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My partner Dave spends his waking hours advocating for a shift in thinking about how we can solve the biggest global problems, the ones that can be named in just a few words that everyone everywhere understands. Clean water. Health care. Housing. Safety of women and children. Human trafficking.

On the topic of human trafficking, Dave recently pointed out that this social problem is most prevalent in locales where the environment is also being ravaged.

From Linking Human Rights and the Environment, by Romina Picolotti and Jorge Daniel Taillant:

All over the world, people are experiencing the effects of ecosystem decline, from water shortages to fish kills to landslides on deforested slopes. The victims of environmental degradation tend to belong to more vulnerable sectors of society—racial and ethnic minorities and the poor—who regularly carry a disproportionate burden of such abuse. Increasingly, many basic human rights are being placed at risk, as the right to health affected by contamination of resources, or the right to property and culture compromised by commercial intrusion into indigenous lands. Despite the evident relationship between environmental degradation and human suffering, human rights violations and environmental degradation have been treated by most organizations and governments as unrelated issues. Just as human rights advocates have tended to place only civil and political rights onto their agendas, environmentalists have tended to focus primarily on natural resource preservation without addressing human impacts of environmental abuse. As a result, victims of environmental degradation are unprotected by the laws and mechanisms established to address human rights abuses.

The way we think about our world—consciously and unconsciously—is deeply complex and the ramifications of that thinking is so much more powerful than we might have imagined. This point of view dovetails with my recent reading from Becoming Animal, the latest book by David Abrams (whose previous book is The Spell of the Sensuous):

We are by now so accustomed to the cult of expertise that the very notion of honoring and paying heed to our directly felt experience of things…seems odd and somewhat misguided as a way to find out what’s worth knowing. According to assumptions long held by the civilization in whicih I’ve been raised, the deepest truth of things is concealed behind the appearances, in dimensions inaccessible to our senses.

As Abrams points out, a thousand years ago these dimensions were viewed in spiritual terms: reality could only be understood in its reference to heaven, and the church and the clergy mediated with the “celestial agencies” on behalf of the common person.

And even though our culture has shifted in its general perception of things, a basic disparagement of sensuous reality continues to play out. “Like an old, collective habit very difficult to kick, the directly sensed world is still explained by reference to realms hidden beyond our immediate experience. Such a realm, for example, is the microscopic domain of axons and dendrites, and neruotransmitters washing across neuronal synapses.”

Every one of these arcane dimensions radically transcends the reach of our unaided senses. Since we have no ordinary experience of these realms, the essential truths to be found there must be mediated for us by experts, by those who have access to the high-powered instruments and the inordinately expensive technologies…that might offer a momentary glimpse into these dimensions. Here, as before, the sensuous world—the creaturely world directly encountered by our animal senses—is commonly assumed to be a secondary, derivative reality understood only by reference to more primary domains that exist elsewhere, behind the scenes…

This directly experienced terrain, rippling with cricket rhythms and scoured by the tides, is the very realm now most ravaged by the spreading consequences of our disregard. Many long-standing and lousy habits have enabled our callous treatment of surrounding nature, empowering us to clear-cut, dam up, mine, develop, poison, or simply destroy so much of what quietly sustains us.

Our sensual gifts—smelling, seeing hearing, tasting and touching—are more than the components of an epicurean pleasuredome. There are political and survival implications in our ability to value the scent of a rose, the sound of waves.

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Highline1b
The High Line as it looked in August

Like just about everybody else, I love the new High Line in Manhattan. So it is easy to enjoy a recent piece about public spaces in the New Yorker. Written by Lauren Collins, the newly-created (and mixed blessing) pedestrian mall at Times Square is juxtaposed to the sassier and more unexpected park that is the High Line. I am particularly enjoying some of its other sobriquets, like the Thigh Line.

