Archive for the 'nonfiction' Category

words and their failures

I am thinking now of the summer years ago when I taught expository writing to a group of 13-14 year olds, about twenty of them. We met every morning for three hours, much too long an interval for them. I broke up the time halfway through by playing a game of ping pong with each of them. Because I’m such a lousy player, this took only 20 minutes.

That day I had given them something very hard and brutal and self-absorbed to read, Joan Didion, I think, and asked them to write their thoughts about it.

One boy, the Korean boy who had taught me to write my name in Kanji, wrote a remarkable thing. He wrote, with the eloquence that can only be produced by partial mastery of a language, that he couldn’t understand the author’s notion of her splintered, depressed self, because of his religion. His beliefs told him that he was the same stuff as the air and the flowers and the butterflies around him. He used those words, named those things. He said it was not that he was made of the same stuff, not organic chemistry, but that he and I and everything in the room around us were the same all pervading thing, made of one essence and one being, breathing the same breath. He used almost those words, in fact words far more elegant and eloquent, words that I regret having lost more than I regret having lost certain loves, more than I regret having lost precious trinkets. What he said was that he and I were one with everything. He used those words, not knowing them to have been rendered common by the overuse injuries that Americans inflict on language, not knowing them to have become the punchline of a joke.

I am thinking about this boy and his words because I’m in the middle of reading something about love. Nothing like those loves I once regretted losing, but love in the broadest sense. And by consequence I’m thinking about the poverty of English when it comes to words for love, of the specificity with which it can be named in Greek (philia, éros, agápe). Then too, I’m thinking of the beautiful blush on the Korean boy’s face when I tried, and in all certainty failed, to find words to tell him how transcendent was his description of his beliefs, and of his very existence. I envied him then and I envy him now for both his words and his way of being in the world. I feel this way knowing that envy is impossible for him, or was then, anyway, and wishing fervently that it were impossible for me


It’s pay what you can, not what you want

[Originally published June 15, 2010 at The Literary Platform]

We are living in generous times. I don’t mean that in a hippie, random acts of kindness sort of way. I mean that we are living at a time when sharing as a model of exchange is increasingly common.

Right now, our models of getting paid and paying for things are both up for grabs in fascinating – and potentially society-changing – ways. As newspapers fail, crucial experiments in how to pay for news – especially investigative reporting – are underway. Ebooks, creative commons licensing, and ever-more legitimate forms of self-publishing are challenging the book publishing industry’s way of doing business. As I writer, I’ve got a vested interest in what’s going to happen – and the open question applies to everyone who makes any form of culture, amateur or professional or anything in-between. One place to look for lessons is the open source movement, which began as a collaborative, distributed model of making software, and is fast becoming a pervasive set of values taken up by communities as diverse as open source sewing and amateur unmanned aerial vehicles development.

Notice that word, communities. Open source production and some of its consumption happen in communities. The model is most efficiently sustainable when most of the community respects the ethics of mutual sharing that open source is built on. That is to say they are freeloader-tolerant, and able to function when some of the participants are taking but not contributing. The point is, within a community, ethics are agreements, not abstractions. Within a community, generosity is a social contract.

When it comes to selling and buying culture, there have been some promising recent experiments in a model of comers called pay-what-you-want. This goes well beyond the longstanding tradition of pay-what-you-want museum admission—which is basically subsidized by very rich people and institutions paying what they want. In contrast, these are experiments in which generosity is offered by the authors to each member of the audience as an individual. For example, Radiohead released an album on a voluntary payment basis in 2007, and other musicians including Jane Siberry and Girl Talk have tried it out too. In January, there was a pay-what-you-want benefit concert for Haiti. Eidos’s game Championship Manager is successfully pay-what-you-want, and World of Goo had a profitable pay-what-you-want birthday sale in 2009. These experiments have been profitable financially (though freeloading was higher than hoped for, according to the data from Radiohead and World of Goo), and great publicity – for both their pass-along value and to some small degree for their values.

I like this model a lot. With one caveat. To my mind, it’s pay what you can, not pay what you want. Change the verb and you change the game. I know the phrase sounds very Soviet, and, significantly, it turns out it’s much harder than you’d think to evaluate for yourself what you can pay. I came to an epiphany about the distinction while drinking coffee in a Berlin cafe this winter. It’s a nice place, Cafe Morgenrot, where there’s a delicious buffet out all day and you can eat as much as you want and stay as long as you want. And you are asked to pay what you can.

They have to explain this to you. The menu lays it out. It’s not pay what you want. They tell you that the price you pay doesn’t correspond to how much you eat or how long you stay or how much you like the food. They are asking you to pay according to how much is in your wallet (in general, or at that moment). They don’t police their patrons, and overall it seems to work—which is to say, they’re still in business.

I believe in this stuff, and it was still fantastically hard to get my head around, and this is the lightning bolt that hit me. Pay-what-you-can requires a change in how we calculate value. It establishes payment as a mutual and ethical obligation, rather than a way of voting with your wallet.

