Out of the blue, my cousine Jessie Gagnon Hlister, aka Lady Laura Jones, aka the Mistress of Adventure, aka my Distaff Counterpart, contacted me over Facebook. She asked what I’d been up to since last I saw her. To let you know, I met her for the first and last time on my family’s trip back to the ancestral stomping grounds in New Hampshire and Québec, a week before I left for China. This came out, and I can post it because it’s my blog and I can be as self-indulgent as I damn well please:
(‘so what have you been up to?’)
I been hounded, hated, married and tricked, I been tortured, cheated, shot and tried.
Nah, seriously. While I was in China, my fiancee slept with [redacted], four of my friends died, my parents split up, my teetotaling father got in trouble with the law, they ran over my dog and crashed my truck. I had a joke, “Yeah, my life sucks. I’m glad I’m not there for it.”
On the other hand, I travelled overland from Canton to Bangkok by every means of conveyance, survived two attacks from students and one bar fight (my jacket has singes to prove it), got on national Chinese television by branding Admiral Zheng He, learned a little Mandarin, walked through the Plain of Jars past unexploded American ordinance, watched the monsoons coming in over Vietnam, played xiongqi, slept in the Party Hotel of Xi’an, the fourth floor of the Sanya public library (without the guards the wiser), and on the floor of a farang bar in Luang Prabong, fell to my knees at the beauty of the Cave of the Thousand-Handed Bodhisattva, marvelled at the Terra-Cotta Warriors, got a plaque for being the first foreigner to live in one small town since the departure of the Japanese Occupation Army, kowtowed before the shrine of Zhang Sanfeng on Wudang Shan, failed to find a hooker on Haikou’s Mafia Row, learned to make love in Cantonese, and got sick more times than I care to remember.
Most importantly, I met Marissa Wu. You’re familiar with Asian politesse, I’m sure, so you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I walked up to her, dropped a pickup line, and her first response was “Your Mandarin is CRAP, you know that right?” She’s clever, snarky, curious, and adventurous…and, as it turns out, far more idealistic than a Chinese girl has any right to be. We struck a deal to trade Cantonese for French. Because of some romcom-style shenanigans involving misplaced emails, an Airport Chase, and a milkshake, we ended up confessing our real feelings for one another. I taught her this idea about ‘the woman enjoying it.’ But I was too strung out on culture shock and the other upheavals in my life to give her what she needed, so we parted as friends, however wistfully.
As one last note, the three days I was in Bangkok, I went to this regular farang bar that had cheeseburgers. I went downstairs to their bathroom, feeling fried and half-dead inside, and I closed the stall door. Right there, in the middle of the stall door, were these words: YOU CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME.
So! In that sort of headspace, I flew back. You remember the nasty effects of reverse-culture shock well. My therapist theorized that I never actually got over the culture shock of returning to America. It’s an interesting theory, anyway. I went straight back to school, and crashed and burned. I went from the 3.74 GPA I got my AA with to academic probation in two semesters. I flunked out of archaeology school, Marissa stopped talking to me, I could not write a jot about China and all I’d seen and done and felt, and I was living with Dad and my new stepmother, growing slowly sociopathic. I call July-December ’07 “the six months where my dreams died, one by one.”
I moved out in January. Then my comic idea got picked up by a publisher. I waddled through most of ’08, got my first story sold (to MindFlights.com), voted for Obama, and went up the mountain to a Buddhist meditation retreat. And I mean hardcore: Two weeks without speaking, meditating sixteen hours a day. When I came down, people had danced in the streets on election day and America was no longer a sick joke, but a place of hope. I will never forget that feeling.
I finished out by going on the tall ship Lady Washington, hauling sail and going up and down the coast teaching school kids history and seamanship. I got lots of inspiration and ideas for my pirate comic, met MamaTina, Tiny, Sparky, Tarmaster, Shitbucket, Sass, Stich, the Drewsarah, Elf and Captain JB. And, one night, I lay in my bunk and listened to the CD that Sparky gave me, and I heard Ten Thousand Miles Away. And I understood that I needed to get back to Marissa.
She was dating another American, Joey, earning the title Burger Queen forever more. Joey was seeing her on the side while he had a wife and kids Stateside, and I let her cry on my shoulder…from ten thousand miles away. We restarted again as lopeng and losek, if not lopo and logong (as friends and teachers, if not as beloved wife and beloved husband). It’s amazing, since that dark night in December ’08, how much we’ve grown to depend on each other’s emails.
