In June of 2020, I gave a webinar on behalf of Signet Education about the steps and thought process that go into writing a great college essay.
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’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.
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.
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!
22 November 2020
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.
1 November 2020
What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for twelve weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food. To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.
Hello! And thank you for spending a moment—in this moment—with my words.
The first thing to say is that I hope that you and your people are safe.
This morning in L.A. was the first since 1992 that the National Guard has walked these streets. The last time before that was in 1968. Each time it has been for the same reason: to suppress widespread, violent protests that began after policemen brutally attacked a black man.
I don’t have the answer. But I know that today I can’t write about a cheese board, which had been my plan. It’s not that food isn’t important, but there’s a man named George Floyd who will never eat another meal. My heart hurts.
There are thousands and thousands of protestors across the country who have had rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray fired at them, harming their bodies and particularly their lungs.
Right now, in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, a pandemic that is disproportionately harming black communities.
As they protested the death of yet another black man whose last words were, ‘I can’t breathe.’
Yesterday, when I meant to work on this newsletter, I instead compulsively watched live TV of the protests here in Los Angeles. It consisted mostly of aerial shots of the crowds. Helicopter’s-eye-view: the native medium of L.A. television.
From so far up in the sky, you couldn’t make out people’s faces, their humanity. You just saw a mass of people roiling in front of the police lines. An SUV was burning and others had been covered in graffiti. You could see police aiming their big guns at the ground. At the bottom of the screen a chyron read, “POLICE VEHICLES BURN.” Above this, in tiny type, it said, “George Floyd Death Protests.”
The main Saturday protest was not far from where we live, and I thought about joining. But I found out about it late, and I’m scared of violence and don’t want to march with people who are breaking things. Excuses were made. Instead, I made a sign saying “Black Lives Matter” and put it in my office window. It felt like a half-measure, but at least it gave me something to do.
Around six o’clock, my phone honked with a Public Safety Alert: the mayor was imposing an 8pm curfew. Lisa and I decided to go for a walk before then, to ‘take the temperature on the streets,’ as I put it. At first things seemed quiet, if on edge. The main sound was the buzzing of helicopters. I counted seven, up there near the first-quarter moon.
Dazed-looking protesters sat on the curbs of Fairfax, a few still holding cardboard signs from earlier in the day. Some were trying to summon Ubers and Lyfts to take them home before the curfew, but the people running the rideshare apps had decided to cut off services in the area of the protest.
A giant pickup truck waited on the side street across Fairfax. It had a menacing look, with a half-sheet of spray-painted plywood strapped to the outside of the driver’s side door. I worried it might be some counter-protester, a racist hick looking to pick a fight. But when it pulled out onto Fairfax I could read the spraypainted words, “I CAN’T BREATHE / BLACK LIVES MATTER”.
We walked south. Down a few blocks we saw emergency vehicles, lights flashing, blocking the entire four lanes of Fairfax. We’d seen enough, and we turned down a side street, back towards home. We passed small groups of protesters. Everyone wearing masks.
It was a warm night. The street trees were full of fragrant blossoms.
When we came to the corner of the street we live on, I noticed smoke rising to the south. There was a lot of smoke, billowing into the sky, a police chopper circling low over it. I decided to take a picture with my phone, trying to frame it to include smoke and helicopter, a few protesters down the block, and a flowery hedge in the foreground that made the scene feel incongruous, apocalyptic.
Right as I was snapping my picture, a car gunned its engine and charged into the intersection. We turned and watched as tires squealed, the car drifted. It was a maroon sedan. It turned and kept turning. It was doing a donut, right there in the intersection, not ten feet from us. Time slowed down. I could see the driver: white, maybe thirty or forty, hair cut short. Not a protester. The car’s tires clipped the opposite curb and the driver gunned the engine again, doing another donut, swinging near again, rubber burning. Lisa grabbed me and pulled me away. We hustled behind a parked car.
Finally, he drove off. Doing 40 or 50 mph down our street, barely braking for stop signs. We walked home as fast as we could, wondering if we might have just been menaced by one of the men from the apocalyptic civil war cult we’d both read a long, scary article about.
Lisa and I shut every window in the apartment and closed every blind—the first time we’d done this since moving in months ago. Our living room was still loud with whining sirens and the terrific din of a half-dozen police choppers hovering over the neighborhood. I stared at the live helicopter feed on my phone with the sound turned off. I wanted to know what the police were doing, whether the protesters were getting closer, as the sound of the police choppers suggested. But the camera operator kept the shot zoomed in on a shoe store that was being ransacked by a crowd of maybe 20 people.
