52 Popsicles, Three Valleys and the Wisdom of No Escape

Yoga instructor. The Googleplex. Mountain View, California. 

My resolution for 2013 was to spend more time being attentive to the simple pleasures of experience. The 52 Popsicle assignment is a part of this, but there have been other experiments. Over the last month, the LBM team has had a fantastic Yoga instructor, Drake Powe, visit our studio on a weekly basis. I’ve tried to use some of Drake’s mindfulness exercises outside of class. But once I hit the road for Three Valleys, all of this progress came to a halt. Since landing in Silicon Valley a week ago, I’ve been too busy devouring the world to pay quiet attention to my own experience. And I certainly haven’t had time to read for pleasure.

So there is no way I can fulfill this week’s popsicle assignment. Nevertheless, while sitting here in my room at the Microtel Inn and Suites in Modesto, I did finally pull out the book that Drake recommended: The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chödrön. This is what I read on the first page:


When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying,

“If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.”

“If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.”

“If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.”

Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.”

“If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.”

And “If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”

But loving-kindness -maitri- toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. 

Reading this makes me wonder if I need to rethink this statement I made in an interview a few years ago:

I think photography is the most anti-Zen activity. It’s all about stopping time, possessing things, holding onto them. And you know, if my goal was to be a healthy person, photography would not be the thing. I have this joke about becoming a binoculographer: you go around and look at the world without photographing. That would be a spiritually healthy way of taking things in. But this wanting to possess it is not so healthy.

I’m still not sure that driving around in a minivan and drinking from my Bubba Keg is the best spiritual practice, but I can still work on mindfulness while doing this stuff:

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Popsicle #6: Magic Hours & This is Water

url-2bA friend who works at McSweeny’s recently sent me a collection of essays called Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell. In an essay entitled ‘The Theory and Practice of Not Giving a Shit,’ Bissell writes about visiting Jim Harrison in Montana. Harrison spins some charming, larger-than-life yarns. But the most poignant moment comes when Harrison mentions Bissell’s other literary hero, David Foster Wallace:

Harrison brought up Jonathan Franzen’s much discussed New Yorker piece about Wallace, in which Franzen revealed that he could never get Wallace interested in his passion of bird watching. “This is interesting,” Harrison said. “Of the 12 or 13 suicides I’ve known, none of them had any interest in nature. In other words, they had no interest in what Rimbaud called ‘the other.’ The otherness, say, of nature.” They could not make, Harrison said, “that jump out of themselves.”

In another essay in Magic Hours, Bissell writes about This Is Water, the posthumously published transcription of Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.

Wallace was often accused, even by his admirers, of having a weakness for what Nabokov once referred to as “the doubtful splendors of virtuosity.” Standing before the graduates of Kenyon College, Wallace opted for a tonal simplicity only occasionally evident in the hedge mazes of his fiction. He spoke about the difficulty of empathy (“Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of”), the importance of being well adjusted (“which I suggest to you is not an accidental term”) and the essential lonesomeness of adult life (“lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”).

This issue of empathy and interest in ‘the other’ keeps swirling around everything I read lately. What I appreciated about Magic Hours was Bissell’s ability to gracefully reflect on his own experience while investigating other people’s creative lives. I’m  also grateful that it encouraged me to listen to Wallace’s commencement address – the best sermon I’ve ever heard:


Popsicle #5: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Since making my 52 Popsicles New Year’s resolution, I’ve been staying away from the Crime/Mystery section at the airport bookstore. When I picked up Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award winning new novel, The Round House, I thought I was being perfectly highbrow.

But The Round House turns out to be a real potboiler. It tells the story of a 13-year-old Native American, Joe, who’s out to avenge his mother’s rapist. It’s both a coming-of-age story and a crime thriller. But like the best genre fiction, Erdrich embeds important issues into her narrative.

Through the character of Joe’s father, a tribal judge, Erdrich is able to chronicle the persistent injustice Native Americans have experienced since the earliest days of the non-Native legal system:

“Take Johnson v McIntosh. It’s 1823. The United States is forty-seven years old and the entire country is based on grabbing Indian land as quickly as possible in as many ways as can be humanly devised. Land speculation is the stock market of the times. Everybody’s in on it. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. As well as Chief Justice John Marshall, who wrote the decision for this case and made his family’s fortune. The land madness is unmanageable by the nascent government.”

