Disaster’s Residuals

Five months and a few days ago, Hurricane Sandy hit New York.

new-york-flooding-hurricane-sandy_3

My fiancée is from the South Shore of Long Island, out in Suffolk County, and her sister’s house is still unlivable. Mom’s staying at Grandma’s, her sister husband nieces in Mom’s, and Dad is staying in the top floor of the flooded house to work on it while they wait for the contractor to come lift the house and the FEMA money to pay for it.

Yeah, that’s right, lift the house.

House-Raising

Erin’s dad is also staying at the house “just so there’s someone there.” This phrase is repeated and accepted with a nonchalance that is both common and unsettling. Because what it really means is that even though the updates about looters have long since disappeared from the nightly news, there are still plenty of people who are looking for abandoned houses to rob and even inhabit, and Erin’s dad wants to make sure that doesn’t happen to them. 

This strikes me as incredibly “real,” or at least much, how should I say, grittier than I’m used to. I imagine it’s because I was in the protective bubble of Ventura County for the last three years, and in the oddly surreal bubble of South Orange County for a couple before that, that I’ve forgotten how close so many people – and so many people so close to me – live to the edge of things, and how good we are at accommodating those near-edges. You stay in peaceful suburbia too long and you begin to think of “real life” as something that happens to other people – or even worse, only to people in movies or books – and you begin to think that real-life things must be overtly dramatic, as if you’re waiting for the score to kick in any second.

I know because I grew up in that, untouched by disaster, unscathed by any real danger. I have fond memories of the Northridge earthquake in 1994.

http://www.standeyo.com/NEWS/09_Earth_Changes/090125.SoCal.EQ.pattern.html http://jalcornphoto.photoshelter.com/image/I0000C8MwkmNWmrI http://www.worldofstock.com/stock-photos/a-santa-monica-apartment-building-destroyed-by/PSO1911

I mean that seriously – my memories of that deadly and dramatic disaster are fond.

I thought it was fun to sway around the house at midnight and during the multiple severe aftershocks, to be without power, to miss a couple days of school.

Then I lived in New York, and lifeguarded at Jones Beach with firemen who responded to 9/11, with teachers cooks cops who volunteered so many consistent hours down there that they lost 60% of their lung capacity, with women my age who lost their parents in the attack. They got misty-eyed when they talked too long about it or when I asked the kind of insensitive questions I’m wont to ask, but for the most part they were just going on about their lives, unaccompanied by any sweeping, epic score.

Botero Birds bombed and new

Bombed-out bird and its replacement.
Parque San Antonio, Medellín, Colombia

Then I lived in Medellín, Colombia, and made friends with people whose entire childhoods were overshadowed by a criminal presence and an outright war in their city’s streets. I saw the remains of bombed sculptures they’ve left in place as reminders and homage to the violence of not-so-long-ago, and heard the stories of curfews and disappearances and fear. But they, too, were just going about their lives again.

ATWbannerThinnest

Two things these two groups of people taught me:

people are incredibly resilient, and tragedy breeds humility.

When people have sustained a major loss – of their house, of their loved ones, of their way of life – they interact with the world a little differently. It puts their little grievances in perspective and opens them up to the good things in their lives the rest of us so often and so easily overlook.

This was on display in full force last weekend, at a wedding out in Montauk. Some of those lifeguards were there, as were a bunch of Navy guys, a number of whom are SEALS, all of whom have seen action and a few of whom came back wounded and incomplete.

Several of those lifeguards live – or rather, used to live – down the shore in Long Island, and lost their houses in Sandy. One in particular, a guy who’s been a Seabee for twenty years, is living for the time being with his mom in the house he grew up in, with his wife and their kids, in Queens, and taking his kids an hour each way to school every day. Many aren’t getting any FEMA money because for one reason or another they don’t qualify, so they’re out a house and own little more than a patch of sand with some sticks, and are getting second or third jobs to start clawing their ways out.

Not that I heard any of this from them. What I heard from them was, “Life is great, the kids are great – how are you?! Been too long, we miss you.”

“Isn’t this awesome? What a nice weekend, what a great party.”

“Look at that ocean – beautiful, idnit? Hard to believe it can do so much damage on a day like this.”

These are the people that teach me how to live.

I feel honored and grateful to have them in my life, to have them as examples and advisors and friends.

But, just like they weren’t overly worried the sacrifices they’ve made and been forced to make in their lives, last weekend I wasn’t overly focused on gratitude and appreciation.

It was a party. And sometimes you just gotta put all that heavy stuff to the side, let it go for a few minutes, and just, well, party.

Who  are your heroes? 

How do you get through your disasters?

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True Grit and More-Whoreness

The Atlantic had a great article last week on how

American News Consumers Have Gained the World but Lost Their Backyards.

The title pretty much sums it up – the Internet gives us information on everything ever invented, said, created and done everywhere in the world throughout all of known and recorded time, and gives it to us more or less instantly, but it’s at the expense of local knowledge.

My first thought was, “who cares?” My local paper growing up wasn’t exactly known for its Pulitzer-quality journalism, and I can’t say I miss the updates on adolescent artists and mediocre athletes.  There are more important, I’ve often found myself thinking as I open up O Golbo or El Pais or Haaretz or Al Jazeera, more weighty things to worry about in this world than the installation of five-dozen parking meters in downtown Ventura.

But you have to concede Connor Friedersdorff’s point: “As a curious person who enjoys learning about the world, the rich store of readily available information about Cyprus thrills me, but it does very little to help me better fulfill my civic obligations.”

A case in this point: a good friend of mine’s mom was running for city council last year, and I asked him in September what he thought her chances were in the upcoming November election, and he looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “That election was in June. She lost.”

“Huh,” I said, and proceeded to talk about Colombian politics and the Portuguese financial crisis.

Friedersdorff’s article was about journalism and civics, but I think it points to something bigger than that, as well:

Rootlessness and more-whoreness.

Which are symptoms of the same affliction.

During a work breakfast last week, I heard John Krist, a longtime journalist and current CEO of the Farm Bureau, give an update on the state of agriculture in Ventura County. There was some milestone news, as the County dipped under 100,000 acres of farmland for the first time in agricultural history; some good news, as prices for major crops (lemons, berries, greens) rose for the third consecutive year; and a whole bunch of depressing news about drought and soil quality and labor shortages and parasites and increased regulations.

Krist brought his prodigious storytelling ability to bear on his presentation, and I was so captivated by the way he talked about “his growers” and “our agricultural history” and “our responsibility to the land” that I felt by the end like we were descendants of the Trasks and Hamiltons, engaged in an epic battle not for land but for the identity of our little corner of the world and the survival of its legacy.

My blood was stirred.

Tom McGuane said in Some Horses that he was determined not to be “one of those writers with soft hands.”

My best friend growing up moved out to an avocado and citrus ranch when we were in eighth grade, and it changed his life. He determined to become a farmer, but I mostly treated his new ranch as my big giant playground. The romance and importance of agriculture wasn’t completely lost on me, but I was much more interested in the surfing/beachtown aspects of my hometown than its agricultural history.

Still, I am a son of the West, and I’ve always been drawn to the Steinbecks and the Londons and the McGuanes of the American literary landscape, and one of the abandoned narrative strands of my novel was from the pov of an avocado farmer, so this resurgence of interest in ag during Krist’s lecture wasn’t exactly out of character.

But coupled with that Atlantic piece, it really made me think. In particular, Krist’s comments about how he spends his days talking to farmers – “that’s what I do, is talk to people,” he said – caused me to daydream about all these farmers’ lives, how interesting their challenges and failures and successes are, what great stories their lives could make. And I thought, you know, I’m missing all this. I care more about Cyprus and Panama and Myanmar and South Africa than I do about where I come from and where I live.

I’m so busy longing for the romance of St. Petersburg and the Loire Valley that I’m overlooking the real human drama of Sherman Oaks and Ventura County.

Jack London was “a better man than any of us,”
says Frank Miller in
Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From.”

And then I thought, no, that’s not entirely true. I try to care about those other, foreign places more, I pretend to care, I think it’s more important that I care about them.

That last’s the thing.

Thinking that something is more interesting simply because it’s happening somewhere else has been the story of my life. It’s led me to travel to some pretty amazing places and do some pretty fun things and meet some really great people, but it’s also been the cornerstone of my discontent.

And I think my discontent is no uncommon thing, but rather a symptom of an underlying national condition. I think our – “our” being “us Americans'” – obsession with information and preference for international news over the local stuff (except for those scensters who are überlocal) is part and parcel of our more-whoreness, our willingness to do anything, sacrifice anything, up to and including our peace of mind, for more. More info. More cool. More interest. More weight. More meaning. More beauty. More money. More history. More books. More respect (read: fame).

I’ve realized for quite some time that I can either long for something I’m unlikely to experience and that, were I to actually experience it, would very likely be far from what I’d built up and expected, or I can look for the interest and (dare I say) wonder in what’s going on in my backyard.

But that’s not always so easy to practice.

“If you’re in trouble, or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”
Said Steinbeck this one time.

