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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

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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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In Which We Visit the Barren Wasteland



Downton Abbey
creator Julian Fellowes

In the beginning, we only needed a rudimentary knowledge of geography to differentiate between Downton Abbey's characters: upstairs or downstairs? The social niceties separating the classes were easy, even pleasant, to memorize. Now, halfway through Season 3, those days of ease are just a fond memory.

Remember when you could tell a member of the family and a servant apart by the cut of their coat? No more, no more. Sons-in-law come disguised as revolutionaries, distant relatives as poor drunkards or promiscuous teenage flappers. You can tell their worth by comparing them to each other in a certain light, usually right around the time the bell rings for dinner.

Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) has suddenly become important to Downton, as if by being absolutely useless he has made himself into the most useful character. Everything can be blamed on him. The assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo. Why the eggs are overcooked in the morning. Dark days for Sybil. Why after Season 3 the show's ratings dipped dangerously low. Now, midway through, his most redeeming feature is his adorable dog.

Grantham has always been the secret point of the show; with Lady Mary, his shadow, he is the measure by which we see how quickly and drastically the world changed after the Great War. As the way of life at Downton proves more and more ridiculous, Lord Grantham and his eldest daughter begin to melt into the background like a pair of antique armchairs that you occasionally, and painfully stub your toe on. They’re a bit obtuse, but you could never bring yourself to get rid of them.

Granted, neither has had much of a chance to be exposed to the wider world — if they’ve seen anything of the struggles of the past decade, it has been within Downton’s walls, where it has undoubtedly been easier to control. While Matthew was off fighting in the trenches and miraculously jumping out of wheelchairs, Lord Grantham was busy... moaning that he couldn’t fight. And while her sisters were stitching up the wounded, Lady Mary spent her time trying to snag Sir Richard Carlisle. This is no longer just a matter of being out of touch with reality; Lord Grantham and Lady Mary live in an alternate universe.

Poor Matthew. He could not have known that by wedding Lady Mary he was jumping straight into bed with her father. Their lovers’ quarrels, tender at the beginning, have a sharper edge now that Matthew’s tensions with the Lord of Downton have increased regarding the management of the estate. He pleads with his wife to love her father but “believe in me!”, a phrase Mary cuts off by kissing him. Whenever they’re in bed together, it feels like it might be the last time.

They’ve been married for roughly five minutes, but the question of when they will produce an heir has already put a desperate damper on their relationship. Matthew nobly takes responsibility for their failed attempts, given his accident during the War, but we secretly suspect that Lady Mary’s uterus has been the barren wasteland all along.

When doctors in London confirm this fact and “fix” it, we’d expect an apology would be in the works — “Hey, honey, sorry I’ve let you feel awful about yourself for the last month or so, my parts were broken!” — but she’s already too focused on getting knocked up. Knowing, as we do, that Lady Mary isn’t given to gushes of maternal instinct, her rush to produce an heir points to ulterior, perhaps even subconscious, motives.

It is only a matter of time before the battle lines being drawn come into effect. Between those who have doggedly chosen a side and those who waffle between sides depending on how much it benefits them, the house is in considerable disarray. Sybil’s death cast a long shadow. Everybody looks at her and Branson’s baby as if they cannot imagine a being so pure, so free of intentions.

Downton Abbey is the social experiment par excellence, answering the pressing question, “What matters most to me?” Many viewers will admire the family upstairs — their hair, their games, their elegant ways and “flapper flair”. How can we help it, we’re shamelessly pinterested in such things! What we feel for those below might be an indulgent humor, perhaps pity; this we will find virtuous, as if pity had anything to do with compassion. Nevertheless, the social upheavals and injustices affected hired help the most. What the war had done to unite them only death can accomplish now, striking them all equally and without preference.

It ruins the cathartic effect if we demand too much of our entertainment, but Downton Abbey must provide a few things if it is to keep our attention through any more tense dinner gatherings.

First, Matthew must be soiled somehow, even if that would be more painful to watch than anything. I suspect being caught masturbating somewhere on the grounds would do the trick, which would also do us a favor by rendering Lady Mary mute forever. We should allow Lady Edith to be happy for the length of an entire episode. Mrs. Crawley should wear bloomers. The stock market should crash a few years early, or else Downton should burn to the ground, whichever smokes Lord Grantham out first.

Recent developments do beg the question, however: what will happen next? Fellowes had a good thing going when he threatened his characters with removal from Downton, a plot twist all too easily avoided by Matthew's money. Bates and Anna have been reunited, and Matthew and Mary are wed. At this point, it seems that most roadblocks have been sidestepped or overturned, which can only mean one thing: "winter is coming."

Bates is exonerated of his crimes once Anna finds proof that the late Mrs. Bates committed suicide in order to incriminate him. When he returns to the house, it means trouble for Thomas, whose position as the lord’s valet is immediately called into question. O'Brien's elaborate plan to rid Downton of Thomas nearly succeeds when Alfred catches him trying to kiss the new footman, Jimmy, and all hell breaks loose. It appears that nothing will be able to keep Thomas at Downton any longer. Threats of a bad reference make his future prospects grim, at which point Lord Grantham intervenes for no conceivable reason other than the House's big cricket game is coming up and Thomas is the best pitcher. Once again, the lord of the house has unknowingly assisted in either its ruin or salvation. We won't know for sure until next month.  

