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On Margins is a podcast about making books and book-shaped things, hosted by Craig Mod.

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Sam Anderson (Part 2) — Pandemic Writing

Sam Anderson


Part two of our interview with award winning New York Times Magazine writer, Sam Anderson.

Full Transcript

Craig: You’re listening to On Margins. I’m Craig Mod, and this is season two, episode two. Sam Anderson is back. We got Sam back on the Zoom, and not only does Sam have even more cliches for you, but we unlocked together the key to success in life, and we share that key with you at some point during the conversation. I can’t tell you when. You got to listen to the whole dang thing, but it’s in there. Believe me.

Craig: This is the followup episode to episode one with Sam. If you haven’t listened to that, go do that and then come back here. I also just want sneak in a little plug here if you’ll let me. This podcast and really most of my work out there in the world is available for free, and that is made possible by my special projects membership program. So, if you dig this pod and you want to see more of pods like this in the world, consider joining at craigmod.com/membership. Thank you.

Craig: As for this episode, it was recorded 10 months after the first one in January 2021. Sam and I are reflecting on the weirdness and the stresses of those intervening months because they were heady. Just to give some context in case you are living in a bunker civilization some time in the future, which to be quite honest does not seem that farfetched to those of us living today in 2021. In 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic just refused to lit up. It got worse and worse and worse. The US was fumbling with vaccinations. Brexit finally happened over in Europe. Just weeks before our recording of this episode, the US Capitol was attacked by a mob, and then soon after, in a move reminiscing of locusts or frogs falling from the sky or blood raining down upon humanity in what can only be considered a clear portention of the impending end of the world.

Craig: GameStop, yes, GameStop, the favorite mall shop of time travelers till 1992 had won of the biggest, yes, biggest, craziest pops in the history of the US stock market. Unfortunately, we live in interesting times, but I believe Sam and I are hopeful. Sam, he was a pretty productive writer in 2020. We dig in to what it was like to shadow Weird Al Yankovic, what life was like inside the NBA bubble, how to smuggle a personal essay into bigger reporting pieces. Sam even sneaks in a few hard burns on Florida, and we talk about why describing a snowball fight in 19th century France is a perfect literary exercise. We hope you enjoy the chat.

Sam: Yeti stereo microphone, quality at maximum.

Craig: Test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test, test.

Sam: It’s recording, and it sounds like it’s going, and everything is right. I don’t know if we have anything else to talk about to be perfectly honest. We covered all of life. I guess the world changed around us in the meantime, huh?

Craig: With that, hello, Sam.

Sam: Hey, Craig. You said in the intro it’s been 18 months. Is that right?

Craig: Yeah. In the intro of the first of our two-part mega interview series, yeah. It’s been 18 months since I’ve released properly an episode of this pod, On Margins. It mainly just speaks to the pain of editing these things, where you have these waveforms and in you’re in an audition and you just see these squiggles. Quite frankly, it’s just not fun. It’s pretty painful.

Craig: So, there’s a new software that I got, which I’m not being sponsored by, but I would take a sponsorship from them because it’s expensive. It’s pretty amazing. It’s called Descript, and it uses, I don’t know, what a machine learning. What do all software use these days? Machine learning, AI. It uses some voodoo and it turns all the waveforms into text, and you can just edit the words and delete things and stuff is deleted. So, like last time, I deleted approximately 14,000 ums from your side of the recording, and it was pretty easy.

Sam: This is the second time you’ve burned me on my use of ums. Did you not? I thought you’re going to be like, “From both of our recordings,” because we’re normal humans who speak.

Craig: I don’t know. I was really paying attention, and I was pretty proud of myself. I have all these other horrible verbal ticks like not actually finishing a thought and jumping around a bit, but there were a lot of ums on your side, but anyway. So, why don’t we catch everyone up? That first episode of us chatting was recorded on March 22nd 2020 right when we had just entered the lockdown, and that just felt crazy. We’re in a lockdown. That’s crazy.

Sam: There was a real mellow dragging depressed vibe to that conversation, which I actually really enjoyed hearing, but it was notable. You could listen to that conversation on 1.5 speed, and it would just sound like a real normal human conversation. You’d be like, “Huh, those guys are really taking their time expressing themselves.” I remember once I said the word literature and it took eight seconds, I think.

Craig: It was slow because in March of last year, we’re like, “Well, we’re at the beginning of this, and it’s going to take a month or two,” and that felt weird like, “A month? Really? We’re going to have to be in this lockdown state for two months?”

Sam: Yeah, and then there were all those Armageddon predictions where it was like, “No. This could last through June,” and we’re like, “No. Come on.” Then you began to see that that was actually the case, and then you had this sci-fi thought that was like, “What if this lasted until September?” and then it was just all the most ridiculous, really fantastical notion, and then it did it. Then here we are in January and I feel like life might get back to normal in the fall or sort of normal in the fall. I feel like the pandemic will lift a little bit in the summer as it did last year, and then maybe we won’t come crashing down. It won’t ramp back up in the fall like it did. What do you think?

Craig: I think that’s a pretty optimistic and generous stake, for sure.

Sam: Yeah. You’re going to gree in it through next winter?

Craig: Well, I mean, I don’t want to sound like some kind of insane doomsday predictor, but my plan right now, it’s January 2021, and I don’t plan on going anywhere outside of Japan until spring of 2022 at the earliest. So, I assume at least 14 more or 15 more months of not being able to do easy international travel and things like the Olympics just feel completely a possible. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know how you logistically handle this. My heart goes out to these athletes who have been training since the beginning of their lives and these things keep getting pushed out, but even if you just think about the Tokyo Olympics in the context of hosting only the athletes, that alone is something like 100,000 people with all of the athletes and all of their trainers and their help and everything like that.

Craig: I don’t know. I just think that having that ready for July slash August, it feels really, really a big ask, especially considering people flying from almost every country in the world. So, in order to keep myself sane, I think part of what’s important about maintaining sanity is rationale expectations, and I’m just saying to myself, “Well, we’re just going to be in one place at least for the next year,” and that if we somehow have this magical ability to overcome things easily this year, then great. That’s just bonus, but my plan is you got to chill out. That said, you had a really productive 2020.

Sam: Yeah. I had a pretty productive 2020. Sure. Yeah. I did, I mean, some of it was just clearing out backlog, which we talked about in that old episode, how many stories I was sitting on. I remember saying I was sitting on some of these stories that should be the best thing I’ve ever written. One of those was the story of the last two Northern White rhinos, which was just recently published. Oh, and another one was the profile of Weird Al Yankovic, which came out in April, I think, so after we spoke.

Craig: Yeah. That came out in April. I just went back over all the stuff you were working on, and you had Weird Al and you had the NBA bubble, and you had the rhinos, basically.

Sam: Yeah. Those were my big features, and then I had a couple little things that hit and got a lot of attention and made people happy, which I wrote a little Screenland column, which is an analysis of some video that’s circulating on the web about this 1897 film of French people throwing snowballs at each other, that had been digitally smoothed and all the things we can do, colorize and everything, and went viral. So, I wrote this play-by-play analysis of the French snowball fight, which was really fun.

