Author Archives: Jasper Henderson

Lightplay 14 – Utopian Proposals

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

Hello and welcome back to Lightplay, the big email of your faithful if intermittent correspondent Jasper Luna Nighthawk. (Who was until recently named Jasper Nighthawk Henderson.) I’m delighted to return to your inbox, and I hope that wherever you’re reading these words, you and your family and friends are safe and doing okay. Happy Mother’s Day!

Here in Los Angeles, I’m spurred to write again by the blossoming jacarandas. Every May and June, these Brazilian trees produce luscious, thick-petaled purple blossoms—blossoms that bloom profusely, thousands per tree, a riot of purple. They epitomize the phrase, ‘embarrassment of riches.’ You’d have to be a stone-cold celibate not to blush a little, looking at the lovely sex organ of a street tree in late spring.

However that’s not the reason why the jacaranda across the street made me want to write to you, my sweet dear readers. Instead, it was remembering how when I sent the first installment in this run of big emails, I included in that one a picture of this same tree, in riotous bloom, just about a year ago. In that photo the tree is backdropped by the artificial bumblebee yellow of the panels that clad the building under construction behind it. A year on, that building has just been stuccoed in an off-white plaster. The scene’s composition, as framed by my office window across the street, is no longer quite as striking. But the jacaranda, indifferent, hoists its purple raiment just as before.

Though not quite as enthusiastically as last year.

The workmen have been hard at work, the tree has been hard at work, and so have I. This last year has been by far the busiest in my life as a writer so far. I just write all of the time now, like a maniac.

Which is great! It’s what I wanted!

But it’s also, you know, intense to abruptly succeed in turning your passion into a full-time job. I imagine a musician might feel the same way if they suddenly got work five days a week in a late-night comedy show band. Or a painter might feel this way if they got a multi-year commission to create dozens of municipal murals.

These examples come to mind because while I do now work full-time as a writer, I’m not precisely writing chatty newsletters for a living or—that holy grail—paying the bills by writing novels. My job title is ‘University Storyteller,’ and I work for my MFA alma mater, Antioch University. I now spend my days writing alumni profiles, reporting out news around the school, editing pieces by freelancers and work-studies, and producing and hosting a faculty interview podcast.

It’s interesting, engaging, difficult, and often satisfying work. And I have health insurance! Dental! Paid time off! This is what parents wish for their children.

Like a shift in latitude, it’s revealed a different constellation of problems in my life: how to find time to cook and clean, how to use vacation time to see family but also to recharge and keep from burning out, and how to make sure we hit next month’s metrics. (The dread metrics!) But maybe the hardest thing is figuring out how to sustain my own art, how to keep writing and working on my own projects.

For the last half-year, this big email has lost out in that negotiation. But now we’re back, baby. I’m really happy to be here in your inbox. And I’m excited to move to a model of sending this out quarterly or so. It’s going to be good. This ain’t no Substack. It’s low-fi social media. Welcome to your spring Lightplay. Thank you for joining me here.

There’s an essay that I think you should read. It’s called “Return the National Parks to the Tribes” and was written by David Treuer. The essay’s central idea is exactly what the title says. Here’s Treuer expanding his thesis just a bit:

“For Native Americans, there can be no better remedy for the theft of land than land. And for us, no lands are as spiritually significant as the national parks. They should be returned to us. Indians should tend—and protect and preserve—these favored gardens again.”

But the essay is more than just that. Its shape is part history lesson, part pandemic travelogue (along a remarkably similar route to the road trip I took last summer), and part proposal for a new way we could do things. I love this. Why don’t more essays include utopian proposals?

What makes this essay so important to me is the way it travels roads of thought I’ve glimpsed before but never pursued in my own writing: Are America’s national parks creepily empty? Does the concept of wilderness have white supremacist roots? And what wounds remain from the violently displacement of so many people from their land?

Treuer is a great writer and thinker. He’s also Indigenous—he’s Ojibwe, from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota—and his senses are sharp to different things than are mine. To read the essay is to take a trip in another person’s car, mind, history—and possible future, too.

So go read it! Can I encourage you any more? Here’s the link one more time.

Okay, now that you’ve read it—or have ignored my entreaties and vowed never to—I can add my own thoughts. Which, I’m always trying to be more honest with myself as a writer, and to be frank I just don’t think I’m a great polemicist. Nobody opens a Lightplay thinking, Can’t wait, I’m gonna get my fix of political thought. You all are here for some other reason. Not sure what it is. But it ain’t for the hot political takes.

I suspect that part of what I am well-suited to is writing from life: thought embedded in experience. That after all is part of what makes Treuer’s essay so great. We love abstraction, but then we spend our days thinking with our bodies, as they move through time and space. The road trip essay, as a genre, is great because it’s embodied.

So rather than philosophize to excess, instead I present here two experiences from my own life, two moments that impressed me deeply at the time—and that have clicked into a new understanding since I read Treuer’s essay. Each occurs in a specific place and time.

I. Snow Mountain Wilderness Area, Lake County, 2014

In the late spring, I went with my partner at the time for a three-night backpacking trip around Snow Mountain, a peak just north of Clear Lake, in the Mendocino National Forest. It’s a beautiful, austere place to take a hike in the woods: broad hillsides covered in hardy wildflowers, dim paths through pines, pocket views of the lake gleaming far down below, and there were even wind-carved drifts of snow at the blustery summit. (In this part of California’s Coastal Ranges, the regular presence of snow is notable enough to give the mountain its name.) We dosed streamwater with tiny iodine pellets and then waited an hour before drinking. Each night, we stuffed our food into our sleeping bags’ stuff sacks, which I raised like piñatas into the understory. But we didn’t see any bears.

To be honest, we barely saw any animal bigger than a songbird. I think we spooked some deer one day. And there might have been ducks in the pond we slept by the first day. But the mountains felt empty.

