Posts Tagged ‘self-criticism’

another long hiatus

I left Japan exactly seven days before the earthquake back in March. This was not my first close call… I was in Kunming two years ago at the exact time the Yushu earthquake hit. That killed about 2,700 people and left the province in shambles. In Japan, it was much, much worse: a six-minute magnitude 9.0 quake followed by a 133 foot high tsunami that can reach 6 miles inland is a seriously deadly event, and the results were tragic, nearly 16,000 dead and something like 3,300 missing, with ongoing nuclear meltdowns at three reactors. The earth has actually shifted on it’s axis, shortening our days by about 1.8ms. This is not a small event; while the death toll in Japan wasn’t nearly as high as in Haiti or during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, it was very, very serious.

The pieces I had already written about Japan seemed meek and pithy in the light of the earthquake, and I decided not to post them (I’m sure they’ll find their way to these pages eventually). Some of the stories and photos that emerged were heart-breaking. Some were downright amazing. All of them were much more visceral, and real, than anything I write…  “What Luck!” was the common response, but I found myself wishing I’d still been there when it happened. And then I felt evil for wanting to be closer to that visceral reality.

I became very unhappy with my writing. I’ve talked with many artists and writers about this since that time, and the general consensus seems that self-criticism is the hardest there is; the need to improve and the disappointment we find in ourselves is sometimes the greatest motivator, and sometimes just a deterrent… one of my best friends, an amazingly talented artist who is also a harsh self-critic (though he would never describe himself that way), hit the nail on the head: I just didn’t want to write anymore. So I stopped.

This was, admittedly, very easy to do… self-criticism was one thing, but the speed of life is a helluva force. Months slid off the calendar, my hair full of brake dust and CV grease, nails black from pimping my hands out to those in need of good hands, legs sore from riding trails every chance I got, belly full of local food and beer that I have the pleasure of buying from the hands that grow and brew it, ears full of good music from hands that are attune to the feel of vinyl, eyes full of history books and newspapers and crossword puzzels, pockets filling with money that I’m lucky enough to earn by working, or what passes for work these days (you know you have the right profession when you feel like it’s what you’d be doing anyway), and while my brain is still often ill at ease, I must admit: I enjoy a damn fine life…

But I am lucky. Well, that’s not strictly true… I am lucky by 2002 standards. By 2012 standards, I am miraculously, incredibly, undeniably blessed. In the years following my loss of academic momentum, many of my friends graduated from higher learning, nearly all of them to debt, perhaps only half of them to jobs. This is a very, very raw deal, especially as tuition costs continue to skyrocket year after year (one wonders what would have happened if our Occupy movements looked like what they do in France when tuition gets hiked), and while they were earning their educatiion, my own disolusion to college meandered me through a different path: a young business where I was able to grow into a very profitable sales gig, through which I was able to save a good deal of money (dumb luck/slight dicipline), the savings from which led to business ownership (a true education), the continuation of my trade (reliable and/or fun), and, amazingly, traveling (awesome). The irony is not lost on me that, to date, you cannot turn a wrench through a phone line, but you can write a computer program, or process a mortgage, or animate a film, or engineer complicated machinery, and probably a whole load of other jobs that are soon to disappear in our country… jobs for the educated. “For those with higher learning.”

I am, of course, not knocking higher education at all, and I look forward to reigniting my own academic momentum, but I am making a point: millions of people in my generation are in debt, without work in their field, and they are very, very pissed off about it. In a country where half the population is earning less than $42k/year , I am in the 24th percentile, earning under $20k/year, and the major reason I am able to enjoy the life I have at this wage is partially due to dilligent savings and frugal living, but mainly because I have always remained debt-free. I enjoy the liberty of financial independence, and for that I am, again, lucky as all hell…

It’s been a hell of a year; Year of the White Rabbit, or perhaps the Year of the Lifeboat. In America, while we all still holding out for some Hope and maybe even a little Change, Obama, his financial cabinet, and the rest of congress is hard at work mailing our house keys to the bankers and passing laws directly abusing the language of the constitution. The Occupy movement was pretty fun to watch, and it felt as if there was good, peaceful momentum, until the hired thugs went in, city by city, under cover of night, tearing down tents and macing old ladies (one wonders how much pepper spray the NYPD can buy with that $4.6mil from JPMC). And of course, in Wisconsin, what started as a public union battle has become a full-scale fight to keep the “fiscal conservatives” from selling our teeth out of our jaws, rife with liesmoney and hipocrisy. Oh, and lest we forget, corporations are people with the abillity to throw limitless amounts of money at prospective public servants, and even Obama, who spoke of this as “a threat to our democracy” has now, of course, kneeled in front of the money (if you haven’t yet signed Bernie Sanders’ petition for a constitutional amendment reversing this travesty, you can do so here). Everything seems, in a word, broken, and it seems we’ve forgotten how to run a government with public opinion, without the millions of lobbying and ad-time. The idea in America that everything should turn a profit, and that that profit is tantamount to volume of speech, is choking us to death. I love my country. I don’t want to see it whither and spoil like this.

