On Love and Stillness and Wizards
Hello Roden-ites, and welcome to the 40th issue of Roden — the issue of amore. Where I — Craig Mod — blast you with love. Books I love. People I love. Films I love. Software and photographs I love. Because, good lord, I could use a love blast right about now and I suspect a few of you might, too.
I love books. I’m making a new one. I’ll be livestreaming some of the (extremely banal and outright booooooorrrrring) production process on Tuesday from 10am JST (June 2 Asia time, Monday June 1 US Time, middle of the night Fancy Culture World Time). The livestream, like the ones I did for Ise-ji: Walk With Me will be Explorers Club members-only (mainly to limit audience numbers so I don’t lose my mind.) You can become a member for a year or a month — both get livestream access (plus a bunch of other perks like access to the archives of my other livestreams). And a reminder: Students get free membership. Just reply to this email with “Hey, I’m a student!”
Speaking of books, I hacked together a “home” for my books online. Guess what? I love this home. You can click/zoom through them here:
I’m currently reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. So many of my friends whose work I respect and love love the heck out this book. I am not a “Man of Plot” — I am just not that interested in traditional plots. So I tend to push back on anything that looks like it may have too much plot. Give me strangeness and tone and (a little bit of) style. I want to be knocked down by a book or film or play. I do not care if denouement or some classic triplet of acts is achieved. A good example of a book I love that has a dubious amount of plot is Out Stealing Horses (translated by the poetic powerhouse that was the late Anne Borne). And I loved the sustained derangement of Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation where the plot is basically: Sleep for a year, try not to die.
So — you can see why I might have been hesitant to pick up something from the Earthsea universe. I know, I know — this isn’t fair, but it’s a filter / bar to minimize decision making on my part. And I can now say: WELL I WAS MISTAKEN. I love this book, and love it not just for the obvious reasons of it being eminently readable, but because it has strange (so strange) tone, and I am intrigued by what Le Guin spends time on and what she blows past (i.e., the whole dragon fighting thing happens (impressively) in the course of just a few quick ‘graphs). It’s instructive on the authorial control a writer has over a reader’s attention. By shifting attention you bend genre.
Another human I love, Alex Chee, interviewed Le Guin for Guernica, the whole thing of which is worth your eyeballs:
I admire Doris Lessing for calling her science-fiction books science fiction; I only wish I liked the books. Atwood herself has walked a very fine and sometimes wavering line trying to keep her science fiction books out of the genre ghetto without trashing the people who live in the ghetto. I can’t wait for people like Michael Chabon to finish chainsawing that damn thorn hedge and knocking down all the genre walls. Now, there’s a man with courage, Chabon. He just joined the Science Fiction Writers Association. He steps over the walls in both directions.
U ❤︎ Fonts
Who doesn’t love fonts? Well, there’s finally a good reason to upgrade to macOS Catalina: Apple licensed some amazing fonts from Klim and Commercial Type and others. I spent a few hundred bucks on some styles of Founder Grotesk last year and now y’all get it for free. Just go into the Font Book app and look for greyed out fonts in All Fonts and click download. Easy-peasy.
I love these photos by photographer Hannaah Starkey. And they dovetail ever so slightly into the “genre” (bending) realm of Earthsea:
Like modern-day genre paintings, Starkey’s images are driven by familiar narratives, but ones that play on the visual languages of diverse photographic genres – including diaristic, street, documentary, cinematic, fine art, and fashion – to subtly probe the ways that women are represented in popular culture.
These images are published by a publisher I love: Mack Books.
On the topic of photos and books of photos to be loved: Looking at Photography by Stephen Frailey is just grand. Stephen was the chair of Photography and Video at SVA for twenty years and clearly embedded among arts cognoscenti. He picks 100 photographers he loves, gives them each a page, and then explains why he picked them on the facing page. The language gets a weeeeeeeee bit too academic, slightly too effete for my taste, but if you can look beyond that foible, riches abound: it’s a dragon’s hoard, a wonderful and diverse selection of artists, and it introduced me to a bunch of folks I hadn’t known of. Also: The publisher ships really quickly. I ordered from them and had the book in Japan (from Italy) in just a couple days. What a delight!
