30 January 2012

This month, my Post-40’s Bloomers column at The Millions features Daniel Orozco, whose story collection Orientation will (in my humble opinion) both engage and inspire you.

…I’ve been thinking about you.

And I admit it bums me out that — after such an intense and real togetherness that we all shared, hope and change, etc — you gave up on President Obama, and sometimes you stink-talk him publicly.  I am not discounting your disappointment.  Maybe there was a particular issue, dear to your heart, and you feel that the President reneged on a campaign promise.  Or maybe you’re frustrated by his cautious pragmatism.  Or his pie-in-the-sky ambition.  Or his radical liberalism.  Or his moderate centrism.  Or his capitalism.  Or his socialism.  Maybe he is too black for you, or not black enough.

Maybe it’s much closer to home, i.e. you or someone you love is currently an unemployment statistic.

I am not discounting any of this.  I can name a major issue or two that the President is not addressing the way I think he should; and my daily life is directly affected by the mortgage crisis, lack of access to credit, the cost of health care, and big-business exploitation of the environment.

But look: on what are you basing your conclusion that it’s all the President’s “fault”?  On media bytes about how “the President clearly can’t run against the Republicans based on his record, because  look at how terrible everything is”?  I just ask that you look closely at the complexity and depth of the disaster(s) President Obama inherited.  Do some more research on what he’s actually attempted to do (and why he failed), everything he’s succeeded in doing (and how he managed that), and what he plans to continue doing in order to achieve the most General Good possible.  I myself, on a basic level, still trust that this President’s definition of the most General Good is both smart and noble — not perfectly so, but as comprehensively as anything we’ve seen in a long time.

Read Ryan Lizza’s profile in the New Yorker of Obama’s thorough, thoughtful, and disciplined decision-making process over the last two years for a sense of both the goodness and the imperfection of that process.

Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough—but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.

I’m not sure why this assessment should/would make Obama supporters abandon him; and it disappoints me that it does. If Obama had not become supremely “canny and tough,” if he had not looked squarely at real obstacles to his most General Good agenda; if he had remained what many feared he was, i.e. all poetry and no prose, inspiring and appealing but unqualified to govern — it seems to me we’d be in much worse trouble now.

We elected him because he’s no dummy, and because he got into this with a genuine vision for productive politics.  He is not a monarch; has 4 to 8 years to accomplish things (with half of that time really being sucked up by campaigning).  We should grow up and stop acting like he is operating in a no-limitations political system with all the time and magical influence in the world.  We should recognize that when faced many times a day with deciding between get-something-good-done-at-the-cost-of-something-else, vs get-nothing-done-in-order-to-appear-consistent-or-principled-in-a-simplistic-way,  you do the best you can; you are making very difficult decisions, you hardly ever feel satisfied with them, and you need the support of your supporters.  Keep him accountable, sure; but please, reconsider your easy dismissal and stink-talking.

21 January 2012

An exhibit at Tibor deNagy of Elizabeth Bishop‘s art — both her original art and art she collected — reminds me that the creative process is constant.  Writing, painting, collecting too – these are all acts of seeing.

I love the inscription of “Happy Birthday” here – no one knows to whom Bishop wrote this, some speculate that she wrote/painted it for herself.


43 King Street in NYC, where EB lived not too happily (for a year or so, I believe).  She was never able to feel at home in New York.  “I’ve never felt particularly homeless, but, then, I’ve never felt particularly at home.  I guess that’s about right for a poet’s sense of home.”


EB did not have an easy life — she was adrift, suffered heartbreaks and isolation — but she made her own way, always finding ways to live where she wanted, and how she wanted (Maine, Key West, Brazil) — as an artist.  A rare and beautiful thing.

16 January 2012

I worked through most of MLK day, but I did enjoy wandering the Studio Museum of Harlem for an hour or so.  It’s a privilege to live in this neighborhood, to partake in its culture, present and past; and I forget it too easily.

