Tag Archives: Telling Stories


Shoes on the Highway

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

Shoes on the Highway
by Storey Clayton
6 April 2017

I saw two shoes on the highway
and then another
as I sped up the overpass
they were strewn, not placed
on the road, not the shoulder
clearly flung from great speed

and I stopped to imagine
the scene
kids or friends or frenemies
careening through the night
one joking, one not amused
as the joker hung them by the laces outside
to wave tauntingly in the windy wake

did they let go or lose control
the question
and how real was their contrition
confronted by the anger of the shoeless
saying I’m sorry through uproarious laughter
you don’t mean it, the retort
I do, I’m sorry, but did you see those shoes fly

I think this is always
the way
when someone loses something
when it’s taken and thrown out the window
someone thinks it’s funny
the loser knows it isn’t
and the rest of us have to swerve to dodge the fallout


Seventeen Years of Blogging

Categories: A Day in the Life, Adventures in Uber, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, Let's Go M's, Marching to New Orleans, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Here are two relatively unflattering portraits of me, seventeen years apart. What can I say – blogging hasn’t always been pretty.

Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of Introspection, my first blog. It lasted for just seven years and change before the daily short-format gave way to this more haphazard long format, now nearly ten years into process. My first post was mostly about dreams and teeth. My first post on StoreyTelling was mostly about Introspection, but also my larger history with blogging and the web. Today’s post will be about neither, really, but it felt like an anniversary to mark, not least because of the significance the number 17 plays in my life. But I haven’t posted in a while and that’s partially because I’ve had only a bunch of micro-post ideas flitting around in my head and that reminds me of Introspection and its flitty, flighty, one-liner format. So here we go:

-Mardi Gras was great for parades and great for Uber and kind of terrible for Uber. I gave multiple $150 rides and also had half-hours where I went six blocks without a rider the whole time and wanted to tear the steering wheel out of the car. Ultimately, it was still a very very good couple of weeks. I got pretty Zen about the traffic once I saw just how much I was making on most of the rides that I actually was able to give. I’ve also never had so many cancellations and frustrations since both Uber and especially Lyft had no real idea how to line people up with a pickup spot that made sense given parade routing. Driving during the parades was the worst; just after was much better.

-After a fantastic January for writing, February and March so far have been dismal. I partially blame Mardi Gras, but also wedding planning and also that it’s just flipping hard to focus on writing and anything else. Like yes, Uber is both a pretty easy casual job and the subject of my book, but it still consumes 35-45 hours a week, depending, and that’s time that really needs to be close to empty for me to write effectively. And/or I am also wrestling with too many internal confidence demons to really commit to writing fully and effectively. And/or there is too much variation and too little routine? I am inclined to think they are all factors, in the order presented. The book remains half-finished, but feels over the tipping point and should still be available to my loyal friend readers by summer at the latest (no whammy).

-Today was one of the first times I’ve ever delivered rolled change to the bank and they didn’t kind of whimsically roll their eyes at me. This is kind of a thing that I do regularly, in part because I find rolling change relaxing and re-ordering for me. I was almost heartbroken when Capital One briefly decided they weren’t accepting rolled change anymore and had me actually unwrap and unceremoniously dump all my change into a bucket so it could be fed into their automatic coin-sorter. By the next time I was ready to turn my change into electronically tracked currency, however, their coin sorting machine was out in the shop, perhaps indefinitely, and they were back to asking me to roll it. The bankers are always kind of bemused by me bringing in rolled change like I’m some sort of crank, but then again, most all commercially available change starts in rolls – someone is doing it somewhere, regularly, to keep the economy going, right? Is it so weird?

-Another relaxing and re-ordering practice for me is reading, which has been even more dismal all year than writing in the last forty days. I blame my ambition as a reader – I’ve spent most of the year allegedly reading The Familiar, vol. 1, a gigantic graphically bedecked book that looks like an elaborate prank. It was a mistake to try to read this, especially at a time when I want to be writing, but I really liked House of Leaves by the same author. The last renewal ran out at the library today and I returned it, having done about 160 pages in two months. I’m sure it’s brilliant in some way and I found some of the characters intriguing, but it just hadn’t spoken to me sufficiently to make it worth the work. I need to be reading regularly, though, and it needs to feel like a joy and not a chore. I may return to it someday, but long after I’ve written a couple more books.

-I am so insanely jealous of the folks living in the path of the snowstorm that’s about to batter the eastern seaboard. There’s a lot I don’t love about the northeastern United States, but the regular access to blizzards is not among them. I keep repeating the promise to myself that someday I will live in a place where I don’t have to anxiously anticipate snow, but it will be a regular occurrence with no possibility of not happening. I worry that places that used to be on this list are starting to fall off of the list, but no matter. Next year in Murmansk.

-Was there ever a more short-sighted decision than to decline to name that British ship Boaty McBoatface? Now the yellow sub they allowed to be called by said moniker is getting all kinds of press its expedition never would otherwise. Sometimes you have to steer into the curve. People are so often their own undoing by taking themselves too seriously.

-The Louisiana state government is having massive budget shortfalls this year because gas prices are low. This prompted them to try to charge state taxes from me from 2014 on all of my New Jersey-earned income. My only Louisiana income that year were some poker winnings from a large payout at Harrah’s. They sent me a bill for nearly $2,000 a few months back, including fees for failing to file and interest (as though interest were something that exists in the world these days). They sent multiple threats via certified letter. After three responses from me, all also sent certified, they sent me a check this weekend for $108, which was actually what they owed me for taking too much out of the poker payout in the first place. I was happy to let this money go in exchange for not filing a Louisiana return back in 2014. But they wanted to push it, so I’m happy to make them pay. Of course, in reality, it all feels like a huge waste – of state employee time, of my time, of the certified mail system. But I know to them it’s not a waste, because like all made-up bills, 80% of people probably just get scared and pay them no questions asked. And we wonder how the poor are kept poor in our system.

-Something I have been doing a lot lately is play chess. It’s not quite as relaxing as reading or walking or even writing sometimes, but it’s good for me. The problem is that I should spend more time between chess club “tournaments” practicing, but that would cut into time potentially writing or driving. This is actually an argument that cuts into a lot of things lately, including a pretty successful video-game moratorium I’ve put on myself for all of 2017 till the book is finished. Chess, like all games, is great patience practice, even the fifteen-minute games I favor and we play on Monday nights. The problem is that I still am spending more time looking at my mistakes and how to get out of them than not making them in the first place.

-I lost about an eighth of a tooth the other day. I think I swallowed it. I have an impacting wisdom tooth that’s pushing its neighbor on a tilt out of position, and I’ve just realized that this has made my bite sufficiently uneven so as to hammer into the tooth below with every chew. As a result, the top corner of the tooth below finally gave way. Luckily the root was not exposed; unluckily I have not had dental insurance since 2014. Trying to get into the LSU dental clinic is proving to be a chore, but at least after three days my tongue toughened up enough so that the newly jagged tooth edge stopped serrating it. It was an ugly couple days at first adjusting to the new reality.

-The Mariners lost their Spring Training game today by a score of 24-3. That said, all their best players are at the World Baseball Classic. They were doing really well before the WBC started. I am irrationally exuberant for the lineup of Dyson, Segura, Cano, Cruz, and Seager.

-Peak Trump Outrage seems to have passed. I know a lot of people want everyone to stay angry and vigilant, but I feel like Trump has slowed down into a kind of plodding pace of not being able to get any of his agenda done. I had long predicted that a President without either party really behind him would have a lot of trouble getting anything done and I think that’s coming to fruition. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stay vigilant or react strongly to the truly bad stuff that comes out of the administration, but a half-assed tweak on a bad healthcare law to make it slightly worse doesn’t pass muster on that for me. Especially when the best analysts don’t think they even want it to pass in the first place.

-Speaking of which, “Get Out” is one of the most flawlessly executed movies in recent memory. Right up there with “Arrival”. However, the former’s third act is its weakest point while the latter’s third act is its best, so just keep that in mind. “Weakest” in this context, however, is still mighty strong.

-I feel supremely lucky to live in a time when the Lumineers can be as popular a band as they are. The Lumineers being popular feels like one of those things that shouldn’t be able to happen – they defy all the tropes of what you’d expect of rock music success. And yet, there they are. Alex and I saw them ten days ago in the UNO basketball stadium and it was incredible. They seemed to express the same kind of incredulity at their success and following that I felt. At one point, referencing the time that they used to spend playing in living rooms and similar tiny venues, they came out into a literal pop-up stage in the center of the arena, closer to our seats, and played part of their set there. It was magical. The Lumineers feel magical in the way that New Orleans does when it’s at its simplest, most historical, and most charming. They seem like they shouldn’t be real. They aren’t passing Counting Crows or anything, but I forget how transporting and inspiring music can be sometimes. It can get so habitual and dull or so processed and rote. The discovery of music, the reimagining of it, makes me supremely sad that I didn’t end up in music somehow even though I have no natural ability there whatsoever…

Flowers in Your Hair
Ho Hey
Gun Song
Dead Sea
Classy Girls
Where the Skies are Blue
Charlie Boy
Slow it Down
Sleep on the Floor
Big Parade
In the Light
My Eyes

Long Way from Home
Subterranean Homesick Blues
Stubborn Love

-Nothing compares to the magic of having by far and away your favorite song from a band close the encore. Especially the first time you see them. You’ve spent the entire show wondering if they’ll play that song or not, with the drama increasing the whole way. And then finally it happens and it’s their sign-off and you don’t even want them to keep playing after because it’s too perfect. I think this has literally only happened to me one other time, the first time I saw Counting Crows. That was in November 1999, notably just more than seventeen years ago. You would think that means you can’t read what I thought of it at the time online now. You would be wrong.


Start Walking

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, Metablogging, Telling Stories, Tags: , , ,

By any metric, 2017 has been a great year so far.

Now that I’ve said that out loud (on print), in public, it feels like a jinx. And not just because of my erstwhile belief in Mack Truck Time, the notion (reinforced by countless events in my life, really) that as soon as things start to go truly and obviously well, there is a Mack Truck waiting to hit you around the next corner.

I’ve told people that my New Year’s Resolution was to write every day. Simple, no frills. But it’s also a little less absolute than previous such attempts, because I’m not actually trying to write literally every day. The problem with a resolution like that is that failure is cooked right into the formula. It’s not really possible to actually write every day, really. There are migraines and exhaustion, there are, say, impromptu trips to Atlanta, there are days where household chores take over any other possible priority. And for those of us with self-hating shame-spirals who rely heavily on self-intimidation to get anything done, being that inflexible about something important – something that feels like it could be renewing and even life changing – is a bad plan. Every day is going to be different. Every day is going to have its unique challenges. Writing every day is not really an option.

But writing just about every day is. And part of the magic here, the tricky alchemy of convincing oneself to take this seriously while still not holding it to be every every day, is expecting to write every day, but not being crushingly disappointed with oneself on the days when that doesn’t happen. To look forward to tomorrow’s writing if today’s didn’t happen. It’s very hard for a self-hating person to do this. But somehow, in 2017, I’m managing better than almost ever before.

The reason this really feels like a jinx is because the last time I talked about writing in this forum, it was a jinx. A gigantic one. In an effort to update friends and (more importantly) hold myself accountable, I chronicled the first fortnight of my work on the Uber book, which now has a tentative title: Driving for U: Behind the Wheel of a New Orleans Uber. I had written over 12,000 words at a nearly 1,000/day clip, which is often used as the over/under margin for a productive writer. The date was 20 September 2016.

I didn’t write another word of the book in 2016.

As October led to November to December, I spent a lot more time trying to parse why that had suddenly been the moment the wheels came off after I’d projected an end-of-the-year deadline for myself. The jinx theory is convenient and hapless, but of course not what I really believe. Though part of me felt like it was a factor, like looking too directly at my own methodology somehow abridged its ability to be effective. This would sound crazy if there aren’t a lot of real-world parallels: driving, typing, breathing. When one thinks too intently about things that are best done by effortless repetitive rote, they become suddenly challenging and, in some cases, impossible. If you start to focus on the mechanics behind driving a car or even the pulse of your heartbeat, you can think yourself into non-functionality mighty fast.

That was part of it. More of it was that I’d met a literary agent in my Uber and he’d seemed excited about getting a query letter and a little after I put that post up, it became clear he was never going to write back. It was a small stupid setback, minuscule really, not even worth thinking about for veterans of rejection. But it had been a while since I’d queried anyone and I was more fragile than I realized, especially in light of the tangible hope his (drunken) enthusiasm provided. There is a deep conundrum here, especially given that basically every successful writer in the past century has been rejected by virtually everyone in the publishing industry at least once and yet hope/daydreaming provides a profoundly large quotient of the fuel necessary to enable writing consistently significant quantities of text. Say what you will about writing for its own sake and to slake some inner thirst that needs no external validation. You’re kidding yourself, honey. If you felt that way, you wouldn’t write. You would think. That’s what internally motivated intrinsically rewarded writing is called. Thinking. Your urge to put it into text that lives somewhere (a page, a webpage, even someone’s ears for a fleeting moment) is directly correlated to your desire to impact other people. This doesn’t cheapen the exercise. If anything, it makes it meaningful, powerful, it makes it matter. After all, as I always say, there’s a reason we’re not all born on our own individual planet. We are here to save each other.

Did I get distracted by the political situation? Sure, everyone did. Did I get run down by the day to day of driving for Uber and playing poker again and trying to read and trying to coach debate and trying to keep up with housework? Definitely. It’s everything. Writing is the greediest habit I have, the greediest habit I can imagine shy of an addiction to an innately destructive substance. It even puts video games to shame. Those at least can be done casually, the voice trying to make them all-consuming does not actually require you to set aside other activities. Writing, however, demands to be a part of one’s attention all the time. And it requires silencing of distractions, quieting of other uses of time. You have to be bored to write in twenty-first century America, because otherwise more distracting excitements with shorter attention spans will consume your energy first. It is easier to read, it is easier to play video games, to watch TV (even if you don’t usually like it, which I don’t), to walk, to talk, to play, to do anything else. And it’s not that writing is some torturous event that is painful and torments the soul (I guess it is for some; this has never resonated with me). It’s just that writing takes time that is cleared out for no other purpose because it takes more effort and concentration than any other effort. And, frankly, because anyone who’s been through the American educational system associates writing with obligation and procrastination and burden, with getting that paper done at 3 in the morning, with chunking out all your thoughts after a long delay. All writing still feels a little like that. And that makes it very hard to just set everything else aside and be excited about doing it.

There is a counter-weight to this, however. And this, ironically, is what I was trying to gin up when I wrote that blasted jinx piece on 20 September, the piece I hope to God I’m not repeating in some way today. That counter-weight is, roughly, momentum. Because writing is actually fun in the throes of it and it is exciting when the words are coming down on a direct line from somewhere else, bypassing the critical brain, when your fingers are struggling to keep up. And as a project comes together, as the hope/daydreaming gets some flesh and teeth and energy into it, it starts to transform from a vision to something with real shape and substance and tangible reality. And that morphing is exciting as all heck. I’ve written three books in my life and at some point, the tipping point has always been hit where it’s easier to finish than to not finish, where the book is mostly out in the world, where the head is crowning and if the last few pushes are the most painful, at least we know there’s a baby coming so it’s all gonna be worth it. The real alchemy of writing, of being A Writer in the sense that everyone would agree with and no one could dispute, is being able to be in this state all the time. Which, of course, is best aided and abetted by being able to do it full-time, professionally, of knowing that you don’t have to trudge through another job or another use of time that takes away from writing. For some, of course, that kind of freedom and control becomes its own enemy and leads to a lack of urgency, to writer’s block, to stalling out. But for me, I crave it. The entire struggle to write is in drying out my mind enough to make the space available. To clear the decks of all the other life stuff that gets in the way, that requires an occupation to provide food and all the rest. There’s a reason all three books prior were written at times when I was making no income whatsoever. And why the current struggle, to do it with a pseudo-job (driving for Uber) is a key litmus test of transitioning to a slightly stronger model.

Momentum. 2017 has it, so far. No whammy no whammy no whammy.