I moved in with my friends Charlie Sibbach and Tanino Miné, and Charlie hired me as head writer of his [redacted but, shall we say, risqué video game project]. One of the women writing porn for me was Megan Jeffrey, a ginger and witty journalism major with a penchant for the Phantom of the Opera. She taught me everything I know about wu wei, the way of Lao Tzu, action without acting. Our first date was a perfect example: We got together, and did whatever naturally came next, and kept doing that through the day, without hurry, without particular effort, from the end of the writermoot to the first kiss. And after the project fell apart, we kept seeing each other.
Then she tried to break up with me, for good reason, and I had to walk her through it because she’d never been involved in a break up before. She went off to grad school and has cut all communication with most of her friends back here, and me. I sent her a bottle of her favorite whiskey for Christmas, with a note that says “I’d like to hear from you, even if it’s just to say goodbye.” I feel…like I can close the book, now. I done my damnedest and that’s all you can ask of a man.
But, the Five Year Plan expired on my birthday, and on her watch. I had got my AA, and gone to China, and crewed the tall ship, but never six months in another culture besides China, and hadn’t gone on a dig. I was satisfied with my attempts, because I done my damnedest. With her help, I put together a Second Five Year Plan: Go on a dig, six months of culture shock (ideally in America), finish and publish one of the Magna Opera (the big art projects I want to finish before I die, including the comic), collect my BA, and collect my black belt.
With that in mind, I returned to school in August, tackling two classes that’d kicked my ass before. I’ve learned to think in math, and to see the beauty in it. Rare jewels indeed. I got written up in the newspaper for being Just That Awesome and looking for a job, got a job in a racist antique store, and promptly got my ass fired. Then my publisher broke up with me, after four months of contract negotiations. I’ve started ratcheting up my writing career, since I can build it around school schedules and adventuring.
(along in there, Charlie and Miné flew back to Japan and got married in a beautiful little ceremony in Kyoto. They’re planning a return trip involving Tokyo, I’ll send ’em your way. Just say you’re the Distaff Roscoe and they’ll understand.)
But this cent a word crap is for the birds, as L. Ron Hubbard was fond to say. So I call this the Tannhauser Wire: You pick up the latest edition of Asimov’s, and there’s this great story called “Sweat and White Cotton” by this guy, R. Jean Mathieu. His website’s listed, and you go there. He’s got this subscription service, you pay five bucks a month or fifty bucks a year, and you get two of his stories a month, every month, to your smartphone, Kindle, palmtop or email. Neat, eh? I figure I can use a traditional genre-writing as my marketing plan, and it even occasionally makes money, and use the Wire as my main income stream. It worked for Cat Valente.
Along with that, I joined the SLO NightWriters, whose alumni include Catherine Ryan Hyde (of “Pay it Forward” fame) and Jeff Carlton (“Journal of a Plague Year”). The first meeting was on Tuesday, and it was … awesome. Here’s a bunch of forty- or fifty-something writers, all of whom understand what it means to be strange and poor and a talent in America. And they’re impressed by me…I didn’t tell any Tales of the Tall Ship, or Tales of China, or lay my tortured romance on them, I just told them what I was doing and what I wanted to do, and they stared at me as if I were manna from heaven. A subscription shortfiction service? INTERACTIVE fiction? Podcasting?
There was one woman there, a Christian women’s lit writer, who griped about how the formulas are so strict these days in genre fiction, and how readers are idiots, and the big houses expect you to jump on the conveyor belt and crap out a book every nine months, and how they’re all too old and cold and settled in their ways. And I inspired her, I could see it in her eyes, she wanted to try something new now as we left the meeting. That’s a wonderful feeling. The last time I felt that was when I wandered by a fellow and his girlfriend in Phoenix Books and we got to talking about Indian philosophy and he wistfully says I’d like to go to India one day and I laid it on him how and he walked away muttering about talking to his pastor to become a missionary to India and there was a fire in his eyes…he sent me an email recently. From Pondicherry.
Having also been unceremoniously appointed president of the Cuesta Literati, our somewhat anemic creative writing club, I also struck a deal with NightWriters and Sisters in Crime to mentor the Literati and start trading. The Literati will be preferentially invited to NightWriters meetings and events, giving them the new blood they feel they so desperately need, and the NightWriters will cycle published members to the Literati meetings, so we can benefit from their experience, along with shared events, fundraising, and trading guest speakers.
I don’t think the Literati are going to be anemic, no more, no how.
I’ve got a couple stories in the mail right now, and I wrote another one Monday morning after fusing an old plot in my notebook to Hyperspace. I turned the Doctor Who theme into a mystical experience! 😀 Everyone at the NightWriters meeting was very intrigued with the story, and wanted to see.
