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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

Escaping Coronavirus Lockdown Through a Stranger’s Solitary Walks on YouTube

From Sakura in snow - walking in snowy Saitama / Rambalac / YouTube, Photo illustration by Longreads

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | April 2020 | 25 minutes (6,184 words)


As one of the millions of people currently trapped inside their homes thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, wondering if the virus will still get them, I need an escape, not only from the trying monotony of indoor life in cramped quarters parenting a toddler who seems increasingly aware that something is wrong, but from the anxiety as well.

I worry constantly: about my 2-year old daughter; about my wife; my health; my job; my aged parents; the effect that broken social bonds will have on children’s development. I also worry about what medical professionals like my wife call “the surge.” We Americans hunker indoors waiting for the virus to decimate our communities like it has Italy’s, and for the bodies to fill graves that few people would want to dig. The tension of anticipation gnaws at you, leaving a pit in your stomach that no amount of gardening or strong cocktails can fill.

There is no actual escape from reality. What I crave is a brief psychological break at the end of these long days, which spring keeps making longer and longer. Sleep is the only real break; yet sleep is something anxiety is allowing me less and less of. So at night, after my wife Rebekah and I bathe and put Vivian to bed at 7:30, we want some quiet time. Sometimes I skate the vacant streets for 30 minutes. Sometimes I listen to music on headphones the way I did as a teen. Then Rebekah and I slouch on our living room couch doing work, replying to emails, and reading news. If there’s time left, we watch TV in our basement.

Wi-Fi provides the homebound masses instant COVID information. Zoom allows us to work remotely. Now a popular, hypnotic Japanese YouTube series provides me the chance for international travel and a reliable psychological escape during this time of limited mobility. In each episode, an unidentified man films the streets as he walks through Japanese cities for hours at a time. He calls himself Rambalac. He calls his episodes videowalks. He uses a high-definition handheld camera mounted on a stabilizer, and captures ambient noise with his Audio-Technica AT9946CM microphone. Filmed both day and night, his walking series started in Tokyo in 2017 but expanded to other cities, the suburbs, and countryside. His videowalks have very literal titles like “Walking in rainy Mizuho city by Clannad trail” and “Walking without reason in rainy Omuta, Kyushu.” His videos state: “Not a vlog, no intrusive faces or talking, pure Japan only.”

I know very little about photography or cinematography, but I could identify some of the effective elements of his technique. He employs no fancy camera work. No splicing, no zooming in and out, no disorienting panning or wobbling. He keeps the camera still and mostly aimed ahead. Sometimes he pivots to capture a broader scene or something he finds interesting, like a sign or river or view. There’s no music, no commentary, no narration, only his location’s ordinary noise. This is why his videos are so absorbing: He turns his viewers into his eyes, letting them see what they’d see if they were walking with him. It’s virtual reality tourism, lacking only touch and smell.

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Shout Out to Myspace

AP Photo/News Sentinel, Jeff Adkins

Instagram and Twitter get all the glory, and the name Myspace elicits eye-rolls or shivers of embarrassment, if it gets any reaction at all. For those of us who lived through its heyday, Myspace is shorthand for the past, but you can’t underestimate its impact. For the music site Stereogum, Michael Tedder produced an epic oral history to document Myspace’s rise and fall, and more importantly, its myriad achievements in the musical sphere.

