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Essays that only appear online, but not in the print journal

Jonathon Keats and the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene: Pessimism is Not a Scientific Way of Thinking

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater HoloceneUnbeknown to many in San Francisco, we are in the presence of several brave species helping to terra-form the city and stave off a future defined by man’s carbon footprint. These “volunteers,” as experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats calls them, represent the first members of his new organization, The Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, and they’re closer than you might think—they might even be under your feet.

These ambassadors are the plants that sprout from the sidewalk in even the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Though acknowledging that they are commonly dismissed as unsightly, Keats—previously known for creating Alien Instruments and Superego Suits—has taken to documenting these life-forms in a series of intimate black and white portraits. He hopes this approach lends the plants some dignity, and might cause people to view them in terms of the beauty, and not the blight, they bring to an urban environment. While taking the photos, Keats gets down on the ground to be at eye level with his subjects. Speaking of these plants, Keats admits, “I go back and visit them and water them sometimes. Even though they don’t need me to grow, it doesn’t mean there’s no benefit there.”

Keats’ portraits of the plants are currently on display and viewable by appointment at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. He suggests that, in many ways, this photography is representative of what he is attempting to do with the Pioneers, which includes “creating a model for a world to come, a world we would want to inhabit.” It’s a model in which no species is taken for granted, even if they sprout from cracks in the pavement.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 2Also at Modernism Gallery is a massive map of Northern California, which Keats invites gallery patrons to decorate with pins specifying locations they feel represent the world they’d like to see in the future. During the busy opening night event this month, the crowds took great delight in (quite literally) hammering their pins into the map. Anyone is also welcome to become a member of the Pioneers for as little as a one-dollar donation. Keats stresses that interested parties can also join for less, though a $40 donation will secure you a stylish Pioneers for the Greater Holocene T-shirt, a convenient way to show your fellow citizens your interest in preserving the current geological epoch.

The Pioneers formation was in part inspired by the upcoming determination by the International Union of Geological Sciences as to whether the current geological epoch, known as the Holocene, has come to a premature end due to man’s harmful impact on the planet, thus placing us firmly in the Anthropocene. While most scientists seem to take the Anthropocene’s arrival as a foregone conclusion, implying that the planet will be blighted by humans for millions of years to come, Keats argues, “Pessimism is not a scientific way of thinking…We cannot accept the catastrophic results of declaring the Anthropocene an epoch.”

He stresses that work can be done and changes made, even on an individual level, that could perhaps alter the Anthropocene from a multi-million-year epoch to something more like an unfortunate but brief episode during humanity’s time on Earth.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 3One might expect the Pioneers would find an ideal base in the Bay Area, where so many people believe in the reality of climate change. Keats explains this isn’t necessarily so. San Francisco, for example, is simultaneously “the best place” and “the worst place” to launch such an endeavor. Keats sees the Bay Area as having a culture of compartmentalization—people genuinely care, but often feel as though simply caring, even if divorced from action, is enough. He cites “a paralysis among those who recognize the problems of climate change” because “when there’s no clear path forward, people end up doing nothing, which is not tenable to me.” Yet the situation is not without hope: “We are unable to act on our beliefs when the situation seems futile, but I also believe that any small action can potentially pull us out of that stupor.”

Emphasizing the concrete, active nature of the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, Keats believes small gestures, from planting seeds across the urban environment to documenting and protecting what current plant life exists, can have massive ramifications. “Since the Industrial Revolution, we have had an attitude of antagonism towards other species,” Keats explains. “We take for granted that they will be compliant. But in reality, if we disappear, they will take over—so how compliant can they be? The Pioneers are about taking the opposite tack and advocating a sharing of power between species at every level.”

To this end, the Pioneers have distributed starter packets throughout the city, containing seeds for native grasses that will take root wherever people spread them, as well as a special nutrient mix for lichens capable of turning concrete into fertile ground. With enough time and effort, it’s possible the Pioneers could see San Francisco radically transformed into an urban forest. No doubt such a transition would create some measure of chaos, at least in the beginning, but Keats sees this as entirely in keeping with the Bay Area’s reputation for disruption. “Nature isn’t Disney or Bob Ross,” he reminds us. “It’s not altogether peaceful.”

