Category Archives: Station

Thirty-Two Dollars a Minute

That’s how much the funds the generous people in my life raised came to in the 10k I ran Sunday morning in Dana Point.

DanaPointTeamFran

$1665, in total.*

From 40 people/couples/families. 

I used to think that people said, “I’m humbled by your generosity” because that was what you said, as if it was some Code of Christian Charity or of Hallmark Card Inscriptions that’s become so entrenched in our cultural rituals that people say it out of obligation, because to not say it would be awkward. Like when the only other person in the waiting room sneezes and you say, “Bless you,” even though you’re not actually thinking, “God, bless this person and keep him well,” even though you don’t really believe in blessings.

I used to think that, I realize now, because I’d never actually been affected by people’s generosity before. Let alone been a vehicle for it.

When I was a kid, we did can drives, sold chocolate bars, did Swim-A-Thons, but I don’t remember one thing we raised money for.  Partly this was because I was a little kid and didn’t grasp much of anything I was doing, and partly because as I grew into a bigger kid, it was cool to not care about anyone else and to not donate time or money and to not do things for other people, when there was so much other important stuff to do and spend your money on, like surf and chase girls and play basketball and smoke pot and look for old LPs at the flea market. For instance.

In college, what little volunteering I did was almost entirely selfish, either as a resume-builder or as a way to try to impress upon people the generosity of my spirit (which, of course, belies that very thing). Or, like the Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip I took to Paraguay in ’05, it was an excuse to go somewhere or do something cool. My college coach used to make the swim team run in this 10k every year to support Special Olympics, and I loathed it and complained bitterly about it the entire time.  I thought Special Olympics was great and all, but I didn’t see why swimmers had to run to help them out. Why I had to, of all people. I tried coaching Special Olympics on and off over the years, but I never thought of it as anything but a potential way to “prove” I was more than just a jock, that I had a heart and gave a shit. (Though I’m sure it was pretty obvious to all involved that I wasn’t/didn’t.) Several of my friends and teammates loved doing it, and did all kinds of other volunteer work, too, and seemed to really enjoy getting out of themselves for a couple hours every week, giving of themselves, doing things for other people.

I mean, right? Kind of? No?

I mean, right? Kind of? No?

I just figured I wasn’t cut from that altruistic cloth. “Some people make good kindergarten teachers,” I reasoned, “and some people are born volunteers. I’m not.” I was better at “being me,” which basically meant thinking about myself and doing what I wanted to do, all the time, forever. Which over the years turned into crawling further and further into this small little black-holish ball of nihilistic narcissism (which story’s been told and is boring anyway).

And then one of my closest friends died.

A little bit about Fran’s death and his life and what he meant to me and others is here in this article I wrote a few years ago, but suffice it to say that he died suddenly and rather tragically, and it stunned me.

In the wake of Fran’s death, his family established the Fran Crippen Elevation Foundation as a legacy to the things that mattered most to him, and I realized for perhaps the first time in my life that here was something that had nothing to do with me that I actually really cared about.

Pic: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Pic: Lars Baron/Getty Images

Fran was an optimist and believed that pursuing one’s dreams was the highest calling in life. He didn’t think any obstacle was too great to overcome, but he was also realistic enough to know that obstacles can’t just be wished away, and that sometimes people need a little help getting over life’s hurdles. In non-headliner sports like swimming, financial wherewithal is often the dealbreaker when it comes to deciding whether or not to keep plugging away at the dream, and to that end, the FCEF offers financial support to one male and one female athlete every year who has a plan to continue training, but faces financial challenges to doing so.

Which is where Team Fran and the race we did last Sunday come in. Team Fran is set up like Team USO, in that you raise money by participating in events that are already underway. For the last couple years, Team Fran has been running in Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run, and we were thinking it’d be nice to have a west coast fundraiser, as well. Thus the Dana Point Halloween Half Marathon, in which 300ish people ran. Eight of us were registered with Team Fran and raised money (three of them did the half-marathon, crazy awesome bastards), and a handful of others came out to run or walk the 5k or 10k.

I started asking for money on facebook about a month ago. I’d never done that before, and I felt a little uncomfortable about it, but this was for Fran’s foundation, so I kept at it. A few people pitched in right away, and I thought, “Aw, that’s good.” But they were teammates and close friends and I figured they’d donate no matter what I was doing, still thinking, Because that’s what you do, donate when your friends want you to. And then each week more and more money came in, and I started thinking wow, this is kind of cool. And then last week it was like the floodgates opened and before I knew it, sixteen-hundred and sixty-five dollars was sitting underneath my name.

I did my best to remember all the people that donated, my plan being to use them when the going got tough, to have them “carry me through the pain” type of thing.

But it ended up I needed them much sooner than that.

I’m competitive to a fault, to the point that I’d rather win than “have a good time” (which distinction is still a brave, new world to me). Backyard badminton, volleyball during a nice relaxing day at the beach, Monopoly or checkers with an eight-year-old on a snowy day – you name it, I want to win it, and if I can’t win, I probably won’t play. This is essentially why I considered quitting swimming my third year of college – it became obvious to me that, save a miracle, I wasn’t going to win NCAAs or make the 2004 Olympic team, and I thought, you know, what’s the use? (Thankfully, my teammates didn’t let me entertain that thought too long…)

DanaPointRaceSite

Sunday was my first athletic competition in nearly a decade, and while I told myself it wasn’t going to be a big deal, the second I saw the Start/Finish line I got that tight/sour stomach, that flood of saliva, that need to open up my lungs.

I smelled blood.

And that worried me, because I hadn’t trained for this. I mean, I run a little to keep in shape, but I have no idea how to run a road race, how fast to start, how soon to speed up, where to make a move, who to look out for, how to take the downhills, what effect the inclines are going to have on my legs at 80% versus 90%. My first thought was, “Shit, I am not going to win this,” and I was immediately dreading every step I was going to take and all the moments afterwards until I could get out of that parking lot and pretend that the imminent, inevitable loss never happened.

I said to Erin, “Ugh, just the sight of a race course makes me nervous.”

She looked at me with her quizzical, stop-being-ridiculous look, and said, “Well don’t be. That’s not what we’re here for.”

And that’s when I called on those people who’d put up their hard-earned money – these days, when things are tough are all over – to support the FCEF. The idea seems so simple and obvious, right, that people weren’t supporting me, that no one cared how I finished, that it didn’t matter to anyone anywhere whether I was running at all on that foggy Sunday morning in south Orange County except as I functioned as a vehicle for their support of something that actually matters to a whole heck of a lot of people.

Well, those kinds of things aren’t obvious to me.

Or if they do occur to me, my self-concern obscures them again almost instantly.

But thinking about those donors, and about Fran’s family, and all the reasons why we’re involved in this foundation, and all the people that knew Fran and were friends with him and are my friends now because of that connection, kept me from getting wrapped up in my own stupid, meaningless competitiveness. Because it would essentially have been competition in a vacuum, empty of any reference or value, and I would not have fared well, and it would have lead only to disappointment and resentment, which would have been poison on a positive day. 

I hung with Erin the first quarter of the race and enjoyed people’s costumes and cooed over the babies people were pushing in their massive strollers and oohed and aahed at the dogs trotting alongside their owners and laughed at the team of nine-year-old soccer girls who were making fun of their coach for running like and being “a dinosaur. Like, literally.”

And then when Erin made the turn at 2.5k, I put the pedal down and spent the rest of the time reeling people in. (So, really, I did kind of get the best of both worlds….) Which was fun because I got to think about Fran a lot, and guess whether he’d have liked coming up behind those people with me and picking them off, or if he’d have been way ahead from the beginning and talking trash about me having started so slow. He always did hate when I beat him in the final ten meters or the last round of a set.

“Yeah, great job at the very end there,” he’d say. “Where were you the rest of the time?”

I’m not saying I’ve turned into some amazingly compassionate person since Fran’s death. I’m certainly not saying “that’s what it took” for me to turn my head around. I hear that kind of thing sometimes – not about Fran, but in other settings – and it seems the height of egocentrism, even solipsism, to imply that “God took” someone so that you could become a better person. I’d rather be a sad, angry, sick and lonely man the rest of my days and have Fran still around. Any of us would trade me that for him, I’m sure. And well they should. My newfound generosity of spirit, whatever little it’s worth, is not a compensation. There is no compensation.

And yet, he’s gone, and there’s no undoing that. So we might as well use what remains to be better. We did a good amount of good the last couple weeks, those who funded those of us who ran.

Personally, the whole experience, but especially the race Sunday morning, was an opportunity to practice being a different kind of person, to see that what I’ve always thought of as my “default” or “natural” character, isn’t, necessarily. Or doesn’t have to be.

And meanwhile, everyone who gave money through me already assumed that I was a good representative of the foundation they wanted to support. “This is important to Ian. This is important to me. Ian is important to me. Sweet trifecta, that – lemme give a few dollars.”

All I had to do was show up and run a few miles.

And that’s what I mean when I say I’m honored and humbled by people’s generosity.

So I guess, Welcome to the human race, Prichard, right?

What are some of your favorite charities?

Do you do these kinds of volunteer/charity events?

Which has had the most impact on you?

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*You do the math, if you’re interested – I’m not posting that slow of a time for free.

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In the Shadow of Catastrophe, II

If you didn’t see Part I, go check it out.

Go on, it’s only a thousand words, we’ll wait.

K, all caught up on just how precarious SoCal’s continued existence is?

Great, then on to solutions.

Solutions to the imminent collapse of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have been proposed since the State Water Project was inaugurated. The most well-known of these is the Peripheral Canal, which would divert Sacramento River water through or, as the name would suggest, around the Delta, to the tune of $3 to $17 BILLION, depending on who you’re asking. A ballot initiative to fund a peripheral canal was first proposed and defeated in 1982. A $11.14b water bond was defeated in 2010, and another is slated for the 2014 ballot, though it’ll likely be pushed to 2016. By which time it’ll hopefully be irrelevant, and Governor Jerry Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan will be on its way to being a reality.

So, if it’s been an issue that people have known needs to be addressed for so long, why’s it never been solved?

Because money, of course.

On one hand, farmers and environmentalists and various other interest groups in the Delta have beaucoup bucks to throw at defeating these bills, and on the other, no one really wants to pay for it. It would certainly make water more expensive, but like car maintenance, the longer we don’t pay for it, the more expensive the project and our water will be later.

SWP water has doubled in the last ten years, and is expected to double again in the next ten, and people aren’t too excited about paying over and above what are already some of the highest water rates in the country.

The scarcity that’s driving the cost of SWP water up is both real, and legislated/judicial. We all know about the generally shorter and warmer winters and less precipitation going on these days, and whether you believe climate change is a result of human activity or not, the fact of the matter is that there’s been less snowpack in the Sierras at the end of spring for a dozen+ years running, which means that there’s less water in the Delta. Which has led to less, warmer, more algae-filled and even sometimes saltier Delta water, to which one little linchpin in particular in the whole web of life really takes exception.

Much more detailed (and better) description of Smeltgate than what I offer here. Pic: NYTimes

A better, more detailed description of Smeltgate than what I offer here.
Pic: NYTimes

These are Delta Smelt.

