Day 222: Another day, another newsletter

Issue No. 17 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from No. 16. If you wish to sign up, click up top where the complex instructions say "click right here."

© Aaron Burden

Selections from my Notisbücher Leuchtturm

  • When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be Bruce Chatwin. At least, the next Bruce Chatwin. (In my 50s, I made him the subject of my master’s thesis.) I read everything he wrote, and was especially enamored for many years of The Songlines, especially the numerous excerpts in that book from his many notebooks. This was Bruce Chatwin, who liked to make a show of anything, so the notebooks could not be cheap and everyday mais non. In six paragraphs of The Songlines, he extolled the virtues of a specific black notebook with an elastic closure that he called carnets moleskines, available from a papeterie on the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie (well, of course). For years, to no avail, I sought facsimiles so I could take Chatwinesque notes of my own. Then, one day in a Baltimore museum shop, there it was—an honest-to-god carnet moleskine. No, a Moleskine®, because a company in Italy had begun manufacturing and marketing them as the notebooks favored by the fabled Bruce Chatwin. I bought one straight off. My mood improved. My prose did not.
  • I had no way of knowing what that discovery portended for notebooks. What used to cost $3.00, with a wire spine that always snagged your best sweater, is now $25, no longer wire bound (fortunately), and available in a half-dozen sizes and 20 colors. Near my Dupont Circle apartment in Washington is the one brick-and-mortar store of Jenni Bick, an online retailer of all things notebook, and do I love that place. Strolling its aisles the other day, I was bemused by how many companies have staked their fortunes on the carnet moleskines template of stiff covers, elastic closure, ribbon bookmark, back pocket, and 200+ pages of not-very-good creme stock. Moleskine®, of course, plus Stonit, Archer & Olive, Rhodia, Ciak, Midori MD, Semikolon, Leuchtturm 1917. (The latter is my favorite. Buy one, pull it out at your favorite coffee shop, and when someone comments on it, reply, “This is the notebook used by Dale Keiger, you know.”)
  • Last Thursday, front and center at Jenni Bick was the shop’s rainbow LGBTQ Pride Day merchandise display, notebooks and pens and literary tchotchkes arranged in a proper spectrum. Pride Day is a big deal in DC, and a couple of weeks after the June 8 festivities, one business after another still had rainbows in their windows and on their merchandise tables. All of which got me to thinking—and this is where I’ve been going with all of this—about how much the cause of queer rights has been furthered by the realization on the part of American business that there’s money in it. I’m not dismissing the commitment to LGBTQ rights on the part of U.S. companies. There are thousands of retailers, bars, restaurants, and corporations that are genuine in their support of the queer community. But walk five or six blocks down any street in the business districts of DC neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan or Logan or U Street and you’ll see ample evidence of how much it helps the cause that LGBTQ support is profitable. If you’re an elected official or bureaucrat in an American city of any size and you express anti-gay sentiments, you are going to find the local business community in your ear advising you to find some other minority to push around.
  • And I would not be surprised if that drives some African-Americans crazy. They would be justified to wonder, Where are the Black Pride parades? When is African-American Pride Day? When will every tavern on my block fly their AAPD flags? In what year will I walk into Jenni Bick and find its Juneteenth display? When do black Americans get their Pride bottles of cava brut?
  • I have no data to support this, but I suspect that within the city limits of places like Washington, gay and trans and bi people have, as a group, prospered more than African Americans. In cultural politics, if you can afford a $30 entree, a $12 cocktail, or a $25 notebook, your cause will find support. Prosperity begets clout. Jot that down in your Moleskine®.

Day 209: Flat White

The 16th edition of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow morning. If you want in on this, click the "subscribe" banner at the top of the page.

This was the essay in issue no. 15.

Flat White

What you are about to read is amazing. It is incredibly well written and totally awesome.

The bit you’ve read so far is BWAP: bullshit with a purpose. What follows will not be amazing, but it will be good because I’ve been a working professional for 40+ years and I know what I’m doing. I’ve no hope—or desire—that it be incredible or awesome. Just a newsletter essay done well.

