Why I Wrote About the 9/11 Museum



My essay “Atrocity Exhibition” in The Los Angeles Review of Books is an attempt to describe what I’ve found so strange and unsettling about the new 9/11 Museum at Ground Zero over several visits there, dating back to May of this year, when the museum first opened. Like many New Yorkers, I think, I had profound misgivings about the idea of a 9/11 museum in the first place: though I didn’t lose anyone I’d known well in the attacks on the Twin Towers, that day and the weeks that followed were bewildering like none other I’d ever lived through, filled with dread and sorrow and a confusion that slowed time. My city had been attacked–those planes slicing into the towers had been act of war, the terror and disbelief a deliberate by-product–and we pored over the Times when each day’s issue made it to the newsstands (this was print media’s last hurrah, the End Days of its primacy) for explanations of what we’d witnessed, stayed glued to cable news for the slow-drip of information and the endless replay of the same dream-like images. When the posters for the 9/11 Museum started appearing on the subway this spring, featuring a marketing slogan with an uncomfortably Orwellian ring to it (“History Remembered”), I felt repelled by the whole business on a gut-level, but I was also intrigued. What would a museum look like that sought to memorialize a series of terrorist attacks that two billion people around the world had witnessed more or less in real time? Would it inflame the old memories–we all had them, after all–or inform them further? Was descending into a $700 million bad-memory regenerator even a good idea?

If you’ve read the essay on LARB, you already know what I think. The museum, to me, is another example of how 9/11–having no precedent in recent American history–has short-circuited the institutions entrusted to respond to it, inspiring epic over-reactions (the Homeland Security Advisory System, the invasion of Iraq, data mining by the NSA, etc.) and blunders so elaborate that they hardly seem real. Continue reading…

“Boys With a Synth”



Before my generation it was impossible to be a teenage boy with a fetish for the synthesizer. The piano did nothing to stir my blood; it might as well have been a shipping crate with a keyboard and a couple of pedals. I’d played the violin for a few years in grammar school during the Suzuki method craze, but I hated carrying around that hardshell case, and practicing got in the way of “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Brady Bunch,” and all of the other afternoon reruns that filled the hours between school and dinnertime. My one and only performance on the violin had been a letdown–I’d gotten so nervous beforehand that I tried to fake my way out of it by pretending I had a stomach bug (no dice), and any sense of triumph I might have felt by gutting it out and taking the stage with the rest of my class was instantly marred by how awful we sounded. The bass guitar did hold some allure, especially once my brother became a straight-edge Hardcore hero, but my favorite bands all had a synth player, sometimes more than one, and I liked the way that synthesizers seemed like the electronic brain of a band, a bank of mainframes wired together by engineers and programmed to emit the music’s heartbeat, its arpeggiated pulse.

I wrote an essay recently about my early love of synths for The Common, a newish literary magazine published out of Amherst College. Originally they were going to use an image of the first and only synthesizer that I ever bought, a Roland Juno 6, for the magazine’s cover, but when that proved too unwieldy for the design team, they settled on the image of a ping pong racket–the essay is also about the lopsided games of ping pong I used to play with my best friend in high school. Here’s the cover of the issue:

06 cover lowres

You can purchase a copy of the Issue number 6 of The Common here, either in print, a pdf, or a digital copy for your Kindle.

 

The Summer of My Verdienstausfallbedauern



I keep my net worth in a white cardboard box. Right now it’s sitting in the front hallway of my summer sublet in Brooklyn, a wet pair of kid’s sneakers on top to dry (they got soaked in a thunderstorm). At other times I’ve stored this box under my dining room table, at the bottom of the closet in my son’s room, and in the back seat of my car. Don’t worry: this isn’t the kind of wealth that anyone can steal. I don’t have to track its quarterly performance and pay fees to an investment brokerage for managing it; I’ve never had to sweat out a panic sell-off or a market downturn. That cardboard box, and what I keep inside, has its own kind of magic. It is safer than an annuity, more dependable then gold. It keeps growing and growing. Pretty soon I’ll have to get another box to take the overflow.

