Tag Archives: inspiration

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 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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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.

TreeHouseLogoSquare

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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Build, Baby, Build.

I love soccer.

I love playing it, I love watching it, I love reading about it.

(I’m horrrrrible, I rarely see games, and I do so very slowly to “practice” my equally horrible Spanish, respectively.)
photo from FIFA.com

FIFA.com

So I was thrilled that Jozy Altidore came through big against Honduras Tuesday night and got us/U.S. one step closer to a World Cup berth. (Chances are bad they’ll do it in one more game, but great they’ll do it in two.)

I’m also enthralled by all things Brazilian, so this World Cup is especially exciting for me. At one point some years ago, a bunch of us were planning to roam through Brazil together, see some early round games in the smaller cities, and try to just be in Rio or Sao Paulo for the finals.

But there are some serious protests going on in cities all over Brazil, and I gotta say, I kind of see where they’re coming from. Protests started over a 20-cent bus fare increase, and then BLEW UP after rather brutal reactions by various police forces (unlike Turkey, the media’s covering the heck outta Brasil’s protests).

Most apropos to this post’s lede, the demonstrations are also fueled by general indignation over the high costs – both financial and personal – of preparing for the very 2014 World Cup that I was planning (until life happened) to attend.

A Copa do Mundo next year, and the Summer Olympic Games two years after that. According to the WaPo, stadium and public transportation construction costs are estimated at $14.6 BILLION for EACH the World Cup and the 2016 Games. True, the construction projects will employ a lot of people – 3.6 million between the two projects – but they’re only temporary jobs. And there’s not really any space for these facilities, or at least for the ones that’ll be right in town, and the people that are being moved to make room for those new facilities are, as usual, the poor and powerless. And not just asked to leave for a bit before coming back after the Games – I’m talking entire favelas being ‘dozed to make room for new facilities.

In Rio.Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

In Rio.
Image by Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL

This is the case everywhere, right – whenever there’s a GIGANTOR sporting event, people get displaced. Even in Atlanta, where it seemed like there was still plenty of room, in the good ole rich-and-wealthy USA where everyone’s treated with the utmost respect and dignity, Olympic construction still wrecked major havoc on people’s lives. While not nearly as many people were displaced in Atlanta as in Seoul (725,000) or Beijing (as high as 1.5 million), those whose neighborhood was destroyed were still among the city’s poorest. Thousands and thousands of people living in public housing sandwiched between the Coca-Cola plant and Georgia Tech were packed on buses, given a one-way ticket out of town and wished the best of luck, in order to make room for the Olympic Village and the housing of 10,000 athletes. Only 7% of those people returned to their old neighborhoods and the rebuilt homes promised them by Team USA and Atlanta city planners. Basically, the Olympics gave the latter the opportunity they’d been waiting for to “wipe out blight” (read: relegate poor blacks to the sticks) and complete the gentrification of certain neighborhoods.

Even in London, where the 2012 Games were, most of the people displaced and/or affected by stadium construction and the influx of new residents and attention were from the other side of the (both proverbial and literal) tracks. Check out Zed Nelson’s great photos of London’s rough-edged Hackney to see what I mean.

But Brazilians aren’t taking this action lying down.

A 6/21 UK Guardian article goes into more detail.

vale-gray-olympics-23_525

Photo: Cintia Barenho from “The Displacement Decathalon” article at the Design Observer site.

If you want more info on this whole Olympic displacement stuff, Lawrence Vale & Annemarie Gray have written a thorough and detailed examination of what they’re calling “The Displacement Decathalon” over at Design Observer. (If you’re an equal housing opportunity type person, I highly recommend reading with a sturdy G&T and at least three stress balls close to hand.)

Much of this might not be news to you. What interests me is what people think of it.

AthensPool

This is the diving well built for the 2000 Athens Games. Nice, right?
Click for a NatGeo slideshow of others.

Economics aside, is it worth the hassle?

I know it’s ethically wrong (or at least terribly disagreeable) to displace entire communities to make way for a fancy gym that the world’s elite* will use for a few weeks. Especially when those facilities crumble into disrepair in a matter of years after the event has ended.

On the other hand,

I believe in sport and international competition.

