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Alex Carnevale

Managing Editor
Kara VanderBijl

Features Editor
Mia Nguyen

Senior Editor
Durga Chew-Bose

Senior Editor
Brittany Julious

This Recording

is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Robert Altman Week


In Which We Envision A Vague Someone

Sketch of the Present


My relationship with my Grandmother began when I was in elementary school. My parents decided that it’d be good for me to spend a few hours after school “doing homework” at her place. She’d feed me a Chewy bar and pretend to listen as I went on about my day at school, elaborating the truth into fiction. With gestures, I’d describe how acrobatic performers had contorted their bodies and jumped through hoops at a special assembly. I’d relate the plots of musicals, inventing as I went along. When it was time to go home, I’d stand in the lobby of her condominium building while she stood on the overhanging balcony. One or both of us would exclaim, “parting is such sweet sorrow!” 

When I got my learner’s permit, Eleanor offered to help me learn to drive. What she meant, I soon learned, was that she would let me drive her around in my mom’s Volvo station wagon while she narrated a tour of her “old stomping grounds.” Eleanor grew up in the middle-class part of Alexandria, Virginia, the part of the city where the privileged, mostly white kids who took AP and SAT prep classes with me at Alexandria’s public high school lived. What Eleanor called her stomping grounds, my friends and I called “the hills” — neighborhoods where the streets are named for Ivy League colleges and the houses are spaced just far enough apart from one another for the blocks to feel wooded. There are no sidewalks, few stoplights and the speed limit is a sensible thirty-five.

The Hills made for nice drives. The streets and the houses — like my grandmother — were aged. They’d acquired what the luxury homes on my own cul-de-sac lacked — a character and a past. There was the house where a retired widower crossbred roses and gifted bouquets to the neighbors. There was the home where my great-grandfather Billy saw his wife die of lung cancer and the house, now a mere wing of a much larger one, that my great-aunt sold to Dianne Austen, famous for her popular workout tapes. We passed the dining room where years ago my great-grandfather, Otto, would sit at the head of the table and insist that margarine was no substitute for butter. We drove by the kitchen where Eleanor inadvertently cooked my aunt’s pet guinea pig in the oven; this was the home that my grandfather (a well-known lothario) left when he divorced her. On that street was a steep hill — the source of my Dad’s joke that, as a boy, he had to, “walk uphill to and from school — both ways!”

Other than a couple of years spent in Charlottesville, Baltimore and Nashville respectively, Eleanor lived her entire life in Alexandria. The network of relationships that she cultivated grew and changed organically, without any major ruptures. She breakfasted every Saturday with a fixed group of women who she’d known since high school. Obscure acquaintances of hers popped up in unexpected places: at basketball games, piano recitals and at the local bagel bakery. Authority figures like my principal and my boss knew and asked after her. The enormity of her social network became a joke between my brother and I. With each new friend of hers we met, we’d muse: how many can she possibly have?


Nervous, I run through what I want to say so that when I enter Anna’s office, I’ll feel prepared, hopefully less nervous. I don’t know her very well but she’s friendly, I assure myself. We talked about the Petraeus scandal on the four train, she hadn’t thought the story was very titillating.

“I’m applying to Rutgers’ PhD program in English and it would be really helpful, since I know you studied there, if you would write me a recommendation.” As the words come out of my mouth, they sound bad, too calculated.

She frowns: “Are you going to use this recommendation for all the schools you’re applying to?”

I tell her yes and she sits back in her chair, “Okay, I asked because some students ask us to write recs and then they use them for only one school, which is a waste of our resources. Where else are you applying?”

I stammer that I want to stay in the Northeast and that my top choice is the GC.

“Who doesn’t want to study at the GC? I like to think pragmatically about these kinds of things though. Keep in mind, you’re not going to be able to set geographical limitations when you’re on the job market.”


The German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in 1939: “Where there is experience in the strict sense of the word, certain contents of the individual past combine with the material of the collective past.” In the same essay, he argues that the rise of industrial capitalism severed experience from local, ritual tradition. Benjamin argues that in a capitalist economy that rewards efficiency, people have less time for boredom and, consequently, less time for experience.

My shopping routine in New York, where I’ve lived for six years, is pretty devoid of novelty—it’s not that there’s nothing new to see, it’s that I don’t see what’s there. I visit the same grocery store twice a week every week and I’ve come to buy, more or less, the same items. I move through the space in a habitual way, starting at produce and making it eventually to the frozen foods. Because I know the store so well—what they sell and where—I observe little but price tags and sale markers. I pass over what I don’t usually buy. I’m unlikely to explore options, to pass some ingredient that inspires me to cook something new. What I do at the store is meet a set of personal needs as economically as possible: I’m efficient, I move quickly. I buy just enough groceries to fit into the two supported bags I have with me and I move on. There’s no time for boredom; the store has become background to whatever present concerns run, unfocused, through my mind.

