After six months of COVID and social distancing, staring at the same four walls of my newly rearranged and then re-cluttered home office, I’ve learned how lucky I am to live in a place where wilderness is a short drive away. We all need our “panic hole,” as Jim Harrison termed it…a wild space inside a thicket into which we could craw and disappear to lick our wounds and heal our souls.
In the early days of the quarantine and the governor’s lockdown, all of my panic holes were off-limits. The beaches of Oregon were closed, even though you rarely come within ten yards of another surfer or dogwalker or clamdigger. Fishing was suspended. The 10,000 acre research forest at the edge of town was even locked down tight even though there’s lots of elbow room in 10,000 acres. I get it. I’m not complaining. And I understand that a drive to the coast usually means a trip to a gas station, maybe risking a drive-through coffee, each contact point weighed with potential to spread the virus. Lives have been lost on a person’s decision to not wear a mask, wash hands or attend a birthday party with the sniffles. It’s best to be safe. The virus was new, and state-level policy is a blunt instrument.
But then as infections in our state subsided and restrictions relaxed and we were given new freedoms despite the fact that the virus was still slowly grinding through the Greatest Generation and frontline workers and meatpackers, feeding off the frivolity of pool partiers and the tantrums of anti-maskers, capitalizing on our unjust systems to target communities of color and on our indifference to rage like a brushfires through the nursing homes where we stack our elderly like forgotten bundles of rotting kindling.
And with the relaxing, came the ability to leave home. Not to congregate. Not to go to church or class or the (permanently cancelled) John Prine concert, but to fish and hike and wander in the open air where risk of spreading infection was deemed low. And that’s when I truly realized how lucky we are to live in a state where wilderness is at our doorstep and we have so much vast country to roam without the fear of close contact with an infected stranger. I feel for those cooped up in cities, locked in apartments. Without wild places, I would have been lost this summer. And, I suppose, this is why the journey of nearly 50 years on this big blue and green and brown rock has led me to this spot on the globe. For me the wild places are filled with the fuel for my soul. It’s where I find solace, comfort, spirituality. And probably most important for the work I do, the source of the stories I hope to tell.
The first place I visited that was outside my orbit of home-to-grocerystore-to-dogwalking-trail in the early days of COVID was to the south fork of the Alsea River where I found that, while the rest of us have been locked in side, the timber industry had been busy logging some old growth along my favorite stretch of cutthroat trout stream that I’d fished for a decade. I was enraged. Despairing. But immediately I found a story: who logged it? Why? Why did it happen when it did? Who authorized it? I took notes for an investigative essay and filed it away for future consideration.
Then next weekend I returned to the coast to surf when I spotted a pair of seal pups playing in the break, bobbing in the water and diving, popping up on one side of me and then the other. Likely laughing at my clumsy paddling and all-too-brief boardwork as I was bowled over by the next not-so-very-big wave. I filed that image away, too, for a future story or maybe a poem or a song.
After months of being locked mostly inside, the outside was now open to me again, and the ideas were starting to flow. I hadn’t realized how deeply the pandemic and lockdown had affected me and frustrated my creativity until I was again let out of the cage. My senses came to life. My prose improved. My editing. My camerawork. All of the skills that had become stagnant when travel and rambling weren’t accessible to me.
I went to Mount Jefferson and Mary’s Peak to think about the meaning of high places. And then on a trip to the most remote part of our state, the Steens Mountain and Alvord Desert, where you’re two hours from gas and you should bring your own water, my mind was blown and consciousness expanded by the astonishing geography of this largely peopleless place.
And it was here, maybe, on the vast white table of the dry lakebed, standing next to the car and watching the heat shimmer on the horizon like a distant and elusive lake, the silence so complete that it was a force in and of itself, quite dust devils spinning twists of pale earth into funnels the size of the massive Doug Firs of my home country, that I think I found the next big story.
As I stood in the vast pale plain at sunrise, such a visual place, I knew there had to be a feature film there, something shaped by the geography of that miraculous desert at the base of the five-thousand-foot cliffs of the Steens Mountain, something about how the backside of that mountain rises like a gradual ramp to those dramatic cliffs, and how all that silence and dust and stone and sky can work together to shape a narrative.
When I came home from that trip, refreshed by the disconnection from the umbilicus of cell phone data and that dizzying geography spinning in my head, I hatched and idea with a long-time filmmaking partner. In five minutes of describing the terrain, we’d hammered out a story and then twenty-four hours later I have an outline of a script. Story ideas are ephemeral things, and who knows if we’ll ride this one to the finish line.
For me, travel is essential for ideas. Without wandering there’s no way to harvest stories. It’s just how I work. It’s how I gather the narrative sparks I need. And at the beginning of the pandemic, locked in my house, I was inspired, like so many others, to tackle that next big project, to start something new. Someone more clever than me joked on social media that their pandemic began with aspirations to write a play and get ripped abs. And her end-of-pandemic plan was to start smoking. I was feeling that way as well.
Until the Steens Mountain and the Alvord Desert.
And now, with the images and sensations of those wild places in my head, I’m back and clear and better than I was before. Even as the swamp of email returns and the pettiness and numbness of the dull routine returns, I’ve now got some new fuel for the fire, and for a little while I feel normal again. My prose is less insipid. I stare at the walls of my office and now I see into the memory of the landscapes I experienced in Eastern Oregon, and the stories they inspired.
The world is a big place, mysterious and wonderful and delicate. And I’m better for having seen some more of it.
Maggie is the best trail dog because when you’re in the woods with her she wanders with a specific sense of aimlessness that is instructive for writers. For a dog, a walk in the woods is high art. She follows the twin muses of her nose and curiosity. She engages in prolonged tangents during headlong romps into the temperate rainforest near our home in Oregon, chasing after the cackle of a far-off raven, taking an extended wallow in greasy mud smeared with wild turkey scat and splashing in cold, clear pools welling before the entrance to culverts.
The ballet of a suburban dog let loose in the woods is something magical to behold. It’s a like a scripted sort of chaos. And her ramblings always lead us somewhere, even if it’s just back to the car. It’s the perfect antidote to a sticky literary situation. Walking with Maggie reinforces the old saw that the journey is the destination.
It was a dry Sunday afternoon, a rare gift in February in the rainy side of Oregon, when I took Maggie into the woods to check out the mud and the water and fret about my latest creative concerns. Some people favor wildflowers, spring breezes or wafts of pine sap, but I don’t mind a cool, drippy, muddy day where damp strands of the lichens known as old man’s beard glow in pale green luminescence beneath the overcast sky, the forest cemetery-quiet, the only sound the trickle of the growing rivulets alongside the road gathering strength to carry a week’s worth of rain off to the Pacific.
My concern was this: I’d recently begun chasing the fragment of an image that wanted to be a story that now aspired to be a novel. “Uh oh,” I thought. “Here we go.” This is always a dangerous point for a writer. It’s a good way to loose a big chunk of your life.
I’d made a few halfhearted feints at this novel over the years, though I’d always managed to escape after only a few pages. But now it was picking up momentum, the current growing like those roadside rivulets, gathering a power of its own. It was frightening. I was afraid of being swept along by it, losing my next three to seven years of my life obsessing over something that had begun almost by accident. Would it be worth all those lost hours, days, weeks, years in the end? I considered all of the reading, cooking or fishing I could with that time instead.
So to avoid facing these big questions, I decided it was time to flee to the woods with Maggie. She’s our eight-year-old Vizsla-Labrador mix, a mutt with plenty of experience in literary procrastination. She can smell the woods long before we approach the parking lot and she quivers with excitement as we near the trailhead. You can almost hear the song of her vibrating tendons. It’s like Itzhak Perlman tuning a Stratovarious.
Jim Harrison wrote often, in both his verse and prose, of his hobby of taking to the woods to follow rivers to their sources. This was a perfect day for such an activity as the foothills were oozing the stuff that makes streams. Harrison begins his poem “March Walk” with this line: “I was walking because I wasn’t upstairs sitting.” We can’t ask him, because he’s now gone, but I’m fairly sure he was chasing rivers uphill to avoid sitting in his own upstairs office and staring at the blank page. “What a way to make a living!” Harrison later laments (or rejoices) in that same poem. Ah, the vocation of writing. Is it even a living at all? How many of us actually pay our mortgages with poems, stories and novels? Most of us teach, sell insurance, make macchiatos or leach off of our partners to secure our health insurance.
Harrison wrote often of the therapy and technique of walking, a tactic many writers have employed over the centuries to solve or avoid problems with their work. I’ve looked to walking so many times to address issues with writing that sometimes I think that this is my true vocation. I’m a walker who sometimes writes, rather than a writer who mostly walks around. Both activities pay about the same.
Thoreau also viewed walking as a sort of job in itself. “No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence which are the capital in this profession,” he wrote in his famous essay, Walking. He considered aimless wandering “a noble art.”
I sometimes walk obsessively when writing. I once flew down to El Paso for a weekend and then walked across the border to Ciudad Juarez, ostensibly to research a novel about a string of murders occurring there. I spent two days walking through parks, alleys, markets, neighborhoods and the downtown streets until my feet were blistered. I saw so many things that I found striking and I finally had to stop and sit on a bench in a plaza to write notes. Then I headed back to the border just after sunset.
I never finished the book, but I sometimes go back to read the notes. I guess the good thing about walking to on behalf of a novel is that, if you don’t finish the novel, you still have the memory of the images gathered along the way.
“I’m a fan of the big walk,” screenwriter Mike Rich once told me in an interview. A walk has become part of his daily writing routine. Rich, who penned such sports-themed screenplays as Secretariat and The Rookie after writing his breakout film Finding Forester is one of those writers who’s managed to cobble together the sort of dream life that ruins it for the rest of us. He lives on the top of a hill outside Portland, Oregon where he has easy access to woods, country lanes and vineyards. He works from home, on his own terms. His passion and his day gig are intertwined. He loves sports. He loves movies. He writes movies about sports. He also loves writing. He writes all day.
Rich described his routine to me. He starts his day with “one of sixteen cup of coffee,” and then he wrangles with cursor, screen and legal pad before resorting to shoe leather tactics: “I love to get out and I will walk for three to four miles. And that’s writing…that’s part of the writing process.”
Back to my Sunday afternoon. Maybe that’s what I was doing. Perhaps it wasn’t procrastination after all. Maybe walking in the woods is part of the creative process: I wasn’t walking away from this incipient novel in fear, but actually digging in for the long slog it is going to take over the next several years of my life. I did a quick calculation of all the hours I will be spending on this project. If paid out at the minimum wage, I’d be able to buy a new car. Or maybe three.
I’d written the first image for this novel on a trip through Germany seven years ago. It was just a fragment then, ignorant of its future as the seed of a wannabe novel. We were driving from Paris to Berlin to visit relatives, and we stopped in the town of Eisenach in the former GDR. Even though the Berlin Wall was gone nearly as long as it had stood by the time we stopped in Eisenach, I still felt the lingering presence of the former East Germany in that old, gritty steel town in the Thuringen Forest. I took a morning walk before the others awoke and made notes about a scene as I strolled along a ridgeline above town. The scene I wrote featured a portrait of an old man sitting on a park bench feeding birds with crumbs from yesterday’s breakfast rolls. He held his hand palm up so steadily that birds would land on it. He was patient. And then suddenly, as one large, grizzled sparrow pecked at the crumbs, chasing the other birds away from the fleshy perch, the old man snapped his fingers closed, catlike, crushing the sparrow. He could feel it’s airy bones crackle in his grasp. Suddenly this old man had a dangerous past. Who was he? How had he arrived on that park bench in the reunified Germany? I was curious to know. I made some notes in my journal and promptly forgot about it for six or seven years.
But now here we are all these years later and that scene has exploded in my head. It’s joined together with other scenes and suddenly the rivulets are forming streams and then streams are merging to form rivers, and I feel like I now I might be swept out into the bay and the pulled by the current out to sea past the bar with no navigational aids and little idea where I am heading. It’s a worrisome feeling.
But that’s when I noticed my dog Maggie sniffing at a small rivulet alongside the logging road. All morning as we hiked up into the Coast Range I studied the rain and snowmelt forming pools, puddles and little nascent streams. And all those small riffles and trickles and seeps seemed so random, so aimless.
As we hiked down the backside of the mountain, though, I was starting to sense a sort of plan to the way the water was working. Grade and gravity doing their thing. Maggie chased the riffles and sniffed at the spillways and plunged into pools as we moved inexorably downhill. And the riffles, and seeps and leaks began to merge. They formed little waterfalls and deep runs in gouged channels. They pooled up alongside the road and then a brook was born. The lower we got, the more little rivulets joined the brook until it became a full-fledged stream. Walking downhill was like watching the birth of a river. Maybe this little forest stream would become the surging Alsea or swollen Yaquina, and ultimately the Pacific Ocean herself.
Maggie’s little stump tail wagged with joy like a tuning fork vibrating at the notes played by the rushing water. I think she was trying to show me the logic in the pull of all these little currents, teaching me to trust gravity, and to find solace and pleasure in the journey, to take side trips and excursions into the ferns to chase a ground squirrel or a flock of young turkey, but then circle back to the flow and trust that it would carry us where we needed to go.
I slowly decided, during the course of that walk, that I have to just see where this image jotted down at random in a notebook all those years ago will take me. Maybe this is the right novel, or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’ll be worthy of publication or maybe not. Maybe the economics of it will pencil out. Probably they wont. But then we writers tend to be a coy lot when it comes to money, so it’s likely nobody would know or care anyway.
And then maybe, too, there are larger forces at work beneath that image written down in my journal, and instead of fighting gravity I should just let the tug and pull of them be my guide.
For a dog like Maggie, a walk is a form of creative expression. Dogs, not burdened by opposable thumbs and all the trouble they get us into, are usually satisfied with the basics. They sniff a pile of dung. They race off after a crow, their necks craned skyward. They plunge with abandon into a thicket of ferns. They nose into the musky mystery in the rotted-out hollow of a log. All of it is a sort of game, not a vocation. Life isn’t about rows and columns in a spreadsheet no matter how desperately our culture wants us to think so. What’s a poem worth? What’s an image of an old man sitting on a park bench in the former East Germany worth? What’s a novel worth? What’s the price of a walk in the woods?
Somewhere near the end of the walk, Maggie reigns in her headlong feints and flurries into the forest and falls into line next to me on the logging road at a trot. My philosopher dog looks up at me, panting, asking me these very questions as she catches her breath. We’re silent awhile; the only sounds are the crunch of my boots and the click of her nails on the gravel. After some time she looks up at me. Our eyes meet.
“So, you going to write that book?” she asks.
“I suppose,” I say.
“Good.” She nods.
Then she freezes. A young jake-turkey has gobbled somewhere in the distance, practicing for the upcoming mating season. Her ears twitch. Both of us can picture him prancing and fanning out his tail like a teenage boy flexing in the mirror. Maggie’s tired, but this image is too much for her. She darts off after the sound. I hear the crash and grunt as she tears through the brush and the ferns. I can no longer see her, but I know her tongue is lolling, her black lips pulled back into a dog smile, her head, heart and imagination filled with the chaos and wonder of it all.
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I never planned to go to Japan. It wasn’t an accident, just somebody else’s idea. That somebody else was my daughter.
I’m in the fortunate position of writing and making films and media for a living. And sometimes I get to travel to wonderful places and tell stories about interesting people. I fall in love with each new place and its inhabitants, and I always return with a story or two.
“Can I come,” my daughter used to say whenever I shared news my upcoming travels around the dinner table. This started about the time she was eight and our vacations to visit family in Germany were opening her eyes to this wide and wonderful world.
“Someday,” I’d reply.
Well, that was half her lifetime ago. I was fast running out of ‘somedays.’ She was suddenly about to turn 16 and I realized once she got her drivers license the last thing she’d want to do was hang out with her old man. So I told her for her birthday she could pick a place on the globe and we’d go. And she picked Japan. She’s into architecture and design, and the Japanese certainly do those things very well.
In truth, all I knew about Japan was the clichés. I had to admit that it wasn’t in my list of top 5 places I was itching to visit next. I’m not sure why. But we were working from my daughter’s list, not mine, so away we went.