First of all, here, on the blog, because that counts as writing and it kind of helps me excise other distracting thoughts so the writing on the book itself can be more pure. This is the fifth post of 2017 to appear here. It’s the 18th day. In 2016, my fifth blog post appeared on June 7th, nearly halfway through the year. My first didn’t even show up till March! And yes, I had a day job for that first half of 2016, one I was rapidly becoming disenchanted with. But you know when the fifth blog post after September 20th, 2016 was? It was a month ago. The sixth was two weeks ago. The tenth is this post.

How about the book?

I started writing it again just over a fortnight ago (no whammy no whammy no whammy), on January 5th. In the intervening two weeks, I’ve written 19,279 words (1,377 words/day), which is over 60% of the book’s total so far. This makes 31,700 words in two two-week sessions, with a high-end ballpark figure of 100,000 words total for the first draft. Which is a three-month pace. Which is what I do, generally speaking.

For me, this time, if I can keep it up, it was the promise of a new year. Say what you will about New Year’s Resolutions, but they’re a good excuse. Mostly, when we need to change something, it’s not news to us that we need to change it. We just need a good excuse to explain to ourselves why we’re only changing it now. Is it because 17 is my favorite number and this is the only year ending in 17 I’ll ever live through? Sure, I’ll take it. Is because I just got fed up with my own inadequacy but needed a better story to tell myself? Probably. But hey, we all live off of signs and meaning, whether real or self-imposed.

I haven’t been reading much lately, not nearly as much as I’d like, a casualty of writing and also trying to exercise again (Grand Canyon 2020, baby!) and just getting everything in order. But the other day, flouting the reality of how much energy I have for reading, I checked out The Familiar, vol. 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski. For the unfamiliar (ha!), picture a brick full of inconsistently typefaced, bizarrely laid out text, often spiraling into unreadability. Like a graphic novel without the characters, where the text itself is most of the illustration. This is apparently my light-reading antidote to an effort to write my first non-fiction book.

In my first 70-odd-page flurry of reading it, something fell out of another section of the book. It was the following hand-written note:

I’m going to transcribe it here, in text, for readability and searchability:

You know that thing you have always wanted to do, to be?

The path you were on as a little kid, before middle school, before you ever had a drop to drink or touched a drug.

That thing, that dream.

If you start walking towards that, now, a path will appear, seemingly out of nowhere.

It will. It will open up.

I promise you.

Start walking.

I’m not the perfect target audience of the note, having already never had a drop to drink or touched a drug. It’s New Orleans, after all. But that’s really just window-dressing on the overall message. The message is one I was already heeding, again again again but also for once, when the paper fluttered out of the book. But life is like a horror movie with a trick ending laden with clues along the way. Once you’ve figured it out, everything you see thereafter reinforces your having figured it out. Everything after is a reaffirmation, if you know where to look.

We are here to save each other.

Start walking.


Obligatory Uber Book Update

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

It’s strangely unsettling writing a book without a title. Both American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds were titles before they had any other content whatsoever. And Loosely Based was entitled on 12 June 2001 (as a working title that later became permanent), 17 days after I started that project. Which I guess gives me three days to come up with a title for this. It seems like there should be such fertile ground for the intersection of Uber and New Orleans, but I’ve just got nothing so far. It remains the Uber Book for the time being.

Here’s the status of the book, so far, posted here for the all-important public self-accountability that helps fuel my writing projects and make their deadlines real, as well as for my own process/posterity:
-Fourteen days of work.
-Five chapters (sections?) complete.
-12,421 words (~50 pages by normal metrics).
-Roughly maybe 10% of the book complete? Though this puts it on an unsettlingly long pace (~500 pages), but I guess overwriting and editing down is a good idea.
-Pace: 887 words/day (~3.5 pages/day).
-102 days till deadline.
-102,895 words at current pace by deadline (~412 pages).
-26 identified, usable vignettes that could still become chapters/sections.

It’s also weird to be writing non-fiction. And writing during the day. Though I’m writing in the guest room, which has a blackout curtain in the light, and no one is home during the day, so the effect is pretty much all the same. I also lost a lot of writing time from being sick for a good part of the last fortnight, so the pace should pick up.

Where the magic happens.

Where the magic happens.


That’s Entertainment!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,


When I was in high school, I had a discussion with my father about a long-prior discussion he’d had about the state of the world in the mid-1970s. He mentioned, in passing, that his conversational partner of the time had said what people really needed in the world was to laugh more. He then echoed this sentiment, circa 1997, as an obvious truth of the universe. My mind immediately went to the somewhat moderate bullies of my high school, the jocks and the idiots, and everyone I knew who seemed to make laughing a key priority of their existence. I thought laughter was, if anything, overrated in a very serious world. Being a bit stubborn and prone to engaging wherever possible in a keen argument, I intimated that the great problem with the world is that everyone needed to laugh less.

I raise this issue now not to pick or resurrect a generational fight two decades in the making, nor to pick on my Dad, with whom I agree about more things than I’d argue most of my (or any?) age agree with their fathers. But I think this moment of discord speaks to a larger perspective on the world that has changed, perhaps since the 60s or 70s, perhaps even more recently, about the nature of entertainment and its influence on our world, or the world of contemporary America as it now stands, embarrelled in choppy waters and facing what almost everyone can universally regard as a rather steep cliff, with barely any water in the fall to soften the rocky crags below. Far more recently than 1997, my father predicted that this summer would look a lot like the summer of 1968, the least stable of his lifetime to date. Halfway through the summer, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, as news of attacks, shootings, coups, and executions compete for headlines daily as we rush headlong into an election where the major party candidates make Nixon and Humphrey look like popular young gentlemen you’d want to bring home to the parents.

So what’s trending? Pokemon Go!

It is a sign of age, diving into my late 30s, that many of my friends have taken to the waves of the Internet to literally decry the children gathering on their lawns to play this latest video game to capture the American imagination. And also a sign of my generation that a nearly equal quantity are regaling us with stories of their own particular lawn catches. I am not here to moralize about the perils of Pokemon Go. While I am not playing (I just missed Pokemon as a phenomenon the first time around, entering college when it hit the streets. And the last thing I need is another excuse to haul out the smartphone [begrudgingly purchased for Uber] in public.), I definitely understand the appeal. And more importantly, it’s the first video game since Dance Dance Revolution that is getting its players off the couch and into something resembling physical shape. And the first ever (unless you count its natural predecessor Ingress, and nobody but Brandzy does count Ingress) that gets people out of the living room and into the real, living, breathing world where they might interact with other real people.

So, is Pokemon Go a giant scheme designed to replace our outrage with police killings, mass shootings, and an endless upward cycle of violence against seemingly everyone with, well, the digital equivalent of dogfighting? Or, perhaps more accurately, a dogfighting-themed scavenger hunt? Is the timing of its release sufficient to mollify a public fomenting with the desire to rebel, replacing the revolution with the placid need to “catch ’em all”? After all, the game is insidiously embedded in a very real and very corporate world, wherein savvy companies have already latched onto their geographic placement in the game to win friends and influence people.

I am inclined to believe that the release of illusory pocket monsters into the world is largely coincidental with the second coming of 1968 as it arrives on American shores nearly a half-century later. But I’m also inclined to believe that there are no coincidences.

Pokemon Go is just another aspect of our cultural obsession with entertainment. There was a time, I believe, when art was separable from entertainment in a real way, when politics also enjoyed a distance from the desire for laughter. It is hard to imagine what such a separation would truly look like at this moment, when the entire orientation of Internet culture around social media has turned us like plants toward the sun, seeking fulfillment and sustenance purely from the notion of being amused. Our educational system is rapidly trying to catch up, bringing games and electronics into the classroom by the armload in an effort to compete on the giant entertainment battlefield. Maybe everyone in the 70s really did decide that we all just needed to laugh more and they spent the next four decades making it so, ensuring that the concept of entertainment seeped into every element of our waking life, so we would judge each decision by how much comic relief it brought to our brain.

No wonder, then, that the major popular outlets of news in the last 15 years have all become comedy shows. That the nightly anchors of my childhood: Rather, Jenkins, and Brokaw (admittedly problematic in their universal conservative white maleness) were replaced with the guffaws and antics of Stewart and his many descendants. That Obama himself gets the most attention for the White House Correspondents Dinner, far more widely beheld than another boring dramatic turn at memorializing victims of a mass shooting. Indeed, I think the main reason so many of my friends are missing the fact that Trump should be considered the runaway favorite in the 2016 general election is that he is so much more entertaining than his counterpart Clinton. Since televisions became widely held items in American households, this is the metric that explains most every choice the general election populous has made at the quadrennial ballot box. I guess one could argue that Dukakis was more entertaining than Bush the elder in 1988, but in retrospect that was mostly at his own expense, so perhaps doesn’t count. And I don’t know exactly what to do with either of Nixon’s victories – his runs against Humphrey and McGovern were surely races to the bottom in terms of entertainment. But there are no other imaginable exceptions since the Nixon-Kennedy debates opened the television era: the more entertaining candidate always wins, which I think does more to explain the success of all the two-term Presidents since Nixon than any other single theory. Say what you will about Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush the younger, and Obama, but they are all highly successful entertainers.

There’s a reason I have total confidence that Trump will win this November, barring assassination or other unforeseeable but still seemingly almost predictable upheaval. He is, like Reagan before him, an entertainer by trade. More than anything else that Donald Trump is or isn’t, he is a showman. And whatever the truth value of her given statements may be on a given day, the most salient and consistent critique that can be leveled against Hillary Clinton the candidate is her inability to entertain. Her most ardent supporters have tried to turn this into a strength in recent months, with a cascade of thinkpieces on how her wonky, unaffectionate demeanor is exactly what we should want in the White House. Little good this will do her after debates against Trump when the latter could literally roar, a la Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, a fitting avatar of our contemporary culture, “Are you not entertained?!” You can practically see the thumbs turning down on Clinton in the crowd, condemning her to political death at the hands of the latest champion of a very amused mob.

It is perhaps some small solace to my readers that I go on to believe that Trump is not the second coming of Hitler so much as the second coming of Vaudeville. Or, at worst, I guess L. Ron Hubbard, who called his shot about making a fortune on an invented religion and then put it into practice. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as his declaration of intention. Trump said he’d try to run as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on a ticket with Oprah Winfrey. No, the meme about him saying Republicans were dumb and easy to persuade isn’t true. It seems believable because he knows everyone is easy to persuade with enough money and entertainment value, even the Clintons themselves, as he will bring up even more in future debates.

Please don’t confuse my adamance about the future Trump presidency with support. I have no interest in seeing a Trump presidency, though I also have no interest in seeing a Clinton presidency. As I told Alex’s mother the night before last, I think either president would make the first six years of the Obama administration look glorious and I think those years were truly awful. I am not reveling in the future success of Trump, but I am trying to understand and explain its potency so others might harness that understanding to do some kind of counterbalancing good.

This struggle with entertainment as the dominant currency of our society and its potential battle with more serious, sober reflections on change is one that has impacted key aspects of my own life, and especially this website. While I never came up with the idea for Pokemon Go (like Uber, these ideas required a level of accuracy for GPS technology that doesn’t really predate the last five years and I think few people knew would be a certainty until then), I have concocted some virally entertaining quizzes over the years, the first couple of which were extremely well timed with the advent of Web 1.0 media like blogs, MySpace, and GeoCities. These quizzes first hit the scene when I was trying to promote my first novel and write my second, as well as make my way through life with day jobs in the so-called real world. Tired from my commute and the stresses of work, I would contemplate writing fiction that would be read by a few hundred or a quiz that would be seen by more than a million people within its first year. One would be laden with meaning that I found important to impart, the other would be infused with what little meaning I could stick between the layers of entertainment. My choice was usually clear: at least the entertainment would be absorbed by the masses. It wasn’t until quitting jobs entirely in 2009 that I could really get back to writing fiction seriously. And if my life hadn’t fallen apart at the end of that period, maybe I would have found some success then. At the same time, most of the folks who read American Dream On agreed on its biggest critique: too dark, not entertaining enough. My mother observed that I have a great talent for making people laugh in real life; why couldn’t I bring that over into my writing?

We’ll leave to the side, for now, that perhaps the primary theme of American Dream On is that our obsession with entertainment, along with the pursuit of money, is literally killing everyone.

I don’t think Trump or Pokemon Go will literally kill everyone, nor will terrorists nor the police. Though all four will probably take their cut of lives, with Pokemon Go being by far the most innocuous. And not even all the pokemon in the world will be enough to distract us from the blood taken by other forces in the world, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. And unfortunately, the structural differences between Trump’s eventual killings and the police’s ongoing murders and the terrorists’ showy acts of slaughter and Pokemon Go will continue to fade. It’s all packaged entertainment, destruction put out like a press release, neat little explanations and video and unfolding mystery to unravel like a video game. What is this latest killer’s motive? Where will Trump bomb next? Which terror group will claim responsibility for the latest attack? How did the police try to cover up their latest racist execution?

And the slew of reporters will trail after, with their graphics team and sound folks making it all as polished as the latest app to hit our phones. And we’ll take it all in, and I’ll try to write about it in a way that is just flippant and distant enough to be entertaining too. It’s not just our currency anymore, it’s our literal language, because every use of time, every decision to read or watch something is in competition with catching another Pokemon or playing a game on Facebook or downloading something more amusing. And increasingly the only way to change anything might be to win the entertainment wars first and use that to do good. Because holding the mirror up to society isn’t getting people to take things more seriously these days – it’s reminding us of selfies.

If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go work on another quiz. I wonder if “Which police shooting victim are you?” is still too macabre to be entertaining. Maybe it’s the best way we can get more people to say their names.



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


When I lived in Oregon, I was in a lot of plays. I started (and ended) my professional acting career, serving in the ensemble for the Lewis and Clark Pageant, an annual summer play on the riverbank in Seaside designed to commemorate the expedition and desperately tie our little rural/tourist corner of the world to something monumental in history. I was one of two children in the play (we were both about 8-10 years old), and we danced in the scene in Missouri to celebrate the expedition’s departure, then played Native American children who encountered the expedition, and at one point I think I also played the equivalent of a cabin boy on the expedition itself. Mostly I was backstage and watched the various scenes as the real keelboat floated on its tether and various dramatic and vaguely historical happenings unfolded before the summer beachgoers. I also spent a tremendous amount of time with journeyman actors on the rural Oregon circuit, having some of my first non-school contact with adults who were not of my family. And I got a social security number and card, a prerequisite to collecting my nominal paycheck for the performances. I don’t know if it was standard procedure to not issue these things at birth in 1980 or if it was just that my parents resisted such norms at the time.

I also began my most serious and earnest writing project to date there, and one decidedly more original than the more substantial one that followed (that being The Legend of Enutrof, an embarrassingly derivative rip-off of Brian Jacques’ medieval fantasy novels starring talking animals). Enutrof was a few years later, dipping into the New Mexico years, and topped out at about 135 pages before I realized just how unoriginal it was. But the prior effort, crafted mostly during the mosquito-bitten summers in the twilight pageant of my 9th summer, was called Duckland. It reached about 50 or 60 pages before I gave up, though these were handwritten pages in my unimpressive scrawl, so it probably translates to something more like 20. This was based mostly on the largest and most vocal community to adorn the pageant’s stage, a flock of ducks.

(Incidentally, Google informs me that a flock is usually what a group of ducks is called in flight. Apparently it’s either a raft or a paddling in the water. If I’d just casually dropped “a paddling of ducks” there, though, I think you might have thought I was one of those kids who tortured animals from a young age. I was not. Without that connotation, though, I kind of like that. Though a raft is reminiscent of the omnipresent keelboat that was a key feature of the stage, so maybe we should go with that.)

The ducks were ostensibly wild, but functionally domesticated in the way that so many approachable animals become when they have ongoing contact with human communities that cultivate their presence. The riverbank where the pageant was held was reasonably traversed with tourist traffic taking in the pastoral scene even when the show was not on, and the show only increased this presence. Inevitably there would be a lot of children, or older folks, and they would bring bread, so by the time I met this raft of ducks (weird, right?), they were far more likely to waddle toward strange people than away from them. All while making that low murmuring sound that can be translated as a very soft quack, but really sounds more like Donald Duck at half volume and one-third speed.

