time to have the talk

So I’m trying to get a little more serious about this writing thing.

I’m going to be sending more of my stuff out to magazines, hoping to build a bigger audience and web-presence (try saying that without sounding like a sellout — impossible). My dream is that, eventually, some day, I could write a book. Or an article in a newspaper. Or something.

Part of that process is getting my own website/hosted blog. Which I’ve done! Kind of feel legitimate now.

So, henceforth, I’ll be posting my stuff at austacular.com/blog.

If you have your own blog and you’ve ‘liked’ this one, or you have set up email responses for whenever I post on this site, go ahead and do that on the other one now, because this one isn’t gettin the action any more!

Also, share my stuff with all your friends all the time! Help get the word out! Or not. No hard feelings either way. :-)

Thanks!

And also. Thanks for all the encouragement and kind words you guys have given me so far. It helps. Big time.

Famous

Here’s a poem from Naomi Shihab Nye. You’re gonna get half way through and be like ‘what the hell’ but keep reading. Read it twice, and read it slowly. It’s pretty great. Next week, two poems from two of my friends!

Famous

The river is famous to the fish.
The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

What Imagination Looks Like

The hardest part of my job is teaching people how to hope.

It’s not that I’m some great expert or anything. I’ve been pretty sucky at it, lately, mostly because I go through stages. Sometimes it’s easy and I’m great at hoping, but sometimes it’s hard and I suck at it. And I think that’s true about all of us. We’re either too smart or too scared or too busy to do something like sit around and hope for stuff. This comes from out hurts, mostly. At least it does for me.

I was driving yesterday, through the middle of California. There isn’t much to do when you’re spending six hours on a desert highway, and This American Life reruns only go so far. So I started playing this game with myself, remembering things, on purpose. I started thinking about stuff like my 21st birthday party and the first time I kissed the girl I love, and the look on my friends face Saturday night after he got married. I started remembering these things, and then describing them to myself. I used as many words as I could to report about what happened. What I felt and what things looked like. What the temperature was and what people were saying.

Then, something cool happened. All the remembering inspired some imagining. Thinking about where I’ve been and what I’ve done and what has happened to me made me start thinking about where I’m going and what I’m going to do and what I can create. It made me see the world a little differently. With a little more hope.

I think that kids understand this a lot better than we do. Maybe not intellectually, but naturally. It’s almost like we are born with this inclination to imagine things. Like we don’t any better. Eventually, slowly, this gets taken away from us as we grow and learn and get hurt mdore often.

So kids don’t need to be taught to imagine things. But I wonder if we do. Or maybe not taught. Maybe just reminded.

I think we can start this process by being intentional about remembering things. Lately, my memories have all been accidents. Something will hit a trigger in my brain, and I’ll think about it a specific event or something. Which is great. But I wonder what would happen if I went out of my way to create more space in my life, for the discipline of remembering where I have been. To be honest, I guess that’s the reason I write. Which would explain why my writing days are my favorite days.

The need to create things is in our DNA. It’s how we talk to the world. Making moments or memories or essays or dinners. And you don’t create things unless you allow yourself to hope. At least not good things. And it’s hard to hope if you don’t imagine that things can be better. Or at least, different. These are fairly obvious. And most people would agree. But here’s the one I I needed to be reminded of last night, and maybe you need to be reminded of too: It’s a lot easier to imagine things, if you remember things.

So take some time today, or this week maybe. Sit at your table or on your couch and in your car. And remember, a little bit. Maybe after that, you can imagine something. And then hope. That’s where life is. In hope. Remind yourself.

What I Want

Next week I’ll get back to posting great poems from great poets. This week, here’s one from me. 

What I Want 

I want ritual — early morning 
coffee, tea.  Oatmeal and ancient poems.  
And cranberries for flavor. I want to be happy.
 
To belly laugh, or giggle.
I want to sit back and look far and say
‘well isn’t that something.’
To lose myself in things. Or canyons. Or picnics.
Romance.
 
I want the president to know my name; 
to be on lists and invited
to parties — dinners 
I don’t want to attend.
I want to impress. To be well-read and,
not to mention, well-written.
I want to be funny 
and to have tales.
To be well-traveled and,
not to mention, well-fed.
I want a woman to talk to. Or a dog.
 
I want to stop writing poems and start
writing novels.  
To be published — by which I mean 
appreciated. Loved. 
I want to see music, 
to see joy.
I want to see poor skinny kids playing football in 
poor skinny streets. To see farmers wake up 
ass early in the morning. First hand. 
I want to see trees — quiet, strong — 
hide behind morning fog;
fish just waking up.
I want to see what there is to see.

