Categotry Archives: Read it and Weep


Mother, May I

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s easy to forget what this year was supposed to be about. I don’t even mean all that long ago, before my life caved in and I was left staring at the daily wreckage of my own dreams. I mean after that, but still before now, when I was going to be finishing a book, my fourth novel, in five days.

I last worked on it on 7 February 2011, an overcold day that I spent writing fiction outside of my place of residence for the first time in many years, then talked on the phone to Ariel, then came home and wrote this post and then wound up tabling the project until, apparently, now or even later than now. That was three months ago. The project’s sum total, aside from a pretty thorough and still salvageable outline, stands at 2,433 words. Less than ten pages, generously. The size of a half term paper I used to crank out in a handful of hours before the deadline to convince my professor I was from wherever I was writing about.

May 15th.

I mean, there were other things that happened on the way to today, many of them halfway good. There was that whole job thing that came along just about after, whisking me away from a future in Seattle or Denver or Flagstaff and pulling me in, not unlike a friendly but still somewhat menacing giant anemone, ensconcing me in New Jersey with the promise of a career that was neither writing nor in conflict with my principles and artistic desires. Slowly gnawing on my nutrients while I got numb and placid and malleable and basked in the warmth of something like community before awaking on the rocky shores this May, behind on creativity and with the tidewaters of that community pulling away and out to sea without me. This is water, as good old DFW would say. And you only know it when you’re out of it, for good or for ill.

The Pale King is searingly brilliant, by the way, a 500+-page suicide note that I’m already in love with a fifth of the way through. It’s brilliant like a made-for-TV knife, like a whole novel of nothing but Tim O’Brien water buffalo in unending agonizing parade to their slow demise. It’s improved my quality of life twenty points in two days, single-handedly, if only be reawakening the slumbering knowledge deep within me of the importance of Project X. Its similarities to same are also somewhat troubling, at least in spirit, and it occurs to me that X could be a suicide note if it had to be, probably best reads that way as fiction even if that’s not its purpose in the corporeal world per se.

I draft ten notes a day, mostly addressed to the person I have decided to no longer address, of course, though it’s probably inevitable that she reads this blog (unless she’s really that disconnected, but then again she gets bored very easily and quickly became addicted to things like Facebook and the Internet for their absorbing, time-wasting capabilities, so) and thus even the people I “cut off communication from” (one, to date), are never really out of touch. With me. If. Yeah. I’m going to stop now. And reset.

The point is, simply, that I think a lot about death, in sort of the way normal people (as far as I can tell) think about food. Savoring different textures and anticipating certain flavors. Imagining different layouts and menus. It is not unwelcome, though it is probably less welcome than the average perception of food, it carries some of the same craving without the visceral desire. It is important, sometimes, for me to flag for people that I will not be terribly sad if it happens, even very soon. Which is not to say that I’m willing it and it is important that I not will it for the sake of all you dearly beloved readers and friends who I am truly well aware want the best for me. It is also important that you not respond to the sentence prior to the last one with some snide quirky neo-atheistic response about me not being able to be sad because I’d be dead and the whole point would be to feel nothing. It’s not exactly how it works and even if it were, it would still matter differently. Either you follow or you don’t. The point is, and this is the bottom line, it is no great loss if I go in this condition. There is something to be said for going out on a low note, when one is not missing much.

I bring this up not because I’m on the precipice of something drastic – indeed, I probably spend less time worrying about it than I have in a while – but because I am starting to formulate plans around spending a lot of time on the road this summer. And the road is a dangerous place – far more dangerous than the head of the truly suicidal, let alone something nice and safe like a plane or a ghetto. And in spending a lot of time considering mortality, one can stave it off with the import of writing a note first, then a lengthy note, then perhaps a whole manifesto about life that is long and exhaustive and exhausting and before too long, it’s time for sleep instead of death and the whole discussion can be tabled for another night.

Except here’s the problem: we often never get around to writing that thing, whatever it is, and then we wind up in a three-car chaos outside of Tulsa some night or succumbing to a clot or an aneurysm that no one thought to look for and suddenly the thing that reassured us about staying alive is still left unfinished and makes the whole operation of dying, after all, sad and wasteful. Which is not to turn this into the typical trite “make haste to live” or the deadly “live each day as if it were your last” (not that there is not value to such positions, in part), but rather to observe that those things bear writing when one has the time and, indeed, even the circumspection to perhaps not be all so mopey about the end of living on this planet.

It’s like this: My debate team went to Columbia a week or two ago to renew the old King’s/Queen’s Debate tradition from centuries ago and they hit this case about letting prisoners go if the law they were imprisoned under was repealed. Makes sense, intuitive, fun for discourse, the whole nine. But the team mounted a mighty opp based on the idea that parole boards ought decide when people are ready to reintegrate into society – that blanket amnesty is bad, but the parsing and sorting of parole boards can maximize the chance that those returning to society are healthy and happy and ready to participate. But of course Columbia ultimately won that argument by observing quite simply that this is not our modern standard – parole boards are not invoked at the end of every term in prison, but only periodically and selectively for early release.

Which is to say that a great writing project, a suicide note if you will (regardless of self-infliction, mind), is like a parole board for life. We ought not be let out without taking the time to reflect. Not only does this dovetail quite obviously with my own theological presumptions about a time of review and reflection between worlds (some day that will be set down, but I have confidence enough of you know what I’m talking about that I don’t have to explicate further at risk of this being part of the whole missing piece I’m trying to avoid), but it’s just a good standard. So if you catch yourself feeling okay with death, maybe it’s time to start contributing the last great statement (and yours may not involve words – perhaps you prefer sculpture or interpretive dance) just in case. And if you like life more, well all the more reason to hedge just in case, to indent the sting of potential calamitous tragedy with pre-emptive safekeeping.

And so, with that, it may be time to set a new deadline for good old Project X. Realistically it can’t be before the summer travel, starting to take shape between the 24ths of June and July, but it can be soon enough that each year since I got serious about this aspect of my life again will contribute one book to the stack of those waiting to find traction in the greater mind at large. And writing books for the aspiring author is probably a lot like having children for the aspiring Major League dad. Sooner or later, one of them’s gotta be able to play ball.


What Do You Expect?

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

Mariners’ record this year: 2-2
Mariners’ record this year with me watching: 0-2
Mariners’ record this year without me watching: 2-0

I might want to keep track of this over the course of a season, but it might be too depressing. There’s something very 2010-feeling about the above statistics, making the whole thing seem retrograde and unfortunate. I’m still getting mail from the Law Office of Trudi G. Manfredo, slowly training me to not let my heart leap when I see a large envelope or package waiting for me by the mailbox. No wonder so many adults used to hate getting mail. No wonder people have so robustly embraced e-mail and the postal service is having to run pyramid schemes to stay afloat.

Dissolution. There’s an apt word for you. The solution is getting dissed. Amen.

Got my copy of The Pale King today, the first new book I’ve let myself purchase since I started getting mail from Trudi. I am palpably excited about it, despite the fact that I know it won’t finish, perhaps especially because, since David Foster Wallace’s books never really finish and often almost die mid-sentence. They are about the journey and the exploration and in this case, about the descent into madness that accompanies a final chapter, a final submission, the narrative into suicide. Which is not to say, of course, that this book killed him, but it probably didn’t help. Electro-convulsive therapy is what killed him, of course, which I’ve discussed before. I’m now faced with a dilemma about abandoning or suspending my progress through Underworld to pick up the new tome, which feels somewhat compelling because my interest in DeLillo only came from running out of Wallace to read. However, there’s something to be said for savoring and delaying things, especially when they are the last of things. Once I get through The Pale King, there will be no more Wallace fiction in this lifetime.

What of apprehension, then, of surprise, of anticipation, of expectation? I have been on a new mantra lately, a big kick, something that stems from my interactions with Trudi and friends, yes, but also a longer scope of life writ large. It’s that what we can see coming is never that scary. Dental visits, deadlines, interviews, departures. We build them up in our minds to be cataclysmic moments of potential doom, but rarely does the actual moment even push the meter of our stress levels. They may not always be pleasant, may not always turn out, but not a one of them ranks as the top fifty worst days of any of our lives. It’s the surprises that count against us, the things we don’t see coming, the car accidents and sudden deaths and blindsidings and phone calls in the dead of night. There’s some relaxation and sobriety to be gained from all this, and I’m not even certain the sum of the information is reassuring. On the one hand, we’d be well served by just calming down about everything we dread. On the other, we must constantly look skyward in a more overarching dread for the calamities which may fall therefrom.

Of course the nature of surprise is that it can’t be anticipated, so the idea of this creating an overall aura of creeping dread seems silly in some ways. One could ruin every day one has remaining caught up in negative anticipation of death and I know many who do it (or would, or start whenever they come close). Some people even mistake my own hyper-awareness of mortality for this, though it’s actually the opposite – it’s a comfort with the concept designed to fuel energy into the living days, not a draining dread instead. (Incidentally, I know I keep overusing the word “dread” instead of synonyms, but it’s to hammer it home… and isn’t there an onomatopoetic beauty to the word? Does anything sound like “dread” so much as that solemn dead syllable itself?) No wonder we love surprise parties and surprise gifts and surprise whirlwind trips to the Bahamas. It corrects our vision of where the badness comes from, reminds us that positives can come from traditionally negative sources. That the clear blue sky is not just waiting to kill us, but perhaps also to elate us, that the random cacophony of wills involved in shaping our world can be on our side as well. No wonder I chose to delay telling the Rutgers team some particularly excellent news I have for them tonight so they could savor the nature of positive anticipation as well, so they could suspend their lack of faith in the notion of surprise.

Of course this last is a dual-sided sword, for in having time to anticipate so-called surprises, there is the inevitable churn of disappointment that correlates quite cleanly to the relief of surviving dreaded events. How many Christmases, birthdays, long-planned dates lived up to the expectation, the savory sweetness of mental pre-hyperbole? If someone tells you to go into a room and imagine the best thing you can, what are the odds of that getting exceeded? We are an imaginative species and capitalism trains us to be disappointed with whatever we actually have available to us in the face of what we could have. This is why we are so unhappy as a society. This is why we have drug and alcohol problems. This is why, yes, marriages so often dissolve into mailed paperwork as a replacement for one-time dreams. Reality is almost always short of our expectations, our best hopes. And it is all too easy to trade in reality for a lottery ticket, literal or figurative, suspending the idea that one’s chronic disappointment is a product of the very nature of expectation itself rather than merely unlucky circumstances that could hypothetically be changed. All too often, the unhappiest people learn far too late that it is their mindset, not their means, that have led them to disappointment.

My creative pursuits have found massive suspension against the backdrop of unexpected employment and intensified responsibility. The May 15th deadline for the fourth novel is entirely laughable at this juncture, long ago mentally erased if not literally so on my year-long plastic wall calendar. The summer arises as a possible boon to the creative and imaginative pursuits, a resurrection of quizzes and novels and the things I spend my life promising myself to do while usually getting caught up in more directly personable and interactive pursuits. Is it against my nature to sequester and write, to scribble and shun in order to communicate in a wider, broader, more explicable way? Should I be more comfortable with the 1-on-1, the 1-on-10, the small-scale but somehow attainable pursuits of change? Is this my true calling, in spite of what my ten-year-old self concluded? My ten-year-old self was sick of people, felt rejected and isolated. Every year since, with only romantic exceptions, I’ve felt more welcomed and included and inspired by the people in my life. Perhaps it is there, in iteration and not stagnant text, that I have the most to offer. Or perhaps it is a balance, as feedback rolls in from the prior two tomes of my own, perhaps there is something quality in scaling these pursuits against each other, in alternation, in the much vaunted middle ground.

I can’t even update Duck and Cover on a regular basis these days, it seems… today all but destined to be another gap in the already reduced weekday schedule. Part of this is a logistical paper problem – I’ve worn out the month of Oscar themes, but need some supplies to rejoin the regular tread of the other eleven months. Of course I feel an additional disconnect when facing the political world, however, namely an inability to relate to the events of the world around me. The US has become a hyper-militaristic state, never flinching from a conflict where anonymous bombing can destroy buildings, lives, and morality. And all the people I warned about Obama starting a war, I wrangled with about his Afghanistan comments and said he would find countries to invade in his tenure, that it’s become almost required action from each Presidential term, they can’t wait to sign up as being “in” on the Obama campaign on Facebook, can’t wait to commit to four more years of death by sky. There are no Democratic or Republican ideals, there is only a commitment to big business, big war, big money, big death. This is America’s role and influence on the world and the only hope is that someone eventually gets sick of it. But it won’t come from within, that’s increasingly clear. The next generation has been co-opted, far too susceptible to the idea that whoever America replaces bad leaders with will be better even in the face of plethoric counter-evidence everywhere in the world. The simple notion that killing can lead to progress has done more harm than any other single concept, and yet it remains close to its most pervasive at this very moment in history. Six-thousand years, no real progress. Just flashy machines and technological advancements to bring us our books from far away, our mail from law offices, our bodies to one continent or another, while our minds and emotions fail to keep up.

