Tag Archives: life

Better Than A Haymarket Riot

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

“Why’s it so late?” you ask.

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

Well, I had better things to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s why they call it work.”

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

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

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

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

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

Well, Chuck, a guy's gotta eat.

Well, Chuck, a guy’s gotta eat.

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

And I’m not sure I want to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And suddenly he hit a litter basket

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

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

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

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

.

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

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

Pic: Iowa City Gazette, oddly enough.

*Hat-tip LB

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In Defense of Hallucinating

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

So the idea’s been around a while.

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

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

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

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

“Fleeting” leading us to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember, information is not knowledge;

knowledge is not wisdom;

wisdom is not truth;

truth is not beauty;

beauty is not love;

love is not music;

music is the best.

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

Get it? Pic: Exiled Surfer

Ha! Found this at: Exiled Surfer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Besides, that little world of mine was hardly sustainable…

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

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

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

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

And what really matters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know who you are.

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

Which is probably part of the problem.

Gah.

.

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.

.

* 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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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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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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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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Lest History Pass Us By

Image

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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