Echoes of a voice

Prior to his tragic exit from this plane, Matt Kuhns set a few pieces of writing to publish after his death. One is an extensive catalogue of citations, each one underscoring the responsibility of certain “climate wreckers” in the vast public understanding of our planetary crisis. This is not a short list of links; rather, it is a damning indictment, and it should be read as such. “A little over 16 years ago,” he wrote. “I started keeping a list of people and organizations to blame for the ruin of a favorable climate, and all the pain and misery which will accompany that.” It’s a fascinating piece, one that could only come together through sheer commitment to craft.

Matt was a staunch supporter (and ardent, whip-smart critic) of independent journalism. In his writing, I saw a fellow traveler. He wrote about American delusion and about the merits of working together for a better future. Over at his blog, he frequently linked back to my own writing on those subjects, and we traded ideas about societal collapse via Twitter. He had a keen ability to communicate his ideas on several levels at once: the immediate, the long-term, the internal, the external. This is rare in digital media, especially in the small-pond feedback loop of local leftist political voices, such as he swam here in the Cleveland area. My sense is that Matt was mostly well known for his local political activism and his astute commentary on, e.g., the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s rhythmic missteps. I tended to see in his work a set of deeper, more global concerns.

I first met Matt when I was a beat reporter in Lakewood, covering City Hall and the school board. His coverage ran circles around my own, and he struck me as a fine example of how one might approach political reporting. When I worked at Scene, he provided regular comments on my work and my colleagues’ work. He was honest in his assessments, especially when we missed the mark, and he always held up the paper as a beacon of truth in Northeast Ohio. That meant a lot to me.

Really, though, I’m writing this to highlight the writing he did at mattkuhns.com. I saw tendencies that reflected my own stuff here at ericsandy.com. (I don’t mean to purport to speak for him, but) I saw a drive to get thoughts down in writing, to commit lofty ideals to paper, if only for his own sake. He was a good writer. I admired that drive. He was curious about how the world worked, and how his own life intersected with those strange machinations. As I dug into his own writing, I felt the tug of a voice further down the rabbit hole of hope and eudaimonic aspiration.

The last piece I wrote here, a few months back (!), was about discipline. From what I could tell, Matt brought that to his writing. His voice should remain an inspiration to anyone toiling away on the difficult struggle of ideas and words and the grand sweep of history.

And to anyone feeling the burdensome weight of that struggle: please drop me a line. Know that you are not alone, however small of a consolation that seems. I’d like to assure you (and myself) in my own fringe way that, yes, joy is present.

Discipline

Curt Gardner curated some great lines from Don DeLillo on writing, and I wanted to share this exchange between two titans:

In a June 11, 2007 New Yorker “Final Destination” article on the Ransom Center Archives, author D.T. Max investigates the DeLillo archives, and finds this exchange between David Foster Wallace and DeLillo on writing:

In October, 1995, David Foster Wallace wrote to him, “Because I tend both to think I’m uniquely afflicted and to idealize people I admire, I tend to imagine you never having had to struggle with any of this narcissism or indulgence stuff. . . . Maybe I want a pep-talk, because I have to tell you I don’t enjoy this war one bit.”

DeLillo responded in November. “I was a semiconscious writer in the beginning,” he writes. “Just sat and wrote something, or read the newspaper, or went to the movies. Over time I began to understand, one, that I was lucky to be doing this work, and, two, that the only way I’d get better at it was to be more serious, to understand the rigors of novel-writing and to make it central to my life, not a variation on some related career choice, like sportswriting or playwriting. The novel is different. . . . We die indoors, and alone, and I don’t mean to sound overdramatic but you know what I’m talking about. Anyway, all of this happened over time, until eventually discipline no longer seemed something outside me that urged the reluctant body into the room. At this point discipline is inseparable from what I do. It’s not even definable as discipline. It has no name. I never think about it. But there’s no trick of meditation or self-mastery that brought it about. I got older, that’s all. I was not a born novelist (if anyone is). I had to grow into novelhood.

This is the good stuff. You don’t need to be an aspiring novelist to take away the wisdom in DeLillo’s response. Anything worth doing is worth doing with a stern, unspoken degree of discipline. What does that mean? Well, I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but it’s something that will need to be understood before the work can provide any meaningful transformation to the artist.