Sam: That was an interesting assignment because it’s a column that runs every week in the magazine, Screenland. This one was a weird one because it was going to be written and completely closed before the US presidential election, and it will be published immediately after the presidential election. So, they were like, “You really have to. We need a special subject that really threads the needle and feels relevant without being tied to any particular political outcome that everyone is going to be talking about.”

Sam: So, I came up somehow with this old timey French snowball fight, and it was really fun to write. It got a big response online because I think it came out the day after the election, and I said to my editor, “Well, I mean, I think it’s pretty good, but, literally, not a human soul is going to read this thing.”

Sam: Then she texted me later in the day and said it’s the number one most read thing on the New York Times right now, which, yeah. I think they included little gifts, little looping gifts that were actually on the homepage of the New York Times, so you could see the French people pelting each other as you’re scrolling down. I think that was irresistible for people to click.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, anything last year that was a blip of joy of the moment, I think that was irresistible, anything that got us away from the crippling reality in front of our eyes.

Sam: Right, right. It had a very clickbaity headline. It was something like, “Watch this 1897 snowball fight for a pure jolt of joy,” or something. Sometimes the editors give you that little gift.

Craig: Well, it was this funny thing because it’s just describing very accurately something that’s visual, that you’re just looking at, and it’s so much harder to do that in sounds.

Sam: It’s such a fun exercise. I love doing it. I love writing texts that goes next to photo essays. I love, and I did this a lot in Boom Town, my book that we discussed, I did a lot of just watching basketball plays and just … You’ve got a 30-second clip of some incredibly dramatic decisive moment on which a whole civic destiny turns, and you sit down and watch it and you’re like, “Oh, yeah. That stuff happened,” and then to break it down into speech and articulate what’s going on and where the energy of the clip really is in a way that somehow verbally captures that energy and shoots it off to whoever is going to be reading it, it’s a really fun, weird challenge. I love doing it. Yeah. Just by watching the clip 100 times in a row, you just notice so many things that casually watching it you’d never see. It’s really fun.

Craig: Well, I had this experience in November firsthand with the work that I was doing. So, for folks on here that don’t follow my work, in November, I was doing this big walk across Japan, 700 kilometers, and my buddy John McBride had written a guidebook talking about the ancient road that I was walking on. In this guidebook, there were prints of all of the post towns that I was walking through, and there were these woodblock prints by Hiroshige, and the chapters in the guidebook all began with these really specific redescriptions of what you were looking at in the print.

Craig: At first, I was like, “This is weird. You can just see all the stuff. You’re looking at it.” It felt almost brail or something that’s being added to the print, to the guidebook, but the more I read, the more realize that a really accurate description of a thing that you’re looking at is so valuable, and it starts to reveal all of these other layers and richness of cultural action or strange signaling that you would miss otherwise if you’re just looking at the image.

Craig: A lot of times, you don’t look deeply or at the details of an image. You scan over it. So, while probably a bunch of people saw that French snowball fight, it made the rounds as a viral video, your description of it was so accurate and funny and entertaining and compassionate that I think many people probably saw it again as they say for the first time. It’s literally just that act of describing that it’s so powerful.

Craig: It’s actually a really good writing hack. If you’re stuck and words aren’t flowing for you, just pick a piece of art that you’re interested in. Pick a photograph. Pick a scene from a film. Freeze the frame and just start writing out what you’re seeing in the most accurate way you possibly can muster.

Sam: Absolutely. That’s a great writing hack. Yeah. Words are magic. Words are really magic. They add so much. You can take a TikTok video, and you think the TikTok video is the end in itself. You don’t need any gloss on that, but you absolutely do. It’s so much funnier if you can articulate what is embarrassing or weird or impressive about what that person is doing. That is a great hack.

Sam: If you’re stuck on something, especially if you’re trying to do a project, yeah, just put a picture of your subject in front of you and just sit down and say, “Okay. Describe visually this person for someone who has no idea who they are,” or “Watch this 10-second clip and just write down what happens,” and in writing down the details, you start to understand what’s some interesting about it.

Craig: Well, I think part of the trick of being successful is to bring compassion to that description. It’s like you don’t pick something and then just rip it apart and say how horrible it is or how disgusting something is or whatever. George Saunders in a lot of his interviews brings up this idea of asking the question, “… and then what? … and then what? Why? Why? Why did the character feel this way? Okay. Then why they did feel that way? Okay. So, what led to that?”

Craig: There’s a digging process of observation where you’re looking at more and more granular detail about a person or a place, and the more you do that, the easier it is to construct this empathy around the subject. I think that’s where you find pretty incredible writing, and that’s where work that really moves you I think comes from, at least personally that’s what I’ve found to be a pretty common pattern.

Craig: I think that’s especially true in profiles, folks. I think you’ve done a great job of that in a lot of your profiles even this morning. I was rereading that Weird Al profile, and there are just details and moments in that where I was eating my eggs and I just started crying.

Sam: You cried?

Craig: Yeah. There’s something about the kindness of what was coming out in that profile that was just so moving to me.

Sam: Weird Al was supposed to be the cover story back in April 2020, and that just became impossible, especially given the art that the brilliant photo people at the Times Magazine had worked so hard. My colleague Amy Kelner worked for weeks and weeks and weeks, and months and months and months to set up this bananas photo shoot of Weird Al standing in front of I think it was 250 maybe, hundreds of people dressed up like Weird Al, like vintage 1980s Weird Al with wigs and everything and fake mustaches and big glasses. This was just the most crushingly difficult logistical challenge of anyone’s life to make this thing happen, and she made it happen.

Sam: That was going to be the big cover shoot and everyone was holding these signs that said, “It’s a weird, weird, weird world,” and it was going to be the coolest cover ever, and then COVID hit, and crowds became toxic. People wearing Hawaiian shirts talking about how weird things were became not so funny and so it ran inside the magazine. It wasn’t the big cover we hoped for, but I think it did resonate on a different level in that time in April 2020. I think it touched people in a way that it probably wouldn’t have in normal life.

Sam: So, I think I played up that strand of Weird Al as a kid, total nerd, socially awkward, bullied forever, super smart, and just trapped by himself in this tiny room that became his whole world. I think I really played up that people yearning for connection, trapped in tiny rooms thread.

Craig: Well, and your description of that show, to me, really hit home. It got to the core of what can be so crushing about this, this extended isolation because you wrote about that show. You wrote, “Weird Al had pulled off a strange emotional trick. He had brought the isolated energy of all our tiny rooms into this one big public space. When he left stage, we stopped for more, and he came back and played Yoda, his classic revision of The Kinks Lola, and then he left again, and I decided that this was the single best performance of any kind that I had ever seen in my life.”

Sam: It was transcendent. It was so great. I remember I had a plus one, and I remember thinking about inviting Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of the magazine who was a big skeptic about me writing a big profile of Weird Al Yankovic because … Why? Because this guy was huge in the ’80s and had a couple of blips of popularity since then, but why now? Who needs a profile of Weird Al?

Sam: I thought about inviting Jake because I heard Weird Al was great in concert. Then I thought that could be the world’s biggest disaster where Weird Al hobbles out as a 59-year-old man and plays his warmed over set of old parodies and the energy is bad and Jake is like, “I’m sorry. This piece is canceled,” or it’s 1,000 words long. So, I didn’t invite him. I brought my daughter instead, but at the end of the night it was, I mean, we were just flying high. We could not believe what we had seen. I mean, when the world reopens, I will see Weird Al in every tour that he does from now on for the rest of my life.

