Tag Archives: problems and solutions

One Job

For every good writing day, I have 20 bad ones.  A good writing day is one in which I feel inspired to make progress on a piece.  But that doesn’t ensure that I will be able to finish it or feel satisfied if I do.  It doesn’t mean that I will think I did a good piece of work or that I will be able to trust that judgment over time.  All I know after a good day is that I felt good.  All I know on those other days is that I felt frustrated, uninspired, and aggrieved whether or not I produced pages, whether or not I think (or will think) that those pages are worthwhile.

Optimal conditions rarely exist for creative work.  There is always something getting in the way, some defect of body, mind, or circumstances that conspires to obstruct progress and generate despair and self-doubt.  The only answer is to keep writing, to admit that I can and will generate unsatisfying work, to avoid wondering about my talent, and to just get on with things.  As my trombonist friend, Mike Hickey, once said about being a musician: just keep playing.

Just keep writing.

No one feels they have talent all the time.  In fact, most people feel the way I do: it’s hit and miss, always a struggle, always an emotional upheaval.  If literary geniuses really do exist outside the marketing generated by a hypocritical and terrified publishing industry, they would, by definition, be critical of themselves.  History confirms that creative work is hard, even for the most famous and memorable writers.  And it can’t be genius to believe it’s always easy or that your talent will confer all the pleasures and none of the agonies.

Just keep writing.

I tell myself to forget the people who have advised me not to give up my day job; they don’t know and can’t judge.  Forget the family members and acquaintances who wanted me to reflect their own lack of talent and resented me for trying to develop my own; they can only see disappointing reflections of themselves.  Forget the graduate school competitors, the half-starved adjunct professors, the depressed self-diagnosed creative failures, the cynical postmodernists declaring everything already over; they’re all too emotional.  They’re like sick dogs.  And sick dogs don’t typically write fiction.  Don’t be a romantic.  Be methodical.  Cultivate a classical mind.  Stay dedicated to the work and just keep writing because all these feelings and emotional people will disappear.

The only thing left will be the words I’ve written down.  Whether there are many words or just a few is irrelevant.  The point will be that I wrote them and kept writing them.  In the end, that’s all I will have because the books will get put away on a shelf or recycled or lost.  The computer files will get forgotten or deleted.  What I wrote will be no better than a half-remembered dream.  Just as what I intend to write is nothing more than a flimsy possibility.  A trombonist is nothing without his trombone in his hand.  If he keeps playing, he’s a trombonist.

Nothing exists except for this moment and what I do in it.  So if I call myself a writer, I have one job.

Advertisements

Problems and Solutions, Part 2: This is Why You Fail

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.


Art is Your Right

Don’t buy into the romantic assumption that being a creative artist is easy for those who are truly talented and meant to do it.  This is a materialistic commercial lie.  Something I believe: art is part of being human and must therefore be available to everyone.  And those who do it right never find it easy; though, the publishing industry, for example, may find it easier to sell certain books if readers believe that the writers being published are like idiot savants.

Everyone has an aptitude for some kind of creative process.  Finding out what it is means finding out more of what it means to be human and alive.  Not investigating this firsthand means voluntarily accepting an impersonal, commercially interested assumption about one’s creative potential—some external story about you imagined and written by someone who doesn’t even know you.  It’s an affront to everything unique and valuable in the individual self.

Moreover, it elevates money over art, which is fundamentally disconnected from the reasons we make art in the first place.  This is essentially stupid.  Therefore, we need to appreciate art.  We should create it and consume it, but we should not assume that it is something  mysterious, selective, elite, or random.  It is better to think of artistic ability as an attainment, a product of self-cultivation that uses materials we already have.  And our job is to understand it, interact with it, develop it, and teach this praxis to others.  Our job is not to worship those being held up to us as a select, anointed group.  Our job is to understand how commerce reacts with art and then to set all that aside so we can do our own work.


The Portrait, the Authentic Self, and Freedom

Thoughts after spending 5 hours in the National Portrait Gallery, looking into the faces of Americans from the 18th century to the present day.
Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (LOC)

If I’ve acquired any broadening of perspective from all the hours I’ve spent in the Washington D.C. Smithsonian galleries, it’s this: every life is valid.  Everyone has a story.  Everyone is “okay.”  Although human experience is varied, everything we do, everything we are, has been done, has been experienced before by someone.  This is cause for joy.  It means that we can’t get it wrong.