Back when Myspace launched in 2003, it was novel. People flocked to it to find music and friends who shared their musical passions. Bands like Sherwood and Taking Back Sunday used it to post demos and others, like Arctic Monkeys and Lilly Allen, used it to build their audiences. Some bands found major label contracts this way. The site connected people and changed the way the world shared and listened to music. Then the world changed and the site got usurped by the next new thing. Myspace tried in vain to resurrect itself.  Its new management made some egregious errors in the process. “It came to light that Myspace’s new owners ‘lost’ all of the music it hosted from its inception in 2003 through 2015,” Tedder writes, “reportedly misplacing more than 50 million MP3s from upwards of 14 million artists, in essence completely erasing a significant part of this century’s cultural canon.” But, he points out, “there was a time when Myspace was very much alive, and very much the center of many people’s lives.” Maybe one day enough time will pass to warrant an oral history of Stereogum and the other so-called music blogs that changed the landscape in the early 2000s. For now, this oral history is a fun long walk down memory lane:

Nate Henry [Sherwood]: I think I still have it on video somewhere, we’re on tour and we got a message from Tom from Myspace. Myspace had featured us on the front page. Back in the day they used to have a band on the corner when you logged in to the website. Someone texted me, “Dude, you’re on the front page of Myspace,” and I logged in and then shortly thereafter Tom from Myspace had messaged us. He was like, “Hey, I see you guys are climbing the unsigned charts on Myspace.” We thought it was spam and then we look and it’s like “No, this is the real Tom.” So we started booking some shows through LA a couple months later, and then we went through there and hung out with Tom and everyone at the label, and Tom kinda takes us on this Myspace tour and he was like, “I wanna sign your band.”

Dan Epand [Nico Vega]: I remember Sherwood had millions of followers, yet outside of Myspace nobody knew who they were. And just being like, “Well, that doesn’t feel authentic.” We didn’t want to do that. It never felt like it translated to real fans.

Jordyn Taylor [Artist]: As we continued, after “Strong” took off, we got the interest of Myspace Records. When I met with Myspace, they were offering a development sort of deal. But we were kind of past that. I had my fanbase. They were like, “Hey, so there’s not much we can do on our platform for you, but let’s send you up to Interscope.” So me being naive to the music industry — my dad was managing me — they had us set up a meeting with Jimmy Iovine and we’re like, “Who?” which is the fucking craziest thing now.

Nate Henry: We were, at the time, talking to several smaller labels, and we were just like, “Man, there’s nothing like Myspace, why wouldn’t we?” Looking back, I think it was a bad association. It’d be like a band getting signed to Coca-Cola Records. It’s just in the band’s best interest to keep the corporate part of it out of there, so I wish we would have negotiated, “Hey, we’ll release a record, but let’s not call it Myspace Records.” I think, at the end of the day, people look to bands and arts and music, they want it to sort of be … I don’t know if punk rock is the right word, but they don’t like it when it’s corporate. But we were young and hungry and we also didn’t wanna tell Tom “no” because at that time he had 200 million friends. So we took the good with the bad, but I think the bad was that we were gonna be lumped in with the Myspace brand from then on out, and when it died, we were gonna go down with it.

J Scavo [General Manager, Myspace Records]: The site was clearly music-focused. Tom was a music fan at heart. And he wanted to sign bands and use the platform to really make the case for being the major spine in record campaigns. He had a big forum that was at the time to help promote and develop these artists, and give them opportunities that they wouldn’t have elsewhere. He was our de facto head of A&R.

Jon Pikus [Senior Director of A&R, Myspace Records]: Any good A&R person evolved as technology evolved. Myspace was absolutely a valuable research tool and it only became better from 2006 to 2008. It became the go-to place to look for new artists. I think maybe up to 2005 or so, it was definitely a place you’d go to look, but not maybe the place. But it became the place by the time I was there.

J Scavo: In the ’90s, I managed bands and then I went to Hollywood Records to run their artist development department, and then I sort of saw the digital revolution on the horizon and I sought out a job that would give me some experience in that realm. And I got the job to be the General Manager and run Myspace’s joint venture label with Interscope. It was housed at Myspace, all the employees were Myspace, but if and when things went well, Interscope could upstream them. And they did upstream a few of the artists we worked on. Myspace Records was an idea that Tom had, I think at the urging of Interscope. When I got there, there was one employee who was really just an admin person. I think there were some artists that were signed. But there wasn’t much action ’til I got there and built the staff.

