Monday, October 28, 2013

Memoir Monday: A Bit of Romance...

First off, congratulations to the first winner of my giveaway for an ebook version of Memoirs of a Starving Artist. I'm giving away one copy per week for three weeks randomly drawn from people who have signed up for my New Release and Giveaway Announcements email list. This week's winner, Dan Sweeney. I'll be giving away another copy next week, so if anyone wants to enter they can do so here:

And on to this week's Memoir Monday excerpt, a little bit of brokenhearted romance down under:

Chapter Seven – On Love and Loneliness

A seemingly endless strip of sand stretched up and down the coast with not a soul in sight.  Flocks of multi-colored lorikeets and parrots flitted amongst the trees along the shore.  I sat on my surfboard in a crystal blue sea, taking in my surroundings.  I should have been content, but as I paddled my board back to the beach, something was bothering me.
More than 10 years had passed since I’d set my sights on a career as a fiction writer.  I was beginning to realize that my lack of success was having consequences beyond just the issue of paying my bills.  Maybe I felt it more acutely here on this beach in Australia, so far from home, but I was lonely.  I thought back to some of the missed opportunities I’d had in my life.  I liked to say that I’d been in love with women, and women had been in love with me, but that I’d never been in love with a woman who was in love with me.  I knew that much of the problem had to do with my choice of profession, and the lack of success I’d had with it so far.  I simply wasn’t the breadwinner so many women were looking for.  They wanted homes and families, and nice cars to drive to their children’s soccer games on the weekends.  They were looking for someone who at the very least could be a partner in those aspirations.  They didn’t want a starving artist who couldn’t contribute his fair share.  I’d had a whole string of girls break my heart since I graduated from college, but in hindsight I can’t say that I blamed them too much.  I was living a life outside the bounds of traditional society.  That is a lonely place to be.  I couldn’t expect anyone else to want to join me there.  In fact, I wasn’t sure I even wanted them to.  Not if I was going to be a financial liability.  Until I finally made it as a writer, or found some alternative, it seemed that I was doomed to this life of loneliness.
The conflict between art and stability is one which put me in good company.  Struggling artists throughout the ages have had to deal with the same dilemma.  Many eventually give up and take regular jobs, get married and lead traditional lives, doing their best to keep their latent aspirations tamped down beneath the surface.  Others go the opposite route, starting out with traditional lives until they can’t take it anymore and finally give up everything for their art.  The French painter Paul Gauguin was in this second camp.  He was 25 years old and working as a stock broker when he married his wife Mette-Sophie.  Gauguin kept his well-paying job for eleven years and together the couple had five children.  Eventually he gave in to his true desire.  Painting was all he really wanted to do, so he quit his job and threw in his lot with his art.
Unfortunately, the life of a starving artist wasn’t what Mette-Sophie had signed up for.  When her husband was no longer able to support the family, she left him and took the children from Paris back to her parents’ house in Copenhagen.  Gauguin followed soon after, hoping to mend things between them somehow.  He moved into his in-laws’ house with the rest of the family.  He got a job as a tarpaulin salesman.  After fighting with his mother-in-law, he moved his wife and kids into another apartment, but as a tarpaulin salesman Gauguin was a failure.  Mette-Sophie supported the whole family by working as a French teacher, eventually deciding that she didn’t want her husband around anymore.  She asked him to leave.  Gauguin wrote to a friend that he’d considered hanging himself, but finally fled to French Polynesia where he spent the rest of his short life, dying at the age of 54 after an overdose of morphine.
To be clear, I’m not trying to compare myself as an artist to Gauguin but there are lessons to be learned here.  I don’t want to be the guy who can’t support his wife and kids.  Nor the guy who has to depend on his wife to support him either.  At the same time, I can’t take on the bitterness of a job I can’t stand just for the tradeoff of a more traditional life.  I’m not going to give up on my artistic aspirations.  Perhaps, like Gauguin, I’m simply destined to be alone.
As I sat on that beach in Australia, looking up at the blue sky and the billowy white clouds high above, I wondered if all of my best chances at love were behind me.  If another chance did come along again somehow, I vowed to myself to make the most of it despite my financial circumstances.  With this thought I climbed to my feet, picked up my surfboard and walked to my car, an old Ford station wagon I’d bought to tour the country in.  I drove to Noosa Heads on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and checked into a hostel.  The building was an old Victorian-style mansion, with French doors on the second floor opening onto a wide verandah.  I found my room and chose a bunk, throwing my bag on top before heading into town to take a look around.
When I returned after dinner the hostel was quiet.  I resigned myself to an early night, climbed the stairs and went to my room.  Three of the other beds were taken now, but no roommates were in sight.  I was sorting through my clothes when the door swung open.  In walked a tall, thin girl with long, straight blonde hair.  She wore short black swim trunks and a loose, white cotton top.  “Hello,” she said with a soft-spoken Aussie accent.
“Hello!”  I hoped I didn’t sound too eager.
“My name is Emily.  I guess I’m your roommate.”
“I’m Kenneth,” I said, my heart picking up a beat.
Emily unzipped her bag and began going through her things.  “I’ll try not to wake you when I come in tonight,” she said.  “I might be back kind of late.”  Emily explained that she was going to see a singer perform at a pub nearby.  I asked who the singer was, and what kind of music she played, and where the pub was located exactly.  Emily didn’t seem to get the hint.
“So you’re going alone?” I said finally, trying not to sound too desperate.
It was a terminal response.  Not promising.  I still wasn’t giving up.  “Would you like some company?” I finally laid it on the line.
Emily’s face lit up with apparent surprise.  “Yeah, that would be great if you want to come!”
I quickly changed my flip-flops for some shoes and off we went.  After the dismal prospect of going to bed early I was energized.  Suddenly things had turned around.  When we arrived at the pub the crowd was sparse and the show had yet to start.  We ordered a couple of drinks at the bar and then found a table in the back where we could sit and talk.
Emily and I hit it off from the start and the conversation flowed easily.  She was 25 years old and lived a few hours south in Brisbane.  After having taken some time off from her university studies, she was having a difficult time finishing up.  She didn’t know what direction her life should take.  With another semester about to start, and decisions to be made, she’d driven up the coast to Noosa to escape for the weekend and forget about the coming stresses she would soon be forced to endure.
Emily was quiet and reserved; so soft spoken that I often only heard a few words from each sentence and did my best to piece together what she was trying to say.  It seemed as though she felt all of the pressures of the world resting squarely on her shoulders.  Inside of her a creative, dynamic soul was struggling to get out and find its place.  When Emily was happy she had a wide-eyed eagerness and a heart so big and full that it was impossible not to like her.
As the band began to play we moved closer to the stage.  The crowd had filled in by this time and she pointed to two German guys sitting across the room.  “Those are our other roommates,” she told me.  “I met them back at the hostel earlier.”
“I hope they don’t snore,” I laughed.
After the band wrapped up its set, Emily and I wandered out with the crowd and strolled toward home.  Back at the hostel we climbed the stairs and passed through our room to the deserted verandah.  A small coffee table outside was surrounded by three chairs and a loveseat.  Emily sat on the loveseat.  It was a terrifying moment of truth.  If I sat beside her on the loveseat it might be awkward.  It might destroy the sense of trust and friendship we’d developed.  Inside my brain the fear of rejection raged against the swirl of desire.  In the end, desire won the battle.  I took a seat directly beside her.  Emily did not seem to object.  Our bodies eased closer together as I told Emily of my own university days and of fraternity life.  “We had a secret handshake,” I said, “and nobody outside the fraternity was ever allowed to know it.”
“Ah ha.  Sounds pretty corny.”
“Yeah, I guess it was.  Do you want to know the shake?”
“I thought that wasn’t allowed!”
“I think I can make an exception,” I said, “as long as you don’t tell anybody.”  I held out my hand and Emily put her fingers in mine.  I moved them into position.
“So that’s it, huh?” she said.
“No, this is one of the other houses’.  I can’t tell you ours!” I laughed as she gave me a disbelieving look.  I eased my hand back and she lightly squeezed my fingers.  Just a few hours earlier I’d been sitting on the beach feeling sorry for myself.  Now my heart was pounding in my chest.  Was this that one last chance I’d been so desperate for?  If so, I had to make the most of it.  I took a deep breath, leaned forward and kissed her on the lips.  Emily kissed me back.
I expected the Germans to return at any moment but they were nowhere to be seen.  It was Emily who suggested that we make our way back into the room.  I wasn’t sure what that meant.  Was this the end, or just the beginning?  We walked hand-in-hand through the two French doors.  “So, your bed or mine?” she asked with a wry smile.  This shy, quiet girl was more outgoing than I’d thought. 