When they’re unhappy, the salmon that run in the Delta are unhappy, and as the Steelhead and Chinook are on the endangered list, Smelt have become the focal point of the ecological studies – and rage – in the Delta. In 2007, pumping allocations out of the Delta were throttled way-way back (think, half), in large part because of concern over these little buggers. A 2008 study supporting those allocation limitations stated that the Smelt, et al, were disastrously imperiled, so things were tight for a while, until Judge Oliver Wanger said in his 2011 appeal opinion that the study was carried out in “bad faith,” its findings “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful,” the science that underpinned them “sloppy,” and the testimony of biological experts “false.” The 2007 limits were reversed, water flowed and Wagner was a hero for a day. (To some – he’s a murdering thieving bastard to fish-lovers and Delta farmers, but he’s retiring so what does he care).

Anyway, this back-and-forth is par for the SWP course, with Delta farmers demanding enough water for their crops and stoking and flaming Smelty controversy, and Central Valley Project water people saying they don’t want to pay for all the water that goes to what they think are basically water libertines in SoCal, and SoCalers saying wtf we didn’t invent this mess we just live here and we need water and btw we don’t give a rat’s ass about those little fish or about your sunken farms.

Which, no, is not helpful. Any of it.

But that’s the way the issue’s been framed after all this time: you’re either all for killing off all 57 endangered species that live in/depend on the Delta, or you’re in favor of dust-bowlizing Southern California completely out of existence. There’s no real middle ground, and there hasn’t been much in the way of an alternative. And meanwhile, prices just go up. And up. Aaaannnndddd up.

If you’re wondering, amid all this, why there were no Smelt-protections built into the SWP to begin with, you’re forgetting what the environmental regulatory environment was like in the 1950s.

There wasn’t one.

We were post-war booming then, right, flexing all those third-industrial-revolution muscles, basking in the glory of having made the world safe for democracy, believing that the world was our proverbial oyster and that we could do no wrong, including environmental harm. Not entirely their fault – there wasn’t the same awareness or even knowledge as there is now of the impacts of the human stain on the environment. I mean, we were testing the effects of nuclear fallout on human beings only what, fifteen, twenty years before?

To put things in perspective: the Environmental Protection Agency was formed in 1970. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. Which yes, was when Richard Nixon was President.

You know that if Tricky Dick was signing legislation for the environment, it was in prreeeetttty bad shape — and the SWP was designed fifteen years before that.

Which is why the Bay Delta Conservation Plan I mentioned earlier is such a great idea.

The BDCP is different because it addresses both water supply and environmental issues, and even goes so far as to call them “co-equal goals.”

Basically, two 25-foot-diameter tunnels would run 17 miles underneath* the Delta and all its messed up terrain and fragile levees, and connect with the existing aqueduct for the trip south. The tunnels are pared with a massive conservation plan that would, in addition to a host of other good things, restore about 145,000 acres of wetlands. (Remember, wetlands used to cover 500,000 acres, so that’s not too shabby.)

The other big problem with pre-BDCP water bonds is that as much as people say they want things to change, while they say they want secure water, they don’t want to pay for it (LATimes had a great story on this a few days ago). This hesitancy to pay an extra hundred bucks or so year is one of the ridiculous things about first-world entitlement: people will pay twice that each month for unlimited texting, or 20% faster internet, or the DirectTV sports package, or a few dozen bottles of smart water, but heaven forfend that the very thing that keeps us alive, that wars are fought over, today, still, cost you an extra few bucks a month.

Which is why Jerry Brown isn’t proposing that the BDCP go on the ballot. It’s about $24billion, $15b or so of which is construction of the tunnels, with the balance going to environmental projects. The Central Valley Project and the Metropolitian Water District of Southern California will split the cost of construction, passing it along to customers over 50 years. That comes to about $4 extra a month for the average household, and while times are tight, I know, that doesn’t seem likely to be any kind of back-breaking straw.

State and federal governments will sign on to come up with the money for the conservation side of things. Which they’ll do about half of. Maybe.

But still – that’s a lot better than what’s been done for the Delta lately. And what is likely to be done for it if the BDCP doesn’t fly.

Of course, even if ole Moonbeam gets all the required Federal permits to build in endangeredspeciesland, there’ll be Circumlocution-Office-worthy numbers of lawsuits and injunctions and every other legal instrument created by god and man brought down upon his and the BDCP’s head, intended to hold the project up for far longer than the 50 years it was slated to take in the first place. By which time we’ll all either be

a) dead,

b) in the post-Singularity age of spiritual machines and not in need of water, or

c) drinking desalinated ocean water or water distilled from the vapor out of the air or some other result of currently unimaginable technological advancement that nullifies the need for Delta water altogether.

Which latter hypothetical amounts, odd as it may seem, to the most optimistic argument against doing anything. But can we wait that long? Is it a good idea to bet that technology will outpace the cost of water in a decade, decade.5, which is how long tunnel construction is likely to take? Or will it be more like twenty years, or thirty-five, of doing nothing and hoping, like the good ole WASPs that got us into this mess, that by ignoring something we can negate its potential for harm, that we can deny it right out of existence?

Which kind of is what California in general, aside from just the Delta, is built on.  Mike Davis’s book The Ecology of Fear is a great take on how Los Angeles is “a city deliberately put in harm’s way by land developers, builders, and politicians, even as the incalculable toll of inevitable future catastrophe continues to accumulate,” but we can extend that out to the Golden State’s other big cities, too. Especially San Francisco, whose residents were praised across the globe for the speed with which they rebuilt their shaken and burned city in the wake of the 1906 earthquake. Which, like, maybe wasn’t the best thinking in the world, amirite?

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/ppmsca.07823/

Is this a picture, or what?
Panorama of SF in ruins, May 28, 1906.
Pic: Library of Congress

This is what I meant last week when I said the water industry deals with fundamental questions of human nature. Our intent is to control our surroundings, to mitigate risk, and we think that we’re able to do that with a fairly high degree of success. But two things belie this.

One: it’s only a gamble, and Mother Nature is the house. Pick any of the pipelines or canals that bring water to millions and millions of people in SoCal and trace it on a topo map for a few miles. It or one of its tributaries will cross a significant seismic fault. Most of this infrastructure is old enough to not be anywhere near “seismically sound,” and there are people whose job it is to determine whether it’s worth spending the money it would take to make these pipes and canals strong enough to withstand a 7 or 8 or 10.3 magnitude earthquake. Besides which, nature’s always got something bigger and better up her sleeve, and we usually only build to withstand the previous worst case scenario. Which is why “unforeseen disasters” keep breaking, right?

Anyway, the answer to whether saving lives is “worth” the money is always, “Yes – if you have it.” But we don’t have it. 

And – Two: we probably wouldn’t spend it if we did. We like shiny objects. We like shiny objects and we like lounging around and we like watching football and drinking beer and taking our families out to dinner and buying our girlfriends jewelry and doing things that make life seem pretty nice, or at least okay. Dealing with existential questions on the magnitude of “One” does not fit into that “nice” or “okay” model. We don’t want to be reminded of our fragility, of the fact that our continued existence is at the pleasure – nay, the whim – of Mother Nature. We want her sunshine, we want her good weather and nice beaches and lack of snow and decent fruit. But to lay some cash away to keep ourselves going in those places, against whatever rain she may send our way? Thanks but we’ll spend our money somewhere else.

We’ll spend it to build houses hanging over the edge of a cliff, or at the bottom of an active volcano, or on stilts above the ocean. Think about that, especially you post-Sandy East Coasters. Houses on stilts. Above the ocean.

Sticks versus the Atlantic Ocean.

HousesStrip

Middle pic: Nat Geo

It seems crazy when you put it like that, but that’s what we do.

And it’s kind of nice to think that we’re all just gamblers. There is so much risk in everything we do that if you look at it, you wouldn’t do it. A friend of mine once asked me, about surfing, “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get eaten by sharks?” I said it’s better odds than getting hit by a car on the freeway, and he said, “Not true. I may die on the freeway, but I can guarantee you the risk of me getting eaten by a shark is absolutely zero.”

“How’s that?”

“I don’t go in the ocean.”

We can pick and choose to control certain odds, but all in all, we’re just rolling craps. For the young and the old and the rich and the poor and the black and the white alike, the inscrutability and awesome indifference of nature levels any playing field you can come up with.

Remembering that we’re on “borrowed time” and that we’re all in this boat together reminds me to take it a little easier, to take myself and my million little plans and strategies a little less seriously.

Not that doing so keeps you from getting thirsty, though.

So, while I may not be doomsday prepping any time soon, keeping a little extra water around the house probably isn’t too bad an idea.

Anyway, now that you’re caught up** on the State Water Project and the current state of water in California – on the various hues and depths of the shadow of the catastrophe we Angelinos live in – let’s hear from you.

What shadows do you live in?

Do you worry about them?

Do you do anything about them?

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*Kind-of-not-really. Look here for some of the more level-headed opposition.

** I know, I know, this isn’t the whole story. Nor is the SWP the only water issue in California. I’ve ignored a lot of history here that’s actually really really good context for the bitterness felt by both sides of this debate, such as the desiccation of Owens Valley and Mulholland’s Folly. Cadillac Desert is a good place to start if you’re interested in a great narrative of the wildest aspect of the West.

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In the Shadow of Catastrophe

One of the reasons the water industry is so interesting is that it deals with fundamental questions of human nature.

I know, I know, that’s not Heidegger out there reading your meter or fixing the leak in your street or turning a valve or fitting a pipe. Though, if it’s an August afternoon when the sun’s so bloody hot it’s softening the asphalt, he may well be wondering just what exactly he’s doing with his life. He is, however, ensuring that at least for the time being you don’t have to worry your own pretty little head about any Sartrian questions, either. For there’s nothing else in our cushy American lives that can cause us to confront our sense of civilization more effectively, nothing that shifts from a mundane fact of life to a visceral, animal need so quickly as water.

Or, more precisely, its absence when you turn the tap on and nothing comes out.

Just how rarely that happens in the US is a testament to how well those meter-readers and leak-fixers and valve-turners and pipe-fixers do their jobs (and how well those of us inside our cubicles and offices do ours, if I may be so bold).

But ultimately, it’s mostly due to a great streak of luck.

DeltaImageThis is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta east of San Francisco, home to California’s State Water Project, the largest publicly built water and power production/conveyance system in the States. Snow falls in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and runs off into the Delta, where, instead of flowing out to the Pacific via the San Francisco Bay, it’s diverted and pumped into the California Aqueduct, in which it flows 300-500 miles south to come out of faucets in Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial and San Diego Counties.

It’s like Londoners turning on the tap and getting water from the Pyrenees.

aqueduct2Which is only slightly less impressive than the Roman aqueducts of yore.

25 million+ people drink State Water Project – SWP – water, and god only knows how many acres of citrus, avocados, strawberries, kale, cauliflower, celery, flowers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera are watered with it.

