Utne Reader calls Richard Nash “One of 50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.” Mashable.com ranks him him “The #1 Twitter User Changing the Shape of Publishing.” He ran Soft Skull Press, now an imprint of Counterpoint, from 2001 to 2007, and ran the imprint on behalf of Counterpoint until early 2009. Here’s why he left. The last book he edited at Soft Skull, Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, was just picked as a Pulitzer finalist.

Nash now runs his own consulting business (details here) and is developing a start-up called Cursor, a portfolio of niche social publishing communities, one of which will be called Red Lemonade.

The following is an excerpt of a longer, recorded conversation between Cup of TNB host Joseph Matheny and Richard Nash that occurred on March 23, 2010.

JM: A lot of people probably already know who you are, but just to give everyone an equal start, do you mind giving us some personal background‌?

RN: Well, I was a theater director and performance artist for most of the 90’s, and in 2001, for long and complicated and boring reasons, I ended up inadvertently taking over an independent press that had some reputation but was also more of a brand, called Soft Skull, and I ran Soft Skull for pretty much the rest of the decade. I had to sell it in the middle of 2007 in the aftermath of our distributor’s bankruptcy in late 2006. And so I ran it as an imprint of the acquiring company up until early 2009 and early last year when I left. I left largely in order to be able to figure out what the new model should be for being in the writer/reader connection business.

JM: Yeah, oddly enough we have two touch points through Soft Skull. One is, I wrote a forward for one of your books, and the other is that reading one of the Soft Skull books is what strongly influenced me to start my current venture.

RN: Oh no, really‌?

JM: Yes.

RN: Wow.

JM: I read the X Films by Alex Cox when I was directing and producing the podcasts for the Los Angeles Film Festival. I was reading that while at the same time watching the independent industry film implode in front of me at the LAFF finance conference last year. Everybody who came to the conference had always been able to get financing for independent film, and to a man they all said the same thing: “There’s no more money.  The traditional sources of funding are gone, and the only thing we can imagine to save independent film at this point is this ‘Internet thing,’ but I don’t think anybody has figured that out yet.”  In my mind I was thinking, Yeah, it’s been figured out. It’s just that you studio guys haven’t figured it out.


RN:  You know, it’s funny.  X Films and this other book we did called Putting The Pieces Together are similar.  Alex [Cox] obviously is somebody who not only has done it multiple times and at a higher level than anyone else, but he also has a real philosophy or ideology about why doing things yourself really matters, both culturally and personally. So obviously that’s really bloody exciting. That means a lot to me to hear that.

JM: That book was a home run for me because I came out of independent film back in the early 90’s when it really meant independent. I used to be an art director on call for Henry Rosenthal out of SF. I worked on a lot of $30,000, $100,000 films. Some of them were spectacular movies that we all felt good about afterward, and there was no give and take with investors, or fighting with studios because Henry knew how to get enough money and keep them off our backs.


JM: And then more recently, as I was reading X Films, and I heard the finance guys going, “If only somebody could figure out this Internet thing” — that was the breaking point for me. The Internet thing was figured out a long time ago. It’s just that the people from the big media companies can’t get their heads around it, because you can’t make Batman-level movies and make the Batman-level profits to recoup your costs.  It’s not that the Internet isn’t figured out, it’s that they haven’t figured out how to make massive profits off of it.


RN: In a sense, it’s the same problem with publishing. The big fight at the moment is what ought to be the retail price of books. Who should set this‌.  The argument is partially about a question of power between the publishers and the retailers. But there’s a larger issue which is an endemic philosophy within publishing:  you decide what your costs are, you give yourself a ten percent profit margin, and that’s how you set the list price of the book. Which is sort of delusional, really, because it’s the marketplace that sets the price. The readers decide how much they’re willing to pay for it.

The publishers are saying, “We can’t make money if e-books are ten bucks.”  And I’m thinking, a) we have to figure out a way, and b) if you think it’s gonna stay at ten bucks you’ve got another thing coming; it’s going to be cheaper than ten bucks.

JM: Oh yeah. I get that.

RN: If raw digital content is basically going to be free, there’s going to have to be some other value that you’re offering, whether it’s convenience, or community, or a sense of belongingness, or a kind of empty arts style where we’re supporting this larger project kind of thing. Who knows what exactly, but the fundamental two things that need to happen are A.) the revenue side needs to be based on what people are demonstrably willing to pay for, and B.) the cost side has to be whatever it takes in order to be able to make this stuff happen.

The ironic thing is that independents — writers, booksellers, filmmakers — are typically much better about not wasting their money on things. I think in the long run this new business model will end up benefiting independents, even if in the short run you’ve got situations like the one you described, where they can’t get financing because the financiers haven’t figured out how to make money.

JM: Is it a concern of the publishing industry that with digital publishing there is no real cost of goods anymore‌? When you have a single file sitting on a server going directly to the consumer, you’ve now cut out the printers, the distributors, and the retailers.