Here’s a sampling:

According to the Post, guests have been putting on amateur skin shows in the floor-to-ceiling windows of the new Standard Hotel, at Thirteenth Street, which straddles what is referred to as the Thigh Line. (The hotel is the Eyeful Tower.)…The spontaneous rise of High Line lowlife seems to suggest a conservation theory of seediness: root it out in one place, and it will sprout up somewhere else. Whack a mole, and you may find, across town, the mole whacking itself.

The High Line, with its exposed tracks and sprays of wildflowers, might be considered a foil to Times Square. Lobbied for by designers and musicians, it is intended to convey instant insouciance. It is an indie park, an anti-campus, a pair of pre-ripped skinny jeans to Times Square’s creased 550s. The Times Square plaza dissipates into the sidewalk, but the High Line is a tight and narrow catwalk, a picture with a frame. Chelsea boys, JDaters, and pretty women, dressed in rompers, promenade in front of people-watchers, perched like fashion editors on wooden benches: urbe in rus.

This morning I received an email from George Wingate, an artist and my first roommate in Manhattan oh so many years ago. He sent me an excerpt from a page torn from an old New Yorker that he found while cleaning his studio barn. Kenneth Tynan comments on the death of Janet Flanner in 1978 who, writing under the pen name Genet, was an éminence grise for many of the American ex-pat crowd in Paris during the 1920s and 30s:

Janet Flanner has died, aged 86…Enthusiasm, even at 80, never failed her for the promise of the day’s doings…She always urged me to visit aging celebrities and question them before they died: “Tax their brains…It’s like lobsters. Go for the head–there’s tasty chewing there.” As there was in Janet’s, on which I contentedly fed whenever we met. One consolation, I suppose, is that here at least, is a life-enhancer who outlived the shits–an American life with a perfectly resolved third act.

Turns out I had planned to see George today at his Edenic retreat north of Boston with my niece Rachel, visiting from Utah. While he continues to paint jewel-like landscapes and evocative still lifes, he also has turned his artist’s hand and eye to the land that surrounds his late 18th century home. What was once a large nondescript yard with a clay tennis court in slow decline is now an exuberant array of flower fields, stream beds, tree borders and trails.

We sat on his deck overlooking this extraordinary patchwork of color and texture, and continued the discussion of third acts and later-in-life epiphanies.

“When I was 25, before I became an artist, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or for what I was best suited,” George told us. “I took an occupational guidance test and was advised to consider being a gardener.

“My response to this suggestion was not positive. I felt like I was being told that I wasn’t good for anything but raking leaves.

“I wish that career counselor had taken the time to unpack that idea for me and suggest that I consider some variants on that theme, like landscape architecture and landscape design. Now, so many years later, I have found my way right back to that place. I AM a gardener.”

And a remarkable one, to be sure. Because Rachel is young, the fact that it took George many decades to figure out what work feels whole and integrated for him seems wrong or unfair. While it is age appropriate for any 22 year old to see it that way, I had a very different response. George has found his “perfectly resolved third act.” And for me, the fact that he found it and can have it makes all the difference.


Paul Graham is a 21st century Renaissance man. A brilliant technologist (he has a long list of Web-based inventions,) he also studied painting at RISD and Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. Last night I was at a party—in Cambridge, for the record—where his name was spoken with such reverence I came home and immediately began researching his work. What a mind. If reverence can be inflectional, please hear it in my written words.

A new essay by Graham, Cities and Ambition, plays right into my own proclivity to compare and contrast life in the major cities that I have known in my life. I grew up in the Bay Area—San Francisco, Berkeley and Silicon Valley—then spent the rest of my adult life in New York City and Boston/Cambridge. As I have continued to visit my former haunts on a regular basis, I came up with a few favorite delineators to compare the quality of life in each of these cities. (One that I used as an indicator of a city’s quality and that Graham also mentions is the eavesdropping factor.) But Graham’s taxonomy is so much more extensive and better than anything I’ve thought or read. He’s brilliant.

Because he is a Cantabridgian his assessment may seemed skewed to favor the home team. It probably is. But I’ll take a stand and say I agree with him wholeheartedly. All points of view are invited to comment. If you feel you need to make a case for Salt Lake City or Pittsburgh, please be my guest.

