About jsjacobs

I am a former English professor, dormant poet, manager of international higher ed programs, and trying to write more. The title of this blog comes from when I worked in Portugal and my boss reprimanded my Portuguese colleague about something by saying, "Até o Josh sabe!" ("Even Josh knows that!") A good motto to stay humble when making magisterial pronunciations online.

Picture day

Today marks the 18th anniversary of my brother Aaron’s death in the World Trade Center in New York. And it is also Picture Day at my kids’ schools: a peculiarly retro custom that goes along with the pre-smart phone era in which Aaron lived, and the pictures that my parents will share with our family tonight from Aaron’s life with us, trying to evoke with pleasure a full life cut short before any of our teen or tween kids were born. Aaron’s life as an adult was in the 90s (we went to the original Lollapallooza!), a decade that kids now conjure up with a kind of classic rock isn’t-that-sweet affection. As my almost 17 year old pointed out, they are part of a generation that deals with September 11th as a world historical event whose victims they never knew.

Aaron on his 11th birthday in our 80s kitchen in Virginia

Last night I broke open a heavily plastic-sheathed six-pack of yahrzeit memorial candles I ordered from Amazon, and switched my tabs from elections to the prayer for lighting the candle and starting the day of remembering. It is hard to make a space in our lives 100% dedicated to memory: within minutes of lighting up, we returned to our wonderful mundane tasks and Bad Bunny once again yelped from someone’s room upstairs. When we are not in this dreadful week, often memories of Aaron can coexist happily with normal life, like a memory of the old country; this week, I feel the negative space of Aaron’s absence around which my life has shaped itself, like the twin black tattoos or scars I once fantasized getting for myself as a bodily memorial.

Aaron admires my ice cream game, c. 1976

This summer I went with my parents on a trip to explore their own memories in Manhattan and The Bronx. We visited their apartment buildings (still the same), schools (one is now a prison :*( ), where they got married, and other places that even all these years after leaving town still make them who they are, and apparently explain why I say “orange” funny. We also visited the lake in Central Park that has become our place to remember Aaron. When we first visited this place in 2001 to make it into a memorial site, a beat-up gazebo was there, and a seemingly out of it man spending his day there knew enough to salute us with “yasher koach,” the Hebrew phrase meaning “may you have strength” used to salute someone after conducting a prayer or some other important task. 18 years later, I was grateful we all still had the strength to return and reflect on Aaron in New York.

The jarring neon-green bloom on the lake is a fitting backdrop for me, as I try to imagine Aaron into a future world increasingly made strange by climate crises and political and social violence. Someone reassured me at his funeral that he was in a better place, but I have always rejected that comfort, as Aaron was a genius at making his own life and the world better. He forgot what he needed to (being tormented on the elementary school bus), and remembered to do right by others, whether by remembering his fiancee’s medicine for her each day or putting a light-hearted check on the doofus instincts of some people that worked on his trading desk. I hope the work we do to weave Aaron’s memory into our lives–not just on this day, but throughout the year–not only keeps him alive but keeps us living in the confident, loving way he achieved for himself.

If you are reading this today and thinking of Aaron and our family, thank you.

Aaron in the white shorts, second from left. Kid to the right of him is my spirit animal.

A poem for Rabbi Goldstein

After a terrorist came into the Chabad of Poway, California last week and started shooting, one of the first details I learned was that Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein had managed to shoo children to safety even after getting his index fingers shot off. I read Rabbi Goldstein’s NY Times op-ed and was reminded that losing your index finger has a particular symbolic value, since Jews use a yad–a sculpted arm and pointing hand–to keep our place when reading Torah, and I was moved and inspired by his insistence that he would never back down.

Before I even saw this picture, I thought of a yad in the image of Rabbi Goldstein’s arm–tested by violence and unyielding–as opposed to a standard yad that is a decorative sculptural arm/hand and might sit in a cupboard forever.

White nationalists with guns are targeting Orthodox Jews and synagogues–because they are so obviously Jewish, and their appearance most coincides with “the Jew” of hateful stereotypes–and my Reform synagogue now has a plain-clothes security guard, who just last night hailed me with a “Shabbat shalom” (probably a good polite way to suss out Temple members vs. 8chan members). In this context Rabbi Goldstein’s arm and attitude, horrifyingly, are models for what American Jews may need to face in these years. Thus this poem.

A yad for Rabbi Goldstein
This is a gift
for a Bat Mitzvah girl
becoming a woman today:
a wooden arm and hand
to point your way among
the forested words of Torah.
In normal times you might
give a nice pen, some money,
or even an elegant pointer
to nudge a young person
that they might learn and keep the faith.
But now we enter this place
with more urgency, less polish.
This pointer is not painted
nor does it end with silver fittings
but abruptly at the elbow.
The arm up to the base
is mostly covered, white long-
sleeved in all weathers,
the cuffs split open now
by paramedics' scissors.
Where the index finger—
for the hand's defining work—
would normally extend, you have
instead a fragment, left
cauterized in place;
the other four reach out,
still, underlining
the next vital phrase.
And though it is
uncomfortable to hold
or claim as your own,
you may one day need
to take up this arm
and hold your place
in the book, in your land,
no matter what.

New releases

This winter I was lucky to find a local poetry group, made up of real day-in day-out poets (which I aspire to become). We meet up every month and share a poem or two that we’re working on, and the group gives wonderfully practical ideas about which words work and don’t, etc. I have been delighted to get this regular inspiration / deadline pressure.

Here are a couple of new releases: the first, “Renunciations,” had a four-year gestation period. A friend who had been part of the local Bahá’í community decided to become Jewish, and really did drop by a canvas bag full of prayer books for my Bahá’í wife. I knew this was a powerful moment but it took forever to create something from it. What emerged was thinking about Bahá’ís and Jews as people of minor religions who have had to be careful about their outward signs of faith.

I got an Olivetti late-1960s typewriter recently, inspired in part by the loving typewriter documentary California Typewriter, and I love the physicality of creating text on this stylish old machine. And recently I attempted to learn meditation from my cousin, a TM instructor, which made me feel like my recalcitrant brain was kind of like an old typewriter that jams easily. The physical presence of the typewriter inspired “Mantra generator,” and then reading “Climate Signs” by Emily Raboteau helped me reconsider how to bring in my can’t-get-to-sleep (or meditate!) worries into the scene of this poem with “Mantra recycler.”

Honey despite everything: remembering Aaron

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is a day of sweetness and celebration and eating things with honey, but also the day we blow a really loud ram’s horn and crack open the Book of Life to ask, as of next year, who among us might die by fire or water, who by sword or beast, or who might live out a serene old age.

Tonight my family lit a 24-hour yahrzeit candle to start the commemoration of my brother Aaron Jacobs’s death in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. That year Rosh Hashanah started the night of September 17, and I recall walking into a synagogue where places had been saved for me, Amy and my parents, as though we were representatives of the “who by sword and who by plane” fate that had just befallen Aaron. Ever since then the Jewish High Holidays and this anniversary have been commingled emotionally for me. It becomes a very hard few weeks to get through.

It’s also become my annual ritual of remembering Aaron to write a tribute like this, and try to write a poem inspired by his memory or (more likely) my own experience of remembering him as the years go on. Often this has felt kind of like passing a kidney stone, with my own self-imposed pressure to produce something adding to the looming sense of dread I feel as this day approaches. This year has been different because, in her wisdom and love, Amy got me a gift of a Serene Retreat (TM) with our friend Carrie, who is the writing and editing Sensei to the Stars. I spent a few days in August holed up in an Airbnb in Asheville, NC (Keep it Weird), completely switched off from email, internet and work, communing with some family pictures like the ones pictured here to come up with some poems on the theme of family.

Reader, you won’t believe it but I actually drafted three poems in Asheville, the most in one stretch for a super long time (one is described below). This took my own selfish “artistic” pressure off this anniversary.

Looking at these photos while surrounded by my own family, I have scrambled memories, faintly recalling the tenderness of Aaron as a little kid mixed with his own doting nature as a teen and adult for tender animals and kids. Aaron wasn’t afraid to be affectionate and show his emotions, or to stretch out his arms and flap like a bird across 5th Avenue. If I am a little too huggy now, it may be because I remember awkwardly going in for a handshake with him when we were in our 20s and having him tell me, “I’m giving you a hug.”

One of Aaron’s close friends from growing up would share memories of him with me over the years at the time of this anniversary, including some excerpts from his letters. I treasure these for the insight into Aaron’s voice that is so hard to convey in the absence of video and social media clips. Here are two of these excerpts from when Aaron was 20 or so:

9/13/95:  “First of all, this pen sucks.  I’m pretty sure it’s because I chew the end off and eventually all my drool gets mixed up with the ink.  I know this happens, so while I can’t really control whether I chew the end off and play with the little cap in my mouth, I’m making an effort not to drool into it as much.  So, would you expect anything but a paragraph devoted to saliva?  I didn’t want to disappoint.”

9/10/96:  “I’m enjoying Cozumel [where Aaron taught English after college].  It is, in parts, amazingly beautiful.  I watched the sunset the other night and was astounded.  Not only was it brilliant, but there were these huge cumulus clouds shooting out in a wedge shape from the point of the sun’s path.  At the point itself were a few smoother clouds with intermittent space where the sun shone through.  Very peaceful.”

Tragically, this friend of Aaron’s lost their own younger sibling this past month to cancer. I’m struck by how many people must look with dread to the prayer that asks “who by fire, and who by water,” knowing how these elemental fates stand in for so many horrible, random and not-random ways we can pass before our time.
If you are reading this and thinking of Aaron and my family, thank you.

One of the prompts for my poetry about family was Aaron’s Bar Mitzvah program. I was fortunate to have one of my own children become a Bat Mitzvah this year and tried to put myself in Aaron’s place as he prepared. So I read his Torah portion, from the Book of Numbers (1:1-16), which is one of the random springtime passages kids have to read from…in this case, the census that Moses and Aaron were charged by G-d to take of the Twelve Tribes. I can’t imagine what Aaron made of that for his interpretation.

