Issue 079
April, 5, 2023

New York City

Blossoms in the Big Apple

Rodenianites —

Hello from the other side of nine-and-a-half hours of deep, strange sleep. The sleep of total discombobulation. For that’s me: The discombobulated Craig Mod, writer of this, Roden. I was in NYC last week to run a gauntlet of meetings and to attend a little reunion conference — a conference of a certain subset of Old Guarde web people — and the trip was so short, and so — in many ways — manic, that I don’t know if I ever really arrived. But I’ve certainly returned.

Each day in NYC I had the distinct sensation of being the puppet of a meat sack. Me, the sack of meat, my consciousness the John Cusack, the goals: talk about myself and my next book in various locations/offices/parks/cafes throughout the city. My sensation of disembodiment was only amplified by a general malfunction of so much around me. Some malfunctions more subtle than others, but overall, there persisted a general malfunctionality that was hypnotizing (all these trash cans and yet all this trash everywhere!) and terrifying (will this subway car really stay on the tracks?) and fun (rats!) and heartbreaking (oh god, that smell). I was entranced by how far away contactless payments activated the payment (almost a foot or two for some terminals! (In Japan, your device has to downright make love to the machine to engage payment.)), and of course by how a Billion Dollar Block in Brooklyn could abut a Twenty-Five Cent Block like nothing weird was happening at all, like this is how it had to be and always would be. When staff were nice they were beyond nice. Almost psychotically nice — What was I missing here? Why are you so kind? What is going to happen to me? And when staff were crushed (obliterated? all light snuffed out?) by the weight of the world, I wondered how so many people stood before so much pain and took so little action.

To simplify logistics, I stayed in one room for the week. Just hid in Brooklyn. (The conference was next door.) Ostensibly a “nice” hotel, the lights were broken, the stereo thing didn’t work, and the hot water was not anything close to “hot.” But the view was both wonderful and odd. Wonderful in vastness (12th floor, visible horizon), odd in that I couldn’t recognize a single thing. Was that New York City out there? It was as if I was staying in the Dolphin Hotel and found a window into the Sheep Man’s world (technically Sapporo but not Sapporo). I had an extra copy of Kissa by Kissa hanging around at the end of the trip, and I asked the staff if they had a “hotel library” I could donate the book to. Library? they said, I don’t even think there’s a library in this neighborhood. No, no, I explained, a — you know — collection of “cool” books for folks to peruse in your lobby? Oh, they said, that’s a nice idea. (I did not donate the book.)

In this state of total discombobulated disembodiment, vacillating between awe and horror, I engaged with the city. I saw people I loved. This, the greatest gift, and the real point of the trip: Hug a few folks I haven’t seen in four or five or, for some, ten years. I hugged Lynne Tillman — someone I hadn’t seen in nearly four years — and I think we were both a little shocked, a bit hurt that the world had conspired to keep us from hugging for so long. Really? Four years? Yes. I’ve known Lynne for twelve years, and to think 33% of that time had been eaten by the pandemic was a little crushing. We hugged, we dined, we laughed — this, key, the laughing — and we lamented about how good these meals were and how few there had been in our lives.


Sam Anderson showed me his drawings and forced me to eat delicious perogies, before taking me on a walking tour of Manhattan.

I took many “bad” selfies with many good people.

NY, for me, has always been about the people. In my 20s it was also a bit about the texture — the incredible, rich, stone-built texture to it all. I stood in constant, delighted, wonder. Sam mentioned how he was walking near Washington Square Park with a professor after arriving in New York and asked him if he ever got tired of this — this vaulted endless wow. I’m still saying wow, all these years later. Mainly in contrast to Tokyo’s relatively demure landscape of steel and glass, little stone. (Stones and quakes don’t mix well.) But the texture was just a bonus, the people were always primary.

When I was sixteen I used to drive into NYC. I realize now that this was illegal (driving age in the city is 18, I think?). I’d drive into the East Village in my tiny blue Honda Civic — a car without power anything, the most basic of basic models, inherited from a great uncle who bought it right before he died in a move that surprised us all (he fought in The War and for that generation of my family, there tended to be a pervasive anti-Japanese sentiment; maybe my moving to Japan was in part a teenage-punk subconscious rebuttal against that vibe?). I’d drive in, head to Cony Island High on St. Marks Place, and … play drums with a bunch of Jamaicans in a pot-smoke filled room? Yes, that’s what I did. Where did I park? I don’t know. And back then, Alphabet City had none of the “safety” it has today. Or so I’m told. In the moment, I didn’t understand any of that. In those moments, too, I suppose I felt disembodied. Meat-sack puppeteer, I was trying to figure out my place in it all. I only understood the insatiable desire to use whatever skills I had (music, programming, writing) to expand my access to the world. I wanted to get away from my small town, and driving three or four hours through the night to one of the biggest cities on earth to play drums was one of the clearest options available.