Ventura, where I grew up, has been around a pretty long time, at least by West Coast standards, and has always subsisted off of the local rivers and the groundwater aquifers under the coastal plains. It still does, importing zero water from the SWP. The last person to try bringing western Ventura County water from LA was William Mulholland, long before the SWP. (It didn’t work out so well.) The rest of the county east of the City of Ventura, however, does not, and would still be little more than a few small dusty stops along a much-more-often-used railroad. Construction on the SWP started in the late 1950s, got a huge chunk of money in 1960, and was completed within a decade. The cities of Thousand Oaks, Camarillo, Simi Valley and Moorpark in eastern Ventura County were incorporated 1964, ’64, ’69, and ’83, respectively. Simi had only 10,000 residents when it incorporated; today it’s home to nearly 125,000 souls (read: vacuous corporeal forms).

Imported water brought these cities into the world, and imported water would take them out.

Or the lack of it would. But before I get to any fundamental human questions about what we’re willing to do to ensure our continued existence, let me widen our spacetime lens a little more to explain why imported water would ever disappear in the first place.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is about 1,100 square miles and once had more than 500,000 acres of marshland. Since about, oh, 2300 BCE, it was home to about 15,000 people. The Spaniards and then the “Mexicans” moved in and raised those numbers a bit, but it wasn’t until the mid 19th century, when whatever failed 49ers didn’t die of malaria or dysentery realized the agricultural potential of the Delta, that the friendly neighborhood-minded white folk started streaming in and really kicked up the census numbers. Their idea, in good Anglo-Saxon fashion, was to maximize the shit outta the Delta’s potential, at whatever cost to those already there, and by whatever hook or crook they could find.

They started with by draining the Delta and building levees.

Pic: Edward Burtynsky, National Geographicfrom The Boston Globe

Levees, rivers, farms in the Delta.Pic: Edward Burtynsky, National Geographic
from The Boston Globe

For decades and decades the place expanded and people diverted more and more water around not only the famous paddies of California Long-Grain Rice, but also fields of corn, various grains, sugar beets, tomatoes, asparagus, etcetera – all by taking dirt, stones, wood, glass, concrete, sand, metal scrap, wagons, tractors, eventually cars, whatever, any and all agricultural, residential and industrial waste/material that was at hand and chucking it into a foundation and covering it with dirt and sometimes cementing and graveling the whole thing over. As all this crap rots and corrodes and does or does not settle, it leaves pockets in the levees, which is less than good for their structural integrity, leading many people to interpret reports by the Army Corps of Engineers to mean that portions of the Sac-SanJoaq Delta are worse off than Nawlins levees were pre-Katrina.

Which means, a little tremor here, a little tremor there, and kapow see ya later Delta system.

The fact that this hasn’t happened yet is what I meant about luck.

Because we all know The Big One’s coming, right? It’s certainly what every Californian says in response to every other act of god or nature anywhere else on the newsworthy planet.

“Man, d’you hear about Boulder?”

“The flooding? Yeah. Gnarly, right?”

“Really is. But, I mean, we’re due, man. We’re totally due.”

“For sure.”

But really, chances are pretty good that a quake is coming. So good that it’s a When formulation, not an If. The only if is whether it’s in the right place, or even the right general area, and it it’s the right strength. Because if it is, the Delta will fail, and parts of Southern California will. be. out. of. water.

And not just for, like, a couple hours till that guy with the blue collar comes and works and sweats in your street (and three of his buddies – er, “coworkers” – stand around watching) until things are fixed.

And there’s no real safeguard against that almost inevitable eventuality.

Yet. (we’re getting there)

drought1_3821Water wholesalers in eastern Ventura County, and most of the Greater LA Area, including parts of the OC and the Inland Empire, have decent amounts of storage, enough for about 6-9 months depending on usage and weather. But anything serious enough to take out the Delta for that long is going to take a lot longer than that to fix. Beyond that, LA and areas south and east of the city have or can get Colorado River water, meaning they’ll continue to at least be able to drink and eat and feed their pets and wash their children. Eastern Ventura County has no other source. None. There is no physical connection to the system that drains the Colorado River. The City of Ventura and Ojai aren’t going to send over any of their water – they have their own mouths and hippies and horses to keep hydrated and hygienic. And there isn’t much more than a couple months’s worth of even seriously reduced demand in our groundwater basins to support the entire area. And as of now, there aren’t any ocean desalination projects even being conceived around here (except right here, not At but inside the Wellhead, if you know what I mean). And, as an added benefit, all the farming that’s taken place over the years and all the groundwater pumping has led to such serious land subsidence that a lot of the Delta floor is 20, 25, even 30 feet below the tops of the levees, which happen to be right around sea level. Meaning if the ocean somehow backs up far enough past the Carquinez Strait and tips over into that low-lying Delta, it’ll set up a siphon like God’s own firehouse and turn those 1,100 square miles into the Great Salt Lake West.

And then sayonara basically everything. For years.

This isn’t fear-mongering or sensationalism. Ask anyone in the water industry about the Delta, and after seventeen or eighteen seconds of hemming and hawing, they’ll say, “Well, yeah, I mean, it’s basically fucked.”

Ask them what’s being done to prepare for it, and you’ll get a heavy sigh and a look that says, “Bro, we are so not on the clock right now, and I don’t want to think about work for the amount of time it’ll take to explain it to you.”

So I’m gonna save them the trouble – next week, when I get into that. I figure this is enough to digest for now, and a decent place to stop. The Fundamental Questions About Human Nature will also come next week, because they’re part of the solution. Or rather, the barrier to one being devised.

Till then, be well. And if you’re in SoCal, enjoy your shower – it may be the last one you take for a long, long time…

jk.

not really.

Go to Part II.

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You can take the boy out of the skepticism…

“What happens when a hesitant Buddhist of little faith and great doubt joins an eminent guru and a group of devotees on a pilgrimage to the holiest sites in Buddhism?”

DoubtStrip

Such was the first line of a pitch letter I wrote to an American Buddhist magazine about a month before leaving for India and Nepal. I got a cautiously encouraging reply – “Send it along,” an editor said, “but I should tell you that we don’t usually publish unsolicited personal accounts.”

That was two years ago. I never did send anything along, because I could never finish any of the now several versions that are scattered about my desk and hard drive in various stages of assembly and disrepair. There was no shortage of things to say about the pilgrimage, but I could never find a satisfying ending to any of the tracks I started down.

Reason being, I had no idea what happened over there in northern India. I still don’t.

In fact, I’m not sure anything happened at all.

Which I thought for a while could be a story in and of itself, though I didn’t know for whom. Probably not the magazine I’d originally queried, for while many of their stories describe staggering, radical shifts in perspective, they still want things to land back on a certain affirmation that “Buddhism” – an established lineage is best, but even some New Age/”spiritual” derivative thereof will work – is the ultimate destination of existential wanderings and crises of faith.

I didn’t spell it out in the original pitch letter (I knew better than to sound too earnest-gee-willikers), but it was just this kind of internal alignment that I was hoping for. Multiple moments of transcendence culminating in a fundamental shift in consciousness that answered my questions, resolved my doubts and banished my hesitancy.

I know, I know – expectations schmeckschmeckschmations. But I felt too green and too unsure to approach the pilgrimage as an “aimless” devotional exercise, as pure homage.

I went hoping to bolster my faith, and that didn’t happen.

Instead, it was simply a great trip. A fascinating trip. A beautiful, educational, laughter-filled trip.

The endless Gangetic Plain, with its patchwork of agriculture fields and hardwood forests and fruit trees, was as moving a sight as I saw. Houses built to Stone Age specs with a pit latrine out back, no running water and buffalo patties drying on their sides sported satellite dishes and wi-fi antennae. I watched funeral pyres consume corpse after corpse one night down the ghats in Varanasi, and then, five hours later, rowed past men going for their morning swim as I headed out to see the sunrise from the river. I rode along a precariously-cliffed and pencil-thin highway into the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains (in what was apparently a gravity-defying omnibus). I sat in caves where men have lived, been enlightened (and not), and died meditating for five millennia. I could fill a week’s worth of blog posts raving about the food I ate – the momos, the thukpa, the curries, the samosas, the fruit, the fruit, the fruit.

IndiaStrip

But as for the holy sites themselves, I was underwhelmed. And not just by the juxtaposition of the largest assemblage of the most pathetic, pitiful examples of malnutrition, poverty and sickness you have ever seen with silk-robed monks and camera-wielding tourists, myself included, seeking Serenity and Inner Peace at a cost that could radically transform the lives of a good portion of the former. (That, like the food, is another few posts altogether.) And I don’t mean the ordinariness of the ruins, either – I can find ghosts in a parking lot, and these sites, with their overgrown decay and exotic surroundings, are certainly conducive to summoning specters. Don’t get me wrong – it was nice enough to be in Deer Park where Siddhartha first “turned the wheel of  the Dharma,” to see a descendant of the Bodhi tree under which he realized all that Dharma, to take in the views from Vulture Peak where he talked about the emptiness of all that Dharma. But I did not feel anything approaching the kind of inspiration I was hoping for – and that some on our trip were quite obviously and vocally experiencing.

SiteStrip

Above all, it was my traveling companions that interested me the most. The Estonian developers who recalled Soviet food shortages and the long lines for bread, the Peruvian’s last ditch effort to find love before getting her to a nunnery, the surveilled Chinese who slipped his “documentarian” minders for a night on the town in Western gear (pearl snaps and cowboy boots, no shit), the Salinger-worthy German…triad?…family?, the Russian merchant marine, the Swedish ex-con. I was equally fascinated by the life stories of our Tibetan monk guides – the humble meditation master, the vainglorious steward, the reluctant tulku, the gregarious, obsequious, aloof, worldly, kind, naive, austere and elfin others. What brought them to Buddhism was interesting (what it did for them less so – and, surprisingly at first, we rarely talked about it), but more than anything I wanted to know about their lives, about their routines and their foibles and their loved ones and what they were reading and where they liked to go in the fall, on winter mornings, on the first day of spring.

This should have been a clue, right, that I’m still more interested in people than in imagined states of mind. But it didn’t sink in right away.

The thing is, I’m a Western, post-Christian secular humanist (that’s less a label than a string of adjectives), and while some of the time I want to give into the magical thinking that dominates our cultural ethos – because hey, who doesn’t love a good fairy tale, and it’s the easy way out of a lot of tricky situations – I’m consciously against the kind of fantasticality that has precipitated both the endless cycles of fad New Age spirituality and 2,000+ years of self-serving interpretations of our mythical Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage.

And the problem is, Buddhism is built on the same thing. Exceedingly ritualistic Tibetan Buddhism especially, but every lineage to some extent relies on a dogmatic origin story replete with mystical and magical beings, goings-on, reincarnations and transmissions. (Don’t let’s get started on karma this week…)

When it’s first explained to you – really, until you go looking into it for yourself – it’s easy to believe the American dismissal that Buddhism is “more a philosophy than a religion.” I thought so for many years, and I thought it was a philosophy with benefits – the kind I was getting from/supporting with the metaphysics and pseudo-philosophy of Tim Leary and Terence McKenna.

That is, I was looking for a trip.

