“They became frightful with lofty plumes, eyes like balls, fingers terminated by claws, the jaws of sharks.”

One thing I hate about my writing is that it often feels bunchy and tight. I want to recover a sense of play, so I’ve decided to find a hobby. Something unrelated to frowning at my sentences. Something I can do for the hell of it. And most important: something that doesn’t require a staring contest with a screen. So I bought a sketchbook and some watercolor paints because I have no illusions about being a painter. I haven’t drawn anything in years; the last time I painted was twenty-five years ago when I was very high.

But what to paint? I opened a random page from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony and painted the first phrase that caught my attention. This has become my new hobby, a weekend ritual. Here are my first attempts:

“Our ancestors of painted wax” / “And lichen formed upon my jaws”
“My 74 antlers are hollow like flutes. When I turn toward the south, they draw ravaged animals around me.”

Looking at these paintings, it’s hard to believe I’ve been sober for eight years. But it feels good to do something for its own sake, results be damned. And I have a newfound respect for Caravaggio.


It’s a little sad that my first impulse when considering a fun activity is to get away from the screen. But the screen feels increasingly heavy nowadays, magnetized with nervy energy. In the class I teach, we discuss the mental effects of attention hijacking and outrage mechanics. My students have a lot to say, and their vocabulary is vivid, often violent: onslaught, bombarded, drowning, shredded, etc. More and more, these conversations leave me wondering if it’s possible to experience a “digital sublime,” a renewed quality of delight or awe. Or if I will ever recover a sense of lightness or play when I’m online.

Despite my best attempts at information hygiene, I’m still buffeted by the digital winds. The other day I caught myself reading an article called “What Yogurt Does to You.” Then I lingered over the ambient horror of a New York Times article about mushrooms that casually referred to “our ruined global moment.” This morning I received a marketing email for a meditation app from someone whose job title is “Editor of Wisdom Content.” Now I can meditate upon living in hell.

So back to weird painting. Tonight’s sentence: “They pelt each other with shells, devour grapes, strangle a goat, and tear Bacchus asunder.”