In Which She Leaves Her College Town After Everyone Else

The Meadows


When I was twenty-four, I lived in a grand, minimalist apartment in Edinburgh, on the south side of the Meadows. That wide expanse of green is crisscrossed by wide, lonely paths, and each way into the park has its charm: a gate in a stone wall, an arch formed by the giant jawbone of a whale. In centuries past the Meadows had been a loch, but after an episode of plague it had been filled in. Now lush elm trees and emerald grass grew where there had once been sixty acres of murky water.

Every day I would wake up in my high-ceilinged room, walk across the Meadows and the Old Town, duck through a narrow alley that seemed ripe for murder and into the courtyard of the company’s building, and land at my post in the editorial department. There I would stay until past dark most days, except in midsummer when our northern latitude kept the day going past nine. It was that summer, when my life seemed perfectly shaped and yet strangely stalled, that the blindness of my thinking propelled me into something unplanned, messy, and far from everyone I loved. There was a realization that I still struggle to explain, and then an escape, and now looking back I’m not sure which life was the borrowed one and which held permanence, that one I had or the one I flew off to.   

The good news came, as it often does, in a manila envelope. I tore into it and tipped out my passport, which fell open to a new, stiff, pink page. My own stern face looked back at me from a visa that said I could stay for five more years, and have the option to become a British citizen after that, if I wanted. I called my British-American-Lebanese parents in London and we cheered over the phone. I looked at the passport again, and then put it in the drawer where it belonged. How neat my life now looked on paper, how free I ought to feel. The night passed in inexplicable, suffocating panic, and I found myself dreaming of the day when I could quit the whole scene — the beautiful home, perfect job, maybe even life itself. For the first time, it seemed impossible to want what I was supposed to want.

The stamp meant an option I had furiously hoped and worked for. Six years before I had come to Edinburgh for a weekend, and decided I needed to live there. I’d gone from one student visa to the next, to a work permit called the Fresh Talent designation. But now, at twenty-four, my Fresh Talent had expired. I had gathered hundreds of documents and put a heavy paperwork burden on my employer in a bid to get sponsored, unskilled as I was. They had had to advertise my job, and interview other candidates for it, which was chilling to watch. I had even made a backup plan with a friend from the Highlands, that he and I would get married if the visa was denied. And yet, now that the bureaucratic nightmare was over, I looked around at my painstakingly assembled world and wanted to flee. 

The poet Kapka Kassabova wrote about living in Edinburgh: ” … nothing changes here except in memory … The haar that [creeps] in from the sea. The cemeteries bumpy with centuries of flesh … The way nobody is too interested in you – a great British quality.” Like Kassabova, I was certain this city was home. I liked being an American abroad. It allowed me to sneak into a close acquaintance with a place, but always as an observer. I could abstract myself when I needed to, ask the most naïve questions, drift from one scene to the next, and treat others as though I was unlikely to stay. At the same time, this was the place I had forged the beginning of a self-sufficient life.

When I was a child, each successive move or change of schools made me even more impatient to grow up. I wanted to find a place no one in my family had been before, make it my own, and dig in for good. My rebellion was making my life predictable. Edinburgh had given me a start: six years, and another would pass before I left. Surely I owed the place more commitment. Two weeks after my passport was returned, I cautiously mentioned the panic to my father. He analyzed me via Groucho Marx: “You don’t want to belong to any club that will accept you as a member.” Was that it?

But my home was becoming a strange place, outside of my control. It started in August, when Edinburgh is one great performance. There are festivals that turn every surface into a stage or screen, the city’s population triples, and locals complain of the throngs who make regular life and sleep impossible for a month. Music blared through my office window, and the long shadows in the morning and evening drew gorgeous shapes from the steeples and crags over the noisy streets. Drunk couples slumped over each other in buses and parks, like pale, elfin Hogarth etchings.

The less photogenic seams of the city were there too. I loved my workplace, but had little left to learn from my job. My college friends moved to bigger cities, and my long hours left little chance to make new ones. The Bush years were finally over, but my accent, which refused to soften, still attracted the wrong kind of attention from men at the pub. On hearing me place an order, they often launched into joyous anti-American rants or, on countless occasions, smilingly asked if I “liked Bush.” Then there was Roderick, my roommate, a high school English teacher nearing thirty who spent his evenings working on a novel. He had seemed perfect, a bright-eyed redhead who might set me up with his friends.

Three days after he moved in, Roderick casually mentioned that he had a young daughter in Japan; his plan, sprung on me after the lease had been signed, was that she and her mother would spend the summer with us. Soon after that, I got home early from work to find the bathroom door open, a bath running, and Roderick dipping a toe in, completely nude with a fat joint glowing between his lips. I couldn’t help but laugh. But he mistook laughter for approval, and over time I would come home to find Roderick undressed and high in every room of the apartment, including my own. In the midst of this, excited at the fact that I worked for a publisher, he sent me his manuscript-in-progress. It was a series of violent, self-aggrandizing fantasies about the women in his life. The fact that I had invited this person to live with me — that I had chosen him from a handful of Craigslist responders — gnawed at the trust I’d once had in myself.

Maybe if I’d been attached, my relationship to the place would not have been the test of character that it was when I was so often alone. Long before my visa application, I had broken up with my boyfriend of three years because I couldn’t see us living the same life. Within weeks he was with someone new, and I waited confidently to fall in love again too. But my affections seemed to have gone to sleep. On the evenings I didn’t hit a pub with coworkers, I ran. I plugged myself into headphones and let my strides eat the town, the alleyways through the Meadows, the road around the cold, humped volcanic hill of Arthur’s Seat.

