2018: In Review

Well, 2018 is stubbing out its cigar. Closing its chapter. It was an important chapter in my life. In the story of my life it’d be a chapter with a true character turn, a tension point in the plot.

This year was a turn from a bit of normalcy into a great unknown. A great unknown that I’ve been anxiously awaiting for many years now. I’ve begun a career as a writer, writing my first  novel. I finished the first draft of that this year and have spent the latter part of the year tearing it apart in pursuit of further excellence. This will be a pattern I’ll become quite familiar with the further I go into it. And 2018 will be when it all materialized.

But it wasn’t just the writing. I reverted back to being a nomad, giving up my apartment and a home, this time in Chicago, for the road. I did quite a bit of traveling (listed below) but the crux of it was four months in Asia. I’m ending the year in Mexico City where I plan to be for several months.

Last year, in my reflection, I wrote that in 2017, “I spent more time with myself—meditating, reading, writing, floating. But Chicago is still a city of friends and I’m still an unabashed extrovert.”

So you see, things have changed. I spent much, much more with myself this year—traveling alone for significant stretches. And though I was in Chicago for the first half (and living my extroverted life), the writing life turned me much more introverted. Focused and dedicated to my project. I’ve asked myself if I thought this might be a pattern, which time will only tell. Exploring that idea and more on the writing-focused website I launched this year.

In summation, it was an exciting year. It revolved around one big change, sure, but it had moments of exultation as well. I officiated not one but TWO weddings this year. Grateful to have had those honors. I visited three new countries; rented houses with friends in Wisconsin and California, went back to New Orleans. Got to be a third-wheel roommate with some best friends who graciously took me into their apartment in the sky. I transitioned away from work with some relationships still strong and in tact from Uber. I kept up with people far and wide, visited friends all over the place, and read a tremendous deal of fiction and beyond. Another year down and another year of experiences that guide me into a fuller life.

I reflected upon that growth of experience in a poem I wrote at the very beginning of the year, for my 30th birthday, which I performed in front of dozens of people at perhaps my favorite event of the year—a house concert with my friends and family in my old apartment in Pilsen. It was the best way I could have imagined to start this whole year and it set the tone I hoped it would.

Other Notes

Travels: Chicago > San Francisco > Lake Geneva > San Francisco > Sea Ranch, CA > Phoenix > Napa Valley > New York City > Savannah > Cape Town > Garden Route >  Balule Nature Reserve > Johannesburg > Los Angeles > Minneapolis > South Korea > Indonesia > Sri Lanka > Indonesia > Laos > South Korea > Vietnam > Thailand > San Francisco > Los Angeles > Chicago > New Orleans > Mexico City 

Writing: Oh boy. 2018 saw more writing than perhaps any year of my life—even the creative writing years in Madison. Why? Well I wrote the first draft of a novel, clocking in above 160,000 words. And beyond that I journaled my travels, wrote letters, wrote halves of short stories, travel essays, and more. In 2019, I hope to spend more time writing, even if the word output isn’t as prolific. 

I tracked my word count for most of my first draft writing time in Asia. Here’s the average daily word output from each of the countries I went to:

Vietnam 4375
Korea 1,693
Laos 1,984
Indo 2 1805.9
Sri Lanka 1918.6
Indo 1 1,240

Reading:  Last year, only 20% of the books I read were fiction. This year will flip and be much closer to 80% fiction. This was purposeful. Much advice given from writers and articles is to read prolifically while you write. And so I picked it up in Fiction. There are two dangers with this: (1) you start to bend your sentences toward the style of whoever you’re reading, (2) you get wildly intimidated by reading fiction that’s way better than yours. I’ve been a victim of both. 

Here are the books I finished in 2018, with their date of completion.

1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon); March 25
2. The Secret History (Donna Tartt); April 23
3. The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt); May 6
4. Horace and Me (Harry Eyres); May 9
5. The Little Friend (Donna Tartt); May 20
6. Notes on Camp (Susan Sontag); June 12
7. Siddhartha (Herman Hesse); June 16
8. Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Marisha Pessl); July 13
9. The Caveman’s Valentine (George Dawes Green); July 19
10. The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin); July 21
11. My Absolute Darling (Gabriel Tallent); July 23
12. Less (Andrew Sean Greer); July 26
13. Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of a Fist (Sunil Yapa); Aug 2
14. Colorless Tsukuru Tazkai And His Years Of Pilgrimage (Haruki Murakami); Aug 6
15. A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara); August 18
16. American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis); August 24
17. Old School (Tobias Wolff); September 1
18. Lincoln In The Bardo (George Saunders); September 23
19. The City In Which I Love You (Li-Young Lee): September 25
20. The Hours (Michael Cunningham); September 27
21. A Way In The World (V.S. Naipaul); Oct 1
22. The Rosie Project (Graeme Simsion); Oct 3
23. What Wast Lost (Catherine O’Flynn); Oct 8
24. The Underground Railroad (Colson Whitehead); Oct 21
25. The Game (Neil Strauss); Oct 23
26. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne, Dave King); Oct 23
27. The Circle (Dave Eggers); Oct 26
28. The Sellout (Paul Beatty); Nov 13
29. Poetry Will Save Your Life (Jill Bialosky); Nov 21
30. Letters To A Young Writer (Colum McCann): Nov 27
31. Draft #4 (John McPhee); Dec 1
32. Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner); Dec 13
33. Memory Wall (Anthony Doerr); Dec 16
34. The Locals (Jonathan Dee); Dec 21
35. Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInerney) Dec 23

For record-keeping purposes, I finished 19 books in 2015, 21 in 2016, and 24 in 2017.

Professionally: Well, I did a little bit of a wardrobe change here (probably literally—though interesting that on some days I get more dressed up to write, not quite Tom Wolfe status but still). I left my Learning & Development job in corporate America to make it on my own; writing my novel and freelancing through some connections to pay for some travels. And that’s been fantastic. 

Pearl Jam: No Pearl Jam this year. It was the first time I missed Pearl Jam playing Chicago since I stared seeing them in 2003. 

