AltGov2 features my essay “Warning Shots of Corruption: Releasing and Revisiting the Polygraph Interviews that Launched My Dissertation Research.”
As Mark Harris recently observed in his Wired article featuring some of my research — “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings” — federal agencies have generally attempted to keep their polygraph program data from researchers, especially vis-a-vis bias and efficacy. Federal courts have fairly consistently backed them up, citing the vital role polygraph programs play in law enforcement. However, at the same time, it is longstanding government and scientific consensus that there is no such thing as a lie detector, and polygraph programs actually jeopardize the very national security that they are intended to promote. Researchers can thus neither purport to comprehend nor effectively contest this supposedly vital nature of polygraph programs to law enforcement, without greater transparency of the federal program polygraph data that apparently disproves all of the canonical governmental reports on polygraphs—from the 1965 U.S. Committee on Government Operations’ to the 2003 National Academy of Sciences’—as well as most of the scientific literature on psychophysiological deception detection for the last fifty years.
This unified front of non-transparency, and the Catch-22 of secret justifications for keeping this secrecy intact, is exemplified by Sack v. United States Department of Defense. Attorney Kel McClanahan argued this case on my behalf, Circuit Judges Tatel, Griffith, and Brett Kavanaugh of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit Court decided it, and Judge Kavanaugh authored the ruling on May 20, 2016. Judge Kavanaugh’s defense of non-transparency here is important in the context of his current status as a prospective U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Much has been made recently, and incorrectly, of his regard for polygraphs (e.g., “Brett Kavanaugh Once Said Polygraphs Are A Good Tool. Now He Says They’re Unreliable“; “A False Charge on Polygraphs“). Mr. McClanahan has already corrected the record on some of these confusions: This case was primarily about researchers’ access to federal polygraph program data that was denied under Exemption 7(E), as well as students’ access to educational requestor status when they file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
The latter is not directly an issue of transparency, but rather of access to public records requesting processes—a means of promoting transparency. Thanks to Mr. McClanahan’s persistence, Judge Kavanaugh kept the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DOD), and the District Court before him from unfairly stratifying student access to FOIA without statutory basis in a way that would have hurt students’ access to public records. The DOD had refused to classify me, when I was a graduate student requesting records, as an educational requestor, citing an OMB Guideline on student requests. Kavanaugh ruled out that this guideline lacked statutory basis, and that it even seemed OMB was trying to manufacture a reason to charge students more than teachers. Kavanaugh called out corruption where he saw it, telling them that he knew FOIA was “grossly overburdened,” but they couldn’t “provide relief for the FOIA bureaucracy on the backs of students.” That was logical, fair, and egalitarian. This set an important precedent for future students to have more effective access to public records requests.
However, without transparency in the form of responsive records disclosures, FOIA access itself is ineffectual or worse. It could even be conceived of as a resource-capturing diversion, if responsive records are not disclosed when they should be through request processes that take time, money, and intellectual resources. On this score, Kavanaugh wrongly enshrined non-transparency in the law, undermining the principle of accountability of government to which public servants in democracies owe their highest commitment.
Exemption 7 lets the Government withhold records compiled for law enforcement purposes, if they can show that producing those records would cause a specified harm. Under 7(E), that harm is disclosing “techniques and procedures for law enforcement investigations.”
In section III paragraph 2 of his opinion ruling that withholding the records fits under 7(E), Kavanaugh says the Government made that case. But there is no evidence that they did. Disclosing federal polygraph program data would not harm law enforcement. Rather, polygraph programs themselves, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ 2003 polygraph report, harm law enforcement by generating too many inaccurate results to be good for security in contexts such as screening National Lab employees for spies—both missing too many real spies and implicating too many innocent employees.
Bias and efficacy data on federal polygraph programs that was not made available to the National Academy scientists or other researchers might show problems with bias and efficacy. But this would hurt polygraph programs, not law enforcement in the sense the Court means. Perhaps because most polygraphers are current or former law enforcement, law enforcement seem to have trouble telling the difference. Yet it is bias and backfiring programs such as polygraph programs, not disclosing information about these problems, that undermine rule of law and national security.
In section III paragraph 4, Kavanaugh says “The reports at issue in this case assist law enforcement agencies in taking ‘proactive steps’ to deter illegal activity and ensure national security. As the Government notes, law enforcement agencies use polygraphs to test the credibility of witnesses and criminal defendants.” But rather than deterring illegal activity, polygraphs make a mockery of law enforcement who use them because it is widely known that they do not work. This makes law enforcement look unprofessional and ineffective, encouraging illegal activity.
Moreover, to the extent that law enforcement agencies really use polygraphs to test witness and defendant credibility, releasing data on polygraphs’ bias and efficacy should either help bolster law enforcement’s credibility—or cause law enforcement to question their use of polygraphs. If the data are so good that they prove polygraphs are much better than scientists have long thought they are, then law enforcement should be excited to release that data in order to deter illegal activity and promote national security, according to Kavanaugh’s own logic.
In section III paragraph 5, Kavanaugh says “The Government has satisfactorily explained how polygraph examinations serve law enforcement purposes.” But explaining that would require showing data on polygraph programs that contradicts everything scientists know about how they undermine security. That is exactly what Kavanaugh permits the Government to refrain from doing.
In the same paragraph, he goes on to claim “It has also explained how the reports assessing the efficacy of those examinations and identifying needed fixes likewise serve law enforcement purposes” by helping “ensure that law enforcement officers optimally use an important law enforcement tool.” But again, unless the government’s data on polygraph efficacy contradicts everything scientists have known about polygraphs for fifty years, this non-transparency in efficacy data merely covers up inefficacy. Kavanaugh is effectively helping law enforcement cover up their incompetence, protecting “the man behind the curtain” with judicial non-transparency.
In section III paragraph 9, Kavanaugh repeats his faith in non-transparency (and the District Court’s before him). He says that releasing even “reasonably segregable” parts of reports on polygraph efficacy “whether pertaining to the strengths of polygraphs, their weaknesses, or anything else—would create ‘at least a risk that subversive individuals will be armed with advanced knowledge of the procedures used by the United States to screen applicants for sensitive employment positions and security clearances’ ” (Sack v. Dept. of Defense, 6 F. Supp. 3d 78, 91 (D.D.C. 2013)). But this is utterly illogical. Letting researchers evaluate programs consistently charged with bias and inefficacy does not help subversives. Rather, promoting freedom of information, scholarship, and the advancement of science in a free society improves the functioning and accountability of government including law enforcement in that society. Kavanaugh does not seem to understand how democracy works.
Government secrecy around federal polygraph programs guards weakness, not strength. That weakness is already publicly known. Defending it with non-transparency undermines rather than strengthening national security.
It is the role of federal judges to check and balance governmental power in other branches when citizens ask them to. In this case, Judge Kavanaugh was asked to check several executive branch abuses of power. In one area—OMB’s imaginative FOIA fee structure guideline limiting student access to public records requests—he forced the executive to back down and stop denying students their rightful educational requestor status. But in another—the application of Exemption 7(E) to permit DOD to withhold polygraph program data—he upheld non-transparency in a way that hurt national security… But bowed down to its chant in the name of the status quo.
The form of national security that Kavanaugh defended in this decision was an emperor with no clothes.
Mark Harris’s Wired article “The Lie Generator: Inside The Black Mirror World of Polygraph Job Screenings,” featuring some of my polygraph research, runs today.
Very happy to be off social media; but also very appreciative of the efforts going on there and everywhere to recognize, celebrate, and find Arjen. It’s been really nice to be with good people at Hack42, the fabulous hackerspace where he helped me get an artist residency in 2015, and think of him.
It’s the least of anyone’s worries, but I have felt like I should wait for him to finish my second poetry book, Vagabonding. Some of the poems are his, and part of the dedication. So he has an ownership stake in my work, although he’s not the owning type and would deny it gracefully…
But I also thought he would stumble out of the woods any day going: “Dudes! I was camping. What is wrong with you? Chill out.” And if that were going to happen, it probably would have happened. So maybe I should just finish the book.
Meanwhile, here are some more poems from adventures with my love R. Thinking of my favorite vagabonds.
Walking downtown for food at night,
we stumble across its ugly light.
Guards with semis and machine guns pace
outside the fencing around its face.
Projected up against a wall,
red, white, and blue enthrall
with missing stars and wrong-numbered stripes.
At least you cannot see the pipes.
But the half-empty bookshelves are plain to see
through open curtains. It occurs to me
this, too, is a display of power.
Some would hide their ignorance.
Never a country known to cower,
the bloated Merkan embassy
displays its dumb indifference.
The long arc of history bends black.
Austrian police are here where country ends
to help keep brown people back.
“Blood, wine, ticking time”
The Red Sea is not red.
The hope here is not dead.
It probably used to be,
from coral and algae,
dead kings and dead books.
But the reefs are dying everywhere
along with tourism here and there
where terror scares people away.
We saw it last summer in France,
the lavender fields swaying a yellow-brown dance
from too much rain,
and what if a truck should come again?
The wine-dark Mediterranean, too,
is no longer wine-dark,
though we couldn’t see through.
It was more like thyme honey
in how it looked darker, far away.
The world has no less blood in it now than then,
no less life. There are no fewer stories to write.
But we see differently as the waters change.