It was a spare, deliberate life for a young person, and it’s sad evidence that few people can love forever what they loved at eighteen. I think of Edinburgh as someone I tried to marry and missed the mark. “One’s prime is elusive,” lectured Miss Jean Brodie in Muriel Spark’s most famous Edinburgh novel. “Recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.” I knew I was not in my prime, and this was bad, because surely twenty-four is everyone’s prime. Looking at my totem of acceptance, the UK visa, it was clear that another version of myself could have been happy there. I was close to being that version and wonder if it will be hard to see the city again when I go back. For in the end, I had to leave the city to get away from a sad love that sat like fog over a swamp until I flew to new, dry ground.

I reformatted my CV with American spelling and ran it by the few people I knew in New York. A year later, in mid-August, I moved back across the Atlantic. I had a job and an apartment, both unsuitable, and neither would last long. But on that flight, I realized I was waking up again. The plane taxied to a halt, the airport doors swung open, and a well of humidity and taxi horns embraced me.

Stephanie Gorton Murphy is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Providence. This is her first appearance in these pages.

“Let It Rain” – Mat Kearney (mp3)

“Ghost” – Mat Kearney (mp3)

The new album from Mat Kearney, Just Kids, is out today.

In Which We Hire Saul Goodman At Our Own Convenience

Guilty Conscience


Better Call Saul
creators Vince Gilligan & Peter Gould

I would do anything to never to hear my wife utter the words fan service again. Did you see the trailer for Ant-Man? This tongue-in-cheek shit has got to end. Instead of, you know, working on something new, the people behind Breaking Bad have an assembled an hour long drama around the concept that anything even peripherally associated with Jesse Pinkman is fantastic and interesting. And you know what: they might have a point.

You know, I’m starting to think there might be some problems with the criminal justice system.

Seven years ago Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) has his own quirky cast of characters surrounding his single room law practice in the rear of a downtrodden nail salon. Returning from Breaking Bad is Jonathan Banks, who looks about twenty years older than he did on the previous show despite this chronologically predating everything on Breaking Bad. Tuco (Raymond Cruz) also makes a substantial appearance in the new show, but most everything else is completely new.

This is an incredibly ineffective way of getting a paper towel roll.

Whereas Breaking Bad was about doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, Better Call Saul is about doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Watching Odenkirk struggle with his conscience quickly gets old. We’re supposed to think that he was slowly corrupted into Saul Goodman over time, little by little. Since we already know the end result – an amoral bag of garbage – we can’t help but be disappointed by the pace of the process. No one thinks to themselves, “Jeez, Mussolini was such a nice little kid!”

If this is the last cul-de-sac I ever see, it will be too soon.

The problem with the basic concept is that we only have reason to encounter minor characters. Hank Schrader is not suddenly going to show up on Better Call Saul, and even if he did he would probably look like Mason Verger and all we would think about is his ignominious end in Breaking Bad. Fan service (ugh) only actually works when we have a positive nostalgic feeling about what is being revisited. There is no such need to be reminded of how we left Walt’s family or friends.

Despite the fact that I have loathed Jonathan Banks for three decades and his appearance on Community should have given him a life sentence in jail, I have to admit that the character of Mike is a great one. When Saul meets him in Better Call Saul he is merely a parking lot attendant at a courthouse, which is unlikely but amusing as a one off joke.


“The Kettlemans” will be the next spin off. Jesse Pinkman will settle down with the divorced Mrs. Kettleman in Ronkonkoma.

The real fun will begin when Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) enters the picture. Although we explored his homosexual South American heritage in a flashback that still brings tears to my eyes to this day, I really hope we get the full origin story of Gustavo Fring. A lot seems like it was left out, and Gus was a very effective businessman who just happened to trifle with the wrong high school science teacher. Greatness can come from low places, I believe Scott Walker once killed a guy? Need to check my facts, but I’m pretty sure.


if you just photoshop out his hair, you have the sixth season of Breaking Bad

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a wee bit tired of the emotional shots of the New Mexico landscape. There may be nothing left to really explore in this bleak environment. Breaking Bad did a great job of making very few locations seem like an open, impossible world, but the same budgetary constraints seem to apply here.

There is little in the way of big time action or set pieces promised – after all, Better Call Saul features a relatively small story about a lawyer. The reason that networks produced legal dramas and films in the first place is because they were so inexpensive – Better Call Saul does a wonderful job of tricking their way around these limitations and making the show into a crime drama like its predecessor. Still, at times Better Call Saul feels like so much less.


Maybe throw some concealer and a wig on? Just a suggestion.

Once you make something successful, people want more of it. I understand this, just as I understand the basic impulse to elect another child of George W. Bush, or put someone else named Clinton in the Oval Office. We are afraid of change, especially Jonathan Banks, who has been doing the same gravelly voiced character since the 1960s.  

Better Call Saul ends up as a compelling show with a fantastic cast, so my complaints about repetition fall on deaf ears. We will shout, “Oh Walt!” probably at some point when Bryan Cranston does his first guest shot after pissing away all his Lyndon Johnson/Godzilla money on snickerdoodles. I only wonder if we could have gotten something even better.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. Visit our mobile site here.


