I carried my beer back to the living room and roamed around looking at the walls. The place was bizarre. A young man and a woman were intertwined on a long burgundy leather couch talking about the pros and cons of raising chickens in their yard. Beside them on the floor, a young woman in a swimsuit with a towel draped around her shoulders was texting, saying to nobody in particular, “This is why I left Austin.” The intern appeared with a bottle of white wine and glasses for the group and, seeing me milling around, introduced me to the others as one of the residents, a novelist. More of a poet, I said. They were going to go outside and smoke a joint—although it seemed they had permission to smoke indoors—and wanted to know if I wanted to join them; I said I’d tag along, which wasn’t an expression I ever used.

— Ben Lerner, Specimen Days

On the lake at early morning, July 2014

At Silver Lake, July 2014

The Fourth of July in Wisconsin

Volcanic rock in Stingray Bay, on the Coromandel Peninsula, March 2014

I posted another New Zealand story over at Exposure. This one’s about kayaking with canoeing buddies, ordering espresso on a beach in Narnia, and the mechanics of nearly-carbon-neutral hot tubbing. It’s here.

“Jazz, like impressionism, gives dignity to comfort. Resting in an apparently artless myth of bourgeois pleasure—Gerswhin and Kern melodies play the same role for the great jazzmen that the outdoor cafés in Argenteuil played for Renoir and Monet—jazz, like high impressionism, reaffirms the simple, physical basis of powerful emotion and removes it to a plane of personal expression that we recognize as art; it gives us a license to take pleasure in what really provides our pleasures.”
— Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon

Near Plato, Minnesota (First day of Summer)

Every online utterance is an angling for approval; we write in the style of speeches: exhorting an audience, haranguing enemies, lauding the choir. People “remind” no one in particular of the correct ways to think, the correct opinions to hold. When I see us speaking like op-ed columnists, I feel embarrassed: it is like watching a lunatic relative address passers-by using the “royal we,” and, I feel, it is pitifully imitative. Whom are we imitating? Those who live in public: politicians, celebrities, “personalities.”


But this is nonsense. In truth, the only intellectually defensible posture is one of humility: all beliefs are misconceptions; all knowledge is contingent, temporary, erroneous; and no self is knowable, not truly, not to another. We can perhaps sense this in ourselves—although I worry that many of us are too happy to brag about our conformity to this or that scheme or judgment, to use labels that honor us as though we’ve earned ourselves rather than chancing into them—but we forget that this is true of every single other, too. This forgetting is the first step of the so-called othering process: forget that we are bound together in irreducibility, forget that we ought to be humble in all things, and especially in our judgments.

This resonates with something I’ve been thinking about lately, ever since a friend of mine mentioned that when someone’s online speech turns mostly into exhortation and advice, what they might really have to say gets lost, and what’s left is vaguely off-putting.

Exhortation often has rhetorical power, but it is usually uninteresting for the reasons Mills arrives at: it lacks humility, and it seems willfully blind to the transience of knowledge. Also to blame, I think, is that it’s impersonal. Writing for everyone might as well be writing from no one.

My same friend is into the craft of storytelling, and he once told me something he’d heard at a workshop: that good storytellers don’t say what they were thinking or how they felt, they only talk about what happened. It’s a line that has stuck with me. I like its suggestion to forget about what a story might mean, and instead to just tell it already.