The ducks were endlessly fascinating to me, even though I had ducks of my own at home to tend to and play with. These ducks could fly, though they mostly did so only when spooked to lift off the water, take a long arcing bank, and then land splashily again a few yards away. They had specific habits and social structures, unique personalities, and group tendencies. I got to the point where I could pick out many of them from the crowd between their appearance and proclivities and of course started naming them. Naming them quickly became a story and the story soon went into pencil-on-notebook-paper efforts that piqued the interest of many fellow actors as I chugged away at it.

Duckland‘s protagonist was Jimmy Richter-Duck (all of the last names were *-Duck, which I guess was a bit redundant, and there was definitely something about an earthquake in Jimmy’s past, maybe when he hatched?). An outsider and iconoclast, his primary issue with duck society was its slavish devotion to the cycle of the sun. Why should a duck go to sleep just because it’s dark out, Jimmy inquired of his fellow fowl. Jimmy stayed up late and even slept in during the morning, boldly resisting nature’s precepts. He started winning other converts to the cause of night-owling (-ducking?) when I ran out of steam on the project. There were other subplots too, but I’d have to dig through the archive boxes in Albuquerque to be sure of their nature. I think Jimmy had a romantic interest who he really wanted to stay up late with, as well as a rival duck of some sort who constantly derided him.

It’s much easier in retrospect, as it often is, to see echoes of my own arguments with my parents about bedtime reflected in Jimmy’s struggle, though that was a battle I won fairly early in childhood, unlike haircuts and the eternal skirmishes over food. (As I prepare for my own potential fights with a possible child down the line, it strikes me how my parents never had a chance on any of these issues in the long-term. Or would I have been so committed to them in adulthood had they not been arguments in childhood?) But I’d like to think there was also something more fundamental or universal in Jimmy’s resistance to nature, even amongst a more obviously nature-bound group like ducks (as opposed to how humans perceive themselves). Of course, it was pretty clear to me at the time that the ducks perceived themselves more like people do than like people perceive ducks. And this is more than a “what’s water?” query from a fish. It should be obvious to anyone whose spent extensive time with communities of animals that they have elaborate communication, something I think is only fit to call language, along with daily tribulations and variation to rival our own. Duckland at times felt almost as much like journalism as it did fiction.

I remember that my scribbling attracted the specific attention of a particular actor who I probably spent the most time backstage talking to. My image of him is a little hazy, but he was definitely overweight, with glasses, and a bit of a nerdy demeanor. He talked to me, as most of the actors did actually, like an adult, and even read some of my writing. After perusing some pages of Duckland, he asked if I wanted to be an intellectual. I said unequivocally yes. He told me that I was wrong, that one shouldn’t be too intellectual. Feedback that, when I relayed it to my father, he was horrified to hear. I still cannot think of this guy or even that whole summer without almost immediately thinking of that series of conversations, how passionately my dad defended being an intellectual and intellectual pursuits, and how hot under the collar I felt for even allowing myself to talk to someone who decried the approach.

I wish I could remember his name, but I don’t. We would play chess during longer stretches of waiting backstage. It’s also obvious, of course, that he was an intellectual, a serious and sensitive one, and that he regretted his own path at the expense of something more socially acceptable or popular. Or easy, perhaps. That he spent his time backstage of a vaguely dweeby semi-professional play hanging out with a precocious nine-year-old rather than, say, any of the actresses. That to the extent that he could pass on advice, it was to avoid his fate.

In the end, I’m with Jimmy Richter-Duck. You’ve gotta make your own path. Walking through Audubon Park yesterday, basking in the overheated glow of a gorgeous day filled with the freedom that only the recently resigned (and not destitute) can feel, I saw some ducks, heard the low murmur of their conversation. And hoped that the rest of that guy’s life was longer on opportunities and shorter on regrets. I’ve collected plenty of regrets myself, but being an intellectual isn’t among them. Nor is any single time I’ve gone on a walk in search of ducks.


The Muddy Lens

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , , , ,

The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.

But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.

Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.

This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.

I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.

But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.

This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.

This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:

As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.

There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.

Are you ready?

The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.

Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.

1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”

2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.

3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.

Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)

Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.

I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.

The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.

Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.

That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.



Fear Factor

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Know When to Fold 'Em, Telling Stories, What Dreams May Come, Tags: , , , ,

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season.  To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time.  It's mostly just here to symbolize fear.  And because I had an excuse to use it.

Farhan Ali (left) surprises me at the team dinner/team picture ceremony for RUDU at the end of the 2010-2011 season. To this day, this is one of my favorite pictures of all time. It’s mostly just here to symbolize fear. And because I had an excuse to use it.

I am continually discovering how much of my life is fueled by fear.

I’ve ridiculed fear a lot in this blog lately, most especially in criticizing what motivates voters and pointing out how silly it is for Americans to fear ebola and/or terrorism. This is not the kind of fear that I will be talking about in this post, though I suppose I’m using the same word because it’s in some ways the same concept and all fear is related. Fear may not even be the right word for what this post will attempt to address, as some may favor “anxiety” or even “trepidation” for what I plan to illustrate. But I’m going with fear because it’s visceral and, I think, more honest.

The problem goes a little like this. Early on in my educational career, somewhere between grade-skipping and re-aligning with my “age-appropriate” grade level, I started getting disillusioned (again) with schooling. And so I started to test limits and see how long I could put things off and still get excellent grades. I had a lot of stellar and challenging teachers in my high school, but I also had a few who I noted seemed to be doing it “for the money” on their teacher evaluations and who just seemed to be priming themselves for limit-testing. I got in the habit of starting papers the night before they were due, then sometimes during a free period earlier in the day in the computer lab. In college, these habits only accelerated. Many people were studying and buying books and refusing to start new Risk games with me at 2 AM the day before major assignment deadlines, but I had already planned to start that work at 5 AM, which seemed like enough time for another Risk session. And then there were the world-class slackers around me who’d already gotten an extension on the assignment for two weeks and wouldn’t even begin to plan to make that deadline.

I knew these slackers. They were friends of mine, many of my closest. But I knew that I could not be like them, for down that path would lie utter ruin. As tenuous as my relationship with deadlines and my respect for assignments was, it was governed by an absolute an inalienable rule: meet the deadline. No extensions, no lateness, no excuses. Because I knew that as soon as I breached this rule even once, I would open a Pandora’s box of new rules to flout and test, new games to play with professors, and ultimately the whole unstable mass of unstarted papers would get the best of me. I was good at toeing the line right up to the deadline, but I couldn’t imagine keeping track of an entire semester’s worth of work that would have to be done in that nebbish period between the conclusion of classes and the advent of finals. And I did have to keep my scholarship to stay at Brandeis.

Enter fear, stage right. The only way I could convince myself of the ironclad power of the deadline, the thing that forced me to put the Risk box away and stop playing my thirtieth straight warmup game of Tetris, was fear of failing. And this was mostly, if not entirely an exercise of powerful self-delusion. I knew, I knew deep down that my professors would happily grant me extensions should I simply fall asleep while trying to construct a paper, would fail to mark me down a bit for an assignment handed in 36 hours late. But I convinced myself, come hell or high water, that even a minute’s lateness in the paper’s submission would bring failure. Not just of the assignment, mind you, or even the class, but of my entire life. I would lose my scholarship, my admission to college, possibly even retroactively lose my high school diploma simply because one assignment came in a few minutes late. I had myself completely certain that this was true.

And it was only once that terror had really sunk in, sometimes less than two hours prior to a deadline, only once I really feared the failure and felt it was a real and foreseeable possibility, that I could begin working.

This worked great for late high school in securing the scholarship. It worked remarkably well for keeping the scholarship throughout Brandeis and graduating college with solid marks. But I have increasingly come to believe that it may not actually be a great lesson to inculcate in life, especially early on. It’s probably not a healthy way to exist.

I can line up a lot of pros and cons, though, for a fair hearing of this approach. Solidly on the pro side are three completed novels of 90,000 words or more, all written in a period of four months each or less (if we don’t count the pre-deadline few chapters of American Dream On written in the six years before I got serious about the project). While these novels haven’t really gone anywhere yet and some would argue they need substantial revision (ever my nemesis, conceptually), the mere fact of being able to write that diligently and profusely is a singular testament to my fear of the mighty Deadline. I stuck a dart in the calendar (stuck, not threw, mind you) for each of the projects and beat the self-imposed D-Day every time. This probably shouldn’t have been possible, but after completing two full-scale term-length research paper assignments in excess of twenty pages when starting each of them the night before during my last two years of college, the novels were easy. I had so many days to work on them!

The con side, however, is littered with remnants of my non-deadlined motivation. It’s not that I haven’t been a good worker during my various day jobs, nor that I’m unable to motivate myself to do various projects and other things when the fancy arises. But I have trained myself to require a state of fear in order to feel really ready to do things. If I can’t conjure a sufficiently dire consequence, real or imagined, I find it extremely hard to get together the necessary energy to complete a task. And while this mostly or often applies to major tasks, it probably realistically has bled into even the most mundane of assignments. Chores are already damnably difficult for me since I find daily maintenance of existence (including and especially eating) to be saddeningly distracting from the greater concerns of the life of the mind. But without fear of some sort of backlash or feeling of failure, they get even more distant from my desire. Same goes for even menial daily chores, even when I don’t have a day job. I start each day with a to-do list, but then find I have to gin up some fear in myself to really get much traction.

I wonder often how universal this kind of sensation is. Putting it into print like this, it looks kind of horrifying. It doesn’t feel that awful, not nearly as much as I’m making it sound. It is often quite routine. I really want to sweep the kitchen. It’s a simple task that I really don’t mind that much. It needs to be done. I just have to start thinking about people who will be upset with me if I don’t, then exaggerate their reaction and try to truly picture something farcically awful that will ensue from my failing to sweep the kitchen. If I can do it without seeing through the ruse, then the kitchen gets swept, quickly and quite well. If not, then I have to wrestle with the guilt of not being able to generate enough faked fear to make it happen.

The only hint I have that this kind of anxiety might be underwriting a lot of our daily actions as humans is the ubiquity of a certain kind of dream. A recent discussion of this prompted some disambiguation about the word “nightmare”, which I never use to refer to the state of a bad dream, having always used that two-word phrase instead. Whereas “nightmare” for me usually conveys a real-life scenario that went appallingly poorly, such as “When cops started seeing people as target practice rather than those in need of protection, it was a nightmare.”

Whatever word you use, you’ve had this dream or one of its variants. I promise.

The setting is a school that is familiar to you or a school-like setting. You either find yourself unable to find the classroom or recall even basic details about the class. You may, if lucky, be seated at a desk in the proper classroom. But you are about to be served with a final exam or assignment. And you have no earthly idea what the content covered is or will be. You are almost always pretty sure that you dropped the class, or possibly that you never signed up for it at all. But it is clear from the situation that there will be no mercy. Your entire semester/year/life depends on this situation and you are utterly doomed to fail.

Not only has every American I have ever discussed this with had this dream, but it is the most universal dream people older than 18 seem to have and is shockingly diverse in its manifestations. It tends to stick with people for decades after they have left their last academic setting, though encounters with an academic-type environment can reinvigorate its duration or frequency. And it often has additional cousin dreams in various similar forms and settings, such as having to give a speech in a debate round on which one does not know the topic or can’t find the room (for former debaters – I’ve had this one at least monthly for years), having missed an assignment to photograph someone’s wedding (recently discussed with a professional photographer friend), or forgetting to invite people to a major event which one has been planning (for, naturally, event planners). So diverse and common and frequent is this dream that it is a trope. And so gripping is its nightmarish hold on the imagination that it can make a ridiculous peril all too real. It is always an enormous relief to remember that I had a college diploma in hand after waking from one of these dreams about, say, my junior year in high school. But it usually takes far too many minutes of consciousness for me to even remember such facts in the face of how certain I was that I was about to fail out of the step prior to college.

Is there something about our educational system that naturally engenders this kind of terror? Surely my generation and everyone after were raised on a steady mantra of the necessity of education in securing a future. And thus probably the converse became just as true for us, that failure in any educational pursuit would spell futurelessness. But I feel like this dream transcends generational barriers. And is it really about academics and that world, per se? Or is it about a larger wider fear that lurks behind the judgment found preeminently, but by no means uniquely, in classroom settings?

Whatever its source, it actually seems to be an incredibly valuable asset in playing poker. Not in motivating me to register for a tournament by a deadline or even get to the tournament at the start (I was actually the last person to register in the tournament I won in Mississippi in August, starting two full hours after the tourney began, as well as being about that late to my first major-tourney cash at Foxwoods last October). But in keeping me afraid of the consequences of losing the tournament, of not making money. I have found that a major question separating the tournaments where I really succeed from those where I fail to cash or do kinda meh is whether or not I feel truly afraid of failing. If the consequences of not cashing seem dire, whether or not they truly are (after all, you should never risk a dime that you can’t afford to lose or even spend recreationally), then it seems to motivate the very best and most patient play.

This actually contravenes a known and popular poker adage, namely that “scared money never wins”. But I think there’s a difference between fear of risk and fear of failure. Fear of risk would have also prevented me from buying into the tournament in the first place, and especially from delaying the start of a 20-page paper till less than 24 hours prior to its deadline. If I flop a set, I know that all my chips are going to be at risk that hand, pretty much regardless. If I were playing risk-averse or scared-money, then this probably wouldn’t be my perspective. But fearing failure, fearing having to come back with no money to show for my initial outlay, that is supremely motivating. I have never been so scared of failing a tournament as I was of the satellite and especially the main event in Baton Rouge. And I don’t think I’ve ever played a longer stretch of continuously excellent poker.

Which is not to ignore the factor that luck has, of course, in all of this. I only really got lucky once in the satellite and once (actually after the cash line) in the main event. Other than winning one coin-flip, which is the kind of minimum luck necessary to place in a tournament’s ranks. But luck probably has a bigger role than we’d like to admit in grading and education too. Indeed, a longer meditation on how pretty much all of modern life amounts to some kind of gambling is stewing in the back of my mind.

So I can harness the incredible power of fake fear (the fear has to almost immediately evaporate after I actually don’t cash in a tournament; otherwise I would be tormented for days by guilt and self-loathing… which rarely happens) to make myself do incredible things. But this seems to be a problematic source of renewable energy. It’s hard to muster for the small stuff. It’s exhausting to endure (I can’t imagine I’d love a heart-rate printout of my collegiate papers, let alone my deeper tournament runs). And there’s probably a good question to be asked about just whether it’s a reasonably good way to motivate oneself in principle. Is all this self-inflicted anxiety shortening my lifespan? Making me a generally less agreeable person? Just going to devolve so that I can’t even make myself eat without truly fearing starvation?

More importantly, is it too late to reverse course? When I’ve mostly done things for fear of my life collapsing, isn’t it awfully hard to regularly get going for the sake of, y’know, just because? Have I already trapped myself in this game? It almost seems the greatest thing I truly have to fear is a lack of fake fear itself.


Why We Love Serial… and May Eventually Hate It

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Telling Stories, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

You love them now… but will you always?

You love them now… but will you always?

Spoiler alert, kind of: I will make reference to anecdotes about this show through its current airing, which is Episode 9, but probably not say anything that actually ruins your listening experience of the show, yet. More spoiling might be admonitions about how the show can’t end in a satisfying way and thus you are setting yourself up for disappointment, which is inevitable but probably worth it.

If you consider yourself a reasonably informed denizen of the Internet, you’ve probably heard about Serial, the podcast spun off from wildly popular two-decade-running PBS radio show This American Life (TAL). The co-producers, Sarah Koenig and and Julie Snyder are pictured above, sandwiching Ira Glass, who needs no introduction. Serial bills itself as kind of the inverse of TAL – instead of each show covering one theme and itself fragmented into different lenses for that theme, Serial is one story stretched out over a whole season, however long that ends up proving to be. It’s unclear whether they pitched it as a radio show initially and no one would take it, whether they are leveraging podcast listenership to join TAL on the radio in future, or whether they believe radio is dying and are trying to just start with the future medium of audio audiences.

Whatever their motives behind the show design, there can be no mistaking the success of the model as it is currently being unrolled. Odds are that if you’ve heard of Serial, you’ve listened to it and that if you’ve listened to even one show, you’re totally hooked. Not only do I find myself in this category as of writing, but I have read an uncanny number of Facebook posts and even blog posts about people not just listening to Serial, but building an increasing portion of their mental energy around it, including looking forward to, of all days, Thursdays, when new episodes are released. It’s weird for something without a visual component to have this kind of hold on the web’s collective consciousness, perhaps weirder still that it is almost entirely about something that happened more than a decade ago.

