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Fall 2011 -- Update

A few years ago I had a conversation with a friend who is also a bestselling author. She believes we only have a certain number of words in us each day and so we needed to be very, very careful about email, blogs, and any other word drain apparatus available today. I stopped blogging in deference to my new book, Here Is Where We Walk. The book's basically done now, save the final edits before submitting it to design. So, as Jack Nicholson said, I'm baaaaaaaaaaaack.


Seeing the Forest for the Trees

...I just finished reading Cesar Aira's book (check out the interview in BOMB Magazine's winter/2009 issue)  An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter -- which is a trim 168 pages and boy, what a masterful book. It is the sort of book that makes writers excited to do their own work. Why? Great short books make us feel like there is a chance that we, too, can finish our books -- shorten what we have, tighten, and smarten it up.  And call out, fini! As we are want to do.
...We were in Los Angeles recently (hence the blog silence) partially to tour UCLA with our son who is now 18 and a senior and a year away from sailing off to the Academy, and partially to inspect the Dennis Hopper show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The MOCA show is curated by Julain Schnabel and displayed in a former police garage, repurposed into a museum by Frank Gehry. Sounds promising, no? And indeed it is. The questions it raises, not about the practice of actors taking candid photos of other actors etc, include what will museums "be" as we plough ahead into this century. They still seem inclined towards a specific sort of spatial performance. I'd be curious to see what art looks like with a slightly lower ceiling. Or in a room that has real human presence -- stacks of papers, messy desks, tea cups from yesterday with dregs of tea in the bottom. Surely the paintings and photos came from these humble beginnings? Or do we treat paintings as pageant for reasons that make it much more celebratory and obvious and gives it the feel of "event" as opposed to "looking."
...The final big news from LA stinks of my suburban gawker core: On Saturday I had lunch at Ivy's my delish high school and college friend, Sally Kushner. Kushner texted me from while I was en route: "Check (discreetly) who is at the bar. It's a good one.) The good one turned out to be Javier Bardem. He was seated at an adjacent table. Then Penelope Cruz came in and joined him. They necked and laughed and were very tender. (Not that we were gawking between sips of Pimm's Cup.)
...A few people have been asking when the two books will be "done." Taking a page from Cedar Aira, we are shooting for no more than 200 pages per. And a deadline of December 1.


The Unique Relationship People Have With Trees

(It would be great to report it is not 50 degrees and windy and silver-skied here in the Presidio, but alas, that report would be a lie. But I have made progress in describing the effect -- if you took a piece of heavy, toothed wastercolor paper in a lightish grey, then used India ink to create the outlines and complex structures of trees, then you laid a piece of vellum over the whole thing -- this is my daily view. An Antarctic glaciologist in our acquaintance used to describe being pinned down in a white-out in a tent, "imagine having the car radio stuck between stations, all static, turned up as loud as possible." Imagine this as a visual. Weather caught between stations -- neither sunny nor rainy. Wind steady. A set designers concept for an indie film where everyone looks really tired and bad things happen.)

While we spent Friday cracking into ideas for our first International Institute for Climate Change Art installation (April 2011) -- we took time out to lunch at Limon on Valencia Street  (brilliant ceviche, yum Argentine rose, and charming conversation with our friend Linda, fresh back from Kenya where she documented giraffes)  and  wander into the coolish "pop-up workshop" -- the  nearby Levis workshop. We arrived as the "48-hr" book project was about 12 hours into its life -- lead by one of our Graduate Design students at California College of the Arts -- Zach Gibson.

It's the sort of making environment that puts a spring in the step. Bits of paper and cardboard and chalkboards stuck to the milkshake-white walls featuring alphabets letters epigraphs, etc, meant to make us all want to make stuff and feel better about our oddball lives and the risks and the abandonment of status  -- "all the forces in the world are not as powerful as an idea whose time has come" -- this from Victor Hugo. The print shop features presses more than 100 years old as well as a photocopier, computers, a terrific bashing together of old methods and new. 

Anyone can go in there through the month (they pack up and head Easterly for New York City where the pop-up will be photo based) and make whatever she or he wants. We're going back to make a 'zine on the photo copier.

One of the event organizers, Kevin Bosch, told us there is only one item they will not allow you to produce. Guess.

Give up?

Wedding invitations.

To read: Seth Meyer and John Wells discussing their own unique relationship with trees,  "Finding  New Life (and Profit) in Doomed Trees," (NYTimes, 08-08-10).


