I Must Go Down to the Seas Again

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

                   - John Masefield, “Sea Fever”

So, in addition to National Novel Writing Month, I’ve landed regular work. I’m now working in a slaughterhouse to keep debts paid, food on the table, and gas in the car. It’s interesting work, as I’m sure you can imagine – the culture shock of being one of two middle-class boys in a company of working-class men is almost as profound as being an American in China.

I’ve run into complications with my Peace Corps application. It keeps getting delayed, waylaid, and betrayed. Keeps moving into the future, becoming more uncertain. I don’t have quite enough for the medical tests they want and I don’t have the time to call the Corps office during the work day and I don’t have the energy to really put together my appeal. Other futures keep intruding. I’m busy with the book and with work and with keeping all my creditors paid.

The Peace Corps seems more and more like a vaporous dream, like my memories of China.

Then a friend said to me “The Man In The Fedora is the Man In The Mirror.”

I started to realize what was going on inside me. I mean, I’ve always known that complacency is the enemy of a sense of adventure. Self-satisfaction and satisfaction with the circumstances around you. But I am definitely not complacent. I’m working hard, learning new things, doing something that scares the hell out of me – making a go of living and working in America. After all, if you look at it the right way, this is a sort of adventure, right?

So why doesn’t it feel like it?

And really, what is adventure to me as I near thirty? It was a young man’s fancy and a young man’s game – ultimately not a hollow pursuit, but unsatisfying by its nature. The whole ethos of “go on adventures and confront your fears and grow as a person and have great stories to tell later” was looking incomplete and threadbare – even to me. While I write Ian Brown, I feel my face contorting into a sardonic grin. Where was the money going to come from? Where was the time? What was wrong with complacency? It was for another time, when finding a job and keeping a roof over your head weren’t quite so difficult.

The grind is just as much an enemy of adventure as complacency is. The line of thought that says “I’ve worked hard all week and I’ve got the rent paid, I deserve to relax a bit.” Lachlan Atcliffe calls it “the Shitty Stability meme.” “Then the bit lasts for five years,” he notes darkly. And I could see what he meant – I saw a future of striving extending before me, where this is all there is. The job and the commute and a beer at the end of the week and a Real Life starting sometime later, the date always reeling off into the misty distance…

So I’m going back down to the sea again. I decided it when my boss asked me about stories from the tall ship this week. I’ve contacted the Lady Washington about stepping back aboard in late April or early May with a friend who’s never sailed her before. If I alert work soon enough, they’ll be willing to grant the (unpaid) time off. I can save money to cover the unavoidable expenses. It’s just close enough that I can taste the salt water and breathe the sea air, and just far enough to prepare for.

350,00 pounds of wood. 32,000 feet of line. 4,500 square feet of sail. ONE CREW.

350,00 pounds of wood. 32,000 feet of line. 4,500 square feet of sail. ONE CREW.

And, today, I became thrifty at the store. I compared prices and bought the cheaper potatoes, and yellow onions because they’re on sale at a quarter an onion. I didn’t buy the nice cheese at Trader Joe’s. Because a second helping of shephard’s pie in the Lady’s galley will taste richer and fuller than even the nicest brie.

Today, I found second wind to march forward on my National Novel Writing Month project, sitting halfway to where it should be by now, and enough left over to write a blog update.

Today, I started my appeal. And I don’t feel anemic and enervated thinking about the Peace Corps any more.

I feel my boots and my hat, I feel my body, I feel more alive having decided to go down to the sea again. I feel infused with glamour. And, as if to be sure I understood, the divine sent a fan of No Time to discuss the ideas therein over tea in a corner of the café and an invitation to a swing-dance social tonight. As if to remind me who I am. What I’m about.

The man in the fedora is the man in the mirror. And this is how I remember who he is – and how to keep him.

The grind is flat and bitter like shipboard coffee, but the spirit of adventure, the salt tang of sea air, is the savor that makes it edible. I look forward to putting in hours, to working hard, to saving my money. Each cent is another cent towards the tall ship, and even planning it has given me vigor to advance my long-term plans.