Craig: Well, and I think also what was making me emotional about the Weird Al is just it felt like no matter how you sliced him, he was undeniably forced for good.

Sam: I do agree with that. Yeah. I think he is a deeply good, thoughtful, beautiful-hearted man. I mean, he has human complexities like everybody, but I think he goes so far out of his way to be kind to everyone around him. It’s pretty amazing. The force behind his music is this celestial kindness behind all the silly goofiness. So, yeah, for sure, for sure.

Craig: Something I wanted to read a little bit more about the piece was his self-protection methods that he used on the tour bus.

Sam: Yeah. He’s a really interesting character in that the little boy isolated in his bedroom, that he was dying to get out of and connect with the world. He’s still that little boy isolated in his bedroom in the back of the tour bus. In some ways, I think that’s his comfort zone is being alone and being quiet, and binging TV shows and reading every comment about him on the internet. He has something like 5.2 million Twitter followers, and he reads every Twitter mention.

Craig: Really?

Sam: Yeah. I was like, “That sounds pretty crazy.”

Sam: He’s like, “Yeah, it’s crazy, but I do it.” He said, “I don’t really respond because that just opens a can of worms where who do I respond to and who I not respond to, but I read them all. Yeah.”

Craig: That’s something I would recommend to nobody ever.

Sam: No, no. I think it’s deeply unhealthy probably, especially when you’re a public figure and there’s just so much shit flying around. Although this may be true that just what he puts out in the world is such a radiating positivity that that’s pretty much what he gets back. I think they’re probably extremely nice mentions.

Craig: Well, the thing that struck me as an introvert myself is that I totally understand that need to recharge, and I totally get that sense of I need to protect my life force in order to be present and fully there on stage. That makes so much sense to me. I was just a little more curious about how he navigates messaging of that to everyone or if it’s just canon and everyone knows, “Okay. We’re on the bus. Leave Al alone. Just don’t mess with him between shows.”

Sam: It’s canon. Yeah. Everybody knows. Yeah. He has communicated that over the decades in the friendliest possible way. It’s just very matter of fact. Always very polite to whoever comes up to him, but everybody knows he would prefer not to be disturbed, and he’s also one of those guys who has surrounded himself with people he just trust deeply and who get him and get his project. So, I mean, he’s had the same band members since the early ’80s, and he’s only ever had one manager.

Craig: Well, and I think, too, what was striking in rereading the piece now is that there’s this purity, which in the last couple of years the sense of pure intention and goodness as it become amplified. My radar, for picking up on, has become amplified because of what’s been going on in the world.

Craig: There definitely feels like this element not to overpsychoanalyze or whatever, but of Al doing all of this work to bring joy to a childhood version of himself when he was 10 or 11 in his bedroom, and there’s something really I think incredibly about that impulse. I found this morning thinking about this weird parallel between Weird Al and Mr. Rogers that I had never thought about before.

Sam: Yeah, for sure, for sure. There’s a saintliness and a monastic devotion to this very improbable artistic enterprise with a deep morality at its heart, and they’re both extremely White. I mean, extremely White cultural products of White America.

Craig: It’s true. It’s true.

Sam: Yeah. There’s a real parallel between those two. They both turn what could easily have been faults or whatever into the nuclear core of their career and talent and connection to the world. Mr. Rogers, I’ve never seen it adequately explored. What a weirdo that guy was. There’s that documentary about him that everybody loved, and I came away a little bit disappointed by it because I thought it might get a little bit deeper into … Did you see that documentary? Yeah. The one where he revealed that he weighs himself every single day and he’s always exactly the same weight, and he loves it because there’s some numerology involved. His weight translates to the letters ILY, which stands for I love you, right? It was something like that.

Sam: That just suggests a whole deep archeology, psychogeography that could have been excavated, but I don’t know. I mean, that was the theme of the Weird Al piece was we’re all a bunch of ridiculous weirdos, who are all warped in various ways around whatever childhood problems we had to deal with and all these violence that was done to us by the world and some of us are more charmed than others, but we’re all damaged in various ways, and it makes us all vulnerable weirdos.

Sam: If that’s something that we can connect over, then that is such a powerful thing because that goes so deep in everybody. Even the president of the United States is not a perfectly balanced, normal person.

Craig: Well, we could circle back to that in a second, but one thing that was also interesting about that Weird Al piece is that you inject quite a bit of yourself into it, and I’m curious, when did that enter the writing process? Was there an early draft that that personal history entered into or was that something you felt you needed to add later on, that bit about your own weirdness and struggles?

Sam: My bed wetting?

Craig: Yeah, the bed wetting and-

Sam: Yeah, that felt very natural. Yeah. I feel like I’m always just trying to smuggle a personal essay into everything that I write, whether it’s a book review or really anything, a profile of someone else because that’s the engine of my interest in the world is what I’ve gotten through. So, I feel like the form of the personal essay does a really cool thing where you can get so particular about yourself and then somehow you get so particular that you bounce out the other side and it becomes totally universal, and I love that, and I love doing that.

Sam: So, there’s really, yeah. So, nothing that’s happened in your life is meaningless or is wasted. You can always write about it in a way that somebody else will identify with, and it just feels really cool. So, yeah, that felt really natural to do in the Weird Al piece. In a way, it was the strategy for, I don’t know, answering the skepticism of someone like Jake Silverstein who was like, “Why are we writing about Weird Al?” That’s just one way of answering that question like, “This is why we’re writing about Weird Al because it goes this deep in me and all these other people, too.”

Craig: Right. So, was that there from an early draft? Do you remember when?

Sam: I think it was. I think there was that line. The section starts, “Once upon a time there was a boy who wet his bed.” I think that line just was one of those that just fell from the ceiling and I had it, and I knew that was a section. Weird Al wrote me a very funny note, a really wonderful lovely note, I mean, an hour after the piece came out or something. I think he stayed up all night waiting for the piece to come out online and read it, and wrote me a really wonderful email. One of the things he said was like, “I was just so relieved to find out that the boy who wet his bed was not me.” I think he read the beginning of that section and like, “Oh, my God! Where is this going?”

Craig: Yeah. I mean, even the second time through I was just like, “Wait. Was this Sam or was this Al?” You don’t reveal it until a few paragraphs in, but I could see how Al would have been worried about you finding some secret about him that he didn’t even know himself. How old were you while all that was happening, while the peeing was happening?

Sam: I want to say 10, 11 or something like that. I think maybe nine. I have a hazy memory of the specifics of it, but I just remember it was a haunting thing that it’s like there’s this very particular feeling of essentially committing a crime while you’re unconscious. I can still feel it sometimes when this will go in the TMI file of this podcast, Cutting Room Floor, but when I go and pee in a normal way, there’s this weird psychic overlap that sometimes can happen, which is the sensation of it. I can suddenly feel that childhood feeling of, “Oh, no. I’m going in my pants,” and I can just feel exactly what that feels like, and I have to remind myself like, “No. I’m just a grownup guy. I’m just going in this urinal over here. It’s fine.” It’s still in there psychically and that sucks to wake up and realize that you’ve done something. When you’re a kid, that just feels horrible and shameful. It’s a bummer, and there’s no volition.