It’s no coincidence that the most satisfying aspects of our lives are the most ancient. Yoga, oral discussion, the warm feeling of connection to another human soul. It is at our most rooted that we are the most secure, happy, able to trust and hope. Put away the phone, unless it is really helping you communicate directly and robustly. Put away the screens, the bells, the whistles. Sit. Think. Read, maybe, or maybe just talk, even to yourself. The core of our experiences are no different than they were 6,000 years ago, or maybe longer. The best hope for progress may, in fact, be regress.


2011: A Vignette Odyssey II

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, From the Road, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,


Two: The Frontier Restaurant in Albuquerque has long been a sort of totem of my relatively limited affection for the world. The things I like tend to be things I like a lot and the Frontier may be close to my favorite of these things. It has great food, relatively cheap (it used to be unqualifiedly cheap, but now such things have gotten a little less certain), a wide expanse of comfortable, Western-themed rooms, a wide cross-section of Albuquerque’s population, and hundreds of memories (most of them even good) haunting its tiled corridors. Introducing new people to the Frontier has become a hallmark of their visits to New Mexico and a highlight of any trip home for me, for spreading the Gospel of the Frontier is one of my most thoroughly developed skills.

Brandzy had been to the Frontier before we made it in for a crowded Sunday lunch, but he’d been there alone and in a rush and only on my far-flung recommendation while I sat in, I believe, an office at Glide. So while the experience was not entirely untested, his ability to fully embrace the Frontier ethos as one who is being guided and shown around had not been breached. Having discovered a new love of green chile the night before at Garcia’s, it was no problem convincing him to try a cheeseless breakfast burrito and begin the rapid indoctrination process often underway by the time someone sets foot over the Frontier’s well-traversed thresholds.

He arranged a hasty reunion there with a long-estranged friend, leaving us just enough time in the schedule to stop by the old place on Twelfth Street for a glimpse of what my actual upbringing in Albuquerque was like before my parents moved and were able to claim the place they’ve lived since I was ensconced in college. Gone were the chickens and ducks and geese; added were several walls and outcroppings of the structure my Dad had begun to augment before our move. But the echoes of a bygone era, already reverberating through my perspective after nearly a month in New Mexico, began to thunder loudly in my cranium as it perched just visibly over the ditch-side wall to offer a view of stuccoed straw-bales and the wispy visage of a teenager who’ll never walk that yard again.

We didn’t reunite thereafter till it was dark outside, a fire blazing within to offer a bulwark against single-digit temperatures that threatened any stranded without the walls. Brandzy’s picked up guitar lately and he picked up his, encouraging me to literally dust off an instrument I hadn’t touched in over a decade as he began to practice. I almost caught up to him in a couple-hour impromptu jam, relearning “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “This Land is Your Land” and plowing through our recently recounted memories of me at eighteen or thirteen to squint into an even more distant past, one at eleven and twelve, one accompanied by the plucking of strings and the pressing of frets as I failed to practice sufficiently to make good on a musical promise always more hoped for than manifest. “Puff the Magic Dragon” added heart-strings to those already being tugged, but we struggled with B-minor and had to regroup with the two we’d played together as we laughed and celebrated a minor victory in being able to learn, or at least remember, at thirty years old.

Three: A return to the Frontier and a series of near-goodbyes marked this sleepy day, with Brandzy departing for Arizona before tragedy was to strike there coincidental to his more planful journey. We said farewell repeatedly, culminating in a last farewell as he retrieved forgotten sheet music on his way westward once more, promising to listen and talk of future farewells as many times as might be necessary. I spent the day in increasing awareness of my hurtling toward departure from New Mexico, left once again to feel the already waning rhythms of life in a family of three as I lived it for almost two decades, but so little in the past twelve years. Late in the day, after good portions of reading and computer time, I was able to convince my parents to engage in some magical thinking and accompany me to my father’s first (modern) 3D movie, the “Voyage of the Dawn Treader”. And on the third day of the year, the three of us watched a three-dimensional film, the third in the classic Narnian series, nearly having the theater to ourselves before a couple stragglers joined us in late preview. All were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the film and the engagement of its contours, convinced once more that sharing a movie outside the bounds of the homestead is not only viable, but vital.

Four: My last full day in Albuquerque was slow and methodical, as I took periodic care to note the passage of time and the significance of a day that, like any at home or in the company of those one rarely sees, could bear unseen and increased significance in certain retrospects. I have learned over much belaborment that it is important not to overemphasize such days, to overload them or overstress them if possible. There is great pressure put on departure, especially when it carries potential portends of long absence and the gaping maw of life unknown and unplanned, of reunions whose dates are unmarked on the calendar. That very pressure that inclines one to enjoy and squeeze the stuffing out of these moments of significance can suffocate same, strangling the throats that would call on memory to the point where all that can be heard are plaintive, even frustrated cries. It is one of those Murphian curses of our existence that an awareness of important days can crush them, that our most beautiful memories are often of days almost unnoticed at the time.

I managed to finish my book, to dine with my family, to make plans to see a friend who’d just made it to town in time to play piano and a last card game with Fish and I before we departed. Eliaii and I rarely overlap for long in Albuquerque, but our conversation made the most of it this time, as early hours of the fifth day of the year were burned in serious contemplation of life and its foibles after he and Fish’s father conquered Fish and I at what Trivial Pursuit recently informed me was the most popular four-player game of all-time (bridge). If it was the last night at what I’ve lovingly called The Tank for a decade and a half, it was one for the ages. Fish and I had sat before the gas fire several times this trip, contemplating New Year’s past and further past, or imagining what future hope could be carved from the newly breached shore my life has been wrecked upon. I had not realized how much of these opportunities to regroup and reminisce had been made possible by Fish himself until that night, until hearing his parents wax wistful about Florida on Christmas and realizing that at age thirty, despite feeling like kids, we are directing more traffic in our lives than we really might imagine.

Five: Village Inn is no Frontier. It’s not even Waffle House. But it is open and relatively close to The Tank, and Eliaii and I finished the last large meal of my time in Nuevo over discussions of where things are heading in a year that if I keep saying it has to be better than last year, it almost certainly won’t be. A cop sat behind Eliaii and looked up occasionally over his strongbox-computer-sourced work, trying not to acknowledge me as I talked about places I might live and jobs I might pursue and avenues I might attempt to sidle down in the coming months and years. I often caught myself wondering what he might think of our cavalier evaluations of Albuquerque, its advantages and disadvantages. It’s easy to assume that almost any well-settled local is a lifelong native, but it’s quite possible he was an import from Texas or California or even possibly Chicago, though there’s something about police in particular that I believe makes them seem provincial. It’s probably halfway between a stereotype and the belief that they take up arms and badges in the defense of a long-held community tradition, or at least in a place where they’re familiar with what neighborhoods require what sort of patrol. In any event, he heard me compare Seattle, Denver, Flagstaff, and Vancouver favorably, though I lamented that Albuquerque’s affordability and climate were not available without the ghosts.

I considered staying up all night, but it was clear by six or so that this would be a poor plan, especially since my departure was later than my traditional bargain-basement dawn voyage. I caught about a hundred minutes of sleep in the steady restlessness of the jittery need to awaken quickly when it is, in fact, time to awaken. How many mornings spent alarmed and ready without necessity, starting alert every five minutes only to discover that the need to leave bed is still many minutes or even quarter-hours hence. And then the final moment of awakening, of sounded emergency startling, it seems anticlimactic and almost sad, wasted in its annoyance on a person already feeling as though he’s been awake and ready for days.

It was in this state that I began to cry, facing the magnitude of the departure that was upon me, feeling the welled and stored pressure of all that had built in days and weeks and a near-month of muddling through in search of resolutions, answers, hope, holiday, restoration. Once unleashed, my final of many floodgates on New Mexican soil knew no stoppage, prompting a contemplation of punting the flight altogether in favor of later times or, perhaps, making a vacation more permanent or at least indefinite. Departures like this, as often tagged in this format itself by my “Pre-Trip Posts” moniker, tend to carry that pre-remembrance feeling even more heavily than last full days in a locale. My family is heavy with premature death, with tragic losses and missed opportunities to say goodbye, adding extra weight to every long preview of extended absence. A deluge of unchecked tears as the last of the packing culminates is hardly a harbinger to ward such misgivings. We bawled and hugged and my parents begged me to reconsider my resolve to fly to Philadelphia. I almost relented. But at some point, amidst the pangs of reconsideration and reformatting of a whole vision of this year, I stood up and said “it’s time.”

Airports are lonelier than any Valentine’s Day, any New Year’s, any holiday spent solo. Many are alone, but nearly all of them are heart-filled with the last kisses of loved ones or the even more soaring anticipation of long reunion. It is too early to declare these experiences forever spoiled, but a thirty-hour jaunt to Liberia resulting in a cold shoulder went a long way toward inhibiting my taste for unaccompanied air travel. After a steadying phone call to Stina to iron out last details of the pending trip to Vermont and New Hampshire, I resolved to sleep as fast as possible, making up for the nervy hundred minutes of half-rest that had preceded my teary farewells to hearth and home. We were airborne, underway, then as Albuquerque receded ‘neath a bank of clouds, I nestled in the very back row against my parka and gave in to merciful unconsciousness.

I was awakened some hours later by a special announcement over the loudspeaker with a surreal-sounding request that all passengers aboard our flight from Albuquerque to Chicago lower our window shades and press our flight attendant call buttons. It was a minute or so before I could be sure I wasn’t dreaming, groggily blinking at the 100% participation with what appeared to be a prelude to an ill-lit ritual of cult or creed. Instead, it proved to be a marriage proposal, inarticulate and choked as it emerged from a pudgy but sincere-seeming guy as introduced by a profoundly polished contrasting stewardess. The view from the back was murky enough to briefly convince me that he was offering a wedding to the stewardess herself, but it proved to be a fellow traveler on the wind to Chicago that was receiving what would long be considered the happiest news of her life. My thoughts went quickly to a mid-inning proposal at a Philadelphia ballgame Emily and I attended shortly before she flew away, our wincing looks to each other reminding both of us that our best proposal story of our lives, the best proposal story either of us have ever heard, has been burned on a needlessly heartbroken marriage whose memory now only brings pain. It is hard to say how particularly cruel life has been lately or whether I merely notice its cruelty more unguardedly in my present state, but I would also venture that none of you have borne witness to an airborne proposal and that things are really going out of their way these days. I tried to fall back asleep as soon as possible, shortly after desperately trying to make myself clap along with the congratulatory crowd.

I didn’t leave the plane in Chicago, instead waiting for all but 9 of the seats to be filled by those who filed on in annoyed single-file, scouting seats and bin space like buzzards on a planet of immortals. Inevitably one of the loudest of the future passengers found his way across the aisle from me, where I was newly placed in good old row seventeen. He’d made a new friend in line and spent almost all of the boarding phase yelling details of his dramatic life across the way to her chosen seat, just behind my head. Turns out he’d flown back to Chicago from Philly to bail his ex-wife out of jail. She’d just burned his house in Chicago down. He was taking the kids, who were coming with their grandparents in the back of the line, back to one of the grandparents’ places in Philadelphia to recover while he contemplated whether to press charges and how to collect on the insurance. The guy looked like the kind of person who would make up a story like this just to pass the time, but by the point when two scared-looking bear-clutching grade-schoolers dutifully boarded between hand-wringing matriarchs trying to look brave, I was convinced. Maybe the only thing special about anyone’s experience is that they think it is special. Maybe suffering is all the same.

I read at length from my Mom’s long-recommended recent favorite, The Shadow of the Wind, while trying to shake the idea that I was getting a portrait of American nuptials presented by Southwest Airlines. I couldn’t sleep a wink all the way down into Philadelphia, a rarity for me on planes. I have long tried to keep myself awake on the large commercial vehicles, often just to see if I can, sometimes because I desperately want to read or converse or otherwise enjoy consciousness. But this was my first flight in ages to offer me such, almost not counting since its first half was spent almost completely asleep. As we eased down toward Philadelphia in one of the most gradual descents of all-time, I was able to peer through cloudless skies at early evening scenes of eastern America. It occurred to me, squinting and sighing, how like constellations the light patterns of winter cities in this country are, how the order/chaos of patterned streets and traffic and buildings, especially in smaller towns, resembles nebulas and swirling galaxies high above in the same dim-lit view. We rotate and revolve around a center, we follow an orbit, and dim glimmers of yellow or white or even purple hints at our existence, winking in the void as we wait to be driven homeward.

All the way back, I’d think how strange it was that I’d never before correlated far-flung star systems to the electric networks that adorn our own civilized groupings. Sitting for long stretches on overlit trains, even longer stretches in even more overlit train stations, hauling my overstuffed bags down the rickety ice-flecked stairs of the New Brunswick depot, hailing a cabbie my parents had insisted I employ to make the last tiny stretch of my journey less exhausting than all that piled on before it, I would wonder. How can we be so close to so much and not see? What am I not seeing before me now that might be my skyward salvation? And what, most of all, might I never see, never connect or correlate, until such time when its knowledge is no longer useful? Are we ever making decisions as though truly informed? Or does the chaos outweigh the order, leaving us as much starstruck or star-crossed as we are illuminated?

