The ‘created place/space’

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“There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others — she pulsated with literature.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila

It can all return to place somehow, even when the story is about inner life. It does not need to be a city, as Fiston Mwanza Mujila posits, or as Italo Calvino writes about at length in Invisible Cities. This place can be an actual place, geographically, an interior, private place, or even a container/concept that represents a kind of space. A space that is occupied by some need, for example the need to write, to drink coffee, to love, to break out of previous forms or perceptions, the need to pretend or project images of ourselves into another space.

There are so many ways to create and exist in a space or place, for example:

  • “stepping off the plane at keflavik i didn’t know what to expect – only that i thought i belonged there. i went through all the stages of excitement, wonder, questioning, noticing all the surface-level weird things that all foreigners remark on animatedly when they arrive. almost 20 years later it’s easy to blur the hardships and forget all the missteps that often made the move seem like a mistake.”
  • “sometimes you know someone, even from afar, and feel like you want to hug her close to you and immediately declare your love, make it legal, and marry her. she, in central europe with her bewitching way with words, makes me feel that way every time i read her writing or see her messages in the far, cold nordics.”
  • “if he were serene, would he be able to accomplish the feats he does? underneath it all, with just a hint of resistance, he becomes fussy, testy and sarcastic.”
  • “how did i get blindfolded? i saw so clearly at the beginning, lost all sight, but eventually, like a hostage with no value, was dumped off somewhere, mostly unharmed. removing the blindfold, the reality is stark.”
  • “…and the guy painting on the remnants of the berlin wall – he was a felix, asking the firewall if he liked weed and shared a joint with him, if firewall would just roll it. according to firewall, it was an experience he just had to have. felix, as it happens, is the name of a ketchup brand in sweden; i frequently make people abroad jealous about my ability to get it, even though i don’t use/eat ketchup.”
  • “the phone rings. a husky, masculine-sounding voice answers gruffly, ‘computer room, this is odile.'”
  • “The point is that fantasies are fantasies and you can’t live in ecstasy every day of the year. Even if you slam the door and walk out, even if you fuck everyone in sight, you don’t necessarily get closer to freedom.” –fear of flying, erica jong
  • “compared with my present incarceration, the future holds no interest for me.” –the revolution of everyday life, raoul vaneigem
  • DUSHANBE!
  • “maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” –love and trouble, claire dederer
  • “but I’ll tell you a secret. when i want to take god at his word exactly, i take a peep out the window at his creation. because that, darling, he makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.” –the poisonwood bible, barbara kingsolver

You get the point. You see the ‘place’.

Image (c) 2014 S Donaghy

Memoirs & McKagan

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In between the more grueling books I’m juggling, I make room spontaneously for “spot choices” – something that I am reminded of in the spur of the moment, something I would not necessarily seek out eagerly (Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality and the Struggle for Oral Health in America, anyone?) but which might be interesting in some way. This is, as I have mentioned before, how I come to read most contemporary autobiographical memoirs. They share some background information about admired (or not) musicians or celebrities, but don’t usually set my brain ablaze. Sure, from the thoughtful writing of Carrie Brownstein and Kim Gordon, both seemingly effortlessly cool public figures, I glimpsed that seemingly universal truth that no matter how cool, aloof, nonchalant and in control we seem on the surface, there’s an insecure, wants-to-be-liked person underneath.

Even the memoirs of “regular” people (which, of course, all of these books underline: we all are regular people), such as the pleasant-enough Shrill by Lindy West and the charmingly self-deprecating All Over the Place by effusively expressive Geraldine DeRuiter (and I am dead serious here: if you don’t already read Geraldine’s Everywhereist blog, do. Also follow her on Twitter; one of my favorite Twitter feeds), forge this kind of ‘we’re all in the soup’ of humanity by sharing their everyday experiences. (Or maybe now that I look at this as a pattern, I read all of these because there is the Seattle connection to all of them but Kim Gordon.)