RN: The publishers, in the abstract, see a value to an intermediary.  But in practice I think they’re missing the boat.  Now the reason I think they’re correct is that in a universe of millions of titles, and tens of millions of readers, publishers help readers sort through all the stuff that exists.  Every publisher thinks they therefore deserve a slice of the pie.

But the reality is that a lot of publishers are useless at providing readers with tools to help sort. Random House is exactly what its corporate name suggests it is. You could basically throw 20,000 darts at the half-million books published last year, and you would get a description of a scatter graph of Random House’s output.

This to some degree could also be said for other parts of the supply chain: wholesalers, and the big retailers — Amazon, B&N, and Borders.  Here’s where you get all the books in the world. That’s certainly true of Amazon.  “Where do you go to find it?   You come to us.”  But, a file (laughs), a digital file eliminates all of Amazon’s logistical advantage. Anybody can run an e-book store, to a certain degree. And, with B&N and Borders, brick & mortar indie stores by comparison can only offer a very limited selection.  However, the power of brick & mortar is the capacity to help a person sort through all the available books in the world, on a more personal, intimate basis.  Going forward, that’s going to be their real value to a reader, to a consumer.

So how much value can we ascribe to that sorting process?  Because that’s one of the only real values that you’re talking about in the e-book realm.  The logistical stuff falls away.  You’ve obviously got the editorial work, editorial and design, but any writer can hire a freelancer to do that work for them. Publishers might do it, and we might find ways to do it more efficiently maybe, or more intimately maybe, but that’s a marginal difference. Basically our real value is going to be found in matchmaking, in helping to match make writers and readers. If we can’t do that job well, then basically we have no value.

And here I’m reminded of what Amazon did when they bought Stanza a year ago. Stanza was an independently run start-up, with a staff of three of four who developed a really nice iPhone app, the first reading app in the app store, and they didn’t have a retail storefront at all. But they found certain workarounds to allow people to find places that were retailing the e-pub files that Stanza could read, and basically it was stealing a lot of attention from the Kindle.  And so Amazon bought them, and have done nothing with them, best as I can tell.  Amazon bought Stanza just to ensure that the Kindle would be the only game in town for as long as possible. I suspect that there may have been some level at which the company thought they could make money with it, but when it didn’t take off fast enough, it was easier to make money the old way and just wait for some future day of reckoning.  And that day of reckoning is now upon us.

The simple act of having a chokehold over the supply chain, whether the chokehold is up at the publisher level or down at the retail level, that chokehold isn’t worth anything anymore because there are too many other ways for people to create and consume.

JM: The way you’re talking about the new role of the publisher, it almost sounds like what you’re describing is the role of “trusted recommender,” as they’re called in social media parlance.

RN: Exactly. That could be one person. But it could also be several people functioning as a business, and being able to do a little bit more aggregation within given areas of expertise, as with an indie press, or an indie record label, or it could be a more collaborative, community-style environment. The Nervous Breakdown is an example.  It has a collective quality with different writers of different areas of focus and expertise, but it is true that you guys all found one another in a certain kind of way and you choose to do the work you do somewhat collectively instead of individually because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think there are going to be a lot of intermediaries, and they’re going to have lots of different business models.

JM:  In talking about the world of the book, and the digital world of the book specifically, it brings to mind something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. When you have books that not are only digital in format and downloadable — meaning instantly accessible — you also have the ability to derive content or search within that content.  With the Stanford project and the Google project, and a couple of other similar projects, there is a future wherein I can see “books” becoming records in databases. The term “book” in that case becomes a unit of measure for information, rather than a description of an object.

In that future, which is not too far away in my view, the content of the book becomes the basis of a query, rather than this object that you pick up and read cover to cover to glean the unit of information that’s inside of it. It becomes accessible in an almost holographic sense, in all different directions. This changes the relationship of book to reader, and reader to book. Does it not‌?

RN: I think that’s absolutely right, and I will also say that this particular development does point to a greater level of interactivity that was always inherent in the book but was maybe less obvious to us when it was just considered a static piece of bound paper. That way you described it was really dead on. I’m going to re-listen to this transcript and steal it for myself for future use! (laughter)

I think in a way our notion that books are static and that reading and writing are highly solitary activities — I think this misses or understates how truly interactive even a dumb book is. Not because of the book but because of the nature of human beings. We love talking about books. We love interacting. Books are great ways for us to connect with other people.

JM:  I recall doing research on the University of California research computer back in the late 80’s.  They had a computer system called Melvyl, and I could do searches against descriptions, and I could do searches against authors, and I could do searches against titles, and even genres. Then I could find every book in the University of California library system that might possibly have the information I was looking for, and I could put an order in, and a week later these books would start to trickle in, and I’d have to physically go through the books to find the information I sought.  It took a while, but it was effective.

Nowadays, I can instantly throw a query up and run it against a database and come back with an aggregation — literally assembling a “new book” if you think about it. If I throw out a cyber-query and say, “Give me ‘X’ content,” I can then pull together all relevant information and assemble an HTML page from the results, and suddenly I’ve re-contextualized the concept of the book. I’ve made it a little more active, and a little more of an assemblage. Does any of this tie into your project, Cursor‌?