I’m not sure about this emergent 2011 pattern of recalling a day or a handful of them in somewhat distant retrospect, but I kind of like the affect it has on my thinking and the way I talk about things. Like these constellation/streetlights themselves, I think I might often be too close to the days I’m writing about, and even a few hours or a week of reflection time can make an enormous difference in how circumspect or thoughtful I can be about them. I can’t imagine sandbagging future thoughts and entries to create this effect, but while I’m still catching up on the early parts of the year, I’m not going to fight it. In other words, this vignette series will continue, at least for another entry or so.


New Toy

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I’ve made it pretty clear this year that I will neither be sending nor receiving gifts for Christmas or associated holiday seasons, though I’m still deliberating about sending out a New Year’s Letter. On the one hand, it’s a tradition that I started with Emily in 2003; on the other, it’s one that I was well more enthusiastic about and she basically pressured me into giving up. So there’s some opportunity to reclaim it. At the same time, what do I really have to send in a friendly greeting to everyone about the advent of 2011? “Thank God it won’t be 2010 anymore!”? An inspiring message, to be sure, but do people really need an 8.5×11 in their mailbox with such declaration? Not at all sure. Besides, it’s not a mystery to anyone who’d be on the list that this year was a setback. I could just send out an e-card or even post a holiday letter right here, where everyone’d inevitably see it anyway. But then isn’t most of the point that someone cares enough to go to the trouble of printing something out on actual paper, of signing their name, of finding the address of their friends? So, yeah. Nothing is simple these days.

So despite my moratorium on gifts, largely borne of exhaustion at the idea of giving and horror at the accumulation incumbent in receiving, I went and bought myself a big ol’ new toy this week, which arrived today on a Budget Rent-a-Truck masquerading as a FedEx delivery vehicle. It’s what I’m using to write this very post, a Dell Inspiron laptop that is my first ever computer of the portable variety. I don’t really need it, which begs the question of why I went out and spent ~1% of my net worth on it. There were a lot of micro-factors, including a desire to become familiar with post-XP Windows operating systems (while not having to rely on them, thank you trusty desktop!), a desire to utilize streaming Netflix movies while not trying to use my office chair like a couch, and a desire to be able to write in places that are not my apartment. None of them singularly compelling, but in combination enough to make an interesting case, especially when my misperception that any decent laptop cost at least $850 had been so roundly dispelled. This one was less than $500, including taxes and shipping.

I’m not intending to make it my primary computer, which really gets me on my case about spending money like this for a backup computer at a time when I intend to be saving for some indeterminate future. At the same time, I haven’t bought a new computer in about 7 years, and that one cost about the same as this one. $750 a decade is probably a reasonable computer budget, especially for someone who uses theirs as much as I use mine. Plus it’s a little lift, sadly, to get a new toy. I say sadly because I truly wish I were immune to the American-instilled pleasures of having a new material item to play with. But I am honest enough to admit that it gives me a little thrill, that it’s fun to explore and learn, that I enjoy the tactile pleasures of the shiny o-bespeckled base and cover. Am I nervous as all get-out that I will tire of using the keyboard which, although not bad for a laptop, is still annoying? Sure. Or that if I spill something in this keyboard, the whole computer is wrecked, something I’ve long criticized about laptops? Of course. But hey. Life is unpredictable. Might as well take some chances when the impulse strikes. And, y’know, it doesn’t do grievous harm or something.

Meanwhile, New Mexico continues to be a really mixed bag. I’m loving the food, splurging additionally to stuff myself with rellenos, enchiladas, and burritos. I continue to read a lot, now about a third of the way through John Irving’s behemoth Until I Find You. I can’t tell if he’s writing it absurdly simply to prove a point of some kind or if he really was always a very simple writer and I didn’t notice amidst his really engaging plots like Owen Meany or Widow. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Pynchon and DeLillo and Russian lit lately, but this work is coming off like a third grade composition. Maybe he’s just lost it as a writer. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining in the lurid way that most Irving pieces are. And I’m sure it will be ultimately convoluted and heartbreaking, so there’s that to look forward to.

Now that I have my laptop, I might move forward with the ambiguously talked-around quiz project that was laughably short of launching before I left NJ, despite my ambitious claims to the contrary. Of course, we’re also in the full throes of luminaria season, which gets going in earnest tomorrow as I take the 600 folded bags and start filling them with sand to be stored in the garage. My ambition was to place them a day early (the 23rd) – something I’ve often talked about but never actually followed through with for one reason or other. But they’re now predicting rain that entire day, meaning it’ll have to be another dawn-to-dusk marathon layout on the 24th, as per usual. And that’s assuming the rain doesn’t start to impinge on the actual display day. Now that I’ve got a camera built into the laptop, I even toyed with the idea of making a “How to Make Luminarias” video, but I probably won’t have the energy. At least the rate at which projects occur to me is steady, even if my inertia is larger than normal.

This has wound up being a rather prosaic post. Blame the latent materialism, blame John Irving’s low-vocab influence. I had more poetic efforts in mind last night amidst the lunar eclipse and the solstice. But after lying down on the rooftop for the better part of half an hour it was too cold to persist. By the time I went back out in search of a reddened orb, it was blockaded entirely by clouds, the world hemmed in from the astronomical convergence. It almost brought me to tears, and not mostly because I was sad to miss out on a direct visual of one of the most photographed events of 2010. The moon does funny things to people. It tilts the tides unseen within us all.

I’m about halfway through my month in Albuquerque. Up till now, almost all of the time has been with family. Much more of the time to come will be with friends. These twin pillars continue to radiate the import of this place for me, whatever toys I bring or hold, whatever meaning I ascribe to its tasty food and haunted corridors. In the end, as always, it’s about the people. The luminarias, laptops, and lunches don’t hurt. But it’s about folks. That’s all we are in the end.


After the Snow

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

Before the Snow | During the Snow

The summers I was 14 and 15, I spent intense three-week sessions at the Center for Talented Youth (CTY) at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The program was designed to augment the studies of languishing “gifted” kids scattered in normal middle- and high-school routines and give them an outlet for their overactive intellectual interest through taking college(ish)-level courses in an actual college environment. The larger point of the program, and the one I probably enjoyed the most, was the social element – throwing a bunch of bright nerdy youngsters together to meet each other and feel less lonely amidst summers that might otherwise be spent reading alone or trudging through some mindless job. Indeed, it was at CTY that I first danced with a girl (outside of a play performance, at least) and where I was first introduced to Diplomacy, which I then promptly imported to my own batch of regular-season bright nerdy fellows back in Albuquerque.

There were other dancing girls at Dickinson those summers, ones I would usually only see periodically and mostly picking at their cereal bowls during crack-of-dawn breakfasts at the cafeteria. CTY had a strict lights-out policy at some absurdly early hour like 10 PM (it may have been 11, or it might have even been 9:30 on weeknights). They checked for flashlights and militantly patrolled the halls. And while I bitterly resented the requirement to sleep far more than I normally would (I was already down to 4-6 hours a night and, by the second summer, pulling all-nighters periodically), I did appreciate that the schedule forced me out of bed at 5 or 6 in the morning so I could take a shower long before anyone else was up. Being housed in dorms, these summers were my first brush with communal bathrooms and I was seriously unprepared for the kind of familiarity and camaraderie implicit in such confines. After all, I’d always gone home after baseball games rather than face the horrors of the long row of uncurtained showers. There was a perfectly good shower at home. Dickinson’s showers were not so devastatingly unprivate, but the idea of even appearing in a bathrobe or trying to change while wearing one in front of other people was overwhelming to my modest early teenage sensibilities.

Thus I was done with showers by 6:30 at the latest and found myself in the unlikely scenario of being awake to see one of the only phases of the day I routinely missed during the rest of my life. Breakfast opened at 7:00 sharp at the cafeteria and many were the mornings that I leisurely waltzed up the brick walk from the dorms to the student center, breathing fresh dawn air and watching the sun’s first glimmers through trees and feeling pure and whole about the opportunity that life itself provided. Only in the euphoria of paper-laden all-nighters in late high-school and early college did I find such similar bliss of first light hitting the world, of being so alive while the rest of the world rested. I remembered talking with Gris at some point during college about how he felt sort of queasy if he was ever awake when most of the surrounding society was asleep, that he felt out of balance with the universe. To me, it’s always been just the opposite. When the world is silent, the mind comes alive. See?

So I would get to the cafeteria, inevitably a little too early, to find myself in the tiny line leading to the fading brown double-doors that held one of the best breakfast spreads I’d ever encountered. It was wasted on most of my cohorts, of course, those attending the ballet camp of indeterminate origin that shared the campus during those summers. Indeed, exactly three groups held regular camps at Dickinson in 1994 and 1995 while I was there – the ballerinas (who we lovingly called “rinas”), us, and the Washington Redskins. It was like some poorly constructed joke or an ironic attempt at diversity by the deans of the school. Tiny high-school aged female ballet students, enormous burly adult football players, and average mid-to-high-school prodigies. Grace, brawn, and brain. Small, large, and medium. Female, male, and mixed (or for the most part, more accurately, sexless). Those who refused to eat, those who ate everything, and those in the middle.

As the doors flung back at 7:00 to reveal eggs, potatoes, waffles or pancakes, breakfast meats, a cereal bar, and countless fountain-sprung beverages, one couldn’t help but wonder whether the intent of the deans had merely been to evenly space the burden on the cafeteria staff. Not only were the rinas generally disinclined to eat food, but it was clear that the dawn rush of undersized dancers relished the competition of who could eat less in front of the others. No football players ever saw the doors open at 7:00 and I was generally one of one to three representatives of CTY. But the rinas usually streamed in that early, maybe under the theory that failing to sleep would encourage weight-loss or perhaps their program began earlier than our classes (it must have). And while I loaded up on hearty American breakfasts, they rushed the cereal bar for underfilled bowls with spritzes of skim milk, tiny portions of delicate fruit, or sometimes just the beverage tray of juice a la carte. Smug looks were exchanged and indifferent blank stares as it gradually became clear to me that their respective undereating was as much for show as for function.

Occasionally I would wax eloquent about my early-morning eating habits and persuade one of my friends at CTY to rise at dawn’s first salvo to join me for the meal. I actually enjoyed the solitude of it at times, but solitude gets wearing, especially for an only child ensconced in a summer program to remind him that he is not alone. While I prevailed upon many classmates to join me at least once, I think few to none ever made a repeat visit to the pre-7 line at the cafeteria doors. No doubt a handful were lured by the promise of unfettered visibility of dainty rinas, already suited up in their skin-tight attire, only a few throwing a slovenly sweatshirt over the top. No doubt this was a competitive aspect of the breakfast display as well. There was virtually no fraternization between rinas and CTYers, and mutual contempt ran high. Sometimes an ambitious older experienced CTY male (CTY was capped at 16) would attempt interaction and there were even rumors of one or two rendezvous, but most of my friends were content to look from a safe distance. Me, I never much saw the appeal. I was certainly noticing girls by that point (I’d been noticing them for about ten years, truth be told), but the squat taut bodies and lifeless sneers were not particularly my style. Mostly I was fascinated by their social groupings and birdlike hierarchies, and occasionally was drawn in by the kindred loner who (always sweatshirted) would linger with a walkman or a book and mostly stare into space unegotistically while chewing slowly and thoughtfully.

We were cruel to the rinas in our own conversations – everyone gathered at roughly the same time for lunch and we’d chuckle about their haughty prima donna attitudes and empty plates. We had no inklings of the pressure they must be under, oblivious to the depth of others’ plights in the way that even brainy young teenagers inevitably are. There were the more sage among us who would speak philosophically about bodily drive and the need for artistry and how our own pursuits of mental fitness were undoubtedly superior. Some who would jest about trying to convert a random rina to the more intellectual pursuits, which inevitably devolved into a gag about what part of their pursuits they were really after. I would ponder the table-corner loners and shudder at the idea of approaching one for so much as borrowing the salt, let alone a conversation.

I saw “Black Swan” with my father last night, a movie ostensibly about ballerinas. To say it was my first contact with ballet since the summer of ’95 would be gross exaggeration, but much of the movie served as a time machine, teleporting me to the quiet breakfast air of exactly half my life ago. The film itself is brilliant, a crushing examination of the drive for perfection and the pains and power of artistry in a seedy, practical world. Darren Aronofsky has had my attention since “Pi” and while the subject matter of “The Wrestler” left me unwatchably cold, I have great esteem for both “The Fountain” and “Requiem for a Dream”, both first watched in the last year or so. As can be expected in his films, there are moments that are profoundly unsettling and uncomfortable. No matter how old one gets, watching sex scenes on a big screen next to one’s father never gets easier. But we were both able to agree that the film was a triumph by the starkly contrasting credits.

Much of the examination of the movie resembles the same examinations we used to make from three cafeteria tables away, with varying degrees of compassion, about the impact of the art on the artists. How could one live on a quarter-grapefruit (a half-eaten half) a morning, especially when one was about to put one’s body through unbelievable torment? We had no visibility into the condition of the rinas’ feet from looking over our heavily laden trays that summer, but “Black Swan” spares little in its stark displays. We never turned the camera inward in those discussions, asking whether four mandated hours at the library each day were truly necessary, or what impact being openly intelligent might have had on our social progress. Although, of course, our physiological health was largely untouched by a commitment to college-level coursework… we could eat what we wanted without reprisal. Although no doubt many of the girls among us felt disproportionate pressure to stay slim with the already glaring “strike” against their social standing of high intelligence.