Although the Pioneers’ vision for the planet includes a much more level field between man and nature, Keats argues, “This is in no way meant to be a Luddite move or a call back to the past.” This will likely register as good news to San Francisco’s pervasive tech industry, though Keats is leery of their involvement. “Technological industries have a tendency to see themselves as saviors of what technology has wrought in the past,” he states.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 4The truth, as the Pioneers see it, is that for the last 11,700 years the Holocene has been good to us—as stewards of the planet, we ought to try our best to see the epoch doesn’t come to an abrupt end many millennia before its time. For while epochs are generally defined as lasting millions of years, it’s all but certain the Anthropocene will not last as long; mankind’s accelerated destruction of the planet will see humanity’s extinction long before then, ushering in an entirely new epoch. “This is a reason for pessimism and soul-searching,” Keats admits, “but also optimism and soul-searching.”

Keats is not fazed by those who view the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene as something of a poetic but futile gesture. “When you start with the literal, you end up in a fist fight,” he says. “But the arts have a history of changing the way people think.” The Pioneers, then, do what Keats has perhaps always done: utilize “play and absurdity” as a means to “encourage re-thinking, re-framing, and re-alignment” on both an individual and collective level, and to “challenge ideas that seem entrenched.”

Admiring Keats’ stark black and white portraits in the Modernism Gallery, it’s difficult to dismiss the efficacy of his methods. The sight of these oft-ignored but persistent plants inspires one to both watch their step and consider the life that is all around us—if only we look for it.

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Some Notes on Salinger

Catcher in the RyeIf you really want to hear about it…”

1. He’s not really talking to you, it’s a ruse. Nor is he someone you want to chat with on the phone. Trust me on this. But don’t let it hurt your feelings. Like most of us, he’s talking to himself. It’s performance art, a term that contains its own contradiction.

He (or his characters, whichever you prefer) is trying very hard not to go crazy.

Holden Caulfield: “I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything. Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening. Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I’d never get to the other side of the street. I thought I’d just go down, down, down and nobody’d ever see me again. Boy, did it scare me. You can’t imagine. I started sweating like a bastard—my whole shirt and underwear and everything. Then I started doing something else. Every time I’d get to the end of the block I’d make believe I was talking to my brother Allie. I’d say to him, ‘Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Allie, don’t let me disappear. Please, Allie.’ And then, when I’d reach the other side of the street without disappearing, I’d thank him. Then it would start all over again as soon as I got to the next corner.’’

Seymour Glass: “If you want to look at my feet, say so…But don’t be a God-damned sneak about it.’’

Teddy: “After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances. I may be a banana peel.”

Don’t get me started on Zooey Glass. He’s actually the most grounded of the group, notwithstanding that bit about having a glass of ginger ale in the kitchen with Jesus when he was eight years old.

Maybe “crazy’’ is the wrong world. It’s actually a search for satori, but these various fictional hothouse flowers each seem to be looking for a way to survive with all his (or her) fa-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

Franny and Zooey2. The preppie thing: Can someone really be a preppie if he keeps getting thrown out of school? Okay, Holden thinks it’s hard to be roommates with someone “if your suitcases are much better than theirs.’’ But even this bit of presumed snobbery is qualified: “You think if they’re intelligent and all, the other person, and have a good sense of humor, that they don’t give a damn whose suitcases are better, but they do. They really do.’’ Here, he’s no different than, say, Fitzgerald or O’Hara noticing class differences, though expressing with “a Good Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech’’ as Seymour, satirically, characterizes his brother Buddy Glass’ prose.

The same counter-argument applies to those who were force-fed “Catcher’’ in high school—something the new Congress should immediately render illegal—and thus conclude (repeatedly) that he was just a whiner. What exactly do people expect here, Studs Lonigan? Still, put this one on the curriculum pooh-bahs, not the stunned students.

3. He writes mainly about white people. True. Draw your own conclusions, but he was a product of his time, upbringing and surroundings, for better or worse.