And after 10 days, I fell for the country and its people and culture. I can’t wait to go back so I can be reprimanded for not removing my shoes, and so I can soak in the barrage of “hellos” when I enter a store or restaurant and then sail out again on a sea of “thank yous” with friendly waves and nods. I want to ring the gong at the temples tucked in every corner and silently stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the people-packed metro without feeling overcrowded. I want to fall in love with the old couple who owns one of the neighborhood itzakaya restaurants that seemed to be on every corner. I want to have my mind twisted by the fanciful architecture of modern steel and glass right next to a quiet street of traditional wood structures. I want to bow and smile, to browse and shop, to stroll along the garish neon streets and the quiet, leafy corners of ancient oases of the innumerable shrines.
My eyes were opened to Japan and a new world flooded in.
And I owe it all to my curious kid and her spirit of adventure.
Sometimes travel means being surprised to learn that you love a place that you never expected to see. Rick Steves wrote that, “travel is the last great form of legal adventure.” Charles Darwin took, basically, one big trip that lasted 5 years when he was in his 20s, and it fueled a lifetime of intellectual curiosity so that he was able to spend the next 50 years of his life rewriting the world as we understood it. Travel is transformative. Unlike money and stuff, travel is one thing that will last your entire life. A chapter that can never be unwritten. A trip is a tattoo on your soul. Travel is the greatest gift we can give to ourselves and to one another, and in this case it wasn’t a gift that I gave to my kid, but one that she gave to me.
So if you ever get a chance, one place you may want to go is to Japan.
I sometimes hesitate to admit that I miss the Wall, that I feel a longing for something so awful. But back then you knew where you stood. There was a double wall of concrete with razor wire and mines in the middle, and on one side stood the good guys, bad guys on the other. Clean demarcations are always easier to grasp: walls are comforting tools of gross oversimplification in a complicated age. And the part of my life that I lived within that myth of the healthy marriage between West Berlin and the United States—surrounded by a wall that encircled and constricted but couldn’t quite strangle a tiny island of freedom deep within the cold heart of a totalitarian empire—harbored a sort of innocent faith my country, the loss of which I mourn more each day.
When the wall stood, America was both friendly and tough. My little blue passport with the eagle clutching her olive branch in one talon (but watch out: a thicket of sharpened arrows in the other) provided me the unearned privilege of swift entry into foreign lands and deference from their inhabitants. In those heady days I didn’t have to think about all the bad things we had done. Sure there was four hundred years of slavery, blankets with smallpox, Jim Crow, Vietnam and Iran Contra: but look…the wall! I was half-German, half-American, and the wall had redeemed both sides of the equation, and when in doubt I only needed to shuffle to the top of the scaffolding to peer over the graffiti-smeared concrete and gaze at the bleak, sooty Stalinist housing blocks of East Berlin, like a diorama of deprivation, where guard towers sprouted like the fungus of failed communism out of the cloud of two-cycle engine exhaust, guards ready to shoot down members of their own tribe for merely chasing the forbidden fruits of capitalism.
Back then America was seen as a benefactor and friend to Europe. We were the source of the Marshall Plan and the somewhat flawed but loving big brother in the NATO club. We believed in a united and peaceful Europe, one that was prosperous and economically dependent upon us, and we were willing dance on the edge of war to help make it so. Back then I could watch fireworks without guilt and my parents still loved each other and the world wanted the blue jeans and maple syrup that we smuggled abroad in our suitcases and doled out to family like little badges of freedom that signaled the wonders of modern capital.
There is one moment I recall that that represents those old days best: it was a summer afternoon in the early 80s and fragments of sunlight filtered through a broadleaf canopy, falling onto cobblestones. I was a kid wandering the sidewalks in a green and peaceful corner of southwest Berlin. Diesel cars rumbled past on the cobbles. The efficient S-Bahn hissed to a stop at the nearby station. In the distance came the pock-pock-pock of Russian troops conducting live-fire drills somewhere on the eastern side of the wall.
An old German fellow with a cane and felt hat tap-stepped in my direction and when we met he drew up on the sidewalk and began speaking to me. He’d pegged me for American. Maybe it was the tee shirt I wore sporting Old Glory. My German was pidgin at best, but we managed to have a conversation, and I remember that went something like this:
“Well, young man, how do you speak such good German?”
“My mother is German.”
“And your father?”
“He was in the U.S. Air Force and they met here in Berlin.”
“Ahh, the American Air Force,” he mused, nodding, pleased, even reverent. “Tell your father ‘thank you.’”
He wandered away, his cane plinking on the cobbles.
On the surface the old man’s affection seem misplaced. He had certainly experienced the “Battle of Berlin,” the Americans rained forty-six million pounds of ordinance on the city. The death toll was in the tens of thousands. Nearly two million people were displaced, including my mother, who as a small child rode the train outside the city to live with her grandparents in their farmhouse during the worst of the onslaught.
It’s estimated the fiery deluge created more than 30 cubic meters of rubble for every inhabitant. After the war, much of this rubble was piled into a manmade geological feature known as Teufelsberg or “Devil’s Mountain,” looming 240 feet above the surrounding city. As a child I’d visit this bizarre gift of American air power, a mountain made from the bones of their destroyed city.
PERHAPS THE MOST SUCCESSFUL four words uttered by an American president in any speech were John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.” He botched the German pronunciation even beneath the added slather of New England accent. But it didn’t matter. It delighted the crowd sprawling before the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg, numbering close to half a million. These were people who’d lost a war, faced starvation and poverty, and the shame and the horror of the Holocaust and their role in it. And these are people who understood their precarious position as the caged canary hanging from a limb over the creosote pit of communism.
The speaker was a dashing young president who peppered his remarks with Latin phrases of the philosophers, a man who spoke of hope and truth and solidarity while General Clay, the stoic hero of reconstruction and the Berlin Airlift, stood at his shoulder. Listening to that speech today or watching the newsreel footage provides a stark lesson in how far the power and eloquence of presidential discourse has plummeted.
This defiant speech was the most daring and powerful expression of the Cold War. While Ronald Reagan famously exhorted the reformer Mikhail Gorbechev to “tear down this wall,” he was delivering the coup de grace over the prone form of an expiring enemy. But in 1963, that enemy was at the height of its power and aggression. Kennedy’s speech sent electric ripples through the crowd of normally taciturn Berliners. Here was an eloquent young man who also happened to be the most powerful elected leader in the world. And he was claiming to be one of them.
Perhaps the old man who had thanked me for my father’s service had been there, in that audience.
My mother certainly was. She was twenty-one, and from her vantage point Kennedy was a small speck on the scaffolding, his voice canned by the loudspeakers. But the roaring of the cheers was enough to sweep her along in the adulation. She was an assistant to a pharmacist, and her shop had closed for the speech. She was already a Kennedy fan. An aspiring artist with dreams of a life beyond the provincial former capitol, she’d made a pencil drawing of the president’s portrait, copied from a newspaper photo that she kept pinned on her wall.
My mother’s ambition was to escape her walled city by any means possible. She’d tried a short-lived stint as a street artist in Paris, missing the Montmartre’s heydays of the Belle Epoch by seventy years. Then she worked as an au pair in Switzerland, finding no freedom in indentured servitude. She returned home in a fit of pragmatism and started a career as an assistant apotheker.
She was drawn to Kennedy and all things American not because of his politics, but because she found him handsome. She also found the young, uniformed American servicemen cool, casual and refreshing when compared to the stoic and humorless Berliners of the generation that had survived the war.
For me, the most consequential aspect of Kennedy’s speech is that my mother’s opinion of the benign occupation of the Americans was elevated enough that less than a year later she would marry to an American airman on those very same city hall steps and be whisked away to the United States, making her escape of Berlin at long last. My sister and I were to become products of that Cold War union.
It wasn’t Kennedy’s words alone that had cemented special relationship between West Berliners and the Americans. The U.S. had helped them weather the deprivations of defeat. In June of 1948, the German economy was on the verge of collapse. Soviet influence was growing. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania had already fallen under their control. In Berlin people were already rationed fewer than 1,000 calories per day, sentenced to slow starvation. When the allies created a separate currency in the west to shore up the economy, the Soviets responded by cutting off all road and rail transport to the former capitol. It seemed the only options for President Truman were military force or suffering the humiliating defeat of abandoning West Berlin to the communists.
But at the behest of General Lucius Clay, who would later stand on the Schöneberg steps during Kennedy’s speech, Truman chose a bold act in defiance of Soviet aggression. The Berlin Airlift kept the western half of city on life support through a Prussian winter, making more than 270,000 flights and delivering more than two million tons of goods. At the height of the operation, a plane landed every forty-five seconds pumping lifeblood to the city through airy arteries. The Soviets eventually gave up their blockade. West Berlin was saved, and her citizens never forgot. When the old man thanked me for my father’s service, this memory was certain more fresh than the bombings.
When my father served in the Air Force in the 1960s, he was stationed at Tempelhof. It’s an imposing structure, one of the world’s first modern airports. The main terminal was designed by Nazi architects as a testament to their imperial aspirations. Its rigid lines and limestone facade speak to an austere, cold-hearted sort of grandeur.
Tempelhof’s role has evolved over the years: from showpiece Nazi airport to American air base to civic exhibition hall. Its runways now comprise Berlin’s largest public park after citizens voted to protect this priceless real estate in the heart of the city from development. Today, its buildings house startups, theaters and thousands of refugees from across the Middle East and Africa.
But when my father lived there on the second floor of the terminal, he was a low-ranking airman who bunked in comparative luxury as he worked maintaining runway radio equipment. Tempelhof was a posh posting, with a bar, bowling alley and basketball court available to the airmen. Out the window of his room, he could look out at a three-fingered stone sculpture in the Platz der Luftbrücke or “Air Bridge Place,” the curved of the stone edifice matching the building’s austere lines. The gratitude embodied in that homely concrete tribute to the Airlift certainly projected itself into those, like my father, who wore the uniform of the American military. As a small boy, I used to sift through the boxes in his closet, pulling on the dusty uniform jacket and sliding his dress cap over my head, the hat brim slipping over my ears and my scalp poking into the soft material of the top, hoping to absorb a little of that magic.
By the early 1960s, West Berlin was settling into its role as a Cold War outpost. The Americans brought with them a sort of nonchalance that belied the fact that they were all staring across the razor wire and concrete wall at the enemy. After more than a decade of the Marshall Plan and the fabled “Wirtschaftswunder” or “economic miracle” that had swept the West German Rhineland, transforming it into an economic engine, the western half of Berlin was polished into a jewel of social democracy with a helpful dose of subsidized capital expressly designed to glitter within full view of the guard towers, a giant thumb in the eye of communist austerity of East Berlin.
The Kurfursten Damm, or KuDamm for short, is a broad boulevard that still sweeps toward the former East Berlin like a giant middle finger of capitalism. From the eastern side you could look down on this sparkling street at night and see the luxury department store Kaufhaus des Westens, KaDeWe for short, which translates into Gallery of the West. There were nightclubs that affected a sort of kitschy ribaldry, hearkening back to their heyday in the 20s and 30s. The Resi Bar had telephones at numbered booths arranged around an atrium where American servicemen could proposition German women awkwardly through the language barrier. Another venue featured multiple levels, each with a different band, plus a giant slide that allowed Cold War clubbers to slip from one floor of music to another. By now everyone in Berlin had grown used to the idea of nuclear destruction, and they adopted a sort of hurricane party insouciance, slipping down the long slide together like children at Disneyland. At the Rex Casino on Clayallee, a street named for the hero of the Airlift, my father spotted an underfed woman with a mane of blond hair wrapped into a glittering 1960s helmet and he was smitten. He asked her to dance. He told her that he was new to Berlin and didn’t know a soul. It’s no mystery what drew him to her: his early photos of her crouching by a pond to feed ducks in the Tiergarten park or demurely leaning on a balcony rail with the city skyline in the background show a woman who might have been a model if she hadn’t grown up in the provincial military outpost that the former capital had become.
My father wasn’t what you might consider a good catch. He was a low-ranking airman with friendly disposition and a sense of adventure who had grown up dirt poor on a hardscrabble produce farm outside Chicago. He and his brothers had to shoulder the work after their father passed away early, crawling across every last inch of their forty acres alongside their mother to keep the farm afloat. He’d been educated in a one-room schoolhouse and when he dropped out of college after one year for lack of money, the Air Force was waiting. By the time he reached Berlin he was earing $50 per week. He didn’t have a whole lot to offer. But he had that uniform. The wings on the lapel pin would symbolize another chance for my mother to escape Berlin. And he did come from that far away place that had helped transform the KuDamm from a field of rubble into the lively heart of the shining half of a once-great city. And for a lot of West Berliners, like my mother, that seemed enough.
Few if any cities have CHANGED as dramatically as Berlin has since the end of the Second World War. It was bombed, divided, rebuilt in the image of two separate ideologies, reunified and then rebuilt again. Its shape-shifting cultural landscape saw its dazzling, hedonistic nightlife thrive in the waning years of the Weimar Republic replaced by the cold, depraved cradle of fascist ambition during the Third Reich. Then it morphed into the chessboard of the Cold War, and after restoration it again assumed the mantle of cultural and political capitol of the most powerful country in the European Union.
But despite the city’s mercurial history, little has changed about the Berlin I have known over the past forty-five years. As a boy I explored the leafy quarter of Zehlendorf in a peaceful district where my aunt and uncle have lived for four decades. I didn’t quite grasp the significance of the fact that these unchanging cobbled streets and shaded footpaths were just a morning walk from the trinity of locations that shaped the horror and madness of the of the 20th Century.
A stroll in one direction takes you to a forest path where the Berlin Wall once stood. A brisk walk in the other direction and you’ll reach Cecelianhof, a Teutonic mud and beam manor that looks like an overgrown cottage from a Brothers Grimm tale and the site of a plot no less twisted: the Potsdam Conference, where the Allies divided Germany into four zones of occupation, laying the fault lines of the Cold War.
And then take a lakeside ramble in yet another direction and you arrive at a stone villa that squats like a mausoleum on the shore. It’s called Am Grossen Wannsee and it hosted the meeting where Nazi leaders laid the plans for the Holocaust. Now it serves as a museum and memorial to the unfathomable depths of human depravity.
And while I gradually began to grasp the historic gravity of the sites surrounding Zehlendorf, little has changed within the bubble of this sheltered neighborhood. My aunt and uncle still share the same flat they’ve rented for decades. They are ageless in their habits. They still drink coffee on their balcony each morning along with fresh rolls fetched from the baker’s near the train station. They offer the same singsong greetings as neighbors pass by or roll up their shutters to the morning.
But the pincers of past and present are squeezing their way into even this small idyllic bubble of memory.
On a recent visit, while I strolled to the baker’s to fetch morning rolls, I came across a pair of Stolpersteine, or “tripping stones.” These are small memorials, gilded cobbles embedded into the walkway outside the houses of victims of the Holocaust. It is a public art project that’s spread throughout German cities, and it suddenly provided me with a new lens through which to view Zelendorf. The stones were laid outside a house I’d passed dozens of times before. “Here lived Hedwig Harrwitz, born 1865, deported 10.9.42, murdered in Auschwitz.” Next to it is another stone that memorializes Hedwig’s husband. The stones achieved their intended affect. This quiet corner of Berlin was finally beginning to remember its sinister past. With a simple downward glance, Zehlendorf had changed for me forever.
When I returned from the baker’s that morning, I found a newspaper my uncle had laid on the balcony table next to the materials out of a classic German breakfast: plates of cheese, butter, marmalade, schmaltz (a spread of rendered pig fat), jam, soft-boiled eggs, sliced cucumbers and some thin shavings of pork sausage. Above the fold on the front page of the newspaper was a Warhol-style grid of portraits of the current American president wearing a range of unflattering expressions: vain, baffled, puffing, accusatory, disgusted. The headline read, “Er ist Verruckt?,” which translates into the question “He is crazy?” In the body of the article, a series of psychologists weighed in on Donald Trump’s mental state. The conclusion seems to be that no, he’s not crazy. Just mendacious, fearful and not very bright.
Contempt for the American president or his policies is nothing new in Berlin. There was little love lost for George W. Bush and his injudicious plunge into the Iraq conflagration. A crowd that rivaled the attendance of Kennedy’s 1963 speech assembled in Berlin in February of 2013 to protest the looming war, this only a couple years after they’d assembled en mass to mourn the 9-11 attacks. Even Kennedy was viewed scornfully as a “boy scout” by the stiff, dignified Chancellor Konrad Adenaur, though he was still a staunch Cold War ally. Students in West Berlin staged massive protests against the Vietnam War in 1968, chanting the name of Ho Chi Minh as they trotted down the KuDamm with placards equating U.S. policy with Nazis. But in the past, these animosities alternated with adulation for America, or at least the symbolic promise of the American idea. There was Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” speech in 1989. And though he was also greeted with protestors, his words are remembered fondly. “Every man is a German separated from his fellow men. Every man is a Berliner, forced to look up on a scar,” he said in solidarity.
