Old Habits

I went to the beach today.  The weather is just starting to turn fall-ish, and a couple of hours sitting in the sun and breeze, watching the boats go by, seemed like just the thing for a relaxed “me day”.

Now, astute readers will remember that I (finally!) started sailing again a year ago, after an all-too-long layoff.  Before that break from the water, I was actually pretty good.  I could handle a boat in all sorts of weather without embarrassing myself.  I even took part in a handful of competitions, both as crew and as captain.  But nowadays?

Nowadays, I’m lucky if I don’t end up capsized on top of the damned dock; but that’s not the point.  No, the point is I was watching these sailboats…and getting all holier-than-thou judgmental.  “Trim your jib, man!”  “Good God, who taught you to take in a spinnaker?!”  “Tack…tack…TACK!  For the love of all that’s holy, tack you jackass!”

I think I need to switch to decaf.

Ahem.

The point of the above is falling into habits.  Actually, it’s more than that; the true point is about falling into old habits.  Being confident — arrogant, even — in my own abilities, to the point where I can and will criticize others, is an old habit that I once thought I had outgrown.  But, no…scratch deep enough — as I did this morning — and you will still find the self-confidence that borders on arrogance.  Of course, if you scratch even deeper, you will find also all those insecurities, doubts and fears that are so much a part of that damned black dog…

But even those aren’t the old habits I wanted to write about.  No, what pushed me to write this afternoon was a bit more mundane, but far more insidious: The habit of survival.

Oh, I don’t mean survival when trapped between starvation and an angry grizzly, nor survival when trapped between fight or flight.  No, I mean survival when trapped between…existing and living.  When trapped between fatigue and need.  To boil it down even further, I am talking about survival when excitement is deferred — and oh-so-distant — while you hang suspended between apathy and doubt.

That existence, that habit, by the way — the one suspended somewhere between success, apathy and doubt — that is one I think every freaking writer can identify with.  For me, that old habit rears its damned head when I take on “other” work to make ends meet.  It comes when the paychecks are regular, and the days fall into the miserable rhythm of go to work, come home, get paid.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Week after week.

Often, you don’t even realize how quickly time passes in that existence.  You just think to yourself, “I’m tired, I’m not gonna do the extra stuff today.  I can make it up later.”  Then, before you know it, it is already the next weekend…and you are still tired.  There are still excuses.

To put that insidious old habit in the words of the song I am appending below, you flinch.

It’s natural, you know, to flinch.  We all do it.  The trick is to realize when you are doing it…and to learn to fight that impulse.  That flinch — that existence — can become a lifelong habit all too easily.  The choice belongs to no one but you…and to me.

It’s like giving up drinking*, you just have to say to yourself, “Not today.  I’m not going to flinch today.”

*Ahem.  Hush now.

{Musical Note — Yeah, I know, I’ve been linking Dave Hause songs a lot lately.  In my defense, I’ve also been listening to him a lot lately!}

Amidst Disaster

Okay, so…

Look, I know I’m weird, alright?  I mean, who else writes the last scene of a story before he even has the plot nailed down?  Who else takes a story outline and proceeds to write scenes at random within the defined timeframe?  Who else would abandon a good paying job to be a writer?*

*And now a brewer…

Yeah, I get it.  You wouldn’t let your daughter so much as answer my call, let alone marry me.  I wouldn’t let my daughter marry me, either, to be honest.  I honestly am nothing more than a 12-year-old with a car and a (sorta) job.

Well, that and I happen to have a hell of a lot of experience of life and the world.  Not a lot of 12-year-olds can claim to have got drunk with a president*, or to have slept accidentally in a Spanish brothel, or to have lost (repeatedly) at pool to a renowned physicist, or to have fled from a mother grizzly who decided I was a bad influence on her cubs…

*of the Czech Republic, not the US, but it still works!

I’ve said it before, but the simple truth is that I have been (almost) everywhere, and done (almost) everything.  I’m that Forrest-Gump-type-idiot whose obituary is going to be longer than his list of actual accomplishments.

And do you know what really sticks with me out of all that adventure?  The disasters.  The failures.  The involuntary descent into fight-or-flight.  The moments that not only tell you that you are truly alive, but that also break down the barriers between you and…well…everything.