And I think they felt particularly empty because the year before we had been in northern India, exploring the foothills of the Himalayas, which are many things but never really empty. On the day hike from Dharamsala up to Triund, you come around a bend, parched, only to find someone with a kettle, selling tiny cups of chai masala for a handful of rupees. And then around another bend there’s a small stone house, built into a crease in the steep, rocky slope, where you can get a bowl of noodles. If you make it a few more hours up to the pass, it’s mostly wind-swept rock, but there are also some tents, pitched and ready to be rented.

Yes, this is all capitalism—dirty commerce, spoiling nature. But also: the hills are lively. They are full of life. They don’t hold just ‘wild’ nature, but also humans. There’s something wonderful about it. And in my experience, this thing where beautiful, wild landscapes include humans doing human things isn’t just true in touristy Dharamsala. In remote Tibetan valleys or in the grassy foothills of the Tian Shan mountains in Xinjiang, you regularly cross paths with herders and pilgrims. You often find them at little restaurants or small monasteries, or maybe on the front steps of a general store. The landscape is often profoundly beautiful, but it’s also just home to people who live there and are going about their lives. It’s a different relationship with nature, and often people are interacting with the land in similar ways to how their ancestors did many generations ago.

This is not the case in the Snow Mountain Wilderness Area. And you can tell. The mountains feel lonely, pristine, almost like a ruins. As we walked through them, I was haunted by the idea that for thousands of years this had been a lively place. But not anymore.

On our third day, the obvious place to camp was near Bloody Rock, up in the oak woodlands above Lake Pillsbury, a man-made reservoir. But before the trip, I’d looked up how Bloody Rock got its name. The answer is not pretty: it was the site of an 1860’s massacre of about sixty-five men, women, and children of the Yuki tribe. A small group of armed ranchers had chased them to the rocky outcropping and then killed every last one of them. According to the internet, the bodies were never buried and lay exposed for many years.

Instead of camping there, we walked late into the evening, trying to get far away from the history of this empty place. And the next day, we pushed to get back to the car, not wanting to spend another night sleeping in the empty hills. We blasted the Mountain Goats as we drove away, and we never went camping there again.

Now, having read “Return the National Parks to the Tribes,” I am seeing that the emptiness of what the U.S. government calls “Wilderness Areas” isn’t just a consequence of my culture’s genocidal past. It’s also a choice that we as a country keep on making, year after year: the decision to keep these places empty of the people who lived there first. It’s a choice we could make differently.

II. Tahquitz Canyon, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Reservation, 2021

Not all of the beautiful and wild corners of this country are administered by the Bureau of Land Management or the National Park Service, though. In a handful of precious places, the future that Treuer describes is already here. Take the lush oases and austere desert canyons administered by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. It’s located just a five-minute drive south of Palm Springs, this beautiful corner of California is open to the public year-round—though in the blazing hot summers, only Fri-Sat-Sun. You pay a modest entrance fee, get a map, and then you’re free to explore its extensive trails, visit its gift shop, or do whatever else you want to do.

This winter, my partner, her dad, and I walked far up one of the park’s canyons. We followed a small stream through lush groves of California Fan Palm, the only palm tree native to our state. The old fallen-off fronds, deliberately uncleared, made a thick litter under the palms. Smoking was absolutely prohibited, and still, many older palms had fire scars on their trunks. Further up the canyon, the stream went underground and we were once again in sere desert. Where the way narrowed, we scrambled up smooth-rock channels, the granite eroded by eons of flash floods into Brancusi swoops and swirls. The air was hot and dry and faintly perfumed with creosote. Larry took his shirt off.

Eventually we realized that it was too late in the afternoon to make it all the way around the loop trail, so we turned back and retraced our steps. We took more photographs. Saw a lizard. Shook a pebble from my shoe. By the time we got back to the car, we were filled with the beauty of the desert, knew more about the place’s past, and were hungry for dinner.

So Tahquitz Canyon is just like a National Park or Wilderness Area, right?

Well, not quite. For one, there’s no campground. The park closes promptly at 5pm every day, and signs threaten that cars left overnight will be towed. You are a guest. It’s expected that you treat the place with respect.

Other differences are more subtle. There are dozens and dozens of miles of trails, leading wherever you might want to go, linking and looping and well-marked. This contrasts with Joshua Tree National Park, down the road, which generally has just a single trail for each area. The picnicking area is also uncommonly clean and thoughtfully laid out; there’s a feeling of personal touch and pride of ownership. There are some old-style woven dwellings that kids enjoy exploring, and these are in good repair. A hand-dug little irrigation canal—to demonstrate historic agricultural techniques—is in good repair. Instead of being a pastiche of log cabin and logging camp, the architecture is simple and even a bit modernist. Instead of using a font chosen by bureaucrats in Washington, DC, the trail signs are stylishly local.

These are little things, and I don’t mean to trash the National Park Service, which I think is filled with people who love nature and want to make the parks a nice place to visit. It’s just that in Tahquitz Canyon there’s a pride and personality to the human elements. The place feels loved and lived-in.

Maybe my favorite part is the concessions shack. A big open window in the side of the gift shop building sells water, chips, hot dogs, trail mix. Nothing elaborate; just goodies you might want to stick in your fanny pack and eat out on the trail. There is none of the corporate-lunch-counter ugliness of the National Parks cafeterias, no long line, no complex point-of-sale system. The craziest thing: nothing is overpriced. The concessions feel less like a profit center for a park management company called Xanterra and more like a service tailored to the needs and desires of park guests.

Tahquitz Canyon is a relatively small park, but I’ve only walked maybe 3% of its trails. I can’t wait to return. The place just has a different vibe from government-run outdoor spaces. I only wish there were more parks like it. And maybe there will be soon—if we as a country can gather the bravery and resolve to return the National Parks to the tribes.

