Don't follow me

This time last year I was traveling in Cambodia with my girlfriend. Our train had just run over a cow. I would see eleven more countries before returning to America.

In 2018 in had two short stories and an essay published and they made me exactly $0. I got lots more rejections from journal editors and agents. Some rich novelists get 12 or 14 rejections before the big yes and they’re celebrated for their perseverance. I’ll be venerated. They’ll make me a damned saint.

But I’m living the life. Counting pennies so I can stretch this out, make this dream reality.

Five years ago I was making low six figures as a management consultant. Traveling for work, stacking points and custom-made shirts. Married to a woman I’d met 17 years prior. There were whispers of starting a family so we were looking at a house. We had a dying pet that consumed a lot of time and energy because we loved him so. Before 2014 was over I had that house and was living in it alone. On Christmas Day I sat in bed and finished the first draft of my first novel.

No, that was two novels ago.

No kids, of course. Would’ve been irresponsible to do this. I’d have had to keep the steady soul-sucking corporate gig. Where the winds of fortune shift, and you go from managers who are brilliant and caring to a micromanager who can’t explain what they want (think about how much that would suck), or one who is looking out for themselves alone.

But that’s the responsible play. Stay on the ladder. Associate Director now, but hide your opinions and kiss the right asses and in two years you might be up for Director. Keep climbing and fake smiling and after four more years you might make Senior Director. Or you could take a big career risk and jump to a smaller company, where you have a clearer path to vice president—assuming the company doesn’t go under and you don’t make the wrong enemy first. But hey, high risk high reward.

I did neither of those. “Playing the game” never fit my style (ask anyone who’s worked with me). Throw in my writing during meetings and the on-again off-again office romance that we worked not very hard to hide and you can see why I needed to reevaluate. A little sad I’m not putting that MBA to better use—I worked hard for it and I’m pretty good at business. It’s just the culture that rankles me.

So no wife, no kids, no house, no BMW. No relationship but good friends. Minimize distractions so I can work for this. So I can pound away at my keyboard and brain, make the words travel from my head to my hands—it’s a longer distance than you can imagine until you’ve sat here, hour after hour, fueled only by belief.

Could you handle that? The uncertainty? The instability? Sacrificing the sure things, the adult things? The house, the new car, the appliances, the shoes? Lawncare and HOAs? The fully funded 401(k)? Could you be 41 years old and further from having a family than you were at 31? All on the bet that, of the thousands of great and very good books, books that are genre-perfect and the cross of two hot comp titles all sitting in slush piles, that yours will break through? How many rejections could you take? Getting your hopes up and getting them dashed until they don’t get up anymore but you still have to. All anyone can tell you is “keep trying”. Send another query letter? Write another story?

This is literally my life. When my ex-wife was my girlfriend she would “joke” that she worried one day I’d come home having spent my checking account on a handful of magic beans. In a way, she was right.

But I do have this.

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Think it’s almost time to pack again.

On the industry of writing

As I query my latest novel and outline the next I think of one of the best bands I saw as a kid: Grand Tour. Man, they were tight. Covers, some originals I think. I thought they were the equal of anything on the radio.

Never heard of them? I’m not surprised. Because they never * made * it. Which is a tragedy, because so many shit acts do—and that can mean popular rotation in radio as it was in the days of Grand Tour or now where it’s soundcloud, or any number of streaming services (I use deezer), or YouTube or having your own satellite radio station / branded bars / merch, or however you define success.

But bands like Grand Tour don’t get a sniff. I think they were in the running for a spicy mustard commercial jingle. I remember lyrics, “first it’s hot, then it’s not. Whatchu got, you got cooool hot.”

Dig it, right?

So what do they, or Mink, or Catfish, or Fleming and John, or Stephen’s Law, or Darwin’s Waiting Room, or Black Market Hero, or Mother Love Bone, or the many other shoulda-been-mores I have loved have to do with the writing industry? Because I read stories, and the stories of people who get their stories published. Some of them have incredible out of the box success, like it came to me in a dream, and it was the first thing I really wrote, and I got 15 whole rejections before I had an agent and a contract and multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series. Or I wrote fanfic of the same story and changed the names and got multiple best-sellers that turn into a movie series.

But a lot of us don’t. Ever read American War? I read it last year and adored it. Sweeping, well-structured with fully formed and sympathetic characters, and a brilliant allegory playing underneath. I don’t know how many copies sold. It got some great praise from literary circles which maybe translates into enough sales to support a career or at least a follow-up but I doubt Omar is pulling down streaming series money yet. Almost certainly not theme park-level bank.

