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When I saw Nina Katchadourian at the Blanton in 2017, she mentioned that one of her favorite books of all-time is Survive The Savage Sea, the true story of a family who gets stranded at sea after a killer whale attacks their ship. “It’s about what they talk about and how they stay alive and the world that is the sort of raft they’re stuck on together, which to me is a sort of metaphor for family.”
I read it, because that’s the kind of nerd that I am, in 2019, during our 8-month “Lake Erie sabbatical,” when we felt like castaways, ourselves. (See: “Of course we’ll make it!” and “Beyond Survival Mode.”) When the pandemic hit, the book took on an even deeper meaning, and I wrote about the book on our 40th day of quarantine. (See: “Survive The Savage Sea.”)
A few months after that, Nina wrote to me to tell me about this daily conversation she had started with Douglas Robertson, the older son, who wrote his own book about the experience, Last Voyage of the Lucette. Every day she would call Douglas and they’d talk about what happened on the corresponding day when they were castaways — he’d even read her passages of the book, which she said was uncanny, since her mother had read her the book aloud when she was seven.
To Feel Something That Was Not Of Our World, Nina’s show up now at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, is the result of those conversations. If you’re lucky enough to live there, you can book a tour, but for the rest of us, we can experience a lot of it virtually: there’s an orientation video you should watch first, a 3-D tour, and a walkthrough tour that Nina gave on Zoom a few weeks ago.
So delightful to see such a personal labor of love from one of my favorite artists!
Filed under: Nina Katchadourian
My 8-year-old son who stutters has a Korg Volca Beats drum machine that has a “stutter” function. The stutter function makes every beat sound cooler, much like my son’s stuttering has made my world sound cooler, and I find it poetic that the stutter function’s knobs are “time” and “depth,” because I feel that my son’s stutter, over time, has made me deeper.
Sometimes I refer to it as “my stutter,” but sometimes I refer to it as “the stutter.” […] Because to me, stuttering is not bound to my body, that it is a phenomenon that occurs between me and whoever I’m speaking to. I like to think of it like it’s something that we share.
Ellis’s distinction sank in so deeply that I made it my own and misremembered him saying, “our stutter.” Because that’s what it feels like in this house: We have a stutter. It’s something that we share.
* * *
Around Christmastime, my son started stuttering differently and more frequently.
“Why are you so glitchy?” my 5-year-old asked him. “I’m worried about you.”
We might’ve been worried, too, except that we’d been through it before. The previous Christmas, we’d called Dr. Courtney Byrd at the Lang Stuttering Institute here in Austin, Texas, and she assured us that it was perfectly normal for stuttering to change during the holidays and that even good, exciting events can cause changes in stuttering.
So now, when Our Stutter changes, our listening changes.
We listen with more love.
That is not to say that our patience is endless. My son, like many an 8-year-old, talks all the time. Sometimes we wish he would shut up already and let us have some peace!
Which reminds me of another Dr. Byrd story. I once said to her, “I’m just glad it hasn’t stopped him yet.” And she replied, “There is not ‘yet.’ If we keep doing what we’re doing and we do it right, there is no ‘yet.’”
There is no yet. As somebody who is constantly imagining the worst, that stopped me dead in my tracks. You could write a whole book with those words: There is no yet.
* * *
I continue to be grateful for Our Stutter. Our Stutter has opened me up, sent me down new paths of inquiry, introduced me to new ways of thinking, put me in touch with some amazing people, and made me aware of a whole world that I was missing.
A lot is going on in the stuttering world right now. We have a president who stutters!
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation was so impressed with Dr. Byrd’s vision at the institute that they gave a huge amount of money to establish a new center for stuttering education and research. As part of the celebration for this event, I was invited to join a Zoom call full of writers and creative people who stutter. I was blown away by their stories, and how often their stuttering influenced their creative work.
Filed under: stuttering
My kids — 5 and 8 — are way too big for the double stroller, so a few weeks ago, my wife and I decided to start doing solo walks. I started commuting on foot from our house to the apartment we used to rent, which, until our lease runs out or somebody subleases it, is now a really expensive office.