Find more shots in my latest gallery: Desert, March 2021

Three Film Recommendations

1. Bacurau, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 132 minutes. (Available for rent on streaming services.)

If the history of Bloody Rock rightly curdles your blood, you might enjoy exploring those feelings—along with possibilities for Indigenous resistance—through this 2019 thriller from Brazil. The film is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, but I think I was delighted most by its continual inventiveness. It kept surprising me right up to the end. Which is why I don’t want to say too much more, to spoil any of it. Bacurau is both bloody and deeply political, but it left me feeling smarter, more alive, and creatively nourished.

2. “The Story of ‘It Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy,” dir. Dan Zabludovsky, 26 minutes. (Available for free on Youtube.)

This is the second episode of a series by Vice, posted on Youtube, called ‘The Story of…’ There’s a bit of a formula to this show. Each of its five episodes explores, oral-history style, the circumstance that led to the creation of a hit song: moments of inspiration, conflict with A&R guys, big emotions, twists and turns, stupid crushes, drug problems, and then, every time, world-beating success. Strangely, each of these hits comes from a quite specific couple of years: 1999-2001.

This happens to be when I first started listening to music on my own, and watching each episode I remember each song so clearly: “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” by Eiffel 65, “Last Resort” by Papa Roach, “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton. The songs are so much of their time, and remembering this lost age of two decades ago is deeply transporting. None of it is to be missed, and definitely not the deep dive into “Thong Song” by Sisqo, where he just says some amazing things about the genesis of that piece:

“And for the first time in my life I saw a thong—or what was expressed to me as a thong. I didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that it was glorious. I was at a loss for words. I was like, “What? What is… what is this? What is that? What is this?” She was like, “you know, like a G-string; a thong,” and I was like “ow! it’s called a thong?” Pretty much, I don’t even remember what happened for the rest of that night because I could not wait to get back, you know, like around my friends and tell them of this glorious material that I witnessed.

But the episode that moved me the most was the one about “It Wasn’t Me” by Shaggy. I first heard this song on my eleventh birthday. These other sixth-grade boys I was trying to fit in with had come over for a sleep-over, and one of them gave me the Shaggy album Hotshot, and I put on my new walkman, and I just couldn’t stop listening to this song. It had lyrics so dirty (“banging on the bathroom floor”) and emotionally wound-up (“Yo man / open up, man / my girl just caught me”) and ridiculously bravadocious (“Say it wasn’t you”), and they matched so well with its sick groove and Shaggy’s unique style of Jamaican dancehall sing-rapping. I’d never heard anything like it before. I loved it.

That night, the social dynamics of my birthday party eventually became overwhelming. So without saying anything, I just got in my sleeping bag and put on my headphones and put this song on repeat. I disappeared into it. Its vibe, its world—they let me in like a bath.

It must have been two or three in the morning when I slowly realized several of the other boys were crouched around me, lifting the foam ear-pads off my ears, laughing. They had found out that I had this one song stuck on repeat. It was hilarious. But I wasn’t cut in on the joke. It was, I realized, at my expense. I tried to defend myself. I insisted that I didn’t really like the song. It was just, I explained, it was interesting. I was trying to understand it. But they wouldn’t let it go. My blubbering just made it funnier. I’m sure I blushed as deep a shade of red as there is. Vermillion? Crimson? I don’t remember what happened after that. Did I cry? Did I try to laugh along? How did I ever get back to sleep?

The next morning, I vowed never listened to Shaggy again. I’d change the song if it came on. I convinced myself that I really, truly didn’t like it. And my intention stuck. I never willingly listened to Shaggy again.

It was another year before I figured out that those boys weren’t the friends for me, and in so many ways that decision to break up with them set the course of my life to who I am now. But even as I stopped trying to fit in, I never reclaimed Shaggy. It wasn’t till this week, in 2021, as I was watching this little film, that my scar around this song began to heal. Shaggy, I now see, was never a true avatar of those boys who refused to accept me. He was always something else, though I just didn’t know or was blind to see: he was a force for good, a thoughtful artist with a strange and expressive instrument and a great sense of humor.

The story told in “The Story of ‘Wasn’t Me’ by Shaggy” is amazing, including a mysterious Napster user and a heroic Hawaiian DJ. But I’m most thankful that it helped me see that I was right the first time: it’s a great song. And nerding out to it was never anything to be ashamed of. In its own little, weird way, this short film on Youtube helped heal something inside me.

3. Shirkers, dir. Sandi Tan, 96 minutes. (Streams on Netflix.)

This is a feature-length documentary about a feature-length film by the same name. That film, also directed by and starring Sandi Tan, was never released, for reasons that are still mysterious today. If the original Shirkers had been released, back in 1992, it would have been Singapore’s first ever indie film. But it wasn’t. Tan’s documentary, full of footage from the earlier film, is an investigation of grief, youth, fate, abuse, and resilience. It’s my favorite thing I’ve watched this last year—and an inspiration to projects I’m working on today. I really cannot recommend it enough.

That’s it for this week’s Lightplay. If you made it this far, you must be one of the Lightplay die-hards, so you might be interested to know that I’ve recently published many profiles of interesting people associated with Antioch University. And I also have been part of the team creating the university’s newest project: the Seed Field Podcast. If you want to give it a listen, I recommend starting with this interview I did with Jean Kayira, a brilliant professor of Environmental Studies who spoke with me about Indigenous Knowledge and the climate crisis. 

Thank you for spending time with me. Take good care, and don’t be a stranger!