I’ve mentioned before, but when I travel alone, the first thing I do in a new city is get lost.  I don’t mean ‘can’t find the Michelin-starred restaurant on this block’ lost, I mean ‘what the fuck country am I actually in?’ kind of lost.  That kind of lost has shown me the best and worst of humanity.  Because I (willingly) suffer the disaster of getting lost, I have watched a hooker work a john while her daughter watched from the shadows…

I have stumbled upon the insanity of the stalinist apartment blocks in eastern Europe…

I have found the most perfect field of wildflowers off the coast of Croatia…

I have lit candles to the dead in a private side-chapel in St. Peter’s…

I have drunk shochu with yakuza in a Tokyo suburb…

Hell, I also drank whiskey with IRA “enthusiasts” in a backroom bar just outside of Boston…

I lost my passport in Budapest, and spent the next day dealing with the aftermath of a bomb threat at the US embassy as I tried to get a new one…

My point isn’t what I’ve done, it is what disaster has forced me to do.  Honestly, I can take even the most inoffensive and easy of my travels, and what I truly remember are the times when things went south.  Even something so simple as being too hungover to catch the train I needed led to interactions and events that I never would have experienced in any other situation.

I asked my friend, who fought so long ago at the Battle Off Samar Island, what he remembered about WW2.  It wasn’t the triumphs, and the defeats…it was the unplanned disasters.  “What do you remember about the ship?” I asked.  His answer will always stick with me.  “The smell,” he said, “those were the days before deodorant.”

When you expect, dear writers…

When you plan, and look around all the corners…

When everything is going according to expectations for you, and for your characters…

You’ve lost.  You’ve lost the thread…and the reader’s curiosity.

It is only when everything goes to shit and the random happens that the truly memorable occasions come to pass — both for you, and for your characters.

Look, if your protagonist gets drunk and passes out, you have a minor plot-event to work with.  If your protagonist gets drunk and passes out on the lawn of the archbishop’s palace, you have a whole new level of fun for your writing!*

*Not that I’ve ever done that.  No, not me.  The Polish police promised me that never happened!  Ahem.

It all comes to the question of disaster. As a writer, and as a person, do you cringe and cry from disaster? Do you defy it like some maniacal Ahab wannabe? Or do you laugh right alongside the universe itself while everyone else around you breaks down?

Do you know what got me to thinking about this?  Sailing.

Look, I love to sail.  I love to sail alone…and I love to take others sailing.  Unfortunately, I am a shit-magnet, to put it mildly.  If something is going to go wrong on a boat, it will go wrong when I have others sailing with me.

Now, if I tear a sail, or get becalmed, or run out of beer, when I’m sailing alone, it is no big deal.  Well, the running-out-of-beer thing is big, but the others are small.  But when I have guests on the boat?  Will they remember the adventure and fun of shit going south?  Or will they be all civilized and modern and complain (to others, of course) that “the cruise lines are better”?

Crap, it just hit me: I don’t need to write about celebrating disasters, I just need to get new friends!

{Musical Note — yup, I put this song up before. And, yup, I still love it. And, yup, it works…}

Crap, Diapers Are EXPENSIVE!

Okay, so I’ve started to slack on the posts a bit (again).

*Sigh*

I do have a good excuse this time, however.  I’ve been spending as much of my time as I can planning and preparing for a new venture that I’ve hinted at in previous posts.  Now, before I describe that venture, let me offer a bit background info…

Those of you who have read this blog for a bit now are aware that I simply cannot write at home.  For those who are new(ish) here, let me say this by way of explanation: When I put myself in a quiet, solo environment, I can do a lot of things.  Some of those things are even mentionable in polite company.    They do not, however, include fiction writing.  Whenever I try to write at home, that quiet, private space is very much reflected in the mood and tone of what I produce.  When I write at home, I end up with material that is introspective, reflective, and generally far more influenced by my personal black dog than is good for me (or anyone else).

I know, I know…a lot of folks find it surprising that a writer can’t write when it is quiet and private.  I mean, just how counter-intuitive can you get?  Okay, so maybe that environment is conducive to writing, but that would be for a completely different person, and different kind of writer, than me.  For me…

For me, I need life and activity.  When you get right down to it, I need people around me — I need to feel in contact with the real world — if I want my characters and scenes to be anything close to what I originally envisioned when I planned them.

