Blessed and Fortunate

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.

The acceptance is a hard-won joy

Very proud and honored to be published in the latest edition of Foliate Oak, and with a story that is dear to my heart. The idea for it had been rattling around in my brain for who knows how long, but I started writing it down in a Saigon coffee shop while watching the insane traffic.

That was in May of last year. It went through at least six iterations and 11 rejections before it found its proper home. And this, by my standards, was a pretty fast accept--I have other stories that have yet to find the right fit after dozens of drafts and declines.

I say this not to complain, but instead to quantifiably demonstrate that this takes time and hard work. It takes thick skin and relentlessness. Now maybe that isn't true for every writer--and the fact that Stephanie Meyer thinks a dozen rejections is a lot and complains that a couple of those were mean, well, I have to laugh. Otherwise I would want to throttle her. 

Then again she made a mint off a story I couldn't get halfway through from all my eye-rolling, so maybe I shouldn't be so smug. 

hark-hateth-thou-not-the-player-nay-hateth-thou-the-game.jpg

Point being, success in this writing game seems to be a function of talent, tenacity, strategy, and luck. One probably needs all four, but the percentage of each will vary for each writer. I feel lucky for the success I've had thus far, and appreciative to all those who have contributed to it. And I'll need more, because I'm not even close to being done yet.   

Cambodia: Kingdom of Contradiction

Cambodia contradicts itself at turns without breaking stride or word. So it should be no surprise in Battambang, when I turn one way to see this

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then turn the other to see

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It's a place where you look up to see Khmer-era temples built on mountaintops

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Then look down into caves where Khmer Rouge killed thousands of innocents.

 

Nature's beauty, man's ability to create, man's ability to destroy all collide. I think ours is the only species that actively seeks to undo the actions of other members of same. It's our great strength: the worst of us brings out the best of us. But it's also our great weakness: why does it take bad shit happening for us to get outside of our selfishness and self-imposed daily life constraints to actually take an interest, to reach out and help

So what about me?

I've been blessed and fortunate in my life and certainly in recent years. I worked jobs where I made enough money to leave them behind and go on this journey. Along the way I've been shown kindness and gained more than I've given. So before I came back to Cambodia I searched for a way to give back. I found a small school that needs volunteers, and so for the next two weeks I'll be teaching here.

It's a small thing. I'm still far more indebted to life. But I'm excited to be doing something--to salve in a tiny way the terrible wrongs done over the decades that still plague this place. And I'll get to work with some great kids. 

(Sky)train of thought and memory

With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan. 

Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.

BTS-map.png

At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.

Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.

no pain

no pain

Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?

Not here.

But you learn.

Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.

On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.  

Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie. 

And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.

I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.

And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that. 

But I am truly blessed and fortunate. 

Becoming That Guy

The midpoint of my Thailand beach trip was a travel day, taking me by shuttle then bus then ferry from Ao Nang to Kho Phangan:

coast to coast: Andaman Sea in the morning, fields of palm and rubber trees in the afternoon, Gulf of Thailand in the evening  

coast to coast: Andaman Sea in the morning, fields of palm and rubber trees in the afternoon, Gulf of Thailand in the evening  

That night, on the twisting two lanes of Koh Phangan's legendary treacherous roads, I saw a family of three on a moto. I've encountered this many and more passengers on two wheels a thousand or more times in SE Asia, and the first time I was astounded. Equally so the second and third and for quite a while. Now it's as common to me as cheap street food in Krung Thep.

That's when it hit me: what I've found to be so extraordinary and foreign may be what's normal.*

"What are you lookin' at? Freak."

"What are you lookin' at? Freak."

And I laughed.

A little Birdy asked me why. I told her (in first draft terms) it's the laugh that comes when my heart overflows with joy at the dozen realizations each day that this is my life. That I'm accumulating fortune beyond money and education beyond degrees. That places and experiences I hadn't even known how to dream of back in Ballard damned County Kentucky are now Mine.  

And more are waiting to be claimed.

I remember being back on my model home bedroom floor not so many months ago, high a.f. and as usual, conversing with those guys I was in the past--iterations of Jamie and J.L. and James, each hurting and feeling less than. Over days and weeks they would appear at left in my mind's eye. I listened to them, one by one. I sometimes debated with them, showing them the truth--that they really were good enough. Sometimes tears would fall. Finally I'd put my arm around them and thank them, since we wouldn't be where we were without each and every one of them.

All of us got me here.