I kept reading and found Numbers 3:4, where it turns out Aaron’s sons, who were rookie priests, offered “strange fire” before the Most High and were consumed by divine fire. I thought, whoa, and looked further into Leviticus 10 where it seems their fire was “strange” because it came at the wrong time, or from the wrong fire, or with the wrong firepan, or they did it together when they should have done it solo…either way, they died, and Moses told Aaron to keep silent, and he did.

Maybe because I was feeling so Serene (TM), I decided to write a ghazal on the strange fire theme, a form that basically invites you to riff on a theme based on a shared end rhyme. I didn’t see the connection to the Binding of Isaac, nor even to my Aaron’s “strange” demise, or to the “who by fire and who by water” theme until I became un-Serene and felt the approach of 9/11. Here it is, my own probably strange offering on this day.


Strange fire

And Nadab and Abihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children: and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the sight of Aaron their father. (Numbers 3:4)

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took their respective firepans, and after putting fire in them, placed incense on it and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

Then Moses said to Aaron, “It is what the LORD spoke, saying,
‘By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy,
And before all the people I will be honored.’”
So Aaron, therefore, kept silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

First time up, G-d fries Aaron’s sons for “strange fire,”
And Moses says “no tears”. Be cool, strange fire.

The commentaries diverge: tl;dr,
Bad attitude spoils even free-range fire.

Or it could have been a classic teen screwup:
Straight Tabernacle, not that gas range fire!

Eyes down, their cousins took their bodies out
As evidence: these kids were deranged = fire.

As far as OSHA knows, six thousand years
Since last reported death by shift change fire.

Working with the Most High *and* his bro left Aaron
A mixed emoji: 😐/ estranged / 🔥

Remember, this Old Testament Jah, with newbie
Priests: stickler, but He taught the range of fire.

I got a woman says she’s not Jewish but saves
Shabbat match stubs to rearrange some fire.

Matter of fact, wasn’t for her, our temple our home
Wouldn’t have song or light. That’d be some strange fire.

End with a firepan, handle up in sand:
Neither snow nor flood nor beast shall shortchange fire.

A note from the author

Today is the day my family and I try to create a space for remembering my brother, Aaron Jacobs, outside of the official “Patriot Day” ceremonies and 3-minute bits on cable news and people doing any number of things To Remember for their own reasons. Aaron died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Ever since I have dreaded the approach of this anniversary.

For the first ten years, I did what I could to seal myself off from the world on this day, while also trying to convey something about Aaron to our children as they got older. Then I was moved to start writing about my experience of mourning Aaron in such a world-historical context, starting in May 2011 when bin Laden was killed, and then continuing on the anniversaries since then.

I write poetry and got a PhD in English, and so one of the main ways that Aaron and others knew me as I grew up was as a writer. This part of myself had been pushed into the background by mourning, early parenthood, career changes, life in general…so it felt great to reclaim that, and I came to expect that I’d write poetry with Aaron and remembrance in mind at these anniversary times. Having a deadline was really important to me, given my incredible inertia and lack of regular writing practice for most of the past few years, and I was always relieved to produce a poem or two as part of my work of recalling Aaron for myself and the world. But there was also a sort of passing-a-kidney-stone quality to these last-minute acts of creation, which maybe is appropriate given the grinding anxiety I feel for weeks leading up to the anniversary, but which also for me heightened the sad linkage of my puttering-along poetry life with mourning.

So I resolved to try and write more regularly and not be that contrived creature, the household Poet Laureate who rips off poems only for birthdays and other state occasions. And as an official 9-11 Family member, I can tell you the post-election nine months have had some of the same quality of marking life Before and After that we associate with remembering September 11th. It’s been satisfying to produce more this year (see below) and have a broader set of topics, driven in part by the urgency of the current national moment. For better or for worse, I am observing this anniversary without a poem for Aaron per se.

But the timescale of my life as a writer and person does continue to hinge on this day, refracted by the increasing distance from Aaron’s life and by the new ways that surface in which he is so dearly missed. Just one example: in the past few years Amy and I have had a rep as big meanies because we won’t get a dog like every other family we know. There are reasons…we are all allergic, nobody wants to pick up poop, etcetera…but underneath it I just don’t love pets enough to take one on. My parents and I were just talking today about Aaron’s soft spot for all animals, and how we see that shared in one of our daughters especially who squeals over every passing pooch. It is sweet in the moment to try and convey this side of Aaron to the girls, and do justice to his loving nature. But I feel anew the loss of Aaron’s complement and counterweight—the skinny to my chunk, the quick to my pensive—and imagine him as a father who would no question have at least one pet in the house. That would be the model household for our kids, the one we’d be pushed to emulate. I can’t go too far down the road imagining that life and what the last 16 years would have been.

If you are reading this and thinking of Aaron and my family, thank you for your support and love.

Poetry Corner: whose tree this is I think I know

If you are reading this from another country, or as an archivist from the final pages of The Handmaid’s Tale looking back into our history, you may not be aware of The War on Christmas. As the Times describes it, this phenomenon is a “sometimes histrionic yuletide debate over whether the United States is a country that respects Christianity.” As a non-Christian person who knows way more carols than I do Hanukkah songs, I personally have experienced nothing but Respect for the holiday in my life. Fun story: when my brother Aaron was little and people wished him a Merry Christmas he once said, “I’m not Christmas, I’m Hanukkah!”

A few months ago I was driving and found myself behind the truck picking up the Christmas trees from the curb. It was sort of melancholy but the smell was overwhelming and primally wonderful. It made me think about the difference between the made-up War on Christmas, and how those who came up with the idea will always find themselves needing more respect and reverence, compared to the mystical and indifferent (to us) natural world that gives rise to faith and wrestling with faith.

I can’t point to glosses on Shakespeare or Eliot in this one but I’m delighted to put Oh Sheila back in the front of your mind. Along with Hearing Study I’m seeing this as a series of poems, perhaps called the Five Senses of the Trumpocalypse, that grapple with our physical sense of the world as a lens for These Times We’re In. Coming soon! Or in any case, within a year or so!

Eau de “War on Christmas”

Late winter, stuck behind
The garbage truck that takes the trees

Wherever they go when Yule
Is done. The crunching mandibles

Ahead, the fractured limbs
Compose a tableau from The Lives

Of the Saints: but from the scratch
Of wood on metal, I sniff the sap:

It blows into my car,
The bow wave of a nova’s blast

As ten trees’ smell become
In death a forest’s worth of green.

When all this pine last filled
The car, it was December: I rode

Beside a stranger in
An Uber Pool, no words exchanged,

Subjected to talk radio
And the scent of Pine Fresh Hanging Tree

Billowing back to us.
The Merry side was winning, and

Mere Happy vanquished: not
Oh Sheila but O Tannenbaum

Would be the tune to carry
That loyal smell enwreathing us all.

Truth is, Merry I’m not,
Now least of all. I’m rooting for

The tree, though: even for
That dangling specimen in the car,

I hoped I’d never see
Its boughs fade into gray, and smell

The citrus arson tang
Of bark beetle armies at their work.

This unlit pyre ahead
Is planting memories—the kind

Only accessible
By smell, that jack in deeper than

The wavering 2D
Of sight or sound. Now I’m back here

From a drier future:
The winters then don’t freeze; the pines

And their invasive bugs
Have found an equilibrium

That almost reads mesquite
In the nose. From then, the made-up fight

To claim this smell will seem
Like battling for the Hanging Pine,

Which long since lost its scent,
Kept in a reverential box

Like a beloved’s last clothes
That come, instead, to smell like you.
May 2017

Poetry Corner: The lab is political

LLcooljPoetry Corner! Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years!

Well, every poem feels like a bit of a comeback. I have to admit though, as much as I recognize the lameness and limitations of what I do, I have such a selfish pleasure in writing that it outweighs my superego’s telling me to forget it. My dear friend Carrie has recently talked about how for those of feeling our daily political waking nightmare, the Hostile Reader we imagine greeting our every word with a “pshaw” is close neighbors in a special gated community with the voice telling us how pointless it is to call your Senator or send a rainbow postcard to the White House (I’ve done both recently). So #Resist! and keep writing.

Not that all writing by concerned citizens is inherently political or should be. But I recently had an experience that tapped into first a long-ago personal history as a writer, and then our political moment. Back in college I wrote a poem called Twilight of the House of Wessex about an imagined lab scene with a friend of mine autopsying rats, putting the names of Anglo-Saxon kings on them which I extrapolated to their being spread-eagled on Viking ships. All in good fun. I had some weird deja vu to that poem when I walked into the Freeman Lab at MIT, where they study the mechanics of hearing. How the engineers do this at present is by sedating mice and chinchillas — so as to have the animals be perfectly still, on a super-stable lab table with sound baffles — and then playing sounds so they can trace the response of the inner ear as it receives the noise and sends it up into the brain.

When I finally sat down to write about it, here in Year Zero, I couldn’t shake the sense that this scene of the animals sedated and strapped to the bench had superimposed upon it other notorious images of power twisted for coercion and torture. Instead of the pips of sound playing in the mouse’s ear I recalled the use of heavy metal to torture US detainees. Not just the fragile mouse but even the scene of scientific experiment itself now feels a bit besieged, potentially overwritten by an outright attack on science from the right. And I really do have tinnitus, so there’s that too.

So that is the fun prompt for this poem, “Hearing Study,” which also is inspired by America’s Favorite Poet of Witness, Adrienne Rich. If you read on, Reader, thanks a bunch.

Hearing Study

A mouse lies etherized
Upon a table in a lab.

Pink tufted flap pinned back,
Its ear is open to a ping

The cochlea is bound
To send along, asleep or not:

The engineers will trace
The domino-fall of stirrup bones

Up to the cortex flash,
Base wavelengths alchemized to sound.

I’ve got this tinnitus,
So in this silent lab I hear

The chosen tones ring out
Above a maddening susurrus–

I know they’ve stabilized
This table, pads on walls, nothing

Outside the experiment
Can reach this animal–and yet

All around this tiny stage
I hear how this could all go wrong,

And has: a Gitmo’s worth
Of hideous concerts, flood-lit rooms

For those about to rock
Instead of sleep, or pray, or eat.