I’ve been fed that more-whoreness from a Matrix-like feeding tube for so many years I don’t even recognize it as contagion. Of course I want something different and more interesting and more exciting that costs more money and that’s gonna give me more satisfaction. I’m American, goddamnit, I deserve the best. I’m also hopelessly romantic and relatively privileged, which has all but done away with any semblance of the true grit that used to go along with American exceptionalism and compensate for the arrogance of that good ole I-want-it-I’ma-take-it-ism.

So what do you do?

Bring the focus in from an epic sweeping shot of the world to something a little closer. Not quite as close as the navel – though lord knows I gaze at that often enough (in these pages no less!) – but maybe down to street view.

And as in writing, so in life.

I’ve had some big life changes recently (more on it next time, les prometo) and have been able to put in a lot of hours at the writing desk and those two things remind me to quit dreaming ridiculous dreams and realize that I’m living a pretty amazing life and that I already have everything I need.

That not only am I finding the roots I have, but growing new ones.

That I AM DOING what I always wanted to do.

That it’s enough.

And that enough is the new  black.

.

What’s your local scene?

How do you balance staying-local-growing-roots and your desire for EVERYTHING-IN-THE-WORLD-AT-ONCE?  

LemonSigns

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Channel That

I was driving back to my quiet little seaside hometown the other day, and I caught myself thinking, “phew, that was a crazy six weeks,” as if they were a period in my life that had ended and I was heading back to a quiet little seaside life.

sherventuraoaks

But no, those crazy six weeks are my life now.

Two things about this:

One – it’s not that crazy.

Two – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To qualify Two: sure, if I could have book contracts instead of an 8-5 and a place in Malibu and a pied-à-terre in NYC and another in Milan with toilets made out of solid gold instead of a two-bedroom apartment in the San Fernando Valley, I’d probably go ahead and have it that way, but let’s be reasonable.

And as far as One goes, I don’t really want to complain because I’m not working multiple jobs, I’m not broke, I’m not a single mom, I’m not at all lonely, I’m not unhealthy-and-uninsured, I’m not disenfranchised or powerless or oppressed or any of those those legitimately difficult things so many people deal with everyday – most of whom do so with much more equanimity and grace than I muster in the face of, say, two long workdays back-to-back.

That being said, this is my life and these things are my parameters and within that and those, I’m feeling a little stressed out.

I’m a (secular) Buddhist and someone who’s trying to live a quieter and more conscious life, both of which counsel gratitude and perspective, so I work on those things when and how I can – and believe me, I know how much I have to be glad about and grateful for – and I try to reverse or at least slow the entropic tendency of my life and mind and universe.

levimeditation

You should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day,
unless you’re too busy.
Then you should sit for an hour.

But I’m also a writer, and at the risk of sounding trite, I think writers thrive on neurosis and chaos and, as my friend Laura Bassett put it, “strife and uneasiness.”

This also needs a qualification – writers’ characters thrive on neurosis. And that’s a distinction many authors fail to make and/or maintain.

About a decade ago, I was talking with Stephen Railton about American authors’ propensity for debauchery, dissipation and just general bad behavior – in particular, we were talking about Faulkner’s tenure at UVa and how rumor had it that any night of the week, you could find the man drunk somewhere in Albermarle County – and Prof. Railton said, “it makes you wonder, do you have to be that fucked up to make good literature?”

He didn’t mean intoxicated-fucked-up – which they got, plenty, but with how hard those dissolute men worked and the quality of what they produced, you hardly call them lushes – so much as maladjusted-fucked-up. But I certainly equated one with the other while kind of just hoping (okay okay assuming, arrogant bastard that I was) that the quality work would come without the hard work.

But it turns out I’m not interested in staying intoxicated for forty fifty sixty years while I try to write, and now that I’m, let’s say, less concerned with intoxication than I used to be, two things have happened: I’m less interested in maladjustment, and the work is getting better.

One last qualification, this one on “less interested.” I’m less interested in being maladjusted, but more interested in investigating maladjustment and using maladjustment. Which is what brings me to the crux of this post/thought:

How do you stand close to the (ring of?chaos fire without getting burned?

It’s like that Modest Mouse song, “Bukowski,” where Isaac Brock is saying that “…every night turns out to be a little bit more like Bukowski and yeah, I know, he’s a pretty good read, but God, who’d wanna be…such an asshole?”

..

The simple answer is

CHANNEL IT

right?

Put it to good use.

See it, watch it, breathe it in, but stay on that jetty while the storm is surging.

And yeah, sure, that’s what I try to do, but how that actually works, how you take the stress of moving to a new town and commuting longer and finding new friends and maintaining old friendships and starting a blog and navigating the crazystupid world of social networking and finishing a novel and trying to sell stories and working out and reading and cooking and foodshopping and doing my taxes (jesus I need to do my taxes!) and meditating and doing the other things I do on top of generally freaking out about the state of the state nation world not to even mention my place in the fucking COSmos at large – how you take that stuff, and instead of letting it bowl you over, jiu-jistu that shit into a character and let that character do something decently productive with it, is what I’m interested in.

Which I guess is what the process is all about. Which is why it takes forever, I guess, and why there’s no guarantee it’ll work well or at all.

Which is why Faulkner said The Sound and the Fury was a failure.*

Zulfikar Ghose was talking about this the other night when I went and saw him at the Fowles Center.** Not about Faulkner, but that the main motivation to write is – HAS TO BE – the simple desire to create something that didn’t exist before, to convey some sense about the world as precisely as we can. “We simply create, and we see what happens.” All method or whatever else people read into creative work after the fact is secondary.

Like with everything, just do the work. Don’t worry about how you’re going to do it, just do it. Worry about how you did it and what it means later. If you worry about that at all.

But the question remains:

How do you separate layer upon layer of life’s crazy-ass chaff from that sweet, sweet wheat?

Yeah, I mean you.

Whether you’re creative or not, it doesn’t matter – we all de-stress and refocus somehow.

So tell me – how do you keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs?

http://featuresblogs.chicagotribune.com/talking_pictures/2010/05/dennis-hopper-nobodys-candycolored-clown-.html

Hopper pretty much was a pair of ragged claws
scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

*Saideth Faulkner: “[The Sound and the Fury] began with the picture of the little girl’s muddy drawers, climbing that tree to look in the parlor window with her brothers that didn’t have the courage to climb the tree waiting to see what she saw. And I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed, and I tried myself, the fourth section, to tell what happened, and I still failed.”     – from the UVA Faulkner treasure trove 

** Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! Karen Tei Yamashita is coming! April 15th. You should totally be there. (I know I know, the flyer on the site says April 22 but it’s wrong.)

Hat tip to the badass HuffPoQuill-wielding

Laura Bassett for giving me the advice, title, and general notion for this post.

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Motivate This

I had some bad news the other day.

Well, “bad” is a little dramatic, it was more like kind-of-disappointing news.

I applied to this fellowship last fall and found out last Wednesday I didn’t get it. I didn’t realize until I got the email how much I’d been looking forward to it – counting on it, really. And while it’s a good lesson in not putting too many eggs in one basket, and not counting the chickens that may hatch outta those eggs before they actually do so, and managing expectations and yadda yadda yadda, it still bummed me out.

You have two choices when faced with rejection and disappointment, right – you can bitch and moan and feel sorry for yourself, or you can dig in and redouble your efforts. And of course I sat in the former for a few hours, spiraling down into despair and what’s-the-point-anyway-I-knew-I-sucked-at-this-to-begin-with-fuckit. But then I went ahead and moved into the latter and wrote wrote wrote too far into the night too many nights in a row, and reorganized my approach to submitting stories, and tried to figure out how I can squeeze a few more hours of writing out of the week. I was determined to not be dissuaded.

But it was my girlfriend who really turned my headspace around, and talked to me about not just avoiding the blues, but actively using rejection as motivation.

Erin’s a contrarian, in the very best sense of the term.‡ While she has great faith in the basic goodness of people, she also thinks in general they’re pretty dumb, and thinks that just because something is generally held in high esteem doesn’t automatically mean it’s estimable. In fact, she’s suspicious of general renown as a sign that people aren’t thinking very clearly – that is to say, independently – about whatever it is they all think is so great. Once her mind’s made up that something’s worthy of her respect, her devotion and loyalty are second to none and she defends her tastes fiercely, but her initial response to most things is a healthy dose of skepticism.

Thus, her attitude towards said fellowship was, “You know what? Fuck those people.”

UVa after the fire.
Not where I didn’t get the fellowship from.

“Sure, everyone says that ______ is a great and fancy place, but so what? What do you actually know about that program? It could totally suck. At the very least it’s not going to automatically make you a good or a better or a successful writer. How many people who’ve gotten this fellowship go on to be famous authors? Or even writers who just make a living writing?”

When I told her I didn’t recognize more than half a dozen of the illustrious institution’s 60+ years worth of alumni, she said, “See? And think how many more amazing writers that you do know and who do make a living writing applied and didn’t go there.

“And you know what else?” she went on, “most of them were probably pissed off, too. And they probably used that as motivation, and years later were like, ‘Oh hi, remember when you didn’t like my writing? Well here’s my Booker Prize, how do you like that shit?'”

