We're two months into sheltering and this is what it feels like
How are your babies? And by babies I mean misshapen children? And by misshapen children I mean your first-time bread boules? Which we have been photographing and sharing as if we had cut them from our very bellies? I, too, am part of #teambread and my count presently stands at: six lumpy boules, seven pizzas, two banana bread loafs, eight biscuits, all more ghastly than you are imagining but ever-more delicious with each iteration. I even caved and began a sourdough starter in a gosh-darn mason jar and have been frying up the “throwaway” each day (with onions, garlic, and kimchi) as a savory afternoon pancake / impromptu chijimi. IT IS GOOD. The starter seems barely active (I have no idea what I’m doing) but the daily pancake is great.
I’m Craig Mod, and this is Sheltered Bread Monthly, known in the summer months as Humidity Monthly, and in non-Quarantine Times as Roden, a newsletter with 15,000+ very confused subscribers.
Let’s dig in.
As I wrote last week, the big Ise-ji walking site is live. Response has been great. Thank you everyone who has written in with copy-edits. Extremely helpful. Keep them coming. I’ve had a few people ask if they can share the link — YES PLEASE SHARE. We’ve had 25,000+ visitors and have served up oodles of gigabytes of photographs of benches and dilapidated buildings.
One surprise is how many folks have said that they read it and loved it on their iPads. Full disclosure: I tested it on the iPad for no more than 30 seconds before launching. But in hindsight: It makes sense, and the iPad is probably a good fit; with the ambient audio recordings the site is genuinely “multimedia” and a bit tactile and the iPad is a good platform for that combo.
In fact, I was chatting with a friend and he was like, “Isn’t this an … electronic book?” And I was like: YES. This is an ELECTRONIC book. So I registered its ISBN: 978-0-9982214-9-6.
All told, I’m delighted with how the site has turned out. While making it I also uncovered a perverse personal enjoyment (rhymes with narcissism?) of livestreaming production. Members of my membership program get access to 15 hours or so of the production livestream archives. They are boring; that’s kind of the point. I think process revealed in real-time can be illuminating. I know I’d love to peek over the shoulder of more folks working, so I hope these livestreams offer value in that sense. Kenji Alt-Lopez’ recent POV cooking videos fall wonderfully into this category (honestly, they are EXCEPTIONAL and his encyclopedic culinary and cultural knowledge is inspiring).
The streams are members-only not because I think they’re worth paying for (ick, god no), but because they’re so intimate I don’t feel comfortable releasing them to a bigger audience. The membership program creates an artificial barrier allowing me to experiment with something like livestreaming but with none of the stakes of announcing it to all of you.
One of the issues with real-identity based online stuff is that the stakes are often too high for interesting experimentation. I’m probably being hagiographic, but late-90s / early-2000s internet seemed to have more brash and bizarre, almost “pure punk” work (hell.com anyone?), in part because of the vague anonymity folks operated under. I’ve been leaning more and more heavily into the membership space for testing because I trust members will give me a pass when I royally screw up. I also trust their feedback. The small formality of exchanging a bit of cash doesn’t so much change the relationship per-say (we’re not suddenly BFFs if you pay me $10), but keeps the gawkers out, and allows us to engage in a shared and — I hope — meaningfully scaled dialogue.
I’ve always had low-stakes readers in my life; that is, folks to whom I have entrusted draft manuscript reads. The Explorers Club feels like a controlled expansion of that space.
(Of related note: If you’re a student, memberships are free. Just respond to this email and I’ll send you an invite code. Also, if you lost your job to COVID-19 recently, you’re honorarily a temporary student. Email me if you want access. )
The Kitchen & Earning Tools
Last month I wrote about “squinting at the (literal) spaces in our lives and fixing usability errors.” That sounds ridiculous. But personally, the effects of doing this have been profound. The kitchen now, for me, is a place of ownership and control and (very very low-level) mastery in a way it has never been before. Plop me in the middle of it and I am certain I can make something delicious in 20 minutes given whatever is at hand. I have never felt this way before, and may never have gotten to this place without forced isolation. I’ve cooked every meal here for the last two months. It has unlocked a delight and culinary eroticism that was hitherto a great self-mystery, but now I get it I get it. The kitchen, food, owning this space — this is the grit of life. And I realize how “sheltered dumb” this sounds, like I’m some ding-dong that just discovered that water is delicious when slaking thirst, but — ye upon your high horses — I have been “cooking” (almost) daily for decades. The point is: I had never taken whatever that next step was towards full ownership.
This reminds me of meditation practice (or any practice, for that matter) as well. Once a week for decades gets you almost nowhere (I know, I’ve done that); allows at best for you to say “I do meditation” and acquire the requisite mats and towels, sitting pillows, singing bowls. Whereas ten hours a day for ten days straight can provide you with a tool for life.
No no, I know it’s not that black and white. But ownership of “modalities” requires repetition. Not just big-loop repetition, but tight-loop, highly iterative, sustained repetition.
