“Open Questions in Uncertain Times”: Laura Sewell Matter and Anne Goldman on Stargazing in the Atomic Age (Part 1)

I recently had an inspiring conversation with the brilliant essayist Anne Goldman about her new book, Stargazing in the Atomic Age, which was published by Georgia Review Books this month.

Here’s an excerpt from the first part of our conversation (which can be read in its entirety on the GR2 website, here) which suggests why these essays make such vital reading right now:

LSM: If catastrophe has an antidote you find it in “translating unspoken grief into forward motion.” And you give us exemplars who inspire us to keep thinking and creating.

AG: …Yes—even in grief, the most profound grief, people find their way forward. We don’t really have that much of a choice, do we? We either grind to a halt or stumble on. In my own life, I am very far from being a Pollyanna. My mind practically skips ahead toward catastrophe, so perhaps writing this book was one way of righting myself. But I also think we’re all subjected to stories of tragedy and despair—not least in every news outlet we find ourselves reading. What I wanted to do in this book is to push against the feelings we all struggle with, some of us, sometimes, on a daily basis, and never more so than in this last so difficult year.

In essays about composers, artists, mathematicians, writers, and scientists, Goldman weaves together diverse biographical threads to show the breadth of Jewish American achievement in the twentieth century. But more broadly, her book is about creativity and its redemptive powers, which we need more than ever at this hour of the twenty-first century. Buy Stargazing in the Atomic Age directly from the University of Georgia Press, or your favorite book retailer.

Boston Musical Intelligencer Review of “Hell and Reason”

Fisk Opus 55 I am honored by the favorable attention given to “Hell and Reason” by Geoffrey Wieting in this review in the Boston Musical Intelligencer. If you’re wondering what you missed in the program that I presented with Christa Rakich at Old West Church in Boston last Sunday, Wieting’s piece provides both a summary of the essay that I read from, and a thoughtful analysis of Rakich’s inspired selection and performance of music. And though nothing compares to hearing a masterful live performance, this review may begin to give you a sense of what makes Fisk Opus 55 (the organ in Old West) one of Boston’s cultural treasures.

In Boston on May 21, 2017…


Behold, an explosive poster (designed by Dana Sigall) to promote a reading that I’ll be doing in Boston next week, in collaboration with the talented organist Christa Rakich. For more detail, visit the website of the Old West Organ Society. You can also preview the program here.

“Hell and Reason”
Sunday, May 21, 2:30 pm
Old West Church
131 Cambridge St, Boston, MA 02114

Now In Print: “Hell and Reason”

garev_spring17 I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new essay entitled “Hell and Reason” in the Spring 2017 edition of the Georgia Review. The full text of “Hell and Reason” is available now on their website, and the even more attractive printed version should soon arrive in the mailboxes of subscribers. You can peruse the contents and order a print copy here.

“Hell and Reason” is about Charles Fisk, who worked, unknowingly at first, on the development of the atomic bomb, before later becoming a pre-eminent pipe organ builder. The essay is also an examination of the reasons why the bomb was created, then used, then spun into–and out of–history and mythology.


For Swedes Who Read

granslosThe Swedish translation of my essay “The Long Run” is now in print in this volume of travel narratives entitled Gränslös–which, I’m told, means “Without Borders.” When I received my copies in the mail this past weekend, I was pleased, but not quite sure how to honor the occasion. Reading the book was not really an option, as I don’t speak Swedish. I contemplated having a party at which I would read it aloud to my friends while throwing food around the room, Muppet-style, but that seemed a little disrespectful of my Grandmother Tongue. Instead, I just loaned the book to my one Swedish acquaintance here in Albuquerque. I hope she’ll enjoy reading it, and perhaps tell me what sort of fun the translator had with my words, and fill me in on the kind of company my essay will keep in this anthology.

If you know any Swedes who are interested in travel narratives, direct them to adlibris or bokus to purchase a copy.


