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What Can We Change in a Single Generation?

20 Apr

That’s what we asked UC Berkeley faculty, staff, and students as we invited their reading recommendations for the 2017 edition of the UC Berkeley Summer Reading List for New Students. They responded with an excellent selection of nonfiction and fiction (and one sort of famous musical) to choose from.

Though intended for incoming Cal freshmen and transfer students as the primary audience, the list is of course available to any avid reader who chances upon it. I invite you to have a look, and also to take a look at UC Berkeley’s #InThisGen pages that were the inspiration for the theme.

2017 UCB Summer Reading Poster


Students go multimodal (or is it multimedia)? Take 2…

20 Jan

As I did a year earlier, I asked students in my first-year composition course at UC Berkeley last fall to write a short essay and post it online for others (indeed, potentially anyone) to see. This was in keeping with Clive Thompson’s discussion of the effects of writing for a public audience in his book, Smarter Than You Think.


Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (9/12/13) by Clive Thompson

With some trepidation and a good degree of verve, the students tackled topics of interest to them about identity and online representation, particularly in social media.

Here are some of their pieces. I invite you to click through and read:

Tietta writes about teens’ obsession with social media, and conducts an experiment to see what her life is like when she goes without social media for five days.

Maddy considers the implications of being “Instafamous,” with her 60,000+ Instagram followers.

Do you like selfies? Diana does. Do you overshare on social media? Erika wonders whether she does.

Annie thinks we’re all just a little too consumed with seeking validation on social media.

Here’s a post in a lower profile vein:  Mia talks about being a “singularity”–someone whose online presence gets defined much more by what others write about her than by what she posts.

Speaking of how others define us and the sometimes devastating effects of same, James reminds us of the stereotypical and prejudiced ways in the which the American media represents people of color, African Americans especially, and Neysa writes about recent examples of cultural appropriation which can be spread and commented on–to good and bad effect–across social media.

Kevin wonders how accurate our online profiles really are, as he considers the high incidence of suicide among young adults in his hometown of Palo Alto. Alishan writes about how the suicide of a friend helped give him the courage to be more fully and honestly himself, online and off.

Identity & The College Student

Many of the students wrote about their own identities as they are embodied by social media and other online offerings:

Marco, for instance, really likes anime and connecting with others online who share this passion.

Speaking of awareness of public audiences, Laura takes to heart the advice that you’ve got to be careful what you post online.

Irlanda wonders whether college is a time to consolidate your existing identity or to realize a new one.

Leo–“The Virtuoso”–finds that his online and offline identities are pretty much the same. Ivan keeps a low profile online, but finds evidence of his current and earlier selves in the pictures he’s posted there (including one of him getting to meet Eddie Van Halen).

And Kathy reminds us of one of social media’s central appeals:  it’s just plain fun.







“Only Connect”

6 Feb

Earlier this week, I was standing at a bus stop in busy downtown Berkeley, waiting to ride home after work. An email came in on my smart phone from one of my students who had a question regarding an essay he was writing about E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 short story, “The Machine Stops.”

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source:

E.M. Forster, by Dora Carrington (Source:

I looked up from my phone and briefly locked eyes with a gaunt, ragged-looking man who was walking past. He had all the markers of the hardcore homeless who, sadly, are all too familiar in Berkeley:  matted hair, torn clothing, dirt covering him from head to toe. Given his appearance, I assumed he was likely drug-addicted or schizophrenic, or both.

An extended gaze exchanged with someone like this rarely goes well; I looked back down at my phone to consider my student’s email.

Suddenly, a grimy palm was thrust between me and the phone, inches from my face. A faint scent of decaying garbage.

I recoiled, and there the man was, almost shoulder to shoulder with me as I leaned against a brick wall. The wild eyes seeing me, or not. He was muttering. I waited.  

“Can I tell you something?” he finally asked in a faint voice.


He muttered again, almost as if praying. What I could hear sounded like gibberish. I waited.

Then, with a violent motion, he chopped his hand against my phone and sent it clattering to the sidewalk.

“Turn it off!” he shouted, and then continued in unintelligible fashion, only now more loudly and inches from my face.