Reading this, I thought about what I’d recently seen in North Dakota. While photographing the oil boom, I stumbled across a Native American family on the Berthold Indian Reservation. While the children played in the prairie grasses, below the surface gigantic drill bits assaulted the earth for miles.


– Alec Soth

Popsicle #4: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison

“He stopped beside a marsh with the car windows rolled down and listened to the trilling cacophony of hundreds of red-winged blackbirds, and on the other side of the road the more dulcet calls of meadowlarks. He recalled with immoderate reverence his burgeoning love at age ten for looking at paintings and listening to classical music, the lack of mind in his pleasure. How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.” From “The Land of Unlikeness” by Jim Harrison

PAR276678Jim Harrison, 2004 by Alec Soth

I’ve always been a dog person. I’m not anti-cat, but not pro either. On a recent trip shooting the Michigan Dispatch, I came home to find that my family had acquired Ollie at the Humane Society. My pride wounded, I met the beast with cold eyes. “This is my house, Cat.” (I refused to address him by the name I’d had no part in choosing).

But it was too late – Oliver had taken over my home. My wife and kids were smitten, of course, but it was my Labradoodle’s affection that stung. No longer interested in going to the studio, Misha spent her afternoons enthralled by her new master.

I’ve since wondered at the cat’s power to win over my family. It reminded me of the way women are so attracted to bad boys. But is it their ‘badness’ that charms, or their confidence?

Over the last couple of months of watching Oliver, I’ve come to admire his swagger. Unlike the desperate Lovadoodle, the cat is his own man, living in the moment. My greatest admiration for Oliver is his relentless curiosity and attunement to the environment. He’s aware of every open cabinet, every stray hair band.


I thought about Oliver while reading this week’s popsicle: The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison. The book is comprised of two novellas. The title story is about a 17-year-old boy that is obsessed with swimming. In the water, he’s himself. Men admire his brawn and women swoon over his tranquil confidence, but it’s all of no matter, he only wants to be in the water.

The story is entertaining enough, but I felt like I was reading a Penthouse letter in Field and Stream. I just couldn’t relate to the boy’s prowess. I much preferred the other novella in the book, “The Land of Unlikeness.” In this story, Clive, a 60-year-old Manhattan sophisticate returns to his childhood home in Michigan to care for his mother. An esteemed academic in the arts, we learn that Clive gave up painting when he was 40. “When I was a little girl painting never seemed to make you happy,” his estranged daughter says to him, “You were always worried about your gallery.”

After sleeping in his childhood bedroom for the first time in decades, something changes:

“Clive woke at dawn having lost his self-importance. He didn’t know where it had gone but it wasn’t in him anymore. His first thought was that the arts had gotten along without him for centuries and would continue to do so. In the night he had looked at the distorted moon though each small pane of beveled glass on the door out in the hall.  He had also seen a bird his mother called a bullbat or nightjar flying across the moon in search of night-borne insects. One had flown so close to his face the evening before on the patio he could hear the chuff sound of its wings. His thoughts were impacted by the idea that nothing looked like anything else, which gave a painter something to do through any number of lifetimes…He had every reason to believe that he had allowed language and thought to betray him, so it would be an immense relief to paint and abandon language and thought.”

Reading “The Land of Unlikeness” was a pleasure. In one scene, after reminiscing about a rendezvous in a ’47 Plymouth with his childhood crush, Clive talks her into recreating the scene for a painting (maybe Harrison should write Penthouse Letters). “The first farcical conclusion was that you shouldn’t try to paint with a hard-on,” he says, “Painting was relatively non-mental but not that nonmental.”

Clive’s transformation back to an artist might strike some as being a bit Hollywood, but I believed it. Listening to Ollie purr on my lap while reading my weekly assignment, I can’t dispute the possibility of old dogs learning new tricks.