There is no way to err or truly screw up.  All error comes from cultural viewpoints; it’s all a point of view; it’s all relative.  And looking back across history in these incredible museums imparts the realization that there are no true successes or failures, no right or wrong in any kind of ultimate, transcendent sense.  Everything that could be done has been done (and even so-called new things like space walks on Mars and other technologically aided novelties have existential roots in early voyages of discovery from history).

Because everything has already been done and there have been so many personality types recurring again and again and so many in each
generation striving in the same ways, the “general” of history validates the “particular” of the individual.  We lead lives that are different in their particularity (being unique to time, place, culture), but that have been lived before in a general sense.  The faint smile of Alexander Hamilton can been seen on people passing on the street outside the National Portrait Gallery.  George Washington’s armchair is something we might find in a living room (certainly in any number of attics).  FDR’s gaze in a national photo has the same depth and resonance as that of Arthur Rubenstein in his famous portrait.  The potential comparisons are endless.

English: An 1819 bust of George Washington hou...

There have been artists and explorers and statesmen who were considered successes or failures in their time, but all of them have passed into history.  And they were all valid.  Death really is the great equalizer and this is a deep relief for someone like me, who has been told he needs to prove his worthiness his whole life.  We deify our national heroes, but they were (and are) just talented people.  And there is talent everywhere; though, it is not uniformly recognized or rewarded.

Essentially, these realizations amount to one basic truth: we are completely free to do whatever we wish because we have the power to define those particularities and the grace of knowing that we are also part of history.  How widely we are known and if we are remembered is hardly up to us.  Our only responsibility is to remember that we are okay, that we can’t get it wrong, that we are worthy by default.

There are no standards of quality that are universal and transcendent.  The brilliant short story of yesterday will be disregarded and dismissed today in favor of something else.  And those works that “survive the test of time” are great because we can still see their greatness.  Our attitudes are what make them great.  Otherwise, they are works of art like any others–each with their unique expressions and depths.

Say to yourself, “I only need to do my own thing.  I don’t need to make any decisions out of desperation because desperation comes from the need to appease some external force or reach some external standard.  Beyond satisfying basic needs, I am completely free.”  The trouble is that the attitude of having to prove oneself to family and society is pervasive.  As soon as we shake it off, we find ourselves unconsciously interpolated back into that dynamic.  So our self-work must now be all about living for ourselves, as our authentic selves.

Authorship of one’s life is an inwardly focused prospect.  It begins first and foremost as a choice of perspective and culminates as an outward way of living.  We are all inwardly, which means perfectly, free.


Horror at 2½ Feet

Working in cafés can be wonderful.  A clean, well-lighted place with good coffee and relative quiet can be inexpressibly fantastic.  I’ve made the rent and written books in cafés.  On the other hand, close proximity to others under the influence of caffeine can reveal a certain darkness in the human condition that would otherwise be difficult to notice.

People get bilious.  A baby fires his diapers and the café hazmat expert springs into action.  “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.  Don’t worry,” says the teenager in the green apron.  He’s down on his knees wiping up baby’s spillage with a rag.  Mom takes a second before she moves.  She says: “Yes.  Well.  I appreciate your help.”  Mom’s friend—an almost identical copy, right down to the French twist and the yoga pants—crosses her arms and looks down at the boy.  How do babies contain so much waste?  Half of the café pretends it didn’t happen.  The other half is smiling.  Baby is so charming.

Mom and her friend finally decide to help.  They sigh and wipe the drippings off the stroller, the floor.  This is a normal thing in their world and mom executes her duties without getting a smudge on her yoga pants.  From a certain point of view, this, I know, is admirable.  But still, baby contains a gallon of fecal matter and mom contains a gallon of meaningless cooing.  How does this happen to a person?  These women are in their 30s.  They seem oblivious to the fact that they have been speaking very loudly in close proximity to others about absolutely nothing for the last 45 minutes.  Who raised them?

I am irritated, yes.  I am a misanthrope, maybe.  Timon of Yosemite.  But I feel bad for the parents of the kid with the crew-cut who’s still down on his knees, apologizing for someone else’s shit.  His choice, but still.  My inner Nostradamus tells me that if he doesn’t quit this job soon, he’ll be doing that for the rest of his life.