Craig: Yeah. Whew! I mean, in a way, in a weird way, this whole pandemic and the lockdown feels like a global bed wetting in a sense like this is also not of our volition either. It’s just this horrible situation we keep waking up in. We’re still locked down now, and in the middle of last year’s ongoing pandemic, the NBA ran their little bubble in Disney World. It was successful, and you went and lived in that bubble for two weeks.

Sam: Two weeks, yeah.

Craig: Man, you got some pretty good hard burns on Florida at the beginning of that piece.

Sam: Did I? I’m always burning Florida. My brother lives there. I’m just like, “This place is trash. This place is just like every bad human instinct, every bad thing about America and urban planning just went wild in Florida, and it’s disgusting. Fix it.’ Humans shouldn’t even be there. I mean, humans in modern America informed with this rigid concrete infrastructure should just not be in Florida.

Sam: Anyway, so, yeah, I have some burns about Florida. I mean, how could you not? It’s Disney World. It’s one of the most absurd unforgivable blights on the earth ecologically, economically. It’s Disney World.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, Disney World in my mind is known as the true noble of the south. So, it’s not that bad.

Sam: The infrastructure, the waste, it’s awful. It’s truly the worst of America just in terms of treating the environment, and the prioritization of resources and land use, and everything. I mean, it’s indefensible, and as an American, I love it. We go there with my family. My children love it. They keep saying, one of their refrains over the last year has just been like, “Oh, I really want to go to Disney World. I wish we could go to Disney World,” because we go there, I don’t know, once every couple of years or something. Somehow that happened.

Sam: I remember my very first trip walking in as this sour New York intellectual and a black turtleneck metaphorically smoking a French cigarette or something that is ready to be so disgusting. Yeah. Exactly. Instead, I was completely disarmed by the power of corporate capitalism and just loved it. I mean, it was just like it’s irresistibly great. If you’re in the Disney World bubble, I mean, it’s a great American bubble even in regular times. If you’re in there and you’re in a receptive American state of mind, consumerist state of mind, and you can just let all that other stuff that I was just ranting about, go, which they make it very easy to do, then it’s so fun and so wonderful, and we had such a great time, and I hate it. On a deeper level, I hate it, and I love it so much. I mean, it’s a perfect American thing. That’s just what it means to live in a culture and to be an American and to be a critical thinker as well.

Sam: Yeah. That place shouldn’t exist. What they’ve done to the native habitat, the swamps, I mean, it’s awful. The water, ugh. Anyway, so into the NBA bubble, I mean, yeah, the burns on Florida are just very, they come from deep within me.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, they’re also layups.

Sam: Yeah. I mean, it’s an easy place to burn.

Craig: Not to harp on the burns on the intro, but what I thought was nice about that introduction and what you captured and perhaps maybe will be one of the bits that when we look back on this moment maybe we understand how intense the feeling was, but your image that you paint of yourself, where you’re sitting there with two masks on and you’ve Cloroxed, disinfected all the surfaces and the windows are down, and the heat and the disgustiness of Florida is flying in and trying to wash off the virus.

Craig: It feels now maybe a little bit overly paranoid in the sense of I think we have a better understanding of how the virus works, and that it’s about viral load versus exposure time, and really I think in that environment of a car with all the windows open, you’d be fine. You probably didn’t need to have your masks on or whatever, but I do think as a anthropological bit of history, it’s a fascinating part of that introduction.

Sam: Yeah. I had a whole protocol sheet from the New York Times that told me to do all that stuff. So, I just did it. My wife could not believe I was going on this bubble trip. I just said, “Well, it’s literally a once in a lifetime-”

Craig: Hopefully, hopefully just once.

Sam: Hopefully. I mean, it will always be the first. So, in that sense, once in a lifetime, and I’ll take every precaution and et cetera, et cetera. So, I did it. Yeah. It was pretty freaky. Then this junction between all of that and driving into Disney World, driving through the cheerful arch welcoming me to Disney World that, again, I’ve driven through so many times with my family on some of the most fun trips we’ve ever had. That whiplash was pretty intense, and then living this completely bizarre isolated hotel room life quarantining in this luxury hotel on a golf course and then getting out of that and riding this bus to watch NBA players play in tiny weird arenas that were a two-minute walk. You’d watch one game, all these superstars, and then you walk two minutes and go tip off at another game with all these other NBA superstars. Yeah. It was wild.

Craig: Considering you’re such a big fan of the NBA, was it in some ways a dream experience, a really surreal dream experience to have that density of talent all right there? How many games a day were you watching, three, four, five games?

Sam: Four games a day, yeah, and it was really, I mean, yes, the spectacle of it, the talent and intelligence and everything you can love about a professional sport on display was so amazing and fun to watch and then very quickly, it just became like eating 500 cakes in a row and it’s like you’re eating cake for every meal and I’m like, “Why am I still doing this?” I was so happy when I left. Yeah. I started going really crazy in the bubble. I mean, time just got all disjointed. I mean, it was a more extreme version of what everyone was going through in their own little bubbles just with this parade of NBA stuff happening in front of me.

Craig: How long were the players in the bubble?

Sam: They were there, I mean, the Lakers who won the championship were in the bubble for like three months, something like that, July, August, I think end of July, all of August, September, and part of October. So, yeah, probably three-ish months. They were living in a little bit different circumstances than me, but by all accounts, it was just completely alienating for everybody and just emotionally draining. I’ve never been more exhausted. All the stupid reporting trips I’ve ever done, all the extreme thing, the 20-mile walk in Oklahoma City, whatever, all the dumb things I’ve done where I just stay up multiple days and I’ve never been more exhausted than I was on this bubble trip, just sitting in the darkness at the edge of an arena watching this brightly lit games one after the other after the other after the other and going back to my hotel room at midnight. It was bizarre. It was bizarre.

Sam: I mean, in fan, I wouldn’t say I’m really a huge NBA fan. I am a fan of the Portland Trailblazers. So, those games were special. Those games I was a weird little boy, weird little middle-aged boy with a big beard jumping up and down trying to look professional, and then there’s five of us watching the game, and I was like … So, that part was actually really fun. I got to just be an excited little kid.

Sam: Yeah, but I never want to do that again. I was so relieved. Then every time we watched a game, my son is getting into basketball. He’s 13 now. When I came home, we would turn a game on and they would show the exterior shot of this bizarre abandoned sports complex in the middle of Disney World where the arenas were, and I’d be like, “That’s where I would walk out of the bus and go to eat a Mickey bar between games.” I just had this powerful sense of relief. I’m so glad I’m not in the bubble anymore. I still feel that. I’m so glad I’m in this closet and not in that freaking NBA bubble right now.

Craig: Creatively, last year, we started talking in March right after the lockdown happened, and we’re talking about that weird dilation of time and not knowing if we should change our pajamas or not and your kids weren’t going to school and what does anything mean in the world anymore.

Sam: That conversation felt novel in that moment.

Craig: No, it did felt like we just discovered double helix or something. So, what was your experience in the end last year creatively? How long did it take you to dig in to a schedule and to start getting work done properly? What was that vibe like of your working process in the middle of everything last year?