What’s amazing about “Black Swan” is the disconnect between the artist’s personal vision of perfection/accomplishment and the vision of everyone around her. Everyone else has their own theory about what will provide a leg up for her performance and ability, and while she dabbles in each suggestion, she ultimately crafts her own ideal solution to the problem of how to find flawlessness in performance. And while the conclusion, which I will not here spoil, is shocking to the allegedly objective eye we try to watch with, it is undeniably a form of perfection unanticipatable and unexpectable. In exceeding the bounds of what we could dream of, it reaches a nirvana of unassailability that provides true transcendence.

Which helps inform the journey of any artist or performer or just striving person in the long road of their life. And this, of course, takes me back to my own struggles, both of late and of yore, and one of the greatest pieces of writing I have ever encountered, both in its own twirling perfection and for informing me about my own path. The story is “Hommage a Bournonville” by Peter Hoeg, which appears in his brilliant collection Tales of the Night. I first read it in the hurried boxed-up finals week of my second sophomore semester at Brandeis, nestled between thin detentes between myself and both my roommate of that year and my only girlfriend of that year, both patchings-up that were frail and destined not to last. While both people had headline-level impacts on the awful nature of that year that almost drove me from college (at least temporarily, though it probably would’ve been permanent), it was an anniversary e-mail from the most significant of ex-girlfriends that drove me to the initial brink that dark annum. No doubt that interaction and the fallout of what followed were heavy in my mind as I spun page after page in awe.

Through the magic of my extensive public record-keeping efforts, I can know that it was the fifth of May 2000 that I first read the story and the fifteenth of June eight years later when I anointed the piece as the second best short story of all-time. You should go read it now, on page 154 of that file. But if you don’t, you should know that the centerpiece of the story is, of course, ballet.

The story is about ballet about as much as “Black Swan” is, about as much as this post is, which is to say entirely and not at all. It is as layered and multifaceted as both, a story within a story within a story, much of the narrative embedded in a third-person retelling of an autobiographical story to a second party described within what is, itself, a short story written by another author who, at some point in his life, really was a ballet dancer. And the story, like the movie and what you are reading now, is mostly about art. About the sacrifices people make for it, about striving for perfection within its unforgiving but paradoxically flexible confines, and about how love or life itself weave and bend within the treacherous passages left for them by the self-demanding artist. It is hard now to truly talk about what is most relevant about these pieces without spoiling them mercilessly, without ruining their ends and conclusions, and yet to navigate even those waters while still enabling you to finish this post and then see and read is perhaps my own struggle with perfection at this very moment.

The point, it is probably though perhaps not safe to say, of “Hommage a Bournonville”, of “Black Swan”, is that love itself and even perhaps sexual feelings in the first place, are tools with which grand artistry can be crafted. They are implements of scouring pain and visceral sensation, they have unmatched power to provide release and tension, outlet and bottling up, strife and chaos. And when the artist can examine these feelings, without flinching or turning away, as mere tools in the bag of life for creating the grand performance, the ideal artistry, it is then that the artist simultaneously flirts with perfection and madness. What person in their right mind would choose an artistic acme, be it on stage or on page, over a happily fulfilled life of love? None. And yet, there is an argument for it, no? There is an argument to be made that living and loving is commonplace, mundane, the march of the masses, while true artistic genius requires putting such temptations in their place.

It is dangerous territory to contemplate, for sure, especially as someone who has, despite its alleged mundanity, always placed love first in line. But in reading and rereading “Hommage”, in watching “Swan”, it is clear to me that the opportunity of heartbreak, especially this continual and renewed heartbreak I now face, offers consolation prizes in the form of artistic expression. These prizes, as they always have, seem hollow and shallow and pale to me, but it is only in understanding their insufficient nature that I can truly feel the feelings necessary to make the whole project work. It’s like a game I’ve long played with the universe and found important – one can have faith that everything will work out in the end, but as soon as one resigns one’s fate in that way, takes the path of those who replace medicine or decision-making with prayer, then one invalidates the deal and submits to the only path of possibility for things not working out in the end. That the rules for the game are that one must play it sincerely and react accordingly. One must be devastated by losses and setbacks, not winking at the camera (wherever it may be) and nodding that things will ultimately be for the best, but collapsing in the knowledge that they will never again recover. And only by doing that, by feeling it to its fullest extent, can one enact that strange moral strings of the universe that preserve real hope.

Which makes one start to wonder to what extent life itself is a performance, that existence in this strange backwards planet is itself rigged for artistry and beauty. That what captivates us about ballet and makes said dance such a conduit for grand metaphor of screen and word is its resemblance to life itself. That in standing on tippy-toes and flailing effortlessly and yet exactly, we all see ourselves and the eternal struggle to both let go and be precise in our deeds. And the judgment the ballerina fears may reflect the same we dread in our own lives. Will our existence remain in the shadows, unnoticed? Will we fall at the moment of our grandest opportunity? Will we prioritize base concerns like eating or sleeping or laughing with friends over the highest calling of our otherwise mundane existence?

And what role pain? What role do the pitfalls and pratfalls of physical and emotional scarring have in shaping who we are, how we will perform, what we will be remembered for? No doubt the high emotions of a ballet like “Swan Lake” or “La Sylphide” are meant to illustrate the profoundest impact of love, especially love taken or unfulfilled, on our very lives. To what extent is it more important to illustrate such impacts for others than to live them oneself? Is every artist a martyr? Is martyrdom, emotional or literal, itself what enables artistry? Are those tapped for greatness in dance or writing or filmmaking merely those who have, by accident or unluck, endured more than the rest of us? Can it be shaped or crafted? Or is it merely those who see their almost universal pains and losses as opportunity who have the advantage, who get the toehold on explaining what we all know in the bottom of our arrhythmic hearts?

It seems that if I make it as a writer, I will have to thank the two people (so far!) who have hurt me the most, for bringing me a depth of feeling more oceanic than all the experiences in the rest of my three decades of life. Neither were dancers of any kind, unless one can classify their devastating twirls of deceit and betrayal, their flowering lack of confidence and trust, as a form of ballet. I have been known to say I could not have found pacifism or believed it as thoroughly, were it not for my life-threatening experiences at Broadway Middle School, four years before Dickinson. Is all this meant merely to bring me skills and understandings that only brushes with the harshest of feelings can bring? It is a cute and convenient story, and one that doesn’t wash most of the time, that sounds profoundly like an excuse, a juice-squeezer desperately trying to churn through a mountain of lemons with gallons of artificial sweetener. But I see “Black Swan”, I read “Hommage a Bournonville”, and I have to wonder. To remember, to feel, and to wonder again.

As Ani DiFranco put it in her own song about swans, “I don’t care if they eat me alive. I’ve got better things to do than survive. I’ve got a memory of your warm skin in my hand. I’ve got a vision of blue sky and dry land.”

Artistic vision and triumph in the face of the gravest of threats. Pain unending, manifest in visions of blood and wrathful vengeance. To what extent is this wishful thinking, the efforts of a poetic mind to make meaning of unthinkable agony? And to what extent is it real, true, the nature of beauty and redemption in a warped world unsure of its own purpose?


What I’ve Learned in the Last 48 Hours

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , ,

There seems to be a directly proportional (or close) relationship between pain and learning. Or at least challenge and growth. Our muscles exist as a metaphor for the way we are supposed to advance ourselves. With the tearing of new wounds comes the opportunity for new advances. Now muscle tears may be more acceptable or reasonable than psychic rips. The paradox persists that even though pain is an opportunity for growth, it’s no reason to actually incite violence or cause pain to others. A reason to not despair at receiving such pain, however, it may be.

In any event, it’s been a heck of a ride lately. My Dad would probably claim that there are larger forces in the universe that made, say, the 13th a really difficult day and today much better. Maybe so, maybe so. But I like to think we all have a little something to do with our lives as well. And so I present some haphazard collections of platitudes that I’ve gleaned or reinforced in an intense two days:

  • I made the right decision in staying in Jersey for this year. I had long suspected this, but this trip has fully confirmed that New Brunswick is/was preferable to the available alternatives for the annum. This is very exciting, because people often make the right or good decisions and never get confirmation of their correctness. I’m lucky to have such early affirmation.
  • Teaching something is like a mantra or a prayer that reminds the teacher of the value of whatever one is teaching. Conveying something thus has almost as much value for the one conveying it as those hearing it for the first time. This also makes teaching something of a religious, or at least philosophical, exercise.
  • Thomas Pynchon just isn’t very good. He’s clever and occasionally hilarious, but I suspect a great deal of his success comes from incoherently talking above the heads of most of his reviewers, thus being received as brilliant for surpassing his capacity to be understood. I remember the same principle applying to some bafflingly successful debaters back in the day. Also probably applies to a number of philosophers. The one redeeming trait he has is capturing the sentiment of creeping universal paranoia that those who are paying attention to the universe may get from time to time, but there are ways he could do this without sacrificing cogency.
  • Computers have gotten a lot cheaper lately. Thanks, Recession.
  • It’s good to be impulsive sometimes.
  • It’s often easier to feel good about life when the weather is terrible outside. There’s a passage in the middle of Watership Down about why humans like winter when other animals don’t – because they get to feel safe and secure and insulated from the dangers the season of bad weather brings. To expand this idea, it may often be easier to feel good in opposition to something than in favor of it.
  • Not just because of the above, Seattle is starting to look really promising for 2011-2012.
  • When in doubt, reach out.


“New” Mexico

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Tags: ,

I am safely ensconced at the homestead in Albuquerque after arriving here late Tuesday. I have very mixed feelings about most everything, but it’s good to see the fam and their cat and get green chile and I’ve been able to walk a fair bit. Also reading quite a lot, which is probably about the most inspiring thing I do these days (when I’m not with the debate team, at least). Right now wading through the interminable frustration that is Tom Robbins, who weaves between brilliantly insightful and heavy-handedly immoral. It’s basically like reading a book co-authored by Gandhi and Ayn Rand.

I’m debating about whether to tag posts from Nuevo with a “From the Road” or not. I don’t think I traditionally do and I’m not really feeling like checking. In no small part because I’m writing this on my Dad’s Mac and Macs don’t have a right-click and that’s the function I’d normally use to check something like that. Otherwise I’d have to open a whole new window manually, which doesn’t sound like much, but you probably don’t know how existentially exhausted I’ve been feeling lately. It’s more the Mac than the exhaustion that accounts for the lack of Duck and Cover lately, but that ought soon be rectified since I finally found a viable free FTP program for the Mac. And I’m going to revert to handwritten dialogue, but would you rather have that or no Duck and Cover at all for a month? I’m sure your answers will vary.

I am at sea emotionally and mentally about most everything. I am torn between throwing myself into distracting projects like those vaguely intimated before I left Jersey and just committing myself to doing absolutely nothing for the time that I’m here. I am torn between trying to aggressively stretch myself out on the walking front and just taking it easy and using the confluence of relaxation and good food to put on a few pounds. I am continually overwhelmed by the magnitude of how different it feels to be back here in my new life circumstances. I was expecting it to feel restorative and resetting, but somehow it mostly feels anachronistic. Like I’ve calibrated a time machine very improperly and the rules of physics are battling it out for dominion over my fate. I could end up half-fused with an insect or wearing the billowy clothes of sixteenth century France. Most likely, I’ll just wind up confused.

It was snowing when I trundled down to the New Brunswick train station two days ago, towing identically colored turquoise luggage behind me, the larger ‘case with a busted wheel that I keep remembering to try to tear apart to minimize the degree of difficulty of its carriage. Nuevo seems in the midst of unseasonable warmth, the mercury transcending 60 today and reminding me of Balloon Fiesta falls. Maybe it’s just making its best sales pitch for me to move here a few months hence, though it should know that matching New Brunswick snowflake for snowflake would truly be its optimal effort. Maybe later. There’s plenty of time.

For the first time I’ve been in Albuquerque since the summer I wrote Loosely Based, I’ve got time. Lots and lots of time. There is no rush to decide anything, to do anything. Just to watch, listen, slow down. And spend time. I have a feeling I might not be any closer to any decisions on the other side of New Year’s. But for now, I can’t think about that. I can barely think about tomorrow.


Bookshelf Analysis

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

A while back, some friends of mine were featured in the New Yorker’s Book Bench for their pre-marital alignment of wood-housed tomes. So I figured it was time, now that I’ve actually organized them properly, for me to feature my own post-marital stack of reading:

I guess I was surprised overall how few books I actually have, though it’s worth noting that this is a heck of a large bookcase. Not really purchasing textbooks in college contributed to this, as well as long spates of library-based reading, which is starting back up again. This will probably stabilize my shelves for the time being, so this’ll be what I’m looking at perhaps for the duration in Highland Park. You can’t quite judge a person by their bookshelf, any more than a book by its cover, but both are perhaps more indicative than we give them credit for.

