Thursday, June 18, 2009


Wordstock, Brooklyn Book Festival, Graywolf Anniversary

Publication of my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, is still a few months away, but I've already been invited to participate in a few events that have me very excited.

First up is the Brooklyn Book Festival, the big pow-wow for writers and books here in New York City. There are so many writers who participate in this event every year and I'm incredibly excited to be part of it too (even though I live in Queens. Shh). The date is set for September 13th, and I urge you to attend if you live in the area--not so much because of me, but to witness the incredible depth of talent that we have here in New York when it comes to good writing.

From October 8th to 11th, I'll be in Portland, Oregon for Wordstock, the largest gathering of writers and readers in the Pacific Northwest. I'm really excited about this too--I have roots in the Portland area, and lots of family in Seattle, and I know what a book-friendly community this part of our country is. I plan to take an extra bag so I can load up on goodies from Powells.

On October 29th, I'll be reading at the Mercantile Library to help Graywolf celebrate their 35th anniversary. A number of Graywolf's very fine writers and poets will be participating as well, and I look forward to meeting them and being in their company.

And, of course, I'll be at Breadloaf in August.

There will be more dates, which I will post as we managed to build out the website for the book. But until then, I did want to share this exciting news with family and friends.

Monday, June 15, 2009


On the Origins of Pain and Consciousness

(Sorry. I know that's a lofty blog post title.)

When my father was in the ICU unit last year, and we were informed that he was now medically classified as "brain dead" with little to no hope of recovery, it wasn't difficult for us to decide to remove his respirator. My father and I had had several conversations about the conditions under which he wanted to live or not (and you might have these convos with your family if you have not already). And so while I didn't exactly enjoy that night in the hospital, I did go through it knowing that I was complying with his wishes.

Note, though, that I said my father was "now medically classified as brain dead." Our doctor, in other words, was not completely convinced that this was the case. He was a skeptic. Skepticism is sometimes good.

A tiny detail from that evening: the excellent ICU doctor (if only the ER doctor from the night before had been half-way as decent, my father might still be alive today), made a point of telling me that he would administer anesthesia to my father before we removed the tube so there would be no chance of pain and suffering. While I remember this comment, its significance mostly passed me by at the time. And then, I read this utterly fascinating article in the New York Times by writer Annie Murphy Paul.

Many noted that if Merker is correct, it could alter our understanding of how normal brains work and could change our treatment of those who are now believed to be insensible to pain because of an absent or damaged cortex. For example, the decision to end the life of a patient in a persistent vegetative state might be carried out with a fast-acting drug, suggested Marshall Devor, a biologist at the Center for Research on Pain at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

A skeptic might say that I was trying to rationalize my grief--and that's fine. I can take that. However, when my father was in the hospital, and even though he never regained consciousness after I arrived, I saw evidence that he knew I was there, and that on some level he acknowledged me and all that I had to say, and that he was then able to pass peacefully. It's personal--I won't go into detail. But I was in awe, and I left the hospital that evening completely awe-stricken and confused by how we exit life. There is a great deal we do not know, and poets and writers sense these great transitions and write about them. One day perhaps science will catch up. But it's unclear that just because the cerebral cortex is damaged, the brain no longer functions and that a person is completely "gone."

In the quote above, Paul is referencing hydranencephaly, a very rare condition in which babies are born mostly with fluid in their cerebral hemispheres. To put it somewhat simply, they don't have a cerebral cortex, the part of the brain with we associate with memory and consciousness. And yet, Paul says, children with this condition (most don't live for long) have been observed laughing and responding to stimuli.

Merker included his observations of these children in an article, published last year in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, proposing that the brain stem is capable of supporting a preliminary kind of awareness on its own. “The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness,’ ” Merker wrote, may “have been reached prematurely, and may in fact be seriously in error.”

There are political implications for a conclusion like this; who can forget the long, drawn out debate surrounding Terri Schiavo? And then of course, there is the issue of abortion, and the point at which a fetus becomes conscious and capable of feeling pain. Paul spends most of her time discussing the complexity surrounding this question in her article. Since I read her piece on a day when I was remembering my father's passing, it was humbling to think about the way in which minds leave the earth . . . and the way in which they enter. When are we conscious? When do we become . . . us?

The article opens with a startling story; newborn babies requiring operations were once not given anesthesia. The risks of medicating these infants was seen as greater than the benefits. It was a sensitive doctor, Kanwaljeet Anand, who suggested the mortality rate of these babies might decline if they were given anesthesia, and indeed it did--from 25% to less 10%. Babies feel pain. It is suggested that they might even remember pain.

But, it's hard to prove.