And there was the adoring crowd of 200,000 who greeted then-candidate Barack Obama in July of 2008, numbers that might incite envy in the current president had he the capacity to face a reality not shaped by ego or the morning talk show toadies. In that speech, Obama offered his own take on barrier removal, saying, “the walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand.”
Today, these words of American presidents seem products of an alternate reality. Now German newspapers quote Trump’s stuttering invective as headlines: “The Germans Are Bad, Very Bad.”
Trump has lambasted, insulted and questioned the loyalty of NATO allies. He has cozied up to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and praised brutal dictator Kim Jong Un’s “beautiful” letters. And at the same time he has heavily criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel, refusing to shake hands or look her in the eye. The marriage of convenience between Germany and America seems to have reached its end.
THIS IS AN AUSPICIOUS YEAR. The Berlin Wall fell thirty years ago. It’s been gone longer than it stood. And NATO turned 70 in April. A recent report by the Harvard Kennedy School called NATO, “the single most important contributor to security, stability and peace in Europe and North America.”
But Donald Trump is no fan of the organization, and he shocked the other 28 members when he threatened to withdraw the United States over claims that other treaty countries weren’t paying their fair share for mutual defense, with his ire especially directed at wealthy Germany. Never mind the fact that Germany is NATO’s second-largest supplier of troops, or that it is the first stopover for U.S. soldiers wounded in the Middle Eastern conflicts.
Like many of his boasts or threats, Trump’s NATO attacks have so far proven hollow, though there is plenty of speculation that the damage to American leadership is irreparable. One has to wonder what utterance will be the breaking point. NATO won’t die on a battlefield. Words will be its undoing.
My parents’ marriage lasted close to forty years, beating the wall’s tenure by more than a decade. Concrete and razor wire is no more permanent than the unspoken constellation of compromises that hold together a relationship of any size. There are treaty signings, vows, handshakes, ceremonies, public affirmations and the like, but in the end it all comes down to that special feeling between two parties and when the magic wears off there’s little you can do to restore it. All the old clichés apply: they grew apart; they become two different people; it was time to start over. My parents represented a collection of contrasts—urban and rural, occupier and occupied, passive and active, European and American—and after the decades, perhaps the sum total of these differences gained mass while the luster of the young man in the uniform and the photo of the young woman in the Tiergarten began to fade.
Watching my parents’ lives split from half a continent away was not unlike watching the relationship between Berlin and Washington splinter on the world stage, the main contrasts being that the former was sadder yet more amicable and diplomatic. What is clear, though, is the power of words. Words are weapons of ideological and emotional warfare that can shatter relationships whether they are geopolitical or interpersonal, and I watched as even the smallest phrase uttered decades ago resurfaced as evidence of the original fault lines of my parents’ flagging union.
And as I watch the words used now in U.S.-German relations, it’s hard to see such language as anything less than relationship destroying and bone deep. It is a failing marriage writ large. Trump employs the paranoid ramblings of a jealous husband lambasting his young trophy wife: our NATO allies are “screwing us,” taking advantage of United States only for our money and offering nothing in return. The dissolution of the marriage plays out in quotes and headlines: an NPR story is titled, “Washington has become much rougher: Germany is still recalibrating.” The chancellor of Germany responds: “We are not prisoners.” Berlin, which was once cradled in the loving arms of American military power, is becoming a different person. “The times in which we could fully count on others are somewhat over,” Merkel said. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Words matter. Words, in many ways, are more permanent and insurmountable than walls and borders.
The power of language in contrast to historic fragility of structures of stone and steel makes walls no less monumental or destructive. Between 140 and 250 people died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall during its twenty-seven years. But the impotence of the wall is even more tangible when you consider the estimated 5,000 East Berliners who succeeded in crossing to the west.
Walls don’t work.
Now in the States there’s talk of a southern border even more insurmountable than the Berlin Wall. But should it happen, it will be no more permanent or effective than its Cold War counterpart. Contrary to claims of open borders, anyone who’s visited the U.S. frontier with Mexico knows that it’s already a highly developed and militarized barrier, and the crossing is lethal. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency reports that seven thousand migrants have died crossing the southern border between the years 1998 and 2017.
Yet despite the fatalities, far more people have crossed successfully to find work and build better lives in quiet dignity despite the shadow of illegitimacy. This is another testament to the enormity of the human spirit and the impotence of artificial barriers.
Perhaps the collapse of the Berlin Wall and now the implosion of U.S. –German relations will mean a new direction for Germany. It is a nation that is politically, geographically and economically poised to fill some of the vacuum of world leadership created by a retreating America. Perhaps by studying how the United States both succeeded and failed in its aspiration to fashion a new world in its own image, the Germans have lessons to apply. They’ve already taken a position of global leadership on the climate change crisis and they’re engaged in their own grand migrant experiment after temporarily opening their borders to more than a million refugees, positions that have drawn scorn from detractors in Washington and at home.
What I miss most about the Berlin Wall, the collapse of which feels so fresh for me despite the thirty years that have passed, is that it stood as an elaborate, living symbol of the failure to crush the human spirit. It stood as evidence of the limits of authoritarianism. It stood as a reminder of the ultimate folly in the attempt to divide people, to contain them, to restrain them from their aspirations.
All parties viewed the wall as a symbol of barbarity. “We come to Berlin, we American Presidents, because it’s our duty to speak in this place of freedom,” these words spoken by Reagan, but they may as well have been uttered by Obama, Bush or Kennedy—though certainly not the current president.
I miss winning the war. I miss the stories of the grandeur of capitalism: tales of Boris Yeltsin weeping after his entourage visited a grocery store in Clear Lake, Texas where he was overwhelmed by the sight of the bounty of the free market, our frozen dessert aisles alone more vast than spare pickings and endless food lines in Russia. Later he would write, “For the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.”
I miss being the good guys. I miss the casual and somewhat naïve American servicemen begging a dance with a swagger that comes from the uniform of a superpower. I miss the “boy scout” president who said he was a Berliner just like all those grim-faced war survivors.
I miss the marriage where the two parties generally loved one another and forgave the unsightly blemishes, the imperfections and past indiscretions because they knew that, in the end, they were better off together.
I miss climbing the scaffolding to gaze across dog runs and razor wire at the less fortunate.
I miss a world I understood, two countries I believed in, an enemy that was wrong and, in the end, contrite and repentant.
I miss Boris Yeltsin admiring popsicles and my family in Berlin placing orders for blue jeans and maple syrup.
I miss the feel of my father’s military cap slipping down over my ears while hoping that I might someday grow into it.
Berlin inside the wall was a fantasyland where the nightclubs had slides and you could hear the sound of the enemy shooting on the other side of the wall, but you were unafraid. It was a place where my American father could pull on his uniform and cross into East Berlin and joke with the enemy, sharing cigarettes with Russian soldiers, though my German mother was unable to visit her dying grandmother.
Berlin was my rabbit hole from Alice in Wonderland. It was my childhood fable. It was the story where America was the good guy, where the ideologies were clear and you knew on which side you stood. Berlin was my favorite tall tale made from the bones and rubble of memory. And even now, at just the right time of day, I can close my eyes and stare back through the years to where the Wall once stood, and I can pretend that all of those stories were true.
Few artists have produced work that feels as urgently American to me in the way that Santiago Uceda’s does. He’s got a brash, expressionist style with bold inky lines and that blends of cultures and landscapes tracing his life journey from Peru to California and up to the Pacific Northwest. To me his work embodies the ambitious restlessness of all of us with immigrant roots. Go west and reinvent yourself. Shatter traditions, break rules and color outside the lines to create something new out of the open canvas made from the cultural jambalaya that is the soul of this country.
Uceda’s work shows the clear influence of pre-Colombian and Incan art. He spent his childhood in his native Peru before moving to the States with his family in middle school. Once he arrived in Southern California as a teenager, he absorbed stylistic elements from the surf and skate culture there, as well as a sense of folk art from the Mexican community, especially Día de Muertos imagery. Once he moved north to Oregon, he dove into the iconography of the Pacific Northwest, where a sort of fecund, mossy, drippiness steeped his work with towering pines and folkloric mythology from Sasquatches to salmon worked its way into his repertoire. He recently completed a cycle of images, one for each of the 50 states, that drew on state symbols, animals and regional characteristics. Flipping through Uceda’s work is like taking a great American road trip.
But what struck me the most in my recent interview with Uceda is the fact that, despite while I might see an urgent Americanness, he’s often felt like an outsider here. When he first arrived from Peru, he settled in conservative Orange County where some of the wealthy white kids made him feel like a second class citizen. “I remember thinking, ‘who the fuck to you think you are? Yeah, you’re a white kid, but how does that make you better than me?’,” Uceda said. And then, as now, Uceda used his art to channel his distinct voice in response.
Those high school feelings were rekindled with the election of Donald Trump and the way the current president talks about immigrants and people of color. Uceda had never been a political artist, but some of his latest work is fueled by a bold fury at the way the American Dream has been shattered. “My way of adding to the conversation is through visuals,” Uceda said.
If Trump’s election and the ensuing white nationalism embodied by the corrupt real estate mogul and his xenophobic followers pushed Uceda’s art in new directions, it’s his steady gig as art director at a Eugene, Oregon tech company that provided the stability and discipline that allowed him to strike out in new directions with his personal work. Uceda held a range of creative jobs through the years, often taking on commercial illustration projects where he was required to please clients rather than his own aesthetic sensibilities. But now having a steady job that requires enough creativity to keep him interested, but that also draws a clear line between his personal creative work, seems to have provided him with an ideal balance. The regular schedule and paycheck also provides the stability he needs as a single dad with two boys in school, so that he needs to be disciplined with free time that only comes after dinner, homework and time with the kids at night. Despite this disciplined routine, Uceda describes his style as “messy, rough and unpolished.” He used to worry that illustration clients wouldn’t appreciate these natural qualities of his work. “But I’m finally at the point where, it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my style, my voice, take it or leave it,'” he said.
A retrospective of his sketchbook work was recently held at Sparrow Studios and Revolution Design Group in Eugene. For Uceda, the exhibit felt a little like baring his soul. His topics in his sketch work often include personal challenges and documentation of his struggles with mental health. In the past he was hesitant to showcase vulnerabilities in this way, but as he’s grown as an artist he’s become more willing to be transparent. “Lately I’ve been trying to care less about this and give less fucks about stuff as I’m getting older,” Uceda said. And his work has seemed to soar as a result. And the packed opening of this screening this past September gave evidence as crowds responded to his work and lined up to buy sketches from old journals that he once thought would never see the light of day.
Uceda’s passion is illustration, making a mess with chalk and ink, cutting stencils into his sketchbook pages to make random compositions with the illustrations underneath. But he’s also a versatile dilettante, unafraid to dabble in digital, motion graphics, animation, stop motion, video editing and sound design. Some of his online work is a lucidly chaotic mix of all of these abilities. But once you’ve spent time with his art, you can always find the distinctive thumbprint of his style, whether it’s a sketch or an online animation or a two-story mural, and in those bold lines and colors you can also see the telltale signature of the journey he’s made during his own quest to find the American Dream that may elude all of us during these chaotic times.
It’s hard to say where stories come from. It’s a sort of archaeological game that we tend to play if we’ve ever taken a literature class and made the wildly speculative assumption that such origins exist. The online journal Failbetter.com published my novella @SharkGirl79 earlier today, so I guess if there’s a moment to spend on this speculation, it may as well be this one.
@SharkGirl79 is the story of a brilliant young scientist who sacrifices her career and reputation to save a remote coral atoll somewhere in the vast, blue Pacific. It takes place mostly over the course of one day when she goes diving with a photographer from a noted science and geography publication and gets into a deadly situation involving sharks, corals and a leaky oxygen tank. On one level, visible to me only in hindsight, it’s a commentary on the patriarchal culture that still exists among the old guard in the scientific world. It’s about stereotypes and how advocacy or activism on behalf of science is dismissed, especially by those who like to hide out in ivory towers, plus anyone else who doesn’t like what the data show. On the other level, though, it’s just an adventure story. And then, ultimately, it’s the story about a daughter and her father, and that’s the thing I probably like the most about it.
The first (and maybe only) longish piece of prose I read entirely in one sitting was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. That story or short novel is what I like to call “gateway literature.” It’s as rich in language and layers as anything, but it’s approachable by anyone, even a kid growing up in a union household where none of the preceding generations had gone to college. When I was growing up, our house was filled with books…mostly Readers Digest condensed anthologies, plus every National Geographic published between 1964 and 1992 when the old man cancelled the subscription because he was, “finally tired of reading another article about ants.” The Old Man and the Sea was different from just about everything else I’d read before it, probably because it was as gripping as the fantasy and adventure novels I’d read in the past but I found so much more there, too. It was more accessible on the surface than the other tattered classics that English teachers tend to send you home to read. I’m guessing that was largely due to the sharks. But then after I’d finished reading it, it also made me think about things like fate, courage, poverty and faraway places. It stayed with me, lingering on the palette longer that the rest. In hindsight, it feels like my story @SharkGirl79 might be a kind of homage to that lingering sensation left by Hemingway’s novella, a story that follows a similar timeframe and shape but that deals with current issues, where old Santiago has been swapped for a young scientist. But there are still sharks, and hopefully a similar sense of adventure and a bit of an iceberg below the surface to give it a little weight.
The obvious answer of where this story came from is that it arrived on the doorstep of my subconscious sometime during the four years I spent filming Saving Atlantis with co-director/producer Justin Smith. For a solid period of time I immersed myself, both literally and figuratively, into the world of coral science. I had the incredible opportunity to visit research projects around the world, to dive on reefs and to explore the world of coral research. I probably earned the equivalent of at least an associates degree in the subject and then promptly forgot it. But along the way I read countless papers and collected thousands of details, some of which made their way into this story and other novellas in my collection in progress, Beneath the Skin of the World. Scientists of all stripes have become heroes to me ever since my day gig telling research stories first put me into regular contact with them, so it only was a matter of time before one became the hero of some of my fiction as well.
“Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.”
The scientist in this story, Gabby Peacock, wasn’t initially the protagonist. There’s a frumpy writer who appears in the first scene, and I was planning to tell this whole story from his perspective. But he soon boarded a plane and slipped out of the plot with little fanfare…who knows how these things happen…and I stuck with Gabby. Her point of view was the most fascinating, especially when I began to discover the complex relationship she had with her father.
Some of the things in this story borrow from actual events or situations, and the rest is all made up. I actually overheard the main plot point, about an overeager photographer chumming the water for sharks while a researcher worked below, during a conversation at a research station one evening in the outdoor kitchen after someone had opened a bottle of rum. The details are vague in my memory, and quite different from what happened in this story, but that’s the fun thing about fiction. Windows and doors open up while you’re writing and you can decide which ones you climb through. You can just make things up to fill in the gaps…something that’s frowned upon in my day job a writer and nonfiction storyteller. Making things up is also not acceptable in my administrative and budgeting work.
Something else I recall overhearing at a research station during cocktail hour at sunset (some research stations can feel like a summer camp for extremely erudite and workaholic adults) was one male researcher talking to another male researcher about a third, non-present male researcher who was extremely savvy with and vociferous on social media. The subject in question had managed to earn a lot of publicity for his research and raised awareness for the policy problems to which the data pointed. One of the fellows bitterly referred to the social media guru as a, “media whore.” Whether it was jealousy or contempt, I’m not sure, but I always wondered why advocacy is intermingled with such patriarchal bias and misogyny. I guess that I had to create Gabby to try to figure this out.
She’s not based on anyone I know in real life, though I’ve met a lot of people with her admirable qualities. Since I’m looking for origins, though, I think I have to look to old Santiago from the Hemingway novella, adding a dash of Spencer Tracy from the film version and then a little bit of Concha, a cow dog from a Jim Harrison poem. In Harrison’s poem, Concha is the alpha female of a pack of cow dogs on an Arizona ranch. She is stridently independent, leading the other dogs off into adventures that harry the cattle and startle the horses. And for this reason, she’s exiled to a ranch in Mexico where they need a, “crazed bitch who’s kick ass with range bulls.” To me, that’s a good metaphor of a male-dominated system that is uncomfortable with female protagonists. Of course, it’s a poem written by a white dude, just like my novella, so take it for what it’s worth.