And she went on in that vein until I was fired up enough to fight Mike Tyson.*

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A couple things that Erin brought up have stuck with me, and I wanted to write about them and maybe even get your thoughts on them.

Erin is from Long Island. She grew up on New York gangsta rap, and like the several million people who also grew up on hip-hop in and around the NY metro area (and plenty who didn’t), she loves Jay-Z.

And Jay-Z, in the off-off-off chance you didn’t know, didn’t exactly have doors thrown open to him or opportunities handed to him. He built doors and made opportunities, and built his reputation on being the kind of man that did that, and built songs on rhymes about how haters gonna hate but ain’t gonna stop him taking over the world (I paraphrase).

And now that he’s one of the baddest badasses on the planet and kind of has taken over, he raps about how fucking good it feels to show up all those doubters and haters. Because he didn’t get or need anyone’s permission and because he did it his way (he even covered that Anka song made famous by Sinatra to make his point).

That’s the kind of thing that Erin turns to for inspiration. Stuff like:

When Drake says, “thanks to all the haters / I know G4 pilots on a first name basis” and “everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness” and “point the biggest skeptic out, I’ll make him a believer.”

Or when Jay says, “When I was born, it was sworn, I was never gon’ be shit / Had to pull the opposite out this bitch.”

Or when Lil’Wayne says, “confidence is a stain they can’t wipe off.” (Or whenever he’s talking about being a Martian and getting back to his spaceship – Erin loves Martians.)

It’s how her parents raised her – you can do whatever you want, rules and especially ceilings (glass or otherwise) are made to be broken, “No” is not an acceptable answer, you don’t need the world’s permission or its trappings or its clubs† to succeed – and she took it to heart and applies that ethos every day.

And this was the language she used to tell me, “You don’t need them anyway.”

and “This will make you work harder.”

and “Rejection is good for the soul.”

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I might not be quite as hardcore as Erin is (and I don’t really want to be a Martian), but I also grew up on the music of men who said – and even screamed, sometimes – a nice round “fuck you” to whoever was purporting to stand in their way: Rancid.

JayRanZid

Tim Armstrong especially embodied for me a kind of modern-day Jack Kerouac/Johnny Cash/Walt Whitman type of concrete-jungle roustabouting troubadour. I wanted his itinerant life and I wanted to experience as much as he had to and understand the world as well as he did. Rancid saw through everything that I thought was wrong with the world, and taught me about a whole slate of other wrong things I had no idea about. Bradley Nowell said that he knew what he knew “because of KRS-One,” and that’s how I felt about Rancid for a long, long time. And one of the biggest things they saw wrong with the world was this idea people had about them that they were trash because of where they came from – the broken down and abandoned East Bay.

Tim doin an acoustic ‘East Bay Night’

This doesn’t map onto my experience exactly – Ventura’s hardly the Richmond Annex – but it struck a chord. I wanted to be something more than what I saw around me, and I needed that drive to have a chip on its shoulder:

“You don’t want me? Then I don’t need you.”

I felt this way for years as a kid, and I felt that way in college, and I felt that way in New York, and I felt that way in grad school, and I still feel that way in a lot of situations. It’s a defense mechanism, obviously, and sometimes it’s detrimental, sure. But a mentor of mine said, when I told him about the fellowship, “Aw, you’re upset – how cute that you’re still not old enough to understand that life is one long succession of disappointments,” and I figure shit, maybe a little defense is necessary every once in a while.

That attitude and that feeling is what I go back to, too, and why I’ve spent the last week balling down the 101 blasting Life Won’t Wait on repeat.

But, as much as it’s important to me to bare down and go my own way, and as much as writing is a solitary pursuit, it’s important to remember that I can’t and don’t do it all on my own.

ATWbannerThinner

Jay-Z and Tim Armstrong spent their lives taking a very strong stance against a lot of things and people and groups and cultures and even society as a whole, but they also stood with people and relied on (and some would argue helped create) subcultures and local societies. I can’t really speak to the crews that Shawn Carter leaned on to survive the Marcy projects and make it out of Bed-Stuy to become the Jay-Z he is today, but I do know that the punk subculture can be a very supportive subculture indeed.

Nevermind that I didn’t have the same experiences or the same reasons to feel the way Tim Lars Matt Brett and a whole subculture of disaffected punks did. Fact is I did feel lonely, disconnected, castaway in the same way Tim wrote about, and I did connect to punk rock.

Rancid and a handful of other punk bands – Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Black Flag, to name a few at the start of the alphabet – were the soundtrack to my lonely teenage angst, and both fueled the fires of loneliness and soothed the burns from them, gave me solace for not having a crew of my choosing and perpetuated my desire to break free of those imposed upon me.

But I never joined the subculture, never did much of anything but stew in my disconnection and disaffection, blaring Let’s Go! on the tapedeck of my Dad’s pickup as I schlepped from workout to school to workout, wondering what the hell was going on in my life and in the world.

I took part in a lot of things as a kid – sports, mostly – and while I participated in those communities that I was given, internally I disdained them. On the other hand, I didn’t belong in the punk scene, or the surf scene or the stoner scene or the jock scene or whatever other scenes I danced around the edges of. I came to think of myself as an outsider, and tried to embrace that stance as a free spirit, a wild child (full of grace, savior of the human race) that couldn’t be constrained by the people and the structures imposed on me.

But in reality, I took a lot of strength from them and did really well within them, and once the structure and the communities fell away, I floundered. Big time.

So I’ve been thinking about what I’m going to do now that a pre-packaged community of writers I was counting on with that fellowship won’t be handed to me. And I realized that I have no idea how to do this. I’ve never done it before. I had one friend growing up, really. Then college and a college sports team, then grad school. I never saw a group of people and, thinking “I want to be a part of that,” went and made myself a part of it. I thought that plenty of times – more times than I can count, for sure – but never did anything about it. So when I think about finding a group to be a part of, it’s sort of baffling and extremely intimidating.

“The internet, idiot!” people have said to me, as I imagine you’re thinking now.

But there’s just way too much. There are something like three dozen fiction writers meet up groups in the SFV on that one meetup-dot-com site and I haven’t even tried looking in actual LA-LA yet. So I’m going to start wandering around bookstores and going to nerdy booky writery events and do the exact opposite of what I like to do, namely stick my hand out and talk to random people and say, “Hi, I’m a writer. Let’s do something together.”

This is the story of my childhood.
I mean, it never snowed in SoCal, but still, this is it.

The whole idea makes my skin crawl. It makes me feel like a kid on the edge of the sandbox, dying to jump in and Tonka-truck it up but incapable of moving a muscle.

I’m gonna try to stop looking at life like a seven-year-old, and instead go boldly forth with the idea that if I pursue or maybe even create a version of the kind of society I think I want, then maybe I’ll actually have a crew of like-minded individuals facing the same trials and tribulations and striving to do the same kinds of things.

I oughta quit now before this descends any further into a full-blown Stuart Smalley mirror session.

Who or what inspires and motivates you?

Who do you read / listen to / turn to when you need to brush your shoulders off?

Who’s in your community? How did you find it? How do you contribute to it?

_

‡I know not everyone thinks that ‘contrarian’ has any good senses at all, let alone a ‘very best sense’ as I say about it above, but in my lexical compendium it’s a synonym for “[one who is] awake,” and like Tina Fey quotes Amy Poehler in Bossypants as saying, “I don’t fucking care if you don’t like it.”

*That’s a figure of speech. I never was in a fistfight, not once ever, I’m not that punk, okay? And besides what am I, an idiot? I wouldn’t fight Tyson.

† My friend Unk sees the world (the business world, at least) as a collection of frats being all fratty at the big gigantic frat party that is life – and has about as much respect for the whole thing as you’d expect. I’ve got a whole post waiting in the wings of my mind about this so stay tuned and follow At The Wellhead and sign up for alerts!

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Elephants! Elephants! Elephants!

If you like elephants, you’ll be happy to know that the Thai government has

officially pledged to end the ivory trade within its borders.

Manah, being coy outside Huay Pakoot

This is great news (provided this legislative process gets carried out and leads to effective laws), because Thailand has been for quite some time one of the largest world markets for ivory, including African ivory, for which, because their tusks are larger, many more African elephants are slaughtered (and their babies culled and sold) than Asian elephants. Under current laws, limited ivory trading is not illegal, but it is, at least in spirit, heavily regulated to small quantities at a time. There is no regulation, however, on the trade of ivory for religious or traditional purposes, meaning that in practice, you can ship however many tons of ivory you want so long as you slap a label on it that says, for instance, “For Monastery.” This is known as the “Thai Loophole,” and it aids and abets the poaching of elephants all over central and southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

But while this latest decree may be cause for cautious optimism, it hardly spells the end of the trials facing the world’s biggest pachyderm.

Elephants in Thailand are still tortured and sold on the open market every day.

And nowadays, it’s primarily done for the edification of Western tourists. Babies are brought in from Burma/Myanmar and other points north, and sold to private collectors and zoos all over the world, and to tourist camps all over Southeast Asia.