Here’s a bit of a more clearly labeled analysis for those who are having a hard time parsing covers or recognizing precise volumes:

No surprise to see Bradbury leading the pack, and many of the others are clearly favored. Kafka and Salinger have few enough works all told that they don’t quite merit labeling, though veteran readers of the latter will at least recognize the rainbow-on-white spines of his slim pieces. Which reminds me that I need to rebuy Nine Stories at some point. Wow, that recollection makes me sad. Anyway, I think Irving and Coelho suffer here a bit from being read during library phases, as does Huxley a bit despite his strong showing. Whereas Card and Rowling might get disproportionate credit for the thickness of their works. Hemingway also suffers from, if anything, a name that’s too long to make look okay on this graphic above.

Now I just want to go read. Maybe for the rest of my life.


Multi Media

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

“I’m not a mystery
everything I think is written down”
-Allison Weiss, “Why Bother”

The sun is bright in Highland Park today, casting long stark shadows on the newly bare sidewalks and leafy lawns as people make their way through the crisp air. The sky is still, a pacific relief from two days of unchecked bluster, allowing the full light of early winter to crystallize and hang suspended among dying leaves still clinging to their lifeblood. Few will fall today.

Yesterday marked the second time the Rutgers debate team has graced the pages of the Daily Targum, perhaps the most-read paper in the city of New Brunswick. The article was quite flattering, relying heavily on Farhan’s and my testimony about the changes that have transpired in fifteen months of unprecedentedly hard work. The surreality of our current standing really has yet to fade, so I might as well try to grab hold of it and just breathe. After all, I still vividly recall years of desperately missing debate, of waking from dreams where I had a chance to be back in tournaments, back on the circuit, only to deflate amongst the reality of day jobs and intellectual incuriosity. Those days will be back, perhaps with less pathos given my second chance fulfilled, but I might as well store up for future winters now.

At the recommendation of Russ, I’ve been reading Outliers, officially my first Highland Park library book and perhaps the tenth non-fiction book I’ve read since the days of high school textbooks. In it, Malcolm Gladwell, the hippest pop-culture-meets-academics writer this side of Freakonomics, argues that success depends on luck and good fortune and ethnic traditions far more than Horatio Alger-style bootstraps stories. And while his case is compelling and obvious, he lapses too often into the same trap of Alger and friends, namely equating a mundane capitalist definition of success with true achievement in the course of a lifetime. Which, given his audience and the subtitle “The Story of Success”, is probably to be expected. He borders on really exciting delvings into the nature of real satisfaction with his discussion of what he calls “meaningful” work, but never stops to question the nature of capitalism in imposing the necessity of work itself on the population. Nor does he examine presumed pinnacle professions, like doctoring and lawyering, in the context of how meaningful or satisfying they are. He assumes these jobs and the acquisition of graduate degrees are innate goods in our society by which we can measure the success of potential geniuses on an objective scale.

It would be easy to say my political critiques of Gladwell are wholly tangential to the question his book is trying to explore, and that’s probably mostly right. But Russ felt this was an Important Book for me largely because of my own lifelong struggles with my early academic trajectory and its ultimate failure. Gladwell would blame these on unlucky circumstances (certainly Broadway and CCC failing to be supportive were not ideal situations), my family’s socioeconomic background (would money have made them more tenacious? maybe), and perhaps my culture of coming from European mutts based in the West (um, dubious). But what he goes on to describe me being locked out of just doesn’t feel like anything I’m missing. I could have been a successful lawyer had I wanted to be. Yippee. There’s plenty of good reasons I’m not, and they’re all based in my exercising of my own free will over my priorities. Would I have liked to graduate college at 16 as it once looked like was going to happen? Sure. But probably not so I could go on and collect a full complement of supplementary initials to my name. Probably, instead, so I could get on with it, as Monty Python would say. And the it maybe doesn’t look much better than status quo, save maybe for more public recognition that makes it easier to get published or something.

Tooling around the internet today, I discovered my new favorite musician of the hour. A quotation from one of her stellar just-discovered (by me) songs is above. She’s Allison Weiss and she’s apparently independent and sings mostly about heartbreak. Her song “July 25, 2007” cut right through me and I’ve already ordered her CD. There’s something about the simplicity and rawness of her storytelling that is pretty much what I’ve always loved about the music that I love. Given that Brad Wolfe and the Moon seem to be long done, I needed a new outlet for the band no one’s ever heard of slot in my life. Hooray.

The next few days are going to be mighty busy, especially in comparison to the quiet stasis of the last few. I almost have all my books sorted and dealt with and the Empire of Boxes has had its unprovoked aggression repelled to a couple small corners. Word is that the couch will be here before December is. Might even be able to get an armchair to go with it, with a little help from my friends.

Out my window, the blue patches through the overwhite collections of condensation almost precisely match the blue of the Prius below. My home is on the road and in the clouds.


Tuesday’s Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , , ,

“It’s because you’re not trying to be happy or wondering why you should have been made unhappy, because you’ve stopped thinking in terms of happiness or unhappiness. That’s the enormous stupidity of the young people of this generation,” Mrs. Quarles went on; “they never think of life except in terms of happiness. How shall I have a good time? That’s the question they ask. Or they complain. Why am I not having a better time? But this is a world where good times in their sense of the word, perhaps in any sense, simply cannot be had continuously, and by everybody. And even when they get their good times, it’s inevitably a disappointment – for imagination is always brighter than reality. And after it’s been had for a little, it becomes a bore. Everybody strains after happiness, and the result is that nobody’s happy. It’s because they’re on the wrong road. The question they ought to be asking themselves isn’t: Why aren’t we happy, and how shall we have a good time? It’s: How can we please God, and why aren’t we better? If people asked themselves those questions and answered them to the best of their ability in practice, they’d achieve happiness without ever thinking about it. … If you’re feeling happy now, Marjorie, that’s because you’ve stopped wishing you were happy and started trying to be better. Happiness is like coke – something you get as a by-product in the process of making something else.”
-Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point

It’s not just because I ran across this passage in my train-reading this morning that today’s been a good day, but that certainly didn’t hurt anything. I’d long heard about the brilliance of this book, written at a time (1928) when the West looked a lot like it probably did in 2008. It’s shockingly modern for a book of its era. I’d put off this Huxley classic for ages over a misunderstanding that it must be a book of essays given the dryly factual title it bears. But at current paces, it’s in the rarefied air of Brave New World, Island, Eyeless in Gaza, and Crome Yellow. Most impressive.

I was on the train to head to New York for my second interview there in about six weeks, though this one was directly for an organization rather than for a placement agency trying to slot me into a job that had already sailed. We’ll see how it goes. I’d be very excited to do the work and get involved with a really dynamic and important non-profit and I think the interview went rather well. So keep your fingers crossed or whatever superstition you adhere to going in whatever fashion you see fit.

Going into New York still feels like a major investment each time, so that’s something that would hopefully lessen with routine… it’s only been twice going in since adopting my new life, but it’s felt like a significant excursion both times. At the same time, I’m sure the first few BART rides into SF felt that way. And while this is certainly lengthier and on a more substantial train, it might offer the opportunity to bring back the much-beloved Strangers on a Train category with my random insights about fellow riders and their transport-bound habits. Chaff, I tell you, but you all seem to tell me otherwise, and thus so be it. Who am I to blow against the wind?

The wind was chilly and verging on frostbitten as I trekked the brief two and a half blocks from Penn Station to the venue of my ‘view. New York is a cold place in so many ways, but today it felt palpably terrified of terror as well. Constant reminders droned through Penn Station about random searches that may be conducted and concluded with an admonition to not “pet the [bomb-sniffing] dogs.” The men’s room facilities are temporarily port-o-potties in an alley just outside the station. A man barked at me for entering the wrong waiting area for my ticket to go home at one point. New York City always feels like it has an edge, but today was especially intense. Maybe something about Election Day, though I fail to see how that makes Penn Station an abnormally likely target. Then again, train stations have long proven to be a vulnerable but somehow unstruck target.

Election Day makes me feel like a target, what with the barrage of bunting all over Facebook and the deep-seated passion on display from so many politically-minded friends. It makes me tired. I don’t exactly begrudge anyone their commitment, but I fail to see why it’s so much greater than the commitment to so many other important matters in our society. It doesn’t matter who you vote for in this country at this point in history. They are all corporatists. There is one party in America and it is The Corporation. When someone hits the campaign trail speaking not just against big business, but against the idea of business, give me a call. Then it might be time to get invested in politics. Until then, the interests being defended are those of the moneyed profiteers. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a big dollar bill stamping on a little dollar bill, forever.

Sorry, George. It had to be said. As did the answers to my interview questions, which felt much better than they did four and a half years ago when I last sat in a group interview at a non-profit I was excited about coming to work for. That was a significant political day too, May Day 2006, the rallies all over the country and especially the Bay to defend the rights of immigrants. Not a lot’s been done about that one since that day, nor particularly on any of the rights and freedoms issues facing America, at least not at the ballot box. Arguably a little has happened in the courtroom. We’ve given a lot of money to corporations and called it a rescue or a reform or a renewal. Laundering cash has many names.

The man across the way from me in the (correct) Penn Station waiting area had no cash as far as I could tell, and maybe not even a ticket. He was unseemly looking at first, unwashed and underbitten and prattling away in the hyperspeed manner of so many of New York’s outcasts. But rather than move away to better concentrate on Huxley, I briefly used that latter as a foil for paying attention to the former without showing overt interest. A demonstration of interest could lock me a month-long discussion, but bearing stealthy witness to a monologue yielded a remarkable bounty. The man was a savant, a true rhetorician, his words were perhaps a bit fast (an import from policy debate?), but well spoken, extremely well-crafted, and made intelligent points. He spoke of a detailed history either lived or imagined, one in which he’d not been the soliloquizing soul on the taut foam seats of Penn Station’s NJ Transit waiting area. He’d known people and interacted, been accepted and then ultimately beaten down by the caprice of life and its callous inhabitants. He drew analogies to politics, analogies to the future. Yes, he delved occasionally into the “out there”, hinting faintly at crazy before reeling himself back in to something interesting and eloquent. I need to learn to start taking tape recorders with me to the train station. Or maybe at least Rutgers Debate flyers.

Plenty of time for that if I get the job. For now, we wait. See what winds blow into the country, what bluster and hyperbole is made of them. I’ll be on the sidelines, with Aldous, George, and my anonymous beleaguered spreader. This is one for the books. It’s all for the books.


By the Numbers

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Read it and Weep, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

Today is a little better, for no apparent reason. I think it might be good to not leave the house for days at a stretch. Although my haircut is scheduled and isn’t a home visit. I expect to put some pics up at some point. You should be prepared for my hair to be partying more or less like it’s 1999. I’ve had really long hair for a really long time.

In the meantime, here are some numbers for you:

1: The number of known readers who have finished The Best of All Possible Worlds.
3: The number of books I have finished reading since the crisis began (White Noise, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Snow Crash).
4: The number of games the Mariners have won since the crisis began.
12: The number of pounds I have lost since the crisis began.
17: The number of days elapsed since the crisis began.
17.8: The number representing my current body mass index (BMI).
27: The length, in inches, of my longest hair.
46: The number of people who have contacted me in some way to express condolences on my situation.
50: The number of dollars you will have to pay to haul away Fish’s “antique” mirror.
82: The score for my first game of bowling last night, being the first sub-100 tally I can remember getting since I first learned to bowl in my youth.
124: The number of pounds I currently weigh.
125: The score for my second game of bowling last night.


Summer Chill

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , ,

It’s amazing how important titles are to my work. I have almost never written a post for this blog without knowing the title in advance of laying down a single word. One of the very few counterexamples was my last post, in which I wrote the title between the last words and the hitting of the slightly pretentious “Publish” button at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t know what the theme was for that post until I finished it. Ironically, the theme was themes themselves, or “threads”.

The theme for this post is “Summer Chill”. There are many possible interpretations of that phrase and I would hazard that all of them are relevant to the intended scope of this post. Read closely, pay attention. You may be surprised what you see. Or you may find the theme trite and blase, which it probably is in some ways, and go off to read about Lady Gaga.

I have discerned that Americans very much don’t like to be hot. This is probably because Americans, as a rule and general practice, are overweight. The precise coordination between weight and heat aversion took me a long time to figure out, but has become in the last few years one of those obvious and universal truths, like “donuts are tasty” or “parents have a lot of both direct and indirect influence on their offspring”. It took me longer to figure out this particular truth because it is generally considered impolite in this society to discuss the weight of other people. Thus conversations like this are unwelcome:

“I’m hot.”
“Really? I think it’s rather pleasant.”
“Well I think it’s too hot.”
“Hm. I guess you are a little pudgy.”

Comments on weight are especially unwelcome from people like me who, despite a two-year period of being somewhat overweight in the middle part of this decade, have otherwise been rail-thin. Since I rekindled my metabolism after its premature death at 27, I’ve gone back to being cold everywhere relative to every other human being, including even those who normally serve the role of being the coldest person they know. Ha ha!