Jasper
9 May 2021

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash peoples—including the Gabrieleño, Fernandeño, and Ventureño; members of the Takic and Chumashan language families; and other Indigenous peoples who have made their homes in and around the area we now call Los Angeles. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I further wish to acknowledge that Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Urban Native populations in the country, with an intertribal community numbering over 54,000—many of whom settled here after being forcibly removed from or otherwise pushed out of their own homelands. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Emerging Arts Leaders Los Angeles land acknowledgment and from that of the Newberry Museum, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)

Lightplay 13 – Chronos, Nomads, Fruit

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

Greetings on another Sunday in the interminable present from which 2020 is apparently fashioned. Will the year ever end? Will the final six weeks somehow outdo in chaos and pestilence the preceding forty-eight?

This morning I received one of the golden tickets of 2020: another negative COVID test result. I hope you, too are staying COVID-safe and -lucky. Now is no time to get lax in our dodging of the virus. If you recall back to August’s Lightplay 09 – the Strangest Summer, guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah warned that “as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.” Today this seems to be borne out, as ERs and COVID wards fill with younger patients and patients without known comorbidities. So don’t let up! Keep up the good work of protecting yourself and your community by staying safe, wearing a mask, and certainly not dining indoors around people not in your bubble.

But that’s not what I want to focus on, this Lightplay. I’d rather talk about the experience of time, portable dwellings, the sweetness of fruit. The small pieces of life and thought that lend it its savor.

I. Chronos

I’ve spent some of the last year studying images of myself as an older man. In one image I’m perhaps sixty. In the next, I look like I might be eighty-five.

The images sometimes disgust me. Other times they terrify me. Will I really look this way? Is there no escaping this fate? Oh man, I am going to be ugly.

There’s something transgressive, in a society that venerates youth, to considering your face as an old man. It tickles all sorts of shame centers in your brain; you subconsciously reach for the anti-wrinkle gel.

Yet they’ve stayed with me, these images. I keep looking at them. And as I’ve become more and more comfortable looking at them, I’ve come to see that they have a beauty, too.  It wouldn’t be so bad to have a face like that, one full of wrinkles and far from youth. For one, it would mean I had survived that long. I’d have some stories to tell. Some people might still love me, even.

To be clear, I have not been receiving time traveled photographs from the future. These images were created by an algorithm, through an app called FaceApp. The app became popular about a year ago—and quickly provoked a privacy backlash, as the company that makes it is based in Russia. Putin will have your photo!

If you can handle Putin having a photo of your face, though, it sure will turn it into a photo of an older face. And if you feed photos through twice, you can get ’em looking really old.

In one of his lectures, Alan Watts says that everyone should “observe skulls and skeletons and…wonder what it would be like to go to sleep, and never wake up.” He says that contemplation and acceptance of death is like manure: “very highly generative of creating life.”

For me, I’m happy just to consider my old, wrinkly visage. I know I’m no Dorian Gray. Time will have its way with me. But I’m forewarned. I’m warming up to becoming that guy.

II. Nomads

The passage of time, its inexorable march, often gives me angst. Kashgar’s old city is bulldozed, Aleppo is bombed to bits. John Prine dies, Klay Thompson ruptures his achilles’ tendon. College days are over, my twenties have ended. The loss of how things were can be so sad. The golden age is always just past.

I do my best to remind myself of something else that is true: the golden age is also, often, right now. Don’t miss it. These, too, are the times that we will remember.

This is true on a personal level but also on a global one. So much beauty, history, and culture is still right here. I think of the many folkways that are endangered around the world. Somehow, so much still exists, so many people carry on life in the old ways. And today there are growing movements to protect them, to keep languages alive, and to bring back older ways of life.

I want to point your attention toward one very specific example of the way today is a golden age of protecting and documenting ancient ways of life: a Youtube channel that captures and shares the extremely various ways that nomadic peoples make shelter. It’s called Nomad Architecture.

Nomad Architecture’s videos are to all appearances made by one guy, Gordon Clarke, director of the Institute of Nomadic Architecture—also seemingly a one-man shop. He’s traveled around Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe documenting these nomadic building techniques.

The videos are entrancing journeys to distant worlds and ways of life. I find myself mesmerized, watching Khanty women harness vast herds of reindeer, watching Shahsavan men erect a beautiful round half-globe of a tent, and watching a whole Arbore family build a home out of reeds. It renews my love for this world, with such different people in it.

Of course there’s a problematics to a Brit named Gordon Clarke jetting around the world to document various indigenous peoples. With these videos I think he runs the risk of joining the long parade of Western anthropologists who have tried to document a culture and ended up—more or less wittingly—collaborating in the destruction of that very culture. I acknowledge this, and I think that these are problems we need to continue grappling with. At the same time, often past anthropological works are the primary remaining documentation of cultures and can serve as instruction for those hoping to bring back the old ways and languages.

Our world is complex. By my reckoning, at least, these Nomad Architecture videos are a meaningful contribution to our understanding of its complexity. What is best about the videos is their steady focus on the material culture of their nomadic subjects and the camera’s patient, admiring eye. They also delight as films created by an engaged, unembarrassed mind.

III. Fruit

What’s better than going to the asian grocery and buying a big pomelo and a bag of longan? Getting a box of green figs and slicing them all up? Going to a friend’s orchard and filling a box with apples and asian pears?

This morning, I took two perfectly-ripe Bartlett pears out of the fridge and cut them into cold slices. I ate them slowly, slice by slice. They had a custardy texture and sweetness, set off by the gentle tartness of their skins.

They reminded me how perfect a fruit can be.

Treat yourself to a perfectly ripe fruit. Settle in and watch Siberian nomads erect a tipi in the biting cold. And while you’re at it, age a photograph of yourself and marvel at the years yet to come, the adventures you have yet to etch on your very visage. No matter what you do, I hope that you stay safe and happy. See you next week!