A brief history lesson.

“People,” or some approximation thereof, have been in the area of the world that is now called Thailand for roughly 40,000 years. When in course of hominid events homo sapiens first teamed up with the Elephantidae family (as opposed to strictly hunting them, as our various homo relatives did) is unknown, but guesses range from 10,000 to as far back as 30,000 years, i.e., ever since humans figured out how to develop tools (stone, back then) that would allow them to employ such massive animals for transportation, construction and agricultural uses.

See? Super mythical.

Which is what elephants were always used for, and have always been, to the present day. There’s a saying in Thai (or so I’m told, as I don’t speak it) that “Thailand was built on the back of the elephant,” and indeed Thai culture and the elephant seem inextricably linked. Thai in general are extremely proud of their history and they believe that the elephant was instrumental in creating and sustaining that history, and they pay the image of the elephant due homage in their historical and spiritual myths.

The actual elephant, however, has always just been treated like a big ole ox. 

In fact, under the law, they might as well be. They’re officially categorized as livestock, meaning the same regulations apply to them as to cattle and pigs and chickens. And oxen.

But they’re not run-of-the-mill livestock. They’re incredibly intelligent and emotionally advanced, and probably because of this, they suffer greatly the vagaries of captivity. Those are probably also the reasons people like them so much and feel, after even the briefest interaction with them, a close bond.

And what “captivity” entails these days can be misleading. 

By 1986, Asian elephants were on the IUCN’s red or “endangered” list, meaning 5% or less of their “original” population (since when people started counting them) is left. After the Thai logging industry was dissolved and outlawed in 1989, what was left of them – which still amounted to tens of thousands of elephants – were suddenly out of work. Over the previous century, their natural habitat had been destroyed by about 90%, so it wasn’t as if they could just be turned out to pasture. Many owners, unsure what to do with their elephants and unable to support their voracious appetites, either killed their elephants or let them become strays.

At the same time, Western tourism to Thailand was really starting to pick up (which was likely one of the reasons the country both felt pressure and could afford to “do the right thing” and outlaw logging). Thai elephant owners saw an opportunity to give Westerners that up-close-and-personal experience that so many of them were willing to pay quite handsomely for, so they built camps, taught their intelligent and quick-study elephants some tricks, and elephant tourism was born.

Nowadays, the vast majority of elephants in Thailand live and work in tourist camps all over the country, many of which, in response to market demands, have done away with their hoops of fire and soccer balls and claim to be “sanctuaries” or “eco-tourism” spots that offer “natural elephant experiences.” These places run the gamut from horrible-horrible conditions to pretty darn nice ones, and while they’re probably better off here than wandering the streets, the fundamental conditions that comprise their captivity are extraordinarily unnatural.

Elephants are nomadic and prefer to have hundreds of miles in which to roam around, and instead are kept in corrals and stalls and enclosures ranging from a few feet to a few acres. Elephants have complex nutritional needs and will eat and self-medicate from a variety of more than 100 different plants, whereas they usually get grain and, if they’re lucky, fruit in the camps.

Worst of all, though, they all go through what is known as phajaan, or “The Crush.”

The Crush is a process of breaking an elephant that goes back thousands of years. In short, a baby elephant is taken from its mother, crammed into a tight shoot that inhibits movement, and tortured until its spirit is completely broken.

And when I say “tortured,” I mean poked, prodded, cut, burned, beaten. I mean red-hot pokers inserted into the flesh, into the soles of the foot, into the ears and nostrils and mouth. I mean beating and starvation and dehydration that lasts for days on end, that takes a baby elephant to the brink of death.

I mean this:

Phajaan – The Crush – in all its glory.
(Not my pic)

And this:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/10/1016_021016_phajaan.html

Nat Geo video.
(Not my pic)

And this:

http://phajaan.webs.com/

phaajan.webs.com video and links to more.
(Not my pic)

It ain’t pretty, and every single elephant in captivity has gone through it. Even those at the lushest, nicest, most beautiful and clean and relaxing and pleasing-to-look-and-be-at elephant eco-sanctuaries.

It’s a practice that’s complicated by culture. It offends our (or at least my) sensitive modern Western sensibilities, but it’s considered a necessary and not by any means evil practice in Thailand that goes back probably to the very inception of our domestication of elephants – ten thousand plus years.  How else, the logic goes, are you going to get an animal that will grow to 5,000 pounds to respect you, unless you break it first?

The answer from animal behaviorists in the West is, “Simple! Positive reinforcement! We’ve been using it for years on animals as big as horses!” To which Thai mahouts – elephant handlers – shake their collective heads and go back to making sure their elephants don’t kill any tourists, using the only tools they know how to use:

This is a bullhook.
(Not mine.)

My girlfriend and I were such tourists just a couple months ago. We spent the week around New Years at the GVI (Global Vision International) Thailand Elephant project in Huay Pakoot, which is between four and ten hours (depending on Thai traffic and the reliability of your particular Thai vehicle) north of Chiang Mai. It was great, you should go, the people are wonderful, it’s gorgeous.

What makes GVI a little different than the vast majority of elephant tourism spots is that their mission is to get elephants out of tourist camps and back into a semi-natural life.

This might sound easy enough, but in practice it is hard to do.

Elephants in tourist camps make their owners money. Huay Pakoot, where we were put up by a family in their spare room, is comprised of about 80 families, mostly all of whom are members of the Karen tribe, one of the six Hill Tribe peoples flung out across northern Thailand and Burma/Myanmar. Between those 80 families, the villagers of Huay Pakoot own 60 elephants. Up until three years ago, when GVI started the program there, all of those elephants were working in tourist camps, making their owners pretty decent money – for some of them, that’s the only income they have, and all the income they really have the opportunity to make. The challenge facing GVI is to make it economically feasible for people to bring their elephants back and not lose much if any money. GVI does this by charging people for the pleasure of staying in the village and participating in the daily routine maintenance of the elephant rehabilitation program.

Huay Pakoot1

View from host family’s house — Erin saying hello — Public school

And what a pleasure it is. Really and truly.

That maintenance includes health checks and behavior observation. Basically, you hike out to wherever the elephants are, watch them for a couple hours and head back. Health checks are the only opportunity you get to get close to them – you check in their ears, look into their (big brown beautiful) eyes, look at their feet and toenails, poke at their poop (with a stick, mind) – and otherwise they’re just trying to live a relatively carefree life. They have several hundred acres to roam around in, and they have access to as many different kinds of forage food they need.

It’s an experiment in alternate, responsible elephant tourism, a totally different kind of sustainability. They’ve managed to bring five elephants back so far, and have started a community-run version/branch that has brought two others back, as well.

And it’s great. And I hope it catches on.

But according to the GVI staff members, there are only six – SIX! – places in all of Thailand that are doing this kind of responsible alternative elephant tourism.

And only one – ONE! – woman who is actually attempting to raise baby elephants from birth in semi-captivity using positive reinforcement. This woman, Sangduen Chailert, called Lek, is the only Thai voice speaking out above a whisper against phajaan and calling for a new paradigm in the treatment and training of elephants. As a woman in a male-dominated industry in a rather conservative culture, she faces a ton of criticism for calling into question a tradition that is centuries, perhaps millenia, old. The only reason this criticism isn’t sharper or more dangerous than it is is because a huge number of her would-be criticizers simply dismiss her – and the idea that these massive animals can be trusted is they’re not broken – out of hand.

Mario (the Italo-Thai baby) and his mom, slacking their thirst.

Elephants grow even slower than humans, their gestation is 22 months (!) and they don’t reach physical maturity until their early twenties. Everything is big about them, including their mood swings, and males especially can be extremely volatile in their periods of musth, even after having gone through phajaan. So the jury on how an elephant reacts to positive reinforcement training will be out for at least a couple decades, even on the small handful of elephants Lek is currently training that way, let alone on a large enough sample of elephants to convince old school, traditional mahouts that it’s an acceptable way to keep an elephant docile enough to interact with humans.

Of course, the obvious answer is inherent in that last sentence – keep humans and elephants separated. Maybe we’ve outgrown our partnership. Or at least the kind of hierarchical partnership we used to have.

But that’s not really realistic. People want their pics with elephants, and want to ride elephants, and want to bathe them and feed them and pet them. I get it.

And not everyone has the time to spend a week or two or four in some remote sanctuary, or the interest or the money to do so. I totally get that, too.

But if you’re thinking about going to Thailand, and thinking about seeing some elephants there, think about doing it in a responsible way. While it may be too late to save any of the elephants you’re likely to see from having gone through phajaan, every dollar or baht you spend at a tourist camp keeps that practice going in the future, and every dollar or baht you spend at a real, legitimate sanctuary helps move the industry – butterfly wingflap by butterfly wingflap – towards responsible sustainability.

Babies frolicking in the wild.
(They do that in Huay Pakoot thanks to GVI)

Plus, it helps spread the word. I had no idea this action went on until I started looking into last summer before we went to Thailand, and not a clue about its gnarly extent until we were there learning about all this action, passing tourist camps on the beach and then living amongst people who were trying to change things.