Meanwhile, self-indulgent overly long unrealistic waste of my time characters I only hoped would all die painful deaths including the narrator, who was so excessively unreliable I said at every paragraph “yeah whatever” become cult hits and movies. But fair play to you, Bret, because either you were in the right place at the right time or you figured out something about the industry that I haven’t yet. Either way I say,

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

if I were writing historical fiction, anyway

It is at this point that some self-published writer is reading this and puffing up, ready to strike like a Crossfitter or Herbalife pusher. I know, I’ve seen you on the twitter and message boards. Because yes, it does suck to spend time querying that you could be spending writing, and yes, having absolute creative control to write a 150,000 word middle grade gothic horror tome sounds freeing, and toiling for years without landing a deal, facing rejection upon rejection before putting your most precious work through major surgery or killing your darling in the drawer is an unfortunate struggle for many of us agent-seekers. But while I see some making a mint by being down with the KDP, I see many more e-published folk who are great writers make literally dozens of dollars a year doing it. Or they’re on Wattpad, valuing communities and eyeballs and hoping it’ll lead to dollars like the dot-com bubble. I’ve seen others sacrifice their pride hustling to fill their email marketing list at conferences, or bombing my inbox and timeline the moment I refollow them on twitter.

Life is trade-offs. Or, as my ex-wife used to say, “life is choices, Cupcake.” Maybe she still does.

I have mad respect for the self-publishers though. Cover design, marketing, sales, PR they’re responsible for it all. They live and die by amazon ranking, amazon pricing, and please god don’t let amazon change their policies or algorithms yet again. Don’t underestimate their dedication and hustle—and certainly don’t doubt their writing skills.

Going the agent/trad 5 route is painful. It’s a tough place to go against the grain. You may have an amazing book, but if it’s in an unpopular category, or it’s vampires and vampires are out of style now, or your protagonist is too stock, or too strange, or too anything or not enough something then you’re going to face rejections in the dozens or hundreds depending on how tenacious/lucky you are. And yes that sucks sucks sucks but I don’t blame agents. Just like writers, they love books and amazing storylines and brilliant writing for writing’s sake, because if they didn’t they wouldn’t have read three grade levels ahead in elementary through high school and majored in comparative literature at 7 Sisters and chosen to work in publishing (probably not the most thankful of industries). But they’re also on straight commission. And when they have a stack of stories in the slush that are equally well written and structured as yours plus hit the age group or target market segment or trend of the moment? That’s a simple business decision. New York apartments aren’t cheap.

So what to do? The only consistent advice I’ve gotten, from twitter to rejection letters to those professionals who have kindly given of their time and insight, is that this business is subjective. And if you want to succeed, you’ve got to work at it for years, and keep trying. And the acceptances I have received confirm that the time and effort invested is worth it. Maybe not on an hourly wage basis yet, but…

Every moment should be enjoyed. Each new milestone comes with new pleasures, but you lose other pleasures forever, pleasures that came when life was simpler or merely different. Jimmy Buffett was seven years and seven albums in before he became an overnight success with Margaritaville. His life dramatically changed, and in ways I’m sure he’d say were great, but there must be things he misses about the old life in old Palm Beach.**

And it helps to remember why I’m doing this in the first place: love of telling stories. And hope that my words can impact, or entertain, or matter to someone. To contribute my verse.

So enjoy the ride. I’ve read that being on sub is more frustrating than querying.

**According to Ryan White’s very good Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way

Giving up to go forward

Tonight I gave up.

The first short story I wrote when I re-undertook writing 4.5ish years ago was called Two Graduations. I was proud of it, and was sure it would be my first published work (soon to be followed by my first novel). Seventeen rejections and a lot of punishment to my ego later I was making new edits. I grew frustrated, and scrawled at the top: WHAT MATTERS?

So I stripped down the story to what did. The essential conflict. I rewrote it, renamed it Thanks for the Sour Persimmons, and resumed submitting. That was in 2016. And the rejections kept coming. Sometimes they came with good feedback, like the contest I entered where I paid extra for said feedback.

Hey, time is money.

I wrote other things, so Persimmons took a back seat, but I would dust it off from time to time, make new edits, find new lit mags to flog. Rejected by them all, 28 in total.

There’s a writer’s group that I sparsely attend, and tonight I decided to bring it in. Over the previous two weeks I made fresh edits, remembering all the comments I’d read and bought. They were right, it was overwritten, so I simplified the language. Clarified scenes that, with distance I saw were ill formed. All in the hopes that it would pass my fellow writers’ inspection and so be worthy of more submissions, and hopefully publication at last.

It didn’t go that way. They were complimentary, of course: that it was well-written, that I had vivid description, good dialogue, humor, surprise.

But…

there was near-unanimous agreement that a scene should be struck, though they were split on which one. And while the description was indeed vivid, it was perhaps inappropriate for the story. Which is what I was going for—juxtaposition, like a song with bouncy music and tragic lyrics.

