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I started this blog many years ago. Unfortunately, several unforeseen things happened. I got distracted and rarely wrote. (Stay tuned for more on that in the future.) This morning, thanks to a TED education video on the always-insightful Brainpickings, I was inspired to get The Immaterialist back up and running. The question in the TED video: “Are we a body with a mind, or a mind with a body?” reminded me that I enjoy writing about philosophical thought-puzzles and I’m excited to return to this pursuit. In the meantime, check out the video that got me back on track.

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Yesterday I went to the Henry Art Gallery to see a new installation, the common SENSE, by artist Ann Hamilton. Typically art openings are great for socializing, and less great for viewing an artist’s work, but in this case I wanted to catch the show right away because it’s going to change radically with the passage of time. (More on that in just a bit.)

According to the artist’s statement, the common SENSE is a reference to touch, a sense common to all species.

“Each extension of a hand or paw is toward contact. Contact with the ground, the air, to someone or something outside the self, and from this extension one is always touched in return—that is touch’s reciprocal condition and exchange. When we touch we go from being observers to being included; things seen become felt.”

What’s interesting is Hamilton’s use of technology to articulate touch. Working with low-resolution flatbed scanners, she created eerie, ghostlike images of animals (specimens from the Burke Museum’s archives). Areas of the animals’ bodies that were not in direct contact with the scanner bed fell into soft focus, lending an impressionistic and poetic air to the portraits. (The shroud of Turin comes to mind.) Printed in multiples on newsprint, the thin sheets are bound in tablets with stainless steel mounts, displayed from floor to ceiling on the gallery walls.


As every gallery-goer knows, touching the art on display is typically forbidden. Fittingly, Hamilton invites visitors to not only touch her art, but to tear it from the walls. Despite the invitation, the act felt like vandalism to me. Was that the intent? The prints, like endangered species in the natural world, are limited in number. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Ironically, taking the work from the walls is simultaneously an act of community and an act of desecration. It will be interesting to see what’s left when the show closes in April, 2015.

Another intriguing aspect to the show is the collectively authored gallery guide (Readers Reading Readers), inspired by a once popular verb “commonplacing,” that referred to the practice of copying well-loved passages from favorite books. Hamilton puts a clever twist on the antiquated practice by inviting people to submit literary fragments (related to touching and being touched) on Tumblr. Like the animal imagery, these fragments are printed on newsprint, stacked adjacent to vitrines where visitors can take a page with the words that touch them.


An excerpt from Robert Bringhurst’s The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology are words that touched me:

“Reading for me is the proof of being at home: a quintessential part of the equation that enables us to reach across the fence between the world and ourselves without destroying what we find. The most basic parts of that equation, surely, are eating and being eaten. Can’t have one without the other. May not seem so in the restaurant or the bookstore, but walking in the forest or sitting by the stream, we know it works both ways: being fed and feeding, reading and being read.”

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Telephone_LinesI picked up our ringing landline this evening (something I almost never do) and one of those boiler room scammer guys with a singsong Indian accent was on the other end. Intrigued by his charming lilt, which was at odds with the urgency of his message, I let him give me the pitch.

“M’am. Windows Technical Support has detected a virus (one of the very worst kinds) in your operating system. Minute by minute it is corrupting your hard drive and getting worse! But not to worry. I can show you how to get rid of the problem.”

After about five minutes (yes, I let him talk for awhile), the conversation took such a ridiculous turn that I broke out laughing. How could I not? He was so earnest, but what he was saying was utterly absurd.

“M’am! Why are you laughing? You are a little bit of a skeptic, no? You think I am a scammer!? Do you? ‘M’am?”

“Um, yes. I am a little bit of a skeptic. Can’t help it. I was raised that way. And yes, I think you are a scammer,” I said through my laughter.


This comment gave the boiler room guy a case of the giggles. He tried to get back on track—but he knew the jig was up. He cited an impossibly long series of numbers: my “secret” Windows registration key to “prove” that he was legit.

“Sir, you are very good at what you do,” I said. “And by any chance, have you seen that movie Boiler Room? I actually know the guy who wrote it. Maybe when I write a screenplay, I’ll create a character based on you and our conversation this evening.”

He seemed intrigued at the idea of being in my screenplay. (Who says you can’t scam the scammer!?)

I wished him happy holidays and told him to keep at it. Sooner or later I felt confident someone would give him remote access to their computer and allow him to download the anti-virus software that he was peddling.

After the call I looked online. Yep. “Windows Technical Support Scam.” The guy I spoke with followed the pitch to the letter. But his nature got the better of him. I don’t think being a telemarketing con man is what the universe has in mind.

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Contrary to what you see in moody TV murder mysteries set in Seattle, torrential downpours in the Pacific Northwest are rare. Sure, it rains a lot. But not like the dramatic storms in the Midwest. Here it’s light but constant: and often, just a very fine mist.

