Sounds of Silence, Shakespeare in the Holler, and Regular Visitors: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week
From seeing what we hear to hearing what we see, we learned a lot over the last seven days
We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.
"C'mon Diane, you know as well as I do that that's Stefanie's spot at the bar..."
Our Cheers, Ourselves
American culture prizes the new and adventurous, even in the most mundane things: trying out new restaurants, breaking out of old habits, traveling to far-flung places. But author Xochitl Gonzalez nails the countercultural joy of becoming a neighborhood regular, the kind of person who shows up to the same coffee shop every morning and has a favorite booth at the same diner every Saturday. “Nothing is quite as validating as the experience of being a regular,” Gonzalez writes in her Atlantic newsletter. “The simple joy of walking into a restaurant or bar and greeting the hostess by name while the bartender makes your favorite drink without a word spoken between you. The minor satisfaction of ordering without a menu, or, better yet, ordering from off the menu. The tiny thrill when, on occasion, the owner or manager comps your bill—just as a thank you for always being there.”
The real upside to customer loyalty, though, is social. You become part of the fabric of a place, something between a customer and a friend to the people who work there, rewarded with “the warm sense of belonging as you get updates on the lives and dreams” of the staff and your fellow regulars. I live about half of the year in Washington, DC, a city that is forever turning itself over with a new population of young strivers and politicos cycling in and out, trendy new restaurants opening and closing, the kind of place where it’s hard to be a regular. But I’ve been vacationing in the same spots for so long, and so consistently, that I’ve achieved regular status at my favorite coffee shop in Seattle (Ampersand on Alki) and my favorite cafe at Rehoboth Beach (The Back Porch, run for decades by the same owner and recently bought by a young Russian couple who have worked there for years).* Trying new places is great, but there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of wandering in after months away and getting a hug and a first-name greeting from the owner. Being a regular “requires doing more than keeping your head down while you have that drink at the bar, and instead asking how the person serving you is doing, or what they are reading, or how their day has been,” Gonzalez writes. “It requires thinking of the spaces around you not as backdrops for the life you are living but as integral parts of the quality of life that you enjoy.” —Stefanie Sanford
*A true regular should always put in a good word for her favorite spots, doing her part to recruit more regulars.
Jason Young (left) and Daniel Crowley (right) of the Rustic Mechanicals performing a production of "As You Like It."
O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!
Years ago, I remember standing at the edge of the stage with the director of Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, listening to him explain why so many young people end up hating the Bard. “It’s like trying to get people excited about a house by showing them the architectural blueprints,” he explained, railing about the fact that most high schoolers encounter Shakespeare for the first time through the written text rather than a live production. “You’re not supposed to read the instructions; you’re supposed to see the play.” That’s the same philosophy West Virginia’s Rustic Mechanics troupe brings to their salt-of-the-earth Shakespeare tours around the small towns and mountain hollers of the Mountain State. “We do this because we are the hicks who happen to know Shakespeare, and we’re making an investment in our home,” troupe co-founder Jason Young explained to the magnificent website Daily Yonder, which chronicles rural culture and politics across the United States.
Young and his band of merry thespians perform in the spirit that animated the original stage shows at The Globe in London: not hushed formality, but loud, bawdy, back-slapping productions that feel right at home in front of rural audiences. They use modern music, modern clothes, and even swapped in the Hatfields and McCoys for the Montagues and Capulets in their performance of Romeo and Juliet—all in a bid to make the greatest plays in history more relatable to a modern audience. But they don’t compromise on text, sticking strictly with the classical Shakespeare in all of its playful glory. “If you recreate some of the staging conditions that [Shakespeare] was writing for, you uncover some of the magic,” Shakespeare expert Jim Warren explained. “People immediately go for the ride because they’re not there for crushed velvet Shakespeare. They’re there for the popular entertainment and the fun that Shakespeare is.” In other words, don’t make students sit at desks and page through the blueprints; let them experience the house. — Eric Johnson
"This is the water, and this is the well. Drink full, and descend...
I'd prefer to tell people that I learned about bullfighting in a literary manner—like by reading a now-classic description in Hemingway's 1926 masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. But the truth is, like a lot of kids, my introduction was Looney Tunes. In the 1953 short “Bully for Bugs,” the wiseacre rabbit deploys his red matador cape (or, muleta) to entice and enrage his horned adversary. It’s an indelible image, in any context: the matador waving the blood-red muleta to engage the bull. Except it’s just for show. All cattle are color blind, and the muleta is red to mask the many bloodstains it collects concealing the matador's deadly sword. But you know what creature with blood on its mind was recently discovered to be very much attracted to the color red? The mosquito. (How’s that for a segue?) That’s according to a study out of the University of Washington, published in the journal Nature Communications. Specifically, female Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were drawn to the colors red, orange, black, and cyan, after smelling gasses like the CO2 exhaled by humans. (They ignored green, purple, blue, and white.) The species used in the study is a known carrier of yellow fever, chikungunya, Zika, and dengue fever—the last, coincidentally, once contracted by Hemingway's then-wife, Martha Gellhorn in Surinam while reporting for Collier's. More tragically, the 19th century builder of Hemingway’s famous Key West house (home to its famous six-toed cats), Asa Tift, lost his father, wife, and multiple children to yellow fever, as the island was a gathering place for mosquitoes carrying the disease. Yes, no matter how obscure, there’s always a Hemingway connection. —Christian Niedan
Is this moment from "Inventing Anna" depicting Anna Sorokin's life before or after being prosecuted for crimes? Because, honestly, with what she got paid to consult on the show....
