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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Good-bye, New York

Good-bye, Manhattan.

Good-bye, Hilton New York. Good-bye Best Western President.

Good-bye, Chrysler Building. Say hi to the others--I’ll catch them next time.

Good-bye, Broadway. Good-bye 5th Avenue. Good-bye 59th Street. Good-bye corner of Grove and Benton--what great Friends you made.

So long, Times Square. You’re a little flashy, but I like you anyway.

Good-bye, $5 silk pashminas, $5 hats, those wrinkled old paperbacks arranged on the folding table next to the old Dylan albums.

Good-bye, King-Kong-sized M&M. I loved how you aped that movie in your gargantuan ads. While I’m gone: no monkey business up there.

See you around, Radio City Music Hall, Ed Sullivan Theater, Museum of Modern Art, New York Public Library.

Good-bye, Patience and Fortitude.

Hey, Bryant Park: thanks for being so cool.

See you later, NY Giants. Good luck this afternoon.

Ciao, all you little pizza joints. Tell Starbucks to piss off.

Good-bye, New York cabbies, city buses, and grubby old subway trains. You have charms all your own, and you treated me well.

At ease, mounted police. You did a great job.

All the best, NYFD. It was a pleasure abutting your firehouse. This city is proud as hell of you all, and it shows.

Good-bye, frail old black woman in the puffy pink coat who only wanted quarters for the bus. I hope it was enough, and God bless you too.

Good-bye, people singing out loud to the music on their iPods; good-bye street musicians; good-bye that guy in the subway who only knew one chord and just kept strumming it over and over like a mantra, like a prayer for spare change.

Great show, Hunting and Gathering; I have new respect for off-Broadway theatre.

Good seeing you, Isaac Byrne. Glad to reconnect--you’re one of the coolest freakin’ people I know.

So long, The Village. Nice to meet you, Four Faced Liar.

Good luck, pretzel vendors. It can’t be easy out there. (Watch out for those hot nuts carts--those people are crazy.)

Shalom, gang of somber Hasidim protesting against the state of Israel--I admire your discipline, but I admire your chutzpah even more.

Sorry I missed you, World Trade Center site. Hang in there--I hear you’re making a comeback.

I hadn’t heard from you in ages, Beastie Boys on the radio. Let’s stay in touch.

Good-bye, Lady Liberty. I’ll always love you from afar. (Don’t loose your head.)

Good-bye, Martin Amis, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose. Wish I’d gotten to know you better.

Good-bye Billy Collins, Beth Ann Fennelly, Tom Franklin, John Irving, Frank McCourt, Hannah Tinti--you’re an inspiration, all of you.

Good-bye, AWP. See you next year in Chicago.


Three things: notes from yesterday

To try and catch up from yesterday, I'm sitting on the floor against an out-of-the-way pillar in the conference hotel, writing this over a tiny, cold, and weirdly tasteless portabella mushroom sandwich that cost $7.50. Anywhere else, this sandwich would have come from a vending machine and cost $1.25, but this is New York. When I called Isaac, my director friend, last night to arrange our evening plans, he asked if I had any place in mind. I said, "You tell me--you live here. I'm just looking for a beer cheaper than eight dollars." He said, "Oh, then you might be out of luck. This is New York, man." (Isaac, a born-again New Yorker who lives in Brooklyn and works in midtown Manhattan, spends a lot of his time in between, hanging out in The Village. He took me to his favorite bar, the Four Faced Liar, where he found me beer for only four dollars. What a great friend!)

Among the events of yesterday--the conference panels I attended, including some ideas for teaching creative writing to children and teenagers and a discussion of the difficult transition from writing short stories to writing a novel--three stand out.

The first, and most absurd, of the three was the fire alarm.

It happened during a reading for my current favorite literary magazine, One Story, a brilliant little publication that takes the unusual approach of publishing and distributing only one story at a time, which you can then collect into "box sets"--they even sell a box to put them in. It's a tiresome, hectic, and largely selfless endeavor--they're actually a non-profit now--that I appreciate more for its ambition than for its novelty. The editors also have remarkable taste in short fiction (which may be why they keep politely rejecting me); the fiction they've published has gone on to appear in every major anthology and prize series available to short fiction, and the magazine has gotten mention in New York magazine and in O, Oprah's magazine. Also, I love Hannah Tinti, one of the cofounders, who is always polite and chatty at these conferences and who does an amazing job representing the magazine and nurturing their writers.