As we change them, and are changed.
Time now means disruption.
Mere weeks ago, every day it seemed like my second poetry book was nearly ready. Then I started finding holes, places where I hadn’t quite told the story like I’d thought, like I meant to, like it lies whole in my heart. And other things happened in the world. In response to old holes and new events, I did what I do: I wrote new poems. Most of which are not good enough to post, and all of which will need time and rewriting before I can even decide whether or not to include them in the manuscript. So that finishing-the-book-by-September thing didn’t happen. But here are a few more new poems.
“If you should die”
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll hunt you down and kill you.
“But I’m at peace!” your ghost will say,
grinning from the deep blue.
I’ll drag it up and string it out to dry in harshest sun.
I’ll stretch it out to wrap around the shivering none
of our knowing where you’ve gone and what you’re up to these days.
Don’t think I won’t do it. I have my ways.
If you should die while you’re away,
I’ll drive a stake into your heart.
Don’t think you won’t feel it from the start.
I’ll hammer out the gold in your soul
to make jewelry. Sand your bones to bowls.
I’ll bunch and twist your hair into brushes.
Sell your organs to the Russians.
You’d better come back, someday.
I left with three full back-up drives on me.
When I got away, they were all empty.
It’s just as well.
There’s no one to tell.
And perhaps always it is better
to start a blank letter
when events interrupt
in a manner abrupt
and what you were saying
is trumped by surveying
Let your mind deplane.
It’s a new Old World to join again.
“What if there were poetic justice?”
Would there still be police to address mere crime,
if we could get at the real thing all of the time?
Would blacklists even need to be found
for their authors to rot underground?
Would eagles descend like for Telemachus
to scratch out the faces of those who mock us?
Or would the world look much like this,
except some people just wouldn’t exist?
“Looking for Land”
The painted waves surprise me
with their steady pink and purple brush-strokes,
unmoving lakes of turquoise, yellow-green, and peach,
fields of water-lily likeness.
I look closer, quicker, out the window
as they fly by between wet wheat
and damp beige houses—
Because the light in the sky sparkles with laughter,
it is impossible that you are dead.
Yet you’re more Democritus than Aristotle,
and would laugh just as brightly after
I said “red sky at morning, sailors take warning;
red sky at night, sailor’s delight.”
Be night, be night, be night.
Do not be the red sky of death over
a frozen body floating without breath.
It is quite impossible, although men fall,
that you should have paddled down a fjord
toward an Arctic sea and then toward
the bottom, a rush of water and all
the heaviness of life, the freezing pull,
the heft of a forced salt mouthful
too many and too fast
for even you to last.
Do not make your home in the sea
when you know your home is here with me.
Will you make your place
here in the new space
between knowing and not knowing
if you’re coming or going,
went well or badly,
died for helping dissidents tell the truth,
or slipped away to secretly relive some youth?
Delighting in travel, accounting for nothing to no one,
but still helping others in need on the rocky sea
when you stumble across each other having lost and won,
like I helped you and you helped me?
Do not tell me if you fought and lost,
if you were frightened or forced to pay the ultimate cost.
Because you’re in the light, so you’re with me in the day—
laughing, one, making fun.
But I still hope you’re the night, anyway.
Safe and warm, with someplace to stay,
having decided to rest and stay away.
Tell me, someday, if you can, how to help you there.
You know we can sit in stillness if you tell me where.
When we first heard you were missing, I lit a candle like we used to do,
and prayed and tried to talk to you. In my daydream that sleepless night,
you comforted me. You were resting, you said, on a soft bed
under a starry sky beneath a shimmering silver tarp.
And I thought leaves, thought we’d find you
half-buried with late summer silver and green
and a sharp hiking stick or something metal jutting up
shining through some non-lethal muck,
but surely with two simply broken legs and only just out of water.
Then they said you had bought a folding kayak.
Later a fisherman found your things just out to sea.
But now I think the shimmering silver tarp with which you comforted me,
its warm blanket enveloping your warm embrace and steady face
when I cried out shaking your shoulder to know where you were and come,
must be not water and its grave.
Must be only time rippling over,
time that shines warm even in Nordic nights,
time that you will take to come clearer,
to fight and fly through some awful danger, cold as death,
and finally then come nearer again to the friends
who would have wanted to get you warm and dry
if ever you should have fallen.
We believe in you.
You are not allowed to die.
You are just too good a guy.
This poem isn’t going in the book, but goes with this painting that is apparently going on the blog.
Both were inspired by that time I developed sphenoid sinusitis after pitching paintings that not a single gallerist in sub-zero Cologne would even look at this February, and subsequently: lost my wallet and stuff in the station right out of my hands cos I probably had blind spots I didn’t know about, cried all the way home on the train from the pain, went partially deaf, and generally had a medical emergency without it occurring to me I was having a medical emergency. (I thought it was a migraine, and then a cold, and then…) Then socialized medicine saved my life with a surgery that didn’t bankrupt me because I have subsidized health insurance as a freelance artist. (It was about ten euros. Germany is cool. Charité is awesome.)
Silly poem, silly story. Still, I liked the metaphor enough to write and paint it. I think we all have snakes inside us capable of striking when we don’t see them coming. And experiences or times when we need help but don’t actually have the expertise to convey what’s going on, to get it. It’s just a particular instance of one of those universal experiences that art is supposed to convey, in order to drum up empathy among humans for humans. (Humans are ok.) Not bad work, if you can get it. Better, perhaps, if you can’t… And do it as an outsider for its own sake.
The gravel road behind my face
leads to my red third eye.
The bucking snake there rises up
to strike and kill the sky.
What fire kindles behind my eye?
Days from dead
inside my head
with pain and dread.
Raising scales that throb and pound,
the rattle makes its warning sound.
Help—at last I cry and moan.
That was its poison, and my koan.
It was my voice it feared the most.
I killed the snake. I am its ghost.
This is (quite possibly a draft portrait of) my missing friend Arjen Kamphuis with his heart of gold. This is me back in the studio after months of illness and recovery; vacation and hunger to paint again; and a big box of medical-grade Lindt chocolate thanks to Arjen. Arjen who brought me home to the Continent, CCC, and Berlin. Arjen who took me to the grocery store when I couldn’t afford a protein bar. Arjen who read me right as a healthy artist and an injured transparency activist when I had left the U.S. due to massive retaliation and turned up at CIJ after couchsurfing London alone for a hard spell. Arjen who gets it. #FindArjen
Here are a few more poems for Arjen, who may or may not see online things at the moment, being missing.
- Lockpicking—a poem about how communication can be hard. Maybe it’s easy for some people, but it can be hard for me, especially when I’m overwhelmed. Some people just work that way, and Arjen has always been super tolerant and understanding of that.
- Walking along the Amstel—a poem about how none of us really knows what to do next in this crazy world. But when we go looking for answers to that question in a serious way, we find others who are looking, too.
- Waiting for Wind and Trains—a poem about waiting and trusting your instincts.
Among other poems I haven’t blogged yet that he inspired, I’m digging in my manuscript… And often what I find that seems like his, is in edits to other poems that I’ve already blogged—and that it doesn’t make sense to repost a new version of when the book itself is almost ready.
Like in “Yearning for the Birth of Athena”—the new version’s bit about the gods watching cat videos online… That’s all Arjen, he would make that joke or observation about attention resource capture, while himself also watching cats. Cats are ok. But wait, I already blogged a rewrite with that bit, too. Guess I’ve been rewriting for a while.
Today I learned a relevant, untranslatable German word for this: Verschlimmbesserung—to keep editing until you’re making the thing worse instead of better. Hmmm. Probably best to write a new one quickly, then.
Where did you go?
What did they do?
Didn’t you know
we’d be worried about you?
You would have known, and cared, being you.
So something happened, so… So…
Show up at my door.
We’ll talk some more.
Or not, if talking won’t do.
I’ll still make (poems and paintings and papers and) stew.
I’m so worried about you.
Poetry keeps happening. Poetry that would not be possible without Arjen, my dear friend who found a stray transparency activist wandering the streets of London and brought me home.
Of Arjen-inspired poems, I previously blogged a few from our adventures in Lisbon:
- Wandering Cemitério dos Prazeres
- Finding Praça do Comércio
- Outside the Closed Church Door
As well as this one about what a great listener and friend he is: “Safe Space.” (That painting, too, was inspired by Arjen in—and needs to go home to—Amsterdam, one of these days…)
It also happens that Arjen was the one who helped me pour my first poetry book manuscript into Amazon CreateSpace for publication. As well as making multiple formats of e-book versions for me to put on my website for free. And getting me set up to put the illustrated version on my website, too. It was important to me—that the book be a book, that the art be CreativeCommons and free, that the finished thing be finished and out in all these forms. So it was important to him, and he helped me get it done.
Now my second poetry book is almost done. And it happens that Arjen seems to have gone missing.
This is concerning. I am concerned.
I would like to fix this. But I don’t know what happened, so I’m not sure what to do… More… Tonight. Maybe tomorrow it will become clearer.
In the meantime, I just want to give Arjen some of his other poems. And I’m not sure how, other than to try putting them here… Maybe he is vagabonding and offline, because the world is crazy. Maybe something else is going on or has happened… Because the world is crazy.
