Snowing Thinking Writing

This morning I sat on a couch with a view out the window, where it was snowing. At the time I sat down it was snowing hard—big, wet flakes that seemed to change the world. I watched them fall by my window. For a moment each flake was important. Then it fell out of sight, piled into oblivion on the ground below.

I don’t know that I’ve ever watched a snowstorm end, really seen the fine changes that lead from a blizzard to still air. I’d been sitting for less than fifteen minutes when the number of big flakes began to dwindle. It did not take long before I could count the number in my view and for that number to shrink to none. The snow had turned to a fine powder that dyed the air gray.

Out of sight, up in the clouds I take it, something was happening. The snow ebbed some more. Minutes later it was gone completely.

I’d taken my seat this morning determined to pay attention. When I first sat down my concentration felt deep and wide. I had some ideas I wanted to spend some time with—about becoming a father, about growing older. For twenty minutes maybe, while the big flakes fell, I was a strong cistern, filled with feelings, bounded against the world around me. The toys on the floor, the mug of tea at my side, were objects outside me.

Then my concentration started to fray. My thoughts felt less distinct. I picked up a pen and twirled it, I thought about a dream I’d had the night before and how I needed to tell my sister about it. The snow was turning gray. I nearly got up from the couch and walked out of the room to my computer. My mind was whirling now, seizing on a thought and dropping it, doing everything it could to get me moving. There was no reason to believe that anything worthwhile would come of continuing to sit. Except that in some distant place I remembered that not long ago it had been snowing hard, and I’d known a different kind of feeling, and maybe it would come back.

So I leaned back into the couch. Something must have been happening in the clouds above because I began to deepen and widen again. I decided to compose a piece about the snow in my head.

I came up with a first line: This morning I sat on a couch with a view out the window, where it was snowing. I came up with a second. But after the second I doubted the first. Maybe it was time to stand up and go make some toast. But in some distant place I remembered that I’d once felt like I wanted to say something. So I didn’t get up and something happened in the clouds because I thought of a third line: I watched them fall by my window.

A few minutes later I came to the end of the piece. I didn’t feel like a cistern but I did feel like a man. Outside it had started to snow hard again.

Appearing Elsewhere: the perils and promise of synthetic biology; America's 12 community types; Penn Law professor and NFL special master Stephen Burbank

I’ve been slow to post links to a few pieces I wrote that were published over the past few months. They include:

  • Coverage of the Presidential Bioethics Commission, which met in Philadelphia this fall. The Commission’s topic was the promise and the problems of synthetic biology, an emerging field of science which aspires to create life from non-life by programming genetic code on a computer and manufacturing it out of chemicals. I reported on two days of spirited testimony, which included an arresting presentation from Nobel Laureate Sydney Brenner, whose wide-eyed humility and wry, wise eloquence made him one of my favorite subjects I’ve ever written about. (You can see his testimony here. It’s well worth watching.)
  • review of the the book Patchwork Nation which slices and dices America into 12 community types that go beyond the Red State/Blue State dichotomy.  Do you live in a Campus and Career Center? Or the Monied ‘Burbs? Or  Tractor Country?
  • An interview with Penn Law professor Stephen Burbank, who might just hold the future of the NFL in his hands (and also has some interesting things to say about they hyper-politicization of the Supreme Court and the reasons behind the explosion of litigation in America).

On shelves today: The Panic Virus

For nearly two years I worked in support of Vanity Fair writer Seth Mnookin on a book called The Panic Virus, which comes out today and which the Wall Street Journal says “should be required reading at every medical school in the world.”

The book is about the autism-vaccine scare and why it’s managed to rage so hot for so long despite any evidence (and really, there is no evidence) linking vaccines to developmental disorders.  A large part of the answer has to do with an intellectual trend of our time that privileges personal intuition over scientific evidence, and which denigrates experts as elitists. The media has had a role, too, giving airtime to people like Jenny McCarthy and reporting “both sides of the story” long after it became clear that there was really only one. The consequences of this scare have been tragic. Immunization rates have fallen in many parts of the country (typically affluent liberal enclaves) and kids are dying of infectious diseases like whooping cough and Hib that should be ancient history in America.

I wore a lot of hats in the making of this book: researcher, transcriber, editor, collaborator. Throughout it was a privilege to work with Seth Mnookin, whose commitment to getting the story right and telling it fairly was inspiring. So, The Panic Virus, on sale today. Go grab a copy.

Resolved in '11: No More Blaming the Internet

At a certain point in 2010 I got tired (and Caroline got really tired) of hearing myself whine about how the Internet was co-opting my mind. So one simple resolution for this coming year is to stop complaining about Internet (and technology in general) like it’s an unstoppable force bound to shape my life in unavoidably negative ways. I’ve written a short essay, appearing today at The Millions, that explains further:

The Internet is just a thing that sits on my desk, if it sits anywhere at all.  If I close the lid of my laptop, it can’t get me. If I walk outside it, can’t follow me.  Blaming the Internet for the novel I didn’t write is a little like blaming a plush sofa for the marathon I didn’t run.  Sure, the couch gave me a comfy place to hide while I was busy not being the man I want to be, but it’s hardly the cause of my problems. Replace the couch with a straw mat and suddenly I’ll run 26 miles? I doubt it. Scuttle the Internet and suddenly I’ll be the writer I’ve always dreamed of being? Hardly.