“Sisters” – Gods (mp3)

“Misled” – Gods (mp3)

In Which The Snow Could Be Covering The Hole

Midwestern Dates


5 minutes: Pay $14.95 for an Illinois fishing license

3 minutes: Put on old jeans, two shirts, a sweatshirt, socks from the Army/Navy surplus store, snow boots, down-filled coat, hat, and fleece-lined mittens

7 minutes: Load the sled with the necessities, e.g., beer, whiskey, an empty plastic bucket, an auger, a skimmer, two poles, two plastic condiment containers filled with wood shavings and maggots, a sonar scope, a heater named—no joke—”portable buddy”

15 minutes: Drag sled across frozen lake towards the best fishing spot, into the wind, trying not to slip

~2 minutes: Reach the other huts, realize I’m the only other woman on the ice

1 minute: Screw the auger into the ice until a deep scent, reminiscent of summer, pokes through the freeze and water bubbles through the hole

1 minute: Repeat

1 minute: Skim slushy lake water off the surface, stare deep into the murky hole

20 minutes: Attempt to raise the collapsible shelter in 20-30 mph gusts

3 minutes: Sit inside the shelter, freezing, while Jens attempts to tie down the back flaps

2 minutes: Scream when the wind catches the shelter through the open door and drags the whole thing three yards across the ice with me in it

2 minutes: Watch as Jens slips and slides after the fish bucket and a single glove that have blown away

10 minutes: Figure out how to fortify the shelter against the wind with a series of disconnected metal poles and no instruction manual

1 minute: Breathe gas as the portable buddy kindles to life

30 seconds: Stab a maggot with a hook

30 seconds: Drop the line into the hole and watch the bait flicker green on the sonar scope

20 minutes: Wait for fish

2 minutes: Laugh when Fleetwood Mac starts playing on Pandora. “It’s like they know,” I explain to Jens.

30 minutes: Wait for fish

5 minutes: Have to pee, pull down pants, squat over the hole, feel like the most ridiculous being that has ever walked the planet

30 minutes: Wait for fish

3 minutes: Hear a conversation —

“Don’t walk through the snow, you’ll break your fucking leg.”

“It’s not as slippery!”

“The snow could be covering a 10 inch hole, you idiot.”

2 minutes: Study the intricate patterns crystallizing inside the strata of the ice

3 minutes: Freak out, briefly, about the fact that all however many hundreds of pounds of us are sitting on eight inches of ice above twenty feet of water

1 minute: Marvel

20 minutes: Drink a beer that’s so cold it makes my teeth hurt

5 minutes: Squat over the hole again

2 minutes: Attempt to tickle Jens through five layers of clothing

2 hours: Wait for fish

10 minutes: Insult fish

30 minutes: Wait for fish

5 minutes: Decide to call it a day

25 minutes: Pack it all up, slip-slide across the lake back the house hand-in-hand

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. You can subscribe to Hors Sujet here.

Paintings by Katherine Bradford.


“Sail” – Awolnation (mp3)

In Which Things Take A Turn For Valery Bryusov

This is the third in a series. You can find part one here and part two here.

everytime it rains

This Surfeit Of Happiness

Things were going so well for the Russian poet Valery Bryusov. He was married and had achieved some degree of success and notoriety in his home country. He was starting to clash with the restrictive government policies of Nicholas II, but he was able to spend relaxing summers in Europe, where he developed a deep dislike of the future Estonian city of Revel. For the moment his depression seemed to have abated, as he writes in his diary of his search for something more in life beyond the physical, the real. As ever, he thought that he was the greatest master the world had ever known.

NB: Some of the dates below are approximate, and some of the entries are abridged.


May 12 1899

Let the twelfth notebook end with this, the notebook in which alone is concealed more happiness than in all the other eleven, with their dreams of childhood and youth. Yes, indeed, this cycle of my life has given me too much happiness and success! Speaking generally, I have succeeded in almost everything that I began, have accomplished a great deal of what I had expected these long, cold years.

And another positive thing: all of this since Eda and I have been together. It will be two years since I last felt those mad, boundless attacks of depression which cut me off from life, which kept me from writing anything at all in this diary. Sanguine feelings, assurance, hopes – this is now my usual frame of mind. I have faith, I am at peace.

May 25

Success with examinations. It was a dangerous game I resolved to play. At the beginning, I was far from prepared and might well have failed. I risked a great deal, because for me to fail would have been very shameful. Everyone, everyone who knows me and who understood what was happening, as well as those who did not understand, would have regarded it as my fall.

August 27

Autumn has begun for me. we’ve returned to Moscow, to books, to studies and only in memory there will unexpectedly flash gorges, foaming waves and wild goats.

September 7

Went to the city hall about military service. Lately I’ve gotten so used to the idea of barracks that I almost yearned for them. But they judged me “completely unfit.” This might also qualify as a success, one of the successes of 1898-1899.

October 15

Merezhkovsky is writing on Tolstoy and Doestoevsky. I don’t see why he bothers. Everything that he could say about them has already been said. (Footnote: I was mistaken. 1901)

November 3

In general, a peaceful existence with my wife and my sister, a rhythm of occupations… “I rule my days, with order my mind is in harmony…” For now, I like it.