I swam until age 22, and growing up – this was before more than one or two people could make a living swimming – the Olympic Games were THE ultimate goal for me and everyone I knew. For those I know who’ve gone to the Games, they’ve lived up to every promise, every hope, every dream. The brotherhood, the camaraderie, the very idea of the Olympics – and the World Cup, and any other international competition – are some of the most inspiring things I can think of. And let’s face it – the world likes being inspired on the scale of spectacle.

But is that inspirational spectacle ultimately idealistic, rosy-glassed and unrealistic? Are those heartwarming/-wrenching Bob Costas stories of tribulation and triumph that we all love so much really kind of just self-indulgent, if the very place where one triumph happens is also the site of another – and likely worse – tribulation? A tribulation planned for and arranged by plastic-smiling organizers pandering to TV markets and big-big wallets.

But what are the alternatives? Are there alternatives?

How much of a difference would it make if the Games were held in the same place every year?

To Olympians? To spectators?

By the time I was 13 and knew what a travel meet entailed, I didn’t care where a competition was. Fargo or Fort Lauderdale or Florianópolis, you’re really just shuttling between your room and the pool.

But if the spectacle disappears – and it’d at least diminish with a static venue – and the money disappears, would the Games and other international competitions disappear, too? That’s not a problem if you don’t think that sport does anything, but if you think like I do that sport has great potential to encourage civil rights, then the disappearance of international competitions is something to be quite concerned about indeed.

Better yet, let’s get the UAE to build some ridiculous portable underwater and/or floating facilities that could be moved every few years to just offshore of and/or into the airspace above a different country. I guarantee you, a hovering Olympic Village wouldn’t let down a single athlete. And plenty of people would tune in to see.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

From FutureNerd. Click to go.

floating-city

From HomeDecorDream. Click to go.

What do you think?

Where’s the balance between spectacle and respect?

Do you care where various Games/Cups/games are?

*Almost all of them are athletically elite, and many are also “elite” in the way Americans use that word to mean “filthy rich.”

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The Perseverance of Memory

What do a sea snail and a scratch awl have in common?

Aplysia

Not much, you wouldn’t think. But, as Reb Arye-Leib would say, “You’ll find out if you listen.”

I wrote about Eric Kandel the other day in that post on spontaneity, and I’ve been thinking about him since. The thing that Kandel did to so capture my imagination was establish a neurobiological understanding of how the brain creates memory.

He did his primary research on Alypsia, that fancy-looking sea snail slug right up there. It has the simplest brain and the biggest neurons around, and he basically stuck electrodes into the neurons, poked the snail to make it ink, and recorded what happened. (I mean, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but I’ll leave the experimental details to him.)

InSearchOfMemoryBut the stuff about the snail isn’t (for me) the most interesting part of In Search of Memory. It was Kandel’s search for one of his own memories – his dedication to that search, and the weight that memory has – that was so compelling.

Little Eric Kandel grew up in Vienna in the 1930s. His dad owned a toy shop, and one day in late 1938, he brought nine-year-old Eric this little blue, mechanical car. Dr. Kandel remembers playing with it after dinner, zooming around under the dinner table on his knees. And it’s this – the blue car, the underside of the table – that was imprinted on his memory like a stamp. For while he was playing with that brand new car his father had brought him, there came first the sound of boots outside the door, and then of fists upon it. And then his dad was taken away.

Kristallnacht came a few days later, and a few days after that, Eric and his brother were on their long and winding way to Brooklyn.

The Kandels were spared the worst, and were all reunited in the US. But that instant with the car crystallized in Dr. Kandel’s mind, and became a locus of identity, a connection to other people, a symbol of his homeland and childhood and identity and history and the way the world works. It became something of a lens through which everything he did and experienced was filtered. He struggled to accommodate it and not hate it and not have it define him. He worried about everything that it meant — but he never had to worry about forgetting it, and its persistence became a puzzle. Not the why of it – that’s easy enough to figure out – but the how.

The how drove him through medical school and graduate school and years of research, all the way to the Nobel Prize in 2000. That image fueled his life’s work.

Which segues us into another casualty of that historical era who was interested in the persistence of memory: Bruno Schulz.

SchulzSelfie

The official Schulz web site.

