By far the most interesting moment of my three days of non-stop 39℃ fever happened around hour twenty-six. My grandmother — deceased some twelve years — appeared to me in the doorway to my studio and said, Craigy, get dressed and go next door. It was two in the morning. I had been curled in a ball on my couch since nine a.m. the previous day. Influenza A or B had dropped hard. I was soaked from fever sweats and my only thought was: What t-shirt should I change into? So I peeled myself off the couch (I’ve since burned the couch), and crawled up the stairs and into my bedroom and picked out a t-shirt I haven’t worn in years for who knows what reason. And I was nearly outside — hand on the front door handle — when it finally occurred to me that maybe my grandmother hadn’t visited me and that maybe I shouldn’t go knock on my neighbor’s door looking deranged and shedding virus.
I’m Craig Mod, and I’m feeling much better now thankyouverymuch. I’m still coughing. Which is annoying. Just this infinite dry post-flu cough that I can’t seem to shake. But otherwise, good. Just before the flu, I did a Things Become Other Things press check. Terrifying, those. But the book is printed! We’re working out some other production kinks now, but the plan is still to ship this book around the start of December in time for holiday arrival. You can sign up to be explicitly notified when it launches here. (If you filled out the previous TBOT survey, then your email address is already (in theory!) on this list.) 1,000 copies will be signed (1,500 will not be signed). Significantly more people have signed up than there will be signed copies. SPECIAL PROJECTS members will get a several-hours head start on purchasing before I announce to the broader lists / social media. I’m also releasing two new limited edition prints with the book — 50 copies each, archival, signed and numbered B5-size prints.
And, heck, why not — here’s a partial cover reveal for TBOT (full cover to be revealed in a couple weeks?) — a schematic of a fried bologna sandwich (I really want to make T-shirts out of this!); once again drawn by frequent collaborator, the fabulous Luis Mendo:
In case you’re itching to put your email address into more forms, I’m launching a new pop-up newsletter, the third edition of my Tokyo walking series: TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO³. It begins in a couple of weeks on November 5, runs for a week, finishes on the 12th, and like all my pop-ups, your addresses will be deleted once it’s complete. Sign up here: TOKIO TŌKYŌ TOKYO³.
In my flu haze I couldn’t do much, so I tried to catch up on Errol Morris documentaries. I watched Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981) and The Thin Blue Line (1988). These are his first three films and they’re worth watching in quick, punchy succession.
Gates of Heaven was called by Roger Ebert “one of the greatest films ever made” — how can you not be intrigued? I don’t know if I’d go so far as to parrot his declaration, but it was a fascinating and bizarre profile of Northern California in the late ‘70s. (Ebert gets it wrong in his original review saying it was Southern California; no, this is the North through and through.) Morris sets his camera down and lets the wacky folk do the talking. And talk they do. The lighting is unexpectedly exquisite, and combined with the color film stock of the moment, the effect is almost like watching moving paintings. The cadence of speech would feel affected if it wasn’t a documentary and you realize coaching performances like these out of actors would be impossible. The greatest value, for me, was in that captured poetry of language. These folks weren’t talking about much, but I could listen to them talk all day.
Famed mad German, Werner Herzog, told Morris he’d eat his shoe if he finished Gates of Heaven. Not only did he do so (basically), but they made a small documentary (but, of course): Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980) directed by Les Blank. The shoe was cooked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse. (I wrote about this shoe eating, and Herzog’s walking in Ridgeline issue 024.) But what a perfect constellation of Northern California everything — Highway 280, Napa Valley, Chez Panisse shoes, gabbing self-betterment, a frustrated mom in a muumuu, a hippie son who’s lost his way. The cemetery featured in Morris’ film still exists today, website and all (though nowhere do they mention the film).
Vernon, Florida (the whole thing is on YouTube here) is essentially a continuation of Gates of Heaven transposed from Northern California to Florida. There is no real coherent narrative thread aside from: Behold, strange Americans. Which is enough. I appreciated it. One man, obsessed with Turkey Hunting (spiritual, liturgical), speaks without hardly moving his lips, could be anywhere from age 28 to 50, does little to hide his bloodthirst for shooting down a turkey. Speaks of his elevated heart rate, the adrenaline of the kill (“I almost throw up” when it’s over, he says). Turkeys? Really? You can almost imagine him becoming erect as he finds fresh turkey tracks in the mud. Much of the interview takes place on a hunt, and he speaks in hushed tones, listening for “the gobble” — almost like a cat looking out for squirrels. His buddy is named “Snake.” Snake also has the thirst for turkey murder — they tack the turkey legs and “beards” up on their walls — but we never hear directly from him.