But I’m not here to fight their feedback but to absorb it. And I accept that this story, while precious to me, maybe isn’t publishable as-is. Though I’ve continued making revisions, it has at its core a story I wrote 4.5ish years ago. It carries artifacts of defects I’ve since corrected in my prose.

And though my skin has toughened, each rejection still dings my ego and good humor. So tonight has led me to the decision to return Thanks for the Sour Persimmons to the metaphorical drawer, filed beside my first two novels and a few other shorts. Maybe not forever: maybe it’ll be included in a compilation of “other stories” released after I die, or to fill the gap between best sellers made when I get famous and go full Chappelle.*

I want to be interviewed by James Lipton. I have all my answers to his ten questions.

So what to do in the meantime? I’ll write, just the same as I’ve done before and hopefully better. I’ll keep trying to write what matters. And in a strange way, I feel good about putting Persimmons aside. A little sad, perhaps, but free:

Didn’t know Black Box was so deep, did you?

*Dear agents and publishers: I promise I won’t do that—at least not while I’m under contract

Tattoos and Rocky

My first tattoo was no small flash in a fleshy part of the body or a tribal band around a low-nerve region: it was thick, dark, and required the needle gun to run up my collarbone. The vibration scraped down to my sternum. All of this was manageable as I’d zoned out like the body and mind mandates when undergoing sustained pain. Then when my artist pulled the gun away and turned her back I relaxed and smiled, pleased we were done. Not too bad.

Of course, I was wrong. She was just reloading. The next minutes were excruciating as I worked to get back to that happy place but my mind wouldn’t make the leap. Like it was saying “boy, this wasn’t the deal. You bamboozled me and now we both have to hurt for it.” But I didn’t know: one, this was all new to me, and two, I couldn’t see to verify (try looking at all your clavicle without a mirror). But after all the pain, it was worth it—my next dozen tats serve as confirmation.

If you want to see the rest you’ll have to buy me dinner. I’m cheap, not free.

If you want to see the rest you’ll have to buy me dinner. I’m cheap, not free.

The life of a writer (or my life as a writer, anyway) is full of rejection. Sharp needles jabbing into your ego, over and over again. Like that first tattoo, I don’t know when the pain will end. Worse, I can’t be certain it will turn out like I want—or that I’ll even end up with a visible result. As though there’s no ink in the gun, and I’ve endured it all for nothing.

It stings. Especially when you go through the proper process: you read the blogs and articles that preach proper etiquette, you do your research and find agents who rep books that are similar but not too similar (and, of course of course, when you’re not writing you’re reading lots of books in your genre to know those matches), you meet them at conferences or query them on the basis of their MSWL or their recent interview or their tweets or agency profile that shows you two should be like peas and carrots and you tell them all this while sounding totally professional, not at all obsequious or stalkerish. You do all of this and it works, s/he requests the first 10 or 50 pages or even the whole damned book and you think, finally it is in a professional’s hands—I’ve made it through the hoops and now the writing will speak for itself.

And they say they like it, just not enough. But keep going, they say, because certainly another agent will see it differently.

Rejection hurts, especially after you believed.


Rocky’s down on the canvas and it’s not the first time this fight. His nose was broken rounds ago. His eyes are swelling shut. He’s so battered that his own trainer tells him to stay down. Everyone has lost faith in him. But he gets back up. He wants it so badly that he has his cutman cut open his eyelid so that he can see for one more round (they don’t usually do that, you know—it’s like a firefighter setting a fire).

Rocky goes the distance. The scorecards are irrelevant because all he wanted was to go the distance. To know that he was good enough.

I find meaning in that. Rocky had one advantage over me though: he knew what the distance was. 15 rounds, they announced it up front, it was the standard length for championship fights at the time, even Lady Liberty carried around glittery numbered cards to remind you what round was coming (helpful as Rock was probably sustaining a large percentage of his overall brain damage).

submittable  is great because it lets you see lots of your failures on one page. Not one screen, mind you—this goes on for 72 entries. On the bright side: two of these stories have since been published.

submittable is great because it lets you see lots of your failures on one page. Not one screen, mind you—this goes on for 72 entries. On the bright side: two of these stories have since been published.

I don’t know what round I’m in. And these shots I’ve taken of late are a lot harder than the jabs from lit mags passing on my short fiction, or the glancing blows struck when agents respond to my slush pile query with a form letter or no response at all because I was all in on this. I was feeling like a contender, a somebody. Getting representation for my novel isn’t the title belt, but it’s a lot more than fighting Spider Rico. Is it going the distance? Because that won’t be enough. Of course, Rocky changed his mind on there not being a rematch and… okay, the analogy becomes a little tortured since success is a succession of fights, some lost, some won, all instructional.