I was seeking out a mystical experience without, as a teenager, the perspective to know that a) it was along the same spectrum of what I found so objectionable in the J-C-M model, and b) mysticism is not an end in and of itself.

I chased that Truth-Through-Altered-States model for about a decade, until there was only alteration, and decidedly little insight. In the wake of all that, I’ve redoubled my commitment to a kind of applied humanism. Rediscovered it, would perhaps be a better way to say it, for it’s the one idea that makes sense to me, that, to borrow a phrase, arises spontaneously both during meditation and throughout the day.

My ability to relate to other people is the sole metric by which I measure the state of my soul.

It’s easy to get seduced by magical thinking, and it happens to me all the time. I mean, it spurred a trip halfway across the globe. I wouldn’t trade having taken that trip for any exotic luxurious tropical vacation in the world (though I might trade a second trip to northern India for any of those), but nonetheless, that’s a big spur. But when push comes to shove, I don’t have the stomach for it. No matter how I try, or what I try, when it comes to the ritual and the theogony and the cosmology of dogmatic Buddhist lineages, and the process of advancing along their (Middle, yes, but also strict and narrow) Path, I can never seem to shake the wariness, to suspend that last ounce of disbelief necessary to really believe in, say, the Pure Land. Some say I’m simply unwilling to give up my “intellectualism,” that my “skeptical pride” stands between me and truth/true freedom, that my refusal to accept magical interpretations of the universe is simply another regrettable, nefarious manifestation of ego.

Perhaps it is, I don’t know. And I never will – and “there,” as sayeth the Dane, “is the rub.”

However, I do know that I no longer believe in the intrinsic value of mystical experiences. I know people have them, and I think they can be useful, but they’re simply phenomena and it’s what we do in their wake that imbues them with meaning.

In the same way, I don’t eschew ritual, or even prayer. I think they’re important aspects of any discipline. I just have a different idea of how they function than the standard “religious” line. That I try to look at Buddhism – the practice of a set of meditative techniques and the application of a certain philosophy of life and mind described by a man called Siddhartha – through a distinctly humanistic lens strikes many people as an arrogant and convenient adaptation of something far wiser and greater than I, that really I have no business monkeying with. And hey, maybe – but that’s the privilege and prerogative of the convert, now isn’t it?

Pic:  Theoi Greek Mythologygreat site, btw

Pic: Theoi Greek Mythology
great site, btw

What I get out of meditating and lopping off the various Hydra heads of my ego is an increased ability to communicate, to interact, to participate in The Web of Life. That’s part of the reason I can’t go in for a seven-hour meditation session of tantric commingling with a wrathful yidam. I mean, if that’s important to you, go ahead. But what happens when I do it, is I disappear into myself. It’s wholly narcissistic. My teachers would say I’m doing it wrong, or more likely that I still have too much karmic baggage and am yet mired in too much confusion to engage in such involved practices. Whatever the explanation, I get wrapped up in how cool it is that I’m able to transport myself to some other mind-dimension, and I lose sight of the goal, the reason, the purpose of the practice.

Which is training this deluded mind and opening up this hard hard heart. Or UN-training the mind, if you believe that the essence of mind is pure and that it is the experiences we blindly carry out before living intentionally and in a state of awareness that do the initial, decades-long, lifelong training, which is in confusion.

And to do that, I need to make sorties into the enemy territory of my ego. Quick, precision strikes that get me back into the real world before my ego catches on to what I’m up to and sends in the quicksand. Twenty minutes a day on the cushion is just right these days – give me too much more than half an hour inside my own mind, and I’ll start redecorating the place. With DayGlo paint.

Amongst the living and the real, I can see whether or not what I’m doing has any effect on or in reality. Because ultimately, that’s my aim – to affect reality. To contribute positively to the lived experience of others. Some days – most days – that may mean not affecting things very much at all. Which laissez-faire-itude, if you’re an egomaniac like I am, can require serious amounts of self-control. The honing of which in turn demands a disciplined practice. Which brings us back to sitting. Purposefully. And living intentionally.

Neither of which necessitates magic.

A lot of the conviction that’s on display here comes, I wouldn’t say directly out of the pilgrimage I made two years ago, but certainly by way of it. Which is the ironic thing about it, right? I went to the holiest sites in the Buddhist religion under the assumption that doing so would strengthen my faith, deepen my appreciation for a certain ontology and clear away some of the obstacles I was facing to a better understanding of myself, the world around me, and my place in it. It turns out that’s exactly what happened, just not at all in the way I wanted or expected. Which goes to show that what I think I want, or what I want at a certain point, isn’t always what I need.

Which makes it sound like the answer to that question way back there at the top is a line from a Stones song.

Which I’m perfectly okay with. 

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Better Than A Haymarket Riot

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair“Another Labor Day post?” you wonder.

“Why’s it so late?” you ask.

Being as I wasn’t working on Monday, you’d think I could’ve gotten it together to write a few hundred words about the work I wasn’t doing, right?

Well, I had better things to do.

That’s not to disparage this blog or your reading of it, by any means, because I like this blog, and I love that people read it. After ten months and a couple dozen posts, to have a bunch of people “following” At The Wellhead and writing back via comments and emails is pretty rad.

But, it’s not my first love. My first love is Erin (awwww, I know, I know, but she really is) and yeah, I spent a lot of Labor Day lounging around with her, which in and of itself is always a treat. It’s extra nice these days because we don’t actually get that much time together. Some of you know how that is – Erin’s a management consultant, so she travels all the time, and when she is home, I’m writing, she’s yogaing, I’m running, she’s taking care of all the bs you can’t take care of from the road, we’re both housekeeping and we’re planning a wedding together. (And messing with the cats, of course.) We’re also fortunate enough to have a ton of really good friends that we love spending weekends with, together and separate, here in the Valley and up in Ventura and down in LA and all over god’s green amuhrica, really, so a ton of our time is taken up doing that.

E.g., I’ll see Erin for a few hours one Sunday evening between now and September 19th. So kickin it when we can is très important.

As most of you know, my second love, and the one I was laboring over on Monday, is writing fiction. As I’ve written about before (and here, too), writing’s a labor of love that’s much heavier on the labor part than the love. Or it’s more like a slow-burn, high-elevation, macro-type love, as opposed to pure-joy-every-minute type love, and it requires a LOT of labor.

MurakamiRunningBook(Though at the same time I don’t mean to overstate how “hard” it is – even ultra-marathon-running Haruki Murakami says that writing is physically challenging, but I’ve never understood that. But I also haven’t written eight hours a day for nine months to start and finish a novel, so what do I really know? If you’re interested in this idea, you should read Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Great book on running and writing – on doing anything that requires discipline and the long view, actually.)

Anyway, as often happens after I spend large chunks of time writing several days in a row, I was wondering while setting my alarm Monday night what the hell I’m doing with my life in this job.

It’s a day job. I like it well enough, I work with good people, it’s relatively interesting, and it affords me plenty of time to write. Well, more time than a lot of the jobs my college friends and ambitious peers have, but it’s not even really enough, let alone “plenty.”

I was wondering at what point what we spend most of our time doing becomes what we’re really doing. I insist that writing isn’t a hobby, but that’s because it sounds and feels reductionist to call it a hobby, like building model airplanes or collecting stamps (though true philatelists would take serious umbrage at that comparison). Luckily, society has deemed writing an art, and elevated it to the status of a higher pursuit that many human civilizations for the past 5,000+ years have considered sacred to varying degrees – a conduit to the divine, even – so I feel relatively comfortable saying it’s more important than my day job.

http://www.allartclassic.com/pictures_zoom.php?p_number=25&p=&number=CAM025

Yep, this is pretty much how seriously I take myself.
Pic: AllArtClassic.com

This even though my job is practical in the extreme – we make sure water comes out of faucets in 10,000 homes and is sprayed on 2,000+ acres of some of the most fertile ag land in California (nbd). And, it’s my only source of income, which is important because we live in a money-based world (to employ a technical term).

Most of the people I work with didn’t go to college. Burdened with neither debt nor this weirdly destabilizing and neuroticizing ambition, they’re pretty content in their jobs and the various hobbies they have outside work – lots of fishermen, lots of hunters, dirt-bikers, RVers, campers, gamblers, barbequers, movie buffs, cigar aficionados, concertgoers, a couple musicians. And they just do what they do because they like doing it and don’t worry too much about the implications of their actions or their “sociopolitical non-action” or whether or not they’re making or leaving their mark.

icebergDon’t get me wrong – they’re not simpletons or noble savages. They have their shit to deal with, and their interests are wide and their understandings of the world deep and some of them are dedicated to a lot of things outside of work, but to a certain degree, they’re parking in the shade. It’s a pretty cush gig – at least, not a whole lotta what you call whip-cracking. Plenty of people would love to have this job, and most everyone here is to proud to, and most of them are grateful for it, “especially in this economy” and all that. So it seems kind of reductionist of me to say, “Meh, it’s just my day job, whatever, it’s not even a big deal.” That’s where my self-confidence and goals (daydreams) and discontent tip into arrogance. And I find myself there quite often.

On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of my friends are self-employed, either they own businesses or they’re freelancers of various sorts. These men and women definitely did not take Labor Day off. One of the (few) blogs I read regularly is Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside. In her Labor Day post, she talks about the various forms of work and how many Americans hate their jobs and what a shame that is and what the costs and benefits (which are often the same thing) are of eschewing that kind of job, job-type job for a career you’re really devoted to. Much of Broadside deals with, as Caitlin put it Monday, “how to make our work-lives both more emotionally satisfying and financially useful to our needs.” I really like that concept of “financially useful” – it sums up nicely the idea that we need to work to live, rather than living to work.

It also reminds me of what a mentor of mine says whenever I carp to him about my day job:

“That’s why they call it work.”

So few people want to do what I do on a day to day basis that they have to pay me money to do it. I have to remember this when I start to bitch and moan how “everyone else’s job is so much more interesting than mine.” A) that’s probably not true, and B) who gives a shit if it is? I’m not getting paid to be interested. I’m getting paid to do excel sheets and edit documents and determine the feasibility of this or that project. And until I’m ready to do the footwork to find myself a job that’s interesting “enough” to really devote myself to (what would that be anyway?), or unless the creative work I’m doing now somehow against all odds “pays off” in one form or another, this is my reality.

And no, my dear and sundry consciences-in-the-flesh that are shaking their collective heads at this and tsking, you’re right – it’s not, by any stretch of the imagination, a bad reality to have.

Pretty much any “job,” is like this to some extent, I imagine. As fascinating as my dad finds the human body, as rewarding as it is to figure out what’s wrong with people and help them get better, he probably wouldn’t be a doctor if they didn’t pay him. And maybe that’s the ultimate difference – a hobby, or a passion, or what you define yourself by is maybe the stuff you do that no one pays you to do. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be paid for that thing, what you would do whether someone paid you or not.

