Categotry Archives: Telling Stories


Wrestling the Shark

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

There are a lot of metaphors out there about the pyrrhic challenges of wrestling the proverbial bear. But I think I prefer a metaphor involving wrestling a shark. For one, the shark is virtually limbless, so I like the visage of trying to pin something which lacks any particularly vulnerable appendages to target. And yet no one can deny the inimitable strength of sharks, their cunning, their strategic power. I picture this match taking place in some sort of shallows, an inlet or even on the beach with the tide coming in, where the shark cannot merely dominate with its superior speed and swimming and yet is vaguely undefeatable in its sheer size, strength, and will.

Artist’s rendering of a hypothetical battle between Storey and shark.

I’ve never been one of those writers who feels he’s really suffering for his art. Suffering when unable to produce it, sure, but that’s only come from the demands of day jobs and other mundane clutter, or from a lack of personal discipline and will. While both of these have plagued me greatly over the past decade, I’ve also produced three novels in the last ten years, all written in a combined span of less than one year of actual calendar time. What that tells us is several things: one, that these issues of avoiding clutter and undisciplined time are key, but also two, the actual writing process must not be that taxing when it’s flowing and going. Each of these books, save maybe the last, has felt like a referendum on my ability to keep writing. The last felt like I had already gotten over such concerns and was now just grinding things out.

Grinding may be the wrong word. Churning? Producing. Not like it had quite become industrial or formulaic, but like the process itself was no longer getting in the way of the writing. People long taught to dread the writing process by their educational system, to equate writing with drudgery and chore and other people’s expectations, these folks take an incredibly long time to unlearn the mundane trappings of writing and just let go and enjoy it. Most people, frankly, never get beyond seeing writing as an obstacle to be overcome. Blogging helps, I think, as does any kind of freely chosen writing, any amalgamation of words of one’s own volition. It probably took me till The Best of All Possible Worlds before I really felt that I was finally free of all the overwrought inertia of dreading writing on some fundamental core level, was free to just write and love the cascade of words and the process of stringing them together. It was a long time coming. But it also signified that a process already more fun than most saw it as had finally melded into the unbridled art that it was supposed to be.

So while it’s trendy to talk about writhing in the torments of the art that must somehow wriggle its way from one’s mind like a child escaping an unyielding womb, I’ve never related to that. Until, that is, now.

There’s a combination of factors in play here. One, of course, is the nature of Project X itself, which I’ll not be discussing in detail (or, indeed, at all) here for some time, if ever. Does that tantalize you more that my project is under wraps? It shouldn’t. My projects are always very secretive, but this one in particular just doesn’t lend itself to any sort of exposition before the fact. In any event, writing it prompts the surfacing of all those tropes about tortured artists and their incredible throes of agony as they attempt to bleed verbiage onto the blank page. This time, it’s real.

But even that doesn’t quite seem fitting. That would be more like getting eaten by a shark. Which, it must be noted, is a possible (though improbable) outcome of wrestling said beast. But this – I dunno. It’s like there’s this dead weight of killing-oriented flesh flailing around on the still saturated beachhead and I have to get it to surrender. And sharks don’t surrender. They don’t comprehend the concept, couldn’t imagine what it would be like to concede, were they even capable of language, let alone bending their flippers and fins into some semblance of acquiescence. Sharks are heavy and immobile and stubborn as hell and if you make any mistakes with them, you lose at least a few fingers, if not your whole head. So this project, especially in light of else in my life, the timing and the perspective, this is shark-wrestling at its gritty finest.

Which reminds me, with a nod of the cap to the Brandeis debate team, that if I were into possessions or ownership and were not actually contemplating creating a bonfire out of all my worldly goods if and when I move this summer, I would totally be coveting this:

Yeah, it’s a shark sleeping bag. Not only would I guarantee exactly which kinds of nightmares I’d get the night I snuggled up into it, but I could practice literal shark-wrestling to my heart’s content. And, uh, freak out the roommates of debate hosts who stumble in drunk well after we fall asleep, only to discover that their room has borne witness to the first-ever third-floor shark attack.

But at this point, it would just have to go in the bonfire with everything else. Don’t ask me how serious I am about such a purge, because I’m not quite sure yet. But it’s up for consideration. The thought of moving west feels like freedom – the thought of bringing stuff along feels like imprisonment. You can do the math. Maybe there’s no better way to pretend to have been reborn than a trial by fire. Hopefully one of the few survivors of such a charring, if applicable, will be a newly completed fourth novel.



Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , ,

Kids, it’s been a manic day in Highland Park. Say what you will about the downside of being a manic depressive or bipolar or whatever the trendy new pharmaceutical term for my outlook on the world is, but the upside is GREAT. Always has been, always will be. I don’t have reason to be happy, per se, and I’m not exactly, but I am being productive. Which may be the next-best thing.

Without manic moods, I’m not sure I’d ever get through the mundane drudgery aspects of life – the bare levels of life maintenance whose very existence in a thoughtful, creative life seems to stymie every possible inspiration and outlet for hope. How can we feel good about the potentiality of life’s higher echelons when so much of it is spent running errands or eating or sleeping or cleaning oneself or one’s living quarters? It becomes debilitating quite quickly. But manic moods seem to pave it all over, to flush away the feeling of incumbent drudgery with a hyper-enthusiasm for life and doing and going and being that one would want to infuse in all of life and its aspects. Suddenly, there’s a relentless energy for everything, whatever it may entail, and the to-do list dries up and crinkles and disintegrates in the wind of such adrenaline.

Here’s another thing that’s helped keep me organized, perhaps the best life development of 2009, now a three-year tradition for my office area wall:

You wouldn’t think that looking at twelve months at a time instead of one would do that much for one’s perception of time in its passage, but boy does it do wonders for me. I could probably write a two-thousand word treatise on why this particular vantage on time is so powerful and important for me (especially today!), but I’ll try to summarize briefly instead. Being able to see 365 days at a time really emphasizes the importance and the rarity of each one. One can wave away a month all the time, and one often does, thinking I only have to get through this or that or over that hurdle and a month can be explained away as nothing. But no one is so jaded, cynical, and resigned to do the same for a year. A year is the benchmark of an amount of time that, by its nature, is a Very Big Deal. And looking at the whole year in a snap is a little like looking at the Grand Canyon. One can’t help but be overwhelmed by its stature, its enormity, the vast complexity of its details.

And yet one adjusts – one sees the Grand Canyon as a whole, sees its details as composite parts of something larger, greater, and more important than oneself. Similarly, one’s eyes gradually adjust to the year at a time, to each block of it being something vital to carve importance and meaning out of. One can put the feeling of a day and its length and rhythm in the context of hundreds like it. One can feel a month not as an isolated frame whose edgy abyss can be peered over but never really seen, but as a passage of days surrounded by other days, making planning across months more seamless and fluid. One can also grapple with the finitude of life itself, that one (in this case, I) has (have) only yet been offered thirty of these little wall hangings in which to decorate the whole of a life to date. That eighty (fifty more) would be generous – that but one or only half of this is possible. And thus there is urgency to coloring the days with matters of importance, with good expenditures of time, with investments whose memory will bear reflection and not merely yield to sighs and excuses and shrugs. This is the call to arms of most of my days and perspectives these days (and for some time in the past, if you look through this record), but especially is enhanced by the hanging of all 365 24-hour sets in a row on the wall.

I highly recommend it for your own wall. I also recommend being able to go through an entire grocery shopping visit without crying once, an accomplishment I notched for the first time in six months today. I think I was too distracted by manic focus to think about the larger implications of anything. I have that grandiose sense that I could knock down a menacing statue with a single cross-eyed glare, the feeling that I could actually lift a car over my head and chuck it across the street. Keep your drugs and substances – I experience all the highs and lows I need quite naturally. And no, folks, I’m not actually going to attempt any vehicle-flinging. Not today.