It’s hard to not write a cheesy inspirational close about getting up off the canvas when you’ve been knocked onto it, just like Rocky. And I sure as hell won’t link to that awful 1990’s song that said something similar to that in the hook. Instead I’ll go to a different sport:

Blessed and fortunate: I don't know what's next

The silence on my blog has grown loud to me lately. One does not do what I did and then come back smoothly into America 2018, there’s a need for adjustment.

And without new things to write about, there’s not a lot to say here. An answer is coming, but I don’t know what it looks like yet. Timing is a question, too (like it always is).

I grew up always wanting to know the answer, to know what my life would look like and to make it so. Each time I did it, a different result came. Sometimes better. But in the end I found Happiness. And I need to keep doing those things that will make me happy. Things that will have meaning.

So I need to figure that out.

On suicide

I’m a little late for World Suicide Prevention Day, but I revisited my friend Richard’s facebook page. They have it converted to an “in memory of” page.

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And I’m struck by the juxtaposition of his happy at the beach profile and banner pics with the word “Remembering” above his name. The name of the man so many people thought of as fun-loving Box. Just as people misunderstood Tony and Robin and so many others who die by suicide.

I have some expertise on this. Almost no one saw it coming when I tried killing myself 23 years ago. And if I’d succeeded, so many would second-guess and blame themselves.

It’s a silent epidemic.

And we need to all do better. We need to end the stigma of suicide so more people will talk about it. We need to reach out to others when we are in pain. We need to understand and listen when our friends and neighbors reach out. We need to reach out if we see them in pain, because signals can be very subtle.

We need listening and empathy. And listening. And love.

The difference four years can make

 
No matter where you go, you are what you are player
And you can try to change but that’s just the top layer
Man, you was who you was ‘fore you got here
— Jay-Z, Public Service Announcement
Atlas, holding up the universe. Not exactly subtle.

Atlas, holding up the universe. Not exactly subtle.

I got this tattoo four years ago today: it was my third, and opened up the gate for the more than one dozen that would follow. Tattoos for me are often cathartic, helping me get out of my heart and mind things that trouble me. The pain is penance. The marks are forever reminders.

When I got that one I was going through a lot. My marriage was crumbling. I'd just pushed my entanglement with Girl past the Rubicon--there would be no going back. I was crushing under the weight of expectations, mine and others. I was stretched by stresses I couldn't endure and was crying out. I was scared shitless of judgment, of breaking promises, of leaving people behind. I wanted to know what it all meant and spent countless hours trying to understand and getting no closer.

Changes had to come.

And in the days and years that followed I made significant changes. I divorced. I fell harder for a woman than I ever had before. I got high. I wrote. I spent time reviewing what I'd done, where I'd gone wrong, and what I needed to do to be where I was supposed to be. To be me, someone I liked.

I made more changes. I walked away from Girl. I left my high-paying job. I traded my house and stuff for a backpack and saw (at least some of) the world. I met new people and found a relationship that actually worked. I turned 40, and I was happier than I ever could have imagined being at 36. Then I made more changes because there was more I needed to see. And that was very hard. But people touched my heart, and I got some things published. And I learned the meaning of life, which is pretty great no matter what you have to go through to do it. 

I came back home to see the people I loved and missed. Then one of them died before I could, which shook me to the core and made me question a lot of things. I'm still dealing with it.

Four years gone since that tattoo. And in that time I've often thought of Jigga's lyrics, is he wrong or right? After all, haven't I changed tremendously in the last four years? Or was I, before that time, trying to be something I wasn't--just trying to change the top layer, and thus, in the time since, realized who I was and am and shaped my life and behavior in ways that truly reflect that?

I don't know--and I'm okay with that.

Lessons learned: don't wait

On my way out on the One Way Ticket, I drove a long loop to see friends and family. The first arc was down to Charleston, SC, to see my dear friend Richard Bachschmidt.

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I met Richard when we both worked in radio--SuperTalk 99.7, specifically. I was brand new and paying my dues, giddy to be a weekend board op making $8.75 an hour. He was already a legend around the halls.

And he approached me. Though he was so much cooler than I, we became friends.

Later I got a show, Saturday night/Sunday mornings, midnight to 2 a.m. My goal was to see how many people I could make mad, could I get all six of our phone lines to light at once. He had a show on before mine, and through some fortunate personnel shifts, I became his "producer" (though anyone who has worked with him knows he was the mastermind genius). And one of the reasons I'm not still in radio was because of him, because I saw that no matter how much time I put into practice and show prep and research, I'd never approach what he could do completely on the fly. He was naturally gifted. He did all the big and little things. I was watching greatness.