On one of those days, I looked from left to right, out the rear bedroom window. In the distance I saw That Guy. I could see he was older, but not by how much. He had more grey in his beard, and a few more wrinkles around his eyes brought on by sunsquinting or smiling, perhaps. He looked like a guy with stories.

"So you're me, eh?" I asked.

He nodded. I figured he wouldn't be able to tell me much. Plus Back to the Future taught me of the dangers in these interactions.     

"So," I said, having some new awareness, "it's not going to be easy getting from me to you, is it?"

And he laughed. I did, too.

"But we're good?"

He nodded and grinned, then turned. Walked away.

"Okay." I said. And I let go a little more.


*Versus a world with families of four living in 3,500 square foot McMansions, where people drink $6 coffees and complain that their four-year-old Lexus doesn't have the whistling bells that Harry down the street has on his and that their four-year-old Alexis doesn't get enough attention at her five-figure pre-school--that's what's abnormal.

Blessed and fortunate: I'm a man!

My first blog post was a short one, and included this: 

my 40th birthday will not be spent in the same way any other (of mine) has been. It won’t even be spent in the same hemisphere.

One way ticket. New priorities.

Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]

Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.

my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around

And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.

I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.

I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.

And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do. 

 

On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.

On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.

On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.

On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).

I didn't act right

And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.

I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").

Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.

Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.

 

Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.

 

And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:

Border run #3: the greenest of them all

I went to Laos the long way--overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, different train from Nong Khai to Thanaleng, beat up old van from Thanaleng to Vientiane--and crossed the border on a rainy Monday morning (yes, two weeks ago because I've been writing.)  I was here for two reasons. 1 was to continue this whole journey of exploration thingie, and 2 was to get this:

Now I can keep the journey going without having to leave every month (this gives me five with one border run in between). I know, sounds counterintuitive, but pulling up stakes on the regular gave diminishing returns--I was spending so much time looking for places to lay my head I rarely felt settled enough to pull thoughts out of it.

So Laos was the destination because, in addition to being a place people in the know told me I had to go, the Thai Consulate there is the easiest and fastest.

I was in and out in 20 minutes for visit one (document drop-off and verification), so all was as advertised (so far). Next it was time to find local currency and SIM card before checking into the hotel. And as I walked down Vientiane's sometimes crumbling, sometimes crowded sidewalks...

where do the motos drive?

where do the motos drive?

in a gentle rainshower, I began to giggle at my good fortune. At this strange and beautiful life I'm now living. Four months ago I was in an office, going through the motions in transitioning to my fourth manager in less than a year--and while two of them had been very good and one was tolerable, this boss would be impossible. Thanks to him I saw the best minds of my division destroyed by his madness, dragging themselves through pointless meetings looking for a deliverable fix so-called strategy concocted by a clueless nimrod Dilbert parody.

I wasn't having it. Granted, I'd long before made my decision (for that and other reasons), but it was a valuable exclamation point to see where the company was moving--far from where I thought it should.

So instead of refreshing yet another slide deck, iterating prior recommendations that weren't heeded into new recommendations that wouldn't be heeded, I was starry of eye and gapped of mouth, drinking in the view of my fourth Southeast Asian country in as many months. I never expected the capital city to be so lush and verdant--guess the rains weighing down my clothes and pack explained some of that.

But who cared about a little water? Look at where I was--and think about where I wasn't!

So my humor was buoyant. Giddy, even. Even when the first ATM didn't take my card. Even when I had to walk on and on and on since Vientiane didn't have five ATMs at every corner like in Bangkok. Even as the rains picked up, steadier and harder, soaking me through. 'Well at least it's not sweat.'

When I saw the second ATM sign I felt relief--with a twinge of cynicism. 'Assuming it works.' I crossed the street, entered the booth...

and it didn't. It sucked being right.

Back into the torrents.

This walk was no longer charming or fun. I wasn't giddy. I was trudging. I wasn't doubting my decision, exactly. I certainly wasn't missing that old life--but I was missing dry). 

Then I saw this:

funny how these SE Asian countries  like to paint walls to remind you of priorities

funny how these SE Asian countries like to paint walls to remind you of priorities

Those white streaks are rain--you should've seen me trying to protect my iPhone possession while capturing a message I knew I needed to retain. A reminder that I am exactly where I need to be.

The walking went on for quite a while, and three more ATM rejections later I gave up, found a tuktuk (thankfully I had just enough in foreign currency to pay him) to my hotel, stripped off my waterlogged clothes and got warm and rested under the covers.