And you can get the word out even if you never go to Thailand. Read up and share what you learn.

If you have any questions or comments, write ’em down here or email me. 

(cuz he’s rad)

Danger and Doubt

Does this look like a face that embraces danger to you, or does this look like a face that embraces danger?

MHK

I saw Maxine Hong Kingston read and speak Monday night at the John Fowles Center For Creative Writing at Chapman University. (If you’re in SoCal, check out this spring’s awesome Asian-American lineup, which includes Karen Tei Yamashita.)

Kingston was wonderful, all five-foot-nothing of her peeking out from behind the lectern, reading from The Woman Warrior, The Fifth Book of Peace, and I Love A Broad Margin to My Life.

She talked about love as a vital force, about how we may not be able to prevent a war next week or next month or next year, but if we live our lives in love today, we can “save battlefield lives a century from now.” She recalled Viet Cong and American veterans meeting teary-eyed decades after trying to kill one another, and talked about the comfort of Alice Walker’s hands and hugs during protests. She invoked Hua Mulan and Athena and the heroines of Leo Tolstoy in calling upon the strength of women to save the world from war.

All that was wonderful and inspiring and uplifting and vintage Kingston.

And then she said something surprising. In response to a question about influences on Tripmaster Monkey – His Fake Book, a trippy San Fran tale of a sixth-generation Chinese poet named Whittman Ah Sing (it’s rad, you should read it – find it at an Indie Bookstore near you), she talked about the people she grew up with and the people she went to Cal with and knew in the Bay Area then and after. She talked about how cool the men were then, in the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, how the new language that was being created to talk about psychedelic experience and political experience and modern experience in general was being coined and spoken by men – they were enfranchised, they were the powerful ones, they were the leaders, they were the creators and receptacles of cool.

That might sound like the beginning of a “feminist” rant, but it wasn’t. She said that the men of the Beat generation, the men coming out of World War II and going into Korea, the half-generation after that, the boys and men facing the draft for Vietnam – during this time, these men produced more good writing than women, because, Kingston said, “[women] weren’t in danger. And you really need danger to write novels.”

No, for all you whose dander is suddenly up, in fact she did not mention the different kinds of “danger” that women endured throughout not only this epoch but for most of human history, nor did she invoke the struggles various other minority groups faced during this time. It was an impromptu response about her life forty, fifty years ago. Maybe she’s reached an age or a stage in which she’s over it, but she didn’t seem upset by the fact that that was the way things were. And we all know that Kingston’s thoughts have been with and her actions on behalf of those marginalized groups for most of her life and career as an author and public figure, so don’t get your PC panties in a knot over her saying that men wrote better novels for a few years because they were in danger. It’s interesting.

Besides, I’m not nearly as interested in the context of that sentiment as I am in the content.

Do we really need danger to write novels?

To write anything?

To DO anything?

There are those who would answer a resounding “absolutely!” but there are also those who would answer an equally emphatic “absolutely not!” I know examples of both. I took classes from Alicia Kozameh, an Argentinian writer of enormous impact who spent part of her three years’ imprisonment in the infamous El Sótano (“the basement”), who said that her mind was never more free than when she was locked up and under perpetual threat of being desaparecida. (This is not to say, by any means, that she would rather be back there, scribbling on dirty napkins in El Sótano, instead of living in LA and teaching at Chapman. I think she’s plenty fond of being out of jail and away from danger — and she’s no less productive.) And check out this story from the NY Times about Murong Xuecun,  a Chinese novelist who’s heavily censored and risking his life to criticize that censorship in his country – novel writing may never be this risky, this dangerous, or this important in the US.

But then there’s John Cheever, for instance, who was rich and wealthy and white and American and pretty much never faced any danger, besides maybe an excess of single-malt Scotch whisky. And let’s be honest, a lot of people in the US and Canada and the UK and Western Europe write from a position of security, if not downright coddled luxury, and a lot of them produce perfectly brilliant, insightful, incisive commentaries on humanity.

There are of course plenty (the majority?) of people who live somewhere in between these two extremes – minorities, immigrants, the poor, the otherwise-dispossessed – and they of course are in varying kinds of danger –  physical danger, danger of cultural extinction, existential danger, whatever – varying amounts of the time.

books

But what about those of us who aren’t? I’m a middle-class white American with all my fingers and toes. I’ve never felt real discrimination. I’ve never been in danger of being erased or not-considered. I’ve never been overlooked for any other reason than my work or whatever isn’t worth looking at. Aside from a few dicey late-night situations, I’ve never been in any real physical danger, either. I’m registered for the draft, but honestly I probably would’ve found a way to bow outta that in years past if it’d come to it.  (Today would I go willingly? I don’t know.)

So how can I write novels? What danger did Professor Kingston use to write her books?

Her most well-known is Woman Warrior, so maybe you can guess where she picked her battles.

So we can pick our battles, then? Decide on what danger drives us? Well then, what do I got?

I think what it boils down to is that I’m in danger of becoming an automaton. A listless carbon copy. 

automatonWe all are, really, in our own ways. I don’t talk about it too much because it can sound (and get) a little batty, but at core I totally buy into the risks Wallace outlined in Infinite Jest, and those Huxley did in Brave New World, and Burgess in The Wanting Seed, and dozens of others in their own way.

I’m also, at core, a lazy bastard, and would just as soon lie about all day and every evening flicking through the “news” channels, flipping through the paper, watching B movies and reading Tom Clancy books and sci-fi and fantasy series, and, like water moving downhill, find the path of least resistance through life. I know the attraction of group think, of agreeing with my friends and the masses in general, of avoiding confrontation and debate.

But there’s something about that, some twinge at the back of my mind, that bugs me, that voice that says, “meeehhh, I’m not quite sure that’s how things go, how they should be, that that’s all there is.”

And mostly that’s it. That’s the extent of my insight – a twinge of skepticism.  Time was, I’d deal with that little voice in other ways besides writing – float it off down a river of Bushmills, say – but nowadays, I leave that twinge alone and see where it takes me.

I have little if any real conviction. I’m not a Man of Principle. But I am curious, and I do doubt, if either of those count for anything, which I think they do. I doubt a lot of things, most things even. Doubt is the most common feeling/emotion/reaction to life that I have. Sure, it can border on crippling if you constantly doubt and second-guess yourself or your writing or your purpose in life, but most things are crippling if they’re too intensely focused on oneself. For the most part, kept in its proper proportion, that omnipresent doubt is the greatest motivator in my life.

Doubt gets me off my lazy ass and in front of the keyboard. 

Some Buddhists say that doubt is the better part of faith, primarily because it drives investigation – of the world, of society, of culture and ego and the self and our behavior in response to all of these things – and it is only through such inquiry that we can learn and understand and see through the bullshit. Because in a lot of ways, that’s what life’s all about, right? We all know or feel – some of us all the time, others only every now and again – that there’s some serious bullshit going on, that there’s some game being played without our consent and definitely without our knowing all the rules.

I have a friend who’s going through some dating bullshit right now, and she’s been feeling kinda bad about how she’s been acting here and there, fending off but also buying into accusations that she’s “psycho” or “crazy” or whatever. But she told me yesterday that she had an epiphany and feels better because she “realized it’s not the actions themselves that make me feel bad, it’s that I place myself in this category of women who are by today’s standards, crazy.” She was growing tired of those “psycho” accusations, and in growing tired, started to doubt their validity, and that doubt created the space for this realization to squeak through that at least for the time being is making her reevaluate who she is and how she’s acting and who she listens to and how she lets what she does hear affect her – in short, in some little tiny way, it’s changing her life.

And that’s a profound thing, right? To realize that the games that are going on are not even real games but illusory ones, games created by people who don’t know any better, who don’t even know they’re creating or perpetuating these constructs and expectations that they’re foisting on anyone and everyone that comes into contact with them — to realize that, right up until the moment of realization, we were those people who didn’t know any better.

Have a couple of these types of epiphanies – or satori, as the Japanese would call it – and you begin to suspect that there are a LOT more to be had. You begin to doubt everything. If you let it, this can take over your life, and you’ll either go crazy or join a monastery. Or both.

But if you find a way to funnel the energy created by this kind of realization and doubt, then you’re really onto something. Some people go to church, some people volunteer or do some other kind of service work, some people quit their corporate jobs and start a raw-dairy co-op, some people take up painting or guitar or poetry or surfing or chess. Some people simply absorb it, knock a bit of the sharpness off their edges, act a little softer towards the world, react a little less. It’s like your skin gets thicker and your heart gets tenderer at the very same time.

If that sounds like Trungpa, that’s because it is.

trungpa

And these are the things that drive me to write. I think they drive a lot of writers to write. Investigative journalists doubt the story, doubt the press release, doubt the party line, doubt the soundbites. Sports writers doubt their ability to do what they’re writing about – okay, mostly they know all about their inability to do it – and that creates awe. (Or they doubt Mark McGwire’s ability to hit 70 home runs, and that creates a story…)

And I think writers of fiction write about their doubts about the nature of reality, about culture and society and love and friendship and history and our place in it. We doubt that our current explanations for those things are sufficient – most people know humanity in general’s explanations are woefully inadequate – and we think there may be better explanations, and we work out and test those explanations in story form.