So what’s my secret investment strategy? Maybe you’ve figured it out already. That white cardboard box is labeled BILLS. My net worth is in the negative, just like an estimated 20% of American households, and God knows how many of the legion who keep arriving in New York City every year with nothing more than the fancy degrees their student loans paid for and the ambition to make their way in the underpaid precincts of “culture.” I’m a writer, which means, by definition, that I am a gambling addict; every project undertaken is a bet on future earnings, a way of borrowing against the present in the expectation of beating the house. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put in his essay “Early Success,” about the manuscript that would become This Side of Paradise: “That novel … was my ace in the hole.” The box in my front hallway is where I store the paper trail of the bets I’ve lost; others that paid off, but without a life-changing windfall; the accumulated liabilities of my literary habit and the calamities that make life such a gamble no matter what you do for a living. It is the anti-fortune I’ve built by caring more about what I wanted to write next than how I could afford it.

Go ahead, have at me. Call me just another artist type who feels entitled to a free ride while he scribbles to no one’s benefit in an $18 notebook. I’ve heard worse, and that was on Goodreads. The line about scribbling in an $18 notebook? I sometimes turn it on myself. I am trying, at 44, to change my attitude about money, and that involves some soul searching. It’s not easy to stare down an ever-shrinking road to the thing that used to be called “retirement” and realize that you’ll be working until you drop—that is, if I am lucky enough to still have my teaching job. It’s not a given, and with tenure-track jobs in academia in steady decline, according to Inside Higher Ed, I might just be looking at a future measured out in temporary contracts. That seems great now, but what about if I’m up for review again at 55 while my son is applying to college? With no savings to fall back on for his tuition payments and that white box still following me around?

The future is already here, and I am not prepared for it. Elvis Costello has a phrase for everything, and this is mine: I’m a man out of time. Continue reading…

The Reluctant Memoirist



I wrote this brief essay recently for Blackfriars, the new digital imprint at Little, Brown U.K. that published Too Good to Be True last month. It tells the story of how I came to write a memoir, a literary form I spent most of my early career ruthlessly mocking, and how the daily process of bringing the memoir to life helped restore my relationship to writing.

There are two kinds of people in the world: memoirists and everyone else. We all have a memoirist in the family, or sleeping in our bed, or working at the next cubicle over with a headset on; they’re the ones who share their lives with an eerie fluency no matter how intimate their disclosures or how many strangers are within earshot. Often they’re lurking in a train compartment nearby, fingering their iPads harmlessly or tapping out a private code on their laptops—until the phone lets out a chime, the air in the train car changes, and the memoirist suddenly starts to write.

“I’ve been thinking about my first margarita all day. I’m obsessed, I really am. Rocks with a rimful of salt …”

“The team doesn’t know Brian. I’m telling you: the team knows nothing about Brian. They know zilch. He’s a chameleon. He’s a hanger-on … That’s the thing about Brian.”

“On Thursday there’s my colonoscopy. My colonoscopy, I said. Can you hear me? I said it’s my—can you hear me? Are you still there?”

“I love you, kitten. I do. Oodles and oodles of noodles. Now pass the phone to Momma.”

Memoir is all around us. There has never been more of it in our daily lives. It doesn’t take an interesting life to qualify, or a literary apprenticeship to get one off the ground. You don’t even need a publisher to share your memoir with an audience, should you be the literary type; you can post it on your blog for next to nothing, tell it episodically to your Twitter followers in 140-character chapters. If you work in one of the more renegade forms of memoir from which none of us can escape—the Cell Phone Rant, the Bodily Function Update, the Decision About What to Make for Dinner—this your golden age. Continue reading…

Goodbye to Twitter Village, Part II: Lessons Learned



This is the second part of a two-part essay on writers and Twitter. The first part is here. The essay also appeared in full on The Daily Beast.

Reader, I did it anyway. I put my qualms aside and continued my experimental foray into the Twittersphere. I even kept on following Salman Rushdie, and his Twitter feed grew on me a little, although I did find that when I turned back to my favorite book of his—Midnight’s Children—the entire enterprise was newly suspect. Does Saleem Sinai really have to be born at the stroke of midnight when India gains its independence? Why not 12:05 or 11:47? And the telepathic powers he shares with the other “midnight’s children”—isn’t the whole contrivance just a little Twittery? This is part of what makes spending time on Twitter so tiresome, at least for me: the endless personalizing of events both great and small, the human need to play pundit with the forces that overarch our lives, to feel like we’re participating.

snowdenPHOTOSHOP

I did like exploring Twitter as a new written territory, though: seeing what was possible to communicate in a 140-character tweet. Who did it well and found a voice of their own despite the limitations. Who didn’t bother to tweet coherently most of the time and still had a million followers begging for attention. I clicked more links on Twitter than I ever do on Facebook, partly because the veneer of personal connection has been stripped away and the communication is so much more telegraphic. Facebook is where you post your vacation pictures or connect with old friends; Twitter is all about work.