I mean “casualty” literally: a Nazi officer shot him, in a tit-for-tat killing, in the back while he walked home from the baker’s with a loaf under his arm. Up until that murder, Schulz spent much of his artistic effort teasing out the metaphysical implications of certain childhood memories. Or not so much memories, per se, as images that, as he put it, he “acquired” in childhood: a horse-drawn carriage racing through the moonlit snow; his father’s enema tube looped on its hook in the bathroom; the baskets of fruits and vegetables his family’s maid, Adele, would carry on her arm as she returned home from the market. Throughout his teens and twenties and thirties and forties, before he was murdered at age 50, Schulz went over and over and over these images, in pencil drawings, in charcoal, in oils, and in fiction.

In a public letter to his friend S.I. Witkiewicz, Schulz wrote, “I don’t know how we manage to acquire certain images in childhood that carry decisive meanings for us. They function like those threads in the solution around which the significance of the world crystallizes for us.”

SchulzCarriage

This links to a great Schulz art site.

He went on to say, in one of the better descriptions I’ve seen of the motivation to write – or paint or sculpt or compose or whatever – that, “Such images amount to an agenda, establish an iron capital of the spirit, proffered to us very early in the form of forebodings and half-conscious experiences. It seems to me that all the rest of one’s life is spent interpreting these insights, breaking them down to the last fragment of meaning we can master…[Artists] do not discover anything new after that, they only learn how to understand better and better the secret entrusted to them at the outset; their creative effort goes into an unending exegesis.”

I love in particular the idea that the truth contained within certain memories is a “secret,” and that we’re entrusted these secrets in childhood. The whole thing gives this treasure-hunt mystery, this Pan’s Labyrinth feel to existence. And how nice is that? Why not cultivate a little bit of mystery? Especially those of us who weren’t raised in the church, or have grown tired of someone else’s centuries-old mysteries, or are overly logical and rational. Life’s complicated enough and impossible to figure out anyway, so why not think of it as a little bit magical, too?

InSearchOfLostTime

All six of these books are In Search of Lost Time.
All six.

The example par excellence, the author and work this post would be remiss not to mention, is Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time.

In case you hear Proust’s name and feel like maybe you should know what people are talking about but don’t, and don’t want to ask, but absolutely don’t want to read a book full of four-page sentences (seriously) to find out, here’s what you need to know about Proust’s book: when he was a kid, Proust – or his avatar – would visit his sick aunt, and she would share her madeleines, which she dipped in her tea, with him. It’s the memory of this as an adult, or more precisely the shock of the memory and the subsequent desire to tease out the ways in which his childhood prepared him for that memory and the ways in which that memory and innumerable others influenced the rest of his life, that impels the adult Proust/Proust-avatar to write his opus.

Here’s the famous passage:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. … Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? … And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.”

It goes on like that pretty much forever.

Now, to the scratch awl.

ScratchAwlOne thing any seven year old knows is that one thing these things are really good for is throwing into the dirt.

I don’t know if I did this regularly, or just did it once, but I remember holding that long slender pointed piece of steel in my hand and flinging it end over end to get it to stick straight up out of the grassy backyard ground. I don’t remember, however, putting it back after my final toss.

I don’t remember, because I didn’t.

Which is why I do remember the lecture I got from my dad the next day upon his discovery of the awl’s faded-blue-paint handle poking up out of the grass.

I also remember – very distinctly – the look on his face when I told him I hadn’t done it. That confused and questioning look. Not confused about who then could possibly be the culprit, but confused as to why I was lying, and questioning why in the face of such overwhelming evidence I would continue to lie.

“Anyway,” he finally said, just going past the ridiculousness of my insistence that it wasn’t me, “you can’t leave tools out like that.”

I don’t know that it was the first bald-faced lie I told, but I know it’s become something of a symbol to me, that action and the lie. I imagine my dad’s refusal to listen to anymore foolishness was supposed to be a lesson about the futility of such obvious lying. You would think that’d be enough, right? “You got caught,” I imagine myself saying in his shoes, “Don’t be an idiot.”

But I proved to be incorrigible. My proclivity to lie expressed itself in all sorts of ways – exaggeration, denial, pure invention. I once told a friend of mine in fourth grade that the girl he had a crush on lived behind me and that we’d meet under the shaggy avocado tree in between our two yards in secret and talk for hours upon hours, and sure, I’d be happy to put in a good word. She actually lived in a completely different subdivision.