And the danger (here’s the circle) to NOT doing that, to not investigating/interrogating/inquiring those twinges of skepticism, to not chasing down my doubts, is a slow slide into permanent and perpetual acquiescence. I’ve chosen writing as the thing, my form of not going gentle into that good night, and if I don’t write, I don’t do anything, and I probably sink into my couch watching some version of the Infinite Jest “samizdat.”

…Perhaps, though, it’s all (and I mean ALL) just a desire to not fade away, and it’s as much ego as anything, and what I’m really afraid of is being inconsequential — I want to make my mark. I want to prove that I was here, that I understand, that I see through…

Which is a doubt. Which will require some thought. Which is my point.

~~~~~~~~~~

What’s your danger?

What’s your doubt?

What drives you to do the things that you do?

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Promiscuity Amongst the Stacks

I know that got your attention.

library_love

***

Especially if you went to a college with a massive subterranean library that housed floor after floor of narrow aisles of teetering bookcases overflowing with archaic tomes that people rarely used.

These Ecoean / Borgesian libraries are the gathering fields of knowledge, both rarely-updated-Wikipedia-in-print type knowledge, and good old fashioned carnal knowledge. Doing it in the stacks was one of the college experiences you didn’t want to not tick off the Unofficial College Experiences To-Do List.

But, alas, I’m not here to talk about sex. At least not today.

I’m talking the way I used to read. I’m not sure “promiscuous” is quite the right word, because I wasn’t indiscriminate about the books I took home with me, picked up on a Friday and spent the weekend with, fell in passionate but short-lived love with, devoured in bed, stayed up all night with on the couch, clutched at in the reclined front seat of my car, and passed out under after too much whisky.

No, I had my standards, alright: Dickens, Tolstoy, Hemingway,  Faulkner, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Foucault, Beckett, Joyce, Kant, Freud, Mailer, Proust, Bellow, Updike, Salinger, all the dead and dying white men you could think of (and just enough Kate Chopin and Elizabeth Bishop to impress some feminist-leaning dates). I was very consciously working my way through a very traditional conception of a Western literary/philosophical canon. It was an elite group, in my mind. Well-connected types. $5k a night types.

But still, really, I read for notches on my belt. I couldn’t shut up about what I’d read, either – not so much about their contents or implications or characteristics that made them unique from one another, but simply that I’d read it. I bragged about reading a couple novels at once, about how tired I was from staying up all night to finish off some slim, well-structured, kind of kinky South American novel, how my mind was being blown by this succession of Russians I was into, how I was breaking the bank to support this constant flow of new, strange books. I built cheap, crappy bookshelves and displayed my conquests in them for everyone to see. As Dylan sang to Mr. Jones (and though I didn’t know it, to me, too), I was “very well read, it [was] well known.”

And like a stereotypical male jerk, I forgot about them as soon as I was done with them. Those bookshelves may as well have been full of uncut pages a la Gatsby for how much what was on those pages meant to me (no wonder I liked ole Jay so much back then).

I’d remember their names and their general physical characteristics, like their size and weight and the feel of their paper in my hands, but about their interiority I’d retain almost nothing. For the most part, I’d absorbed almost nothing. I wasn’t interested in what was inside, beyond what it felt like in the moment and what it could do for me and my image afterwards. I went through some of the best literature ever written like so many B movies – a cheap thrill to get my mind off things. At the time, of course, I thought having read a lot of books made you great at reading. I thought I was being attentive, that I was engaged in something profound. I thought that quantity meant something – to me, yes, but especially to others. I thought if I got to some magic, unknown number of books read, I’d feel like I was alright. As if once I’d read everything of importance there was to read, I could, through osmosis or simply enough repetition, create that kind of magic myself. I thought that if everyone else knew how much I’d read, they’d be awed, and that awe would translate into something meaningful. I was operating under the assumption that someone else’s awe would make me a good writer.

And I was an effective narcissist. I had just enough natural talent – polished with charm and oiled with the fear of the shame of being found out – to come up with flashy arguments for well-researched papers to make decent grades. I acted the earnest student – I was an earnest student – and very openly fell in earnest-student love with my teachers. When I pushed things too far, I would cobble together what fleeting memories I had of  those week-long flings and one-night-stands, leverage that love to the hilt, and stay in good standing.

Anyway, over the last several years, my approach to reading has begun to change. I was hesitant to admit, when I first began to suspect it in my mid-twenties, that I’d mistreated so many good books, disrespected so many good writers. What did it say about me that I’d wham-bam-thank-you-ma’ammed my way through The Brothers K and In Search of Lost Time? It meant I was a shallow jerk, obviously. A fact which a lot of people, I imagine, were on to long before it ever occurred to me…

But, thank Godot, I’m beyond that now, or starting-to-get. I still have the temptation to tear through novels and Read It All, but the motivation for doing so is changing. I know now that no amount of reading is going to make me a Great Author. It might help me with my writing, but it’s not going to do it for me. It’s not going to substitute for learning how I write. There are, of course, innumerable lessons to be learned, and the more I write, the more I realize this, and the slower I read. I have less time to read the more I write, yes, but I also take longer per page. It’s as if the perfectly obvious idea, usually as subtle as a flying mallet, finally hit me and I realized that these books were labors of love and genius, and that in fact I had to pay attention if I wanted to learn from them. And so over the last three or four years, it seems like I’m just discovering how to read. I dislike that expression, “I know less now than I did XX years ago” (if that’s true, what have you been doing with yourself?), but the sense of it is apropos.

And it’s extremely exciting. Looking back on my teens and early twenties, when I was so sure I already knew all there was to know and just needed to ingest more quantities of it, I see a closed-off, static, rigid mind. I remember being discontent, I remember that feeling of inadequacy and spite that under-girded my arrogance and my desperate, pathetic attempts at mattering – to myself, to everyone, to anyone. And now it’s as if the whole world is opening up, and there are so many good books and there are so many possibilities.

It’s a shame that I more or less missed out on all those books I tore through back then, because I’ll never have time to reread them all. Some of this ability to “understand” literature (whatever that really means) has been somewhat retroactive and I’ve realized things about Anna Karenina and Don Quixote upon recalling them that I wasn’t aware of at 16 and 20, but most of the stuff from back then is gone from my memory bank. But I also realize no one cares whether I’ve read all those books or not.  When I remember that nobody cares – and not just about what books I might or might not have had occasion to read – I’m a lot better off. Then I can do the thing, whatever it is, for the sake of doing it. Nobody cares that I ran X miles, or surfed at X beach, or met such-and-such author at X coffee shop, or meditate X minutes a day, or work out X times a week, or write X words, or take my girlfriend to X for dinner, or go to Y with my friends for kicks.

Nobody cares!

And when nobody cares, I care a lot more about doing the thing than having done it. And I become more interested in what other people are doing – not to care or compare what others have done, but because if they’re doing it, it might be worth doing myself. And then I’m just a little tiny part of this big ole interesting world trying to add some color to the mosaic, instead of an insignificant nothing existing painfully outside of it and waiting impatiently to get on top of it by hook or by crook.

And that, for the time being at least, is my secret to life.

It occurs to me that a lot of this is probably a simple result of growing up and getting a little older and getting a little more perspective on myself and the world around me. I read everything now – well, not everything, I still have no-50-Shades-type standards, but Grunberg, Soroush, Thiong’o and McGuane made up my last book order – and the wider I read, the more beautiful and wonderful and approachable the world seems. And while I may not get back to all the books I read back then – especially the philosophers (spare me the Germans especially, these days) – perhaps I’ll reread some of them. Come to think of it, Faulkner read Don Quixote “every year, as some do the Bible.” He said, “the books I read are the ones I knew and loved when I was a young man and to which I return as you do to old friends: the Old Testament, Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes.” What a testament to the richness of these books, right, that Faulkner eschewed contemporaries to revisit only them? How wonderful to know that those old friends and lovers, to whom I gave pieces of myself without even knowing it, whose memories sometimes jar me from sleep and leave me to stare heartsick and nostalgic at the dark ceiling – how wonderful to know that all I have to do to taste that particular flavor of perfection once again, or to sample some as-yet-unknown promise of untold rapture, is to rise from bed and tiptoe across the room to the bookcase and slip out a book – a book that, these days, is sure to reassure me that all of life’s secrets and all the assurances I’ll ever need that life is just as it’s supposed to be are here and now, in the ground beneath my feet, in the pen in my hand, waiting for me in that warm bed that I stole out of for a little bit of cold, old comfort.

To which books do you “return as you do to old friends”? Or do you prefer to always read something new?

What’s your current secret to life?

***hat-tip collegecandy.com for thepic***

Some Kind of Monster

“Just because you thought of it, doesn’t mean it has to go in the story.”

i_love_lucy_bread_monster1

Such was the advice I got, on several occasions in various forms, from Mark Axelrod when he was reading chapters out of my thesis.

I started this blog in December with the idea that I’d post once a week, that I’d write for no more than two hours at a time on each entry, that I’d keep the subject material light, and that I’d leave the posts “raw” or unedited.