Never is this phenomenon more apparent or frustrating than eating out during the summer in the United States. A phenomenon that I swear was predominantly limited to Florida during my youth has since gone nationwide, and now I must never leave my house without a jacket in summer if there’s even the slightest chance I will be asked to dine somewhere before returning home. In LA, in Albuquerque, in Philadelphia, I relied on my Mariners jacket to save me from hypothermic expiration in the bitterly frigid confines of restaurant after restaurant. After the third one, I stopped asking if I needed to bring my jacket. I would hit the swinging-door threshold, feel the blood harden in my veins, and suit up.

What’s ridiculous about the whole thing is that people keep restaurants at temperatures that no one would enjoy at any other time of year. Two in particular, Waffle House in Albuquerque and Los Segundos in Philadelphia, had the thermostat well below 68 degrees. Imagine going from a crisp November night into a restaurant kept in that meteorological condition. There would be literally no business. No one would go. So why does it being summer make it more acceptable? Why does everyone get to presume that all patrons have just run a marathon in their fat suits before entering their building?

Yes, this is part of an absurd class of things rapidly becoming known as “First World Problems” – the complaints only the spoiled of our species could possibly imagine worrying about, the offshoot of a pampered instant-gratification culture centered on the self. A waste of time, probably, but one that is both alienating to experience and hopefully a bit humorous to relate. And also, perhaps, emblematic of that selfsame pampered spoiled society itself, that we have created expensive, energy-wasting cultural standards and practices designed to cater further to our own self-centered obesity. It’s like the whole thing spirals on itself into the stratosphere to the point where to even observe or complain about our society’s missteps has itself become a misstep that presumes caring about the fate of that society. Paragraph summary: we’re in a fine mess indeed.

I’m reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise and it’s done something that Golding, Tolstoy, Foucault, and Calvino have failed to do in the last month or so: hold my attention. Granted that Tolstoy held my attention about four times as long as DeLillo’s even trying to, so maybe it’s a weak comparison. But he’s also done something else that the other four never approached: scare me. Not because his 1985 vision of the present or the future comes across much like all those movies I’ve seen lately (“Koyaanisqatsi”, “My Dinner with Andre”, “Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y”, “Double Take”) in its prescient understanding of the incredibly insular self-absorption and chaos to come (it does), but because it reminds me of my own book just finished and nearly fully edited, The Best of All Possible Worlds. Not in whole, not overall (yet), but in certain scenes and themes and focal points. And it not only predates the book by 25 years, but I had never read one word or heard one thing about it before finishing my own tome.

This is at once highly problematic and a little relieving. It’s the former for obvious reasons – on a planet of seven-billion willed agents, I constantly fear accidentally rewriting another person’s book that I’ve never had contact with, just because there are only so many ideas or thoughts out there. As a writer whose greatest asset is originality of ideas, this could lead to unmitigated disaster. At the same time, it’s relieving because the publishing world seems very focused on “comps” – equivalent books to the one being pitched to them that they can in turn use to pitch to potential readers, writing such ridiculous drivel on the back of books as “…with the rich landscape of John Steinbeck, the emotional insight of Sigmund Freud, and the quick-paced action of Dashiell Hammett…” I made that up, but you get the point. No one is allowed to be themselves, at least not at first. Everything has to be derivative. And since I’ve never read anything remotely like The Best of All Possible Worlds, it’s encouraging to run across DeLillo just in time to be able to put a comp in my cover letter.

But also scary. Really, really scary, depending on where it all ends up.

I’m back in Tiny House, by the way, mostly just to block everything else out and finish editing before departing again for roadtrips that will lead up to my series of flights to Africa. The editing is about 70% complete, though there’s the second round of it that comes when I transcribe my red-lined notes into the electronic file that contains the work. It’ll take a while, maybe up to five days. But as an only child, I sometimes just need to be alone, especially to buckle down and do work. Once the work is done, really done, I’ll be sending it out to friends and the one agent who wanted first crack at it, then probably hit the road once more.

So, uh, public service announcement: This is your open call to let me know if you want to read The Best of All Possible Worlds. Your odds are better if you’ve already read and commented on American Dream On, though it would be absurdly self-indulgent of me to require this. Honestly, if you’re my friend and want to see it, that’s enough. Send me an e-mail.

And to leave you on a fun fact for the day, so that we can all laugh about the past and be awed by the present, here’s your news: The girl who said she couldn’t be friends with someone who had a blog had a blog. Far more fascinating than that is what she’s spent the last nine years doing, forsaking some of the first-world concerns she seemed to have in 2001 for time in the Peace Corps in Mauritania and working in Sri Lanka before coming back stateside to work for a really cool organization. I would say I’m proud of her, but that sounds really weird and probably obnoxious since I may have had nothing at all to do with it, especially given the way things ended. So, uh, I don’t have anything to say. Yeah.

I’ve summed up homecomings of all sorts with the following lyrical quotation throughout much of my life. It always has this way of being more transcendentally accurate and true than even all the times I’ve utilized it before. Guess what, “Awareness is Never Enough – It Must Always Be Wonder”? You just got to be the sixth category for this post!

“Looking all around the room
I see the clutter and the gloom
I’m not only back
I’m not only numb”
-Gin Blossoms, “Not Only Numb”



Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

If I ever make it, creatively, meaning that I get to the point where I not only am expected to write more for a public audience but that some people consider making movies out of my stuff and I may even get some control over who’s involved, I’m giving first crack at film adaptations to Johan Grimonprez. It’s taken him only two movies in twenty-four hours to earn this honor, dubious as it may currently be.

For the unfamiliar, which should be everyone (Gris?) and would’ve been me a day ago, he’s made only two real films in English as far as I can discern, but they’re both appallingly good. One’s playing at Albuquerque’s barely-breathing Guild theater in Nob Hill by the university district, 2009’s “Double Take”, a film ostensibly about Alfred Hitchcock, but much more about the Cold War, power politics, media, and what’s going on with the planet. My Dad and I saw that last night and had to come home to find his other film, 1997’s “Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y”, which is about 9/11. Except it was made four years before 9/11. But watch it and tell me it’s about anything else. You can find it online; you may still have to pay to see Double Take.

Almost exactly halfway through editing The Best of All Possible Worlds, putting me well behind the expected pace at this point, though that indicates a general enjoyment of this trip that has made it all worthwhile. The themes for the book are finding resonance in all kinds of places, not least perhaps in the Grimonprez movies, all of which means that either the book is scarily relevant or I’ve just got it on the brain. Reality is probably a mix of both, but it’s generated a comfortable excitement for me about the work that has prompted this very lax attitude about actually getting the editing done. I think once I get on the plane tomorrow and head back to the East, it’ll be time to just put my foot down and get work done. If only so you all can have some idea what I’m talking about.

In the last couple months, I’ve found it harder than any prior point in my life to focus on reading one thing. In the midst of watching Dial H-i-s-t-o-r-y tonight, I realized that I’ve been carrying around Don DeLillo’s White Noise in my backpack since buying it alongside If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler in Ariel & Michael’s favorite Philadelphia bookstore. All I want to do tonight is start it, setting aside editing yet again and certainly bypassing The Spire and War and Peace and Madness and Civilization. Prior to this year, I don’t know if I’d ever gone more than a week or so reading multiple books at once and now I’m on the precipice of starting a fifth simultaneous book. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I mean, sure, I’ve lost some interest in all of them in one way or another, and maybe that’s the problem, that I haven’t just given up on most of them. What does it say about now or my state or something else that I seem incapable of completing readings while churning out novels of my own? Why am I losing interest so quickly? How will I be impacted when I head to Liberia and have to hole up with books for days on end, according to what Emily has led me to believe about the schedule there?

Speaking of which, it’s the first anniversary of our seven to date that Emily and I have been apart. It’s enormously challenging, but I take some solace in the nice round joy of the sound of seven years. A marriage is forever, but it takes some time for its lifespan to start sounding like something that reflects the permanence and seriousness of the commitment it contains. I’m not sure quite where the threshold is, but seven years seems a lot closer than any of the prior milestones.

Been spending much of this leg of the trip discussing the nature of God with my Dad, working out Jumbles and crossword puzzles with surprising interest and aptitude, downing green chile and old memories in equal measure. Just a moment ago, I landed, and already the plane station looms with its promise to whisk me back away. The tighter I hold on, the more sure I become of the need to step back, relax, put it all in context. Watch my Mom knitting in the comfy corner chair. Pull the threads.


The Conservation of Creativity

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

I’m still here and still thinking things and still have stuff to write about. But most of it is going in the ever increasing pages of The Best of All Possible Worlds.

I’ve posted about this before, and probably not too long ago. Maybe even on a May 17th before, in this exact place in the universe, looping back ’round to it again. Here we are. It’s not a new concept or a particularly hard concept, but it’s one I feel the need to revisit. When the tide is high with the creative process, lots of writing, a surprising about of reading for how much writing there’s been, then other forms of writing, the chaff, this blog, take a direct hit.

The corollary in the other direction was long obvious – that this blog would get the most attention and care when I was at a low tide creatively in the rest of my life. The times when my job was tugging at my soul and the commute was eating my time would give birth to long flowy metaphorical examinations of my real life in the moment. It was fun, and at least one of you thinks it’s way better than the non-chaff meaningful stuff I try to produce now. It will probably come again sometime, but it is not the time for it now so much. And that’s good.

This is largely because the life itself is relatively unnoteworthy. Sure, stuff happens – Em and I went to a AA baseball game today in Trenton and played bocce ball with friends on the lawn of our military-barrack-trailer-park complex. The sun shone, people bid each other a pleasant summer, embarked for new adventures. Em and I watched two of the four series we’re following on Netflix. We made more plans for the summer to come. But these are the undulations of life of the everyday. And the rest of my time makes these times look fascinating.

Because the rest of my time is extremely unreportable, the most of the mundane. I sit down at the computer at a designated time, aiming for 2-3 sessions each day instead of the normal single overnight session because of the time crunch I’m facing and what a washout April was. I play Tetris, trying to imbue myself with the mood appropriate for quick, magical writing. At a certain point, I stop, having formulated the first sentence to two paragraphs. I switch over to Word, enter my trance, and go. Anywhere from 30 to 150 minutes later, I stop, usually suddenly on a particularly sharp conclusion for that section. I come up for air quickly, surveying practical considerations like how many words I’ve written and whether I’ve overlooked anything intended for that section. Sometimes a quick review, but often not – there’s plenty of time for editing the month after the deadline. Then I start to meditate on the next section and do something mundane like eat or sleep or read.

That’s my life. And when Em departs for Liberia in a week and a half, it will be without those other preliminary things like baseball games and bocce ball and Netflix. It is hard to envision as mundane, because it feels like the most vibrant and important part of my life I’ve ever lived. Every moment carries the sense of purpose that’s so effectively eluded most of the uses of my time. Every day feels deliberate and worth living. But talking about it? Explaining it? Highlighting some quirky thing to capitalize into a post here? Forget it. To the outside observer, writing is about as exciting as watching paint dry.

I guess there are a good number of breaks, though, and this is where the conservation comes in. I did go down to Baltimore for the two Mariner losses in their three-game set with the Orioles early last week. I saw two old friends and ate in two different Waffle Houses a total of three times. I could write the better part of a novel about the third game alone, probably the most objectively exciting game I’ve ever seen, with the final out recorded on a play at the plate that would’ve tied the game. But I don’t have the juice to, because it’s all going to the novel right now.

So maybe it’s not my life that’s any more mundane, for day jobs and commutes are awfully mundane too. It’s probably just about the energy, the focus, the dispersal of creativity leading to blippy vignettes, while extended intense concentration that saps everything else is required to produce the 100,000 word novel.

Let one thing be clear in all of this: I am not complaining.


There’s Something About Mockingbirds

Categories: A Day in the Life, Blue Pyramid News, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

Just updated the Book List for the first time since September 2008, including a raft of new submitters and their submissions. The total stats are up to 1,159 books by 795 authors as submitted by 89 individuals with their 25 favorite books each.

For the unfamiliar, this is an aggregate effort to rank the best books of all-time as viewed by my friends and other visitors to the Blue Pyramid. This remains one of the most popular elements of the BP and generating this much interest about books surely is unlikely to hurt an aspiring author.

This update, I decided to tack on a little extra, so I ran some numbers about the Top Authors on the Book List as well, done up with some snazzy but small pics. No matter how you slice and dice the stats, it’s hard to underestimate the overwhelming impact Harper Lee had with one 300-page volume. With 494 total points, not only is she the sole and dominant place-holder of the top book of all-time, but her single tome puts her 5th in aggregate points for all authors. Only Tolkien, Shakespeare, Orwell, and Garcia Marquez could beat her, needing an average of 6.25 books each to do so.

The late great J.D. Salinger is well represented as well, checking in as 10th author of all-time on the whole and 4th in quality-per-book for those with more than one volume on the List. Surely this is helped by the fact that not one of the 89 submitters includes Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction among their 25 best.