It was terrible. I mean, the actual solo walk was okay, but it turns out that our walk together is one of the only times we actually get to speak to each other for 15 minutes without the kids interrupting us. Plus, if the conversation gets heated, at least the hot air doesn’t linger in the house.
So I’m back to pushing 100+ pounds of kid around the neighborhood. Will I be the first parent to push a teenager in a stroller? At this point, I don’t give a shit. I need our walks together more than I need to avoid humiliation.
One day they’ll be back in school again — I think? — and my wife and I can frolic around town like in the days of yore. (Or maybe they’ll get mature enough that I can leave them home with a walkie talkie.)
David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World came out less than 2 years ago, but it already feels like a classic to me, both a validation of how I’ve chosen to go about my life and a kick in the pants to not get complacent, to stretch out, and go down weird paths. It’s also, as Ryan Holiday suggested to me, a great parenting book in disguise.
One way you know if a book is any good is if you are still thinking about it a year after you read it. (Or five years, or a decade, etc. The longer you think about a book the better you know it is.) Another way to know if a book is good is if it seems like every week you read an article that could be a supplementary chapter.
One thing Venus talked about that was interesting was how easy it is for professional athletes to pick up other sports. So what they are good at is not the sport itself, but it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s a sense of their own bodies and an ability to manipulate their own bodies and have sort of a visual map in your head of what the different parts are doing. At one point she was talking about doing a benefit with Peyton and Eli Manning. They’d almost never played tennis before and they started out awful, and she said it was amazing to watch them. It was like watching a film. Every stroke they hit was noticeably better than the last. Every time they hit the ball. She said you could almost watch their brains working and by the end of it they were totally competent tennis players.
It’s been my experience that if you’re a creative person, and you’re good at one thing, you’re probably good at another thing. If you’re good at drawing, you might be good at writing, too. If you’re good at writing, you might be good at playing music, too. If you’re good at playing music, you might be good at pottery. If you’re good at playing guitar, you might be a good dancer!
In order to create, there’s some little thing you have to let happen inside yourself, of just letting yourself be free. If you can turn that little switch on inside yourself in one medium, you can probably do it in another medium.
This is not exactly a popular way of thinking, but I subscribe to it: there is a “a way of being in the world” or a “way of operating” that you pick up while working in one medium that you can translate to another.
“Everyone needs habits of mind that allow them to dance across disciplines,” Epstein writes.
By the way, when Kochalka talks about that freedom switch that allows you to get over your fear of not being good enough? There’s a passage in Range for that! Researchers stuck jazz musicians inside an MRI scanner while they were improvising, and the researchers said it was almost as if the jazz musicians’ brains were able to turn off some kind of circuit that allows you to criticize yourself.
Here’s another example: this week I came across an article with the title, “The musical score is the worst thing in the history of music.” It quoted producer Mark Fell:
In my opinion, I think the musical score is the worst thing that ever happened in the history of music. I think it’s done more damage to music than any other invention. As a technology, the musical score fundamentally skewed the whole of musical practice in the wrong direction, I think.
This grabbed my interest, because I have an 8-year-old who is a natural musician, but refuses to be taught. I gently nudge him towards taking piano lessons and learning to read music, but he refuses.
Guess what? There’s a section in Range for that!
“It’s strange,” Cecchini told me at the end of one of our hours-long discussions, “that some of the greatest musicians were self-taught or never learned to read music. I’m not saying one way is the best, but now I get a lot of students from schools that are teaching jazz, and they all sound the same. They don’t seem to find their own voice. I think when you’re self-taught you experiment more, trying to find the same sound in different places, you learn how to solve problems.”
I could go on, but instead, here’s a list of (somewhat) random highlights from the book:
For a while, I was threatening to write a “Range for Artists” post, because for every chapter I could think of an example of an artist I love that exemplified the subject.
I don’t have time for that right now, so this post will have to do.
* * *
I’m stressed out. Let’s look at pictures of Coconut, the screech owl who lives in our palm tree.
The big event last weekend: Coconut slept all day clutching breakfast. (Some people thought it was a neighborhood chicken, but it looks more like a pigeon to me.)