Sam: It was a real struggle early on. I actually got very depressed I would say in April, and I was actually supposed to be writing a big introductory essay in a special issue the magazine was doing about the pandemic and about quarantine. I had this vision. I had this really grandiose vision that I was going to write this defining cultural criticism portrait of America in quarantine, and it would be like that crazy book Within The Context of No Context, but it would be about … Have you read that? Oh, it’s a really good slim little book that ran in the New Yorker in the ’80s or ’90s.

Sam: So, I wanted to write something like that and I started writing all these big thoughts and nothing that I wrote was working. I was having a lot of trouble focusing. I was not exercising. I was eating really gross bad food. I was eating a lot of chips. I couldn’t get any essayistic strands to cohere. My wonderful editor Sasha was just like, “Yeah, this is not working at all.”

Sam: I was like, “Okay. I’ll work on it a couple more days. I’ll take it in a different direction.” I said, “None of this is working in any way.” It was shocking and terrible. It was one of the worst writing experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve had a real Mountain Rushmore of bad writing experiences, but this was at the top of them all. So, it got to closing week. The whole issue was closing. Everyone else had managed to write their essays, and I was supposed to write this signature huge essay at the beginning, and nothing was working. I couldn’t make it happen.

Sam: I was playing a lot of animal crossing. Finally, I threw everything away on Tuesday of closing week, which is just obscene and not done. I was like, “I’m going to write a completely new thing.” Sasha and I talked it through, and I hit on this idea of the cocoon, and I started writing about cocoons. I started looking at the very hungry caterpillar and thinking about eating chips and all that stuff. I ended up writing this modest little essay about cocoons and what happens to caterpillars inside cocoons.

Sam: I remember that was the thought. I was like, “I need a central metaphor here,” and I was thinking about actually hibernating turtles, which I know is something I talked about in our previous conversation about how I have this ability to dive into the mud at the bottom of the pond and stay there for months or years and turtle away from the world. So, I was going to write about that in the context of quarantine.

Sam: Then somehow I started thinking about caterpillars, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what happens to a caterpillar inside a cocoon. Is it a magical, wonderful process or maybe it’s different than how I imagine it? You imagine if it starts filling up with glitter and then it starts sparkling and then the wings grow, and then it’s all very beautiful. So, I just started Googling around and doing some reading about what actually happens, and it turns out it’s quite disgusting, and horrible, and perfect for my writing purposes about quarantine.

Sam: So, I wrote this whole essay about cocoons and the destruction of caterpillars and metamorphosis and I think it turned out pretty well. I got a lot of really great feedback on that piece, but that piece, I mean, cocoon-like, it came out of the horrible melting destruction of me as a writer and my failure to write anything that would work for the magazine.

Craig: When you say you were going back and forth with your editor and they were like, “Hey, man. Sam, we love you, but this just isn’t working,” what were you trying and what was failing about it? What wasn’t quite coherent?

Sam: I think part of what I was doing was I think I was making an argument for incoherence. I was like, “We’re living in an incoherent time right now,” and I can’t pretend to write something that coheres. So, I’m going to write this thing in a lot of different pieces that will add up to something about our time. So, it was a little bit of an experimental weirdo thing I was trying. It just wasn’t doing the adding up.

Sam: I remember I was really into the idea of there were no stable surfaces anymore. Surfaces were melting off each other, and everyone just felt very displaced. I remember I was really into this metaphor of one of the signature feelings of early quarantine to me was, of course, the hand washing, which we’re doing all the time, scrubbing in like doctors whenever we touch anything, and so then your hands were raw and sometimes bleeding. So, then you would put lotion on your hands, and then, of course, three minutes later, you go to wash your hands again. That feeling of washing your hands with soap while you still had lotion that had yet to be fully absorbed into your skin and this sliding over sliding and not being able to find what … I really like that image.

Sam: So, I was trying stuff with that, and I was writing about animal crossing, and just tiger king, I think, all the early quarantine stuff. It just wasn’t adding up or it just wasn’t doing it. So, in the end, I wrote a much more traditional little essay with a much tighter focus.

Sam: One funny thing is that as a framing device, the narrator of my big sprawling quarantine essay, the essay started with me inviting the reader to sit down and binge, and stress to eat a bag of chips with me. It was this second person, “Oh, hello there. Join me. Have a seat. Let’s eat some chips together.” That became this set piece that I ended up throwing away and never thinking about again, but one of the editors of the magazine, Bill Wasik, was like, “I really love this chip stuff, and I think we should use it sometime down the road.”

Sam: So, I didn’t even do anything. I forgot about it, and then many, many months later, in December, I got an email that was like, “Hey, we edited this thing that you wrote about chips into something to run in the letter of recommendation column in the magazine.” I said, “Great.” Letter of recommendation, eating chips. So, that was the narrative voice of my quarantine essay that just got rescued and run as a letter of recommendation just about eating chips. People went crazy for that, and it got many, many hundreds of comments online, and everyone emailed me about their favorite chip.

Craig: Oh, that’s interesting to reframe that piece as something that came out just a few weeks into the pandemic because in my mind, just having it just come out recently, it feels like a pandemic stage piece.

Sam: No. That was April, I think. That was me being depressed and sitting around eating a lot of chips and trying to write my way out of it, and I wrote all that in my journal as just like a flyer, just like a free writing exercise, and typed it up, and polished it up, and whatever, and that ended up coming out, yeah, at the end of the year.

Craig: No. I mean, it’s great. The whole thing is hilarious. Really, what seals it for me is the title, where it’s just called I Recommend Eating Chips.

Sam: It’s so stupid. I love that letter of recommendation column, which was actually my wife’s idea, and has been a huge success in the magazine.

Craig: Well, what else have you recommended?

Sam: I have recommended, yeah, I love messing with the form, messing with the boundaries of what can be recommended because I wrote a previous one that was I recommend looking out the window. It’s all about looking out the window, and it turns into this little vignette about this time I fell asleep in my chair in my office and woke up to a loud crash and looked out the window and saw a guy who just crashed his car into a fence across the street. Then I watched this whole weird human drama unfold, where he appeared to be just driving away and leaving this fence in shambles, but he actually ended up parking his car and rebuilding the fence and improving the fence. It was really amazing. It was just the worst crappiest chain-linked fence, and he went and rebuilt it and reinforced it with other parts. It was really a triumph of the human spirit.

Sam: So, I wrote this essay on recommending looking out the window. I wrote the kickoff column for the letter of recommendation column in the magazine, and it was recommending Tusk, the album by Fleetwood Mac, their 1979 double album Tusk, the one that came out after Rumours. So, that was my first letter of rec, but I’ve written a whole bunch of them. I did one about blind drawing.

Craig: You said you got a lot of comments on that piece, a lot of positive feedback. I think the humor and what you’re getting at writing about this chips instance, this shameful thing that probably a lot of us in the pandemic are doing, I definitely ate some boxes of crackers and whatever in a fury in ways that I wouldn’t normally do. These are things that people don’t go on Twitter and proclaim. So, to have the New York Times put that up on their front page is a weird, powerful permission to not be ashamed of the thing and, in fact, to embrace it.

