Week 11, looser than you'd think

Sawmill, Outskirts of Paris

"Sawmill, Outskirts of Paris," by Henri Rousseau, ca. 1893/95

In Humboldt, Kansas, I stood in a woodworking shop built to the standard of the late 1800s, all the machines powered by enormous leather belts attached to a central shaft. The machines were huge and beautiful and clever, their controls perfectly balanced; you would nudge a long lever, which would slide a belt into position, engaging a saw. There were circular saws and band saws and saws more exotic: blades devoted to the artful swoop of molding, a machine that made just one thing: the cheeks of louvered shutters (that last called, delightfully, “a louver groover”).

The woodshop’s master was a delight: smart, wry, a born storyteller. He had tracked down these machines, in whole or in pieces, all across the country, and brought them back to this tiny town to make a time machine.

The belts were looser than you’d think. At rest, they looked almost droopy, but when the carpenter brought them zipping to life, it was clear they had been tuned to a very specific balance between tautness and slack. Maybe there’s a metaphor there.

There is a TON of work coming up—on screens, with words and light—that I’m excited about. The most immediate work, though, is all about atoms. Today and tomorrow, we are packing up this season’s second shipment of Fat Gold olive oil. That means I’m writing the accompanying zine today, then printing it on my Risograph—the same Riso that cranks out the Year of the Meteor print offerings.

Last week in Lawrence, Kansas, after the events with the public library had concluded, I stayed in town an extra day expressly to use one of that library’s improbable resources: a giant red synthesizer. I made a little synth tutorial along the way; you can watch it here.

I’ve hugely enjoyed receiving in situ pictures from readers of Treasured Subscribers; it is very obviously winter out there in the world. Here, I’ll drop in a few… with thanks to Pablo, Savannah, and Adam:

Pablo's copy

Savannah's copy

Adam's copy

Also… I even received an animated gif!! Thanks, Amber (and, nice laser cutter):

Amber's copy

I keep seeing ads on Instagram for these 3D model kits containing whole city skylines and… I am totally going to do something with one of them.

Have you heard of Suzanne Ciani? A pioneer of electronic music, only about 5% as legendary as she ought to be.

Here she is performing a couple years ago. I realize it’s not for everyone, but this kind of show, with the performer manipulating their machine—sometimes it’s a caress; sometimes it’s like, a headlock—is just catnip to me.

And then, for full temporal contrast, here’s Suzanne on the Letterman show in 1980. David Letterman is mildly annoying in this segment, but not perhaps as annoying as he could be, so maybe that’s a credit. Suzanne is a bit impish herself; it’s a kind of TV that definitely doesn’t exist anymore:

Here is a telling artifact.

First and foremost, this quote from the great one is lovely, shared by Robert Macfarlane:

Wisdom from the great one

But/and also, what a great specimen of a 21st century social media artifact, the “screenshot taken directly from word processing app,” complete with spellcheck highlighting and insertion point. Encountering this image in this email, you’re looking down a tunnel: from my own presentation, into the tweet it was published alongside, into the app where it began. The original text itself is even lurking down there somewhere.

The early theorists of hypertext imagined a world in which you could actually navigate down that tunnel and find your way back to the original; instead, on our real internet, we got pixels without provenance, re-flattened at each step, picking up cruft along the way. I don’t say that with any particular judgment implied; the cruft is kinda interesting!

Dan Cohen received a copy of February’s print offering, and he connected it to Sourdoughlike this:

Dan Cohen's tweet

What can I say except… eyes emoji? 👀

Do not doubt the number and quality of extremely cool people in the world.

I was in Lawrence, Kansas, and they were thick on the ground. It was astonishing; all these super-plugged-in avant-garde minds, just hanging out like it was no big deal. “Lawrence isn’t like other parts of Kansas,” you offer, and I reply: this is immaterial. Lawrence exists. Many Lawrences exist—far more than are, strictly speaking, required. So, whatever weird thing you imagine, whatever you want to create, there are people ready to receive it. Reaching them is another matter; that’s difficult, sometimes dispiriting. But do not doubt that they’re out there, hustling down Massachusetts Street, an experimental novel (translated from Spanish) tucked into the pocket of their parka.

I have not read this story yet—it just came over the transom this morning—but I currently have it open in a browser tab, and it looks gorgeous.

Months ago I was chatting with the story’s author, Eliot Peper, over pizza, listening as he explained its painstaking production and presentation. If you’re going to try to get people to read fiction in the browser—to erect a dream-canopy in hostile territory, under fire—you have to care about typography and presentation as much as he does here.

This is a weird document: a pre-visualization of an over-the-top fight scene from Jumanji, posted to Instagram by Tanoai Reed, who often does stunt work for Dwayne Johnson. It looks like a low-budget imitation of a real movie, but in fact, the movie was simply the big-budget imitation of this. Isn’t that great?

I’m midway through The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny.

The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

I picked it up at the Raven in Lawrence, which, for the record, is a perfect book store. Usually I read mostly for pleasure with a slice of my brain on “how did they do this?” duty; in this case, the ratio has been reversed.

Here we have an author who sells A LOT of books; the folks at the Raven said no single author sells more in their store; yet, absent an occasional puzzled glimpse of the New York Times Best Seller list, she doesn’t “exist” in my world at all. No one I know is reading Louise Penny. That shouldn’t be surprising—the world is a big place, and Penny’s readership runs a bit older than my cohort. But even so, I WANT TO UNDERSTAND. I want to know what makes these books work so powerfully.

This is my second Louise Penny book and, so far, my working hypothesis is that she fuses the sinister appeal of a murder mystery with the gauzy (and, I think, aspirational) warmth of a small-town story in a unique and winning way. But this doesn’t feel like quite enough to fully explain her commercial success. Maybe it has to do with representation, with her older readers seeing themselves—lives like theirs, concerns like theirs, persnickety neighbors like theirs—portrayed with care on the page.

Any Louise Penny fans out there? Why do these books resonate so powerfully? Are they just really good mysteries?

Okay, I’ve got to go move some atoms around now. Thanks, as always, for reading.

The Mill Pond

"The Mill Pond," by Gustav Baumann, ca. 1893/95


March 2019, Oakland

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