December 26

Not long ago we arranged a littel jaunt outside the city. Baltrushaitis, Polyakob, Anna Shesterkina and I. We went all around Sokolni Park walking in the snow. I pressed Anna’s little fingers and she favorably responded. If I had even a little of my former urges, my former soul, akin to the great Spanish seducer, I could continue. But I’m bored.

i had my lawyer


January 12

Have just read Resurrection. Good, without any doubt. It is a summation of everything that Tolstoy has said at one time or another, his last will and testament. The beginning is better written. Towards the end he broke down under the weight of the material. There are some small contradictions (to say nothing of anachronisms, such as treating “Decadence” and the Tonkin expedition as simultaneous with Notes of the Fatherland).

February 1

Bunin and Pertsov are in Moscow. Have seen Bunin three times or so. He is much deeper than he seems. Some of his thoughts on humanity, on the ancient Egyptians, on contemporary vulgarity and the shameful state of our science and learning – are even powerful and impressive.

March 2

Somebody named Lev Amozov arranged an evening of new art at the Sportsman’s Club. He came and invited me to appear. But everything of my own that I wanted to read was forbidden by the special censor. So I recited something by Balmont. The hall was full, and most of my crowd was there (even without my invitation). When I came to the platform, they applauded. I recited “The Wilderness,” with rather lukewarm response, but “I Love You Bitterly, O Poor Deformed Ones” seemed to make an impression. As an encoure I recited, “Oh, Yes I Am Chosen, Wise, Consecrated.” However, to tell the truth, the program was a poor one.

April 19

I saw Nikolai Fyodorov, the great teacher of life and rambunctious elder, from whose tongue both Vladimir Solovyov and Tolstoy have suffered. From the very start of the conversation, I was taken with him. “One way or another, we all have to die,” I said. “And did you take the trouble to reflect whether this is so?” he asked.

We talked about Nietzsche, and generally Fyodorov was hard on me. I enjoyed it very much, and when leaving (I was in a hurry), I thanked him. However, Yury Bartenev imagined that I was offended and send me an apologetic letter. I finished the evening at Baltrushaitis’, where I deliberately provoked the girls with my paradoxes.



Revel is in north Naples, eine Welstadt, as Bartenev said. The Revel Germans dote on their city. For them there can be no better. Unquestionably, Revel is a European city. It is self-sufficent, having in itself everything it needs. It could go on existing if the whole world fell apart.

We stayed in Revel two months. The first half of the time we lived alone, knowing no one, living quietly like Germans. In the mornings I translated the Aeneid, after dinner we read, sitting in the park, and in the evenings I worked on my autobiography, and that is how it went, day after day.


Right away, and more strongly than I expected, I was seized by the usual Moscow impressions, the whole circle of friends. Lang (who is now staying in our house) presented himself first. Then soon, very soon (by chance), came Polyakov, Baltrushaitis and Balmont himself.

Vladimir Solovyov is dead. Bartenev knew him well, and I went to the funeral with him. Thus, as fate would have it, I met the critic of my first poems. And I had dreamed – often, at that – of personal conversations. “But he would have charmed you,” Bartenev said to me. I kissed the hand of my chance enemy, the poet and thinker whom I revered. Bartenev proposed that I write an article on the poetry of Vladimir Solovyov.

September 10

Am assiduously attending spiritualist Wednesday meetings. I preach, teach and wield a certain influence. Once, when we were coming out of such a meeting, the neophytes began to thank me. “Since you’ve been coming a great deal has changed. Before, it was just Christian propaganda. For hours on end they kept telling us what the fluid is when it separates from the body. But now they are afraid of you.”

September 28

I dreamed last night of an end for Brothers Karamazov.

It was Saturday, I think, when we saw Gorky at the Grand Moscow Hotel. As always he was in a peasant shirt. A peasant-style moustache. Half-deliberate coarseness of speech. We dined together. “But I won’t go into the main dining room, they’ll gape. We drown in our own fame, like frogs in a swamp.” Later he said, “Time to spoil my reputation! I’m tired of it!” And: “Only let’s have no talk of social issues!”

He clasped my hand very hard and asked me to send him my book.

Later, under the cover of the general conversation, Gorky and I had a separate chat. “What’s disgusting is these various human inventions, starting with the pavements and ending with the idea of God. Of course, I, as a sinful man, walk the streets and sometimes pray to the Lord God, but that’s all wrong.”


i still dream above the noise

“Lifted Up (1985)” – Passion Pit (mp3)

“Where The Sky Hangs” – Passion Pit (mp3)

In Which We Discover How Choice Is Structured

kin the suburbsokokok

What We Think About Them Leaving


Three things happened in quick succession, two in perfect order, one lagging. In late fall, my brother drives my parents to the airport where my father boards a plane to interview for a job. On the way driving to his afternoon classes he is blindsided by a woman turning right on red. When he calls me at my job, I’m between client calls and can only make out hysteria and suburban traffic. He hangs up and in a panic I kill my phone line, run to the bathroom and call him back to ascertain how fast I need to be by his side. Later that night I catch a ride to the suburbs and buy him dinner, have a few beers. I ride back out on the train that weekend and we talk on the way to pick up my parents. We plan our questions, we resolve to listen.

The second thing is that afternoon the parents ask us what we think about them leaving the country and the question is their decision and our answer. Over the next few hours of contracts and timetables, distance in miles and wine (me, mostly) we make the joke that at least the car, totaled, is one thing they will not have to get rid of.

The third thing. I break up with the boy who I’ve been spring-summer-no-pause-in-love-with. It could be called mutual: he didn’t know how to leave me. I believe now, and think I knew it then, that if I had to start letting things go he had to be one of the first things to try and release.


