Episode 447 – Peter Schjeldahl

Virtual Memories Show 447:
Peter Schjeldahl

“My job is to give people something to read that is enjoyable and in some other way perhaps worth reading. It’s almost not about the art; it’s about the concentration, the absorption.”

I traveled up to the Catskills this weekend for a round of Rip Van Winkle-themed putt-putt golf, lunch, and some conversation with New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. We get into Peter’s 2019 diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer and how he gained & then lost the persona of The Dying Man during his one piece of memoiristic writing about it. We also talk about his accidental transition from poet to art writer in the ’60s, why his two criteria for writing about art are quality & significance, his bias for authenticity over authority and sophistication over education, how HOWL changed his life, why he hates reproductions of paintings, why it took him years to come around on Rembrandt, his experience of revisiting Velazquez’ Las Meninas over the years, the piece of art he’d like to revisit when we can travel again, his love of (& aesthete’s approach to) fireworks, and plenty moreon the art of living! Give it a listen! And go read Hot, Cold Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018

“There’s no art to dying at all.”

“Having talent is like being put in lifetime charge of a wild animal that you have to feed and nurture and obey. And it doesn’t care about you; if taking a bite out of your ass would help the work, it’ll do that in a second.”

“Bad art is its own punishment.”

“The only thing a reproduction has in common with a painting is the image.”


“All of my deep art historical knowledge was learned bit by bit on deadline.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Peter Schjeldahl has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998 and is the magazine’s art critic. He came to the magazine from The Village Voice, where he was the art critic from 1990 to 1998. Previously, he had written frequently for the New York Times’ Arts and Leisure section. His writing has also appeared in Artforum, Art in America, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. He has received the Clark Prize for Excellence in Arts Writing from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute; the Frank Jewett Mather Award from the College Art Association, for excellence in art criticism; the Howard Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, for “recent prose that merits recognition for the quality of its style”; and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the author of four books of criticism, including The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings, and Let’s See: Writings on Art from The New Yorker. His latest book is Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings, 1988-2018.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded on Peter’s back porch on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photos of Peter by me. It’s on my instagram.

My Leukemia Diagnosis

A drawing of my photo of Clive James’ Japanese maple, from his back garden, February 2015

JULY 9, 2021

Hi, my friends:

I’ve been diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). I’m at stage zero and may go a long time (potentially years) before I require treatment. Survival rates for this form of leukemia are very good, and even better for someone at my age (it shows up more often in 70+-year-old people than in a 50 year old).


I know it can be a hassle and an expense, but it’s your health, so please attend to the routine stuff. I was uncertain about sharing all this with you, but that public service announcement aspect tipped the scales in favor of disclosure. (I also want to share What’s Going On, because it’s a burden that’s been weighing on me and I think you all can help, just by knowing.)

At my annual physical last month (I skipped 2020’s due to the pandemic), my physician saw some weird numbers in my routine bloodwork. Followup bloodwork two weeks later got him worried, so he sent me to a hematologist (oncologist), who diagnosed CLL and subsequently staged my condition. She filled me in on the cytology report yesterday evening, which corroborated her stage zero assessment — pending One More Test that’s intended more as a baseline than as a further diagnostic — and led her to suggest my condition may lie dormant for a long time.

The course of action will be “watchful waiting”: semiannual bloodwork & keeping an eye out for symptoms. When the numbers pass certain thresholds I’ll have to go on a course of targeted therapies — one of which is contract manufactured by a company I represent at my day job — to try to get them back down. They’re very effective, and far less damaging than the previous front-line option of chemotherapy.

After that, it’ll be up to monitoring and treatments in the years ahead, as the excess immature leukocytes that my body makes lead to greater susceptibility to infection, and crowd out of red blood cells and platelets, all of which can cause other problems in my system, and lead to my death.

With CLL, there’s no cure, no direct cause (just mutations), and nothing I can do will affect its progression, but the targeted treatments are effective at fighting it. When I described my exercise habits & the fact that I’ve never smoked & haven’t had a drink since 2012, the oncologist said, “Keep that up. It won’t change the course of the disease, but it’ll help you deal with the side effects when you need treatment.” When she asked if, among other symptoms, I was suffering from fatigue or anemia, I told her that I ran 6.3 miles in 80°+ temps and 9,000,000% humidity that morning, and she laughed as she checked “no”.