Poetry does not help. Except when poetry helps. Here are some more of Arjen’s poems, which I hope actually get to Arjen one of these days, soon.
“Searching in Bodø”
Gray mountaintops like fins slice the Arctic sky.
We retrace your outs and ins,
since you left without saying goodbye.
Did you, too, want to wander further?
To lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds?
Away, the world’s noise recedes
as you gaze the seas,
as if to tether and untether
boats of breath and mind.
Stay. You own your time,
and so are rich. But could you lend
me a cup of tea and company
sometime and some place calm and free?
Tell me and I’ll meet you there.
The best minds of my generation leach despair.
You do that for me.
When I look again, the mountains are gone in the grip of sky.
Full of more questions than when we came searching—what happened, why?
What sharks rammed your ship?
What do you need? Are you finding it?
Hey! I’m talking to you.
Back in the wild Berlin blue.
“This Is Just To Proclaim”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.—Robert Frost
is a part
of us all
survived its fall
Something else still
when we think
we’re done resisting
for as long
as we’re existing.
can be banal.
“Travelers at Rest”
The bright orange finches
have followed us out
into the city
and are homesick
for the falls;
try to kill themselves
on the terrace.
The cats, kindly,
are here to assist
in all their mortal coil-shuffling needs.
Also to eat bread,
chase each other, brutally,
and regard dogs with suspicion,
people with apathy.
Geography does not change nature,
human or otherwise.
They, too, are homesick,
but for Egypt, and the days
when people better knew their place.
We are all longing
for somewhere else,
except while in motion.
Here on the road,
we are home.
“Picnic in Vondelpark”
Blurry leaves sway over birch tribes, and they are
how there is no time—only lighter and darker moments,
and the wind that moves their weaving orbits,
and the owl’s anthem announcing that they’re mine.
My throat is growling again at the world.
Although I trust in your goodness in my head
and in my heart, something in my animal softness
needs to be apart, bows its head, kicks at the dust.
Half a forest away from the blanket and your question,
a husky field with chirping frogs infringes. I must walk further.
Nothing is wrong. But I would like to wander now, deep into the dry grasses,
and lie down alone forever under a blanket of clouds.
“Humanity seriously needs your salads…” my dear friend Hanka said this morning as I thought about blogging some of the recipes some of my favorite people keep asking for.
My daily perusal of the headlines suggests humanity seriously needs:
- Concerted global action on climate weirding to keep fossil fuels in the ground and transition more or less immediately to clean energy use and infrastructure-building.
- Actual functioning international law on refugees supporting Good Samaritans and those silly little human rights the post-war international order was at least ostensibly built on, and without which the liberal democratic order loses the moral high-ground of first principles.
- More drastic redistribution of wealth from corporations and very rich people than has ever happened before.
- Novel solutions to classic collective action problems that successfully institutionalize checks on corrupt corporate interests in realms from infrastructure and arms to drugs and education.
- For that whistleblower movement that was brutally killed off by short-sighted prigs to begin to get the public support it deserves, starting with ending the mass surveillance that enables states to increasingly predict and restrict resistance to unjust government policies.
The usual: World on fire. Don’t see how to put it out at the moment. Sorry. Shall we tell our grandchildren that I went to the kitchen to think about it? Will future generations invent an A-scale to measure the supreme assholery of people acting (or not acting) like this (like me) in this time, the closing window in which at least significantly mitigating the collapse of global ecosystems and the civilization they support might still be possible? Much as the Frankfurt School of German philosophers responded to Nazism by creating the F-scale to measure Fuckheads (or maybe it was Fascism). But the F-scale, which evolved later into the Right-Wing Authoritarianism and Social Dominance Orientation measures that explained a lot of rising xenophobia in pre-Trump America, didn’t address the A-problem. What about all the assholes who just do nothing while the world burns? I’m no fascist. Just can’t figure out what to do. Fucker’s really going down, huh? Sorry.
There’s really not a lot of thinking out there (as far as I can see) about the possible positive or mixed role of acceptance in global crises. There are ways in which structural failures have positive effects by forcing change, as in the drop of global CO2 emissions during the financial crisis—the only time we’ve seen such a drop in recent history. And there are ways in which perceived personal failures, victimizations, or other tragedies have positive effects by forcing change as well, in people who are resilient to trauma. Maybe we do not need to save the world, to stave off various forms of collapse and systemic failure. May we need to accept that we cannot. Just as we accept that we cannot undo our worst mistakes, or change other people’s behavior, or prevent life from happening in all its random (beautiful, horrible) glory.
We are a cosmic miracle. We were not built to last. Although we may yet. Probably more through chaotic chance than planning, if we make it as a species another ten thousand years. If you want more certainty than that, go gamble against the house. Anything worth winning is uncertain. Yet, it’s good strategy to wait til you can win, to fight again.
Despite its rationality as a piece of sanity personal and political, acceptance is gendered female (marginalized, weak, receptive). It runs throughout Virginia Woolf’s work on what the fuck to do as a woman existing outside most systems of power, but rich in love and expression—and so both privileged and marginalized, as is so often more the case than one or the other. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf presses for women to make their own space for intellectual life in a world that denies them equal educational opportunities, allotting zero-sum resources to boys’ instead of girls’ education. It is an acceptance of being outside, and a petition for making space within that. This resonates today with discrimination against girls who are good at math and science, with all sorts of pressures to self-sort into what seem to be safer spaces but are also much less well-paid and thus ultimately less safe.
Anecdata: I was convinced to leave the high school computer lab in Alabama in 1999 when it was suggested I could have sex for money, and excluded from my robotics team build because it turned into an all-male sleepover. Worse harassment followed me into STEM in college, and I changed paths. My postdoc appointments in Psychology/Government 15 years later paid roughly half that of an average Computer Science postdoc, although they were at two of the top four universities in my fields worldwide. I didn’t have health insurance at Harvard, couldn’t get my moving expenses effectively covered for two required cross-country moves in six months, and certainly didn’t have the time or resources to rebuild social networks in new places again and again to begin to give myself the strength to carry on when I was harassed and retaliated against, leaving America and academia in 2015, as I’ve written about elsewhere.
Informal social exclusion shapes girls’ and women’s choices in logical ways that reproduce structural inequalities, whether you think the data suggest women in the aggregate can be as good and happy in STEM as men in the aggregate, or not. Woolf’s problem of female exclusion from education is thus obviously germane in many societies globally today, but also remains relevant in the more so-called advanced ones (not that I include the U.S. in that subset—it’s a global outlier among OECD nations for backward outcomes from infant mortality and birth control access to police violence and infrastructure). Patriarchies killed off other societal models around the time of the industrial revolution. And patriarchies suck for females…
And a lot of other people. The boot on the neck of one is always, sooner or later, the boot on the neck of many. Social exclusion of girls and women often tracks with or mirrors exclusion of others (e.g., racial/religious minorities under authoritarian leadership, men who aren’t party members under communism). Exclusion doesn’t have to be a law to be a practice, and resistance doesn’t have to make you dysfunctionally unhappy since you can’t solve the problem (of society taking a less healthy but more currently evolutionary successful form) anyway.
So in her later Three Guineas, Woolf suggests a more radical answer to this problem—more a society than a room of one’s own. But she accepts building that takes time, and small efforts from many people acting chaotically rather than in concert. Eventually she goes on to take her own life because, arguably, she cannot either bring a more humane society into existence for herself, or survive in the one she criticizes. She loses her acceptance, and so gives up in a worse way. (I would like to have read more of her writing than she got done before giving up; but refusing to attempt to live through something you know you cannot survive is also a perfectly respectable choice.)
What would our grandchildren’s A-scale have to say about Virginia Woolf? How will this A-scale work? What does it buy us? No idea, really. I wonder, though, how people are faring now mentally and emotionally in juxtaposition with how much of the world burning they know about, tune into, and accept. I wager there is a three-by-two matrix wherein
- well-informed and tuned-in people who accept chaos and powerlessness in a psychologically resilient way are happier and better socially (and thus politically) functioning than,
- misinformed or simply tuned-out people, who have on average probably higher acceptance but not of actual reality, and who are probably happier than,
- well-informed and tuned-in people who do not have this acceptance.
There are lots of problems with testing this. You are not supposed to say some of your prospective research subjects are objectively wrong in their understandings of the world in interesting and important ways, for instance. You are also supposed to make more open-ended hypotheses about stuff we really don’t know, cos then you can say “I was right!” and be more likely to have your results published (sigh). Basically, you are not supposed to have any balls.
But I don’t have any intention of testing any of this stuff anyway. I’m just wondering how to keep being happy and healthy, making good people good food, and square that with watching the world burn. Because it doesn’t actually feel wrong to me to be doing zero world-saving right now. Although I’ve always lived in a guilt-rich internal ecosystem and so this choice of mine puzzles me, striking me as something I understand intuitively better than I do cognitively, at the very least. It just feels right to make cold food on hot days and love the dear ones whom I love. Maybe humanity does need my salads. I certainly do.
All the recipes here are gluten- and-dairy free. None require heat; one requires meat. Enjoy.