Sam: Yeah, I think so. It’s so funny, too, because the week before that chips thing came out, I published one of my big long features about these two rhinos. It was an 8,000-word feature that took me over a year to finish writing. It involved a trip to Kenya for a week and a million interviews and just all of the things that story involves. Then this stupid chips thing came out the week following, and got more comments, and it just felt like it got as much attention or more.

Sam: It just made me think about who I am and what I do, and I was like, “You know how many essays I could write that are just eating chips, that are just, I don’t know, anything? I could write hundreds, thousands of these essays, and maybe I should be doing that more,” because, I mean, it’s fun. I love personal essays like that. I love writing about, again, it’s like we were saying earlier. I love articulating just normal trivial things and heightening them a little bit into almost a prose poem about eating chips. I mean, that is this tradition of writing that I really, really love. So, maybe I should be doing more of that.

Craig: That to me sounds like a Substack, sounds like a newsletter in the making there, Sam.

Sam: Yeah. I feel like I miss that wave.

Craig: I don’t know. That’s what people who are-

Sam: Okay. Here we go. Here comes a burn. Here comes a burn. What kind of people say that, Craig? Tell me who I am.

Craig: You know who says that?

Sam: Who?

Craig: Who says that? Losers say that, Sam.

Sam: Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.

Craig: Oh, no, no, no, no. I mean, the people who say that are often the people who miss out on the real bump because they mistake that initial bump for the real bump, and then what happens is that you have the rocket lift off afterwards, and you could be on that rocket, Sam. The I recommend X newsletter could be a million bucks a year.

Sam: Might not start a newsletter.

Craig: Well, that’s probably just part. You do, you do have a staff writing job.

Sam: I mean, I do have a staff writing job, but, but, but, but I would like a way to harvest these little blurps of energy, these little creative off-gassing that happens just everyday constantly. I’m always reading stuff and thinking stuff. I’ve told you this. I really admire you for you have all these different outlets and Substacks within Substacks. It’s cool and it feels fun, and your livestream boring office hours, and all those things. I feel I could do something like … I could clack on my typewriter and set up a camera on what I’m typing and make people watch it. Is that how it works?

Craig: Speaking of which, how much email do you get about these pieces?

Sam: It feels like a lot to me. I actually just hired a part-time assistant to help me deal with my email because there’s such a backlog of it. I mean, no. I think for a normal human, they would be at inbox zero without breaking a sweat. In my situation, I think I have a email disability. So, I don’t know. The chips piece, I don’t know, four or five or six or seven a day or something, but they’re really nice, enthusiastic emails that I want to give a really nice response to, and those are the kinds that end up getting snowed under by all the other email, and then you don’t respond, and suddenly it’s like a year later and you feel like it’s your-

Craig: Yeah, I mean, we talked about this on a personal call we had the other day. We were saying how when someone sends you a 2,000-word essay about how your work has affected them, and you’re like, “Okay. I have to respond in kind to this or I’m a complete turd,” and then you don’t do it, and you feel worse, so it’s this endless ecochamber of shame that just keeps building.

Sam: I have an assistant who now everyday puts a little batch of emails with stars that have come in that I need to respond to, and then also makes a separate list of nice emails that people have sent me about my writing that I’m handling basically two or three a day. He’s excavating things from months ago and many, many months ago and just exactly the kind of note you’re talking about. It’s so wonderful. So, I’ve been starting, and it’s very doable if you do them two a day, and I’ve been starting a lot of emails. It’s just like, “This is such a lovely email.” I put it in my special response file and it just got completely avalanched by horrible other things, and I’ve just now excavated it, and thank you so much.

Craig: I was telling you about my strategy and you’re suspicious of my strategy. I know you don’t like it, but I was talking to another friend who gets a lot of email. He’s written a bunch of books, and he gets a ton, ton, ton of correspondence. He told me that he literally responds to every single email, and he does it not by sending a big essay back to each one and his philosophy was that most people aren’t so narcissistic or delusional that they think that you’re going to respond with a 2,000-word essay to their 2,000-word essay, right?

Craig: So, most folks don’t expect a response at all. So, if you just say, “Hey, thank you so much for taking the time to right in. I read this, and I’m letting you know I read it, and it means a lot to me,” and I think that alone is a totally valid response. It’s a great response. I think that you can preempt the expectation on the part of emailers.

Craig: For example, on my website, I say that I read everything, but I’m really bad at responding. In fact, I think I’ve preempted it to such a degree that I’d say roughly half of all the fannish email I get finishes with, “I implore you. You do not need to respond to this email. Don’t worry about responding.”

Sam: That’s so great. It really is such a gift when somebody says that to you and you respond immediately, right?

Craig: Right. Those are the only ones that you respond to because you’re like, “This person is so emotionally intelligent and so self-lawyer.” It’s like, “I can respond to that.”

Sam: Yeah. The way to get a response is to be like at the end be like, “Don’t you dare respond to this, Craig. Your time is so valuable, you motherfucker. If you put one finger on your keyboard and respond to this, I will be so disappointed in you.”

Craig: Yeah, no. It’s exactly it. It’s the anti-email gets the response. You’re like, “I appreciate that. Thank you.”

Sam: Now that I am actually responding to everybody, number one, it’s a hell of a lot of work to answer your email everyday. It’s so much work. I liked my life way better a month ago before I had this assistant who is staying on top of me and making sure I get to inbox zero everyday. It’s just too much work, and it’s a hassle. I prefer not responding, but, of course, the grownup part of me actually likes the feeling of having responded.

Sam: You know what’s kind of a pet peeve? Anyone out there listening to this podcast who’s about to email me about how much they loved the podcast and when I yelled at Craig and kept interrupting him is when people email and say, “I love what you wrote, blah, blah, blah. I would love to just hop on the phone and just talk to you on the telephone for 15 or 20 minutes or something.” I mean, I’m not special or famous or cool or anything, but that feel presumptuous. That feels like leaping a boundary that exists for a reason. I’m a text guy. I’m out there in my words and I’ll exchange some words with you, but getting on the phone freaks me out.

Craig: Yeah.

Sam: You can totally get the impulse, which is a wonderful thing, and we’ve all had that thought, and I still have that thought. I read a book by an author and I think, “We’re best friends now. When we meet, we will hug for 30 seconds without saying a word.”

Craig: Yeah, a 30-second wordless hug would be a little bit creepy, but it’s a weird correspondence to get because on one hand, you’re honored. You’re honored that someone feels so connected to you and your work that they want to hang out with you or get on the phone or whatever. It’s like, “That’s pretty cool,” but on the other hand, you feel like there has to be a buildup. There has to be a couple of emails before you breach that line.

Sam: Yeah. I mean, that is the power of writing is that you’re teleporting your consciousness into their consciousness, and it’s such an intimate inside the head, soul, spirit connection that you can see why someone would leap over the normal social guard rails because that’s not the kind of interaction you’re having when you’re writing and reading. It’s disappointing to imagine your favorite writers as people who just, I don’t know, put their napkin on their lap before they start eating at a restaurant and then engage in small talk. It sucks.

Craig: So, I feel hesitant to even bring this up, but I feel like we have to considering what’s happened in the last couple of weeks, but with this new administration, creatively, psychically, is there a palpable shift you’ve felt in the last week or so?