That’s another reason why I never cottoned to it. It did feel like work—and the wrong kind at that. It’s all ephemera, meant for instant consumption and destined for replacement by the avalanche of tweets to follow. (If you don’t believe me, look at some of the estimates for the lifespan of a typical tweet. This excludes, of course, the data being hoarded by the N.S.A.) I’d done some homework, so I had a pretty good idea of how often I should tweet in a day; that I should be sparing when it came to retweets; that following was a good way to gain followers; that if I wanted to gain an audience on Twitter—and keep as many of them as possible from un-following me—I had to offer something beyond a promotional platform for my book, an endless stream of reviews, events, links to Q&As, retweets of the users who read the book and tweeted me directly. Then you might as well be Tide laundry detergent. (But wait, Tide has 101,983 followers on Twitter! Who are they? What’s wrong with them?) I had to give my followers ‘me’ the writer, or at least some version of me that would amuse, enlighten, or strike a chord in 140-character bursts, make their lives better for following me, or at least more interesting. If I could do that, the marketing wisdom goes, they would show their loyalty by buying my book, pushing it on friends and coming out to my readings. Or at least I hoped they would.

That was the bargain. It wasn’t quite a devil’s bargain. But it felt murky enough to me that I could never quite buy in all the way. I felt needy.

I came to Twitter because I had a book to sell, and my misgivings about the whole enterprise meant that I would never be any good at it. A phrase comes to mind: I was “pissing into the void.” Continue reading…

Goodbye to Twitter Village



I never could get used to the name: Twitter. That “twit” dressed up for the office in a second syllable, taking a word we already knew—Twitter, v., a condition of twittering or tremulous excitement (from eager desire, fear, etc.); a state of agitation; a flutter, a tremble—and re-branding it for a social media platform where everyone becomes an avatar, churning out individual news feeds for their followers in 140-character microbursts that beg for our attention, each and every one.

retweet

It’s a natural enough impulse to find a nice high perch in the trees and start broadcasting. I mean, isn’t this what the birds do? The name, though—Twitter—was an obstacle for me from the start, in part because it was so patently stupid, but also because I recognized that it was stupid in just the right way and would probably make the people who coined it billionaires. I’d seen this principle at work during the Tech Boom of the late 90s, albeit in nascent form—take a pre-existing idea, like home-delivery service, slap a goofy name on it that could only have originated in a conference room with a whiteboard (kozmo.com!), offer the product online for free, then wait for the V.C. money to start falling from the sky.

It was thrilling, in a way, to watch whole swaths of New York get remade by Silicon Alley before the tech bubble started to deflate, to see the packs of start-up rascals with their exalted titles, younger than me by less than a decade but already a generation apart, palming their mysterious devices on the subway, bouncing with energy in their $150 retro sneakers, free of the self-consciousness and fear that I’d always understood to be necessary for survival in the city.

“How did the world change so quickly?” I used to wonder from my seat nearby, holding a notebook open in my lap, full of tiny scribbles, or a paper copy of the Times before it shrank to its current size, which will never look right to me in proportion to the world. “Why is what they have so fucking valuable?”

I’ll admit it: I did a lot of muttering then, both aloud and under my breath, about the stupidification of New York by dot com capital, and whenever I was in a mood I used to howl at the Yahoo billboard on Houston Street, or give a surreptitious kick to the kozmo.com drop box at Ciao Bella on Mott while I was walking out with my fancy ice cream. It was professional envy, plain and simple, one small revolt against the change in natural order that was already underway—and still hasn’t stopped. Print would be dethroned by the glowing screen; authority was no longer earned, but freely available to anyone who seized it; forget about reflection, care, “craft,” meaning, value, and all the other slow-twitch talents I’d spent my life trying to master, the age of fast-twitch thinking had arrived, and the click was now king.

It’s not as simple as that, of course. I have learned that outcomes, at least when it comes to technology, are not as Manichean as we believe them to be in the moment. I’ll take my media intake today—and that includes the links I click on thanks to the far worldlier people I follow on Twitter and Facebook—over what was available to me in the year 2000 any day of the week. It’s no contest.