And to be known.

Monkey grunts, magic

I’m reading this book about evolution and humans, and why we are so different than everything else in the world. It is thick and sometimes boring, like most science books. But it’s also insane. Because it is about how the natural world works, and apparently, the natural world is insane.

For example. Did you know that this species of African monkeys, vervets, pretty much has a language? Like a real one? They have different grunts that consistently signify different threats or ideas. They have a “that cat is going to attack us!” grunt, and a “go run up a tree and hide from that other monkey!” grunt. True story. They talk to each other. And they are monkeys. Like I told you. Insane. Also, humans are genetically predisposed to be attracted to mates they share similar physical traits with. But crazy physical traits you can’t even see. Like earlobe length and size of the middle finger. The overwhelming majority of romantic couples within the human species have middle fingers that are about the same length. Not to mention eyes that are equal distance apart from each other, or are similar to their cousins. Insane.

Ultimately, the book is trying to make sense of things like music and art and altruism from an evolutionary standpoint because, right now, those things don’t really add up. I’m only half way through, so I don’t know the answer Jared Diamond gives. But the more I read, the less I care. Because the more I learn about the way things work, the more enchanted I become with the world and the science behind it all. At the risk of sounding sentimental, it’s all pretty beautiful.

I also don’t care much for whatever answer Jared Diamond gives me about why we pick our mates the way we do and why we paint our caves or care for others because I already have one. And it’s pretty simple.

I believe in magic.

It’s true. The funny thing is, it’s this science book that got me there. Or half way, at least.

I watched a movie last night about zombies and love and stuff. The week before that, I watched a movie about a little girl and some big animals in Luisiana. Both of these movies are about fake things; zombies are not real (yet!) and the ice caps are probably not going to release some prehistoric beast upon us all once they melt. At least I hope not. These movies though, made me cry. Well, one did. The other gave me goosebumps. They were amazing stories, and I walked away both times a little more inspired than I was when I started watching. And that’s where the magic is. Humans, as a species, make things. And not only do we make tools or beds or cars, we make art. We make songs and movies and we put a bunch of words together and make people cry. We interact with this huge, dangerous world of ours by expressing and making. And it works, for the most part. Which is kind of crazy.

I am not a scientist and I am not a wizard, so take what I am going to say next with a grain of salt. Richard Dawkins or Gandalf or my Wiccan friend might disagree and they might now better than me. But what if humans are so successful as a species because we see the magic in the world, the possibility of things transforming from one thing to another thing, and we harness it? We take a tree and make it a table, or we take some monkey grunts and make them mean something more than “Watch out for that big cat”. We make our monkey grunts mean things like “I love you” or, at least, “Please watch out for that big cat, because I do not want you to be eaten. Because I like you.”

The zombie movie and the beast movie were all about life. Living stuff comes from dead stuff, in this world of ours. We are lucky because we get to have a hand in that process when we want to. Those feelings that are killing you, they can turn into feelings that give you life. Those dreams that died a while back? Something is growing from that place in your soul. These dead keys on this dead computer? They just gave life to a little essay that five people are going to read on the internet.

And that’s the magic part. We can create tools and words and noises, but we can also do so much more. We can inspire each other. We can love each other. We can help each other. And we do that by creating things. We do that by being honest about what the world looks like, dreaming a little, remembering a little, and getting to work.

You, sitting there, reading this, you can put life into things. Do you want to?

Wednesday is poem day!

I decided that I want to start reading more poems. And a good way of making sure I do that is by making sure I put the good ones on my blog. So Wednesday is officially poem day! Happy Wednesday. This is one of my all-time favorites, and it inspires me every time I read it. It’s by Wendell Berry. 

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

 

My Other Family Is a Short Spanish Woman

Exactly three Thursday’s a month my window gets knocked on. It’s always the window facing the street, and it’s always the same lady; my sweet, short neighbor who only speaks Spanish and dries her clothes on the fence we share.

“Ticketero!” she’ll yell, usually pointing to my car and kind of jumping up and down.

It took a couple times, but I figured out that ticketero is Spanish for “Move your car, dumb gringo, or the parking police is gonna get you!”. And I love it. I really do. Neighbor has saved me a lot of dollars by doing this, and for no reason other than her deep hate of the L.A. parking police and her deep love for me. Which is fine. It really is. The problem is the knock comes at 7 in the morning and the police don’t come until noon. That’s beginning to get a little old.