There’s one line in that poem in particular, though, that I think is the true heart of this character of Gabby and thus the whole story: “Let us weep at the grandeur of rebellious women.” This line arises often in my mind these days, having a teenage daughter stalking the house. She’s going to inherit a broken world someday, a planet we’ve messed up, so she deserves the opportunity to express righteous fury.
The best thing about publishing a story or book is that, after dozens of drafts and endless tinkering and revision, you’re done. It is what it is and you never have to read it again or even try to make sense of what you were trying to say. That’s now the domain of the readers. They can read a few lines or the whole thing and have their own opinions and either forget it and remember it as they like. I hope readers find some satisfaction in the story. I hope it makes them angry at the world, at systems and institutions that have royally fucked up the planet and belittled people who try to fix it. But I also hope it makes readers a little bit hopeful, too, that there are people like Gabby out there fighting against great odds until their final breath to save the things that they love. I hope readers think about the fact that our species, and especially our generation, has wiped out half of the world’s coral reefs for the sake of banal convenience and luxury, like driving to Wal-Mart or flying to Bali or charging our cell phones. I hope we’re at a tipping point where humans in positions of privilege and power will start to take this rapidly unfolding ecological disaster of the Anthropocene seriously. And finally, I hope that somehow, somewhere someone sits down and reads this story all the way through in one sitting and then closes the page (or browser) and feels just a tiny bit like I did when I finished that Hemingway novella all those years ago. If my story achieves any or all of the above with just one reader, then it will have been worth the effort.
A great thing about graduate writing programs is that they can sometimes approximate a salon. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a cohort of incipient creatives and you can cobble together, for a time, your very own Algonquin Round Table, your Paris of the 20’s or maybe Denver in the 50s. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t round up some writer friends and try to build a similar environment without the tuition. We’re a social species and we thrive on community, even while we’re pursuing intensely personal and solitary activities like writing fiction.
But in the end we all wind up alone and at the keyboard. In Part II of this series, I described how the Steeple Chase Exercise works in a classroom, but that’s not very helpful for us after graduation. Nor is it useful for those who don’t buy into the idea of workshops or MFA programs.
There are advantages to group workshops. For one thing, an experienced instructor can often spot a point of view that’s working particularly well in your work and call your attention to it. In some workshops, you have the chance to hear your own work read aloud, which is always enlightening. Instructor Shawn Shiflett says, “usually the light bulb doesn’t go on [for the student]…you have to point it out. They’re surprised when they hear it out loud.”
But there’s no reason you can’t run your own steeple chase exercise on your own. Every time I feel the story going flat, I try out some of my favorite shifts. If you’re stuck on a project and you need a nudge, I’ve included this handy set of cards to help you out. Print, cut, shuffle and drop them into a hat. When you get stuck, draw a card, make a shift, write a few pages, then draw another card and shift again. This is especially helpful for me when I’m facing a blank screen with a pulsing of the cursor mocking my torpor.
These cards are just for starters, but there’s no reason you can’t make up your own shift. The novelist Ward Just, whom I consider the best living (and little known) political novelist, talks about how shifting the gender of a character can launch a narrative forward: “It’s amazing what you can do. It gives you a whole new outlook on what he’s up to when all of the sudden he’s a she,” he said in an interview.
“It’s amazing what you can do to a character when you change the gender.”
All too often we forget the freedom inherent in the act of writing fiction. We find ourselves adhering to an idea on page 100 merely because that’s how we first happened to write it on page 7, forgetting that we have the power to easily change anything we want. The Steeple Chase Exercise forces us to face that almost daunting amount of liberty we actually do have with with fiction, but do it with the training wheels provided by a structured activity.
Shifting points of view and leaping into other prose forms has always been a natural part of writing. Shawn Shiflett, who has taught countless Steeple Chase classes, uses the technique often. He told me how shifting from the point of view of his main character to that of a high-level overall storyteller helped him navigate a stuck scene while writing his novel Hey, Liberal! He said, “I wound up deleting most of it in the end, but it got me where I needed to be.”
I’ve already mentioned Dostoyevski’s unsuccessful first draft of Crime and Punishment told from Raskolnikov’s first-person point of view. He switched to the third-person for the next draft and wrote a classic. A point-of-view shift in the other direction is what turned Arthur Golden’s novel Memoirs of a Geisha into a massive bestseller. His first draft was roundly rejected by agents and editors. “My mistake was having chosen to use a remote, uninvolved narrator,” Golden said. When he shifted to the first-person point of view of the main character, Sayuri, the story took off.
More examples abound. Consider Fitzgerald’s choice to tell the story of Jay Gatsby from the point of view of the less-exciting Midwestern outsider, Nick Carraway. Many of us might be tempted to explore the first-person point of view of Gatsby himself, the dynamic protagonist. But Fitzgerald’s choice allows us to channel some of Carraway’s awe while also seeing through his naiveté into Gatsby’s seductive huckster veneer. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye seamlessly blends shifts to a third-person overall narrator’s point of view with first-person perspective of Claudia McTeer, who observes the main character of Pecola Breedlove much in the same way Carraway watches Gatsby.
I could go on. There are at least a million and a half fantastic examples. But I’ll wrap up with an anecdote I know well.
My novel Vintage is the story of washed-up restaurant critic and newspaper columnist Bruno Tannenbaum who discovers the secret to a lost vintage of wine stolen by the Nazis. He sets of on a global quest to find that wine in hopes of writing a bestseller and resurrecting his career and failed marriage.
What first drew me to the character of Bruno was his bombastic voice. I originally began the novel by writing a few newspaper columns in his voice. He was a sort of Dear Abby who would fix his readers’ relationship problems with prescriptions of recipes and wine parings, using food to patch things up when love has gone awry. The conceit was that his own personal life was something of a disaster. He was separated from his wife, estranged from his children, struggling with writer’s block and was a borderline alcoholic. But boy could he write some fancy prose.
I soon found that Bruno’s boorish first-person voice was too dense, meandering and flamboyant to move the story along. I kept getting sidetracked. Or rather Bruno did. So after a filling up a few yellow legal pads with a plot that was quickly heading nowhere, I took a step back, switched to the keyboard and rewrote the entire story.
But this time I wrote it all as a screenplay.
I’d written screenplays before, personally and professionally, and I love the rigid structure of the form. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, so a typical film gets 90 to 120 pages, and that’s it. Plus the industry is in love with the three-act structure, so you’re forced to riff off of that framework, or at least begin with it. In a screenplay you can’t get lost in descriptions because directors and producers frown on thick blocks of prose. Also, long, winding, interior monologues are impossible in screenplay form. Add to that the fact that you’re forced to make your dialog crackle, and you have a whole new way of looking at a story.
So I wrote and rewrote the screenplay, plugging holes and figuring out where the plot needed to go. In the end I even thought that it might make a good movie. It still might.
But I ultimately knew that Bruno’s story belonged in prose. So I rewrote the entire thing again, but this time I used the screenplay as a sort of outline and I employed the third-person point of view. Much of Vintage is still from Bruno’s perspective, but with enough distance to keep things moving forward.
A fun side note is that I did save some of Bruno’s original first-person columns and I used them as brief chapter introductions. A number of readers told me that they loved these vignettes, some even saying that they were their favorite parts the book. And other some writer types found Bruno’s writing pompous and offensive. One journalist, who gave the book a positive review overall, confided to me: “Gosh, that Bruno is such a bad writer!”
I can definitely say that the permission to shift and leap through forms and points of view granted to me by the Steeple Chase workshops allowed me to turn the whole process of writing Vintage into one big point-of-view exercise. I doubt it would have finished the book otherwise. I certainly wouldn’t have written something publishable. And what’s more, the exploratory process made writing that book a whole lot of fun.
The Steeple Chase is a great activity for reminding us that writing should be an exercise in play and discovery. Instructor Randy Albers has this to say about it:
“If you have a very rigid idea of story, and you just try to get from A to Z, you’re not going to trust discovery. You’re going to have to muscle the movement forward. You could miss a stronger story that may be coming from the side. And it will kill the enjoyment of writing.”
As an admitted dilettante, “enjoyment” is the whole reason to write in the first place. This exercise is something that helps me maintain a playful approach that prevents writing from becoming drudgery.
So there you have it. That’s the best thing I learned in graduate school. If you haven’t yet, check out part I and part II of this series. The Steeple Chase is a fantastic exercise for stuck stories and a good way to look at narrative in a new way.
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So now that you’ve been nudged toward action by The Steeple Chase – part I, and you’ve selected your languishing narrative from a stack of moldering stories, you’re ready to pull on your boots and saddle up old Bessie and ride this equestrian metaphor over the gates or into the ground or, better yet, off into the sunset with a finished manuscript tucked in the saddlebags next to a blanket, a celebratory bottle of Meursault, a wheel of drippy-ripe Époisses and a box of assorted party crackers.
Okay, enough of that.
Before we get started, here’s a little history: Randy Albers, one of my writing professors at Columbia* recalls the provenance of the exercise. A pair of decades back, John Schultz, founder of the fiction writing program there, walked into a faculty meeting with the idea of semester-long experiment that forced writers to take an unfinished narrative through a series of twelve steps. He provided a list of the steps and left it up to the instructors to adapt as they saw fit. Randy, who liked the exercise but bristled at the notion of a twelve-step program for writers, trimmed it to eleven and rebranded the “steps” as “leaps” in to more fully embrace the horse jumping metaphor.
The idea is to take a single narrative through an obstacle course of shifts and changes, each one designed to playfully tease the story forward and infuse the writing process with a sense of discovery and surprise. This idea of writing as playing is central to the whole notion of dilettantism, which is probably why I love this exercise.
“John’s goal was to throw the students off balance and see what could shake the story. So many students are stuck in the way they think it has to be told.”
Shawn Shiflett, writing professor and author of Hey Liberal!
John was an innovator when it comes to writing instruction. The fiction program was born out of the tumult of the 60’s (John authored two books on the notorious ’68 Democratic Convention). The program’s upstart social spirit and nontraditional approach reached well into the late ’90s when I attended. Columbia still had an open admissions policy at the time, which meant that the classes were a mix of graduate students and undergrads from a broad range backgrounds. I imagine it was decidedly less stuffy than the more “selective” MFA programs of the time. It had a diverse, working class and blue-collar feel. I sat beside telephone linemen and bus drivers and kids who were, like me, the first generation in their families…often the first in their entire neighborhoods…to attend college. But I digress, as I’m wont to do. So let me just sum up by saying that this is an exercise born in an eclectic literary laboratory infused with the experimental cultural spirt of the 1960s.
Here’s how the Steeple Chase worked in the classroom.
You start off by rewriting the opening few pages of your chosen story (or a complete narrative movement excerpted from a longer work), working in the point of view and voice you’d originally imagined for the piece. Once you’re a few pages in, the instructor calls for a shift.
The first shift is a simple point-of-view shift. Switch from first person to third person or vice versa.
Instructor Shawn Shiflett, who has taught this workshop for years, says that, “finding the right point of view is 90 percent of the problem. Then the story starts to write itself.”
You may think you’ve already discovered the best point of view for your story, but what if you’re wrong? Dostoyevski wrote the first draft of Crime and Punishment in first person and he found the result disastrous, so he rewrote the entire novel in the third person. This exercise, when it works, can get you on the right track sooner.
When you make your shift, just leap into the new point of view and the voice it brings. No need for fancy transitions or tidy labels or chapter headings. Just continue the story, asking yourself “what happens next?” Write another two to three pages in the shifted point of view, and then it’s time to shift again.
Now is when the shifting gets interesting. Most instructors used a prescribed list of steps, occasionally throwing a curveball. It might look something like:
Start rewriting with the originally imagined point of view
Switch point of view (first to third or third to first)
Continue as a model-telling or how-it-happens instance **
Switch to the point of view of the least-likely character
Switch prose forms (a diary, a letter, a story within a story, a folktale)
Continue in the overall storyteller’s voice and point of view ***
Tell the story through a dialogue form (drama, screenplay, script, etc.)
Parody another author’s style
Switch to a point of view that you are now drawn to after the switches so far
Switch to a heightened, exaggerated reality: a dream, surreal, magical realism
Choose a point of view/voice for a character (or literary voice or style) that is the opposite of your own
Take whatever shift from the above list that is producing the most vivid, strongest writing, and rewrite the entire movement in that form and point of view; it’s okay to even carry multiple shifts into the rewrite
In class, we’d do a couple shifts per week. I don’t want to make things complicated, but if you do a little math, and if you’re writing 2-3 pages per shift, then you’ll wind up with 22 to 33 pages by the end of step 11. That’s a length suited to a short story. But it’s not just about a single, complete story. It’s a great way to play around with narrative in a longer work, taking an excerpt that has some kind of arc and running it through these obstacles to see what happens.
The main point of the exercise is to tease out the best way of telling the story. John Shultz wrote in Writing from Start to Finish that “There’s a right, unique variation of point-of-view for every piece of writing.” While the Steeple Chase exercise isn’t described in that book, he does provide an outline for a point-of-view exercise:
“Start a point-of-view shifts exercise by emphasizing the storyteller-essayist’s overall point-of-view, then switch to a character’s vantage point or internal point-of-view (the character who most immediately attracts your attention), then switch from first person to third person or third to first, then switch to a person whose point-of-view you would be unlikely to take (someone you would not feel sympathetic with), then to a form and point-of-view shift such as a monolog, a script, or other form that attracts your attention. Keep the narrative moving through all of these shifts.“
Shawn saw this exercise work for students in his workshops who were searching for the right point of view. “When it hits, it’s amazing,” he says. “It’s like you’re dealing with a whole different writer.” He found the “opposites” and “dream” shifts to be especially productive.
But while the exercise is grounded in point of view, that’s not all there is to it. Randy Albers insists its also about exploration. “That sense of discovery is so important in getting across to fresher language. That’s what makes writing fun. Otherwise it’s drudgery,” he says.
“We’re drawn to story by its sense of play and discovery.”
Play and fun are words that get us back to the whole point of this blog, which is that this is what creative work should be about. Being a professional is all well and good, but if there’s no sense playful discovery, then I’d argue that you’re better off approaching your work with the spirit of an amateur or a dilettante. Do the work because you love the process.
The prescribed “steps” or “leaps” of the Steeple Chase process may seem daunting, but in reality this formula just formalize what a lot of writers do already. Using a letter form is part of a long tradition of epistolary stories and novels. Point-of-view shifts were the bread and butter of Faulkner’s inventive narratives.
I just picked up Amor Towles’ bestselling novel A Gentleman in Moscow. It starts with a poem by the main character and shifts to the transcript of a tribunal before slipping into the third-person point of view, mostly from the main character’s perspective, that dominates the rest of the narrative (with healthy doses of the overall storyteller’s voice mixed in as well).
If you do this exercise, you’ll start seeing these forms and shifts in good writing everywhere. They’ll become an intuitive part of your writing and rewriting process, and you’ll find yourself taking leaps automatically, whenever you face a stalled narrative. Sometimes these shifts will encourage rewriting in a certain voice or point of view. Sometimes they’ll become part of the story themselves. And other times they’ll open up a window that you’ll decide to climb through in the spirit of discovery, taking the narrative in a direction you never would have imagined otherwise.
In part III of this series, posting in a week or two, I’ll go into some techniques for adapting this classroom exercise to your own process, and I’ll give a few examples for how it’s worked for me over the years.
* When I refer to “Columbia,” I mean Columbia College Chicago. Folks from outside the Windy City always, for some reason, assume that I’m referring to a certain other Columbia back east when I fail to use the full name. That is also a fine institution.
** A description of the model-telling form could occupy an entire series of posts, but here’s an attempt at a short summary. In Writing from Start to Finish, John Schultz writes that, “the model-telling is an image or narrative of the pattern of how something usually happens.” It establishes a, “pattern of repeated experience.” They often use present tense and second person (On Tuesdays you visit the pier with Granny…) but not always. It often uses the conditional, or “would” (Every Tuesday, Victor would slip thorough the gap in the fence…). Model-tellings establish a pattern, and when such patterns are broken, that’s when stories often happen.