The pandemic misuse of adjectives and adverbs like those above produces what historical linguists call “semantic bleaching.” The term dates from at least 1891, when the bleaching metaphor was used by German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz. It refers to the diminished intensity—the bleaching out—of modifiers like “terribly” or “horribly” or “amazing” through constant use buffing and puffing up the mundane and mediocre. At one time, “awesome” meant so intense, large, or overwhelming as to inspire the real, overpowering sensation of awe. Now it mostly means “good” or “well done.” “Yes, you’re right” or “you’re correct” has been replaced by “absolutely!” I’m absolutely sure you’ll agree that my examples are incredibly awesome. (That’s double bleaching plus italics—a triple-bleach! Told you I know what I’m doing!)

Linguists will point out that semantic bleaching has gone on as long as there’s been language, or at least adverbs and adjectives. (Though nouns can be bleached, too. “Shit” used to refer to…well you know what it referred to; now it can stand in for just about anything, and shit.) But I think the pace of bleaching has picked up in the last few years. I’ve lost track of how often I hear smart, literate people toss out “incredibly” like salt on a t-bone. I don’t know what they say to describe an encounter with something that really does go beyond the credible. Probably totally incredible!

Semantic bleaching can be placed in a much deeper context of the flattening of experience through technology. What I’m talking about extends way past the information tech that so many of us love to blame for everything from election tampering to attenuated attention spans to the alt-Reich to the Kardashians. As soon as we invented audio recording machines we applied them to flattening the experience of music. Successive developments in recording media have progressively flattened the incredibly amazing sound of an orchestra in full roar—vinyl LPs to CDs to mp3s, each one a shallower, colder simulacrum of what can be experienced in a concert hall.

Flattening can be nested. Albums flatten live music, and streaming has flattened the experience of a well-crafted album. Musicians used to make records that, when done right, were deep in texture and storytelling and interplay, a layered, complex musical experience. Now only the song matters, streaming through our sonically flattening earbuds.

Four-color printing enabled the flattening of painting and sculpture. (You’ve never experienced “The Starry Night” until you’ve seen it on an umbrella in the museum shop.) Compared to painting, photography further flattened images, and now digital technology has flattened photographs to the point that photographers use digital processing software to put grain back into images, so they more resemble the pictures we used to make with film.

You will be stunned to hear that technology has flattened politics and journalism. I could exhaust you by itemizing all the ways, but that’s okay, I don't have to because I can substitute an awesome flattened list: soundbites, top five takeaways, internet memes, listicles. Fucking Twitter and Facebook.

Seems to me we can’t help ourselves. First we invent ways to create rich new human experience. Then we invent technology to create wan but glossy mediated substitutes that don’t inconvenience us by requiring attention, thought, or the willingness to be challenged and made uncomfortable. We human beings are natural abbreviators.

So am I. Australians invented the flat white, a coffee beverage that uses microfoamed milk to smooth the bracing edge off a shot of espresso. It’s my favorite drink at Starbucks when I don’t have the time to sit down for a single-origin pourover served in a proper ceramic mug. What I really like is a flat white made with soy milk, which further overrides any espresso bitterness with soy’s natural sweetness. It takes strong black coffee and makes it flat and white. And it’s incredibly awesome. Really, just amazing.

Day 183: The medal

The new 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the previous one.

The Medal

I wasn't much of a Boy Scout. I didn't like the men who were the troop leaders, I didn't like most of my fellow Scouts, and I didn't like to camp. The only thing I liked to do was hike, because I was good at it, a stubborn, tough little nerd who would not quit no matter how far the endpoint. (I walked 50 miles in 19 straight hours when I was 12. No surprise I grew up to be a marathoner.)

My father was not the sort of dad who took part in his son's recreational activities. He rarely attended my baseball or soccer games, and never accompanied me on a Scouts outing, but for once. On a sunny Saturday, he joined me and the rest of Troop 270 on a 10-mile walk through the horse farms outside of Lexington, Kentucky. The hike was sanctioned by the Scouts and called the Bluegrass Trail.

Well, he joined the hike. He didn't exactly join me. After a few miles, he lagged so far behind I became worried that he was going to drop out. That was a silly idea, but not to an 11-year-old kid. When other kids fell behind, it usually foretold quitting, which was scorned. I had looked forward to this day, never imagining that my dad would embarrass me by sagging out.

