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“I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously”

America believes itself exceptional, the greatest and noblest nation ever to exist, a lone champion standing between the white city of democracy and the terrorists, despots, barbarians, and other enemies of civilization. One cannot, at once, claim to be superhuman and then plead mortal error. I propose to take our countrymen’s claims of American exceptionalism seriously, which is to say I propose subjecting our country to an exceptional moral standard.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Many passages in Between the World and Me are worth quoting, but this one really hit home. Coates also brands this “patriotism à la carte” in his Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations” (see below).

This blind national pride has been particularly painful to many people recently with the wildly inadequate pandemic response, the killing of George Floyd, unmarked federal officers’ violence in Portland, and so many more recent events.

I’d forgotten about how very pervasive it is until I got back to the US in early June. It’s insidious, sad and borderline delusional. And it’s not just a right / conservative thing.

It’s all well and good to be proud of your accomplishments, but if you can’t identify and work to rectify your failings then what the hell is the point?


I’ve been speaking with some friends about this book, they mentioned a few resources I’d like to follow up on.

And I’m still working through my previous list.


I just finished “The Case for Reparations” and learned so much.

Coates weaves together individual and collective experiences, history, and data to connect the dots between the Jim Crow South, the Great Migration, redlining by the Federal Housing Association following the New Deal, the efforts of the Contract Buyers League, Belinda Royall’s early and successful petition for reparations in 1783, John Conyers’s HR 40 bill, the early history of slavery in the US, the failure of Reconstruction, the levelling of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” and its subsequent suppression in law and the media, the myth of fatherhood as the antidote to Black poverty, the fuzziness of affirmative action, the “gulag of the Mississippi” Parchman Farm, the impact of Germany’s post-WWII reparations on Israel and the evolution of contemporary Germany, the prevalence of subprime lenders preying on Black home buyers in the run up to the 2008 crisis, and so much more.

He argues for the cooperation of every aspect of society in a real discussion and debate about reparations to “reject the intoxication of hubris” and bring about “a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history”.

HR 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans “to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies”, has progressed since Coates wrote “The Case for Reparations” in 2014. Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee is now first sponsor of HR 40 having taken over from John Conyers in 2018. There has been some progress with the bill, but a vote has not been set.

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On saguaros and an old dirt road

Another plant-related fact I learned from Techentin’s essay in “Edges of the Experiment” (see previous): saguaros are frequently chipped by park rangers to deter plant poaching.

Saguaros only grow in the Sonoran desert, the bulk of which lies in the southwest corner of Arizona and in Mexico. Arizona State Route 88 is near the northeastern edge of the Sonoran desert, so saguaros feature in much of the landscape alongside the road. The AZ SR88 runs from Roosevelt Dam along the Salt River to Apache Junction. It is mainly unpaved between the dam and Tortilla Flat. I had the pleasure of driving this road with my grandparents on my mom’s side a little while back.

Satellite view of Arizona State Route 88, imagery and map data copyright Google 2016

Satellite view of Arizona SR 88. Imagery and map data © 2016 Google.

Satellite view of saguaros along Arizona State Route 88, imagery copyright Google 2016

Satellite view of a particularly saguaro-laden hill just east of Fish Creek grade along Arizona SR 88. Imagery © 2016 Google.

One notably narrow section of the road is about halfway through the unpaved portion of AZ SR88. A steep grade culminates in a sharp blind turn that wraps around Fish Creek Hill, with a sandy wall on one side and a steep dropoff on the other.

For the most part, the narrowness of the road isn’t a problem. Drivers don’t use it to get anywhere quickly, so it’s a lonely route.

Most of the traffic flows east with good reason. If you drive west on this route late in the day, you end up driving straight in to the sun. You also end up driving on the outer edge of the sharp turn mentioned above, and it’s a little nerve wracking looking down the long drop just beyond the low barrier.

That said, the westbound trip on AZ SR88 has a pretty spectacular finale. If you time it properly you’re rewarded with a desert sunset over the Superstition Mountains near Canyon Lake before descending in to Apache Junction.

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On palm trees, one in particular

Photo of RAT beach taken by Piper Haywood in 2009

RAT Beach in 2009. RAT = Right After Torrance

When I was very young, I developed a sustained, irrational fear of the palm tree that stood near the southwest corner of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue in Torrance, CA.

This fear is one of my earliest memories. The palm was cartoonish and stereotypical. It was spindly and swayed even on very still days. I lost my four-year-old mind every time we passed it on foot, convinced that it would fall over and pile drive me in to the ground.

The palm tree no longer exists. It was probably removed just after we moved away in 1993.

Satellite view of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue (Torrance, CA) in 1980 and 1994

Satellite view of the corner of Deelane Street and Anza Avenue in Torrance, CA. Left image was captured in 1980, right image was captured in 1994. Source for both images is USGS via historicalaerials.com

I picked up “Edges of the Experiment – The Making of the American Landscape” from the Fw:Books table at Offprint a couple of weekends ago. It is a two-volume publication designed and edited by Hans Gremmen focusing on the landscape of the American West. The first volume features photographs by Marie-José Jongerius and is punctuated with essays. The second is more text-based and includes a curated selection of media; historical photographs, anecdotes, facsimiles, essays, etc. The photos by Jongerius are what originally drew me to the publication. They are incredibly true to the place.

Last weekend I started reading volume two, including an essay titled “The infrastructure of trees in Los Angeles” by architect Warren Techentin. I learned that the palm tree is a disappearing southern Californian icon:

Considering that the average lifespan of a palm tree is 70 to 100 years, and that most of the palms visible now were planted to beautify the city for the 1932 Olympics, the bulk of Los Angeles’s palm trees will disappear within a decade or two.

Warren Techentin, “The Infrastructure of Trees in Los Angeles”, Edges of the Experiment: The Making of the American Landscape, Vol. 2, Netherlands: FW:Books [2015], p74.

The city isn’t replacing most palms that are removed. Apparently they were never a great ecological or economical choice.

So my childhood nemesis was likely removed due to old age. It’s kind of sad. I haven’t found any photos of that particular palm tree.

I can’t emphasise enough how much I have enjoyed “Edges of the Experiment”. One particularly lovely spread includes the first page of Techentin’s essay alongside one of Hans Gremmen’s graphics illustrating water usage in California. Water is touched upon in many if not most of the texts in “Edges of the Experiment”, and its presence (or lack thereof) is notable in many of Jongerius’s photos.

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The Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at the Colby College Museum of Art

Photo of the entrance to the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion at the Colby College Museum of Art

Lobby of the Colby College Museum of Art and the entrance to the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion.

Visited the Colby College Museum of Art recently for the fist time in years, the Alfond-Lunder Family Pavilion is a great addition. Wish I brought a proper camera.

Photo of the Colby Museum façade

Entrance to the museum, including Richard Serra’s “4-5-6” in the courtyard.

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Joan Jonas

Black and white photo of artist Joan Jonas with a mirror

Photo of multimedia artist Joan Jonas by Sebastian Kim for Interview Magazine (image source)

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House on the rock

The carousel in the House on the Rock, from Slate (image source)

House on the rock in Wisconsin is a very strange collection of collections.

Need to go. It looks almost identical to a house that was in a recurring dream I had as a kid. It was the house I wanted to live in, with a room full of pianos of all shapes and sizes lining the walls, ceiling and floor, another room that was just an interconnected series of waterfalls and water-slides that defied gravity. I think this is it’s nearest IRL replica.

It’s also supposedly featured in one of Neil Gaiman’s books? Another big reason it’s at the top of my travel to do list.