*** The concept of the overall storyteller point of view could likewise occupy volumes, but think of this as the high-level narrator’s voice, the omniscient point of view that can slip deftly from one character to the other, can offer outside perspective and that can tie a story into the historical context that’s happening around the narrative. It’s not exactly the author’s voice, but it can have the author’s voice backed into it. It’s more Toni Morrison than Raymond Carver.
**** I had to refresh my basic grammar to keep my first-person point of view from my point-of-view shifts to first person. But the basic Chicago Manual of Style rules for hyphenation say that when point of view or first person are nouns, no hyphens needed, but when they’re working together as adjectives, hyphenate those suckers.
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I’m going to share the best thing I learned in graduate school. It’s an exercise called the Steeple Chase and and it’s tailor-made for dilettantes. It’s a literary tactic to jumpstart a stalled narrative, and all it requires is the capricious attention span that is the hallmark of amateurs everywhere and a penchant for dabbling in different literary forms.
There’s a debate that’s been raging for quite some time on the efficacy of MFA programs. Some people think they’re a powerful force for shaping the future of the literary tradition and others think they’re a massive waste of money. I feel good about my MFA experience. It did cost about as much as a luxury car, but I also wrote a whole lot, figured a few things out and made some friends and mentors who I’m still in touch with twenty years later. Even luxury cars don’t last that long. I don’t think I would have published my novel Vintagewithout the things I learned in grad school, this exercise in particular.
But that being said you certainly don’t have to attend an MFA program to be a successful writer. Most of the best writers I know don’t have advanced writing degrees, and some of the MFA grads I’ve met regret their time in academia, where certain genres were eschewed and some workshops encourage nasty competition by design. So it’s a personal choice. But no matter your preference, you can use this exercise…all for free! (Though you could join my email list if you’re feeling grateful.)
I first experienced the Steeple Chase exercise as a semester-long activity that was the foundation of the advanced fiction workshops I took at Columbia College Chicago. I had the good fortune of going through the process there with the late, legendary Betty Shiflett that sly and brilliant story wizard who seemed to have the ability to trick you into becoming a better writer despite your myriad flaws and inhibitions. But I’ve since learned that there’s no magic involved, just a lot of work and some practical processes that build your fundamental storytelling skills, and the Steeple Chase is precisely such a process.
I’ve since adapted the Steeple Chase to my own process and I tend to do it naturally now, without even thinking about it. I’m going to offer some suggestions for how you can do this as a solo activity to reanimate your own stalled narratives, and I’m even going to throw in a fancy set of official Dilettante playing cards to help out. But we’ll get to that soon enough.
The Steeple Chase is an exercise that solves literary problems. It gets you unstuck from sticky story situations and it breathes fresh air into stale narratives. This will be a three-part series of posts, and next I’ll be giving you an overview of how it works in a classroom setting, along with some context and history from instructors who use this exercise in their workshops. Then finally I’ll give you some idea on how the process has evolved for me once I left those workshops behind. After all, most of us who tack toward the dilettante end of the artistic spectrum are working solo in the margins of our days and lives.
The Steeple Chase principles can be applied to the film world and also to the visual arts, and I’ve also found that the concepts help me in my documentary work as well. And I’ll address those things in posts down the road. But for now I’ll be concentrating mostly on writing.
So let’s get started.
Has this ever happened to you:
You’re writing a story, novel or screenplay. It’s long or short. But it started with an image or idea that hits you like a lightning. You’re smitten as the fragment blossomed into a full-fledged narrative. This is it…the one you’d been waiting for all of your life! You can’t wait to write it. You scribble notes on index cards. You stop in the middle of a crosswalk to email yourself ideas. You steal minutes away from your lover, children, day job or all of the above to scribble in a notebook. You wake up early, stay up late or arise in the middle of the night to pin sticky notes to your monitor. It’s going great. Magnificent. Brilliantly.
But then, all of a sudden…
You wake up one morning and this idea, this incipient narrative that was one so compelling is a deflated, lifeless, unorganized holy mess of cliches and insipid prose. You can’t remember what was once so compelling about it. Eventually, you stick it in a drawer or drag it into a folder way down in the bowls of your computer where it will languish and eventually fade into memory.
Sound familiar? If this has ever happened to a project of yours, it’s time to dust that sucker off and prepare put it through its equestrian paces. That failed work, that imploded narrative, that lost literary soul…that’s the story you need for a proper Steeple Chase exercise.
One of the big secrets of writing that I eventually learned long after graduate school is that every story is like this. Every project eventually feels dead and lifeless. Writing has a truly tidal movement, swinging from breathless inspiration to a churning slog. A Steeple Chase is just a formalized way of braking through this routine problem. But for now, when selecting a work to run through this exercise, don’t automatically go for your current project, stalled though it may be…look for something that is completely stuck, a story or section of a novel on which you’ve already given up hope.
Anything come to mind?
If so, buckle up and scoot your chair up to the old Remington Rand and get ready to ride that sucker over the gates or puddles or stone walls, or whatever it is that those equestrians in this metaphor actually do in their high boots and funny little hats.
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Over the course of this project I will dig into the details of dilettantism and how useful it is for artists. Much like the word amateur, there’s a certain pejorative quality to the word dilettante. Dilettantism is often dismissed as the mere dabbling of someone not economically dependent on their creative work, or someone who is not that serious about it. I would argue that a breezy or playful quality is, in itself, a useful approach for anyone tackling creative arts. Creative types can be far too serious for their own good, and most of this is just due to an overactive ego. It was Jim Harrison who once said that “writers as a type tend to suffer greatly, but then so do miners.”
So enter dilettantism, an antidote to the cliche of the suffering artist. Let’s take a look at the definition and then break it down into three key elements:
The act of behaving like a dilettante, of being an amateur or “dabbler”, sometimes in the arts. Also the act of enjoying the arts, being a connoisseur.
Certain words from this definition jump out at me: dabbler, enjoying, connoisseur. These are all good things. These are all things you would do for reasons other than money. They are playful. They’re fun.
And I would argue that the creative process should be playful. It should be enjoyable. Otherwise, why in the hell do it? You may daydream of being a professional writer or artist who derives a fabulous income…or at least enough money to eke out a living…from your creative work. We all do at times, but the economics of the artistic pursuits are absolutely brutal. I’ll dig into articles and surveys like this one soon enough when I start talking more about the money. But the upshot is that the odds are against your making much money from your creative work, and much of this is due not to your talent or work ethic, but due to factors that are largely out of your control.
So if you take the money out of the equation, why do it? Why pursue something that’s as incredibly difficult as crafting an intricate story out of 100,000 painstakingly typed words that you rearrange in draft after draft or spending hours brushing pigments onto a canvas in an attempt to manufacture a pleasing or challenging image when it’s so much simpler to make a photo with your phone and slap a filter on it?
Any creative person will tell you that you make stuff because you have to. You don’t have a choice. It’s a faucet you can’t turn off. I know any number of writer-types who’ve worked for decades without publishing anything, hacking away at some project while swearing the whole time that they’re going to quit, and soon. I’ve done it myself.
But we don’t quit, do we?
Why is that? It’s because it’s fun. We may pretend to be serious. We may treat our writing or art as therapy that deals with massive, important or painful subjects. But in the end it is fun. It is endlessly satisfying to fill a blank page with words arranged in an order as they’ve never been before because they have our own personal stamp on them. The sound of dragging a pencil across vellum is like music. Music is, well, like music. Sitting alone in your room with a guitar and stumbling upon a new combination of notes that grabs you by the collar and shakes you is tremendously satisfying.
Creativity is fun. that’s why kids do it. But somewhere along the way we grow up and begin to believe that only things that have a price tag on them are worth anything. We forget that making art is fun. And that’s something that the dilettante, the dabbler freed from economic necessity, understands well.
In the definition of dilettantism the word arts is plural for a reason. And that is a key to unlocking creative potential. We tend to categorize ourselves into groups. There are filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, writers, and each of these categorize can be broken down into smaller groups: documentarians, narrative filmmakers, poets, novelists, painters, printmakers and so on.
But too much specialization can a bad thing. Eric Barker lays this out nicely in a recent blog post about the perils of too much specialization in young children. Here he quotes from the book Range:
“Scientists and members of the general public are about equally likely to have artistic hobbies, but scientists inducted into the highest national academies are much more likely to have avocations outside of their vocation.”
David Epstein, Range
While this applies to scientists, I think it can also impact artists who focus their creative pursuits too narrowly. Having avocations makes you better at everything you do.
Sure you want to focus on your chosen craft. But I believe in arts in the plural. Historically we didn’t have this problem of hyper specialization. Many of the early botanists or explorers were exquisite painters, sketchers, writers or all of the above. Alexander Von Humboldt, that brilliant proto-scientist and famous dilettante who discovered the concept of climate change in the 1700s was also a bestselling author of his day. And his work was meticulously illustrated. His fans read him as breathlessly as Dickens.
One skill can feed another. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic, her treatise on creativity, tells the story of how her dabbling in gardening led to the plot of her sweeping novel The Signature of All Things. Had she considered herself too serious of an artist to waste time on a pursuit for which she had little predisposition or talent…namely gardening…the book would not have happened.
Werner Herzog famously says (ad nauseam) that filmmakers should, and I quote, “read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read…if you don’t read you’ll never be filmmaker.” Notice, he doesn’t say anything about cameras.
Specialization is dangerous. It leads to things like repetitive motion stress injuries and just making you a narrow person who’s not so fun to talk to.
Dabbling in other disciplines, especially those for which you’ve developed less talent, can also increase your capacity for awe at the talent of others who are masters of that craft. Which leads me to the next area of interest when it comes to dilettantism:
I’d like to highlight one more word in the definition of dilettantism: connoisseur. I think all too many of us who consider ourselves writers, filmmakers and artists get so wrapped up in our own work and projects that we forget to love the medium itself. A true dilettante spends as much (or more) time enjoying the arts as she does in creating them. I’ve gone years without reading more than a few books and all the while I was working my day gig to pay the bills and hacking away at novels that I hoped would change the world (or at least guild my paltry checking account).
I once stumbled across President Obama’s annual reading list on social media and I thought that if the busiest person in the world could find time for books, then I should be able to as well. That was, of course, back when we lived in an alternate universe where we liked presidents who were busy, who read things and who thought deeply. I’ve always had trouble taking people who don’t read seriously, and then in my hypocrisy I realized that I had all but stopped reading seriously myself.
So I set an annual book target and upped my daily page count, and suddenly I found that I was not only able to keep up with my creative work, but I was also becoming a more productive and better at it. I now try to read the classics I’ve missed, pick up new page-turners and beach reads or dig into voices that are different from my own: anything I can get my hands on, basically. Reading aggressively and enjoying the process is making me better at what I do, both in my creative work and on my day job.
Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art.
And the same goes for dabbling in the other arts. I try to watch films as a fan, not just as a critic or someone eyeing the competition. Whenever I can I stop in art galleries and museums. I sketch landscapes (albeit poorly) and all around work at being a fan of other people’s work. If you’re not a connoisseur of your chosen creative discipline (and the other creative pursuits that circle around it like satellites), you’ll lose your edge.
The unencumbered bliss of merely being a fan is something we can lose if we become too serious about our work. Ego and money can become barriers to the joy and excitement that we felt when we first started to pursue or art. And embracing dilettantism is a perfect antidote to those narrowing forces.
Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive a note every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic is a breezy, spiritual homage to creativity that is filled with advice you already know (but is worth hearing again) plus a few enjoyably eccentric notions on how creativity works.
Max Joseph’s fun short doc about bookstores offers some advice on increasing your page count and generally celebrates falling in love with books again.
If you’re interested reading more on the dilettantism vs specialization debate, Eric Barker read David Epstein’s book Range so that you don’t have to, and sums it up nicely in this post.
I’m a writer and a filmmaker. I can say that now without visibly cringing and with only a minor internal flareup of the old imposter syndrome. Because, like many who devote a major chunk of their existence to the creative pursuits, I’ve always wondered what makes a real artist. Somehow along the way, maybe because of the social pressure of living in a capitalist society or even just a working class sense of pragmatism, I arrived at the notion that realartists are those who earn enough money to at least pay the mortgage, groceries and health insurance through their work.
I’ve earned a bit of money for my creative work over the years, but not nearly enough to pay more than a month or two of the rent, and that doesn’t include the water bill and tucking anything away for the kiddo’s college fund. I once spent an advance check on a family vacation. I used the money left over after selling a screenplay option (and after legal fees) to buy a video camera. But I’ve never paid my bills with my art. Does that make me a fraud?
This bothered me for a long time. Even after a few publications, awards, film festivals and international distribution for some of my films, this sense that I was not as serious about my work as real artists would not go away. After all, I still have a day job as a media producer. It’s creative work that I even enjoy most days. But for some reason, I always suspected that my personal work was just some quaint hobby. I feared that people wouldn’t think I was serious. Or worse yet, I was a “dabbler” or its slightly more elegant French counterpart: the “dilettante.”
“This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s actually the ideal.”
I eventually learned that all those writers whom I so admired as they were paraded across the stage on book tours or in my MFA program mostly had day jobs, too (that that they rarely, if ever, spoke about), primarily teaching. I learned that the author bios on most novels are selectively edited: “Abigail is a copyeditor who lives on a farm in New England with her husband, children and three lamas and she drives forty minutes round trip to the office in New Haven where she spends most of her day editing a medical journal after waking at four a.m. to get some of her creative work finished before getting the kids ready for school.”
The more artists, writers and filmmakers I’ve met, the more examples I have collected of people doing amazing creative work in the margins of their lives, and the more it has challenged the self-imposed notion that amateurism is an inferior form of creativity. I’ve even interviewed several accomplished, full-time artists, musicians and writers who achieved the all the financial and critical success you could hope for, and then promptly plunged into other creative disciplines to start from scratch. There’s the Emmy winning musician who started painting, a romance novelist who went into politics or a poet laureate who starts doing watercolors. Specialization is indeed dull when compared with the freedom to dabble in whatever calls you at that moment.
This has all made me realize that being an amateur or a dilettante is not a lesser form of creativity, passion or talent…it’s the ideal. If you look up the word amateur, you’ll find the word passion in the definition. The same is not true of the word professional. Do artists and writers with day jobs, on the main, possess any less talented than the bestsellers interviewed by Terry Gross? Not in any way that I can see. I’ve met a lot of other filmmakers at festivals who shoot weddings to pay rent or do corporate work as their bread and butter. I learned that the Maysels Brothers, who created some of the greatest documentary films of American direct cinema movement, ran a business making “industrials” to pay the bills for the entirety of their filmmaking careers.
“I’ve become less impressed by how muchmoney a very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.”
I’ve tried to stop sweating the definitions of amateur and professional. I’ve tried to eliminate the fear of being labeled a dilettante and instead embrace the idea. I’ve done a lot of research, read books on creativity, interviewed artists and writers, both unknown and world famous, and I’ve come to understand that economics are a poor judge of talent, and that the systems established to monetize the creative arts–galleries, Hollywood, the publishing industry–are uneven, imperfect, random (though hardly malign or evil) and certainly not the best arbiters of creative merit.
With this blog I hope to dive into all of these issues: what makes an artist, how does the money work, where do you find creative energy, how to focus on your own process rather than judging yourself or others, what is the definition of success, how do you balance your creative work with your day job and can you (or should you) make them one in the same? Because the vast majority of artists in this world deal with these issues every day, some better than others. This is my attempt to flip the script as I find that I’ve become less impressed by how much moneya very few artists make from their work than I am by how littlemost of them make while still continuing to pursue their craft with passion.
After putting my stake in the ground at the age of eight with the fearlessness of a child and declaring myself a writer, promptly scribbling a knockoff of the first seven pages of The Hobbit with a fat pencil, and then working diligently on the craft for the next thirty-some odd years with only occasional recognition through publication and infrequent remuneration before finally publishing something with one of the “big five,” I still, like many artists, don’t quite feel like I’ve earned that title. But this blog is my ongoing effort to convince myself (and maybe a few others) that I have.
Thanks for reading. You can help out the blog by signing up for my free email list to receive an email every month (or so) with summaries of the latest posts, links and other helpful stuff for dilettantes.
I expected to travel to Bangladesh to portray stories of climate victims. I expected to see a graphic illustration of a nation that is dealing with climate change problems that they had no hand in creating. I expected to see frustration and maybe even righteous fury. But instead, I found hope, grit and determination.