When he caught up to us at a rest stop, I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me bemused. He'd stopped to take some pictures of race horses, and besides, he didn't see any reason to be in a hurry. It's not like he was going to get lost, and he wasn't the only laggard. Among the others was my friend Kenny, who I don't think had ever finished a hike in all his time as a Scout. Kenny was obese, and suffered for it, physically and socially. On this day he was well behind before the halfway point, but at least he had his father with him. Bob was overweight too, and had a bad heart, but he kept trudging along with his boy, and with my father.

Eventually, for the last couple of miles, my dad walked beside me, maybe finally picking up that this is what I'd wanted from the start. We finished the 10 miles and climbed onto the converted school bus that ferried the troop around. On the bus was a surprise. Anyone who completed an official Boy Scout hike was entitled to a medal, but we usually had to order them and wait a few weeks to pin them on our uniforms. But today the leaders had medals waiting for us. I still have mine—a metal horse head appended to a Confederate flag ribbon. (This was 1965, so there you go.)

I happily sat next to my dad, clutching my medal, only vaguely aware that Kenny and Bob were not on the bus. They were still walking. When I realized it, my thoughts were, Whoa, Kenny might make it. My father's thoughts were, Bob shouldn't be doing this with his heart. Looking back at these events with admiration, I understand now that Bob was not going to give up on his son. If the kid had it in him to keep going, he was going to there for every step.

Not much later, they limped into view and then climbed onto the bus, exhausted. Kenny looked more weary than triumphant. Bob was ashen, wincing as he stepped up into the bus. He was one of the troop's leaders, the only one I liked, and now he looked at the other adults and said, "You have the medals?"

No, they didn't. When they'd preordered them, I suspect they could not imagine needing one for Kenny. They had handed out all. They didn't have one for him.

A bad feeling came over me. Not compassion or sympathy for my buddy or outrage at this small injustice, but dread. I was sure of what my dad was about to do. He had already complained to me during the hike that the adults were not making the older, stronger boys look after the younger, less strong ones. Weren't they supposed to be molding boys into responsible men? I just knew he would lean close to me and quietly tell me to surrender my medal to Kenny, my oldest friend. I was trying not to cry. He was right, of course, I knew it even at age 11, but I didn't want to give up my prize. I was proud of what I'd done in front of him, and already hurt, I think, that he hadn't spent more time with me. Not like Bob had been there with Kenny. And now...yeah, I just knew it.

He put his arm around me and leaned close. I looked up, bleak. "What do you think?" he said. "Will Mom fix meat loaf tonight? That would taste good, wouldn't it."

Day 169: Next newsletter goes out tomorrow; meanwhile, a ruckus

Issue 13 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the last one. Thank you for reading.

Photo by Faye Cornish

Ruckus at the feeder

They announce themselves before they swoop. From up in the trees, one or two or three trumpet a piercing fanfare that sounds like an angry hawk, which some ornithologists believe is no accident. Then they dive to ground around the feeder. Blue jays go in a straight line like a bullet, flaring wing feathers as they land. They seem never alone. The first one appears and in an instant there are five, six, eight; the most I have counted under the feeder at one time is 12. They have large vocabularies and a gift for mimicry, which I suppose is handy when dinner for ten convenes. Captive jays have been known to torment the cat by learning how to meow.

The pigment in the feathers of blue jays is melanin, and melanin is brown. So…then…. Quite the optical trick, it turns out. Their feathers have barbs and the barbs have cells on their surface that scatter light; we see the scatter as blue. Jays have crested heads. Drawings and sports mascots always show the crests at full flare, but as the birds hop about picking seeds out of the grass, they wear their crests flat against their heads, creating blue tonsures that, in some light, are the same blue as the headscarf worn by Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring. Naturalists regard a flattened crest as a sign of low aggression, and I notice that if there are doves or cardinals or squirrels already on the ground, the jays leave them alone. Plenty for all. Despite their reputation for pushiness, jays are frequently bullied off feeding trays by woodpeckers and grackles.