The following day Emily and I drove to a beach on the south side of town, just around the Noosa headlands.  I gave her my big straw hat and another kiss before heading out into the surf.  I paddled through the breaking waves and then sat up on my board.  The water was clear and warm, with waves two feet overhead.  Sea turtles swam past beneath me and a pod of dolphins frolicked just a little bit further outside.  Best of all, the most stunning girl on the beach was sitting with my hat on, arms wrapped around her knees, watching and waiting for me.  I had to pinch myself.  Was it all real?  I knew this might just be the pinnacle of my life.  Would anything ever be better?  I could hardly imagine.
When I got out of the water we walked along the sand and hiked around the rocks of the headland, laughing together as we climbed in the tropical trees and took each other’s photos hanging from the limbs.  Back at the beach we swam and when the day grew short we made our way to dinner at a romantic beachside restaurant.
That night Emily and I checked into a regular hotel room of our own.   We took a romantic dip, just the two of us in the hotel pool under a nearly full moon.  At the time it seemed like the best two days of my life.  Thinking back now, fourteen years later, it seems like it was the best two days of my life.  Unfortunately it had to come to an end.  The following morning Emily was headed back to Brisbane and her own reality.  I was driving further north to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, but we would see each other again soon.  I already had plans to spend time in Brisbane with some close friends.
All the way up the coast, Emily was on my mind.  She’d hand drawn a map to show me how to get to her favorite swimming hole, down a long dirt road and far off the beaten path.  I found the place and went for a swim, more to tell her that I had than anything.  When I finally made it back down to Brisbane a week later Emily and I picked up right where we had left off, spending as much time together as we could.  This was no longer simply a holiday fantasy, it was life.  We went shopping together.  She gave me a tour of her school.  I drove her to a doctor’s appointment.  It was comfortable.  It was relaxed.  It was nice.
Driving across Brisbane to meet up with her one night, it almost seemed like I lived there.  I had to remind myself that I did not.  I was visiting.  This was all so very temporary.  Wasn’t it?  In less than two weeks I was due in the capital, Canberra, to take the Foreign Service exam.  I tried not to think too much about it.
When I arrived at Emily’s place she wore a white cotton sun dress with summer sandals on her feet.  It was her first night in a new apartment and she gave me a tour.  Boxes were piled on the floor and a disassembled futon was pushed up against one wall.  We sat on the mattress on the floor to talk for a while and then climbed to our feet and assembled the futon frame.  We pulled the mattress on top, threw on some sheets, and then slid between them to fall asleep in each other’s arms.
The following morning was Saturday, the 14th of February.  Valentine’s Day.  I awoke with the morning light filtering through the curtains and the beautiful Emily beside me.  It was the first time I had ever had the prospect of a romantic Valentine’s Day in my life.
For breakfast we went to an outdoor cafe on a mountain top with breathtaking views of the city.  We spent the whole rest of the day together roaming around town, looking in antique shops and ending up at a matinee showing of the movie Starship Troopers, a shoot-em-up film about giant bugs from outer space.  In the evening we had pizza out and then returned home with a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream.  In the end we had spent the entire 24-hour period of Valentine’s Day together.
By Sunday I realized that I had come over on a Friday night expecting to stay for a few hours and had not left Emily in two days.  In fact, I still had on the same set of clothes.  I stood with Emily in her kitchen.  The windows were open and a warm summer breeze blew quietly through the linen curtains.  “It’s hard to believe that my truck is sitting back at home in Washington, covered with snow,” I said.  Emily began to cry.  I wrapped my arms around her.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s going to leave a huge hole in my life when you leave.”
Her reaction caught me off guard.  I hadn’t expected this much sentiment from her.  I didn’t think that she wanted me to stay, really.  I’d had the sense all along that Emily saw this whole thing as a holiday romance extended for a few extra weeks.  She had her life to figure out, and school to finish.  If anything, it seemed to me that the temporary nature of our relationship was a big part of the appeal for her.  My looming flight for home gave her an easy out.  Was she having a change of heart?  I didn’t think so.  Our lives had come together for one fabulous month, but it was time for them to diverge again.  Right?
A week later I left Brisbane and drove south.  There were no tears as we said good-bye.  Just hugs and best wishes, and then I was off, but I felt a lump in my throat and a heavy heart as I drove away down the street.  When I got to Canberra I took the Foreign Service written exam at the U.S. embassy, along with a few other candidates.  A few days afterwards I caught a flight for home.
 As soon as I got back to Washington I talked to some of my colleagues at the engineering company and was quickly offered my old job back.  With no other prospects, I took it.  It wasn’t ideal, but I needed the money.  As I sat in my cubicle under neon lights, my mind often wandered back to Emily, climbing trees on the headlands with a smile and a laugh.  Emily lost in dreams as she slept with the morning sun on her face.  I sent her long e-mails telling her everything that I was up to and asking about her life and her studies.  Her replies were sporadic; sometimes just a short, apologetic burst explaining why she’d been unable to write sooner, and promising to do better in the future.  Other times there were long, rambling messages that gave a firsthand look at the depression that she struggled with.  Emily was in pain, that much was clear, and there seemed to be nothing I could do about it.
What I didn’t tell Emily was that I would have hopped on the next available flight back if she’d have had me.  Did I love her?  I still wasn’t sure about that, exactly, but I knew that I could if she’d let me.  Only I never got the sense that she’d let me.  Eventually her replies tapered off until weeks passed without a word.  Finally they stopped altogether.  Her indifference was painful yet the reality was clear.  Even if she had wanted me to fly back down, how could I support a relationship when I could barely support myself?  Especially in a foreign country, when I didn’t even have a work permit?  Until I finally made a legitimate career of my writing, it seemed that loneliness was likely to be my only constant companion.  My time with Emily would be a bittersweet memory and nothing more.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Memoir Monday and Free Giveaway