I also told that same kid that I had videocassettes of Howdy Doody that my parents recorded as kids in my attic. Besides the anachronism of VCRs in the 1950s, I didn’t even have an attic.

I never felt bad about these lies – I just hated getting caught. Which to my weird little brain was motivation for one thing: becoming a better liar.

Eventually, as those who know me know, the lies kind of pretty much completely took over, and I wasn’t even aware of the extent that I was lying to myself and living in a world that was pure fantasy.

I didn’t mean for this to devolve into confession and self-analysis. Suffice it to say that one of the things I’ve had to do in recent years is learn how to restrict my fabrication-of-reality to the page, to channel that energy and creativity, that compulsion, that narcissistic, egomaniacal belief that I can bend reality and create worlds — and then to make something of what I remember, whether it happened or not.

Proust saw memory as inevitably partial. Schulz knew that memory was like beauty and was in the eye (or mind) of the beholder. Kandel was sure it could be mapped. They all proved in their various ways that the act of remembering  can be as influential on the shape one’s life takes as the memory itself.

What memories carry “decisive meaning” for you?

What is that meaning?

What do you do with the memories? With the meaning?

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“Learn to hurt, baby.”

I heard that from a friend the other day. He was talking about what this mentor of his used to tell him when he was first kind of coming out of his shell a few years ago.

scarfe-illustration-for-the-wall

This guy talks about how he was pretty shut down for a pretty long time. He had some hard knocks as a young kid and he set things up so that nothing was going to bother him ever again.

Except, everything did.

And the more things bothered him, the thicker and higher he had to make these walls he was building to keep out the hurt. After a while, looking around, he didn’t see anyone, couldn’t hear anything. Nothing was coming in, good or bad. Which is the problem with walls – they keep it all out.

This is perfectly obvious to everyone in abstract. We all know about walls – especially other people’s.

“He’s so closed off.”

“She should open up more, it’d be good for her.”

“He doesn’t let anyone in.”

Etcetera.

KitchenDemoBut when it comes to ourselves, well, things are a little different. Because knocking down a wall to redo your kitchen is fun, but tearing down emotional walls is not. It requires you to pass through various – often serious – amounts of pain.

You gotta go through the bad to get the good, otherwise it isn’t even good.

Which is one of those annoying paradoxes of life, right, that so often you have to do the opposite of what seems to make sense at the time.

It doesn’t always mean you have to learn to GET hurt, though. A lot of people do that already, and do it quite well. For some people, getting hurt is their first, immediate, only reaction to anything. They build their walls out of hurt – their walls, their makeups, their very identities – and they play the perpetual victim, use their hurt manipulate people or justify really awful behavior.

I know because for a few years, that was my M.O. I couldn’t catch a break, nothing was going my way, everything was everybody else’s fault, wah wah wah, and so I numbed it all out. And then I realized that I was rather UNcomfortably numb, because I could still remember the good, somewhere back there, and I knew things could be different. That they had to be.

And this is where the learning HOW to hurt comes in. To hurt in proportion to the injury. To realize it’s not the end of the world. To hurt and then move on.

To realize there might not even be an injury.

This is also where these two slightly-different kind of Wall People converge: proportion. One’s afraid that any hurt at all is going to be the end of the world so he goes to every single length possible to avoid any possibility of hurt, and the other is absolutely sure that every single hurt he gets really is the end of the world and you’d-act-this-way-too-if-the-end-of-the-world-was-happening-to-you.

Getting out of that requires you become vulnerable. Which is part of what my buddy’s mentor had in mind, I imagine, when he’d say, “Learn to hurt, baby.”Rolling Stones Let It Bleed

Learn to get hurt if you need to, or learn how to hurt if that’s your thing. Either way, it’s about being vulnerable.

Vulnerability in the former circumstance is easy to understand – just allow it to happen. In the latter, it means laying yourself open to what comes instead of the hurt, or after the hurt, when you realize it wasn’t that bad, when you have to take responsibility for it and for all the things you didn’t do before.

