Oh inertia!

Oh inertia!

The trouble with living in a land with no discernable seasons is that time really does slip away. I haven’t been here since February! Not because I have nothing to do or say—heck, that never stopped me before—but because, well, I just didn’t. After my little mini-safari it seemed anticlimactic to talk about my regular boring life (a new pizza place opened! yay!); and then I was determined to write another novel (10,000 words in then decided it was rubbish and needed to start over; now back up to 1,000); and then I was like, “Oh, it is April already? Crap.”

And then I went on summer vacation. I had very lofty ambitions. I bought fancy camera equipment and make a very elaborate itinerary and was going to take five thousand pictures. Instead I took about a hundred.

And didn’t share any of them.

And now it’s September and I feel guilty even doing this. But hey, if I don’t get back on the horse, then I’m not going to go anywhere.

Had I shared my rough draft, it would have begun something like this:

The first rain of the season began as a papery whisper passing a secret through the dry grasses and the dying leaves. It was mere rumor, laden with anxiety and disbelief, but then the first drops came, miraculously cold and heavy, and even if it stopped now they would all know that the rains were coming, and it would be good.

And if I had shared pictures, they would have looked something like this:

That was an up-close encounter with a cantankerous peregrine falcon in New Hampshire. Beautiful bird, though a little goofy-looking up close.

And then I would have shared some of these appealing rustic images from Vermont.

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And I would have definitely shared pictures of some of the things I saw in a museum.

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But I didn’t do any of that when it was timely, so I’m getting it out of my system, and will be returning once again to at least semi-regular posts. Because darn it, I miss this all. And the seasons are never going to help me mark the passage of time, at least not while I live here, so I have to just make sure I do it myself.

The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

The infinite possibilities of a blank notebook

For Valentine’s Day last week I received a little red notebook, about the size of a shirt pocket. The sentiment behind the gift wasn’t explained—what was I expected to do with it?—but ever since then I’ve carried it around, debating how best to put it to use.

I opened it and could almost imagine a delightful little poem written on the first page. I’m not a poet, but I do like reading poetry, and sometimes imagine that I could write something beautiful if I just put my mind to it. Last week when I went on my little vacation I brought with me a book of classical Chinese poetry that I’d bought on a lark at a street market in Amsterdam. I chose it because it was physically light, but also because the poems were short and I wasn’t sure how raucous my traveling group would be—I might only have a few minutes’ peace at a time, so a good long novel probably wouldn’t be a good thing to try to sink my teeth into.

The poems were lovely, though, which shouldn’t be surprising considering that the book is hundreds of years old and somehow people still see fit to publish it.

Every plant and tree knows spring will soon be gone

a hundred pinks and purples compete with their bouquets

willow fuzz and elm pods lack such clever means

they only know how to fill the sky with snow

(Han Yu, translated by Red Pine)

A good poet makes it seem so easy. I’ve seen trees and flowers, too! I can do this! (Or, as my half-drunk self slurs, “Masters, shmasters. Watch me: ‘Roses are red, violets are…something. Shouldn’t they be purple? What the hell? I need another drink.’)

I fancied myself a poet in high school, for a few months at least. I carried scraps of paper and a stubby pencil in my pocket to jot down my observations. I also carried a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl in my inside jacket pocket, because it fit neatly and because I wore that jacket every day until one of my teachers asked me if I ever felt dirty wearing literally the same thing every day, rain or shine, without washing it, and I thought that maybe I should retire both the jacket and the book. The jacket subsequently disappeared, probably given to a charity without my knowledge, and my grandmother’s free-range parakeet later tore Howl into little strips to feather his nest or as an act of avian literary criticism. But I digress.

The only line I remember from my foray into writing poetry was, “The flames were doused/with mineral water.” I don’t remember what the poem was about, except that it was unusually long for me, and it had fancy but purposeless spacing, and I was quite proud of it until a friend of mine on the bus took it and read it and then gave it back without saying much. She didn’t make fun of it, but she didn’t bring it up again either, so either she thought it was so awesome that she couldn’t believe a peer had written it, or it was, you know, not good. When I read it to myself later that day, the line about mineral water (does it douse flames better or worse than regular water?) jumped out at me as particularly embarrassing, and all these years later it is all I remember.

So maybe my little red notebook isn’t meant to contain poetry. It could contain little vignettes of my life, like maybe describe the sunrise or how I feel about my backyard chickens (they are hilarious, by the way). How long, though, before such a collection becomes nothing more than a catalogue of meals I’ve eaten or movies I’ve seen?