Another of my mentors, this one in the water industry, does all kinds of stuff on the side – he’s as overeducated as I am, he’s a poet, a multi-instrument musician, a super-involved father, an opera-follower, a reader, a philosopher, the list goes on – but he still loves what he does at work. It’s like one big word problem that he’s spent a couple decades figuring out. What we do isn’t that different, except for the scale of things, but if you were to ask the two of us to describe our jobs, you’d think his was about a million.5 times more interesting than mine. And that’s simply a result of a very conscious decision he made a long time ago: to apply himself to the job.

I know that my not having made that full dedication is (in addition to a distaste for word problems) part of my lifelong attitude of transience, this idea that whatever I’m doing isn’t the real thing and that the next thing, or the thing after that, will be. (No, that’s nothing to do with the Buddhist idea of impermanence, if that’s where you thought I was going.) If I move to that country, or get this job, or start doing that, or get this published, or hang out with these kinds of people, or get to that level of understanding, or if this star aligns with that one over there, then I’ll be locked in to where I’m supposed to be and things’ll really start happening and then I can be fully into it. This self-perpetuating discontent seems to be part of my DNA it’s so hard to get rid of.

Well, Chuck, a guy's gotta eat.

Well, Chuck, a guy’s gotta eat.

But I’m trying. In every other aspect of my life I do my best to live in the moment, to make what I’m doing, “what I’m doing.” And I think I’m getting better. It certainly relieves a lot of pressure. But I haven’t applied this to work.

And I’m not sure I want to.

Part of me has this thing against the principle of a 9-5, this Hunter S. Thompson (thanks Jessa!) (btw, N*O is the other blog I read and you should read it, too), Charles Bukowksi antipathy to “the work week” as belonging to squares and robots and peons. But that’s putting the cart before the horse, really. Because we all have to earn our bread, and until we can do it outside the confines of a 9-5, well, why shit so hard on it?

It’s not just outsiders and artists who are down on the work week. Shitting on the 40-hour work-week is about as American as the 40-hour work-week itself. That Four-Minute-Hour-Day-Everything guy, Timothy Ferriss (whose ancestors bought too many vowels at Ellis Island), and his ilk all present the work week and “employment” in general as this limiting factor, as something to break out of, as if your full potential cannot possibly be realized within the confines of someone else’s system.

And I fully buy into that. But is it true? I don’t know. (What’s “true,” anyway, right?)

What I do know is that meaning is a choice. I wonder how many of the 70% of Americans who don’t like their jobs have other interests that give their lives lots of meaning. A lot of you probably saw this “Haters Gonna HateWaPo article last week – it was all over facebook. It basically said that people that hate one thing are super likely to hate basically everything. Following that logic, 70% of Americans are haters. Which seems about right, between facebook and the comments on articles and the items in the news and the things politicians say and the way people respond to them. So, I’m gonna go ahead and guess that most of that 70% of people who hate their jobs aren’t spending exorbitant amounts of time or energy developing meaning in other areas of their lives. (Besides family, of course, which kinda only half-counts because that’s biological n shit.)

SteinbeckSocialismI have to imagine this results in part from a very American sense of entitlement. We’re taught that self-employment is the key to happiness, or at least that it’s the full embodiment of the American ideal, and that it’ll bring us riches and a sense of self-sufficiency unrivaled by the drudgery and servitude of working for someone else. One of the more nefariously defeating Myths of America is that everyone can and should make his own way to greatness in the world, when really that’s just simply not possible, for a panoply of reasons we all know by now (right? Right).

If haters really are gonna hate, and, obversely, lovers are gonna love, and if despite our natural (or nurtured) predisposition to hating or loving we can learn to do the other, then it’d seem to follow that we should go ahead and train ourselves to love – or at least like or appreciate or apply ourselves to – something we spend 25% – 30% of our waking hours doing.

If the conscious application of this reasoning to all other aspects of my life over the last few years is any indication, then all those aspects of my life would probably benefit – too, again, more – from me going ahead and giving 100% to my job. Or at least something more than the 17% – 47% or whatever % it is I’m giving now.

If you can’t be in a job you’d love, honey, love the job you’re in.

That’s CSN, LLC, in case you were wondering.

I’ll leave you with this famous bit from Seamus Heaney‘s long poem, “From Station Island,” in remembrance of his recent passing. You might’ve seen it.*

And suddenly he hit a litter basket

With his stick, saying, ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

So get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

Let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

.

And that, friends, is your (few days after) Labor Day takeaway.

http://thegazette.com/2013/08/30/iowa-city-mourns-acclaimed-poet-seamus-heaney/

Pic: Iowa City Gazette, oddly enough.

*Hat-tip LB

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In Defense of Hallucinating

hallucinate (v.)
c.1600, “deceive,” from Latin alucinatus, later hallucinatus, pp. of alucinari “wander (in the mind), dream; talk unreasonably, ramble in thought,” probably from Greek alyein, Attic halyein “be distraught,” probably related to alaomai “wander about” [Barnhart, Klein]. The Latin ending probably was influenced by vaticinari “to prophecy,” also “to rave.” Sense of “to have illusions” is from 1650s.

So the idea’s been around a while.

In common parlance, we take “hallucinating” to mean seeing/hearing/experiencing things that aren’t really there, usually as a result of ingesting a psychedelic drug. Or, in the parlance of my youth, “tripping balls.”

Well, there’s schizophrenia, too, of course, but I’m not about to tackle that in the same post as peyote…

There are lots of opinions about psychedelic drugs and the taking of them, the two ends of the opinion spectrum probably being those who think that it’s a ridiculous activity to engage in because they’re perfectly happy to have their feet firmly anchored in reality and have no need whatsoever to experience any “illusions,” thank you very much; and those who think it’s the be-all and the end-all and the key to unlock humanity’s mystical cooperative harmonic future.

A) Those of you who haven’t imbibed any psychotropic compounds and think you’re escaped the world of illusion – I mean, honestly? We’re still playing that what-you-see-is-what-you-have game? With all we know about reality and space and science and politics and secrets and cover-ups and religion and recession and rock’n’roll and just EVERYthing? There are SO many more pervasive and sinister hallucinatory palls that have fallen, at various points, over our lives and culture than any fleeting thing a few micrograms of LSD can produce on the smokescreen of your mind.

“Fleeting” leading us to:

B) The actual illusions of psychedelic experience aren’t real illusions, really. They’re metaphors or examples – gateways at best and nightmares at worst. Those feelings of interconnectedness and bliss? They’re just chemical euphoria. I’m with George Harrison, who said that ultimately, it’s a false insight that psychedelic drugs give you, just the tip of the iceberg, and with Alan Watts, who in explaining why he stopped partaking said,

“Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.”

The message, of course, being that the entire world we live in and what we call reality and the metrics by which we deem a life a “success” are by and large delusions.

This idea has been so widely disseminated over the last 60 years since people like Harrison and Watts, etcetera, popularized these old-old ideas that to repeat it is almost passé. As in, I know that the majority of you all are somewhere in between those two extremes and thinking, “Gee, thanks, Prichard, but I saw The Matrix. What are you getting at?”

What I’m getting at is the difference between knowing about something and knowing something from experience. Which, if you’ve read many of the two-dozen or so posts here At The Wellhead, you’ll know is a pretty big deal for me – and a much much much bigger deal than I used to think it was.

One of my favorite Notes On Existence is a well-used bit from Frank Zappa:

Remember, information is not knowledge;

knowledge is not wisdom;

wisdom is not truth;

truth is not beauty;

beauty is not love;

love is not music;

music is the best.

I absolutely used to think gathering information would make me wise, and once wise, I’d manifest beauty and truth and love and music wherever I went. This is a simplification, sure, but not a gross over- one.

Get it? Pic: Exiled Surfer

Ha! Found this at: Exiled Surfer

How I’ve changed from that to whatever I try to be now is a long story of baby steps and nearly imperceptible (or at least forgettable) shifts in perspective. It certainly wasn’t the direct result of psychedelic drug use – or any kind of single, white-light, burning-bush experience. I don’t go in for those, or really trust too much anyone who does.

I go in instead for the long, slow smolder, the repetitive, grinding plod. Which is another of the differences between taking drugs to have (and at the same time break through) illusions – or meditation-retreating or fasting or Primal screaming or TMing or Orthodox-mystic-trancing or Gestalting or whatever the mode of de(con)structing – and living on the other side of them.

Living on the other side is hard. At the very least, it takes effort and determination and perseverance.

Sliding back into illusion is easy. That’s why most everyone stays there.

The actual shattering of preconceptions – whether LSD-induced or otherwise – is simply information. It can feel like a whole lot more than that. It can feel like what you thought was the solid earth is really nothing more than shifting sands in a vacuum. And maybe it is(n’t). But even so, that’s still just information, and there’s a real problem in getting stuck in information and confusing a simple glimpse of a different way of thinking with an alternate but equally permanent reality. We all know people who get stuck in that in-between space – those very nice but vaguely superior and ultimately despondent burnouts who love to tell you what you’re doing wrong and what life should be about and how it should be lived but don’t do much more than swallow another pill to get back there for just a little while. It’s like commuting to Wonderland.

Knowledge, as opposed to information, is answering the attendant “So What?” to an insight, whether you saw it with a head full of acid or gleaned it during meditation or realized it as you turned a corner and saw a peach tree in bloom. What it means for you that the world is all shifting sands in a vacuum can only be answered via a process, by seeing what happens when you apply the implications of that shifting-sands understanding to your daily life and behavior and your interactions with other people.

Wisdom comes from living long stretches of time in that application. Or at least I assume it does, as it’s only been a little while that I’ve been trying to apply principles to my life. Well, ones of any redeeming value, at least.

But at least I’m no longer under the illusion that you can just know about things. That’s the problem with being arrogant and precocious and young, right? You think you know, and if there is anyone around to tell you you’re wrong, you can’t hear them. And if you’re lucky/spoiled rotten by life in general and there are no real consequences to your delusions, there’s really nothing to show you you’re wrong.

The advantage to living in such a house of cards, though, if there is one, is that it’s a massive and very fragile illusion, so when it does finally topple, you have no other option than to seriously readjust. It’s not like, “Huh, roads are really just strips of asphalt stuck onto the surface of the earth. Roads qua roads don’t have any inherent meaning at all! Crazy.”

It’s like every assumption you’ve ever made about who you are and how you function in the world is shown to be a fiction and a fantasy and a lie you’ve been telling yourself since the day you realized you could lie.

I’m not saying this wouldn’t have happened to me if I’d never ingested any psychotropic compounds. I know plenty of people who’ve had their minds blown and universes rearranged without such pharmacological aids. I also know people who’ve eaten enough psychedelics to shuttle a herd of buffalo to Alpha Centauri, yet are still as square and deluded and clueless as Paul Ryan loving Rage Against the Machine.

Besides, that little world of mine was hardly sustainable…

Yet – and here comes, finally, the whole “defense” part we started with – hallucinations are effective metaphors. And to declare, in case you missed the implications earlier: by “hallucinate,” I mean all those illusion-shattering techniques out there.

It’s those very fleeting illusions, paradoxically, that unsettle what we think of as solid ground.

