Thursday, June 30, 2016

There Could Be a Story in Anything

The crows are out in full force this morning as I think about plot.

“How do you come up with story ideas?”

“I read a lot, and steal from others.”

“You don't just come up with them on your own?”

“Life is not lived in a vacuum. What I do is more remixing than creating. It's like hip hop.”

“How so?”

“Well, you're borrowing from other traditions. So you've got jazz, blues, maybe some Latin music, or stuff from West Africa or India. Take the bits that you like and make them into something different and hopefully exciting. It's the same thing with plot. I just finished reading a book that felt like someone combining elements of Kurt Vonnegut, Monty Python, and Voltaire... probably others as well.”

“And did it work?”

“Very much so. There's a certain school of thought that all the great stories have already been written. Even if you believe that, presenting them in a unique way can bring new life to them.”

“But you wouldn't know what to steal if you weren't constantly reading.”

“Exactly, that's the art. It's like a recipe. Maybe something calls for two parts Shakespeare, one part Hemingway, one part Toni Morrison. Well, you can't find Hemingway, so maybe you swap that out for Fitzgerald and make something new.”

“It might not taste like what you intended.”

“It could be worse, or it could be better. But you'll never know until you try.”

“That's an interesting outlook.”

“My job is to have an interesting outlook. Without that I'm nothing.”

“You were saying something about crows at the beginning?”

“They're very loud.”

“Could there be a story in that?”

“There could be a story in anything.”

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Full of Surprises

She pedaled southward along the coast, from Orange County, through Camp Pendleton, and on through toward her final destination of San Diego. It was warm out but not too warm, with a light breeze blowing in off the water helping to cool the air. Seagulls soared overhead as the tide rolled in.

Somewhere south of Carlsbad she passed two women walking. One of them looked vaguely familiar so she hit the breaks and called after her.

“Laura, is that you?”

The woman paused in her tracks and turned around. She was in her fifties, much older now, but still with the same youthful face.


“Oh my God.” Amanda scooted her bicycle off to the side of the road and threw out the kickstand. “How long has it been?”

“At least 20 years, probably more.”

Laura's companion made a soft coughing sound.

“Oh, I'm so sorry. Amanda, this is my friend Barbara.”

They shook hands. “Nice to meet you.”

“So,” said Amanda, “what have you been up to for the past couple decades?”

Laura laughed. “Let's see... I guess you could say a lot. The kids are all grown and out of the house.”

“Whoa, you have kids?”


“Seems we have some catching up to do.”

“Seems like it.”

Barbara jumped in. “I don't mean to be a wet blanket here, but this dialog is terrible. There's no drama whatsoever, no sense that something might come of it.”

“Good point,” agreed Laura.

“Our voices all sound the same, we're pretty much interchangeable.”

“Yeah, that's a problem.”

“Shouldn't you have something interesting to say after having not seen each other for 20 years?”

“You'd think.”

“Life is full of surprises.”

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Once in a While

I've been thinking a lot about yeast lately, which is something I never thought I'd think about a lot. Different strains used to create different effects in beer. The amount of variation is staggering.

This is true not only of yeast but of all life. Even confining ourselves to this planet, as we necessarily must at this moment, there is tremendous diversity. Factoring in whatever else might be out there... well, it makes my head hurt.

* * *

The photo was taken from a train. The Pacific Surfliner, from Solana Beach to Anaheim. This is somewhere between Encinitas and Oceanside, can't say exactly where. Something about watching strangers live their lives while I pass by at high speed always gets me. It's the same when I'm in a car, particularly on a long road trip.

Every one of those people is a characters with their own story. Someone should tell that story. And if I can't know them, then I can at least concoct something believable in my own mind. Who is that bicyclist traveling south? What is her destination, and why? And who are the people walking in the opposite direction?

The photo captures a shared moment in these three lives that none are likely aware even existed. The bicyclist almost certainly has no memory of the walkers, and vice versa. Yet here they are, frozen in time for as long as the photo survives and there is someone to view it.

* * *

In an actual story, maybe they meet. The bicyclist stops to watch waves rolling in from the ocean. She says hello to the walkers and they have a brief chat. Maybe they never speak again, or maybe they become fast friends who get together once in a while. The amount of variation is staggering.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Focus on the Water

A sweeping organ sound creeps in from all sides, filling the room with something undefinable yet comforting in its way. It's a warm, inviting sound that hints at spaces far beyond what we know. Comprehension is impossible because there is nothing to comprehend.