Now don’t get me wrong. I try to wake up at 7 in the morning every morning because the earlier I wake up the better my day is.  But for any wake-up to be a good one it has to include my routine. Stretch in bed, coffee, splash the face, coffee, sit and read a little. Maybe write. Following this, mornings suck, but they suck much less than they otherwise would.

Ticketero takes this away from me. Neighborhood Watch taps and yells and taps and yells until I open my blinds, nod, wave and mouth gracias through the glass. For a while I bothered putting on sweat pants and a shirt first — trying to look like I hadn’t just gotten out of bed, like I got up at 5 in the morning with the real men in the neighborhood. These days I greet her in my boxers with squinty eyes like I just woke up. Because that’s what has just happened. I’ve been hoping for months that she would get the hint. But she hasn’t. Or she has, and she likes torturing me for being lazy and waking up at 7. In my dark moments when I hate the world in general, I swear it’s the second one. It’s beginning to get a little old.

I catch myself feeling this way about my friends and family sometimes — the people that keep my honest. It’s great and they keep me out of trouble and remind me who I am when I forget, but it gets a little old. It’s annoying and inconvenient and I just woke up. That’s what I say. And even though those are true statements, they are only true in a shallow, half-baked sort of way.

What I mean is, most of us have been blessed with people who know us and who want to keep knowing us and know us a more and more. If we live in these relationships the right way, these people tend so serve two purposes: they love us (while, hopefully, we love them back), and they keep us honest. They do this by living life with us, by calling us on the phone and reading what we write and sending us emails and playing poker with us. And when things go wrong, we make mistakes or do something stupid, they are in a very good position to recognize that for what it is and to call us on it. This is fundamentally a good thing, but I don’t feel that way most of the time.

I know this isn’t revolutionary for most of you, but it is for me. It’s my tendency to withdraw from inconvenience and accountability. I gave my neighbor dirty looks for a month or so. Sometimes I don’t answer my phone. I do this with all things in life, not just relationships. And I’m robbing myself of something.

By habitually moving away from inconvenient things and ugly things and uncomfortable things, I’m habitually moving away from what real life looks like. If we push ourselves through those things instead of around them, we can find meaning and beauty and grow some character. Which is part of what it means to be a human, the real way. The good way.

This is why I think that families are special. Flesh and blood ones and sturdy friendship ones. Letting yourself be known and known deeply and honestly by people is one of the most revolutionary things you can do, and also one of the most difficult. But when you do it, when you are known by some people and they love you, you get full and big and you live. For that to happen for me, I need to start being more grateful. Grateful for 7 a.m. window tappings, and grateful for phone calls I don’t want to pick up. I need to be grateful for my families, the flesh and blood ones and the sturdy friendship ones. I need to start saying thank you and smile more. Maybe, after that, I can tap on a few windows, too.

Fight

Friday night I went to a concert with a bunch of old people. I looked around at the crowd more than once, and I’m pretty sure that Girlfriend and I were the only two people under 30 in the whole room. True story. Even the singer was old. His first record came out in the 60’s, thirty years before I was born. I like him and most of his songs are about love or being sad or just having fun, which is what makes good music. 

Going in I figured that this show would be different than most, I think because of all the old people. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I definitely didn’t get it. It was exactly like most concerts, plus some funny dancing. I’ve never seen so many old people dance so terribly. And everybody was doing it. I was doing it. It was great. It was also like other concerts because people were drinking and yelling. Most just yelled their favorite songs out and waved their arms, but there were a couple belligerent buttheads. The one sitting next to me had to be at least sixty, wearing a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt with his business man goatee. His wife looked embarrassed most of the night, and it kind of bummed me out. 

The show ended up lasting more than three hours, and neighbor was putting down drinks the entire time. Towards the end, when we were leaving, the Butthead tried to start a fight with an innocent guy down the aisle a little ways. The guy handled it pretty well, but butthead kept pushing the issue. I was standing right behind and about to step in. 3 hours of quiet annoyance were starting to come to the surface and I found myself hoping that Butthead would make a move on innocent guy, and I’d get a chance to rough him up a little bit. Luckily, that didn’t happen because wife stepped in. 

Most people who know me will tell you that I am not a fighter, and will laugh at that last sentence. I’m good at solving conflicts that other people have, but when it comes to myself the tendency is to let things go and solve problems with a good attitude or wait until things calm down and cooler heads prevail. I used to take some Taekwondo classes in high school and I absolutely sucked at sparing which is the one time during the class that you actually fight somebody. I usually just stood there with my hands up braced for a hit like an idiot. I hated it. While my classmates spent time learning how to take a hit and punch back, I worked to develop a fierce hugging strategy where I’d bum rush my opponent and give him a bear hug so he couldn’t hit me and I didn’t have to hit him. This ended up in me getting my ass kicked still, but not as bad and not as quickly.

