Archive for Substack


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.

Come to Assisi!

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.

Come to Assisi!

You need more pix?



A New Year’s wish

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.


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Optimism vs. Hope

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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Changing Tide

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.


2024 Calendars!

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.


Colors and Patterns

New York City




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.

Good Books

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.

Casualties of War

If I’m lucky this will be my last post on war for awhile. Whatever’s happening on the surface in the Middle East, furious unseen diplomacy is happening under it, and we’ll see its result more in the things that don’t happen, I think, than in the things that do.

And I hope so many things don’t happen.

But I have to say this: complaints and outrage from both sides — all sides — about deliberate viciousness, about pogroms and barbarity and contravening the Rules of War, are naïve at best, hypocritical at worst.

Truth is the first casualty of War. Civilians are the second.


Going back to the Code of Hammurabi, such written records as we have brim with rules to keep civilian populations safe. (Including the Islamic record devised by the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, so if you’re about to tell me about jihad, sit down.) These rules were written, and written, and written, because civilian populations weren’t  safe.


The image of two lines of brave young soldiers in identifiable uniforms exchanging fire across a disputed boundary while their respective civilian populations wait at a safe remove to learn their fate is bullsh*t and always has been. The invasion of Israel by terrorists from Hamas was for the purpose of killing civilians. Against the Rules of War! But why were the civilians there? Because the Israeli government had built settlements in the occupied territories to create a buffer zone inhabited by their own people. As a response to the invasion the Israeli military ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, but Hamas told people to stay. Why? Israel has never shown reluctance to shell civilian territory, so it can’t be because they thought the presence of civilians would stop retribution. No, it was so that when the civilians got killed Hamas could point at Israel as monsters willing to kill civilians. Against the Rules of War! Both governments, using their own people as chess pieces.

Outrageous? Unacceptable? Sure. But what’s a siege but an attack on a civilian population? What was the Armenian Genocide but an attack on a civilian population? What were the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands but attacks on civilian populations? Pogroms, the Holocaust, the Torreon Massacre, the wholesale murder of Rohingya? You know why castles had big giant courtyards? So civilian populations could shelter inside when enemy soldiers came.

I wrote earlier about how we’re hardwired to hate. But we’re not hardwired to kill. You have to be inflamed to do that, to be convinced those people you hate are so terrible they deserve for you to kill them. It’s damn hard to inflame people against soldiers only. War is for the purpose of wiping out the enemy. Including the enemy’s giggling toddlers. Anyone who thinks any war can be fought cleanly is fooling themselves.

Am I saying then that we might as well accept the slaughter of civilians because that’s how war is fought? God, no. I’m saying we need to accept that that’s how war is fought and stop the slaughter of civilians by stopping our default resort to war.

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These Are Not Your Heroes

When I started this Substack it was to talk about books, gardens, and whatever else intrigued me. And I’ll get back to that. But the war in the middle east has overtaken any sense of the normal routine of daily life.

Palestinians, I’ve seen the AI image of a paraglider sailing into Jerusalem. It’s heroic and stirring. But terrorists who slaughter children, who stream live video on their victims’ social media accounts, who randomly call friends and family from victims’ cell phones to gloat and horrify — these are not your heroes.

Israelis, I’ve seen reservists young and old racing to answer the nation’s call. It’s heroic and stirring. But a military that uses white phosphorus on civilians, that orders a million people out of their homes toward closed borders, that shells indiscriminately — these are not your heroes.

“We wouldn’t have if they hadn’t — “ “They’ve always — “ “We had to respond — “ “They won’t — “ “They will — “

Enough. Enough. ENOUGH.

There’s plenty of guilt and savagery on both sides, enough that it’ll take centuries to expiate. But that has to start because this has to end.

Here in the US a new organization of Jews, IfNotNow, is leaning on the US government to pressure the Israeli government to back down from the “Once And For All” stance — which rings a lot like the Final Solution, doesn’t it? We can only hope there are similar organizations among the Palestinians. If not they must be created. Palestinians and Israelis of good heart must throw off Hamas and its partners, and the Israeli right wing and its enablers. Everyone else everywhere else must help however we can.

We have to be each other’s heroes.

This war will end as all wars do. Israel is in the middle east to stay. Palestine must be created as a co-equal nation. These are truths, and not necessarily bitter ones. They have to be acknowledged and the work of building has to begin.

Those who do it, these are your heroes.

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So about this Substack thing

What am I doing and why am I doing this? And why is it orange? (It’s not orange here on my website. Sorry.)


Oct 4, 2023

To answer that last one first, it’s orange because I found where the colors are. Be warned I’m likely to keep changing colors until I hit on the right one. Or as my mood takes me. Or maybe I’ll just go back to white, or straight to black…

What I’m doing is, sending out a newsletter to subscribers, plus posting it on my website and my social media. Broad-spectrum newsletters, like broad-spectrum antibiotics, have the unfortunate effect of hitting things besides the things you aimed them at. Antibiotics can give you a stomach ache if they hit the wrong bacteria. Newsletters can give readers a headache if they fill up mailboxes of people who didn’t ask for them. Okay, it’s a weak analogy, but you get it because you’re all so smart. Which is why I don’t want to give you a headache. So hit the SUBSCRIBE NOW button and this thing will come into your mailbox more or less once a week.


And why?

I’ve posted for a long time on social media. I’ve written, more and less dependably, a blog. For the blog you needed to go to my website. On Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Mastodon, my reach is large, but random. Lots of people can see what I have to say, but do they? Social media’s like a river, and each post like a piece of driftwood. You blink, it’s gone already. That wasn’t a great analogy either, was it? What happened to my mental analogy generator, I wonder? Also, I’m watching that little hairball Elon destroy Twitter (stick your X, Elon) and thinking, the s.o.b. is like a landlord closing everyone’s favorite bar. If I could I’d open a new hangout for us all, but I can’t do that (though if anyone has a great post-Twitter site I’d be glad to hear about it). So I thought I’d try this Substack thing. After all, if Barbara Shoup, Peter Blauner, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar do it, it must be a good idea, right? I know there’s a way I can link to those Substacks for you but that’s for next time. It was enough today that I found the colors.