Strings fade in and swell as a bass line drones beneath it all. It's as though a fog is being lifted to reveal many hidden colors. Movement is unhurried, like walking in slow motion, absorbing every surrounding sensation as it passes.

There is purpose in this even as the purpose is unclear. There is a destination, although it is not easy to find or reach.

The experience of moving through fog feels familiar. It's disorienting but not troublesome. There is knowledge that something lies at the end. Gravity pulls everything forward.

A chorus of children sings a simple, haunting melody. The voices sound like more strings, blending with the others before fading back into nothing.

Minimal drops of piano notes create an ethereal texture as the strings begin to pulsate. Counterpoint emerges. It's a slow tide, moving first one way and then the other.

We walk along the beach, watching the water recede, revealing tiny animals that dwell in the sand. There is no need to hurry. Everything was here before us, and so it shall be after we are gone.

The children sing again and then disappear, leaving only echoes, which echo the footprints of those who walk along the beach. Water surrounds us, providing comfort.

The world fades away, moving further into space, separating from other bodies around it. Such is the nature of an expanding universe. Everything is running away from everything else.

Where will it end? When will it end? Who will know such things?

Focus on the water. Keep breathing, then eventually stop.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

More Interesting Than These Words

For health reasons I've had to give up caffeine. I'm hoping this is a temporary situation because I can tell you that life without caffeine is not worth living. It's my drug of choice, and I miss it very much.

Without my morning coffee I stumble through life as though in a dense fog. I have trouble seeing more than a very short distance ahead of me, and after a while I stop caring about what might even be there.

On the bright side, the A's won last night. We were thinking of trekking up to Anaheim for the Sunday afternoon game, but laziness once again prevails and we will watch it on TV from the comfort of our own home.

I am actively reading two novels. One is thoughtful and meditative, the other is clever and sometimes silly to the point of cloying. I like them both so far, though they are very different from one another.

Meanwhile, brew day went well in the sense that the process was completed with minimal difficulty. Started a little after 9 a.m., finished a little before 1 p.m., though much of that is just waiting for water to boil.

I'm hopeful that some of the lessons we learned from brewing our first batch a couple months ago will make this batch more palatable. We'll find out in about five weeks, fingers crossed.

One important factor that I think we screwed up last time is temperature control. We pitched the yeast when it was still a little too warm (though not outrageously warm) and didn't even bother to monitor the fermentation temperature.

So, you know, process. Refinement thereof and what not.

More baseball today. And reading and writing. Or as I call it, the usual. It promises to be more interesting than these words.

Friday, June 24, 2016

They're the Same Thing

Wrote a new scene from scratch yesterday. It's easier now that the first draft is done and I know the characters and story better. It still required thought, but the skeleton came quickly and then it was just a matter of filling in details. I didn't use actual character “interviews” I've conducted, though they did inform thoughts and actions.

Living with these characters in my head for more than nine months makes a difference. So does writing 100,000 words about them. The types of questions I find myself asking now are more focused and less nebulous. They no longer steer me along paths that lead to dead ends. It's a good feeling, although there's still a long way to go.

* * *

Today is brew day. Second batch of beer, this time an American amber ale. Did some prep last night. Big challenge is keeping temperatures down so the yeast doesn't go crazy. The porter we made last time is drinkable but drinks more like a dunkelweizen with all its fruitiness. It's not bad, it's just not representative of the style we'd intended to brew.

We'll get the process started a little earlier and take steps to cool the fermenter (setting the bucket in ice water seems to be the method of choice, although there are other strategies). We carefully documented where we went wrong last time and hopefully will learn from our mistakes. And we'll probably make more mistakes this time, document those, and hopefully learn from them next time.

* * *

The more I write and the more I brew, the more convinced I become that they're the same thing, with one using words and the other hops, malt, yeast, and water. Both take time and attention, and both yield rewards commensurate with the effort given.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


Saw Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs last night. Very likely my only concert of the year and well worth it. They played most of their new collaborative album as well as tunes from their impressive individual catalogs.

Case sang “Margaret vs. Pauline,” “Hold On,” and a super punked out version of “Man.” Of course, lang sang “Constant Craving.” I don't know Veirs' material, but everything she did sounded great also. She and lang largely drove the writing on their album. Veirs is also a fine guitarist.