I love Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, which is streaming now on Netflix. Do you know of this film? I did not. I feel like a dunce. The image at the top is a still from the film. From the very opening frame you feel like Yang has GOT YOU: Strange unbalanced blocking, distant shot, faces obscured, echoey conversation about a test score, implications of bribery. I don’t know — I just felt in it and with them and the whole movie plays out similarly. Yang is a master and I am embarrassed I did not know of his work.
Even more so because the film came out in 1991. WHERE HAS THIS BEEN. It’s four hours long, so, you know, that may have kept it out of the general pop-purview. But — shit — the colors, pacing, the whole package of post-war Taiwan (a place and time I had NEVER thought about or considered) is so well rendered. A. O. Scott — a more articulate film dude than I — puts it well:
It’s one of those movies that, by slow accretion of detail and bold dramatic vision, disclose the structure and feeling of an entire world.
Like Earthsea, having watched A Brighter Summer Day I now know a place and time I did not know before.
Yang was technically masterful. You get a sense of where he may have acquired this in his remembrance from the Guardian:
His life was always split between his homeland and the US; as a young man, he studied computer science at the University of Florida, and then worked in Seattle for a time, as a software developer. It was there, apparently, that he discovered a passion for cinema.
Watching A Brighter Summer Day is work in the sense that it’s unhurried and the character motivations can be opaque (in that most of us watching do not have close context to fleeing Communist China to Taiwan) but I found it to be totally worth the investment of time and attention. It is a movie of love and for love and, given appropriate effort, one which you may also love.
Now to watch the rest of Yang’s ouvre.
I loved the magazine Works that Work and I love love love the editorial paean to finishing Peter Biľak posted when he closed it down:
People like the security of keeping things as they are in defiance of the fact that says that everything that has a beginning also has an end. Once in a while, however, we have the luxury of choosing an end, planning a conclusion that is timely, satisfying, even joyful.
The plan for WTW has always been to publish 10 issues and to wrap up the project on a high, while we are still enjoying a thriving community of readers. In these 10 issues we have been defining a vision of design that I believe in, design that doesn’t just make things pretty, but design that brings lasting positive changes.
When we started five years ago we made a conscious decision to avoid the term ‘design’ as much as possible, acutely aware of the widespread view that design is a layer that is put on top of things to make them trendy and expensive, a view that forgets that every human act of creation is design. After 10 issues, I think the point has been made. Our understanding of good design is when design benefits all parties involved: users, makers, producers and the general public.
When folks ask for advice around writing or starting a newsletter my go-to tip is: Set a strict timeframe. Don’t start a newsletter or podcast or blog without edges, define a goal — even if just in your mind — and a limit. Make a newsletter but cap it at 20 issues. Make a podcast with just one season.
You can always extend.
But by setting these limits you remove the crushing sense of dread brought by the infinite. That dread cripples creativity. Believe me, I know, I’ve lived it (am living it). Endings are things to be cherished and loved and sometimes, when possible, defined.
And it’s on the topic of endings I’d like to end.
In an attempt to be solicitous, a reader warning: I write below about an aspect of the last few months I’ve found to be … positive? If these times have been especially rough for you, you may want to skip it.
Is this the end of our shared stillness? That brief moment where we — the whole world — were collectively holding our breath for a month or two? I have to admit, I am in a state of mourning for that stillness. It was unique and profound. Of course there was the pain and suffering (physical, economic, psychological) brought by COVID, and it is not done, and frontline workers did not experience anything you could call stillness, but for a huge chunk of the world, damn, that silence — that stillness! — was something I loved and loved in a way I wouldn’t have guessed was possible. I have been uncommonly lucky these past few months — so read my love for this stillness with that caveat and context in mind. But I feel it’s important to bring this up because even given the (inevitable) second and third and fourth spikes, I doubt we’ll go back to the strange purity of quiet that was March and April and May 2020. Where collectively we wrote an operating manual for universal stillness.
