There and gone again

There are as many as 22 (and as few as six) vaquitas left in the world, according to the Porpoise Conservation Society back in May. By the end of the year⁠—who knows?

Pacific Standard, which published this 2018 feature on vaquita extinction and which until yesterday was one of the most vibrant spaces for longform narrative, well, Pacific Standard is apparently being forced to shut down.

I didn’t know anything about vaquitas before I read this story, and, suddenly, they’re out the door, piling into the family car and cruising off to the mournful, ethereal past.

We had a lot to do with it. The great, collapsing entirety of it.


‘I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store’: A poem by Eve Ewing

Last fall, I was fortunate to see Eve Ewing recite this poem onstage in Chicago. A few months earlier, Carolyn Bryan Donham had recanted parts of her story about Emmett Till⁠—a conventional fiction that stirred two murderers to act on their deep cultural rage.

Emmett Till would have been 78 years old today. The stories we tell ourselves are the stories we’re left with.

From Russia with love

He used FaceApp, sure. It seemed harmless enough. And it was fun to see an older version of himself staring back from the screen. He felt in touch with some deeper layer of his identity. He felt that he could see mistakes he hadn’t yet made—and learn from them.

Then he FaceApp’d his elder image. He FaceApp’d himself again and again, producing contorted carbon copies of great-grandfatherly incarnations. His face disappeared into folds of time and liver spots. His silver eyes drooped below the crag of his nose. The computer began to sag under the pressure of it all. He continued the overlapping FaceApp experiment through the night and realized with a start that a whole week had passed by. He was starving. The face was detached from written history, a blur of centuries and atavistic yearning.

“If this is really me in there,” he thought, “then who am I?”

When his boss sent the summer interns over to make sure everything was alright, he was gone. They found the computer toppled on its side in the dining room, belching infinite lines of binary code on a cracked screen. The room stunk of sulfur and rotting kudzu vines.

One kid, a junior from Ball State, snapped a picture of the strange tableau for his Instagram followers. They need to see this, he told the others. I need to show them how the story begins.


Believe it or not, 311 has a new album out today. Whether it’s any good is hard to say at this point; the apparent “Crossfire” scandal has pretty much ruined the event for me.

But what makes an album “any good”?

Why is it important to write about 311?

The band rests at the very gravitational core of my life, intrinsically linked to my zig-zag conception of what it means to build a world. I’ve gone here, I’ve gone there. Chapters in a story. The future emerges from an unknowable ether. All along, 311’s been with me.

I remember listening to Soundsystem in my friend’s mom’s van, trundling between Little League baseball and Tangletown. Developing the strands of hazy memory that make a childhood. The local pool. A Fender Strat propped up against the wall. CKY videos on a loop, forever.

Why write about music at all?

Maybe it’s a different band in your universe. Maybe it’s Shania Twain. Hopefully you’ve got a few whose music walks with you. Hopefully you’re not lonely.

The band is not infallible, no, obviously. That would be a lie. (One of the lyrics on the new album is actually, “Smoking that good weed, getting high, we are stoners on a highway with all of our friends.”) But it’s like watching the ripples made by a rock thrown into the lake. In a certain light, you wouldn’t consider it to be poorly rippling water, right?

If you look fast—don’t miss it!—you’ll see how much can happen in the course of a life, a cosmic splash, growing from a babbling/wriggling baby in the crib, walking from here to there and stumbling serenely onto the joy of it all with every passing moment.


Down on Willey Avenue

You can always say you were “just going to look.” You can even tell yourself that this was the case, years later, only half-joking, but you know that the plan was set in motion long before you and your girlfriend, now your fiancée, got in the car and trundled down to the Animal Protective League to see about a dog. It was a Saturday morning. Partly cloudy.

He perches watchfully on the windowsill. He tracks the afternoon traffic of West 6th Street down below, birds alighting on lampposts and tall pedestrians skittering between work and play. Clouds hang thinly at eye level. A broad windowsill decorated with houseplants and pillows and the hound himself. Forrest. You named him after another dog, the Forrest you read about in the paper. He’s part of a lineage of something you’ll never completely understand.

