Tag Archives: motivation

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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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.’

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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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Abandon All Hope

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

Thanks, but…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PapaVSzombie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luckily, I know that

grueling, incessant work = success

From David Collard's blog, Salvēte!

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

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

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

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

Thus the mantra:

I will never make a living writing.

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

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

Why, yes there is.

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

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

…otherwise, you could become an egomaniac.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

get yourself out of the way.

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

Anyway, I’m wrapping this up.

Don’t hope.

Do work.

Be a badass.

The end.

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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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Spontaneity

I don’t mean the it’s-8-o’clock-on-a-Monday-let’s-get-in-the-car-to-Vegas!! type of spontaneity.

spontaneity

I mean the kind where you’re ready and able to be open and engage with anyone, anywhere, no matter what is happening.

How many times have you gotten the opportunity to talk to someone you really wanted to talk to — and totally screwed it up?

Exhibit A: Eric Kandel.

In 2006, when I was working at the Dana Foundation in New York, I helped put on Eric Kandel’s conversation with then-chairman (and dearly departed) William Safire at the 92nd Street Y. I read the galley proof of Kandel’s book In Search of Memory (which you should totally get) and did what side research was necessary to help develop interview questions, and in so doing fell in love with Kandel’s work. And, I’m not gonna lie, I fell in a little bit of love with Dr. Kandel, too.

Eric-Kandel-Laughs-e1271530014222

I mean, right?

You get the sense that he goes through life with this smiling attitude just by reading his book, and then you find out he really is laughing all the time and I mean be still my heart, man, he’s just a total joy.

I knew that after the event at 92Y, I was going to have the opportunity to say hello and ask him to sign my book, and I agonized about what to say for days and weeks. It wasn’t going to be the time or the place for a long drawn-out conversation on how Kandel’s work was affecting my perspective, but I did want whatever I said to be memorable and interesting and smart. Okay, brilliant.

So the event was over, we got the place more or less broken down, and Dr. Kandel was still there talking with a couple stragglers who, luck would have it, turned to leave just as I came up.

“Dr. Kandel,” my manager said, “meet Ian. He put together your questions, did research, bugs everyone in the office because he won’t shut up about you, blah blah blah,” everything to goad me on, but aside from “uh, good job up there tonight,” nothing, not one thing, that I’d planned to say came out. I walked away feeling sure that Dr. Kandel was thinking, “Well, the world needs ditch-diggers, too.”

Which happens over and over and over whenever I meet someone I have half an interest in meeting, whether it’s something anticipated like Kandel or something out of the blue, like running into William H Macy or Cate Blanchett at a stoplight (don’t even ask).

It’s akin to the feeling of regret I wrote about a couple weeks ago, where after you’ve failed to say something you absolutely should have, you’d do anything to have that moment back, but it’s not quite the same. That had to do with knowing full well in the moment what you should say and consciously not saying it because you can’t handle the vulnerability it requires. This is about not having a clue about what to say in the moment because too many thoughts and emotions are running through your head.

Which is what I mean by spontaneity – being able to relate openly and unabashedly with anyone, anywhere, anytime.

The stuff that runs through my head at such times is laden with the ogres and trolls of ego, with misconceptions about who I am and who I want to be and how I want to appear and how I’m sure I must look, and the neuroses that attend to the distances between those four Shades of Ian.

I do this because I don’t trust myself to just be “myself” – whatever the hell that is – at the drop of a hat, or any other time, really, and so I get tangled up trying to figure out how to present.

I like to imagine myself as a composed, imperturbable, unflappable person, but the truth is I feel like a little kid in these – honestly, in most – situations. I think of my dad, and I think of some of my friends’ dads, and that’s what unflappable looks like to me. I mean, when was the last time the cat got Clint’s tongue, Coop, am I right?

Imperturbability seems to come from a combination of knowing who you are, and being in general not all that impressed with people.