Josh Brooks [Marketing and Programming Chief for Myspace]: I was managing Queens Of The Stone Age and the Distillers and Melissa Auf Der Maur. But when my company was acquired by the Firm, I reconnected with two friends at Myspace. I knew Josh Berman and Jamie Kantrowitz, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley with me. And they showed me, “The one thing that’s connecting everyone here on Myspace is music, and we need someone who gets it and who has those relationships.” All my bands were already using Myspace, and all the people I knew were using the platform as well. Musicians were organically building their own audiences. So, when the opportunity came to be a part of that connective hub, I said, “Great!” I built out that group from just a handful of folks to about 25 by the time I left four years later.

Jon Pikus: I was at Interscope doing A&R for a little over two years and then my dear friend and mentor Nancy Walker brought me to Columbia Records and I had a good run there for eight years. I never really wanted to leave Columbia Records. What happened was the regime changed and all the people I was working with left around 2005. It was time for me to move on and I was trying to find a new opportunity and this Myspace thing came up. Basically, my manager said, “Myspace wants to start a record label. They don’t have any employees yet. It’s a joint venture with Interscope” — he knew my history with Interscope — and he said, “You’re the guy for this, but you have to go interview with Tom and get him to say yes.”

Josh Brooks: I joined Myspace about five months before the News Corp acquisition. The first year really was a honeymoon phase. It was great because we had access to some really interesting creative projects, and there was nothing in the market like us. Within News Corp, it was an eye-opening experience; social media was just starting, but the sharing of media, clips, music was something marketing teams were just beginning to grasp. The film studios were quick to use Myspace to launch film franchises like Paranormal ActivitySaw, and Borat. As time went on, financial targets and ad supported programs were prioritized, and that’s where the squirreliness of a big media company relationship comes into play.

Jon Pikus: I went to the old Myspace office in Santa Monica before they moved to Beverly Hills and sat with Tom. What I thought would be a quick half-hour meeting turned into three hours of him and I sitting together behind his desk surfing from one artist’s top eight to another. And he said, “I’d like you to be the guy and start this label.” So they hired me and pretty much gave me a laptop and a cubicle and said, “Start the label,” [Laughs] with no real parameters.

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The Messy Making of a Nearly Perfect Hip-Hop Album

Al Pereira/Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archives

Twenty-five years after its release, Ol’ Diry Bastard’s solo debut Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version still sounds as fresh as ever. Hip-hop rewrote the musical language and pushed the limits of the English language the way only truly revolutionary art can. Then ODB came along and reinvented hip-hop. For Pitchfork’s weeky Sunday Review, writer Sheldon Pearce revisits Ol Dirty’s musical masterpiece.

As his Wu-Tang band-member Method Man said, “there was no father to ODB’s style: Without musical precedents, he leaned into aberration.” His original style came partly from being an unpredictable personality, and that meant an unpredictable life. “The album took nearly two years to make,” Pearce writes in his review, “because of this fitful approach. ODB was surrounded by a small team doing its damndest to keep him recording, but he could not be collected and he would not be…” Pearce awards ODB’s album a 9.3 on Pitchfork’s 10-point scale. I’d go further and say it’s perfect. I’d also rank Pearce’s review-essay at a perfect 10. This is what the best music writing looks like: incisive, lively, revealing, surprising, words deserving of their subject.

Those methods required several measures to wring an entire album out of Dirty. RZA was the hands-off architect. Buddha Monk was the handler, body man, and engineer, tasked with getting ODB prepped and into the studio, and making sure his vocals sounded right. Mastering engineer Tom Coyne was dubbed “the referee” in the liner notes for breaking up fights. Elektra A&R Dante Ross had the demanding task of shepherding the album to completion amid chaos. “I knew I had to get it to the finish line because there are times in life when you know you only have that moment in time, and you gotta get there,” Ross said of the Dirty Version sessions. “I had to get there, ’cause I strongly suspected that would not happen again.”