While my forthcoming book Memoirs of a Starving Artist currently being proofed, I'm about three weeks away from release. Once the book comes out I plan to give away a few paperback copies, but in the meantime I've decided to give away one pre-release e-book copy per week for the next three weeks.  Winners will be chosen in random drawings from people who are signed up on my "New Release and Giveaway" mailing list.  This mailing list is only for new release and giveaway notifications.  No spam, no unwanted newsletters, no sharing e-mail addresses with anyone else anywhere.  So if you do want to be entered into the weekly drawings, you can sign up below.  If you are already signed up for the mailing list, you're already entered in the drawings.  I'll announce the winners here each week starting next Monday.  Good luck!

New Release and Free Giveaway Notifications

* indicates required

As for this week's installment of Memoir Monday, today we take another look at life in our nation's capital for an idealistic young scribe:


Chapter Six – The South Will Rise Again

I sat on a stone bench near the capitol building in Washington, DC, feeling frustrated.  After two years of effort I had my master’s degree and I was back in the nation’s capital.  Surely this time an interesting job would be there for the taking, right?  A graduate degree was bound to move my resume to the top of the pile.  Unfortunately I quickly realized that in Washington, a master’s degree from San Diego State University was hardly worth the paper it was printed on.  I had a good understanding of international politics.  I could write well.  I was smart…  Yet if the degree did not have an East Coast stamp, it didn’t seem to do me any good at all when it came to finding a job.
I’d already applied to nearly every government agency I could think of and failed across the board.  Nobody wanted to hire me, or even talk to me at all.  I still couldn’t even get an interview.  I gazed up at the stone and marble dome of the capitol hovering above me, so imposing as it reached for the sky.  I felt as though it were mocking me.  I’d played by the rules.  I’d studied hard.  Here I was, offering myself as a servant to this government that wanted nothing to do with me.  
At that moment I felt like I just wanted to blow that dome sky high.  Maybe not literally, but figuratively at the very least.  I started to think about the illusion of permanence in our system of government.  I was small and inconsequential but this government of ours was a solid, enduring edifice, just like that dome.  It was larger than life and would last forever.  That’s what a solid government building like this was supposed to symbolize, anyway, just like all of the imposing memorials all around the mall.  I realized, though, that there really was no permanence to any of it.  Every government fails eventually.  The ancient Roman Empire was full of solid, imposing stone buildings.  Many of those buildings endure to this day, but the empire is long gone.  Someday our system of government would be gone as well.  When might it happen?  And how?  It wasn’t something most people ever considered.  Just like they probably didn’t think much about it in Rome, either.  Or the Soviet Union.  But what if I wrote a novel chronicling the disintegration of the United States, and made it actually believable?  Maybe that would get people thinking.
It is these moments of inspiration that can lead me to spend years plugging away at a fiction project.  I realized that some people would think that just writing this novel was a traitorous act.  It was a little bit like burning the American flag.  Not that I had any desire to do that, but to me the freedom to burn the flag was what this country was all about.  It proved that we were solid enough in our convictions to not feel threatened by a mere symbolic act of dissent.  This was equally true of the freedom to write whatever I wanted.  I decided to title the book Flag Burning.  It would be my own symbolic act of dissent.
In a strange twist of irony, I ended up spending long hours working away at this new novel in the Library of Congress, which I lived near once again.  As I started writing I felt a kinship with some of my old literary heroes.  Perhaps I was a bit of a rebel after all.  My story followed a U.S. Army general who uses the ensuing chaos of two concurrent wars as an excuse to take over the government.  I felt like I was finally writing the type of story I’d been meant to write all along.  It had a fast-paced plot but was also subversive and it had the substance of thought behind it.
For research I rode my bike to Arlington National Cemetery and spent several days wandering the grounds.  My General Harrison was from the South and would have felt a connection to Robert E. Lee, whose former property the cemetery encompassed.  I lingered in Lee’s house, where he made his fateful decision to resign his union commission and support the confederacy.  It was here in the same spot, looking over the Potomac at all of Washington spread before him that Harrison would lead his final assault on the capital.  To Harrison, “The South Will Rise Again,” was more than a cheap slogan on some souvenir confederate flag.  It would become a vendetta against all of the perceived sleights on his family, his Southern culture, and the civilian political establishment’s abuse and misuse of the armed forces.
At the very back of the cemetery I found a small confederate section.  Surely Harrison would have relatives buried in this plot.  The area consisted of concentric circles of graves surrounding a Confederate war memorial in the center.  There were perhaps fewer than a thousand souls buried here, and while the markers in the rest of the cemetery were rounded on top, here they came to a sharp point.  It was said that this was so Union soldiers would not commit the indignity of sitting on top of them.
The monument in the center consisted of the figure of a woman in robes standing atop a 30-foot tall column.  She leaned against a plow and held a wreath in one hand.  At the base was a relief of Confederate soldiers in battle, holding each other up as they marched across a field.  One side bore the following inscription:

“Not for Fame or Reward
Not for Place or for Rank
Not Lured By Ambition
Or Goaded By Necessity
But in Simple
Obedience to Duty
As They Understood It
These Men Suffered All
Sacrificed All   
Dared All – And Died”
- Randolph Harrison McKim