For a while I thought this habit was born out of fear, and later out of laziness. Now I realize that I take this stance because I’m usually more interested in solving problems than releasing whatever anger I have or whatever else makes people fight. I naturally just don’t get very mad about things, and this helps me make sure that whatever is giving me grief at the moment gets solved. I think that this is why I’m good at conflict resolution — I’m pretty good at keeping a clear head when things go bad. I didn’t chose to have this trait, but I’m pretty glad I do. I take some pride in it.  
But it’s also a problem. It’s a problem because life isn’t just about results. You could go through your whole life worried about efficiency and solving problems and doing things the right way, and you would avoid actually living. I know some people like this. But when you’re actually living, you have feelings. And you have hopes and dreams and loves. And sometimes, those things are results in and of themselves. It is easy to forget this, at least for me. I get so caught up in fixing problems and doing things right that I forget to feel the feelings I’m having. I don’t allow myself to get lost in anything. I don’t fight for much. 

Life is full of things that are not worth fighting for, and these are usually the things that people fight for the most. Which is stupid. But there are some things, rare things, that you should fight for. An ideal that speaks to you or a person you love. These things that are worth your struggle and your pain and your honesty. These things are worth your fight. I think that everybody has their own, these things shape you, and if you haven’t yet you should figure out what yours are. Once you do, you should hold them close and tight in your fists and you should make them a part of you, and you should fight for them. 

When you do this, you find these rare things and you fight for them as hard as you can for as long as you can and then you fight even harder, there’s magic there. You lose yourself and you stop caring about results and you get set free. You move from being a robot who plans and strategizes and computes to being a human who runs and loves and hopes for things and feels. You live a little bit. And those things you fight for, they live too. They live inside of you and they live outside of you and things turn out Okay, even if you lose your fight. 

So find your things, your people, your ideas. Fight for them. Fiercely. Whether you can win or not. Fight. And live, a little bit, bravely.

Drum Science

I was a big believer in free-speech until last Thursday. Ten minutes in a room of 34 6th graders learning how to “express themselves” with djembes and doumbeks and other drums knocked it out of me pretty quick. Half an hour in, the kids were laughing and banging their drums and having a blast while I was quietly considering Kim Jong Il and the merits of state-sponsored censorship in the corner. Maybe he had a point, you know? 

The worst part was Autumn. She kept nodding her head and waving her arms in the air and encouraging us to “tell the world how you feel” exactly how you would expect a white girl named Autumn who spends her Thursdays teaching rhythm to inner-city kids to do. The boys next to me kept staring at her and forgetting to bang their drums on time. But that was fine because nobody was banging their drums on time. Why worry about rhythm when you can have noise, man? Feelings don’t always have rhythm, man. 

Eventually, my ears got used to the abuse and all the banging kind of faded into one big, loud bang and it was a little more tolerable. I was able to look around the room and I couldn’t help but laugh. I have been working with these kids all year, and I’ve never once seen them smile as big as they were smiling in the drum circle. Tyrell started dancing and then Autumn started dancing. After we got done laughing at her politely and quietly, the rest of us started dancing and laughing loud and smiling. There was a sweet freedom, there. At 12:00, the bell rang and the walls came back up. We went back to class feeling a little bigger. 

I think the magic of the drum circle is that nobody was scared. I mean, at the start, people were. Some kids were scared that their rhythms sucked and some kids were scared that they were going to be laughed at. I was scared that my ear drums were going to rupture. But Autumn took that fear away by being a dork. We laughed at her together and started to free ourselves from the fear we had brought in with us, and we were able to let our walls down and be free for an hour. Autumn was generous, and it infected us and let us be generous, too. 

When I am busy being scared about things, I do not have time to be generous. I noticed this last night, when I was playing poker. At the beginning, you have a big shiny stack of quarters and nickels and dimes, and, if you’re like me, you’ll bet a lot because you have a lot. Once you start to loose money and your piles get smaller, you become more stingy. And that’s how it works for me in real life. When I have stuff, I give it away. When I’m scared that I will run out or something else will happen, I get stingy and my fists get tight and I don’t talk as much or make as many jokes. 

The problem is, I’ve made a habit out of being stingy. Which means I’ve made a habit of being scared, and letting that fear dictate my choices. And that is not a recipe for loving your life. Because you can’t love something that you’re scared of. 