I am not saving for something vulgar and material like a new car or the latest iGadget. No! I am saving, scrimping, working towards the bite of salted line and the burn of going aloft, of full meals with my crew and chanty-sings that linger until the dawn. I am saving for an experience, an adventure that will remind me what it is to feel my boots, to feel my body’s aches and glories, to feel my fedora. To feel alive. Glorious in itself and paying dividends in the vigor to do what is  truly important to me.

I am saving to express what I am, who I am, and what I stand for.

This adventure is the antidote to the grind wearing me, and my sense of adventure, away. It may win, in the end, but not until I’ve given it one hell of a fight.

What about you?

What salt hath savor for you? What adventures can you undertake, what confrontations with the strenuous, glorious Real Life can you do? To plan a mad, beautiful experience to reaffirm what you hold dear, whether it be stepping aboard a tall ship or volunteering with your local soup-kitchen or even to take up social nudism is the surest antidote to the weekly grind slowly wearing you away to a grey remnant of who you were.

So what sort of adventure can you go on?


The Stand Against GamerGate

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I watched the whole GamerGate debacle unfold, but I kept silent until Felicia Day’s moving piece on how it’s affected her. Because when Felicia Day talks about gaming, you shut up and you listen.

Or, alternately, as has been reported elsewhere, you doxx the shit out of her in an attempt to silence her.

The latter option is pretty much what we all expected of gamergaters. GamerGate is, at this point, a terrorist movement, using fear and threats to achieve their ends (however ill-defined and misleading their stated ends are). I’d like to take this opportunity to again remind people that, on the one side, we have a bunch of mostly white men who feel that their preeminence in an art form is being threatened. On the other, we have people receiving death threats, rape threats, driven from their homes, harassed online and off, and threatened with a mass shooting if they appeared in public. At the very least, the disparity should tip us off.

Then I read Arthur Chu’s Salon.com article, “I’m Not That Creepy Guy From The Internet.”

Arthur Chu never excuses, justifies, or makes apologies for the misogyny and terror undertaken in the name of “ethics in gaming journalism.” But he does something none of you have done, and neither did I – he empathized. The last person I saw do that with GamerGate was Felicia Day.

Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait.

As I went through Chu’s psychological analysis of the inside of GamerGate, it brought up feelings I’d either buried or rechanneled into other, more acceptable forms. I recognized the frustration, the distrust, the sense of failure at basic life skills, the escape into art (in my case, literature as well as video games). I saw the defensive misogyny, the depression, and the alienation.

And it reminded me of something. Of someone.

It reminded me of Harold Lauder.

 Harold

Harold Lauder was a character in Stephen King’s The Stand. People hate Harold. He’s an outcast in his small Maine town when the book begins and the superflu hits, a greasy, acne-ridden, overweight slob. Arthur Chu writes: “People felt uncomfortable around me, disliked me instinctively.” King writes about Fran, the best friend of Harold’s older sister: “[she reacted to him] as if she sensed by low-grade telepathy that almost every thought Harold had was coated lightly with slime.” Harold is a loner.

He compensates for this by affecting a kind of jaded cynicism – he’s the sort of guy who sighs with ennui when someone else fails, as if he’d always known they would. He treated the death of his own parents in the most horrific plague to attack the human race with a cynical, casual air. He talks over the heads of his interlocutors when he feels threatened, and cultivates a self-image of an “unrecognized genius” and tortured poet.

Harold has his good points – he’s intelligent, hard-working and resourceful. Harold Lauder solves problems, and solves them well. But he can’t seem to get a grasp on how to cope with people, least of all Fran. He develops a nasty case of Nice Guy syndrome towards her, and when she falls in love with (spoiler alert for a thirty-four year old book) Stuart Redman, he sees in Redman every jock that shoved him in a locker and in Fran every good-looking girl that ever turned him down.

