Right before we went to Japan last year, I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. I try to read at least one thing about a place before I visit it for the first time. It can be fiction or non-fiction. I just want to get a sense of what a place is all about, it’s one of my favorite ways to get hyped up for vacations and learn something about where I’m going. The book takes place in the 18th-century Dejima (the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki, Japan) and it’s about (you guessed it) trading between the Dutch and Japanese. That’s a mass oversimplification, whatever, go read it if you’re ready for a dense and beautiful historical ride. Anyway, I really liked it. It was also a reminder of how often people’s lives were controlled by circumstance, chance, and luck. At one point the main character, Jacob de Zoet, is talking about a young man who’s the illegitimate son of a white man and a Japanese woman. His mother has passed away, and de Zoet says something to the effect of how he hopes the young man’s father has provided for him somehow, with the sinister implication that if that hasn’t happened, this kid is super screwed.
We’re a few centuries out from Dutch traders sweltering through a Nagasaki spring, but in many ways the world is still very much like this. If you have someone else providing for you, someone else who can pass along large amounts of generational wealth, you will probably be okay or at least more okay. If you don’t, you are always a breath or a month or a paycheck away from not okay. I’m privileged in many ways, and the few ways that I’m not — the few ways that circumstance does not favor me massively — stand out ugly and clear. It’s a lot worse for most people.
But in many ways, the world is better. I’m reading Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, who puts it really well: “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” Good news, things change. Bad news, things change. Rinse and repeat until hopefully we get it right, or a lot more right.
Another thing that stood out in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was how easily people died of common injuries and ailments. Though it has a long way to go, modern medicine is in many ways a miracle. You have a much lower chance of dying — unless your tribalism is so ingrained (and bolstered by government messaging) that you’ll stake your own life and others’ lives on it.
I was a pretty big shitshow in college and don’t remember large portions of the academia part, but one of my professors used to talk about a world grounded in intelligence and love. I don’t remember the context (see: shitshow), but I do remember that it penetrated my perma-hangover slash panic attack and stuck.
Last weekend I phone banked for Jon Osoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock’s runoff election in Georgia. My best call was a 95-year-old man who spoke very, very slowly and told me that, “They took away my driver's license but yes, I'll get a ride from the caregiver to go to the polls.” My worst call was a 46-year-old man who said he would not be voting because “I don’t do politics.” The funniest call was a dude who answered with “NEWPPPPP, this is the WRONG NUMBER and PLEASE STOP CALLING, THANK YOUUUUUU!”
A world grounded in intelligence and love was the kind of world I wanted to live in, and still do. I hope we can stay moving in that direction, because you need hope to not despair.
Thanks for reading this far. If you’re like me, you are restless and down and looking for something to break up your days. Here are some books and movies and TV shows I’ve been enjoying and I couple of things I wrote:
WHAT I’M READING
WHAT I’M WATCHING
The Vanishing (1988) (disturbing and amazing suspense)
Various 90s erotic thrillers
Swallow (2019) (strong performances and modern Yellow Wallpaper vibes)
Wayne (hilarious and extreme and cathartic teens)
We Are Who We Are (beautiful and experimenting and melancholy teens)
A lot of home improvement shows
I WROTE THIS
A bonedaddy with a message