As a cool, refreshing side to breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner, mix:
- rinsed handfuls of fresh greens (feldsalat—what is this in English or do all greens really translate “salad” and all cuts of meat “steak”?!, romaine, rucola, whatever’s pretty)
- throw in a bowl with a quarter lime, freshly squeezed
- drizzle with balsamic crema (high in sugar—don’t look—but some sugar turns out to be not so poisonous after all)
- drizzle with olive oil (which is more religious rite than cooking, if you have the right olive oil)
Done. Somehow over the summer it’s a very easy habit to be in, to make a basic salad 2-3 times a day with another bit of food. It helps you feel full to get the extra fiber and water, when it’s really too hot to eat. Plus you get dietary karma points for greens.
Big chunks of different-colored bell pepper or cucumber, pieces of endive or olives, dried tomatoes or artichoke hearts on top add easy variety.
If you want to be fancy or need more variation, you can add some coconut aminos or cajun spice mix (see my Roast Chicken recipe at McSweeney’s for directions) to the dressing. If you want something more filling and don’t feel like making another dish, flash-fry a steak to cut up, or some seafood (scallops, shrimp, dear God sous vide fish) to throw on top. Good meat on good salad needs only a little salt and pepper after cooking in good oil. (What is good meat? Idk: Ask people in your area, forage, and find it. What is good oil? People have different opinions about this because of omega 3:6 ratios, smoke points, and such. I like what tastes good, which is mostly not smoke point winner coconut oil or heart-healthy olive oil, but a blend of sunflower, rapeseed, and linseed oils, even though you’re not supposed to cook with linseed oil cos heat degrades it. Tastes lighter than the others, works for me.)
This is so simple I’m not sure why I’m even writing it up, other than people suggest they want these things, and I am suggestible.
Like the green salad recipe above… This is not even a recipe. It is more of a protocol. Go to a good food market, grocery or biostore. See what fruit is pretty. Rinse it and cut it up in a bowl. Again with the fiber and water, and the being too hot to eat. Now you have two salad bowls on the table: green salad and fruit salad. People are starting to look happier as more bowls appear. Making people happy is fun.
When fresh berries are pretty and affordable, use fresh berries. When melon is, use melon. Passionfruit—don’t be afraid of the wrinkly brown and purple ones. The ugliest ones are the best. Kiwis. Pears.
In the summer, I tend to save apples and citrus for fresh juices. At least, the fresh juices I make lots of since I accepted the ketogenic diet has super cool research behind it but does not work for me… And then a cool nutritionist convinced me that fruit is not evil just because it has sugar and is thus not ketogenic.
My body agrees with the nutritionist. My body says fresh fruit is magic. It also says fresh juice is magic. And it feels really good to make (“make”) and feed (feed) these things to good people. It’s not ketogenic and it might somehow contribute to climate weirding, I know, I know. But I can’t game it out, man. I’m not even gonna try. I’m gonna make fresh salads and juices and be with the people I love. Turns out I’m really good at loving people. And then it turns out there are a lot of really good people to love—or at least, more than I thought. Yes yes yes, world burning. But—salads, juices, sit.
My favorite juices currently are a green one involving fresh greens like spinach (three rinsed handfuls) plus a tin of fresh herbs like basil, a few celery stalks and carrots, a peeled lemon and lime, orange and apple—in a slow (green) juicer… Or a simpler citrus one with orange (for most people), orange and lemon (for me because I like it tart), or clementine (when I lazily arrange for grocery delivery and bags of random things show up but I can’t complain because this food came directly to me). If you don’t have a slow juicer and a citrus juicer, buy a citrus juicer. They’re cheaper and easier to clean, and there are lots of other ways to eat greens (in eggs, salads, wilted, soup, etc.).
Chilled herbal teas are the best thing to drink on a cold day. At least, if you’re allergic to the milk and cream that should go in a proper iced coffee (of which you would otherwise drink approximately five a day)—can’t stomach straight black tea or bubbly things either—and don’t of your own volition drink enough tap water to hydrate although you know that you should. (Did I say alcohol was a tasty cooking ingredient and side dish? Alcohol is poison.)
Rose, chamomile, and black with lemon and honey are my favorites. But it pays off to experiment, since things tend to taste different cold than hot. You might like chilled green tea even though hot, it’s not your thing.
The big problem with chilling herbal teas is that the best way to drink a lot is to vary the flavors. But then you end up with five cups of tea in the fridge, and no space left for salads and mousses (important). One solution to this problem is to brew fewer flavors in bigger pots, half-filling them with boiling water and double tea bags for as long as they need to steep, then topping up with lukewarm water and refrigerating so you add fewer containers and less heat to the fridge. You still couldn’t do this as a commercial kitchen—it’s too space-inefficient and the heat might degrade other, industrial-sized containers of stuff. So I understand why I can’t get this at a restaurant. But I’m not running a restaurant, so I don’t care.
Although it is so hot you need many salads, juices, and herbal teas to survive, you may or may not still sometimes roast a chicken anyway because we are men and not beasts, or women and also beasts, but you know what I mean. If you do, great. If you don’t, no problem.
Pull any leftover chicken off the refrigerated bones of the roast if it exists. Break it up into bite-size pieces. Boil the bones for stock by night, when the heat won’t add to the heat of the day. Set chicken and stock aside.
Dice one raw chicken breast per person (say, 2-4). Heat oil in a pan, add the diced raw chicken, and pour over some mirin rice wine vinegar and tamari (gluten-free soy sauce). Turn down heat from high to medium-high, breaking up meat with a spatula as it cooks together in clumps. Sprinkle spices over meat as it cooks—salt and pepper, plus garlic powder, cayenne, and paprika if you like, and fresh or dried oregano, thyme, and sage if they’re ready to hand and you like them. Flip and cook until both sides are done. Remove from heat and set aside.
In a small bowl, break up a bunch of walnuts and pecans by the handful (say, 3 handfuls each). Pull out any shell pieces. Dump into a larger bowl.
On a clean cutting board, slice rinsed grapes (say, 4 handfuls or 2 bunches). For some reason, I like white grapes better with the other green stuff in this salad. But you could also use purple grapes, frozen pomegranate pips, blueberries, dried cranberries—anything small and sweet. Add to large bowl with nuts.
Rinse and dice celery stalks (3-4), fresh dill (2-5 fronds), and chives (2-5 handfuls). Add to nut and grapes.
Add cooled chicken (both freshly cooked and leftover if you had it) to large bowl. Top with mayonnaise (about 8 squeezes or spoonfuls, but I always eye it) and mustard (1 spoonful). Add salt and pepper to taste.
If you don’t have something (e.g., fresh dill), improvise (e.g., add more dried spices or don’t worry about it). In this way, none of my recipes are recipes. They constantly change because my cooking is not that precise. It’s more meditation than anything else.
Now it is possible that you have three salads on the table along with cold juices and teas. People are happy. People are getting fed. Healthy food is going in good people and this is form of serving justice in the world, except love is not justice and my kitchen is not the world. I’m ok with that.
It’s easier to impress friends with this if you make everything but the juice ahead of time, and just pull it out of the fridge like a rockstar at the last minute. But people’s sense of time is also distorted by heat and stress, and you don’t really need to impress your friends. Although it can be fun.
This is the first recipe that is really a recipe, although it is not the first recipe people have been asking for. Most gazpacho recipes have bread. This one, like all my recipes, is gluten- and dairy-free. So it does not have bread. You could add bread. But I’m not sure why you’d bother, cos this is so good.
2 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled and sliced
1 spring onion
6 medium, ripe tomatoes
2 red bell peppers (efficiently de-seeded by chopping off top and bottom, and then striking out the white parts from the sides—h/t Milo)
1 large cucumber, peeled but not deseeded (for some reason the seeds are essential to the flavor—do not believe the recipes that tell you to de-seed)
1 handful fresh parsley
1 handfuls fresh cilantro (if you have the gene mutation wherein cilantro tastes like soap to you, I am sorry; you are cursed; some people will make you gazpacho with basil instead, but I am not one of those people because cold basil tomato soup is just wrong; but I can make you a caprese instead)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
a sprinkling of garlic powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper
a more generous sprinkling freshly ground salt and pepper
This looks like a recipe. But actually it is also not really a recipe. It is a list of ingredients you gather and throw in a blender. Then you press a button. Presto. Gazpacho. This is not cooking so much as disassembling fresh food into pureed form. I’m not knocking it. I’m just not sure what to call it.
You can add a variety of things on top to dress up gazpacho—chopped chives and crumbled feta cheese, drizzled balsamic crema and sliced bell pepper, a chorizo smiley-face. But good gazpacho doesn’t need any dressing-up. It’s crisp and refreshing, not too acidic but very bright and fresh.
Like the chicken salad above and sorbet below, this recipe feeds: two people if it’s all you’re making, three people if you have some more dishes to go around, and four if you’re making a bunch of other stuff. (To feed 5-6, it’s better to make two batches ahead of time. Like a lot of chilled, spiced dishes, it gets even better after a day in the fridge.)
a package of frozen sour cherries (what I find here is usually about 300 grams)
3 spoonfuls xylitol (a sugar substitute a bit sweeter than sugar with fewer calories that seems to be better for your teeth)
a few sprinkles of salt
a glug of almond extract
Again, this is not a recipe so much as a list of things you can put in your blender to subsequently eat and feed people when it is too hot to actually cook. It reminds me of the red shaved ice desserts I used to get special from shady vans over the summer as a kid. It reminds my dear friend Gerben of a childhood cherry-flavored candy. I think the cherry flavor probably reminds a lot of people of a lot of childhood things, because cherry was a common junk food flavoring back when junk foods had real food flavors. But this is not junk food. It is mostly cherries. Who knew? Nostalgia can be high in antioxidants.