I’ve been in the 60-days-straight-3-to-4-hours-a-day loop of cooking, and it has worked.
Cheryl Mendelson, interviewed in the New York Times, goes into why organizing (which was a foundational act of the above) now soothes:
“Organizing goes a long way toward helping us understand where we are and whether we are all able to live safely and comfortably in this terrible situation.”
A corollary of “kitchen ownership” has been the earning of permission to acquire better tools. I have never owned a bread knife (why would anyone need such a thing?!) but after successfully baking ten delicious things I was “allowed” to buy one. It’s now the most satisfying object in the kitchen, a perfectly weighted almost-sword. Second in line, my $5 plastic bench scraper, which was also life changing, and I was allowed to purchase only after my fourth loaf. I’ve cooked about 40 pots of rice and am only now thinking that I have maybe — just maybe — earned a rice cooker? What do you think? Are rice cookers worth the space? I am not convinced. My atavistic rice made by fire in a pot is delicious.
My main concern with buying tools too quickly is I find they can subvert my verve. Protect the verve at all costs. It’s only after I’ve firmly established said verve, that the new tools integrate well. Perhaps I am insane.
Goddamnit, I love Sasha Arutyunova’s photos; the tones and tone, the framing, the light. Her recent series commissioned by the New Yorker makes me want to get shooting. The whole New Yorker piece is interesting, but I’m a bit sad by how chopped up it is — it’s so vast that the work (of the many included photographers) feels a little diluted. In this case, Instagram is weirdly the better medium for viewing her series.
Here’s a great conversation with Stephen Shore about tools — his many cameras and what they’ve afforded him and his work over the years. I tend to dislike conversations about tools because they seem like procrastinations or excuses (I would rather eat a photocopier than hear about your film stock), but Stephen is thoughtful and impressive and avoids most of the usual fetishizations. You need to make a free account to watch the full video. About 90 minutes long.
Canon released a beta version of software allowing the use of EOS DSLRs as webcams directly via USB. This seems like an obvious thing that should have happened a long time ago. Previously you needed a dongle like an Elgato Cam Link 4k (which are sold out everywhere). I’m using an Elgato HS60S+ to wire up my Fuji X100V as a webcam and … it’s amazing. Every camera should be able to do this natively. And now that so many of us are living and dying by Zoom calls, I suspect we’ll see more manufacturers follow Canon’s suit. The sooner the better.
As usual, Halide has an excellent breakdown of the iPhone SE’s camera capabilities. Lenses / sensors get smaller and better and the software smarter. I can’t wait for some of these smarts to be brought to larger optics.
I have been walking the same path over and over again here near my house in Japan. Often taking the same photos, I feel like an amanuensis, employed by the dirt or trees to record them for no reason other than to record. Maximally socially distanced, most days I see no other walkers. It’s proven to be a photographic project of unexpected fecundity. The images in this issue are from the walk. I’ve been carrying both the Fuji X100V and M10 with me, shooting every image twice in anticipation of perhaps comparing the cameras some day. I look like a lost tourist. I believe people think I am a Disease Vector, foreign. Generally, there seems to be a heightened sense of anomie. Finally, after a dozen loops of this same route someone finally chatted with me. An old woman. I don’t know if she knew I wasn’t Japanese (face mask, hat, sunglasses; I just looked like a burglar). She had that gentle floating torpidity some elderly folk develop with dementia. Regardless, she said: Do you know the big Buddha? And I said, yes. And she said, I’ve worked at the parking lot in front of it for 44 years. I am 84 now. I started when I was 40. Ohhhh, I have seen so much in that parking lot, but it has never closed. Until now. Strange times. Even though the lot is closed they told me to come in, to sit in the booth, so they could give me a little money, and give me something to do. Strange times, strange times.
Not photographs, but moving photographs; I’ve found film (and well-popped popcorn) to be a salve these days:
The Swimmer (1968) is an absolutely insane film based off a John Cheever short story. It stars Burt Lancaster as the protagonist, Dad Bod. It’s beautifully shot, and the basic story — a man “swimming” his way home via a series of vaguely nearby swimming pools in his country town — is like a David Lynch fever dream. Altogether just strange heaped upon strange heaped upon strange. And creepy. Utterly unplacable. I don’t want to say too much more aside from the fact I am amazed it got made and I think it’s worth your time. (Once you’ve watched it, Ebert has a good breakdown you can read for dessert.)
Safe (1995), a Todd Haynes film, feels spiritually aligned with The Swimmer in time line unpredictability. Julliane Moore owns her role, and even though everyone’s watching Contagion as their Pandemic Film, Safe is the smarter film about dangers unseen and of the mind. Also beautifully shot. (David Roth serves you your related film dessert in The New Yorker.)
Ikiru (1952) is a gorgeous B&W late-period Kurosawa film. ALSO time line-unpredictable. The arc is worth analyzing for many reasons, but certainly for its uniqueness. I was moved to tears, and didn’t see the emotional punch coming. The blocking of some of the post-war out-and-about-in-Tokyo shots is peerless.
