Patrick and I have gone “screen free” around Bean. That means we aren’t checking our phones or looking at our iPads around him. I was beginning to feel like he saw us online too much. It began to seem like the only thing we did, especially since I rarely open the novel I’m reading around him…
“You don’t write as a writer, you write as a man—a man with a certain hard-earned skill in the use of words, a particular, and particularly naked, consciousness of human life, of the human tragedy and triumph—a man who is moved by human life, who cannot take it for granted. Donne was speaking of all this when he told his congregation not to ask for whom the bell tolls. His learned listeners thought he was speaking as a divine—as a stoic. He was speaking from his poet’s heart: He meant that when he heard the bell he died. It’s all in Keats’s letters—that writer’s bible which every young man or woman with this most dangerous of lives before him should be set to read. Keats is already a poet in these letters—he is certain, in spite of the reviewers, that he will be among the English poets at his death. But they are not the letters of a poet. They are the letters of a boy, a young man, who will write great poems. Who never postures. Who laughs at himself and who, when he holds his dying brother in his arms, thinks of his dying brother, not the pathos of the scene. You can put it down, I think, as gospel that a self-advertising writer is always a self-extinguished writer.”—- from the how-should-a-person-be section of Archibald MacLeish, The Art of Poetry No. 18 in the Paris Review
rule one of smart public radio: be dismissive and smugly defensive
Today, during a "Do Critics Still Matter?" segment on KUOW’s The Conversation, I kept thinking that fill-in host David Hyde needed to focus the damn camera, so I think I blurted “Exactly!” almost 16 minutes into the 18-minute segment when a guest tried to make things less blurry:
Jim DeRogatis: Not that I’m criticizing a fellow radio-show host, but I think you never defined your terms. What do you mean by “professional”? What do you mean by “critic”? You know, Douglas was right: We are in a golden age of opinion. But you know what they say about opinions, right? Everybody has one, and everybody has something else* too, right? It’s cheap. It’s easy. To say the new Kanye West sucks, to say the new Kanye West is great, that’s not criticism. That’s just mere opinion.
David Hyde: Our audience here in Seattle, Jim, is really bright. “Professionals” are people who get paid for what they do. And “critics”: You’re a critic; I know one when I see one.
Nifty move, invoking the “really bright” audience to make the show dumber.
* This was a dumb thing to say while trying to make a show less dumb.
“I will never take anything for granted. It is a miracle to me that I can go to a grocery store and don’t have to stop counting at $3. I can also live without too much fear because I know I could survive without these things. I was at this event once, and somebody said, ‘I can’t believe that you survived — it’s superhuman.’ And a woman in the front row shyly raised her hand and said, ‘I’m from Liberia, and she didn’t have it so bad.’ There was a gasp in the audience, as though I was going to get upset that this chickie-poo dared to have a worse childhood than me. To the contrary. The thermostat and hot running water are luxuries. I would never want to go back, but I know I can. I don’t understand Outward Bound, having to pay for all that, but if that’s what you need to figure out you’re tougher than you realize, that’s O.K.”—
“The man in the cowboy hat — he saved Jeff’s life,” Ms. Bauman said. Mr. Bauman’s eyes widened. He said: “There’s a video where he goes right to Jeff, picks him right up and puts him on the wheelchair and starts putting the tourniquet on him and pushing him out. I got to talk to this guy!”
The man in the cowboy hat, Carlos Arredondo, 53, had been handing out American flags to runners when the first explosion went off. His son, Alexander, was a Marine killed in Iraq in 2004, and in years since he has handed out the flags as a tribute.