I watched, entranced, as people ducked under the metal grating, which one man was holding up. A minute later, they’d come out with a few shoe boxes. Was this really what you wanted to steal most? What if you got the wrong size? The potential consequence—entering our profoundly punitive criminal justice system—seemed to me to be totally unworthy of a pair of overpriced shoes. Finally I mentioned my confusion to Lisa, who was sitting next to me on the couch, staring with a look of horror at her own phone.
“I don’t think it’s about the shoes,” she said.
As soon as she said it, it became obvious: of course it’s not about the shoes. This was another type of protest, a more impulsive, opportunistic one. My understanding turned on its head, and now I could hardly believe my earlier confusion. Thinking like that was partly a consequence of the camera’s insistent framing of what was happening as just one thing: looting. It was infuriating—here the TV station had a tool that could be used to give us a real sense of how things stood, whether things were spiraling out of control, what the police were doing. Instead they focused solely on this prurient image of a handful of people stealing a handful of relatively inexpensive goods.
When I finally turned my screen off, I could hear through the window the tell-tale *whumph* of tear gast canisters being fired, sounding so much like the launching of fireworks.
I thought about what a shame it is that when our capitalist overlords destroy and steal, their crimes are so much less telegenic than these ‘looters.’ When billionaires, led by Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, increase their wealth by half a trillion dollars during this pandemic, there’s no camera circling overhead, framing it as a despicable travesty. As the U.S. government made decade after decade of decisions that ensured Native Americans would remain, after half a millenium of colonization, radically more vulnerable to disease than white people, where was the helicopter shot? When vulture capitalists swarmed in during the Great Recession to buy up foreclosed homes in black communities, making “the homeownership gap between blacks and whites … wider than it was during the Jim Crow era,” where the fuck were the news helicopters?
This morning when I drew back the blinds on my kitchen window the first thing I saw was a woman walking down the street carrying two brooms and a dustpan-on-a-stick. Their cardboard wrappings revealed they were fresh-bought, probably from Tashman Hardware up the block. She was headed towards Fairfax, to help clean up.
After breakfast, Lisa and I walked the three blocks down towards Melrose. As we neared this major shopping thoroughfare, the sidewalks filled protesters carrying signs, curious locals, media. The feeling was less tense than the evening before. Still, I only saw one person out with a kid.
Where our street comes out onto Melrose, there was a broad police line, behind which firemen worked to douse a smoldering storefront. It had held a nail salon called Pearls and part of the Shoe Palace sneaker empire, which stretches across three storefronts. Firefighters had been trying to control the blaze all night. Steam and smoke rose in damp curls.
Across the street, a half-dozen black-clad protestors were hard at work cleaning graffiti off the window of a barber shop. Others were sweeping up broken glass, trying to clean up the mess of the night before. The protesters who try to stop vandalism, who clean up from destruction, all while putting their bodies on the line for the same cause—we hear so much less about them. They are less photogenic. They’re less sensational. Their actions don’t play as obviously into our culture’s stereotypes about struggle.
I return to the eternal question: what is to be done? Stay safe, first, and take care of your people. Beyond that, I don’t think there are easy answers. However I do know of two things that you really should do, as soon as possible.
- Read this essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabar. Before you judge anyone for stealing a pair of sneakers, read this article. Especially if you are white. Really, it is not to be missed.
- Give money to your local bail fund. Here is the one I’m donating to, in L.A. During a summer when jails are among the worst loci of covid-19 infection, getting protesters out from behind bars has never been more important.
I hope this week brings peace and justice. Please reach out if you have a suggestion for what I should be doing to further this struggle. Let’s keep working together. And maybe next Sunday I’ll be able to write about that cheese board after all. See you then.
May 31, 2020
Dear Friends and Family —
I know that many of us are looking towards the coming election with dread. Any semblances of reason and hope seem to be missing. Our political system seems broken. And so, naturally, we look for a third option. And there is someone on the left who would happily take your vote: Green Party candidate Jill Stein. But to vote for Stein is in fact to use faulty reasoning. In essence, it means voting against your best interests. In the following essay I address — and deflate — six arguments in favor of voting for Jill Stein. I hope that you’ll read it, and I pray that you will vote with your and my best interests in mind.
12 September, 2016
Argument 1: “Hillary and Donald Are The Same.”
- Is this really true? The last time we heard this line was back in 2000. But think of all the things George Bush did that Al Gore almost certainly would not have:
- Started the Iraq War.
- Passed the PATRIOT Act.
- Enacted vast tax cuts for the rich.
- Allowed the Assault Weapons Ban to lapse.
- Appointed Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court
- which led directly to the Citizens United ruling.
- Passed No Child Left Behind.