Favorites

Favorite 2018 New Thing: The Siblings Folder

This one comes with gratitude to my sister Sammi. She realized earlier this year that with her travel, mine, and our other sister growing up we would have less time dedicated to talking with each other, learning about each others lives, and forging our bond as siblings. In February, we started a dropbox folder where each of us asks a question to the group (that we’ll also answer). Then, before the end of the month, each person writes a life update and answers each of the three questions.

Most months, though sometimes every other, we gather for a siblings chat to go over answers and talk about life with one another. If we’re able to do it in person, we try. Otherwise we do it over Skype which will likely be the case going into 2019.

But it’s been fantastic to get to know my sisters better and to get to keep them updated in my life, as well as answer tough life questions honestly.

Other Favorites: Birthday House Concerts,  Vox’s Earworm,

Favorite book Read In 2018: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I read some good ones this year but none took my breath away like Tartt’s debut. I’ve written about this elsewhere on sites but I picked up the book without knowing much about it on a Heathrow bookstore en route to South Africa.

I was swept in immediately. It’s a brilliantly written book but also just speaks to other interests of mine—overly educated erudites at college, reading all day and debating dead authors and dead languages. So I loved that. Toss in a murder mystery, and an innocent narrator swept up in over-the-top worship for another character (her Henry is like a prep school Gatsby who speaks 7 languages and can knock a guy out with a single punch).

Anyway, I finished The Secret History in two days, of nearly non-stop reading, even as I got to Cape Town. My first day and a half there was reading in cafes and devouring every word in it. It’s my most dog-earred and marginalia-ized book of many years and I return to it as I begin writing my own.

Other Favorites: Less, A Little Life, The Hours, Angle of Repose

I haven’t made a category for new favorite quote found in a year but I’ve been coming back to this one from The Hours:

“We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep. It’s as simple and ordinary as that……There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) know these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more.”

Favorite 2018 movie: Roma

This one surely carries both recency and location biases, but that’s okay. Watching Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Roma’ while in Mexico City was a special gift. Because there’s so many nuances he got right (of course he did). Dogs are always barking here, for instance. Garages are beautifully constructed and marvelous. And anyone doubting that street parades happen at random is dead wrong—I’ve encountered three in the 13 days I’ve been here.

But really what got me about this movie was its insistence that no matter what your circumstance (and each character is given their own), life around you continues on. Whether chaotic or in order (depending on your worldview), it marches on. And that’s what made Cuarón’s long panning shots on the streets so powerful. He does the same with water. It’s a masterpiece as I see it; a force combining the brilliant character studies and writing of ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien’ and the innovative direction (and editing, done by him) of ‘Children of Men’.

Other Favorites: Springsteen On Broadway, Three Identical Strangers, The Favourite, American Animals, First Reformed

Favorite 2018 album: ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ (Bob Dylan)

This wasn’t even close. And it’s also not an album. There was some good new, original music this year, but nothing groundbreaking as others have been. Or maybe my tastes are being left behind.

So 2018’s favorite album is a collection of unreleased bootleg versions (some aren’t even versions, just attempts) of Bob Dylan’s piece de resistance 1975 album ‘Blood on The Tracks’. Instead of spelling all of that out, you can read my thoughts on it here.

Favorite 2018 song: ‘Father Time’ Axel Mansoor

I may be biased here since I got to see a live versions of many of Axel’s songs at the memorable birthday party mentioned above. But know him or not, I’m going with ‘Father Time’ as my favorite new song of 2018. And the bias can be disproven with the numbers. According to the fact crunch of Spotify, ‘Father Time’ was my second most played 2018 song and in comparing the only above (Brian Fallon’s ‘Watson’), I’m going with Axel. Especially because this version puts it over the top.

In some moments, the song has been an emotional lift in remembering the existential inability we have to reconfigure time’s arrow. In other moments, it’s a simple and beautiful ode.

Well done, Axel. Proud of you for making this but much more grateful to be a listener.

Other Favorites: ‘Neptune’ Brian Fallon, ‘Young Lover – piano version’ St. Vincent, ‘Me And My Husband’ Mitski

(For non 2018 songs, there was a clear favorite from this year and that’s ‘Lover’s Spit’ by Broken Social Scene – both the original version and the Feist version)

Favorite 2018 Place Visited: South Africa

It’s always hard to pick a favorite here but South Africa was really an incredible experience—I think perhaps for containing so much in one country, I got to spend three weeks there, starting in Cape Town and ending in Johannesburg. Along the way was a few days in wine country, a roadtrip through the southern coast’s Garden Route and an amazing safari experience near Kruger National Park.

While traveling through South Africa, you needfully learn a lot about the nation’s history, as well as its amazingly diverse wildlife. These add to the richness of the country. It’s a fantastic place to visit and since it offers SO much, it can really fulfill any traveler’s desire. I loved that and I loved my time there.

(South Africa was my favorite new place visited. 2018 was also the first time back in South Korea since my year there in 2011; that was magical. I love that country!)

Favorite 2018 Meal: Bollywood Eggs (Samadi Cafe, Bali)

I love eggs. But I learned that I love eggs even more when you add in green chiles, mustard seeds, fresh curry leaves, tumeric, ginger, garlic, shallots and coconut milk. Add in sides of green sambal, coconut curry, warm chapatti bread and a side of kimchi and I’m sold. I think I got this three days in a row in Canggu, and pledged to figure out a way to make it for myself. That’ll be in 2019!

And now some pictures from 2018 (hover over for captions!)

I Lived Here Once, Sorta: Thoughts on NOLA.

This colorful lovely is a house in New Orleans. For some months, over half a decade ago, it was a house that I called home. Fresh with a new paint coat of whatever colors you’d call those, the house looks as full of its character now as it did those years ago.

But this was the first time I’d seen the house since I left New Orleans in the summer of 2012.

My relationship with the house, like my relationship with New Orleans at large, is as undefined as it is positive; fuzzed of definition, bright with life. Perhaps the house, then, is a metaphor for the poignancy we all want, perhaps it’s just the type of perspective one gets from the lez bon temp roulez lifestyle of New Orleans.