We see variants of these kinds of films on social media today but they fall short. YouTube channels like the Soft White Underbelly riff in similar ways to what Morris is doing here, but there’s something far more engineered and “view hungry” about their work. Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida feel oddly pure and meditative and almost “found” rather than constructed. (Which is not true, but speaks to the skills of Morris.) Which is to say: What Morris does looks simple, but I’ve yet to see someone capture a similar poetry without overtly injecting themselves into the equation. (YouTubers love to inject themselves into the equation; it’s almost a prerequisite of the medium.)
By the time Morris gets to Thin Blue Line he’s honed in on the style he’ll use for the next few decades — Philip Glass soundtracks and reenactments. But, fundamentally, Thing Blue Line also feels like a natural continuation of the last two — men and women speaking in bizarre Americana cadences, slippery, unplaceable, flip-flopping between phrases with admirable felicity. Just with higher stakes — murder, false-imprisonment.
On the other side of things, deeper in my flu haze, I binged the whole new Beckham doc. I couldn’t care less about soccer/football even if you put a gun to my head, but it was fun to get a megadose of the last thirty years of a sliver of the game. Beckham has always loomed in the background of life, and when I moved to Japan in 2000, he was about to enter into mega-stardom mode, here and elsewhere. Morris’ subjects / Beckham made for pleasing contrasts. I couldn’t stop thinking about how hundreds of millions of dollars don’t make you interesting, certainly not nearly as interesting as an amateur turkey hunter in Florida. We’ve all over-indexed for bucks as a proxy for emotional and/or general intelligence (see: Musk, Andreessen, Thiel, Trump). Like starving medieval peasants, we’re still mapping greatness/brilliance/interestingness to wealth. The gilded dingdongs of the world all suffer from primate impulses like the rest of us. Beckham comes off as a mostly kind, physically talented, sort of lost and lonely kid. Most of Beckham’s stresses (not unlike many of ours) in life could have been mitigated by a little ego sublimation. Sometimes, even if you can marry the Spice Girl, you shouldn’t.
On the literary side of things, I plowed through All The Light We Cannot See (2014) — just felt like it was about time I read a book like this (extremely popular, to be made into a Netflix series, etc.). I realize many of you out there love this book to bits, but it left me cold (sorry!! I feel somewhat broken or admitting this). I made it through. I read every single word. I appreciated what Doerr was doing and was in awe of his obvious skills, but I didn’t find myself moved by his descriptions of the world (sorry!!). Gates of Heaven delivered more explicit poetry in my mind. And All the Light didn’t make me feel “lit up” from within as I do when I read Dillard or Tillman or Ondaatje or Johnson. In fact, I was thinking about Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) — another WWII novel — quite a bit while reading All the Light. Ondaatje’s characters breathe. Doerr’s didn’t (for me). Why did Ondaatje’s words feel so much “truer?” On defusing a landmine in The English Patient:
Stepping up to her, he cut the wire below her left fist before the theorem faded, the sound like something bitten through with a tooth. He saw the dark print of her dress along her shoulder, against her neck. The bomb was dead. He dropped the cutters and put his hand on her shoulder, needing to touch something human. She was saying something he couldn’t hear, and she reached forward and pulled the earphones off so silence invaded. Breeze and a rustle. He realized the click of the wire being cut had not been heard at all, just felt, the snap of it, the break of a small rabbit bone. Not letting go of her, he moved his hand down her arm and pulled the seven inches of wire out of her still tight grip.
There is a weightlessness to his specificity of detail, and the returning to those details. The sound of a tooth biting — no, wait, sentences later, soundless, just a sensation. Simple language deployed precisely without grand performance. The effect, for me, is impossible to deny.
I’ve never once felt Ondaatje “perform” in his books. He does avant-garde things, of course (Coming Through Slaughter (1976)) but there is no “behold, I will now land this trick with this flourish” as I felt in the final sentences of many of Doerr’s chapters. (“And now: Art.”) I’m being a bit harsh, but only because the work is so venerated and my response so unexpectedly dispassionate. I’m trying to tease out why I wasn’t as moved as millions of others. Weirdly, I’m simultaneously making my way through McCarthy’s Suttree (1979), which is impenetrable and affected to say the least. But it doesn’t drive me nuts, and feels like a shtick so wholly committed to (in the classic McCarthy way), and with so little commercial concern, you can’t help but smile. (And, it is a funny book!) Anyway, it was interesting to read something as popular as All the Light. Looking forward to seeing how they translate it to film in the forthcoming Netflix series.