Fun to consider: On nights like those it’s likely I walked past Lynne. She was living in the East Village even then, in the same apartment she has today (rent stabilized, frozen at an incredible price, which she told me the other night). That makes me happy — to think we may have brushed shoulders when I was sixteen, and she was working on her many novels just a block or two away.

During those session I met a man named Coolie Ranx and told him I wanted to hire a studio to master a (terrible) recording. He told me about a studio — somewhere in Manhattan. This the one, Craig. A few weeks later I showed up, much to his total shock. CRAIG! I think my tenacity terrified / impressed him. He was always kind to me after that. When I’d see him perform (I went to many of his shows!) he’d invite me backstage, introduce me as the kid who just showed up at the studio like a lost fawn. Imagine the dorkiest human. Now add a double serving of dork. That was me. Hanging with a guy named Coolie twice my age.

That was twenty-five years ago. And then, like now, it was about the people. I worry that NYC today (the cost of this trip was astronomical, the economics of NYC no longer make any sense; god forbid you also have a child or two) has whittled away the ability for the interesting people to make it their home.

In this way it feels like Tokyo should be the center of global artistic activity, a kind of Paris of the 1920s. I’m serious. And baffled. The rent is reasonable, the housing stock nearly infinite, the infrastructure incredible, the safety pervasive, the healthcare existent, the guns and fentanyl not, the museums fabulous, the food cheap and delicious, the bars — well, there are a lot of them. I lived here in my twenties precisely because of all of these reasons and more. Anything I’m doing today that is mildly interesting was seeded by what Tokyo enabled. For this, I am forever grateful. (Whenever the tax bill arrives, I remind myself of this.) It’s easier than ever to get a visa if you’re a college graduate. There are international MFA programs that cost a fraction of the programs in the US. The language barrier is an “issue,” but an easily surmountable one (it’s not as if all those folks in the 1920s spoke French). In my opinion, all of east Tokyo should be (even more) galleries and studios and an ever-churning collection of brilliant talent from around the world.

The NY trip was successful, I think. Ostensibly? Who knows. I did my meetings and received the desired hugs, and heard good jokes, and laughed good laughs. More and more, humor feels central to everything, the highest form of being, and I’m ever-more suspicious of folks who take themselves too seriously, or get up on stage and talk about their work like they just split the atom (when all they did was make an NFT).

Steve Gadd

Still Drumming

I continue to drum, and love it. I bow in the direction of Drummer YouTube.

Watch this: Ruben Bellavia playing his transcription of Tony William playing “Walking” from Mile Davis’s “Four and More” album. It’s hard to overly impose upon you how incredible this is. First, Ruben is a wonderful player with a delicate touch. But second, this is like transcribing an Olympic sprinter walking from the locker room, to the start line, sprinting, winning, and walking over to the pressbox — wherein every single movement, finger placement, toe shift, hip angle, and breath have been somehow transcribed and reproduced in perfect time. Because it’s not as if Tony Williams was playing from sheet music or had any conscious understanding of what his hands or feet were doing. He was simply in his performative mode, responding to the music in the intuitive ways he had built up over decades. And so to take that intuitiveness and pin it to sheet music — well, that alone is impressive (and a YouTube sub-genre all its own). But then to internalize it all and perform it to microsecond-perfection? Now we’re in the realm of the unbelievable. And this is what YouTube is so good at — taking these unbelievable acts and putting them in front of our eyes and making us realize so much more is possible. (To make another analogy: This would be like re-typing a chapter of The Sun Also Rises, where you mimic typing speed, cigarette puffs, breaths, and posture, along with typing out each character in perfect synchronicity.)

Here’s Tony himself, soloing on another song.

And here, Benny Greb with a fun solo showing what’s possible when you think of the kit a little more broadly / playfully.

But of course, nobody has more Total Stank than Gadd.


Films and Books and Photography

I watched Living (2022) on the flight home yesterday. I somehow missed this last year. It’s a nearly perfect film, IMO. From Wikipedia: “written by Kazuo Ishiguro [(The Remains of the Day etc etc)], adapted from the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa [(also GREAT)], which in turn was inspired by the 1886 Russian novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy [(also, not bad, Tolstoy!)]. Set in 1953 London, it depicts a bureaucrat in the county Public Works department (played by Bill Nighy) facing a fatal illness.”

