Home, I Like to be Here When I Can

July 28, 2007

First, thank you all who have understood and supported my trip to the hometown. It was a messy affair as I knew it would be, and it’s good to be back in the Outlands, swatting the black flies from off their bites, smoking cigarettes in the dark shade of the front stoop. There were some good times on the seaboard, and my family is rocking along much the same as when I saw them last. My old friends were still there with a few exceptions–one is a real estate agent in South Carolina, another a graphics artist in NYC, and yet others are lost to who knows what and where. Which is how it should be, I suppose. For all they know, I’m face down in some roadside ditch. And for all I know, so are they.

I am not a sentimental man by any means and believe in the virtues of understatement and quietude, in a person’s right to reserve to themselves all counsel, all judgment, all emotion. It’s not to say I don’t feel, I just don’t do it on the outside. This, as you can imagine, has elicited all manner of choice descriptions: cold bastard, indifferent prick, and my all time favorite spewed by a very talented writer, an aloof robot low on batteries. None of these things are actually true, mind you, but the reality is more that I don’t see the benefits of hemming, hawing, or otherwise getting too worked up for good things or bad. 

Which brings me to this: back home I caught up with a friend who had recently gotten back from Baghdad, where he served 18 months kicking down doors, waving around his rifle, and driving in the back of an armored truck ducking potshots from militia fighters hidden in buildings, along the roadsides, and wherever else they could see and shoot without being seen and shot at. While his stories were horrific and terrifying, it was the digital pictures he took that continue to flash on my eyelids’ insides like sordid home videos, grainy and haunting in their refusal to fit into any sort of context, any sort of framework, I can understand. I saw a photo of a headless body, hands and feet bound with some sort of wire, and what struck me was the shoes. They were old Air Jordans. Basketball shoes. The kind we coveted as kids and cried for when our whines went unheeded. Needless to say, it’s a disarming juxtaposition to recognize shoes as an ancient status symbol from my past on the feet of a young man who has had his head forcibly removed from shoulders. And I wondered how he would have reacted should someone have told him when he was still whole what those shoes meant in the late 80’s. Would he have laughed? Cried? Would he have spit in the sand and broken glass and looked off into nowhere in particular?

These thoughts have brought on a real evaluation of where I am and what exactly I think I’m doing with my life. I’m not a true believer in that I’m off to join this that or the other cause. But I recognize current events as a series of fenceposts getting thinner the further we move down it. At it’s distant end, it’s razor thin, and there can be no straddling, no indecision, no nothing. In other words, right now we move in a world full of gray, and the choices between either all of this or all of that are largely false dichotomies. However, could it happen that something becomes truly this or that, and there are only these two choices? Throw good and bad, right and wrong out. Forget that stuff because they’re pointless designations for what we want to happen and what we don’t want to happen. So, I’m wondering what’s going to happen when we get to the thinning spots in the landscape, when we’ve exhausted all nuance and are left with a broken compass, an untrue astrolabe under a new and curious sky.

Ugh. Enough, Puddlehead! You’re scaring the children and boring the adults. The long and short of it, I’m grateful to be home, and there is a north wind, and the nights are chilly, and I’m glad for the thoughts you’ve all sent, and I’m off to read all that I have missed.

      

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On Recalling A Smarmy Man

June 6, 2007

I left home when I was 18, moved out to Colorado, got a few part-time jobs in order to scramble the cash needed to upgrade my camping equipment so I could, within the year, travel the Southwest. Which I did, and which is a story for another day. I only mention this to lead here: While I was camping outside Taos, I somehow got invited to a writer’s party. Since it was a decision between hanging out with writers or hanging alone by my sputtering pinion fire in late November, it was really no decision at all.

Yet, within minutes of getting handed a glass of wine and hating how my bootheels clacked across the hardwood, I wished I was home, as in back at camp, where at least I could smoke cigarettes in peace, journal, and enjoy the cooling high desert night. I was slightly intimidated by these people. They were well-dressed, older, and clearly moved in educated and urbane circles that I had yet to encountered. To be fair to myself, I was nineteen, reading everything I could get my hands on, and just starting to put together some sort of aesthetic, some system of beliefs and values that would inform my writing, my reading, and my thoughts on literature, life, and just who I wanted to be. And what I learned that night was who I wasn’t and who, gratefully, I could never be.   

After a while, a smarmy loafers-and-no-socks, white jeans and braided belt kind of guy started in on me, asking pointed questions about college (which I had yet to attend), what I thought of this, that, and the other book he clearly knew I knew nothing about, etc, etc. Long and short, I was his intellectual sparring partner and vastly out-gunned. The group I had been chatting with awkwardly laughed and drifted away.

“So,” He asked, “What do you intend to do with your writing?”

What I told him I knew even then was ridiculous, pompous, and every bit as smarmish and mean-spirited as he was. But I wanted to find a way to smear the condescension on his face into shock, indignation, anything but that patronizing smirk.  

“I intend,” I said slowly, “To be the only American writer that matters.”

Which I knew then and know still is complete bullshit. I don’t want that. Though I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew it wasn’t that. To write, travel, and live well was about the extent of my plans. Other than that, I couldn’t say, and now, years later, that’s still about as far as the master plan goes.

But I can tell you this: that experience made me realize the importance of keeping a balance on the inside. I am never as great nor as hopeless a man or writer as it may feel in any given moment. I plug on. I write on. That’s it. I judge harshly my work and revise. I’ve learned to see writing like any other job. I’m like an accountant but with words. Or a carpenter, a pipefitter, whatever. 

That smarmy twit taught me was that I’d rather been known as a good man than a great writer. I’d like both, of course, but would not sacrifice the former for the latter. We write best from love and praise, from a place where mystery sings the world’s hymn, and we’re lucky enough to hear it and transcribe the results. 

So thanks, Smarmy Man, I appreciate what you’ve done for me.