Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups is an astute observation, a reflection, and commentary that contemplates our contemporary urban islands. The film’s most consistent motif is inversion, a collapsing of the boundaries between the internal and the external, a conflation of self and society featuring a kinetic and nearly constant obsession with the surface vs. substance quandary that has confounded philosophers, artists, and poets for millennia. As I mused in the afterglow of the film, I found myself wondering why, in his recent transition away from the historical and towards the contemporary, Malick selected Los Angeles as his cosmopolis of choice. It took some thinking, but I realized that the last picture to capture L.A. and inscribe it this perfectly was released in 1969, and it wasn’t a film, it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t an essay: it was an album, Joni Mitchell’s Clouds.

More… “Terrence and Joni Redeem L.A.”

James Forman Jr. is an academic who studies the criminal justice system, which is not unusual for a former clerk to a Supreme Court justice. But Forman also worked for years as a public defender in Washington, D. C. This gives him profound first-hand experience of the system that is less common among legal scholars. In Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, Forman calls on both his experiences and the latest scholarship to tell a story that complicates our understanding of mass incarceration in the United States. While in Philadelphia earlier this month for a reading, Forman came by the offices of The Smart Set to discuss his book. A passionate critic of the system, despite the often depressing tale he tells, Forman comes across as an optimist who believes, even in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, that we can continue with widespread criminal justice reform.

More… “Forman for Reform”

At the end of the 18th century, a Frenchman by the name of Xavier de Maistre had to undergo house arrest for dueling. He made the best of it and traveled about his room. He was inspired by the paintings, the books on the shelf, his servant, his dog, his lover. And he wrote a book about it. Voyage Around My Room is a stroll across a room where in fact nothing really happens. Nevertheless, he developed a real taste for it. Among the praise of his “voyage” was the following (for the infirm, in this case): “They need not fear the inclemency of the elements or the seasons. As for the faint of heart, they will be safe from bandits, and need not fear encountering any precipices or holes in the road. Thousands of people who, before me, had never dared to travel, and others who had been unable, and still others who had never dreamed of it, will now, after my example, undertake to do so.”

More… “Between Everywhere and Nowhere”

This month marks the 40th anniversary of a month of shows by the Grateful Dead that are regarded with awe by their legions of fans. At the core is the night of May 8, 1977, when the band played Cornell University’s Barton Hall and delivered what has long been considered their greatest show. In 2011, the Library of Congress added the Cornell show to the National Recording Registry even though it hadn’t been officially released.

This being the Dead, all the May 1977 shows have been circulating in various unofficial ways for decades. There was even an official box set of some May 1977 shows. But, until now, the Cornell show itself had never seen an official release. A limited-edition box set was put out this month, including a recording of the show along with three others previously unreleased. What is revealed should surprise no one at this point: the Cornell show was nothing special. It was in fact a typical night for the band in this period: sounding no different from other shows, comprising a set list of songs that were the usual suspects from that tour. Yet, this is high praise, because in May 1977, no band was delivering anything like what the Dead were putting on stage. More… “The Rocking Dead”

Until we learn what sentences can do, we tend to underrate them. We treat sentences as if they were floors, a kind of planking, something we have to walk on in order to get to the next room. We are oblivious to the reality, which is that the planking is alive and walking all over it creates a kind of hurt. Our steps harm the delicate surface and whatever lies beneath it — mystery, beauty, a soul.

Even as children, we instantly recognize a line of poetry that carries music. In time we learn that sentences, too, carry music. Some writers may go overboard and try to turn each sentence into a line of poetry, but that does a disservice to the sentence, which has its own qualities and purposes. Nobody expects a young or new writer to master all these matters at once. That’s why we call the process of writing it writing and not written. Writing takes time. It also takes us, as I’ve said before, out of time, which is a great and joyous experience.

More… “What You Make, Make to Last”

Aside from getting intense about guitar solos, in my part of American culture it’s not manly to be too precise about beauty or goodness. There’s something peripheral and tiresome about a person who rattles on about all the ethical and aesthetic entanglements of the world — that’s what a bridezilla does, or a momzilla, or a punchline vegan. In Philip Roth’s books, not only is it acceptable for a person to be authoritative and also read a lot of fiction and care about what people are wearing, it’s the reason. A Roth character thinks everyone should fall in line behind him when he wants to talk to his friends about books and fight against oppression that’s the lifeblood of — more than democracy — the whole human experience. So I’ve been reading a lot of Philip Roth lately.

More… “Complaint Department”

2006. Just a bit more than ten years ago. Two mega blockbusters were released in India, and three stars were born into the industry called Bollywood. One was a 21-year-old called Deepika Padukone. The other two were star kids, destined to be in the industry; Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor. For those of you who are not familiar with Bollywood, Sonam Kapoor and Ranbir Kapoor are of Bollywood pedigree. Born to stars, they chose to make a life for themselves in the same space as their parents and — in Ranbir Kapoor’s case — grandparents and great-grandparents too. They did it quite successfully, too, might I add.

More… “A Star is Made”

Undoubtedly, the skills you learn as a child never leave you. When I quit my day job to focus on writing, my biggest concern was how I was going to pay my bills. My boyfriend and I had just moved into two rooms in a large house in D.C. and were sharing living expenses. Nevertheless, by the end of our first month as new renters, we were already coming up short. Desperate to find the last $100 he needed to meet our $800 rent, my boyfriend decided to go online and try to sell his winter coat. It sold immediately . . . for $100. We made the rent.

Seeing the potential of online vending, we immediately began selling anything we could get our hands on. I saw an escape route from the daily grind of going to a job of inputting data and I took it. Online vending became my “new hustle.” We opened an online store selling gently used clothing. Immediately, I had become an entrepreneur. Since then, my goal each month has been to sell enough clothing online to pay my bills and therefore afford myself the time to write. My new hustle, however, was not really all that new to me. In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that it was actually the culmination of the person I had started to become between the ages of nine and ten. More… “The Hustle”

Growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1960s, I always thought of Leonard Bernstein as a kind of distant cousin. All Jewish families who had emigrated from Eastern Europe had people evocative of Bernstein — charismatic, larger-than-life talents who seemed to skirt danger.

It’s not entirely clear whether Lenny, as his friends called him (though his grandmother had insisted on calling him Louis, his given name) was a child prodigy, only that he loved music from an early age and was branded a genius when he arrived at Harvard. His genius showed most dramatically in his energy and inventiveness — a restlessness that some saw as a tragic flaw. More… “My Cousin Lenny”

In my real life, I get flashbacks where I’m playing Call of Duty, standing in a silo, hiding from a tank. I have to count the tank’s assaults so I can run out of the silo in between blasts, then sprint close enough to the tank to throw C4 explosive on it, run away, not get shot, and click a button to blow the tank up.

Even if I’m successful, I’ll still die soon, when some rival soldier hits me with a shotgun blast, or sniper bullet, or knife to the face.

But this is an online multiplayer, so my death lasts only a second or two. I respawn back to life, on some different part of the battle map, where I have to run back to the silo, to help my team, or to revenge-kill an annoyingly talented gamer who keeps putting holes in me. More… “Withdrawal of Duty”