Inventing Anna, the new Netflix show about Anna Sorokin, a/k/a Anna Delvey, a woman who pretended to be a wealthy socialite and scammed other members of the elite out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, is getting a lot of buzz. Which makes me wonder: Does crime actually pay? And why am I, and at least enough people to form an audience for a TV show, so obsessed with Sorokin and similar scammers? To answer the first question, I didn’t have to look further than the payroll of the new show. Netflix paid Sorokin $320,000 as a consultant for Inventing Anna. But that’s not all! She's also monetizing her time spent in five different correctional facilities and ICE detention. In an interview with the New York Times, she mentions projects that she's working on multiple times—a documentary, a book, an undisclosed project with Julia Fox [of course -Ed.]—and it's clear that Sorokin is using her notoriety to its full advantage. (Hopefully, these projects have more substance to them than the ones that originally landed her in jail.) Does crime pay? The answer, at least in this case, seems abundantly clear—and Sorokin herself is aware of it. In the interview she says, "To reference that BBC interview where I was asked 'Does crime pay?', I could not honestly say 'no,' in my situation, because I did get paid. For me to say 'no' would just be denying the obvious. I didn’t say that crime pays in general."
Getting at why we are so obsessed with her is more difficult. A 2019 Elle article suggests we are obsessed with Sorokin's audacity. She showed she was unafraid of manipulating the elite, and even in her trial thumbed her nose at the establishment by hiring an expensive stylist to dress her in expensive clothes, as if court were a stage and she the star, not the defendant in a criminal proceeding. The article also cites our love of true crime and heist stories and the conflation of notoriety and celebrity. All of these reasons ring at least a little bit true to me. The author even suggests, somewhat ironically, that we are reaching a point where people want to be scammed. I wouldn't go that far, but I will admit that I'm not as upset as I should be about Sorokin's post-heist success. And that says something, doesn’t it? —Hannah Van Drie
Can I get someone to check the levels on those clouds? I'm getting a little too much treble and not enough bass from the sun...
Music for (Digital Photographs of) Airports
I’m a sucker for ambient music. Lyrics and melody and hooks all have primacy in my listening, but sometimes I need to shut out the world, be present, and allow my mind and emotion to fill a soundscape. Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports has been very important in this regard (I’m not alone in this), and his Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record is all kinds of enhancing and expanding. (There’s also a whole subgenre of Japanese ambient from the 1980s that just really works for me.) But as I learned recently, you don’t need to be an Eno-esque genius to create these sonic experiences. All you need is the natural world, some digital objects, and a new prototype tool created at MIT’s Digital Humanities Lab. The Sonification Toolkit, developed by Evan Ziporyn, the lab’s faculty fellow and a music professor, and 40 undergrads translates things like colors, drawings, and sunsets into audio. It’s not a case of layering sound on top of a thing, as the MIT press release irresistibly titled “The sound of a sunset” points out. Ziporyn wants to “faithfully produce sound based on the attributes of the object itself.” As Ziporyn puts it, “What we were trying to do by using the pure numerical relationships between [material and sound] is to get away from that … to make sure you’re getting a result that actually reflects the structure of the object rather than a humanized, palatable version of that.”
So what does a sunset sound like? Unsurprisingly, a bit like an Eno track stretched out to even greater atonal, yet never unpleasant, lengths. What about the color purple? Or a weird polygon? Go to the Sonification Toolkit web application and hear for yourself. It’s a fabulously fun tool to muck around with, especially the Gestures section, which translates free-hand mouse drawings into sound. (I could listen to the spiral I drew on repeat for hours.) Ziporyn’s ideas and work drew numerous computer science and engineering students to the DH Lab, attracted by the toolkit’s unique bridge between technology and the arts. And that’s the real long-term value of the Sonification Toolkit work. Yes, it’s fun and weird and creative. But this “imaginative connection to the arts and humanities through technology” has allowed the undergraduate researchers to imagine sonifying visual art, like paintings and photographs, which hooks into other sonification projects experimenting with proteins and particle energy. And what does that get us? “We’ll have a generation of technologists who are better equipped to think about those subtle, usefully complex areas that the humanities are great at addressing,” Ryaan Ahmed, the DH Lab’s associate director and senior research engineer, says. They’ll be “thinking about how the technologies that they’re working on affect people and bringing the nuances of the arts, social sciences, and humanities to their technical work.” Anything that gets future computer scientists and technologists thinking beyond the codebase functionality of algorithms is a positive for society. As is new ambient music, which, let’s be honest, is the real draw. —Dante A. Ciampaglia