As a maker of culture (specifically, stories), I prefer the can to the want model. Pay what you can is a radically different form of generosity that can only flourish in a community. It’s not an economic relationship between the consumer and the author. It’s a relationship between one book lover and another. Some people might want to pay a lot but can’t, and vice versa, and they’re all getting the same ‘free’ book. What’s happening is they’re subsidizing each other’s participation in a community of readers. Here’s the crux of it: I want to define cultural generosity as sharing (in both directions) and as paying what you can.

What would that look like? Well, none of this is going to work spectacularly in bestseller culture, but in communities of book buyers and readers who feel bound by a common aesthetic, politics, genre, the pay-what-you-can model has a fighting chance. Let me be clear. It’s not a question of teaching people that books are important to culture, and it’s the polar opposite of preserving the price point of the book-as-object in the face of digital distribution. Pay-what-you-can uses the possibilities afforded by digital production to change book buyers’ way of valuing and their motivation for paying for what they read. The key is that in an organic community, you can create a sense of responsibility. Doing so could change the way books (or any cultural products) are made, paid for, consumed, and loved.

And here’s an exciting example of a community that could build pay-what-you-can ethics into its structure from the ground up. Richard Nash’s new publishing company Cursor, and its debut imprint Red Lemonade, represent a radically new model (caveat: he’s a friend). Cursor is turning the making, buying and selling of books into a community business, driven by readers and writers. Nash describes it as “imprints that are communities, each based on a cluster of established and emerging writers and fans, in a given aesthetic, genre, or subculture. So, the community becomes both a place to create and collaborate and share one’s writing, and also an organ for disseminating the most representative and powerful of that writing to the larger world.” Cursor’s business model includes digital and mechanical editions, as well as limited editions.

What thrills me about this is that Nash is making the perfect laboratory for experimenting with pay-what-you-can—and I lay down the gauntlet for him to try it. As a participant in the community, you’re not just buying a book, you’re paying a share in supporting the community, the press/distribution mechanism, and the writer all in the same click of the “pay” button. You’re saying, I want this to go on, and I want it to be available to everybody who loves it the way I do.

The rise of pay-what-you-can culture could have significant social effects:

1)      The distinction between producers and consumers can become fuzzy in interesting, productive ways. This has been observed about the open source software community. In culture-making communities, it has the potential to break down a heretofore (relatively) closed, elitist structure of publication, distribution, and reputation.

2)      Sociable network membership is rapidly increasing in the US. The ethic of pay-what-you-can culture has the potential to transform some of these networks into rich, participatory communities, and to strengthen the network effects of existing communities.

3)      The financial model of pay what you can could provide crucial support for independent publishers and producers, keeping non-bestseller culture more viable and open.

So think about it next time you pay for a book, or a performance or a game or a record or a meal. If you think about how you assess their value – the way you spend your money on the things you love has a chance to change the world.

What are you afraid of?

My ITP students went out on the street and asked (on video) about 40 people the question, “What are you afraid of?” It was remarkable how many of the respondents gave thoughtful, vulnerable answers.

Most common:

1. Failure. Most of the people who said they were afraid of failure were young. Also, one older man said if you’d asked him 10 years ago he would have said failure.

2. The future

3. Being alone/loneliness

4. Death/getting old

5. Things that are out of my control

6. Nothing. This was mostly older people, one of whom said, “I’m not even afraid of the Devil.”

Most esoteric:

1. Clowns (in a serious way)

2. Aliens (in a serious way)

3. Embarrassment

4. The dark (“you can’t see what’s around you”)

5. Torture/pain

6. Buried alive, blinded, falsely imprisoned (same respondent)

Flippant answers: snakes, spiders, rats, people.

Masked men, bare cocks, and sometimes a conversation

There are a thousand ways to make a binary split of the world’s population, and the one on my mind right now is this: there are the kind of people who pick up a ringing payphone, and the kind of people who don’t. I pick it up.

I love those strange, slightly jarring, unexpected interactions with strangers. I write about them on a blog called Municipal Archive and I teach a graduate class about them at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. So, I can tell you a lot about the locations and moments in which strangers interact. About the means and methods. These things have been observed and studied and documented. What we don’t really know with any precision—nor even with much poetry—is why.

Chat Roulette is the newest form of what you might call “stranger chat.” It’s a technology-mediated instance of an old cultural tradition: talking to strangers in public spaces. We do it in an ephemeral, casual way in public places, particularly in the anonymous transitional spaces where proximity is especially temporary: elevators, park benches, waiting spaces, the subway. It’s a fleeting connection, a shared moment, an acknowledgment of your common humanity in the bustling, anonymous metropolis.

Chat Roulette is both the same and different from those encounters. You’re talking with a stranger—which you’ve been able to do since time immemorial in chatrooms—but, now there’s a live video and audio feed to accompany the chat window, and the next random stranger is a click away. Video makes the interaction much more risky and intimate, but also more like a chat in an elevator, except you can make your chat partner vanish at any time. When you talk to strangers in public, you’re making an informed choice, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ve got social cues like your shared location, the person’s appearance, their clothing, how they carry themselves. When you talk to someone on Chat Roulette, you’re confronted with—if you’re lucky—with the head and shoulders of a stranger, and almost no readable cues. You and they both are making a split-second decision about whether to engage with each other.