We controlled our reaction and were far from indifferent, although the components were not unfamiliar. Parents on their way to some idea of retirement, a job offer, children with their own jobs and beers and the ability to vote. And so? So Sweden? It could be Houston, Bogota, Mumbai, anywhere. The parents returned from a visit, which was really an interview, which was really an almost-yes and sent a missive through the satellites: When u free? Need to talk.

Talking. Constantly, more than in years, as if each word would fit every synapse firing, each question could find its way to  answer. After the ride back from the airport, parents spilled maps, postcards, brochures, two candy bars from Heathrow. The questions came down to needs and wants and expectation. Do you want to work for these people? (Yes). Will they pay you money you feel is fair as a payment to work for them? (Yes). Did you like Sweden? (Yes). When will you have to leave? (Soon. Sooner than anyone thinks, soon sans holidays, soon sans time, always the loss of time.)

uthor photot camren

Do you want to go? An answer read in the excited face of a father who may or may not have faced redundancy in a changed world and who has worked for the same company for longer than the children have been alive, or the marriage. This is the father telling stories and making plans from percolated anticipation on a plane or taxi or train ride: a trip to Spain, a birthday in Copenhagen, a father who went from the Air Force to school to job to marriage to children and what lasted was travel, was work that took him so many places. This is a joy impossible to qualify or verbalize. This is a face and a quiet.

And none of this worked without wife and mother. What are the reasons people stay together for thirty years, when one person is constantly back and forth in other lands? What is the reason two people decided to join when mother has taken off from the nest she grew up in to live a year in a fascist country four thousand miles south? What is the reason she says yes when a proposal comes in airmail with a bouquet of flowers? This is a hardiness, an inquisitiveness, a need to move, keep moving, keep going and finding written into some vein.

The honesty of the afternoon peaked with: if the world were different, and secure, and children older and tied to a career or person or children of their own or land, would there still be a life away from them in a land 4,250 miles away? And the answer: yes, we would go in a heartbeat, yes. Yes yes yes. Then go, the children say. Go.


The house had to go. Not everything, not all at once. My mother would stay for another half a year or so to sort it out with my brother and I. The Swedish company would pay for a cargo container of furniture, mementos, a bicycle, for movers to pack and send it across the ocean.

In the beginning I tried to imagine Sweden and the apartment their bed, sofa, kitchen table, pots and pans and silverware would land in. I’d traveled to so few places and could only create a generic European city from my study abroad months in London or people who populated those streets as tall, pale, androgynous electronic musicians.

But the work of the move threw me out of my family’s future into too much of the recent past. I returned from visits on the weekend laden with backpacks and paper shopping bags of adolescent detritus, college paperbacks from the 1970s, stuffed animals. The weekend before my father officially moved, six weeks to Christmas and his garage full of mechanical wares and used chemicals cackling at its corpulence, I cried morosely in my junior high bedroom over a pile of book reports. My father threw up his hands and my mother told him to leave me be.


At the time I worked as a virtual personal assistant and receptionist for a niche startup, whose clients were middling consumer attorneys across the United States. Consumer attorneys meant they trucked in the bad luck of humanity, a way to play the last hand via the legal system. This is just to explain I fielded phone calls and correspondence from thousands of citizens bankrupt, foreclosed on, wounded in surgery, dividing their possessions in dissolving marriages, drunk, arrested. It was a job I held for two years, which seemed miraculous and was the refrain of the burgeoning decade: desperate searches for work, low pay, relief. When I try and tell about this to people who have not known me very long I say, I wanted to go to law school. Like a few other tales I have said it so often it has now become true.

I felt lucky then but also miserable and stuck and all of it coagulated into months of thinking I could separate my work from my life. In the beginning of my job I worked a night shift (lawyers in California also need girl fridays) and spent much of my non-work hours biking, cooking, reading books, trying to write. When I worked Midwest business hours I slipped into the hazards of dating, into whiskey, into trying to write with some wine, but then just the wine.

After two years of incentives, shiny middling-startup company culture made up of beer and happy-hour parties, three rounds of mass layoffs and every day full of sobbing or cursing clients, I was out. I interviewed at startups, bars, a couple nonprofits: in general anything directed at young adults across the city for months. I’d go to work full of anticipatory rage and cold biking fury and take weekends to ride out on the Blue Line to the suburbs.

chicago office view

Over Thanksgiving, one family member down, I cleared through wine and bits from the liquor shelf that was to vanish before next summer (with the exception of several fine bottles of Venezuelan rum, still in storage to this day). I felt extraordinarily weepy, worn down with winter too soon, with the house emptying about us. At one point before I pulled the turkey breast out of the oven, my brother confronted me with my bitterness and the lashing that came with my tongue running off the wine, told me I was worth more.

By January, a clear and cold winter that year, I quit the job, gave them ten days notice, and applied to graduate school. In March I found work at a local bike shop, two days after I traveled to Washington D.C. with my mother to the Swedish Embassy to pick up her paperwork. That June I jogged out the doors of the store to drive her car to my grandparents house a week later, where it would sleep until whenever they returned or it had to go somewhere else. The last night we stayed in the house, before it filled with open house furniture and flowers, I tried to sleep in the middle of the first-floor living room on the laminate floor I’d put in a few years prior, staring at the swingset through the glass door.