You can try other variations of the same idea—frozen raspberries with fresh mint and lime juice (plus xylitol and salt), frozen strawberries with fresh basil and balsamic crema(plus xylitol and salt), frozen blueberries with vanilla extract and cinnamon ((plus xylitol and salt), the more sour frozen berry mix you can buy here in Germany (plus a tad more xylitol and melted chocolate drizzled on top). The simple cherry sorbet is my favorite, but playing with new things is fun.
Vegan Chocolate Mousse
1 block tofu (I think the one I got was 400 g and said something about silk on the package)
100g 90% dark chocolate (Lindt, from the enormous box my dear friend Arjen sent to aid in my recovery from illness because I have the best friends in the world)
3 tbsp + a splash maple syrup
splash (1 tsp or so) vanilla extract (I might try vanilla sugar in place of xylitol plus vanilla extract next time. It’s hard to find alcohol-based, American-style extracts here in Berlin—they’re available over-priced at boutique and bio stores, so I usually buy them online… And my love R doesn’t like the flavor so much. I like it more than freshly scraped vanilla bean in desserts though, since it’s what I’m used to—the flavor is stronger.)
pinch of salt
Melt chocolate in microwave, stirring every 30 seconds until smooth. Blend it all. Top with cocoa nibs and chocolate hearts.
Chill in the fridge overnight for best results (or a few hours if you’re desperate). The added bonus of chilling overnight is that then you have a healthy (ish), chocolatey, cool summer breakfast. Also, if your dinner company has left by then, you have more for yourself… Not that I would ever think of anything but the greater good.
A recipe qua love letter.
When I first moved to Berlin—or rather, came on a one-way, first-class train ticket to visit my new love some two-and-a-half years ago, and never left—I vaguely recognized “Danke” from multi-lingual thank-you notes. You know the ones, decorated with the word “Thanks” in seven languages, different sizes and fonts scattered across the page like hands waving in a group—all saying the same thing, all the better for their blithe redundancy. I had learned French in high school, which was of no use to me now—except in fostering the hope that I could learn German, too. This in spite of having lived in Holland for three months, interrupted in the middle by one glorious month in Lisbon, without picking up even the ability to recognize Dutch or Portuguese. (Now I know: Dutch sounds like German without being German, and there are no other common European languages like that. Portuguese sounds Slavic without being Slavic, and there are seven other common European languages like that.)
Mark Twain once wrote of “The Awful German Language” that “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” Twain’s beef aside, learning German isn’t all that different from learning French. You have to soak in it for a while, getting soggy in the batter of your stupidity before the lattices of the brain loosen. Then you can jump in the frying pan of real conversation, browning and firming up what seeped in there somehow. If you can learn French, you can learn German. Except perhaps in Berlin.
Berlin to me is a city of love and sweetness. Probably in the first case because I came here for love. But also because it has this vibe of kindness, silliness, celebration, and having time for life. It’s not unusual to see musicians busking in Mauerpark on Sunday, just far enough away so you can make out the different tunes. Or someone wearing gold lamé pants on the subway—or a man wearing lipstick, or a gorgeous young woman in (weather permitting) a summery dress and no bra. I threw away the only bra I came to Europe with years ago; no one has ever catcalled me here, regardless.
The culture of safe self-expression extends even to the corporate world. Local ads for public transit announce that the buses and trains are good here, “Weil wir lieben dich“—because we love you. To be sure, the love doesn’t extend to every grumpy, middle-aged grocery store clerk glaring and double-checking your cart for attempted shoplifting because you seem foreign. But it spreads pretty far and wide in Berlin. So much so that this is the first place that feels like home.
Forgive me for I have been born American: Home is English-speaking. It’s bad, but it’s a good problem to have. My German is coming along slowly, because in Berlin, I can usually get away with feeble attempts and switching to English.
And home is love and sweetness. So not everyday—not even every week in the era of keto-paleo-low-FODMAP-low-carb goody-goodness—but every once in a while, home requires the decadent sweetness of French toast. Not real, American French toast—the kind made with gluten, stale imitation-French bread, and childhood disappointment. But German French toast, modifying the classic recipe of love and sweetness to suit the times and our tastes.
If you can make French toast, you can make German French toast. Start with gluten-free sandwich bread, freshly freed from its airtight seal. Toast the bread slices two by two while mixing five eggs, two extra egg yolks, half a cup of milk or rice milk, one dash of salt per egg, and a similar sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Soak the toasted slices two by two while readying the toppings on the table: maple syrup, cinnamon sugar, cherry preserves, 100% dark chocolate broken into bits for toast-top melting, white miso paste, and rainbow sprinkles. Then cook the soaked toast with extra egg batter spooned over the top and sides to spilling, letting the pairs of pieces brown on medium-high heat in a non-stick pan with a small bit of light cooking oil.
It helps to have at least two and preferably three extra lovely people on hand for good company and quality control. That way, it doesn’t matter that you have to keep toasting, soaking, cooking, and flipping the rest of the batches while the first one, two, three pairs of French toast are done, and need to be eaten while they’re hot. I actually enjoy keeping on cooking while people are eating. I have to explain every time, but I’m happy to keep saying it and feeling that it’s true: There are very few things in life that I enjoy more than cooking good food for good people.
What is the opposite of YOLO (you only live once)? This is not a rhetorical question. I am still actively looking for a better way to say: You only eat too much sugar on rare occasions, so it’s less poisonous than if you did it all the time. Carpe the occasional glucose dump? Eat, drink, and be merry today, for tomorrow we may diet? I don’t know and, by the time I sit down with the last two pieces and cooked leftover egg batter, to show how to melt unsweetened chocolate on top, smother it with miso paste, pour maple syrup over, and enjoy being myself in front of my dear ones, no matter how weird I am—I don’t care.
German French toast tastes like sustainable indulgence. Aber ich muss noch Deutsch lernen.
Oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, 2014-5, Boston. From a series of five in which the best one was in the stolen batch, and another I just gave away. I guess I should have a go at the “road like fire” concept anew one of these days.
What is it about the road that is so like fire?
Staring into it, watching the landscapes flicker,
I fall into the trance of night
like a cat’s liquid pounce into a lap.
Like a hunter caught in a larger cat’s trap—
happy, hot, swaying lap.
I’ll just email people who want to continue receiving infrequent updates about my art, writing, and other goings-on. What that means for my website is that now the newsletter sign-up on the side-bar is gone. So, like it says on my About page, just email me (if you haven’t already) if you would like to receive infrequent updates on my art, writing, research, etc.
Either way, I’m deleting my MailChimp account and all the data it holds this week. I’m so much happier off Facebook and Twitter. And I don’t want / use / even know all the data MailChimp collects on email marketing… So I know it’s going to feel better to not have that lying around, either.
“some sorrows are like stones, and they never melt, though our tears rain and groove them… “—Derek Walcott
Yes, I have carried many heavy stones.
Sometimes the weight has made me stronger.
Sometimes I could not walk any longer.
What is it to you if I cannot put them down?
Meanwhile the man who loves me sleeps.
I cannot injure what he owns.
I would like to lie like water in his ridges,
grooving so softly the canyon of his chest.
What I love best
is the bridges
that over water and stones
stretch solid, straight, and kind.
They are beautiful without rains and troubled water.
They are also beautiful when spring storms blind.
When the storms have passed,
sometimes the high waters have swept away
stones that seemed they couldn’t be moved,
and the bridges themselves may be grooved
A rewrite of and new riff on an older draft of a poem about being happy at home with my love. These are the sorts of things I’m not sure are original enough to leave in the book; but I’m so glad I could write them, I’ll probably let them stay nonetheless…
Sweet, soft, clean, and hot—
too tired to remember what I’ve washed,
too happy to care. This is how we get there.
Home, into each other, every night.
Home, still inside you, you still inside me,
every sweet morning in the early light.
I want to live where this peace flows
over you from inside me
and over me from within,
over and around us like rushing water,
the impossible stream gushing from the stone.
Sleeping and waking in the rhythms of your breath,
in the rhythms of my breath,
in the flow of our dreams,
never bursting the seams of time with rush and such.
Free to be at home together
free to follow the sun, making our own weather.
You feed my gentleness, and my fire
with a love so listening, my savage squire.
Your chest holds my face
like a glass of wine—sweet, calming, and craved
like a hot shower—warming my wearied wake
and like a favorite poem,
the cadence of your breath saying again and again
how beautiful the world is and how it is my home.
“Weiter” is “further”or “continue” in German. Our camper van’s name is a play on this…
From the undulating Elba
to the port-pocked Rhine,
we ferry our camper
down to the sea
in no time.
We find the dunes
just as we left them,
swirling softly under the moon.
And lie down in summer grasses,
and float on soon.
Where we’ll be next time we wake,
neither of us knows.
Free in love and place and time,
to go where the wind blows.
So soft the curling dunes at night,
so sweet your pillow-chest.
I’ve never played so long and hard,
or gotten so much rest.
“Fox and Friends,” 2017, oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (sold).