Those glimpses – I don’t want to say of true reality, but maybe beyond what we think reality is or was – make it easier to remember that the structure of our daily lives is just an arbitrary, man-made structure. It makes the scaffolding easier to see. Because if you know, walking around every day, that the reality you’re experiencing is as flimsy as the sights and sounds and sensations brought on by a bite of San Pedro cactus (or a deep meditation or whatever), well, maybe you’re the tiniest bit less likely to get sucked into some nefarious greed-riddled illusory hellhole.

The point of remembering our proximity to illusion – our immersion in it, really – is not, as many people would first assume, a kind of nihilism. In fact, it should engender quite the opposite experience. Once you move beyond the smug teenage-angstyness of “seeing through everybody and everything,” being a child of illusion, as Trungpa would put it, is a way to pare away what doesn’t matter from what really does.

And what really matters?

Well, that’s for you to decide. And question and break through and redecide and requestion and rebreak through and…and…and…and eventually just float on.

I for one have no idea what “the real thing” is, whether there is one or whether it’s just layer after layer, illusion after illusion, turtles all the way down. That doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is the seeking to break through, the not abandoning doubt for the comforts of an easy faith, the continual testing and investigation of the things that aren’t working for you, and the perpetual appreciation for those that are.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find.

This was the strangest of these cliché inspirimages I could find. Pic: 99 Venus

It’s a way to keep your ego in check – because the ego’s all about illusion and delusion and telling you that what feels comfortable is better than what gives you the eerie uncanny existence shivers – and a way to keep that flywheel of gratitude spinning.

I realize this may border on a Keith Richardsian advocation of drug use,* but I don’t imagine too many of you are likely to run out and eat an eighth of mushrooms this afternoon after lunch instead of going back to work.

Though, now that I think about it, some of you maybe should.

You know who you are.

Wait – actually, no, you probably don’t.

Which is probably part of the problem.

Gah.

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What have been some of your illusions over the years?

How’d you get through them or past them?

IF YOU’VE NEVER EXPERIENCED ANYTHING LIKE THIS AND HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, SEND ME AN EMAIL.

WE’LL CHAT.

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* I recently read Keif’s memoir, Life, in which he’s always saying stuff like, “Now kids, don’t try this at home, but heroin, if you use the best stuff, and use it with just the right amount of highest-quality Merck cocaine – that combination allows you to stay awake for about week at a time, which is basically the best thing you can ever do for yourself, creatively speaking.”

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Abandon All Hope

This post was born out of a response to Scott P. Carroll’s blog, Thoughkryme.  Check it out.

Thanks, but…

For the last year that I’ve been submitting stories for publication, I’ve looked at (the growing mountain of) rejection letters as proof positive that after a decade+ of talking BS, I’m actually doing the deal. I write something and send it out, they send it back, I send it somewhere else. Then I write something else. “So,” a wise man once wrote, “it goes.”

I’ve set high bars for disappointment (24 rejections per story before I’m allowed to fret), which has helped, and I do my best to put the various slush piles out of my mind as soon as I submit.

But I got a slew of rejections this past week, and there’s no denying, in the upwell of hope at seeing “Slice Magazine” in my inbox or an SASE in my mailbox, that I’ve been living in expectation and even, I’ll admit, a bit of fantasy.

I don’t mope about the “Unfortunately…” or “However…”, and I do take comfort that they aren’t employment rejections. I was out of work for a lot of 2009-2010 and it. is. horrible., so by comparison, what’s being rejected of mine is an indulgence.

But, it’s also what I want to be doing.

I’m in love with a good story and the truths a good story can tell – about an author, about a character, about life in general – and I write my own stories because I want to see if I can pull that off, if I can make something worth falling in love with.

At the same time, I don’t think I could write in a vacuum. I’m not that Emily Dickinsonian – part of me thinks that part of pulling it off is how many people are pulling it off the shelf.

I write what they call “literary fiction.” All that really means is that it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre – sci-fi, crime, romance, etc. There’s an ongoing and contentious debate over genre fiction vs. literary fiction, how the former is mere formulaic entertainment and the latter pretentious navel-gazing elitism, that the former gives audiences what they want and the latter is True Art that attracts audiences, and what that all means for writers and readers and literature and writing and blah blah blah. It’s all relative and not all that interesting.

It’s not as if Shakespeare and Dickens and Hemingway never catered to an audience. Those were different audiences, ones that appreciated a higher degree of art in their entertainment maybe than is appreciated today, but it was still just people looking for entertainment.

Anyone publishing regularly in magazines from WWI through the ’70s was making real money — by writing the kinds of stories that would sell. Fitzgerald was part of the 1% in his day, and sold single stories to the New YorkerHarpers, etc., for the modern equivalent of $10k, $20k, even $50,000, but was always hoping to get off the hamster-story-wheel and just go write what he really wanted to write. And because Hemingway was the progenitor of the kind of modernist writing that’s still successful and held up as the sine qua non of American storytelling, we sometimes forget that it was considered at the time less “literary,” influenced as it was by his journalism and influential as it was on pulp and dime.

PapaVSzombie

Be that as it may, nowadays genre audiences are the bigger audiences, and the money’s in genre fiction. Zombies, sex, and crime-fighting sell much better than do meditations on the infinite by neurotic, idiosyncratic characters.

In fact, hardly anyone writing strictly literary fiction makes a living doing it. Even Toni Morrison and Russell Banks, who’ve won awards galore and had their books turned into movies, still teach. Even Philip Roth – Philip fucking Roth – taught most of his life. And now he’s retired from everything. And thinks that within 25 years, novel reading of any kind will be “cultish.” More good news, thanks Phil.

A mentor/friend of mine is telling me all the time, “Stop writing that stuff no one reads and write a few crime novels. Then you can do whatever you want.” There is something to be said for this, of course. Cormac McCarthy started out writing his own kinds of work – Outer Dark, Child of God, Blood Meridian – that earned him much critical acclaim but a relatively small following and very little money. Then he wrote The Border Trilogy, a set of western romances that included All The Pretty Horses, and he exploded, and they put Matt Damon and Penélope Cruz in the movie, and he got even bigger, and now that he’s back to writing the macabre and weighty stuff he started out writing, it has an audience. You think those studios ever would have made and paid for No Country for Old Men or The Road without All the Pretty Horses? Even though they’re much better books? No way.

Because why not have a picture of Penélope Cruz on your blog?

Because why not have a picture of Penélope here? It worked for McCarthy.
From: fanpop.com

But, it takes me long enough to write the stories I’m currently writing, between working full time and living a halfway-social life, and it’s not as if there’s any kind of a guarantee that if I write Westerns I’ll get published – “Ah, Prichard! Horses At High Noon, huh? Finally! We’ve been waiting for you to come around here’s your check and meet your driver and there’s the key to your Upper West Side pied-à-terre!

Besides, it’s not as if it’s so easy to just go write a Western. Like Mark Axelrod told the agent who thirty years ago slapped a Bond book on the table as an example of what Mark should be writing,

“If I could write Fleming, I wouldn’t need you.”

What it comes down to is waiting, pure and simple. And working while you wait, of course, but most important for me is having the patience to wait while I’m working. I take issue with Malcolm Gladwell’s reductionism, but I think the 10,000-hours-to-master-something rule has its utility. For a guy like me, whom intrinsic literary genius obviously evades, it’s a reminder that the only path to better is practice – a whole hell of a lot of practice.

Luckily, I know that

grueling, incessant work = success

From David Collard's blog, Salvēte!

Swimming is a Beckettian endeavor: so brutal you have to laugh not to drown in your own tears.
From David Collard’s blog, Salvēte!

I know it’s not always strictly true, but as a distance swimmer, you internalize this concept to a profound degree. Swim practice wasn’t “fun,” and neither is the act of writing – the part where you “sit at your typewriter and bleed.”  But those long, hard, pre-dawn and post-dusk hours when others are in bed or laughing or relaxing, and you’re do something harder than they are, whether it’s in the pool or wherever within you that your artistic crucible resides — those hours do something to you, and for you. They’re a process, and it’s process that makes us who we are. Being a distance swimmer was about 0.05% the handful of miles I swam in meets throughout the year, and 99.95% the endless miles I swam in practice.

Same with writing – pages published comprise only a minuscule part of the work that went into making them – not only the story or book itself, but the “trunk manuscripts,” too, as Beckett called them, the horrible scribblings that should stay in at the bottom of a trunk forever.

That Beckett was ever bad is easy to forget when all you want is to be good and to be good now. But impatience breeds either freneticism or procrastination – neither of which contributes to anything positive – and staying on top of that requires work.

Thus the mantra:

I will never make a living writing.

It may sound pessimistic, but really it’s about humility instead of egoism, about realism instead of fantasy, about not putting the money-and-accolades-cart before the workhorse, about knowing my role instead of assuming I’m entitled to things that I don’t deserve (like that Alexander Maksik novel).

What’s that? Is there a Buddhist tie-in for all this, you ask?

Why, yes there is.

“Abandon any hope of fruition” is a lojong slogan, one of the Seven Points of Training the Mind. About it, Trungpa say:

…you should give up any possibilities of becoming the greatest person in the world…

…otherwise, you could become an egomaniac.

In other words, it is too early for you to collect disciples.

That is, no one’s going to read my stuff, let alone love it, until it’s worth reading and loving. And I should forget the fantasy that I’ve already earned an audience by thinking of a story, and remember that it’s some unpaid intern reader slogging through the slush pile that’s determining my fate.

My buddy Dave takes "A pastime is its own reward" to a whole new level.

My buddy Dave’s garage. Epitomizing the idea that 
“A pastime is its own reward.”

The tie-in to real life – your life – anyone-who’s-not-a-writer’s life – is that this holds true for everything.

E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G.

If it’s a passion, just go do the shit out of it. Practice finding out what it can make of you, not how it can make you look. Don’t tell me about how good you are at your job, or how much money you made last year, or who’s looking at your stuff, or what kind of car you drive (you know don’t care about that action), or how great your kid is, or what place you got in your triathlon. Nobody cares! Just do your thing, and do it well, and when it comes up of its own accord, what people will care about is what it’s done for you and what it’s made of you.

Because if you’re constantly talking about something, then you’re always in the fruition – the realization of a project, the fulfillment of a plan, the end of something. I get it – there’s so much pressure in our society to be accomplished, to have succeeded, to have success. To get and live in the payoff. But who really wants to be in the end of anything? What are you doing then, besides just sitting around?

Abandoning all hope of getting anything out of what you’re doing keeps you in the doing and out of the end.

But wait – if you’re always conscious of having to consciously abandon hope in order to achieve that hope, then are you really abandoning it? Is there some guy in the sky with a clipboard waiting for you to officially abandon hope so he can tick your Has Abandoned Hope check box and get the Fates to start weaving up your accomplishments?

Of course not. It’s not causal. It’s just a tactic, one part of the strategy to

get yourself out of the way.

Practicing humility along the way – a side-effect of telling yourself you’ll never amount to anything – helps develop gratitude when (if) something does happen instead of that sense of entitlement or getting what was coming to you.

Anyway, I’m wrapping this up.

Don’t hope.

Do work.

Be a badass.

The end.

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Drive Like A Man

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I’m really not a very good driver.

