Category Archives: writing

You cannot read the stars and live

You cannot read the stars and live.
You cannot comprehend their mysteries, you are consumed in the process
You are burnt up.
And below them,
Eyes transfixed skyward, regarding,
is a stranger,
A thief of your memories
Standing in your place and on your ashes.

A few of my favorite ledes

In no particular order, and purposely without origin, I give you a collection of the beginnings of stories I have found compelling and masterful. (Please feel free to add any I should have here in comments.) Enjoy!

Gary Robinson died hungry.

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god.

Sirhan S. Sirhan is nuts, nuts, nuts.

We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.

All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin.

Depression is the flaw in love.

This isn’t at all what I expected. In 1985, by some sort of journalistic accident, I was sent to Madagascar with Mark Carwardine to look for an almost extinct form of lemur called the aye-aye. None of the three of us had met before. I had never met Mark, Mark had never met me, and no one, apparently, had seen an aye-aye in years.

It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind this desk, and face this learned audience.

All children, except one, grow up.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

It was a dark and stormy night.

All this happened, more or less.

The poles of the earth have wandered. The equator has apparently moved. The continents, perched on their plates, are thought to have been carried so very far and to be going in so many directions that it seems an act of almost pure hubris to assert that some landmark of our world is fixed at 73 degrees 57 minutes and 53 seconds west longitude and 40 degrees 51 minutes and 14 seconds north latitude- a temporary description, at any rate, as if for a boat on the sea.

It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.

The University of Toledo gave President Frank Horton a pay increase yesterday. It was his first raise in nearly a month.

‘They hit a little girl,’ and in his muscular black arms the first specialist carried out a seven-year-old, long black hair and little earrings, staring eyes — eyes, her eyes are what froze themselves onto M’s memory, it seemed there was no white to those eyes, nothing but black ellipses like black goldfish. The child’s nose was bleeding — there was a hole in the back of her skull.

Snow, followed by small boys on sleds.

Kazbek Misikov stared at the bomb hanging above his family. It was a simple device, a plastic bucket packed with explosive paste, nails, and small metal balls. It weighed perhaps eight pounds. The existence of this bomb had become a central focus of his life. If it exploded, Kazbek knew, it would blast shrapnel into the heads of his wife and two sons, and into him as well, killing them all.

Let’s talk about tattoos.

Ella had to find out what had attacked her, and she wasn’t the only one.

The imperfect man pitched the perfect game.

Jim Brown, born ineligible to play for the Redskins, integrated their end zone three times yesterday.

If on the morrow we should lose to the Germans at our national game, fret not, lads, for twice in this century we have beaten them at theirs.

If you could stop rubbing your itchy, watery eyes for one second, put down the tissue and look around, you’d see an increasing number of sneezing, sniffling sad sacks just like you.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

At 12:30, my husband and I were having a pleasant lunch in a restaurant. At 1:30, we were back home, sitting at the kitchen counter planning a trip to Vienna and Budapest with cherished friends. At 2:30, I was walking out of the hospital emergency room in shock, a widow, my life changed forever, beyond comprehension.

Floridians are going to have to start pulling up their pants and stop having sex with animals soon.

President Clinton returned today for a sentimental journey to the university where he didn’t inhale, didn’t get drafted and didn’t get a degree.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something.

A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

Placing the SCUM Manifesto in Historical Context

solanas-socratesMuch has come up lately about the Valerie Solanas’ 1967 radical feminist essay, the SCUM Manifesto. It’s a remarkable read, uncompromising, utopian, and like all good writing, unashamed of being what it is. It is an important piece of writing, and should take its place with the study of literature and ideas. Solanas stands with Pythagoras, Socrates, TS Eliot, and Kant among countless others who put forward theories about the role, origin, and best eventual outcome regarding other members of their societies.

What makes it a good commentary is that it has the feel of many true things in it. But I would ascribe them to what is more commonly called the Patriarchy these days than to the specific genetic condition of maleness, and so for me, that is what makes it not a correct commentary.

I also find the SCUM Manifesto overly utopian, and I am profoundly suspicious of utopias. Like all visions of enforced human improvement, SCUM promulgates a singular vision of human nature, and fails to see more than a binary among womankind. We are not Solanas’ perfect and groovy creatures. If men did not exist, I believe we would have invented them. Ultimately, Solanas’ Manifesto falls to its own assertions. As the superior and only “whole” members of the species, the responsibility for men’s behavior ultimately has to fall on us, like bad tenders of a garden, who let men grow out of control in the first place.