Of course, I don’t have kids.  It’s easy to pass judgment when you aren’t constrained to be a guardian of public health because baby has a bowel problem.  But what about a pediatric  gastroenterologist?  I don’t know.  Could an expert address this?  Maybe mom already covered that angle; though, it seems to me baby would feel a lot better if he wasn’t bathed in his own waste.  (Later, when mom goes out to a Lexus RX 350 with chunks of gold glued to the side, I will think this again in less charitable terms, wondering whether dad couldn’t take a day out to see about the health of his boy.  But such are my prejudices.  We should all foul our diapers and own Lexuses.)

I’m at the big table –the one for the losers who come to the café to work and read quietly.  The era of socially egalitarian coffee shops ended with the rise of the Starbucks beast.  There is definite class polarization here.  Corporate culture and proletarian workforce self-segregate at the little tables by the windows; liberal democrats, professorial types, senior citizens, and other undesirables lurk at the long table in the back.  In-between lingers the great murmuring maternity, the guardians of our future, a triple-parked fleet of strollers, an ocean of yoga pants, and the inevitable cloud of post-Yogalates hormonal dismay.

Being a mom is hard, yeah?  My mom thought so and I’m sure I didn’t make it easy for her.  She was a good mom—in my opinion, the best.  And even though my parents stayed married (until my mom’s death from cancer in 2009, after which my father descended into a second perpetual adolescence), she was the one who took care of me on a daily basis.  So maybe this is more of a personal moment for me than it seems on the surface.

Is it crazy to think parenting should be a group effort?  Sorry guys, bringing home a paycheck doesn’t absolve you of having to mop up the Schmutzigkeit.  We don’t want junior to have a lilliputian colostomy before he’s old enough to enjoy solid food.  It makes me sad.  It’s wrong.  And I think just because you can reproduce and have money doesn’t mean you should.

Next to me, a 40-something guy with white shoulder-length hair sniffs and clears his throat.  His long-sleeve is buttoned all the way to the top and he has a pair of square rimless glasses (spectacles?) at the end of his nose.  He  looks over at the baby in disgust and shifts his Kindle two inches away from that side of the room.  That’s okay, I saw a different young mother do that with her baby when she looked over at our table.  Germs.  Competing bacteria.  Everyone’s a vector.  Everyone wants to eat your child and poo in your laptop case.

Why can’t we just get along?  The answer is that we can—as long as everyone stays in the small box they were given at birth.  Born in a box: live there, paint the walls all you want, inch a tiny mirror over the top edge to see what it’s like in the other boxes, sure.  But try to climb out and everyone will destroy their diapers.

Said incontinent baby is now squealing in hideous misery while mom is sipping a latte and laughing with her friend.  I really hope baby grows up to run with wild horses over the hills.   You can always hope.

The kid in the apron has brought out a mop and bucket.  Mom and friend ignore him.

“I’m sorry,” he says for the fiftieth time.

Yeah, me too.


A Meditation on the Inevitability of Death

To myself, regarding death:

You are going to die.  You may not like to think about it, but it’s going to happen.  Maybe tomorrow.  Maybe in 50 years.  Who can say?  That’s the bit you can’t know (thankfully).  But you do know where you’re going to end up sooner or later.  You do realize how short 100 years are, don’t you?  You do realize how many people don’t even make it that far.

You are going to die.  Everything you loved and feared, all your petty remonstrances and trivial irritations will be dust.  Time will bury everything, wonderful and hateful, lies and truth.  And in a few short years after your death, it will be as though you never existed.  This alone should make you cling to every passing moment—no matter how monotonous or unpleasant—but you’re as dumb as a post, forgetful, myopic.  You don’t understand a thing.

You are going to die.  Yet you waste your days worrying about the opinions of others.  After you die, people will actively try to forget you—and will largely succeed—because you will remind them of their own mortality.  Even now while you are still alive, the only time people want to consider you or something connected to you is when it somehow makes them feel better about themselves.  How different will it be when you’re nothing but rotting meat?  At best, the thought of you will inspire grief and a sense of loss—at worst, revulsion, resentment, aversion.  No one will want to care.  Eventually people won’t take the time to speak your name—the word which used to stand for you but which now stands for nothing.

You are going to die.  Still, you waste time planning and striving as if worry and toil could add days to your life.  There is no life but the one you are living.  You don’t get more days.  You only get fewer.  And every moment spent enslaved to a meaningless job, a tyrant, an empty social obligation, an imaginary god, vain status seeking, or the quest for symbols of wealth / worth is an act of fraud against yourself.  The great herd trots into the slaughterhouse, worrying about tomorrow’s breakfast—never thinking that it will, in fact, be them.