Jasper
22 November 2020

Lightplay 12 – the Lost Travelogue

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

I hope this letter finds you well in health and spirit. Here in Los Angeles, the morning is cool and the air clear. Late fall!

Today, I’m thinking about travel. Partly, this is because I’ve been receiving short, photo-laden daily emails from a man currently walking the 500km Tōkaidō pilgrimage route in Japan. (More info here.) Maybe it’s also due to a seasonal fear-of-holidays, an atavistic terror at the big feelings I and others will surely have. And, oh yeah, the travel-blocking global pandemic might have something to do with it too.

Which is why I found myself delighted when I found deep in my drafts an old travelogue, partially drafted but never sent. I wrote it between January 25th and February 9th, 2016, when I was briefly living in Lao and walking the banks of the Mekong every day. It was supposed to be the ninth installment of the previous incarnation of this newsletter, Jasper’s Travelogue. The piece had the working title “The Farthest Shore.”

It’s clearly incomplete, hardly travelogue but not yet an essay. Nonetheless, I think it captures something of the way travel spurs thought. Reading it, you might remember how travel feels, how travel can be a way of thinking with your body. I hope you enjoy it.

The Farthest Shore

Tonight it’s raining in Luang Prabang, a cold rain. Foreigners huddle in an upscale coffee shop a block from the main intersection, speaking French and Korean, English and Chinese. We’re all travellers; this much we share. Travel is private, though, as personal and secret as a diary or a bank account. Only the traveller himself can know why he is where he is — so far from home, damp, thoroughly alone. And even he has doubts.

I am sure of this: I will go no further. This is the terminus of my trip. From here I begin the slow march home, a retracing of my footsteps till I end up where I started. Back to the border with Thailand, then to Chiang Mai, to Bangkok, back to Xining, to Hong Kong, and finally back to San Francisco, back home. Though as Heraclitus pointed out you can never step in the same river twice: it’s not the same river, and it’s not the same you. It’s not the same home.

I’m in a reflective mood. The rainshower has passed, and the last few drops on the tin roof outside my shuttered window sound like an engine block cooling. Today I went to Western Union and collected enough money to get me back to China, hopefully. While the clerk processed my transfer we talked. He told me that the boys here all want to find a Korean girlfriend, but he likes the Lao girls. His girlfriend teaches English to locals and Lao to foreigners. The locals pay about $20 a month; the foreigners pay over $200. He thought this was funny, and I did too. A pack of cigarettes costs forty cents here.

So some foreigners come to Lao and study the Lao language. I also meet nursing students from Australia who operate a mobile clinic for the hill tribes. Also meet a girl from Santa Monica who is travelling each month to a new country and volunteering there. She’s got it all set up in advance. Meet a German-speaking Italian couple from Sudtirol who only spend one or two days in each place and have in the last two months crisscrossed South America. Meet two Swedish girls who visited many Lord of the Rings sites in New Zealand. Man with dreadlocks on slow boat to Luang Prabang says, “… and you can hike from one beach to next — I’m telling you, man, it’s like heaven.” Other man replies, “Yeah, but does it have wifi?” Meet a Finnish former child film star who drives taxis and still acts but is taking a month off. Meet an older couple who are reprising the magic year they spent traveling in 1986, only now they have guides and hotel bookings and return tickets in one month. Meet a Canadian ex-colonel who owns rental properties in Quebec and explains to me his philosophy of travel: sleep cheap, eat cheap, and pay for experiences. Meet a Danish couple who bought a bike in Vietnam, put a few thousand kilometers on it, and are now trying to sell it for $250.

Why are we all travelling? It’s a question even less answerable than, Why am I travelling?

In the States you can visit a photographer to have your picture made before a blue screen. Then using simple computer software the photographer can add in backgrounds with similar lighting. Look, it’s us at the Great Wall! The Great Pyramids! The Taj Mahal! Aushwitz! Pluto! The Drive-Thru Redwood!

It’s one of the stock fears that modern travelers have to watch out for: the feeling that you’re not really there, not actually experiencing the place, at all.

A friend once related to me this anecdote: She was to spend the summer abroad, living with a roommate. Sometime in May she received her roommate’s name and contact info. Naturally, my friend looked up her roommate-to-be on Facebook. There she found countless photo albums of trips to art museums. It went like this: first the roommate-to-be would be smiling next to the painting, then the roommate-to-be would be would be actually touching the painting. Over and over again, these strange duplicates — one beside a painting, the next one groping it. And I guess that is one way of having a real experience with art. Are these homestays and language classes and volunteer opportunities with the hill tribes also ways of trying to touch, of proving to yourself that you really were there?

When I was eighteen I visited Paris for two whole days. My first afternoon I stumbled into the Orangerie, an art museum next to the Louvre. When Claude Monet began to lose his eyesight, he retired to his garden and took up his final subject: water lilies. Out of hundreds of works the greatest were eight vast canvases. The French government wanted these paintings to display to the public, and Monet agreed to donate them, so long as they built two enormous ovular rooms to display them in. I paced through these rooms, this temple to the impressioniest Impressionist, hungry and tired. The artwork didn’t move me — it seemed centrally to prove that the artist did indeed have cataracts. The objects of greater interest were the tourists themselves, who spent much of their time posing for photos with the murals. Why take a photo with a picture anyways? Why take pictures at all when you can buy a catalog in the gift shop?

I spent an hour in the Orangerie, taking pictures of tourists taking pictures. None of them are very brilliant photos. Much later the fancy camera that I was then lugging around with me would be stolen from a coffee shop in a cafe in the Mission district of San Francisco. The coffee shop was called Mission Creek. Now I travel with only an iphone camera, but I still sometimes take pictures of people taking pictures, images duplicated on viewfinders duplicated on my screen and now duplicated again for you. Do these halls of mirrors only estrange us from reality, or do they conceal other and more subtle realities?

