The feedback Hallmark staff solicited from customers and retailers proved that Life Mosaic was more meaningful than commercialized cliches. Buyers’ comments testified to joblessness, divorce, sexual assault, and suicidal thoughts in an effort to make evident to Hallmark, who reported to Angelou, the positive impact of her products. Their wording helped card senders express themselves while empowering recipients to deal with their emotions. A daughter relayed that her mother, who had cancer, felt Angelou “knew her and exactly what she was feeling,” reminding her that she “gets her strength from within.” Angelou’s Life Mosaic lifted people up and assisted them in the difficult art of living.
Here, it seems, is where utopia will begin: in a dusty, oversized garage. The place has a distinct chemical odor, unmistakably synthetic. It holds a few scattered shelves and tables, and, laid on its side, one barrel of resin—the source of the stink. Otherwise, this room in northern Panama, separated from the sea by a dirt parking lot and thin band of jungle, is empty, awaiting Chad Elwartowski’s dreams.
Elwartowski is dressed, per his trademark style, in a Hawaiian shirt, a look that seems to convert his every setting into cheerful paradise. Affable, clean-shaven, and still boyish at 47, he is one of the most devoted members of a strange global tribe: seasteaders, as they call themselves, believe the answer to some of life’s most pressing problems is to build new cities on the ocean. Global poverty, health crises, environmental challenges: these issues might all be fixed out there, along Earth’s last (mostly) unclaimed frontier. According to seasteading logic, the current crop of land-based governments is not serving the world—and by breaking away and starting afresh, we might build a better society.
In the last few months, I’ve found an unexpected solution: reading first thing in the morning. I set my alarm for 7:30 a.m. and allow myself an extra hour to read. Before I brush my teeth, before I can turn to Twitter or panic about the state of my inbox, even before coffee, I grab whatever book tops the stack on my bedside table and sink into it. In this disgusting state in which all I can taste is the inside of my own mouth and I can often smell my own sleep-sweat armpits (cute!), I read hungrily.
Remember the Rolodex? That pre-cell-phone directory that looked like a duck with earmuffs: a circular card index file for contact names, numbers, and addresses. How about the encyclopedia, that pre-Google multivolume storage system for information from A to Z. Ronald Brownstein, the senior political analyst for CNN and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has both of them beat. In his brilliant cultural history, Rock Me on the Water: 1974 — The Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television and Politics, Brownstein drops enough names to fill the once-massive Los Angeles phone book (remember those?), elicits memorable moments from several entertainment industries, and recalls political machinations across decades.
“What do you want?” is a painful question. To answer it honestly forces you to bring your own desire into confrontation with the flinching fear of its denial. Reading Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs, one experiences the pain of women coming to terms with what they do and don’t want, almost too acutely. The book’s narrator rejects the conventional desires a woman is supposed to have, yet she cannot or will not say what she might want in their stead—a refusal that suggests not just ennui but something more provocative. This protagonist, Natsuko Natsume, belongs to a new cohort of ambivalent heroines, or perhaps antiheroines, that has emerged in recent novels, including Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Olivia Laing’s Crudo, and Ling Ma’s Severance (all from 2018). These novels are narrated by women who are, to put it simply, over desire. They are finished both with trying to be desired and with the struggle of articulating their own desires in a society that will never fully acknowledge or fulfill them.