You walk into the howling den of wiry cages, the both of you, and look each dog in the eye. They’re afraid, angry, unsettled, anxiety-ridden and scattered. Gawky, furry. Canine psyches stretched to an uneasy breaking point in a low-slung building on Willey Avenue. It’s clamorous in here, and they keep running up against thin steel bars and jutting great jaws against the possibilities of a future with you. Maybe today’s the day! Maybe we’re going home!

He’s waiting one aisle over. Alone.

There’s a spot at the dog park, right beneath the ramp, where he digs a little hole each time you bring him to play. He contributes his ideas, puts in his time at the shop; every dog sort of takes his or her turn, digging, scraping at the pebbles and the dirt, tossing debris to the wind. It is an ongoing project. The project is the ongoingness of the thing. The goal is the continuation of something that never ends.

When another dog walks by, down along the crooked riverbank, he stands at the fence, alert. He sees a friend. Everyone’s a friend.

He whimpers. Head down. He paws gently at the cage. Whether it’s shame or not, you can’t tell. Boy’s got the blues, alright. He was adopted by a family three months back, you learn, later, when you’re out in the lobby asking about him. The name on the card is Capone. The family called him Chance. They brought him back three days ago. Returned to the shelter. What if the two of you had come last week?

What if you’d waited to go have a look?

Sleeps in your bed. Of course he sleeps in your bed. Most nights, he’ll start out on the couch in the living room. Toys everywhere. He loves the ones that squeak. The louder the better, frankly. Always ends up in the bed, though.

Stretching. Curling. Paws and limbs arranged at odd angles. He snores, too. Barks in his sleep. Runs in his sleep. Stretching. Curling.

They bring him out to you and your girlfriend. You’re in a little room off to the side of the place. A few tennis balls and ropes on the floor. How’s this gonna go? What are we doing here?

He likes the postal carrier, the sparrows, the denim-clad herd that rides motorcycles through the city. He likes the movement of life. He likes the sun. He likes walking with you two. The park around the corner, the one with the statue of Jesse Owens. He barks at the statue. Why’s that man standing so still? Shouldn’t he be moving like me?

Everything moves.

He loves car rides. There’s always a past and a future, and isn’t that the point? Sunbathing in the backseat.

You’re waiting, but you already know how the stories goes. The narrative advances. The projector clicks.

There’s the park down by the lake, the one with the big willow tree and the rocks. Low waves crashing. Gulls overhead. He loves the gulls. And the fish in the sand. The smells. The atmospheric spray. You walk along the beach together, you and her and him. The family.

“He loves love,” you say to her.

He’s bounding into the room now, proceeds to sniff the walls, the corners, the chairs. He’s casing the joint. Getting a read on you. Could be another false start.

You pick up a red tennis ball.

Back at the dog park, another day. Click. He’s running with his friends. Playing a game, playing at something unseen. A ballet of dogs. You get the sense that this is what freedom looks like, if it looks like anything at all.

He’s feeling you out. He chases the ball, sniffs the floor, comes back and sniffs your shoes.

The only direction in life is forward. Flowing forward into the present, a verdant river emerging from the unknown fog before you. Time collapses in reverse.

There’s a picture of you and him. Smiling. He’s looking up at you. Just a Saturday morning in a little room at the animal shelter. Down on Willey Avenue. Partly cloudy, the morning charged with brisk energy. Smiling. You only went to look. Sure, but this was always the plan.

Running in circles now. Doggy grin a mile wide.

The state of the state

“People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves. They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city – but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.”

Don DeLillo, “Human Moments in World War III”



Philip Roth, one of the all-time greats, died one year ago today. I’ve turned to his books again and again to feel out the grim scars of America, the stains of human psyche. The uproarious comedy. Gets me in the mood to work. Atrocity everywhere, shaded with tender stories about who we are.

He is an American visionary.

I read Sabbath’s Theater over a four-day trip to Mexico and back, in February, spellbound at 30,000 feet over the relentless malice of it all. The intricate layers of love and hate as the broad grind of culture churns onward in the background. Hell of a book.

“Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”