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Mostly, I’m still amazed by how chill Coconut is. My wife actually goes out and talks to it — this morning she said it was a good bird and we were happy to have it here and Coconut closed its eyes and puffed up its feathers. The only person Coconut isn’t extremely chill around is our 5-year-old, but honestly, no sentient creature with a working brain wouldn’t keep up their guard around him.
A kind commenter on Instagram alerted me to some of Coconut’s cousins elsewhere in Austin: Merlin and Minerva, two screech owls who have their own webcam and return to their box each year to hatch owlets. We’re hoping we can do the same for Coconut and its mate. (A box is being built as I type!)
Phew. Okay. I feel less stressed already.
Filed under: Coconut The Owl
When I was going through my diaries of the last presidential administration, one of the first clippings that caught my eye was this one from when Serena Williams beat her older sister, Venus in January 2017. I knew next to nothing about the sisters at the time, but the power of this image and caption was was so strong, and in such opposition to the “winners and losers” worldview of the new president, that I had to clip and save it.
Only now do I realize that this clipping is even deeper with meaning, for it’s the result of “this African-American family organizing itself, as a unit, in order to lay siege to perhaps the whitest sport in the world and pulling it off somehow.”
And I’ve since learned that while the sisters may be rivals on the court, they’re extremely close and supportive of each other in their personal life. “She is the only person I will talk to after I lose,” Serena has said. “Serena still copies everything that I do,” Venus has said, “but I also copy everything that she does. It’s a codependency.”
I am raising two brothers, so I am obsessed with sibling relationships, especially creative ones. (For example, how many filmmaking teams are made of brothers: The Coens, The Maysles, The Quays, The Rosses, etc.) I loved the recent Bee Gees documentary for its portrayal of the way siblings can blend together into a special entity, but how they can also tear each other apart. Noel Gallagher, who knows something about the subject, has a great line: “When you’ve got brothers singing, it’s like an instrument that nobody else can buy. You can’t go buy that sound in a shop.”
There seems to be a tension between mutual love and support and a bit of rivalry and competition that encourages the development of each sibling, and the trick of the dynamic, as with so many other things in life, is to keep the tension right: too slack and everything falls apart, too tight, and everything snaps.
The title of this post is a riff on the book by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.
I have exactly one thing to thank our outgoing president for: my diary habit.
I have always kept notebooks, but starting in January 2017, I started keeping an old-fashioned, bonafide diary. 3+ pages every morning, no matter what. (Before anybody asks me what brand of notebooks I use, just shop here.) I realized early on in this administration, I was going to need a good place to have bad ideas, a place not Twitter, to shout into the void.
My diary habit led to starting to blog daily again in October 2017, and by February 2018, I had the “How To Keep Going” talk written. That talk led to Keep Going the book, which came out in 2019. So, I guess I could thank the ex-president for the end of the trilogy, too, considering I wrote it as an answer to the question, “What if we have to live through a second term?” (I did not anticipate that “second term” would be swapped out for “global pandemic.”)
I forgot, somehow, that the original ending of the talk was: “Spend time on something that will outlast them.” This was based on the Leonard Woolf “Planting Iris” story I wrapped the talk with:
For the book we went with the more — positive? — line, “Plant your garden,” which was a better container for thinking about seasonal time. I still like that original line, but I would change it now to: “Spend time on something that will outlast
“This” is whatever the this is in the phrase, “this, too, shall pass.”
What seeds are you planting now that will flower long after this pandemic, this administration… maybe even this life?
I’m hopeful and I’m happy, today, but I still have the same mission:
Stay alive, get weird, and plant your seeds.
I try my best to read everything Sam Anderson publishes. I am… a fan. (His book Boom Town was one of my favorite books I read last year.) Two weekends ago, he had an essay in The New York Times Magazine about hanging out with “The Last Two Northern Rhinos on Earth,” and last weekend he had a piece called “I Recommend Eating Chips.”