I’m working on my second poetry book manuscript, Vagabonding. (My first poetry book is illustrated here.) I might restructure it completely in a next editing phase, hopefully before finishing it in August. But so far I have just rejiggered it slightly in two main rounds this year of editing, cutting around 50 pages and rewriting a bunch. So now it looks like this—
New Arriving, Europe (9—done, e.g., here). Was 10, now is 9 poems from London to Lisbon and Amsterdam, where I lived when I first immigrated to Europe in 2015. I’ve edited and blogged all of them, although there are a few that I haven’t re-blogged since substantial editing and a few that I know still need good writing or to be cut.
Finding Berlin, Germany (7—done, e.g., here). Was 12, now is 7 poems, about making my home in Berlin. Again all are edited and blogged; again I still know a few that want more attention or to be cut.
High Art (2 remaining, 6 done, e.g., here). Was 10, now is 8 poems on art. A few remaining to be edited into a form that I want to blog them, or cut if it can’t be done.
Back in the Colonies (7 done, e.g., here). Was 11, now is 7 poems on goings-on back in the colonies, mostly America. All edited and blogged; still a few needing another good edit or to be cut.
Back for Forwards (9 done, e.g., here). Was 19, and then I broke this section into two parts—this section and the next. Now this section is on looking back…
One Step Forward (10 done, e.g., here)… And this section is on going forward… And all are edited and blogged.
Relations (5 done, e.g., here). Was 10, now is 5 poems on family. Kill your darlings…
Nuremberg, 2027 (13 done, e.g., here). Was 10, now is 13 (mostly from re-ordering the manuscript). Envisioning future war crimes trials. All edited and blogged (in fact many more blogged than made the cut; so it goes. Forgive me for being drafty on the Internet…)
Vagabonding Anew (7 done, 2 remaining; e.g., here). Was 10, now is 9 poems on seeing my new Continent, mostly with my love in a camper van. I had blogged none back in January when I posted my draft Table of Contents, and now have edited and blogged seven; there are two remaining.
Newly Arriving Every Time (7; to be done). Was 10, now is 7 poems on happiness and home with my love in Berlin. I’ve still only blogged just this one early version.
Others (4; to be done). Was 15, now is 4 poems on sexuality, still all needing to be edited into a form that I want to blog them, or cut.
Sweet Home (4 remaining, 2 done; e.g., here). Was 12, now is 6 poems on being happy at home with my love again. Might combine well with the section before last. Yes, yes, that happens now. Now we’re back down to 12 sections. Good. And I can combine them so it’s 10 instead of 13, and then that might help me rewrite as well, the regrouping… Thank you, Internet, this helps.
Sweet Roam (2 remaining). Was 5, now is 2 long trip sequence poems. With many parts. That I’m still not sure what to do with, in whole or in part.
I guess I’ll wrap up the obvious—editing and blogging what stays from the last five sections—before re-printing the manuscript physically and/or re-structuring the whole. I’m such a Luddite when it comes to editing, especially larger projects. I really have to hold it and see it, to see it. But it’s good. I’m making good headway, and I like my work.
This is a poem about those times you have been crouching under a worktable re-reading The Odyssey (Emily Wilson translation), trying to ignore the bad upon worse news while yearning for some mother-fucking eagles to swoop down and tear out some mother-fucking faces, pre-journey Telemachus-style—but you know much of art and religion is just one, long imagining of unattainable justice in (and beyond) an unjust world, and a blinding one that promotes false faith at that. It’s useful when it gets you out of a bad situation (trust in God and get on a plane). But then you put it away like a security blanket and face facts.
There will be no eagles. Only books and tables, and coming back out from under them to vagabond, relax, see so many gorgeous palaces and cathedrals that you’re all cathedralled out for a while, and accidentally discover Virgo Lactans—paintings of Mother Mary squirting milk on baby Jesus, [your favorite monk or benefactor here], and the flames on the poor souls in purgatory. With the help of baby Jesus, who aims.
So at least not all art is fantasy about over-coming powerlessness. Some art is fantasy about magical breast-milk. Which I guess is a male fantasy about over-coming the powerlessness of not being able to lactate, by getting to direct the lactation. Hmm.
In any case, I guess you could say this is a poem about not waiting for a hero, even one who defies normal gender roles to the extent that she’s born war-ready from the wrong end of the wrong gender. Athena has it all; but we don’t have Athena.
Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas, 2016 or so, web store.
“Yearning for the Birth of Athena”
You know how it is when
you lay with the goddess
of lulz and wisdom,
and have second thoughts.
So you swallow the bitch—
the available plan B.
But instead of dying,
she’s splitting your skull.
Or it feels that way.
So you have your closest friends
open your head with an axe.
We’ve all been there.
The fully armored, battle-crying
goddess leaping out. The mind of god
with a shout.
Now where’s pregnant Zeus,
when we need him most?
Why are the fighting, fucking, meddling gods
waiting to jump in and save the coast?
Did they get distracted
by their social media stats?
Are they working their second jobs?
Are they busy watching cats?
Or did we anger them so much
that they left for good this time?
Never again to grant a foolish wish for golden touch?
Nor to settle injustice itself—instead of crime?
Stop waiting for your hero
to pop out of some pompous dude.
Or the chances will be zero
that we’re anything but screwed.
Oils on 40 x 50 cm stretched canvas (web store).
This is a rewrite of a poem I linked to yesterday in the “empires fall” vein. It’s still not as tight after rewriting as this one that says much the same thing, but that came out whole. That’s ideas for you… Sometimes when you hold out your hands you can catch them. Anyway, literally this is a poem about the shrine that survived the nuclear blast in Hiroshima.
Bring me your despair—but only a bit.
Resistance is a marathon, not a sprint.
Pour out what you must and I’ll sweeten it.
Every day I pour myself out—sometimes by pouring in.
Every day the great works of the ages wear a little thin.
Time ravages everything. No one knows what will happen.
Except in the big picture we’re all doomed, and that’s alright.
Everyone dies. Empires fall. Experts imagine they know what’s right.
Our brains tell us stories, day and night.
If you had seen Rome crumbling, what would you have done?
Written a friend, retired to think, sent away your only son?
Toward the end, it must have been clear to everyone.
Maybe fiddling on the roof is all there is to be done.
A fireball—the phallic missiles’ burst—the arms race finally won.
Madmen have ruled the world before.
Yet we’ve avoided nuclear war.
The blasts thus far have been contained. But not the fear—
the blanking mind, making threats; the will to fight, flee, and follow.
It hits us all—soft skins, soft cells, soft atoms, mostly hollow.
Maybe that’s how the shrine in the water not so far out
from Hiroshima survived the bomb.
Too much substance in its spirits for its matter to go wrong.
This is a poem in my happy vagabonding series (e.g., 1, 2, 3…) in my Vagabonding poetry book (in manuscript) about exploring my new Continent in good company. It’s about admiring the Roman ruins in Pula, Istria (Croatia) with my love last summer. It also resonates with some other poetry I’ve written/blogged/illustrated, on how empires fall.
Here is pink!
and there is purple!
and gate crepe myrtle.
Olive upon olive tree
to cook and lather you and me.
Vineyards for the sweetest wine—
and of the ending, not a sign
but these stone ruins on the hill.
(No reason, either, crossing this
pagan blue sky they touch and kiss.)
This morning, we can build them still.
The Roman bridge, the Gothic arch,
and its devout and sure démarche.
But we had better write it down
in some form other than a town,
before that old collective rot
and we forget again
how it had been
(and be fulfilled
by) what they built
(with trig, not guilt),
after we lose
From the stacks of gouache, pencils, ink, and mixed media on paper I made last spring-summer, largely illustrating poems in my next book, and still haven’t photographed to properly put online.
For a long time I’ve struggled to situate Robert Frost’s brilliant poem “Mending Wall” in the context of Trump’s America—responding to harsh anger and intentional ugliness with this beautiful, rambling softness of a story. In spite of its limitations there is something powerful and human about arguing this way—as a creative human being rather than a fighter or a machine. Something worth the work.
So I made some poem-paintings riffing on it, recorded the poem, tried setting it in my own lyrics riffing on it on top of my favorite Chopin Nocturne, apologized to Chopin, used the music to edit my poem anyway, and continued to feel there is a song here but I haven’t sung it. Frost’s most haunting line here has innate melody.
But the rest has yet to spin out for me, if it ever does. Often music is like this for me. I feel I have a job to show up to, but I show up and the flow gets stuck. The same thing happens with speaking sometimes, but I manage. Someday I hope to get through a few Berklee music theory and practice books that have been sitting on top of my beloved piano forever, to retrain my 20+ year old rusty classical music mind to compose and play more pop-y stuff, so that I can finally write, learn, and perform proper accompaniment for the poems that have melodies.
Poems have always had melodies in my mind—to the extent that I used to assume they do to everyone. It still seems strange to me when it’s this pronounced, that it’s only me. Can’t you hear it? “The thing with feathers” that doesn’t love a wall…
“Your Daughter’s Voice (U.Va. Serpentine Wall),” oils on 16″ x 20″ stretched canvas, 2014 (sold).
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”—Robert Frost
Faith doesn’t love a wall,
but releases its wings
to the winds in a sprawl,
letting go of direction-like things.
