Litquake and Video Takes

IMG_0040San Francisco has long been known for its ability to draw and inspire writers, from Mark Twain and Jack London to the Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac, to contemporary authors Isabelle Allende and Dave Eggers. I love this city – it’s beauty, its proximity to the ocean, but mostly because it’s effing vibrant, pregnant with possibility, overflowing with the kind of creative energy that always inspires me to write. Every time I come here it’s a shot in the arm with a creative juice potent enough to rival Red Bull. This past weekend was no exception.

It’s only natural that “The Literary City” should give birth to Litquake’s Litcrawl, the literary equivalent bastard spawn of Woodstock and a pub crawl held annually in the city’s Mission district. It’s 82 sessions crammed into three hours in venues as diverse as laundry mats, hair salons, galleries, restaurants, co-op work spaces, cafes, dark alleyways, and bars. It’s anything and everything that you can dream up related to writing.

My buddy and fellow writer Scot Bolsinger and his long time friend Paul, joined me this past Saturday night to check it out. We met at the Mission Laundromat where an older Latina woman struggled to maintain dominion over the counter where she folded clothes while a crowd amassed and women in pretty dresses read poetry, Twitter-based flash fiction, and non-fiction short stories as part of “Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose presents Sex, Lies, and Lost Socks.” We headed next to a salon where a large crowd had gathered to witness a literary relay race sponsored by the Castro’s Literary Cooperative. What is a literary relay race? I cannot say for sure, but it appeared to involve the cooperative creation of an original story written by ten writers solely for and during the hour-long session. IMG_0028The vibe in Fellow Barber, where the event was held, was upbeat and filled with the buzz of excited chatter. The authors, each wearing a big number taped to the front of their shirts, had gathered at the center of the salon where they slapped one another on the back and bore faces filled with the kind of calm that comes after the storm of a live performance.

We checked in to hear kids reading their stories at 826 Valencia, Dave Egger’s non-profit organization dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and teachers inspire their students to write. At The Chapel we discovered a contest was about to begin. We high-tailed it outta there fast lest the other, far more qualified and willing participants discover we were literary trivia posers and beat us to death with their notebooks and pens. On our way out we were intrigued by this sign and stopped to check it out.

IMG_0042Turns out the sign advertised the Hook-Up Truck, a “modern dating solution for safe sexual adventuring” that can be dispatched immediately to any location in the city. Private, secure, and temperature controlled, rental of the room includes complimentary birth control and STD preventatives and optional use of the installed camera. Seeing as Scot is a happily married man and Paul’s a gay pastor, our discovery of the Hook-Up Truck signaled it was time for this lady to head on home. Scot and I had to be up early the next morning.IMG_0046

5AM Sunday morning came too soon. By the time I got my shit together and drove to the Embarcadero (getting lost along the way) it was almost 6:30 and the sky was growing bright with the impending dawn. Scot and a production crew of five were gathered on the roof of Scot’s apartment building when I arrived, Scot lit up like a billboard, balanced atop a bar stool with the Bay Bridge for a backdrop. He smiled with relief when I appeared. Focused and with his back to me, Dave Moutray of Crux Jinx Productions directed one of the crew to repoint the lights. I might have felt a wave of nervousness flood through my gut, but I was too damned tired.

Bruno, the sound man, wired me up, instructing me to run the mic wire he connected to my scarf down through my sweater, same as the actors playing anchormen and politicians I’d seen on TV. I took a seat and watched as they shot. Soon the sun rose, prompting the parrots of Telegraph Hill to leave their overnight perches to fly in wide circles chattering and generally making a lot of noise along the way. The parrots overwhelmed the sound every time they flew nearby slowing progress. I noticed Dave getting antsy and before long he announced the sun was too high. The crew relocated to the shaded deck off Scot’s apartment and I continued to wait my turn in the adjacent living room.

Scot Effin VideoI drank a couple of lattes, read a few emails in an attempt to distract myself from thinking about what was to come, and then it was my turn.

Dave turned the bright lights, two cameras, and his full attention on me where I sat on the soft black leather couch willing it to swallow me. Tired or not, I felt my head begin to buzz, my stomach clamp down on itself, and my blood pressure rise. In an attempt to channel that awful feeling, I rung my hands until my fingers hurt. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have skipped one or both of the lattes.