The cinematography is lush. Jamie D. Ramsay nails it. Elements of it felt more Ozu than Kurosawa, but updated, transposed to England in the ’50s. Every shot, a painting (as they say). There are a few that last just a split-second (if that; the overhead train shot + man running over the bridge for example) that clearly took time, energy, timing to execute. Like the tiniest herb plucked from a distant mountain to hide inside the roast chicken. And Ishiguro’s script was one of the tightest I’ve seen in recent years. Not a wasted second. A perfect little clockwork of a film, helmed by the exceedingly steady hand of Oliver Hermanus.

It’s worth watching simply as a masterclass on craft. 102 perfect minutes.

I followed it with To Leslie (2022). An interesting double-feature. Also good, but not nearly as tight. Or as assured. Again: Hermanus’ hand is as steady as they come. Quite.

Dawn Kim

I went to a literary reading in the East Village and sat at a table with three people I assumed were writers. Turns out they were photographers (and more!).

Dawn Kim and Richard Mosse were two of the three. I didn’t catch the name of the third, although he talked about an interesting Irish border photography project involving high-powered projectors and doubled slides. They all received MFAs from Yale (their connection). There is a certain kind of foreignness to the work of MFA students. I don’t have the language or internal catalogue of images to process it “properly.” When I was in my twenties, this drove me nuts. Would cripple me with imposter anxiety. I felt greatly the “deficit of my childhood” in not knowing how to “talk art” with artists. Now, I am more entranced than anything. MFA you say? Show me your voodoo. I gasp in wonderment before such work. Like watching folks fluent in other languages sing heart-rending folk songs. I don’t know the meaning of the words but am moved by their impulses. I wish I had known more about Dawn and Richard’s work, though, before I met them, to have asked more incisive questions, to have “lessened my deficits.” I dig what they’re doing.

Somewhat related: Francis Alÿs’ Cuentos patrióticos 1997. Fancis’ work resonates primally. Oh, to be a sheep.

Noriko Hayashi

The ever-excellent Noriko Hayashi published a photographic series in Granta recently: Japanese Wives.

Mitsuko has now lived in North Korea for almost sixty years. She can see the sea from the window of her room, and Japan across from that sea. Many returnees thought that the unification of the Koreas might happen in the near future, so that they would be able to go back and forth between the north and south. The Japanese wives who crossed the sea also believed that they would be able to move freely between Japan and North Korea after a few years. This would prove untrue.

Unbelievable, tenacious (she told me over coffee about how tough it was to a) get visas, and b) win over the trust of these women; I still can’t believe she pulled it all off), generous, kind work by Hayashi.

When I left for my short trip the blossoms were full-blooming in Tokyo. When I arrived in chilly New York a few trees were exploding, or on the verge of doing so. A tree in the East Village — gorgeous. Another one in Fort Greene — boom. Nobody paid attention. I felt like I was the only one who could see the blossoms. It was nice, this experience of double-blossoms and ignored blossoms, though to be honest, I care little for the blossoms. I treat them not as a thing to manically hunt down as so many do, but rather a thing to enjoy if accidentally encountered. Oh, a cherry tree in full bloom? Sweet.

Now, I sit outside writing these words by the coast. The ocean is just over there. I sit on a bench in the shade beneath a giant cherry tree along a stretch of cherry trees, sipping an iced coffee and generally feeling grateful for this weather and being home. I feel once again “in” my body, of my body. Re-combobulated. No longer puppeteering. Perhaps that sensation was my way of dealing with culture shock (and other shocks), a way of creating space between myself and the place that shocked. Here, now, outside, a woman walks two dogs with cumulative mass greater than herself. The last of the blossoms rain down as the cool breeze of early spring makes its way off the ocean into the mountains. Computing outside always feels strange; laptops never seem at home outside. But here I am, tap-tap-tap. I wear a light jacket. Flip-flops abound. Folks are impatient for seasons to “get it over with” and change. School is letting out, screams of joy in the distance. Soon this stretch of pedestrian walkway will be filled with kids playing tag.


p.s., A HUGE THANKS to everyone who joined SPECIAL PROJECTS in the last month. We hit our membership goals and more. I appreciate all your support. It means a lot and enables me to do what I’m doing. I felt that acutely in New York — the pride in the work I’m able to do. I don’t know if I’ve felt that before. It feels good and generated from an honest place. Thanks for allowing that to happen. Lots of members stuff on the docket for the coming months. (It’s been quiet in member-land the last month because I’ve been subsumed by visitors (my god, the visitors), continued Morioka media obligations, and this New York trip.)