The International Institute for Climate Change Art

The International Institute for Climate Change Art met today (Friday, August 6) for two hours at Axis Cafe in San Francisco. The purpose of the meeting was to outline guidelines for submissions for our 2011 show, Naked Antarctica, as well as to delegate tasks.
This is an exciting time for the Institute. Naked Antarctica is our first installation and we anticipate close to one dozen final pieces. Complete details and guidelines will be available on our Web site. We will be inviting artists who have worked in Antarctica as well as those who have not to submit proposals. This will be a collaborative effort, and we look forward to seeing how scientists and artists can collaborate within the context of our map.
Our Web site should be up by early September. Until then, we'll blog about the institute and its projects via


An Episode in the Life of Landscape Writer + Questions Commonly Asked of Our Life in the Presidio

Remember, we need to sell at least another 500 copies of The Entire Earth and Sky in order for it to go to paperback.
The reader who gives me the best idea about how to push out a snazzy marketing campaign to achieve this wins: An autographed copy of my book. If the idea is really good, I will phone you and read to you from it. If it is a brilliant idea, I will come to your home and cook you dinner and then read aloud from the book. What are you waiting for?

My mind is occupied with the work of Cesar Aira, in particular An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, translated by Chris Andrews and published by New Directions in a neat little format.

Bob Halliday, my dear friend in Bangkok and perhaps the world's foremost authority on both Thai food and coolish fiction, suggested I read it in our recent Skype call.

"I bet there's a copy right now sitting on the shelf at City Lights, waiting for you," he said. And indeed there was a copy on a bookstore shelf and now it is sitting next to me, as I gaze out at the rotting rope hammock in my backyard -- twisted, greenish-ropey gymnast, gone mad in our 52-degree, winds from the SSW at 13 miles per hour days -- (yo! check this out -- I made up those numbers up and went online to check and voila! spot on except for the wind direction -- solid W on that one. Call me a sailor who knows how to read local weather as text -- wind, cloud, humidity.)

Aira's novel documents a moment in the life of Johann Moritz Rugendas. For me, he articulates feelings so clearly about the challenges of framing, decoding, documenting landscapes.

Aira-inspired Thought: While we can work to understand the vertical dimension of The Presidio, the temporal or geologic, the serpentinite, graywacke sandstone, melange, the Monterey cypress and pines, the blue gums, the clarkia and banana slug, when it comes to the horizontal things become more obscure. No amount of study will yield an absolute set of answers. How can words begin to make a picture of the horizontal aspect of this place when what it is and what it claims to be diverge with such a spectacular lurch?

While I read Aira, stories of a landscape painter making sense of a wholly unfamiliar place, I also ploughed ahead into Here Is Where We moving towards a finish date of 1 December.

I began making a list of the most common questions asked of us when we tell people we live here and from here we operate The Bureau of Landscape Narrative.

1) How often have you been to the statue of Yoda at the Lucas Film offices?
2) Are you a military veteran?
3) Where do you shop for groceries?

(This last one always makes me laugh. Why, after they lock the gates on this former military base at sundown, there are no trips to the shops. This is why we all have community gardens. So we have something to eat while watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey.)

By the way, the first word of this Aira book is Western and the last word is watch. A writing trick Bob Halliday taught me when we were colleagues at a Bangkok newspaper: First and last words matter. Choose wisely.


Do we each get a daily allotment of words?

I sat with my friend - now a bestselling novelist who appears on national TV - but back then we were all writing obsessively, driven to tell our little stories, and hoping for the best - on a farmhouse porch in Iowa.
It was Halloween and inside the living room shook with dancers decked out in complex, tongue-in-cheek, conceptual costumes. The sort one imagines from MFA students holed up in Iowa trying to get books done -- and using any excuse not to write, such as making the most clever Halloween costume.
We were both finishing MFAs at the university. We were both deep into our first books. The horizon offered the pale orange glow of halogen lights and the fields stretching out before us were turned over, uneven, yet still marked by the neat of rows of monoculture corn estates.
She announced to me that there would be no more emails on a daily basis -- a habit I had come to adore of her -- lively, bright, witty missives, seemingly taken from the Victorians' habit of writing notes and sending them round during afternoon tea.
Her rationale was simple. She believed that each of us only has so many words in us to write each day. Email, she proclaimed, was sapping her strength for the important work, her book.
This statement has been much debated by the two of us and others over the ensuing years. Do we really have a finite number of words each day? Do we drain the supply via email, blogs, and Tweets?

Today in The Presidio the sky, I am dismayed to report, is once again a silver dome. The hawks have been busy since sunrise screeching and diving -- they seem immune to the weather -- putting on a show akin to Jurassic Park scenes, diving, air fights -- all terribly dramatic.
I thought of my friends words and decided to break my usual pattern of "checking in" via iPhone (four calls and three texts await me) and not even crack open email.
If we do have a limited number of words each day -- each year, each decade -- an idea I can argue both for and against -- at least today all the words go to this book, Here Is Where We Walk.