The backing band was great. Simple arrangement: keys, drums, bass, guitar from left to right (or right to left if you're on stage). This was their opening show and the nerves showed a bit, especially early. They acknowledged it and had fun with it, at one point commenting on a certain song being played as fast as they'd ever played it. I definitely noticed it with Case's solo material. To her credit she was able to sneak in all the words without suffocating from lack of oxygen. I don't know how she did it.

But this is a minor complaint, and in fact it's not even a complaint, because it was so charming to see such talented and accomplished musicians struggle with nerves. The result was a tremendously energetic performance that teetered on sloppiness without slipping over the edge. Give me energetic and wobbly over listless and precise every time.

I'm picky with my shows. I'll see Rush (though they're probably done), They Might Be Giants, Radiation City, a few artists from Hawai'i. That's about it. When I do drag my ass out of the house to experience live music, I want to be blown away by it. Mission accomplished. These guys delivered a show I'll not soon forget.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

More Likely It's Lightning

Some mornings you just stare at the blank page and start writing or typing or whatever it is you do and hope that it comes out less horrible than this. You just keep going until you break on through to the other side like Jim Morrison said not that I worship Morrison because he doesn't sound like the greatest guy in the world although he is dead but some don't believe that. They called him the Lizard King which seems weird but then his band was called The Doors which is no less weird. Their music was weird I remember the first time I heard it was in the eighth grade. Never experienced anything like it I'm not sure I love it but it's extremely distinctive. It's weird enough to come from a band called The Doors fronted by a man called the Lizard King.

Some days you break on through other days not so much maybe you forget how to use punctuation except for periods. It's not the worst thing people can figure things out for themselves like where the breaks go and such. But still you'd rather be composing something meaningful rather than just slapping words together stapling them onto anything that doesn't move like political posters or whatever. Sometimes it's hard to find meaning in the words there's only letters that make up the words and they all come together as sentences and paragraphs and read like the manifesto of a crazy person called the Lizard King.

That's the problem with writing though. You're never done you just keep going until somehow it all makes sense or something resembling sense. The blank page is your enemy and you must obliterate it with words. Or go outside for a nice walk and hope inspiration strikes. More likely it's lightning.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Disappearing into the Horizon

Familiar places become a part of the background, scarcely noticed during the normal course of events. Whatever magic spark once drew us there dies, replaced by the mundane regularity of existence. This is perhaps a shame.

If we can remember the feeling of that spark, though, maybe there is a chance that it can reignite with the right stimuli. Trickery might be involved.

* * *

This was four years ago and I've forgotten everything. We probably ate a decadent brunch on the other side of the tracks. Actually, no. At that time of year we were meeting my parents at a different restaurant off to the right, just up the hill and through a small park where weddings are sometimes held.

It's possible that we stopped for a beer on the way back to the station, before getting on the train that would take us home. There were no clouds in the sky, and there is a sense of timelessness that pervades the scene.

* * *

People can be the same way. The familiar becomes comfortable, which is good, but which is also easy to take for granted. More trickery is needed to keep it all fresh and new.

This is just a theory. It might be complete hogwash. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

* * *

Tracks stretch into the distance, lined by palm trees. Trains will come and go, disappearing into the horizon on their way to other places that may or may not be familiar. A horn blows, there is the clanging of bells. People stop to watch. Some get off the train, others get on.

There are a finite number of destinations along the line, but it never feels that way. Every time, it seems like anything is possible. And maybe, just maybe, it is.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Things Get Better

Sometimes only a minor tweak is needed. A gap in logic must filled. Maybe it requires an entire scene. Or maybe just a few lines.

Full moon last night as I struggle to find words this morning without caffeine. It's a health thing. The moon was glorious, blotting out many stars, and even more so on waking. It hung low in the western sky, craters beckoning on a cloudless day.

Predicted high is 88 degrees, which is scorching in these parts. People in other places, confronted with temperatures 30 degrees higher, are less impressed. Wish I could help them.

Watched a basketball game last night, which is a thing I rarely do. Once upon a time, yes, but that was many full moons ago. It was entertaining, with many lead changes. The wrong team won, but I'm happy for them. They fought hard and persevered as the opposition self-destructed. Sometimes just hanging in there is the best strategy.

Feeling aimless, probably because I am. By definition I must be headed in a direction, but I have no idea which one or whether it's correct.