Popsicle #3: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

“He grabbed the kid by the coat, rolled him over, roughly sat him up. The kid’s shivers made his shivers look like nothing. Kid seemed to be holding a jackhammer. He had to get the kid warmed up. How to do it? Hug him, lie on top of him? That would be like Popsicle-on-Popsicle.”
From “Tenth of December” by George Saunders

While preparing last week’s assignment on Building Stories by Chris Ware, I learned about another book in a box, The Unfortunates, by B.S. Johnson. Published in 1969, the box consists of 27 pamphlets that can be read in any order (except for the ones marked ‘first’ and ‘last’).

The subject of this fragmentary memoir was instigated by Johnson’s trip to Nottingham as a sportswriter covering an inconsequential soccer match. The city brings back memories of an old friend who died of cancer and an old lover who left him. The unordered pamphlets function like memories bubbling up in the author’s consciousness during his weekend in Nottingham.

While the writing in The Unfortuantes is excellent, reading it after Building Stories was a letdown. Part of this is due to the absence of Ware’s gorgeous artistry, but something else nagged at me. I found myself irritated with the narrator of The Unfortunates.

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Johnson is a card carrying solipsist, and as such, wildly egocentric. When he first learns of his friend Tony’s cancer, for example, he complains that Tony and his wife didn’t attend the publication party of his new book: “I was annoyed, angry even, that he, and that both of them, should find any excuse for missing something so important, that its importance to me should not be shared by them.”

Johnson is adamant that art speak the truth. Though defining himself as a novelist, Johnson was opposed to fiction. “Telling stories is telling lies,” he famously wrote, “The two terms, truth and fiction, are opposites.” Consequently, the pamphlets in The Unfortunates read less like a novel than like artful Facebook status updates from a depressed, self-absorbed acquaintance.

While reading The Unfortunates, I kept thinking about the George Saunders quote I mentioned in last week’s post:

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

Having felt that nothing “undeniable and nontrivial” happened to me while reading The Unfortunates, nor having felt like I’d had a popsicle of pleasure, I figured I’d give Saunders’ writing a try. I thought it would be particularly interesting to read the title story in his new book, “Tenth of December,” since it deals with a man dying of cancer.

I ended up reading the story on my iPhone while putting my six-year old to sleep. As his breathing slowed, I felt my own pulse quicken. Saunders’ story about a cancer patient who encounters a pre-teen oddball while trying to kill himself reads like a potboiler. I couldn’t scroll down the screen fast enough. But this isn’t to say that the story felt melodramatic. As we watch these characters collide, we are also witness to their scattershot interior monologues. These voices felt just as honest as anything Johnson wrote in The Unfortunates.

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In an interview with the New Yorker about his “Tenth of December” story, Saunders explained what he was looking for with these voices:

Lately I find myself interested in trying to find a way of representing consciousness that’s fast and entertaining but also accurate, and accounts, somewhat, for that vast, contradictory swirl of energy we call “thought,” and its relation to that other entity, completely unstable and mutable, that we put so much stock in and love so dearly, “the self.” That is, of course, an impossible task, the mind being so vast and prose being so inadequate. But it seems to me a worthy goal: try to create a representation of consciousness that’s durable and truthful, i.e., that accounts, somewhat, for all the strange, tiny, hard-to-articulate, instantaneous, unwilled things that actually go on in our minds in the course of a given day, or even a given moment.

This seems very similar to what Johnson was looking for with his narration. While reading “Tenth of December,” I kept wondering what B.S. Johnson would have made of it. Had he read the story on November 13th of 1973, would he still have committed suicide?


Popsicle #2: Building Stories by Chris Ware

fink1In last week’s Popsicle assignment, I quoted a critic of Louise Glück who wrote “Very few lives are interesting, and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry.” I thought about this a lot while reading the 14 books and pamphlets enclosed in Chris Ware’s epic graphic novel, Building Stories.

The main character (who’s unnamed) is a depressed, middle-aged, stay-at-home mom who defines herself mostly by her physical imperfections. If I have one frustration with Building Stories, it’s that there weren’t even more books about this seemingly uninteresting woman.