Note: This essay is bloody long, but I’m including the entire text because it is so interesting. If you aren’t in the mood to spend the time plowing through the whole thing, you can still find enjoyment in just the first few paragraphs. Hard core fans can ride it all the way to the end.

Cities and Ambition
By Paul Graham

Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.

When you ask what message a city sends, you sometimes get surprising answers. As much as they respect brains in Silicon Valley, the message the Valley sends is: you should be more powerful.

That’s not quite the same message New York sends. Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it. In Silicon Valley no one would care except a few real estate agents. What matters in Silicon Valley is how much effect you have on the world. The reason people there care about Larry and Sergey is not their wealth but the fact that they control Google, which affects practically everyone.

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How much does it matter what message a city sends? Empirically, the answer seems to be: a lot. You might think that if you had enough strength of mind to do great things, you’d be able to transcend your environment. Where you live should make at most a couple percent difference. But if you look at the historical evidence, it seems to matter more than that. Most people who did great things were clumped together in a few places where that sort of thing was done at the time.

You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?

I don’t. I’m fairly stubborn, but I wouldn’t try to fight this force. I’d rather use it. So I’ve thought a lot about where to live.

I’d always imagined Berkeley would be the ideal place—that it would basically be Cambridge with good weather. But when I finally tried living there a couple years ago, it turned out not to be. The message Berkeley sends is: you should live better. Life in Berkeley is very civilized. It’s probably the place in America where someone from Northern Europe would feel most at home. But it’s not humming with ambition.

In retrospect it shouldn’t have been surprising that a place so pleasant would attract people interested above all in quality of life. Cambridge with good weather, it turns out, is not Cambridge. The people you find in Cambridge are not there by accident. You have to make sacrifices to live there. It’s expensive and somewhat grubby, and the weather’s often bad. So the kind of people you find in Cambridge are the kind of people who want to live where the smartest people are, even if that means living in an expensive, grubby place with bad weather.

As of this writing, Cambridge seems to be the intellectual capital of the world. I realize that seems a preposterous claim. What makes it true is that it’s more preposterous to claim about anywhere else. American universities currently seem to be the best, judging from the flow of ambitious students. And what US city has a stronger claim? New York? A fair number of smart people, but diluted by a much larger number of neanderthals in suits. The Bay Area has a lot of smart people too, but again, diluted; there are two great universities, but they’re far apart. Harvard and MIT are practically adjacent by West Coast standards, and they’re surrounded by about 20 other colleges and universities. [1]

Cambridge as a result feels like a town whose main industry is ideas, while New York’s is finance and Silicon Valley’s is startups.

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When you talk about cities in the sense we are, what you’re really talking about is collections of people. For a long time cities were the only large collections of people, so you could use the two ideas interchangeably. But we can see how much things are changing from the examples I’ve mentioned. New York is a classic great city. But Cambridge is just part of a city, and Silicon Valley is not even that. (San Jose is not, as it sometimes claims, the capital of Silicon Valley. It’s just 178 square miles at one end of it.)

Maybe the Internet will change things further. Maybe one day the most important community you belong to will be a virtual one, and it won’t matter where you live physically. But I wouldn’t bet on it. The physical world is very high bandwidth, and some of the ways cities send you messages are quite subtle.

One of the exhilarating things about coming back to Cambridge every spring is walking through the streets at dusk, when you can see into the houses. When you walk through Palo Alto in the evening, you see nothing but the blue glow of TVs. In Cambridge you see shelves full of promising-looking books. Palo Alto was probably much like Cambridge in 1960, but you’d never guess now that there was a university nearby. Now it’s just one of the richer neighborhoods in Silicon Valley. [2]

A city speaks to you mostly by accident—in things you see through windows, in conversations you overhear. It’s not something you have to seek out, but something you can’t turn off. One of the occupational hazards of living in Cambridge is overhearing the conversations of people who use interrogative intonation in declarative sentences. But on average I’ll take Cambridge conversations over New York or Silicon Valley ones.