You are going to die.  And until you realize it in your heart of hearts—until you embrace the specter of death and kiss its grinning skull and know and accept and understand that your time is painfully, stupidly short—you will not have begun to live.  Time will destroy everything but death.  There is no morality.  There are no obligations.  There are no commandments or requirements beyond this one realization.


Paying it Backwards

Or How I Got a Gypsy Blessing, Lost All My Money and Had it Returned to me, Lifted a Peugeot, Encountered a Catholic Folk Saint, and Caught a Girl Flying Through the Air Within Eight Standard Estonian Hours.

My grandmother used to say, “When you got it, give it.  When you don’t got it, don’t think about what you gave because it’s not healthy to hate yourself.”  I generally follow this advice.  In spite of all the people, things, countries, foods, religions, and family members my grandmother hated passionately on a regular basis, she was still a very decent, wise woman.  She just came from a world where spite was a virtue and holding a grudge for more than 20 years was considered a mark of character.

Like all the old Italians I knew as a kid, grandma did for others, sometimes without provocation.  You might get an orange as a Christmas present or a crate of oranges on your doorstep one morning for no reason at all.  That’s how the Italians living in central California were, how their parents and grandparents had been back home.  It’s how they’d translated their village life across the Atlantic.  Mess with them and you were in for a world of hurt.  But wave politely from your front porch a few times and say something nice to their kids, and one day they might refer to you as “okay”—which, in that culture, meant “nice guy / not an asshole.”  High praise.

If they had it, they gave it.  And they didn’t keep checking for the good fu to come back around like a golden boomerang.  They gave and then they went about their business.  And if you knocked on their door with the donation cup, they might toss something your way if they felt sorry for you.  But they’d inevitably make the observation that there’s always somebody somewhere who needs their back room swept.  You know?  Brooms are easy to come by, I hear.  I’m not (usually) that old school.  But I can say that I’d rather carry pipes in a shitfield than take someone’s charity.  And I think it has to do with spending every summer of my life up to age 18 around the old folks.  In fact, I can say this because I have carried pipes in a shitfield.

But pipes and shitfields were far from my mind when I woke up today.  It was a typical morning in what I’m learning to accept as the beginning of a standard Tallinn day: slightly overcast, a crowd of models in miniskirts waiting for the bus across the street, and behind them, behind a guy who looked like The Zohan in a hot pink sweat suit with a beard that zigzagged like a lightning bolt, a middle-aged couple ran through tango steps on the grass.  Yes.  At 7:15 on a Tuesday morning.  Tango practice.  When the bus came, they both ran and got on with all the rest.  I sipped my coffee, watched the whole thing, and smiled at the universe, thinking the same thing I’ve thought every morning since arriving in Estonia: I really like it here.  It’s a weird place to be sure, but gently so—everything cast in a quiet, self-amused sort of absurdity, as if to say: I fought for this cabbage.  Now I’ve got it.  It’s mine.  And guess what I’ve discovered?  It’s a cabbage. 

Like most Americans, I’m normally not that subtle.  Still, I had no idea that today would meet and exceed my personal standard for weirdness and improbable synchronicity.  Today, as Basil Ivan Rákóczi might say, was a painted caravan.  And, like most Americans 6-of-pentacleswho’ve read the tarot every morning for 30 years (more than you might think, Harry), I shuffled up my Hanson-Roberts and pulled a card.  Now, without getting too far into my theory of how the cards work (which is a book I’m currently writing), I can say that I believe divination systems, like good short stories, show us what we already know (and perhaps cannot face at the moment) and give us the opportunity to think about what we should be keeping in mind (that maybe we don’t want to think about).  So when I drew the 6 of Pentacles, after watching Tango at the Bus Stop, I wondered what the hell it could mean.

Of course, I knew what the card meant in itself.  When I give readings, I tell people that 6 is the tarot number of beauty, grace, and style.  The 6 in the Major Arcana of the tarot is the card of The Lovers, which is the abundance of The Empress magnified until Venus is so radiant, so present, that victory is the inevitable next step.  Translated into the suits of the Minor Arcana, the 6 brings that beauty and grace into more specialized elemental contexts.  So one way of translating the 6 of Pentacles from the symbolic language of the cards is to call it “the beauty of earthly concerns” because pentacles, as a suit, deals with earth, with materiality of all kinds.  In a more literal sense, it is often called the card of alms-giving, patronage, generosity.  Sitting in the window with my coffee and the first light rain of the day coming down, I had reason to question what sort of generosity I should have been keeping in mind.