If you prefer non-anecdotal evidence, just plug the word Serial into GoogleNews. Most recently noted, the show is breaking podcast download records and just made an appeal for donations to fuel a second season. Heck, even their one early-season sponsor ad became a viral phenomenon.

So what makes this show so great? And perhaps more pertinently, so popular, so captivating at this moment in Internet history?

Let’s start with the obvious. The show centers on a murder mystery. This nation loves a good murder mystery. The English-speaking world, since Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle opened the genre with still our best examples, really loves a good murder mystery. We have board games, movies, books, and little parties-in-a-box that regularly renew our love of the theme of the murder mystery. Murder mysteries are so ubiquitous in our culture that TAL once did a whole show in 2007 asking the question how people whose lives have been impacted by actual murders can go through their lives afterwards given the prevalence of such themes. “I can’t watch Law and Order,” notes interviewee Rachel Howard at the opening of the show, “or play Clue or, y’know, go to a murder mystery dinner theater.”

We love us some murder. But even more than that, we love us some unsolved murder. Or more pertinently, the wrongly convicted. I’m hardly in a place to critique the phenomenon, given that it is my favorite movie of all-time, but the cultural significance of The Shawshank Redemption cannot be overstated. As of now, it is currently considered the best movie of all-time on IMDB. Proving either (or perhaps both) that I have excellent taste or am extremely mainstream/unhip. (Let me know when I should note that I liked Shawshank “before it was cool”, decrying its Oscar loss, live, to Forrest Gump, which currently ranks 15th on that IMDB list. Which, along with Pulp Fiction [#5] mostly proves that 1994 was a really great year for film.) And as well all know, Shawshank centers around the incredible struggle, endurance, and ultimate redemption (spoiler alert? it’s right in the title…) of someone wrongly convicted for murder.

The first problem here might be that we don’t know Adnan Syed, co-protagonist (along with host Koenig) of Serial’s first season, has been wrongly convicted for murder. We know he’s been convicted and we know that Koenig really wants to believe he is innocent. In more recent episodes, we can hear Koenig sort of struggling against some of the best evidence for Syed’s guilt, expressing surprise that the investigation is deemed adequate to good by an independent detective, or agonizing about the question of who else could possibly have committed the crime. Through 9 episodes, and even from the outset, we get the sense that Koenig really does have a horse in this race, despite clearly wanting to be objective. And after all, her avenue to the case was the purportedly innocent convict, while those who testified most stringently against him and even the victim’s family have refused to go on the air for even one word.

But then there’s a backdoor possibility that might be even more intriguing, one that Koenig deftly sets up into a dichotomy with our favorite storyline of the long-suffering innocent convict. Which is that Syed is a psychopath or a sociopath, some sort of mastermind of manipulation and evil genius who convinced the world that he was incapable of such an act directly before and after committing said act, the one which we consider most heinous in our society. This is the case that we hear the state present, and more pertinently in the latest episode, that the judge herself admonishes Syed for being guilty of. “You used that to manipulate people,” she says after listing Syed’s many gifts and talents, including a guileless seeming charm, “and even today, I think you continue to manipulate even those that love you.”

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this possibility especially tantalizing. Not only because this setup – namely a high school student whose friends and family are all shocked to learn what he’s been accused of and who may or may not be guilty – is the premise of the first half of my first novel, Loosely Based, but because of my own high school history which may have helped partially inspire that premise. If Adnan is guilty, I dated the closest equivalent of him that went to my high school. It was my first serious longish relationship in my life and it had an overwhelming impact on everything that followed in the development of my romantic and social existence. It was my junior year and she was a pathological liar, an effective one, someone who convinced the entire elite school that she had a forthcoming book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being published by Harvard University Press. She was not as charming or universally liked as Adnan, but she definitely had people snowed and left a trail of incredulity in her wake when the truth came leaking out at the edges. Though the only person who really got hurt by any of it in a meaningful way was me.

I’ve referred to her from time to time on my webpage, using my moniker for her of PLB, a resentful nickname from the decade-plus between her absenting herself from my life in a devastating way in 1997 to our four-hour meeting in October 2010. And I see no reason to start using her full name here now, if only because she has since reinvented herself and her life entirely, again, and I probably no longer think she should be saddled with a series of terrible decisions she made at sixteen on Google. Although, I dunno. I go back and forth on that one, as I do about her ultimate motivations. She did such a good job convincing me that she had changed and grown, but then made a series of decisions again in the year following our reunion that just seemed so explicable as part of the old her. I decided pursuing further communication was unwarranted, or at least unnecessary, if not dangerous. The problem, ultimately, is that I think she liked the mystery and the impact she had on people, even then in 2010, as much or more than she liked anything else about herself or her interactions. That for all its garbage and toxicity, maybe she was never so alive as in our junior year in high school, exacting awe and terror from so many, reveling in the pile of sleepless lies that required so much energy to seemingly effortlessly maintain.*

I do not want this post to get sidetracked into recollections from my own high school years, but I have a hunch that you have made your listening to Serial somewhat or almost entirely about that as well. This is part of the magic of this story. We Americans just about all went to high school and it remains a period of time both iconic and almost universally traumatic. The universality of high school as an experience and, more vitally as a larger-than-life cultural Experience in America makes a murder mystery set in the midst of that time both startlingly unique and overwhelmingly captivating. You have probably all identified your own Adnan, or closest facsimile, from your years between 14-18. You have recalled the key incidents or scandals of that time in your life and compared them to this. You have wondered how your friends would have reacted had you been charged with some heinous deed.

There are other tricks and quirks that make Serial amazingly gripping. Something I haven’t seen anyone else discuss is the music, which is regularly stuck in my head and could not possibly be more perfect for an ever-deepening mystery with plenty of twists. Even the name, Serial, evokes the notion of a serial killer, as well as a hard-boiled series of detective novels that people devour like the cheap filling breakfast food so many of us grew up on (cereal). These additional assets may seem trivial, but when one is just starting a show or cultural phenomenon, small things like name, logo, and music make a big impact.

And then there’s the slow time-release of the episodes. Which, to be fair, is the norm and not the exception in these kinds of things – only books, movies (though increasingly less so with the rise of sequels, trilogies, and whatever endlessness you want to attribute to comic-book franchise films), and Netflix TV are released all at once. Koenig herself in a recent interview said the tactic is as old as Dickens and certainly most every mystery that really hooks us in comes out in installments to keep our attitude in eternal suspense. But the problem here is that the periodic nature of Serial that has catapulted its success is also endemic to what I see as its very likely undoing.

Here’s the problem: we’re not going to get a satisfying conclusion to the story of Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. We’re not. There is an extremely scant possibility that this podcast’s delving and outrageous popularity combine to prompt the real killer to make a stunning confession, or Adnan to collapse beneath the weight of his guilt and confess, or, I guess, Hae Min Lee’s suicide note to be found. Even the slightly more realistic but still unbelievably unlikely possibility of Adnan getting a new trial or even exonerated would not exactly be a resolution unless we had an admission from or at least conviction of someone else. And the very doubt that makes the podcast so damn compelling now as it’s being released will make its conclusion equally disappointing. Because, in the end, we’ll never know.

Murder mysteries basically never end this way. The only one I can really think of that leaves so much of the ending unresolved is In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece that remains one of my favorite all-time books. I’m sure there are others – I’m actually not a huge mystery reader. But in a fictional story of murder, we can kind of revel in the uncertainty the way we revel in the entire plot, knowing that our squirming and writhing is like that in a horror-movie theater – namely, it is fake. It is concocted for our entertainment with no real-world impact on real lives. And just as putting people through a real-life horror movie scenario would be abhorrent, so I think we will wind up feeling quite cheated by having to live with the uncertainty of whether Adnan Syed is either a wrongfully convicted innocent, continuing to rot away his life in prison or a dangerous sociopathic killer who has managed to convince much of America and a plucky upstart podcast’s staff that he is innocent.

The extremity of that binary in the dichotomy is profound and part of what marks trouble for Serial and our feelings about it long-term. Adnan Syed cannot ever be just a nice-ish guy who may or may not have killed his ex-girlfriend who we then feel ambivalently about. He is either a murderer or among the wrongfully convicted. This binary is what attracts us so powerfully to stories of the exonerated, since they have had to live as the former for so long, but are actually the latter. It is the most horrific nightmare our society produces for its citizens, the social and public equivalent of being buried alive, being reviled and rejected by (almost) all as an utter degenerate, subjected to all indignities, only to be a veritable saint for suffering through the consequences of the damned with head held high. Adnan is either this heroic mystical figure in our world, or he is the diametric opposite. Not only a murderer, but one who would insidiously use all of our emotion and intellect against ourselves to convince us of his heroism. Someone whose pre-emptive betrayal of our trust puts him somewhere equivalent to the devil in terms of malice aforethought and negative impact on our faith in humanity.

But we will never know. Most of the narrative power that drives us to wait expectantly for the next installment of Serial is the idea that we will find out more next week and that this is all eventually going somewhere. That even in our own minds, we can decide if Adnan is innocent or guilty and decide what we think of it. But Serial has done such a good job riding this middle ground and building this uncertainty that few smart listeners will ever really be able to decide. And I promise you that Sarah Koenig isn’t going to make up her mind at the end either. We will be left with a story without an ending, which might be tolerable if there were not real people out there, if there were not a real Jay and a real Hae’s family and a real Adnan Syed sitting in jail.

And if there is a resolution, it’s not likely to be much better. This chance is unspeakably slim, but it could be that Serial finds the smoking gun somehow and either gets Adnan’s admission to the crime or some irrefutable piece of evidence against him. In which case, 95% of you will hate Serial thereafter. You will hate it because it fueled Adnan’s deception of the world, brought it to a high platform, broadcast his protestations of innocence to the world. You will feel betrayed, but you didn’t know or trust Syed personally. You trusted and felt you knew Koenig and the staff of Serial. And you will hold them responsible for this betrayal, for the malice and sociopathy of Syed himself. For the doubt and lack of trust this builds into your life, for the damage done to the mythos of the exonerated and the wrongfully convicted. You will hate Serial and you will stop listening and you will be mad.

If the converse happens, you will likely also hate Serial, unless it actually gets Adnan Syed sprung from prison. Because then it will just leave you with this searing, near-provable injustice that is never corrected. With this idea that we all know he’s innocent, but he’s never getting out. Which is not a satisfying end to the story. Imagine Shawshank with Andy Dufresne getting to be Red’s age, or Brooks’, never tasting freedom, growing harder and more bitter with each year as he continued to do the warden’s bidding. Then make it real, knowing Andy is a real person who is really out there.

Yes, if Serial actually unearths the evidence that gets Adnan Syed out, then you will love it forever. But I think this is beyond any realistic possibility. And in the matrix of possibilities, where total uncertainty fills up about 98% of the squares, it’s not really worth considering. I think all of the other outcomes are far more likely and all of those lead to a slow, creeping resentment of Serial for bringing us this story without an ending, or one that leaves us mad.

Then we get to the issue of season two. Given all the above and the fact that Koenig and Co. must be aware of this reality, it’s not really surprising that the big appeal to fund a second season was made today and not, say, at the end of the highly successful first season. (Yes, I guess they have to start on season two before season one is over, perhaps, but I think they have some sense that this may be peak popularity for the show.) Say I’m wrong about all the disappointment you feel coming out of the above and the show somehow pulls a rabbit out of a hat to leave you feeling both satisfied with that season and wanting more of the same. Well then, you are basically guaranteed to be disappointed.

Serial can’t pick another murder mystery, unless it just wants to be the murder mystery show, which is not what the “one story, told week by week” theme seems to aspire to. So already it will have blown perhaps the most successful formula for a weekly installment show. Indeed, they probably can’t pick much of anything that resembles a mystery without just getting typecast. But if they don’t pick some kind of mystery, then the very allure that got us listening will quickly disappear. The comparisons will inevitably ensue of how fascinated we were by season one and how drab the comparative predictability or sedateness of season two is. When combined with what I argue above is the almost guaranteed disappointment of how the first season ended, excitement about this new debut podcast is likely to plummet.

Especially when I am just skeptical that they can find a story as intricately compelling and intriguing as Adnan’s, murder mystery or no. It’s clear they don’t have a second story lined up yet, or even the idea hashed out. Koenig was clearly intrigued enough about this story that it justified the entire idea for a spin-off since it would take more than just one TAL episode to tell it. But given the stories swirling about how unprepared they were for the runaway success the podcast has had and how that, in itself, has impacted the story, I really doubt they’re ready with something that can trump or even come close to the enthrallment of this season. And thus they will go from the greatest formula of success (the unexpectedly great) to the greatest formula for disaster (the hyped disappointment).

Indeed, our expectations determine so much of whether we will like or dislike something. Nothing is ever so devastating to us as something we think will be great and winds up being less than our expectations. This is what makes betrayal perhaps the most awful thing a person can experience – it is not just the trauma of the loss, but the fact that it is so different than our expectation of trust, that makes it so painful. This is why we have sleeper hit movies and big-budget disasters – the former surprise us and exceed non-existent expectations, while the latter are probably better than we think, but fall so short of expectations that they seem almost like betrayals. This is why we have a mystique around underdog stories (arguably Koenig’s best possible hope for recapturing the magic of season one), because they are not just about victory, but victory that no one could have expected.

But the other thing that will be hard to recreate about Serial (and something that, if I’m right about the negative impact of the inevitable ending, they won’t want to try to recreate) is the liveness of it. At the time she’s been making the shows, Koenig does not know if Syed is guilty or innocent. We are living this story and its agonizing twists right alongside her. If she chose another story, say, the rise of the underdog Rutgers University Debate Union and its improbable run to National Finals, the same people who’ve created the Serial subreddit would have looked up the ending and discussed it by the time they’d heard the end of episode one.

So all Koenig has to do is successfully end Serial’s first season with the exoneration and release of Adnan Syed, then find another story that is (a) happening live or so obscure as to be un-Googleable, (b) not a mystery but has the same appeal of a mystery, (c) just as compelling, twisty, and uncertain as Syed’s story, and (d) has a resolution that is more satisfying than any alternative to Syed’s exoneration/release would be.

I don’t envy her this. Though I do envy her success as a storyteller and wish her the best, despite my predictions of Serial’s downfall in our hearts. I certainly don’t think she or her staff can be blamed for us eventually growing to dislike Serial, if I’m right about that. She found an amazing story and is telling it really well and deserves all this following. I just feel like I have to warn her that we’re all likely to turn on her by this time next year. But make no mistake, I’ll be listening every Thursday in the hopes that I’m wrong.

*I also note that, which I am footnoting so as not to further derail the narrative of the main point of this post, she was a regular reader of this blog and probably still is and I think about 45% chance I have an e-mail in the next week either protesting this characterization or, possibly, saying she happened to move to Baton Rouge eight months ago and we could reprise our coffee. To which I guess I will pre-emptively say: I don’t even know anymore. I remain quite grateful for the semblance of resolution and repair that was done in the brief series of meetings that fall, but the palpable danger and alarm I feel about that individual is still literally breathtaking. And whether that is mostly of her construction or mine is part of what makes the idea of mysteries and sociopaths so dramatically interesting in the first place. After all, when I saw the movie Gone Girl earlier this fall, I was torn between the similar reactions of “I’d find that totally farcical if I hadn’t known PLB” and “there are more of them out there!” And honestly, Gone Girl is the same runaway success that Serial is for largely using the same formula, including a possibly wrongfully accused murderer and a wanton sociopath who is very convincing. But we get to know what happens in the end, mostly.


Decayed Decade

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Metablogging, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , , , ,

I almost called this post “The Full View of History”. But of course ten years is hardly a full view.