A late list I considered adding but didn’t, mostly for fear of making this project too onerous to update (I do it less than once a year as-is), is a list of top books that none of the 89 submitters consider their all-time favorite. What’s remarkable is how many of the very highest regarded books still escape the #1 slot for anyone. Most impressive among these is 1984, which is 2nd place all-time despite receiving zero first place votes. I wonder what it says that these books are so widely regarded, but no one would take them as their only choice to a desert island…

1. 1984, George Orwell, 2nd overall
2. Catch-22, Joseph Heller, 9th overall
3. The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien, 10th overall
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, 14th overall
5. Night, Elie Wiesel, 17th overall
6. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 20th overall
7. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 21st overall
8. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 22nd overall
9. The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien, 23rd (tied) overall
10. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 25th (tied) overall

Of course, on the flip side, no fewer than 21 of the 89 first-place-vote-getters (a full 24%) are unique books, appearing on none of the other 88 lists. So there’s probably something about the process of picking a favorite that’s more likely to make it unique than the average book.


I’m Alive (Breaking a Long Silence, on the Occasion of the Passing of J.D. Salinger)

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Duck and Cover, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , ,

It will either happen today or February 14, 1958 when I am sixteen. It is ridiculous to mention even.

When people in my generation haven’t been in contact for a long time, or haven’t posted to their webpage or other expected forms of social media/communication, they tend to break the silence with the phrase “I’m alive” or, less frequently, “I’m not dead.” Where this custom originated is hard to trace, like any viral meme of our culture, but it is surely prevalent. When my father took a long absence from posting on his page, a relative wrote in fear that something had happened. It’s hard to argue that this is the frequent concern of people when a long absence is experienced, but our society tends to “go there” pretty quickly. J.D. Salinger is probably about as far from a social media type person as I can imagine living into the twenty-first century.

On November 22, 1963, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis died. No one particularly noticed because John F. Kennedy was shot that day as well.

In a discussion of next steps for my new novel American Dream On, my father purported that the fifty best books written in the last hundred years were never published. I told him that if I believed that, I would give up all hope. And while part of my disproof for his theory is The Catcher in the Rye, part of his rebuttal might include the unpublished works Salinger has famously kept in a safe for much of the last few decades. My excitement for the release of these works is perhaps the only heartening element of the developments of Wednesday.

I want them to have a nice time while they’re alive, because they like having a nice time… But they don’t love me and Booper – that’s my sister – that way. I mean they don’t seem able to love us just the way we are. They don’t seem able to love us unless they can keep changing us a little bit. They love their reasons for loving us almost as much as they love us, and most of the time more. It’s not so good, that way.

When I was 18, I compiled a list of the hundred best books of all-time. All Salinger’s four published works made the cut, ranging from 10th (Catcher) to 61st (Franny and Zooey). Catcher had slipped to 12th on my list by 2002, but checks in at 5th on the composite list of 73 Blue Pyramid friends and visitors. Franny and Zooey is 69th. In 2008, I finally got around to compiling my favorite 17 short stories of all-time. They were bookended by Salinger works from Nine Stories, with “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” checking in 17th and “Teddy” 1st.

J.D. Salinger was born in 1919. Ray Bradbury was born in 1920. Richard Adams was born in 1920. Kurt Vonnegut was born in 1922. Howard Zinn was born in 1922.

Salinger’s obituaries were coated with accounts of his life as a recluse. These overshadowed any particular discussion of his works and their enormous qualities. His life was discussed as the story of potential gone bad, of talent gone crazy, of a light of the world snuffed out by his own misanthropy. There were the isolation and the lawsuits and the affairs and the urine-drinking rumors and everything beneath tepid notes about Catcher that still couldn’t resist citing the man who shot John Lennon. And censorship. Outcry. Controversy.

But I wouldn’t have had to get incarnated in an American body if I hadn’t met that lady. I mean it’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America. People think you’re a freak if you try to.

I haven’t been posting Duck and Covers lately because my scanner is broken. It used to have trouble, but now it seems completely ka-put. My phone line has been out for days, too, if you’ve been trying to get ahold of me. It keeps saying the line is in use and when I pick it up, the dialtone is replaced by a noise that sounds like someone is on the other line, but has set the phone down for a bit. I’d imagine it generates a perpetual busy-signal to anyone who tries to call. It’s had trouble like that before, where it hangs up on anyone calling in, but with this problem I can’t call out either.

Ray Bradbury and Richard Adams are still alive. They are hoping to turn 90 this year.

Salinger had allegedly promised the release of all his unpublished works upon his death, though it’s unlikely his estate will grant the right of others to hijack Holden Caulfield for use in an examination of what he’d think of being alive at 70. My suspicion was always that he didn’t want someone to write that book because he’d already written it, but that remains to be seen. Unfortunately, it remains to be seen over a devastatingly long period of time to come. Were there any justice in the publishing industry, all 15-20 tomes would be released in quick succession, maybe one a month, a cavalcade of Salinger’s views on the world we’ve lived through for the last half-century. But at their pace, we’ll be lucky to live long enough to read all of Salinger’s already written work. Hell, they haven’t even released The Pale King yet… nor do they plan to for 15 months.

My sister was only a very tiny child then, and she was drinking her milk, and all of a sudden I saw that she was God and the milk was God. I mean, all she was doing was pouring God into God, if you know what I mean.

On January 7, 2010, I sent American Dream On to twenty-two volunteer readers. Five more have since added themselves to the list. As of today (January 29, 2010), only three have finished reading the book. None of them have full-time jobs or are attending school.

On January 27, 2010, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger died. Between these two events, President Barack Obama addressed the nation on its State for the first official time in his tenure. He noted that “it’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable – that America was always destined to succeed.” He seemed to be warning against impending calamity. He went on to conclude that “We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation. But I also know this: If people had made that decision 50 years ago, or 100 years ago, or 200 years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight. The only reason we are here is because generations of Americans were unafraid to do what was hard; to do what was needed even when success was uncertain; to do what it took to keep the dream of this nation alive for their children and their grandchildren.” His dire tone about America’s future was belied by his eternal affable smile, made somehow more Bushlike by its inappropriateness while trying to empathize with unemployed families or explaining why US soldiers will continue to kill Afghans after a decade of doing so. Bush at least kept the smile to the corners of his mouth, always on the verge of an inappropriate grin. Obama’s grin seems to crest, convincing you that he’s really enjoying himself up there despite the calamity he portends.

Salinger’s reclusion begs the question of why one is writing at all. He insisted that he enjoyed writing for himself, noting notedly in 1974 that “There’s a marvelous peace in not publishing. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I live to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.” With all appropriate apologies, Jerome, this is phony. You were being a phony when you said this. People who believe that do not write. They sit around and think their own thoughts. And if they do write, if they do find some pathological urge to put their thoughts to paper because they love the artisanship of crafting the idea despite not wanting to share it, they insist their works get burned upon their death. Or they burn them themselves, just to make sure. (You’ll note Kafka, who was not born in the early 1920’s, never did this.) Certainly they do not insist their works are published upon their death. People who do that cannot live with the repercussions of their misunderstanding, Jerome, but they also cannot live without trying to be understood. Without trying to share what they have to share with the world. So I see that. I see you. I see that you could not face the same tribulation and misunderstanding that plagued Catcher, that plagued Holden. But you had to try anyway. You had to try to get out a message, to be understood. Which is what we will wait for, obnoxious greedy publishers’ delay or no.

For example, I have a swimming lesson in about five minutes. I could go downstairs to the pool, and there might not be any water in it. This might be the day they change the water or something. What might happen, though, I might walk to the edge of it, just to have a look at the bottom, for instance, and my sister might come up and sort of push me in. I could fracture my skull and die instantaneously.

In February, Emily will return to classes and I will start writing Good God and the Rutgers team will start debating again and I will buy a new scanner/printer and get my phone fixed and I will turn thirty years old. In February. Which is still three days hence.

J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, and Howard Zinn fought in World War II. Richard Adams was in the British Army for the duration of the war, but did not fight in it. Ray Bradbury was writing science fiction stories.

We write to be understood. No matter how hard that is, how long the odds are, how impossible it might seem. His literary agent said “Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it.” It is hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph for this writer, for any writer. But being in creates an obligation, an obligation to try to be understood. He tried. His works will try. The only reason to write, really, is to make contact with other human beings. He was a coward, perhaps, or made a desperate failed attempt not to let personality overshadow works which he wanted to speak for themselves. But he wanted, wants, will want, to be understood.

Halfway down the passage, a stewardess was sitting on a chair outside the galleyway, reading a magazine and smoking a cigarette. Nicholson went down to her, consulted her briefly, thanked her, then took a few additional steps forwardship and opened a heavy metal door that read: TO THE POOL. It opened onto a narrow, uncarpeted staircase. He was little more than halfway down the staircase when he heard an all-piercing, sustained scream – clearly coming from a small, female child. It was highly acoustical, as though it were reverberating within four tiled walls.


Using One’s Head

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

When I was in 4th-turned-8th grade, I was assigned the short story “Flowers for Algernon” in English. It appeared in one of those ridiculous textbook readers of stories that always comes with grandiose seventies-style illustrations and a total excess of mundane observations and question-prompts about the work. The story had a profound impact on me, though, despite its setting, and is one that I carry to this day.

The story went on to be novelized and is probably more known in that form, though I never got around to reading the novel. I really should (put it on the list – the endless list that is making no progress since writing full-time has somehow rendered me more or less unable to read). I’m not sure of the subtle differences and there’s a part of me that thinks what was in the reader may have actually been (gack) the abridged novel and not the actual original short story. Doesn’t matter. What hit home was the concept of the work.

The gist of “Flowers for Algernon” (spoiler alert!) is that this guy with a 68 IQ is given the opportunity to undergo an experimental surgery that triples his intelligence. Algernon is the lab rat that preceded him in this test and becomes his friend. The surgery works and we get information from the primary source (the guy being experimented on) about his increased intelligence and how he can see the world. His intelligence not only initially surges, but it increases over time, making him smarter and smarter while the rest of the world is left sort of dumbfounded by their inability to relate to him.

Now reading this after skipping four grades would seem to have a pretty obvious and explicable impact right there. But this is not actually what stuck with me particularly, though I could well relate to the isolation the subject was feeling. Rather, what stood out was the tail-end of the story, where Algernon suddenly declines precipitously, eventually dying as his brain basically atrophies to the point of disappearance. And of course the subject, the source of the story, realizes this is his fate as well and is irreversible. And the slow creeping horror of having intelligence, of knowing that you’re going to lose it, of being capable of understanding one’s own impending decay – this is what stuck with me.

The story aided this, of course, by being extremely well written and chronicling his slow decline as his speech slurs and his grasp on understanding slips and he finds himself increasingly desperate to chronicle his last intelligent thoughts, then thoroughly frustrated by what he can’t do, and finally rendered utterly amazed by what he used to write and can no longer comprehend.

Today, I slammed my head into an absurd metal bar protruding from the dumpster-sized recycling bin across the street from us. I was carrying an overfull box of paper recycling and had set it down under the bar without seeing the bar or consciously registering it, making sure to set it down out of the street.

Then I stood up. Fast.

I didn’t see stars or lose vision or even hurt that much. It took me a second to realize what had happened and then I had a frantic 30 seconds trying to assess how bad the injury was. I feared blacking out in the road. Then it didn’t hurt too much and I looked at the nasty metal pole and cursed its arbitrary existence and wondered why I wasn’t hurt worse. And lamented the fact that I seem to be remarkably accident-prone lately, what with the tiger toe and all, and then I settled in and worried about Algernon.

I think I worry about this a lot, for some reason, and it’s hard to say if I did before reading the story or if the story is entirely responsible. Discussions of Alzheimer’s have a similar affect on me, though it’s unclear how long one has to be aware that one is losing one’s mind under those conditions. I think it all has something to do with my general sense of urgency, my concerns about an early death, the whole picture. The sense that I’m just one stupid accident away from being plunged into a slow devastating decay toward unintelligence.

It’s not that I’m one of those super klutzy people or am always going around walking into walls. But I do have trouble with spatial realities, as those who really have logged the most time with me can attest. I fundamentally question the world’s physical existence and like to think as little as possible about my own body as a corporeal entity. I don’t always double-check my surroundings for poles or obstacles. I got in the habit around puberty or a little before of running around everywhere, moving quickly, something that probably relates to the upside of manic depression or is perhaps a lingering testament to my youthful exuberance. None of these really add up to an avoidance of objects that could do me harm, especially (I guess) when it’s combined with illness or the things I’m relenting to take to combat same. As evidenced by the toe and now the head.

Long story short, I think I’m fine. I got really sleepy at 8 PM and went to bed for two hours, prompting a huge conversation about whether I was concussed just before I rested. The thing doesn’t even hurt, unless I touch it, in which case it’s very sensitive and kind of welty and painful. But I wouldn’t notice it if I just left it alone. The thinking, though, that’s an issue. I notice myself monitoring myself, trying to make sure I’m still firing on all cylinders, that I still have my cognizance.

Maybe it’s a ridiculous fear to have. But the only head I’ve ever been in is this one and I’m quite fond of what it enables me to perceive. As Dan Quayle said, a mind is a terrible thing to lose. If only I didn’t have so many other functions attached to my head. Or could stop using it as an attempted battering ram.


