The podcast is Larry Davidson’s The Artful Periscope. He’s a really informed and thoughtful interviewer and his questions are always interesting. Great discussion.
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The world is going to hell. You want to write about it, a novel, but you don’t know where to start.
The world is going to hell. You want to escape it, just briefly, and write a novel, but you don’t know where to go.
You’ve started to write a novel, but it’s become such a mess that you wish the entire thing would go to hell.
I’ll be leading a two-week fiction writing workshop from the tail end of June into early July at Art Workshop International in Assisi, Italy. I’ve been doing this for many years. Assisi is beautiful, the hotel is beautiful, and you’ll hang around with writers and artists making beautiful work.
We’ll get you started, or keep you going, unknot the mess and straighten things out. You’ll critique and be critiqued by others in the workshop and, not entirely incidentally, eat wonderful food. You’ll sit on the terrace and watch the sun go down.
You need more pix?
I never know if I’m coming or going, anyway. But I’ll be at Once Upon a Crime this Saturday afternoon. Come on down! For you non-Minneapolis folk, it’s a hybrid event, so you can join online; but you hardy Midwesterners, I’d love to see you!
I was going to write a post full anger, full of fury, about the atrocities on both sides in the middle east, about autocrats and liars… and I will. Oh, I will. But not right now. Right now, I want to leave this year and move into the next with a calm and hopeful heart, and this wish: May 2024 be the year in which the world, against all odds, regains some sense. Here, to help support that wish, is the last New York City sunrise of 2023. Peace, joy, and productive work to you all.
On the first night of Chanukkah I went to an event organized by, among others, Rabbis for Ceasefire. It was a cold night and a warm crowd. We lit candles, sang songs, and said prayers for the return of hostages, for a ceasefire, for an attempt at a new road forward, a two-state solution, a peace in the middle east that could last. We also, as is inevitable at a political rally, heard speeches. I’m a red diaper baby; I’ve been going to rallies since I was two. I usually can’t hear the speakers and when I can I rarely listen. This time, though, Peter Beinart said something in his short speech that’s been on my mind ever since.
I’m going to paraphrase, but the sense is there. He said he didn’t see much reason for optimism, that times had never seemed so dark. But, he said, “Jews are not called upon to be optimists.” (At which you could hear rueful laughter in the crowd. Honestly, based on the last 5,000 years, what have we got to be optimistic about?) Then he went on: “We’re called upon to have hope. And to work to make our hope a reality.”
This struck me, this distinction between optimism and hope. Optimism, and pessimism, too, are actually forms of arrogance, aren’t they? They’re predicting the future. Don’t worry, be happy, everything will turn out well. Or, panic, run and hide, everything will turn out badly.
Then it doesn’t.
Hope is different. Right now, I’m with Beinart. I see little reason for optimism. But hope is like breath. It’s always with you. I can hope for a ceasefire, I can hope for a permanent peace, I can hope for an end to the war in Ukraine while I’m at it, and I can hope for a solution to climate change. And I can work, to the best of my limited ability and alongside other people working to the best of theirs, toward those things becoming reality. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I don’t know.
But I don’t need to know. There’s a quote attributed to Rabbi Tarfon that goes, “It is not asked of you to finish the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.” Interestingly, another translation makes the first phrase, “It is not given to you to finish the work…” Finishing the work would be a privilege. Chances are I won’t see the work finished. But if I plant a tree chances are I won’t see that finished, either, grown to its tall, leafy, bird-sheltering fullness. Is that any reason not to plant it?
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In my New York neighborhood no morning is quieter than the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Everyone’s still away or sleeping in, except a few joggers and dogwalkers. I went out early; I like cold weather, sharp wind, I’ll even like the gray rainy slushy days, when they get here. I don’t like the fact that in this season the sun rises after I do and twilight starts at 3:30, but it’s a package deal.
Down at the river (for those of you who are new here, I live in downtown Manhattan two blocks from the Hudson) the tide was high, the sky was gray, and the wind was still. The ferries and tugs were all docked and I guess it was too cold for pleasure boating, even for those who haven’t put up their boats for the winter quite yet. Nothing disturbed the water: reflecting the gray sky, it looked like glass. A few gulls floated without even a tiny wake-wave to bobble on. Right beside the seawall, a platoon of geese swam by in single file. When the water’s at its highest the geese can reach the moss near the top of the wall, which is apparently quite tasty, because they all stopped every few feet and stretched their necks for a nibble.
I walked around for awhile and as I headed home the tide was turning. I’m reaching for a metaphor here; I’m hoping without much justification that the tide is turning in the middle east, too. The release of hostages and the ceasefire constitute a tiny ray of light. I have definite thoughts about what has to happen once all the hostages are home, and they all depend on the ceasefire continuing to hold after that. Which is possible, barely. But hope is hope; not rational, but necessary.
Hope with me, if you want.
Also: There’s no free lunch, but this is a free Substack.
Some of you know this, some of you don’t — is that not true of just about everything? — but every year I take some of the gabazillions of photos I’ve shot over the year and make calendars for your gift-giving and schedule-keeping pleasure. This year I’ve put together five. They retail for $18.00. All profits go to charity; this year’s choice is the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.
Click on the calendar’s name — not the photo — and there you are. Buy one for every room in the house, why not? It’s gonna be a busy year.
And about the subtitle of this Substack: a lot of writers have both free and paid versions of their Substacks, to try to make a living, not so easy for writers. Mostly those writers are experts on the thing they want you to pay for their thoughts about, and often it’s a good idea. In fact I subscribe to a couple of those. But me, I’m not an expert on anything. I’m just talking here. I’m honored enough you want to read what I have to say. No way am I going to charge you for it. SJ’s Substack, free as a boid.