I’ve decided I wanna be Jack London when I grow up. He went oyster pirating, and that made John Barleycorn, he went to the Yukon, that made White Fang and Call of the Wild, he went sailing, and that made The Sea Wolf and South Seas. An author/adventurer, and Jack London didn’t break the way Lawrence, Harrer, and Kerouac did.
Speaking of, it’s been time to look at colleges. I’ve more or less narrowed it down to UPenn (they have a degree there that makes me question my scholarly sexuality), Berkeley, McGill, or UArizona. And applying for scholarships, since my mother is morally opposed to both enlistment and debt and can’t afford to underwite my college studies herself. In the course of that, I applied to AmeriCorps City Year, with this essay:
“When I went to China, the California hills were brown. When I came back, they were spun gold. I fell in love with the Chinese people, culture, and cuisine, and I came back to America a deeper patriot than I ever could have been if I’d stayed here. I want to see my mother country, and give back to her out of my blood, sweat and time, in thanks for taking in my immigrant ancestors and making them her own, and in thanks for the freedom of speech and respect for dissent that is this country’s first Amendment.
I’ve never seen New York, or New Orleans, or Chicago, or Washington, DC. But I don’t feel that screaming through, on a college road trip or a tour bus, can’t really give you the feel for a place. It’s why I chose to work for a year in China, including five months in Haikou, rather than sign up for a tour bus. You only really get to know a place when you’re up to your elbows in it, a part of the community, buying groceries at the market and walking the streets you find yourself in. It takes time, and it takes involvement.
I feel that City Year offers me the opportunity to express my gratitude to this country, to see another face of it than the one I grew up in, and to make a positive change in the world. I won’t lie, the money for college is also a draw. As is the opportunity to live and work in as alien a part of the country as I’m likely to find. But more than that, I want to make America, already a good thing, even better. And I’d like to work with City Year to do so.”
The phone interview with City Year Chicago was yesterday. I won’t know for another ten business days, but I think I did pretty good. When the interviewer asked what I’d do for Camp City Year next Spring Break, she liked my idea so much she stole it. I feel confident. It’ll be ten months in inner city Chicago, helping high school kids get their diplomas and working in parks. In exchange: a stipend, an adventure, and five thousand dollars for college.
The other group that’s expressed interest in me is California’s Backcountry Trails Program. Five months of camping twenty miles from the nearest electrical outlet, living with twelve other people, hiking twenty miles a day with all I’ll need plus two tools on my back, smashing fill with sledgehammers, clearing trails, digging ditches, and hauling logs. That’s another two thousand dollars for school, plus a bonus: After that, nobody, anywhere, ever, is going to be able to argue I’m not manly or that I haven’t seen the Real World. Not even my father.
But, obviously, not this year. I got school, the NEXT great adventure.
I’ve signed up for six classes this semester: swimming, accounting, business law, Science for Weenies, its lab, and logic. Plus going back to karate (tonight!). Classes start Monday. And my duties to myself as a writer, to NightWriters as a member, and to the Literati as president. This’ll be a doozy. 😀 I’m going to try and save my pennies so I can afford a roundtrip ticket to China, and spend my birthday in Marissa’s arms. I might have to open-jaw it and see you and Brian in Tokyo, too. You’ll have to play me your wedding video, I still can’t believe it…Lady Laura Jones, a decent woman!
But when I get back, I’m going on that dig. Cal Poly (of ALL UCs) has a summer program digging up the Presidio in Santa Barbara, and I can afford it.
After that…City Year or Uni. I have a wonderful thought (can scarce call it a plan) of doing City Year, going to uni for a few months, xia ben shang jiang (putting down the pen and taking up the spade) in April, going back to school that August, doing at least a semester study-abroad, finishing my degree, volunteering for the Peace Corps, then going back to grad school, getting my doctorate, and signing on for Human Terrain (speaking of Lawrence of Arabia).
All the while, writing, writing, writing, building the Tannhauser Wire two hundred, five hundred, One Thousand True Fans strong. My biography and my work I want to stand as a monument to the truth you and I both know: “The world is wide, strange, and beautiful. There is no need to be bored, no need for ennui. Go forth, in the spirit of adventure, challenging yourself to see and feel the breadth and strangeness of this world. There’s still time, there’s ALWAYS still time, to save the world.”
…and of course, on that note, the Radio Gods should pick “Jesus Christ Superstar” out of my playlist. Heh. Truly, they are listening. Now, I must go, for I drive a 1971-’72-’73 Beetle, and the throttle cable snapped after the NightWriters meeting.
What’s YOUR story, babe? 😀
And I don’t feel bad for asking her her story after all that. Jessie is one of the few people I know who could top it if she tried.