Becoming Myself

A few years ago I wrote a piece called "Becoming Levi Asher" to explain why I began to use a pen name in 1994. (Short version: I was about to publish my first short story, a satire about my job, and I didn't want to get caught.)

Today, after using the pen name for 21 and a half years, and making a nice little space for myself in the world as Levi Asher, that freaky book blogger from Queens ... I have come to the conclusion that I don't want to carry the pseudonym around anymore. The pen name has become a barrier to me, and maybe even a symbol of a certain psychological duality that once felt important to me but no longer does. I''ve come to realize that life is too short for two names.

Here's what's been the problem all along: to the people I interact with on a daily basis, to my older friends and relatives and co-workers, I'm not Levi Asher. I'm Marc Eliot Stein — just a regular "that guy" kinda guy, a proud father, a highly accomplished web developer, a bad karaoke singer.

The Genius of David Bowie, in 5 Songs

I'm going to let other people remember David Bowie for his cultural importance: his brave and liberating embrace of sexual ambiguity, his clever shape-shifting, his sophistication as an actor, his sharp sense of pop art's relationship to rock and roll.

He was truly great in all of these ways. But for me David Bowie is just the guy whose records I blasted into my brain through bulky headphones when I was a teenager. As a creative musical artist of the 1970s, he was at the same level as the very best of his peers, such as the Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the ex-Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Since I spent so many of my teenage hours with David Bowie records spinning on my turntable, I would like to honor his death by offering up my five favorite songs for the benefit of anyone who might not otherwise ever hear of them.

These were not his big hits, and probably all five were too long for radio. If you are curious about Bowie but only know his more popular stuff, I hope you will dig into these five deep cuts and find within them the same depths and glories as I did when they helped me grow up.

Here are my five favorite David Bowie album tracks or recorded live performances, in reverse order, best for last.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

I was psyched when I heard that a novel about New York City in the punk rock 1970s by Garth Risk Hallberg was expected to be one of the blockbusters of 2015, and that the unproven young author had been awarded an astonishing two million dollar advance for this book. I've been aware of Hallberg's bright talent since he first showed up in the literary blogosphere nearly ten years ago (mainly at The Millions, that influential website where I also first read the smart writings of Station Eleven novelist Emily St. John Mandel). I've met him several times — he's gracious and very well-read, and makes a strong first impression — and I reviewed his modest but likable first work of fiction in 2007.

Much of the hype about City on Fire is about the fact that a major publisher took a $2 million risk on a novel that runs over 900 pages, indicating a robust literary ambition that might recall Charles Dickens or David Foster Wallace. Its characters encompass the large scope of an entire city: rich and poor, young and old, money and art, good and evil. The book contains embedded scraps and inserts, such as the actual simulated pages of a 70s punk zine, ostensibly by one of the teenage characters.

Beat Journeys with Brian Hassett and Eliot Katz

What does "Beat Generation" mean today, 60 years after Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg rocked a San Francisco crowd with a world-changing poetry reading, and 46 years after Jack Kerouac's wan and befuddled death in St. Petersburg, Florida? And what, I wonder, does it mean personally to me 21 years after I founded Literary Kicks as a "Beat Generation website"?

I have no answer to this question. The question is the answer. All I know is that the the legacy of Beat literature feels like a continuum. Some young people still feel drawn to the legacy today, not because it belongs to the past but because this particular past is still connected to our present and our future. Maybe there was a low-point when Beat literature seemed cold and dead. It felt nearly cold and dead in America during the Ronald Reagan 1980s — yet it was during those very years that I first wandered curiously into a midtown Manhattan auditorium to hear Allen Ginsberg read and sing some poems. It was a knockout performance (for a tiny crowd).


Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for? — Robert Browning

My first Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign has been an eye-opener. We aimed for $10,000 and got 57% of the way by the end of the declared 60 day interval, which is pretty good but not good enough. However, we’re not stopping at 60 days. Indiegogo now allows fundraising campaigns to continue indefinitely, so we're keeping the donation page open and still aiming for a target of $10,000 and beyond.

I like to have a long reach, and I'm never afraid of falling short. Indeed, what's a heaven for? That's why I'm not only trying to raise $10,000 for pacifism but also attempting this morning to write something different and useful about the deeply disturbing rising problem of rampant gun violence around the world. This is a job for pacifism, of course, and I'm trying to explain this here. My main goal in this article is to find a fresh perspective on a terrible and frustrating problem about which the public dialogue has been completely disappointing, ineffective, banal and stale.

I'm suggesting that the great nonviolence resistance campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King can be used as models for a new approach to the current problem of gun violence — if and only if we have the strength to embrace the important philosophical ideals behind these campaigns. That's a big "if and only if", and I hope you'll read this article and either help to spread the idea or share your thoughts about what I am proposing. Your opinion is valued, whether you agree or disagree.

Elegant Violence: David Shields Takes On The New York Times

David Shields is a puckish literary critic and Litkicks favorite whose epic 2010 book Reality Hunger proposed that creative writers may as well skip the pretense of fiction and simply write the truth, since that's what readers value most in either fiction or non-fiction anyway. His latest book examines a more malevolent borderline between fiction and truth.

Why, his new War Is Beautiful asks, does the New York Times illustrate its reporting from war zones with such lush and painterly elegance that horrific violence is transformed into stunning art?

Shields confronts one major newspaper directly in this art book (which is subtitled "The New York Times Pictorial Guide to the Glamour of Armed Conflict"), explaining in the introduction that he began to distrust the Times following their failure to report accurately about the phony justification for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. He's on solid ground with this argument, and indeed a quick perusal of War is Beautiful does help to make a larger case: for reasons that may or may not include cultural aspiration, editorial incompetence or simply aesthetic instinct, the New York Times appears to have a chronic tendency to glorify and celebrate war.

A Thanksgiving Thought Experiment

A great skit on this weekend’s Saturday Night Live suggested an Adele song as a cure for obnoxious and endless Thanksgiving dinner arguments about politics.

Adele is great, but here’s a more substantial (though simple) thought experiment that can produce amazing results. It works great if you’re going to be talking politics with friends or relatives this holiday season, because it’s designed to bring a sense of mutual understanding where none previously could be found. It’s something you do inside your own imagination before trying to talk with others you disagree with. It involves three steps, and the third is the most difficult. Here goes:

Step One: select a current political figure you really despise and completely disagree with. Of course this should be a politician who is influential in your own region. Some popular choices for my fellow Americans might be Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama. (I’ll be playing along with you, and I’ll pick Marco Rubio for myself. I really hate that guy!)

Step Two: Leave the bubble of your own personal political mindset and opinions, and try to imagine yourself in the body and mind of one of this politician’s eager supporters. Most importantly, do this without putting on an imaginary cloak of “evil” or "stupid". Assume that you are an intelligent and rational person who considers yourself a decent and moral citizen. Try to imagine, even if only for a short moment, what the world looks like from inside the mind of a person who considers themselves a decent and rational person, but who is an enthusiastic supporter of the politician who you actually hate.

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