RN: To a considerable degree, yes. I would say that in terms of the format and structure of the individual book, I’m philosophically open to any number of directions. I think that relatively traditional formats will co-exist alongside much more complicated and dynamic stuff.  What I’m not doing is making bets on how interactivity and multiple modes of media within storytelling are going to evolve. I just don’t know; I think it’s going to be driven largely by the artist rather than by creating a platform. I do want to be as open as possible to ensure artists have the maximum latitude within the business model I’m trying to create to allow for exploration and to allow us to be able to assist in the writer/reader connection, which is the core of what publishing has always been a substitute for.

In my years working as a publisher, it became increasingly clear that my role was not to be some kind of magical reader of all the manuscripts that came in.  It wasn’t a case where I was like, I have one manuscript and this is a Soft Skull manuscript because I love it and I am Soft Skull and therefore this is Soft Skull. What I was, was a conduit. I was basically paid by the Soft Skull community to help the Soft Skull community express itself. And that process, it was a clunky process.  Writers and agents sent us things that they thought were Soft Skull and they provided lots of information, and I listened to that, and I listened to the “intrawebs,” and listened to people, and to reading theories and all that stuff.  And then I tried to aggregate all the opinions that were expressed by the Soft Skull community about whether or not this was something that was a good expression about all that was Soft Skull, and then I went ahead and did it if it appeared that the Soft Skull community was telling me that I should.

That process, I realized, was what was readers and writers need to have.  The way I want to structure this new thing is to make that process much more systematic, much better able to take advantage of Web 2.0 and whatever 3.0 may be, to basically create a platform that allows us to create/enable writing and reading communities. All of these communities of readers and writers exist out there, but they tend to be fairly incoherent until a couple of people take it upon themselves to organize what was formerly a more vague, accretive community. That’s what the independent publishers have been — Soft Skull, Akashic, McSweeney’s, Melville House, Maniac D.

The two key things that I think the new model should have in order for it to work for the community:  1.)  a good ol’ fashioned editor — but a humble, self-effacing and community orientated editor, and 2.) a publicist, a good ol’ fashioned publicist — except a publicist who is much more about listening than talking.  And these two people are there to help manage the community, provide services to it.  And the next facet of the business model — and I could be right and I could be wrong — is a semi-conventional book publishing arm. You could call it the Merch Division.  A lot of people still love the printed book.  And a lot of people still discover things through booksellers. It seems like it would make sense to participate in that rather than reject it.

Obviously a lot of resources have to go into doing that. Perhaps only a very small amount of the work that the community creates online would be worthy of print. You have to make choices. So my feeling is that this is a process where the community points out what they want online, via reading and/or commenting.  And in the end, the editors are going to have to make a decision in an old school fashion.

JM:  To me, the best writing, especially fiction, comes from somebody who’s very clear about their point of view, and they’re not afraid to state it no matter how unpopular it may be. That’s probably what the hook was for me in Alex Cox’s book [X Films]. I’ve loved Alex’s film work from the beginning, but the book was just… he wasn’t writing like a man who was concerned about ruining his career in the film industry.


RN: No, he wasn’t, was he?

JM: Do you have any thoughts on pricing?  Because I remember early on you mentioned that the consumer is going to set the price of the book.

RN: For print books, it’s that fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-dollar range.  We haven’t magically changed the economics of that. But on digital downloads, I think we’ll start at the bottom of the current range, the eight- or nine-dollar range, but we’ll have a fair amount of the early promotional stuff. And that would be in, say, the three- to six-dollar range.

Most people value their time such that, if you gave them the whole book for five bucks, it’s not that much more of a commitment than asking them to download a single chapter for free. So my feeling is that a low price point, especially two or three dollars, it’s sufficiently low that I think people will pay.  Rather than give them a free sample chapter, why not give them the whole book at three bucks, because if they like it, the odds are they could turn around and buy it in print, collector’s style, vinyl style.  Then you may have gotten a new fan to whom you’ll be able to upsell the limited edition, or a class of some kind, and so on.

One of the things I want to be able to do is try to up the demand curve, too. The digital download is the cheap crack. And with crack, the addicts want more crack. The great thing with books is that you hook them on crack, and then they want cocaine, and then they want whatever kind of elaborate organic Humboldt County marijuana version of cocaine there is.


RN: You can loop people.  You can get them hooked not just on the cheap stuff, but also move people up to the more expensive stuff.  One of the many things that digital offers is that it takes care of mass distribution at low costs. And that then frees the physical object to become more physical. That’s an area in which I kind of want to do some exploration.

JM:  When can we expect to see Cursor going live‌?

RN: I’m hoping we’ll be in beta by June. If you go to thinkcursor.com, there is a sign-up splash page so folks can sign up and be notified. The first community will be called Red Lemonade, and that will be pretty Soft-Skull-like: edgy, literary fiction, very much like the universe of The Nervous Breakdown.

JM: Sounds great.  I know I’m signed up and will be looking for the roll-out in June.  Many thanks for this wonderful conversation, Richard.