Sam: Yeah. I feel lighter. I feel, yeah, a 10% happiness boost. I mean, there’s a certain static has left the air, certain static of distraction and worry has left the air of just the knowledge that malevolent forces have gained a lot of power and are actively finding ways to use it against goodness. I mean, that’s still going on, of course. That’s one of the stories of society, but they don’t have as much power as they had a week ago. Yeah, it’s a pretty good feeling, I would say.

Sam: Then you’ve got, as everyone will tell you, all the giant systemic ongoing crimes are still fully in place and cranking forward. I think there were definitely … I definitely over this last year in particular have been struggling with outbursts of rage, and trying to figure out what to do with that, and had an infamous work meeting where I went off and shouted some things I should not have, had an infamous jog where I stopped to confront a man with some yard signs that I probably shouldn’t have done.

Sam: So, yeah, I mean, it does feel a little bit better. Although I still feel a deep steely, angry resolve to fight particularly the ongoing injustice of White supremacy in America, which is the volcano that keeps erupting and giving us little islands like Donald Trump, but the volcano is still down there and still belching out its magma. So, that’s something that writing the Oklahoma City book did to me. It radicalized me in a way I hadn’t been before because when you sit down to write about an American place, I didn’t go in thinking I would write much about race.

Sam: In fact, I remember some of my early trips to Oklahoma City, I remember asking various officials. I think I phrased it, “How are race relations here?” It’s a weird thing to ask anybody. It’s such, I don’t know, a PR term or something, and they were like, “Oh, they’re great.”

Sam: I was like, “Well, that’s wonderful.”

Sam: I knew there were various tensions and I would gloss over them, but the book became hugely about White supremacy and all of its institutional manifestations, and unavoidably so. I was stuck into it. I grew up in Oregon, which is an extremely historically White place, and I’ve since learned an aggressively White supremacist place. To me, growing up as a little kid there, I was like, “Oh, that’s just how it is here.” White people occur here just like Douglas fir trees grow here.

Sam: So, it took me a long time living in an American system that doesn’t want to teach you otherwise to learn what has really gone on in this country and how this country was shaped and what I always tell people in Oklahoma is you can’t understand this place without explicitly discussing White supremacy, in the same way that you can’t understand the physical world without discussing gravity. It shaped everything about this place.

Sam: So, Oklahoma gave me that, gave me a real gift of just … and it wasn’t that it was particularly Oklahoman. It was just sitting down to write and learn about an American place as deeply as you can. Unless you’re completely willfully blind to it, you’re going to uncover the power of White supremacy and how much it still exists.

Sam: So, I still feel like deeply radicalized about that and I’m trying to find ways because that’s not … I didn’t grow up thinking those thoughts, and I didn’t grow up having that as an interest. I thought writing about and thinking about race in the United States was a neat side interest in the same way you might study organic chemistry or something, but it wasn’t in the mainstream of Literature with a capital L as I wanted to do it. All of this is a constructional Whiteness, by the way. It’s like you retire into this unworldly literary realm of pure thought. That’s just such a White fantasy.

Sam: So, anyway, my eyes were opened very late in my life, but I like to think of myself as a pretty, I don’t know, fair-minded, justice-minded person. So, once I started reading all that and really absorbed it, it just made me furious on very deep levels and as a White person, it made me feel, I don’t know too many complex contradictory emotions to describe out loud here on this podcast.

Sam: So, I’m still carrying that with me as I go. So, I think of all this, all the Trump stuff and the Biden stuff through that lens, and I’m working on some projects now where I think I get to write about all of that more explicitly and more about Whiteness explicitly, which is a subject that fascinates me because Whiteness is something that you and I have talked about this a lot, about other things, but Whiteness is a subject that is designed to be invisible in American life, to be the default setting for everything in mainstream American life. American culture makes it for White people very easy to stay in that world and to be invisible to themselves, to not even realize what their Whiteness means or what it grants them.

Sam: So, that’s always been what I do as a writer is take things that no one is looking at and make them see it or take things that are so familiar to us that we take them for granted, and to articulate it in a way that makes it feel strange and makes you understand where it came from and how it operates in your life. It’s just like what Roland Barthes does when he writes about wine, wine versus milk or soap commercials or whatever. It’s just classic cultural criticism stuff. I want to do that with Whiteness. So, anyway, I’ve got a project I’m cooking up on that that I’m excited about.

Sam: So, I mean, that’s where a lot of my anger goes into that, and trying to, I don’t know, there’s a sense in which I would proceed cheerfully propelled by absolute rage. So, that’s where I’m at, but it does feel less. It does feel less staticky now than it did in the Trump years.

Craig: Right, like something’s come unstuck, like these wheels and gears that were not moving for four years are starting to maybe move again.

Sam: Yeah. Some kind of normalcy has been reasserted and it turns out that that normalcy was incredibly important and powerful, and is the platform on which we can stand to do the work that needs to be done, I think, rather than just having this malevolent force like trying to destroy the platform itself that we can’t even stand on to try to begin to fix all the real huge problems that really will take all of the brain power and willpower and goodness that humanity has to solve.

Sam: I mean, it’s like everything is so hard. Everything is so hard even if everyone is acting in absolute good faith, and at the edge of their abilities. It’s all so hard. You’re going to come along to start throwing mud at people and tripping them from behind for no reason and then trying to enrich yourself and just classic human malevolence. It’s always been around.

Craig: Yeah. I mean, my feeling is this sense of a breach of trust. That’s where I, when I trace back my sense of anger and I definitely also feel so much anger, especially in these last few weeks more and more palpably, I trace it back to that trust breaching, which is I think for a lot of people that goes back to childhood, that there’s something really atavistic about the sense of having an authority figure or whatever breaking trust. That’s something that I think from which anger flows quite naturally, and what’s important is figuring out how to transmute that into something positive and something additive.

Craig: I feel like I’m able to use this engine of anger and when I feel slighted now and I think the last four years have helped me build up this muscle like when I feel slighted or I feel like there’s a depressive or negative force or someone coming at me with anger or frustration or violence, I can move in such a way that I take that energy coming towards me and use it for output, which I think is really important. I feel good about having gotten to that place or gotten better at getting to that place. I still don’t get to it all the time.

Sam: Anger is loaded with information and energy, I think. It’s an Audre Lorde sentence I read recently. Anger is loaded with information and energy. So, we can use it as fuel. It’s good stuff.

Craig: Well, you could use that energy to just perhaps do something.

Sam: Oh, are we getting to our motto, our new motto that we discovered? The Zen koan?

Craig: Well, I mean, we have to end on something uplifting after touching the live wire of that administration.

Sam: I do have a few mottos that I decided I wanted to hold on to in 2020 and bring in to 2021. So, I’ve got them with me. One is from Audre Lorde, who I read in the NBA bubble. I brought a stack of books to read. I read her book Sister Outsider in my hotel room. I think this is a fairly famous sentence of hers, but it just really hit me so deep on so many levels, and it’s just, “Your silence will not protect you,” which to me is we’ve talked a lot about how I could not write forever, and I could disappear, and I could never say anything, and I could just be Mr. Distant Quiet guy.

Sam: My dad who grew up surrounded by all kinds of dysfunction could just disappear into silence for hours and days. He was a deeply kind man, but that was one of the ways he I think dealt with things. I have that instinct, too. I can just go quiet. So, that sentence really hit me and I think about it all the time. “Your silence will not protect you.”

