private investments of more than $755 million and has helped create a total of 2,493 jobs out of a promised 2,861, according to city records. Still, The Business Journal and ProPublica found that more than half of those jobs were created by just five companies, including a Toys R Us distribution center and Exal Corp., which manufactures aluminum cans and bottles. Exal has since reduced its workforce, while the Toys R Us warehouse closed. (That facility is now occupied by HMS Manufacturing, which employs far fewer workers than the toyseller did at its peak).

Now, Youngstown’s approach to economic development is coming under greater scrutiny as the city’s former finance director and a prominent developer prepare to face trial on public corruption charges. At the heart of the case are allegations that officials steered taxpayer funds to favored projects in exchange for bribes. The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Separately, the state auditor has alleged that officials misappropriated money from the city’s water and wastewater funds and used it to spur a number of development deals, including Chill-Can. The city is now fighting a directive from that office to repay millions of dollars, arguing, in part, that such a move would plunge Youngstown into fiscal peril.

First Ward Councilman Julius Oliver, who represents a portion of the East Side neighborhood where Chill-Can is located, describes Youngstown’s incentives system as “broken” and has pushed for more accountability against companies that have not met their promised job goals.

“We have people within our city government that could be doing more, and quite frankly, they’re not,” Oliver said. “You can’t keep using the same excuse over and over again.”

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Sharing Food to Feed A Family’s Soul

AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama

After WWII, Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s grandmother foraged and grew whatever food she could to feed her young daughter, Kazuko. Kazuko lived and learned to forage to survive, too. After she moved to the US, food forged a similar bond with her daughter, Marie Mutsuki. As Marie Mutsuki Mockett suggests in an essay for Elle, preparing food for other people nourishes bonds as well as the body, and these connections endure for generations. “Unlike so much in our lives that’s now transactional,” Mockett writes, “the making of food is elemental. It makes the cells that constitute the body and keep us clinging to life. I wonder how many problems in the world can be attributed to this lack of understanding: To make food for others from start to finish is to follow through in our commitment to each other.” Now the pandemic has shut Mockett’s mother’s facility off to visitors, and cut off her deliveries of food, she assesses how to live without shared meals and the role they have played in their lives.

When I was 19, I had pneumonia and was hospitalized for a week. While my fever raged and the antibiotics fought to clear my lungs, I refused to eat. The spaghetti and lasagna cooked up by the hospital kitchen turned my stomach. All I wanted was rice and seaweed: Japanese soul food.

After the final fever broke, my mother arrived with three plastic containers. One had rice. Another held pickled sour plums she had made with fruit grown in her garden. A third held ground beef carefully seasoned. “You’ll get better now,” she grinned as she fed me by hand. And I did. My body reconstituted itself out of her nourishment. Even now, when I am sick, I yearn for those flavors.

Back at the nursing home, before the world shut down to combat a pandemic, the social worker talked to us about how we might plan for my mother’s return home: “You’ll need to either use an assisted living facility, or hire care,” she said to my mother, “That way, you can keep your relationship with your daughter as mother and daughter.” This is what people in the medical field tell the elderly and the dying. It’s a way of suggesting that our bonds with our loved ones should remain purely emotional, as though two people can distill the most important aspects of how they interact, the way cream is spooned out from milk, and leave the rest of the work for others to do. But while it’s one thing to accept help with incontinence, bathing, and medication, I stumble over the idea of letting someone else decide what my mother will eat.

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What Do We Do Without Live Music?

Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

People find their joy in many ways: a nice weekend dinner, family time at the park. The pandemic has brought those lost joys into sharper relief. For Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield writes about the way the pandemic has removed live music from the center of so many listeners’ lives, and how he’s dealing with its absence.

Music is more than sound. We measure our years, even our weeks, by the shows we see. Music is also relational. We experience it with other people, including strangers joined in sweaty community at cramped music venues. This communal experience is part of what Covid-19 has taken away. To compensate for live music’s absence, Sheffield remembers past concerts. He enjoys livestreams and Neil Young’s weekly Fireside Sessions, and he listens to a lot of live albums.