Hope doesn’t love a wall,
loves looking up and around in thrall,
wants to see the neighbors and all,
likes to be seen by one and all.
Love can’t not love—yet with walls,
stays to herself, silenced, feeling the cold
creep into her gardens and halls.
Love within walls doesn’t live to grow old at all.
Peace might seem at first to love a wall—
to be left alone, quiet at home, with no visitors.
But people are animals—need contributors,
friends and fellow-travelers, and inquisitors.
Trust doesn’t love a wall at all.
Nor understanding, its cozy nest and catchall.
Trust and understanding don’t love a wall.
And what loves a wall, doesn’t love them at all.
What loves a wall is fear.
What loves a wall is degradation.
What loves a wall is panic and its blindness that makes more blindness.
What loves a wall, loves the shame of a nation.
What loves a wall is wrongdoing.
What loves a wall is wealth that has no mercy on the suffering.
What loves a wall is shame.
What loves a wall, loves pain.
But what loves a wall most of all is the sea,
making modern sea walls crumble
with post-modern holes and speed.
Or maybe it’s the falling-apart of the plates’ shifting rumble.
Or the new life—trees and bushes, animals, mosses, and things—
the new life that follows destruction so quickly,
it can seem like rotting makes a bird sing
when it’s only the rising sun,
only the unwalled wordly one,
only the same, impossible will to keep on
that drives on everyone.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
That something is a part of us all.
“feeding the well”—pouring inspiration/goodness/newness in without expecting anything out; Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way.
Recently I was feeding the well in Málaga, where I saw and reviewed a lovely Mediterranean art exhibit. And this is a poem about feeding the well, as an activist as well as an artist, last summer in Croatia with my love and another member of our tribe (h/t GP).
“We were paradise”
We were olive trees
we were stark blue seas
we were nearer to Greece than I’ve ever been
and you tasted the olives and said it’s a sin
how empires have changed so much since then.
We were rosemary breeze
we were soft pink flowers
we were walking on blisters and talking for hours.
And I bought you apricots like you had at your aunt’s,
and no one on the beach was bothered with pants.
What was the world while we were paradise?
What glaciers melted while we were fresh ice?
What forests burned down while we played nice?
What cities flooded, what droughts drilled what dirt?
Though we missed many train-wrecks—
failed to feel all the hurt—
we were trees and seas and needed breeze.
We were flowers and hours and apricots on the beach.
When we meet again, in peacetime or in breach,
I’ll call up this you if you call up this me.
When my devices didn’t reliably display websites’ actual content, my accounts apparently engaged in activity not of my doing, my phone didn’t reliably complete calls as dialed, a buncha my files disappeared, and other crazy shit happened in Boston in 2015, one of the funniest things was how a website that looked like mine but wasn’t had recipes alongside sex toy reviews. What’s more embarrassing: that, or the fact that at the time, I hadn’t ever touched a sex toy? Unless you count Barbies, which have many uses… (Clearly my embarrassment threshold has grown three sizes since then.)
But I used to love writing recipes, including some that were published years ago as Reviews of New Food for McSweeney’s—Coconut Borscht, Chocolate Love Vegan Cupcakes, Shepherds-Who-Want-You-To-Be-Healthy Pie, Herbal Supplements, and Hot Chai Malk. Which reminds me of how, at one time before the current era of bliss—and before the immediately preceding era, in which I only stopped working to apply calories to body to avoid problems—I also enjoyed cooking. A lot.
In fact, as a little girl I enjoyed it so much that I tried various cooking-centered businesses, like selling brownies (or giving them away) to the neighbors (age 8?) and Christmas pralines to local businesses (age 20). That was when I wasn’t selling (or giving away) art cards and paintings. It should have told me something that my early cooking and art-centered business ventures generally involved losing money and/or giving the best stuff away. But I like what I like.
And as this new recipe at McSweeney’s today suggests, I like roast chicken. Also Germany. Germany is nice. I would like to become German as soon as possible, but the citizenship road is about 7 years long and I’ve only been here about 2.5 years. So like any good American, I’m brainstorming how to achieve my dreams through careful planning, hard work, and unfair shortcuts.
What if I get a quick online degree in nuclear physics? What if I marry a Dutchman who speaks really good German? What if my great-grandmother was a starving Jewish girl sent by her Romanian parents from Iași to live with relatives in illustrious Stanisławów, Austria-Poland-Ukraine, but luckily she GTFO before they killed all the Jews in all the places and none of my relatives on that side had any citizenship to restore to me now anyway because they were all, as I may have mentioned, Jews? GIVE ME CITIZENSHIP AND I WILL BAKE YOU BROWNIES.
Wait, is quid pro quo for citizenship illegal? Look, all I’m saying is, Make Vera European Again.
Recently a dear friend asked for my chicken recipe. As I only keep secrets that need keeping, I wrote it out for her. But I got a little carried away and wrote it like I used to write Reviews of New Food for McSweeney’s—which is to say, snarkily. Then I submitted it to McSwy’s, even though I hadn’t written for them in years. And they took it!
I was so excited that I wrote another review immediately, which the editor kindly pointed out was lovely but longer than what they normally publish. So I cut it by half, and the editor kindly pointed out it was more of a straight-up recipe than what they normally publish. That was when I realized I had forgotten to review in my reviews. Here’s the longer-still rewrite, which remedies that error.
I do, however, really like writing straight-up recipes and wonder if people might want them, too. After finishing my second poetry book, I’d really like to write something with more of an audience. So I wonder if that sort of a (gluten-free, oddball) cookbook project might be it.
When I was a little girl, before my parents divorced, my abusive alcoholic father abandoned the family, and my mom got sicker and sicker—in short, before everything fell apart—we drove from the white-flight suburbs an hour and a half outside Birmingham, Alabama to the Atlantic coast of Florida, all the way to the paradisiacal beaches of Ponte Vedra near my parents’ hometown of Jacksonville, every summer I can remember. The drive would take a few days, in which my older brother and I would make shaky backseat peaces with Pez and Tchaikovsky’s life story would replay on cassettes so hot the smell of melting plastic still reminds me of Swan Lake.
All happy families, Tolstoy wrote, are happy in the same way. But all unhappy families develop their own reward systems for surviving each other on summer vacation. There in paradise, my dad would get as drunk as possible as often as possible, my mom would walk the pristine white beaches trying not to cry, and I would collect dozens upon dozens of purple shells that looked like painted half-moon fingernails. No one could ever tell me what they were called, so I named them pestañas, the Spanish word for eyelashes, because it’s pretty and sounds purple. (Google says they’re called tellins.) I don’t know what my brother did there, since he didn’t like playing or talking with me, a preference I used to think of as cold but now understand as Aspergiac.
Then we would all reconvene for a special dinner at a special club over a Japanese bridge over a man-made pond with snapping turtles that my dad joked would be in my soup, and eat luscious seafood bisque (cream soup) with diabetical Southern sweet tea. That soup tasted like butter, milk and honey, crab meat, better booze than I got sips of in my dad’s orange juice, and, quite possibly, turtle.
Times have changed. Now we know what to call my brother’s strangeness (high-functioning autism), and possibly my own; as well as our mother’s long and difficult illness (lupus). But of other people one says little, except that they have managed heroically to leave the shared muddle of our past and be whole, although it has required becoming wholly different and wholly apart. My brother and I independently changed our names during one of the stretches of months or years when we were not speaking. (I think I was first, but he wouldn’t give me a date the last time he would speak to me, which was already some time ago.)
For myself, I have managed this appearance of starting anew with no small number of aids—a brilliant and loving partner’s support in a new career on a new Continent under my new name, for example. It is sometimes said that a son grows up and leaves you, while a daughter is forever; so I spent a long time being a good daughter, after which I became a happier son. I am a pre-op trans-Continental. As a hip bastion of radical artsy sciencey LGBTQIAOHNOES, my household intermittently nerds out about ketosis, keeping sugar in the forbidden cabinet originally designated for glutenous fare, cold medication, and God. And as I moved about as far away from the U.S. South, culturally speaking, as you can get without learning Norwegian, I have learned to make my own soup—my way.
This learning did not start with old recipes, or other things I carried. The things I did not leave at first fit in a backpack. I did not miss anything else. But eventually, with the help of a very few and dear friends, I sent for more: the tapes of interviews I had conducted as a curious artist and early grad student, before turning my PhD research focus to their topic—polygraphs, or “lie detectors”; the oil paintings that I hadn’t given up, sold, or had stolen by the man who agreed to take them from the storage unit I could no longer afford to display in his AirBNBs, as a favor to us both; and at last the better flavors of my childhood—cajun spices, blackened meat, and seafood bisque.
I had hoped to turn up but never did, and still don’t know what happened to, my 500+ tellins, although I now suspect they must have been lost a decade earlier, in the emergency one-way ticket to Alabama move of ’04, when my mom’s lease was up and she was too sick to manage, so I brought her up to college with me. She slept on the sofa with mysterious bruises and rages—a different person than the mom I knew. I missed her too much to love her. No one said lupus never presents without neuropsych problems. No one said it was lupus; we figured it out. (She credits me, and I credit Isabel; but it’s patients who have the answers.) My flatmate moved out. The flirtatious older professor saw his opportunity. And there went my 20s.
