Saturday, January 31, 2009

Vacuums Around Vacuums

“We had this confluence of characters—and I use that term very carefully—that Vanity Fair illustration by Riskoincluded people like Powell, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, and so forth, which allowed one perception to be ‘the dream team.’ It allowed everybody to believe that this Sarah Palin–like president—because, let’s face it, that’s what he was—was going to be protected by this national-security elite, tested in the cauldrons of fire. What in effect happened was that a very astute, probably the most astute, bureaucratic entrepreneur I’ve ever run into in my life became the vice president of the United States.”

“He became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.”

~ Lawrence Wilkerson, top aide and later chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell from “Farewell to All That,” Vanity Fair (February 2009)

Friday, January 30, 2009

Silence, Attention, Selflessness

Pico Iyer tells Studio 360’s Kurt Anderson about Buddhism in Japanese daily life:

Love After Love

by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

[Thanks Angie!]

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bound by Feathers

Feather in Bas-Relief
by Allen Edwin Butt, from Poetry Magazine (January 2009)

Poetry Words without much use
now. Unable to remake
the thing. And I thought

what should I think—
followed by: spring light looks
like feathers. (Birds

seemed conveniently
decorous.) What then
does this leave I asked

& was surprised to know
so quickly—that my understanding
of what the light & birds

could not be made to mean
would not detract
from them as they

were. Bound by feathers
(a thought, I will admit,
born of artifice alone)

they bore themselves aloft.
What could I counter with?
I, who held my heart

in offering as much for
show as for a fear so deep
I found I couldn't name it.

*     *     *

AllenButtAllen Edwin Butt lives in Beaufort, South Carolina, and is a student at Presbyterian College. This is his first appearance in print.”

Poetry Magazine Podcast

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

Surrounded by members of Congress President Barack Obama signs the Lilly Ledbetter Bill with Lilly Ledbetter, at center behind Obama, Thursday, Jan. 29, 2009, in the East Room at the White House in Washington. Others standing from left, are Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Me., and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. Associated Press © 2009 "Money could not have bought what I have had the last two years since I've been in this fight. I'm still basically the same person, but my life has expanded because I have met so many wonderful, great people. It's sort of shocking when I answer my phone and someone says, Will you please hold for the President-elect?”

~ Lilly Ledbetter, from “Fair Pay Law Strikes A Blow For Equal Pay,” by Nina Totenberg, Morning Edition (1.29.09)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One Story Becomes Another

by W.S. Merwin

Remember how the naked soul
comes to language and at once knows
loss and distance and believing

then for a time it will not run
with its old freedom
like a light innocent of measure
but will hearken to how
one story becomes another
and will try to hear where
they have emerged from
and where they are heading
as though they were its own legend
running before the words and beyond them
naked and never looking back

through the noise of questions

The Sound of the Bell

The Tongue Says Loneliness
by Jane Hirschfield

The tongue says loneliness, anger, grief,
but does not feel them.

As Monday cannot feel Tuesday,
nor Thursday
reach back to Wednesday
as a mother reaches out for her found child.

As this life is not a gate, but the horse plunging through it.

Not a bell,
but the sound of the bell in the bell-shape,
lashing full strength at the first blow from inside the iron.

The Snowy Day

The Snowy Day“One winter morning Peter woke up and looked out the window. Snow had fallen during the night. It covered everything as far as he could see.”

From The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

What is it about?

lodgemccabe512 “A novel is a long answer to the question ‘What is it about?’ I think it should be possible to give a short answer - in other words, I believe a novel should have a thematic and narrative unity that can be described. Each of my novels corresponds to a particular phase or aspect of my own life: for example, going to the University of California at the height of the Student Revolution, being an English Catholic at a period of great change in the Church, getting on to the international academic conference circuit; but this does not mean they are autobiographical in any simple, straightforward sense. I begin with a hunch that what I have experienced or observed has some representative (i.e., more than merely private) significance that could be brought out by means of a fictional story. To begin the novel I need to discover the structural idea that will generate the story: two professors passing each other over the North Pole on their way to exchange jobs, for example, or a parallel between the antics of globetrotting academics and the adventures of the knights of chivalric romance. I seem to have a fondness for binary structures, which predates my interest, as a literary critic, in structuralism. I use comedy to explore serious subjects, and find Mikhail Bakhtin 's idea that the novel is an inherently carnivalesque form, subverting monologic ideologies by laughter and a polyphony of discourses, immensely appealing. I am fascinated by the power of narrative, when skillfully managed, to keep the reader turning the pages, but I also aim to write novels that will stand up to being read more than once.”