Ministry called one of their live albums In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up — I always love the bitchy tone of that. Showing up is what the live show is all about: We go to be part of that crowd. I started by going to all-ages hardcore matinees on weekend afternoons — that’s where I began learning to handle the chaotic presence of strangers, before I was mature enough to learn any other way. All the people I used to hate at shows, I miss them now. Yes, even you, the douchebag who can’t turn off your goddamn phone because you need to video every moment. Here I am now, scrounging for YouTube scraps and cursing you for not getting better footage. (Seriously, nobody got any video of Stephen Malkmus doing the Cars’ “Good Times Roll” on the 2001 Jicks tour? You people, honestly.)

I keep listening to live albums these days, just because it’s therapeutic to hear a crowd making noise. I’m getting to know the Grateful Dead’s spring ’77 tour all too well. Like the Dead, Taylor Swift had summer stadium shows I was already looking forward to. I revisit shaky fan-cam video of Taylor and relive the night I first saw the Red tour, in 2013. When Taylor busted out the drum solo in “Holy Ground,” the little kid behind me yelled, “She’s rocking out, Mom! She’s rocking ooouuut!” I will think about that moment once a week for the rest of my life.

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How Covid-19 Could Reshape Urban Life

John Minchillo / File / AP Photo

Since the early 2000s, national trends had people leaving the suburbs to return to city centers, lured by the multiple social, economic, and cultural advantages of density. Live music, a nice Friday dinner out, visits to museums and farmers markets, even a subway ride — there was so much to do. With the closures of most businesses, the elements of urban life that made cities vibrant have disappeared. For GEN, Steve LeVine examines the many ways Covid-19 could permanently alter America’s urban landscape, and the way we live in it. This includes the shrinkage of cities due to lower immigration rates, a loss of innovation because of shrinkage, and the migration of manufacturing to cheaper sites outside city limits. As far as urban comforts go, even if stores reopen, who will have money to spend? And will potential shoppers avoid crowded places? As MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson tweeted: “Without an effective testing and tracing infrastructure in place, ‘re-opening’ is just a synonym for ‘second wave of the pandemic.’”

One conspicuous fallout is a potentially final blow to Main Street — the future likelihood that, when you walk or drive down your favorite roads, many of the shops and restaurants you love won’t reopen. In an April 22 note to clients, Barclays said Covid-19 had accelerated what it calls the “retail death curve,” the shift of business to e-commerce. Over the coming five years, 30% to 40% of still-existing physical shops will close, the bank said. Neighborhood shops hoping to survive may have to feature cashierless technology resembling Amazon Go, vending machine sales, and kiosks offering grab-and-go clothing combinations such as T-shirts, jeans, and jackets.

It will be the same with restaurant takeout and delivery. Restaurants will be far from finished as an urban thing. Some restaurants will vanish, but others will arise in their place. Dining out, however, may no longer be the main alternative to cooking at home. The winners will be Amazon and Uber, Walmart, DoorDash, and Target, whose boom in delivery will grow at almost everyone else’s expense. Other emerging businesses, perhaps to support the unicorns, will be reliable, close-at-hand farms growing enough food so the nearby city needn’t worry about future pandemic disruptions, said Alice Charles, a cities analyst for the World Economic Forum.

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The Function and Language of Ancient Sexual Texts

Kin Cheung / AP Photo

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought about a medieval classroom’s curriculum or what it might have been like to attend. Apparently they could be a lot more racy than you’d think. Chaucer’s story Reeve’s Tale, is about rape, for example. Poems about deflowered nuns and lascivious men whose sexual appetites earned comparisons to animals were read to children and adults. In a fascinating and fresh review-essay for the London Review of Books, Irina Dumitrescu looks at ancient depications of sexuality, and the idea of obscenity, through Carissa Harris’ book Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain. “In her meticulously argued new book,” Dumitrescu writes, “Carissa Harris shows that obscenity was used to convey vastly different lessons about sex and ethics in medieval literature. Focusing on sexual language in Middle English and Middle Scots, her study explores the way texts deployed for (heterosexual) erotic education often combined ‘the irresistible pull of arousal and titillation and the revulsive push of shame and disgust’.”