In any case, the high-energy Wednesday has also finally established the deadline of my fourth novel, dubbed Project X as discussed earlier, which will be Sunday, the fifteenth day of May. Given that it’s likely I’ll vacate Jersey on June 1 (or possibly July 1), this will give me a reasonable timeframe to focus on the novel, blending my other duties here and a vague urgency with a slightly more lenient pace (nearly four full months instead of three!) to account for my current emotional bearings. It’ll be a challenging project, to say the least, and is almost certain to be either my most or least commercially viable venture. Which it is will have to be determined by many things impossible to predict at this juncture. But it’s exciting to have a deadline in life – it’s safe to say that pretty much all my best days have come when I have a deadline ahead of me.

Anyone who isn’t manic depressive should really try it. Seriously. I don’t know how you all get by without feeling this way sometimes.


Die, 2010!

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

Is there anything so great in this world as a shower? I doubt it. There is something ineffable about the way it focuses one’s mind and thinking, at least sometimes, that makes it the single most consistent source of inspiration, resolution, and clarity that I have access to. You want to go do a cool groundbreaking psychological study? Attach electrodes to the brain and see what channels and conduits open and close as said head is doused by hot water, shampoo, and soap. But for all the collateral electrocution, you’d come up with some pretty amazing results.

In any event, I came to Albuquerque for nigh on a month largely to get a reset on my life. To try to figure out what the swath of damage was from 2010 and to determine what, if any, resolution I could make for 2011. Not resolutions, mind you, necessarily, because although I appreciate the tradition, the whole thing is a little contrived and probably more directional than I could count on myself to be on this trip. But some kind of decision, or decisions, some kind of purpose or at least a path to try to find it.

It’s frequently been a tough trip, as I’ve found Albuquerque to be haunted by memories old and older. Much time was logged before friends arrived and their arrival has not heralded the automatic good times that such encounters used to. Which is not to say that I’ve been miserable or even largely unhappy, nor that others have made me feel that way. Much of my time here has been wonderful and I’ve found my friends and family to mostly be powerful aids in my effort to establish an interest in the future. Or at least to share a meal or a game with, even if it isn’t quite up to pre-2010 standards in my own beleaguered soul. But up until the shower this early afternoon, nothing had really resolved itself. Nothing was funneling or folding toward some purposeful outcome, let alone a set of them. I’ve read a lot, thought a lot, talked a lot, cried a lot, seen more than a few movies. All minor little influences to be sure, but it took falling water to put it all together.

How long any of this will last remains to be seen. It seems literarily contrived in the extreme that the path for the next few months snapped together like the proverbial mosaic gone groutless in the waning hours of the year, with less than twelve to go before a deliriously celebrated transition to the next. The next that, please God, has to be better than this one, though admittedly 2010 was not without accomplishments. Certainly in spite of the disastrous middle times between the accomplishments, finishing my third novel and leading Rutgers debate to a fourth ranking in the nation are not to be trifled with. Indeed, had my marriage persisted, this year could be counted perhaps among my five best, especially since that means it also would have involved our scheduled trip to Egypt. In any case, contrived-seeming or not, temporary wishful thinking or otherwise, a list of directions for the coming annum has sprung up in my head amidst the steamy confines of tile and glass block.

I present them here for the same reason that people have listed such things for time immemorial. Indeed, this blog itself could be considered one gigantic New Year’s Resolution machine, applied evenly to every day or thought or perspective to usher in the accountability and consistency required of making public declarations to any sort of audience. I can resolve to do all kinds of things every minute and the last six months have been aswirl with just that: emotional and mental lines in the sand that were constantly erased and redrawn, moved and altered, bent and broken, till all that was left was a pile of overwrought pre-glass. Now it’s time to apply some heat and pressure, to try to cobble the tiny grains of windblown wreckage into something useful, solid, even stable. Fragile and vulnerable, of course, as all glass is, but at least tangible and visible to the naked eye as something other than infinitesimal fragments.

Here goes:

1. I will not be seeking a part-time job upon my return to New Jersey in January.

2. Instead, I will spend that time ramping up creative pursuits of many stripes as though this time were deliberately spent away from day jobs like 2009-2010. Among these will be escalating the visibility and promotional potential of The Blue Pyramid, with new quizzes and especially the long discussed but still unfulfilled Facebook integration.

3. I will also aggressively ramp up the pursuit of representation/publication for American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds.

4. Finally on this creative front, I will commence work on my fourth novel. Soon after returning to Jersey, I will set a deadline for it as with the past three novels and I will finish the book by the deadline, taking this process just as seriously as the prior ones. The novel has a working title already, but it will be known publicly as Project X for the time being.

5. I will obviously fulfill the remainder of my commitment to the Rutgers debate team, attending every tournament this year as previously planned.

6. Unless significant reasons to stay emerge, I will plan on moving West in the summer of 2011. I will spend time scouting out cities and possibilities, with few to no places in the western thirteen states ruled out. I will plan to return to conventional full-time employment for the year starting in fall 2011, possibly even multiple jobs.

7. Aside from the above, I will not put pressure on myself to do or be or pursue anything else. Which is not to say that I might not also find other uses of my time or energy, but I will keep myself from beating up on myself about any shortcomings outside of fulfillment of the above six pursuits. While I will try to stick to a budget, I will not worry about money, because this plan is financially sustainable. While I will try to volunteer some, I will not berate myself for prioritizing creative pursuits over volunteer time. While I will try to read a great deal, I will not get on my own case if I spend more time playing video games. As long as nothing else interferes with the above goals, it’s fair game.

It doesn’t look like much, now that I have it up there, and a good bit of it was probably already the gameplan in one form or another. But it feels like an incredible relief to have it up and out there, especially #7. I’ve spent enough time in the last half-year contemplating the brink of my own self-destruction that there’s simply no point in not making sweeping decisions to improve the quality and purpose of my own life. I believe that the only really fulfilling aspect of the human mind is the pursuit of creativity. The soul may be fed by love, however painful that seems to be, and even efforts to help others, which all good creative pursuits also are. But the mind requires creativity and the only thing I really value or trust about myself at this point is my mind. If I don’t focus on that, in finding my way back to feeling okay through maximizing those efforts and those pursuits at the detriment of financial concerns or emotional self-flagellation, then not only will I not make it, but there will be no point to making it. I’m in a long, ongoing argument with myself about the value of getting through this. I must arm myself with all the best reasons to go forward.

2010, no one will miss you. Please see yourself out.


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?


The UMBC Redemption

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , , , ,

The 2002 American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) National Championship at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) was one of the great highs and lows of my life. It marked the culmination of my competitive debate career and a turning point in my relationship with the woman who would become my (first) wife. It would long be remembered as my favorite weekend of debate despite becoming a crippling and embittering disappointment in terms of my actual debate performance. And in light of events of this year, the whole event would retroactively transform into a debacle, with the one grand saving moment of both the weekend and my life (perhaps the best story about me that exists) becoming yet another tired tragedy in a litany of a lifetime of mistakes.

The tournament got off to a great start, long before the tournament itself. Brandeis was in the habit of renting a team van to attend the National Championship, a tradition I believe started by our coach Greg once we got in the habit of qualifying teams for Nationals. While we were heavily laden with the teams who’d qualled and our additional free seed, a number of judges were also along for the ride, mostly younger debaters who’d just missed as part of a year I spent seemingly dropping semifinals by one ballot almost every weekend. These included close friend Nikki, who was the only person in the world fully informed about my personal intentions for the weekend after a late-night post-practice conversation about where I saw my life going. And then someone went and suggested that they braid my hair.