They usually partner for life. About 20 percent migrate, the rest stay home, where they work as foresters. Ornithologists once tracked a half-dozen with radio collars and observed that in a single autumn each cached 3,000 to 5,000 acorns. They did not remember all those caches, so a lot of oak trees got their start from those half-dozen jays. They carry acorns in their upper throats, as many as five at a time, which seems to me like a human coming home with five oranges stuffed in his mouth. Don’t try that—use a hemp bag instead.

They come in varieties: Steller’s jays, pinyon jays, Mexican jays, Canada jays, and various scrub jays labeled Florida, California, and Woodhouse. The extended family includes magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, and green jays, which look like someone grafted a blue jay’s head on a canary’s body.

Suburban folklore casts them as thieves and predators. They will raid nests for eggs and nestlings, but one study of 530 jays found traces of either in just six. Still, one summer evening when I was a boy, my father pointed out a jay in our apple tree that had pinned a sparrow to a branch and was stabbing it over and over again. Sparrowcide. After the jay fled, we examined the crime scene and found the sparrow’s body minus its head.

Before they eat ants, jays will rub the insects on their feathers. This may be to rub off formic acid and improve the gustatory experience.

They may have problems being fully in the moment. In 2000, Dukas and Kamil published a paper, “The Cost of Limited Attention in Blue Jays,” in Behavioral Ecology. I quote: “Consider a blue jay perching on a tree trunk and directing its gaze toward the bark in search for cryptic insects. The blue jay has the visual ability to simultaneously detect approaching predators while foraging, but such detection may be hindered due to limited attention, at least when the foraging task is difficult and attention-demanding.” To me, this is obvious. What else commands attention like a cryptic insect?

The term of venery for larks is widely known, for some reason: an exaltation of larks. Generic birds flock, but a flock of doves is a dole, of crows is a murder, and of goldfinches is a charm. (That’s lovely, isn’t it? A charm of goldfinches.) The term of venery for blue jays is a scold, and that’s good, but I propose something better—a ruckus. A ruckus of jays.

Out back, a spring rain has eased. From the trees sounds the clarion and they come again, their feathers scattering light as their beaks unscatter sunflower seeds.

Day 141: Newsletter goes out tomorrow

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The 11th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. If you wish to receive it, look to the top of the screen and click your way to joining the other cool kids.

Meanwhile, here is the essay from the previous issue. Enjoy.

Chosen by the god of Row 19

Last night I flew back from a conference in New Orleans. The flight was at capacity, about half the seats occupied by teenagers, parents, and teachers from a Christian academy on their way to Philadelphia for a class trip. I know all about it because one of the chaperones had the window seat in my row and spent the entire 2 1/2 hours of the flight talking to the gentleman in the middle seat. How anyone talks for 2 1/2 hours baffles me, but these two introduced themselves as we taxied down the runway and by Baltimore had promised to look each other up in Mississippi, which is where they lived. Or so I gathered.

I wasn't really eavesdropping because it isn't eavesdropping if the people are talking too loud for you to avoid. The gentleman was a surgeon, looked to be in his early 70s, still practicing. The woman was about half his age, a mother of at least three. They were evangelical Christians.

They sounded like sincere, big-hearted, noble people. Their conversation was polite, encouraging, amiable. She had, I gathered, done some evangelizing in South America and was raising three Chilean girls she had adopted. He had stories about how faith had saved various family members. One would tell a story, the other would say "that's great!", and then they'd switch roles.

They were not people I'd want to spend much time with—I have no religious faith nor any interest in faith, and simply cannot be anywhere near that upbeat for 2 1/2 hours—but they seemed like admirable people. And they were convinced that their god had selected Donald Trump and made him president, and they prayed that Christians would turn out to the polls in 2020 because it was imperative that Trump be reelected to continue their god's work.