Dump Pickings

A postcard-perfect day at the entrance to the Rockport, MA dump.

It’s a dubious distinction to have the road to the town dump named for you. But that’s precisely what happened to Ann Fisk, (first wife of organ builder Charles Fisk, whose biography I am writing). To be fair, “Tin Can Annie” really earned the honor.

Back in the 1960s — long before recycling was a part of the zeitgeist — longer still before dumpster diving and freecycling were Things — Ann was a pioneer in these fields. Liberal ideals surely came into it, but there were more pragmatic reasons, too. Organ building is not a lucrative profession (in fact, you could do better financially waiting tables at the right sort of restaurant). For Ann, managing a household on what her husband brought home required a considerable measure of thrift. One of her strategies was to take the kids down to the dump on Saturday morning to see what was fresh on the pile. Some of their best finds were practical: clothes and shoes. Others were entertaining: her daughter Miranda once salvaged a dictionary so old that it defined a parachute as a safety device for evacuating a hot air balloon, and her son Si found a still-functional 8mm movie camera with just a slight defect in the mechanism for taking up the film.

The Ann Fisk Swap Shop: sparing frugal Yankees the indignity of sifting through smelly trash to find the good stuff.

Later, as a Rockport selectman, Ann worked to institute a municipal recycling program — a precursor to the kind of system that now allows most of us to leave our empty milk jugs in plastic bins by the curb. But instead of plastic bins, Rockport in the late 60s had the Fisk children. Ann drove around town and made them hop out and dash onto the porches of the houses that put out bundled newspapers for her recycling drives. Later, she arranged for the construction of the Swap Shop — basically a shed on dump grounds where useable and fixable items could be deposited or collected. It made dump picking a little more dignified. It endures to this day.

On a Friday afternoon when I was visiting Rockport last month, I persuaded the Fisk “kids,” Si and Miranda (who are now old enough and solvent enough to buy their own shoes), to take me to the dump for old time’s sake. I envisioned a historical re-enactment in the name of research. That is, I thought it would be edifying to talk about the Fisk family with Miranda and Si while doing something characteristic that the family used to do: searching through cast-offs for something useful or fun.

We met at the house where I was staying, piled into Si’s car, and drove to Ann Fisk Way. Unfortunately, there was a sign indicating that the dump was closed that afternoon, without explanation. But if anyone had a right to go to that dump when they pleased, it was the living descendants of Tin Can Annie herself; we flouted the sign and drove in. Nobody confronted us, but we didn’t linger, either. Perhaps the “kids” were relieved to have an excuse not to dig in. For a moment, Si eyed a freestanding toilet paper holder that would fulfill a present household need, though ultimately he decided that it savored too strongly of Someone Else’s Bathroom*. He climbed back into the car, and we drove away.

After dinner that evening, we screened the old family videos shot by Si on his 8mm dump camera, which Miranda had digitized. It was a mash-up of childhood scenes: a dog runs in circles while one kid pounds on another in what appears to be fun, at least for the assailant; kids use a rowboat in an unsafe manner; old cars cruise by; matronly women wear hats and sip drinks in somebody’s yard; mailboxes open and shut in an experiment with stop motion animation. Then a younger version of Miranda leaps from the rowboat in a ruffled bathing suit. Young Si pulls on his courier bag to begin his paper route. I think I see fleeting glimpses of Charlie and Ann, in the scene where they’re shoveling off the surface of the frozen lake to play hockey, but it’s hard to tell for sure. Like many home movies of that era, the action seems to race, frame by frame, to outpace the clock; people do not move with the same fluidity they do in life. And whatever the auteur’s artistic sensibilities may have been, he was a kid with a damaged camera he found at the dump. The movie is, on one hand, nearly useless for telling me anything of significance about the family that they were. On the other hand, it is a revealing artifact unsurpassed in its authenticity, for all its inscrutable details.