Did I mention the part about how it’s an incredibly weird experience? Because it is. What you find when you click start and stop and start over and over is a spectacle of humanity, it’s 10,000 stories in the naked city. It’s also a lot of money shots, people who are looking too intensely at the camera for comfort, people in masks, people in masks dancing around, teenage boys and girls in clusters of three hovering over their computers. Some teenage boys told me they were drunk and bored, the teenage girls wouldn’t talk to me. There are about 4 men for every woman on the site, but it varies by time of day. If you click enough, you also find some people who are genuinely curious about actually talking to—connecting with—strangers. I stuck around long enough to find a few of those, and I asked them why they were there.

They were all young, all male, the ones who talked with me. There’s a tiny smile of recognition that passes between people who actually want to talk. I tried speaking out loud, with the audio on, and found it discomfiting and difficult to sustain a conversation. Text chat is much richer. It’s much easier to be vulnerable in writing, to have thoughtful responses, to ask disarming questions. You have a moment to think, to compose yourself.

All the men I talked to wanted to talk about how many masturbators you end up seeing, and they wanted to know what I thought about it. “You have to look at about 400 dicks for every friend you make,” a man in Chicago told me. Another echoed the sentiment. He thought it was worth the trouble. “I get to talk to people I wouldn’t get to talk to in real life.” I asked why that was good. “It’s an adventure and I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Men in Holland and France were practicing their English (and I practiced a little French) and were talking to strangers because it was “unusual” and “funny.” One told me it was just like talking to someone on a train ride. Another said he lives in a small town and rarely sees a person he doesn’t know.

Three themes laced through every conversation I had. The men I talked to said it was a little addictive. They were intrigued and often joyful about the novelty of the system overall, and the fact that their brief connections felt like real connections.

There’s a grey area on the spectrum between the earnest conversationalists and the exhibitionists where you get flirtatious, suggestive talk of varying levels of intensity. A man I talked to in London told me he thought it was exciting, the strangers, the anonymity, the guarantee of never seeing each other again. I asked what kind of exciting. “It’s exciting like your awareness is heightened. And it’s sexually exciting.” He wanted to know if I felt the same way. I hadn’t felt that way with the earnest ones, but this man was bringing the idea of sex into the interaction. I didn’t want to pursue it any further—it was easy to see that he wanted to steer things into something beyond talk—but he was right. It was visual and anonymous and he was being seductive, and that was a little exciting.

After that I stuck to the innocent looking ones. “You’re beautiful,” one said to me, “what are you doing here?” I told him I was writing about it, and asked him what he was doing there. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “I get to see the whole world.”


Dear ______, Lisbon is strange and small and full of ruins. I can see now why Saramago’s blank cities come out the way they do, such a city would have to replicate itself and double back to become a place you could get lost in, a place of anonymity. Instead there are rococco elevators to take you to the hilltops, where the spines of a gothic cathedral, ruined in the 1755 earthquake, have been left arching into the empty sky.

scars + marks

Unpublished list-poem gathered from Bertillon cards for Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.

Rt. Lit fing. off at tip. Scar upper left cheek. Fingers blistered. Bullet cic 14 below elbow jnt frt. Scar from horse bite at end of nose. Left arm tattoo name Jean. Birthmark right stomach. No. 10 shoes. Tattoo of an anchor right arm. Pimples on face. Tattooed all over both arms and body, large mans head on brest with reath of thorns across forehead. Right ring finger amputated at 3rd joint. Wears glasses. Limps on lt leg. Lower incs very irreg. “LOVE” on scroll across heart with arrow behind the heart. Bulbous nose. Bites fingernails.

names + crimes

Unpublished list-poem gathered from Bertillon cards for Least Wanted: A Century of American Mugshots.

Wm Flood, dead. Earnest Scurlock, wanted for robbery and will run. Chas. Sattler, gangster, slain. Michael F. Gorman, has numerous women friends. Edward Tippins, user of tobacco. Archie Ross Jones, arrested for snatching watch in Savoy Bar, claimed it was given to him by owner—both drunk. Perry Lee, a close mouthed Negro who is probably committing burglaries. Ellery Augustus Stroup, found one Morris Westman in bed with his wife, went to sons bedroom took a knife and cut both parties. Earl Ulysses Wookey, voluntarily gave himself up after an argument with his wife. Nieves Medina, a floating Mexican. Herbert Jerry Fulbright, he has caused St. Paul lots of “trouble.” Sterling Stiles, is confirmed dope fiend, hangs around fast women. Lazaro Randa, always carries a knife and threatens people. Wisdom McGill, shot Julius Jones Langley. Mabel Johnson, usually wears slacks. Harry Salzman, likes to live big. Ken Burroughs Beown, when in trouble contacts Grandmother.