I don’t tell many people, right away, about my parents. I learned because after starting new jobs and paths in life where after the obligatory inquisitions about origins, I say I grew up in a nearby suburb but my parents live across the ocean. This is met with a thousand things and I’ve never liked explaining. My reticence has graciously allowed most people to forget and so whatever version of this life I live with my family now cast across countries (as has been true for many limbs of my ancestral tree) is mine. My brother shares the same sentiment.

For so many months that year, though, the anger I felt lapped around the bits of mantle built of (including, but not all): feeling like a dutiful heir, channeling all the others who have loved their families even when they go to frontiers or borders or jobs, the fear of someone who has kept rebellion to individual wounds secret to try not to burn my family’s bridges or barns, questions of pricing air travel.


What I have settled on is that I came to exist because of persons who decided to leave where they came from. The past century drastically changed how we view place, how we can be (or not be) tied to it, the ability to move rapidly. I learn this over and over again in graduate school, how everywhere is anywhere. I could say its true, but as anyone who has ever been in a long distance relationship or unable to attend a wake or caught in a land with too-fast tongues can tell, this has changed less than we think. My parents do not live around the corner or down the train from me and no skype chat can change that, but we make it work. The contents of my suitcase on my first visit where I joked to my brother, “I’m a space smuggler, kid,” included corn tortillas, hot sauce, harina pan and hibiscus tea.


Moving is its own unique exhaustion and tedium, which is why everyone hates even talking about it. I didn’t even have to move. Before then I’d gone from Midwest to Coast, Coast to Island, Coast to Midwest, city flat to city flat, and at that point three times over three years.

My brother and I reveled in ditching detritus in our old high school’s dumpster in the dark, hoping our parents’ property taxes would cover whatever apparent lack of education we received. Our friend who worked at a hardware store told us the store had a legal obligation to dispose of used paint and people often ditched cans of it on their curb. We loaded my brother’s small car’s trunk with all the paint I’d used to redo their garage door, bathroom, kitchen and counted down ONE TWO THREE!, running outside like it was a traffic game, ditching the boxes full of cans and drove away, exhilarated and guilty and sad.

Even with the housing market and the numerous families fleeing the suburbs, the house sold by the end of the summer. My brother lived nearby, for at time, and would ask if I wanted to drive by. I have not seen it since.


So we got rid of or packed up: my mother’s piano from her double-wide childhood my grandparents drove up to her first residence after she married in their truck (in storage), tax documents and medical files (shredded and recycled), metal tools, ladders and furniture (picked up by men at dawn from the curb), photo albums of the dead, diplomas, graduation photos (in storage). This list is why I find it less than useful to explain what happened in the move. Most of us will understand this sooner or later.

But at the time it seemed impossible for anyone to understand, which made my own acceptance and agreement that much harder to hold on to.

Incredulity. From everyone. Faces slackened or eyes widened, and they repeated, “SWEDEN?” How was that possible? Half the people who heard this understood the implications of a farther side of the world, the other half tossing off, “Oh, cool” as though retirement meant moving into a condo somewhere warmer. Fact about Sweden: it is comparable in climate to the Midwest. The incredulity comforted. The telling of the same telling over, and over, and over. Everything must go, and the house must sell. There was a job there, and reindeer, and a transparent government.

But the anger. No more possibilities to take up heroin or join the Peace Corps or move to Paris. And anger when people didn’t understand the bewilderment. Why did people keep mentioning no one died and no one disowned anyone? Why are those questions thrown into the air? Those are too many words. Who can go to the hospital if there’s an accident? Who can come for a Thanksgiving meal? What is a Thanksgiving or Christmas or Easter meal? Does anyone really enjoy turkey breast? Will they enjoy turkey or tortillas or pizza if they chose to spend time with family near or far, or chose to not see anyone at all?

I have never professed to enjoy change. I work hard to present the idea of myself as laid-back, able to turn on a dime. It may not make sense but I know it comes from my dislike of making choices, of how growing older has taught me how choice is structured, how few of them actually exist for so many people in this day and age. Then I didn’t want those possibilities which was how I ended up where I was: accepting the work that came to me, the reverberations of the break-up, driving down suburban streets to second-hand stores with a backseat full of my family’s possessions. Mostly it was how easy to feel angry at whatever passed that seemed not the way it was supposed to be. That was my choice and it was no choice at all.

But it was finally on some days staring at the top of a building in an alley downtown, the smoke curling into the new winter blue. And knowing how beautiful the top of that building was and how beautiful the tops of buildings must be in all of the other places to live.

Carmen Aiken is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about the difference. You can find her website here.

Photographs by the author.

all the answers

“It Comes Back To You” – Imagine Dragons (mp3)

“Dream” – Imagine Dragons (mp3)

the stte of new york basketball

In Which This Is How She Manages To Stay In The Public Eye

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


I recently met a woman through some mutual friends. Dee is a social worker who is very devoted to the people she helps get on their feet. She is great at her job.

Frequently, our dates or hangouts are postponed because things come up unexpectedly. Dee doesn’t have a lot of faith in the people with which she works, so she feels like she has to handle these things herself. I try to accept that I am not always going to be her number one priority, but I am starting to worry it might be this way forever. She is apologetic and feels really guilty when she cancels the plans, and I try not to make things worse. I don’t feel comfortable bringing it up to her since we have only been dating for four months. Should I give up now, or is it possible things will change in the future?