ODB’s volatility created only a small window for capturing his output. He was anti-prolific, so inefficient in his recording style that it made The Dirty Version even more of a marvel—not just catching lightning in a bottle but harnessing its electricity to power a generator. It’s impossible to overstate how much his jolting vocals jump out and strike you. On “Don’t U Know,” he lurches along, his singing barely adhering to melody and meter. On “Hippa to da Hoppa,” he punctuates every bar with a grunt, then becomes conversational, then does some straight-up showerhead crooning. Across chest-thumpers like “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Cuttin’ Headz,” he becomes a caricature, a monster of pure id born of New York City’s sordid underbelly.

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On Racism and Epithets

Brian Ach/Invision for Spaulding/AP Images

One of the greatest features of the literary essay is its flexibility. An essay can be linear and chronological. It can be digressive and circular. The dots it connects can form a trapezoid whose structure remains hidden until the last sentence makes everything crystal clear. The best essays are, as essayist Phillip Lopate once said in a lecture, a map of the movement of a human mind, and part of an essay’s pleasure is seeing how different minds work.

For the New England Review, fiction write Robert Lopez explores racism’s vastness and influences, in both his life and the world at large. Ranging freely to collect seemingly divergent points, he connects elements from American culture with his past and present to create a brilliant, fresh portrait of racism and its lasting effects, using particular racial epithets to lead his way. We always need powerful perspectives on American racism. His is wildly original and affecting.

I used to describe myself as half Puerto Rican and half Italian and half Cuban and half Spanish. I called it the new math.

Of course it wasn’t true, those percentages. But saying one was a quarter or eighth or some other tiny fraction of anything always felt stupid to me.

Which is akin to being classified as a quadroon or octoroon, which was also ridiculous and awful.

During American slavery, quadroon was used to designate a person of one- quarter African ancestry, that is equivalent to one biracial parent and one white or European parent; in other words, the equivalent of one African grandparent and three white or European grandparents.

Some terms for quadroons in Latin America are morisco or chino.

In the ’90s I worked at an Italian restaurant on Long Island as a waiter and, like in many restaurants in New York both then and now, Latinos staffed the kitchen. One such line cook was referred to as Chino. That’s what everyone called him and that’s what I called him. I have no idea what his given name was, perhaps it was Roberto or Jesus.

You can imagine why he was called Chino.

The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one pure black parent and one pure white parent, or a person whose parents are both mulatto. In some cases, it was used as a general term, for instance on US census classifications, to refer to all persons of mixed race, without regard for proportion of ancestries.

The US Government used quadroon and octoroon, etc., as distinctions in laws regarding rights and restrictions.

The only math I did as a teenager was the calculation of batting averages and earned run averages, the probability of drawing to an inside straight, now known as a gut-shot straight, which you should never attempt.

Now the only math I do is by increments of 15. 15-love, 30-15, deuce.

My tennis community here in Brooklyn is diverse and glorious. In the past year I’ve played with Mexicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, folks from Qatar, Egypt, Nigeria, all manner of Europeans, quite a few Australians and South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Pakistani, even people from Ohio.

White, black, brown, color and off-color. All kinds of fractions.

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Teaching Writing and Breaking Rules

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

“As much as we might admire what is fresh and innovative, we all learn by imitating patterns,” writes Irina Dumitrescu in The Times Literary Supplement. “To be called ‘formulaic’ is no compliment, but whenever people express themselves or take action in the world, they rely on familiar formulas.” It’s true. For her review-essay, Dumitrescu reads five books about writing and explores how writing advice is caught in a paradox: to get people to communicate clearly, logically, and find their own voices, instruction must first teach them rules and provide enough room to learn by copying. This is why most of us writers begin by imitating established writers. We find someone whose style or subject reflects our own – someone in whom we hear our ideal selves, someone who sounds like we want to sound one day – and we mimic them. This could start with a parent, move to a cool friend, then end with a famous novelist or memoirst, before we emerge from the pupae of literary infancy. In other words, to facilitate originality, we must teach formula, encourage imitation, and push for eventual independence. She explores the value of craft, structure, exploration, and formula, and the way sticking to rules erodes a writer’s style, their character, even the essence of the art. She contrasts John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities with the book Writing to Persuade, by The New York Times‘ previous op-ed editor, Trish Hall.