My violin teacher Via was once an art history student at Vassar College. During her studies she once tried to join a graduate level seminar with a famous art historian. She had to visit his office hours to plead her case — usually the course wasn’t open to undergrads. She expected that he would ask her about her grades, which courses she’d already taken, et cetera. Instead he asked her to name a painting that she knew well. She named one, hesitant, and he said that he also knew it. Then he asked her what type of tree it was growing on the banks of the river. She wasn’t totally sure, but she thought she remembered it being a dogwood. Or maybe she remembered it being a pear. Whatever it was, she was right, and she got to take the class.

You can spend your whole life looking at a single great painting and always see something new. Or you can take an Art Appreciation course, as I once did, and memorize a few facts each about “Starry Night” and “Guernica” and “Spiral Jetty.” It actually was a valuable course in many ways, not least because I learned the names of a lot of artists I’d never before even known existed. You need a point of entry in order to begin real study.

I think of the Lonely Planet books as largely resembling a survey course. They summarize a handful of places, suggest where to stay, name a few popular activities. They’re a starting place, and are more than useful when you first arrive. But it’s also good to stay a while, wander down alleyways, inspect butterflies, share cigarettes with doormen, learn the names of trees.

[The travelogue abruptly cuts off, overweighted by its own head-scratching. All that remains as notes for the words that would have followed is a single quotation.]

“But while we are looking for the antidote or the medicine to cure us, that is, the new, which can only be found by plunging deep into the Unknown, we have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote can be found.”

from Roberto Bolaño, “Illness + Literature = Illness”

May we all get to travel in the not-too-distant future. And while we wait, may we each stay safe and protect each other. Till next week, I wish you only the best.

Jasper
15 November 2020

Lightplay 11 – Rainbow

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

I hope that this Sunday you’ve had space to exhale, relax, and take stock. I know I have.

The election is over. Thank you, each of you who helped rebuke this band of would-be authoritarians, be it by voting, volunteering, giving money, protesting, having hard conversations, and never going along with the worst of it. We did it.

I am going to keep this letter short. There will be plenty of time to explore what it all means. I want to tell you about something I saw yesterday afternoon.

My partner and I were driving east to visit our friends who just moved here. I wanted to finally open the bottle of champagne—Roederer Brut—that I bought before election night 2016 and have been carrying with me ever since.

The streets over were crowded with ecstatic people: carrying signs on streetcorners, standing through the sun roofs of cars, riding bicycles with one fist held in the air. A great honking was underway. And screaming. It sounded like a great victory had just been won. As indeed it had.

We came out from behind a tall building to see spread across the sky a great arch of light.

The rainbow was so bright.

Light like this, it fills you.

For ten minutes—twenty minutes—it spanned the sky.

Finally, where Santa Monica spills onto Sunset, the rainbow began to peter out. A new group of celebrants had taken over the road. We cut off and took back streets.

Soon night fell. We opened the champagne, watched the speeches, ordered pizza, stayed up late talking through our masks.

And once we got home and went to bed, the sleep was deep and sweet.

I wish that for you, too, dear reader. Till next week, stay safe.

Jasper
8 November 2020

Lightplay 10 – American Trip

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Dear Reader —

What a Sunday to find myself back in your inboxes! The first of November, 2020. Two days from a true fulcrum of history. I hope that you are well, that you have been able to sleep, and that you and your families are safe. Welcome to the tenth edition of Lightplay.

Four years ago, I gave my presidential endorsement in the the form of a series of Star Wars-themed collages. Although the election didn’t go the way I wanted it to, I’m still very proud of my insight in putting Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Herman Cain in the Mos Eisley Cantina. Unfortunately, my endorsement’s closing image—an AT-AT Walker with Trump’s head, shooting energy bullets out its eyes—proved only too prescient.

This year, everything feels miles more serious. To that end, I have created a photo-essay recounting a road trip across America my partner, her father, and I took this summer. I hope that you enjoy it.

I wish you safety and even—I can hope—joy in the days to come.

Jasper
1 November 2020

Quarantine poem #166 the virus lands

This guest poem was initially published in Lightplay 09 – The Strangest Summer.

Quarantine poem #166 the virus lands
by Hunter Gagnon

13,284,292 confirmed 577,843 deaths
7,373,782 recovered
3,428,553 US, July, the vision
             of these virus lands, cities like broken shells
flattened in a bright wave
the no mercy of God and his flashing blue light, his
                              mist, his vision of names
          tossed around
             Fort Bragg, Somersworth, the Portlands, the mythical
state
recoils
        at voice, no don’t misunderstand me my friend in the
        fire red chair not the voice as a category an abstract
        collapse
        of content, but
                     Life voice, in the virus lands, mumbling out
                     in the teachers better kill themselves lands
                     in the get over your anger maybe then you’ll get
                     what they have no reason to give
                     lands
These mosquito dog lands and risen rivers after turquoise morning thunder lands
These desert town lands of gas pumps and lightning rods
We live here
             with our reviled
             unhappy mumbling
             reviled
             by vision
             by beauty
             by God’s blue light
             itself
                       gravel wash voices, our
                       goose weed crumb voices
                                                            stain
this bullet-crowned ghost of swallowing, this talk for us of who we are
this talk they build and give to us
                                       in screen blue light, elevated
                 for chairs, cushioned
                                             and lawn
    in July, in
                  America, fourteenth, 2020 11pm

Lightplay 09 – The Strangest Summer

Featuring guest epidemiologist Erin Graves Quansah
and guest poet Hunter Gagnon

What follows is an installment of Lightplay, my email newsletter. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello, dear reader. I hope and pray that this letter finds you in good health and spirits.

It’s late August, and things are touch and go. The post office is run by saboteurs. The hills are aflame, and the convicts aren’t available to cut firebreaks for $1/hour because the jails are too rife with COVID-19. The policemen who killed Breonna Taylor are still at large. 