Though I loved the stillness I didn’t love the insane dreams, the fraught sleep, the manic news cycles, the refreshing of COVID-19 websites and obsessing over daily numbers. I didn’t love the depression. I didn’t love how there would be days and days where getting out of bed was next to impossible, the torpor of arms and legs turned to sacks of lead. I didn’t love the panic I felt every time I stepped outside and someone got close to me. Or frantically rushing through supermarkets or scrubbing hands. But I loved all the other private moments. Of being forced to shut up for a second, to sit still, to cancel the entire calendar and turn inward — truly — for the first time in years. And from that stillness: I loved the demented baking (a proxy for meditation, a neurotic tic), the production of so many ugly boules that I am now quite happy to never eat bread again. I loved giving the absurd amount of bread I was producing to the old ladies in my neighborhood and them returning days later with entire meals of tempura and bamboo rice for me. I loved getting better at making pizzas and I love this newfound confidence that I can fire up a pizza in my weird little wood pellet burning garden stove and delight your mouth to no end. I love the general reconfiguration of my relationship to food and the kitchen — it is now a home and happy place and a place in which I know I can get shit done and make great meals given whatever ragtag ingredients are at hand. I loved the rhythm of reading I entered into (so many books) and the strange sense of floating through the days that the repetition brought with it. I came to love the daily 10 a.m. speaker announcements in Japanese intoning that, yes, COVID is still a thing and be careful you dingdongs; because those etherial echoey broadcasts carried with them both reality and un-reality, which is how these past few months have felt. I loved all the Zooming with friends and family old and new and how a technology that has always promised to bring us closer together finally — it seemed — did. I loved the general resilience and creativity the situation spawned (that I saw in myself and so many others). I loved the walking loop I tromped again and again in the hills behind my home, up looking out over the city and towards the ocean and out to a timeless and super duper totally uncaring horizon. Hello horizon.
Did my friends with little kids enjoy the past few months? Some, yes — honestly. They recognized it as a rare and bizarre moment of deep connection and tried to not lose their minds or get divorced or arrested. Other friends struggled mightily. Many of my friends, though, thrived and have been producing incredible work and have become even greater beacons of inspiration throughout this whole mess of a situation.
I’m just sharing my experience, which was complex in its own unique ways, and I’m certain quite different from yours. In the end I chose to focus on that stillness I felt all around. How do I transmute this stillness into life? My daily catechism. The stillness was a quality of stillness I had never before felt. A rare glint of light and clarity in an otherwise dark and protean period full of unknowns. But a hopeful glint in the mind is a thing to carry, a thing to love. I hope I don’t forget the stillness of these past few months. I want to believe it’s embedded somewhere deep within. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’ll be quickly forgotten. Maybe quickly forgetting is what allows us to keep going. But I’m not entirely sure. I love it and will carry it forward as far as I can. I feel this is our duty — to bring forward that stillness, that goodness, and draw on it as a source of energy later on when things, once again, fall apart. How else can you better honor that universality of pain felt worldwide?
The month of May already feels so far gone, so far in the past. And the stillness of April is well beyond the uncaring horizon, somewhere near The North Reach. But then: I think about the richness of daily, incremental, single-degree betterments of self, and who I was two months ago and who I am today. And similarly for those around me. I’ve always found it difficult to love the self, but I love what I’ve seen in so many friends, the ways in which they’ve changed, and hope that somewhere in that love is a refraction, however slight, of self. Who the hell knows.
All I do know: Don’t touch the stone of Terrenon, light defeats dark, Taiwanese cinema is enchanting, and endings matter. See some of you on Tuesday.