It’s once a week at least that I get that sour-stomach, adrenaline-blood-tingle reaffirmation of the Buddhist precept that death comes suddenly and without warning (let alone a courtesy honk). I drive a minimum of 80 miles a day on the 101, so I’d like to say these things are just par for the rush-hour course, but most of them are my fault.

I first suspected this conductive ineptitude around age ten, when I sensed Big Al’s reluctance to let me drive the boat, even in the open, calm, deep-water back bays of Lake of the Woods. It became painfully obvious (literally) the next summer when I slammed the Grumman into the dock because its imminent approach freaked me out and I couldn’t let go of the throttle on the 10hp outboard. I’m clumsy at best on a John Deere Gator, a liability on a jet ski, and a veritable threat on a forklift. I can ruin a hedge and make onlookers scatter just by climbing into the seat of a ride-on lawnmower. Snowmobiles flee before me of their own accord.

Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

Deceptively death-trappy. For reals.
Pic: www.midamericaauctions.com

And forget about dirt bikes – my friends all kicked ass on them and I couldn’t even shift out of first. Seriously. And I’m talking 90cc Hondas that like blind eight-year-old girls get around on just fine.

I’ve been in stupid wrecks and dumb fender-benders and gotten hit turning left in front of people and sticking too far out into traffic. I’ve knocked side mirrors and crushed my passenger door against a telephone pole taking a corner too tight. Hiding beer at 17 (the worst possible time to do something stupid), I three-point-turned my way into a bush and every Austin-Powers-point-turn-attempt after that to extricate myself just wedged me deeper and deeper. I’ve even rear-ended my own mother driving like a reckless jerk.

A lot of this has to do with my serious spatial awareness problems, for one. Not “serious” as in I have some advanced neurological deficiency, but as in I’m just plain bad at knowing where cars or other objects are and how fast they’re coming or going. This contributes to an already high level of anxiety over the fact that I’m hurtling a ton.5 of metal around white and yellow lines that seem more or less arbitrarily scrawled across expanses of slick black pavement – or whatever the vehicle at whatever speed on whatever surface.

But I’m also competitive, and impatient and retaliatory, which can make me forget my anxiety altogether and pretend I’m Ayrton Senna (great biopic of him, by the way) — like I did Tuesday evening through Decker Canyon.

I mean, if anything's gonna bring out your Niki Lauda, this is gonna bring out your Niki Lauda. Pic: flickr user digammo

If this don’t bring out your inner Niki Lauda, you ain’t got no inner Niki Lauda.
Pic: flickr user digammo

Despite this overwhelming evidence of my crappy-driverness, it’s not an easy thing to admit.

I’ve been thinking about the implications of this admission, though, and it seemed worth writing about.

For most of my life, I’ve believed that one’s masculinity was linked to what proportion of one’s blood was gasoline. Driving’s a skill, and a super-macho skill, and I wanted it. Bad. I grew up on Steve McQueen movies, and that image of Bullitt in his 1968 Mustang GT fastback is about as Marlboro Man as they come for me.

But, Q.E.D., my blood-octane levels are actually pretty low, so this Steve McQueenism is actually responsible for 83% of my lifelong feelings of inadequacy.

bullit

Thanks, Steve.
Thanks a lot.

The incomparable Jim Blaylock once told a group of us that his father used to say, “The more letters a guy has behind his name, the less likely he is to be able to change a tire.”

Now, despite having bought a Chilton AND a Haynes for every car I’ve owned, I’ve yet to loosen so much as a single nut under the hood of my own car, and I know what Jim and his dad mean by that. (I do change my own tires, though. Really. They’re, uh, not under the hood.) I’ve mentioned this before At The Wellhead, but it’s apropos here, too, so I’m repeating it: Tom McGuane, author of Nothing But TomMcGuaneBlue Skies and Ninety-two In the Shade and liver of the outdoors life described in his essay collections The Longest Silence and Some Horses, said in the intro to the latter that he never wanted to be “one of those writers with soft hands,” and he obviously accomplished that and set the bar about nine times as high as I can reach on a stool.

Plenty has been written about the legacy and pitfalls of this mantle of American Literary Macho, a primogenitor of which was ole Papa Hemingway himself, so I’m not going to belabor that point any more than to say this whole driving/cars thing fits into a much bigger fucking massive morass of expectations and preconceptions that I don’t remember picking up but that I’ve clung to and that has influenced my behavior and worldview for as long as I can remember.

But anyway, this post was supposed to be about getting beyond all that,

and I’m happy to report that I’m starting to see the benefit of copping to my sanguinary-octane deficiency. Driving and fixing cars is simply not my path to rough-hand macho-sleek-chic masculinity.

In fact, maybe – just maybe – über masculinity of any kind’s not what I’m after, after all.

Which is probably another not-shock to people who know me, but let’s all take a second, shall we, to remember that most of the time we’re the last ones to know the most obvious things about ourselves.

Practically speaking, this awareness may keep me from spending an absurd amount of money on, say, a Bugatti. Because despite how amazing it’d feel to have a thousand-and-one horses under my feet, I’d not double-clutch or whatever you have to do with that ridiculous of a car and drop the tranny, or hit the gas like it was my Jetta and bury the thing in a brick wall fifty yards away before I could turn the wheel (à la Grumman), or try to take curves like Jeff Gordon and end up Misty-flipping off that bend by La Piedra.

Alright, alright, it’s probably not only awareness that’ll keep me out of a Bugatti, or any other $1.6MILLION car. But it may keep me from thinking, say, a $200k Jaguar, or anything over 400 horses, really, is a smart buy. I just don’t have the minerals for that kind of car, and while I’m as susceptible as the next guy to the incessant luxury-is-better consumer-culture McLaren Group onslaught, I know that it’s an ultimately vapid juggernaut, and maybe I can avoid being crushed by it by bowing out of this particular leg of the Macho Race.

I’ll do plenty of stupid things in my life, make plenty of bad decisions based on insecurity and fear and vanity, but hopefully it won’t be the car that’ll get me.

Beyond practicalities, giving up an entire set of criteria by which I’ve measured and found wanting my masculinity is a taste of freedom. It probably never should have been a part of how I saw myself, a metric by which to measure my inadequacy, but it was. I know a lot of people get and make a lot of meaning out of cars and driving – some of my best friends have rebuilt cars from the ground up. They take great pride in it and it’s part of who they are. I think Brent’s amniotic fluid was 91 octane.

But it ain’t me, babe.

To have the fact that for me it’s empty and has no actual bearing on my life or who I am dawn on me is pretty amazing. It’s energizing and motivating and rewarding and makes me feel like I’m connecting, somehow, to What Really Is.

I know it's a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West

I know it’s a Socrates quote, but check out Cornel West‘s take on it if you have some hours to spare.

This chink in my faux-masculine suit of armor is an example of the kind of preconceptions I’ve been reexamining of late. It’s an example, but it’s not actually one of the things I’ve been actively picking at. Which is also indicative of this Examined Life process – most of the time, whatever insights or breakthroughs or satori or whatever you want to call them I have are not things I’ve been looking for. I don’t choose which walls I end up tearing down. If I try to, it’ll never come.

What I do is just do the work. I read and study and sit and practice dharma –

and I wait.

For what or how long, I never know, and I’m constantly wondering if I have missed or am missing something. And then when something finally does happen, it’s not what I expected at all, and sometimes the dawning of it takes a really long time.

I met Swami Vidyadhishananda a few years ago, and the one thing I asked him was how best to make reparation for harms done. His advice was not to seek people out, but instead to

“prepare your heart to be spontaneous.”

He didn’t tell me how to do that, and I wasn’t about to sign on to the S.E.L.F.’s 90 minutes of mantra practice a day every day for the rest of your life to find out, but that advice has become something of a guiding light, and these mini-satori along the way – like this whole driving thing – are sustenance, like cups of Gatorade on the marathon route.

They’re also proof that you’re laying the groundwork, priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, so that you’re ready to recognize and receive the lessons when they do come at you – spontaneously or otherwise.

At the same time, I realize this one realization isn’t anything all that special. A lot of people don’t give a shit about cars or driving or anything like that, and it doesn’t affect their sense of self and never did. It’s certainly nothing new to redefine masculinity or reject it altogether. Mick’s been singing about men and their different cigarettes for 50 years.

And yet, this discovery process has to be repeated forever anew because no matter how many times you’ve read about it, it’s not the same as experiencing it. And each of us has to grow up on his own, right? And write his own manual based off trial and error.

Which is what this blog has become in a lot of ways. The narration of my own coming-of-age-story.

So file this one under Get-Over-Yourself-Turning-Points, I guess, or Sunday Afternoon Satori.

What’s one of yours?

When did you realize things weren’t quite the way they seemed?

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Family of Origin

FamilyOfOrigin

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Odd phrase, that.

You only really hear disgruntled or dispossessed family members say it, about the people they came from biologically and at one point definitively left. It rings with a certain finality, a sense that after leaving their family of origin, people who say “family of origin” were Cain-like wanderers upon the face of the earth.

You don’t hear people saying, “Oh, I just love my family of origin.”

They usually pause right after origin to sneak in a silent clause. “My family of origin,,, was dysfunctional.” Which you get the feeling means something like, “My family of origin [may they rot in hell], was dysfunctional.” You usually don’t hear orphans use it – “My family of origin was killed in a car wreck.” When a tragedy’s involved, people stick with more familiar monikers – “My mom and dad and my sister Shirley.”

Norman-Rockwell-ThanksgivingMy dad has a family of origin. He’s never said those words and I doubt he ever would and he’s hardly a Cain-like-wanderer-upon-the-face-of-the-earth type of guy, but what family was left by the time he took off as a kid was not exactly the white-picket-fence nuclear-family post-war Norman Rockwell dream. I don’t know his family of origin at all, and have heard very little about it over the years.

When my mom came along, he adopted her family. And this is the good news about families of origin – you’re not stuck with them. There’s all kinds of families out there, and so many of them will take you in. And even if you have a good family, you can always use another good one. I feel lucky – people who believed in blessings would say I’m blessed – to have the number and quality of families I call my own. And this is what I was thinking about when I thought about writing this post.

I’ve seen this – we’ve all seen this – countless times, but it never fails to impress me as one of the great things about life and the human spirit. It’s one of the great tropes of storytelling for a reason – taking someone in, being taken in, providing for another, being cared for and supported by others are the things that remind us what matters in life.

So my dad adopted my mom’s family, and was convinced his kids would have something more than a family of origin, and we have. My family of origin is my family. Period. All our weirdness and dysfunction is preeettttty minimal in the grand scheme of things – we get along and talk and say “I love you” and mean it. They’re there for me in everything. (I didn’t always know this, but it was always true.)

WestinBoatShopGreatSouthBayChart

The Great South Bay. Home of the in-laws-to-be.

Come May, I’m marrying into another rock-solid family. I’ve lived with this family before, so they’re family already and it doesn’t seem like a huge deal that I’m officially becoming an in-law, but way back when, when I first started coming around, they took me in immediately, no questions asked. Well, I think maybe a few questions, but they were things like,”Wanna go for a boat ride?” and “Can you use a Sawzall?” After that, golden.