Buying a coffee across the street from the GC, my eye catches an advertisement in the window. “The Life of the Mind in the Heart of the City” it reads. I remember a friend, a New Yorker, saying he doesn’t understand getting a PhD here. I picture a vague someone, possibly myself in six months, sitting in the library, trying to bring dense philosophy and old fiction to relevance. I imagine trying to think dialectically here where a marching band with the Veterans’ Day parade processes loudly down Fifth Avenue.


On Christmas Eve, my grandmother Martha Ann asks Eleanor how she’s been doing.

Eleanor responds, “It’s been hard, I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me.” Set against her sharp red sweater, her blue-grey eyes look hazy to me, like she’s looking far beyond Martha Ann, who nods sympathetically.

My Dad had tried to prepare me for this. He called in early December to say that Eleanor wasn’t doing well—she had lost thirty pounds and seemed more out-of-it than usual.

“Something happened — she may have had a stroke but no one knows for sure.”


At dinner, Eleanor tells me she wants to do yoga with me. With a dismissive attitude, she adds, “I’ve been practicing yoga at Goodwin House, but they have us sitting on chairs.”

I ask her about it, “So it’s mostly the upper body that gets worked?”

“Yeah, we do arm stretches. They’re swivel chairs.”

Emphatically, I say, “More and more yoga teachers in New York are getting trained to teach kids, the elderly and the disabled. One of the great things about yoga is that anyone can do it, it’s for everyone.”

"I wouldn’t take a class for disabled people because I don’t consider myself disabled,” she says. I remember telling someone earlier that day about how waterskiing is all about the leg muscles. My youth and able-body suddenly feel like an obscene privilege, one that I’m either oblivious to or can’t keep quiet about.

When I hug Eleanor goodbye, I think of alluding dramatically to our old Shakespeare line but I resist, afraid she won’t remember.


In Paris, the closest grocery chain was small. It wasn’t meant to be the one-stop spot for anyone’s entire kitchen and bathroom needs. The Parisian woman who I lodged with went to the local grocery only for packaged goods. There, she bought the kind of stuff I was becoming obsessed with--butter with sea salt, mini goat cheeses, Haribo candies, readymade crème brûlées and patés. She visited separate shops on a more regular basis for fresh foods — the bakery for bread and pastries, the deli for meat and fish, produce stands for fruits and vegetables.

Unless I wanted to live on frozen food for six months, it was going be impossible to get everything that I needed in one place. Shopping at different places was unpredictable: something I wanted was out of season or just not in stock, I needed more time to shop than I planned for. As I became flexible enough to allow the contours of the local shops to guide my plans, I saw an alternative to the mode of consumption that I knew — a city where buying food at massive grocery chains was not the norm, but the exception.

Virginia Woolf, who admired Jane Austen for her ability to capture the ebb and flow of everyday, domestic routines, explains in “Sketch of the Past” that the repetition of ordinary actions is what creates order and continuity in our lives. Though we might not be aware of it, we are protected by repetition — “comfortably covered in the cotton wool of daily life.” To travel or to move, then, must be to be stripped of some or all of the cotton wool, exposed.

Sometimes, I didn’t go shopping at all. I ate what I optimistically termed a salad niçoise — hard-boiled eggs and tuna over lettuce if there was any in the fridge. I tried to cook lentils with carrots and onions but couldn’t get the timing right — I overcooked the veggies and ended up with a bland-tasting brown mush.

I found that there was something that I needed to know — a word, a process, a norm or a custom — to complete basic tasks. I tried to soothe my feelings of loneliness by eating loads of Nutella on baguette, a momentary fix that made me feel worse. I couldn’t find a place to buy adapters for my electronics during the weeks when I wanted to spend my free time on Skype. My sleeping schedule shifted: unexpectedly, I needed several more hours of sleep than before.


When I pick Eleanor up from the same assisted living home where her father died years prior, it occurs to me that she, too, will die in Alexandria. I wonder: did living here exclude her from some vaster world of experience — some deeper understanding of her relation to the cosmos? I don’t ask her if she’s ever wanted to move elsewhere. If she answers yes, the explanation might be fraught; it won’t fit neatly with what I know of her life. Alexandria is where she’s survived and even thrived despite some pretty difficult twists of fate — she was diagnosed with MS in the eighties. She’s always had such a support system here. As far as I want to know, she never considered moving out of Alexandria. I’m the one contemplating a life of thwarted experience.