Now, like most writers, I do a fair bit of work in coffee shops.  That work, however, is usually the planning and editing of my pieces; the actual writing part of writing, I do in taprooms.  That’s it, that’s my personal rule.  Put me in the corner, surrounded by my fellow drinkers, with a beer at my elbow and my earbuds blaring directly into my skull, and I’m the happiest writer in the world*.  I am also, more importantly, at my most creative and productive.

*Err…even if I have tears in my eyes from what I’m writing, I’m happy…I’m just happy on the inside!

Err…writing, in a taproom?  Isn’t that loud and obnoxious?  Isn’t that kinda, well, distracting?

Yes.  Yes it is.  And that’s the point.

Hey, remember that dissonance thing I’ve talked a couple of times?  The heart of my stories — just like the heart of who I am as a person and a writer — lies completely inside that dissonance.  Intellectual dissonance; emotional dissonance; cognitive dissonance, it’s all there, and it’s all important.  Hell, there’s even quite a bit of social freaking dissonance; I mean, c’mon, how else do you find a semi-recluse misanthrope who has to be around people to be creative and productive?!

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that a good taproom — like a good pub — is one of my absolute favorite places in the entire world.

Well, that love of taprooms went and got drunk.  It got drunk, then it got all funky and passionate with my compulsion to do the most random and unexpected things.  A few months later, the inevitable happened…

It wasn’t the easiest birth in the world, but that baby is finally in my arms, shitting and puking all over the place.  I am, in other words, the proud proprietor of an infant taproom of my very own.

Oh, it ain’t ready for the world, not yet, so don’t get yourself all geeked up.  In a year or so, however, when it is solidly into toddlerdom — and has been toilet-trained — then I’ll officially introduce it to y’all.  Just watch out for your shoes; those baby taprooms can be pretty messy, you know!

For now, if you’re anywhere near Michigan’s thumb coast, maybe I’ll let you play with the little tyke a bit…

Forgive the crappy picture — its my cellphone, and I was in a hurry!

{Musical Note — I just like the song…and it kinda fits the mood}

Scenes From A Bad Morning

It’s eight o’clock and already 75 degrees with 100% humidity.  I am just one big ball of sweat before I even start in on my coffee…

How the hell are man-buns still a thing?  Does the dude at the coffee house really have to wear one?  I mean, look…I know I’m going all Grandpa Simpson here, but get a new hairstyle.  Oh yeah, that and “Get the fuck off my lawn!”  Ahem.

Every town has a dividing line in its hotels and AirBnBs.  That line is that point in the price curve where “nice” and “basic” devolve into “dingy” and “uncomfortable”.  Dive too far down the wrong side of that curve, by the way, and you get the fun of exploring all the way down to “scary” and “crack house”.

My apartment isn’t ready yet — and my “quaint” and “nice” hotel was starting to feel pretty pricy — so I decided to explore that price curve.

I explored too far.

Remember that scene in The Terminator where Arnold is sitting in a nasty, run-down hotel room cutting out his damaged eye?  Yeah, last night was a lot like that.  I didn’t drink the scotch so much as use it to sterilize the bed…

Wait a second…  What has happened to me?  What happened to the idiot vagabond who once stayed — accidentally! — in a cheap Spanish brothel in Cadiz?  What happened to the guy who got lost (in an admittedly alcohol-induced haze) and spent the night in a Budapest subway station?  The guy who once slept amongst the syringes and empty forties littering Venice Beach?

When the hell did comfort and a certain bit of, well, niceness come to mean so much to me?

When the hell did my standards change?

When the hell did I start to get so fucking old?

Just the other morning, it feels, I was moaning, “I don’t wanna go to school today, Mom!” and now all of a sudden I’m worried about shit like hotels and communicable diseases?

It’s still pouring rain — and will be all week, most likely — but I have my entire day free to try and get over this bout of cloud-yelling grumpiness.  Someone really needs to open a brewery around here…

{Musical Note — this song seemed a good fit for a blog post talking about my morning…}