I worked away at this novel and finished a rough draft, but it was nothing I was ready to send out to anyone.  In the meantime I found work as temp.  Despite the master’s degree, here I was, back to the daily drudgery that I knew would sap my soul bit by bit, day after day, until before long there would be nothing left.  I kept applying for better jobs, but no matter how many resumes I sent out, the results were the same.  Nothing.
Even though I struggled professionally, there were still things that inspired me about DC.  I loved living in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood as before.  I spent evenings in the neighborhood pubs, where my new roommates knew everyone who came through the door, and soon so did I.  This was a lifestyle I’d never experienced on the West Coast, but it appealed to me.  The bartender began pouring our brews of choice before our butts even hit the barstools and the conversation flowed faster than the beer.  Now I realized where the idea for the television show Cheers came from.  This was one big family, as tight-knit as any I’d seen.  When the weather warmed in the springtime, we spent afternoons in one backyard or another grilling out or mixing up big pots of gumbo.  Weekends occasionally found us playing softball on a diamond near our house.  
I also loved living in a city with such history.  According to the owner of our house, John Wilkes Booth had stopped there after shooting Lincoln to change his horse at a stable that once stood in the backyard.  Sitting in the Hawk and Dove pub I could look out the window and picture the British forces camped out on Pennsylvania Avenue, laying siege to the Capitol during the War of 1812.  Most of the brick row houses lining the street were built during that century and many had no doubt hardly changed since.
When the temp job I had at an engineering company eventually turned permanent, I settled in and made the best of it.  This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with my life, but at least it paid the bills.  I polished my Flag Burning novel at night.  I sent my movie scripts to agents and kept entering contests.  I was nowhere near to giving up on this dream.
In the meantime I began playing for another amateur soccer team, this time in Virginia.  I still dreamt distantly of playing as a professional.  A new league had just formed in the U.S., called Major League Soccer.  A guy from a pickup group I played with was signed by D.C. United, the best team in the country at that time.  A group of us went to RFK Stadium to watch his first game, where he held his own during 20 minutes of playing time.  He was being paid $30,000 per season, which was a pittance for a player on a major professional sports team, but even so I would gladly have traded places with him.  I would have played for free, but how would I even go about it?  Spend the next several seasons trying to work my way up from amateur to a minor league and then hoping to get a shot at a tryout?  I was already 30 years old; far too old to be signed as a rookie.  Besides, I’d always aspired to make my living in the intellectual world, not the physical.  Chasing after this secondary dream would have meant taking time and energy away from my writing.
The regrets were hard to banish completely.  I still lived the fantasy every weekend, tempering my disappointments by playing as well as I could.  One Saturday, I was at my usual position as a forward when a teammate lofted a cross into the penalty box.  I launched into the air and was flying toward the ball when my skull was violently knocked sideways by the head of a leaping defender.  I landed on my feet and wobbled toward the sidelines.  My legs felt like rubber and the whole world seemed to spin around me.  My eyes closed and my consciousness faded to black.  When I opened my eyes again I was lying on my back on the grass looking up at the heads of my coach and teammates as they gathered around me in a circle above.  “You passed out,” the coach informed me.  “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I replied, afraid that if I admitted otherwise he might not let me back into the game.
“I think you better sit out for a while and take it easy,” said the coach.
“Yeah, all right,” I agreed.  My mind was in a fog.  Some teammates helped me up and led me to the bench.  As the game continued I looked around at the field, and the leafy deciduous trees surrounding it.  Where was I?  After some time I realized that I was in Virginia.  I was playing in a soccer game in Virginia.  That was the only thing that I remembered.  The rest was a complete blank; near total amnesia.  Did I live in Virginia?  I didn’t think so.  But where did I live?  I had no idea.  I came from somewhere else far away, I was fairly certain, though I had no idea where that was.  I started to worry, wondering if I had any health insurance.  Maybe if I had a job, I had health insurance.  Did I have a job?  Again, I had no idea.
I sat on the sidelines for the rest of the game, trying to piece everything together.  After thirty minutes I remembered that I lived in Washington, DC.  I remembered that I had a truck, and that I’d driven to the game.  I could drive myself home, if only I could recall where my apartment was.  My teammates knew that I was in bad shape.  They offered to call an ambulance.  They told me that I had a serious concussion.  They said that it was dangerous to go to sleep and that I should see a doctor.  By the end of the game I remembered that I had no health insurance.  I managed to drive myself home and then went to sleep.