A little over a decade ago, I wrote this on my blog at the time:

“Yesterday, Em & I were talking about when I got new tires for the Kia & figured it had been roughly 6-8 months ago. I guess I could’ve looked at the receipt, but instead I Googled my own site for my discussion of it at the time… & discovered it was over 17 months ago, in January 2003. Though Sears, who wants to sell me tires, says my old ones are still good for another couple months (that sentence was for you, Dad). Point is that this page, among its many other virtues, helps keep me in check & orders my perception of the strange beast that is time. So much of me wishes that I had kept something like this my whole life, even though I was once so embarrassed by entries in a diary I kept (in 2nd grade, in DC) that I covertly snuck it into a trash can & it’s now rotting in an Oregon landfill. The regret I feel for that action fuels every word I write on this site. Everyone’s life is hopelessly embarrassing, if one chooses to think of oneself as a perfect front. If one realizes that humans are a study in The Attempt, & that every fulfillment is an astounding victory, it gets a lot easier to handle the apparent loss of privacy that throwing one’s doors open to the world entails. I think my job has helped me better understand how flawed we all are & how every struggle is a worthy one as well. Patience is everything. Thanks for the patience to meander through this ramble with me. It’s all strung together in my mind, & the wave of its relief is sufficient to mitigate anything I wish I hadn’t written.”
-21 June 2004

I don’t bring this up to wallow, as I often have on this blog, about the marriage that was taken from me. Though if I were going to, it would be interesting to note that the justification for same is cooked right into that same post. Rather, I bring it up to explore the issue of blogging itself as I often do, and how having a life introspectively examined over so many years comes back to reflect upon and haunt that life itself.

I ran across this post today while looking for evidence that I was at the Counting Crows show in Saratoga, California on 29 June 2004. That seemed like about the right time and area for Fish’s and my summer concert in wine country that we attended. I was curious about this show in particular because Counting Crows has the full show in their archive and it would be kind of cool to have a recording of a show that one went to. Of course, we didn’t go to the show then. We went to the one 5 days later at Konocti Harbor. Which is a venue whose name I’ve remembered for the same reason most people who meet me once remember my name (it’s distinctive), but I was simultaneously impressed that I got within a week of the actual show and annoyed that I still hadn’t remembered it perfectly. (For what it’s worth, Saratoga isn’t in wine country despite the venue being the Mountain Winery. It’s apparently a suburb of San Jose.)

I have a tendency to pride myself on my memory, but I also have the humility to recognize that a lot of it is aided and abetted by deliberately keeping careful notes and records on living since the 21st century began. Notes made no less useful by their publicity, nor by the ability to quickly search through them for names, dates, and times. Of course, after finding the desired information that I was not, in fact, in Saratoga on the 29th of June (I had to work that day), I got lost for a few months in the summer of 2004, more than ten years ago, the world of the Big Blue House during a summer I worked at Seneca and apparently about two-thirds of my friends came to visit and stay at one point or another. It was a summer of kickball, of movies at the Grand Lake (from which we were easy walking distance), of holding the quiet room door and writing incident reports at work, of Emily slaving away torturedly at PIRG, of concerts and video games and Pandora the cat.

There are a lot of things in life that make one feel like a different person than the person they were in the past. I think the prevalence of movies, TV shows, audio programs, and just stories all contribute to a dissociative feeling that we carry about life. It’s so much easier to process life as something that happened to someone else, someone perhaps that one can empathize with very deeply, but someone who one read about or watched on the screen rather than occupied the bones and brain of every day. It’s not just how much dumber about the intervening years Past Self was than Present Self, though that doesn’t help any. It’s the fade of time, the draining of the emotional significance of the daily hopes and fears. This is a natural process and one to be grateful for as it’s pretty much the only reason we can even think about starting to heal from trauma. But it’s also something like what I’d imagine an objective view of life will someday look like, maybe just after death, when we perhaps get to view the video tape of our life without feeling so robustly biased toward the person in the first-person perspective.

But I was perhaps most surprised to realize in this little journey through that summer how much of my narrative about that period of time, the narrative I carry with me today, was almost verbatim in the text of that series of blog pages. I was fully aware, for example, how much kickball was a seemingly necessary outlet for a competitive spirit left suddenly useless after the sudden end of 9 years of debate and even longer playing pickup basketball and other sports. I remembered the real joy of a “mandatory fun” day for Seneca staff that I was dreading and turned out to be incredible fun, just what I needed at a time when my energy for that job was seriously flagging. I could recognize all the dramatic peaks and valleys of that job, a job that I was truly never great at for having picked something diametric to my comfort zone. As dissociated and distinct as I felt from some of the precise experiences for the passage of time, I could more deeply see myself and my reflections on the time right there in plain white-on-green text. Which I recognized not just as the narrative of my life, but as my life itself.

Now there’s clearly a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here. Does the text look like the memory because it accurately captured it? Or did it in fact help form the memory by pasting the narrative onto the events? In other words, am I who I remember myself being because it’s accurate or because I codified those memories in their immediate formation?

I’ve listened to most of the This American Life shows over the course of this last decade, working my way slowly back and skipping only a handful of subjects that I find uninteresting (though years of listening to Terry Gross interviews should tell me not to skip any shows, since those I think I won’t like may end up being my favorites). So I’m in 2003 right now and just listened yesterday to this act, in episode 243, wherein a woman resolves to scrapbook every day of her young daughter’s life. There was so much of myself I could recognize in her passionate commitment to the cause, but the breaking-point crisis is reached when she realizes that she is ignoring her daughter’s desire to play with her or be read to by her in order to complete the scrapbook entry for that day. She doesn’t miss the irony and soon we hear her husband saying how he wishes she would just live in the moment. And herein I could certainly recognize the hindrance I felt in the daily obligation that ultimately convinced me to scrap (pun intended) Introspection back in 2007, in favor of this longer and, generally, less obsessive format.

It’s a dilemma I’ve seen echoed in a lot of articles people are writing these days about parenting. How so many parents are obsessive photographers and videographers of their children’s lives. How they themselves are almost never “in the picture”, figuratively and literally, preferring to chronicle a life in intense detail that they, increasingly, are not living. The unexamined life is not worth living, but the overly examined life is perhaps not lived at all.

This tension is doubly difficult for one who fancies themselves a story-teller, one for whom the entire point of existence itself is largely in crafting narrative, forming a script that can be of use to oneself and, more vitally, others. The cause then is right there in the effect and round and round they go. If life is fundamentally about the ability to tell its own story and build on that to stories about other lives, stories that are useful or amusing or expressive of the value and experience of life itself, then who can tell the border between life and narrative thereon at all? It is not only painted with the same brush, but the brush and the painting themselves are one.

Of course, we don’t need a blog to do this. Research done into the nature of memory increasingly finds it most reliable when there is a cogent story to go with it and terribly spotty when the events are either unremarkable or don’t conform to the wider arc. As a species, we love the narrative form and are constantly trying to wedge the facts of our lives into a story that we want to hear about ourselves. The longer the time that passes, the more we believe the story even if it contravenes what really took place. This theme appears in all kinds of media, but increasingly is playing out with unpredictable and fascinating results in the new podcast Serial which, speaking of This American Life, seems to be taking a certain swath of the country by storm.

So if we are destined to tell a story about our lives anyway as the immediacy of time fades, doesn’t it help to have documentation from time when these memories were the freshest? When they were new? If only to build slightly more accurate and probably much better stories about the past? After all, Fish’s toast at Jake’s wedding was surely all the better for actually having the text of the famous 80,000! e-mail to read. As mine was improved for the realization that Fish never wrote a top ten attributes list of what he was seeking in a partner and thus I could not compare his bride against it and had to take the speech in a different direction entirely.

I recently told Alex about how much I miss acting from my old days, something that seems truly several lifetimes ago now, singing the life of orphaned loneliness into Oliver Twist on stage at the Coaster Theatre in Cannon Beach. And we agreed that I should find some outlet for something along those lines, now that I’m done with debate coaching (for at least a while, in any case), now that competitive speaking is behind me. That maybe everything’s been geared as much for live oral storytelling as much as words on the page. And thus I’ll be telling a story on stage a week from tomorrow, at an event called (I can’t really make this up) Bring Your Own Story, sponsored by the local NPR station. I’ve long admired shows like The Moth (just how many NPR shows can I name-drop in this post anyway?), long aspired to the kind of showmanship that David Sedaris (though I hate his writing, mostly) puts into delivering stories on a stage.

Maybe it will go well. Maybe it will flop. In either case, like most of life, it will be a memory. Which itself will make a good story, someday. Ten years from now, perhaps.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.

Storey Clayton, at the Big Blue House, summer 2004.


The Need for Boredom

Categories: A Day in the Life, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , ,

I just finished reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace that came out last year. I read it faster than most any book in recent memory, even though I’m not in love with how it was written. I never read biographies and it was at once too journalistic and too incomplete. Despite the use of footnotes (either common in bios or a nod to the subject matter), the style of the book probably deliberately lacked the sprawling, expansive approach that DFW took to his own material. And as a result, the book has a quality of feeling like it’s laying its subject extremely bare. DFW looks stripped-down, sad, pathetic, even ruinous in this retrospective portrait. It also makes it clear that this was not a particularly likable, or good, man. For a literary hero of mine, he can hardly be considered a hero in other regards. His struggles were human and (to me) relatable, but his behavior was frequently reprehensible and his relationship with life and others seems altogether willfully misanthropic. Perhaps most frustratingly, there was decidedly little on the last couple years of his life, the main thing I sought from said biography, still reeling from the absence of info I lamented four days after his death in 2008.

What the book did do, other than make me feel like DFW is decidedly less deserving of respect than previously hoped, is remind me of the urgency of my own writing life. It’s never far from my mind in general, but the period of time since my divorce has been so devoid of inspiration or motivation to write that it’s been like a thick layer of snow has fallen between myself and the searing parts of my desire to put thoughts into words. It’s explicable and reasonable that this winter has fallen, perhaps even that it’s lasted nearly three full years. And coming after the most productive year of my life in writing is both enabling of self-forgiveness (I can take it easy, I’ve done so much recently), but also extra tragic in the wake of feeling like I’d finally figured out and mastered how to write quickly, frequently, and with energy. And of course this resurrects the same guilt-cycles shared by both my protagonist in American Dream On and, apparently, good old Wallace himself, for not pursuing publication basically at all in the last three years, years during which the relevance of both 2009-2010 novels has, if anything, seemingly increased.

The point is that, facing the two months off I have built into my schedule, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Part of me wants to buckle down and try to churn out most of a novel – I don’t really believe I could do a whole one in such short order, especially when essentially four of the nine or ten allotted weeks are booked with travel. But the other part of me wants to relax, have fun, take it easy, restore energy for the coming year of debate after the easily most exhausting annum on the personal record in my four at Rutgers. And the best idea seems to split the difference, to dabble on BP projects, sending out the last two novels to prospective publishing opportunities, and maybe wade into what the fourth novel would look like. It’s not going to be Project X (last discussed, sadly, in May 2011) as I’m still way too close to that idea to see it objectively and for what it could be. That novel seems a better candidate for the 2030’s at this point, something to cap a career with if I’m ever so fortunate. I’m much more motivated by an as-yet untitled work (Project X, it’s worth noting, is not a title, but a working codename for something that does have a title, but not that one) which would involve my first-ever foray into overt humor, as opposed to humor against a painfully dark backdrop which seems to be my current modus, or at least was in ADO. It’s been taking shape more and more each day and has distilled into something that seems super-relevant to the current state of things and could easily be made more so. But I am terrified, as always, of writing novels in multiple stretches. The 2-3 month binge-write when all other interests are cast aside still has been the only real successful model. But maybe I could construct a few scenes and map out the plot and come back to it in Summer 2014?

The biggest challenge to all these goals, even, arguably, taking fun seriously, is the need to dry out. Boredom is essential to the writing process. This, I fear, is what DFW never really grasped in his career, being so prone to addiction and distraction and never being able to quiet the nagging voices of self-criticism in his own beleaguered head. You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative. The problem is that a novel is far too abstract and two-dimensional, especially in its nascent phases, to be as captivating as a full-color Internet, as video games and movies and spending time with friends. And the project is far too extensive to be able to see in the same micro-gratification strategies by which most people of my generation and younger are able to complete any work at all. You can string yourself along for a 10- or 20-page paper with the tantalization of the inevitable satisfaction euphoria that comes from completion, but holding out that carrot across multiple months is unforgiving and ultimately ineffective. Yes, novel-completion euphoria is elating, but even the greatest burst of excitement in your life is hard to hold your attention for half a year of slogging.

So to make the process of writing a novel truly work, at least in my experience, it’s important to enforce a certain quantity of boredom upon oneself. One has to get to the point where the novel is truly the most interesting thing one has access to. Doing so enables the essential infusions of creativity and vibrancy that a novel demands, but failing to do so means that one will just end up distracted. So much of DFW’s bio is about his failure to get over this hump. The entire cascade of his life seems an endless bounce from women to drugs to teaching to TV, all shelving his ability to work as he felt he best could. And he also struggled with what I find to be a very tangible conundrum, namely that even if one knows that undivided focus and boredom is the best for the noveling process, the twin of this mindstate is solipsism, and the spiral of lack of human contact threatens to not only drown a person in self-doubt, but also something a little like going crazy. Withdrawing from life to provide insight into it is just the sort of irony fiction writers adore, but it’s a tightrope wire worthy of some far more entertaining act.

Wallace was doubtless aware of these acrobatics and their seeming impossibilities. Indeed, he wanted to directly tackle the subject not just of boredom, but of how boredom can be blissful and inspiring, in his final work, The Pale King. But he was no more able to effectuate it in his own existence than he was able to finish that piece itself, the mystery of boredom’s power ever dangling out of grasp like so much Gatsbian green light. D.T. Max (Wallace’s biographer) doesn’t put forward that the book killed him, but I still think the evidence is pretty clear. That and the electro-shock (*convulsive in new-speak), feller of writers everywhere.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t achieved sufficient boredom on this, the third day off of work, but then again I still have a couple small work projects to wrap up and even day three feels more like a long weekend that summer break. And the very nature of trying to do twelve small projects is almost antithetical to the long work model. It is precisely because such projects have the hallmarks of micro-gratification that they can string one along into doing things that don’t require a full dose of boredom to really get off the ground. It also makes them more appealing and, perhaps, more compatible with the idea of taking it easy this summer, just a little less easy than the last.

The only real urgency in all this, other than the innate writer’s desire to change the world that keeps seeming to get worse, or at least no better, is the sheer volume of stuff I have to write. It’s not competing with the amount I have to read, yet, but I still have four complete novel plots (by complete I don’t mean fully mapped and plotted, but rather general guidelines including beginnings, endings, characters, and general messages) unwritten, three of them without a word to their name. There are a handful of additional short stories in need of either writing or rewriting, as well as some simmering threads of things that could become novels but aren’t there yet. This, near as I can tell (and not to brag, just to observe), is more total novel notions than good old DFW ever developed in his life. But again, his distractable mind suffered more from the lack of ability to zero in and focus than to create. But one became the other.

And maybe I should stop comparing myself to Wallace at this point. For all the similarities I see between us, the differences have never been more clear than in the wake of reading so much about his life. It could also easily be seen as hubristic or egotistical, but it seems clear he was far more worried about such (mis?)perceptions than I ever will be. Indeed, thinking so much about what people thought of him may have been as much of his undoing as his final work. But for me, the issue has always been a shortage of time rather than a shortage of ideas. Ideas I’ve got, spilling out everywhere. It’s the execution, the patience to grind them out, the not letting the beautiful competing ideas of life and what to fill it with, get in the way. And thus so much relies on having the ultimate certainty that someone will pay for that time, or at least that someone wants to read its results, to justify the expenditure of that kind of time, mindspace and, yes, boredom.

Which of course DFW had in spades. He seemed to spend all of his post-publication life complaining that such early success had skewed his vision and rendered him unable to work sufficiently, despite the fact that it seemingly rendered such things more possible than ever. But then he was more of a ruminator than even myself, being able to think himself into a corner even in a wide-open field. Whereas I have experience with same, but am usually able to keep eyes sufficiently on the prize to find the escape hatch, most of the time. And all the while there’s the urgency of all the things those unwritten novels have to say, bubbling up and demanding their months of sequester, their months of suppression of all the fascinating distractions lurking in today’s world so they can have the stage and pass through the keys to fruition.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

He was writing about processing tax returns, but it’s hard to find a better mantra for the process of writing a novel, especially one whose fate is uncertain, whose outcome is not the surefire date with publication and readership that TPK and Wallace himself enjoyed. The inevitability, perhaps, is that such boredom is part of everyone’s structured life. And the key is to make more of it work for something that feels more meaningful. It is perhaps ironic (isn’t everything?) that my current day job is almost entirely devoid of such taken-as-given rote boredom, but what I aspire to be, truly, requires it.