If from outside this lab
This looks to you like board-approved

Research, but also like
The scenes of men with lab coats, hoods,

Our country’s uniforms
Engaged in violence upon

Someone naked and bound,
Then maybe tinnitus is not

A signal failure but
A warning: what is sweet upon

The porches of your ears
Is somewhere harmonized with that

You never would have wished
To hear, yet booms out in your name,

And mine. Even in here
That hidden beat keeps me awake.

©Josh Jacobs 2017

Signs and portents

Citizenship by walking around

Since the election people have been saying that to understand what’s happening read history, not the day to day of journalism (or Tweets!). I’ve been doing some of that but I’ve been struck by the visuals of the post-election moment, both here and abroad. And like little battalions of witnesses, some paragraphs from (real or imagined) histories have been rising off the page with their own visual complements to what’s happening and may happen. I got to visit China and factories across the US in the past few weeks and saw a lot to confirm (or puzzle) our current bleak narrative.

This is the image that really hit me these past few weeks:

Trump leaves a briefing at One World Trade Center

Trump leaves a briefing at One World Trade Center










If you had told me in mid-2001 that some fifteen years hence:

–The WTC would have been destroyed by terrorists;

–My brother Aaron would be among those killed;

–That in the fullness of time a hideous, fortress-like skyscraper would rise on Ground Zero, a hackneyed 1776 feet high;

–That Donald Trump would be elected president in 2016;

–And that he would walk out of that (to me) unspeakable monument of a building, as the President-Elect, just having been briefed there on the Russian hacking that surely helped him win the election…

I’m sure I would have been in shock. But I never would have guessed that the “9-11 Truthers,” whose paranoid fantasies were so painful for me to consider, would metastasize over the years to include a huge chunk of Americans: ready to be convinced their dark conspiracies must be true, and impermeable to the signs and portents of our country as it really is. I could not have imagined the rupture in history we brought on ourselves in 2016 would so far exceed the one imposed by terrorists in 2001.


An active shooter reminder on a whiteboard at a corporate site

An active shooter reminder on a whiteboard at a corporate site

At two of the four corporate sites I visited on the factory tour, there were prominent displays of the “Run-Hide-Fight” approach to dealing with an active shooter…or in this case, “Get out, Hide out, Take out.” Kids in kindergarten now might never remember their country when they did not drill on active shooter responses (and had Trump as President). It all just becomes part of the landscape of our daily lives and routines, without questioning (as these companies do in their operations) the “root cause” of expecting someone to shoot up your school, home, workplace…


An artist pauses while painting a portrait of Donald Trump in Shenzhen, China

An artist pauses while painting a portrait of Donald Trump in Shenzhen, China

At the Dafen Oil Painting village in the city of Shenzhen, China, an artist takes a break from painting portraits of Donald Trump. He has chosen a very flattering flesh tone. Trump’s portrait sits atop one of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.


Chyron: Trump investigated for "golden shower" Russian kompromat; sub: Obama farewell address

Chyron: Trump investigated for “golden shower” Russian kompromat; sub: Obama farewell address

There is nothing like the anxious lassitude of waiting in an airport for a delayed flight, CNN blasting within 15 feet of any seat you can take, and hearing serious commentators debate allegations about our President-Elect’s rituals of sexual hatred and debasement. Welcome to the world of kompromat. As Les Moonves said, Trump isn’t good for the country, “but it’s damn good for CBS [or CNN!].”


From Mary Beard, "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome"

From Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”

“The old Republic was finished…A radical change of practice was made to seem somehow inevitable.” Lots of discussion of Roman parallels these days. Today is Trump’s Inaugural and we’ll see how he positions himself in regards to his predecessors, and whether he follows Augustus’ lead.

A banner year

NASA's Instagram post announcing that 2016 was the warmest year on record

NASA’s Instagram post announcing that 2016 was the warmest year on record

On the day that NASA announced that 2016 was the warmest year in the modern era–the third straight year the record has been set–Scott Pruitt testified before the Senate as the nominee to lead EPA, having spent his career suing and opposing the agency as the Oklahoma Attorney General.










From the graphic novel "Trolls XX""

From the graphic novel “The Creeps: The Trolls will Feast”

My littlest one was reading this the other night and it perfectly captures the embrace of fake news that helped fuel the head troll’s election.


From William Gibson, "The Peripheral" (2014)

From William Gibson, “The Peripheral” (2014)

William Gibson’s prophetic visions of the future already being here, “just not evenly distributed,” often come to me to explain the present. In “The Peripheral” a sort of rolling disaster of climate change, war and disease that Gibson calls “the Jackpot” kills 80% of humanity over 40 years in the mid-21st century. Being at MIT I am lucky to witness many things that “make people blink and sit up” even as the macro picture looks ditchy.

Crazy, brave, dare to create

An industrial design studio in Shenzhen, China

An industrial design studio in Shenzhen, China

Shenzhen is known as the newest Chinese mega-city where giant Foxconn factories build 90% of the world’s phones and laptops. But it also has a huge ecosystem of smaller-scale factories, designers, and hustlers bent on creating new gadgets and getting them out on the market ASAP. The city is full of people from all over the world trying to leverage its unique mix of creativity and ability to produce things at scale. Amidst Trump’s belligerence towards China, seeing this world in Shenzhen gave me hope that the positive forces in both countries might exceed the power of their authoritarian leaders.

I trust my fears while struggling to ignore them

My mind and body have been telling me that the election and today’s inaugural are auguries indeed, in the Latinate sense of a foreboding omen of terrible things to come. But my body also tells me of the pleasure of the indifferent sun on my skin, or the comfort of hugging my family. Aleksandar Hemon, who grew up during the Bosnian wars, writes about the “war mind” in which one is split between the assumptions of what came before and having to anticipate what is dangerous and previously unseen (by me, in my nest of safety and privilege):

But the body knows the score, recognizes the crisis before the mind. It not only gets the steel ball rolling onto the intestines, but also activates the senses, setting them to the frequencies at which the signals of new dangers can be received…We become of two minds, which cannot agree on what is real. The world looks strange and unreliable, fragile and dangerous. It is itself and not itself. I am myself and someone else.

That’s me with the steel ball in my intestines, waking up with my family and struggling to ignore my fears while simultaneously considering new ways in which I may need to face them. If you are reading this, sending you hopes for a peaceful march tomorrow and the strength to face your fears.

The logo of the HAX hardware accelerator in Shenzhen, China

The logo of the HAX hardware accelerator in Shenzhen, China




Who lives who dies who tells your story: thinking of Aaron 15 years later

Family portraits

Family portraits

Each year my parents, Amy and our daughters get together on September 11 to look at photographs of my brother Aaron, who died in the World Trade Center, to recall our lives together and try to summon up his unique character for the girls. This gathering is what we’ve carved out of the world-historical anniversary of The September 11th Attacks and the unavoidably public setting of our private loss. I’m grateful for the support that many surviving families and friends receive through official commemorations, but apart from not wanting to put ourselves on display, for me there is an inevitable shading towards patriotic bunk that fills these events. I explored this last year when I wrote about a 9-11 Christmas ornament I saw at a store. I do have some PTSD-like reactions to the images and stories of the day itself and so I am very grateful indeed to have my parents and family all living close by and able to create our own focus on how Aaron lived.

This summer Amy and I were able to see Hamilton on Broadway to celebrate our own 15th anniversary. Leading up to the show (which was amazing…I laughed, I cried, it was (so much) better than Cats!) I knew I’d be hit hard by the second act’s concluding focus on how the Aaron Burr and Eliza Hamilton characters construct their final years as remembering Hamilton. “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Your Story” is the final song, which resonates really hard with me as I look ahead to hopefully a long life of telling my brother’s story and hoping, as Eliza does, that “I’ve done enough.”

Harriet Katz, 1960

Harriet Katz, 1960, from The Arizona Republic

When I started to think about this anniversary a few weeks ago as a topic for writing, I realized that in traditional etiquette the 15th anniversary is the Crystal Anniversary. Somehow this brought to mind my Grandma’s characteristic gesture of referring to her quartz watch as the ultimate standard of accuracy. This got me to thinking about how my Grandma, Harriet Katz, applied her trade as a licensed clinical psychologist to administer to me and Aaron the IQ tests that helped us get into advanced school programs (the most popular such test being the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales). It struck me as a fascinating gesture of loving favoritism from within the very heart of her objective and quantitative professional persona. The result is this poem, “Quartz Time,” which imagines a dialogue between me and my Grandma as I continue my struggle to write effectively in Aaron’s memory. It continues in some ways the dialogue with Aaron that I imagined in “Encounter in the workshop,” a poem I wrote at this time last year.

What I’ve discovered about my Grandma even in this short time has itself been very gratifying and fascinating. Just to tie it all together, this summer I reread Adrienne Rich’s poem “Grandmothers” and discovered her maternal grandmother wrote a play about Burr and Hamilton! I also think of my Grandma in light of Caroline Herschel, an astronomer Rich wrote about in “Planetarium,” who cast herself as “an instrument in the shape / of a woman trying to translate pulsations / into images for the relief of the body/ and the reconstruction of the mind.” The persona of my Grandma in this poem is inspired by thinking about the lives of women in my family and Aaron’s life.

My love and gratitude to those who read this thinking of Aaron and of me and my family. May his memory be for a blessing.

Quartz time

On this crystal anniversary, accepting

In private a faceted Survivor’s Cup

At the very stroke of ten, I recall

Our Grandma’s love and objectivity—


“This is a quartz watch” (pointing at the face

Of a simple Seiko), “the most accurate there is.

When it was time for Aaron to move on in school,

Of course I came to give him the IQ test.”


Naturally: a licensed clinical psychologist

Grandma, with hardly a thumb, though she did hold

The scale to put it on! She showed little Aaron

Some number sets, some opposites…cue tabulation…


“One hundred sixty-two. Not a point more

Though he shaded high. Stanford-Binet,

That classy double-barrel, not too keen

On Jews maybe, but it’s a blind score: clean.”


He scored high enough: last known address, Top ‘o the World.

Her watch’s little tuning fork of quartz vibrated

Once a second. Now the clumsiest metaphor, two tines

Of thousand-foot steel, sound their annual “bong.”


“My dear boy. I’ve lit a few yahrzeit candles:

That highball with a day and night of wax

Is all the burn a brain can stand. You can’t

Reach up to where he died with longer wicks.”