~ David Lodge

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Indirect Methods of Communication

Testing the Limits of What I Know and Feel
by John Updike, NPR’s This I Believe (4.18.05):

Photo of John Updike by Nubar Alexanian A person believes various things at various times, even on the same day. At the age of 73, I seem most instinctively to believe in the human value of creative writing, whether in the form of verse or fiction, as a mode of truth-telling, self-expression and homage to the twin miracles of creation and consciousness. The special value of these indirect methods of communication –- as opposed to the value of factual reporting and analysis -- is one of precision. Oddly enough, the story or poem brings us closer to the actual texture and intricacy of experience.

In fiction, imaginary people become realer to us than any named celebrity glimpsed in a series of rumored events, whose causes and subtler ramifications must remain in the dark. An invented figure like Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary emerges fully into the light of understanding, which brings with it identification, sympathy and pity. I find in my own writing that only fiction -- and rarely, a poem -- fully tests me to the kind of limits of what I know and what I feel. In composing even such a frank and simple account as this profession of belief, I must fight against the sensation that I am simplifying and exploiting my own voice.

I also believe, instinctively, if not very cogently, in the American political experiment, which I take to be, at bottom, a matter of trusting the citizens to know their own minds and best interests. "To govern with the consent of the governed": this spells the ideal. And though the implementation will inevitably be approximate and debatable, and though totalitarianism or technocratic government can obtain some swift successes, in the end, only a democracy can enlist a people's energies on a sustained and renewable basis. To guarantee the individual maximum freedom within a social frame of minimal laws ensures -- if not happiness -- its hopeful pursuit.

Cosmically, I seem to be of two minds. The power of materialist science to explain everything -- from the behavior of the galaxies to that of molecules, atoms and their sub-microscopic components -- seems to be inarguable and the principal glory of the modern mind. On the other hand, the reality of subjective sensations, desires and -- may we even say -- illusions, composes the basic substance of our existence, and religion alone, in its many forms, attempts to address, organize and placate these. I believe, then, that religious faith will continue to be an essential part of being human, as it has been for me.

* * *

Remembering John Updike, Literary Legend,” excerpts from Fresh Air interviews from March 17, 1988, March 16, 1989, and Oct. 14, 1997.

Ideas Flow Best

Mozart circa 1780, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce "When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep — it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best, and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not, nor can I force them."

~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Triple Bottom Line

"With her inspired ideas and fierce persistence, Majora Carter managed to bring the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years, Hunts Point Riverside Park. Then she scored $1.25 million in federal funds for a greenway along the South Bronx waterfront, bringing the neighborhood open space, pedestrian and bike paths, and space for mixed-use economic development."

~ From "Majora Carter: Greening the ghetto," TED Talks (Feb. 2006)

Moments of Rest

"It’s not about registering, rating, reacting or ranting. It exists to give you a moment of stillness each day...Just click the button and watch. Don’t expect to be entertained; don’t expect anything. Just click and watch.”

~ David Beardsley, on his unblog Moments of Rest

Saturday, January 24, 2009


Harmony of Sameness and Difference
by Sekito Kisen (700-790)

The mind of the great sage of India
is intimately transmitted from west to east.
While human faculties are sharp or dull,
the Way has no northern or southern ancestors.

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

All the objects of the senses interact and yet do not.
Interacting brings involvement.
Otherwise, each keeps its place.

Sights vary in quality and form,
sounds differ as pleasing or harsh.
Refined and common speech come together
in the dark, clear and murky phrases are
distinguished in the light.

The four elements return to their natures
just as a child turns to its mother;
Fire heats, wind moves, water wets, earth is solid.

Eye and sights, ear and sounds, nose and smells, tongue and tastes;
Thus with each and every thing,
depending on these roots, the leaves spread forth.
Trunk and branches share the essence;
revered and common, each has its speech.