A friend who moved to Silicon Valley in the late 90s said the worst thing about living there was the low quality of the eavesdropping. At the time I thought she was being deliberately eccentric. Sure, it can be interesting to eavesdrop on people, but is good quality eavesdropping so important that it would affect where you chose to live? Now I understand what she meant. The conversations you overhear tell you what sort of people you’re among.

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No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.

There’s an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: they’ll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. Similarly, though there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that’s what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about.

Because ambitions are to some extent incompatible and admiration is a zero-sum game, each city tends to focus on one type of ambition. The reason Cambridge is the intellectual capital is not just that there’s a concentration of smart people there, but that there’s nothing else people there care about more. Professors in New York and the Bay area are second class citizens—till they start hedge funds or startups respectively.

This suggests an answer to a question people in New York have wondered about since the Bubble: whether New York could grow into a startup hub to rival Silicon Valley. One reason that’s unlikely is that someone starting a startup in New York would feel like a second class citizen. [3] There’s already something else people in New York admire more.

In the long term, that could be a bad thing for New York. The power of an important new technology does eventually convert to money. So by caring more about money and less about power than Silicon Valley, New York is recognizing the same thing, but slower. [4] And in fact it has been losing to Silicon Valley at its own game: the ratio of New York to California residents in the Forbes 400 has decreased from 1.45 when the list was first published in 1982 to .83 in 2007.

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Not all cities send a message. Only those that are centers for some type of ambition do. And it can be hard to tell exactly what message a city sends without living there. I understand the messages of New York, Cambridge, and Silicon Valley because I’ve lived for several years in each of them. DC and LA seem to send messages too, but I haven’t spent long enough in either to say for sure what they are.

The big thing in LA seems to be fame. There’s an A List of people who are most in demand right now, and what’s most admired is to be on it, or friends with those who are. Beneath that the message is much like New York’s, though perhaps with more emphasis on physical attractiveness.

In DC the message seems to be that the most important thing is who you know. You want to be an insider. In practice this seems to work much as in LA. There’s an A List and you want to be on it or close to those who are. The only difference is how the A List is selected. And even that is not that different.

At the moment, San Francisco’s message seems to be the same as Berkeley’s: you should live better. But this will change if enough startups choose SF over the Valley. During the Bubble that was a predictor of failure—a self-indulgent choice, like buying expensive office furniture. Even now I’m suspicious when startups choose SF. But if enough good ones do, it stops being a self-indulgent choice, because the center of gravity of Silicon Valley will shift there.

I haven’t found anything like Cambridge for intellectual ambition. Oxford and Cambridge (England) feel like Ithaca or Hanover: the message is there, but not as strong.

Paris was once a great intellectual center. If you went there in 1300, it might have sent the message Cambridge does now. But I tried living there for a bit last year, and the ambitions of the inhabitants are not intellectual ones. The message Paris sends now is: do things with style. I liked that, actually. Paris is the only city I’ve lived in where people genuinely cared about art. In America only a few rich people buy original art, and even the more sophisticated ones rarely get past judging it by the brand name of the artist. But looking through windows at dusk in Paris you can see that people there actually care what paintings look like. Visually, Paris has the best eavesdropping I know. [5]

There’s one more message I’ve heard from cities: in London you can still (barely) hear the message that one should be more aristocratic. If you listen for it you can also hear it in Paris, New York, and Boston. But this message is everywhere very faint. It would have been strong 100 years ago, but now I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all if I hadn’t deliberately tuned in to that wavelength to see if there was any signal left.

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So far the complete list of messages I’ve picked up from cities is: wealth, style, hipness, physical attractiveness, fame, political power, economic power, intelligence, social class, and quality of life.