Each hour and year I keep trying to write

His life, and trying to duck the last IQ

Test: Which of these identical portraits

Of a young man shows him 15 years later?


“You don’t see that my measurement of love

For both of you was that you would be ‘fast,’

To fill each moment, move on to the next.

There is no filling back.” She sits with me in silence.


Copyright Joshua S. Jacobs


Writing my way to Aaron on 9-11-2015

Aaron the night before Amy's and my wedding

Aaron the night before Amy’s and my wedding

Every year in August I wait for a sign that the September 11th anniversary of my brother Aaron’s death is approaching. This year it was at a souvenir store in Rhode Island, where amidst lobster trays and anchor pillows I saw a rack of Christmas tree ornaments that included a 9-11-01 ornament. It was a sort of drag queen bald eagle with luxuriously golden wings folded into a heart-shape, penciled eyebrows, squeezed into a cuirass of a Captain America-type shield and perched atop a scroll with that indelible date. A bewildering sight to me…I wondered what this thing meant to people who had no personal connection to the lives lost that day? And why Christmas?

According to the manufacturer’s website, “Old World Christmas glass Remembrance ornaments were designed to honor the thousands of lives lost on September 11, 2011, and keep their memory alive.” That is a worthy goal, but for me seeing this ornament was one small example of how American culture seeks to make the lives lost on September 11th into a beautiful scar on the American body: something suitable to be depicted on a ribbon-shaped magnet, but also to be flexed in public to justify any paranoid or violent urge our leaders and fellow citizens might indulge. I have a lot of anger about how the memory of Aaron and the others who died that day is deployed in American culture and politics. This is something I talked about last year with Colby, a Hampshire College student whose senior project included interviews with me and other 9-11 family members.

All of this public wrestling is very far from the personal loss my family and I bear from missing Aaron, who was no hero, just someone at work; representing only his own life and its connections to many who loved him, and not anyone else’s idea of what America means or how it relates to the world.

It was with this perspective that I tried to write a poem about this ornament from the perspective of a shop-owner who would display it. I tried not to bring too much of my personal anger and elitist cattiness to bear on this persona, because I am a nice person. But I wanted to push this character into extreme displays of what I imagine as a strongly-felt but inchoate set of emotions that give rise to this kind of ornament. My favorite part of it is evoking the Latin phrase from Horace, “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” This literally means something like “It is sweet and proper to die for your country,” and was famously rebuked in Wilfred Owen’s First World War poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” If I am not the first person to make this translation of “decorum” into “decorative,” don’t tell me! I also was delighted to put ‘ol baldy into the heraldry context with his self-sacrificing friend the pelican.

But really this is a trivial poem. The tougher question I found myself asking was, why, in this grief/history-induced creative work I’ve done at this time of year the past few years, do I end up writing myself inside the weird confines of such poetic vehicles as a Christmas ornament, a memorial candle, or even an imagined mezzanine of the WTC itself? And why is it that I rarely write poetry except at this In Memoriam season, or indeed much of anything (well I did put my heart and soul into an Adrienne Rich/Claudia Rankine piece this winter), now that the whole blogging moment is past?

I’ve been reading Dante’s Inferno (translated by Robert Pinsky) and Seamus Heaney’s long poem “Station Island,” which uses Dante’s rhyme scheme and also stages various encounters between Heaney and the dead in a pilgrimage setting. Inspired or egged on by these masters, I permitted myself to imagine encountering Aaron in the “space” of my poetry and my struggles to write in the wake of his loss. The “workshop” I write myself and him into is the hardest place I’ve ever had to go as a writer, and I was grateful for the sense of release and freedom to write joyfully that I found there. I also made myself cry reading in “Aaron’s” voice which probably means I’m on the right track.

Of course part of the poem’s point is that I have only been writing on this most grim of deadlines (mostly) and that the Poet Josh self that Aaron knew was someone who would be writing all the time. Hopefully this confrontation I’ve conjured will slap some more urgency into me. And if you are reading this thinking of Aaron, me and my family, thank you.

Encounter in the Workshop

I open up the workshop at the end
Of summer, pulled through locks and stops of this
New water-clock that keeps my time with grief,
Sometimes releasing me to fill some lines

With annals from the Roman-numeraled year.
But now, inside this parallel bachelor pad,
A curling snapshot of my brother drops
His jaw—abruptly, straight down cartoon-style—

And with eyes still delighted in the past
Addresses me:
                    “Oh hi. I felt you knock
This time. Years back, the door you half-prayed stood
Between us was a mirror—shrouded too.”

“After you left, I couldn’t line you up
Inside my usual pentameter.
I went from juvenilia to BOOM…”
     “Wait, isn’t that no-motopeia? Look,

You made it back, but onto a small page
Of bric-a-brac. A candle glass? “Prezi”?
When all the guys on 103 asked you
To use some of their poetry terms—looked up

That morning on their Bloomberg terminals—
They wanted some real magic from your mort-
arboard, not Gollum’s Treasury
Of Mournful Stuff. You didn’t learn the spells

So you could curl yourself around this dreck?”
     “I grabbed on shiny objects in a grayed-
Out world. For all I lived, my writer’s gut
Was stuck in time, still constipated from

A life of legendary feasts with you.”
     “Your head’s the gray zone: make sure that our voice
Does more than rue lost meals. That’s right: your faint
Superiority was trained up on

My adoring little head; your wordy wit
Built up from all our dipshit banter. Write
Your balding ass off and I might come too.”
The echoes of the mic I had him drop

Fill up that space like a good-natured slap.

Copyright 2015 Joshua S. Jacobs

Adrienne Rich, Claudia Rankine and #BlackLivesMatter


Earlier this year I was introduced to an online literary journal, Critical Flame, that was putting out an all-Adrienne Rich issue. After years of moving and reboxing my Adrienne Rich collection around, in 2012 her passing got me thinking and writing about her again more seriously. I wrote an appreciation of her work and how it had, in fact, changed my life as a young person trying to engage with poetry, questions of “otherness” in literature, and ethics. When this new opportunity to write about Rich came around, I initially had something like this anecdotal, “me and Adrienne” sort of piece in mind.

But in fact I ended up writing my way into something much deeper and more challenging, for which I am grateful. Ever since last August I have been grappling with the current wave of state violence against black Americans. In my own narrowly-constrained world–literally on my path from home to the T station each day–I saw in a stalled-out teardown home a metaphor for how routine and the power of social forces make it normal to not take a stand in the face of such violence as the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. So I wrote about that daily question as it worried in my brain and emerged as a winter-gray moth of a poem.

When I came around to naming a topic for Critical Flame, I started with an interest in Rich’s poem “Frame,” in which Rich recounts an incident of police brutality against a black female Boston University student. What always stays with me from that poem is Rich’s careful recognition of herself as a “white woman” who is necessarily absent from the scene of this assault, but then at the end of the poem insistently present and standing as a witness:

What I am telling you
is told by a white woman who they will say
was never there. I say I am there. 

I was struck by the counter-factual power of this “I,” which recalled for me the hashtags by which people affiliate themselves with current protest movements: i.e. “#IAmMikeBrown” (or, for the work of another essay, “#IAmCharlie” or “#JeSuisJuif”). This act of witnessing was basically my starting point, from which I tried to learn as much as I could about the politics and arts of the #BlackLivesMatter movement while also re-immersing myself in Rich. For a couple of months I was returned to the passion and panic of my dissertation days, as I rejoiced at finding some new possibly useful connection among Rich and these other poets and activists, while also bemoaning my own inadequacy and, perhaps, illegitimacy as an interpreter of Rich, Rankine, or the founders of Black Lives Matter. My essay that ended up being published this week is I think a decent first take at this challenging subject, but hopefully just the first step towards further knowledge and action.



There is no resolution to these self-excoriations as a writer…there is just publishing something, and then either remaining silent or keeping on trying to learn and write. I am grateful to have had the chance to write about Rich in connection with Claudia Rankine’s magisterial book-length poem Citizen: An American Lyricwhich offers fascinating parallels with Rich’s work that I have just barely begun to address in my essay. And by chance, Rankine’s poem was released at the same time as she co-edited a collection called The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. This collection focuses precisely on some of the questions of claiming subjecthood and perspective on American life, asserting that both the writer’s imagination and mundane life are equally “earthbound” in their inextricable ties to race and racism. Rankine’s co-editor for this book is a Rutgers grad school classmate of mine, Beth Loffreda, whose own contributions to the collection speak eloquently to the necessary challenges that white writers should consider when imagining their own versions of American life.


Last week I got the chance to hear Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, two leading activists in the Ferguson protests. Their perspectives that I get via Twitter (like their newsletter) offer a necessary counterweight to the normal version of reality that we get from authority figures, media sources, and even (as they pointed out) “mainstream” protest figures. In my mind I associate their tweets/newsletter with the leaflets, broadsides, and chapbooks that Rich often used to distribute her political essays and poetry throughout her career. What is amazing is how social media enables motivated and brave regular folks like Elzie and McKesson to have a huge impact outside the establishment. Even people who live mostly within the establishment like me have the chance to connect with their insights on a live basis. This is something new and highly motivating for me as I try to reconnect with my writing self and keep moving.

Plant Trek! Escape to Portlandia

View of the local Ring of Fire outpost, Mt. Hood, on the way into Portland

View of the local Ring of Fire outpost, Mt. Hood, on the way into Portland

Last week I continued my education in the world of manufacturing as I joined the students in my MIT program on their annual Plant Trek. Our program is supported by 26 global companies who all have a stake in developing our students into uniquely qualified business leaders on the operational side. As part of their 24-month MBA and engineering program, during their first year all the students spend two weeks in January on this trek across North America to visit factories and offices of our program’s partner companies. The students get an amazing entree into the real challenges these companies face, and the companies get to give their best impression to the students who might come do their internship on site or work full-time for the companies.

Powell Books in Portland gives voice to a commonly-felt sentiment

Powell Books in Portland gives voice to a commonly-felt sentiment

This year the students started off in Seattle, visiting the Boeing wide-body factory that is the largest structure under one roof in the world, and also visiting an Amazon fulfillment center that uses Kiva robots to go through the aisles of products and “pick” them for human operators to put into boxes for shipment. (I got to see Boeing a few years ago and saw a different Amazon FC outside LA last year).