When I visited recently with co-director/producer Justin Smith as we shot footage for our Second Warning film project, we did see poor people. We did meet climate refugees. But they’re certainly not victims. And while they may be frustrated that their country is on the front lines of climate change, their frustration with the developed world is overshadowed by their optimistic determination not just to survive, but to thrive.
Bangladeshis refer with affection to their country’s natural resources. They’re a “riverine country,” home to hundreds of major rivers and the world’s largest river delta. They’re also home to the world’s largest mangrove forest and the longest stretch of natural beach on earth. But all these geographic features belie the fact that the whole country lies only a few meters above sea level. It’s also the most densely populated place on earth. So with sea-level rise, unpredictable river flow due to dams and glacial meltwater in the Himalayas, storms of increasing frequency and ferocity, they’re ground zero for dealing with the impacts of climate change and access to fresh water. It’s a country with a massive population wedged into a land mass the size of Iowa. While they might have a wealth of resources, they have to slice these assets very thinly to share them with their 180 million fellow citizens.
During our trip to film some of these phenomena for the documentary, we didn’t find a passive people waiting for outside help. They’ve been busy in recent decades. Once plagued by cyclones that left hundreds of thousands dead in past decades, they’ve now have a warning system that’s the envy of the world. Despite millions being in the path of storms, the climate change-intensified events today result only dozens of casualties, not thousands. One researcher pointed out to us that the United States is much more poorly prepared for climate change-fueled storms, as evidenced by the tragic casualties of Katrina, not to mention more recently in Puerto Rico, Florida and North Carolina.
It’s true that refugees are forced out of the southern parts of Bangladesh by the elements. But when they leave, they head to crowded Dhaka, where the slums aren’t just warehouses of misery, but stopover points with intact family and community networks designed to foster those determined to lift themselves out of poverty. Many fail. Many just barely eke out a living. But others claw their way forward. Gritty concrete high rise buildings sprout out of the surrounding Dhaka streets like nematodes rising out of the mud of the tidal Sundarbans forests of the south. The ragged tops are covered with fingers of rebar indicating the intention to build more floors, showing that Bangladesh is a work in progress.
This work features the fastest growing economy in Asia. And many are determined to ensure that their growth remains sustainable. They don’t aspire to become a climate change contributing nation. But the choking smog of the world’s most densely populated major city indicates that they have their work cut out for them.
One researcher told us that the country’s massive population isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength. The human potential is astounding. People are poor. I saw sights of misery. But they’re also young and well connected. The cell phone coverage is much better than back home in Oregon. And in truth, I’ve also seen plenty of misery, poverty, homelessness and hopelessness at home. And what’s missing from my own country is the infections sense of resilience and optimism that you find in Bangladesh coupled with its legendary hospitality. Oh, and the food on the sub-continent is superior, too. In so many categories, Bangladesh has an edge.
So there is much hope here. Saleemul Huq, a member of the IPCC and a leading climate scientist based in Dhaka, told us that Bangladesh is going to be an exporter of resilience in the face of the new realities of climate change. Today you can’t turn around without bumping into a multinational NGO determined to save Bangladeshis. We all seem to think that they need our help. And in truth, if we do our part to curb our addiction to fossil fuels, it could mean a lot less misery for this country. But someday soon they are the ones who will be teaching the rest of the world how to survive the new realities of a warming planet.
Do films actually matter? I spend a lot of time wringing my hands over this question, especially since I’ve committed so much of my life to making them. We all want to know that our work has meaning. A recent trip to Colombia to screen Saving Atlantis around South America’s northernmost country put this question to the test.
We filmed portions of Saving Atlantis, our documentary about the decline of the world’s coral reefs and the people fighting to save them, in Colombia in 2016. The scenes we shot there focused on a reef called Varadero, which is unusual in that it exists in cloudy water near Cartagena Bay, a place where few scientists expected to find a flourishing reef. But soon after discovering this reef, it was threatened by the dredging of a new shipping channel.
The goal of our return trip to Colombia was simple: show the film in five locations in seven days across the country, ranging from the massive capital city to tiny island villages, and to spread the word about the fate of the world’s corals and of Varadero in particular.
Could our feature documentary…a passion project pulled together by a ragtag team over the course of four years working on the fringes of our day jobs and personal lives…make an impact in a country half a world away?
Michael Shannon is an actor known for his talent for playing complex and often malevolent characters, so it was interesting to consider his response when he was asked in a Playboy interview if he would ever want to play current global arch-villain Donald Trump.
Of course Shannon exploded… [ Read the whole thing on Medium ]
“I’m going to Chicago. I’ve never been there before…”
I sometimes overhear this phrase, and it flips a switch in me that unleashes a flood of nostalgia and engages my instinct to offer my unsolicited opinions to the prospective visitor in florid detail. Incidentally this is the very same instinct that has rendered me a writer and filmmaker and general producer of unsolicited content of all stripes, which is another story altogether.
But as a native of the region, Chicago’s downtown, that crosshatch of stone, steel and glass canyons on the shore of the magnificent inland sea known as Lake Michigan always sets my heart atwitter and my stomach to rumbling. Washington Irving once wrote that we are defined by the geography of our youth. For him it was the mighty Hudson River. But for me, it was that vast, featureless plain of prairie country and the human geography, the home of the skyscraper, that captured my imagination. I eventually moved west, seeking real mountains, and as stunning as I find the volcanoes of Oregon’s Cascade Range today, there’s still a piece of me that can’t help but marvel at the manmade mountains built so audaciously on the swamps at the edge of that greatest of the world’s sweetwater seas.
I’ve typed up a novelistic advisory email on how a prospective visitor should spend a few days in Chicago so many times that it seems more efficient to finally memorialize that information in a blog post. So here you have it, your thumbnail guide to a weekend in the Windy City. So enjoy your time in one of the greatest, food, sports and cultural cities on the planet, and my sweet home, Chicago.
Any visitor to Chicago is required to sample the signature dish. You may think of New York or Napoli when it comes to pizza, and that’s fine, but what Chicago produces is several styles of actual pizza, which is a different thing altogether. It’s closer to a religious experience than it is a meal. Below are the establishments where you can sample examples from each of the major classifications of Chicago pizza.
1) Deep Dish at Gino’s – Cheese on bottom, sauce on top. An entire layer of Italian sausage in the middle. Gino’s is the original of the “deep dish” style. Some people prefer Lou Malnati’s. Giordano’s is fine, but only if you’re in a pinch. If you only try one style of pizza on your visit, this is it.
2) Aurelio’s – This style of pizza is driven by the soft crust and the sauce. It’s also smothered by a continuous layer of cheese…sheets of it, not shredded, baked until it’s golden brown and pitted with pools of pure cheese oil. This is my preferred variety. It’s known for its suburban locations, where it originated in the outer ring in the 1950s and is typical of the style now served all over in the suburbs. I believe it’s also the nation’s very first pizza chain. The Homewood location in the South ‘burbs is worth a pilgrimage by train for the true pizza aficionado, but there are locations downtown as well.
3) Home Run Inn – This style features a flakey crust and lots of Italian sausage. This is a classic North Side style where the sauce plays a lesser role to the textures of the other ingredients. Its legacy is tied closely to the Cubs and the legendary ballpark of the formerly hapless team, though now recent champions.
4) Vito and Nick’s – This variety has an intense sauce and a very thin cracker crust cut into squares. It’s the polar opposite of the deep dish and very typical of the South Side style. Calvin Trillin, food writer of the New Yorker rated it best in the country, and indeed it hearkens back to the early days of American pizza. Old timers will find themselves reminiscing about pies shared with high school sweethearts, and it’s not just because of the Old Style on tap and the shag carpet on the walls. It’s like stepping back into the 1960s.
Try the Italian beef combo (or just a regular Italian beef). This sandwich is a pure celebration of meat. Served with thin slices of marinated roast beef and giardiniera peppers and smothered in the spicy au jus, it’s what a humble “French dip” sandwich dreams of becoming when it grows up. Add some mozzarella and insert an entire butterflied, grilled Italian sausage for the “combo” experience and you’ll experience life as a true Pleistocene carnivore. The Maxwell Street Polish sausage harkens back to the flea market days of the near West side and features grilled onions. The Chicago style hot dog takes a humble Vienna sausage to its pinnacle by the addition of a poppyseed bun, sport peppers, hot mustard and a garden’s worth of vegetables.
Laschett’s is a hole-in-the-wall German restaurant. There used to be a million just like it, but they’re mostly gone. Lincoln Park was primarily German speaking until the 1970s. They had their own Chicago newspaper printed entirely in German (the publisher ran for Mayor in the 1800s but lost) and even the public schools taught the German language first. Now, most of the Germans have assimilated. There’s also a decent German deli a few blocks away called Gene’s plus a few German shops. Anyway, the food is solid and cheap and the whole place is typical of a bygone immigrant era that most tourists won’t ever see.
Things to See
Chicago’s architecture is one of the greatest, most audacious feats of human endeavor. Marvel at the Taj Mahal or Notre Dame Cathedral if you’d like, but nothing compares to the landscape that Lewis Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and Mies Van Der Rohe crafted out of stone and steel on a swamp at the edge of the great lake. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s (and women’s) blood,” Burnham famously said, and if your breath isn’t stolen by a glimpse of the magnificent mile and the museum complex, this edifice of magnificent buildings at the edge of the great, blue expanse, then you lack the proper capacity for awe.
True, awful glass structures dominate today’s skyline (including the Trump monstrosity, complete with the asshole’s name gaudily slapped on the outside) but if you look between the seams you can find the real glory of Chicago’s grand history of classic sckyscrapers.
And here are some other sights you shouldn’t miss –
Museum of Science and Industry (only building still remaining from the White City world’s fair) – on the South Side in Hyde Park.
The silver bean/Grant Park – Walking the lakefront and looping back through the museum campus park is pretty amazing.
Navy Pier – Kind of touristy, but the Ferris wheel is definitely worth it for the views.
Hancock Building – this is the coolest example of modern skyscrapers. None of this blah glassy garbage they build now…it’s graceful and elegant and special when you look up from below. Go to the 95th floor Signature Lounge for an overpriced drink or two, and you get the views without the hassle of the Sears Tower observation deck and it’ll wind up being cheaper. I like the views at night, seeing the grid of the city stretch out, and best of all the Sears Tower is in the view. And the best view is from the women’s restroom…or so I’m told.
Garfield Park Conservatory – Cool 18th century building. Indoor botanical garden. Nice place to spend indoor time if the weather sucks. Neighborhood is rough and tumble, but the Conservatory is an amazing building.
Museum of Contemporary Art – Right near Gino’s! Great museum and not too pricy.
The Chicago Water Taxi is a cheap way to cruise the river. At 10 bucks for an all-day pass you can plan some boat trips into your walking tour and get a river view of the buildings.
Of course there’s so much more to see. You could spend weeks exploring and not even begin to scratch the surface. But this will make for a great start to exploring the Windy City.
The suburb of Oak Park is right off the Green El line. It has an amazing cluster of Frank Lloyd Wright houses and buildings. You can do a walking tour of the neighborhood and see most of them. His home and studio is well worth the full tour. If you’re into literature, Hemingway’s home and birthplace is here, too.
The Green Mill is a classic, seedy jazz club on the North Side.
Here are a few books you can read on the plane to get a little flavor of the city before you land.
Chicago by Brian Doyle – A Portlander got it right in this nostalgic and magic recreation of his life on Chicago’s North Side in the 1970s.
Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen – Follows Daniel Burnham’s audacious quest to create a World’s Fair in Chicago that could outshine the legendary Paris exhibition, launching the new era of modernity, told in parallel with the story of that other modern creation, the serial murder. Fascinating, inspiring and horrifying all at once.
So Big by Edna Ferber – The author of such classics as Giant and Showboat offers glimpse into Chicago’s rural past. This book captures the city and its architecture right at the moment where it grew from a prairie town into a world-class city.
Native Son – Richard Wright’s classic novel of race, poverty and crime is set in a divided Chicago of the 1930s, remaining as heartbreakingly real today as it was seventy-five years ago.
Douglas County, Oregon has been scraped and burned and riddled with bullets. It green and lovely and economically struggling and scrappy and rich with rivers and forests and angry and hopeful. It’s timber country and salmon country and covered with old growth and clearcuts, a patchwork of contrasts.
We were invited to screen our documentary on coral reef decline, Saving Atlantis, in Roseburg, the county seat and metropolitan capitol (pop. 20,000) in this sprawling and wild county that stretches from the rugged Oregon coast in the west to the needle-like spire of Mt. Thielsen on the crest of the Cascade Range to the east. Part of the deal when you make a film is traveling to support it. It’s easy to get burned out and write off screenings in smaller towns. But every audience you can pull together is a step forward. It’s why you made the thing in the first place. And having a filmmaker present at each screening increases the impact and adds media opportunities, extends the reach. This is all especially vital with films about critical issues like Saving Atlantis.
I’ve done screenings and readings for my various film and book projects over the years and you never know what you’re going to get. It’s always awkward. I don’t like being the center of attention, which is strange because isn’t it the ego that drives us to create these things in the first place? I once did a reading in Napa for my novel Vintage and only one person showed up. The manager of the book store felt bad and invited me across the street for a bottle of wine. It was expensive and we split the cost. For our hometown screening of Saving Atlantis, a thousand people showed up. I figured Roseburg had to fall somewhere in between.
I decided to be the one to attend the Douglas County screening to represent the film. Co-director Justin Smith sometimes goes, or our co-producers Darryl Lai and Daniel Cespedes. Sometimes it’s our film’s subjects, Dr. Rebecca Vega Thurber or her PhD student Ryan McMinds. But I like small towns and rugged country so I volunteered to go to this time. Plus there are a number of trout streams down there that I hadn’t fished yet, so it would give me an excuse to set up camp next to the Little River and see what its waters had to offer.
We had been invited down by a fellow named Stuart, who called our office one afternoon on behalf of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. I had never heard of Stuart’s organization: indeed, I wouldn’t have suspected that it existed. Douglas County isn’t known as a hotbed of progressive grassroots organization. So this struck me as an opportunity. When Justin and I first started planning Saving Atlantis, our goal was to get a hypothetical farmer in landlocked Kansas to care about the plight of coral reefs, a threatened marine ecosystem thousands of miles away. We hoped that our imaginary farmer might even be willing to change his behavior to help them. Our strategy was to turn the focus to the ecosystem services that reefs provide to humans and show the plight of people and communities that depend on them. Douglas County, Oregon isn’t Kansas, but from a political standpoint it may as well be. So this would be a good test case.
I drove down and met Stuart, who turned out to be something of a character. With thick glasses, an unruly beard and a tee shirt that said something about UFOs, he seemed the idea eccentric figure to take on the cause of climate change in a notoriously conservative county. This is timber country. It’s the place where you expect to find jacked-up monster pickup trucks tweaked to burn more gas than necessary, the local youth spending their precious money specifically as a giant “fuck you” to environmentalists. A generation ago you would have seen lots of “Save a Logger, Eat a Spotted Owl” bumper stickers. Douglas County’s latest conservative effort was voting down funding for their local libraries in an act of self-destructive, anti-tax zealotry. It’s amazing how politicians can whip up a frenzy to get people to vote against their own self-interests and take on self-destructive acts, like depleting their local forest resources for the primary benefit largely of multinational companies, paying way too much for gas and directly harming the fish that are a point of local pride or shuttering cultural institutions like their very town libraries. But this right-wing movement politics is gospel here. So I thought it might be a tough place to draw a crowd for a science documentary about the impacts of climate change on ecosystems on the far side of the globe.
The board of the coalition, lovely people who offered counterpoint to the assumptions I had about Douglas County, showing the citizenry is much more diverse in thought and belief than you expect. They offered to take me out to dinner with the group, which was made up mostly of retirees who’d worked as teachers at the high school or the local community college, plus former scientists from the local forest service offices. I was offered a ride (in a Prius, of course) to the local Thai restaurant. The food was excellent. It blows my mind how you can find good food almost anywhere these days, largely thanks to immigrants. Even in Douglas County.
One of the board members told me over dinner, “you’re in the belly of the beast, now,” a reference to the fact that Douglas County might just be ground zero for climate change denial. This despite the fact that the region’s totem species, the salmonids, have been on the decline for years. The waters in the local streams are getting to warm to support anadromous fish. Anadromous is a fancy way of saying these fish spend part of their lives in the ocean and then swim back up their home rivers rivers to spawn at different points of their lives. It’s one of the more epic journeys in nature. And it’s happening right in Roseburg’s back yard. In so many ways, what was happening to salmonids in Douglas County is analogous to corals.