That said, these kinds of books are rarely ever deeply challenging, will be fast and easy to read. They may make us smile, laugh, nod in agreement and approval or even get angry or feel sympathy for the writer. These are very human books. It was in this way, in one of these palate cleansing frames of mind, that I came to read Duff McKagan’s How to Be a Man.

I don’t know how Duff McKagan ever ended up being someone on my radar, bookwise or otherwise. Somehow since junior high school in the Seattle area, he, despite my not being the Guns ‘n’ Roses ‘type’ (whatever that is), stuck out (probably being a local boy and all helped that visibility). Later, I think I was impressed by the fact that he went back to college after the heyday of GnR and worked on finding his sobriety and ways to maintain it. At another point in my life, I would not have picked up this book; in fact even if I had, I don’t think I would have taken anything away from it. But this time, having had the experiences of the last decade, I approached it differently.

But this is what I will say about it: Despite the fact that it struck me as slightly disorganized (some parts more organized than others), slightly random (although some parts were considerably slicker than others, which made me think the editing was choppy), neither of these things made the book bad. It in fact inspired the feeling and sense of sitting and listening to the guy reel off stories and opinions about his life and his experiences. Maybe that was what he was going for – the relatable (well, in tone, perhaps, not in all the activities – although let’s be clear, as Duff most certainly is – all Seattleites DO live with the ticking-clock on summer, and the damn deck/lawn/painting/housework can only be done in rain-soaked Seattle in that limited window) and conversational.

The book was entertaining and perfectly served the need I had at this exact moment:

*It flowed quickly, even if, as I stated, the editing didn’t make the content flow all the time.

*I liked the random lists of stuff, particularly the diverse variety of recommended albums and books. I would probably add more must-hear albums/artists (today I am overly influenced by the songwriting genius of Neil Finn/Crowded House and the longevity and wild creativity of Robyn Hitchcock). I would also add many books, but who wouldn’t? There are too many books in the world to be able to do justice to a must-read list, which McKagan himself acknowledges, describing his propensity for populating his personal library both in digital and paper formats:

“But a bookstore is the ultimate way to immerse yourself in what’s new. You can browse, and you can ask around, something you can’t do as well in the cocoon of e-commerce. It can be the littlest hint or clue that sends people looking for a book and thrusts their life briefly in new directions. It can be gossip you hear in line for an espresso or a movie you see on espionage. The direction of your reading can very well influence your life for a while.” –How to Be a Man

Clearly he gets what most passionate readers get:

“This is every reader’s catch-22: the more you read, the more you realize you haven’t read; the more you yearn to read more, the more you understand that you have, in fact, read nothing. There is no way to finish, and perhaps that shouldn’t be the goal. The novelist Umberto Eco famously kept what the writer Nassim Taleb called an “anti-library,” a vast collection of books he had not read, believing that one’s personal trove should contain as much of what you don’t know as possible.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul

*On addiction and sobriety, he didn’t have anything new to say that I haven’t heard or read from recovering addicts or specialists in this field. But it’s nevertheless key to see some of the resounding themes: resentment and regret; again, some of this same lack of self-esteem and assurance that the other memoirists listed above have expressed, e.g. learning to like and trust oneself; that, as cliche as it sounds, it’s a one-day-at-a-time process. And sometimes the things that pull you through are unexpected and maybe even the smallest things that then go on to have ripple effects. In his case it was his ‘latching onto’ Jim Rome’s radio show, and when he appeared on the show as a guest, this prompted other listeners to take steps to regain control of their own lives. This too could sound cliche, but the kinship of addicts, and the power of these small sparks to inspire, is the same kind of things I have seen in trying to understand and connect with recovering alcoholics in my own life:

“This life is crazy. It’s the little things that can be absolute game changers.” –How to Be a Man

*Seahawks, Seattle sports and the constant, indefatigable cheering for the (hometown) underdog. Need I say more?