For much of the 20th century, academics argued that the concept of obscenity was born along with the printing press and state censorship of erotic material. One can understand where this idea came from: even a fleeting encounter with medieval art is likely to turn up lurid depictions of sex organs and bodily orifices. Take the naked man crouching at the bottom of the Bayeux Tapestry, his genitalia on full display. (In 2018, George Garnett achieved brief internet fame by counting the 93 phalluses, human and equine, shown on the tapestry, and documenting their states of tumescence.) Medieval manuscript pages often have a stately central text surrounded by rollicking activity. Nuns harvest penises from trees in the lower margins of a manuscript of the Roman de la rose, and a naked man presents his behind to be pierced by a monkey’s lance beneath the prayers of the Rutland Psalter. Pilgrim badges, popular medieval souvenirs made of cheap metal alloys, depict vulvas dressed as pilgrims, winged penises and female smiths forging phalluses. Erotic imagery is carved into stone corbels and on the undersides of wooden choir seats in medieval churches.

But none of this should be taken as proof that there was no concept of obscenity in the Middle Ages. The notion that some things are lewd or filthy is distinct from the desire to regulate them by political means. The influential seventh-century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville used the adjective ‘obscenus’ to describe the love of prostitutes and those parts of the body that excite people to shameful acts. In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux railed against heretics doing ‘heinous and obscene’ things in private, comparing them to the stinking behinds of foxes. In the Roman de la rose, the Lover upbraids the allegorical figure of Reason for using the word coilles (‘balls’). He argues that this isn’t dignified in the mouth of a courteous girl (an unwitting double entendre), but Reason defends her usage. God made the generative organs and women enjoy the pleasures these afford, whatever word is used to describe them. Not all medieval copyists of the Roman de la rose agreed with this argument: a number of versions leave out this passage. People in the Middle Ages certainly understood certain things to be filthy or shameful, but such topics could also inspire prayerful reflection or be used to explain the error of a poor line of verse.

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Japan: A Longform Reading List of Longform Writing

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Before I traveled to Japan for the first time in 2014, I read as much about the country as time allowed. Japanese culture and ecology had interested me since I discovered anime in the fifth grade; I read books by Pico Iyer and Donald Richie, novels by Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto, and collected countless online stories about everything from Japanese architecture to history to customs. I wanted to understand more about this island chain that has been inhabited since at least 30,000 BCE. I wanted to know more about this aggressively innovative culture simultaneously committed to tradition, a country that is famously easy to navigate by train but difficult to integrate into as an outsider. I wanted to understand Tokyo, the world’s largest city, whose allure comes partly from its incomprehensibility.

My library was filled with anthologies on my other passions California, the American South, jazz. But while I had stellar fiction anthologies on Japan, like The Book of Tokyo: A City in Short Fiction and Tokyo Stories: A Literary Stroll, the nonfiction book I wanted didn’t exist.  I couldn’t find a single, English-language anthology collecting longform nonfiction about Japan. So I made it.

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Collecting Rare Sneakers from Japan

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Japan became a producer of highly sought after limited-edition sneakers in the 1990s. Back then, before the internet, so-called “sneakerheads” would befriend shop clerks to get inside information. They’d line up outside of retail stores to secure new items and even pay homeless people to stand in line for them. Now rare sneaker culture has crossed from Japanese collectors into the global mainstream, where a new wave of enthusiasts seek Japan’s rare shoes for both fun and profit, often paying exhorbitant prices on the secondary market. For The Japan Times, staff writer Andrew McKirdy investigates the past and present of Japanese sneaker collecting and how online shopping has changed the pleasures and pitfalls of the old fashioned treasure hunt.