Benjamin was writing three-quarters of a century ago about what of experience has been lost. But reading him, I plan trips and hope I’ll have the kind of experience that he describes — maybe, away from “the standardized, denatured life of the civilized masses,” I’ll sense the material of a personal and collective past.


On Facebook, I watch a video of a yoga teacher I know practicing acro-yoga with someone in a grassy yard. A beach, an ocean and a sky are in the background. I scroll down and see a friend from high school standing on a glacier, waving an ice pick over her head.

I open a new window and google “writing retreats.” I find a few in the Northeast but learn that I have to apply to the one that looks the best, where Edgar Allen Poe allegedly composed some of The Raven. It’s too late to apply for dates this summer. Other writer’s retreats now pale in comparison to this one. In the past two months, I’ve researched Airbnb locations in Paris, London and Montreal, bought Lonely Planet PDFs for Mumbai, Tamil Nadu & Chennai, Karnataka & Bengaluru.

I’m good at finding reasons not to travel. The friend who I was going to visit India with got an unexpected job offer and had to back out, flights to Europe were cheaper a few months ago, the Google search engine doesn’t yield very interesting results on Montreal. But, really, I guess I just don’t want to travel alone.

The first thing I do is look for the Agnes Martin paintings that I came to see. In college, a professor had shown one of her paintings in class, a square canvas with horizontal bars painted in pale colors — yellow, pink, blue. She had suggested that everyone go to the Dia: Beacon museum to look at her work in person.

“Standing in front of them, I feel calm. This is art for art’s sake,” she had said.

I look at one of the paintings and think: benign, infinity seems to be there on the canvas, beyond a few blue bars. In another room, I stare at a drawing on a wall that looks like a multi-colored topographic map. It’s intricate; it looks like it took a lot of time to create. I like the wall drawings that refer to a plan was difficult to execute.

In the museum blurb for the room, the artist Sol LeWitt is quoted saying: “a portrait is not a person, but a line is a line.” So this is what artists were up to in the seventies, I think. I’m into it.

Catherine Engh is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about Mary MacLane.

"Beautiful & Wild" - Kris Allen (mp3)

"Don't Set Me Free" - Kris Allen (mp3)


In Which We Find This Excruciating to Enunciate

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 justhardtosay@gmail.com or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


My girlfriend Judy recently lost her job and is going through something of what my mom calls "a life change." She always thought that she would be a musician, and she is very talented, but she has lost interest on what to this point had been a lifelong passion.

In her search to find whatever other passion might be out there, she has involved me and her family, who live close by, in a variety of outings. First, she became obsessed with birding, even purchasing a cockatoo. When she gave up on that, she sold the cockatoo, admittedly for a profit. Other potential passions fell by the wayside, including God, painting and botany.

Most recently came real estate  she studied for her exam with great fervor, at which point the exam arrived and she decided it was the wrong move and enrolled at a local community college. Her family is a lot less tolerant of her to-and-fro than I am.

I would like her to find something she enjoys in life, and I understand there is a process. What really concerns me is that I never knew her to be so fickle. Do you think a person who has trouble deciding about some things will also have trouble being happy in a relaysh?

Doug W.


Dear Doug,

“Fickle” is the right word for this sort of behavior if the person is, well, fifty-five and banging his secretary in his brand new sports car. “Self-discovering” is more accurate when it applies to someone like your gf. You don’t mention how old she is, but it’s pretty clear from your description that she falls somewhere between nineteen and thirty-five.

When people are in that phase of life, yes, their interests mutate a lot. They’re experimenting. If Judy decides she’s through, it probably has more do with her desire to be free and to experience a lot of things than a personal vendetta.

If you’re of an age with Judy, you might find that you feel the same way after a while. Respect her free spirit, though, and the two of you may experiment for a long time, together. 


I have a male coworker who constantly stares at me. At first I thought he was just attracted to me or whatever, but now it's making me uncomfortable. He doesn't smile, doesn't speak to me, just stares. I'll catch him in meetings, across the room, at lunch. I don't want to be rude, but he's creeping me out. What should I do? 

Lauren B. 

Dear Lauren,

He could just be lacking in social graces, in which case, gifting an etiquette primer is de rigueur. Or he could be attracted to you, or he could be a serial killer. Whichever one it is, being rude to him should be the least of your worries. 

You could try giving him the stink-eye whenever you catch him  this is an excellent strategy that also works on creeps you encounter in public transportation. Simply make a disgusted face at him and watch him burst into flames. 