*Seattle. Yes, Seattle. (Do I sound all homesick? I swear I’m not! I left so long ago for a reason!) That place that suddenly became visible in the 1990s, from which its veil was slightly lifted with the mania that surrounded Twin Peaks during its first go-around (even though this was not technically Seattle, you’d still have to go to Seattle to get to the real-world equivalent of Twin Peaks). It is hard to believe now that Seattle was ever this unheard-of place that McKagan describes.

But true story: in junior high, I had a pen pal in California (this was 1989) who phoned me once and asked not only what time it was in Seattle (says more about his ignorance of time zones and geography than Seattle’s invisibility). He seemed surprised to learn that I had ever heard of Depeche Mode and even that I had a phone. If I recall, it was the same year that Time magazine covered the insular nature of Washington state and its ire at “rich Californians” showing up to scoop up all the land. Hmm. (I did go back to see if I could find that issue of Time, and it was, as a side note, interesting to see the cover stories – Donald Trump on the cover in Jan 1989, taunting readers that we would all be “green with envy” about his wealth – or a headline: “The New USSR?” – or Kevin Costner, just releasing Field of Dreams, or Pete Rose, just being tossed for life from baseball. Oh, hilariously, there was a cover featuring the Rolling Stones, including a headline about “aging rockers”… and we thought they were aged then?)

Back to the point. Seattle was on no one’s radar. Not in any appreciable way, at least. Not until Nirvana came along:

“I used to brag to anyone who would listen that these guys were from “my town” and that soon the rest of the world would realize that people didn’t live in tepees in Seattle!” –How to Be a Man

While McKagan framed the singular Seattle “way” within the lens of sports (and a bit in music), it is on the whole accurate about the city’s attitude and evolution.

It is a place of some stoicism, insularity and a bit of an outsider’s “fuck ’em” attitude. Claire Dederer posits in her own sort of memoir, Love & Trouble:

“Seattle is not a big city for crying. Seattle, in fact, is famously emotionally stoppered. There are many theories as to why this is the case; some say it’s because of our dominant genetic and cultural heritages: Norwegian and Japanese. Whatever the reason, Seattle is a place where you are not supposed to emote. You are supposed to endure. In Seattle, where rain and traffic are two snakes twining, choking the body of the city, forbearance is an art. We don’t cry, we just put on more Gore-Tex or maybe use the driving time of our commute to listen to a self-improvement book on tape. Though “driving” is a strong word for what happens when you get into a car in Seattle. And yet suddenly there were these crying hot spots.”

“When you visit other cities, get asked about Seattle. The people you meet want to move there. No one used to move to Seattle except aeronautical engineers and, like, rabid fishing enthusiasts. No one used to know where Seattle even was. They thought maybe it was in Oregon.”

And this obscurity from which Seattle was lifted has made it a too-hot, too-desirable place, in which most mere mortals cannot afford to live.

So… bottom line, I don’t know if I would recommend that anyone read McKagan’s book. I will, though, be giving a copy to one person who will be able to relate, and I think in that way it will help him. And perhaps that is the most one can hope for: reaching one person, especially when they need to hear your particular message, one day at a time.

Stray observations, asking for a tap and the memory trap

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“Despite how open, peaceful and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you, as deeply as they’ve met themselves.” -Matt Kahn

But people are terrible buffoons, and will never listen. They must touch the hot iron.” -K Wolfe

Please forgive the desultory fashion in which I swan across a bunch of disconnected subjects. Just a clearing of the mind.

Remember

How much do I hate it when people begin statements in their stories with admonishment: “Remember”, e.g. “I went to Harvard. Remember: I didn’t get good grades!” or “I have been working and running around for 18 hours straight. Remember: I didn’t sleep last night either!” I don’t know if it is meant to be an invitation to pat them on the back for what revelation follows the entreaty to “remember” or literally a reminder, as if some detail they harp on constantly could be forgotten? Why does this bother me so much?