May is the Worst

Categories: A Day in the Life, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Upcoming Projects, Tags: , , , ,

I just spent a fair bit of time re-reading my posts from past Mays on this blog. There are five years’ worth of them and they ain’t pretty. Actually, some of them are kind of pretty; I think a lot of the writing I did in May 2011 may actually have been some of my best in a while, even if it’s extraordinarily laden with pain. But you get the point. I’m almost never having a good time in May.

Things often end in May. People make jokes about the Harry Potter series always putting undue emphasis and tension on May because that’s the natural end of the school year, but I always feel like reality actually conforms to this pattern. And I know that somehow most people like April and May because they feel this bizarre boost in springtime, easily the worst season of the four for my money. I have lived long enough to know that early April through early June is the worst time in my life almost every year and by far the most consistently bad. Maybe I’m misaligned, but I know my alignment all the same.

This May hasn’t been trend-setting in its badness, but more indicative of the kind of malaise and slow descent this season always seems to mark. I was sick for most of the month – probably about 3 full weeks of it after getting sick on May Day. I suspect I had some sort of infection, though the doctors insisted it was either allergies or an especially lingering cold. I’m still not exactly 100%, but I’ve probably been 95 or 97% the last couple days, so I’m definitely through whatever it was. I’ll probably feel 100% on June 7th, because that’s just how these things tend to go for me. I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t seem to be a total determinist lately, so being resigned to a bad 70-day stretch every year is pretty good by comparison, right?

In any event, today is an event! My last day at work before my two months off till August (though I will have to come in a few days to tie up some loose ends and trade for the first week in August as you’ll see below…), the end of a desperately bleh month, and the return of my girlfriend from Costa Rica tomorrow. Things are looking up. And it seems to be a May tradition on this blog to post a little graphic indicating my summer “tour” for the year, or where I’m planning on traversing to with the opportunity to make use of the time that I’m given. So I don’t really want to make this exceptional, since this May hasn’t even been exceptional in its badness, just kinda averagely awful…

…But I don’t really have a theme for my summer travel. Part of this May has been just feeling totally uninspired. I am almost starting to get inspired for when I will be inspired and I have lots of resolutions for the summer. You’ve heard some of them before, things like actually sending American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds to agents and/or publishers for the first time in 3 years, or actually writing new fiction for a similarly unprecedented stretch. I need to get more active, even if it’s just walking around Highland Park or something. Or doing yoga again. I would like to read more and more intensely, to spend more time deliberately and investing in projects I want to do. Heck, maybe the Song Quiz will finally happen this summer. Really.

So far all May has brought me is joining Twitter. Seriously. And I think the main thing I’m going to do with that is post links to posts here, assuming I actually start writing more. Which makes this all rather meta and self-referential. Which I guess goes well with starting to read David Foster Wallace’s recent biography last night, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Best title ever and makes the synergy between he and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (such connections discussed here) even more poignant. So far I’m up till DFW’s early grad school years and the writing isn’t really seeming worthy of DFW and CC, but maybe that’s just because I never read biographies and so the flat journalistic and presumptive tone is simply unfamiliar to me. Reading non-fiction, though, always convinces me even more that there’s far more truth in fiction. The things taken as given in non-fiction, the sweeping unjustified generalizations, are kind of shocking. It’s a way of transforming hearsay into fact. All the same, I’m enjoying the experience of the book. I think we all just miss Wallace way too much.

Anyway, I need a title for the tour and a theme because I like pretending my life is a book tour or maybe it’s just that the Summer Tour themology is fun. I think May was way too short on fun. This summer, the first order of business is fun.

But I can share the tour dates and the little graphic will have to wait till (gasp!) June. Thank God it’s going to be June. Soon.

15-16 June: Upstate NY (Wallflowers/Counting Crows show)
17-19 June: New Brunswick, NJ
20-27 June: Los Angeles, CA
28 June – 4 July: Albuquerque, NM

28-29 July: Helsinki, Finland
29 July – 3 August: Paris, France
4-8 August: Berbiguières, France
8-10 August: Paris, France

It doesn’t look too glamorous like that, maybe because it’s not a road-trip and thus the locations are few. But the durations are long and the locations are awesome. So let’s make plans! Let’s have fun. Let’s not revisit May for a while, shalln’t we?



Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, Tags: , , , ,

Perhaps you saw “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” in theaters this summer. Or you’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the best-selling novel. Maybe you’ve seen or read one of the millions of derivations or mash-ups or sequels or post-scripts or pre-scripts to already established works out there in the American culture.

No? This is what it looks like…

It's a real thing.  I couldn't make this stuff up.  In fact, no one could!

It's a real thing. I couldn't make this stuff up. In fact, no one could!

It looks like that, a cover like that, but it also looks like the death of a culture. America is a place in particular that has always prided itself on its creativity, its ingenuity, its ability to come up with novel (pun intended) solutions to complicated problems. This is the birthplace of so many innovations and inventions and “outside-the-box” thinking that’s been the precursor to the wealth and riches that we lord over the rest of the world.

But things have changed lately. In their hunger for money and the desire to turn every pursuit into a business model, originality has been sacrificed in favor of a sure bet. After all, originality also brought us credit-default swaps and toxic assets, right? Publishing houses and agents used to seek dynamic, exciting, original writers. Now they want to know what your “comps” are, books that are so alike to yours that they prove there’s a market for what you’re trying to write. A market, not because it’s good writing, but because they’ve already liked a book exactly like yours. I used to shudder in the fear that someone would scoop my unwritten plots and take the limelight of creative inspiration I’d cracked open or been lucky enough to tap into. Now I welcome the realization that the plot of American Dream On has enough thematic similarities to The Hunger Games that someone might believe I was riffing on it when I wrote it before its publication. (To say nothing of the widely reported notion that said book was just a rip-off of an earlier Japanese movie which matches major plot points almost exactly.)

This is perhaps not a surprising trend in a country racked with economic woes after a dream of endless prosperity, nor especially in a land so obsessed with safety and certainty after one terrorist attack that it is willing to attempt to subjugate the rest of the world and its own citizenry just to avoid the possibility that 3,000 people could die at once again. Not surprising, maybe, but remarkably disheartening. The best balm for the recent hardships of the nation, one would think, would be originality and creativity. But as Congress faces a patent inability to compromise and potential Presidents continue to present a rematch of rejected 1980s theories, there’s a vast dearth of variation from an ever-predictable norm. It’s no wonder that nearly every Hollywood movie slated for creation is actually a recreation or a sequel. And we continue to buy and absorb this rehash, just as we accept the two major parties’ offerings every four years. Because we haven’t the money to make a choice and we’re not in the top corporate offices where these decisions are being made.

But the snake is eating its own tail. There’s no evidence that this desert of good new material is insidiously brought about by maniacal corporate officers so much as that the system itself incentivizes them to favor the sure bet over the risky original proposition. And the consumers have only the power to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, reaffirming the apparent wisdom of risklessness. And on the cycle continues.

It wasn’t always like this, however. American writing and movies have circled the globe, gaining recognition for their depth, insight, creative power, and new way of looking at the world and its inhabitants. So what happened? When did we go from making new things to recycling the same animated plot that probably wasn’t enough for a first movie into a fourth?

There are a lot of contributions, some of which I mention above, but I think the biggest and best explanation is a phenomenon I’ve observed in countless manifestations, from people to non-profit organizations to historical nations. It’s something clearly embedded in our human nature, but fighting it may be the last best hope for people to break out of molds that earn their associative names by entrapping us with stale thoughts and decaying thinking. It seems American creative culture and its would-be admirers have crossed over the tipping point from feeling like they have more to gain from the future to feeling like they have more to lose.

This single concept, the idea of whether the future is about potential and benefits (which encourages risk-taking, bold thinking, and dramatic action) or about the possibility of loss (which encourages defensiveness, safeguarding, shoring up, and sitting tight) probably effects more of our daily lives than we would like to think about. This is what makes recessions so deep and can make poverty so liberating with the right mindset (but realistically makes poverty so debilitating). This is what makes people who grew up bungee-jumping and horseback-riding afraid of leaving their house for weeks at a time as they age. This is what turns liberals into conservatives when they become successful. It’s what turns revolutionaries into tyrants. If we could pull a lever and prevent someone from ever tipping over this apex, mandate that they always feel they have more to gain from the future than they do to lose, we would cure uncounted social ills and political pitfalls.

Alas, defensiveness is not so easily cured. Many people have an enormous amount of wealth, power, influence, and comfort stacked up, especially in this country. They chronically fear someone coming to take it away, be it in the form of regulation, taxation, theft, extortion, nationalization, or pure greed. Even if they don’t really like what they have, even if what they have fails to provide them happiness or any other higher good, they will defend it to the death if they think they have more to lose than they do to gain. It’s in our nature to hoard and protect when we are fearful or even cautious about the times ahead. It’s backed by millennia of evolution and reinforced by centuries of history.

Incidentally, this is why banks aren’t loaning money and the rich aren’t hiring people. And why those things will persist for a long time to come, perhaps as long as this country persists. No one has more to lose than the banks and the rich, almost tautologically. And the banks can continue to get free money from the government as long as interest rates stay low, so there’s no incentive to take the risk of a loan. And the rich don’t need to “spend money to make money,” because they already have money. So those tax breaks and cheap loans just go in their back pocket as they hunker down more closely over the piles of coin in the counting house.

Believing that there’s more to gain than to lose is about more than trite platitudes about happy days or mornings in America or popping anti-depressants. It’s about a belief that one hasn’t attained that much, or enough. And most often, that isn’t measured in material goods so much as notoriety, recognition, or true accomplishment in terms of changing the world. This is precisely why the revolutionaries so consistently flip into oppression as soon as they get into power, or within just a few months. The turnover from having nothing to having everything is so fast that they literally don’t know what to aspire to anymore, while they’re immediately becoming accustomed to having more than 99% have ever dreamed of. Those who have more to lose than to gain are terrible leaders, ever watchful and fearful of being criticized, unseated, disregarded, losing the power and influence they (feel they) worked so hard to gain. It’s the hungry and desperate that provide the ingenuity and spark necessary for true leadership.

So how to we hold the imaginary carrot a few yards out in order to make ourselves run for it? The key is complicated, but I think the most accessible answers to this are in two essential areas. We must first embrace a certain healthy amount of dissatisfaction with our present affairs, whatever they may be, and we must secondly and correspondingly become comfortable with change.

The latter could contain a whole volume of material (and I believe it does, perhaps floor-to-ceiling volumes, as nearly the entire Self-Help section of any bookstore is really just “get comfortable with change” in long-winded and bound format, rephrased over and over in the hopes that someone might listen). Nevertheless, the point bears repeating that change is the only constant and resisting it is as foolish as fighting a gale with saliva. Just the other day, my new boss told a roomful of people, myself included, that he’s looking to produce a line of T-shirts with the slogan Embrace the Uncertainty. It’s a powerful message and one I took to heart, especially as he expounded on the need for not freezing in place with the entire class of 2016 inbound, they not thinking about the pressures that new leadership might exude on a university so much as that their college careers (and by extension, their lives) are about to start.

I’ve always felt more at home with uncertain futures and changing venues than most, but the last three years of this blog alone could well tell you that I’m no guru when it comes to accepting whatever life surprises you with. This is a struggle for all of us by virtue of our humanity, it’s why so much advice for the species is so simple and, dare I say it, derivative. Embracing uncertainty, welcoming change, it’s hard. It’s like waking up young in the dreadful night, envisioning the monster under the bed, then jumping from above to tackle-hug it and give it a sloppy kiss. Or, put another way, it’s like loving your neighbor no matter what they do. It’s one of those really challenging near-impossibilities. Especially when you have stuff or people or circumstances in your life that you like. It takes so much work and energy to find things that you like, be they pastimes or cohorts or jobs or places, that losing them or altering them seems a fate worse than death.

Which brings us to the first part, the somewhat easier bit, the healthy dissatisfaction with the present. This is easy to get carried away on and, despite what you may think, I’m not about to launch into a call to depression for all readers. Rather, it’s important to be a critic and a skeptic of one’s own choices and the path they’ve wended. Not to the point of self-recrimination and -doubt, unless said are truly warranted, but sufficiently so that one is able to craft an aspirational trajectory for the future.

This is extremely counter-intuitive. Almost all of us have the final goalpost being happiness, however we define it. No matter how we define it, happiness consists in feeling full, satisfied, like there’s nothing more one needs or wants or has to strive for. Contentedness, comfort. And yet this feeling is, itself, a form of death. No, really. Because at the point where one is comfortable, one doesn’t want to move. And if one doesn’t move, how can one find anything interesting that one hasn’t already found?

Imagine you’re in a chair. And your chair is uncomfortable, rotting in the seat, prickly in the back, set at the wrong angle. You get up! You’re motivated to find a chair that’s not as painful. You’re ready to look around for a while, maybe leave the house and go to stores or yard sales or junkyards till you find something manageably sittable. Maybe you go through 5, 7, 18 chairs. And then, glorious then! Then you find the chair that’s comfortable, has the cushioning in the right place, well-angled armrests, the whole bit. What happens next?

You fall asleep.

And you don’t go traveling again, because the opportunity cost is time in this chair.

That chair is happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to sit in that chair. I have a real-life chair much like this at home, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m not getting rid of it (though I’m open to a future, or trying to be, in which I don’t have it anymore). I would never tell anyone to just make do with the first cruddy chair or to stop looking for a nice one.

But we also can’t sleep away our time and potential in the comfy chair. Because then life becomes the story of sitting instead of exploring, doing, interacting, being. And that, my friends, is not what life was designed to be.

Life is about the journey. Maybe the rest of the self-help books are about that. You know what else is about that? One of my favorite movies of all-time, “Finding Nemo”. Which they’re re-releasing (now in 3D!) in a month, in theaters. Because they can do that now. Spruce up a movie that’s already had its day in the sun (or I guess, more accurately, the refrigerated shade) and release it to watch while you’re wearing glasses. For more money.

Because it’s derivative.

And I’ll plunk down my fourteen bucks or whatever 3D movies cost these days and recite the lines I know by heart and bob my head with the turtles and shudder at the sharks, along with a bunch of much younger kids who don’t know how old this magic is. Who feel, unlike almost everyone else in the theater, that maybe, just maybe, they have more to gain than to lose from living into the future. Maybe they’ll have the creative solutions.

Or maybe they’ll grow up to write Finding Nemo in Abraham Lincoln’s Vampire Civil War. And oh, what a hit it will be!


The Day Before Tomorrow

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

Today, I feel like I finally hit my stride for productivity and balance this vacation. I return to work on Wednesday.

I’d imagine this is a lot like what retirees feel in their waning weeks of work at a particular vocation, feeling a sudden rhythm and a smoothness they never felt in anywhere from months to decades of prior toil. Of course, it’s insidiously endemic to the nature of the impending closure. Only with the mix of relaxation and appreciation that comes from imminent cessation can we find the peace and ease to not take what’s in front of us so seriously. It’s because we’ve unlocked that there’s a life beyond what’s immediate and routine, and only then can we approach said immediacy without the pressure of its drumbeat of routine.

This conundrum prompts a lot of people to try to split the difference, to find a way to see beyond seeing and cultivate that wakefulness and ease of daily living into their actual daily living, as though they know it’s all set to end, even if it’s not. Such people, unfortunately, tend to also be fervent users and advocates of marijuana or other similarly minded substances, and the outcome is probably a lot like being stoned. Or maybe like Christian Science, which is oddly similar, wherein one is not allowed to take one’s diseases or their symptoms seriously with anything other than prayer and the faith that God will heal them. The problem is that even if one knows it’s all going to work out in the end, throwing up one’s hands and signing everything over to that fact seems strangely to violate the initial principle. It’s as though there’s some unwritten rule that one has to try in order to activate the part where things work out. And this is, ultimately, only in a theology where everything somehow works out for the best, which is very much in play these days. And while recent events of the past few years haven’t quite shaken my faith in God (as I feel no personal tragedy that one hasn’t already been aware of someone else experiencing should), describing this planet as everything working out seems at times short-sighted.