Except sometimes, like last Monday morning, when I was standing at a bus shelter in downtown Tacoma, an industrial port city 30 miles south of Seattle. The sky opened up unexpectedly and unleashed a deluge. Heavy drops hammered the street, quickly turning it into a little river.

Cars slowed. Pedestrians sprinted for cover. I groaned inwardly, knowing that my bus would be late and the ensuing commute torturous. To make matters worse, I didn’t have the proper rain gear. I was damp and cold and getting grumpier by the minute.

But suddenly, and quite mysteriously, (possibly triggered by the no-parking stripe on the curb?) the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s Red Rain popped into my head. Full volume, full band. The rain beat harder and time seemed to stand still.

Red rain is coming down
Red rain
Red rain is pouring down
Pouring down all over me

As the rain let up, the enigmatic song in my head mingled with the sound of car tires splashing through pools of water on the road. The usual urban noise was muted and the splashes were amplified. My sense of smell was heightened, too.

Something had shifted. I felt better. Different. Happier. My bad mood had been washed away.

And the air smelled, if not fresh exactly, intriguing—like a gasoline accord in a boutique fragrance handcrafted in Brooklyn.

I inhaled deeply, trying to make out the notes: new blacktop, tobacco, earth and fruit (thanks to a nearby trash can with a half-eaten banana), all diluted with soft, industry-tinged marine. Grit city’s ‘eau de pluie’ was odd, yet beautiful, and all too fleeting.

As a fledgling perfumer I’d like to recreate the scent with a longer lasting impression. Stay tuned for my Tacoma-inspired take on rain.

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In the summer of 2009 I was confined to my bed for three months after experimental knee surgery. It was an profound experience, and given the required painkillers, not surprising that my thinking leaned toward the philosophical and spiritual. On several occasions, I was overcome by intense feelings of compassion—not only for myself, but also for all of the suffering people in the world: victims of war, the sick and the elderly. I wondered if I would be able retain this level of empathy once I was back on my feet. And I was humbled and grateful to gain this kind of insight without the long-term physical consequences. I endeavored to make the most of my days between the sheets.

Naturally, I spent a tremendous amount of time online, consuming everything from sci-fi movies on Netflix to tech evangelist videos from the latest TED conference. I entertained myself by making iMovies with photos from past vacations, re-organizing my hard drive, writing artist profiles for magazines and starting a blog called The Immaterialist.

By definition, immaterial means “of no substantial consequence,” or “not consisting of matter.” And in the Age of Technology, an immaterial existence is not such a radical idea. To my bedridden self, sustained almost entirely by digital files, streaming music, and strange Percocet-addled memories and dreams, it was par for the course.

When I launched The Immaterialist, I envisioned that much of the writing would be tech-related. Another source of inspiration is fashion photographer Scott Schuman’s blog The Sartorialist. Just as Schuman follows emerging trends worn by stylish people in the street, I pictured The Immaterialist tracking nascent patterns in the digital space. My concept of immaterialism is also related to my uneasy relationship with consumerism (more on this in future posts). For now, suffice it to say that I have a lot of stuff, and I’m often toying with the best way to let go of these possessions. Is a photographic archive sufficient? Is the memory of a thing enough? It’s complicated.

Later, I stumbled across a philosophical theory called immaterialism from the early 18th-Century. The basic idea is that material things have no reality except as mental perceptions.  Aside from finding the theory, which was conceived by Irish philosopher George Berkeley, extremely complex, it appears to be one of those manifestos embraced by crackpots, zealots and outsiders. Not what I had in mind!

But pre-existing philosophy aside, and surgery long behind me, I’m still intrigued with my own take on immaterialism, and hopeful that I can start back where I left off. My first few efforts were tentative and I dropped the inquiry before I’d scarcely begun. Though I’m not sure where this is going, what do I have to lose? With no subscribers to date, I’m free to shout in to the virtual wind.

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This weekend, I sat on our porch, dog by my side, appreciating the sun. Suddenly, a strong breeze crested our hill. Cool and melancholy, it rustled the peonies, snapping them sharply like the sail on a boat. We were mesmerized by a beautiful ghost.

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Author Neil Gaiman shares advice for aspiring creatives: “Just imagine you’re the sort of person who can do it; then do what they would do.”

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How do we know that something is ours? A recent profile of musician Regina Spektor in the New York Times reminds me that often it’s a flaw that makes an object personal. According to the story, Spektor and her father, Ilya, an amateur violinist and professional photographer, were cleaning their home together one Sunday when an accident occurred:

“We were dusting stuff, and he dropped a crystal vase onto the piano and chipped off a bunch of wood. He was so upset. But to me it became my favorite part of the piano, it was how I knew it was my piano — it was the one with the chip in it.”

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Have laptop, will travel. Soundtrack M. Ward.

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