There are two ways to achieve this level of equanimity – through arrogance and through abandonment. Though I have a feeling the uber-arrogant are never quite as comfortable as they come off. Or they’re sociopaths, which is a different post altogether.

sunyataTrungpa would say that you abandon your ego by developing compassion, and that one of the ways compassion develops is from sunyata, or emptiness. That can be a confusing concept if you haven’t been introduced to it, so for the purposes of this suffice it to say that sunyata implies “no ground” – that is, none of the ideas you have about yourself-as-you-are OR -as-you’d-like-to-be have any basis whatsoever.

Where do those ideas come from in the first place? you start to wonder.

They come from other ideas, which come from society and memory and impressions and dreams and hopes and fears fears fears and not from anything actually solid. So they don’t actually mean anything or have any actual basis in reality. Which after a time frees you from trying to be, well, anything. It frees you from TRYING, and allows you just to be – to be whatever the situation calls for.

Besides which, Cate Blanchett, I guaran-effing-tee you, is NOT worried or even thinking about what kind of person you are. Ever.

If you can get those two ideas down – the conviction that we are always on shaky ground and the humility that no one cares – then you can begin to realize that the person you’re so intimidated by isn’t all these things that you and the world at large have built them up to be. In that moment, that person is nothing more than just a lump of flesh, decaying and rushing towards death at more or less the same speed you are. And thus can be dealt with as you are. However you are. Not as some other, whatever other, version of you you’re not.

So, then – how do you put into practice this notion of emptiness, how do you develop your compassion, how do you shrink and slay and shatter your ego if you’re not a Buddhist?

Well, you start by doing something for someone else. For your wife or your kids or your parents or your sibling who never does anything for you or that guy at work you can’t stand or that woman at the market who you don’t know anything about except that she wouldn’t know a good deed if it smacked her in the face like a tennis racket. You do these things and you put other people ahead of your own needy little needs, once a day or once a week or even just for once in your entire life, and you’ve started to cherish  your own ego a little less. You think, “That good deed didn’t come from the guy who I think would sweep Cate Blanchett off her feet at a stoplight. Where did that come from? Who did that come from? Who’s this person that does good things for other people and makes their life a tiny little bit lighter?”

gollumDo more things for more people more often, and you’re practicing not cherishing yourself more and more. And the less you cherish yourself, the more you realize there’s no self there to guard so jealously and get so worked up about – let alone multiple selves to completely freak out about – so there are way fewer walls or fences or obstacles of any kind, really, between you and whoever you happen to run into.

Which means that the next time you look up from your phone to find you’re standing next to Cate Blanchett, you can relate to her with spontaneous compassion – as a simple person, in other words.

You can be patient with your mom. You can be generous of spirit, even with that malcontent at the grocery store.

This carries over into the other kind of being-ready-to-say-what-you-mean, because in the process of preparing your soul for baring at a moment’s notice, you’re also preparing it for baring no matter what the risk. To the extent that spontaneity and vulnerability combine, you become tougher and tenderer. Tenderer, because you’re laying your heart open, and tougher, because there’s nothing that can come of it that you can’t handle.

And in case you’re thinking, “Those men he mentioned earlier, those paragons of the virtue he’s making out of unflappability, those white Baby Boomer American men, they didn’t do any of this touchy-feely pseudo-Buddhist crap. Why’d he even bring them into it? What’s he talking about?” True, they didn’t get to be the way they are by practicing lojong and reciting mantras. They got to be the way they are by having seen a thing or two in their day, and realizing through those experiences that in so many ways we’re all the same – just lumps of flesh heading towards destruction – and because of that, they’ve abandoned any pretense of uniqueness, in themselves and in others, and it’s like, “You’re a lump of flesh, I’m a lump of flesh, let’s see what we can make of this moment. Ready go.”

So yeah, that’s an option. Just keep your head down and do your thing and be generally nice to people and probably you’ll wind up a sage old dude/womanequivalentofdude. All this I just rambled about is just a way to be conscious of what’s happening to you, and to maybe speed up the sageness a little. If you’re interested in that.

If you’re not, go ahead and be uncomfortable as a whore in church next time you see Cate. No skin off my back.

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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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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.*

ATWbannerThinner

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.”

ATWbannerThinner

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

JayRanZid

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

Tim doin an acoustic ‘East Bay Night’

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

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

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

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

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

ATWbannerThinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who or what inspires and motivates you?

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

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

_

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

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

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

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