Anyway, aside from its purpose of commemorating One Story's 100th issue, the set-up of the panel was a typical reading, in which various writers who've appeared in the magazine stood to read their fiction aloud. (For my students: this is exactly what I'll be doing at my Pop Culture conference in March.) The authors were terrific, a little funny without being goofy or loosing the seriousness of their work, and clearly practiced in performance reading (though one reader was awfully quiet at first). The second reader, Nicole Kelby, was particularly hilarious, giving a bombastic and rich delivery of her story about two hapless middle-agers, both unattractive, both married to different spouses, about to fumble their way through their first experiment with adultery. And then, as though ignited by the sexual friction of those two characters rubbing desperately on each other, a blaring fire alarm erupted throughout the hotel. Everyone turned momentarily in our seats, but--lovers of fiction that we all were--no one got up and, perturbed but undaunted, the author just read louder.

After a few moments of brilliant fiction out-voicing the grating whine of the alarm, the tone and pitch changed to a low grit like the wrong-answer buzz from a game show cranked up to maximum volume. Nicole Kelby paused, we all chuckled nervously, and then Kelby shouted at the alarm on the back wall, "Shut up! We're trying to talk about sex in here!" When several people impulsively grabbed their bags and headed for the door (some claimed they were only going to check the situation, though I admit, even I stood up, just in case we all needed to run), the author shouted again: "Come back! We have sex!" Now everyone looked torn, anxious about the situation out in the hotel but also caught up in the inferno of sex and now enjoying the jokes Kelby was making on the fire's behalf.

Then an announcer came over a loud speaker (loud speaker may be giving it too much credit; it sounded more like an amplified drive-thru speaker at Wendy's) and told us all what we already knew: "An alarm has been received."

He went on to explain the hotel's heroic response to this potential disaster: "We are trying to determine the cause of the alarm."

And then, as though to put our minds at ease, he said, "As soon as a cause is know we will inform you of the cause."

He would not, apparently, tell us what to do if the cause was a fire.

Still, this seemed to settle the matter for those in the room--we wanted to get back to the sex, and now that the alarm had ceased, leaving us only the lasciviously winking strobe of the emergency light, Kelby raised her voice and plunged us all back into bed. But--appropriately for a story about the awkwardness of illicit sex--she kept getting interrupted. The inane announcer, whom Kelby later dubbed "Inspector Clouseau," returned again and again to repeat his message about investigating the alarm. Finally, after Kelby had made several comical attempts to get the story back on track, Inspector Clouseau gave us an update: "The cause of the alarm has been determined. The alarm is determined to have been false. Thank you for your patience."

"You're welcome!" Kelby shouted.

And then, because the people in the Starbucks one storey down and across the four-lane street hadn't heard him the first time, Inspector Clouseau returned: "The cause of the alarm has been determined."

"Oh God," Kelby said, and I couldn't tell if she had given up making jokes about her frustration, or if one of the characters in the story had just orgasmed.

The second, and bravest, event yesterday was my trip on the New York subway. Though the complexity of the routes and the stations was a bit intimidating (this is the largest subway system in the world), the subway itself wasn't nearly as frightening as popular conception has built it up to be. True, the cars were older, dirtier, and less recently maintained than the trains I've ridden in Atlanta or Chicago. And the stations are quite murky, the walls brushed dark gray in dust and grime like shavings from a wet pencil lead. Staring into the black, tarry-floored rails between platforms, and then up and the dim tiled platforms themselves, I couldn't help but think of the movies and TV shows and novels in which some unfortunate character trips, or jumps, or gets pushed into the train as it comes marauding into the station. For the first time in my limited metro-rail experience, I got the definite impression that I wouldn't come away from a late-night excursion unscathed. Still, the cars weren't nearly as crowded as I'd expected, and though one frightened girl seemed to think I was following her and kept inching away from me (how did I become the scary one?), everyone else was quite polite. The rail rode fast, the tide of passengers ebbed and flowed smoothly, and in just a few short moments, I'd made it from midtown to the Village, where I embarked on the third, and best, of the events yesterday.