RN: It’s a pleasure.

Pierre Bayard’s ode to philistinism, Comment Parler des Livres que l’on n’a pas Lus, or How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read is a unique experience. Upon completion of Bayard’s work (one wonders if Bayard himself ever read his own book), I found myself first outraged, then confused, and finally, a little constipated. I thought to myself, “How does this boorish Frenchman claim that a perfunctory flip-through of Anna Karenina should suffice for an understanding of St. Petersburg’s high society during that time—or Jasper, Missouri’s, home to the Double Deuce for that matter?” Can this Bayard be serious? Can we really talk—intelligently—about books we’ve never read?

On the jacket cover of his aggravating book, Mr. Bayard leans against a railing next to a dumpster leading up to a whorehouse, staring at the reader as if to say, “Hey, I’m French—perhaps you’d be interested in some beignets after I’m done with these prostitutes.”

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_e5CENKp5eYU/Sd5UyzPlj3I/AAAAAAAABPE/2Frsu4D8HOY/s320/pierre-bayard.jpgHe also claims that he is a professor of literature at the University of Paris. As intellectuals, it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been to Paris—but has anybody ever seen this alleged university? Not I. All I saw in Paris was a gift-shop full of chocolate Eiffel Towers at Orly airport, as nobody was kind enough to direct me to my time-share in the 23 rd arrondissement, with what they assured me was a “first-class” view of the Bastille. It seems the French have a knack for deception, while bringing out the worst pseudo-intellectual hobgoblins into the cultural milieu.

Bayard begins by making the ridiculous claim that readers may finally “shake off the guilt” of not having read the great books that shape our world. Be careful with guilt, Mr. Bayard. Had you finished Roadhouse, you might sing a different tune when it comes to washing oneself of both corporeal and spiritual guilt. Do you have any idea what happens at the end? The bristling irony that clips at the thin threads of your argument? I assure you, the culmination of tropes during the end game of Swayze’s opus is terrifying—truly something that stays with you, like a disease, or a small dog stapled to your leg, gnawing at your testicles (not always, but a lot of the time). Read (or watch) the end of this, and you will rethink your gilded shit-head ideas on guilt.

As a freelance intellectual, I often find myself asked to contribute a book review, or deliver a lecture extempore after Jonathan Safran Foer has cancelled. So, I’m no tyro in this sphere. Mr. Bayard recommends that to lecture on a book one hasn’t read, it’s essential to “put aside rational thought and…let your sub-conscience express your personal relationship with the work.” Similarly, to review an unfamiliar book, Mr. Bayard counsels, “closing your eyes to perceive what may interest you about [the book]…then writing about yourself.”

Let me state categorically that allowing the sub-conscious to intervene during a lecture is a dangerous thing. I recall a commencement speech I was asked to give at Princeton (after Jonathan Safran Foer cancelled), in which my goal was to make a connection between the gateway to adulthood and the battle scene against the Cubans over the corn fields of middle America in James Joyce’s, Ulysses. At the time, I was 40 pages short of finishing Ulysses, but I panicked for one brief moment, allowing my subconscious to creep in and reference the heart-pumping Patrick Swayze vehicle, Red Dawn to fill in the gaps created by my literary malfeasance. The audience chortled and squirmed with typical Princeton fatuity, and I spent the rest of the address huddled under the gown of Joyce Carol Oates. Years later, when I explained at a PEN meeting to Mrs. Oates that I had, in my youthful folly, dared to reference a book I had not completely finished and I was soooo sorry and I now know that the varsity football team in Ulysses were fighting Communists, not Moonies, Mrs. Oates gave me a coy smile and sort of whispered, in that way she does, “Would you mind getting me a another vodka gimlet?”

As for book reviews, I don’t have the faintest clue where Mr. Bayard gets off. Close my eyes and write about myself? What kind of self-aggrandizing, philistine claptrap is that? I was once stuck sitting next to Michiko Kakutani, book reviewer extraordinaire of the New York Times, on a flight to Zurich, and it turned out we were both reviewing the same new translation of Don Quixote. After we agreed that one of the key requirements of criticism is the removal of oneself from the work under consideration, I made a reference to the end of Don Quixote, when Sancho Panza is about to join in the rumble between the “Greasers” and the “Socs”, and how it’s a metaphor for the craft of writing. I think she must have been forced to digest this burst of protean insight, because for the rest of the flight, she said little. I remarked how every time I met Gore Vidal, he would sound a rape whistle and hog-tie me to a fire hydrant, and Michiko droned on as usual, always trying to one-up me with her one story; you know, the one she never finishes about, “Stewardess, can I change seats?” What’s the point, Michiko? It’s not even a story, per se.

http://cache.gawker.com/assets/images/2008/11/custom_1227303927991_michiko-kakutani_01.jpgThe truth is, we read for any number of reasons: we crave a good yarn by the camp fire; we savor the world of words created by our greatest artists; we feel a preternatural magnetism toward an understanding of how and why we are the way we are; perhaps we are having a bowel movement. What Mr. Bayard suggests is an approach toward reading, and a discussion of reading, that goes against our nature. We are not partial beings—we are complete—complete in the sense that our minds create our realities. Mind is life. We must subscribe to life whole-heartedly, eschewing the notion that a partial understanding of our world, our ethos, our pathos, is tantamount to a full life. Anything else is a bourgeoise conceit! Dumbing-down displays the utter convenience of ignorance!