What makes the SCUM Manifesto brilliant isn’t its originality, but its total derivativeness. It echoes countless other manifestos, analyses, philosophical tracts, medical text books, theological arguments, and so on — but from high status men. Many of these men are still regarded with near worship today, like Freud and Kipling. SCUM bears the impression of Charles Dickens, and St Thomas Aquinas. It has more than passing similarities to the ideas of Confucius and the holy texts of the Hindu faith.

It’s just that it’s pointed up the power chain, instead of down. These ideas about inferiority, genetic, intellectual, and spiritual, aren’t new. They’ve been used as justifications to deny meaningful lives to women and low status men by the billions for centuries. I want to point that out again: billions of people for thousands of years.

I’m not going to say Valerie Solanas wasn’t nuts. She clearly was. She shot Andy Warhol. She was also just nuts, there’s no getting around Solanas being not being a very good or well person. I’m happy to leave Solanas to history as unfortunate and somewhat nasty. But on one condition: all the other people who promulgated the same ideas are just as nasty and unreasonable. Solanas goes into a looney bin of horrors. But all those beloved, male, white, or whatever the dominant ethnicity of the place and era, those intellectuals, leaders, and spiritual men of history, even the ones I love, have to go in there too.

Everything they wrote doesn’t have to go in there with them. I still love Kipling and Hemingway, despite the White Man’s Burden and, well, everything Hemingway ever did. I love The Hollow Men, I love the Scholars, I love many things that never pass any variation of the Bechdel Test. But if men’s work, replete in their strange and incidental hatreds get to stay out of the bin of shunned horrors, so does the SCUM Manifesto. Surely any writing that can clearly show that a swath of great thinkers of history were demonstrably insane and cruel belongs among the great writings, even if insane and cruel itself.

1000 Ledes n + 25: The Tipping Point

Usually retrospection shows you things were more complex than you ever thought at the time, but not so in this case. Looking back, years later, she realized there was a moment that decided it all, that painted a decade in hazy pain. She realized none of it would have happened like this if she’d left the first time he hit her.

The Utilitarian and the Devil: A Parable for the Dead

One day, the Utilitarian got out some candles, noxious herbs, bread, sour wine, and some blood, took off his clothes, and summoned the Devil. The Devil appeared in the the palpable dark punctually, just as the last incanted word left the Utilitarian’s lips. He was dressed in a traditional suit, black and dark red. The air around him was musty, smokey, and with that hint of rotten eggs and chocolate just burnt too far to be pleasant. The Devil had the smile of a man who knows he’s won, but patient for the game to play out. He didn’t hide it, and he and the Utilitarian both knew the Utilitarian was outmatched. It made the Devil’s cheeks a little warmer red, and the The Utilitarian even more wan than usual. The Utilitarian, suddenly aware in the presence of the highest of angels that he was totally nude, shivered and crouched. The Devil grinned just a bit too far for his face, and exhaled. His breath was like the warmth of brick fireplace to the cold Utilitarian. The Devil’s breath was a little too close, inviting, but uncomfortable like a winter’s morning when the cold has bit your bones and you think you’ll crawl into the fire so you can at least die warm.

“Yes?” said the Devil, in a growl that rumbled up to a hiss on the note of his curiosity, “What…. would you like… from me?”

The Utilitarian stood dumbstruck for a moment, staring with his lips slightly more apart, seeming to get even paler. He remembered himself, snapped his lips together, and tried to bring his shoulders square with the Devil’s. “I’d… I’d like to sell my soul,” the Utilitarian said, gaining back some of his lost strength as he went.

The Devil reached into a nonexistent coat pocket and pulled out a full clipboard, quill pen resting at the top, and took it in hand. “Excellent!” he declared. “What shall it be? Money, sex? To be the most famous of philosophers, respected and beloved of Mankind? Or perhaps something more prosaic, in keeping with your demeanor. Peace on Earth, perhaps? Please, my dear Utilitarian, don’t keep me waiting!” As the Devil spoke his smile never retreated an inch from his ears. He took up the quill pen in a position of mock preparedness, while the Utilitarian caught his breath again, and cleared his throat.

“I will sell my soul to you in exchange for passage to Heaven for 10,000 unworthy souls.”