It wasn’t long before the universe, in her usual gentle, relaxing way furnished the answer.  My wallet disappeared somewhere between a vanilla ice cream at Rimi and me dropping my daily .50€ into the cup of the old gypsy lady who gives me a blessing every morning.

Like grandma, I give it when I have it.  My mom used to call it, “paying your way.”  And that’s how I’ve always thought of it—paying your way on the street, on any street, means giving a little.  Only today, I gave with that image of the 6 of Pentacles in my thoughts.  The old woman in her black cloak straightened up, bowed to me in a very dignified way, as always, and made the sign of the cross over my head.  This morning, I decided to take her picture.  She didn’t seem to mind.

It was only several hours later that I discovered my wallet was missing.  I immediately began blaming myself, wondering whether it was the old woman or someone else or whether my credit cards were currently floating out to sea; turning my suitcases inside-out; cursing; vowing to never leave the house again; developing cruel theories about my upbringing and DNA that would explain this stupidity.  I have never lost a wallet.  Ever.  This is because I fear it like a fat boy fears P.E.

Trembling, vehement, cursing myself and all creation, I thought, 6 of Pentacles my ass.  I’m the one who needs some goddamn charity now, huh.  I spent most the day doing exactly what grandma always said was unhealthy: hating myself.  I was in a foreign country on limited funds (which probably had already been siphoned out of my bank account down to the last cent) and my dreamy drifting around Tallinn—thinking about short stories and tarot cards and birds and why we think we see pictures in clouds and wondering whether someone could walk in the exact same footsteps as someone else all around a city and what that would mean—had gotten me destitute and ashamed.

After going back to the market (“What?  Lost found?  Can you please again speak in Russian if no Estonian?”) and retracing my steps around town twice in the rain (“Mama, looka the man.  He all wet!”), I went home and did what every stupid person does in my situation.  I wrote to the US embassy:

Dear Duty Officer— I seem to have misplaced my wallet and will need to cancel my credit cards.  Can you advise me on how to obtain an emergency money wire from my bank in the States so I can set up a PO Box here in Tallinn?  I do not have a mailing address and will need one to receive replacement cards. Your advice is most appreciated.

I had to resist signing off with And, yes, I really am this stupid.  Two more hours of self-loathing and introspective angst ensued.  And then something very interesting happened.  I was about to go to bed and just consign myself to spiritual darkness, but I thought I should maybe check my email one last time.  Given my previous experiences with the US embassy in East Africa, I didn’t have high hopes that they would even write back to me.  But they had written back! In fact, they told me that an Estonian citizen had found my wallet and phoned them with his information.  Does this happen? 6 of Pentacles?  Talk to me, 6.  You can’t just be all “beauty of earthly concerns” and leave me hot and bothered with an address on Lootsi street in my hand and a Borgesian fable in my head.  Can you?  You bastard!

After calling and talking to the man’s grandson on the phone, I looked up his house on Google Maps and plotted a course.  I was actually quite close.  In 15 minutes, I was there.  The place was old and the top panes of the front windows were completely missing—a crumbling green bungalow in the same unpaved lot as an auto garage.  It had a rusted metal door and so much water damage on its front wooden steps that someone had laid a narrow strip of particleboard over them like a ramp.  Everything sagged with rain.  A diamond-shaped yellow sign had been nailed beside the window: Hoiduge Koer!, beware of dog.

After knocking and waiting and knocking again and waiting again, I began to wonder if this wasn’t some elaborate Estonian prank: unintelligent American drops wallet in the city center and is led on a merry chase while funds are siphoned and many beers are toasted to the goddess Schadenfreude.  But eventually someone did come—one of the mechanics from the garage: completely bald with a wicked scar laterally across his forehead and a tight, controlled smile.  He squinted at me and we began the laborious process of communication in broken German.

By the time I was holding up the Peugeot for him, I discovered he spoke perfect English and had perhaps feigned the broken German to get me to help him out—which I would have done anyway had he but asked.  There is something about someone grinning at you and saying Komm mit! Komm mit! that is entirely more persuasive than saying, “Look, I don’t know when the old man’s coming back home, but could you give me a hand in here?”