In the light there is darkness,
but don't take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light, but don't see it as light.
Light and dark oppose one another
like the front and back foot in walking.

Each of the myriad things has its merit,
expressed according to function and place.
Phenomena exist; box and lid fit;
principle responds; arrow points meet.

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don't set up standards of your own.
If you don't understand the Way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?

Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.
I respectfully urge you who study the mystery,
do not pass your days and nights in vain.

Friday, January 23, 2009


Great Moments in Presidential Speeches

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Life In Technicolor ii


How Relevant is this Anymore

“…in 1996 I was in my hardcore Romantic phase. I was so in love with Puccini and Tchaikovsky and stuff like that. Very romantic, emotional music. And I got to Harvard wanting to learn how to do that. Of course that music is not only a hundred years old, but it was just completely out of style after the 20th century and everything that happened. So I don’t even know what I was hearing. It was atonal. But several years later I got another music teacher and I was in a different frame of mind and I really came to love some of that 20th century music—Stravinsky and Bartok and even Schoenberg—stuff like that.

“I got this great composition teacher who taught me private lessons from UCLA. Some of the homework assignments he gave me at that time—2004—I integrated into a song on Weezer’s latest album, the Red Album, called The Greatest Man That Ever Lived. At the end of that song—it’s a six-minute song, very epic—and at the end there’s all this vocal counterpoint. He taught me how to do all that. And actually, a lot of it is from a homework assignment he gave me. I was learning how to write three-part vocal counterpoint in the style of 16th century.

“And as soon as the album was finished, I sent it to him. I knew he would be overjoyed to hear his influence on a modern rock record. You know, as a college professor in a somewhat obscure field, you might start to think like how relevant is this anymore. And he probably would have been overjoyed to hear that on a Weezer record. He was such an enthusiastic guy. And I was sad to learn that he passed away before he had a chance to hear that album.”

~ Rivers Cuomo, speaking to Terri Gross on Fresh Air (1.21.09)

Mind, mind, mind

Last Robot Song
by Robert Pinsky, New Yorker (1.26.09)

It was a little newborn god
That made the first instrument:
Sweet vibration of
Mind, mind, mind
Enclosed in its orbit.

He scooped out a turtle’s shell
And strung it with a rabbit’s guts.
O what a stroke to invent
Music from an empty case
Strung with bloody filaments—

The wiry rabbitflesh
Plucked or strummed,
Pulled taut across the gutted
Resonant hull of the turtle:
Music from strings that
Tremble over a hollow—
Sweet conception, sweet
Instrument of

Mind, mind, mind:
Itself a capable vibration
Thrumming from here to there
In the cloven brainflesh
Contained in its helmet of bone—
Like an electronic boxful
Of channels and filaments
Bundled inside its case,
A little musical robot

Dreamed up by the mind
Embedded in the brain
With its blood-warm channels
And its humming network
Of neurons, engendering

The newborn baby god—
As clever and violent
As his own instrument
Of sweet, all-consuming
Imagination, held
By its own vibration,

Mind, mind, mind pulled
Taut in its bony shell,
Dreaming up Heaven and Hell.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Praise Song for the Day

Poet Elizabeth Alexander’s poem, delivered at the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

Praise song for the day.

Praise Song for the Day Each day we go about our business, walking past each other, catching each others’ eyes or not, about to speak or speaking. All about us is noise. All about us is noise and bramble, thorn and din, each one of our ancestors on our tongues. Someone is stitching up a hem, darning a hole in a uniform, patching a tire, repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.

A farmer considers the changing sky; A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”

We encounter each other in words, Words spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed; Words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark the will of someone and then others who said, “I need to see what’s on the other side; I know there’s something better down the road.”

We need to find a place where we are safe; We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain, that many have died for this day. Sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle; praise song for the day. Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; The figuring it out at kitchen tables.

Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”

Others by first do no harm, or take no more than you need.

What if the mightiest word is love, love beyond marital, filial, national. Love that casts a widening pool of light. Love with no need to preempt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp -- praise song for walking forward in that light.