The Devil’s smile shrank to a dot of a mouth, and he narrowed his eyes. Now, it is said that an unstained soul (which The Utilitarian had) smells ever so much sweeter to Hell than its sullied cousins. This is not untrue, but 10,000 was a lot of unworthy souls. They were perhaps not so tantalizing, but they were the Devil’s fair and square, and there were 10,000 of them. On the other hand… he slapped his pen down on the clipboard and both vanished in a flash of fire. The Devil stared at an imaginary point across the basement’s width. To the Utilitarian, he seemed to be thinking, but it was terrible to watch the Devil think, and it made him shake again. The Devil looked back at the Utilitarian, meeting him in the eyes. “It may not be mine to give. I shall make inquiries.”

With that, the Devil was gone, along with the summoning circle and its creepy paraphernalia. All that was left was some misplaced wax and the cold, naked Utilitarian.

Months passed without word from the Devil. The Utilitarian lived an ascetic life, balanced with charity and good works, in anticipation of the Devil’s return. He wanted nothing to sully the value of his soul. He remembered the Devil’s smile at him, and he knew the Devil would somehow find a way to pay.

The decades came and went, and the Utilitarian remained a blameless champion of the suffering. He fed the hungry and found great pleasure in it. He reached out to the mad especially, and sheltered them from the world when they couldn’t shelter themselves from the beasts of their minds. He came to enjoy his work, and his enjoyment only made his good work better. As he slowly shrank into a stooped old man, he barely thought about the Devil anymore. He had come to love his life for the joy of the service. He was no longer holding his soul virtuous for the sake of good value, but had become that value itself.

But one morning, as the Utilitarian was getting out of bed, he heard a caller knocking. It was the Devil again, just as he had been, as if he’d just stepped out for a cigarette. “Are you still interested?” asked the Devil.

“My soul for 10,000 unworthy?” asked the Utilitarian. The Devil nodded once. “Then,” continued the Utilitarian, “I am still interested.”

“Well, then. Let’s seal the deal over a game of chess, and drink some tea!” said the Devil, happily producing a kettle and game board from nothing and nowhere. The Devil set out the board and patted his stomach unconsciously. He gestured for the Utilitarian to sit in his own seat while he poured tea in two abruptly existent cups on the table. Content, he seated himself behind black, and the Utilitarian took the first move.

“You’ve done well for yourself,” said the Devil as he made his move, “You’re well on the way to sainthood.”

“Nonsense. The mutterings of committees, talking about my death,” said the old Utilitarian, waving his hand dismissively in the air.

The Devil laughed, and went on, “I have rather better sources than you on these matters.” The Utilitarian looked abashed, and made his next move. They went on for while longer, chatting, playing chess, and drinking tea, until the Devil paused, stealing the Utilitarian’s attention away from the game.

“You know, people get it all wrong,” said the Devil, leaning back from the game, tea in hand. “I don’t want good men to join me so I can torture them for all eternity, or eat them, or whatever people think I do. It’s just that the evil deceased can be so boorish. Black hearted men don’t suddenly get easy to live with just because they’re dead. Whereas you, sir, are simply good company to all comers, even myself. I know from your life that you are not only kind, but enjoy being so. That you laugh in equal parts to your tears, that you think, and are willing to share your thoughts. Why on Earth would I not want such company for my duties in Hell?” He waved his hand gently around the bare room, as if impressed with its lavishness.

The Devil looked down, losing the Utilitarian’s eyes, and continued. “With that I must remind you of the terms of our deal and see if you agree. In exchange for your one, unblemished soul descending to the depths of Hell to be by my side for eternity, 10,000 souls marked for me by the unworthiness of their lives shall instead walk the road to Heaven, to dwell forever?”

“It is obviously better that this should be,” said the Utilitarian, “And whatever waits for me in Hell, the knowledge that 10,000 can rise towards bliss will be an eternal comfort.”

“Yes, that will be true. But my, shall we say, counterpart, wanted the deal repeated to you as his condition, to give you time to consider what you are asking for.”

“The math is simple. 10,000 will always be more than one,” said the Utilitarian.

The Devil put out his hand, and as the Utilitarian shook it he felt the whole of the small house shift, and begin to sink into the ground. The Devil went on unperturbed. “10,000 and one are not as uneven as you think,” he told the Utilitarian magnanimously, clasping his extra hand over the Utilitarian’s. “I’d wager Hell is nearly as improved by your grace today as Heaven has been diminished by it.”

