21 August 2014 § Leave a comment
“I won the Nigerian lottery,” Tony said, deadpan. “Four million dollars.”
Tony, Heather and I stood ten paces from the door of Muckleshoot Casino, the most profitable casino in the country, according to the concierge. Tony met us for an Elvis Presley impersonator concert at the Galaxy Lounge. The last night of a seven-day run, the musicians flowed through the setlist like an oiled assembly line: tight rhythm, perfect solos, big smiles. During the encore, an inebriated woman stumbled on stage for a spot-lit moment with the wigged singer, and “Elvis” kissed her cheek as security ushered her offstage.
“All I have to do is send them $150,” he said. “I’ll pick the guy up at the airport in Seattle, and he’ll give me the cash. After expenses, of course.”
The fluorescent lights of the parking garage created a sort of halo around Tony’s stocky silhouette. I couldn’t see a smile forming, reassurance that he was joking. So I waited for the punchline. Heather looked us both over, sensed the gap in humor.
Tony lives in a tiny home on his sister Susie’s gated vineyard in rural-esque Washington. Armed only with a Chrysler 200 convertible, a monthly Social Security check, and his past, Tony navigates his 60’s with a Garmin GPS that doesn’t always show him the right way to the doctor’s office in Tacoma. Tony needs a defibrillator to replace his pacemaker, because there’s a higher chance that his heart will stop cold turkey than go arrhythmic.
As the gatecode-keeper, Susie determines who Tony should have as visitors. I’m allowed, but no one else, it seems, like the family of a young man he mentored. You see, Jeff stayed with Tony years ago, and stole a gun from Susie’s house. She pressed charges. Jeff went away.
Jeff was shot and killed by police in Wenatchee not long ago. The infant and the girl Jeff left behind are not allowed to visit Tony, per Susie. What if they steal something?
“It may be that I only have to pay $50,” he added. “They’ll keep a higher percentage, but I’ll still make three million dollars.”
“Sean,” Heather said to my agape jaw, “he’s serious.”
Tony was quiet.
Standing speechless in the chasm between the casino and the parking garage, I wanted to tell them about an episode of This American Life I listened to in 2008.
Ira Glass interviewed an American who operated an online forum dedicated to taking revenge on the Nigerian lottery scammers: when a forum user received a common spam email which read something like, Your great-great uncle, Arthur Hatterfield IV, left you an inheritance of 3,400,000. We would like to pay this sum to you as soon as possible: all you need to do is give us all of your personal information and $50.
The forum users would conspire replies, encourage the “trustee” to develop a relationship with the scammer: yes, I would like to receive the money. Please meet me in Somalia.
In one case, a Nigerian scammer took a series of buses across sub-Saharan Africa, in hopes of receiving US$50 – a huge sum. He emailed the trustee, a middle-class twenty-something in suburban U.S. America, and said that his bus was overtaken by guerrilla militants at the border, and he was stripped and tortured, broke in a country where he didn’t speak the language, and could the American please send some of the $50 to help him?
It was hilarious fodder for the online conspirators – nothing is true on the internet, after all – until the intrigued forum administrator followed up on the tale. He made some calls, and somehow got through to the scammer’s employer in Ibadan, Nigeria: yes, the man had gone off to Somalia, he must make money; yes, he called us about his bus, but he is on his own. We cannot help him.
The forum administrator told the story to Ira Glass, and I stored it in my memory, and think about it whenever some such email shows up in my inbox. No doubt Tony read a similar message, then looked up from the computer, out the window at the mansion and the vineyard – Susie’s little kingdom – and thought, well, fifty bucks isn’t much.
“Maybe the Nigerians will pay,” Tony said. It was getting darker outside the casino, and the fluorescent halo seemed brighter now.
I had just caught up to the fact that he wasn’t joking, or telling us some joke he played in his spare time.
“Tony, there’s no money!” I blurted, just as the pieces of hope slid together in my mind. The tiny home, the controlling sister, the missed doctor’s appointment; Tony needed to win the lottery.
If a man has nothing, I remembered from a scene in Flight of the Phoenix, as two men stood amongst the wreckage of their airplane in the Sahara Desert, give him hope.
I can’t help but think that by saying there’s no money, and by writing this, I am taking hope away from a man who needs it more than he needs four million dollars. Tony’s got more than his past and a GPS: he has a lifelong dream of seeing the San Francisco 49ers play in Candlestick Park, and I’d love nothing more than to sit with him in on November 2nd, as they play the Seattle Seahawks, albeit in the new stadium, as a gesture of apology, and love. That would be my lottery winnings.
14 August 2014 § 4 Comments
More than once since I returned from commercial fishing in Alaska two weeks ago, friends and strangers alike have said to me, “where’s part two?!” To which I squint, and try to discern if they’re talking to the right person.