Of course it all worked out--the logistical details of such not worth repeating. But the photos of my next days in one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen surely are. Please enjoy:

Bonus: my next to last day in Laos, while in Luang Prabang, I got wet again:

Finding temples, searching answers

Onto the last few days, which I've spent in the north of Thailand: I'll save Chiang Mai (the "New City", established 1296) for the next post, and concentrate on the first Lanna capital, Chiang Rai (and the north in general). There's lots of fascinating history in this whole area--for one, they've only been part of Thailand for about 130 years. That's just an eyeblink for these civilizations. The Lanna kingdom had their own language, as well, and its descendants seem to want to hold onto some of the old traditions. The Rama come lately factor may be why I hear "hello" and "thank you" at the shops and 7-11's much more than "sawadee kha" and "khwap khun khrap" (another possibility is this place is lousy with westerners, so the service folks here may just be accustomed).

if you'll look to your right, you'll see hell. if you look to your left, you'll also see hell. please stay on the path at all times.

if you'll look to your right, you'll see hell. if you look to your left, you'll also see hell. please stay on the path at all times.

Wat Rong Khun: The White Temple

Months ago, back in the states, thumbing through the guidebooks and looking online, nothing excited me more about Thailand than images and the story of Wat Rong Khun. I imagined coming back day after day, studying its intricacy and commentary to understand greater truths and, perhaps, get closer to enlightenment.

That didn't happen. One, we had just 45 minutes there, as our tour was on a strict schedule. But two, even with more time, the crowds, ever-present at these "most important" wats, meant the experience is more about shuttling through, pausing for a bit to observe perhaps, then making merit via the donation box.

True, there were unique opportunities at this wat: a gallery where artwork by Chalermchai Kositpipat was for sale, and the legendary golden toilets. Given enough time and peace perhaps I could have connected Iron Man to the Buddhist battle of doing right and wrong. Perhaps when his full vision is no longer under construction.

Don't get me wrong--my experience there was enjoyable. It was simply unable to meet my unreasonable expectations. I'm learning that all these wats, while incredible and beautiful and at times awe-inspiring are, at the end of the day, buildings. They don't hold The Answer any more than the Taj Mahal or the Chrysler Building.

The Golden Triangle

Not so long ago the gold in this triangle was brought to purchase opium in equal measure. Now they have a bunch of Buddhas to ward off ghosts of those killed in the no-mans lands (so the tour guide tells us) and tourism is thriving.

the countries are there--just blocked out by my beard. to do: buy comb.

the countries are there--just blocked out by my beard. to do: buy comb.

Standing where the Mekong River meets the Ruak, I again mused on how fortunate I am. I'm just a poor kid from Kentucky. I lived just a few miles from where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers meet--from the banks you can see the Commonwealth plus Illinois and Missouri. The tri-state area, the call it (as if there were only one in the US).

Yesterday I got to see three countries at once: Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (formerly Burma) [Sidenote: how long we gonna have to keep pointing out that Myanmar used to be called Burma? It's been almost 30 years, y'all--get with the program.]

Before the day was out I got to visit Laos for a bit to shop (sadly not at the casino they referred to as Laos Vegas), then we were given time back on the Thai side to shop. I didn't feel like buying anything, so I found another wat--this one dating from 759 or the 14th century (there remains debate). Guess I can't quit my habit yet.

Pics or it didn't happen. It happened:

The rejection is a painful gift

Six months ago I finished my best short story ever. This was a story I started a year or so before, then tore it apart and built it back up twice. In the following months I submitted it to two outstanding literary journals, either of which I felt would be a good fit.

Heard back from one of them this week.

This is actually a good rejection--if my story was shit I would've gotten a form letter (trust me, I know well what a form letter rejection looks like). And "try us again in the near future" is a great thing to see. It means I'm getting close(r). So I took the rejection in stride. And I still have the story under consideration with another journal, these things are subjective, blah blah.

Today I looked again at my best short story ever in context of the rejection letter. And the deeper I go, the more right he was...

To call this painful is an understatement: it's gut-wrenching. It makes me want to smash my head against a wall. It makes me hate every successful writer and everyone who says "I bet I could write a book."

It makes me hate E.L. James with the fury of a thousand burning suns. Fucking hack.

true. she's still a hack.

true. she's still a hack.

But all this hate is really about me. It's a reminder that I'm not done, that I still have much to learn, that I still have rejections between me and where I need to be. Where I will be.

Because Terence Fletcher is pure evil, and perhaps factually incorrect. But I get what he's saying.