Pete Seeger and friends lead the crowd in singing Woody Guthrie's This Land is Your Land (1.18.09)

No Use

“There is no use coming to poets…expecting or ordering them to deliver a certain product to fit a certain agenda, for although they must feel answerable to the world they inhabit, poets, if they are to do their proper work, must also be free.”

~ Seamus Heaney

Full Peal

Trinity Church in Manhattan plans a full peal in honor of Barack Obama's inauguration today. The churches twelve bells will be ringing for three and a half hours. "What we do is ring them one after another, not necessarily in the same sequence all the time, that's where our music comes in," said tower secretary Tony Furinvall. "You're not allowed to swap people out. We call ringing the ultimate team activity."

Monday, January 19, 2009

We've Got Some Difficult Days Ahead

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."

~ Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968)

Like Any Other Day

"Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle. It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb."

[Thank you Dalai Grandma!]

Infinite Variety

KURT ANDERSON: When you wake up in the morning and you sit down to practice, as I assume you do, what do you first play?

YO-YO MA: I do something like [plays long, random notes that sound like tuning]. I become friends with the instrument. I try not to tax it too much. It's really like warming up a car or warming up your body. You stretch it. You don't go into a fast run. You don't take it to sixty in three seconds. Because what's funny about an instrument made out of wood, every day the humidity is different. EVery day the temperature is different. And wood, as well as our bodies, are slightly different. I think it's actually making that relationship happen.

KURT: And once you do get it warmed up, what are you inclined to play?

YO-YO: I might play some Bach, which is something I started learning as soon as I started playing. And it's also something that's written for cello alone. This is music that is somewhat meditative...I think of the flow of water. The afternoon light playing on leaves. If you see something that is familiar and yet it's different every day. What's amazing is that with a great friend, you could see them thousands of times and you don't look at them and say, Well today I'm really bored with you. ...Bach was a pictorial composer. One of the things that he coded was infinite variety. Instead of materiality, of saying, this is the same thing, I need a new product, it's something new every time.

From Studio 360 (Oct. 19, 2007)

Yo-Yo performs J.S. Bach's "Suite for Solo Cello
No. 1 in G Major: V. Menuett" in Studio 360.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Hardest Cut

VULTURE: What’s the hardest cut you’ve ever had to make?

DARREN ARONOFSKY: The hardest was while making this movie, actually. We had a scene near the end with Mickey in front of the mirror, where he’s talking and he just went to some incredibly deep, dark place. Seriously, it was possibly the finest piece of acting I’ve ever seen in my life. It was absolutely intense. And I had to cut it. It would have totally upset the balance of the film — it was that powerful. It was heartbreaking.

From “…on Mickey Rourke and the Benefits of Having a Small Music Budget,” New York Magazine (12.17.08)


Math is a Religion

Calvin & Hobbes

The World Offers Itself

Wild Geese
by Mary Oliver, from Dream Work 

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
    love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Constantly Whistling

From “Andrew Bird Discovers His Inner Operatic Folkie,” by Jonathan Mahler, New York Times Sunday Magazine (1.02.09):

Compositionally, Bird takes simple melodies and gradually extends them into complex arrangements. These melodies pop into his head unannounced. The way it usually works, he will suddenly find himself whistling a new one — Bird is constantly whistling — or even chewing his food to it. He never records melodies or even writes them down. He assumes that if they’re worth remembering, he’ll remember them. The longer they remain lodged in his head, the more likely it is that they will eventually be fashioned into a song. “It’s like I’m my own Top 40 radio station, playing the things that get under my skin,” Bird says. “The ones that really stick are the hits.”

Andrew Bird performing 'Oh No' in Cincinnati, April 5, 2008.

His new CD, Noble Beast, drops Tuesday. Listen to Useless Creatures, the collection of new instrumental works that is included with the deluxe edition.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Birds Fly Away

Theresa Andersson

Panta Rei

“Everything flows.”

~ Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC)

  After all, one does not step into the same river twice. Waters disperse and come together again ... They keep flowing on and flowing away.

Sweet Talk

Billy Collins


Partridge Family Lunch Box I used to walk to grade school in the snow. I would drop off my Partridge Family lunch box at Becky’s house and say hello to her sheepdog, Gretchen, while I waited for Becky to put on her coat. We walked the rest of the way together singing songs we knew from the radio: Annie’s Song by John Denver (You fill up my senses…), Lovin’ You by Minnie Riperton, Evergreen by Barbara Streisand. She explained the sexual subtext to me and told me dirty jokes she’d learned from her older sisters.

