Hello from the other side of September. Good lord. What a month! I hope you’re all doing OK out there.
This is Roden, a monthly newsletter by Craig Mod, written since 2011, but monthly since 2019. The humidity, I have to say, is dang near perfect. We’re in the HUMIDITY POCKET A NONPAREIL — a several week period between summer and autumn where neither de- nor non-de- humidifier is necessary. If a season could be a crisp, white, freshly laundered and ironed sheet, snapped in glancing morning light beneath a clear blue sky, this season would be that very sheet. And as a friend recently put it: We’re now blissfully as far away from the next summer as possible.
Let’s take a moment of silence for the MAX double-decker shinkansen, which was just retired a few days ago. (I think I only rode it … once? It was on the Niigata route, which I almost never take.)
Recent big news is that Kissa by Kissa’s 1,000 copy third edition is now shipping. We sold 200 books in the first day. Thank you to everyone who hopped on this pizza toast train. Nota bene: Yearly Members to SPECIAL PROJECTS get a $40-off coupon. For those curious about numbers, I’m seeing something like 25%+ of non-members who buy the book become members. Which seems … really good??
More numbers: We had 67 abandoned checkouts which, I suspect, were induced by sticker shock on shipping. Shipping costs money. (More than ever!) I’ve written before about how I feel an ethical duty to other small businesses to properly charge for shipping instead of obfuscating behind a “free” shipping sticker. Now that the world is experiencing fluctuating shipping costs, more smaller businesses are stuck under that gnarled thumb of “free.” It’s never free. Because I’m using a premium tier of shipping, our costs thankfully haven’t changed, and so shipping is still what it cost last year, which is what our customers pay. (We actually lose a little money on each package because of the trifecta of box production costs, handling, and shipping. You can see our box up above: Thank you to whoever took that photo and sent it over!)
As for the book: We increased the quality of printing and binding in this third edition. Access to “higher level” facilities is an achievement unlocked by minor book selling success. (Although in terms of “art” photo book numbers, Kissa is, I think, a Best, or at least, Very Good, Seller?)
Really happy to have this edition dialed in because it means I can focus on other books. Other books! Confident in knowing that I have a solid template and printing / binding team to collaborate with going forward.
Speaking of which: I’m in the middle of writing / collating / editing my next book and have been sending out a members-only daily diary called Nightingalingale. Not to repeat myself yet again, but one of the biggest benefits of the membership program has been the establishment of a crew of supporters who are happy to — and excited to — allow me to “be boring.” I’ve been running boring livestreams and sending boring newsletters. I love it. Mainly because I am deeply suspicious of the “performative” bla bla bla pathologies of social media. (Especially the pathology of the “selfie.” That is, the algorithmic fomentation of selfie yearn. One of the reasons I don’t post (many) “selfies” is because … I think they are (warning this is a half-formed thought, and this is also going to sound insane, yes, I know) morally fraught at scale? Not the selfie itself necessarily but how it is engendered? There’s a certain abstraction and amplification that happens between (a) algorithm thirst, (b) dopamine loops, and (c) the perpetuation of normalized narcissism (!!) that I find, personally, extremely distressing. The emptiest of calories. Red flags galore. I acknowledge this may be a deeply generational-gap-provoked response (not really), and maybe one of my first big Crises of Old. I mean, when I do post a selfie, it gets huge engagement, and makes me feel like a SPECIAL PERSON, and then … I feel vaguely hollow and used and like I just helped Mark Z. pay for his huge security detail with my ego. Critical to note — because I realize this is veering into Man Living Alone in Cabin With Sacks of Fertilizer territory: I send selfies to group chats and my mom and friends and my partner constantly; I am a veritable selfie maniac on a private scale; selfies galore; selfies for days; I love the power of a good selfie deployed surgically; reader, I preen before my reflection; it’s the public performance element + distrust in social-media-perverted motivations + self-awareness of how enticing falling into a pond of glistening narcissism can be that maximally freaks me out into this shotgun shack. (The background hum being some variant on: Please buy my books and engage with my ideas, not “like” my face.) Further caveats: I realize for some folks the public selfie is a primary tool of self-empowerment and, for marginalized communities, it’s a way to normalize literal faces that might otherwise be invisible. And I suspect a lot of good has come from that. But I still consider it fraught and suboptimal in the context of trillion dollar streams.) So, anyway — the point being: having a private-ish crew of a thousand+ paying supporters and, in the case of an opt-in newsletter, several hundred folks to write a daily diary to, and to be fairly “open” and “loose” and extremely non-performative about it is a wonderful thing. I couldn’t do this stuff on a more “public” stage. I am grateful for the system and love SPECIAL PROJECTS for these reasons and more. And believe me, this daily diary has made me … 5x (?) more productive on this book than I’d have been on my own.