I read the pieces back-to-back — one deeply serious but funny, the other funny but deeply serious — and had the perverse idea to cut and paste them together in my diary. (The way the rhinos are referred to as “The girls” made me think of the way we call my sons “the boys”…)
If I taught a writing class, I would make my students do this exercise. One the one hand, it feels disrespectful to the writer, and on the other, what’s more respectful than the close reading and attention required to perform such an exercise?
This is exactly what writing feels like to me: a weird mixture of reverence and audacity…
Filed under: Sam Anderson
“Disgust is a survival trait…”
—Raph Koster, A Theory of Fun.
I think often of this Kurt Vonnegut piece that ran in the first issue of Backwards City Review:
Where do I get my ideas from? You might as well have asked that of Beethoven. He was goofing around in Germany like everybody else, and all of a sudden this stuff came gushing out of him.
It was music.
I was goofing around like everybody else in Indiana, and all of a sudden stuff came gushing out.
It was disgust with civilization.
What disgusts you is important information. It tells you something is wrong. What to avoid. It gives you a path.
I feel like my readers see me as a fairly positive person, but I doubt they know how much I am driven by my disgust.
Identifying poison, privately, but sharing nourishment, publicly.
After all, aggravation is my muse.
* * *
After posting this, I realized today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I will be celebrating by re-reading “Transformed Nonconformist,” from his collection of sermons, Strength To Love, which contains the oft-quoted line, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” (You can read the interesting background behind the book at Stanford’s King Institute.)
I wrote about Mary Ruefle’s erasure book A Little White Shadow in the history section of Newspaper Blackout, but I didn’t truly fall in love with her work until I read her collected lectures in Madness, Rack, and Honey in 2013.
“I never set out to write this book,” Ruefle says in the introduction. In 1994, she had to deliver lectures to graduate students, and rather than trying to wing it, she wrote them out first, because “writing is my natural act, more natural than speaking.”
She notes that the book becomes more “increasingly fragmentary” as it goes, and David Kirby picked up on this in his NYTimes review:
In many ways, “Madness, Rack, and Honey” reads like a steroid-boosted version of a commonplace book, those thinking persons’ scrapbooks that became popular in early modern Europe and contained quotations from the classics, scraps of conversation, poem fragments, recipes, proverbs and lists of every sort. With all of Ruefle’s borrowings and rephrasings, it’s difficult sometimes to tell exactly who’s talking, which may be the idea. One authority burrows into another, as when the painter Cy Twombly is cited as quoting the poet John Crowe Ransom’s assertion that “the image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim.” I believe the rappers call this “sampling.”
I like her idea for a class called “Footnotes”:
In it, the students would read a footnoted edition of a definitive text—I thought it might as well be The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—and proceed diligently to read every book mentioned in the footnotes (or the books by those authors mentioned) an in turn all those mentioned in the footnotes of the footnoted books, and so on and so on, stopping only when one was led back, by a footnote, to The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.”
And her connection between drawing and writing:
The greatest lesson in writing I ever had was given to me in an art class. The drawing instructor took a sheet of paper and held up a pencil. She very lightly put the pencil on the piece of paper and applied a little pressure; by bringing her hand a little ways in one direction, she left a mark upon the paper. “That’s all there is to it,” she said, “but it’s a miracle. Once there was nothing, and now there’s a mark.”
Some sentences I underlined in 2013. It is fun to realize how many of these ideas I have internalized — particularly the parts about “breaking bread with the dead”:
I tend to love essays written by poets — it’s interesting to me that Ruefle is hesitant about writing prose essays, because they are the thing that led me to her poetry, not the other way around.
As I said, I have since become a huge fan of her work — I love her sense of wonder, her way with images, and her sense of humor. (And her erasures, of course, which she’s as crazy about as I am.) Her last two books, My Private Property and Dunce, were at the top of my 2020 reading list.
Her writing gave me much comfort at the beginning of lockdown and she became my quarantine queen, in a sense — I figured with her penchant for solitude and self-entertainment, if anybody could make it through this it would be her.
I was not disappointed when I googled her name the other day and found out she had spent a good portion of the pandemic mailing poems to Vermonters whose names she found in the phone book.
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