About a month ago a forwarded email arrived. It was so staggering, actions were forced.
The note, laden in artistic pronouncements and full-of-itselfness, begged for an extension; a dramatic reading was considered, but it turned out only a full video could to the thing justice. After all, a 1500-word yearly update email sent to dozens of people deserves the highest degree of satire you can muster.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m an earnest man. But even sincerity, in extreme, is funny as hell. (Viz. Kenneth on 30 Rock.)
Who was the sender? An unknown personage, but clearly a modern-day Benjamin Franklin, part writer, part political organizer, all full of Brooklyn potential and privilege and so indicative of our generation’s rampaging self-importance.
We christened him Eric Anton Schechter-Oblomov; this is his yearly update, verbatim, brought to life as best we could.
I’m writing you with the warmest wishes on this, just another winter’s day in New York. I figured this was as good a time as any to write, in the shadow of the depression, in the afterglow of yes we can, and in what has become a season of creative stimulus, though it be a global winter of our discontent. To write you, not with a plea for your protest or your donation or your time for this or that campaign, no—to write you just to say hello. It has, as it always has, been too long.
I’m writing these words to you in my new home, an ancient apartment in my ancestral homeland of Brooklyn, New York—Prospect-Lefferts, to be precise—where you can find me most nights, at the end of long days, at my typewriter or notebook, or in the streets organizing amid the crisis.
Soon you will find me in other places, places like Guatemala, where I will live as an expat writer; like Israel and Palestine, where I hope to put in some work amid the wreckage with human rights organizations on the ground; like Eastern Europe, where, somewhere in the ashes, I hope to unearth some roots. All while working to finish my novel before I hit grad school in the fall, which will be either here in NYC or in Berkeley.
Before I leave this March on the latest road where solitude meets solidarity, I would love to see you again, if you are around to be seen, and catch up on the life we’ve each of us lived since the last time we sat down together. And if you are not in the vicinity of NYC or Boston and you have a minute, write me back and let me know how you’ve been, where you’ve been, where you’re going, what moves you or excites you these days. Looking forward to sharing stories, stanzas, tunes, ideas, and whatever it is we are doing.
To those of you I haven’t spoken to in a while and are wondering where I’ve been all this time, I’ve been trying my hand at this and that. I’ve been a freelance journalist. I’ve been a photojournalist. I’ve been an organizer. I worked on what they call The Campaign for a minute (yes, that one). I was a human rights observer in rebel territory in Mexico, working and translating for three delegations to Chiapas and Oaxaca with Solidarity Without Borders.
I have also been other places this year. For instance, I have been to the abyss and back. I was a lucky man—not everyone we know made it back. One year ago this month, I faced off with death in a New York City subway station. Death lost, and I lived to tell the tale (a hell of a tale if you ever want to hear it). My mother went on to win her own bout with breast cancer. For me and my family, it was a year of victory for life over death—and, as it was for the rest of America, for change over stasis.
What followed this encounter was a personal renaissance, a revival of the writer, artist, and musician in me. I wrote every day. I wrote, not just with ink, but with the rest of me, a new story. I learned to see with new eyes. I started to take lots of pictures. I learned to listen with new ears. I picked up my fiddle and started playing again with the bands. And I learned, once again, that it was not just the world, writ large, that needed remaking—it was the stuff of everyday life.
And it was a long time coming, as Sam Cooke would say, but a change did come to the life of this country, one so unaccustomed to change so profound. Neither November 4 nor January 20 changed everything—hardly—but they surely changed the air, the climate, the horizon. And these things, in turn, change how we walk, how we talk, how we feel. The Bush years were eight long, hard, angry years of our youth. The world was on fire. I fought fire with fire. This fire burned me out. But now there was the promise of something else. Something else that was elected, inaugurated this year—not in one man so much as in the people.
And now, in spite of my eternal skepticism, I find myself filled with what Antonio Gramsci called “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.”
So here I am, once again, a starving artist in these brother-can-you-spare-a-dime times, emerging from years of writer’s block, honing my fiction and poetry while tutoring and freelancing to support myself and send myself to more places. I’ve rededicated myself to the work of writing this novel, the third, the one that’s been waiting for me to write it all these years. It’s a story of many stories—New York stories, of course—told from the perspective of an aging tenement building on the eve of its demolition. Some of you are in it (under other names, of course).
This month I will be breaking out of this fortress of solitude so that I can see each of you before we set out on other roads. Let me know when and where you can be found. I’d also like to invite you to the following events:
1. An epic Brooklyn birthday party/benefit party/live show/reading on Thursday, March 5, celebrating my 24th year in this world – as well as our imminent departure for points south and points east.
2. Appearances at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and at Bar 13 – also the first week of March.
3. Live show with my string band at The Annex on the Lower East Side (date and time TBA). Also coming soon: Open Jam with two ex-members of Shadowbox!
Hope to see you there, or here, or anywhere. I know I’m no good at keeping in touch, I’m working on it, but in the meantime, know that I carry your friendship and share your fire wherever I go. Be in touch.
PS: Many of you have asked me to see my work. The novel remains under wraps. But linked here you can find a few articles and photos, and if you want to see more, let me know and it’s yours. Others have asked for book and music recommendations, so here, too, is a brief list of what I’ve been reading and tuning into.
PPS: I want to give a shoutout to those greatest of writers and musicians who have left us this past year: Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, John Updike, George Carlin, Utah Phillips – and our dear, dear friend, Clarel Antoine.
Poems and short stories: On request. Just ask if you want to see them.
What I’ve been reading lately:
The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon
The Savage Detectives & 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
Indignation by Philip Roth
Rereading: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
The People Yes by Carl Sandburg
Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Writings by Langston Hughes
Las Palabras Andantes by Eduardo Galeano
Unfortunately, It Was Paradise by Mahmoud Darwish
The School Among the Ruins by Adrienne Rich
Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg ed. Berman & Berger
Prophets Outcast: A Century of Dissident Jewish Writing ed. Shatz
Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination by Robin D.G. Kelley
The Family of Man (Photography) ed. Edward Steichen
What I’ve been listening to lately:
Avett Brothers, Emotionalism
Bread and Roses, Deep River Day
Blue Scholars, Blue Scholars
Classic Bluegrass (Smithsonian Folkways)
Calle 13, Los de Atras Vienen Conmigo
The Clash, Live at Shea Stadium
Gil Scott Heron, Evolution and Flashback
Gogol Bordello, Super Taranta
Immortal Technique, The Third World
John Coltrane, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound
Johnny Cash, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison
Manu Chao, La Radiolina
MIA, Kala & Slumdog Millionaire Soundtrack
Mischief Brew, Smash the Windows
New Yiddish Chorale, In Love and In Struggle
Nina Simone, Feeling Good
Notorious BIG, Life After Death
Old Crow Medicine Show, OCMS
Paul Robeson, Songs of Free Men
Peter Tosh, The Ultimate Peter Tosh
Ratatat, LP3 & Remixes
Saul Williams, The Dead Emcee Scrolls
Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend
This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb, Front Seat Solidarity
TV on the Radio, Dear Science
Utah Phillips, We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years
Wolfe Tones, At Their Very Best: Live
Woody Guthrie, The Asch Recordings