Bayard is a travesty of nature, like a Gaulloises-puffing ogre. His mongloid understanding of human nature will eventually lead to an early demise. He is a French Hamlet (although presumably shorter), pathologically self-destructing at every turn, although you’d think he might have learned something from all that post-mortem correspondence with Whoopi Goldberg. And yes, he escapes, but at what cost? What now will his wife Molly do? Can you have sex with a ghost? Is Claudius really going to poison a glass of Mouton Rothschild just because Baby Houseman is a Jew? And what of the Roadhouse?

I am reminded of something Flaubert said upon completion of Madame Bovary: “Quelle atroce invention que celle du bourgeois, n’est-ce pas?” Had Bayard finished Madame Bovary, he would have recognized—as Special Agent Johnny Utah did about Bodhi right before the appearance of Rodolphe—not everybody wants to be rescued from the fifty year storm.




By Mary Hendrie


Visceral: Of or pertaining to the viscera.

Viscera: The organs in the cavities of the body, especially the abdominal cavity.

Viscus: Singular of viscera

Viscous: Of a glutinous nature or consistency; sticky; thick; adhesive

Vicious: Addicted to or characterized by vice; grossly immoral; depraved; profligate

I could go on looking up definitions of words all day. My vocabulary is so lacking. Visceral, though. That’s a good one.

This word keeps cropping up lately, mostly when people describe their reactions to dramatic events. A visceral reaction: instinctive, possibly even impulsive, wild, presumably a strong response. An animal moment. A moment in which we are not just in touch with our guts but ruled by them. One with them. We are intestines.

[Go ahead. Allow yourself to get strange. Maintaining normalcy is exhausting.]

Visceral is a car wreck, the way time slows down, the way we have no clue, no matter what we tell the police and the insurance adjustor and the other driver, no clue what we did in that split second that allowed us to live. We just remember spinning.

My theory, and I always have one, is that we use these words to reflect more of what we wish we were than what we actually are. We are so goddamned civilized, or at least on the surface, with all our methods and tools. With all our evolution, we are standing up straight, even at an unnatural incline in our shoes, and we are buttoned down and made up and watching the news and trying not to cry because it will damage the five-minute-makeup job we have perfected. I cannot cry over Iran because I will have to explain myself, and I didn’t bring the makeup to patch up, and there is nothing crazier than crying at your laptop because someone across the world got beat up by a cop.

Civilized people know these things happen and do not cry about it.


For the past several hours I’ve been staring into the darkness and begging myself to shutup so I can get a bit of needed rest. But I’m too anxious and my mind is racing. I don’t think I’ll be sleeping until this damn election is over. It’s not so much the presidential election that has me worried. It’s all of these ballot measures that are so important but have somehow been forgotten in the higher ratings mud-slinging and fear-mongering of the presidential candidates (Don’t get me wrong though, I’m still completely freaked out about the presidential election, especially after seeing all the crazies on TV and YouTube).

I cast my ballot about three weeks ago by mail and was then able to convince myself that I had done my part and I would just have to wait for the results. That was, until tonight (or, last night, as it were). I went to a Proposition Party with my boyfriend. No, this was not a party where people proposition you. It was a party where each person was given a ballot proposition to research and discuss with the group so we could each make educated decisions about how we will vote on Tuesday. And that’s when I realized how truly scary this election is, at least here in California.

The people who write these ballot measures are probably happy as pie that the presidential election has stolen the spotlight because some of their propositions are going to get passed just because people don’t know enough to vote them down. Before I voted I took the time to read the voter’s guide so I had a pretty good grasp of the issues when I voted (and I’m proud to say that I didn’t change my vote on any of the propositions after having them explained in more detail). However, those initiatives on which I voted ‘No’ are much scarier to a left-leaner like myself than I had previously thought.

Take Proposition 4, for instance. This initiative is a California constitutional amendment to make it illegal for anyone under age 18 to get an abortion without the doctors first notifying an adult relative. Or, in extreme cases, the girl can take her case to court and ask a judge for permission to get an abortion. Now, I can see how parents would think this is a great idea. And, really, it does sound pretty good on paper. I know I’d want my daughter to tell me if she was going in for an abortion.

But then, I’d hope my daughter and I would have an open and understanding relationship and that she’d be coming to me to help her through such a difficult decision. There are girls out there who don’t have that type of relationship with their parents (I know I didn’t) and whose parents would likely punish them and force them to make a different decision. And there are the cases of abuse. Or the cases where the girl would rather commit suicide than to face telling her parents.

