Archive for May, 2013


The joy and wonder of riding the buses and rails in this bit of paradise.

How to Publish a Book of Photographs

Marilyn Suriani

Marilyn Suriani

Marilyn Suriani published a wonderful book of photographs and interviews, “Dancing Naked in the Material World,” with me back in the early 1990s. In this interview she explains how she got her work done.


“I choose my friends for their faults,” a buddy once told me. I do so love that line.

"Laura," by Jaume Plensa, outside the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY

Jaume Plensa’s “Laura,” at the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY

The Fond and Futile Appeal

“Please don’t take that the right way.”

Let’s Cooperate

People who extol the virtues of collegiality tend to be iffy colleagues. You of course are an exception to that.

Suzy Szasz Palmer

I like this Q + A with this former author of mine, whose memoir “Lupus – Living with It: Why You Don’t Have to Be Healthy to Be Happy” was one of my best acquisitions as an editor back in the day. Here Suzy explains how she came to write her memoir and discusses her plans for a second book, which might be a sequel to her first memoir … or a cookbook. I would welcome either project with great joy.

(Suzy “appears” in a short post I wrote after her wonderful father, Dr. Thomas Szasz, passed away last year.)

BS, Redux

A long-time correspondent points me to this graduation speech recently published in The Atlantic: “Life Lessons in Fighting the Culture of Bullshit: What politics taught me that graduates need to know.”  The piece is by Jon Lovett, who has written speeches for Barack Obama after having worked against him on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Lovett’s take on the topic is conventional:

“One of the greatest threats we face is, simply put, bullshit. We are drowning in it. We are drowning in partisan rhetoric that is just true enough not to be a lie; in industry-sponsored research; in social media’s imitation of human connection; in legalese and corporate double-speak. It infects every facet of public life, corrupting our discourse, wrecking our trust in major institutions, lowering our standards for the truth, making it harder to achieve anything. And it wends its way into our private lives as well, changing even how we interact with one another: the way casual acquaintances will say ‘I love you’; the way we describe whatever thing as ‘the best thing ever’; the way we are blurring the lines between friends and strangers. And we know that. There have been books written about the proliferation of malarkey, empty talk, baloney, claptrap, hot air, balderdash, bunk. One book was aptly named ‘Your Call is Important to Us.'”

My correspondent suggests, “I think graduation is too late to introduce college students to the academic literature on bullshit. It should be in the form of a workshop or course in 1st or second year college.” I agree. BS should be forcefully addressed sometime in the first year. To me BS is a form of Rhetoric, which is a fundamental lattice undergirding all academic disciplines; it is the start of knowledge and of discourse and debate.

My definition of BS: It is the use of a message to hide one’s true intentions. It can be a lie, it can be the truth (with some key points left unsaid), or it can be something else altogether, like “changing the subject.” Its ethical possibilities are polyvalent; after all, we cannot live without hiding our wishes and our natures sometimes.

At any rate Rhetoric should indeed be a required first-year course at university. Students need to know how to spot and how to make arguments.

Your Author

Your Author

“You Must Always Be Yourself …

Picture 5

… no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” – Candy Darling

The life of Candy Darling is inspiring – and is very well presented in the documentary “Beautiful Darling,” written and edited by James Rasin. Chloë Sevigny reads from Darling’s private diaries and letters. And there is lots of documentary footage that I’ve never seen before, including scenes inside the Chelsea Hotel with Darling performing monologues for Dennis Hopper and company. Author Fran Lebowitz provides some remarkably dyspeptic commentary.

The root of beauty is boldness.

(Here’s the documentary’s website and the New York Times review of the film.)

“We Go Walking in the Dark”

I discovered the singing and writing of Connie Converse via the Facebook page of Mary Lou Lord, a wonderful singer and writer herself, whom I was lucky enough to meet at the “Bottom of the Hill” club in San Francisco back in the mid 1990s.

I doubt I will have luck enough to meet Ms. Converse, though. As Cord Jefferson writes in this beautiful profile of her, “In the summer of 1974, just before her 50th birthday, Connie Converse composed some letters to her family and friends. In them, she applauded the downfall of Richard Nixon and said she was going to head west and take another shot at a new life. She then packed up her Volkswagen Beetle and drove out of Ann Arbor. It was the last time anyone in her family ever saw or heard from her.”

Connie Converse never signed a recording contract. With her friend Gene Deitch she made some rough and very beautiful recordings that he shopped around to labels, getting no bites. Such spooky, soulful work. I’m delighted Daniel Dzula & David Herman have remastered the old tapes to make “How Sad, How Lovely.”

Picture 1

Here is a lovely video made of her performance of “One by One.”

The last words of her recording of “We Lived Alone” give me goose-bumps. The change in key changes me.

We lived alone, my house and I

We had the earth, we had the sky

I had a lamp against the dark

And I was happy as a lark.

We lived alone, my house and I

We had the earth, we had the sky

I had a lamp against the dark

And I was happy as a lark.

I had a stove and a window-screen

I had a table painted green

I sat on a chair with a broken back

Wearing a pretty potato sack.

I had a rug upon the floor

And roses grew around my door

I had a job, my wants were few

They were until I wanted you.

And when I set my eyes on you

Nothing else would do, nothing else would do.