You can't help but feel for Thomas. He's a selfish opportunist, but he has shown more consistently than any other character that he will spare nothing, not even his reputation, in the quest for his own happiness. That gives me hope for Downton.

Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about living near Vasquez Rocks. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

"You Believed" - Corrinne May (mp3)

"Just What I Was Looking For" - Corrinne May (mp3)


In Which There Is Nothing I Can Really Say

My Life As An Object


It was as stupid a piece of advice as I ever received when someone told me to do what I love.

You know those old cartoons where the eyelashes of women are so carefully managed they appear to twinkle, extend and shine? That is what I felt like in the world. Seeing anyone more than once was either too often or not enough.


The last time I saw her she met me after a salon appointment. The fact that when her hair was viewed from the correct angle it substantially improved her countenance only added to the trauma. She looked bored. But then she said, "How's work?" and for a gripping second I thought that something more important hinged on the small talk.

After that, I knew the only reason she had come was because she did not know how to tell me no. She said, "Can you ask your mother something for me?" A moment later, she received a phone call from her friend. I never did find out what it was she wanted.


In Portland the shapes of the others changed, becoming more ethereal. I could stand on one corner and see something completely desirable, so much so that I felt like crossing the street, but never did. There is a politeness that restricts me from making a fool out of myself, and it constitutes a retaining wall impervious to anything except for lust and coincidence.

Waking leaves me in this same body again. So many have taken it in, pressed against it for one reason or another. Even if the number were only a few, the sensation it gives me now is inexhaustible.

Everyone that I know is thinking of another place to be other than the one they are.


She had moved in with me on a Friday with the thought we'd have the entire weekend to ourselves. She only took the drug when she was alone, and she did not use at all until I came home from work on Monday. She was watching Adventure Time with a glassy smile. Under the influence of the drug her features became more refined, her body assumed an enticing flow. Of course she was more detached, I had to keep telling myself. Watching her, it felt like one part bled into another.

To write of this when I had not lived before with someone in this way still strikes me as bracingly familiar.


I read Susan's story, and it seemed like a nightmare and heaven in equal parts. She makes a kind of sense, but only a kind, like seven slices out of a pizza. I read Tropic of Cancer and felt like a scarecrow. In these last months I have learned to accept the wandering mindset, even let it infect me for a time. But I cannot imagine, even for a moment, their fantasies.

The words which trigger the onset of understanding are all the first ones I learned, and the last.


I did not want to give her something to do. I knew that if she did well at anything writing, fashion, her relationships with friends and it went sour, it could come back on me. I might be blamed for it. When I told this to my therapist, a grim look came over his face. He said, "That is not very loving."

We argued a lot. I have heard that is not a good sign. We constantly went back and forth about sleeping arrangements. She was not comfortable at rest. She was lactose intolerant, but always drank milk in her coffee. It took her a month for her to say that she sometimes left our bed out of embarrassment. I bought her a dairy free creamer but she never used it.


When I talk to someone on the internet, I try not to construe them as a virtual, a computer program designed to respond to me and only me. I am shocked all I say will not be remembered.

I drove from Omaha to Austin with a wedding present in my backseat. I went from San Jose to San Diego; even up close the cars seemed like ants. Sensing the presence of another hinted at a prelude to intimacy, but in fact the reverse was true, or as true.

Do you like the poetry of Dr. Williams? Do you think that any of it is a lie?


The drug would put her to sleep. I will not say what it was, not out of respect for her, but for myself. Whether that is loving or not, I don't truly know.



In New York things speed up or slow down completely. Now, in the darkness, the others sit or stand. I can make nothing of strangers and to try to know them is a losing battle. I want them to know me, not the other way around. It's easier.

Whatever I did, I take it back.

When I go online, there is a reminder written in ink on my hand, twisted into a circle, but many-sided. The green icon, percolating like water on a stove. To step faster, per diem, and allow the change to render itself completely. Available.


Two months before she left, when things felt like they had reached some kind of pleasant equilibrium, I bought a kitten. I know that's a dumb fucking thing to do. My therapist told me that I did not do this for her at all, but for myself as a reaction to the change.

She would use in the morning and fall asleep. By the time I walked in the door she was happy to see me. She wanted nothing more than for it to be the weekend. I came home one night and she'd prepared dinner, a task she had never shown interest in before. 


In San Francisco, where even the wind blows mild in comparison, someone once told me that the way you could tell between a human and an automaton was the manner in which they held a book. I asked the man who said this what would happen if books disappeared and he said, "Do you have a Kindle?"

Running in place. Everybody does it. I hate that word, everybody.


My therapist told me that there is nothing wrong with a personality shift if it is conscious. The only unintended personality shift that is positive comes from conditioning, whether it be in a military setting or a prison.