And yet life goes on. The strange peace of shelter-in-place is over, replaced by a new normal that is just as busy but with so many fewer opportunities for communion and release. I find the days slightly uncanny.

Sometimes, my answer is to look away from what’s happening, to focus on the task at hand. Writing my essay. Teaching my students. Baking bread. For much of this spring, that’s what this newsletter focused on, too. 

But the wider world is always just beyond the kitchen window.

This installment of Lightplay features two voices that can help us make sense of that world—especially COVID, which continues to spread across our nation and planet, as much as we may wish it wouldn’t.
.

  • The first is Erin Graves Quansah’s guest column, “An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On.” It’s a great and sobering reminder that we don’t know what comes next.
  • The second is a guest poem from Hunter Gagnon titled “Quarantine Poem 166 the virus lands.”

I’m so excited to be publishing these two pieces and sharing them with you.

Before we get to Erin’s column, I want to relate how it came into being.

One evening in early February, I spent almost two hours in a Walgreens in the suburbs west of Chicago, waiting for photos to print. It was dark and cold outside; inside, the fluorescent lights burned with the neurotic intensity of our young millennium. And behind the counter, a printer slowly disgorged sheets of glossy paper. Ever so slowly.

What could have been an ordeal was redeemed by the presence of my friends Ben and Erin. To kill time, we talked and perused the beer aisle. We spent half an hour inspecting the novelty toy section: oversize hard rubber bouncy balls, super-stretchy sacs of fluid with flashing purple LEDs at the center, a basket full of distressingly labile fake bananas. We tried to make each other laugh.

Shared boredom seems harder to come by now than before. I think it’s mainly because of my entertainment phone, though it’s probably also due just to getting older and getting to choose how I spend my time. I don’t prioritize long, boring hang-outs in the Walgreens.

But maybe I should. One of the best things about spending that much unstructured time with friends is that you end up talking about all sorts of things. Which is how, on February 9, 2020, I ended up asking my epidemiologist friend about a distant epidemic.

“Erin,” I said. “What do you think about this virus that has China locked down? Do you think it will make it over to the U.S.?”

“It’s already here,” she said. “There have been multiple cases, and it’s unlikely they’re catching all of them.”

“But now that flights are shut down, we can probably keep it out, right?”

“I don’t think there’s any way to stop it now. It’s probably already spreading in the U.S. We just don’t know where.” She shook her head and laughed. “It’s not good.”

I sucked my teeth and agreed that it sounded bad. What else was there to say in response to such a bad forecast? I didn’t know what to do with this information.

We moved on to talking about other things. And when we went our separate ways again—Erin back to Toronto, me to L.A.—I just kept living my life like normal. It was more than a month later, when the whole state of California locked down, that I remembered Erin’s prediction. She had been as right as right can be.

All of which is to say that last week, when I heard Erin again warning about what she thought was likely to happen, my ears perked up. Who could the second and third waves hit hardest? Why do we have to keep our guard up? It seemed important enough that I asked her to write up her thoughts so that she could share them with you, the readers of this newsletter. And I’m so happy that she accepted the challenge. Please enjoy this great guest column. I hope that it’s useful to you.

An Epidemiologist’s Advice as Our Plague Years Drags On
by Erin Graves Quansah

I’m an epidemiologist, specializing in maternal and child health, with some expertise in big data and administrative data analytics, all topped off with a few years of public health work. What got me into this work was a microbiology undergrad degree and a morbid fascination with the weirdest and least known bacteria and viruses in this world. For Christmas one year during high school, I asked for and received a 500 page book by Laurie Garrett called The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.

From that background I’ve been watching this pandemic unfold—and these are my thoughts. I started paying attention when the first strange cases of a pneumonia-like illness were rumored in the Wuhan region of China, followed the controversy over the reported number of cases, and then felt dread (/panic) as it started to spread across the world. It’s been crazy to witness all of the opportunities where it looked like we were about to get this under control, only to see it slip through our fingers and onto the next stage.  That said, it’s hard to know if that’s really the case or if we’re just dealing with a pathogen that’s perfectly suited to evade our world-wide public health infrastructure. 

So what’s my advice?

The most important thing to learn from this once-in-a-generation (hopefully) infectious disease pandemic is a healthy respect for the differences and intersections between population-wide and individual health. With infectious disease—more than with most other risks—the health of the individual depends so much on the actions and health of the population. The choices we as individuals make can have such a huge impact on the health (and potentially life) of every person we interact with. This is why it’s so important to parse out what each of us, as individuals, can do to keep ourselves as safe and healthy as possible: it’s the main thing that will keep the people around us safe and healthy, too.

There are a few things that we can each do to keep ourselves as safe as possible while maintaining our lives and our health. As we open up and get back to our lives, it’s important that we not let our guard down. We need to keep in mind the basics of social distancing, wearing a mask and managing our risk of exposure as we go about our lives. You may want to spend time having drinks or a meal inside at a restaurant, but it’s not a great idea. If you do, you should probably then avoid being in close contact with your older parents, grandparents, and other immunocompromised friends and family until you’re sure you don’t have COVID. (By getting a negative result on a test or letting fourteen days pass with no symptoms). We should all keep in mind what ‘risky’ behavior we may have engaged in during the last two weeks and try to inform others we may be around so that they can gauge their own comfort with the perceived level of risk.