It is easy for a lover of good writing to share Warner’s anger at the shallow and mechanistic culture of public education in the United States, easy to smile knowingly when he notes that standardized tests prize students’ ability to produce “pseudo-academic BS,” meaningless convoluted sentences cobbled together out of sophisticated-sounding words. Warner’s argument against teaching grammar is harder to swallow. Seeing in grammar yet another case of rules and correctness being put ahead of thoughtful engagement, Warner claims, “the sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing. The idea is.” Instead of assignments, he gives his students “writing experiences,” interlocked prompts designed to hone their ability to observe, analyse and communicate. His position on grammatical teaching is a step too far: it can be a tool as much as a shackle. Still, writers may recognize the truth of Warner’s reflection that “what looks like a problem with basic sentence construction may instead be a struggle to find an idea for the page.”

Then she looks at a book like Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, which provides further contrasts and insight:

Shapes appear in Alison’s mind as clusters of images, so what begins as literary analysis condenses into a small poem. For “meander,” Alison asks us to “picture a river curving and kinking, a snake in motion, a snail’s silver trail, or the path left by a goat”. She speaks of the use of colour in narrative “as a unifying wash, a secret code, or a stealthy constellation.” The point is not ornamentation, though Alison can write a sentence lush enough to drown in, but tempting fiction writers to render life more closely. Against the grand tragedy of the narrative arc, she proposes small undulations: “Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave.” These are the shifting moods of a single day, the temporary loss of the house keys, the sky a sunnier hue than expected.

The Roman educator Quintilian once insisted that an orator must be a good man. It was a commonplace of his time. The rigorous study of eloquence, he thought, required a mind undistracted by vice. The books discussed here inherit this ancient conviction that the attempt to write well is a bettering one. Composing a crisp sentence demands attention to fine detail and a craftsmanlike dedication to perfection. Deciding what to set to paper requires the ability to imagine where a reader might struggle or yawn. In a world tormented by spectres too reckless to name, care and empathy are welcome strangers.

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Moving Literary Life Off the Page

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for New York Magazine

Before John Freeman became a respected editor of magazines such as Freeman’s and Granta, and edited multiple anthologies, he was an aspiring poet. Like many of us young writers, he couldn’t figure out how to get his writing life started, so he went into New York book publishing, thinking that might be the career route for him. For Poets & Writers magazine, Freeman writes a welcome personal narrative about how literary events were actually what provided the guidance and models he needed at that early stage of his career. He’d spent so much time in classrooms that he didn’t understand how writers conducted their professional and artistic lives. Interacting with authors offered the same kind of humanity that reading books did, except author events also inspired, educated, illuminated, humbled, and oriented him as a writer, giving him the directions he needed at that stage in his life. Candid, unscripted moments, pointed questions, casual off-the-cuff comments by everyone from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace – even the way they conducted themselves in front of the audience – it all left its mark on Freeman.

To this day, even after attending hundreds of readings, and giving hundreds more of my own, I find it hard to be cynical about gigs, readings, tours, and the like: Every single event holds the possibility that someone will leave changed—even the writer. The best writers on the road or onstage know that giving a reading or participating in an event isn’t simply a chance to say what they know. A good public event is more of a dialogue than that. An oral version of what writers do on the page, a reading has no predetermined outcome. In the sacred space of the public event, writers can try things out: a new idea, a way of seeing around what’s in front of us.