In the 16 years that followed, we stayed in touch. He'd hit his stride, and became a big deal as Box in the Morning on Charleston's 105.5 The Bridge. I came down to visit several times and always enjoyed it. I got to join him on the mic, we'd riff, we'd laugh. But more than any of those times with "Box", I most enjoyed spending time with Rich. When the mic was off, the persona slipped away, and he became real. Most people didn't see his complexity, his frustrations, his pain. But those aspects only made me love him more.

When I left we'd message. I knew about the dust-up at The Bridge and followed his decision to got it alone in podcasting--a risky move, but one that seemed to be paying off. I listened a time or two while I was abroad and it was damn good, no surprise. He even shouted me out live, talking about my travels and how "he's doing it right".

Soon after, I started making plans to come home. And I was making plans to work with Richard again--I had ideas and so looked forward to pitching them. But more than that, I just wanted to hang out with my friend again.

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Our messages from 3 weeks ago: what I would give to share that rum with him

Our messages from 3 weeks ago: what I would give to share that rum with him

And after I got back, I kept meaning to message him, kept meaning to listen to his podcast. I was getting settled, you know, and was probably going to do it next week. Now that I have transportation again, I was going to drive down to The Holy City and we were going to do it up.

Well, I will now be making that drive. But it will be for a funeral.

My world is a little dimmer today. I've lost a beautiful, inspirational light. I've lost one of my dearest friends. And I think I'll always carry the weight of guilt now.

If I hadn't waited...  

Lessons learned: nationalism is bullshit

So I'm back in The States after nearly 15 months abroad, and one lesson I learned was that more unites us than divides us. Upon making this statement I was asked to explain. So I will here.

give it a chance

give it a chance

We all** are largely the same, regardless of arbitrary distinctions like race and the invented lines inside of which we were born. We have the same needs and desires. We like good food, good music, good sex and a good story. We have the same fears. There are people we love, and we want them to be safe and warm and cared for.

**And we all have a few exceptions to this: narcissists, sociopaths, powermongers and problem children who play upon the fears we all have to divide us from each other. People who manipulate us, using symbols, flags, gods and false nostalgia as proof that We are good and They are bad and if we aren't careful They will take what's divinely Ours and sully what is pure.  

our-blessed-homeland-vs-their-barbarous-wastes-comparison-identical-kingdoms.jpg

It's easy to buy into the false narrative. But there is an antidote.

Back in b-school I learned about Genchi Genbutsu, a management technique that basically means "go and see". You hear there's a problem? Go to where it is and see for yourself. I liked this idea very much, and applied it in my subsequent corporate consulting and strategerizing life. It applied equally well on the One Way Ticket

Of course, not everyone can get their boots on, pull up lifestakes, and slum it in hostels searching for truth. I get it. In that case, I recommend seeking out dissonant voices. Get out of your echo chamber and comfortable messaging about who "They" are and how they don't share our values. And when you're fortunate enough to meet someone who has a weird name or different skin pigmentation or was born inside different manmade map lines, talk to them. Start with "hello" and a smile, just like you would with a friend or a neighbor.  

It's not that simple

 
World Clock, Berlin : it's a quarter to 19 where a piece of my heart is

World Clock, Berlin: it's a quarter to 19 where a piece of my heart is

14+ months. 19 countries. And when I decided to take this trip I knew I would take a piece of every place I visited with me but had no idea that some of those places would take some of me, too. Big pieces in a couple of cases. So now when I see a Thai massage salon, I catch a whiff of leaking sewer, I stumble on a broken sidewalk or into an impossible traffic pattern, I remember places I've been and smile wistful. Sometimes in a spare moment I page through my passport and shake my head dumbfounded over events that seem a year or more ago but happened only a few months back. Seriously? I was in Indonesia in March?

For all I've collected, I'll not only never be the same, but I'll never be whole--because even if I return to me second home, I'll be missing the first.

I'll never again be whole.

So what will I be? 


A couple of weeks ago I dreamed that I shaved my beard, and what was underneath was not good--ugly folds, discolored skin. I spent the morning thinking about its meaning, since clearly this was not a literal thing, of course I'm beautiful beneath the beard. At last I concluded it related to this grand trip and it's inevitable conclusion. I can't live my life as a rolling stone--eventually I'll come home. I'll sleep in the same bed of a single nation, night after night (most nights, at least). 

What will I be then? Who will I be? Certainly not as interesting as I imagine myself now. Of course, I'll be writing, and going to conferences so there's travel in that--but it obviously won't be the same.

Will that be enough for me?

Then there's the ever-present question of my life's dwindling savings, and will they outlast the rejections and allow me make this dream of writing for my living a reality? No wonder I've been getting stress twitches of late.