For context, the superflu has eliminated 99.4% of humanity. Everyone Harold has ever known is dead, except for Fran. He’s an adult in a strange new world, and one valued for his intellectual strength and problem-solving, and feared for his mental instability. If ever anyone had the opportunity to leave high school behind, it was Harold Lauder.

He keeps a Ledger, because he has “debts to settle.” He tosses around words like “bullying” and “clique.” When he reaches Boulder and joins the Burial Committee and does his fair share of the hard, horrific work of burying the plague victims, his workmates nickname him Hawk. His first thought is that they’re mocking him, like popular kids in the cafeteria.

Of all of King’s characters, I’m most scared of Jack Torrence (The Shining) and Harold Lauder. Because I recognize both of them, in embryonic form, in myself.

Geek culture, I’m Roscoe Mathieu and I’m here to tell ya: We are Harold Lauder.

We are Harold Lauder’s inability to let anything go. We are Harold Lauder’s intellectual snobbery. We are Harold Lauder’s superficial charm. We are Harold Lauder’s imagination and resourcefulness. We are Harold Lauder’s misogyny and objectification of women. We are Harold Lauder’s affectation and his studied, superficial charm. We are Harold Lauder’s depression, anger, and immaturity.

We are Harold Lauder. He lurks inside geek culture, the seamy underbelly from which 4chan can recruit gamergaters by the score. What Paul Atreides said, Harold might say to us: “Try looking in that place you dare not look! You’ll find me there, staring out at you!”

In The Stand, Harold’s romantic frustrations, pettiness, and resourcefulness lead him to construct a shoebox bomb in his basement.  GamerGate is expressing their romantic frustrations, pettiness, and resourcefulness in the forms of threats and harassment, because unlike the Boulder Free Zone, modern America has actual police if you start assembling fuel oil and fertilizer in your basement. Both response are violence – Harold’s is physical, GamerGate’s is institutional and social. Both responses miss their real targets – Harold kills neither Fran nor Stu, and no matter how many people you threaten to shoot if Anita Sarkeesian comes to your school, it won’t make the girl in Biology ask you out.

Arthur Chu recognizes where gamergaters are coming from. He recognizes Harold Lauder. And he helped me recognize him, too.

GamerGate is the expression of dark impulses that are always lurking in geek culture.  The common experience of alienation from our peers in school, and the wonderful rush of a treasured hobby (Star Trek or cosplay or video games), and the subsequent acceptance by a group of like-minded fellow fans – the geek experience, if you will – can easily turn sour. We can become hard in our alienation, elitist in our acceptance, and hidebound in our hobbies. We can intellectualize and rationalize our petty grudges, rather than dealing with them. And we can become violent, in cold and clever ways, against the people we feel rejected us. Failing that, against people who resemble them.

We may be smart, but we’re still human.

I mentioned when Harold’s work crew nicknamed him Hawk. He realizes that they mean it sincerely – he’s impressed them with his work ethic and his stern stomach. He’s being accepted at last, on his own best merits. But, by that point, he is too involved in his revenge and too much under the influence of the dark man. He plows ahead on his quest to kill their leaders and betray their secrets to someone who wants nothing more than to annihilate them all.

Harold Lauder will always be with us, staring out at every geek from the dark place where we fear to look. The threat of GamerGate, or something like it, of geek culture lashing out violently against imaginary foes (especially if they’re women), will always be there. Don’t forget, GamerGate got started when one asshole lied about what a whore his ex was.

Arthur Chu asks us to take risks, to break the cycle of alienation and suspicion and reach out to others. “The people who try to break the cycle, who open the door to trust, who invite weird, creepy, lonely guys to come out to dinner just because they’re fans … they’re rare. They pay a heavy cost for taking that risk, sometimes. To some of us, they’re heroes.”

Be those people.

If we have enough of those people, we may see a lot less Harold…and a lot more Hawk.


A Cup of Jasmine Tea

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About an hour and twenty minutes ago, I sent off the last paper.