I’d had my hair braided a couple times before, most notably at the Senior Retreat in high school, a weekend I’ve long remembered as the lowest point in my life after the age of ten and perhaps the saddest I’ve ever grappled with being until 2010. It’s always been an amateur effort by a group of bored girls, though I usually really enjoy the look and feel of the results, at least until my head starts itching a few days in. For this tournament, there was something particularly important about taking up the spontaneous offer of hair-braiding – I’d always wanted to attend a tournament with my hair in braids and there was something about the freeing nature of doing something so unconventional and even bizarre in the most important, serious, and ultimate tournament I’d ever faced that felt like a necessary rite. I remember the bewildered looks of many rival debaters as I entered the halls, debaters who expected me to be one of the contenders for the Championship, wondering why I’d decided to go off the deep end at such a pivotal time.

Thanks to the power of photography and preservation, you don’t have to take my words for it:

My recall for the round-by-round progress of that tournament is uncanny to this day. I would mentally replay the competitions and speeches on lonely train rides and in late-hour contemplation, in downtime at numerous jobs and drives. First round against Yale novices, Korn and Bendor (the former of whom went on to become an APDA President and help me run the 2007 Vassar Nationals five years later), and they ran a case against civil disobedience. Phil Folkemer of Maryland judging. The goofy grins that Tirrell and I exchanged when they read the case statement, the flawless opportunity it gave me to wax eloquent on my personally favorite topics. Round two, judged by an UMBC dino who seemed twice my age, removed his shoes, but still looked askance at my wild and unkempt ‘do. Hitting Joe Ross and his partner, the same Joe I’d met at the debate camp I hadn’t wanted to attend in the summer of ’97, the same place I’d met Kate who was directing that selfsame tournament, the camp that seemed to all but save my life at the time from the bottomless rabbit hole I was dropping down. Joe who was dating my girlfriend’s best friend and debate partner, the concentric circles of a nine-year debate career looping and spilling, combining and recombining into an effortless beautiful confused mosaic. We ran the Professor case, our classic first-rounder, cruised easily into a 2-0 record despite the judge’s possible misgivings about my reckless youth.

Just two rounds on Friday for a title tournament, then gearing up for the next day. The irony of talking briefly about the Lottery case, the one we’d prepped for Emily and Lauren just in case, given that they were perhaps the only opp team we fully respected at the contest. Emily asking me how to opp the case idly on our way into the tournament together. My joke, my mysterious smile: “Well I’m not going to tell you that now.” A dead giveaway of what we’d run when, horror of horrors, they posted round three and we were in fact Gov against Princeton CG.

The round that became unfortunately ugly, Lauren and Drew getting fiercely competitive as Em was upset about our case choice and I was just trying to enjoy my last round running my favorite case. Speeches going well over time, getting docked for scores apparently already suffering, and then the realization going into round four that we’d just put my girlfriend on the brink of elimination from Nationals, which was (as was the general tradition, the prior year excepted) breaking only to quarterfinals. And both our teams, speaks tanked, hitting our two respective least favorite teams. Me squaring off against the President of APDA, a fierce rival of both Emily’s and mine. Emily against Yale’s top team of juniors, the same group who’d gotten her to unknowingly prep against me at Worlds and then bragged to the whole American contingent about throwing a wedge in our relationship.

And then the judging debacles ensued, a mad scramble of scratched and ineligible judges leading to a sophomore panel for Emily’s round and our round being judged by an ex of mine, another Florida high school debater, more circles spinning and spinning around this epic series of events. To top it off, the Columbia rivals chose to run a case I’d already hit, no less when debating with Kate for our first time ever her freshman year, one I’d long remembered for its topic being organ donation and my LOR crystallizing into themed tags about different organs, including “The Appendix: extra extraneous stuff in their case that doesn’t help”. I gave basically the same opp, basically the same LOR, and we won this time around. The MG from that team would be dead within a half-decade, but no one knew that then. He’d beaten Emily for the APDA Presidency the year before and nothing he’d done since had endeared him to either of us. Emily would spend as much of her senior speech calling him out as thanking anyone else.

On to the 4-0 round, a matchup with defending National Finalists, current Team of the Year, and future (spoiler alert!) National Champions, the other top-rated Princeton team. We had a fabulous round with them about where to try Milosevic, a case they ran and did well, though we ended up disagreeing with Steve Maloney’s call that we hadn’t carried the contest. I remember an ornery and bored-seeming younger brother of Yoni watching the round, seeming utterly disinterested in debate as he was treated to a real showcase round. The same kid would go on to debate quite ably for Yale, including a great performance in the best round I would ever judge, a match between he and his partner and a Stanford team in a bubble round at Nationals 2006.

4-1 still left us a shot at the break, though the quality of our competition was indicating to us that our speaker points must be pretty poor. Emily had already learned they’d dropped 4th round to Yale and would need a miracle to try to become the one 2-down team to break. With our points, it was utterly clear we needed to win. We were Gov against good friends and excellent opponents Raj & Phil from MIT. We had burned Lottery. It was the most important round I’d faced since National semifinals the year before. It threatened to be my last. Drew and I looked through the casefile. I almost whispered “Reparations”. He looked askance at me. We’d never run it together in competition. It was perhaps the most open case in our file. But one, like Lottery, that I really believed in. He asked if I was sure. I nodded definitively. “If this is my last round ever, this is exactly what I want to be running.”

It wasn’t our last round ever, nor as it would turn out even the last time that I’d run that case, given Emily’s and my return to APDA four years later for a one-tournament sequel. We put it all on the line for that debate, asking the US government to give $1,000,000 to every man, woman, and child born on a reservation or whose parents were. It’s the only time we ran that case without it being recorded and it was by far the best that case ever did. At one point, panicking, MIT actually suggested that we weren’t giving enough to Native Americans, that perhaps the only real apology would be actually bankrupting the United States. We won and were in, though it would take many long hours of agonizing waiting for us to learn that.

During those hours, I spoke to Emily about their chances, about how much my former teammate, the President of ‘Deis debate when I’d joined, had liked their 6th round and given them a shot to break with high points. I took the braids out of my hair in preparation for the formal banquet. I nervously contemplated my plans for said banquet, ideas I’d discussed as possible with Em at some point so as not to put her unfairly on the spot, but to still make a magic moment. My hair was curled and crinkled as we dressed in our hotel room for the pending announcement, both of us on pins and needles about all to follow that fateful night.

Off we went. The vegetarian offering was disappointing, the hotel’s standard introduction of servers a cringeworthy combination of Disney and racism. We could barely eat. The nerves and tension mounted. Lots were drawn for the order of senior speeches and Emily secured the last one of the night. I asked to trade with her. She smiled at me sideways and said okay.

The speeches rolled on, shorter than normal at the behest of UMBC who, like the Disneyesque introduction, was losing the banquet hall at midnight. I was finally called, almost over time already. Nevertheless, I proceeded with my longest speech on APDA, calling out that same President briefly before launching into an ode to the people I’d loved so dearly and competed with so fiercely for four years. I closed with two people. The first was the host of that tournament, an old and important friend from that debate camp and everything that followed. The second was Emily. I only spoke briefly of her before losing myself in emotion and noting that I had a question to ask her if she could come up to the front.

It was the second-happiest moment of my life (the happiest to that point), but somehow cannot remain so. Or maybe it will until something somehow surpasses it, something that God-willing will not fall victim to the eternal tarnish of time. It is a moment that prompts tears and breaks my heart to even begin to contemplate, one that did plenty of both at the moment. That hushed ripple of rising shock when I said that sentence still makes every nerve ending tingle. I can recall every second of that slow walk all the way from the back of the room. Everything slows to almost a standstill, then I get up, hug her, and everything goes into warp speed. A hundred congratulations, a thousand smiles. I almost didn’t notice when they announced that Brandeis CT had advanced to quarterfinals.