Here's where I like to write a convenient and clever little wrap-up encapsulating the theme and restating the thesis of my post. But I don't have that right now, except maybe this: if you look at my pics and posts and think "he gets to travel the world, must be nice" just know it's not that simple.

Nobody's life ever is.**

**Don't worry, I'm still happy, even if Bobby McFerrin isn't

Manic month of May

 

Before we wake up and the number on the calendar is 1**

I wanted to look at some (rounded) numbers that describe my month. This is the closest I'll get to math without breaking out a spreadsheet:

  • Travel distance, air: 11,150 miles
  • Travel distance, rail and wheels: 720 miles
  • Travel distance, walking: 149 miles 
you should see my shoes at this point

you should see my shoes at this point

  • Countries stayed at least one night in: 8 (Thailand, Egypt, Ethiopia, UAE, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Czechia?)
  • Calories consumed: too many
Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

  • Stories published: 1 (Voluntouring)
  • Words written: did you see all the miles I walked?
  • Pictures taken: 1500+. Some were better than this:
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And putting aside the numbers, even in a once in a lifetime journey this month has stood out: I've seen The Pyramids at Giza, Lucy, the Acropolis, Auschwitz, and so much old Europe. I left my second home and got closer to my first. I got food shoved in my mouth and found the meaning of life.

What will next month bring? We'll start to see when next we wake up. 


**Hat tip to my b-school buddy Naequan, who references Bone on the facebook every new month. This is also where I post the pic of my autograph from Wish Bone, whom I met on a plane to Brazil in 2015.

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The meaning of life

"So what's the meaning of life?" a friend asked me over chat recently. As if my travels had imparted some sort of rare wisdom unto me.

But maybe they had. 

Grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, ca 325 B.C. "The sisters gaze remote and isolated, already in another transcendental world, far from the things in this life.... It is one of the last tomb stones before the law passed by Demetrios of Phaleron, prohibiting luxurious tomb monuments." --from the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum

Grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, ca 325 B.C. "The sisters gaze remote and isolated, already in another transcendental world, far from the things in this life.... It is one of the last tomb stones before the law passed by Demetrios of Phaleron, prohibiting luxurious tomb monuments." --from the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum

I've happened upon a lot of graves in my travels, some of them millennia old, holding the deceased of various backgrounds, faiths, and reasons for being there. Something kept bringing me to them beyond morbid curiosity. And it hit me in Athens, at the Kerameikos site and museum. So many artifacts there were found at gravesites. They buried tools and toys, and made ornate tombstones to celebrate the memory of their deceased (until that was outlawed, anyway). This was three-plus centuries before Christ walked the earth and one of his apostles came to visit

Sanctuary of the Tritopatores--what remains, anyway

Sanctuary of the Tritopatores--what remains, anyway

In Kerameikos stood a low trapezoidal wall and a stone tablet proclaiming it the HIEPON TPITOΠATPEON: Sanctuary of the Tritopatores. It was a church, essentially, established in the fifth century B.C.: here believers offered the Tritopatores food and drink, and sought blessings during wedding rituals, praying specifically for the birth of sons.

But by the third century B.C. the sanctuary was no longer in use, and no one, to the knowledge of me or the Kerameikos Archeological Museum, at least, still worships the Tritopatores. They are forgotten gods.

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Were the Tritopatores real? Who's to say? I mean, the only ones who truly know aren't around to tell us.

And you, too, may believe in a god that one day is forgotten. Does that make your god any less real? I'm sure that's a difficult idea to process, let alone accept, especially if you've believed all your life. But it probably was, too, for those who worshipped in the HIEPON TPITOΠATPEON.

Belief in any god is a bet--a smart one, if you believe Blaise Pascal, but regardless, the full payoff doesn't come until after this life is over. And in that fact, we can find the only promised meaning.

The meaning of life is that it ends. And what you do with it before then is what gives yours meaning.

So, what is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of yours?

Hat tip to Evan Hadfield of Rare Earth, whose voice I heard as I wrote this. Check out his videos--they're some of the best viewing on the YouTubes. I've embedded one of my favorites below:

Ethiopian Boundaries

8 days in Ethiopia and it seemed so much longer. That's less about the country than it is about me--I'm frankly tired. I'm now 14 months into the one-way ticket, and even for the happy writer traveler it's starting to wear. It's tough to motivate sometimes--I mean, eventually a mountain looks like a mountain, a hotel is a hotel, and no matter how you spice it, chicken and rice is chicken and rice.

Which, on that last one at least, is a selling point for Ethiopia--cause this ain't chicken and rice:  

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

On my second day in Gondar, my excellent guide Bekele Atakilte connected me with a tour of Lake Tana and Gorgora. Riding the green lake waters on a perfect-weather day was lovely and peaceful--except when my lake guide (who will remain unnamed) was talking. He was a chatty fellow. And maybe it's just my cranky nature, but I feel like when you're on a boat you should talk sparingly if at all and just enjoy the view. Like a movie.