4. There are self-indulgent spots, clearly.

No one wants to hear J.D. go off on “the middle-aged hot-rodders who insist on zooming us to the moon, the Dharma Bums, the makers of cigarette lighter for thinking men, the Beat and the Sloppy and the Petulant, the chosen cultists, all the lofty experts who know so well what we should and shouldn’t do with our poor little sex organs, all the bearded, proud unlettered young men and unskilled guitarists and Zen-killers and incorporated aesthetic Teddy boys who look down their thoroughly unenlightened noses at this splendid planet where (please don’t shut me up*) Kilroy, Christ and Shakespeare all stopped—before we join these others, I privately say to you, old friend (unto you, really, I’m afraid), please accept from me this unpretentious bouquet of very early-blooming parentheses: (((( )))).”

The bit about the poor little sex organs is a bit much, as is the closing invocation against pretension. Ah, Jerome…

5But finally, there’s the specificity, which no one of his time (or since?) has quite matched:

“My lips were quivering slightly, like two fools.”—Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters 

Raise High the Roof BeamBessie’s medicine chest: “The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gillette razors, one Schick Injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small unlabeled bottle of glycerine suppositories, Vick’s Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy (‘Call Me Mister’), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs of scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a ‘purey’), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl’s or woman’s gold wristwatch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl’s boarding school ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette—and, inconceivably or no, quite a bit more.”

Bessie, again, in contrapuntal rhythm with her son: “‘I just don’t know what happened to all you children,’ Mrs. Glass said vaguely, without turning around. She stopped at one of the towel bars and straightened a washcloth. ‘In the old radio days, when you were little and all, you used to be so—smart and happy and—just lovely. Morning, noon, and night. I don’t know what good it is to know so much and be smart as whips and all if it doesn’t make you happy.’ Her back was to Zooey as she moved again towards the door. ‘At least,’ she said, ‘you all used to be so sweet and loving to each other it was a joy to see.’ She opened the door, shaking her head. ‘Just a joy,’ she said firmly, and closed the door behind her.

“Zooey, looking over at the closed door, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. ‘Some exit lines you give yourself buddy!’ he called after her—but only when he must have been sure that his voice wouldn’t really reach her down the hall.’’’

Nine StoriesThe British critic Martin Green has noted that the Glass’ family apartment is no less emotionally luxuriant than the world of Anna Karenina. (It should quickly be added that it bears little resemblances to the kitschy tropes of Wes Anderson. As Picasso said of Matisse: “First you do something, then someone else does it pretty.’’) Notwithstanding the common, and unhelpful, conflation of the artist’s life with his work, Janet Malcolm’s observation remains true: “The pettiness, vulgarity, banality that few of us are free from, and thus can tolerate in others, are like ragweed for Salinger’s helplessly uncontaminated heroes and heroines.”

As Holden Caulfield watches his sister Phoebe ride on the Central Park carrousel, he forcibly wills himself into non-intervention: “The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad to say anything.”

Holden really doesn’t believe it—at heart he’s a Jewish mother, trying to protect everyone and everything—but Phoebe shames him into a semblance of adulthood, by threatening to run away with him, her suitcase is packed if he continues his odd rebellion. Catch-22.

If he were alive now, J.D. Salinger would be one hundred, inconceivably.

January 1st marked the centennial of his birth; he died on January 27th, 2010. He had long stopped publishing – whether or not he continued to write is hotly disputed – but Little Brown has marked the occasion with a boxed hardcover set of The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey and Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour – An Introduction. He once referred to Kafka, Kierkegaard, and the like as the “Sick Men” of literature, artist-seers who died not of “Consumption or Loneliness or Suicide’’ but from the “blinding shapes and colors’’ of their own artistic scruples. Hard to conceive, and perhaps ill-advised as a credo, still harder to contain within the shelves of a $100 set of his works. But there it is.

Raise high the roofbeams, carpenters. Like Ares comes the bridegroom, taller far than a tall man. One hardly bears imagine what the new dawn may bring.

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Ted Chiang’s Impersonal Universe

I close my eyes and see a flock of birds. The vision lasts a second or perhaps less; I don’t know how many birds I saw. Were they a definite or an indefinite number? This problem involves the question of the existence of God. If God exists, the number is definite, because how many birds I saw is known to God. If God does not exist, the number is indefinite, because nobody was able to take count. In this case, I saw fewer than ten birds (let’s say) and more than one; but I did not see nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, or two birds. I saw a number between ten and one, but not nine, eight, seven, six, five, etc. That number, as a whole number, is inconceivable; ergo, God exists.