Great food options abound in Portland

Great food options abound in Portland

As the students traveled by bus from Seattle to Portland, I flew in from Boston to rendezvous with them and got to see a bit of the city. I was delighted to visit a couple of iconic Portland places, including the square-block Powell’s Books where I loved getting lost in the aisles, and a punk rock themed pizza place across from Powell’s where the Vegan Angel of Doom slice was probably the best use of “chreeze” I’ve yet found. Not that I recommend chreeze to anyone, mind you.

Just another day on the Nike campus

Just another January day on the Nike campus

The 50 LGO students and a few faculty (me included) toured the Nike HQ campus outside Portland the next day. The campus itself and all the employees who work there are a very powerful advertisement for the Nike brand and lifestyle: imagine a Zen retreat with a double shot of spirited workouts happening at all times throughout the day. The Nike corporate culture also puts a premium on effective communications: our Nike colleagues presented the LGO group with a series of highly professional get-pumped videos to illustrate everything from the brand to the company’s plans for “Manufacturing Revolution.” We also got a chance to visit the company’s In-House Manufacturing site nearby where the Nike Air airbags (mini air-filled plastic pillows) are made in order to be close to the design process on HQ campus and maintain tight control over this important intellectual property. We were happy to hear about the impact that our students and graduates have made at Nike as they look to keep their global supply chain efficient during a period of growth and change. As part of selling the idea of working at Nike and living in Portland, we also saw a video produced by the local travel organization, though I learned later that the Nike folks considered showing this classic clip from the pilot episode of Portlandia that illustrates the more hipster-fantasy version of Portland life. Pierced or not I was struck almost physically by how nice and mellow people were, even in the TSA line at the airport.

View of San Francisco, home of many LGO graduates

View of San Francisco, home of many LGO graduates

We flew down to San Francisco next, where on our descent one of the LGO students who came to MIT from the Coast Guard pointed out his former ship stationed at Coast Guard Island in the East Bay estuary. Our first stop here was at the corporate campus of SanDisk, which you probably know of as the company that makes the flash memory in your cameras. One of the points their Senior VP of Operations (an LGO graduate) made in addressing the group was how their technology is now driving much more than consumer electronics, with a big focus on getting into the server business. SanDisk showed off their Silicon Valley campus and their headquarters R&D facilities to the group, though our students have already made a big impact at their main production facility located in Shanghai.

The LGO team at AB Sciex in Redwood City, CA

The LGO team at AB Sciex in Redwood City, CA

The next day we got to visit AB Sciex, an operating company of our partner Danaher Corporation. Danaher acquires companies in areas including medical devices, scientific and test and measurement instruments, and drives operational improvements from the corporate level while maintaining the companies as independent entities with their own brands. AB Sciex produces high-end instrumentation like mass spectrometers. Their technical staff were very happy to receive our group and shared some of the ways their work impacts daily life, for example in monitoring the presence of toxins or other man-made substances in drinking water and agricultural products. It was also interesting to hear about the experience of being in this acquired company in terms of relating to Danaher. The visit offered important perspective to our students considering possible careers in which they might move from one operating company to another as developing managers.

Songs from the big chair: scene in the hotel lobby in San Francisco

Songs from the big chair: scene in the hotel lobby in San Francisco

All this while Boston went through an Arctic cold front. It’s good to get out and experience the world of manufacturing, or what I called my funny road back to manufacturing from my somewhat opposite career as a poet and teacher.






Teardown in winter

The tall stake used to keep the electric feed from the street during teardown

The tall stake used to keep the electric feed from the street during teardown

The last few months on my way to work I’ve been walking by a house being prepped for teardown. They sold the place and there was a succession of humble items from decades of living stacked on the curb. After the owners moved out, the demolition crews were on the site doing some little things like ripping out the screens from the porch, and making headway on some sort of excavation in the back of the house. But for a while now the site has been idle. The backhoe is still there but I haven’t seen a sign of any activity. I can only imagine that between freezing weather coming on and loss of financing the builder decided to pack it in until spring.

This is the second teardown I’ve seen in the past year or so, and what I noticed this second time was the stake the contractor puts up to keep the electric line connected to the street during the project. Particularly once this project stalled, there seemed something iconic to me about this pole put together from old scraps of wood, standing amidst some transformation put on hold.

"A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress." Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

“A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

There were many times when I’d walk past this project shaking my head at some horrible thing happening in the world. Particularly in the wake of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury no-decisions, the need to take action seemed so urgent, but hard to make a reality in our suburban bubble (however progressively minded and, at least once, ready to march some of us may be). I came to associate the stasis of the teardown site, sitting idle as fall turned into winter, with the difficulties I faced in reckoning with these problems for our country in any meaningful way that would lead to change. Out of this came a poem that I think of as a New Year’s resolution/retrospective, voicing my frustration at how hard it is to make efforts towards real change part of “our busy lives” and hope to do better in 2015.

Poetry Corner: Trying to evoke something of the ineffectual ceremony I saw in this electric pole on the teardown site, I was inspired by Seamus Heaney, Adrienne Rich and others to write using a somewhat archaic feeling caesura in each line. This turned out to be a big challenge for me since I normally write in blank verse lines that enjamb across multiple lines without strong mid-line breaks. I’m still glad to have tried this out as a way also to evoke the disconnection in our nation and world that has been so much on our minds this season.

Teardown in winter

Stripped from inside    all shutters and shingles
30-year Duron green    flashes tired leaves
A spray-painted arrow    GAS HERE CUT LAST
Will show some field surgeon    due any day

A motley tower sits    ten feet of old plywood
It gathers the electric    keeps the street line
Live through the demo    then buzzing alone
And blazing worklights    against the fresh frame

The cellar was dumped out    dirt cords for a furnace
But the backhoe is folded    its trailer splayed
Both bystanders now    fueled up to wait
Their part in the tear-down stopped    until spring

Now the house is stuck    wet leaf-pasted cocoon
No caterpillar to transform    no moth
To shudder off    bearing the last year’s work
All its struggles thrown aloft    as though new

So the year accumulates    its tragedies
Still rolled in last month’s papers    piled up
Beneath this electric maypole    its current
Grounded, trickled out    across a waiting earth

Copyright Josh Jacobs 2014

Shanghai: livin’ large with Chinese characteristics

I just flew into Shanghai and boy are my arms tired! (Actually this is a flight simulator at one of our program's sponsor companies)

I just flew into Shanghai and boy are my arms tired! (Actually this is a flight simulator at one of our program’s sponsor companies)

I am fortunate to visit Shanghai regularly as part of supporting the China Leaders for Global Operations program, the sister program of MIT LGO. Shanghai is an almost cartoonishly ultramodern megacity, particularly in the Pudong area across the river from the old downtown. Basically rice paddies and a few warehouses in the 80s, Pudong is now home to the world’s second-tallest skyscraper and dozens of other buildings that would dwarf everything else in Boston or most places. Check out this amazing timelapse of Pudong from 1987 to 2013 and my photo below of the glowering Shanghai Tower, capped out at 2073 feet and almost ready to be crowned with the Great Eye of Sauron to become fully operational.

The Shanghai Tower looms elegantly over the already-super tall Bottle Opener Building

The Shanghai Tower looms elegantly over the already-super tall Bottle Opener

The amazing displays of state and personal wealth you see in Shanghai’s central business district are all the more striking because they both contrast with traditional images Westerners may have of Communist rule, and are also fully representative of / controlled by the Communist leadership of the country. One evening my colleague and I had dinner in a mall where every last store was a global elite luxury brand. We were seated in the restaurant between a guy wearing Prada and a woman wearing Burberry, while I (ahem) was rockin’ a Costco dress shirt…non-iron! Yet even amidst these outward signs of super-luxe, you do still see people on utility trikes collecting scrap metal, and our Chinese colleagues talked about how hard it was to make ends meet living in Shanghai.

Me at a delightful Buddhist restaurant with a vegetarian lunch box. Good thing it is so big b/c I'm bad at sharing.

Me at a delightful Buddhist restaurant with a vegetarian lunch box. Good thing it is so big b/c I’m bad at sharing.

In looking at these and other contrasts in China, I find a helpful guide to be the work of writer James Fallows (whom I got to meet at MIT in 2012). His basic take is that China today is like ‘ol Walt Whitman, contradicting itself and containing multitudes. Yes, there are incredible scenes of people honking the horns of their Bentleys to get a scrap-metal bike to move along, and no, it’s not clear how the success of bringing so many millions out of poverty (and a good chunk to Prada-wearing riches) will be reconciled with the continued lack of free expression and arbitrariness of state rule. But for all these reasons, along with its sheer scale in the world economy, China is all the more essential for Westerners to deal with and try to understand. I am lucky this program gives me the chance to try and do that.

The 19th-century original campus of our partner school, Shanghai Jiao Tong University

The 19th-century original campus of our partner school, Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Just on this trip we discovered a new area in which these contradictions are evolving. You may have heard about the massive anti-corruption drive launched this year by Xi Jinping, trying to throttle back some of the excesses of Party and state-owned company officials taking advantage of their positions to become super wealthy. The latest wrinkle is that officials are now banned from taking executive MBA programs, some of them partnerships of Chinese and Western universities, on the theory that both the officials and others who sign up for the EMBAs are doing to to create illicit networking opportunities. You can ask, aren’t all EMBA programs about networking? But even leaving that aside, what is striking for me is that this edict took effect more or less immediately. One dean quoted in the FT says that all officials enrolled in EMBA programs at his school had already withdrawn, with the execs from state-owned companies likely to follow suit. This is just a teeny microcosm of how the Party is trying to evolve policy and maintain the country’s acceptance of their rule, but it shows how academic relationship-building and the slow accumulation of trust and good practice are challenged by working within a system in which the ground rules can change very quickly.