We were facing NYU A, including a person who, as I noted at the open of my LOC, had judged my very first APDA round ever, a contest at Columbia Novice, which Kraig and I went on to win, where I also had to LOC, this time following a 150-second PMC from Riley McCormick. She went on to get much better and I somehow scrambled about 6 and a half minutes of responses out of her barely outlined case. I remain uncertain to this day how he was qualified to judge that round and yet also had a year of eligibility left for that tournament concurrent with my own senior year, but I don’t mean to cast aspersions. I’m sure it was all above board. What happened that round, though, never seemed quite so much to me.

The auditorium was packed, a steep rising lecture hall that had clearly decided this was the quarterfinal to watch. There were some surprises in the break and a couple noticeable absences, including Emily and the same MIT team we’d edged in 6th round. It wasn’t until awards that we learned the latter was supposed to break but hadn’t due to a mathematical tabulation error. But us against NYU was a battle more predicted for semis or even later, and we had the edge on Opp. Only three judges were in the round to decide the contest.

Had there been a floor vote, we would have won by an almost 95-5 margin. But only three opinions mattered. One was clearly with us. One was against us for reasons that sounded strange, but I ultimately felt were sincere. And the tiebreaking vote was from someone who, as I flashed through my memories of his time at that tournament after the heartbreaking announcement of our 2-1 loss, I could not separate from images of our opponents. Indeed, I still have run across pictures from that tournament where he is in every car, every room, every table, every situation hanging out with our two opponents. They were the closest of friends.

Which would be somewhat acceptable had he been able to give me a coherent reason for his decision. But it rapidly became apparent he’d made no effort whatsoever to adjudicate the round at all. His flow was almost blank and he stumbled over forming the beginnings of a sentence about why he’d voted Gov. After five minutes of stammering, the judge who’d voted for us intently listening as well with increasing concern, he finally said “Look, it’s not about you guys personally.” To which I looked him straight in the eye and said “I know. It’s about them personally and that’s why this is an illegitimate decision.”

There was no recourse for the apparent travesty and I long blamed my close friend Kate for these events, at least in part, though my calling out of her tournament’s tab policies hurt her perhaps even more than I felt hurt by unfairly losing my last round ever. The ensuing conflicts led to a long-time dissolution of our friendship that we have only recently patched up, exacerbated by a series of slights and indignities that seem to mar many friendships that become infused with the heat of personal competition and ego. I handled it poorly. She made some mistakes too. These things happen between people. I am learning to try to figure out how to forgive. But there are many people in my life who I can give a second chance to, even if I don’t forgive them fully. Even if they can’t try to take that second chance.

Suddenly the tournament was a crushing failure. Yes, I was now engaged, and yes, we’d had a great run. But my debate career was suddenly over, just when I’d been preparing for semifinals as so many around me had told me how certain it was we’d dominated quarters. I couldn’t bear to watch semis, making sure to recommend that the Chicago team hitting NYU protest that judge’s empaneling before I took off for a long walk around campus. I returned for finals, featuring that same NYU team, forlornly telling some Harvard kids about the case Drew and I had prepped for National Finals while we watched a round about libertarianism instead. They promptly stole the case and ran it at Triangulars next weekend. But Emily and I would get to run it at BU Finals four years later and you can listen to the round.

Fast-forward eight years and seven months. I am back at UMBC for the first time since that fateful weekend. My marriage has ended in betrayal. My life has wended back to debate in a big way. And while it’s not Nationals and we didn’t have a big rented van and it’s a really bad idea to braid someone’s hair while they’re driving, something like that same team spirit has gelled and coalesced at the Rutgers University Debate Union (RUDU).

Our best team went north to MIT by themselves and, as of this writing, it looks like their being awarded 9th team and just being kept out of the break was the result of a mathematical tabulation error – they should have been the 6th or 7th breaking team. Left to their own devices, the five teams we took to UMBC all consisted of first- or second-year debaters, all kids I’d tutored from the beginning of their time with parliamentary debate. Chris and Ashley were fresh off their first varsity break together at the massive Fordham tournament just before Thanksgiving. Krishna and Bhargavi were fresh off losing a bubble round at the last tourney they’d attended together just before Krishna’s finger was smashed in a car-door and kept her out of competition for a while. Our novice teams had put together some good performances lately. But without our top team, how would we fare?

The tournament was no cake-walk. We thought Chris and Ashley were undefeated after Friday, but it turns out we were all 2-1 or 1-2 at that point. Our novice teams had both gotten out of the gate 0-2. We weren’t even sure they were breaking to quarterfinals, meaning that all of our teams might have almost been out at that point. And then it became Saturday.

We got our pairings and it was evident no one was 3-0. People prepared cases, went off to rounds. Krishna & Bhargavi came back bubbling about a spectacular 4th round and got the information they’d won 3rd round after being worried about it. Chris & Ashley returned confident. The stage was set for important bubble rounds. And then Chris & Ashley drew the highest-ranked team in attendance, the nation’s 6th team from Hopkins. They were nervous, but finally were able to be pep-talked into not being intimidated. They felt good about the round afterwards, but weren’t at all sure of the outcome, of what the judge would focus on. And then, after pizza and waiting and long last, the announcements came.

First, our novice hybrid team was into novice finals. Then, Chris & Ashley broke. Then, Krishna & Bhargavi did too. Suddenly there was a World-Series-like mob of breaking debaters on the side of our row in the General Assembly lecture hall. Two teams in quarterfinals, including the first break ever for Krishna & Bhargavi. Maybe this UMBC tour was going to be different.

While Krishna & Bhargavi were out of cases and had to borrow one for a tough round in quarters, Chris & Ashley were well prepped and took down a Fordham team 2-1 with one of their classics. Then I was given the semifinal round off from judging, a nod from a tab staff well stocked with judges and knowing that I’d probably like a chance to see my team. We went down a cinder-block tunnel and I almost froze. I realized what couldn’t quite be true – this lecture hall where Chris & Ashley were about to debate for a trip to their first final round was the same one that had hosted my last qualified competitive round ever. Quarters at Nats 2002. At first I thought I’d been wrong because the desk up front was different – I told myself it was just very similarly situated and sloped. But as I examined the desk, I realized it had to be a new computerized addition not present in 2002. And after comparing it to this old picture from that round:

…it was all too clear. And for extra fun, one of the panelists on this semifinal panel was the legitimate of the two who’d dropped me so many years ago in that ultimate round. I had a sinking feeling. Would history repeat itself? I dug into the seat for the round between Maryland and Rutgers and watched.

At first, I was a bit nervous. Chris was on his game in LOC, but his time management wasn’t amazing. And then Ashley started to really turn things around in MOC, setting up what turned out to be one of the best opp-blocks I’ve ever seen. Chris’ LOR was nearly flawless. A kid I’d seen often be rough and flailing was polished, rhetorical, inspiring. I was taken aback. The PMR was strong, but there was no way we were dropping this one. It was half an hour until we heard a 5-0 decision favored Rutgers. Chris & Ashley were going to finals and a win away from both qualifying for Nationals.