Henry P.

Dear Henri,

Dee probably is balancing a lot of things on her plate at one time, and since she deals with people who are used to letting her down and feeling bad about it, she is reflexively adopting their behavior. A good psychologist could probably fix her in a month or two.

We don’t have that kind of time. It seems like she likes you because you are the one person she can disappoint, which means you may be very special to Dee. The irony seems to be lost on you.

Your instinct to wait until further in the relationship to make this an issue seems sound. By six months she will have bonded to you further, and you can influence her decision-making without her openly wondering where you got the nerve to tell her what to do. Four months in, you’re just another aspect of the patriarchy holding her back.


Last year for Christmas our friend Jaina gave all of us very expensive presents, including jewelry and clothing. It was something of a surprise, but she now can afford to give more lavish gifts. Since it was unexpected last year, it wasn’t really reasonable that we would have such expensive gifts for her.

This year she seems to be planning on making a big deal out of the Christmas gifts again. None of us either want or in some cases are not able to give gifts of commensurate value. Speaking for myself, I feel uncomfortable accepting them as well. Is there a way to bring this up to Jaina without sounding ungrateful? She has never demanded equal value, although she does bring up what she got us last year quite often.

Allison O.

Dear Allison,

Inform Jaina that you “can’t wait” to give her what you got her, and pass along your present earlier. It is an abstract expressionist drawing of her that makes her look substantially larger and more annoying that she actually is, which from the sounds of it is a whole lot.

What has this Jaina done for you lately, except been an expensive pain-in-the-ass? Find friends who do not celebrate Christmas, and if they give you something for Hannukah, burn it with the flame of a menorah to make your point.

But seriously, proposing a gift system where one person in your group has to give only one gift to another person in your group will likely alleviate this problem. Jaina will probably know this is about her, so when she asks, tell her, “We were on a break!” You deserve better.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen. Access This Recording’s mobile site at


“Come Down” – Nite Fields (mp3)

“Pay For Strangers” – Nite Fields (mp3)

In Which This Often Delays The Life We Want

tadeuz bileci

All This Desire


The Naughty Sins of a Saint.

Being Barron.

Forgive Me Father For I Have Loved.

I wish these were the titles of my journal, but instead, they are a few of many books I keep tucked away inside of my kindle. They are not featured in The New York Review of Books or excerpted in the New Yorker. No, they are cheap, quick, impulsive buys meant for late nights when I am lonely.

That happens a lot.

At my old, terrible day job, a girl I never particularly liked briefly mentioned that she secretly worked on a romance novel.

“Really?” I asked.

“I feel like I can tell you this,” she said.

“And why is that?” I asked. “Am I wrong in thinking that you don’t like them, too?” she questioned back. Like me, she was an English major. And like me, she kept the public books and the private books separate. You know, White Teeth by Zadie Smith on a black wooden bookshelf in our living rooms. The President’s Girlfriend by Mallory Monroe on a locked Kindle. But I wasn’t going to let her know about that. Some things we just keep to ourselves … at least until right now.

I turned away in a huff.

“I have to get back to work,” I mumbled. That was the last conversation we ever had. The next week, she moved to a different department, and a month later, she left the company.

“I don’t feel…STIMULATED here,” she used to say a lot.

“Like, what am I doing here?” she once asked.

And yeah, what ARE you doing here? I wanted to ask. SOME of us appreciate our jobs, appreciate the fragility of this situation in the face of this job market.

That was what I used to tell myself. I tried to, at least. But within two months, just a few days after she was gone, I began applying for new jobs and writing whenever and wherever I could. Maybe she was right. If writing – and reading – a romance novel was a method of escape for her, who was I to judge? Especially, you know, because I read them too.

I began reading first romance, then erotic novels during my senior year of college. My interest stemmed from a love of fan fiction and a desire to both write and read beyond the characters I saw on the screen.

I am one of those women you hear about, those weirdos, those freaks who sit in front of their computer screens and keep the fantasies of our favorite characters alive. I guess I understand Harry Potter fan fiction or Twilight fan fiction. I’d never read them though because that’s not me. Those stories are rooted in fantasy. And the fantastical breeds the fantastical.

I prefer expanding on the mundane and the regular. I would rather create a reality that seems possible and in that way, make it more of mine. I have written stories about My So-Called Life and Gilmore Girls, stories about Love & Basketball and other romantic comedies. And also, perhaps worst of all, if you dive deep enough into the archives of the Lizzie McGuire subsection of the website, you might be able to find a story I wrote about a love triangle between Lizzie and best friends Gordo and Miranda.

On the show, Lizzie’s internal thoughts were expressed through an animated version of herself. In my fan fiction, this animated self talked about “falling in love” and “making love” and “being in love.”

I was 12. I had barely been kissed. Well, not truly, not of my own accord. But in my stories, there was sex and violence and lots and lots of yelling. These were the things that made adult life for me. This was romance. This was passion. This was a future reality.

In romance novels, I like that the men represent a validation of my fantasies and my fantasies are not merely of the physical, but also of the potential for triumph, for personal redemption, for overcoming the things about ourselves — whether articulated and open or deeply stored within — that often delay the lives we want and the people we want to be.

ddidnt kill arthur

I think of myself as a woman coming back to her optimism. It was lost for a number of reasons in a number of different ways, but a part of me seeks out an interaction with the world that makes risks possible and chances worth taking. What I fear rests in me is a deeply-ingrained thought practice that ultimately makes living and loving seem like things other people do. I used to think, you are not happy because you are not meant to be happy. You are not in love because you are not meant to be in love. Instead, you get … everything else.