A week later I was back on the field, still dreaming of what might have been.  Instead of a professional career, the legacy of that concussion is what stayed with me over the years.  My memory began to seem a bit muddled.  In recent years especially my short-term memory has begun to fade and I’ve had a harder time focusing.  I struggle at times to remember what I did in the days or weeks before.  Perhaps even worse for a writer, I often have a difficult time coming up with the best word to fit into a sentence.  Words that would have sprung to mind easily in years past now escape me.  Le mot juste, as the French say, is hard to come by.  A thesaurus helps, but the trend is worrisome.  Are these really symptoms of that concussion?  Some years earlier, playing goalie on a team in California, I’d also had a concussion when an opposing player missed the ball and kicked me with full force, square in the head.  Whether these incidents are to blame for any impaired cognitive function is unclear, but the prospect that they might be makes me decidedly uneasy.  If I am going to finally make it as a writer, I feel that I’d better hurry up about it before my abilities degenerate any further.
Some weeks after my Virginia concussion, I got what seemed to be the biggest break in my fledgling writing career to date.  A family connection became an agent at one of the biggest, most powerful agencies in Hollywood, the William Morris Agency.  She agreed to look at my Mandate of Heaven script.  If she liked it, I might finally be on my way.  For the next few months I was in regular contact with Lesley’s personal assistant, Myles.  He seemed like a nice guy, always eager to talk to me if I called on the phone and responding quickly to my e-mails.  When I planned a trip back to California to see my parents, Myles suggested that I come in for a meeting to discuss the script.  I wasn’t sure what there was to talk about yet exactly, but getting a literal foot in the door at a major agency seemed like a good idea.  On the day of the big meeting I tried not to get my hopes too high.  Still, I put on my best approximation of a Hollywood writer’s outfit, with khaki pants and a button down shirt.  I drove into Beverly Hills and dropped my beat up old pickup truck with a valet.  I made my way into the office and then sat in the waiting room along with a famous Olympic gymnast and a few mid-level actors that I recognized.
When it was my turn to meet with Lesley, I was escorted up the elevator and down a hallway by another assistant.  Myles was home sick that day, I found out.  His replacement showed me into Lesley’s office where I sat in a chair and waited for a few minutes until she came in to greet me, her arms clutching a stack of manila folders that she placed on the desk.  I stood and reached out to shake her hand.
“It’s nice to see you,” Lesley said.  The two of us went to the same high school, but because she was three years older than me I’d hardly known her there.  What I did know was that she’d been Homecoming Queen, and one of the most popular girls in the school.  More than ten years on, her beauty and charisma were intact.  In fact, all of the people working for this agency seemed to be extremely good looking.  They were the beautiful people, from the bottom on up.  This was Hollywood after all, where image was everything.  “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Lesley added.
“Yeah, it has been a while,” I agreed.  We launched into the customary chit-chat about our home town and common connections, but I could tell that these pleasantries were causing a bit of a strain.  Lesley was a busy woman.
“About your script,” she finally cut to the chase, looking somewhat embarrassed.  “I have to admit that I haven’t read it yet.  I don’t really handle writers anyway, I work with actors, but I might be able to pass it along to somebody.”
“Ok,” I replied.  “That would be great.”
“To be honest, I’m wondering why you arranged to come in for this meeting in the first place,” she went on.
I was too embarrassed to tell her that the meeting wasn’t my idea at all.  It was Myles’ idea.  He was the one who suggested it.  He was the one who scheduled it.  Was there some ulterior motive on his part?  “I just thought, since I was going to be in town anyway, it would be nice to come in and say hello.”
“Oh.  Well it’s too bad that Myles was sick today.  He was looking forward to meeting you.”
So there it was.  I’d suspected it all along.  Myles only scheduled this meeting as a pretext to meet me.  The joke was really on Lesley and me both, sitting here across from each other due to the misguided romantic whims of her absent assistant.  Lesley didn’t have the time or inclination to give me anything more than a quick courtesy visit, and even that was pushing it.
“I’m sorry about the script.  I’ll try to take a look at it when I can,” Lesley said.  And that was that.  I flew back to Washington a few days later.  Eventually she passed the script on to another agent, who showed no interest.  My best connection to the business so far was a total bust.
In DC I managed to stick it out at the engineering company for a year until finally I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was struggling with $18,000 in student loans to pay off, but when my grandmother decided to give $5,000 to each of my sisters and me, that was all I needed to throw in the towel on what was seeming like a failed experiment.  There was still the Foreign Service as an option.  I signed up for the written exam and marked Canberra, Australia, as my closest test location.  Then I put my truck in storage with all of my belongings locked in the back.  As the falling leaves of autumn signaled the coming of winter, I hopped on a plane and headed south to summer down under.  To hell with my life’s plan.  I’d work that out later.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Memoir Monday: Mexican Sunshine