The Final was a treat. Chris & Ashley had fun with a case from the back-burner of Fordham’s file and made the right choice of those offered them in an entertaining opp-choice. They won a 6-3, us tensely waiting for the announcement that was started, stopped, and restarted three times after we’d learned of many other great awards detailed in this post on the RUDU blog. The exuberance was overwhelming with the announcement, the sheer joy and shock pouring out that as I well recall only the very first tournament win can bring. Indeed, after collecting their trophy, Ashley and especially Chris actually tackled me to the ground in celebration:

Getting up slowly from the floor, almost teary and completely mindblown, I came to terms with the incredible pinnacles and troughs of human emotion and experience. I’ve been talking periodically about my writing The Best of All Possible Worlds tearing open a portal of surreality in my life that may never again close. That the fork in the road taken by the completion of that piece has irreparably heightened the extremity of everything that follows. It’s a weird, vaguely extreme thing to believe, and yet you may understand if and when you read it. The quarterfinal round I judged was about the interpretation of art and made for a fascinating debate. And yet I must conclude that titles should always be bigger than authors’ names on book covers, because any good work is far greater than the author could have intended. And what if in crafting that work, I crafted undeniable surreality for myself and the rest of my days? What is to anchor us to the present, to the understanding that our lives are indeed as random and mundane as probability would lead us to believe?

I don’t have answers today, a lazy Sunday spent basking and recovering from the enormity of all these memories compiled and reconfigured, for both the worse and the better. I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite so much fun as a debate tournament as this Saturday at UMBC. It’s quite a replacement for a prior Saturday at UMBC. I will be processing this and more for a long time to come. But for 24 hours, I’ve been happy. And I’ve lived through enough to know just how to appreciate that. I pulled Chris & Ashley aside to remind them before the Final round of just one thing: to have fun. To appreciate what they were about to experience. I have to pull myself aside and remember that too sometimes. Now, mostly. Right now.


This is What I Get for Grandiose Titles

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Keepin' it Cryptic, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

Some days are diamonds.
Some days are rocks.

And then there are those special unique days that manage to be both. That manage to be, dare I say it, the best and worst of all possible worlds, rolled into one.

Discretion demands that I don’t speak of this further, but perhaps for this:

The Best of All Possible Worlds is now available in PDF. Drop a line my way if interested.

If you need me, I’ll be trying to surround myself with people.


Multimedia Bonus Coverage

Categories: A Day in the Life, Just Add Photo, Let's Go M's, Primary Sources, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

Consider this an addendum to my earlier post today. Go read that, because I think it’s more interesting than this one will be. But this one has videos! Feeling strangely prolific today, like all my energy from traveling has been stored up and is ready to be unleashed.

In hell, you can watch all the baseball games you want, but every single commercial break between innings or for pitching changes carries the exact same sequence of commercials. And in the ninth circle, the commercial sequence in question leads off with a horrifically over-masculine aggressive commercial for a new planned-obsolescence rollout of conventional shaving apparatus. You know, like this:

Unfortunately, I live in hell, masquerading as a place called “New Jersey”. As Robin Williams said in one of the twenty greatest films of all time, “I found you in Hell – don’t you think I can find you in Jersey?” So this is my experience with MLBTV. It makes me a lot more likely to exit early from a game the M’s are already losing 8-3, but might also make me cut bait on a game where the score is reversed. I have never moved so fast for a mute button so many times. Ugh.

I really need to update my favorite films list. It may include this:

Yes, I am telling you all about seventeen times to see this movie. You need to listen.

Seriously. You can watch the whole thing on YouTube in twelve parts. Do it already.

Also, this:

That one’s available on Vimeo. In one take. People are just giving away thought-provoking cinema, people. Take advantage.

Finally, I’ve used the appellation “Tiny House” so many times lately that I realize I may never have explained the origin of same. It’s not just because the house is small; it’s also a reference. To this:

I have to agree with the YouTube commenter who expressed anger when he realized that this was just a spoof commercial and not an upcoming reality series. That is, I felt that way until Em & I began our own personal reality series last August when we got here.

If you missed it in the last post, please let me know if you want to read The Best of All Possible Worlds and you haven’t done so in some way already. Eight people signed up on Facebook already. Don’t risk being the thirtieth person on your block to read this book or something. And by “your block,” I mean “planet Earth.”


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.


July, July

Categories: A Day in the Life, From the Road, Let's Go M's, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

It seems like both a lot and very little has happened since I last checked in with this form of communicating with the outside world. But since I haven’t dialed in for a while, it’s probably good to put out the obligatory “not dead yet” missive.

The car thing from the last post worked out fine. After a truly comedic attempt at stuffing Fish & Madeleine into the Smart Car and then resigning to putting them on the Hertz shuttle, we went to one of the four people working behind the Hertz counter and it was thankfully not the same person who gave me the half-car in the first place. With Priceline already committed to investigate the issue of why’d I’d gotten the wrong car and send me a settlement in the next fortnight, I was hoping someone could possibly actually resolve the issue without me forking over more cash. The guy looked at the mismatch of car I’d reserved and car I’d been given like something crazy had happened, resolving to quickly restore order for free. I refrained from pointing out his crazy co-worker who’d bluffed me into the joke car and ran to get the keys and mileage from same. We spent the rest of the weekend cruising around in a spacious Toyota Yaris. You know, a car with both four seats and four doors!

The rest of the weekend was a great time – hanging out with Fish, Madeleine, Gris, Anna, and occasionally Nagrom as we interspersed discussions of politics, history, and race with Boggle, Yahtzee!, Bang! (one-word and exclam-heavy games only, apparently), tennis, and watching World Cup matches. Also got to see a very little of Jaque and Jenny both at a dim sum breakfast the morning of the wedding and at the wedding before they departed early. Saw even less of DK and Sara amidst their nuptial fervor, though their ceremony was beautiful right up until the officiant made the bizarre decision to pelt us with sexist Red Skelton jokes as we were contemplating the sanctity of their vows and commitment. So it goes. Catching up with both, especially DK and his parents, who remembered all the old crew, was great fun and it seems they’re putting together quite a good life in LA.

Then it was back to Russ’ where we completed our second-ever conquest of the World Cup for Denmark on the ultimate (World Class) level before checking in with the Wilsons in the first-ever conference with all of us in the Pacific time zone. The power of Skype has definitely been impressed on me in the last few weeks, between my video chats with Emily and periodic other conversations over free computer-to-computer networks. Also at Russ’, I saw two movies which probably join “The Corporation” as required viewing for the thoughtful person these days. And as scared as I was that “The Corporation” came out more than half a decade ago, it’s downright terrifying that both of these movies date from the time when I was barely verbal. Anyway, add “Koyaanisqatsi” (1982) and “My Dinner with Andre” (1981) to your upcoming playlist. I have since discovered that the former has two sequels, but they don’t quite have the same power of the original it seems, despite some thematic verve, especially in the conclusive piece subtitled “Life as War”.

Been in Albuquerque since a 7/7 flight where I overheard my two rowmates encouraging each other in their love in America and infinite faith in its power to both rebound and offer infinite opportunity to all. Made some major progress on editing thereon between the eavesdropping, and now stand a little over a third of the way through editing The Best of All Possible Worlds. Given the encouraging feedback that’s been coming in for all sorts of my creative endeavors, I’m really looking forward to hearing what people think of this one as a real departure from my past novels. Also newly reinvigorated to start submitting ADO to agents when I hit the sweltering East Coast once more. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.

Albuquerque has been the usual good mix of New Mexican food (Frontier 2, Waffle House 1, Garcia’s 1 as of this writing), long conversations, and perfect warm weather. The yard is in full bloom and I’m starting to believe all the bees left alive on the planet are actively engaging the flowers in my parents’ well-tended garden. The house is less changed than usual as my Dad struggles with arthritis and my Mom seems to be prone to pulling or straining various things. They’re doing well otherwise, though, in good spirits and with plenty of energy. The new cat, Nesbitt, has also been a joy, though he seems more thoughtful and reserved than any of his species I’ve known in the past.