The cat died the third week we had her. First she went blind, and then she died. 


My mind feels sharper and I know that I am myself more educated, due to an increase of neurons firing in the brain. On one level I find this invigorating, filling me with the thought I have changed and the process by which others notice will, at the end of any given moment, start to begin.

When I do carry a book, I struggle to figure out how I should hold it.

Dan Carville is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about the moon.

"When A Woman Loves A Man" - Paul Kelly (mp3)

"Cold As Canada" - Paul Kelly (mp3)


In Which We Are All Basically Winners

My Scandalous Fantasy


creator Shonda Rimes

Contrary to popular belief, I know people aren't really concerned with who's going to win on Tuesday. No, the million-dollar question is much more relevant to the general American public: who was the brilliant genius at ABC who cast Tony Goldwyn as the President of the United States, and how much of a bonus is this person getting?

Oh, Tony. So we gonna play it like that?

Scandal is one of those shows that would be ridiculous in any other historical context other than right now. Only during an awfully polarized and a mind-numbingly exhausting presidential campaign year could ratings for a glorified soap opera about the White House post-West Wing perform decently (it's just been signed on for a second year). Revolving around a — wait for it — scandal and a lascivious affair between the POTUS Fitzgerald Grant and his campaign crisis manager Olivia Pope, the show mashes together this strange political fantasy that somehow criss-crosses the British royal family's high-profile and inconvenient adulterous tendencies with the blue-blood backstabbing found in Americana, Republicana, Brooks Brothera stereotypes. Basically, all the things that I am afraid of admitting I secretly enjoy via choice, given the natural-born liberties that this free country guarantees me. So sue me.

"The Perks of Being a POTUS" by Jed Bartlet

Innocent or guilty pleasure notwithstanding, I consider myself a relatively informed if not arrogant citizen. But I will also admit that I'm one of those media and pop culture consumers that corporate marketers and "strategy consultants" love to capitalize on. I'll shamelessly believe not only anything Hollywood shoves in my face but also anything that gently wafts in my direction.

My inability to distinguish fact from fiction makes turning on the TV amazing and turning it off devastating. Even more so if it's any form of historical or political fiction. Took me three attempts to figure out why Downton Abbey was not returning any pins on Google Maps. (Sounds real enough, doesn't it?) I was equally distressed after realizing Julia Louis-Dreyfus did not win — nor run, for that matter — for political office. (Would've been a hilarious administration.) And to this day, I'm still living in a fantasy world in which Rob Lowe ruled this nation instead of Pawnee, Indiana.

If only.Scandal provides the same level of political make-believe as The West Wing did, but to a greater and more sex-driven extent. As gratuitously and physically provocative as I am making this show appear, though, somehow, it accomplishes this weird gratification of my primetime guilty pleasure with actual, unexpected finesse. Some detractors may say that it's just due to the visible fact that Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn make a ridiculously attractive on-screen couple. But am I that superficial, if not culturally crass? Well. Let's just say I wouldn't take an oath on it.

Hard at work leading America. Really.

Sincerely attempting to put Tony Goldwyn's silver fox virtues aside, I would say that my affinity for the show is based on elements more substantial. Pleasantly surprised by Scandal's relative nonpartisanship, I spent the first half watching the show's premiere wondering whether the writers were depicting a Democrat or a Republican administration. Ultimately, Olivia Pope's Goyard bag and the First Lady Mellie's bulging pearls told me what I wanted to know.

The fashion clues, however, did not deter me from tuning in the next week. In indulging in Kerry Washington and Tony Goldwyn's steamy (and pretty damn good) hotel sex scene, I was also pandering to another political fantasy — that I wouldn't have to suffer through more commercial breaks listening to robotic female voice harping about "China's cheating" and how Obama encouraged it. Or hearing more from Democratic PACs shake their verbal fists at Romney hoping to raise middle-class taxes so all of his rich friends could buy their wives Goyard bags and bulging pearls.

Just makes you wonder what would happen if Michelle Obama were photographed carrying a $1500 bag. With Scandal, I am happily and necessarily commiserating with other American viewers that we have had to withstand months of nasty and very public verbal abuse from the two most upstanding men our country supposedly has to offer. Literally, I haven't been this wound up since watching Tracy self-implode in Election, and at least that was fiction.

Remember that one time when you watched a teen drama post-puberty and realized how fortunate you were that you weren't in high school anymore? Yeah.

To some, sticking my head in the sand may be seen as cowardly. But if ABC is offering me a fictional POTUS who they created to be "earnest, but overly idealistic" AND is a Tony Goldwyn-lookalike AND who goes by Fitz during off hours? Well. Consider me checked into this Hotel Fantasy for the unforeseeable future with the biggest "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging on the door.

See you after November 6… or maybe not.

Qichen Zhang is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Cambridge. She last wrote in these pages about Up All Night. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her website here.

"Black Sonar" - Born Gold (mp3)

"Fires of Disappearing" - Born Gold (mp3)