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Photograph by Bear Guerra

Starting Over

From a block away in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, we can just barely make out a sound unlike any we’ve ever heard, as if from underwater—melancholy, dissonant, otherworldly music. It pulls us toward the corner of Broadway and Alpine, where an older man sits upon a stool. He wears a Panama hat and silk jacket. A bow slides back and forth across his erhu, a two-stringed lute-like instrument he’s plugged into a tiny, battery-powered amp. Next to him, on the sidewalk, the erhu’s case sits open with a few dollar bills and coins inside. His name is Yingchang Song. Our interpreter, a Ph.D. student at USC, introduces us. Soon enough, she and Song realize they’re from the same city in northeastern China—Qingdao. They hit it off immediately: Not only do they both speak Mandarin in what they see as Cantonese-dominant Chinatown, but they know the words to many of the same folk songs. A generation apart, here they are on a corner in Los Angeles—and Song is visibly thrilled, but needs to get back to playing.

North and Norths, True and Otherwise [private]

If I move a block of stone into the green-wood sector of the bagua, will my children grow up to be dull? If I put my desk next to a window, will my thoughts become insipid? Where is the dragon sleeping? Practitioners of feng shui, the Chinese art of geomancy, worry about such things—and not least whether in calculating the most propitious placement of a building, the orientation should be to magnetic north or to true north.

North, to a proto-Indo-European traversing the steppes a few thousand years back, was simply the direction the left hand pointed in when one faced the rising sun, a position that changed throughout the year. Our notion of north is based on a finer but still inexact science, its core assumption that we live on a perfect orb that spins along at a uniform rate. We do not, and it does not. Still, true north is a geometric concept that posits a line, a meridian, wrapping neatly around the planet. Also called geodetic north, it is constant to the extent that, for our lifetimes, it points pretty much toward Polaris, our North Star for the next few thousand years.

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Photo by Gary Honis

Night Moves

July 5, 2016

In "Night Moves," Amanda Petrusich visits Cherry Springs State Park, a Pennsylvania swath of night sky, where light pollution and fracking threaten the existence of one of the darkest places in America.

If Everything Is So Amazing, Why’s Nobody Happy?

October 5, 2015

When I talk to my students about living for compassion, they tend to be quite interested. But few of them have ever contemplated this sort of life before. Like the life of courage and the life of thought, the life of compassion seems to be receding in our culture. People don’t talk much about ideals any more. We don’t usually offer them as viable options to the young.

The Southwesternization of the American Palate

June 17, 2015

Barrow, Alaska, is about as far from anywhere in North America as it’s possible to get: hard by the Beaufort Sea, 720 miles from Anchorage, 3,500 miles from Washington, DC, 1,100 miles from the North Pole. Yet, until very recently, it was possible to stumble across taiga and tundra and find, there in the heart of the town, a Mexican restaurant.