I closed my eyes and died a little inside. Not because they were Republicans, or conservatives, or even Trumpists. Because two people who sounded smart, well-intentioned, earnest, generous, and morally upright were still somehow convinced that a dumb, lying, cynical, amoral, greedy, unfaithful, incompetent, egomaniacal jackass had been hand-picked by the supreme deity to be their president. The surgeon made his case with a set of verbal bullet points. How else could a man who had never been in politics ascend to the highest office if not for the hand of god? What explanation might there be for defeating all the other Republicans who had sought the nomination in the primaries? How else could he have defeated an experienced politician like Hillary Clinton and the Democratic campaign machine? There could be no other explanation but divine intervention. And they prayed for his reelection because, above all else, Donald Trump "was a man who did what he had promised to do."

I hunched in my aisle seat and brooded. How do they not see that Trump has done nothing for people like them, except, perhaps, eased their fears?

And there it was, right in front of me. They had voted for the man who had pulled off one of the oldest tricks in the demagogue's kit bag—understand what scares a large group of people, tell them that not only are they right to be scared, they actually should be scared to death, and then convince them he is the one person who can stand tall and vanquish all that frightens them. My companions in Row 19 were convinced that only a man chosen by their god could accomplish such a thing. To them, Trump is a savior.

There is not a politician alive who could pull those votes away from Trump. Issues? Facts? Data? Reason? Not in play. i walked off the plane glad to be home but soured by my in-flight primer on the divine right of Trump. It was past 11 pm and I was tired, but I reached for the gin.

Day 126: The 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow

Newsletter No. 10 goes out tomorrow. Assuming I get it written. The essay in No. 9 was titled "Uneducation" and appears below. Subscribing to 10,000 Days is pretty simple: Look to the top of the page, go there, and click where it says "click right here." thank you for reading.



In the United States, we laud ourselves for valuing education.

This is bullshit. We don’t value education at any level. We value social status. We value wealth. We value our vanity as parents. There is little evidence that we value education.

In much of the country, especially in the inner city, our public school system is a shambles. It suits us to underpay teachers while our public commentators routinely denigrate the profession. Lack of funds forces those same underpaid, denigrated teachers to reach into their own wallets to buy basic supplies and books for their students. School boards and state committees stacked with religious zealots, ideologues, and idiots authorize textbooks replete with errors and omissions and terrible prose, and nobody can be bothered to object.

State and federal governments no longer bother to pretend genuine concern and no longer evince any desire to find solutions to these problems. For years, government has done all it can to subsidize a parallel private system that benefits only those with the means to pay for it, while the public system decays. What became of the ideal of education for the masses? Child, please.

I’ve spent the last 26 years working in higher education at an elite university, and the experience left me with growing disaffection for American higher education as well. A quarter-century of close observation of university administration, college development and admission professionals, parents, and students—especially the last two—has done nothing to convince me that education is the most valued part of the American college experience. A college degree has become an extraordinarily expensive work permit, obtained in the hope that the young adult who has just received that degree has a chance at being admitted to an occupation of acceptable social status. Whether that young graduate has actually been educated doesn’t even come up. Who cares, so long as the young woman or man has been certified as an obedient, trained technician who knows enough about the law or accounting or finance or medicine or computer code to land a socially valued job. (A category that does not include artist, thinker, tradesman, craftsman, or bureaucrat. Or school teacher. All of whom are essential, none of whom enjoy or benefit from social standing.)

If you were fortunate enough to receive an education, and not just pricey vocational training and social indoctrination, then you were taught how to read, how to discern quality, how to think about values and events, how to evaluate ideas and institutions and rhetoric with rigor and judicious skepticism. You have been taught enough of the past to assess and understand something of the present. You have been taught the culture’s fundamental stories, and equipped to intelligently question them. You have been taught that 12 or 16 or 20 years of genuine education is only the beginning, and you have been taught how to learn for the rest of your life.

Does this sound like what we do in our schools in this country? Not to me.

If you have an American college degree, it’s almost certain that in 2019, the highest paid person at your alma mater is either the president (and don’t start me on that overpaid and self-important klatch), the football coach, or the basketball coach. Enough said.

That a few dozen privileged, ethically unencumbered nitwits were recently indicted for getting their kids into “prestigious” American universities through fraud, deceit, and bribery shocks no one who has worked for one of those schools. Don’t for a minute think that any one of those dopes did it because they were desperate for their kid to get a good education. They don’t know the meaning of the word. Why would they? They are the product of American schools.