Like ONE.

One summer, the season came late. At a bus stop, I rested against the brick wall of a local bank and waited to head north after a long day at work. A man crossed the street. His face was angry and his eyes bore into mine.

“Those shorts are too short,” he said.

I’d never heard that before, at least from a stranger. Every summer before that moment, I thought those same thoughts, worn down by interpretations of flesh. By September, I anticipate the fall. I like tights, I start to think. They reflect my quietness, the “goodness” that exists in me that this man implied did not. I am sexual, but the world does not need to know. I am sexual, and you can’t judge me for it.

“Too short?” I asked that day at the bus stop.

“You look like a slut.”

Like TWO.

Years ago, my mother and I went to a Chernin’s Shoe Outlet on the West Side of Chicago to pick up a pair of day-to-day gym shoes. The young man helping me gave these long looks that complicated his deep brown eyes and thick eyelashes. He smiled a lot and was thin, slightly gawky, but in a charming way that made me wish that I would meet a man like that when I was OLDER, when I knew more.

He took off my gym shoes and gave me a small foot massage. I turned around, cautious, but soon realized that my mother wasn’t looking. She was nowhere to be found. I panicked, assuming she had left me in the store with the young man who was quickly moving away from charming to lascivious. He licked his lips and

THREE … it reminded me of a family member from down south that I met, earlier that year, at a reunion.

“I bet you don’t remember me!” the older man said that afternoon at the reunion as I sat on a bench, in the shade, eating a plate full of macaroni and cheese.

“Nope!” I said annoyed, and turned away.

That day at the park, the older man hovered above me and I did my best not to look up, afraid of what he would say or do next to grab my attention. Hoverers always recognize those who hate hovering. They sense it. They take advantage of it. They manipulate those who cower.

“I’m talkin’ to you!” he shouted. He licked his full lips and smiled. I ran away.

BUT, back at the shoe store, the young man said, “You’re very sexy.”

Right then, my mother reappeared. I don’t know where she was beforehand. Perhaps she was there all along, and I didn’t notice her because I was too caught up in the moment with my new shoes and new acquaintance.

“How old are you?” she asked him angrily.

“Sixteen,” he replied.

My mother grabbed my arm and squeezed tight.

“Well, she’s EIGHT, so I suggest you look somewhere else.” We quickly left the store but came back. I was only wearing one shoe.

Like FOUR.

Two weeks ago, a man masturbated at me on the train. When I saw, he stood up and cornered me in my seat. When I yelled at him, he put his body on top of mine. When I tried to push him away, he kept at it. He was too big. And I am strong, very strong, but not strong enough. He looked me dead in the eye. He came on my leg.

And then he strolled away.

Like FIVE.

The time, at three a.m., when a cab driver said, “You know, if I wanted to, I could lock you in this car and do what I wanted with you.” And then he locked the door and laughed.

Like SIX.

My swim instructor.


The summer after I hit puberty. The man with the blood-shot eyes, with alcohol on his breath. The alley.

These things, they shape the way you look at life and the way you encounter the people around you. If you are like me, it stifles your freedom, creating an existence of confusion. What does it mean to be loved? What does it mean to be happy?


The black heroines in many of the novels I read are not traditionally beautiful, but they are interesting. They struggle and weep alone; keep their heads up and minds focused in private. They do a lot and feel a lot and often find peace through extraordinary circumstances that are more difficult than their lives pushing toward success and the desire to overcome a challenging society, a prejudiced society, an unforgiving society.

Last year, while sitting on my couch with my ex-boyfriend, I noticed my Kindle on my coffee table. I tried to put it away, embarrassed by what it might imply. I remembered a conversation a year ago between my friend Katie and I.

“I used to read romance novels when I hadn’t had sex,” she said.

But I had sex years and years ago. Girls like me, girls who’ve seen it all, crave something real and think we’ve found it when instead, we’ve warped our sense of reality. I dated all sorts of men. My personal stories are long and weird and represent a self wandering again and again for something that will fit if not in the pages of fantasy than through a sense of normalcy.

“I just need to think about something that works out in the end,” I said to Katie. I want happy endings.

Back in that moment with my ex, he quietly asked, “What do you have on that?”

“Games, apps … and lots of books,” I replied.

“What kind?” he asked.

“Well … mostly romance,” I said.

“Why read that when you’ve got the real thing?” he asked. But I knew how it was going to end. This was before the possessiveness, the health scares, the questioning, the ridicule. I could sense it through every inch of me.

“I just need it, OK?” I said.

The ways in which I can overcome the world at large are through myself. I can not depend on outcomes of others, but must instead push myself to work harder, to think more, to pursue more. And in my favorite novels, the heroines must overcome the limitations of affection by challenging their willingness to love and trust. When will I learn?

“I am worthy,” she said.

“I am worthy,” she said.

“I am worthy,” she said.

“I am worthy,” she said.

I took that from four different stories with four different characters who were like and unlike me. What connects them is their visibility and humanity. They are worthy. I forget that.

I am worthy too.

Britt Julious is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find her website here.

Paintings by Tadeusz Bilecki.

“Pay Attention” – Colleen Green (mp3)

“Deeper Than Love” – Colleen Green (mp3)