I’ve struggled with this. I’ve struggled to quiet my mind and settle into the groove of discipline, like what DeLillo is writing about here. But I think it’s important. Maybe it is just getting older. Something you grow into, if you’re paying attention.

A pattern language

When your favorite guitarist cites an obscure 1,100-page book about architecture as a major influence on his band’s creative output, you check it out. According to Trey Anastasio, the work of Christopher Alexander informed much of the early Phish festival designs — the sorts of immersive, idiosyncratic events that would spawn Bonnaroo, Coachella, etc. The book, “A Pattern Language,” is essentially a handbook for how people develop systems and intentionally interact with one another inside of a complex society. Real breezy stuff, sure, but it’s actually very meditative.

This 1996 presentation is about as dense as it gets, but if you listen closely you’ll find that all he’s talking about is freedom. One of the phrases he returns to is “unfolding wholeness.” This is an incredibly psychedelic concept, and it’s vital for anyone doing creative work (which is to say anyone leading an individual life). It’s also very helpful for remembering how to get by with others in an increasingly atomized and overtly hostile American culture.

“No pattern is an isolated entity. When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it.”

Because it’s still on my mind, this is a great angle into understanding the total clusterfuck within the Browns organization right now.

Anyway, I could go on and on about that. RIP Christopher Alexander, a true giant.

A fan’s notes

Easy for us to say, in mid-March 2022, as a genuinely fascinating Cavs team makes a run at the playoffs and as the newly christened Guardians notch a win in Arizona, that we’ll stomp our feet this fall and refuse to watch any more Browns games. But I wonder: at what point does a fan walk away from a team? There’s plenty of hand-wringing material with the Deshaun Watson trade, but, setting aside the obvious headlines, what does it mean to be a fan of a team?

What I dislike most is that this isn’t even the patented Browns front office incompetence on display. It’s not clumsy or even mildly delusional. It’s not kitschy or hallucinatory. It’s cynical, which, despite all the classist profiteering that forms the foundation of professional sports leagues, is still a slap in the face of even the most jaded and booze-addled fans. It’s an empty gesture, a story without a moral. That’s a problem in sports. It’s a sickening desperation, a brazen display of private wealth and, let’s be real, the sort of cash-waving outburst that makes a man appear shockingly small when you encounter this behavior in your day-to-day life. You tend to pity this acting-out bullshit, which you often find in long lines at an airport gate three minutes after a flight cancellation. If you’re anything like me, you feel embarrassed when you see it. You feel immediately the disconnect between cause and effect. You understand, on an undeniable level, that something is deeply fucked up with this person huffing and puffing at the counter.

That sense of pity doesn’t jibe with the many emotional valences of a sports fan. It’s maybe the one line that the relationship cannot cross.

Like I said, it’s easy to rant tonight in Cleveland. But we’ve got other things to tend to in this city right now—as sports fans. It’s just a hell of a thing to have to wrestle with that fandom. It’s not like you can jump ship to another team. Sure, of course, it’s just a hobby, who cares? Walk away. But where’s the fun in being flippant about it? You’re part of the story, too. You’re in it. My belief is that you’re tied to your fandom in some cosmic dust-to-dust sense. That sounds heavier than I think it is, but the point remains: You’re either a fan or you’re not. The Cleveland Browns never fail to fucking amaze me.

Sweeney

Dr. Mike Sweeney, one of my professors at Ohio University, died over the weekend. He was a great teacher, and he did three things that left an indelible mark on me:

1. He encouraged my over-the-top gonzo feature idea, which was to wander around The Plains Indian Mound Festival interviewing corndog vendors about the absence of any meaningful Native American history/iconography/context at the event. This set me down a long path of pitching weirdo angles on stories that I felt were somehow important to the local community.

2. He then insisted Hunter S. Thompson wasn’t a real journalist, which pissed me off to no end. But it was a statement (and he was not budging) that ultimately shook me to remove the blinders I’d been unwittingly wearing as a young gun in j-school. I still think Hunter S. Thompson was one of the greats, and I’m not budging.

3. He introduced me to Roy Peter Clark’s masterful “Writing Tools.” This was a class text, and it’s easily the best writing book I’ve read. One quick lesson that I see too many writers missing: Vary the lengths of your paragraphs.