Vulnerability is a different kind of hurt than the soul-evisceration of self-victimization. It can sting still, but it can also reward. And more importantly, what pain it entails is tempered by the optimism inherent “putting yourself out there.” Because you wouldn’t risk it if you didn’t think on some level that it will or at least could work out.

Case in point: I’ve been writing stories for 15 years, but I never sent one anywhere (for fear of rejection, fear of exposure-as-a-charlatan, for all kinds of reasons) until last summer. So I never got a rejection letter.

(Though I still felt victimized by the American publishing industry for not having a book deal. Seriously. That’s how I felt. I wrote about it. Several times. Thank god no one published that drivel.)

Well, I’ve gotten plenty of rejection letters now. And they suck. Every time.

But every time I get one and turn around and send the story somewhere else, I say c’est la vie. Because that really is life – especially a writer’s life. But it’s representative of this whole shift in attitude that I can even say that and mean it and not feel like I should see how long it takes to hit the water from the roadway of the Golden Gate.

Marley-truth

Like Bob says right there – getting hurt is part of life.

And it’s being okay with that, allowing yourself to run the risk of that happening, that makes you a stronger person.

And we can always do better at that. Even if you’re not one of those Wall People, you can always find a way to loosen up, to open up, to lay yourself bare. I know, I know – “laying yourself bare” sounds awful. You’re doing fine just the way you are.  But there’s always that part of you, in close relationships, in intimate interactions, when you know it’d probably be better if you said X or did Y, let the person know how you really feel.

Those moments when, if you’re like me, you think, “Get me the fuck outta here.” After which you breathe a huge sigh of relief because you maintained the integrity of your shell. That you think about for hours days weeks months years after and wish you’d just said or did whatever that soft part of your heart knew was the right thing to say or do.

I’m going to leave you with another motivational-quote meme that the internet says is attributed to Bruce Lee:

BruceLeePrayDifficult

I’ve got a lot more to say on this. I was going to segue into a different vein that has to do with the Rolling Stones (hence the album cover up there), but I think maybe that’s its own thing. You’re probably happy to get outta here in closet to 1,000 words for once anyway.

Thanks for coming.

Now go forth and be strongly fragile.

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To Be or Not To Be “Yourself”?

We all like sayings to live by, but sometimes

aphorisms are a pain in the ass.

needlepoint

They’re supposed to be laconic little piths of life-knowledge that you can digest and recall (and regurgitate) at a moment’s notice. The sayings Grandma needlepoints and frames and hangs above Granddad’s rocker – which homey image is how they’re supposed to make you feel. Complete. Earnest. Well-Intentioned. Striving To Be Whole.

Whole Already.

But they’re not so straightforward as they seem. At least, not to the extent those who repeat them endlessly and unprovoked would have you think, as if they’re the answer to every last one of life’s little (and even major) problems.

Most of the time, they pose more questions than they answer.

The origins of these sayings are often obscured or ignored or simply unknown. Such is also the case with their contexts, especially in the aphorism compendiums that litter the feet of Christmas trees and other present-loci the world over, such as The Viking Book of Aphorisms that Auden edited, or the Native American Wisdom Collections you find in the gift shops of the natural wonders of the American West, or Zen-Thought-A-Day, or The Approachable Vedas.

Or the many varieties of Shakespeare Quotations.

Thus the Bard’s “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which has been much on my mind of late.

It’s become a self-empowering phrase, one that rat racers use to maintain their identities against the onslaught of gray-flannel-suitism, that yogis use to justify the (often ridiculous) cost of yoga studio membership, that people in recovery from everything from cancer to Catholicism to divorce to drugs use to reinforce that you are important, that you matter, that you are beautiful. That you are more than the disease and/or more than a victim and/or more than whatever it is that ails you. That whatever other people think of you, or require of you, or want you to be means nothing compared to what’s inside you and what you know in your heart of hearts you are and should be doing.

Trungpa would say it means not letting other people lay their trips on you. (But then he’d laugh and say, “That’s assuming there’s a self to lay trips on, which of course there isn’t. There aren’t even such things as trips! It’s all an illusion haha!” So, maybe he’s not so much help in this one.)

Not that any of these interpretations are really bad, obviously. If they work for people, if they’re a help, then good.