When Isaac Byrne and I were in college together, he was probably the strongest actor on our small campus. I saw him in almost every play he did those few years, and I even went to some of his community-theater shows. Then, because that college's theater department was extremely supportive despite how absurdly tiny and underfunded it was, Isaac managed to direct a few plays, and he proved at least as good in the chair as he was on the stage. He not only had an actor's understanding of the performance process, and therefore was able to coax impressive performances from even unskilled actors, but he also had a fantastic eye for scene-setting and lighting--even in a theater the size of our living room, he managed to create an immediate mood and invested the audience easily in the reality of the play. He may not know this, but excepting my then-fiancee/now-wife, he and our playwright/screenwriter pal Justin Cooper were among my strongest friends back then. (And given the knack I had for stirring up trouble through our school newspaper, of which I was editor, I needed all the friends I could get.)

Now Isaac is living in New York, where he has worked his way up from acting in small parts on stage and in indie films to co-founding a production company and directing critically acclaimed and award-winning off-off Broadway theatre (Isaac won the 2006 Innovative Theater award for Best Director, and his company's productions picked up five other IT awards; IT is like the Tonys for off-off Broadway theatre).

He met me just to grab a few beers on his way to the theater (I drank; Isaac is getting over a cold and stuck to water). He's working as assistant director for an off-Broadway play called Hunting and Gathering. (For those of you who don't know, off-off Broadway and off-Broadway are technical distinctions in the theatre industry, and they form a ranking of prestige leading up to, of course, Broadway. This gig Isaac has now, though thankless and only a small-print item in the playbill, is actually an important step up for Isaac.) Because Isaac is cool as hell, he invited me to join him, and when we got to the theater, he managed to get me in for free.

The play details the migratory apartment-hunting that consumes so many New Yorkers' lives and, blended into that structure, the interwoven narratives of four people: A divorced English professor and his seductive, predatory student (played by Meryl Streep's daughter!), the professor's ex-girlfriend (whom he had an affair with while still married), and the professor's nomadic, neo-hippy Buddhist half-brother (who is best friends with--but also in love with--the professor's ex-girlfriend).

The script feels short, though the production comes in at 90 minutes, and the text is still a bit rough in a few places (it developed in a workshop not unlike the workshops I lead my students through, though of course professional and much more intense), but the writing is witty, efficient, and surprisingly complex, dropping innocent lines that turn out to be important set-ups for more revealing scenes later and pulling the characters apart and remixing them in new relationships in such an organic flow it was like dropping liquid mercury on the floor watching it break into little silver balls and run around on its own until reforming into new shapes.

The production was also impressive; I especially liked the city skyline created, symbolically, out of blank brown moving boxes and which opened in various places to reveal refrigerators, linen closets, and couches as we shifted from one apartment to another. The actors, too, were terrific; I loved Ruth, the ex-girlfriend (she had both an honesty and an intensity that projected her character all the way up into the last row of seats, where I sat even though I felt like I was on stage with her), and Astor, the Buddhist couch-surfer, who reminded me of a blend of Jack Black in School of Rock and "The Dude" from The Big Lebowski and who delivered his comedic lines with a pitch-perfect high-on-meditation drawl while also demonstrating an explosive emotional range during serious scenes.

But regardless how much I enjoyed the play, it wasn't really the highlight of the evening. The best part was simply seeing an old friend, chatting and hanging out and running around the city together. It made the city seem smaller, if you could imagine that of Manhattan, much less of New York. It made it seem familiar, more livable, less a metropolis and more a home.


With apologies

For the three people actually reading this, I'm sorry: It's been a long day. My morning started--after very little sleep--with my witnessing the motorcade of someone famous (I've yet to learn who) pulling away from the Fox News headquarters, and ended with some brilliant and engaging conversation about the creative process with my old college friend Isaac Byrne, who is now a rising stage director here in Manhattan and who was generous enough to invite me to a showing of his new off-Broadway play staring Meryl Streep's daughter. Between these events, I attended several fantastic panels, endured a fire alarm, rode the New York subway--twice--and drank way too many beers. So now I'm off to bed, with the promise that I will post the longest entry yet--to include today's events (which I recorded in my handwritten journal)--sometime tomorrow evening.