Maybe the best we can hope for are the brief moments of clarity that cannot be manipulated or contrived into existence. Sometimes we simply cannot understand how much we care for something that is lost until it has been lost. We cannot grasp how meaningful something is until it’s already transpired. We cannot anticipate the things that are most vital until it is already too late to grab them.

I was listening to a broadcast of a funeral of one of the Aurora movie shooting victims the other day and her brother or boyfriend tearfully admonished us to not delay our dreams but pursue them immediately because we don’t know how much time we have left. But it’s precisely because we don’t know how much time we have that most of us won’t go out and do that. If I told you the date of your death, you could start planning immediately exactly how far to pursue those dreams and when to switch gears. And despite a million exhortations to live each day as if it were our last, most of us are more moved by the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, droning away for a future winter that may never arrive.

I can’t quite put myself in the grasshopper camp these days, despite the fact that I feel now doubly living on borrowed time and that I truly love my job coaching debate. I spent today revamping the Book List (update will be out later tonight or early tomorrow and will be linked from this blog) instead of writing publishers or agents about American Dream On or The Best of All Possible Worlds, works I truly believe to be the best things I’ve ever done with my time on this planet but have yet to be read beyond a handful of people (especially the latter). I spent some time this week reviewing ADO as prompted by a new reader and found it far more relevant that I remembered it, reigniting the hope that it’s not left stillborn to only impact a handful of people. And yet the incredible uphill climb of wrestling with a publishing industry somewhere between slow lumbering death and reinvention, in a country mired between same, seems exhausting in utero. As it probably always has. And being confronted with the weight of the 1,277 favored books of the readers and submitters of The Blue Pyramid only enhances this fatigue.

The thing is, almost all of the twelve-hundred-plus volumes were written in the twentieth century. There are classics that have been handed down through the ages, dating back to Homer and Plato, but the vast majority of the books therein have been written within a lifetime of now. You can say that this is about the fact that the world has changed so much as to make even Dickens and Dostoevsky of borderline dubious relevance in a contemporary world. Or perhaps that seven-billion is such a high percentage of those who’ve lived during the history of writing in our human experience that the last lifetime is actually proportionally represented. Both of these are decent arguments, but the fact is that a 2112 list would probably draw equally largely from the twenty-first century. (Or perhaps, I suppose, the list would be of favored tweets or cat videos, as those contain the requisite length to command a 2112 attention-span.) But I fear it’s just that almost nothing that gets written has staying power beyond the time it was written in.

I’m currently almost done with Don DeLillo’s Libra (not among his two entries in the 1,277) and it’s so clearly a relic of the period from 1963-2001, when the JFK assassination was the focal point of culture, experience, innocence, conspiracy, and intrigue. The book is fast-moving and entertaining, but I can’t help but remark at how naive and obvious the purportedly daring accusations and connections made in the book appear. Or how irrelevant the JFK assassination seems to a 2012 world. Even remembering my AP Economics’ professor’s habit of spending the month of February on the JFK assassination (a personal hobby of his) instead of teaching econ seems somewhere between embarrassing and sad when it used to be the epitome of cool.

I am having that distinct experience of those who age on this planet that the world one grew up in is not the world in which one will die.

No sentence could be more mundane in its obvious factual truth. And yet waking up to the reality seems to stun every one of us as much as the ease of doing something we can no longer do after a very short time. Indeed, so many are mired in the process of constantly reawakening to that reality like so much shock at the sun’s daily reappearance overhead.

The inability of media to readjust to the world is unendingly apparent. Never before have so many writings and movies been set in the just-before-recent past, mostly so that plots can deftly avoid cell-phones, the Internet, and all the hijinx-prevention that we imagine those inventions to enact. The recent Woody Allen movie, which is horrendously nihilistic, hinges on the improbability of someone dropping their cell down a sewer grate rather than grapple with the realities of the world ever-connectedness has created. I’m sure someone or several someones out there are writing and creating masterworks on the changes that this technology is creating (other than imagining that the Joker can rig up a cell in someone’s stomach and use his designated one jailed phone call to blow the whole joint), but it doesn’t seem to be making it to my desk or movie theater. Inevitably, it will happen, though, ushering a new era of reading and flushing out many of the currently enshrined 1,277.

It’s enough to make the entire act of writing seem futile, even more than living in a mundane or newly reawakened way already might. (I know, children’s birthday parties again.) But seriously, what is the hope of writing something to impact a species when that impact, even at its greatest, is unlikely to live beyond one’s lifetime? It is questionable whether any of the people we consider geniuses in creative fields today will have their names remembered in 2150. And 2150 is where all this is headed, so what chance of changing things?

The only candle in this darkness, of course, is that 2150 doesn’t exist yet and the only people who will make it happen are currently ensconced on the planet, living and (hopefully) absorbing creative culture. Barring the landing of some alien species that can successfully breed with us, every ancestor of 2150 is alive today. Which is even more jarring to consider when reflecting it backwards, spinning our history into past generations. No wonder the Bible is full of passages of begats and sex is considered a holy act by so many. Hundreds of us would be wiped out instantly with the revocation of any given inseminative sex act of 1000 AD.

Makes you think about your choices, doesn’t it? Every one one of us really does have an impact!

Is the lesson then that rearing children has far more impact than writing? Perhaps. Though of course the writing of the day also influences the writing to come and the entire evolution of everything, not just procreation itself. It’s hard to imagine how different the future of our culture will be just from the success of Harry Potter alone, let alone the aggregate of the 1,277 tomes compiled in the Book List.

And yet you probably don’t know a single person who has read 1,277 books in their entire life. The sum of all we created has only the most tangential reach on any one of us.

I’ve been listening to a lot of “This American Life” podcasts lately, working my way backwards through their archive sprinkled with the new ones as they come out. (Though a startling number of the current broadcasts are reissues, to go with the summer movie theme of nothing original anywhere ever.) I’m somewhere in mid-2010 now, just listening to their 400th episode wherein they challenged the whole production team to make stories from what their parents had pitched to them over the years. The moral of the episode was that the effortless blend of pith, wit, pathos, and ultimate fullness of the average “This American Life” story is actually very hard to replicate. That coming across seeming like they just took anything and ran with it is actually the result of careful selection and practice, that the appearance of spontaneousness requires rehearsal. This all comes to a head in this perfectly distilled moment when Ira Glass’ dad finishes telling a story and Glass prompts him by saying this is the moment when, on the show, the story says something deeper about the human or at least American experience. His father snorts and notes that there’s nothing like that to see here.

There’s nothing like that to see here.

No. I’m just kidding. The deeper point here is that you might not be able to perceive your own impact, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t having one. This is something almost magical about living in a temporal world. No one gets to cheat, no one gets to bend into the future. We’re all alive now, and not a moment later. And this gives us all the potential to affect everything to come, no matter how much or how little.

No matter how little you’ve done, you haven’t seen what’s to come. And you will help shape that, whether you want to or not.

Maybe, just maybe, that will help give you enough of a fire to make that perfect connection in whatever you seek to do just a little sooner before you stop doing it.


The Pursuit of Productivity

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

I think my definition of productivity may be different than everyone else’s.

Granted that the word carries very capitalistic connotations, that the implications of the word convey an image of a factory worker plugging away at widgets or perhaps an office automaton churning through a comically piled Inbox drift of papers, converting them sheet by sheet into a neatly stacked ream of Outbox ex-trees. But still. So much of what capitalism conspires to produce is drivel, is from the Self-Eating Snake School of Consumption. It’s there for profit, and the larger conception of profit, for wasting resources and converting them into items we don’t need. And the biggest resource consumed, of course, is time.

Whereas the truly productive uses of time are those which are geared toward creativity, which innately seems to tense against notions of time-in-the-seat hourly work. Which is not to say that schedules and discipline are fundamentally opposed to getting things done – indeed, longer works and projects require some adherence to a daily grind. But there’s something to be said for the schedule one creates for oneself as opposed to the one that is dictated by others. That a self-regulated sense of commitment is vastly more likely to succeed than one imposed from the outside.

Where a lot of this becomes a struggle is in the realm of my own projects. I have projects so long overdue it’s laughable. The Song Quiz, for example, still claims to be ready to go in early 2010. I designed a new sidebar for this page before this year started and we’re almost halfway through it, without its appearance anywhere herein. In part because it was tied to a new project whose release I have regularly predicted but never achieved. I’m behind on submitting my books to agents and publishers in a new round of excitement that seems to have been unable to launch since July of last year. I have managed to put momentum behind debate, but little else.

Although, of course, this note about writing does remind me that projects spun out into the orbit of thing constantly contemplated and considered but left undone for years do sometimes get finished. American Dream On, for example, was begun in 2002. 2002! And sat as a few-chapter stillbirth, periodically touched up, for seven years before I finally sat down and cranked out the entire work. Not that this is an inspiring model per se, but it does at least offer hope, however possibly false at times, that the distractions of the capitalist-focused life can sometimes be set aside in favor of meaningful and creative production. It feels almost wrong to call that production, so ingrained are the stereotypes about what can be deemed valid output by individuals for society. But there it is. Maybe it’s time to reclaim this word for the good of everyone.

All that said, I have a project I should be working on. That I’ve been meaning to be working on for months, have dabbled in, but haven’t sat down and cranked out. Summer is never the best time to launch projects, but my Facebook contacts are at a critical enough mass and enough of my friends are bored enough (see also Facebook thread of epic proportions, now at 3,276 comments) that it might just do well enough anyway. It’s worth exploring. I can’t promise anything, because failed promises for production tend to get me into a spiral of self-recrimination that leads to video games or reading in bed. But maybe by observing this, putting it here, thinking about it and letting it go, I can do just enough to convince me to be as disciplined about the things that matter to me as I often am about the things that don’t.


Mother, May I

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

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

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

May 15th.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Timelessness of Green Fields

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

There is a blue sign at the top of the hill by the roadside gone T-shaped and it says No Sledding and it is the kind of sign that shows the wear and age of countless police officers standing by a bloody street with a horrified post-traumatic driver and a little bit of disheveled dirty cardboard or bits of broken plastic undertire as the snow gently falls over the stains and someone keeps repeating that they just came out of nowhere and sobered men stand on their lawns three doors down and mutter about damnfool kids and what’s become of the world. The sign bears nothing of that grim scene in its early-May sun-baked splendor, basking in non sequitir as the world blooms and the vaguest hints of precipitation are warm and inviting. He tumbles down the gravelly grassy incline at just shy of a run, mind bent back to a precipitous decline through trees in La Jolla that also ended in a sudden road below, the fortune of that moment’s lack of speeding vehicle having something to do with an entire novel and the belief that maybe we are all immortal. How lucky that seemed then; how unlucky now.

Over the would-be deadly street and into the next array, a field of resplendent glory as only the windy tilt of low-seventies sunshine can drift through shimmery new leaves and the bent blades of unkempt fairway. He stands for a moment to soak in the scene and all the places it takes him back to, shiny rain-spared lawns of Oregon or the parched but artificially thriving expanses of New Mexico under its thin and sickly attempts at trees. The trees are healthy here, robust, cartoonish in their solidity, and they beckon in the way that nature pulls at the soul of each of us, the way we can look at an animal or a landmark and try to remember that this, this is where we belong and always did and how to we fall so in love with the walls and right angles and resigned fellow humans with whom we log most of our hours? A book in a pack and water to boot and it is not until he is ensconced firmly beneath the broadest-reaching branches of the most personable plant that he remembers, squinting under hatbrim in the inconsistent cloud-shaped sunlight, what is wrong with this picture.

He is alone.

It is a place that other people take people, it is a place to be a pair, and the floodgates gently lift to reveal a torrent of parks and pastimes prior and the lazy adjustments of bodies in contact, the sighs and tilts of laps and lips and heads on stomachs in the gentle innocence of mutual peace. He burns, badly, in the remembrance of the irreplaceable, not to be quite that pessimistic, but how could he possibly restore the grandeur of first love or the anticipation of things undone when ships have sailed and time unrefundable has been spent? Each moment is a nod to the end of it all, a wink at mortality, and aging is as much about the gilding of memory as the ventures into the ever-darkening hollows of the unknown. And now the mistakes, not only the clear immediate one of trying to expend the afternoon this way, already swollen with dam bursts strangely unanticipated, but the past ones ringing ever louder, the girl jilted too soon or the other clung to too long. The inability to see the simple adoration in a moment in the fields and the yearning, powerful desire to simply return for a day, a simple mundane day like Emily in “Our Town”, to drag the mate of the moment out of the office or away from duty and into an empty green expanse to read and drape and hold hands against the backdrop of a summer day’s endless march toward twilight. Just one day, please God, and then I could sleep soundly forever, or at least till I did another stupid thing like this.

The pages don’t hold up long, their subjects hinting and gesturing leeringly at the wounds newly re-exposed and the clouds obscure far too much light in an unsubtle condemnation that starts to feel like warning. He waits for an aphid to scuttle ever slowly, pausing periodically, to the edge of the page and over it so he may close it without another pang of guilt piled on, then begins the sad slow process of stretching and repacking that acknowledges the inability to rejoin our simpler roots. He thinks about summer, thinks about the future, feels paralyzed by its limitless horizon and engulfing depth, wonders if any place will ever hold his person alone again without shadowy echoes of the people who are no longer with him. There has to be a way to reframe, to adjust, to find the kind of solace in loneliness that seems so natural to so many, or at least they’re good at faking. But not today. Today it is a race against thunder and quickening wind to make it to the doorway and the false comforts of an interior undrenched.

I am the old man waiting in the rest home to die, wondering what became of my gifts and nerve endings. I am the seventh-grader discovering a voice for his long-sublimated hopes, impatient to grow up already. I am the stickball player at a wedding that feels like a perfectly foretold homecoming. I am the empty-handed return flier from Africa, neck craning in half-sleep that covers what has been lost. I am the four-year-old just awoken from my first nightmare, the nine-year-old writhing with my first migraine. I am the man, possibly, comforting his child at their own pain, the visage of such an entity blinking in and out of existence with my own uncertain ability to hope.

I can pause the world, lie back on grass beneath a tree, look up, and see my selves, ever flailing into the future but seamlessly the same. What I cannot see, today, is the point.


Ten Ninety-Nine

Categories: A Day in the Life, Telling Stories, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , ,

The Raritan River flows gently southward, bedecked on either side by paths, one cracked red asphalt raised high above the waterline, the other muddy disintegrating soil strewn with the exposed roots of sickly trees. On one side, western, the vantage from which the students relax in over-comfy soporific chairs and procrastinate, there is a mass of technological construction, well sealed lightbulbs above aging tennis courts with absurdly high chainlink fences, brick structures for respite from the precipitation just blown through, right-angled walkways for the runners pacing ever up, ever down, seeking internal retribution for the pounding of their feet against hard human-made solidity. On the other, eastern, the distant wild side, green-brown patterns peek through stripped winter trees, offering glimmers of nature’s eternity in defiance of the structure and order thumbing its mechanical nose from across the river. The tension and rivalry implicit in the face-off cut by the swirling wind that washes the water down toward the vastness of the weary Atlantic, a body that will take these molecules to the shores of colonizers and their one-time slaves.

There is anonymity in critique, anonymity the vaunted valued safeguard against bias, nepotism, subtle hints of racism or sexism or clues to prejudice. But with the anonymity a lack of accountability, much maligned in this unseen framework of empty crackling air, the ability to levy lobs of vitriol or one-upsmanship with no fear of reprisal, repercussion, responsibility. How the increasingly popular sense that there is nothing larger or more meaningful, nothing beyond, nothing worth worrying about in the future, how it all conspires to reinforce the lack of any internal check. That what is within will remain forever locked, hidden, guarded for all time against the prying of other minds and thus the meaning is truly what we make of it and nothing has value innate or given. That there is something not only of value and meaning lost in this series of conclusions, but actually something of hope or inspiration that also vanishes, that in the futility of being able to get away with anything, there will never be anything worth accomplishing but what is presented in the falsely trumped-up over-filtered court of celebrity or fame.

“I’m giving one star for the originality of the idea simply because I can’t tell what idea is being pursued.”