Me along the Bund in the original part of the city, with the Bottle Opener and darkened Shanghai Tower across river in Pudong behind me

Me along the Bund in the original part of the city, with the Bottle Opener and darkened Shanghai Tower across river in Pudong behind me


Remembering Aaron and others this September 11th

My first day at Amherst College in 1987, with Aaron and my parents

My first day at Amherst College in 1987, with Aaron and my parents

For the past three years I’ve been writing my way towards a more public stance in sharing my loss of my brother, Aaron Jacobs, in the World Trade Center on 9/11. This started with a piece in The Awl in May 2011, about how my status as a 9/11 family member connected to reactions when Osama bin Laden was killed. I’ve posted other memorials at this anniversary each year, talking about how changes in my own life made me reflect on Aaron’s life in new ways. I have many blessings in my life, in particular Amy and our kids, but amidst this plenty I do still feel shocked and haunted every day by Aaron’s loss. The hole in our lives where he should be is in no way healed over, but moves and changes shape as we keep on living.

This past year I had the chance to connect with someone who also lost a family member on 9/11. I was introduced last fall by a friend who teaches at Hampshire College to her student, Colby, whose senior project was on narratives of 9/11 family members as they negotiated their private journeys of mourning in the context of intense public and media coverage. Colby was nine years old when she lost her mother in the World Trade Center, and until she met me had never spoken about that day or the aftermath with another 9/11 family member. We did a long interview at my house in November, talking about Aaron and my experiences since then, addressing questions like how I felt about the Iraq War, how did I feel about media coverage etc. It brought up the fact that I had not really been “out” as a 9/11 family member and I’ve wondered since then about whether the lens of being closeted or open with regard to gender could be a useful way to look at myself.

The first slide of Colby's Prezi presentation

The first slide of Colby’s Prezi presentation: “Navigating Loss in the Public Eye: Narratives of 9/11 Family Members”

I was grateful to have the chance to support this younger person dealing with a similar loss but at a different place in her journey. Then in April, I had the chance to go out to Hampshire to hear Colby’s final project session, which I thought was great in the sense that it hit the marks of an undergrad thesis, but whose subject matter was so powerful and ineffable that it could not be channeled into such a defined presentation. What really brought home that disjunction of medium and subject matter for me was the fact that Colby used a presentation software called Prezi. Prezi is different from Powerpoint in that it conveys meaning not just in words or pictures on slides, but in how the presentation moves from one slide to the next. You start at a homescreen and then zoom in (or out), twist from one slide — as it were, to change an angle of discussion — and in other ways illustrate progress and motion through the various points you want to make. Personally I prefer the static, oppressive vibe of sitting through Powerpoints to all this juking and bopping, but that’s just me. Get offa my lawn kids!

Something about framing the mourning journey in a Prezi provoked me to try and write a poem, and I have brooded on it all summer with today’s obvious deadline. What I realized in writing it was that it marks some ambiguous transition for me, as I continue to try and deal with my own loss in a private way but also feel capable of connecting with (or even helping) others in related situations. I tried to capture what is sort of awful about using Prezi for this purpose–the smooth new-corporate glossiness for a topic that is so raw–but also how the structure Prezi provides is not unlike other structures we adopt to keep ourselves moving through grief. I know that most of you oldsters reading this have never seen Prezi in action, so between that and my own vaguenesses there is some obscurity going on here. I wish I had more time and urgent motivation to write throughout the year, but am grateful at least to be able to write from this most powerful and deep-seated motivation every so often.

As an experiment, I’ve added this recording of me reading the poem. Props to my man jh0st for suggesting this.

Remembering Aaron, and so many others, today and every day.


A Prezi for the departed


The mourning template has a pleasant face—

It melds inviting blurs of voicemail clips,

Stray photographs, the downloads from the dead. 


The face becomes our starting point. We click

This eye to follow one loss down, from who

(We hear the wedding speech), to what (the plane,


The cancers), to the living. Quarter-turn: 

We trace the mourner’s path from boom to now: 

Our view pans over impact statements, blinks


A flashback like a strobe across the page—

And then we bounce, yanked forward to the next

Departed, all the g-force metered out


To give that first-day kick, the next years’ drag,

And drift us to “conclusion” at the end. 

Oh Prezi, logo-shirted Virgil, steer


Along these rails and never stray: for if

These dead are not yet ours to mourn, this dance

You lead, so briskly guiding hands and knees


In painted steps along this path, is one

We all start from the floor. Your glib bright hand

Is what we have to grab to follow on.


September 2014

© Joshua Jacobs

Hyannis Sprint II

Me and the family after the tri. One of my favorite photo ops of the year!

Me and the family after the tri. One of my favorite photo ops of the year!

This summer I’ve had the chance to train for the Hyannis Sprint II Triathlon…as I say, the shortest distance they’ll still call a triathlon! It was a great way to motivate to work out and to remember how to swim and bike. I was psyched to be healthy and for the weather to hold out. I finished and it was a great day out with the family.

Me and Amy before the race

Me and Amy before the race

Getting ready on the beach with Miss A...we met a 14 y o kid who was doing it for the fifth straight year!

Getting ready on the beach with Miss A…we met a 14 y o kid who was doing it for the fifth straight year!


I AM AQUAMAN...oh sh*t is the race starting?

I AM AQUAMAN…oh sh*t is the race starting?

Bike phase was humbling as ever…I was being passed at great speed by people up to 30 years older than me. On the other hand, my bike was weighted down by a kickstand and banana seat and cost about 1/10 the price of theirs.

I just biked in from Mashpee and boy are my arms tired

I just biked in from Mashpee and boy are my arms tired

It was a good day.

Happy Robynversary, Amy!

This summer Amy and I had our 13th anniversary. It’s been 27 years since we first met, so I think my long game has really paid off. Since Amy has never been one to toot her own horn, and anyway her horn is stowed somewhere in the garage, it falls to me every so often to praise this amazing yet secretly goofy woman.

Amy's art camp...note the scenery Amy did for the 5th grade Peter Pan musical, now in our permanent collection

Amy’s art camp…note the scenery Amy did for the 5th grade Peter Pan musical, now in our permanent collection

Just to highlight a few of Amy’s accomplishments these past few months:

  • Women’s gathering: For 10+ years now, in both our home in Newton and in Portugal when we lived there, Amy has led a monthly gathering for women based on a curriculum she prepares around a theme such as (inspired by Lean In) “What would you do if you weren’t afraid: summoning our courage and pursuing our dreams.” Amy draws together quotes from literary, philosophical and religious texts to spur the group’s thoughts before the meeting. Then on the night of the meeting, 12-28 women from a wide range of experiences gather at our house and have some snacks (with our thrilled girls bounding around, gobbling and hiding amongst the women before I drag them up to bed), and Amy leads a discussion of the theme. After she’s done facilitating the topic, she writes up everyone’s comments for her own pleasure and others’ inspiration. It has been a huge, understated inspiration to our girls to have their mom bring together this group throughout their lives, and to me to see the enormous impact the group has on its participants. Someday there will be a book on this.

Amy's Peacemakers group in Portugal, 2008

Amy’s Peacemakers group in Portugal, 2008

  • Peacemakers class: And what’s more, Amy has also organized since 2008 or so a group of kids our girls’ ages on being peace-makers. Amy uses role plays, music, some texts from Baha’i or other sources, and her general teacherly wisdom to lead classes for up to 15 kids at a time, sometimes subdivided into age groups with teenage helpers. She has also brought the group to do social action projects at local organizations. You can read a blog Amy wrote up about the class in 2011. This is another way that Amy has inspired and led not just our family but a good chunk of the local community.
  • Community Connections: Living in our suburban bubble of happy happy, I am particularly grateful that Amy has an inner drive to seek connections with people of other cultures, races and religions. Heck, I guess that last part is why I’m writing this in the first place. For our local school, Amy has taken on the leadership of a committee that puts on programs for local parents and also those families who live in Boston and attend the school through the METCO program. This summer we’ve had a couple of meet-ups in Boston, at the zoo and then at a family’s home. Amy’s super-sized love and honesty has helped the connection between Newton and Boston families through these events be genuine and fun. I am so grateful to be part of what Amy and others are helping to build through these gatherings.

Welcome to Amy's Art Camp!

Welcome to Amy’s Art Camp!

  • Art Camp! Last year, Amy realized she was just sitting on her butt most of the time and needed to build in more structure to the summer. So she organized a week-long camp at our house for our girls and local kids to make art projects. This was great, and this year Amy expanded to two weeks and covered a little art theory (colors and complementarity), different media (watercolors, acrylics, wood, gloop), and did some awesome projects like fairy houses, landscape paintings, tie-dyed shirts, and much more. Because I’m kvelling I will mention two actual quotes from happy campers (not our kids): “Mom, that was a real camp — we really did something”; “It isn’t summer without your art camp.”
  • What’s next? Amy is embarking on a graduate certificate course in parent coaching. You may not know that parent coaching is a thing, but if you’ve watched “Nanny 911” or walked into a bookstore or heard about the “Tiger Mother,” you know that people are more open than ever before about the challenges of parenting and how to get help. Amy has talked to friends about parenting issues for many years, while also struggling mightily with our own parenting ups and downs. Now, she is taking this step to put up a shingle and professionalize her constellation of facilitating skills, ability to address hard questions in an open way, and love of all things related to family. I predict success.

Our family under the Supermoon

Our family under the Supermoon

Amy has a unique drive to create community through these gatherings and a facilitatin’ genius to guide people through discussions of challenging topics in a way that ends up being fun and productive. Talking with Amy about her plans for the coming year, I was reminded of a quote from the catcher who caught one of Nolan Ryan’s no-hitters. The guy said catching Ryan was like being at the wheel of the world’s greatest sportscar. For me I guess the analogy would that I’m making supportive, avuncular comments from the sidecar of a powerful motorcycle as it surges towards…greater peace and unity among all peoples? The metaphor needs some work but I feel privileged and amazed to be with Amy as she makes such powerful, loving contributions to people’s lives and the broader community.

Getting psyched for Robyn

Getting psyched for Robyn


We got to see Robyn on her tour with fellow Swedes Royskopp for their mini-album Do It Again. As chronicled previously, Amy and I have been pretty into Robyn for the past three years. The tour with Royskopp had a set of just Royskopp, a set of just Robyn, and then they played most of the songs from Do It Again.

The set from Robyn was about 40 minutes of awesomeness. Apart from her biggest dance anthems Call your Girlfriend and Dancing on my Own, which are now clearly the I Will Survive of a new generation, she played Stars 4-Ever from Body Talk. I love this song because it makes me think of Amy doing her workout video with it playing…this was before Amy started listening to Wolf Hall or What is the What while working out ( I could never do that).

