Rocking chairs and strokes: the solidity of Texan family

rocking chair

My great-grandfather, Zone, the Texan communist carpenter and lothario, made this rocking chair a hundred years ago, give or take. It was good to sit in something so solid (and so tailored to short people) while visiting my mom for her birthday over the weekend.

I planned the trip several months back. And then, a few weeks ago, my mom had a stroke. She did not allow my stepdad to tell me immediately and wouldn’t want me to dwell on the details, so I’ll just say that she’s recovered with characteristic speed and finesse — by dint of sheer will, as her people do. When caregivers were dispatched by the hospital to check on her, they couldn’t believe she was the one they were coming to see.

I could. It was hard to leave when the time was up, and yet it seems impossible that there would ever come a day when my mother would cease to exist in this world.

Photo by Max, of course.

Laurie Anderson imagines her dog’s life after death

Laurie Anderson imagined her terrier’s adventures in the Tibetan Buddhist afterworld and committed them to paper in “Lolabelle in the Bardo,” a series of enormous drawings showing at the Vito Schnabel Gallery in SoHo through Saturday. Earlier in the year, Anderson talked with Amanda Stern for The Believer about the very specific kind of grief she felt when the dog, her constant physical companion, died.

She was my best friend. When you’re very physically attached to something — not so much mentally, but physically, something that is always at your knee, you know — it’s very different when they evaporate. So in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, for forty-nine days you’re in the Bardo, and it describes in a really fascinating way how you lose your senses and how your mind dissolves as you prepare for another cycle. At the end of that forty-nine-day period, you are born in another form, and, in my dog’s case, what was at the end of that forty-ninth day was my birthday. I’m kind of a believer in magic numbers, in a way. So I wanted to study that particular Bardo, and then I found that that’s only one of the many Bardos. The other Bardo that is happening is the Bardo that we’re in right now — in which we both believe we’re having a conversation in a studio by the river when, in fact, we’re not.

What attracts her to Buddhism, she said, “is probably what attracts every artist to being an artist — that it’s a godlike thing. You are the ultimate authority. There is no other ultimate authority.”

Max took this photo at the gallery yesterday.

Talking with Kate Christensen at McNally, June 12

astralTomorrow night at McNally Jackson, I’ll have the great pleasure of interviewing Kate Christensen, a friend whose writing I loved even before I came to love her, about her latest novel, The Astral. We spoke about the book (and male muses and inner dicks) last year at The Awl. This will be a continuation of that conversation.

“It’s been two years since I finished The Astral,” Kate says. “The things that strike me as relevant and interesting about the book now are the paramount importance of place to a novel, the creepy, borderline-incestuous relationship between characters and novelist, and the intensity of writing about a disintegrating marriage while in the midst of a disintegrating and totally different marriage.”

Practical city living #13: U-Bahn versus NYC subway

U-Bahn with Jordan

In Berlin the week before last, my friend Jessa mentioned that people on public transit there are completely okay with staring. It’s not just fine to stare, she said; it’s expected. If you don’t look at people, you’re the weird one.

For me, longtime rider of the New York City subway that I am, this idea was hard to wrap the mind around. Even making eye contact more than once on the train here is practically an aggressive act.

On the U-Bahn with her the next day, I remembered what she said, but couldn’t bring myself to look around at fellow passengers long enough to confirm it. It felt too intrusive. I kept glancing away.

“Oh, but they were staring at you,” she told me, when I mentioned this later.

“So what do people think when a New Yorker stares at the floor?” I asked her. “Are they just like, oh, she’s not from here?”

“No.” She smiled the excellent smile she breaks into when appreciating the unintentionally ironic. “They think you’re evasive,” she said, and recommended sunglasses.

I followed her advice. Max snapped this shot of my sort-of-but-not-really brother Jordan and me riding the U-Bahn to Karl-Marx-Allee. As Anna Wiener said when she recommended we stroll along it, “the changes in architecture so starkly reflect the political shifts in Berlin’s history, and it’s wild to imagine people moving into this showpiece promenade.” It was my favorite walk in Berlin.

Prior practical city living posts are here.