The last paper, of the last class, of the last semester of my Bachelor’s degree.

I walked the walk back in June. That was a ritual, a rite of passage, one of the few American culture grants. But tonight, about an hour and twenty minutes ago, I earned it.

I’m done.

When I was a teenager, we had a box of Ying Mee loose-leaf jasmine tea. It was from all the way in Hong Kong, from a shop I would later visit and a city I would later love. But this artifact of a wide world, from far beyond Morro Bay, from distant China…it was special. And so I saved it. I only took a few pinches of that jasmine tea when I had something to celebrate.

When I got my High School Equivalency certificate.

When I graduated from Cuesta College.

When I got my first job.

I used to think that celebration, that accomplishment, meant food and beer and loud driving music. I spent years trying to make it so, wondering what was wrong with me that throwing a big party always made me feel hollow. Celebration isn’t, not for me anyway.

It’s some music that’s subtle and rich, Yoko Kanno or Blade Runner or Pink Floyd or Miles Davis, and a cup of jasmine tea. And solitude, to let the old quietly drain out and the new seep in. It takes me time to come to grips with it.

With finishing a novel.

With coming back to China when I thought I was exiled for good.

With completing school.

I felt like I was sending myself off. That part of me, the college student, who’s been going to school or avoiding going to school since I was fourteen, was going away. And it makes me sad, and wistful, and glad at the same time…but those are all too blunt descriptors. The emotions blend together like the colors of a dawn or the flavors of a cup of jasmine tea.

Good bye, student. It has been an honor. It has been such an honor.

Thank you, everyone who stood by me, and with me, for however long, on my way here. I could not have done it without you.


The Short, Strange Life of Comrade Lin

My N3F-award winning story, “The Short, Strange Life of Comrade Lin,” is now available for sale on Smashwords!

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You may remember Comrade Lin when I won second place in N3F’s 2013 Short Story Contest with it.This story, one of my China stories, follows Comrade Lin Hong as he follows the eerie music of the wilderness surrounding his home city of Shanghai, into a past he thought he had killed…

Go! Download! Read!


Magnificent Bravura

“As a Baby Boomer, it was my generation that first encountered a hypocritical and cynical government that was not trustworthy…” – Progressive Power, Florida

Continue reading


Five Wednesdays

The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on, like a bird that flew,

Tangled up in Blue.

For the last five successive Wednesdays, I have not slept in the same city twice. Wednesday the 3rd, I was in Hong Kong, saying my tearful Goodbyes For Now to Asia, to China, and to Diana Hsu. The 10th, the rhythm of the rails was all I could feel, steaming out of Chicago. Wednesday the 17th, I slept after setting up a meeting in Sacramento. And this Wednesday, the 25th, I was in Portland, and drunk. I haven’t moved around this much since that climactic November of 2006.

Last Friday, I saw an American doctor for the first time in three years. I pointed to my strained bicep and asked when it would heal, why it hadn’t yet. When I told her that I got it over the May Day holiday, wiping out on a cursed bicycle in the hills outside Yangshuo, China, the doctor replied “the fact that it’s healed that much in only six weeks is already a miracle.”

It seems inconceivable to me that it was only six weeks before that I was on that May Day trip with Diana. Only six weeks since contributing our underwear to the ceiling of Bad Panda, since meeting the old farm couple who mended the bike, since riding atop an ammo crate back into Yangshuo. A year in China is like three years outside, that is true, but still…

So much has happened. And I feel like the only thing that’s really changed has been me. My parents still take money from the government to shoot politicians. All my friends back in China carry on with their lives, all my friends here in America carry on with theirs. I am no longer a player in anyone’s dramas, so I am a trusted audience and confidante. After all, I’m leaving with the Peace Corps come autumn, I must be safe. I find it strange to be back here, in a thousand little ways – worrying about jaywalking, the ease with which I can get things repaired, remembering that twenty dollars actually is a lot of money, being quietly shocked to hear people having political opinions, how many pairs of amazingly blue eyes there are.