Technically, the diary “ended,” but there is so much more to work on with the book that it will continue later in October. And I’ll get the archives up for members at some point soon, too.
If my farcical selfie confessional hasn’t scared you away, buddy David Marx — author of the excellent Ametora and latest On Margins guest — has a new newsletter: Culture: An Owner’s Manual. This is going to be great.
Leaving the Bubble
Jon Mooallemrecently published with New York Times Magazine one of the best essays I’ve read reflecting some of my psychic experience of the pandemic:
But it meant I’d never been forced, or forced myself, to acclimate to the virus as much as other people seemed to have done. I wasn’t learning to live within the odds. This made me uneasy — personally uneasy, because I interpreted it as a lack of toughness, but also ethically uneasy, because I knew that in a broken society like ours, my comfort came at the expense of other people’s demoralization and discomfort. Still, that’s what happened. And while I’m sure this left me with an exaggerated sense of the risks of leaving my particular bubble, the real problem was, I’d started chronically undervaluing the rewards. I’d been forgoing so much that forgoing felt easy. Too many things I imagined doing began to feel skippable, arbitrary, not a tragedy to decline. Either I was approaching some new state of equanimity and contentedness or I was depressed.
I wouldn’t say I was “crushed” by shame last year from living in a country that, largely, didn’t have a pandemic “problem,” but I definitely felt some guilt and tempered my announcements of “life isn’t too bad” in light of the plight of my American and European friends. I even self-locked down early on when there wasn’t a serious mandate to do so. That said, as soon as America had even a whiff of “normalcy” in the spring of 2021, it came with a blast of EVERYTHING IS FINE NOW WHERE ARE YOU TRAVELING TO???? messages and emails that felt — to put it gently — a bit tone deaf, and totally unaware of the state of other countries, but, I suppose, perfectly, stereotypically, solipsistically American.
Jon, however, is the best kind of American: smart and hilarious and voluble and self-aware with well-articulated compassionate trepidations:
I arrived around dinnertime and found the classy, cavernous lobby of my hotel packed with maskless strangers drinking and eating, but also not even drinking or eating — just lingering, loping through, working on their laptops, working in the restaurant kitchen, bellowing plosive consonants at one another, cavalierly clearing their throats. I went to my room and ordered a hamburger. And when the knock came, I fumbled to mask up, opened the door and discovered a young woman smiling at me at close range, her bare mouth saying, with complete casualness: “How’s your evening going? Getting up to anything fun tonight?”
FWIW: I’ve recently found my mental state shift from one of abundant caution to one of oh god who cares anymore. This isn’t sham insouciance. I’m fully vaccinated and wear a mask and everyone out and about here in Japan is also wearing masks and largely being careful. Case numbers have fallen off a cliff. Vaccination rates are climb climb climbing. I just think it’s basically “fine,” and I simply don’t … care anymore? I reached my limit on pandemic metacognition. Sure, I’m not going out licking all the surfaces, but I am out in shops and restaurants, living (here in Japan) largely like I was two years ago. (Not that I was going out to bars or clubs two years ago, but hello at this very moment from a Starbucks in Nara; tomorrow I’m hiking with a group of government tourism people I’ve never before met.)
It’s been fascinating and horrible navigating risk mitigation these past two years. As I’ve written before, I think many of us have undergone a trauma bigger than we’ve yet realized. Jon’s piece seems to get at some of the essential truth of that experience. I loved it.
Since I’m in Book Mode, I’ve been going back through other books for inspiration and loft. Cue McPhee. I love me some John McPhee. The guy gets away with the zaniest sentences. I suppose because he has written so many. Sometimes I think he has a rule where he’s not allowed to use the same rare noun twice in his life. (And if you’re wondering who this McPhee character is, Sam Anderson (another On Margins buddy, and excellent illustrator) wrote a beautiful profile of him for New York Times Magazine a few years ago: “The Mind of John McPhee.”)
On those zany sentences. Stuff like:
If I’m in someone’s presence and attempting to conduct an interview, I am wishing I were with Kafka on the ceiling.
Writing notes, I did my best to stay with him, but when he breezed into the biochemistry of the blood gases I was totally lost and turned him over to a Japanese machine.
Fuerbringer did not have a name like that because he was Caspar Milquetoast.