With dinner out of the way, the Board threw open the doors to the auditorium which was at the local Extension office in an old church. They served cookies and lemonade. About thirty people showed for the screening. I’m not sure if the experience convinced any lumberjacks or timber cruisers to take action on behalf of climate change. But it felt good to show the film there. We had audiences of 300 and 1,000 in Corvallis and Portland, decidedly liberal towns. Preaching to the choir. I figured 30 people in Roseburg had to have a proportional reach in the community.
But I was also heartened by the basic fact that Douglas County even has a global warming coalition. They’re a ragtag collection, to be sure. But it makes me think of the motley group of rebels from Star Wars, the allegorical fable that defined my childhood. An old man, a stubborn kid, a smuggler, a Sasquatch two robots and a princess, and they took on the Evil Empire. And they even won, depending on the episode. The coalition members in Douglas County also have a grand vision. They want to help reverse climate change, a global problem. Locally, they’re working on protecting thousands of acres of local watersheds for the dwindling salmonids and all the other species that depend on them. The forests in this region contain the headwaters for the Deschutes, Klamath, Umpqua and Rogue, some of the most legendary trout and salmon rivers in the world. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, this motley collection of rebels is our only hope. So hats off to ragtag groups of activists, misfits and rabble rousers like the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition. They’re on the front lines, fighting to win hearts and minds deep inside troubled territory. They exude a certain stubborn energy that we all need in times like these.
The next day I screened the film at Umpqua Community College in a 100-level science class, an event that had also been arranged by the coalition members. That was the first time I’d been on that campus, and when I arrived, I couldn’t help but think about the gun violence that took the lives of students and faculty in an English class there three years ago. Then while I was waiting for the students to show up for the start film, I made the mistake of checking news on my phone. Another shooting had just taken place at a Texas high school that very morning. I was suddenly demoralized. It struck me as an absurdity, given everything going on in the world today, to screen Saving Atlantis in front of one small group at a time and trying to build momentum around a movement to protect coral reefs seemed pointless. This community was struggling economically and also trying to recover from a horrible act of violence. They had other problems greater and more pressing than trying to understand and protect tropical reefs. What was I even doing there?
On top of all that, the projector and sound in the classroom was less than ideal. We’d mixed the film for large theaters, and here we were using available electronics. The film would project much less epic than it actually was. I was sure it would flop.
But the screening still seemed effective. The students watched film attentively and followed up with good questions. It was a science class for mostly non-science majors. One of the students wanted to be a journalist. Another, a marine biologist. Their thoughtful questions and their careful attention gave me hope as well. The future will be in their hands. Maybe one of those students would take up the cause, carry it forward.
After the community college screening I returned to my campsite heartened. I pulled out my tenkara rod and caught a half dozen little cutthroat trout that afternoon. There may be fewer salmonids than before. But for the time being they’re still running the Little River. When you hold a trout in your hand and release the hook, it’s a sort of magic feeling. The fish hold still at just the right moment, as if they know you’re about to set them free…a brief instant of trust. Their fate is in your hands, and they seem to understand this. A trout feels slippery and cold, but also vibrant and alive and thrumming with energy. Trout, like corals, will die if the water gets too warm. And the core issues that threatens both species, as well as our own, is exactly the same: our relentless consumption of fossil fuels, the pollution and nutrients we put in the water, development of land around their habitats and overfishing.
It’s probably not fair to call Douglas County, “the belly of the beast.” There’s a lot of talk about red and blue states and counties. But there are always people on both sides of every issue. And there are good people on all sides who value the right things. I still believe that reaching people with a story can bring folks together and make people care about the future of this world we’re leaving to our kids. You can only do what you can do, and for me that’s making films and showing them to people and then talking about them afterward. And maybe it’s selfish, but I win some hope for myself from people like the members of the Douglas County Global Warming Coalition and the students who are still doing their best at UCC even on the heels of tragedy. And it brings me a moment of serenity to discover that scrappy little cutthroat trout still hide in the cool pools and riffles on the warming rivers of Douglas County.
The old saw is that modern art is as absurd as it is easy. It’s a “racket” as your bitter and often intoxicated Uncle Lloyd might say, if not a certain president. The system is rigged, it seems, if random bottles dangling from a string or a blank white canvas is considered fine art.
“I’ll paint me a circle like that and make a million dollars.”
Of course, embedded in that statement of ignorance is the larger absurdity, the notion that artists make millions of dollars. Some of them may, but most teach or work dull gigs for health insurance.
Such anti-intellectualism, to an extent, is instinctual. I’ll admit to being skeptical about modern art, which is probably why I don’t recall ever visiting a modern art museum before now. This despite having a fine arts degree myself, fashioning myself as a person who reads Thoreau and Joyce for pleasure, and being a filmmaker and aficionado of foreign cinema. Under the hood I’m only a hair less reactionary than old Uncle Lloyd.
On a recent trip to Chicago, though, I was granted my first modern art museum experience. We went there with the family. It was a the brain child of my daughter, whose primary ambition (at fourteen) wasn’t to revel in the mind and vision of artists striving to understand the meaning of being human in our age, but rather to take “artsy” photos for her Instagram and Snapchat accounts. And perhaps this is evidence that social media isn’t entirely rotten, despite the president’s, pornographers’, alt-right trolls’ and marketers’ efforts to make it so.
So we made a family trip downtown. Fortunately, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is an amazing place, something that was made evident as soon as we entered to find Maurizio Cattelan’s fanciful skeleton of a cat rendered in dinosaur proportions. I snapped a poorly composed photo that has the cat creature positioned to devour my niece Emma’s head.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play. But there were on exhibit some of the oft-ridiculed blank white canvases and also a collection of drinking glasses nailed to the wall, plus some bottles hanging from strings looking like some half-finished bird feeder project dangling in a tree behind Uncle Lloyd’s place. Too, there were Andy Warhol’s soup cans. Most of the pieces required the context provided by written descriptions on cards next to the works for me to be able to grasp the profundity of what I was seeing. But overall the impression I left with with was that of art that is current, alive, relevant and more vibrant than anything I’d viewed in a museum before.
As a writer, I’ve used the word ‘museum’ plenty of times as a metaphor for something dead, old and perhaps no longer relevant. Museum can pejoratively seen as warehouses for things, cultures and civilizations whose time has passed. But the MCA in Chicago was filled with works that shimmered, electric with the issues that are central to our time.
Most impactful for me was an exhibition called “Backstroke of the West” by Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. Central to the exhibit was a series of recreations of Mesopotamian artwork lost to looters of the Iraqi National Museum during the Iraq War. These recreations were fashioned out of food packaging materials, gaudy bits of paper and cardboard covered in Arabic script. Again the context cards were essential: each description contained a quote from a curator of the museum who witnessed the looting, things like, “I feel like my soul is being ripped away.”
I’ve heard the story of the looting of Baghdad’s historic treasures a number of times, but nothing I’ve experienced has made me actually feel what it might have been like for those involved. And this the key difference between information and art. As a video producer and a writer, I’ve written articles and shot interviews. But I’ve also dabbled in filmmaking and fiction writing. And I believe the true difference is in how the story is told. As a filmmaker, you try to make something that extracts an emotion from the viewer. It’s beyond facts. It’s more than well-crafted scenes and beautiful imagery.
And here is where Rakowitz’s exhibition hit home. He had used art as a vehicle that allows me to slip through time and experience a fraction of what the Iraqi curators must have felt at seeing their life’s work dismantled before their very eyes.
It was alive, suddenly, and happening before my eyes as well. Another part of the exhibit featured stone recreations of ancient books that had been lost in wars: some were Jewish texts burned by Nazis and others were German works destroyed by British firebombing. And what was most fascinating, perhaps, was that these stone replicas were fashioned out of rock quarried from where the Taliban destroyed sixth-century statues of the Buddha in 2001. The mind-bending beauty of that notion, of one lost culture memorialized out of the detritus of another, was breathtaking.
I learned that, like literature and film, great visual art is alive. A notion that was no less revelatory for me than it also is banal. I once again managed to wrangle the obvious into novelty, if only in my own mind. Contemporary art is a powerful conductor of emotion. It makes us relive history. It allows us to experience loss in a way we never imagined possible. And I was immediately able to connect this dramatic sense of cultural loss to another ongoing obliteration that we’re living through right now.
For many, museums are sacred. They house the things most valued by a culture. That’s certainly true for those Iraqi curators, who, despite living under the iron fist of a hideous despot and then surviving an onslaught and ham-fisted invasion by a reckless foreign empire, could look with pride upon their heritage and history as the most ancient of cradles of human civilization. The evidence had been alive for them right there, in their museum. It was what helped them to endure. And our culture facilitated its obliteration.
For me, my museum (as well as my church and refuge) has been the natural world, whether a remote alpine lake or a copse in a city park, I’ve always looked to the natural world for inspiration or comfort. And like the looted antiquities of Iraq, that natural heritage has been steadily pillaged throughout history. I’ve recently completed a film, Saving Atlantis, which I co-directed with Justin Smith, about the loss of the world’s coral reefs. We are losing these reefs as a careless byproduct of the human hunger for fossil fuels. Just as if you were to ask George W. Bush if he intended for his invasion to dismantle the cultural heritage assembled in Baghdad’s museum, he certainly would have denied it. He may have even expressed dismay. Cheney and Rumsfeld may have shrugged it off as an unfortunate byproduct of a necessary action. But I don’t think any GOP (or Democratic) supporter of the war would have sought that outcome.
And too, I don’t think there is a single GOP voter or politician who actually, deep in his (and less often her) heart, wants to destroy the world’s coral reefs. But through their thumb-in-the eye politics, where they simply define themselves as being against whatever cause those who lean left find pressing, they are pushing mightily to destroy what remains of these fragile ecosystems. Indeed, we are all culpable, by our carelessness. Our reckless use of carbon. Any solution requires us each to act. To do what we can. Travel less. Take the bike. Choose chicken over beef or leave the chicken out altogether. Pay the extra ten bucks a month for clean energy. Put up solar panels. &c, &c. But solutions mostly require the might of nations to move entire populations, and our nation and its current regime, not so different from the one that destroyed Baghdad’s museums, is the only one in the world to proudly wear the antagonistic cloak of denial.
And so, my museum. My church. The glaciers. The keystone predators. The bees and insects. They’re being dismantled. Willfully. Our environmental legacy, so hard-won after the enlightenment of Sand County Almanac, Silent Spring, The Sixth Extinction, the films of Jacques Cousteau and the revolution in thought that produced, as if almost by accident, the Endangered Species Act, first of its kind in the world, the National Park System, first of its kind in the world, the ideas that arose out of Thoreau and Muir and Man and Nature, American ideas championed largely by Republicans…and now look at where we are today. The world’s greatest power has smashed the gates and now stands back as the vultures circle. Our Mesopotamia is being looted. And we mostly watch with a shrug.
So this is what I felt as I drifted through the Rakowitz exhibit. And that sickening feeling, that seed of despair that I carry with me everywhere, was identified through the art. The art made me look at it, understand it. Deal with it.
On its surface, contemporary art can still seem absurd. A controlled form of insanity. Bottles hanging from strings. Looted Mesopotamian artifacts reconstructed out of trash that make you think of the ongoing dismantling of the natural world. Does it make sense at any level?
To me it does. Now. After a lifetime of not really getting it. And I hope that it won’t take me another forty-seven years to revisit it.
When I am involved in the production of feature documentaries there is often a sense of disorientation as we begin to wrap things up. And in 2018, this confusion is heightened by the fact that I have two films scheduled for release. Questions arise in my mind. How did these things get started? How the hell did we manage to finish them? Will people like them? And then I start to wonder if these will be my last films. It’s a difficult, draining, expensive process. But then it’s also addictive. Not making films is probably not an option for me.
But now, finally, we’re standing in the precipice of the moment of truth, the first screening in a darkened theater, where these projects will finally be realized. We have secured premieres for 2018. Whatever happens next is a bonus as far as I’m concerned.
One thing is for certain, amid this thicket of thorny questions: documentaries turn out well because of collaboration and the efforts of a whole lot of people. It starts with the willingness and selflessness of the subjects themselves who open their stories up for the camera. And then there are the filmmaking partners, donors, technicians and the occasional words of encouragement from an army of people.
For Saving Atlantis, which starts with sneak previews in Portland, Oregon on February 15th, with additional previews in Corvallis and Newport on the 20th and 21st, it was a four-year journey driven largely by the energy of Justin Smith, my co-director on the project, who pushed us to learn underwater cinematography from scratch, not to mention a whole host of researchers who shared their work, lives and their passion to save vanishing reefs. Camera work and post-production by Darryl Lai and Daniel Cespedes have brought this project to new heights.
Three Days of Glorywill premiere at the Newport Beach Film Festival in Southern California in April. It was co-director Scott Wright’s deep love and knowledge of Burgundy that allowed us to explore and understand the region and its end-of-harvest festivals in a way, we believe, that hasn’t been done before. The magic and spirit of the region and the people we interviewed is what really brought this project to life.
So 2018 should be an interesting year. Right now it’s hard to say where these films will land. But I hope they will find their audiences, because they are both important stories about a changing world. Each of them, in their own ways, address issues of what type of society, culture and planet we want to leave our children.
As a product of the world’s greatest capitalist endeavor, that mythic and crumbling experiment we know as America, born in the consumptive shadow of a shopping mall, I come pre-programmed with my idea of what a gift should be. It’s a material good, packaged tidily, gaudily wrapped and placed under a tree. It’s not some home-fashioned artifact, a poem or a meal lovingly prepared, but instead something that is mass produced and hawked in a sophisticated advertising blitz that has been strategized with military precision and targeted specifically at the demographic I happen to inhabit. As we age, our notion of a gift might transform from the novel plaything into the gleaming luxury car with a giant bow parked on a snowy drive near some suburban castle. Or perhaps it’s the castle itself.
Whatever the case, the gift is stuff, made by others. And we don’t seek the gift out, but rather it finds us. We are told what to want. Brands win our affinity and then we ask for those brands, regurgitating them in lists to those whom we expect to buy things for us in the elaborate, suggestive mind trick that is marketing.
Those of us who give gifts are mere steps delivery logistics process, wedged between the UPS truck and the intended target. Thoreau said we are the tools of our tools, which is how someone in the Nineteenth Century would indicate our role in the business-to-consumer supply chain. This all goes to say that there is clear evidence that culturally we’ve ignored en masseLinus’s monologue about commercialism in the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
But there exists, in some places, cultures and times, examples of purity in the gifting process. There are those who adhere to ancient, hunter-gatherer roots, inhabiting that restless impulse of incipient humankind that drove us from the warmth and abundance of the savannas to the barren, frigid and rocky north. That restlessness to explore, that joy of discovery, that inherent drive to discover and then bring evidence of our curiosity back to those whom we love, the quest for something new, strange, an exotic flavor, a rare and precious item that piques our curiosity and senses, not some mass produced nonsense we’ve been programmed to desire: that restlessness still exists in in the hearts of a few.
And one such person is Lolo.
Traveling is a great way to remind us that where our own culture may have failed, others have manage to survive, thrive and adapt in the face of the global commercial onslaught. I’ve had the great fortune to spend time in Burgundy to work on a documentary about the plight of small wine producers there called Three Days of Glory. And during my travels, I met Lolo, who is the proprietor of La Dilettante, a cafe and wine bar haunted by local winemakers, epicureans and a few tourists in the know. It’s a cozy refuge from the gloriously overwrought, five-course lunches and seven-course dinners one tends to take when visiting that glorious province of Burgundy where so many marvelous restaurants are tucked into every corner of forgotten, stone-walled villages.
Entering Lolo’s cafe, you always have the feeling of coming home. It is cozy and unpretentious. He and his family are genuine and friendly, but not in any excessive, artificial way. He offers light plates of cheeses and charcuterie that he sources himself both from the local market and on long trips across France and Spain he spends searching for the perfect hams and the most sublime cheeses. When he sets a plate of cold cuts and a basket of the world’s most exquisite bread on your table you hear angels ringing their bells just like George Bailey’s daughter in It’s A Wonderful Life. If there is meat that is more candy than actual candy, then it is the stuff that Lolo shares with you in his cafe. I was introduced to Lolo’s cafe by Scott Wright of Caveau Selections, my partner on the film project and someone with a knack and passion for uncovering the real Burgundy and sharing it with others.