The diminutive size of this notebook might be better suited to capturing the memories that sometimes surface from the murky recesses of myself, those mysterious surfaces that happen when, for example, I see a kid kicking a ball down the street and a chain reaction of subconscious free-association brings me back to a road trip I took with my mother and sister nearly thirty years ago from Colorado Springs to Augusta, Georgia, on a Greyhound bus. We stopped at a Stuckey’s in Alabama and I remember the tables all had those peg-jumping IQ tests, and my sister and I almost forgot to eat because we were so focused on proving that we were smart.

Not exactly the kind of gem that deserves memorialization, I suppose.

Maybe I’m overthinking it. Maybe I should just use it to write my grocery lists. I read once that a Mesopotamian scholar found a cuneiform tablet that had been on display for decades in a museum, and then translated it and found it was a to-do list for a Babylonian homemaker. I wonder if a thousand years from now my little red notebook will be on display under a glass case and someone will ask, “What was ‘Cinnamon Toast Crunch’?”

I keep carrying it around, empty and unused, and a part of me is starting to wonder if maybe the best part of a new notebook is its very emptiness, the way that it waits so calmly but eagerly for my forthcoming profundity in whatever form that may take.

In which case I’d hate to ruin it with some trifle about mineral water.

I resolve to be more resolute

I resolve to be more resolute

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, because when I was young somebody told me that they never work, and when you’re young you’re very impressionable. For example, I once heard one of the robots on Mystery Science Theater declare, “No matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid,” and that has been my attitude to that ever since.

I do periodically challenge/force myself to improve myself, or at least address some of my shortcomings. Like one time I resolved to turn myself into a Roxy Music fan. Another time I took up yoga. Because I can now touch my toes and sing all the words to “All I Want is You,” I would say that these challenges I give myself are generally worth the effort.

But they aren’t new year’s resolutions, because I learned when I was six that those never work. It just so happens that when I looked in the mirror and decided that I needed to fix some issues, it was New Year’s Eve. Totally unrelated, though. I would have made these resolutions in October if I’d felt lousy enough then.

First and foremost, I need to read something. After getting off to a great start in January (Moby Dick and The Goldfinch—loved the first, gradually came to hate the second) I didn’t really do much over the rest of the year. A few short novels, mostly read during the summer, and none of them especially memorable; two books on Russian history (a package deal on eBay); and some Shakespeare that I really should have read a long time ago: that was it. Oh, and I only made it through one of those Russian books because I was the only person in the office and there was literally nothing else to do.

So I need to fix that.

I also need to write more. I was doing an amazing (for me) job at the start of the year (that whole a-short-story-and-a personal-essay-every-week thing), but then work—my actual job, that is—finally got going and I didn’t have time to spend twenty hours a week writing. I understand that there are limits, of course, but the fact is that I could do a lot more than I’ve been doing. I could spend less time on Reddit, for example, or just staring at my chickens. Sometimes I just walk around in circles thinking about how I don’t have time to do anything except walk around in circles.

Oh, and in the fall I developed a weird obsession with a game called Fire Emblem, because it let me send a bunch of warriors into battle, and they could fall in love and have children, and those children were also warriors, and so I could send a whole warrior family into battle, which was violent but still kind of sweet. Somehow this was appealing to me, and consumed most of my evenings. And no, it doesn’t make any more sense if you actually play it. It’s just weird. And time-consuming. (And, yes, fun, but whatever.)

So I’ve put away Fire Emblem and taken books off my shelf and put them in a neat little stack so they can taunt me whenever I’m in my living room, and I’ve ordered a bunch of fresh books so I can have something new to look forward to. I can’t tell you what they are, because I’ve already forgotten, but tonight I’m going to start reading either a book of Chinese poetry that I found at a book market in Amsterdam, or a history of Mediterranean pirates that I’ve been lugging around for way too long. I’ll decide over a glass of wine.

And this morning I woke up at three-thirty for reasons that I cannot understand, and instead of poking around on the Internet until sunrise I poured myself some coffee and did a bit of writing. Only three hundred words, but three hundred good ones, I think. I am pleased.

Of course I should also work on being healthier, kinder and more generous, and maybe getting my car’s oil changed more regularly. But right now, learning again how to read and write seem like admirable enough goals, new year be damned.

The Moment You Realize You Lost a Limb

The Moment You Realize You Lost a Limb

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Once when I was young I delivered to myself an impressive inner monologue, probably while showering, comparing growing up to exploring an enormous Baroque castle. One of those palaces with a million doors that led to a thousand rooms in a hundred different wings, with all sorts of secrets hiding within: kitchens, courtyards, libraries, ballrooms, water closets. You are free to explore with the caveat that you can only move forward, and with the twist that every time you open a door, a random number of other doors in other parts of the castle will lock themselves up forever. In some cases that won’t matter–you were never going to go in the direction, and most rooms have more than one entrance anyway–but in some cases some very nice rooms and even some entire wings would be closed away from you forever.