So that’s the somatic version of what’s going on: I have a seemingly dormant, treatable version of leukemia, and will have to stay on top of it for the rest of my days.

As for what’s going on in my mind, well that’s where things get complicated.

For one thing, anxiety has been walloping me, between the waiting period for test results & diagnosis, the need to talk to people without overly worrying them, some heavy-duty business issues that have come to a head, and even the debate over whether to write and send this out. I haven’t been sleeping or eating well, have dropped about 6 lbs. in the past 10 days, and worry that issues I’m having with running are somehow symptoms of a hyper-accelerated acute version of my leukemia, as opposed to “you worry too much and it’s affecting your diet, sleep and body.”

I’m still adjusting. Getting the (relatively) good news yesterday should have alleviated some of my anxiety, but I still felt The Pit in my stomach at 3:30 this morning. Having a neurotic mind and a body that’s a timebomb is not sustainable in the long term, so I’m going to have to learn/train to slow down and worry less in the moment. I once told Walter Kirn, “Anxiety is my drug of choice,” but I think I need to cut down.

Me being me, before the initial diagnosis last week, I gamed out worst-case scenarios, a process that has changed me. I’d say it “helped me put my life in perspective,” but it’s more like it gave me a different perspective, when I considered what it would mean if I had, say, 6 months left. (When I recorded with DG Myers in 2014, he thought his recurrent prostate cancer meant he had about 2 years to go, but he was dead 6 months later.)

I began updating the “in case of the event of my death” document that I put together a few years ago, to help Amy in case all my work-travel led to my death via plane crash, train derailment, or meth-addled Lyft driver. I started writing an obituary as an exercise to find out what I thought I’d done with my life and how it should be memorialized. I unsubscribed from a lot of e-mails. I kept making art every day, even when it was tough to focus.

And in my hypothetical six-months-left window, I thought about the podcast: how I’d wind it down and how I could make sure it sticks around as both a resource and my legacy. Maybe that sounds silly to you, but those conversations are the thing I’ll leave behind in this world, more than any professional achievements, goofy dog pictures, or my trees.

I thought about the people I’d want to record with before I’m gone, the last few conversations I’d want to have and share with the world. There really were only a few, and they weren’t pantheon-famous or anything, but they’d have been special to me.

I also thought about the guests who were on my immediate schedule and how tough it would be to keep a conversation going without bringing my diagnosis into it. You can listen to the most recent few episodes to see how I did on that front. When Ron Hogan mentioned tech-bro Stoicism and reading Marcus Aurelius, you don’t know how tough it was for me not to ask about whether he himself felt prepared for death.

I thought about what a world without me would be like, and I wasn’t scared the way I thought I would be. (I felt awful for Amy, my parents, and close friends, and still worry about the burden I’m putting on them, even though I KNOW it’s part of life and what we do for each other.) I’ll try to talk through this on the show sometime, and/or get some counseling, but what I think it boils down to is: I’ve seen great people die in recent years, and the world has kept turning. And I lost Tom Spurgeon, my best friend, nearly 2 years ago, and that experience — seeing how people have tried to live up to his memory, and taken heart from his life rather than wallowing in the sorrow of his death — seems to have changed me, too.

(There’s a whole other gigantic e-mail about the importance of the friends I’ve made over the years and how much you all mean to me. There’s also a lot of private stuff, so if I don’t tell you much about how Amy & our family are handling this situation, please respect that & don’t chalk it up to narcissism or tough-guy-ness.)

I know my absence would leave a hole in people’s lives, but I don’t feel like I’ve left anything undone. There are places I want to go, people I want to talk to, pieces of art I want to make, but like I wrote about in this e-mail a few weeks ago when I was obliquely alluding to my condition — and don’t blame yourself; no one would pick up on the signals I was giving off, even when I posted a link to my drawing of the Japanese maple in Clive James‘ backyard (Clive also had CLL, and his poem about the maple centered on whether he’d live to see it bloom) — Eddie Campbell once told me & Tom why he thinks bucket lists are inane, and why he’d rather just enjoy the simple daily pleasures of life one more time, and I agree with him.

