My Life and Times

Travels with Joni Mitchell

Travels with Joni Mitchell

An oeuvre inaugurated by disavowal

Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.

Conversations with Bongjun

Conversations with Bongjun

Cards, tunnels, a rocket ship going backward

Oh! I thought. This sounds like the kind of man for me! I didn’t know at the time that he was interested in how jokes work because he wanted to figure out how humor could topple dictators and children of former dictators, specifically South Korea’s president at the time, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Korea’s old strongman dictator, Park Chung-hee.

Grief Network

Grief Network

“Do you want to turn your notifications off?” Twitter asked. No. I went to work at 9 AM and told my boss it was very important that I stay online.

Most people I knew didn’t say anything. I got some texts from friends and acquaintances, some to say I did a good thing, most to ask if I was OK. A few days after our tweets first hit, I was messaging a friend and asked him if he’d seen them. He had not. “Not to be not-all-men . . .” he texted, “but not all men.” Another friend messaged me on Facebook to ask how things were. “Your Twitter has been a little dark lately,” she said.

Maybe Nothing Had Happened

Maybe Nothing Had Happened

What did feet feel toward hands, their pretentious, elegant cousins?

Like many people my age, like Molly, I’d been deeply in love with this man, and had spent hours hurling myself spastically around the house to his songs, and I’d continued to be a partisan of his music and, what, brand, until the music got so boring that it wasn’t worth the energy anymore. Whatever bad shit he was into, I probably would have stayed loyal if there’d been worthwhile product. The sadness I felt watching the movie had something to do with a person’s art betraying them, of watching a man who has grown bored with the possibilities of his craft attempting to find, somewhere in his past, something worth preserving, and finding nothing.

Nights of Rage

Nights of Rage

1970 is an inauspicious year for a young heterosexual feminist to launch an ambitious career of promiscuity.

The sexual revolution is cresting. Men have been riding it like the perfect wave, with women newly eager yet still reliably abject. Now, however, the women’s movement is riling that perfect wave with confounding currents: both extolling the vast potential of female sexuality (multiple orgasms!) and demanding that men fulfill it, now. To many men feminism is a betrayal, a threat, or a joke; to others it is a challenge. They are excited and wary, aggressive and cowed, all at once.

Peter Stories

Peter Stories

On Peter Mayer, 1936–2018

His indifference to luxury distinguished him from his peers and seemed to ground him in the present tense. An often ancient-seeming man who spoke with the long vowels of the American midcentury, he always kept moving. He invested in young people—in us—a remarkable degree of trust and authority. The past was invoked often, but always as the punchline to a good story: his sordid adventures in the Merchant Marines; the time Allen Ginsberg got into the cab he was driving and asked him to take him cross-country (Peter of course obliged); a visit with Yukio Mishima in Tokyo too bizarre and nightmarish to explain with any succinctness. He once said he published a photography book, New York in the ’70s, because he had spent that decade in his office and needed a visual guide. But the stories suggested otherwise.

An Account of My Hut

An Account of My Hut

I don’t want to live in a spaceship

The weekend before the fires I attended a grief workshop sponsored by the climate change group. They told us grief processed on one’s own turns to despair, but grief processed communally becomes medicine. Now that we knew the reality of climate change, we would grieve the Earth. That way grief wouldn’t hold us back when it was time to mobilize. To prepare us, they drew two circles on the board. Your Comfort Zone was written inside one circle. In the second circle, some distance from the first, they wrote, Where the Magic Happens.