I found this photograph utterly arresting and beautiful.  I failed to photograph the plaque with the artist’s name, but I’m working on tracking it down.

Kira Lynn Harris‘s homage to Romare Bearden‘s “The Block,” part of the Romare Bearden Project, celebrating the centennial of his birth.

If you’re a New Yorker, be sure to make the trip uptown; if you’re an uptowner, be sure to get over to the Studio Museum sometime if you haven’t. It will  be worth your while.

14 January 2012

Thanks, Lisa Peet at Like Fire, for alerting us to The Next Best Book Blog — a site devoted to highlighting and reviewing the best books published by indie presses.  Woot woot!

11 January 2012

Two things: an essay and a blog post.

My essay on James Salter, “In the Light Where Art and Longing Meet: My Day With James Salter,” is in the current print issue of Tin House Magazine.  I couldn’t be more tickled.  The project began almost exactly two years ago(!) — with my piece at The Millions (on sex writing by “great” male writers), a stunning email from JS himself, and an ensuing correspondence over the following year.  Other amazing authors in this issue, themed “Beauty” — Marilynne Robinson, Michel Houellebecq, Eric Puchner, Paul Willems, Michelle Widgen, Aimee Bender on artist Amy Cutler, and more.

I also have a blog post, “Living and Learning in Bookstores,” as part of Tin House‘s “Book Clubbing” blog series — wherein I describe the independent bookstores in NYC that I love, and the unassuming bookstore in Seattle where I embarked on my literary education, many lifetimes (although really not that many years) ago. Enjoy!

10 January 2011

We’ve been obsessed with the Republican primaries and debates here.  I suppose that means I’m not  as cynical as I thought I was; I keep looking for candidates to break through with a true voice, to stray from pre-packaged message message message.  Newt and Dr. Ron are the ones to watch in this respect, although John Huntsman showed signs of life on Sunday in NH.

Romney‘s electability strategy is clear: I’ve run businesses, I’ve lived “in the real economy,” that Obama guy hasn’t.  Another strategy that I imagine the Romneyans will pursue might go like this: I’m a doer, not a hand-wringer, we need real-world action; this isn’t a time for “nuanced thinking,” for professorial passivity.


With the departure of Obama’s Chief of Staff Bill Daley, this dichotomy of character comes up again: Rahm Emanuel was a “ball-buster,” a guy who “got things done.”  Again, he wasn’t known as a thinker, a ponderer, but rather a guy with a short fuse and sharp, goal-oriented focus.  This is apparently what a good Chief of Staff needs to be, what Daley wasn’t (not enough, anyway).

But what about in the rest of life? I wonder often if we’re all destined to be one or the other, in a final-accounting-of-your-life sort of way, i.e. thinkers or doers.  People of process or people of results.  An obvious answer is, “Of course not.” Weirdly, the older I get, the more I think (in an unnuanced way), maybe so…


4 January 2012

Mark Haddon‘s new novel, The Red House, will be out in June.  I wrote a brief blurb about it for The Millions‘ “Big Preview,” i.e. our most-anticipated-2012-releases extravaganza.  Check it out — it’s exciting and overwhelming, from the perspective of both writer and reader.

In researching The Red House, I found a few of Haddon’s blog posts about his writing process, in real time.  This one encouraged me — it reminded me that writing a novel is hard, it’s supposed to be hard; and yet half the angst of the process (for me, lately) is this ridiculous, tormenting voice inside that says “It shouldn’t be so hard, so slow, so painful; what’s wrong with you?”

I’m about 30,000 words in and it finally has momentum, but it’s been a long haul (i’ve just noticed a previous entry last december in which i announce cheerfully that i’m under way, so whatever i say should be taken with a pinch of salt). on the train on the way home i was perversely reassured by reading hermione lee‘s introduction to virginia woolf’s the years in which she detailed the interminable, painful and tortuous genesis of the novel (impossible… eternal… incredibly dreary… my vomit… i’m so sick of it… never again… failure… failure).