I say the relationship is undefined because this might not have truly been a home, not for that long anyway. Or was it? I stayed in New Orleans for less than half of a year. Is that “living” somewhere? What’s the definition for that length of time, anyway? One month? Three? Eight? Years?

Revisiting New Orleans this month I am reminded that I know the city. I know places there—and I know streets, and restaurants, and where to go for this or that. I know more than someone who has just visited. Being there, I found myself wanting to explore what exactly what my relationship was to the place that I knew, but still felt like a visitor. Because spending time there again, I was flooded with love for the city; the special things only it has. And there are a lot.

What I decided was that my relationship in terms of living/passing through there didn’t matter as much as the positivity of what my memory had kept and the path the New Orleans brought me down.

Because when I decided to go to in late 2011, I had no idea what the city looked like. I hadn’t seen as much as a single map of it. So I certainly didn’t know what my future neighborhood, the Treme, was—or where it was. Or, perhaps more importantly, what it meant. Because in New Orleans, like some other cities of noble histories, neighborhoods are more than their names. They are stories themselves.

I definitely didn’t know how to pronounce ‘Ursulines’ either. I’m not even sure I do now.

But I found a post on Craigslist. It was a couple looking for a housemate or two. They had just found a house in the Treme. It was recently “fixed up”. They couldn’t afford the whole thing on their own to rent, but they wanted to move in the same day I was planning to come down. Most importantly, they were open to temporary arrangements. I was intrigued and that was before they really even sold me on the house itself. It had a backyard like you wouldn’t believe, with a patio surrounded by a tangled giant green garden. Beyond that backyard, just steps away, was a historically black church built in the 1840s.

I called. Things clicked. I was in.

In for something I had no idea about. What was a ‘shotgun’ house anyway?

But that didn’t matter. I was 22. I had just gotten back from South Korea and had no discernible plan but finding some kind of way to make money and continuing to travel. A friend was in New Orleans. He spoke highly of it, especially for someone looking to find something interesting.

I was dating a girl at the time as well. She was on the East Coast and I somehow convinced her to join me on the journey. We packed my car and drove from Chicago, right up to Ursuline Street where we’d find this house behind its purple shutter stacks.

I’m not sure if it sounds like the kind of barely-baked plan that it was. But it was certainly that. And I was proud of that, in a way—the way that a 22 year old should and could be proud of throwing his life in a car and driving to a city like New Orleans to figure some shit out.

But here’s the twist. Here’s what came back to me when looking at that house this last weekend: it all worked out.

The house was bare when we got there but soon it started getting filled. With furniture and things we brought, but also with music from the roommates who played several instruments. The ceilings were high, the garden grew in the warm February, the neighbors were all interesting. They played trumpet deep into the night. It echoed everywhere. It was a quintessential New Orleans house in some ways, without even knowing it.

The days filled in. I found work. We didn’t have wi-fi so it gave good reason to explore the various coffee shops of the city and really dive into virtual work. I made friends, and got to spend good time with old ones. I explored the long avenues Uptown. The (unbelievably talented) roommates played house concerts, the Red Hot Chili Peppers filmed a music video on the corner, we met Quentin Tarantino in a  bar while he was in NOLA filming Django.

Drinks were had, nights went long. Mardi Gras was celebrated; as was French Quarter Fest, Jazz Fest, St. Patrick’s Day, Sunday Second line parades. The food was relished: gumbo, po-boys, red beans and rice, alligator sausage, crawfish, way more. Visitors came to see the city and I got to play host; at Commander’s Palace, at Le Bon Temps Roule, on Frenchmen Street.

The lists are incomplete here but are dizzyingly long for the short time there, because the days are so full of life there.

And that’s what my relationship comes back to me as; for the house on Ursulines Street and for the city. Life being packed in; crowded hours of joy. Little sleep, lots of laughs.

But what compels me to write is what it all means to me now. Because New Orleans was a start for me. A start of a nomadic, off-kilter way of living that I’ve kept in spurts since then. And sure, I went to South Korea first which started the whole travel vibe, but I knew I’d get a foreign-ized experience traveling so many thousands of miles away. And it was contained there; come for a year, teach, leave.

NOLA was open, an experiment in living with a loose plan. And it turned into this gift because it worked so well; because it showed me I could live beautifully by being groundless. In that, it inspired in me a lifestyle which I am still crafting. Which has lived on now for the better part of a decade.

Some things have changed in New Orleans, some have not. The house is still there, though it looks fresh. When I left New Orleans this time, my thought was one of relief. That New Orleans is still there. That the house is. That my plans are still loose—this time I escape to Mexico City with as little reason as I went to New Orleans, but with a whole new goal. I left NOLA last week knowing that if I need to, the city would be there to return back to. Should I need it for another experiment.

 

Read More!

While you’re here, read some other posts involving New Orleans:

 

 

“Absorb Six Authors A Year”

This article was written for my other site, which features a blog dedicated solely to my pursuits in writing. It’s part of a series I’m doing of culled-together writing advices and how I’m trying to use those advices to write my first novel. This was a more personal one, so I thought I’d post it on this blog too.

Advice # 5. Fitzgerald’s [supposed] advice to his daughter Scottie —— “absorb six authors a year”

I’ve been back in America for over a month now. I have another few weeks before I leave again. I’ve found America to be a bit of a pause button on my novel; for reasons that are partially due to my own discipline and dedication, and partially the facts of my life here.

I know a lot more people in America than Asia. I have more responsibilities here, many of which are delightfully encumbered again. Some, though, are distractions that I’m allowing myself, while I figure out the process and framework for tackling the next phase of my project: editing the 400 or so pages I’ve written.

In the meantime, though, I’ve been observing the ceremony that many writers have said one must do while writing. I’ve been reading. I’ve been reading a lot. Every day, for hours. It’s been glorious—a real dream for me. I’ve always wanted to read more. Now that I am reading more, I wished I was reading more. It won’t stop, but I’m at least getting my fix.