For my Memoir Monday installment this week, we head down south of the border for some sunshine, surf and fish tacos!

Chapter Five – Back to School

The first time I’d gone off to college, as an undergraduate student, I’d had no real idea why I was there.  It was simply what was expected of me.  I wanted to broaden my horizons, absolutely, but for what purpose I didn’t quite know.  This time, ten years later, I was much more focused.  I still wanted to be a writer first and foremost, but after so much failure to this point I was ready to try carving out a backup plan.  Once I had my degree, I would have options.  Right?  I might go back to DC and find a decent job.  I could look for work with an NGO or maybe apply for the Foreign Service.  It also helped that I was earnestly interested in the subject matter.  International politics was all about how the world worked on a macro level; human nature extrapolated to the ultimate big picture.  As a bonus, the knowledge I gained might help inform my fiction.
On my very first day I walked down a crowded hallway full of students and I felt…old.  I was only 28, but many of these students were a decade younger than I was.  I felt like the whole thing was just a masquerade.  I was only pretending to be a college student again.  Luckily most of the students in my masters program were closer to my own age and were all just as focused as I was.  From the start I threw myself into my studies.  No fraternities or football games or wild parties.  I worked as a teaching assistant, leading discussion sections for an undergraduate American government class.  I found a second job working in a student computer lab.
As an escape from the rigors of my coursework and two jobs, I joined a soccer team in a local men’s league and lost myself in the games every weekend.  Flying down the field with the ball at my feet, beating a defender at the corner and lofting a long cross toward the center…  For me it really was the beautiful game.  I’d played soccer competitively from a young age, and while in other sports my abilities were only average, in soccer I was used to being one of the best players on the field.  I had a head for the game and speed that was unmatched by any defender who tried to cover me.  I knew what it was to see fear in the eyes of opposing players when they realized what they were up against.  All of this led to an alternate reality that I’d considered, trying to play on a professional level, though the options at that time were extremely limited.  No major professional soccer league existed in the United States during my prime playing years.  That didn’t stop the “what-if’s” from dancing through my mind.  “What if I tried out for a minor-league team, just to see how I’d do?  What if I went abroad and tried to play in England, or somewhere else with a fully-developed professional system?”  By this time it already seemed to be too late.  If I’d really wanted to pursue this dream, I should have focused on it at a younger age, throwing myself into it in my early 20’s.  I should have tried to play in college instead of taking an extended hiatus.  Now it would just be a distraction, from both my studies and my writing aspirations.  That didn’t quell the disappointment.  Perhaps these regrets were merely a symptom of my failures in every other aspect of life.
When it came to soccer, the hardest thing about it was never knowing what my true potential might have been.  Without having given it my all when the time was right, this was a question I could never answer.  I didn’t want to make the same mistake with my writing.  I didn’t want to look back later in life and wonder how things might have gone, if only I’d tried harder.  I was going to make absolutely sure that I gave my writing everything I had.  Soccer would still remain a passion and an important psychological release, allowing me to forget about my worries for 90 minutes at a time and just live wholly in the moment.
When there wasn’t soccer, there was always surfing.  Unlike team sports, surfing is more of a personal journey.  It is a direct connection between the surfer and the sea.  Surfers describe it sometimes in spiritual terms.  This might seem hyperbolic to those who don’t surf themselves, but launching yourself into a rolling wave that has travelled thousands of miles across the open ocean puts one in tune with the rhythms of nature in a way that few other sports can match.
For any seasoned surfer, a big part of the experience comes from going on “surfari.”  Not that anyone uses that term anymore, but still, surfers can be some of the most adventurous travelers on the planet, roving to distant locales far off the beaten path in search of that perfect wave.  By this point in my life I’d surfed up and down the California coast, in Australia and Hawaii, as well as numerous trips to Mexico’s northern Baja Peninsula.  When winter vacation approached, my good friend Mitch suggested driving all the way to the tip of Baja, roughly 1,000 miles south on rough roads, for some warm water surfing, fish tacos and relaxation.  Twenty-four hours on the road would put us in Cabo San Lucas.  How could I say no to that?
One thing that I had begun to realize over the years when it came to my writing was that to some degree I was doing exactly what I’d set out not to do when I started.  I was deferring my happiness for the days ahead, when I might someday achieve professional success.  I’d always believed that by following my dream I would be living in the present, not trading away happiness for security.  The problem was that all of the failure and rejection made happiness an elusive commodity.  Some measure of success seemed to be my only hope for salvation.  Maybe I wasn’t satisfied with the way things were going in the present, but if I just held out long enough I would finally “make it” with my writing and then everything would be all right.  Perhaps I had no money, no security, no girlfriend, and very little peace of mind, but after I finally sold my first big writing project, all of that would change.  Now with my masters program I even had a backup plan to boot, but either way, my happiness was being put off into an uncertain future.  I knew that this outlook on life was unwise.  It was exactly what I’d been trying to avoid.  Nobody on this planet has any guarantees about their future.  Any one of us could be hit by that oft-cited bus.  The key to happiness is to work toward the future in part, yes, but even more importantly one must do all they can to enjoy each day.  That is all we really have.  The present.  We must learn to appreciate and make the most of it.  I knew that, in theory, but I often had a hard time following through.  I struggled to keep my disappointments from getting me down.  Two weeks bounding around in Mexico surfing clean, un-crowded waves sounded like a good way to refocus my outlook on life.