“OK, OK,” I said as calmly as I could, then bent to pick up my phone and started walking up the street away from the bus stop. Away from him.

“You will be executed!” he offered as benediction and then stalked off.

I circled back to the bus stop, wondering how many of the people there had watched and heard this exchange. It was hard to tell:  none of them looked at me. Most of them were looking at their phones.

Kuno Comes to Berkeley

In “The Machine Stops,” Forster’s narrator tells of a futuristic world in which the people are willingly in the grip of an all-controlling Machine that was created by humankind generations before. Each person now lives alone underground in windowless rooms that are honeycombed together “like the cell[s] of a bee.” Physical touch between people is considered repellent, in-person meetings rare. People are entirely disconnected from Nature and from each other, communicating via screens, delivering empty lectures, having things brought to them by the Machine, their minds and muscles atrophying. When the main character, Vashti, is first introduced to us, it is not as a woman but as a “swaddled lump of flesh…with a face as white as a fungus.”

My students frequently make connections to movies like Wall-E and The Matrix, and it’s also an easy leap to see the way Forster imagined us all a century later Skyping and Facebooking and You Tubing and ordering packages from Amazon by drone, as in this description of Vashti’s small room:

“Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere – buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced literature. and there were of course the buttons by which she communicated with her friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”

The only one in the story who resists The Machine and its dictates is Vashti’s son, Kuno. He begs his mother to journey across the earth to see him so he can speak to her and see her face-to-face and “not through the wearisome Machine.” He thinks and asks questions. He longs to visit the forbidden surface of the Earth and to exercise his body and to look at the sky and wonder at the stars, all of which he does before The Machine violently tugs him back beneath the ground. Kuno is the only one who foresees The Machine society’s cataclysmic end.

Kuno is the voice of reason in the story, the only one to resist the absurdity and tyranny of The Machine. Kuno’s is Forster’s voice, and ours.

And for this, Kuno and his like–the rational, the physical, the emotional, the sensual, the non-mechanical people, the ones who can see the truth–are outcasts in the society of The Machine, flung to the surface of the Earth to die, and assigned the status most feared by Vashti and her “friends”:


I boarded the bus for home and looked down at my phone, its screen streaked with oil from the man’s hand, from mine. I wondered if I had dared not to avert my eyes from him to look at my phone but instead had held his gaze and smiled or given a friendly nod whether his response would have been different. Or perhaps he would have raved at me regardless.

How many people must shun this man, minute by minute, every single day of his life? Imagine the cumulative effect of that loneliness and that rejection by one’s fellow human beings.

In his own way, whatever the biochemistry of his brain was doing to thwart his efforts, the man was looking to make contact, and I had instead responded in a way that was perfectly normal, perfectly acceptable in polite society (“perfectly mechanical,” Vashti would say), and instead had turned to my phone. I had, as the characters in the story do, “isolated” myself.

His enraged madman’s response to me was, in the end, perfectly rational. It’s a less-polite version of the same lament so many of us regularly have about others and, if we’re being honest, about ourselves, even as we can’t resist the pull of the flashing notifications, the desire to see what the web, Forster’s evolved Machine, has delivered to us.

Indeed, the man’s screaming was a crazed echo of another of Forster’s creations, Margaret Schlegel of Howard’s End who wants to implore the rigid, unemotional Henry Wilcox with one of Forster’s most famous entreaties, one that rings down the decades, louder and more urgently now than ever, if we’ll stop long enough to hear it:

“Only connect!”


Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.

Monument to E.M. Forster in Stevenage, Hertfordshire.






“The Grinning Boy”

29 Jan

The IRA, the Boston Irish mob wars, a bully, and a boy caught between a series of bad choices:  my new short story, “The Grinning Boy,” appears in the current issue of The Missouri View.  Gorgeous issue, with lots of great reading.  Check the Table of Contents here.

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

The Missouri Review, Winter 2014

How do we dance? After Ferguson for the privileged vacationer

24 Aug

Early on the morning of Saturday, August 9, the sun was high, the sky was clear, and my family and I were at last ready for our long-anticipated summer vacation when my wife made one last stop for a hot tea in Berkeley before we set off.  When she returned to the car, she told me about a brief encounter she’d had in the coffee shop that would prove more striking in light of what would come to pass later that day in Missouri.