Today just got word that Cliff Lee, one of my favorite and briefest Mariners, has been shipped to Texas in exchange for Justin Smoak and a bevy of prospects. Given the pitching staff and prospects to come, the length of Lee’s contract (ending after this year), and the need to restock our farm, it’s clearly a great move. Especially looking at the 34-51 record they’ve compiled, an inexplicable shock that’s the sum total of bad luck and an abandonment of the very concept of clutch hitting. The team continues to build around the right things, though, and I have to believe that the new GM will be able to continue to work magic that will hopefully lead to a breakthrough. But this season is over and I guess I don’t mind much, since it takes the pressure off going to Africa and feeling like I’m missing something back here.

Other than the friends and family I’m trying to see before I go, there’s just not much to miss.


Go West, Young Man!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Pre-Trip Posts, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

When Emily was here as an undergrad, she had unlimited printing of whatever she wanted at local computer clusters. This year, for the first time, they implemented limits on printing, which is a big part of why my distribution of American Dream On to friends was electronic, not paper.

Nevertheless, the limit is still sky-high and so she had a few hundred sheets left that expire on 1 July of this year. Today, I decided to use up as many of those as possible, printing a clean single-spaced copy of the most up-to-date versions of ADO and The Best of All Possible Worlds for posterity in case something happens, plus fifty sheets of Duck and Cover blanks in case something doesn’t. It’s always good to be prepared for all foreseeable possibilities.

I am heading to Philadelphia any minute now, then on to the greater LA area to see a bevy of friends and the wedding celebration of David Kunkel. Then finally a week in Albuquerque before returning here briefly only to set out again across the East Coast and then on to Africa. Quite a bit going on in the next few weeks and months, hopefully.

For reference, here’s the Tour image again, still accurate to date:

Feeling generally pretty good. Looking forward to editing TBoAPW, to spending some serious quality time with a lot of friends and family who I don’t see that often. Looking forward to the relaxing, renewing feelings of summer. Looking forward to lots of things.

But as I held the near-ream of paper in my hand, the more than 230,000 words worth of novels I’ve written in the last nine months, I was also looking at now. And for the first time in a long time, feeling good about right now. About the recent past. This feels as much like an arrival as it does a departure.

See you soon.


The Use of Energy

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, Tags: , ,

Today, after watching some thrilling but ultimately disappointing World Cup matches, I wanted to start editing my book and I was also hungry. I considered walking in to town, but a thunderstorm was predicted for the afternoon and my hunger was threatening to derail me on the roadside en route to food. I decided to drive to Zorba’s, a falafel place (I’m sure they have other food, but it’s a falafel place to me) and then take that food to the Princeton Campus Club, a repossessed former eating club just off the Princeton campus.

Zorba’s was doing its usual middling business, but the PCC was a ghost town. The three floors of gigantic rooms were completely empty, though the building had been unlocked. And blasting away throughout was the air conditioning, cooling the outside humid 85 degrees to something more like 70 amid much noisemaking. At least the lights were off for the most part.

I ate my falafel in silence while reading a bit of Madness and Civilization, then threw away the bag it had come in and the wrapper and the chip bag, able to recycle the class bottle of Orangina I’d had. Then I went upstairs to the PCC Library, which was just as cool, and cracked into editing The Best of All Possible Worlds for the first time, completing 5% of it while there.

I spent maybe an hour and a half in the building all told. No one came, no one left. The air conditioning persisted through every room of the gargantuan club, a place that may sit idle for days at a time, though they’re keeping it open till midnight or two in the morning apparently. Just trying to make it comfortable in case someone comes in to enjoy the hallowed halls of what someone built as an alternative to eating with the proletarian Princeton students in the regular dining halls.

There are times when I think that I might be a bit too cynical about the hope for change on this planet. When I might underestimate what one single individual without power or fame or voice can do to stem the tide of immense corporate waste and collective mismanagement. Then there are days like today, when I find myself to be a bit naive, all told, in comparison to the real depth of the state of things.

On my way home, I drove by a dying squirrel, flattened and twitching on its back in the roadway.


One Year Enters, Two Novels Leave

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, Tags: ,

Well, it wasn’t three books a year. But two outta three ain’t bad.

Just minutes ago, I completed my third novel lifetime and second in nine months, The Best of All Possible Worlds. It weighs in at 96,070 words (~384 pages), just a bit longer than Loosely Based and well short of American Dream On.

It took me three months and eleven days to write. Like every novel I’ve written on a deadline so far, I finished it about a week ahead of deadline (in this case, 21 June).

The last 142 pages of the book (37% of the total) were written this month, June, the last fifteen days, during which I wrote on every single day except 5 June.

Now, of course, begins what will probably be 2-4 weeks of editing, depending on how intensely I can work on it and how much work it ends up needing. It could actually be longer than that if my concerns from about a month ago persist about some of the book fundamentally not working. I really think I’ve wriggled away from those concerns, however, and feel very good about what I wrote in June rendering those prior concerns moot. It will take at least a full detailed reading to be sure, though.

If you’re interested, drop me a line. I think it should be available for distribution sometime in the last week of July, shortly before I depart for Africa.

I’ve been close enough to the finish of this one for a while that I don’t feel quite the incredible euphoric elation I normally do. I’m sure once I go a couple days without writing, I’ll become a little more convinced that I’ve actually done it. And when I’m convinced it works. But maybe I’m just getting accustomed to this feeling, to this sense that my plan for my life is actually working, or starting to. Maybe the euphoria had built up for seven years and now it’s only had a little time to build up in the six months since I last finished a first draft.

In any event, I’m at least very very satisfied. Happy. Feeling, dare I say it, hopeful.


Twenty-Two Page Day

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories

I wrote twenty-two pages today (or on 9 June, the day just ended), completing exactly a third of what remained to be done on the book at this time yesterday.

For the first time in an extremely long time, I have more days till the deadline than sections of the book left to write. The book has eighty sections, which are not quite long enough to be considered chapters. By comparison to American Dream On, that book holds sixty chapters in 135,000 words. This will have eighty sections in about 100,000 words. So you get the distinction.

I was reading a little about the torrid end to my writing of ADO, largely to see if June was surpassing December of last year in productivity. It’s not, though it must be said that it’s getting competitive. I’ve written 24,288 words in the 9 days of June so far, which equates to 97 pages by the conventional rubric and is nearly 11 pages a day on average. Now of course I was just posting about being elated to average nearly 6 pages a day over 40 days, so you can see how much of that average is getting its steam from just the last week and change. Given that I took nearly two full days off this month, the average for productive days is arguably closer to 14 pages a day. Suddenly my 22-page day isn’t seeming so special.

As far as parsing the reasons for these spurts, it’s hard to discern between deadline motivation and the natural energy that comes from the converging end of a book. At this point, I’m trying not to analyze it too heavily because it just works for me. I’m not going to argue with the results. And my doubts about the quality that can be maintained at this pace have been allayed by the fact that most everyone felt the December-written chapters of ADO were the best therein.

I guess the only question, going into my fourth book when the time comes this fall, is how to maintain this kind of frenzy throughout writing a book. Is it even possible? If it were, I could write maybe five books a year and they’d all be spectacular. But I bet there’s something unique about the close of the tomes that makes this an unsustainable state of mind and work.

It’s amazing to realize that one really is capable of the things one thinks one is capable of.


80% of The Best

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, Tags: ,

With the session just finished, I am officially eighty percent done with The Best of All Possible Worlds. I have but two weeks to finish it, with the 21 June deadline and the first day of summer looming large in my vision. However, I have almost no distractions or outside obligations to worry about as I approach the deadline and have been writing at a faster clip than perhaps even I realize.