Anyway.

Ethiopia is a deeply religious country, and the majority practice Orthodox ChristianityLake Tana is home to numerous tiny Orthodox monasteries, some dating back to the 14th century. As we came to shore at one of them--the Manendeaba Abune Yassay Medhanealem Communal Monastery--my unnamed chatty lake guide bent over, cupped his hands in the water, and took several deep drinks. "It's holy water," he said. "It's like medicine."

Throughout my journey I've been conscious and intentional, avoiding judgment of other cultures and faiths. I was raised Roman Catholic, and honestly I find some of their tenets, umm... flawed. But at the end of the day, none of us know who or what God is, and my beliefs could be wrong.

With that said, I do believe strongly in the existence of waterborne pathogens. So when unnamed chatty lake guide offers me a drink of "medicine", I politely decline.

Next he brings me onto the monastery grounds to see the buildings and artifacts and meet the residents. I get the typical stares but I don't mind--it's a fascinating place. It's like stepping back in time. I see the relics accumulated over centuries. I admire the rough-hewn church, set among only trees and sky. It's simple and calming. I can see how one finds God here.

IMG_5597.JPG

Then it's time for lunch, and more simplicity: rough and rustic bread, thin broth, and local beer.

thankfully I had a big breakfast

thankfully I had a big breakfast

Unnamed chatty lake guide is solicitous and pushy. "Good, right?" "Local beer is good, right?"

And no, it wasn't particularly good, but I was down with a few bites and sips to have the experience. A very cool thing to do once.

"Eat more," he says.  

I tell him I'm not that hungry but it doesn't seem to matter. "No worries. Eat more." I'm getting annoyed but whatever--I get annoyed all the time. But then, as we're eating, he takes a handful of liquid-dipped bread and sticks it in my mouth.

In. My. Mouth.

I feel the tips of his fingers pushing against my lips. Fingers I had not seen him wash once.

Oh the revulsion.

I could have said something. I should have said something. But I was so shocked, even though I knew that was part of the old Ethiopian culture.

And maybe because I knew some Ethiopians still did this as a show of community and appreciation and welcoming that I didn't say anything. I knew he didn't mean any ill in doing it. And I certainly didn't want to offend him or the elders.

At the same time, eww eww eww.

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

So the anxiety was high as I took another drink of the sour local beer and saw his hand form again around a chunk of rough injera and perch nearby. I held that drink a long time, and still his hand hovered. I knew what was coming next.

Again, I could have said something. Again, I should have said something.

Instead, as I pulled my cup away, his hand found my mouth.

Ugh. I felt miserable--and not just from the spirochetes gleefully charging into my GI tract. Because I believe it's important to get out of one's comfort zone. New experiences expand the mind and enhance life. I've tried to say "yes" whenever possible on the one-way ticket and it's made a difference.

But sometimes you gotta listen to Nancy:

So when? And I guess I'm still learning, but probably when your own discomfort outweighs any offense you might cause others, that's a good time. Or when saying yes means a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Lesson learned.

Time has come today (okay, tomorrow, but...)

 
oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

Nearly 13 months ago I left home on a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I was excited and scared as I didn't know what awaited me: but I knew I wanted to write, discover, and learn about the world and myself. I saw ancient temples, awe-inspiring sculptures, surprising natural beauty, and traffic that defied description and camera capture. I found the fun, odd, and quirky stuff that makes Krung Thep unique. I met wonderful, beautiful people (which was absolutely the best part). I found some damn good food (maybe the second-best part). And I wrote a bunch, though never as much as I thought I needed to.

I explored Thailand and her neighbors: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I took a diversion further north into Korea and JapanThen I left Thailand and went deeper into Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. And it was in the next to last of these countries that I realized I'd learned all that I needed to here. So I began making new plans.

And the time has come to embark on them. 

Tomorrow I will fly out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Soowanaboom, because Thai) airport to start the next next episode. There will be time to talk about that later. But for now, I just want to show my love and appreciation for SE Asia and this City of Angels. You gave me exactly what I needed at a challenging time. You weren't always easy, but you were always worth it. And part of my heart will always be here.

I will miss you. I love you. I will see you again someday.

I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me: Last round

A final batch of the smiling faces that brought me such joy during a month in Indonesia:

Yogyakarta, while my ice cream melts

Yogyakarta, while my ice cream melts

and another

and another

Brain Urlacher, Indonesian edition

Brain Urlacher, Indonesian edition

Wolfed most of my ice cream down by this point (and was licking it off my fingers)

Wolfed most of my ice cream down by this point (and was licking it off my fingers)

Semarang: I got caught in the rain. Then Ivan invited me under his shelter. We all talked for over an hour. They fed me too.