My friend Mitch was tall and thin with long blond hair and a goatee.  He was the consummate laid-back surfer, never in a hurry and never too worried about anything.  Paul was more serious.  Medium build with short blond hair and a quiet intelligence, his family owned some cement plants in Guatemala and he had plenty of experience south of the border.  The previous summer he’d bought an SUV in California and driven it all the way to Guatemala City.  Soon after he arrived a man approached on foot and pointed a machine gun at his head through the open window.
“Get out of the car,” the man said in Spanish.
Showing his good common sense, Paul got out of the car, at which point the man got in and drove away.  That was the last Paul ever saw of his SUV.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have any local insurance so it was a total loss.
Mexico was known for these kinds of incidents as well.  Surfers traded in tales of corrupt police and thugs with guns.  Just before we left on this trip, stories were circulating about surfers being woken up in the middle of the night by the beams of flashlights taped to shotgun barrels pointed at their faces.  The thieves would proceed to steal everything the surfers owned.  We knew that it was best to camp in well-known places where there were other Americans around.  Going off on your own in some areas was asking for trouble.  Fortunately we’d spent enough time in Baja to know which spots to avoid.  It was enough to tilt the odds in our favor.
We set off on a rainy afternoon the day after Christmas as the remnants of a tropical storm moved past overhead.  The bed of my pickup truck was filled with our gear, packed in under a camper shell with the surfboards strapped on top.  Two of us took turns sitting up front.  In the back we’d arranged our bags into a reclining bed of sorts where one could sit, half lying down.  It was the most comfortable spot in the truck.
As the sun sank low on the horizon I took a turn in back.  We’d already passed through Tijuana and on down the Riviera Coast, where fancy beach resorts catering to Americans share the seaside views with ramshackle huts clinging to the hills.  Where the pervasive smell of burning garbage is always near.  We’d passed through Ensenada and the brightly colored tourist cantinas.  On the side of the road we drove by a deranged polar bear slamming itself against the bars of a tiny cage in a dirt lot, engulfed by fumes and the constant din of traffic.  Behind the cage was a big sign for a circus, with a painting of a happy, smiling family.  A reminder, if we needed one, that we were already far from home in a place where the rules we normally took for granted did not apply.
South of Ensenada we moved through the last gasp of the border zone and then wound our way up and over a coastal range.  It was only on the far side, once the last signs of habitation had faded away into the distance, that I began to relax.  I listened to the rumbling engine and the roar of the wind as the terrain slowly flattened out, the desert landscape passed outside my window and the sky turned a brilliant orange.
After ten hours of driving we turned off the highway and followed a dirt road for half a mile further before pulling to a stop.  We climbed out and threw a plastic tarp on the damp ground, our sleeping bags on top.  Nobody was likely to find us here, in the middle of nowhere.  We were safe, but for a possible scorpion or two, and we slept soundly beneath the stars.
The next day we continued our journey across the desert, over craggy brown mountains and through rivers of floodwater that flowed across the highway, gouging out large sections of asphalt.  Ten more hours south and we reached our first destination.  El Conejo.  “The Rabbit.”  Stately saguaro cactus covered the long rolling hills leading down to the sea.   The outline of the point resembled the shape of a giant rabbit, sitting down with its ears draped back.  We camped for four days on a bluff beside a tiny fishing village and surfed a perfect left break.  In the evenings we sat around a bonfire roasting oysters that we’d gathered in the tide pools, sipping beer and telling tales, as far from civilization as we could get.  No school, no jobs, no pressures.  Just the surf and the land and the sky.
By the fourth day, New Years Eve was upon us.  We could hardly spend it alone with the cactus, so we fired up the truck and drove four hours further to the resort town of Cabo San Lucas.  Passing through the outskirts we saw a side of town that most tourists never experience; run-down slum apartments, muddy dirt roads, rusted-out automobile carcasses.  Barefoot children in rags chasing dogs through the streets.  Even when we reached the center of town it seemed dirty and neglected.  One unkempt main drag ran along the harbor.  We found a hotel off the strip that we could afford.  The room was passable by third world standards, Paul informed us, though it was the smallest, dirtiest hotel room I’d ever seen.  We pushed two lumpy beds together for the three of us to share and then headed out on the town.  First stop; an afternoon cocktail poolside at one of the swankiest hotels.  After our nights sleeping in the dirt, this was culture shock.  I was sure we would be escorted out at any moment by hotel security, but somehow they left us alone; the benefit of being American in a third world resort town.  We managed to talk to a few girls by the pool who told us of a new club opening that night; the only place in town without a cover charge.  For three broke grad students, this sounded perfect.