So I think back to my advice set here and found one that stuck with me when I read it a while back and still does. And that’s from a note, quoted in the letters book (though I can’t confirm that anywhere online) that F. Scott Fitzergald wrote to his daughter, Scottie. His advice was to “absorb six authors a year”—each year.

I’ve read 31 books this year (24 of those since I quit my job in June), but here are the six authors I’ve been trying to “absorb” as Fitzgerald put it.

1. John McPhee A good chunk of my reading this year as been reading about writing and when you do that enough, several names keep surfacing. McPhee is one of them. And though his name comes up for nonfiction instead of fiction, it comes up enough for the former that it seemed worth diving into him. Between Draft No. 4 and his essays online, I’m hooked. He clearly has a genius for storytelling and his notes on structure have guided me both in my novel and in thinking about this blog.

2. Donna Tartt In April, facing a long layover in London and a longer flight to Cape Town, I went to the airport bookstore and picked up The Secret History. I had no idea what it was, or why I picked that book. I read the cover. Murder? Linguistic majors? Pretentious educated elites? I thought I was in for something like Cruel Intentions with a few more Dickinson sonnets, but what I found was a complete revelation. The book knocked me on my ass. I read all 700 pages in three days in Cape Town. And then I read her other two books and marveled at them, and then marveled at the fact that she took about a decade to make each book. I’ve absorbed no one this year like Tartt (since I’ve read everything she’s put out), and I brought my Secret History copy with me all around Asia just to have on hand, while marking it up in the marginalia like a serial killer, trying to steal as much inspiration as I can get from her structure, characters, and wit.

3. George Saunders I read Saunders a few times before this year. A short story here and there, the collection of shorts in Civilwarland. New Yorker pieces. This piece he did about the writing process. But I wasn’t absorbing him until this year when I picked up Lincoln In The Bardo and Tenth of December and starting prowling the internet for more. Why Saunders? Well he’s a master of story. Of character, too. He’s tremendous at using dialogue and details to create these characters, whether in spots of the Lincoln novel (which really pushes its own category as a novel). He’s so good at this that it makes me gush with inferiority, but in absorbing I am trying to be a student, not a critic.

4. Wallace Stegner Stegner’s a later-year addition to this list and I’ve only (so far) absorbed the first two-thirds of Angle of Repose but his influence is real. Nothing this year has made me rethink my sentences, each and every one of them, like reading Stegner. Each sentence of his seems to breath, seems inevitably itself, and creates the aura of his story. After not loving the reading of my first draft, I’m determined to mine through my own sentences with this lens and work to make each one sing. Stegner leads the way.

5. Nicanor Parra The “anti-poet” of Chile, I’ve both discovered Parra’s poetry this year and fell quite deep for it. Because he freed himself of what he saw as the shackles of poetry itself, his work can be wild, imaginative, and untamed. I dig it. Lots of other poets have been read this year (Merwin, Gilbert, Rich, Dickinson, Li Young Li, have all gotten their various stage calls) but Parra has been most the most new, the most shocking, and the most delightfully returned back to.

6. Bob Dylan Oh yes, the rock star makes the list. The only person on this list that could crank out the metallic chords to ‘Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues’, Dylans’ also the only person on the list to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature (go figure!). Dylan makes the list for being the soundtrack to many of my writing sessions, but also for being a wordsmith himself. And with the release of this this year, I’ve gotten an amazing insight to his creative process that I’ve absorbed and used as a motivator for me to tinker long and determinedly with my own art.

Some Thoughts On Blood, More On Tracks

You’re probably not curious, but I’ll tell you something anyway. As it stands right now, my third favorite album of all time is this. My second favorite is this.

And my favorite album of all time?

Well it begins with these lines….

Early one morning, the sun was shining
I was laying in bed
Wondering if she’d changed at all
If her hair was still red

The album is Bob Dylan’s 1975 Blood On The Tracks.

dylan tracks back

A few things to point out before I wax on its brilliance.

  • The album is receiving some serious press attention at the moment because Dylan just released ‘More Blood, More Tracks’ a 6-cd set of outtakes from the recording sessions from the album.
  • The original recording sessions are famous for being split between New York City and Minnesota—with the final album taking cuts from both.
  • The album has been described as ‘the breakup album to end all breakup albums’ — it came out on the heels of Dylan’s divorce from his wife Sara.
  • It was a commercial success, after a few Dylan albums that had critics saying the songwriting master was in a creative rut (after the basically unrivaled production of the 1965-66 Nashville records)
  • It’s generally considered one of the greatest rock n’ roll albums of all time—with perfect scores from several different critics.

Okay, I think that’s a good start. It’s many people’s favorite Dylan album, especially those that want a little more vulnerability from the Nobel prize winning lyricist. Try these, for instance:

In 14 months I’ve only smiled once
And I didn’t do it consciously

That’s from ‘Up To Me’ which didn’t even make the album. Yet it’s a brilliant 6-minute song of love and loss. It could’ve been the 11th song on Blood and it would’ve fit. Except that it’s nearly the same chords and music as ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ and, too, has a bit of ‘Shelter from The Storm’ —one of the album’s more famous songs. And ‘Shelter’ deserves its post in folk music history, as the uplifting, love song of indistinct time and romantic rescue.

‘Shelter’, along with some of the album’s other tracks like ‘Tangled Up Blue’ (the first song where the first set of lyrics came from) and ‘Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack of Hearts’ convey the mixed feelings that I think give the album is nuance. It’s not a straightforward “breakup” album (nothing with Dylan is straightforward anyway). It’s an album of loss done by a master of his craft, and its going to be mixed with the kind of writing that explores the whole of the human condition, just with a change of perceptive lens. Things aren’t groovy or wild and metallic like the sixties Dylan songs (think of the jaded, poetic chaos of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’), they’re solemnly described instead.

And the lyrics and music convey that. Part of the big deal about the two separate recording sessions is the musical sensibility Dylan put in in both. The New York sessions are stripped and bare (which were leaked for years as the so-called ‘Blood On the Tapes’ bootleg). The Minnesota sessions are fuller, with songs often accompanied by an organ which gives some tracks their unique sound.