Perverse reassurance is something that we seem to “pay forward,” so thank you, MH.  And thank you, VW, who is perhaps the most extreme/haunting example of this sort of reassurance: there is suffering in the process of art-making – meaningful suffering – let us never forget.

2 January 2012

In contrast to a barrage of “man of the year” talk surrounding the late Steve Jobs, Sue Halpern offers a counter-view at the New York Review of Books — of a “repellent man” who gave the world not “something of enduring beauty” but rather “products.”  Unlike Jobs’s biographer Walter Isaacson, who put Jobs forth as a “genius” (with attending personality issues), and Jobs who considered himself  a great artist-figure, Halpern suggests that Jobs was mainly in the business of “manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s” — no more, no less.

Steve Jobs cried a lot. This is one of the salient facts about his subject that Isaacson reveals, and it is salient not because it shows Jobs’s emotional depth, but because it is an example of his stunted character. Steve Jobs cried when he didn’t get his own way. He was a bully, a dissembler, a cheapskate, a deadbeat dad, a manipulator, and sometimes he was very nice. Isaacson does not shy away from any of this, and the trouble is that Jobs comes across as such a repellent man [...] derisive of almost everyone, ruthless to people who thought they were his friends, indifferent to his daughters, that the book is often hard to read. Friends and former friends speculate that his bad behavior was a consequence of being put up for adoption at birth. A former girlfriend, who went on to work in the mental health field, thought he had Narcissistic Personality Disorder. John Sculley, who orchestrated Jobs’s expulsion from Apple, wondered if he was bipolar. Jobs himself dismissed his excesses with a single word: artist. Artists, he seemed to believe, got a pass on bad behavior. Isaacson seems to think so, too, proving that it is possible to write a hagiography even while exposing the worst in a person.

The designation of someone as an artist, like the designation of someone as a genius, is elastic, and anyone can claim it for himself or herself and for each other. There is no doubt that the products Steve Jobs brilliantly conceived of and oversaw at Apple were elegant and beautiful, but they were, in the end, products. Artists, typically, aim to put something of enduring beauty into the world; consumer electronics companies aim to sell a lot of gadgets, manufacturing desire for this year’s model in the hope that people will discard last year’s.

The day before Jobs died, Apple launched the fifth iteration of the iPhone, the 4S, and four million were sold in the first few days. Next year will bring the iPhone 5, and a new MacBook, and more iPods and iMacs. What this means is that somewhere in the third world, poor people are picking through heaps of electronic waste in an effort to recover bits of gold and other metals and maybe make a dollar or two. Piled high and toxic, it is leaking poisons and carcinogens like lead, cadmium, and mercury that leach into their skin, the ground, the air, the water. Such may be the longest-lasting legacy of Steve Jobs’s art.


This question of the bad behavior of artists is one I am always interested in.  While I’m not sure I’d necessarily take such a hard line as Halpern’s, there is something — here at the start of the new year — sort of cleansing about her voice in the sea of Jobs-mania.

1 January 2012

Happy 2012, one and all.

Quote for the year: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Tancredi says this to his uncle in The Leopard. We understand that he is speaking of politics, class upheaval, a way of life in 1860 Sicily.  For me, I think it has to do with aging (ugh).  Those things that I would want to “stay as they are” have to do with youth — forward motion, energy, vision, curiosity of the soul, a developing mind.  In order to preserve and nourish these, “things will have to change.”

Diet and exercise, yes. But I’m thinking more along the lines of “strategic spiritual self-nourishment.”  Not exactly sure what I mean by that, but something to do with giving things the time they need, resisting the temptation to rush or cut bate or shortchange.

As for looking back, if you haven’t seen the Year in Pictures 2011 feature at the NY Times, it’s pretty amazing.  Here’s hoping that Campaign 2012 doesn’t make a complete mockery of all that’s happened — what struggling people around the world have expressed — in 2011.




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