I don’t remember the context at all, what made me think about it. I can’t even remember how old I was, which particular shower I was standing in. I just remember the image, of life as an endless number of possibilities, and how aging gradually reduces the option until eventually there are few, if any, paths left open, and what’s left is your life.

Continue reading “The Moment You Realize You Lost a Limb”

Too many projects

Too many projects

I recently nearly landed a new job, which would have been a great boon financially but a total disaster personally. I couldn’t turn down the money so I went in for the interview and did my best; fortunately for all of us there was a better candidate. (Though my pride does wonder who.)

In the weeks leading up to that interview I had begun to face the possibility that my daily writing spree was going to be reduced once again to stolen moments here and there. Not that stolen moments are impossible to work around–I’ve written two novels and several plays under those constraints–but the luxury of stretching out in my office for hours on end will be hard to give up. And I don’t need the money that badly, not yet.

So a quick survey of what I’m up to: on Sundays I dig through my photo archives and find pretty pictures I have taken throughout my life, up to the point where I joined Instagram and started doing posting things in real time.

On Tuesdays (today!) I dig a little bit into my mind and lay it out here. Just a little, though. You aren’t here for me. Or at least you shouldn’t be.

Fridays I publish fiction. I’ve been doing one a week for the past few weeks, and hope to sustain this pace for as long as possible.

That leaves the other days open for longer-term projects. I’m still working on editing Tantibus, the novel I wrote last year; and its sequel, Allegiance, for which a rough draft is about halfway done. I’m also polishing a couple of old plays that I hope to e-publish. Who knows, somebody might even perform them (I’ll waive royalties to anyone who really does stage them!).

About four years ago, mostly during lunch breaks, I wrote a novel that I refused to share with anyone. I had my reasons: it was a significant departure for me stylistically; I wasn’t comfortable with some of the themes; and there was a giant hole in my knowledge about the subject that I tried to finesse but wasn’t sure I had succeeded in doing. Also, because I wrote in a hurry, usually with a tuna sandwich next to the keyboard (lunchtime, remember), the writing itself was thin.

But when I finished the first draft I did tell my loved ones that I had written one (“I’m not going to let you read it so don’t ask, but I want you to know I finished a novel. Fifty-five thousand words.”) if only so they could understand why I was so proud of myself.

I promised that I would revisit the story when things quieted down, but they never actually did. From time to time I would open the file, navigate to my favorite chapters, and glance sadly at the ones that desperately needed work. And then one day I got a new computer, and somewhere between one machine and the other the entire novel disappeared, even from the cloud and Dropbox. Just poof!

I wasn’t even sad. I was never going to show it to anyone, I said to myself, so it was best to let go. And the next day I got to work in earnest on Tantibus, which I did show to my loved ones.

But in the past few weeks my lost novel has come back to me. There were some powerful images in it, and more than a few compelling characters. I had some time to reflect while walking on the beach a few days ago, and I realized that the huge hole in my knowledge that bedeviled my first attempt has been largely filled up by life experience, and I could probably now tackle it head on.

Yesterday I opened a new file and reintroduced myself to Alison Britten and her sister Shelly. In the intervening years my original title was stolen by a not-very-good television show, so I’ll have to think of a new one, but the girls remain themselves, and their story still resonates with me, and this time I hope to do them justice.

So long as I have the time.

Coffee and croissants

When all goes well I can have as much as an hour to myself before I have to report to work. I spend that hour at a coffeeshop called Friuli. The owner is Italian, the staff is the usual Almaty melange of Kazakhs and Russians. Two men and a woman; she works, they don’t, at least they try not to. Sometimes the can’t avoid serving a customer.

I ask for an americano and, when available, a croissant. If there’s no croissant the woman will bring me a plate of cookies. They’re indulgences I don’t need, empty calories that do nothing to fill me up. Usually I’m not even hungry. But they’re nice. And for about an hour a day I get to write.

I work on novels, or short stories, or whatever else is rattling in my head. I try not to think about work or family, or daydream about being President or starting a business. I resist the urge to tell an imaginary curious onlooker about my past or my future. I just write. At the end I take my word count and mark it on an on-screen sticky note. It keeps me motivated. Sometimes I write just to make sure that the word count is moving in the right direction. Without a definite purpose, even as modest as moving my word count up, my writings go nowhere. At least I’ve figured myself out.

Today it was 808. A funky number, banging like.

The coffee is decent. The croissants are hit and miss. Today’s was dry, dense, and a little cold. But that isn’t the point. I’m rewarding myself on a job well done. Funny how pleasing myself is something I have to work at sometimes.