But amidst all the lovable goofiness, there is refined wisdom in McPhee’s Draft No. 4 essay collection on craft. Take this letter to his daughter, who had writer’s block and feared she lacked talent:
Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.
A lot of truth in that last line: Until it exists, writing has not really begun.
I’ve felt this palpably these past few years. Ridgeline, all 128 (!) issues, and Huh and Roden and the pop-ups newsletters along walks — the hundreds of thousands of words from those experiments and more set in motion the idea of writing about walking and adoption and family and Japan in ways I had never before imagined and, quite frankly, was too frightened to begin. Kissa was a product of that system, and the book I’m working on now is even more so.
Newsletter have been a way to trick myself. Good tricks can be great tools.
McPhee on a trick of his own:
You are blocked, frustrated, in despair. You are nowhere, and that’s where you’ve been getting. What do you do? You write, ‘Dear Mother.’ And then you tell your mother about the block, the frustration, the ineptitude, the despair. You insist that you are not cut out to do this kind of work. You whine. You whimper. You outline your problem, and you mention that the bear has a fifty-five-inch waist and a neck more than thirty inches around but could run nose-to-nose with Secretariat. You say the bear prefers to lie down and rest. The bear rests fourteen hours a day. And you go on like that as long as you can. And then you go back and delete the ‘Dear Mother’ and all the whimpering and whining, and just keep the bear.”
Two of his daughters have gone on to write and publish several novels.
Archetypes, maaaaaan, archetypes. I more and more believe that the most powerful thing a young person can have in their life is someone (often older, experienced; triple score if it’s a parent) point at a door that may be right in front of them that they can’t even see. Or aren’t willing to see. Just pointing at the door — pointing! — is freakishly powerful: This option exists. That alone can change a life. And then, geez, in the cases where the mentor or archetype helps you open the door, helps you interpret what’s on the other side. Well, then you end up with kids like John McPhee’s daughters.
When I wrote “selfie” way back somewhere above, I put it in quotes because the front-facing-camera-shot-of-yourself is only the most base instantiation of the term. Lots of things can become the equivalent of “selfie” and I’ve tried to prune my ego of the impulse to reach for those bobbles over the past ten years. Breathless discharges are selfie-like. Work a bit and you can cultivate a kind of maniacal radar for most social-mediated opiates that might get in the way of thinking/seeing.
“Razzle-dazzle” might also be a flag, an indicator for sussing out selfie-like activities in the world. Too much razzle-dazzle jazz-hands might mean there isn’t much below the surface. As Sam writes in his McPhee profile, McPhee is pathologically private. Has never had an author photo appear on any of his thirty book jackets. McPhee can write with razzle-dazzle, but often does so in a kind of anarchist, fuck-the-system, mode (“Caspar Milquetoast” — extremely punk). He is not looking for superficial accolades when he writes the book, “Oranges,” about oranges. Or 700 pages about rock (the mineral, not music).
In this way, I’d argue McPhee is very much a leader and archetype beyond his kin.
From Sam’s profile:
And yet McPhee’s work is not melancholy, macabre, sad or defeatist. It is full of life. Learning, for him, is a way of loving the world, savoring it, before it’s gone. In the grand cosmology of John McPhee, all the earth’s facts touch one another — all its regions, creatures and eras. Its absences and presences. Fish, trucks, atoms, bears, whiskey, grass, rocks, lacrosse, weird prehistoric oysters, grandchildren and Pangea. Every part of time touches every other part of time. You just have to find the right structure.
McPhee found out he won a Pulitzer during a class break, and didn’t tell the students when they resumed. Until Sam showed up knocking, McPhee hadn’t allowed anyone to profile him. McPhee seems to have recognized early on that value and self-worth and the foundation of a good life are built on caring and looking closely at the world with wide-open eyes. Over the long arc of a life, an award is a bit of boring razzle-dazzle; more important is showing up to teach the class.
McPhee has made a life of this: Solitude, teaching, family, and a distaste for anything superficial that gets in the way that work. In this way, he leads. And his badass cape of books flowing out behind him is proof enough.
Sam writes about how he wished McPhee’s The Pine Barrens opened with more punch. Instead it opens “like an information board on top of a scenic lookout.” But then, finally on reaching the end, “The razzle-dazzle, I realized, had been there all along — it was just suppressed, and there was no way to feel it until you finished the book." Finish the book. And then take a selfie from the scenic lookout, but only if you’re holding The Pine Barens aloft.
This old chunk of coal, signing off for now — more soon!