And best of all, of course, is the idea that Erin and I are making our own family, together, for some other little people to one day come from. (And never never never never never leave. Ever.)

DinoUVaSwimDive

Dino.
Paterfamilias of 35 families.

Anyone who’s been on a serious sports team knows what additional or surrogate families are all about. You do together the hardest things you’ve ever done and (unless you go into the military afterwards) probably the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. You spend an inordinate amount of time together, during most of which you’re exhausted and not at your best and in your sweats and eating. (Especially swimmers – always with the eating.) My UVa swimming family is a lot like a large extended regular family, because I didn’t always like everyone I swam with, but I loved them and would to this day do anything for them. One of my teammates, a guy I really love and respect a lot, told me about a year ago, after listening to me describe the novel I’m writing and my pilgrimage to India and my SoCal routine and a few other things that are just simply outside of his Virginian sports-watching lawyering lifestyle, “You know, Prichard, there’s no real reason we’re friends. If it was’t for swimming, we would never be friends. Never.” Kinda funny, the way he said it, but probably true.

JonesSliver

Jones with a decent turnout.

After college, I worked as a Jones Beach Lifeguard, and let me tell you, that is a crew. Teachers, firemen, artists, cab drivers, musicians, computer programmers, soldiers, businessmen, businesswomen, some cops – some robbers, too, probably – who spend their summers at the beach saving lives. And at Jones Beach, that’s no macho I-save-lives bs posturing. You’re running rescues constantly there. Constantly. People getting scared, getting swept out, getting saved, barely living – sometimes dying. Hundreds of thousands on the beach. (Seriously – there were 275,000 there July 4th, 2005.) Tourists, Long Islanders, Indians in saris, guys from the Bronx in Timberlands – in the ocean, in Tims – who’ve never seen the ocean before. And these lifeguards take care of all of them, and they depend on one another to help them keep the hordes safe. And they’re New Yorkers, so it’s a tough kinda love they share – and not one they frivolously give away. But those guys and gals let me into their world and their hearts and it was an experience and a group of people I’ll never forget.

I’d love to have a creative family, but writers are by and large not very familial people. Well, they might be on their own, but for the most part they’re not looking to hang out with other writers that much. It’s a more or less solitary pursuit, and except for children’s books and TV writing and the odd movie script, writing doesn’t really benefit from collaboration. It’s not like music, so much more than the sum of its parts. There’s so much doing-your-own-thing. What am I gonna do, sit five of us in a room and write a book? That’s why god created Williamsburg coffee houses. To be honest, I have no desire to sit around talking about what I’m working on for more than a couple minutes, tops. We try (especially us Millennials – we can’t even help ourselves) but even communities of writers are hard to come by, let alone families.

I have this other family, too, this strange assemblage of freaks and misfits and ne’er-do-wells  all trying to get our lives back on track and/or keep them there. I’ve met a few of my best friends in this group, and some of the strongest people I’ve ever known. They’re allies in a weird fight that a  lot of people out there don’t even know they’re fighting. In this group in particular there are a lot of people who come from nobody and nowhere. People who have families of origin – families they left or who left them. These people have discovered in this motley crew the family they never had. And that, man, is something to see.

Who’s your family?

What does “family” mean to you?

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On Creativity

Earlier this week, I was honored to be featured on TreeHouse, An Exhibition of the Arts, a web site put together by my friends Erin Whittinghill and Natasha Ganes.

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Click on the logo or right here to read it on their site, or to just check the site out in general, which you should, because it’s awesome.

Or you can stay here, because I’m I’m also re-posting my TreeHouse guest post here, for my email subscribers and so it can filter down into the aquifer/archive. And cuz I’ve been busy and don’t have a new post. And you know, so you don’t miss it.

~

On Creativity

We’re driving through Hollywood when a friend asks me,

“Where do you get your ideas for stories?”

pic from Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

pic from Nat Ma’s rad photo blog, Goodbye Melbourne, Hello New York

His phone rings before I can answer, and while he talks, I look around. We’re headed home from a vintage LA evening: sunset dinner atop a Venice hotel, an improv variety show at the Fringe Festival, a nightcap at a French Quarter-looking joint, a dip in the Roosevelt Hotel pool. It’s past midnight and Hollywood Blvd is packed with cars. The line for the Supper Club stretches halfway down the block and it’s packed, too, with bare-backed broads shivering atop their stilettos and fat men in skinny jeans oohing and ogling. Creeping up La Brea to Franklin, I slalom concertgoers wheeling coolers down the middle of the street as they spill out of the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Bowl, laughin and carryin on. A homeless man argues with the parking attendant in front of the Magic Castle. When we finally get to the 101, three cars are backing up the onramp. A shirtless man is standing on the railing of the Pilgrimage Bridge.

Finally, my friend hangs up. “So, about those story ideas,” he says, and I tell him I had about twenty while he was on the phone.

MrMiyagiThis is hardly unique – even to writers, let alone to just me. I think we all make assumptions all day long about where people come from and how we’d act in situations we come across. An image presents itself, and a backstory unfurls behind it. Most of us just immediately let them go. Most of the time, I do. But every once in a while, I pluck an image-packet out of the ether as it whizzes by, like Mr. Miyagi with his chopsticks, and write it down.

If I let it ferment for a while, the general framework takes care of itself and I can write it all out like I’m transcribing something I know. This part – the setup – is sheer fun. And it gets me writing, which is the only way I know how to come up with the rest of the story. What it’s really about. Because a story’s not really about what happens where. (Except it kind of is.)

In the stories I like to read, and the ones I try to write, there’s some ineffable something else in addition to plot and theme and setting and character – not a moral or a point or any kind of distillate you can separate out from the other elements and say this is what this story’s about, but something that, well, gets at the heart of things.

I rarely know what that ineffable something is before I write it. Or, discover it by writing, I should say. Even if the image I first glimpsed is the resolution, by the time the story’s done, it doesn’t carry the weight or meaning I initially thought it would.

Only once has a story come roaring out fully formed. For several years, I thought it was brilliant, and I tried to duplicate that process of starting with the “conclusion,” of describing the whole jigsaw puzzle just as it first appeared, of manufacturing impact. But I never had that experience again, and what’s more, I can finally see that actually, that story is predictable, pedantic, unimaginative, and cliché.

Technically speaking, all impact is manufactured. But ineffable somethings feel less conscious than that. They feel stumbled upon or written into. Uncovered, if I may.

Crushed-Stella-Artois-can-001By way of example: I heard a story on NPR last fall about a handful of people who were going to jail for a very long time for defrauding the State of California by redeeming recycling deposits on cans and bottles they collected out of state. It was irresistible, but I had to carry it around for eight months before I could figure out how to use it. Because a story about the fraud ring would be journalism, and that’d already been done. (Besides, I couldn’t be bothered with all those…facts.)

One day, I saw this great big woman in a pink sweat suit standing at a crosswalk, lighting a cigarette. On the opposite corner was a skinny priest in short sleeves, an older guy with a pretty hip haircut (this is LA, after all), polishing his Ray Bans. Looking back and forth between them, I knew I had a way in.

But still – the cans, these characters, this one strange moment…it was enough to get going, but it wasn’t anything to hang an ineffable something’s hat on. Things went here, things went there, and before I knew it, I was up to 25,000 words. I thought for a moment I’d turn it into a novella, but the vast majority of it was superfluous to the real turning point of the story – which only emerged around word 23,000, as an insight into one of the first paragraphs I wrote. Now, at 8,000 words, the fraud ring’s incidental to the main action of the story, but it’s also intrinsic to the main thrust. I couldn’t simply swap it out for cocaine runners or hedge fund managers or used car salesmen. That’s the thing with ineffable somethings – they transcend the story, but couldn’t exist without it.

Whatever ineffable somethings are made of, I’d never have any of them if I didn’t go through the process of building a story up and then whittling it down, saying, this tangled mess is where I think the story is, and then paring things away to find the kernel.

SprucesMatsAlmlof

Photo: Mats Almlöf for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

And that paring away is where the creativity required by writing overlaps with the creativity required by life; discovering what makes a story tick is the same process of discovering what makes me tick. They’re both about removing obstacles to get at something I don’t understand but that I know is right. That ineffable something near the center of things, in life as in fiction, is always already there, waiting to be brought out into the open. There’s always a thrill when I discover it, sometimes even surprise, but it’s the shock of recognizing something that was there all along.

Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and a lot of the “shit” I have to revise out of drafts isn’t just superfluities of my own devising, but also – and more importantly – attempts to sound like someone else. It’s only when I can manage to get past my ideas of what kind of writer I want to be, when I can stop trying to manufacture impact by imitating Papa or O’Connor or Bukowski or Gogol or Winton or Porter, and just try to write sentences that sound true, that the ineffable somethings happen.

PrichardInfluencesThat Papaism applies to life, too, for – at the risk of sounding trite – life itself is a process of constant revision. I certainly didn’t come out polished and blemish-free, as those who’ve had to put up with me know only too well, and all these conceptions and notions I have about myself constantly prove to be only flimsy veneers over…something else. If I try to manage my personality or “craft my image,” I come across as inauthentic, feel horrible about it, and act accordingly (that is, hostile). And then that interpersonal magic that we live for – that real-life ineffable something – becomes an impossibility.

There’s a music inside each of us that’s often drowned out by the cacophony of bullshit muzak we’re sold as models of what our real lives should be.

For me, that muzak-model is a Jack London Jack Kerouac Johnny Cash Tim Armstrong fuck-you aesthetic, mixed with a David Foster Wallace David Rakoff Christopher Hitchens edgy intellectualism, and topped off with a Tom Robbins Tom McGuane irreverent joviality.

Seriously, that’s who I think I should be.

To combat this self-propelled onslaught of ludicrous and impossibly-attainable images, I rededicate myself every day to trying to lead a life, on and off the page, that’s a process of picking out the strains that ring true and leaving behind the rest. You want a Bukowski story? I can write you a Bukowski story, believe me. Hell, I can write you a Bukowski story by three o’clock this afternoon. But I’m not Bukowski, so it’d be bullshit.

You want a Prichard story, well, that might take a little while. I gotta find it first.

strataSince we’re getting close to the end, let me try to sum up: creativity is about paring away the layers upon layers of superficial nonsense we pile on over the years, discovering what you-and-you-alone harbor in the hidden recesses where your undiluted magic resides, and making do with what is found there.

It’s creative because it’s new, it’s original and unique, and you’re exposing it to these old-old things – language, pictures, drums, design, whatever your thing is – and throwing that mass up against the newness and nowness of culture and society.

It’s scary, because we’re taught to look elsewhere for meaning and value and worth, that what’s inside is bland at best and probably corrosive.

It’ll cost you – a little torture, probably, maybe some vertigo – to go rooting around in your depths.

But I promise you, the trip down is worth the cost.

It’s exactly as rewarding as you can possibly imagine.

~

Where do you get your creativity from?

What things stand in your way?

How do you get over/past/through them?

OasisNatGeo

Photo: Nam In Geun for National Geographic 2010 photo contest

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