“Pain perception probably does not function before the third trimester,” concluded Rosen, the review’s senior author. The capacity to feel pain, he proposed, emerges around 29 to 30 weeks gestational age, or about two and a half months before a full-term baby is born. Before that time, he asserted, the fetus’s higher pain pathways are not yet fully developed and functional.

Concomitant with when a baby or fetus does or does not feel pain, is the question of when it becomes conscious. The two may well be entwined. Paul writes:

IN FACT, “THERE may not be a single moment when consciousness, or the potential to experience pain, is turned on,” Nicholas Fisk wrote with Vivette Glover, a colleague at Imperial College, in a volume on early pain edited by Anand. “It may come on gradually, like a dimmer switch.” It appears that this slow dawning begins in the womb and continues even after birth. So where do we draw the line? When does a release of stress hormones turn into a grimace of genuine pain?

I am looking forward to the publication of Paul's book when it is ready. If the article is anything to go by, she will examine all these questions with great care. I read her article not at all as a political statement, but as the product of a genuinely curious mind, trying to understand the most profound questions. And I think that anyone contemplating--as I wrote earlier--how we leave the world and how we come into it, will find the article fascinating, if a little disturbing. But complicated things that are about the human soul aren't necessarily meant to be easy, and I think we do ourselves a disservice if we don't really wrestle with the implications of our increasingly awesome scientific and technological powers.

Monday, June 08, 2009


One Year

A year ago today, I was on a plane (for which I paid an astronomical sum of money), trying desperately to get to the hospital in time to say goodbye to my father, one of my best friends for a great many years. It goes without saying that I miss him, and think of him every day. It's a terrible thing, but one day, we do say goodbye to everyone.

Friday, June 05, 2009


Austin Scarlett and Destiny

I wrote in March that I'd been invited to attend the Young Lion's Award Ceremony at the New York Public Library, and that among the guests was the fashion designer/Project Runway winner Austin Scarlett. He'd stood out to me then because he was so elegant-so elegant that he was out of place, really, in a room full of writers and editors. And I was also sort of fascinated at the time because he was really paying attention to the readings and to the presentation. He seemed to actually care.

I forgot all about Austin Scarlett for a while, until my friend Jeffrey and I began our Wagner odyssey. We attended the final performance of Gottedamerung, which was also the Met's last opera of the season, and had a grand time chowing down on sushi after act one. After act two, we strolled out on the balcony and swore that next year we would eat at the fancy restaurant on the Grand Tier. I also swore I would show up with my own Wagner horn-hat.

And who should we pass on our way out to the balcony but . . . Austin Scarlett. I was so surprised--but pleased too. And then I got to thinking. Here is this extremely elegant person who is completely at home on television and designing gorgeous dresses. He attends a literary award ceremony--by himself, as far as I could see--and then very carefully concentrates on the readings and the presentation. He goes to 5 hours of Wagner not for show, but because he is actually interested in the music. I say this because I ran into Austin during the second intermission. People do not last this long at a Wagner opera unless they care. I also say this because the music accompanying his slideshow comes from Der Rosenkavalier (I have tickets to two performances, Austin. Just so you know).

And all of this made me very happy that he seems to really love art so much--from different disciplines--and to take the time to actually consider each experience. Not everyone does this. Some writers stick mostly to books, musicians to music, etc. I had never watched Project Runway, had never even heard of Austin Scarlett, in fact, until I saw him at the Young Lion's Award Ceremony. But I developed this extremely high opinion of him, and decided that should I ever run into him again, well, obviously it had to mean something.

And there he was last night, on the balcony at Avery Fisher Hall, while I, returning from scalping my unused ballet ticket, was on my way to see ABT. Couldn't believe it. I'll refrain from saying any weird stalkerish things like, obviously we are meant to be friends (oops). But seriously, I'm amused and charmed and all the more intrigued. And quite happy that someone would care so much for the classic arts.

Monday, June 01, 2009


The Perfect Age to Get Published

The lovely and talented novelist, Tayari Jones, has a little essay I wrote over at her site. She chose eight debut novelists to feature on her site this summer, and I'm grateful to be included, along with fellow Graywolf author Tiphanie Yanique.

Here is the first paragraph:

I wrote the first draft of my novel when I was thirty-one. My husband, who is Scottish and warm and funny but schooled in that British way, read the early manuscript and murmured: “Hmm. I like this one paragraph.” So I put the novel aside, then wrote and published short stories for a while. At thirty-five, I dragged the manuscript back out again. The one paragraph is the only thing from the original draft that is still in my book.

As I said, Tayari is a novelist and blogger herself, and her site a wonderful resource for writers at all stages of their career. Hop over and spend some time there--I try to do so every week. Tayari is very generous with all that she knows, and something of a virtual mentor to a great many young writers; I'm honored to be on her blog! And do check out her two novels: The Untelling and Leaving Atlanta.

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