Keep writing and hope stuff works. Sometimes just hanging in there is the best strategy.

Today's goals are simple: read, write, and stay cool.

Maybe it's not even about the writing of words, maybe it's about the living of a life. Could be why I don't know what direction I'm headed. Where is my lighthouse or my compass? I only have pen and paper, but that's enough for now.

I can write myself clear of those looming rocks, trace a path around the curving coastline and on to safety beyond the point. I can remember the light of a full moon and hold it with me in times of darkness, as a reminder that things get better.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

My Walkman

I spent some time at my old school yesterday afternoon. So much has changed—the tennis courts are now a lecture hall in front of which wedding photos are taken, the soccer field with a dirt track around it where I used to run at night while listening to my Walkman (yes, my Walkman) is another lecture hall that hosts fancy receptions—and yet much has not.

Despite the gaps being filled in with proud edifices made possible through the contributions of people like me, reminders of the place I knew remain strong. There's no money in liberal arts, so the library and classrooms I inhabited are largely unchanged. The names have mostly changed, but a few of the minds I studied under are still there.

Walking through the halls, trying to remember which class I had where, sparked additional memories. There was the first place I ever voted in a presidential election (my guy lost, as he or she always does), there was the first place I ever spent the night in a girl's room (she was an RA, no less), there was where I used to play piano at odd hours.

Is this what being a ghost feels like? Some people say that ghosts haunt places because they are unable to move on to some other place, but maybe they just like to visit once in a while, to be reminded of how things once were before returning to the here and now. Visiting a place is different than dwelling there.

It's not just my old school that has changed. I've changed. The world has changed—for better and for worse. Things we worried about back then seem quaint now. Things we worry about now would have seemed impossible back then. We keep going. I wonder what ever became of my Walkman.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Maybe It's Okay

The sun keeps rising earlier, as will happen in the days and weeks leading up to the summer solstice. With it, I keep rising earlier. I'm off caffeine at the moment, which makes the days feel strange. It's like I'm walking through a fog that never lifts.

We spent time at the library yesterday, writing. In a humorous coincidence, I am writing a scene that takes place at a library. So I studied the architecture, the people, and so forth.

One good thing about writing in a library is that if you need a prompt, it's easy to walk over to one of the stacks, open a book, and steal a line. I chose something from a Billy Collins poem. It had to do with a gravel road, I forget exactly what.

Today's plan is exciting. Revise an article, work on a few scenes for the novel, transcribe an interview, deal with the electrician, walk the dog, go out for a walk, watch a ballgame, read a book or two. It's a quiet existence, which suits me well.

I mentioned the caffeine, right? I forget because of the whole fog thing. My mind refuses to clear, everything is fuzzy. It's a strange sensation.

Next week I am meeting friends I haven't seen in too long. It will be good to catch up with them. The next day I'm going to a concert.

These sentences suck. I'm far less interesting without coffee. Or do I flatter myself by believing that I was far more interesting with coffee? Sunny outside, foggy inside.

I was looking at Clayton Kershaw's stats this morning. They make no sense, in the way that this entire attempt at narrative makes no sense. Everything is disconnected and hardly seems real. Maybe that's a problem; then again, maybe it's okay.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

To Ask and to Answer

I am in the process of reading two books—one fiction, one nonfiction—and both are proving difficult in their own way. The novel is translation, and I wonder how much is lost in shifting from one language to another. It's a strange narrative, very literary (as opposed to the genre fiction which I have been in the habit of reading lately). It reminds me of stuff I read in college, which is the sort of stuff I've avoided since college.

The nonfiction piece is a travel memoir that I'm coming to believe requires the reader to be from a certain place and have spent time in a certain other place. In other words, it's not so much an invitation to enjoy something unknown as an opportunity to reflect upon shared experiences. Those who have done so will chuckle to themselves as they relive said experiences, while the rest of us keep turning pages in the hope that this seemingly charming narrative will soon reveal its charm and/or narrative.

Each book cost a dollar, so I can't complain, although I just did in the previous two paragraphs. They are not the sorts of works I would have sought out on my own, but the price was right and I'm trying to expand my repertoire. I want to see how other writers grapple with the same problems we all face in telling a story. And to be exposed to some—one a Nobel Prize winner, one praised by an author I admire greatly—that do it far differently from what I'm used to can't be a bad thing.

