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Archive for the 'Original Essays' Category

Powells.com interviews and original essays

Being John: On Sorrow, Writing, and Transmigration

November was cold that year. I dreamed of a blue snow closing around me like a fist. I was 12 and had few friends; I wore tragically misguided clothes, avoided the eyes of boys, told exorbitant lies. On Tuesday afternoons, I walked from the middle school to my grandmother's house in town, so she could give me piano lessons. I lived for those days, for the regal piano with its dusty runner and arrangements of cloth flowers, for the world she would build up around us — I used to go to Woody's Nook, to dance until three in the morning — I'll take you there sometime; you'll see, it's still the same. Now, tell me about all of the parties you've been going to. She never seemed to notice I went nowhere, lisped, had buckteeth. A bird alighted in the rose bushes and she pointed — Look, she said, he's landed there for us.

One Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving, I arrived at my grandmother's house. The door was unlocked but no one was home; I let myself into the eerie quiet. I had never been forgotten before. I ...


The Coffee Shops I Have Loved

"Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?" – Albert Camus

In the five years it took for me to complete my book, The Monopolists, I wrote in more than 50 different coffee shops in six different states. They ranged from airport Starbucks to local roasters near my home in New York City to, yes, even the café at Powell's in Portland, a venue I began frequenting as a child.

The relationship between writers and coffee shops can be complicated, but I felt compelled to thank these coffee purveyors in my book's acknowledgements because they played a critical, often understated role in helping make a lump of ideas into a book. They inspired and empowered me, kept me warm and positive in dark hours with the manuscript, and prevented me from arriving at my book party in a straightjacket.

Thank you.

The nexus between coffee shops and ideas has a tense history. In 1675, King Charles II of England was so angered by the political activity taking place in such beverage meccas that he made a Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses, shunning the ...


Is Shame Necessary?

Is Shame Necessary? is my first book, so I am far from having earned the right to discuss writing a book in general. But I can say something about what it was like to write this book specifically. The main struggle was to keep momentum in the text, which, as for any book, seemed to fall to either plot, force of personality, or argument (or some combination).

It might be obvious from the title that my focus was argument. People who felt guilty about large-scale issues like climate change and other forms of environmental degradation, animal cruelty, and unfair wages have been misled into engaging with their guilt primarily as consumers (leading to the rise of eco-friendly, cruelty-free, and fair-trade products). However, individual purchases often wind up being minor compared to what is needed (organic foods, for instance, only represent four percent of the U.S. food market).

In contrast to guilt, shaming can lead to relatively quick, lasting, large-scale reform because it can work on groups and institutions, and is therefore a better stopgap on the way to regulation. One of the many examples of shaming's success is ...


Be Happy, Be Cheerful, Be Joyful, Be Anything But Gay

My new novel, Welcome to Braggsville, is a satire about four college kids who perform an "intervention" at a Civil War reenactment, and quickly discover that even the best of intentions can cause a world of hurt as they find themselves caught between the academic theories that have stoked their indignation and the harsh realities of race in contemporary America. As a writer, I tend to avoid the autobiographical, but, sadly, the comedic elements aside, this novel is inspired by one true event, a situation I could not have imagined, even if I were to crack my brain straight into a frying pan (like that famous breakfast commercial of yesteryear).

This event is one that required little remembering because it had always troubled me deeply. As my character Quint might say, it burned like a boil on a bunion. Now that, folks, is a real hive of discomfort.

Here it is: Near Bradenton, Florida, in the earliest of the '90s, there was a K3 rally. Lest ye be confused, a dash of disambiguation: This was not the Bosnian skating club (Klizačko Koturaljski Klub), the fraternity at Dartmouth (Kappa Kappa ...


Writers and the Bottle

Why are people so interested in drunk writers?

Recently I was sent a very interesting nonfiction book, The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing, for a review. I couldn't review it. It's an anecdotal study of several American writers, including John Berryman, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver (all men — why? What happened to the alcoholic women? I know they're out there), and I can recommend it, even though I'm no expert on alcoholism, which is why I couldn't review it. What Laing's book did was to provoke three memories in me, along with a train of speculation about everybody's fascination with alcoholic scribblers.

My one sighting of Tennessee Williams occurred in the mid-1970s in New York City. I was browsing in the Strand Book Store midday, and in he came, a dapper little man smiling at everybody, on his way to signing some books — probably his unreliable memoir, recently published. I had the feeling that he enjoyed being recognized, but he reminded me of a famous poet I knew, who was always trying to ...