“I think my answer might be a little bit controversial — I think almost nothing is worth sweating in the first draft. Does a character need to change genders? Do you want to shift the structure? Just do it, and keep moving forward. Finishing a draft of a novel is so hard, and so enormous, that one needs all the momentum possible. If you stop and go back to the beginning every time you want to change something, you will never finish. Just go go go! You will have the time to go back and fix all your mistakes, right your wrongs, etc. Just get to the end of the first draft. The feeling of accomplishment is sweet enough to spur you on to make even the most major changes in revision.”—Emma Straub on first drafts, from The Millions. (via thepenguinpress)
using shoelaces to tie F. Scott Fitzgerald and Michael Lewis together
During a recent lunchtime run, roughly 15/16th of my brain was properly intent on my Kindle’s text-to-speech voice, which was reading me F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. The other 1/16th ran loose, free-associating, stringing three beads together to make a weird, little necklace:
Bead 1: Fitzgerald’s description of his main character’s Princeton days.
Bead 2: The fact of Fitzgerald himself having gone to Princeton.
Bead 3: Another favorite writer of mine — Michael Lewis of Moneyball and The Big Short fame — being a Princeton grad.
Just when my mind threatened to abandon the novel entirely in favor of some daydream about a baby-faced, orange-and-black-sweatshirt-clad Michael Lewis reading The Great Gatsby while leaning against an elm outside Nassau Hall, a fatal car wreck in This Side of Paradise yanked me back into the story. Then came this passage:
"I don’t know what happened," said Ferrenby in a strained voice. "Dick was driving and he wouldn’t give up the wheel; we told him he’d been drinking too much—then there was this damn curve—oh, my God!…" He threw himself face downward on the floor and broke into dry sobs.
The doctor had arrived, and Amory went over to the couch, where some one handed him a sheet to put over the body. With a sudden hardness, he raised one of the hands and let it fall back inertly. The brow was cold but the face not expressionless. He looked at the shoe-laces—Dick had tied them that morning. He had tied them—and now he was this heavy white mass.
This mention of shoelaces threw me clear of the wreckage, clear of the whole novel for a moment, back to Michael Lewis, who I remembered saying this when Ira Glass interviewed him back in 2011:
I’m always attracted to the idea that there’s value in things that other people aren’t looking at. There’s a version of this in watching people when I’m writing about them. I always try to look at the things, the details … that most people don’t pay attention to. Fingernails. Their shoelaces. Things that might have been done unselfconsciously on their person. And so I kind of look for the version of that in the society as well. I just grafted onto a journalism career an idea I encountered as an art history student at Princeton. The great connoisseur Bernard Berenson, who was the kind of first man in to go catalog the Italian Renaissance painters, had this problem that 80 guys painted the virgin in 1410. How do you separate one from the other? They’re all trying to look like each other, more or less. His idea was: Look at the details of the painting that the artist was least self-conscious about. So he looked at the fingernails of the virgin and the toenails of the baby Jesus. And that was how he started to classify, he started to identify the hands of painters. And I just took that idea into the world.
Thomas Beller, in what I’m coming to recognize as his characteristically companionable and elegant way, has written a new post for newyorker.com called "Saying Goodbye to Now." He confesses to a strange parental urge I recognize in myself — “as she was airborne, my hand twitched and slapped my pocket, in the dim hope that I could locate my camera, pull it out, and shoot while the moment still held” — and reflects on the way photojournalist Tim Page peered at contact sheets of his old photos to coax memories while writing a memoir. Then comes this:
We are now all Tim Page. Or, we have contact sheets. At least, those of us who snap streams of images as though they were jelly beans being scooped into a hand. But a jelly bean in a hand makes sense as long as you eat it. What would you say about a person who collected jelly beans? Whose home was filled with glass jar after glass jar of them? One could ask such a person, What are you planning on doing with all those jelly beans?
This, which comes later, intrigues me:
It’s an era of controlled deprivations and detoxification, of fasts and cleanses. Perhaps everyone should make a weekly ritual of twenty-four hours of undocumented life. Periods of time in which memory must do all the heavy lifting, or none of it, as it chooses, the consequences being what they may be. No phone, no eclipse glasses to mitigate the intensity of what lies before you. The only options are appetite, experience, memory, and later, if so inclined, writing it down.
And yes, I am the same guy who, on this very day, found himself seized by the urge to shoot a photo while showering. Not that kind of shower photo. Innocuous. But certainly nothing I could do in good conscience while devoting myself to a ritual of “twenty-four hours of undocumented life.”
