September 27, 2010

Recipe of the Day

I like going through my old diaries.  Much of it's just details about people and places, but every so often I find something useful.  Here, take this recipe for bum sundae:   

I drew this while living in China.  PC it is not, but then again, I've never been much of a drawerThis seemingly obsessive fascination with bums was a strange period in my life.  I stood at bus stations around Suzhou, listening to street people play the erhuThere was a certain mystique surrounding them, which drove the idea home:  I was a long way from home.  

The poor looked old timey, quiltedIt was, of course, a bit of illusion--a way of raking in more money, and I was happy to oblige.  They did not give the impression of being "between jobs" or "homeless."  They had simply chosen a roll, and lived it to the fullest.    

The idea for the bum sundae is a celebration of sorts.  There is the imagination, and then there are human boundaries.  By blurring the distinction between the two, the result is something deliciously mischievous.

September 24, 2010

It's Raining Outside and I'm in the Forum

No new writing projects to speak of this week.  My brain has been on the fritz, quiet -- mimes in the form of god on high.  Yea, right, something like that. 

Last week’s contest win raked in $300 cash, free tuition to MatadorU travel writer’s school, and bragging rights.  That’s what I’ve been doing, writing some “evergreen” articles (ie.  “How to…” and “…101”).  That sort of thing. 

The online school has a forum where you can post your work and have others tell you how brilliant and special you are.  The idea is to judge the words, not the person.  I was expecting the teachers/editors to be harsh, kind of like an S&M arrangement.  For a writer, the payoff is pretty much the same.  Many authors provoke feedback with their posts. "Here's the story.  Now let's have it!"  Rarely do they get the full-on kick in the gut they requested.  Perhaps Takayo’s straightfoward brand of criticism has rubbed off on me. 

The problem is everyone receives a hodgepodge of positive advice. I know it’s a school, a place where mistakes are supposed to be made and learned from.  They do that.  However, my comments come across like a hyperactive perfectionist.  A typical comment for a story might be “What the hell are you talking about, and why hasn’t anyone ripped this piece to shreds yet?”  Of course, I never say that.  The grim reaper comes early. No more days on the couch in your underwear.  We're all walking on the dreams of writers in this forum.  I’ve found it works best to tread lightly, praising a single element or turn of phrase, and then let them have it. 

I met an American writer named Alan when I was living in China.  He offered to read one of my stories and edit it, so we met up at a Starbucks.  It was a ten-page essay about an experience I had with a fundamentalist Christian militant.  He flipped through it, and chuckled.  “Ok,” he said.  “You can write.”  It was a neutral statement, but back then, I considered it a notch on my bedpost.  I blew the statement out of proportion, and let it permeate the nebulous regions of my mind.  I had the time.

He returned the story two weeks later with copious highlighter marks and side notes.  There was no talk of potential.  Just doing, and re-doing.

If a story can be likened to a dinosaur skeleton, as Stephen King states in On Writing, mine was still half-covered by layers of dirt.  Sometimes you need a shovel to uncover it.  Other times you need a horsehair brush.  You pick up tools along the way.

Over time, Alan’s comment took on different meanings.  When he first handed the story back to me, I remembered his comment, and it felt mocking.  Months later, I found myself using those very words after reading another writer’s work.  Funny how that changed. 

So, I’m on the forum, offering my trade secrets to anyone who will listen.  The thought has occurred to me:  Perhaps my ideas aren’t so good. Outside the safety of the forum, perhaps I'm just stumbling, aimlessly.  After all, not too long ago I too coupled adjectives with adverbs, scouring each line with heroically bloodshot eyes.

But I’m not an editor – my comments don’t show up illuminated in orange – so people take my comments less seriously.  Which is a good thing.  Many people are afraid of making mistakes, and, as I have learned in a recent Ken Robinson TED speech, "mistakes are the basis of creativity."

Lucky for me, I am diametrically drawn to mistakes.  Nothing serious; I've never lost a finger, or woke up next to a farm animal. These are labeled under "accident," which, I believe, is the basis of "genius."  I'm not quite there yet.  Besides, I don't think my wife signed on for that.  In the meantime, come to the forum and you can find me, talking about life and creativity in ways that I can only dream of regretting.  

September 20, 2010

Notes From a Trailing Spouse (Transparent Narrative Contest Winner)

It's been a good weekend...friends from the US in town, Alt beer, plenty of pictures, and oh, yes, ... pork knuckles. 

Friday kicked off with an email from Matador editor David Miller, informing me that I had won the Transparent Narrative Contest in Traveler's Notebook..... 

"Well-crafted, funny and immersive. I can see why you won the contest."

"This is one of my all-time favorites on TNB. I laughed out loud several times, and I really felt like you let us get inside your head. I loved the honesty of this piece, and I could definitely relate to the identity reformation/loss that you experienced." 

"...great wording and very transparent. You have a way of luring the reader in and keeping him/her there."

Read the Story Here:

September 17, 2010

Activating the Power of Feng Shui

It wasn’t odd to return from school and find the couch against a different wall.  Paintings in our home were hung and changed with the regularity of underwear, and large, handsome cabinets were dragged in to house an ever-growing china collection.  As an artist, my mother could pull off the eclectic.  Concerning the styling of our home, guests didn’t have to look farther than the front door, which was painted purple and emblazoned with the words “Cest la vie.” 
However, a period of great change took place when I was in middle school.   Strange words were being thrown around, the likes of which I’d never heard before.  It started with chi, or rather, transforming straight chi into curing chi.  Before my sister and I had time to mull this over, we learned that our staircase and kitchen was located in the wrong place.  There were poison arrows to contend with in the living room, and wind chimes to be hung in the bathroom.  From what we could gather, our mother had been possessed by a gay ninja.
Like all of my mother’s interests, feng shui became a priority in making ours a happy home.  Not much explanation was given, aside from the fact that our home would continue to work against us if immediate action wasn’t taken.  My sister and I took it in stride, keeping our bedroom doors closed until the chi ran its course. 