For dinner we moved to a cafe on the strip where we ate roasted half-chickens with rice, beans and tortillas.  It was the last night of the year and we were lounging in shorts and T-shirts, watching the strange mix of American tourists and Mexicans strolling past, all wide-eyed and searching for some form of stimulation.  Where did these people come from and why were they here?  It seemed such a distant outpost from the rest of the world.
Later in the evening we wandered around to all of the hot spots.  Rock legend Sammy Hagar was playing at a bar he owned, Cabo Wabo.  Cover charge, $50.  We passed.  Another well-known bar, Squid Roe, had a dinner and dancing special.  Cover charge, $50.  We kept going further down the drag, past crumbling buildings and dirt lots.  Long strands of tiny red lights hung over a patio in front of one out-of-the-way bar.  Mariachi music streamed out and we peeked in on a completely local crowd.  Mexican cowboys danced with their jeans-clad girlfriends.
A little further on we found the new club our friends at the pool had suggested.  They were right, there was no cover charge.  We made our way inside to find a cavernous room with bars on either side; tables in the middle and a dance floor at the back.  Upstairs was a mezzanine with balconies overlooking the whole scene.  Above it all, colorful yellow, red, and green piƱatas hung in the air along with crepe-paper bunting.  We were early and the crowd was still light, but there was already a buzz in the air.  It was the first night of a brand new club, in no man’s land, on New Year’s Eve.  Something interesting was bound to happen.
We settled in at a table and ordered some beer, the thump of techno music in the air.  A pack of five girls danced by themselves on the far side of the room.  Two were tall and strong, the picture of pure-bred Amazonians.  It was one of the others, though, that caught my eye.  She was of average height with long brown hair and big, beautiful round eyes.  I could hardly look away.
“This place kind of blows,” said Mitch as we sat drinking our beers.
“What about those girls?” I asked, pointing across the dance floor.
“Those girls?” Mitch answered dismissively.  Obviously he wasn’t interested.
When my eyes met those of the brown-haired beauty she stared back for a few seconds longer than she should have.  Had I detected a light smile cross her lips?
“I think we should go somewhere else,” Mitch continued. 
“I want to talk to that girl!”
“Well, hurry up!” Mitch responded with impatience.
We ordered more beer while I worked up my courage, the girl and I sneaking covert glances at one another.  Maybe it was her light smile, or her easy-going air, but when I looked at her my imagination ran wild.  I was sure that this was the perfect girl for me.
“Ok, we’re leaving,” Mitch said as he drained the last of his bottle.
“Fine, I’ll see you at the hotel.”  I stayed where I was as Mitch and Paul headed out the door in search of adventures of their own.  The crowd in the club had begun to swell by this time and an energy was building.  I took a deep breath, rose to my feet and walked onto the dance floor.  “Can I dance with you?” I shouted to the girl over the sound of the music.
“Sure!” the girl shouted back and then smiled happily, wrapping her arms around my waist.  We moved together to the beat, my nervous energy dissipating into the night.  When the song was over we danced on into the next, two strangers far from home in this outpost on the edge of nowhere.  A new year beginning, the world full of promise.  What could possibly go wrong?
One of the girl’s friends hurried over and pulled at her arm.  “I need to talk to you!” said the other girl.
“Not now, I’m dancing!”  My girl tried to wave her away.
“No, now!” the friend demanded.  “I need to talk to you right now!”
My girl stared in consternation before turning back to me.  “I’m sorry, I’ll be right back,” she said.  The two of them walked off toward the entrance to the club.  I waited until my curiosity couldn’t take it anymore and then followed along after them.  Near the club’s entrance, all five girls stood in a pack amongst a gathering crowd.  One of the tall girls was positioned in the center; short dress, long legs, stiletto heels, and screaming at an American guy who stood before her with a dumbfounded expression on his face.  The girl lunged forward, kicking a leg in the air.  Her target moved backwards just in time, but the girl wasn’t giving up.  She kicked at him again, this time connecting right between his legs.  Gasps rose from the crowd as he doubled over, pushing her away with both hands.  A bystander smacked him over the head with a beer bottle, sending blood streaming down his face.
I moved backward through the crowd and up against a wall as someone else punched the guy with the bottle in the face, knocking him to the floor.  And then all hell broke loose.  People pushed and hit and kicked and yelled, all to a pounding techno beat.  Bouncers swooped in, grabbed anyone they could and throwing them out the door one after another.  My girl was among the first to go.  I weaved through the crowd, avoiding the bouncers, and ducked outside after her, where the scene was nearly as chaotic.  My girl tried to comfort her Amazonian friend and then the bystander who’d been punched in the face.  Eventually she talked her way back inside to get some ice for the bystander’s head.  I stood on the sidewalk feeling like a fool.  What could I say to her now?  My dream of romance had crumbled all around me.
I moved on down the street as the whole town went wild.  Cars cruised, people shouted, bars burst at the seams, and I walked back to the hotel all alone.  It was a writer’s education in what it means to be alive; the highs and the lows, the hopes and the heartache that come from being human.
The next morning my friends and I packed our bags and headed out of town.  We found a new spot to camp at a perfect right point break a few hours’ drive to the north.  The water was a warm, clear and glassy.  Perfect ten-foot high waves wrapped for a hundred yards around the point.  It was the first day of a new swell and only three other guys were out.  Probably the best day of surfing I ever had.  Liquid therapy for a broken heart.