Join authors, the public, at the 24-Hour Read-In

[Untitled] (Brooklyn Public Library), ca. 1938.

As a rule I don’t duplicate posts from my Tumblr, but this is important enough to make an exception. If you’re able, I hope you’ll come out this Saturday to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the Read-In to protest the Mayor’s enormous proposed library budget cuts, which if enacted would effectively dismantle the New York, Queens, and Brooklyn Public Library systems as we know them.

Most of the protest in support of New York City libraries these days seems to revolve around pending changes at the NYPL’s flagship Schwarzman branch, where the research and circulating libraries are under threat. It’s a very unfortunate and arguably outrageous plan that could hobble one very important library in the wealthiest borough of our fair city, and I’m as concerned about it as anyone who’s ever done research there.

But let’s not let our opposition to (or acceptance of) that proposal distract us from the Mayor’s even greater, and far, far more wide-reaching, threat to literacy and to everything else our libraries help provide. As novelist (and friend of mine) Alexander Chee said when he signed on to the Read-In, “This is reprehensible — no library recovers from acquisitions cuts.”

And we’re not just talking reduced hours and fewer books in circulation. According to a 2010 New York Times story, the Queens system alone is  “the largest public library in the country, measured by circulation volume,” an innovative institution that has shown other libraries how to operate as “community hubs for job seekers, teenagers who are looking for a safe and comfortable place to study after school, students of English and people who cannot afford to own a computer but want to use the Internet.” All of the “city’s public libraries  are increasingly serving as makeshift employment centers,” part of a “surge in demand for libraries’ free goods and services that is typical during economic downturns.”

Over the past few years, Urban Librarians Unite and others have put up such fierce resistance to threatened cuts that money has quietly been restored, giving readers and employment seekers citywide a false sense of security. If we don’t protest, the Mayor and City Council don’t know what’s important to us, and the next time you show up at your library to pick up books on a random weekday afternoon, you just might find its doors locked. 

Anyone can sign up to read, and I hope you’ll join a wide range of writers, some of whom will actually be reading, some of whom are away and can only be with us in spirit, by signing up for a slot to read at this year’s protest, or just by stopping by.

Those participating and supporting so far include Megan Abbott (The End of Everything and Dare Me), Eric Banks (President, National Book Critics Circle), Josh Bazell (Beat the Reaper and Wild Thing), Phil Campbell (Zioncheck for President), Alexander Chee (Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night), A.N. Devers (, Jason Diamond (Vol. 1 Brooklyn and Flavorpill), Lauren Grodstein (A Friend of the Family), Will Hermes (Love Goes to Buildings on Fire), Evan Hughes (Literary Brooklyn), Jesse and Zoe Karp (Those That Wake), Julie Klam (Please Excuse My Daughter and You Had Me at Woof), Victor LaValle (Big Machine and The Ecstatic), Michelle Legro (Lapham’s Quarterly), Andrew Losowsky (Huffington Post), Ann Napolitano (A Good, Hard Look), Anna North (America Pacifica), Austin Ratner (The Jump Artist and In the Land of the Living), Rosie Schaap (Drinking with Men, and Drink columnist, New York Times Magazine), Elissa Schappell (Use Me), Lizzie Skurnick (Shelf Discovery), Amanda Stern (The Long Haul), Sadie Stein (The Paris Review), Emma Straub (Other People We Married and Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures), and Hannah Tinti (The Good Thief and One-Story magazine). And especially for kids on Sunday morning: Melanie Hope Greenberg (Mermaids on Parade), Ryan Sias (Zoe & Robot), Javaka Steptoe (In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall), Charlotte Jones Volkiss (Madeline L’Engle’s granddaughter), and Paul Zelinsky (The Wheels on the Bus).

The 24-Hour Read-In gets underway Saturday, June 9, at 4 p.m. and runs through Sunday, the 10th, at 3:59 p.m. You can read your own work or (except during family time on Sunday morning) whatever you like. If you’re interested in signing up, email

If you don’t feel like reading, you can just join us for a little while to show your support. I’ll be there Saturday until at least midnight and again early Sunday morning. Please introduce yourself so I can shake your hand.