— Jorge Luis Borges, “Argumentum Ornithologicum”

Ted Chiang 1Jorge Luis Borges is one of a handful of writers whose every work fills me with awe and envy. I’m awed by the precision of his paradoxes, his ability to usher me into mysteries at once beautiful and haunting. I’m envious because his aesthetics so resonate with me that I feel as if each story I read is a story I’ll never get to write.

Ted Chiang is another such writer. Like Borges, his craft is as precise as clockwork. The elegant inevitability of his plots, which unfold as if mapped upon some narrative Golden Mean, suggests an orderliness to reality without diminishing its mystery. Take, for instance, “Tower of Babylon,” in which the biblical story of Babel is reimagined sans-idolatry: an entire civilization is organized around the desire to be nearer to God Most High. When the hero at last pierces the vault of heaven and enters the “waters above,” he swims upwards until breaking the surface—and finds himself on Earth again, just outside the city, swimming in the “waters below.” The structure of reality is precise, circular, self-contained—and for that reason, unfathomable.

“Argumentum Ornithologicum” is but one of many pieces that illustrate the kinship between Borges and Chiang—their passion for the ambiguities of language and mathematics, their careful, laconic rendering of complex ideas. It is also emblematic of their greatest divergence: Borges was a mystic; Chiang is a materialist.

I had the opportunity to hear Chiang speak this past spring at the University of California at Irvine, where I teach. Students in our Rhetoric and Writing courses had been reading Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others, and were primed to listen and engage. Chiang’s subject was the differing worldviews of science fiction and fantasy, which dovetailed nicely with the focus of our courses. It was a fascinating, astute analysis of the political and moral implications of genre. More interestingly, the talk and subsequent Q&A session revealed important tensions in Chiang’s own work.

He opened his talk with a well-worn Arthur C. Clarke quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” While superficially true, Chiang argued, vast differences exist between the technological wonders of science fiction and the magic of fantasy stories, the most significant difference being that in fantasy the universe is presumed to be personal, whereas in science fiction it is impersonal.

Chiang offered a short discursus on the history of science. In his telling, the pivotal moment was the emergence of chemistry—a genuine science—from the magical discipline of alchemy. The latter involved the purification of the soul alongside the purification of a base metal into nobility, while the former was grounded in observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and systematizing. Alchemy failed and chemistry prevailed, said Chiang, because the soul is of no consequence.

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Coda, or a Ninth Case: Trump v. Hawaii

Trump v. HawaiiThree years ago, my essay “Shiftiness: The Border in Eight Cases” approached the border from eight different routes. The years since have only increased the urgency of dealing with the border in a humane and just way.

“The law constitutes a ‘we’ through an official story,” scholar Priscilla Wald wrote in her 1994 book, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form. But: “An official story of ‘a people’ invariably lags behind the seismic demographic changes and corresponding untold stories that ultimately compel each revision.”

These days, we’re immersed in the conflict that churns beneath the changing text.

When Donald Trump issued his Muslim ban a week after his inauguration, protestors poured into airports around the country. Federal courts issued injunctions, the Trump administration twice revised the ban, and the Supreme Court let it go into effect while it heard the case. Later, the Trump administration began blocking people from seeking asylum at official border points and taking the children of those who do manage to cross. Lawyers filed lawsuits. Protests bloomed. On July 4, sparing no symbolism, seven people dropped an “Abolish ICE” banner from the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Now, in Trump v. Hawaii, the Supreme Court has rubber-stamped the Muslim ban. My printed copy of Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion is marked with angry notes. I was one of the people marching through SeaTac airport a year and a half ago, lifted by the “joy of disobedience,” and I’m one of the people now who’s spent mornings holding a handwritten sign in front of the Seattle ICE office.

In 2018, we know we’re living in history. I imagine a person like me, sitting at a desk one hundred years from now in whatever United States emerges from this catastrophe, reading Trump v. Hawaii. This reader, comfortable but conscientious, peers at the decision as if through a telescope. Distance can make everything smaller, especially if there’s no political and moral crisis bearing down on the reader to bring history to the fore as she sifts through the pages.