From Musician to Novelist

I was asleep on the floor of the magicians' apartment. Not one, but three magicians lived there, and their mysterious, mischievous, and sometimes macabre props surrounded my living-room floor futon. A straitjacket hung on the coat rack, a mini-guillotine sat over the fireplace, a mechanical monkey poked out from behind the couch, and an artificial arm lay casually on the coffee table. On the bookshelf were Mark Wilson's Complete Course in Magic and all five volumes of Roberto Giobbi's Card College.

This was back in the spring of 2013; I was living in London and commuting twice a week to Bath where I lectured in the university's music department. When I needed to stay overnight in Bath, my friends Gia, Gaz, and Simon, all magicians, were nice enough to let me sleep at their place. It was there, still an hour before my alarm was set to go off, when my phone rang. 6 a.m. It was my agent. "Are you awake?" she asked.

"Yes," I lied.

"Good," she said. "Because I have amazing news."

This was how I was joyfully shoved into the bizarre and wonderful world of ...


On Trimming Roses

Gardens do not wait. Weeds grow and flowers wilt. In the days and weeks following my father's death, my parents' garden continued to flourish and demand our attention, for plants do not know grief.

When it came to our garden, my parents were a team. My father — dyslexic, spatial thinker, and dreamer — looked at the two-thirds of an acre covered in weeds that was our original backyard and envisioned a patio, a Japanese-style pond with a waterfall, a rose bed, a vegetable garden, and more. My father literally moved the earth to landscape it into the shape he saw in his mind's eye. My mother — precise, patient, disciplined, lover of beauty — planted seedlings, attacked the weeds, and pruned the roses, and then the garden became reality and became a world.

The garden reflected my parents' life together. When my mother became extremely ill over 30 years ago, the weeds got the upper hand. My father was not a weeder and while my mother was in the hospital, he wandered around the house, in a state of suspended terror. My mother recovered partially. I, now 10 years ...


Five Hundred Mountains Destroyed for a @*&%$! Allegory!

I found a hole in the perimeter fence on a Sunday when the haul trucks were idle and I could work my way up the shoulder of mountain undetected. About 100 yards from the site rim, I came into a collar of dying trees — leaves dusted with grey mountain gilings, a forest floor of scattered flyrock.

I reached the brim of the place and looked out over a landscape of total devastation. Miles of raw, broken hardrock where a tract of mountains had once been. Flat buttes of exposed grey slag with black coal seams at the bottom. Cairns of rubble with haul truck tracks crosshatched between them. A black lake filled with some obsidian ooze. At the far end, on a remnant hill, was a last frieze of orphan trees, standing proud and defiant as the mountain around them had been blown up, hauled off, and pushed into a hollow to level the land.

It was my first look at a mountaintop removal mine and it made me want to throw up.


35 Seconds

Late at night on September 22, 2014, at a housing project basketball court in Brooklyn, a white cop pushes a black man against a chain link fence. They stand face-to-face, the black man, Lamard Joye, a little taller than the cop, William Montemarino. Joye wears a hooded sweatshirt, printed collage-style with pictures of the Notorious B.I.G.; Montemarino's in a short-sleeved NYPD uniform, his round stomach stretching the fabric. Both men are bald.

"Look," Joye says with his hands dutifully raised in the air. "Look. You see this? You see this?"

He is talking not to Montemarino, but to the person behind Montemarino, the person recording everything on his cell phone. Two months earlier, a much more famous cell phone video recorded a different white cop choking an unarmed black man to death on a Staten Island sidewalk. On the night of September 22, Joye couldn't know that a grand jury would later fail to indict anyone for that death, but I imagine when he did find out he was filled with disgust but completely unsurprised, or perhaps I'm just projecting my own feelings here.

"You see this?" he ...


What You Don’t Know about the Teenage Brain

Things were changing in our household: the teen years had intruded into our otherwise harmonious, do-as-mom-tells-you relatively orderly world. As my two sons, who are two years apart, gradually began the "morphing" process from childhood into adolescence, I felt many things shift, most obviously our parent-child relationship. We were not unusual: this was happening in the families of all of their classmates and friends. As a novice parent of a teenager, I would marvel at the disconnects: the ability to be so focused on a sport or a math test victory concurrently with major lapses in judgment or planning, misguided acts and pranks with no consideration of the consequences. Most of all, my kids were not predictable anymore, neither to me nor even to themselves .

I consciously made the decision to remain curious rather than angry by all the unexpected things that happened on a near daily basis. As a physician used to seeing teen patients, it was disarming to be experiencing this transition into adolescence up close and personal in my own family. It didn't take long for me to delve into the scientific literature on brain development ...


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