If the behavior continues, I'd bring it up with human resources. Maybe you're not the only target of his creeper peepers, but even if you are, this could be considered harassment, and you're well within your rights to have someone ask him to stop. 

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.


In Which We Beg For An Inexpensive Horoscope

The Only Fruit


“Don’t avoid what is easy,” the Oblique Strategy recommends. Instead of writing, I take a nap. I fall asleep like a person escaping from jail. This torn scrap of paper, this cheap horoscope, this song lyric — I take them as prophecy. “Have a donut,” my coworker says.

I don’t watch many movies — I’ve said this before with the conviction of a person who says, “I have a salty tooth,” while reaching for a cookie — but in July, I watched a lot of movies. Flops and blockbusters and romances and dramas blurred together. I interrupted them only to grab a pint of ice cream from the freezer. My ideas melted. My air-conditioning unit overheated. My ceiling fan began making a very strange noise.


Any repetitive, and very easy, activity takes on a greater significance the longer you engage in it. I stayed up very late watching movies that I had already seen because I thought I might receive a secret, previously unheard message from them. This is more than eccentricity. Sleep eluded me while I unknotted the symbolism in Dead Man Walking. Sean Penn as Christ, Susan Sarandon as Christ, Susan Sarandon as feminist, Susan Sarandon as soapbox actor, Little Women, death penalty, last meals. My last meal: a hamburger and French fries. I go pick it up across the street at Slim’s, a greasy counter that has five stars on Yelp and deserves all of them. They serve a generous bag of perfectly crisped fries. I have a salty tooth.


Here’s the message I received: find a way to portray despicability without compromising humanity. Find a way to smile at the mirror. “Nesquik?” a man in a yellow shirt offers on the Merchandise Mart platform. “Is it free?” I ask. In response, he hands me two bottles.

My dental hygienist asks questions when her fingers are in my mouth. I am polite, so I like to answer. “How has your summer been?” she begins. She wears purple eye shadow for most of my visits. “Nice,” I try to say, but it is difficult to say nice without the use of your tongue. I hate all the tools she uses except for the soft brush at the end. “Spit,” she says. I promise to floss, but we both know I’m lying.

As a child, I never got cavities; my baby teeth were so durable that the orthodontist had to pull five of them when they refused to fall out. My mother says that this is because there was fluoride in our water. I said, “It’s because I don’t eat very much sugar.” My little brother, the candy-head, still hasn’t had any cavities. The military taught him how to brush his teeth and make his bed.


“Take a hike,” says a security guard on a normally abandoned stretch of Kinzie. Today there are trailers, a fire truck, and a row of people sitting in camping chairs reading scripts. Because the guard isn’t talking to me — he’s talking to a couple of kids doing skateboard tricks on a crumbling corner of sidewalk — I walk through the set. The row of people looks up, one by one, but I’m listening to Fleetwood Mac and don’t have time to chat. “You can go your own way,” Lindsey Buckingham says.

I take a quiz on Time.com that matches your relationship to a sandwich. I get a Reuben. I’m always hesitant about them because of the sauerkraut, which I tend to forget I like. When my boyfriend Jens takes the quiz, he gets a BLT, which makes me hungry. “Want a bag of chips with your sandwich?” the lady at the café across the street asks while I’m paying for my lunch. Since it’s a question, I am free to ignore her command. I am polite, though, and I like chips, so I get a bag that’s crinkle-cut, kettle-cooked, and reduced fat. I tell myself that oil doesn’t travel to the thighs as quickly as sugar. Then I make up “thighway,” and I laugh until I want to fall asleep again.

Awoken by sirens, I crave chocolate or a soda. The light outside is a bruise with a yellow center. My journal sprawls open, spine broken, on the carpet where I left it after scribbling myself into a difficult patch of self-discovery. Seams between my muscles strain as I stretch my arms towards the ceiling. “Oranges are not the only fruit,” sings Jeannette Winterson from the bookshelf.

I spend an inordinate amount of time listening for things that other people can’t hear. The undercurrent of fear in someone’s voice — the subtle condescension in a novel — the anger behind a smile. Sometimes these hidden messages blare so obviously that I am not sure how others don’t understand them, or why they choose to ignore them. “Tell me if the water is too hot,” said the hairstylist, twisting the cold faucet open even when I hum that it’s just fine. She’d already made her mind up about the answer.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about learning how to drive and Orange is the New Black She tumbls here and twitters here.

Photographs by Richard Misrach.

"Not in a Bad Way" - Eden (mp3)

"Crying Birds" - Eden (mp3)