In August 2018, we are experiencing a genuine crisis—not just a crisis of intensified border-related brutality but also a crisis of sudden awareness and loss of meaning. Who are we? It’s a double question: who’s included, and what’s the nature of those of us who are? The border touches both sides of this question. Donald Trump so luxuriates in his contempt for the lives connected to the border that many of us who previously could escape or ignore the border—not just as a place but as an instrument of power—can hide no longer; many don’t want to anyway. Ignorance is complicity, and complicity ruins our souls. Continue reading

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Notes on the First 30 Days

IWillFightForYou_1.21.2017On the morning of Inauguration Day, I met up with a friend in midtown Manhattan, where we rented a car and set out for Washington, D.C. Our plan was to make the drive before nightfall, have a quick dinner, finish making our signs, and get a good night’s rest before the Women’s March. Not only was it less expensive to rent a car than to fly or take a train, but our road-trip had the added benefit of keeping us away from TV all day—a serendipitous media blackout for which we were both grateful. We didn’t turn on the radio, either—we brought a playlist. There was in this avoidance an expression of grief, a turning away or a lowering of the eyes.


I have found, at times, only temporary reprieves from the anxiety, persistent since the election, that whatever we do, whatever donations and calls we make, whatever petitions we sign or letters we send—it is not nearly enough. Though I harbor no confusion over the moral obligation to try and keep trying, I know I’m not alone in feeling besieged time and again by the crushing worry that nothing I can do will amount to an adequate response to the moment.

The demands of the moment are urgent, complex, and enormous. What art will suffice for this darkening time, what activism? One way in which the new president and Steve Bannon, his primary advisor, exercise power (however instinctively, however strategically) is through language (the deluge of lies and misdirection), another is through demoralization. (What practical purpose could threatening to defund the already modest National Endowment for the Arts possibly serve, if not to send a chilling message to artists and writers and the organizations that support them?) What power can the resistance harness in language and images to fight back; and what can we do to uplift and inspire each other?

That others have been here before, have felt the pressure of these same questions is saddening, yet also a source of solace and, potentially, guidance and inspiration. Wallace Stevens’ “Of Modern Poetry” echoes frequently in my mind:

The poem of the mind in the act of finding
What will suffice. It has not always had
To find: the scene was set; it repeated what
Was in the script.

Then the theatre was changed
To something else. Its past was a souvenir.

It has to be living, to learn the speech of the place.
It has to face the men of the time and to meet
The women of the time. It has to think about war
And it has to find what will suffice.

In just the first month of the Trump presidency we’ve already lived through several extraordinary tests. The deluge of public lies, the ethics violations, the travel ban, the ascendance of Bannon, the ICE raids: as each new event jolts our consciousness, many of us cycle through feelings of helplessness, anger, sorrow, and determination, and sometimes we land on a perch of hope. We find some way to respond. We show up, we make calls, we share information, we make ourselves seen and heard by our representatives. We savor a momentary satisfaction while surveying the landscape—looking for what more to do, and for what may be next around the bend.


By mid-morning my friend and I were looking for a restroom and a snack. We stopped at the Clara Barton Travel Plaza along the New Jersey turnpike, and as we pulled into the crowded parking lot I saw women in groups of four and five emerging from dozens of cars and vans, many of them in pink hats. The line for the women’s room was lengthy, and a sense of energy and anticipation radiated from the clusters of women gathering in the small food court. We exchanged nods and smiles with strangers when our eyes met.

We bought a pint of what looked like sugar-coated doughnut holes and a container of caramel dipping sauce and, noting the light rain that had started to fall, decided to eat our snack there and take a short break from driving. We found a spot by the window, but as I sat down I realized I was directly in view of a television mounted from the ceiling, broadcasting the inauguration. Mike Pence was being sworn in. And then Trump. A small crowd gathered to watch, and I watched their faces in profile. No one spoke for some time—as if the room was holding its breath for a moment, waiting to see if something might somehow intervene and disrupt the proceedings. As the new president turned to receive congratulations from his family, the rain picked up, pounding the pavement. Restless and dumbstruck once again, we got back on the road.