I came mit.  I gave a hand.  I even gave two hands.  The jack he was using to hold up a Peugeot hatchback looked like it had seen better days.  For that matter, so did the car.  He showed me that part of the jack had been crushed.  And I wondered, if the car could do that to the jack, how could he possibly expect me to lift it?  And would my spine look like the jack if I tried?

Stark,” he said and winked, doing imaginary bicep curls.  Yeah, right, I thought.  Stark but not Tony Stark.

Only after I was grunting and holding the rear fender of the car with both hands and thinking deep hernial thoughts did my new best friend say, “That fucking jack was bullshit, man.  You can let it down now.”

“Bullshit?  Bullshit?  You can speak fucking English?  Why didn’t you tell me?”

All I got was a bashful smile and another wink.  And I thought: it’s not that I’m stupid and gullible, I mean, I am those things, certainly, but it’s more that people don’t know how to ask for help.  If he would have only asked, I would have helped.  And then I thought of myself, broke in Montana one summer, working day labor so I wouldn’t have to ask my parents for money.  When I applied at the Ready Labor office in Missoula, the woman behind the desk asked me, “If someone said go plunge all the toilets, would you do it?”  “I guess I would,” I said, “if I were getting paid.”  She nodded and checked a box on the form.  Later that day was my first shitfield experience.  So maybe, provided certain exigencies of time and space had conspired to make me an Estonian auto mechanic instead of a pissed-off grad. student with an over-exaggerated sense of pride, I’d be the one fronting the broken German and some other fool would be holding up my Peugeot.

Still, he wasn’t a bad dude.  He helped me get ahold of the old man, who’d been called away suddenly (I never got an explanation) and was on his way back.  I sat in the auto garage beside the hatchback while the guy worked and told me all about how shitty Peugeots are.  He gave me a bottle of water and things weren’t so bad after that.  The rain made interesting noises on the corrugated metal roof.  And my new friend’s deep abiding disgust with all things Peugeot was a thing to behold.

When the old man arrived, he was like nothing I expected.  He stood about 6’6” in khakis, a white button-down, and a red beret.  He was extremely thin, and smoked a pipe.  His grip was so strong that, when we shook, I felt like he could lift me up that way.  I went into the bungalow behind him.  It looked as water damaged inside as it was on the outside.  The ceilings were falling in.  Everything inside was particle board.  And it occurred to me that this wasn’t where he lived.  It was an office or a workshop.  He was far too well-put-together to be living in a place where the top windows had been blown out and half of the living room was a puddle.

But specifics at that point didn’t matter.  All my money was in my wallet.  My credit cards.  My Communication Workers of America union card.  My 1st Gup membership  card in the United States Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation—awarded to me in 1997 by the famous Tang Soo Do master Lloyd Francis which I have kept in my wallet everyday since then out of respect for that great teacher.  My drivers license. My House of Rice frequent diner card.  Everything that defines me.  Still there.  I would lift 10 crappy Peugeots for that.  I thanked him profusely.  And, after a few minutes of me grinning at him, he lit his pipe and I took my leave, still smiling.

Expedite1Could the day get any stranger?  Yes, yes it could.  Drifting home in an existential haze, trying to figure out what it all meant, I came across a slightly larger-than-life size statue of Saint Expedite completely made of marzipan in a glass case in the center of a mall.  If I’d had my camera, I would have taken a picture of that, too.  Suffice it to say, I was shocked because underneath the statue was the motto “Patron of Emergencies Lost Items, and Financial Needs.”  I stared until people started to give me funny looks, which granted, in Estonia, is not that long.  But still.  But still.

Yet stranger: almost home, a girl tripped and I caught her before she knocked her head against a concrete pole.  Good?  Saving the populace?  Lifting cars?  Interacting with marzipan Saints?  I’m Billy Dee Williams, son.

Now I’m home.  It’s late and I’m blogging this.  But somehow I don’t feel like I’m doing the day justice.  Every one of these experiences had enough emotional tender to merit a post all on its own.  And I would be dishonest if I said I didn’t feel a bit overstimulated.  So, okay 6, I think I understand by now.  I think I finally get it.  I can look over at my wallet on the table and say, I fought for this cabbage. Now I’ve got it. It’s mine. And guess what I’ve discovered?