Even so, I can see how parents can be worried that their daughters wouldn’t come to them with such a serious decision. What bothers me about this amendment is the small print (well, OK, the big print too. I obviously voted on this before I knew about the small print, but the small print would have changed my mind had I been leaning toward a ‘Yes’ vote). Small print: This amendment gives parents the right to sue doctors up to four years after they find out about an abortion, even if their daughter tells them after she’s an adult. This will likely raise legal and insurance costs for those doctors who perform abortions – even before they ever get sued. Also, this amendment would make public all judicially decided non-notification of parents, putting judges’ jobs in jeopardy if they judge too often in favor of girls seeking abortions.

And what about the whole going in front of a judge to ask for an abortion? Even though I know I have the right to choose, I still know abortion is an unpopular decision in America and I would not want to face the protesters and the public on my way to court. Nor would I want this to become a public matter. I can imagine that making the choice to abort a fetus is not an easy decision for anybody. And I, for one, would want it to remain a very private matter (isn’t this what got Roe v. Wade passed in the first place?). Forcing teenagers to make this public, even if just to their parents seems to violate everything the Roe v. Wade decision put in place.

Californians voted against this proposition in 2005 and 2006. Both times I sat at my computer refreshing the results screen every two seconds to reassure myself that the measure would be defeated. Luckily, this time around Proposition 8 (the gay-marriage ban) has somehow usurped the attention of the religious right and has kept the anti-abortion legislation out of the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t still going to be voting on it. And the fact that we haven’t been hearing much about it really scares me because it could be keeping the closet pro-choicers in the dark as well.

And this is just one of the issues that’s been going through my head all night. I’m still horrified by the abundance of anti-gay-marriage people there are still in this state – one of the bluest states in the union. In 2008. When I first saw the gay-marriage ban on the ballot I thought, “Yeah, but this is California. There’s no way that would pass.” But the last few weeks have really shown me how wrong I was. I’m terrified of these Yes on 8 people – not just because they’re voting Yes on 8, but also because so many of them seem to believe taking away civil liberties is the only important thing on the ballot this election season. I’ve seen interviews with some 8 supporters who say they don’t even plan to vote for president because that’s not what’s important right now. The presidential election. Not important. But taking away the right to marry is?

There’s also Prop. 3 and Prop. 9. And Prop. 6 and Prop. 7. There are so many propositions that sound great at first, but just below the surface there’s something there saying, “Neener, neener, neener! We got one past you!” And now I can’t sleep at night.

I know the world will keep turning if the election doesn’t go the way I want. I know all of the propositions will be challenged in court, regardless of which way they go. Or they’ll end up on the next ballot, yet again.

And I know we’ll survive four more years with an ineffective president.

I just want something more.


P.S. I’m curious about what’s going on in other states. What are some of the big propositions you’ve got on your ballots?


I met my mother when I was born. Since then she has progressed from a dress-sewing, dinner-cooking, hair-in-a-high-bun housewife, to a nude-swimming, pot-smoking artist, to a grey-haired lady who thinks old age is an embarrassment to be treated like some hideous, debilitating disease. There are two ways in which my mother has never changed: 1. She reads a couple novels each week (she keeps one upstairs and one downstairs and reads the one on the floor she’s on). 2. She is brutally honest, refusing to bullshit even for the sake of social nice-nice at a cocktail party.

The following is an interview with my mother that took place over the phone on Sunday, August 7th, 2008. I was in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live. She was in Santa Barbara, California, where she lives.

Jessica: First of all, do you still think you look Bruce Springsteen? Can you explain this?

Mom: Well, didn’t I say Josh looked like Bruce Springsteen and not me? [Josh is my younger brother.]

Jessica: No, you first said you did.

Mom: No. I said Josh looks like Bruce Springsteen. Did I say that about me?

Me: Yes. You called me on the phone and you definitely said that you looked like Bruce.

Mom: Well I think it’s the eyes and the nose and not the mouth. And Josh definitely looks like Bruce Springsteen. Josh has a worried little brow. Bruce has that too. It’s funny josh was born worried.

Me: Yeah, he was.

Mom: Poor little guy. [Note: Josh is a grown person who lives in Istanbul. He has a fabulous life, long stays in Paris, holidays in India, etc.  Nothing poor about him.]

Me: Do you think I look like Vincent Van Gogh?

Vincent.  AKA moi!

Mom: No, I do not think you like him, but I can see what you’re looking at when you say that. I think you’re looking at his nose. Maybe you have his mouth, too. He has a little hearty mouth. Heart lips like you do.

Jessica: Why do you love Randy Newman so much?