And yet. I’m leaving Twitter. I’ve had enough. Just writing those last two sentences makes me feel better than a guy with sideburns describing his first Cronut on Yelp. My stay in Twitter Village was brief: 1 year, 4 months and 22 days. I’ll freely admit that I never really got the hang of it, never felt the buzz of a perfectly composed tweet, the thrill of communion with a multitude of fellow travelers united by a hashtag. I came. I saw. And now I’ve had it. No más.

I’ve written my last tweet.

I’ll be posting an essay here on my experience with Twitter and why I think the social media presence typically recommended to writers when they’re publishing a book is a tremendous waste of time.

What follows is Part One: “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Continue reading…

What Business Have I in the Woods?



In July of last year, when I posted the first “complaint” on this blog, I’d imagined coming back every couple of weeks and sharing the thoughts that I’d been wrestling with, especially the ones that pertained to technology, social media, online community—the realm of the glowing screen. I’d pictured myself weighing in on the same issues that fueled blog posts and trend pieces and dutifully awed (or worried) op-eds, TED talks and pre-packaged book ideas that arrive on the bookshelf already digested for you so you can forget them without guilt.

A funny think happened on the way to being a blogger, though: I realized that I didn’t care. That is, I didn’t care enough to sit down and weigh in on the prevailing topics of the pundit class—even the cultural pundit class—when I could be outside with the sun on my face, or inside checking the baseball scores, or working my way down the daily to-do list (and my God, do I have a daily to-do-list, now that I’m in the habit of making them). I was reading Thoreau’s essay “Walking” the other day for a class that I’m teaching on the Transcendentalists, and a passage stopped me short:

But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is,—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?

A return to the senses: that’s the losing battle I fight all day. I can feel my senses bleeding out of me from the moment I wake up, put on the espresso and sit down at the computer screen to see what happened overnight. Thoreau had his woods to bring him back to a feeling state, to make him aware of the world around him and return him to “innocency.” But what do we have? Just as Thoreau had no business being in the woods if he was thinking of the village, I have no business being in the village when I’m thinking of the woods. So I will not be blogging here, or elsewhere, except when I have reason to come out of the woods—when I have business. That is my solemn promise to you, and I am aim to keep it. Continue reading…

The World is Too Much With Us



I had a professor in college who used to dispense life-advice while he was handing back our papers on modern poetry.  He would stalk the room with a stack of essays in his hands, peeling them off the top one by one while we watched him in nervous silence, and free-associating while he handed them back on matters small, large, and poetically urgent.  Memorizing poems was one of his favorite topics that term—why we needed to do it, what we would gain.  “It doesn’t matter what poem you choose,” he insisted, picking another paper off of the pile with his long, spindly fingers and scanning the desks for the author.  That’s how he made us all feel: like authors.  “Just pick a favorite and memorize it.  You have no idea how much it will add to your life …  Every time you’re put on hold or stuck in a waiting room, you’ll have something to do.”  It took a seminar on Joyce and Yeats—he taught that class too; I remember feeling bewildered when he gave an exam wearing a black sweat suit and puffy red Rebook sneakers—for me to memorize my first poem.  I picked “Who Goes With Fergus,” a galloping enigma from Yeats’s symbolist period:

Who will go drive with Fergus now,
And pierce the deep wood’s woven shade,
And dance upon the level shore?
Young man, lift up your russet brow,
And lift your tender eyelids, maid,
And brood on hopes and fear no more.
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon love’s bitter mystery;
For Fergus rules the brazen cars,
And rules the shadows of the wood,
And the white breast of the dim sea
And all dishevelled wandering stars.

I had no idea what the poem meant.  I still don’t—not really.  It’s deeply mysterious.  There is the world we know, with its hopes and fears for brooding, fueled by love’s “bitter mystery,” and there is another world ruled by Fergus in his “brazen car”: the wood and its shadows, the sea and its distant white breast, the stars wandering the sky in their disheveled constellations.  The poem took my breath away every time I recited it, and I spoke it aloud whenever I could: at stoplights, in waiting rooms, on the gurney in a recovery room after having brain surgery when I was twenty-one.  I wanted to make sure I hadn’t lost anything after spending nine hours in the dark of anesthesia, that I was still, underneath my new scars and hospital buzzcut, the same person who had gone in.  Fergus still ruled the brazen cars.  I was the same.  Only I was different. Continue reading…