Having grown up in the heyday of post-structural criticism, which touted the idea of the abstract author, I was relieved when I started going to readings to see the forms I loved re-embodied, to see that the novel was made by a human hand, a heart, a mind. The more writers I saw onstage, the more physical the art form seemed to be, the more conceptual theory felt beside the point. John Ashbery seemed flattered by all the work done to figure out what his poems were about, but he also appeared, at good readings, just glad to be there. By the time I saw him read, much too late, he seemed to know his time was brief.

It’s funny reading this essay, because for me, it completes a circle. Freeman did the same for me at one AWP panel, where he and others spoke about how they think about editing, and how they came to it. I listened and filled pages of my tiny notebook with their ideas and anecdotes, and in turn, that simple panel shaped me. Such as: “If you’re not reading submissions that represent what America looks like, then you’re not presenting an accurate portrait of a time and place.”

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Coronavirus Could End Trump’s Chance at Reelection, But Things Are Too Terrifying Right Now To Feel Hopeful

AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

At The Atlantic, long-time Republican Peter Wehner writes what many of us hope is true: That the coronavirus crisis has shown how incapable a leader Trump is, and this crisis will end Trump’s presidency. Granted, a lot of us knew how incapable Trump was before the pandemic. He is a despicable, morally bereft “human being.” And even if Wehner’s prediction turns out to be correct, a national emergency is too great a cataclysm to make it feel worth celebrating right now. Right now, a lot of us are locked inside our homes, self-quarantining, entertaining our kids while protecting ourselves and others. An end to Trump’s presidency is an optimistic outcome; let’s just hope enough of us survive, and our economy endures, to enjoy it. Nothing seems cheery now, here indoors among the stockpiled cereal, canned beans, and coffee, during this isolated, anxious time when so many of us are wondering if our jobs will continue, reading too many coronavirus articles and tweets and updates, and wondering which of our elderly family members the virus will kill. Right now, we can definitely use something to feel hopeful about. The full pantries no longer provide much sense of relief. With the spreading pandemic creeping closer to each of us, it no longer seems like we have much time to wait for Trump’s reign to end. And yet, locked inside our homes, it also seems that time is all we have, one hour ticking slowly by after another. But back to Wehner.

Most of us know Trump’s moral and presidential failings, his lying, cheating, racism, misogyny, and unfortunate ability to get away with behavior that would have ruined other presidents, let alone small-town mayors. Wehner makes a strong case, though: How Trump ignored early warnings about COVID-19. How Trump circulated misinformation, blocked testing efforts, disbanded the NSC pandemic unit, kept shaking people’s hands despite warnings, and how he is clearly incapable of comforting or protecting the public in anyway. Now that we’re in crisis, Wehner believes that Trump can no longer hide his errors and presidential limitations, and it will cost him the election. “Day after day after day he brazenly denied reality, in an effort to blunt the economic and political harm he faced,” writes Wehner. “But Trump is in the process of discovering that he can’t spin or tweet his way out of a pandemic. There is no one who can do to the coronavirus what Attorney General William Barr did to the Mueller report: lie about it and get away with it.”

The coronavirus is quite likely to be the Trump presidency’s inflection point, when everything changed, when the bluster and ignorance and shallowness of America’s 45th president became undeniable, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a mathematical equation.

It has taken a good deal longer than it should have, but Americans have now seen the con man behind the curtain. The president, enraged for having been unmasked, will become more desperate, more embittered, more unhinged. He knows nothing will be the same. His administration may stagger on, but it will be only a hollow shell. The Trump presidency is over.

We will see. But I am grateful for Wehner’s gift of hope. What I want more than anything, is for my family, my friends, my neighbors, and people around the world, including you reading this, to survive, so that we can emerge from this and not only thrive, but can, as Dan Rather recently put it, “follow a path of renewal and improvement of how we structure our society, its economy, its health, its social obligations, and its politics.”