Back in San Francisco the following Tuesday, I was heartened to hear from my office the muffled call-and-response of protestors on Market Street. Show me what democracy looks like; this is what democracy looks like. I was even more heartened to learn later on the evening news of multiple protests around the country that same day: in Austin, New York City, Denver, Orlando, Philadelphia; in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Overland Park, Kansas; Vienna, Virginia; Rochester, Michigan, and many other places. It all felt like a muted answer to the question that had haunted me since the march: now what?

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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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Poet Laureate of Spaceship Earth: An Excerpt from ‘You Belong to the Universe’

You Belong to the UniverseThis Thursday at 7 p.m., author (and ZYZZYVA contributor) Jonathon Keats will be at City Lights to discuss his newest book, You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future (Oxford University Press). Called by Douglas Coupland a “wonderfully written and highly necessary book about one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic outliers,” the book takes Fuller’s life and personal myth as a basis for applying his world-changing ideas in the present.

The following is an excerpt from Keats’s book.

Late one evening in the winter of 1927, Buckminster Fuller set out to kill himself in frigid Lake Michigan. At thirty-two years old, he was a failure. He had neither job prospects nor savings, and his wife had just given birth to a daughter. A life insurance policy, bought while he was in the Navy, was all that he had to support his family.

So Fuller walked down to a deserted stretch of shoreline on the North Side of Chicago. He looked out over the churning water and calculated how long he’d need to swim before succumbing to hypothermia. But as he prepared to jump, he felt a strange resistance, as if he were being lifted, and he heard a stern voice inside his head: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” Then the voice confided that his life had a purpose, which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world, and that his family would always be provided for, as long as he submitted to his calling.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

The Haunted Life and Other WritingsYears ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right.

Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical novella The Haunted Life, seventy years after Kerouac wrote it. It isn’t the Beat author’s first novel. That title goes to The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, penned in 1942. Nor is The Haunted Life Kerouac’s only “lost” novel; both it and The Sea Is My Brother took seven decades to reach print. The troubled twenty-two-year-old supposedly left the manuscript of The Haunted Life in a New York cab. But the novella surfaced in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room closet, and much later in 2002, it sold at Sotheby’s for $95,600.


It might be true that the first novel you write isn’t the first novel you publish, but like many writers sitting on a finished manuscript, I used to want to publish mine anyway. It isn’t simply the first novel I’ve written. It’s the only novel I’ve written, possibly the only one I ever will write.

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Reading Music

Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique is one of the great examples of program music, which means notes, not words, are the storytellers. The story here is a lurid one of opium induced reveries and unrequited love that descends into murder, execution, and hell. I heard it for the first time in junior high school, back when music appreciation was considered a part of a public school’s core curriculum and stories of opium and sin didn’t trigger over-protective hysteria in the PTA. The work became the first piece of classical music I could recognize, despite the fact that music of all kinds (but not Symphonie Fantastique) was ubiquitous in my house growing up. I haven’t heard the work since my son studied it at his own school over ten years ago, nor did I listen to it very much in the many years prior. Still, I can easily hum the piece’s major theme—its idée fixe—recall its unusual instrumentation, and tell the story.

I’ll never know if the music, without the narrative, would have been as compelling. Having heard the tale and been shown in the score where certain events are “told,” I cannot separate the music of Symphonie Fantastique from images of the warped waltz, the walk to the scaffold, or the Witch’s Sabbath. When you attach words to music it is magnified in the same ways pictures enrich words. But I’ve often read books where my image of a main character doesn’t match the one the graphic designer decided to put on the cover. Can branding a piece of music with a story be equally limiting?

Abstract music does not tell a story but that doesn’t mean it can’t contribute toward an inner narrative. As a former flutist, playing was an alternative form for me of speaking a feeling or relating a sensation. When I was in college, I played in the orchestra that accompanied a performance of Bach’s great choral work, his St. Matthew Passion. The work includes a beautiful duet between flute and the alto soloist. We were performing in a gothic cathedral whose gloominess had settled over me like a shroud. The vocalist was my voice teacher who had no fondness for me nor I for her. Yet by the end of the duet, I had become the music and, in becoming the music, had no defense against anything that might harm me. Music leaves me vulnerable.

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