Mom: Oh my god because he tells the truth and he’s so brave. He’s like you as a writer. He tells these terrible things that are true and that people think but don’t necessarily say or acknowledge about themselves. Like, kids are grown now, they have their own TVs, I’m always glad to see ‘em but I’m glad to see em go. [Mom speak-sings in Randy’s voice.] And you know, he, well, in the song “I love L.A.” he’s in the car with these kids and their friends, he’s 16 or 17 in a convertible, and he says [speak-singing again], Look at that bum he’s down on his knees. Like it’s a great sighting! An L.A. sighting. He’d drive around L.A. on the freeways looking at things. It’s cool. Oh, and he’s had such a sad life cause he has these crossed eyes and he’s terribly, terribly self-conscious about it. You know that’s why he wears sunglasses a lot. Sometimes they take pictures and they get it right but most of the time his eyes are all over the place. Poor guy. And his uncles were composers for movies, they did soundtracks, so he uses a lot movie sounds. And cartoon sounds, like when he says on “My Life is Good,” [The Newman speak-sing voice again] I’ve got a friend his name is Bruce Springsteen and he said to me RAND, I’m tired of being boss, why don’t you be boss for a while, and then you hear this sound: dee-dee-dee-dee. Like a song to represent an idea in a cartoon. He uses things like that. He’s just so inventive and unafraid to use strange things in his music, to mix it up. And he’s so honest. I just love him.

Randy.  Mom would marry him.

Me: Would you marry him?

Mom: Oh my god, yes.

Me: If you could go back in time and marry him, and then you wouldn’t have me and Becca [my sister] and Josh, would you still do it?

Mom: That’s an impossible question. No, I wouldn’t do it. Because you’re even more interesting than Bruce [Springsteen] and Randy [Newman], my two heroes.

Jessica: Exactly how bad is old age?

Mom: Oh my god. Well. It’s the shits. One thing’s nice, when I feel like I’m standing up straight and walking good I feel really good cause I can do it. [My mother had a heart attack about five years ago and lost half her heart and one lung.] It stinks.It’s awful. It just stinks ‘cause it’s so limiting. For me it is anyway. I don’t think it has to be and I don’t think it is for everyone. And it’s shocking. It’s just shocking how ugly you get when you get old. I look at my face and I’m shocked at how ugly I am compared to how pretty I was. And I just took that for granted. And now I’m ugly and I just can’t get over how ugly I am. And I look at people when they die, in the obits.  And it’s the same story, so shocking. Sometimes they print a young and an old picture. It’s so sad that that pretty person becomes this ugly person. And then you get used to being invisible, too.

Mom now.  I think she's a cute old lady.

Mom now. I think she’s a cute old lady.

Jessica: Why does it matter so much to be pretty?

Mom: Well that’s a flaw, but it always did. One of our family things. It matters a lot to be pretty, mattered a lot to me. And it was hard to take when I got older and then old. And hard to take when people see you as a generic old person, don’t see you as an individual. And then ugly on top of it. If I weren’t fat that would make a difference, too. I don’t want to see anyone because I’m so old and fat. I don’t want anyone to see me. I think I had a very superficial approach on one level to life and it had a lot to do with beauty, and that’s a shame because it’s a waste of time and it certainly doesn’t pay off in the end.

Jessica: What would you advise someone who’s getting older and not old yet? [I suppose this question applies to everyone under 70, no?)

Mom: I don’t have any advice it just happens.

Jessica: Well any advice about ideas of beauty?

Mom: I wouldn’t give anyone advice, but I’d say it’s a shame to focus on beauty, to weigh that so heavily in their life. And a shame to focus on your childrens’ beauty. And all my kids have this same thing, right? I mean, I just admire people who can see deeper than superficial beauty.

Jessica: What do you mean we have the same thing?

Mom: I think everyone in this family focuses on beauty. It’s important for each of you to be beautiful and handsome. And I just think now that it’s so much better not to have that weigh on someone’s life and decisions.

Jessica: You think we’re all vain?

Mom: No, I don’t think you’re vain. I don’t think I was vain. We know we’re beautiful and we use it. And count on it.

Jessica: I think I’m kind of ridiculous looking.

Mom: Oh my god, you’re beautiful what are you talking? You’re beautiful what are you talking about? That’s’ one of the silliest things you ever said. But that’s why you’re a good writer.

Jessica: I really do think I look ridiculous. [See Vincent Van Gogh.]

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent's.  My daughter took this pic and I like it because it's totally unposed and "real."

My hair is pulled back here, so you can sort of see how the shape of my eyes and nose and head are like Vincent’s. My daughter took this pic and I like it because it’s totally unposed and “real.”

Mom: No you don’t look ridiculous.But I think it’s great you think so.

Jessica: I know you only have horrible things to say about my father these days, but you must realize that he is half of my genetic make up and it’s a little brutal to hear his flaws laid out for me day after day. Do you have anything good to say about him?

Mom: Ummmm . . . [laughs]. Yes, I do of course. He was always willing to do what I asked him do. If I asked him to take the dog out he’d take the dog out. If I asked him do this, he’d do this. He was good about that. There’s a lot of good about him. But there’s more bad.

[Note: my parents split up a year ago after over forty-seven years of marriage. My dad’s a pretty great guy but he did do something really shitty to my mom.]

Jessica: Were you scared during the fires? [In July more than 5,000 acres burned across the road and down the road from my mother. She was evacuated and the fire department goozed her house with fire retardant. She and the house survived.]

Mom: No, I wasn’t scared but I was worried.

Jessica: What was the one thing you wanted to get out of the house when you had to evacuate?

Across the road, after the fire.