Today I’m writing about sports instead of writing about war. Except, in an odd mirror, they’re the same.
Anyone who knows me or reads me knows I love sports. I have a scale, of course: basketball’s at the top, everything else is below that, starting from baseball and working down to American football, which I hate, and golf ditto — but I hate them in a way only a sports lover can hate a sport. Some sports bore me, e.g. tennis, though I admire the physicality of great players. I won’t write in this post about all that, because, for example, I can go on a golf rant, or a football one, and/or talk about my difficult relationship with my father and how baseball was, when I was a kid, one of the few things we managed to enjoy together (and alone; none of my sibs cared) but those are all long essays and for another time. What I want to do now is talk about sport and tribalism.
I’ve said we’re hard-wired to hate. I was called out on that, and I reconsidered, and now I think maybe we’re hard-wired to be able to hate. One of the purposes of sports is to direct that readily-available hostility, which is hard to eliminate, into something that doesn’t matter. Non-sports-lovers ask me sometimes why I care so much about the Knicks that I sit here alone in my living room shouting at the TV when Julius Randle misses a free throw. It doesn’t matter, they say. No, and that’s the point.
If you listen to the language of the sportscasters you can hear it. Warriors, fighters, heroes, dominating, destroying, defeating. If you watch sports you can see it: impressive human bodies (or, as in the marathon after the elite runners come in, not-so-impressive human bodies) going up against each other and giving their all. And I can give mine, too, yelling encouragement at the marathon — I was there for two hours last weekend, just clapping and cheering for strangers — and sitting on my couch shouting about those free throws, or booing when my team’s called for a foul (because after all, we’re the good guys, we never foul).
Then when it’s over, everyone goes home.
The point of sports is to channel our bloodlust into events that don’t decimate the species. I don’t just love basketball, I play it, rather badly but as well as I can. While I’m playing I’m determined to help My Guys defeat Those Other Evil Guys. We all play as though something were at stake — land, riches, entry to heaven.
Then when it’s over, everyone goes home. Next week we make up the teams differently and My Guys are once more the good guys, even if last week they played for T.O.E.G.
The war in the middle east does matter, of course, as does the one in Ukraine. These wars are over land, and riches, and, in the minds of some, entry to heaven. They don’t mix up the teams and a lot of people are never going home. But suddenly, watching the marathon, I was filled with hope. We — no one in particular, everyone — have figured out at least one way to redirect that ability to hate, that volcanic burst of emotion. A way to turn it, at least neutral, and often positive. Maybe, once we really understand how much we need to, we can come up with others.
At the risk of thinking myself shallow, I’m going to turn back, at least for now, to one of the reasons I started this Substack: so I can talk about books. Books, after all, are what I do: I write them, and I do that because as a kid I read them and read them and read them. And as many hours as I can steal from the required activities of grown-up life now, I still fill with reading. Do I think books, or art generally, can save us? Would that it could. But what art can do it support and revitalize us, give us a chance to recharge our batteries, and a chance to see, once more, what it is in this life that’s worth fighting for.
So I offer you two books I loved, in the hope they’ll help with your batteries.
Book the first: EBONY GATE, by Julia Vee and Ken Bebelle.
I was at the San Diego Union-Tribune Book Festival this summer and after my own panel I went to a couple of others to hear people I knew. On one of those panels I also heard the two authors of this book, whom I didn’t know. I’m doing a joint writing project now, so I was kind of academically interested in their process; but after I heard this book described by one of the authors as “a female Asian John Wick with dragon magic” I was sold.
And I loved it.
The “dragon magic,” which is wielded by people, isn’t GAME OF THRONES, I promise you. It’s completely original; what impressed me most was the authors’ breadth of imagination coupled with the discipline with which they used it. No cheating here, which is one of my arguments with some fantasy/spec fiction. The voice of the narrator is also terrific — she’s a serious highly-trained martial arts warrior, plus she’s hilarious. Not just her; every character, good or bad — and most are a mixture — is a strength in this book. Once I started it I found myself carrying it around with me so I could sneak in a few pages while I was on the subway, etc. That right there should tell you something, because it’s not a small book and I’d bought the hardcover. Luckily for me it’s Book 1 of a trilogy. Can’t wait for the next.
Book the second: HALF-LIFE OF A STOLEN SISTER, by Rachel Cantor
In a sense, HALF-LIFE OF A STOLEN SISTER is also fantasy. It’s a re-telling of the lives of the Brontës, but called the Bronteys… set in the modern day… with archaic language… and different names… but not entirely different… told through narration, letters, diaries, short plays, radio interviews… Basically, this book is indescribable, except to say, it made me cry. And it made me laugh out loud. And here’s the thing: this is a story I knew, in broad outline. Tragedy after tragedy, some great books, more tragedy. Rachel Cantor’s great accomplishment here is to make all these people so real that I wondered why I’d never really known them for who they were before. Are the people in this book who the Brontës really were? I don’t know; but it’s a measure of how much I loved this book that it made me hope so.
If you have books to recommend, you can go ahead and do so in the comments.
Elmo holds hands with a priest.
Here’s Beauty, but where is the Beast?
King Charles, a cigar,
A square motorcar,
And seven Ivankas, at least.
The Horseman, while gripping his head
Tries to evade the undead.
A young Bengal Lancer,
A tall necromancer,
A pillow, and with her, a bed.
A ghost lifts a sign saying “Boo”
To old Colonel Mustard from Clue.
Two Martians, a band,
A Chewbacca, and
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.