- Gutted the EPA.
- Significantly worsened climate change through inaction and environmentally hostile policy.
- Policies led directly to the Great Recession.
- Let’s be clear: the presidency of George W. Bush was a pretty much unmitigated disaster.
- If Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, had not taken 2.7% of the vote on the left, it is certain that Gore would have won, and the terrible list above would not exist.
- We know that there are upcoming similar decisions that the next president will make:
- Filling at least one vacancy on the Supreme Court.
- Deciding whether to fix or destroy Obamacare.
- Commanding the military in relation to Syria, Iran, Russia, and China.
- Setting climate change policy (staying in the Paris Agreement).
- Can you with a straight face claim that Clinton and Trump would act identically on these issues? Their stated stances on each of the above items clearly indicate otherwise. Do you remember when this argument was made in 2000?
Argument 2: “I’m Not Voting For Trump.”
- In a two-party or “winner-takes-all” system, as we have in the U.S.A., to abstain or to vote for a third-party candidate is a guarantee of voting against your best interest. Unlike in, say, a parliamentary system where your faction can gain seats with even a minority of votes and possibly use those seats to join a coalition, in the U.S.A. only the highest vote-getter wins any power — and they win all the power. Think: if two leftist parties split their voters 30% and 30% and the rightist candidate took the remainder of the vote (40%), the rightist would take all of the power. This is why in our system we have to form coalitions BEFORE we vote in general elections.
- If you vote for a candidate guaranteed to lose, or you don’t vote — rather than voting for the candidate most closely aligned with your interests with a real shot at winning — then in a real sense you are voting (or abstaining) against your best interest. You are cutting off your hand to spite your foot.
Argument 3: “I Feel Like I’ll Never Get to Vote For Someone I Like.”
- This is probably not true: most on the left both liked and voted for Barack Obama in 2008.
- Maybe you mean, “I’ll never get to vote for a socialist.” Again, though, this is untrue: almost all Jill Stein supporters voted for Bernie Sanders in the last year.
- This is how our system works: you vote for your very favorite candidate in the primary — and then win or lose you vote for the major-party candidate whose positions most align with your interests in the general. Work hard for your candidate in the major-party primary, and hopefully they’ll make the general!
- Also, as a side note, you shouldn’t like Jill Stein. She is a licensed physician who nevertheless has made numerous statements suggesting that vaccines cause autism. This conspiracy theory is blatantly false and is damaging our country and our children. To pander to a fringe constituency on this issue shows a lack of character that I find disqualifying. But even if you really like Stein, voting for someone with no chance of winning the presidency is extremely foolish.
Argument 4: “The System Is Broken. I Won’t Participate.”
- In spirit I agree with the first part, that our system of elections and politics in general has many, many problems. However, when your car is having issues, you try to fix it — you don’t just abandon it in a pull-out or heavens to Betsy torch it.
- The best way to fix our system is from within That’s how we ended slavery, passed the Civil Rights Act, created Social Security, ended the Vietnam War, ended Prohibition, enacted the free public education system, and got women the right to vote. None of these struggles was easy, nor was any won by not voting, or voting for doomed candidates.
- Not participating does not qualify as action. Real action — action that can lead to change — is civil disobedience, armed insurrection, or community organizing. Pick your poison and get to work. But don’t lie to yourself that the act of voting against your best interests will in any way lead to systemic change. Much more likely the opposite.
Argument 5: “But the Green Party Is So Great!”
- The Green Party, at the presidential level, is a once-every-four-years pageant for some misguided leftist to feel important and claim there’s zero difference between Republicans and Democrats.
- If the Green Party is serious about building a movement and achieving real change, it should focus on local elections and build from the ground up. Its efforts in this department can be generously described as just getting going, and more honestly described as effectively nonexistent. The Green Party has only 130 elected officials in the whole country. This, out of more than 511,000 elected offices in the U.S. Do the math to figure out what percentage of offices Greens hold: .03%. If you round up. One in every 3,930 elected officials is a Green.
- The real opportunities for change exist inside the Democratic Party. Activists are making real progress, and Bernie Sanders’s campaign went a long ways in pushing Hillary Clinton and the Democrats’ platform to the left. But she has to win for any of these accomplishments to mean anything.
Argument 6: “But Hillary Will Win No Matter What.”
- Want to wager your life on that one? Want to wager someone else’s?
Number of votes by which Bush beat Gore in Florida: 537
Number of votes cast for Ralph Nader in Florida: 97,488
Number of U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq War: 4,424
Number of U.S. soldiers wounded in action in Iraq War: 31,952
Number of Iraqi civilians killed in Iraq War: between 100,000 and 650,000