10

-Let's say for the sake
	of argument
-that only 90% of everything sucks.
-For every ten blooms of Queen Anne's lace,
-one is the wide circle of snowy fractals that
	floats beside the road like an ethereal crown.
-For every ten New England trees in fall,
-One burns redder than the imagination
	through the all the fibers of its leaves
-For every ten songs, one makes you jump and twitch and smile in your bus seat,
	then look up to see if anyone noticed.
-For every ten kisses, one gets you into terrible trouble.
-So then which line of this poem
-is the good one?

Count

For many years when I walked into a room I instantly counted the women. It told me a lot about what to expect from that room. One day, having lost my best friend over racial politics out of my control, I began to count people of color. That too was for safety, for understanding how my views would be taken. That too told me a lot I needed to know about the room. But it also hinted to me about a whole realm of experience I wasn’t having.

The neighborhood where I grew up in LA gentrified unbelievably hard through my childhood. The odd Mormon Filipino family whose son was my BFF for a while eventually sold the shack they lived in, which was badly enough constructed that despite Legrande’s father’s efforts to patch his walls, you could still hear the ocean wind from inside his room. When they moved it was torn down, and the garden (like most of them would be) was filled in with expensive house, in the Socal Hollywood style of all stucco and reaching up past your neighbors for views. The houses got torn down one by one. The neighbor to the right, across the street, eventually my best friend’s, and all replaced with opulent houses. But opulent not so much to be seen as to keep the residents from prying eye — the way you signaled you were important in Los Angeles. As this happened across my neighborhood I stopped knowing my neighbors. The class divide had moved next door. Still, children don’t get this, and when they escaped from grown-up eyes they flocked together. I made a few friends at moments. Going back to their houses, I first heard the phrase “We don’t discuss money.” My mom discussed money, my dad, far away in northern California hardly discussed anything else.

How could you not discuss money? It was like a family that announce they didn’t allow the mention of food. Or hope. It was exactly like a family that didn’t mention food or hope.

I visited Oklahoma one as a teenager to see my paternal grandparents. They lived outside Tulsa in a place you could mistake for rural with a bad littering problem if you’ve never seen desperate poverty, American style. Out there the poor whites told me “We’re colorblind. We don’t even see color.” But there were no people of color to be seen in the area. The closest lived on the Res, and I learned many years later that when my father was a child, he was one of the only whites that snuck across to visit the kids at the BIA schools. He never told me what he saw there, but when I was young he would get very drunk sometimes at night and tell me we should all get back on the fucking boats and go back to Europe. I didn’t know what Europe was.

For a time I decided I couldn’t see color. But then I couldn’t see what happened to people of color. To not see their color, I realized, was to not see its absence, and its absence was everywhere I wanted to be, in every room I aspired to get into. I had made their pain and struggle invisible to me. I argued that this position was not racist, but anti-race altogether. And besides, many of my best friends hadn’t been white. How could I be racist?

In 2010 I went to a prestigious invite only conference in the tech world. I was, at this point, widely welcome in those rooms I’d dreamed of going in. I counted. My heart soared — it really felt like we’d turned a corner. It wasn’t just that there were more women. There were, but also they were talking. It was like pushing on a giant stone for all my life, then one day feeling it finally shift underneath my fingers.

On Saturday night I was sexually assaulted. Specifically, I was groped. I hit my aggressor in the chin and knocked him back. Despite having probably 100lbs on me, he stumbled drunkenly and barely kept his footing. “Touch me again and I’ll break your nose,” I told him. He laughed lightly, still finding his feet, and said “I like this one!” I looked at him, to catch his eye, and replied calmly, matter-of-factly “No. If you touch me again, I will break your nose.” He laughed again, but wandered away from me, looking to grope easier prey.

This is how I’d felt all my life, like my job was to not be easy prey. But this was a professional field, not the fucking Serengeti. I walked a little later with the conference organizer, a woman older then me, and of much stature in tech. I told her I was so happy to finally see women in my field. “But,” I said, “I think these incidents will be more common for a while. These guys don’t know how to behave around women.” To myself, I added bitterly, or other human beings at all.

In part, the tech community had allowed in women, but in part it had also only failed to keep them out.

It was always the ones that said they didn’t see gender or color who did the most damage. “They’re just words,” they would say, “Why do you let them hurt you?” And with that, my pain was made as invisible as me. “They’re just words.” Indeed, just the verbal incantations of power, like law and code and everything else that made the world. I decided to leave tech for words.