Then Sandy Hook happened, my second week out of the gate, and I couldn’t let it go by without at least a couple words, and those couple turned into to quite a few rather weighty words, and since then I haven’t been able to get back to the speedy, lighthearted blog I originally hoped I’d be writing, despite a couple attempts to do so.

Another reason for this – the more immediate reason, probably, than that I have oh-so-much weighty stuff to say – is that I wanted to finish this short story I’m working on first, before I “get back” (after four posts) to blogging.

The problem is, I’m now about eighteen-thousand words deep.

For those of you who don’t do word counts, that’s about 50 pages. For those of you who haven’t spent much time with the nuanced definitions of fictional forms, that’s already twice
(and approaching thrice) as long as the upper range of what most journals or magazines will publish as a ‘short story.’ It’s already a novelette, maybe a novella, and probably has enough going on in it to be fleshed out into a novel.  It definitely has enough characters. Thirteen, if you want to know. Which is a LOT for a short story.

This – the characters, the complexity, the ceaselessness – is an example of what They mean when They talk about overwriting, and it’s a problem I have all the time. An anecdotal example:

My thesis advisor – the abovementioned Axelrod – counted the number of characters in the draft of my unfinished novel thesis and said (I paraphrase), “You have 33 characters in 198 pages. Dostoyevsky had 47 characters in Crime and Punishment, which was 475 pages. At the rate you’re going, you’d have 79 characters in a book as long as Crime and Punishment, which I believe is the length you’re going for. So, you’ve outdone Dostoyevsky. Congratulations.”

The very obvious fact that so many characters might be tough to handle hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard it put in such simple terms. After all, I was having no problem keeping them all straight…

In addition to posting regular blog posts, I also resolved (in a rare conformity to new year’s tradition) to finish one short story a month, in the hopes of having three or four decent new ones by the end of 2013 to start shopping around alongside the three I have in rotation now. This will require that I write a little differently than I usually do – or always have, really – and practice writing more quickly to practice writing less. The result of which will (hopefully) be a streamlining of my writing process.

And by writing differently, quickly, and less, I mean like this:

Ray Bradbury, in his Art of Fiction interview in The Paris Review, said, “I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard.”

Raymond Carver – one of my all-time favorites – defined a short story as something that “can be written and read in one sitting.”

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Now, Carver was known to rework a story into as many as 30 drafts before considering it finished, and Bradbury would put stories in his filing cabinets to marinate for weeks or years or decades before pulling them back out to finish them.* And as my girlfriend reminded me last weekend, these guys were pros by the time they said these things, and pros have a tendency to say things as if they’d never learned them and never done otherwise. And maybe I still need to get all that backstory out and down on paper before I can shrink it down and suck it back up and put it behind the words and between the lines.

“I’m just trying to learn everything,” as Erin would say (in the little-British-boy accent of the lad she’d be quoting).

Oddly enough, some of the stuff I’ve already learned doesn’t do much for me. Remembering that Hemingway wrote around 400 words a day and would break off mid-story, mid-paragraph, mid-sentence if he needed a swim (or a drink), or that Burgess wrote and rewrote and worked on one page at a time until it was done – which could take him an hour or could take him days – doesn’t help right now. For whatever reasons (well, I know them, but they’re boring internal-struggle/insecurity type reasons), I’m focused on prolificacy right now. I want to produce, to generate, to FINISH things – and then I’ll worry about separating wheat from chaff later.

Or so I think. But when I sit down to start-and-finish expeditiously, I keep adding things in or adding them on, and I end up with a story Lucille-Ball-bread-loaf of a story. Which I usually “save for later” (read: abandon). I’m beginning to suspect I might be wasting time. Maybe this whole tactic of tacking things on when I catch what time I can catch at the keyboard isn’t working out as well as I like to think it is.

I’m beginning to suspect that this is a kind of procrastination. A weird kind, because I’m working, I’m writing, I’m actually getting stuff out and down on paper. But I’m not completing anything. And this is stupid because I no longer think that I’m putting the ending off to avoid rejection. This was more than likely the primary reason I procrastinated SO bad for SO long on SO many things – if it’s done, someone has to see it. And judge it. And likely find it wanting.

But I’ve gotten over that, and have the growing stack of rejection letters to prove it – a rejection-letter-stack that’s like that loaf of bread… So, I think this ceaselessness is really just a bad habit that I need to break. And I’m hoping that the new year’s resolution and the making it public (to what limited few might read this declaration) will help.

It’s interesting to me to hear about the different ways we get in our own way, the tricks, the bs we come up with for not doing things. I see this in myself, and it makes me think how many people this happens to – how many it’s happening to right now, this very moment – how many writers/artists/filmmakers/entrepreneurs/inventors/people do this to themselves in any and every aspect of their lives. Which makes me realize how special simply doing something is, just doing anything, really, anything at all that requires follow-through.

There are two ways to look at the world once I’ve thought myself, or paid-attentioned-myself into this realization. I can be overwhelmed by how many other people are doing it and feel like shit for being not-one-of-them, or I can think wow, what an amazing world, look how many people are self-actualizing all over the place! Isn’t it rad to be one of them!?

{Yeah, I did just write “self-actualize.” I live in Southern California – people say that here.}

I try to choose the latter, and usually it helps.

I have three days to get to the end of this behemoth of a story. Two-thousand words, probably, to bridge the final gap and introduce the end. Then I’ll put it down and see sometime later whether it wants to be cut in thirds and bundled up as a short story, or stretched out a little bit and passed off as a novella.

In the meantime, sometime during the second week of February, I’ll start something else, and I’ll try to do a draft of it in one sitting. At the very least, I’ll try to put in only the right amount of ingredients so the oven doesn’t explode. I think I’m aiming for something close to what Ian McEwan, one of my top three favorite living authors, says on the UK’s Creative Choices web site: “…take as long as you like. It doesn’t matter if you write a short story at 200 words a day, because in eight weeks it will be done… [and] If you spend four weeks writing a short story and it’s a disaster, you’ve only wasted four weeks.”

I also have six or seven draft posts for At the Wellhead. Some, about my Thailand vacation and another post on guns, have some grist, but most of the drafts are just titles with a line or two to be riffed on… later. So I’ma try to make that LaterTime happen sooner-rather-than.

This was something to tide me over. Thanks for stopping by.

Any suggestions for or experiences in breaking this cycle – of overwriting, of procrastinating, of freaking out about not-having-anything-to-show-for-yourself, of whatever this post inspired (disgust and frustration count) – I’d love to hear ’em.

* Bradbury on finishing unfinished stories (also in that PR interview): “I do keep files of ideas and stories that didn’t quite work a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago. I come back to them later and I look through the titles. It’s like a father bird coming with a worm. You look down at all these hungry little beaks—all these stories waiting to be finished—and you say to them, Which of you needs to be fed? Which of you needs to be finished today? And the story that yells the loudest, the idea that stands up and opens its mouth, is the one that gets fed.”

bradbury

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Lest History Pass Us By

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This post really has very little to do with Korea, except as an example of what I’m going to talk about and for the fact that its inspiration happened while I was there. I wasn’t even really in Korea, at that – I was layingover in Incheon Airport outside Seoul.

Plus, I like the vintagey, beat-up-cracked-paint flag image and thought it looked nice there right there at the top of the page.

Anyway, I was in Incheon Airport, wandering aimless and tired through one of the food courts when I saw a man that made me think about history and my place in it. Or lack thereof.

He was a Korean guy, probably in his late 50s, well-built, handsome and healthy-looking, wearing a nondescript, light gray military-type cap – one of those floppy things with a short bill – a long-sleeve red shirt under a quilted, gray, down vest, and squareish bifocals. His arms were crossed loosely over his chest and he was leaned back in his booth with his legs stretched out under the table in front of him, totally at ease. He was looking at me, smiling, and he looked like a man who would be at ease anywhere, under any circumstances.

Something about that imperturbability, his obvious physical strength and good posture even in his reclination, his confidence – he didn’t look away when I saw that he was watching me – and probably to a certain extent that hat, made me think he’d been a career soldier. Before my imagination could go spiraling off too far into BourneLegacyLand, historical perspective tripped a switch and my thoughts were shunted onto another line, and his life, his 30-year military career flashed before my eyes.

Imagine what this guy would’ve seen in fifty-some-odd years. When he was born in the late-1950s, a few years after the Korean war, his country was worse off financially than countries in West Africa, and today it has the 15th largest GDP in the world. And as a soldier stationed on the 38th parallel working his way up to captain, maybe even as high as colonel, he would have seen some shit, boy. Espionage, assassinations and acts of terrorism, nuclear threats, isolated clashes and full-on battles, abductions, exchanges and escapes. He’d’ve known every American and Brit that mattered, and every Russian and Cuban that he wasn’t supposed to. History would have played out at the base of his watchtower – at his very feet! – and he would have taken part in it, maybe even had a hand in steering some of it.