But back to “To Thine Own Self Be True.” If it appeared on Jeopardy, a lot people would askanswer, “Who is Socrates [or Some Other Ancient Greek]?” because the phrase is often emblazoned above a Greekesque profile or some esoteric/occultish symbol, like a triangle or an eye or some sun rays or an ankh.

Those that do know it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet often forget (or ignore or don’t know) its context:

This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.

What act it’s from (I.iii) is hardly important to most people. Neither is the fact that this is the last advice Polonius will give his son Laertes, who’s off on some business (ad)ventures and won’t return to Denmark before his windbag father gets himself killed for eavesdropping on a paranoid and borderline/depressive Hamlet.

Also not that important, when we’re talking about how the phrase functions in daily American life, is the rest of the bit. Old Polonius is basically saying that if you don’t lie to yourself, you’ll never have to lie to anyone else, and not only will you not have to, but you won’t even be capable of it.

Within this advice is the conceit that it’s better not to lie to people or take advantage of them, and that you or we or Laertes or at least Polonius is aiming for “better” or “right” behavior, just as Grandma’s needlepoints implore you to do. But all that pesky functioning-within-society bs is neatly done away with by the amputation of the aphorism’s surrounding lines, and we’re left with something intensely focused on — just as we’d have it since The Me Decade, when that culture of self-care I describe above really solidified — the self.

Trungpa and no-self Buddhism/Eastern-philosophy-in-general aside, the problem I’ve been having with this aphorism of late is: to which of mine myriad selves am I supposed to be being true? Especially considering what Thomas L. Masson, Life’s late-19thC literary editor and an ironic fan of aphorism himself, had to say about it:

“‘Be yourself’ is about the worst advice you can give some people.”

falling_downBecause I often find myself acting in a way I would not describe as imitation of the better angels of my nature. And not just acting that way, but enjoying it. Feeling as if I’m good at it, or would be, or once was and could be again. I live in a major metropolitan area, so traffic is a concern, and an instance of this, or provoker thereof. But I’m not just talking about violent fantasies (I mean, come on, we all know I hardly have the stones or the stomach for it) – I mean everything.

Procrastinator.

Liar.

Taker-of-the-easy-way.

Glutton.

I’m also – like most people – in some ways juggling several different identities, wearing several different hats.

My anti-social Jack London hat fits really well and I feel really good when I’m wearing it, but should I really drop out and go find a sea-bound frigate upon which to weather some storms and develop some character? The other selves that have recently made some really awesome and exciting life decisions and are gaining traction in some pretty exciting areas would probably have something to say against that.

On a more positive note, some days I feel like I’m pretty good at my 9-5, and could, if I really applied myself to it, make something of myself in that world, long-term-career-wise. But sometimes I want to go back to teaching, and feel like I’m better at that, or “made for” that. Other days, I just want to get a manual labor job so I can move during the day and think at night instead of coming home already brain-tired and carpal-tunnel-sore (violins!). Or become a National Park Ranger. Or build furniture.

How much of life, after a certain point, is picking a person to be and sticking to it and developing one’s “self” within the parameters of the person you’ve picked to stick to being?

Is that being/becoming an adult? Or is that selling out? Selling short? Or just one way to live?

How do you know when you’ve reached that point of choosing?

How do you know how much of one part of yourself (a pinch?) and how much of the others (a dash? a dab? a handful?) to tip into the mix?

How do you keep it in mind that life’s a process, a progression towards a decent recipe? And that everyone else is experimenting, too? That we’re all just a bunch of amateurs knocking about the great big test kitchen of life?

How do you pare away the false selves, the selves others have made for you, and know the right one(s) to be true to?

What does it mean to “be true”? At what cost – to yourself, to others?

See what I mean about posing questions?

Then again, aphorisms fall into the category of Folk Wisdom and Common Sense, which like religious instruction doesn’t reward (or stand up under) too much critical inquiry.

Meaning, shut up and just go with it.

Whatever it means to you at any given time, if it catches you in a moment of passion or despair and helps you maintain a measure of equanimity, then take it for the momentary respite it is and leave the worrying-it-to-death alone. I guess.

What sayings do you live by?

What sayings do you despise?

How do you keep them straight?

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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.

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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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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.

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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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