It’s an eerie thing, coming home. “Home” is at once alien and familiar. And every time I do come back to Morro Bay, it feels less and less like my home. It feels like someone else’s, like it belongs to Shawn Clark next door and to Jade Roberts my first crush and to my father, who’s adopted the town as his own. I’m not sure where home is for me any more. Maybe that’s why I keep moving around.

I wonder where I’ll be this Wednesday.


Ordinary Day

Weigh hey hey, it’s just an ordinary day
And it’s all your state of mind
At the end of the day
You got to say
It’s all right…

Today, I woke up.

This was a good start, really. I like starting my days that way.

However, as I was an hour late, I got my face splashed and teeth brushed and hair combed in record time. I had a date for ten o’clock, so by ten after I was in my deceased uncle’s 1970s station wagon, speeding through the mountains.

I met this girl, Margaret, on OKCupid, and after extensive chatting on meditation and writing, we agreed to meet up at the Templeton farmer’s market. When I arrived, I noticed one thing immediately – Templeton farmer’s market is full of farmers. In Morro Bay, it’s the domain of olive oil venders, butchers, specialty soap sellers – and one sharp-tongued vegetable merchant named Maria. In Templeton, all across the green, vegetables as far as the eye could see.

The second thing I noticed was Margaret. I don’t know if she’s copper-bottomed, but she’s “clipper-built and just me style and fancy,” as the old song goes. M exudes an aura of quiet, earthy strength, she could stand up in a headwind. We wandered the fair, making shy commentary, and I finally caved and bought an extensive set of herb seedlings to grow.

She hefted the seedlings back to my car with me, while I toted the meat I’d bought. M then took me to the little cramped cabin-size lending library that Templeton has instead of a public library, and then to coffee. On the wall of the coffee shop, they had a huge map of the world. I told her about China and about Senegal, she told me about the Dominican Republic and about Madrid, Spain. The conversation really loosened up after that, and she opened herself up.

Margaret’s cobbled together an income from teaching English and music, her darling love. She ran off to teach music in Santo Domingo under the care of an entire nunnery, in fact. Margaret went semi-vegetarian for health reasons not too long ago, but didn’t turn down her mother’s chicken. She’s gearing up for a degree in industrial engineering at Cal Poly, which she hopes will allow her to stay in the area and create systems that are efficient and in harmony with the human and natural environments around them. Margaret’s still waters run deep.

After promising to see about kayaking out to the Sand Spit for a picnic sometime this week, I walked back to my car whistling a jaunty love tune…

…and dialed up my friend Toni, to see if she’d be able to make that afternoon’s garden party. Toni is an old friend, a mad little musician with a grin that lights up a house. She was still in the middle of band practice, that musical Toni, so I went alone. My friend Jody Mulgrew is moving to Nashville to further his musical career, and his sister and mother threw an open house. There was much hugging (and wine) and gladhanding (and wine) and pinching of cheeks (and wine) and reintroductions (and wine). I confessed to the younger Ms. Mulgrew that she had been my first crush. She arched an eyebrow and pointed out I’d said that thrice before. I shrugged, and turned red.

Jody and his music partner Gary Garrett plucked up a few guitars and we all gathered around in a circle in the backyard and watched them play in the warm afternoon sun. The quiet creak of weathered wood, the accompaniment of Jody’s young nephew and the windchimes his mother had hung in the trees, they all harmonized beautifully. During “Til My Peace Be Made,” I wept. It was so serene, so complete, so perfect, I nearly burst.

The day was not yet over.

After the impromptu concert, I had a few waters and said goodbyes. I wish Jody luck, over there in Nashville.

Toni texted and said she was out of practice, and would I like to come over? I got back in the car and headed into San Luis Obispo, meeting Toni at her ancestral abode. She looked radiant as ever and flushed from her flute-playing. That disarming smile never left her lips.