A recent trip to the library raked up these memories.  Like always, I scoured the new arrivals, but one book in particular caught my eye.  The author was pictured on the front, wearing a silk cheetah jacket, bright red lipstick, and the type of gold chain preferred by Halloween pimps.  She was in fact a respected feng shui expert, and as I flipped through the pages, some the phrases brought me back.  I checked the book out, figuring it might be interesting to try and figure out just what the hell my mother had been talking about. 
My apartment in Düsseldorf is a small one bedroom place with parquet floors.  There is a rack for shoes in the foyer, and above this is a carved Thai bird mask that, as the saleswoman put it, “scare evil spirit.”  Entering the living room, there is a hand-painted Chinese table that came from a furniture store in Suzhou, the teakwood carvings I found at the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok, and a red and white Oriental rug which was made in Ghana, but bought on sale at a department store here in Germany.
There are two large windows in the living room.  One of them faces the kitchen, and the other faces the front door.  Our bedroom is situated between the living room and bathroom, which is tucked away in a windowless interior corner of the apartment.  
This is what someone might see as they enter the apartment.  I used to see this too, but not any more.  The thing about learning something new is that once it’s there, you can’t unlearn it.  I’ve always pictured information like canned vegetables – you can forget about them, even take them for granted, but they still takes up space in the pantry.  Upon inventory, I realized that what I’ve been stocking up on recently isn’t exactly applicable to daily life:  Ankara is the capital of Turkey.  Gift is the German word for poison.  This might be useful for someone who goes to quiz night or accepts candy from strangers, but that person just isn’t me anymore. 
I also wasn’t the type of person that incorporated feng shui into my life.  At least, I didn’t used to be.  But it did happen, and with surprising quickness.  It started with a few pages a night while Takayo watched a catty reality show on the couch next to me.  It featured rich and powerful women who – against better judgment – surrounded themselves with social adversaries and vast quantities of strong drink.  Though arguments sometimes took to the streets, the inside of these homes revealed a serenity its owners just couldn’t quite seem to absorb.  And like a headlock, those carefully decorated rooms appeared to wrap around and embrace its occupants, no matter how much of their hair had been ripped out.  Because we didn’t have a mansion yet, I figured that I could feng shui our apartment in a snap. 
 I walk through our home, studying the items Takayo and I had collected throughout our travels.  The objects themselves had not changed, but my perception of them, in relation to energy flow, had. 
The bedroom was completely out of whack.  As soon as I walked in I noticed daggers, or books, flying toward me, cutting into my good luck.  To solve this, I pushed the shelf to the other sided of the room so that it did not face the bed, which, I noticed, was also facing an inauspicious direction.  I turned it around and backed the headboard against a solid wall to “support a sense of security.”  There was a lot of clutter under the bed, so I boxed it up (along with some items on the shelf including a riot-squad gas mask), and brought it down to the storage room. 
Things were looking better, but it wasn’t there yet.  The yin components, calmness and quiet, should prevail in a bedroom, but we were getting an awful lot of yang energy from the lamppost across the street.  Because I didn’t have the power tools to install a curtain rod, I simply covered the window with tin foil and taped it into place. 
            When I was finished with the bedroom, I stood in the doorway.  The author might have called this a “quantum leap of improvement,” but I had too much momentum to stop now.  I proceeded to the front door, where I encountered a whole new batch of problems.  The entry way was too dark and didn’t promote happy energy.  As for the bird mask, it was supposed to go over the doorway, but there wasn’t enough room.  A poison arrow greeted me from the edge of the Chinese table, so I covered it with a Balinese silk shawl.  
Past the poison arrow, I noticed something worse:  The front door faced the window directly, so all of our chi energy had been flying right out the window.  I had been keeping a basil plant in front of the window, which corrected the problem to an extent, but I made a pesto sauce for dinner two nights ago, so now we were back to square one. 
            And that seemed to be the main problem I encountered with feng shui.  You can’t make all the changes at once, and even if you try, something is always overlooked.  The book claims that items such as wind chimes can help correct “stagnant” chi, but there comes a point where you just can’t go further.  The feng shui faux pas in our apartment seem obvious to me, but of course, fretting over such things defeats the purpose.  
I’ve come to grips with the window, but that doesn’t mean it’s not on my Shit List.  Not by a long shot.  One of my favorite quotes from the book says: 
“If you are not fated to become a big tycoon, feng shui may make you rich, but not seriously wealthy!  And if your home enjoys good feng shui you will find yourself becoming more busy.”
So long as I don’t confuse the words busy and compulsive, this whole feng shui thing might actually be lucrative.  A Tiffany chandelier in the foyer would certainly attract good luck chi, and a Van Gogh would enhance the happy energy of the front door.  Of course, this wouldn’t be a magic cure-all for all of my problems, but it would be a step in the right direction. 

September 7, 2010

My New Article Published in BootsnAll

I've been traveling and writing a lot lately.  It's good to come back and see a published article. 

In this story, I lose my hearing in Bali.  Please, click the link below and let yourself succumb to a journey back to the five senses...

Knife wielding author/world traveler/ and oh yea, chef, Anthony Bourdain was featured in the main article. 
Give it a read.