For example, I just realized that I have written 233 pages of the book (it is 305 total at present) in the last 40 days, or just shy of 6 pages a day every single day for forty days. Of course, these days have been punctuated with two- or three-day spells of writing nothing at all, including weekends like the last weekend Em was in town before Africa, the last weekend Greg was hosting people at his late mother’s place, and the last weekend Stina & Dav would be in town before Stina goes to England (two, one, and zero weekends ago, respectively). So even though the average is just shy of six/day, that includes many zeroes, meaning that when I’ve set down to work, I’ve been as productive on this work as anything I’ve ever done in my entire life.

Which is exciting.

Despite a lot of early doubts about whether this book even really “works” in some sense (it’s by far my most experimental effort to date), this last third of the book is convincing me that I have little to worry about in that department. I still think a full reading is necessary to be sure, but maybe not the two I initially budgeted before I’d know. In any case, that euphoric excitement about finishing the project and then being able to actually realize that people will be reading it soon is setting in. Oh baby so tasty.

I’ve been living life too, though sparely, mostly through the aforementioned weekends. I’m going to sum up some of my personal, non-political encounters below in a sort of good-bad dichotomy as follows:

  • Recommended: The yellow fever vaccine, which I got a week ago, the first shot I can ever remember having with absolutely zero side effects.
  • Not Recommended: The typhoid fever vaccine, which I got yesterday, which has brought me the most intense pain I can remember having in this lifetime.
  • Recommended: The movie Following, which I watched via Netflix in a pain-induced stupor from said vaccine above.
  • Not Recommended: The movie Please Give, which I watched in a nearly empty theater on Friday and enjoyed before it devolved into a ringing endorsement of capitalist superficiality.
  • Recommended: Wise and Otherwise, which we played with Fish, Madeleine, Ariel, and Michael at the latter’s place on Saturday night to endless aching of stomachs from too much laughter.
  • Not Recommended: Dungeons and Dragons, which was played most of the weekend in Connecticut, which I found to be a slow analog way of playing about ten minutes’ worth of Dark Age of Camelot or World of Warcraft. The company and enthusiasm therein helped mitigate this, but the game itself was disappointing.
  • Recommended: Being able to Skype with one’s wife across the Atlantic Ocean, enabling both talking and a small grainy amount of seeing despite the vast distances between.
  • Not Recommended: Still having two months to go before one sees one’s wife in person.


The Goal of Humanity

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

I have long discussed the fact that the goal of humanity, both collectively and individually, is to overcome human nature. That basically everything we consider to be harmful and undesirable is derived from the baser instincts of human beings and that, at the point of sentience, the goal of people should be to stop evolving and to start making mental, philosophical, and moral transformations based on rational thought.

It shouldn’t be a controversial perspective, but it seems remarkably un-universal, especially given the recent surge of belief in science, physicalism, and a reductionist materialist view of the world. So many people now seem to argue that there are great benefits of our human nature and natural instincts, that trying too hard to control or convert the hedonistic nature of our animal selves will create more problems than its solves. Of course, these people tend to put happiness at the keystone position of their ethos and seem particularly ill equipped to explain how humanity is going to make any progress in the fields of moral or rational thought.

I am writing all this now because I recently found one of the most brilliant articles ever on this issue, which makes the case for my perspective more succinctly than I tend to, and in a way more befitting of mainstream appeal. You can read the article here now. Be forewarned, it’s longish, but the details matter and it’s length is sort of part of the point anyway.

The article is more concretely about patience and the ability of people, largely young children, to delay gratification. The case constructed by the psychologists in the various studies profiled in the article is that people’s willpower and ability to distract themselves into changing their own motivations – the essence of self-control – is perhaps a larger factor for success in humans than intelligence itself. And that where intelligence feeds self-control and vice versa, the most essential building blocks to fulfillment and self-actualization are to be found.

I have been telling a lot of people lately that the difference between my ability to write multiple novels in a year (not done yet, but looking awfully promising at this point) or hold down jobs while impressing my employers on the one hand, and being homeless and destitute and an utter failure on the other hand, is entirely because of my ability to fabricate meaning for deadlines in my own head. I mean this statement completely sincerely – the most important skill I have devised in my life has been the ability to believe in an arbitrary date and accord all the significance in the universe to it. Throughout high school and college, I never missed a single deadline for a single class (except for the one I deliberately failed, of course, but that was its own little experiment with self-control), because I convinced myself that doing so would lead to immediate failure, expulsion, and possibly death. I played an extensive eight-year game of chicken with my consciousness, starting papers later and later, studying less and less, but I still turned everything in the minute it was due, without fail.

This has of course translated into me being able to motivate myself for artificial deadlines (imposed by self or others) at work and especially in my new free-form writing life. I thrive on deadlines, at least when they’re realistic. I feel a great deal of adrenaline around the approach of a deadline, the elation of getting things done, and every successfully met deadline has worked as an extra bulwark for both the need for me to continue making them and as a positive motivation from the pure euphoria I feel when they are met.

I don’t think I ever deliberately tried to create this spirit about deadlines, but the article above corroborates my thesis that this trait alone has kept me off the streets and in a relatively stable place in society. But the most important aspect of the article is the evidence that this can be taught. What’s frustrating about the article is that it then starts to raise doubts about the idea of teaching this kind of self-control and willpower, even though most of the article makes it abundantly obvious that this can be learned, and pretty easily, especially at a young age.

The article also relates the issues of self-control and willpower to drug use and overeating, which are pretty obvious correlations. The fact that I’ve been able to live my entire life without alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, to control any impulse to try them even once, to be able to rationally evaluate the decision and overcome impulse, is highly linked to the deadline thing. And all of these things are truly essential skills for living a fulfilling life, especially if one is also prone to addictions or falling into long sustained periods of inextricable obsession.

The most disturbing aspect of the article, though, is that it still pays homage to the materialist demons that haunt every aspect of the modern psychological community. The researcher who pioneered the study of willpower through the use of marshmallows, whose thinking has led to such important conclusions about humanity’s struggle to overcome its base nature, is most excited at the moment about… brain scans. He wants MRI’s to spit out little illustrations of the self-control fold in the brain so he can give people drugs or surgery to shortcut them to it.

And here is where I have to part ways with the nature of the experiment. It may be that there seems to be a physical reflection of the phenomenon of being able to believe in arbitrary artificial self-imposed deadlines. And it may not. If it is, it’s still putting the cart before the horse, for the fact is that these things can be taught and that would change the folds of the brain. The entire problem with the materialist approach is that it tries to do things backwards, tries to manipulate people as bodies without giving them the understanding of what they need to change that will build a lasting commitment to the new approach. Even if you could surgically create the folds, there’s a larger chance that they’d just change back and re-alter their brain afterwords. This is why so many people who get major life-changing weight-removal surgeries tend to end up putting the pounds back on, while people who actually train themselves to approach food differently can lose weight and keep it off.

So now the goal of humanity is to not only overcome our human nature, but to ditch our desire for a physical solution to every problem. We’ve long recognized that the human mind is the most complex and fascinating aspect of our world. We should offer it the respect and due diligence it deserves, not try to play Frankenstein to its monster.


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.


2010 Summer Tour Announcement: The Best of this Possible World

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I am a pretty lucky guy.

It’s nice to get reminders of this, lest I begin to give in to consternation with any given personal quest or quandary at any given time. Though the below-announced “tour” is not a book-signing tour, yet, or anything of that ilk, it is a hearty reflection of how great my friends are, how many of them I am blessed to be able to see, and how fortunate I am to be in a position to contemplate some serious world travel as well.