I recently had the chance to introduce my daughter to Lolo’s cafe. We had the opportunity to attend a sneak preview of our film at Les Ateliers du Cinéma in Beaune, a film school run by legendary French director Claude Lelouch. At my wife’s suggestion, I brought Bailey along as a sort of combined Christmas and Birthday present. Not a bad gift for a fourteen-year-old girl: a trip to France and bragging rights that come with a series of photos in front of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame for Instagram and Snapchat. She’d seen me march off to France for this film project a number of times throughout the year. “I’m working,” I’d tell her, she didn’t believe it. In truth, making films is more of an avocation than a vocation, and thus the need for a day job with benefits. But the upshot is that she always asked to come along and I had demurred, telling her “next time” so often that it would have been criminal for me to return again without her.
One of the stops on the itinerary, which included shopping in Paris and a visit to the Dior exhibit at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, plus a series of iconic Instagrammable locations, was Lolo’s cafe in Beaune. I’d been telling Bailey for years in a poor philosophical translation of Thoreau’s notion of the supremacy of experiences over material goods. This was self-justification: a trip is a superior gift to a thing. An expensive meal and bottle of wine and the transient nature of it and the eventual memory of the flavors is, in my not so original philosophy, on a higher plane than, say, an expensive belt, purse of piece of technological nonsense that will be worth next to nil once the new version comes out. She’s been hearing this lecture since her toddlerdom: it’s the curse of being the only child of someone who reads enough to make him pretentious.
I was hoping that bringing Bailey to La Dilettante for a light meal would be a transcendent experience. We’d seen the sites and eaten crepes and she was developing a hankering for pizza and “McDo’s,” but I thought she needed at least one true epicurean experience. We’re taught to fear stinky French cheeses and scoff at lean, simple meals. Our culture has trained us to admire restaurants for their excessive portion sizes. Smothering items with cheese or bacon or both tends to still be the preferred culinary tactic even after our supposed American food revolution.
But that’s not what Lolo does. His menu is blissfully simple. Along with one of the more carefully crafted lists of wines by the glass, as well as a wall of personally selected bottled wines and beers, each served with an optional story about its provenance and discovery, Lolo’s selections include plates of cheese, charcuterie or a few stalks of wild asparagus. Perhaps it will be a few rows radishes, butter and salt. Everything is market-fresh. And his meats and cheeses are selected on his journeys along the back roads of France. He describes the joy he feels when he comes across a new ham or sausage and he imagines slicing it and providing it to his customers. He views his customers not like a target market or brand prospects; for him they are like his family. He comes from a family of restauranteurs. They refer to their customers as “guests,” implying an interpersonal connection, face-to-face relationships, not some disembodied consumer demographic. And when he finds a new menu item to share on his travels, it’s a thrilling experience for him. “You consume eighty percent of the pleasure when you buy and you think [of] the people [to whom] you will give.”
This gift of flavor, which Lolo has been providing to his customers since opening the cafe, was something I was hoping to present to Bailey, my American teenager steeped in the lore of or brand economy. Well, we all want people to love the same things that we love, but unfortunately that’s not always the case. And never is it more rarely the case than when the thing is loved by the father of a teenage girl. That formula makes the subject immediately dubious. The cherished thing is instantly suspect. We were in the middle of a blitz tour of France. Bailey was wanting McDo’s. She wanted stories of how French McDonald’s were different, better or inferior to our own domestic varieties. She wanted a relatable experience. Instead, she received two cutting boards of translucent slices of meat and suspiciously smelly cheese, and then a few tiny pickled cucumbers.
It took us nearly an hour (and three baskets of sublime bread) to work through the meal, and Bailey didn’t say much. I was worried as we listened to the chatter of voices, mostly French with a smattering of German tourists. I tried not to over-analyze her reactions. She sampled everything, going back for seconds and then thirds of the perfectly ripe example of the notoriously odiferous Epoisses cheese. We finished our meal. We left. Because the evening light was low and golden, I embarrassed her by making her pose extra long for a series of photos outside the windows.
I wondered for a long time if she had connected with that food. For me, cafes like Lolo’s, their authenticity, the sincerity of their owners, the quality and curation of the ingredients and wines the provide are profound, sublime. It’s hard to explain and convey, and the best way to communicate is to share it. I’d showed it to her. I hoped that she understood.
I wondered if she appreciated the range of flavors, the artisanal quality, the ripeness of the cheeses. I thought that she might perhaps be too young to understand. Maybe she was too much of a teenager. Maybe she’d only be able to appreciate it when she was older.
But, of course I was wrong.
I realized this some weeks later when we were reviewing photos with her mom. A lot had happened in between: the screening of the film, another visit to Paris before a jet-laggy flight back home to Oregon, the launch of her team’s ski season, Thanksgiving, her birthday. The memories of the trip were fast fading, artifacts, it seemed, from an earlier life. But when we came across the photo of the plate of charcuterie, Bailey exclaimed, emphatically, pointing at the table in La Dilettante in the photo: that’s the best ham in the world!
She got it. The joy that Lolo first experienced when discovering the ham in some out-of-the-way village in the Basque country as he imagined sharing it with his customers, sliced carefully and presented simply alongside bread and cheese on a board, became a flavor experienced and then recalled weeks later. A great meal, a simple taste is a conversation that starts on a farm, is transferred to Lolo as he drives around the countryside in his role as the chasseur des produits – the hunter of the products – and then passed along to us.
I wonder how long that memory will last. Maybe the experience won’t rank as highly on my daughter’s list of memories as it does on my own. But reading the enthusiasm in her voice, the rare moment of unguarded, unbridled glee as she recalled those flavors for her mom, is certainly evidence of the power inherent in a carefully chosen and presented gift.
You can’t quantify that experience. I’ve had good, lousy and excellent plates of charcuterie at restaurants all over the world, including France and my own home town. All those plates cost roughly the same. I’ve paid more for a plate of cold cuts that come straight from the package. Lolo can’t mark up the care and effort he puts into the curation of the products he sells at La Dilettante. But what he gets for all of that extra work is the feeling of discovery when he finds the perfect ingredient to put on the plate, imagining his guests’ pleasure and thus deriving his own. And we get a photograph, a memory, a story and maybe all three. And that’s not something global brands can manufacture no matter how hard they try.
At first I didn’t understand this summer’s rumble and buzz about the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017. And I must admit that my skepticism while camping across the route of totality in Eastern Oregon: it looked like a desperate attempt for struggling communities to cash in an astrological phenomenon. Every gas station and convenience store stocked eclipse glasses, tee shirts, mugs and bumper stickers. Small quadrangles in city parks, fields and deserts were advertised at $200 per night.
For my part, I wasn’t so interested in the eclipse. I didn’t understand the fuss. So, the light goes out, I thought. And then it goes back on again. I’ve experienced any number of power outages over the years, and this, frankly, sounded less exhilarating than riding out a blackout during a low-pressure storm while playing Parcheesi in the cellar by lantern light, something I did any number of times growing up in Tornado Alley.
But news outlets predicted (and likely hoped for) all sorts of madness bordering on armageddon. There were warnings of shortages of fuel and fresh groceries. We were advised to stock up on drinking water. We were cautioned not to drive and my employer, Oregon State University, shuttered the campus, giving it over to the expected hordes of eclipse tourists.
But I was unable to join the gawkers on the grassy campus quads because I was assigned to film another aspect of the phenomenon. A group of students were launching a weather balloon equipped with a camera and tracking equipment. It would climb to eighty thousand feet and capture dramatic images of the eclipse shadow making landfall. Then the students would track it via satellite signal and share the dramatic high-resolution images. My job was to record the process.
As a media producer for the university tasked with creating videos and documentary films, I have to admit that I’m lucky to receive any number of cool assignments. I’ve been to tropical reefs and European forests on assignment with camera on hand. I’ve interviewed crusty oystermen and brilliant scientists working on the defining issues of our time. So in the project lottery, I sometimes draw the lucky straw, and getting a chance to be among the first Americans to observe the eclipse seventy miles off of the Oregon Coast seemed, at first, to rank among the best of them. Perhaps my eclipse experience might actually measure up to all of the hype after all.
But then the details started to come in. Suddenly the assignment started to slip in the rankings.
First, we learned that there was to be cloud cover out at sea and that we likely wouldn’t even see the eclipse. What’s more, we might not even be able to launch the balloon at all, rendering the whole cruise for naught. Next, high seas were expected, meaning our thirty-hour ride would be on stomach-dropping swells. Finally, many of the students and guests had never been to sea before. Anyone who’s crossed the bar in Oregon can tell you how newbies tend to fare on their first trip to the high seas.
While science is often exhilarating and fascinating, it’s also often a tedious and challenging grind. This was shaping up to fall into the latter category.
Oh well. In the name of science I packed up my camera gear and headed to the coast three hours before departure to fight the expected eclipse traffic.
Only there was no traffic. A few cars were streaming away from the ocean to flee the expected clouds and fog, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I’d brought a novel and a lawn chair, something I always keep on hand for trips to the coast, and I relished having a couple hours to kill by the surf with my feet stuffed into the cold sand. But a short stroll out on the beach was like walking into a sandblaster. A north wind was ripping spray from the tops of the breakers rendering beach reading impossible even with the wool blanket I’d brought along, so I hunkered down in a coffee shop and took my emergency dose of seasickness medicine.
We left the eerie calm of the port dock at sunset. The diesel engines on the Pacific Storm—a refitted fishing trawler with an impressive resume indicating that it should be nearing retirement—chugged us toward the clouds that were racing impossibly fast out past the bar. I found myself wanting to utter some movie cliché: it’s quiet, too quiet.
Sure enough, the first great drop over the lip of an incoming swell caused widened eyes and nervous sidelong glances. There were twenty of us on board, mostly crammed into the ship’s small lab. There were five members of the crew, more than a dozen students, a faculty advisor and a pair of reporters.
The seas were strong enough that the crew decided to secure the hatches. If you’ve ever been bounced around on the ocean for an extended period of time, you know how stuffy it can get in a crowded ship when the doors and windows are sealed. Add to that a half dozen weak stomachs, the odor of diesel fumes and the always distressing smell of marine heads and you have a recipe for mass sickness.
But fortunately, most stomachs held. The students, with sober looks of concentration and greenish casts, set to work. They checked equipment and tested systems. They reviewed their respective roles. One student was in charge of helium to inflate the balloon. Another, the satellite tracking system. Yet another was in charge of sealing the camera for when it crashed back down to the sea.
I liked these students. Most of them were studying engineering at the local community college with designs on transferring to the big university. They were serious. Realists. Several were older than average. They had day jobs and financial concerns. Some were making course corrections after a false start in the wrong direction.
I have interviewed a lot of impressive students, and I’m always humbled by their accomplishments. But community college transfers are an especially gritty and determined lot.
After a dozen hours of motoring west and a night of fitful sleeping curled up under a table in the lab, finally adjusting to the rhythm of the lurching swells, we rose bleary eyed as the boat neared the launch point. The students made their way to their stations, and before long they’d assembled on deck ready to inflate the balloon and its equipment, which consisted of a two and a half gallon bucket filled with electronics.
There was a tense moment when the fog and cloud cover was too thick for launch. The team only had clearance to proceed if the sky was at least 50% clear. Dawson, the team’s lead, took charge and tried to call the authorities via satellite phone for special permission to launch, but all channels were busy, reserved for eclipse emergencies.
Bt then the clouds parted. Maybe it was divine will or fate but more likely luck.
The skipper drove the boat into the wind so that the upper decks would provide some shelter while the students inflated the balloon on the ship’s bouncing stern. And then once they were ready, he turned broadside to the wind and the balloon was tugged skyward, ripped from the hands of the students. They cheered. Months of their time and effort drifted into the soup of intermittent clouds.
Now we had only to wait until the the balloon ascended to the determined height. Once it rose high enough, or was aloft for a set amount of time, the system was programmed to drop the bucket of equipment which would descend back to sea via a parachute for retrieval. Ingenious, really. Why hadn’t I volunteered for things like this in college? It made me regret my extracurricular activities of either working in the cafeteria or rehearsing with my 80s metal band. I also wrote lots of bad poetry. But then I also did plenty of fly fishing and camping along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Superior, which I don’t regret, so it wasn’t a total loss.
Next came the eclipse. We watched through the veil of drifting clouds as the moon slipped in front of the sun. I wasn’t expecting much, and indeed the sight was underwhelming. A crescent began to form, much less impressive than a waxing or waning moon and a star-studded night sky.
But then totality happened. We pulled off our glasses as day turned to night. The corona was evident even through the patchy clouds. There was an eerie chill and a sudden stillness on the sea. The students cheered. There were oohs and ahhs, and it was wonderful, in this age of modern marvels and mind-bending technology, to be able to stare in wonder at so ancient a phenomenon. And to be out to sea to share the sight with this beleaguered and weary group of travelers, short on sleep and tired of bouncing across the swells yet suddenly thrilled by the passing of our moon in front of the sun. To be light and then dark and then light again became a thrill that is hard to describe, so I’ll stop trying.
And now for the spoiler. The balloon…it didn’t reach its apex. And we weren’t able to retrieve it. The system suddenly began to descend. Students tracked its location via satellite, but once it lowered to three thousand feet they lost the signal. They valiantly used mathematic formulae to calculate its direction and speed of descent to try and discern its landing point, but after several hours of motoring along the path and scanning the sea they decided to call off the search and head to port, hoping that the system would wash ashore or a fishing boat might find it.
Experiments fail, and I think that’s a good thing. In some ways its better than when they succeed. You can insert any inspirational quote here about the path to success being paved with failures. Clichés all but also true. I think of my first film and my first unpublished novel and I’m actually quite happy that more people didn’t see them. I learned a lot, but they weren’t ready for prime time. The students seemed to take the loss of the balloon in stride. It was clear they gave their best efforts, though the return trip was more somber than it might have otherwise been.
The sight of the eclipse, and the surge of the swells, reminded me of the raw, uncontrollable forces of nature. I’d been on that ship a number of times over the years and seen various successes and failures by both students and expert researchers who are in the top of their fields. No amount of expertise can control the raw power of the natural world. Failures remind us of that.
But I was also reminded of another experiment, one in which we are all participating. There are plenty of people who deny the climate is warming and changing and that the ocean is becoming more acidic. We are pumping a crazy amount of carbon into the atmosphere in our hunger for fossil fuels. And I doubt any of those in denial over the human causes of climate change and its threat to the future of this planet and the humans and other species that live on it have ever been on a research vessel or spoken directly with students or faculty who study these things.
That we’re pumping enormous quantities of C02 into the air and that it winds up in the ocean is undeniable. We’re heading into uncharted waters. It’s kind of like performing experimental surgery on ourselves. If we screw up the oceans and weather of this planet, nobody will escape the consequences.
I’ve seen first-hand the damage caused to coral reef habitats. I’ve seen retreating glaciers. I’ve seen the affects of changing ocean chemistry. It’s happening. The world knows it. And I think the Republicans even know it, deep in their hearts. But they’re more interested in sticking a big middle finger in the faces of their political opponents and the rest of the world than admitting that they’re wrong. For many people, delusional thinking is easier than contrition. There is no such thing as the principled denial of climate change.
As we returned to port after thirty hours at sea, I stumbled to my car without breaking news. I had no successful experiment to report on. I didn’t have headline-making images of the moon’s shadow racing toward the Oregon.
But I was impressed by the commitment of the team. None of them were paid to be there. They weren’t even receiving class credit. They were volunteers in a club. Their curiosity was boundless. If we are to have any hope for a successful solution to the climate crisis that is in full swing, and the threats this crisis is subjecting to our oceans’ health, then these kids will be the ones to come up with the answers.
When President Trump decided to be the lone holdout and pull our nation out of the Paris Agreements, I felt shame but not surprise. What do you expect from a guy like that? A party like that?
They called this the Great American Eclipse 2017, as if it is something we owned. But we don’t own the sun or the moon or the ocean. I was on a boat with the first Americans to see this phenomenon, bouncing on the waves, at the mercy of great forces. We don’t own any of it.
But we do have the power to break it. And to save it.
And being out on a research ship that morning, I can say I was with a few of the people on the side of the debate that has a shot at fixing it.