What the rest of those tracks become is an intimate picture of something. On first listen, you see the breakup album that it’s been tagged as. According to Dylan himself—perhaps the least reliable source on Dylan meanings, ironically—that the songs are creations inspired by Chekhov stories. Jakob Dylan, the son of the couple in question, said the album is “my parents talking”. Regardless of meaning, the album is a wondrous trip of hurt, inspiration, life, and more.

Some examples, yeah?

We’ll start with ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ which goes on like its title sounds. It’s a 3-minute 60s-folk-song without so much as a breathe between verses. It’s a favorite sing-a-long from the album, but it didn’t start as that. My favorite piece from More Blood, More Tracks is the original ‘Lonesome’ which runs as a 5 and a half minute blues jam with a more drawn out, deflated Dylan. There’s no pop. And yet, lyrically, it works on both levels. Because it’s a yarn of anticipated longing, it can play as a poppy ode to current jubilation, or a song of a loss not yet encumbered. ‘Lonesome’s best lyrics:

Situations have ended sad
Relationships have all been bad
Mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud
But there’s no way I can compare
All those scenes to this affair
Yer gonna make me lonesome when you go

Want to see that song’s impact? Search that title on Spotify and see just how many covers have not only been done, but have been committed to albums.

On the album, ‘Lonesome’ ends a not-quite-forlon side 1, coming after the scowl of ‘Idiot Wind’ where Dylan ruminates on the stupidity of young love, with an anger toward poor decisions made. Or maybe it’s none of those things. Who knows?

‘Idiot Wind’ itself forms another unlikely pair, off the heels of ‘You’re A Big Girl Now’ one of the albums crushing songs. You can listen to the original or you can listen to this outtake, which comes accompanied with its own lyric video. I suggest taking 4 minutes and 42 seconds of your day and watching it. For lyrics, not much beats this verse:

Bird on the horizon, Sitting on a fence
He’s singing a song for me, at his own expense
And I’m just like that bird, Oh, singing just for you
Oh, I hope you can hear
Hear me singing through these tears

That’s bruising in its own right, but it doesn’t hit the album’s emotional apex. That one is on side 2’s ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’ — an fiercely determined breakup song that even Hank Moody recommends singing after you’ve been wrung by heartbreak.

It is the bloodiest of all the tracks.

No ifs, ands, or buts around that. It is the stinging middle of the whole sordid masterpiece here—and through the (only) three variations on More Blood (here’s one), it remains calm, orderly, and desperately downtrodden. It is a song of capitulation, of moving on (in only the pyrrhic sense), and of living with mistakes that’ve made uncomfortable truths.

I could quote the whole song for the purpose of showing that, but I’ll stick with the lines that hit me once as a younger man with the force of 20 million lesser songs, and still streak the rivulets of my veins when they play now.

I see a lot of people, as I make the rounds
And I hear her name both here and there, as I go from town to town
And I’ve never gotten used to it, I’ve just learned to turn it off

As a member of the great church of Bob Dylan, I can say for sure that we get nothing—and I mean, nothing—like this in Dylan’s entire 50-year catalogue. So we take it as some kind of evidence. And the privilege of being a music listener is that you get to make the determination of what that evidence means. For me, it means that Dylan can make a masterpiece of the throngs of sadness. And, in listening through the album and its outtakes, that he managed to will himself to perfection despite those throngs.

I’ll end this post, this fawning over this creative brilliance of an album, the way that the album itself ends:

Life is sad, life is a bust
All you can do, is do what you must
You do what you must do, and you do it well
I do it for you honey baby, can’t you tell?

Elif Shafak’s Essay ‘Why The Novel Matters In The Age of Anger’

Elif Shafak with a novel essay

I believe kids these days would put it like this: this article is giving me life rn.

It certainly jarred some life in and out of me. Wow. Just wow.

I read it without knowing who the author was (I’ll get to that) and was immediately taken with the essay’s words. It, as the title suggests, deals with writing and the purpose of writers and their work, but it’s as much also about life at this time in history. Life in this world—not in a small way, in a big, big way. And whether you think we’re in the ‘age of anger’ or not, it has some undeniable proclamations. Take this:

We have plenty of “information” – and if we don’t we can always google it. Then there is “knowledge”, which, however imperfect, requires depth and focus and slowing the flow of time. “Wisdom” is harder won – I would argue that it embodies not only knowledge but also empathy and emotional intelligence….Wisdom is difficult to achieve because it requires cognitive flexibility.

Where the writer comes in here is a quasi-antidote, quasi-burdensome state. Shafak goes on about the purpose of a writer, but also the responsibility. And not just the writer, to readers who stand behind these writers and read despite the times.

But let’s get back to the writer. Because she is unbelievably accomplished. I felt silly gushing over her words, reading it the first time like it was some amateur’s essay.

Here’s her wiki page:

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Again, wow.

So, what does she have to say about the novel in the age of anger. A lot. And you should read the full essay. I’ll post just a few favorite parts of it:

Here is where the novelist must speak up. For writers, there is no “us” and there is no “them”. There are only human beings with stories and silences. The job of a writer is to rehumanise those who have been dehumanised.

The novel matters because, like an alchemist, it turns empathy into resistance. It brings the periphery to the centre, it gives a voice to the voiceless, it makes the invisible visible……The novel matters because it punches little holes in the wall of indifference that surrounds us. Novels have to swim against the tide. And this was never more clear than it is today.

Novelists need to speak up about the dangers of losing our core values: pluralism, freedom of speech, minority rights, separation of powers, democracy. Benjamin believed storytelling had to turn information into wisdom. Today a bigger challenge awaits writers: how to turn misinformation into wisdom.

What does all this mean?