Something Approximating Life
Shifting back to exceptionalism, I was saddened to hear that Louis Glück had recently passed (cancer). Her poems sit alongside Jack Gilbert’s as some of my favorites. She and Gilbert, two poets (Ondaatje, also a poet) executing very little in the way of “performative moves” but landing emotional thuds on a monumental scale that resonate to the heels of your feet. Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014) is not only a beautiful collection, but look at that cover. Grateful we had Glück for as long as we did.
Glück is also remembered in The New Yorker by several writers / poets. I particularly liked Jiayang Fan’s (always bizarre, always interesting) notes about studying under her:
My time in Glück’s class did not mark the beginning of my life as a writer. It hardly marked the start of my conception of what it meant to be one. But it initiated my belief that the aspiration to be one was a struggle in which I could claim agency. It would be my choice whether to continue to write, and embracing that choice was what made a writer, as much as the quality of the writing itself. “Not quite there” is still how I feel when I read back my own words on the page. It is a struggle every time, with words that start slow and leaden, and, if I am assiduous and patient, acquire something approximating life.
When I read writers I love, their work takes on something approximating life and beyond. Great writing — more life than life itself, truer than anything you can set your eyes on. And it’s that feeling of a path being lit by the wrought care of a committed author that sets off my own inner writing voice. I can’t stop it. I have to almost pin myself to the chair to keep from getting up in the middle of their sentences and diving into an in-progress essay or book of mine. When I do huge solo walks, too, I feel something similar (which is why I spend so much of my time dictating into my phone, and why I cherish those big long stretches of solo walking time, time that cannot be replicated in any other way, and the spell of which the presence of even one other walker shatters).
“Write anything you want, she told us. Just make sure it’s not dead,” Fan writes of Glück instructing her students. That non-deadness is an exciting thing to go after. You don’t always hit it, but knowing what it sounds and feels like, has guided most of my reading and writing these past twenty years.
Werner Herzog is a man clearly obsessed with non-deadness in his work. His so-called “ecstatic truths.” John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay are as alive as anything. Here he is writing about fireflies and a new book of photographs, Nightairs, by Samuel James.
Who do you find consistently injecting non-dead work into the world?
Thank you for all the kind skin cancer related notes! They were much appreciated. I’m just going to keep monitoring things and looking out for suspicious spots. And I recommend y’all do the same. Chop ’em out before they go deep.
Year-end is coming up fast. But I’ve got about twelve billion things to do between today and then (including running a Walk-n-Talk with Kevin Kelly in Thailand and showing my parents around Japan for two weeks). And then, once the clock ticks over to 2024, I’m moving into Random House Mode, as I do a huge sweep of edits and additions for the trade hardcover edition of Things Become Other Things — which will be in its own many ways, its own magical thing. I also can’t wait to get that to you, too, but Spring 2025 feels like six lifetimes away.
Mainly, so much on the docket that I’m excited and grateful for, and as fun as it was to see my grandmother again in a fever dream, fingers crossed for a stretch of good health going forward. In the end, health really is everything.
I leave you with a photograph an old friend recently dug up and sent over — me, age 20, in Okinawa, after I had just hitchhiked from Tokyo to Fukuoka — one of the most formative trips of my life. Many things clicked on this trip, but thinking and speaking without thought in Japanese was perhaps the most revelatory (it’s possible!). I’m playing the bongos. I had just taken a nap and woken up, and ate ice cream with a guy named Kohei (who had just done a bunch of peyote, and would go on to battle cancer at a scarily young age (I don’t think the two are related)) and his girlfriend (she’s in the background) from the hostel. He had the bongos. I was in heaven. This adventure was just beginning. This shoe-string budgeted, often painful, but just as often magical, never uninteresting start of a 23 year-long, ongoing relationship with life in Japan. This was back when I was still trying to figure out who the hell I was and what I was going to do — drummer? Writer? Photographer? All I know is that I wish I could go back and tell this gel-haired little dork what we’d be doing today, these many years later. I think he would have been psyched, and maybe — just maybe — even found a little peace back then.