It’s true, last month’s dump picking expedition was a bust. I came away literally empty handed. Fortunately, most of my “real” research has been more productive. And yet, dump picking seems like an apt metaphor for the experience of digging into a personal history to write this biography. The research process has been largely about sifting through dusty old stuff in search of what remains useful. There are items that stink and items whose original use I cannot decipher, amidst all the metaphorical tuna cans and banana peels** (remnants of daily life), and a few real treasures that make it all worth the effort. The best moments of research/dump picking afford a satisfaction beyond mere entertainment. I imagine Miranda’s wonder, as a child, the moment she understood the world view of the lexicographer who had to define “parachute” without knowing that one day there would be planes.

— Corrections —

* After I shared this post with Si, he wished to clarify that the reason the toilet paper dispenser was unacceptable was that the rust patterns at the base were strongly indicative of pee splash. It’s not like he’s just too good for other people’s bathroom fixtures, in general.

** As Miranda points out: her mother would insist that these two items technically belong in the recycling and compost bins, respectively–not on the trash heap.

Walking and Creativity

”If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”

-Charles Dickens

In addition to his other achievements, Charles Dickens cultivated a rather splendid goatee. (AP Photo)

Charles Dickens was a man who got stuff done. “He edited a weekly journal for twenty years, wrote fifteen novels [weighty ones, at that!], five novellas, hundreds of short stories and non-fiction articles, lectured and performed extensively, … and campaigned vigorously for children’s rights, education, and other social reforms,” sayeth Wikipedia.

According to Merrell Noden, in his 1988 Sports Illustrated article, “Frisky as the Dickens,” he also walked 20 miles a day.  Noden and others seems to believe there’s a correlation between Dickens’ walking and his prodigious literary output. Walking was both a way to engage with his subject matter, “the teeming urban landscapes” of which he so often wrote, and a necessary antidote to the psychic torment of sitting at his desk. I know the feeling.

I was reminded of Dickens yesterday when I read that Lise Meitner, a luminary of twentieth century physics (and the namesake of element 109, meitnerium), walked ten miles a day. Apparently perambulation is good for creativity of all kinds.

So… maybe we should all step away from these screens and go for a walk. Ready? Go.

The Line of Death (or, The Art of the Punitive Essay)

Today’s post is in honor of my brother Brian’s 40th birthday.

Once upon a time–specifically, three decades ago, around the time American aircraft were crossing Muammar Gaddafi’s “Line of Death” into the Gulf of Sidra in a willful act of antagonism because Ronald Reagan had gotten sick of his smack talk and was itching to call him on it–my brother and I got into a kerfuffle of our own.

The cause of the domestic conflict is believed by most historians to be the unauthorized appropriation of a garment by the younger sibling from the elder. (As I recall, I wore my brother’s jean jacket without asking–and I was going to return it.) Unlike in Libya, there were no fatalities. However, the exchange of hostilities involved unpleasant shouting and hitting, as a result of which the combatants were sent to their rooms by their mother and made to write punitive essays. Each was required to compose 100 words on four different themes intended to sharpen their empathy and skills of diplomacy.

Here is one of Brian’s:

BAS on Sharing-001
Note that Brian’s essay on sharing is exactly 100 words long, as a matter of principle.

There are many things to admire about my brother’s rhetorical efforts. I see it as a subtle masterpiece of verbal irony. The author–i.e. the eleven-year-old kid who did not wish to share his jacket with his little sister–would seem to be in a position analogous to Libya, a.k.a. the “loser country” that did not wish to share international water. The jacket is perhaps not exactly analogous to the Gulf of Sidra, being definitively the property of the author, who was no doubt keenly aware of this fact, and yet, he panders to the authority figure (Mom) who wishes to hear him assert that sharing is a virtuous thing to do. He thus condemns selfishness as the province of despots. But meanwhile, he undermines the very assumption that sharing is inherently virtuous with his reference to “forced sharing,” which clearly smacks of tyranny. Moreover, the inclusion of the idiotic coinage “unmean” (not a real word) in the list of synonyms describing people who share is a thinly veiled expression of contempt for this exercise. And yet, there is a stroke of sincerity in the final line that begs the reader’s sympathy for his position. Indeed, it is not always easy to share. Anyone who says otherwise is hopelessly naive.