Well it’s quite personal for me as I’ve set out to write my first novel. And I think about WHY I’m writing the story I’m writing and what I’m adding to a conversation in this age. I have these answers (I’ve explored some on the blog for that novel here)—but there’s a bit of an outrage to Shafak’s essay that resonated with me that has nothing to do with my novel. Something that deals with the revolutionary-ness of our time. My novel attempts to humanize some who have been de-humanized, but the characters (mostly white, mostly middle-class or above) are not the ones being most de-humanized in today’s world. Not even close.

So there’s still that resonating in me that my work isn’t solving. So I think about where else to explore these thoughts. My other places of recording thoughts and broadcasting.

And here’s one thing I’ll note in relation to all of this: I haven’t posted anything political in nearly two years.

By political I don’t necessarily mean our political system, but I’m using it here as an descriptor in which an article provides an opinion and then uses itself as a method of convincing a reader that that opinion is correct.

Why the wait? Why nothing after two years? Well, I’ve been trying to do more listening. More questions, less talking. I’ve been writing, just not posting. Not finishing with answers, but prompting questions with new questions.

I might be ready to share some of that but that remains to be seen. The first priority is listening to the wonder that Elif Shafak espoused, and working on my novel.

As she put aptly in her essay:

A writer’s job is not to try to provide the answers. It is neither to preach nor to teach; just the opposite. A writer must be a student of life, and not the best student either, since we must never graduate from this school, but keep asking the most simple, the most fundamental and the most difficult questions. In the end, we leave the answers to the readers.

So perhaps there will be more from here. Perhaps not. Either way, I’m proud to be working on my writing in this time and age. It is my skill and my best way to explore questions as I work on being my own “student of life”.

September: Korea & Hanoi

At the end of August 2011, I flew from South Korea back to the United States. I had spent a full year living near Seoul and a full year not being in the United States. It was, and still is, the longest sustained travel/living abroad experience of my life.

And at the end of August 2018, seven years later, I flew back to Seoul. This time I came from Vientiane. It wasn’t my first time back in Korea (that would be just eight weeks earlier, this July); but it did mark a bit of an anniversary. Seven years since I left; eight years since I first arrived there.

In July I spent five days in Korea, this time I spent 19. They were wonderful; Korea has been, and will continue to be, one of my favorite places to visit in the world. Why? Well it helps that I know the country and culture a bit (even some of the language). It makes it easier to navigate; physically and conversationally. I know how to get what I need to there. But it’s also most certainly the country itself; weird, (surprisingly) geographically diverse, traditional but also cutting edge. It’s full of interesting and unique people and others who work had to blend in. It’s also safe, modern, clean, etc….Those all help too.

This time around, I wasn’t entirely in Seoul. Thanks to an more ambitious-planning friend; this time we hiked in a Korean national park, went to another metropolis that wasn’t Seoul or Busan, and even went to Jeju Island; Korea’s “Hawaii” (but also kind of its “Scotland”? It’s in the featured picture of this post.

I wrote almost every day in Korea, which is good. But I didn’t feel like I wrote all that particularly well. In a journal I’ve been keeping, I said that I never felt like I wrote well there (even in 2010-2011), though of course this is just my subjective judgement. And there seems to be no good reason for it. I wrote that perhaps it’s just in my desire to be out, mixed into the culture, observing instead of creating (words/stories, etc…). So perhaps that’s it. Still, I had a great time there and am so glad I swung back for the extra weeks in Korea.

Because now I am in Hanoi, Vietnam. And while there are some really interesting things on on here, it hasn’t been my favorite city. It’s different, in many ways, to Seoul and where I’ve spent my last few months. It’s loud, busy, and full of motorbikes. The last one wouldn’t be a problem except the motorbikes do very little to obey any sort of traffic conventions, so a pedestrian is constantly dodging them. Constantly.

But while I reflected that I wasn’t writing well in Seoul, that’s changed in Hanoi. And for that I’m highly appreciative. Most days here I duck into a coffee shop (of which there are an infinite supply it seems) and write. And read and then write some more when I go back to my Airbnb later. When I first got here I said I wanted to finish my first draft (not entirely sure how much more I had to go) within my first 10 days here; and I finished it in 5. Mostly thanks to a coffee-fueled four hour writing session on a Friday night. But I got it done. My first draft came in at 161,000 words and took my about 12 weeks to write (the last week of which saw the highest contribution even when not considering the final sprint toward the finish line).

Here’s the screenshot I put up on social media of the first draft numbers:

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In this way, I’m thankful for the chaos of Hanoi—for pushing me to write and keeping me awake and alert with your honks and busyness.

More pictures from September here. Next up is Thailand!

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Ten Reasons I Love Laos & 100k “Shitty” First Draft Words

I’ve been in Laos for nine days now, and I leave tonight. Despite daily downpours (it’s rainy season), it’s been a really fantastic trip here. There are a few reasons for this, so I’ll go through some of those.

(1) Laos is very, very chill. In some travel blogs for Vang Vieng (the first city I went to) some of the recommended things to do were “chill, like the locals”. This was quite true; as locals sometimes hang in these little huts along the river and picnic there; or some lay in the many hammocks there are here. When in Rome, right? Laos kind of has an island country vibe that just is unfortunately landlocked; though still quite green!

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It also means that Vientiane isn’t quite the bustling capital like neighboring Bangkok is. Vientiane is about the size of Milwaukee, though it feels much smaller. There’s little traffic (or people, really) except during the sunset when the (2) whole city (it seems like) goes to the river (Mekong) to walk around, eat, and watch the sunset. Oh, and you can see Thailand on the other side.

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The eateries here are all impromptu food carts that pull up, put out some tables and plastic chairs and (3) serve delicious noodle or wonton soup. There aren’t really that many Lao-restaurants per se, mostly just these places to get food on the side of the street. And it’s all (4) very, very cheap of course. (Meals are usually $2-$3).

 

img_20180825_183737.jpgThere are other restaurants of course, and one of my favorite things about Vientiane is that it’s really a (5) melting pot here. There are French restaurants, Japanese, Chinese, American, and Korean. Lots and lots of Korean restaurants. Why? Because there are (6) so many Koreans here. The two nations signed some kind of agreement and there are really cheap flights between Seoul and Vientiane and so Koreans come here to kind of let loose. It’s kind of like a party place for them (with some sightseeing and adventure sports). And this is great; generally, I align with the idea that the more Koreans there are per capita the happier I am. Especially when I can get kimbaps for $3.