Sam: Okay. I’m overwhelmingly anxious about writing a draft or something. What am I going to do? I remind myself, “Your silence will not protect you. It’s not going to protect you from the anxiety of producing this draft. It’s actually going to make that worse. Not saying what you know about the subject is not going to protect you from writing badly about it. That’s not how you solve this problem either.” That’s one of my great fear is just writing badly about things.

Sam: Your silence will not protect you. It won’t save you from all the things you’re afraid of. Silence won’t do it. Not talking about Trump because you don’t want to get in trouble at work or something, it’s not going to protect you. Your silence will not. We’ve seen this with fascists throughout history. Your silence does not protect you.

Sam: So, I hold that one close and it applies … My wife is mad at me. I did something stupid, whatever. There’s some tension between me and a friend, whatever. Your silence will not protect you. Silence is not the thing. So, that to me, I mean, it’s very obvious, but it’s just extremely powerful and it’s so simple that I’ve been holding that one really close.

Sam: Then the other one is the other side of that coin, which is another super literary classic, which was the motto of Michel de Montaigne, the inventor of the essay in the 1500s in France, who retreated from public life to just write about what it’s like to be a human being in the world, and he wrote about the most trivial things, and the biggest philosophical questions and his guiding motto was just, “What do I know?” “Que sçay-je?” in French. What do I know? That was the beginning of everything he ever wrote was just, “What do I know about this subject?” So, to me, that’s the other side.

Sam: So, your silence will not protect you. Okay? So, I have to speak. Well, what do I do now? Well, what do you know? Just say truthfully what you know about the subject. That goes back to writing about a French snowball fight. All right. Watch the video and say what you see. What do you know about this? That’s how you just start being out in the world and putting your mind out in the world.

Sam: So, those are the two mottos I’ve been carrying around. Then this third motto that you and I have been using, which, I mean, is this the place to unveil it? Do you think your podcast audience is ready to hear this incredible life advice?

Craig: Well, if anyone is, it is them, it is the On Margins Podcast listenership.

Sam: Okay. Lay it on them. Tell them. Just say it. Say the sentence. Blow their minds.

Craig: All right. We got this little buildup. So, it’s like say you got something you’re supposed to be doing. You see a sock on the ground, and you’re walking past it. In your head, you think to yourself, “I should put this sock wherever it belongs,” because it doesn’t belong on the ground. Maybe it belongs in the hamper, maybe it’s in the drawer. Maybe it’s supposed to be on your foot and you’re walking by and you’re feeling that, and then you start to feel like, “Yeah. I’ll go do that,” a little bit later, and then you stop and you just say out loud, you say the words, “Just do it.”

Sam: Just do it. Then you do it, and then you just do it. You just do it. It’s like the perfect summation. It’s just the perfect phrase.

Craig: It demands the question of what have you been just doing, Sam?

Sam: I’ve been running every other day. I even ran today when it was windchill, maybe it feel like 19 degrees. I just went running. I said to myself, “Just do it, baby. Just do it.” I put on my Nike running shoes and I ran. That is the difference between me gaining an extra 20 pounds and me being in somewhat nice healthy feeling shape.

Craig: This just do it philosophy came out at talking about Zadie Smith. Now, she’s not on social media. She just sits down and decides, “No Twitter. I’m going to write.”

Sam: Yeah. It’s inspiring, and it seems impossible, but that does make a nice trio of mottos, right? Your silence will not protect you. What do I know? Just do it. I think it’s going to be a good year.

Craig: I think that’s, yeah, that’s a cliché trio I’m down with.

Sam: Cool. Also, it’s going to be a good year is the biggest cliché of all. It’s probably going to suck.

Craig: Why do we only say that in January? We should start a trend of April, thinking about April as the new year. In Japan, April is when the year starts. It’s aligned with spring and the awakening of things. It makes sense.

Sam: Totally.

Craig: January is a weird, super weird month to think of it as being the new year. What a weird … We’re in the depths of darkness. There’s nothing new happening right now.

Sam: Yeah. That would probably help psychologically. I think maybe this whole COVID quarantine pandemic thing will realign our sense of when the year starts because it’s going to feel really powerful, I think, when we hit March, April, when we hit the year anniversary of everyone going into lockdown.

Craig: Yeah. Well, I think part of the trick is just trying to discover new exciting things along the way, even when things aren’t particularly uplifting. I think last year both you and I had an Ursula Le Guin moment.

Sam: Oh, my God! Yeah.

Craig: Right?

Sam: The Earthsea Books, yeah. That was the best thing I read last year was 1,200 pages of Ursula K. Le Guin.

Craig: You made a nice T-shirt of her head.

Sam: Oh, yeah. I’m actually wearing that right now, weirdly. I mean, it’s not on purpose, but, yeah. She’s peeking out. Yeah, with this incredible quote from A Wizard of Earthsea, “For magic consists in this the true naming of a thing.” Again, it’s just the truth. You say the truth about a thing, and that is magic.

Craig: Yeah, that’s it. That’s it.

Sam: that’s it. That’s all we’re doing. That’s all we’re doing. Just do it everyday. Show up. Do it.

Craig: Yeah. I feel definitely a much more of a positive vibe going on today with us than I felt in March last year.

Sam: Yeah. We were working through some stuff last time, and we’re still working through some stuff, but we have some new mottos. We’re moving forward. We’re leaping forward rather than just rolling around in a washing machine at the laundromat, and everyone is watching us through the little porthole.

Craig: Covered in lotion and water.

Sam: Yeah. Exactly.

Craig: Anyway, man, thank you for your time, and thank you for sitting in the closet once again. You sound great. You look beautiful.

Sam: My pleasure. Thank you. Thank you. I’m working on accepting compliments. So, I’m just going to believe that. I look beautiful in a closet. You’re not being sarcastic.

Craig: You were so wonderful, Sam.

Sam: Thank you. It’s so fun to talk with you. I really like these conversations really go deep, and make me feel, I don’t know, healthy, make me feel healthy about life. So, thank you.

Craig: There you have it, episode two with our buddy Sam Anderson. These things are hilariously deceptive projects to work on. These things being these podcast episodes, the amount of hours and time that goes into smoothing out and chopping this stuff up. Lord Almighty, it is a nontrivial amount of work. So, if you enjoyed this, think about leaving us, I don’t know, a review on iTunes. Give us some stars. Where do pods even live these days? Frankly, I have no idea how this works anymore.

Craig: I would like to thank this episode’s sponsor, the sneaky view on the hike behind my house. Sneaky view, you bring lightness and joy to my life. One moment, a person is just walking through the woods, and then a little neighborhood not expecting much, and then you turn the corner and bam, there it is, the sneaky view, a crazy, handsome, snow-capped Mount Fuji just sitting there in the so-called middle distance, a surrealist Mont-Saint-Michel replica by way of Hiroshima, and the glory of the Izu Peninsula mountain range, which I crossed last November. So, thanks, sneaky view. Nobody ever expects you, but every time I take someone on that hike, they’re blown away. You make all our lives a little bit nicer.

On Margins, a podcast about making books and book-shaped things!

On Margins is a podcast about making books, hosted by Craig Mod.

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