While Brian was writing this (or, initially, refusing to write this) masterpiece, I was busy dashing off my own four essays. As I recall, I got out of my room much more quickly than Brian did. I was Brer Rabbit in the briar patch, happily scratching away.

The fruits of my labor are all the more horrifying for the fact that I actually enjoyed writing them. Consider:

LIS on Shouting
Sheer sass.

My self-defensive argument comes off as completely unrepentant, reflecting my determination not to capitulate entirely to authority. However, the fact that I also exceeded the minimum word requirement by eight words with my needless verbosity (I mean, “help or assistance”??) reflects the fact that I was, simultaneously, eager to please. This tension may be one of my defining personal qualities, to this day.

However, I have no idea what I was thinking when I wrote the following.

Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 5.16.22 PM
ESP?? Blue jays?? No further comment on this utter inanity.

While the internecine shouting and hitting did not end in 1986, there’s probably a reason my mother never gave us this particular punishment again. Whether it seemed too cruel and unusual, or just too wildly ineffective at curbing our bad behavior, that was the first and last time we ever had to write punitive essays.

Still, I wonder if there isn’t a kernel or two of wisdom in what we wrote that day. Maybe we did learn something about diplomacy–or at least rhetoric–if not empathy. And for the record, Brian and I get along just fine now. In fact, as a token of good will and the esteem in which I hold him, I’m willing to let my brother have the last word today.

BAS on Kindness-001
For the record: I never stole anyone’s coat, or BORROWED Brian’s jean jacket again.

What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Conferences

The first time I attended a conference of a professional organization, it wasn’t exactly in my field. It was SIGGRAPH 2003–a convention on computer graphics and “interactive techniques” (which doesn’t mean what you might think–no social skills required). At the time, I was an aspiring novelist with a day job at Sony Computer Entertainment. I was the office administrator for the research and development group, which consisted of about 40 male and 3 female software engineers who were applying their vast brainpower to figuring out how to do more awesome shit with video games. Meanwhile, I was stocking the Post-It notes, booking travel, and devising innovative ways to monitor when the last pot of coffee had been brewed. They sent me to SIGGRAPH to help man an exhibition booth where my chief responsibility was showing people how to play games with the recently released EyeToy controller. Literally a five year old could do this, but this is an industry in which many of the exhibitors hire actual Booth Babes–you know, attractive yet approachable women just to stand around as nerd bait. (Remember this is also an industry which employs balding bachelors with stringy ponytails at a rate well above the national average.) It seems I confused people at the expo. One guy asked me a technical question that I couldn’t answer, so he followed up by asking condescendingly if I had ever been to college. I was apparently not knowledgeable enough to pass for an engineer and not hot enough to be a credible Booth Babe. I made myself feel better by reciting my CV to him. Then I decided to quit my job and apply to MFA programs.

fancy diagram
This is the sort of thing engineers talk about at their conferences. (credit: Nathaniel Matter)

The next conference I attended (i.e. crashed) was the annual meeting of the International Society for Magnetic Resonance in Medicine in 2006. My husband was giving a talk on the work he had done towards his PhD in electrical engineering, building a novel kind of MRI machine. I borrowed a badge from one of his colleagues so I could get in and see him standing on a stage in his suit, saying intelligent-sounding things that were not quite intelligible to me. All I can tell you is, his PowerPoint slides contained attractive graphs and tastefully arranged bullet points. This kind of conference is about a transfer of highly specialized knowledge. The people in that room (except me) were literally the only people in the world capable of understanding him, and they had an important stake in doing so, because his work could have a direct impact on their own. They all had a creditable reason for deciding to get together in Seattle for a week, beyond just drinking and visiting that market where they chuck the fish.

