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?

Small Town Big Heart

I’m spending Christmas and New Years with my family in eastern Canada. In the snow and ice of a typical Canadian winter. The beauty of a Canadian winter is something to behold, particularly in the countryside where time is being spent. Snow and ice on tree boughs twinkle like diamonds and farmers’ fields lay quiet and expansive under their white shroud. Christmas lights on trees and homes are reflected on the glistening snow and ice. It all makes quite an impression.
Something else that is making an impression on me is the tiny town of Vankleek Hill, Ontario – the same town where I spent my childhood. It is apparent that this town’s people have a kindness and generosity of spirit not experienced elsewhere. Certainly, the expression about not being able to go home again wasn’t penned by anyone who grew up here.
Take for example the woman, the friend of my cousin, whom I just met while visiting at her lovely home: upon hearing that my winter parka had gone missing, she offered her daughter’s long and cozy winter coat. Her daughter, she explained, only needed it when she visited (much like in the current circumstance). At first I thought this too generous an offer to accept, but it was clear that she was genuine in her desire to be helpful. The coat is much appreciated and makes long walks on cold and snowy days possible and quite enjoyable.
A community member died recently. While at a gathering, I heard that one of the women was busy all morning making sandwiches for the mourners. When I said, “I didn’t know you were related to that family,” she clarified that she is not, but that a group of community members had done this beautiful thing as a matter of course, regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
Before this all starts to sound idyllic, it bears stating that there are misunderstandings and petty grievances here like there are anywhere. And in a town with less than 2000 residents, one also must get used to their business being a matter of public scrutiny more often than it would be in a larger community. But it certainly seems, as one travels from place to place in town, that the simple life being led by the majority of Vankleek Hillians, makes them a happier, more compassionate group.
Why might this be? Is there something that they are doing that makes them this way? Is it peculiar to this area, the province or this country?
Most of the people in this area are Scottish descendents who came here in the late 18th century when the land they had farmed for generations was “cleared” of its long-term resident farmers so that the presumed owners could practice increasingly profitable sheep farming.
Displaced from their homes, often without notice and violently, they made the long and arduous journey by ship to the growing colonies in the US and Canada in the hope of finding a better life. Upon their arrival, many discovered that there was land available, for free, from the fledgling Canadian government, on which they could settle and farm. Moreover, they could own the land – something that in Scotland had been denied them and their fore bearers.
For over 200 years the Scottish settlers and their descendents have farmed in eastern Canada. The area around Vankleek Hill is surrounded by farms owned by these Scots. The streets and surrounding villages bear their names and their dying language (Gaelic). They did indeed find what they were looking for in Canada, and rather than let a history of pain and dispossession consume them with anger, they have created an atmosphere full of care and respect – a better life for anyone who would live among them.
***********************************************************
More information on Vankleek Hill, Ontario, Canada
More information on the Scottish Highland Clearances
.