Trying to describe a short story in a few lines is like trying to describe a bird in flight, or the elegance of a perfectly executed pirouette. Doing so can reduce something elegant and mysterious to a set of awkward instructions that betray the thing itself.
I’ll shut up lest I betray any of the films above.
Recently, in Words
Nick Thompson has a(nother) beautiful essay on running: “To Run My Best Marathon at Age 44, I Had to Outrun My Past”. Take note: It’s an essay full of self, but self deployed with purpose, and weaves in back story to great effect, avoiding the whole narcissism-of-past trap that these things can fall into. Superb work.
Sam Anderson (sharp, hilarious, why aren’t you reading everything he writes?) recently had a moving and heartening profile of Weird Al published in NYTimes Magazine. Again — make note of the autobiographical deployed with explicit purpose. The piece is especially powerful to me as someone for whom Al and his Weirdness was a cornerstone of childhood — in fact some of the very first (maybe only?) shared culture with my father was laughing to Weird Al cassettes in his car as he would pick me as we hung out once a week on Saturdays. So there’s an element to this essay that vibrates with the excitement of seeing a hometown kid make it big, rising far above his cultural station in life. And I still don’t know the “real” lyrics to half of those classics that Al parodied. Keep going keep going. 40+ years of tight-loops, iterations, sustained and fully committed.
Credit Card PSA
Do you have a fancy credit card? Then you probably have extended product insurance. I, very stupidly, did not know this existed. Or rather, I knew about it but assumed the process of filing a claim would be so onerous, so frustrating, and the chances of the claim being fulfilled so low, that it was better to give up before starting. Well, I was very wrong.
In the past six months I’ve had two high-ish price things fail outside of their normal warranties. First: A Homepod, which spontaneously died and became an inert and portless object. No ability to diagnose. No way to repair. A frustratingly useless hunk. Claim filed (quite easily online) and a week later, full refund of purchase price. Wow. (And no, I am not getting another one; I am genuinely miffed by how unservicable the things are.)
And then my shutter on my Leica M10 began to fail. Repair estimate: $1200. This is why I haven’t written a review of this camera — how can I recommend such a thing? Claim filed. Fully covered.
Shock. For the M10 I did have to get the repair facility to sign the claim, but that was easy. Now I’m left wondering: Is there any reason to buy AppleCare if you purchase a laptop or iPhone with a decent credit card?
Something to keep in mind.
These claims were filed with an Amex card. I think most cards with $100+ yearly fees offer similar insurance packages. Considering the amount of traveling I (normally) do, I’ve always easily recouped my yearly fee in baggage waivers and Uber/Lyft coupons, et cetera. This is just an added bonus. I am 100% delighted and totally gobsmacked by the smoothness and quickness of the claim responses. Huge kudos to Amex (or whoever their underwriter is).
Randomly, another big company that deserves a shout-out: JAL. I was supposed to be in Sydney in March for my dear friend’s 60th birthday celebration (which would have been the first time in my life I ever got on a plane for a birthday; 60 is a huge deal in Japan-related birthdays) but obviously that was all shut down. I called JAL, had a human on the phone in five minutes, and they processed my full airfare refund immediately, no hemming or hawing. Sometimes the world isn’t that bad.
I have a routine. Big actions, sure, but also a routine of details, of repeated small gestures. I just turned down the brightness on my monitor. I do this around 10 p.m. in the evening. Every evening: Suddenly, the screen’s too bright. In the morning — after I wake up and say hello to my moss and perform some breakfast variant (so many options now that I have “unlocked” the Full Kitchen level of life) and read until my mind wakes up and I can’t not go to the computer and start working — I’ll tap tap tap the brightness back up to full-blast, open the blinds with a very specific pull on a plastic chain (each day wishing it was made of a different material), open my windows, listen to the birds, watch the black kites whose given names I feel like I should now know, and write / edit / program / email for hours until I am going to go mad without a walk. Then I grab my cameras and twist the locks on the door in a certain way and head outside, past a small park with a strangely unvarying density of children. This is all new to me. I’ve never had anything resembling a sustained routine before. But it’s the singularity of the repeated details that has been a jolt — the way the knife feels coming out of its block each and every morning or the sound of the coffee hitting the grinder gears or the pot of hot water rising up to boil. Of the folding back of my sheets in a fixed way, even the detail of the weight of now — this surreal sense of our shared somnambulant living — as being precise, singular, and a detail that I thought would go away but hasn’t, is still here. There’s a tick-tock synchronicity between the days. And it’s the texture of these repeated hyper-specific particulars that has only heightened the sense of unreality. It’s amazing how so much of what we tend to assume to be recondite or miraculous is there, in minute detail, day after day after day.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it is midnight and I need to move flour around a bowl. My hand knows the smooth coolness of what’s to come. And tomorrow an ugly child will emerge from my oven. Hot, warm, delicious with butter, salt, and full of a love we all need right about now.