If Oscar Wilde were alive today, would he fancy a trip to AWP?

Contrast with AWP. I’ve attended the conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs twice. The first time, in 2008, I was mostly there to shill for Blue Mesa Review, the literary magazine of the University of New Mexico, for which I served as fiction editor at the time. When I wasn’t at our table handing out back issues and importuning passersby to submit, I went to readings and panels and parties and the like. I was struck by the fact that, well, transfer of knowledge isn’t really a thing at AWP. Among the aspiring writers who make up the bulk of the attendance, there’s a little bit of hero worship and a lot of shameless self promotion, all of which mostly serves as a prelude to other shenanigans, both colorful and banal. It seemed that everyone was hoping to capture someone else’s attention, not expecting to learn anything useful. Or they were simply going wild, having been released from the solitude of their writing desk for a few days. I wasn’t inclined to return the following year. But then I was invited to be on a panel, and I succumbed to flattery. The feeling I got from the other side of the panelist table was pretty much the same, though. Enough, I thought. I don’t need to fly to Denver to self-promote and swill beer with poets. (Don’t get me wrong, poets. I love you guys. But you’ve thrown up in the back seat of my car right here in Albuquerque. We don’t need AWP.)

In 2014, I attended the national convention of the American Guild of Organists for reasons related to writing, though it is blessedly not a writers’ conference. It was held in Boston, old stomping grounds of organ builder Charles Fisk, about whom I am now writing a biography. In addition to hearing performances on landmark instruments that Fisk built, I was able to stalk/network with some people who knew him. The experience was also revelatory for me in other ways. (Before the concert at which I saw a man in a purple velvet jacket greet a friend with a cheek kiss, I had somehow been oblivious to the fact that gay men occur in the population of organists at a rate even higher than balding ponytailed men occur in the population of software engineers.) The convention seemed to serve a purpose unlike either the ISMRM meeting or AWP. I suppose knowledge transfer and self-promotion both occurred, to a degree, but appreciation of live music was the focus. Especially with an instrument like the organ, where a live performance is a significantly different sensory experience than a recording, this makes sense. It’s a wonderful pretext for like-minded individuals to assemble.

I thought I would be done with writers’ conferences until, say, I have a book out that I am obliged to promote. Until then, I didn’t think I’d gain anything by going.  But then I heard about the conference of the Biographer’s International Organization, to be held in Washington DC next month. I perused the schedule, which consisted of diverse and interesting sessions–some of which  sounded genuinely practical and informative. I speculated that it could be downright useful for someone like me, who is trying to figure out how to frame and market a biography about a guy who is not exactly a household name, but who’s got an amazing story nonetheless. I’m sure there will still be plenty of self-promotion at the BIO conference; it’s a regrettable necessity for writers in this day and age. But there will also be an entire day of sessions devoted to library research–one of the nerdiest pleasures of the biographer’s job. I am optimistic that it will be time well spent.

I hope I will not be disabused of my impression that biographers are a breed apart from other kinds of writers. I know its silly to assume that just because one has chosen to apply his writing skills to telling other people’s stories, and has committed to doing some research rather than making stuff up or simply gazing into his own soul for inspiration, that this writer might posses worldliness or moral virtue that is lacking in, say, his memoirist cousin. It would therefore be naive to expect that the biographers’ conference will be a less solipsistic affair than AWP. But then again, we are talking about a gathering of people who cite external sources in their work. It sure as hell will be different, somehow.

Poets, I want to reiterate that I love you for who you are and for what you’ve given the world. I just tend to like you better on the page, or one-on-one, rather than amassed in a convention center. But to prove there are no hard feelings, the next round is on me when you’re in ABQ. I’m just not driving you home in my car.

Biographers, I’m looking forward to seeing some of you in D.C. next month. Don’t be outclassed by the poets, please.