Dawn Effin VideoAs he had done with Scot before me, Dave began, “So Dawn, why don’t we start with you telling me, what is Effin Artist?”

I did my best to answer the “what” and “why” of Effin Artist so Dave and crew could pull together the necessary sound bites to create a three minute video that will reflect the vision that Scot first shared with me last June. But in describing what is now our shared vision, the challenge we are faced with is that the what of Effin Artist is still a moving target. It’s like trying to determine the sex of a one-month fetus – it’s just too early – the naughty bits have yet to emerge. And we’re a little like expectant parents, reticent to share too much before things have developed sufficiently and the idea demonstrates clearly it’s got ten fingers and ten toes.

I’ve never felt like such a complete and utter amateur. Trying to come up with the right words was intense and the sense that “this really matters so I have to get it right” threatened to overwhelm me. By the time we broke for lunch I felt weak and a little nauseous.

For the last shot, Dave sat Scot and I tight up next to one another on that same mushy couch and prompted us to deliver the our call to action – what people will need to do to help make Effin Artist a reality. Sitting on that couch alone under the bright lights was hot enough, now there was a big burly Italian American sitting and sweating alongside me. I felt my pits and the back of my legs getting damp with sweat and hoped that my deodorant was working.

“Sit up straight,” Dave reminded us every time the couch sucked us back down to slouching.

I was so tired I couldn’t get my lines right. I’d managed to pull off the “why” without too many takes, but this was demanding more from me. Finally I nailed it and sank back into the couch in relief.

Then Bruno the Sound Man, so quiet I’d almost forgotten he was there, spoke up, “Someone was tapping.”

Everyone followed his gaze, which rose from his sound monitor and landed on me, “I think you were tapping the couch or your leg with your hand.”

I felt beads of sweat break out on my forehead as my blood pressure rose to make my cheeks flush and my ears burn. I did not want to have to try to get those same words out again. I think I might have yelled at myself. I felt like an idiot. The crew had been shooting for over eight hours and my nervous tapping meant they had to keep working. Nevertheless their mood was surprisingly upbeat. They joked and encouraged, cajoled and did everything in their power to extract the right words with the right tone and feeling of purpose from our mouths.

I felt a little better when Scot blew his part on our next try.

Take Seven was the charm. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty effing good. Good enough for horseshoes, hand grenades, and a couple of writers doing their effing best to get their message across. I can’t wait to share the results, the what and the why of Effin Artist and my exciting role within it.

Stuck in a Moment?

"Rock, Hard Place" Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.I’m feeling that prickly sensation of mild sunburn on my forehead and the backs of my legs. After two weeks out of the water and away from Baja, it’s good to be home. I wasn’t so sure that I’d be feeling this way though. I wasn’t sure I was going to want to come home.

I’ve not only been MIA from this blog for a while, but I’ve been feeling MIA from life a fair bit too. I’ve been struggling, depressed and lonely. I’ve been fighting with the realities of my lifestyle.

I’m pretty sure I can hear you thinking where do I get off feeling this way? Believe me, I’ve been told many times and am usually very aware that I have every reason to be content, that I live a life most people would give a few fingers for. My ex, in his eloquence, is fond of saying I’ve “got it dicked.” And I usually can convince myself that’s true and find a reason to be content, if not outright happy. But there’s something missing and so much of what is obvious from the outside looking in just masks the difficult realities of my lifestyle. To compound the problem, I feel a tremendous amount of guilt any time I feel dissatisfied. Feeling guilty about how I’m feeling does nothing to help the situation.

When I find myself in this place, I do my best not to wallow or let it drag me down into a pit of self-pity. What I do instead is gratefully acknowledge everything I have, eat right, drink less and try to figure out what fundamentally is making me feel like crap so I can fix it. The fix is always one of two things – an attitude adjustment or something external I can change. Typically the former approach is enough to turn things around, but when the depression is the result of too much partying and surfing, and not enough sleep, changing my external circumstances can work wonders. This time though the only cause I could come up with was that I had been living in isolation for eight months and needed to get out. Getting out, however, requires funds, which are in short supply (for now, she optimistically writes), so I turned to my ex who’d been asking me to come help him with a landscaping project on Maui. He’d fly me to Hawaii in exchange for help with his project, some baking and home cooked meals.