Becky was never my girlfriend, but we definitely loved each other which can be better. We practiced cussing and made snow angels whenever we got the urge. We acted out of favorite personalities and scenes from Sybil. We pretended to be royalty when the older kids in yellow vests stopped traffic with flags and metal whistles so we could safely cross Kellogg. We schemed to one day skip school to hang out in Cero’s, the fancy chocolate shop just one street away from Sunnyside Elementary, but we never gathered enough courage or money to pull it off.

At noon we would walk back to her house for lunch. Her grandmother toasted a grilled cheese sandwich for her on the ironing board in the cluttered dining room. I ate my peanut butter and jelly on Wonder Bread and my stack of Pringles, two at a time at first and then savoring the final ones in smaller and smaller nibbles.

One time, I invited Becky to spend the night. We were in second or third grade—when everyone else was having his or her best friend sleep over. My mother said it wasn’t a good idea. I didn’t understand. She couldn’t explain her reason.

“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked. “Do you think we’re going to have sex or something?”

She said Becky was welcome to sleep over if her parents said it was okay. They didn’t so she never did.

The summer before fifth grade, we sat on her porch swing deciding not to say good-bye just because she was moving to the far west side of town. Her sisters had already graduated from high school. Her father’s camera store was doing well. Gretchen had died. We said we would stay in touch and go roller skating and visit the zoo since it was so close to her new house.

She invited me to her birthday party the following year. I didn’t know any of her new friends. I didn’t understand what was funny about what made them all laugh. We didn’t seem to have the same taste in music anymore.

I never saw her again, but I find that I still love her.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


The Oscar nominated short made by Shane Acker.

Directed by Shane Acker

Quotes from John Gardner

From In the Suicide Mountains:

In the Suicide Mountains "There are three basic theories about the world, Prince. One is that it is essentially good, one that it is essentially bad, and one that it's neutral. What a wise man understands is that none of that is true. The world is a hodge-podge. Our human business, therefore—since our chief attribute is consciousness, and our greatest gift from God is, as Dante said, free will—our human business is to clarify, that is sort things out, put the good with the good and the evil with the evil and the indifferent with the indifferent. Only when reality is properly sorted out can there be stability or hope for the future in either the individual or the state."

From The Art of Fiction:

The Art of Fiction "To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one's work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged, to live on."

[Thanks JC!]

The Monastery Will Come to Each of Us

"I’ve been teaching meditation for two and a half decades, always exploring new ways to improve what I teach. Over the course of those years, I have made a number of interesting discoveries, some of which do not appear in standard books on the subject. One question I struggled with early on was how to make the practice doable by anyone, without watering down its intensity. When people read accounts of traditional monastic training, the usual reaction is, “If that’s what it takes to get enlightenment, I think I’ll wait for a few lifetimes.” And indeed it’s true. Most people have neither the time nor the inclination to do intensive formal meditation practice. Why should they? Isn’t there enough physical and emotional discomfort in ordinary life? Why intentionally seek it out?"

"But the monastery will come to each of us when we have to confront our fears, losses, compulsions and anxieties, or process the aftermath of trauma. The monastery comes to us in the form of emotional crisis, illness or injury, a phobia or a failed relationship. The question is whether we will be in a position to recognize and use it as such. If there were a way to help people maintain continuous quality meditation through intense real world challenges, anyone could experience insight and purification comparable to that of traditional renunciates’ regimes. Basically it boils down to this: Intensity of Challenge multiplied by Sharpness of Mindfulness multiplied by Depth of Equanimity equals the Rate of Psychospiritual Growth. When things are most challenging, we have the opportunity to leap forward in our spiritual development, provided we make use of the challenge."

~ Shinzen Young, Bringing the Monastery Home

Monday, January 12, 2009

PS22 Chorus

PS22 Chorus sings Coldplay’s Viva la Vida

Performing for Tori Amos

[Thanks Linda!]

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Does Happiness Have a Price Tag?