THAT SAID: I’m not proposing complacency or self-satisfaction with one’s life. If Worst-Case Scenario had come up last year, the Gil who “hadn’t left anything undone” never would have known that he can draw and make watercolors, nor experienced the joy of doing it. If it had come up the year before that, spring 2019 Gil would never have known that he could run a half-marathon (for the first time) on 36 hours’ notice, come in under 1:50:00, and not suffer incontinence.

Life is becoming. It has to be. Maybe there will be new discoveries for me, and for you.

There’s so much more to say, but I’ve gone on too long already. I’m out of worst-case thinking, and looking forward. Where we are now is: I have a long-term, treatable form of leukemia, and I plan to continue

  • busting my butt professionally,
  • making my Virtual Memories Show podcast,
  • writing this e-mail,
  • making art,
  • reading,
  • running,
  • and maybe making the occasional public appearance.

But maybe I’ll need a break sometimes, too.

During that worst-case phase, I wondered whether I’d actually buy another book, if I only had [time] left. Then I ordered a couple from New York Review Books’ sale during July 4th weekend, which means I have to stick around, right?

To quote Sun Ra,

Love For Everybody,


[UPDATE: My first semiannual check-in in Jan. 2022 went fine; no significant progression, so no treatment or other changes.]

[UPDATE: My next semiannual check-in in July 2022 went fine; no significant progression, so no treatment or other changes, but there’s another lesser indicator they want to keep an eye on, so I’ll be back in ~4 months.]

[UPDATE: I had the 4-month check-in in early December 2022; no significant progression, and the lesser indicator was fine, so I’ll be back in 6 months]

[UPDATE: My semi-annual check-in in June 2023 went fine; no significant progression, so no treatment or other changes, so come back in 6 months]

My Books of the Decade: 2010-2019

Alphabetical by author:

I started this on a whim, Christmas Eve, looking over the list of Every Book I’ve Finished Since 1989. These are the books that have stuck with me most over the decade, or continue to rise up in my thoughts. Given recency bias, a bunch of them are reads from the past few years.


I thought about ranking them, but they’re so different from one another that it seemed futile. If pressed, I’d put those two Donald Hall essay collections at the top, followed by Daniel Mendelsohn’s memoir on teaching The Odyssey.

It’s only prose, not comics. I don’t keep a list of comics I’ve finished, and I’m not at home while I write this, where I’d be able to refer to my library.

I read a ton for the podcast, but much of it is non-fiction, so I get minimal exposure to contemporary novels & stories. Hence only 3 novels to 10 non-fiction works. Also, I barely read poetry. I’m glad that memoirs didn’t outweigh history/biography, as I fear that’s a bias of mine.

This was the decade in which I finished reading Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts(podcast), and in which I discovered/read Stefan Zweig (esp. Chess Story), The Peregrine by JA Baker, The Leopard by Giuseppe Lampedusa, Bruce Jay Friedman’s short fiction(podcast), Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose series, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. Which is to say, a lot of pre-2010 work made a huge impression on me, which maybe crowded out some of this decade’s work, in terms of stature/relevance.

Yep, all 12 authors are white, and yep, it’s 11 male to 1 female author. I’ll try to do better next decade.

There would be a whole bunch of honorable mentions, but that’s a whole new can of worms to open up. To quote the late Tom Spurgeon, “If I missed your book, it’s because I hate you.”

Go back to the main podcast page


In 2017, I read more than 50 books, produced 52 weekly episodes of The Virtual Memories Show, dropped 20 lbs., made major progress on paying off my house, made some actual friends from the podcast, and got a new dog. I didn’t donate enough to charity, but paying off the house 15 years early is making things a little tight.

On the professional side, I helped a major piece of legislation through passage into law, testified in front of a Congressional committee, recruited many more companies into my trade association, solo-organized my first conference, and did a bit part in trying to fix drug shortages that resulted from the catastrophe Puerto Rico.

As usual, the only real resolution I can come up with for 2018 is, “Write more,” and I’ve started working on that. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot: Clean the garage? Get around to reading Henry James? Get some more of my Mt. Rushmore-level pod-guests onto the show? Be a better friend? Those all seem pretty marginal to me if I can just sustain 2017 levels, but we’ll see what the year brings.