But now I’m all shouty. Now people are angry at me because I have a stage, and they can’t make me invisible and ignore me, because the truth is you can’t ignore words, and I have the words. So now they really hate me. The others, the majority, sit uncomfortably with the conflict. No one is quite sure what to do, they want things to be abstractly better, but they don’t want anyone to be loudly upset, either. One side is considerably louder than all the others.

This is what I ask: when you walk into a room, count. Count the women. Count the people of color. Count by race. Look for who isn’t there. Look for class signs: the crooked teeth of childhoods without braces, worn-out shoes, someone else who is counting. Look for the queers, the older people, the overweight. Note them, see them, see yourself looking, see yourself reacting.

This is how we begin.

A Note on How I Choose My Assignments

Hello! Thank you for your recent suggestions about what I should cover/what direction I should go in my career.

First off, I really mean it. Thank you. Without the help and guidance of people in the communities I’ve covered over the years, I would be nowhere and my shit would suck ass. I know I owe my career and insight to my sources, my readers, and to the communities that have allowed me to learn about their lives and values. I’ve done this as an outsider, and the tremendous respect and warmth people have demonstrated, meeting my needs and ethical concerns over the years, is literally humbling.

But for every story I take on, there are many I don’t.

Let me explain a few things about that. First off, there is one of me. I try to work roughly full time, but frankly, I’m not even good at long jags of full time work before I tire out a bit. Sometimes I work a lot more than full time, but usually I burn out rather badly after I do, and end up working much less for a while. I have learned/am learning to pace myself, and if your story has come up during a time when I need to recharge my batteries or go play with my daughter, I’m sorry, the world just has to turn without me for a while. Don’t bother to tell me a story is more important than my time with my daughter — she’s why I do this in the first place.

No matter how good your idea is, you don’t get editorial input on what I choose to write about, or how I write it. Honestly, publications would probably pay me a lot more if I would write about what they wanted when they wanted me to, and I’ve chosen to make much less to maintain my independence. I appreciate suggestions, and am super grateful for help, but my independence is important enough to me that I’m willing to stay poor to keep it. (I wouldn’t mind not staying poor, but you know…)

I have my own agenda and ethics. I see my work building towards a cohesive whole, a larger story, and I’m loyal to that story. I think in long time scales, and about a long and specific story I’m telling over my career. Not everything that should be told is part of that story — again, there is just one of me. If your suggestion is totally awesomely awesome and deserves attention, but I don’t want to cover it, this is why.

I see my readers as people picking stuff up right now, but I also see them as people in 100 or 200 years, trying to understand how this period affected the world they live in. I don’t know whether those people will read me specifically, but I do believe I affect a narrative that will come down to them. I feel responsible to them to get stuff right over time, and to tell a insightful and constructive story.

I do get terrible suggestions, but things I thought were terrible suggestions turned out to be great stories I misjudged and passed on. I spend a lot of time being wrong, which is just part and parcel of spending a lot of time in unknown territory. I’m not likely to tell you if I think your suggestion is terrible. Not because I’m buttering you up, because I’ve been wrong enough to not really trust my opinion in that. I’ve chased plenty of stories that ended up stupid and passed on others that turned out brilliant. It’s taught me that these things are hard to judge.

My answer is to choose stories based on my desire to understand and explain how the technology of this age is changing what it means to be human, not whether or not I think it’s a good story. Whether a particular event/op/tip/etc. fits into the metastory I’m telling is something only I can decide. And if I figure it out late, I’m late to the story, but I’m ok with that. I’m not a news automaton, I’m not even a story telling automaton. I’m a person whose stories are shaped by my values, ethics, and dreams for the future. You have helped build that, but only I can steer it.

But all that said, please keep ‘em coming, I’d be lost without suggestions. I <3 you all.

P.S. If you’re a PR person trying to get me cover your product, it’s probably not going to happen. And honestly if you knew my work, I’m not sure you’d want it to. Might want to save us both the trouble there. Also, despite being named Quinn, I’m not a man.

1000 ledes n + 24: A Stone for Breaking Souls

The problem with betrayal is that it takes a long time to recognize if you’re not the sort that does it. Even then, it’s impossible to to take it in all at once, like fitting a strangely shaped and inscrutable stone into a place a little too small for it.

As with so many things, those who spot betrayal at once tend to be practitioners.