After getting her tea, she went to the nearby counter to doctor it with milk and honey.  There was a very large man there who was in the way in the cramped space.  He moved to one side to make room for her just as she moved in the same direction.  Neither could get around.  Then they both moved simultaneously in the opposite direction to make way.  My wife smiled and said, “It looks like we’re dancing.”  It was at this point that the man, who had seemed stiff and uncomfortable, a neutral expression on his face, laughed and broke into a wide grin, and his whole body relaxed.  His smile, she said, was winning and beautiful.

My wife is a petite woman who looks to the outsider, perhaps, vaguely Jewish—dark hair, pale skin.  Most would call her white.  (She’s half-English, half-Mexican, all American.)  The man with whom she was dancing at the coffee bar was tall, heavyset, and black.  When the man smiled at her and laughed, my wife said it was like she could see the man’s armor come down, the armor he probably has to carry in spaces like these—filled mostly with white people—offering a glimpse of the human being beneath.

“Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day,” he said, as they each sugared their drinks.

“It does, doesn’t it?” she replied, and then wished him a great Saturday.

For a little while in the car afterward we talked about the carapace that so many people of color have to wear in situations like this, and that so many black men in particular, and especially large black men, have to wear.  We talked about the ways in which most white folks (ourselves included) really don’t have a clue about the de-humanizing psychological effects this must have on a person.  We talked about why it was so hard for most white folks to acknowledge the kinds of microaggressions that people of color are subjected to constantly, the microagressions that lead one to develop that requisite armor.  We agreed that this was a tragedy, and that acknowledging the humanity of others—offering a simple smile or a dance—was so important, and a place to begin.

Then a couple of hours later, in the wake of the most macro and final of aggressions, Michael Brown was left dead on the street for four hours, and Ferguson, Missouri exploded.

* * *

We continued on our long car drive to the Pacific Northwest, completely oblivious.  The places we were staying had no televisions or newspapers, and we turned off all the notifications on our smart phones.  We wanted to unplug for a while and enjoy ourselves.  We were totally clueless about what was happening in the outside world.

About a week into our trip, I finally peeked at my news feeds, and began seeing #Ferguson Ferguson FERGUSON!! everywhere.  Something about a black man being killed by a (probably white) police officer.  The same awful, too familiar story, except that this one was obviously different.  News reports coming fast and furious.  Friends posting their outrage—at the police, at the media—friends calling for understanding, friends saying look at this, look at this, look at this!!

It was too much to take in.  This was supposed to be a much-needed vacation.  A vacation unplugged.  I felt vaguely ill, and I had to work hard to forget it for a few more days.  The pretty scenery helped:



Fern CoveClearwox Lake

This is what we Americans are often good at:  forgetting.  And when it’s white (“white”?) Americans thinking about race, and especially white people thinking about black people, we are very good at forgetting.  We—the privileged we—take vacations of the mind all the time.

* * *

When we returned home after almost two weeks away, it was still too much, but I tried to sort through the broad outlines and the specifics, trying to make sense not only of the sequence of events, but also of how to put it all in context, and, finally, of what to do about it.

There have been many incisive things written and said about the matter, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of them, but among those things, I’ll offer five here.  This is as much, or more, a marker for me as it is for you, the reader, who has probably seen these already. 

But if not, these five are more than worth your while, each of them offering concrete steps we can take–as parents, as citizens, and as a government–to avoid tragedies like those that befell Michael Brown, and to help redress such tragedies that, sadly, are sure to happen again:

First, this post, “A Mother’s White Privilege,” by Elizabeth Broadbent.  What mothers of white children do, and don’t, have to worry about.

Next, “Dear White Moms,” an impassioned plea from Keesha Beckford that all people, and white folks especially, should heed.

Then there is this much-shared piece by Air Force veteran Michael Bell, in which he describes what he discovered about what happens when police investigate a shooting by one of their officers.  (The answer is what you’d expect:  pretty much nothing.)  The first paragraph runs as follows:

“After police in Kenosha, Wis., shot my 21-year-old son to death outside his house ten years ago — and then immediately cleared themselves of all wrongdoing — an African-American man approached me and said:  ‘If they can shoot a white boy like a dog, imagine what we’ve been going through.'”