It's important to know what one likes and why. It's also helpful to know the opposite. Why don't I like this work? What about it doesn't resonate with me? These are good questions to ask and to answer.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Dazzling with Bullshit

I've constructed the first sentence in my head a dozen or more times, and it's never come out like this. It was supposed to be more grandiose, more meaningful. Instead, it's a mere admission that I have failed in my quest.

Using that failure as a starting point I move onto the next paragraph, which should expand upon the themes introduced in the first. But those are hardly worthy of such expansion, so I continue typing words in the hope that something will emerge.

The words are pretty—some of them, at least—but say nothing. I am dazzling with bullshit, and if I'm to be completely honest, I'm not even dazzling.

I think back to what I'd originally wanted to say. It had something to do with inspiration and self-doubt. But I wasn't feeling inspired enough to pursue the thought, which filled me with self-doubt. Why write what I was already living at that very moment?

By the time the fifth paragraph arrives I have proposed no hypothesis, advanced no arguments in favor of or against said hypothesis, or noted anything of substance. This is a good metaphor for writing and life in general, although the realization that it's a good metaphor sinks me further into depression.

Maybe the sixth paragraph will be better. Nope.

At this point I've abandoned all hope, which gives me a new place to start. This is my “fuck it” moment where I decide any movement is good movement. I've had many of these in my writing career, going back to college.

My first such moment occurred in junior high school. I was supposed to give a speech and tried reading from cards. I kept stumbling over the words and was so embarrassed by my ineptitude that I decided to just talk. I dazzled with bullshit.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Syntax and Meaning

“We were talking about the space between us all.” —George Harrison

The place was empty, the sort of joint that was always empty, except for the regulars. They counted, of course, as much as the furniture or the faded yellow wallpaper. The smell of bourbon and dust permeated throughout, as an old jukebox and the dull murmur of old conversations competed for attention and tried to cut through the seemingly interminable thickness.

“Beer,” said the stranger who walked in from outside. Skinny kid from the city, black denim jeans, collared shirt, all the fixin's.

“Beer what?” said the bartender, looking him dead in the eyes.

The stranger scanned the room. The murmur had stopped, only the jukebox kept on with a song that was both familiar and unknown. Guys shooting pool looked up from their tables and held sticks at an angle that was almost, but not quite, threatening.

He sized up the bartender. Too big. He glanced at the door. Too far away. He quickly searched for other exits but found none.

There must be another way.

“Beer what?” repeated the bartender, unflinching.

The air grew even thicker, which had seemed impossible when he'd walked in. Of all the places to stop, he'd had to pick this one. Why?

He contemplated the bartender's question, tried to makes sense of the syntax and meaning. What did the man mean by his words?

Beer what? What comes after beer? Now? Dammit? Or else?

Then it struck him and he laughed. It was so obvious, how had he missed it earlier? Yes, of course.

“Beer, please,” said the stranger.

The bartender shook his head. “Sorry, son. The correct answer is 'dammit'. You'll have to leave now.”

All eyes stayed on him as he shuffled back outside.

Monday, June 13, 2016

As Good As It Gets

A writer friend, whose work I admire, recently penned a piece on the changing nature of public discourse. Specifically, there's a lot more open hate in the world than there used to be. The hope behind making communication between people around the world was that this would enable greater connection rather than greater antipathy. Alas, the best laid plans...

I had a dream last night that I'd been transformed into some kind of alien species, with various features modified to suit my new environment. This is doubtless the result of a novel I recently read, but it was nonetheless disconcerting. The alienness was less troubling than the way those around me came to perceive what I was. I became something other and was even shunned by certain groups for daring to sit in the wrong seat.

Reading my friend's article after waking from this dream has had a curious effect. We see the world through filters, and I think about his disappointment at how increased access to information and communication tools has decreased our ability to empathize. I think about my own transformation in this dream and what it means to be the so-called other, to exist outside social norms, to be shouted at or ignored for not conforming to some preconceived notion of normality.

The convergence of these two events is coincidental, but their juxtaposition gives me pause. Awareness arises in mysterious ways, and perhaps I needed to be reminded of basic human decency, the way we all do from time to time.

Judging from the open hate that still thrives around us, “from time to time” might not be often enough. Seems we can do better if we try, but maybe I'm too optimistic. As the movie asks, What if this is as good as it gets?