1. Aerial shot of the fire. 2. Across the road from my mother’s house, after the fire.

Mom: The animals, first. I was going to let the chickens roast. But the cats and the dogs were my first concern. After that: papers, insurance papers, checks, papers having to do with babies, life. After that, my favorite paintings. And then, uh, just things that couldn’t be replaced. Some family photos that were framed and hanging. And I forgot to take clothes, so I had to go buy some when I was evacuated. I didn’t even put anything in a suitcase or a bag.

One of the chickens who was left to roast.  I think this one's named Levi.

One of the chickens who was left to roast. I think this one’s named Levi.

Jessica:Is there anyone you despise?

Mom: I don’t despise your father. I think he made a big mistake but I don’t despise him. Right now I despise Sarah Palin ‘cause I keep hearing her speech over and over and it’s just dripping with sarcasm like the way a high schooler would talk. [The V.P. acceptance speech.] Like when she talked about Obama, she was just so childish. She didn’t write that speech but she certainly read it like a child. It was full of nastiness. So I despise her.

Jessica: What’s the best book you’ve read this month?

Mom: Um, gosh that one by Ondaatje, what was the name of the book? I forget. I’m going to look it up. Hold on. Oh shit. Oh god. Hold on. [She’s messing around on the computer.] I can’t think of the Ondaatje one, so I’ll say Willie Vlautin’s books, Motel Life and Northline. They were both great. And I also liked Joyce Carol Oates something about love and brother. I liked that even though it got panned a lot.

Me: The one about Jon Benet Ramsey?

Mom: Yeah, it’s a satire. It’s a very strange book. It’s way over done and way overly self-conscious but really interesting. I liked it.

Jessica: Best movie you’ve seen recently?

Mom: Gosh I haven’t seen one in a long time. Oh my god what was that one with. . about the Mexicans running dope and the guy finds the money in the suitcase and . . . who’s that Mexican guy, he had his hair down, so good looking, he’s in the . . he’s in the new movie about . . .uh with uh . . . oh god, I can’t remember.

Jessica: No Company for Old Men?

Mom: No Country for Old Men.That  was great. That was amazing. There were a lot of good movies last year.

Jessica: I know you’re a connoisseur of the worst that television has to offer. Among this group, what show is your favorite and why?

Mom: [laughs] Well my favorite is, New York Goes to Hollywood. And New York is Tiffany Pollard. And oh god, it’s just a terrible, terrible show but I love it.

Jessica: What do you love about it?

Mom: Ummm, I love, oh, New York is such an idiot. And she has so little talent. And the only reason she’s out there is because she was on a reality show and she’s outrageous. And then there’s her mother, Sister Patterson, and she’s crazy. It’s a good show, I like it. It’s a terrible show. It’s one of my favorites. There’s another one called Intervention. That’s really good. And then there was Celebrity Intervention and that was great. All these celebrities on there, kind of schmoozing each other and faking it.

Jessica: What was the happiest time in your life?

Mom: Well I loved living in Paradise. [When my parents were around fifty-years old, they bought a cabin in the woods, in an area called Paradise. My mother lived there fulltime, my father came up on the weekends.] I really loved that. I was very happy. I was happy when I was first married. I haven’t been unhappy very much. I’ve been happy about everything. Living in France was very hard at first because I couldn’t work [paint], couldn’t find a place that felt right. But my memories of France are very, very vivid and I loved it. [My parents lived in France a few years ago.]

Jessica: What’s the most interesting thing about you?

Mom: About me? Right now I don’t think there’s very much interesting about me at all. But I know other people think I’m interesting but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s because I’m honest. When I resigned from the WRA [Santa Barbara Wildland Residents’ Association where my mother was on the board for around sixteen years.] a couple people spoke about how interesting I was, but I don’t know. I don’t think there’s much interesting about me. Except I have a good sense of humor and I’m honest. That’s it.

[My husband, David, walks in the room. We’re on speaker phone so he hears everything. He decides to join in.]

David: What’s interesting about you is that you’re a genius who watches retarded TV shows. It’s a paradox I’ve never understood. Nobody watches worse TV than you.

Mom: [laughing]Oh, Cops is one my favorites! I love Cops!

Mom's favorite show!

Mom’s favorite show!

Jessica: Who do you love more, me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: [laughs] I always love more the one who asks. Nobody asks but you. I don’t think you ever ask that really. You don’t ask that question, I’m the one that asks those questions. Like who do you love more your husband or me? That’s my question. And I’m just saying it to be a smartass, I don’t really want you to make choices like that. [My daughter Ella and her friend walk into the kitchen and my mother can hear them jabbering away.] Oh my god does that girl ever stop talking?

Jessica: Who do you think is smartest:  Me, Becca or Josh?

Mom: Oh, come on! [laughing] That’s terrible! I think all three of you are incredibly smart. I do. And also about equally smart. And each of you in different directions. But I’m smarter than all of you [laughs]. Why don’t you ask who’s smarter me or your dad? Then I’ll tell you!

Mom holding me at age two.

Mom holding me at age two.