Leaving everything behind was something I tried to do many times, and finally managed only under that great expatriating duress that turned out to be much more blessing than curse. Also curse. But more blessing.
Similarly, the long-undiagnosed gluten allergy that kept me accidentally skinny into my late 20s seems to have also damaged my esophagus permanently, so that I am physiologically incapable of burping—when I drink too much fizzy stuff, my throat growls all night like a bullfrog in heat—and have had to learn to cook anew several times. This was not fun when back in grad school, I was crying from intense, hyperthyroid hunger at 2:30 a.m., having lost 15 pounds and half my hair in a month, and did not know what to feed myself to keep the hunger pain at bay because everything I used to cook had gluten.
But now that my arsenal of quick snacks and full meals is fleshed out again, I can enjoy the fluidity of cooking favorites on automatic—that Zen of flow in doing something I know how to do and like doing. As well as the challenge of trying something new and complicated—like cobbling together fifteen recipes while improvising to make this soup. And making it gluten-free like I make everything, as well as low-carb like I make most things. The blessing of learning to cook and eat healthier from the curse of medically having to. That is the newness of the food here, although it is an old childhood memory I’m remaking, recipe-constructing, and reviewing at last.
All good seafood soups start with a strong fish fumet, or fresh stock (clear bouillon) made from boiling an enormous pot of bones and/or shells. The bones, and the fish flesh you’ll need later, must be from non-oily fish, like cod. And you cannot walk into the grocery store and ask the butcher to sell you his seafood throwaways for thirty cents, like you could when—oh my God, it’s happening—I was a little girl. I’m only 33! I think.
Anyway, grocery stores these days—oh my God, it’s really happening!—don’t sell you fish bones and shrimp or crab shells for soup. At least not anywhere I could find in Berlin, Germany. For that, I discovered after striking out four times and asking a local, you have to go to a Fischladen (fishmonger), like the aptly named Der Fischladen. And you have to call to order your kilo of carcasses a day ahead, since not many people do this. And you shouldn’t do it on a Friday or weekend, because they’re busy.
Some recipes call for pouring a half bottle of white wine over the carcasses before boiling away, but this is a waste as adding a smaller amount of wine to the soup later retains more of the flavor (and leaves more wine for drinking). The same goes for the oft-advised addition of “aromatics” (veggies and spices) to the bone broth. It’s more flavorful if you wait and, after the full pot has boiled down to a stock (which takes a few hours in a four-liter pot), separately sauté the veggies and spices. I use a modified mirepoix (French diced and sautéed veggie flavoring) of garlic, onions, fennel, carrots, celery, and parsley (in order of cook time), with 3-5 bay leaves and cajun spices—here, a mixture of vegan bouillon in place of salt, plus freshly ground black pepper, paprika, cayenne, thyme, and oregano, to taste.
When a fork mashes through the carrots easily enough, put the mirepoix in a blender (sans bay leaves). Then strain the fumet into a smaller pot. Add some of it to the veggies in the blender. Blending the veggies thickens the soup without adding flour. You can use this trick in most soup and casserole recipes. It takes half an hour or so, but adds a lot of flavor (and probably some nutrition) along with its thickness. In theory, you can make a huge batch of mirepoix ahead of time to add to different dishes bit by bit. But I’m lucky enough to be able to spend time relaxing in the kitchen; there is something incomparably peaceful for me about making fresh food in smaller batches.
The last time I made (or attempted to make) this bisque, I had forgotten to get shrimp because I was too distracted flirting with the cute, sweet Italian guys at Der Fischladen (hi Angelo, hi Daniele) after a wonderful dinner date with my hot, sweet boyfriend (and a bathtub-sized glass of wine). (Or maybe I’m just getting old and forgetful… Omg, it’s happening.) Made this way, it’s still a lovely soup, but lacks the full flavor of my childhood memory. It really needs both fish bones and shells in the broth, and fish meat and shell meat in the soup. Four out of five friends who have never heard of Ponte Vedra agree, but only after a bathtub-sized glass of wine. The fifth one thinks it needs turtle.
Sauté the meats while the fumet and vegetables blend. Then combine some of the remaining fumet with the blended fumet-vegetable mixture—as much as you need to get the consistency almost right, but still too thick for soup. Then add about a cup of cream, half a cup of white wine, and four or five ounces of cooking sherry. Every other recipe you can find will say to use 1-2.5 ounces, but these recipes are empirically wrong. It is also important to test the sherry while cooking, to be sure it has not turned communist while living in Europe.
When the fish is cooked so that it falls apart, take it off the heat long enough to crumble it into the soup, removing any remaining bones with your fingers. Chop the shrimp or crab meat and add it, too. Squeeze in a few lemon slices at the last minute. Let cool before chilling, reheating for lunch the next day, and taking some in Tupperware to share with the nice fishlads and other friends. Most seafood is best fresh, but this bisque gets better every day for the few days it lasts, the flavors seeping together like a new lover getting comfortable. It tastes like that lasting pleasure of connection not everyone experiences with birth family, but if we’re lucky we find later in good company and in bed, maybe even at the same time.
But first thing after serving the first night’s soup: Take out the trash. Yesterday’s boiled bones and fishheads stink. There is nothing left to do with them. There will always be people who think you still need to catalog them or something, just because you’ve made some soups in your day. They will demand details, or suggest treatments and mantras, all focused on doing more with the used-up bits you’ve already picked clean and then boiled for soup. Forgive them; which is to say, forget them. They didn’t have what you had, and they haven’t made what you made of it. They don’t know that’s just not how cooking works, that’s not how bones work, that’s not what feeding people is all about. Just smile and tell them you’ve already made that soup. And you already gave away the last bowl.
This is Fred. He makes soup.
This is a poem in my Amsterdam series (1, 2) inspired by my time living there in 2015 as a still-fresh expat in a world full of people reorienting in various ways. Sometimes you go looking for the promised land (resistance, a free world, trade routes made of gold) and discover other searchers instead—and that home in other searchers is the best reorientation you could wish for.
“Walking along the Amstel”
Bicycles, babies, and boats bob along the Amstel—
the Rival, the Tramp, and the Res Nova exhaling in gentle troughs.
Amsterdam after L.A. is practical and gray.
Here, bits of blue sky make no Technicolor promise.
Clouds come and go quietly, leading by example.
Mothers laugh and trail behind babies on bicycles,
Dutch stomachs effortlessly tight as they juggle
groceries, phones, and younger babes. (Look, Moms! no hands!)
I am counting butterfly bushes instead of losses,
no longer counting colors to keep from staring at oncoming trains.
Rustling reeds remind me the summers are short,
but my season here is ample—time cool and long.
My new life is like a length of boat sailing across the horizon,
with the slowness of scale but the smoothness of a cat
comfortably at home. I am a stranger here, and illegal.
But there’s no where to return—I will never go home.
All the world’s reset on roam.
This vagabonding is our Res Nova.
Home in the world is the new home.
Banging along for Yucatán, discovering Cordova.
“Outside the Closed Church Door”
Igreja Paroquial de Nossa Senhora das Mercês (Parish Church of Our Lady of Mercy)—Lisboa
Disused door doves
say sacred sensations
wait willing and wanted.
Fleeing (feminine phantom)
closer cooing, crumbling
in need not unknown,
I look at the locked-out lingerers
and pray for pairing perfect.
What would also work
would be wanted oneness,
so needed necessary and now.
Like some others, this poem was inspired by my time in Lisbon in 2015. Most of us have spent the decade following the last financial crisis observing outcomes worsen for a lot of people in a lot of places as inequality and corruption increased… Without having the power to either stop the forces of history driving that march, or not feel them.
“Finding Praça do Comércio”
The water calls you even if your feet are as stupid as mine,
not knowing direction in your own country,
much less finding your way wandering, except
there is no more way to find, but you know what I mean.
Every time I’d wander out, I’d find myself at the water
and so the city center where the Tejo meets the Atlantic,
or nearly enough that the water tastes of salt
and the cruise ships look embarrassing.
Juan wants to sell me weed.
Nicolás wants my number.
And a tiny, unbent butterfly of an ancient, burnt sienna woman
dressed in a doll-pink dress and backpack, long white pants and orthopedic shoes,
red hair barrette, gold hoop earrings, silver cane,
and imperial frown lets me walk beside her in the protest against the failed bank,
showing me her statement with her money she can never have—
her life savings, stolen by bankers who will get away.
I ask if I can take her picture, and she has me snap
her paper with my cellphone, too, as if believing
in my ability to see, or know who to show.
But I never know who to tell anymore.
So much is going wrong.
Someone give Lucilia Santos Cruz her 106.56 euros back.
Or was that all she had left after the theft?
I am trying to understand the world and failing,
because the world does not make sense.
Still the water pulls me, away from the shouting of protestors
who would like to but will not attack the bankers’ police in their new riot gear,
away from the wider everyday bustle of Baixa,
away from the litter and mosaics of Lisboa,
to the smooth stones and mossy rocks by the gently rocking water.
One circle of stones not too far out looks like a wreath underwater,
or a nest the fish-birds are flying over, skipping stoney kisses
across the bright and cloudy surface of their sky.
A young boy’s melody of question laces a father’s answer
as a migrant’s bench-beat hugs the farther coast,
and there is so much music in all this longing.
The water pulls us—its force without logic, demand without reason,
peace without words.