My mom believes that things simply work themselves out. That’s just how the world works. Bad stuff turns to good stuff, eventually. She has a deep faith in this, and she’s taught me to have faith in it, too. And you know what? Things usually work out. Sometimes not like we’d want, and sometimes not like we plan. But they work. The world sorts itself out, and it’s usually O.K.

And that’s the choice we have to make. We either believe that the world is O.K. and that things will work themselves out, or we believe that the world is scary and something to protect ourselves from. I’m about fifty-fifty on this. When I have money and people like me, I believe the first. When I’m broke and feel like I don’t have a lot of friends, I believe the second. And it’s hard to see over those walls once you’ve built them. But every once and a while you can. You get plopped in the middle of a drum circle with a bunch of 6th graders, and they start dancing. And you can see that the world is good, and that we don’t have much to be scared of. That most of our fears are made-up, and are not worth fearing anyway. And when you see that, you can also see that since the world is good with our without you, it’s even better if you’re generous. It’s better if you dance, too. It’s better if you start the dancing. 

I’ve been inspired lately to be more generous, because some people have been really generous with me. And if I’m going to get serious that, I also need to get serious about not being scared of things. Which starts with giving more stuff away. 

Hype

I don’t smile much, scrolling down my Facebook feed. I might chuckle at something or give a little grin at a picture, but it’s mostly stare, scroll, quietly compare my life to friends and people I kind of care about. Usually they win. 

I can’t see what my face looks like when I do this, but it probably looks like the faces other people make when they are on Facebook: sort of bored, sort of disinterested, faint smile, sometimes. The man sitting at the table next to me is making this face right now.

I don’t know what my face looked like last Friday night, but I bet it looked different. First, my eyes were big. I know I was smiling a Real Smile, and I imagine that my ears were flexed and my mouth was open. I was shivering because it was cold, and I was staring at a huge frozen lake. It was beautiful. A sturdy fog had nestled in and it was pitch black. The quiet was almost as thick as the fog. I could see maybe ten feet away, but that was enough to know that there was nothing but ice and mountains and stars Out There. It was beautiful. I couldn’t think of any words to say and didn’t want to ruin the silence, so I stepped out on the ice instead. It creaked but didn’t break and I stood there mute and scared and bug-eyed for a least fifteen minutes. It was a heavy moment, the kind you feel in your chest and never forget. The kind where you swear the air is talking to you. The kind that beauty brings you when you’re in it. 

The next morning I woke up early and took 19 pictures with my iPad. After that, Facebook. The rest of the day was given to checking and checking and checking for little red flags. Smaller eyes, kind of bored. Faint smile, sometimes. 

I felt like a pimp. 

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Some of the pictures turned out great. I have a bitchin iPad background now, and a cool story to tell with it. Which is always awesome. But it came at a cost. And that was the moment I had the night before. As soon as my mind switched from “this is beautiful” to “I need to put this on Facebook”, I took myself out of communion with the lake, and I missed out on something Big. I was worrying about the internet instead of the magic in front of me. 

It’s funny how we respond to things that move us. 

I think I got around 4 likes, in the end. And every single one gave me a little stab of joy. And I have some cool pictures of that lake, so I will always remember it. I think I was a pretty good journalist and did a decent job of reporting to the world what I saw that night. And maybe that’s fine. A journalist isn’t bad thing to be and sharing beautiful things is always a good thing to do. 

But I can’t help but feel like I robbed myself of something special by sharing my moment with the internet. I took those fifteen minutes and that lake and I sold them. I didn’t put them on my profile because I wanted to share their beauty, I put them on my profile because I wanted my friends to think that I have an interesting life filled with fog and frozen lakes and adventures. And that’s the problem. Because I have that life. I’m living it, Real Version. And I would rather talk about it and post pictures about it and find out how many people like it than live it.

That’s the problem with hype, isn’t it? It’s easy and it’s addicting. But it is shallow, and it is not a substitute for meaningful things, no matter how hard I work to make it that. Yet I keep trying. Hype before substance, quick pictures and witty captions and sharing sharing sharing. 

I want to work to be more quiet. I want my life to be well-lived and not well-written. I want to change my vocabulary from hollow hyperbole to dusty, well-worked deeds. And I wonder what would happen if we took the time we spent worrying what to say about our lives, and we spent it figuring out how to do more stuff? Maybe our eyes would get a little bigger. Maybe we’d smile more real smiles. Maybe more than sometimes.