I continue to time-waste on ancient Latrell Sprewell legal history
I didn’t manage to sleep away my overnight fascination with this week’s marriage-equality decision in Nevada, specifically District Judge Robert C. Jones invoking the precedent of the Ninth Circuit’s 2001 decision in the case that followed Latrell Sprewell’s punishment for choking his NBA coach. Having now bothered to read Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, I’m even more baffled. Here I should add the usual “Totally Not A Lawyer”™ caveat. Still, tucking a Sprewell citation into the marriage-equality decision feels like the sort of thing a judge would do on a dare. Here is what Jones wrote:
The court, however, is not required to accept as true allegations that are merely conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences. See Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors , 266 F.3d 979, 988 (9th Cir. 2001).
Got that? The court doesn’t have to swallow “unwarranted deductions” or “unreasonable inferences.” Since Jones backs this up with the Sprewell decision, I guess we can assume that before 2001 courts were “required to accept as true” all those “unwarranted deductions” and “unreasonable inferences.” It must have been chaos.
Beyond that, the Sprewell case makes for strange reading because of the judicial convention of attributing acts to the litigant which are actually acts by the litigant’s lawyers. Reading it, I kept thinking “Latrell Sprewell is a terrible lawyer.” Because of passages like this:
Sprewell argues that the foregoing claims do not necessitate an interpretation of the CBA and therefore fall outside the preemptive ambit of section 301. Sprewell is mistaken.
When Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk in 2010, one of the issues she talked about—and later expounded on in her 2011 commencement speech at Barnard—was likability. “Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women,” she said. This isn’t news to feminists, so what I can’t figure out is why—despite deep knowledge of this pervasive double standard—so many women still insist on being likable, often to their own detriment.
For me, it was wasting countless hours arguing with people on the Internet—giving equal time to thoughtful and asinine commenters—because I thought somehow it would show me to be fair and open-minded. It pains me to think of what I could have achieved if I had that time back.
Jennifer Egan wrote this in 1997 about her anorexia:
By mistaking my physical self for the world and exerting my power over that, I could experience the sensations of triumph while remaining essentially harmless: preoccupied, physically weak, inhabiting a world more narrowly circumscribed, in these ways, than my mother’s had been. When I think on those years, the waste of time is what I most regret; all that thought and worry, those physical trials. I could have learned Greek or Latin with that time. I could have built a boat and sailed around the world. But these regrets are subsumed, finally, by sheer relief at having been released from that tiny box of thought, subtly, almost without my noticing, somewhere around the time I published a novel. That was my first, tentative brush with the world beyond myself, and it led me to imagine what real power might feel like.
Just as we always looked for our parents in the post cards they sent us, so we looked for them in the picture books on the living-room table. “Today they are in Paris. Let’s try to find them.” The big green book with “Vues de Paris” in gold on the cover was placed on the carpet and opened. … (A) new image was before us—the Rue de Rivoli taken with a camera in full daylight, the shadows quite visible and clouds in the sky.
"Here they are, entering this car."
"No, they are here. See? There’s Father.”
"Oh, no, you are mistaken. I think they are back here, clear outside of the page. They will reach it tomorrow."
"No, they are right here in this car, and we can’t see them."
This was only a game and we knew it, and yet the longing for our parents was such that to look at those crowds in the streets of Paris was like being close to them. If anyone had told me that a new person had come into a certain page, I would have believed it—or at least I would have looked, with an absurd hope in the back of my mind. And I did, in fact, look every morning, knowing that this was madness. Had those been drawings and not photography, I would never have thought of doing such a thing, but photography was real; that was exactly what those people had looked like in the Rue de Rivoli. Only one more thing was needed—that the picture go right on developing itself after it had been taken and after it had been printed in this book. And some day, by means of other inventions, such as the waves in the ether, perhaps this would be possible.
"Terror and Grief" is included in Tucci’s The Rain Came Last & Other Stories, which I bought thanks to Thomas Beller, who read and discussed Tucci’s “The Evolution of Knowledge” for the January 2012 edition of the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve listened to that one.