The confetti blast during "Do It Again" was the absolute disco epiphany of the evening

The confetti blast during “Do It Again” was the absolute disco epiphany of the evening

And the Do It Again set was great too, albeit in a somewhat darker and (even) weirder mode. Amy is not a fan of “Sayit,” but we both watched in amazement as she did about a thousand situps (well, pelvic thrusts really) and hundreds of leg lifts, all in six-inch platform sneakers. “Do It Again” itself was the epic dancefloor ecstasy that everyone came for. And then the encore was “None of Dem” from Body Talk, which was great but, as Amy pointed out, does have a chorus of “I’m so bored of this town/ take me away from here,” which a more scrupulously polite dance diva might think was a rude way to say farewell to her adoring crowd.

Amy, you are a wonderful companion and a star 4-ever. Love you.

Past tributes:




Turning 90: Our 90s party and annotated playlist

Amy and I turned a collective 90 this summer and decided to celebrate together 90s-style. It was a fantastic night, with a bunch of friends from many different parts of our lives hanging out inside the house and in the garage.  We had the mobile custom ice cream sandwich truck from Frozen Hoagies roll up outside the garage, which definitely took things up to 11 in the eyes of many admiring guests. A few people turned out in plaid shirts but for the most part the 90s theme was just at the musical level.

Amy and I with the Frozen Hoagies truck in our driveway

Amy and I with the Frozen Hoagies truck in our driveway

I got totally into curating a special 90s playlist, and went to the Garment District to find a vintage band shirt (Foo Fighters…a band I actually saw w/ Aaron in 97 or so). Since we had a mellow crowd, there wasn’t quite the epiphanic Rites of Spring-like dancing to Fugazi or Quad City DJs that I might have desired. But in the privacy of your own home or headphones, there’s nothing to stop you from bobbing your head in silent approbation of my playlist. Presented here in alpha order: links are to the videos. Or if you already have plenty of your own feelings and interpretations of the 90s and just want to listen, here is the Spotify list.

Everyone was feeling 1992 after a giant ice cream sandwich

Everyone was feeling 1992 after a giant ice cream sandwich

California Love 2Pac This was a great video from 2Pac that entered my grad school bubble and caused me to write a paper about it and the Kathryn Bigelow movie “Strange Days.” Images of the apocalypse or something. I presented it at SUNY Binghamton at a conference on millennial sh!t in 1997. When I googled the conf just now I was so happy not to have continued blithering in that direction in my career…I realize now I was just like Beavis and Butthead saying, “huh huh, cool” compared to people who actually made their papers at that conference lead up to books, tenure etc.
You oughta know Alanis So it turns out Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers played on this track and are in the video. Such an artifact of its moment…Alanis is wearing a crop-top shirt under a jacket as she rolls around in the desert sand, full of rage and great hair.
Would? Alice in chains Hard to believe but the 1992 Cameron Crowe movie Singles was held out as a grungy monocle peering inside the life of 20-something Gen Xers like me. The movie was full of BS emotional shorthand, leavened somewhat by the cameo by Xavier McDaniel appearing in some guy’s head to help him defer pleasure. You have to give Crowe credit for the soundtrack, though, which includes some custom-written tracks by great bands. This Alice in Chains track still rocks.
Sabotage Beastie Boys Just the iconic Beasties song and video. Who doesn’t know that Mike D played “The Captain” as “Allessandro Allegré” or MCA, may his memory be a blessing, played “Chochise” as “Nathan Wind”?
Hyperballad Bjork Starting with “Birthday,” her 1988 track with Sugarcubes that brought my man Pat to Gimme Shelter-style ecstasies with Bjork’s belting style, she became one of my key cult of tiny, maniacal women singers (along with PJ Harvey). This song became a dance hit despite Bjork’s unstoppable weirdness in the lyrics.
Song 2 Blur Probably ironic that this song by Guardian-reading Blur became the soundtrack to the Starship Troopers right-wing fantasy movie and many a run mix. Still awesome. Saw them, along with Alanis, Beasties, and Bjork, at the Concert for Tibet w/ Aaron on Randalls Island in 1999.
El Cuarto de Tula Buena vista Though they had been playing gigs since the 1950s, the 90s was the breakout decade for the Buena Vista crew, highlighted by the Wim Wenders biopic in 1999. Amy, my folks and I saw them at a fantastic concert in Boston.
Lovefool Cardigans A great track from the Baz Luhrman “Romeo + Juliet” movie that I went to see with my RU English grad student posse. I was so pumped to lead my Expository Writing students through a careful unpacking of the film’s many meanings but it never happened.
Under the Bridge Chiles In a playlist full of my own trips down memory lane, this is the one track that is more of an Amy favorite. I’m like the magnanimous jerk protagonist of “High Fidelity” who ends the movie by actually making his lady a mixtape of stuff she likes instead of his own pompous tastes. I loved these guys in the 80s/early 90s.
How I could just kill a man Cypress Hill In a prelude to the “Tea Partay” video, this song reminds me of driving around Long Island w/ Doug, Amy and Bart, crankin Cypress Hill, with Bart wearing his mom’s pink velour Kangol hat
Brown sugar D’Angelo Any true Prince fan has to love D’Angelo’s one-man-band / loverman m.o. This track from his debut reminds me of hanging out w/ unattainable women in Brooklyn.
Groove is in the heart Dee-Lite From the dawn of the 90s, and before it was commonplace to have rappers guest on pop / dance songs, this little number feat. Q-Tip was a big song at Casa de Newport at Amherst in 1990-1991.
Personal Jesus Depeche Mode Nothing says “posing alterna college student” like Depeche, who like U2 seemed to have a strange compulsion to explicate religion, America, death and other big topics using only a bunch of synths and drum tracks.
The art of easing Digable Planets This is actually from their sophomore album following their hit with “Cool Like That” from 92. Saw them play outside the miserable River Dorms at Rutgers wherein I spent much of my 20s teaching Expository Writing.
Unbelievable EMF Wonderfully goofy…the kind of band that has a guy whose job is just to dance in place and say “WHOAAAH YEAH.”
My Hero Foo fighters This is the song that is supposedly Dave Grohl’s homage to Kurt Cobain.
Margin walker Fugazi Through high school in Northern VA I was basically lobotomized by classic rock, missing out on the chance to go to DC and see bands like Minor Threat and (then) Fugazi with the more aware kids in my class. Somehow I snapped out of it. The last time I played this song through speakers instead of headphones was 92 at a party in our grad school apt. A semi-punky friend said we should start a radio show on the Rutgers station…a dream that was not to be. But that dudette, Beth Loffreda, actually did make a real academic career for herself in Wyoming, finding herself there in the right moment to bear witness to Mathew Sheppard’s murder and its aftermath. Good job!
Ready or Not Fugees I taught summer courses at RU-Newark in the 90s and felt a bit of kinship with “The Brick City” when the Fugees emerged. Lauryn Hill: what a voice!
Stupid Girl Garbage In December 1998 I went to the MLA English-prof conference in San Francisco and then drove down to LA to spend New Year’s into 1999 with my cousin. I played this Garbage CD that whole week and it is tied up in my mind with the beauty of the ride, and the rising awareness that the life of an academic probably wasn’t going to pan out. Got to see some elephant seals though.
Celebrity Skin Hole My man Bart’s cousin Tim, an actual musician, proposed that Celebrity Skin was one of those albums that is flawless all the way through. Totally agree and this opening track has both hair-metal guitars AND a reference to demonology. Parfait!
Mountain Song Jane’s Addiction Unlike the more Rock Cathedral stylings of “Ritual de lo Habitual” (1990), the songs off “Nothing’s Shocking” (1988) usually get the job done in 4 mins or less. In the studio version, Dave Navarro’s guitar under the “ooooh, oooh, whoa whoa whoa yeah” chorus is excellence in shredding. This video is from a good NYC concert in 1998 that conveys the shirtless-skirt-wearing majesty that was Jane’s.
Steal my sunshine Len A bit flaky but this girl’s voice in the chorus made this song one of the big ones of Summer 1999. The CD was weak and the band vanished afterwards, their contribution to world culture assured.
Baby got going Liz Phair Liz Phair was a true cult figure for me and many of my friends in the 90s. Particularly for people in the grad school orbit, Liz Phair’s self-conscious stylings (i.e. remaking a Stones album track by track) and lyrics just added mysterious glory to her great indie sound. I do have friends that probably feel this song is too produced and not real-real enough but whatever.
Naked eye Luscious Jackson Classic Beasties-produced sound of NYC in the 90s…brings me right back to Aaron’s tiny apartments.
Vogue Madonna This song featured at the Amherst Madonna Party, where lots of people got their lingerie on. Afterwards by voice vote Madonna was awarded a D. Hum. (honoris causa) from Amherst, which we thought was pretty awesome as she hadn’t gone to college. Ms. Ciccone, the sheepskin is still waiting for you, signed by Peter Pouncey!
Ray of Light Madonna This was the Madonna phase about which my friend Sarah proposed a New Yorker cartoon with the caption, “American Indian or Madonna Indian?”
Buffalo Stance Neneh Cherry One of the great danceable songs of the decade. My sister in law just dug it out this past winter and I have to admit, I still know all the words.
Closer Nine Inch Nails Withdrawn from the actual party playlist after Amy heard the lyrics. Still, hard to resist the beat.
Smells like teen spirit Nirvana Of all the songs I looked up for this playlist, Smells Like has the most YouTube plays by far (190M plus). When Kurt died my mom recognized what an earthquake had hit my generation and called me up immediately to ask how I was taking it.
Spiderwebs No Doubt Before Gwen was Gwen (just like before Lauryn was Lauryn), she was part of this fun ska-punk band from Orange County. This song brings me back to working out in the Hoboken YMCA.
Got your money Ol’ Dirty Bastard The playful side of the Wu-Tang Crew. You have to love Kelis (of “I Hate You So Much Right Now” solo fame) on this chorus.
Even Flow Pearl Jam When I first played the Pearl Jam CD for Aaron he basically thought they were mopey, plaid-skirt-wearing dirge artists. Once he got past that he became a much bigger fan than I ever was.
State of love and trust Pearl Jam This one from the “Singles” soundtrack has more of a straight-ahead energy than the typical Pearl Jam track of those days. Still my favorite.
Down by the water PJ Harvey Another tiny maniacal performer I love. This is just about her most radio-friendly tune from the era. How can someone be so teeny and self-effacing in normal life, and such an amazing monster/diva onstage?
Sour Times Portishead Kind of like the flipside of Wu-Tang, with a similar affection for beats and noir strings together.
1999 Prince Song was released in 1982! Prince was not alone in overestimating the Y2K bug but this song is into its fourth decade of crushing it.
C’mon n’ Ride It Quad City DJs OMG just realized these guys had previously produced “Whoot! There it is”…despite that I really love this song, which is just innocent enough on the lyrics that we can play it in the house
Creep Radiohead Before they were worldwide cult heros and the subjects of a hagiographic New Yorker profile, Radiohead were the band that sang “I’m a creep…what the hell am I doing here?” I saw them OPEN FOR BELLY IN THE RUTGERS GYM. That’s how far they have climbed.
Bulls on parade Rage against the machine Nothing says 90s like the Rage cover art, a trunk full of Ché regalia and tracts. Sadly, “rally round the family/with a pocket full of shells” is more of an apt and realistic political portrait than ever.
Nothing compares to U Sinead I so loved Sinead’s sea-screech in “Jackie” from her first album. Then to sing over a Prince track, while gorgeously and baldly glowering around the grounds of a mansion? Perfection.
Baby got back Sir Mix-a-lot The summer of 1992 I spent in DC and it was wall-to-wall Sir Mix-a-Lot. My friend Tam said at the time that entire stations had become Baby Got Back outlets. Glorious.
1979 Smashing Pumpkins I saw Billy Corgan interviewed recently in “Beyond the Gilded Stage,” a Rush documentary. I think even as much as I loved the Pumpkins in the 90s, probably nobody will be doing a docu about them four decades after their founding. However, an unabashedly cool group, with a poppy lyrical sense at times as in “1979.”
Gin & Juice Snoop Dogg Brings me back to singing this with Sarah and other Sammy’s survivors while careening down the icy streets of the Lower East Side.
Back to life Soul 2 Soul Always associated in my mind with cool British women from when I studied in the UK in 89-90. Amazing feat to be archly cool while also constantly making tea and eating Hob-Nobs.
Outshined Soundgarden Soundgarden was for me the (empty? tormented?) soul of the early 90s Lollapalooza era. Nothing like the Black Sabbath like churn plus Chris Cornell’s yowling cries from the alterna-cave.
Fools Gold Stone Roses This is the song that rang in the 90s for me as I visited the “Madchester” scene of glam squalor with UK college friends, complete with a visit to the New Order Haçienda club and an ultra-poseur shot in front of the Salford Lads Club to recreate the Smiths’ Queen is Dead album cover. Totally trippy bongos on hand to remind you that people were on some major drug trips.
Tumble in the rough Stone Temple Pilots This brings back sweet memories for me and Amy, believe it or not, as we got this used CD in Flagstaff AZ on a camping trip when we were first going out and listened to these songs driving across the desert.
Electric Relaxation Tribe called quest The video says “90s NYC” better than almost anything else. If you haven’t seen it, the documentary on Tribe Called Quest, “Beats Rhymes and Life,” is great.
Mysterious Ways U2 Not content to explain America to Americans, with the Achtung Baby album and this video, U2 sought to explain the mystic appeal of North African culture. The album was such a defining moment in the senior year of my 92 friends at Amherst that when I visited them that year it was like they had to explain to me they had had a formal conversion experience.