Creativity is not rewarded in this format, originality and risk-taking not the quest of those who like stories as spoon-fed reiterations of the home movies they watched when they were barely toddling. There is something to the straight narrative, to the predictable, to the time-honored tradition, but these hackneys must be viewed with the same cynicism which the overly happy might view a moment of depression. “Isn’t life sad enough already?” they asked. Isn’t life truly predictable enough, dull enough, that not everything needs a clear sign, a roadmap, a series of bright lines pointing us homeward and within? Is there no room for the thought-provoking, the mind-bending, the exploration of uncharted territory? Not in this format, not at this time. And with that, as with every setback, the exploration of crossroads and goals and work/payoff risk/reward ratios and re-examination of the eternally damaged self. That every voice of negativity becomes a chorus, not just for me but perhaps for most, and that chorus fills its lungs and exudes glass-breaking arias of doom from which there is no hope but to shield one’s eyes against the flying shards and reopen them in the newly windswept ruins of a transparent gallery.

Giggling undergraduates walk in, creep up to the seats, plant a computer down before them to begin to gawk and laugh and compare notes on those they find attractive. It is the diversion of the moment, the best use of the opportunities given, perhaps just a way to bond and blow off steam while they ooh and ahh and chuckle in nervous embarrassment of the exposure of their most secret, twilit thoughts and desires. Does it change the narrative if I tell you they are girls? That they are guys? That they are straight? That they are not? Does a gendered perception color your vantage of what might be okay or what is harmful, harmless? Does it strike as frivolity, as necessary development, as something insightful or inciteful?

“I’m not even sure that unlivability is a real word.”

It’s not, perhaps, but it’s a concept, and what point is there in articulating the absolute rules of a grammar used to strap us to mast of the lack of innovation? The language itself can be a form of oppression among those unwilling to use it to elicit thought. A quest, perhaps, for the best paint-by-numbers regurgitation, a memory contest, a lesson taught in the old traditional style of read, listen, repeat. Dynamism as the enemy. Liveliness danced into the distance. The specter of spontaneity, surprise, unexpected revelation to be held at bay with so much garlic, crossed fingers, and gnashing of frothy teeth.

But this is only half of the story, maybe even less so. There was another whole perspective, one ready to advance the work, one ready to join with friends and holdouts and the lingering supporters in the belief that human creativity can expand beyond what has already been established. “This is a strong, original concept and piece. The editing is good. There are no obvious errors. I enjoyed reading it and am curious what the next chapter would bring in terms of connecting these images. Great work!” And the inevitable disappointment of that reviewer that there is nothing more to read, almost rising to match my own sadness of same, offering a breath of acknowledgment and hope in the face of capricious dismissal. And the inevitable wrestling match to follow, just spoken of in other contexts, the voice of shelves and counterspeech rising boldly against the droning narrative of worthless rejection and, worse, callous indifference and change of heart.

The train traverses the looping rain-dripped bridge in the distance, one of stone or concrete pillars dipping soggy feet in the duck-splattered water as it tours past the campus. There are countless people aboard, each of them contemplating their own mostly post-work discombobulation as they roll toward New York City in search of food and rest and the promise of waking on a Friday with a little more hope than this morning. And it is easy to contemplate these minds untouched and feel the abyssal futility of despair, the distance they each might be asked to climb from the mundane tradition of their lives in order to find something deeper, more valuable, a more lasting way to be the part of the change I wish to see in the world. And yet there is also their underlying humanity to consider, the adaptability of our species that turns each tragedy into triumph, each disaster into rebirth, each catastrophe into some sort of redemptive glimpse at the power of progression. That each person thereon, ensconced in seats in the fading light and perhaps their own fading consciousness, is nonetheless thinking, breathing, capable of greatness. That their mere movement across mile of repetitive track signifies a greater capability of movement across a mental landscape if only they were so prompted, so inclined, so awoken.

The birds come in, unseen in their approach, suddenly gathering to swoop to floaty rest on the half-land marsh of the water’s-edge trees. They will feed, commune, flap and settle, and eventually be scared by something, take to the air, and leave.

We are no better than the birds. And they are no better than us. Each living being seeks connection and comfort, meaning and sustenance. This place can fulfill us all, if only we care to let it. But to do so, we must all believe that such a thing is possible. It is obvious and innate before us, but we have to know how to look. You are, at this moment, walking in a metaphor. But the metaphor, however fake it may ultimately be, is more serious than anything else. It is a painted shadow of the world that carries more weight than all the rock beneath us.


An Opportunity to Learn

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

Part of the problem with a worldview devoted to science and the belief that everything is completely random and coincidental is that it can blind us to the pattern-seeking wisdom innate to our species. Thus people can see events transpire that, in combination, send a clear message and patently refuse to acknowledge the message under the guise of their faith in a random universe. Setting aside the inconsistency of a “random universe” having ordered and explicable laws which these people seek to define, refine, and demonstrate the consistency of, it’s just not a good use of the human brain to assume there’s nothing to be gleaned from stringing patterns together and trying to discern a communication. We are pattern-seekers for a reason and that reason is probably not to help keep us from surviving.

The pattern clearly being expressed of late is that lousy methods of power-generation are going to kill us. No, really, they are. And probably a good bit faster than the relatively glacial pace of the alleged global warming/climate change/neo ice-age/buy fluorescent bulbs movement. I’ve long considered the above to be sort of a noble lie, a bit of a fudging of things in order to get us to move away from patterns of global organization and behavior that are clearly problematic for other reasons. Basically, if Al Gore’s theology is the only reason you’re going to cut down on your waste and lobby for better energy sources, it’s better than not taking those steps at all. Except, you know, when you believe that individuals instead of corporations move the bar on these things, or when you believe that buying new things to replace old functional things is somehow the solution. But hey.

Getting back to the point. Oil will kill us. Nuclear power will kill us. Coal will kill us. Not slowly, not over time, but quickly and fiercely and with the power of a dark, choking asphyxiation. And you can sit there and say “Gee, isn’t it funny that we went through a massive phase where coal-mining cave-ins were the biggest news story on the planet, and that was almost immediately followed by a massive phase where the biggest, most devastating oil spill was the biggest news story on the planet, and that was almost immediately followed by the emerging reality of sequential nuclear meltdowns triggered by a highly predictable and common event being the biggest news story on the planet – wow that must be random.” You can say that to yourself if you want to. But if you do, with that conclusion, then, respectfully, you are an idiot. And you should think about what is making you an idiot and how you can fix that.

I’ve posted a bit (mostly on Facebook, which is starting, even for me, to steal time away from this page) about Zeitgeist lately and the accompanying movement and the three movies and all that. And while I find their dismissiveness about deeper meaning and accompanying faith in science to be in line with what I criticize above, I do at least value the movement’s general sense of urgency about the problems facing our planet and the obvious unacceptability of what so many people unthinkingly put up with on a daily basis. One of the most frustrating things about being alive on Earth at this stage of history is having to feel crazy all the time for finding the problems apparent in almost every aspect of human structures to be so obvious while everyone else thinks they’re more or less fine (or at least intractable). I’m not saying it would be easy to create Utopia tomorrow, but it does seem clear that major steps we could take in that direction are relatively simple and apparent. And they all just require that internal recognition of what’s distracting us and how to get away from it.

Of course, I can also see the extreme effectiveness of capitalism as a general system in distracting us from what’s important. Surely capitalism isn’t the only structure in place keeping us from realizing the potential we really have to improve our lot and our planet’s lot, but it’s by far the biggest and most effective at present. Discussion of creating actually sustainable forms of power that lack the ability to go awry and destroy ecosystems or small swaths of civilization (or perhaps the entire planet’s ecosystem and civilization) is waved down by the shrugging declaration that the market will somehow solve for calamity, that the invisible hand is smart enough to anticipate short- and long-term consequences that don’t involve money. It’s relatively obvious to the thoughtful that corporations will not start investing with any seriousness in sustainable forms of energy until unsustainable ones have become unprofitable. And it should be relatively obvious now that the risks associated with those more traditional forms of energy are overriding any profit gained from their use. Unfortunately, the profit motive has no slot for accounting for human welfare.

When a government is found to be oppressive, people are lauded and cheered for rebelling against that system. Why not with an economic mode of oppression as well? Here is a clear and stark demonstration of the fact that corporations, capitalism, and the system that keeps them in place as the dominant ways of conducting human affairs are going to kill us. Quickly and painfully. They will kill our animals, they will kill our people, they will kill our way of life. You know, all those things terrorists are allegedly about to do because they “hate” us. Except that capitalists are indifferent to such things, something that can prove far more devastating than hate. Hate at least acknowledges the need for value structures, emotions, prioritization of values. Indifference is lethal, is swift in its disregard. Yeah, that’s right. I said it. I fear capitalists far more than terrorists. The capitalists are actually killing us in high volume numbers, and with far less self-awareness.

So what’s the prescription? What’s the answer to watching every form of popular energy generation go haywire and cause increasing levels of disaster? What’s the answer to watching economic riots generate massive instability and upheaval that also offers the opportunity for change? It’s to embrace the change, to push it further, to take advantage of the power of examination that comes from things being difficult, to start advocating stringently and ardently for an end to the status quo. For something, anything, to replace the currently accepted standards of resource distribution and the currently accepted resources themselves. For the process by which we change these things and which we ultimately decide on to account for things like human meaning and the importance of human values and lives, not merely faith in that system itself. Devoted faith in any system, be it the scientific method, the invisible hand, the concept of randomness, or even the concept of democracy, can blind us to the flaws and failings of such systems. And as we are seeing all over the world, this yields disastrous consequences.

I pray for the people of Japan, just as I did for those on the Gulf Coast and those trapped in mines and will continue to for all the victims of our idiocy. It is not kind that this world requires death as the only antidote to stupidity, that until people start keeling over in large numbers, no one pays attention. It is perhaps the natural consequence of an overpopulated planet in a rudimentary stage of development. It will not always need to be so. But I do hope that these people and those like them can be spared to the greatest extent possible, while we still manage to learn from their suffering.

Which reminds me, before I close, about one of the last major earthquakes in Japan and what hypocrisy and myopia that one reminded me of. Since nothing really became of this poem I wrote in 1995, I might as well attach it here as another addendum about the nature of humanity and how the answers should be clear, or at least clearer. This was written on January 21, 1995, four days after the major Kobe earthquake of that year, amidst Japan initially refusing aid from the West and getting massive criticism for this decision.

by Storey Clayton

The earth shakes and the World moves.

We look to Kobe
A city in Japan
We look from the western world
The world of united states and european communities
The world that is so vastly far and different
From Japan
And Kobe

We look and see a town
No a city
No a metropolis
No the seventh-largest group of humanity on our Planet
It is torn apart
By its own Earth
Ripped from its foundations
By the very Home it sits upon

Thousands die
Hundreds of thousands lose their homes
Millions feel frightened

‘Tis a frightening thing indeed
When the mere trembling of our Planet
Tears millions of children
And women
And also men
From deep within Kyoto
And Osaka
And also Kobe

We look and see humans
Different and similar
As are all humans
Different and similar
The west stares urgently upon the East
And says to its fellow Humans
“We shall help, Brothers and Sisters”

With vague politeness
Solid rejection
the Answer
is No

No Help
No help for the people of Kyoto
No help for the people of Osaka
No help for the people of Kobe
Who sit in the cold and
very Carefully
Warm their hands
to the Fire
That burns the city
through the Aftershocks
But warms their hands

that hold no food and little water

The west criticizes it’s afflicted Brothers and Sisters
And these Siblings’ government

But these people of united states and european communities
No longer say
That the people
Are equal
To their government

Perhaps they realized
That Bill Clinton
And John Major
And Helmut Kohl
Are not the perfect embodiment
Of every western human


Perhaps in the East
Where thousands freeze
And starve
And dehydrate

Perhaps then they thought about
The Last Time the Earth Shook

The Last Great Earthquake of this
Great Land

That one too took an unbelievable Toll
And on children and women as well as men

Perhaps the two momentous earthquakes
Of 1945
Made Japan’s leaders
Think Twice
And Twice Again
About accepting their western “siblings”

Was anyone in Kobe
in mid-January of 1995
Who had also been in
or Nagasaki
50 years before?

Had they survived through
the Bombing
the Radiation
the Fallout
the Cancer
the Memories

To come to a new life
In a new city
A fresh city
Named Kobe

Had that person awoken
Five decades later
To the same morning
That had haunted the person
For their entire life?

Perhaps the person felt the Earth
that person’s own Earth
as they then felt their

Fifty years chased by ghosts
Phantoms of the past
Shadows in one’s eyes
Shadows blocking one’s mind
Shadows enveloping one’s body
Shadows knocking on one’s soul

And then the sixty seconds
That erase half a century of


Perhaps the nation of Japan
On its several West-Pacific islands
Was not so quick to forget
The last time Japanese soil
Shook and
Crumbled and

And yet we
in our united states and european communities
Do We Understand?


Maybe if the United States had forgotten
The thousands of
who died instantly in the waters of Hawaii
in December of 1941



Japan could forget
The Thousands of
Men, Women, and Children
who died both instantly
and over time
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki
from 1945-1995

But who would know?

They were “our enemies” last time
So we had a right to do what we did!??????!

Didn’t we?

Of course these United States
Have the right to
Play Creator
By making the Earth shake
With the impact of colliding plates
And a fear inspired that is
A Million Fold

Of Course

a tremor from within is the Will
or Whim
of the Planet we all must inhabit
as Humans
we have no control
none have control
we all have hope

a tremor from outside is the Will
or Whim
of another Human that few of us
really Know
let alone
Trod Upon
we have no control
some have control
we have less hope

If one has the power
To vanquish “enemies”
With the strength of
Kobe earthquakes
Why should one stop
Before that point?

After all,
it is Human Nature
to “KNOW”
that one’s enemies
are the bad ones
and the beholding Human
is good and right


Is Japan Justified
in not trusting a people
who fifty years ago
confused the grand people of a lost nation
with the lost emperor of a grand nation
at a cost
unspeakable and
unexperienced in
our western lands

Are they justified to let their people starve
After those United States made their people die?

A question

One for philosophers to ponder

On a well-fed night

That is chilly outside yet warm within

A question to ponder

Some night when

There is no “enemy”

There is no 1941 or 1945 in the Human records

And there is no possibility for an earthquake

From the ground or

From the air

on our Planet

the one which we all must inhabit

as Humans

Different and Similar

Tied to different parts of the World

but all Tied to the World.


Hello Dali: the Life and Times of a Surreal Week

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

Have barely a moment to update things, so this will have to be short and sweet. As regular readers will have noted from the string of Duck and Covers with no other content lately, it’s been an insanely busy week. Not only is it my first official stint on the job working officially for Rutgers University in a professional capacity, but we’re hosting the tournament this weekend, making everything that much more time-consuming and challenging. I love tournaments, I love running tournaments, and I most especially love running tab rooms, so there’s a lot of love for this weekend. But there’s also an incredible amount of preparation required and I’m just barely surfing the top crest of it.

As though notching the first week of my life as a pro Debate Coach weren’t surreal enough, today marked the announcement of the second round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest advancers, a demarcation that culls 80% of the 5,000 entrants in the General Fiction category. For the second year in a row, I’m pleased to announce that a novel of mine (last year it was American Dream On; this year The Best of All Possible Worlds) has advanced. I was less sure about my pitch this year than last, but am much more confident about future rounds since the opening portion of this book is much tighter and less depressing than the start of ADO. Last year, I felt nervous about the first round and confident about second, though ADO ran into a stonewall of readers who only want things light and fluffy, no matter how much character development is thrown at them. This year, I was even more nervous about first and even less about second, so hopefully I’ll be in this thing for a while to come. Quarterfinalists will be announced on March 22nd.

Like before, the least I’ll get out of the contest is written feedback from two writers about the first few chapters of the book. The most I’ll get is a lot of publicity or… well, there’s always a chance of winning the thing. And given what the book is about and the unending surreality of my life right now, how could I rule it out? I’ve been due for some upside after the worst year of my life, but plenty of people who deserve good things don’t get them. I may never feel lucky again, quite, but I have to recognize that my life has been filled with incredible peaks and valleys. And who would I be if I didn’t yodel from the peaks?

Today is a good day, without reservation.

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