It’s often hard for me to return home from California, a place of such obvious beauty, still so foreign to me. This past trip, I was obsessed with the smell of eucalyptus driving down Highway 1 and the surprisingly lulling sound of the fog horns on the Golden Gate Bridge. They blew almost every night of our trip, like some great sleeping monster snoring out in the Bay.
But Texas has rolled out the red carpet weather for us — the snapdragons have bloomed in my wife’s garden, and the trees in the front yard are “coming into leaf… like something almost being said.”
A few days ago in San Francisco we were having margaritas near the Presidio Officers’ Club when my son Jules bolted and disappeared around the corner. I found him admiring this Andy Goldsworthy piece, Earth Wall, which I had never seen. Goldsworthy has four pieces in the Presidio—Tree Fall, Wood Line, and Spire:
I was reading about Spire in the brochure about Goldsworthy and the Presidio, and I was struck by this detail: “The sculpture is fated to fade into the forest as young cypress trees planted at its base ultimately grow to obscure the piece – like the old forest welcoming the new.”
It’s Jules’ 3rd birthday today. He’s not a baby anymore. This morning in our hotel room I watched him drawing along to Super Simple Draw, and I felt, most definitely, that if I’m the spire now, he’s the young cypress, and I will be happy for him to obscure me.
Back in December, I wrote about how Jerry Seinfeld maintained perspective by keeping a photo from the Hubble telescope in the Seinfeld writing room. This week I got an email from the spouse of a professional astronomer who said her husband gets through some work days by reminding himself that astronomy doesn’t matter. “He will say, for example: ‘It’s just astronomy. We’re not saving lives here. It’s okay if we finish this tomorrow instead of today.’” I loved that.
Two years ago, Sarah Manguso wrote a letter of recommendation for singing in the choir:
…in a choir, I can make sound, focus the mind, enjoy myself and forget myself, all at once. There is an old choristers’ adage that goes, “When the music is marked forte, sing so you can hear yourself; when it’s marked piano, sing so you can hear the others.” After enough practice, you can learn to feel the vibration in your skull and tell by the sensation whether your pitch is right, your timbre true. It is a kind of listening without hearing. Perhaps this combination of experiences is as common as what psychologists call flow, a state of complete absorption in an activity.
I feel an additional pleasure, though, greater than flow, when I sing in a choir. It’s a mode of singing that strikes a balance between feeling necessary — each voice must participate to achieve the grand unified sound — and feeling invisible, absorbed into the choir, your voice no longer yours. I can work hard, listen hard and disappear, let the ocean of sound close over me. It is comforting to disappear into all that sound and to know that no one else will hear me, either. The performance feels like a secret.
A year before that Oliver Burkeman wrote in The Guardian:
Group singing is a perfect case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. For entirely non-magical reasons – such as the averaging out of flat and sharp voices – a choir can sound far better than its individual members’ talents might suggest. The result is self-transcendence: the thing only works on a level bigger than oneself. “As long as I’m singing,” writes Stacy Horn in Imperfect Harmony, her memoir of singing in a Manhattan amateur choir, “it’s as if I’m inhabiting another reality. I become temporarily suspended in a world where everything bad is bearable, and everything good feels possible.”
And way back in 2008, Brian Eno wrote:
I believe that singing is the key to long life, a good figure, a stable temperament, increased intelligence, new friends, super self-confidence, heightened sexual attractiveness and a better sense of humor….there are physiological benefits, obviously: You use your lungs in a way that you probably don’t for the rest of your day, breathing deeply and openly. And there are psychological benefits, too: Singing aloud leaves you with a sense of levity and contentedness. And then there are what I would call “civilizational benefits.” When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings — to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.
Sing, sing, sing.
Yesterday I had tacos with The Dead Milkmen and I was asking them how they worked. I mentioned how boring I found “jamming” when I was in bands, and Dean quoted a friend of his: “I don’t mind jamming… as long as everything’s worked out beforehand!”
Then I remembered a little card game I came up with to make jam sessions more interesting:
- Have each band member list 10 musical acts they’d like to play in
- Write each musical act on an index card
- Shuffle the cards, and, without revealing the cars, deal one to each band member. Keep the cards secret — the game is no fun if you can see the cards before you play.
- Just like any other jam session, it helps to pick a key and start with the rhythm. Everyone has to pretend like they’re playing in the act written on their card.
- Jam until it gets boring.
- At the end, everybody gets to guess which card each person was dealt.
- Repeat until you’re out of cards
I’d forgotten all about it until I started writing this blog post, but a couple of years ago, I was inspired by the Oblique Strategies to try making my own deck of “Steal Strategies,” using prompts from my books. (I really need to update the deck — there’s only 16 cards!)
As an experiment with Tumblr’s shuffle feature, I turned it into a little mini site which serves up a random card when you click the deck:
Here’s the card I got when I clicked today, which is funny, because my wife and I had already planned a trip to the library with the boys…
Drawing by my 5-year-old.
I think of all my books as fancy zines.
A zine (/zi?n/ZEEN; short for magazine or fanzine) is most commonly a small-circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via photocopier. Usually zines are the product of a person, or of a very small group.
When I’m working on a book, sure, I flip through my bookshelves, looking for stuff to steal, but what I really love to do is head over to my zine drawer (see above) and flip through zines.
Even though my books are printed in mass quantities overseas and are shipped all over the world, I want my books to feel handmade, like they’ve just come off the photocopier.
Back in December, I wondered in my diary if I should just go ahead and do a real zine, and work my way up to a book:
Maybe next time. Or maybe the country will collapse and this tweet will come true:
There’s something really special about zines. “Zines Had It Right All Along.” “The Internet Didn’t Kill Zines.” Even though “The Blissfully Slow World of Newsletters” can feel close to the spirit of zine culture, nothing digital seems to fully replace them. “A blog is not a zine.”
Whenever I do a workshop with students, zines are the perfect thing to make together: We make a bunch of blackout poems, each choose our favorites, and then we sequence them, everybody getting their own page. Then we run them on the photocopier, fold ’em, staple ’em, and everybody gets to take one home:
If you want to learn more about zines, check out this book and hit up your public library — several libraries actually have zine collections now! The new Austin Public Library has a whole section next to the comics:
One of my favorite little Twitter bots is @year_progress, which tweets every 3.65 days when 1% of the year goes by:
I have my own analog version on the edges of my page-a-day logbook. One of the first things I do at the beginning of the year is make a little index system for the months. I like having another visual of how the year is progressing. (Here’s the notebook I use, and a similar index system.)
See also: How much of the year is left?