“Can happiness be bought? To find out, author Benjamin Wallace sampled the world's most expensive products, including a bottle of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, 8 ounces of Kobe beef and the fabled (notorious) Kopi Luwak coffee. His critique may surprise you.”

TED Talks

Refusing to Choose

From “Choosing Not To Choose,” by T.M. Shine, Washington Post (12.4.08):

Hill Creek Pictures / Getty Images This may be the best idea I've ever had. For two weeks, I relinquished control over my decisions. I turned the reins over to perfect (well, I don't know about perfect) strangers.

Imagine the possibilities. You go shopping for sneakers and ask the person in the next aisle to pick out a pair for you, or you hop in a taxi and ask the driver to take you where he thinks you should go. Start small. At a restaurant, approach the couple eating at the next table -- "I hate to bother you, but I need to know what I want for dessert" -- and work your way up to bigger decisions: "Burial or cremation?"

You can't start smaller than Starbucks. I was bellying up to the barista, perspiring heavily from a bike ride, when I started to ask the woman beside me what I wanted to drink. She cut me off midway through my spiel about how I was asking strangers to make my decisions and social experiment and whatnot ... She didn't need any of that nonsense.

"Just have a water," she said, snatching a bottle from the front case and thrusting it at me.

She herself ordered something that took the barista 11 moves to make, but I was suddenly a model of simplicity: a sweaty man drinking cold water.

Already, my life was beginning to emerge from the fog. Left to stew in my own brew of insecurities, I'd still be tortured over caf, decaf or half-caf. And the encounter didn't seem odd. Thanks to television shows such as "The Office" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," awkwardness is now fashionable. Awkward is the new suave.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Having a Coke with You

Frank O´Hara reading his poem in his flat in New York in 1966, shortly before his accidental death. Taken from "USA: Poetry: Frank O'Hara" produced and directed by Richard Moore, for KQED and WNET. Originally aired on September 1, 1966.

Loss Can Be Beautiful

Upon Discovering My Entire Solution to the Attainment of Immortality Erased From the Blackboard Except the Word ‘Save’

by Dobby Gibson, from Polar

Polar If you have seen the snow
somewhere slowly fall
on a bicycle,
then you understand
all beauty will be lost
and that even that loss
can be beautiful.
And if you have looked
at a winter garden
and seen not a winter garden
but a meditation on shape,
then you know why
this season is not
known for its words,
the cold too much
about the slowing of matter,
not enough about the making of it.
So you are blessed
to forget this way:
a jump rope in the ice melt,
a mitten that has lost its hand,
a sun that shines
as if it doesn’t mean it.
And if in another season
you see a beautiful woman
use her bare hands
to smooth wrinkles
from her expensive dress
for the sake of dignity,
but in so doing trace
the outlines of her thighs,
then you will remember
surprise assumes a space
that has first been forgotten,
especially here, where we
rarely speak of it,
where we walk out onto the roofs
of frozen lakes
simply because we’re stunned
we really can.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Life Beyond Words

by Wendell Berry, from A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979–1997

A Timbered Choir I would not have been a poet
except that I have been in love
alive in this mortal world,
or an essayist except that I
have been bewildered and afraid,
or a storyteller had I not heard
stories passing to me through the air,
or a writer at all except
I have been wakeful at night
and words have come to me
out of their deep caves
needing to be remembered.
But on the days I am lucky
or blessed, I am silent.
I go into the one body
that two make in making marriage
that for all our trying, all
our deaf-and-dumb of speech,
has no tongue. Or I give myself
to gravity, light, and air
and am carried back
to solitary work in fields
and woods, where my hands
rest upon a world unnamed,
complete, unanswerable, and final
as our daily bread and meat.
The way of love leads all ways
to life beyond words, silent
and secret. To serve that triumph
I have done all the rest.

[Thanks Garrison Keillor!]

Something to Do with Loneliness

Infinite Jest “When I was in my twenties, deep down underneath all the bullshit, what I really believed was the point of fiction was to show that the writer was really smart. That sounds terrible to say, but I think, looking back, that’s what was going on. And I don’t think I really understood what loneliness was when I was a young man. And now I’ve got a much less clear idea of what the point of art is, but I think its got something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up a conversation between human beings.”