“The customers nowadays are completely different,” Kojima says. “Our job at Atmos is to explain the story of a sneaker to the customer — why it’s a particular color, and so on. Now, the first thing the customers want to know is, ‘Is this a limited edition?’ or, ‘Is this rare?’ That’s not so bad if it’s something that gets them into sneakers. But I’d prefer that they had more interest in it.”

When you make your living from trading sneakers as if they were stocks and shares, however, you had better make sure you get your hands on the coveted goods when they hit the stores.

Lining up to buy newly released sneakers was once something of a hazardous activity, with the threat of violence and robbery — even in normally safe Japan — adding to the hardship of standing on the street for what could be days on end.

Trouble nowadays is not unheard of, but stores operate a lottery system rather than a first-come, first-served basis, and they also enforce a sneaker-based dress code and demand to see identification to prevent would-be shoppers from employing surrogates to line up for them.

“We had 1,200 people lining up here recently,” Kojima says. “If we hadn’t had a dress code, it would have been 3,000 or 4,000.”

The high demand for limited-edition sneakers means only a chosen few will be able to buy them through official retailers such as Atmos. The rest must find them on resale sites, which do not come with the same guarantee of authenticity.

Counterfeit sneakers have been around for practically as long as the genuine articles themselves, but in recent years they have reached unprecedented levels of sophistication. As the global sneaker market continues to grow, so does the number of convincing-looking fakes in circulation.

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The Shopper’s Dream of an Optimized Life

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Shopping online can seem like the ultimate way to save time and trouble. This is especially true now that we have to stay indoors to reduce exposure to the Coronavirus. From Netflix to candle subscriptions to Rent the Runway, subscription-based businesses and direct to consumer services like Warby Parker take that promise further, allowing you to both avoid a brick and mortar store and even the thought of shopping at all. Subscriptions buy you time. Think of all the things you can do with your time once you have to shop less! At Esquire, editor Kelly Stout reveals the tragic flaw in that thinking. Although, theoretically, subscriptions free up customers’ time to do other things, no one can get us to spend that newly available time more efficiently. There is no optimizing for that.

The dream of the subscription is that without having to use our brains for something as mundane as remembering to buy razor cartridges, we might do something better with our time. We might even become more optimized human beings—an economic fever dream that dates back to, I don’t know, the invention of the cotton gin. Probably earlier. In a memorable essay for The Guardian, Jia Tolentino summarized the economist William Stanley Jevons’s definition of optimization: “We all want to get the most out of what we have.” Saving not just time but effort is key to forward momentum in the industrial phantasmagoria that is, at this moment, blasting circus music into my ears. It’s a flattering proposition that implies I’m capable of something grand. Once we’ve saved all that money, all that time, all that hassle, out pops a gameshow host—his smile wider than a Smile-DirectClub member’s—to ask us, What will you do with all this time?

One answer is work. With fewer hours, minutes, or even seconds spent chopping onions and herbs for tonight’s dinner, I could be turning that extra time into money. But I had a different idea: What if, instead, I enjoyed myself? In her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell makes a compelling case for leisure time—not leisure time as “side hustle” or “monetizable” or even something that will improve the self, but as recreation for no reason. This is a novel idea in 2020, even though it’s been around for more than a century. “As far back as 1886 . . . workers in the United States pushed for an eight-hour workday: ‘eight hours of work, eight hours of rest, and eight hours of what we will,’ ” Odell writes. The movement inspired a poster of people in canoes and a song about feeling the sunshine and smelling the flowers. When I read that, I thought: Dang, I never canoe! Maybe shaving off a sliver of my time at CVS could add to those eight what-I-will hours. And yet I spent those extra seconds sitting on my couch. I wasn’t doing anything except scrolling through my feeds, thinking about my subscriptions, contemplating how I could optimize my life further. I wasn’t even going to the store.

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