Unfortunately, the mental health toll, economic damage, and damage from untreated chronic conditions resulting from this pandemic are likely to be more devastating even than the toll of COVID itself. This is part of why governments are relaxing their stay-at-home orders. For example, in the province of Ontario, where I currently live, we’re in ‘Stage 3’ of opening up, which means that almost everything you would normally do is now allowed, although in most cases a mask is required to be worn indoors. But this isn’t because it’s ‘safe’ to do these things. In my view it’s because we now have in place the hospital capacity, the ventilators and the public health staff to track and trace cases, such that we think we can contain infections and limit the impact of the sick on the health care system. And this is in Canada, where daily new cases are under 500 per day. The risk is exponentially greater in the U.S., where daily new cases are around 50,000. In both countries, you still run the risk of contracting COVID by going out and doing the normal parts of daily life that we were warned against when we first entered lockdown. This is why we need to keep our guard up.

In evaluating risk, I’ve found the following infographic from the Texas Medical Association helpful.

There’s one more thing that it’s important to remember. Viruses mutate, and pandemics have historically always come in waves. Depending on where in the world you are, we’re somewhere between the first and second waves of COVID.  In our most recent historic example—and there’s some evidence this is happening with this virus as well—later waves of a pandemic tend to be dominated by virus strains that have accumulated mutations to more effectively target younger, healthier, and more able-bodied people. This means that as the pandemic goes on, those who seemed immune to or felt unconcerned with the early waves may well end up bearing the brunt of later and, in many cases, more deadly waves.

None of this is certain, but without any existing information about how this virus will play out, we have to work with the best imperfect and partially matched historic information we have at our disposal. 

In the words of British Columbia’s chief public health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry: Be kind, be calm and be safe.

It’s hard now to remember how back in March we were all bargaining. Oh, I thought, this might last another three weeks. Later, This will be over in a few months. Back then, the novel coronavirus’s invisibility almost invited wishful thinking like this. Oh, summer child. 

Now it seems obvious that fantasies about how this will all end soon are in fact exactly the thing that prevents us as a society from tackling the thing head on. But less noted is that these fantasies also keep many of us from making, in the meantime, good temporary workarounds. Only once we acknowledge our new reality does it become possible to fashion distanced and/or digital versions of some of our favorite activities.

I had a great experience of this the first weekend of August, when I attended the first-ever digital Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. I had played a small part in planning it—I designed the program, and my partner, Lisa Locascio, is the conference’s Executive Director—but I had no idea that the online conference would be such a success.

There was a lot that made it great, from some standout afternoon talks to the uniformly excellent evening readings. My favorite part was the morning workshop. I was in the speculative fiction workshop, which was led by Kij Johnson. She’s one of my favorite writers (if you haven’t yet read her story collection At the Mouth of the River of Bees, you’re in for a treat). But it’s never a sure thing that a great writer will be a great teacher. In Johnson’s case, she was. I took pages and pages of notes on her theories of how fiction works, how science fiction works, how scenes work. I wrote long letters to my workshopmates and listened closely when they critiqued my story. And it hardly seemed impeded at all by the fact that we were meeting over Zoom.

One of the delights of this workshop was that one of my classmates was the great and strange writer Hunter Gagnon. Hunter is a student of philosophy and ancient literature who draws on those sources to make peculiar fictions and haunting poems. He’s also himself a great teacher, which I know because the last few years we have taught poetry as part of the same program at Dana Gray Elementary School.

When I was putting together this special edition of the newsletter, I remembered that Hunter has been writing and widely publishing a series of poems about this strangest of summers. (Find more at his website, huntergagnon.com.) I wrote and asked if he had a brilliant but unpublished poem that I could run here. He sent the following one along.

Quarantine poem #166 the virus lands
by Hunter Gagnon

13,284,292 confirmed 577,843 deaths
7,373,782 recovered
3,428,553 US, July, the vision
             of these virus lands, cities like broken shells
flattened in a bright wave
the no mercy of God and his flashing blue light, his
                              mist, his vision of names
          tossed around
             Fort Bragg, Somersworth, the Portlands, the mythical
state
recoils
        at voice, no don’t misunderstand me my friend in the
        fire red chair not the voice as a category an abstract
        collapse
        of content, but
                     Life voice, in the virus lands, mumbling out
                     in the teachers better kill themselves lands
                     in the get over your anger maybe then you’ll get
                     what they have no reason to give
                     lands
These mosquito dog lands and risen rivers after turquoise morning thunder lands
These desert town lands of gas pumps and lightning rods
We live here
             with our reviled
             unhappy mumbling
             reviled
             by vision
             by beauty
             by God’s blue light
             itself
                       gravel wash voices, our
                       goose weed crumb voices
                                                            stain
this bullet-crowned ghost of swallowing, this talk for us of who we are
this talk they build and give to us
                                       in screen blue light, elevated
                 for chairs, cushioned
                                             and lawn
    in July, in
                  America, fourteenth, 2020 11pm

That’s about it for this special, late-summer edition of Lightplay. It’s time for me to give my attention to the raven standing on the branch next to me.

But before we part ways I think I should acknowledge that I’ve finally named my newsletter. It’s called Lightplay. One word. There’s no deep secret meaning behind it. Things need names, that’s all. Nonetheless, I hope it evokes for you something of the way light can play against a cardinal’s feathers, or through a rainshower, or off the moon.

Till next time, I wish you good health, good spirits, safety from the fires, and a free moment to spend outside, looking at the other birds. Stay safe.

Jasper
23 August 2020

Land Acknowledgment: I want to acknowledge the land from which I am sending this as the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Odawa, Ojibwe, and Potawatomi Nations, and the Illinois Confederacy: the Peoria and Kaskaskia Nations. Many other nations including the Myaamia, Wea, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Thakiwaki, Meskwaki, Kiikaapoi, and Mascouten peoples also call this region home. Indigenous people continue to live in this area and celebrate their traditional teachings and lifeways. I want to express my gratitude as a guest and to thank the original and current stewards of this land. (Adapted from the Newberry Museum land acknowledgment, which was drafted in partnership with the Chicago American Indian Center.)