In Vientiane, there are a few historic sites to see which were great; lots of temples where (7) in the mornings you can watch the monks coming and going, while you drink a good coffee. And there is (8) TONS of good coffee. There are a few coffee shops on each block; something Laos takes very seriously. And each comes with a delicious array of pastries; either croissants or these wonderful hot coconut macaroon bites they have.

IMG_20180826_214814Like the daytime, the nightlife here is fairly chill. Most places set up some tables outside, like the bar that’s right below my apartment here. They play odd live cuts from bands like Guns n’ Roses and then blast country music; but they (9) sell Beerlao for $1.25 so it’s all good.

The other nightlife experience was going to (10) Lao Bowling Center; easily the worst tactical bowling alley I’ve ever been. The lanes are ALL crooked so if you hit the wrong spot on the lane it’s an automatic gutter ball. BUT they sell BIG Beerlaos for $1.50 so you get over it quickly. And I went during a rainstorm that didn’t seem to want to quit so I had several of these beers and talked with two Canadian guys and a few French girls which mostly about the state of the lanes and how it sort of metaphorically fit Vientiane as well; wonderfully quaint without needing to impress you.

Aside from all this, I’ve had a good run here with writing. Something about the coffee shops, relative chillness, and rain-forced indoors time has resulted in a lot of good writing sessions. A few nights ago, I hit the 100,000 word mark which I feel quite good about. I wrote a bit more about that on my writing blog here.

I feel quite fortunate to have the time to get to 100,000 but am also proud of the work I’ve put in. Even if I’m not yet totally satisfied with the quality of all of those words, I know I have a whole bunch of editing to come. And I’m following the sage advice of Anne Lamott who said you should always start with a shitty first draft.

So I shall.

And tomorrow I am back in South Korea where I’ll do some hiking, some Seoul flaneuring, and some time on Jeju Island in the south. Excited for that wonderful and wacky nation; and chamchi kimbap, galbi, and noraebongs.

 

One last pic from Laos (this one from the top of the Patuxai monument in Vientiane!)

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Sri Lanka & A Second Blog!

Greetings friends, family, and whoever else has navigated this way.

Hello from Ella, Sri Lanka. A sleepy little backpacker town in the hills of Sri Lanka; around some of the world’s most famous tea fields.

I’ve been in Sri Lanka now for about two weeks now; starting in Colombo, and venturing through the middle of the country. It’s been a great experience—this small island has so much to see—tuk tuks, temples, beaches, mountains, elephants, etc….And the people have been unbelievably kind (both as a hospitality-based country and just as a part of their culture.

One example: I asked the managers of the hotel I’m at currently if I had the right plan to get from Ella to the airport on Tuesday and was counter-offered with a free ride to Colombo (near the airport) with one of them. Five and a half hours. And in this wonder of an automobile.

I’ll post some pictures below of Sri Lanka. But it’s been a blast—traveling with friends for the first half and wandering alone for the second (where my daily life has been hiking, eating, writing, and reading. Not bad!)

In between all of that, I’ve been writing a lot on my first novel and things are going well. How well? Well, I won’t tell you yet.

Instead, I’m going to direct you to my other blog; which is still in a work in progress but does have some writing posts up and running on it.

Why the two blogs? I’m not totally sure yet. Other than the other blog (a) having an amazing name (hopefully you’ll get it once you explore), and (b) being on squarespace as opposed to wordpress, the only reason I chose to have another is because it felt like the right thing to do. That I could keep this as something personal and that as something, I don’t know, professional? Or focused on just writing. Singular. Topical.

But we’ll see. For now, I am in two places online. I’ll be posting updates on both—likely travel and other thoughts here and all writing-related items, like updates on my novel and a series I’m doing on pieces of advice I read on how to write fiction on www.iAmEricAnAuthor.com (do you get it yet?).

So check it out. And then check back.

For now, I bid you farewell from Sri Lanka. I’m heading back to Indonesia on Tuesday and then to Laos on August 17. Will be updating from there.

Thanks for reading!

Some pictures, yes?

Goodbye Chicago, Hello To All Of That

Greetings from Indonesia. It’s been 10 days since I left the U.S and it’s already felt like a whirlwind—returning to Asia, bouncing around places familiar and un-.

I wanted to post some thoughts on leaving Chicago before I did actually leave, but I didn’t get a chance to. So I’ll post what I had written (you’ll see it’s still not finished) and give some updates after that.

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I’m going to be leaving Chicago. Fairly soon.

I’ve been here for 33 months. Pippen’s number. Maybe that means something, though likely not. What 33 months does mean, though, is the most I’ve been in one place since college. My Pilsen apartment here the most I’ve lived in one place since my parents’ house. This has been a home. That was already a home. That will always be home, even when it’s not.

And so I wanted to write a bit on leaving and remembering and home.

I’ll start with coming back. I called it my “Ithaca”. I have a soft spot for Odysseus and though there was no Penelope, there was some sort of fighting off sirens and plotters led me back here. I just don’t know what those things are or were.

When I got back, I felt lost. I had been a nomad for over 5 years. I wasn’t one anymore. I got a place. I got some life essentials I didn’t have. A garbage bin. Forks. A bed.

I read this wonderful letter fifty times. I posted a quote from it on Instagram with the first picture of my Pilsen apartment—where I was for 24 of those 33 months.

I was looking for something. An answer to why I came back. Why I had sort of lost the desire to be a nomad. I wrote this. I wrote a lot more that’s in some notebook somewhere.

I met a girl. I had my Ryan Adams ‘Dear Chicago’ moment on Friday after work.

I had a job I liked. I worked hard at it. It helped me adjust, it gave me new friends, new experiences, and a cache of good memories.

I saw my friends. I hadn’t seen some in years. I saw them a lot and it was tremendously comfortable—full of laugher, life. Wholehearted goodness.