Here is the playlist on Spotify again:

Endless Neuromancer Summer

"Chiba City" by user SourGasm

“Chiba City” by user SourGasm

Thirty years after its publication, William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer is still keeping people up too late reading about a washed-up hacker cowboy hired for one last score. Somehow I’ve had a karmic connection to the book this summer: first my friend Shana referred me to an “industrial-folk” singer called EMA whose new CD, Future is Void, is based on her reading of Neuromancer. Sold! And then the very next day, while strolling through the yarn-bombed Newton Free Library on a Maker Faire day, I saw a flyer for a 17-and-up “STEaMy” reading group on Neuromancer (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, so don’t get all excited you Molly Millions fetishists). The memory of my first reading of Neuromancer on the rainy streets of Cambridge UK (alma mater of the doomed researcher in the book’s sequel, Count Zero) ruptured my work-to-home entropy and got my old-assed self out to these two fun events.

EMA at Great Scotts in Allston, MA, 5/10/14

EMA at Great Scotts in Allston, MA, 5/10/14

These notes are just on the phenomena of What We Talk About When We Talk About Neuromancer, not the thing itself (which you should all read right away). I saw EMA at a tiny bar in Allston last month. Even after highbrow types like myself (my brow goes over my head and into my collar on the other side these days) were alerted to EMA by the New Yorker, or better yet by clued-in friends, there were maybe 50 people who came out to see the show, with another ten resolutely watching playoff hockey. EMA’s Neuromancer-riffing concept album was based on her experience of being in the public eye and feeling like her public self was a separate entity…almost like an AI! I don’t ask that 6-foot industrio-folk singers be super deep…it is enough to be loud and howly and wear Oculus Rift headsets in Neuromancer-themed videos. The mixture of grungy apartment and virtual space put me right in Bobby Newmark’s mom’s apartment in the Sprawl. It was great to be in such an intimate setting with her and the band at this show.


Then this week I met up for the much-ballyhooed Neuromancer reading group at the library. Turned out to be a distinguished fellow like myself–long time denizen of the Gentleman Loser–and a 28-ish woman who works at the library and had just picked up Neuromancer as part of getting into sci-fi this year. In a somewhat too Margaret Mead-like way, I asked whether people her age (shakes cane) were looking to have book groups and read Gibson. She said that some dudes she knows who never read anything at all had told her, dude, read Neuromancer (seemingly a common marker for a certain type of guy these days), and that the book might not be the most book-clubbable but that she anyway was motivated to read further into the Sprawl trilogy.

"Case and Molly on the Sprawl" by DeviantArt user RoyalBoil

“Case and Molly on the Sprawl” by DeviantArt user RoyalBoil

We commented on Gibson’s still-prophetic view of a corporate-dominated “web” of the future, which, as one commentator pointed out a couple of years ago, is coming true on the social and political dystopia front more quickly than on the technological “jacking-in” to the web frontier. Our host asked about Gibson vs. Neil Stephenson, and I just beamed with pleasure: for her at being all Cortez with a wild surmise over the new ocean of fun reading with Stephenson, and for me at thinking about these two superheroes. In fact, as I noted in this very space two years ago, Stephenson’s work is a lot closer to Adrienne Rich than to Gibson. Stephenson is the sprawling Whitmanian figure of fun and emotion; Gibson, more the noir-prophetic Raymond Chandler, the hardassed founder and embodier in style of Mirrorshades. But thank goodness, these kids today have it all laid out in front of them in our new dystopian reader’s paradise. It’s a great time to enjoy the fear of the future, especially Gibson’s paleo-future that still rings true.

Taking the road with my seder learner’s permit

The Jacobs family Haggadot since the 1970s

The Jacobs family Haggadot since the 1970s

This year my folks gave the OK for me to try my hand at leading the Passover seder. I had gotten to feeling that I needed to create a seder experience for the kids that was not defined by how we had always done things. Happily a Haggadah author came by our temple not too long ago pitching his new Haggadah–includes handy seder planner for all ages!–and I invested in “A Night to Remember,” a Haggadah translated from the Israeli Hebrew version and oriented towards contemporary lefty-ish people.

Me, Miss E and some frogs

Me, Miss E and some frogs

Preparing for the seder, I looked back at the Leonard Baskin Haggadah my family has used for 20+ years, and also the Rabbi Alfred Kolatch version we’d used further back in time. Pictured above you can see a certain lightening of artistic mood across the ages, and it was kind of a stunner to see a special prayer for Soviet Jewry in the Kolatch edition–essentially the only modern or social reference in the whole megillah, compared to the tons of poetry, social reflections etc. in the Night to Remember. More poignantly, seeing the notations written in the margins of who read which passage in 1985 reminded me of those we’ve lost. Another reason to get a new set of haggadot and attempt a new beginning.

The beautiful matzoh ladies

The beautiful matzoh ladies

I think with any transition from one generation to the next there might be a certain sense of inauthenticity, of thinking that I can’t possibly be the person at the head of this table. I was grateful for the support of my folks, Amy and the girls, and my cousin and her partner in trying a new approach, one with more interactive moments (i.e. the girls went out the door and did a “knock knock” in traveler’s garb to start the telling of the Exodus), and also with what Amy graciously referred to as a few gaps. Without getting into details, let’s just say that next year we may need to dip our greens four or more times to even things out.

A frog looks out over the inviting matzoh ball pond

A frog looks out over the inviting matzoh ball pond

One of the interesting things that the Night to Remember author mentioned in his “Seder 101” talk at the temple was the somewhat arbitrary way in which the Four Questions had become the official questions that kids ask at the seder. Turns out (according to him–assume I am wrong about all of this) that the FOUR QUESTIONS were really intended to be representative of a whole variety of questions that could/should be asked as part of fulfilling the one real obligation of the seder: telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. [Cue Bob rocking the movement of Jah people.]

This was also a week full of reminders that, as they say, in every generation enemies have risen up to try and destroy our people. Just the night before our seder, a leading white supremacist went to the Kansas City Jewish community center complex to try and kill some Jews. And today was the one year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. Some years the seder really feels like a celebration of freedom, and others it feels more like collectively getting through a hard time. I’m reminded of the days after 9/11 when I heard of a rabbi who had told his congregants to celebrate Shabbat to spite the terrorists…there was a tinge of that for me this year. But mostly I was grateful to be able to make some baby steps towards stewarding my family’s traditions and to share in a peaceful, joyous and very filling moment together.

Profiles in Weirdness: Miss A and Amy with Amy's delicious Passover desserts

Profiles in Weirdness: Miss A and Amy with Amy’s delicious Passover desserts