The summer vacuumed words from me. I barely feel them bubbling beneath my skin, I can’t seem to remember the small details of interactions, the energetic statements of character which make up novels and relationships. There’s a great void within, where a mountain used to be – and what is the protocol when a fucking mountain, of all things, vanishes, and one no longer feel its vast stillness, and the crags and glaciers and lava become dreams – or worse, hallucinations?
As Bristol Bay rocked me to sleep each night, I felt no pull to write, no desire to document the sunset, or the tides. I did not lose language itself, rather the motivation for expression. The story disappeared.
In the timeless movement on the outdoor dance floor last weekend, a man put his hand on my shoulder, and said something like “fellow storyteller, thank you.” He touched his heart, and looked me in the eye as he floated away with the music.
I didn’t know or recognize him. Which scared me–how many times have I wondered who’s looked at my facebook page, did not “like” or comment, or reads Structured Roots. A phantom readership. Is this how authors and artists feel?
Perhaps it seems obvious, but it occurs to me that placing “Part I” on the end of a title implies a second part, a conclusion or continuation, requests some gesture of taking responsibility for an audience I have, somewhat accidentally, cultivated.
During the hitch trip I referred to at the end of ‘Escape from Bliss’, I thought, maybe I’ll write a story as the second part. Back in Portland, in the days between travel and fishing in Alaska (do I have any others?), I transcribed the trip journal. I thought I’d integrate the experiences over the summer, and it would magically appear as some grand, published piece. A lofty goal for a focusless ex-vagabond fisherman.
The second part is coming. Some of you have heard the succinct version, the “ending”. Even if the creative force within isn’t flowing like a class IV river, my main writing goal at present is to follow through with this story. I’ll be with you shortly. Thank you for reading, listening, asking.
7 June 2014 § Leave a comment
Urban Tellers performance, 10 May 2014.
First part of a series that explores the tenuous nature of connection, and how far one will go to learn to trust.
2 June 2014 § Leave a comment
2 June 2014
Thank you for finally stepping up to play President. You’re doing great things. In this moment, the future of the human race may well be in your hands.
Today will be the easy part: your voice will carry us all through the shock of a government taking positive action. It’s a rare thing. Some people are going to be very upset. They’re going to throw temper tantrums, and throw money around, and try to keep things from changing. They may think the systems which pay them aren’t broken. They may think that you’re a fool, a Communist, a tyrant.
Show them compassion. They’re sleeping infants, whining when the teet pulls away to piss, when the sun shines too brightly through the window. Let’s wake them up, gently, and help them get ready for school. Let’s show up for them when the bell rings, and be ready for their questions. Let’s get through this together, trade ideas, and find new, healthy ways to grow.
Thank you for challenging those who have grown rich and powerful by facilitating the pollution of the Earth. They may be the same people who will see the rest of us through this great transition, and innovate brilliant new ways to thrive. Job loss must occur to create new jobs: no longer does society employ bourreaux – the men in masks who pulled the guillotine lever – and no longer must we employ resources which deteriorate the integrity of the planet. Our inventors and innovators have produced successful alternative energy sources for decades, many of which are in wide use today.
Historically, humans have survived through adaptation: when caves no longer served us, we built houses. We do not need coal. The mining companies know this best, which is why they will fight with tooth and claw and wallet. It is what we we do: we survive.
Stay strong, brother. Your strength today will empower us for generations, will help our great-great-grandchildren, whose fate we have thus far refused to acknowledge, in ways they may never know.
29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
22 May 2014 § 2 Comments
Sometimes we tell stories over and over again to find out their significance to us. Just as it is common to see something new in a film one has watched multiple times, a connection which binds the characters closer may reveal itself in the hundredth telling of a story that didn’t seem to exist before.
The audience plays a large part in the development of story: pertinent questions, feedback, and criticism reflect holes, irrelevant information; it can help connect important, but perhaps misplaced, fragments. Pieces gathered during immersion.
Any story can be told from an experience. A picnic can be a sweetbitter serenade, or it can be a vicious slaughter of the ant-thieves. An arduous mountain ascent can be a reconciliation, or a cold lesson in compassion. To misquote the Beatles, perspective is all you need.
For months, I’ve been telling the same story over again, as if it was the only one. Every telling has had the same ending: I don’t know.
Which isn’t much of an ending at all. It’s a clue, however, that I’m still in it, still discovering characters, their roles, and the story’s plot points.
In this particular narrative, character becomes audience, and becomes character again. Insists that his input is important to the story, “so put it in the story!” The character wants to know why the narrator is there. Narrator as character: first person.
I imagine Ed Gish saying, does the architect reveal his plans? No, he builds the fucking building, and lets everyone marvel. No one cares what nails were used, how long the concrete took to dry, or which trusses support the heaviest loads. They care about having a place to live or work, and if it looks good, that’s great. If the building is energy efficient, made of recycled materials, or wins design awards, those are bonuses. The building is the point.
The story is the point.
This is a terrible time to write! The concrete is still being poured.