My immediate reaction to this list is that it makes me slightly queasy. I’d always considered ambition a good thing, but I realize now that was because I’d always implicitly understood it to mean ambition in the areas I cared about. When you list everything ambitious people are ambitious about, it’s not so pretty.

On closer examination I see a couple things on the list that are surprising in the light of history. For example, physical attractiveness wouldn’t have been there 100 years ago (though it might have been 2400 years ago). It has always mattered for women, but in the late twentieth century it seems to have started to matter for men as well. I’m not sure why—probably some combination of the increasing power of women, the increasing influence of actors as models, and the fact that so many people work in offices now: you can’t show off by wearing clothes too fancy to wear in a factory, so you have to show off with your body instead.

Hipness is another thing you wouldn’t have seen on the list 100 years ago. Or wouldn’t you? What it means is to know what’s what. So maybe it has simply replaced the component of social class that consisted of being “au fait.” That could explain why hipness seems particularly admired in London: it’s version 2 of the traditional English delight in obscure codes that only insiders understand.

Economic power would have been on the list 100 years ago, but what we mean by it is changing. It used to mean the control of vast human and material resources. But increasingly it means the ability to direct the course of technology, and some of the people in a position to do that are not even rich—leaders of important open source projects, for example. The Captains of Industry of times past had laboratories full of clever people cooking up new technologies for them. The new breed are themselves those people.

As this force gets more attention, another is dropping off the list: social class. I think the two changes are related. Economic power, wealth, and social class are just names for the same thing at different stages in its life: economic power converts to wealth, and wealth to social class. So the focus of admiration is simply shifting upstream.

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Does anyone who wants to do great work have to live in a great city? No; all great cities inspire some sort of ambition, but they aren’t the only places that do. For some kinds of work, all you need is a handful of talented colleagues.

What cities provide is an audience, and a funnel for peers. These aren’t so critical in something like math or physics, where no audience matters except your peers, and judging ability is sufficiently straightforward that hiring and admissions committees can do it reliably. In a field like math or physics all you need is a department with the right colleagues in it. It could be anywhere—in Los Alamos, New Mexico, for example.

It’s in fields like the arts or writing or technology that the larger environment matters. In these the best practitioners aren’t conveniently collected in a few top university departments and research labs—partly because talent is harder to judge, and partly because people pay for these things, so one doesn’t need to rely on teaching or research funding to support oneself. It’s in these more chaotic fields that it helps most to be in a great city: you need the encouragement of feeling that people around you care about the kind of work you do, and since you have to find peers for yourself, you need the much larger intake mechanism of a great city.

You don’t have to live in a great city your whole life to benefit from it. The critical years seem to be the early and middle ones of your career. Clearly you don’t have to grow up in a great city. Nor does it seem to matter if you go to college in one. To most college students a world of a few thousand people seems big enough. Plus in college you don’t yet have to face the hardest kind of work—discovering new problems to solve.

It’s when you move on to the next and much harder step that it helps most to be in a place where you can find peers and encouragement. You seem to be able to leave, if you want, once you’ve found both. The Impressionists show the typical pattern: they were born all over France (Pissarro was born in the Carribbean) and died all over France, but what defined them were the years they spent together in Paris.

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Unless you’re sure what you want to do and where the leading center for it is, your best bet is probably to try living in several places when you’re young. You can never tell what message a city sends till you live there, or even whether it still sends one. Often your information will be wrong: I tried living in Florence when I was 25, thinking it would be an art center, but it turned out I was 450 years too late.

Even when a city is still a live center of ambition, you won’t know for sure whether its message will resonate with you till you hear it. When I moved to New York, I was very excited at first. It’s an exciting place. So it took me quite a while to realize I just wasn’t like the people there. I kept searching for the Cambridge of New York. It turned out it was way, way uptown: an hour uptown by air.

Some people know at 16 what sort of work they’re going to do, but in most ambitious kids, ambition seems to precede anything specific to be ambitious about. They know they want to do something great. They just haven’t decided yet whether they’re going to be a rock star or a brain surgeon. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it means if you have this most common type of ambition, you’ll probably have to figure out where to live by trial and error. You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have.