And now, in the aftermath of that exciting career, while grabbing a beer before heading to Sydney or LA or Monaco or wherever, he sees me, a funny-looking 30-year-old American with a traveler’s backpack looking like an overgrown kid on a field trip, and smiles.

Not a smile you’d give someone, as a greeting or a show of friendliness, and definitely not a come-on. He was smiling to himself about me, it seemed, or at me, like you do at a kid straining to help his mom carry stuff into the house that’s too heavy for him, as if I were playacting as a man, and it was amusing.

(Let’s inject a little reality at this point – he probably didn’t see me and was smiling at some pretty girl behind me.)

And I realized, right in the middle of that food court, that compared to a Korean soldier, compared to a lot of people, really, even here in the US, I’m kind of outside history. I’m swept along by it, obviously – I live in a volatile time in a country that has its hands in a whole lot of that volatility. But I’m not so much IN it as pulled along in its wake. I may report on its effects on the human condition, via fiction, and if the gods deem me worthy maybe someday a few people will read those dispatches from my literary foxhole, but they’re going to be way after the fact – I mean, Tobias Wolff said it takes him 25 years to “catch up to places I’ve been.” And I may try to stick some band-aids on some of the lighter wounds history has inflicted as it’s torn through time, by volunteering and helping out my fellow man where and when I can, but I’m not doing much to ward off history. I’m not affecting anything. I’m not really all that involved in anything, at least to the extent that a man who’s spent his life in the Korean Army is.

This wasn’t any kind of life-changing realization, whereupon I made some sort of resolution to change my ways and change my place in the world and become a global doer. It wasn’t any kind of surprise either, and I’m not upset or disappointed  – it’s not like I was under the delusion that I WAS having some impact, or even that I was aspiring to have some, or that I suddenly realized I wanted to be a mover and a shaker and a framer and a founder. I know some people who are doing such things and some who want very badly to be doing such things and hope with all their hoping power to do such things in the future. I don’t put too much value on either approach – move and shake, if that’s your thing, or don’t move and don’t shake. Go do whatever floats your long-tail boat. History and the world are big enough for all of us. 

I’d spent the previous two weeks in a few parts of Thailand, and I was feeling pretty good – about life, about the world, about myself – in that bittersweet end-of-an-adventure way, when you wish you’d planned a longer trip but since you didn’t and you’re heading home anyway, you’re pretty happy about it. Part of me wants to be a perpetual, professional adventurer, a travel journalist extraordinaire, another Paul Theroux, and these two-week adventures both get me going and set me to wondering about my life. The only problem with getting out to see bits and pieces of the world is the awareness doing so engenders of just how massive and wonderful the world really is, and how much more of it there is than the tiny corners you toil toil toil away to make the money to take the modest trip to see. You run into other travelers from all over the globe, and as one of their favorite topics of conversation is where they’ve been and where else they want to go, by the time you’re wrapping up your holiday, you have a mental list of about twelve-dozen places you need to see in the next year and no idea how you’re going to get to one of them.

I’d just finished Chuck Palanhiuk’s Invisible Monsters, and reading CP always puts me in kind of a funky mood w/r/t to the unwieldiness of modern existence, and IM is no letdown in that respect. And I’d just started Midnight’s Children ahead of the April US release of Deepa Mehta’s film version. The two books probably helped set the stage for this kind of thinking, especially Midnight’s Children, which is narrated by a guy born on the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947 – the date of India’s independence from British colonial rule – and whose life both reflects and is inextricably intertwined with the development of the newly independent India. The guy’s whole life is a historical moment. He’s in it, all the time. (The movie’s been getting only so-so reviews so far, but Rushdie wrote the screenplay and apparently likes the movie. I think this is the third time in as many posts I’ve mentioned Rushdie. I’ll knock it off.)

It was on top off all this, the traveling and the reading, that I was struck by a vision or a version of a single man’s improbable but possible history. I guess it was the magnitude of it that made an impression, the surreality of this particular confrontation with the profundity of my anonymity and smallness in comparison with the immensity of history. It was a visceral feeling, like I used to have in a recurring childhood nightmare of swimming happily along underwater only to suddenly discern, rising towards me from the murkier depths, the shadowed enormity of a blue whale – the same feeling I’ve had on the dock at the base of an aircraft carrier or cargo ship, craning my neck to see some sky and keep my hyperventilation at bay.

I’ve been thinking since that encounter what to make of the whole thing, and I suppose there are some takeaways, or could be some. I could become involved in history, or at least try to get an up-closer view, find a place on a campaign or go to work for an NGO. I could employ one of the well-known tactics for fighting discontent – shrink my scale and focus on doing good, local work – and by that rubric, the argument could be made that I am doing something for some people, or am part of something being done for people, through my job at work, helping to lay the foundation for a more water-wise Ventura County. I could assume that someday, if or when I go back to teaching, that I’ll have a positive effect on the minds of the next generation, which maybe sounds kind of presumptuous but isn’t that far-fetched – there are half a dozen men and women I could name at a moment’s notice, teachers I think about really quite often, who’ve played a significant role in the placement of various yellow bricks in my life’s road. Subscribing to the Great Man Theory (I don’t), I could think about how few people really are involved in history, and take solace in being one of the innumerable, ultimately insignificant Drifters In The Wake of History – a tactic I employ pretty often for a lot of different things.

But for the most part, after these last couple days thinking about that Korean guy (or using the image of him to think about myself, I suppose), I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really want any big lessons. It put my angst and anxiety and ego in momentary check, and sometimes that’s as much as a person can ask for. Imagining that man’s life for a few moments and mulling over it since has been fun, and it gave me something to write about.

Anyway, that’s what I thought about on my way home from Thailand.

What I did in Thailand will likely be the subject of the next several posts, but I want to sort my photos first, and by doing so my thoughts. Come back soon and check it all out. Better yet, subscribe to or follow At The Wellhead and let me (or this fancy site, actually) tell you when something new is up.

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LIKE A VIRGIN

I’m traveling, naked, in a place I know nothing about.

Well, if I figured out the scheduling deal on WordPress, I am. Otherwise I’m back and it’s two weeks later and it’s 2013 and I’m probably feeling like I’m pulling these things around with me everywhere thanks to what promises to be some gnarly jetlag:

Photo: We're going to Thailand in 2 days boyfriend! These two are waiting for us as we speak...(Elephants being an apt metaphor for this particular imminent jetlag hell, because after hanging out in Bangkok and chilling at the beach, I’ll be at an elephant sanctuary in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. Boom.)

Anyway, I’m assuming this scheduling deal is going to work, and that I’ll be en route to these ponderous pachyderms when this sucker goes live. So let me talk about that.

I say “naked” because I don’t have a keyboard within reach (I’m planning on a two-week tech vacation, too), and I don’t have any fiction-knowledge of the places I’ll be seeing. We’ve been planning this trip for months – hotels, travel in Thailand all lined up, money changed before we left, and I even packed my bag several days in advance – but I didn’t read a thing from Thailand.

I bought one Oxford World History Series book, but it was so dull I only got through about 40 pages, which covered about 1500 years of Thai history, so it was real in-depth. My traveling partner girlfriend and I rented a few Thai movies, a couple of which were good but most of which were mostly confusing. I’ve read Buddhist stuff here and there from Thai monks, and Brits and gringos who trained in forest monasteries there, but that’s what it is.

But no fiction. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by a Thai author. And this makes me feel naked as newborn babe. Even last year when I went to northern India and Nepal to visit the Big Four Holy Sites of Buddhism (more on that anon, perhaps) – a purpose both so foreign to me that they were almost unimaginable a year before – I felt relatively comfortable before I went. I’ve read dozens of stories and novels of, about, and from India over the years, and I know a fair number of Indians and Pakistanis, and I thought I knew what I was in for. Of course, what I found was a bit different and definitely MORE than what I’d expected to encounter, but that’s a different story that not having a clue. Reflecting on the various places I’ve been over the last decade, I find that I’m constantly comparing them to one another, even before I get there. Still hours outside Delhi last November (2011), I remember thinking, “It’ll definitely be flatter than Medellin, maybe more like the Chaco in western Paraguay, but of course with Mexico City amounts of buildings. Probably even more than that. But still with that third-world wood-smoke smell. I’ll probably see some Arundhati Roy courtyards and some Salman Rushdie paters familia and some Vikram Chandra bad guys.” I landed and it was a little like all those places and all the books I’ve read, but nothing like anywhere else I’d ever been in way, WAY more ways. But, because of what I’d thought about going into the country, it took a few days for India to sink in past all those crap assumptions I’d built up for years through novels and movies and travel to different places.

So it isn’t a bad naked that I feel without my clothing of expectations and assumptions and pre-formed ideas. It’s actually rather exciting. It’s new and different, and I’m hoping that Thailand will start to sink in immediately. I’ve been trying to stay away from comparing what I expect my arrival Sunday to look like, and I hope by the time you read this and I’ve been there a week that I’ve let it all go and let it all in.

I’ll let you know what kind of success I’ve had when I get back.

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