On friends, lions, and Friends again

This morning, I woke early and walked the dozen blocks to the conference hotel so I could hit the first session of panel presentations on the schedule. The panel I attended was a discussion about creative writers and their careers as teachers. Strangely, every member of the panel managed to utter at least one withering statement highlighting the futility of everything I do as a writer and/or every ambition I have as a teacher, effectively undermining my exhilaration at being here. After that disheartening experience, I decided to make an appearance at the monstrous bookfair here (more on that later) and then abandon the conference to get a little sightseeing done. The first day is always fairly light, anyway, and the weather was only good today, so I had to get my photography in while I could.

Fortunately, at the bookfair I met a fiction publisher who invited me to a reading and reception this evening, which immediately preceded the keynote address by author John Irving (my students will know him as the author of The Cider House Rules, though he was first famous as the author of The World According to Garp). I planned to attend the keynote address--why would I pass up a chance to hear John Irving speak?--so I agreed to attend the earlier reading as well, partly because the publisher who invited me prefers more experimental fiction and, though it's not my normal milieu, that could be one way to describe my latest novel and some of my recent shorter fiction. Besides, as a promotional gimmick, the publisher had printed loads of "Kiss me" buttons, each with a different punchline, and I found on rooting through the basket a button that reads "Kiss me--I'm a vampire." I took it as a small sign: while I'm in New York, I've been tinkering with a novel that opens in this city, and it happens also to be a new, semi-experimental take on the vampire genre.

When I got back to the conference hotel this evening, I bumped into my friends Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly in the hotel bar. While Tommy balked at his eight-dollar Budweiser (I nodded at the tab and said, "Welcome to New York"), Beth Ann hugged me and said, "Well, okay--if the first person we see after getting to New York is Sam Snoek-Brown, then this should turn out to be a pretty good conference." (We're not as close as I sometimes like to make out, but I do love Beth Ann and Tommy--they're both brilliant writers, and because they're far more generous friends to me than I'm able to be to them, I always feel like I owe them a lot. Still, they manage to find this small excuse to cheer me up.) That brief encounter--and the John Irving speech later (more on him later, too)--served as the perfect bookend to my conference day; it managed to undo the damage done this morning and set a much better tone for the conference. To paraphrase Beth Ann, if I end my day with a hug and a passing compliment, this will turn out to be a good conference after all.


After I left the conference this morning, I took a long walk through Times Square to 42nd Street ( a full ten blocks south of the conference), then headed east to 5th Avenue and Bryant Park. The park was awash in long white tents that swarmed with black-shirted set-up crews like ants from a disturbed nest. I stopped to read one of the flyers tied in a row down the low wrought-iron fence: "Please excuse our construction as we prepare to reestablish New York as a fashion city." Anyone who watches Project Runway as religiously as my wife does will know they were gearing up for Fashion Week. But that wasn't what I'd come to see. On the back side of Bryant Park, across a wide patio from a stubby bronze statue of Gertrude Stein, is the rear of the New York Public Library's humanities & social sciences branch. It's only one of many NYPL branches, really, but it is the most famous: this is home to Patience and Fortitude, the huge marble lions that guard the front entrance and serve as the Public Library's official mascots.

I have made a habit of visiting the public libraries of every major city where I attend a conference. Or, I try to anyway. I missed Atlanta's, because the conference wasn't close enough. And I skipped San Antonio's because I'd been in several when I used to live there. But I have seen Albuquerque's, where I studied a huge scale model of the Globe Theater and enjoyed a quiet cup of coffee in their small sunken garden. I have walked through Vancouver's, a fascinating spiral-shaped building frequently featured in movies. And I have been in the hallowed halls of America's first public library, the wide, museum-like Boston Public Library (its lions perch on either side of the grand interior stairwell). I've also been in Chicago's public library, the largest in the country, though its entrances are guarded not by lions but by looming owls perched along the eaves. But New York is the crown jewel, if only for those two huge lions, which my wife--a librarian and a Leo--has come to adore as though they were distant adopted pets.