Much has been written about the wildly inventive design of Building Stories, but what makes it masterful is the way Ware creates such a compelling portrait out of these fragmentary pieces. After finishing the box, the nameless protagonist was so vivid I had a hard time remembering she wasn’t real. This is particularly remarkable since so much of the book deals with dreams and memories.


George Saunders was recently quoted in the New York Times Magazine saying:

I began to understand art as a kind of black box the reader enters. He enters in one state of mind and exits in another… The writer… can put whatever he wants in there. What’s important is that something undeniable and nontrivial happens to the reader between entry and exit… The black box is meant to change us.

I did exit Ware’s box feeling changed. But it’s also worth noting that the experience of reading Building Stories was extremely pleasurable. I was worried when I bought it that Building Stories was going to be annoyingly experimental and, well, too much hard work. But the only difficulty was finding my reading glasses (don’t even think about trying to read it without them).


Unpacking Ware’s box is a delight. It also complements and energizes the narrative in powerful ways. In a recent dialog at the New York Public Library with Chris Ware, Zadie Smith talked about the necessity of formal invention:

When I felt a communion with Chris, it was the idea that we are both moderns and that we live in a modern period and have an understanding of what that demands…You have to jolt people in different ways, in different decades and different periods. You can’t keep doing the same things expecting the same reaction because it becomes formulaic and they become used to the very strategies or they are not being challenged. You’d have to find some fresh way to approach them because people are ingenious about protecting themselves from reality. They find different ways not to deal with the real. Writers have to become ingenious to get through it.

If the purpose of my 52 Popsicle New Year’s resolution was to experience more pleasure, a side effect might be that I’m occasionally jolted into experiencing more reality – Building Stories gave me a heavy dose of both.

Alec Soth

Popsicle #1: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has some kind of life. Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, “If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.”’ Abdul – in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

For Christmas, Uncle David gave me Louise Glück’s book of collected poems: 1962-2012. I figured this book would be perfect for my first 52 Popsicles assignment. I was particularly encouraged when I read her poem CeremonyNot only does she mention one of my all-time favorite poets, she also alludes to the pleasure/joy dichotomy I’ve been thinking about lately:

If you are so desperate 
for precedent, try
Stevens. Stevens
never traveled; that doesn’t mean
he didn’t know pleasure

Pleasure maybe but not joy. 

Like just about every other poem I read in Glück’s book, Ceremony is about the dissolution of a marriage. Worthwhile territory, of course, but the more I read, the more I felt the pleasure slipping away. “Very few lives are interesting,” wrote one critic of Glück, “and even fewer are sufficiently interesting to spawn nine books of autobiographical poetry.”

bookcover3eWorn down by all the navel gazing, I picked up the book Uncle David had given my wife: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. The remarkable thing about Boo’s acclaimed nonfiction portrayal of a Mumbai slum is how much it reads like fiction. The narrative of these lives, however ‘bad’, is portrayed with an interior intimacy almost never found in documentary work.

As a photographer, I couldn’t help but look at Boo’s achievement with envy. Pictures feel mute next to the novelistic universe she portrays. This got me to thinking about the book’s cover. I find it curious that the publisher chose a romantic photograph, particularly when Boo writes in her author’s note “I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor.”


As it turns out, the cover is a montage of two photographs from Chiara Goia and Alex Masi.  I like both of these pictures. But I’d rather not attach any photographic imagery (including the UK cover) to Boo’s seamless merging of novelistic interiority and documentary rigor.

– Alec Soth

10 things that gave me pleasure in 2012 by Alec Soth

Since my list posted on the Walker Art Center (a) doesn’t work on iphones and (b) has a god-awful picture of me, I’m reposting it here:

“Joy” by Zadie Smith

In her short essay on the difference between joy and pleasure in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith changed the way I think about everything from parenting to the writing of Top 10 lists.

As a die-hard fan of soft-serve ice cream, I’m thrilled about the new, self-serve frozen yogurt craze. It seems like every town has at least one of these new outlets. Gaudy and overpriced, yes, but so damn good.

Juergen Teller’s Pictures and Text
I’m always looking for books that combine text and image in interesting ways. My favorite in this category was this aptly titled book by Juergen Teller. Teller’s naturally gifted prose is as sweet as his pictures are crude. The result is laugh-out-loud funny and strangely moving.