The remarkable thing is that as soon as I booked my tickets, I felt better. Instantly. Days before my scheduled departure. I woke up early, enthusiastic for what the day would bring and looking forward to what lay ahead. I thought, “!s that all it takes? Something different to look forward to?”

As the plane took off and banked North in the direction of San Francisco, I felt a elephantine weight lift and my mood shifted skyward with the plane. Less than 24 hours in San Francisco and I started to think, “Maybe I should move to California and get a real job, get involved in some kind of community work…rejoin civilization.” Yeah, I can barely believe it either.

And then, rather than laugh at myself, leave it at that unbelievable thought, and return to my unreal life, I said out loud to three well-connected people, “So if you know anyone who’s looking for someone to house sit, a writer or editor, or anything really, let me know.”

On Maui, I began the process of formulating a plan that would make my new dream come true. I even came up with a way I could have my cake and eat it too. “I’ll get a writing job that only requires that I be in the office periodically.” And there were thoughts of landing a regular house- and animal-sitting gig.

The time on the island went fast. Too fast. I kept thinking up reasons why I should stay longer. “We didn’t accomplish enough on the project.” “I should go to this writing workshop that’s scheduled on the Sunday after I’m supposed leave.” “I didn’t get to have good pizza.” “I really should go see friend X.” But I had responsibilities back home that couldn’t wait and some disturbed weather off the coast of southern Mexico suggested a tropical storm might form sooner rather than later. I kept to the original plan and promised myself I’d return to the City by the Bay this fall or winter.

The flight from Maui to San Francisco, via Portland is not short. I had plenty of time to get caught up on my reading. I’d packed my Kindle in my checked baggage by mistake, so I read the only thing I had handy – Volume 24.3 of The Surfers Journal. And as I read from front to back cover, three quotes in three separate articles resonated with me, revealing a theme that shed light on the source of my dissatisfaction.

It’s easy to feel isolated when you’re no longer part of mainstream life.”

Day after day, no matter how perfect the waves get, there is a feeling of remoteness here, a sense that the rest of the world is moving along, more engaged, more connected, and more interesting.”

I felt a pang of recognition delivered with the pointier end of a stick as I read the last one:

If every day is a holiday, there are no more holidays.”

There they were, hard, sharp, and undeniable on the page – the three main reasons I was feeling down, along with their remedies:

Isolation, remoteness, and monotony versus engaged, connected, and interesting.

I feel, often, like I am on another planet or could be, for all the interaction I have with people. The little bit I have is limited in scope and time. What I’m struggling with, bumping up against, is the need to feel connected, deeply connected, to other members of the human race and to feel engaged in some cause that benefits others. But I’m scared by what that means. Really scared. That ache-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach scared. It’s the changes I’d have to make implied by this realization that scare the living shit out of me. And then I think, “What if this feeling is something that will pass and I end up regretting it for the rest of my life?” After all, we’re talking about walking away from what, for the most part, is a pretty amazing lifestyle. Then I worry that I’m looking in the wrong place for a solution to my dissatisfaction – external conditions. Maybe I just need to “do the work” and everything will turn rosy again. Maybe, just maybe, I’m “stuck in a moment and can’t get out of it.” But the memory of the epiphany I had on that plane tells me that’s just wishful thinking. The prospect of leaving this surfers’ paradise is daunting. But if at the other end I find meaning and fulfillment, the choice seems pretty obvious. Nevertheless, I don’t know. I just don’t know. Do you?

Mystic in Mexico Part I: Connection

handicrafts-huichol-design-thumb21793453I visited Mexico for the first time in 2001. It was the trip that led me to move to Baja California Sur in 2002. Before I arrived in Baja, however I flew into Puerta Vallarta, on the other side of the Sea of Cortez, and traveled North to San Blas in the state of Nayarit, to a hotel claiming to operate one of Corky Carroll’s surf schools. I use the work “claiming” because upon arrival I discovered there was no surf school and I was on my own.

