The idea for this blog post steals directly from the New York Times Sunday feature, usually appearing on page 3 of the “Arts & Leisure” section. The Times asks a cultural figure each week to run through their pandemic leisure-time choices, favorite books, films, genres, online haunts, artistic influences, and other obsessions. I follow suit with a much more prosaic list that draws heavily on nostalgia and fantasy.
1 Books about North Korea
It’s natural to blame the pandemic for fascination with a “hermit kingdom,” a so-called isolated and inscrutable state known for the patch of monolithic blackness it offers at night to prying satellites. In truth, though, I name my own inner darkness and fear of reaching out for this deep dive, first into Suki Kim’s “Without You, There Is No Us,” the tense chronicle of teaching English in Pyongyang, then expanding to Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, Krys Lee’s novel How I Became a North Korean, The Cleanest Race by B. R. Myers, The Great Successor by Anna Fifield, Ask a North Korean from NK News, and the visual works Printed in North Korea (Phaidon) and Model City Pyongyang (MIT Press). The most poetic characterization of North Korean life—and strangely evocative of contemporary life in a pandemic—comes from Kang Chol-Hwan’s Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in a North Korean Gulag. He witnesses the execution of two escapees from the now-shuttered Yodok concentration camp, then remarks, “I had the strange feeling of being swallowed up in a world where the earth and sky had changed places.”
2 The Ricky Gervais Show, Xfm archive
Tapping into the world-weary sensibility of Karl Pilkington and his mates Gervais and Stephen Merchant has not grown stale, even nearly twenty years on. I am not alone in this affection. A surprisingly vibrant community of followers exists on YouTube, those who cycle through the archive of Xfm radio programs, podcasts, and other appearances to titter after Pilkington’s observations about cruise liners (“My mum says some are so big that they have rough areas”) and Merchant’s eccentric dance moves (“It’s like weird art”). Myself included, many of those who comment on YouTube notice the show’s soothing, soporific qualities. It has taken on the aspect for me of bedtime prayer. As one comrade writes, “Early night for me tonight. Wouldn’t be proper without a side of Pilkboys.”
3 San Antonio Missions
Although I feel rootless in a bludgeoned San Antonio landscape, my rare pilgrimages to the San Antonio Missions restore a sense of solidity … even faith. There are five in San Antonio, including the Alamo—the least interesting of the lot. The others are UNESCO World Heritage sites and managed by the National Parks Service. The still functioning Roman Catholic parishes are built from stone, having stood on the mission sites for close to 300 years. Many of the Coahuiltecan people, descendants of the indigenous who had settled the land for some 10,000 years, were housed within the mission walls and were taught Spanish and educated through the catechism and other means. The mission locations are spare and parched and tranquil, surprisingly small for having developed industries such as weaving, stonework, brickmaking, and agriculture. Their interiors feature the stone foundations of native housing, granaries, secured entryways, and fortresses, or bastions, that allowed for defense against Apache or Comanche raids. The Alamo is remembered primarily as a place of military engagement and the assertion of Texan independence. Its sister missions, however, speak to a quieter daily routine of work, religious observance, colonial control, and survival.
4 Google Maps
I adopted the practice of scanning and zooming on Google Maps as a complement to reading about North Korea (see item one). Imagine the thrill, guided by the My North Korea blog, of flying over Kim Jong Un’s Onpho hot springs resort in North Hamgyong province, marveling at the array of luxury villas and the earth-moving still under way. But I have pressed on to studying other targets, the more remote and seemingly forsaken the better: Nunavut villages, Tajikistan border areas (like from the Aleksandr Sokurov film Spiritual Voices), Arctic harbors, South Pacific atolls, and Baltic shorelines (such as the Ekologinis pažintinis takas “Litorina”). I am interested in future travel destinations, no matter how unlikely: the Thule Air Base in Greenland, the Arctic University Museum of Norway in Tromsø, the Manda de Laos restaurant in Luang Prabang, the Litla Brauðstofan bakery in Hveragerði, Iceland. Just to be sitting at the latter in a turtleneck and sweater, cupping a hot coffee and dunking a slice of Kartöflubrauð …
5 Star Trek, the ‘Next Generation,’ ‘Picard,’ and ‘Discovery’ series
Especially endearing was the participation in October of numerous Star Trek cast members in a “Trek the Vote” fund-raiser for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Democratic presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Pete Buttigieg revealed themselves as knowledgeable Trekkies, but all were outdone by Georgia organizer and former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who timidly raised her hand in answer to almost all the questions in the trivia phase. Even stars Patrick Stewart and Sonequa Martin-Green appeared, brimming with approachability. My softest spot, though, resides with the alien and supposedly non-sentient characters who express the most human of vulnerabilities: crowned by Lieutenant Commander Data of “The Next Generation” (played by Brent Spiner) and Captain Saru (Doug Jones) of “Discovery.” The latter’s role is written with eloquence, and I look for Saru’s spindly Kelpien fingers pressed toward his chest after one of his empathic speeches. There is tenderness, these personae show, even in cold-hearted space.