Notes

[1] This is one of the advantages of not having the universities in your country controlled by the government. When governments decide how to allocate resources, political deal-making causes things to be spread out geographically. No central goverment would put its two best universities in the same town, unless it was the capital (which would cause other problems). But scholars seem to like to cluster together as much as people in any other field, and when given the freedom to they derive the same advantages from it.

[2] There are still a few old professors in Palo Alto, but one by one they die and their houses are transformed by developers into McMansions and sold to VPs of Bus Dev.

[3] How many times have you read about startup founders who continued to live inexpensively as their companies took off? Who continued to dress in jeans and t-shirts, to drive the old car they had in grad school, and so on? If you did that in New York, people would treat you like shit. If you walk into a fancy restaurant in San Francisco wearing a jeans and a t-shirt, they’re nice to you; who knows who you might be? Not in New York.

One sign of a city’s potential as a technology center is the number of restaurants that still require jackets for men. According to Zagat’s there are none in San Francisco, LA, Boston, or Seattle, 4 in DC, 6 in Chicago, 8 in London, 13 in New York, and 20 in Paris.

(Zagat’s lists the Ritz Carlton Dining Room in SF as requiring jackets but I couldn’t believe it, so I called to check and in fact they don’t. Apparently there’s only one restaurant left on the entire West Coast that still requires jackets: The French Laundry in Napa Valley.)

[4] Ideas are one step upstream from economic power, so it’s conceivable that intellectual centers like Cambridge will one day have an edge over Silicon Valley like the one the Valley has over New York.

This seems unlikely at the moment; if anything Boston is falling further and further behind. The only reason I even mention the possibility is that the path from ideas to startups has recently been getting smoother. It’s a lot easier now for a couple of hackers with no business experience to start a startup than it was 10 years ago. If you extrapolate another 20 years, maybe the balance of power will start to shift back. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I wouldn’t bet against it either.

[5] If Paris is where people care most about art, why is New York the center of gravity of the art business? Because in the twentieth century, art as brand split apart from art as stuff. New York is where the richest buyers are, but all they demand from art is brand, and since you can base brand on anything with a sufficiently identifiable style, you may as well use the local stuff.

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More from David Batchelor’s Chromophobia:

In the chapter titled “Whitescapes”, Batchelor describes going to a party at the home of an art collector in London. His description of that experience is hauntingly familiar to me, but one that I have never thought through in such explicit detail:

The house looked ordinary enough from the outside: red brick, nineteenth or early twentieth century, substantial but unostentatious. Inside was different. Inside seemed to have no connection with outside. Inside was, in one sense, inside-out, but I only realized that much later. At first, inside looked endless. Endless like an egg must look endless from the inside; endless because seamless, continuous, empty, uninterrupted. Or rather: uninterruptible. There is a difference. Uninterrupted might mean overlooked, passed by, inconspicuous, insignificant. Uninterruptible passes by you, renders you inconspicuous and insignificant…It was a strategic emptiness, but it was also accusatory.

Inside this house was a whole world, a very particular kind of world, a very clean, clear and orderly universe. But it was also a very paradoxical, inside-out world, a world where open was also closed, simplicity was also complication, and clarity was also confusion. It was a world that didn’t readily admit the existence of other worlds. Or it did so grudgingly and resentfully, and absolutely without compassion. In particular, it was a world that would remind you, there and then, in an instant, of everything you were not, everything you had failed to become, everything you had not got around to doing, everything you might as well never bother to get around to doing because everything was made to seem somehow beyond reach, as when you look through the wrong end of a telescope…

There is a kind of white that is more than white, and this was the kind of white. There is a kind of white that repels everything that is inferior to it, and that is almost everything. This was that kind of white. There is a kind of white that is not created by bleach but that itself is bleach. This was that kind of white. This white was aggressively white.

An emptiness that is accusatory. A white that is compassionless. I know of what he speaks.