Day 112: Texture

Issue No. 9 of the 10,000 Days Newsletter is about to roll off the presses. The pixel presses. If you'd like to subscribe, and I hope you do, just look to the top of this page and follow the simple instructions. The new one comes out tomorrow morning.

This was the essay from Issue No. 8, some musing on texture.

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I recently listened to a BBC radio documentary on P.J. Harvey's process in writing and composing her music. She noted at one point that for initial recording she likes working with an old four-track cassette deck. Digital production comes at a later stage, as it must, but she wants to start with the analog sound. Among her reasons is her fondness for how tape hiss adds texture to the recording.

For the last few years, audiophiles have been buying so much vinyl it has become worthwhile to reopen mothballed record-pressing plants. The inherent scratchy pops and clicks produced by the stylus tracking the grooves? Desired over the icy gloss of CDs. Texture.

Digital photographers have the option of applying filters, with Photoshop or On1 or Nik or smartphone apps, that add film grain to the image. Many of these filters are intended to mimic specific film stock. What photographers are after is the added texture and dimensionality that grain imparts to a film image. We want to counteract the way digital images, especially pictures that have been over-sharpened and exhibit an unnatural flatness and razor edges.

Cartoonish flatness without texture is the hallmark of digiscene. (Starting with politics and public discourse, but that's for another day.) Digital photographs, especially when viewed on a screen. Digital cinema. The audio quality of CDs and sound files and streamed music. Ebooks and online magazines and newspapers, lacking the texture of ink on paper. Compare email to analog correspondence; no textured stationery, no envelope thickened by a letter, no misaligned stamp, no unevenness in the flow of ink.

Friendship has been flattened to friending on Facebook (you know you're headed for trouble when a noun gets verbed), reduced to flat little thumbs-up graphics and emojis. Reader response to stories is gauged not in actual human interaction but in clicks and likes and dashed-off comments and 50-word "reviews." Short fiction, journalism, informative lists, reports, interviews, documentary work, travelogue, humor, all flattened into interchangeable "content." Bang it out, plug it in, sent it out, next.

There's a new territory appearing on modern maps: The Digital Flats. Please give it four stars on iTunes, that really helps.

Day 98: Newsletter No. 8 ships tomorrow

The spiffy latest edition of The 10,000 Days Newsletter ships early tomorrow morning. Here is the lead piece from the previous issue. Want to subscribe? Sure you do. Just look to grey bar atop this page and follow the instructions.

Parallel Universe

I have been on the road for the last nine days, which is why this issue of the newsletter is a tad late. Yesterday, I was perusing the magazine rack in a Cincinnati bookstore when I happened on what appeared to be its Male Anxiety section. Lots of titles about guns and the rugged outdoor life and combat readiness and home security. Such as the one shown below, Skillset—Redefining the Alpha Lifestyle. More alarming was Recoil, which appeared to be dedicated to reaching an audience of white men who are convinced they must be armed to the teeth to repel, I don't know, hordes of Guatemalan children or ISIS in Chicago or the US government when it finally obeys its New World Order overlords and comes for all the guns. Recoil was a thick—like a half-inch of heavy stock—expensive journal fat with advertising for companies shilling products that could have only one purpose—equipping you to kill people, and kill them in clusters.

What these magazines play on is the (apparently) rampant fear among uncounted American men that not only their status as king of the mountain but their masculine identities are in mortal peril. Unless they are vigilant, prepared, and equipped with enough ammunition to gun down the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, at any moment they mighty lose everything that matters to them—their guns, their women, their country, their balls. Lose them to the government, to black people, to East Coast elitists like me, I don't know, the enemy is not well defined.

That publishers and advertisers will cynically exploit this anxiety should be no surprise. But that so many American men, many of whom surely had upbringings similar to mine, see life through this prism of paranoia and fundamental insecurity? That sets me back. There's a parallel universe out there, and that's a problem. What's a problem is that I have to come across magazines like these to realize it's out there. Nobody I know, not one person, would have anything in common with a subscriber to Recoil or Skillset, any contact with that level of alienation and that way of measuring what makes a man a man. I might as well be reading field notes on another species of hominid. And that creeps me out in so many ways.