6 Eclectic and ‘raw’ YouTube filmography
Who needs to travel to Iceland to imagine the croft-dotted landscape of Halldór Laxness? You can, in the video above, ride on the passenger side of a GoPro-equipped vehicle and be chauffeured between glacier and lowland, for hours at a time, with only the murmur of pavement underneath and the occasional whoosh of a passing sedan or RV. I only discovered such videos this year, but they exist even for unimaginable locales: the Yukon Territory, Cuba, Patagonia, Madagascar, and, yes, for North Korea. As an alternative, since I do not live in a wintry biome and miss snowfall acutely, there is a variety of raw snow footage (at lengths of one hour, two hours, and three hours). Consecrated silence, as in Laxness’s words from Under the Glacier: “That which is beyond words remains silent at Christmas too, my friend.”
7 The Baltimore Orioles
The Birds. Growing up near Washington, DC, in the 1970s, there was no professional baseball in the nation’s capital, but Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium was only an hour or so away. I continued to venture on my own in my late teens and twenties. A friend of mine took pleasure in my father’s mid-Atlantic drawl when my friend would telephone and hear, “I think he’s at an Orioles game,” my dad swallowing the “r” in Orioles like it was a gobstopper. Since the resumption of Major League Baseball in late July, I spent a lot of time with the Orioles: Cedric Mullins, Hanser Alberto, José Iglesias, Ryan Mountcastle, Rio Ruiz, Anthony Santander, and the rest. I scored a few games (pitch-by-pitch), which I also did during replays of my favorite Korean Baseball Organization club, SK Wyverns. The wyvern is a winged two-legged dragon with barbed tail, which I never knew.
8 Tiny Desk concerts, NPR
It started with Natalia Lafourcade (see below), then I moved on to other Latin acts like Café Tacvba, Rodrigo y Gabriela, Juanes, and Bomba Estéreo. Who else? Steve Martin, Cat Stevens, Wilco, Billy Bragg, Aimee Mann, Norah Jones, Karine Polwart, The Cranberries, the Soweto Gospel Choir, Gogol Bordello, Pixies, and Natalie Merchant getting everyone to sing along. I believe the drummer from Wilco is brushing some Post-It notes? I’m not sure I remember correctly. I have no platitudes about music to offer, but I entertain a fantasy that these talented folk are playing in my living room, in front of my bookcases, and that the world party for 15 minutes has decided to stop at my address.
9 A Promised Land, by Barack Obama
I’m not an Obama worshiper (no one should be, as Obama himself implies); nevertheless, it is easy to be obediently led by his prose and his curious self-distancing from events, his references to an iconoclastic upbringing in Hawai’i and Indonesia, and his thumbnail sketches of world leaders (the “forceful staccato” of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the “big and bright blue” eyes of Angela Merkel, and Nikolas Sarkozy’s “dark, expressive, vaguely Mediterranean features”). The diminutive Sarkozy comes off as somewhat comic character, grabbing Obama at the conclusion of the G20 summit in 2009 and gushing, “This agreement is historic, Barack!” That Obama recognizes the comic quality is reassuring. He represents his wife, Michelle, as full of zingers: especially about the desirability of Obama being able to pin back his ears.
10 Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Netflix
As a tidy segue from item nine, what introduced me to this series was Jerry Seinfeld’s visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, sharing coffee with Obama in the West Wing canteen. They cruise the White House grounds, at about 5mph, in a sky-blue Corvette. Again, Obama comments on the maniacal broodings of some world leaders; he looks into their eyes and discerns that there is nothing there. Taking the series as a whole (I have not seen all of them), I can do without the cars—why not a vintage Yugo, for once? But the sensibilities of comedians are compelling: the familiar bickering of Mel Brooks and the late Carl Reiner, Ricky Gervais’s fear and bracing at Seinfeld driving him around, Howard Stern’s self-doubting, and mostly the confessional dimension of Michael Richards, who played Kramer on the Seinfeld program. Richards shows the human qualities of having made a mistake, and we’ve all made mistakes.