I sit, writing this, in the hillsides of Sri Lanka, a country with similar problems and contradictions to our own. A nation that is 70% Buddhist, but that has the death penalty. A country that has spent 30 years in civil war over class and religion, with obvious, transparent class struggles still in place. Still, a place of relative financial independance. Well over half of all Sri Lankans own their own home (I assume this number includes family estate), and the cost of land ownership remains reasonable. 20% of the labor force is unionized, and the unemployment rate hovers around 4%-5%. 23% of Sri Lankans are at or below the poverty line, just a few percent higher than in the US (what does this tell you?). Source for these numbers: CIA Factbook

My life is filled with contradiction wherever I go; yesterday, I washed my laundry in a tin vat, squatting in the dirt with the sun on my back, listening to Jay-Z sing about how there is no limit on his Black Card.  (No Limit is also a brand of rice here in Sri Lanka, which makes me wonder if Percy P has asked for royalties yet). A public bus that will take you 100km costs about a dollar, which is the same cost as the 2km tuk-tuk ride to get you to the bus station. Most of the tuk-tuks here have wonderful slogans written on them, like “your jealous my prospects” or “get rich or die trying” or “margin of safety” (occasionally I see “peace begins with smile” and yesterday I spotted “I like to Sri Lanka”, both of which I wholeheartedly agree with). All sorts of things flood my head at all times, and picking the meat off the bones is sometimes hard. The garbage trucks in Ulan Baatar, one of the most isolated cities on earth, play ice cream truck muzak. There is a law against wearing your pajamas in public in Shanghai, which does not stop thousands of grown men from doing so each day. South Koreans, in conversation, will tell you straightaway that they distrust the Japanese more than they do the North Koreans. Japan is one of the world’s largest welfare-states, and their population is on track to decline by about 30% by 2060. What does this all have in common? Not much, besides that it’s all fascinating to me, regardless of my frame of reference for it…

I started writing these stories because they were my favorite to read. I never liked reading travel writing that sounds as if the person is explaining their slide-show; “then I went here, then I saw this…”. No, I liked the ones that were short, and true, and amusing, and stranger than fiction sometimes. One-Night-Stories, I liked to call them, though my friends have come up with much better labels, my favorite being “Puke Journalism” (I will admit, the visual one gets of literally barfing text onto a blank sheet of paper is pretty damn close to how I write anyway) . Perhaps this moniker is too true… I sometimes feel like I write the same story over and over, or that the writing itself is, at best, too personal, and at worst, downright self-indulgent. Beer seems to come up every twelve seconds or so, which makes me look like some twenty-something lush-about-town, which is maybe not so far from the truth, though a bit closer than I’d like it to be… or look, anyway.

I aim to change this. I want to take writing less seriously, and at the same time, more seriously… I want to write different tales, more thoughtful stories, pieces with some damn heart to them. Oh, there will still be beer involved, I’m sure, but I want more out of myself. I am lucky enough to be able to travel, and to be literate, and to have people who seem to like reading my rantings, however vile and repetitous, and goddamnit I’m gonna write stuff that people want to read, that people want to share. I’m standing on a bridge, breathing diesel smoke and feeling grit on every square inch of my body, whispering to no one in particular, “damn… I wanna write again…”

disclaimer

I should probably mention that a good portion of this was written just after I took my first warm shower in three weeks (warm showers are a serious luxury here, as in many parts of the world), a shower that left me feeling quite amazing, and the word ‘lucky’ appears something like a dozen times in this transmission, and that is probably no coincidence… so the next time you take a shower, if you are able to go into your bathroom, and turn a knob, and have hot, clean water come out, as much of the world is not able to do, you might consider saying something like, “Hot diggity, I sure am lucky to be able to turn this knob right here, and have hot, clean water come out! Damn, I’m lucky!”

Because… you know… you are.