Similarly, we all have our favorite words and don’t necessarily notice we are using them constantly. “Similarly” is one of mine, probably because I love trying to make connections between disconnected things. When I go back over writing I see the way these words pop up again and again. I wonder if it’s deliberate when I see it in published books that should have been edited. For example, I noticed that Carrie Brownstein used some version of “sturdy” in her memoir, Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, more times than I bothered to count. Claire Dederer uses some version of “semaphore” far too many times in her recent book, Love and Trouble. How do we attach ourselves to these favored words and expressions?

Asking for a tap: Freelance distance learning – Sierra Leone

Let’s get the most important thing out of the way, though. The annual Sierra Leone Marathon takes place tomorrow (May 28), and money donated benefits the Street Child charity, which, since its founding, has helped more than 50,000 children to go to school and stay in education. During the Ebola crisis, Street Child helped over 20,000 Ebola orphans, providing emergency support and connecting thousands with families. Today, Street Child works in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nepal and Nigeria with a current emphasis on education in emergencies and girls’ education.

While you can give any time, of course, the fundraising drive for the marathon is a good time to make a big push for support. I happen to be supporting this small team of enthusiastic marathoners. I’m eager for them to make it over the top with their fundraising goal, but really I’m pretty keen for the charity to be supported in general. There are a lot of charities out there and loads of people asking for money; it happens that I chose to get involved in this right now. The results of giving are easy to see, and I guess it’s important to feel like you see some kind of result – or a direct line between what you do or give to some kind of improvement. Not just an “I will write a check to assuage guilt and not think about it again” kind of effort.

As I have written before, everything I learn about Africa is incremental… kind of one country, one obsession at a time. We all heard about Sierra Leone in the last few years because it was one of the hardest hit in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, but it’s easy for a country and its people to get lost in that kind of crisis. (Prior to the crisis, Sierra Leone was rebuilding from a prolonged civil war – and just when they were making some progress, Ebola hit.)

As part of my intro to Sierra Leone, I’ve become better acquainted also with Liberia and other bits of West Africa. Which maybe I will ramble about another time. For now, I am just thinking about drumming up money.

I have no excuse except that I let compassion have free rein. Which is often my excuse for everything. All those years not saying no to freelance work because I couldn’t. But then even when I was free of need, not being able to say no because I forgot how to say no. And even after learning to say no, I couldn’t because I thought, “I can’t leave money on the table when I could give it to a cause”. Whether that cause was a down-on-his-luck alcoholic in precarious recovery or a greater cause like Ebola orphans in West Africa.

After all, what else are we here for? I was listening to Sigur Rós’s Ágætis byrjun album for the first time in many years, and it was as though I was transported back to summer 1999 in Akureyri, northern Iceland. I was introduced to this by my friend Anna’s friend, R. R passed away long ago when she was really quite young, and listening to the opening notes of this album bring these beautiful people – who have either changed or completely ceased to exist – to life in my mind’s eye. This gorgeous prelude to the Icelandic chapter of my life, the beginnings of which were already like half a life ago.

While listening to the album, I happened to look through my college’s alumni news and saw that a former classmate had died late last year. She was in her 70s, so it was not as shocking as when people my own age or younger die (I was the youngest in my class by decades in most cases, so my cohort have reached normal “expiration dates”, but it’s still quite sad). Already flooded by the aforementioned memory plucked from me by the sounds of Sigur Rós, these fleeting moments of curiosity, asking myself, “I wonder whatever happened to X”, like today, are often followed by more nostalgia-filled grief, discovering the deaths of people who once populated life’s periphery.

Yes, of late, I see a pattern forming in, overtaking in fact, most of what I write. A lot of death and mortality to reflect on. Which is in the end why, as much as I complain, or poke at language I find annoying, I am much more inclined to think about and act on helping others, and finding meaning in the time we are here.

Give! Give! Give! More! More! More!