In Which I am (Again) a Blue Pyramid

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Tags: ,

Last night, Emily and I joined some of her school friends in attending a reading by noted “humorist” David Sedaris. It was kind of appalling.

It should be noted that I have avoided reading Sedaris, despite recommendations from many of my friends, because he falls into a series of literary categories that I tend to dislike. For one thing, most of his writing is based on his own life, sort of straddling the boundaries of fiction and non, which is one of my least favorite forms of narrative writing (I read almost exclusively fiction for a reason). Perhaps more importantly, he tries to be funny.

There is some genuinely comedic writing out there, but I would argue it is almost a prerequisite that one be British before attempting to execute it. P.G. Wodehouse is hysterical, Gordon Korman (Canadian is close enough, eh?) can inspire truly bellowing laughter, but most American writers, especially of a more recent age, are unable to find what is truly humorous about human interaction. Most of them instead rely on scapegoating, stereotyping, and making people uncomfortable. This is unsurprisingly also my objection to stand-up comics and the entire genre of American comedic films with very few exceptions. Making fun of people, especially by caricaturing them (and often for attributes beyond their control), simply doesn’t interest me.

Moreover, my whole interest in the genre of “let me tell you about my crazy weird childhood in humorous tones” pretty much uttered its last breath by the time I got done watching the film “Running with Scissors,” which may be one of the ten worst movies I’ve seen in my life. As far as I can tell, Augusten Burroughs and David Sedaris may be exactly the same person, trotting out their own childhood in warped dark comedy while being unable to write about anything more accessible or universal.

At this point in my story, you may be wondering why on Earth I subjected myself to a reading from someone I was fairly predisposed against. For one, the tickets were free, through Em’s Princeton student status. For another, I was ready and willing to be proven wrong. Investing an evening in a reading is far less onerous than committing to reading a whole book. Finally, I had a real interest in watching an author ply his craft orally. As someone who envisions a future not only as a writer, but also as a speaker, I was highly curious to see how writers who are of the stature where they can do tours execute them. I think writers should be a lot more like rock stars (sorry, Salinger and Pynchon) and have thought long and hard about doing reading tours, speaking tours, and almost concert-like prose performances. Really, if I spent all the time I spend thinking about being a writer actually writing, I’d be in somewhat better shape.

So I was ready to embrace Mr. Sedaris with an open mind, watch him woo the audience with only a lectern and a microphone, be drawn into his autobiographical world amid uproarious laughter.

Instead, I was greeted by one of the most grotesquely inaccurate caricatures I have ever heard/read. And that was just the opening piece.

Some context should perhaps be provided to illustrate my overall mindset, beyond the open-minded but slightly trepid approach I was taking toward D. Sedaris. I had just eaten a fairly fancy Japanese dinner with Emily and some of her school friends who were to join us. All three friends are New Yorkers and all three seem to desire varying levels of the implied accompanying sophistication. Most all of the dinner conversation thus consisted of comparisons of wines, wineries, eats, eateries, and blocks within the city of New York. There was also extensive discussion of detailed aspects of the program everyone but me present was attending.

I feel I must tread with caution here, because I like all of Em’s friends and I enjoy their company for the most part. But there is something about being party to a discussion of various fine dining establishments in New York City that makes me want to move to Bhutan and go on a lifelong diet of brown rice. New Yorkers have a way of talking about New York not only like it’s the center of the universe, but as though it’s simply obvious to everyone that it’s the center of the universe. And fine dining is somewhere between NASCAR and modern art in my general esteem, both as far as my personal interest and the extent to which I feel it adds value to the world at large. So not only was this conversation a somewhat deadly combination (it’s a bad sign when the thing one relates to most is a discussion of classes one hasn’t attended with professors one hasn’t met), but it put in sharp relief how different Emily and I are from much of the New York consciousness that envelops this distant suburb of same.

Back to Sedaris, reading his first work, which is a lampoon of the worst aspects of the Republican anti-Obama movement, combining the tea-baggers, birthers, and people screaming at town-hall meetings about healthcare. What the lampoon lacked was a shred of compassion, an attempt at understanding, an effort to infuse the slightest humanity in the characters being lampooned. As a result, it fell utterly flat, criticizing nothing by failing to engage a real person. It was the worst kind of straw-man argument, one so self-evidently flimsy that it failed to even stand up as a half-decent scarecrow before falling under its own weight. In an era where most sophisticated writers have at least gotten into explaining why their villains are villainous (bad childhoods, traumatic experiences, etc.), this spoof of Republicans was horrendously amateurish. In fact, the piece inadvertently elicited my sympathy with such people (with whom I in no way agree on the subjects discussed), simply because I was so horrified at what short shrift Sedaris gave them.

Most alienating of all, however, was the crescendous din of hilarity surrounding me on all sides, bouncing off the walls and into my ears like some misplayed note. People certainly came primed and ready to laugh, but at least some of what I heard must have been sincerely elicited by Sedaris’ words. How could anyone find this funny? With each passing phrase and punchline, with its correspondent roars of approval, it became more and more clear to me why Will Farrell is considered a superstar in our culture. The people around me, these were the real idiots.

Of course, sitting through hours of affirmation of a viewpoint one finds insane has a wearing effect over time. I suspect this is what rational Germans must have felt like at Hitler rallies in the 1930’s (not to compare Sedaris and Hitler, but it’s a dramatic analogy, so hey), first horrified by what others found compelling and eventually turning the glass inward on themselves to wonder if there was something wrong with them for questioning what so many others clearly found to be true and right. Ultimately, it comes down to the strength of one’s personal convictions… if one feels sure of one’s own moral compass, the impact is to feel completely alien, almost dehumanized. If one wobbles or has doubts, one ends up giving in to the masses.

I didn’t give in, for I was pretty sure that horrifying stories of people being heartlessly ghastly to each other with no redeeming value or message other than a cheap gag was not something I was ever going to laugh at. The best story by far was one about the slow deterioration of sea turtles captured on the beach by an ignorant boy and their eventual starvation as they refused to eat raw hamburger in a fresh-water tank that was too small for even one of them. This was redeeming only because there were paragraph endings that were not punchlines, but actually offered some lasting value or message about people who are not cartoons. The story was still horrific and still drew out laughs which I couldn’t share, but at least it involved 2.5-dimensional people. Admittedly, however, the only person to which one could really relate was the author’s own avatar, which perhaps illustrates what I fundamentally disrespect about autobiographical fiction.

It was a bit of a relief to leave the show and confer with Emily and friends and find that few to none of them had been among those doubling over in fits of laughter during the performance. (Our seats had all been scattered as we acquired tickets late.) Despite their New York myopia, they were wise enough to see that poking empty shells of alleged people with sticks and chortling at the pain is neither art nor humor. And I felt reassured that while I may be an alien, I am not alone in being one. At least, not in that regard at that particular time.

Still, significant questions loom for me as I contemplate the McCarter Theater poster dubbing Sedaris as “maybe the funniest man alive.” As I labor over my own writing and its long-term goal of helping humanity save itself, the nagging question of whether this species is worth it resurfaces. Or were most of the people pre-programmed, told by enough friends and hearing enough laughter that they amoebically responded with their own throes? Do most crowds cede control of their own judgment mechanisms, looking to experts on stage and affirmation in their accompanying mob?

If nothing else, I must be further driven, if only to offer an alternative that attempts to provoke intense thought about real people rather than automated laughter at scarecrows.


Old School

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Read it and Weep, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

My house is a mess. My life is kind of feeling like a mess too. So much stuff. What to keep, what to discard, what to try to sell in a climate where there are no buyers. Challenges all. Piggybacking off of my weekend post, I’m inclined to just cut everything down to what fits in a backpack. But then I think of all the books and the possibility of raising a child someday without their parents’ collection of books just seems cruel.

Is that a strange reason to keep 10-15 boxes of very heavy books?

In any event, something I’ve gotten together this week is the resurrection of old debate videos that I have had on VHS for time immemorial (that’s what seven years feels like, at any rate).

I’ll be offering up one of these a week, the first is posted here: on, which is developing quite a trove of past debate rounds.

The one/week thing not only makes the releases nice and dramatic, but it’s because Vimeo puts an upload limit on things. The one/week thing will also likely be interrupted when we go on our 2009 Sunset to Sunrise Summer Sojourn, which is currently slated to commence on 7 July 2009. A full schedule of said Sojourn should actually be out sometime this week too.

I really liked the part where I thought I’d have enough time during this month to work on a lot of new web projects and revamping. At this rate, I’ll be lucky if I’ve packed two-thirds of the house by Jake’s wedding.

Or maybe I’m just demoralized today because lifting objects puts me in a bad mood. Always.

If you don’t want to lift your mouse-clicking-finger to go over to, here are the Stanford 2002 Finals for your viewing pleasure:

Stanford 2002 APDA Final Round from Storey Clayton on Vimeo.


A Poem on the Journey Homeward (or: Something Other than Duck and Cover)

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Read it and Weep, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , , ,

I finished a book tonight that would’ve been more fitting to finish on my last day of work and it was all I could really think about as I was walking home from the train doing one of those walking stutter-step things you do when you haven’t quite timed the completion of your book correctly but you can’t simply let it linger over the overnight and somehow it doesn’t seem right to finish such a roadbound book in the confines of the house at six o’clock PM when the world is just darkening and everything seems at its most depressing and anger inducing but I’m not there yet I’m swinging my backpack around my shoulder to deposit book and sunglasses and contemplate the end of Oscar Wao and his world and whether it all came to a satisfactory end or not and all these tourists are staring just past me over the overslung shoulder at Godzilla or nothing at all and I don’t bother to contemplate for the storm is blowing in hard and I really can’t wait to be out of it before the rain that was supposed to be here earlier but isn’t yet and I’m suddenly rooted to the ground despite my rush by the vision of this pile of books that’s just strewn out on the sidewalk and one would normally think abandoned with a free sign that blew away but somehow this looks different worse much worse like something that was punitive and there are CD’s too and just enough peripheral stuff that it looks like someone flew away in a hurry or said you want your books huh THERE have your books how do you like them now and it was clear that they hadn’t quite been rained on yet but they would be soon and always the eternal dilemma that somehow gets to me of whether to scoop and salvage or whether the offended would be back for them soon and sometimes it’s even more complicated because there are times I think someone is meant to lose something they leave behind and another to find it and any intervention from me sometimes feels like its just abridging free will almost like I don’t think I can be a participant in the lives of others at least of strangers at least of those who seem to be on a predestined course that I should do my careful level best with not to interfere like picking up the books which just feels wrong despite the droplets I can see envisioning somehow it would be like picking up a dead body or something it just seems a monument to things I am not meant to interact with and I’m stumbling back across the Abbey Road crosswalk almost before I think of looking up to see if anyone is stopping because I’ve already burned time looking at the books and the rotting banana on the cardboard just after that seemed to tie so perfectly to the book just finished and rumbling back around in my head and I wonder how much agency he felt he had and how it compares to mine and what if you were stuck in a really beautiful prison with guards and fellow inmates who treated you well and you somehow intellectually knew it was a prison but still were so comforted by so much of it that it felt somehow strange to leave after a sentence of say three years and maybe it’s good to have rotten-to-the-core days like today because they remind you that it is a prison and there’s not even the hint of doubt about what you should be doing even though there’s times that what you think you really need IS a prison but no metaphor so much as a real prison with walls and guards and no computers or games or recreation or friends just you and just enough access to pen and paper to appreciate it enough to make it work after all you’ve talked about a hospital before or something similar but pain can be exhausting and makes for unreflective drivel like you’re barely able to chunk out now between the moments of startling exhaustion things that your father would call self-indulgent and you recognize as mental chaff but think it’s helpful too for the writing or for you or for something anyway maybe but it doesn’t matter you’re almost falling asleep on your feet falling through the gate and thinking about the dark dreary insides of the house and your one-hour no-contact foul mood and the unsatisfying release of a video game and whether the Mariners can do something today and there’s a package you weren’t expecting and an invitation you definitely weren’t expecting and you realize for the thousandth time this year how badly you’ve neglected everything that matters while in prison and the thought of nine nine nine nine nine nine nine sings you through the door like some trippy Beatles song and you know you must capture this moment and express it to yourself for one two three years hence when you’re on the brink and ask yourself like Oscar Wao flying back to the Dominican Republic goddammit is this ever going to be worth it again do you really want to live like a zombie can you ever get through this and so close to the edge that all you can do is see the walls and bars anew and wonder if you’re really going to make it or if you’re too broken down to even care and you realize that all these debates are why you haven’t been able to write anything or codify what you’re feeling and there are all the people who you do care about and believe in what they’re doing in prison and how can you explain that their paradise is your prison and your prison is still better than anyone else’s prison and now you’ve gone and upset everyone else and this is a hard lonely road to talk about with people who almost all feel differently and nine days away is just no time to make final seminal statements when you’re still in the thick of it and you have to wonder how long after nine how long after zero will you still feel in the thick how many dreams of stress and nightmare will you awaken to like this fruitless spoiled morning when you had something really due that day that then wasn’t as opposed to the school assignments the debate rounds the Seneca kids all the past things and you know that you will be haunted by this forever and somehow God please somehow let this all have been worth it.

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