In between surf sessions undertaken on a yellowed surfboard with La Sandia (the watermelon) painted across its ample width, I explored the area around the tiny village San Pancho. One day, I stumbled across a small art gallery filled with brightly colored tapestries made of yarn and objects covered in brightly colored beads depicting different animals, suns and moons, plant life, and a symbol I was not familiar with that appeared in most pieces. It looked like a flower, with tear-drop shaped petals, but it’s coloring was always green and I sensed that while it may have been a plant, it was not a flower.

As I stood looking at the artwork, a gentleman working in the gallery approached me. He was dressed in loosely-fitted white cotton clothing with a brightly-colored woven belt around his waist made of the same material used in some of the tapestries displayed on the gallery’s wall.  He had a friendly, round face, dark skin and even darker, deeply-set eyes. He struck up a conversation with me in Spanish and although my knowledge of the language was very rudimentary, I discovered that we were able to make ourselves understood quite well. He explained that he was a member of a tribe of native Mexican Indians, the Huichol (‘wee-choll’), who made the unique art that surrounded us, depicting a culture of nature worship. He patiently explained what each of the symbols meant – that the Sun is father and master of the heavens, and the Eagle, Werika, is his wife, mother of the sky and goddess of life; that the deer, Kauyumari, is a spirit guide who leads the shamans on their visionary pathways. The strange symbol that I thought was a plant he explained was peyote, or Hikuri.

My ears pricked up. I’d always been curious about this plant and it’s reputation as a hallucinogen and spiritual teacher. I’d read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and was intensely curious about plant-derived psychotropic compounds as a means of evolving spiritually. This despite the fact that I’ve never been much into recreational drug use.

He said, “Peyote is powerful medicine. Peyote is a gift to the Huichol from the gods. It shares wisdom and is a way to connect to the gods.”

As he spoke I felt a slight shiver run through my body. With this we began discussing religion and things of a spiritual nature in general. It was an intense conversation in which I felt a strong level of understanding and connection to the man. I left the gallery feeling energized, buoyed up. I’d just engaged in my first spiritual conversation in Spanish! Later the same day I was struck by the realization that I didn’t speak Spanish well enough to have the kind of conversation we had and again, a shiver ran through me as I wondered if perhaps there hadn’t been some magic involved.

One of the pieces I ended up buying.

One of the pieces I bought.

The next day I returned to the gallery to buy a couple of pieces of Huichol art. The man greeted me warmly. He went into the back room of the gallery and returned with something in his hand.

He said, “I want you to have this. My wife made it for you last night.”

He placed a round shell, a little larger than a silver dollar, in my hand onto which the peyote symbol was carefully laid out in tiny beads.

“It is hikuri,” he explained, “peyote.”

I looked down at the tiny symbol.

“I remember,” I said feeling my heart swell in my chest.

I’m a plant biologist, but there was a time when I wanted to be an anthropological botanist – a scientist who studies the plants used by indigenous cultures for curing illnesses, imbalances, and for spiritual purposes, like the character Sean Connery played in the ’90s movie, Medicine Man. I wanted to, that is, until I realized that almost every indigenous culture in the world is patriarchal and their shamans don’t generally share their knowledge with white chicks like me. When I discovered that the entire Huichol spiritual doctrine is centered around a plant, I felt connected to them somehow. There seemed to be some kind of grace or Divine connection inherent in our meeting, like I was being contacted on some level, told that I was on the right path. That first encounter with the Huichol and peyote left me wanting to know more about them both. I’ve been drawn to them ever since. For whatever reason though, I haven’t had the chance to interact with them much. Once in a very little while I run into someone working in a gallery much like on that first occasion, but my interactions with them have not led to the same level of connection.

More than ten years later, in November 2012, that all changed.

Find out what happens when I meet a Huichol shaman and his apprentice in Part II: Meeting Hikuri.

Caged Creativity

The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.

Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception

 I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]

When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.

Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:

Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.

Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”

The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.

When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:

“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”

Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:

Am I living authentically?

When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades.  Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).

Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.

It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”

Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.