I saw my family. I had only gotten to see them sporadically, and always on my schedule (when I’d be returning). I got to see my baby sister grow up, my other sister live her dream and succeed. I got to spend more time with my parents and take from them more important lessons on being an adult. More pictures, more smiles, more of them in my life.

So why leave?

Well, that’s a complicated question but one I’ve answered several times for people. The short of it is two-fold:

(1) I love travel and recognize that life events will shape my opporunities to do so: and

(2) I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was 15 years old and I have a sort of window to do so now that I wanted to take.

So I march on—to Asia and into my soul to extract whatever writing talent I have in there to draw out onto the proverbial page.

On leaving Chicago, though, few thoughts stick with me.

Do you know the now-infamous David Foster Wallace speech on “water”? If you don’t, check here.

What the water here refers to is the mundanity of everyday life. The check-out counter at the grocery store. The trifling through of email. The plans made, cancelled, rain-checked, etc…The day in, day out stuff.

He goes further into what that means, and since it was done as a commencement speech, proceeds to give graduates advice on what watter means to them.

For me, in these particular thoughts, what I come to is that Chicago is the most water. Or the place of most water? The deepest pool? I don’t know how to articulate it (change)

Can something be that? Are there levels of water? No, but there are levels of society, of everyday-ness, and this place is the most for me. And that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes, on crushing days of brokenness, this is the most splendid of all things, to be held in comfort and in what I know. The alternative? Well, travel has almost no comfort to step into. It is life constantly thrust at you. And that gets me down, but not as much as it pumps me full of energy, of vitality. And it makes me forget about water, which I have not yet learned how to swim through. I see these commuters and ask, “what spirit is getting them home?” and what I’m doing is really asking myself.

Big cities amaze me. So many people. Everywhere I go there are people. Who are they? What do they think when they see me—that I’m just another person in this metropolitan wallpaper. Chicago has this. Others do too, but since I call Chicago home, it has a more sincere oddness that so many others make this their habitat, and that they move. And some own boats. And some are working three jobs. Some get off at four in the morning when no one is around and I am fast asleep. Where do they eat? Shop? Is anyone in this city of 3 million thinking of me? See last four lines.

My sister asked me what I’ll miss the most about Chicago aside from friends and family? I had to think about it. Chicago has a lot. Some things I don’t like. Nothing I ever missed so badly I needed to see it when I got back. Away from here, it was easy to criticize Chicago. The sports bar city. The big four firm city. The segregated city.

But I’ll miss it. Even those things.

What I said was nostalgia and sentimentality. The streets here can provide that like no other city can. Memories written into glass, dunked in potholes. I know the Ogden exit is close to the United Center from being a kid. I know how the John Hancock stands proudly at the end of Lake Shore coming down, like you’ll drive right into it. And I always love these things, even if they’re drowned in the water that we’ll never get out of it.

Because no place else is home.

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Okay, so that was my post. I wrote that about two weeks ago, maybe three. And to read it now is nice. I do miss Chicago. I always did miss Chicago, but the world is so big and full of everything that I wasn’t ready to stay?

What happens later? To come home or not? I haven’t the slightest ideas.

For now, I can tell you this. I just had a brief but oh-so-wonderful foray back to South Korea with some great friends. The memories and laughter were overwhelmingly postive and brought me back to a sentimental happiness from and for my time there.

And now? I am sitting inside my “villa” in Lombok, Indonesia. Yesterday I surfed in the morning and laid on one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen (the one pictured). And I’ve resumed my writing.

I am still adjusted to whatever this is—travel, lifestyle, whatever—but I’m not too worried. I have words and maps ahead of me. And those that know, know those things sit at the foot of wherever I go.

Ciao for now. Thanks for everything to those back home. More updates somewhere further up along the road.

An Update: The New Project & South Africa

Hello from Stellenbosch, South Africa — wine capital of this part of the world, and all-around beautiful little slice of land. South Africa has been a dream for the first 9 days and I expect it to continue to be so. Cape Town was hilly, unique, cloudy, sunny, wet, wonderful, empty, full, etc; everything and all of life bursting in so many ways. Inspiring, sure, but moreso just a great place to pass some days in joy.

What I want to write about here though is my new project—the beginning stages of my attempt to write a novel. It is the most daunting of tasks I’ve undertaken, and I’m just beginning so nothing has happened so deserving of praise quite yet.

But I’m on my way. I’m sketching notes in my notebook, writing words and fragments that come to mind and starting to form my foundation. I said that my timeline goals for South Africa were: committing to a plot (done!), writing 10,000 words (done!), and settling on a disciplined approach to daily work/writing (not done yet). So, well on my way for Part I, with some decisions left to make on just how I’ll get this project done.

I’m not going to reveal the plot here quite yet, nor the characters. That will come soon. But I did want to take a minute to take a stepped-away look at the novel writing and be happy with what’s come so far.

The next part will provide some writing break as I wrap up life in Chicago before taking my longer hiatus to try and do this whole thing. I expect that to take several months, but more likely longer—a year? (longer?) and really challenge me to dive deeply into these characters and myself. Of this, I have fear, nervousness, and a tremendous deal of an anxious, excitable orientation. I have no idea how I’ll take to the challenge.

What I do know is that what I’ve written so far is the easy part—clips of scenes that have come to mind easily. Smoothly. Without resistance. The basics of characters. But what about the longer scenes? What will happen to one of them when chaos ensues? Disaster strikes? Disagreement descends? I don’t have these answers but I’ll need to after some time. So far, too, I have exposition. My explaining of these things. I’ll need to turn that into dialogue. Action. A narrator that does not know everything. Setting. All the things that go into a novel. Luckily, I’ve read some great books, so I’m in the hands of some great teachers. I just need to make sure I’ve paid attention—the right attention.

But, for now, I have another 11 days in South Africa—including a safari! So I’m going to enjoy that, keep dreaming of my half-made characters, and work on finding whatever routine is best going to help me get into “flow” so I can write at my best.

More updates soon!

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