And then this commentary from John Oliver, who is fast establishing himself as a go-to man for putting complex political situations into an accessible, and often hilarious, context:


Finally, though I hope you look at all of the above links, if you read only one of them, make it this one:  “Reparations for Ferguson, a commentary by Ta-Nehisi Coates, correspondent from The Atlantic and another go-to man for cultural and political commentary.

His earlier May 2014 article, “The Case for Reparations,” was so well done and thought provoking that I went out and bought a print copy of the magazine so I could digest his writing more fully.  Upon closer inspection, the article proved to be even more impressive, such that I immediately subscribed to The Atlantic in print for three years.

In “Reparations for Ferguson,” Coates extends and further specifies the arguments of his original piece in a way that is all the more powerful in the wake of Ferguson.  His article serves as a reminder (for those of us who need the reminding) that many more Fergusons are in our future if we don’t take steps—individually and as a country—to address them.  Now.


So much depends…

15 Jul


an inserted

scribbled in black

amidst the white

 The Kindly Rejection


Though in light of the TriQuarterly submissions controversy last week, and T.A. Noonan’s cogent responses to same (both anonymous and by-lined), the cynic says, “Oh, I bet you say that to everyone.”


Postscript:  The story referenced in the above note has since been accepted elsewhere.


Life imitates art–a little “whoa” moment

11 Jun

I’ve written before about the way my writing has sometimes anticipated, in odd ways, people or events in my life.  Yesterday, I had another of those moments.

Earlier this year, as I was finishing up a class discussion of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” in a creative writing class I co-teach at UC Berkeley, one of my students suddenly went into a massive seizure.

The student has suffered these seizures repeatedly since he was a young child, and he is confined to a wheelchair so he won’t hurt himself if he seizes and falls down.  His lovely mother–a shoo-in candidate for mother of the year–is his constant companion, shuttling him from class to class and everywhere else her son needs to go.

I had known beforehand that his seizing was a possibility.  However, it was still a shock when, as I began to prompt the class to begin a writing exercise, my student began convulsing in his chair.  I rushed over, and with his mother’s help and guidance, eased him out of his chair and onto the floor, supporting his head and neck as his seizure continued.  Several of my other students, reacting quickly, called 911.  The student’s body eventually calmed and he fell into a kind of sleep.  The Berkeley Fire Department arrived with impressive speed, and the student was taken to the hospital, where he recovered quickly.

An upsetting event for all concerned–my student’s mother especially–but I was proud of my other students for their take charge and compassionate responses.  They warmly welcomed their classmate back to class the next week, and he continued to the end of the semester with impressive perseverance and his customary good cheer.

And then yesterday, I was working over a long manuscript of fiction–cutting and cutting and cutting–when I came across a short passage I’d forgotten.  I’d first written the scene 5 or 6 years ago, before I’d begun teaching creative writing at Cal, and not having witnessed a grand mal seizure since middle school when a classmate of mine suffered one.

In the scene, a fiction writer is out to dinner with colleagues when one of their party suddenly collapses.  The other people leap into action, attending to the person who has passed out and fallen to the floor.  Meanwhile, the fiction writer sits paralyzed, doing nothing but watching the others.  After describing that initial action, I wrote this:

He was reminded of his shame when a few years earlier a student had gone into an epileptic seizure in one of his creative writing classes and how he’d stood in place the entire time, saying not a word as a series of future take-charge types in the guise of hooded freshmen who couldn’t write had kept the poor boy from biting off his tongue and thereby exposed their instructor as a man not to be counted on in a crisis.  He’d barely been able to return their gazes for the rest of the semester; everyone in the class had gotten an A.

I’m glad that my actual self responded better than the fictional character did (probably thanks to my student’s mother).  And my actual students were much better writers than the fictional ones, although, sadly, not everyone earned an A.

Still, it was a mini “Whoa” moment.  And I think I’ll keep that scene in the manuscript.