~ David Foster Wallace, speaking to Michael Silverblatt on the occasion of the publication of his breakthrough novel Infinite Jest in 1996.

* * * * *

Steve Beeson shared this memory on McSweeney’s Memories of David Foster Wallace:

I never met the man, but to Mr. David Wallace I owe my current situation in life. And he left a pretty funny voicemail. My wife and I have a mutual friend who several years ago realized that we were the only two people he knew who had completed Infinite Jest. On her side, she had implored him to find someone with whom she could discuss the book so she could ask the question she'd been dying to ask such a person, Was it worth it? On my side, we were driving to a ski trip, discussing books, and he mentioned Pynchon. Of course Wallace came up. He asked if I had read Infinite Jest; I said, Yes. He stared at me in the rearview mirror and said, I know someone who will sleep with you. Nine months later (these wheels turn slowly), he brought us together at a Halloween party. I walked in early and she was already there. Mike introduced us—Steve, Karen, Karen, Steve, Infinite Jest, go—and walked off. I talked about it for a minute or two, then said, Yeah, I liked it, but it probably wasn't worth it. The rest is, as they say, history.

Except. There's more: the voicemail. Karen and I fell in love, got engaged on the side of a mountain, and planned a shindig. At the reception, among all the toasts, a family friend stands up with a tape player. She recounts the tale. She turns on the player. David Foster Wallace is saying, Uh, um, this is really a strange and almost horrifying thing, but I hear that a couple, Steve and Karen, are joining themselves in holy matrimony because of my book? He goes on to give a funny, rambling, beautiful benediction that we'll always treasure.

So, Mr. David Foster Wallace, thank you for the possibly-not-worth-it tome, dozens of incredible essays, a heartfelt voice from beyond, and a beautiful life with my wife and little boy.

Monday, January 05, 2009

In the Produce Aisle

by Kirsten Dierking, from Northern Oracle

Northern Oracle In the vivid red
of the fresh berries,
in the pebbled skin
of an emerald lime,
in the bright colors
of things made
to be transitory,

you see the same
you find in your own
delicate flesh,
the lines fanned
around your eyes
charming like
the burnish
of plums,

your life like
all the other
fragile organics,
your soft hand
hovering over
the succulent apple,
you reach for it,
already transforming.

[Thanks Garrison Keillor!]

A Heart is Not Enough

Strange Overtones - A Calligraphic Tribute

From Everything That Happens Will Happen Today
David Byrne & Brian Eno

Sunday, January 04, 2009

A Modest Proposal for the Publishing Industry

From “The Plot Curdles,” by Julian Gough (New York Times, 1.4.09):

As we all know, lax writing practices earlier this decade led to irresponsible writing and irresponsible reading. This simply put too many families into books they could not finish. We are seeing the impact on readers and neighborhoods, with five million Americans now behind on their reading. Some are just walking away from novels they should never have been reading in the first place. What began as a subprime reading problem has spread to other, less-risky readers and contributed to excess inventories.

These troubled novels are now parked, or frozen, on the shelves of libraries, bookstores and other reading institutions, preventing these institutions from financing readable novels. The normal buying and selling of nearly all types of literature has become challenged.

The role of the ratings agencies cannot be overlooked in creating this crisis. The Pulitzer, Booker and National Book Foundation committees continued to award top ratings to these novels, even as unread copies piled up all over America.

These unreadable novels are clogging up our literary system, and undermining the strength of our otherwise sound literary institutions. As a result, Americans’ personal libraries are threatened, and the ability of readers to borrow, and of libraries to lend, has been disrupted.

[Read responsibly on…]

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Darkness Around Us is Deep

A Ritual to Read to Each Other
by William Stafford

The Darkness Around Us is DeepIf you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may
miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each
elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

* * * * *

“Stafford is a poet of ordinary life. His collected poems are the journal of a man recording daily concerns. That is why his daily method of writing is relevant to his life's work. You could say that his poetry is truly quotidian: he writes it every day; it comes out of every day. And the poet of the quotidian did not find it necessary to become maudit, to follow Hart Crane to the waterfront or Baudelaire to the whorehouse or even Lowell to McLean's. He got up at six in the morning in a suburb of Portland and drained the sump.”