There’s more to it than that, but if you vary the lengths of your paragraphs, you’ll find new energy on the page right away.

Energy on the page: I think that’s what Dr. Mike Sweeney was after.

After all, that’s how your writing can change other people’s lives.

2021 in books

This was a strange year in books for me, I guess. I was off to the races for the first six months of the year, and then the habit petered out amidst certain obligations and work/school stuff. Note the ecocriticism-dense final third: grad school, natch.

And yet, reading, as ever, brought me great solace this year. I like having a book-in-progress near me. I like setting it on the kitchen counter or a side table in the living room and feeling its presence, even when we’re watching Silicon Valley or something. Then, indeed, I like to read it, to sit in the basement or on the back patio and drift. This year, I read some fantastic novels (The Secret History, Mao II, Masters of Atlantis (finishing Charles Portis’s five-book run and loving every second of it), Democracy, Cuyahoga, Angle of Repose) and plenty of great nonfiction (Killers of the Flower Moon, Finite and Infinite Games, The Yellow House, The Inner Game of Golf). My favorite, I think, was Democracy. Joan Didion is simply a master. Her ability to capture the great sweep of history in a more focused narrative is amazing to read on the page. The Year of Magical Thinking, while coming from a totally different angle, achieves a similar trajectory.

Also, now that I’m thinking about it: I really let this place go in the past few months! No doubt, it was a busy fall. I’m running headlong into a few more deadlines between now and March, but my plan is certainly to liven up the ol’ blog in 2022. There are all sorts of cretinous cultural trends to spend time on: Just look outside your window! Everyone’s going fucking nuts! To a degree, I might add, that feels sometimes pointless to address. Maybe that’s the problem (or the inverse of a problem): I’ve turned inward in 2021, repelled at times by this century. I’ve tried to cultivate a home. Writing, meanwhile, is a fucking grind. But I chose this, I suppose!

Books are a great antidote to the madness, however. Books work every time.

I’ve got a few books as-yet-unfinished, positioned strategically around the house. Some more Karl Ove (I’m hooked, I’ll admit), some Michael Pollan (hey, join me!) and Out of Office from Anne Helen Petersen and Charlie Warzel, thinking that somehow our society is missing the real opportunity at hand: to rethink our labor norms and place leisure at the center of our lives once again.

Books work every time.

Here’s the list.

The Practice by Seth Goden

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse

Rust by Eliese Goldbach

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Intonations by Zadie Smith

Hiroshima by John Hersey

Cuyahoga by Pete Beatty

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

This Isn’t Happening by Steven Hyden

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

To Show and to Tell by Phillip Lopate

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

Fulfillment by Alex MacGillis

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Mao II by Don DeLillo

Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Losing Earth by Nathaniel Rich

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

Masters of Atlantis by Charles Portis

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

American Rule by Jared Yates Sexton

Salvador by Joan Didion

Democracy by Joan Didion

Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book by Harvey Penick

The Inner Game of Golf by Timothy Gallwey

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Legs by William Kennedy

Lights Out by Ted Koppel

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game by William Kennedy

The Great Acceleration by J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke

Being Ecological by Timothy Morton

Break Up the Anthropocene by Steve Mentz

Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Beyond Civilization by Daniel Quinn

As We Have Always Done by Leanne Simpson

Wind from an Enemy Sky by D’Arcy McNickle

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Thinking Animals by Kari Weil

Flush by Virginia Woolf

Against Football by Steve Almond

Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Balls and strikes

“It’s an imperfect game and has always felt perfect to me,” Joe Torre said when asked about the likely ascent of robot umpires in the MLB. I’m no great fan of Torre’s, but he’s right. The gradual creep of artificial intelligence into the more wiggly areas of our lives is a dangerous thing. We’re already knee-deep in an age of mass surveillance, and now we’re seeing the intrusion of robots more visibly in the “fun” parts of being a human. Baseball is a game! It’s a deeply human exercise, and there’s no room for the boring algorithmic definitions of robots in it. Imperfection is what we humans do best. Along with our own struggles to remedy the ongoing climate crisis, I think this is going to be the major narrative of the century: a conceptual fight against AI’s apparent accuracy and efficiency. In its own way, this is a new form of extinction event. It starts with umpires—a likely target. Then it comes for all of us.