(Source:  hansol, Flickr)

(Source: hansol, Flickr)




Into the Unknown

7 Mar

On not knowing, and failing, as a path to wisdom and success…

Divine Light Coaching

Into the Unknown Into the Unknown

When I sat down to write this blog today, I had several ideas swirling in my head, and so I decided to pull an Oracle card from Colette Baron-Reid’s deck “The Enchanted Map.”  The card I got is pictured above Into the Unknown, and the upshot is that trust and willingness to admit I don’t know this new territory are needed as I move forward.  Bingo – every day right now feels like this for me, a perfect thing to write about!

When I got into coaching, many pieces of it felt “known” to me.  I had trained as a therapist, and had lots and lots of experience working with people, listening to them, identifying their strengths, zeroing in on problems.  I had hired my own coach, who helped me change my life and I modeled a lot of how I practiced in the beginning on…

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“Novelists are chancers”–A few favorite moments from AWP ’14

3 Mar

A few favorite moments from this year’s AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Seattle:

*Rachel Kushner saying she tries to make sure that when she writes, she has “not yet performed any acts of speech that day.”  (Or was it that she tries not to have “committed any acts of speech”?  Either way, she’s a #silentgenius.)

*Hearing writers from Killing the Buddha talking about the complex ways in which they write about faith, paying attention to the stories that believers tell rather than the “facts” of God’s (or gods’ or goddesses’) existence or non-existence.

*Jess Walter’s very funny introductions of Gish Jen and Tobias Wolff, including his commentary on how he, a writer unaffiliated with any college, felt about attending his first AWP:

Walter joked that he’d worried about whether he’d fit in at AWP, about whether he’d be expected to use words like “pedagogy,” or if he even was pronouncing the word correctly.  He mentioned that when he first arrived at the conference, he saw a writer friend coming out of a convenience store, and the writer said, “Dude, what the hell?! They legalize pot here and then they don’t even sell it in the stores?!”

To which Walter replied:  “That’s pedagogy for you.”

*Seeing my former Pitt colleagues Catherine Gammon and Jeffrey Condran both doing so well.

*That attentive and somewhat beleagured look on other writers’ faces as they watched each other streaming up and down the endless Escher painting escalators of the Washington State Convention center.  Reassuring because I knew it was the look on my face as well.

*Spending time with my friends and talented fellow Berkeley writers, Kaya OakesRyan Sloan, and John Levine. Always a pleasure.

*Sarah Einstein, the managing editor of Brevity, talking about what kinds of stories the magazine doesn’t accept, and doing so by giving a breakdown of the worst submission she’s ever seen, the one she keeps posted on the wall next to her desk as a reminder, and she pointing out to the audience, in great specificity, the flaws in that submission’s title and theme and craft, and I’m thinking, “Jeez, that’s awfully mean of her to go on like that,” until the ending that I didn’t see coming (and which I’m sure you do see coming) when she revealed that the submission was hers.

*Hearing novelist Thaddeus Rutkowski talk about how hard it is to market his books on a shoestring budget, and how difficult it is to know how effective his use of online tools for marketing is, so in the spirit of online sharing, here’s a link to his website, and here’s a video clip of him performing “White and Wong,” part of the documentary Aurora:

*And finally…Colm Toibin making the statement that “Novelists are chancers.”   Toibin took such impish delight in being a chancer that I knew, then and there, that I wanted to be one.

Colm Toibin

Art Inspiration

12 Feb

Art (and a blog) to inspire!

Divine Light Coaching

A couple of weeks ago, I had a day of complete inspiration.  It was the uplifting, heart opening, I-can-see-all-the-possibilities-in-the-world feeling that makes me want to sing or dance or do whatever I can to express the joy of feeling alive.  I felt completely jolted out of the winter and post-holiday doldrums I had been in.  I owe this feeling, this lightness of heart and spirit to David Hockney.

David Hockney “Bigger Trees Near Warter, Winter 2007”

And to the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

David Hockney at the deYoung Museum

David Hockney exhibit at the de Young Museum

And “Bigger” this exhibit was!  This man is amazing! The depth and breadth of what he does, just blew my mind.  Sure, he is a painter as in the first image (one of my favorites, it was HUGE).  The size of the paintings were such that some took up whole walls…

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