Photography In Abundance by Erik Kessels
I wonder how many millions of pictures I looked at online this year? My favorite was an installation shot of Erik Kessel’s show of every photograph uploaded on Flickr over 24 hours.

Elementary Calculus by J. Carrier
My favorite purely photographic book of the year was this uniquely understated reflection on migration, exile, and the longing for connection.

AMC’s Breaking Bad
When I watch an episode of Breaking Bad, I feel like I’m going to church. This year they only gave us a half season, but it was enough to keep me faithful.

Frank Ocean on Saturday Night Live
I’m not sure I saw a single live musical performance in 2012, but I felt like I was sitting right next to Frank Ocean when he sang “Thinkin’ ‘Bout You” on SNL.

The Queen of Versailles by Lauren Greenfield
In a year where the buzzwords were 99% and 47%, Lauren Greenfield’s documentary of a 1% family ended up being the most potent portrayal of recession economics I’ve seen.

Romka Magazine
Described as “a collective photo album in which both amateurs and professionals archive their memories,” Romka Magazine sounds really cheesy. But great curation and beautiful design make this a truly endearing publication.

Brad Zellar’s The Envoy: A Christmas Serial
People throw around the term “genius” a little too loosely, but writer Brad Zellar is the real deal. This December he posted a 60,000-word story on his blog that was not only as good as any novel I’ve read in ages, but I’ll be damned if I can find a single typo. Somebody get this guy a MacArthur grant, pronto.


52 Popsicles: A New Year’s Resolution

mushroom-popsiclegThe other day I was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s web series, Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. In the most recent episode, Michael Richards talks about his time playing Kramer on Seinfeld and says, “Sometimes I look back at the show and think ‘I should have enjoyed myself more.’”

“I could say that myself,” Jerry responds, “but that was not our job. Our job is not for us to enjoy it. Our job is to make sure they enjoy it.”

Seinfeld’s response reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother as a teenager. She asked what I wanted to do with my life. I told her that my goal wasn’t to be happy, but to make something great. I guess I still feel the same way, but I don’t think it would hurt to take a bit more pleasure out of things along the way.

The Walker Art Center recently asked me to write a Top 10 List for 2012. They asked that the list be broad and include everything from books and music to political movements and technological developments. I struggled to come up with an intelligent sounding reply. I’m not sure I read a single serious book written this year. But while I haven’t read Zadie Smith’s new novel, I did manage to read her recent essay in the New York Review of books. It’s a killer (and will surely be on my top 10 list). Since reading it a couple weeks ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Smith’s eloquent breakdown of the difference between joy and pleasure. Joy, for her, is “that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight” whereas pleasure is the easily attained amusement of a pineapple popsicle.

Part of the reason I’m struggling to come up with a list this year is because I’ve been so busy making stuff that I haven’t given much attention to consuming other stuff. This has been the most creatively productive year I’ve ever had. It was utter joy. But I agree with Smith in her essay where she writes “the thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it.”

In 2013 I’m still going to pursue the terrifying ecstasy of making things, but I want to spend more time being attentive to the simple pleasures of experience. Working on the Top 10 assignment, I noticed that it made me more aware of the culture I’m consuming. It has also made me more proactive about seeking out quality. Rather than waste another hour mindlessly surfing Twitter before bed, the other night I finally watched Laruen Greenfield’s documentary Queen of Versailles. The film was more profound, and gave more insight into contemporary America, than a year’s worth of tweets.

Since the process of evaluating and prioritizing my experience has been so satisfying, I’ve decided I need to do more of it. My plan for 2013 is to work on my year-end list all year long. To do this, I’m inaugurating a new feature on this blog where I highlight one particularly pleasurable slice of culture each week. My New Year’s resolution is to highlight these delights every Monday. If nothing else, this will make next year’s year-end list much easier to write.

Here’s to more pineapple popsicles.

Happy New Year,


PS. On my top 10 list I listed Brad Zellar’s Christmas serial, The Envoy. Near the end of the story, the main character finds a photograph of his grandfather with a Post-It note that reads, “Joy really isn’t all that dangerous. Risk everything.”