The library itself is a strange sort of sanctuary for literature, where librarians have chosen the protection of books over access to them. When I entered the grand marble foyer, a pair of velvet ropes guided me to a guard, who searched my bag with a flashlight. When I climbed the majestic staircase to the second floor, I found another guard at the top, with a third pacing the hall. On the third floor, the same. And nowhere could I find any books--only long corridors of marble, a few statues, and the cold eyes of the guards. Occasionally I'd pass a narrow door tucked away in a niche; some of the doors had brass plates specifying a special collection, and through the glass windows I could see long polished tables with little lamps and red padded chairs. I began to understand the monkish stereotype of some librarian portrayals, because here, researchers are scuttled away into corners, cloistered in tiny (though apparently comfortable) cells in which to pore over secret, protected tomes.

Finally, on the third floor, I wandered into an open lobby brightened by huge, colorful murals of Moses and his stone tablets, a mother helping her young son to read, and a medieval scholar painstakingly copying ancient manuscripts. And I found an open entryway, above which was a sign announcing a public catalog room. At last, I thought, I've found the books. But I hadn't. Instead, I'd found the computers on which they keep their card catalog--a whole room, just for looking up books. (I was amused to note that the library's acronym for their catalog system is CATNYP--a treat for the lions, maybe.) Beyond this were two separate rooms filled with desks, designated solely for reading the books (my students might have recognized the one I entered as the site of many New Yorkers' final stand in The Day After Tomorrow). Between these room were long rows of counters and windows like tellers' stations in a bank. There were books in the reading room, but they were separated from the readers by a railed walkway along which paced yet another guard. Instead of browsing shelves, researchers and casual readers alike need to look up a record in the catalog room, take their printed request to a library assistant at the tellers' stations, and then wait patiently in the reading room while the assistant--not you--retrieves your book. (Those of you who've seen Breakfast at Tiffany's will recognize the process.)

It was an altogether forbidding experience, especially when, having casually wandered into and then out of the reading room, I was stopped by another guard (the seventh I'd seen and third I'd spoken to) so he could search my bag. Ordinarily, I like to browse a library's catalog or shelves to find writers I know (my usual test is to see if they carry Tom Franklin's books, since he's the guy I wrote my masters thesis on), but here, I gave up on trying to track down anyone because, for me, half the pleasure of a public library is the freedom to roam the stacks, to take down any book that catches my eye, to touch the spines of so many volumes of genius. Here, all I could touch was stone. So I headed back to the main entrance, where I had my bag searched a fourth time, and I left.


I grabbed a bus down to the south end of Manhattan. I wasn't exactly sure of my directions, but I was looking for the corner of Bedford and Grove, in a quiet residential neighborhood of brownstones and small apartment buildings. I got off at Christopher and found myself strolling west, then south along Bleeker--a name I recognized from hundreds of television references, but the street was not quite residential (I passed a few internet cafes, a couple of unassuming boutiques, and a surprising number of sex shops, with inflatable dolls and tight leather lingerie in the windows). But after a short block I hit a row of brownstones and found myself on Bedford. West another long block, past racing children and a couple of young mothers pushing strollers, and I'd found it: the corner of Bedford and Grove, site of the little apartment building they used for exterior shots on Friends. I was standing outside Monica and Chandler's place. I took only two photos, but I lingered on the corner as long as I dared (the mothers were starting to stare), basking in an almost fervent awe as though beholding a relic or holy place. That's not quite fair, really--I certainly felt a great deal more reverential awe in the presence of Saint Nicolas's bones or the Green Mosque on a Friday during Ramadan when I was in Turkey ten years ago--but in the sense that I am a Friends fanatic, the emotions of amazement and veneration are as close as I can come to describing my brief moments outside that building.

Downstairs, where Central Perk would have been had it been a real place, was a tiny restaurant called The Little Owl. Had it been open for lunch, I'd have eaten there, no matter how expensive it might be (it looks pretty swanky); I would definitely have ordered a cup of coffee. As it was, I could only gawk alongside a foursome of teenage girls, who were giggling at the not-quite-Central-Perk until the restaurant's launderer arrived with an armload of white tablecloths and brusquely shooed us all away.


It's late now--after 1 a.m. here, and I have an early start again tomorrow--so I think I'll save my John Irving notes for later. I will offer this one observation, though: I think sometimes that the most engaging fiction writers are also brilliant storytellers, because so many of the best I've met are masters of the long oral story, especially the narrative joke. Tommy Franklin was the best I'd ever met until I heard John Irving tonight. That man can certainly weave a yarn.