We headed out into Saturday night in San Luis, a very strange time and place to be a part of. For once, it wasn’t random folk stopping me on the street to say “it’s been forever!” (well, aside from Chris and Sarah), they were stopping for her. Friends, countrymen, bandmates…it seems T has either befriended or jammed with everyone, or will. I was amazed that this radiant creature was on my arm.

We had a quiet dinner and talked about our future plans and our philosophies of planning, then went to the random poetry reading we’d spotted on the way to the restaurant.  It was polite and restrained, and they shushed us a few times. There, we met more friends of Toni’s, including bearded Sven, gangly Wayne and his mysterious lover Marguerite. Sven and Wayne have both played with Toni, and while they talked the old days, Marguerite chatted with me. M is half-Mexican, half-Italian, and one hundred percent gorgeous, a free-spirited gypsy violinist following her feet up and down the coast.

As it was getting on, and Toni had a family date later in the evening, we took our leave. But I wanted to clear something up, so as we walked back:

“…was Marguerite hitting on me?”

“…um? Yes? And she’s beautiful, isn’t she?”

“Well yes but…does she do that with everybody?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“Oh, okay.”

I escorted her home and thought to go back to the poetry reading. As I passed the church on my way back, I heard a woman’s scream.

I spun around, and saw someone thrashing in the half-light in a car with flashing lights. Trusty fedora in hand, I ran over, and when I saw her sitting alone, I tapped on the passenger window and asked if she needed help. She alternately wept and flailed at the car, but asked me to help. Her key was stuck in the ignition, and in the on position, but she couldn’t start it. While I jiggled the key, she explained her whole story, bouncing between tears and an even voice, and several times asking me to pray with/for her.

At one point she completely broke down and said “I don’t know why God is doing this to my family…” I quoted St. Luke at her, that “I shall not burden thee more than thou can bear,” and she took a bit of solace from that. I got her key free and said “whatever you gotta do to let you be you, it might be a good idea to go do that. You gotta take care of yourself right now.” She thanked me, started her car, and started down the street.

I continued back to the poetry reading, meeting Sven halfway to our mutual surprise. We walked together, talking the philosophy of planning and the wiles and wonders of Toni, and when we got back to the poetry reading (now with snapping fingers and clapping), we found Marguerite there, standing tragic with her violin case and her red shawl and a stunned look between her eyes. Wayne had grown jealous, and kicked her out.

Moved more by the violin case than anything, I offered her use of the couchbed in the RV where I stay under the avocado tree in the back forty of my father’s ranch. She accepted, still stunned, and we went to get a burrito in her. We encountered a strange Jersey couple in search of a drum circle or Dr. Robert Green, but besides that the trip to the burrito place was uneventful. Marguerite was very appreciative, and got her wits about her as she inhaled the bean-and-cheese special.

We toddled back one last time to the poetry reading, which was by now a rock show, where she met an old friend and I met another, and the old friend offered her a place to stay for the night. Marguerite promised that we’d get together. I walked away chuckling, “easy come, easy go…” Especially for dark, mysterious, carefree gypsy violinists who’ve stepped out of the same pulp story I did.

I phoned up my old flame, the lady Jennifer, and met her for after-work drinks at our old favorite dive bar. She’s now happily married and a mighty Amazon, and I agreed to make it official in my capacity as Priest of the Universal Life Church if she and her man were interested. I unloaded the short version of my life (China, Peace Corps, life under the avocado tree, writing) and the long version of my day. Jennifer smirked and went “so, finally dating multiple women, huh?” The barman chuckled.

I got her one back when she sighed, “I like having men-friends, but it never seems to work out.”

“For a woman as good-looking as you, yeah, I can imagine.”

The whole bar applauded. Jennifer laughed and said “thank you.” She went home to where her husband had hot dinner waiting for her, with my regards to him for it.

It occurred to me on the drive home that today is not actually that unusual for me. In fact, rather an ordinary day. And to think, I was worried California might be boring in between China and Senegal.


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