Dave McNaughton


You were a wonderful friend and neighbor, spreading good vibes everywhere. You will always live in our hearts.

My new favourite blog

Clarissa’s blog. The author is a prolific and engaging writer, a professor of Spanish literature whose interests range very widely. This morning she complained, rightly, about teachers who whine about students using their smart-phones during class:

Some people are going completely bonkers with this idea that students need to be policed to prevent them from using technology in the classroom. It has been suggested that we get the students to sign a contract (WTF?) at the beginning of the semester where they would promise not to turn on their cell phones and other devices and would agree to any penalties that will be given to them as a result of breaking this contract.

It has also been suggested that we make the students remove their cell phones and laptops and leave them at the front of the classroom.

What’s next, searching their  pockets and personal belongings before letting them enter the classroom?

And then people wonder why students don’t respect them. You can’t earn respect by acting in such a desperate, pathetic way. You can only earn respect by respecting both the students and yourself.

I especially love it how often my colleagues complain about the students’ immaturity. How can we expect them to act maturely if we treat them like infants?

And you know what I find really confusing? If a person chooses for whatever reason to pay good money to hear your lectures yet decides that updating her Facebook or emailing his friends is more important than getting his or her money’s worth, why should you care? This last semester I had a student who knew she was failing the course from the start yet chose to spend the entire semester staring at her laptop screen. As a result, she failed the course. This was her choice and she is now living with its consequences, which is an important life lesson. Why should I have demeaned myself in front of the entire classroom and turned myself into a nursery teacher just in order to get between this woman and her choice to fail?

P.S. Now a colleague has joined the discussion with a complaint against faculty members who use cell phones during meetings and official ceremonies. I wish people realized that this desire to police the actions of others is nothing but a manifestation of repressed rage.

I also like her takes on Asperger’s Syndrome.

June 5: I’ve recommended Clarissa’s blog over at my other place of business, NoContest.CA.



My iPhone blog is mostly about the city I love.


I was less surprised than dispirited when I read the recent cover story in Maclean’s magazine “What If Heaven Is Real? Why so many people – including scientists – suddenly believe in an afterlife.”

To be precise, I was dispirited *not* that a high percentage of educated Canadians and Americans believe in an afterlife, but that so many believe there is scientific *proof* for one.

Featured in the Maclean’s piece is the case of Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. In his recent “memoir,” Proof of Heaven, Alexander writes that during a coma in 2008 he went to heaven. I don’t doubt the man’s sincerity, though I wonder why he doesn’t bring to his own experience the rational skepticism and humility that science and medicine require of him. That is, I doubt his judgment.

Oliver Sacks takes him to task:

Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs [near-death experiences] tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

In 1991 I contributed an essay called “The Popular Appeal of the Near-Death Experience” to the Journal of Near Death Studies’ 10th Anniversary Issue. I wrote:

Of all experiences that can be called paranormal, the Near Death Experience [NDE] is unique. Here is an alleged experience of the afterlife that can actually be looked at under more or less controlled conditions, for example in hospitals. Here, finally, science might no longer be able to deny the existence of the soul, of consciousness floating free from visceral support. The experiment is clear: if someone can report having an NDE after his or her electroencephalogram has been flat for a while, then scientists must accept that some form of human consciousness is independent of the brain. The thin edge of the wedge was described precisely by Charles Tart: “Man has a non-physical soul of some sort that is capable, under certain conditions, of leaving the physical body.”

I predict that as researchers close in on a wholly physiological explanation for NDEs, popular interest in them will wane, because people come to this topic out of hope and that hope will be dashed. If medicine figures out how to induce an NDE safely, how to excite the beneficial effects described so eloquently by Barbara Harris and many others [including losing one’s fear of death, gaining confidence, feeling affection for all life], then interest will no doubt rise again, but it will rise among those who are interested in psychotherapy and not in proof of the afterlife or an immaterial soul.

It is impossible to predict whether such a drug or treatment will ever be invented, or how – or how often and to how many – it would be prescribed, or what society would look and act like when it is filled with self-knowing people-lovers whose fear of death has vanished. It does seem, however, that profoundly effective psychotherapy available on such a wide scale would warrant the same kind of debate now generated by the possibility of improving our biological make-up with designer genes.

Well, interest in NDEs has certainly *not* waned as physiological explanations have been fine-tuned. I was wrong about that!

Facing the Sky

Here’s a good little discussion on “flipping” classrooms. “Flipping” refers to the idea that faculty lectures waste class time that should be spent on “student collaborative work” and “mastery exercises” instead. (Instructors should put their lectures on videotape, according to this idea, so students can watch them at their leisure before or after in-class time.)

When I teach, I tell stories that students find memorable (that’s what they tell me), and I ask questions. I’ve tried reproducing the former on videotape; it doesn’t work. (I follow my students’ eyes and the way they are moving at their desks and adapt my lecture to these responses.) And of course the back and forth of Q/A also doesn’t work via video.

A number of my colleagues, who I know are superb teachers, mock the lecture model. They call this model “sage on the stage” (which is nowhere near as good as “guide on the side”). But this model is a straw man. My own models are Johnny Carson and Professor Kingsfield.

It is very common for people to talk about teaching technique the way people talk about religion: with unwarranted conviction and righteousness. My view: There are as many ways to face class as there are to face the sky.

(h/t Jonathan Mayhew)