I fully realize that we find ourselves even now wriggling in the web of AI’s influence; it’s partly to blame for you stumbling onto this nonsense I’m writing in the first place. But it’s going to become more overt. It’s a homogenizing force, one that would see us all defined easily by 0s and 1s. Trackable metrics in place of human interests. The same jokes. The same clothes. The same thoughts. The vast field of “right” and “wrong” will be diminished to a binary that some teeming set of code will define for us. There’s a lot of money backing this shit, too, and a lot of toadies in positions of power ready to implement new technology. “It’s going to be more accurate, it’ll reduce controversy in the game, and be good for the game,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. Or should I say: ROBOT MANfred. See? Good for the game! I would ask: Whose game are we playing now?

Rocket

By the time we reach Billy Corgan’s solo on Rocket (3:01), you’re already attuned to the little half-step hammer-on/pull-off moves he’s been dropping in the background of the song (foreshadowed adeptly in the preceding song, Hummer). It’s one of the great moments on Siamese Dream, which is not exactly an album short on great moments. And if I may, since we’re already talking about it, I’d argue that the heavyweight singles from this record, stuff like Cherub Rock and Today, mostly, and the subsequent drama surrounding Corgan’s reputation (years and years of it, really) have pushed this album onto the backburner of our collective subconscious. That’s not a good thing. I’m not saying you need to put Siamese Dream on the bluetooth every morning over a pot of tea like we do in my household, but why not? These are trying times in America, and a little rock ‘n’ roll still goes a long way. If you’re hurting, if you’re feeling blue about the state of affairs in this addled, microchipped century of ours, the guitar solo on Rocket might be just the ticket. That’s all I’m trying to say.

Swing easy

“The swing you swing right now exists—and it won’t for long—so pay attention while it’s happening.”

That’s W. Timothy Gallwey in The Inner Game of Golf, something that I felt I needed to read after my poor showing on the course(s) last month and something that I realize now I knew all along. Isn’t that the point? This too shall pass and all that?

Of course, the same could be said about anything. I kind of get off on that old chestnut about golf being a metaphor for life. Pick your poison: It could be anything you like, but golf certainly gets the job done. There are finite and infinite games, and you can play either with your short spell on Earth. Have fun. Be kind. Pay attention to your swing.

(And apologies if this is turning into a golf blog this summer. I’m trying to strip some things off my existence, chisel away at the barnacles of 30-plus years, just get down to the straight essentials—and maybe this is one way of doing that.)

Shanked!

I played six rounds of golf over the past four days (well, five and a half, thanks to some nasty rain in north-central Ohio). The courses were incredible, the rest of the foursome even better, and it felt great to lay down what I think will be some fine traditions for the years to come on this particular trip.

Anyway, I played four of the worst rounds of my life this weekend (well, four and a half of the worst rounds of my life). Aside from a saving grace on Saturday morning, including a much-needed birdie on No. 11 at Deer Ridge, my scorecards were brutal. Just a total ass-kicker and a very humbling series of rounds after what I thought was a nice little hot streak coming out of May. And once the dread of my game settled in, it became extremely difficult to shake. There were moments where I felt in the zone (a nice putt here, a solid par there, a necessary skin on the card), but otherwise it was a jarring experience. Topping the ball left and right! Blading it across the g—— f—— green! Just a total lack of control.

The alcohol, the hangovers, the stretch of fatigue on the back end, the challenge of these new courses: it all compounded, I guess. This was less than stellar physical shape, and that can’t be overlooked. It’s too important to come to the course with the right head on your shoulders. My main takeaway is simply that I need to practice more, to dial in the mechanics and let my mind relax once I’m on the course.

I’m writing this for the record, to remind myself of certain things. There’s a very cheesy but accurate sentiment in golf as a metaphor for life. Ups and downs. Birds and triples. Quadruples, even. There’s a bit of karmic balance that keeps a check on ego, experience and expectations. Ups and downs and then some. You can’t play a great round without having a bad one in your rearview, right? And you can’t walk away from a bad round(s) without the feeling of improvement on the road ahead. This is obvious, but it’s worth mentioning again.

It’s time to hit the range, of course. Back to basics. The game is meant to be played.