Semarang: I got caught in the rain. Then Ivan invited me under his shelter. We all talked for over an hour. They fed me too.

Semarang:  as mentioned before , my Grab driver brought me to his home and introduced me to his family. This is his lovely and engaging daughter Fauzia.

Semarang: as mentioned before, my Grab driver brought me to his home and introduced me to his family. This is his lovely and engaging daughter Fauzia.

Jakarta: I had to catch a bus back to my room by the station was spiral and confusing. An off the clock driver stopped, told me how, continued on. I did another loop. He saw me again, laughed at me a little. Then said "Get in" and took me to my destination for free. Here we are no doubt violating numerous regulations.     How I love Indonesia.

Jakarta: I had to catch a bus back to my room by the station was spiral and confusing. An off the clock driver stopped, told me how, continued on. I did another loop. He saw me again, laughed at me a little. Then said "Get in" and took me to my destination for free. Here we are no doubt violating numerous regulations.   

How I love Indonesia.

I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me, part 2

More friends I've made during my month here:

Palembang: I was walking across a bridge and they ran up, no hesitation. They knew what they wanted.

Palembang: I was walking across a bridge and they ran up, no hesitation. They knew what they wanted.

Palembang: even the police love me here

Palembang: even the police love me here

Palembang: tattoo shop owner. Think we have anything in common?

Palembang: tattoo shop owner. Think we have anything in common?

Palembang: we all fit. Kind of.

Palembang: we all fit. Kind of.

Yogyakarta: I love the smiles and styles

Yogyakarta: I love the smiles and styles

Yogyakarta: peace

Yogyakarta: peace

Yogyakarta: he wanted my sunglasses

Yogyakarta: he wanted my sunglasses

Borobudur Temple: think I am the Same Same?

Borobudur Temple: think I am the Same Same?

All that I've left behind

When my snailshell came via the amazon I laughed, wondering how all I needed would cram down into 46 liters. But four pairs of shorts became two, one sleeping bag became none, and so on. It's worked--and when I've needed new or replacements they have stores here. All good.

I also brought a hat.

CBS's newest buddy cop show

CBS's newest buddy cop show

While I had sense enough to not get sentimental about most of what I brought, I didn't do the same with my hat. And that sucks because I lost it the other day. After months of watching it like a hawk, pinning it between my head and hand when even a light breeze worked up, I just left it somewhere--I think when I was changing at the hot springs following my sunrise trek up Mt. Batur.  

purty

purty

It was just a ballcap, promoting my Nashville Predators. But my brother gave me that hat more than a decade ago. It'd been through a lot--the bill fabric was shredded, it was stained many times over, there was a perspiration smell that wouldn't go away. Still, it was irreplaceable.

And now it can never be.


When I started writing decades ago I hated writing settings. I found them boring. I was more interested in dialogue, action, characters and their relationships--setting was a waste of time. Who cared about forests except Robert Fucking Frost?

Perhaps my contempt for world-building proceeded from my contempt from my own world, thinking as I'd thought in my youth that I was better than my country upbringing.

But I learned. To write a relationship you need to set it's time and a place. The relationships in Pride and Prejudice are different than those in The Hunger Games, by necessity. Just as I learned, as I've traveled to places exotic and shiny, met people who are kind and true and good--strangers and little birdies who fed and sheltered me and replaced that which I've lost and left behind--that where I come from also has a lot of good. I can't divorce myself from it. It's in my bones. 


Life is choices--and you have to choose a place to be, according to Drs Pauli and Hill:  

Which means that some things or people--even those I care about deeply--must sometimes be left behind as I take the return trip down the road less traveled. It sucks immeasurably as noted earlier. But the memories and joy can be carried.

And more than one hat can hold happy sentiment. 

is this not the face of happy?

is this not the face of happy?

I love Indonesia because Indonesia loves me

Some friends I've met during my first week in Wonderful Indonesia! :

while walking down the street in Medan

while walking down the street in Medan

at breakfast, Lake Toba

at breakfast, Lake Toba

celebrating  the Batak people  in traditional clothing, Lake Toba

celebrating the Batak people in traditional clothing, Lake Toba

she insisted on one of her own

she insisted on one of her own

in Lake Toba a couple of Dutch girls and I crashed a family naming celebration (kind of like a family reunion): he is the local gov't leader's "right hand man." 

in Lake Toba a couple of Dutch girls and I crashed a family naming celebration (kind of like a family reunion): he is the local gov't leader's "right hand man." 

Bingo is his name. o. Lake Toba.

Bingo is his name. o. Lake Toba.