~ Donald Hall

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Role to Play

Annie Leibovitz, from Annie Leibovitz at Work:

Annie Leibovitz at Work Actors who are photogenic like being photographed, and I’ve come to understand that they make the photograph. I realized when I studied pictures of Marilyn Monroe that it almost didn’t matter who the photographer was. She took charge. It seemed like she was taking the picture. There are other actors, however, who resist being photographed. They feel awkward. It doesn’t seem to them to have anything to do with their work. Meryl Streep and Robert Din Niro are in this category. I have the impression that a photograph seems superficial to them. They associate it with being a star and they think of themselves as actors first. They don’t want to be connected to the star machinery. I think also that actors such as Streep and De Niro got into acting to get away from themselves. They like playing roles and they feel cornered by a photograph. They don’t feel that projecting their personalities is part of what they do. They associate a photograph with selling themselves.

The picture of Meryl Streep in whiteface was made during a session that didn’t start out well. Meryl had only recently become a movie star. I had already done a fashion sitting with her for Vogue, and Life had used a head shot taken from that sitting on their cover a few months earlier. Francesco Scavullo had just shot her for the cover of Time. This round of publicity was for The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Meryl was uncomfortable with all the attention she was getting and she cancelled the first appointment for the shoot, but she was finally persuaded to come to my studio for two and a half hours one morning. She came in and talked about how she didn’t want to be anybody, she was nobody, just an actress. There were a lot of clown books lying around the studio and some white makeup left over from an idea I had for either James Taylor or John Belushi. I told Meryl that she didn’t have to be anybody in particular, and I suggested that maybe she would like to put on whiteface. To be a mime. That set her at ease. She had a role to play. It was her idea to pull at her face.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Fruitful Reciprocity

Excerpts from The Poet in the World by Denise Levertov:

The obligation of the poet (and, by extension, of others committed to the love of literature, as critics and teachers or simply as readers) is not necessarily to write “political” poems (or to focus attention primarily on such poems as more “relevant” than other poems or fictions). The obligation of the writer is: to take personal and active responsibility for his words, whatever they are, and to acknowledge their potential influence on the lives of others. The obligation of teachers and critics is: not to block the dynamic consequences of the words they try to bring close to students and readers. And the obligation of readers is: not to indulge in the hypocrisy of merely vicarious experience, thereby reducing literature to the concept of “just words,” ultimately a frivolity, an irrelevance when the chips are down…When words penetrate deep into us they change the chemistry of the soul, of the imagination. We have no right to do that to people if we don’t share the consequences.

* * * * *

When I was seven or eight and my sister sixteen or seventeen, she described the mind to me as a room full of boxes, in aisles like the shelves of a library, each box with its label. I had heard the term “gray matter,” and so I visualized room and boxes as gray, dust-gray. Her confident description impressed me, but I am glad to say I felt an immediate doubt of its authenticity. Yet I have since seen lovers of poetry, lovers of literature, behave as if it were indeed so, and allow no fruitful reciprocity between poem and action.

O Taste and See

The world is
not with us enough
O taste and see

the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning
if anything all that lives
to the imagination’s tongue,

grief, mercy, language,
tangerine, weather, to
breathe them, bite,
savor, chew, swallow, transform

into our flesh our
deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince,
living in the orchard and being

hungry, and plucking
the fruit.

“No ideas but in things,” said William Carlos Williams. This does not mean “no ideas.” It means that “language [and here I quote Wordsworth] is not the dress, but the incarnation of thoughts.” “No ideas but in things,” means essentially, “Only connect.” And it is therefore not only a craft-statement, not only an aesthetic statement (though it is these things also, and importantly), but a moral statement. Only connect. No ideas but in things. The words reverberate through the poet’s life, through my life, and I hope through your lives, joining us with other knowledge in the mind, that place that is not a gray room full of little boxes…

Glorious After All

“Life seems glorious for a while, then it seems poisonous. But you must never lose faith in it, it is glorious after all. Only you must find the glory for yourself. Do no look for it either, except in yourself; in the secret places of your spirit and in all your hidden senses.”

~ Wallace Stevens

2008 in 40 Seconds

Images and sounds captured at the same spot in Oslo, Norway over the past year.

by Eirik Solheim