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The Zoo That Divided a Town

AP Photo/Kevin Anderson

In April 2020, Mark and Tammy Drysdale moved to the 2,500-person town of Grand Bend, Ontario and bought a shuttered roadside zoo. Then they started filling the property with lions, goats, lemurs, and various exotic animals. Unfortunately, their property was no longer zoned for zoos. It was now zoned residential. The outspoken owner, Mark, claimed his lions were basically domesticated cats, and local bylaws allowed domesticated animals. Certain neighbors said otherwise, and they worked to close down the zoo. For the Canadian quarterly magazine Maisonneuve, Kieran Delamont writes about the town’s struggle with the zoo, and what larger social and economic forces this resistence represents. Delamont sees the zoo as a barometer of town health, a way to measure the distance between the rich and poor, the past and the future, and the thin threads that often bind communities like Grand Bend, which only has one intersection.

None of it is enough, for Drysdale at least, so he keeps adding new animals to the mix like a roughshod Noah stocking his arc. In September, a baby zebra is born. In October, another lion cub arrives. These kinds of home-brew zoos have existed in Ontario for at least a hundred years—a network that, in the vacuum created by a lack of regulations, sprang up alongside the growing highway network. With a little ingenuity, and some cash on hand, these animals are not as hard to acquire as people imagine. Twice a year, an “Odd and Unusual” animal auction is held somewhere in southern Ontario, functioning like a trading post. Exotic cats are still a somewhat prized auction item, but someone could expect to see lynx, lemurs, llamas, reptiles, even wolves, up for sale. This exotic animal community is a tradition of rural Ontario, and Drysdale is deeply entrenched in it.

But if there’s no space for Drysdale in today’s Grand Bend, it’s at least partly because today’s Grand Bend is different from that old Grand Bend. The town has always been a place filled with lake people—its own Ontario character type, comprising enthusiastic cottagers and the more grizzly beachfront locals. Lake people earnestly own painted Adirondack chairs, insist on idiosyncratic house rules to various card games and probably have at least one nautically decorated bathroom. Every year since I was a baby, we lake people show up in Grand Bend for May Two-Four weekend and leave as late as we can on Labour Day.

It’s always been a culture of the leisured middle class, catered to by the labour of teenagers at the ice cream stand, supplied by travelling salesmen of the flea market, entertained by the hospitality of people like Drysdale who opened little roadside businesses and simply let the tourists come to them. But that kind of economic rejuvenation, it seems, may no longer be the kind people want.

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A Design Aesthetic That Lets You Succeed In a World That Doesn’t Care If You Fail

Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopres/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

If I remember correctly, the term “fern and brass” has been used to describe the hideously bland interior design of lookalike chain restaurants from the 1980s. It didn’t matter what city you were in, be it Spokane or Topeka, they all looked the same. I’m glad I was too young to have fully experienced that, but each generation has their aesthetic and its burdens. For The Cut, Molly Fischer writes a richly detailed analysis and history of a modern design style she calls the “millennial aesthetic,” in a story that has more personality, color, and life in it than any of the interiors she describes. One photo caption in Fischer’s story names the aesthetic’s hallmarks as “Motivational ad copy, soft colors, and photogenic domesticity.” Originality isn’t the point. Sameness has certain virtues, even if they’re clichés. So where did this aesthetic come from? How does it work, and will it and its pinkness ever go away? Our era has eaten the pink pill that sells us design as palliative medicine, something that, as Fischer put it, “functions like a CBD seltzer.” Also, advertising, aspirational lifestyle branding, and consumption are all intertwined in this aesthetic.

If you simultaneously can’t afford any frills and can’t afford any failure, you end up with millennial design: crowd-pleasing, risk-averse, calling just enough attention to itself to make it clear that you tried. For a cohort reared to achieve and then released into an economy where achievement held no guarantees, the millennial aesthetic provides something that looks a little like bourgeois stability, at least. This is a style that makes basic success cheap and easy; it requires little in the way of special access, skills, or goods. It is style that can be borrowed, inhabited temporarily or virtually. At the very least, you can stay a few hours in a photogenic co-working venue. At the very least, Squarespace gives you the tools you need to build your own presentable online home.