Coming off a non-weekend weekend spent with the Philly crew, playing endless Wii Mario Kart and real-life tennis (6-4, 4-6, 6-5* over Fish in a reaffirmation that we are just as evenly matched as we were in the ill-fated Spring 1995 intramurals), I cannot express sufficient excitement about the summer ahead. More than anything, my visit just now was marked with exceptional depth and breadth of conversation, the greatest gift we humans can give those we are personally tied to. To have so many old friends with whom I can converse about such an array of topics at a high level makes me even luckier than I know I am.

*We didn’t do the proper tiebreaker thing because both of us forgot how to score it and we were exhausted already.

It is with this incredible fullness of heart that I announce my complete summer plans – possibly the most ambitious and wide-ranging itinerary I’ve ever undertaken. The “theme” is of course related to the thread that runs through these summer plans, work on my third novel (second this year), The Best of All Possible Worlds. The summer kicks off on the actual first day of summer, which happens to be my deadline, and will take me straight through the week of the first debate tournament of next season. I am preparing to be overwhelmed.

Here we go:

If we haven’t made specific contact about spending time on the tour in the above places and times, please send me an e-mail and we can sort things out. Some of this may be subject to a little tweaking, especially the dates that revolve around driving on the Eastern Seaboard rather than booked plane tickets. I may release an edited draft of this with some of those Eastern cities more specified before it’s all upon me.

Now the focus is making sure I can hit that deadline so everything else is viable.


Ghost of Christmas Past

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Let's Go M's, Quick Updates, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , , ,

Who would’ve thought that a day in, I’d be almost missing April?

Since writing my last post, I have:

  • Had a migraine, making April’s total fourteen.
  • Developed some strange but persistent non-migrainous pain and possibly swelling in the soft tissue over my right ear.
  • Gone to a “Prom” held for students in Emily’s program.
  • Watched the M’s cough up a game where they had the bases loaded with one out in the bottom of back-to-back extra innings.
  • Judged the 102nd Harvard/Princeton/Yale Triangular Debate, specifically a Princeton-hosted match against Harvard.
  • Written 17 pages of The Best of All Possible Worlds.
  • Finally bought a new batch of coffee to test my bad-batch theory for the April Migraine Spike.
  • Run – almost literally – into my second girlfriend on the street in Princeton. Yes, that one. No words (or blows) were exchanged.
  • Discovered that said girlfriend and her husband have been living less than a mile and a half away since we moved here.
  • Watched the film adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which I loved and Em hated.
  • Finished reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, a novel which is neither about 2666 nor is finished.

I think it can all best be summed up in four words:

My head is spinning.



Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , ,

It’s probably no mystery that debate has been my primary focus this month, at least during the time that I’m not feeling surreal and/or migrainous. Between driving 7 hours to a tournament the first weekend, hosting our tournament the second, and attending the 3-day National Championships the third, it’s been a month dedicated largely to APDA.

Nationals was nothing special – in fact, much of it was an unmitigated disaster. In their first three rounds of competition, the Rutgers team faced the #1, #7, and #8 ranked partnerships in the country, who went on to place 2nd, 1st, and 8th in the Championship respectively. While they acquitted themselves largely admirably, such match-ups were enough to remove at a chance at the elimination rounds and the rest of the tournament became a tune-up of particular cases for next year. Next year still looks quite bright for the team, as no one who placed at a tournament this year is graduating, while this year’s senior class is quite top-heavy on most other teams.

Perhaps more infuriating than my team’s horrendous draw was my treatment as a judge at this year’s title tourney. Despite having the most overall judging experience and among the best debate credentials of anyone in attendance, I was not invited to judge rounds 4, 5, or the elimination rounds. Perhaps more amazingly, this was during the same weekend I was elected to serve as Tab Director for next year’s Nationals. The discord between general sentiment/presumption about my judging caliber (especially among many of the successful teams, who were just as curious about my exclusion as I was) and the decision-making of the small team of graduates running this year’s tab room was marked. While this really bummed me out for a while, I was ultimately able to be pretty Zen about the whole issue in realizing that next year, I’ll be able to demonstrate what an objective tab room looks like. Nevertheless, it prompted some disconcerting questions about whether I’m simply too old to be hanging around the college debate circuit, at least according to some folks.

And yet, one of my few roles at this year’s Nats was to explain the history behind APDA’s two awards named for deceased debaters, both of whom (as I noted in this year’s remarks) were younger than I am now when they passed. In 2007, I was asked to speak about Jeff Williams and declined, largely because I still hadn’t quite made peace with my difficulties on-circuit with the individual and there were other of our contemporaries present who seemed more sincere candidates for the job. This year, I was really motivated to explain Jeff’s positive qualities as a way of atoning for our acrimony, as a way of putting to rest any bitter tastes from competition now nearly a decade in the rear-view. I can’t much imagine Jeff would be pleased to hear that I was speaking for his memory, but I hope I pleasantly surprised him all the same.

Of course, I wasn’t speaking just for personal reasons. The larger point was to illustrate the importance of institutional memory in general, to remember that these awards to honor year-to-year excellence also honor the excellence of those who went before and are no longer around to discuss their legacy. And I guess the question arises as to how much stomach for such memory this debate circuit has. I was struck during the senior speeches by how generally positive and heartfelt they were. Almost no one called anyone else out. The two or three misanthropes in the league were lightly chided while most others were warmly lauded. I never envisioned during my last years on the circuit that such speeches could ever amount to such a lovefest. It was truly wonderful to see.

So maybe the memories of past rivalries and strife are unnecessary. Maybe APDA reinvents itself untethered to the past. Maybe my role is not to guide or advise or judge this new generation, but merely to coach my team, to try to build another rising program from the challenged ranks of the previously unheralded. Then again, of course, the election as Tab Director seems to belie all these misgivings. A whole other realm of the circuit, from tournament to tournament and in creating the 2011 National Championship, seems to appreciate my willingness to be both old and devoted to the circuit.

Ultimately, it’s probably best not to put too much stock in any one tournament. Even if it’s Nationals.

I have a whole summer to think about all this, of course… our last debate meeting is Thursday and we’ll part ways to regroup in September ready to tackle a year brimming with possibility. Meanwhile, I’ll be transitioning in a hurry back toward writing as the primary focus. While I haven’t exactly shelved my project this April, I’ve let myself focus on it less in exchange for the knowledge that I’m going to block out most everything else once debate is officially over. It’s been good to let parts of the book simmer and incubate and while the original May 17th deadline is starting to look truly unreasonable, I’m excited to take the best shot I can at it anyway.

Many people, meanwhile, are asking questions about different aspects of my summer, and beyond trying to finish The Best of All Possible Worlds by mid-May (or probably mid-June), everything’s up in the air. Emily still doesn’t have an internship locked down yet, and a great deal of my schedule depends on hers, though we will probably open her internship spending the most time we’ve spent apart since we started dating almost nine years ago. I don’t relish this thought, but I am eager to see as much of her internship locale (hopefully in Africa somewhere) as possible once that gets underway, even if it’s after a month or so of separation. As we get more information, the dominoes will start to align and fall and I will probably have a whole schedule of the summer ready to go. Until then, though, limbo.

Which is exactly what April feels like. What April always seems to feel like. And not the limbo of backbreaking stick-walks or even weightless space travel, but the limbo of its original use: purgatory. I am suspended in a kind of uncomfortable gray silence, processing the past and anticipating a foggy future still taking shape. Maybe it looks like ash, maybe like shaken earth. Maybe it looks like nothing at all. Were shaky, uncertain, somewhat miserable Aprils not so predictable, they would scare me. They probably did in high school, before I’d figured out the pattern, they felt like the end of the world. Now it’s just the world that feels that way. For me, April’s just being April. The cruelest month. When streams are ripe and swelled with rain. Fools. Showers.

Mayday. May Day.

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