Fischer explains the central role that the color pink plays, and its surprising popularity.

No account of the millennial aesthetic could fail to address pink: For the better part of a decade, millennial pink bedeviled anyone a color could bedevil. When Facebook rolled out a corporate rebrand last fall, the lead image in the press release showed the new logo — breezily spaced sans serif — in a muted shade somewhere on the ham-to-salmon spectrum. Samuel keeps wondering when people will get sick of the color, but they don’t; almost every client asks for pink. She thinks this is because it’s soothing. They want houses that remind them of vacations, suggest Mediterranean idylls.

“It kind of feels like a binky,” Deborah Needleman, the former editor of T, WSJ., and Domino, says of millennial interiors. (Boob-print pillows and bath mats are perhaps the most literal expression of a general tendency toward the comforts of babyhood.) Needleman sees not a trip to Greece but something more like childproofing. “It’s like it has no edge or sense of humor or sense of mystery,” she says. “There’s no weirdness. There’s nothing that clashes. It is very controlled.”

It’s amusing to note that the PRADA ad in this article’s sidebar turns the brand name into an acronym for “Play Responsibly And Dress Authentically” — one of the motivational ad slogans that Fischer mentions. The ad’s background is 80% pink, and its design elements lack the authenticity its motto tries to sell.

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Some Inland California History Begins with an Orange

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

For Riverside native and author Susan Straight, citrus and camaraderie were once the ties that bound people in the part of southern California called the Inland Empire. This area includes the many cities east of greater Los Angeles, and west of Palm Springs, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. New arrivals used to plant lemons, tangerines, and oranges in their yards, as well as figs, persimmons, avocados, and loquats, and they shared their bounty with friends and neighbors. For California’s public broadcasting service KCET, Straight writes an evocative essay that mixes regional history with personal history, and celebrates the way these imported fruits have shaped the social fabric and local economy. She has an 80 year old apricot tree growing on her property. Even though this arid region isn’t known for its timber, Straight calls its planted gardens “non-native woods” and sees them as paradise, because they helped provide many people what was truly a piece of the good life. “The groves are nearly gone now,” Straight writes, “housing tracts named for what they’ve erased.” But locals don’t give up these traditions.

Eliza Tibbets started the first two seedling navel orange trees. A statue of her was recently unveiled in downtown Riverside, and it seems a fitting time to remind ourselves of the woman who transformed California’s landscape, not just with daring but with generosity. (I still drive past the Parent Navel Orange Trees, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues, every week.)

She was married three times, an abolitionist (her third husband, Mr. Tibbets, campaigned as a “Radical Republican” who tried integration in Virginia), a suffragist who tried to vote in 1871, a spiritualist who led séances in Riverside when she got here. But in 1873, she sent to Washington’s new Bureau of Agriculture for the first two seedling trees of a new variety of seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil, and planted them in her yard in Riverside. She kept them alive with dishwater, shared the fruit and more cuttings, and changed the economy and the very look of Southern California. (Neither she, born in Cincinnati, or the seedlings, were natives.)

By 1886, entire towns like Rialto, Bloomington, Corona and Redlands were laid out around groves of Washington navel orange trees. Packing houses for Sunkist Growers and other cooperatives were built, the Santa Fe Railroad took boxcars full of fruit all over the nation, and oranges were shipped around the world. By 1895, Riverside had the highest per capita income in America, thanks to the citrus industry.

The faces of Southern California changed with citrus, too.  Chinese laborers, Italians and Mexicans and Japanese and African-American southerners, Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado — all picked and packed and trucked oranges.  I grew up with their kids.

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